Scar Tissue

Scar Tissue (Krucinski)

It’s been 8 years since
I’ve been down aisle 5
at Walgreens. Shaving Cream/
Razors/Aftershave. I don’t need
a soothsayer to tell me
Gem razor blades cut
my skin like butter.
The pharmacist looks
at my prescription.
I don’t look her in the eye.
My mind meanders to
bacitracin, bandages,
sewing kits. I just have
to pay for my meds
and make it out the door.
Addiction is addiction,
mine is rooted in blood,
stitches, scar tissue that
will never leave me.
My arms tell of a thousand
year sadness; 40 years may
be left in this life;
Nirvana isn’t eternal.

 

 

 

Carrie L. Krucinski lives in Elyria, Ohio with her husband, Steven, and bulldog, Watson. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University and teaches English at Lorain County Community College.

Homepage Spring 2014

Cover Image1

Dear Readers,

Welcome to our Spring 2014 “GRAVITY” issue. We’re incredibly proud to present to you the wonderful and diverse array of voices in this issue, all complimented by the illustrative photography of the marvelously multi-talented Wiley Quixote and his team at Wiley Quixote Artworks.

Here at r.kv.r.y., we love words. We love to play with and explore words, and we took to the theme of GRAVITY in all its forms. A force of nature. A state of being. Seriousness. Importance. A universal force exercised by two bodies onto each other. We even mined the etymology and explored gravity’s relationship to heaviness, to the grave. You should find a lot to enjoy in this issue. I hope that you will take the time to explore it.

Our final themes for 2014 will be ENDANGERED (July) and APPALACHIA (October) and (a quick reminder) we will be closed to submissions during the summer months.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

What I Know of Madness

What I Know (Einstein)

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

The minute we turn off Meathouse Fork Road, the Appalachian mountain roads go all one-lane and twisty.  My night vision isn’t good, there are deer around every turn and switch-back, and locals who could drive this stretch of road blind are impatient behind me.  But my friend Brad is kind.  He just laughs a little when I say that this might be the scariest part of our planned ghost-hunting adventure.

By the time we arrive in Weston, WV it is good and truly dark and I can’t see far enough beyond the gleam of headlights to get my bearings, so Brad takes over as navigator.

“Which way should I turn?” I ask.

“Left,” he answers.

“And now?” I ask.

“And now?”

He guides us to a CVS, though how I don’t know.  Something about the way the streets lay out makes sense to him in a way it doesn’t to me.  I buy flashlights, because it’s only just now dawned on me that the old state hospital in which we’re about to spend the night probably doesn’t have electricity.  We’ll be glad for them later, because—except for a break room and two bathrooms—it doesn’t.

The guy at the counter is in his mid-fifties, with the lilting accent of central West Virginia, and so I tell him where we’re going because I hope he’ll have stories.

“You’re doing the ghost hunting tour at the old hospital?” he asks, after I’ve just said we are.  He doesn’t say asylum, like the website does, or mental hospital, the colloquialism with which I grew up in hills not far from here.  The hospital—first, the old one we’re going to visit, and then the new one which took its place a little more than a decade ago only a few miles away—has always been the lifeblood of this little Appalachian town, and so the locals afford it as much dignity as they can.

“I remember when I was about fifteen or sixteen,” he tells us, “walking down the sidewalk beside the fence at the hospital when I should have been at school.  There was this lady there, one of the patients, and she kept pulling up her skirt and her stockings.”  He pantomimes a woman lifting her skirt up above her hips and showing off the tops of her stockings seductively.  “I said, ‘Lady, I’m only about fifteen years old.  You ought not to be doing that’.”  He laughs.  “But I remembered it all these years.  Yes sir, I never did forget it.”

This may be the only true story we’ll hear tonight about the patients at the Weston State Hospital, now a “historic” and “paranormal” tourist destination operating under its original name: The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

 

Arriving

Copperhead, a man with long red-grey hair in faded jeans, boots, and lots of faux-pagan jewelry, calls everybody out into the main hallway when it’s time for the tour begin.  “We got a few rules we need to go over first,” he says, his thumbs hooked into his beltloops.  The rules are simple: don’t take food out of the break room, because they’re tired of having to clean up after people.  Don’t smoke except in the two designated areas; outside through the doors behind us or on the second-floor balcony just off the old doctor’s quarters.  No drugs or alcohol, even if you brought enough to share.  He explains that we’ll be split into two groups of twelve.  One group will start on the first two floors, the second on floors three and four.  After an hour or so with our guide, we’ll be free to split up and explore those floors of the hospital on our own.  After four hours, at 1am, we’ll switch floors.  The tour lasts from 9pm to 5am.  “And be respectful,” he says. “These ghosts were people. Are still people. Don’t provoke them.” Then he smiles a carvnival-barker smile and says, “If you want to know what I mean by provoke ‘em, I mean don’t act like Zak.”  Everyone else in the crowd laughs.  Brad and I look at each other.  Neither of us has any idea who Zak is.

 

The Guide

Sarah, a short middle-aged woman in sweatpants and an OK Kitty scarf, tells us she drove for more than an hour to be our tour guide, spending pretty much all of the sixty dollars she’ll be paid for the night in gas to get here.  When I ask her why she’d do that, she says she loves the building. And it is an amazing building, nearly a quarter mile long, with beautiful hand carved woodwork and unexpected beaux-arts touches. Sarah says it’s the largest hand-cut stone building in North America.  Even this claim, when I try to verify it, proves illusive.  It all comes down to how one defines largest.

“I read that the workers who broke ground on the hospital were ‘Negro convict labor’ (I make air quotes because I’m incapable of using the word Negro without them), slaves who’d been set free when West Virginia broke with Virginia, but who were then immediately arrested for being vagrants and put to work by the new state,” I tell her. “Is that true?”

“Oh, God, I never heard that,” she says, shaking her head. “It could be.  We don’t like to talk about the more unpleasant parts of the hospital’s history.”

 

Floors 1 and 2

The first ghosts Sarah introduces to us are Lilly, Ruth, and Emily.  Lilly and Emily are both little girls, and both—they say—will come out to play with lucky ghost hunters.  Ruth is an old woman, and the only impairment we’re told about is that she was confined to a feeding chair, a sort of wheelchair with a tray attached to the front.  The guide suggests that sometimes visitors hear the sound of it going up and down the halls.  We’re told she’s protective of the child-ghosts.  A domestic haunting.  There are music boxes in the rooms both girls are said to haunt; the cheap reproductions every little girl has with the plastic ballerina en pointe twirling in the middle.  In Lilly’s room, there is also a toy box full of cheap plastic toys, which our guide tells us have been brought and left for the girl-ghost by visitors.  Someone in our crowd says, “Like she’d even know what to do with toys from the twentieth century.” I want to answer, “There were children here until 1994, as patients,” but I’m still trying to behave, to blend in, so I don’t.  Instead, I ask Sarah, “Were these real patients here?  Do you know when and why they were here?”

“We don’t talk about patient history,” Sarah tells me.  “That’s not what people come here for.  Even on the historical tour, we stick to talking about the building, about the treatments, and about some of the notable staff.”

The only other named ghost on the first two floors is Jacob, an alcoholic who responds well to being offered whiskey.  Which, of course, we’ve been told it is against the rules for us to have.  And maybe it really is, because although there are many moldering and melted pieces of candy on the windowsills of the girl ghost’s rooms, there are no half-full whiskey bottles in Jacob’s.

After about an hour of this, Sarah lets us loose on our own, allowing us to wander the entire building—save for a few rooms whose doors are locked because the floors have become unsafe—unescorted.  The building is 242,000 square-feet; most of the time we are too far away from the other ghost hunters to even hear them.

“This is the part that feels really transgressive,” I say to Brad as we wander alone down a dark corridor.  “It doesn’t seem like we should be allowed to do this.”  I open the door to a large bathroom with several toilet stalls, baths, and sinks.

“Yeah,” Brad says.  “But I guess there isn’t much we could do to the place.”  He shines his flashlight into a pile of debris in the far corner of the hallway.

I step into the bathroom.  “You know, I was always too afraid to do this as a kid,” I say and then look into the mirror. “Bloody Mary,” I say and then spin around.  “Bloody Mary.” Spin.  “Bloody Mary.” Spin.  No apparition appears in the mirror.  I knew it wouldn’t, but for a moment there had been a frisson of fear in my belly, an echo of a younger me who was capable of believing in ghosts.

 

What I Know of Madness 1

I am in an unlit room, sitting on a rocking chair in front of a barred window, looking out over a darkened lawn. I wear a white cotton nightgown with flocking around the banded collar, and hold my mother’s old porcelain doll—the one she named Baby Brother—in my arms. His skull is bald and crazed with age, the paint that gave detail to his face long ago rubbed away. I have wrapped him in a white blanket, and I am singing tunelessly to him while I rock.

In this dream, one I’ve had now and again for twenty years, a series of doctors come into the room and insist Baby Brother isn’t a real baby, that I must put him down and come away, and I will be locked in this room until I do. I both know and don’t know the doll is not a real baby. That it is not my baby. It doesn’t matter. The idea of letting him go is a searing pain across my chest. Each time they try to pry him from my arms, I want to scream, the pain so strong it takes my breath away. It is unbearable and I turn my head to look out into the starless night.

I want to say, “I know he isn’t real, and it doesn’t matter.” I want to say, “This isn’t something you could understand.” But I can’t, because every time they walk into the room they reach for the doll, and then I have no breath for words.

Einstein doll
Asylum Visitors Leave Dolls for Lilly and Emily

 

What Lingers

For the first hour of the tour, I think that the most abject thing about the old hospital is that it still stinks of stale sweat and filthy bodies.  But then we’re allowed to go off by ourselves, and the smell dies.  When we get back together, I realize it’s one of the other tourists… a big guy in unwashed jeans who has been here before and who believes not only that there are ghosts here, but that he has a special ability to find with them.  He calls himself a ghost hunter with pride, not irony.

 

The Lobotomy Recovery Ward

The lobotomy recovery ward is not on the walk-through of the first two floors that Sarah lead us on, but neither is it off limits, so we ask Copperhead to tell us how to find it. “I’ll walk you down,” he says.  I try to ask him questions, but he’s got a salesman’s heavy handed way of answering that always turns the question back around to his own prowess as a ghost hunter.  “We find the ghosts from talking to them, interacting with them, not by reading the records.  But often, we can match the ghosts we find with someone in the actual patient registry.  Like Jacob,” he says, referring to the one male ghost in the first two levels. “We found that there was in fact a Jacob here being treated for alcoholism, and that he was obsessed with talking about whiskey.”  This is rural Appalachia.  If there had never been a drunk named Jacob in treatment here during the more than 100 years the hospital operated, that would be the coincidence worth noting.

Lobotomies at Weston Hospital were most often performed by Dr. Walter Freeman, the doctor who “pioneered” the ice pick lobotomy.  He travelled around the country in his personal van, which he called the lobotomobile, performing procedures at a number of institutions.

“When did they stop doing lobotomies here?” I ask Copperhead.  A few yards ahead, he points to a plaque about Dr. Freeman, which says he performed his last lobotomy at Weston in 1967.  “There, see, it says.  1967.” But I know this sign elides a more difficult truth.  Dr. Freeman’s last lobotomy procedure at Weston was in 1967, but a I know a woman who was the lead nurse in the lobotomy recovery ward in the 1980s. I tell Copperhead this.

“That can’t be true,” he says, turning his back to me and walking on.  “The sign says right there, the last one was done in 1967.”

Freeman was no longer performing the surgeries, but other physicians were.  I don’t think Copperhead is lying, I just don’t think he knows very much about the actual history of the hospital.  Or cares, and that troubles me more.

Brad and I have borrowed something called a “k2,” a meter that’s supposed to read electro-magnetic energy and thus identify the presence of ghosts.  It looks like a television remote with no buttons; just a row of five lights: green, light green, yellow, orange, and red.  Just what these lights mean is vague, except that the more of them that are lit up, the more it suggests the presence of a spirit.  The whole time we’re in the lobotomy ward, all five of the lights on ours stay lit.

“What kind of activity do you get down here?  Do the ghosts speak to you?” Brad asks Copperhead.

“No.  I mean, these guys were pretty much brain-dead, so we don’t get much from them,” Copperhead says.

 

Einstein note
A Heart-Breaking Sign Over A Sink In the Children’s Ward

 

What I Know of Madness 2

In my dream, the bars on the window blur, and I stare beyond the darkened lawn to a row of Bald Cypress trees. These twisted giants shielded my childhood. I remember playing in their towering ranks, hiding with Felicity when we were still small enough to stand among their knees and not be seen.

I am not at Cypress Manor, although these are my grandfather’s trees and not simply the same kind. I don’t know how they have come to line the lawn of this sterile place, with its white blankets, white paint, and doctors in quiet white shoes. I’m not sure if the trees are meant to keep me safely here or mark the border to the place I could go if I would just put down the doll. It doesn’t matter.

I hold Baby Brother in my lap and stare out over the darkened lawn at the silhouettes of these magnificent trees until the doctors give up and leave the room. In the quiet, I weep at the sweetness of being among the cypress again, and now it’s the pain of their beauty that takes my breath away. I can’t imagine wanting to leave this place, to ever again live beyond the reach of their long shadows. I laugh at the doctors for threatening to keep me locked in. If they want the doll, they should threaten to throw the door open wide.

I rock the doll, my lips against the warm, downy skin of his scalp. He smells of sweet milk and talc. I hum the song of the wind in the boughs of the trees, rocking back and forth in rhythm with their gentle sway.

 

The One Story They Claim is True

“Dean,” Sarah says, “was a mute.  This story, we can document.  This one, we know is true.  His roommates hung him from the ceiling with a bed sheet and beat him, beat him real bad.  One of them realized that they were going to get in big trouble, so they decided they better kill him.  Dean was unconscious, so they laid him on the floor and put the leg of one of the beds on his head.  Then they jumped up and down on the bed until they had pulverized his skull.”  She pauses for effect.  “Then one of his two roommates ran down the hall to the nurse’s station and said that the ghost in this room had killed Dean.  One of the men who did it, a man named Myers, just died at the new Sharpe state hospital a couple of weeks ago.”

“When we first started coming through here, Dean was real friendly.  He’d play with us and joke around.  But over time, he got quieter and quieter until finally he just stopped interacting with us at all.  We asked him if we’d hurt his feelings, or offended him.  It took Copperhead a while to get him to talk to us, but finally he said no, we hadn’t hurt his feelings or anything.  It was just hard for him to listen to us tell his story over and over again.  So we asked if he wanted us to stop telling people his story.  ‘No,’ he said. ‘I think it’s important for people to know my story.  But could you tell it in the hallway so I don’t have to listen to it?’ And that,” says our guide, “is why we’re standing out here instead of in the room.”

Brad asks, “Does he communicate any differently with you than the other ghosts, since he couldn’t speak?”

“No, I don’t think so. What do you mean?” Sarah asks.

“Well, because he wasn’t able to talk in life.  Like, how did he let you know that he didn’t want to listen to you tell his story anymore?”

Sarah is visibly flustered.  “Well, Dean has never spoken directly to me.  But I’m pretty sure Copperhead and some of the other ghost hunters were able to get his voice on EVP.” She explains that it’s a sort of tape recorder that can capture ghostly voices and make them audible to us.

I ask Sarah for the full name of Dean’s killer, the one who has just died, but she doesn’t know.  Later, I ask Copperhead. “Michael David Myers,” he says.  This is the name of the non-speaking serial killer who escapes from a psychiatric hospital to find and kill his sister (and a lot of other people) in the movie Halloween and its nine sequels.

 

Ghost Adventures

Zak, it turns out, is Zak Bagans, one of the hosts of the show Ghost Adventures.  I find parts of a seven hour live broadcast they did on Halloween, 2009 on YouTube.  A former employee of Weston Hospital talks about Ruth, remembers her as a violent old woman who would bang on the tray of her feeding chair whenever a man walked past.

Sarah had shown us the seclusion cells, told us that anyone could have a patient put in one, that patients sometimes stayed locked inside for months at a time.  That some of them died.  Near midnight, Zak locks three volunteers in the seclusion cells and then starts yelling at a ghost he believes has said “fuck you” to the ghost hunters.   Nothing much happens.  One girl says she felt something brush her hair, tug on her jacket.  Zak calls out to the ghost he imagines is there, offering to keep the girl locked up in the seclusion cell for the rest of the night if he will only show himself.

I do a web search. Although fans have requested it, none of the many ghost hunting shows have ever gone to a concentration camp.

Einstein orb
According to the Ghost Hunters, the “Orb” in this Photo I Took is a Spirit 

 

What I know of Madness 3

A Story I Believe My Father Told Me Once, But That He Says I Made Up:

“I was in high school,” my father said, “and working in the afternoons, driving the truck to make deliveries for Dad.”

My grandfather was a grocery wholesaler.  Not the grandfather whose cypress trees guarded my childhood, but my father’s father, who was the worst sort of bastard; mean and bigoted and dumb.  Who never guarded anyone’s childhood.

“And I remember coming home from school.  Mom was passed out drunk, and when Dad got home, he said, ‘I’m not doing it this time.  Johnny, you’re going to have to take your mother up to the State Hospital.  Just pull up and tell ‘em you’ve got Bonnie Einstein, they’ll know what to do with her.  Lord knows they’ve seen her enough times before.’ And then Dad and I put her in the back of the truck, with all the empty pallets from the day’s delivery, and Dad went off to play golf.”

I think my father was drunk himself when he told me this story, in the first years of a decade-long bender that would end only when we, his adult children, committed him to a rehab facility.  “I also had to go pick her up.  Had to take her something to wear, because they just dumped the patients in these big wards, men and women together, and after not too long the clothes they were wearing when they were admitted would rot off their bodies. They didn’t give them hospital gowns or anything.  Just left them in those big rooms, naked.”

Years later, when he tells me that I’ve made up this story, I don’t question him. I hated my grandmother—a mean old drunk with a sharp tongue and filthy mouth—and by then she’d been dead long enough that he’d taken to calling her my sainted mother. And he’s haunted enough without my insisting on seeing ghosts he doesn’t believe are there.

 

 

Sarah Einstein lives in Athens, OH where she is a PhD student in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University. Her work has previously appeared in Ninth Letter, Fringe Magazine, PANK, and other journals, and has been awarded a Pushcart Prize. Her micro-collectionRemnants of Passion, is upcoming from Shebooks.

Old Colony

Old Colony (Hillegonds)

The building was erected one year after Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, and it stretches seventeen stories into the finicky midwestern sky. It sits on the corner of Dearborn Street and Van Buren, where the El rattles the glass inside its panes every few minutes, where commuters and residents walk through its shadow in hurried, deliberate steps. The corners of the structure are rounded by bay windows that set it distinctly apart from its neighbors, and about a hundred feet south on Dearborn Street, it nestles up comfortably against the Plymouth Building next door. Across the street sit a convenience store, a sandwich shop, and a barber.

Built by a Boston lawyer, the Old Colony Building was named in honor of the first English colony in America at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The first three floors are sheathed in Bedford limestone, which give it a markedly regal look, and the upper floors are finished with grey Gainesboro brick and porous terracotta. Both entrances to the building are adorned with the seal of the Plymouth Colony—a design choice of the once-prestigious architectural firm, Holabird & Roche. The year it was built, it was the tallest building in Chicago.

As with most of the structures in the City of Chicago, years of unforgiving winters eventually took their toll and it began to deteriorate. Once filled to capacity with engineers and lawyers and architects, the tenants of Old Colony finally got tired of heat that didn’t warm and air conditioning that didn’t cool, and slowly, as the years dragged on, they began to move out. By the mid-2000s, the building was only around sixty percent full. The antiquated elevators strained themselves to get from one floor to the next and were frequently out of service. Entire floors were empty. The fate of the building’s future was in jeopardy.

Sometime in 2005 or 2006, I began to frequent an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that met, fittingly, on the 12th floor of the Old Colony Building. The building’s uncertain fate had caused lease space to become unusually cheap, and an AA group had decided to move from a nearby space when its lease expired. Because it met during the chaotic Chicago lunch hour, the meeting was called “Nooners,” and it was a liquor soaked amalgamation of businessmen, janitors, construction workers, and the occasional homeless person. Meetings were held in a timeworn room that smelled of mildew, mothballs, and stubbed out cigarettes, and its walls were plastered with crudely constructed homemade posters—most of them yellowed and curling at the corners from age. Written on them were the tired sayings of AA—ever present in sobriety: It works if you work it. Your misery is refundable; see nearest bartender. It’s alcohol-ISm, not alcohol-WASm.

Being new to sobriety, there were a lot of days that I simply didn’t want to go to meetings at all—a lot of days when the monotony and repetition of AA weighed me down and made me yearn for something different, something more exciting, something less like sobriety. I got tired of working the steps and reading the Big Book and hearing about drinking and drugs and the repetitive ruining of lives. I got tired of “identifying,” and saying over and over again that my name was Tim and that I was an alcoholic. And, sometimes, I even grew tired of the people that I saw in those meetings. I often spent too much time focusing on the differences I observed in people and not enough time recognizing the similarities. I often wanted to deny that, even though we all came from different places and did different things and destroyed our lives in different ways, we were all, somehow, the same. We had all hurt people. We had all been hurt by people. We had all suffered at the hands of an addiction that we ourselves had fed.

The meetings that I spent cramped inside that rundown little room on the 12th floor of the Old Colony Building were often filled with tears and pain and remorse. Having lived within the confines of our drug and alcohol addictions, we had essentially subsisted on the periphery of a normal existence. Our lives, once fractured, were now on the verge of being fixed, but the road to redemption was a painful one. I bore my soul in that room.  We all did. I talked about my daughter, Haley, and the agony I felt for spending money on cocaine or vodka instead of her birthday presents. I talked about all the people I’d let down, about the disappointment I felt, about the aching inadequacy that settled down on me the minute I awoke in the morning. I told complete strangers that I was scared of failing, even more scared of succeeding, and confused by the changing face that I saw in the mirror every morning. I told them these things and they listened, and when I was done, I felt purged—my demons exorcised—if only for the moment.

But on days when sobriety silenced me, days when my ongoing metamorphosis stilled my tongue, I would listen. I would hear about broken hearts and broken families and pending divorces and rich men who now found themselves poor. I’d watch the eyes of the people talking glaze over as they reached deep into their pasts to retrieve memories of happier times—recollections lost within days not yet ruined. And then I’d watch them return from those places, those dusty rooms in their minds, holding back tears as they again realized what they’d become. The truth, it seemed, stung us all.

The progress that happened inside of Old Colony was painful to watch and feel, but that pain was part of a necessary process. It was a time to face the truth about who we had been and who we hoped to become. It was also a respite from the façade that the world demanded we put up—a time to face the brokenness of our own humanity for the greater purpose of our individual evolutions.

During one of those meetings at Old Colony, as the summer breeze found its way from Lake Michigan to the room’s open window, I sat in my chair and listened as an old man began to talk. I hadn’t seen him before. His hair was grey and white, and the wrinkles on his face suggested a life lived the hard way. He had a gentle voice, one filled with sincerity, and he seemed to be speaking from a deep place—one only accessed through the doorway of honest appraisal. He spoke of a ruined marriage and a lost job and a lost home. He described a fragmented relationship with a child who was now grown and only saw him as a drunkard. He talked about his estranged grandkids, about not being able to face them, and he talked about a doctor appointment he’d just returned from.

“It was just a regular appointment—one my wife used to call ‘an old guy visit.’” His eyes grew moist as he spoke. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and looked at the floor. “I was sitting on top of the exam table, you know, the one with that white wrinkly paper, and the doctor came in the room to give me the result of my blood work.” He paused for a minute, steadied himself. His voice was softer when he started speaking again. “The doc told me they had found cancer markers in my blood. He said they couldn’t say for sure, but things didn’t look good. Six months, he said. A year would be a gift.”

The room was quiet as it took in what the old man was saying. Through the window we could hear the sounds of the city below—the El train roaring, voices of commuters passing, an ambulance in the distance, its siren echoing off the buildings around us. The sounds of living people living their lives. But in that room on the 12th floor of Old Colony, a dozen floors away from the thriving city below, a man was dying. A man was accepting the fact that he was dying.

The old man went on to tell the room—all of us folks that he hardly knew—that he wished he hadn’t spent his life being a drunk. “I just wish I could change things,” he admitted, his voice trembling. “It all seems so important when you’re going through it. But one day a doctor tells you it’s all coming to an end and you realize you were worried about the wrong shit.” A tear slipped from his eye and traced one of the many wrinkles in his cheek before falling into his shirt’s collar. A woman in the back of the room coughed. I leaned forward and put my head in my hands, trying to comprehend what was happening, what I was witnessing. I knew that, cognitively, we were all aware that one day we would die, but this guy was dealing with it right then, at that moment. Regardless of the fact that he was sober, he was still paying the ultimate price. And it all just seemed so ridiculous. Where was his happy ending? Where was the affirmation that he had done the right thing? Where was the point in sobriety for him?

The guy sitting next to the old man reached over and put his hand on his shoulder. I lifted my head and caught the old man’s eye for a second. He looked away, spoke again. “There’s a big part of me that wants to say ‘screw it,’ hit the liquor store downstairs, and drink until I can’t feel anymore. But the other part of me, the part that recognizes that I’ve got six months of sobriety under my belt, that part of me knows that I’ve done the right thing. I might be dying, but I get to die sober. And I’m going to make amends with as many people as I can before I go.”

As I listened to the old man speak that day, I felt an incredible sadness creep up from somewhere within my soul. My chest tightened and my breathing quickened. My palms became sticky. My seat suddenly felt uncomfortable, and it dawned on me that I wanted to run. I wanted to bolt from my chair and barrel down twelve floors of stairs and crash through the doors onto Dearborn Street. I wanted to run to the shores of Lake Michigan and shout to the heavens that I was sorry, and that I wouldn’t do it again, and that I would no longer waste my life. I wanted to scream to God that it was finally beginning to make sense to me. I wouldn’t hurt people anymore. I wouldn’t squander my opportunities anymore. I would no longer take for granted all that I had.

When the old man finished speaking that day, the room was still and Old Colony seemed silent. There was a heaviness that pushed on each of our hearts, and it appeared that there was nothing adequate to say. A man had wasted his life and he was going to die. And that meant that we all had to suddenly face a similar reality. Because we could have all just as easily been him. We all sort of were him. His time had literally run out, and someday ours would, too. I could only hope to face the ending of my life with the same courage that he had. He’d lived as a drunk, but he would die sober. And while there was sadness in that, there was hope, as well.

Although I wish I did, I don’t know when that man died or what happened with all the relationships he was trying to rectify. I don’t know if he was able to fix a lifetime of pain in a few short weeks or months. I don’t know if his heart was still broken when he finally said his last “I’m sorry” and traded in this life for the next. But I do, however, know this: he impacted a room full of people that day in a way that few have the power to do. In a rundown room in a rundown high-rise, a rundown old man changed my life. And because of the things I heard in that room that day, felt in that room that day, I was able to find a sort of inner peace with my own struggle for sobriety.

The group that the Old Colony Building was named after, Plymouth Colony, later became known by a much more familiar name—the Pilgrims. Initially arriving in Massachusetts after fleeing religious persecution, it only seems fitting that a building named in their honor would host a group of men and women looking to escape the persecutions of addiction.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the realities faced in that 12th floor room, it’s that we need to live as that old man did in his final days—with intention. We need to live with purpose. With meaning. With the knowledge that one day it will all be over, and we will only exist in the memories that other people have of us. We need to ask ourselves–with the same conviction we live–exactly what those memories will be.

 

 

Tim Hillegonds is a graduate student pursuing a master of arts degree in writing and publishing (MAWP) from DePaul University in Chicago. His work is forthcoming in RHINO and Brevity, and he was recently awarded an Honorable Mention for nonfiction in the New Millennium Award 36. He is currently working on a memoir about recovery.

If You Kill Him

If you kill him (Gustine)

Do not say you killed him. Say he died. Say you accidentally ran over him with the car. Say you were moving it and you thought his father had him.

Don’t hate yourself. Hate the person who invented SUV’s. Hate the neighbor kids, who wanted room for hopscotch and asked you to move the car. And their bikes in the driveway, the things you were watching when you didn’t see him. Hate those fucking bikes.

When his father tells you he felt him take his last breath, don’t ask if he was still breathing when you backed up, hearing, “You hit him!” You thought he was in front of the bumper. You thought you were backing away from him.

When his brother cries and asks when he’s coming back, be honest. If his brother asks why he’s never going to see him again, blame God. The Fucker deserves it.

When you consider suicide, remember: mothers aren’t made for death. That’s what soldiers, doctors and priests are for.

When your husband says he saw your son the night of the accident, don’t ask yourself why he didn’t appear to you. Learn a lesson from the papers. Say he walked into the car’s path. Say he was hit. Say ambulance crews were unable to save him. Do not say the spots on the wall you see for days after he died are the devil coming to get you. Listen to your priest, who knows his racket. And your therapist, whose credentials you can hold, like forgiveness in your hand.

When you think of that day–and when do you not?—don’t try to remember what your merciful brain erased—the blood, the sirens, the medics’ faces–after you called 911. The film is blank. Be grateful.

When people ask you years from now if you have children, tell them yes, and when they are impertinent enough to ask how many, fuck them.

Maybe just make no friends. But definitely get rid of the old ones. Their voices will never shed the pity.

Pretend you never met those neighbor kids.

Sell that car and move away from that house, with the driveway that looks clean and the neighbors who look askance.

Quit your job and find something with strangers.

Leave that husband, whose voice now only says, You hit him!

You would like to leave the city, the country, the Earth. Your own skin. But you are still a mother. Remember, we already went over this.

Don’t be too careful with the son you have left. Don’t tell him he’s not allowed to ride his bike. Or jump off the high dive. Go on roller coasters or use the table saw in shop class, drive cross-country, or sign up for the army.

Since you can’t believe in god, believe in Fate. She is a cruel cunt, but she is all you have now. And She is better than the alternative.

Do not say you killed him.

 

 

 

Amy Gustine’s fiction has appeared in several literary magazines, including the North American Review, Black Warrior Review, Confrontation, Natural Bridge, Prism international, The Massachusetts Review and The Dos Passos Review. Her story “Goldene Medene” received special mention in Pushcart Prize XXXII, Best of the Small Presses.

Breezeway

Breezeway (Kim Church)

Wednesdays we go for counseling in a new white brick building designed by an architect. Every detail has been planned so that patients can come and go in private. A white brick wall hides the parking lot from the street. A grove of wax myrtles frames the entryway, a long, covered walk along the building’s edge, bordered on one side by a trellis of flowering vines—jasmine, to calm. The therapist’s waiting room is accessible only through this breezeway.

Not a breezeway, my husband says. A breezeway connects two structures. This doesn’t. This, he says, is a portico.

Portico: a concealed, fragrant tunnel, immaculate except for thin black tire marks on the concrete. From a bicycle, I’m guessing.

“No,” my husband says, and makes his exasperated sound, the sound of him loving me even less. “From delivery dollies.” He can turn even a word like dollies into something sharp and mean.

I’m sure he’s right. He always is.

But I picture a girl on a bicycle, racing down from the parking lot, skidding past the therapist’s door, exuberant, wheeeeeeeeeee!, all the way to where the concrete ends. Doing it again and again until her mother calls her home. A blue bike with a wire basket and bright plastic streamers on the handlebars. The girl’s eyes blue and daring, full of wonder. Not believing her luck at discovering this hidden paradise, this cool flat slab, this sweet-smelling shade in the middle of summer. For her, per lei!

Every Wednesday, all spring and all summer, there are fresh tire marks. “Look,” I always say, as if to prove some point. My husband only shrugs. I hate it when he shrugs.  There’s nothing I hate more. There ought to be a law against indifference. Lock up all the husbands who go to therapy just to humor their wives.

One Wednesday in late August I ask the therapist. “Those marks in your breezeway, are they from delivery dollies?”

The therapist looks surprised. My husband looks surprised. I don’t usually ask the questions. I don’t usually want to know the answers.

“Children,” the therapist says. “I have to scare them off.”

 

 

 

Kim Church just released her debut novel, BYRD, (Dzanc Books) in March. Her stories and poems have appeared in Shenandoah, Mississippi Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has received fiction fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay Colony for the Arts, and Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Labradorite, or Black Irish

Labradorite (Kyle Laws)

Turner Ray says about the dark, perfectly smoothed stone
that he holds in his hands that scientists have discovered
mountains on the moon with exactly this composition,
that it’s believed the moon was once part of Earth, and
when struck by an asteroid spun off, but not far enough
to be out of the same orbit. It remains attached by a thread
of gravity where it exerts influence—the pull of tides.

The philosophical connections are enough for an afternoon’s
thought, but what lingers is that first trip to the dermatologist
when she took one look at me, and announced to the intern
shadowing her, Black Irish, keep an eye out for them, very
susceptible to skin cancer.
Never having heard the term,
it didn’t sound like a compliment. And maybe because
of the look on my face she followed with, You know,
the Elizabeth Taylor look—pale skin, almost black hair,
and piercing eyes in shades of blue, some almost violet
like Elizabeth’s.

Better, but Black Irish haunts me, as does the labradorite.
Turner Ray tells me to hold it up to the light so I can see
the variations, how on the glass at the back of gallery
it looks black, but with light, colors of gold and green
appear, and chips of iron welded into its formation.
A stone that started on Earth went to the moon,
how the Irish in exodus after the famine must have felt,
and when they landed after 11 to 12 days in steerage,
it was what was whispered of them, black, like the scars
on potato they could no longer eat.

 

 

Kyle Laws poems, stories, and essays have recently appeared in Abbey, Anglican Theological Review, Cities (U.K.), Delmarva Review, Eleventh Muse, Exit 13, The Final Note, IthacaLit, Journey to Crone (U.K.), Lummox, The Main Street Rag, Malpaís Review, The Más Tequila Review, Mead: The Magazine of Literature and Libations, Misfitmagazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Pearl, Philadelphia Poets, Pilgrimage, and St. Sebastian Review. Collections include My Visions Are As Real As Your Movies, Joan of Arc Says to Rudolph Valentino (dancing girl press), George Sand’s Haiti (co-winner of Poetry West’s 2013 award), Storm Inside the Walls (little books press), Going into Exile (Abbey Chapbooks), Tango (Kings Estate Press), and Apricot Wounds Straddling the Sky (Poetry Motel’s Suburban Wilderness Press). She edited two volumes for the Pueblo Poetry Project—From the Garret on Grand: On Miss Lonelyhearts and the Virgin of Guadalupe and Midnight Train to Dodge. She currently is editor of Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press. www.kylelaws.com

Tilt

Tilt (Faldet)

Parking against the bushes,
she leaves the drive clear
to the garage: three years
since she took away his keys,
a year since she sold the Sierra
he parked behind the door,
half a year since he moved
to that long corridor, “the Meadows,”
where his mind wanders,
and for the first time in nearly
six decades he sleeps alone.

Out the front picture window
of the house he left behind
the three great leafless branches
of a single flowering crab grow east,
away from the scar to the west
at the center of a swell of earth
where the second crab was set,
the shaded one, twelve feet
from the mate –  into which it spread
for 57 years and, taken out,
left tilted away from nothing visible.

 

 

David Faldet’s poetry has been published in such journals as Mid-American Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Ekphrasis, Arion, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. His book Oneota Flow, a natural history of the Upper Iowa was published in 2009 by University of Iowa Press. He works and lives in Decorah, Iowa.

People Eat Chickpeas Bathed in Vinegar

People Eat (Zarin Hamid)

Missing the filigree of dust on every surface and crevice of skin. That’s what we are. Pink roses planted at each traffic circle of Kabul means it is spring and it is summer.

-

My love is limitless, her skies are limitless, the valley is broken, the valley is mine.

-

The saying goes: “die, burn, or deal with what you got.” All that’s been done, but
They’re doing it every day: matchstick women, matchstick men, matchstick children, matchstick coffin.
What else is left? The dust, the dark, the original mist.

-

Seed and sulfur, all this is one.

-

On that hilltop, where flurries of magenta-purple flowers grow, arghawan lighting up Pir Boland, there is a British soldier buried, and like in all other graveyards people eat chickpeas bathed in vinegar, some with leathery eyelids I would kiss wide open to salute the sun.

 

 

Zarin Hamid is an adopted native of New Jersey, where after some circling she has come back to work and live. She has studied political science and peace and conflict resolution, and in addition to writing works on gender-based violence, militarism, and human rights issues from a feminist lens.

All the World Before Me

All the World Before Me (Cherry)

 ”How light and free I felt! …A woman on a bicycle has all the world before her where to choose; she can go where she will… ~Oliver Pratt Raynor, The Typewriter Girl, Ch. V

 

And it is light and free that I feel when I am on my bike, miles out into the countryside. Early springtime the corn sprouts, the lilac leaves unfurl slowly, and Shetland foals romp in the greening pastures waking up after sleeping beneath a layer of snow. Through summer, the corn seems to grow unremitting, the shade of a large oak on a ninety-five degree day becomes an oasis, and the whiskered muzzle of the Shetland pony tickles against the skin of my outstretched hand. Fall brings a brisk breeze crackling the browning leaves of the corn stalks, scarlet maple leaves covering the roads, and the thickening coat of the ponies huddled together against the Illinois wind. Winter tests my resolve to continue cycling, the biting winds daring me to venture out into the lonely, bare countryside, but even then, I feel light and free, free to go wherever I desire on my bicycle.

This love I have for cycling took me far beyond my beloved Illinois countryside the summer of 2012, when I began a cross-country trek with Bike the US for MS, to honor my mom who had suffered from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) through what should have been the golden years of her life. Her suffering and struggle came to an end in December 2011, her body finally giving in to the immense damage the MS caused. It was during the last two months of her life that I knew committing to the ride was a way I could show her that though her fight with the disease was coming to an end, I still had a few rounds I wanted to go to help knock the disease to its knees. I wanted to be a part of something that worked to find a cure for MS.

Starting out, the ride was a way to increase awareness of MS, as well as a way to raise the much-needed funds to further MS research. Being a rider registered to cycle the entire distance from Yorktown, VA to San Francisco, CA, I was obligated to raise at least $3785, a dollar per mile cycled. Spending hours writing letters to potential donors kept me focused on the impending ride rather than on having recently lost my mom, and it was through sharing with others the courage my mom showed during her last few weeks that I realized just how much strength and pluck she truly possessed to endure years of physical and emotional distress. I became more and more determined to spread the word and raise the $3785 required for the ride, to help others who were facing that same physical and emotional misery that is MS. At least that’s why I thought I was riding 3785 miles in 60 days. Almost as soon as I started out of Yorktown, waving good-bye to my husband and our two boys, I began to understand the ride was far more than simply increasing MS awareness and taking in donations for research.

Not even a mile into the ride, tears blurred my vision then slid down my cheeks as I thought about Mom and how she had hated every second of living with MS. The sadness that had gripped my heart since the moment she had slipped away six months before tightened its hold. I desperately wanted it to go away. The months following Mom’s death, work, family, cycling, and gathering all the items needed for the ride—a tent, a sleeping bag, and other roughing-it gadgets—kept me focused and helped keep my grief under wraps. Now, with nothing but the road in front of me and only the sounds of the tires whirring against the pavement, all that suppressed sadness wriggled free. I wiped at the tears while wondering how in the world riding my bike across the United States was going to make any difference. It wasn’t like I could help my mom.

By the time I rolled into the first rest stop, a small weather-beaten convenience store with a couple of old, rusty gas pumps and a picnic table under a pair of pine trees, I had gotten the tears under control. I wasn’t ready to let the other members of the ride see me with red-rimmed eyes and tear stained cheeks. It didn’t take long, however, for another cyclist to recognize the tell-tale signs of melancholy masked by fake enthusiasm. Sharon, blond haired with sharp blue eyes, sat next to me at the picnic table as we ate a snack before getting back on our bikes to continue on and complete the 62 miles for the day. I’d seen her profile on the ride’s website and knew she was a firefighter, but what I didn’t know even as we sat together under those pine trees, what I would come to learn one evening at a campsite in Kentucky as we sat in the waning light of the setting sun, was she had undergone back surgery. The ride was the test she put before herself to “prove she wasn’t broken.” Sharon picked up on my sadness that day and several other days throughout the ride and stayed with me, simply cycling along in a comfortable silence. We ended up riding the rest of that first day together and most of the next 59 days, right up to reaching San Francisco.

During the ensuing weeks, cycling through Virginia, Kentucky, and into southern Illinois, I could feel the sadness from the beginning of the ride diminishing. While I couldn’t bring myself to participate in an interview about why I was riding across the United States when we arrived in Charlottesville, VA, on the third day of the ride, I did find that I could think about Mom as I was cycling and not dissolve into tears.

With each hill I climbed and my legs aching from the effort, with each mile covered during 95 degree days and my mouth dry from thirst, I became stronger physically and mentally, completing each day with the thought that my suffering would never, ever compare to that which Mom experienced, as well as everyone else living with MS.

Embracing the difficulties of each day became what I looked forward to. Each morning I checked the whiteboard in the trailer that carried all the cyclists’ belongings, and upon seeing a 94 mile day ahead of me, I knew all I had to do was get on my bike and pedal.

Pedal for Mom.

Pedal for my dad, siblings, and friends who encouraged me via Facebook, Twitter, and phone calls.

Pedal for all those reduced to wheelchairs because MS stole their ability to walk.

Pedal for those individuals newly diagnosed with MS, struggling to accept what their bodies were facing.

The 94 miles of road would be difficult, but not nearly as difficult as the road those with MS navigate each and every moment of their days.

On day 26, after rolling into Pittsburg, KS, a reporter approached me with a request for an interview about why I was cycling across the US. I answered the reporter’s questions without tears interrupting—how Mom was told she had ten years to live but fought the MS, having those ten years plus an additional four to watch her 13 grandchildren grow; how Mom would roll her wheelchair out into the yard to watch her granddaughter put on plays just for her; how Mom loved to watch the hummingbirds dart into the feeder then leave with wings whirring. Being able to tell Mom’s story released any remaining sadness I still carried and pushed me to put my all into the rest of the ride. I opened up and began talking to anyone and everyone about MS.

During the rest of the ride, through Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California, I let each day be simply that day. Not the one before it. Not the one to come. Just that day. Within each day, the relationships with my fellow cyclists developed, our likeminded goal that of riding to fight the MS monster. Not a day passed that we didn’t meet someone along the way who was living with MS, had a family member with MS, or knew someone with MS. How far and wide the monster’s tendrils spread hit home. No longer was the ride about increasing awareness about the disease, though this was definitely part of it. No longer was the ride about raising funds to further research for medications and hopefully one day a cure, though this was important and I celebrated the day my friends back home donated to my funds, helping me reach $7600, twice the amount I needed for the ride. Rather, the ride became this “something” far bigger than anything I’d ever imagined it would be.

It became a conduit for making connections between human beings, all wanting and working towards a common goal: to ease, even if it was only a tiny bit, the suffering of those living with a terrible disease. Never before had I ever felt such a fulfilling sense of purpose.

When I made the decision to ride across the United States, excitement overwhelmed any second thoughts that tried to chip away at my resolve. Right up to the moment I pedaled away from my family in Yorktown, I never doubted taking on the task of getting on my bike for sixty days and cycling an average of 65 miles a day. Once the anticipation for the ride became reality, allowing all the suppressed sadness to rise to the surface, hesitation wriggled its way in. Not only did I shed tears those first few miles, but I also battled the urge to turn around, find my family, and return home. To the familiar. To the comfortable. To my life that was “safe.” How different my life would be if I had played it safe. I couldn’t hold close precious memories, like:

–meeting fellow cyclists, all motivated by the same hope of one day slaying the MS monster;

–the challenging climb up the Blue Ridge Parkway where undulating vistas of green spread gracefully to the horizon;

–admiration for Robin Creemer who, with her service dog Tootsie dozing on her lap, showed determination and persistence though she’s been living with MS since 1985;

–the delight of standing amidst a field of sunflowers, one of my mom’s favorite blossoms, and stroking their silky petals as they seemingly bowed under the rising sun;

–feeling awestruck as I turned in a circle atop Monarch Pass at 11,300 feet, and seeing nothing but snow-tipped mountains surrounding me;

–the magic of cycling through the mesmerizing and dreamlike landscapes of Utah;

–the happy surprise, as I walked my bike off the ferry at San Francisco, of being greeted by my brother and his family, who had traveled to California from Illinois.

What holes my life would hold if I had succumbed to the urge to end the ride before even really beginning the ride. With the decision to continue on that first day, to wipe away the tears and follow through with honoring my mom, I received the gift only a bicycle combined with a purpose can offer: feeling light and free while exploring all the world before me.

 

 

Jennifer Cherry lives with her family in central Illinois. Though she lives in the city, her heart belongs to the countryside of cornfields, wind turbines, and pastures full of sheep, cows, and horses. Cycling long distances throughout central Illinois gives her time to create characters that appear in her short fiction pieces, a few of which have been featured in The Storyteller Magazine, Mused: BellaOnline Literary Review Magazine, and Bergasse 19.