“Cardiff by the Sea” by Patsy Creedy

“Tunnel Vision” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 24″ x 48″

I should have taken the hint the first time I tried to get into the surf, paddling furiously over the breaking waves that keep coming. Each wave I made it over a victory. At one point I even thought I was getting somewhere, only to turn around and see the shore still so close, the other surfers watching the waves. To feel the sand with my foot, telling me I had covered no ground. The ocean had effectively spit me back out. I walked north along the beach a few yards and stood watching the waves, trying to see a way in that didn’t look like I would get pummeled or totally exhausted just trying to get beyond the break.

I hadn’t gone into the water the day before. I couldn’t make up my mind and kept waiting for the tide to change something, something in me, something in the water to call me in. Sometimes the greed of wanting a surfing fix, the bodily high of being in the water, gliding down wave after wave makes for poor judgment or massive indecision. Even though I had stopped to surf on the drive down, my decision not to get in the next day felt like a cop out, driven by fear and uncertainty.

I wanted to get back into my surfing groove so badly. In the last year and a half, since my son died, I could not get into the water. I could not access the solace I knew it would bring me. I was inert with grief. I could not find the energy to load my car with my surf box, filled with a wetsuit, booties, wax and sunscreen, much less strap my board onto the top of my car, something I use to do almost without thinking, rushing like a dog ready for a walk. Now I was mostly numb, every cell in my body shocked, igniting with sorrow every morning as I woke up and re-realized he was dead.

I had stopped on the way down south at San Onofre State beach, an old long board break. The park ranger station was closed, which I took as a good sign. I drove down the rutted road and turned the corner to waves breaking everywhere around the point.  It was late in the day, the wind was up but coming from the SE so it was perfect the young guy parked next to me said, smiling when I told him I had driven down from San Francisco. “You smoke pot then, I hear the pot there is woooh, everyone smokes.”

I laughed and told him I was clean and sober. His face fell a tiny bit, but then he told me, ‘That’s good, keep it up.’

I got in and caught a couple waves as the sun began to drop, the water was warm compared to up north. My pop up was sloppy, relying on that intermediate pause on my knees before standing that I used to judge as inferior in other surfers. Here I was crawling up to standing, smiling without even knowing it. The sunset sky was beautiful and the afternoon session cleared away the long drive and gave me a little confidence that I could still surf, even if my form sucked.

As I stood watching the waves at Cardiff a man came up to me and said, “If you’re looking for a way in you might want to paddle over by the lifeguard tower and then head out that way. It’s a little less brutal that way.” He had appeared out of nowhere and started talking into my ear like he knew a secret, like he was the one who knew what I wanted to know to get me safely into the water.

For some reason I took his sudden appearance as a good omen rather than a foolish one, again the greed welling up in my body looking for a way to get what I wanted from the ocean, never a good idea. Why wasn’t he getting in? He said something about a bad ankle and walked away. I watched a little longer and once I saw an opening I quickly started paddling, trying to get somewhere between the sets. I paddled out towards the lifeguard tower like the mystery guy suggested. I was getting out past the break and feeling a little confident. I paused to figure which direction to go when a wave came rolling towards me. I tried to go over the top of it with my board but its force surprised me as it knocked my board straight up in the air. I dove down into the water, letting my board to go, my ankle pulling hard where the leash was attached. I popped back up to the surface and quickly got back on my board trying to get some traction paddling out before the next wave came. I decided to paddle north and the waves kept coming with little or no break between.

I looked at the shore to see if I could ride in on the whitewater of one of the waves without getting too close to the cliff but the current was pulling me over and towards the shore, even closer to the cliffs. More waves broke over my head. I barely had time to get back on my board before another one was on top of me. The next wave that came pushed me down and held me there. I couldn’t figure out where the surface was as my body spun around. I opened my eyes to try and see the sky and watched myself as I took in a mouth full of water. I had reflexively opened my mouth for air, suddenly understanding how you drown, trying to breathe from muscle memory, take something in and hoping it is air. I managed to pop up to the surface and frantically looked round. I saw the cliffs now even closer and I saw a line of rocks that if I could get over to them I would probably be safe. I knew the tide was dropping and more shore would appear. I let the waves push me, mildly hoping my board would not be too damaged by the rocks, but not caring much by then, I just wanted to be out of the water.

I don’t remember exactly how I got onto the rocky lip of the cliff, only that I made it to standing position and my board was still in one piece, although I didn’t look for damage closely, my hands shaking too much to examine it, I felt too traumatized to care. I could look later, when I was safe in the parking lot, having successful avoided a coast guard rescue.

I was shaken and embarrassed at how I badly misread the surf and my own ability. I had only surfed maybe a handful of times since my son died. I was out of shape and I wanted something that I wasn’t going to find in the ocean. He was gone and yet so present in an unreachable and painful way, which I was coming to realize is how grief is. When you lose a child, it is never, ever, over or better. It is just different, the volume of grief oscillates but it does not leave, nor should it. It is the new normal of your being. Once I realized that its pain was part of my new reality, accepting its presence was even a little helpful, sort of like getting diagnosed with cancer, but being told it was the good kind of cancer. There was nothing to be done to alleviate the bodily pain of the loss of my son and to try to be better or over it was just asking for the grief and denial to come out sideways. This realization gave me something to hold onto. I was irrevocably changed and I was still here, in this world with a fearsome and beautiful ocean and clouds, and death.

 I stood there holding my board underneath my arm, panting and coughing as I looked out at the waves, the water that I tried to breath in making its way back up in rough, barking coughs. I knew I had to get calm and stay positive, fear was not going to be helpful in paddling back to the shore.

I watched the surf, remembering how high the water was on the beach even at a low tide this time of year. I knew I eventually would have to get back in to the water and paddle around the cliff I was perched on and please God, make it back onto the beach. I tried to quiet myself, saying a few prayers, calling out to my son, calling him forth as some kind of comfort, remembering his sweet young face, cheeks red with the summer heat as he proudly ran towards me with a frog he’d caught at his grandmother’s house. I saw his tall lanky man body, the scolding he would have given me, laughing at my predicament and calling me mama, something he rarely did near the end. Then I saw him dead, collapsed in the bathroom with a needle in his arm. When I reach this point I usually stop trying to see him, the fantasies taking a bad turn. I started talked to him that morning from where ever he might be now, watching me and shaking his head. The images fall away and it is just he and I, intangibly connected and stubbornly drifting at the same time.

My body stopped shaking and I keep watching the waves, looking for a lull between the punishing sets. I was waiting for my nerves to collect as much as I was waiting for the tide to drop enough for me to get back in the water, something I did not want to do. Finally I thought I saw my chance and I jumped down onto the rocks, which were smooth and round, the size of oranges and grapefruits, clattering loudly with each in and out of the waves. I hadn’t factored the rocks in as a problem if there was no breaking wave pushing them but as I stepped onto the rocks I was knocked down immediately by the undertow, my foot sinking ankle deep into the clattering rocks, my board flipping in the air and then down onto the rocks. I quickly looked out at the surf and grabbed my board as it landed near me. I hopped up on it and start to paddle hard, first straight out and then over, south towards the beach and the parking lot.

Turns out the beach was just around the cliff not nearly as far as I imaged as I waited there on the cliff stranded and sure I would die alone, trembling, feeling the wet rock wall crumble as I touched it for balance. I kept left and soon was able to touch the bottom with my foot, the sensation a ripple of relief pulsing through my entire body. I let the tide push me further in, lying sideways on my board, my feet keeping track of the ground. I was so relieved to step out of the surf, apologetic and humbled once again by the ocean, the boss, the queen, who might have been trying to warn me when she spit me out the first time earlier that morning.

As I walked along the sand and reached the parking lot I felt a small numb twinge in my left foot. I looked down at my toes and saw that the toe next to my baby toe was limp and splayed wide like a V, dragging along not connecting with the rest of my toes as I walked. It was hard to tell if it hurt or if I could bend it as I was wet and dazed.

It must have happened when I fell into the rocks trying to get back onto my board, getting thrown around with the clattering stones. I definitely did not feel it happen. You usually didn’t need a doctor for a broken toe, you just had to wait for it to heal, maybe a using a little tape to keep the damaged toe stable. My stark relief already minimizing the dangerous position I had put myself in.

A limp toe was but a small price for the morning and what could have happened to me out there. I felt like a lucky woman and a foolish woman. Lost but still living, without my son, the thought of him truly gone still such a shock to me, only I realized that I was getting used to living in shock, with this particular state of shock. The shatteredness of my being becoming a part of me, the reformation happening in my body that does not deny the day he fell or the ocean who is still the queen.

     

Patsy Creedy lives in San Francisco, waiting with dread for the next wave of millionaires to arrive. She has an MA and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State. She worked for many years as a labor and delivery nurse helping women have babies at UCSF. She has published poems in Transfer Magazine, Dragon’s Leap and Inlandia. She has published some nonfiction work and recently completed a memoir about her brother who died of alcoholism. She co-leads an occasional writer’s workshop, “Writing the Way,” at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was a board member and speaker for several years at the SF Zen center for the Meditation and Recovery group that meets most Monday nights.

“A Healing Unto Death” by Laura English

“Transition” by Sydney McKenna, watercolor, 15″ x 45″

Enveloped by spring’s benevolence, the house has lost its chill. I’m sitting at the computer in the once frigid basement looking up how to load a gun and the best way to shoot so that I actually kill myself rather than paralyze my body for life. Silence surrounds me. The kids have just left for school. April has passed, but still—we must be in a cruel month because the light hasn’t penetrated. It’s as though a never-ending winter lurks beneath a superficial glow.

In the midst of these daily investigations, I drive myself to a free, community training on how to reach out to suicidal people. Maybe I want to heal from this illness of death, as I’ve come to call it. Maybe an insight will hit me when I listen to the social workers giving their spiel.

A man and a woman hand out booklets and fire up a Power Point. We role-play, and I get to be the one talking a fictitious, bankrupt farmer out of killing himself. I ask the polished and gentle counselor posing as farmer, “Do you have a plan?” And maybe I’m talking to myself.

When I get home, I leaf through the booklet and google Kevin Hines, the man mentioned at the training who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived to tell his story. “Suicide is never nor should ever be the answer.” Maybe I’m on the path to healing.

Healing, never cured. Recovery as unfinished work, like laundry or weeding.

Show me the shades of suicide. I don’t mean actual suicide but the thoughts of going through with it. One is bright but fades quickly, the fleeting idea, crimson turning pink then blanching. The dire attempt stains slowly like the indigo of dungarees.

How old was I when I tried to tie my first noose, and my brother found me out.“You’re not really going to do that”? Rolling his eyes, deflating my momentum.

My aunt also has a brain that betrays her and sends her into darkness, but she has never thought of suicide. “You have to be that type of person deep down.”

Pre-wired? Like an alcoholic? Suicide always sounded like a good idea to me. “Just do it, Hamlet!” I goad from the sideline. I knew, before I ever heard of Nietzsche, that the “thought of suicide is a solace.”

You have to want it to heal, and, I never wanted it. The world seemed heavy, and suicide light when I tried it for real the first time.

I have one foot on the gas pedal and one on the clutch. The garage door is closed, nobody’s awake in the house. I’ve eaten a full-sized Snickers bar without worrying that it will make me fat. I’ve also eaten a Pop-Tart. I won’t have to go running to burn off the calories. The maddening game with food and weight will be over.

As I wait for unconsciousness to overtake me, I remember the moment after the collision last week. My father is getting out of the car. The other driver is apologizing. “I saw you, but couldn’t stop in time.” I have just tried to make a left because I heard my father say from the passenger’s seat, “OK.” He meant, “Wait.”

My fault. No one is hurt. It’s just some dents. My father doesn’t even raise his voice at me. Accidents happen, especially when you just have your learner’s permit.

But, really, I deserve to be punished. In science we learned how the body takes in carbon monoxide easily, readily.

What saves me is a stab of sentimentality. I think of my mother. Tenderness and sadness command Enough! Also my leg is tired of holding in the clutch for an hour. Inexperienced driver that I am, I hadn’t thought of putting the Toyota in neutral. Behind my field of vision float purple splotches. I take the key out of the ignition, walk inside the house and collapse onto the couch. Fumes have slipped through the side door and filled this space my mother calls “the family room.” Later she tells me, “Cuddles was staggering.” Our mutt must have breathed the gas, and having a small body, became more intoxicated than I was.

In the arms of a counselor, who says people need more hugs, I smell the wool of his sweater, and am relieved when he pulls away. He’s supposed to be helping me, but soon he will analyze my parents’ marriage, and they will go to the sessions alone, baffled but obedient, trying to do their part to cure me. Every visit, he asks, “What is a happy family?” believing all troubles of youth can be traced to an unhappy home life. He calls anyone who would try suicide “selfish.” I think, “Isn’t it a good thing to do away with a daughter who only makes mistakes?”

Remission—a sending back or away. There were quiet times when I didn’t think once of killing myself, as if I decisively sent the illness away. Moments when my parents could sigh and say, “It was just a phase.”

I didn’t really send it away, but found substitutes for the illness. A sober alcoholic takes up street drugs. An eating anorexic takes up drinking. The obsession with suicide relented when I learned to cut myself.

I’m pressing the blade of a Swiss Army knife against my wrist, toying with the idea of bleeding to death. It’s the day before Valentine’s Day, and I fear no one besides my mom and dad will ever love me. By love, I mean pay attention to, send a flower to, prove I’m special because I think that’s how a person becomes real, some lesson I have perverted from the Velveteen Rabbit. I can’t seem to wield the knife with enough force. I only make a scratch. But the neat line of blood that appears on my wrist holds my attention.

I see a myriad of meanings in this red slit, but I can’t decipher them all. Understanding might lead to healing. I just want destruction. I make a second scratch and a third.

Knives give way to razors, then scissors, and one day fire. I still haven’t tried to understand it. I slash and burn because it feels good. There is pain, but it feels like relief. The irrational, the rational—none of this concerns me. To me it’s all bright red redemption.

What comes to replace self-mutilation? A darkness I can’t staunch in my twenty-first winter. I drop out of college and move in with my parents. I eat their food all day when they are at work. When I’m not bingeing, I lie on the couch. I want to stop putting everything in my mouth. My body gets heavier each day. The darkness is a broken levy. It gushes into my daylight. I open the Bible to Job and kneel on the living room floor. My face falls into the book. I sleep. I wake in a puddle of drool on the tissue-thin pages.

The “thought of suicide is a solace,” and in the mind of desperate person, it is the only way to stop the rising darkness. Now they have taken away my comfort in this hospital room with this tube shoved in my nose and this IV plugged into my wrist. I am forced to drink literal darkness in the form of liquid charcoal. The nurse explains, “It will bind with the poison in your system and take it out.” That is, it will let me live. I might be dead by now from the overdose I’d planned, but my mother called the house, and, stupidly, I answered the phone, sounding terribly drunk.

Even as I write about recovering from the illness of death, I still have the fantasy: End it all. Have I never been able to heal because I believe I can’t live without do-it-yourself respite? The escape pod has to be there when the Imperial troops are blasting the hell out of the rebel ship. R2D2 is the one with common sense, isn’t he? The droid who knows how to get out of a bad situation, not caring that the pod may land on some desolate planet, is the robot we love.

One day, still not knowing what cutting and burning meant, I fought the urge. It was the first time I wanted to heal. Maybe it was a way to grow up.

Because of a misunderstanding I hadn’t shown up to meet my father when he took my mother for a consultation with her oncologist. “Where were you? We waited!” Rare for him, this anger animating his words. Could I apologize and would that be enough? No, I had really screwed up.

The cutting would have taken the guilt and turned it into something clean. That much I knew. But for the first time in more than a decade, I didn’t reach for a blade. I let the ugly feelings come and cover me like a huge wave. I felt myself drowning. I was outside of my head, outside of the house in my father’s yard with my baby boy. I stared at the ocean green of the lawn, at the railing of the steps. Anything to keep from falling. It was unbelievable to me that the wave would recede, but die it did, and I hadn’t even touched the razor.

Now I was forever healing from the cutting and burning. I wanted it, and health could return.

Trickier to fight was the constant and sick urge to be thin. Finally I said yes to it at the expense of my health. As a mother of four in the middle of life, I refused to eat all but non-fattening food and learned to distract myself when I was hungry, making lists of forbidden foods or doing housework. The shorts that were too tight in the spring fell off my hips and slid to my ankles by the end of the summer. There should have a been a voice. You can stop now. But there wasn’t, or I didn’t want to hear it.

The doctor tells me I have to gain weight. “Drink two Ensures each day. That will give you 500 extra calories.” Simple as that. When I ignore her advice, she begins to scold and nag. She no longer lets me come to see her every four months for medication. Now it’s every four weeks. Finally at one visit she insists, “You must get help.” She has been known to drop patients for not complying.

The therapist, whose office is a converted bedroom of a quaint old house, wants me to heal, and she is a nice person. She keeps a glass bowl filled with dark chocolate in the waiting room. The foil wrappers are printed with inspirational messages. I seldom take one, fearing it will make me fat. I do workbook exercises for her, not wanting to write in the lines provided in the book, as if I can’t quite make the commitment to understanding my feelings and getting well. But I fill sheets of loose paper in the time between sessions, and I begin to eat more at meals.

My jeans are getting tighter. I can feel the flesh on my thighs squeezed by the denim whenever I sit. It’s a discomfort that voices itself in a whisper, then a shout: “You’ve failed. You’re out of control. Your body is about to explode.” I’m still thin, but all I can think is how a size 0 no longer fits me, and how I miss the anorexia. I miss it like a child who has died.

The plan is real this time. I’m not going to swallow pills. I intend to sneak my husband’s pistol out of the safe. I’ll never have to worry about getting fat again. When the kids are at school, I’m going to walk to the woods behind the railroad tracks.

It’s strange. A suicidal person is part bloodthirsty killer and part pacifist who couldn’t hurt a fly. I draft a suicide note, and it causes me to think of my family. My husband has a trip to Greece planned in August, which I don’t want him to miss. If I shoot myself in the head in May, I’ll spoil it. OK. Then, when he gets home from Europe. But school will be starting, and I’ll want the kids to have a good year. Maybe in October.

The counselor was right to say suicidal people are selfish, but he expressed it all wrong. “Selfish” makes them sound like inconsiderate people. They’re not. They’re swallowed by self. They have an inability to connect to the rest of humanity, a blindness to themselves as worthy the way they would see a loved one or even a stranger. To want to heal is to want to be part of the main, no longer “entire of itself.” I wanted the mother and wife to survive for her family.

To recover is to ask for help from others, but for some reason, it’s easier to enter the delicious solitude of escape. Once a psychiatrist told me, “Wanting suicide is as simple as wanting a vacation.” Just a human need to take a break, something that can be arranged. My therapist and I discussed the possibility of no longer keeping suicidal thoughts a secret.

After every serious attempt or plan, I promised myself that I wouldn’t do it again. As if I had found the cure.

Recovering is unfinished work, like growing.

Show me the shades of understanding a complex illness. First comes a vague sketch in pastel where I’m hardly a ghost. But as I go along, let my life be fleshed out and manifest in bold color, part of the web of common human need and remedy through fellowship.

Today I make no promises. The urge to take my own life will surface again and again. I know this. The best thing to do is translate the illness into healing. Wanting it. Visualizing less dramatic escapes. When disappointments are too much or darkness seems too thick, let it be a sign that I’m a person with needs, and as such I have a place in a vital network.

     

Laura English posts a daily blog called Eat More Life, a healing space for women living with anorexia. On Sunday afternoons, she teaches writing to people from all walks of life. Work has appeared in dozens of magazines including minnesota review, Sow’s Ear, Cider Press Review, Adanna, and Straylight. A chapbook, Graves Too Small to Be Red (Finishing Line Press) was published last year.

“Repossessed” by Ellen Leary

“Time is on Your Side” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas

I ran into him, by accident, in a department store in New York. Saks. He was buying a printed silk scarf—probably for one of his many paramours, I think, wryly. The familiar ache rises up and makes me turn away. I am going to pretend that I have not seen him and walk on, but just as I do, he turns.

“Reina! Is that you?”

His eyes flash with the sparkles that first made me fall in love with him, and he takes my arm.

“What a lovely surprise to run into you! How have you been? You look amazing!”

I manage a smile, privately relieved that I had taken some time with my appearance that morning. I know I look good. He gives me a once-over that would be highly inappropriate save from someone who had known your body intimately, and for a long time.

I think: Of all the department stores, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine …”

but I say,

“Jack. How nice to see you.”

He turns back to the saleslady who is wrapping the scarf while she processes his credit card.

“Hold on a second,” he says to me, not relinquishing my arm.

He signs the receipt with his right hand, still resting his left hand on my arm. His left hand has a wedding ring.

Of course I knew that he had remarried. The information had been batted around at a cocktail party and brought to my attention by my husband. “Did you know …?” he asked. “Of course!” I said, shrugging it off, although I experienced a sudden lightheadedness and was having trouble breathing.

He turns back to me:

“Can we … I mean … are you in a big rush? Or can we have a drink somewhere?”

“I … have a meeting I’m supposed to …” I find myself stammering and he sees me flush and smiles broadly.

“Ah, come on! How long has it been? Five years? More? I want to know what you’ve been up to. Can’t the meeting wait?”

It has been seven years. I look at my watch, apprehensively.

“I suppose so,” I say, regretting it immediately. But my heart has risen like a helium balloon. “I’ll … have to make a phone call.”

 “Go ahead,” he says.

He turns to take the shopping bag that the saleslady holds out to him and I see her face respond to the eye-sparkling smile he gives her. Like they all respond.

But I take my cellphone from my purse and walk a distance away, knowing that I will be talking to my answering machine.

“Hello?” I say, into the phone, “It’s Reina. I will be late for the meeting. Please go on without me. Thanks.” I turn the phone off and stare into the distance, amazed at what a cool liar I am. I walk back to him.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get out of here. I know a nice restaurant not far from here. It’s after lunch hour and I’m sure they’ll let us sit with a drink for a while.”

And just like that, as though we were still married, as though I was still his wife, his possession, as though the seven years of therapy had never happened, I let myself be led out of the store.

“Look” he says, pointing up to a wrought iron fire-escape on an apartment building across the street from us, “Look how New Yorker’s strive for a tiny touch of nature.” I look. There is a potted geranium sitting in the one shaft of sunlight that has made it through the concrete labyrinth. “In California,” he says, “there are beautiful flowers all around.”

We turn into a dimly lit restaurant — a French place — that is empty except for a bartender who looks up at us, scowling, as though he has just seen his cigarette break flying out the window. Behind the bar there are racks of wine bottles in a geometric pattern.

We sit down at one of the tables with a blue and white checkered tablecloth on it and the bartender approaches us, resigned.

“Something to drink?” he asks, pleasantly, in an accent that I take as French. Maybe scowling is just his natural demeanor.

“Yes,” says Jack. “Two extra-dry vodka martinis, straight up with a twist.” He remembers.

Then he looks at me,

“You still drink martinis, don’t you?”

I smile and nod, knowing that I don’t drink them in the middle of the day.

“Reina, Reina, Reina!” he says, looking at me and shaking his head. “Look at you! Red is your color!”

“So you always said.”

“I guess the divorce did you good!”

“Oh, Jack. Don’t be ridiculous. The divorce didn’t ‘do me good’; I just pulled myself together afterward and managed to go on with my life. (Good for you, I think! Assert yourself a little.)

“What about you?” I ask. “ You are looking very well also.”

He sits back and sighs, looks down at the table.

 “Yeah. Things have been … good. I’m … I’m just in town for a short time. Actually, leaving tomorrow morning.” He looks up. “I am living in California now. Doing the tennis thing. “

“Ah. That accounts for the tan,” I say, smiling.

A piebald cat emerges from behind the bar and sits on its haunches licking its front paws.

“Yeah. It’s a nice life out there. I don’t know … you get a little older and the winters here start to wear you down. You might consider it yourself.” He looks up hopefully.

The waiter puts the two martini glasses down on the table and leaves.

“You know, I think of you often, Reina,” he says, fingering the stem of his glass. “Do you ever think of me?” He looks up waiting for my answer.

“Sure.” I say. “I think of you every time I wear a piece of the jewelry you gave me.” (Good retort. Keep hitting them back, I say to myself. All you have to do is get them over the net.)

It is beautiful jewelry. He has good taste. Some for my birthday; some for our anniversaries, and some for when he’d come home much too late. When all the wars are over and civilizations crushed, jewelry is what will remain. If you don’t believe me, go to the Met.

What I don’t say is that I once stood stock still on a busy New York street thinking I saw him, only to realize, as he came closer, that it was a stranger. Or how, late at night, when my mind wanders, I recall his hands. Or how my life went unspooling when he left and how I ran like a frantic child to pick up the thread.

He raises his glass.

“To old times,” he says.

I raise mine.

“To old times.”

We clink glasses.

The martini is good. Cold and sharp and the vodka infuses my mouth with its familiar bite. May it give me strength, I pray.

He studies my face. He tilts his head and slides his bottom teeth forward, slightly, absently scraping his top teeth. He eyes are searching mine, looking from one to the other. I feel the hackles or the shackles or whatever you call them rise on the back of my neck.

“I hear you’re with someone nice.” he says.

“Really?” I am taken aback. “Who told you?”

“Oh, people are always giving me updates on you,” he says.

I am surprised, but pleasantly so.

There is a pause. The ball is in my court. I have to say something. I meet his eyes.

“Yes,” I say. (Noncommittal. But still an answer. The score is thirty-love. Only, don’t mention “love.”)

He sighs and sits back.

My husband is nice, I think. He is kind and loving and takes good care of me. I have a happy life. A calm and centered life. But how can I say — it is like a missing limb that has been replaced by a brace: an up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art artificial leg. That you strap on and you can walk as though nothing had happened. It is perfectly functional. But it doesn’t stop you from dreaming that you still had the real thing.

Somewhere in the back of my closet in a shoe box there is a letter in his familiar handwriting. A letter that says, “You need someone who will take a little care of you. I was never good at taking care of you. I let you get fat and unhappy.”

“He takes good care of me,” I say. (Game, set, match!)

“No children?” he asks. He knows the answer. If there had been children his sources would have told him, surely.

“No,” I say.

“We should have had some” he says. “Maybe that would have kept the marriage together.”

“Ha! It rarely does that, so I am told,” I say. “Anyway, I’m passed all that, I’m afraid.”

“Why? You’re still young, Reina. You are two years younger than I am. And I am … what? 41?”

“You are 45, Jack.”

“Oh. Really? Ah. Yeah, I guess so.”

“And you?” I ask, trying to make my voice airy. “No children?” (I don’t want to hear the answer.)

“No,” he says. “She has two from her first marriage, but they live with their father. She didn’t want any more.”

I nod. My heart resumes beating.

“Still. We should’ve had some, Reina. They would have been something else!” He smiles at me.

I manage a smile back, thinking, Yeah. They would have been something else!

We stay silent for a while, drinking our martinis and thinking of the children we never had.

“I’m glad that things worked out well for you, Reina. That you seem happy.”

Maybe I should tell him about my recurring dream: the one where I am standing at the luggage carousel of some airport. My suitcase has sprung its locks and is going around and around with the top open. All my belongings are spilling out. My intimates, my bras and panties are strewn across the metal belt, for all to see. I try to pull the suitcase off the conveyer while at the same time stretch out one hand for the items that are moving out of my reach. I am trying to hold everything together and keep the lid of the suitcase from springing open again. (I don’t need a therapist to explain the dream to me.)

A group of rowdy young people enter the restaurant. They appear to have been drinking. They sprawl at a nearby table, laughing and speaking French. The waiter eyes them and brings over some menus. One girl gets up and sits down on her boyfriend’s lap. She is caressing his neck.

We watch them. There goes our quiet drink. He reaches out and puts his hand over mine.

 “My hotel is right down the block,” he says. “The New York Palace. Madison and 50th. You know it, it used to be the Helmsley Palace. Why don’t we go there where it is quiet? I have a dinner I have to attend this evening, but we’ll still have time …”

My blood feels as though it has been carbonated.

‘Yes!” I say, “Yes!” But the words that come out of my mouth are: “I can’t, Jack, I have to get back to my husband.”

He nods, releases my hand, and finishes his drink. I finish mine, excuse myself and find the ladies’ room.

Inside I collapse on a striped divan. Oh God! To be able to pretend for one hour that all the hurt had never happened. That we are still young and so in love. To shut our eyes and cling to each other as we used to; to feel his arms around me, his mouth on mine …to fill the well of longing for just a tiny moment. To feel whole again!

Why did I have to arrive at Saks at exactly that time? What if I had stopped in at the shoemaker’s as I had planned to do, and not suddenly change my mind when I saw the bus approaching? I never would have been at the scarf counter at the same time he was. Why didn’t I turn away a split second sooner, before he saw me? Can all of life hinge on such a tenuous element of chance?

I pull myself together and run a comb through my hair. I add some lipstick and determine to go back out there and face up to the challenge. The martini has made its way into my bloodstream and is giving me strength.

He stands as I approach the table.

“I’ve paid the bill,” he says.

“Thank you,” I manage to say. We leave the restaurant and stand outside for a moment. He is headed in one direction; I in the other.

“Maybe we could meet every five years or so,” he says. “It’s been nice catching up with you.”

“Sure” I say.

I smile at him. A lock of his perfectly coiffed hair has blown lose and I reach to pat it back into place, but stop myself. I think of Barbra Streisand standing in front of the Plaza with Robert Redford at the end of THE WAY WE WERE. That gesture she did spoke volumes. It was so inmate. It told of the affection they still had for each other; of past lives living together, laughing in the sunshine and making love, but there was also the poignancy of the differences that rose up to crush the love — not all of it. Just enough so as not to be able to live together.

I kiss his cheek. “See you in five years,” I say.

I turn and head down the block. I can feel he is watching me, but I don’t turn back. I walk into Saks and go up to the same counter where ladies’ scarves are sold. It only takes me a minute to find a beautiful silk scarf that is way out of my price range. I take it up to the saleslady. It is the same saleslady who was there before. She doesn’t recognize me. That often happens when you stand beside Jack, I think. Standing in his aura. No one can see you because the light that he gives off is so blinding.

I pay for the scarf, head out of the store wearing it and hail a taxi. I give the driver my address and sit back in the seat. There will be no one at home, I know. My husband is away on a business trip. One end of the scarf flutters in the open window.

     

Ellen Tovatt Leary spent twenty years acting on the professional stage. She performed in theaters from the Ahmanson in Los Angeles to the State Theatre in Lincoln Center, including four Broadway, many off-Broadway and regional theaters. She worked with Hal Prince, Maureen Stapleton and James Hammerstein among others. She graduated from Antioch College and was a Fulbright scholar at LAMDA. Her first book, a memoir, Mother Once Removed, details her childhood growing up on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in the 1940s with an eccentric, divorced mother. She was on the writing staff of the Carnegie Hill News in New York for fourteen years. She has published short stories as well as poems, is a native New Yorker who currently resides, with her husband, in LA.

“The Museum of Salt-Encrusted Objects” by Faye Brinsmead

Clouds in sunlight, a painting.
“After Effects” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 30″ x 36″

I didn’t realize I was an artist until yesterday. Breakfasting in the empty dining room, I picked up a book from the coffee table to browse while I ate my muesli. I holiday here, at the Marine Guest House, every winter. In the hope that sea and sky will reach in, grab the gray-blue churn of my moods, and never give them back.

The book was about an Israeli artist who immerses emotionally-charged objects in the Dead Sea. Entranced, I turned page after page. A suspended tutu grew a mantle of Russian snow. Quartz-glitter court shoes waltzed the ghosts of scarlet toe-nails. A muffled violin dreamed of being a baby white whale.

She had been creating salt sculptures for more than 20 years, I read.  Maybe I’ve been doing it for twice as long, I thought. All those things I pushed into the dead sea …  I pictured the objects that tell the story of that day as museum exhibits, encased in glass. Each transformed by a shimmer of salt. Beneath the sparkly crusts, their colors were unfaded. I was protected, yet not protected, from shocks of recognition. I was 45. I was five. I am five.   

The Pink Dress

I’m wearing my cioccolato dress. I don’t know cioccolato is Italian for chocolate. To me, the looping letters on the label mean the family of pinks picnicking on the puffed sleeves, the satin sash, the three-tiered ruffle. It came in a big padded envelope for my birthday. Grandma’s blue scrawl on the front. Today, when the church ladies admired it, I hid behind the elm. Now I’m hiding under the bed, because Pastor and Mrs Winter have come to lunch.

Squatting beside the elm, Pastor Winter said, Would you like to ride home with us? I shook my head, pink as my dress. Say no thank you, Pastor Winter, said Mom. I said it to his shoes. Shining so darkly the looping elm-leaf letters wrote on the toes.  

The Black Patent Shoes

They squeak like mechanical mice. In the toyshop window before Christmas.  Does he wind them up before putting them on? The pointed toes are twitching noses. The laces, whiskers. The nose-tips stop at the edge of the rug. That high whooshing must be some dog hunting the mice. I wait for it to spring.

I’m sad you’re hiding when I’ve come especially to see you.  There’s nothing to be afraid of. If you come out, I’ll read you a story.

More whooshing. The mice scare me, but the thought of the dog attacking them is worse.

When they hear me crawling out, the dog and the mice go carefully backwards together.  

The Storybook

Most stories aren’t for Sundays. Not Bambi, or Amelia Bedelia. Uncle Joseph’s Bible Stories are, though. Their blue spines march across the bookcase in the living room.

Pastor Winter’s hand has lines and knots like floorboards. It slides out Volume Fifteen. Beneath a dazzling sky, Jesus, in a fluffy white bathrobe, embraces yellow, pink and brown children.  Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. We sang that today.   

I follow him to the couch. When he sits, his arms and legs creak. His pants swish.  He gives his trouser-knee a dry slap.

Sit here.  

The Eyes

This huge close face makes me want to hide again. Its wooden slats slide up and down when he smiles and talks. The smell through his white shirt and black tie is too sweet, like the maple-sugar candy I found under the back seat of the car. His hair is yellow-white feathers. His eyes are shut in two wire cages. They dart around, as if they want to get out. I don’t want them to get out. 

There is something else. Wanting to get out. It fidgets behind the ruffles of my dress. I don’t want to know what it is. Not-wanting fills me. The room. The house.    

The Black Lamb (which Smells of Raspberry Jam)

In the dark I hug black lamb. He’s from Grandma, too. He has black button-eyes. I press my face into him, breathing the raspberry jam smell of his real wool. Not thinking. Not remembering. Raspberry jam. Raspberry jam.     

The Salt Grinder

Nothing is as clean as salt. If you sprinkle its scrubbed-fingernail flakes over something, the real look and taste get covered up. Like snow. Only it won’t ever melt.

I’m fine, I say. Grinding. Everything’s fine.

After grinding, I’d always pretend I hadn’t. The grinder joined the other things pushed into the still, green, dead sea. The lamb, the eyes, the storybook, the shoes, the dress.   

Yesterday, I re-encountered them all. Gazing at their hard brilliance as the ocean churned up its own intestines, grinding fresh salt by the ton. When the first stars came out, I unlocked the display cabinets and set them free.

Right here, on the beach, I created an open-air museum. It’s only temporary. Day by day, wind and waves will scour my sculptures until they’re not art anymore. Just small, naked scraps of life, able to breathe at last.

     

Faye Brinsmead  lives in Canberra, Australia. A lawyer by day, she writes flash fiction in all the snippets of time she can find. Recent work appears in MoonPark Review, The Cabinet of Heed, Twist in Time Literary Magazine, Reflex Fiction and The Ekphrastic Review. She tweets @ContesdeFaye.     

“My Father’s Ashes” by Don Minson

“The Last Stand” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″

We know (for certain) little more than what we’ve held onto and then had to let go of.

Letting go of life does not happen easily. Neither for the living nor the dying. In his last moments, my father struggled to hang on with all the effort and energy he could summon after life support was removed. Until he could no more. And without mythology, or stories, but not without precedent, his heart stopped, as did his breathing, and the light in his eyes receded like a wave returning to the Chesapeake Bay, where he’d spent time growing up and where he’d met my mother, the girl next door.

The moment of death—apparent, immediate, and experienced by everyone in the room—shocked and emptied the hearts gathered around his bed—and time stopped, briefly. Immortality was interrupted for every one of us—living and dead—in that cold, fluorescent, and antiseptic little room in the ICU.

 To honor the passing of Albert Finney, I elected to watch Big Fish again. It was both an easy choice from among the films of his that I’ve admired, and a difficult one—because I knew I’d have to revisit the experience that made it so emotionally affecting and meaningful to me in the first place. I first watched it not long after my father’s death.

We revisit our grief guardedly, reverently, and cautiously. And it’s only easier when we feel we’re strong enough to bear it again in that safest of mythological places: storytelling.

Grief and trauma and healing are a magic circle, a mandala. At the heart of which is an ancestral story that unfolds the experience of all ages. The retelling of that ancient story to our grievous naivete slows time, concentrically expands into our being like the echoes of generations who finally have a voice to interrupt our childlike, defiant sense of immortality. To give us new ground upon which to stand, that we first experience in much the same way that beings of flight experience a hard landing from lofty enterprise.

Some films have a ritual character for us. We may only watch them when it’s appropriate to engage with their incantations, to bear their uncanny spiritual propensity to draw out from those ancient hiding places, those ancestral and traditional psychic containers of grief-cum-transformation built in to our being from before time. When death was a preface to life.

The stories these films tell us resonate with where we are  in our lives as we watch them anew, because of, or in spite of, our numinous experience of the loss of everything we’d known for sure, connecting with our lives or our grief. Repeated viewings of a film give us the opportunity to leap through time, engage with history and the future, and we’re offered the opportunity to remain beset by nostalgia and sentiment, or to alter the outcome of the future, risking that our old selves may not survive in the altered timeline, and that in our own story we may have to reinvent ourselves partially or wholly.

Among other places in time, Big Fish takes me back to confronting my father about his lies, his stories. Seeking resolution for all of the questions I’ve accumulated over the years, hearing the different iterations told to family and others. It was around the time of his first cancer diagnosis, over the telephone on our weekly call, and I’d had a few drinks and was feeling brave. I remember his voice conveyed an unexpected and genuine humility. He wasn’t defensive, but sounded hurt and contrite. He told me truths I believed. He also afforded me respect for having called him out. Something had settled between us, and definitely in me. Hubris would always be suspect after that and neither one of us could express it before the other. Icarus could now avoid the fall, and no longer had need of his father’s admonitions.

The loss of our first parent has the most impact, regardless of their hierarchical status in our life. When my father died, it was a choice the family had to make, in light of his wishes as discussed with our mother. He was in the hospital, on life support, and that was all that was, or could, keep him alive—and it was unsustainable. He was conscious and aware, and my mother had discussed with him his lack of options and his decision regarding his living will. There was no choice but to pull the plug, with his consent, as a willing and conscious participant. I cannot fathom, nor will I ever know his thoughts and feelings at such a prospect. But what I witnessed was a man both mortally acquiescent and fearfully relieved of all pretense of who he may have become through all the years of his life, by way of all the stories he may have told himself, or shared with others to have defined, in whatever way, the character he was able to create of himself. This also told me truths I believed.

As our family gathered around his hospital bed when the machines were turned off, I held his hand, I sobbed and told him how much I loved him, and our family did the same. But his eyes were turned to something beyond us all, unfocused, turned inward to something only he could know, and outward to some point beyond whatever horizon was available to him in that little room full of everyone close that he’d ever loved.

I looked at him one last time, and with my fingers I closed the lids over his empty eyes. Because immortality can only be suspended for so long before it’s unbearable.

Religious dogma would suggest that eternity is time everlasting. I think that’s a function of grief, of how memory works when death happens. Because that’s how we remember the moment of death not our own. It becomes fixated in our timeline. But I like the eastern metaphysical definition that eternity is timelessness. Time stops when you die. Time stops when someone dies in front of you. The notions of past and future die when life is accepted as an extended series of present moments. The look of a man facing the unknown, not focused on any discernible interior or exterior horizon, is suspended in awe of the mystery of being and is freer than anyone surrounding him locked into the moment of their grief. For all parties involved, there is little more than that present moment. And it exists outside of time. What goes on for what feels like forever is only memory.

The memory of my father’s death would go well beyond that week of dying and memorializing immediate grief.

I arrived home following the conventionally ritualized emotional chaos of grieving, and was wholly alone for the first time since the day my mother rang me from the hospital, the morning after I’d gone to the family home to get some rest, to inform me it was time to pull the plug. And after my childish recriminations, I cried uncontrollably in the safety of the shower. Wholly alone with my grief for a death that had yet to happen, but was unavoidably approaching. The child, the boy, the teenager, the young man, the adult, all wanted to wash it away, to rinse it off.  But I could not come clean. There was no ablution. I had to man up like the paratrooper my father once was and dive into this experience headfirst and hope I could pull the ripcord in time.

But back home, after all that—the week of the hospital, the death, the obituary, the eulogy, the family leave from work—I had to return to an empty house and begin a life ahead without my father. I was not lonely, but I had yet to feel alone as a man. Whole, for once. My own man with no living paternity. Like an orphan with some spiritual imperative that I had yet to understand.

It would be years before I would. Spirit is the dynamism of the human personality. The agent of transformation. It’s a generative force that moves through our mind and body. Instinctual and archetypal patterns of behavior that compel or inspire. It could belong to you, accumulated from your past experiences:trauma, memories, dreams, reflections. It could belong to the human race, or your family history, an accumulation of the experiences of ancestors bequeathed to you genetically or behaviorally, unconsciously. It could feel religious or divine:gods, devils, daemons, angels, demons, ghosts. Or psychological, as pathology, anxiety, neurosis, talent, or grace. But in any case, whatever its source, by its behavior, it becomes a resource to tap into, and by which we are compelled to act. When we are ripe or ready, spirit constellates as an imperative to act. To move us so that we may move ourselves along the path, to blossom or wither, for the next season of our being. It is by the creativity of nature, that by our own nature, we become creative.

Creative inspiration, so easy to recognize but difficult to harness,  bears before it the mask of repressed conflicts, trauma, and neurosis. That stands between us and the face of spirit and is the subject of much art. The process of creating is the same process by which our conflicts, trauma, and neuroses are removed as subjects so that we may experience the generative aspect of spirit and move beyond our present place into something new. And it may present itself in images or forms wholly unexpected or unprecedented in our lives.

That first night, as I was about to undress, I sat in the chair beside my bed, and it all came out. All the grief and the tears hidden behind the facade of the formalism, the ritual, the convention. Behind the telling of my father’s story to an audience of family, friends, and strangers.

And I did not grasp it then, but I would no longer be able to tell my father’s story—if ever I could have done it faithfully to begin with—except to an audience who needed to hear his myth through the eyes of his son. I could only tell my story from that point on. And that was frightening. For I had no experience to begin such an imposing enterprise.

Alone, with the last light left on in the house. In the chair beside my bed. My elbow on my knee. My forehead in my hand. I cried like I’d not cried since I was a child. And I closed my eyes. And I had a vision. An archetypal image rose  from the grief that had coiled around my heart. I saw from a point of view outside myself, a great serpent. It appeared from behind me, its great head above my head, and it planted a  fang, deep into my skull, reaching down into the reptilian part of my brain—where sensation and memory and emotion and instinct lay—and I could see the venom inside the fang injecting into me, the poison of grief. 

My father feared snakes pathologically. My mother, seemingly fearless of snakes, may have otherwise religiously assigned to them the evil of the Bible. I loved them as a child and had fantasized about raising them in an underground vault in the yard of the farmhouse we lived in when I was in the fifth grade—when my parents’ marriage was uncertain, where sexual trauma had happened, where we were poor for a while, and lived off of grace and ingenuity, where my father experienced his first midlife crisis, where I was sensitive to the anxiety and neuroses of mysterious parental secrets, and full of prepubescent fears and uncertainty, feeling like an outsider in so many ways. I would fantasize about milking the snakes to create antidotes. A meaning that became clear to me as an adult when I would come to know snakes to be creatures of healing and gnosis. Animations of the spirit rising from the dark places of the earth. Coiled around the staff of Asklēpiós painted on the side of every ambulance my parents ever rode in during their 10-year tenure as rural rescue squad volunteers.

The venom of grief was a transformative medicine preparing me for a life yet lived. I had a childish skin I would need to shed, and I could only do that by the inoculation of the spirit of the serpent. No apples, no devils, no temptation, no fear. No immunity. But I would gain some measure of resistance, to build up strength against grief to come. Most especially, against the coming of age of my own mortality.

Over the course of that week, something strange happened. I would go to bed, lights off, wide awake, mild anxiety, spiritual tension, mind full, house quiet, with a sense of all the negative space in the rooms of the house, like empty receptacles to be filled with whatever my mind might pour out into them. It was a new kind of feeling alone. A sensory response to all that was empty around me.

I would sense an intruder, an unwelcome presence in the house. In the next room. It would elicit fear and occupy my full focus. I would muster the kind of courage only a younger man full of fear could muster. The hyperbole of untested bravery. The adrenaline of fight over flight. And I would leap out of bed, armed with whatever blunt object was available, and enter boldly, yelling aggressively as I strode into the next dark room to fend off whatever adversary lay in wait. Then I’d switch on the light to find nothing but emptiness. This happened once or twice that first time, and maybe another night or two before it subsided.

I know some family and friends would speculate that it was the ghost of my father, perhaps come back one last time. A visitation of spirit to allay my grief. Or with some message from the afterlife. But I knew that would not have mustered my fear, it would have summoned my awe. And anyhow, I don’t believe in any of that. I have enough ghosts in my life. It was something very real, but It was something else.

Marie-Louise von Franz was hired at eighteen years of age by Carl Jung to translate medieval Latin alchemical texts. She would later become one of the first-generation Jungian analysts. Her intimacy with Jung’s ideas would make her an expert exponent of them. In one of her books, she intimated her inability to initially grasp one of Jung’s key concepts, that of Active Imagination. She expressed her frustration with the fact that others around her, some sharing my own temperament, showed more facility in their attempts.

Active Imagination is a therapeutic technique, an exercise in creativity, whereby one allows the contents of the unconscious to flow unrestricted, through the imagination, and express themselves in some artistic and imaginative creative form, more especially in a form that the subject is not well versed in, to enable the ego to engage in a kind of Platonic dialectical relationship with the objective Other within. The idea being that there is more of an opportunity for mistakes to be made, to find chinks in the armor, to allow that inner voice which was otherwise assiduously overlooked or repressed, to make a statement in whatever unfamiliar creative language alleviated the restrictions of habit and form. The key is that it must be emotionally provocative to consciousness, to the ego—the imaginative construct must elicit the same emotional reality as we would experience if we encountered it in real life. You may imagine meeting up with a lion, but if your experience of that encounter does not elicit the same tension and trepidation and trigger the same instinctual fear, then you have not achieved Active Imagination, just pedestrian fantasy. 

Sometime later, von Franz found herself alone in her cabin in the mountains of Switzerland at night and heard a sound outside. There had been reports of local intruders with violent intent. She found herself fearful for her life and entirely convinced that someone was trying to get in. She, a potential victim of violence, responded by grabbing a staff or a gun to meet the threat—full of adrenaline and fear, fully engaged in defending herself, only to discover that she had engaged finally in an act of Active Imagination. To encounter a projection of her own unconsciousness so engaging that her rational, thinking mind would submit to the irrational, emotional image. This was profound.

For a while, I thought what I experienced was an encounter with death personified. What else could it be?  I mean, my father had just died, right? But after reflection I understood it was the spectre of my own mortality. Imposing upon me a long-forgotten secret from a time when death was a preface to life. Once the threshold of my unconscious idea of immortality was breached in that hospital room, through my grief, through communal convention, there was no passing back through that door. I would have to live, understanding that I would die, not just knowing that it would happen to me. To live against this new backdrop, this scene change, this sea change, I would have to live differently. I would experience living differently. The experience of time would be altered, against a backdrop of timelessness, eternity, and mortality.

I would spend the next few weeks processing my grief by engaging in the ritual of cleaning house, literally scrubbing and reorganizing all those “empty” spaces in my home. Reaching the kind of catharsis I couldn’t in the shower that day of my father’s death. My imagination was full, and my dream life so active, it became necessary to start a dream journal to process it all.

Our imaginations are always active and adaptive. Whether we’re remembering events in our lives, reexperiencing a film or book or story, reimagining our future, lying in bed unable to sleep, processing our grief by whatever means, or attempting to confront our past in the hopes of a better outcome. Accepting the present moment as the death of time, allowing the past and the future to die to a succession of present moments, allows us the opportunity to alter the timeline. Just because trauma has the potential to fix our emotional development in a particular place and time, does not mean we are stuck there without hope of rescue. Anamnesis, is the active opposite of passive amnesia—the remembering. Indeed, sometimes that’s enough, but if we allow ourselves to actively engage emotionally, outside of the conventions of nostalgia or repression or sentimentality, we are free to pick up where we left off, and start growing again.

Big Fish isn’t the only film I associate with my father’s death. Indeed, there is another, more synchronistic, more immediate, and possibly more potent film experience.

The evening of my father’s memorial at the church, my mother and I sat outside, had a long talk, and she allowed me (this one time) to drink alcohol in her house. It was a strange kind of release and contentment, our talk. For we had rarely ever gotten along. But life would be different now. A future less circumscribed by past relationships. The hard part felt finished. She was tired, I was wide awake. And she went off to bed.

Quite decidedly I would stay up with a movie. And as I perused my father’s DVD collection, I found a few he’d burned to disk. One, a film I’d wanted to see but hadn’t. There it was, labeled in his own handwriting, transferred by his own hand, and handed to me by circumstance or coincidence on the evening of the end of that difficult week: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. A movie about awe in the face of death, the universal and instinctual reach for immortality, the search for meaning,  acceptance of mortality, and that “death is what makes us special” vis-a-vis our eternal maker..

The film’s themes were resonant, potent, and impressive: time shifts; the earthy v. airy archetypal themes of an ancient past and fantastical future flanking a central and transformative present, heavy with portent and difficult emotional subject matter; themes of regeneration, acceptance, resignation, grief, hanging onto and letting go of. In the final scene, the protagonist finds and plants the (empty) seedpod of the sweet gum tree on his dead lover’s grave. By happenstance, I’d later find one or two of these seedpods.

My mother created a memorial to my father, gravestone included, in the side yard of their house, even though he’d been cremated. We added tokens of our memory and our love, scattered and buried some of his ashes there, gathered a year later and sang songs with guitar.

Later it was less well tended, like our memories and our love. I would tend to it, in honor of my father on one of my later visits. Because nature had taken over and absorbed all the immediacy and hard lines of our experiences and given them curves and growing things that would subsume the potency of our grief. But I got a chance early on to plant one of those sweetgum seedpods in a nod to the unexpected gift my father had left me for that quiet night alone in his living room with The Fountain, sitting in his chair, after his memorial service. That weird, rare opportunity to grow into something, to have my experiences converge upon these themes like nature converges on the opportunity of death to fertilize new life. Like in the film:  when the flowers sprout out of the heart of the protagonist in a violent and fecund blossom of life after his tasting of the sap of the tree of life. But also, like at the end of the film, my seedpod, planted, was empty of seeds. And nothing could grow from it that wasn’t already in my heart. It would never show up on the landscape next to the house, but it might grow into a story. Perhaps my own.

The Fountain felt more transcendent in dealing with the acceptance of grief and mortality. But Big Fish is the film that touched so strongly on that sense of being happily led on and ultimately deceived and betrayed by those “dad” tales, whose exaggerations and flourishes keep you both entranced and suspicious of the truth of who your father was, for many years to come, and the possibility of what your past may become to your future self. Somewhere in there was the potential that the conflict between the two may end up leaving you in awe of what  your own life could be, given the latitude to write your personal story. 

I’m midway between the age I was then and the age my father was when he died. Up to now, those experiences have felt like an empty seedpod. Reflecting on them has offered me a medium to tell my story. Milking the serpents. Writing it felt sometimes like trying to wrangle the rushing volume of splashes, spritzes, and spray from a spring fountain gushing up out of the earth, and then directing them to perform a play for an audience of one, without getting wet. But getting wet isn’t such a bad idea. If all you have is your bare hands, you have to risk the serpents’ bite, climb into the fountain if you want to catch the fish. And then you have to let them go. But sometimes, if you embrace something in the right way, it feels just like letting go of it.

The feeling I’m left with after having embraced the process of telling this story, is reminiscent of the feeling I felt after receiving one of my father’s hugs. Transformed, unmasked, regenerated. And after letting go, perhaps happily unresolved.

     

Don Minson is a UVa alumnus, works in Business Administration, and lives in Charlottesville, Va. He’s an accomplished music festival photographer who shoots under the pseudonym Wiley Quixote, and has previously contributed photographic illustrations to the r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal. In his spare time, he enjoys listening to music, watching films, drawing, painting, writing poetry, playing guitar, Jungian psychology, and learning how to write prose.

Contributors Summer 2019

Faye Brinsmead (The Museum of Salt-Encrusted Objects) lives in Canberra, Australia. A lawyer by day, she writes flash fiction in all the snippets of time she can find. Recent work appears in MoonPark Review, The Cabinet of Heed, Twist in Time Literary Magazine, Reflex Fiction and The Ekphrastic Review. She tweets @ContesdeFaye.     

Jennifer Campbell (Diving In) is an English professor in Buffalo, NY, and a co-editor of Earth’s Daughters. She has two full-length poetry collections, Supposed to Love and Driving Straight Through, and was a finalist in both the 2017 Fairy Tale Review Poetry Contest and the 2014 River Styx International Poetry Contest. Several of her poems appear in journals such as Pinyon Review, Little Patuxent Review, The Healing Muse, Sow’s Ear, Comstock Review, Pennsylvania English, Saranac Review, Oyez Review, and Fugue, and her work is forthcoming in the AROHO Waves Anthology.

Patsy Creedy (Cardiff by the Sea) lives in San Francisco, waiting with dread for the next wave of millionaires to arrive. She has an MA and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State. She worked for many years as a labor and delivery nurse helping women have babies at UCSF. She has published poems in Transfer Magazine, Dragon’s Leap and Inlandia. She has published some nonfiction work and recently completed a memoir about her brother who died of alcoholism. She co-leads an occasional writer’s workshop, “Writing the Way,” at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was a board member and speaker for several years at the SF Zen center for the Meditation and Recovery group that meets most Monday nights.

Laura English (A Healing Unto Death) posts a daily blog called Eat More Life (https://eatmorelife.weebly.com), a healing space for women living with anorexia. On Sunday afternoons, she teaches writing to people from all walks of life. Work has appeared in dozens of magazines including minnesota reviewSow’s EarCider Press ReviewAdanna, and Straylight. A chapbook, Graves Too Small to Be Red (Finishing Line Press) was published last year.

Soramimi Hanarejima (New Hierarchy) is a writer of innovative fiction and the author of Visits to the Confabulatorium, a fanciful story collection that Jack Cheng said, “captures moonlight in Ziploc bags.” Soramimi’s recent work can be found in The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018KYSO Flash and Book XI

Ellen Tovatt Leary (Repossessed) spent twenty years acting on the professional stage. She performed in theaters from the Ahmanson in Los Angeles to the State Theatre in Lincoln Center, including four Broadway, many off-Broadway and regional theaters. She worked with Hal Prince, Maureen Stapleton and James Hammerstein among others. She graduated from Antioch College and was a Fulbright scholar at LAMDA. Her first book, a memoir, Mother Once Removed, details her childhood growing up on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in the 1940s with an eccentric, divorced mother. She was on the writing staff of the Carnegie Hill News in New York for fourteen years. She has published short stories as well as poems, is a native New Yorker who currently resides, with her husband, in LA.

Ellen Lord (Relative Sanity) is a Michigan native. Her poetry has appeared in Open Palm Print Magazine, Peninsula Poets Chapbooks and Traverse Area District Library Poets Night Out chapbooks. She was the recipient of the Mike McGuire Poetry Prize in 2019 and won the Landmark Books Haiku Contest in 2017. She is a member of the Fresh Water Poets Group in Traverse City and the Charlevoices Writers’ Group in Charlevoix. She is a behavioral health therapist and loves working with folks who navigate the murky perimeters of mainstream society.

Welton B. Marsland (The Australian Valiant in Its Natural Habitat) is a queer-punk writer from Melbourne, Australia whose stories, poetry & more have appeared in many local & international markets. Debut novel “By the Currawong’s Call”, set in 1890s Australia, recently won the Romance category at the 2018 Bisexual Book Awards in New York and is available through harpercollins.com.au Twitter: @wbmarsland Website: weltonbmarsland.com

Amie McGraham (Training Wheels) grew up on an island in Maine and now lives in the desert southwest. A freelance writer, family caregiver and petsitter, she received her BA in English from Arizona State University. Her fiction has been short-listed for the Fulton Prize, New Guard Review and The Offbeat and she was a two-time semi-finalist in Tucson’s Festival of Books Literary Awards. Her work has appeared in Exposition Review, Motherwell, Women on Writing, The Caregiver Space, Wanderlust Journal, Creative Nonfiction, Best Friends Animal Society and elsewhere. Her flash blog, “This Demented Life,” was featured by AlzAuthors and is read internationally.

Melissa McKinstry (The Hippocratic Oath) grew up on small farms outside of Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, learning how things grow and how people take care of each other in small communities. She is currently a student in the MFA poetry program at Pacific University. Her poetry has appeared in The Seattle Review and Quaint Canoe, EcoPoetry Washington, and is forthcoming in the first issue of Heirlock. She works to follow the advice of poet Joe Millar: “Sanctify yourself as a poet. Sit down and write every day.”

Sydney McKenna (Illustrator) was born in Santa Monica, California in 1953, and has called Florida her home since age 11. She began her painting career in the Sarasota area in the mid- eighties as a mostly self-taught watercolor artist and gained quick success, winning awards and exhibiting in Sarasota Art Galleries. After obtaining a degree in Visual Arts from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida and making the switch to oil painting in 1996, she attended a semester of graduate studies in fine art at Cortona, Italy through the University of Georgia. Sydney then returned to the United States, where she relocated to St. Augustine and operated the Sydney McKenna Gallery from 1997 to 2013. She sees St. Augustine as the perfect combination of her two favorite locales: European architecture combined with the lush Florida environment

Don Minson (My Father’s Ashes) is a UVa alumnus, works in Business Administration, and lives in Charlottesville, Va. He’s an accomplished music festival photographer who shoots under the pseudonym Wiley Quixote, and has previously contributed photographic illustrations to the r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal. In his spare time, he enjoys listening to music, watching films, drawing, painting, writing poetry, playing guitar, Jungian psychology, and learning how to write prose.

Cris Mulvey (The Unfastening of Winter) was born and raised in Ireland and spent the first half of her life as an educator, activist, and community organizer. Drawn by the beauty of wild nature and its power to feed, heal, and inspire, she moved to Montana where she began to write poetry, short stories, and memoir. Mulvey currently lives in Northern California with her husband Jack, a dog, and two cats. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, including the Naugatuk River Review, the Whitefish Review, Mobius, Last Night and Women’s Voices for Change.

Melanie Perish (Ten and Two) lives in Reno, NV and commutes regularly to Bryan, TX, Northern, CA, and Santa Fe, NM. She is a member of Poets & Writers and Alcoholics Anonymous. She is old and sometimes crabby and does not care that she’s just broken her anonymity. Her poems have recently appeared in the Austin International Poetry Festival anthology, DiversityThe Avocet, Brushfire, and Emerging Poets (Z-Publishing, 2018). Her poetry collection Passions & Gratitudes was published by Black Rock Press in 2011. She is grateful for the generosity of other poets and writers, her history with women’s writing workshops, her online writers exchange, and the current poetry workshops she participates in. She is indebted to small press publications, little magazines, and on-line publications because she knows how much effort these require.

Jaclyn Piudik (Chemotherapy and the Tasmanian Devil) is the author of To Suture What Frays (Kelsay Books 2017) and two chapbooks, Of Gazelles Unheard (Beautiful Outlaw 2013) and The Tao of Loathliness (fooliar press 2005/8).  Her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including New American Writing, Columbia Poetry Review, Burning House, Barrow Street and Contemporary Verse 2.   She received a New York Times Fellowship for Creative Writing and the Alice M. Sellers Award from the Academy of American Poets. Piudik has edited three collections of poetry for award winning Canadian publisher Book*hug. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from the City College of New York, as well as a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto. 

Rhema Sayers (After) is a retired doctor, now working as a freelance writer with some success. She has had over 40 short stories and historical articles published. She lives with her husband and three dogs in the desert near Tucson.

Tara Stillions Whitehead (God and Laundry) has had fiction, essays, and hybrid texts published in Chicago Review, Fiction International, Red Rock Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Texas Review, New Orleans Review, Sleipnir, and elsewhere. She has received a Glimmer Train Press Award for New Writers, an AWP Intro Journals Award nomination, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. A former assistant director for film and television, she now lives in Central Pennsylvania, where she teaches English and Film Studies.

“After” by Rhema Sayers

“Salt Prune” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas

The entire house sparkled, immaculate. Or at least it sparkled as much as it could for as old as it was. It had taken weeks, especially with all these people tramping in and out. They’d been coming in, bringing her food, expecting her to be grateful. She had enough casseroles stockpiled for the next decade.

Sometimes she just kept on cleaning while they were trying to talk to her. The visits were becoming fewer and shorter, she’d noticed. When she pounded them over the heads with a two-by-four, they actually figured it out. Her lips twitched. “I vant to be alone,” She said aloud.

Her voice startled her. It was so quiet in the big house. She liked it that way. No more constant drone of the TV or the blaring voices of talk radio. Just silence and the occasional creaks and groans of an old house. So peaceful. So empty.

She filled her time with cleaning. There was so much still left to do. The stains in the rugs and the upholstery had been particularly stubborn. But she’d marshaled her forces, her Windex, her Mr. Clean, her carpet cleaner and her Bissell machine, and she had led them into battle, attacking with a ferocity the enemy could not withstand and the stains were vanquished.

Now she was advancing on the attic, which should produce some epic battles. She pulled down the retractable stairs and was showered with dust, causing her to sneeze repeatedly. Her eyes watered and for a moment she was crying, great tearing sobs that ripped from deep within her chest. But she focused  on the dust and ablution and carefully placed the sobs on a back shelf for later. She had had several long talks with herself (or maybe it was God she was talking to), discussing what her life should be like now. After. And she had struck a bargain with herself (or God). She would think about her life and her loss—after the house was cleaned—thoroughly.

She had gotten through the first few weeks with her dust cloth and mop held high. After the attic, there was the garage and then the closets still to do. There was time yet before she had to keep her bargain. She hadn’t been out of the house except for the funeral. She certainly didn’t need food. But she was going to need toilet paper soon. And laundry detergent. And Windex. And Pledge. And paper towels.

Walking out the front door would be like setting foot into a war zone. The eyes of her neighbors, friends would be watching. They would stop her on the street, in the stores, demanding to know how she was, what she was going to do now. She would see the sympathy, the pity in their eyes. She thought about asking her daughter to go for her, but she would see accusation as well as pity in those eyes, those sharp eyes that always reminded Melissa of her mother-in-law, who had been a world class bitch. Even their nasal voices were the same.

Maybe she could run out to the car, moving too quickly for anyone to reach her and then go to a store on the other side of town where she didn’t know anyone. Better yet! She could go to a different town! Encouraged by the brilliance of the solution, she started up the dusty steps to the attic. Her eyes went up to the black hole of the entrance in the ceiling and she stopped, riveted by the darkness. There it was—the whole of it. Black. Empty. A Stygian hollowness. And she felt its twin in the cold vacuum of her existence with all its light extinguished. And the sobs returned and would not be denied.

 
 
 Rhema Sayers is a retired doctor, now working as a freelance writer with some success. She has had over 40 short stories and historical articles published. She lives with her husband and three dogs in the desert near Tucson.

“New Hierarchy” by Soramimi Hanarejima

“Flow” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″

Though you suspect she would much rather spend her weekends and evenings convalescing at home, you ask her to meet you in city plazas and parks, insisting that fresh air will do her some good. To your surprise, she accepts your invitations—the springtime atmosphere of warmth and wildflowers perhaps too pleasant to pass up even in her despondency.

During your outings with her, she makes for dreary company, mopey and taciturn—gloomy, like you’re walking down sunlit streets or through verdant landscapes with a gray cloud floating alongside you, always on the cusp drizzling. But companionship isn’t the point of these excursions.

When meeting her in the open, busy spaces you’ve selected, you always arrive early, so you can see her approaching from afar and furtively point the telephoto lens of the psychoscope at her. It’s supposed to be used only at work—and even then, just for approved projects—but you are driven by concern (and admittedly, curiosity) to discreetly keep an eye on her broken heart; to track the reassembly of the sundered pieces—to make sure they are in fact reassembling. And over successive rendezvouses with her, you confirm that, to your relief, the cardiac fragments are indeed drawing closer together, albeit very gradually.

Your surreptitious surveillance of her metaphysical anatomy continues to be reassuring, until you see that its slow rate of reconstitution is allowing her heart to reorganize out of order, with self-concern and cynicism heading for the center of the new arrangement.

You monitor the situation closely as these two shards of her character vie neck and neck, locked in a sluggish jockeying for the position of greatest influence over her life. Rooting for self-concern, you grow ever anxious about which contender will triumph, what her new psychological regime will be built around.

To your dismay, cynicism wins this slothy race and seizes the crucial spot, dashing your hopes that there would be at last an era of her life when she treats herself with utmost importance. You brace for an epoch of distrust and acrimony.

But even with this mental preparation, being around her is an incredible drag. She is always moody and brooding, unmoved by beauty, barely responsive to kindness. When she does say thanks, it sounds like her gratitude is being relinquished oh so begrudgingly. Little things set her off: cars parked too close to lines marking lot spaces, posters advertising beauty products in subway cars, people who walk in the very middle of the sidewalk making it difficult for her to pass them.

Still, you try to accept her for who she now is and channel your pessimism into conversations with her, which is surprisingly easy. There’s always something you can glibly complain about, and the effect of voicing your dissatisfactions is immediate. As though you’ve flipped a switch in her mind with your judgmental words, the camaraderie of negativity turns her more talkative—sometimes garrulous—in your company. The two of you are soon disparaging all manner of things: insipid mainstream movies, the shoddy state of public spaces downtown, the inflation rate, the overabundance of refined flour and sugar in the local foodshed, the excessive fixation upon—if not outright glorification of—romantic love in pop culture. Riffing off each other’s rants ultimately leads the two of you to rail against the human experience itself: riddled with cognitive biases, feral propensities and other historical cruft, the common enemy you can pin everything on.

All this vehement denigration cements a vigorous rapport with her but one that weighs heavy on your psyche, making it ache with despair and longing.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do this any more,” you finally say to her.

To pace out the words you’ve prepared, you take a moment to look at the wind filtering through the bright, fresh leaves of the maple trees across the meadow. You’re glad that the bench you’ve chosen faces such a calming view and allows you to say these words as though to the landscape.

“I thought the darkness would be manageable—tolerable if it kept us close. But it’s exacted more of a toll than I thought it would.”

Unsurprisingly, she responds by unleashing a torrent of spite, declaring that everyone proves to be unreliable, untrustworthy and self-serving given enough time. You find it encouraging—almost touching—that her bitter words are leveled entirely at humanity, only falling upon you as they rain down on all humankind. But ultimately, her vociferous sentiments affirm your decision. You just cannot partake in (nor of) this misanthropy indefinitely. So once she’s said everything she must, you tell her to take care of herself and that you hope to see her again under different circumstances. With unexpected ease, you rise from the bench and take the wooded trail that will bring you to the river.

A few days later, you drive to her neighborhood and park down the street from her place, in a spot that will afford a clear view of her leaving for work. When she steps out the front door, you train the psychoscope on her just as you have so many times before. You recoil at what it shows you, then readjust the focus several times as she walks down the sidewalk, until there can be no mistake. Her heart has splintered apart.

You set the psychoscope down on the passenger seat, trying to make sense of this. Are you the culprit this time? It never crossed your mind that you could have this kind of effect upon her—any such thought at least miles away as she wielded scorn so mightily. Behavior you now know you should not have taken at face value. The psychoscope would no doubt have shown you her heart’s persisting, underlying fragility, and you would not have mistaken voluble rancor for true vigor.

You start the car while your mind extrapolates the future: the next rearrangement (no doubt already underway) will run its course, a new order ultimately establishing itself. You won’t watch that hierarchy form and will instead study it covertly when her heart is once again whole. Or simply adhere to the company policy that prohibits the use of equipment for personal reasons, affording her and yourself space. Either way, you will miss her—more than you already have.

 

 
 
 

Soramimi Hanarejima is a writer of innovative fiction and the author of Visits to the Confabulatorium, a fanciful story collection that Jack Cheng said, “captures moonlight in Ziploc bags.” Soramimi’s recent work can be found in The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018KYSO Flash and Book XI.

Contributors Spring 2019

Lisa Boardwine (Illustrator) is an artist living and working in Grundy, Virginia. She is a Signature Artist member of both the Baltimore Watercolor Society and the Virginia Watercolor Society. Her artistic process for the work in this issue involves building up many layers of paint to form a “history,” then peeling or excavating through the layers to reveal what’s underneath.

 

Suzanne Burns (Peeling an Orange and The Hospital) writes both poetry and prose. These two poems appearing in the April issue of r.kv.r.y. appeared first in her full-length poetry collection, Look At All the Colors Hidden Here.

 

Bethany Hunter (A Fundamentalist Girl’s Guide to Cussing) is a recovered fundamentalist who adheres to the old adage that writing is cheaper than therapy. She writes for and about the girl who needed to know she wasn’t that weird and even if she was, she’d have good stories to tell later. Her first essay, “Barbie’s Going to Hell,” was published by The Furious Gazelle and “Behind the Pulpit” is upcoming this spring in The Other Journal.

Chris Jansen (Detox Unit – Day Zero) grew up in a notorious shithole called Albany, Georgia.
H has been a nursing home janitor, a paramedic, an IT guy, and, up until recently, a very dedicated heroin addict. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where he teaches boxing and cares for a disinterested guinea pig named Poozybear. He has a degree in molecular biology from the University of Georgia.

Kirsty MacKay (Common Blackberry and The Panamint Range) is a live storyteller who shares ancient stories from the Ohlone people of South Bay. She has been writing poetry for roughly three decades while dealing with chronic issues of depression and anxiety. She considers herself to be a fairly recovered woman who remains, nonetheless, vulnerable.

 

Patricia O’Donnell (The Blue Rigi) is the author of the newly released novel, The Vigilance of Stars. Her other books include the novel Necessary Places, the memoir Waiting to Begin, and the short story collection Gods for Sale, which won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. Her short work has appeared in many places, including The New Yorker. She is a professor of Creative Writing in the University of Maine at Farmington’s BFA Program. 

Bryan D. Price‘s (Sabine) poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Manhattanville ReviewMenacing HedgePortland Review (online), and Posit. He lives and teaches in the suburbs of southern California where he writes about time, memory, utopia, and its opposite.

   

Mark Putzi (The Worm Hunters) received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1990. He has published stories in Jazz Street, The Cream City Review and Wilderness House Literary Review. In 2015 he married for the first time. The family pet, Willow, is an internet star and a highly accomplished tortoise shell cat.

John Riley (There is No Point) has published poetry in Mojave River Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Connotation Press, Dead Mule, Better Than Starbucks and many other journals and anthologies. He works in educational publishing part-time and is a full-time nanny to his beautiful granddaughter Byl.

 

Whitney Curry Wimbish (Night Fishing) is an American writer living in Scotland. Her fiction has been published by MIROnline, and has received honorable mention in two Glimmer Train competitions. Her journalism/nonfiction has been published in The Baffler, The Financial Times, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in North American Review.

“Detox Unit – Day Zero” by Chris Jansen

“Daybreak” by Lisa Boardwine, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel, 12 x 12.

Thank God things are quiet. I guess it’s medication time everywhere in the hospital, the same way it can be Christmas everywhere in the world. All the mental patients of Cottage C are lined up at their own medication room. They may be crazy, but no one is crazy enough to skip meds. There is the same weird half-light as last night, the same chairs lined up around the open dayroom, which reminds me now of a sad, empty dance floor; a lonely disco ball throwing fake starlight around the room would not seem out of place.

            Behind the glass wall, I see the Tear Woman sitting on the edge of her cot, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her gray WELLESLEY sweatshirt. The only other patient who hasn’t disappeared into the medication room is the regal-looking man in designer pajamas, still sitting there like a monument in front of city hall, staring into space. With his strawberry beard and refined features, he looks like a lost professor. His broken, one-eyed eyeglasses still sit precariously atop his aquiline nose.

            Like the professor, many of the other patients here look almost normal, but there’s always one crack in the egg, one weird tattered edge that sticks out, as if they are struggling mightily to contain it, yet the madness is bulging inside them like an overstuffed suitcase. [In case you’re wondering, you can easily spot crazy people in the wild because they are crazy about accessories. Especially hats. Weird hats, glasses, mismatched gloves = crazy. Don’t even get me started on shoes.]

            I slink around the dancehall, a curious wallflower, a tourist in the strange country of insanity which lies just over the border from Detox. I spot a battered bookcase against the wall and I’m magnetically drawn to the leaning-a-little shelves.

            Books. Reading. Books have always been my anchor in troubled times. When I was a depressed and lonely teenager seeking answer in religion, Jesus didn’t help me, but reading the Bible did.

            I finger through the paperbacks, picturing myself a scholar in the professor’s library, grateful to be able to gently peruse something rather than be behind that glass wall like the Tear Woman, crying into a cup.

            The books are in even worse shape than the patients. I assume they only put bland, inoffensive stuff in here because they don’t want to trigger a reaction in some brittle psychotic. Or maybe it’s just that nobody gives a shit. The collection is mostly science fiction and fantasy novels that pre-date the 1980s. Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie. The few that still have covers show fanciful 60s-style artist’s concepts of moon colonies, astronauts with crew cuts. Robots. Monsters. Most of the books are yellowed, torn in half, or drop a few pages when I pick them up. The only book that looks brand new is a paperback copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I grab Best Science Fiction of 1974 even though I don’t know if I’ll ever read it. It’s a pacifier. It’s a book. It’s something to clutch in my hand and walk around with, like the memory of my former life.

            By now the Suboxones are starting to dissolve under my tongue and I’m afraid of what they will do to me. I hold the science fiction book to my face, as if focusing intently on the text, and discreetly spit the pills between the middle pages, and walk back the way I came, pushing the heavy metal door open with my shoulder as I hustle through the dark hallway back over to Detox with the book tucked under my arm. I feel like I’m getting away with something. I have some control now. Addicts love to get away with things.

            I pass the medication room, noticing the last of the junkies are at the window. I feel like a shoplifter. I pass Jonah-the-Joker in the hall, tossing away his own medication cup.

            “Hey, do you know anything about precipitated withdrawal?” I ask, with my book full of Suboxone tucked under my arm. “I mean like, is it over in a few minutes?” I’m asking this like I’m asking how bad cancer is.

            Jonah’s joker-mask dissolves into a look of concern. He shakes his head. “Hours, homey. That shit lasts hours,” he says, and shuffles down the hall after Lindsey, the cute blonde. I hear him calling after her, “And how was your medication tonight?” in a voice as smooth as top-shelf whiskey.

            Back in my room I sit on the bed and open the book. The half-dissolved pills have left a chalky paste on the yellow guts of the pages. “The sentinel passed Jupiter on its way to Io while Captain Danby slept in his cryochamber…”

            I close the book and look around. I open it again.

            I’m worried about everything as usual. The combination of tranquilizer and anti-seizure meds I’ve been given has blunted whatever feelings I am capable of feeling and left only a shape-shifting dread where my soul should be. The opiate withdrawal, as inevitable as the sun coming up, has not been as vicious in its return; I’m still frantic and terrified, but so far I’ve received a small dispensation. A little grace. Yet I know there is no way to cheat the dopegods. They were always watching, waiting for one little slip-up to rain down pain and misery on mortal junkieflesh. Vengeance is mine saith withdrawal.

            I sit up and flip to the chapter containing my pills. They’ve turned into four clumps of stuck-on moondust.

            Given a choice between taking something and not taking something, addicts will always choose the taking. Every time. It doesn’t matter if it’s just Tylenol. We are frantically empty. There’s a poem by Galway Kinnell which says ”that enormous emptiness / carved out of such tiny beings as we are / asks to be filled.” But that poem is about love, about the need for human contact, not drugs.

            I fold back the pages of Best Science Fiction of 1974 and scrape the Suboxone moonlumps into my mouth. It tastes faintly sweet. I press the book close to my face and tongue the last of the powder off the pages, the moldy, decaying-book smell burning in my nose and lungs.

            My thirsty cells drink again, as if straight from the mouth of a wild red poppy, and I see the world, the actual physical world, transform in front of me. The harsh light of the hallway is suddenly a warm glow beckoning me to life again. My dry veins fill with warm saltwater, the waters of the sea from which we were born. Though it’s still mercury-lamp gray in here, I know the sun is out somewhere in the world above me because I feel its rays penetrating down, down through the ceiling and walls of the hospital, down to hold me close and keep me safe in its warm embrace. It feels like going home. It feels like love.

            I’m. High.

            Now my strength is returning, my limbs loosening. I’m no longer shot-through with terror and anger. I can’t believe it—I’m really high! My problems seem manageable now. It’s like an actual answer to prayer, a love letter back from God. I hear talentless, awful Bob Marley singing in my ears—“…every little thing / will be all right.” My heart pumps the beautiful warm blood inside my chest. I think of Yeats: I am blessed and can bless.
            Yeehaw fuckos, your boy is high! 

The tattered and dry-rot science fiction book is a lot more interesting to me now. I leaf through it, amused, smiling to myself. I wonder what will happen to brave Captain Danby when he gets out of that cryochamber! What a wonderful book with a wonderful author about a wonderful place—the moons of Jupiter—which I must remember to visit sometime on my next swing around the universe.

            I hear the bell do its ding-ding dance again. It’s time for…who cares what it’s time for, I’m up for it! I shuffle out, doubly happy at being high and at my good fortune at being high in this terrible place. Haha, screw you, friends and family and coworkers. I do what I want. I don’t have consequences. I’m that fucking special. I’ve always been that special.

            “Dinner time,” calls the sour-faced woman. Her nametag says Pamela, but in my mind I call her Nana because she has a busybody grandma thing about her. Her bitterness doesn’t bother me now. “Thanks for calling us to dinner, Pamela,” I say, a gentleman’s gentleman. I think about a happy time in New York while I was sitting at Bemelmans Bar, waiting for my friend Tracy to join me for dinner. “Would you have Ellis make us an Old Cuban?” I ask her. 

            Nana is not amused. Because she isn’t high and I am, and I am a junkie and I bet she is too, or she was before she got caught. “Just regular dinner,” she says, without looking at the annoyance.

            This is the first time I’ve been calm enough to take interest in who my fellow Detox-mates are. I don’t know enough yet to tell the new people from the old—“Old” being anyone who has been here for a couple days. The veterans.

            We shuffle down to the end of the hallway, children following our Nana.

            I’m standing next to the surfer kid, a tired-looking middle-aged presumable housewife with a tiny frown permanently weighing down the corners of her mouth, a trembling-at-middle-age ex-sorority girl who looks beat up but a little too good to be here, and there is a new zombie, a plump little daddy’s girl with a pink shirt, sweatpants and flip-flops, like she just came from the yoga studio. Jonah the joker is standing next to Lindsey, the blonde nymphet with the green-stars-and-moon tattoo behind her ear, who is looking into a small hand mirror and adjusting her lipstick.

            People talk about the fragility of civilization, how a war or natural disaster can turn us into primitive animals. It turns out Detox does this too. Everyone looks tired and sick and desperate except for Lindsey and a tall guy with long dark hair and a white v-neck t-shirt pulled tight over his rippling, fatless physique. I notice a gold football-shaped St. Christopher medallion shining in the deep valley of his chest.

            With his boiled-corpse skin, Jonah looks no better than the rest of us, but he seems to be driven by some inner reserve of social energy. “Cassie dear,” he calls to the sad-faced housewife, “when we gonna turn that frown upside down?”

            “Pauline, you have to stop smoking,” he says to a pudgy zombie with wavy brown hair down to her ass, who looks like she just abandoned her register at the Gas ‘N Go.

            “Oh gaaawwwwd, not noooow, Jo-naaaah,” she whines back at him, her smoked-through voice sounding like she just got done crying buckets or is about to.

            He turns back to me. “Chris, you met Scotty-too-hottie yet?”

            “Me?” Other than Nana no one has spoken directly to me in hours and I feel invisible. Addicts often think they are invisible.

            “No, the other junkie named Chris standing behind you.”

            I limply shake Mr. Handsome’s mighty, handsome hand. He looks like he belongs in a body wash commercial instead of a Detox chow line.

            “You look pretty together, man,” I offer to this giant among us. He shrugs and shakes his handsome locks. He could easily be cast as Jesus in a Bible movie, if Jesus was also ripped and huge.

            “Oxy, man. Oxy,” says Jesus.

            Nana’s enormous keyring is swinging and turning in the lock. She cracks the heavy door open and we pour out into the sunset. This is the first time I’ve been outside so I take note of the grounds for potential escape routes. We are surrounded by a dense forest of trees that goes along the perimeter of the hospital grounds and up to the ridge rise. I can’t see a road or any real civilization from here. I guess they have to keep us mental patients hidden away so we don’t frighten any sane people.

            The cracked cement sidewalk makes a hard left turn and slopes down back under the building we just came from. A large magnolia bows along the walkway, its branches bent low under the burden of its sweet-smelling blooms. Our little group follows Nana as she walks with her keys jangling out of one pocket and a small walkie-talkie clipped to her belt. We are silent except for Jonah, who never stops talking.           

            “Okay, hurry up people, I want to eat. Come on Cassie, vamos Eduardo, Scotty-too-hottie, go long.” He grabs a pinecone and hikes it like a quarterback in the shotgun. “Get open, Scotty. Go long, I said.” Scotty laughs and catches the pinecone pass behind his back. This is silly stuff I used to do when I was a kid, but I’m still glowing from my high so I laugh at the class clown too, grateful that someone is bringing life to this death house. Nana walks ahead of us and doesn’t even bother to look back. I guess she sees idiots all the time. The walkie-talkie on her hip crackles.”Cshhhhhh….10-4. Dr. Hush to admissions…Dr. Hush…cshhhhh.”

            Jonah hikes another pinecone and drifts back in the pocket, scanning ahead for the pass rush. “Dawgs are in an I formation,” he growls, ”He’s looking for his receiver. Scottie get open!!!

            “Y’all need to quit plaaayying,” cries Pauline, in her weepy baby-voice. “Y’all are gonna get us Doctor Huuuu-shed…” Kerph, kerph, kerph, cough.

            “What’s ‘Doctor Hushed’?” I ask.

            Cassie the depressed housewife perks up. “That’s when you cause trouble. ‘Doctor Hush’ is code for all male staff members to wherever you are.”

            “And then you get the booty juice and they put you in a rubber room,” says Jonah.

            Oh. I’m not sure if that is horrifying or attractive right now. At least you get a shot.

            We reach the end of the walkway at another set of security doors that lead to the cafeteria, which is tucked underneath the main building. It reminds me of a dream I had once where I was in a swanky hotel in Manhattan but was stuck in the kitchen, which was in the basement. In my dream, food came and went through holes in the wall, but I couldn’t eat anything, just look at it.

            “It’s nice to be outside,” says Cassie through her tiny frown. “The magnolias are pretty.”

            This seems more like a wish than an observation. I’ve never seen the beauty in flowers. They just seem like monstrously swollen genitals to me. When I look at the natural world all I see is suffering, decay, and death. I’ve always thought the love of nature was a form of mental illness. Stockholm syndrome. But this is a mental hospital, so…

            “Yeah, it’s nice,” I say.

            We make a single-file line going into the cafeteria. The smell of dinner cooking, the hollow ringing sounds of kitchen workers banging pots in the steamy air—this is all reassuring. Someone is expecting you and they have made you something to eat. We file up to the counter where a big bitter-faced woman scowls at the assembly line of junkies.

             Jonah throws his tray down, still laughing at his own football antics. “And how are we doing this evening, Miss Gayle?”

            At the site of Jonah her bitter face breaks into bloom like the magnolias outside. “Pretty good baby, pretty good.”  

            “Your grandson do okay?” he says to her now-beaming face. How does he know her? How long could he have been here?

            “He did fine, Jonah, passed all his studies.” I’m not sure if he really cares or is just doing this to get an extra dessert. It doesn’t really matter though, does it? Jonah grins and takes his tray, now heavy with side dishes and desserts, and moves down the line.

            “Hi Miss Gayle!” I say. In my mildly intoxicated state I think I can imitate Jonah’s bouncy joie de vivre. She frowns again like I’ve insulted her and drops a square, gray meat-ish patty on my plate. You ain’t Jonah. I take my tray and move on. Just like airport security, the only unforgivable sin in a mental hospital is holding up the line.
           
            The cafeteria is small but airy. Even though it’s in the basement, the ceilings are high, likely designed for summers in the South before efficient air conditioning. Spiky, star-like fixtures dangle from the beams in what must have been imagined as a “space age” look back in the 60s. It reminds me of the decaying science fiction where I hid my Suboxone. I think how everything in the world that was once futuristic and full of promise is now hopelessly dated. Even me.

            The seating area is a set of Balkan nations. On the far end there is a long table that looks like it came out of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. There are young kids, teens and even younger, sitting with a strawberry-blonde minder in too-tight jeans who looks barely older than her charges. The only way I know she’s staff is the keys on her lanyard and the walkie-talkie attached to her hip like a barnacle.

            Seeing kids here is depressing, even with my chemically reinforced happiness. There’s a tiny African-American boy with huge square-framed glasses and a basketball-themed shirt that’s so long it looks like a dress, holding in his small hand a hamburger that’s bigger than his little round head. There’s a husky, fat-faced kid with red cheeks and his head cocked to one side in a hangdog expression that looks like pain and malice simultaneously. I recognize the ugly demeanor of every bully I had in middle school, and though I am a man and he is a boy, I hate him. There’s a young girl with straight black hair and black clothes and little red lines all up and down her arms that at first I think are cute little smiley sticker tattoos, but when I look closer I see they are razor cuts, and not just a few, but a dense red rose-thicket of wounds. She holds a cardboard milk carton in one of her razored arms and laughs next to a fat girl with curly hair and braces who is wearing a pink sweatshirt emblazoned with four fiery gold letters: L-O-V-E.

   

Chris Jansen grew up in a notorious shithole called Albany, Georgia. He has been a nursing home janitor, a paramedic, an IT guy, and, up until recently, a very dedicated heroin addict. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where he teaches boxing and cares for a disinterested guinea pig named Poozybear. He has a degree in molecular biology from the University of Georgia.