Category Archives: Creative Non-fiction

How I Broke Up With Larry

How I Broke Up With Larry

Joan Potter

It was the leather jacket – scuffed brown leather that I knew would be soft to the touch and carry a musky scent. It was the kind of jacket a bohemian would wear, I thought, a poet. And sure enough, one day the jacket’s owner, a lanky guy with rumpled brown hair and an ironic grin who sat next to me in my economics class, his long, dungareed legs stretched into the aisle, passed me a folded sheet of paper. On it he had written a poem.

I don’t remember the words or even the theme, but I was impressed. I soon fell in love and we became a couple. It was 1953; we were juniors at Cornell. Although I was in the school of hotel management and Larry was studying engineering, we thought of ourselves as literary. We read the New Yorker religiously. We pored over E. B. White’s essays and his short pieces in “Notes and Comments,” and J. D. Salinger was our god. We’d just read his story “Teddy,” the one about a ten-year-old spiritual genius who predicts his own death in a fall into an empty swimming pool on a cruise ship. “Wow,” we said. “Amazing.”

One day early in our relationship I was skimming through a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poetry and noticed some familiar words. It was the poem Larry had passed to me in economics class. I wasn’t as bothered by his deception as I probably should have been, and decided not to tell him about my discovery. 

Larry and I remained a faithful couple during the whole spring semester, and the weekend after it ended he drove me to my home upstate, where he would meet my parents and two high-school-age sisters. He had filled the back seat of his car with random piles of dirty clothes; I can still picture a pair of grimy boxer shorts. The drive was long and Larry was tired when we got there. While I was unpacking my bags, he stretched out on the floor under the baby grand piano in the living room and fell asleep. The family tiptoed quietly around him. My parents were prepared to forgive him anything. Like us, he was Jewish, after all.

At the dinner table Larry was chatty and charming. He told a vivid story about how he’d taken a year off after high school and hitchhiked through Alaska, working in canneries and fish-processing plants. I was surprised he’d never mentioned this to me.

Later in the meal he told us that he’d taken some kind of test to determine his masculine and feminine traits. “It turned out that I’m thirty-percent feminine,” he said. My parents received this news with polite smiles. My sisters were wide-eyed and silent.

After a few days Larry drove back to his hometown of Mount Vernon, which also happened to be the birthplace of our idol, E. B. White. I had landed a summer job at the front desk of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and after a couple of weeks at home I flew to New York City to start work. I had dressed up for the flight, and was wearing new shoes, the best my hometown department store had to offer, brown-and-white spectator pumps with chunky Cuban heels.

Larry and a few of his friends were there to meet me as I stepped out of the plane and down the metal steps onto the tarmac. They drove me to the YWHA on 92nd Street, where I had reserved a small room for the summer. Later, when we were alone, Larry told me I had disappointed him.

“We were all watching everyone’s feet when they came out the door of the plane,” he said, “We were trying to guess which ones would be yours. But I didn’t think you’d be wearing those old-lady shoes. I was pretty embarrassed.” 

I cringed inside and kept picturing how my feet must have looked, stepping jauntily down the steps in those clunky shoes that I’d thought were so fashionable. But living in the city offered me an education in urban fashion. It also gave me a chance to spend a weekend at Larry’s Mount Vernon home. When we arrived on a Saturday morning, his mother, a plump woman with a curly blond perm, emerged from the kitchen to greet me. She told me I could use Larry’s room during my stay while he slept on the couch.

I was in his room hanging up my clothes when I overheard his mother on the phone, telling a friend that her son’s girlfriend was visiting. “He’s crazy about her,” she said. “I don’t understand it.”

While Larry was in the bathroom taking a shower, I was sitting on his bed, looking through the books on his shelves. I picked out his high school yearbook, class of 1950. There was his picture among the rest of the class. 

This time I confronted him. “I was looking at your yearbook,” I said. “You graduated in 1950. We’re both juniors in college. How could you have spent a year in Alaska?”

He launched into a rambling explanation, something about starting school a year earlier, a mistake in the yearbook, nothing that made much sense. I was beginning to understand that Larry had a skewed notion of the truth. But he was still cute and sexy so I convinced myself it was not an important problem.

Larry transferred to the City College of New York for his senior year – his father, who was separated from his mother – said he could no longer afford Cornell’s tuition. I went back to Ithaca and we kept in touch with phone calls and occasional visits. After graduation I moved to New York City to start a new job with an accounting firm.

I was sharing an apartment with two girls I’d met at the 92nd Street Y. We lived in a one-bedroom, fifth-floor walkup on East 26th Street; I had the pullout couch in the living room. My job was boring and tedious; I knew I should have majored in English.

Over the next few months I became increasingly sick of my work and annoyed with my roommates. I was also tired of Larry, who was now in his fifth year of engineering school and spent much of his spare time lying on my couch. I was beginning to meet new people, young men with jobs and ambition who also read books and the New Yorker and loved Salinger. I decided to break up with Larry.

It was a weekend afternoon. My roommates were both out. The buzzer sounded and I knew it was Larry. He gave me the usual hug and headed for the couch. I took a deep breath. 

“I want to start dating other people,” I said. “I don’t want to see you anymore.”

He rolled over and turned to face me.

“You just want another E. B. White,” he said, “and you’re never going to find one.”  

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Forever Held by an Invisible Patch

Forever Held by an Invisible Patch

Suzanne Ondrus

 

Some plants live for life, despite their two-year visible life, continuing on forever, full in imagination.  Maybe it is those joyful things gained with pain that we cherish most– our children, degrees, homes, gardens, and citizenship.  I cherish the blackberry patch that I grew up with by my house.  Every year in May half the stalks would set their tiny white flowers and half would wait for their turn the following year to bloom, resting on the dead ones.  I think about how we humans rest upon layers and layers of civilizations, how we individually stand thanks to those fallen, for our nation, for our family.  I remember how the flowers would then die and green nubs of berries would come, growing to red and finally to full dark blue, black. The important men in my life are snared by this small, dark fruit, painful to gather. 

Growing up my sister and I would take old metal coffee cans and go out back to the patch with my Dad.  The three of us spread out in the patch.  We were flexible then, bending down to stare up at the silent burgeoning beauties hanging.  We always came back with colanders filled and with one or two thorns somewhere in our flesh.  The patch thrived between a row of pines and a willow.  

The berries were so abundant that we froze bags and bags of them.  They went from dark purple to red in the freezer.  I cannot remember when the patch started to thin.  I suppose it happened gradually or when I was away at school.  I remember when the willow by the patch started to die, its large limb broken, swaying downwards.  It was the start of my parents’ divorce.  The tree went untended, just like the patch.  While my Dad threw furniture around and we righted it, nature was left to tend to itself.  The hanging limb withered year by year, but still hung, like the noose my Dad told the therapist was around his neck; the noose was us. 

One day I noticed poison ivy around the blackberry patch.  I was picking in August.  The patch was thin, and there were few berries.  The berries there were small and not plump.  I remember spotting one plump one on a low plant.  I bent down to pick it, then suddenly stopped as I saw the three leaves signifying danger.  The berry was so ripe, so full of juice, but I could not proceed to pick.  How would I put it in my mouth?  I stopped and retreated.  I could only look at this berry.  I dared not to touch it.

After my Dad had moved out of the house, he was not allowed on the property.  The land and the house that he spent thirty years in were verboten by law to him.  You strike your wife, you threaten her, and you may not come near her.  The trees he planted grew.  When he came to pick us up he could only stop at the driveway.  The land that he had lived on for so many years was forbidden territory.  The hanging limb stared at him from down the driveway saying, “it’s over, it’s over.”  But he still asked us to bring him berries when we saw him in July or August, and every time we came with a handful he was in disbelief, as if we were hoarding barrels of them at home.  The patch had simply stopped.  Instead of picking with colanders and coffee cans, a small bowl sufficed.  

Perhaps the patch was destined for decay, being that it was by a dilapidated barn.  Half of the barn had to be knocked down so the rest could remain usable.  Maybe that corner of the property pulls things down. Adjacent to this corner stands a tall oak tree.  It has grown wide and is firm in place.  Sometimes I would go to sit there during my parents’ divorce, my back to the patch, staring at the corral, remembering how my father had wanted to burn the field, to make anew.  We were small.  It was a Saturday.  We were doing family yard work when he decided to burn.  The whole corral started on fire and we turned to see him standing there yelling.  We came with shovels and buckets of water.  Everyone covered a different side, working for a common cause.  We were lucky that day.  The fire was contained.  It did not spread to neighbors’ land.  My favorite childhood knickknack is a candle of a little firefighter girl holding a hose, with the inscription at the base that “only you can put out the fire”.  I like to think of how we are responsible for our anger.  My Dad had such difficulty controlling his anger, whether it was his loud voice, curses, angry eyes or red face, and I too have trouble maintaining composure or right words when something pricks me.  With fire and anger comes responsibility.  

Some of my fondest memories are of my family together on our land, doing yard work.  You cannot really talk when you are doing yard work, so I guess there is very little chance of things going wrong.  And this was a plus since my Dad liked to say things to get a rise out of people.  Picking up sticks and raking leaves were big family projects, helped by the trailer attached to the little yellow Sears tractor my Dad drove.  It was time to breathe the same air, look at the same things and time to reach out together.  I do not see many families working together in their yards today, and it makes me sad.  There is something so beautiful about pulling a tarp together, grunting till reaching the dropping place.  There is a sense of united entitlement to end the day together.  We give something very important away when we hire landscaping crews to do our yards for us.  Perhaps the moment we hired others to come to work on our yard is when our family really started to fall.  There was no need to work together on the outside, on the visible, the tangible.  Maybe we lost a connection to our land at that moment.  Maybe our land lost its connection to us too and started to die, the blackberry bushes one by one lost.

Our next-door neighbor to the North was like a grandfather to me growing up.  He’d been there since my parents had moved in.  When my Dad learned about the neighbor’s blackberry patch in the woods he asked if he could have a few bushes. The neighbor later told me my Dad had cleared the whole patch; he was shocked.  After our neighbor died about forty years later, a huge blackberry patch came forth between his garage and row of pines.  It was like those berries came to stitch his fifty-year spot he had on that piece of land in place, as if someone would be sure to lose some blood if his property was altered.  When I saw the blackberry patch on our neighbor’s land, I felt like he had given us a sign that he was o.k., that he had given us a present, as if to say that new patches will come into your life.  Those berries were like justice served, though too late, but they stand and flower returned back to where they first came from.  Maybe because our neighbor was so deeply rooted to his house and his land, he was able to be porous, to let my Dad come like a hawk and take those blackberries, because he knew the flux of nature, that what goes out finds its way back eventually.  My Dad died two years after my neighbor.  Now they are both in the invisible patch; it is abundant beyond my human eyes.  There is sweetness in their mouths.

Casser Tour, Summer of Love

Casser Tour, Summer of Love

Glen Moss

In the Summer of 1967, as heat and anger gathered to explode in Newark and Detroit and love gathered in San Francisco, I boarded a bus in New York’s Port Authority with my parents.  This was the last vacation I remember my parents taking and the last I felt obligated to take with them.  I was 13, wouldn’t be turning 14 till after we returned with images in my bag I would unpack and explore after Midnight when the voice of WNEW-FM’s Allison Steele added her purple throated voice to my Brooklyn nights.

My parents could teach a class in pretending to a middle class life while seeking to cover working poor income. This may be far more common today with great recessions recent and looming, and an economy of deepening and widening divide, leaving many with memories of assumed solidity and finding liquidity only in the sweat from fear.  Back then, even as the ‘60’s opened rifts in perceptions of permanence, we weren’t yet at recessions, gas shortages, and disco.

My few friends were all at camp, volunteering or working at places with doors opened by parents. Me, with a stutter and imagination, I packed a small bag and joined my occasional bookkeeper mother and always women’s shoe store salesman father. How did they even come up with the money for this 7 day tour of upstate NY and a day trip to Expo ’67 in Montreal…the last world’s fair of any note. Back in September, when I had my poor kid bar mitzvah on a Thursday morning, apparently the other sanctioned day for this particularly Jewish American affair, what little money was offered by the 15 or so family in attendance was quickly handed to my parents so the rent could be paid that month. “Today I am a renter”, is what I should have said.

The “should have saids”, especially self-damning for a stutterer, would have prominence one particular night on this trip. The thread of that evening’s tapestry began when we first entered the bus. My parents sat in the fifth row of two seats on the left side while I took the window seat across the aisle so I could lose myself in the scenes that would roll by, knowing that everyone else would be coupled up and no other kid would be dragged along.

Within minutes, my parents and the couple in front of them started talking and laughing. I was pointed at, and I turned my head and waved. No need to attempt saying “hi”…I could get stuck on that ‘h” until the bus reached Westchester.  So began a vacation connection that dominated my parents’ attention, not to my surprise but to my liking as it allowed me to be separate and wander.

The other couple, Sal and Donna Bonneti from Newark, was as authentically middle class as my parents were not. Sal owned two plumbing and hardware stores and Donna was a junior high school teacher. They had two kids, both boys, 16 and 17, at sports camps in Pennsylvania. Just the kind my father wished I was and knew I’d never be. I was the son who he beat at boxball and handball every Sunday morning. The one who threw the Passover meat down the incinerator by mistake. 

As the bus took its route north to the first stop in Lake George, I heard the shared laughter as my parents and their new friends exchanged histories, real and shaded. I looked out the window as suburbs and then more rural space opened up to the July sun.  In just a few days we would hear the news about riots in Newark with fires burning a city that would see ashes and broken glass as a turning point; where blood and national guard boots marked spaces where homes and stores stood only a week before. Sal and Donna, shaken and the easy smiles gone, would leave the tour early to return home and become part of the Newark exodus to find a new place to try and start over in middle age. Memory advises that they moved to Westfield, with a new hardware store and stories to add to the July that changed Newark and Detroit, and the hopes from 1964 and 1965.

Lake George was a half-day stay in a town where a beautiful lake and history from the French and Indian War were obscured by the honky-tonk commercial drapes.  We likely had lunch somewhere but no memory is attached even as an aftertaste. The taste that mattered would come that evening.

We pulled into the parking lot of the St. Moritz in Lake Placid around 5 PM. It was a large Victorian hotel with all the requisite dark wood and American imaginings of Old World grandeur. High ceiling lobby, polished floors, uniformed employees, overstuffed chairs and a genteel hush.

My parents’ room had a large bed and thick curtains. Mine, smaller, had a single bed set against the wall with the window opposite.  The Casser group was set to have dinner at 7, so I asked if it was OK to take a walk to town and be back in time. As I took many walks on my own in Brooklyn, this was an easy ask.

An Adirondack town of once and future Olympics, Lake Placid allowed me to easily imagine I was walking in a village in Switzerland or Germany. That’s the beauty of an imagination nurtured by time alone and internal architecture; my eyes become a projector of images that mix reality and dreamscape. Walking past shops keeping winter like a child you don’t want to change, I could feel a chill and hear the glide of skis. 

I made it back by 6:30 and my parents were wearing their best. My mother in a dark blue floral dress and my dad in a suit. I had dark brown corduroy pants and a dark shirt. We took the elevator down to lobby and were shown to large dining room, almost a ballroom it seemed, filled with tables for the Casser tour and one or two others. Sal and Donna were already seated at a table and waved us over to the three empty seats.

As we walked over, my heart sped up and I could feel sweat forming in my scalp. She wore a black dress and black stockings, and her black hair framed a face with red lips that were slightly open and eyes the color of a lake at dusk. We sat down and no one noticed my sweat or my breathing. And then, she came to the table.

“Good evening. Welcome to the St. Moritz. My name is Beth and I’ll be serving you tonight.” I saw my father and Sal glance at each other and I felt angry. I tried to lift my eyes to hers but couldn’t. Donna told her how lovey she looked and asked if she was a student or worked at the hotel full time. Beth said she was a student at Ithaca College, majoring in English and her family lived in the area.

She asked for drink orders and when she came to me, I managed to look up and, in one of those moments I could never rely on, I said, “Coke” without a stutter. She smiled and I reached quickly for my water glass, almost knocking it over.

Dinner was a blur of my watching Beth as she approached the table, asked how everything was, asked about the tour and where we were from. When she heard, “Brooklyn”, her dark lake eyes widened and she said a friend lived in Brooklyn Heights. She visited during Christmas break and the streets were so pretty and did we live near there. My mom smiled and said we lived across the street from Prospect Park, only a few subway stops away. Hinting that it was as nice as the Heights, maybe even a little finer. Another pretend, but so much had become that I wasn’t sure if she knew the difference. Beth looked over at me, smiled, and said,

“Sounds like a nice place to grow up.”

I swallowed my third Coke and managed, 

“Oh, yeah. I l-l-love the park.” My stutter brought looks from Sal and Donna, but it was Beth’s that mattered. In her eyes I saw more than the usual mix of embarrassment and pity. Or believed I did. I wanted to say more but could not.

I did love Prospect Park. It was my escape in many ways; a place where I could be in Middle Earth or the England of Edward III, anywhere but Brooklyn and the three room apartment I choked in. I would sit in the living room that was my parent’s bedroom at night and read Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. Or sit out on the fire escape outside the bedroom I shared with my older brother and read, getting lost in the story and the sound of the open subway trains rolling noisily just beyond a concrete wall. In that moment looking into Beth’s eyes, I knew I added something special to my walking dreams. And maybe to my sleeping ones.

 

As dessert was being served, a group of four from the hotel came into the room carrying a microphone and moved to a space at the back of the room near a large piano. Three were musicians, one guy carrying a bass fiddle, another a saxophone. The third sat down at the piano.

The fourth guy set up the microphone and said, “Good evening, ladies and gentleman. On behalf of the entire staff at the St. Moritz, we hope you are all enjoying your stay with us and thanks to Casser Tours and McClellan Vacations for choosing us for your visit to Lake Placid. Tonight we would like to continue with a tradition we have here at the hotel. We’ve discovered through the years that every summer we are lucky to have among you some real talent in song. So, we’d like to invite anyone who has talent and feels brave enough to come up and share a song or two.”

Oh no. I knew what was about to happen. Whatever happened to their lives, however smaller and plainer they became, my parents always saw themselves as entertainers, at least together. My mother did have a fair husky kind of voice and back in the late 1930’s was asked by a quartet who played Brighton Beach to accompany them on a tour. They had heard her sing, maybe on the boardwalk one summer afternoon when she was with friends, and thought she’d be perfect for their sound. They even had a group name picked out, Gypsy and the Four Kings. But when she asked her parents, Rachel and Morris, a clear ‘no’ kept her in Brooklyn and singing at family gatherings, and maybe still at the boardwalk. But no farther.

My father wasn’t a singer. He could help my mother keep a tune moving, but his real talent was in dance. He looked a bit like James Cagney and he moved a bit like Gene Kelley. Together, my parents found their escape through dancing, gliding in sync with an energy and grace they could never replicate in lives that seemed to forever recede from pre-war dreams. And I existed in the regrets when the music stopped. 

One or two people from other tables found the courage and need to step up and sing a standard the band knew and could adapt to the singer.  Then, I heard the chairs move and I saw my parents heading toward the microphone and the space where, for a half hour, they could make all the pretend real.

As they began with Gershwin and switched to Berlin and began to dance, you could feel each table’s conversation turn to silence and surprised admiration. All the attention they always wanted right there amidst the coffee and chocolate cake in a ballroom at the St. Moritz in Lake Placid, New York.  Sal and Donna watched them, smiling. Sal turned to me, and whispered, “Hey, they are really good. You must be proud.” I nodded, looked down and wished I could get up and leave. I thought about it and then suddenly, sitting down next to me was Beth. She leaned over to me and I stopped breathing. She leaned into me and said, “I know. “ She put her hand on mine and continued, “Once you are a little older and can get away, it will be OK. I promise”. 

She got up and maybe she smiled at me but I couldn’t look at her then. Only when she walked to other tables could I watch her walk, stop, and lean in to a whispered request.  I wished I had said something.

My parents continued to dance, now to Porter. I  got up and walked away, unseen. Or so I thought. As I turned to look back, I saw Beth looking at me and she waved.

I walked to the lobby, sweating and my hands shaking. I heard applause as I left the hotel and walked towards town. The lights from the shops were on now and I stopped to take a breath, and then another. I started walking again, and imagined Beth was with me, not saying anything, just holding my hand. After a while, I imagined telling her about England in the 14th Century and her smiling. I saw that smile for a long time. After I had left for college, as Beth had promised, things did get better, and I was able to smile back.

First Snow

 FIRST SNOW

Margaret Miller

I was thirty the first time I saw vehicle snow chains, a necessary part of my new life in northern British Columbia. For thirteen years I’d been a city driver, confidently navigating my way through the traffic maze of Australia’s largest city, Sydney. Ice scrapers, block heaters, lock de-icers and snow chains were not a part of my life. But all that changed when I moved half way around the world to a small cabin at Moberly Lake, more than a thousand kilometres north of Vancouver. 

I spent many weekdays alone at the cabin. The closest neighbours lived a few kilometres away; the small town of Chetwynd was a twenty-minute drive south. One winter morning I planned to visit a new friend in town, so pulled on extra layers and Mukluk’s and waded through freshly fallen snow to the two-wheel drive truck. After some worry and a few wheel spinning efforts I knew I was snow-bound. I simply could have returned to the cabin and phoned my friend to let her know I was marooned until the driveway was ploughed. She’d understand; weather often altered plans in the north. But I was hungry for company; a new-comer with too much time on her hands feeling frustrated at the bottom of a long driveway. I pulled the tire chains from behind the bench seat and my ready-for-anything snow pants, suited up and wriggled under the rear wheels of the pick-up. I’d been shown how to fit chains a few weeks earlier and knew it could be awkward. But it wasn’t rocket science.

Like most Aussies, I hadn’t grown up with snow. Summer or winter, my backyard was green and the eucalypts in our garden and street were always in leaf. During crisp winter mornings, frost collected on the lawn and in rare summer hailstorms ice stones briefly blanketed the street so it oddly resembled a Christmas card. But it never snowed. The only flakes I grew up with were housed in a small glass dome on a shelf in our living room; one tiny cottage and three tiny evergreens trapped under glass. White flecks swirled in the oily sky when the dome was tilted. Was this anything like real snow?

In my twenties, I set off from summer-time Sydney to experience snow in Britain and Europe. With the temperature hovering in the mid-thirties, I departed from the airport, carrying a knee-length wool coat, wearing thick socks and laced boots. I explored cold London for a few weeks, rain and drizzle but no snow, then ventured northwest in a blue rental Mini to Wales. I woke the following morning in a cozy Cardiff Bed and Breakfast and parted the heavy drapes by my bed. A few inches of snow had fallen overnight. White dominated the landscape; everything looked new and clean. I hadn’t heard a thing. No tell-tale pitter-patter on the roof during the night. No rattle at the window pane. I studied the new view. A downy layer on the lawn and shrubs. The stone fence, dark and mossy under a white crown. A vanilla ice-cream scoop on every fence post. Big white pillows on the roof and bonnet of the Mini. A white strip on the overhead wires. Did snow stick to everything? I thought about driving in these changed conditions. Could an Aussie in a Mini handle it? The B&B owners offered pointers on winter driving, so I ventured out in my first snow to my first medieval castle.

There were few visitors at Caerphilly Castle that day. Mid-week, off-season. After a cautious drive along flat roads, an immense fortress loomed in front of me. Dark stone; tall walls; turrets and towers, most intact and straight, some crumbling or leaning with gaping cracks against the grey winter sky. And fresh snow everywhere. I donned my long wool coat, pulled the hood over my head and left footprints in the snow as I crossed the draw bridge and made my way to the top of the gatehouse. New snow-covered the seven hundred year old structure; milk-white against grey and dark brown and black. I stood alone in a quiet sepia landscape devoid of colour.

I saw snow in other landscapes in the next few years: a tour of Scotland, a beginner’s ski course in Innsbruck, weekend jaunts to the Snowy Mountain seven hours south of my Sydney home. But snow remained a novelty for me, a respite from the mild winters and long, hot summers of Sydney. Then in the eighties I moved to Canada for life with Bryan, a Canadian I’d met travelling, and snow became part of my daily life. I certainly knew snow could be beautiful; it sparkled in sunlight and captured the hues of the rippling Northern Lights. And it was fun; we played in it, skied across it and down it. But snow was work; for seven months of the year, we shovelled and piled it, ploughed, scraped and occasionally cursed it. As a driver, snow tested me. With practice, I learned to read winter road surfaces, to be soft on the brakes and to steer into skids. I came to recognize the bump-bump of a frigid morning drive as the flat spots on the tires rounding out and accepted the need to stow emergency winter gear in the truck.  But my pioneering sense of adventure wore thin that morning, so I grabbed the chains angrily and dragged them in under the vehicle. 

I felt warm and cramped under the truck, but my effort with the first chain was working. I fitted and closed the locking levers, then wriggled over to the other wheel. I pulled and tugged a few more minutes, then more success. I crawled out and climbed into the truck, turned over the engine and hollered when the chains bit through the snow and carried the Toyota and me up the driveway and onto the ploughed road. I pulled over and repeated the whole process in reverse. Chains unlocked and off. Snow pants off. Gear stowed. I cooled my flushed face with snow from the roadside, sucked on a ball of it to quench my thirst and settled back into the driver’s seat. I slid on my sunglasses, pushed an Eagles cassette into the player on the dash and drove through the northern landscape to the home of a new friend.  

One Saturday a few weeks later, when the temperature warmed to a mild five degrees below zero, Bryan and I decided to top up our water storage tank. The cabin had no running water, so year round we relied on lake water and with careful winter use it could last about a month. A green garden hose snaked up from the tank to the ceiling in the mudroom, passed through the wall, crossed the living room, and dropped through a second wall into the bathroom. The spigot that dangled over the claw-foot tub was the only water source in the cabin. We had no shower. No flushing toilet. No kitchen sink or taps. No hot water tank. But we were comfortable. The big kettle on the gas stove heated kitchen water; an immersion heater designed to prevent livestock water from freezing heated our bath water.  

We suited up for our water collecting routine and ran  a Pink Floyd tape to the outside speakers under the eaves on the deck. Bryan disconnected the electric pump from the metal tank and lugged it twenty metres to the frozen lake. He fetched his chain saw and a few tools while I ran an extension cord and another hose from the tank down to the collection spot. About fifteen minutes later, after Bryan cleared snow from the ice, cut an impressive thirty centimetre block from the solid surface and checked all fittings, soft and delicious water ran uphill and into the tank. I checked the kitchen clock. It took about ninety minutes to fill the tank, so we’d need to watch the time. 

 

After the work of set-up we relaxed on the deck with steaming mugs of tea.  

“Time to build a snowman,” announced Bryan. “The snow is just right and the steep driveway will be great for this.”

It would be my first snowman. I’d seen cartoon versions of giant snowballs rolling downhill so understood a little what he was thinking. We tested snow quality with small balls rolled on the flat spot near the cabin. They swelled and left widening tracks in the snow. We moved a good distance up the driveway, eager for a massive ball to begin our man of snow. Unwieldy weight defeated us, so we moved closer to the cabin and began rolling again. We worked together to create three impressively large snowballs and maneuvered them close to the picture window in the living room. We laughed, stacked and decorated the balls. I smoothed the big white tummy and carefully shaped the white head. Branch arms grew from our man’s shoulders and spruce-needle hair sprouted from his scalp. Would we be able to find stones for eyes under all the snow? 

“Of course he needs a carrot nose,” said Bryan. “Any in the cabin?” 

Any carrots in the cabin? Realization hit us at the same moment. How long had we been playing in the snow? We rushed back into the mudroom. Lake water gushed from the storage tank onto the floor. The mudroom, living room and only bedroom were flooded. Shoes floated under the coat rack. Plywood floors and carpet squares were sodden. Bryan yanked the hose from the tank, threw it outside and unplugged the extension cord. One final hiccup of water trickled down the outside of the tank, then all was quiet. We looked at each other and started to giggle. Much of our home was waterlogged. It was mid-winter and below zero outside; and our big new snowman was waiting for his nose. We laughed. 

After more work inside and outside the cabin, we shared a bottle of wine by the woodstove in the living room. The pump was back on the tank. The extension cord rolled and stored. Hose drained and coiled. Chain saw and tools stowed. Floors mopped. Soggy rugs hauled outside to freeze and stand guard by the woodpile. We relaxed together on the couch and looked through the picture window at our big man of snow, his carrot nose firmly in place. 

Cotton

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Cotton

David Franke

In 1967 the Volkswagen Beetle was given a 12-volt electrical system. They also upgraded the engine to 1493 cc.  Mine was blue, if I could call my parents’ car mine, and I did, and I assumed some subtle credit for the intelligent way it was designed, the rear engine heavy over the driving wheels and all. 

I read a book about the Beetle’s history.  It explained how this design helped Rommel drive through the deserts of Africa in the Second World War. Now it helped me drive through the winter in Ames, in the abysmal cold, street lights blurring and warbling through the windshield ice as I drove from work to that girl Cotton’s apartment.  These cars had no heater, really.  I pulled off my gloves anyway.  In the dark driver’s seat, on the empty road, steering with my knees, I pulled out my box of Marlboros and lit one by skittering an Ohio Blue Tip match over the dash, pulling on it for the familiar hit. I steered with my left hand, cigarette clenched between my cold right-hand’s knuckles.

With all the engine weight in the back, I slurred around snowy corners, oversteering to skid straight into the lane, heading up the slight hills of campus and by the giant cyclone—our fatalistic team icon in spiral neon— past the apartment building I got lost in during one very strange acid trip, past Ames Fruit and Grocery where my parents shopped, past the hamburger joint where they said the cooks spit on your burgers, past the trailer park where my brother’s best friend lived, and up Lincoln Way, the main highway through town, the old road that threaded through Iowa from NYC behind me to San Francisco in front of me, my wheels tracking two lines, no traffic, just this car, snow blowing sideways across the gridline highway all the way to her building.  It was maybe only two miles but I was shivering now, really cold.  It was something like 20 below even before all that wind of the rising storm.  The parking lot was unplowed — not a problem for a driver with my skills, of course, executing a 360 on the ice before crunching into place.  This ordinary solstice-season dark felt like Christmas. I flicked my butt out the window, turned on the dome light, opened the Marlboros.  Inside, one cigarette had been flipped upside down, a dark dot in the box.  The deal: If the dark one drops into my lap, it is going to work, she’ll say ok. I tried to be cool about it, as if I were just getting another smoke, not engaging in augury.  I turned the box over and tapped.  Two cigarettes fell out into my lap, neither one special.

 

She called herself “Cotton” because she said she was from the south, but I knew she grew up here.  She had gone to my high school five or ten years before. She knew the same trailer parks and the grocery stores, she knew the kids who painted the water tower during their graduation year. This hard winter wasn’t strange to her at all.  But she came back from Texas saying “y’all” as if she earned it. She came back with a baby, stories about drugs, and with a body different from the stiff, straight lines of the girls I knew.  She knew things.

I hunched against the wind on my way to the door.  Cotton was pale and wore a nightgown, translucent even in the dim light; she let me in fast and told me to be quiet.  There was a daughter asleep in the next room, one I never saw in all the times I went over. Cotton didn’t want to talk, didn’t let me sit down.  She sent me into the bathroom to take a bath.  I drew the bath and squeezed zits while it filled.  I took my Hardees uniform and threw it on the floor, greasy polyester stained with ketchup.  I soaked in the tub a while, thinking about my luck, about the danger of pushing too hard and getting over-confident, and about the spooky mechanism that could tell when you were overeager and wrecked everything.  I kept thinking about her skin or the way her muscles moved in her legs, her loose breasts that I struggled not to stare at.  I knew she wasn’t a beautiful woman. It never occured to me to ask why she lived alone, or where she worked, if she worked, why she left Ames or why she came back.  Taking a deep breath, I swooped under the bathwater entirely, getting my head wet and coming up for air, then slid my hands all the way down my Robert Plant hair to squeeze out some water.  I shook my head, spraying the walls like sheepdog, dried off and put my clothes back on.

 

The apartment was dark and she was sitting on the couch, watching the Olympics.  All we wanted to see were the long jumps.  Being up there, hung up in the air like that, falling for what seemed like a day and half, did they expect to land right, the smooth line of their decent merging with the smooth sleek line of the hill?  Or was the whole slow fall terrifying, expecting snapping bones, bouncing and flailing into the ice and snow?  How do you learn to do stuff like that, we wondered.  I thought of Evel Knievel jumping his motorcycle over 17 semis.  

“They say he broke every bone in his body,” I told her.

She agreed he was an idiot.  “He’s saying, ‘If y’all are stupid enough to pay me to break my bones on TV, then ok, pay me!’”  

The figures on the screen swooped and slipped with skiers. She let her hand fall on my leg, pressed her hip against mine as we looked ahead. When she lived in Texas, on the Army base, she and her husband spent most of their time shooting up, and she told me that if she just smelled dope it would make her throw up now.  I wondered what it smelled like, whether I’d take the needle without flinching.  

I was damp and warm, and we talked over the announcers about the last Olympics, back in 1972, the massacre — and you got the feeling that everybody was sort of hoping for some action, something scarier than bobsled races.  I don’t remember us kissing.  Her strong thighs were outlined under the blanket, one foot was curled up under her.   She made sounds that gave me some direction, and she moved into my touch, unlike the bony speechless girls who had let me grope them.  She pulled her nightgown up and in the jittery television light Cotton flickered in the dark for a second and returned to view.  Tonight she turned away from me and I started to despair, but she said it was ok.  She reached behind herself, took my hands and put them on her hips while she curled onto her knees.  I had heard about this.  She pulled up her nightgown some more and stayed there and bent into the cushions and with one hand helped me find my way and pressed back against me. All I could see was TV-jittery, so I closed my eyes and felt my way, heart fast, gasping for air, shaking like I was freezing.  She pressed toward me again and I started to understand how we could move together.  The television mumbled in and out of ads and announcers.  There were times when I thought she was very beautiful, when I felt she had caught me, grabbed me out of the air.  Making love was as close as either of us got to being held.  She didn’t hurry me or slow me, and when we were done, she rolled back up to sit on the the blanket, leaning against me.  “So there are a lot of ways to do it,” she said, and I was silent.  There had been no terrorists.  Everyone on the long jump had survived.

We were ketchup, sex, cigarettes.  The blue balloons of our smoke mingled in the blue light of the television.  I looked around for the first time since I got there.  She had this couch, a chair, a TV on the kitchen table and a bassinet.  I felt — I wondered what she did all day.

I told her why Palestinians didn’t show up to kill Israelis. I explained to her how the VW had been designed for Rommel in the Second World War. I explained that the babysitter my parents hired—her best friend—found my pot.

“She flushed it,” I said. “I told her that it cost $30 an ounce and that she owed me that money because throwing it away was like stealing. So she paid me!”.

“Be quiet, now,” she said, but smiled at the rug.  We shook our heads at all the stupid people in the world.  She told me a story of sneaking into the Ranch Drive-In down the road, how she and her friends had put some people in the trunk, and how they almost got busted when the clambered out later.

I said I had to go. I walked out into the storm, snow deep on the car already.  The engine turned in the thick oil, twisting in the dark crankcase.  It started and I headed home, late now. I walked down the stairs past my parents’ closed door, slinking into the basement. I hated their weird relationship in there, the angry sleeping they did, the mumbled arguments they boiled late at night.  But there was no light under their door.  They were asleep.

I closed my door and groped for blacklight switch.  When it flickered to life, graffiti popped out of the walls, drawn with a special crayon on the walls of my room: ZoSo, LSD, giant pot leaves. I put Dylan on the turntable and lay down. The storm surged outside my basement room and clouds of snow billowed under the ambient light outside my basement windows.  In the song, travellers are emerging from the dark.  They have come a great distance; they are unknown and dangerous:

Outside in the cold distance,
A wildcat did growl.
Two riders were approaching,
And the wind / began to howl.

I lay there with all my clothes on, Hardees uniform, winter coat, feet crossed at the ankles, boots dripping into the sheets.  I lay loose and long on my waterbed, smoking a Marlboro that I set on a cardboard box when I was done, filter down for safety.  Outside in the cold distance — I listened to the wind blow down from Alberta to Montana and over the Dakotas, surging over half of Iowa and finding me here.  It ran its fingers over the house and then kept leaving, arriving and leaving, over all that long distance while I lay still, knowing things.

Nine Tons of Rock

Nine Tons of Rock

Patrick Dobson

Three rock yards: One sat on an old railroad switch north of the city. The second was just over the Kansas River in sight of my bluff. The third lay down in the Turkey Creek Valley.

I had a wall to build. My house was new, built in the inner city as in-fill housing, what we used to call “worker housing.” The hill in the backyard used to be one of Kansas City’s construction and demolition landfills. The incline allowed water to pool at the base and around the sides of the house, creating a malarial swamp. I didn’t know how to build a wall, but I wanted space to sit and build fires. I needed to terrace the hill to make room.

At the first rock yard, the owner, Chris, was out back burning a load of trash and wood. He greeted me with a strong hand. I was his only customer.

“Rock. We got it,” Chris said. He was a tall, sturdy man in a flannel shirt, overalls, and a heavy canvas jacket. “You just look around here and you see somethin’ ya like, we’ll arrange to have it delivered tomorra.”

The stone was gorgeous even if Chris’ yard wasn’t. Stacks of various colors, sizes, and shapes sat on dirty pallets set on muddy sediment, runoff from behind a railroad service shed. Water pooled in concrete bays where Chris kept stores of substrate and fill—limestone gravel and chat, river rock, granite dust, and sand. Behind the bays rose mounds of disturbed earth. The railroad still ran next to Chris’ property—now a line from an intermodal yard in North Kansas City to Houston. Piles of rubble and ballast lay tangled in weed, grape, and scrub. Discarded appliances jumbled about as if on a stormy sea of Virginia creeper and poison ivy. On the property, Chris had started and restarted a hundred projects, some finished, some in evolution.

We walked along the muddy road, talking prices. Moss Rock, $200 a skid. Kansas Dry Stack, $350 a pallet. Cherry Blend, “twel’fiddy per three twenny square.” He ran his catcher’s mitt hand over his shaved head as he talked up the advantages for each of the ten kinds of stone and gravel on the lot, for wall and walkway—since I needed both. Ten. That was all and that was good. A limited selection is a grand thing for an uncertain shopper like me.

Chris was a good man and an excellent educator for the novice in stone, and not a bad salesman. We came to the fencepost limestone from farms in central Kansas. “I can’t go get it myself,” he said. “Them farmers don’t like having ya on their places. They bring it to me, and I sell it for a hunnert a post.” It was beautiful. Pin and feather holes still visible along the length of the stones. A person could find a “hunnert” uses for them, he said, all of them ornamental and none of them practical. That’s the nature of landscaping sometimes.

After looking at the posts for a while, talking of the unique stratum of stone they come from, I used an excuse to leave without buying. “I have to run this by my wife,” I said. We shook hands. He smiled. He knew I was off to look someplace else.

A few days later at a rock yard in Kansas City, Kansas, just in sight of the bluff on which I live, I ran into a man and his toddler son. The yard was open to shoppers. Richard was a landscape architect. Harry, his son, rode astride his father’s shoulders in thermal overalls. They looked like they were out for a stroll in the park. There was no one else in the yard but us.

“Just getting some ideas,” Richard said, looking around the yard. He handed me his card. Guenther Lawn & Landscape, Basehor, Kansas. “I got a patio with five kinds of vintage stone I have to put together. I’m just trying to see what’s around.” Vintage stone. It occurred to me that even ordinary limestone is made only once.

“Me, too,” I said. “I have a steep hill in a small backyard up there on the ridge.” I pointed to Silk Stocking Ridge about mile and half distant. It rose out of the industrial river bottom of warehouses and railroads. The buildings of downtown Kansas City towered above the bluff.

I gave Harry a finger to wrap his hand around.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do, really,” I said. “I just want to see what kind of stone’s around.”

“What’re you thinking of?”

“Whatever’s around this area,” I said, turning back to the yard, a crossword of neatly stacked pallets of stone. “There’s rock all around where I live, and if I had the time, I’d pick it up myself.”

“But a man’s got a life to live,” Richard said. “That’s why me and Harry here’s going for burgers after this.”

“Have to make it fun.”

“Rock’s always fun,” he said.

We parted ways and I looked at the stacks of stone and their prices. Pecos Tan, Buckskin, Osage Buff, Birch White Ashler, Calico Crème. Nothing made much sense. I understood simple names like limestone, sandstone, granite, feldspar. The yard’s market names for the rock added a layer of mystique to sometimes ordinary stone. Where did it come from? How did it get here? Who quarried it? The signs in front of the pallets of rock contained none of this information. Sometimes a state of origin was listed, but never a geologic stratum, never a notion of an era or epoch.

It was a good yard and seemed like an honest place. But it was too neat and orderly. Battalions of neatly stacked pallets of stone stood in perfect lines on a lot two blocks square. It was a lot like a suburban lawn center, the opposite of Chris’ railroad switch. I’m sure the owners worked hard to give the yard an aura of gentility. People with money ordered stone in bulk and had it delivered. Men like Richard created new spaces with it. 

The third rock yard had a website. Pictures of stone. Prices per ton clearly marked and how that price worked out per square foot. No shenanigans. I drove over and parked on the gravel lot out front. Men in work clothes walked in and out of a spare room next to the office. They said “good morning” to the room as they walked in, and everyone replied in return. They were contractors, workers, all with gloves in their pockets, some with concrete and stone powder on their jeans and boots. They stood in a loose formation at the counter. A woman sat at a desk behind a rough wood partition. A little cocker spaniel made the rounds of the men, most of whom bent down for a pet quick and soft word.

A printer’s box on the counter displayed samples of different gravels. Price per ton, limestone or granite. I asked where to see stone I could build a wall with, and the woman smiled, got up from her desk, and led me by the arm to a door at the end of the office.

“It’s all right out here,” she said, looking out onto hundreds of pallets and piles of stone. The yard was orderly but worked in—somewhere between Chris’ entropy and the suburban yard’s cleanliness. “You just look. See anything, just come back and tell us. Any of us can answer your questions.”

All the stone in the yard had nice names, much like the yard where I met Richard and Harry. But the yard was separated into classifications I understood—limestone, sandstone, quartzite, granite. Small signs in front of skids and piles of stone listed the genteel market name of the rock. The signs also displayed price per ton and square yard. Notations beneath named places of origin. Some signs even provided the name of the quarry. The prices were all better than either of the two places I’d been before.

Dwight stood behind a simple counter in the sales room. He was a big man with canvas overalls and jacket, his name embroidered on his shirt. His hands were the size of baseball gloves. I asked him about the big pile of stone I’d seen in the yard, the stone I wanted in my yard.

“Kansas Dry Stack,” he said. “It’s good stuff for around here. What’re you planning?”

“I want to build a terrace in my back yard, something about twenty-five feet long, about four of feet high,” I said. “I won’t be using mortar. It’s a hill. A lot of water comes down and through the hill.”

“Good thinking,” he said. “Winter’d murder a mortared wall. If you’re not into anything fancy, that dry stack is about the best I can recommend.”

It was also the least expensive per ton. Other rock would build the same wall in fewer tons, but without mortar holding things together, this rock was looking great.

Dwight pulled a pocket calculator from behind a cash register, worked a couple of figures into the keys, and wrote some things on a small pad with a golf pencil—everything looked ridiculously small in his hands. Then, he told me how much I might need, as well as what might cover two walkways either side of my narrow driveway (which turned into muddy sumps in the rain). He told me how much it cost.

“Seven tons all together. Five Kansas Dry Stack. Two Kansas Flag. We can have it delivered tomorrow,” he said, looking up from his pad. “What do you think?”

“I’ll do just that,” I said.

“It’ll come in a big truck,” he said. “You have any problems with your driveway or the place we’ll deliver it? Any cracks, that sort of thing?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“There won’t be any problems unless there’s problems already,” he said. “As long as there aren’t, there won’t be.”

I ordered two tons of limestone gravel I would pick up in my truck a half ton at a time when I needed it. He rang the figures into the cash register, and I handed him a credit card. I signed the ticket and walked away the proud owner of nine tons of rock—seven of Devonian limestone, two a little flatter than the rest, and two tons of limestone pea gravel.

The next morning, I woke early. I had arranged for delivery of the stone after my obligations at the university. When I was finished there, I rushed home in time to see the bucket truck drive up the boulevard. When it halted in front of my house in a flush and squeal of airbrakes, I was in awe. The truck wasn’t a small, big truck. It was a big, big truck. It was cherry red and well-scuffed. A tall, lanky, older man climbed down the ladder from the cab and shook my hand. He smiled kindly and talked softly. I told him where I thought I wanted the stone—off the side of the driveway. I would haul it from there in a wheelbarrow to the back.

“That’s a sound plan,” he said. “I see you gotta crack.”

We looked down at the drive. A fracture ran from the street up the ramp. Right in the middle. I’d never noticed it before.

“You think it will be a problem?” I said.

“With these new drives, it’d be hard to say,” he said. A wisp of his thin white hair flipped up in the breeze. “Could be a little heave or settling. The truck could make it worse or it could do nothing at all. It really depends on what your insurance looks like.” He smiled and adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses.

“I’m not going to worry. Repair it now or repair it later. I wouldn’t know where else to put this stuff.”

He unclasped the door on the back of the bucket, climbed into the cab of the truck, and backed it into the drive and onto the side yard. Once stopped, he pulled the engine out of gear and the engine revved and the bucket began to rise on a hydraulic arm. The back gate swung open, and with a great clamor of stone on steel, then rock on rock, stone slid and bumped out of the truck onto the grass. My neck and the back of my head became sore with tension. Was this the right rock? How do I build a wall? The man pulled the truck forward, and more rock tumbled out, and then more. When it was nearly done, he bumped the bucket up and down on the arm to get the last of the stone out.

It struck me as the man smiled and waved, as I watched the red truck bump off down the boulevard beneath the bare sycamores toward the rock yard: I was committed. I’d build a wall and to do that I needed to move this pile of stone–some six feet high and twelve and some feet in diameter–120 feet and down steps to the backyard. The only way was one rock at a time. The possibilities defied my imagination.

The Witches!

The Witches!

Annabelle Blomeley

The girl walks to the edge of the woods, hands in her pockets, wind through her hair. Goosebumps raise on her arms like mountains, leaves crunching like thunder under her feet. Behind her, children laugh and a friend calls out to her in a high squeaky voice. She turns and when the other girl reaches the woods, they both turn to stare at the tall pines and oaks that loom overhead. They both wear t-shirts and jeans, with jackets pulled close.

“What do you think they’re doing?” the other girl asks, her heavy breathing making clouds form in the crisp air.

“I don’t know. Probably something bad,” the girl responds, pulling her blonde hair out from under her jacket. 

They stand in silence, shoulder to shoulder.

“I think we should go back inside,” the blonde girl says, her hand trembling.

Together they walk against the wind, back towards the looming school building in front of them. Other kids run to line up to their teachers, their noses pink with frost.

The two girls line up to a man with a beard, who calls roll and leads them inside. The pavement turns into tile as they walk through the door, heat hitting their faces like fire. 

They then learn how to add fractions in math and how to grow flowers in science. They get reading time next, and the girls hurry to get the two spots on the red couch next to the window. The teacher mentions signing out a book from the classroom library and the girls get up, carefully leaving notebooks and jackets that mark their spots. The blonde girl signs out Roald Dahl’s The Witches  and signs A.B. next to the book’s spot on the list. The other girl, who has stick-straight brown hair and freckles, signs out a book about Ancient Egypt and signs B.L. And they walk back to the couch, where the springs creak as they sink down into the cushions. The room is quiet, full of only rustling of papers and shifts of seats. With one of the bulbs completely burned out, the room is illuminated dimly. Outside the sky is gray and the swings on the playground sway in the wind, lonely.

“What do you think they look like?” A.B. whispers, looking down at her book whenever the teacher looks up from his desk.

B.L. pulls her knees to her chest and glances outside. In her head she sees pointy hats, broomsticks, and long noses. “Like witches probably,” she responds, her eyes never leaving the window. Finally, she turns back to her friend and glares at the front cover of A.B.’s book. “I mean, they probably look like that,” she says, pointing to the witches on the book with evil eyes and claw-like hands.

A.B. shifts in her seat. “Maybe they look like the blonde witch in Hocus Pocus. She isn’t ugly like the others.”

“Maybe,” B.L. responds, her eyes never leaving the window.

*

The next day, the pair walk towards the woods again. They bring extra jackets today because the weatherman told them to. A.B. is even wearing her pink and orange scarf. 

In the girls’ hands, they are holding chalk, stripes of pale pink and blue lining their palms and coloring their fingernails. Together they stare at the woods for a while, but eventually they get to work on their assignment. 

First B.L. stands straight and holds up her arms, while A.B. gets on the ground and outlines her shadow on the concrete of the sidewalk. Then they switch.

“Since we’re done we can go play now,” B.L. says, glancing over at the teacher who is reading a book on the old concrete basketball court.

A.B. nods and they walk to the edge of the woods. This time they peer in and move along the base of the trees, straining their eyes to see more than wood and leaves.

“Found it!” B.L. shouts, pointing to an opening in the trees where a few pieces of metal stick out of the ground. Further back, they can make out a peeling red set of monkey bars and an ancient slide that lays on its side and is half covered with leaves.

“The others won’t even notice we’re gone,” A.B. says, glancing anxiously at the teacher and the students who were throwing a frisbee. 

B.L. looks back, nodding. “Yeah, we’ll only be gone a few minutes, right?”

A.B. stares and slowly nods, her hair flowing like waves in the breeze. She sets her chalk on the ground carefully, and quickly stuffs her hands back into her jacket pockets. 

The girls walk into the woods together, stepping over rotten trees and crumbling rocks. They trip up now and then, gasping quietly and moving on. They both stop at the metal playground erupting out of the ground, taking note that it resembles a graveyard. B.L. starts shivering.

A.B. bends down and runs her finger across the red swing set, paint chipping off in her hand. She recoils from feeling the cold metal on her skin.

B.L. walks up to the slide, which is standing straight up. She slowly lifts her leg and puts her foot on the silver surface. It creaks under her weight.

“My dad told me that they don’t make slides like this anymore,” B.L. whispers, putting her foot back on the ground. 

“The metal kind?” A.B. asks, shuffling over to her friend and glaring at the slide.

“Yeah, he says they make you slide real fast.”

A.B. nods and carefully puts a foot on the first step of the ladder that goes up the slide. Step by step, she ascends, gripping the rails until her hands turn as white as snow. Finally, she makes it to the last rung, freezing in place at the top.

“There’s no way it’ll hold me,” A.B. whispers, looking around at her bird’s eye view. There was nothing but trees and branches for what seemed like miles. Clouds hung low and wove between leaves and trunks, reaching out for A.B. like a hand.

A.B. jumps down. “I don’t see anything,” she says, breathing heavily.

B.L. nods, sympathetically looking at her friend. She turns away and shuffles aimlessly through the metal poles in the ground. 

“What’s this?” she asks, kicking a pole that makes a clinking sound.

A.B. walks over, grabbing the side sticking out of the ground. “It looks like monkey bars,” she says as B.L. grabs the other side.

They look at each other and pull. Nothing budges. They both position their feet and put all of their strength into it, sticks falling away and dirt flying into the air. The other side finally creaks and erupts out of the ground like a geyser. A.B.’s foot slips in the leaves and she gasps as she hits B.L. who tumbles down after her. 

They both lay in the dirt under the monkey bars, stunned. From the sky, they imagine that it would look like they were hanging off the bars, just playing together to see who could keep their grip the longest. But they are not, they are instead staring at the clouds in awe, breathing heavily with their hands shaking. And after the initial terror disappears, A.B. sits up, her scarf covered in brown specks of dirt.

B.L. rubs her ankle where A.B. had slid into her, a footprint etches across her jeans like a map to nowhere. 

“Sorry,” A.B. says, glancing at the other girl. 

B.L. giggles. “It’s all good.” She pushes her palm against the dirt in an effort to stand up, feeling a slimy blob wriggle through her fingers.

“Ew!” B.L. yells, flinging her hand off the ground and shaking it in the air. The girls look down, eyes big in disbelief. Hundreds of worms, snails, ants, and roly polies litter the ground like squirming polka dots trying desperately to seek shelter. 

A.B. and B.L. gasp and frantically push themselves off the ground, wiping their jackets off as quickly as they can. The unlucky bunch of bugs that had held onto the girls when they got up, now rained down like waterfalls. 

For seconds after, the girls wipe themselves down, not caring about anything else. But a rustle echoes through the trees, and A.B. is the only one who notices. She looks up, forgetting about the insects that weighed her down like anchors. 

“Do you hear that?” she asks, grabbing B.L.’s arm and gripping it.

B.L. stares into the sea of wood and leaves where everything is still and quiet. They can’t hear the wind anymore, only the sounds of their own breaths forcing their way out of their lips. 

B.L. turns to say no but a deafening rustle vibrates through the trees. Birds flap into the sky from the tops of the branches, leaves fall in bunches, and the wind blows the girls’ hair in circles. They could almost swear they see a figure (just a figure and nothing more), darting through the trunks, skillfully keeping out of sight. They hear another sound behind them, turning as quickly as they can and (maybe) seeing it again. They feel like they’re being watched, eyes boring into them, every little move recorded. So they scream and run towards the school, pushing branches and spiderwebs aside. They feel like they run forever, until finally they burst into the clearing, falling onto the gravel, and freezing in place.

The girls look at each other. A.B. grabbing B.L. and forcing her up, together wheezing in harmony. They make eye contact and A.B. opens her mouth, forcing her words out like they’re glued to the back of her throat. 

“The Witches!” she says, eyes wide. “The Witches are real!”

VIOLENCE OFTEN HIDES

VIOLENCE OFTEN HIDES

by

Bonnie Lykes

 

The consignment shop is only a yard from vicious traffic. It doesn’t seem fair the sweetness of so many grandmothers and dear uncles suffers the exhaust. Flimsy tapestries, shaky wood shelves, a nickel cooktop, beaded wallet, a painting of post-modern ladies fanning fans all crammed up, orderless. I have an open wall that needs something.  

I shuffle, in neutral, and wish, for what I don’t know. A path winds through these mismatched histories. The owner wears army shorts and a thin white tank. His boney hands grab at the piles. He snatches at pleather, wood, and canvas cranked all around us. His skin is alive and peculiar. An intensely complicated tattoo covers his face, neck, ears, shins, and arms, and, I’m sure, sweeps down to his dark inches. The ink is delicate and crawls over his body like a fine red lace. No macho flowers or smiling snakes, no Sanskrit. No philosophical quotes, no irreversible ex-lovers—only dark, angel-hair lines. They look like the fragile twines of an antique doily stretched in all directions to cover him completely. Jesus, he’s stuck in a net! Whenever he turns, I avoid his eyes and look at his big black boots. He has no open flesh. Not an inch of real pigment. No shine of plain sweat to commiserate with. I can’t look straight on, but I feel his eyes beam, caged and frenetic.

I rest my hand on a table statue of a fisherman with a bent spine. I move on to a black ashtray with yellow lettering: Belle Of Baton Rouge Riverboat Card Room. I linger. He bleats out, “You want that one?” He hunches and lurks five feet away consistently. 

I answer to his boots, “No, no thanks.” 

He floats a fragile nightstand up and away from a throng of loveseats.

* * *

Continue reading VIOLENCE OFTEN HIDES

Liberia, 1985

 

Liberia, 1985

John Edward Ellis

In our neighborhood, the electricity dies at night.  On those evenings—the blackouts—my father holds a flashlight, and he and I walk out the front door of our house, into the yard, to a shed—inside, a generator.  When I press the switch, the generator howls.  The house is floodlit again, and the silhouette of my mother, eight months pregnant, presses against the balcony window, her stomach reaching against electric light.  

Around the yard is a high wall and an iron gate; beyond, night collapses.  Mosquitos thread the humidity in the kind of space and time that gnaws on the imagination.  It is the end of April, and as my father and I sit in the yard, he tells me he’s going to have to leave soon, for work.  He tells me to help my mother while he’s gone. 

When I go to sleep that night, I see Liberia’s coasts, the beaches where my father takes Sarah, my older sister, and me, on Sundays.  I see dunes—round, full, expectant—as if something waits beneath the sand.  The beaches curl north, curl south, and both ends reach their respective horizons.

In May, my father leaves.  My mother will pick Sarah and me up from school.  The school is one room.  Inside, we sit at a table; Sarah draws and I write.  The afternoon passes without us seeing it go; as the sun steps behind the mangrove trees, our teacher takes us to my mother, waiting outside, in the car.  Sarah points to my mother’s stomach as it grasps the steering wheel.  She asks if our little sister kicks.  My mother says sometimes.  Feel.  She holds Sarah’s hand against her stomach.  

When will she be born, I ask.  

My mother says soon.    

We go to the market in Monrovia.  Women walk with pots balanced on their heads.  Naked children sit on their mother’s laps.  Men stand behind tables, holding up baskets of fruit.  

Sarah and I walk behind my mother.  We watch people yell at her, telling her to buy things.  She buys cassava and shoves it into a cloth bag.  We walk back to the car, and inside my mother breathes in, as if shivering.  She puts her hands on her stomach and her breathing softens.  Sarah and I don’t say anything.  My mother puts on her seatbelt.  Let’s go home, she says, frowning.  Hopefully, the electricity will stay on tonight.

I think then of walking next to my father, of holding the flashlight, of seeing the house lit like fire.  I look at my mother.  Mom, if the lights go out, can I go outside and turn on the generator.  My mother smiles.   

All week, after school, Sarah and I play in the yard.  Fruit has bloomed in the trees, and we throw rocks, trying to hit coconuts between the palms so that one will fall to the ground.  Musu, who works in the house, watches Sarah and me while my mother runs errands.  Musu tells us to be careful throwing rocks.  

Continue reading Liberia, 1985

THE CASTLE

THE CASTLE

Mary Street

 

Dublin, Ireland, 1978: The taxi pulled up to the curb on a narrow street, lined with identical brick houses side by side. Pushing past the metal gate that opened onto a tiny, bleak front yard, I knocked on the black enamel door.

Vera swung the door open, baby at her hip, her face betraying a slight panic when she saw me.

“Ah! Mary! What a surprise to see you!”

“But, didn’t you get my letter with my arrival date?”

“No, no, Mary. Don’t you know we’ve had a mail strike for the last month? But, come in, come in.”

And so began my short vacation to Ireland, a special get-away for a single woman about to get married back in San Francisco. My suitcase was packed with the bare minimum: a pair of jeans, a quilted green jacket I’d bought in Chinatown, a sort of peasant blue dress with a billowing skirt, a pair of high leather boots.

I stayed for a few days with my Dubliner friends, then planned to explore Galway on the west coast. Vera’s husband was a cameraman at the television station, so a highlight of my visit included tickets to a popular variety show, broadcast live.

Wearing my blue dress, I made myself comfortable in the audience. There were maybe 30 seats, situated in a small studio painted entirely black. A tacky velvet curtain served as backdrop for the moderator’s desk and chair, atop a small elevated stage. Very low budget, but the right ambiance for the first guest. It was a farmer who brought along his goat for the interview.

The moderator cracked jokes, and the audience leaned forward, enthralled. I shifted in my seat and wondered how long the interview would last. Then came three dancing girls, dressed in satin shorts and fishnet stockings, crammed onto the stage. They harmonized about the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B.

After a rousing finale, the goat, the farmer and the dancers marched off the stage. The audience followed them into an adjoining room for a cast and crew party. My friends and I found seats to relax and share a cup of tea. I was about to sip from my cup when a young man joined our group, kneeling beside me to fall into conversation.

“Ah, yer from San Francisco, miss, and where do you go from here?”

“Well, my friends have suggested I take the train tomorrow morning for Galway, to stay at the castle there.”

His eyes twinkled. “And what time does your train leave, may I ask?”

His eyes were very sweet, very playful. He seemed irresistible to me.

“Seven a.m. On the dot.” I swallowed hard.

He broke into a merry smile and said, “I’ll be there, and I’ll go to the castle with you.”

And then, he took a bowl of sugar cubes, held the bowl high while he met my eyes again, and silently spilled the sugar cubes onto my lap. He leaned over, took a cube delicately between his teeth, and dropped it gently into my tea cup.

As he slowly leaned away from my lap, he turned his face toward mine and grinned.

Did I blush? Did my heart race? Did we exchange another word? None of that remains in my memory. I can recall the weight of the sugar on my dress, the way his dark curls fell forward as he leaned to capture a cube from my lap.

Next morning, I left on the train for Galway. Alone. I felt disappointed that he hadn’t materialized, but it was a relief to keep traveling light without a stranger as extra baggage. Once I arrived at the castle converted into a hotel, a bellboy escorted me to my room in a tower overlooking a moat with white swans.

As we rode the elevator, I asked him, “Are you from Galway?”

“No, ma’am, I’m from Belfast, Northern Ireland.” He stared at his shoes, then looked up to see if his response made any connection with me. His ill-fitting beige bellboy uniform only made his poor complexion look more sallow. A ridiculous cap on his straw-colored hair made him look like a sad monkey.

That night, I wore the blue dress — my sugar cube dress — to dinner in the elegant hotel dining room. A gregarious couple from Texas invited me to join them, sharing a bottle of wine and a wonderful meal. Feeling well fed, content and tired, I nodded hello to the bellboy as I passed his station on the way to the elevator.

“Room 11, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Right,” I said. As the elevator door closed, I thought, “That’s odd.”

An hour later, I was locked away in my turret room, snuggled under a comfy quilt. Suddenly, I heard the distinct sound of metal to metal, as a key turned in the door lock. A slice of light from the hallway cut across the far wall as the door slowly opened.

Into the room slipped my prince charming monkey bellboy. He stood stock still facing my bed, his back against the wall. Wordless.

Reflexively, I pulled the covers up to my shoulders, as I sat up in bed.

“What is it?” I half-shouted.

“Electricity’s out.”

I switched on the bedside lamp.

“Well, this light’s working.”

A long silence ensued. I glared, my mind racing. He took a deep breath, eyes on the floor, then nodded.

“Yes, ma’am. Just checkin’.” And he left.

 

Image from British Library, original photo of Dublin Castle by Maurice O’Connor Morris, 1888. (Wikimedia Commons)   

Love Lessons

Love Lessons

Sue Granzella

In third grade, I learned that the Irish nuns of Saint Apollinaris School were married to Jesus. It was true; each Sister of Mercy, in her heavy black habit that brushed the toes of her sensible black shoes, wore a gleaming band on her left ring finger as very shiny proof.

“But are you all married to him, Sister?” Katie Bickle voiced the question that most of us were thinking. It was 1968, and Sister Mary de Chantal was teaching us about love.

After Sister explained the mystical marriage to us, we learned another confusing truth: the sisters loved each other and Jesus so much that all possessions were owned in common. In their convent, no one could accumulate earthly treasures, as all belongings were shared.

“But what about your glasses, Sister? Aren’t those just yours?” I was certain that I’d never seen Sister Mary de Chantal’s black-rimmed, cat-eye glasses on any of the other nuns. Continue reading Love Lessons

Vulture

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Vulture

Katie Vautour

French-English dictionaries tell me that my family name translates directly to vulture. Nan was more of a goose—I guess because she married in—clucking at bad ideas, honking and baring her sharp teeth at anything threatening.

 

In Arizona, oranges are as common as pinecones are in New Brunswick. My brother and I throw half-rotten fruit at each other in a parking lot, dodging between cars that people will have to wash later to get rid of sticky citrus.

My phone rings. It’s Nan, saying her arm hurts where they scooped out the lump. She whispers biopsy, as if saying it quietly makes it better, or like it’s a “bad” word, or maybe God will hear and will just forget anything bad is happening.

Justin hurls an orange at a cactus. The cactus has lumps, grey knots like those I imagine cling to Nan’s arm. The orange is pierced on the spines with a thwack, juice spraying everywhere.

 

Justin and I are back in Saint John, outside Grampy’s house: blue shingles, white trim. He tells us that when the ambulance drivers took Nan to Hospice, they asked her address and stopped in front of the house so she could look at it and her eccentric collection of lawn ornaments. There is a statue of the black boy in red suspenders and white shirt, fishing amongst a forest of flailing pinwheels and glinting metal curlycues. To get to the garden, I would have to manoeuver through an aviary of wooden birds, wings twirling in the wind.

“I don’t know why your grandmother’s got so many damn birds,” Grampy says. “We’ve got enough real ones as it is. I’ve seen flocks of woodpeckers trying to drill bugs out of the suckers.”

Compared to New Brunswick, there aren’t many birds in Newfoundland, aside from the obligatory seagulls and pigeons and puffins. Occasionally, I’ll see one cardinal and wonder where all the others are.

 

Nan’s room is a white chamber. The bare windowsills are white as the nurse’s clipboard she prints on with blue ballpoint after adjusting some wires and tubes. I hear a squeak from the corner, it’s my Aunt saying, oh, well I think the pollen made Nan cough more, so I moved them.

Pollen. As if flowers caused her lungs to seize and collapse.

Justin marches down the hall in polished black boots and retrieves the flowers from the nurses’ desk. He slams them on the windowsill. A haze of yellow pollen rises like a revolt in the sunlight.

There is a variety of plants, daffodils, roses, black-eyed susans, a strange spiky plant with yellow fur (probably from our family back in the desert). Someone sent a single white orchid. I wonder if they knew how appropriate that was. Nan is like an orchid right now. People love orchids but can’t keep them alive because they don’t know how to care for them.

 

The last time Nan sees me, she stares open-eyed, sucking air with her eroded cheekbones. Smokes kept me breathing, she had told me, better than puffers, better than fresh air. I’d smoke through a hole in my throat.

I try to smile at her but I can’t.

“Did you notice how much Nan looked at you?” Dad asks later. “She was glad you were there.”

I know she wouldn’t want me, or any of us, to see this. She would rather huddle her family under a fence of feathers, shielding us all from truth.

 

My brother is the only person in the family who takes the idea of “bird” literally. He is an air force pilot, and usually flies real planes, but now he sits at the computer with fingers connected to cords and buttons as if he’s hooked up to a life support system. He flies digital planes against digital bad guys, blowing the shit out his enemies as if defeating them defeats his sadness and confusion.

I perch on the arm of the couch beside him, pecking at my fish and fries. I guess I am a vulture—not just because the dictionary suggests that denotation.

I am a scavenger by profession. I scour streets for scraps, picking through carcasses of recycling bags for objects or interesting materials. Then I rearrange them and glue them together, then call it art and people gawk at it with curiosity.

 

One of the funeral directors offers Grampy a rose to lay in the hole. He takes it and starts shuddering. The flocks of family scatter in dull black coats, huddling from the hiss of spray from the sea. Some cock their heads, observing my grandfather curiously from a distance.

I glare at them. Never mind vultures. My family is a bunch of ostriches sticking their head in the snow. I concentrate on my feet, bursting iced twigs like capillaries in a lung.

Standing beside the unmarked grave, Grampy looks like a vulture: hooked nose, bald head with sprigs of white sprouting around the rim, black coat flapping over his hunched back.

He stands under snow-bandaged tree limbs, shaking fingers still holding the rose. Glistening beads of water sparkle on the petals. When I touch his arm, he drops it in the hole and shuffles away through the snow.

 

The luggage carousel in the St. John’s airport grinds to a stop. The red light flicks off. A plump lady with a bobby-pinned blue hat holds the microphone to her painted lips and cheerfully announces that they overbooked the plane in Toronto, so our luggage got left behind and we will receive it in a few days.

The crowd of people with hugs and luggage that are not mine is overwhelming, so I wait outside, standing in the ice-bitten streets, neon lights wavering on the sleet-soaked asphalt.

A tough street pigeon, complete with Mohawk, wobbles around my ankles, cooing, as if I landed here only to challenge him for his turf.

My boyfriend waits for me in the car. “Let’s go home,” he says.

Home?

 

My other grandmother, on my Mom’s side, passed away in January. The morning I am supposed to fly back to New Brunswick for her funeral, the flight is cancelled due to a storm. I might be a vulture, but unlike my brother, I cannot actually fly. When planes get cancelled, I get stuck on this island.

This day also happens to be my boyfriend’s niece’s birthday. She’s five. For the sake of normalcy, I agree to immerse myself in a world of pink taffeta, and other things I never liked even as a little girl. Under pressure to find delight in china cups, I have only an overwhelming sense of trespass. My grandmother, who was being buried under layers of ice-crusted snow, would have insisted on throwing out any food served on china that had the tiniest hairline fracture. Then cracks from those chipped teacups crawled onto her palms and into her brain until it shattered into pieces and she couldn’t put anything back together again.

I sit with hunched shoulders, sipping tea out of a teacup too tiny for tea, brooding about the web of roses wreathing the cup. My grandmother’s dementia had sprouted suddenly in her mind, a parasitic plant digging deep roots down into the darkness, thriving off her memories until they were all gone and it withered up and died with her.

Vultures are unusual creatures in this setting. Tiny birds avoid me, flapping around with blankets over their shoulders and heads, shrieking like some aviary on acid. A bold one flicks her head, throws a blanket at me and says:

“Katie doesn’t have any wings!”

I forget my manners and run away to cry.

 

I lean against the door of a car I’ll never ride in again. In a cab, I’m in a place but no one knows where I am. I hope the driver will devote the rest of his life to taking me home. Bits of me get left the air each time I fly. The idea of me and home disintegrates when I get shaken up, shaken like an etch-a-sketch erasing my one Grandmother’s memory, like the long ash of my other Nan’s cigarette crumbling on a breeze in her garden.

Duel on the Strait

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Duel on the Strait

Richard LeBlond

During my visit to the island of Newfoundland in late summer 2011, remnants of two hurricanes struck, and a third came ashore just after I left. Newfoundlanders shrugged. The Cape Ray area near Port aux Basques often has winds in excess of 190 kilometers per hour, equivalent to category 3 hurricanes. Those winds used to blow the sarcastically named Newfie Bullet off its narrow-gauge tracks before it was permanently blown off by construction of the cross-island highway and freight-hauling trucks.

Nowadays, strong winds are mostly a bother to boats and laundry. Boatmen stay ashore, except for crews on the large ferries to and from Nova Scotia and Labrador. Those vessels are part of the commercial highway and must set against the wind – and sometimes it seems, against reason.

Winds were strong along the Strait of Belle Isle during the latter part of my detour to southern Labrador. A few days before I departed, the Labrador ferry, Apollo, had set out from St. Barbe, Newfoundland, for its two-hour crossing to Blanc Sablon, a small town in Quebec about two kilometers from the Labrador border. Aboard the Apollo were some high-ranking government officials, but the winds were too strong to dock on the Quebec/Labrador side of the strait. So the ferry loitered offshore, waiting for the gale to ebb. But the wind wouldn’t cooperate, and the vessel eventually had to return to Newfoundland, a wasted six hours of official lives.

(Those passengers got off easy. Two weeks later, the ferry from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland dawdled offshore for 36 hours before docking, thanks to the remnants of hurricane Maria.)

A big part of the docking problem at Blanc Sablon is that the Apollo has to back in. The ferry always noses in to St. Barbe on the Newfoundland side, so cars and trucks heading to Labrador drive on through the bow. The Apollo backs into the dock at Blanc Sablon and the vehicles drive off through the stern. Backing in is a much more difficult maneuver than nosing in, and requires more power. Wind just makes it worse.

The failed crossing with the high government officials was prominently noted by the region’s weekly newspaper, the Northern Pen (and the inspiration for the newspaper in Annie Proulx’s novel, Shipping News). The Pen reported the Apollo was in need of repair and had been operating all summer at only 65 percent of its power capacity. During my own later crossing from Labrador to Newfoundland, I was told by a crew member that the vessel had to shut down the kitchen, as well as all other non-essential power uses, to gather enough thrust to perform the backing-in maneuver. It is possible the journey of those high government officials was thwarted by an overlooked toaster.

My plans were to leave Labrador on a Monday, but I had become so enamored of the little outport of Red Bay that I decided to stay two more days. It is well I did, because the Monday crossing I had originally reserved was cancelled. Not just the crossing was cancelled, but most of the day for those with reservations, due to the particulars of the ferry operation. Had I tried to depart Monday, I would have left Red Bay about 10 in the morning to arrive at the terminal in Blanc Sablon by noon. The ferry was scheduled to leave at 1 p.m., and those with reservations have to check in at least an hour before departure. Arriving late not only forfeits the reservation, but incurs a $10 penalty euphemistically called a non-refundable deposit.

On that Monday, the winds again were too strong for docking, and the Apollo meandered to and fro just offshore before finally giving up about 5 p.m. and returning to Newfoundland. During that time, those who were booked for the 1 p.m. crossing had to sit there and wait until the decision to abort was made. I would have wasted a day that could have been – and actually was – happily spent in Red Bay.

So instead I left Red Bay for Blanc Sablon on Wednesday morning. The wind was mild and the forecast good. But by the time I got to the ferry terminal, the bluster had picked up again. Way up. The Apollo had not yet docked, and could not be seen, as the strait was clotted with a fog as thick as pease pudding. I checked in at the terminal office, where no one knew what was going to happen. I was assured the Apollo was just offshore, out there in the pease pudding. I prepared myself for a lost day, splitting time between reading a book in the pickup, and standing in the bluster on the edge of the wharf, looking for some sign of the ferry, some attempt by it to get close enough for us to cast our hope to one another.

And then, after an interminable and dismal wait, the Apollo slowly appeared out of the fog, an apparition in transit from phantom to matter, gathering detail real and imagined. At first it was the ghost ship of the Flying Dutchman, then a three-master 150 years late from a whaling voyage, and penultimately a World War II merchant vessel come in from its dance with a German submarine. The Apollo was all of these, beyond its allotted time, unable to dock, condemned to wander in sight of land as the wind and the captain stared each other down.

The afternoon wore on, and the wind actually strengthened, diminishing hope. But the captain did not blink. Instead, after two hours of posturing, he attempted to back in, despite what seemed a greater danger. Maybe it was the aftertaste of the failed crossing with the officials, or the subsequent bad press. Maybe it was a call from the owner, or a look from the first mate. Whatever it was, he did not blink. Heaving mightily against the wind, the captain swung Apollo’s stern to the Blanc Sablon dock.

After the ferry unloaded its Labrador-bound traffic, we boarded and set off through the frothing strait for St. Barbe. I bought a 5-ounce cup of black tea at the cafeteria for $1.81. A refill cost as much. The tea was already brewed and came out of a 30-gallon container. A chronic tightwad, I tried to regard it as another contribution to the needed repairs. Nonetheless, the ferry owner is walking a fine line when he risks our safety and charges $1.81 for each small cup of generic tea. “It’s the Apollo for cod’s sake,” I tell him in absentia, “not the Queen Elizabeth II. Most of your passengers are out of work for half the year.”

As soon as we were free of the Blanc Sablon harbour, the Apollo began to lurch from side to side. We were exactly perpendicular to the wind and its battering waves. At first, it was just my tea cup accelerating across the table. But soon the vessel began to roll violently. Some people, having spent years of their lives on boats, thought they could walk, but instead could only slam into bulkheads. Dishes and pots in the kitchen slid along counters and crashed to the deck. Doors banged open and shut. I threw life-preservers to the fears that kept bobbing up in my mind of ships lost at sea.

As we got closer to Newfoundland, the wind hardly let up, but a bit of sun made its way through the fog, and little rainbows sailed above the waves reeling off Apollo’s bow.

“That was one of our roughest rides,” a crewmember said as we approached St. Barbe. But the young woman sitting at the next table disagreed.

“This happens all the time,” she said. She worked for the school system and crossed over to Labrador every week. “It’s always windy on the strait.”

But rather than being a comfort, her words were a disappointment. I wanted it to be one of the worst rides ever. I had paid dearly for those fears, and she had reduced them to mere paranoia.

The Stuff of Fairy Dust

The Stuff of Fairy Dust

A Memoir by Karen Wright

I am utterly alone, in Taos, New Mexico, in a barren, dusty field off the back porch of a motel where I’ve stayed on previous trips. Alone, I am home, asleep and dreaming. The sun shines in a cloudless, transparent blue sky. Sagebrush dots the landscape. The land is dry, dusty, the dirt devoid of nutrients. This is typical southwestern soil. Take any paint of a bold, primary color, add enough dry, southwestern dirt, and the result is a muted color–cozy, warm, welcoming, safe, secure. These are the colors of Taos. These are the colors that summoned and inspired numerous artists, including Ernest Blumenschein, Andrew Dasburg, Nicolai Fechin, and Georgia O’Keeffe. These are the colors that keep me coming back in my waking life. These are the colors, thick with the stuff of antiquity and primal dust, that beckon me in this dream state.

Dreaming in Taos colors and drawn to its soil, glistening with energies felt and unseen, I think about my husband Alan, the love of my lifetimes. I etch memories of our time together in the dust, my impromptu canvas. When I finish, I kneel down and gently gather each stroke, each memory, placing the collection in a locked chest of golden memories, and tuck it away for another day. In waking life, Alan is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He was diagnosed nine months after we were married, six short years ago. It was the second marriage for both of us, but the glue uniting us has an other-worldly strength that cured the moment we met.

I have been Alan’s caregiver from the beginning, and I will be his caregiver to the end and beyond, if such a thing is possible. Still, watching this gentle, sweet man being robbed of his life, of our new life together, is the most difficult thing I have ever done. Holding his hand and whispering tales of love, surrender, and gratitude, watching him slip away, has taken its toll on me, has brought me to remember and cherish each shining jewel of our life together. I can do nothing to stop this transition, his passage. His remaining time here is short, and I am coming undone.

Continue reading The Stuff of Fairy Dust

BREAD AND SALT

Bread and Salt: What a Jewish Cemetery in Poland Taught Me about an Arab Cemetery in Israel

© Robert Brym (2014)

Department of Sociology                                                                                            University of Toronto                                                                             rbrym@chass.utoronto.ca

1977

On a wet spring morning, Marek drove southwest out of Warsaw toward my father’s hometown. During the two semesters he had spent as a postdoctoral student in Canada, he and his wife had rented the basement apartment of my parents’ house in Fredericton. My mother would periodically invite them upstairs for a meal, giving my father an opportunity to recount his youth in Poland and the war years in Russia. The two couples – one Jewish and in their mid-60s, the other Catholic and in their early 30s – liked each other, and when it came time for me to attend my first international conference, in Poland, I had little compunction about contacting Marek and asking him if he might be willing to drive me to Bodzanów, the little town 90 minutes outside Warsaw where my father lived until 1939. When I met Marek and his wife in their Stalin-era apartment bloc an hour before we set out on our trip, I saw immediately why my parents were so fond of them. They offered me bread and salt, a traditional Slavic welcome for a respected guest. Their intelligence and generosity of spirit shone.

Continue reading BREAD AND SALT