Sea Foam

Sea Foam

Hayden Moore

 

‘Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep’

(William Shakespeare: Henry VI part II)

It was a place where the sea met the rocks and the rocks melted into the sea. In the shade of a twisted palm tree hosting thousands of glistening blackberries at its base, the girl watched as the translucent moon in a sky of mineral blue pulled the tide further up her legs. On the rocks beside her, a dead sea catfish stirred in the rising waters, its sun-hardened whiskers giving the eyeless body the look of petrified hope. A single crab prodded at the corpse with the patience of a matador past his prime. Dried bits of flesh were poked and prodded from the body of the fish. The girl knew the sea would take care of the rest. 

Galatea rubbed her left eye and winced. Over the years, she had been stung plenty of times. But this time, the walk through the swamp on her way to the jetty came at the cost of half of her vision for the day. The wasp that stung her eyelid was either smarter than the rest or just plain lucky. Galatea looked out to sea and watched the wind cast its sparkles onto the water. She reminded herself that beneath the surface an eternal battle was raging. From whale to minnow, everything was in a constant state of alarm. She knew there was no point in looking towards town. It was the same there, too. The only difference was the medium. But here, in the gray existence between water and air, Galatea felt like she was halfway home.

Dark clumps of seaweed drifted with the current and Galatea closed her good eye. The hirsute image of her father drifted across her mind. All those promises of riches and happiness, all the drunken blame on her mother and herself for the failure of the family Wool-works. It took three generations to build the family business, her great-grandfather nothing but a dirt poor sheep herder much further inland. But it only took a little more than a decade for her father, that monster of a man both in form and action, to ruin it. Fire took care of the rest. There was no reason to bury her mother, she was turned to ashes along with her father whose body was full of fuel in the form of cheap whiskey.

When the sea had reached her knees, Galatea was still deep in reflection with only a sliver of the seascape coming through her swollen eyelid. Then something soft struck her bare back. Again and again, she was struck with something that felt far better than some kind of malicious aerial assault. She looked up into the palm tree and saw nothing but the alternate fronds swaying in the breeze. When she turned back, she saw a few bruised golden grapes on the rocks. The grapes looked exotic, juxtaposed to the countless blackberries that stained the rocks they rested on with a deep purple. She had never tasted golden grapes, just green ones. Galatea picked up one of the grapes, took a deep breath and tossed it into her mouth. A smooth sweetness tinged with just a bit of acid made her tongue swell and her mouth water. When she swallowed, she saw her.

“I know, I know. It’s delicious isn’t it? I wasn’t sure if you’d eat it. Probably thought it just fell out of the sky from nowhere. But everything comes from someone,” the girl’s voice laughed from the palm tree.

“I can’t see you,” Galatea called out, shielding her good eye with her hand.

“You will. It just has to reach your eyes. Sorry. Your eye. Didn’t think I’d come across a cyclops today.”

“I’m not—“

“The name’s Acis.”

“I’m Galatea.”

“Well, what a pair we make. Hey, look!”

“Where?” Galatea shouted, looking around.

“At me.”

  If the sunlight dreamed of being a shadow in the form of a person, it would be who was climbing down the palm. Galatea put her hands into the rising waters to feel some kind of comfort as she watched. When the glistening shadow reached the rocks, texture and detail began to fill out the light. With every step, the form was walking towards personhood. By the time Acis reached Galatea, she was smiling, and in every particle a girl Galatea’s age in appearance. The dark-haired girl laughed as she sat next to Galatea.

“The last person ran away when I tried this,” Acis smiled.

“What are you?” Galatea asked.

“What are you?”

“I don’t know—“

“Me either. I’m just thrilled you can actually see me. Most people don’t get past a voice without a body.”

“But here you are,” Galatea muttered, not daring to make eye-contact.

“Here I am.”

“Well, I don’t like seeing most people and most people don’t take any mind to see me. So I guess we’re kind of even.”

“That makes us almost even. The water feels so good. It always does.”

It was then that Galatea noticed Acis’ legs in the water. Where the sea met her knees, the lower part of her legs were gone. Between the rolling wavelets, when the water had a moment of calm, there was nothing beneath the surface but the green water. A ring of sea-foam marked where Acis’ body gave way to water. Galatea marveled as a gust of wind sent the water to both their waists, leaving nothing below for Acis. As it receded, her body seamlessly was revealed.

“Quite a sympathetic thing I have going here with the sea, huh?” Acis laughed softly, looking down at herself. “When I go for a swim, I lose myself in it. Hey…you’re still here.”

“Me? Of course, I am,” Galatea laughed nervously. “But I keep on watching you disappear.”

“It looks like that. It always has. But you have a sea inside of you. Everyone does. I just have more. Look at your own legs. See how they change underwater?”

“Yes, but thats because of….refraction.”

“Sure. Call it what you want. But every particle of you wants to be what it once was. The sea is the womb of the world. We’re all sea-foam.”

“Can you breathe underwater?” Galatea asked, edging closer to Acis.

“I wouldn’t call it breathing. It’s more like a kind of being underwater. I just am as much as the water just is. Wait a moment. Don’t go anywhere.”

“What?”

Just as Galatea glanced out to sea, a rogue wave crested and crashed on the rocks. Countless particles of united seawater sent Galatea onto her back and into the blackberry bushes. When she looked up, in spite of the thorns pricking her knees and hands, she saw that Acis had disappeared. But when she looked down at the rocks, in a pool of sea-foam, she saw a glimpse of Acis. Looking to her left and right, she saw other bits of the girl as she crawled on her hands and knees back towards the edge of the rocks. 

As the water spilled back into the sea, the form of Acis appeared. Galatea watched as Acis lingered just beneath the surface like an aqueous hologram composed of water rather than light. Jellyfish, catfish, minnows of various sorts, a sea-turtle, a school of dolphins, nurse sharks and indistinct simple-celled organisms gathered around the image of Acis. Galatea watched and waited as the hot wind began its task of eradicating the rogue water on the rocks and herself.

Galatea had always found the wind disorienting. Wind proved the air was one of the minions of death and decay, the slow eater of everything standing. It was the wind that portended what was happening to her. As the creatures of the sea danced with Acis, Galatea felt her swollen eye begin to sting. The tinge of tickling pain turned to torment as the sensation crept down her face and throughout her body. Somewhere in her stomach, a white-hot lump of fire was cooking her from the inside. Galatea tried not to scream and expected to smell burning flesh but the stench never came. A gust of wind took her eyelids first. A dark liquid spilled out of her navel as her insides poured out of her in a viscous goo tending towards molasses. By the time she fell to her knees, nothing remained of her but clinging sinews and her lidless eyes. She wanted to close her eyes and destroy her sight but the setting sun mocked her in its radiance from afar.

Harmony, that strength of binding opposites, found its masterpiece when the wind sent a wave crashing onto the tormented body of Galatea. Following the slant and crevices of the rocks, the water brought her along on its journey back into the sea.

When her ruined body found its way into the sea, when the wind was nothing but an effect in the medium outside of the water, Galatea opened her eyes and saw.

The sea creatures were gathered around her and moving in their multifarious ways in a counter-clockwise direction. Galatea took no breaths, there was no need. She moved through the water as light does through space. There was no space or time, only a being. Her name sank to the bottom of wherever she happened to be like a hailstone would from a storm over the sea, sinking and diminishing before it even forgot it came from the sky. She was someone who had found where she was supposed to be, as true as water.

The palm fronds below her danced in the breeze as she looked down towards the rocks of the jetty. A small cloud high in the atmosphere drifted by the afternoon sun and melted before it passed. Below her, sitting on the edge of the rocks where the rising tide had almost reached her knees, a girl was rocking back and forth. Her left eye was swollen shut. From the top of the palm tree, she closed her eyes for a moment as she felt the light passing through her. Then she remembered the grapes. There were only three but she knew her aim was true. She pulled out one of the golden grapes and threw it at the girl below. Contact. She threw another. Contact again. Then another. The girl on the rocks at the edge of the sea turned and looked up into the palm tree. Acis smiled to herself as she watched the girl eat one of the grapes. When the girl’s lips pursed, Acis felt her own voice return.

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Hannah

Hannah

Laura Sobbott Ross

 

I’d heard about you before you became

my daughter’s friend at the Christian school.

You were once the girl, buoyant and uncombed,

with just a can of soup at the lunch table

and no way to open it, a name on a list

of a family asking for Christmas presents,

a wicked chant honed to the jump rope’s beat.

I snickered at your clever nicknames for the pious,

the cartoon of our pastor blah-blah-blahing,

and yet, I’d wanted to complain to the same ones 

about your influence on my daughter. 

The two of you flipping your plaid bible skirts

at the adolescent boys playing soccer; a creed 

shivering down the spine of their spiral notebooks,

the corners of their pages licked damp with turning;

hearts and flowers sketched in the margins of yours.

The last time I saw you, you’d thrown yourself

fully clothed into a swimming pool amid 

indignant snowbirds in a hotel downtown

and were led away dripping, a raspy sea siren.

You’d had babies early, lost them in a ruling,

wandered cowlicked, inked, and dimpled

down the highway toward Daytona

where you died, a stripper living in a van.

The final photo you posted was of a manakin 

in white fishnets and a wolf mask, a macabre

piece of art meant to affront what terrified you. 

At least that was the last thing you wrote.

A red jellyfish scribbled where the heart would be,

skirted in a current of smarting veins. 

A third eye vortexed in onyx

across the flat plane of the plastic belly. 

I wish I could have told you that

sometimes, Hannah, if we are just a body, 

not somebody, just a body, maybe it doesn’t hurt 

so much. That giddy smile of yours studded

in hard spangles, the lobes of your ears opened

wide as the well of a spoon. I wish I could have

taken you in, Hannah, pushed you skyward

on the tire swing in our cul-de-sac, filled your 

pockets with all the things girls should have— 

birthstone charms and candy karmas and lullabies.

I wish I could have fanned that hard spark in you 

into something more than what would consume 

you. Your skin, a span of moonlight.

Stars lashing themselves against the metal room

of your van. Earth’s infinite spin, warm and 

quaking the palm fronds like a loose spirit.

 

photo credit: Harry Rajchgot, 04-2020

A FATHER SHAVING

A FATHER SHAVING

Juanita Rey

I stand outside the bathroom door.
peek around the corner
when I can work up the courage.
But he doesn’t even notice me.
His jaw is clenched, eyes focused.
No matter how many times he’s done this,
he still must let the blade know who’s el jefe.

His hands are hairy, his knuckles gigantic,
his grip shrinks the razor.
The whiskers are helpless before
this foam-bearded man.

From chin to lip,
he carves out a wide swathe,
but not once does he cut himself,
That blade obeys his every order.
It would not dare penetrate the skin.

He wipes his face dry
then braces it with aftershave.
The end comes with a step back
and an admiring glance in the mirror.
Then, as he leaves the room,
he pats me on the head.

If I was a boy,
he’d say something like,
“You’ll have to do this someday.”
But I am a girl.
I can only look forward to more watching.

Johnny Six-Shoooter

Johnny Six-Shoooter

 Tim Snyder

Near Winona, Mississippi, the road trip laughs and stories turned sour. Mini complained of nausea and asked to pull over at the nearest rest stop, but Johnny refused. They had made good time so far and were only an hour and a half outside Memphis. Mini needed to buck up. A couple minutes later, however, her stomach – against her wishes – gurgled. Mini tried to explain, but before her plea was stated, Johnny stifled her again: 

“You have to stop whining. You know, sickness is 95% psychosomatic.”

“You’re a jerk.”

“It’s a known fact.”

“Ooooooh. I feel queasy.”

“There you go whining again.”

Mini’s stomach obstinately grew worse. Minutes later, an irrepressible green sludge rode a potent wave of nausea from the pit of her stomach. Somehow, Mini subdued most of it, minus a small shot that whizzed across the cabin and landed half on the dash and half on Johnny’s steering hand. This small glob was enough to cause a chain reaction in which Johnny, horrified, swerved from the right hand lane into the left, which then caused an approaching blood red Chevy pickup to swerve into the grassy median. Fortunately, nobody died in the exchange. No damage, either. The Chevy pickup’s horn did blare, though, while the driver – a sunburned monster of a man – hurled a barrage of muffled curses and middle fingers. Mini whimpered, and Johnny quickly sped off from the scene before the Chevy driver could reorient his vehicle. 

A few miles down the road, Mini started in again.

“Johnny, I’m not kidding. You have to stop. It’s getting worse.”

“Can’t. Not after we almost killed that guy.” 

“I think I’m having morning sickness.”

“It’s three in the afternoon.” 

“Johnny, now!” The creature within erupted. “I’M PREGNANT!”

A dozen miles down the road, Johnny grudgingly pulled off at an exit in Oakland, Mississippi, a town with a population of 536, according to the sign. Sliding into a McDonalds’ parking lot, Mini rushed inside, while Johnny stayed out in the car. 

As Johnny sat brooding, an unexpected pain stabbed at his stomach. His head dizzied and panic engulfed him. Johnny’s life had been a whirlwind since receiving news of Mini’s pregnancy. Now, in this moment alone, a cascade of thoughts concerning the baby gushed for the first time. The sacrifices were already starting. Today, he waited in a fast food parking lot. In no time, he’d be waiting at a baby shower. Then in a hospital. A year down the line, he’d be at the tail end of a grocery line holding a jar of baby slop. He was turning into a domestic field hand. It had taken him years just to resemble a boyfriend, loving and monogamous. Now, a father? A husband? 

Johnny reached into the backseat inside his travel bag and rummaged for his prescription bottle. Eventually, he snagged it and shook it furiously when he saw that no pills remained. 

Johnny rolled down both windows for air. He leaned back in his seat and looked out over the landscape in hopes that the heavenly countryside might offer some redress. Mostly, the area was dense forest. Autumn winds, carrying whispers of winter, had created a leafy kaleidoscope of oranges, yellows, and purples. A nearby creek burbled as misty water rippled overtop its gravel belly. Johnny closed his eyes. His surroundings conjured up a vision in which he was an adult Huck Finn, venturing up the Mississippi through the beautiful southern sticks. In this fantasy, he had no worries. No obligations. He simply lived peacefully inside of fleeting moments and humorous happenings.

Johnny opened his eyes again, his pulse lightened. He looked around.

There were only two other vehicles in the McDonalds’ parking lot, presumably belonging to a couple of the worker folk. Other than that, the only signs of civilization at the exit were an old HEIFERS filling station with a few pumps (but no customers) and a corroded Model T sitting off the side of the road about a hundred yards down. The historical remnant intrigued Johnny. He imagined an old carpenter, maybe even his own grandpappy, hauling lumber in the wagon. A simpler, better time. He romanticized that maybe now a sleuth (?) of little black bears were using the old vehicle as a home. Johnny needed to stretch his legs, so he got out of the hatchback and walked up behind the rusty rig to study it further.

However, with each step that drew him closer to the back bumper, the vehicle grew more ghoulish. There was a gaping hole in the cabin roof. Punched out were the side windows, and cinder blocks – rather than wheels – propped up the back axle. Chips in the black paint job made the vehicle look diseased with leprosy. Inside, somebody had draped a mangy blanket over the front row seat.

Johnny was upset the truck corrupted his romantic mood. He circled the wagon and stopped at the vehicle’s rear-end, outside the view of the McDonalds and filling station. He then unzipped and started to relieve himself on the old hunk of steel. In the midst of his urinary daze, Johnny suddenly saw a furtive head peep up and then go back down inside the cabin. Johnny ignored it thinking it was simply an illusion. He turned his head in the opposite direction and stared down the long stretch of pavement. A gust of wind shuddered the thick autumn leaves on the highway’s edge. Under the sun’s midday glaze, the scene bled together like watercolors on canvas.

Heyy. Pssst. A fink voice whispered.

Johnny then heard a small rustling inside the cabin. He turned his head back and saw the mangy blanket shift. 

“Hell, come on now. Who’s the peeping pervert?”

Johnny. 

Johnny staggered and pissed on his shoe. 

Why do you do such things-s-s-s?

Johnny hopped back and zipped himself in a single defensive motion.

The woman.

The voice was hypnotizing. Unreal even. Johnny knew not to answer, for what good could come from it? Still, he felt compelled.

“You mean Mini?” 

Yeessss. The voice grew pleased, which encouraged Johnny.

“She’s a good woman,” he continued unsure initially but gaining momentum. “A little nuts, but I’m going to follow through.”

Fooool.

“What?” 

The voice said nothing.

“What would you know about it? A man has to make a decision at some point. Settle down. Even if the heart’s not all the way in it, he has to pretend. The heart will eventually follow.”

Listen to the big man. He pours out his soul.

Silence lingered. Johnny felt offended.

Why do you berate her?

“Do I?”

Why did you not pull over the car? Why have no s-s-sympathy?

“Who the hell is this?”

She trusts-s-s you. Looks-s-s to you.

“What do you want?”

Your soul. The laugh was fiendish.

“I don’t think I can give that away.”

Maybe you already have.

“What are we really talking about here?”

From here on out, I want you to remember how weak and pathetic you actually are. I want you to know that I could’ve destroyed you.

“Yeah?”

But only through my mercy do you live. That makes you a slave. And for the rest of your life, you’ll always be that. Nothing more. An inferior being that only through mercy still walks the earth. 

“You’re a piece of shit. You know that? Nobody’s taking my fucking soul.”

Johnny leaned up to the door and took a full look inside the cabin. Sitting there, jaw open, teeth glistening, was a grubby little red fox. Spittle and hisses spewed from his yap. His fur was patchy. 

“Jesus!”

With a bound, the red fox positioned himself at the window opening, only a foot and a half away from Johnny and his sweating torso. The fox’s eyes were a sleazy emerald green. He seemed to smile knowingly. Was this the source of the voice? It couldn’t have been. It must have been.

Johnny dared not move for fear of the fox pouncing. Any sudden movement might lead to punishment. Johnny stared into the fox’s eyes. Deep inside there seemed to be a twinkle. Maybe it was the devil himself. 

Johnny slowly crept his hand into his jeans in search of a peace offering. As he fingered the lint in his pocket, he came across a pack of Bubblicious. Watermelon flavored. Johnny snagged a chunk of the gum and displayed it to the fox. The fox’s head tilted sideways. Johnny, slowly, raised his arm, made the sign of the cross, and tossed the gum up into the air. The fox snatched the chunk in its mouth. The gum seemed to slide down immediately, and the fox’s sneer dissipated. His tail wagged, stupidly. The devil gone. Johnny crept away from the rig and staggered across the old highway.

Reaching the hatchback, Johnny flopped down in the driver’s seat and closed his eyes. He rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and drifted into nothingness.

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

The explosive pounding nearly shattered the passenger’s side window and almost caused Johnny to soil his pants. Outside the glass was Mini. Her face had a scowl etched in it. Her hair was disheveled and greasy. Sweat coated her pasty skin. Her breasts, though, seemed plumper than ever.

“Open this door. You’re not funny.”

Johnny pressed the unlock button. The door snapped open, and Mini awkwardly plunked down. Johnny’s eyes deglazed as his spirit returned from its unnerving twilight zone. 

“You feeling better?”

“I puked.”

“What do you have there?”

“I got us some combo meals.” 

“Num.”

“Shut up. I’m not giving you any if you keep being a jerk.”

“I’m sorry for getting crazy.” He genuinely was. Johnny had no plans to mention or credit the fox for his apologetic turn around. Rather, he buried the patchy skank six feet deep in his subconscious. 

“There was no need for it.”

“I just wanted to make good time, I guess.”

“What’s the rush?” Mini shifted around trying to get comfortable, and Johnny for the first time noticed her belly’s bulge. The vision was sobering.

“I guess there’s not,” Johnny said, although he thought being in the car for unnecessary periods was excruciating.

“You have to be a little patient, especially with me being pregnant, especially when the baby gets here.”

“Mmmhmm.” Johnny said, bothered she would play those cards.

“You have to mature a little bit. You can’t keep acting like a child.”

Johnny nodded along and managed to muzzle himself for the sake of peace. To keep the fox at bay.

Mini, meanwhile, looked pleased with her airing of grievances. She seemed happy that Johnny kept relatively quiet through it, too. She smiled at Johnny. Johnny smiled right back. Could this be what women wanted, a nodding imbecile? Johnny wondered. Probably. He supposed men desired the same. The dynamic created a war of emotional attrition for which women – the more complex emotional beings – were better equipped. In this battle of wills, women came prepared as emotional tanks, whereas men arrived with emotional six shooters.

 

photo: Wikimedia Commons

Fipple

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fipple                            

by  Louise Carson

 

     ‘the sounding edge of a side opening’ – Webster’s

Sounds like a word old as creation:

Adam’s pain: his rib-mouth constricted, plugged.

Eve’s voice pops the cork: champagne for everyone.

On Iceland, where only the land is indigenous,

magna thrusting, they have a word for a horse’s lip:

flipi, related to fipple, as Iceland relates to England and Norway.

So this northland pony, little fjord horse,

opens his mouth to the side, blows air over that plug, his tongue,

plays his penny whistle, his fipple of unknown origin.

 

photo by:

Rebecca Rajchgot: Iceland Ponies, 2014

RECOVERY AGENT

RECOVERY AGENT

Juanita Rey

A month of me in bed
and you pull back the sheet
and it’s like finding
a baby bird
abandoned and shivering.

How can this creature
ever fledge,
you must be thinking,
when it can barely
flutter a feather.

Sure, whatever was wrong with me
may have worked its way
out of my system
but what’s available
for a replacement?

You think a soft kiss
on my cheek might do it.
But I’ve been sick
and am now in need
of my old self.
Not unloved
and requiring you.

I just want to know
that my wings will work
when I need them to.
Only then,
can you make me
want to fly.

photo: Harry Rajchgot

THE OFFICES LET OUT

THE OFFICES LET OUT

Juanita Rey

 

At last, the inexorable traffic

has run out of places to be.

The haunting, blinding, 

no longer need blaze a trail

through the inner-city warren

with those intense yellow eyes.

From the tenement window, 

I see the face of the night’s last driver,

then the back of his head,

then tail-light and a couple of letters

from a license plate. 

After that, nothing.

All is quiet on the street below.

And the only lights 

are scattered between the 

surrounding buildings. 

And these are not seekers,

not trail-blazers.

They merely illuminate 

whoever stays put,

who has no other place to go.

Immigrants, the poor,

the jobless, the itinerant –

we will sleep tonight 

in our version of America.

Come morning, the cars return.

Where they’ve been

remains a mystery. 

I FOUND HIM THERE

I FOUND HIM THERE

By Tammy Huffman

I found him there

Wave walking wild seas

Frantic to snare

Gurgling mysteries

 

Racing to rope

Far fluttering gleams

Of thrown off hopes

And cast away dreams

 

Laughing to land

A misshapen curse

Heart God, head man

Blubber universe

 

Losing his grasp

He shakes bloody fists

A useless cast

A trashed, muddy mess

 

Give up, I sighed

Why stir up dead men?

Come out! he cried

And cast nets again

Branches and Fences

Branches and Fences

Esme DeVault

 

looking out 

my bedroom window

I see                         you

throw branches

over the fence

into our yard.

“It’s their damn tree!”

you shout,

“Why should everybody else have to fucking pay for it?”

I quietly close 

the window

and turn 

away.

 

later,

I write               you a note.

Hello neighbor!

I was very sorry

to see you so upset

this morning.

Please come by

any time

so we can talk about it.

I mail the note to 

you

in a pretty pink card

afraid 

that if I knock 

on your door

you        will        spit

in my 

face.

 

I feel better now,

perhaps in part because I know

that                              you will never knock

on my door

as                                  you 

are far too afraid 

of my dog.

 

photo by Rebecca Rajchgot (2020).

 

Callery Pear


Callery Pear

Ilona Martonfi

At Ground Zero

buried in rubble

one branch still alive

last living thing to get out 

of the Towers 

gnarled stumps 

trunk blackened.

Now after ten years 

in a Bronx nursery 

finally returning home

this spring

third week of April

white blossoms

in Lower Manhattan.

ii.

She remembers,

burned and torn paper.

The voices.

People falling.

Blocking out the sun.

 

The video of the remarkable story of this survivor tree, barely survived the 9/11 attacks, can be found at on YouTube.

The Interminable Rock of Ages

The Interminable Rock of Ages

Marco Etheridge

My Mother was a woman who believed in broadening her children’s horizons, despite her disappointment at where those broadened horizons sometimes led. Caroline Stoneking was a good Jack Kennedy Liberal. She remains so to this day, both a Liberal and my Mother. At the time of this tale, the appellation Liberal was not the pejorative that it has become; was not spit sideways from a sneering mouth.

In that long ago and faraway, my childhood world had drawn in a long breath and waited, as if reluctant to exhale. There was an expectant pause, both in the nation I was growing up in, and in my parents’ marriage. Jack Kennedy and Malcolm X had both fallen to assassins, but Bobby Kennedy, Dr. King, and Fred Hampton were still amongst the living. At the moment of this pause, the marriage of Caroline and Francis Stoneking teetered on a balance; badly shaken but not yet sundered.

Our collective world centered around the modest bungalows of Maywood, Illinois. Maywood was and is an old suburb of Chicago, a place indistinguishable from the city proper. Driving due West out of Sandburg’s City of Broad Shoulders would yield no clue that any boundary limit had been passed over. Maywood is famous for nothing, save perhaps as the birthplace of the musician John Prine, and the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. 

My little enclave was clearly bordered and defined. One and a half blocks south of our brick domicile was The Ike, the Eisenhower Expressway. Beyond that barrier children did not pass alone. An almost equal distance to the north were the railroad tracks that divided Maywood into two halves: Working Class White Folks to the South, Working Class Black Folks to the North. The dividing line was not strictly adhered to, but it was there. Seventeenth Street and Ninth Street, the two busy thoroughfares to the West and East, completed the limits of my nine-year-old universe. Inside that rough square, I was free to roam under the shade of the American elm trees that arched over the streets. 

Raised a good Unitarian, Caroline Stoneking maintained a liberal outlook on the subject of religion. Although we regularly attended services in the solid German-Lutheran neighborhood of Forest Park, my Mother liked to dabble. She ushered her two sons to Sundays of the Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian variety. Francis Stoneking, my Father, remained at home to guard the castle.

While my Mother was broad-minded with regard to denomination, she was not without criteria. She preferred her preachers young, vibrant, and handsome. Caroline Stoneking was a woman who liked her sermons pithy, uplifting, and succinct. 

 Beyond the boundary of the railroad tracks lay all that was wonderful in Maywood: The barbecue joints, the record stores, my beloved model shop, and the public school where my mother taught third grade. The churches were there as well, from gospel storefronts to soaring brick steeples. North of the tracks lay an alternate universe, accessible only in the company of an adult.

And so one sultry Chicago Sunday morning, we set out to have our horizons broadened. We were dressed to the nines, or so I believed. My little brother and I were sporting our matching Buster Brown blazers; he in red-and-white stripes, I in blue-and-white. We looked like half of a miniature barbershop quartet. My Mother wore good Lutheran pastel, with a matching pillbox hat. We may have thought we were the last word in nattiness, but we were soon to be proved wrong.

Our destination was a scant three blocks to the North, but one does not scramble across the loose rocks of the rail-bed in ones Sunday best. We made a detour to the West, crossing the tracks at Seventeenth Street. Walking east, the sun in our eyes, we could see the steeple rising over Madison Street: The Rock of Ages Baptist Church.

My family, minus my Father of course, attended church in a timely fashion. We usually managed to arrive before the opening prayer, but not by much. Our departures were swifter than our arrivals.

 When my Mother herded us past the wide-flung doors of The Rock of Ages Baptist, the pews were packed and the preacher was already in the pulpit. An usher took us in hand, wearing the most beautiful suit of clothes I had ever seen in my young life. The man caught me staring up at him. He gave me a solemn nod and a wink, then turned to lead us up the aisle.

Walking between those rows of pews was akin to entering a tropical paradise. It was hot, humid, and resplendent with every variation and hue of color that existed in the universe. A single Black-Lady-Church-Hat is impressive. A dazzling sea of those same hats is awe-inspiring. I was more than awed. I was slack-jawed; a bug-eyed little cretin out of his element. 

The usher guided us down that passage adorned with tropical finery. He indicated our seats with an outstretched hand, revealing the perfect amount of lemon-yellow cuff shot just so below the sleeve of his soft gray suit coat. Before we could take our places in the pew, the voice of the preacher rolled down from the pulpit.

“Good Morning, Brothers and Sisters! I see we have some visitors with us today. Welcome, Sister. Would you care to introduce yourself to the congregation?”  

My eyes snapped to the sound of that wonderful voice. The preacher hovered above us, his robes a glowing purple, a broad smile on his wise face. This was a church experience unlike anything in my short life. At St. John’s, we scuttled quickly and quietly to our pew. The Lutheran ministers most certainly did not greet late-comers aloud. I was still goggling at the pulpit when my Mother spoke.

“My name is Caroline Stoneking, and these are my sons, Dale and Todd.”

“It is our pleasure to welcome Sister Caroline and her children. Let us open today’s service with a prayer.”

My Mother threw me into the pew, sliding in next to me and dragging my little brother after. The force of my Mother’s pitch landed me against the thigh of a large Black woman. The woman met my horrified chagrin with a huge smile and a pat on the knee. When we bowed our heads to pray, her amazing hat bowed with her.

The conclusion of the prayer was punctuated by a chorus of Amens. Raising my eyes, I saw the choir before me. Three tiers of scarlet robes rose to the right of the altar. Standing before this backdrop of scarlet was a skinny young man with an electric guitar. He struck a chord, the organist doubled it, and the gospel choir began to sing.

That music struck me with the force of a tidal wave, my tiny self a bobbing cork in its wake. The congregation began to sing and clap, swaying in the pews like tropical birds on a breeze. My hands rose of their own accord, hovering in the air before me, hesitating. My companion beamed her huge smile at me, giving me the permission I required.

“That’s right, Sugar, that’s right.”

And so I gave myself over to that music, clapping for all I was worth. I wanted it to go on forever, the guitar, the organ, the voices of the choir rising and falling in major chords. One voice would soar above the others, a high female voice, only to be answered by another, rich and masculine. The beat of the music was simple and clear, marked out by the loud clapping of moist hands.

That wonderful music still sounded in my ears as the familiar church business progressed. There were the announcements, just as at our church. When all the necessaries had been attended to, the preacher wrapped his hands over the rim of the pulpit and leaned forward. His face was serious and kind.

“Sisters and Brothers, this blessed morning I would like to speak to you of the challenges facing our community, and of how the Lord’s good words teach us to respond to these challenges.”

Thus began the sermon, the time when little boys are required to sit still and quiet. The preacher’s voice rose and fell, but as it did so, so too did the voices of the congregation. The cries rose all around me, confounding my knowledge of proper church etiquette.

“Amen!”

“Preach it, Brother!”

“Yes, Lord!”

The exclamations were wafted about by the fluttering of countless colorful fans. The Rock of Ages was full, and it was very hot. The woman beside me rocked in the pew, fanning herself and exclaiming. So too did all of those around our little trio. My Mother sat quite still, a small smile pasted on her face. Above the fluttering and the Amens, the preacher continued to preach.

I cannot tell you the words of the sermon, except that the voice of that preacher was like the gospel music that preceded it. I believe the man in the pulpit may have hypnotized me, because I sat still and quiet. It was my Mother who fidgeted. The recitation of God’s teachings moved far past the normal span of a good Lutheran sermon, the point at which polite coughing would inform the minister that he had overshot his allotted time. But this was The Rock of Ages, and the preacher had more to say. 

The sermon rolled on, accompanied by the fluttering of the fans and the Amens. I wanted to join in, to lend my squeaky voice to the exclamations. I was listening carefully now, hoping for the proper place to call out my Amen, when I felt my Mother’s damp hand grasping mine. Her voice may have been a whisper, but it sounded like a shout.

“Come on, Dale, we need to be going.”

I looked up at her in horror and confusion, the spell of the sermon broken. I shook my head, not understanding. She responded by tugging me to my feet. Then we were standing in the aisle, three lone figures naked before the congregation. It was then that I prayed with the earnestness of a child, prayed that the floor would open up and swallow us. The only answer to my fervent prayer was the kind voice of the preacher.

“I would like to thank Sister Caroline and her children for joining us today. I hope that we will see you again.”

My Mother, thankfully, said nothing. Getting us each by the hand, she marched my brother and me down that aisle and out into the bright sunlight of Madison Street. To her credit, she held her head high. I did not. The pause of silence passes. Behind us, I heard the deep voice of the preacher resuming his sermon.

A pause is only that and nothing more. At the beginning of the new year, the outside world let go its hesitant breath. That fateful season opened with the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam, the fighting invading our living room as black-and-white television images.  

Winter passed into spring and an assassin’s bullet took Dr. King. Two months later, another assassin laid Bobby Kennedy low. The nation reeled, and my parents reeled with it.

Amidst this turbulence, Caroline and Francis Stoneking entered the messy realm of divorce court. The proceedings were a drawn out affair, with more than enough bitterness to go around. Before their marriage was pronounced officially dead, the Chicago Police assassinated Fred Hampton. The Dutch Elm disease began killing our stately trees, leaving lines of immovable wooden tombstones in its wake. It was under these hammer blows that my small nuclear family fragmented and fled.

Caroline Stoneking, who would soon become Caroline Cooper, carted my brother and me off to a small city in Indiana. We became Methodists, drawn in by a handsome young pastor whose sermons were buoyant and of the proper duration. 

Once a month, my brother and I would ride the old Broadway Limited into Chicago. We traveled alone, guided only by the firm hand of the Black train porters. Over the many train journeys that followed, I listened carefully to the words of the porters, learning a great deal in the process.

 Francis Stoneking would meet us at Union Station. We spent our visits in his new downtown apartment, just blocks from the Lake Michigan shore. When our time was over, our Father would pack us back onto the train. These monthly journeys were the beginnings of a lifetime of travel.

It was in that Indiana town that I first acquired an awareness of girls. I became smitten with a beautiful young Black girl and she with me. Although the entirety of our young love consisted of public hand-holding and private exploratory kisses, it was more than enough to broaden the horizons of her father and my mother. I discovered that a widened view of the world was one thing in theory and another in practice.

Just as the world could not pause for my childhood, it has not paused for me. Four decades have passed since I last set foot or eye to Maywood. From what I hear, things have changed. The train tracks that divided my childhood realm are gone, replaced by an urban bicycle path. Green ash trees have been planted to take the place of the decimated elm trees. The City of Maywood renamed the municipal swimming pool in memory of Fred Hampton. This did not please everyone, but it pleases me.

The Rock of Ages Baptist Church is still on Madison Street, the old clapboard church reincarnated as a shining modern edifice. The old church has grown and prospered, for which I am thankful. 

I wish the old neighborhood well. If one of my many journeys across this globe should lead me back, I will be sure to spend a hot Sunday morning attending services at the new Rock of Ages. I will dress to the nines in my best suit, my tie a perfect knot. An aging White man in a middle pew, I will sing, clap my hands, and shout Amen.

In the society of anxious mothers

In the society of anxious mothers

Brandy McKenzie

 

How easy it is to slip into old habits.

How easy it is to slip into old lies.

She tells me about her son, his prostitution.

I write nothing down.  I have nothing

to give her that’s full or empty, just

reassurance.  I hint and I hem and I haw.

I don’t even know how to haw.

Her boy, her beautiful boy, & she’d given him

all a boy could there’s love, and then

there’s this line.  I can’t help but think

of mine and mine. And me: I’m so

introverted that way.  Turned inside out

so all my pieces shine. No, glisten.

She’s as raw as I, but won’t say so.

I won’t speak a line.  These children, tied

as they are to our bodies, pricking apart

innards like scribes. No, scriveners. No:

prognosticate, procrastinate, read the guts and tea

to see the what’s mine?  I don’t know.

I have no words for her.  Not mine, 

not hers, not wry homunculi we birthed

and named into this world.  I’ve lied,

again and again.  She’s cried, but lies about it.

I Want to Say

I Want to Say

by

Jan Ball

They’re taking four-

    year-old Reuben

to the hospital 

for his last goodbye

        to his mother,

my young friend.

I know about replaced

knees, and a mined abdomen,

but not terminal cancer,

especially in a young woman.

I want to say…

I want to say…

the sun flings silver stars 

like lucky dice across 

the lake this morning and 

popcorn clouds puff high 

in the tomorrow sky. 

 

Photo: Harry Rajchgot

Rideshare

Rideshare

Jonathan B. Ferrini

It was a hot summer, and I was “sweating” my physics final exam. I was required to take physics for a second time during summer school after failing the course during the Spring Quarter of my sophomore year in college. I was also “sweating” the grueling, twelve hour days, I was working as a rideshare driver.

My family lived in a large, luxurious home, in an affluent part of town. My parents were both successful professionals. Although I wanted to become a software engineer and design new Apps, I spent most of my time playing video games, drinking with my friends, and slacking. I attended a rigorous STEM university, and the students were very competitive. The coursework was tough and required intense study. Nobody reached out to one another to share notes, or help explain difficult subject matter. Our access to the professors was limited, and we waited in line to approach overworked graduate students, serving as teaching assistants, who had limited time, and patience for our questions. 

Distraught because I flunked physics and wasn’t devoting the necessary time to my studies, my parents meted out “tough love” to me; they kicked me out of the house for the summer with no money, and told me “to make it on my own.” They explained the experience would be “good for me” and motivate me to take my “studies seriously.” 

I found a friend’s couch to sleep on for the summer. I needed spending money, fast, and signed up for a ride share job using my hybrid car which was ideal because it had great gas mileage. Being a ride share driver had its advantages because I could “cash out” my earnings daily which were immediately deposited into my checking account without tax withholding. I drove twelve hour days, earning about $200, less gas money. After twelve hours of driving in heavy traffic, I returned home, hungry and exhausted. After a few hours of physics study, I’d fall asleep after eating a frozen dinner.

The job took me all over town, and into parts of town I didn’t know; mostly lower income. I’d often race through these “bad” neighborhoods, running red lights, to avoid potential car jackers, and fearful of the menacing appearing homeless who roamed these streets. It was tiring work but I met interesting people, beautiful girls, and felt a satisfaction from a hard day’s work. 

My rideshare app would alert me to a pick up at a downtown, budget motel, which always resulted in a scary ride. The passengers were usually frantic after being evicted, intoxicated or mentally ill. I accepted the rides because I needed the money, and all rides have the potential of becoming long and lucrative.

I arrived at the motel where an elderly, grey haired, black man, was tending to an elderly, frail, silver haired, caucasian woman in a wheel chair. As I approached, he was eager to see me, waived, and approached the vehicle. He told me they were only going a “few blocks”, and apologized for the “short ride.” It was a hot day, and I gave them my last bottle of water because they were perspiring, and I feared they were suffering from heat stroke. They were thirsty and grateful for the water. I noticed the elderly woman’s hands were grotesquely twisted, and she had difficulty holding the water bottle with both hands. The black man gently held the bottle to her mouth, allowing her to sip the water.

I opened up the trunk. The man carefully lifted the elderly woman from the wheel chair, and buckled her into the rear seat with tenderness and care, suggesting a relationship similar to a mother and son. He folded the wheel chair and placed it in my trunk. This man was large and imposing but exhibited chivalry, kindness, and love for the crippled old woman. 

He thanked me for “picking him up” which suggested he may have been the victim of rideshare discrimination by frightened or insensitive drivers. 

He remarked “I’m sweating worse than an Arkansas mule.” 

I had never heard that expression before, asking, “Where did that saying come from?” 

“My pop was a sharecropper in Mississippi and used it and other sayings often.” 

He was perspiring and distraught about his cell phone battery dying. I plugged his cell phone into my recharger cord, cranked up the air conditioning which calmed him down, and he thanked me. We immediately liked each other. 

He introduced himself as “Rollo”, short for “Rollin’ On”. He described himself as a “rolling stone”, never spending too much time in one place. He introduced the old woman as “Beatrice”. I introduced myself as Zack. 

Rollo was an imposing figure but a “gentle giant”. He was about 6’2”, 220+, and his body looked beaten down from a long life of grueling work. His face also showed the many years of a difficult life. He was maybe seventy. The elderly woman looked to be pushing eighty.

“What’s your story, Rollo?” 

“I grew up in rural Mississippi and I was a troublemaker raised by a single mom. We got by on food stamps and a vegetable garden. Despite our frugalness, the food stamps would run out by the third week of the month. Mama was a great cook and could make a nutritious meal from very little foodstuffs. After the food stamps for the month ran out, I wanted to surprise her with a good cut of meat. I got caught stealing a chuck steak from the market, and the judge gave me a choice of spending a year in county jail or joining the Army. I chose the Army which provided me discipline, a work ethic, self-respect, and “straightened” me out. I was happy to send most of my Army pay home to Mama. I did one tour in Vietnam and was honorably discharged in 1972. I was spat on when arriving home at the airport up north by war protestors, and caught the first bus home, back to my poverty-stricken town in Mississippi. Life was slow, no work, so I took to the bottle, and fell in with the wrong crowd. Mama was having difficulty walking and complaining of numbness in her feet. White doctors wouldn’t treat black folk so I took mama to the only 

Black doctor in town. He diagnosed Mama with Type 2 diabetes. He couldn’t treat her and urged me to take her for treatment to the nearest town with a university medical school hospital. Despite her Medicare benefits, the treatment was too costly for mama to pay. I took to stealing to pay mama’s medical bills. I stole anything I could pawn or fence for immediate cash. When she asked me where the money was coming from, I said I was sharecropping by day, and working as a night watchman. 

“I was eventually arrested, convicted, and I spent two years on a chain gang. Mama’s condition continued to worsen while I was on the chain gang but she managed to survive until I was released.

“After serving my sentence, and with the help of a veteran’s organization, I found work as a truck driver trainee, offering full training; decent pay which enabled me to pay all of mama’s bills, and the job had good benefits, including medical insurance for Mama. I moved to Phoenix where the trucking company was headquartered. Man, I loved driving. I drove the entire country and Canada, digging the freedom, and independence of working for myself. North America is one of the most beautiful places on earth, Zack. I’d call Mama every week from a different state or province, and mail her a souvenir. She was proud of me which gave me the self respect I sorely needed. Over the years, I developed lower back pain from hours of driving, and was prescribed opiate-based medicines which hooked me. I drank booze along with the opiates. The booze and opiates created a wonderful high and removed the back pain but I became addicted. 

“When I returned the rig to Phoenix after a thirty day run, I failed my drug test, got fired on the spot, lost my commercial driving license, and ended up on the streets as a homeless man in hot as hell Phoenix. I survived on unemployment benefits for six months, and then turned to welfare. I took on odd jobs, when and if I could find them. I didn’t have the heart to tell Mama I was fired, and was too ashamed to call Mama or return home to Mississippi. I became a drug addict. Within a year, the trucking company forwarded me a faded, official letter from the Mississippi Coroner’s office informing me that Mama died ,and was cremated because no next of kin could be located. I suffered, Zack. The guilt of abandoning Mama was so intense; it could only be quelled with heroin, booze, and meth.” 

Beatrice couldn’t talk, except to mumble. Rollo reached over to wipe the spittle dripping from the side of her mouth. She was petite, and held tightly on to the arms of her car seat as if she was holding on to life. 

Rollo explained, “Beatrice was evicted from a hospice where she was expected to die from liver cancer. Her Social Security disability benefits weren’t enough to cover the expenses even in a poor quality hospice. Beatrice has no family. She is going to die on the streets, alone, without me. Until her time comes, I’m determined to make her life as comfortable as I can. We’re like family, Zack.” 

“Where did Beatrice come from?” 

“I met her at the Salvation Army, sitting alone in the corner of the cafeteria, having difficulty feeding herself with her shaking, twisted hands. I sat next to her and fed her. We’ve been together ever since.” 

“How did she end up at the Salvation Army, Rollo?” 

“Back in the eighties, politicians closed all the mental institutions and released helpless psychiatric patients, who had spent their entire lives under the care and supervision of mental health professionals, into the streets. Beatrice had been placed in a mental hospital for developmentally disabled children as a baby. She never learned to speak nor walk, but could hear, and understand most of what was said. She has cerebral palsy which crippled her hands. She never knew life outside of the state hospital. When they closed the hospital, she met briefly with an overworked social worker who couldn’t understand her, handing her a list of privately owned, overcrowded, board and care facilities, and a pharmacy where she could get her medications filled. It was like casting a newborn to the wolves. Most of her life has included short term stays in emergency rooms, prison cells, or sleeping on the sidewalk. 

“I’ve never let go of the guilt associated with not being by Mama’s side when she died. Beatrice reminded me of my mother. I was drawn to looking after her because it dampened the guilt raging within me. You like this ride share driving gig, Zack?” 

“No, I hate it.” 

“Why the hell do it then?” 

“Because my parents kicked me out of the house for the summer for failing physics and I need money.” 

“They kicked you out of the house for flunking a course?” 

“You have to understand, my parents are over-achievers. Dad’s a neurologist and a clinical professor of neurology at the medical school, and mom’s manages a Wall Street investment fund. They think by kicking me out of the house, and forcing me to “make it on my own for the summer”, they’d “toughen me up”, and I’d take my college coursework more seriously.” 

“Well son, I can tell you stories about tough love.” 

Rollo pulled his shirt up over his head revealing scars on his back. 

“The scars on my back are from whippings my drunken father gave me trying to straighten me out. I begged mama not to intervene because he would turn the whip on her. He eventually split, leaving me and mom to fend for ourselves, never returning. “I’ll take “tough love”, rather than no love, anytime, son. Your parents are showing’ you how hard life can be. Me and Beatrice are perfect examples. It was fate that led you to pick us up. Maybe we’ll teach you about life?” 

Beatrice tapped Rollo on the shoulder with her disfigured hand as if in agreement.

“I don’t even know what physics looks like, but I flunked life, Zack. I wish I could get those years back because I’d accept all the “tough love” my parents could give me, if it would provide me with a future like the one you’ll enjoy. You just treat this summer job as a brief stay in hell, drive the long hours, and remember the faces of the many homeless you’ll see. Take each day at a time, put one foot in front of the other, and hope for the best. If the wisdom you learn passes through one ear and out the other, or remains embedded in your memory, is up to you. When you go back to school, attack your subjects like your life depends upon your passing each course. Any time you find yourself backsliding, remember me and Beatrice. We won’t forget you.”

I drove them a few blocks to skid row where he asked me to drop them. Rollo unloaded the wheel chair from the trunk, and carefully helped Beatrice into the chair. I felt guilty leaving them on a busy, hot street corner, amidst despair. Rollo thanked me for the ride, shook my hand, offering me the following advice, “Zack, you make your own luck in life. You have all the tools necessary for success. Don’t squander them. Seize every opportunity. Failure is your friend because it will eventually lead you to success. Nothing can stop you, brother.” 

Beatrice nodded her head in agreement. She pointed to a faded, green, plastic, shamrock amulet, attached to a tattered string around her neck she must have worn for decades. Beatrice motioned Rollo to remove it from her neck and give it to me. The shamrock had the date of her birth inscribed upon it and must have been a present from jubilant new parents to their baby girl. The faded green paint, and lack of a chain, was like a metaphor for parents who gave up when they discovered their new born was disabled for life. I pondered the pain or relief they must have felt leaving their baby at a state hospital, never to see her again. 

I was saddened watching Rollo carefully wheel Beatrice down the sidewalk to a rescue mission. I hung the faded shamrock from my rear view mirror as a reminder of my new friends. 

As the remaining weeks of summer ground along, I treated my rideshare job like a sociology class. I purposely sought out rides in the downtrodden parts of town, and was pleased to pick up riders who I would have previously shunned for their appearance, mental condition, or economic standing. I was eager to learn who they were, what they thought, and how they came to be? I always learned something new about life and humanity from these sages of the streets. 

It wasn’t until I began receiving voice mail and text messages from my parents demanding I meet with them and “discuss the lessons I learned from my summer job” that I realized the summer had ended, and the fall term was soon to commence. I dreaded the specter of having to explain to my parents “what I had learned” from my summer of driving. They wouldn’t understand, and it wouldn’t be what they wanted to hear.

I was the first student to complete the physics final, racing through it as if it was an elementary school math test. I received an “A”. 

The summer of rideshare driving changed me. I didn’t want to return to the comfort of my home and plush bedroom, full of distractions, and light years from the reality of the streets I witnessed. I was independent now. I sought out minimalist accommodations within walking distance to campus, hoping it would keep me grounded in reality, and permit me to focus on my studies. I was fortunate to find a small apartment above a liquor store a few blocks from campus. The proprietor was the owner of the liquor store, giving me a bargain rent because I was a “responsible college student”, and would watch over the liquor store during closing hours. Although the apartment was a single room, dingy flat, with an old refrigerator, Murphy bed, and small stove, it was mine. I was beholden to nobody’s rules but my own.

I made contact with my parents by text message, with a lyric from a tune from my playlist. I chose Bob Dylan’s album, “Highway 61 Revisited”, hoping the lyrics would convey to them what I had learned over my summer of “tough love”, 

“When ya ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose” 

At night, I lay in the Murphy bed, and thought of Rollo and Beatrice, alone in the world, roaming from soup kitchen to homeless shelters. Rollo and Beatrice profoundly changed my life from that of a slacker to a motivated student because I saw the pain or affluence life can mete out. When the college term began, I attacked my studies with a new resolve. I couldn’t relate to my former classmates. I was a changed person. I fondly recalled the loving assistance Rollo extended to Beatrice and, whenever I encountered a student struggling with the coursework, I volunteered to help them. 

I approached the university and volunteered to become a tutor in those courses I now was mastering. My offer was gladly accepted by the university, and, as students began attending my tutoring sessions, additional gifted students volunteered as tutors. I’m happy to say, I changed the reputation of my college major from a competitive, “lone wolf” major, to a collegial, “help thy neighbor” major. My efforts were not lost on the Dean of Students who promised to write me a letter of recommendation upon my graduation, and encouraged me to attend graduate school at our university. 

My father and mother were very proud of my academic success. My father invited me to the Faculty Club to show off his over-achieving son. After lunch, we headed back to his laboratory where some medical students were dissecting, and studying the central nervous system of a cadaver. To my dismay, it was Beatrice lying on the stainless steel autopsy table. The autopsy technician approached saying, “She was brought into the ER yesterday by a large Black man. She was diagnosed as having terminal liver failure. She died in the ER. The man wasn’t a relative but produced a legal document showing he was conservator for the woman, and he produced a notarized Last Will and Testament, including a “Statement of Donation” of the woman’s body to our medical school.” 

A medical student spoke up while dissecting Beatrice, “We lucked out with this cadaver because it gives us the opportunity to study her liver disease, palsy, and developmental disability. We might find a link!” I was tempted to reply, “Her name is Beatrice and treat her with dignity!” 

I approached the autopsy table and stroked Beatrice’s fine silver hair. She was a small, frail woman, and terribly thin from years of starvation. I stared at her mouth closely, and could make out a glimmer of a smile. I was surprised to find that both of her hands were free from the contortions of cerebral palsy. Her fingers were straight, long, thin, elegant, and resembled those of a pianist. 

I asked the autopsy tech, “I’ve seen this homeless woman around town and know that her hands were severely contorted by cerebral palsy. Why are they straight?” 

My father overheard my question and answered, “I’ve seen this before, Zack. For some misfortunate people, the gift of life carries with it a price in the form of unfair burdens they must carry throughout their lives. For this woman, it was cerebral palsy of her hands and developmental disabilities. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen death provide a “repayment” of sorts for their burdens, and for this poor woman, it was the reward of beautiful hands.”

I suspected Beatrice was happy to leave this world, and I’m certain she was delighted to donate her body for the furtherance of medical science. I excused myself, entered the men’s room, closed the stall door, and wept. I was happy Beatrice found peace and beautiful hands in death, but wondered about Rollo’s fate, recalling the lyrics to the Dylan song, 

“How does it feel? How does it feel? To be on your own With no direction home A complete unknown 

Like a rolling stone?” 

I knew he missed Beatrice and his Mama. I also know he would take delight to see the gift of beautiful hands death provided Beatrice. I washed and dried my face while looking in the mirror, and recited Rollo’s advice, “I’ll take “tough love”, rather than no love, anytime.”