By Atticus Benight
When I pulled up to the parking lot behind the outfield wall before the game, I was surprised to see it filled to capacity with large box trucks, semi-trailers, and busses. Normally there was a place for the mascot and the guard would wave me through without a problem. Not today.
“Sorry, C. Wolf,” he said, throwing a thumb over his shoulder. “All full-up today.”
“Seriously, Dave? Can’t spare one spot?”
“Not today,” he nodded in the direction roadies unloading one of the trucks. “WWE is in town for a house show. They get priority.”
“Alright, then,” I sighed. “See you tomorrow.”
With only an hour to spare before the gates were scheduled to open, I was forced into a pay lot at the end of the block. I walked to the ticket office and started toward the dressing room to wake up a freshly laundered C. Wolf. It was there that Rob caught me.
“Hey man, WWE is in town.” His smiling eyes glinted as he made this announcement.
“So? So I’m going to run next door and see if I can get someone to throw out the first pitch.”
“Who cares? My only criteria—someone who is on television regularly and on Vince McMahon’s payroll.”
“Ok, but how are you going to do this? You can’t just walk in and grab someone.”
“Dude, I’m a marketing director with a professional baseball team. Watch me.”
Rob turned and steamed purposefully toward the door.
“Alright, man. But you know nobody cares about baseball anymore,” I jeered.
He did not venture a look back, only raised a middle finger in my direction as he rounded the corner and proceeded out the door, vanishing into the crowd that was gathering between the front gates of the ballpark, and the entrance marquee of the Tulio Arena.
Just after the gates swung open, I stepped out onto the concourse. For a while I signed pregame autographs and posed for pictures with kids, until an out of breath Rob shuffled by gesturing for me to follow him toward the back door of the ticket office. I wrapped up a few hugs and assured the kids that they’d see me again soon, and followed Rob through the open door and removed my head.
“I got one,” Rob said in a haughty tone.
“You got one? Really?” I asked.
“What, you doubt me?”
“Alright then, two questions. Who and how?”
“Oh, you’ll find out. Just be down in the dugout before the pitch. It’s a great photo op.”
“Sounds fair. Need anything scripted?”
“Nah,” Rob grinned. “I just said we’d wing it. Just make sure you’re there for a photo after the pitch.”
Obviously I was curious to see who Rob had recruited for this unique, cross-promotional opportunity. Although I hadn’t watched wrestling since the era of Hulkamania, when my older cousin Steven had a penchant for wearing (and ripping off) yellow tank tops before folding me like a pretzel and pinning me until I could no longer breathe. Still, I knew what the WWE was and I was honestly impressed by Rob’s ability to convince one of their Superstars to make an appearance.
As instructed, I sat in the dugout waiting for Rob to return with some further direction that never came. Just as the ground crew finished raking the pitcher’s mound and spraying water on the infield dirt, the outfield wall opened up, allowing C. Wolf 2 (a white Chrysler minivan with team branding tattooed on the sliding door) to roll onto the warning track. Just then, a shrill sound reverberated across the PA system and the song “All the Things She Said” wailed throughout the stadium. The yellow lights on the roof of the van ignited and through the moon roof popped a woman with long dark hair, wearing a Sea Wolves t-shirt.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the announcer’s voice echoed over the music. “Please welcome today’s guest who will be throwing out tonight’s ceremonial first-pitch. Brought to us courtesy of the WWE—VICTORIA!”
I perked up in the dugout and watched the van roll along the outfield wall, past the third base bleachers, and roll to a stop beside the stowed tarp along the third base railing. The entrance music continued as Victoria emerged from the sliding door of the van, leaping up onto the tarp in what appeared to be only a t-shirt, and purple, knee-high boots.
I stepped up onto the dugout stairs and watched as she solicited screams, whistles and catcalls from the crowd before hopping off and striding purposefully out to the pitcher’s mound. She turned to the crowd, struck a suggestive pose, and produced a baseball that was concealed somewhere under the baggy t-shirt. In that moment, the world of professional wrestling was suddenly much more appealing.
The catcher squatted behind home plate as the music and the crowd drew quiet. Victoria wound and delivered a ball well within any reasonable strike zone. I took my cue from the subsequent applause and climbed the dugout stairs. Victoria threw both of her hands over her head in triumph. As she made her way back toward the van, I stepped out of the dugout and met her in the grassy area along the baseline.
“Yeah! Wooo! Nice going!” I shouted, raising a paw for a high five.
Victoria stopped, and offered a glance to Rob, who was sitting behind the wheel of the van. I followed her gaze and saw Rob throw his fist out the window. In a smooth deliberate motion, his fist rotated, shooting her an unmistakable thumbs down.
Before I could glance forward again, it happened. Victoria unleashed an elbow across C. Wolf’s plush, pillowy face. Her forearm penetrated the head, tearing the screen that lined the mascot’s mouth, and jarred my chin. Upon contact, white lights popped throughout my field of vision and I crumpled to the ground. I felt a tugging at my leg which eventually rolled me over onto my back and felt Victoria draw my right knee to my chest. In that moment I heard a disembodied voice—a man’s voice. It took me a second to realize that this voice was counting.
“One—Two—Three. You got ‘em!”
The same entrance music boomed over the PA system, and my vision cleared just in time for me to see a man in a striped shirt raising her arm in apparent victory. Again Victoria leapt on top of the infield tarp. This time she stripped off the white t-shirt to reveal glitzy lavender booty shorts with a thick, black belt, and a matching sequin halter top.
As my pulse pounded in my ears and my head throbbed, I watched Victoria pause to pose, before ducking into the van which ushered her once more outside of the stadium. Slowly I sat up and hobbled through the gate behind home plate, up the stairs, and to the rear entrance of the ticket office. I removed the lightly damaged head and lay down in the hallway. After some time the door opened again and Rob ambled over to me.
“DUDE—that was AWESOME!” Rob exclaimed. “I wasn’t sure you were going to be able to sell that. I just told her to wreck you. Damn, how’d you make it look so real?”
I squinted up at him, the buzz of fluorescent lights burned my brain and I offered him the fuzzy middle finger of my gray, four-fingered paw. Rob laughed as I gathered my thoughts and finally asked, “So how’d you convince her to do this again?”
Rob shrugged. “I just went in through the clubhouse. Saw her in the locker room. I asked, she said yes.”
“Yeah—bout it. Got to chat her up in the car a bit too. I tell you—you never fully appreciate it when you see her on T.V.—but she was so hot.”
I closed my eyes and immediately the image of Victoria perched on the infield tarp, stripping off the white t-shirt rushed to mind, sparking an intriguing mixture of pain at the back of my skull and an invigorating rush elsewhere.
“The hottest woman ever, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yeah,” I finally groaned. “A real knockout.”
Atticus Benight is an emerging "undercover writer of words." His prose has previously appeared in BioStories, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, The MacGuffin, and the Sheepshead Review. A native of western Pennsylvania, Atticus currently resides near St. Paul, Minnesota. Connect with @AtticusBenight via twitter or Facebook.
* * *
Liam (An Ode to My Older Brother)
By Erin Callister
“Shriiiiiimperoni! Shrim-per-on-i, shrim-per-on-i, shrimperoni!!!!” Ben, with his stupid, fuzzy blond hair and geeky, wired-rimmed glasses approaches us on his bike. He slows down, and stands on the pedals, lifting his butt up from the seat to match each syllable of his stupid song.
I know he is talking about you. You are one of the shortest boys in your class.
I look sideways at you, waiting for my clever brother to respond. Your face contorts with quiet, controlled anger. I realize you are not going to say anything.
We keep walking, determinedly, your head held high. Ben slow-pedals next to us. As our pace quickens, a deep anger threatens to erupt inside me. I want to kick his front wheel and trip stupid Ben on his stupid bike.
He begins to pass me, edging right. I cannot stand my older brother’s dignity to be undermined any longer. I erupt: “Shut up, you stupid jerk!”
Ben looks at me, dumbfounded. He pedals away.
It’s the first time I feel protective of you.
I’ll never forget that phone call.
I dial from summer camp, ringing, ringing, ringing, and no answer. No answer? They know to answer. They chose our phoning times. They always answer. Why didn’t they answer??
That was the day I learned what dread was, that I learned I was too scared to face life without you.
I hear the news, and somehow, I know you will be okay. You have to be. You are brave and bursting with fierce energy and young wisdom and you are milk-out-your-nose funny and beautifully visionary and a fighter. You are a fighter. I close my eyes and try to picture my life without you and I can’t do it. So you must be okay. You must.
After brain surgery and two weeks of hospitalization, you were okay. I breathed again.
A boy of sixteen shouldn’t know death.
The stone burned in my hand like heavy fire. Grayish-navy, oblong, flat on the undersides, and smooth, roughly the size of a silver dollar. I found it on the shores of Lake Tahoe skipping rocks. Something—an instinct—made me pause and roll it over in my hand. I noticed a tiny, perfect cross etched on the lower left side. A blink-and-you-miss-it detail. I held the stone parallel to the lake’s edge, paused, and thought better of it. I slipped it in my pocket; I still can’t pinpoint why.
Three days before Christmas you spotted it on my desk and asked to see it. After rubbing it between palms with eyelids closed, your eyes flicked open, intense and alert. This stone has special, powerful energy. Your only comment. Then, silence.
“I’m going to lead you through a meditation,” spoke your steady, soothing voice. I nodded. We began, cross-legged on my bed, stone in hand, eyes closed.
That night, with you as my witness, I was transported to a different world…
Journeying to a rounded desert clearing, I watched all of the world’s religions come together before my eyes; Jesus and Buddha put their arms around each other and counseled me, “We are all one.” I witnessed it, and I knew it instinctively, deep down in a place few things register.
With a gasp of air, my eyes shot open. I rocked back and forth, arms crossed over my chest, and began to cry, shaken.
Thanks to you, I am awake.
“I have to go,” Drew said, and shut the door to my house and our relationship. I lay on the floor, broken.
One of the many lessons I learned from you, my brother, was to not trust men until they proved their worth, until they proved they could be trusted. With Drew, I failed. I latched onto him, I fantasized; I opened my heart and invested the most precious thing I had: hope.
The night you came to visit, I was still recovering and treating the wound I incurred. To everyone else, I played the strong, resilient, indifferent card. To you, my confidant, I knew there was no reason to pretend.
“Break up wisdom tells us that when someone says, ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ there is in fact something wrong with the person getting dumped. Because of Drew, I’m painstakingly ripping myself apart, and all I can see is what’s wrong with me,” I confessed, bleary-eyed.
“Erin, you intimidated him,” came your wise perspective. “He ran because he was scared.”
Because of you, I am unbreakable.
As a former high school teacher, Erin Callister is no stranger to enthusiastically tap-dancing for attention. Since moving on from teaching, writing has become an acceptable attention-getting substitute. She currently lives in Austin, TX with her fiancé and their dog. They enjoy craft cocktails and long walks on the riverfront.
* * *
By Kate Dowling
It should be a pleasure, barrelling along down country roads on a sunny, sparkling winter morning, en route to meet an old friend. Instead: unease.
Our rendezvous is in a village an hour’s drive away, the halfway point between my house and Kerry’s. We’ll have coffee, catch up on each other’s news, and she will sign these papers – at last. If she shows up.
I’ve been trying to see Kerry for months. Just to sign the annual report documents for my family trust – a two-minute job which, as a trustee, she’s cheerfully carried out every year since the trust was formed, fourteen years back. But this time: a series of rainchecks. And a seeming reluctance to set a new date, even. Can I check my schedule and get back to you? (She never did – within days I’d be chasing her again.) The delays dragged on, week after week, until I was privately furious with her. Several times I offered to FedEx the papers instead, along with a return envelope. She demurred, strangely insistent that we meet in person. Can’t wait to see you!
I’d have sent her the papers anyway, once deadlines loomed for them to be filed. But I couldn’t: I don’t know Kerry’s address anymore. I’m perplexed about that, and a little hurt. Six months ago she sold her house and bought a new one, further along the coast. Around the same time, she met a new man, Shane, who has since moved in with her. Both seem delightful – on Facebook. I can’t be sure; she hasn’t asked me to visit. Oh, it would be easy enough to suggest – dropping a casual hint here or there – but I’ve waited for her to initiate it. After the moving crates were unpacked and the house was in order, surely she would summon me to visit. Come see my new place! And meet Shane! Half a year has passed without an invitation; I have come to realise that there will not be one. That would have been unthinkable, once.
My attention refocuses on the challenging curves of the hill road. The top section lies mostly in shadow until noon; black ice is a risk. Yellow-starred broom flanks the highway, and shaggy fields, dewy with melted frost. As the twisting road crests the hill and straightens out, my mind sweeps back along the lanes of memory, equally convoluted.
We’ve been friends for twenty-five years or so, Kerry and me. We met as volunteer lap-scorers at a motorcycle race meet, of all places. Aloft in the circuit’s lap-scoring tower, we discovered a shared sense of humour, cracking jokes and giggling while we marked off laps and noted competitors’ finishing order. That was the spark. Soon we were firm friends; BFFs before that was even a thing. We yakked on the phone almost every day, and met up weekly; it would have been more often, had we not lived an hour’s drive apart. Fun wasn’t all of it, though: in true best-friends fashion we nurtured and counselled each other through the tough times: break-ups, job stress, money worries, infertility.
Kerry’s sunny nature lit up every room she entered. I was older than her, but Kerry was the more confident, outgoing one. Dependable, too. You could count on Kerry if you needed help, and people did: I learned she was the sole ‘together’ sibling of an otherwise hopeless family, whose members lurched from one personal crisis – debt, addiction, petty crime – to another. Perhaps in reaction to her chaotic upbringing, Kerry was organised to a fault; even the cans in her pantry marched in single file, labels impeccably aligned. This keen sense of order, and her strong work ethic, saw Kerry shine in her career as an office administrator. So when I decided to put my apartment into the legal protection of a family trust, she was an obvious choice for the role of independent trustee. Kerry was like family anyhow.
The evolving demands of daily life sank their claws into us, though. Travel, work, relationships, children; our responsibilities and commitments increased with each passing year. We were either busy or tired; usually both. Meeting up became harder. The long drive between our homes made visits with babies and toddlers rare and impractical, and our children, born years apart, were the wrong ages to be natural playmates.
So it was inevitable, I guess, when the ties that bound our friendship began to fray. In hindsight, the signs were there. When I remarried a few years ago, Kerry was my bridesmaid – a special role for my special friend. Yet in the limo on the way to the ceremony, she busied herself texting friends about her exciting day, cackling at their droll replies. Irked by her inattention, I eventually asked Kerry to put the phone down and “focus on the day”. But it was a euphemism. What I really meant was: focus on me.
I once read a theory that people are drawn together because they give each other something they both need, and drift apart when they aren’t getting it anymore, or no longer need it. Kerry and I have drifted so far apart, we are specks on each other’s horizon. And while we drifted, carried by the tides of life, we replaced each other with new people we met along the way. New friends who give us what we need.
The highway descends through lush pastureland. Sheep graze; some have lambed already. It’s the cusp of spring, season of renewal – but what I’m feeling is the chill of finality. Winter is nearly over. So too, perhaps, is my oldest friendship. Because the prospect of chasing up Kerry year after year, each time a new set of trust papers needs signing, fills me with dread.
I can’t be frank with her about it. How do you say to your once-closest friend: “I'm sorry, but you're not reliable any more”? How do you tell her that she’s too far away, physically and emotionally, to be a capable trustee? That her ambivalence and procrastination are signs she’s moved on with her life – and that you understand? Questions I'm not brave enough to ask, except within the confines of my own head.
Today, after Kerry finally signs these papers, I will suggest that she step down from the trust. Even if I have to more or less insist upon it. It’s a pragmatic decision, intended to make life easier for both of us. And yet, even though I know it’s the sensible solution, it feels like a betrayal – like I’m cutting her loose. I don’t know if our friendship will survive such an obvious lack of faith on my part, however justifiable.
It’s normal for friendships to run their course. Kerry’s and mine has done better than most, to last a quarter century. Many wither long before that. Sooner or later, you recognise the signs: the intervals between contact become progressively longer, signalling what we can’t bring ourselves to say: I’m not interested anymore. Starved of the nourishment of communication, the friendship dwindles until it evaporates completely, existing only in memory. Sometimes one friend abruptly bails, ghosting the other until they take the hint. Or an argument boils up, after long years of amity, and bridges are irrevocably burned. But it is rare, I think, in a long-term friendship, to know exactly when it was – even to the hour and the place – that you consciously gave up on it, and accepted it was over.
Road signs signal the village ahead. I slow the car down and turn off the highway, finding a handy parking space on Main Street. As I unclick my safety belt, I glance across to the coffee shop. Kerry’s car is parked out front, unoccupied. No doubt she is inside, perhaps already seated at a booth or table, waiting. Tethered to me by a slender thread of obligation which will soon be snipped and allow her, finally, to drift free.
A document folder lies beside me on the passenger seat. A sheaf of papers nestles within, fringed with yellow ‘sign here’ tabs. Scooping the folder up, I take a deep breath and push open the car door.
Kate Dowling writes short stories, creative non-fiction and memoir from her home north of Wellington, New Zealand. Her freelance work has appeared in ProDesign Magazine and the Evening Post newspaper. She has previously lived in England and Spain.
* * *
Wisdom of a Bum
By Rafiq Ebrahim
Coming out of my son-in-law’s Dunkin Donut shop in downtown Chicago after having a crisp hot butternut donut and steaming, stimulating coffee, I lit a much-needed cigarette and faced the icy cold wind. I began to walk towards the Chicago Art Institute where I was scheduled to meet a local artist, one of those seedy artists who had graduated from pavement paintings to canvas, and interview him. As I took a few steps, I sensed a shadow following me. The shadow materialized, smiled and said, "Hey, buddy, can I have a fag?"
He was dressed in an old almost worn-out jacket and crumbled jeans. There was stubble on his unwashed oily face and his teeth, as he tried to smile, showed stains of nicotine. He had a massive growth of curly, unkempt hair on his head. Surely, he was one of those homeless guys, living on streets or in tunnels near downtown Chicago.
I offered him my pack of cigarettes, so that he could pick one. He put his greasy fingers, took out one and smudged a few more inside with grease. He seemed like one who has not had his dose of nicotine since ages. Having quickly and eagerly lit his cigarette, and inhaling a few deep puffs, he remarked, "Ah, so nice to enjoy the smoke in this chilly weather!" He coughed and added, "But it is only the first few puffs that you really enjoy. After that you feel lousy. Do you know why?"
"No, tell me why," I asked.
He came nearer and said, "That’s a mystery. I even don’t know why. I keep trying to figure out. Perhaps the mixture of tobacco, nicotine and other harmful ingredients get concentrated after the first few puffs and is bent upon killing you!"
That took me unaware and I almost choked on the smoke coming out of my mouth. "You don’t mean that, do you really?"
He nodded vigorously. "Sure I do. That’s what makes your lungs whistle and protest against the intake of such concentrated smoke Wait till I reveal some more facts."
This guy was just out of his mind, I thought. I had no intention to listen further, but he continued, "To give the tobacco elasticity, more deadly and unimaginable ingredients are added." He went on and on, putting all sorts of accusations on the contents of a cigarette.
Had there been an executive of a tobacco company listening to what this homeless guy was uttering, he would have trembled like a tuning fork.
I simply gasped. "Stop it. Don’t want to hear any more so-called facts."
He laughed aloud, and almost danced a few steps before muttering, "And you must know that death is nearer to you than you think if you smoke.”
"Then why do you smoke?" I asked, already getting a very bad taste in my mouth.
"That is a good question. I smoke only when I am in a company of nice people like you who smoke, but shouldn’t."
I could only shrug my shoulders as I threw away the cigarette I was smoking. "Well, thanks for the info. I’ll remember it," I said and moved away, sure that I had seen the last of this figure. But no, he was following me.
"One minute, dude," he said. "Could I have a few more of those lung-destroyers?"
I took out my pack. "Sure, have one, have two, have the whole pack."
He bowed and thanked, pocketing the pack. "It was no nice meeting you. I feel the pleasure was mutual. If you want to see me again, I am always here in the mornings outside this donut shop, having a chit-chat with very nice people who come out of the shop. Some give me quarters, others fags and we do have nice conversations."
"Tell me," I asked, being curious, "Is this the way you get things and make a living?"
He laughed, coughed and said, "Oh, no! I used to do that, but now it is just a relaxing
exercise. My main income comes from playing with the desires of men."
"What does that mean?"
"Say or do something that has the potential of fulfilling a human desire."
"You sound interesting. How do you do that?"
He lit another cigarette, smiled and said, "Five nights in a week I go to Elgin and stand near the entrance of the casino, selling good luck charms, those aluminum ones available for a dime in gift stores. I sell each one for two dollars to my victims who are about to enter the casino, telling them that this charm would boost their luck to win a jackpot. Gamblers readily buy my merchandise and go in with a sure hope of winning."
I simply gaped in amazement, and he added, "I earn around a hundred to two hundred dollars a night, spend most of it on beers, fags and food, and the remaining cash goes into my bank account. I sleep in a tunnel in downtown with two quilts and a pillow. Once a week I go to a salon for a shave, shower and change of clothes. What time is it now?"
I told him that it was almost noon. "Time for my lunch," he said. "Care to have some hot dogs?"
Before I could reply, he said, "Want to know what ingredients are there in a hot dog?"
"No!" I yelled, not willing to be informed about hideous and obnoxious ingredients he would mention.
"Okay then. Hope to see you again. As I said before, I am here every morning except on Sundays,’"he pointed out. "On Sundays I go to the nearby church, and sometimes when the preacher fails to come, I am given an opportunity to preach."
Rafiq Ebrahim is a freelance writer and novelist. His short stories and articles are mostly humorous and are published in leading newspapers and magazines in Pakistan, USA and some other countries.
He has written three novels. Glowing Embers, The Other Side, and Beyond the Crumbling Heights
* * *
A Life Less Painful
By Finn Janning
My brother died the third of October, 1993. Or maybe he died the day after, on the fourth of October. Does the date really matter?
Death is death. It awaits us all.
My brother, whose name was Jesper, died at the age of twenty-six, someday in October, somewhere in Denmark.
* * *
The phone is ringing—three times before my mother picks it up.
“NIF chapter house. It’s Conni,” my mother says.
“NO, no, it’s not true. It can’t be true,” she says.
Intuitively, I know that my brother is dead. My mother doesn’t scream, but her voice is different. Strange. Unfamiliar. It fits an improper situation. Should she sound differently? Could any other words match what she just heard?
The sound of her voice scares me.
The negation hangs silently in the air between us.
Everything but this “no” falls to the ground. I fall. I can’t remember how; it’s as if the fall is edited away. A part of me remains sitting there on the kitchen floor next to the phone; a part of me becomes a sculptural observer of my own life. Another part of me gets up and moves on.
From that moment, I become someone else.
* * *
Three hours later, I am standing in front of the mortuary at the main hospital in Copenhagen. I sway like a boat where the anchor has not reached anything firm. The waiting room is leaking. Something seeps through from nowhere. Liquid. It picks at and scratches my skin. It feels chilly. Freezing, even. It’s not only entering the room; I feel invaded. I am just a room being moved.
I begin to shake. Snap for my breath. There is no other way. I open the door. Automatically, my jaw falls and leaves my mouth open. No longer capable of controlling my muscles, I walk softly, like a ninja. I’m alone with death.
It’s not true. It can’t be true.
I close my mouth and notice the artificial taste of perfumed flowers. It seems unnatural. Ill-timed. I take in the room, its whiteness that has never known dirt. The clinical cleanness kills all forms of life. Death ends in a dead room. And yet, perhaps as compensation, on the table next to the door is a bouquet of flowers. Besides the flowers is the bed where my brother lies, the only things in this white room flowers and Jesper.
I know that he is there. I can sense his presence. Yet, I begin to study the bucket, the apparent contrast between life and death. I postpone my meeting with death for a while, wondering: What do the flowers and my dead brother have in common?
The bouquet consists of fresh yellow flowers filled with green leaves. In the center of it is a big heart-shaped leaf. The heart sticks up a little from the yellow and greenish background. The vase is made of steel. I don’t know the name of the flowers; I just look at them and then stare before I notice a greasy fingerprint on the steel surface.
I repeat the colors of the flowers as a way of getting a foothold. I am standing on a fragile ground of green, yellow, and red. Simple as traffic lights: the green birth that brings hope toward the red death that stops all hope. But what about yellow, this color in between, the pause or waiting, waiting for death, or does yellow not illustrate that being alive is both living and dying in one?
A few hours earlier, my mother spoke the definitive words: “Jesper is dead.” Actually, he was already dead when he died in my mother’s and my world; he was dead in our world before we passed on the news to my father and sister. Perhaps green and red are merely illusions, since everything is in a constant state of emerging? I become aware there, standing next to my brother’s corpse, that he died before me knowing it.
How long had I lived a lie?
Jesper lies on the bed. It’s not death lying there. Death is somewhere else. Life might be absent, but as far as I can see, he could be sleeping. Yet, there are no sounds, no tiny moments. Dead people don’t sleep. They do nothing.
Nothing. There are no standards for death; it is placed outside of language. Language arrives with life and leaves when it is all over. I can’t say anything. And yet, this is what I want to do. I want to converse with death because it addressed me. Can I accept it? Match it? Give death its own right to express its nothingness?
While I touch his face for the last time, I realize I must live double; everything is up to me now. His death awakens me, not on a higher level of illumination—I’m not sitting under the Bodhi tree—but on a rather quite banal one. I become conscious that I am alive. It’s only me breathing.
I am alive. I breathe. I cry.
* * *
We are twenty or so persons waiting outside the church. Someone is saying, “No parents should have to bury their kids. It’s unnatural. It’s unnatural.”
My mother has told the priest that she doesn’t want a long speech. Not that she wishes the ceremony to be over. On the contrary, she just can’t bear listening to anything. It is as if silence brings her closer to the nothingness of death. Closer to Jesper.
Entering the church, on this particular day, I notice things that I have neglected during earlier visits to churches. The whole architecture is a violation. At the very end, right underneath the forced embracement of Jesus, is the coffin. It’s covered in flowers and banners that says, “Rest in peace” and “Thanks for everything.”
How can a life end in a little box?
Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.” The mind and our spirit are embodied in the sense that they exist within the body. My body begins to shake. There is no difference between mind and body, even between soul and body.
Standing there in the church, I feel like a hunter looking for a prey to whom I can pass on my impotence. I am wounded. Worse: I am bitter and full of helplessness. I am angry and frustrated.
“Jesper doesn’t belong here,” I say to my mother.
“Shh,” she says.
“Is he inside that coffin?”
“Yes.” She takes my hand.
“… it …”
As promised, the priest holds a short ceremony. I can’t hear him. It’s as if my body is without any functional organs. He looks friendly, though. When the words are done with, six robotic men arrive. Without any facial expression, they lift up the coffin and carry Jesper away. Just as they pass the bench where we are sitting, I feel how the pressure from the coffin squeezes us together. We all seem to shake in some spastic movement.
“No,” says my mother. I hold her close. I am afraid; her “no” frightens me. This tone. It’s so definitive. My tongue is swollen; I feel like I am suffocating. I swallow a glass of mouth water.
“NO. MY SON.” This time, she screams. She reaches over me as if to grab the coffin that is almost at the end of the aisle. Pull him back to life. I can feel her pain. Nothing is private. Is this proof that Ludwig Wittgenstein was right when he said that a private language, only understandable for a single individual, was meaningless? I believe so, although it’s not the same as reducing the world to language.
My mother’s scream is grating my heart as if it was a piece of Parmesan cheese. Slices of red cover the floor.
Outside the church, I see the faceless men stuff my brother’s coffin inside a waiting car. They close the door. Start the engine. They move, and I fall. My body can’t carry any more. Someone behind me helps me to my feet. Just as the car turns left and leaves with my brother forever, I am about to fall again. Only this time, a strong hand grabs me under my shoulder. I don’t turn around. Don’t want to know who won’t allow me to fall.
Why must I not fall?
* * *
I thought of that question for some years: Why must I not fall?
Then I decided it was a philosophical question, nothing to do with gravity or weak muscles.
Philosophical wisdom is related to self-knowledge. It is when you lack it that you fall. “Know yourself” is one of Ancient Greek philosophy’s most-known aphorisms. It was carved into the entrance of the Apollo Temple in Delphi. And it was this that Socrates activated when he walked around the square of Athens, turning each one of his listeners toward himself or herself. He taught them to take care of themselves. According to the French philosopher Michel Foucault, Socrates operated not just with one aphorism but two: “Know yourself” and “Take care of yourself.”
The better you can take care of yourself, the better you know yourself. And vice versa: the better you know yourself, the better you can take care of yourself. They are intimately connected. Which came first is like answering which came first: The chicken or the egg?
Philosophical wisdom doesn’t come from references, but from your own way of living, thinking, and feeling. Philosophy is an open invitation to the ongoing struggle between self-deception and self-insight or knowledge. No one becomes wiser without experiences, that is, without meeting and facing other ideas, thoughts, and conceptions: philosophizing.
Socrates, the wisest man in Ancient Greece, had self-insight. He knew what he didn’t yet know. Most of us hardly know what we don’t know.
I was not allowed to fall because someone full of good intentions didn’t want me to suffer. That’s an illusion. Life is painful. There is no cavalry coming to save us. We all have to philosophize for ourselves—with a little help from our wise friends.
I have come to realize that time doesn’t heal all wounds. Saying so is impotent. But philosophy can make life less painful as you endure taking out the stitches of a wound.
Finn Janning grew up in Denmark. He has studied philosophy, literature and business administration at Copenhagen Business School (CBS), and at Duke University. He earned his PhD in practical philosophy from CBS. His work has been featured in Epiphany, Under the Gum Tree, South 85 Journal, and others. He lives in Barcelona, Spain with his wife and three kids.
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How I Remember According to R.E.M. (Without Lyrics)
By Jonathan Jones
By the time I first started listening to R.E.M. they’d already released six albums Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant, Document and Green. It was only with the release of their seventh album Out of Time in 1991 that I started to forget myself; a new invention. I had been due to see them on their world tour in 95, but that was the year Bill Berry collapsed on stage with a brain aneurysm, and the date was cancelled. By September 2011 when they finally broke up I felt no recourse to nostalgia, considering what I first felt on hearing them. Genuine gaps in my memory that I used to think were R.E.M songs, and which turned out to have nothing behind them at all. “[. . .] the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” Blind drunk on green Thunderbird, the warm May weather strikes the opening end chord. My language is amateur, and the feel of wet grass on my face is humiliating. The casual observation that there is no justice or moral authority in tragedy. Punishment is always romantic by nature. You can afford twenty years with time to spare before you realize too late. Still drinking on a Saturday afternoon, we would have searched for a way to go into the future to destroy the technology if only we’d known.
I put this one down to a couple of vodka chasers. The songs jump and bobble, as a small boat made of newspaper floats downstream. I’m singing from outside the song, and someone tells me to kindly shut the fuck up. So I start to quote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” three sheets to the wind, and somebody punches me hard in the face. When it comes the cold skin on my lips feels black as trees. If this isn’t Saturday afternoon anymore my memory is undecided here. Other peoples’ faces already forgetting, seeing everything, and all I can think is a whirl of tape rewind, dark mandolin. SIDE B you start to make choices that playback mirrors. There’s little to choose between transition and break. The video starts with a quirky, almost surreal glance behind the scenes; MTV stream of conscious. Music has no instruction manual to install the shelves that are slowly filling up, except here it’s as though I can almost dismantle and reassemble the sound of a car pulling out of a driveway. Lyrics as I recall seeing them scribbled down somewhere, maybe notes from modern history, sixth form, last period on a Thursday where the formula was drill. Everyone talks about the same two songs. Certain memories want to be popular, but deep down I’m skeptical.
I pivot off this one like a lamp-post at 3 a.m. in the morning. Sooner or later the lights will turn from green to red. Quite innocuous, look left then right then left again. Step off the curb to the side, and it’s my third day back at work. 8 a.m. and I am like brown paper pavement in 30-degree heat. Elvis talks Marilyn down from the edge of a bridge. Two actors and a film crew pause the action. It’s not feeling anything for the songs as such only I don’t recall the last time I wrote out a lyric by hand. How to name people without naming them is a standard of subtitled thoughts. A girl less twenty years and I can’t remember now how my own voice sounded back then as L.A. burned in the wake of the Rodney King riots. My address book takes the muse of a gridlocked freeway, and a mess of old letters. To name them I just have to say April or September 93. Feet sticky with the beer sweat floor, I didn’t trust myself to be drunk the first couple of days. This isn’t the right room. People are laughing in the midnight corridor. Then they stop. There’s a library here and a wood, and a covering of snow mid-November. The world retracts, recognized for five minutes then ignored on a clumsy flight of stairs. It wasn’t a song to dance to, yet most people knew all the words that year. From the game of life, to the theory of evolution, to the space age.
Saturday mornings sipped through a glass darkly in piano loop. So often memory doesn’t wait to make the introduction. I’m talking to Tara and Lewis about a town they’ll never see themselves, and how I used to imagine their America, days of constant transmission; pictures of high untested quality. No-one considers a connection between the 21st century and the way the other country lies. Face down you feel the kick to your groin that never leaves you. You blew it because you couldn’t let go of the simplest conjugation I was, you were, I have been. The storm today, and the storm I walked back through my first week at university. This isn’t the right room. “[. . .] the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” My students stare at me and wait for their name to be called, dry-eyed in the shallows of their lost search engine. Long paths leading past the lecture halls and my own room that was the wrong room altogether. Irrevocable time. A book I took with me those first few weeks, imperfectly translated. A language I had never learned. Flashback inside of a flashback like some silent undersea detonation. I was explaining “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to an old friend I don’t see any more. And back home for the weekend. This is the end of the second album.
Comes in with the harder guitars. The band for a six-month window is easily the most famous on the planet. September 94, my sister visits me one evening. Twenty-two years later she doesn’t recall when I remind her. We were younger. Different people. I want to talk to her about R.E.M., but I’d only be substituting a line for belated penance. The times I knew I had looked to hurt her, and still she came to visit me, and now she doesn’t remember. The first time I bought her a drink. No theory. Still nothing in common at 18 and 20 and then she’s gone again. Campus deserted. “[. . .] the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” The snow drift commute like a lack of maturity posing as world-weariness. Winter was laying foundations and those first R.E.M. songs I’d listened to in the summer of 91 seemed to belong to a primitive space age. Anger in memory is deferred gratification. The technology rather than the terror is what suggests you belong to a world before wireless connection. Hard guitars that come in at just the right time. The tickets were there in my hand like old friends, cancelled and refunded.
Still drinking with strangers I couldn’t care less about, and they all looked like me. The strange esprit de corps of second guessing Tarantino dialogue with the sound turned down or Star Trek – The Next Generation on a weeknight. Stuck like carpets and curtains to the half-light of November 94. It’s a montage effect that never quite comes off wearing odd socks. That one was actually my favorite for a long time only I don’t remember it that way; a choice between American romance and English realism and the faint discernment that I wasn’t learning anything. Today’s lesson takes the form of a short anecdote. One night in Cambridge, winter with its strawberry blonde hair takes you to bed. R.E.M. somewhere in the background. This isn’t the right room. You’re never really listening to the songs and seeing it at the same time. Memory panics at the thought of its immortal soul. Not so easy to put down anymore, a glass half empty or half full. Sweet disconnect. The only twentieth year you’ll ever have so make the most of it. The students listen to my voice’s taped recording explain Nagel’s philosophical treatise on “What is it like to be a bat?” Vodka sleep, a sense of smell that’s not so keen. The bar lights beneath your chin. Clubs where you couldn’t make out the faces smothered in guitar feedback. “[. . .] the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” Still trying to think what it is about that one line, which sums up and rewrites the scenery. Not exactly an R.E.M lyric as much as an indirect suggestion. It doesn’t register right away the cold concrete split of the lip as you hit water. The idea of tragedy that you can play around with lightly, like feathers falling and rising. Materials for videos and songs that no longer speak to the times.
You find the transition where you least expect it. Albums that are no longer instant classics take me up to the start of the next century. After Monster R.E.M. released another six, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate, and Collapse into Now. Having blindsided me in my late teens with songs that knew more than they were letting on about growing wise, at their best, perhaps like all bands they were speaking to the very young. It was roughly ten years listening to a now obsolete format. Having managed to stretch three albums out over my early twenties that irreparable gulf between music and memory is a cycle of breakdown whose ghosts are lyrics not to speak of anymore. Such are the signs of mortality for the under twenty-fives. You put them in there and then you take them out again because the illusion of permanence is what they are selling. It’s hard for anyone to know I suppose when the moment has passed. A fruitless exercise in that it resists taking form where the urge to prolong and enhance memories both good and bad confuses proper judgment. It should not surprise me that this list should still be in order.
• “Find the River” (Automatic for the People – Warner Bros, 1992) “Near Wild Heaven” (Out of Time – Warner Bros, 1991) “Let Me In” (Monster – Warner Bros, 1992) “Man on the Moon” (Automatic for the People – Warner Bros, 1992) “Everybody Hurts” (Automatic for the People – Warner Bros, 1992) “Crush with Eyeliner” (Monster – Warner Bros, 1994) “Try Not to Breathe” (Automatic for the People – Warner Bros, 1992) “Shiny Happy People” (Out of Time – Warner Bros, 1991) “Tongue” (Monster – Warner Bros, 1994) “Radio Song” (Out of Time – Warner Bros, 1991) “Nightswimming” (Automatic for the People – Warner Bros, 1992) “Strange Currencies” (Monster – Warner Bros, 1994) “Me in Honey” (Out of Time – Warner Bros, 1992)
Jonathan qualified in 1999 with his M.A. in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University College and in 2004 with an MRes in Humanities from Keele University. He now teaches writing composition at John Cabot University in Rome.
In the past Jonathan has had several pieces of his work published in The New Writer, Poetry Monthly, Iota, East Jasmine Review, The Dr T.J.Eckleburg Review, Negative Capability Press, Dirty Chai, Cordite Poetry Review, The Manifest Station, The TransNational, and Dream Catcher.
* * *
In Praise of Adam
By John Walters
He was unlike any adult I had met, my Uncle Adam, whom we visited last on our family tour of northwestern Pennsylvania. In Adam, my mother clearly had saved the best for last, thanks in part to my grandfather, Cazmir, who set an exceedingly low bar.
Nothing in my young life had prepared me for Cazmir, the debased Polish playboy of Pittsburg. My middle-western small town had shielded me from all things that threatened to undermine the carefully crafted pollyannish view of humanity that we children of the 1950s embraced.
To encounter a bona fide psychopath I had to travel all the way to Pittsburgh to meet my grandfather, who in the course of a few hours shattered a pretty theory of mine. I had imagined that family members were of one kind, like a trusted brand. For example, if your friend, Stinky, was good-natured yet odiferous, you could bet your allowance on the amiability and pungency of Stinky’s parents and siblings.
Except for a few obligatory transmitted physical characteristics, my mother bore no relation to her father: she, full of grace, dignity, and compassion; he, a drunken, misanthropic lunatic. By all accounts, which always were conveyed with heartfelt contempt, Cazmir was a dishonorable man, who mixed wife beating with philandering, whose capacity for liquor was as legendary as his incapacity for hard work, who squandered what little money his wife earned distilling vodka in the bathtub, to name just a few of his crimes against humanity.
My sister and I, models of good behavior on the long trip out, were given no advanced warning of the ensuing freak show. We opened the door to the overpowering smell of boiled cabbage, which had everyone retching except for my mother, who inhaled deeply as if imbibing spring’s first balmy breeze. There, in the kitchen, we saw a florid-faced man recoiling from the tiny woman seated beneath him, as if he had just released a ton of bile on her poor head.
My sister and I averted our eyes from the spectacle that was Cazmir, and looked about the small house for some sign of cheerfulness. We then looked plaintively to our parents, as if to ask not only why they would choose to place their obedient children in peril, but also to implore them for an immediate departure, before he had a chance to kill us.
My grandfather had a slightly comic, though mostly formidable, physical appearance, featuring a thick mustache, angular face, and deep-set eyes that saw the world through an alcoholic mist, all of which gave Cazmir the appearance of a thoroughly besotted Don Cossack soldier. He spoke no English, for which I was grateful, though my mother, fluent in Polish, received the full Cazmir effect, which left her visibly shaken. From Cazmir’s mouth, however foreign the language, issued an unmistakable hatred for all living things, punctuated by an occasional shower of spittle.
There was no theater or affectation in Cazmir’s rant; it rang authentic, unequivocal, and indiscriminate, though I think he had a particular dislike of children, or anything intended to constrain his behavior. Cazmir preferred to attain and sustain his drunkenness in the unbridled fashion.
What I witnessed that day was a bully riding roughshod over his dominion, haranguing his only subject (all others, including my mother, having seized the first opportunity to extricate themselves). This lone captive, my grandmother, remained with her petty tyrant from an allegiance to the Polish Catholic tradition of bearing heavy crosses.
Given no foreknowledge of our family patriarch, and having no reason to imagine any of my clan as anything other than ‘swell’, I diagnosed his insanity as temporary, that he must have just lost his job, though I learned later that no job existed worthy of Cazmir’s talents (there was little demand for impalers); or that maybe a neighbor had just shot his dog (but he had no dog); or maybe his favorite baseball team had dropped a doubleheader, which always ruptured my spleen whenever the Detroit Tigers lost a pair—or seemed incapable of growing a pair. Only years later did my mother apprise me more fully of Cazmir’s character, or the absence thereof.
Our arrival emboldened Cazmir to reload and continue his assault, giving him the exhilarating opportunity to humiliate his wife in the presence of her daughter. I glanced at my dad, thinking that he might intervene on behalf of my grandmother, but he sat quietly nursing a beer, as if he had been briefed on the injudiciousness of entangling himself in Cazmir’s web. My dad, exhausted from ten hours driving, simply longed for an affable drinking companion.
Cazmir finally relented but only upon spying through a window the alleged thief of one of his chickens. While Cazmir attempted to chase down the accused, my mother and grandmother spoke privately. I later discovered that my mother had conceived this trip as a rescue mission, that we would arrive to find Cazmir absent, as was his custom, exploring opportunities for debauchery in neighborhood taverns, while we packed up granny, drove her to Michigan, and checked her into a hospital to be treated for Stockholm Syndrome.
By thinking it important to have her husband in attendance for our visit--and somehow obtaining it-- my well-intentioned but misguided grandmother, Sophia, subverted and aborted my mother’s career as commando. A deeply religious woman, Sophia declined freedom in favor of bearing her cross to the bitter end of Cazmir’s barbarous journey, tending to the wounded and cleaning up his mess along the way. Such was the long-suffering lot of Polish Catholic women, bent but unbroken on the arduous path to canonization.
Though our stay was brief, its effect was profound and indelible, as it took Cazmir only a few hours to eradicate my childhood innocence.
Uncle Mike and Aunt Ethel, who lived in a neighboring town, were next stop on the Valensa family tour. I envisioned their house an oasis, to which Cazmir’s victims retreated and received trauma therapy. I imagined seeing their smiling faces in photos mounted on the wall as testament to their full recovery. This was a home where kindness prevailed and sporting events were held in the highest esteem, where Uncle Mike spoke knowledgeably about, and in the vernacular of, all American activities, peppering his conversation with such hallowed phrases as “hit and run,” “suicide squeeze,” “sacrifice fly,” music to my homesick ears. Mike surely would want to toss around a baseball, maybe even play a round of golf.
We arrived finding both Mike and Ethel at home in their upstairs apartment, which, despite the absence of children, smelled of dirty diapers; the few windows, all nailed shut, cried out to be opened, their living room littered with empty liquor bottles, dead soldiers who perished in the war that Mike and Ethel waged daily against their demons, the battlefield giving ample evidence of decisive victories for the demons.
As it turned out, Mike was as dissipated as his father, only quieter, which I considered his one redeemable quality. He and Ethel appeared to be older than Cazmir, though they had to have been at least 15 years younger, probably in their early 50s. Unlike his father, whose physical appearance held up remarkably well to the copious quantities of alcohol that assaulted it daily, Mike wore every drink on his pock marked, potato nosed face, as did Ethel, whose sparse orange hair appeared to have the texture of sagebrush.
Mike rarely spoke but sometimes expelled a grunting sound, intelligible only to my mother. He looked at me as if he were contemplating a homicide. Mike shared his father’s disdain of children, regarding anything meant to temporize his drinking as a provocation warranting and justifying murder.
Clearly, this was no oasis of healing and uplifting activity. Had this apartment ever given birth to a happy thought, it would have died instantly in the presence of Mike and Ethel, whose despair and despondency were so palpable that it hurt just to be near them. No amount of alcohol could have imparted even the faintest ray of sunshine into their dispositions, which was clear to everyone except to Mike and Ethel. I think they’d have topped themselves were it not for the life-sustaining fear of missing a “happy” hour.
I was beginning to sense a disturbing familial pattern. Perhaps I was hasty in dismissing my theory on family branding, that I needed only to modify the theory to allow for anomalies, like my mother, or consider the idea of family branding as gender specific, which would account for both my mother and grandmother, but which did not nothing to raise my sinking spirits. Truly, I carried some horrifying DNA.
I wanted nothing so much as to drive home to Michigan, stopping only to refuel. I could tell that my dad was as anxious as I to flee Pennsylvania, and that I could persuade him to use an empty Coke bottle to pee in along the way. I was crestfallen to learn that my mother had an additional brother, Adam, this one living in Ohio, our FINAL STOP! (I made mom assure me in what I can only imagine as the 1950s equivalent of a super-pinky promise).
At this point I suffered no further delusions about the men in my mother’s family. Uncle Adam was a drunk; of that I was certain, and he’d present himself as either sullen and sorrowful like his brother, Mike; or obnoxious and overbearing like his father, Cazmir the Reprehensible. I couldn’t imagine drunks coming in additional flavors.
On the drive to Ohio my sister and I found solace in imagining the prizes that would be ours for having survived my mother’s people, an achievement of undeniable forbearance, fraught with adversity and psychopathy. One could only imagine the deleterious effects of which on our formative minds. We demonstrated high courage for children of our tender age, and I expected to be rewarded accordingly.
I don’t know what my sister expected, but I was thinking in big, bold strokes. At minimum, I wanted a trip to Detroit to see the Tigers play a doubleheader, preferably against the Yankees, though I was willing to negotiate on this point. I considered a new set of Haig Ultra golf clubs a reward commensurate with my uncomplaining, exemplary behavior during this period of extraordinary duress. I considered anything less an unspeakable travesty.
Such were the riches that awaited me; I had only to endure one more Valensa. With steeI in my spine, I exited the car, walking briskly and boldly ahead of my parents to the door of Uncle Adam, resolved to remain unflappable in the face of whatever horrors this uncle had in store for me.
Predictably, Adam was a drunk, but the kind of drunk of which neither Cazmir nor Mike provided a clue, not even a whiff. My Uncle Adam belonged to a breed more rare than the honest politician, a breed deserving not scorn but high praise, which I offer here.
My Uncle Adam was a “Noble Drunk,” who, despite his addiction, held a job, pulled his weight, even exhibited brief bouts of lucidity. Fifty years later I’ve not encountered another of his ilk, though perhaps you have. Or has the Noble Drunk gone the way of the white-tusked Rhino? If only the census takers at National Geographic would see merit in finding and tagging Noble Dunks with GPS trackers.
What accounts for this elusive, loving, gentle, and highly functional dipsomaniac? Is it grace and artistry, or genes as freakishly favorable as those of Hall of Fame worthy athletes? The Noble Drunk is somehow resistant to behaviors endemic to alcoholics. I’m thinking specifically of bellicosity, incoherence, and idiocy. Perhaps the intervening hand of God raises him, as if on a high wire, above the mire toward which his addiction exerts a powerful force.
Imagine the swashbuckling Errol Flynn as having swallowed a basketball: that was Adam, his mustache penciled, his heavily pomaded jet-black hair brushed severely back. His paunch, combined with his state of perpetual intemperance, caused him to waddle in the enchanting likeness of a toddler, which I found endearing. Adam’s search for a misplaced bottle of Rolling Rock was like the uncertain journey of a two-year old bent on recovering his sippy cup, gleefully upsetting all obstacles in his path.
I found everything about Adam endearing. My Uncle Adam was the most charming person I’ve ever known—or can imagine. Sobriety could not have improved him. I like to think that’s why he never gave it a try. My Uncle Adam was perfect as he was.
His wife Blanche was as prodigious a drinker and nearly as charming as Adam. They were bound together inextricably in a loving, continuous embrace, freeing one arm only to raise a glass—their small contribution to multitasking. They kissed constantly, big lip-smacking Polish kisses that shook their house. Neither was capable of uttering one hurtful word to the other—or to anybody else. Not even the snarling Cazmir could have darkened the sanctuary of their happy home.
Despite his raging addiction to alcohol, Adam worked a solid 40 years, not sitting at a desk, but busting his hump in a manufactory, while Blanche kept an immaculate household. Please tell me how one manages to do such things in a state of constant impairment.
Adam’s eyes spoke of a proud Polish-American brotherhood bound in strong drink and rollicking good times. He evoked a vision of medieval warriors galloping steadfastly, even if somewhat unsteadily, across the east European tundra, reaching the inn before last call, given a hero’s welcome to the sound of cheering buxom maidens. Such, Adam convinced me without having to say a word, was my birthright. All I need do is take up the flask.
Imagine my exuberance upon discovering, on the last leg of this grimmest of journeys, a family member worth admiring. Adam parted the rapidly gathering storm clouds, restoring not only my sunny outlook but also faith in my people—and by extension faith in my future. Rather than chasing away the specter of alcoholism, Adam revealed a version of it that I found captivating, if not awe inspiring. In Adam, I found a role model, while my dad, finally, found a convivial drinking companion.
I rode home to Michigan with a renewed sense of confidence, my prospects undimmed by the darker angels of my nature, for I also witnessed humanity at its finest, and he, too, bore my flesh and blood. If I did take up the flask and succumb to my genetic predisposition, I could, possibly, in the heroic manner of Adam, pull it off nobly—cooler still, with the gait of a toddler. I clung to this possibility in times of self-doubt, which kept despair out in the driveway, where it belonged, rather than knocking at my door.
I also imagined a bright future for Stinky. Surely an Uncle Adam existed among the hygienically challenged, and Stinky would find him. From this Mentor of the Malodorous, Stinky would learn to comport himself with such grace and dignity as to make the angels sing, and cause friends and family to embrace him warmly—a figurative embrace, to be sure, given always while maintaining a safe distance.
John Walters is a retired academic, author of several award-winning journal articles; author of a horrifically dense monograph on the history of U.S. government publishing.
* * *
By Valerie Wu
My instinctual reaction, when faced with a problem I should solve, is the “fight or flight” response. The latter, mostly, although occasionally I will attempt at being an admirable, heroic character. A character like Piggy in Lord of the Flies, whom I was hopelessly obsessed with in my ninth grade year. Fat wise guy he was, his name was in itself an ironic plot twist. I can still remember his words, which I cited in my final literary essay: “What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages? What’s grown-ups going to think?” The group of young British boys descending into savagery had a huge impact on me, one that has never quite faded. I waxed glorious poetry about civilization versus the primitive, human intelligence versus pure animal instinct. I made flowery, metaphor-filled statements about symbolism, allegory, the fire on the mountain. It was so clear to me, then, the difference between man and animal, the distinguishing features of each species.
In contrast, however, I was described as vaguely animal-like as a child. It was very common for me to kneel on the floor and start barking like a dog, or meowing like a cat. It might have been that I thought I was cute, I suppose, but I suspect that it was something more. It could have been that I did think myself an animal, but it could also have been that I just wanted myself to be one. That was dangerous. That was what made me unpredictable, and that was why my mother was constantly sending me off to summer camps, in hopes that I would somehow improve my social skills within the spans of weeks. Throughout my childhood years, I attended many of them. First, it’d be the Chinese Culture camp, which would consist of building dragons and making dumplings from scratch. Then it’d be the arts camp, where we built pots out of clay and made masks out of leftover fabric. Science camps came soon afterwards; these were where the questions were asked. What happens when starch mixes with saliva? What’s the chemistry behind ice cream? What are the elements of the periodic table, and how do you identify them?
I credit my science camps with my gradual ascent into some semblance of a normal human being. The structure of these programs made me realize my individual identity more: I liked science, I liked experiments, I liked being by myself. I mixed my starch, made my ice cream, and memorized my periodic table in peace. This was not to last, however, as my mother gradually realized that a solitary hermit (crab) wasn’t what she wanted me to be either. She had big aspirations that I would turn out to be a happy camper, a bubbly child wearing butterfly shirts that would somehow just attract friends like bees to honey.
There was only one option when it came to this situation, and it wasn’t to flee; there was nowhere to go. So I fought, lost, and my mother registered me for the life sciences program, which meant more hiking, more interaction, and more environmental topics. My undeveloped mind translated it to hunting, killing, and survival skills. I remembered my elementary biology classes: food chains and natural selection, predators, trees getting cut down and being made into paper. This kind of cutthroat nature I pictured didn’t match up with the environment I lived in. I’d started to consider myself a scientist, though, and that meant being brave through tough situations, being an admirable, heroic character.
At nine a.m. in the morning, we drove up into the mountains, where the Youth Science Institutes were located. While the road was familiar, my mindset wasn’t, and all I could think about was: how do you kill a pig with a chemical reaction? There were so many things I now knew: elements of the periodic table, the process of crystallization, the amylase in saliva that causes starch to break down--but they couldn’t answer my question.
When we arrived at camp, our counselors made us sit around in a circle. The campers stared into the circle nervously, their name tags dangling from their too-thin necks, their backpacks stuffed with the lunch their mothers had prepared that morning. I was struck by how uniform we all looked, as if we were cheetahs with the same spots, giraffes with necks of the same length, zebras with the same stripes. In the physical sciences program, there was always a distinguishing feature about every kind of element there was, a chemical reaction that was different from the one that came before. But this was life science. And looking around at all my fellow peers, we were all the same: scared, tired, and wanting to go home.
“In order to better get to know everyone,” the counselor began, “let’s all choose an animal that starts with the first letter of your first name. You should all act like your animal for the next two weeks, so that we can get a better look at each person’s individual personality.”
It didn’t make much sense to me, because in my mind, the animal we chose would have no direct correlation to who we were as a person. But this was the life sciences program, which meant that mammals were animals, and humans were mammals, so humans were animals too. So when everyone began chattering excitedly about which animal they were going to choose, I ended up running through the list of animals that started with “v” and finding none.
My fellow campers ended up choosing before me. Cammie was now a cat, Floria a ferret, Ben a bear. They were all excited to assume their rightful behavior and start howling, growling, and snarling according to their newfound persona. Some of them immediately started pouncing on each other if they were predators; others began running away if they were prey. As we went around the circle, each child stating his or her animal with an almost doe-like innocence, there’d be an unusual name--Ashley was an alpaca, Nathan was a narwhal. But these were all fairly cute, decent names that fit. I could see Cammie roaming around the house looking for food, Floria jumping around excitedly, Ben growling at someone who touched what was his. It was difficult to find an animal that started with the letter V, so when it came to my turn, the counselor paused.
“I don’t think you have a lot of options,” she told me, “but how about vulture?”
I tried to disagree, starting to say that no, I didn’t want to be an angry-looking bird swooping down and eating the carcasses of dead animals (I wasn’t very educated back then on the biological tendencies of animals), but she either didn’t hear me or simply thought that I would be exceptionally skilled in my performance. For the next two weeks, I would now be “Valerie the Vulture.”
It was essential to become your animal for the remaining weeks of camp. When we were walking in line on daily morning hikes, our counselor would yell out a name, and if it was Carlos, he’d squawk like a chicken; if it was Darlene, she’d bark like a dog. I didn’t know what a vulture sounded like, having never come into contact with one before, so I’d make this snarling sound in my throat that sounded like a cross between an angry bird and a coyote. It was part of the natural environment, our counselors explained, to interact with your surroundings.
“Just like you affect your environment,” they said, “your environment affects you.”
For someone who had always been apart from those surroundings, I found it shocking how much I could blend in when needed. And gradually, I could feel what I called the “vulture-ness” stitching itself into my identity. When we hiked, I felt my eyes narrowing in on who was lagging behind, ready to pounce if needed. When we searched for water striders, I scavenged for them with a vigor that was almost as admirable as it was unsettling. I had adopted a sort of predatory mindset. Natural selection, always a rule that I felt didn’t apply much, began to take root more than ever. I could very clearly chart where I was on the food web--on the top--and I wanted to stay there. It became customary for me to make that half-snarling, half-coyote sound in my throat whenever I heard my name.
I stopped thinking independently. Campers had a group mindset. We followed the line, we got food when needed, we rotated stations when the whistle blew during activities. I stopped asking questions. I stopped wanting to know what happened when starch mixed with saliva, or the chemistry behind ice cream, or even how to identify the elements of the periodic table. Instead of being the observer, I was now a part of the social experiment. Were humans animals? I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question--I never asked it.
When camp finally ended and my mother picked me up, I still couldn’t resist making those sounds, have that mindset. It wasn’t until I started back in my customary routine that I felt myself becoming more aware of who I was. I was a part of civilization, not the primitive. My name was Valerie: I liked science, I liked experiments, I liked being by myself.
A few months after camp, I was at the dinner table with some friends when the server brought out a pork dish. We’d just finished Lord of the Flies, and I shot out to grab it before anyone else could. Immediately feeling embarrassed, I drew my hand back, but my friend only laughed. “It’s okay, it’s your animal instinct,” she said.
Here I remembered summer camp, and the essential question of whether we were humans, or animals or savages. I thought about Darlene barking like a dog, and Carlos squawking like a chicken. I thought about my tendency to get excited over dead things, and my motivation to get to the top of the food chain. The term “animal instinct” may have been an accurate description, but the kind of cutthroat nature I was experiencing just didn’t match up with the environment I lived in. I was an animal, yes, but I was also a scientist. I had questions: what happens when starch mixes with saliva? What’s the chemistry behind ice cream? What are the elements of the periodic table, and how do you identify them? How do you kill a pig with a chemical reaction?
Valerie Wu is a high school sophomore in California. Her work has been featured and/or recognized by Susan Cain's Quiet Revolution, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the Huffington Post, Teen Ink, and various local publications.