The Goddess of Sunday Brunch

Creative Nonfiction
Autumn Shah


Photo Credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC-by)

The Tiki gods look forlorn, their power stripped. Pale yellow sticky notes with numbers written in Sharpie adhere to the sides of their wooden heads. One Tiki, the size of a seated Labrador, sits on the ground, posing beside a stack of old phone books and printer manuals. Another, with a blue scowl, cowers under a metal workbench while a third waits by a dimpled brass umbrella stand, a highly perturbed look on its face.

I have never been to an auction before. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I pictured something a little more distinguished. I thought auctions were quiet, tense affairs with lots of money on the line, where people spoke in nods and raised eyebrows. I thought they took place in grand estates in the country or auction houses with Rococo chairs and heavy, velvet drapes, not in small warehouses tucked behind the outerbelt, items stacked everywhere next to junk that hadn’t sold in past auctions. The warehouse looks like a rummage sale booth at an antiques mall.

This stuff is barely old enough to be in my grandmother’s basement, though. The Kahiki Supper Club, where the current auction items came from, opened in 1961. It would have been a unique attraction for any city, but it was an especially big deal for unassuming Columbus, Ohio. Suddenly there was a sea dragon soaring off of a dramatically-sloped roof built to resemble an enormous Polynesian fighting boat, looking right out over Broad Street.

It was an extraordinary thing in the 1980s, when I was a shy teenager searching for something—extraordinary or otherwise—inside myself.

*

From the time I was very young, my sister and I had begged for a peek inside the restaurant. We drove by it probably once a week on our way downtown or to the strip mall across the street where our mother’s favorite clothing stores were located.

“It’s not really a place for children. It’s too fancy and too expensive,” Mother would say.

She had dined there several times. Each new boyfriend sought to impress her by taking her to Columbus’s most unique restaurant.

My mom was blonde, vivacious, and beautiful. And to trump it all, she was British. Other than the Kahiki, she was the most exotic thing in our nook of Columbus. Friends and teachers gushed over my mom’s beauty and her accent. Inevitably, people would ask me, “Where’s your accent?” I never admitted that I secretly wanted one, or that I could put one on if I chose. Because at what point can you decide you’re something else and not be called a fake? Somehow my mom’s accent lifted her above our grungy apartment and the precariousness that was our life after my dad left.

My mother told us about the swaying bridge just beyond the doors, waterfalls and birds, even the cracks of thunder. She told us there was a “Mystery Girl” in a grass skirt who served bubbling drinks in a large bowl after offering it up for a blessing from the Tiki god. It was so wrong, even taboo to my Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, but so fascinating.

Most compelling was the giant Tiki god himself, who, she said, towered over everything, his eyes burning red and a fire raging in his mouth.  “As soon as you walk in, he’s right there!” she said.

As my mom regaled us with descriptions of the Kahiki I pictured myself in her place, being served flaming food with pineapple and cherries while sitting among birds in a rainforest. I longed to be my mom: beautiful and sought after, making conversation with men in fancy restaurants and sitting in wicker butterfly chairs. I promised myself that some day, I too would sit in a butterfly chair and order dinner with fruit in it.

*

I didn’t come to the auction to buy anything, just to reminisce. Twelve years have passed since the Kahiki closed. As I wander around, I can’t imagine taking any of this stuff home. I try to imagine the carved wooden warrior mask with googly eyes on the bare wall above my piano, a light fixture that resembles a puffer fish over the kitchen table.

There had been a souvenir shop inside called The Beachcomber that stood off the restaurant’s foyer which was commandeered by a feisty old Chinese woman. Rows of Zombie and Headhunter mugs were sold, along with other Kahiki souvenirs, Tiki kitsch, and Asian knickknacks.

I’d like to have a single Headhunter mug to replace the one trapped in my mother’s attic in a box. I kept the original as a souvenir from my first trip to the Kahiki.

*

I walked through the parking lot beside my mother, who was bouncing in excitement or perhaps because of the frigid December air. It was so cold that year I could taste it on my tongue. For my sixteenth birthday I was finally going to step through those doors. Daniel, my mother’s boyfriend, loped along on my other side.

The parking lot lay to the side of the entrance so that when we walked around the corner we were transported to another world, another time even: primitive, geometric designs colored the façade; the roof overextended, pointing outward and upward; the sea dragon looked about to take off into the ocean of sky.

As we approached the Easter Island heads standing sentry on either side of the hexagonal doors, my stomach tightened in the same way it did when I was called to the board to do a math problem at school. Flames from the torches on their heads snapped in the chill wind.

We walked across a swaying bridge and through the front doors into a cave hung with greenery. I marveled at the tape-generated sounds of birds and the walls trickling with water. We stepped through another door into a circular foyer dominated by an eerily-lit, unfriendly-looking monkey-head fountain. Through the foyer, to the hostess stand, we entered the main area of the restaurant. A thatched hut village sprawled out before us, surrounded by palm trees and tropical plants with leaves larger than my head, Tiki torches staked throughout.

A hostess with soft waves of black hair, dressed in a Hawaiian sarong, greeted us, but I barely heard her as I gawked at the fearsome, angry-eyed Tiki god looming at the far end of the restaurant. His prominent, square forehead and elongated nose, nostrils flared, accentuated his disapproval.

My mother told the hostess that we wanted to sit next to the aquarium or the birds.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asked in a melodic, accented voice.

“No. We’re here for my daughter’s birthday.” My mother beamed and I blushed, because even I knew that at a fancy restaurant you need a reservation.

“Well, there are no bad seats, so don’t worry,” a woman with white-blonde hair said, taking charge. She took up her pen, examining her map, then told us there would be a bit of a wait.

As we waited, I watched the servers flit around in their floral uniforms and leis. I felt as if I were in another country—all the servers looked Asian, the scent of the food was tangy and fruity, the music that played in the ether was a twangy calypso-rock blend.

We finally followed the hostess through the dining area and my heart beat faster until we were led to a booth surrounded on three sides by wicker walls. No butterfly chair, no birds in sight. I could see the aquarium if I looked between two poles that served as a corner into the aquarium seating section.

“You don’t have anything next to the aquarium?” Daniel asked.

“No. You need reservation,” the hostess said, her English abrupt.

Once the hostess put down our menus and turned away, Daniel got up and my mom looked at him questioningly.

“I’m going to go see if they can get us something better.”

“Daniel, no. This is nice! Isn’t it, Autumn?” Mom said, her eyes wide and eyebrows high.

It wasn’t, but I slid into the booth. Something in my chest pinched in disappointment.

“We can see the aquarium behind us just fine, can’t we?” she prompted me. But I remained quiet.

Every now and then I heard a bird screech in the distance. The drinks menu, which was as lengthy as the dinner menu, listed cocktails with names like Blue Hurricane, Jungle Fever, Headhunter, and Zombie. They came in sculpted mugs in the shape of a Tiki god, a warrior or a totem-like animal. Daniel ordered a fancy drink so that I could have the headhunter mug it came in.

I don’t recall what I ate but I remember thinking it was nothing special; it tasted like Mark Pi’s drive-thru Chinese that we brought home once a week—with the addition of pineapple.

Toward the end of our meal, the ukulele-playing waiters delivered a small cake and set it in front of me. I bashfully blew out the candle. The manager who had assigned our seat came to our table right behind the musicians and told us we could tour the restaurant. I was embarrassed enough about the cake, but somehow I was coerced. I made sure from my sloped shoulders and dour expression that people knew I was being forced to look over their food at the scenery behind them.

We walked along the aquarium side where fish with flowing tails and dorsal fins glided past diners’ faces. On the opposite side of the restaurant, in the rainforest section, it rained and thundered every fifteen minutes and the cockatoo fluffed its white, wet feathers.

We threaded our way through tables under a thatched roof hung with colorful, bizarrely-shaped lanterns to return to the front of the dining area. I stood at the threshold and looked up at the ceiling, seemingly as high as the sky.

I felt I was under the scrutiny of the Tiki god, felt the warmth of the fire that raged in his gaping mouth. I imagined that in the rainforest of New Guinea or at the foot of a volcano in Hawaii, the sight of this would make my knees shake. I wanted to know the secrets of this place. I wanted to be a part of it.

I took one last look at the formidable monolith and, on an impulse, asked for an application on the way out.

*

I find a Sauder bookcase displaying various mugs. My heart races as I wonder what the starting bid is for just one Headhunter. I look down at the auction list I was given. The mugs are being sold by the case. I peer down into a box of Zombie mug shards. I’m wondering why anyone would want this when a large shadow falls across the box.

“Are you a mosaic artist?” a thick man in a shiny, gray suit asks me.

What a bizarre question, I think. But then I realize that must be what you would do with a box of shards.

“No, I’m just looking,” I say, trying to sound casual but not really knowing how to behave since I am an impostor here, posing as someone who might actually buy something.

He holds out his hand and introduces himself. He’s the auction writer, the manager. He has a waxy, ruddy face and puffy eyes. His blonde hair looks unnaturally slicked back, like he chooses to fight with it only during these auction preview days.

“Do you have a connection to the Kahiki? Or you just like Tiki?” he asks.

“I worked there as a hostess when I was sixteen,” I say.

“Really?” He leans back, as if to assess my face to calculate how long ago that actually was. I don’t help him out.

“That’s lucky!” he continues. “What an experience. We’ve had a couple people come through that used to work there. I wonder if you knew each other.”

I often think about some of the people I worked with and how easy it should be, with all the social media, to look them up, but I have no last names. There must be a hundred thousand Lisas, a million Joses.

*

No matter the weather outside, the atmosphere in the restaurant was constant: artificially lit to perfection, cool breezes from the cave entrance and warmth from the blazing bamboo torches and the Tiki fires.

It was closer to school than it was to home so I often went straight there and waited for the dinner shift to begin. Sometimes Lisa, the manager, was already there when I came in, conducting a server’s meeting around a rectangular table in Ship or sitting at the bar, a fizzy, clear drink beside her, scrutinizing important-looking papers. I respected her privacy and her absorption and skirted around her. I’d pick an area that suited my fancy that day and do my homework or read before changing into my green floral polyester sarong and pink lei.

Above the low-playing music and the fall of water, no other noise invaded the hushed atmosphere of the pre-dinner hour. The occasional busboy sat at a table rolling softly-clinking silverware into cloth napkins, the birds behind the glass perched with their heads tucked beneath a wing. Even in the kitchen, with its slick, oily floor, the sous chefs chopped, unhurried, in the temporary calm before the maelstrom of diners blew in.

Once the shift started, I stood at attention waiting for Lisa to give instructions on the general strategy for the evening. She was in the habit of wearing ruffled white blouses that accentuated her already-large breasts. She disguised the rest of her plumpness attractively beneath A-line skirts and tailored, flared jackets that made me feel under-dressed and overexposed in my V-neck sarong.

On slow weeknights, like Mondays and Tuesdays, it was often just the two of us. Between us, we mapped out seating, controlled the music and the thunder, restocked boxes of matches, wiped down menus, and dusted plastic foliage.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Lisa. Her authority and my own curiosity about her intimidated me. She was ten years older than me and about ten years younger than my mother. She was part of a world more secret and sophisticated than mine. She went places late at night after the restaurant closed, she ran in flustered from other unknown places at 4:30 in the afternoon. She often arrived to work disheveled, her chest red and splotchy, but once she was all tucked in and buttoned up, she was ready to command. I watched this transformation and it set my mind to imagining who she was when she wasn’t at the Kahiki.

*

I try to find an excuse to buy something, to take a piece of history home with me. If I could simply take an item up to a register and walk out with it, I would. But the process of an auction requires more dedication and perseverance than I have.

Aside from a single mug, the only item I might consider is a cheaply framed 11×17 photo of the Kahiki taken from the outside. In its heyday, celebrities, such as Milton Berle, Robert Goulet and Zsa Zsa Gabor visited, fresh flower leis were flown in a couple times a week, and a wahine on a giant billboard winked seductively, advertising the restaurant. The photo evokes that time and is still striking as flames and outdoor lighting illuminate the building beneath a purple-pink Ohio dusk. It highlights the anomaly of this otherworldly structure that should be surrounded by hibiscus, and palms bearing coconuts rather than sparse fir trees and blacktop.

*

In the 1960s, most of the servers and all of the Mystery Girls were Caucasian but when I worked there at the beginning of the 1990s a variety of nationalities held those positions. Josephine, the most seasoned hostess, was vivacious and as outspoken in English as she was in Tagalog. She had long, straight hair with severely cut bangs. She was petite and sassy and her hips swayed in the grass skirt that at least one of us was required to wear. Maggie and I were always grateful that Josephine happily donned it.

Josephine was my best friend at the restaurant. When I started at the Kahiki, Lisa trained me in my duties but Josephine guided me on the ins and outs: which servers to seat lightly and which ones could handle anything, how to gauge their moods, and which cooks gave leftover cake after the buffet. She shooed the busboys away when they hung around me too long. She pinned a tight grass skirt and taught me how to say ‘I love you’ in her bird-like Tagalog—mahal kita—and ‘I’m hungry’—nagugutom ako.

*

As I turn away from the rows of mugs, I entertain the thought of buying a case and imagine myself trying to talk one of my daughters into having a Tiki-themed birthday party with Headhunter mugs for the party favor. If I were a more charming person, maybe I could charm that auction manager out of just one little, itty-bitty mug.

The few butterfly chairs are scattered throughout the warehouse, perched alone, out of their flutter, their weave unfurling, the bamboo strips frayed. I wonder about the assortment of people these chairs have held in their wings. It calls to mind a photo I have, one that I will rush upstairs to search my albums for once I get home.

All of my pictures from the Kahiki are of the people I worked with; I suppose I didn’t dare to point a camera at the Tiki god himself. When I search, I find the one I am looking for. It is a Polaroid of a silver-mopped man in oversized glasses, an open-mouthed smile on his face, sitting in a butterfly chair with Josephine on his lap. I don’t know how I ended up with this picture; it should have gone to the silver-haired man but must have been discarded for a retake. He is one of the hundreds of strangers she had her picture taken with. When I examine the photo now, after so many years, I notice that Josephine looks different from the way I remember her. She has the same haircut, the same rose-tinted, butter-pecan complexion devoid of makeup, the same red floral bikini. But now I notice the dark look on her face. I stare at the picture and try to guess what she’s thinking. She sits stiffly, facing the camera but with her eyes averted.

For the first time, more than twenty years later, I think about how she might have felt sitting in all those men’s laps as the Mystery Girl. She was an immigrant woman from the Philippines with a poor command of the English language. What kind of life had she come from? Did she have other aspirations, dreams she wanted to follow in this country? When she made her plans to immigrate to the U.S., did she imagine herself hanging leis around men’s necks so they could pose for photographs with a “native”?

*

I don’t remember if I was told beforehand that I would have to wear the grass skirt outfit on Sundays. As self-conscious as I was, it still would not have deterred me. After all, I was working on breaking out of the mold I had put myself in, trying to figure out if I was the type who could wear a grass skirt and bikini top in front of people. The outfit was the same one that the Mystery Girl wore. I was too young to be mysterious and thankfully deemed too young to award a kiss and a lei. A server carried the smoking bowl while I gave a weak-armed thump on the gong with herculean effort—a much more anti-climactic ritual.

No matter what I did, I looked like a pale, spindly, uncooked shrimp in the grass skirt outfit, my skin so white it was almost blue. The cloth of the outfit was frayed, the eyelets stretched, the colors fading. I wondered if the get-up had been around since the sixties when the restaurant first opened. I tried to cover as much skin as I could. I wore pantyhose underneath the grass skirt for warmth as well as to give some color to my legs (no underwear, because mom always said, “Don’t stifle yourself down there—they put built-in panties for a reason.”). I piled on the leis to hide as much of my sunken chest as I could. I used a half-dozen pins to keep the multicolored floral bra on; it was made for someone much bustier than I was.

One slow Sunday, as they’d all been lately, the cleaning lady let me in after I knocked on the inner door several times. I started the atmospheric soundtrack and the slack-key and ukulele music. The servers spent the last few minutes folding silverware into napkins and Jim, the less scurrilous bartender, dried glasses and poured out fresh maraschino cherries that he would sneak to me throughout the day.

I moved the hostess podium to the walkway in front of the bar, where I would be more accessible to greet and also seat guests. I fiddled with my bra and adjusted the pins on my skirt as the first guests entered. It was an elderly couple, coming straight from church, it appeared, by his grey suit and her powder-blue dress.

“Welcome to the Kahiki. Do you have a seating preference?” I asked as I gathered two menus to my chest.

“Surprise us,” the husband said with a wink.

The couple moved slightly ahead of me, gawking at the Tiki god as I swished around the podium.

A sudden cold rush of air swirled around my legs and bottom. And just like in the cartoon when Wile E. doesn’t realize he’s just run off a cliff until he looks down to see the empty abyss below, I looked down. And yelped.

My skirt was gone.

I looked up and there was Julio—a charming, flirtatious, yet moody server. He stood gaping at me, eyes wide and his face flushed pink. He dashed back from the direction he had come.

I looked behind me and saw my skirt hanging from the bamboo wall where it had gotten snagged. I used the menus to cover myself and with my free hand snatched the skirt, wrapped it around myself as best I could, and held it in place as I proceeded to seat the couple. They had been so entranced with their surroundings that they had not noticed a thing.

I pinned the skirt back in place as I detoured through Fish and returned to my podium. My face was on fire and a bubble of dread floated in my chest. I imagined Julio laughing and teasing me as soon as he got the chance. Even worse, I could hear him telling everyone, so that when I came for my next shift, the whole crew would point and snigger behind my back. It would be like middle school all over again.

I’d quit. Yes, I’d call Lisa now, tell her I was sick and never show up again.

Back at the podium, I avoided looking at Jim, not wanting to know if he had seen too.

On my way to seat the next group in Rain, wishing the ground would swallow me up, Julio caught my eye and put a finger to his lips. I melted with relief.

*

Working at the Kahiki was liberating in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Like the butterfly chairs and the Tiki gods in the auction house, I was out of my element. My wings were unfurling: I was metamorphosing into someone others found interesting and fun. By placing myself amidst a community of so much diversity, I was the unique one and also privy to another world. I wasn’t just dining there across from men who wanted to flatter me; I was digging deeper into this culture and into myself.

Without a reputation, without a history, I could be who I wanted to be. No one there knew me as the mousy bookworm who had cried at my desk over Lassie Come Home in the third grade or the girl who sat out gym class because she couldn’t stand the humiliation of being chosen last and with obvious reluctance. There was no one there to compare me to my mother.

The confidence I gained carried over to school. I found that if I could make decisions (and mistakes), prove myself indispensable, then I could also raise my hand in class. I could make myself stand out to be chosen in gym class, rather than slinking to the corners. I could take responsibility for my schoolwork and activities. If I could banter with strangers on the way to a table in Fish, maybe I wasn’t as shy as people always said I was. At the Kahiki, I could reinvent myself, and I didn’t even need an accent.

*

There is a Sauder computer desk minus the computer and a chair, displaying cloth napkins and cocktail napkins, old menus, and banquet information pamphlets. While I browse, I think of Mr. Tsao, the second and last owner of the Kahiki. He came in several times while I was working and his heft seemed to fill the room, his body spilling over the bar stools. He was bigger than life, just like the Tiki god itself, except that he wore a smile to light up the room and possessed a big belly laugh. Because he was such a comforting presence, it alarmed me to see him talking over papers in hushed, serious tones with Lisa or with men that none of us recognized. I realize now that the restaurant, even then, was in trouble.

I remember the physical signs: the shredding bamboo walls, the crackly static of thunder in the bathroom, the rain that sometimes clogged in Rain, the threadbare carpet, the sputtering fountains. There were sections of the restaurant that we didn’t use, or only for special occasions. I remember how, near the end of my time there, patrons went from wearing their finest to dropping in wearing jeans or shorts and flip-flops. How it became a sad decline of campy, Polynesian pop culture.

I think of when the Kahiki closed its doors for good in 2000, almost ten years after I quit. Bits of it were sold off and shipped around the world before the beautiful fighting boat was conquered and destroyed by a wrecking ball. The local news showed coverage of the monumental Tiki god being hauled out in sections by a crane from a hole in the roof, his face ripped off. Seeing him at the mercy of cables and levers, he didn’t look so fearsome. I remember having to look away with that heavy, tugging feeling at witnessing someone else’s humiliation. His kingdom had fallen with the swipe of a pen and the historic landmark was junked for a chain drug store.

I take a last scan around the warehouse, breathing in the scent of musty carpet, hoping to see something that will ignite a lost memory. But they’ve all become mere objects, so incongruous that I barely recognize them. There is a blood-red, crackled glass orb with veins of purple that once hung, lit, from the walls of a hut. Away from the wavering lights of the flame, it has lost its essence.

As I leave empty-handed, I realize that working at the Kahiki was liberating in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Like the butterfly chairs and the Tiki gods in the auction house, I was out of my element.

It saddens me to think of the once formidable, enigmatic Tiki and where he ended up, supine on a bed of rotting leaves in Vermont, a tarp pulled tight over his face.

pencilAutumn Shah lives in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus where she is a stay-at-home mom of two girls. She graduated magna cum laude from Ohio State University in 2001 with a degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She has worked in information technology and as an ESL teacher. She likes to write creative nonfiction essays and is currently working on a novel. Email: autumn.shah[at]gmail.com

Late Blessing

Creative Nonfiction
Linda C. Wisniewski


Photo Credit: Jodi Green/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Jodi Green/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I slid a pan of cornbread into the oven and blessed it, like my mother, who made the sign of the cross over every cake, bread and pie she baked.

In middle age, I took up the practice in homage to her and because I could finally do it without cringing. I believed I had put down the heavy load of pain she handed me through a religion I now saw as outmoded and rife with meaningless ritual.

In my eyes, my mother was a long-suffering martyr, verbally abused by my father and devoted to a fantasy of happiness in the hereafter. She read books about saints who endured hideous torture, and quoted their stories to me, her little girl. Suffering earned points with God, and justified staying in a bad marriage. Even then, I didn’t buy the message. My friends’ parents were loving, their homes quiet and safe, and they went to church too. I thought it should be easy for her to leave and take me with her.

I saw her as cold and uncaring. When a big girl pushed me against a locker in junior high, I came home after school in tears and told my mother. She shook her head for a second in sympathy then told me to get over it and went back to cooking dinner. She had to, after all, live the life she had chosen. I planned my exit every day. I would leave for college and be free and happy, nothing like her.

Although she told me to get over my hurt, I don’t think she ever let anything go. No insult was too small to add to her storehouse of suffering. Bitterness colored the stories she told as far back as I remember: My father stood her up when they were dating. Her mother told her to marry him before he changed his mind. He tried to hit her and knocked off her glasses while teaching her to drive. As I listened to her woeful words, I disappeared to myself and became her sounding board, for she had no close friends. Her own mother often told her, albeit in gentle Polish phrases, to calm down.

In the era of women’s liberation, I recalled the walk on our knees down the aisle of the church on Holy Thursday to kiss the feet of the crucifix. To me, a young woman now, we were the image of humiliation. I didn’t know then that humility has the same root.

Now I bless my bread, knowing there was more to her, each memory another facet to her complexity: Her merry laugh when her brother Johnny told a joke. Her worn hands making me pretty dresses after sewing all day in a factory. The Saturday mornings she led me through five stores to find the right Easter shoes. The grocery list she filled for her elderly mother every Wednesday. And the way, in her own old age, she tried to learn and grow.

She shared her disappointment in her lifelong friend.

“Agnes is so prejudiced. She hates the Puerto Ricans on the East End.”

“Didn’t you live there when you were kids?”

“Yes, I guess we were the ‘spics back then. She just can’t see it.”

One Christmas Day she made all the food herself. With a full serving dish in each hand, she whispered: “I feel like I’m going to pass out.”

“For heaven’s sake, sit down.”

“I can’t.”

“It’s okay, we love you.”

Her eyes filled. Horrified for making her cry, I carried dishes from kitchen to table and cleaned up afterward.

When I was a young wife, I could barely stand to be around her. She was so anxious, so eager to please and so easily cowed. She offered me leftovers to take home.

“If you don’t take them, I’ll have to throw them away.”

“So you’re giving me your garbage?” My disdain hit its mark.

I winced at her downcast face, never dreaming I would ever be like her.

Now she is gone, and I know just how hard it is to change. Lifelong habits, even as they hurt us, even as we are aware of that hurt, are easier to continue than to act in a different and completely conscious way. I chase after my grown kids with bags of leftovers as they leave my house. I grab stuffed toys and children’s books to entertain my nephew’s children, to keep them with me just a few minutes longer, believing those minutes are all I need to make them like me. It doesn’t cross my mind that they already like me. Even love me. There is always more for me to do. By myself, without the gifts and the doing, I am never enough.

When my baby cried in his crib, my friend asked if he liked to be picked up. Yes, I said, staring down at him. When she held him, he turned his head to me.

“He knows your voice.”

I didn’t believe her.

When he fell, at three, and shrieked in pain, I frantically asked him what happened. His little playmate spoke up.

“Why don’t you just give him a hug?”

A smart and easily-bored teenager, he kept his nose in his Game Boy for days, making me look like a bad parent to my friends with high-achieving kids.

“Go outside, call a friend,” I said.

A quiet and bookish girl myself, here’s what my mother said to me: “Why do you always have your nose in a book? Go outside and make some friends.”

She must have felt inadequate. Her child was not popular enough and it was her fault. Now it was mine.

With cornbread in the oven and my apron folded over the back of a chair, I long to take her hand.

“Let’s sit,” I would say. For just a moment or two, we could step off the treadmill of worry, and stop caring whether we are working hard enough, doing enough, being enough.

God knows, now that I’ve been all the things I didn’t like about her, I understand. It took a lifetime of therapy, meditation, being loved, and actively, consciously loving others who are fraught with worry, just as they are patient with me.

I used to worry about my son. We rarely talked. He clammed up around fifth grade, the year I had major surgery after painful bouts of diverticulitis.

“Who will take care of me if you go in the hospital, too?” he asked his dad.

That same year, my mother was a widow sliding into dementia hundreds of miles away, and I could do little to help her. My marriage hit a rough spot and I criticized my husband at home, not caring to hide it from our son, believing I was sticking up for myself. Unlike my mother.

During those anxious years, I pushed my boy to be more like the active, popular children of my friends. I made him volunteer at the theater and join the track team. At dinner one evening, I snatched a Left Behind novel from his hands. What I knew of those books was fear and punishment and not being saved. Judgment and suffering for choosing the wrong faith.

“You’re not reading that crap,” I said.

He rolled his eyes but did not argue. Now I am haunted by his downcast face. I want to go back and have that helpful parent discussion, the one where I let him read the book and we talk about it, but he’s 25 now, and living on his own.

The other day, I pressed his number into the keypad on my cell phone. As before, our conversation had long pauses but I let them be, recalling the long comfortable silences between his father and I when we were dating. When my boy finally spoke, I imagined reaching into the phone, touching him.

“I’m sorry for asking you to repeat yourself. My hearing is getting bad.”

“No, it’s all right. I was mumbling.”

In a long sweet flow of words, he told me about his girlfriend, his work, and his plans to travel. It took a long time for him to say these things, and a long time for me to listen, breathing.

“It was good talking with you,” I said.

“Yeah, definitely.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Mother Teresa said: “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”

Before my mother died, I told her about the work I do at my church, where all are welcome. Because I just can’t stop going to church.

“You’ll have a special place in heaven,” she said.

With heat and time, dough rises, transforms into a loaf. The oven timer pings. I open the door to a miracle.

pencilLinda C. Wisniewski shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband in beautiful Bucks County, PA. She writes for a weekly newspaper and teaches memoir workshops. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her online at lindawis.com. Email: lindawis[at]comcast.net

Medfield Revisited

Creative Nonfiction
Brett Peruzzi


Photo Credit: Wiggle Butts Pet Photography/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Wiggle Butts Pet Photography/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

In the few old black-and-white photos that exist of my great-uncle Jimmy, he is never smiling. A thin, narrow-faced young man with black hair swept back from a prominent forehead, he peers warily at the camera like a skittish animal, ready to flee at the first sign of danger.

Sometime when he was in his twenties, in the years immediately following World War II, my great-grandparents had their youngest son committed to Medfield State Hospital in the countryside southwest of Boston. Was he schizophrenic, bipolar, or perhaps just deeply depressed? It’s hard to say, since my family barely mentioned his existence and had little contact with him for decades. The only thing I ever heard my grandmother or great-aunt say about Jimmy, since their husbands rarely spoke about him, was that he was shy and didn’t mix well with people.

Just mentioning Jimmy’s name in my grandfather’s presence was enough to send him into a sputtering fit of rage, which was then followed by a gloomy silence that might last for hours. It definitely didn’t help that my grandmother wielded her brother-in-law’s name like a club against her husband, castigating him with his failings as a brother, that he never visited Jimmy year after year, which eventually ran into decades, and this no doubt flooded my grandfather with guilt.

My mother, on the other hand, had no reservations about telling me of the quiet and gentle uncle she remembered from her childhood in the 1940s before he went to Medfield. She told me that when she was training to be an RN in the early 1960s, she did her psych rotation at Medfield and saw Uncle Jimmy often, since he apparently was well enough to be allowed outside on his own to do landscaping and work on the farm on the hospital grounds that supplied much of the institution’s produce and milk. She said he remembered her and would wave and call out to her, and seemed happy to be outside working.

But I heard these stories from my mother, ironically, years after I had visited Medfield with the St. John’s Catholic Youth Organization group in my early teens during the mid-1970s. The church youth group went there once or twice a year to put on dances and holiday parties for the patients, and though my friends and I didn’t belong to CYO, we wormed our way along on a few of the trips not out of a sense of community service or compassion, but more so because we were titillated at the idea we could meet some genuine crazy people.

Had I known at that time that a relative of mine was there, I probably never would have gone on those trips, out of sheer adolescent embarrassment. Though even if I had encountered him, Uncle Jimmy and I had never met and would not have recognized each another anyway, and for privacy reasons neither patients nor visitors disclosed their last names.

After the federal mandate in the 1970s to move as many psychiatric patients as possible to less restrictive, community-based housing, the patient population at Medfield, which at its peak was over two thousand, and in some years outnumbered the townspeople, began to decline dramatically. Eventually, in the 1980s, Uncle Jimmy left the place where he had spent the majority of his life and was placed in a group home in Weymouth, a suburban town that bordered Quincy, the city he was born in and where his remaining family members still lived. But even with this new proximity, his two living brothers (a third had already died), including my grandfather, rarely, if ever, visited him or inquired about him.

Perhaps the dual burdens of both the shame of having a mentally ill family member, and the guilt from ignoring him, kept them away, because neither were cold-hearted men, but their youngest brother was not a topic that was open for discussion. Their wives, however, took matters into their own hands and paid Uncle Jimmy occasional visits. In 1999, at seventy-six years of age, Uncle Jimmy died of cancer, no doubt related to his fifty-year history as a heavy smoker. His oldest brother, my grandfather, Anthony, had died four years before; I wonder if Uncle Jimmy even knew. His only living brother, my great-uncle Albino, would live another two years, but as far as I know my grandmother and Albino’s wife, my great-aunt Gilda, were the only members of the family who attended Uncle Jimmy’s wake, since Albino was notified of his death as next of kin.

Years passed and I didn’t think much about Uncle Jimmy until I started to pass through Medfield to visit one of my sisters at her home southwest of Boston, or while kayaking the Charles River, which ran through the town, right at the edge of the old hospital grounds. When I learned that the grounds were now open to the public as a recreational and historic walking area, I knew this was my opportunity to try to integrate the family’s past there with everything I knew.

It was a humid summer day as my wife and I walked around the gate that blocked vehicle access to the grounds. We ascended a potholed road up a hill that soon passed the white-columned administration building that I remembered from my visits with the church group as a teenager. Then the Neo-Gothic-style buildings dating from the 1890s that housed the patients came into view—red brick, peeling paint, with slate roofs and arched windows, which, now, along with the doors, were completely boarded up to keep the curious out. Without knowing the history it could have been mistaken for an old college campus.

I pictured my mother, who had died the year before Uncle Jimmy, when she was doing her nursing training there in her late teens, walking across the campus in her white uniform and cap from her dormitory, since many of the staff then lived on site. I pictured Uncle Jimmy, contentedly doing landscaping work in the fresh air, waving to her as she passed. As I took photos of the dozens of buildings spread over hundreds of acres of grounds, connected by walkways, lush lawns, and numerous shade trees, my wife remarked at what a peaceful place it was. I hoped that Uncle Jimmy had found a peace at Medfield that had eluded him in the outside world.

The visit to the old hospital grounds in Medfield stuck with me, and I researched the history of it on the Web and tried to further understand my family’s experience within the context of those times. Often families were told that the best thing they could do for a mentally disabled family member was to commit them, and before modern psychotropic drugs and other treatment options came into widespread use, many felt they had no other choice.

There was only one more source of information I had to turn to, in my attempt to fit together the pieces of this family puzzle: my great-aunt Gilda, now ninety, but still mentally sharp, was the only living member that remained of her generation who knew Jimmy, and no doubt could tell me things that weren’t going to be found anywhere else. I called her up and casually mentioned that I had visited the hospital grounds and was thinking about Uncle Jimmy, and asked her what she could tell me about him. Why was he sent to Medfield? She repeated what I had heard before from her and my grandmother: that Jimmy was shy, didn’t mix well with people. My grandmother, with her lifelong animus towards her father-in-law, also used to tell me that Jimmy was not treated well by his father, which she intimated was the cause of his problems.

Rather than try to tell my nonagenarian great-aunt that shyness didn’t get people committed to mental hospitals, I asked what else she knew about his time there. She said that in his early years at Medfield, into the 1950s, they would have him home for a visit at Christmas, but he became increasingly uncomfortable being away from the hospital, and would ask to be brought back right after the holiday, rather than staying at their house for a few additional days, as he once did. I recalled that my grandmother told me once that Uncle Jimmy stayed with them a few times as well, long before I was born, and that she was always afraid he was going to accidentally burn the house down because he often paced the house, chain-smoking at night after everyone was asleep. Knowing my grandmother and her neurotic, worrying, nature, no doubt Uncle Jimmy picked up on the fact that his presence made her nervous. No wonder he wanted to go back to Medfield, where he probably felt more accepted, and had more relative freedom and independence as he performed his work duties on the hospital campus.

But Aunt Gilda had another revelation for me that would prove to be even more surprising.

“Did you know your great-aunt Mary was in Medfield, too?” she asked me.

“What!?” I exclaimed. The only thing I had ever heard about this sister of my grandfather was that she died young, from a brain tumor, before I was born.

That was later on, asserted Aunt Gilda. Before that, she spent time at Medfield. I asked Aunt Gilda why she was there, and half-expected another benign, euphemistic explanation, like Uncle Jimmy’s shyness.

“She went berserk,” Aunt Gilda said bluntly. “Her husband left her and took their only child, a girl, and it made Mary go crazy.” It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to realize that Aunt Mary’s mental illness was probably the reason her husband left with their child, not the cause of it, but I kept that to myself. And also that the brain tumor that eventually killed her may have contributed to the psychiatric problems that got her committed to Medfield.

So Uncle Jimmy was not the lone family member with a major mental illness, as I had believed. And, I thought now, who knows what other psychiatric problems, short of requiring hospitalization, were swirling around in the family’s past, lost to time, shame and guilt, the keeping of secrets, and the passing of the generations? Perhaps the same could be said of many families, if one looks deeply enough, without even walking the grounds of an abandoned state mental hospital, where the ghosts of the past wait to be awakened.

pencilBrett Peruzzi lives in Framingham, Massachusetts. His poems and prose have previously appeared in The Boston Globe, Exquisite Corpse, Sahara, Pine Island Journal, Boston Poetry Magazine, Gloom Cupboard, and other publications. He is currently working on a book-length memoir. Email: brettperuzzi[at]hotmail.com

And So It Goes

Creative Nonfiction
Luanne Castle


Photo Credit: Kevin Muir/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Kevin Muir/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Their beginning

Pieter scrubbed before he visited Neeltje on the porch, but the oily smell of herring clung to his skin and hair, to his coat and boots. He left at ten every night. Later, she would press her hands, the ones he held as they sat turned toward each other in the small chairs, to her face and inhale. It had the effect of smelling salts or a burnt feather, reviving her from the dullness she felt when he was not around.

Their ending

When he felt invisible cold vines wrap around his ankles and calves, he saw her more clearly than he had in twenty years. His son Karel whispered that he would be seeing Mother soon. Pieter first thought he meant the mother he had never known, but then realized it was Neeltje and smiled at the image of her standing before the light.

And so it goes.

On those evenings, her parents sat at the table inside the window, struggling to keep their eyes open over her mending and his reading. They didn’t seem to notice when she and Pieter disappeared from view for a half hour. Or in the early months when she first let out her skirt.

He thought of his family—his children, grandchildren, and their children. His oldest great-grandchild married young, but she didn’t have to. The man was older, a college graduate. Their first living room furniture was made from California orange crates, and Pieter doubted she realized her great-grandfather had ever been anything but a shrunken old man. Or that he had built chests and credenzas when Grand Rapids meant well-made furniture.

To get permission, they had to contact his mother’s father, the legal guardian that had signed Pieter and his brother into the city-run orphanage four years before. Old enough to be financially responsible for himself, but not old enough to sign his own marriage license. Laws written by old men who couldn’t remember their youths.

Every three months he moved to a different farmhouse. He was supposed to be with his eldest son Karel this season, but Karel’s wife Clara had cancer of the womb and lay dying in the upstairs bedroom. Now he had taken ill at Pete’s where the pies and fried chicken weren’t as good as Clara’s. But they treated him well, bringing him his pipe or a shawl when he asked for it.

She was a 16-year-old ex-schoolgirl when Karel was born. She swaddled the baby carefully, and against her mother’s instructions, carried him to the dock to wait for Pieter. When he said they should leave their families and move to Kloetinge where he could learn the trade of shoemaker, her cycles stopped again. Jan was born in Kloetinge without family nearly.

Nine children born to Neeltje. Two funerals. The one he remembered in color and detail was the first, young Jan, three months old after they had arrived in Michigan. Neeltje was only 19 when she buried her second born. After that, she went some place Pieter couldn’t follow. Gradually, over the next 44 years, he stopped searching.

When Pieter’s wealthy grandmother passed away, his own bequest bought Pieter, Neeltje, and their two babies a voyage on the S.S. Zaandam to New York and then a train ride to Grand Rapids where other Zeeuws had moved. Their young blond family was dutifully welcomed, but without warmth, into the neighborhood. A church elder hired Pieter on at his furniture factory.

For years Pieter wondered if the sawdust and paint chemicals would harm his lungs, exposed as he’d been to young Karel’s tuberculosis. But he retired without incident, although his legs sometimes gave him trouble, especially in damp weather.

Neeltje’s motions with the children were deliberate and patient. When she washed small faces, their eyes gazed up into hers. After Rosa died, she gave birth to yet another daughter and called her Rosa. The last child they called Nellie after her mother; she was born slow with a pinched face and poor eyesight.

His mind wandered further back in time. The orphanage teacher with a swaggering moustache beat him across the back of his thighs with a cane after daily prayers. Afterward, Pieter found adventure stories in the Bible and imagined himself far away on another continent.

Neeltje did things without fanfare or explanation, and that’s how she died. He wasn’t sure what happened, but after he saw she was gone, he realized that even though she’d been at his side since they were teens, he had the sense he didn’t know her. Perhaps he’d been mistaken not to try to pull her back after Jan’s death. He should have tried harder. Now he envisioned her as a teen with a broad plain face, a bashful half-smile, and colorless hair. He’d made her a mother many times over, but she had been only a girl.

Pieter didn’t have a photograph of his mother. As he grew up, he didn’t know her stories. When Pieter was fifteen, his father died and not one of the older siblings, the uncles, or his mother’s father came to save his younger brother and himself from the orphanage that resembled a dark brick church adorned with stone angels. City taxes, including those of his uncles’ import business, had helped support the institution for years. The family figured they might as well make use of it.

He wanted to do it all over again. He would look often at her, at Neeltje, smiling or frowning. And at the children laughing with their mother. The smells of the fish, the leather, the fresh cut wood would be with him, but he would notice her so that when she died—because it always came to that—he would be prepared. He would see the way she was. The way they were. And it would be enough.

pencilLuanne Castle studied at the University of California, Riverside (PhD), Western Michigan University (MFA), and Stanford University. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Grist, River Teeth, Extract(s), Crack the Spine, The Review Review, and many other journals. Winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, Doll God, Luanne’s first collection of poetry, was published by Aldrich Press. She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina. Email: luanne.castle[at]gmail.com

On Death and Dying

Creative Nonfiction
Theresa Kelly


Photo Credit: Anathea Utley (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Anathea Utley (CC-by)

i.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dying.

ii.

When my mom and dad had been dating for about three years, his dad passed away from pancreatic cancer.

(To be honest, it took me about five minutes to remember what my grandpa had died from. A bad memory and four grandparents dead before I was born makes it a little difficult to keep it all straight.)

My mom told me, “Sometimes death pulls people apart, and sometimes it brings them closer. I really think this brought your dad and me closer.” Shortly before the finals week of his senior year of college, my dad suddenly went home for the funeral. His teachers mailed him his finals. He didn’t walk in graduation from Penn State.

He was twenty-two, and his dad was dead. He wasn’t the head of the family now though. He had three older brothers and an older sister. He was the baby, and his dad was dead.

iii.

I’m the baby of my family as well. I’m twenty-two and in my senior year of college.

When I leave to go back to college, I hug him—hard.

At night, when he kisses me on the head, slightly to the left of where he normally does, I tell him, childishly, “wrong.” He kisses me again, in the center, where my part meets what would be my bangs (if I still had them), where he always does. It feels like home.

iv.

When I was in tenth grade, I wrote a novella inspired by the stages of grief. I went to the local library and checked out the book On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In it, she interviewed dozens, if not hundreds of cancer patients. She analyzed how people deal with dying—and death. She went through the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Kübler-Ross explained something in that book that stuck with me to this day. The stages are fluid. Sometimes we’re roaring with anger, sometimes we can’t believe it’s happening, sometimes we can’t get out of bed, and then sometimes we’re angry again.

There’s no right way to deal with death and dying.

v.

When she was twenty-two years old, in the middle of the night, Sarah’s father died of a heart attack. I’d known Sarah since I was in middle school. We met through my best friend’s family.

I found out through a generic Facebook, “I’m so sorry,” post. I texted my best friend, “Is something wrong with Sarah?” She texted me back, “It’s awful. Her dad is dead.”

I gasped and felt secondhand grief burn the corners of my eyes.

At the wake, a few days later, I walked through the line. Sarah’s uncle looked perplexed when he saw me. “I’m—I’m friends with Sarah,” I explained, gesturing towards her. I wished I was wearing a different outfit, instead of my stupid roughly black shirt that I wore to work all the time. It seemed too festive. I could hear Sarah’s mom wailing down the line.

His face lit with recognition. “None of Sarah’s other friends went through the whole line. They just went straight to her.” I winced at the wake faux pas. You were supposed to say your sympathies to everyone in line.

My mother—behind me, always, in support—made a sympathetic noise.

“I— sorry,” I said, hesitant, unsure of how to make it better.

He made an it’s-okay type of movement with his shoulders, and I went down the rest of the line. When I got to Sarah, I was already tearing. “I always cry at these things, I’m sorry. I feel like I’m supposed to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ but that sounds so stupid.” I really wanted to say “fucking” stupid, but I had seen her small cousins running about.

She laughed, and I was stunned. “It’s okay.” She looked at my tearing eyes. “Wow, you weren’t kidding.” She seemed rather nonchalant, but she always did, so it was hardly something new.

My mom murmured an apology and moved aside. I talked to Sarah for a few minutes, while there was a break in the line. I couldn’t tell you what about. What do you say to someone whose father has just died?

I feel like I remember her mom hugging me, but then again, maybe I hugged her. She was sobbing, barely supporting her own weight. I remembered that Sarah’s dad had taken a heart attack in the middle of the night, and I wondered how someone woke up next to their dead husband and didn’t just scream and scream and scream. I was sure the horror movie scream woke Sarah up.

I had never asked her. I never will.

vi.

When I was a little girl, I used to cry in the middle of the night because I didn’t have grandparents. My mom and dad would come in and comfort me: It was okay that Keri, my best friend, saw her grandma every week. It was okay.

I pouted though. It wasn’t fair.

My dad told me stories about my mother’s mom. She was always baking, and he was sure—he whispered, like a secret—that she was flying around in heaven with peanut butter stuck to her wings. I giggled, they tucked me in, and I fell asleep.

vii.

Years later, I made a reference to peanut-butter winged angels. My parents didn’t remember.

It’s strange, how things that comfort some people don’t comfort others. It’s strange how I never had grandparents, but they didn’t have parents, and they’re the ones who comforted me. Maybe that’s what parenthood is all about?

viii.

The first time I saw a dead body, I was in elementary school, and Keri’s grandpa had died. I knew I had to go to the wake; she was my best friend, but I was terrified. I hid near the back of the room, while my mom went to the front and murmured to her parents that I was here. Keri, delighted, ran back to me. I told her, “I’m really sorry about your grandpa.”

She told me, “It’s okay.”

I was already crying—always a sympathetic crier, in a room aching with grief—and she handed me tissues. I looked down at her sneakers and black jeans and wondered why my mom had said I had to dress up, if Keri didn’t have to.

Her grandma came over to me then, and she grabbed my hand. “Come on, Theresa.”

Eyes wide with terror, I looked for my mom. She shot me a look that quite clearly told me she didn’t know a polite way to extract me. Her grandma—for a reason I’ll never understand—led me straight to the casket and put my hand on her dead husband’s face. Grief makes people do funny things, but I wasn’t sure why it was necessary for his granddaughter’s best friend to touch his face.

I cried regardless.

ix.

In twelfth grade, I took genetics. I filled out a family tree and asked my mom to confirm how my grandparents had died. I felt stupid for not knowing, but then again, she had no idea how most of my great-grandparents had died. Thirty-some years had faded the grief.

x.

Late in my high school career, sitting at my desk, listening to Taylor Swift, I was interrupted by a knock on my door. Slow and solemnly, my mom sat on my bed. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. If something wasn’t wrong, she would’ve just stood in my doorway. I muted the music.

I don’t remember how she told me, what words she used. My Aunt Karen—though—she was definitely dead. My eyes welled instantly, and I covered my mouth. “How’s Daddy?”

“He’s— okay,” she said, hesitantly, slowly. She told me what had happened—or I guess she didn’t, because they didn’t really know. Aunt Karen had died in her sleep. She wasn’t old per say, but when my mom was in the hospital having me, Aunt Karen was having a brain aneurysm and a stroke and becoming permanently physically disabled. She was “lucky” she hadn’t died eighteen or so years ago.

My tongue felt thick. “Should I… talk to him? I don’t want to make it worse.” Relatives had died before, but never someone this close to my family. Never someone I had seen every Christmas and every Thanksgiving.

She told me she thought he would like that. I walked down to the kitchen, slowly, where my dad was facing the window at the sink. “Dad,” I said—and swallowed, hard.

He turned around, and he was crying—real, big tears. It was the first time I remembered ever seeing him cry.

I did the only thing I knew how to, and I hugged him.

xi.

I’m still thinking a lot about dying, and a lot about what it means. There’s no right way to deal with death or dying—and maybe there’s no right time to start dealing with the potential for death or dying. Maybe I’ll never know the most comforting thing to say, and maybe I’ll never stop crying at funerals and wakes.

My dad lost his dad when he was my age. My parents were both orphans by the time they were thirty. I look at a calendar, think about the next eight years of my life, think about my parents, think about death and dying, and think about the fact that I’m crazy paranoid (knock on wood), and know they’re likely to live another thirty years. I hope my future children know them.

I don’t know why I think about things like this.

xii.

I think, maybe, I’m afraid.

pencilTheresa Kelly is a senior at West Chester University majoring in English literature secondary education. She is the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper. Theresa has previously been published by Lip Magazine, Daedalus Literary Magazine, and Literati. Email: theresajoykelly[at]hotmail.com

 

A Field Guide to Missing

Creative Nonfiction
Emily Pifer


Photo Credit: Fabian/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Fabian/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

First, you must leave or get left. The truth is: you have less control over the getting left, and more over the leaving. Not to mention, if you’re left, it doesn’t feel the same. It feels bad, yes, but it’s supposed to, so, it doesn’t feel as bad. You see, when it comes to missing, it’s best to do the leaving.

And it’s best, you may guess, to leave soon. Leave hard and fast and—listen—cold. Leave the ground wondering what it did wrong. Leave the walls whispering your name, unbelieving you’re gone. Leave the people, the people you know, the people who know you, grasping for remnants of your DNA.

It’s in your best interest to rush out, the wind at your back. If both the calendar tacked above your desk and the one hanging by a bright, plastic letter X on your refrigerator show you leaving Tuesday, leave before the end of the weekend. Go on Sunday afternoon when the town is taking a nap, or eating, unsuspecting. This, you’ll see, is like committing farewell robbery.

And if you really want to do this properly, rather than savoring the days before you go, the moments of sustenance, the fuel of journal writings, you should wish each painstaking moment away—far (far) away. Make a paper chain of what remains, tally the evenings standing before you and gone away, count down the sunrises left before escape.

Don’t engage in goodbyes like closure like peace of mind, careful hugs and kisses on the cheek at the last hour of so-long-bon-voyage parties. Tell guests there’s no need. If they say, “This is not goodbye, this is see you soon.” Say, “Well actually, I’m not sure when I’ll see you.” Don’t let their earth settle, your dust sink.

Pack timeworn memories, hard-fought heartaches, and small kitchen appliances in a hurried haste. Close your eyes as you fold and wrap, see yourself far away. Then it’s as simple as a crammed trunk slammed closed, keys in the ignition, eyes in the rearview mirror, but for a moment.

A note: It enhances your eventual missing if you are particular about what you leave behind. Particularly, try (try) to leave good and decent contingencies. If what you are leaving is, in general, shabby and shoddy, a deep and dark and noxious body of missing will be harder to come by—impossible, maybe. You must leave life behind. And not just any life, yours—the one you built from tears and nightmares. So, in general, as a rule of thumb, you must leave important things. Below, for your edification, are examples of such things.

An other who cares for you despite the doom threatening to boil your insides; a companion who sees through your neurosis as manageable and sometimes even charming; a friend who lets you eat their cereal; a group of souls who vibrate with your own, gentle and warm and tumbling—like they were custom-designed to help dry out the delicate fibers of your being; a comfortable chair; trees, dark corners, and cracks that have taught you; somewhere to be; books left open and unfinished, their pages flapping in the wind and soon moist in morning dew.

The second thing to do, after you’ve left only your ghost, is to point your bones toward a place as cold as you. This is the key. When you settle in this place, this new place, you should aim for a dull, but constant feeling of unsettling. Don’t harbor feelings of fitting. After all, belonging interrupts longing. Instead, cross your arms. Surround yourself with people who do not understand you and—listen—make sure you do not give them a chance to. Sequester. And do not plant seeds. And do not break ground—anywhere. Look in the mirror and yearn for what you were, before.

Begin adding all the things that were better, before. Scour your mind to remember the exact happenings in the very instant of your leaving. There was a flicker of something. Your days there came back to you in a series of unordered flashes. You felt different, suddenly, and thought maybe (maybe), but you looked down—your foot was on the gas. Knead that instant like dough. Consider pages left. Don’t just read the lines of that weathered paperback, feel it in your hands, notice how the ink blurs and evaporates right before the climax.

Fill in blanks.

Soon, if you’ve done it right, you’ll begin to notice the missing like a headache behind your eyes. Then, it aggravates into a subtle ache in your mind space. Before you know, it starts to quake. You’re rocked from somewhere off the spectrum everyday when you wake, and again at night. There is pain. It’s especially throbbing when a sliver of sunshine reaches across a precise strip of sidewalk in a certain way. In that small strip of shine, you’ll feel the vast pang of joy that can’t be shared, not because you can’t find the words, because there’s no one there.

You chose.

A third thing to do is to remind yourself of what is true: you are not permitted to miss that place you (you) left. You treated it as a marked gravel road to get somewhere else. You ignored the smoke-signal dust stirring up behind you. Despair. At this point, you’ll begin driving through a long, dark tunnel. There is an end, you suspect, but no light to guide you.

You’ll know you’ve done it—the missing—in a thorough sort of way when your tunnel becomes deeper, wider, black. Black. It turns into a well, wide enough that if you stand at the center with outstretched arms, you feel nothing but empty air. A damp breeze moves through the space between your fingers. It reminds you. All that, beyond your grasp.

*

In October of 1987, Jessica McClure Morales, then eighteen months old, fell into abandoned water well just outside the fence in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas. She was trapped deep down under the well’s shaft—and the whole country watched, held, prayed. Two-and-a-half days later, she was rescued, dirty and damaged and crying and okay. Now, she says, she doesn’t remember any of it happening.

Thick, dark bangs cover the scars on her forehead. Long dresses cover the ones on her thighs. I haven’t found anything to cover mine.

pencilEmily Pifer is a candidate in the MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Wyoming. She comes from the hills and hollows of Appalachia, but spent much of her childhood in suburban Ohio. Emily studied journalism and creative writing at Ohio University before moving to New York City, where she worked at Esquire and Women’s Health. She’s currently working on a collection of essays that explore cultures, conditions, and definitions of self. Email: piferemily[at]gmail.com

Freedom to Wander

Creative Nonfiction
Mary Lewis


Photo Credit: Karah Levely-Rinaldi (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Karah Levely-Rinaldi (CC-by)

On the Tundra

In the days when we first started hearing about windchill on the radio, a cold spell in southern Minnesota brought the felt temperature down to -92, though the air temperature was only -40. That was a challenge. Pre-kids, pre-landline, pre-solar panels, Phil and I ignored the radio that blistered warnings that it would only take five minutes for flesh to freeze at that temperature, and left our little log house we built in the woods in Fillmore County to travel by skis to visit our neighbors. The fields belonged to us and them, but we could have trekked for miles over private lands, for who would have cared that we left long trails over their snow, even if the drifts had not filled them? If our eyes led us to the far horizon, nothing could stop us from going there.

We were used to living outdoors and had the gear. Layers of sweaters, down vests and jackets, snow pants, and arctic mittens that looked like we’d grown longer arms with no hands. Our eyeballs would have frozen into oval ice cubes without our goggles. Once out of the woods all trails drifted over with fine blowing snow packed so firmly our skis barely made a trace on them. For traction uphill you had to slam down each step, feeling more than hearing a satisfying thwack each time. Ears stored safely away, it was a soundless world. And bright. Too cold to hold moisture, the sky surrounded us in clean blue so clear you wondered if there really was such a color. Our snorkels gave a chance for the air to warm a little, and carried away moisture that would have frozen on our goggles. Years ago in subzero winters in Minneapolis, Phil invented this technique when he rode his bike to grad school classes at the university. Twice his width in a Frostline down jacket I sewed together for him from a kit, goggled and snorkeled, on his thick-tired Schwinn, he startled many a pedestrian, even when he gave them a cheery jingle on his bike bell.

The wind sifted snow in swirls that hid our feet, making us look like stage angels walking on billows of dry ice. Where the tiny crystals settled, tongues of frosted drifts lipped over the downwind edges of themselves like waves about to break.

You had to lean against the wind to remain standing. In every hollow, loose snow that had collected there caught our skis in sudden arrest and we nearly tumbled forward over them. Barbed wire was buried deep in the drifts, and just the nubs of fenceposts stuck up over the snow. In a world without boundaries we diagonaled our way to Judy and Daren’s, ignoring the right-angle logic of roads. We were used to going anywhere we pleased on our land, between house and greenhouse a quarter-mile away, into the fields where we were beginning to plant hazels and chestnuts, adding to our already oddness as city folk transplants with a long driveway and no plumbing. Fillmore County is corn and soybean country.

Disillusioned with our graduate programs in zoology and ecology, the land we bought as a retreat had beckoned. Familiar with backcountry camping, it was no stretch for us to live in a tent for months while we built our little log house. At first we had no clear idea of what to do with the land, but the dream grew to plant nut trees, and show that the land could grow staple crops that didn’t require the plow year after year.

We were doing it, surviving, keeping warm in the face of wind so strong it felt solid. The effort of pushing through it brought sweat to all our pores. Imagine that, I would have said to Phil if he could hear, but speech was as impossible as it would have been under water. I turned my back to the wind and took off one of my expedition mitts leaving only a thin glove on my right hand, and unzipped my jacket. Moisture left me as though sucked by some huge vacuum cleaner, and then I struggled with the tab to zip up again. I threw off the other mitt because it took two hands and now both were freezing in the inadequate gloves. Five minutes for flesh to freeze? It felt like thirty seconds. What were we thinking trying to tackle this? A drift, we could dive into one and hide out of the life-stealing wind. But the nearest ones of any size were a quarter-mile away in the box elders on our western border. I managed to pull my mitts on but the cold had crept up to my elbows. My hands were so numb I couldn’t hold onto my poles and I dragged them along by their loops like useless sticks, leaving my legs to struggle alone for balance in shuffling strides that teetered side to side.

Seeing my difficulty, Phil broke the wind in front of me, and we kept moving. Motion, that would save us. Stupid of me to release that layer of sweat. The fields passed under my numbing feet that were beginning to feel like concrete blocks. We pushed past the spindly box elders. Drifts there, but too hard to dive into. Beyond the next crest we made out the roofline of Judy and Daren’s farmhouse.

Judy just looked at us through the open door for a few seconds, something you never did in the winter, especially on a day of such historic cold. Had to be the double surprise of our alien looks, and trying to make sense out of anyone traveling on such a day. Besides, we didn’t warn them with a phone call, not having the equipment.

I tried not to rub my frozen limbs as we sat around the big kitchen table. They needed to thaw out gradually anyway. Behind a cup of hot coffee I gritted my teeth against the pain of returning sensation. Elated by survival, we told them about the drifts and the wind. Judy said she always hated the cold, and Daren, just in from chores in the cattle barn, cradled his own coffee mug behind red fingers, looking at us as though we were refugees from the Jurassic.

We talked about the cold, closing schools, how bad the roads were. Their kids Kristen and Julie, about 10 and 8, lounged on a sofa in front of the living room TV. We were not close friends. Most people in the area had extended family and church connections, and they leaned on each other for help, loans of equipment, babysitting, meals. Though we had offered to lend a hand now and then, they didn’t need us, so of course we couldn’t ask for help from them. In addition to the adventure, we made this trip to try to develop a connection, but conversation faltered after awhile. They were beef farmers; we were hard to classify, not normal farmers certainly. They and others expected we’d give up in a few years and go back to the cities.

On the way home the wind at our backs sailed us forward as though we had motors on our feet. We made it back in less than half the time of the outward journey. Familiar now with the cold, and friends with the wind, we played with them. At the pump where our old-fashioned windmill churned like mad in the icy wind I watched water turn to crystals, like a time-lapse video but in real time, sending sparkles of sunlight at me. Delicate snowflake-like branches spread in a film on the surface of a pail of water.

Ribbon of Highway

When Phil and I broke up many years later I moved to Decorah, a nearby town in Iowa, and wandered in the woodland parks there. My pleasure in them didn’t depend on ownership. When we bought the land in the first place, the whole idea that we suddenly were the owners of the land, the trees, the grasses, the creatures above and below the ground, was ridiculous to me. How could exchanging money and signing papers do that? These things didn’t need me to be their owner. If such a concept existed at all, they owned themselves. So when I sold my half of the farm to Phil, and was just as suddenly not the owner, it did not feel different to me, and certainly not to the chipmunks or mushrooms in the woods. I was yet to find out that ownership had to do with where you could go.

I reached into the bag of Cheetos against my better judgment, but nothing felt like a road trip more than orange fingers on the steering wheel, so it had to be done. My partner Maxxx sipped his mocha and munched on an oatmeal raisin cookie, three for a dollar from Kwik Star. Heading north out of Iowa we passed cornfields bristling with spiky young plants, well over knee high and thriving from recent rains, while cows pastured on closely-cropped hillsides and woodlands accented smaller areas of rougher ground, too steep to till or pasture.

“Feels like we could go anywhere out there, doesn’t it?” I said.

“So you want to go gambol with the cowsies on the hillside?”

“Well, I might want to go around them and see what’s in the woods.”

On car trips to Tracy, Minnesota to see Grandma when I was a kid, I’d fix my eyes on every patch of trees and wonder what magic land lived in the enticing shade, and even now any scrap of woodland still had the same power over me, the way it would whether or not I had spent nearly twenty years living in the woods.

“Of course it’s all an illusion.” Maxxx adjusted the tilt of his sunglasses.

“And there’s no way to tell what is real and what isn’t.”

Maxxx is a philosopher and I knew this was a big subject with him.

“I just meant where you can go out there, it’s all private land.”

He was right, we drove on a ribbon of public land and gazed out at countryside that we could not step on without trespassing. On the farm I roamed freely, and hadn’t realized the loss. Now I felt a sense of contraction as though someone had bound me up in shrink-wrap and vacuumed out all the air. Because Iowa has such good land for growing things, it was all grabbed up, with little left in public hands.

But we could still allow some freedom to wander. Years ago on a bicycle trip in the seventies in England I saw a model that worked well. The old medieval trails still existed as they traversed private land, but the law gave everyone the right to travel them. We’d open a gate, cycle past herds of sheep or wait for them as they crossed the path, and go through another gate on the other end. As long as we closed them, no problem to landowner or traveler.

Down River

I dip-twist my paddle into a strong J-stroke from my stern position to turn the bow back towards the side my paddle is on. My son Brandon at the bow sees it too, the inverted “V” we’ve come to read on the surface as the path of deepest water to follow through the next riffle, and switches his paddle to the other side to help correct our course. Perry, three years younger at ten, lounges in the middle for now, arms trailing over the sides. He’s the one who spots most of the eagles, soaring high above the limestone bluffs, green with a fringe of white pine.

The Upper Iowa is the most scenic canoeing river in Iowa, supplied liberally by cold-water springs that emerge to carry water from its underground travels through some of the oldest rock on earth. This is the only part of Iowa that has big outcrops of bedrock, having been missed by the flattening power of the last continental glaciers, and the debris of rock and soil that they left in their path over most of the region. Called the driftless region, for lack of this overburden, or perhaps just as poetically, the Paleozoic Plateau, it is a land of sedimentary rock, mostly dolomite and limestone, in which subterranean caves and crevices carry water in darkness as freely as do the sunlit streams.

We are on the most photographed part of the journey, a stretch of high cliffs that rise vertically from the left bank as much as 280 feet. We ride the rapids with a fore and aft pitch that skims us over the standing waves until they empty out into calmer water. Each one of these riffles is a thrill because you have to shoot the V just right to get the ride. Hit the bottom and it can turn your canoe sideways, and then the push of the current can tip you over.

Perry wants to touch the rocky walls and we paddle right next to the cliff where late-afternoon sun tinges the limestone with gold. We look straight up but we can’t see the top. Junipers spring out here and there in cracks where they hang on by their toes.

We don’t think about who owns this rocky wall, but the whole watershed is a complex of mostly private land. Back in the seventies there was a big push to classify the river as a Federal Scenic River, with all the land bordering it public. It did get that designation, but a group of private landowners succeeded in opposing the effort to the extent that the federal government bought up little land, and most of it along the river remains in private hands. A sad conclusion, but not unexpected in our country of private property. How can any person own a cliff, have the right to keep others away, or bash away at it with hammers and dynamite?

The odd rule is that the water itself is public, but the land is owned, even the ground under the water. Interestingly, this is the same rule that applies in England where, though roaming rights are liberal and lakeshores are public, access to streams is very restricted. There, you are trespassing if you set foot on the banks, or presumably, the ridiculous situation of walking along the streambed if your canoe tips over. Here in Iowa, though the rule is the same, the practice on the Upper Iowa is that if you pull your canoe up on shore for a picnic, no one will object, but if you climb up the bank and walk on the land next to the stream bank you’re out of line and truly trespassing.

It’s a big day on the river, and as we reach the high cliffs that circle Bluffton, we find flotillas of canoes and rafts hooked together by paddles and feet, allowing the free flow of beer and chips as the boats drift over the placid last few hundred of yards of their journey. The cliffs here are capped by relict firs left over from the ice age, and able to hold on in this area where temperatures cooler than those of surrounding areas prevail. You wouldn’t be able see these firs again until you traveled hundreds of miles to the north.

Just before the bridge there’s a big put-out point and we land and look around for our car, but briefly because so many others are waiting to get out, and we’re in the way. I don’t see the car and think it must be at the next landing. A big lesson in assumptions, in this case, that there was another one nearby.

So on we go. No one is on the river here, and we feel the chill of the shadows in the growing dusk. The boys are anxious but try not to show it. I think about food and water. We’ve been on the river for eight hours, and should be out by now. I realize that crowded landing was ours, and we just didn’t look hard enough for our car. I worry that we don’t have enough food or water, and Brandon, a diabetic, needs regular meals and snacks. We have enough surely.

I never really thought about the fact that you can’t just haul out anywhere on a river. We’ll have to wait for the next bridge, and I don’t know where that is. The only one I know about is many miles away even by road. Day is rapidly turning into dusk. How will it be to canoe in the dark?

In the river you are sunken below the level of the general terrain. More true since people began controlling rivers, including this one, by dams that slow down the river in some places and speed it up in others, where the water then cuts a channel with steep earthen sides. You have the feeling of wilderness except for the occasional bridge. Now we want that bridge like nothing else.

We stop and I get out to climb the steep muddy bank to a cornfield. From which I see nothing but more cornfield. No barn, no road. We could haul the canoe up the bank somehow, but then what? Trek over the field with the heavy canoe till we found a road? Could be a mile. We’d be trespassing the way we would if we walked off the narrow strip of a highway onto a field, and hauling a canoe would damage the corn. Still we should be allowed to walk through the field, leaving the canoe behind, without breaking the law.

We go on. Brandon, low on blood sugar, drinks a can of juice. Perry paddles in the bow to give him a break. The boys are used to country, live in it, know that it gets dark at night. There are no outdoor lights on the farm where we live. But even in July it can get chilly when the sun goes down.

We do another scouting landing, and when I climb up into the next cornfield I see a wooded ridge stretching towards the river on a long angle, and since the cornfield fills in the flat land between us and the foot of the ridge, I suspect there’s a road there, at least for farm access. Would be even better if it was a county road. Since the ridge left no space along the river for a road, the road would have to cross the stream or dead end. I hope for the bridge.

We could haul up where we were, but we might not be able to drag the canoe over the steep bank, even if we could haul it across the cornfield. We could paddle on to the wished-for bridge, if it really did exist, but the bank could be even steeper there. Only one way to know if the bridge was there before we got to it was to scramble up the bank and trek between rows of corn that probably grew three inches today.

The leaves scratch my bare arms. Someone struggled over what hybrid seed to buy and waited for the field to dry enough to bring in the heavy machinery to disc and harrow, to inject the anhydrous ammonia, to spray with atrazine, and then to drill in the precious seeds, hoping the June rains would be gentle ones. So who was I to tromp along between these long lines of carefully raised giants? I have no choice, but feel like the trespasser I am, wanting not to be found, but desperately needing to be.

In the middle of a cornfield there are no cues, and space and time are without boundary. All you see are identical plants in all directions, and the gray rows of earth vanishing in the narrowing distance between distant cornstalks in the fading light. I can’t even be sure the rows are straight, I just expect them to be made that way by the farmer who furrowed the land parallel to the river so any downhill trickle of rain would be caught by a ridge of soil. I pick a row and stay with it so I can follow the same one back to the river where my kids wait out of view below the stream bank. I should never have left them there, you don’t split up in the wilderness. Itchy with scratches and sweat that film my skin despite the chilling air, I keep on, thinking I hear a vehicle. My imagination, and there might not be one for hours if at all, on the road, if there was one.

My row runs out into a ditch, and I climb down and up onto a gravel road. Hallelujah, a real road. I mark my furrow by breaking a long, green, box elder stalk and walk down the road towards the river, looking for the bridge. And then I see it, one of those rusty old erector set affairs that arches over the river, with a number on it, 1909. That’s all I need. I race back to the cornfield, but in the dimming light have trouble finding my row. Cool air spills into the ditch, already five degrees colder than air on the road. Soon there’ll be a blanket of fog over the whole valley. I race down my row, knowing it now, that there would be nothing rough to trip over, unconcerned about more scratches.

By the time I tumble down the bank, the boys are huddled close together, munching energy bars, sipping on the dregs of water in their bottles. “A bridge,” I say, with emotion I have been repressing for so long. Now that things would be all right, I don’t have to. Cheered, we tumble back into the canoe and paddle on. When one problem is solved, the others of a lesser nature come to the fore, so now we have to make sure we don’t miss the bridge in the waning light.

For some reason we remain quiet, as though careful watching required it. Soon, very soon. But the trace a river takes is twice as long as any road or corn furrow, and I almost believe we’ve missed it somehow, when something untreelike spans the darkness ahead. We beach the canoe on the left bank, just before the bridge piling. This is no canoe landing. We unload the cooler and other gear, and drag them up the steep bank to the road, but how would we ever hoist the canoe up that far? We could leave it there till later, tomorrow even, and just get ourselves to water and food and rest. We wait on the road, listening for a car, watching for headlights. Maybe there’d be nothing for it but to hike along the road till we found a farmhouse. This was way before the days of cell phones.

Brandon slings a wet canvas bag over his shoulder, and Perry picks up another one. “It’s OK, Mom, we can start walking.”

Great, they are comforting me. I hug them and tell them how sorry I am for missing the landing. “Is this what they call an adventure, Mom?” I can’t see Perry’s face in the darkness, but I know that look on his face, brows scrunched, tight mouth. He was tired hours ago.

“Hey Perry, look up there, I found the first star,” Brandon said.

Straight above us, visible even in this narrow valley, Vega gleams out of the cerulean sky.

A rumble gathers down the road, and headlights shock our night-adapted eyes. We have no trouble flagging down the pickup, driven by a farmer and his wife from two farms over. With his help we manage to pull the canoe up over the bank, and hoist it into the empty bed. Somehow we all pack into the cab, and it isn’t one of those extended jobs. It is jolly and warm, and full of talk about river travelers who’d gone astray like us. “It’s easy to miss your put-out, because you only see it from the bank when you leave it, and it looks so much different from the river. I’ve done it myself,” says Lyle.

He and Arlene help us put the canoe on our car, the last one there, no longer hidden by other cars, and we buy munchies and get water at Randy’s store in Bluffton before heading home. I sing “Deep River” because that is the only river song I know, but no one joins in. It’s fine. The boys need to sleep.

Into the Countryside

There may not be many like me who feel restricted in where we can go in the countryside, but I think that’s because I’ve experienced the freedom to wander. Most people are like caged birds who never think about going through the open door. They are content with parks, and short hikes from the car for a picture. In Pike’s Peak State Park on the Mississippi near McGregor, most people walk the few hundred yards to the jutting overlook near where Zebulon Pike of Colorado fame intended to put a fort at one time. You can see a long expanse of the Mississippi upstream from there, and the winding silver snake of the Wisconsin River ending its journey far below in a fan of rusty sediment. That is the spot where French explorers Marquette and Joliet canoed into the Mississippi. I imagine they were impressed.

Pike’s Peak lookout is one of the best views on the upper Mississippi, but few go beyond it along the trails that twist down into a side valley with craggy witch hazels and water-sculpted cliffs to cross the stream above the falls, or climb to the ridge where one effigy mound after another hills up under your feet. People long before us revered these high cliffs and formed earth into the shape of bears and eagles along their crests.

Still, people can be coaxed into the countryside. When bike trails began to grow like a filigree of young roots across the land, people came, and they respected the private property they traveled through. We could learn from the Allemannsrett of Scandinavian countries, or the roaming rights in Britain, which open up the countryside to the public, but require a codified level of respect. Surely we can do it as well as they can. By honoring rules that require staying away from houses, crops and livestock, we could give ourselves a greater freedom than that of owning property: the right to wander freely over the earth.

The woods and streams have always drawn me, and I can find them in my park-rich town. But it is not the same as looking out at the horizon and walking there. Just that ribbon of highway please, just the water that carries your canoe, just that road where you can catch a glimpse of the lake through the trees. Everywhere else you’re a trespasser. We are all conditioned to this, and the only reason I became aware of it is that I did live a roaming life in the country, and feel the stifling restriction of not having it now.

How would it be if we could walk anywhere? The wide world that our eyes hunger for could be under our feet as well. We need some bit of nature whether we realize it or not, and if we could get it easily, how would it change us?

pencilCurrently Mary Lewis is in an MFA program at Augsburg College focusing on fiction. Before that she studied for 13 years in at the Iowa University summer writers workshops. Her story “Chimney Fire” appeared in R.KV.R.Y. Quarterly. Another, “Quesasomethings” will appear in early 2015. “A Good Session” was recently published in Persimmon Tree and “My Father’s Trees” came out in Lost Lake Folk Opera Magazine. Her essay “Mourning the Night Sky” was published in the Wapsipinicon Almanac. Trapeze, a regional journal of the arts, published 8 of her stories, 3 personal essays and a poem. Another arts and issues paper, Valley Voice, published 7 of her stories, 2 articles, and a poem. Her story “Almost Mud Time” appears in the book Frank Walsh’s Kitchen and other Stories. Email: marmax[at]mchsi.com

Transmutation

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Peat Bakke/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Peat Bakke/Flickr (CC-by)

My mother died fifteen years ago. The last time we spoke she revealed to me confidentially that she had once had two daughters. All I could think of was King Lear.

After her death my sister cremated her and scattered her ashes in the Pacific Ocean; she wasn’t sure where, she said. The night she phoned with the news, my mother traveled to me in a dream, shrouded in white. She wants me to make a memorial for her in New York, where she was born, I decided. But it was too late for an urn. I needed a grave-marker—not necessarily a headstone—but at least a place for her in my head. My daughter-in-law, a botanist with the New York City Parks Department, had a tree planted in her memory near our apartment in Manhattan. My mother had also been a plant lady, who seemed happier raising African violets than her own children. I didn’t tell my sister about the tree. She wasn’t exactly sentimental.

Finally my mother had a place to anchor her spirit after it had drifted aimlessly around in the Pacific. But the pink dogwood, Cornus florida, survived only into its first winter. The sapling was splintered and uprooted by a vandal, leaving only a blotch of bark behind. It was New Year’s Eve. That spring a second dogwood was planted for her behind a park fence for protection. She had another home now.

The new tree flourished, producing its first blooms about a year later. In tribute I bought a bouquet of baby’s breath and tossed the sprays singly into its heart. It responded that fall by producing a second floral display. My daughter-in-law, of a more scientific temperament than my own, explained it as a natural phenomenon. The tree had hoarded some of its spring buds for an autumn encore, she said. But I preferred to believe it was with my mother’s connivance. A fanciful idea no doubt, because she usually didn’t thank people for anything. The dogwood repeated its performance the following fall. Its branches were beginning to grow horizontally now, providing a haven for small creatures, a maternal instinct my mother hadn’t shown much of when she was alive. After a sudden cold snap I inspected the tree to see if it had been affected by the weather. The leaves appeared to have changed almost overnight from green to bronze, but flower-like bracts enclosing clusters of tiny red berries clung tenaciously to the twigs. Chattering little birds nibbled on the berries and a few squirrels were camped around the trunk. I shivered as I watched them. A nervy squirrel scampered up to me begging for food, but I didn’t have any.
The tree continued its biannual growing cycles for several years, until I returned from vacation one summer to find most of its leaves brown and shriveled. It had been exceptionally hot and because it lacked an umbrella of taller trees to shade it, the dogwood must have succumbed to the heat. I hoped after the winter it would come back. It didn’t. It remained barren throughout that spring and summer, almost hidden behind its abundantly-leaved sisters.

It never came back. Soon it couldn’t even be seen from the other side of the fence. Now and then I checked. No change. One day I couldn’t find it at all, so I climbed over the fence to see if it had really vanished. It had. Parks must have finally given up on the stunted trunk and carted it off. The saga of the tree seemed to profile my mother’s life. But recently when I stopped by the spot where it used to be to watch a few birds pecking at a budding ground-vine, it hit me. Although the Cornus florida was gone for good, my mother meant to stick around, assuming whatever shape she needed.

pencilAfter retiring from teaching Art History to undergraduates for twenty years, I signed up for a memoir-writing class. I’ve been at it ever since. A piece I wrote on teaching English in the Peace Corps in Somalia, “Girls’ School,” appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo (Travellers’ Tales, 2011). Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

Advice

Creative Nonfiction
Ron Riekki


Photo Credit: Ashley Rose/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Ashley Rose/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I want you to watch Buffalo ’66. I want you to read Sarah Kane. I want you to see Václav Havel’s Temptation. I want you to make out with people from every ethnicity on Earth. I want you to have a child if you want to have a child and I want you to have a child. I want you to read at least one of my poems; I promise they’re short. I want you to throw your guns in the garbage—or no, melt them into nothingness—and this includes your metaphorical guns. I want you to be brave and ask them out, especially if your hair’s a mess. I want you to understand how hot you are. I want you to wash your hands more frequently, because it really does help reduce how often you’ll get sick. I want you to be CPR certified. I want you to help somebody’s dream. I want you to write something that scares you. I want you to write black characters. I want you to write Native American characters. I want you to try to write in ways you never felt you could. I want you to learn a foreign language and live in a foreign country and make out for at least two hours with someone from that foreign country until you can walk away and still feel like you’re kissing them. I want you to wear condoms. I want you to find a center of peace in you. I want you to stop looking at your phone so often. I want you to tell your parents you love them more frequently, with real meaning to it, whether or not they’re around. I want you to forgive. I want you to volunteer at a prison. I want you to take an improv course. I want you walk more frequently. I want you to avoid any of those crazy diets that are meant to take your money and make you unhealthy. I want you to breathe when you start feeling any road rage. I want you to fasten your seatbelt. I want you to go to a concert and I want you to do it soon. I want you to take dance lessons at least once. I want you to watch Mitch Hedberg’s standup; I want you to realize he’d still be around if he didn’t do the stupid heroin. I want you to reduce the amount of porn you watch. I want you to understand that NASCAR is destroying the environment. I want you to cross-dress and I don’t care if it’s part of a comedy show as long as you do it. I want you to act. I want you to sing. I want you to be even sillier. I want you to memorize a quote from Speed Levitch in The Cruise. I want you learn how to juggle. I want you to thank a veteran. I want you write. I want you to write. I need you to write.

pencilRon Riekki has been published in Toasted Cheese, PANK, BluePrintReview, New Ohio Review, and several other journals. His book The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Wayne State University Press, 2013) is in its third printing. “Beautifully edited, The Way North is more than a collection. It is a collaboration of writers, each whom understands in his and her own way what is sacred about that utterly unique, fresh water peninsula known as the U.P.” —Stuart Dybek, author of The Coast of Chicago. Email: ronriekki[at]hotmail.com

When We Still Knew What It Meant to Be Kids

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Krista Varela


Dirty pool
Photo Credit: Éole Wind

That summer before high school, the desert was ruthless.

The weeds had become overgrown, shooting up through the ground to graze our ankles and lodge themselves in our socks when we’d run outside. They sucked the ground dry of its nutrients, leaving cracks in the dirt like the cracks on our chapped lips.

The sun bruised our skin red. Our shoes baked on the pavement, the plastic on the tips of our shoelaces melted as we dragged them across the sidewalks.

The hot winds blew and tried to stir things up, but nothing changed; dirt and sediment settled on the bottom of the stagnant swimming pool, turning the water murky and thick.

There were days when it was so hot, our dreams flickered in front of us like mirages on the blacktop, disappearing the closer we got to reaching them.

And yet, there was still the mural of horses painted on the front of your house; mustangs and appaloosas, spotted browns, whites, and blacks, bucking and prancing through a field of lush grass and unfastened wooden fences, an entire other world painted against a pink wall—giving us hope that there was life beyond this place we were living.

*

Do you remember how we met? I’m not sure who was the first to say hello in that year before high school. We shared a lot of the same friends back then, because you were in band, and I wished I had been cool enough to be in band. My parents had just officially divorced, still battling custody issues while they fought about my dad’s drinking, and my mom couldn’t afford for me to rent an instrument. I still hung out with the band kids anyway. But the fact that your parents were divorced too was what drew me to you at first; I didn’t know anyone else who had a family like mine.

We spent much of our free time roaming around your neighborhood and exploring the alley because we were on the threshold of something, but we didn’t quite know what. Mostly I think we just tried to stay out of the house so that your mom wouldn’t make us do chores.

You also introduced me to a lot of music I had never heard before. We spent hours listening to your stereo because iPods didn’t exist yet. We’d play music with the volume turned all the way up, and your mom would pound on the wall for us to turn it down when she was hungover and had a headache.

Before we knew each other that well, you asked me once if I had ever been molested, but you didn’t use that word. It was in that shy roundabout way that kids ask when they’re not sure how to talk about things—do you remember what you told me? You confessed that your grandfather and uncle had shown themselves to you before with a strong smell of whiskey on their breath. But you could already hold you own. You knew how to handle and talk to drunken family members in a way that I hadn’t learned yet. “Put that thing away, old man,” you’d said. I never told you, but it scared me when you told me that. It scared me when I’d see your uncle at your house with a beer in his hand, and I’d wonder if he would try it again. I knew I wasn’t as brave as you were.

We were at your house once, just the two of us, watching a movie. You got up and went to the kitchen to get something to drink. You probably don’t even remember, but you asked me if I wanted a wine cooler from the refrigerator. I had never tried alcohol before. I didn’t know what to do. I never told you, but when you asked me, my stomach seized up in knots, worried about what we were capable of, even though it was no worse than what I knew other kids our age were doing. It’s not like you were offering me the wine in the cabinet above the fridge, or the bottle of gin under your mom’s bed. We’d both grown up watching our parents drink and saw the emotional extremes that came with it—the carefree elation and the utter despair, the hard fall from one to the other. That was the moment I realized that could be us someday, so overwhelmed by life that it was the only way to cope.

I wasn’t ready.

I didn’t know then that our first drink together would be almost a decade later in Las Vegas celebrating our twenty-first birthdays. But at thirteen years old, I just wasn’t ready. “No, thanks,” I said, and you came back to join me on the couch with a glass of water instead.

*

My dad would tease you about the different colors that you’d dye in your hair, and you’d tease him right back. None of my friends had ever done that before; they were always too intimidated by his gruff voice and sarcasm. My dad knew that your own father wasn’t around, and he tried to fill in as a role model in your life. Even though he spent night after night taking shots of tequila while he cleaned up the bar that he owned and only saw us a few times a week, that had to be better than being away from your kids across the country right? My dad still asks about you, says he loves you like a daughter.

My mom loved you too because it was impossible not to, but she probably thought you were a little too wild for me at times. Remember that evening at my house when we sprayed the walls of my room with hair glitter from a can? I never told you, but my mom pulled me aside before we took you home and asked me if we had been drinking. The smell from the aerosol can had smelled like alcohol to her. I’m not sure if she believed me when I said no, even though I let her smell my breath. There were days after that when I’d be sitting in my room, and the light would catch just right, and the glitter would sparkle on the walls.

*

That ruthless summer before freshman year, we were in your backyard swimming in the pool. The radio was on, and “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley was playing. I knew the song because The Ataris had recently come out with a cover of it. Your mom was outside with us, barefoot on the patio, and she was dancing with her eyes closed and a cigarette in her hand. She swayed side to side, slowly waving her arms in the air, and there was something so beautiful about the way that she moved, as if the song could have played forever and she’d have just kept dancing. Your mom had gained weight since I first met her, probably from the alcohol, and her face had stretched into wrinkles from smoking so many cigarettes and worrying about paying the bills, but in that moment you couldn’t see any of that.

Before school started, your mom lost her job, and she stopped nagging you to clean the pool. She couldn’t make her mortgage payment so you would probably have to move, so what was the point of keeping it clean anyway? I was surprised by how quickly it got dirty. In a matter of weeks, the bottom was completely covered in muck. The longer it went, the less clean water there was, and eventually, you couldn’t even see two inches below the surface.

We managed to get a block of dry ice from the grocery store once. Chipping off pieces onto the pool steps, we watched the water around it bubble and the dirt scatter, leaving a small ring of clear water around the ice. There was something so dangerous about handling the dry ice ourselves, but there was something so harmless about placing it in the water, and something so comforting about seeing a small bit of clarity in an entire pool of filth.

*

The desert was ruthless that summer, but the fall was even worse.

I remember the day your mom died. It was just after Halloween. I was in freshman English class, and I got a slip calling me into the office. I was led to the counselor’s office, where I saw you sitting at the table with someone I didn’t know. Everyone was looking at us with gentle smiles, in that way that people do when they know bad news before you do, looking at us if we were fragile and already broken.

You were in shock; you weren’t crying. Maybe you had finished crying before I got there, or maybe you couldn’t cry yet. The reality that our lives had changed permanently wouldn’t sink in for a long time. Until then, alcoholism was this vague term that we knew our parents fit in to somehow, but just referred to the everyday bullshit that we had to put up with, like when your mom slept in every day until noon or when my father got road rage for no reason at all.

But after that, alcoholism became real—a real disease that caused liver failure and bleeding ulcers and took parents away from their children.

The next day was my mom’s birthday. I asked her if I could see you that night. I could tell she was disappointed that I wasn’t spending her birthday with her, but she understood. Somehow it didn’t seem right to celebrate with my mom when you could never again be with your own. I think about you every year on November third, a day that was both a beginning and an end.

*

We’ve never again had a summer quite like that one. You moved across the country to live with your dad, down south where the air was wet and thick. Life still wasn’t easy, taking care of another parent that bounced around from one job to the next holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, but you managed. You knew how to hold your own. A few years later I left the desert too, to spend my summers gazing out into the Pacific and share my new home in rolling green hills with cows and wild turkeys. But I still watched from afar as my own dad lost so many things because he refused to throw out the bottle of tequila on his desk: his job, his driver’s license, half of his front tooth.

The last time I drove by your house, the mural of horses was gone. The people living there now painted over the entire wall with a dull gray. Perhaps the horses moved on to greener pastures.

Every time I hear “The Boys of Summer” on the radio, I think of that summer when we still knew what it meant to be kids. I think of that day we spent in the pool, swimming until our fingertips wrinkled and the tips of our noses turned red. I think of the smell of chlorine, the sound of cicadas singing in the trees. I think of the hot concrete, the way our feet burned as we dashed across the yard to turn up the radio. When I hear that song, I picture your mom, and wonder if she too was thinking about being a teenager when life feels both so immediate and so nostalgic. I can see her so clearly, her brown hair shining in the Arizona sun, in that eternal moment, dancing.

pencilKrista recently graduated with her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California. She currently resides in Concord, California with her partner and their miniature dachshund. This is her first publication. Email: kdvarela[at]gmail.com