“The Memory Keeper and the Myth Maker” by Carroll Sandel

Memory Keeper_Sacred Blossoms
“Sacred Blossoms” Image by Pam Brodersen

”…the remembering self” has two different aspects. “On the one hand, it has the temperament of a librarian, a keeper of memory’s most important archives. It can be fastidious in that role, guarding its original records and trying to keep them pristine.” On the other hand, “memory’s archivist by day has a secret passion by night: to fashion a story about itself… that some of us call the personal myth” — not “a falsehood but a comprehensive view of reality” that seeks “to generate conviction about what it thinks is true.”

~ John Kotre, WHITE GLOVES: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory

We wore white gloves to church on Sunday. When I was eight, my favorite pair had small petaled flowers around the cuffs, with a tiny pearl in the center of each one. A different pair when I was ten had scalloped edges. At twelve, another pair had a pearl button and a loop to close the opening at the wrist. The gloves fit snugly around fingers and thumbs. They stayed white as cotton balls since my sisters and I only wore them for a few hours each week and never touched anything. As we changed into our work clothes, we put the gloves in our top dresser drawers, one on top of the other, next to our underpants. My white church gloves fashioned part of the story of my childhood.

My mother drove us six kids from our farm into town to the Episcopal Church every Sunday, no matter whether snow gusted across the road or sweat wet our armpits. We tumbled out of the car, my younger sister, Nancy, and I heading to the choir room to dress in our black robes, white surplices. In the pews that faced each other close to the altar, she and I giggled and chatted until one of us glanced at the third pew where Mom sat with the other kids. Our mother’s furrowed brow and the shaking her head “No,” told us to cut it out now. Mom used to say, “Taking you all to church takes all the religion out of me.” We wore my mother out no matter where we were.

Six had not been Mom’s choice for the size of our family. But my father wanted to be like Frank Gilbreth who wrote Cheaper by the Dozen, so he talked her into another baby every two years. My mother on occasion admitted she had preferred two children. Then she would add, “But if I had to choose, there’s not one of you I would give up.” This was hard for me to believe. Though she loved infants she could cuddle with, my mother did not really like kids. When we argued with each other, when we embarrassed her by talking too loud, when we didn’t show off our good manners, she’d sigh and turn her head away as if correcting us was not worth the bother.

Life on the farm was relentless for Mom with the marathon canning and freezing beans, peas, tomatoes, applesauce all summer and early fall. Before school, she drilled us for our spelling tests while packing our lunches with lettuce, mayonnaise and peanut butter sandwiches. At night, we sat on the red metal stool and read aloud to her back as she cleaned up in the kitchen. Her energy went into chores, less so into kids.

While Mom covered the bases of being an adequate mother, she showed little inclination to nurture. She never recognized when we girls had outgrown our dresses. On occasion, she’d say, “Come here, I want to feel your nose.” If it was cold, she’d add, “Go get a sweater.” But for the most part, she paid little attention to our clothes matching the weather. She seemed to think we could figure those things out on our own. In particular, I don’t remember her noticing me. Mom never picked up on me feeling sad about something that happened at school or that I was terrified of the dark when she sent me to get more milk from the refrigerator in the cellar.

My father was the worrier. One evening when we still lived in town and I was three, he arrived home from work and asked my mother where the older two kids were. She said she had no idea, she hadn’t noticed they were missing. My father scoured the neighborhood, asking folks if they’d seen his five-year-old girl and his seven-year-old son. He expanded his search, street by street. My older sister remembers holding my brother’s hand, knowing they were lost. My father found them ten blocks away, across a busy street. My sister saw my father get out of the car and raced into his arms.

He once told me his “heart jumped into his throat” each time he checked on my little brother at night and found him buried under the covers at the bottom of his bed. “God, I’d think, what if he’s suffocated?” my father said. When a thunderstorm barreled through and the same brother raced into the hall to brighten his florescent cross under the night light, my mother laughed at how foolish he was to be so fearful. These memories helped construct my story that my father was the caring parent, not my mother.

 

During winters in southwestern Pennsylvania, the sky shifted from dirty white to thundercloud gray. The sun was merely a rumor. Wind snuck into the window edges, making the house groan. Our jackets, wool caps and mittens never quite barricaded the cold.

We girls were allowed to wear pants under our dresses to school when it froze enough to burn the inside of our noses. One day as I stared at the crystals of frost making dips and drifts in the small rectangular windows running up to the ceiling, Mrs. Scott, my second-grade teacher, announced it was time to line up to go the bathroom. Squeaks of desk lids opening, a girl’s whispering to a friend, rustling of papers filled the room.

As I slid from my seat, my teacher, who did not smile often, but whose eyes never flashed in anger, said, “Carroll, can you come here, please?” I got good report cards and did not misbehave much, so I was curious, not nervous when I walked toward her as my classmates left the room. With her cinnamon hair curled in a tight permanent, Mrs. Scott held out her hands and motioned for me to put my hands out. Both of us stared at my raw, cracked fingers. She leaned over to her desk drawer and opened it. My teacher lifted a bottle of Jergen’s lotion and shook some into her open hand. She greased my fingers one by one, then with both her palms, caressed them, back and forth, back and forth. Mrs. Scott, concentrating on massaging the cream into my red hands, did not notice me looking up at her. She did not know that I was thinking: This is what a good mother does for her child.

When we got off the school bus around four o’clock, two-foot-long icicles clung to the roof of the house. We changed our clothes and headed for the cellar where our snow pants, work jackets and boots were. Before I graduated to milking our Guernseys when I turned twelve, I helped feed the beef cattle who roamed in the rock-hard fields. Either my father or the hired hand drove the pick-up truck, bouncing my sisters, little brother and me up and down on the hay bales in the back. The wind seared across our faces, tearing up our eyes and sending snot down onto our lips. When we arrived where the cows huddled, with feet planted to balance ourselves as the truck kept moving, we pitched hay over the side. Headlight beams funneled dimly across the snow-covered ground. Once our job was done, our behinds bumped against the empty truck bed as we rode back over the fields. We swiped prickly mittens across our faces to scrape off stalks that the wind stuck there. By the time we returned to the barn, we no longer felt our fingers or our toes. Now when I am out in a bracing wind, I remember those dark, late afternoons in the back of the truck.

Inside the barn, it was cold enough for steam to rise where a milk cow pooped on the straw, but it was warmer than in the fields. One evening, I spread hay into troughs without my mittens. Blood scabs dotted the cracks on my knuckles. My father grabbed my sleeve and led me past the stand where the pail lid covered the fresh milk, past the horse stalls to the window at the far side of the barn. He reached up to the ledge, pulled down a lime green can of Bag Balm that he used to soften the cows’ teats. Scooping out a clump of yellow grease, he worked the lanolin into my fingers, one hand, then the other. Pulling his work gloves on, he headed back to the cows. As the oozy grease softened my fingers, I followed my father.

 

In my house on chilly days now, my cold fingers often tell me I need to put on a sweater. After my morning shower, I cream my body well. I moisturize my face in the evening and add ultra-healing lotion to my hands before I head toward bed. Without conscious thought, I have internalized the actions of those who helped care for my dry skin.

My young granddaughter, since she was a baby, has had skin so dry it feels like fine sand paper. When she was little, her mother slurped mango body butter over her limbs, back and belly. One evening I babysat when she was in second grade. After she had greased her hands, my granddaughter pulled on a pair of knitted mittens. A slice of a memory flashed and took shape: A pair of white gloves, larger than my usual Sunday ones, yellowed and dirty-looking–I had put on my hands as a child before I went to bed. The mustard tinge came from the cream I had slathered on before I slid my fingers into the gloves.

A thrill stirred in my chest as I stared at my granddaughter’s mittens. My mother had figured out a way to deal with my chapped hands. No one else would have given me gloves to encase my hands in lotion overnight.

Yet no matter how hard I tried, I could not remember my mother noticing my chapped fingers. I ploughed through my memories, but I could not determine when my mother gave me the gloves to shield my hands. I tried out scenarios, imagining what might have occurred.

Perhaps one evening at dinner as we all sat round the red Formica table, Mom watched me raise my milk tumbler. My red hands were difficult to ignore. After I brushed my teeth that evening, she held my fingers for a brief moment under the lamp on the bed stand before she said good night. I attempted to invent what she might have said as she inspected my hands, but no words came to mind. The next day I imagined she might have called her friend, Lucille, and together they came up with a plan. My mother then went upstairs to my older sister’s dresser. In the top drawer, she picked out a pair of white gloves, slightly worn, and placed them on the dressing table in her bedroom. That night Mom handed me a lotion bottle and the pair of worn gloves. “Put cream on your hands every night,” she said. “Then wear these when you go to bed.” So simply would she have instructed me on how to help my chapped hands. Maybe I grew tired of wearing the gloves and my fingers once again reddened. Maybe my father was following her lead when he noticed dried blood on my knuckles. But my contrived sequence of events rang false, with a mother I did not recognize.

I worked at imagining me telling Mom about Mrs. Scott lotioning my red fingers. But I would have been embarrassed to let her know that my teacher recognized what she had missed. I tried to envision my mother noticing my rough hands while she washed the dishes and I picked them up from the drainer to wipe dry. Yet my older sister usually was the one who washed while I dried. Shaping memory of a caring mother battled tough resistance. So entrenched was my perception of Mom never noticing of me, I could not see her initiate a plan to help my chapped hands. I dug further to find a palatable version of how I came to wear gloves at night.

The story that made sense to me: That freezing night, after my father rubbed Bag Balm into my fingers, he changed from his dungarees into his pajamas and climbed into bed. My mother, in her nightie, socks and bed jacket, lay beside him. In the darkened room, my father told my mother about my hands. “They’re in god-awful shape,” he said. “The cracks in her knuckles have scabs of blood. You need to figure out something to do about them.” With my father’s instruction, Mom telephoned several friends to see if they had ideas how to salve my chapped hands. One suggestion of applying cream, then putting on gloves each night made sense to her. She found an extra pair of my older sister’s and gave them to me along with the lotion. With three kids younger than I who needed her attention at bed time, I would have been in charge of dealing with my red hands. Without remembering of how I came to wear gloves at night, I fashioned a story that fits what I want to believe. Together my parents helped me.

As a meticulous memory keeper, I remembered the features of each pristine pair of church gloves. I loved that they made me feel dressed up, not like a farm girl. Scenes emerged readily of Mrs. Scott massaging cream into my fingers, my father’s rough hands greasing my cracked ones. I spotlighted my claims of who noticed me.

My remembering self had already been a myth maker, determined to dismiss what did not fit the narrative I crafted. With no memory of a nurturing mother, I stripped her of all signs of her caring for me. My granddaughter pulling mittens on her greased hands triggered recall of a forgotten kindness. Yellowed white gloves added a new dimension to my memory of my mother. One of her chores, it turns out, was figuring out a way to help me.

 

 

After a career in social work, Carroll Sandel took her first class at Grub St. Writing Center and felt as though she had leapt off a cliff. That exhilarating, terrifying feeling re-emerges each time she sits at the computer to write again. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Pangyrus, The Drum, Grub Daily and she was a 2014 finalist for the Dorothy Cappon non-fiction prize in New Letters. She has recently completed a memoir, Lying Eyes, which explores her untrustworthy memories and how certainty about our memories can betray us.

 

“Brown Days” by M.H. Lee

Brown Days_King of the Marsh
“King of the Marsh” Image by Pam Brodersen

Dr. Roan suggested that a short walk every evening might clear my head. Even an ordinary autumn is beautiful, and the backyard pulls me uphill to the bank of rocks around the creek. The air is chilly but not cold, and snow clouds are billowing up past the horizon. It’s the best weather for hiking. Halfway to a comfortable perch on the biggest boulder, I realize these woods would be the perfect place for kids to explore. There aren’t any kids, though, and if our adoption fund doesn’t get a significant kick start soon, there might never be any. We’ve only been in upstate New York about a year, and we’re mired in a hazy sort of limbo.

Rural New York hadn’t been the plan. Marrying after graduate school, we were just biding time until those fulfilling arts and education jobs presented themselves. The current jobs were limbo jobs – just to pay the bills until we found something with purpose, just until the student loans were paid off, just until we could really start to live the life we planned. That meant sleeping in our rented limbo that had advertised excellent insulation, but was really a drafty former baseball hat factory that guzzled heating oil. There were days and days of frozen pipes and no water, as we duct taped ourselves in each night to keep the drifting snow from piling up on our side of the French doors. Limbo was full of scrimping and saving, being patient until we could afford a vacation or a baby or two. Everything seemed to be so far down the road – never in the present. Was this life, forever waiting for something to happen? People strive to live in the moment, but what if there’s not much going on in your moment? What if everything is a pipe dream’s length away, always just beyond the horizon or around the next bend, just one more paycheck away? How do you savor the life you’ve got when it’s not what you want it to be? Or is that journey the whole point of existence?

Shots echo from deep in the woods. Is it hunting season already? A gust of wind stirs the fallen leaves, and as they swirl by, all of them are dry, crackled brown. The foliage peaked weeks ago, and none of the trees were as gorgeous as last year. The locals say the summer was too hot for good color, and this fall seems more melancholy than most. Autumn is definitely my preferred season, and last year I had interviewed for the job here at the height of the most radiant autumn ever.

The Managing Director had advised caution, “You’re seeing us at our best, but don’t be fooled. It’s not always like this.”

And of course, she was right, but those trees and that Indian Summer sun reflected up from the lake were so intoxicating – why would anyone want to live or work anywhere else in the world? That scenery had beckoned intoxicatingly, calling us to this lovely place to be. How could there not be hope and peace, here along the Glimmerglass?

A year later the vibrant reds and rusty oranges and sunny yellows are missing – and even the warm waxy mochas and chocolatey browns of the autumn palette are few and far between. To be fair, the leaves are certainly brown, but they’re dried up and fragile, bland and bare, ragged and dull. They scuttle by like dirty, amber snow. This wasn’t the anticipated season. Perhaps that other autumn had been a fluke, a taunt, a rare occurrence, happening once every decade or two. Instead of an annual promise of beauty, there had really been a temporary gift that I should have been grateful to experience just once.

There’s still loveliness, but you have to watch carefully. Just when the trees look drab and depressing, a shower of leaves will dance on the wind to remind you that every season has its gifts and its hidden beauty marks. We just don’t always see them when we’re busy mourning what we’re missing.

These limbo days are sad, and I’m struggling, but most days failing miserably. The new anti-depressant, behavioral therapy, joining the gym – I haven’t lost any weight, and I’m sleeping way too much. The feeling is familiar. It’s not about what’s actually going on in life, but that certainly doesn’t help. Work is stressful. The assistant manager was passed over for the job I have now, so he does as little work as possible and sucks the joy out of the office. My husband hasn’t been able to find a job in his field and is working for a miserly boss at terrible pay. This part of the state is as rural as Pennsylvania, but the cost of living doesn’t reflect it. Rent, heating oil, even groceries are a fortune here. Limbo is expensive, too. Four hours from Broadway might as well be a million because there are no funds for weekend jaunts.

The cognitive therapy books say to act like you’re happy until you actually feel it, but more often than not I just feel like a fraud, trying to be something foreign. The books would ask: Can you prove that? Is it helpful? Does it make you feel better? If not, you should discard it and change gears.

A childhood memory flashes to mind. I’m suddenly about seven years old happily coloring with cousins in their basement. The youngest one pulls out a smooth yellow crayon without any paper left on it and asks what my favorite color is. Just one favorite? I preferred to use all the colors so none of them got their feelings hurt. Those were normal thoughts for an only child, right? Looking intently at the big pile of colors, I try to decide which one is the best.

“Brown!” I finally answered excitedly, holding up the waxy well-worn stick that had just been used to make gorgeous tree trunks on manila paper. Brown was the color of furniture and teddy bears and chocolate labs. My hair and my eyes were brown, and so were suede winter boots. No other choice made quite as much sense.

The cousins had laughed at the selection. They said brown was just dirty, the hue of rotten teeth and messy diapers and ugly school shoes. My oldest cousin said brown wasn’t even a color scientifically, just a messed-up shade of orange. Another offered the wisdom that the big mud puddle between their yard and the neighbors’ was brown, and that Tonya the neighbor girl had drunk from the mud puddle and gotten pinworms.

“What’s that got to do with brown?” I had demanded.

She thought for a moment and then said, “Well, the pinworms are prob’ly brown, too. Brown’s a stupid color.”

Everyone was staring, judging the choice, and their negative comments seemed to make sense all at once. Shamed and searching for another tint, one that was clean and pretty and right, I glanced at my manila picture with its sturdy trees and giant four-leaf clovers.

“I was just kidding,” I said smiling desperately and holding my breath, using every one of my night-star wishes that my new choice would be acceptable. “My real favorite color is green.”

The oldest cousin was suspicious. He didn’t quite buy the sudden shift, like he knew in his heart of hearts that I really did love a shameful color like brown, but mercifully he said nothing. Maybe he felt sorry for me because my Daddy had left, while he still had his, and because I didn’t have straw blonde hair like the other girl cousins, or sparkly blue eyes like summer skies full of puffy sheep clouds. Those girls liked pink and red, for hearts and love, and their fathers told them bedtime stories and took them to the zoo. Their hearts never looked like sliced apples that had turned brown inside. So, whatever the reason, he let me pretend that green was my favorite color, and the coloring commenced as the afternoon grew long.

Well into college, I was still claiming that green was the loveliest hue in all the world, and a decade after that, still measuring my responses, making sure to always say what I thought people wanted to hear. That way people would like you and never single you out, but that didn’t always mean you would be happy with yourself. That didn’t mean you would be bold and decisive and the life of the party that everyone admires. Just because you were kind and principled didn’t mean you’d have the skill to express yourself without losing your cool or the argument, and just because you were taking up space on the planet didn’t mean you would feel like an important and effective part of the world.

Leigh suddenly came to mind, a funny and sarcastic friend from undergrad with a gorgeous voice but not so perfect body. She had never been satisfied with her life either, always striving toward something else. Sometimes she made terrible decisions. Some of the things she had done over the years seemed truly scandalous, but she was her own person. She hadn’t liked being overweight in college. As soon as she could afford it, she had bariatric surgery. She wanted to be married and not live alone in a studio apartment anymore. She married a great guy who made good money. She wanted to work in the arts. She practically created a job for herself and produced children’s theatre full time. She wanted a baby. She went through every fertility option, and then when it turned out her husband was sterile and not all that interested in kids, she left him and found another husband who was as eager as she was to procreate. And eventually she ended up with that baby, Arabella, a lovely little girl just like she wanted.

When we last spoke, Leigh had been planning the myriad of details for Arabella’s first birthday, over a month away. Everything was already ordered exactly to mom’s specifications. Leigh was busy, but was she happy, satisfied? Did she want more? Was she savoring every moment of Baby Ara’s first year – or was she just planning ahead? Was she so consumed with the birthday, that she missed a first step, a first word, a new expression? Did she ever sit in her yard on a boulder and think of childhood insecurities, mentally whining about not living up to her personal standards? Was she ever plagued by depression, paralyzed by anxiety? Was her life enough?

I’ll never know. A week before Arabella’s birthday, Leigh died in her sleep, the shocking and unexplained death of a thirty-something woman. Was it drugs, alcohol, her heart, bariatric complications, an aneurysm, an unforeseen stroke? Or had she just gotten everything she wanted, and her journey was over? Did she slip away peacefully with a smile on her lips?

What lessons could Leigh leave behind for those of us still on the journey? How could we keep climbing our mountains, knowing that even for the young, sometimes the next bend is the last one? The last spectacular fall vista? The last birthday party? Can you prove it? Not until it’s too late. Is it helpful? Not in the least. Does it make you feel better? Not even a little.

Taking a deep breath, I will myself to focus on something else. Four things to see, three things to hear, two things to smell, and one that I can touch. The sun is slipping behind the hill now, and the crisp air is starting to bite a little. A twig cracks sharply as the critters start to venture out for the night. The scent of frying hamburger wafts out to mingle with the creekbank and faraway wood smoke. The cold breeze is fresh and filling. I hold my breath as long as I can and pray that I will be stronger tomorrow.

Like an answer, three toffee-tinged maple leaves drop from above, twirling gently until they rustle to the ground. Tucking one into a pocket, I head toward the house. The winter is coming, but I’m still fighting and hanging on tight. So, Dr. Roan was right about the walk. This limbo afternoon is now golden brown, and there’s hope after all, because brown is my favorite color.

 

 

M.H. Lee has been published in The Quotable, Green Eggs and Hamlet, Forge Journal, and RearView Mirror. She graduated with an MA in theatre from Texas A&M University-Commerce and a BA in journalism and theatre from Southeastern Oklahoma State University. She has studied with Billie Letts and Stoney Hardcastle. Having lived in several states growing up, she is now working as a foster care recruiter for DHS in Oklahoma.

 

“When Words Spill Like Rain” by Barbara Presnell

Sanibel Surf (Words Like Rain)
“Sanibel Surf” by Pam Brodersen

1

March 7, 2008

Last night’s shower has soaked the low-lying roads and swampy ground of the St. Bernard Cemetery in southeast New Orleans. I’ve driven from a work site on a street called Tiffany Court, past an overgrown marsh and a white heron posed in ankle deep water, and have paused at the edge of this damp cemetery. The heavy iron gate shines black from the steady drizzle, the angel perched on the post glaring down with misted eyes. Rain spots my windshield, spills down it. My phone buzzes, and my brother’s name pops onto the screen.

“I was playing with my phone,” Edwin says when I answer. “I wanted to see if I could get you and Ellen on a conference call.”

To find him playing with his phone on a rainy Thursday morning is not surprising or out of character. “Sure,” I say, cutting the engine. “Go ahead.”

I’m here in the St. Bernard parish with a group of 12 college students and my husband Bill, all of us volunteers in the Alternative Spring Break program sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, building houses to replace those washed out in the floods following Hurricane Katrina. We work all day then spend our nights in an elementary school building used as temporary housing for volunteers, a place now called Camp Hope. Our quarters are bunk beds built from 2 x 4s in what were once classrooms where first and second graders learned to count and spell. Over 400 college students—and just a few adults like me—share this cramped space. Rain has poured down almost every day, mocking our generosity.

This morning, for the fourth straight day, our group was assigned the chore of hammering siding onto a new house drenched by last night’s downpour. Our AmeriCorps leader said something like, “The need for housing doesn’t stop with rain, so we don’t stop either.” Our student leader, a mature young woman named Katie, said to us all, “Don’t work if you don’t feel good about it.”

I pictured broken ankles from ladder falls, lingering coughs and colds and didn’t feel good about working, so I got in the rental car and took off, taking rights, lefts, heading down roads I’d never seen before, and finally pulling into this gravel lot of the St. Bernard Parish Catholic Cemetery. It’s the oldest cemetery still in use in the state of Louisiana, its heavy mausoleums recording some of the earliest names of the Isleños, descendants of colonists from the Canary Islands, beginning in 1767. Many stones are hand-carved, and all are decorated with statuettes of saints or angels, flowers, flags, or crosses, inscriptions, and shadow boxes.

Hurricane Katrina did little damage to the cemetery, other than washing a few sheds and boats through its gates. On this day, its paths are puddled with water that poured down in relentless waves last night.

Edwin puts me on hold while he tries to reach our sister, Ellen. I watch the rivers of rain pirouette across my windshield and wait. In a few minutes, he’s back. “She’s not answering. But I’ve got her voice mail, so we can both leave her a message.”

He goes first, explaining to my sister the missed opportunity to talk to both of us at the same time. Then me: “Hey, Ellen. I’m in New Orleans, sitting here in the pouring down rain. I’m sorry we missed you. I’ll see you Saturday.”

“Okay, that’s it,” Edwin says. “I’ve got a lunch meeting. I need to go. You all right?”

“Tired, smelly, sleepy, and ready to come home, but otherwise, I’m fine.”

Then I remember: it’s March 7, a day that has set me off-kilter for the last 39 years.

 

2

March 7, 1969

My mother sits upright on the pillow end of my sister’s extra twin bed, the one that had been mine until I moved into my own room just four years earlier. The light from the nightstand casts a flat yellow beam. We three children gather on both beds around her, Edwin perched directly across from her on my sister’s bed, and Ellen and I awkwardly facing each other on the ends, our shoulders curved downward, already tired, already our burden too much for children our age, already our age much older than it was a few days earlier.

Our father has died. After what was supposed to be minor surgery to repair an ulcerated stomach, he has had a heart attack, and just like that, he’s gone.

At last the house is empty of friends, relatives, and neighbors, sometimes wanted and sometimes not. In a few days, my brother will be heading back to his dormitory at Clemson University. On Monday, my sister and I will go back to school. What would we do otherwise but sit around the house and feel sorry for ourselves? Feeling sorry for ourselves will do us no good. Missing school on Monday would only postpone the difficult return, and throw us behind in important things like algebra or the study of American government.

Outside, unrelenting rain pelts down, pounding on the roof, slicing against window panes. Inside, there are no tears. My mother’s long fingers trace the stitching on my sister’s blue bedspread. I don’t have to touch her hands to know they are cold.

“We will go on with our lives,” she says. “We will go back to school, back to work. Staying home won’t make it any better.”

“Edwin is now the man of the house,” she continues. “Ellen and Barbara, you will help me take care of things. Life will be different but we will be strong. We will not talk about this. We will move on.”

We will not talk about this. We will not call his name. There will be no laughter, there will be no joy. We will be strong, and we will make it.

That night I take the small knot of grief that is beginning to work its way from my gut to my throat and swallow it back down. The tears that flowed only one time in four days, one late afternoon behind my closed bedroom door, seep back into the impenetrable foundation my mother has laid. They will not find their way out again.

 

3

March 7, 2008

After dinner in the Camp Hope cafeteria, I wait in line in the community room so I can check my email before falling into bed. We are leaving in the morning, spending our last couple of hours at the worksite before piling into our three vehicles and heading to the airport in Biloxi, an hour’s drive. I’ve taken my last shower, stuffed my muddy clothes into plastic bags and crammed them into my suitcase.

Exhaustion defines the place this evening. It has been cold all week and rainy for half of it. The warm fuzzy feeling of our decision to come here for spring break has numbed beneath the cramped conditions and bad food. We’ll get it back, of course, but not one of our crew is sad to be leaving.

Computers line one wall of the community room, where two soft couches, a few tables for board games, and a TV mounted in a corner provide the best hang-out space of the school.

I log on and type in my password to retrieve incoming mail. There is only one, from my brother, to both me and my sister. The subject heading is left blank. I double-click, and the message opens.

Dear Sisters, I tried to get the three of us on a three-way call today because I was in a deep moment of reflection. Every year since 1969, I and presumably you, relive at some point the biggest turning point of our lives. Since then, of course, other days bring about similar emotions. . . but the events of 1969 cannot escape me as the single most defining moment of my entire life.

I read these words and the story that follows with fear and fascination. It is an hour by hour account of his life over a two day period that begins, I will never forget the dorm phone call I got from Mama on that Thursday at 6 a.m. telling me I needed to come home. . . . hitchhiking to an uncertain destiny, 250 miles that took nearly eight hours to accomplish, not realizing I was heading into a lifetime of questions, literally a lifetime of lessons. He’d spend the next 15 hours waiting by my father’s hospital bedside and the next 40 years never forgetting those hours.

His story is remarkable because I’ve never heard it. It is perhaps more remarkable that I’ve never heard it. It confesses to a truth I have felt all my life but have rarely owned up to: an addiction to loss, an inability to move beyond that single day that comes relentlessly, year after year after year.

 

4

March 7, 1994

            I live in Lexington, Kentucky, in a small, rented house with my husband Bill, who has left the newspaper business after a successful fifteen-year career and entered graduate school. Our son Will is 8. He’s a happy, rambunctious child with a creative imagination and a love for his red cat that will carry him through to adulthood. We’ve been in this town now for four years, without any family nearby but surrounded by good friends and neighbors. I love Kentucky, love myself in Kentucky. I’ve found the seeds of a poet buried inside me, and they’re sprouting and beginning to leaf out in my words on the page and the breaths of my life, my eyes focused outward on the vibrant color of the world around me.

It’s a cold morning, the remnants of an earlier week’s snow still lingering. Bill has walked to campus, and Will is home from school and is in the living room with his friends Dillon and Ryan, where they’ve turned chairs and couches on their sides and covered them with blankets to build a fort. Something luscious and economical, like a chicken or stew beef on sale, is simmering in the crock pot on the kitchen counter, and I’m stuffing clothes into the washing machine by the back door.

The phone jingles, and jingles again before I pick up. It’s my mother in North Carolina.

“What are you doing?” she asks in her now delicate, soft-pitched voice. She has remarried, is happy, her life warm and full. Still, I’m surprised to hear from her in the middle of the day during the work week. We chat oddly for a minute or two, and I answer her questions about what the rest of the family is up to, how I’m spending my day.

Then after a pause, she says, “I just wondered if you know what day it is.”

I freeze, tensing from head to toe as though a muscle spasm has claimed my entire body. I’ve always known this day, each year its spinning and darkening into a shape unlike any other in the year, never what I expect and never one I can avoid. “Yes, I know,” is all I can say.

There’s another pause, and then, as though she’s been practicing, she continues, “It’s been twenty-five years. I just wanted to know if you’re all right.”

It’s the question I’ve wanted her to ask, wanted anybody to ask, but if there’s an answer for it, I buried it deep twenty-five years ago, just like she taught me to. Part of me wants to take this moment and tell her everything, to let it spill through the phone line to the other side of the mountain and into her house. I want to let it out, but it’s tamped down too well.

“I’m fine,” I answer.

I’m not fine, of course. I’ve simply moved and moving keeps it from coming up, keeps it out of my face, takes away the daily reminders, the people, the weather, the buildings, the names, the words I cannot say and have never been able to say.

There’s little more to our conversation. A quick change of subject, a few more niceties, and we hang up. When I put the receiver back into the cradle, my hand is shaking.

A year will pass before I relocate, kicking and screaming, back to North Carolina, where my choice becomes either to open the Pandora’s box of anger, sadness, untold stories, and unspoken words long buried, or let the poison of denial finish its job of eating away my insides.

My mother will live five more years. She won’t ask about it again.

 

5

March 8, 2008

Ellen picks us up at the airport upon our return from New Orleans. Rain still teases around the edges of morning, soft patters against her windshield. After a quick rundown of trip details, I ask, ““So, did you get Edwin’s email?”

“I did,” she says. We are pulling into her driveway now, late afternoon’s overhang of winter chilling the March afternoon.

“So, what’s going on with him?” I ask. “And what are you going to do?”

As middle sister, she never makes up her mind about anything until she weighs all possibilities, checks the lows and highs of everyone’s temperature, and then finds common ground.

“I guess I’m going to answer,” she says.

Tomorrow morning, I will open my email to Ellen’s response, a remarkable account of faith and friends that saw her through the days that followed. Her story will fill four pages. We are survivors with a variety of survival techniques, she will conclude.

But tonight, it’s my turn. That night, after unpacking my suitcase and getting a load of smelly clothes in the wash, I sit down at my computer and reread my brother’s words, the tender story of a boy turned man in a single weekend. I begin my story:

What I remember is him in the bathroom, sick every morning. I tell my version of the day of our father’s death, my grandfather waking Ellen and me at 6 a.m., that day’s rain beginning in fog and unceasing through the long weekend, the long grief within the dark house that followed. Had he lived 39 more years—or even 29 or even 19—how very different our lives would have been. I write for an hour or more, lost in years, before I hit “Send” then close my screen and stand from my chair, stretching my arms behind my back.

I don’t yet know what the months and years ahead will mean. I don’t yet know that beginning to tell our stories will open into volumes of words spilling onto pages, lengthy phone calls, time spent together, the three of us, doing the work of grief that’s 39 years old. What I do know is that something larger and stronger than me has budged, and soon I will—and I’ll mean it this time—be fine.

I pull back the window blinds enough to see the gibbous moon, the face, always in it, still there.

 

 

Barbara Presnell is an essayist and poet who lives in North Carolina. Her latest poetry book, Blue Star, traces her family’s involvement in war from the Civil War to the present through military records, census reports, letters, journals, and photographs. Her book, Piece Work, won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize. She has published work in Cumberland River Review, The Southern Review, Malahat Review, Appalachian Journal, Chariton Review, and other journals and anthologies. She has received grant and residency support from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Kentucky Arts Council, Soapstone, Inc., and Willapa Bay AiR.

 

“Harbor Lights” by Susan Cole

Harbor Lights
“Emotional Landscapes” by Penelope Breen

John bought the red sweatshirt, fleece-lined and hooded, from L.L. Bean three-and-a-half years into his Stage 4 lung cancer. We lived in Florida then, staying with his sister Pat in her retirement community near Orlando where he got treatment. John could never warm up enough. Chemo and radiation had weakened his muscles. He napped a lot. Even when wearing the sweatshirt, he sometimes shivered with cold.

A year earlier, we sold our catamaran Smooch on which we had lived in Fort Lauderdale, and we moved to Merida, Yucatan. Although not strong enough to sail anymore, John was still robust, and we didn’t want to hang around a furnished Florida apartment waiting for the next CT scan. Merida with its gorgeous colonial architecture, lively mercados, friendly locals, active ex-pat community and economical lifestyle appealed to us. From Merida, John flew to Florida once a month for chemo. He treated the excursions like overnight business trips.

One day in Merida before he was set to go to Orlando for chemo, he woke up feeling extremely dizzy. He could barely walk straight. A doctor in Merida prescribed “dizzy pills” for 100 pesos. I booked a flight to Orlando so I could accompany him for his treatment.

John’s oncologist in Florida ordered an MRI, and we soon found ourselves sitting across from Dr. R., John’s neuro-radiologist. A few small brain tumors had popped up in the past, and Dr. R. had demolished them with gamma-knife radiosurgery. Now, on this trip, Dr. R. brought up the latest MRI on his computer.

White blobs of all sizes glowed like misshapen stars from the dark recesses of John’s brain. He would need two weeks of whole brain radiation. Dr. R. asked John not to fly to Merida until the MRI results of the radiation arrived in two months.

Dr. R. said, “The next two months will be a delicate time for the brain, a little dicey.“

John’s interpretation: “Your brain will explode if you fly.”

Dr. R. was confident that he could keep John’s brain clear of tumors for six months or longer, and if new ones cropped up, he could again perform gamma ray surgery. He wanted to begin immediately.

I reeled from the term “whole brain radiation.” I imagined John becoming a vegetable. Dr. R. assured us that would not happen.

As we stood up to leave, Dr. R. shook John’s hand and said, “We’ve had a good run.”

The handshake reeked of finality. Shaken, John called his oncologist who reassured him that the last scans showed no spread of the lung cancer within the lung. We held onto the hope that Dr. R. would perform his magic: John would come through this awful turn of events intact, a little the worse for wear.

John took the brain radiation well: a little unsteady on his feet but his brain remained sharp. He wore the sweatshirt in the house, loose and unzipped, warming his hands in the pockets. He kept it on even in the 95˚ midday heat of the screened porch. From my air-conditioned spot on a stool at the kitchen counter, I would turn around to check on him—the back of his sweatshirt a stark red against the bright glow of his computer screen through the sliding doors.

We met in our twenties in Connecticut and, once we became a couple, had always lived on or around boats. John had sailed since he was four. Now, as I stared at the back of the sweatshirt, I remembered John’s tanned back and broad shoulders as he trimmed sails, tightened turnbuckles and captured loose halyards on our sailboats. He would haul heavy sail bags from below deck or grab the thick end of the boom on his shoulders to lift it. He’d expect me to hold up the other end. My family did not prize physical prowess and I had disdained team sports. But I loved the physicality of sailing with John.

Before we knew about the cancer, we would set out on Smooch in the soft middle-of-the-night darkness from Biscayne Bay to sail across the Florida Straits to the Bahamas. The alarm would go off and we would bolt awake, nerves jangling. I would brew coffee while John did a final check of the engine and deck, making sure everything was tied down tight. While the engine warmed up, we sat quietly in the cockpit sipping coffee, adjusting to the darkness and taking our bearings-–boats anchored around us, sand glowing on the nearby beach, navigation lights leading out to the channel. John steered from the cockpit while I raised anchor and then ran back to the nav station below to guide us out.

Once we had turned into Biscayne Channel, I would join John on deck. He steered us between the red and green lights towards the open sea, black and alive with uncertainty. The winking harbor lights comforted me as we plunged into the unknown.

Now, as the weeks dragged on at John’s sister’s house while we waited for the MRI, the red sweatshirt, softened and stretched from washings, was worn and supple. Almost imperceptibly, it began to hang more loosely around John’s thinning shoulders. The sweatshirt engulfed my formerly tanned, broad-shouldered sailor who not so long ago had raced headlong across the deck in choppy seas to tame a loose jib sheet.

I missed that sailor. At times, I regarded the shopworn sweatshirt as though it were a flimsy hospital gown–flaps loose, revealing John’s pale legs and back, and exuding the chemical smell of his illness.

After he got sicker—the brain radiation was successful, but the lung cancer spread–I came across a photo I had snapped just a few weeks earlier of John and his sister Pat, with whom we had stayed five months by then, instead of the originally planned three days. In the picture, John was seated at her dining table. She leaned into him, one arm around his shoulder, a hand resting on his chest. Cheeks pressed together, John and Pat shook with laughter. You couldn’t mistake the family resemblance: wide smiles, twinkling eyes nearly crinkled shut, strong jaws.

Pat, six years older, had taught John to smoke when he was eight. She had chanted “loony, loony” when he talked to himself as a kid while playing with his toys. The siblings’ dark humor had always attracted me. In the photo, they could have been laughing about John’s shrunken shoulders or his last cough. The photo lifted my spirits in a way that well-meaning platitudes people tossed my way –“hold strong,” “you can beat this”–did not.

They were laughing at the blackness, the void ahead. John’s faded red sweatshirt took up much of the frame, warming me like the winking harbor lights when we headed to sea at night.

 

 

Susan Cole recently completed a memoir about a three-year sailing voyage she took with her husband and daughter from Connecticut to the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Essays about her family’s sailing adventure have appeared in Daily Palette, Mary, and Living Aboard. She has attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival every year since 2007. In between sails, she earned a B.A. from Barnard College, an M.A in Psychology from Columbia University, and for many years, ran a successful new-product marketing research firm. She currently lives in New Orleans, enjoying a new land-bound adventure.

Read an interview with Susan here.

“Sensory Memory” by Kristen Scarlett

Strength and Identity scratched+window
“Scratched Window” by Penelope Breen

Breaking

My father picked up a series of inventive punishments from the short time he spent in the US Army. He would make me do push-ups or lie on the ground with my legs six inches in the air until my stomach muscles spasmed, or employ the “hands and feet position,” in which I lay on the ground and held a rocking chair or other large object above my head.

I was never a daddy’s girl.

In Basic Training, my father had been assigned to the fat program, so he was on a strict diet. His drill sergeant stapled a bag of M&Ms to a corkboard in the barracks to taunt the trainees and promised to eat it in front of them on their last day. A week later, my father sneaked to the cork board in the middle of the night and stole the M&Ms, slicing the bottom open with a contraband razor then filling the bag with toilet paper. When the sergeant discovered the thievery, he made everyone do pushups until someone ratted. To teach my father a lesson, the sergeant commanded him to do sit ups while holding a heavy log for hours.

My father was involved in a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him when he was stationed in Oklahoma. His left leg shattered, leaving it almost two inches shorter than the other; the lack of symmetry caused immense back pain that worsened over the years. Because of this injury, he was honorably discharged. He then moved back to North Carolina, where he met my mom while leaning against his Mustang at a gas station.

Influence A

Every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening my mom took us to Awana, an evangelical, youth-indoctrinating, pre-teen gossip session and basketball championship. I’m now an atheist, but my mom believes I’m saved anyway. “You were baptized,” she says, “so you already have your ticket into heaven, even if you’re a little lost.” She prays for me every day.

As a child, I accepted my mother’s religious beliefs as absolute fact, very much like children believe in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. When bearded men slide down your chimney and bunnies hatch eggs, deities don’t sound so far-fetched. But if I was ever truly devoted to something, it was the strength of my will. I clung to it like rosary beads in my fists. I hurled back-talk like holy water at my father but he never burned like the movie villains. His will was proportional to mine; the more I fought back, the stronger he became.

 

Influence B

My father skipped church to sink into one hobby or another. Sometimes it was model airplanes or refurbishing cheap computers to sell on eBay. I obsessively observed his projects, pining for an opportunity to contribute.

He’d say, “Keep back so I can concentrate,” so I did. Occasionally his hobbies would cross over into my world, and those were the best times. For the Awana Grand Prix, we made an extraordinarily aerodynamic derby car that won all the races. The accusations of cheating made us proud.

Perhaps my favorite of his hobbies was go-kart racing. I’d watch him ride around Woodleaf track, while I clung to the fence and yelled, “Go Daddy!” as loudly as I could. The dirt got under my fingernails and in my nostrils and sat permanently under my skin, the smell of methanol burned into my memory so that whenever I smell it now, I think of my father, re-experience the adrenaline, and remember the rusted playground outside the track where we’d find and count change to buy candy at the concession stand.

Copycat

If you visit my old home on Hickory Tree Road and dig up the earth to the left of the shed out back, you’ll find the remains of a family pet and several wild animals I found dead, then buried. When our cat Tigger died of feline leukemia, my father wrapped him in a blanket and put him in a box and we had a proper funeral in the garden that had been tilled but never sown, next to the tree house that had been promised but never built.

Every time I found a dead animal after that, usually a mole or a bird and once a squirrel’s head delivered by our half-feral cat Daisy, I would grab the animal with a mechanic’s glove or paper towel, and bury it in that garden. I would preach the merits of that animal, its ecological contributions and physical aesthetics, and lay a rock over the spot. Then I’d imagine what it would be like if the animal came back to life, secretly hoping that would happen.

 

Identity

I don’t know when my parents stopped loving each other. It could have been when my father started going to school at night while working full time and spending weekends with his hobbies. Maybe it was when my mother became dissatisfied with the role of staying at home, often alone. Perhaps it was when my father met my step-mom in an astronomy class while getting his MBA. It may have been after a third child still didn’t help them find whatever was missing. Maybe it was when my mother became pregnant with me, four months after they met.

I don’t know when the love stopped, but I know when they called it quits. The divorce transformed my first ten years into a memory that sits behind translucent glass. Those memories feel uncomfortably foreign, and sometimes false; if it wasn’t for the testimony of my parents, I’m not sure if I would believe they were ever married.

My early childhood survives in sensory memory—the taste of bubble gum my mom gave me to stay awake in church, the aching in my wrists and carpet patterns pushed into my skin from too much time in the hands and feet position that still feel as intense as if I’d just collapsed onto the floor. The smell of methanol involuntarily thrusts me into the nostalgia of the go-kart track.

Submission

In the past six years, my father has had two grand mal seizures, fracturing discs in his back when he fell, both times. He already had an emerging Vicodin problem from the pain caused by his motorcycle accident, but the surgeries and resulting depression left him entirely dependent on the drug. His addiction escalated to morphine, which eventually wasn’t enough either. When he finally decided to seek professional help, he told me, “I realized that the only place I had left to go—the only thing that could make me feel anything again—was heroin. And I wasn’t going to do that.” Today, “professional help” takes the form of Suboxone dependency.

My father was out of work for a year after he broke his back the second time. This changed him more than the drugs ever did. His proudest accomplishment was providing for his family, which was now nearly impossible. He refused to accept help, so he used up all of his savings and 401(k) to keep us in his nice house in the suburbs. He would sit in front of the TV in his bedroom, eating cereal out of mixing bowls and dipping chocolate bars into jars of peanut butter. He gained 60 pounds. Perhaps the worst part was that seizures affected his short-term memory. He began relying on my stepmom for his scheduling, doctor appointments, and reminding him to drop off the kids at school. Even now, if I want to arrange lunch with my father, he says, “Ask Nina if I’m free.”

While my father managed his pain with drugs, my mother chose to ignore hers. When I was young, she would say, “I put all the pain in a little box in my mind, and then I shove that box off a cliff. It seems to help.” She has fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. She has felt pain all over her body and in her joints for the better part of twenty years. It has gotten worse with time. Hand massages with lavender-scented lotion have replaced hair-braiding sessions and dance parties at sleepovers have become watching movies on a heating pad.

 

A Web of Addiction

My grandpa was an alcoholic for 40 years.

My uncle was an alcoholic until he started going to church.

My cousin is addicted to Xanax, among other things, and hasn’t had a job in ten years.

My grandmother can’t sleep without pills.

Both of my parents can’t function without depression medication.

My stepbrother is addicted to heroin. He’s twenty-two years old.

 

Another Association

When I was five and six and seven and I was losing baby teeth, but not fast enough, my father would pull them out with pliers. I would wait until the tooth was really loose, then I’d present it to my father who would say, “Are you sure?” And he’d “yank that sucker right outathere,” without any complaints from me. This impressed him. With my ultimate goal achieved, the 25 or 50 cents I earned was just a bonus. But now the idea of pulling a tooth out with pliers and tasting metallic blood and feeling that fleshy empty spot with my tongue makes me feel sick. When I had my wisdom teeth removed a year ago, I was careful to avoid grazing the craters left in the back of my mouth.

My father was also a big fan of ripping off bandages quickly or digging at splinters until they came out because the pain didn’t matter. Mom would say that the splinters would fall out on their own or get absorbed into my body, but to me and my father, the splinter was a mind game. That splinter wouldn’t get the best of us, and we certainly weren’t going to let the bastard sit in our bodies like it paid rent. The pain was a challenge that meant you deserved to have toes without splinters and holes in your mouth to make room for stronger teeth.

It’s easy to forget how I cried and begged him not to rip out the teeth and splinters. How in adrenaline-endorphin fog, I was proud of getting through the ordeal and winning parental approval. But in my father’s own self-doubt, he yearned for my trust. To this end, we played a scary game. When I was still small enough, I’d be lifted by my father’s insistent arms to the top of our refrigerator where I shivered and he begged, “Jump into my arms!” I’d shake my head no and hold my legs close to my body. I’d close my eyes, pretend he wasn’t there, pretend I wasn’t so high up, and believe that when I inevitably slid off the refrigerator, I’d land safely. It isn’t so scary when you just pretend, when you can believe there’s anything more than fear and floor beneath you.

 

 

Kristen Scarlett is a writer from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her work has appeared in Cape Fear Living Magazine, and East End Elements, and she received second place in the SCCC Creative Writing Award for College Writers in 2015. Her hobbies include fancy teas, existential crises, and musing with her cat, King Charles.

 

“A Rose Named Gary” by Timothy Eberle

A Rose Named Gary
Image by Penelope Breen

Ahem. If it can be said that art represents humanity’s collective attempt to reconcile its own existence with an otherwise cold and uncaring universe, then it stands to reason that tragedy is art’s truest manifestation: watching the human ego fail to connect with anything other than itself. I gleaned this pearl through a steadfast and sustained personal study of ABC’s “The Bachelorette.”

Actually one specific, unscripted moment in the scripted reality of “The Bachelorette”: the first rose ceremony that concludes the debut episode of each new season of the show. For the uninitiated, the “rose ceremony” is the device through which the aforementioned Bachelorette—the most recent of whom happened to be a Mid-Western real estate developer named “JoJo”—determines which of the show’s contestants will remain with her on her journey towards true and everlasting love and which contestants will be sent home packing. Human connection, in this pantomime, becomes a scarce resource. To the keeper goes the bloom. To the losers, so many losers, go all the imaginary blooms that they thought they would be holding before JoJo cuts them loose.

Loathe as we may be to admit it, ours is a conclusively lonely existence: one fraught with sorrow and disillusionment in search of the proverbial one rose. That’s the torment heard in Juliet’s deathbed soliloquy, the longing behind the chords of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the panic in Edvard Munch’s “Scream” and the sadness beneath the sunglasses of Guy Fieri. And that’s the sense of soul-crushing desperation underlying perhaps the single most heart-wrenching, fully-realized American tragedy of this (or any) generation: one dramatized scene in a hit reality series, through which the most esteemed of a human gender—He with the Bright Smile teeth, He with the rippling ab-shield worn by a Grecian god on earth—is revealed as a grotesque creature in false clothing. He is an animal with a lifespan, and he is destroyed for lack of a flower.

I anticipate with mutual horror and fascination this first rose ceremony because, in every other rose ceremony to follow, the Bachelorette’s decision as to whom she’ll either extend or deny a rose will be an informed decision—based on a careful consideration of factors like compatibility, shared goals and interests. (As an aside, the episode wherein the “artistic contestant” inevitably writes a poem that attempts to rhyme with the Bachelorette’s name—in this season, “My JoJo” with “My Mojo” – approaches revelation. It is a stunning bit of wordplay that will echo through the halls of our literary canon.)

But the first rose ceremony is just a gut-call firing squad. The first rose ceremony is a human house-cleaning wherein JoJo, operating on intuition alone, makes a knee-jerk determination that there are several men in this house about whom she knows nothing except that she finds them immediately unappealing. She would strongly prefer that she never have to see them again. And so she never has to. It’s the human equivalent of those sticky chicken claws that get pushed around on Dim Sum carts in Chinese restaurants. You know that it’s technically food, but it’s also extremely unappetizing, and you really wish that the waiter would take it away so that you can go back to eating dumplings like a person.

Then it happens to the unsuspecting. Comes the rose, and I have shed tears for garbage-appetizers-of-men, dismissed on less than a whiff.

I cry for them not out of embarrassment but out of a genuine sense of loss, as their mouths slowly close and the light softly fades from their eyes. These men very clearly did not expect this to happen. (In fact, they very clearly expected the opposite to happen.) Why else would they have flown to California—abandoning their careers, their bars, their fitness routines—if not because they were fully convinced that what they brought to the table—their backstories, their personalities, their synthetically inflated pectoral muscles— would be sufficient to satisfy the romantic ideals of not only their season’s Bachelorette-Du-Jour but also those of an adoring American public?

I cry for these men because they bear the collective burden of embodying what may be the single harshest truth underlying our shared human experience: the image of ourselves that we think we’re projecting into the world is so comically divorced from the reality as to merit its own show on a major network.

We all think that we come across better than we do. We have to. It’s a necessary by-product of our self-preservation. If any of us were ever forced to honestly acknowledge the way that the world sees us as individuals—how visible our flaws, our deficiencies, our cartoonishly bizarre proportions—none of us would be able to muster the simple strength required to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe that’s the reason why the phrase “The Kind Of Place Where People Don’t Even Lock Their Doors” holds great currency in today’s real-estate market. It isn’t because of some overwhelming concern for personal safety. It’s because a world of unlocked doors is one in which we would never be forced to backtrack to a friend’s party, where we’ve just said our goodbyes, to retrieve a forgotten set of keys and stumble into a room where the people we love have already begun saying horrible things about us.

We’re all objectively terrible people. Those carnies at the amusement park are sketching our real faces. Yet, most of us operate under the delusion that we are somehow beloved, that we alone are exempt from the piles of judgment that we have no problem heaping on everyone else. We tell ourselves that, in our case, our worst traits are somehow actually assets. “I’m not annoying. I’m quirky.” “I’m not dumb. I have alt-smarts.” “I’m not trying way too hard. I’m really pulling off this indoor jean-jacket.”

No one thinks that they’re the person who’s going to be sent home on night one. Look, it isn’t as if we’re wholly unaware of the image that we present. We generally have the basic outline down. It’s just that, somehow, we’re encouraged to see our reflection and then completely forget it. The devil, they should say, is in our details.

For example, despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary—evidence suggesting that the image that I actually present is that of a “bookishly approachable stranger you can rely on for accurate directions to any Banana Republic in the tri-state area”—I simultaneously maintain the completely unfounded illusion that I project a palpable sense of danger. Last week, walking down Atlantic Avenue in a blue bandana I’d recently started wearing in an attempt at a look that can only be described as “recently unemployed adjunct professor,” the thought crossed my mind that someone might see me and worry that the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn Heights had suddenly been infiltrated by a street gang.

I own a seltzer maker. I have a “tea connection” in Connecticut. I’ve started more than one conversation with the phrase, “You know, if you really stop and think about it, Matchbox Twenty is a pretty underrated band.” None of which stopped me from having the very real thought that, “I hope that no one sees me in my blue bandana and thinks that I’m in The Crips.” (I’ve been in gangs over the course of my lifetime. But they’ve been gangs made up of people who look like I do. Also known as “improv troupes.”)

Which brings me to my own personal moment of devastating self-realization. The moment when the entire facade I’d spent years carefully crafting for myself came cascading down in a crushing avalanche. The moment when, confronted with the entire set of options available to her, JoJo looked me in the eyes—squarely, deliberately—and mumbled, simply, “Nope.”

I was in Charleston, South Carolina, in town to perform a show I’d written and absolutely confident in everything I was bringing to that particular Southern table—my accomplishments, my personality, my New York City residency—would have everyone I met immediately throwing themselves at my feet begging to be regaled with tales of “life in the big city.” The night before the show, the cast and I decided to soak in some local culture and soon found ourselves at a bar in the company of Brittany and Elena: two beautiful HR recruiters in town for a consequence-free Girls’ Weekend. (Which is, it should be noted, exactly the type of experience I thought I could provide for them.)

From the moment I inserted myself (unasked) into their conversation—a conversation that was, I could only assume, severely wanting for some fascinating insight into “the time I saw Joaquin Phoenix on the subway, because, you know, I live in New York City, and that’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in New York City, where I live”—I could tell that Brittany and Elena were enchanted. I was witty. I was charming. The banter between us flowed as seamlessly as dialogue in a less-preachy Aaron Sorkin drama.

So engaging was the interaction, so ripe with potential, that on my way back from the jukebox, where I’d been queuing up a Matchbox Twenty playlist, I realized that I’d never found a window in which to properly introduce myself. (A fact that I, a longtime proponent of kill-or-be-killed improv comedy, sought to ameliorate by proposing that, instead of me just telling them what my name was, why didn’t they see if they could guess it based on whatever impression I’d left them with over the course of the last twenty minutes.)

I leaned back against the bar smugly, a cocky Rumpelstiltskin waiting to be anointed with a name like “Pablo,” “Jean-Luc,” or “Javier Bardem,” some name evoking mystery and adventure and the type of forbidden dalliance heretofore confined to the pages of the Kama Sutra.

The name that I was actually given (and given, it should be noted, with a deliberateness and speed in defiance of everything I thought I knew about the physics of sound) was Gary.

Fucking Gary.

Has there ever been a name that connotes an image of a more sexless, amorphous, broken sack of human desperation than Gary? Gary isn’t the name of a person you flirt with at a bar. Gary is the name of a guy who wears sweatpants to the Olive Garden. Gary isn’t the guy who fulfills your romantic fantasies. Gary is the guy who gets hernias playing office kickball. I don’t care what small town you live in, if there’s ever a headline in your local newspaper reading “Area Man Falls Into Yet Another Sinkhole,” the name of that area man is Gary.

If Gary were an instrument, he’d be a used tuba. If Gary were a band, he’d be—I can now say with the benefit of hindsight—he’d be Matchbox Twenty.

Here are a series of phrases that have never been directed at anyone named Gary:
“Well, the results are in, and they aren’t terrible.”
“Congratulations on not getting trapped in another Ponzi scheme.”
“Please Gary, just a minute. My body can’t handle another bed-shattering orgasm.”
And lastly, perhaps most devastatingly: “Gary, will you accept this rose?”

There would be no rose, I could tell, in the offing for me that night in Charleston. No sun-drenched evening horse rides, no walks along the beach. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that perhaps Brittany and Elena were simply compensating for their intimidation at being in the presence of a comedy genius who might also be in The Crips, but I couldn’t maintain the mental delusion longer than it took for the last strains of “Push” to fade from the bar’s speaker system. (And, though I can’t say for certain, I distinctly remember the song that played next was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”) My mouth closed.

Though I stood in that moment alone, I can honestly say that I was not lonely in my disgrace. Because somewhere, I knew…I know, is a man with teeth like dreams boarding a plane for California with a one-way ticket to the Bachelorette Mansion. And to that man I say this: “It’s nice to meet you, Gary. My name is Gary, too. I live in New York City, but I suspect you’ve already guessed that from my cool familiarity.”

 

 

Timothy Eberle is a New York based writer and comedian, like everybody else who lives in Brooklyn. His writing and performances have appeared in McSweeney’s, Splitsider, the Santa Fe Literary Review, Jewish Life Television, Jewlicious.com, Heeb Magazine, and the Madcap Review, among other credits. Most recently he was seen performing at The Peoples Improv Theater in “I Am Not a Man” (a sad show which he wrote alone), and in the review “Sad Men and the People Who Love Them.”

 

“On Transmutation” by Haley Yelencich

on-transmutation
“Hrabove 7-14” by Pat Zalisko, 38×38, Acrylic on canvas.

Look. My wall is cracking open. The ancient plaster is splitting, creating a fissure from ceiling to hardwood, sending pieces of yellowed paint sailing to the floor. Look at the dark divide grow—how the wall crumbles to chalky dust as it separates. Hold on … do you see it? Right there in the middle of the chasm. It’s a book bound in buckram cloth … I think it’s for you. Metamorphoses: Book IV is written on the spine. Reach in. Reach in. Do you know that story? I have a decaying memory of it. What does it say?

But wait. Let me tell you a story that I just remembered. It may disintegrate before you bend that antique binding, and it may be important.

~

I was nine when I cautiously watched an uncle of mine from the swing set that was placed in a clearing of the woods that surrounded my childhood home. He and my sister were standing near the house, away from the others, and I watched her discomfort as he wrapped his arms around her and reached for the back pockets in her light cut-off jean shorts. She shrugged him away. It was her thirteenth birthday.

Grasping onto the snake-like chain that was covered in blue plastic, my body casually wavered back and forth, but my mind walked around them. I saw his thick mustache move above his thin upper lip, and I heard him tell her that if she wanted her birthday card she would have to let him put it in her back pocket. Otherwise, she wouldn’t get the money that waited inside.

My eyes turned to ice and my stomach turned to stone as she stood frozen. He put his heavy arms around her, and slipped a white envelope in the back pocket of her jean shorts. Hate raged through me and shook the tree tops.

This was our initiation.

~

Oh, but Metamorphoses … I only remember a little of it. Ovid, right? There are three women who weave stories of immobilized love—women who reject Bacchus as a god and are punished for their lack of worship.

Their burdensome fabric consists of a woman who has sex with the sun and is buried alive because of it, while another, who is in love with the same star watches the golden light stream from the sky and beat on the grave until she silently transforms into an inanimate plant. In between those strands lives a girl who prays to be with the boy she loves until she melts into him, losing her independent identity.

But wait … you’re not paying attention.

Why do you act so disinterested? Don’t you think that this is important? This is what we’ve clothed ourselves with, the leaden stories we’ve worn for years and years and years. These are our heavy uniforms, the words we cover ourselves in, the things that drag us down.

~

Let me tell you about something you might find more intriguing. Outside, over there somewhere, I left a friend’s house on my way back to an apartment that I rented. It was nighttime and winter. The city lights stained everything in hues of orange and purple, including my diaphanous breath that dissipated into the frigid air.

It wasn’t too late, but it was late enough. I trudged past an alley that was lined with trash cans and peppered by three men who seemed quite a bit older than myself. As I walked past, I glanced sideways at their silhouettes, outlined in a subdued burnt orange, shining violet light irradiating from between their arms and legs. And at that same moment, they spotted me.

There are moments where we can see ourselves, and very quickly I saw myself for what I now was: a young woman in an old ill-fitting peacoat and sluggish boots with holes wearing in the soles, walking alone at night. I was, from outside myself, unknowingly an invitation.

The men walked out of the alley behind me. I kept my pace, quietly counting down the blocks until I would reach the train. One of them hurled some words at me, which I ignored. I could hear them laughing, but I refused to look. Back straight, head high, with my heart trying to tear out of my body, I walked. Counting three, two-and-a-half, two.

My hands were in my pockets, and I hoped that they would think that I was holding onto something sharp, when finally one of them threw, in a sing-song voice, a phrase that actually hit me. Out of the purple gelid air in a sweet melodic tone came the words—with the last two drawn out for dramatic emphasis: “We’re going to rape you.”

I knew that he thought he was joking by the way he crooned it and by the way his friends laughed, but I, alone, in my cumbersome boots and jacket-one-size-too-big, also knew what happened to women like me in situations like that, and finally my pace, every so slightly, quickened to reach the train station.

As I sank onto a seat in the fluorescent-lit train car, I looked up to see that a different man was hovering over me, holding onto the bar in-between where I sat and the door. He was staring, and he would not stop.

~

Are you watching as the split in the wall grows, as the dark line snakes and weaves around the window-frame and the doors? I’ve watched this wall crumble only a few times, and never as much as right now. This will have to be a big repair.

Do you know how to fix a plaster wall? It helps to know what lays underneath, because if you simply cover the gash it will reappear at some time or another, often when you least expect. Inside the wall, beyond what you can see, behind the paint, the outside color and solidity, are laths of wood that hold the whole thing together. Somewhere in there lay strips of wood layered on top of each other that the plaster rests over and creates the wall that you see. In order to prevent future cracks, you have to reacquaint the plaster with the laths. You have to recognize the invisible laths existence, and then affix what is visible to them. That’s the only way to make sure this thing stays whole.

~

I used to know less about walls and more about what goes on out there, but certain events recurred at such an alarming rate that I decided to abandon my mindless exterior explorations and turn indoors. You see, it happened again on a different night on my way to the same apartment that I’ve mentioned before. I was standing outside of the building and talking to a friend on the other side of a phone because I didn’t want to lose her on my way up in the elevator. I wrapped my arms around the loose-fitting white tee-shirt that I was wearing—(this, if you’re not aware, is a detail that many people may find important)—and watched as drops of rain cut through the luminescence of the light in the lamppost above me.

Again, three men somewhat older than myself approached me. Again, they were laughing amongst each other. Again, I acted as if I was unaware of their presence. But this time was different, and not only because of the rain or what I was wearing or who the men were. This time, they surrounded me. This time, one of them leered over me and repeatedly asked, “How much? How much?” despite my best efforts to ignore them all into non-existence. This time, one of them wrapped their fingers around my arm and dragged me towards him.

“Don’t touch me!” I heard my voice cry from someplace deep within. It seemed to have stemmed from my stomach and shot up through my throat, sprouting higher and higher into the damp night. My friend, somewhere further away in the city and on the other side of the phone, expressed her helpless alarm.

Two of the men stepped back, but the other reached towards me again. A rage, one that I was not altogether aware had been germinating within me, shook my every limb. As it grew, I felt myself become lighter and lighter. I could feel my face contort and my self transfigure in fury. The city seemed to spiral around me. I thrashed the man’s hand away and shouted, “Get the fuck away from me!” For a moment, he paused, and my hand clenched into a fist at my side. I watched as he slowly backed away. My whole being was alive and twisting in and around itself. Every particle was sparked with indignation.

But then all three were laughing. And as they walked away from me the last one said, “That’s exactly what I wanted.”

~

To reject a person is often a troublesome and hazardous thing. The three women weavers in Metamorphoses know just how difficult defiance can be. They refused to refer to Bacchus as god and, as punishment, their threads were transformed into tangled vines and their bodies were turned into those of bats. But – pay attention – their resistance was the cause of their metamorphosis. And the result was not as unfortunate as some would like you to believe; their thin membranous wings carried them away.

Do you know who else you’ll find in that book? She is not exactly a character as much as she is a memory. Perseus, the protagonist, only refers to her existence to explain how he destroyed her. He only tells her story to relate how she came to be worthy of execution.

Medusa, he recalls, was not always a horrid monster that stalked through the fields with her hair of snakes and fatal stare. Once, she was beautiful, and Perseus deduces that this was the direct cause of her rape by Neptune in Minerva’s temple. (Today, they might say that he “had to” do it. That he “could not help himself.”)

As a punishment for desecrating her temple, the male poet Ovid tells us through the male hero Perseus that Minerva transformed Medusa’s alluring hair into an angry nest of snakes and cursed her so that any potential suitor would turn to stone after setting his eyes on her. Minerva then set Medusa’s image on her breastplate to fill her enemies with fear.

Through Perseus’s words Medusa is woman, desecrator, monster. She was one part of an aggressive sexual act – the victim – and so we will punish her for centuries. We will push her away into the fields, angry and afraid of her, and we will leave her there to her fate and death.

Meanwhile, Neptune will be free to rule the seas.

~

You see, I stay within these walls because it’s comfortable. I can safely stand right here and watch the tree branches cut across the sky like wrinkles in an old woman’s face. I can watch the sun bathe over them. I can watch them slither in the wind. And I can dream that one day I’ll see what they see. These walls may separate occasionally, but I can always patch them up. I can always fix what happens inside of them. But out there I may find myself in a situation that I can’t get out of, one from which I may never return. People have ways of grinding you into the ground. It may be a fault of mine, but I much prefer to sit up here in this room with you—the person I’ve let in.

~

He was someone that I did not feel thoroughly comfortable with, but I was more uncomfortable with being alone. My insecurity did not arise from any feeling of risk or hazard, but instead from feelings of inadequacy. You see, I was young, and still unlearning the things that I had been taught by uncles and strange men.

He was physically non-threatening and had a soft voice. His dark eyes shone a light from deep inside. He was well-liked and friendly and a little bit shy. We were interested in the same things—art, books, oddly beautiful things. I was unsure if I was good company, but I knew that I was good enough.

He invited me over, and I took the train an hour away from where I stayed. I calmly watched as the electric lines cut across the starless night sky, and wondered where exactly I was going. When I arrived at his apartment I discovered that there were four other people living within it, so he invited me to watch a movie in his room where we might be more alone, and conclusively, more at ease. His room was sparse with various little trinkets set upon the windowsill and a bookshelf, and his desk was littered with sketches and books. I don’t remember what movie he turned on, but I do remember discussing and agreeing that we would unquestioningly not sleep together that night.

Soon, the lights were off and his arms wrapped around me. We rolled over each other and our mouths pressed together and other things happened that sometimes happen in dark bedrooms when you’re nineteen and twenty-something or older or younger—things that happen no matter how old or young you are, or what you look like, or who you are, or where you’re from. These are the things that take place in all of our lives to certain degrees whether we like them and want them or not.

After these things that I was OK with transpiring had occurred, I heard him reach into one of those shining little trinkets. Then the sound of his long fingers fumbling with the plastic wrapper of a condom reached my ears. I sat up. “We agreed we weren’t going to do that,” I reminded him.

I don’t remember whether he seemed tense or tranquil, serene or excited. I don’t exactly remember what he looked like in that moment, other than the blue light of the TV screen shining over his thin frame. I don’t remember what I anticipated, or even if any solid thought was traveling through the folds of my brain. What I do remember are the words, “I have to fuck you,” emitting from his mouth and his hands pushing me down and burying me into the mattress. I remember the sounds outside the door. I remember not saying anything, and not feeling much at all.

~

Sometime before, the sky moved slowly. Slunk back on the hill by the house and slurping sun-soaked iced tea and orange slices, I watched the occasional car as it barreled down the dry dirt road, kicking up dust. The sky steadily drifted away, skimming the tops of the trees where the leaves swung and saw things differently.

The house that I grew up in was surrounded by oaks and maples, but there was only one tree that I could climb – only one branch that I could reach on tiptoe in my jelly shoes and hand-me-down sundress. Tiny calves flexing. Small fingers reaching. Pulling myself up as my feet clambered one over the other on the shaded ground. I needed to be further up and away. I needed to hide in the tree-tops, be swept up into the clouds. I dreamt of scaling to the top and flying off into the wind, weightless and free. But one day the only branch that I could reach broke off of the dying trunk, and I snapped awake. I realized then that it would be a difficult time trying to get all the way up there with everything else trying to keep me on the ground.

~

It all reminds me of the time when an older cousin of mine found me playing on the floor in our grandparent’s bedroom. A soft winter light streamed into the dark room as I leaned intently over a colorful toy of some kind. I suddenly felt a dense weight fall over me, and a heavy hot breath blow into my ear. He had bent over and wrapped his arms around my small frame constricting his large arms tighter and tighter until I felt suffocated.

“Let me go!” I shouted. My body was pushed so that I was hunched over myself. My knees pressed into my chest. His body held me down, crushing me towards the hardwood floor. He laughed and said something in a teasing manner, but he did not let go.

“Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!” My arms jerked behind me in attempt to hit him in the stomach, and still he laughed. He pressed me further into the ground, and still he did not let go.

~

And there was another time, one much later, a different “he” held me down on his rich friend’s expensive couch as they drank in the next room. “You think you’re so strong,” words seethed from gritted teeth. Golden light dripped into the room from the hall, and crept upon his face, distorted his drug-addled features. An overpriced clock ticked from above. “You think you’re so strong.” He held my arms down to my side, and hate streamed from his eyes as I struggled to get out from underneath him.

How did it happen? Did something spark through his mind and transmit behind his eyes so that he could see what he was doing? Or did he fall into a sudden stupor? The latter, it seems, is more likely. Although I can’t recall exactly how it ended, I know that it did so abruptly. And the next moment, I was waking up from an uncomfortable sleep with his body laying calmly next to mine.

~

I can see that you think this is excessive. You seem to be in a state of disbelief, but I promise you that stories like this are alive and flourishing and they do not stop just because you wish them to. I understand if it makes you uncomfortable, but I do not apologize.

For too long we’ve heard the story of the woman or girl as seductress or femme fatale or succubus, no matter how young, and it’s come time that you and I and everyone around us begin to listen to other stories. They’ve been trying to be heard for years and years, but somehow they get buried underneath other words. The tales and myths that have blanketed us for centuries are old and tired—and the interpretation of them is often the same. It’s time to listen to new yarns, and perhaps the myths that we do know would do well to be reexamined and told from a different perspective.

Take a look at that book that you hold in your hands, the one that you found hidden in the walls. The story of Medusa might’ve been transmuted while in there. Instead of a young woman who is punished for being raped, a plot-line that we sadly still allow both in fiction and reality, you might find someone different. It will still be Medusa, and she will still have serpents as locks, but you might find the reason for transformation different.

Neptune still commits his crime against Medusa in Minerva’s temple, and Minerva still witnesses that crime. But instead of reshaping Medusa’s image out of wrath and anger, Minerva changes her appearance in order for her to express and exert her agency. Minerva gives Medusa the means to protect herself from others who would commit the violent act she experienced (and by now, I hope you agree that we can surmise that there would be others). The gaze of misguided men and potential male aggression is now stopped and turned against them.

In this way, we will no longer treat the assault survivor with hatred and disgust but as living beings, and recognize the power that they innately have. And we will no longer allow each other to be held down, but we will turn those who like to bound us to the earth into stone.

~

I’ve watched this wall so many times. White light hits the plaster and exposes its rough features, every bump and wrinkle. White light shines from the curtain-less windows where, outside, beautiful trees reside. More and more are being planted each day by strong hands and even stronger voices, and we can watch them grow.

Don’t worry. I have not given up the idea of one day living in those top branches, where things are viewed differently. The women who weaved their stories rejected the old male god and they flew away. They were rid of him and they flew.

 

 

Haley Yelencich was raised in rural Michigan and grew up in Chicago, IL where she obtained a B.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia College. She currently lives in New Orleans where she writes, draws, and sings to her cat, Shark.

 

“Shoveling Snow” by Cate Hennessey

shoveling-snow-prastarbol
“Prastarbol” by Pat Zalisko, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48

I.

The house shudders on its foundation, and in the drafty kitchen, I grip my coffee and brace for the next gust of wind, the next furious rattle of the windows. The winter landscape outside offers little comfort: hundreds of acres of frozen Pennsylvania farm country, a wasteland of brittle grass and cracked earth. For months the wind has gathered and roared over this open space, but not a single flake of snow has accompanied the onslaught. The wind tears apart the desire of any such delicate, symmetrical thing.

At the breakfast table, my two small daughters screech with housebound rage. Quinn, the youngest, heaves her plastic cup to the floor and mashes banana into her hair. Three-year-old Ella bangs her spoon on the table and gouges the wood. There will be no playing outdoors to relieve their frustration; from here the swing set gives shape to the air’s violence: the weathered supports rock back and forth in their postholes, and plastic swings twist and hurl on their chains.

This is not winter. It is despair.

 

II.

In western New York, along Lake Erie, snowbound winter from October to April is a way of life. Locals consider anything less than twelve inches of snow a nonevent, and weather forecasters don’t say blizzard unless the National Guard has to be called in. Most area kids don’t know the rest of the country considers this kind of winter a nuisance; after all, a good lake-effect snowstorm means no school and terrific sledding. And adults shrug when outsiders gasp about the length of winter, the one hundred inches of annual snowfall. It is a way of life, this snow. Teenagers learn to drive on snow-packed roads. Schoolchildren wear snow pants and heavy boots to school, carrying their everyday shoes in backpacks. And this community of factory workers and truck drivers views snow blowers as unnecessary luxuries. Most everyone, my childhood family no exception, learns to shovel at an early age.

 

III.

“All right gang, get ’em up and move ’em out.” My father rises from the table and places his breakfast dishes in the sink. “Time to clear the drive.”

It is a bitter, snowed-in Saturday my senior year of high school, and all five of us–Dad, Mom, me, and my younger brothers, Luke and Joe–rush to pull on heavy clothes and boots before heading out into the muffled, white world. The previous night had dumped some twenty inches of snow on our lakefront town, and Don Paul, the most reliable of the local weathermen, warned on the morning news to expect another foot before evening.

We hurry not because we love shoveling, or because we are afraid of more snow piling atop the already impressive drifts. Rather, speed directly relates to easing the pain of an arduous task: the first one to the garage claims the best shovel, a light tool with a gracefully shaped metal scoop. The other shovels are heavier, with spades of varying quality and reliability. But the last person out suffers an ancient, rusting contraption of incredible heft; occasionally its spade falls off under the weight of the snow. When this happens, we don’t drive to Ace Hardware for a new shovel. Not even after three or four mishaps. The unfortunate shoveler bears his or her misfortune in silence and fixes the wreck with a bent nail and wire.

This morning I can’t muster the excitement to compete with my nimble, efficient family; my body feels as if logs are chained to my limbs. This morning the wreck belongs to me. And so I slog through the thigh-deep snowdrifts and hack into them with the godforsaken shovel. My family around me works in silence, bodies bent toward a common goal. Last night, however, the scene was not so unified. I had come home late from having coffee with a friend, and before I could offer up the lie I had concocted, my mother held up her hand and pointed to the saggy, green-upholstered rocker.

“Sit down and be quiet. Eric’s mother called, so don’t even try to tell me otherwise. What the hell were you thinking? The cop clocked him at eighty-five!”

Since she had already spoken with Mrs. Gangloff, the truth was all there was: “Eric wanted to see how fast the old station wagon could go.”

I stopped short of saying I had thought this a worthy experiment. My parents owned two Chevy Caprice wagons as well, and on my own I didn’t have the guts to drive either of those shuddering beasts faster than sixty. I also didn’t tell her that Eric and I had planned to bury the speedometer at 120.

It was a smart omission. Her neck purpled anyway. “You will never ride in a car with that boy again. And you will not see him for a month.”

“But he’s my best friend!” This too was only partially accurate, but my mother knew the half-truth this time. I regretted letting it slip, just days before, that Eric and I might become more than friends. And I was furious that she had turned my confidence into a punishment. I looked over to my father, sitting in his tattered reading chair, but he only stared back and then returned to his newspaper.

My mother continued, her rage and fear filling the space between us. “Maybe he shouldn’t be your best friend anymore. Now go upstairs and go to bed.”

In my parents’ house, face-to-face disobedience was met with greater wrath than stupidity. This, after my father’s belief in the necessity of hard work, was the greatest truth in my seventeen-year-old universe. So I did as I was told. Then I cried myself to sleep.

At some black hour, it began to snow.

 

IV.

Most of my family memories are bound by work: I am eight years old and picking up twigs and small branches from the endless lawns of my father’s rental properties while my father swelters on the roofs, repairing shingles. I am twelve, fourteen, sixteen and mowing the grass of these properties with Luke every summer weekend. With my mother, I disinfect refrigerators and scrub ovens caked with a year’s worth of failed college-student cooking experiments. I don’t know how old I am when I am first shown how to put down a drop cloth, pry open a paint can, swirl the color with a wooden dipstick until the oil disappears into the clean, uniform pigment, and immerse the brush only one inch into the paint. I then bring the brush up slowly and gently, scrape the excess drips onto the interior rim of the can before even thinking of holding the brush over the drop cloth, much less touching a surface. The names of the paint colors stay constant over the years–China White, Orchard Peach, Coffee Brown.

More than any of this, though, I remember the shoveling. It was the only work we all did together, with the same tool, on the same schedule. We began together, and we finished together.

 

V.

I fume as I heave snow up off the driveway and toward the stand of willows. I think of all the ways I might sneak out to see Eric; I envision us abandoning our college plans and running away to live in a commune. He can play his guitar and write songs; I will publish some poems and tend a garden. Our lives will be alternative, authentic, far from our shrill parents and the stifling, failed-steel-mill aura of western New York–

And then the scoop falls off the shovel. I look up into the flat, gray sky scratched with willow and maple branches. I hate this shit, this work, this snow. I hate this shitty, shitty place. But I take off my gloves and kneel in the snow to rethread the nail and wire before my fingers ache with the cold. When the nail slides the first time through both the small holes in the metal scoop and the corresponding holes in the wooden handle, I snort my satisfaction. Then I replace my gloves and wind the wire around and around the handle, fastening the nail tight.

When I straighten and brush the snow from my knees, no one notices my triumph; they all have their backs toward me as they move their work away from the house and toward the road. So I start shoveling again. After a few awkward minutes, a physical cadence–dig, life, heave–sets in, and the rhythm mirrors the strange song of my family’s labor, the squeaking bootsoles, the soft thunk of shoveled snow falling on snow pack, the occasional scrape of metal on concrete, a grunt of effort. The sounds break into the muffled whiteness and give the world shape, give it purpose. I keep the rhythm, keep shoveling, and the night with Eric, the confrontation with my mother, fall under the depths of the snow and are replaced by aching muscles and the chill air slicing my lungs. Then, unexpectedly: sky, snow, shovel …

Only the crisp certainty of work exists in the whiteness.

 

VI.

With all of us shoveling, the job takes over an hour. At its end, like conquerors, we spear our shovels into the enormous piles of snow lining the driveway. We stand in the road and stare at the clear, wet space stretching from the garage to the street. That we have moved what the clouds have dumped upon us is victory over the elements, a pure, human effort born of sweat and a simple tool. Satisfied, we clamber back to the house and warm ourselves sitting by radiators and with tea. Late in the afternoon, my father announces that another foot of snow graces the driveway. I am not about to suffer the broken shovel twice in the same day.

 

VII.

When I go away to college in Pittsburgh, I assume that winter throughout the northeast is similar to winter in western New York. I pack my heaviest coat, my favorite insulated work boots, and thick scarves that hold up under the harshest wind chills. But my gear never leaves the dorm room. I am devastated to find winter along the three rivers nothing more than a study in two-inch snowfalls. And thanks to bus exhaust and excessive road salt, the thin, white blankets mutate into a brown sludge better suited to hip waders than snow boots. I also learn that such paltry snow fails to muffle a bustling city. Sirens, helicopters, blaring horns, the shouts of the weekend bar crawl–somehow they intensify, everything made more urgent in the slushy chaos.

 

VIII.

Years later, when Ella is a baby, Dave and I buy a white-shingled house in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, ten miles from the Mason-Dixon Line. It is spring, the trees have begun to leaf out, and our yard backs up to a green sea of soybean and corn fields, cow pastures, and horse farms. Farmers spend the sweet, breezy days plowing and planting. My years in Pittsburgh should have cured my naiveté about the impact of geography on the seasons, but still I imagine years of winters here with our children, pulling them in sleds over the snowy expanse of dormant fields. And I anticipate shoveling the driveway–the first driveway I have owned–with my new family. I can nearly hear gasps of delight, snowball-inflicted laughter, the thick scrape of a shovel as it meets the gravel drive.

I am disabused of my romanticism in December. Snow does not fall, but wind and single-digit temperatures leave the yard a forlorn, frosted hardpan. Lying awake in bed at night, I feel the house sway; the wind whistles through the plaster and swirls at the edges of the bedcovers. The heating oil bill leaves me gasping.

Ella, at eighteen months, doesn’t understand why we can’t go outdoors, and when her constant pleas of “Ow-side, ow-side?” don’t produce results, she drags her coat and boots into the living room. One day I break down and dress her in all her cold-weather gear, put on my own hat, coat, scarf, and mittens, and take her out to the front yard where the house partially protects us from the wind. She toddles forward a few steps, but a huge gust comes at us sideways and knocks her down. She struggles in her snowsuit to stand up; the wind knocks her down again. She is determined, though, and reaches the sidewalk where she tries to make her way to our neighbor’s house. Between the houses the wind bites her cheeks, and she cries out in surprise. Then she pitches forward and skins her nose on the pavement. Her screams are nearly noiseless in the wind.

Finally, in February comes the first snow. I am driving home from teaching a night class when it begins, and I am puppyish with excitement: should I wake up Ella when I get home? This is, after all, the first year she will understand snow. We could rush outside and catch snowflakes on our tongues, then celebrate with hot chocolate, cuddle up on the couch, and sing songs until she falls asleep, then tomorrow we will put on snow pants and mittens, and I will make a snow fort for her to play in while I shovel the driveway . . .

Then I notice that the snow doesn’t so much fall as pelt sideways, thrust by massive air currents across the empty fields. The car shudders with each gust, and soon the winding country road whites out. I slow the car to a crawl and hunch over the wheel. It goes on this way for ten miles.

I am almost there, half a mile from the turn into our hamlet of Russellville, when the tires hit black ice. Suddenly I am spinning across the road, into oncoming traffic, and the steering wheel is useless in my hands. Then I register the telephone pole that, with each spin, enters my peripheral vision. I cannot slam into it. We can barely pay the mortgage, let alone car repairs or for an entirely new vehicle. I twist the wheel one last time, and the car’s rear end lurches, grabs, then plows down an embankment and into a cornfield. I am unhurt, and so is the car. I try to open the door, but the wind shoves it closed. I use my feet to press it open again, and once I am outside, the wind nearly slams the door on my fingers. Angry and frightened, I turn my face toward the road, into the stinging snow. Fuck this place. Fuck this horrible, horrible place. Then I clamber up the embankment to flag down help and go home.

 

IX.

The next morning all the schools are closed. The snow officially amounts to only five inches, but the wind has drifted it into gorgeous, treacherous depths–not only across the major roadways, but halfway up our back door and across the middle of our driveway. And the wind keeps blowing. The thermometer reads ten degrees; the windchill is minus two.

Since Ella’s small fingers would freeze within minutes of taking her outside, Dave stays indoors with her while I take the first shoveling shift, and I tell myself that the challenge of shoveling alone will make up for the wind’s shortcomings. Here is winter as I know it; here is my chance to fight back with my own kind of force.

But I can’t shovel the snow. The wind has hardened the drifts into solid blocks of ice. I trade in the shovel for a pickax, and for a few minutes this isn’t so bad; clearing away ice still counts as victory over nature’s wrath. But I soon realize that working alone out here, my face chapped and my lips blistering, isn’t soothing. It is lonely and hard. The only sound other than the pickax thumping the ice is the whine of the wind in my ears, and the length of the driveway suddenly looks more like forced labor than an energizing physical challenge. I swipe at my eyes, which have begun to tear, with a clumsy, mittened fist. I want to be enjoying this with Dave and Ella, not laboring alone at the edge of this forsaken, stubbled cornfield.

 

X.

I clean up the mashed banana and throw the cracked plastic cup into the trash. Ella and Quinn beg for TV time, and because it gives us all a measure of peace, I turn on PBS. Elmo’s high-nasal voice carries into the kitchen where I watch the wind gather more force, bending the saplings in the yard to near ninety-degree angles and finally wrapping the swings around the topmost beam of the swing set.

We have been here for three winters now, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have taken up a snow shovel. Though I have no desire to go back to my hometown, I have begun to long for Buffalo lake-effect snowstorms, especially when the wind here howls for days, and the girls and I are sick of being so close to one another. I want the snow to fall steady and straight, to quiet everything down, so we can all trudge outdoors. Then, somewhere in the motion of our bodies and the still of the morning, we will find harmony. And, maybe, I will find a way to belong in this strange, wind-torn place I struggle to call home.

 

 

Cate Hennessey’s essays and reviews have appeared in or are forthcoming from Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Southern Indiana Review, PANK, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. A recent finalist for the Arts & Letters Susan Atefat Prize in Creative Nonfiction, she has also received a Pushcart Prize and been noted in Best American Essays.

“Shoveling Snow” was originally published in Gettysburg Review, 09/2009, Volume 22, Issue 3

 

“No Place Left to Hide: Meditations on a Shore House” by Sue Eisenfeld

no-place-left-to-hide
“Growing Into Truths,” Image by Dawn Surratt

1. The floorboards creaked, though none of us were home. A stranger—to us; she knew the shore house well—had broken in through the side door, stolen to the basement, and thrown a rope around a pipe just below the living room floor.

The house was built in 1929 with a cinderblock foundation, which is not often today’s method of choice. Most new houses are constructed entirely on wooden pilings, as was the newer sun porch out front, circa 1963. But the basement, like the tiny, single-level, cedar-shake cottage, was built based on codes of its era, back before the days of massive coastal development, back before the days when we had any real fear that the ocean could take the Jersey Shore away.

In 1973, Neil’s father decided to cut a hole through the living room floor and put a set of stairs into the basement, the two-car garage. In the decade earlier, he had already added a concrete slab floor to what was originally just sand and a cinderblock retaining wall that held back the dune outside. He had replumbed the pipes with little Neil’s help, bought a washer and dryer, and knocked down that back wall, shoving it farther into the dune, closer to the beach by 15 feet. In that extra space, he built himself a workroom to tinker with his fixtures and wires. He built a storage closet for linens and sunscreen and a storage room for bikes and boards, plus a small, enclosed, full bathroom with a stand-up shower that had sand in the floor paint for traction and when the garage door was open you could have the illusion you were showering outdoors.

When the stranger entered the basement—the garage—with its grey concrete floor and grey cinderblock walls, and the unfinished ceiling joists above, I’m sure she could hear the muffled ocean, could imagine its spray, could conjure all those summer days for one rental week at a time, or maybe two, when she sat out on the deck and read a book and picked crabs and drank white wine with her feet up, under the umbrella, with the dune grass rustling in the breeze. Yes, even the basement was filled with the lure of the sticky salt air of the shore, without even one window.

The police arrived at the house a day after her husband reported her missing. She had been diagnosed with uterine cancer, he had said. And she had been unable to bear children. He had strayed in their marriage, and she was suffering from depression. They were estranged from one another, far away in some other town. But he knew her well enough to tell the authorities that, even in winter, if she were to flee anywhere, she would flee to this house, which she had loved many times and had always loved her back.

 

2. In Arlington, Virginia, we braced for the storm.

Weeks prior, I had made plans to go to the shore house that weekend with my dad and stepmother from Philadelphia. It was to be a Friday-to-Sunday trip. On Wednesday, October 24, we looked at the forecast: simple rain. On Thursday, October 25, we debated our options. We wondered whether we would still enjoy ourselves if we couldn’t take our morning walks to the bay, that sepia stew of jellyfish and biting flies in the still air; our afternoon walks on the beach toward the mansions of Mantoloking in one directions or the ghosted face of the Ferris wheel at Seaside Heights in the other; if we couldn’t spend our nights spending our money out on the pier spinning some sort of wheel or shooting something up to win a stuffed animal and then stuffing gigantic triangles of Maruca’s pizza into our gut.

If I had been planning to go to the shore house just with Neil, we would have gone anyway that weekend, with what we knew then. We would have stayed in and listened to the ocean and to music and read books and watched the storm. Yes, we would have sat near the windows of the sun porch—all seven of them on three sides—and we would have watched the weather come in. We would not have turned on the TV because we’re not TV people. We would not have listened to the radio because we’re not radio people. If we had Internet service, we would have definitely logged on, but the connection might have been spotty. Maybe the police would have made announcements on a loud speaker, or maybe not. Without any year-round neighbors in shouting distance to warn us, we may have marooned ourselves in that house as the weather picked up. And when the lights began to flicker and the wind tore the first shingle off the side of the house and the ocean started eating away at what we thought was the ground, the earth, that solid yet moveable stuff that the deck and walkways were built on, it would have been much too late.

Instead, my dad and stepmom—wise people—suggested that it wasn’t worth all the hassle for a rainy-weather trip—five hours’ drive for me; them having to pack up again after having just been there on their own the week before, using up some of the empty days on the rental calendar. And so we didn’t go to the shore.

Neil and I did not watch TV because we don’t have cable, and we did not listen to the little, old-fashioned hand-held battery radio after our middle-of-the-night check-ins. The radar imagery we saw online of what happened was colorful, but so abstract. We did not see information or photos in the newspapers on that first day after the storm, or even the second, about the full extent of damage; they mostly published generalities and focused on our local Washington DC area and New York City. And so two days would pass before it would occur to me to seek information about how the tiny, eight-block town of Normandy Beach, New Jersey, fared in the storm.

 

3. I closed my eyes, and the surgeon slipped a scalpel into my face. In my mind’s eye, I could see the shape he was cutting: a half moon to the left, a half moon to the right. Then he cauterized the bleeding—fumes of burning-flesh taking hold in my nose—and took the segments of skin away.

They were working on the tip of my nose. I wouldn’t know at the time that future surgeries would take segments from my left eyebrow, twice, then from the nose again. My chest, my arm. Once from the leg. These were my souvenirs from my summers in the sun, the ones when my face puffed up like a blowfish from my second-degree burns, peach-colored and fuzzy too with skin peel, and the ones when I could put a hand to my chest or shins and pop like Rice Krispies the tiny, white water blisters that formed there. Bruce Springsteen never sang about what happens to all the beach bunnies at the Jersey Shore twenty or thirty years later: their leathery skin, white splotches, cataracts, skin cancer. This surgery aims to take the blemish away, but the scars and the memories are forever.

In 1973 and 1975, the years when Springsteen released “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle” and “Born to Run,” I was at least ten years too young for its words of teen angst. The 3” x 3” square, white-rimmed family photos from Avalon or Stone Harbor—a week or two each summer each year of my youth—show me in pigtails, with an orange-tinged visor over my face, and it’s the smell of Bain de Soleil, SPF 4, that I remember: island fruit punch and burnt sugar, a thick, meaty, orange paste. My mother and I sat together in our low beach chairs at the water’s edge near our hotel in our bikinis. Each time the water rose, I collected clams the size of orzo before they burrowed back into the sand.

By the early 1980s, I was wildly staring at cute boys from across the courtyard of our rented summer apartment or at the neighborhood hangouts of my best friends’ parents’ low-slung rental houses a few shores away, living out silent romances in my head. There, I was the girl bopping down the beach with the radio, blonde and bronzed in satin stripes, watching men watching me, poised on the boardwalk rails with the rattles and rings and greasy, fried, sweet scents behind them.

The love that was wild, the love that was real, strapping my legs around anything—none of that would happen during the years I wished it. It happened at the shore house with Neil, unsnapping my jeans under the floorboards in the basement, the aurora rising somewhere outside behind us. By then—after my doctor had warned me that basal cell carcinoma, like that on my nose, liked to keep the same company with melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer—I had mostly abandoned the sun, affirmed by Neil’s influence as an avid non-sunbather and the kind of man whom a tan did not impress. I did not even venture to the beach, except for walks. Instead, I luxuriated in being able to stay on his family’s oceanfront shore-house deck, jutting out deep into the dune grass and hovering over the crest of the dune with a panoramic view of the Atlantic under an umbrella—with a shroud of terry cloth over my entire length, with a book and a constantly refreshed icy drink and snacks from our stash in the kitchen. I could tuck inside to the sun porch for relief anytime I wanted, with windows wide open, piping in the metronome music of surf.

The shore house was my tether. It kept me from harm.

 

4. Neil always said we should sell the house. Though other siblings enjoyed the place with their kids, he and I didn’t use it much, as it was too far away. Any time we went, it always seemed to ensnare him in a D-I-Y home improvement project, eating up our few precious hours. And it didn’t hold childhood memories Neil wanted to relive: the youngest of the clan, being dragged there by his mother every summer, far from his hometown friends.

But it is a family house, owned jointly by the four distant siblings after the death of their grandparents, who had bought the house in the 1940s, and then their parents, who inherited it first. Global climate change, Neil would whisper in their ear whenever he could, at a rare family event, over an occasional email correspondence. But the idea never took. Even with the framed black-and-white photos in the sun porch that showed the storm of 1962, which tore off the original sun porch addition, projecting their wisdom down upon us as we lazed in that outermost room against the shore, inertia reigned, as it is wont to do.

It was a dark house with small windows, wood-paneled walls, and castoff antique mahogany furniture from fancy aunts. It was not a modern beach house, not a place of new-fangled things. It did not try to put on airs; to say, I’m better than you because I’m taller, wider, fancier, or closer to the sea. It was none of those things. It was old money, and old money does not brag. Old money buys one of the first houses in Normandy Beach, not to keep up with the neighbors, because there aren’t any, but because the air is good for lungs and the sea is easy on the mind, and because it is a slightly eccentric thing to do during a war. Old money was Neil’s maternal grandfather, a banker in Trenton, and when he bought the house, the beach now crowded with Spanish-tile- and faux Tahitian-thatched-roofed mansions was empty, flat as a surfboard against all horizons. From the kitchen window, Grandmother could see him coming down the road in his car from miles away.

Another thing old money does is not try to be young again, not sell out to the highest bidder. It understands that new, brown cedar shakes will go grey with time, salt will corrode anything that shines, and that, with dignity, old money will die on its own terms.

So the siblings—the descendants: unflashy, unassuming, middle-class—did not really consider (not now, not just yet, the time is not right) or agree on selling the oceanfront double lot for one-and-a-half million dollars or two, the lot made of sand dune so deep and vast they we never really knew—until all the sand was gone, like if we were to shave our furry cat and suddenly see its real, skinny form underneath—that the wood pilings holding up the front half of the house had stood in sand 12 feet deep; that the sand at that depth had once stretched more than 70 feet across the property. The house was scantily insured. When it was all over, the family would receive the amount that the tiny, old cottage alone without its oceanfront land was probably worth, for wind and rain damage (the policy did not cover flooding), calculated based on the depreciated value of the property lost. Checks disbursed stood in for commiseration, and correspondence between the four siblings mostly ceased thereafter.

Each year since the early 1990s, each sibling has had to pay a few thousand dollars in property taxes to the state of New Jersey. The tax rate on second homes in New Jersey is high, as is the benefit for those who make use of the place—and the risk. We paid for a constant stream of new shingles, shutters, and appliances; cleaning, construction, cable, and spotty Internet, and the opportunity to go whenever we wished. It was an investment, we reasoned when the payments came due; an always-open option, a future, and a family peacekeeping measure as well.

The giant, towering house next door, two stories higher than ours, which we dubbed “The Monstrosity,” looked down upon us, out the second or third story windows, and called our place “That Thing,” for its relative shabbiness. In mid-October, a week before the storm, the last time anyone inhabited our house, when my dad and stepmom used that fateful empty week for their autumn getaway, the owner of The Monstrosity casually mentioned to my dad that he’d like to buy our shore house land. He said he’d like to raze the building, pave the grounds, and turn it into a parking lot to give his guests from New York City more room for their cars.

 

5. On Wednesday, October 24, unbeknownst to any of us in Virginia, or Philadelphia, or possibly even in the various places where Neil’s siblings live, near and far from the Jersey Shore, Weatherboy—a news personality on Facebook—predicted that Hurricane Sandy would strike the northeastern United States with “brutal force,” “perhaps being one of the most catastrophic fall storms in the region on record.”

On Thursday, October 25, the day my dad, stepmother, and I definitively decided we would rather not spend the weekend at the shore in the rain, which was the weather forecast we had heard—whether on the radio, on TV, or the Internet, I don’t remember—Weatherboy wrote that Hurricane Sandy would bring widely scattered tornadoes, widespread destructive winds, and extremely high storm surges, on top of high astronomical tides.

“Residents of …New Jersey…should rush their hurricane preparation plans to completion as soon as possible—your life and property is at risk from a potentially historic storm,” Weatherboy reported on Friday, October 26, when I would have been making the five-hour drive, either alone to meet my dad and stepmom, or with Neil, had we been the travelers. I had not yet subscribed to Weatherboy, however, and none of us—which is unbelievable in retrospect but 100 percent accurate—had heard the dire predictions for the storm. “In the primary impact area,” Weatherboy warned, “people should be prepared to have no electrical power (and perhaps water, gas, and heat) for many, many days…Historic disaster unfolding,” he said. “Its trajectory onto the Garden State is a ‘worst case scenario.’”

And further: “Beaches will have life-threatening conditions for a prolonged period of time—do not visit nor stay near beaches!”

On Saturday, October 27, what would have been the second day of the trip that very nearly happened, Weatherboy announced that “Hurricane Sandy continues its forward march, gaining size and intensity as it does so… with a storm force wind-field of historic proportions.” It is the “second largest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic” at this time and is “on track to become the largest ever.”

Neil’s sister and husband and family, local to the Jersey Shore area, finally corresponded with us about the dire predictions, and on Sunday, October 28, descended upon the shore house to board up the oceanfront windows. On the same day, Weatherboy reported on Governor Christie warning New Jersey residents statewide to expect power outages lasting up to 10 days, with roads blocked due to downed trees and wires, and basic services “unable to function for a prolonged period of time due to power outages: gas stations, banks, and food stores.”

At the end of that day, the shore house stood dark and alone, abandoned, its future depending solely on Neil’s sister’s last-ditch storm preparations, a contractor in the 1960s for its sun porch re-construction, and some unknown builder in the 1920s who saw fit to locate a seasonal family cottage at the lip of the ocean—“frighteningly close to the water,” as a friend once told me.

“Brace for impact!” Weatherboy warned on Monday, October 29 and predicted that the storm would make landfall around dinnertime. Then the web site fell silent for the night, as if a hush had settled over the land.

 

6. If the stranger had picked Monday, October 29, 2012, to drive to her beloved shore house rental and hang herself in the basement, it would not have been a smooth transition from one life to the next.

She would have heard the surf alright, but it would have been rougher than expected. She would have heard the howl of the wind, felt the vibrations in the earth from the pound of waves, even through the concrete floor.

If she had gone out on the deck first, before her final gesture, for one last look at the landscape she once found so serene, she may have been scared for the first time at the shore house, scared to see the ocean coming ever closer to her sanctuary. Scared at the way her hair swirled around as if her finger were stuck in a socket, scared that the flagpole at The Monstrosity next door would fall. Scared to see the snow fence that once held back our big dune getting undercut by the water, starting to lean into the beach, then getting dragged away into the darkness.

If she stayed outside long enough, holding on to the rail of the deck to keep her steady, she may have begun to feel the deck move beneath her, like the rumble my dad and stepmother felt when they were at the shore house during the Mineral, Va., earthquake the previous year, an uncomfortable undulation, as if the deck were supported by rolling logs. The pressure and vortex of the wind may have begun to hurt her ears. The blowing sand would have stung her face.

At some point, she would have had to run inside because it would have been much too frightening to allow the storm to have its way with her, the uncertainty and chaos of it all, and if she had run early enough back into the house, she would not have quite have seen how the ground, the earth, that solid yet moveable stuff that the deck and walkways were built on, was melting into the sea like sugar crystals dissolving in hot water—right under the sun porch door. Looking out into the abyss, the new ground far below would have been like looking down from a high dive onto the bottom of a pool. The sea scoured the shore as flat as the highway onto the island, now busted and breached by the waves.

Perhaps she would have already been indoors when the wind lifted up the first of the roof shingles, tore off the first of the side cedar shakes, broke the first of the unboarded-up side windows, uprooted the first of the dune plants, scoured away the first of the side stairs, split the first crack into the concrete furnace-chimney, sprayed the first of gallons of rain water and sand into the living room, or heaved the first of six inches of the sun porch apart from the rest of the house.

Only one thing would have mattered, if she had been in the house that night: Was she in the basement, the garage, when the ocean—freed from the protective barrier of dune—laid out its thousands of pounds per square inch of weight and collapsed the cinderblock wall to allow the salt water through the foundation. Because if she were already in the process of arranging her final fate or already martyred, the ocean would have pummeled her like a deranged husband or waterboarded her to death.

But the stranger was not in the basement that night, had entered her own heavenly home years before. She did not get an earthy or on-the-way-to-heaven-ly view of the ocean’s lashing tongue pushing the washing machine and dryer out into the street, along with the bikes and boards and old lamps and fixtures and all of Neil’s late father’s old tools. She did not have to endure the indignity of wooden doors and sheets and towels and bottles of sunscreen gushing past her in a fast fury, with seaweed wrapping around her neck and legs. She’d never have to report that the Cadillac a neighbor had stored in our garage, to protect it while he wintered in Florida, was stripped by that ocean thief and abandoned in the middle of Ocean Terrace like a beached whale.

And she would never have to know that the bathroom with a cinderblock shower with sand in the paint to prevent slippage and a countertop that Neil and I made love on during the wild summer nights when I finally could be that bouncy, bronzed beach beauty I never was would end up in pieces scattered across the street in the neighbor’s yard.

The suicide would remain a private affair. If she had been there that night, the body may still have been attached to the pipe, waterlogged, for all the world to see—those few who stuck it out on rooftops or in fire halls, the rescue squads searching for survivors. The storm surge and record-high tide drove straight through that lower level of house, tearing a hole through it like a fist, leaving behind a floor-to-ceiling view from street to sea, an uninhabitable body of broken bones. A thread—golden, faded, or black—pulled forever from the fabric of our lives.

Years later, it sits there still; a wound still raw, a salvation waiting to be salvaged.

 

 

Sue Eisenfeld is the author of Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal and a contributor to The New York Times’ Disunion: A History of the Civil War. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, and many other publications, and her essays have been listed among the “Notable Essays of the Year” in The Best American Essays in 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2016. She is a five-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a member of the faculty at the Johns Hopkins M.A. in Writing/Science Writing programs. www.sueeisenfeld.com

 

“The Foot of Hamburg and South Streets, 1958” by Joseph Finucane

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“Ride” by Dawn Surratt

Summer starts with a sacrifice. The death of two small boys on a hot afternoon.

It’s how summer begins in Buffalo’s First Ward. I am seven.

Sometimes, a raft made of wooden factory pallets that were stolen from Barcalo’s capsizes underneath the lift bridge killing a boy of eight from Fitzgerald Street. Or an inner tube from an old Ford truck fails to hold its hot patch and a twelve-year old boy from Fulton Street dies a few short strokes from the Great Northern Elevators.

Or a Kentucky Street teenager slides down a three hundred foot sand dune and sinks beneath the shadows of the St. Mary’s Cement towers. Or a Pets’ 6th Grader slips while chasing a sewer rat with a slingshot and the boy falls into the Ohio Basin.

On this summer day, a flotilla of oil-drums bound together with poorly knotted sailor’s hitches, unknots and unlashes itself, sending four boys from Sidway Street into the gray waters. Their panicked friends watch from a shoreline perch. Others watch from perches within the rotting structure of the Ganson side’s wooden piers. I watch with my friends from the concrete dock that runs the South Street side of the river.

I am next to a bollard where a giant lake boat ties anchor.

A small boy screams.

His arms flail against the waters. His three friends try to save themselves swimming desperately to the Ganson side piers as their flotilla falls apart and drifts away.

All of them search for something concrete to hold onto.

One boy finds a steel bar and holds tight to the rung of a ladder embedded into the side of the pier. The second finds a mooring hanging from the side of an anchored tugboat. The third clings to a large wooden pile jutting from the river and becomes part of the crumbling pier.

The drowning boy finds nothing. He grabs at the waters around him. Thrashing and kicking. His hands empty. He knows he is going to die.

In some versions of this story, a miracle occurs. An older boy, who is fishing at the foot of Hamburg and South Streets, reacts without thinking. He drops his pole and dives head first. Unafraid. He swims against the river’s slow current, fighting its unpredictable eddies to reach the drowning boy just before the small one goes down for the fatal, third time. He reaches the drowning boy and grabs his small outstretched hand in the nick of time and becomes the newest “Hero of the Ward.”

A black-and-white photo appears in the Courier-Express and the Buffalo Evening News. A photo of a smiling boy holding his skinny fishing pole. Standing proudly next to the boy he saved. The small boy with his dirty blonde hair. A thankful little boy. Still wet. Still scared. A small smile on his tiny lips. Looking up in awe at his dark-haired savior.

The photo runs next to a half-page news article, proof of the boy’s uncommon courage. Of his selflessness. In it, when asked why he jumps to save a boy he does not know, the fisher boy mentions hearing Fr. Mahoney’s sermon about laying down one’s life to save another. And with this admission, the fisher boy becomes the next Ward’s legend. His story’s told from the pulpit, then door-to-door and face-to-face over beers at Whitey’s or Flood’s. His actions celebrated with smiles and knowing nods from elder Wardmen.

“Did ya hear about that fisher boy? The one who saved that Sidway Street boy?”

“I did. It’s what Ward boys do.”

“Slainte.”

It’s such a beautiful ending. Mythic and noble. And fucking unbelievable, if it weren’t right there on page 23 in the Courier-Express.

But, this is not that story. Rather, it is this one.

The story of the Ward on a late summer’s day on the day when boys aren’t heroes but simply stupid boys doing stupid, dangerous things that end in suffocating tears.

The one with a fisher boy who is too small and who swims too slowly.

The one with a still, small child who chills and cramps from the still, cold waters.

The one set on a deadly, fucking river on an awful, sunny day.

The one when both boys quit, knowing they can’t go on.

The one that spreads quickly through the Ward as it always does: “Some kids are drowning in the river.”

I was seven and summer was just starting. I had nothing better to do than to run when I heard the news. Screaming down Vincennes Street with my friends, a whole street of screaming and laughing mixed-breed banshees running to the river, to see for ourselves. And me shouting at everyone I see, “Someone’s drowning at the foot of Hamburg.” Laughing. Like it was the first day of Pets’ lawn fete. Or the day the travelling old gypsy took the picture of me dressed as a cowboy on his brown and white pony.

The old folks ask as we run by. “Who is it this time? Do any of ya’s know him?” We keep running and don’t answer. And our big brothers run, too, down to the foot of Hamburg and South Streets. First, in a panic. Then, in a frenzy. A frenzy broken by the voice of a young mother whose kids are crossing O’Connell Avenue without looking.

“Didn’t ya’s see that car coming? Do ya’s want to be killed, too?” There’s no time to lose. Mr. Travis, who sits outside his store in his chair, wants to know what’s all the commotion down on the other side of the Republic Street tracks? We don’t answer. We keep running to the riverfront.

Some of the fathers stop for a smoke. Between long drags, they look at the young faces running past, looking for the faces of sons or nephews or first cousins. Making a list. Then, with a flick of the middle finger, they send their cigarette butts bouncing off the sidewalks. Some butts spark. Some just tumble.

They join us in the chase. They race down Vandalia Street. They pour down Alabama Street. Down Tennessee Street. And Hamburg Street. And down South Street. Down to that fucking gray river. That killing gray river. That river where they make their living. Many of them are already thinking the worst since the worst always seems to happen in the Ward on the sunniest of first summer days. Each man dreading what no father can endure: the death of a foolish and reckless son. How will they break the news to his mother?

Some older women sit on their front porches and watch the racing crowds. They have seen this race far too many times. For far too many summers. They know the outcome. Knowing there is nothing they can do now. But pray. So, they sit and shake their heads from side to side.

And tssk. And pray. And then pray some more. Kneading their black rosary beads.

Some nuns from the convent walk quick-step to the foot of Hamburg and South. They want to run but are unable to do so in their long brown habits. Almost tripping. Led by Sister Richard Anne. Her red face plump and wet and worn. Her wimple stained from dust and sweat.

The Ward is there. Watching silently at the foot of Hamburg and South. Stunned and angry. And secretly relieved that it’s not one of theirs who went under. That it’s someone else’s child.

Some bless themselves. Others watch silently from the lift bridge. A silence that is shattered when one of the Skinners’ shouts, “Here comes the Cotter!” But, the ancient red fireboat’s too late. The boys have disappeared. And there’s nothing left for the city’s firemen to do but to set their grapples with its large hooks for the bodies and strain the waters with old fishing nets.

I can’t believe the things I saw. Was that really a boy’s outstretched hand? It was barely the size of a good fist. And where did the fisher boy vanish?  

I listen as a mother keens and a father curses Jesus Christ, Almighty.

Old Mr. Hooper says to no one in particular, “Don’t these god-damn kids know you can’t play with this river?”

Jimmy Boy shrugs “Shit like this just happens in the Ward.”

I can’t help myself. I stare at the spot where the boys went under. It is now a smooth eddy. Some boys who were watching from the piers are already bored and ready to move on. They pick up flat stones and skip them three, four, five bounces across the deadly waters like nothing has happened here this day. Pretending that it is no big deal even though they know it’s the biggest deal of all. Two boys are gone. Never to return. At the start of another long, hot summer.

A friend says, “Let’s go hang out in the Dell.”

I mumble, “Okay.”

We leave as a group. Survivors, this time. On this day, we spit and laugh and kick a Campbell’s soup can down the cobblestones of Hamburg Street until the can comes up dented and crushed. I kick the can one last time. It skips and tumbles crazily, rolling for a short time on its edge. My best friend stomps it flat. “That’s how it’s done,” he says, sailing the flattened can over the cars parked on the viaduct side of Mackinaw Street. It boomerangs over our heads before landing in the Dell near some older kids who are cupping their cigarettes so they don’t get caught smoking.

They talk around a small wood pile being built for the bonfire later that night. “Hey, faggots, who died at the foot of Hamburg?”

I want to say, “You bastards, ain’t you got no respect for the dead?” But, I don’t answer because I can’t. I don’t know the boys’ names. Instead, I walk into the Dell’s tall grasses. I hear crickets and see green and brown grasshoppers jumping. I see a praying mantis clinging to a large stick. I climb the viaduct to the train tracks where the hobos make camp and share information among themselves about who in the Ward is good for a hot meal.

The air is electric with the sound of cicadas. They buzz and then stop. Buzz and stop. Buzz and stop above us in the trees. One lies in the dirt near a railroad tie, covered with brown ants busily cutting it into small pieces. I look above the Ward and see the dark spire of Pets Church against the gray walls of the grain elevators.

The summer sun will set soon. It is already a red ball in the sky hiding behind the mills to the west. The sunset paints the grain silos pink and orange and violet and red. Then the streetlights come on, leaving just enough time for us to run and hide-and-go-seek throughout the parish.

We play relentlessly. Regardless of the deaths. Defiant and confused by the day’s events.

It is the time of black spiders. They take over the streetlamps and take over the front windows of Nunny’s store. Giant black spiders with round, black bellies whose webs fill with hundreds of sandflies from the lake. The largest and blackest one stops eating. He looks at me, then returns to his feast. I stare above the web at the strips of coiled flypaper hanging in Nunny’s windows. Each brown strip covered with a day’s worth of horseflies and bluebottles stuck to its glue. So many dead eyes. A few still struggle to escape the trap but I know they are doomed.

The game ends. I run home where Ma is sewing a tear in my sister’s white slip. She sees me and relaxes for the first time all day. She’s heard about the boys.

“Joey, can you put the thread through the needle for me?”

Ma can’t see small things like the eye of a needle. I thread it the first time.

“Do you know the little boy who drowned?”

“I don’t.”

“What about the boy who tried to save him?”

“I don’t know him either, Ma.”

“Joey, promise me you won’t never do something that stupid with Pootsie. Promise me.”

“I promise, Ma.”

“Cross your heart and swear to God, on my soul.”

“I cross my heart and swear on your soul.”

But, I’m lying and she knows it. Someday, I will make a raft and sail it on that river. And if it falls apart or if Pootsie should fall in, I will jump in its waters just like the fisher boy, without thinking, to try to save him. And Pootsie will do the same for me. Even, if we both drown. That’s what best friends do in the Ward.

“You’re a good boy, Joey. Go wash your hands and neck before you go to sleep. And don’t forget to wipe off your feet. They’re filthy. What do you do all day to get so dirty?”

I use the wet washcloth that Jackie used before she went to bed. It is gray when I start but brown and black when I’m done. Wheezy and Jackie are in bed. They are talking in whispers about some boys they like or think are cute.

Jackie tells me to move over and stop sweating on her. Wheezy says I smell like Paddy’s Sneakers or like Sylvester our runaway tomcat that Ma hates.

“Joey, did you brush your teeth? Your breath stinks like phlegm.”

I lie and tell Wheezy that I did.

“Don’t you breathe on me with that booger breath. And don’t you let out any farts. It stinks bad enough in this room already from Jackie’s farts.”

“Your farts are worse, Wheezy. They smell like rotten eggs.”

I say my nightly prayer. In the darkness after, I listen as Wheezy and Jackie tease each other more. I think about the two boys whose names I do not know. I keep seeing a small boy’s empty hand reaching up to God. Reaching for a miracle but we’re a miracle short today in the Ward.

“Why, God?” I ask. Why, if he believed so badly? If I believe so deeply?

I want to believe that you watch over me.

That you will save me in my blackest hour of need.

I want to believe because you were a poor boy, too.

But it’s hard. And I’m only seven.

 

 

Joseph Finucane was born and raised in the Old First Ward of Buffalo. He is a retired writing teacher of thirty-nine years and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.This is his first published piece and the opening chapter of his nearly completed memoir.