“Shoveling Snow” by Cate Hennessey

“Prastarbol” by Pat Zalisko, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48


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.



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.



“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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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

“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

“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.”


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.

“Breath” by Rebecca Spears

“Till the Clouds Clear,” Image by Dawn Surratt

The rimed windows provide a rounded geometry, the panes rimmed in ice-fern. We move chairs away from them, closer to a room’s interiors. We learn to love audiobooks, short stories on the radio—local readers from Des Moines, and Selected Shorts from Symphony Space. We grow to admire Isaiah Sheffer, our winter guide, who takes us away from the chill rooms and into the world of stories. We develop passions for Mouse Trap, Monopoly, Gin Rummy, Hearts, and Battle. We love baking. The oven is lit and live for hours, it radiates. My kids spend lots of time at the kitchen table to be near the stove, cutting out hearts or winter scenes for shadowboxes, working math problems and English grammar. We love three-season porches, especially on the north side of the house, and the west—the worst cold comes from the northwest, down from the Arctic and across Montana and South Dakota. The porches insulate.

Outside, frostbite is never far off, a ghost that scares us to run ahead. Yet I know of no cleaner smell than the keen, cutting cold. Exsanguination—a few days ago, a friend gave me the word for it. I‘d been searching for ways to describe the air on cold days and the experience of inhaling it. Exsanguination—the blood retreats from the vulnerable parts of the body, most noticeably the nose. This retreat allows the experience of a fierce beauty hard to replicate—when I breathe in the air, it fairly rings through my body. I imagine chandeliers, glasses clinking. On subzero days, the air carries more oxygen. It’s denser, and sustains a freshness I can only describe by what’s absent—the smell of hot tires on pavement, pungent animal odors, sweet organic matter. The short periods I venture outdoors in frigid weather, I hold my breath momentarily, then let the air spiral in, the frosty burn of midwinter in the lungs. Too much time in subzero temperatures complicates breathing–I know this—it causes the airways to constrict. My son has asthma, and he has to be careful in very cold weather. He always carries an inhaler in his pocket. We keep a nebulizer at home, a machine to help him recover from asthma attacks.


He waves at us from a screened porch, a familiar-looking man I barely know, a tall, thin man. His wire-rimmed glasses are round, gold moons. He has fair hair, maybe it’s white. My mother stands by him, a wraith in a white mask and hat and gown. Even her shoes are covered. She stands in place, sandwiched between him and an Adirondack chair. There are other men on the porch, sitting in a dozen Adirondack chairs. My brothers and I, our dad, my Grandpa and Grandma Spears, wave back. I look at my Granddad Thompson with a smile, half-expecting that we might have a real conversation. I imagine what it would be like to hug him, to have his arms encircle me. Instead, the scene is surreal, a tableaux, the porch is high up and faraway like a stage. I crane my neck until it hurts. My brothers and I are too young to really understand. I must be five, my older brother six, my younger brother, four—too young to comprehend that Granddad Thompson, my mother’s father, is in the final stages of tuberculosis, which will take him within the year.

I hardly know him, don’t remember ever seeing him before this, and I don’t know where we are exactly. Possibly the VA hospital in Temple, Texas. He’s a World War veteran, so the VA seems the most likely place, and Grandpa and Grandma Spears live in Belton, a small town nearby. Years later an old postcard image of the hospital and its white porches seems familiar to me. Is that where he once waved at us? I wish I knew. This is my one living memory of Granddad Thompson.


Some years ago, my daughter Claire brought home from school a paper with creatures on it in black outline. Round creatures with thin arms and legs. She’d colored the forms in primary colors and green.

–Tell me about these, I said.

–They’re snot-boys, she replied, wide-eyed, smiling, triumphal.


–Yeah. You gotta wash your hands or you’ll get a cold.

–Oh, germs!

–Yeah, germs!

The protocols derived from germ theory are pragmatic, they work: wash your hands, cover your cough or sneeze, and wash your hands again, disinfect surfaces, air out rooms, don’t drink after others, repeat the hand-washing once more. The year many of us prepared for the swine flu pandemic I taught in a large, urban high school in the Houston Independent School District. The administration held more than one meeting for the faculty about the expected outbreaks, and officials put into effect some simple measures. Remind students to wash their hands, to sneeze into the crook of an arm, to stay home if they were ill. Then we teachers were handed over-sized bottles of hand sanitizer and a box or two of Kleenex to keep on our desks at school. Of course, I hardly touched the bottle after it had been out on my desk a day or two, because all the students had been touching the bottle. And inevitably, a dozen or so became ill with the swine flu. By luck, I didn’t catch it.

I am still teaching, and I’m not often ill. My own protocol—don’t put fingers in mouth, eyes, nose, ears, unless they are clean. Don’t touch students’ desk, except with a paper towel and sanitizer. Don’t touch anything that belongs to a student, in fact—except that I must handle their papers, at least, so I always wash my hands after a session of grading papers. I keep on hand vitamin C lozenges or Emergen-C or both, along with Echinacea capsules. Okay, does this sound a little obsessive? Maybe, but I’ve been following this regimen so long, I hardly think about it very much. Only in writing down these details, do I realize how careful I have been.


My mother, narrator of Thompson family stories, says that my Granddad Thompson came to live at our house when I was an infant, about six months old, and my brother Craig, two years old. Here is how the story goes, according to what I was told, and I have filled in a few details from my imagination:

My grandfather sleeps in my room, a pale blue room with organdy curtains and oak floors. On warm days, the window is opened to let in the breezes. Besides the Jenny Lind crib, there’s a roll-away bed against one wall. My mother’s been using this bed in the middle of the night to nurse me. Now, this is Granddad’s bed. If my mother is still nursing me, she will do it elsewhere.

I do not know how long he lives in my room, but because my mother uses the word lives, I have to assume he stays a while. Why do my parents invite him to stay? They are soft-hearted; they never shirk obligations; they honor their parents. Maybe he’s homeless. In photos, he looks frail. Maybe he’s in poor health because he is an alcoholic. Alcoholics, with their compromised immune systems, are at high-risk for contracting TB. Granddad looks kindly, benign, but when he comes to live with us, he is deadly. He has active TB, though my parents do not know that right away. At some level, maybe he knows he is ill, but he doesn’t know what the illness is, or the consequences.

In Waco, Texas, where we lived during that interval, a large VA hospital complex sprawls over many acres. Maybe at first my grandfather received treatment there. Built on five hundred acres in 1932, the campus contains twenty-five red brick buildings built in the Italian Renaissance style, with white stone trim and red-tiled roofs, to contain so much illness and suffering. Though its surrounding acreage has shrunk, the campus still remains an impressive sight by air, and even from Interstate 35 that bisects the town. Up close, I imagine the hospital complex looks bolder. Looking at old hospital postcards provides a window into the world I grew up in, in the 1960s and 1970s, where a lot of pre-World War II buildings dominated towns: Many gorgeous old structures, built on a human scale. Gabled schools with wide porches on the main level, and two or three storeys high. Wide staircases inside and out. Craftsmen houses with ample, shaded porches, wraparound porches, porches that served as exterior rooms, an extension of the houses themselves, porches for dining, relaxing, welcoming, saying good-bye.


An early, effective treatment for many TB patients involved rest in a warm climate and plenty of fresh air, along with not-so-quaint procedures, such as “pneumothorax technique” (collapsing a lung to let it rest and let the lesions heal) and “phrenic nerve paralysis” (to ease the diaphragm from a hacking cough probably. But disabling the diaphragm would also make breathing more difficult, no?) Often TB patients were housed in solaria, to capture light and warmth; the many windows could be opened to let in fresh air. Or the patients could be found on wide and sometimes multilevel porches, resting in beds or in “deck chairs,” like the Adirondack chairs I recall on the porch where I last saw my grandfather. This practice gave the patient exposure to the healing sun and clean, dry air. Actually, this was the only known early cure for tuberculosis, before the development of surgical techniques and before streptomycin and capreomycin.

Children with positive TB skin tests most often get the infection from an adult, whose coughs and sneezes contain much more of the mycobacterium tuberculosis, or Koch’s bacillus, than a child’s. Normally, most children exposed to someone with active tuberculosis are tested for the disease, with a tuberculin skin test. If the test results in a raised bump at the site of the injection, the child has been infected with TB, though the disease may lie dormant for a time. But any child under five years old will undergo a chest x-ray, even with a negative skin test. Very young children have a lower immunity than older children and adults. They must be checked over several months for signs of latent infection.

I’ve never had a positive skin test, nor did my brother. I have to guess that Craig and I were never in Granddad’s path when he sneezed or coughed. Did we ever take a course of antibiotics as a precaution? I don’t know that either, but I have a screaming recall of chest x-rays and being held down tightly. Even now, whenever I have to have to TB skin test for job purposes, I feel a tightness in my chest for days, waiting to hear the results of the test.


When I was a teenager, I took to lifeguarding in the summers. I loved to swim. I used to swim so much that my dreams often involved swimming underwater for extended lengths of time—and holding my breath. Often I’d wake myself up, out of breath. The last moment of dreaming, I propelled myself up to the surface, my heart beating audibly, gulping the good air. A mostly clear, rippling surface of water served as the matrix for my summer waking hours. I watched people swim. I swam. At night, some of us lifeguards would meet up, to climb over the fence of the public swimming pool and take a surreptitious swim. Swim some more. We couldn’t get enough of it. I became an expert at forward motion just below the surface. I could hold my breath for well over two minutes, if not longer. Sometimes I wished that I could just breathe in the water and take the oxygen from it, instead of rising to the surface to take in the air.


Christopher Koehler, in “Consumption, the Great Killer,” speaks of the romantic portrayals of TB in nineteenth-century literature and music, especially in the characters Mimi of La Boheme and Satine in Moulin Rouge. Their deaths are meant to depict something tragic, and beautiful. Yet, Koehler tells us, “the dying consumptive faced night sweats and chills, paroxysmal cough, spread of the disease to other organs of the body, and of course, the wasting away that led helpless bystanders to name the disease ‘consumption.’ ” Of course, these characters were also exposing others to their deadly disease. Before the advent of antibiotics, about eighty percent of TB sufferers succumbed to the illness. Twenty percent survived, however “romantically” or frightfully they recovered, to breathe new air into their scarred lungs, good air that traveled in blood cells through their wasted bodies.

Even though my grandfather lived in the era of antibiotics, he was not ultimately saved from tuberculosis. His lungs were weakened from smoking, his immune system compromised from alcoholism. Granddad was born into a wealthy family that became destitute in the Great Depression. My grandmother divorced him early because of his drinking. He’d fought in a world war. He’d seen a lot of hardship before he died in his sixties. And he died a hard death. As a child, my last memory of him on a porch, smiling and giving us a wave, was confusing. I wasn’t told that he was dying, that this would probably be the last time I would see him. The moment did not seem tragic then, just curious. Now I see him in my memory, half in sun, half in shade, with his semi-smile and weak wave, about to turn around and walk fully into the arms of his disease.


This past summer I had a small cabin built on some wooded land. The cabin is painted a soft green to blend in with the surroundings. There are sitting porches built onto the front and back of the cabin. I love porches, the fresh air, the wind through the trees. The wind in the trees imitates the sound of taking air into our bodies. Porches connect me to some of my strongest memories. Not only do I see Granddad Thompson waving from the hospital porch, I see my cousins and myself roughhousing on the big wraparound porch at Grandpa and Grandma Spears’s house. In Colorado, my brothers and their families relax on the front porch of our cabin some summer mornings until 11 am or noon, reading, talking, watching the hummingbirds, planning a hike. At my childhood home, there I am, a teenager, with my friends sitting on the front porch late at night, just shooting the breeze, laughing. And while we laugh, we fill our lungs with deep draughts of cool night air.



Rebecca Spears is a writer and instructor from Houston, Texas, author of The Bright Obvious (Finishing Line Press). Her work is included in TriQuarterly, Calyx, Crazyhorse, Verse Daily, Image, Relief, Ars Medica, Nimrod, Borderlands, and other journals and anthologies. Currently, she writes online posts for Relief Journal and serves on the board of Mutabilis Press. Spears has received awards from the Taos Writers Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow.

Read an interview with Rebecca here.


“Stay Awake” by Jessica Braun

Stay Awake (Driftwood Detail)
“Driftwood Detail,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

The day I returned from my honeymoon, I weighed 88.3 pounds.The problem was, I didn’t know I had a problem.

Even when I passed out in the bathroom of our honeymoon suite, hitting my head and gushing blood all over the Spanish tile, I didn’t know I had a problem.

“I just got too much sun,” I said to my husband Phil. And I believed it.

I could admit that I obsessed over calories and exercise – but when family members used the word “anorexic,” there was a complete disconnect.

“I am just a picky eater,” I explained. I believed that, too.

At first, Phil supported me in resisting that label. But when my primary care doctor insisted that I enter an eating disorder treatment center, Phil sat silently, slumped over in an orange plastic chair lodged in the corner of the exam room. He looked so tired, so defeated.

Choosing a facility is like looking at colleges, except you are mentally ill and there are no football games. The first place was a psychiatric hospital. We drove up the long driveway, curving around the pastoral grounds. I half expected a deranged lunatic to come sprinting over the hill, chased by a band of orderlies.

As we sat in the waiting room, I reviewed the treatment options in the hospital pamphlet: Day Patient or In-Patient. “I’ll be a day patient,” I whispered to Phil, “but that’s it.” No way was I moving into this place.

The program director had other ideas. “It’s in-patient or nothing.”

“Why?” Phil asked. “Something is better than nothing, right?”

The doctor leaned forward; his relentless eye contact made me squirm. “It won’t work. She will fail.” He looked down at my legs, then back up at me. “Why do you think your feet are blue?”

I looked at my feet, corpse-like in flip-flops. “It’s cold in here?” I squeaked, more of a question than an answer; a little girl scrambling to cover her tracks.

“Come back when you’re ready,” said the doctor, standing up.

“Screw him!” we said, slamming our car doors. But indignation fizzled into silence. I glanced at Phil, his face ashen, his hands white-knuckling the steering wheel. “We’ll find a place,” he said.

He was right. A treatment center for eating disorders – a summer camp version of the psychiatric hospital – agreed to take me as a day patient on a trial basis. I was to show up at 9:00 and leave at 3:00 – and I had to follow the rules. Meals were timed and monitored. A schedule board listed daily activities: “Friendship bracelets at 11:00.” Friendship bracelets? I was 27.

My first lunch was lasagna. I sat staring at the tower of cheese and noodles when the girl across the table leaned in.

“You don’t need to eat it. You get a freebie on your first day.”

I nodded in gratitude. I pushed the lasagna around with my fork and read the rules posted on the wall: No Microwaving, No Bathroom, No Plate Clearing Until Approved. Some girls wept while they ate, others so sedated they dozed off, fork poised mid-air. The rest were robots: Open, chew, swallow. Repeat.

Tune out. Don’t think. Just Eat. These mantras got me through most meals. But foods with no nutritional value -cookies, brownies, donuts – made me want to come out of my skin.

“Some foods can be eaten just for pleasure,” said the cheerful nutritionist with a condescending wink. Sure. Tell that to the poor girl crying over a jelly donut.

I was ten years older than most of the patients. Some looked up to me like a big sister, despite the fact that I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom unsupervised. One girl liked to stop by my room to talk. She looked at the wedding photo I had on the bedside table.

“Wow, you were really sick then, right? I can tell by your arms.” There was admiration in her voice, as if looking emaciated at your wedding was an achievement. “Did you eat your wedding cake?” Her eyes narrowed, hungry for my response.

She wanted me to tell her that you can get away with not eating your own wedding cake; that you can fake being happy and healthy enough to fool people, even your own husband.

“No,” I said. “I didn’t eat it.”

She nodded, relieved. I felt sad. She didn’t know that having a husband just made things more complicated.

But I did. Everyday at 3:00, I exited the world of art therapy and guided journaling and entered my real world, with a husband and a mortgage and a house that needed to be cleaned.

It was impossible to transform from “psych patient” to “wife” in a short car ride, like Clark Kent entering a phone booth and emerging as Superman. So everyday, I stopped for a secret six mile run. I needed the repetitive pounding of my feet hitting the earth, aggressive music blaring in my ears, drowning out my thoughts. With each mile, the events of the day became more distant and foggy. Then I was ready to go home. To be normal.

One afternoon I stopped at the grocery store for some dinner items, still sweaty and dazed from my run. The automatic doors swung open; the blast of air-conditioning like a bucket of ice water. I felt disoriented by the fluorescent lights and crowded aisles.

I wandered around the store with no sense of purpose, and found myself in the bakery aisle. My hands gripped the orange handlebar of the shopping cart when I looked around.

I was surrounded by donuts: in the bakery case, on the shelves, in boxes arranged on display: Original Glazed, Boston Creme, Confetti Sprinkled, Double Chocolate Dip.

“Can I help you?” said the man behind the counter.


“Can I start a box for you?”

“Oh…no. No. Thanks.”

I pushed my cart away from the glass. The idea of “starting a box” of donuts was as bizarre a question to me as “Would you like to sample some arsenic?” I wasn’t someone who ate donuts.

But I was.

The memory came flooding back: the treatment center cafeteria, the saccharine smell of the chocolate glazed donut, the minutes ticking away. It was the only thing left on my plate. I should have eaten it first. Now I was too full.

Just eat it. The hard glaze made a cracking noise against my teeth. The inside was soft, like birthday cake. Bite, chew, swallow. The biting and chewing were actually exciting, like kissing a boy you shouldn’t be kissing. But the swallowing made it real.

“Excuse me!” A shopper was trying to squeeze around me, her cart tapping impatiently at my heels.

The din of the store was muffled in my ears; I couldn’t breathe. I have to get out of here.

I made a beeline for the Exit and escaped to the safety of my car. I sat with the windows closed; my body began to thaw from the arctic climate of the store.

This isn’t working.

My worlds had collided. I thought I was a normal person with some eating issues. But I knew a panic attack in the donut aisle wasn’t normal.

I am not sure how long I sat in that parking lot. I just knew I couldn’t leave. If I left, the whole scene would be pushed to the back of my brain, stuffed in a mental file labeled “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.”

If I left, I would drive home, go inside and make up a story as to why I never made it the grocery store. Let’s just order dinner, I would say to Phil.

I had to tell someone what happened.

I dug my phone out my bag and dialed the treatment center, then my therapist’s extension. Don’t pick up, don’t pick up. I had just enough balls for a recorded confessional; if she answered I would hang up. It went to voicemail.

“Danielle, it’s Jessie. This isn’t working. Being a day patient. It’s just…not working. I’m struggling.”

What do you call these moments? Grace? Seconds of sanity? It’s the truth slicing through the fog of lies you’ve been telling yourself. When time stops long enough for you to ask: What the hell am I doing?

I was admitted the next day and stayed for three weeks. Now, ten years have gone by. I have two beautiful daughters. I had setbacks early in my recovery, but I caught them early. The voice from the parking lot was more dominant. The more I listen to that voice, the stronger it becomes. Don’t go back to sleep, it says. Stay awake.



Jessica Braun’s writing has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Huffington Post, NEPA Family Magazine, and Literary Mama. She lives with her husband and two daughters in coastal Massachusetts. For more of Jessica’s writing, visit her blog at www.nocigarettesnobologna.com.


“What To Do On a Day Like This” by Danielle Kelly

What to Do on a Day Like This(Diamonds and Rust)
“Diamonds and Rust,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

December 14, 2012 – Authorities in Connecticut responded to a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Police reported 27 deaths, including 20 children, six adults and the shooter. The rampage, coming less than two weeks before Christmas, was the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting. — The Huffington Post

Highway 34 stretches for miles. I drive with a wine carrier strapped in the passenger seat of the mini-van I borrowed from my parents. I had made the decision to transfer graduate programs, moving from Connecticut back home to West Virginia. Maybe moving was caused by homesickness. Maybe not. Either way, running was becoming my M.O. and I wasn’t going to hide from it any longer.

Cal, the automated GPS voice, reroutes me, trying his best to take me through New York City. Four trips back and forth from Connecticut had taught me the quickest way out of the state was to go north then west. My trip home to West Virginia had become a series of checkpoints: Danbury, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Morgantown, and, eventually, Beverly.

Newtown connects highway to interstate and nothing more. I pass through town, looking for the I-84 ramp but I can’t even find a piece of trash on the sidewalk.  It is the kind of road I took advantage of at home, the kind of road well-traveled but soon forgotten. Buildings fade into each other as the highway weaves past vintage storefronts. Mannequins stand erect and naked in the windows left of the highway. They are more like body forms. Headless. Limbless. Stumpy necks covered with wide-brimmed hats.

A crossing guard stops traffic in front of Sandy Hook Elementary School. A mom nudges her son to the crosswalk. The boy, maybe nine, headphones down to his waist, glances at his mom, then to the school, and back to his mom again. When he doesn’t move, his mom grabs his arm and leads him. The boy’s feet scrape the concrete. While I wait, I pray the van doesn’t eat my CD and force me into a twelve hour drive of silence. Idina Menzel’s gravelly voice rises from the speakers, and I try to match her tone but my voice can’t manage Idina’s grittiness.

The wine bottles clink off key as traffic begins to move. I’m not sure if it is the music or the traffic or the wine that makes me miss the turn-off for the interstate, but I miss the blue sign and pull into Newtown Fire Hall’s parking lot. I blame Cal. He recalibrates while I find the printed directions my mom always nagged me about carrying, just in case. The goal is to reach Beverly in time to enjoy St. Brendan Catholic Church’s annual Christmas party. A party where barking Jingle Bells and passing religious paraphernalia like a wind-up nun who shoots sparks from her mouth is normal.


Somewhere after Scranton and before Wilkes-Barre a guy at the travel plaza breaks the news first. McDonald’s and gasoline cling to my clothes. He’s in his forties, shoulders pulled back, the word LORD tattooed on his knuckles. We stand shoulder to shoulder, the coffee pots crammed together, reaching over one another for sugar and cream.

“Did you hear about those kids?” he asks.

I focus on my perfect ratio of sugar, cream, and coffee. I just want coffee; I just want to get home, reunite with family and people who I didn’t have to try to impress. I want to know the people and places around me again.

“News said twenty are dead.” His eyes are soft, sunken in from age, a bandana covering his hair.

I take in his tattoo, trace the edges of the red lettering with my eyes. “I hadn’t heard,” I say.

He says the kids are the same age as his girlfriend’s daughter Ella then rips open a handful of sugar packets, dumping them in his cup. Then he says he hopes the fucker who shot the kids at least shot himself. He hands me a lid and we walk to the register.

“Where’d it happen?” I ask. The question hangs between us and the shrill beeps of the register.

He pays for my coffee. I pull my sweatshirt around me, fumbling with my zipper. I thank him, get back in the van, and pull up the news on my phone. The picture captures a line of coatless children, their arms outstretched holding on to the classmate in front of them, like a limp chain of prisoners led out of their cells.


In elementary school, I rode my bike on our dead-end street listening to The Little Mermaid soundtrack on my Walkman. Hot, hot, hot, I had mouthed in time with the music. Now, as I drive up the dead-end street, I think about the coatless children, outside of Sandy Hook. See people rocking, hear people chanting. I pull the van halfway in our yard, half in the neighbor’s, the woven steering wheel cover imprinted on my fingertips.

Why did the kids hold on to each other’s shoulders and not each other’s hands? A hand is more permanent. A hand forgives more than a Spiderman t-shirt. I would have wanted someone’s hand, to feel another sweaty palm pressed against my own.

As I stare in the rearview mirror, I promise myself not to talk about driving by Sandy Hook. What I saw or might have seen. What I missed. I unbuckle the wine, fumbling with the seat belt, the heat of an unusually warm December rising to my cheeks.

Inside, Jean, a schoolteacher, sees me first, her mouth agape. “Your parents said you weren’t coming.” She wraps her arms around me and I collapse into her chest. Woodsy musk and peppermint encases me.

“They don’t know,” I say.

Up North, no one knew me, which is what I had planned on when I applied to the graduate program. I went to class two nights a week and worked two jobs around campus. But I had fed off of my manager’s stories of weekends remodeling a house all the while imagining I was with my own family weaving through Ikea’s aisles. I had fed off of courteous questions. Top five favorite books. Favorite music. Was West Virginia really its own state? Every night, though, I had sat in a 500-square-foot apartment, playing my piano and singing to a phantom audience, wondering where I had lost myself.

Cabinet doors slam in the kitchen and Mom’s voice cuts through to instruct someone to take the potato casserole out of the oven. I try to see past the crowd of people smashed together in the doorway, but they are too hungry to move from the cheese balls and Buffalo chicken dip.

“I heard there’s a party here?” I say. At first, no one turns around. I clear my throat and try again, my breath deeper and more weight in my voice. “I heard there’s a party here?” The words come out more high-pitched, almost like a scream.

Jean’s husband turns first, Buffalo dip hanging from his mustache. His eyes widen behind his glasses and he hugs me. Fast and hard. Then Carol turns, decked out in her Christmas turtleneck, drapes an arm around my shoulder. In five months, her hair has turned from gray to white. Dad sees me next and grins, the same grin I inherited from him.

“Surprise.” I hand him the wine.

Mom rushes toward us. She has stopped frosting her hair to hide the gray.

“Isn’t this the best surprise,” Jean says.

“Did you hit traffic?” Dad says.

“Not too much,” I lie, and follow mom to the kitchen.

The kitchen is at capacity. Shoulder to shoulder parishioners stand eating and drinking and asking me if I like the North or if I had met someone yet? I nod, pull open drawers, shuffle through spatulas and slotted spoons, trying to find the corkscrew. My hands shake.

“You okay?” Mom asks.

I pop the cork out of the wine and pour a full glass, spilling a little on the counter top. “I’m just tired. I think I’m going to lie down.”

As I turn to go to my room, she grabs a paper towel and cleans up my spill. I turn on CNN while Dad and Jean stand in the hallway outside my room speculating about the updated death toll. CNN shows the same images I saw earlier: ten kids bound together by fear, led out as if they were prisoners, their hands holding on to the shoulders in front of them, parents’ contorted tear-streaked faces full of relief, worry, the horror of seeing their kids forced to grow up too soon.

The cameras cut to the anchor who is fighting a catch in his voice, before focusing on the front of the fire department, now a makeshift morgue, behind him. I stare at the familiar brick building with the seven garage doors that sit off the main road. The parking lot now full of emergency cars. I had turned around in that parking lot. I keep my eyes trained on the TV. This morning nothing had seemed out of place. The storefronts had been decorated for Christmas, the mannequins dressed in the last available merchandise. No one had been out on the streets but the crossing guard and the students and parents of Sandy Hook Elementary.

I wondered, if I’d slept a little later, would things have been different? What if I’d pulled into the school instead of the fire hall? Would I have seen him, the shooter? If I saw him, could I have looked in his eyes and stopped him? To reassure him, and tell him that he would find the answer if only he would wait and suffer through like the rest of us.

Every muscle in my body constricts. I take deep breaths, the same kind of breaths I took when I had panic attacks on I-95 when I lived in Connecticut. Every breath intended to keep me from breaking down in front of our entire group of party guests. I wonder if this is how the kids at Sandy Hook felt. I imagine them hunched under desks, their backs to the door, while markers mix with bullets and cries fade into sirens forming a Christmas carol none of them had ever heard. And so they suck the air and surrender to the sting of tears waiting for the carol to be over and for someone—their teacher, their parents, even the principle dressed as Santa Claus—to hug them and reassure them everything will be all right. I imagine it’s what I would have wanted.

I don’t know how long Dad stands in the doorway before I notice him. “You’re lucky,” he says. “They closed some of the roads because of the shooting.” He walks over and places a hand on my back.

I see my reflection in his eyes. My hair frizzy and my shirt wrinkled. How do I tell him I was stuck behind the SUVs and Minivans of unsuspecting parents and how his daughter made it home.

I take the last sips of the wine. “I know,” I say, “Lucky.”

How do I explain to him why the kids held on to each other’s shoulders and not each other’s hands? A hand is more permanent. A hand forgives more than a Spiderman t-shirt.



Danielle Kelly holds an MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College and is Managing Editor of HeartWood, an online literary journal. She is a banker, a multi-denominational church singer, and currently serves as Adjunct Instructor of English at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, WV.

Read an interview with Danielle here.

“A Fine Line” by Cyndy Muscatel

A Fine Line (Vortex #2).pg
“Vortex #2,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

If only I hadn’t decided to go out on deck that night.

Anchored in the middle of the Galapagos chain of islands, our boat floated on the Equatorial Line with the ease of a high-wire aerialist. The lure of the night sky called, and I slipped out of our cabin to stand by the rail. How could I not go out and see the Southern Cross high above me to my right—the Big Dipper and the North Star to my left? I was smack-dab on the middle of the earth.

Who could have guessed that one of the mosquitoes using me as target practice that night was illiterate? We were in a “No Malaria Zone,” dammit. I’d checked twice with the CDC before we left for South America. My luck—Ms. Quito Mosquito, an Anopheles by genus name, was an empty-headed beauty queen who didn’t care about the pronouncements of the World Health Organization. She was an indiscriminate vampire who’d gotten mixed up with some malaria folk. Filled with their plasmodium, she paid it forward, thrusting the microscopic parasites into my bloodstream. I really don’t blame her. She was a fact of Global Warming. I became one of its victims.

I almost died. That sounds so melodramatic I feel embarrassed to write it, but it’s true.

“Her fever is still spiking at 105. Now her kidneys are shutting down,” the doctor said to my husband. They stood on either side of my hospital bed talking as if I weren’t there. I was—I just didn’t have the energy to open my eyes. I was so weak by that point my body couldn’t even gain purchase on the bed. The nurse’s aide would pull me to the top, but I’d slip to the bottom within an hour.

“Well, what do we do?” my husband asked.

“I don’t know,” the doctor said. “But I’m thinking she has only twenty-four hours left to live.”

“What are you talking about? For Christ’s sake, she’s strong and healthy. She just did the Inca Trail two weeks ago. You better figure out something.” The aggressiveness in my husband’s tone was comforting. Although he knew nothing about taking care of someone who was ill, his Type A personality got things done.

They moved out of the room, but I could hear the murmur of their voices from the corridor. I tried calling out, “What are you talking about?” but my feeble attempt went unheard. What was the doctor saying out of earshot? I wondered. Could it be any worse than what he’d just said?

We’d been having problems with the doctor from the beginning of my illness five days before. My first symptom had been an aching in my legs, which spread to all my joints. That morning I was supposed to pick out granite for our house remodel. I told my husband I felt achy and exhausted—we both attributed it to our arduous trip in Peru and Ecuador. I drove myself to the warehouse, but by the time I got there I felt I couldn’t keep my head up. I managed to choose the granite and through force of will to make it home and to my bed. From then on, the world became murky.

I do remember calling my daughter in Los Angeles and telling her how sick I felt. She started keeping close tabs on my symptoms and began plugging them into the computer. On the second day, she called the doctor to tell him she’d been checking online and she thought I had malaria.

He freaked out. “Don’t you ever call me again with this kind of crap,” he told her. “I am the doctor—I make the diagnosis.”

Even though we’d just returned from a third-world country, he refused to consider the possibility that I had an infectious disease picked up on my travels. He was obdurate until he got scared that I would die. In desperation, he relented. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t too late, and fortunately the infectious disease specialist was from Pakistan. He’d seen malaria many times and put me on the malaria antibiotic doxycycline. Within eight hours I was able to sit up and dangle my feet over the side of the bed.

The next morning, the aide who had wiped my face and arms with such care for four days while I shook with fever was able to guide me into the bathroom. It was the sixth day since I had fallen ill.

“Oh my God. My face is so yellow,” I said when I looked into the mirror.

“Not as yellow as it has been. It’s much better,” the aide said.

I looked again and thought the color appalling. Then I saw how thin I was—beyond gaunt. I hadn’t eaten anything since the aching began. When they weighed me, I had lost fourteen pounds. I also lost my appetite. It took days until I learned to eat again. When they brought me a tray of food, a slab of something covered in gravy, I was so nauseous that I almost passed out. Finally I was able to nibble on soda crackers and sip some ginger ale.

For much of the acute stage of my illness, I was in Hallucination Land. Once I was hospitalized, I saw myself in the Chicago train station every afternoon at 4:00 p.m., waiting in line to buy a ticket to Syracuse. It was always my turn next. On the Sunday the neurologist administered the spinal tap, I hallucinated up a soothing mid-century décor for the procedure. The room was low-lit with futons in aqua and coral. That night I was forbidden to move for eight hours, but the bone-aching pain made me toss and turn. A handy-dandy hallucination had me imagining I was cradled in the arms of four strong women, although in reality it was my husband holding me tight.

I had other mental experiences that were not exactly of the “real world.” I saw a faraway light with a door sliding shut on it. I knew if I didn’t keep the door open, it would be the end for me. One afternoon I was overwhelmed with the effort. “I’m too tired,” I said in my head. “I’m going to let it go.”

But my father came to stop me. I think he was dressed in one of his satin smoking jackets. He’d been dead for two years. “Daughter, we don’t give up in this family,” he said.

“Okay, Dad. I’ll keep trying then.” Knowing he was close by, the task no longer seemed as difficult. Dad was as real to me as the nurse who came in to take my temperature. Maybe more real.

Then there were the children only I could see reflected in the blank television monitor. Dressed in white, they stood around my bed, which was now in a lush garden. I leaned forward and a cherubic baby popped up from behind my pillow.

“Maybe they were angels sent to guide you to heaven,” my friend Else said when I told her later.

I shook my head. “No, that wasn’t it. They were taking care of me. I am safe with them by my side.” It was as clear a statement as my slurred speech allowed.

The slurred speech thing got me into trouble. In my head, I heard myself talking normally. I had no idea that the thirteen words came out as four aloud, and garbled at that. My husband thought I’d had a stroke. My son and daughter, both hundreds of miles away, were frantic. Friends who came to visit me in the hospital told me later they cried at the elevator when they left. They all thought they had lost me. I, of course, was in oblivion.

Going back to the general topic of malaria for a moment, the parasite burrows into the liver. I know this because malaria has become a hot topic, and it was the cover story in National Geographic. That’s why I was jaundiced. But I can tell you from experience that those little buggers hit each body organ hard. Talk about the domino effect. As they circulated, the newest system they entered went wonky. I had MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans, a colonoscopy…you name it. But I felt it was my head, inside and out, which took the brunt of the barrage. I lost everything from memory to handfuls of hair. Parts of my memory, short and long term, were wiped clean. Even today it’s hard to figure out if I’m having a senior or a malaria moment. One strange aside is that my ability with numbers increased. I am better at math and can memorize numbers that I never could before. As for my hair, it seems to have highlighted memory. Lots of it still falls out every year in May—in memory, I guess, of my case of malaria.

Joking aside, the language issue was tough on me. If I am vain about anything, it is my facility with language. Words have always come trippingly to my tongue, but for months I had aphasia—I might have said fork when I meant foot. Some words were simply gone. Like Ottawa. I was reading Middlesex and I had no idea if Ottawa was a place, a car, or some kind of food. Not knowing made me feel as if I were surreal. I couldn’t write for a year—couldn’t put the proper mix of words together. It was so frustrating, I abandoned the effort. This from a person who thought the essential items to bring to the hospital besides clean underwear and lipstick were a pen and notebook. I wrote every day while I was there. I kept the notebook—none of the handwriting looks like mine.

When I went home from the hospital, I was still very sick. My recovery was no faster than the pace of the tortoises we’d watched in the Galapagos. I had a fever and a cough for months. I woke up sweating and parched every night. I could not get my energy back. I also used to have the shakes all day long. Those tapered off, but even now, six years later, if I get overtired, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, shaking. And I could not get my energy back. I didn’t have that buffer between feeling tired and complete depletion. It’s only in the last year that I don’t have to nap each day.

As I reread what I have written, I am struck by how close I was to dying. I wonder when it is finally my time if Dad will be there again, this time to welcome me in. In? In to where? Heaven? But I don’t believe in Heaven, do I? Or life after death, for that matter. I believe that when we die our individual spark leaves our earthly bodies and soars back into the teeming, churning mass of the collective energetic field of the universe. But what if I am wrong? What if on that May afternoon when I looked into the television that wasn’t turned on and I saw a lush garden—what if I were seeing heaven?

When you almost die, it does change you forever. As my body started to shut down, I didn’t think about the novels I never got published or whether I’d been a good mother and grandmother. I accepted I was dying and I had few regrets. Except I remember distinctly asking myself, But what about the fun I was going to have? Where did the time for enjoyment go? It will be a shame to miss out on that.

I have never forgotten that. I have a worker-bee mentality, but I am getting better at plain enjoying life. I also lost my ambition. I had a novel half finished and completely outlined. I think it was good—I liked the characters and the plot was strong. At first I wasn’t strong enough to go back and finish it. By the time I got my concentration and language back, I’d lost interest. I eventually returned to magazine writing, doing feature interviews with entertainers, authors, politicians, and professional athletes. But when my editor quit, I left with her. I wasn’t willing to put up with the unsteady ego of a new broom. And I don’t miss it. I love the freedom to be able to travel whenever we want. I love the freedom to be able to write an essay, a blog, a poem, or a short story without feeling I have to have it published to prove myself. I want to experience life not to only write about it. I no longer think I have an endless stream of days, so each one is more precious than before.

If I could, would I change that moment and not go out on the deck? Part of me says yes—I have certain health problems that I know were brought on by the trauma of the disease and the fever, and I’d certainly like my full head of hair back! But the experience is part of the fabric of my life. I have learned so much from it. Besides, I got to balance for a while on the greatest equatorial line. I got a peek into eternity.



Cyndy Muscatels short stories, poetry and essays have been published in many literary journals. A former journalist, she now writes two blogs. She teaches fiction writing and memoir, and is also a speaker and workshop presenter. She is writing a memoir of her years teaching in the inner city of Seattle.

Read an interview with Cyndy here.


“The Cocktail Glass” by Annie Penfield

The Cocktail Glass
“Beautiful Day” by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite.

I banished the wedding gifts into a dark cabinet corner—just a few, the ones that held grief. Seventeen years ago, we used these objects for their intended purposes but when alcohol left a bad taste in my mouth because of my husband’s drinking I removed the symbols. Empty cocktail glasses and the silver carafe pushed deep into a cabinet like my husband hiding his vodka bottles. The material possessions were champagne promises, toasting all happy times together. Looking in the sideboard for the good china for a child’s birthday dinner, I would see the silver carafe crammed in the cupboard, a beacon announcing my life had bounced alarmingly off course—no cocktail hour, no champagne dinners, no dinner parties—but instead forgotten dinner conversations and absence from dinner altogether. The carafe lay tarnishing on its side, losing its luster. Hiding the symbols as if it could hide the problem. Remove the articles and maybe the drinking would just go away and the promise of my marriage would return. We would at least look sober. Each house, a move every two years, each time, these items went deeper into dark places.

Five years ago, we built the house to take our kids through all their years in school. Nestled in a high mowing in small town Vermont, we created our home and barn, planted gardens and fenced pastures and cleared trails. I polished up the silver carafe and dropped a plant into it and moved the cocktail glasses into our glass-fronted kitchen cupboard. They were really just glasses after all. We are an open floor plan in a post-and-beam house with glass doors, dogs on the sofas, wooden blocks and Legos© in the middle of the living area, books on every surface, a large kitchen table, and horses out the window. We were not dinner parties and cocktail hours but sledding parties with soup and cookies and potlucks with mugs and paper cups.

Each day I pass the glass in my cupboard. Their presence reminds me how far we have traveled from promise to addiction to sobriety in this marriage. I quench my fears by putting them on display. The tarnished carafe was the fear, and the planter is now the abundance. A cocktail glass is now an everyday glass. At first I wanted to get rid of the objects, the remnants of alcohol and the reminders we no longer live a normal life, that we would not be grown-up in the way I imagined when I opened these wedding gifts seventeen years ago, but now I see the beauty of these everyday objects—as gifts transformed to the life we live.

Will I again be hiding these glasses and looking for hidden bottles, looking for lost conversations, and an absent spouse? Will the drinking, the disappearances, and the hiding creep back? Will I miss its arrival and will it again swallow me? I can’t know the answers. I can make my fear transparent. Now we take the time to sit down and talk. We learn to serve up our emotions, to let them spill over, and not worry that they are messy. I talk about conflicts at work and unmet sales goals, children at school and hay bales in the loft. “Is there more?” we ask each other now, an invitation, we are no longer holding in; we reveal what ails us. I trust that the glass only contains tonic. “You can’t change how you feel,” says my husband.

The glasses I have been able to redefine, my own sense of self still struggles. I hold onto the pain and memory of an alcoholic life: why can’t I put down the fear, like the glass? My glass is now empty of water. I look up at the dog on the sofa, another behind the woodstove. I look at the village of Lego around the planters. I look out my wall of glass and see the horses eating from piles of hay on a snowy field. I take a deep breath and fill myself with gratitude for all I see around me: this inspiring reflection of the life we are living. Time to move into my day: I rinse and dry the glass and put it away. It sits empty, upside-down in the cabinet, unable to hold anything, and this, as it turns out, is the power of the glass. It can’t hold what I don’t put in it.



Annie Penfield received her MFA in Creative Writing from VCFA in July 2011. She has been published in Fourth Genre, Hunger Mountain, and her essay “The Half Life” was named a “Notable Essay” by Best American Essays 2014. She has completed a memoir about her days working on a sheep farm in Australia. She lives in Vermont with her family and horses, and is a part-owner of Strafford Saddlery (and writes a lot of copy for their new mail-order catalog).

Read an interview with Annie here.


“Baby, Do You Pay Here?” by Jamie Ritchie Watson

bamboo grove
“Bamboo Grove” by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite.

Sporting an Indian headdress, he squeezes his accordion. The punch bowl is filled and the place is hoppin’, but the entertainer has competition at this party.

There is Betty who calls cigarettes “potatoes” and all her friends, “baby.” “Hey Baby!” she says when she sees me. Betty is a pixie woman wearing an oversized, polyester dress and knee-high athletic socks—one with a green stripe and the other an orange stripe. It’s hard to know if Betty really likes me or if she’s just an expert brown-noser. I supervise smoking and Betty is addicted. We are in the dining room of a geriatric, psychiatric facility.

There are others at the party. Vashti, a woman with flawless skin who gives beauty advice and always wears a hat; either her face or her hat is crooked, I’m not sure. Vashti is here, not for the company, but for the punch. Like most patients, she is always thirsty. Wanda, a big-boned woman in a long, red velour robe asks where she might catch the streetcar, and Frank, a tall rigid man, stops to confess that he can’t find his keys. He pats his pockets repeatedly as if he knows they were there only moments ago. Residents are allowed few personal items. A patient who brings a wardrobe from his former life usually discovers that someone sitting across from him at dinner is wearing it.


George strides into the Bingo room. Well over six feet tall, he is gangly and thin. His face is sunken as he resembles a life size apple doll. Bingo is popular with patients because they win candy bars as prizes. George likes Three Musketeers; we don’t offer Snickers because, like George, few patients have teeth. I supervise the game. There are long pauses between shouts of Bingo! As I call out numbers, a bald guy announces trains and their destinations as if the numbers I call represent trains departing from particular platforms.

Louis, a toothless patient in a wheelchair, wins a Three Musketeers bar; achieving his objective, he takes the candy and wheels from the room. Betty plays too and prefers cigarettes to candy bars, but takes whatever she can get. Helen, a bright manic-depressive patient, is legally blind; I play her card for her. Helen doesn’t care much for Bingo, but craves socialization, at least when she is in a high. Helen and I have become friends. She shares recipes with me and was the first to introduce me to bacon and avocado sandwiches. Helen loves to read and since she can’t see has convinced me to read aloud to the patients—mostly to her, of course.

Bill, a hefty man, is a notorious visitor to the Bingo room or for that matter to any room where patients are smoking. As Bill approaches the room, patients yell, “Here he comes!” He enters the room at a limping gallop focused intently on the ashtrays. He snatches a hot cigarette butt and stuffs it in his mouth. Walking away, Bill pats his behind—his signature “kiss my butt” gesture after eating cigarettes—his way of flipping us off. Occasionally, however, he can’t wait until the cigarette is left unattended and his nicotine fit catapults him into the room to grab a cigarette from the shriveled lips of an unsuspecting female patient, leaving the frail old woman with her mouth gaping. The Bill phenomenon creates a sense of urgency and an aura of secrecy to smoking sessions.

The end of the day.

I pass the dining room to see Louis sitting alone in his wheelchair. I hadn’t seen him since he left the Bingo game with his candy bar. I approach and call his name. There is no response. As I circle his wheelchair, I see that his head is slumped to one side, and he is drooling the Three Musketeers. I touch his arm. I find a nurse who checks his pulse; there is none. I go home, knowing that Louis choked to death on his winnings.

My senses assaulted.

I recall my job interview and being escorted through the locked doors into the hallway of parading patients. Over the PA system, someone calls, “Housekeeping to the Dining Room.” No catheters, nor Depends; they just let it fly. Some patients are sitting in a large reception room, but most are walking the halls. Those who are not walking are restrained in wheelchairs. Mr. Alvarez slips from his restraints while singing The Star Spangled Banner. He is stuck on “What so proudly we hailed.” I meet Margaret, a woman with huge, wild brown eyes; her right arm is bent behind her head and she clasps her left hand with her right. She seems wired, as if vibrating tightly while she walks: “I’m swimming in San Francisco. It smells like someone’s fishing in my nose.” I guess I’m supposed to behave as if all of this is not unusual, but it seems damned unusual to me. I try to remain calm.

At the interview’s conclusion, I exit through locked doors into the lobby that now seems remarkably quiet and still. What can I do but take the job? I feel someone is daring me.

Religion, or remnants of it.

Alan, an Orthodox Jew, keeps to himself. Each time we meet, he greets me with a handshake as if it were the first time. Alan obsesses over his food because he’s sure it isn’t Kosher. Served the same thing every day—no meat, mostly mushy vegetables—always tasteless. I ask him if he’d like me to bring him something Kosher. One day I bring Kosher bologna and saltines. He is reluctant to trust me, but I show him the Hebrew National wrapper and Alan enjoys the snack so much that it is as satisfying to me as it is to him.

Religion is a sticking point in what remains of patients’ lives, especially those who have been devoutly religious. There is Grace, a tiny withered woman whose eyes are squeezed shut and mouth is screwed sideways. Restrained in her chair, pushed against the hallway wall, her bony legs are intertwined like a cinnamon twist. Grace is a devoted Catholic, but when the priest comes to give Communion she refuses the host. She keeps her mouth shut tight against the wafer, managing to squeeze out a “Noooooo.” Grace feels she is not holy enough. Religion is no comfort to Grace.

For John, religion equals guilt, and he is constantly sorry. John wears a hat and black horn rimmed glasses; he is thin, like most patients, and taller than average. John shuffles—a side effect of the Haldol. The shuffling can get in the way of what John likes to do best. Dance. On rare party occasions and sometimes when there is no music, John finds a dancing partner. They smile at each other for a moment, but John feels too guilty to continue: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Then there is Nelda. Nelda was a hell of a Mormon—a hook, line, and sinker, no-doubt-about-it-follower of Joseph Smith—but as she makes her hallway rounds, she alternates between a pious grin and “Hi Honey,” and a “Get your cock out of my ass.” Nelda’s family does not visit.

For those who find some comfort in religion, it is usually in the memory of the music; they enjoy hearing hymns played on the piano and some sing to themselves. It’s not the doctrine that reassures them but the litany of songs they remember from childhood. Maybe they have vague recollections of standing next to a parent in a church pew singing Love Lifted Me.

Safety in numbers.

I sign a few patients out to walk to the neighborhood supermarket. George goes regularly and John likes to go. Mary, a sweet woman whose daughter still visits, joins us. The four of us stick together—safety in numbers.

George is the most fun at the store. Like a scientist, he wants to test everything. He makes me guess the weight of the sugar and wants to know if I think an orange would float. George investigates the produce, and we have the entire section to ourselves as the regular shoppers scatter. They scatter, and Mary feigns appropriate facial expressions and reacts as if George is an amusing, errant child. We have what we’ve come for: Bingo prizes for the most part (a single orange to see if it will float), and we’re in line. John is upset. He scuffles and plops down in the checkout line. “Come on, John,” I say. “We’d better get back.” John’s friends are embarrassed and offer scolding looks, but they are accustomed to extraordinary behavior and the episode is soon forgotten.

Occasionally, John gives new meaning to manic. One such day he enters the Bingo room wearing a broad toothless grin. This day life is askew for the dancing man who is on the verge of who-knows-what, humming all the while. “This table is uneven,” he begins and that is a metaphor for what follows:

Frank Sinatra used to sing but now he went to work for the Ford Company or McDonnell Douglas or something. Rudy Valley—he just sings at the Greek Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl and New York. He doesn’t sing in the pictures anymore. He’s too old; his voice is starting to crack. Then there’s that other singer with Jack Benny—what’s his name- Long? Wong? I can’t think of it now. Rudy Valley might have passed away. I haven’t seen it in the papers.

At this point, Carl, the resident ex-con, shuffles toward John and picks up his dinner tray. John says, “Oh, here’s that Carl; he’s gonna take the tray away.” It’s as if Carl lifts the needle from John’s record ending his remembrance of Hollywood crooners.

Carl spent time at Folsom and San Quentin, but he’s a kinder, gentler, squatty old son-of-a-gun now. He is also the only resident clever enough to know that if he trips the fire alarm, the locked doors will open—one of the skills a person learns in “rehabilitation.” Carl writes long letters that he asks me to mail; they are elaborate works of correspondence primarily to the Queen of England. I’ve tried to explain that I can’t really mail them, but Carl insists that I take the letters. One such letter begins, “Dear Queen Elizabeth of London, England, my home town….” He usually mentions The Royal Navy and identifies himself as a member. He makes many fictitious claims including an appointment at Oxford, but is always respectful of the Queen. Occasionally, he writes to less famous folks. He once wrote to me to request some batteries for his Walkman; that letter began, “Dear Madame.”

Dining in the Bingo room.

The Bingo room doubles as a dining room for patients who are inclined toward socialization; it is something of an honor to dine in the Bingo room. George is a regular and sits in front of a shelf with a globe on it. He studies the globe and asks me if I have visited various worldly sites. George maintains a level of sanity here, but he has his idiosyncrasies. He loves to examine shoes while they are on your feet, and always inquires where they were purchased. It would be trite to call it a fetish as nothing about George is mundane. He is a one-of-a-kind guy—a lifelong learner. Most residents take regular medication; some are more heavily sedated than others; several are practically out cold. George’s prescription consists of a single can of Coors each evening.

Wanda, the woman who waits for the streetcar, also dines in the Bingo room, however, at times she’s too critical. She declares of a resident at her table, “This woman is not a member of the Ladies’ Guild.” Martin, an agreeable, fairly well groomed fellow, attempts to mask the fact that he hasn’t a clue how he was placed at Wanda’s table. He must be reminded each evening of his dining room assignment. As he surveys the room, his eyes say I don’t know any of these people, and he turns to me as if we are business associates: “I’m afraid I’ve disappointed you. Didn’t we have a dinner date at six?”

Betty is not welcome in the Bingo room. Although she fits most criteria, she’s too bossy. Betty’s aphasia prevents her from focused and polite repartee so she persists with a strong will and a shit-eating grin. She huffs and puffs and clacks her false teeth, which don’t fit. When no one else is around, she opens her mouth and drops her plastic teeth to show me that food has accumulated on the dentures’ pink palate; “Hey, Baby,” she says, making a face, “Yea, how ’bout it?” Betty is beside herself when she cannot garner a Bingo room reservation and pleads, “Baby, they’re shoving me out. Why?”

While there is no place for Betty in the Bingo room, she still has a reservation at home. I know because I have been there. Betty once insisted that her husband take her home for a visit and they took me along. A tidy house, Betty gave me a tour including the contents of her husband’s sock drawer. She took me into the kitchen and pointing at each of two placemats, she said, “Hey, Baby, him and me—here, here—the two of us.” Enough said.

They’re better off.

The first time I said it was when they took Alice out in a bag. I saw the bag and I imagined Alice inside. Alice, lover of music, always had to have something in her mouth; I usually had Bingo peppermints and gave her one whenever she asked. When she couldn’t find something suitable to suck on, she would find something terribly unsuitable, and if I saw her I would tell her to take it out of her mouth. She would shake her head, her eyes watering and tell me that it wasn’t what I thought. “Oh no, I wouldn’t do that,” she insisted. And so, when Alice left in a bag, I said, “She’s better off.”

All souls are visible.

Patients receive regular visits from a psychiatrist. Most of the doctor’s time is spent charting. Everything must be documented. If accurate documentation were possible, what would the good doctor write? How can any description do justice? Maybe this is purgatory and some god is surveying the landscape deciding whom to rescue. There are no impediments to evaluating this pool of applicants. When life is boiled and distilled, this is what remains. No posturing, no excuses, no egos, no religion, no wallet, no keys, no teeth—just naked souls circling the halls wearing mismatched socks. The Manor is a living, pulsating allegory; each resident is Everyman, from Frank, who can’t find his keys, to Wanda, who is frantic to find the streetcar. The protective coating that separates those on one side of the doors from those who are locked within is wafer thin and we are keenly aware of it. It is little wonder there are few visitors; coming here is like having your fortune told.

It’s not all a frightening work of art.

Some souls are bared to reveal genuine goodness. There’s Oda who cradles her imaginary baby in a makeshift bundle, and Mary who just wants everyone to get along, and Helen who loves to listen to good stories because she can no longer read them. There is Betty who has lost all the right words but struggles to connect with a kiss on the cheek, and Mr. Alvarez who sings out his patriotic loyalty as he slips from his wheelchair restraints. And there is George, King George of the Bingo Room, who loves his wife even though they are divorced and see each other rarely.

The doors are locked.

We have become co-dependent, the Manor folks and me. I find it difficult to leave this place that I initially found repulsive. My husband picks me up every evening and I subject him to a review of the day’s events. He asks why I insist on reliving everything. He knows the patients well; at least he would were he to listen, but I am often too intense in the retelling.

How did I begin to feel at home here? Do I believe I can make a difference? The truth is if I were gone more than a few days, I would be forgotten, but it’s safe here. The doors are locked.

Unlike their families, I didn’t know the residents before they arrived. I accept them for whom they are when they pass through the doors. I don’t mourn the loss of their previous personas. Just as I accept them, they appreciate me for what I have to offer whether it’s a cigarette, a story, or a walk to the store. Expectations are manageable and we all live in the moment.

A few residents believe that I am also a patient—one with privileges. Sometimes, I let Betty join me in my office. She enjoys stepping out of the race for a moment—to feel special. She is able to think more clearly when she is away from the others. There’s not much for us to talk about but I offer her a cigarette and this afternoon she notices a jet making a trail through a crystal blue sky. Pointing, Betty says, “I used to go in them back east.” She looks into my eyes to inquire, “Baby, do you pay here?” I tell her, “No.” She seems slightly confused attempting to piece it together. “Oh, you don’t. I thought they were working on you.”



Jamie Ritchie Watson has worked as a director of educational outreach programs and served as the Associate Director of Admissions at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Prior to her career in higher education, she acted professionally and continues to appear on the stage. Many years ago, while pursuing theater in Los Angeles, she worked in a geriatric, psychiatric facility. Jamie is pleased to be included in this issue of r.kv.r.y., and to share this remembrance of the extraordinary people who touched her life.


“Peeling Away the Mask” by Teresa Burns Murphy

Peeling Away the Mask
“Shaped by Hurricanes” by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite.

The scents of Jungle Gardenia perfume and foam rubber tickled my nose as I held a pair of my mother’s discarded falsies to my flat chest. Giggling, I stuffed the falsies inside a bra I’d stolen from her lingerie drawer. Donning her white negligee and puffing on the unlit cigarette I’d pilfered from her purse, I pretended to be a movie star standing in the wings, waiting for my cue. I was a preschooler and playing dress-up was central to my life; I even dreamed of it at night. In one dream, I wore a pair of falsies beneath a costume that would have made a barmaid proud. As a child I was well informed when it came to saloon-girl chic, thanks to my steady diet of 1960s television westerns. Along with my fancy costume, I wore a clownish mask for an audience of adoring fans. At one point I turned from the audience and lifted my dress to reveal that my huge breasts weren’t real. I winked at the dreamer and said, “I can fool everybody.”

I remember few dreams from childhood, but this one has stayed with me. I grew up in the Bible Belt, where religion was cinched around the lives of everyone I knew. I had not yet heard that dreams were mirrors to the soul, but it was clear to me that having such a depraved dream meant my soul was filled with iniquity. Iniquity was a word I’d picked up from our preacher when he talked about the scandalous way American women dressed. Not wanting to be lumped in with those wicked Jezebels, I prayed for forgiveness for engaging in such bawdy behavior, if only in my dreams. I had faith that God would deliver me from evil thoughts, but I had no idea how firm a grasp my need to “fool everybody” had on my psyche.

Surrendering my soul to God left me more time to work on my body, an area over which I seemed to have more control. My first order of business was to reduce my weight. According to my older sister, I was a “fatty, fatty two-by-four” in serious danger of not being able to fit through the bathroom door. The advent of the super-thin models confirmed my belief that being fat was worse than any other physical affliction. After all, being fat was self-induced, which meant it could be self-cured. So, at the age of five, I put myself on a diet. Instead of coconut cream pie for dessert, I’d have a carrot or an extra helping of green beans. I gave up chocolate, a known fat magnet, for years. My early dieting efforts are documented in two photographs of me wearing the same dress. In the first photograph, taken at age five, the dress fits snugly over my plump body. In the second photograph, taken a year later, the dress hangs on my thin frame like a loose tent.

I now realize that I was getting in shape for school. I envisioned school as a golden place where I would be pretty and good and smart, in that particular order. Having internalized society’s recipe for being a successful girl, I assumed that I would be popular with my peers as well as with my teachers. The formula actually worked until I turned that unlucky age of thirteen. I hadn’t yet achieved my curvaceous figure, but I could see that if things kept going in the direction they appeared to be heading, I would. Physical perfection seemed within my reach, and I was angling toward it as rapidly as possible. I had no idea life was literally about to throw me my first real curve.

School had just gotten out for the summer, and my mother was in my bedroom helping me try on clothes I had worn the previous summer to see what I could still wear. I was about to ask if we could go shopping the next day for a shorts set I’d seen in a department store window when she said, “What’s that bulge on your right side?”

“What bulge?” I turned my head in an attempt to see over my shoulder.

Coming face to face with my mother’s anxious expression fueled my worst fears.

A tumor, I thought. I am going to die.

She ran her finger down my spine and said, “Your back’s not straight.”

Since it was late on Friday afternoon, my mother wasn’t able to get me a doctor’s appointment until the following Monday. She still describes that time as “the longest weekend [she] ever spent.” For me, the weekend couldn’t last long enough. The only spinal treatment I’d ever heard about was an epidural to diminish a woman’s labor pains. I struggled to banish the image of a doctor inserting a needle into my spine.

When Monday finally came, my mother took me to our family doctor. After I was x‑rayed and examined, the doctor told us he thought I had scoliosis.

“Curvature of the spine,” he explained when he saw our puzzled looks. “I’m not qualified to address something like this. I’ll get you an appointment with an orthopedist.”

The first orthopedist I saw was fat and cranky, but the distaste I felt for him wouldn’t have diminished had he been fit and charming. Of course I didn’t want him to have a low opinion of me, so when he clasped his meaty hands around my neck and lifted me off the ground, I smiled and said nothing. The entire time I was in his care, I never complained. He said I was the best patient he’d ever had. Maybe he said that to all the girls.

Following my initial visit, I was admitted to a children’s hospital for further evaluation to determine the best course of treatment. Part of that evaluation included a “conference” with a team of twelve orthopedists. On that day, a nurse took me to a small room and asked me to undress. She handed me a sheet and told me to wrap it around my body. Completely disrobed and wound in the sheet, I shuffled along behind her to a large room where twelve orthopedists were seated at a conference table. I was told to stand next to a screen displaying an x-ray of my crooked spine.

The nurse, a plump, middle-aged woman with kind blue eyes and a cap of brown, curly hair, and I were the only females in the room. When she helped me unwind the sheet, I caught a flicker of sympathy in her eyes. As I stood in front of the orthopedists and followed their directives to bend forward and from side-to-side, the nurse attempted to hold the folded sheet in front of my nascent breasts. I avoided eye contact with the men seated around the table and used every ounce of imagination I could muster to forge an alternate reality.

The orthopedists decided the best treatment would be a rigid regimen of physical therapy for several months. After that, I would be put in traction and placed in a body cast. The summer between seventh and eighth grades I did exercises—pelvic tilts, sit-ups, and push-ups—ten minutes out of every hour I was awake. When I began the prescribed program, I could barely do a single sit-up, much less a push-up. My dad worked with me every day until I could do several sit-ups. In order for me to do even one push-up without collapsing, my dad supported my stomach with his hands, gradually letting go, the way he had let go of my bicycle when I was learning to ride. By the time I began eighth grade, my abs were as taut as any athlete’s.

I continued the exercise program on a less rigorous basis after school started. That fall the orthopedists decided my spine was limber enough for traction and my first body cast. I thought I was ready, but as my spine was pulled straighter and straighter, I felt as though my jaws were coming unhinged. During the procedure I was naked except for the stretchy, form-fitting undergarment that hugged my body from my upper thighs to my chin. When the medical team began fashioning the plaster cast that would hold my stretched-out form in place for the next six weeks, I felt as if I were suffocating.

Once the cast was constructed, I was taken to a hospital ward, where I was told I would need to lie still for the next twenty-four hours so the plaster could fully dry. My mother had been with me all day, but she was told she couldn’t stay overnight. Had I asked my mother to stay, she would have, no matter the hospital rules, but I didn’t want to be perceived as needy.

After my mother left, a nurse came in with supper—meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Since I couldn’t move, she fed me. The nurse had large, white hands, and she shoveled food into my mouth as if we were participants in a speed-eating contest. By the time she whisked the tray away, I was feeling queasy. The smell of wet plaster, along with the tension of the day and the rapid intake of hospital food, proved too much for me. Held immobile by the cast, I couldn’t sit up or turn my head to one side when my supper began coming back up. Fortunately another nurse came to my rescue and rolled me onto my side so I didn’t choke on my own vomit.

I was placed in the body cast in the 1970s, a time when girls in my junior high school were not allowed to wear pants. Wearing a miniskirt over a cast that encased my neck, torso, and hips was not a viable option for me since I couldn’t bend at the waist and was prone to falling. My clothes also needed to be durable enough not to tear easily when they came into contact with the rough surface of the cast. My mother’s solution was blue jeans paired with sweatshirts. It seems unbelievable to me now that my wearing jeans to school caused such a stir—not among the students but among the teachers! Some of the female teachers didn’t think pants of any stripe were appropriate attire for a junior high school girl. My mother was a teacher at the school, and she said I would be wearing jeans. The principal backed her up, and eventually all the other girls were allowed to wear jeans to school as well.

I hated wearing the cast so much that getting a back brace was almost a relief. At least I could remove it for an hour each day. I was so grateful for that hour, even though it was spent exercising and bathing. The brace I wore, a Milwaukee brace, consisted of a flat metal bar that extended from my chin to a leather corset with a built-in metal plate that kept my stomach flat. Two smaller bars attached to a neck ring stretched from the base of my skull to the corset, which was laced tightly around my hips with a pair of heavy nylon straps. Attached to the front bar on the right side was a wide, leather band that fit around my right ribcage to correct the protrusion that was forming as my spine curved in that direction.

I grew my hair out to cover the back rods of the brace and wore turtlenecks to hide the bar in the front as well as the side pieces that wrapped around my neck. I tilted my head forward in an attempt to conceal the plastic throat mold that supported my chin. The brace was uncomfortable but the physical discomfort was nothing compared to the mental anguish over the way I looked. Like any teenager I was hypersensitive about my appearance. Everywhere I went I felt as if people were staring at me.

During the years I wore the brace, I never allowed myself to cry. I didn’t want to run the risk of anyone finding out I wasn’t taking this experience in stride. Shortly after I began wearing the brace, I discovered that writing could serve as an emotional outlet. The first story I wrote was about a female reporter who witnesses atrocities in the American war in Vietnam. My English teacher praised my story, but no one else ever encouraged me to write. Still, I held on to the hope that I might one day become a writer. Unfortunately I lacked the independent spirit necessary to pursue an unconventional life path, and I eventually suppressed my desire to be a writer, just as I had suppressed all my undesirable emotions.

The only record I have of how I really felt during the time I wore the brace is recorded in my little blue diary. While most of my entries are light and factual, one day I wrote, “My life is unhappy now, but no one knows it except God and me. I guess it doesn’t matter how you feel. It’s just how other people think you feel.”

In February of my junior year in high school, the orthopedist told me I didn’t have to wear the brace anymore. I’d heard the expression “feeling like a bird out of a cage” all my life, but I never actually knew the feeling until I was liberated from that brace. What I failed to realize was the emotional cage I’d built was still intact, and it would take me years, maybe a lifetime, to dismantle it. At the time I wasn’t concerned with my emotional well-being; I was obsessed with my looks.

The brace had given me a shapely figure, but I didn’t have large breasts. I assumed there was a remedy for that and was thrilled when I came across an ad for a bust developer in the back pages of a fashion magazine. The ad promised that the apparatus would add inches to the flattest of bustlines, so I sent off for one right away. When it arrived I used, or tried to use, the bust developer religiously. It consisted of two pieces of pink plastic connected by a heavy metal spring and a thin leather strap. Even though I could barely force the two sides together with my small hands, I tried to push, press, and pray my way to the breasts of my dreams.

I didn’t achieve those fuller, rounder breasts promised in the ad, but the path to perfect myself, body and soul, that had been established during my formative years was one I would pursue well into middle age. For years I pushed myself to acquire something I thought I should have—a fitter body, a better job, another advanced degree. Once I’d achieved my goal, it lost its pre-attainment glow, and I moved on to a new goal. My nerves were often frayed, but I concealed my inner angst with a veneer of socially sanctioned ambition.

Although I found some solace in writing as a young adult, I never viewed it as a necessity. By the time I was middle-aged, I took anti-anxiety medication to get through the day and sleeping pills to get through the night. Still, investing a lot of time in writing seemed too risky, and I believed I had a lot to lose if I failed. I was an award-winning college professor with a promising future in academia that left little room for “creative” writing. From the outside, my life looked perfect. Inside I was always anxious, wondering when my “real life” was going to begin.

I couldn’t say what prompted me to give up my “day job,” enroll in an MFA program, and begin devoting a substantial amount of time to writing. One day I realized I couldn’t, and probably wouldn’t, continue living the way I had been. Certainly there have been some moments of despair in my life as a writer, but there have also been moments of joy. A natural balance seems to have been restored. I no longer need the anti-anxiety medication I took for years. For the first time in my life, I am free to be honest, even if my honesty is couched, at times, in fiction or poetry. Though I will probably never get over my need for approval, writing has become my antidote for perfectionism—unmasking me in a way nothing else ever could.



Teresa Burns Murphy is the author of a novel, The Secret to Flying (TigerEye Publications, 2011). Her short fiction has been published in Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock Press, 2012), Dreamstreets, Gargoyle Magazine, The Penmen Review, Southern Women’s Review, THEMA, The Tower Journal, and Westview. To learn more about her writing, visit her at www.teresaburnsmurphy.com.

Read more from Teresa here.