Tag Archives: Creative Non-fiction

Midnight Mud Cruise

Moonlight Mud Cruise

Bill Diamond

The plan was to make indelible memories. The unspoken expectation was the memories would be the positive kind. Expectations don’t always work out.

I would soon depart Washington, DC for a life in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. A camping trip to Assateague Island National Seashore was on my pre-move Bucket List. Early May before the tourist crowds seemed to be a propitious time. The weather forecast was clear.

On arrival, the island was sunny and warm. There was no need to track down the Chincoteague wild ponies that are the island’s main attraction. They are EVERYWHERE from the moment you enter the Park. Although these feral horses are legally wild, their behavior belies that fact. They are not averse to human contact and many of the ponies are aggressive beggars. Park brochures warn you to stay a safe distance from the beasts because they can charge, kick and bite. Apparently, no one informed the ponies to similarly keep away. They readily approach cars, picnic tables, camping tents, and anyplace they darn well please. It’s a simple life. The horses spend their days eating; begging for food; eating; causing traffic jams; eating; mating; and eating.  

A full day of touring the island, photographing the horses and hiking the beach was capped off with a fortifying crab stew dinner at the Globe Theater restaurant in nearby Berlin. It was dusk when I returned to my site in the Bayside Campground. A ruddy orange, near full moon was just breaching the horizon.

My campsite backed up to the tidal marshes adjacent to Sinepuxent Bay separating the island from the mainland. The moonlight was bright enough to cast a slight shadow and illuminate the wispy clouds. I made a spontaneous decision to take a short moonlight kayak cruise through the wetlands before enjoying the campfire. It was custom made for creating a timeless recollection. What could possibly go wrong?  

Pulling the kayak off the truck, I realized it was an act of faith that it was still seaworthy. It spent the winter hanging beneath the deck. The sky blue bottom was marred with ugly brown drip marks where the deck above had been re-stained last Fall. When I had lifted it from the hanging straps, a squirrel nest had dislodged from the inside and tumbled onto my head. I dropped the boat and beat my skull to ensure no vermin were relocating to my hair. My father taught me, “If you take care of your equipment, it will take care of you.”. If true, I am soooo up shit creek.

When I put it in the water, I was relieved the kayak was watertight. Buoyed by the good omen, I secured my life jacket and launched before second thoughts could arrive. The scene was idyllic.  The moon was luminous and reflected off the tentacles of water meandering through the marsh. Calls and responses of the night birds drifted from the trees.

The nearby woods sheltered me from the freshening breeze. It also protected the bugs from dispersal. While my repellent kept them from biting, they swarmed annoyingly. I kept my mouth closed to avoid inadvertently ingesting a serving of bugs for dessert.

To steer clear of the choppy water of the open Bay, I wended my way among the narrow channels of the wetland. Paddling in and out of small tributaries, I worked a good distance across the bog before feeling a chill and turning for home. As I started to head South, so did the excursion. When I ran aground the second time, I realized that at low tide these wetlands turn into mud flats.

Using the paddle as a pole, I pushed off the bottom and moved with more urgency down the narrowing canals to keep pace with the rapidly retreating water. The water was winning the race. As luck would have it, the night was also turning darker. It was an inconvenient time for the moon to choose to play hide and seek. Note to self: even ‘wispy’ clouds can significantly block the moonlight. While I’d had the foresight to bring a headlamp on the camping trip, that foresight didn’t extend to bringing it in the kayak.

Stuck on another mudbar, I couldn’t discern a path forward. Well, … if not prepared, the explorer must be flexible. I decided to exit the boat and haul it overland a short distance to a wide channel with access back to the campsite. Good plan, but the topography wouldn’t cooperate. The first sign of this was when I stepped out and my foot sunk into the muck. While this wetland floor was adequate to support saltmarsh grass, my body clearly exceeded it’s carrying capacity.  

The alternative of spending the night in the kayak until the tide turned was unappealing. I resigned myself to my legs receiving an unexpected mud spa treatment and trudged through the ooze. Something that should have been common sense, only now came home to me.  May is still early in the warm season. There had not been time for the water to heat to it’s comfortable Summer temperature. The ocean liquid that was pleasant to paddle across was damn near frigid to wade in at night.

Mostly, the mud was shallow and topped at my ankles. But, occasionally, it reached my calf. At those times, the swamp grabbed tight and tried mightily to remove my Teva sandals. As reluctant as I already was about this unexpected ramble, the idea of a barefoot stroll through this quagmire was intolerable. I struggled to free my legs and footwear intact and tried to chart a course across firmer ground that would support my weight. I had limited success.

Dragging a kayak across land constitutes a portage. Portage is a French word and sounds exotic and adventurous. It conjures images of Lewis and Clark on the Corps of Discovery Expedition. In reality, it translates in English as ‘slog’. An equally rare term, but one with far less glamorous associations.

Scanning the dewatered swamp, I abandoned the notion of returning to camp by a wetlands water route. My new plan was to traverse the bog and use the open Bay to paddle back toward the campground. Although my legs were cold, my slow progress had me sweating. Trying to be optimistic, I told myself this effort would count toward my weekly aerobic exercise regime. Small satisfaction.  

Sitting in tedious meetings at work, I would glance out the window at the Potomac River and daydream about spending the day paddling. Right now, the warmth of the boring conference room seemed an enticing alternative. It proves the grass is always greener. To divert my mind from the muck sucking endeavor, I tried to distill lessons learned from this misadventure. At work, while evaluating whether to launch a new project, I would counsel staff not to jump in without thinking it through because things are always easier to get into, than out of. This fiasco seemed an apt example for that precept. It brought another cliche to mind: that I should practice what I preach.

The uneven terrain, mud holes and slashing vegetation made the crossing seem like a marathon. Eventually, I reached a sandbar at the edge of the Bay. Pausing to catch my breath, I imagined that for any rational stranger passing by, I presented the suspicious image of an ancient smuggler: dragging a cargo across an uninviting swamp in the dark without any lights. Not to worry, there were no sensible people out and about.

With the cold returning to my body, there was no advantage in further delay. Rinsing the mud from my legs, I was thankful that I retained my two sandals. Pushing the kayak into the open water, the stiff breeze was no longer blocked by the onshore trees and began to push back. The good news was that it scattered the bugs. The bad news was that it was blowing from the direction I had to travel. Deciding a straight line was a quicker path than hugging the beach with potential snags, I aimed straight across the inlet. While better than schlepping the boat across the mud, the paddle home would be no piece of cake. Heading into the wind meant each wave I cut through sent a chill and salty spray toward my face. I must have offended Poseidon in a previous life.   

To my right, there were blinking green lights on channel buoys. Farther away to the North, red lights marked the Park access bridge. Beyond that lay the dim glow of Ocean City. None of that was helpful to me as I headed in the opposite direction toward the dark Park. It was probably only fifteen minutes of paddling, but it seemed longer. I finally reached the shore near where the campground should be. 

The land was an undifferentiated black smudge. The wind had brought in thicker clouds and the moon only intermittently peaked through to shed some minor light. The tops of the trees were silhouetted against the sky. That was of little assistance as I wasn’t landing in the treetops, but in the unwelcoming abyss below.

With nothing to recommend one spot over another, I picked a random patch, landed and debarked. My eyes adjusted only slightly to the gloom. It was enough to see there was no obvious path through the thicket. Rallying my tired limbs, I lifted the kayak onto my shoulders with my head inside. Using it as a battering ram to protect my face from the tangle of branches, I plunged into the undergrowth. Low bushes scraped at my legs. Where was the protective mud layer when I needed it? 

Each time I stopped, the woods were silent, but for a few birds. However, once, I heard a footfall ahead. It was impossible to see in the dark, but from the sound, it was too big for a rabbit and too small for a wild pony. I heard it again. The thought bubbled up that the only animals that size are nasty or carnivorous.  

I told myself I shouldn’t be concerned. After all, I did have a 12 foot kayak on my head. However, it was unclear how great a defensive weapon it would be in the underbrush where I could barely move. To bastardize Robert Frost, the woods now seemed “hungry, dark and deep”.  

Of its own accord, my mind did a hypothetical analysis on whether it was better to be sprayed by a skunk or attacked by a rabid fox. Neither was attractive. Emboldened by my exhaustion, I determined to assert my rightful place on the food chain. I let out a roar to warn off any potential predators. Even to my ears, it sounded like an asthmatic clearing his throat. Despite that weak effort, I persisted with the concept that making noise should deter wild beasts.  

Talking would probably be even less effective than my pitiful roar. Screaming could convey eatable weakness. Since I never learned to whistle properly, my last recourse was singing. I have a limited repertoire. It was the wrong season for Jingle Bells. I can’t do justice to the Star Spangled Banner.  So I settled on Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup”. I loudly launched into the redneck anthem:

    “Red Solo cup, I fill you up

     Let’s have a party, let’s have a party

     I love you, red Solo cup, I lift you up

     Proceed to party, proceed to party.”

If the beer-soaked words didn’t intimidate any wild beasts, perhaps my off-key caterwauling would. With the lyrics reverberating inside the kayak, I continued thrashing through the woods.  When I ran out of the words I remembered, I listened for my visitors.  Silence.  Good news.

However, in the quiet, my imagination offered up an unwanted image of a snake lurking near my open toed sandals. It was likely because I’d seen a number throughout the day. At the moment, I couldn’t remember whether these reptiles were nocturnal. Not wanting to dwell on it, I told myself, ‘don’t even think about snakes’. Inevitably, the minute you say that, all you can think about is snakes. I had to get out of the woods. After some quick charging, I burst panting into a grassy field.  

Breathing heavily and with my chest heaving, I forgot about snakes. Not because they don’t slither in grass, but because a new thought erased them from my consciousness. It was replaced by the idea that if anything is more ubiquitous on the island than ponies, it is their droppings. This was triggered because my left foot stepped into a squishy pile of … something. I was momentarily hopeful it was merely a misplaced mound of mud. However, a pungent and undeniable aroma reaching my nose told me that was wishful thinking. “Shit!”, a loud and descriptive curse escaped by lips and echoed across the land.

I dropped the kayak from my head and rubbed my foot vigorously back and forth on the grass while trying to avoid any more piles. I was only partially successful in knocking the dung from between my toes.

Looking around, I realized I’d made it back to the campground. My site was a hundred yards away. Fed up with the evening, I grabbed the handle of the boat and began pulling it along the grass. At this point, my lightweight craft embodied the proverbial ton of bricks. I  motivated myself with the notion of a hot shower to warm up.   

As I dragged the kayak past the few occupied sites, I had that sixth sense feeling of being the object of strange looks. The other campers probably wondered whether I was stealing a boat in the dark; or, had been the source of the bizarre singing from the nearby woods; or, the rude curser. Or, all of the above. Regardless, I was in no mood to allay their misgivings with a friendly greeting.

Reaching the truck, I quickly grabbed a towel and warm clothes and headed to the shower to ward off what I imagined was incipient hypothermia. There, I received the coup de grace for the evening. No hot water. Great! Since, I was covered in salt and muck and manure, I steeled myself for the chilling soak. How bad could a cold shower be? Pretty freezing bad! I swear the water had to be pumped directly from the nearest glacier. If the military is looking for a replacement for waterboarding, I know the ideal substitute. Managing to survive, I got moderately clean. I will be making a submission to the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s shortest shower.

At least the campfire started quickly. As the flames defrosted my toes and tea warmed my entrails, I spotted ponies grazing near the water’s edge. I had a greater empathy for the chilly downside of their daily existence. Together, we enjoyed the sight of the timeless moon peeking through the clouds.  


Photo by Gabriele Motter on Unsplash



Martha Phelan Hayes

It is early December, still late afternoon, but already we have sunk into the  blackness that is high-tide deep and all consuming, a cold that numbs. You could drown in a night like that. Inside the house we are warmed by the oil furnace and each other. I feel safe here in the golden lamp-lit living room, tucked into the couch corner, guarded by the paned window. I am seven and too young to understand its fragility, just that it makes my side of it seem to glow beyond its wattage. 

The new baby is sick. He has been getting worse, and now my mother swears his chest is starting to rattle. The doctor has been in and out, and tonight my parents have phoned him again. They need to bring him to the hospital. I hear them in the kitchen, their voices unclear through their efforts to keep their worry to themselves and the convenient din of the television and my siblings’ play provides them. But through the muddle of sound, I hear my name. It comes out of their sea of talk and is said as if it is a resolve. “Martha can go with you,” my mother concludes. There is a certainty in her voice, a hint of optimism. As if this minor decision promises some resolution, some hope. 

In the car I hold my brother on my lap. We have faced the cold with sweaters and winter coats and an extra blanket for the baby. The used Ford takes a while to heat up, and so we are as good as outside as my father backs out of the driveway, his right arm across the top of the front seat, his concern passing by me as he peers out the rear window, backing the car into the road. He is our driver when a friend calls, or my mother needs a ride home from the grocery store or to the library, or on long trips to Boston to visit our grandparents. On Sunday all of us cram in to attend Mass, in the summer sometimes stopping for daisies from the girl who sells them on her front porch. 

The heater relieves us as we enter the highway, the headlights boring through the thick onyx night, and as we exit into the city, we seem to descend into a pool of light. The hospital is bright with starched white florescence that hums the same chord as my classroom lights when we are taking a test. Everything seems to have grown larger, a checker-box of dark winter clothes and sterile white walls and uniforms. The night rests on my father’s tongue when he checks us in, his throat clearing the cold as he says his name. I sit on a blue, vinyl chair, hold my brother, and wait. I smell the despair and dependence on the other heavy faces sitting around me, a swamp of sick and broken in this antiseptic stench of chlorine.

And then it is our turn and my father takes over. I stand beneath the charcoal of his suit, his tense limbs, as the doctor examines my brother. He taps his infant back and listens to his lungs, looks into his eyes with a piercing light. He asks questions that might come out of a dark closet with answers that doom us all. The baby is quiet. He lets him poke his body as if it is some lifeless thing they have found in the dark. I am certain he will die, and death is a sooty shadow that has followed us here.

But then the doctor removes the stethoscope, pulls out a prescription pad, and looks up at my father. The baby will live. My father’s shoulders drop and there is a handshake, a warm breath of relief in the room. He smiles, my father, with ripples of delight, as if someone has dropped a pebble into the pond that is his mouth. Suddenly he becomes the salesman he is and remembers me, joking about the antics of our ride here with a story that seems to have been written while I was somewhere else. 

My mother takes my brother the minute we are in the door. And soon I am burrowed in my own bed. I fall asleep to the whirl of his vaporizer, the smell of wet walls, and my own thoughts of death and eternity, the claustrophobic terror of my soul living on and on and on.

Two and 2/3 Jews

Two and 2/3 Jews

Vivian S. Montgomery

We were moving to a Norwegian-American mecca: Ludefisk, Nisse dwarves in every window, Hardanger fiddles, Rhinelanders, people who said “Oof-dah” without thinking.  My husband was offered a job in the music department of a Lutheran college in Iowa’s upper righthand corner. The department chair had called the town “the center of the universe.” Funny. Well, their annual Nordic Fest did draw thousands of ruddy types from across the nation, and hosted either the king or queen of Norway on a regular basis.

I had been poring over a demographic chart at the back of the college’s catalogue. I shuddered. “John,” I said, “I’m ‘other’ under ‘other’ and there’s nobody else like me!” The religious background columns were mostly various Lutheran synods: ELCA, Missouri, Wisconsin, Orthodox, Mysterium. Other denominations were substantially smaller: Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, UCC, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, General Catholic. Following was a list, accompanied by single-digit numbers, of “other religions”: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and…Other. The number next to “other” under “other religions” was 0.

Upon arriving in Decorah, I found it took almost no time for the conversation at pre-season faculty cocktail parties to turn toward kind efforts to place me with “my” people, even though there was very little evidence of such people within reach. In those first weeks, I had the same very short list delivered to me many times by various well-meaning souls: the husband of the town’s most popular pediatrician was Jewish, but he seemed busier with homeschooling their four children and driving the baby three times a day to his wife’s office for her to breastfeed; one person on the dance faculty was half Jewish, but he distinguished himself more by being gay and caught up in a messy divorce; and, while not “officially” Jewish, one professor emeritus had become a nearly obsessive Judaiophile, evidently disturbing the not-completely-spelled-out order of things in the college’s Religion and Philosophy department. According to all those who were helpfully filling me in on my options for tribal connection, this professor was my safest bet.  There had been one other visiting faculty member of Jewish persuasion a few years back, but nobody could remember his name.

Postville, Iowa was a town 18 miles from Decorah, down one of the county highways. Many followers of current events in the Upper Midwest had heard of the anomalous infiltration, in 1987, by hundreds of Hasidic Jews into the town’s previously small, predominantly German and Polish, population. The shift, resulting from the conversion of a large meat-packing plant into a kosher facility, had started only a few years before our arrival in Winneshiek County. A few of the Decorah residents who were racking their brains on my behalf came up with the connection to Postville, but for most, it just was too alien a connection to entertain. Even I, upon learning of the new inhabitants of that town, found it surreal and was hard-pressed to imagine the link between my background and the Ultra-orthodox as a comfort. I was the product of a mixed marriage and my mother had been too undone by her own orthodox upbringing, and her subsequent escape to the land of Quaker anti-establishment atheism, to raise me with more than a sporadic observance of holidays, and certainly no substantial Jewish learning. 

Still, I discovered a nearly involuntary reflex residing in me when one day, during our first couple of weeks in Iowa, we took a begrudging trip to Walmart. While wandering the hardware section, I looked up to see the backs of three men in black suits and fedoras, the spiraling contour of their payot, and the tzitzit of their prayer shawls, making them easily distinguishable from the occasional Amish group one encountered in those parts. Perhaps my memory has exaggerated the volume of my voice as I reached out my hands and said “Jews!” but I know John had to restrain me from rushing to touch them, like a parched trekker rushes to a water pump. 

After we had settled in, I started receiving calls from the women of the Postville Hasidim, quizzing me, inviting me (but not my goyische husband) to Shabbat dinner. The calls (sometimes from Leah Rubashkin, the wife of the all-powerful owner of the meat processing facility) continued throughout our five years, escalating after the birth of our son, Ezra, but dwindling to the bare minimum near the time we left. I was curious, a little sad, but never particularly tormented by being unable to bridge the divide between myself and that community. 

Even early on, when the isolation and strangeness of my environs weighed on me most severely, I had started to find some equilibrium, carving out my own way of being a Jew through an odd array of enterprises. While I was in no way drawing closer to satisfying the devout Jew’s standards of observance, I was wholeheartedly staging a type of real-life theater, unfolding, to those who wished to take it in, a series of episodes that revealed the angles of my difference. 

Were it not for this determination to publicly paint a multi-dimensional picture of what made me who I was, I might have simply gone down in the murmured history of Decorah as the type of alien woman who would show her cultural deafness by taking a reserved Upper Midwesterner at his word when he answered three times that he wasn’t waiting to use the library copy machine, despite the fact that he had been standing next to me holding a piece of paper for a full 15 minutes (my mother’s voice: “Why didn’t he just speak up? What makes that kind of politeness different from lying?”).

Or I would have been remembered as the woman who freely dismisses an acquaintance’s favorite movie as nothing but hackneyed feel-good formula, not knowing that, three years later, the hurt would still show in his eyes (my mother’s voice again: “How was I to know he was such a sap? People that sensitive shouldn’t ask for opinions”)

Or perhaps I’d be remembered as someone who, in a fit of pique among a group of young Decorah mothers, declared it barbaric to raise a child in a place that doesn’t have an art museum (my mother’s voice: “Well, isn’t it?”).

My great initiation into public advocacy for Jewish awareness came when, twice, in rapid succession, I had the phrase “Jew you down” uttered to me by Decorah locals with no apparent consciousness of its fairly obvious meaning. I think both incidents occurred on the same day, although that would be a little too priceless. Anyhow, I was in an antique store on Water Street and I was looking at a bracelet or pin and the woman behind the counter said someone else had just been in looking at the same item and had tried to Jew her down on the price.  I was stopped dead in my tracks.  Interestingly, I had never heard the expression, and I suppose my synapses were firing so explosively at the shock, that I wasn’t immediately able to piece together its meaning. I thanked her and left in a muddled state. Later, I was sitting with my husband in the diner, reviewing the incident and its implications, turning over what he was telling me about his familiarity, as a southerner, with the same phrase, trying to sort through the layers upon layers of sociological critique descending on my poor little gut reaction. The waitress brought us our bill, I absent-mindedly put down some money, and when she picked it up she saw that it was too little to cover the total. “You trying to Jew me down?,” she quipped cheerfully. 

The Decorah Journal was published twice a week. My dealings with the paper thus far had been awkward as it resembled so fully the type of paper John and I had been in the habit of picking up when we were traveling through little towns, and with which we found hours of endless entertainment as we drove on through the heartland. On trips, as we passed through, such “news” had seemed like colorful and kitsch objects bouncing off of our post-modern windshield, but now it reported the current events and concerns of a place becoming more and more real, a place where we apparently lived.  

My earliest trauma in relation to the Journal had occurred when my sister (who couldn’t restrain her near-constant references to pigs through the entire time we were preparing to move to Iowa) came to visit, and on our first walk down Water Street, on the first day of her stay, she spotted the newest issue on the newsstand. The entire front page was occupied with news about pigs: the winners of the Pork Queen and Little Miss Pigtails competitions at the Winneshiek County Fair; the ongoing dispute over hog-farm run-off seeping into the ground water; the dangerous escalation of pig manure stench during the recent heat wave; and the local supermarket sponsoring a rib-roast. 

But now the paper was becoming my forum. I wrote a letter to the editor about the use of “Jew you down,” what its affect was on someone of my background, as well as on the mindset of a population whose contact with real Jews was so limited. I wrote of the fact that most people, when questioned about it, whether they used the expression or not, said they had never really thought about its meaning.  

Not thought about it??? It has the word JEW at the beginning of the THREE WORDS! Some responses to my letter (both in print and on the street – yes, people spotted me and drew me aside to comment) brought up a tired comparison to the term “gyp,” which was evidently offensive to the huge number of gypsies living among us. Some responses were apologetic, but some called me hypersensitive. Thus my introduction to a burning question – can a person or population be antisemitic when they’ve never given any real thought to, or had any real intersection with, Jewish culture?

And so began that first year’s series of one-acts where I found myself cast in a role I had assiduously avoided in the previous three decades of Jewish life. The next was a happier occasion, a cooked-up Hanukkah Celebration that I had expected to host quietly at my house but that had expanded to absurd proportions with the help of some zealous oddball activists – not themselves Jews, but driven as though they were. Pine (yes, that was her name) had heard me playing the accordion in the co-op coffee house one day and was determined to make its singing swell the new soundtrack for the Upper Iowa landscape; Kathy, a brilliantly dry University of Michigan compatriot who was almost as baffled as myself to wake up each morning in this place, wanted her children to be more than the offspring of a Unitarian and an anarchist, goddammit, she wanted them to have lit a fucking menorah. It was a large and very public affair, with handouts, rehearsal, latkes, and dreydels for everyone. Signs were posted, reservations were made by phone, and a photo appeared in the following Tuesday’s Journal. The dawn of a new keyword for Decorah archive searches.

Passover approached and, not that I had EVER hosted a seder, it was a given. The guest list was carefully composed, the haroset recipe was selected with some torment (my mother’s version, with mushy apples and Manischewitz, resembling in taste the mortar of old? Or something delightful, blended with almonds and Moroccan spices?), and we made a trip to the organic farm to buy a new leg of lamb. The day before the seder, after returning from a trip to Minneapolis where I had bought extra copies of my favorite art deco Haggadah, it crossed my mind that I should call the grocery to make sure they had Matzah. “I’m sorry, do we have what?” I started to describe it – unleavened, for Passover, comes in a box, but I found my voice getting smaller as the hope drained out of me.  Of course. I lived in a town without matzah.  

I was reluctant to call the Postville ladies because I had thus far rebuffed their advances and I didn’t want them to know about my half-assed attempts at ceremonies that were open to all and everyone, regardless of their circumcision status. I was going to make my own stinking matzah. 

So I called the judaiophile emeritus to get a recipe.  “Well, now, seems like it would just be flour, water, and salt” he offered, before launching into his seder-length explanation of why no leavening. I guess it was a rare thing for him to talk Jewish to someone who actually knew what Passover meant. I allowed him a little extra time for spinning it out and then, as quickly as possible, got off the phone to begin the baking. 

Not much detail needs to be given about the process or the result.  It’s well summed up by our friend David, who, upon being asked to ritually break a piece the next evening and having to exercise certain arm muscles one wouldn’t usually employ for such purposes, said cheerily, “This is truly the bread of affliction.”

From the Hanukkah celebration, which involved a number of the lively instrumentalists who came out of Decorah’s spoon-carved woodwork when they saw an opportunity, it became obvious that there was one thing sorely needed to make the musical community whole – a Klezmer band. Joining me were a virtuosic blue-grass mandolinist, a classical clarinetist with a great talent for chirping and bending, an all-purpose dancing bass player with the best nature anyone could want in a colleague, and a Lutheran pastor-in-training vocalist who was given to fits of laughter but had an almost freakish aptitude for Yiddish – and Norski Klezmorski was born. We played for Nordic Fest, for the Back-of-the-Barn Summer Music Festival (with the cows, sheep, and YES! pigs chiming in), for the Cake Party, the Apple Barn Party, the Danish Midsummer celebration, for the Iowa Public Radio live local music show, for the Des Moines waterfront festival, and we were even invited by the non-Jewish street fair organizers in Postville to come play there, in hopes of bridging the gaping divide between the “locals” and the Hasidim. 

The one song I would allow myself to sing on any of these occasions was Yingele, nit veyn, about a boy seeing his mother for the last time before she’s removed to a concentration camp, and his father is telling him not to cry, that he’ll now be the boy’s father and his mother. Everything would grow quiet as I gave my translation.  As I sang and pulled on the bellows, I’d look out and know that, even with my croaky voice and stumbling Yiddish, I was party to a type of listening that’s rare and magical. It was the kind that occurs when perhaps the listener is realizing that something dreadful has happened, and is feeling its depths for the first time.



Alan Brickman

Ever since Ben was on his high school’s cross country team twenty years ago, he loved running. It had always been his preferred workout, and he could run for an hour or more without difficulty but with that perfect blend of challenge and achievement that made exercise so satisfying. The year he turned thirty, he ran a marathon, and while he was happy with his time, the raucous crowds that lined the routes and cheered the runners made him miss the solitude of distance running that he so enjoyed. 

Now in his forties, he would leave the house early, before the midday heat, and be predictably gone for an hour or two, running through streets, wooded areas, open fields, sometimes even losing his way and simply running until he recognized some landmark that reoriented him so he could find his way home. He stayed remarkably fit, and when he ran, he felt weightless, as if on the magic carpet of his sneakers, powering through the air toward the horizon and into the future. 

This morning, a Sunday, he left the house without saying goodbye to his wife Sharon because of an unpleasant argument they had over breakfast about one of the million little annoyances that plague marriages. The things that needed fixing around the house. Their teenage son Nathan’s drinking and poor choice of friends. The difficulty Sharon was having finding child care for their three-year-old Beth, and Ben’s resentment that all the daycare slots were gone because Sharon had procrastinated. And of course, money. Ben didn’t get the promotion and pay raise he was expecting because his company lost a major bid to a competitor, which necessitated layoffs. Ben felt lucky just to be able to keep his job. They had recently purchased a new car for Sharon and a new living room set they had been talking about for the better part of a year, and their accumulated credit card debt had now become alarming. 

The aggravation Ben felt about the argument gave some extra power to his running, and he took off at a sprint. After three blocks, he knew he had to pace himself if he was going to get in his usual distance so he slowed his gait and let his breathing return to a comfortable level. He turned onto the main boulevard through the town center, across from the ball fields where he saw teams of Little Leaguers practicing, then up the hill and into the state park that covered hundreds of acres. He smiled to himself and thought, “I’m not a dirt track runner, I’m a cross country runner,” remembering how much more he preferred the wooded, overland routes to the boring tracks or roads. He saw a trail marker that said, “Scenic vista, 10.2 miles” and decided to run uphill. 

As he ran, he became angry and self-pitying about how lonely he felt in his marriage, how Sharon never took anything seriously, which meant he had to make all the important decisions himself.  “Oh, honey,” she would say, “everything’s going to work out,” this being her idea of problem solving. She was in total denial about Nathan’s drinking, and chalked it all up to “boys will be boys.” Ben had a serious drinking problem before he met Sharon that he had never talked to her about. It was in the ’80s, so of course there were routinely mounds of cocaine around. One night, after a stupid stunt that left him with eight stitches in his left shoulder, he went cold turkey for about two years before he settled into mild social drinking and absolutely no drugs. He’d been lucky. He knew all too well about the slippery slope of substance abuse, and he was convinced that Sharon had no idea. There is nothing worse, he thought, than feeling alone in a marriage. It was supposed to be a partnership, a shared enterprise, that’s what makes it all worth it.

He realized he was on the downhill side of the trail, having missed the scenic vista, and was back below tree line. He turned left, off the marked trail and into the woods, hoping to challenge himself a bit by having to dodge the tree roots and boulders. After about twenty minutes, he came out of the woods onto Route 109, a small two-lane road that went under the interstate and into the next county. He looked at his watch and saw that he had been gone for almost two hours. He didn’t feel nearly as tired as he would have expected, and kept running.

He took a few random turns onto random streets, half-hoping to get lost. He thought, “What if I just keep running, end up in some motel three counties over, call my friend Sal to come get my key, sneak into the house when no one is home, bring me my wallet and a few things so I can just keep running. Away from the debt and the house and the new car and the kids and the wife and the job and the living room set, away from all of it. Start over somewhere, anywhere, even change my name or fake my death and just be someone else.” 

He felt stronger as he ran, and this idea felt increasingly compelling. There was no downside. He pumped his legs a little harder and felt himself reaching escape velocity.

Without consciously meaning to, he saw that he was running back through town, then onto his street and up his driveway. He looked at his watch, he’d been gone for four and a half hours. He stopped at his side door, stretched his calves, and stepped inside. He forced himself not to say, “Hi honey, I’m home.”



Eleanor Windman

Clenching my teeth, with head held high and comfortable shoes, I stride out the front entrance of the Iowa City Graduate Hotel. I am spending the weekend at the Iowa Writers’ Conference, one of the most prestigious writing schools in the country. I have rented a deluxe room for this occasion, a lifelong dream realized, possibly, just in time. My room is one of a few with a private bath. This splurge was a long time coming, after my husband’s prolonged illness.

The rooms are decorated with a writing theme. The walls ingeniously clad with multicolored pencils, the lamps, old school trophies, the desk equipped with black-and-white notebooks and Eberhard Faber pencils—for your writing pleasure. Years ago, I might have called it tacky. Now, it makes me feel relevant, involved, alive. I search the photos hanging on the walls of the men on the soccer team and imagine them today, their muscles flaccid, their uniforms moth-eaten, in their prime in 1937, when I was born.

After my husband’s death, I stayed put. Afraid to try things on my own. For fifty-seven years, I’d had a bodyguard. He carried the boarding passes, lifted the luggage into the overhead bin, would probably notice if I dropped dead in the hotel room, slipped in the shower, or was trailing a tail of toilet paper out the door. He killed the bugs, paid the bills, stroked my head, and loved me.

I’d never considered the possibility of tripping on a plastic bag and going to Iowa City Medical Center alone. I found the insurance cards and remembered my address and my next of kin. The X-ray disclosed a hairline fracture—the pain continued for the duration of my stay. They gave me a cheesy sling, and I was on my own. I stood on an overturned garbage receptacle and flung myself onto the high bed, amazed that I scaled it by tugging on the sheet.

Most of the time, I was navigating around in a maze.

Backtracking, searching for something, something I need: keys, phone, shopping lists, insurance cards—all nag like a toothache.

My life is now a continuous scavenger hunt. I enjoyed that game when I was a kid. I was good at deciphering the clues, but now, when I finally locate what I’ve misplaced, it’s validation that I have not yet crossed the line.

My thoughtful grandson has given me a doormat that reminds me in bold letters to check for:


It’s early; I’ve given myself plenty of time to locate my classroom. It’s hot, humid, and uphill—a trifecta that impedes my determination. My writing paraphernalia is heavy; I lug it behind me in a burgundy backpack with wheels that clunk as I shlep them noisily over the cobblestones. They reverberate, causing the students racing past me to turn around and stare.

The concierge has drawn me a diagram; I know to turn left when I exit the hotel. Then climb the hill leading to the campus, and the quadrant of pale stone buildings at the top. They are identical. Each has four entryways, leaving sixteen possible choices. I am out of breath, and panting. I feel the sweat gluing my thighs together as I circle the buildings looking for the right door. Nothing is familiar, even though we had a welcome dinner here last night. Time is running out, and I am forced to ask a coed wearing shredded shorts with long strings hanging from the crotch, and tendrils of hair echoing the statement. “Where is building A?” I ask, horrified that I might be at the very place where my journey began ten minutes ago. “You are standing in front of it; follow me.” She beckons.

Breathlessly, I enter the classroom. My eyes averted, I lift the wheely thing off the floor to keep it quiet. Everyone stares as I take a seat in the last row and ruffle through my papers, retrieve my water bottle and shawl. The air conditioning temperature cannot be regulated and is on the igloo setting. I am aware that they are all waiting for me to get settled, and also, that I am the oldest person in the room.

I remember another time, more than forty years ago.

My late husband and I are sitting in the front row at a comedy club performance—never a good idea—I remember being warned about that, too late.

I glance around the room and notice that we are probably the oldest people in the audience. I mention that to my husband, whispering into his familiar warm ear. “You are nuts,” he responds curtly.

The hyperactive comedian leaps onto the stage and greets his loyal audience. There is a lot of clapping and catcalls. He is strutting, enjoying the adulation when suddenly he stops and notices us in the first row—big mistake. I sense it coming; something tells me I am right; he is staring at us with lust in his eyes.

Slowly, with determination and a deep bow, he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, look who we have with us tonight.” Long pause. “Let’s give a rousing cheer for Fred and Ethel Mertz.” The audience and my husband are hysterical. I, on the other hand, am mortified. Is it too late to move to another country that reveres its elders? I wonder.

I have not forgotten that moment—the burn can still crawl up my neck, and my eyes can still smart. I can feel diminished and humiliated. But suddenly I’m laughing with them, and I’m the audience, not the victim.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” I ask nobody in particular.

I am amazed when the maze eventually leads me through to completion—giddy, when the other students laugh as I read my newest story to them. One gent sharing later how he almost “pissed his pants” when my protagonist told us that she considered writing porn part of her writing practice.

But most of all, I am amazed to know that I can still be amazed.

Growing Up

Growing Up

Lois MacLaren

It was five o’clock. I had just passed through Covent Garden and was walking towards the Thames Embankment. Throngs of people… Londoners, mostly business people in proper navy or gray pin stripes, heads down, faces serious, mingled with talkative tourists dressed in jeans and sandals. Everyone hurried…a dash to the underground, a bar, or yet another of the small shops dotting the area. The sound of rushing footsteps was occasionally punctuated by strains of violin or accordion music provided by street musicians eager to add a few more coins to their day’s earnings. A corner pub cast its calm, benevolent gaze over this mass of bustling humanity. Cascades of brilliant violet petunias and flaming marigolds overflowed the flowerpots hanging under its eaves. “Old Nagshead”, written in elegant, gleaming gold script, graced the black border that ran across the building’s facade.

Suddenly, I noticed a small crowd forming a semi-circle at the corner opposite the pub. All eyes were fixed on a strange, otherworldly figure standing by the lamppost and facing the group. An oasis of silence had been cast amid the bustle and rush of the crowd. The figure, painted in silver from toe to head, glistened in the slanted rays of late afternoon sun.

Silver shoes…large with bulbous toes; silver trousers…tightly stretched across a bony frame; silver, close-cropped jacket. Hands, fingers…all painted silver. My eyes traveled upward to his narrow shoulders and high collar centered by a wide, silver four-in-hand. Then to the face…again, silver. A faint, enigmatic half-smile wavered on closed, silver lips. At last a respite…his eyes, laced round with dark lashes, were shiny brown orbs framed in white. A silvery frown creased his forehead as those dark, expressionless eyes surveyed the group of curious, silent, gathering spectators. He carried a small, silver umbrella in his left hand, and slowly, ever so slowly, raised it over his silver, peaked cap. Gradually it opened, protecting him at last from the setting sun filtering down over tops of shops and restaurants. He lifted his right foot ever so slightly… paused…then after a moment or two, carefully closed the umbrella and placed it deliberately on the sidewalk beside him. He paused again, then solemnly reached into his trouser pocket and leisurely removed a gray, string-like object. He raised his hand to his lips, and with measured breaths began to inflate the limp mass. 

My gaze strayed from this hypnotic figure and rested on a young boy who stood at the front of the onlookers. He couldn’t have been more than six or seven. His red hair was close-cropped; his skin pale and freckled. Head tilted, thin mouth ajar, a frown creased his forehead. A mixture of puzzlement and wonder filled his blue eyes, eyes which never for a moment left the bizarre figure of the silver man.

Soon a form emerged from the mouth of the man…a dark, silvery gray transparency of a dog…a curly balloon tail; short, pudgy balloon legs; long body and small head topped by the tiniest of balloon ears. With each blow of silver breath, the boy’s knees pumped as if to help his mysterious friend complete his magical task. At last the creation was complete. The silver man held it up for the boy and all around him to admire. He slowly, oh so very slowly, turned in a triumphant half-circle, the same, never-changing half smile grazing his silver lips. 

Abruptly, in mid-turn, and for no apparent reason, the silver man jerked to a stop. He raised his arm, seized the silver cap from his head, and tossed it on the sidewalk where it landed near a box sparsely filled with coins. He then squashed the balloon-creature and tossed it casually into the corner waste bin. The spell broken, he paused, calmly took a cigarette from his silver trousers, lit it, then squatted down on the curb, eyes averted, waiting for the next group of passers-by. “Old Nagshead”, steadfast, continued smiling down, but the crowd, anxious to get on with its concerns, dispersed as quickly as it had gathered. 

I saw the back of the little boy, head down, shoulders hunched, clutching the hand of his father as his small legs struggled to keep up with the rushing crowd. He did not look back, and I did not wish to see his face. 

Sunday at Jarry Park

Sunday at Jarry Park

Ilona Martonfi

“Oh! They are married.” Granddaughter Jessica twirls round and round. Sings: “Kiss. Kiss. Tam. Ta-Tam. Oh! She is so pretty.”

A wedding party is coming around the bend on a narrow gravel path. A photographer and a cameraman accompany the newly married Asian couple. Tell them where to stop. Where to stand. Two bridesmaids walk with the young wife. One is dressed in tomato red, the other in black lace. The maid of honour, in pale yellow. 

My grandchildren play hide-and-seek in the park. Amanda is ten, Jessica, seven, and Matthew five-years-old. The children run toward the couple. Laugh and giggle. The bride is lovely in a long, white satin wedding dress. The groom is wearing a black tuxedo.

My daughter Marisa sits on a low cement wall facing the pond. Blinking in the afternoon sun, she looks with indifference at all the commotion. Amanda sits down beside her mother and states in a matter-of-fact voice: “I guess she is marrying him because he is so handsome.” 

Marisa gives her a half-smile. I wonder what she is thinking. Twelve years earlier, it was her wedding day. October 8, 1988, she married Jeffrey. The bride Catholic, the groom Jewish. We gave her a traditional Italian wedding with three white limousines, a Rolls Royce, a photographer and a cameraman. Over a hundred guests danced all night to a trio band at Princess Buffet. The bride’s parents’ wedding gift, a key to her own house. 

I was still married then. I left my husband a year later, on the first wedding anniversary of Marisa and Jeffrey. They were expecting their first child.

I look at Marisa’s huddled body. Blinking in the afternoon sun, she doesn’t speak to young Amanda. Outpatient at Douglas psychiatric hospital. The medications are powerful. They also tranquilize her joy. She suffers from chronic lung sarcoidosis. Generalized anxiety disorder. Melancholia. She lives in an adult foster home under public curatorship.

Youth Protection court. Divorce court. Jeffrey obtained full custody. I supervise her children’s visits: “Owing to potential, accidental, harm to children.” 

Bees are buzzing at the open garbage can. We have an Indian summer in October. I call my grandchildren and we walk back to McDonald’s on St-Lawrence Boulevard. They romp and slide in the playroom. Jeffrey and his girlfriend Alicia pick them up at three o’clock. The Sunday visit is over. Marisa takes the metro back to the foster home in LaSalle. I catch a bus to my downtown studio.

What Might Have Been

What Might Have Been

Mara Fein

I have a photo of me standing next to my mother.  I am probably two or three years old.  It is a wintry day and my snowsuit envelopes me.  My right hand points up at the sky.  Perhaps at a bird, perhaps the sun, perhaps the faintest of moons.  I have no idea what my childish self saw.  But as I now gaze upon that moment of magical thinking, I wonder if it is good to let yourself stray from the path a little and follow your inner child, because you never know what you might find.

In Greek mythology, the Fates, a group of three goddesses, weave our destinies at birth.  Supposedly, they determine not only the length of one’s life, but also the allotment of joy.  Or misery.  You might think, since the Fates were women, they might have been kind to the women in my family.  Sadly, that was not the case.

The women in my family had no poverty of aspiration.  My father’s mother, blessed with a beautiful soprano voice and an offer to study music in Vienna, found that road closed to her because of her fearful parents.  As fate would have it, her parents had just arrived in America and refused to allow their daughter to return to the country they had fled, even if it presented the possibility of a stellar career in the world of opera.  Her life continued through an arranged marriage to a much older man.  A child followed, then his frequent absence, and his return leading to another birth, then another, and finally divorce.  In a limited education and job that wasted her talents. In a basement apartment in Brooklyn, where she could never fully escape poverty or loneliness. In perennial resentment towards my mother, never ever good enough for her son. In bitterness that made me a fearful silent child whenever my father and I visited her.  

Poverty crushed my mother’s dream of teaching. She grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and her parents offered to send her to the nearby New Britain State Normal School for teachers.  Too close to home for her.  She dreamed of college in some far-off place.  

Her sister Irene, the eldest, wanted to be a nurse.  But it was 1933, there were eight children, and the Great Depression being what it was, the family needed Irene to work.  So she took a job at the local department store and never left Hartford.  My mother escaped to New York City and the nursing school Irene had hoped for, one sister’s dreams cascading into the other’s.  

Nevertheless, they remained close.  When I was a child I often heard them on the phone.  Long conversations, often about their unhappy marriages, never about their careers.  Conversations overheard that determined me to never marry, because marriage would stunt my talents and derail my dreams.  

I was wrong.

I was a bit of a tomboy as a child.  I played every sport I could in high school and lettered in track and field, softball, and bowling.  My parents wanted me to go to college.  I wanted a career in sports.  Title IX, providing new opportunities in sports for women, was passed two years after I graduated high school.  Too late for athletic scholarships or women’s varsity.  Too late to imagine a decent-paying career in sports other than as a physical education teacher, a career I did not want.  The best I could do, as my college newspaper reported, was star in powder puff football, with “two interceptions … in the final game of the regular season.”

I loved sports, but I also loved theater.  Musical theater.  I inherited my grandmother’s voice, and what I longed for most of all was a life on Broadway.  

I attended auditions but was never cast.  One day my voice teacher said “music can always be an avocation, you know.”  I was stunned.  Slapped in the face.  Was she saying I wasn’t talented enough?  Would never earn my living with my voice?  I couldn’t ask.  But I now realize she knew, and perhaps deep inside I knew, that my happiness lay elsewhere.  

This detour did not result in bitterness like my grandmother’s, although I inherited her voice and the irony does not escape me.   This simply was not the star my inner child saw.

My mother was not bitter either, although a bit disappointed, I think.  She shared recordings of my voice with neighbors, queried them about children who were in “the business” and might “give me a break.”  

She was not disappointed by my next move.  A move that took us both by surprise.

My husband and I met at a swimming pool on a sunny March afternoon in California.  We marvel over the insistence of the Fates.  Had we made different choices, we might well have met and married in New York City, he taking the job he was offered there and I remaining to seek a career in musical theater.  Or even earlier, in Illinois, where we both strode the same campus at the same time, but apparently never crossed paths.  If destined to meet, we certainly made it quite difficult for the Fates to succeed.

After my mother died many years later, as I cleaned out closets long neglected, I found old family photos.  Of weddings, of days at the beach, of holiday parties, of old people sitting around and talking. Those photos gave me a clearer and more focused picture of my family’s choices.    

Divorced when it was still considered shameful, a single mother supporting three children and her own mother, the best job my grandmother could find was as housemother to student nurses in Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.  I found a photo of her at her desk, sitting ramrod straight, gaze cold, and lips stiff, as if she had just issued a reprimand.  Probably little different from her demeanor when my father told her he was marrying my mother, one of her former student nurses.

Mother was tough on her nurses too, but former co-workers told me she was the best head nurse they ever knew.  Perhaps that’s why a 1939 photo reveals her, just out of nursing school in starched uniform and cap, grinning at the camera.  Newly licensed.  Independent. Hopeful about the road ahead.

The wedding photos of my aunt Irene suggested that she was not hopeful about the road she was heading down.  She frowned in every photo.  Wedded bliss was not what she was expecting.  And not what she got, either.  She married an inveterate gambler more interested in the ponies than raising a family and uninterested in the children she so wished to have but never did.  Photos through the years show an increasingly worn and saddened woman.  Was it for this, she seemed to ask.  My mother must have agreed about my uncle.  She kept plenty of photos of her sister Irene, but few included Irene’s husband.

I noticed something else in those photos.  As Irene aged, she seemed to become someone else.  All the relatives did.  Like those high school reunion photo name tags, they became ancient witnesses to the people they had been.  But then, I thought, perhaps they actually became more themselves … perhaps after being on the road a long time, they simply knew themselves better, were more able to show their happiness, their bitterness, their disappointment.  

And I wondered if, as I had wandered down paths too numerous to remember, perhaps I too had become more myself.  More able to understand the triviality of my so-called failures and to cherish my accomplishments.  More able to understand the sadness of others and not hold grudges.  More aware of the immense love in my life.  Yet aware of questions I should still ask, of love I should still give.  

I found my intellectual path somewhat late in life, at least that’s how I felt in graduate school, a thirty-eight year old student, isolated from much younger hipper classmates.  I labored for six years for a doctorate in English Literature and loved teaching, but had no desire to teach in any of the places I interviewed.  A major press showed interest in my dissertation, but I did not follow up, my desire to labor on a book that appeared unlikely to get me a position in a field flooded with younger candidates fairly low.  Neither my dissertation director nor any other professor explained how the road ahead might diverge, offering other choices.  And earning a decent living loomed largest. 

But literature now colors all I see and I do not regret the worlds it opened up.  Books are my most trusted of friends and I sit down with them often.  When I am about to speak in anger, Jane Austen reminds me “good opinion, once lost is lost forever.”  When I think only of myself, George Elliot reminds me: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other.”  I no longer bear grudges, because Charlotte Bronte reminds me “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”  

Robert Frost once said in a letter to a friend, “No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.”  I still wonder what life would have been like had I accepted a professorship and married another scholar or coached softball or been a star in musical comedy.  But these days I do find the time to read George Eliot, sing in a choral group, watch women competing in softball and basketball, and dream of what might have been.  And so those things have become, not my vocation, not the way I earn my daily bread, but my avocations, the things that bring light to a world that sometimes threatens darkness at any moment.  

If my grandmother had become an opera singer, she might have had a happy marriage and mentored me.  If my mother had been a teacher, I might have found my literary path sooner.  But I now realize the might-have-beens of three generations of women are not useful. Learning to be at ease with the life I have is what mattered most.



Fabrizia Faustinella

She died at age fifty. Not too young anymore but definitely not old. She had insulin-dependent diabetes. She was diagnosed at a young age. She didn’t just die of some accident or disease; she killed herself. Serene was her name. How ironic. Her life turned out to be everything but calm, everything but peaceful and untroubled. She grew up in a dysfunctional family with an inept father, a sister, and a brother. That brother was the only one who managed to escape the village and a sad fate. I was told that Serene and her siblings were faraway cousins to me, although I never understood what that meant. The intricacies of my genealogy tree and the various relationships among its members, if not within the immediate family, have never been clear to me. 

Serene’s mom, Atessa, died in her early thirties of an ictus, a cerebral thrombosis. There is nothing else that can be done. Her life is now holding on to a thin thread, the doctors reluctantly and apologetically announced to her husband as he, I heard, was tightly grasping his hat with both his hands, his mouth agape, while slowly getting up from a white metal chair in the white waiting room of the hospital. 

Atessa agonized for a few days at home. Then she exhaled her last breath, leaving behind three beautiful children and a useless husband. If he was the one to die, things would have turned out better for everybody, I often heard other relatives whisper to one another. Atessa would have taken much better care of the children. There is no substitute for a good mother. They would have had fewer troubles and a happier life. 

My parents went to visit the family after Atessa was brought back home from the hospital. I was very young but I have memories of that visit. 

Atessa’s family lived in a beautiful villa on top of a sunny hill, surrounded by green meadows. I remember thinking that I would have loved to live there. But then I saw Atessa in the darkness of her deathbed, her eyes rolled back, her breathing harsh, her once beautiful face now swollen and deformed. A deep sadness came on to me, and nothing about that house seemed desirable any longer. 

My parents and Atessa’s husband, a tall, skinny man with ill-fitting clothes whom I was told to call uncle, asked me and the children to go and play outside. I guess the adults wanted to talk freely about the enormity of that tragedy and keep us from peeking into Atessa’s bedroom, although it was customary to let children go at the bedside of the dying.

I led the way as we walked down the hallway and left the house in silence. We immediately started to run toward the wildflower fields without making a sound. There was no laughter, no screaming. Our ears were filled by the high-pitched chirping of the swallows and our lungs by the fragrant spring air.

We raced all the way to the edge of the woods. I remember the three siblings refusing to go any further. They seemed scared of the dark path ahead, which looked impenetrable to sunlight. Their parents had told them not to go into the woods alone. Wild boars would occasionally come down from the surrounding mountains looking for food and could be dangerous.

I looked at the three children. There were no smiles on their pale, worried faces. They looked like little ghosts. I don’t ever remember them smiling. The death of their mom and what followed must have thrown them into a deep depression. The father was not a bad man, although he would scream and yell at them for the smallest things. He just didn’t quite know how to be of comfort to the children nor even to himself. He lived in a different world, a world of photography and filmmaking that took his attention away from the family. He was absent. The children grew up unwell, starved for affection and much-needed attention. They must have been fighting depression since young ages. The girls never recovered from the trauma. One of them, Sondra, earned a PhD in mathematics, but she never did anything with it. She never worked. She became a recluse, living in a large, old apartment back in the village left to her by her grandmother. She lived there with two dogs in total filth. Serene used to say Sondra had a hardened heart, that she was capable of loving only her dogs. But that was not true. My mom said that after Serene died, she would hardly leave the house. She would sit in the kitchen in almost total darkness and feed the dogs what she should have cooked for herself, whispering songs to them.

Serene had diabetes and needed insulin to control her blood sugar level. Her grandmother had diabetes too and had died of the complications that came with it. I remember her: a thin, small woman with fine features, long, silky white hair gathered in a bun, pale skin, and blue eyes. I remember her struggle with ingrown toenails and the painful extractions that she had to endure. The diagnosis of diabetes is a tough one to swallow, and when people are that young, like Serene was at the time of her diagnosis, when they don’t have any support and they are already struggling with deep feelings of sadness and depression, then there is no way they’ll ever win that battle. Short of a miracle, they are doomed. There were no miracles in Serene’s life and so she was doomed. 

One year, in late summer, Serene became very sick with a foot infection and ended up in the small, local hospital. My mom, who was down in the village at that time, went to visit her. Serene told her she didn’t want to live anymore. She said she was tired of it and wanted to leave. She began to refuse her medications. After discharge from the hospital, she started eating a lot of sweets and skipping the insulin injections until she stopped them altogether. Her aunt Marisa saw her before Christmas and said that Serene looked very old and emaciated. She had lost a bunch of hair and a lot of weight; her skin was gray and all wrinkles. 

Serene very well knew that stopping the insulin injections and eating sweets would have been the end of her, and she did it on purpose. It was the only way to put an end to her painful life without a clamorous gesture like jumping out of the window or overdosing on medications. It was a suicide by omission, and it was well thought out, without last-moment regrets. She killed herself slowly and could have stopped anytime, but she didn’t because she truly wanted to go. She was determined to die. Death was her way out, maybe the only thing she felt she had control over, the only way to free herself of so much pain. 

My mom said she was relieved that Serene was not among us any longer because she knew how bad her life had been, and finally now she wasn’t suffering anymore. There was truth to that, but the fact that she wasn’t suffering anymore wasn’t of much consolation to me. I thought of all the things that could and should have happened to change the course of her life, all the misery that could have been avoided or lessened, but nothing happened, and nothing could have been changed any longer. I didn’t help either. I was so far away, gone for so long. I never really had much of a relationship with any of the three cousins. I was raised in another region. Then, as I grew up, I proceeded to move from city to city, from country to country, shredding many of the already thin threads of my genealogy tree. I have realized, over time, that those children were not the only ones I had left behind and forgotten about.

I hadn’t forgotten everything, though: one episode continued to haunt me, maybe because I’ve always regretted the way I behaved. I was about seven or eight, and we were at a campsite right on the beach. My family invited the uncle and the three cousins to come and visit. Their mother was already gone. My parents gave me some money and told me to go to the bar with the children and buy them an ice cream. So we went together but when I got there, I came up with an excuse not to buy them anything because I wanted to keep the money for myself. My parents never gave me any allowance, and when I found that money in my hands, I had a hard time letting go of it. Earlier in the day I had seen a cute necklace with a starfish pendant and thought that I could have used the money to buy that instead of the ice cream. I remember us sitting at a table on the bar deck. I can still see those sad little faces and me coming up with a stupid excuse not to spend the money. I said that since we already ate cookies and chocolate and drank sparkling lemonade at the beach, the ice cream wasn’t really necessary. The moment I said that, I so very much regretted it. I knew it was wrong but went ahead with my little scheme nevertheless. I was a child, maybe too young and selfish to understand that small gestures of kindness go a long way, but shouldn’t I have bought them the biggest, most delicious ice cream there was on the menu, and hugged them and been extra kind to them, knowing how unhappy they were? 

What happened to the lives of those children? Were they ever happy? Did they ever feel loved? What is this life about, if human beings have so much trouble going through it? They say that life is not what happens to us, it’s what we make out of it, placing a lot of emphasis on our inner strength and our ability to overcome difficulties of all sorts. This statement makes the assumption that every human being should be capable of summoning that strength and coming out on top, despite the misery of their own personal circumstances and the constraints of their own genetic makeup. Granted that some people might be able to do just that, I don’t think it’s possible or realistic to expect it of everyone or to blame those who can’t. Ideally it would be wonderful to turn lemons into lemonade or, even better, into Limoncello, but this is not going to happen because, since birth, human beings have to reckon with the cards they’ve been dealt. These cards can be really challenging ones, and they come in the form of broken, dysfunctional, underprivileged families, medical disease, poverty, physical and mental challenges, abusive environments, lack of support, and unfortunate zip codes. 

Some people, fueled by faith, hope, and personal beliefs, are able to struggle through life all the way to the bitter end. Others will kill themselves. Others, like Serene, stop doing what keeps them alive, because you don’t have to put a gun to your head or in your mouth to kill yourself. You don’t have to hang yourself, or slit your wrists, or jump out of the window, or overdose on pills. You can do it like she did. Slowly, willingly, without ever looking back. Or maybe it was the looking back that made her do it because all she saw was pain and abandonment. 

Some people write letters when they decide to die. I wondered if Serene left one behind. I don’t believe she did, but her sister, Sondra, said that Serene wanted the people in her life to know that she carried no hard feelings toward them, although they might have disappointed or hurt her. Was I one of those people?

Sondra also said that Serene started talking more often about how much she wanted to see her mom again. Serene wondered if her mom was in a better place, a brighter place filled with love and peace, the things that neither one of them had on this Earth. Serene said that she felt like she didn’t belong to this world anymore; all she ever wanted was a chance to shine and be happy. Serene had searched for something that was not here, and she had no hope she could ever find it. Her life had been a heartache, and she wanted to forget it all and be free. Sondra said that Serene used to listen to a song of Macy Gray, a song about a letter, and would sing along and whisper, while looking at her, don’t be sad for me. 

Sometimes, in the twilight of my dreams, I see myself and my three cousins running again toward the woods and hesitating for a moment as we enter the dark, shaded path, smiling at each other and holding hands. 

The Elusive Taint of Perfection

The Elusive Taint of Perfection

Linda Caradine

I’ve never traveled to St. Ives but I have in fact met a man with seven wives. Isn’t that the way the riddle goes? And though this particular man had one cat, he had neither sacks nor kits. What he did have was a prodigious ego and a huge repertoire of killer stories. As he described himself, “I may not have class, but I do have style! Whoa!” 

I met Ronnie on a dating website and answered his ad because he used the word “cogent“ in his note to me. After seeing many posts with misspellings and typos, or simply with boring litanies of each man’s purported interests, I had to sit up when I saw that word. I answered Ronnie’s ad, we met for coffee and the rest was dating history. 

An avid book collector and trader, we would pore through the stacks at all the local Goodwill stores looking for volumes that he had an interest in or could resell. It was an enjoyable way to spend my afternoons after many men on the site promised sensual escapades or walks on the beach. Ronnie was different.

Ronnie was a cab driver. He took pride in his car and in being “first up” at the Hilton. Whenever I needed a ride, all I had to do was call his private number and he would appear with a big grin on his handsome face waiting to whisk me away.

He was a bigger-than-life man, secure in his corpulence. He smoked huge cigars and told the aforementioned killer stories whenever there was a momentary gap in our conversations. “Did I ever tell you about the time I treated ten teenage boys to a Yankees game?” or “Did you hear the one about how I adopted my cat Betsy from a crazy person on Craigslist?” Some might have thought Ronnie tedious and self-centered but I preferred to think he had a real zest for life.

On one evening, after we’d finished searching the shelves at our local second-hand store, Ronnie and I were relaxing at his apartment. He had put on a Coleman Hawkins recording just a little too loudly, as he was wont to do, and we vibed to the sweet sound of the sax while Ronnie shouted to be heard over Hawk. “Did I ever tell you about the time I spent as a volunteer fire fighter?,” he asked, not wanting an answer but merely using the question as a segue for his story. “I was living in Santa Barbara with my third wife – that was Gina – and I guess I decided life was too serene. I wanted to get out and save some lives so I went down and joined the fire department. Unbelievable, right?”

The story went on. The saxman went on. And I couldn’t help but smile. Here was a middle-aged man who took such glee in his own exploits that he had to share them enthusiastically and often. Here was a man, one might say, who had something to prove. The stories were entertaining but they were also sad. Ronnie was constantly needing to prove himself. I only learned this gradually and after hearing and analyzing a prodigious assortment of his exploits. All of his stories featured himself in the hero role. I didn’t know what was real and what might be purely apocryphal. To be sure, Ronnie enjoyed hearing them as much as I did. And he kept them coming.

And the thing was, Ronnie adored women. I wouldn’t have trusted him as far as I could throw him, but life with him was a spectacle. He treated me to lavish dinners and weekend trips to the coast or to the deserts of Eastern Oregon. He regaled me with stories and songs of love, with flowers and with promises made in passion but kept in friendship. Don’t get me wrong. He had a lot of issues. He was not Mr. Right. But I had fun with him and fun is often in short supply when one is a woman of a certain age looking to meet eligible men.

His living room had a massive grandfather clock that chimed every hour and half-hour and a sprawling gold-upholstered settee that made me want to lie down and eat peeled grapes (which Ronnie once accommodated). He had a state-of-the-art sound system for listening to his beloved jazz records. In time, I came to learn it was all an illusion. The furniture was rented and he scrambled each week to make the payments out of his up-and-down income as a cabbie. The dinners and the trips were done on borrowed funds. He wanted so badly to be that man of means who had the world by the tail.

Ronnie had loans out all over town and spent his off-work hours driving around repaying them in little dribs and drabs, just enough to keep his chits afloat. I know because he borrowed money from me too and paid it back in small irregular sums every day or two. When he’d finally repaid me in full, he made me call him a man of his word. This was very important to him. I got the feeling that it was a matter of some debate depending on who you talked to.

Ronnie was a tornado passing through my life and, at the time, I welcomed the stormy diversion. He was loud, emphatic and easily impressed with the creature comforts. Underneath it all, he was a sweet man who wanted to be liked. And I liked him. I guess that was the basis of our friendship.

Once, at a time when the leaves were starting to turn and the days were long, Ronnie suggested that we take an impromptu road trip to Florence, Oregon, to partake of the casino and enjoy the Fall color along the way. I packed snacks and drinks in a cooler, provided some relevant AAA maps and guidebooks, and set off to pick up Ronnie at his townhome. When I arrived there, his drapes were pulled shut and I couldn’t hear any music coming from inside so I got out of the car and knocked on the door. He answered after two or three knocks and told me he had changed his mind about the trip. He no longer wanted to go. There was no reason given, just the general impression from his uncharacteristically quiet voice and the sad look on his face that something bad had happened. He didn’t want to talk about it. I couldn’t convince him to change his mind so I got back into my car and set off alone. When I returned three days later, there were no messages from Ronnie. He hadn’t phoned or come by. I tried calling him but there was no answer, just an automatic rerouting to his voicemail. Puzzling, for sure.

I continued to try to reach him until I finally got the message after several days that he was purposefully incommunicado. The party was over. I just figured he’d met someone else and that our affair was at an end after six months or so of noise and carousing. The possibility of something being seriously wrong never crossed my mind. Ronnie was emotional and likely to end a relationship in as messy a way as he had lived it. I guess I always knew the day would come. So I moved on.

I took a writing class, adopted a dog and started seeing another man, Dennis Chang. Dennis was more sophisticated and more reserved than Ronnie. He lived his life in a careful, thought-out manner. We took a few really nice trips and went out for coffee or meals at least twice a week. With Dennis, life was orderly and dare I say it – ordinary – after the chaos that was Ronnie. There was a cultural aspect, I thought, to what was a fairly significant incompatibility between us. Just once I would have liked to see him do something spontaneous, but it never happened. As a traditionally Chinese man, he lived his life with a guarded sense of balance at play. Harmony and order were important to him in a way that I could neither understand nor embrace. Our relationship fizzled out in time, not with a bang but with a whisper. He was probably bothered by my impulsiveness and I was, quite simply, bored to tears. He was a good man but not the right man for me.

After Dennis, I tried again on and off to contact Ronnie but without success. I wondered if he’d packed up and moved away. I tried to forget about him. Still, there seemed something unfinished in our relationship, an aspect that was left dangling. One day we were fine and the next day he was gone, up in a puff of cigar smoke.

I had gone into Goodwill one day to find some travel books on the Mexican Riviera as I’d planned a cruise with a writing buddy of mine, and I glimpsed a friendly face in the stacks. I couldn’t put a name to the face but there was something familiar in the stance, the affect.

“You don’t recognize me, do you? It’s me, Ronnie.”

He had lost perhaps a hundred pounds and wore his hair long with a beard.

“I knew you were somebody I knew,” I stammered. “But you look so different than you did a year ago when I last saw you.”

“I had a heart attack,” he said. “I’ve had to change the whole way I live. No more elaborate meals. No more salt. No more cigars. I’m a real bore.”

“Are you okay now?” I sputtered, not sure what to say.

He assured me that he was okay physically, but there was something missing in the aura of joy that he’d once exuded. He was a changed man. I could see it plain as day. 

We hugged. He promised to call me, though I knew he never would.

Then it all made sense. He must have been sick when he broke off our relationship. He didn’t want to share that fact, didn’t want to be the subject of what he would have interpreted as my pity. He just went away on his own to suffer, like a wounded animal. Now he was different, chastened, and he thought the new man not worthy of my love and admiration. It was true, I did feel sorry for him. And that was the last thing he would have wanted. 

I went home saddened. 

It was at about that time that I reconnected with Dennis and drifted back into a relationship with him. If the first time had seemed distant and somehow impersonal, the second go-round was a real eye-opener. It hadn’t occurred to me that we spent all of our evenings at my place, never his. When we went by his house, it was just so he could pick up some belongings or feed his dog. I always waited in the car.

Then, on one occasion, we went by his house after work to pick up his binoculars en route to the beach. He paused and then invited me inside. I knew this represented a new stage in the relationship. He was trusting me to go into his home. 

I took a breath and followed him in. What I saw were not the accoutrements of a secret life or a messy frat house scene as I’d imagined. It was surreal. Everywhere I looked Dennis had plastic bins stacked and organized containing a wide array of belongings from paperclips to old newspapers to hamburger wrappers. There were grease-stained paper bags all neatly folded, soiled plastic dishes and utensils stacked high, rubber bands, old batteries, and empty tubes from paper towels and toilet tissue. It turned out he saved literally everything he’d ever touched, all neatly ordered and labeled. The mess was enormous, towering, and crowding in on the narrow walkways that remained throughout the house. He didn’t look at me as we made our way among the bins and piles, whether out of shame or because he needed to watch where he was going.

The fact that Dennis was a full-on hoarder took me aback. I can tolerate my share of kinks but somehow this struck me as more than neurotic. It all made me wonder what he did with the people in his life. Did he store their bodies in the crawlspace? I tried not to react too strongly. I could tell he was waiting and feeling vulnerable to my response. Surprisingly, he was able to locate the binoculars straight away and we made our way out of the claustrophobic setting and back to the car for our trip.

Nothing was ever said. He never asked me what I thought about the scene and I never ventured an opinion. It was the beginning of the end for us. We drifted apart and I saw less and less of him until he ultimately moved back to Arizona where he’d come from. 

In the meantime, I continued to think about Ronnie. 

Everyone, by a certain age, carries a lot of baggage. I include myself in this supposition. After the brief glow of youth, no one remains unblemished. Everyone is flawed, everyone is damaged. I was not going to find Mr. Right because he didn’t exist in my compromised world. I had been tearing through life looking for some type of perfection that wasn’t there. Where I should have been seeking a kindred spirit, I was searching for a straw man.

I allowed my membership in the online dating service to lapse. If I was to find a partner in life, I would find him in some more prosaic setting, perhaps groping among the avocados at the grocery store or walking his dog in an Oregon downpour. There would be no romantic epiphany. No magic. Just an ordinary meeting of two impaired souls on solid ground. Still, I liked my odds. It meant I didn’t have to feign faultlessness either. I needn’t lose those final ten pounds. I didn’t have to worry about whether my clothes or my car were good enough. I didn’t need to hide the fact that I liked cats or that I’d never really graduated from college. Instead, I was free to be myself, in all my quirky, imperfect glory. 



Stacey Meadows

Early in our relationship, Christoph and I took a short winter vacation to Negril, Jamaica. We found a promotional deal at a resort that was right on the beach, although still under construction. Outside our door the endless white sand beckoned, bordered by the aqua waters of the Caribbean Sea. We bounced along the beach to reggae music blaring from the outdoor bars, stopping for an occasional rum punch or Piña Colada. Aromas of meat pies mingled with the skunky scent of ganga. I fingered colorful strands of beaded seashells and batik wraps sold by vendors along the shore. A trio stopped by our beach blanket to perform a harmonious rendition of “Under the Boardwalk” on a beat-up guitar, cracked stand-up bass and percussion egg shakers, all of which looked like they had recently washed up on shore. We loved the band’s spirit and beckoned them to our blanket every day. We immersed ourselves in waves of turquoise sea, reggae music, ganga and love.

On one of our beach walks, we noticed a small shack with carved wooden figures arrayed in the storefront window. The door was open, so we wandered in. The art gallery was filled from floor to ceiling with primitive-looking wood carvings of animals and human figures bearing enigmatic expressions. With his discerning sculptor’s eye, Christoph selected three carvings from among the assemblage: a long-eared rabbit poised to leap; a Black angel in a light brown robe, with a cap of white hair and body-length wings emerging from his scapulae, and a tall, lean woman, looking forlorn, her hands tucked into the pockets of her knee-length black skirt. She had sad, dark eyes, and lips pressed together, the corners of her mouth turned down. She was a human representation of sorrow, an avatar of grief. I placed her on my dresser, unaware that she was a portent of what I would someday become.

When Jonah died, I made no attempt to deny, become angry or bargain over his death. I was raw, but not depressed. I simply accepted it, bypassing the other four predicted stages of grief. Jonah’s death left me with a new, indelible identity––I now belonged the vast human tribe of mourners. When I considered how I appeared to others, the words of Psalm 40 came to mind: “Here I am. I have come with the scroll of the book that is written upon me.” The story of loss had become the story of my life. With inconsolable sorrow permanently etched on my face, I recognized my affinity with the Jamaican carving that had stood on my dresser for so many years.

Some who had witnessed my path over the years told me that I was an inspiration. Steeped in heartbreak, I found this confusing. It seemed like such an odd choice of words. What could I inspire others to do? What encouragement could I possibly give them? I wondered what others saw as I stumbled along. Like other mourners, I hungered for role models to show me how to carry on without being crushed by overpowering loss. I never found any. I saw this as the unfortunate consequence of our culture’s refusal to accept death as an inextricable part of life. Although death was inevitable, people invariably seemed stunned by its untimely arrival. It shifted our interior and exterior landscapes in ways that we had never anticipated. We hadn’t been prepared to be so fundamentally altered. Like other mourners, I persevered with the essential tasks of daily life as I bore the staggering weight of mortality. When the time came, we all learned how to do this. We moved forward, always slightly out of step in a world where time moved along too quickly, and where others were still inexplicably concerned with trivial pursuits like accolades and possessions. All that mattered was time with those whom we loved and would someday lose.

Sometimes I felt as if I were reduced to a personification of my loss. I didn’t understand that my forthright acceptance of my child’s death had transformed me into an unwitting role model for how to bear a grief which was, by all accounts, unbearable. As others sought me out, I recognized that I had the capacity to stand with other mourners in a way that many were unwilling or unable to do. I was drawn to the wounds of loss, which I saw all around me, like stigmata. I felt called to bear witness to the suffering of those who were burdened with illness and grief. I wanted to help them find a way to heal. I recognized a new purpose in the role that had been thrust upon me. Demonstrating the strength to embrace my sorrow, I had become a broken-hearted warrior, one who could carry the grief of others.

I recently paid a shiva call to a friend who lost her husband after a valiant four-year battle with colon cancer. As soon as she saw me enter her living room, she burst out in tears. I sat down beside her on the couch and held her as she sobbed into my shoulder. When she lifted her tear-stained face to me, it was my grief that she addressed, rather than her own.

“I lost my husband, but you lost your son,” she cried.

I stroked her hair. Yes, I lost my son. My grief would forever be a benchmark against which other grief would be measured. Watching me bear my grief over the loss of my son, she knew that she would bear her own. My life had taken on an unforeseen but ineluctable purpose: I had become a living, breathing Avatar of Grief.

Nelson Harris

Nelson Harris


Connie Bedgood

I was born in 1936 in Fort Worth and I lived with Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nelson Harris back then, but my memories are of 1941 when I was living with them once more.  They had no children and he owned five-night clubs in Fort Worth, Texas.  I remember setting at one bar and eating Jell-O during the day when my stomach was upset.  There were juke boxes at the booths, and you could tell the lady which song you wanted her to play after you put the nickel in.  We were in Fort Worth awaiting the birth of my brother who was named Robert Nelson Blim.

The next thing I remember was being led into a large building with ladies with long black and white out fits surrounding them.  Their head pieces looked as like if the wind caught them exactly right…they would take off and fly.

Seated at long table were kids under the age of five eating scrambled egg sandwiches.  I ate my first one that day.  All the other older kids were in school.

A few days later we kids of school age were driven there.  I became fast friends with Sam from Georgia.  After all, he had every color of Crayon in the world—including gold.  We spent a lot of time coloring which was alright with me.

Then nap time was upon us.  We all had our long piece of brown paper which we laid on…upon the hard floor.  I still today, do not like brown paper bags.

At lunch on Fridays we ate pinto bean sandwiches on brown bread. I liked and missed them later when I moved back to Los Angeles.  When rain hit the windowpanes in the attic, up the stairs we ran falling all over each other.  The attic was huge and looked as if haunted but could not be as it was a Catholic boarding place.  I figured that out at the age of 5.  We could run and scream and play which did not bother the ladies in the black and white outfits.

Every week or two one of the ladies in the black and white outfits stood at the foot

of the stairs as we came down, they presented us with a large spoonful of the nastiest tasting liquid stuff in the world called cod liver oil.  After a few times of this, I found something else to do upstairs till the lady with the tablespoon was gone.

In good weather it was out into the back yard playing under the clothesline.  Sometimes we played Hide and Seek or Tag. As we were running everywhere it is no surprise I fell and cut my left wrist on a piece of glass.  I still have the scar.  I am sure Uncle Nelson paid for my time at the boarding school, along with Bobby’s birth and mine.

Then my dad, who lived in Tyler, had the summer months with me.  He was a postman and his mother, whom I called Other Mama, was at home taking care of me.   She 

was washing dishes in the kitchen looking out the window watching me in the back yard playing with A. W. Brady whose parents were divorced also.

He said, “Say Dam Connie! Say Dam, Dam!”  Before I could say anything, Other Mama was out the back door yelling at A.W. to go home till he could behave himself.  Evidently, A. W. never grew up to behave, he was racing on brick streets in Tyler down South Broadway and was killed in his 1954 coup Ford.

During the time we lived on East Edwards Street where A. W. taught me to cuss, I do have a memory of Uncle Nelson coming up the long set of concrete steps with his 38 caliber pistol in his shoulder holster and my grandfather, P. O. Bedgood setting in a chair at the screened-in widow of the front porch with a rifle in his lap.  No one shot anyone, that time.

Eventually daddy requested a change of venue for his custody case for me to live with him and Other Mama.  The change of venue was to Grayson County from Smith County.  I was living in Pottsboro with my mother’s mother Laura Lindsey during the end of World War II.  The paperwork shows Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nelson put up the money for mother’s lawyer.  A letter written in 1959 from Aunt Jessie stated that mother gave me up to daddy rather than cause any more bad information becoming public about Uncle Nelson.

Uncle Nelson was always kind with a great laugh and came to Pottsboro several times during the four years I lived there bringing real toilet paper instead of using the Sears Catalogue sheets like we did.  One of these visits I accidently stepped on Aunt Jessie’s foot and she screamed and carried on as if she were bleeding.  I felt bad about it for years.  Perhaps

if I known what kind of life, she lived in Fort Worth, I would have been more understanding, but then I was a kid of only nine at that time.

Recently I asked the library in Fort Worth to look up newspaper articles on Uncle Nelson and they sent me the following information.

He started his life of crime as a deliveryman for the Green Dragon narcotics syndicate and became a bouncer for some joints on the Jacksboro Highway after serving two years in the federal prison.  He also ran a prostitution racket out of his own house.   Nelson Harris was considered one of Fort Worth’s toughest and most versatile criminals.  After reading this and more, I had to take a few days to absorb this about the man I knew.


I did go visit Nanny in Pottsboro several times after moving to Tyler.  I never saw Uncle Nelson again.  Aunt Jessie was in the V.A. hospital after she was discharged from the Women’s’ Air Forces.  She had been in a big storm on the ocean while taking care of the wounded from battles overseas.  She joined the military to get away from the hounding of the FBI.    I wrote her all about being fourteen and fifteen and dating.  She wrote me back and enjoyed my roller skating and boyfriend stories.  She married and divorced many times…society was different back then.  

Then in November of 1950 while dating my first boyfriend in a car…right before Thanksgiving daddy showed me an article from the newspaper.  For the first time in my life I wanted to be all alone…trying to understand the news.  Uncle Nelson opened his car door, 

climbed in and was seated with his young wife, who was pregnant.  He started the car and dynamite blew the top off the car. They were both dead.  The explosion was audible for blocks in all directions. The two-door car was parked beside the Harris’ duplex apartment.   I cried a lot. 

I called Aunt Chloe and she, of course, already knew it and said Aunt Jessie had called her.  We were all sad.  Aunt Jessie was in the V.A. hospital longer because of the news.

Research revealed a lot about Uncle Nelson.  He was a gangster not the machine gun type but broke the law several times.  He squealed and so received two years in Leavenworth Prison which is one of the worst ones.  Even after all of this married to the young wife, he was still committing crimes.

No one ever stood trial for the three murders but it did end the rein of the Jacksboro Highway gambling, prostitution, drugs and crime with a lot of jail time and bodies found in secluded places of some of the past criminals.

My question is, “Did the three in the car get justice?”  That baby was not guilty.  Since I believe we reap what we sow…whoever did it…more than likely was blown up also.

Photos available of Jessie and Nelson


How to Arrive in Venice with Your Mother

Dan Morey


The train from Florence to Venice takes a couple hours, so we made sure to book window seats facing each other. This way Mother could look at me, and I could look at Mother, instead of some belching German pensioner.

We found our car and went directly to our seats, which were occupied by two Russian women with dyed yellow hair. They greeted us in English, but after we showed them our tickets their language skills conveniently deteriorated.

“Those are our seats,” I said.

They smiled innocently.

“Our seats,” I repeated, pointing in the vicinity of their ample buttocks.

They nodded and withdrew some magazines from their bags. An Italian passenger popped up beside me. He spoke English, and was all too willing to help. After looking our tickets over, he scrutinized the Russian ladies.

“I have a solution,” he said. “We will trade. Let me sit here with these ladies, and you can have my window seat over there. The seat beside it is also free.”

“But we booked two window seats,” I said.

“Of course,” said the Italian. “But these bella donne don’t understand. It would be a shame to distress them, no?”

“I wouldn’t mind distressing them at all,” said Mother.

She was still cross about the kebabs I made her eat in Florence, and very ready to sit down.

“Please, signora,” said the Italian, turning on his native charm. “Let us make this journey a pleasant one.”

Mother slung her bag into the overheard compartment and flopped onto the man’s proffered seat, saying, “Oh, to hell with it.”

Mille grazie,” said the Italian, smiling at the Russians. 

We sat facing a middle-aged couple. The woman was blonde and semi-stout, and her husband was tan with salt-and-pepper hair. He put down his magazine and said, “That guy’s a real joker. He was sitting in my wife’s seat when we got here. Said he had to be next to the window or he’d get sick.”

“He’s on the aisle now,” I said.

“And loving it,” said the woman. 

“You’re American,” said Mother.

“So are you,” said the woman.

“Where from?”


Mother and I burst out laughing. I explained that our neighbor in Rome was also from Philadelphia, and that we were from Erie.

“No kidding,” said the man, happily.

Before Mother could remark on how small the world was, I got the conversation rolling: “What’s going on in Pennsylvania? We’ve been away a long time.”

They updated us on Penn State’s football record and reported the outcomes of several elections. We rolled through the Veneto talking about TV and sports and movies. Travel is said to inspire tolerance and dispel prejudice, and it’s true. People from Philadelphia were beginning to seem more human every day. Of course, if we’d wanted to bond with Philadelphians we could’ve stayed in Pennsylvania and saved a lot of money. We were supposed to be getting to know Italians. Sadly, the only one within chatting distance was our friend, the seat-swapping, second-class Casanova. He was currently involved in a palm-reading gambit with the Russian ladies, who’d miraculously recovered their ability to speak English.

“Look at this love-line,” said the Italian, fondling a beefy Slavic hand. “You must be some real hot stuff.”

Apparently he’d learned his English pick-up lines from old episodes of CHiPs. Somewhere around Padua, he got up and went to the bar. The ladies rolled their eyes at each other. He made a theatrical return, with three cocktails in hand, and announced: “Moscow Mules, to heat up my little arctic foxes!”

When the train arrived at Santa Lucia Station everyone sprang up and grabbed their bags. We made our adieux to the Philadelphians, went straight to the Grand Canal, and boarded a Venetian waterbus, or vaporetto. The boat was wide and ugly—a noisy, metal people-barge. It filled up with passengers and we shoved off.

Vessels of every description, transporting all kinds of cargo, ply the waters of the Grand Canal. We saw sturdy, blue-hulled skiffs laden with furniture, pallets, aluminum cans and seaweed. Glossy speedboats whizzed by carrying elegant young women, their silky scarves undulating in the wind.

I leaned over the rail and snapped pictures of the palazzi: the Pisani Moretta with its Gothic windows, the Salviati’s flashy glass mosaics. 

“I must be dreaming,” said Mother, as a gondola skimmed by. 

We got off at the Ca d’Oro (“Golden House”), and took a narrow alley to the Strada Nuova. This shop-lined road runs through the heart of Cannaregio, Venice’s least touristed neighborhood. Our hotel was located somewhere in the maze of baroque lanes that twist behind its storefronts. To help us get there, I’d printed a Google map. After three turns, we found ourselves at the edge of a small green canal with laundry strung over it. 

“I see a bridge down there,” said Mother.

“We can’t get there from here. We’ll have to go back a block and take a right.”

“And then another right.”


We performed these maneuvers, and arrived at an entirely different canal. We followed it for about a block until the path ended. 

“This way,” I said, re-entering the labyrinth of laneways.

Dusk had descended rapidly, bringing with it a clammy chill. There were no people around, and few lights. Our footsteps echoed eerily off the dank walls. When we hit a dead end, I turned the map upside down and reevaluated it. “This is useless. We’ll have to rely on our instincts.”

“Do we have any?” said Mother.

We moved quickly through the darkened streets back to the Strada Nuova, where she wanted to ask for directions. I refused. Asking directions is the mark of a worthless and defeated traveler. I took us down another road, which led to a humpbacked bridge with wrought iron railings. A man passed us as we were crossing, and Mother accosted him: “Excuse me, do you know where—”

He moved brusquely around her.

“Serves you right,” I said.

“Why? What’s wrong with asking for help?”

“Imagine if you were a Venetian,” I said. “Your family has lived here for centuries, dating back to a time when Venice was the most powerful trading nation in Europe—the Queen of the Adriatic. Your ancestors were rich and influential, doges possibly. Now, your once magnificent city has been reduced to a waterlogged tourist attraction. Thousands upon thousands of foreigners pass through every day, and each one wants you to give him directions—directions to hotels, directions to restaurants, directions to churches, museums, or statues. They ask in English, in German, in Japanese. Would you stop?”

Another man came over the bridge. Mother approached him, and asked where we might find our hotel. He gave her precise instructions in English and departed with a friendly “Benvenuti a Venezia!

Mother led the way, grinning profusely.

“Oh, shut up,” I said.

The hotel was only distinguishable from the tightly packed buildings that bordered it by a tiny, illuminated sign. I tried the door, but found it locked. This was not entirely unexpected, as the hotel was closed for the season, and we weren’t actually staying there. The owner had booked us into something he called “the annex” instead, and instructed us to check in at the hotel before seven o’clock. It was now the wrong side of seven o’ clock.

I knocked, and there was no response. I knocked again. Finally, a harried-looking girl opened the door and said, “Che cosa?

“Checking in,” I said.

“Oh, yes. The annex people. You’re late.”

She gave me some paperwork to complete at the desk. When I finished, she whipped a keychain off the wall and said, “Follow.” We tried to keep up, but the girl was under twenty-five and fast. I’d seen Jamaican sprinters get off to slower starts. She took us down a long, gloomy road.

“Where are we going?” said Mother, stumbling over the uneven pavement. “Isn’t an annex supposed to be attached to the building?” 

“I don’t know,” I said. “But if we want to find our way back, you’d better start dropping breadcrumbs. 

When we caught up to the girl she was standing beside a nondescript entrance with a key at the ready. She held it up for us to see, and inserted it into the lock. “Door number one,” she said. We went inside, trailed her up a flight of steep stairs, lost her at the landing, and found her again at the top of a second flight. “Door number two,” she said, leading us into a chamber with a shiny checkered floor. In the corner there was yet another portal.

“Door number three?” I said.

“Correct,” she said.

A short corridor came next, followed by door number four. The girl opened it and we entered a room that was glorious, almost American, in its proportions. She showed us around: one big antique bed. One small antique bed. TV. Toilet. Shower.

She held up the keychain and took us through the keys once more, in order: “One, two, three, four. Got it? Good. Have a nice stay.” The breeze generated by her exit nearly blew a painting off the wall.

“Well,” said Mother. “They certainly don’t coddle you around here.” 

I collapsed on the big bed. Mother went into the bathroom and flushed the toilet. After it filled, she turned on the faucet and the shower. “Everything works,” she said. “And there’s hot water if you want a bath.”

Scummy and degraded as I was, I didn’t consider cleaning up a priority. The totality of my lunchtime nourishment had been derived from a malformed clump of chocolate, caramel and hazelnuts purchased at a sundries counter on the railroad platform. 

“Let’s go eat,” I said.

Mother sat on the small bed, unpacking her bag, and expressed a perfectly reasonable reluctance to leave. “We’ll never find our way back in the dark.”

“We’ll never find our way back in the light, either. But we can’t just stay up here in the annex like Anne Frank. We have to go out and see things. We have to do things. Italian things. And we have to eat. Now.”

Four doors later, we were back in the forsaken street, making our way toward the Strada Nuova and paying close attention to identifying architectural features. “Remember that door with the Byzantine lintel,” I said. “We have to turn left at the Byzantine lintel.”

“What the heck is a Byzantine lintel?” said Mother.

“And the lancet arch over there. Memorize it.”

“Everything has arches!”

After a couple wrong turns, we arrived at the Ca d’Oro vaporetto stop. As we pulled away from the dock, a penumbra of apprehension darkened Mother’s brow. She peered intently at the façade of the Ca d’Oro, trying to count the windows.

“Relax,” I said. “You can’t miss the Ca d’Oro. Besides, the stop is called Ca d’Oro. Just get off when the man yells ‘Ca d’Oro.’”

“What if the man doesn’t yell ‘Ca d’Oro’?” 

“He will. It’s his job.”

We debarked at the Piazza San Marco and joined a small crowd in front of St. Mark’s. The basilica’s oriental domes and arches were ablaze with golden light. It wasn’t open, but people were still drawn, moth-like, to its brilliance. The famous pigeons were there too (dozens on the ground, hundreds roosting above), strutting and cooing abrasively. 

We went into a restaurant and ate a foolish amount of seafood: linguine with mussels and whelk and octopus, calamari atop a sloppy puddle of polenta. After dinner, we exited the piazza between the two big columns that represent the gateway to Venice. There is a winged lion, symbol of St. Mark, current patron of Venice, atop one, and a statue of St. Theodore, the city’s original patron, on the other. With their saintly finials, the columns might be construed as serving some religious purpose, but this is not the case. Mark’s lion is fierce, and Theodore wields a deadly spear. Many gory executions took place at the foot of these columns, and Venetians consider it bad luck to pass between them.

It proved to be just the opposite for us. After disembarking the vaporetto at Ca d’Oro we managed, through what can only be described as supernatural intervention, to return to the annex without a single misstep. I even got all four keys right on the first try. Grazie, St. Theodore.

Procedures for Treatment

Procedures for Treatment

Sandra Florence

Zoe drove through the morning thunderstorm that had quickly filled gutters and many intersections making them impassable. She took a back route through the ever-expanding medical complex to the parking garage. As she turned the corner a flock of oblivious pedestrians, some with umbrellas, others with newspapers held over their heads, lurched into the street right in front of her.

“Look out!” Miranda yelled grabbing Zoe’s arm.

She braked, spraying water in three directions before the engine died. Fuck, that’s all she needed…to run over some idiot today.

“Sorry.” She said looking over at Miranda, trying to calm down. Rain had a strange effect on desert dwellers.  Zoe waited while packs of medical, nursing, and pharmacy students took the opportunity to wade across the flooded street. She switched on the ignition and the Rav sputtered to life.

In spite of the downpour, they arrived early for Miranda’s treatment planning session. They watched the RA’s and the docs arriving, and played a game, matching the actual life-size doctor with the small photo on the wall.  

“There’s Dr. O’Herlihey,” Miranda whispered pointing to a black and white photo. A cheerful-looking woman with a stylish bob smiled at them from the wall. “She was Mimi’s oncologist.” Miranda was referring to a friend of hers who was in the last stages of liver cancer. Zoe noticed how vulnerable Miranda looked. Her beautiful blue eyes were wide, almost teary.  She reached over and put her arm around Miranda hoping she wouldn’t mind since she did not like public displays of affection.

    After sitting in the waiting room for at least forty-five minutes, they were escorted to an exam room.  Zoe stared at the wall. Hospitals were always cold and she was beginning to feel numb. Miranda read a flyer about a support group for the brain injured.  She  looked up. “I wonder if I’ll have to take time off from work during treatment?”

“Well, that’s something you can ask the doctor. I don’t think it’s a given, but…you should if you need to. I certainly would.”  

    Zoe listened carefully to the steps in the hallway. She thought she could distinguish between the footsteps of a nurse, an assistant, or doctor by the pace, sound on the floor, and the pause at the door. She hadn’t heard any footsteps, however, when Dr. Corelli’s RA, Kiko Tinaba slipped into the room in her white coat, trousers and what appeared to be satin Chinese slippers. They turned out to be Sketchers but still, they were a nice touch. Dr. Tinaba couldn’t have been more than twenty-four.  Her head was shaved, a tiny silver Buddha dangled from her neck, and her eyes sparkled behind trendy wire-rims.  She shook hands with Miranda and Zoe, sensitive to the fact that they were a couple. 

      “Ms. James, I just have a few questions to ask you before you see Dr. Corelli.”

      “I will get to see him today won’t I?” Miranda expressed the same concern Zoe had. Would they indeed see the real Corelli, the doctor who had completed his residency under the doctor who had created the procedure.

      “Of course, he’s just finishing with another patient.”  As Dr.Tinaba spoke, Miranda hung on each word, but Zoe became mesmerized by the voice. There was a clean clear …no…fresh cool…. tone. She couldn’t quite figure it out.  Maybe it was the precision of the voice that entranced. As Dr. Tinaba asked Miranda questions, Zoe got up to get a drink. She felt fidgety as she paced. She had just turned around in the room when Dr. Corelli hurried in and said, “Ms. James, I’m sorry to keep you waiting. He reached for her hand and she side-stepped him and said “no, it’s not me. There she is. Miranda turned and smiled, he laughed, the RA chuckled. 

     “You looked so nervous I thought you must be the patient.” They all chuckled again.

     “Well Ms. James. This is a good decision you are making.”

     “Do you think so?” Miranda seemed hesitant.

     “Oh yes! The Cyber Knife,” Corelli explained, “is state of the art non-invasive surgery. There are only 50 of these machines in the country. You are in very elite hands.” 

      “Isn’t it dangerous?” Zoe asked not because she didn’t understand the risks one took with any medical procedure. It was more that she was dumbfounded by the virtual aspect of it, the thought of Dr. Corelli manipulating the cyber knife in cyber space, and shooting pencil beams through Miranda’s head.

Dr. Corelli smiled at Zoe. “Oh, no. We don’t do anything dangerous around here.”

There was a sweet, playfulness to Dr. Corelli. Zoe liked him. He made cyber surgery on the brain seem like an afternoon at the opera.  


After dinner, Zoe watched Miranda head straight to her room and log onto the WebMD site. “I just want a little bit more information than the doctors gave me,” she said closing the door. Part of the problem as Zoe saw it was that Miranda had worked in health services over twenty-five years. She knew nurses and doctors; she knew the ins and outs of hospital procedure; she was aware that mistakes are often made by even the most diligent health professional. And as the old saying went, people in the medical field make the worst patients.  Zoe usually believed what the doctor told her if she liked the doctor. She knew that mistakes could be made, but she chose to leave things alone. And if she couldn’t actually trust in the doctor, she could trust in the good nature of the universe.  Miranda couldn’t.  She simply knew too much.  She always had questions after she had finished her consults even though she made lists of questions. What are the chances of seizure, will I need to take steroids, will my vision be affected. How much hair will I lose?

     The resident had suggested she would have to have six weeks of treatment. That seemed extreme for what was supposedly only a small piece of tumor left after brain surgery two years before, made inaccessible by its location on the sagittal sinus vein.          

     “Well, you see,” Dr. Tinaba said, “we don’t want to zap you with too high a dose. It is better to treat a little at a time so the brain cells that die, don’t die all at once and cause other problems. This way the brain has time to re-absorb the dead cells.”  Even a child could understand this explanation.

     Dr. Corelli had corrected the resident’s calculation, however. We can do this treatment in five days. Only five days. That’s much better thought Zoe squeezing Miranda’s hand for support.  Miranda squeezed back slightly then said, 

    “ But will that be safe? I mean you can do that?” And Zoe thought about all those dead cells lying around in Miranda’s skull if the treatment went too fast.  Dr. Corelli was amused and reassuring. He spoke with his hands, his eyes and a soft Italian accent.  

     “Of course! You see the tumor is about the size of a walnut.” He pulled out 

the x-ray and put it in front of Miranda and Zoe. 

     “We will be able to fractionate the treatments because of the size. It is small, yes, but still you don’t want it in there.” They stared at the dark walnut inside Miranda’s head that was pressing ever-so-lightly on her right lobe.


Miranda logged off the computer and came into the living room. She had managed to find what she was looking for: 1 in 1,000 patients may have blindness after treatment.

     “I don’t want to be blind,” Miranda said dropping into the chair next to Zoe who was watching Law and Order, the original. It was an episode she had seen at least three times but she was transfixed by the quirky criminal being interrogated by Lenny. 

     “You are not going to be blind,” she said, continuing to watch Lenny do his thing. She reluctantly turned toward Miranda, trying to be more empathetic and patted her leg.  Would that suffice? Would that be enough to hold Miranda until a commercial break?  She had been comfortable in her stony silence, not wanting to talk anymore about “the procedure.” They had talked all day about it. Miranda asked questions Zoe couldn’t answer. And Zoe made assurances. She felt a surge of resentment at spending yet another day, another evening trying to find answers to unanswerable questions.  Then she felt the guilt and took a breath letting herself relax. A commercial came on and she hit mute. She turned to Miranda. 

     “I know you’re scared, but it will be okay.”

     “How do you know that?” Miranda asked in a tone that was almost angry. Zoe felt the despair setting in. Telling Miranda she would be alright wasn’t going to fix her fear. No amount of assurance would.

     “I just know, that’s all.” Zoe persisted. “I just feel it. You have to trust. And besides, it’s benign.”  Zoe did feel optimistic. That wasn’t a lie. She also felt fear herself because her reserves were low.  It had been about two years since the original tumor had been discovered. They were packing for a weekend trip when Miranda began to complain of an excruciating head ache that would not go away. A trip to the ER, a six- hour wait, and a CT scan would reveal the problem. Zoe was reading a book to Miranda called, The Town That Forgot How To Breath, trying to take her mind off the pain in her head when the doctor appeared and said…

      “I am sorry to have to tell you this, but you have a tumor on your brain.”  Zoe dropped the book and burst into tears. Miranda looked up at the doctor. 

     “We will need to do an MRI to get a closer look at what we’re dealing with. We’ll get you prepped for the procedure shortly, but I’ll give you a minute,” he said, visibly disturbed by Zoe’s wailing. He patted Miranda’s shoulder and left.

      “My god! Is this it? Is this the end of my life?” As they held each other and sobbed, doctors, nurses, more sick people passed or were wheeled by them. One young woman who had apparently escaped from the hospital’s psychiatric unit was subdued by police officers and brought back in, strapped down and screaming. They were finally moved into a room and it wasn’t long before the lab tech showed up to take blood and prep Miranda for an IV.

     “Do I really need an IV for this?”

     “It’s just a precaution,” he said. “This way you’re ready to go.” He worked gently, but Miranda’s veins were not cooperating. He tapped and inserted the needle and deftly moved it around under the skin searching, then moved to another spot. 

     “I’m sorry,” he said as one vein after another slipped away from him. Finally he found a vein that could hold the needle and he said, quietly, “Eureka.”  Miranda breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back against the pillow. 

      This procedure, a much more exact and close look at the brain, did reveal that the tumor was benign, on the outside of the meningial tissue and non-life threatening. She would, however, need a craniotomy, and then she would need time to recover.  Their relief was as quick as their distress had been.

      During the recovery time, Zoe, did everything for Miranda, cooked healthy meals, bathed her, helped her dress, called friends and family and reminded them to come by and visit. She trudged to her full time job overwhelmed by the confluence of emotions, and at times her fear of being trapped manifested as anger. There was so much uncertainty. Miranda reported so many symptoms: tiny seizures, a cut in peripheral vision, tremors and internal shakiness, sensitivity to light and noise, ringing in her ears, pain at the back of her head where the flap, a horseshoe- sized incision was located, held together with giant staples. Zoe came home from work early one afternoon and found Miranda standing in front of the bathroom mirror examining the incision.

     “My head hurts,” she said furiously rubbing the back of her head.

     “Of course your head hurts. You just had brain surgery. It wouldn’t make sense if your head didn’t hurt.” In truth Zoe could only imagine what Miranda must be feeling everyday as she sat in the living room beset by the after effects of someone poking around in her brain. These symptoms could possibly indicate a breach in the temporal parietal juncture causing scattered arrhythmic electrical patterns her neurosurgeon had explained.  And so they waited, together and apart, and Zoe had been amazed by her own capacity to deal with the daily demands on her, both physical and emotional. She had managed to keep her own fear at bay and rise to the occasion.  They walked around the block each evening, down the alley past an old adobe being renovated and barking dogs. Miranda leaned on Zoe for support and balance, and when the noise and light became too much, they headed back to the house.  Finally, after months of being vigilant, Miranda 

began to emerge out of the dark cloud that had been engulfing her, the symptoms began to disappear. Zoe was grateful to have her back.


     “I shouldn’t go on line and look for answers,” Miranda said, looking down at the floor and shaking her head. Zoe agreed. Every time she did, Miranda found more conflicting pieces of information, more duplicate symptoms, more confusing exceptions to every other piece of research. But she couldn’t help herself. Like a bystander who cannot turn away from a terrible accident, Miranda looked and looked. Except in this circumstance she was no bystander.


The first day of treatment Zoe took time off from work and drove Miranda to the medical center.  

     “People in hospital parking lots drive a little crazy,” Miranda warned, as Zoe circled looking for an empty spot. She wondered if Miranda was referring to other drivers or her. She did often become aggressive behind the wheel. 

     “Why is that?”

      “They’re often slightly debilitated from medications, pain, maybe bad news.” Zoe whipped their tiny Rav into an open spot just ahead of a Lincoln Navigator. 

     “There is no fucking way that giant-ass vehicle is going to fit in this space,” she grumbled. The Navigator sped away screeching its tires and narrowly missing an equally large-ass truck barreling up the incline into the lot. They climbed out onto the top level of the parking garage and made their way across the grounds passing people in various stages of decline and recovery, depending on how one looked at it, waiting for Van Trans, Handi-Cars, and  unreliable relatives scheduled to pick them up. Near the entrance to the Cancer Center, two blue signs in front of them read, THIS IS A NON SMOKING CAMPUS, and SMOKING AREA UNDER THE BLUE AWNING - . Zoe looked around for the blue awning and expecting to see a cluster of smokers furtively puffing under it, but she didn’t see either.  They boarded the elevator which took them to the basement, and Radiation Oncology.

Miranda slid her identification card through the machine and was checked in. They found comfortable seats against one wall next to a table piled high with bananas, apples, and fruit juices. Zoe picked up a Cran-Grape for herself, and an Apple for Miranda. Zoe was so thirsty she downed the juice in two gulps. Then she headed for the vending machines and bought a large Snickers bar. She offered a few bites to Miranda, but Miranda was restless and distracted. 

     “I wonder if I should alert the receptionist to the fact that I’m here,” she said looking around for a receptionist to speak to. 

     “I think that’s what the card and machine are for…that is your check-in,” Zoe tried to reassure her as she shoved down the rest of the candy bar crumbling nuts and tiny chocolate pieces on the front of her shirt.

      “I just want to make sure.” Miranda got up and went over to the large circular reception area just as a receptionist came out of the back. 

     “Hi, yes….if you put your card through, you are checked in…..oh! let me look just to make sure.” The clerk typed in some numbers and Miranda’s name appeared on the 

screen. Miranda returned to her seat and Zoe got up to get another fruit juice, suddenly aware of how thirsty she was again.  

       A man in moccasins milled around the waiting room looking for a magazine, coffee,

snacks.  There seemed to be a miscommunication between the radiation tech, the receptionist and a patient. They couldn’t locate her. They kept calling her name,

     “Barbara Jackson, Ms. Barabara Jackson” Zoe knew the woman was in the bathroom and that her husband was in the hallway talking to someone. 

 How come I know where the patient and her husband are but the staff doesn’t, Zoe thought, feeling slightly contemptuous of them.  And another thing, why can’t these people sit still so somebody can find them?  Should I tell the staff where they are?

Is it any of my business?  Within a few minutes, the woman emerged from the bathroom and rejoined her husband just in time as the radiation tech made another sweep of the waiting room and located the wandering couple. Zoe was relieved, and glad she had not interfered.

     She glanced over at Miranda who was still thumbing a copy of the Smithsonian,     

     “Denizen’s of the Deep: New Views of the Weirdest Creatures You’ve Ever Seen.”  

Not today she thought.  She noticed a young woman who was bent over a clipboard filling out forms for her sister who was in the hospital. Zoe had heard enough of a conversation between the rad tech, the doctor and father to understand this.  Miranda looked up from the magazine.

     “That family seems very needy,” she said leaning toward Zoe. 

     “The girl’s sister is in the hospital already.” 

     “Oh!” Miranda said wincing.   

The father of the girls, long-haired, with Indian Pride tattooed on both shoulders, kept pacing, chattering to the nurses and even the man who was cleaning out the giant aquarium.  A short-stocky elderly man was escorted back to the waiting room by a smiling pregnant rad tech. He hung on her arm and kept talking to her. Then he stopped by the reception desk after spotting two doctors. 

     “Hello, hello,” he said, raising both arms at the two men sitting on stools by computers. 

     “Hello, Mr. Archer, how are you today?” One asked and both turned and smiled giving him the full force of their attention. 

     “Fine, great. I guess I don’t have to come back until……tomorrow…oh no….uh! Monday…Monday cuz we’ve got the weekend coming up. And I’m feeling good, good,

but I’ll be back.” The doctors nodded.  He inched closer.……”Now which one are you,” he asked pointing to the younger doctor, “are you Jensen or…….Franklin?” The doctors were both standing now and they towered over Mr. Archer.  

     “Neither, I’m Hanson…..”

     “Edgar, we’ve got to get going now before traffic gets too bad and the kids are hungry,”  his wife intervened, gently pulling him away and reminding him of a pending engagement and the two grandchildren she’d been corralling during his treatment.  

     “Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Just let poppy go potty and we’ll get going.” He disappeared into the long hallway. The oldest child dangled from one of the chairs next to Zoe, and started singing, “poppy’s going potty, poppy’s going potty.”  Zoe smiled at the boy, then turned to Miranda. 

     “Some people need a lot of attention, don’t they.”

     “Did you see the scar? Miranda whispered. “There was a huge scar above the temporal area. It’s probably a loss of inhibition. Maybe a partial temporal lobotomy.” 

     “Do they still do that?”  Zoe asked.

     “Well, sure! Lobotomy just means lobe or removal of a lobe.”

 Zoe was startled by a radiation tech in pink teddy bear scrubs calling Miranda’s name. She came over to shake her hand. 

     “Hi, my name is Mary and I’ll be giving you your treatment today. She beamed at both Zoe and Miranda. Zoe could tell the meds had finally kicked in but they only seemed to have made Miranda more anxious.

     “Can she come with me,” Miranda asked pointing to Zoe. 

     “Oh sure, for the first part of it, while we get you set up.” The three of them made their way back to a large room. Another tech helped Miranda up on the table and brought the mask over. It was white with ½ inch square holes all over it, a combination fencing mask and medieval face plate. 

     “My lips are so dry.”  

     “Here’s some water,” Zoe brought over the bottle of Dasani and Miranda sat up to drink.  

     “Do you want some music?” one of the techs asked.  “Let’s see….we’ve got Oldies, some kind of piano singer, and classical.”  

     “Oldies, that’ll be good.” Soon a tune from the late 50’s came on, Goodnight My Love.

Zoe leaned against the wall and imagined drive-ins, cruising main in long-low, chrome encrusted cars. A night sky filled with stars. Yes, it was comforting. The techs began fitting Miranda into the mask.

     “It’s tight back here where the screws are,” she pointed to the back of her head. One tech tied a rubber band around her feet to make sure she was even, then began manipulating the mask again. Miranda put her hand up, “wait, I’m sorry,” she said. The technician removed the mask and Miranda sat up to cough. She looked over at Zoe. Zoe smiled and gave her a thumbs up.  Miranda swallowed hard, took a deep breath then lay back down. The mask went on again. 

     “Lift your chin, okay, how’s that?”

     “Uh, okay. It’s very tight back here.”

     “There’s not much we can do about that. Can you handle it for about 15 minutes?”

     “Yeah, okay. Will you keep talking to me and telling me what you’re doing?”

     “Sure, we can do that.”

There were green beams of light knifing across the room above the exam table where Miranda lay. 

     “Okay we’re going to do the first x-ray now,” Mary said, and the other tech turned rapidly toward Zoe and shooed her from the room. She walked back to the waiting room thinking of gamma rays, something about marigolds and gamma rays, and moonlight.


She could see the Indian father standing by the reception desk as she approached the waiting area.  His desperation and uncertainty about his daughter’s fate were palpable. His other daughter had put down the clipboard and wrapped herself up in a red blanket. Zoe felt the cold but didn’t want to talk to the father even though that might have been the compassionate thing to do.  She walked by him avoiding eye contact. She found 

another seat against the wall and picked up a copy of House Beautiful flipping absentmindedly through its pages. Poppy and grandchildren were no where in sight but a father and his athletic-looking teen-age son had taken their place. The boy looked completely healthy and normal except for his shiny bald head. The elevator bell made a loud ding, and a mother wheeled her young daughter into the waiting room. The girl wore a leg brace with an American flag sock over it.  Zoe’s heart shuddered for a split second. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath letting in the pain. Outside, above them, the season began to shift from summer to an almost imperceptible autumn.


MRI image from Wikimedia Commons, by Dr O. O’Neil

The Interminable Rock of Ages

The Interminable Rock of Ages

Marco Etheridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right, Sugar, that’s right.”

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

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

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

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


“Preach it, Brother!”

“Yes, Lord!”

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

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

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

“Come on, Dale, we need to be going.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”  

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


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. 




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!”




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.

* * *


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



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




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.



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

LeBlond story pic- IMG_4685_edited-1

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.

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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


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.

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