By Alan S. Brown
There are no lessons for boys in school about restroom etiquette, no official placards above the urinals outlining the Rules, no designated attendants to recite them as we stand to take a leak. The Rules are not written down, but they are implicitly clear. All men know them. And we expect each other to follow them.
Two non-negotiable Rules exist regardless of where you are. Rule No.1 requires a man to always address the urinal furthest away from any other man. This can be tough in busy public restrooms, but if a man has a choice, etiquette requires as much distance from other men as possible. For those crowded situations, there’s Rule No. 2: while addressing a urinal, a man may either look straight ahead or down to ensure proper aim and splash avoidance. At no time is it allowable for a man to look anywhere else, especially towards another man.
It comes down to keeping others out of our business. We’re vulnerable when addressing a urinal, so there’s no need for company. If we keep to ourselves, we minimize the risk. Nobody wants to be labeled as a Rule breaker. Law and order must be maintained. For me it’s a matter of common decency, and I know the overwhelming majority of men feel the same. For the first 24 years of my life, that’s how 100 percent of the guys I encountered in the restroom behaved. Until one day.
I was standing in the Bahnhof in Wurzburg, Germany, waiting for two friends who were backpacking across Europe to arrive on the hourly train from Frankfurt, my 12-year-old, wannabe-fast BMW parked in the metered lot. Stationed in Germany for my first Army assignment, I’d picked up other travelling friends looking for free floor space and a clean shower. I could be in and out in 15 minutes. All I needed was their boarding city and departure time.
At 5:10 p.m. I looked at the permanent schedule against the wall next to a school-bus-yellow billboard for Deutsche Telekom and directly across the terminal from a bratwurst stand and flower shop. My friends were on the 4 p.m. train from Frankfurt, putting them into Wurzburg at 5:20 p.m., not a minute sooner or later. German trains were always on time. If you ever clocked one as being late, your watch was wrong. Yes, in and out in 15 minutes was doable.
Absently scanning the rest of the schedule, I felt a presence behind me, close behind me. I looked over my left shoulder at this man with manicured dark brown hair, ribbed, blue-green T-shirt tucked into his white jeans, gazing up at me, a friendly, curious look. Europeans didn’t have the same insecurities about their personal space as Americans, and it was common to feel crowded in public or have someone cut in front of you in line. An unmistakable faux pas in the U.S., these invasions were part of living in Europe. I shot Mr. Close Stander a quick but deliberate get-the-fuck-out-of-my-personal-space look and headed towards the men’s room.
Designed for heavy traffic, the Bahnhof men’s room had one of the most unique urinals I’d ever seen. I called it ‘the trough.’ Spanning 30 feet from one wall to the other, it was one continuous, stainless steel urinal with no privacy dividers, no black footprints, no elevated white porcelain bowls or grimy flush levers. ‘The trough’ recessed into the wall about six inches and stood from the floor to chest level and required no aim or splash avoidance whatsoever. It was perhaps the original hands-free device. I was immediately satisfied to find it deserted and stepped to the far end with the gray-tiled wall to my left side and 28 feet of emptiness to my right, more than enough space for several men to pee in peace.
I was enjoying my privacy, both hands on my hips, feeling free to let my eyes wander, when the white-jean, close-stander walked in. On queue I repositioned my hands to a more defensive posture and turned my head to the wall in front of me, keeping my peripheral eye on him. In slow motion, his footsteps approached, closer, closer, until he stood right next to me, his foot less than six inches from mine. I couldn’t believe it. How could a guy so blatantly disrespect the Rules? They were not guidelines. They were unspoken law, period. Even in other countries. A guy could get his ass kicked on basic principle for standing too close to another guy without first exercising all other options, mainly finding another place that wasn’t inches away from another dude.
I wanted to turn my head so he could see my irritated look of “Hey asshole! You’ve got all that space, and you’re choosing to stand right next to me? That’s bullshit!” But I didn’t. I continued to honor the Rules and dutifully stared straight ahead, burning a hole in the wall like Superman with his laser vision. It was then I realized the full magnitude of the extra tall French roast I drank an hour before. I’d never wanted to pee faster in my entire life. A fire hose wouldn’t have been fast enough standing next to close-peeing Jerry-the-German.
Not deviating one degree from my field of vision, concentrating on peeing as fast as I could, I almost didn’t notice Jerry lean towards me and look down. My nightmare was getting worse by the second. Not only did he blatantly violate Rule No.1 by standing so close to me, and now Rule No. 2 by looking outside his designated area, he was looking inside my designated area. This couldn’t be happening. Not only did this freak in white jeans want to stand next to me at the trough, he wanted to watch. I froze, my body helpless and impotent. My heart raced like when I locked up my brakes on black ice one night and nearly skidded off the edge of a cliff. I couldn’t think of anything to say, shout or scream. Exposed and held hostage from the coffee, I maintained my precise bearing at the wall and hoped he would simply go away.
Then he did it again. This time I caught him as his exaggerated lean invaded my personal space. There was no doubt he was checking me out, and he did nothing to try to hide it. I shielded myself by turning my right shoulder counter clockwise, a defensive gesture I hoped would discourage him. It didn’t. He simply adjusted his position to look around my shoulder. Nearing my boiling point but not yet able to zip up, I broke ranks and turned my head. I’m sure I had a very conflicted look on my face, somewhere between “Hey man, did you drop something down there?” and “Hey, you sick son of a bitch! Why are you watching me pee you twisted motherfucker?” He looked up at me with a smile, his head slightly tilted. Not one of those “I’m happy because it’s Friday” smiles, but an “I have a dirty little secret, and I want you to see” smile. I only glanced at him for a split second before something else caught my attention. And I violated Rule No. 2.
I looked down at him. I didn’t mean to, but my eyes were drawn, drawn by something not quite right. I looked down only for a second and then back to his smile, the same sick smile as before but with a different meaning. This time it was a “Well, what do you think?” smile. I had looked down as he was rigorously massaging his pathetic, flaccid self between his thumb and forefinger. “Why did you look down? Rule No. 2 exists for a very good reason, you stupid idiot!” There were no more Rules. Not after what I saw -- his dirty little secret, his perverted plot. The image, his rhythm of perversion will forever be burned into my memory.
I have never zipped up, buckled my belt and exited a restroom so fast in my life. My automatic response was to run, but in retrospect, I can think of many other things I could have done, things that seem perfectly justified in light of his invasion and visual assault. I could have simply executed a right face and pissed on his white jeans. But he might have enjoyed that, another twisted fantasy of his. I’m certain I could have broken his nose with a sudden, forceful extension of my right elbow, leaving him stunned and bleeding on the floor. And then I could have turned to pee on him. That might have gotten my point across. I could have done a lot of things as I look back, but I didn’t. My “fight or flight” response instantly pegged at “flight.”
Sprinting out of the men’s room, I immediately ran into a guy from work named Phil, a guy I could trust, a guy I knew would be just as appalled as I was. Phil was a man’s man who respected the Rules. He was also waiting for someone on the train, and I went straight to him and told him what happened. Quickly, his eyeballs grew to match mine. But before I finished shot-gunning my story, Jerry-jerkoff walked out of the men’s room and leaned up against the wall next to the flower shop, 40 feet away with a look of “so was it good for you?” I turned my back on him, not wanting to see his sex-offender smile. I realized he’d probably just stare at my ass, but somehow I could deal with that. It was my front side that was so vulnerable at that moment.
I can’t remember exactly what Phil said to me. He used the words “dude” and “man” a lot, and I remember him using the phrase “kick his ass” a few times. His reassurance helped, not because it put Jerry’s actions out of my mind, but because I could tell Phil didn’t think I was a pervert by association, that he knew I hadn’t played a willing role. He could tell I was a victim, and he empathized with just how fucked up Jerry’s assault had been.
Jerry didn’t stick around long, but I shuddered to think he might go somewhere else to seek pleasure after his version of cheap porn in the men’s room. As much as I wanted to confront him, I didn’t have the balls. Jerry’s violation of the Rules had gone to a horrifically new level, and at the time, I believed there was nothing I could do about it. No way to counter, no way to get revenge. No one else saw what he did, and it would be his word against mine if I ended up giving him a bloody nose. American soldiers got into plenty of fights downtown, and the polizei had good reason to be suspicious. If Jerry complained with any evidence of blood, I’d be the one getting arrested. I’d plead my case of visual assault and emotional trauma, but after taking one look at Jerry’s bloody nose, they’d handcuff me, and put me in the back of the green and white BMW squad car. One of the officers would shake his head and say, “Dat eez no problem fur masturbation in zee Bahnhof toileten.” The headline would read “US citizen beats German man unprovoked: U.S. Embassy says ‘No hope for American.’”
At 5:20, I did my best to greet my friends like any normal person would, any normal person who didn’t just witness a white-jean-and-ribbed-T-shirt-wearing, look-at-my-Johnson-smiling pervert toss off in front of him. I didn’t tell them what had happened, and they didn’t suspect anything strange. Phil greeted them politely, punched my shoulder and gave me a look of “call me if you feel like you want to go kick the shit out of him.”
I didn’t weigh my friends down with what happened. I drove them to my house a little faster and a little more aggressively than normal, trying to push the intense emotions out of my mind. I jabbered about my job, about all the things I loved about living in Germany, and about all the places I’d show them during their visit. And although I stayed up late drinking beer and talking as nothing had happened, I didn’t sleep much that night.
I was disgusted. I was in disbelief. I was angry and confused. Confused at why he chose me. Did I give off some kind of vibe? Did he just see me standing in the train station and decide I was the one he would expose himself to? Did I do something or look a certain way? The simplest rationalization was that he was gay and looking for a quick hook up. But in retrospect, I have no idea if he was gay or not. It’s not like we had any sort of conversation. A few gay guys had approached me before, but they were always pretty cool and unassuming. We usually ended up sharing a laugh and bullshitting for a while after I told them I was straight. No, this wasn’t a gay thing. No self-respecting gay guy I knew would ever approach someone the way Jerry approached me. Jerry was a sick pervert, and I was his victim.
For several years after this experience, I coped through hyper-masculine banter and laughter. Inevitably, my story would come up during a night of beers with friends. “Tell your story about that guy...............you know..............in the restroom at the train station,” they’d say. I always did, complete with all the inappropriate theatrics. They always responded predictably with overblown disbelief and tough talk – men’s version of empathy. However, I always worried in the back of my head they wouldn’t quite understand and pass judgment. That they’d look at me as if to say, “Are you sure you didn’t do something to give him the wrong idea?” To me, that was as good as, “You deserved it. It must have been your fault.” Not only did I have to wrestle with a sick and twisted experience, but having my friends doubt my story would have been an additional kick to the balls.
Fortunately, they never doubted me for a second. Through beer clanks and puffed out chests, they showed their understanding – they knew the Rules and recognized the magnitude of the breach. I had not violated the Rules. I was not a victim by choice. I was just a guy at the wrong place and the wrong time.
Telling the story to my buddies over beers seemed like the right way to cope, but it never helped me come to terms fully with what happened. Nearly 20 years later, the image of Jerry standing too close and gazing down at me still shouts in my head. I still remember his face, his twisted little smile as he gazed over at me, and my horror when I realized what he was doing. And after all this time, I’m still no closer to understanding why.
After hearing my story for probably the third time, several years after the experience, one of my best friends said, “So that’s why you always look so uptight in the restroom.” I can’t deny it. I can’t deny the fact that I’m hypersensitive about the Rule No.1 with the belief that its strict adherence will prevent having to deal with Rule No. 2, and possibly another Jerry situation. So even today, any perceptible deviation from the Rules will elicit a jarring look of “Hey! Stay in your lane asshole!” Paranoid? Maybe. Obsessive compulsive? Possibly. Justified? Yeah. I think so.
Originally from Portland, Ore, Alan S. Brown has moved 12 times in the last 20 years while serving in the U.S. Army. Of all the places he and his family have lived, they call Alaska their heart-home. Still on active duty, he teaches composition and literature at West Point.
* * *
The Answering Machine
By J. W. Carvin
I woke this morning to the sad news that Kessler (our daughter’s dog) was being taken to the Vet today, to be put down.
I went next door, to her house, to say my goodbyes to the dog. Looking into Kessler’s cloudy eyes, I thought I could see evidence of suffering. I thought I could see returned affection. I tried to convey what comfort and love I could, wondering whether I really had any idea what was going through the mind of the dog during these, his last hours —or whether I was projecting my own, human thoughts into him – and whether what I was seeing was merely a reflection of myself.
I also observed the way the three grandchildren were dealing with the situation. “But, Mom, I don’t want Kessler to die.” Death is something they’ve never really encountered before. They’ve seen road kill; they’ve even experienced the death of some of their chickens; but that’s not the same thing. Kessler is older than any of the kids; he’s been their pet their entire lives; in a few hours, he’ll be gone; they are looking at mortality with new eyes today – experiencing the process, not just the aftermath.
Returning home, I found myself wondering about the difference between adults and children of elementary school age. These children encounter new things every day. Their lives consist almost entirely of new experiences. At this point, they seem to take it for granted that they have an awful lot yet to learn. For them, not understanding things is the normal state of mind. And I wondered – what happens to us, as we become adults? How do we lose our childhood sense of wonder, our belief that the world is full of things we do not understand? How do we come to think that, because we are adults, we now understand so much that we can be sure of ourselves?
As I came back into our house, I noticed a message waiting on our answering machine. (Yes, Karen and I have land lines, not “smart” phones.) Picking up the receiver, I listened to a delightful message that Karen had saved. It had been left, three days ago, by Jackson, our five year old grandson. The reason she’d saved it was that she is a grandmother and the recording was cute: Having only made five or six phone calls in his life, Jackson had obviously never encountered an answering machine before.
“We’re not available right now,” said my recorded voice. “Please leave a message.”
“Poppi?” said Jackson, recognizing my voice. “This is Jackson.”
A long pause as he awaited a reply that never came.
“Hello. This is Jackson. Hello?”
Another pause; the barely audible voice of his mother (coaching him) from the background; her words indecipherable.
“This is Jackson,” he said at last. “Call me.”
More indecipherable coaching from the background.
“This is Jackson,” he said again. “Call me. Goodbye.”
I pictured the scene in my mind, imagining the thoughts that had gone through Jackson’s mind three days ago, during his first encounter with an answering machine. I’d already been trying to remember what it was like to discover new things all the time, and I couldn’t have asked for a better reminder. I recalled my own fascination with telephones – maybe 1958 – back in the day when we picked up the receiver and waited for a human being to ask us, “Number please?” Remembering how we’d tell her (yes, always a her) what the number was that we wanted her to connect us to. How she would magically connect us to others, across vast distances. We didn’t understand how it all worked, of course, but then, we didn’t expect to. The world was full of things we didn’t understand.
I was still reminiscing when, at that very moment, the door opened and in walked Jackson, in person this time. Well, me being an adult and him being a five-year-old, I couldn’t pass up the chance to teach him something about life, by which of course I meant life as it really is. (You know – I wanted to help him along on his path to an adult world in which he would understand just about everything I understood – even old fashioned answering machines.) So I decided it was time for Jack to have his second encounter with an answering machine.
“Hey Jack, buddy, come over here. I’ve got something I’d like you to listen to.” I picked up the telephone, dialed *86, and pressed 1 to retrieve our messages. There was only one saved message – Jackson’s. I put the phone to his ear so that, hearing his own voice, he could learn about answering machines.
There was a confused look on Jack’s face. I was sure it was because he was perplexed by the sound of his own voice. But when I moved my head closer in order to hear what Jackson was hearing, I could hear a robotic, clipped adult male voice who (at least from my perspective) sounded nothing like me.
“Voice message received at 2:31 p.m.“ said the robotic recording. “December 6th. From (804) 551…”
“Poppi?” asked the living Jackson in front of me, mistaking the robotic voice for mine. “This is Jackson.”
This time, instead of listening to a three day old recording of Jackson, I was looking into his eyes as he spoke.
“Poppi?” came the reply. We both heard Jackson’s recorded voice – from three days ago – at the same time. I waited for him to realize it was his own voice he was listening to. “This is Jackson,” said the recording.
“Who is this?” asked the real Jackson, standing in front of me – and again, he got an answer.
“Hello?” came the voice from the phone. “This is Jackson. Hello?”
“Hello,” replied the little boy in front of me. “What do you want?”
“This is Jackson” said the recorded voice. “Call me.”
The living boy in front of me searched his five year old brain for a sensible answer, but found none. There was a long pause; some muffled whispering in the background could be heard over the phone. Finally, Jackson’s recorded voice broke the silence:
“This is Jackson” it repeated. “Call me. Goodbye.”
Without missing a beat, the living boy in front of me politely replied, “Goodbye,” and handed the receiver back to me, obviously very confused. It took me a long time to stop laughing. When I'd mustered sufficient composure, I informed Jack that, due to the miracle of the answering machine, the voice he’d been hearing was his own, and that he’d been having a conversation with himself. His face lit up as my words sank in. One of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen came over his face, and he started laughing with me. We laughed together for a long time.
It’s a true story, really – at least, it’s the truth as I perceive it. The story of Jackson and the answering machine is my story; I have no idea how Jackson perceives it; no idea how the story would play out, if he told it, from his perspective. I wish that, somehow, I could climb into the mind of another person – or even a dog – and see whether we’re perceiving the same reality. But, sadly, I don’t seem to know how to do that. Sometimes it seems that what I take to be reality is really nothing other than the playing back of a recording – a recording I don’t recognize, but which, in fact, is only my own voice, repeating things I’ve already thought, and said, and have come to believe I fully understand, and nothing more.
But it’s been a good day, all things considered. True, Jackson and I and the rest of the family are all sad about the passing of our dear friend, Kessler. But as I think about Jackson and the answering machine – as I’m amused anew by his innocence – as I’m joyful anew at his discovery – I’m especially attracted to the way he was able to laugh at his own folly. I wish I could learn to do that more myself.
J.W. Carvin is a woodworker and writer who lives in Virginia with his wife, two daughters, and five of his grandchildren. He has previously written a business book, a collection of memoirs, and (recently) his first novel, Alemeth, an ante-bellum coming of age story in a South on the verge of civil war.
* * *
Apple Juice (With Other Manifestations)
By C. Cimmone
My mother only left the house once a week. Friday was her day to stop at the gas station to buy cigarettes while I waited on hot, sticky vinyl seats ‘safely’ nestled behind cracked windows. The gas station was on the outskirt of town and caught all the newcomers, grinning with fishing poles and pistols; and it caught all the other men, on their way out, running from something or someone, to tell them ‘goodbye’ with a last pack of cigarettes purchased in a dingy, little port town.
My mother was always polite to the men who held the door open for her, despite their frayed haircuts and dirty knees. She smiled nervously at the parking lot as I kept watch on the staring eyes of pump number two. My mother vanished with a DING of a rusty bell; and my heart pounded and skipped until the next fling of the door produced my cigarette carrying mother. When she took too long, I realized I was not able to care for myself as I had thought over the previous night’s dinner. She did provide a form of comfort and protection, despite my thoughts regarding a lengthy scolding and whipping. Her wooden paddle was missed during her stay inside of the old gas station; but I found myself wondering about the small rubber ball that had been snapped from the wooden paddle many years before. I could not imagine my mother throwing it away, being a keeper of almost everything, including worked crossword puzzles and bread twist ties.
Her frugality was understood, as my parents were born in the middle of The Great Depression and often told stories of ‘sweeping the dirt floor’ and hunting rats and opossums for dinner. My father talked mostly about eating the hearts out of stolen watermelons during the summer; and I lavished in the thought that my father’s honest handshake had not been as such in his younger years. Even after my father’s twin was murdered and left on the side of lonely highway, my father never swayed from his accounts of thievery,
“Mickey and I used to run out there, barefoot and tired as all get out, after pickin’ cotton all day; and we’d pick us the biggest and the darkest melon we could hold. We’d throw them down just to bust out the hearts – and boy, that was some good eatin’ right there. Those hearts were so cool and juicy – and not a seed a one.”
It was ghastly, to say the least, for my mother to hear the dirty details of my father being so wasteful. Perhaps she attempted to compensate his lewd behavior by cooking most of our meals with expired liquids and eggs. Perhaps she thought he would notice the missing corner of his grilled cheese, where the penicillin had once thrived.
Despite her attempts to teach my father a lesson for his childhood decision making, she was never successful to make an impression anywhere further. I checked the dates on my cereals religiously and smuggled expired Miracle Whips into the backyard burn pile. My father pushed the bottles and bags with his hoe as I stood alongside. The fire would whip up with the wind and touch my face after a rake of the coals. I could feel my mother watching us from the kitchen window and I imagined her pressing her lips together and blowing softly in our direction when the flames got too high.
My father did not have an opinion on expired food; however, his superstitious nature kept me from enjoying a bowl of Rocky Road ice cream after a fish dinner. He insisted this combination would yield ill effects, including, but not limited to: vomiting, diarrhea, lockjaw and death. He also described the seriousness of eating undercooked chicken and over cooked cheese – two items he had not swallowed in over forty years – with such intense eyebrows, I found myself refusing chicken in the school lunch line. I chose apple juice, instead of my usual chocolate milk, on FISH PATTY Friday, and I overanalyzed the consistency of the melted cheese on SOFT TACO Tuesday.
It was common for my father to hoard heads up pennies and rub stray cats with odd concoctions of mineral oil and chewing tobacco. I followed his habits like an old woman dog ears pages of the bible. I collected my pennies, didn’t go to bed with wet hair, and enjoyed my father’s stories of the ‘old days’ when people sat up all night with dripping candles and a dead body, in hopes to avoid burying someone alive out in the back cemetery of town.
My father’s religion was less than respected and he shuffled his stories about ‘why’ he wouldn’t eat the chicken and gooey casseroles on Thanksgiving Day. His sister-in-law, long since gone and only 15 when married, had attempted to fry chicken in a cast iron skillet. She served the crispy edges and my father sank his teeth into the greasy skin. A few hours later, he found himself in an outhouse, coughing up bits of raw chicken and undercooked flour. He vowed to never eat chicken again; and it was confirmed, by my mother herself, that as long as she had known him, she had never known him to eat chicken – fried, baked or compressed and packaged into thin, slimy slices.
He never discussed his faith of the ‘cooked cheese,’ and because this verse could never be substantiated, I lacked the devotion. I ate cheese on hot Hamburger Helper and melted Kraft slices on bowls of freshly popped popcorn. I ate cheese enchilada TV Dinners and smothered nacho cheese on my mother’s tiny, baked potatoes. My father noticed my distrust, but only scolded me with a glance over his wire framed glasses.
I did not understand his theory on the cheese; and almost questioned the fact that ‘watermelon seeds will sprout if swallered,’ but I overheard little Jaime Kettling going on and on about how she had swallowed a piece of gum last summer and never witnessed the gum purge through her lines. My father’s religion seemed progressive and tedious, but I chose his faith over the stacks of children’s bibles my grandmother mailed to our house, as I was not much of a reader. The task of reading each of the thin pages was likely comparable to the hours my mother had spent picking lice and eggs out of my fine strands with a tiny toothed comb. Furthermore, I had believed in Santa for nine years, following his stereotypical childhood guidelines, only to learn he was cunningly created to keep mouths shut and eyes closed. My father followed his personal guidelines without fault; and I could not imagine him depriving himself of freshly baked casseroles had the whole thing been a farce, to accomplish nothing more than slapping spite at my mother.
Unlike my father, I fearfully pushed the boundaries with my mother, not to defy her, but to simply follow my own religious convictions involving food and beverage. This specific industry was her pride and her prejudice; and it was expected to be respected. My paganism gnawed on her nerves like the neighbors barking dog – during the midnight hours, respectively.
“You better drink that apple juice, child,” my mother had warned on our way out to the gas station.
I stared at the forgotten cup – juice soft and quiet, still and subtle. The juice was now room temperature and I had created my own verse: not to consume room temperature beverages, as they lead to stomach pain and vomiting. My mother was unware of this conviction and she urged me once again to drink the juice.
“Don’t think I will forget about this,” she gritted. Her eyes were focused and sharp, but her threat fell, dropped, and rolled around on the kitchen floor with the bits of mud and sand she had missed. She flipped off the kitchen lights with a CLICK and her keys JINK JANK jingled into the living room. I stared, once again at the juice. It sat in the transparent cup as if it expected to be thrown out the backdoor with a sudden jerk of my mother’s wrist; or maybe it was simply waiting its turn to drip, drip, drain down the kitchen sink after my mother screamed and slapped with her wooden paddle. The room was dark and silent. My mother’s cigarette whimpered its last fizzle and the last bit of orange singe fell asleep under the dark sun of the kitchen.
“Come on now,” my mother started. “I want to get up there before all of those factory men get out for their lunch break.”
I followed behind, shoulders given in to my fate. We rode in the car, cigarette broth caressing our hair and our hands, down the highway that led right out of town and into the parking lot of the flat-topped filling station my mother cherished and prized.
I was relieved that no wild-eyed man jiggled the door handle of the silver Buick as I sat, waiting for my mother to return with her box of cigarettes. My nerves popped when she fired up the beastly engine; and my mind churned all the way back home. The old Buick rounded the corners with ease and leaned into the drive with crushing sounds of shells and gravel. The house was dark and wide. It waited for me to enter its walls and face the left over cup of sticky apple juice. The old house looked down as I followed my mother though the big, wooden door into the living room, who seemed dull and saddened with my father’s absence. The black spots on the knotty pine walls snickered as I made my way into the kitchen.
The kitchen chamber was ticking with patience, gloriously awaiting my momentous arrival. My mother headed to her cabinet, releasing her purse of his duty and placing her fresh tobacco on the kitchen counter. The cigarettes watched with stressful stature as my mother approached the large, wooden dining table.
“Now you sit right down there and you finish that apple juice before I have to pour it down your throat myself.”
I looked at the cup, lightly tinted by the darkness and still guarding the stale apple juice.
My mother FLIPPED on the kitchen lights. The spotlight from above filtered through the haze of my mother’s dungeon and highlighted the monstrosity on our dining room table. It was a sight that startled all parties involved. My eyes jumped wide; and the ashtray’s tiny pieces of silver and black cringed and huddled.
The transparent cup, alone no more, presented the solemn apple juice with the grandest of cockroaches right in front of my mother’s Woman’s Day. The roach’s dark legs bent and twitched and his head faced the ceiling.
“Oh my Goddddd….” My mother moaned. She stood in disbelief above the hairy legged cockroach who represented the epitome of all things dirty and disgusting. The winged slivers were known to move at the speed of light and upon fright took flight. They crawled in my father’s damp garage between the cracks and the rusty freezers; and they licked over the rabbit mounds of feces and urine. They slept behind cool TVs and they waited in the bottom of the bathtub drain. They crinkled and cracked as they ran across paper and yellow goo leaked out when their bodies were smashed and smeared. They were my ultimate fear, with their faceless heads and stalking bodies. Not a snake, nor a frog, not a worm, nor a wasp could send chills down my arms like the cockroach did. He was not a friend of mine; and my mother, usually brave around household nuisances, stood silent.
The apple juice waved with terror and my mother stared at the cup.
“Look what you have done!” she yelled, pointing at the submerged and lifeless guest. “You left this juice sitting out and now you have invited roaches in my kitchen!”
I stared at the cup, now alive with light and death. The smell of squashed apples was faint and tainted. My lip curled. I had left water, orange juice, and half of a Coke-a-Cola on that kitchen table – sometimes days at a time – and had never witnessed such a tragedy. My arms were lifeless. My mind hummed and searched for reasoning.
“It’s the apple juice,” I mumbled.
“What?” my mother yelled. “What are you talking about? Yes, it’s apple juice! Apple juice that YOU didn’t drink! Apple juice that YOU wasted – and now it is here on MY dining room table with the nastiest thing I have ever seen in my life!”
I stared the cup and my mother’s voice was muted. Her arms flapped and swayed as a high pitched whine sang in my ears. My toes tingled and my mouth was dry and stuck, but my mind was unclenched and free falling.
I thought about my father eating the raw chicken and busting hearts out of watermelons to avoid the spouting seeds between the rind and the mush. I thought about my father’s hands being nailed to the front of our house and his head hanging with defeat as blood dripped from his toes. I thought about my father, dying for my sins, to save me from the agony of what melted cheese and heads-down pennies held for me; and I wondered, as I stood in the bereaved kitchen, how many bodies had sat up, alive and alone, when no one was there to wait.
C. Cimmone is a North American writer and comic, specializing in blue and observational comedy, short fiction, and narrative nonfiction. Her prose is featured in GNU, Embodied Effigies, The Penmen Review, Belle Reve Literary Journal, and recognized as the Judge's Choice in Heart and Mind Zine literary magazine. Print publications showcasing her narrative nonfiction include the 2015 Story Shelter anthology and Jokes Review inaugural issue, both based on her stand-up comedy and currently available on Amazon for purchase.
Cimmone's most recent chapbook publication, "When I Was Alive," was released in August 2016 via Underground Voices and is available on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. To learn more about Cimmone, please visit www.ccimmone.com.
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By Ricardo Jose Gonzalez-Rothi
Eight of us crammed into two Russian-made Ladas. “Que direccion?” asked the driver. “Avenida Milanes and San Gabriel street” I said. He looked at me oddly. “You mean 8 street, corner of 15th…” The streets of many Cuban cities no longer bore the names of historical heroes or saints.
We pulled up to the curb. Reddish pink, not the pastel green I remembered. Bars on the window. The flagstones Papi handpicked for the facade had been painted over with lechada. Number 23 ½, “Old” Milanes street. We exited the vehicles, my wife, daughters and their husbands. A young man stood by the window of what was once our house. Shaved head, bare-chested and in his mid-thirties, he seemed alarmed at the “Americanos” stepping out of cars, with drawn and aimed smart phones and video cameras, lenses panning up and down the street. I approached him in Cuban-slanged Spanish. “Mira, chico… I explained that I had lived at 23 ½ Milanes fifty years ago and that my father built this house. A petite, bird-framed woman, probably in her early eighties opened the front door. She stood at the threshold.
“Abuela,” said the young man. “Este hombre says he used to live here….” Her expression was confusion bordering on trepidation.
“Senora…my name is Ricardo.” (By now neighbors were curiously gathering about around us.) “ I left Matanzas when I was thirteen. My father Pepe owned the grocery on the corner.” It dawned on her that she had been “assigned” the house we surrendered to the authorities half a century ago. It was as if she’d seen a ghost… I continued, ”I remember Juanito next door, he used to let me watch him refinish furniture in his shop…. And Toto and Billita who lived behind the bakery across the street. Toto gave me pastelitos when I washed his car.”
The woman’s demeanor changed. “Juanito died two years ago, as did Toto.” The shirtless young man said, “Abuela, they want to see his old house, permitelos entrar.” I was embarrassed, never intending to intrude. “No, no Senora, no es necesario.” She stepped aside, waved us in.
A motor scooter adorned the foyer. The grey tiles were the same. So was the pale green paint on the walls except where it was flaking. We stepped through to the corner of the living room where our television used to be. The broadcasts from WCMQ were long ago replaced by state-controlled Tele Rebelde. We walked past what was my bedroom. Broomsticks nailed to each corner of the bed tethered a mosquito net. I didn’t recognize the furniture. I wondered whether my books and toys might still be behind those closet doors after I begrudgingly closed them fifty-three years earlier. We walked past the bathroom. I recognized the familiar sink where I watched Papi shave. The green porcelain toilet bowl was devoid a toilet seat, and the top of the tank was missing. Absent the soap, shaving brush and razor, the shelf below the mirror over the sink looked the same, but now supported a lone wooden hairbrush with missing bristles. What was my parents’ bedroom was neat but sparsely furnished. A bed and a rocking chair I didn’t recognize. My little brother’s bed was gone. Where once an image of the Virgin of El Cobre hung, a poster of a generic landscape clung from a single nail above the bed.
My daughter stepped ahead of me into the kitchen. It was as plain and neat as I remember it. Missing were the short wave radio and the dining room table. A few dented pots and pans lay prone on a cloth on the counter. I recalled the odor of boiling salted codfish permeating the house, like when Mami used to make it every Wednesday, without fail. Not this Wednesday. The aroma was imagined. There was no food in sight and the pantry looked devoid. I stepped around dirt and tile shards bordering a hole in the terrace where it appeared the plumbing had had some recent emergent surgical intervention. Looking out the roofed terrace into the back yard, the sour-orange tree my grandmother had planted was replaced by a partially dilapidated one-room shack. The flowers she so loved were gone.
On the way out, the side courtyard where Papi used to rock me was bare. The hammock was gone. One rusty eyebolt from which it hung remained. The whole “tour” lasted less than five minutes. My head throbbed with melancholy, anger, remorse, self-pity, then catharsis. It was an odd feeling, like thinking I was about to eat a pickle in the darkness, but it turns out it was an oreo cookie I bit into. I thanked the kind lady. I told her Mami and Papi would be glad that she had given great love to the house all these years. I hugged her and wished her well, then stepped out to the sidewalk.
We turned the corner onto San Gabriel. Where once Papi’s grocery store stood, was now a barren lot. The driver said the building had been torn down years ago. I wrapped my face in my hands. As we drove down the street, the sidewalks seemed a lot narrower than I remembered them.
Ricardo Jose Gonzalez-Rothi is an academic physician for over three decades and a newcomer to creative writing. A busy career has not deterred him from his love of the written word and the magic of the tale. He has had his work featured in Acentos Review, Heal Literary Magazine, Gainesville Magazine and the Journal Chest. He has an upcoming non-fiction piece in Biostories.
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Until Death Do I Part
By Megan Hoelscher
I sit alone on my balcony, underneath this year’s Harvest Moon, which has risen in mid-September to a golden globe of soft light. A streetlamp in front of me competes with the moon’s glow. The sounds of the busy highway ricochet off the cluster of these apartment buildings and the concrete parking lot below. A skunk has left its scent on one of the wooded trails nearest me. I have chosen to ponder my existence here this evening.
I am caught up in my loneliness and my grief only in moments like these when I take inventory of what a woman my age should have accomplished at this point in her life according to societal standards. In truth I have made my choices. I have repeated mantras of my own belittling words that have kept me small and stuck to imagined obligations of what an English teacher, a good daughter, a bossy big sister, an eccentric aunt, and unmarried woman should act and look like. I should not forget that I also have struck out on my own. I have done my best to blaze my own trail, camping out at this stage in my life in an apartment complex tucked into a hillside of the surrounding landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I am working on letting my old thoughts and words die. They have acted like a broken record inside of my brain for too long.
I moved from the Midwest this past summer, uprooting myself from everything and everyone I’ve ever known, and resettled in the green basin of Western North Carolina surrounded by her ancient mountains.
The oppressive heat and humidity of Illinois did not drive me away. Nor did I move because I resigned from my high school English teaching job of 16 years. Nor did I move because I sold my large three bedroom, two bath, all brick home in an affluent neighborhood. The only explanation for my exodus is that I was called by some ephemeral dream that hovered in my consciousness right before the dawn.
In this dream there is an old woman with long white hair. She is resting on a four-poster bed covered in white linens. White flower petals surround her. The bed is in the middle of a clover field. Tall, leafy trees, luminous moss, and a mix of slick and feathery ferns surround the field. She both intrigues and frightens me. What does she want? Why is she beckoning? I sense there is something inside of me struggling to break free and she has the key. I step forward and she disappears. She is now deep in a cave and then in a dark hollowed out grotto of a rotting tree. I must walk through darkness to get to her. I have no source of light, yet I instinctively know light will be provided if I just take that first step towards her. I hesitate. She is both death and life to me, and I’m not sure I fully want either.
Maybe I am simply having a midlife crisis and my decision to move is just that: a random decision to try something new. To get out of my rut and to take myself off the bell-to-bell schedule. To leave behind my need to use the restroom in the five minutes between my next class. To walk away from a crowded hallway of teenagers who text or listen to their music on cell phones, staying connected to their social media and disconnected from their social graces.
I am 41 and my body is starting to show signs of “The Change”. My skin sometimes flakes off like powder when I take off my jacket or brush up against the curtains I open in the morning. My dark brown hair is manufactured out of a bottle and painted on by my beautician every six weeks. She covers the silvery cascades of age, a sign I am marching closer towards death. I found two pencil dots of dark pigmentation on my left cheek the other day. My mother calls them “age spots” and I’ve also heard them referred to as “liver spots”. In any case, they will not leave the spot they have marked and appear as speckled paint on a drying canvas.
Acne pops up on my face. My joints ache more than usual. My connective tissue crackles and crunches in the mornings and whenever I bend down to pick something off the floor. I feel dizzy when I stand up sometimes. My thoughts haze over like the mists on these mountains, lifting only when I have poured myself a cup of coffee or have awakened from a short nap. I have had night sweats on occasion and had to peel myself out of my clothes and then out of the bed just to dry off before falling back asleep.
All of these aging symptoms are alarming when they happen, but they creep up on me ever so slowly. I do my best not to become so wrapped up in the decimation of my body by hormones. I’ve been through physical change before: all of those years as a pre-pubescent girl who became devastated and confused at those intervals she began to ripen into a young woman. Here it is in a reverse order. Maybe the inner, intricate, microscopic material that is at work in my own decomposition is also the prompting for me to make this drastic change and turn my life upside down and move away from all and everyone I’ve ever known. “Go now while you still have a chance! Run! Flee! Be free!” my body screams to me. So, I turned in my letter of resignation, sold my house and as many belongings as I could, and headed towards these mountains. Mystery beckoned me at a biological level.
I stayed in one place far too long. I fell into a trap by never allowing myself to be free from the archetype of an old school marm with wrinkles around her eyes, hair wrapped tightly in a bun, and a shirt buttoned up past her clavicles. My paycheck did not include the expected overtime of grading papers on Sunday evenings or chaperoning a school dance. My mind did not permit me to think of a life outside of the school system. I continually repeated high school over and over again for sixteen years. The only difference was that my students stayed the same age and I kept getting older. I have no husband. No boyfriend. No partner to lean on and share my frustrations and joys with. No child in whom I can see my younger self reflected. My biological clock is ticking so quickly that I feel it may stroke out over a loss at coupling and reproducing. I married myself to my teaching job instead. I stayed up late at night worrying about someone else’s son or daughter and I never got busy making one of my own.
With that recognition, my body tightened and encased itself in bitterness and regret. My eyes looked out the windows of a beautiful day while I chained myself to a school desk. Had I always repeated myself to young ears that were tired of hearing me talk? Some vital part of me was dying and I was permitting it. I did not feed my desires. I did not listen to the call of my body. I denied myself most sexual pleasures and sensual delights. I kept putting others’ needs first in hopes that as soon as I made them happy I could then go out into the world and make myself happy. I listened to my 16 year old student tell me about her fears of wanting to have sex with her boyfriend, afraid to ask her mother to make her a doctor’s appointment, or to go to Planned Parenthood to get on the pill. I watched as teenagers in love would pet each other, lean into one another, and linger too long in the hallway as they watched their beloved walk into his or her next class. I envied their freedom to express their desires so visibly in front of others.
Here on my balcony or on a hiking trail along the Swannanoa River, I catch glimpses of that past life. I realize that all of my old selves, from childhood to yesterday, have died and been memorialized in capsules of images and emotions that float through me at random times.
I am haunted and revisited by those memories. And why shouldn’t I be? Memories are the hallmark of the tiny deaths we go through to stay alive and to transform into our wholeness. They act as threads on which we can pull in hopes of revealing more of our underlying story. Tug on them enough and they can tell the story of our lives. Stash them away and they lay dormant until they are ready to flood our brains or link up with our emotions and flow through our bodies. Some random melody in an elevator or scent on a hiking trail can float into our consciousness at any moment and trigger an image from childhood or a difficult relationship. They dislodge from some tucked away spot inside of us and awaken our inner world.
The other day, I received my temporary North Carolina driver’s license and purchased my out of state license plate. The slip of paper and the piece of metal are markers that I moved far away from the blue Midwestern sky. All of my previous memories are connected to the cornfields, pasturelands, and woodlands of my youth. I signed my name on the official form and I felt like I had given up a part of my identity. In my mind, I was still the gangly 16-year-old who became nervous making left-hand turns in her 1978 AMC Hornet her parents bought for $500.
In a Kundalini Yoga class at the local yoga studio, I rested in sivasana, corpse pose. As the music drifted from the speakers and the teacher’s voice faded away, I felt a wave of light move over my eyes. In a flash I was a 10-year-old girl standing outside of the car at the small town airport where my father worked. The sun was shining brightly on my face and I saw the silhouette of my father as he walked into the office to pick up his paycheck. Clover and dandelions dotted the grassy spot that ran alongside the concrete runway and chain link fence. When I sat up for meditation, two tears slid down my cheeks and I tasted their saltiness as they seeped into my parted lips.
These memories of mine dance in between my waking hours and mundane activities. I see an old flame’s face pop up on my social media feed and I can still feel his tender yet passionate kiss. He pressed his lips so tightly on mine that the only way to breathe was to fall into him instead of pulling away. At a job interview I am asked to give a scenario where I handled conflict between an administrator, colleague, or a coworker. All of my anger rises to my throat and heats my ears when I think of the assistant principal who broke union rules and insulted me in front of others. I put a spin on the story. I decide to keep it general. I leave out all the nuances and details. My teaching career has been over a little less than three months. I have not processed the grief from that memory, and many others from that time period. It is too fresh. Too raw. I cannot handle its wildness, so I tread the surface and stuff it down inside of me and cross my fingers that I get called back for a final interview.
On another day, I walk my dog on the Mountain to Sea Trail and inhale the sweet scent of the decomposing leaves. I stop to rub the tips of my fingers along the soft pelted fur of gathering moss. Instantly, I am standing at the edge of my childhood woods. My cloth tennis shoes crunch along the gravel road behind my house. They hit damp, dark soil as I enter into the embrace of the oaks, maples, hickories, and thicket. The tall, wispy grass growing alongside native plants on this morning’s trail transforms into the grass of my childhood. I can almost feel the soft, cool grass that lived under the maple tree in the front yard of my childhood home. Grass that lived in the shade and dappled sunlight of summer, not too different from what I see before me. Grass that made friends with the roly-poly bugs and large ants that crawled over and under it. Grass that came right up to the edge of the peeling and chipping blue paint that covered the concrete front porch of 1011 South Pembroke Street. That grass. Those bugs. That tree. All dead now, but alive with me in this moment.
Tonight, on my balcony, all of these realities become blurry as I encounter my former selves through sporadic images. Snapshots only made possible by those moment-to-moment deaths that propelled me into new skin, new bones, new growth. I see my six-year-old self squint when her father takes a picture of her in fresh Easter whites and a big straw hat. The maple tree’s shade is of no use to her early that morning as the sun sprays into her eyes. The maple tree does not judge her when she wears her Wonder Woman Underoos to splash in the kiddie pool and her cousins mock her when the soaked costume underwear reveals her tiny behind. I realize I am not as much haunted by my memories as much as I am comforted by them even when they carry a twinge of bittersweet melancholy.
And whatever became of the old woman in my dreams? She is still there, but now she dons a brown cloak and carries a walking stick. I have no idea how I have reached her. Maybe I have found her on one of the hiking trails along these mountains. I must have followed her through the dark cave or stuck my head into the hollowed out trees in search of her. In either case, she is not as fearsome as I once believed. Her toothless smile morphs into a crescendo of sweet laughter. I have been a silly child for I can see she is a benevolent trickster. She stands by the creek’s edge and pulls out a black sack. I am standing beside her now, no longer afraid. She opens the sack and pours its contents into the running stream. Out pours golden coins. I start to cry. She points at them as they pile up on the rounded stones in the creek bed. A few get loose and roll into the stream and sink to the bottom. Still, golden coins keep pouring out. There seems to be no end to them. I look at her and she gently laughs in a nurturing, knowing way. She nods at the coins with her big crooked nose and turns and shines her twinkling eyes in my direction. “Mirth,” she cackles. I look at the stream and I see that the coins are a mixture of my tears. My memories. My life. A new way of being.
Megan is a writer and yoga instructor in Asheville, NC. She blends poetic elements with memoir in her creative nonfiction to evoke images and emotions. Her work has been published in Cantos literary magazine and St. Louis Audubon journal. She spends her free time hiking in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains.
* * *
By Elizabeth Jaeger
Through the drawn blinds the afternoon sun slips into my room. Despite the late spring warmth, I pull the comforter over my head. Sweat pools around my skin, sinking into sheets that shroud me. I’m not ill. I have no temperature, no real symptoms, just fatigue and an unbearable heaviness that presses down on me making it difficult to move. I arch my neck to glance at the bedside clock: 3:27 pm.
I hate working the late shift. The store closes at ten but re-shelving books, organizing the stock room and tidying up take nearly an hour. By the time I descend into the bowels of Manhattan to catch the subway it is nearing eleven. And once I get to my stop, I either have to wait an eternity for a bus that never runs on time or I can walk forty minutes to my door. I nearly always chose to walk, especially at night when the streets are deserted and the city lights cast an eerie glow across the neighborhood. It is as if I entered an altered reality, one I can live with, one in which I’m not a stranger.
I didn’t get to bed until nearly one, but even so sleeping this late is absurd. And even now that I am awake I’ve no desire to get up. I am off today so it does not matter if I rise at all. I glance at my desk and my computer seems to mock me. Sundays are supposed to be my writing day, the day I can pretend that I am a writer, that I am something other than a store clerk. But these last two weeks, my words have turned into silence. I sit down, spread my fingers over the keyboard and my mind freezes, thoughts suspended in a void I am unable to reach. I have no story.
I envy anyone with an imagination - men and women who can create new worlds, spin fascinating tales, and sculpt characters who are more real than I could ever hope to be. And so I draw, or attempt to draw from my own life, but aside of a trip to Nepal and my acquaintance with a young boy in Kathmandu, I’ve nothing interesting to say. The proof sits in the lower drawer on the right side of my desk, a stack of impersonal letters, rejections for picture books, a novel and one short story. I had started to tape them to my walls, but a friend, finding it overwhelmingly morbid pulled them down. “To surround yourself with negativity is to ensure that you will fail.”
Two days ago, I sifted through the mail to find another self addressed envelope, so thin it appeared to be empty. I tore it open and out fell a form letter - a sheet of paper 4x6 and folded in half. I wondered, did anyone even read my story? It didn’t matter. Ultimately, I know it doesn’t matter. I have felt this way before, even when I haven’t felt hopeless about my work. The rejection just exacerbates my emotions. A bit of validation might not prevent me from downing but it might toss me a life preserver, something to keep me afloat, at least until the next wave, the next silent storm.
My stomach rumbles but I do not feel hungry. The sound reaches my ears as if coming from a distant source, one far removed from myself. I am, however, thirsty and so reluctantly I peel back the covers and let my feet fall to the floor. The momentum props up my body but the pull of gravity is too strong and the effort of walking down the stairs and into the kitchen exhausts me. In the kitchen, I turn on the faucet and fill a glass with water. Thankfully, my parents aren’t home. They have a second house, which they visit frequently, leaving me alone, home to sleep or cry depending on the day.
At twenty-four I am too old to be living at home. With a college degree, I should be doing more than shelving books. And my mother doesn’t miss an opportunity to remind me of this - the money wasted on my education, the squandered expectations and her disappointment that I have amounted to so little. I am good with children and so they want me to teach. I want to write, but it is a fool’s goal. There is no money in writing, there is no future. Teaching would be secure - it would pay the bills, enable me to move out. But the thought of teaching is like a plastic bag being pressed against my face. I hated school as a child, being trapped in a classroom where I never fit in and never felt smart enough. To give in, to teach would be to resign myself to failure, “Those who can’t do…” But living at home is no better.
I return the glass to the counter, open the drawer and reach for a steak knife. Turning it over in my hand, I lightly run my fingers across the blade. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about using it. I think about how it would feel slicing into my skin, cutting away the pain, the disappointment, but the sight of blood makes me squeamish. I am completely impotent. My inability to act chastises me.
Reluctantly, I return the knife to the drawer, cursing my weakness, wishing, as I had wished numerous time before, that I were someone else, someone with courage, intelligence or confidence. Back in my room, I look at my phone and see that I have a voice message. Friends are getting together for dinner in Manhattan and they called to invite me. I should go. Getting out of the house would be good, talking to them might help but the thought of showering, dressing and then trekking into SoHo is too overwhelming. Ignoring the invite, I pick up a book about Eva Peron, and I sit down to read it. But the words shift on the page and my mind wanders. I don’t know where it goes. I can’t follow it as it travels down various side roads. Reaching the end of the page, I know not what I have read, nor can I account for thoughts that have woven their way through my head. It is like looking at a TV screen and seeing nothing but static. A persistent buzz fills my ears and I want to cry. I try again, but four attempts at comprehending one page is too much. What is the purpose of reading if I get nothing out of it? With nothing left to do I go back to bed, pull the comforter over my head to block out the light and soon I fall back asleep.
My alarm wakes me at seven. My parents had returned home the previous night and so I get up with my alarm, trying to ignore the heaviness, the lethargy that pins me to my bed. If I don’t get up, they will be more critical. Not having a “real” job has labeled me, in their eyes, as being lazy. To not get up, to call in sick, to relive yesterday, would lend credence to that opinion. And so I smile, a false smile, as I put on my running shoes. If I don’t run they will grow suspicious, and I don’t want them to ask questions or rather I don’t want to answer them. I don’t want to be held accountable. I just want to be left alone.
I run around the cemetery. It’s the route that makes the most sense, the route that requires me to cross the least amount of streets. I look through the green wrought iron fence at the headstones meticulously lined up. My friend, my best friend, is buried there. She died last year. A car accident. I still miss her. She knew more of my secrets than anyone; to her and her alone I could be honest. I visit often. It is easy to talk to a stone, it is almost meditative, as if my issues belong to someone else. There is also a queer sense of peace that fills me when I am there. But I always leave feeling lonelier than when I arrived. A part of me still expects to hear her voice and without her advice I am lost.
With the cemetery continuously at my side, it is impossible not to think of death. If I died I wouldn’t have to think all, and that thought greatly appeals to me. I get to a light and I don’t bother to look as I cross the street. A car stops short. The sound of a horn pierces my ears and I ignore the swear words that assault me.
Sweat beads up on my forehead. I increase my speed, pushing my muscles until pain tears at my legs. When I run, the heaviness that presses down upon me disperses. The sharper the pain, the lighter I feel. Why didn’t I run yesterday? The thought passes through my mind and to erase it, I sprint the final block.
“You’re up early,” my mother comments when I open the door.
“I have work,” I respond, careful not to look too closely at her face. I don’t want to see the flicker of disappointment, the way her eyes crinkle and glare at me. But the disappointment is unavoidable in the tone of her voice, in the question I’m tired of hearing.
“Why don’t you look into teaching?” I am tired of that question.
Because I want to be a writer! But I don’t have the courage to speak those words aloud. Instead I answer, “I need to take a shower.”
I step passed her and go upstairs. As I rummage through my drawers for something to wear, the mirror above my dresser taunts me. I step closer, peering into the glass. Who are you? I ask, but the words just bounce back to me. And in the silence that follows, the voice in my head whispers, “You are nobody.”
My swiss army knife has been sitting untouched on my dresser for months. I open a blade. I don’t have the nerve to slice a vein, but still I press the blade against the side of my wrist wanting to know what it would feel like. I close my eyes and the metal bites into my flesh. It is a short shallow slash, but deep enough that blood seeps to the surface. It doesn’t come close to killing me, but it doesn’t hurt either. It almost tickles, and for a moment I feel better.
I gather my things, take a shower, and eat a quick breakfast. By the time I step outside and walk a block to the bus station the heaviness returns. I slept so long but it wasn’t enough. In my pocket my hand clutches my knife, as a child clings to a teddy bear. I don’t intend on using it, but its presence grounds me, reminds me that I have a choice.
On the bus I try to read, but like yesterday I have no focus. My eyes bounce to the window and the passing treetops are almost hypnotic. On the train, I stare at the ads, and wonder how much business each of them generates. I try, but I can’t stop thinking about death. I want to die. Disappear. I don’t want to dream any more. The devastation of my dreams, my inability to attain them, hurts too much. I want to give up. I want to be at peace, no longer a loser. But my death would devastate my parents. And can’t do that to them. Always it’s about them, about someone else’s happiness, never my own. My mother’s tears, her devotion to me, her struggle to let me go bind my hands. I am trapped.
When the train crosses into Manhattan the conductor announces that due to construction the R train will be running along the E track. The inconvenience is minor. Instead of getting off at 8th Street, I’ll have to get off at West 4th and walk over the Astor Place, but I like to walk.
While walking, my fingers stroke the knife as if trying to conjure up a genie. I need to make a wish. Hope! I just need hope, or so I have been told. Along the way I pass STA, a travel agency. Posted in the window are various destinations - Delhi, Jakarta, Bangkok, Rome, Athens, Lima, Rio de Janeiro - and the round trip fares. I pause, unable to move. My eyes anchoring my body to the earth. A new path has just opened up. I haven’t gone anywhere since my four month journey through Nepal and India, nearly two years ago. If I go away, if I take a long trip, I can disappear without finality. I open the door and step inside. Briefly, I consult with an agent. I weigh my options - Asia or Latin America - flip a coin and then hand over my credit card, purchasing a plane ticket to Thailand. I still can’t smile, but at least I no longer feel as if I might cry.
Elizabeth Jaeger has recently earned an MFA degree in creative writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her work has been published in Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has also published book reviews in TLR Online.
* * *
By Monique Kluczykowski
Detachment, Dr. Sorah says, causes floaters to drift across my lens, but reversed—what I see are only shadows of blood, the bits of vitreous crumbling, pulling away from the retina like a stubborn hard-boiled egg refusing to be neatly peeled. To know my eyes are inwardly peeling, to see the world through black lace curtains whose patterns shift daily is punishment of sorts, I think—a storm in a shaken snow globe that may settle. Or not.
Two days before it happened, I was out running. My music stopped and I did not. The fall not terrible, a few scrapes on hands and knee, a fuller sense of embarrassment. Then the night when the flashes appeared in my right eye when I looked from the sofa to the kitchen, and dark curlicues broke loose on the page I was reading.
My daughter took me to the local hospital’s ER, fearing I was having a stroke. Texts to my long-distance boyfriend, who is a nurse, everyone worried. A CT showed no stroke, though the neurologist was angry that my GP had prescribed birth control pills to manage my periods. A possible retinal detachment seemed like a relief. The ophthalmologist on call refused to come in and I was referred to the eye center at Emory. I later learned I could have lost my sight had the retina actually torn that night.
No one knew about the referral at Emory, so my daughter and I waited for hours until someone could be found.
Once the exam began, I wished no one had been found. The eyes are dilated to an extreme degree, and you wait. Then they numb your eye with a cotton swab that you must keep under your lid for minutes, hours, centuries. They remove it. You wait some more. After that, they must depress the eyelids with a metal instrument like a spatula, applying hard pressure to see past the curvature of the eyeball. My daughter nearly passes out.
Blue-yellow flashes in my right eye equal the brain interpreting pain. No pain. No peripheral vision there. Merging on interstates is a nightmare. No surgery can repair the shreds, though lasers are possible. I imagine the surgeon pow-pow-powing away at the debris—an intra-ocular battle. Dr. Sorah warns it could be worse after, and fuzzy vision seems better than none at all.
Forbidden to run, ride horses, jump from planes, now I long for parachutes. Though I could be sitting on the sofa when it happens. The hardening vitreous will tug, tug, tug, and pull away a chunk of retina. An opaque black cloud will descend, a velvet curtain, and my window is 24 hours. After that, vision is unlikely to be restored. Only then, after it actually tears, will the surgeon go in. A gas bubble will be inserted to press the vitreous against the retina, to retain the shape of the eye. I will need to lie flat, face-down for 6 weeks. China and Australia are no longer viable travel options.
It’s not too bad, I say to people, though commas and periods on computer screens defeat me, and I must take the bus after dark. Still, I now understand what Van Gogh saw in that restless sky above the flame-like cypresses.
Monique Kluczykowski is a first-generation immigrant and poet whose work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her most recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in StepAway Magazine, Rabble, The Magnolia Review, and The Medical Literary Messenger.
* * *
The Most Important Thing About Fishing
By Jonathan Litten
“Over there,” he yelled, motioning to a little clearing where the mountain dropped into the river. “That’s where we’re gonna’ catch your fish.”
I flashed him the best smile I could.
“You all right?”
As we neared the steep, a breeze lifted and glided across our faces. The morning glow sunk into the bending water and then rose up and scattered across the breaking shoals. It splashed and shimmered against the rocks spraying white then clear into the sky, catching like diamonds.
“Where are we gonna’ put our stuff?” I inquired as I steadied myself against the steep grade.
“Here,” he said, grabbing and shifting my gear. “The water pulls harder than it looks. Let me go first and watch how I cross,” he added as he finished nestling my rod into the holding straps on my back pack.
After crossing, he waved me to the other side where the mountain relaxed and stretched into a tranquil flat. I held the rod and bag above my head and waded into the water which tugged steadily against my waist. I stumbled and lost my footing but regained balance and made it to the other side without losing anything.
“I almost lost it.”
“I told you to be careful. Come on. Let me tie your fly.”
I knew Mom put him up to asking me on this trip. We hadn’t fished together in over thirty years, since we were kids. Even then, he did most of the fishing. I was never patient enough.
“Here, hold this,” he commanded as he busied himself preparing the gear. While I watched him work, I started to half glance at the river and let the slack on the line go causing him to fumble the fly.
“Shit. My bad.”
“Damnit. Pay attention.”
I was glad he didn’t shy away from scolding me. The rest of the family had been acting spooked ever since I got home. While he returned his attention to tying the fly, I studied the long gray hairs mingled with the brown ones nestled beneath his hat. He was grayer than me, but not by much.
“Damn. Your hair is gray.”
He laughed and smiled. “So is yours.”
“Look, professor. I don’t go fishing to think about shit. I go fishing to not think about shit. Don’t get philosophical on me.”
We waded into the water silently. Between the two of us, I usually considered myself the more contemplative one, but in the water, beneath the quiet morning sun, my brother’s movements and concentration were devout, austere, nothing wasted, nothing added. He cast without pageantry. Under his narrow gaze, each movement connected to the next. As I watched him, he settled into a deep meditation, or a long poem, the likes of which I could never compose.
The water lightened and cleared as the sun moved overhead and above the ridgeline. I found a still, rippling pool and tried to cast to it, missing terribly each time. I kept it up as long as I could, feigning my pantomime of casting, reeling, and re-casting.
After an hour or so, all my romantic fantasies about nature began to collapse beneath my impatience. In truth, I had never been much closer to nature than reading Walden, never beyond my idealizations. That's the essential plight of quietism: stealing someone else’s experiences and insights for your own. In practice, nature terrified me. And for all my introversion, so did solitude.
Finally, I gave up and motioned to him that I was taking a break. I could see the disappointment in his shoulders, but he didn’t say anything. He just shrugged and pushed further upstream, closer to the faster water.
Back on the river bank, I contented myself for a while with snacks and a slim volume of poetry, lifting my head every few lines to think or not to think, closing my eyes here and again. A couple hours later, I heard the water sloshing with the sound of waders dragging towards the shore. I kept my eyes closed to give the impression of total contentment and relaxation. I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t enjoying myself, that I didn’t appreciate the gesture. When he got close enough, I looked up and shaded my eyes from the white glare behind him.
“You give up?” He asked.
“Naw. Just pacing myself.”
“Well, the better part of the fishing day is done now.”
“Throw me one of those sandwiches.”
We ate silently. After a while, I told him I could see why he liked coming out here so much. He half-listened while his mind drifted to thoughts of the fish he hadn’t caught yet and how he might catch them still. We got full on sandwiches and lounged on the bank. I knew he would hate it, but I asked anyway. “Do you remember Mom and Dad? I mean, from before, the four of us?”
After a moment, and a little sigh, he replied, “Yah. I guess. Why?”
“I don’t know. I’ve tried to remember. I remember that old kitchen table where we used to eat dinner, and I can see the huge bay window that looked into the backyard, but I can’t remember if I sat in the chair facing it or away from it? I think Dad was to my left, but when I try to imagine him sitting there, I can’t picture Mom at the same table. It’s like my mind can’t place both of them in the same memory, let alone the four of us together.”
“How come you never talk about things?”
“That was thirty years ago. Why would I keep dwelling on it? That’s all you do. You take things and just dwell on them. Who did that ever help? When did that ever make anything better? Dwelling. Thinking. Talking.” As he spoke, his eyes widened and he lifted his hands in inquisition.
“Things don’t just go away,” I replied with unusual conviction. “If I could just fish and be happy, I would. But fishing doesn’t change anything for me.”
“Then why did you come?”
“Why did you invite me?”
“I was trying to help you.”
“I know,” I replied.
We sat for a while longer. Each trying to ignore the other as the morning cool evaporated in the afternoon heat. Far off, the trees rustled. Overhead, the clouds broke open and spread to the horizon.
Finally, he spoke. “You know that time you got into a fight with the kid from the neighborhood behind the house?” Of all my hazy, fragmented memories, this one remained unusually vivid.
The fight happened because I smacked this boy’s younger brother on the head. Naturally, fighting seemed like the only way to resolve the incident. Before I squared off to fight the other kid’s older brother, my brother assured me he would help defend me if I needed it. “I got your back,” he assured me.
The other boy dropped me with a single punch and I ended up curled into a ball in the grass with a bloody nose, pleading through my tears for my brother to avenge me. Looking back, we were probably all in shock. Up to that point our neighborhood fights were always more wrestling than boxing. Rarely, if ever, did we hit one another, let alone hit each other in the face.
“I always felt bad about that.”
I wondered for a moment if he would continue. This was the first time he had ever spoken about anything from our past, from our childhood. It took me a while to say anything. The surprise of his confession drifted out and mixed with the late afternoon dim.
“That was the first fight I ever got in. My first real fight. I didn’t think you remembered that.”
“I remember,” he replied, gazing out at the river, eyes following it from where we stood to the place it curved and disappeared. “I should have helped you,” he added. With that, he slung his pouch across his chest, grabbed his rod and walked back into river, moving out of earshot.
I sat for a moment and then followed him out towards the shady cove. We staggered behind one another in a wide berth and he pointed to a place where the water doubled back and pooled into itself.
As I pulled out my line to cast, I tried to imitate his graceful rhythm. In a single motion, I swung the rod behind me, pulled the line out, and flicked my wrist towards the swirling water. Foot by foot, the line curled across the surface of the river, falling delicately in the very center where I had aimed. Just as it grazed the water, I felt a gentle tug. I reared back to set the hook. Once it set, the line ripped off the reel, hissing and spinning.
“Let it run. Let it run,” My brother shouted. After the line pulled for what seemed like forever, he yelled again, “Okay. Okay. Now reel.”
At once, I clasped the reel and began spinning it forward, winding furiously. I dug my feet into the river bottom, pulling my arms to my chest as I reeled, the rod bowing into a deep arch. My brother pushed his way towards me with the hand net. I saw a quick flash of silvery green and yellow flitting back and forth a few feet in front of me at the end of my line.
“Steady now,” he called.
After grabbing the fish from the net, I knelt down and held it just above the water with my arms thrust triumphantly forward like I had seen him do in all his pictures. Behind me the steep slant of the mountains smoldered dusky orange and glistened like an oil painting. Once we got the hook out, the fish darted back into the watery blue. Still beaming from my catch, I watched my brother trudging back to the shore.
“Wait, I’m just getting started,” I pleaded.
“Yah,” he said, smiling, “but the most important thing to know about fishing is when to quit.”
Jonathan completed his B.S. in English Education at Kennesaw State University. He currently teaches at Southwestern Academy in San Marino, California.
* * *
The Cry Room
By Amanda Noble
The sky was thick with monsoon-season clouds, adding humidity to the already high temperatures that came without respite during the never-ending summers in Phoenix. I was 11 and the weather could be forgotten if I was able to find shade to sit in. The clouds that darkened the mid-afternoon sky excited me because they promised rain, and that meant we could run around outside soaking our clothes and bodies, screaming while we watched the lightening fill the sky and heard the thunder roar. I wasn’t sure it would rain but I hoped for it while I sat in the shade under the carport; another summer day with little to do.
My next-door neighbor, Pam, just a year older than me, wandered over and joined me under the carport. Pam suggested that we that we walk to the new Catholic church. Her family, like so many of the families in my neighborhood, attended the church that was within walking distance. Because of our neighborhood’s proximity to an elementary school, just a little over a block away, and a high school just a little further on, the development was geared to feed those institutions. Many little baby boomers from my neighborhood would attend those schools. The church was well-located as another neighborhood institution. It was a short walk, just beyond the elementary school, but not as far as the high school.
I looked at Pam, asking, "Are my clothes okay?"
"Sure," she said.
I wore gray shorts and a sleeveless pink blouse with a Peter Pan collar, red Keds on my feet. Pam wasn’t dressed for church either; she wore blue petal pushers, with a white t-shirt and white sneakers. I didn’t tell my mother we were going to visit the church, knowing that as long as I was back by six o’clock straight up for dinner, there was no problem with our wandering. In this era, parents often had no idea where their children were and didn’t much care so long as we showed up for dinner. Our lives were quite free: we walked, ran, skated and biked around the neighborhood, sometimes gone for hours.
As we walked to the church, a small breeze kicked up dust. The neighborhood, and the landscaping, was new. Lawns were being installed, but in a few yards, nothing held the dirt back from flying in dusty whirlwinds. Beyond the elementary school, the sidewalks came to an abrupt halt; we walked on loosely packed dirt shoulders that abutted the road, the oncoming traffic stirring up the dirt. The Spanish colonial-style church with a peaked red-tiled roof looked somehow proper in the desert landscape; it was an example of the mission-style architecture found throughout the west. Pam pulled and pulled on one of the church’s massive wooden doors until it opened enough for us to enter. I nearly ran into her when she stopped abruptly near a shallow bowl resting on a pillar, dipping her index finger and using it to draw the shape of a cross on her forehead.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"It’s holy water and will protect me." Pam said.
"Can I use some, too?"
"No, you’re not Catholic." I wanted to be protected, too, and the church with its exclusionary rules already seemed unfair. Everything was strange here; an unfamiliar world. Our family went to an Episcopalian church and I didn’t yet to understand the difference between the two religions.
"Let’s go look at the Stations of the Cross. I’ll explain them to you." Pam’s voice was clearly excited.
The Stations depicted the crucifixion of Jesus. Beginning at the first station, which portrayed Jesus being condemned to death, Pam named the others who surrounded him. I was not familiar with biblical figures and only half-listened to her story. Instead I stared at the high ceilings with their wooden beams, and at the stained-glass windows, their colors bright and in intricate patterns; providing me relief from looking at figures from the bible. The second station showed Jesus carrying the large cross on which he would later be nailed. Jesus fell at the third station. He met his mother at the fourth station.
At the fifth station painting, where a man helped Jesus carry the cross, we were joined by a strange man, who man stood close to us and whispered, asking questions. His whispering didn’t seem strange; everyone whispers in churches. He was slim, seemed tall, had dark brown hair and wore large glasses. I was not very good at judging age but guessed that he was about 50. He looked older than my dad. "What are your names," he asked, then bolted to the next question before we could answer. "Can I join your tour?" he asked, smiling, aiming the question at Pam.
I felt him staring at our bodies, mostly Pam’s. I showed few signs of developing breasts or hips, but soon would beg my mother for a bra anyway. Most of the other girls already wore bras and gym class mortified me, dressing and undressing without a bra. Pam had small but prominent breasts that were not contained by a bra.
I didn’t like this. Why would a grown man want to take a tour led by a child? He stood far too close to us, made me feel crowded. I knew Pam would agree to let him join us because she was a good Catholic girl. I caught her eye, shook my head no and widened my eyes, trying my best to indicate she should not agree. But, of course, she agreed. The next painting on this side of the church was a depiction of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. I completely tuned out Pam’s description this station to the man. My heart began to race, watching him watch her.
We walked through two more illustrations, one of woman, wiping Jesus’s face; the other of a second fall. Pam’s narration became shorter, more hurried. Having seen half of the stations, we walked past the massive altar. A huge gold metal figure of Jesus on the cross took the place of prominence. The two niches on either side of him contained a smaller statue of Mary and one of St. Thomas, for whom the church was named. St. Thomas was a Dominican scholar and was considered the patron saint of students and universities.
Pam explained the backstage goings on; where priests left their vestments, altar boys changed into and out of their costumes, wine blessed. We headed for the other side of the room where the final paintings hung, when the man asked, "What’s that?" He referred to a small separate room, away from the pews.
Pam hesitated before answering. "Let’s go look at the last of the paintings."
"Okay," said the man, "but I want to know about that room." He whispered but sounded authoritative, demanding. I didn’t like it. He sounded like dad but he was not my dad.
"It’s the cry room," Pam finally admitted. The man’s eyes lit up.
Pam’s voice shook as she answered. "It’s where mothers take their babies when they cry. It’s built so others can’t hear." I felt tears welling. I think we both knew he would take us there.
"Oh, let’s go sit in there awhile. It will be quiet and we can get to know each other," the man said. He grabbed us by our hands and led us toward the room. I hung back, stretching my arm out as far as it would go. "Come on," he said sternly. In the doorway, I used my other hand to hold on to the door frame. He pulled me aggressively. By now tears were running down my face, but I made no sound, wanting to appear stronger than I felt. There were many metal folding chairs in the room. He sat on one and invited us to sit on opposite sides of him. Nobody spoke. Soon, he grabbed Pam and placed her on his thigh, making soothing noises. He roughly hoisted me on his other thigh, smiling a forced smile.
I didn’t know what he was doing to Pam, but his fingers slid under the hem of my shorts and pushed my underwear aside. He began rubbing me, first slow then fast. It hurt. I looked at Pam and saw similar movements, but his hand entered through the back of her pedal pushers. He seemed far more intent on Pam than me, so I seized the opportunity to jump from his lap and run to the door.
"No!" he yelled, but I was out the door.
I had visions of saving Pam and being a hero, and I ran up and down the aisles lining the pews. Two people bent in prayer ignored me, and I couldn’t work up the courage to confront them with our predicament. So much for saving the day. I would feel guilty for leaving Pam alone with that man for many years to come. I wanted to do something, shout, tap someone on a shoulder. I frantically looked around for a priest, but none were in sight and I suspected I would be afraid to tell them, too. Instead I walked toward the Church’s entry, my heart pounding in my chest, and forced myself not to open the door and flee. I stood by the bowl of holy water and thought about the fact that it hadn’t protected Pam. Soon, she flew down the aisle toward me. I pushed open the door and we slipped out, running as fast as we could. The sun dipped toward the horizon, heightening my fears.
After five or ten minutes of fast running, we stopped to confer. Afraid of running on the road where he could see us, I was looking for some alternative route. Pam disagreed, wanted to run as fast as we could. A simpler plan, we ran our asses off. When we finally reached our block, we did stop. Once this far home, I burst into tears, muttered apologies to Pam. She cried, too. I didn’t dare ask what had happened after I left the cry room. We sat on the sidewalk for a long time. It was past dinnertime and we were both late, our parents must be frantic, but, oddly, I didn’t much care. When the crying stopped, we put our arms around each other.
"Pam," I said, "I can’t tell my parents what happened." I wonder how I knew instinctively that what had happened was so very wrong. "Please don’t tell your parents either."
"Okay," she said, but I sensed a lack of commitment.
"Please?" I received a sad look in response.
We stood and trudged down the block, almost in slow motion, neither of us eager to see our parents. Exhaustion overwhelmed me, a weighty blanket. How I dreaded the rest of the evening. When we reached my house, we hugged again, went our separate ways.
I opened the front door and my dad stood there, hands on hips. "Where have you been?" he asked. His voice was full of hostility.
"With Pam. She wanted to show me the new church. I’m sorry I’m so late."
"We’ve been so worried. We didn’t know what to do. Your mother’s been on the phone with Mary and she’s frantic, too."
"I’m sorry, dad."
"I’m sure there’s some dinner for you."
"No thanks. Not hungry. Going to bed."
I slipped around his body and headed for the room I shared with my sister. I closed the door, changed into my pajamas, collapsed on my bed. I found Teddy, my beat up tiny teddy bear and tried to derive some comfort from him. I could hear my mother talking on the phone; she always used her stage voice on the phone, loud. I turned to the wall, pulled the bedspread over me, and tried to fall asleep. I must have dozed a little because the doorbell woke me up; my heart hammered in response. I stood up and pulled on a sweatshirt, slipped my feet into fuzzy slippers. Glancing at the clock, I noticed it was nearly 10 p.m. Why hadn’t my mom come to comfort me? And where was my sister?
I waited in my room, chewing my fingernails. Finally, a quiet knock.
"Manda, honey?" She opened the door and peered at me. "The police are here." She moved to my bed and put her arm around me. "Pam told her mother what happened."
I hoped that Pam hadn’t told everyone that I was useless, a chicken.
"Let’s go talk to the police. We’ll get this over with so that you can get a good night’s sleep."
We held hands and entered the living room, the least used room in our home. It was the entertainment/cocktail party room, but my parents seldom entertained. When they did we were instructed to remain in our rooms. Mid-century furniture dominated the room: a low slung sectional sofa covered in a silvery fabric with orange and aqua colored pillows, simple vinyl-covered arm chairs and teak lamp tables, a glass topped coffee table strewn with magazines, a mono turntable console. Dad used the room more than anyone. When he felt patriotic, he played military marching music, and whistled as he half-marched around the house. I used the living room to dump prescription medications that were supposed to slide down my throat, but instead, ended up in an air-conditioning/heating grate. I told mom that I hated taking pills so much I needed to be alone.
The policemen wore no uniforms; they were plain-clothed detectives. They asked me to sit and spat questions at me, wanting my story and description of the man. I broke down, the trauma fully realized, and I did a miserable job with my answers between sobs. No way could I describe the man, I knew nothing of his height, really, and had avoided his eyes. When they asked if he had any unusual scars, I stopped crying, closed my eyes and tried to force a memory, but saw no scars. They left within minutes, offering no solace, no referral to counseling. Mom took me back to my room, tucked me in. My sister was asleep in the other bed.
The lightening, thunder and rain came in the middle of the night, when it was too late to be a kid and run outside to play. I barely slept.
Amanda Noble is a sociologist who, frustrated by the constraints of scientific writing, turned her attention to creative non-fiction writing, especially personal essay and memoir. Her work appeared in Seven Hills Review, Indiana Voice, and Eastern Iowa Review, among other publications. She is working on her memoir-in-progress on her Peace Corps experience in the Philippines in the mid-1970s. She lives in Davis, California, with her cat, Lucy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* * *
Destitute Sandlot Baseball
By Lulsa Kay Reyes
When I was little and we lived in Mexico City, my mother decided it was high time my brother and I learned how to play baseball. Her own childhood dream growing up in Carbondale, Illinois had been to be the first female pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. So during my first pitch and catch lesson, I looked at what seemed to me like a big giant ball somewhat timidly. But my mother picked up on my childhood fears. So the first thing she told me during my inaugural baseball lesson was “Don’t be afraid of the ball. Remember, you are the boss. You tell the ball where to go.” Of course, it was easy to be the boss of the ball at the beginning. Since we started off by standing right in front of each other with our big baseball gloves touching while gently practicing placing the ball in the glove of my mother, who was standing right in front of us. However, each time my mother would take a step further back. But with our initial fears thus quelled, my brother and I soon mastered the art of throwing with aim and catching with ease, discovering that it was all quite fun. So much so, that before long, we didn’t mind standing in the middle section of the street in Mexico City with everybody wondering what we were doing. For in Mexico City, baseball was considered strictly an American sport. Sure several Major League players have hailed from Mexico, such as Fernando Valenzuela, but in Mexico City soccer was king, queen, prince and princess.
Many years later, when we lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; I signed up to be a translator for a mission trip my brother’s childhood friend was leading to Nicaragua. It was a medical mission trip and I would be translating for the doctor and his patients. Several people I knew were participating on the trip and I had never been to Nicaragua before. So we all met to sign the required paperwork and looked forward to our spring break journey.
After driving to Louisiana and catching our flight there, we landed in Managua, Nicaragua. And being eager to taste the local cuisine, we soon developed a taste for the “Nacatamales.” The Nicaraguan version of the classic Mexican dish. We also quickly learned that the Nicaraguan Spanish had some local colloquialisms that those of us who were studying Spanish in college hadn’t learned while translating “Don Quixote”. For the first evening, we were made aware that “toallas”, the Spanish word for towel, in Nicaragua referred to the handy pad that women use once a month or so. We all laughed over the misunderstanding. And proceeded to meet some of the locals with whom we would be working the rest of the week.
During one of the first trips around the city that we took, I was sitting in the car with one of the local boys as he pointed out the stadium as we drove past it. With his eyes beaming and his face simply glowing out of delight, he pointed towards it and said to me “That’s where they play baseball!” I was stunned. For having grown up in Mexico City had led me to believe that baseball would be practically unheard of in Nicaragua. Since I and my Latino college friends from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Columbia had frequently discussed some of the differences we noticed between the Spanish speaking world and our experiences in the States. And, of course, we all agreed that Latin America was the land of soccer where everything shuts down during the World Cup season. But, here I was in Nicaragua, with this local fellow explaining to me with much excitement that some of the people who play in the stadium even go on to play baseball in the United States. And before long I realized that while soccer was still very popular in Nicaragua, due to the influence of an American businessman in the 1880s, the locals definitely held baseball in very high esteem.
A couple of days later, we joined one of the local American missionaries to deliver food to one of the places where they provided food for the needy. It was initially intended to just be a courier type of trip, where we dropped off the food and left, since it wasn’t one of the assigned days that they actually gave out the food to the locals. But, once the kids saw us coming, our initially brief stop turned into an impromptu afternoon of play and providing the locals with a few necessaries. At first, I was trying to help the local ladies with the organization of the items and preparing the things that they needed help with. But, the eager little kids soon recruited me to join them in playing baseball. Making sure that they had all the extra hands that they needed first, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to join the youth in their sandlot baseball game. And their simple joy when I agreed to play with them, let me know I had made the right decision.
While they were all filled with joy and thrilled at my participation, my delight in joining the Nicaraguan kids in this all-American game, soon gave way to an element of fear. Yes, fear. While my mother had taught me to not be afraid of the ball during my very first baseball lesson, nothing had ever been explained to me about rocks and stones. For this was a group of kids from a very needy neighborhood and luxuries such as baseball gloves, bats, and cleats were unheard of. What they had was a dreamy like desire to play, coupled with solid rocks and stones.
I quickly learned that the art of playing baseball in this impoverished neighborhood, involved the youngsters forming a fist with their hand to use as a bat. Which they then used to hit the rock that substituted for a baseball. And, yes, to get the players out sometimes, they’d throw the rocks right at them. As fate would have it, the little kids wanted me to go up to bat. And since our trip had a higher calling component to it, I felt it would be rude to decline. So with more than a little trepidation, I stepped up to the makeshift home plate and prepared my fist. Yielding to the fact that they were playing with rocks at least a little bit, the pitcher didn’t throw the ball towards me at the major league 90 to a 100 miles per hour level, but rather lobbed it gently. And I hit it. The kids cheered and immediately sprung into action trying to catch the ball and then throw me out.
I started running towards where I thought the first base might be, since it certainly wasn’t clear. This was after all, destitute sandlot baseball. And because I knew I hadn’t hit the ball very far, I prepared myself emotionally to be thrown out. Sure enough, before long, they threw the grey stone right at me and they didn’t miss. It hurt. Inwardly, I winced. And while under more prosperous sandlot baseball circumstances I would never willingly subject myself to that little bit of pain, outwardly, I laughed with the Nicaraguan locals. As it was all part of good sportsmanship. The rest of the game proceeded with the Nicaraguan kids squealing with delight and enjoying themselves immensely. While I felt both incredulous and charmed. Incredulous that this was what constituted the all-American pastime for these kids and also charmed by the fact that they were so content . . . and so in-love with baseball.
Luisa Kay Reyes enjoys writing and singing opera. Her piece, "Thank You", is the winner of the April 2017 memoir contest of "The Dead Mule School Of Southern Literature". And her Christmas poem was the first place winner of the 16th Annual Stark County District Library Poetry Contest.
* * *
What Darkness Fails to See
By Sarah Scott
I first met Verdeana in fifth grade. I was twelve: she was eleven. We were the most unlikely of friends, drawn together only by our proximity in the apartment complex and our attending the same school. I was the shortest kid in the fifth grade, Verde was the tallest. She had dark, coffee bean eyes. Mine were cornflower blue with navy edges. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders like molten chocolate lava, and no matter how hard I tugged at my brown bob it never quite covered my neck. I was the only other fifth grade girl in our complex and one afternoon Verde challenged me to an arm wrestling match. She won, and that meant I had to be her friend. If I had won, she agreed to teach me Spanish.
Our friendship began the way most friendships do—smoking on the apartment complex playground and walking around after dark when our parents should have been fighting with us over homework. We talked about boyfriends (which she had many of, and which I made up because I had none), and ate frijoles negros and arroz con pollo at the makeshift coffee table in her living room. Spanish sitcoms played on a little color television precariously perched atop stacked, decaying milk crates. We both laughed at the shows, but we had no idea why we thought they were funny.
As the year wore on, our friendship slipped into sleepovers, laying out of school, and sneaking over to her apartment after my mom passed out (drunk) on the sofa. Verde lived with her aunt and uncle, their little baby Juan, and her older cousin Marcos who was seventeen. I’m not sure what happened to her mom and dad; I never asked. I didn’t understand then that parents were meant to be present and participatory.
Verde loaned me fun clothes, gave me tutorials on makeup, and taught me Spanish. We practiced perfect pouts, babysat my younger sister and baby Juan, and wrote notes to crushes from Mrs. Beard’s English class. Verde was fun the way playing Barbies with my sister used to be. And exhilarating—like the rush of adrenaline that filling my lungs as my bike careened down the steep, moss-covered hill at the cabin on Clear View Lake. My memories of that year fill my mind with browned leaves, hot chocolate overloaded by marshmallows, corn-husk-wrapped tamales, and old man’s tobacco—but the memories are fleeting and fragmented.
When school let out for summer, Verde and I scraped up enough money from babysitting kids in the apartment complex to go buy matching bikinis. We laid out by the pool and pretended to be reading. Verde stole her aunt’s harlequin romance books; my grandmother called them smut. I drew flowers and wrote poems in the margins of whatever book I could find in my apartment—neither of my parents read much, but my grandma would bring me Nancy Drew books and other similar collections. Sometimes I would tape favorite poems to the inside pages. Boys were Verde’s thing, books were mine. Still, I enjoyed living vicariously through her and pretending I understood what she was talking about. I didn’t have a clue. I had never been kissed or held a boy’s hand. I had never wanted to.
On Saturdays, Verde and I walked down to the Pop Shoppe, to get cigarettes and beer for her aunt and uncle. Even though her aunt gave us the money and the task, Marcos went along too, because he was older. Laws were laws, and while tia trusted us to carry the cash, she needed Marcos to carry the ale.
Colorado Springs summers are hot and dry; by 11:30 a.m., the black tar blisters bare feet, but we would walk down in our bikinis and shorts, sandals slung over our shoulders, ignoring the split pavement beneath us. Marcos stomped all through town in his steel-toed construction boots: to work, to the store, to the swimming pool, even to church on Easter Sunday after tia bought him a new suit and shiny black shoes. I guess his boots were like my books or Verdes boys. The first few times we walked to the store together went okay. Marcos stayed well ahead of us, leaving Verde and I free to chatter away the day in pre-teen girl bliss. But as the summer drew on, Marcos lingered closer to our circle. Before long, he interjected in our conversation, interrupting Verde to ask me a question.
“What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?” he said.
“Neapolitan,” I replied, even though it wasn’t. My favorite flavor of ice cream has always been strawberry. I just wanted to hear him try and say that in his thick, only been boots-on-the-ground in America for a year voice.
“Neapolitano,” he said. “Mine is el chocolate.”
It struck my ears as some sort of wrong for a man-child to sound like that in my presence, as if chocolate was my dad watching a movie with full-frontal nudity or me finding my mom’s little black box under their bed, the key jammed into the keyhole, and opening it.
Whenever Marcos didn’t know the English word for something, he’d say the Spanish word and wait for me to give him our translation. Sometimes I think he did it on purpose, just so I would talk to him.
“Chocolate,” I corrected. “No the. Just chocolate.”
“Mine is just chocolate,” Marcos said, turning around, walking backward so he could face me. He pretended to step out into traffic. Verde slapped him and muttered something in Spanish that I don’t remember and probably had to ask her about later. He blushed.
Our next trip to the store, he stole my hand, holding it in his all the way to the Pop Shoppe. I didn’t take it back; no one ever told me you could say no.
One night in Verde’s apartment, Marcos sat down next to me on the worn-through denim couch, propping his feet on the made-out-of-milk-crates coffee table.
“You beautiful,” he said. His broken English made him nervous around me.
“Thanks,” I said. His black brows and bushy hair made me feel uneasy if I stared for long. I blushed, looking around for Verde. I didn’t want to sit there alone with him.
I joined Verde in the kitchen. She was making tamales. I knew nothing about the process, but it gave me a reason to leave the sofa. Marcos sulked on the sagging sofa.
“Do you like Marcos?” Verde asked, stuffing the tamales with chicken and cheese.
“Sure. He’s nice.”
I watched her roll the tamale into a burrito shape and wrap it in a corn husk. I grabbed a spoon and copied Verde’s stuffing and rolling technique. One by one we worked in silence, filling the pan with tamales.
“You think he’s cute?” Verde said, leaning a little closer so only I could hear her giggle.
“He’s cute enough.” My face felt hot.
Verde nodded. “He likes you,” she said.
We worked through the remaining batch of tamales and retired to the mattress on Verde’s bedroom floor. There were no sheets; we shared a threadbare green blanket.
The next day was Sunday. Verde, her aunt, and baby Juan went to mass. They were Catholic. The men didn’t go, but Verde’s uncle told me he needed some carne for the grill and headed out. Before he closed the door, he winked at me and told me to behave. How much trouble could a girl get into in a little two-bedroom apartment?
Verde made sopapillas for breakfast. After eating, I curled up on the couch to watch reruns of some Spanish soap opera. I caught only every fourth or fifth word.
I must not have known Marcos was in the apartment because I remember jumping off the sofa when I saw him. His shirt was green and his jeans looked dirty. I remember that much. He took a seat and patted an empty spot beside him. I remember sitting down. He is Verde’s cousin, and Verde is my friend, I reminded myself. He’s not dangerous, just strange.
At some point, I blacked out—or escaped somewhere in my mind—or did whatever children do to survive. I don’t remember most of it. But here’s what I do remember. I remember frantic pounding on my parents’ apartment door a floor below Verde’s. I remember my mom screaming the same word at me over and over: slut. That’s what she called me. I still don’t know why. I remember giving myself over to the silence and the disbelief of my parents and protecting the illusion that I was okay. I remember that I never spoke to Verde again. Marcos moved away. And I remember how the blinding sun looked—obscuring the mountains—from the mattress with no sheets in the bedroom with no blinds, and how hot it felt against my skin. He watched the lamp; I stared at the sun. In a world of darkness, we cling to light.
Sarah Scott holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington