“Breath” by Rebecca Spears

breath
“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.

–Snot-boys?

–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.

“What?”

“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.

Bingo!

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.

 

“Three Moons Over Maple Grove” by Susan Gower

Cover Image
“Body with Fire” by Laura Didyk, Sharpie on paper, 2015.

Wide awake and nervous about my approaching medical appointment, I wandered into the bathroom at four in the morning. Through the window, I saw three moons. The one in the center was a storybook moon. It was so large and bright that I could clearly see the topographical features. There was another moon on each side of it, perfectly spaced, but each of them smaller and less vivid. Quickly I found my glasses and looked again. Yep. Three moons.

The sky was a deep pre-dawn blue. The river birch, decorated with new leaves, looked silver in the moonlight. A slight breeze stirred the curtain. The young leaves on the birch shivered and so did I.

Oh God, I thought, breaking into a sweat. I’m having a stroke, or some kind of neurological event. I woke Mike and pulled him by the hand into the bathroom.

“Look out the window,” I said urgently. “Tell me what you see.”

“I see,” he said slowly, “three moons.”

“Thank you. Go back to sleep.”

By taking a step to the right, I discovered that three moons shone through the left pane of glass, but only one, the big, bright moon, shone through the right. I concluded that it was some sort of optical illusion, produced by the bathroom mirror and who knows what scientific process. But I stood for a long time, looking at the three moons.

Over the next few days, things happened quickly.

After ten years of living with cardiomyopathy, my heart function had dropped again and was dangerously low. I was in atrial fibrillation and my heart was dancing a strange little dance all its own. On the heart monitor, the line ran in irregular peaks and valleys like a piece of modern art.

Eventually they moved me to the cardiac ward and attempted to shock my heart back into rhythm.   “It didn’t work,” they told me when I woke up.

Finally, late in the afternoon, they geared up to try it again. This time I was truly and deeply frightened. I tried to distract myself by singing “I Got Rhythm” in my head.

This time, my cardiologist adjusted the patches himself. “Deep breaths,” he said.

When I came to, the nurse’s face swam in and out of focus, but she was smiling. “It worked,” she said. I burst into tears.

“What’s the matter, honey, I said IT WORKED,” she said distinctly.

Back in my bed, I watched the heart monitor. It beat in a steady rhythm.

Before I left the hospital, my favorite nurse, Bernie, instructed me in administering shots of blood thinner to myself. I have had a phobia about hypodermic needles as long as I can remember. She waved the needle in front of my face. “See how little and thin it is?” she coaxed.

I loathed the needle.

“See how easy it is?” She said as she stuck the needle firmly into my abdominal area. She disposed of the needle and took me by the shoulders. “You can do this,” she said. “Do this to honor your sister.”

Six months after my initial diagnosis, my sister Sharon had also been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. But we were hopeful. Her heart was less damaged than mine and the odds were in her favor. One evening in April, Sharon and I met at the bookstore. We had coffee and joked about our bad hearts. We decided to write a book together called “I love you from the Bottom of My Ticky Tocky Heart.” We laughed and laughed.

It was the last time I ever saw her. A week later she was dead of a sudden heart attack. I still miss her. I always will.

As soon as I got home from the hospital, both the washer and dryer broke down.   Mike and I went to the Laundromat. Up until then there had been no time to process the events of the week. There, in the Laundromat, it all caught up with both of us. Every worry, every fear, large and small, crouched in that grimy room.

The cardiologist, while encouraging, had been straightforward. He talked to us about the future, about a transplant, or a mechanical heart. “We’re not there yet,” he emphasized, “but it’s down the road.” He was telling me to get ready. I still had options, but this had been a serious setback.

Although it was late when we returned from the Laundromat, I wandered restlessly around the house. Finally, I went outside in my pajamas. A thick fog was rolling in from the wetlands. I scanned the sky, but the moon was hidden from view. The next day my son would turn eighteen. On Sunday he would graduate. I was grateful to be here to bake his birthday cake, to celebrate his graduation.   Mike said we just have to take each thing, good and bad, as it came and keep going. I knew he was right and I made a silent promise to do this. But at night I watched the sky and listened to the wind moving through the trees, waiting for what would come next.

I saw the three moons again, at three a.m. on a beautiful June night. The moons were not full this time. They were three-quarters full. They looked like three cookies with a bite nibbled out of each.   I knew I should go back to bed, because the next night I was scheduled for a sleep study and, thereofore, expected to get little or no sleep.   But even so I stood in the bathroom for a long time, watching.

The next night I checked in to the sleep center. David, my technician, attached electrodes all over my body – “twenty -seven in all,” he replied, “mostly on your head and face.”

When he was finished, I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. My hair stuck out wildly in all directions, pasted into clumps with the glue-like gel. From all over my scalp, batches of colorful wires sprouted and more wires dragged on my already baggy eyes. Under the harsh, florescent lights, my face was white. I looked demented.

Finally I was settled in bed, David was monitoring me from the next room. I lay in the dark, windowless room. It was the darkest dark I had ever seen. And disturbingly quiet. I longed to hear the sounds of teenagers in the kitchen, giggling and making brownies. Sweetie’s dog tags jingling as she trotted around. The murmur of a television turned low, or the rhythmic throb of a bass guitar. It was one thing, I thought, to share a room, or even a bed, with another person, listening to whatever nocturnal noises they might be prone to. But here I was, in bed, in this mock hotel room, wired up like a puppet and somewhere beyond that wall a stranger was watching and listening.

In my logical mind, my sane mind, I knew he was watching a series of monitors, keeping track of my heart rate, my breathing, my REM sleep. But the less than rational part of my brain had other ideas. Could he read my thoughts? What if he could see everything that was in there? Are the dark thoughts all sharp edges, etched on my brain like the jagged peaks and valleys of an EKG – here a pain, there a loss, and buried far down, shame and fear?

I pushed those thoughts away and summoned happier times. Somewhere in my head, or my heart, or maybe my soul, are the good memories, a whole lifetime of them, like a field of wildflowers.   Memories of making cookies in my grandmother’s kitchen on a fresh summer morning. Bells on my ice skates.   My baby’s first laugh. The piney scent of a Christmas tree. Violets hidden in the grass and morning glories on the trellis. The way Mike looks at me. The awkward hugs of adolescent children. The sound of my family, back home in Michigan, eating pie and drinking coffee and laughing. My mother, playing the piano, a sound which, I think, is etched into my very bones. Floating in the lake, with my father.   A warm bath and clean sheets. Giggling toddlers. Starry nights and gentle rain on the roof and the first snowfall of winter.   Rowboats and people singing and evenings on the front porch on Fourth Street. Everyone home for dinner.

I fight to regain my shaky health, but this time it feels more difficult. The hill seems steeper, the struggle harder. Perhaps this is because I am older, or because the drugs that are keeping my heart going are also triggering the depression and anxiety that lurk behind every door. I don’t tell anyone how I feel, because I don’t want people to think I am giving up. I go to work, I cook dinner, I keep whacking away at the piano, and at writing. At bedtime, I lie next to Mike and feel safe and comforted, but sometime, in the deepest part of the night, I wake up and think, I have to try harder. I have to get everything under control and buttoned down, because what if this time it doesn’t work? Once again I am trying, by sheer force of will, to get well. But I am haunted by the fear that I might fail. I still have options, I still have hope, but I am tired. I am grateful for what I have been given, but I am greedy. I want more time.

I woke at 4:30 this morning. The bathroom was bright with moonlight and there, once again, were the three moons. The bathroom seems like a peculiar place to contemplate one’s mortality. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it is in the bathroom, at 4:30 in the morning, that we see who we really are.   Are the moons a bad omen, as I thought in the spring? Or are they lighting the way in the darkness?   I know I only have this moment. And then, like the moonlight, the moment moves on.

 

 

Susan Gower is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers and literary journals, including Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, and Talking Stick. She lives in Luck, Wisconsin, with her husband Mike.

“Out of the Nest” by Heidi Siegrist

Out of the Nest
“Nest” by Mia Avramut, wax on clayboard, 6 x 6 in.

It was right around my college graduation day that the snake came. I wasn’t home to witness any of what happened. I was in Chicago, selling everything in my college apartment and using the cash to go out drinking. It was hot, and my days of packing produced a sticky feeling of discomfort that would come back like bile minutes after stepping out of a cold shower.

I had been following what was happening at home because my dad liked to write me about it most days. I imagined him typing out his emails to me in his study, around 8:00, right after the sun had gone down and his beer had leaked language into the happy peacefulness of his mind. He was elated, these days, to spend each evening after dinner out on the porch. He and my mom had recently renovated it. They bought new, comfy furniture– the familiar rusted chairs with mildewed cushions were gone. My mom hung potted flowers all around the porch ceiling, and somehow convinced ivy to grow along the beams. At the edge of the porch, as if to mark off this magical space, they strung white Christmas lights and windchimes.

Because of all this beauty, a California wren had ventured into our backyard to nest in one of the hanging porch baskets. Among my mom’s peonies, she laid her eggs. California wrens are small and fat. Their color is a humble light brown, and when they look at you with their inscrutable bird eyes you see dignity in the streak of white, eyebrow-like, on the sides of their heads. In the summers, you hear them everywhere. They sing often, and with impressive range.

June in Chicago, the sounds outside were of cars pulling up outside of soon-to-be-abandoned college homes, the growl of suitcases along sidewalks, and the smugly triumphant shrieks of day-drunk seniors. I was impatient and sloppy in packing all my stuff into boxes. I threw wine glasses in with leftover boxes of pasta and didn’t fold my clothes or even turn them right-side-out before stuffing them into duffel bags. It was hugely satisfying to see my cluttered room turn clean and empty. A guy bought my desk for $50, and I used half the money for a cheeseburger and beers at the campus pub with my friends. We talked about our plans for the summer and what we thought we might do after that, and didn’t think of how easy it was to take for granted that we would always get drunk together.

The next morning, while I dozed sweaty and headachy, my dad sent me an email about how the wren’s eggs had finally hatched. When he went out on the porch with his coffee, he heard a chorus of little squawks in brand new voices. He wanted to look at the eggshells, now empty and useless, but he didn’t want to disturb the babies. The mother wren was so excited, he wrote. She flitted back and forth, chirping at her babies with a new, joyful song he hadn’t heard before. He was proud that she had gotten so used to him that she let him listen in on their celebration.

Goodbyes came in stages: I can’t believe this is the last time we’ll eat here, the last time we’ll drink together on campus, the last week we’ll be living in Chicago, etc. They did not seem real except for one. I’d had a falling out with my oldest friend. First year, we used to laugh so hard on the floor of her dorm room that beer dribbled out the corners of our mouths. Now, we stood braced against separate walls and I told her I hoped she enjoyed Oxford. “Thanks,” she said. “Maybe next year when I come back, we can…start over, and see how it goes.” The cause of the falling out was a mutual feeling of abandonment, not worth describing, which day to day seems irrelevant but builds and builds.

The next day there was no email. My dad called me instead, while I was lying on my bed doing nothing, with the fan on. He said that when he had come outside for his beer, he had found the California wren jumping from spot to spot but never landing in her potted plant. She was calling out sharply. He could hear a commotion from the unseen baby birds, and it was a sound he had not heard from them before. When he looked in the basket, seeing the chicks’ soft brown feathers for the first time, he also saw a snake. It was curled lazily around two of the baby birds, the third a lump in its stomach. He picked up the snake and flung it by its tail into the yard. It hit the ground with the thump of a thing already in motion. Then my dad went to the shed and got the hatchet that he used to weed kudzu out of the garden. As the snake slithered away he brought the blade down hard. At the age of 62, he killed his first living being. While he stared at the two pieces at his feet, the wrens cried.

But–two babies still remaining under the safe white lights.

My bed was the only piece of furniture remaining in my room at that point. I couldn’t sell it, because a couple of the slats were broken from a drunken and overly aggressive hookup with someone I did not know well or much like. I was just going to throw the bed in the alley, after my last night in the blank white room. Graduation was a day away. When I hung up the phone with my dad, picturing the events that had led up to him standing there over the dead snake and baby bird, I felt fear swallow me. Cliches ring true because we seek them out, match them up to the experiences that would otherwise bewilder us. They become signs, omens as bright as Easter eggs.

 

 

 Heidi Siegrist is currently trying to make it/fake it in Chicago. She is also an MFA student at the University of the South, and is working on a collection of essays about entanglement (whatever that is).

 

“The West Elm Sofa” by David Alasdair

Wesy Elm Sofa
“Dusk” by Mia Avramut, wax on paper, 5.8 x 8.2 in.

Jon’s apartment is the top floor of a four-level brownstone in an aging beauty queen of a neighborhood in the heart of Washington DC. The kitchen, living room, and the small glass table in the bay window that makes up the dining area are all one space, filled with odds and ends that mostly only make sense to Jon: photos in mismatched picture frames, Argentinian love masks, decorative candlesticks, an oversized poster of a 1950s Spanish motorcycle festival, and a small flock of tourist-shop Buddhas sitting happily in scattered locations. The tiny coffee table is littered with the wanderings of a mind that can’t make itself up: a biography of Bill Belichick, Gibran’s The Prophet, Shape magazine (“for the exercises”), a reference manual on management techniques, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, and endless notes to self. And in the middle of it all is a small L-shaped sofa.

The sofa is actually the Blake combination love seat and chaise from West Elm, a swanky furniture store for yuppies who’ve outgrown IKEA. The love seat can sit no more than two side by side without getting intimate—it is after all a love seat—but there’s room for another on the chaise next to it. Technically the chaise is a “fainting couch,” because it has a back and an arm, but West Elm’s customers are would-be-metrosexuals like Jon, not the heavily corseted ladies of Victorian times, so it’s a chaise. It’s hard not to want to faint into it, however. The flow of the room, the giant welcoming down-filled pillow behind you and the long expanse of the chaise coaxes even the most excited of guests to lie down and take a moment.

This particular West Elm combination is putty gray in color, with chocolate-colored legs, and a slightly rough, though not uncomfortable “basketweave” finish. In all honesty, it seems a pretty ordinary sofa, until you sit on it. Only then do you realize how ridiculously comfortable it is. Not in that cheap Swedish way that feels right only in one position and only in the showroom, nor in the overgenerous softness of a reclining, swiveling, drink-holding, faux suede All-American sofa. The Blake is firm, yet giving, and feels snug whether you sit upright or lounge haphazardly. It’s nothing less than a favorite lover wrapping arms around you and whispering stay awhile.

More often than not the love seat becomes the guest’s, while Jon and his partner JJ stretch out on the chaise together, her head falling to his chest, sometimes in sleep. Conversations between friends will continue on in to the night, and become increasingly dream-like. When eventually the stories and half-awake debates have ended and sleep is taking everyone together, the couple departs wordlessly, and the guest is left with the whole sofa to stretch out on.

As comfortable as the West Elm is to sit on, it is literally a dream to sleep on. It’s wide enough to roll from side to side without the gymnastics of most sofas, and it’s thick, firm padding would shut any princess up about a pea. This is the city, so there’s no true dark and no true silence. But the street light, which stands mercifully below the window, scans patterns through the treetop onto the old plaster ceiling above that are the envy of any child’s mobile, and with the window open, the distant sirens, car horns, and shouts are as reassuring as any summer’s breeze. To sleep here is to sleep like you’ve never slept before.

The record for residence on the West Elm is nine months, held by my friend Zach. After wandering around the world—fighting wildfires, acting in a “ghost town,” working as a carpenter—Zach came out of the blue to stay with Jon. He had no job, no money, and nowhere to go, though that did not seem to be a huge point of concern for either man. At one point, Jon found Zach a job painting the walls of a nearby dive pizza joint. The owner told him he could paint what he wanted. He meant white or cream. Zach instead painted a mural that took three months to complete. When he was done he refused any payment except the original fifty bucks he’d been promised. Later he was asked to fix a shelf by one of Jon’s friends who’d heard Zach was a carpenter. Zach created a small library of built-in bookshelves, and this time refused payment of any kind because it was for a friend of Jon’s.

When Zach finally moved on, his record remained. Despite many guests—family visits, travelers passing through, friends in need—his record stood for years until Sherpa arrived for “two or three days, a week at most.” Sherpa is Taiwanese not Tibetan and has never climbed any mountain, but he’d been given the name the first time we met him, the way boys do, and kept it forever. He followed a stellar college career with a high-paying Capitol Hill job, which he parlayed into entrepreneurial success, buying three townhouses in a rundown DC neighborhood that gentrified overnight and quintupled in value. For years he was the successful one while the rest of us were still finding our way. Then he fell in love with the wrong girl and his life imploded. Within a year he was heartbroken, bankrupt, and homeless, his properties having been signed over to her in a final futile act of defiant love.

At first Sherpa was concerned with being the perfect guest. He’d lost his high-paying job, but found work stocking shelves, and he’d steal steak and bottles of wine and cook dinner for his hosts as a way to thank them. He’d make sure to regularly go out for long walks to give the couple some time to themselves. But as the weeks wore on, formality gave way to familiarity. By month two, anyone walking into the apartment was less likely to find him cooking and more likely to find him in his underwear studiously working his way through a 24-pack of PBR. He stopped going out for walks and told Jon to “fuck whenever you want, it doesn’t bother me.”

By the time nine months had passed, Sherpa had gotten his life back to a semblance of together and was ready to move on. But he stayed anyway, joking that he needed to break Zach’s record. Every evening Jon would come home from work and yell, “Still here?” in mock outrage, but, in truth, Sherpa had become both sidekick and mission, and he was happy for him to stay. It was ten months before Sherpa went on his way.

When it was I who was lost, and my turn to take the West Elm sofa came, I thought of its previous occupants and where they had gone after their respite with Jon. Zach wandered for years until finally he fell in love, married, joined the Rangers, traveled to Afghanistan—where he said he’d never felt more alive or satisfied with his life—and died in a firefight at age 31. Sherpa wandered too. He packed everything he owned in a tarpaulin sheet and traveled to Argentina, studying for a month in Buenos Aries before setting off on foot across the Patagonian Mountains. I heard from him next in Paris, living in a room as big as a closet in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and sharing a corridor bathroom with a continually passed-out drunk. From Paris he walked for months on El Camino de Santiago—the old pilgrimage route to Galicia, Spain, to visit the remains of the apostle James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. He’d Facebook from the churches he stayed in along the way, surrounded by other glorious lost souls, as happy as I’d ever seen him.

I stayed three weeks with Jon, receiving his blunt, good-natured counsel every evening, and soaking up the West Elm’s restorative powers every night. Then I followed Zach and Sherpa back into the world. Both had come back to Jon’s sofa for far shorter stays at various moments over the years, as have I. It is the haven we have all shared. Other sofas are a place to crash. The West Elm is for those uncertain times when you don’t know where the next step will take you. Watching the lives of my friends spin off from here, even if tragically as in Zach’s case, is always heartening, because I know a similar road lies open for me.

When Zach died, Sherpa and I returned to travel with Jon to the funeral in Cape Cod. That night, we drank heavily and happily, and told endless stories of Zach. When Jon finally took his leave, Sherpa and I were left alone on the West Elm in the awkward silence of an unspoken question. Who sleeps where? After a few moments, I took the guest’s love seat, and left him the chaise. He was the record-holder after all.

 

 

David Alasdair earned an MFA from Eastern Washington University in Spokane, WA, has seen the Loch Ness Monster, been in the world’s longest chorus line, and occasionally makes Shrek-like noises with his right ear.

Read an interview with David here.