Interview with Terri Muuss

terri-muuss

Mary Akers: Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today, Terri. I loved your poem Write to Save Someone. I’m wondering, has writing always been your first artistic love? If not, what was it and how did you transition to poetry/writing? 

Terri Muuss: Actually, acting, theatre and directing have always been my first loves. I came to acting quite young and naturally. It will always be a huge part of who I am and how I see art in a larger sense. Much of my poetry is born out of a theatricality I possess from being onstage these many years.

That being said, poetry was always sort of waiting in the wings for me. When I was in tenth grade, my best friend was a beautiful person and poet. I spent long days at her house after school as I had no inclination to go home to my own dysfunctional house. There, she read and wrote poetry in front of me and it certainly inspired me to use it as an avenue for expression. Later, during senior year, I had a teacher hand me a packet of poems by e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes that she thought I would enjoy. That packet sent me on a journey of reading as many poets as I could. Still, poetry was off to the side while theater took center stage.

It really wasn’t until I was faced with the trauma of my past and of putting myself together that writing became both a therapeutic tool and an artistic passion. To better understand the trauma of being sexually abused as a child, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Mostly poetry but also monologues. At the end, what I’d constructed was a one-woman show skeleton that became Anatomy of a Doll. I performed the show throughout New York City and then the country at conferences and in theaters. Even then, I didn’t identify myself as a writer. I thought of myself as a performer who just happened to use my writing as a script. When Veronica Golos (my friend, mentor and a gorgeous poet who’s won numerous awards) began taking an interest in my work and started editing it in a poetry workshop she led out of her house on the Upper West Side, I started to see myself in the context of being a poet and poetry as a vocation. I think the form of poetry works well to showcase the dissociation that comes with abuse much more than prose does. Veronica is still my editor, having worked on both Anatomy of a Doll and my book, Over Exposed.

But the biggest transition from actor to writer happened during my marriage to poet Matt Pasca. He’s always seen me as a writer and, before I even claimed that identity for myself, always pushed me to go deeper, to write more, to get better, to submit my work. Through our marriage I have grown as a writer and come to see myself as a poet.

 

MA: You write a lot about painful events and speak openly about them. Most people wouldn’t be able to do that. Where does this ability come from? What has been the reaction from friends and relatives about this openness?

TM: Many people have said they’ve seen me as courageous because I share the truth of my childhood sexual abuse, subsequent rapes, addiction and my recovery quite publicly. I have to acknowledge that this is the way it is perceived by other people. For me, however, it’s born out of necessity and so it’s never felt or seemed like courage. I have lived my life according to the 12-step saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” I know that what I keep inside me, what I feel shame about, what I try to hide, will destroy me from the inside. Giving a voice to my pain and shame and grief and mistakes gives me back my power, my joy and my life.

I’ve also grown to see that if I’m hiding the fact that I was sexually abused, I am sending myself and others the message that it was somehow my fault or that there’s something for me to be ashamed of. I’ve come to understand that what happened to me was not anything that I should be ashamed of. I was the victim so why should I be ashamed. I’ve also come to understand that the sexual abuse and the rape and the violence are a part of me but they are not the entirety of me.

Lastly, if I can help someone (with my story) to recover, let go of their shame, and move into survivorhood, then it is all more than worth it. As social worker and researcher Brene Brown states, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” I choose let go of secrecy and to douse my shame with empathy, and empathy for the world must begin with me.

Friends and relatives have been overwhelmingly supportive, although for some of them, it took a period of adjustment and listening that gave birth to deeper understanding. I surround myself with people who are willing to be empathetic, courageous, vulnerable, and honest with both me and themselves. I consider myself very lucky to have a wide circle of supportive people in my life.

write-to-save-someone_georgeave

MA: Are you very involved in a poetry community? Have you initiated any events? What advice do you have for readers who might be trying to do the same?

TM: I’m a licensed social worker and the macro version of social work is community organizing. The first rule of community organizing is to listen to the community. Too often, people come into a community with their own expectations and demands. They try to foist onto a community what they want to see the community have. If you’re really trying to build community, through the arts or otherwise, ask questions and be willing to hear the answers. The community might not want the same things you want for them but if community is your ultimate goal, you need to let its members be your guide. Too often in the poetry community, as in other communities, people set up an event that mirrors the kind of poetry THEY want but disregard what the community is really is looking for. Finding the right venue, format and publicity are integral to success.

My husband Matt Pasca and I run an event in Bay Shore, NY called  Second Saturdays at Cyrus which has featured poets and an open mic night at Cyrus Chai & Coffee Company. The event is successful, in part, to our long-held connections in the writing and poetry scenes on Long Island and New York City, which allows us to feature very talented poets of different backgrounds. Every day there’s a poetry event somewhere in NY but usually the poetry sounds like poetry of whoever’s running it and the poets performing look a lot like them. Second Saturdays is the opposite as it showcases both the diversity of NY community and their poetry. This is one reason it is almost always standing room only. My husband, Matt has 20 years’ worth of teaching in the high school here and a deep investment in the community, and we’ve used that to let the community be aware of this space as a safe place to come and share art, community and poetry.

I would recommend to anyone trying to build a community that it’s so important to have collaborators in any community venture. Without them, burnout is a real factor. You need to be able to share the workload, bounce ideas off of each other, and laugh together to elevate stress and keep it going!

 

MA: Do you have any books out? What is next for you? 

TM: I have two books out currently. Over Exposed is my memoir, told in both poetry and prose. Grabbing the Apple is an anthology of New York women poets that I coedited with M.J. Tenerelli. I work with a group you called the Poets of Well-being (made up of Susan Dingle, Maggie Bloomfield, Nina Yavel and I). We are all social worker-writers who are in long term recovery (we have over 100 years of sobriety between us). You can find the group on Facebook. As a group, we travel to conferences and venues to showcase how writing can be a therapeutic tool for helping others overcome addiction and abuse. We facilitated a workshop at AWP in Minnesota, at the Expressive Therapies Conference in NYC and were even invited to the 2016 NASW conference in DC. Next, I am deep into work on a new poetry manuscript with the working title “God’s Spine” which works to  showcase poems around the theme of finding beauty, recovery and spirituality within ourselves and in the beauty of connection with others.

“Shoalwater” by Anders Carlson Wee

shoalwater
“Shoalwater” by Pat Zalisko, 6′ x 10′, oil on canvas

Waves grind the shoreline and darken into pools.
Crabs shuffle sideways, lost in the washed-up eelgrass.
Seagulls spit littleneck clams to the rocks
and don’t even eat the shattered bodies.
They fly as high as the clouds and wrap talons
in the wind. But this kind of love isn’t rare.
When I dream about my brother he disappears
if I look. He wears a bird-bone bracelet,
but I only know this by feel. Even his hair
is something I imagine. His nose occurs solely
as contours. I walk down the beach
and throw stones at the oncoming waves.
This is the best we can do. We leak every time
we are opened. Out just beyond the waves,
love says the same of itself. We can only witness
the implication, only feel for the shape.
Love is a pigeon nestled beside a dead pigeon
at night in the wet corner of a warehouse.
Blackness and the texture of feathers.
The thud of a body surrounded by hollow.
Love is a clamshell’s first touch against rock,
whatever tenderness can be found in that contact
before the crack. It’s been years since I was last
out on the water. The night sky tightens
like that familiar mouth. Clouds hide their bulk
on the backsides of islands. Each wave is real
the way his body is real. Made of something
not itself. Something bigger. Call it water.
Call it wind. Call it tendon-flexing of the moon.
Each wave lifts as he lifts, crashes as he crashes.
Love exists in the way seagulls hold still
in the wind. The way crabs carry pieces of clam
through the moonlight and vanish sideways into sand.

 

 

Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Fellow and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Prize. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, AGNI, Poetry Daily, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Best New Poets, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Narrative Magazine, which featured him on its “30 Below 30” list of young writers to watch. Winner of Ninth Letter’s Poetry Award, Blue Mesa Review’s Poetry Prize, and New Delta Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize, he was runner-up for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His work is currently being translated into Chinese. He lives in Minneapolis, where he’s a 2016 McKnight Foundation Creative Writing Fellow.

“Shoalwater” first appeared in The New England Review.

 

Contributors Winter 2017

e-kristin-anderson
E. Kristin Anderson (Velvet, Velvet, Velvet, Knife) is co-editor of Dear Teen Me. Her next anthology, Hysteria: Writing the female body, is forthcoming from Sable Books. She is currently curating Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture for ELJ Publications and is the author of eight chapbooks including A Guide for the Practical Abductee (Red Bird Chapbooks), Pray Pray Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press), Fire in the Sky (Grey Book Press), She Witnesses (dancing girl press), and We’re Doing Witchcraft (Hermeneutic Chaos Press). She blogs at EKristinAnderson.com and tweets at @ek_anderson.

typewriter
Izaak Bacik (Black Ice) is a 22-year-old student pursuing degrees in sociology and creative writing at UNCA who predominantly focuses on poetry and short creative non-fiction pieces and essays centered around identities as autistic and transgender. This short essay deals with surviving coming off of drugs in order to begin gender transition.

anders-carlson-wee
Anders Carlson Wee (Shoalwater) is a 2015 NEA Fellow and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Prize. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, AGNI, Poetry Daily, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Best New Poets, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Narrative Magazine, which featured him on its “30 Below 30” list of young writers to watch. Winner of Ninth Letter’s Poetry Award, Blue Mesa Review’s Poetry Prize, and New Delta Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize, he was runner-up for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His work is currently being translated into Chinese. He lives in Minneapolis, where he’s a 2016 McKnight Foundation Creative Writing Fellow.

leticia-del-toro
Leticia Del Toro (Alive at Lampedusa) has had work appear in Huizache, Mutha Magazine, ZYZZYVA and Palabra magazine among others. Her honors and awards include a Hedgebrook Residency for Women Authoring Change, a fellowship from the New York State Summer Writers Institute, participation in the Voices of Our Nations Arts program, a 2015 finalist for the Maurice Fiction Prize for the collection “Café Colima” and attendance at Bread Loaf 2016 as a Rona Jaffe Scholar in fiction. She is a California teacher, arts activist and mother with roots in Jalisco, Mexico.

stephen-eoannoujpg
Stephen G. Eoannou‘s (Slattery’s Ghost) short story collection, Muscle Cars, was published in April 2015 by The Santa Fe Writers Project. Stories from this collection have appeared in Best Short Stories from the Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest (2013 & 2014), The MacGuffin, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. He has been honored with two Pushcart nominations and an Honor Certificate from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and an MA in English from Miami University. Eoannou has taught at Ball State University and The College of Charleston. He currently lives and writes in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.

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

terri-muuss
Terri Muuss (Write to Save Someone) has had poetry appear in numerous journals including Paterson Literary Review, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Apercus Quarterly, Atticus Review, Stirring, Long Island Quarterly, and Red River Review. She is the author of Over Exposed (JB Stillwater, 2013) and the one-woman show, Anatomy of a Doll. Anatomy of a Doll was named Best Theatre: Critics’ Pick of the Week by the New York Daily News and has been performed throughout the US and Canada since 1998. As a licensed social worker, Muuss specializes in the use of the arts as a healing mechanism for trauma survivors. She is married to writer Matt Pasca and her two ginger-haired boys, Rainer and Atticus were former Ellen Show Presidential Experts. www.terrimuuss.com

liz-prato
Liz Prato (Covered in Red Dirt) is the author of Baby’s On Fire: Stories (Press 53). Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Butter, and Subtropics. She is Editor-at-Large for Forest Avenue Press, and teaches at literary festivals across the country. Liz is currently working on an essay collection that examines her decades-long relationship with Hawai‘i, using the prism of White colonialism.

mary-lynn-reed
Mary Lynn Reed (FINE) has had work appear in Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, The MacGuffin, Whistling Shade, Jellyfish Review, and Smokelong Quarterly, among other places. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Maryland.

jeff-rose
Jeff Rose (Lighting Up) is a published short story writer and essayist and was the first humorist for the ITV television and F1 magazine partnership where he wrote a weekly column on one of his early loves, Formula One Grand Prix racing.


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

noa-sivan
Noa Sivan (Two Cats) was born and raised in Israel and is currently living in Granada, Spain. She is a graphic designer and a writer. Three of her pieces were published in 2005 in an anthology edited by award winning Israeli author Yitzhak Ben Ner. In 2013 Sivan published a digital book of micro stories called “Semantic Satiation,” that was translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan. In 2016 she started writing in English. Her stories were published on the Jellyfish review, Eleven Eleven and FRiGG. Sivan’s first story, “Plaza Trinidad,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

erica-bodwell
Erica Sofer Bodwell (Aubade in Which Grace Appears) is a poet who lives in Concord, New Hampshire. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Fat, Minerva Rising, White Stag, APIARY, The Fem, Coal Hill Review, PANK, HeART and other fine journals. Her chapbook, Up Liberty Street, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in February 2017.

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

 

“Write to Save Someone” by Terri Muuss

write-to-save-someone_georgeave
“Georgia Street” by Pat Zalisko, 48×48, Acrylic mixed media on canvas.

Say something about the blade, the shine under
the opalescent moon.

How when you moved it
like a see-saw back and forth in your fingers
it caught fire, sent a pearl of light to dance
on the ceiling above you.

Say something about how it mesmerized you

for a second
& made you forget
your plan.

Say something about having a plan.

Say something about how you cried
& felt nothing.
your breath—

how it stilled in your throat,
how you breathed
like a master yogi—

Say something about irony.

Talk about the razor between your two
still fingers, held like a lover’s
eyelash to blow away for a wish.

Say how you took it at first
& moved it above
your wrist, sawing
the air for practice.

Say how you let it kiss your skin—
how you let it whisper a salted ocean breeze,
how you began the dance of trajectory
though a vein you didn’t know had so much
ocean inside.

Tell how you began—
a creator—to birth
the wet, sticky foal
that is your heart.

 

 

Terri Muuss is a licensed social worker, writer, actor, director and motivational speaker. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals including Paterson Literary Review, Apercus Quarterly, Atticus Review, Stirring, Long Island Quarterly, and Red River Review, and five anthologies, and she has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes in poetry. She is the author of Over Exposed (JB Stillwater, 2013) and the one-woman show, Anatomy of a Doll. Anatomy of a Doll was named “Best Theatre: Critics’ Pick of the Week” by the New York Daily News and has been performed throughout the US and Canada since 1998. As a licensed social worker, Muuss specializes in the use of the arts as a healing mechanism for trauma survivors She is married to writer Matt Pasca and her two ginger-haired boys, Rainer and Atticus were former Ellen Show “Presidential Experts.” www.terrimuuss.com

Read an interview with Terri here.

“On Transmutation” by Haley Yelencich

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

This was our initiation.

~

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

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

But wait … you’re not paying attention.

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Neptune will be free to rule the seas.

~

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

~

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

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

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

~

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

 

 

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

 

Homepage Winter 2017

two-cats-11-16
All artwork appears courtesy of the artist Pat Zalisko.

Welcome to our January 2017 issue with the theme of “SPARK.” (Hmm, last January’s issue was FLAME–clearly I want to warm up the winter issues.) There is something about the onset of winter that I accept–and even embrace (at the start of the season at least)–but I don’t know that I have ever celebrated winter. Winter feels like a necessary part of the changing seasons (I’m an environmentalist after all, I get it.) but it feels more like something to hunker down and endure while waiting for the arrival of spring.

This marvelous issue, however, I do celebrate. I’m honored to be able to share the work of these fifteen talented authors and grateful to be allowed to present their fine work to you, our readers. And each piece of writing has the further good fortune of being paired with the outstanding artwork of Pat Zalisko–in many cases, work she created in direct response to reading the work it illustrates. This type of direct engagement is so rare and special. I think of it as an artistic cross-pollination of sorts–the two genres combining to make a third, beautiful-and-interactive artful object.

As always, this issue exists, thanks in no small part to my devoted editors and readers who make my job so much easier, and to the contributors who have trusted us to showcase their work. Also, thanks for the gorgeous artwork, Pat. You made each essay, story, flash, and poem pop just a little bit more.

Our April 2017 issue has a tentative theme of DISLOCATION and for July 2017, SPECULATION.

As always, thanks for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

“FINE” by Mary Lynn Reed

fine
“FINE 11-16” by Pat Zalisko, Acrylic on Canvas

You have so many things to rant about you can’t figure out where to begin so you decide to just jump in like this typing without stopping Just now you were thinking about acting Not acting like an actor but acting like a survivor That’s what survival is right it’s just acting Here I am standing on this ledge and I should jump I should really jump but then someone comes around the corner and says Hey, how ya doing, how was your weekend, and then you’re talking like everything is cool and you’re telling this guy about a movie you saw without mentioning that you wept through the whole thing clutching a beer and a tub of popcorn with the windows open listening to the pack of raccoons that lives in the woods behind your house the pack you have nightmares about sometimes the nightmares that usually involve burglary and danger and fear but Yeah that movie was great and the actress was amazing She should have won that Oscar she was really robbed You just don’t see great acting like that anymore and yeah thanks You have a good day too Hello Hi yeah it’s a beautiful day Yeah everything is just fine Yeah I can’t wait to get started on the next thing The next really important thing we all need to do Let’s get to work let’s get that thing done because that’s why we’re here This place is the best and we are all doing Just Fine.

 

 

Mary Lynn Reed’s fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, The MacGuffin, Whistling Shade, Jellyfish Review, and Smokelong Quarterly, among other places. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Maryland.

 

“Slattery’s Ghost” by Stephen G. Eoannou


“Slipping On Chippewa Street” by Pat Zalisko, 48″ x 88″, acrylic, mixed media on canvas

It was after midnight when they admitted my old man. He was in the hospital bed closest to the door. A curtain partitioned the room even though the window side was empty. They had raised the bed, propping my dad at an angle to make it easier for him to breathe. Oxygen tubes were tucked in his nostrils and every few minutes he’d touch them with his fingertips. His eyebrows would arch when he felt the plastic as if discovering the tubes for the first time. Outside, a relentless February wind howled.

“How far did we drive tonight in this weather, Johnny-Boy?” my Dad asked, his voice soft, tired.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other as I stood by his bed. Buffalo General was a mile-and-a-half ambulance ride from his house. “We didn’t drive anywhere, Pop. You’re in the hospital.”

He touched the oxygen tubes, raised his eyebrows. Surprised.

A monitor was clipped to his fingertip; sensors were taped to his chest. He couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and thirty pounds—a buck thirty he would have said—almost a featherweight. A screen mounted above his bed displayed his vitals—oxygen level, blood pressure, heart rate. All low numbers.

“How come you picked such a crappy hotel, Johnny-Boy? I got money.”

I smoothed his white hair into place. “We’re still in town, Pop. You’re in Buffalo General.”

Finger tips. Oxygen tubes. Eyebrows.

The hospital gown hung loose on him. The broad shoulders were gone, his thick chest a memory. His skin was almost translucent, the back of his hand already bruising where they had inserted the IV port. It was hard to believe this was the same man who had once thrown Jimmy Slattery, the former lightweight champion of the world, Buffalo’s greatest boxer, out of his restaurant. He had bum-rushed him by his collar and belt, tossing him out on Genesee Street, and watched him belly slide across the icy sidewalk to the curb. Slattery’s drinking buddies, other once-dangerous men with flattened noses and cauliflower ears, had yelled at my old man, saying he can’t treat the champ that way, that he should show him more respect. My old man had yelled back in Greek, cursing them and their Irish mothers, and went back to his grill. This was after the war when my old man was hard and lean from marching across Europe with Patton and Slattery was a drunk, his fighting days long gone, just another bum who bothered waitresses late at night.

It was one of my father’s favorite stories to tell back when he still told stories. If there were others listening around his age—my uncles, my mother, all gone now—they would add their own Jimmy Slattery story: how he had danced on his toes and fought with his hands down decades before anyone had heard of Cassius Clay; how he would have filled out and taken Dempsey’s heavyweight crown if it wasn’t for the bottle; how handsome he was with his dark hair and crooked Irish smile.

A nurse came in then. She was pretty with caramel skin that contrasted with her light blue scrubs. Her dark eyes were tired from a long shift but still flashed when she smiled and asked my father how he was feeling. She had a sweet face with soft features and deep dimples, the kind of face you wanted to see while propped in a hospital bed, while propped in any bed.

“What’s the maid doing in our room so late at night, Johnny-Boy?” my Dad asked. “I didn’t call her.”

“Pop,” I said, hushing him, and then apologized to the nurse.

“That’s all right,” she said, her lips pressing into something like a smile. The light in her eyes faded, the dimples disappeared. “Everybody’s tired. You should go home before the weather gets worse. Get some rest. Let him sleep.”

I nodded. I had calls to make in the morning: to the priest; to my sisters spread across the east coast, telling them to come home despite the storm; to Debbie, my ex-wife, living a thousand miles away on the other side of town.

“I got to go, Pop. I’ll see you in the morning.” I bent to kiss his head.

“You get your own room?” he asked. “You next door?”

I looked down into his eyes, pink rimmed and watery, a new vacancy seeping into the irises. I kissed his head again. “Yeah, Pop. Right next door.”

I didn’t go home.

I found myself skidding down Chippewa Street, the roads icing from sleet. I slowed to a creep as I passed the bars: Bada Bing, Bacchus, Bottoms Up, their neon calling me. Seven hundred and eighty-six days had passed since I last had a drink, the same number of days since Debbie had left me, as if sobriety would show her I had become a changed man, a better man, someone worth returning to. My tongue rolled thick and heavy in my mouth. I took my hand off the wheel and curled my fingers as if a lowball glass was already snug in my grip, smooth and cold against my palm. I could almost hear the ice cubes rattle.

I needed to call my sponsor.

I pulled to the curb in front of where the House O’Quinn, Slattery’s favorite bar, had once stood. Katie, the last bartender there before it was sold and gutted and transformed into a trendy Italian bistro, had told me about Slattery’s ghost—how the cleaning crew and day manager had all claimed catching a glimpse of the prizefighter hunched at the end of the bar only to have him disappear when they turned to look dead-on. Or how customers who sat on his old stool would complain of an icy chill and ask her to turn down the air conditioning. She told me other stories, too, ones she heard from cops and cab drivers and early-morning deliverymen, all swearing they saw Slattery’s ghost staggering down Chippewa Street with his arms outstretched like an aerialist trying to keep balance.

I didn’t call my sponsor.

I called Debbie and listened to her recorded message assuring me she was sorry she’d missed my call, that my call was important to her, that I should leave a message at the tone. I hung up and wondered if she didn’t answer because someone was lying next to her or if she was just long past taking middle-of-the-night calls from me. As I slipped the phone into my pocket and swung from the car, my breath fogging the frigid air, I made promises: I’d only have three drinks, only beer, I would not call Debbie again.

I went inside and ordered Scotch.

The new owners had kept the old oak bar with the brass foot rail that ran along the east wall. That may have been the only thing that Slattery would have recognized if he still haunted the building. Pine floors had been ripped out and replaced with laminate that looked like wood. The natural wainscoting and doorframes had been painted over with a black matte to match the new high-back bar stools. Light fixtures of the same dull color had replaced the original brass ones and were suspended from the faux tin ceiling. Tables in the darkened dining room were covered with white tablecloths; a vase centered on each held a single red rose. I wondered if patrons still felt a chill when they sat at the far end facing the entrance or if that had ended when Slattery’s barstool was hauled away with the heart pine floor and everything else they had torn from the place.

“The kitchen’s closed,” the bartender said, setting the Scotch on a cocktail napkin in front of me. He was short and stocky with mean, narrow eyes and didn’t look like he smiled much.

I nodded.

“And this is last call.” He said it like a threat as if he was looking forward to throwing me out by my collar and belt and locking the door behind me. There was no one else in the place. “Drink up.”

I nodded again, certain other bars on Chippewa closed later.

A flat-screen TV was mounted between two tiered shelves lined with bottles behind the bar, the shelving painted the same dismal matte. A basketball game from the west coast flickered without sound and I imagined squeaking sneakers and the leather-against-wood dribbling ball. I looked everywhere—at the bottles, the ball game, out the front window onto frozen Chippewa Street—everywhere but at the glass in front of me. The Scotch remained untouched but I could feel the rim touching my lips, the whiskey’s first bite, the heat in my throat, then my belly, then spreading through me, melting everything. If I take that drink, my eyes will close and when they reopen the world will have reverted to the way it had been seven hundred and eighty-seven days ago. Time travel, I thought.

Magic.

A man about my age, maybe older, entered the bar and cold air rushed in with him before he shut the door. The temperature must have dropped as the sleet had turned to snow. His cheeks were pink from the wind and dark circles bagged under his eyes. He pulled off his wool watch cap and his static hair stood at angles. I turned back to the bottles, to the ballgame, to the shelves.

“Last call,” the bartender snapped, angry, I guess, that another customer had wandered in when he wanted to cash out for the night. “We’re closing soon.”

The man stomped snow from his boots and headed to the end of the bar without answering. He must have lost his balance when he passed because he bumped my shoulder and muttered an apology; I would have spilled my drink if I had been holding it, the amber staining my jacket cuff, a waste of precious drops. He, too, ordered Scotch.

I felt the man staring at me, studying me, but I didn’t turn. The last thing I wanted was to talk. Then the phone was in my hand and I pressed redial and heard Debbie’s voice thanking me again for my call.

“Slipping?” the man at the end of the bar asked.

Now I had to turn. “What?” I set the phone next to my glass, wondering which I’d pick up next.

“You slipping?” he asked again.

“I don’t know what you mean, friend.”

He didn’t wait after the bartender slid his drink to him; he picked up his glass and drained half in a single gulp. I swallowed hard watching him, my Scotch still filled to the brim in front of me. I felt so tired then, as if weariness, thick and heavy, was sludging through every vein. I tried to remember the last time I had slept. My old man, so unsteady on his feet and confused, had been getting up every hour to use the bathroom, and I’d gotten up with him to hold him upright, to make sure he got back to bed without falling, to change him and mop the floor tile if he didn’t make it in time. This had gone on for weeks. My eyes burned as if all the moisture had been seared off days ago.

“I know you,” the man at the end of the bar said, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. One eye squinted as if steadying me into focus. “I know you.”

“Oh, yeah?” I said, and it was my turn to study him. His cheeks and nose weren’t reddened from the weather. Broken blood vessels mapped across his face. The lowball glass shook in his hand as he set it down. “From where?”

“Saint John’s Grace,” he said, nodding, certain. “From the meetings in the basement.”

I didn’t recognize him, but I hadn’t been to a meeting since my old man had started to fail. Maybe he did look familiar, one of those guys who stood in front of the old church on Lafayette Avenue smoking cigarettes and drinking thin, Episcopalian coffee during breaks. I don’t remember him getting up and telling his story: how he had awakened parked on railroad tracks, or in a different city, or in the back of a police cruiser covered in blood. Or hearing of his broken marriages, or broken children, or lost jobs, the same sad stories we all told. No memories surfaced of him confessing to the lies he had whispered to himself or others, or the violence he inflicted on those he said he loved. Still, he may have been one of the guys in front of Saint John’s Grace, hunched to the wind, talking about anything—football, movies, the weather—anything except how much he wanted a goddamn drink.

You slipping?” I asked.

“No,” he snorted, and lifted his glass in a wretched toast. “Way past that, brother.”

He finished his drink and his body shuddered as if a door somewhere behind him had opened letting in the icy wind. I reached out, my hand hovering above my glass ready to snatch it but grabbed my phone instead and checked for missed calls, certain I had shut off the ringer at the hospital. The phone was on, the volume set to maximum. There were no messages. I set the phone down, the screen facing me, just in case.

The man tapped his empty glass against the bar to get the bartender’s attention. “Another,” he said.

“I already called it,” the bartender answered, his voice sharp. “That was the last one.”

The man tapped his glass louder. “Another.”

“Look,” the bartender said, his voice rising as he walked towards him. His face and slit-narrow eyes darkened. “I told you it was last call when you came in. Last call means last call. If you’re done, leave.”

Bastard.

The man showed him his empty glass as if it was piece of crucial, convincing evidence. “Another.”

The bastard reached under the bar and pulled out an old wooden billy club, something I hadn’t seen since my old man had sold his restaurant. He, too, had kept one under the counter for late-night customers who wouldn’t listen. The nightstick even looked like my Dad’s with the same ribbed handle and brown leather strap. The new owners must have found it under the bar and kept it. It’d probably been hanging there since Slattery spent his days at the House O’Quinn drinking to forget all he had lost and what little remained for him to lose.

The bartender slapped the baton against his palm—wood against skin, wood against bone. “Get out.”

“I just want another drink,” the man said. “This is a bar, isn’t it?”

“I said get out. I’m not telling you again.”

“Get me a drink. It’s your job.”

The bartender smashed the billy club against the oak-top, the sound cracking across the empty restaurant as if it had come down across skull. The man jerked backwards almost tipping his stool.

“Hey.” I grabbed my Scotch and slid to my feet. “It’s all right. He can have mine. I don’t need it.” A memory flashed of me as a teenager and my old man lecturing me on the difference between a want and a need. I set the drink next to the man’s empty glass. “Everything’s fine.”

The bartender pointed the nightstick at the man. “Finish it and get out.” He aimed the billy at me. “You, too.”

I raised my hands showing him my empty palms, surrendering, proving there was nothing up my sleeves.

“You’re a good man,” the drunk said, and reached for my drink. Debbie would have differed.

I pulled some crumpled bills from my pocket to pay for the round and a white chip fell to the floor. My sobriety chip, the Desire coin, the one they give you for being sober for that first awful twenty-four hours. I bent to pick it up before it rolled away. I had other chips at home—silver, red, blue—thirty days, ninety, a year, but I only carried the white one with me.

The bartender stood across the bar from us, the billy club in his fist, waiting for the man to finish the Scotch. I zipped my jacket; the prick must have already turned down the thermostat for the night. I watched the man down the drink, glad I had given it to him, wishing I hadn’t, my guilt increasing every time he swallowed. The bartender snatched the empty glass as soon as the man set it back on the cocktail napkin and pointed to the door with the nightstick.

“Get out,” he said.

The man grabbed my arm and steadied himself as he slid off the barstool. He wavered a moment and took a deep breath before releasing my sleeve. I didn’t say anything to the bartender when I left—there was nothing to say—and only slowed to scoop my phone from the bar; I hadn’t missed any calls.

Outside the wind drove the snow at a slant into our faces, my cheeks pelted by tiny bits of ice. I turned from the wind. Chippewa was already covered in white—the sidewalks, the icy street, the parked cars—giving the false impression of purity, of cleansing, of grace. I shoved my hands in my pants pockets, the chip, the same color as the snow, tight in my grip.

“I’m going to Bacchus,” the man said, slurring a bit, and nodded across the street to the cream terra cotta building that probably hadn’t changed much since Slattery had haunted Chippewa and the bar there had been called The Calumet Club. “You coming?”

“No,” I said, squeezing the chip in my pocket so tightly I’m sure it left an impression. “Early day tomorrow.”

The man nodded, turned and stepped into the street just as a car was turning left onto Chippewa from Franklin. The driver, startled that the man had stepped from the curb, slammed his brakes but the ice beneath the snow stole the tires’ grip and he skidded toward the man. I grabbed the man by the collar and jerked him back to the sidewalk as the driver fishtailed passed. It happened so fast. I saw it in slow motion.

The man turned to me breathless and smiled showing no teeth, no light in his eyes. “You saved me,” he said, then crossed the street without looking either way again.

I hadn’t saved anything—not him, not my father, not my marriage. I gripped my white chip and headed to my car.

The next morning, I called the priest and my sisters; Debbie still wasn’t answering. I brushed snow off my car and chiseled ice from the windshield. At the hospital, I signed forms—Medicare, HIPAA, Do Not Resuscitate. A different nurse, ginger-haired and freckled, maybe a year out of nursing school, told me they would soon be moving a new patient into the window-side bed. It didn’t matter. I had spoken to the doctor. They were transferring my father to the Hospice floor that morning.

I opened the curtain that partitioned the two sides and let sunlight flood the entire room, hoping it would warm my old man. I moved to the window still holding the white Styrofoam cup of thin, now cold coffee and looked down on the city. Brilliant sunshine reflected off snow-covered roofs, the sky a cloudless blue backdrop, the storm having moved off to the east. From twelve floors up I could follow Delaware Avenue past Chippewa, past Lafayette Avenue and Saint John’s Grace, and guess which was my father’s street, but I was facing the wrong direction and Debbie’s new neighborhood, new life, was far from view.

Movement flashed from the corner of my eye and I turned toward the hospital bed. My father, eyes still closed and somewhere beyond sleep, had stretched his arms to his sides like airplane wings as if he was about to take flight and was waiting for the wind to lift him. Or maybe he was dreaming of the old days, of his restaurant, of The Calumet Club and The House O’ Quinn, of Slattery’s ghost weaving down Chippewa Street like a drunken aerialist, reminding us in his own way to keep our balance, to steady ourselves, to try not to fall.

 

 

Stephen G. Eoannou is the author of Muscle Cars, a short story collection published by The Santa Fe Writers Project. Stories have appeared in Best Short Stories from the Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest (2013 & 2014), The MacGuffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and have been honored with two Pushcart nominations. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and an MA in English from Miami University. He currently lives in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.

Read an interview with Stephen here.

 

“Covered in Red Dirt” by Liz Prato


“Tomoka Trail” by Pat Zalisko, 24×24, acrylic, mixed media on canvas

Kimo and I stretched out long in my bed. I ran my finger over his arm wrapped around my waist. I traced the edges of the blotches on his skin, milky white patches blossoming against brown. “It’s what Michael Jackson said he had,” Kimo said when Kayla asked him what was up with his skin. I’d hushed her: That’s rude. But Kimo, he didn’t mind. “It’s just the way I am.” People call him Hapa Kimo. Hapa is what locals call folks who are half Caucasian and half something else. Half haole, half Japanese. Half haole, half Samoan. Kimo’s mom was haole, his dad Filipino. “Guess my skin wanted to keep Mom close by,” he said.

Kimo came by every Tuesday. It was the day he delivered bottled water to the Lawa‘i Valley. I once asked him if he had a woman for every day of the week, for every part of Kaua‘i. He laughed. “You’re crazy. You think they knockin’ down doors to get to Kimo?” I wasn’t sure what that said about me, or him. He also taught surf lessons and did handyman work. That’s how it is here: you have to work three jobs to get by. I only worked one, giving massages at a hotel spa, because John was paying enough child support for me and Kayla.

“Almost Kayla time,” Kimo said. I slid out from under his arm. We were always sure to make the bed back up by the time Kayla was home from school. Most days, my daughter came home covered in the island’s red dirt. It was on her ankles or her elbows, sometimes on her knees. When it got into her shorts and shirts, there was no cleaning it out. Kayla used to wear white, when we lived on the mainland. She had white dresses and frilly white tops; little white Capri pants and even white sandals. But since we moved to Kaua‘i last year there was no point. The island made its mark on everyone and everything.

Kimo and I sat on the porch, not saying much, just listening to the way the trade winds swished the palms, when Kayla came walking up the road in her shorts and T-shirt and flip-flops. Slippers, Mom, she always reminded me. That’s what they call them here.

“Howzit?” she said, plopping her backpack on the porch.

“Hey, little wahine,” Kimo said. “You ready to hit some waves?”

“I need a snack,” she said and headed inside.

“Little grind!” he called after her. “No want your stomach too full.”

I waited until Kayla was in the kitchen, away from us. “I’d like it if you didn’t talk Pidgin with her,” I said.

“That’s how people talk round here, Dorrie,” Kimo said, just looking out at the breeze, making me believe it was possible to see a breeze. “You been here long enough to know.”

Nine months. At first it didn’t take me long to slip into the island ways, the slow talk and the slow walking, slang that seemed easier than saying the real words. But after John left us, my attitude went back the other way.

“How about when she needs to get into college?” I asked. Or how about if we’re not forever stuck on this island? Someday we might just get back to the mainland, and kids would tease her.

“She’s twelve,” Kimo said. “Plenty of time till college.”

Kayla came back with a fruit roll-up in one hand, her surfboard tucked under the other arm. “Let’s rip,” she said. “You coming, Mom?”

“You bet.” There was no work that afternoon, no tourists wanting me to rub their muscles with coconut-scented oil. The three of us squeezed in the front seat of Kimo’s rusted pick-up and drove down the curving road to Po‘ipu.

~

When John and I moved to Kaua‘i we bought a small house in Kalaheo, in a valley away from Po‘ipu’s tourists and desert landscape. Kalaheo is carved out of jungle, blanketed by bamboo and monkeypod trees and philodendrons with leaves like giant flat fingers. On Po‘ipu’s south side, it’s just dry red dirt and cactus. It’s barren like the surface of Mars, except where a mainland developer came in and planted palm trees and thick-blade grass. Orchids, plumeria, yellow hibiscus. If you went the other direction from our house, you’d be in Waimea canyon, deep walls carved away by the river’s erosion. If you want something different on Kaua‘i, you don’t have to go far. John went North, to Leilani’s house. It’s rainier there, but greener, too.

Kimo and Kayla took to their boards, paddling out to waves. I sat on the beach with the tourists lazing in the sun. They bring that fake coconut smell with them, painting them slick and brown. When I was fifteen, sixteen, I’d sit in my backyard coated in baby oil, trying for a Valley Girl tan. I thought the burn would wear off into luscious brown. It never really happened that way, but I kept on burning my flesh anyway.

Kimo paddled ahead of Kayla, sometimes looking back for her. Little waves rolled towards them, and Kimo and Kayla slipped over the tops. Like riding a bucking bronco, but gentle. Sometimes a bigger wave came, but too close to the shore, so they grasped the front of their boards and dove under. “Always better to go under or over a wave than through it,” Kimo would say.

John didn’t want Kayla surfing, still wouldn’t want her surfing if he knew she surfed. “It’s too dangerous for a young girl,” he said. Kayla had been trying to wear him down since before we moved, since we were on the plane. She kept talking about a girl from Kaua‘i who lost her arm in a shark attack. “She started surfing again only one month after the shark bit her arm off,” Kayla said. “And she’s a professional now.” The argument did little to sway John, and who could blame him? But for every surfer who gets mauled in a shark attack there are hundreds of thousands who never do. John would never see it that way, but after he left us for Leilani, I figured how he saw things wasn’t the only way.

Kayla and Kimo were so far out that I couldn’t hear them, they couldn’t see me. Not that they were looking for me. I wondered why Kimo never had any kids of his own. Then again, I didn’t know that he didn’t. I didn’t even know if Kimo had ever been married. Hell, I didn’t know what he was doing with me, some uptight, middle-aged haole.

Kimo waved a windmill through the air at Kayla. Take this one. She paddled to catch the lip of the wave. Then she was up on her feet. Sometimes I imagined her on that board when I did Warrior Two in yoga. I’d imagine the salty spray around my face, a roar so loud I couldn’t hear. No mirrored walls in front of me, no click-click-click of the overhead fan, no rubber mat sticking me to the ground.

Her first few seconds upright were a fight between Kayla and the wave: who would ride who. She gave a good knee bend, and won that battle. The wave pulled her along, like she was tethered to the other end.

Whatever tension had been keeping Kayla upright was severed, and the water tunnel crashed down. I shielded my hands over my eyes, afternoon sun grimacing back at me. Kimo paddled toward where Kayla had gone down. Her yellow board popped up, and then her head. The ocean spit her right back out. Kimo held out his hand and pulled her on her board. The two paddled back out again. They went to fight another battle against the sea.

~

John had Kayla every other weekend, more if he wanted. There was no official custody agreement. That could have never happened on the mainland. John would have had one of the partners at his firm draw up reams of paperwork. Everything would have been official, from the separation to the division of assets to the final divorce. But after we moved to the islands, John lost that drive. Killer instinct, he used to call it.

Every Friday John drove clockwise around the island to pick up Kayla from my house. On Sundays, I drove counter-clockwise to retrieve her. His way was worse, getting choked in Friday rush hour in Lihu‘e. Nothing like L.A., of course. This traffic was just one long lane going one way, one long lane going another. When I drove up on Sunday, the worst of the traffic wasn’t in Lihu‘e, but up North. Tourists heading for Hanalei beaches and the Na Pali Coast. Pulling their cars aside to snap pictures of rainbows.

Leilani’s house was inland, surrounded by mango trees. “We eat a lot of mangos when I’m there,” Kayla told me. “Like, all the time. It drives me crazy.” I knew she just said this for me. Leilani’s three mangy dogs barked and followed my car up the long driveway to her house. Wagging tails, ears forward. No teeth bared.

“Are you early?” John was on the porch, wearing a shirt bursting with orange plumeria.

I looked at my watch. “Not really.”

“Kay, your mom’s here!” John yelled into the house. “Get your stuff together.”

“Yeah, coming!” my daughter yelled back.

John stood against the porch railing, looking out at the mangos like I wasn’t on the top step, my arms folded across my chest. “You want some tea?” he said. “Or juice? Hey, Leilani!” he called behind him. “What kind of juice do we have?”

“Why you yelling?” Leilani stepped through the front door wearing peach-colored scrubs. I couldn’t tell if she was coming from the hospital or going. “Hi, Dorrie.”

She wasn’t pretty like the word Leilani makes you think, long and thin, on an exotic postcard. But she wasn’t some big Samoan either, a formidable force of womanliness. She was an average woman. Except she was more.

“Bring some juice out,” John said. “We can sit, talk story.” It—talk story—sounded stupid coming out of John’s mouth. It’s what everyone said around here, Kimo all the time, Kayla, and even me, but from John it sounded like trying to force a round peg into a square hole.

“I’m not thirsty,” I said.

“Maybe some cookies, then?” John said.

“John, come inside,” Leilani said. He followed her in.

All the windows in Leilani’s wood house were open to capture whatever breeze made it that far inland. It also pushed out John and Leilani’s voices.

“What are you doing, trying to get us to all sit and grind?” she asked.

“There’s no reason we can’t be friendly,” John said.

“You left her for another woman,” Leilani said. “She doesn’t want to be your friend.”

“She’ll get over that,” John said. “She’ll move on.”

He didn’t know about me and Kimo. I didn’t want him to think I’d moved on.

“John, just let her be,” Leilani said. “Show her respect.”

It made me want to say, “Yeah, I’ll have some mango juice,” to sit on Leilani’s porch and eat coco-mac cookies, just to prove her wrong, because it pissed me off that she was right. But Kayla skipped through the front door, carrying her backpack and duffle bag. “Okay, Mom,” she said. “Let’s go.”

There was hardly any traffic on our side as we drove clockwise again. I’d gotten hungry, standing on that porch, so we stopped at a roadside stand in Anahola for burgers and shakes. We ate at a round picnic table with tourists. Two wild chickens and a rooster wandered around our perimeter, waiting for us to drop a piece of meat. The island was overrun with feral roosters, crowing day and night. We watched the birds scratch and scrape, waiting for their prey.

~

Next Tuesday, when we were still lying in bed, Kimo said, “Let’s you and me get some dinner on Saturday. While Kayla’s with her dad.”

“Why?” I asked. Kimo and I had never been outside of the house together, not unless we were at the beach with Kayla, getting shave ice, eating Puka Dogs.

Kimo pulled himself on top of me and kissed my lips. “If you’re this pretty in the daylight, you must be a goddess at night.”

There wasn’t much more to say, really.

~

We ate at a Chinese barbeque joint in Lihu‘e, but didn’t eat barbeque. There were too many places to get island barbeque, so we shared shrimp with choi sum and sizzling scallops with black bean sauce. Fried coconut ice cream for dessert. The place was full of brown-skinned locals, a few haole, like me, and some tourists brave enough to go off the beaten path. I kept thinking that most of those locals were technically hapa, but none of them looked hapa like Kimo. His brown and white skin, the way he didn’t care much about it, made him seem royal. Maybe Kimo was right, maybe there was something about seeing each other in nightlight that made us divine.

We went back to Kimo’s place, a house he shared with two other guys. One was tending bar, the other waiting tables. The living room furniture was worn wicker, dusty walls covered by tapestries of whales and sea turtles. The air smelled like old apple cider vinegar.

“It’s how locals live,” Kimo said, even though I’d said nothing. I got the feeling that he could read my thoughts. That maybe he had some sort of island mojo.

His bedroom was small, but immaculate. No clothes on the floor, no clutter on his nightstand. The bed made with crisp-looking sheets. His mattress sat on a bed frame of carved koa wood.

“It was my tutu’s,” he said, as I ran my hand over the reddish-brown wood. “She gave it to my dad, and my dad gave it to me.”

My grandmother gave me a brooch, once. It was gold-plated, shaped like a snowflake, mindlessly picked out of her jewelry box. Here, she’d said, you can have this. I lost it in the backseat of some guy’s car years ago.

Kimo’s bed was bigger than a back seat. We stretched out and up, laid flat and round. We bathed in the scent of plumeria and sex. We were royalty.

~

Next Tuesday I worked at the spa. Another massage therapist called in sick and I had to cover her shift. I don’t know if anyone really got sick—more likely someone was heading to big waves on the north shore. “Cough, cough,” they’d spew into the phone. “I have a sore throat.” It meant I wouldn’t see Kimo, but he was going to drop by the house and pick up Kayla for surfing anyway.

I gave massages to three couples that day, folks who just got married or wanted to pretend like they just did. Olina and I worked together, standing side by side in a thatched hale. Her hands glided over one client, mine over the other. We worked separate, but moved together. The rain beat outside.

Olina and I were standing outside the hale, waiting for the couple to put on their long terry robes. Rain smacked the tops of broad leaf plants, then slid into the garden. There was water from the waterfalls, water from the sky. When it rained like this, it was easy to believe the island would just return to the ocean.

“So, I hear you were out with Hapa Kimo the other night,” Olina said.

“Where did you hear that?”

She waved a hand. “Oh, you know how people talk. Nothin’ better to do.”

“We had scallops,” I said.

“Just scallops, yeah?” she poked me in the ribs. If Olina knew that Kimo and I had Chinese BBQ in Lihu‘e, then could the news travel to John? Sure, it was an island of fifty-thousand people, but only fifty miles of road between us. Maybe there was some math, some physics, some law that made information travel faster. Then John would think it was okay, dragging me and Kayla all the way across the ocean, only to leave us amid giant leaves for mango trees.

“Hey, Dorrie?” It was the receptionist who stood behind the spa’s front desk looking impossibly pretty. “Phone call for you. Says it’s an emergency. About your daughter.”

All the smells and sounds of the island shut down. I could have been on the surface of Mars, ice cold and airless.

~

Kayla was at Mahelona Memorial Hospital in Kapa‘a. She got hit by a big wave, and then another, and she couldn’t grab her board. The waves kept coming, and one finally threw her into the rocks. Ancient lava, black and jagged, tearing into my baby girl’s skull. She was bleeding in the brain, needed surgery to stop it. I signed the papers, called John. Waited for him to show.

I sat next to Kimo in the waiting room. His hair was still wet. “Why is she here?” I asked.

He put his hand on top of mine, but I refused to give him a hand. Just a fist, so his hand was more like a piece of paper in rock, paper, scissors. “I know. It’s hard to understand.”

“No,” I said, pulling my fist away from him. “Why the fuck is she here? On this part of the island? Why were you surfing up North?”

“She wanted to surf where Bethany surfed,” he said.

“You mean where Bethany got her arm bitten off by a shark?”

“That’s not what happened,” Kimo said gently.

“I know what happened.” I stood. “You took my daughter someplace dangerous. You let her do something that could kill her.”

“Dorrie . . . .” Kimo reached up, pulled my hand. “She’s going to be fine. She’ll be fine.”

Kimo didn’t know if Kayla would be fine. I didn’t know it, John didn’t know it, and Leilani didn’t know it either. Even if Kayla was fine, John would be pissed. Pissed enough to take Kayla away from me.

Leilani walked around the corner, just wearing shorts and a T-shirt, like it was any old day. “John’s on his way,” she said. “Had his phone turned off. Just got the message.”

“Have you checked on Kayla yet?” I asked. “How is she?”

“The surgery’s coming along,” Leilani said. “Right now she’s okay.” Then Leilani turned to Kimo. “You have that looked at yet?”

“No time,” Kimo said and touched his head. I didn’t see them before, the scrapes and scratches on his forehead and his arm. Red bleeding into the borders of his brown and the white.

She said something in Tagalog, and he said something back that I couldn’t understand. She stood at Kimo’s side, peeked closely at his skull.

Kimo put Kayla in the ocean, and Kimo pulled her out. But it didn’t feel like a zero-sum game. Especially since I knew John could turn back to his killer-instinct ways. If he took Kayla away, I’d have no reason to stay. But I still couldn’t go back to the mainland, where plants were small and turned brown and dry. I’d stay here, alone, just for those two weekends a month when I could drive counter-clockwise for my daughter. I’d be stuck with half of me on one side of the island, half of me on the other.

The elevator bell dinged down the hall. I waited for a doctor or a nurse to deliver the news. I waited for a priest to take my hands. I waited for John to be harried and irate. I waited for John to punch out Kimo. I waited for John to take Kayla away. I waited to be expelled from this uncertain paradise. I waited for my daughter, dressed in bright white.

 

 

Liz Prato is the author of Baby’s On Fire: Stories (Press 53) from which this story is reprinted. Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Butter, and Subtropics. She is Editor-at-Large for Forest Avenue Press, and teaches at literary festivals across the country. Liz is currently working on an essay collection that examines her decades-long relationship with Hawai‘i, using the prism of White colonialism.

 

“Shoveling Snow” by Cate Hennessey

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

I.

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

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

This is not winter. It is despair.

 

II.

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

 

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At some black hour, it began to snow.

 

IV.

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

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

 

V.

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

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

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

Only the crisp certainty of work exists in the whiteness.

 

VI.

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

 

VII.

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

 

VIII.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

IX.

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

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

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

 

X.

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

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

 

 

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

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