An elephantine drip aglow
fortuitous bubble gum – pop – à la Bazooka Joe Her appetite undergoes treatment for disarray
in the dark archives of University and College Joan of Arc or Jones New York
have no place in these toxic gardens Jab her with poetic justice, a heartfelt grunt
a rasp and a slow-borne growl of plasmatazz The curative act [sic] becomes art
of the omnivorous kind, the hellishly tired veins swig their pastel cocktail
a seeming infinity of cranberry masks the sterile byways, the benign gleam
of cartoon English and wigged-outness Looney music pacifies the buzz, the nauseated
floral-spin in the afterworld desert Distant from eloquent drawl, she is so radiant
Shine on crazy diamond: omnia mutantur
Jaclyn Piudik 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.
In the first year, even after
she worked the steps
love was crazy as
driving under the influence.
Like that time the car started to slide,
slide across the double yellow lines
into the on-coming lane;
and she couldn’t remember which way
to turn the wheel.
No time for prayer beyond
God help me.
Her right foot down once
down twice on the brake,
then lifted, so her heart
could catch up.
Black gloved hands at ten and two
turned the wheel
toward the spin
out of hope the size of a tear drop
while life moved in geologic time.
When the spin stopped
the car pointed in the right direction
in its own lane; and again
she lived by minutes and inches.
With the car, with any new person
she could have sworn
she was going slowly enough.
Melanie Perish 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, Diversity, The Avocet, Brushfire, and Emerging Poets (Z-Publishing, 2018). Her poetry collection Passions & Gratitudes was published by Black Rock Press in 2011. She is currently working on a second collection. 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.
Lacy was on her knees when you found her—six days
shy of thirty-five years old and ninety-one days sober. The cats had been
chewing the callouses on her feet for two days but were still shitting in their
overflowing litter box tucked behind the brand new front-load Whirlpool washer.
The warranty tag was still taped over the handle. It had never been used, and
this unsettles you, confirms that she had never meant to do it. That it was a
baffling, powerful moment of desperation. And before that moment, there was a
future where she planned to carry out the banal task of washing her soiled
clothing, but with a brand spanking new washer. She had even plugged it in.
Attached the water hoses to the spigots and fed the plastic drain pipe through
a hole in the kitchen floor, down the basement wall to the French drain.
It shouldn’t have taken you that long to agree to participate in a well-check. Lacy’d stopped showing up at the River Street meeting three weeks ago, citing an upper respiratory infection that just wouldn’t shake. She was always sick—terminally unwell, always on the mend from something trying to kill her. But the text responses had gotten shorter each time, and no one could seem to get her on the phone, not even Peggy. And then that long silence finally came, the one you hear about in the rooms too often, the one that you could not fill a little over a year ago.
Peggy was the one who spotted the body through the barely parted shades—just enough to make out the top of Lacy’s head tucked forward, the oxygen long expired, her last breath sealed inside by the Ethernet cable she’d used to twist-tie herself to the bedpost. It all happened in jump cuts from there. You became all action. Dislodged the screen, forced yourself through the window like you used to do when you were using. But this time was different. This time, your heart was on fire and you could feel what you couldn’t feel before—your fear of the static in the air and the cats, irremovable in their grotesque and frantic chewing. And the pain in your shins where you leveraged yourself over the sill into the tidy kitchen sink, knowing before you really knew it that you were too late again. Just like with your mom. And David.
You are standing outside of Trinity Lutheran when Peggy tells the story for the fifth time. As if you hadn’t been seeing and smelling and standing there, too.
“Goddamnit, I thought she was praying when I first
saw her,” Peggy explains, smoke from her menthol hanging hard on the image of
Just then, a white van pulls into the church
roundabout and a group of young people emerge from the back. They are all
wearing gray sweatpants and oversized T-shirts turned inside out to hide the
logos, but you can still read them—Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Aeropostale. There
are five of them. Four guys and one girl. None of them make eye contact with
you or Peggy when they pass through the double doors into the hallway leading
to the meeting room.
“Hill House is getting a lot of traffic lately,”
Peggy says, and it isn’t until she says it that you realize that none of those
kids looked old enough to buy cigarettes. “IOP saved my life. I don’t think I
could’ve stayed sober if I had had to bunk with a bunch of underagers. I mean,
it’s enough to have to parent Glenn, and he’s fifty-six—”
Peggy’s phone chimes. She looks down, dismisses
the text with an irreverent tap.
You scan the dark parking lot. Where is everyone else? You want the
meeting to be big so that you can hide in it. You want it to be full of people
whose stories you have never heard, people who make you feel like less of a
monster, people who did not know Lacy. You want distractions. You doubt that
the Hill House group will be enough, but you hope they are. Maybe one of them
will share something so honest and powerful that people will forget to ask
about Lacy and whether you and Peggy are okay after finding her.
You have no desire to share details, and it bothers you that Peggy keeps recalling that image, that Peggy never seems to stop talking. But you don’t say anything because your sponsor tells you that you need to stop seeing people for their defects, that you need to pray for tolerance and love. Right now, though, the thought of prayer fills your stomach with marbles. Lacy isn’t the first woman you’ve known who hanged herself, but she is the first woman whose story felt like it could be your story, whose transparency and doubt and desperation could have been mistaken for your own. Lacy was the first woman to ask you to be her sponsor and the first woman you said yes to.
“I just don’t know if I’ll ever believe in god,” she’d said during your first meeting over coffee. “I’m more afraid of him than dying.” You knew what she meant, and that frightened you. Lacy was the kind of addict you were, which triggered you hard. During that first meeting, you couldn’t stop staring at her distressed Target jeans. You had the same pair, probably in the same size. You hadn’t worn them since your last relapse, and you should have thrown them away, but there they were, tucked fashionably into those tall riding boots of Lacy’s, reminding you what the last time was really like—and, that was it, you tossed them in the trash that night. That’s when you told her that it wasn’t going to work out, that you were sorry. You didn’t think you could give her what she needed, but Peggy could. Peggy with the fourteen years and eight grandkids. Peggy with the government pension and the summer house in Rehoboth.
“Do they know whether she was using when she did it?” everyone had asked.
“Nope,” Peggy would say, then, eyes narrowing over
the tops of her Betsey Johnson readers. “But one would hope so.”
It sounded awful, and you hated her for saying it, but you knew what she meant. It was scarier to think Lacy offed herself while sober, like David did. Because who wants to give in just to give up? That was the real reason you wouldn’t sponsor Lacy. David was all it took for you to go back out. Death leaves a frightening emptiness in the chest, and you faced that fear the way you have faced everything in your life. You were high that afternoon, the coffee in the Styrofoam cup from the police station still hot enough to melt the ice on your windshield. Some part of you knew deep down that you couldn’t have stopped him if you’d tried, but now Lacy is gone—Lacy with the Target jeans and the story like yours—and you feel closer to a drink or drug than you’ve felt in the past year since you went back out.
“Thank God it was Evan’s weekend with Chase,”
Peggy says. She stubs the cigarette out on the bottom of her Louis Vuittons. “She
and I were just out buying him one of those sand and water tables for his
fourth birthday on Thursday. She seemed so good then, so excited that they had
the Paw Patrol wrapping paper on sale. Goddamn, I can’t even.”
You haven’t asked Peggy a single question since
the two of you found Lacy, but the answers keep coming and you don’t know what
to do with them, what you have to say to get her to stop talking.
People are coming now, two here and three there. While
you wait to see whether you know anyone, the image of the cats chewing on Lacy’s
feet enters your mind again, and suddenly, out of nowhere, the question that
has been haunting you for days comes barreling out of your mouth before you can
stop it: “What’s going to happen with the cats?”
Peggy looks at you as if you’ve been asking unanswerable
questions all along. “I have no idea,” she says. She sprays herself with
patchouli. “Goddamn,” she sighs—but not to god or you. “We better go get a
“I’ll be in in a minute,” you say.
You want to be alone. All addicts want to be
But just as Peggy enters in through the double
doors, the Hill House girl emerges, wearing a jacket one of the boys she came
with was wearing.
“Can I bum a smoke?” the girl asks. Her voice is
softer and more polite than you expected, which unsteadies you.
“I don’t smoke. Peggy does. I’m just an innocent
The girl smiles a big smile that suggests she is
even younger than you thought. Closer to fourteen. Your knees give out a little
because she is young enough to be your daughter, and you can’t imagine what
this girl looks like when she’s fucked up. When she isn’t smiling.
“Hello.” You hold out your hand, and she takes it.
“Callie. I’m only twenty days. I mean, I only have twenty days.” She laughs
uncomfortably and wraps herself deeper into the jacket that isn’t hers.
you say, and you say it because you had been told the same thing when you came
in. “Just…twenty days.”
“Be proud of that.”
Westminster Quarters sounds from the bell tower,
marking the hour, but neither you nor Callie move towards the double doors.
“I like your shoes,” she says, pointing at your
purple slip-on Chucks. “I have the same ones at home. They’re my favorite pair.
I miss them.”
“Thanks. They’re my favorite, too.”
You’ve worn Chucks since you were twelve. You wore
them to prom. You wore them to your graduation from the most prestigious film
school in the country. You wore them in your brother’s wedding and at your
mother’s funeral. You try to stop yourself from feeling the feelings before you
feel them, but you can’t. You imagine Callie’s mother slipping freshly
laundered clothing into a child’s dresser, placing a new pair of shoes beside the
canopy bed you slept in until you were sixteen. Does Callie know how to start a
fire without kindling? With licorice sticks? With dryer lint cartons that
smelled like your mother when you put a match to them? Does she know how to
make a slipknot or the proper way to cool a burn? Did she know that soothing
one with ice could cause frostbite?
“When I was a Brownie,” you say, pointing up. “We
sang this at the end of every meeting.”
“Cool,” Callie says. “I’ve never been in any,
like, organized thing. Well, until now.”
She looks like she is going to ask a question, and the marbles in your stomach start banging together. You want to talk to her, but you don’t want to scare her. And then, you want to scare her. You want to tell her about your mother and filling your underwear with Snickers bars to take to her when she was institutionalized. You were fourteen. Is that how old you are, Callie? You want to show her where you burned your wrists with cigars in college, to explain how Ivy Leagues and terminal degrees couldn’t stop your disease from trying to kill you. You want to tell her about Lacy and how you haven’t been able to sleep for five days because when the sun goes down, the cats are everywhere you look, gnawing the baseboards apart, chewing through the electrical wiring, and then hanging themselves in your windows, their tails hard from rigor mortis, curled violently into a question mark.
You want to tell her that you will answer any
question she has. That you wish you had asked the ones you wanted to ask when
you had twenty days. That, since then, you have not answered the ones you should
Callie opens her mouth. Allows the night air in.
The bells are quiet now, but their sound memory hovers over you, fills the parking lot, the street, the neighborhood, connects you and Callie to everything beyond the dark, beyond time, to that place where a clock melody becomes words, words you imagine Lacy’d sung without thinking, without questioning whether she believed in God. A song sung for the pure pleasure of singing, for the pure sense of belonging:
Lord our God
us Thy peace
bless us all.
You’ve heard Westminster Quarters a million times, been to hundreds of
meetings where it signaled the hour, the quarter hour, the half hour—always the
measure of arrival and departure and the reprieve in between. How had you never
made the connection before? Why were you only making it now?
Callie looks over her shoulder towards the doors.
She still looks like she is going to ask a question, but this time, she does.
“Not to be weird, but would it be okay if I sit
with you? I’ve never been to one of these outside of Hill House, and the guys
are like, sorry—this is so weird—I mean, god, I’m so weird—but you know guys. I don’t want to do anything, but
they—you know. And this jacket? They’re always talking, and I’m, like, I can’t
hear myself think, let alone have a conversation, which might be a good thing. I
don’t know. My head is so full, and I’m trying to empty it out, all of the shit
that’s in there, you know? Does that make any sense? I am so sorry. That was
probably the most awkward way to ask a stranger for help.”
“No, not at
all,” you say. It is, hands down, the fastest you have ever answered a question
in your life. “I’ll go in with you.”
say. She smells wonderful. Like fresh laundry.
And as you lead her through the double doors, you feel yourself growing lighter in step, as if you have been given the answer to a burning question you had been too afraid to ask, as if she is helping you more than you are helping her.
Stillions Whitehead 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.
“Flow” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″
He proposed to me in a roomful of people, from the podium of the drab fellowship hall. Coffee brewed in the kitchenette; someone had brought a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies. “’Boy meets girl on AA campus,’” he said, the microphone carrying his confident voice across the room. “Will you marry me, Amie?” We had met in that very room at my first Twelve Step meeting four years before.
I wanted a Valentine’s Day wedding. Simple and small, no sappy white lace or roses. The free spirit in me needed the freedom of the outdoors, so we settled on a spot at the top of the hill where we’d trained together for the Boston Marathon a few years before. Our friend George, a mail-order minister we knew from the meetings, would perform the ceremony.
The week before Valentine’s Day, we drove to City Hall for a marriage license. “The Justice of the Peace is marrying another couple here in an hour,” the clerk informed us. “If you don’t feel like waiting.”
He became a personal trainer not long after we started dating, ending a career in sales to pursue his lifelong passion for fitness. He spent months studying at the library, backpack heavy with physiology textbooks and anatomy charts, and passed the rigorous certification testing with high marks. I was the perfect test subject as he built his client list; he trained me for my first marathon in San Francisco at age thirty-five. “Cool weather and a postcard perfect course,” he told me. Never mind the relentless hills or the hottest July on record, I finished, sweat-soaked and wanted more. In just two years, he helped me qualify for the Boston Marathon, a runner’s Holy Grail.
Meanwhile, back at City Hall, spontaneity triumphed. Years of heavy drinking had resulted in a “do it now” kind of impulsiveness that floated just beneath the surface of our alcoholic personalities. Even sober, it often proved difficult to corral.
“The couple that trains together remains together,” he said. “Might as well tie the knot today.”
I nodded in silent agreement, the hilltop desert wedding fading into oblivion. An hour later, we exchanged vows before the judge and another couple, each playing the dual roles of witnesses to our respective jeans-clad ceremonies.
We had both been married before, but this relationship redefined our concept of marriage. We lifted weights together and shared a mutual passion for John Sandford novels. We preferred protein shakes to French fries; were addicted to Law & Order reruns. Together we discovered the electronic lull of trance music. We rarely argued.
We vacationed on the beaches of Maui, Miami, and Mexico; he accompanied me on president’s club trips to Hawaii and Banff for which I’d qualified through my sales job. As the years passed, we were known as the “power couple,” yet we never lost our own identities. We were one. And we were separate. We were sober. And we were still wildly, passionately in love.
I had always assumed he’d retire first, mainly due to our double-digit age difference. My career as vice president for a national insurance company was approaching the quarter-century mark, a once unfathomable achievement considering the half measures of my drunken past. Over the years, I’d moved thirty-odd times, across the country, across the street and across the ocean, drifting between various jobs and school, It had taken three universities, three coasts, a foreign country and nearly twenty years to obtain a bachelor’s degree in English.
Then, life took an unexpected turn and it was I who stepped down from my career.
My family is small and intellectual to a fault. I am an only child. My parents divorced the same year I first drank alcohol—two glasses of warm Chablis at age eleven—and from then on, my life became a study in doing the wrong thing. It wasn’t intentional; I didn’t set out to get busted by Principal Johnson for smoking a joint in the locker room, or lose my driver’s license for a year because I drove home from a Christmas party in a blackout, or nearly drop out of high school with a 4.0 GPA.
At sixteen, I moved into a double-wide trailer with a boyfriend which led to a brief marriage as hazy and jagged as our cigarette-laden hangovers. At twenty-three, I ditched the waist-high snowbanks of perpetual New England winters for Southern California and its endless summer of surfboards and skaters, keg parties and cocaine. I never looked back. And I rarely went back.
Through my blurred teens and twenties and thirties I lived a hard, fast life and as long as Anheuser-Busch was still brewing beer, my world was complete.
My parents remained an ocean away and on my infrequent visits home, I logged more time in the bars of my past than I did on that island of my youth, where my mother had become something of a celebrity. On one summer visit, she’d just returned from promoting her recently-published cookbook in bookstores from Bangor to Boston with her second husband, whom I’d never fully embraced as a stepfather even after their twenty-odd years of marital bliss. He was seventeen years older; one of those eternally happy people you just want to shake; a Marine, for God’s sake. These were not people I wanted to hang out with in the self-centered orbit of my world, where life was a never-ending party. They did not drink.
For all the years I drank, I was a shitty daughter.
But, like anything that seems too good to be true, my self-proclaimed life of fun became fun with problems. Then, it was just problems. Too many times, I woke up in hotel rooms, the air thick with the stench of stale ashtrays and Merlot-crusted wineglasses, with no recollection of where I’d been, what I’d said, where I’d parked. I constantly sought an escape route through the anonymity of business trip cocktails only to return to the same unhappy life I’d left.
Eventually, I found a Twelve Step program at the subtle suggestion of a co-worker with a decade of sobriety. Staying sober was harder than running a marathon; harder than meeting million dollar sales quotas; and a shit ton harder than drinking. I struggled through the first six months, missing that cloudy buzz of a drunk, craving the high of irresponsibility, wishing for wine, beer, even the bitter sharpness of tequila shooters, any liquor-induced escape to avoid facing the suddenness of myself.
My mother is a woman of many talents. Artist. Writer. Gourmet cook. She’s witty, eclectic, creative, generous, and brilliant. She’s also rigid and uptight, conservative to the core. Reagan will always be her hero. Her childhood consisted largely of family gatherings around the hi-fi of the suburban Boston living room, listening to “Father Knows Best.” She got straight A’s in Home Ec, knew every book of the bible, and owned both ballet flats and tap shoes.
She was a stay-at-home mom, but not the Harriet Nelson kind. She worked from home, a freelance graphic artist. She drew fashion models for newspaper ads, painted landscapes and floral arrangements, designed layouts for magazines. As a preschooler, I sat alongside her in the studio, an aspiring artist grasping my own tiny paintbrush with watercolor-smeared fingers.
My mother is also endearingly naïve. The relic of a life largely lived on a Maine island, she was long insulated from traffic lights and shopping malls, immune to hijabs and border walls. The only gunshots she ever heard were from the occasional hunter in search of a deer in the back woods. For thirty years, she wrote and illustrated a monthly newsletter on cooking, traveled to England twice, published a cookbook and played the organ at her church.
She devoted her life to that church, a congregation of ten, which espouses temperance and faith-healing and forbids medicine and physicians. She has never tasted champagne or swallowed a Tylenol or drunk any caffeine but instant Sanka. She is a rules-follower, a people pleaser, the consummate good girl. “Daddy taught me to do the right thing,” she often reminded me. “I never disappointed him.”
I’m a quick study when it comes to book learning and business affairs. I know my way around every major city in the nation, I’ve closed thousands of sales contracts, and can craft a marketing campaign with my eyes closed. But with family matters, I’m a slow learner. For all the years I drank, the distance between my parents and me was not merely defined by geography; I had erected an invisible wall of self-absorption.
For all the years I drank, I was a shitty daughter.
When I finally realized I wanted to not drink more than I wanted to drink, living a sober life—eerily coherent and oddly enjoyable—became my way of life. So did the simple principles I learned in recovery: Trust God. Clean House. Help Others.
Gradually, I became better daughter.
With the selfless clarity that comes from sobriety, a few years ago I noticed my mother needing help with daily activities. Getting dressed was a task for two; following the steps of her favorite recipes, an exercise in frustration. Adrift on the time-space continuum, she was never certain of the day of the week, the season, or whether it was morning or night. “I’m having a little trouble understanding August,” she confessed and pointed to the calendar, now as perplexing as her windup clock.
And so I left the corporate career and moved back to the island home of my childhood to care for my mother.
I’ve never had kids other than those with tails. These days, I am a parent to two children: an eighty-seven-year-old who fancies himself the Casanova of the east coast, who still drives and can recite his entire credit card number by heart. Relentlessly self-sufficient, my father lives a quiet life alone in his New England cottage. I handle his finances and legal matters.
And an eighty-three-year-old with Alzheimer’s. For three years, I was my mother’s in-home caregiver, an unanticipated career with an excruciatingly fluid job description and no training manual. Other than the part-time high school job I’d had as a nurse’s aide in the local nursing home, my resume for this job was a blank page.
My first year as an Alzheimer’s caregiver felt a lot like the first year in sobriety, which felt a lot like riding a bike for the first time without training wheels. The control freak in me—long dormant after finally acknowledging that something bigger was in charge of the universe—reawakened like a fly on the windowsill in spring; the patience and tolerance I’d cultivated in recovery evaporating each time my mother repeated a question—which was often—or failed to remember what I’d just told her, which was more often. I was restless and irritable not just with my mother, but too, with the man I’d met in my Twelve Step group and later married, when even in our long-distance marriage, he’d been nothing but supportive. And I was resentful toward my new job: the dementia that had hijacked my mother’s brain.
In a dim corner of my mind, alcohol beckoned and I almost sought the escape route again. But, as I’d learned from my mother and in sobriety, I needed to do the right thing, even if I didn’t like doing it or want to do it. I am my mother’s only living blood relative. I couldn’t just walk away.
My life, sober or not, has often been one of all-or-nothing. So, in my second year, I vowed to learn as much as humanly possible about Alzheimer’s. I highlighted stacks of reference books. Combed through dozens of online research journals. Joined caregiving support groups on the internet. Met with friends who’d cared for parents with dementia. Shared caregiving tips in tweets and blog posts with caregivers as far away as Berlin. And I didn’t drink.
In my third year of caregiving, when depression struck with the force of a Nor’easter and I languished in lethargy, the escape route I sought came not from a bottle or a pill, but through therapy: a family counselor and part-time lobsterwoman who had converted an old B&B to a dementia care home. Each hour we spent together helped confirm that the rapid progression of my mother’s Alzheimer’s would soon require more care than I could give.
Today, my mother and I are closer than we’ve ever been. She’s in a memory care home five minutes from my house and I visit her almost every day. Moving her across the country from the comfort of the old island farmhouse where she’d lived for the past fifty years to a big city was not without multiple challenges. She didn’t sleep for days. She hallucinated the first week, one moment convinced she was being held against her will by foreign-speaking terrorists in a Bible-lined cellar, then in a panic over the man in her closet wearing her high heels. She’s never owned a pair of heels, and the building has no cellar. For the first two months, I obsessed about whether I had done the right thing.
Like most things in the world of Alzheimer’s, recollections fade. She has friends in her new home, and things to do. She may have lost her ability to draw, but she takes weekly art classes, her fingers now stained with watercolors like mine so many years ago. And although she can no longer bake a cake by herself, she’s teaching a friend’s young daughter how to cook.
To those outside the demented doorway which I stepped through a lifetime ago, this may not seem like growth. But as fast as the disease has progressed, my mother has taken giant leaps forward in a short time, and this I know in my heart: we have done the right thing.
I’m slowly getting my life back. I’ve been sober now almost as long as I drank. I find the escape route through putting words on a page, volunteering at an animal shelter and in an unlikely new job as a pet sitter. I still go to meetings and help others stay sober. I am still a caregiver, which turns out to be the ultimate act of service. And being of service to others—alcoholic or otherwise—is an essential part of recovery.
The parallel of our lives, my mother’s and mine, is like looking in a mirror. As life can be in dementia, mirrors are often terrifying; reflections unrecognizable. We both have a disease of perception that centers in the mind; we both have a disease of denial.
It’s been said that alcoholism is the only disease that tells a person they don’t have it. Most people living with Alzheimer’s face a dual battle of denial. To accept it is to confirm its relentless death-grip. To acknowledge it requires logic and comprehension, both missing in the ethereal dementia-drift in and out of reality. For my mother, it’s a trifecta of denial since her religion rejects the concept of disease or any form of sickness.
As Alzheimer’s—the ultimate identity thief—robs her of the prolific life she once led, she remains forever trapped in her mind. Yet I, through recovery, have been freed from mine.
Taking care of my mother has given me a deeper understanding of recovery, and of family. Until I got sober, I never felt like I was part of anything real. My relationship with a husband who loves me for who I have become teaches me how to be present, how to be a mother to my mother, how to accept my father’s stubborn independence.
My husband has been present for me, all along. He was there for me at my first meeting. He was there for me when I ran the Boston Marathon. He was there for me when I quit my job and stepped into the quagmire of Alzheimer’s, a reality as unavoidable as my own self. And he was there when I was no longer sure who that self truly was.
He’s still a personal trainer; I still run marathons. Dust gathers on the sales trophies lining my bookshelves; business suits have been swapped for yoga pants. This year, we celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary and a combined total of fifty years without a drink. Our sobriety is intact; our marriage is solid. But after my time away, some reassembly is required. “You’re a good daughter,” he said recently, after I returned from a day at the aquarium with my mother.
I’m working on the good wife part now.
Amie McGraham 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.
The DNR rests on my desk.
I’ve signed it in my mind
over and over for 21 years,
but only once with a pen
and a witness, and the father
of my son, a child
tangled in a dysfunctional genome
for no particular reason. Every
day since his birth has felt like
a penance, and more recently,
a rebellion against
the doctors who want to put another hole in him but don’t want to talk about his life or ours. But, this evening
the garden is a rose window,
and I confess uncertainty
in its glow and the exhale
of the canyon.
To practice singing
a big song from a small body
I listen to the goldfinches,
and my son clicks his tongue
in what may be a response.
Melissa McKinstry 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.”
“Salt Run” by Sydney McKenna, Oil on canvas, 36″ x 36″
“Emerging research suggests that not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution.” —Center for Biological Diversity
Diving to see coral and clownfish, instead Snow White is submerged in trash— a plastic bag becomes a jellyfish, translucent floating shape shifter, the spikes on a puffer fish jut out, red and white striped straws stabbing its back.
Snow went to explore the sea life and finds death, evidence of a trillion crimes against purity. The longer she lingers, the more waste floats at her, disguised as fish.
After her first dive, she becomes obsessed. The sea calls out to her and she needs to see the unreal colors of a right pink flipflop, neon applesauce pouch, orange doll arm, fingers chewed with worry. She finds it hard to return to the surface, wonders how the mermaids could have wasted so much time with their useless song.
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.
They were somewhere on the wrong side of
Horsham. At least the number beside Melbourne’s name on the road signs was
Jeremy’s right foot had been on the
accelerator so long that he wouldn’t be surprised to find it stuck there at journey’s
end. Heat and sweat caused the gum trees on the roadside to dance in his
peripheral vision for a fleeting, sickly moment.
The voice from the back seat prickled the back
of Jeremy’s neck. He hadn’t realised he’d moaned softly. “Huh?” he glanced into
the mirror. The boy was sprawled along the Valliant’s long back seat, grubby
hands cradling a sawn-off shotgun, both truncated barrels pointed at Jeremy’s
“I said,” the boy sighed, “Are you okay? You
moaned or something. What’s up?”
Jeremy stared at dark blue bitumen. “Nothing.” What else could he reply? He’d only been heading out for coffee, after all. He wondered again—117th time this journey—how long did Dirk and Grania wait in their favourite Fremantle café as Jeremy’s expected arrival time came and went? How many different types of shit did they call him for standing them up?
Jeremy remembered how smooth Dirk had
sounded on the phone. He’d accepted the purred invitation without hesitation,
tied his hair back, grabbed his leather jacket and gone. Almost out the door, he’d
doubled back to his bedroom, searching amongst the detritus on the floor for
the silver star on a chain Grania and Dirk had given him last Christmas.
They’d wanted coffee in the café he’d first met them in—a good sign. He’d pulled out of his driveway hastily, the sleek classic car narrowly missing the letterbox. At the end of his street, as he checked for non-existent traffic, he realised two things—one, he’d left his phone on the kitchen table, and two, there were shotgun barrels currently being pressed to the back of his neck. The sensation was cold and sharp; he could actually feel tiny, vicious nodules of rudely hacked metal scraping his skin. The Valiant stalled.
“Get it started again! Move it!” The voice
sounded so young. Was this a joke? The barrels jabbed him once, twice. Jeremy
fumbled the gear stick and ignition, deciding any joke that went like this was
best played along with for the time being.
“Right,” the voice resumed when they were
back on their way, “I’m heading for Melbourne. You’re gonna be nice and take me
“Melbourne?!” Jeremy stared stupidly at his
petrol gauge. “How?!”
“Drive me there of course, dickwit!”
And so it was.
Jeremy barely even noticed Perth falling
away behind them those first few hours. His eyes were glued to the roads, not
even daring to glance into his mirror. Several times, his fingers cramped around
the wheel; knuckles bloodless, white. This Can’t Be Happening, he thought
repeatedly, the shotgun’s lazy presence telling him otherwise, even as he
“We’re … we’re almost out of petrol.” He’d found his voice at last, somewhere behind his knees, apparently.
“Better stop somewhere then, hey?”
A small servo loomed up before them. “You
got enough money on ya? Do ya want me to pay?”
Jeremy thought of the coffee and cake money
in his jacket and stammered his negative reply.
“Settled then,” the voice breezed, like a boss announcing he’ll pick up the tab at a business luncheon. “I’ll pay our way ’til we get there.” A rolled up bundle of money plonked into Jeremy’s lap. “Use that. And be nice.”
Be nice? Jeremy almost laughed. Shouldn’t
the voice say something like “Don’t try anything stupid”? or “No
funny business”? Surely “be nice” was a little out of place
He stopped the Valiant at a bowser and
because the place had a hand-painted sign boasting of driveway service, he
waited for an attendant. A man soon appeared, smearing oil stains over a dirty
overall. He waddled up to Jeremy’s window, smiling gap-toothedly.
“Series S,” he leered at the Valiant as
though appraising a barmaid’s cleavage. “Bewdiful condition. Must be proud of
Jeremy nodded dumbly. There was silence from the back seat and the shotgun had moved from the back of his neck. Surely, though, the amputated barrels were pressed into the restored leather upholstery of his backrest, waiting to blow both he and his beloved car apart unless he did his best to “be nice”.
“Fill her up, thanks,” he croaked.
The attendant shuffled the bowser nozzle
into place, free hand tapping on the shiny black roof. “Restore her yerself,
“Yeah,” Jeremy sighed. “Spent all summer on
it. Me and some friends.”
He was lost for one sweet moment in memories … the bonnet sparkling in strong Perth sunshine, he and Dirk with heads bent close over mechanical intricacies, so engrossed that only Grania jiggling as she waxed the Valiant from bumper to bumper could distract them.
“Must be proud of her,” the attendant
drawled again. Jeremy passed the man some money from the roll in his lap, the
man passed back some workshop-grubbied change.
“Y-yes, I am. Thank you.”
Back on the road, the voice rose again. “Does
that radio work? Or is it just for looks?”
“It works.” Jeremy twiddled the knobs,
trying to find something the voice decided it liked.
“Cool!” the voice exclaimed, “Leave it on
They travelled hours without saying a word.
Jeremy tried not to look at the landscape too much; he hated being out of the
city and this never-ending expanse, the unflinching openness of it, made him
queasy. Jeremy instead filled his mind with candlelit images of bedrooms, rough
kisses in dark nightclubs, three person conga lines around his kitchen table to
cocktail music rescued from op-shops. His abductor stretched out along the back
seat and growled along with every lyric the radio spilt into the car’s
interior. Darkness was deep around them by the time the voice realised its
driver must be wearying.
Jeremy started at the sound, at the very poke
of the voice.
“Tired? Want me to drive a while?”
Jeremy pulled the car into the gravel
siding, feeling a little sick. “What’ll you do with me while you’re driving?” Oh
god, his mind trembled, don’t let him put me in the boot. Oh god, please…
“So!” the boy slid into the driver’s seat,
testing his foot-to-pedal comfort, “Ever been tied up before?”
Jeremy couldn’t help laughing. Could this
teenager even guess why an
adult might find that question amusing? He couldn’t be more than fourteen,
surely? For godsake, he was being held captive by a little kid! He looked down
at the complicated knots he was tied with and sighed heavily. A little kid who’d
been a Boy Scout, obviously.
“Can you drive?” Jeremy demanded. “A lot of
work’s gone into this car. I don’t want it wrecked by some little shit out for
The boy turned the engine over expertly and
cast Jeremy a baleful look. “Do I look like I’m out for a joyride? Now be nice
and sleep. I’ll need you driving during the day when people might see us.”
A flat tyre near the Victorian border was
to be the only further event of the journey. Jeremy resigned himself to getting
the kid to Melbourne quickly. He didn’t want to ask questions, didn’t want to
try escaping and be a maimed or dead hero. The kid didn’t seem talkative
either, so they rode out their trip with only the most essential of speech.
That’s why Jeremy was startled by the
sudden questioning outside Horsham.
“You okay? You moaned or something. What’s
“Nothing.” He sighed again. “Actually, yeah, something’s up.” He glanced into the mirror, finding the childish, wide brown eyes of his captor peering back. “I was heading out for coffee. Just a bloody coffee. There’s these people … you’re too young to understand, but this … couple … are very dear to me. I haven’t seen them for a while. We’d had this stupid argument over showing the car at a collectors’ show. Yeah, this car. Did it up together, see. Anyway. We had this stupid argument and haven’t seen each other since. I’ve been miserable, okay? Then suddenly they call me and want to meet in the place we first met. That’s where I was going when you popped up. Now here I am,” he made a sweeping gesture at the green and gold land rushing by. “Here I am thousands of miles out of my way, I’ve stood up the two people I love most, and I’ve got a shotgun pointed at the back of my frigging neck! To top all this off—have you seen the state of this car?! She’s a grand old lady and we’re putting her through a bloody cross-country rally!” Jeremy swiped angrily at tears as he finished, wondering what young thugs thought of blokes who cried these days.
The boy was quiet while Jeremy composed
himself then, for the first time, he swung his legs over the red leather
backrest and fell into the front passenger seat. “I wouldn’t worry about the
car if I were you,” he said. “Vals are tough. You could drive her through a war
zone and she’d pull up alright on the other side. Plus, y’know, you and yer
mates did a great job on her. You could keep going up to Brisbane before she’d
even need a service, I bet.”
Jeremy snorted a teary laugh. “And what
would you know about cars?”
“My dad was a mechanic. Used to work on
oldies like this. Old Valiants. Old Holdens. He would’ve loved this car. Always
wanted a Series S…”
Jeremy glanced sideways and caught the
wistful look on the boy’s face. It took him a moment longer to realise the
shotgun had been left, forgotten, in the back.
“Is that why you chose my car? Because your
Dad would’ve liked it?”
“Yeah. Plus it’s not hard to get into a
locked Val. Sorry mate, but it isn’t.”
The boy and Jeremy both smiled cautiously. Jeremy
shrugged, giving his attention back to the road. He still didn’t want to ask of
the boy’s whys and hows, even though it was probably possible to do so now.
The lights of Melbourne’s skyscrapers
winked at the Valiant as it approached journey’s end. The boy dozed lightly. Jeremy
nudged him awake, telling him to put his seatbelt on.
“Sure,” the boy said, first leaning over
into the back to shove the shotgun into a battered sports bag. “North Melbourne
station’s probably the best place to leave me. D’ya know where that is?”
Jeremy shook his head. “Never been out of
WA before.” He laughed grimly. “You know Melbourne?”
“Yeah. My mum’s here somewhere. Haven’t seen her since I was six, when Dad took me to Perth. She’ll probably pretend she’s glad he’s dead when I tell her. But she’ll be upset really, I reckon. She always said he was a loser, doing all those robberies and stuff. Now he’s gone and proved her right. He should’ve stuck to fixing cars, instead of driving ’em away from banks really fast…” He smirked and hauled the sports bag into his lap, hugging it close while Jeremy eased the car into the dark parking area at North Melbourne train station.
They sat silently, looking embarrassed for a short while. “My mum always told me to be nice to people who help me,” the boy fumbled with his seatbelt and sports bag. “I’m sorry if I scared yer too much or anything. I know I’ve really put you out, but there was nuthin’ else I could do. I had to get away real quick … and it’s such a cool car…” He held his hand out. Jeremy looked it at a moment as if wondering what the boy wanted, then he clasped it and shook it solidly.
The boy got out of the car, threw two
rolled-up bundles onto the seat and ran off, shouting a childish “Thanks heaps!”.
Although he’d given up smoking years ago,
Jeremy ripped open a pack of smokes from the nearby pub’s machine as he
listened thankfully to the coins dropping into the pay phone. He raised his
voice over the traffic-mumble around him and blurted “I love you”
into the receiver, barely registering if it was Grania or Dirk who answered at the
Welton B. Marsland 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, is available through harpercollins.com.au and recently won the Romance category at the
2018 Bisexual Book Awards in New York. Twitter: @wbmarsland Website: weltonbmarsland.com
In my dream mother was waiting for me in a room with old-world charm, classic books and high ceilings. Rare pieces of art lined the shelves, multicolored masks and Merino glass sculptures shimmered in the afternoon light.
She sat curled in a leather chair gazing out the window at a mottled sky. She was barefoot in a cotton dress, young with long auburn hair and bottomless eyes. In her distracted loveliness, she didn’t look like the woman I remembered. She smiled as I approached and then softly faded away.
Later, I had visions of her escape from Newberry State Hospital. She was 33 years old with five children. Daddy and Grandpa put her there after she attempted to tame a nervous breakdown with doses of Mogen David wine. It was sometime in autumn of 1957 and the weather was turning cold.
She never told me how she got out
of those locked doors and caged windows
but she hitchhiked 200 miles clad in hospital garb and worn slippers. She would later recall, “the nicest folks gave me a ride and it was
the best time I had in a long while….I felt reckless and wild.”
My memory flashes to the night she got home. I was awakened by lights flashing in the driveway. The police had come; she had locked herself in the bathroom and we could hear the shower running. She spoke calmly through the door, “I’ll come out when I’m damn well ready.”
I remember everyone waiting and
They took her back to the asylum and she didn’t return that year. We would drive to see her on weekends; Lake Michigan iced and roiling along U.S. 2 as the winter settled in. She gave us braided lanyards and moccasins from art therapy. I don’t remember saying goodbye to my mother but I recall the quiet ride home.
dancing barefoot and childless
in another life
Ellen Lord 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.
Alice stretched her tired body and dropped heavily onto the straight-backed chair at the side of the open casket. She ran calloused hands through dull-blond hair and pressed her palms, just for a moment, against her eyes, steeling her mind against the silence. You’re free now. So…will you?
It was as
if someone else had spoken, this unexpected voice inside her head. She looked
sharply around the room. It was empty. There was only her husband’s body laid
out before her, his face gray, but pain-free; the picture of the Sacred Heart
above it; and herself, poised stiffly on the edge of this hard, little chair.
Heart seemed to stare at her, a bit like the Mona Lisa, she thought. No matter
which way she shifted to try to change the light, his eyes followed her. The
voice in her head said it again. “Free, at last. So….will you?” It
became like a mantra. It kept time with the tick-tock-tick of the old clock on
the mantelpiece. “Free now. Free now. Free. Will you go now? Go now?
on Matt’s face. This face that had lain beside her all the nights of thirty
years, even those of the last ten, when he’d been bed-ridden, unable to move,
paralyzed from the neck down, from a fall on the train tracks at work. It
wasn’t that she hated him, she thought, swallowing. It was that she felt
absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.
a kind face,” she mused, searching for a feeling, “a warm one, one
that lit up often with smiling.”
a man who’s done his best, all the days of his life” her father had said
once, reprimanding her. ” A man who loves you.”
for both of us,” Matt had said, the day he’d asked her to marry him.
you loved your sons” she said aloud now, to try to make herself feel it,
they brought tears to your eyes, in good times and bad.” She sighed. She
still felt nothing, Nothing at all.
Her eyes moved down his body. His hands were large as spades, from his work as an electrician for the railroad. Pale and purplish, knob-knuckled and rough-skinned, they lay limply now, folded across his chest. She remembered the feel of them on her skin, their first night, the way they’d grasped at her breasts, pulled at them, how they had closed tight on her shoulders at the end; her feeling of being taken. She had lain there afterwards, thinking about another man, a man who had taught her what it had felt like to open, to surrender; to pour herself, body and soul, like a river into an ocean, like milk into an urn.
She’d seen Doug first at a rodeo, three hundred miles away in the eastern part of the state. Black-haired and strong, his eyes, the color of wild phlox, narrowing each time he looked at her, flashing like the sun does on the rough edges of broken ice. Each time something inside her had shimmered. She watched him later, moving with the horses he was loading, his body loose with the out of doors, built to work under wide Montana skies, not in its dried out little towns.
Their first evenings together, at the end of her father’s corral, he had whispered to her of the ways of the wind high up there in the mountains, had dared her to cross the fence, cajoling her to leave her world of pianos and china and little lace doilies, just for an evening. When she declined, he told her he’d wait for her behind the chapel on Sunday, and that he’d show her the places God really lived. So she feigned illness at the start of her papa’s sermon and left for air. He helped her up behind him and immediately they were galloping, out across the mountain-side of the town’s white fences, out to the prairie’s tides washed up against sudden reefs, where there were no fences, only the smell of sage and pine, the ice-cold splash of rock-strewn creeks, the secret dens of animals who lived without fetters.
They’d had six months, six secret months of wild riding across open grassland, six months of him reading to her philosophy and poetry, six months of wet kissing, pressed first up against the rough, flaked bark of spruce trees, later, sprawled on the prickling forest floor. Six months where he’d awakened her as rain does soil and planted in her a new sense of what was possible.
It was a deathly cold winter’s night when the stone he threw woke her – and her papa. It had ended then and there. She remembered the long, slow wail of the train, as it pulled out of town, taking him eastwards. She could see it still, snaking its way out across the prairie, the prairie that stretched in waves like the ocean, waves which that evening were tinted hues of pink and purple, stained by the light of the dying sun. She crept into the frozen fields to do her weeping.
A year later, these hands that lay limp now beside her, had taken hold of her and made her a wife.
She had thought about bolting the first day he’d brought her to this town, to the very house where he’d grown up, a house full of the photos and mementos of a family she must now call her own. It was a bigger town than her hometown, but its streets were narrower and its houses smaller. There were no trees to break the dreariness, no views, only the rounded looming shapes of mountains, pressing around her from all sides, crowding out the great expanse of sky. All her life, it had been sky that had soothed her, helped her lungs expand, helped her to breathe. Here, there was almost no sky.
It would have been easy. The train passed behind the fence of their tiny backyard. She could have hopped on it any day, as it slowed its pace to move through town, slipped into one of its carriages, and ridden it ‘til it left this mountain valley far behind. She could have stayed aboard until, turning east across the open prairies; it left even the endless plains behind eventually and began to move between buildings, taller than the wheat silos of her home town, high above streets that danced, not just with the hard green of cottonwoods, but with the soft spread of maple leaves, and the creamy, rose-colored froth of cherry blossom.
But she didn’t.
The boys had come. First Tom. Born whimpering. She remembered the grasp of his hands too, their gripping at her hair, their reluctance ever to let her go. Robert, born a year later had, from the start, sucked at life, not her. He was distant, contained, utterly independent. She adored him.
remembers most about those long winters was the unceasing whine of the wind
sweeping down from the mountain tops, whipping itself around the outside of the
house. Hearing to it, she could think only of the barren, snow-locked flanks of
Mt Heron, that beast of a mountain that rose six thousand feet above her
window, where even the wolves had to shelter from the cold, from the unbroken,
bone-shattering lonesomeness. She would picture the snowfields up there, their
top layers shimmering with crystals, burning with starlight, the rocks far
below, cracking and splitting beneath their weight of ice, the vast black bowl
of the glistening night upended above it all. Sometimes the mountains held her
in the immensity of their embrace. Sometimes, it was as though she held them,
as though far inside her, in the place of her heart perhaps, or her womb, was a
world of pure and dark and ice-cold beauty, lit only by the purple fire of the
stars, quite untouched by human feeling.
on the mantelpiece above Matt’s casket chimed loudly. Five o’clock. Another 30
minutes and the evening train, carrying her oldest son, would be pulling in.
The clock drew her back to a day she’d spent the last ten years trying to
forget. It had sounded just like this the very moment the last living thing
inside her died.
Tom had arrived unexpectedly from Bozeman, where he and Robert had been studying. Walking straight into the living room, he waited for his parents to follow. He did not speak until they were seated. Something about his eyes had stopped her heart. The clock began to chime.
“Robert’s dead,” Tom said. “…a car crash. Early this morning. He was drunk.”
After that, all she remembered was the chiming. The sound of it just went on and on in her head. She sat there listening to it. Tom and Matt were talking, she thought. Crying maybe. She just listened to the clock’s voice, to the echoes it made through the silence of the house.
That evening she found herself alone. Matt was at work. Tom was out, making funeral arrangements, taking care of business, acting responsibly. She made her way upstairs. She pulled out the suitcase she had brought from home all those years ago. She put it on the bed and began to pack. “When they come back,” she thought, “I’ll be gone. I’ll figure out where when I’m on the train. It really doesn’t matter. East somewhere, somewhere there’s a college, a library, and a whole lot of pretty trees.”
The wind was cold. A waning moon sailed in and out of bits of angry cloud, never spilling light for long. She had been waiting in the unlit lane by the station trying not to be seen. When the train pulled in she would walk briskly through the turnstile and climb aboard. She would buy the ticket down the line.
She heard the familiar whistle, signaling the train’s passage through town. She bent to lift her suitcase, rising suddenly to a swirl of light from a car pulling in to the station yard. A car door slammed. Footsteps, hasty, on the gravel. She gripped her suitcase, turned away, walking through the turnstile and onto the platform, earlier than she had wanted. She looked southwards anxiously, towards the approaching train.
A man came up behind her. He was out of
breath. She didn’t look around.
“Mom?” she froze. “MOM!”
“It’s Dad. He’s had a fall. It’s
brakes screeched to a halt. A door opened right in front of her, pouring light across
the platform. She moved towards it. She placed her foot on the step. The light
was yellow on her shoe.
“He’s in the hospital. They can’t wake him … They think he’s paralyzed … from the neck down.”
She pulled herself into the corridor of the train and turned into a carriage. It was empty. She sat in the seat by the door. She took off her hat. She placed her suitcase by the wall beneath the window. She took off her scarf, her gloves, laid them on top. Then she gazed for one long moment east.
With the first shudder of the carriage she stood up, smoothed her coat and left the train, its gathering speed causing her to almost turn her ankle as she leapt. Her eldest son’s hand steadied her.
me to him.”
car she saw the moonlight catch the roof of the train as it made its way out of
town. On the other side of the tracks, the snow at the top of Mt Heron glinted
and flared. Then a bank of cloud totally swallowed the moon.
ten years ago. Ten years! She’d counted again this afternoon when, emptying the
urinal down the toilet, she had heard him call. Once, twice, a third time:
“Alice. A-lice. Ple—e—-e—ase…”
mounting panic in his voice she’d pretended not to hear, listening instead to
the tin-like notes the urine made sprinkling against the water of the toilet
bowl. She listened to it echo, almost musically, through the silence of the
house. She noted the color. Too dark. She’d have to bring him more liquids.
Later. She’d been all day in and out of that room. She knew he wasn’t doing
well, but, well, she couldn’t breathe. Rubbing the condensation from the inside
of the bathroom window, the outline of Mt Heron appeared blurred against the
evening sky. She let herself gaze at its highest slopes. She sucked them in. A
sudden flurry of hail hit the tiny pane like a fistful of gravel and she
started. She’d go later. Just a little later. It was time for dinner.
the steamed up warmth of her kitchen, the crackling of the wood-stove, the
drone of the late afternoon radio, the sweet knowledge that not even the
telephone could get to her here, she let a long, slow breath expand her ribs,
then let it out. She couldn’t afford to let herself think. She hummed to the
tunes that came and went on the radio. Frowning in the half-light at a recipe
book, she washed, sliced, cut, diced, flung the vegetables into a casserole,
flung the casserole into the stove and turned immediately to baking.
slipperiness of the butter yielded beneath her fingertips. The cool softness of
the flour ran across her palms. She rubbed, squeezed, kneaded, rolled, her eyes
following the trickle of melting snow, as it slid pencil-thin runways down the
opaque windows. Outside, she knew, Mt Heron stood, stood as it always did,
stood as she stood in the midst of her life, immobile, expressionless, letting
the seasons and the weathers come and go, untouched by any of it.
later, she entered the bedroom to bring Matt his dinner. She found him
lifeless, a dribble from his lower lip dried white against the stubble he had
wanted her earlier to shave. She moved immediately to do what needed to be
The key in
the door brought her back to the present. It was Tom. She lifted herself out of
the chair to greet him. They hugged, briefly. She pulled away first and left
him alone with Matt. In the kitchen she stood, hands on the cold edge of the
sink, staring at the hump of Mt Heron through the net curtain. She thought of
the high fields, their snow glinting in the starlight. Still, she felt nothing.
It was the
day after the funeral. Tom and she were returning from an after dinner walk.
He’d been trying, all day, to talk her into leaving, into going back East with
him back, back to where his wife and he had a place. They’d just turned off
Main St. towards the house. The streets were deserted. The shadow of the
mountain stood black against the evening sky.
Tom stopped and waved his arm at the streets and their buildings.
this place! It’s dark! Miserable! Empty! You can’t stay here alone. There’s
nothing here for you. Not now.”
couldn’t help a wry smile. She walked on. He caught up.
“Look, I know I’ve said it before, but it all makes sense. Mo and I have tons of room. You’ll have company, and you’ll have space. When you sell the old house, you’ll have money. Then you can figure out what you want.” His voice whined with frustration. “Just give it a try, will you?”
nothing. She was trying to picture those tree-lined city streets, the ones
she’d dreamed of all those years, trying to see herself walking across a tree-filled
campus, reading in an oak-shelved library, sipping coffee with friends, talking
poetry. But none of it would come into focus. There was only the mountain, its
snow-capped peak shining far above her. Her mind would go nowhere but there.
She saw herself standing atop that north facing ridge, way up there at the top
of the world, gazing down at this valley that had held her life. She had never
been up the mountain. Suddenly she wanted to go. Tom stepped in front of her to
peer into her eyes. “I’ll think about it, Tom,” she said. “I
will. Now, I, for one, am going to
the attic at the top of the house, a place she sometimes slept alone, she stood
gazing through the dormer window at Mt Heron. With a flourish she threw the
windows open to the night and leaned out. Far below leaves were skittering down
First Street, gusting in circles, gathering in the corners of fences, and
settling. It was a wind she knew, a wind she watched for, year after year, the
one, she believed, came to shiver the tops of things, and whisper to them to
it all, Mt Heron glimmered, its peak and ragged edges white with moonlight, its
crevices and the meadows where the tree cover grew, pooled in darkness.
Watching the curve of its massive flank and the delicate arc of silvered snow
across it, Alice felt a sudden opening. The friendless world that had leaned
forever against her windowpanes seemed to lift, just a little. The mountain seemed
to lean towards her.
she thought, sniffing the wind “perhaps, at last, winter is over. Perhaps
now, Spring can finally come.”
She had no
idea what that might mean. She knew only that she would not recognize it
anywhere but here.
Mulvey 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.
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.