What’s the deal with BIG stuff?

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


McMinimumWage Employee: “Would you like fries with that?”
Customer: “Yes, I’ll have a small order of fries.”
McMinimumWage Employee: “We don’t have small. We have Big, Extra-Big, and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Big.”

Big vehicles. Big TVs. Big beds. Big houses. Big food. Is it just me, or does it seem like North Americans have lost all sense of proportion?

Cars that shrank during the energy crisis of the seventies have now ballooned to ridiculous dimensions. In the ’70s, a family of four or five managed quite nicely with a four-door sedan, thank you very much. Today it seems to be a given that a family of the same size “needs” a giant nine-seater gas-guzzling SUV, or equally large minivan (there’s a misnomer if I ever saw one).

Speaking of those “sport-utility vehicles”, when was the last time you saw one leave the pavement? Ha! Now I hear that parking spaces are actually being enlarged to accommodate these freakishly large vehicles. Um— are alarms going off in no one’s brain but mine? Enough already. No one “needs” a vehicle that big.

Case in point: For a few years we lived up north where it’s winter for too many months of the year. I arrived in town with my old, small car. 90% of the vehicles on the road were enormous crew cab trucks, or SUVs. Everyone I talked to told me they “had” to have these honkin’ vehicles because of the “severe winter conditions”. Right. For three years I drove my very old, very small car in those “conditions” with no issues whatsoever. The “need” for a big vehicle resided only in their media-manipulated brains. And oh yeah, I didn’t have to leave my car running everytime I went to the grocery store either. (snark)

Maybe it’s because I’m small myself, but I like small stuff. Much of the time big stuff is not only unnecessary, it’s unwieldy and fugly. Sure, I’d like a new car (if I can find one without a anti-small-person bag o’ death embedded in the steering wheel). But when I say “car”, I mean car. I’d rather have a quality small item, than a gigantic PoS.

Of course, what we consider “small” these days used to be considered normal. Remember the double bed? Yeah, we still have one. It’s the perfect size, too. But the assumption these days is that you’ll at least have a queen, if not a king. A king-size bed? First of all, who has a room that big? And second, if I’m sleeping with someone, I’d like to be able to tell they’re actually in bed with me. I know, it’s a concept. Chew on it awhile.

I’m quite happy with my 19-inch television, too. Not too small, not too big. Just the right size. I like TV, but I don’t like it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I don’t want a television so big it screams “TV!” even when it’s off.

But I guess you need a 52-inch screen if you’re going to fill up your 3,000 square foot McMansion. Call me crazy, but all I can think when I see one of those monstrosities is: “Well, that’s original. Not.” and “Where’s the house? All I can see is garage.”, but mostly: “Ugh. Must take forever to clean.” Oh, I know, you could hire someone to clean it. But I don’t like the idea of “someone” traipsing around my house, mucking with my stuff. It squicks me out. Not to mention, I’d be one of those people who’d have to clean for the cleaning lady. So that’s out. And while I do clean because I prefer not to live in squalor, it’s not at the top of my “Fun Things To Do” list. I find cleaning 1½ baths tiresome. So I can’t imagine living in a house with four or five.

But I guess that’s the price you pay to maintain the illusion that you’re keeping up with the Joneses. Never mind that all your big stuff (and theirs) is mortgaged/leased/financed/purchased on credit. You look good! Or do you…

Perhaps the most insidious thing of all is what this “bigger is better” marketing campaign has done to our food. Remember when McDonald’s had two sizes of fries: large and small? Then some genius came up with “super-size”. So for a while, there were small, large, and super-size. But somewhere along the line, the old “large” became regular and “super-size” became large. A new even bigger “super-size” was introduced and voila! The super-sizing of us was under way.

These days, when we go to a movie, my SO and I generally share a small drink and regular popcorn. That doesn’t sound like much, but that “small” drink is approximately 16 ounces, and the “regular-size” popcorn is in a sack the size of a grocery bag. Inevitably they say something like,”It’s only 50 cents more if you buy the large drink (approximately the size of a 2L bottle) and the large popcorn (in a bag that I could fit inside).” Yep, only 50 cents and 5,000 calories more! What a deal! When they can’t sell you on that, they turn to the bubbling vat of “golden topping” and ask if you’d like your popcorn drenched in it. (sigh)

And have you noticed that vending machines are turning away from cans in favor of the larger plastic bottles? Seriously, it’s a conspiracy, based on corporate greed. The food gets bigger, then we get bigger, then we need bigger beds and furniture and cars, then we need a bigger house to put all our big stuff.

Just as we’ve been sucked into believing that every bride needs a rock worth two months’ of her husband-to-be’s salary on her finger and that we’re horrible human beings if we don’t send Hallmark greetings to our moms on Mother’s Day, we as a society have bought into the advertising-driven perception that if it’s big, it must be good. Yes, sometimes big stuff is good—the Rocky Mountains are nice, as is the Grand Canyon—and sometimes it’s even better—it does help to be seven feet tall if you want to play in the NBA. But the reality is, sometimes bigger is just that— bigger. And sometimes, bigger is not good at all.

pencil

Beaver can be reached at beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.

An Unlikely David

Best of the Boards
Michael Morris


Barbara Anderson’s struggle to stop predatory pedophiles in the cloistered world of Jehovah’s Witnesses

 

While the Catholic Church is forced to publicly wrestle its demons of pedophilia, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to acknowledge any similar problems in their midst. Barbara Anderson, a former insider from the uppermost echelons of the secretive sect, has stepped forward to reveal that such problems have been a source of denial, debate and division at the highest levels of the organization for at least a decade. While Witness leaders insist that sexual abuse of children is not tolerated or concealed in their congregations, as a former Jehovah’s Witness, and as a parent who recently discovered my own children’s molestation within the group, I strongly disagree.

In the patriarchal world of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Barbara Anderson of Normandy, Tenn., a sharp-witted lady from New York, rose to a level of influence that was unheard of for a woman. She assisted in compiling the official history of the group, and wrote articles that serve to instruct the 6 million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, including the 1 million in the United States (though her gender, under Witness rules, would not allow her to read aloud in a Kingdom Hall the very words that she wrote). She regularly rubbed shoulders with members of the Witnesses’ elite governing body, a committee that currently consists of 11 men, charged with overseeing the group.

Anderson was also privy to the many letters and phone calls coming into the group’s Brooklyn Heights headquarters from members of the faith, responding to published articles, or inquiring about various topics that had not been addressed in print. This feedback was reviewed in meetings among the writers to shape the content of future publications. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the printed word from headquarters provides a pharisaical canon, an ever-shifting lens through which to see more clearly the word, and will, of God.

The formerly taboo subject of child sexual abuse was entering the public discourse in the late 1980s and early 90s, and the correspondence coming into headquarters reflected the angst of those who now felt comfortable coming forward with their own recollections of abuse in the insular communities of the Witnesses. These abuse survivors were turning to their congregation elders for guidance, and these elders, too, were writing to headquarters, seeking guidance.

Parents of most denominations would not hesitate to call police first when sexual abuse of their child is reported. But to the Witnesses, all outsiders—even police and social workers—are co-conspirators with Satan, part of the condemned world soon to be destroyed by God. As a Witness, when dealing with any wrongdoing “you go to elders first, and then elders make the decision for where you go [from there]. To bypass the organization would be treason,” said Anderson.

But these same elders “volunteer, and are essentially untrained clergy,” according to a Jehovah’s Witness spokesman in the Paducah Sun. They attend no seminary, and have no minimum education requirements, beyond basic literacy. They are equipped for nothing more than enforcing organizational guidelines, delivering biblical platitudes and offering a moment of prayer. When encountering a case of child sexual abuse for the first time, their instructions are first to “call the Legal Department” at the group’s headquarters.

The list of mandated reporters of suspected child abuse varies by state. Church spokesmen assert that in those jurisdictions that include clerics as mandatory reporters, the elders are instructed by the Legal Department to make such reports. A recent fax to the BBC in response to a program exposing sexual abuse among the Witnesses noted that “it can be quite a challenge to keep abreast of the reporting requirements, but our Legal Department makes every effort to do so.” It should relieve their lawyers to know that The National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information is funded by the US government and tasked with maintaining a web site with just such information, which shows that only 16 states require reporting by clerics. The hand of divine justice apparently is cut short by a lack of supporting legislation in other jurisdictions.

The assertion that such reports are made by elders when called for by the law has been called into question. Two lawsuits recently lodged against the Witnesses claim that mandatory reporting laws were disregarded, and the abuse continued. In one case, a member is said to have been expelled for making such a report against the advice of the elders, after the elders failed to act. A taped telephone conversation from early 2001, between an elder reporting sexual abuse and headquarters, featured on a recent episode of NBC’s Dateline, documented an official from the group advising the elder to “walk away from it,” and to “leave it for Jehovah,” even though the elder was calling from a state that mandates reporting by clerics.

Some particularly conscientious elders sought to step outside their restrictive bounds as spiritual counselors in seeking to assist those traumatized by abuse. They were holding sessions that amounted to group therapy with victims of abuse, but this was quickly ended by a March 23, 1992 letter to all bodies of elders in the United States, stating that elders are not to hold such sessions nor “spend time reading secular publications dealing with worldly psychology or psychiatry.”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses are a government that operates within all of the governments of the world. I believe that is the big issue here. They want to decide who is guilty or not guilty,” said Barbara Anderson. Witnesses are well known for their defiance of secular governments. The Encarta World English Dictionary includes in its definition of Jehovah’s Witnesses that the group “rejects secular law where it appears to conflict with the divine.”

So, the investigation of the alleged abuse and the deciding who is guilty or not guilty, falls on the local elders. The burden of proof, barring a confession, is that there must be two members of the faith who can serve as eyewitnesses to the crime, no matter what the infraction. Otherwise, the accused is exonerated and the abused is admonished to treat the accused as innocent in God’s eyes and not to repeat the charge to anyone else—even other potential victims, like younger siblings—or face expulsion from the congregation and shunning by fellow members, including friends and family. Needless to say, child molesters don’t usually seek an audience. So the cycle of abuse continues, while the victim, who summoned the monumental courage to come forward, is now forced back into silence by their spiritual leaders.

All members are guided by the two principal publications of the group, the Watchtower and Awake! journals. Each had different editors, with differing opinions, in the 90s, which can be problematic for a group that points to its unity of belief as a sign of exclusive divine favor. Awake!, on whose staff Anderson served, often presented the group’s softer side, while the Watchtower delivered stern doctrinal dissertations. “They would sometimes contradict each other, especially on societal issues,” said Anderson.

Barbara Anderson and other senior staffers knew that the age and cloistered lives of the governing body gave them no frame of reference to empathize with the plight of the abused and their families. Something more than arbitrary application of ancient edicts was required.

Stories of the disastrous results of similar policies awaited Anderson on her summer vacation in 1991. The Witnesses choose to apply certain Old Testament rules literally, such as the command that a woman who does not scream during a rape should be considered a fornicator. “I was gravely disturbed hearing accounts of Witness women who were disfellowshipped (expelled and shunned) for not screaming while being raped. To illustrate: A Jehovah’s Witness came back to his house unexpectedly while his house was being cleaned by a woman who also was a Witness. The trauma of his raping her at that time was so severe that she completely blocked out the experience until she discovered she was pregnant. It was then she faced what had happened and went to the congregation elders. She accused her spiritual brother of raping her; however, he denied it until tests confirmed he was the father of the child. Then he said it was consensual sex. She denied it. Nonetheless, she was disfellowshipped because she couldn’t remember if she screamed during the rape and her attacker said she didn’t. So, when I came back from vacation, I went in to see the man in the Writing Department who I was working with and told him what I had heard. To me it was horrendous that this girl was disfellowshipped. She was victimized twice.”

The implications of such policies were clear to Anderson. “I began to see how pedophiles could act easily within the congregations and get away with it,” she said.

Members of the Writing Department began pushing for change. When the October 8, 1991 Awake! on child abuse seemed to reverse earlier feelings against psychotherapy and against “repressed memories,” there was widespread confusion. When congregation elders called headquarters for clarification “they [the Service Department, in charge of the elders] did not go along with that,” said Anderson. “That article was viewed as a mistake. There was a battle going on at Bethel [headquarters] between these two factions. The man who was the head of the Service Department and the man who was head of the Writing Department—both members of the governing body—didn’t agree on these things.” said Anderson.

An avalanche of phone calls and letters came in response to the October 8, 1991 Awake!. Even the cloistered governing body became aware of the widespread claims of abuse, not only abuse being perpetrated by lay members, but by church leaders as well. “The governing body knew in ’92 that this was a very real problem, that men in authority were molesters, and they were molesting children. The accusations that were coming to them were not merely against average attendee’s, but against men in authority, and you couldn’t get the Service Department to recognize that. They were having a terrible time,” recalls Anderson.

Barbara Anderson and her husband would leave headquarters at the end of ’92, after serving there for ten and a half years. She continued to support the writing staff as an outside researcher until ’97. “It was during my last year at headquarters while doing research for a senior Awake! writer that I learned to my horror that the organization had severe problems with sexual child abuse. I knew when I left that it was understood that I would continue to send information in on child abuse. This was to try to influence the governing body to change their policies.”

Anderson was also aware of the implications of such policies for those outside of the organization. Accusations of child molestation, even a known history of criminal child rape, would not preclude a member from engaging in the Witnesses door to door preaching work. “I begged [governing body member and friend] Lloyd Barry, begged him by letter in July of 1993, not to allow molesters to go door to door.” said Anderson. Lloyd Barry, now deceased, never responded. Instead, some three and a half years later, speaking of a molester who may have recently been released from prison, the Watchtower of January 1, 1997 states “If he seems to be repentant [to the untrained elders], he will be encouraged to make spiritual progress [and] share in the field ministry [door to door preaching].”

Neither would a history of child molestation disqualify a member from being appointed as an elder, a leader and exemplar in the congregation. Although the January 1, 1997 Watchtower stated that a “known” molester “would not qualify for congregation privileges,” such as becoming an elder or ministerial servant (deacon), a secret letter to all bodies of elders three months later, on March 14, 1997, quietly backpedaled: “An individual ‘known’ to be a former child molester has reference to the perception of that one in the community [emphasis ours] and in the Christian congregation.” And as for determining whether those already in a position of authority had a history of molestation, the letter directed that “The body of elders should not query individuals.” Unknown to the faithful, who had taken the January 1st Watchtower at its word, pedophiles could remain in positions of authority, under this don’t-ask don’t-tell policy, at all levels of the organization. One is left to wonder who pushed for such a change, what they had to hide, and why the contents of that letter, leaked on the Internet, remain, to this day, a secret to the rank and file.

“I can’t go to my grave knowing what I know.” Anderson’s struggle for change from within the group ended when a letter from a member of the headquarters staff in early ’97 indicated to her that such symbolic changes were in response to a rising tide of litigation, not out of concern for the welfare of children. “I couldn’t go to the Kingdom Hall and hear all of the bragging about how wonderful this organization was from the platform, and sit there and listen. I thought “I can’t go to my grave knowing what I know.” She resolved to continue to push for change from outside the walls of the Kingdom Hall.

Barbara Anderson came to be among five members disfellowshipped from the group in recent months, following a spate of media attention, for speaking out about rampant sexual abuse and cover-ups among Jehovah’s Witnesses. “I had a very, very interesting life as a Jehovah’s Witness. My husband and I brought eighty people into this organization,” she remembers. While she takes exception to the policies of the leadership that harm children, she holds out hope that the voices that pushed for change in the mid-’90s may prevail. Among those voices are the group’s powerful Legal Department, which pushed for a uniform reporting policy among congregations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia—perhaps to be relieved of the arduous task of keeping track of all those laws—only to be shot down by the governing body. Anderson also cites a group of elders in Dallas, Texas, which worked with a local mental health facility to tailor care for Jehovah’s Witnesses, only to be removed from their positions en masse by the leadership. And there were those elders who sought to bring a little therapy into their shepherding. To be sure, there were kindhearted people easily found in the group. “They are good people. I am not going to say they weren’t and they aren’t dear people to us,” she said.

Perhaps if these people had succeeded in moving the organization to adopt a call-police-first policy in handling cases of child sexual abuse, just as they advise members to seek the help of a physician when ill, or of a fireman during a fire, there would not have been the chance for children, such as mine, to have been abused, their lives forever changed. Instead, we, like so many others, are left to fight a difficult and emotionally painful legal battle against a coy perpetrator in a position of authority, with the backing of his church.

In our case, the alleged abuser continues, to this day, to beam piously from the platform and to hold children on his lap during the services at our former suburban Philadelphia congregation, even as criminal and civil actions are pending, to the full knowledge of the local body of elders.

But it seems the short-sighted preservation of the image of the group has been the priority of the governing body, over the welfare of their flock. Better, they seem to think, to silence the victims, shun the whistle blowers, deny, deny, deny. I recall that Jehovah’s Witnesses are expert in itemizing the sins of the Catholic Church, including the harboring of pedophiles. Perhaps now they will have the humility to turn that scrutiny inward, protect the victims in their midst, adopt a call-police-first policy everywhere, and stop allowing a de facto conspiracy of silence to protect pedophiles in their congregations, and on our doorsteps.

pencil

Michael Morris grew up a Jehovah’s Witness punk rocker in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the 1980s. He spent several years serving as a full-time preacher in the Witnesses’ door-to-door preaching work, unwittingly learning much about life and faith from those whom he presumed to teach. E-mail: mikepence[at]yahoo.com.

Michael posts at Toasted Cheese as Dances with Cactus. “An Unlikely David” was first posted at What I Tell You Three Times Is True, our non-fiction critique forum.

The Rose Moon

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Barbara J. Bergan


Zsu Zsu the cat watched Lynette throw a change of clothes into the open tote, then make a quick swipe of the bathroom vanity; next thing she knew, the calico was scooped up from the puddle of sun beneath the window and dumped into her pet carrier. With a quick glance at her watch—already the hour hand was nudging numeral 5—Lynette was on her way. It was a good three-hour drive to Happy Hollow Campground, in the foothills of the Alleghenies, and she hoped to make it by sunset.

Weeks earlier she had traveled to one of the area’s many resorts in search of a summer job, then changed her mind when the job was offered, choosing instead a more lucrative summer school position. The side trip to Happy Hollow had been made on a whim, but memories of leafy-green childhood summers called her back. This trip she planned to stay the night.

Lynette turned onto the Interstate, slipped a CD into the player, and bounced to the beat of The Marcels’ “Blue Moon.” The little convertible zipped along, wind-whipped auburn tresses playing about her face as tunes moved effortlessly back and forth between the years, a soundtrack accompanying scenes played out in her head.

“In The Misty Moonlight” brought a girl and boy sitting on cabin steps as the June moon gave fleeting glimpses of itself, then hid beneath cover of clouds; “Moonlight Serenade,” her parents dancing on the porch as two little girls—Lynette and her sister Mimi—giggled from the window in anticipation of “the stuck part” that required a gentle prod of the stylus each time the scratchy, old, Glenn Miller recording played on the portable phonograph.

Bluebird was the cabin’s name and it had been her family’s summer home for more years than she could remember. But she remembered the summer of her twelfth year, the summer she met Matt—Matthew Mark McCallister—and his brothers, Luke and John. Two years older than Lynette, with dark hair his fingers continually brushed from even darker eyes, Matt had been her first love. Like a puppy, she had followed him around the campground…and he had good-naturedly endured it.

Matt’s parents were missionaries. At times continents away from home, the McCallisters had spent neither of the following two summers at Happy Hollow. A rueful smile crossed Lynette’s face as she remembered the pudgy, prepubescent girl who had daydreamed away those long afternoons listening to Patti Page’s “Allegheny Moon.”

The next summer, 1958, the McCallisters had already settled into Cardinal—the cabin just beyond Bluebird—when her family arrived at the campground. No longer the uncomfortable-with-herself youngster Matt had first met, but a lively—and lovely—girl, Lynette quickly worked her way into his heart. What at first seemed only puppy love grew true, and, nurtured by telephone calls and letters that erased the months and miles between summers at Happy Hollow, grew strong.

Then came the bittersweet summer of 1961. Matt had been accepted at the university in the small town where her family lived and had called to tell her the news. No more sad goodbyes, they thought. Lynette remembered, that summer almost at its end, the afternoon they had left family behind and taken picnic basket and blanket to the quiet glade known only to them. In the sun-dappled shade, as they’d teased and fed one another treats from the basket, both had known what was to come. Afterward—her fingers playing in his hair; his tracing the freckles that bridged her nose—there had been only promises, no regrets.

Letting her thoughts go no further, Lynette tightened her grip on the wheel and turned her attention to the exit numbers that flew past. It was after eight o’clock when she turned onto Happy Hollow Road; the full moon had just begun to peek over the trees.

She stopped at the cabin that served as office.

“Well, look who it is,” said Junior as he searched for the flyswatter that lay hidden beneath the ancient issues of Field & Stream and assortment of empty packaging—potato chips; pretzels; candy bars—that littered his desk. With deadly aim, he brought the weapon down upon the unsuspecting fly that circled the top of a half-consumed soft drink, then smiled as his victim bounced off the tab and into the can. “Not many here tonight,” he remarked as he handed Lynette the key.

“So I noticed,” she replied as she pocketed the key and reached for a lantern. With a quick goodnight she was out the door.

Junior, who now saw to the campground for Pops, would in Lynette’s mind remain the bully he had been as a kid. She could still picture the more fearful than contrite ten-year-old who had blubbered an apology when Matt had found him ordering the younger children to eat the crawly creatures whose habitat lay beneath the fallen logs of the woodland fort that served as headquarters for his campaign of terror. Funny how sometimes the most bizarre memories insist upon sneaking out of their hiding place, she mused as she started the car.

The heady scent of wild roses intertwined with honeysuckle filled the night air as, accompanied by a chorus of katydids, the car crunched slowly down the gravel road. High beams picked from the darkness a weathered wooden sign; on the sign, a little bird, its faded blue paint worn away by the years. She had arrived.

For several minutes Lynette sat contemplating the place that meant so many things to her. Then she went up the steps. She set the lantern on the rickety table that stood between two well-worn porch rockers, loosed the grateful Zsu Zsu from her carrier, and returned to the car for her belongings. Fumbling for the key, she wondered what she would find when she opened the cabin door.

Bluebird’s furnishings had been updated, but the same old comfortable feelings she had known as a child enveloped her the moment she stepped inside. Bringing tears, then a smile, memories came at her from every direction as she deposited the old metal picnic basket in the corner of the tiny kitchenette where it had always stood.

She set her provisions on the kitchen table and opened the cupboard almost expecting to find her mother’s teapot and the skeff-shaped honey jar that had been part of each morning’s breakfast ritual. Although her father had preferred coffee—strong and black, her mother, an Englishwoman as fine-boned as the china that had graced the table—whether in the woods or the antiques-filled townhouse—could not have begun the day without her breakfast tea.

Her parents had met in London, during the war, and, dancing to the music of Glenn Miller, had fallen “helplessly and hopelessly in love.” That was the way her mother had always told the story; it had been one of Lynette’s favorites.

Zsu Zsu’s persistant meow interrupted her reverie and she finished unpacking, then set about preparing their evening meal. Silky fur rubbed against the backs of her legs as the cat, doing perfect figure eights between her feet, purred in anticipation of canned tuna.

While Zsu Zsu devoured her dinner and daintily licked her paws, Lynette slathered Dijon on a chunk of rye bread piled high with Swiss cheese and uncorked the bottle of Pinot Grigio. With sandwich and wine glass, she made herself comfortable on the porch as stars twinkled in the inky blackness and the moon began its climb.

The Rose Moon, that was the name given full moon in the month of June. Moonlight, especially that of the full moon, had always held a certain fascination for Lynette, who had written countless odes to the goddess Luna. As she searched the darkness, not quite sure what it was she hoped to find, she wondered how anyone could possibly see a man in the silvery orb that ruled the night sky.

With icy-cold fingers, a chill touched her shoulders and sent her into the cabin for the sweater left hanging by the door; as she stepped back outside, she noticed the glow of a lantern bobbing toward Cardinal. She poured another glass of wine, settled back in the rocker, and listened as the soft whisper of leaves joined babbling brook in concert.

Lynette’s eyes opened wide. How long had she slept? On the breeze came familiar falsetto from the summer of 1961—“There’s A Moon Out Tonight…” She pulled herself from the rocker, went to the porch rail, and remembered the boy who had stood in the very same spot and kissed her as the song had played on the radio. How strange to hear it again this night.

“Time to go in, Zsu Zsu,” she said, but the cat thought not and was off the porch in a bound. Lynette followed, calling her name, but Zsu Zsu was nowhere to be found.

Cold and tired, enticed by the thought of a hot cup of tea, she was just about to climb the cabin steps when a tall figure stepped from the shadows. In his arms was the wayward cat.

“Is this whom you’re looking for?” the man asked. Before Lynette could reply, he continued, “She decided to pay me a visit. I’m staying at Cardinal…name is Mark.”

His easygoing, almost familiar, manner put Lynette at ease and she introduced herself, even invited him to join her for tea.

“Thanks, that would be nice,” he said as he lowered himself into a porch rocker and Zsu Zsu made herself comfortable on his lap.

How foolish, Lynette thought as she went to put the water on. Inviting a stranger to join her for tea in the middle of the night—nevermind that this tea party was to take place in a cabin in the woods—was probably not a wise thing to do. But then, from her very arrival, the full moon looking down upon things that seemed to move in three-quarter time, the evening had taken control of itself, dictating her thoughts as well as her actions.

Zsu Zsu tumbled to the floor as Mark jumped to open the screen door; over the tea tray, eyes met with what seemed a flicker of recognition. Lynette felt her heart drop to the depths of her being, then bounce back. She tried to regain her composure as she set the tray on the table, but almost overturned the lantern. As he reached to steady the flickering light, Mark’s fingers brushed hers and she felt the magic of the the moonlit night.

Over three pots of Earl Grey, they talked the night away, sharing stories from their pasts, hopes and dreams for their futures. Lynette told of childhood days spent at Happy Hollow, of a lost love, and of the peace she found in the poetry she wrote. Much of his life spent on the move, Mark, an amateur astronomer, shared tales of sunsets on the Serenghetti, full moons over the Amazon.

Dawn’s first rosy rays had pushed their way through cracks in the blue-gray sky when finally the two said goodnight. Lynette watched from the porch, surprised that Mark knew of the shortcut between Bluebird and Cardinal, then went inside. Gently, she moved the multicolored ball of fur from the middle of the bed and tumbled in beside it.

It was afternoon when she awoke. Happily humming “Moon Glow,” she showered and dressed, then filled the basket; her plan, to invite Mark on a picnic and share with him the special places she had told him of. Basket in hand, cat at her heels, she opened the cabin door—on the porch sat a rusty, old coffee can brimming with wild roses and water from the stream that meandered behind the cabins. How sweet, she thought as she plucked a bud and poked it through the bottonhole of her shirt. Taking the shortcut, within minutes she was at Cardinal.

The cabin seemed deserted. She knocked at the door, but he did not answer; she sat on the steps and waited what seemed hours, but he did not come. The warm sun found its way through the canopy of green, bringing with it memories of another summer day and Lynette, her cat following behind, set out for the spot she had long ago shared a picnic with someone dear.

She spread her blanket in the quiet glade, fed Zsu Zsu a bite of sandwich, then took from the basket a stub of a pencil and a small notebook. Pale moon still visible in the clear blue sky, she wrote:

Most beautiful of blossoms,
love’s longing in your scent.
You watched with me the Rose Moon
as across night’s sky it went.

Blooms bright in the moonlight,
the thorns I did not see.
I should have looked more closely
and known ’twas not to be.

She took the rosebud from her shirt and pressed it between the notebook’s pages, gathered her things, and returned to Bluebird.

All her belongings in the car, Zsu Zsu in her carrier on the porch, Lynnette took one last look at the bouquet left on the kitchen table, then closed the cabin door. She knew that she would not return to this place.

Charlie Parker’s “East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon”—the last track on the CD—played as she stopped before the office. She left the motor running and went inside. Handing Junior the key, she asked, “The man who was staying at Cardinal last night…has he already checked out?”

Junior looked at her quizzically. “There was no one at Cardinal last night,” he said.

Lynette smiled; somehow she knew that would be his reply.

pencil

Barbara can be reached at BJBergan[at]aol.com.

The Summer of My Discontent

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Ana George


All the students turn out for these seminars; it’s a way the faculty have of exhibiting the instruments of torture to future victims. The day arrived when it was my turn to present. Mike had done his thesis seminar the previous semester, but he was kind enough on this big day of mine to pull his nose out his thesis, and come watch.

The regular seminar supervisor seemed to be out of town, which was probably just as well, because he had other ideas on my topic, and I was happy to not deal with them that day. The stand-in was a woman, unusual in a physics department, so of course I knew who she was, though we hadn’t had direct dealings before.

There I stood, explaining all my favorite ideas, carefully separating mine from everyone else’s, quoting chapter and verse from the literature. Professor Maxwell was asking pointed questions, making very useful suggestions; I found myself wishing I had a pocket to put my pen in, but alas, the dress I was wearing had nothing of the sort.

Part way through it occurred to me Mike wasn’t listening to what I was saying; perhaps his mind was on his own thesis, or some other personal problem. But his eyes were on me, which made me feel delightfully sexy. Which was a distraction; this was not the time. Glancing around the rest of the (almost all male) grad student ranks, most of them were also looking at my hair, or my legs. Oh well. There were a few worthwhile things said, so the purpose was served; there were new things to think about as I proceeded to write this stuff up. I learned things not only about my topic, but also about giving presentations, what to wear, how to act, and so forth, if you want to be listened to. Or if you don’t really want to be listened to, for that matter.

*

Walking home that evening in May, I could see Mike’s mind was somewhere else. We greeted Steve, a classmate, and I had the odd experience of seeing us, for a moment, from his point of view. Here’s a nice gal, one of just a few in the department, who’s picked out an unexceptional guy: not the best dressed, not the hunkiest, not the smartest, though good enough in all those ways. Envy was what was written on Steve’s face, seeing Mike with me. Mike had picked that up, too, and seemed an inch or two taller as we walked on. He’s already too tall, in my opinion.

“Marry me,” he said, in the half-light of the evening.

I’d been completely comfortable there in the bedroom until that moment.

“Um…” I propped myself up on an elbow, pawed my hair out of my eyes, and looked at him; he was eagerly, timidly, awaiting my response. It was abundantly clear that whatever I said next would change the course of both of our lives.

Suddenly my nudity, which had been a casual pleasure, took on an air of ultimate importance. I sat up, let my hair cover my face, found my dress, and put it on. I sat down in the chair opposite the bed, knees together, arms folded. A gentle head motion opened the curtain of my hair, and let him see my face. I could see he was concerned, alarmed even. A lump of mortal dread had settled into my stomach.

“No, Mike, I can’t,” I told him. “I need more than this. It’s pleasant, sure, sharing stuff with you. But there’s no passion.”

“Sure there is,” he said, eyes on the shadowy triangle at my hem, his naked lust stirring again. “I love you, Renée.”

I crossed my legs. “Do you?” I asked. “I don’t think I understand what you mean when you say that.”

This kind of took him aback; he couldn’t explain, but couldn’t let it go, either. “I do, though,” he muttered.

“That’s just it, you see? You don’t even know if I have any passion for you or not. As Stan Rogers put it:

Make love to your woman
at ten fifty-three.

You’re snoozed out, and I’m staring at the ceiling, wondering if that’s all there is.”

“Hmmph,” he said, covering himself with the sheet.

*

“Why so sad?” asked the woman on the next bar stool.

Oh, my. It was Professor Maxwell. I groped for a napkin to dry my face, and watched her watching me toss my long hair out of my lap, over a shoulder, arrange my dress, cross my legs. I cleared my throat, and turned to her.

“Call me Max,” she said. “I liked your presentation.”

And my composure gave way again.

I’m not sure now much of the story I managed to tell her, or how much she was able to gather from between my sobs, even if I did tell it.

At length, she was holding me, murmuring in my ear, “Come to my place. We’ll talk tomorrow when you’re more yourself.”

*

Morning. Max is apparently not a morning person. The mop of hair on her pillow was disarranged and not nearly as black as it had seemed under artificial light in the bar the night before, or at a distance in the lecture hall.

I got up as gently as possible, to let her sleep on. In the kitchen, I found a coffee grinder, a hundred irrelevant tools and supplies, followed, in the last possible place I could think of, filters. There were beans in the freezer, so I put on some water and made coffee. The grinder was frighteningly loud in the silent house. I took advantage of the wait to do something about my hair.

I brought two mugs back to the bedroom, setting one on the bed stand a foot from her comatose nose, and took the other to sit in the easy chair across the room, to read and watch her come around.

When she finally stirred, I smiled at her, made some noises with my feet, and slurped at my coffee to let her know I was still there.

“Renee. How nice, having someone bring me coffee before I’m even awake,” she said.

“A small token of my esteem,” I replied. “Thanks so much for last night.”

She merely smiled. She crawled out of bed and into the robe I held for her. I inhaled her essence as I wrapped her in the fabric and my arms. She giggled. “Breakfast first,” she said.

The cat, Joe, seeing Max in the kitchen, came around, presumably wanting food.

But even more than food, he seemed interested in sniffing my toes and fingers as we sat eating. I stroked his neck.

“He seems very affectionate for a cat,” I remarked.

“Seems that way, yeah,” said Max, “but it’s all a big ruse. I think it translates as something like Ooo, here’s a human that does not yet belong to another cat. Must mark.

I laughed, which disturbed Joe. He went to investigate the contents of his bowl with an air of proper feline nonchalance.

*

“So…” ventured Max. “Tell me about yourself, where you are in life, where you’re going.”

It was a tall order.

“I’ve been with Mike for a year now, no, almost two. It seemed the thing to do; all my college friends were getting married, settling down, breeding rug rats. So I started letting my hair down, just to see, and Mike is what happened. He made me laugh; he was fun to be around. So we started sharing meals, study sessions, nights, weekends, a bed, a few dreams, an address. Not much passion, but hey, I’m a rational girl; I think I’m more comfortable without. Just kind of drifted together.”

Max grunted in assent from time to time. “But…?” she prompted when I stopped talking.

“Well, when he started talking about forever, it scared the hell out of me. I mean, is this all there is? Eventually we’ll be done with grad school, one way or another, sure. But his idea of life is sleep, sex, eat, work, eat, sex, sleep. No time anymore for amusing each other. No time for dreaming together.” My lip quivered and my voice stopped. Max went out of focus.

“C’mere,” she said, putting fingers into my hair, wrapping an arm around my waist. She danced me around the room while I got myself together again.

Clearing my throat, I asked the obvious question. “So does this, last night, mean…?”

“It means whatever you want it to mean,” said Max. “I don’t think who you love has much to do with identities or categories or any of that. I am who I am. You are who you are. If we can share something special for a while, why ask for more?”

I relaxed for a while, with that idea burrowing around under my skin. It seemed so obvious, so true, there in Max’s parlor in the warm light of midmorning. But it had seemed so alien, so forbidden, so enticing, in the dim light at the bar the previous evening. And so confusing in the night. But Max had a way of waving her hand and cutting through all the clouds of hype, of fluff, that society has wrapped around our intimacies. Perhaps it boils down to one thing: Max knows who she is, and what she wants. And, wonder of wonders, what she wanted seemed to be me. What could I do but go with it?

Perhaps the wildest thing is that this attitude seems to be contagious.

*

And so, I left him.

Max and I went to the apartment when Mike was at work, sorted through all the stuff, packed it in boxes and the back of our cars. I hate moving, always, unequivocally. But especially when there’s an emotional monkey-wrench in the process.

Max let me put my stuff in her extra bedroom, at least until I found a place of my own. We were exhausted by the end of the day, stiff and sweaty, so she introduced me to the extra large bathtub in her upstairs bathroom. Unlike the typical euphemism, this was actually a room for baths. The tub was huge: big enough to lie flat in, let your hair down, let it float free. Or, as Max demonstrated with a grin, to accommodate a friend.

“Better?” asked Max, over a nice steaming mug of herbal tea. She’d been asking that a lot lately. I guess I hadn’t realized just how spirit-snuffing my life had become.

“Much. Thanks sooo much, Max, for everything, but most of all for reminding me I can go for whatever I want; it’s ok to know what I want.”

“Or whom,” said Max, with that show me all your teeth giggling grin of hers. She had a way of short-circuiting my rationalizations, my explanations.

“Or whom,” I agreed. With which Max, all 5 foot nothing of her, scrunched into my lap, and kissed me.

“I don’t usually seduce my professors,” I apologized, when I had possession of all my mouth parts again.

“Bah. I’m not your professor. I’m just the old dyke who works down the hall,” she laughed. “And stop apologizing. I want this, you want this, enough said, yes?”

“Sorry,” I started, then stopped myself, chuckling. “Yes. Enough said.”

Halfway down the mug of tea, it was cool enough to begin to taste the essence. “Max?” I asked.

“Mmm?” she murmured, contentedly.

“I’m afraid.”

“Of what? You’re safe here.”

“I know that. It’s just that I’ve been such a creature of habit; drifting from one thing to the next. I don’t want this to be a drift. I want to do this because I want to do this.” I thought for a moment, replaying that in my head. “I’m not sure that came out right… Am I making any kind of sense?”

“Absolutely. Let me set you up with sheets and stuff in your own room. Then there’s no pressure; we can be roommates if we want, or whatever else suits our mutual fancy.”

I thanked her.

“But Renée? You’ll have to talk to me, tell me about how you’re feeling about stuff, OK?”

*

One day I came home after a long wrangle with a problem and an argument with my advisor to find Max sitting on the couch, staring into space.

“What’s up?” I asked her, dropping my backpack next to the door of the Gloaming Room, where we often sat to watch the sunset.

She stirred, looked up. I could see there were tears in her eyes, but there was a smile on her face as well. “Come sit,” she said.

She showed me a letter, written on the letterhead of another university, instantly recognizable. “We are pleased to announce,” it announced, “our acceptance of your application for a sabbatical among us here.” I didn’t read the rest.

A cold hand contracted around my heart. We were just getting to know each other, just getting past the stage of always bumping into each other in the kitchen.

“So…?” I asked, looking into her eyes.

She took my hand, intertwined our fingers, gripped it with her other hand as well, and held the resulting fist in her lap, squeezing gently. “I applied for this last winter, before I even knew you existed,” she explained. “I’m sorry, I’m glad, I don’t know that to feel.”

“Go,” I told her. When her eyebrow went up, I nodded into her eyes. “I’ll miss you, of course, more than anything. But this is such a great thing, getting away from here, learning new things from different people…” I trailed off. A lump was forming in my throat.

“Thanks,” she said, “I’ve picked a good one, I see.” A tear formed in her eye, slid down her cheek, and dripped from her chin onto our clasped hands. The sun had set; the room grew dark.

I kissed her eyes, one, two, one again. Disengaging our hands, I knelt between her knees, put hands on her shoulders, pulled her close, and kissed her full on the lips. She was smiling as I released her.

“Thanks,” she murmured again, with another sniffle. “About the house,” she said. “You need a place to stay, since your lease with Mike is expiring; I need someone to house-sit. Would you?”

“Oh, yes,” I agreed. An ideal situation for a grad student: it was either a garret someplace or a nice house on Faculty Row. It would have been better, of course, with Max in it.

So here I am. Alone, happy to be alone. Holding on to Max’s principles, roughly summarized as Know what you want and Don’t settle for anything less. And ready to spit in the eye of a society that doesn’t understand alone-ness. One little replay of the flash in Max’s eye when things weren’t going her way is enough to remind me of that. And of her love, and what we shared for a while.

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Ana George is a scientist living near Boston, who writes a little on the side. Two previous stories by this author have appeared in Toasted-Cheese. She also enjoys hiking, singing antique music, arguing philosophy, and taking care of her yard in the suburbs. She loves feedback, and can be reached at ana54writes[at]yahoo.com.

Greyhound

Creative Nonfiction
Christopher Mahon


I had been working in a flower shop in early March 1978—the Peter Pan Flower Shop—on Jefferson Avenue, in Detroit, just across the border from Grosse Pointe, where my family lived. This was perhaps an odd occupation for someone who had, two months before, graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in English. Many of my fellow students had chosen to go to medical school or law school. Yet I myself was living at home, with my parents, and had elected to begin my post-undergraduate professional life in flowers. Delivering them. Becoming a poetic intermediary between the greenhouses of California and the snow-drifted doorways of southeastern Michigan.

I had only the vaguest of plans then for my future. Mostly, I think, back then, I wanted to be a poet, or a writer of some sort, and had been communicating with an uncle in Pennsylvania and a friend in Berkeley about perhaps moving to one of those places so I could do “some writing.” Of course, my job at the flower shop wasn’t the greatest of jobs, certainly nothing I needed a degree in English for, but in many ways, I think now, looking back, I rather liked it.

One of my duties every morning was to unpack the long boxes of flowers that had been flown in from California: the mums, the roses, the carnations. I’d use a knife to snap off the bottom ends of the flower stems before placing the flowers in water. The thing was: the flowers were wrapped in newspapers from San Francisco. Often, they’d be wrapped in the pink pages of the Sunday Datebook Section, which was the entertainment section of the paper. I would often read through the many listings of events that were happening and wonder about what it would be like to live out there.

Nights, I’d write in my journal, outline novels, write poetry, read through thick tomes of philosophy and literature.

One afternoon when I was delivering flowers, I rode down Vernier Road, toward the express way, on my side of the median, going the speed limit: 40 miles per hour. And up ahead of me, through the windshield, I could see an accident starting to happen. A little old lady in a conservative sedan had made a left-hand turn from her side of the median and, instead of stopping at the red light she had just encountered, continued with her turn. I was on target to crash right into her, and I did. She wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t hurt. But the cars were totalled.

When I got home from work that night, and sat at the dinner table with my mother and father (and my younger brother Mike), I didn’t mention what happened. It was bad enough that, after four years of college, I was working in a flower shop, and had no other plans. It could only make matters worse if I mentioned that I had just been involved in a catastrophic auto accident.

My father, of course, wasn’t too happy about me not applying myself in the real world. And one Saturday morning, we finally had it out.

I was sleeping in, as usual, upstairs in my bedroom. It must have been about ten o’clock when I heard my father downstairs in the kitchen yelling at my mother.

“What in the world does he think he’s doing? When is he going to wake up?”

I woke up immediately.

I bolted out of bed, ran downstairs, and announced to my parents that I was leaving. I can’t quite remember what was said. It was rather like being in the midst of a verbal firefight: words flashing and emotions exploding all around you, making yourself almost senseless.

My Dad yelled a lot in those years. I never liked the sound of it or the fact that much of his emotional firepower was waged against my mother, who rarely fought back, except with exasperated pleas for peace.

Nobody asked where I was leaving to. And my actions began to speak louder than words. I went upstairs and took a quick shower. Then I went down to the basement and found my big blue metal-framed Jansport backpack, the one I had used on my hitchhiking trip through the upper peninsula two years before. I grabbed it, carried it back upstairs into my bedroom and started packing it with my belongings.

I told my parents I was going to Berkeley, and I walked out the front door, striding down the middle of our suburban street—Merriweather Road—singing “Don’t Think Twice.” Small, well-built colonial brick homes stood on either side of me. Cars were in the garages or in the driveways. No one was out on the street, but perhaps a few housewives or husbands or children were peeking at me through the living room drapes.

I hummed and sang my way down Merriweather Road for a block and then turned right on Beaupre, still singing. I kept walking all the way to Kerby School, where my little brother had attended classes. I turned left on Kerby Road and walked up to Chalfonte.

After walking down Chalfonte, I turned left on Moross (or Seven Mile) Road, and made a bee-line to my bank, which stood on the corner of Seven Mile and Mack.

The bank doors, alas, on Saturday mornings, were closed.

Luckily for me, however, the drive-in window was open as a convenience. So I walked up behind one of the cars, and waited my turn. When my turn came I stood at the window and informed the drive-in teller that I wanted to withdraw all my savings from my account. I had $250 in my savings account. The teller, however, behind the window, speaking into her microphone, explained that I had to be in a car in order to withdraw funds. That it was against company policy to issue funds to people who had walked up to the window—especially, I imagined, people wearing backpacks.

I explained to her my situation: that I was leaving town, that I needed every penny I could get. Perhaps she was someone’s older sister. Or, maybe, she was a young mother, looking years ahead and hoping against hope. In any case, out of the goodness of her heart—the first anonymous angel on my path!—she made an exception to the company policy, closed my account, and gave me $250 in cash.

The corner of Seven Mile and Mack is a fairly busy intersection—on the boundary of Grosse Pointe and Detroit proper, filled with a gas station and fast food delis and a J.C. Penney Store, in the shadow of St. John’s Hospital—and on that corner I found a public telephone and dialed the home number of my older brother, Rick.

“Rick!” I told him. “I’m leaving home. Can you come out and pick me up?”

“What?” he asked.

And so he came, and minutes later, as I walked, I saw his car coming toward me, pulling over, him leaning over in the front seat to open the passenger door for me.

At Rick’s house I immediately called my friend in Berkeley—Brother Paul—and asked him if I could stay with him for “a few days” once I arrived in Berkeley.

“Of course,” he said.

My next phone call was to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Detroit. I wanted to get prices and schedule information for trips to the west coast. Again, I was in luck. They were having a special: anywhere in the USA, one-way, for $59.

Sounded good to me.

And so I began to confer with my brother Rick and his wife Claudia, who was always level-headed and kind. Could I stay here through the day? Could Rick drive me to the bus station so I could catch my 6:30 bus to the west coast?

But first, I had to call my parents and let them know that I was, in fact, going.

I spoke to my father, who had become quieter and understanding, now a part of my strategic exit. I told him that I wanted to come back home and pick up some books to take with me to Berkeley, and he agreed to drive over and get me. He came along with my younger brother Mike, who was only 15 at the time, and served as an acolyte of peace. Dad knew there would be no arguments in Mike’s presence.

The three of us drove back to Merriweather Road, and I walked past my mother back upstairs to my room, and found the black duffel bag my Uncle Leo had once given me and packed it with books. I grabbed my Yamaha G-65A classical guitar, which I had bought for $56 two years before.

Mom was crying when I left.

She stood at the front door and handed me a loaf of bread. She had to give me something. Bread, I think now, was as good a gift as any at a time like that. On the bus, of course, I wondered how practical such a gift was. It took up so much space, that loaf of bread, but I did eat all of it on my way across the country, as Michigan disappeared more and more completely behind me. She told me later that she cried for 24 hours straight after I left. Or perhaps it was 48, or 72. I forget.

She didn’t hug me goodbye on the morning I left for California. She just cried. And I think now of those words by Townes Van Zandt, from the song he wrote, “Pancho and Lefty”: You weren’t your mama’s only boy/But her favorite one it seems/She began to cry when you said goodbye/And sank into your dreams.

“This is the best thing you’ve ever done,” my Dad told me.

“Dad,” I said. “I only have $250.”

He waved his hand, dismissing me.

“You know how many people have started out with less?”

I grabbed my duffel bag full of books, and my guitar, said good-bye to my brother and my Dad, and then walked back into Rick’s house.

Claudia made cheese omelettes, a salad, and tomato soup as an early dinner that night and, then, at about five o’clock, Rick and I climbed back into his car, and he drove me to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Detroit.

The bus station was full of light, gleaming off the dirty white tiles of the floor, gleaming out of the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling panels, bouncing off the interior glass that looked out onto the street so that the dark glass acted like mirrors when you looked into it, careening off the metal poles that separated the women and children from the men. And it was full of people, too, checking in and checking out, making their arrivals and departures, in that weigh station for the grittiest and most gravity-bound of travellers.

I’d been there before, of course, on my way back and forth from Notre Dame, boarding the bus for Kalamazoo and Dowagiac and Niles, then watching the cornfields pass through the window and all the other fertile familiar landscapes under the infinite Midwestern gray sky, but it all seemed a touch strange on that evening. It was a much deeper point of departure this time and all the strangers seemed to be more deeply strange, further from my own life than any other bus station companions ever had—especially the middle-aged man who issued me my ticket, standing high above me on the raised platform, behind the glass, in his shirt sleeves, his glasses, his thin tie, the thinning black hair. I had the sensation he must have smoked ten thousand cigarettes in his life, seen a million different people like me up close.

I walked away with my paper ticket, sat on the floor against the wall, in the back of the station, where I could see through the long windows the angled buses parked in the garage, and waited for my turn. When it came, I stowed my backpack in the belly of the bus, with the rest of the luggage, carried my guitar and duffel bag of books up into the aisle compartment with me, and waited for the big machine to pull out of the station. It was already dark. But soon—so long ago—we pulled out, crossed the thresholds, crisscrossed through the network of streets leading to I-94, and we were on our way.

I remember the mother and daughter in Wyoming. The mother must have been in her forties. The daughter must have been 19. They both looked as strong and sturdy as the backpacks they themselves were carrying. The older one had gray hair, dry as straw, tied in braids. Her face seemed to have been formed by the wind. And her daughter was a younger version of herself. Dressed in those parkas and jeans and hiking boots. They were traveling together, obviously, going who knows where and how far? And at the moment that I saw them we were all standing outside on a parking lot, near train tracks, at about three in the morning, underneath the floodlights of the bus station. We could sense the long open fields in front of us, the mountains at the end of them.

There was the bus station in Omaha and the unbelievably clean bus station in Salt Lake City. There was the gasoline station bathroom somewhere out there in the country, where I stripped off my T-shirt, washed my torso, dried my arm pits in the hot air blower above the sink. There was the talkative bus driver in Wyoming, riding high above the road, heading toward the mountains, happy as a hawk, speeding down a road upon which there were few other travellers. There were the long silences in the night and the lights on the hills that floated in the night sky like stars.

We drove through the night, driving right past and through the lights, following the road, like the world ahead of us was nothing but the air that in fact it was.

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Christopher Mahon has published poetry in the anthology What Have You Lost? and fiction in the Jessamyn West Review. He is currently working on a memoir. He can be reached at cemahon[at]cox.net.

Democracy and Ecology in Northern Italy

Creative Nonfiction
Corbitt Nesta


I don’t know why I am obsessed with saving the tree. It’s true; it is a huge, scraggly, messy tree, our Fraxinus excelsior, a kind of ash. In the bush form, what it was when we first moved to this condominium building in Northern Italy, it is considered a weed, a spontaneous plant. And if there is one thing the engineer downstairs cannot stand, it is anything spontaneous. And especially weeds. The engineer and his silent little wife raise Japanese bonsais. They have about twenty of them, and are teaching their five-year old all the intricacies of punishing trees, how to stunt the poor things, efficiently and systematically. The three of them check for weeds daily. They arrange the little plants’ branches, they twist them, tie them, untie them, torture them. Clip, clip, uproot, replant, clip, clip. The engineer hates the lack of discipline in the Fraxinus, just outside his window. He thinks the tree is low-class, not fit for a professional’s front garden.

The other thing the engineer and his wife do not appreciate is having to pay people to do things. The tree sheds its floppy, porous, tropical-looking branches on the lawn and in the street in front of our building. People are paid to clean it up. The engineer will argue for days over the staircase cleaning bill, for weeks over leaks in the roof. He says the roof does not leak. He doesn’t live on the top floor, though he would dearly love to. He lives on the ground floor; repairs to the roof are low on his priority list. Unruly trees are high.

This tree’s roots are robust. They dig deep and spread widely Perhaps too widely. Can they reach the cellar? Let too much humidity in? Ruin the engineer’s expensive wine collection? Crack the six foot wall around our building? The engineer is already calculating how much that would cost. Thinking ahead, he spends his evenings chatting up the other owners. The tree will have to go, he says. The condominium assembly is next week. First item on the agenda is whether to have the tree cut down. Or not.

Mr. and Mrs. Rossi, ground floor, across from the engineer, are both almost ninety, and they like the tree. They sit under it in the late afternoon, he shelling peas or cracking nuts, she knitting orange and purple scarves she gives to relatives and neighbors at Christmas. She owned a knit shop thirty years ago and is prudently using up the roomful of wool left over when she retired and closed the shop. I have five of these scarves. But the Rossi’s will go along with the engineer. It is the perfect exchange for them. If Mr. Rossi lets the engineer cut down the tree, then the engineer will not insist that he replace his gas heater. Sure, the heater is forty years old. But it is still going strong. Why replace it? The new laws have nothing to do with him, says Mr. Rossi. He certainly didn’t vote for those leftist city hall people who passed the gas heater safety and maintenance law.

The young family right below us, the wife an accountant, the husband a contractor, will also vote to cut the tree down. They too are clippers, arrangers, power-mongers in miniature. Their six-year-old daughter is their little masterpiece. She knows her catechism by heart, four years ahead of time; she can count to twenty in English; she is always perfectly dressed, and her fingers are never sticky. She is a very serious little girl. Every morning I can hear her in their bathroom, directly below ours, singing Gregorian chants she has heard at Mass, where she goes every day with her grandmother. Her grandmother goes to Mass often because she wants to be clean, pure, when she dies, she tells the child as they rush down the stairs at 7 am. The little girl’s parents don’t like the tree: they say it is a trashy tree, not an elegant upwardly mobile poplar or chestnut. It sheds branches. One of the branches could fall on the child when she goes outside once a month to play in the garden.

The child is being raised by the grandmother, who lives in the apartment across the hall from them. The grandmother’s job is cooking and washing, constantly. When she goes to Mass, clouds of bean/cabbage/sausage odor trail behind her down the two flights of stairs. Her other job, or perhaps it is a hobby, is spying on the neighbors. We are the only ones in the building to know that she keeps a pair of binoculars on the balcony. We see her just below, using them every evening after dinner, before the eight o’clock news. In the dark. The grandmother will want the tree cut down; it interferes with her line of vision.

Our balcony is on the top floor, among the branches of my tree. I watch the tumescent buds open in the spring, and on the first warm days, they seem to grow entire inches in just a few hours. I watch blackbirds and sparrows bickering over bits of dried grass they’ve gathered for their nests in the top branches. On hot summer afternoons, tiny newborn lizards lounge, immobile, on the tree’s sunny limbs. On some evenings, storm clouds blacken the sky and rain pelts through the leaves. I sit on my balcony and am in a jungle. Then a cool wind whips the branches back and forth—my own expressionist painting. I close the windows and stand watching and think of how many millions of years this tree, this species, has survived, here, just south of the Alps in the lake region of Northern Italy.

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“I am a retired English-as-a-second-language/Composition/translation college instructor. I am American, and I have lived in Italy for many, many years.” Corbitt can be reached at atsen2[at]yahoo.it.

The Only Way to Worry

Fiction
Michael Maguire


The worry was going to eat him up, lick the salt from its lips, swallow him down. It was just a matter of time. If he could only find some place to escape, a safe haven of the soul. But he couldn’t.

Every day began the same… the alarm, a quick pathetic set of pushups, and the shower. It usually crept in during the shower. It started as a small pressure on his shoulders and the back of his neck, crawling down his spine, tensing his thighs and making his calves ache. His stomach burned and his eyes stung. By this point he was used to it. He followed its progress the way his wife’s finger traced the roadmap. This did nothing to lessen the pain, the weariness that followed him from morning till’ night, but it provided him with a framework, something for his mind to work with.

He called it the worry. To the doctors, his wife, his family, it was always anxiety, an unsettling feeling, but to him it would always be the worry. Nothing in particular that he can remember set it off. There wasn’t a traumatic event… a car crash, divorce, death… that brought it on. It just appeared one day. It found him, sitting in the shower, the water a small warm stream on the back of his neck, and decided, this is the day, this is the guy.

There were problems at first. Problems getting out of bed, problems going to work, problems with his kids. He walked the half-mile that was the edge of his back yard for hours. His kids stared at him from the kitchen window, occasionally knocking and waving. He tried to smile, “walking” he would mouth. His wife referred to it as a phase, depression, everyone was going through it these days. Her sister Mary Jo’s eldest was taking some type of pill and it was working wonders for him, he’d made lots of new friends at school. But that kid didn’t have to deal with the worry. It was different.

The doctors had all been the same… try some exercise, take half of this pill daily, eat healthy, keep your mind occupied. After three or four visits with the same doctor he’d stop going. He’d lye in his bed until his appointment had already begun and then go out in the backyard, a cup of cold coffee in his hand. His wife almost left him after the third doctor. She ran out in the backyard, her briefcase in hand, tears in her eyes, telling him it was over. But it wasn’t. That night she came home at the same time, made dinner, rubbed his back.

After a few months he found he had some ability to control the worry. He’d just push it down, deep down, past his stomach and small intestine, until it was a faint echo… a gentle teasing. This would only last for a few hours, days at most, and then it would come back as strong as ever. The worry would rake his spine and twist his ears. It hid under his pillow and screamed at his co-workers.

Eventually, the worry began to color everything. He had trouble seeing. The world became a dimly lit black and white movie. He had trouble making out his kids’ faces in the shadows and the television was an indecipherable flicker. He did his best to hide it. His wife barely noticed…she had given up…it seemed everyone had. He sat at his computer at work and stared at the screen. “Is it even on,” he wondered. He knew he should be panicking, calling the doctor, checking himself into a hospital, jumping off the garage roof, but he didn’t care. It was a relief to give over to the worry. Every morning the worry pulled him into its warm moist fold, his body nestled firmly in its belly, the pain a new comfort. Every evening it spit him out, his body splayed next to his wife in bed, his head pounding and the sheets covered in damp residue.

*

The third Wednesday of March his wife returned home, the front door was open, the shower was running. He often took long showers on his return from work, but he had been laid off the week before. She climbed the stairs, her fury mounting, sounds of the kids in the backyard, and pushed the door open. It was difficult to see the far wall as the steam crawled toward the cool hallway air. She called his name. Again. Again. Her voice was a whisper inside the steam; her polished aging hands cut a path toward the shower. She pulled the curtain back in one furious motion. The shower was empty… it seemed the world was empty… empty of sound, empty of color, empty of feeling. The water hit a small gray spot the size of a wallet on the white tile. She took in a long breath and turned the water off. She winced as her shoulders tensed and her calves began to ache. The worry hovered.
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“I am 26 years old, live in Massachusetts, and am returning to fiction after a brief respite. I worked with David Huddle at The University of Vermont and I attended Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in 1997. My day job is at an investment company in Boston.” Michael can be reached at mimaguire[at]mfs.com.

Games

Flash
DeAnna Knippling


Don’t you hate it when the end of the story is, “And then he woke up”? Or “it was all just a game”?

“Trellafan realized that he was just a character living in some stupid computer game played by a twelve-year-old in Missouri. Trellafan was mad. No. He was… pixellated.”

I hate that.

But what about the reverse, when you think it’s just a game that turns out serious (imagine shutting off your video game only to discover you’re wanted for murder). You know what I mean? Life doesn’t feel real most of the time. Like it’s a game.

My dad called yesterday to say Uncle Derek was dead. Funeral, Wednesday, Catholic church, De Smet. South Dakota, you know, Little House on the Prairie. I grew up there.

I didn’t say anything. Eventually I hung up on him.

I made my excuses (to the people in my real life) and started driving. I drove across three states but it was too dark to make much of an impression.

Tuesday night was the rosary, which is like a wake, but without the relief of getting drunk. Middle-aged women gossip about the PTA while they serve ham sandwiches, macaroni salad–you can’t beat a church-lady macaroni salad–and coffee, coffee, coffee. He was laid out in the casket. The corpse looked like the guy that inspired me–if that’s the word–to slack off and enjoy the easier side of life. (He gave me my first computer and showed me how to program my first game on it. It was awesome. I called it “MazeMan.”)

(Ok, so what if it was pretty dumb?)

But I felt nothing.

We’d been close since I was a toddler. Everybody stopped by to offer their sympathy. After an hour or so Wednesday morning, waiting for the funeral, I blew.

“What do you have to be sorry about? What? Did you kill him? Did you strike him down in the prime of his life? Was it you that handed him one too many greaseburgers? You that punched a hole in his heart? No? Then leave me alone!”

Some poor church lady. Didn’t take it well.

They took me outside and let me yell at the parking lot for a while.

Dad stared at me like it hurt to watch his own son screaming out the emotions he knew he should feel. Mom cried with relief over the fact that someone was crying. Like some kind of permission had been given.

Then it was time for the funeral. On the way past the casket, which was open, I noticed that his kids had left little stuff in there with him. To get buried. Remote control. Couple of action hero figurines. Arcade tokens. Time to walk into the church, sit with the rest of the family in the front pews. I touched his hand, said, “Thanks.” He blinked. I could see his eyes, blue eyes like my father’s, full and round, sparkling with tears: full of life.

And then I woke up.

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Ms. Knippling’s flash fiction piece, Love, was published recently at bansheestudio.net. Her current projects include a novel. Doesn’t everybody’s? She can be reached at dust[at]bears-cave.com.

Spite Your Fear

Flash
Mathew Ferguson


‘Budget cuts.’

‘Budget cuts? What the Hell are you talking about?’

‘Look, I’m sorry but this comes from above. I wish I could help you, I really do.’

The kid in the brown suit with his brown clipboard shook Satan’s unresisting hand and left the office.

Satan walked over to the window and looked out over Hell. Already the billboards were going up and he could see the line of demons waiting for their official shirts and hats.

On the desk sat–he could barely begin to even think the vile words–the ‘promotional’ pack. Shirt, hat, keyring. Three stickers, two erasers and a pack of engraved crayons.

Corporate retooling or else. So says The Man.

Satan stared at the bag sitting there on his desk. There under its colourful exterior was much more than a few engraved trinkets. There was the end of thousands of years of tradition. These new people had no idea about tradition. No care for the old ways. The smarmy slicked back twenty-somethings throwing words like ‘synergy’ in his face. Flow charts and cutbacks. Risk management and strategic planning. Shareholder value and corporate culture. Coffee cups with little cheerful logos.

Forced retirement.

After all this time, all the years of service. The dedication and the sacrifices (literally). All over with two little words.

Budget cuts.

Thanks for all your time, you’ve been an inspiration, new blood and new directions, we’re sure you understand.

Satan kicked his wastebasket over in a sudden pique. It’s not like I have any other skills. What am I meant to do now he had asked them. What do you expect me to do? I’ve only ever had one job.

The wet-behind-the-ears fetus that had fired him had tried to cheer him along. Give you time to pursue other interests. What if I don’t have any other interests apart from torture, maiming and hearing damned souls scream? The kid didn’t have any answers for him. The kid with his black shoes, gold watch and BA in marketing.

All these years and it was out by lunch. Please don’t make a scene. Go with dignity, the fetus had said. Satan picked up the paper bag he been allowed to put his personal belongings in and looked around his office. Already their vile influence was in here, a poster showing a man climbing a mountain. Courage means going forward despite your fear it said.

Despite your fear. Satan mused over this as he walked the last long walk. Spite your fear. Despite your fear. There are plenty of opportunities out there. Maybe do some courses. Sail that boat. Run a marathon. Live dammit!

He paused on the threshold, mind swirling, pregnant with possibility. Out There. The Real World. With skills in torture and dealing with damned souls there must be heaps of jobs out there. Politician, nightclub owner. Maybe even be a P.E. teacher.

Satan stepped across the threshold and into his new life.

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“I am a uni student in Melbourne, Australia who started writing to avoid doing my degree homework. It’s much more fun.” Mathew can be reached at mathewferguson[at]angelfire.com.

Three Poems

Poetry
J. Marcus Weekley


Scuba Diver’s Revised Suicide Note

Adrienne, I’ve got my shucking knife and thin blue skin.
Let’s navigate the wreck of some titanic war-ship with U.S.S.
written in rusted white on its corroding chest.
Going deep is best at dark,
when angel-fish lead the way down,
clown-fish circle around my hands,
and coral vacillates like brains.

Let’s try again tomorrow:
I’ve ascended to the bottom
but found no pearls to throw to pigs.

 

Entertaining
for Nakary

How did we get to this feast?
Washed blueberries piled on the counter
waiting for crust to gold in our evening-warm oven.
You slosh milk and sugar over blue berries
while I slice celery watching you pour:
baking tart for guests with prayer requests
bringing fresh bread.

When did we learn to breathe without weight?
Before the doorbell
your hand catches my cheek,
the warmth lingers
until the open door.

 

New York, September 10

All the girls look like drag-show ants,
looking out from the twentieth floor balcony,
scuttling in fuchsia, ultramarine, and lime pumps
but I don’t see your baseball cap.
I only smell someone’s permanent wafting over like an unpleasant guest
staying around until three laughing about poetry,
and I’m splattered pink when we’re done.

Where are you today, it’s past four
and still no Chinese take-out, no ring,
and I’m unstretched muslin without you.

 

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“I’m 27, just graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with my Master’s degree in English, and am a visual artist too. I’ve got work at Conspire, Aileron, Fourth River, and bottle rockets. Check out my web-site. Aren’t cats fun?” Marcus can be reached at whynottryitagain[at]hotmail.com.