Qingyundian Vignettes

Creative Nonfiction
Hannah Samuels


Cucumber vendor---Beijing
Photo Credit: Alexandra Moss

1. ping-pong

A gate just a few apartment buildings down from where we live looks exactly like the doorway to Bilbo Baggins’s home, a circle gate or, as the locals call it, “moon gate.”

Between the last apartment building and the highway rumbling outside of the moon gate there are three ping-pong tables lined up in a crooked row. Behind one of these tables is strung a large, forest-green cloth. The cloth is hung up to catch the balls that get hit too hard and aren’t hit back. The cloth quickens the game as it frees the players up from running after balls all of the time.

These ping-pong players are the real deal. They play every day, every season, every morning and every evening. There has rarely been a day that I do not pass them on my way out of the complex. One morning there was a storm rolling in, but the ping-pong players were not hunkering down, they were out at their game as usual. Winter mornings can be frigid, in the single digits Fahrenheit, but on they play—fierce competition in the brutal weather.

There was a morning one day where the rain was falling hard as I left for work. I couldn’t see far enough through the downpour to notice if a ping-pong game was going on.

2. Street Sweepers

I have read in books about the street sweepers of yesteryears. It’s almost a historic profession. In mind’s eye I see the grizzled man, hat cocked, sweeping streets that, even before he started, were cleaner than he was. Maybe these public service workers sing, like in My Fair Lady, “Oh, wouldn’t that be loverly?”

Street sweeping is something that I don’t see, I don’t talk about; I only read about it in a nostalgic way. Street sweeping seemed to me like a bygone job, replaced by machines and trucks, until I moved here to this little China-village and suddenly manual street sweeping was a daily sighting. Every morning they are there, the street sweepers, wearing their orange vests and carrying their handmade brooms or shovels.

The brooms are made out of wheat sheaves, or at least something similar. Dust that settled overnight is swept up into piles. I don’t know what is done with the piles. Some middle-aged ladies carry shovels; it is their job to transport trash into the dumpsters, or to lift spadefuls of waste from the dumpsters into the pickup-like trucks which deposit this rubbish into the ditches where it is later burned.

Every morning I see them, some busily at work, others chatting with their coworkers and drinking green tea.

3. A Street Breakfast

The friendly face of the Xian’r Bing baker smiles over his glass-enclosed case of freshly fried “bing” at me. “What would you like today?” he asks in his accented Mandarin. I ask which type is the hottest and he gestures to the moon-shaped breads in the corner, “chives and egg,” he says, and then motioning over to the rectangular layers of dough and ground meat, “and these meat ones.” I ask about red bean paste, my favorite filling as long as the bing is hot; he points to them, and nods his head when I ask if they are still warm.

I buy one chive-and-egg bing, and another red-bean-paste one. I pay the man one yuan, the equivalent of fifteen cents in America. That is, I pay him one yuan for both breads; this is the cheapest food in China—round bing at 0.5 yuan a piece.The tiny plastic bag they are served with seems too thin to keep the heat in and I worry that the hot breads will melt a hole right through.

Biting through the crispy bread and into the hot filling, I sigh with pleasure. Street food carries such a magical charm.

4. A Busy Corner

Since the police told all of the farmers a few months ago that they could no longer peddle their fruits and vegetables and freshly-made tofu at the town center, the village has not been quite like itself. The center of town is quiet, the streets are wider and a sense of impressed industry overshadows our once rustically-productive village.

But I have made one of the happiest discoveries during my daily walks through town that, until a quarter till eight, a new “center of town” emerges down the street, with all of the bustling and bartering of fresh products that feels so natural. It seems that the farmers have decided that, for as long as they can, they will continue to use the village as their marketplace, so they have chosen a new location for congregation.

I can hardly get through this back street as I walk in to work, but I love the challenge and the smells and the sounds: the carts of the farmers are so heavily laden with brightly-colored vegetables and the villagers on their bikes and in their own carts and on foot clog up the road in the most festive manner.

At quarter till eight, however, the police come and, starting at the far corner, slowly drive their cars through the jam-packed streets, telling each seller, one by one, to leave. It’s a very slow process, as the road is congested with activity and it takes each seller a few minutes to finish their latest transaction and pack up their wares. Every policeman that I have seen on this route wears a look of bored frustration. I have been noticing that the policemen assigned to this piece of road are younger and younger, almost as if it is becoming the appointed job of the rookies as a possible form of initiation into the police force.

5. The Vegetable Seller

After the farmers were kicked out of the center of town, one couple needed to find a new location for their vegetable stand. Walking down the road, they discovered a wide alley and, realizing that it was an unfrequented path, chose to set up their shop there. The board-on-stick table that they used fit perfectly in the narrow entrance and there was just enough light to tell broccoli from cauliflower and lettuce from cabbage.

Every morning the couple drive their little cart with the table hitched to the back, down through the alleys until they get to the one adjacent to the main road. There, setting up their wares, they settle for a day of chatting, sitting, and selling. More often than not I see a friendly chat going on, as opposed to a business transaction.

Gan Maiya?” A passerby calls out, the equivalent to “What’s up?”

“Nothing really,” they reply. “Just being. Buy some vegetables? Come and sit a bit?”

They know how to be. These people know how to keep life from being choked up in tasks and forced productivity. They’re not beating themselves down for being lazy, because sitting is not lazy. Sitting is just being. Get out into the city and you’ll see just the opposite—the anxious, Westernized task-oriented behaviors that squeeze life out of living. But here, in quaint Qingyundian, life moves not at the pace of schedules, but at the pace of inspiration.

6. Corn Harvest

I thought that all of the corn in the village had been harvested and shucked and laid out to dry and then bagged into sacks to either be sent to be ground into meal, or saved to feed the pigs. I was wrong. Walking through the town on the first day of October—a special holiday—it seemed like the village population had doubled and the corn harvest had tripled. There, laid out on the streets where the corn of last week had already been bagged into sacks, were piles and piles of corn cobs, bright orange and bold.

I think that I saw every village mother and grandmother sitting out on their stools and shucking the corn, chatting about the last year. The grandchildren and children and cousins were all running about in their split pants and oddly-shaved heads. The young men played basketball and the fathers and grandfathers ran the cobs through a manual machine that shaved the cobs of their kernels. I stood and stared and soaked in this festivity that was everywhere.

A child, less than two years old, too young to know much of anything I thought, suddenly turned around and saw me. She gasped and put her hand to her mouth. I smiled at her. “Baba, waiguoren!” she exclaimed. Daddy, a foreigner!

7. Cora’s Story

When Cora gave birth to a daughter, her mother-in-law was enraged and refused to look at the baby girl. When Cora found out that she was pregnant again, she and her husband loaded up their bicycle-cart with vegetables and biked the hours to another village. They stayed there for nine months while the grandmother, Cora’s mother-in-law, who had since become more accepting of her granddaughter, looked after the little girl.

When Cora gave birth to a son, her husband called his mother from the distant village they had escaped to and told her. There were happy tears on both ends of the line. The family quickly scraped up their life savings and borrowed from relatives to pay the high additional-child fine.

If Cora’s second child had been another daughter, she doesn’t know what she would have done.

8. Prayer

Ni meiyou nancheng de shi’r.

I think that I know what this phrase means. My mind starts thinking as Amy continues to pray, her full, yet mellow, voice rising and falling with the tones common to Mandarin.

Ni.” I know that one. It’s one of the first characters that I learned when I first began to show an interest in China, over ten years ago. “Ni” means “you.” “Meiyou” is such a common phrase. Do you have something? No? Then “meiyou.” It means “have not” and even little children learn this early. “Nancheng.” Now here’s a word that maybe I haven’t heard before, but I know that “nan” means difficult, so I’ll just go from there. “De” indicates that there is some possessiveness going on here and “shi’r“… I think that “shi’r” means “task” or “thing.”

It’s almost my turn to pray. This room full of Chinese and foreigners is going around the circle; each person takes a point on our list. Some pray for things like protection, for our sponsors to be blessed, or for the doctors to be endowed with supernatural wisdom as they perform difficult surgeries on our little ones. Sometimes we just pray for the children, each by name, lifting up their specific medical needs, or their immediate need of a forever family—an adoptive family, every orphan’s ultimate dream. It’s almost my turn and I have figured out what Amy said: “Ni meiyou nancheng de shi’r” means “Nothing is too hard for you.”

I sigh; it’s true. My turn to pray, “Father, nothing is too hard for you…”

9. Cute and Cuter

Stella and Lewis arrived fresh from the orphanage and, freshly bathed, I posted their arrival pictures on the foster home’s Facebook page. Neither of them had English names yet, so I just called them Ying Ying and Chao Chao, nicknames created from their real Chinese names, assigned by their orphanages.

Within minutes people all over the country were liking and commenting and sharing the photos. In a few hours, Ying Ying’s picture had garnered over twenty comments; by the end of the day it had forty. Poor Chao Chao, however, only received seven comments on his arrival picture and it remains at that low number to this day.

Of course, it seems totally wrong for one child to quickly become more special in the eyes of the public than another. For publicity purposes, I’m glad that little Miss Ying Ying arrived. It’s fun to welcome the cutest little babies into the foster home, but a part of me wishes that we only brought in the not-so-cute. But when I overthink it, I start wondering if she should even be here at all, and if maybe a more needy child should have been brought in. Those huge, soulful eyes will find a family for her regardless of where she’s living, who does her much-needed urology surgery, and how often she gets a bath. Chao Chao, on the other hand… I can just see it in his eyes; he needs us.

If a family is each child’s greatest need, then it’s the babies that aren’t all that adorable who need our care the most.

10. Mia’s Giggle

Mia will celebrate her first birthday in November, but she’s probably spent at least six of the nearly twelve months in the hospital. Mia has had over five surgeries and has had pneumonia more times than I have had the flu. Today she is done, done with hospitals and surgeries and near-death experiences. She’s had her final heart surgery and will no longer turn blue and stop breathing… what a relief.

When Mia came home from the hospital for the last time, she didn’t smile. In fact, I don’t remember ever having seen her smile at all. Daphne, a nanny who stayed with her for a few of those hospitalizations, claimed that by rubbing Mia’s cheek and talking sweetly to her, Mia had flashed a tiny smile once. This report was the only one I had ever heard of Mia smiling.

A few weeks after coming home, Mia smiled when I gently ticked her and told her how special and loved she was. Her smile was bigger and happier than I had ever imagined. Yesterday I heard her giggle. And I observed with those smiles and that giggle, that little Miss Mia has a dimple.

11. Gaining .2 kg

This little darling who I hold in my arms was born four months ago and abandoned around that same time at a local hospital. A hospital has been her home for all of this time. This little treasure has lived in PICU and been nourished through an IV since the day she was born, because there was a hole between her trachea and her esophagus, and her esophagus never actually went into her stomach.

When she was released from the hospital, she only weighed 2.8 kilograms. A few days after coming home for the first time she weighed 2.9 and yesterday, when I weighed her, she was 3.0 kilograms. That’s 6.6 pounds, impressive, though still tinier than I was when I was born.

“She gained 0.2 kilograms in just two days?” I was surprised.

“I think that it’s a real gain,” her nanny said. “See how well she eats? In the hospital there was not this much closeness and love, so of course she wouldn’t have gained as much when she ate. Here, we hold her close and talk to her when we feed her. I think that is why she really has gained so much so quickly.”

pencil

Hannah Samuels is a current undergraduate student attending Thomas Edison State College, majoring in English and living in China. Email: beforethethrone29[at]gmail.com

Suckers

Creative Nonfiction
Melissa Leavitt


tentacles
Photo Credit: Bill Selak

I almost flunked my interview when I applied to volunteer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The volunteer coordinator looked at me, straightened the lapels of her lavender blazer, and cleared her throat. She asked me if I had a particular interest in aquatic life; I said no. She asked me if I was from the area, if I could easily give directions to visitors; I said no. She frowned. But finally, she opened up a black binder, tapped a page with her pencil, and said she had an opening at the Information Booth on Friday afternoons. She handed me a turquoise cardigan, with the aquarium logo embroidered on the pocket, and told me never to throw it out or donate it to a thrift store, even if I quit. “We don’t want just anyone to wear it.”

So I began to spend every Friday afternoon standing at the Information Booth, telling people how to find the bathroom or the gift shop; thanking Harriet, my shift partner, every time she told me how nice it was to work with such a jovial young person; and waiting for the octopus to swim out from behind the rocks. The octopus habitat was in a tank across from the Kelp Forest, in the wing of the aquarium adjacent to my booth. I’d never seen her during my previous visits, and when I started volunteering, I asked the Kelp Forest volunteer to let me know as soon as she came out of hiding. She was shy, I was told. She almost never came out during the day, never when there was a crowd. Occasionally someone would buzz me on the walkie-talkie, telling me to come over, quick, because the octopus was out. But all I could ever see was the tip of one tentacle, one sucker grasping a seaweed frond, or one eye looking out between two rocks.

I had moved down to Monterey for the summer with my boyfriend, Michael, who had a temporary job in the area as a real estate attorney. I was portable, since I was writing my dissertation—all I needed was a stack of library books and a place to plug in my laptop. Volunteering at the aquarium gave me a break from sitting home by myself all day, trying to write about other people’s homes. My dissertation was all about representations of the home in American literature: the difference between tenancy and ownership, domestic bliss, and the motif of eviction. In Monterey, I hoped to finish my third chapter, about an obscure midwestern writer obsessed with what he called “a nation of homes.” A nation of homes was a land where everyone had a place that couldn’t be taken away, where work and commitment were the currency of ownership. I began every day by typing “a nation of homes” onto my blank Word document. I couldn’t get past it. A nation of homes.

Michael and I sublet our San Francisco apartment, and treated the summer like an extended vacation: he loved the mountains, I loved the beach, and the Monterey peninsula had it all—including a furnished two-bedroom house we could rent that was an upgrade from our cramped studio. We dated for years before we lived together, but began to fight as soon as I moved in, over things like dirty dishes and the unmade bed and who finished all the Cheez-Its.

On our drive down to Monterey, as the suburbs gave way to small towns where the homes had huge spaces between them, we listened to Selected Shorts on NPR, a reading of “Goodbye To All That.” We stopped at a roadside stand to buy cherries and pistachios, then stopped a few miles later to buy lemonade from kids sitting at a card table on their front lawn. The smell of eucalyptus reached in through the open windows as we turned off 101 and broke west toward the coast, and we imitated the calls of the sea lions that seemed to welcome us home.

But just a couple weeks into our stay, we began to fight again. One night, after we finished eating dinner, I told Michael that when we moved back to San Francisco, I thought we should try to find a different apartment, a bigger apartment; maybe we just needed more room to spread out. Michael said he didn’t want to move, because he loved the neighborhood and he’d been in that place for years.

“If we don’t move, then I don’t think we can live together,” I said.

“Then I don’t think we should be together,” he said.

He took off his shoes, left them under the kitchen table, then walked into the living room and sat down on the couch. I threw his shoes against the wall, while he stretched out and closed his eyes. An hour later, he came into the spare bedroom, where I was sitting on one of the twin beds, deciding whether to call my friends now or wait until Michael went to work the next day.

Leaning in the doorway, he said, “Sorry. I didn’t think I’d take that long of a nap.”

“Do you remember what we talked about before you fell asleep? Do you remember that we broke up?” I asked.

“Yeah. Sure. What do you want to do now?”

We watched La Dolce Vita, the next movie in our Netflix queue. We watched the closing credits, in their entirety. We watched the DVD extras. We stared at the blue screen on the TV for ten minutes after we pressed stop on the remote. Then we talked, and decided to keep living together through the rest of the summer. He had two months left at his job, and we had two months left on our lease in Monterey. I could have asked him to pay rent on his own for the rest of the summer, but I didn’t want to leave. I had just started volunteering at the aquarium—I couldn’t turn in the cardigan yet. And I had friends scheduled to visit. I couldn’t disrupt their summer vacation.

I emailed those friends the next morning, and they both called me within the hour. What happened? they asked. They seemed surprised. Andrea told me she didn’t think it was a good idea for me to stay; Diana asked if I wanted her to drive down to get me. The morning fog had burned off by the time I finished with the second call.

Every day around noon, the sun thinned out the fog, turning the sky lighter shades of grey and the carpet paler shades of beige, until I found myself squinting as I looked at my book or computer screen. That day, after I hung up the phone, I stretched my arms above my head, trying to warm my hands in a beam of light coming in through the window. Then I sat on the floor in a patch of sunlight and cried. After a while I went for a walk out to the bay shore, taking the path along the docks so I could watch the sea lions. They slept piled upon one another, the long white whiskers of one disappearing into another’s folds of fur and fat. I stared at them, trying to tell where one body ended and another began, until the wind picked up, the fog blew back in, and I was too cold to stand still. I started walking out to watch the sea lions every afternoon, right around the time Michael would get home from work.

We still slept in the same bed, but hardly ever touched. I’d lie awake for hours after he fell asleep, watching his shoulder blades move together and apart as he breathed in and out. When he turned over, I turned the other way, too, so if he opened his eyes he wouldn’t see me watching him. I’d leave as much space between us as I could, fearing that if I did fall asleep, I would reach for him out of habit, or he would reach for me, cupping the underside of my breast with the palm of his hand. I only slept soundly after I heard him turn on the shower in the morning.

Before we broke up, I always made a point of getting out of bed when he did. When I first moved into his apartment, we commuted together from San Francisco to the East Bay—I headed to my teaching job at UC Berkeley, and he went to his law office in Oakland. BART was so crowded in the morning that we always had to stand, but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the handrail hanging from the ceiling. We stood facing each other in the middle of the center aisle, with people pushing in on either side, and Michael held onto the rail while I held onto him. He put his messenger bag between his feet so he could reach up with both hands, bracing himself while the train jerked back and forth. I wrapped my arms around his waist and we held steady as our train moved underneath the water, swaying while everyone around us shoved.

When my job ended and I began to stay at home to write everyday, I made myself get up early so we could start the day together. I slept on the left side of the bed, and he slept on the right; when we got up we’d cross paths at the foot of the bed, between my closet and his dresser. This moment of crossing paths was my favorite time of the day. To be a person in a couple—a person set in motion because someone else was in motion, too—made me feel like I’d found my place in the world, like the path had been cleared and I could see my way home.

After we broke up, I thought about moving into the extra bedroom. We had made up the twin beds with new sheets and blankets so friends would be comfortable when they visited. But I convinced myself there were ghosts in our house, and I was afraid to sleep alone. The other volunteers told me ghost stories, and I believed them all, even in the cheer of the aquarium’s crowds and piped-in Caribbean music. My favorite restaurant, just a block away from our house, was supposedly haunted. I figured our entire neighborhood was haunted. Our house was old. The doorways had settled and shifted, and doors would swing open and shut; the ceilings were slanted, and cast shadows even in the middle of the night.

Our new sheets stayed unused until Michael’s friends came to visit from New York for the Fourth of July. Jake and Lillian had just got engaged; they slept in one twin bed together, saying it reminded them of when they first started dating during their freshman year at Brown. We told them we thought that was cute. We didn’t tell them we had broken up—Michael said he didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. I agreed to go along with the charade, but all weekend, I worried I would give something away in my gestures or choice of words. Afraid to seem cold or unkind, I laughed a lot, too often, when I should have been listening.

We took them to the restaurant with the ghost in the attic. After we ordered, Jake asked Michael what was new in his life. I grinned to fill the space left by Michael’s pause, and Jake smiled back.

“Ok, this is gonna be a good story,” he said. “I can tell.”

“No, actually,” Michael said. “My father died.” Michael looked at me, and I looked away. I had forgotten about it somehow, before Michael even had a chance to tell his friends. Lillian dropped the roll she had just picked out of the breadbasket.

Two weeks before we moved to Monterey, I was cleaning out our closet when the phone rang. It was Michael’s brother-in-law.

“Hey, is Michael home? I have to talk to him right away.”

“No, he’s down the street doing laundry.” I looked at his desk and saw his cell. “He didn’t take his phone. Should I have him call you when he gets back?”

“No, I have to talk to him now.”

Michael’s father had suffered a stroke that morning; things looked bad. Michael had to come home to Ohio right away, to take a flight that night if he could. They were keeping his father on life support, and Michael had to decide whether he wanted them to turn it off. His father would probably die right away without it.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll get him.”

I couldn’t find my keys, so I left the doors open. I ran two blocks barefoot down the hill to our laundromat, and found Michael sitting in front of one of the machines, reading. I sat next to him, touched his knee, and pushed his magazine down, telling him what happened.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What am I supposed to say? I don’t know.”

“I don’t know. You have to go now,” I told him. “The door’s open. The door to the building is open.”

“You talk to him. Tell him I’ll call him back.”

“Michael, I can’t. He’s waiting. He’s still on the phone. You have to go.” I pointed to the machine. “I’ll watch your stuff.”

He told his family to take his father off life support, and flew home the next day. His father died before he got there. As Michael told Jake and Lillian, I nodded along with what everyone said—their questions, their condolences, Michael’s stories about planning the funeral. One of his hands started to shake, and he put it in his lap. I didn’t take it in mine. I waited too long, trying to decide if that’s what I would have done, before. I looked at his hand, watching him trying to stop the shaking by pressing it, palm up, into his knee. I wondered what Jake and Lillian would say about me that night when they crawled into their twin bed.

The next day we drove down the coast to Big Sur, stopping partway to hike in the seaside hills. We pulled off on the side of Highway 1 and climbed down to the beach, jumping off a low cliff wall. Jake and Lillian went first, and then I came behind them, with Michael following. I heard him stumble on the rocks and skid down to a ledge, and I turned around.

“Need a hand?” I asked.

“No,” he said, jumping the rest of the way down to the sand. Lillian turned around. Michael waved at her and then put his hand on my shoulder, pulling me back toward him. “Thanks, though.”

We finished the day at a restaurant that jutted out over the ocean, where diners could watch whales breaching in the distance. Our table was pressed against the window, with two seats facing the ocean and two seats facing the interior. I took one of the seats without the view.

“No, you can’t,” Jake said. “We can’t steal the whole view.”

“No, seriously guys, it’s totally fine. I really want you to enjoy it. Don’t worry about it!”

I put my hand on the table to emphasize my point, and knocked over the salt shaker. Salt spilled over Michael’s side of the table, and he pushed it back toward me. A young boy sitting at the table next to us tapped me on the arm.

“Hi,” I said to him.

“You need to throw that salt over your shoulder. You’re gonna have seven years of bad luck.”

“Oh, ok,” I said. “Thank you. I will.”

“You have to.” The boy took his hand off my arm and went back to eating his fries, while his father looked at me and shrugged.

I changed the subject, but Jake interrupted me.

“You know, he’s right, you don’t want bad luck. Throw some salt.”

For the first few months of my relationship with Michael, after the initial weeks of show-off dates, when he took me to concerts and plays and restaurants I’d never been to, we would spend the entire weekend in bed. I was living in Palo Alto at the time, and I would drive up to his apartment around six every Friday, and stay until Sunday or Monday. When I arrived, we’d go to the store to pick up food—cheese, crackers, red wine—and we’d call in for take-out when we got tired of that. We might take a walk at some point on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and if the fog cleared, we might go down to Dolores Park to sit in the sun. But other than that, we were in bed.

One night, I picked up the bottle of wine off the floor next to the bed and filled our glasses. Then I rested the bottle against my side and leaned over to kiss Michael. He rolled over on top of me and knocked over the bottle. I scooted down to the end of the bed, wrapping myself in the top sheet, while he went to the kitchen for a towel. “Get salt!” I shouted after him. “To sop it up!” He emptied the entire salt canister over the spill and we watched the grains turn red. We left them there over night and fell asleep at the foot of the bed.

I looked at Jake and pressed my fingers on the table, picking up a few grains of salt on my fingertips. While Lillian clapped, I flicked salt at the window behind me.

Our next visitors were my friends Diana and Andrea, who came for my birthday at the end of July. They had asked me if I thought Michael would do anything for me, and I said yes, I think so, because it would be too weird if he didn’t, right? They said they’d come anyway. The four of us went to see a movie at the amphitheater in Carmel, answering the pre-show trivia questions and winning me a T-shirt. When the movie started, Michael stood up and walked to the end of our row, saying I probably wanted to sit next to my friends.

“Is he pouting?” Diana asked.

“I hope he’s not trying to ruin anything for you,” Andrea said.

I pointed at the screen. “It’s starting. We’ll talk later.”

But Michael did most of the talking later, after the four of us went back home for tea and birthday cake. I kept asking him, “Aren’t you tired? You don’t want to be tired when you get up for work tomorrow. You’re going to work tomorrow, right?” But he stayed up as long as we did, the four of us sitting cross-legged on the living room floor.

Diana, Andrea, and I slept in the next morning, and then spent a few hours at the aquarium, taking advantage of my guest passes. I pointed out the volunteer ladies in their turquoise cardigans and we laughed. We watched the sea otters dive for plastic balls; we waited for fifteen minutes in front of the octopus habitat, trying to catch a glimpse of her between the algae-streaked reefs; and then we headed over to the wave display, where we took pictures of each other pretending to be capsized. After a stop in the gift shop, where Andrea bought a Steinbeck novel and Diana bought an octopus-shaped magnet, we headed back home for lunch. As we ate bowls of homemade pudding with strawberries fresh from the farmers market, we planned the rest of our day, deciding between a drive past the mansions in Pebble Beach, or a visit to Tor House, a home in Carmel a poet had built for his wife.

When we were almost finished eating, Michael came home for lunch.

“Oh, you went to the aquarium?” he said. “That’s good. Aren’t those guest passes great? Nice to know a volunteer, huh?” He put his arm around me. “Did you see the octopus? I still haven’t.”

Andrea and Diana looked at him without saying anything.

“Michael,” I said. “We’re eating here. We’ve kind of been hanging out. We’ll probably leave soon, though.”

“Oh, that’s ok, I don’t mind you didn’t wait.”

Michael took out a Trader Joe’s mini quiche from the freezer and put it in the microwave. Then he came over to the table and opened Diana’s bag from the gift shop. He picked up the magnet, tracing the pattern of green dots on the purple body. There were eight little magnets on the octopus, one on each leg where a sucker should be, and Michael threw it at the fridge, five feet from the table. He whistled. “Just had to see how well it would stick. Pretty good.” Then he took the magnet from the fridge and walked further away, throwing it again. He did this several times, throwing the octopus harder and harder from greater distances.

“What are you doing? Stop it,” I said. “You’re gonna hurt it.”

“Just seeing what it can take,” Michael said, throwing it again. This time the magnet didn’t stick, skimming across the surface of the fridge and falling on the floor. He picked it up and tossed it to Diana.

“Thanks,” she said, pushing her chair back from the table. “I’ll just put this with my things. Before I forget and leave it here.”

A week or two after Diana and Andrea went back to San Francisco, I started to search Craigslist for apartments. The lease on our Monterey home was up in the middle of August, and I didn’t want to be caught with no place to go. Michael was adamant that he should keep our studio, and I didn’t fight him for it. He was there first. Plus, he had never repaired the hole in the bathroom floor where a mouse chewed its way in from the basement. Every time I sat down on the toilet and looked at that hole, I felt like Michael was opening the door to something dirty.

The mouse first appeared one night a few months after we moved in together, when Michael was out with a friend. I was in bed, reading, when it ran out of my closet and into a cupboard. I screamed louder than I ever thought I could and called Michael, telling him I saw a mouse and asking him to come home. He laughed, but said sure. When he got home, we sat on the bed waiting for the mouse to run back across the floor. It finally did, and I screamed again, but Michael wasn’t able to catch it. Our upstairs neighbor, Armando, called to ask if we were ok; Michael told him I was scared of a mouse. The next morning when I woke up, there was a patch of blood on the bed sheet beneath me.

“Holy shit,” Michael said. “Are you ok? Didn’t you just have your period like two weeks ago?”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” I said, trying to lift myself out of bed without smearing the blood. “It’s not my period. I guess I was just really scared.”

Michael called his work to say he would be late. He set out glue traps and cleaned up the droppings we found in my shoes. But we still didn’t catch it. I’d hear rustling during the day, when I was trying to write; I’d see a flash of something when I walked past the closet. I was terrified every time I was home alone. I made Michael go into my closet every morning to pull out the clothes and shoes I wanted to wear that day, and he always tried to get me to laugh by pairing sweaters and skirts he knew didn’t match. If the day turned foggy, I would sit in our apartment, shivering, until he came home and handed me a sweater.

One day I finally called an exterminator, who pointed out the hole in our bathroom floor and the cracks in our walls.

“You’re living on a rat highway,” he said. “You basically have to tear this place down and build it again if you want to be safe.” He told me to make sure no one left any crumbs on countertops or tables. He also told me to get rid of any plastic bags, which we kept in the cupboard under the sink.

“Use those arty-farty canvas bags the hippies take to Whole Foods. You know what I’m talking about. I guess you should use them anyway, because of the earth.”

I nodded.

“And find the food source. This guy’s eating something, that’s why he’s still here. What’s the asshole eating? Ask yourself that. What’s the asshole eating?”

I told Michael we probably had this mouse because of him, because he left dirty dishes where he ate, on the couch or at his desk. He started washing his dishes as soon as he finished a meal, but the mouse still didn’t leave. “What’s the asshole eating?” we joked every morning, while Michael cleaned up the new droppings.

After another week, we bought still more traps, and lined them in every cupboard, on every shelf. I went to the grocery store for more plastic bags, to replace the ones we threw out. I put the traps inside the bags, stuffing them in the cupboard under the sink. A few hours later, I heard the bags crinkle and the mouse squeal; eventually, the squeals got louder and came at shorter intervals. I decided to leave, and opened the top drawer of Michael’s desk, where he kept his spare change, to get enough quarters to take the J-line downtown. I sat in Union Square, holding a cup of coffee but not drinking it, listening to all of the noise. Not until Michael called me, telling me he had found the dead mouse and thrown it out, did I finally go home.

I decided to stay in Monterey after Michael left: I could keep working at the aquarium, I could probably write better without any distractions, and I could be alone. I imagined living in a home where nothing ever changed unless I changed it—where every glass or book or towel stayed put—and where I could sit still for as long as I wanted. I found an apartment in a building that I thought looked quaint, and then went back to San Francisco for a week, staying with Diana and packing up my things while Michael was at work. When I packed my share of towels and sheets from the linen closet, I found a torn cardboard box sitting on the bottom shelf. Inside were pieces of the gingerbread house I made for Michael the previous Christmas, which I had saved so we could use it every Christmas. All that remained were hard candies and shreds of the six-pack container that served as the house’s foundation.

On the morning I moved back to Monterey, I went over to Michael’s apartment with the moving truck. He had taken the day off work to help me, and was just waking up. We had decided that I would take our bed, since it was originally mine; he had pushed the mattress and box spring against the wall, and was lying in a sleeping bag on the floor beneath them.

“That seems like kind of a dangerous place to sleep,” I said.

“It’s ok, no problem,” he said. “I didn’t want to make you wait around too long.”

A couple of his friends came over to help us load the truck. When they left, they told me, “See you later.” I picked up my keys. Michael walked me to the door, and we looked at each other.

“Hey, I have to tell you something funny,” I said, tapping him on the chest. “Remember that mouse we had?”

“Yeah. I think I remember the mouse.” He smiled.

“Well, I finally figured out what it was eating.” I told him about the gingerbread house.

“That’s what the asshole was eating? That’s hilarious.”

“Yeah,” I said. “So I guess it’s my fault, huh? I’m sorry. I was the one who said we had to keep that house.”

“Oh, it’s ok.” He reached behind my head and tugged on my ponytail. “It was a really nice idea.”

After I’d been back in Monterey for a few weeks, I finally saw the octopus. While I was working at the Information Booth, counting the number of wheelchairs we had lent out to visitors, the Kelp Forest volunteer buzzed me and told me the octopus had come out from her hiding place—she was really exposed this time. I grabbed my camera and nudged my way past the visitors, trying to look official so I could get a clear view. The octopus took up almost the entire length of her habitat and I had to step back to take her all in. Her head, like a misshapen egg, was tilted to the left, with all of her arms stretched out to the right. She wasn’t like I imagined. Her head was lumpy, her arms weren’t fanned in a perfect circle around her body, and I couldn’t get a good picture of her. No matter how many different angles I tried, she kept coming out looking lopsided, with her arms cut off or her head indistinct.

When I show those pictures to people now, they can’t tell what they’re looking at. All they see is a pile of rocks in the background, and a row of suckers pressed up against the glass.
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Melissa Leavitt is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has previously appeared in Willow Springs and New Delta Review, among other publications. She is currently working on a collection of essays and a children’s book. Email: melissaleavitt[at]gmail.com

Suitcases

Creative Nonfiction
Matthew Zanoni Müller


old suitcases, old clothes
Photo Credit: Deb Collins

My father had a few shirts he wore all the time. I remember one in particular. It was black, and showed some form of wooden gate in the graphic on the front. It was the kind of gate you might see entering the driveway of horse breeders, only it was rustic, built out of rough-hewn logs, and said the name of a national park across the top. He always wore it under his collared shirts and in the summer would unbutton them, and leaning back in the sun on one of our weekend trips to Dorina Lake in Oregon, the shirt would be there, its yellow gate emblazoned on a black field. This shirt, as with the others, was worn until the collar frayed and split, the sleeves began coming apart, and the shoulders turned threadbare and grew holes. My mother always tried to get him to throw his shirts away but he never did. He wore all of the new shirts she bought him once and then the old ones would be back, their holes getting bigger and their fabric thinner. My father kept the things he liked, the things he felt good in, the things he felt connected to.

My mother, on the other hand, loved throwing things out. She loved clearing brush, weeding, taking things to the dump. At our house in Upstate New York she would always make brush fires and then carry anything she could burn out from the basement, any boxes or old furniture, anything that was taking up unnecessary space. My father was the opposite. Even though he had always been a nomad, he hated throwing anything out. His study was filled with little business cards from cafés and music stores, ticket stubs from concerts, every kind of imaginable instrument and rows and rows of books, many of them lugged across continents. It was common for my mother to come into his study and point to a dodgy old object found in the basement asking to throw it out and he’d rush to take it quickly from her hands and find a special place for it on his shelf.

Sometimes my mother would get incredibly inspired. She’d come in from clearing brush and throw her gloves on the counter. She’d say, “I feel so good today, everything is going so well, it just feels so good to clean!” Then she’d take a big drink of water and go back outside to throw more things on the fire, to sweep away the old. “You have to make space for new things to grow,” she’d say, her cheeks flushed with excitement. When my mother got like this my father would disappear into his study and bend his face down over his keyboard or stacks of corrections. He’d run his fingers through his hair until it formed a long horn hanging down over his forehead, and like an old skinny elephant he’d sit in the middle of all his treasures, surrounded by memories, stubborn to the dust being kicked up around him.

My mother knew my father well, she knew how he thought, what he cared about. But even for her it was difficult to understand why anyone would want to keep the two black moldy suitcases that had lived in our basement now for the past eleven years. Maybe she figured it wasn’t that important that they had lived in an old closet in Oregon for nine years before that. Maybe she even thought it was disgusting that they had survived long enough to live in a closet in the apartment in Germany where I spent my first few years, or the apartment in England where they had first met, or how they were the suitcases that had accompanied him from there to Switzerland where he had worked in a chocolate factory, and from the factory to his years in the band in Schwenningen, Germany, and from there back to Switzerland, and then back to Johannesburg where they had fled the draft with him after he had finished university; back to Stuttgart, Germany where he went to high school for a year; back to Empangeni, South Africa, to Cape Town; and finally back to Davos, Switzerland where his father had saddled him with the responsibility, at age seven, to go buy suitcases for himself, because they might be traveling quite a bit in the years to come. But my mother must have only seen the battered outsides, the infestation of mold, the old brass buckles, as she, full of delight, threw them into the fire.

She probably didn’t count on him coming outside just then, coffee cup in hand, only to see his two suitcases going up in flame, their flimsy ribcages pointed up to the sun, his twin companions cremated, gone forever, their memories sucked into the deep red and orange of the flames, a part of him lost. She knew what she had done, though, when he even rushed a few steps forward, tried to save them from the fire. All of her inspiration fell away when she saw the devastation spread across his face, all of the trains and mountains he had seen, the villages, the people, all somehow betrayed by this act, like their memory was no longer worth saving. A silence built between them for the next week as she watched him sifting through the coals after the fire had gone out, pulling the brass buckles from the feathery ashes and rubbing them gently off like sacred stones. She watched as he sat them on a shelf in his study, part memory, and part reminder of its importance.

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Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany and grew up in Eugene, Oregon and Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and teaches at his local Community College. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, DecomP MagazinE, The Boiler Journal, Prick of the Spindle, Halfway Down the Stairs, MiCrow, Used Furniture Review, RED OCHRE LiT, Literary Bohemian and numerous other magazines and journals. To learn more about his writing, please visit matthewzanonimuller.com Email: matthewzanonimuller[at]gmail.com

The Adolescent Letters

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Anna Shuster


The Adolescent Letters
Photo Credit: Anna Shuster

A warm August wind followed me down the street to the mailbox, playing with the corners of the envelope in my hand. Inside that unassuming swathe of white lay everything I’d never said to her, everything I hoped would break the silence stretching between us.

We’d been best friends. I just hoped these few words could bring that back.

I waited the rest of the summer for an answer, some little white letter that would tell me everything was ok. But that answer didn’t come until alarm clocks and school bells once again appeared in my life.

I’d almost forgotten about my pathetic attempts at communication when I found it—a folded piece of yellow legal paper peeking out of my backpack. Its blue lines revealed a tumble of apologies scrawled in the loopy, half-cursive script that could only have been penned by my best friend.

I read and reread these half-explanations dipped in guilt, signed with her distinctive nickname, and found myself trying to reassure the paper that everything was all right.

If my foggy eyes were any indication, I needed that same convincing.

I realize I still haven’t responded to your letter. How inconsiderate. I really enjoyed it, if I haven’t already mentioned that. I probably haven’t. Basically, don’t worry about me. I know that right now you’re scoffing while reading this. But it’s the truth. I’ll be fine. Things have just been weird recently. And I’m a stupid teenager. However, the most important thing: DO NOT TAKE THIS PERSONALLY. Please. Trust me when I say that it’s better that I’m withdrawing from all—and I mean all—of humanity right now. For everyone involved. Look, you’re an amazing person and an even more amazing friend. I do not want to lose that. Having said that: it’d be both rude and stupid of me to force you to wait for me until I get out of this. If you choose to, wonderful. I’d be eternally grateful. Stay happy. Stay you. You’re beautiful. -CRSFD

My heart broke a little bit more with each word, but the last six almost did me in entirely. Deep breaths filled the next few seconds of my life, and I glanced around to make sure no one could see the raw emotion I was feeling.

I realized after composing myself that I had to make a choice. Abandoning her completely was out of the question, obviously. But more choices remained: would I try to bring her out of this self-imposed isolation, or would I hope and wait for her to come back?

Being the coward I was, I opted for the latter.

That’s not to say I didn’t try—briefly. One day I went with her to the music room, a favorite secluded spot we’d both discovered. But my attempts at conversation were snatched from my mouth by melancholy piano refrains.

I didn’t try anymore after that.

In retrospect, I realize that was a risk—I could have lost her for good. But mercifully for my foolish self, she did come back.

Her resurrection came in the form of a chai tea latte and a proposal one sudden afternoon. She remembered the letter I’d written months ago, and wanted a return to that kind of correspondence. Though this offer seemed to me to come from out of the blue, I wholeheartedly agreed. Then, finally, the awkward, obligatory smile she’d worn around me for so long widened into a legitimate grin.

The next morning, a neatly folded piece of legal paper awaited me in my otherwise chaotic locker.

I fumbled it open and devoured the words it offered me. After reading and rereading what she’d taken the time to write to me, I began a carefully crafted reply on my own white, lined pages.

From there spun several months of the good old days. Laughing, talking, and confiding wedged themselves into our days, and penning letters back and forth took up many of our nights. We would insert doodles and song lyrics into the margins, inking every surface of the lined pages we sent back and forth. Hers were always better than mine.

Some days, I would just sit and admire the artistry she put into her letters. Others, she’d give me more to marvel at. One day, I remember clearly, a delicate origami butterfly sat waiting for me among my textbooks. That was a good day.

From this newfound correspondence our old friendship was reborn. We went to concerts and record stores together. We played music together and talked about everything: boys, classes, British musicians, guilt, depression. Our letters were always filled with some kind of passionate discussion of life, love, or how much we hated chem class.

And we were supportive, naturally, but in the oddest ways. I still remember the days after I broke up with my first boyfriend, and how she drew little cartoons to make me feel better. They worked.

As the year began its race towards the finish line, though, letters were more hurried. School work took priority over doodles, vocab words replaced heartfelt ones.

In short, the honeymoon ended.

We started running out of things to say before conversations even started. Letters became more awkward, words more forced. We tried to keep up the dialogue between us, but it was crumbling. I didn’t think much of this slow descent at the time, but she did.

Without my notice, she started retreating into herself again, bit by bit. But this time, I wasn’t the one who could save her. Another friend, a better friend, swooped in for the rescue.

Soon enough, she was encased in a new fortress of friends. I sat outside the gates, unable to shake the feeling that I’d failed somehow.

By now it’s summer once again, and the letters have long stopped coming. I open up the box I keep them in, take in their familiar, musty scent. I pick through them one by one, remembering the stories behind each one. I keep picking through them, memory by memory, until I’m right back at the beginning, walking down the road with a little white envelope in my hand.

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Anna is a high school student and managing editor of her school paper. Writing, music, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are the main focal points of her life. She loves more than she probably should, but she doesn’t mind. Email: bluemoonesp[at]gmail.com

Being My Mom

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Amy Gantt


Being My Mom
Photo Credit: Amy Gantt

In the spring of 1992, when I was seventeen years old, I got out the purple pen I’d bought myself with the money I earned cleaning the furniture store in the tiny downtown of Wallace, North Carolina. I sat on my bed, my notebook balanced against my knees, and I chewed on my pen as I thought about what I wanted to say to her, how honest I wanted to be. And, dry-eyed, I wrote Mama a letter.

Then, shaking, I carefully folded it in thirds and sealed it in a plain, white envelope and printed her name on the outside in purple block letters. I wondered when she’d get the letter, how long I’d carry around this knot of worry in my gut.

When she called me into her room to talk, I slouched in, hands buried in my pockets, and I refused to meet her eyes. I was afraid that I’d see she’d been crying.

“I don’t even understand what this is,” she said. “What does this say?” She pointed at a scrawl of names.

“Those are,” I said. “I mean, these are the people you work with, you know, L.D. and Verna and Ray and all them. And that—” I pointed at a nearly illegible scrawl. “That says ‘an-guh-tham.’ I didn’t know how to spell it. You know, that thing you have to watch while you’re working.”

“Oh,” she said. After a long, miserable pause, she said, “So this is how you feel about me.”

“No, Mama, I mean, I guess. I just—I just wish that things were different. I thought they would be, after Daddy left.”

“I don’t see you helping out much,” she said. “I have to work. I wish I could be around with y’all all the time, but I can’t.”

“But when you are here, you just, I mean, like, the other night, when James was so upset. I mean, he’s only nine years old, and I had to go and get him to stop crying.”

“That wasn’t any of your business,” Mama said. “You didn’t even know what was going on, and when you undermine me like that it doesn’t make it any easier.”

“I just didn’t want him to be so upset.” I felt the unshed tears burning behind my eyes, and I looked up into Mama’s face for the first time. There was anger and under that, pain, and under that, the exhaustion of Sisyphus.

I sagged under the weight of what I’d done, fucked it up again.

“Are we done?” I asked.

“I guess, unless you have anything else you want to say.”

I shook my head.

*

Mama,

First of all, I love you, and this is extremely difficult for me to do simply because I love you. However, there are some things I need to tell you. If I tried to talk to you, you would hear me, but you wouldn’t really comprehend what I’d be saying. Please read this and think about what I’m writing.

I value our friendship, but I am your daughter. That’s hard enough without having to be your best friend. I have my own life, and I really need to live it myself. You tell me almost everything, but when was the last time you sat down and really, really listened to me or asked if everything was going okay? If you have asked me, I know you didn’t really want to hear that I have been severely depressed since school started, and that I have prayed time and again just to die, to go home. I enjoy talking with you, but I have to say what I have to say in short bursts because you seem to only pause with your narratives about Brian, Ray, Verna, the jimco, the angatham, James Keene, L.D., or whoever, to catch your breath. We’re not talking; you’re talking. We used to be close because you listened but now you talk and talk and talk; and then you get angry when I am tired and want to go to bed. After I’m gone next year, don’t dump on Kevin, please. Find a friend outside of work, a female friend that you can trust and talk to. I know you’ve got to talk to someone about Ray, but that someone shouldn’t be me. I’m your daughter for God’s sake.

I know you love me, if for no other reason than the fact that I’m your daughter, but when are you going to be my mom? You’ve been my friend, my enemy, and my sister since I’ve been an adolescent, but what I need most is a mom. I wish that you had been tougher, made rules and made sure I stuck by them. You are fortunate that I am more mature than the average seventeen-year-old, because I would have really taken advantage of your inconsistencies. Be tougher on the boys; they need to know what to expect from you, always. Don’t get angry with me for wanting to go out with my friends, whether they’re the Bowdens or Ann Marie. I need friends outside of this family as much as you do. Also, don’t resent my friends. I’m not trying to find someone to take your place, but I do need a break from our family, as much as I love you and the boys. Support me, but don’t monopolize me.

Do you remember when I got my first report card this year? It was the best report card I’d ever gotten, and all you had to say was “That’s good.” And James got on the B Honor Roll for the first time and he was so proud, but you didn’t give him a pat on the back either. No matter what we do, we never feel like it’s good enough for you. Give us a pat on the back, don’t take us for granted. Before Daddy left, I asked you once if you would spend more time with us once Daddy left, and you said yes. You talked about going fishing and walking in the woods, and “exploring” like we used to do when I was small. Now it seems that you have no time for anyone but Ray. You’ve got to be uptown at 8:00 because Ray worked late. You get off at 12:00 on Sunday, but you spend the afternoon with Ray, not us. I know you love Ray, but you see him seven days a week, or if you don’t go to work, you spend the entire day looking for him. Why not take that Sunday afternoon to take us walking at the river? We need you, Mama, but you’re seldom there for us.

Every time I tell you something about a guy that I like, or a secret dream that I have, or anything like that, you laugh at me, or him, or my dream. I’m not talented enough, or he’s too old, or that’s stupid. You don’t know how much your discouragement hurts me. For example, when I told you that I wanted to take a course in acting in college, you laughed at me and told me that I would never be able to do anything like that. Mama, I love acting, not as a career, but as a hobby. Don’t destroy my dreams, my hopes, my ambitions. I need them, too. You also hurt me deeply when you say stuff like “What happened to your hair?” or “Your makeup looks terrible!” or “I hate those clothes.” Did you ever realize how much I idolized you? No longer. I am too disillusioned with you to ever worship you the way I once did. I’ve been hurt too deeply too many times. Please don’t disillusion the boys. They need a mom, as much if not more than I do. Love them, be there for them, and above all, show them what a mother is supposed to be like. It’s too late for me, but not for them. I hope we can get things straight.

Loveya,

Amy

*

“I think,” I said, furrowing my brow the way I always do when I’m trying to articulate something that’s only been an itch in a dusty corner of my mind. “I think that my mom always just kind of wanted to be a mom. She loved being a mom, and now that we’re bigger and don’t need her so much anymore, she doesn’t know what to do. So she just holds on tighter.” I was 21 years old, four months into my first real relationship with a woman, and Allie was furious that Mama had tried to guilt me into going to her nursing school graduation instead of camping along the river with her.

The truth was, I did feel guilty. I mean, really, it was just a graduation—not a funeral or something. I didn’t even see the point of my own graduation, a year off. Certainly, my high school graduation had been one big day of bullshit. The last time I saw my father, the man who had caused me so much pain, was the day of my high school graduation. He sat with Mama and her parents and my brothers, and he wept openly as I sat on the stage, glaring at him. I channeled my rage into my valedictory speech, starting with a quote about suicide and finishing with an imperative to my class to get as far from Wallace-Rose Hill High School as possible, even if—maybe because—it was home. When he disappeared again, after a dinner of fried seafood at the Magnolia Restaurant, I was relieved. I was done with that part of my life, and good riddance.

And now, Mama was finally getting her nursing degree. I had a girlfriend, who I’d already moved in with, already exchanged plain gold bands with, who wanted me to be a grown-up and listen to my partner—my new family—and not my mother, who was part of my old family.

“She needs to quit trying to control everything you do. I don’t even like hearing you talk to her on the phone ’cause I know you’re just going to give into whatever she wants.” Allie’s eyes hardened and her lips tightened in a line, just like her mother’s did when she was angry. “She’s got a problem with you because you’re a lesbian, and you need to start standing up for yourself for a change.”

Allie was right. I did need to stand up for myself. Every time I was with Mama, I fell into the same patterns we’d created over my lifetime—I wanted to please her, to make her proud, to be a good daughter and a good friend. I wanted to give Mama whatever she wanted or needed, no matter what. No matter if I had to give up parts of myself to make her happy. No matter if I had to avoid mentioning my girlfriend to keep from seeing her look of disapproval.

But I was right, too. Mama really had loved being a mom.

“Why did you quit college?” I asked Mama during one of our late-night talks after my brothers had gone to bed. I sat on the floor of her dark bedroom, my back resting against her dresser. I stared at the glow on the tip of her cigarette. She took a long drag and the glow flared, bathing her face in orange shadow. I loved these talks, and I dreaded them, too. I was a senior in high school, struggling with the emotional fall-out of no longer needing to protect myself from my father, and feeling in some indefinable way that I was responsible for keeping the rest of my family together. These talks made me feel like her equal; they made me feel like she relied on me as her equal, like a grown-up, with all the fears and responsibilities that went with it.

“Well, I didn’t really want to go to college,” she said, “but Grandmama and Granddaddy told me I had to. So I went to UNC-Greensboro, about as far away from home as I could get.”

I nodded, even though I knew she couldn’t really see me in the dark. I wasn’t surprised that Grandmama and Granddaddy expected her to go to college—they were probably surprised it was even a question. They were both college-educated, and as far as I knew, Grandmama had worked her whole life as a teacher. Grandmama’s mother hadn’t gone to college, and when she left Grandmama’s abusive father, she worked hard to make sure that all three of her daughters went to college. They needed to be able to take care of themselves, not to rely too much on someone else to take care of them. Granddaddy was from a highly-educated family of lawyers and businessmen, people who read and worked hard and did everything right, always.

There was no way Mama was going to get away with skipping college, in their minds.

“I met your daddy while I was at UNC-G,” Mama said. She sounded a little wistful, a little sad.

“But he didn’t go there,” I said. “How did you meet him?” Daddy was six years older than Mama, and he’d only managed one year of Bible college before he dropped out. I knew the story of how they’d met from Daddy’s point of view. He’d told me on one of those mornings when he’d invaded my bedroom. He’d bragged about how he could get any college girl into bed, and when he saw Mama on the tennis courts, he had to have her.

“I met him at the tennis courts on campus, not long after I got to Greensboro, and we just started going out. I told Grandmama and Granddaddy that we were going to get married. They were not happy. But eventually they agreed, when we threatened to elope to South Carolina, but they said I’d have to wear Aunt Linda’s wedding dress. They wouldn’t buy me my own.” She took another drag of the cigarette, and I listened to the familiar hiss and crackle. She exhaled and smoke swirled through the darkness. “They made me promise I’d stay in school, but I hated it then. I tried going to a technical school for graphic arts, but I hated that, too. I just wanted to have a baby and stay home and play with you, so I did.”

She was nineteen when she and Daddy got married at the First Baptist Church in Wallace. She was twenty when I was born. I’d counted the months so many times, hoping I’d find out that she’d been pregnant when she got married, that there was some compelling reason for her to marry him. Something other than love. But she wasn’t. I was born almost exactly a year after they said their vows.

“I almost left him,” she said quietly. “When you were a baby. Things were bad, and I just couldn’t put up with it anymore, so I packed up all our stuff and put you in your carseat and started driving back to Wallace. But then a Kenny Rogers song came on the radio, and it was so sweet, about all the things he missed about the woman he loved, and I started thinking about what I’d miss about Daddy, and I just turned around and went back.” I heard the shrug, the it is what it is, in her voice.

I thought about what my life would’ve been like in that alternate timeline. I wondered what made her want to leave then, but when things had been really bad for so long, she still grieved when he finally packed his things and drove back to his hometown. Had he hit her? Had he had an affair with a woman who was younger and who hadn’t just had a baby? I’d never know. If she’d left, my brothers never would’ve been born, and I thought about whether I would have given them up for the chance to grow up without an alcoholic monster for a father.

I wondered what it would have been like, just me and Mama, a team against the world.

Mama stayed home with us until I was eleven, and she threw herself into being the kind of mom she had wanted to be when she dropped out of college. We played in the yard of whatever house we were living in and made up games. We walked to the library once a week during the summers to get books. She brought home butcher paper from the grocery store and taped it to the wall so we could draw murals in crayon and magic marker and watercolors. She showed us how to turn over rocks to play with the roly-polies who lived under them, and she made us promise never ever to play with snakes or spiders, not even baby ones. She took us exploring in the woods, and she organized Saturday afternoon bike trips around town, the smallest kids strapped into seats on Mama’s and Daddy’s bikes.

When we misbehaved, she’d swat us with her hand, and when we really misbehaved, she’d spank our bare legs with the flyswatter and tell us how disappointed she was. She dealt with tantrums by ignoring us, and with disobedience in public by embarrassing us or pretending to leave us behind. When we were good, the world was full of love.

When I was eight, I learned the word “recuperate,” and I felt guilty that I wanted so much for Mama to pick me up and hold me. But after her fourth child was born, Mama had to have a hysterectomy, and that meant she couldn’t pick up any of us until she was done recuperating. The four pregnancies and her return to childcare duties too soon after each one meant that her uterus dropped and pressed on her bladder, making her incontinent. She put a clean towel down everywhere she sat, even in the car to go to the grocery store. While she was in the hospital, Daddy bought her a new car that she hadn’t leaked on, a used brown station wagon that, he assured me, would not need me to pound on the starter to get it to crank, and wouldn’t need to be driven backwards when the transmission fluid leaked out, either.

We stood in the parking lot around the new car and waved at Mama, up in her hospital room. She tried to smile, but I could see the pain and desperation in her face. Later, I heard the arguments. How were we going to be able to make car payments when we could hardly afford rent and utilities and clothes and groceries and diapers?

By the time I was a senior in high school, thinking of college as an escape rather than a sentence, we didn’t have to worry about Daddy’s impulse purchases, or the loans he’d take out at the pawn shop, or the bills he claimed to pay and didn’t. And, finally, Mama was going back to school.

“I tried to go back to school sometimes,” Mama said, stubbing out her cigarette. The smell of burning filter filled the room and I wrinkled my nose. “Every time I’d try, though, Daddy would get all pissy. Supper wasn’t cooked on time, or the laundry wasn’t finished, or y’all needed more attention. He’d get mad every time I tried to do my homework. So I just gave up.”

“But now you can go back,” I said.

She’d decided she wanted to be a nurse, and she was going to James Sprunt Community College in the fall. “Just basic stuff the first year, English and math and history and stuff. I’ve still got to work to keep a roof over y’all’s head,” she said. And she did it, too, working long shifts at StevcoKnit on the weekends and at nights, while going to school full time. When she couldn’t keep up with the schoolwork, the shift work, and the mom-work anymore, she asked for a layoff. The company was already cutting back on their staff, and they agreed. She and my brothers lived on unemployment and student loans, and she got her degree in three years.

I was right when I told my girlfriend that Mama had loved being a mom, and she did try to hold onto me too tightly, to tell me how I should live my life. I responded by arrogantly pushing her away. My phone calls with her were fewer and farther between, and I tried not to call when Allie was around. When she was, though, Allie listened intently for any hint that I was giving into Mama. “And why do you always have to call her?” Allie asked. “She’s just trying to manipulate you into feeling guilty again. She ought to call you if she wants to talk to you so much.”

I asked Mama why she never called me, and she sighed deeply.

“I don’t want to bother you,” she said. “I don’t know what your schedule is like, and I don’t want to disturb Allie, either.”

When Allie left me for a woman in my master’s program, I called Mama before I told anyone else, and even though I’d pushed her away and disappointed her in more ways that I could count, she immediately offered to leave right then and drive the two hours to Raleigh to bring me home.

“I can drive,” I said tearfully. “It’ll be good for me. Maybe I can clear my head some.”

“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”

“I’m sure,” I said.

When I got to the clinic where she worked as a pediatric nurse, we walked out the back door to the nurses’ smoking area, and she held me tightly and let me cry. She listened, not interrupting, not telling me that it was for the best, or that she’d known all along that it would never work out. She just held me.

*

It was the fall of 2007, and Mama was dying. My husband and I had flown home for my brother Kevin’s wedding reception, and we helped Mama with the preparations for the brunch she was hosting at the newlyweds’ home the morning after the party. She dragged the cord for her oxygen tank around the kitchen, while she mixed up eggs and showed me the recipe she’d found for pumpkin pinwheels.

“I keep tripping over your leash,” I told her, kicking the clear plastic tubing out from under foot.

She laughed. “It is a leash, isn’t it?” She pulled it off and lit a cigarette. “I need to go pick up some stuff, some more cigarettes and soft drinks and stuff. Y’all need anything?”

“A drink,” I muttered.

“You’ll have to get that yourself,” she said with mock seriousness, her eyes sparkling. “I don’t buy ‘adult beverages’.”

I stuck my tongue out at her.

She left me in charge while she went off to the store, and I royally fucked up the dough and had to start over.

“What am I supposed to do again?” I muttered at the print-out Mama had given me. I was modifying a recipe that looked like it was supposed to work and didn’t. Or maybe I couldn’t follow directions. The fear of her disappointment flooded through my body, and though I laughed with Richard at the gooey mess, I felt the old hysteria building. It had to be perfect. I could not disappoint her.

When she got back home, I admitted my mistake and showed her the mound of doughy crumbs. “It wouldn’t roll up. It just kinda did… this,” I said, waving my hand vaguely.

She teased me about not being able to cook, and picked a lump of dough off the top. “It tastes good, at least,” she said. “Do you think we’re gonna have enough?”

“I think so,” I said, pointing to the rolls of cake and frosting that were more or less behaving themselves. “What do you think? I can go get some more pumpkin if you think we need to make another couple of batches.”

“Nah, that looks fine,” she said. “There’ll be plenty of food.”

When we got to Kevin’s house, more than two hours from Wallace, I helped Mama unload all the food she’d made and all the decorations—the candles and faux fishing nets and seashells and sand dollars and beach-themed plates—she’d brought for her perfect brunch.

“What do you need me to do?” I asked.

“Nothin’,” Mama said. “I’m gonna decorate when we get back tonight, and there won’t be much to do in the morning.”

“So what time do you want me and Richard to be here tomorrow?” I asked.

She shrugged, and one of the earpieces of her oxygen tube fell off. She fitted it back with a practiced motion that reminded me of just how sick she was. “Whenever. I told Kevin it was from nine ’til about eleven, but people can just drop in whenever they feel like it.”

“Okay, that sounds good,” I said.

Richard and I got to Kevin’s the next morning around quarter to nine.

“Where have you been?” Mama hissed. “I still haven’t got the decorations up yet, and people’ll be here any minute!”

“I, well. I’m sorry, Mama,” I said. “I thought you had everything under control.”

“I just wasn’t expecting you to sleep all mornin’,” she said.

I clenched my fists and put them deep in my pockets.

By the time we got back to Mama’s house, pain and exhaustion lined her face.

“I guess we should start packing up,” I said to her. “Do you want me to get you anything first?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Can you go get me a Diet Sun Drop? And I’ll change clothes and feed the dog, and then I can sit down and rest a minute.”

“Sure,” I said.

When I got back from the kitchen, she was still standing up, wearing one of her knee-length knit nightgowns, waiting for me. “I wanted to give you this,” she said. Her mouth was in a line, her blue eyes flat.

“What is it?” I asked, taking the envelope from her. I looked, and recognized my purple handwriting. “Oh,” I said.

“So now you have it back,” she said. “Now I need to just sit down and have a cigarette. I am tired.”

I slouched back through the house, burning with remembered humiliation and fear, wondering why she had given the letter back. Forgiveness? To remind me, when she was just months from death, that I had hurt her? To show me what a stupid kid I’d been? To remind me of all the disappointments, all the anger, we’d experienced over the years?

When Allie left me eight years before, I’d fallen right back into Mama’s orbit, with her on the periphery of all the decisions I’d made. She had cast her shadow on every memory, creeping into all my dark nights and standing beside me through all my fuck-ups. She gave me advice when I worried I’d gotten an STD, she reassured me when I didn’t get interviews for jobs I thought I wanted, she teased me and laughed with me, and cheered for me when I moved to Boston. Somehow, simultaneously, she saw me both as her baby and as myself, even as we repeated the well-worn grooves of our fears and our failures and our love.

And, I decided, that’s what she was doing when she handed back the letter, just as she had always done—just being there, being my mom.

Some names have been changed.

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Amy Gantt grew up in rural North Carolina and moved to the Boston area eight years ago. She writes grant proposals for a university, and she writes true stories about her life, particularly about family relationships and how those relationships don’t end, even after death. She is currently working on a memoir about caring for her mother as she died of ovarian cancer, and when she loses her nerve, she recites the words tattooed on her left arm: “Remember your name, Do not lose hope. What you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. […] Trust your heart, and trust your story.” Email: amygantt74[at]gmail.com

Brief from Oma

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Laura Story Johnson


Brief from Oma
Photo Credit: Laura Story Johnson

When their family finally got off Ellis Island, my great-great-grandfather purchased his five daughters and one son the biggest orange he had ever seen. He splurged to celebrate their feet touching New York City streets. My great-grandmother coughed and so they’d waited and waited in the warren of rooms, praying that the harbor breeze would clear her lungs, blow them forward: deliverance. “If she goes back, we will all go back,” my great-great-grandfather said. Back to Germany, back to starvation. It was November, 1923 and my great-grandmother was twelve years old. It took her a few days to recover from the two weeks on the ocean, but the officials eventually let them through. My great-great-grandfather cut the orange, split it between his thin and worn family. Hope tasted sour and they had to choke it down.

My great-grandmother would laugh when she told of the grapefruit they all confused with an orange. Her laugh rumbled in her lungs, triggered a cough that never really went away, just like her accent. In America she learned English and became a teacher. She taught her students to say Jamaica: “Yamyaca.” She fell in love and married a horseman, keeping her marriage a secret because teachers could not marry. Eventually she delivered the twins she’d hidden under her dress and learned to cook. At the restaurant she made meals for businessmen, city folk. At home on the farm she made tiny cookies with aniseed, hardtack I hated as a child and longed for as an adult.

After I graduated from college she continued to mail me boxes of the tiny cookies: “kleügens” she called them. My new boyfriend knew them as pfeffernüsse. We ate them together at our plastic kitchen table looking out the window across our Soviet apartment complex. We dipped them in warm water that tasted, faintly, of coffee. I fiddled with the emptied packets of “Coffee King: American Flavor” from the window shop under our stairs as I told him about my Oma. Her strength was the reason I’d moved, the foundation that made me brave enough to seek meaning in foreign places. She always told me to see the world. And there I sat, around the world from her, eating something she had cooked in her Iowa kitchen. I could see her hands: long fingers, knuckles large with arthritis and farming, working the dough into little balls. They were my hands. Or, my hands were hers. The weight of a family recipe that had traveled so far sank in my chest and I suddenly longed to be closer to her. I wanted to soak her up before an inevitable happening that I couldn’t say out loud would occur. Instead I choked down the lump in my throat and put the rest of the kleügens in our cupboard.

I wrote her letters from Mongolia and told her the things we were experiencing. She wrote me back, sometimes confusing German with English as her mind so filled with life let the bubbles of memory overflow. I visited her on a cold November day when I returned for a couple of weeks to the United States. My boyfriend’s job kept him in Mongolia while I left. She asked me about my students and told me about her time as a teacher, experiences not that far removed from the book I was reading to my third graders. I taught my students to say pioneer: “Laura.” It was my name. Or, my name was hers. Some of my students thought that I was Laura Ingalls Wilder and that the book told the story of my life in America. I would laugh when I told of their confusion.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a teacher too. Like my Oma, she was only a teenager when she first stood in front of a classroom. Like my Oma, she married a man who loved farming and horses. Like my Oma, the stories of her childhood seemed a world away and yet were mine. Everything had changed since she was a girl. In a lifetime the places she knew became unrecognizable. I realized that my students lived in a place where, seemingly, nothing had ever changed.

When a Mongolian colleague hosted us at her home, a ger on the steppe, I watched her third grade son gather dung for the fire. He was struggling in my class, grappling with the pronunciation of English words. He couldn’t understand our book, but maybe it wasn’t the words. What I understood seeing him leap onto a horse bareback was that for him that life, my Oma’s life, my life, were all the same. Time meant nothing; it was just foreign. When I was home, time meant everything. I held my Oma’s hand and we sat together on her couch, looking at the autumn leaves out the window and making plans for the summer when I would be back.

Like my Oma, I fell in love while I was a teacher. I decided to leave my job in Mongolia at the end of the school year to return home. My boyfriend decided to go with me. We knew we wanted to get married, but I needed him to meet my Oma, to be a part of my family before he joined my family. I mailed my Oma a picture of the two of us smiling and wearing red hats against the falling snow of Ulaanbaatar. I sent Russian fur hats home as gifts and sewed stockings out of silk from China. At Christmas we set the box of kleügens out in our living room and ate them with cocoa we made from grinding up chocolate bars into warmed milk. I wrote my great-grandmother a card and taught my boyfriend to say words in German. Letter: “brief.”

It was an unusually warm April day when my mother called. A postcard to my Oma, a picture of three little Mongolian boys holding lambs tucked in their del, sat on my desk. I’d typed it to make it easier for her to read, used a new ribbon in my ancient Olivetti. I wrote that I felt the energy of spring and told her we would be home in July; we’d already purchased our tickets. Then my mother’s broken voice said it out loud and hanging up the phone was an impossible happening. I let the foreign beeping of an ended phone call carry me with it, my hands, her hands, the phone’s cradle. Eventually I walked to my desk and clutched the postcard to my heart. I wept knowing that she would never receive it. Summer came early to Mongolia that year, but it was too late. I was too far away and couldn’t go back for the funeral.

A week after my mom’s phone call all of our snow had melted. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon my boyfriend and I hiked to the hills outside of Ulaanbaatar. There on a sunbaked ledge he built an ovoo, an offering of sticks sculpted into the celebration of a life, of all life. The ovoo pointed out across the valley toward the mountains we could see on the other side, shimmering in the distance. I faced west, home, and breathed in the warm blue sky. Then I sat on a rock and wrote my last letter to my Oma. I filled the page and strung a piece of string through it, tying it to the ovoo along with two blue prayer scarves. I held my boyfriend’s hand and said goodbye to her. She taught me to say goodbye: “Auf Wiedersehen.” It meant until we see each other again.

The following Tuesday morning there was an envelope waiting for me in my postal box. I couldn’t breathe when I saw the handwriting. Ten days after her death I got a letter from my Oma. She’d mailed it before she passed and suddenly there I sat in another world than her, holding something she had written. I clutched it to my heart before I could open it. When I finally did, I found another miracle. She wrote about the picture I sent her. The words were brief, but they were everything. She recognized the warmth I needed in his eyes and told me. She knew. From a picture, from a letter, they became family. I took the letter home to him and searched for the box of kleügens, tucked at the back of our cupboard. Somehow there were a few left and I ate them with the man I would marry. We didn’t dip them in anything. Kleügens soften with age.

In November she crossed an ocean. In November I crossed an ocean. In November my great-grandmother arrived in America. In November I held her hand. Beginnings. Endings. Hope. An unusually warm November day took my voice through an intense happening. I had to whisper to say her name out loud.

It was November, 2010 and my daughter was just a few minutes old. Lying with her at my breast, I stared into her black eyes, wondering at the journey, at her passage: deliverance. My husband cut an orange, split it between us. It was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. We named our beautiful miracle after my Oma.

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Laura Story Johnson is an attorney working in human rights research and advocacy. Born and raised in Iowa, she has lived in New York City, bush Alaska, Mongolia, Boston, west of the Zambezi River in Zambia, and in Austria. Her work has appeared in the South Loop Review. She currently resides in Chicago with her husband and two young children. Email: lstory.johnson[at]gmail.com

And Another Thing

Creative Nonfiction
Nathan Evans


To Do List
Photo Credit: Taylor Sloan

Despite all appearances to the contrary, I am very far from an ideal husband.

For a start, nothing is ever my fault. I realised this very early on in my marriage; something unfortunate would happen and my automatic first instinct was to find someone to blame who wasn’t me. When you live with someone, and it’s just the two of you, this process never takes very long and there’s only ever one result. Strangely, the idea that things might happen by accident or for no reason at all has not really caught on with me.

“I just tripped over that pile of magazines! Who left those there?” I might say, throwing an accusatory stare in for good measure.

“You did.” will come the reply, with only a slight hint of weariness. Remarkable, as it’s probably the hundredth time I have asked a question like that and the answer is always the same.

“Oh. Well, why didn’t you tidy it away?”

Of course, tidying away is only the right solution to things when I say it is. I want things that I don’t want or need tidied away (and not by me, either), but when they are things I want or need it’s a different story altogether. The heretical idea that objects might move from one category to the other as part of day-to-day life is another of my many blind spots.

“Where’s that letter from the hospital?” I might say the following day.

“I don’t know, why are you asking me?”

“I’m asking you because I put it on the table. And it’s not there.” Those final words will be deliberately weighted, as if to say without speaking that only one logical explanation exists for the object’s disappearance. This tends to be the point where I stand defiantly waiting for a confession—but one hasn’t come yet in seven years of cohabiting, and there’s no reason why it should start now.

“Did you properly look?”

I swear she says this to annoy me. It represents progress from the classics of my childhood, my mother asking Where did you last put it? or saying It can’t have gone far but nonetheless, it doesn’t fit with my clear picture of what has definitely already happened.

“Of course I properly looked. I always properly look. You’ve tidied it away, haven’t you? You always do this. Why can’t you just leave well alone? I know where my stuff is and then you tidy it away. Every single time!”

“Let’s have this conversation when you’re not being such a twat.”

I will find the letter minutes later on the table, underneath something else, in a location which would have been obvious if I had properly looked. When this happens, I will be shamefaced and penitent. I will try to pretend that it was invisible, or sneak it into my bag and hope she won’t ask about it. She does though, because I deserve to feel uncomfortable and we both know it. She will mention it the following day.

“Did you track down that letter from the hospital?”

“I can’t remember,” I will say, and then I’ll get a hard stare that says You’re not getting off that easily, I know perfectly well how good your memory is. “Oh, that. Yes, I think I did.”

“Where was it in the end?”

“Oh, you know. Around.”

“It was on the table, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was,” I will say, desperately trying to think of a way of saving the situation. I ought to just apologise, but I can’t help myself; after all, nothing is ever my fault. “I found it in the end after looking all over, and guess what? It was underneath some of your stuff. Why didn’t you tidy it away?”

Here is another thing I do: I start talking to her halfway through a conversation.

“So yes, we’ll definitely need to stop into Marks this afternoon.”

“Excuse me? What are you talking about?”

“Stop into Marks and Spencer. You know, to buy some salad to go with dinner tonight.”

“No, I don’t know. That’s the first time you’ve mentioned it. That first bit was just in your mind, wasn’t it? You do this all the time.”

It’s true; because there seems to be little or no boundary between what I think and what I say to her, sometimes it all blurs into one continuous conversation in my head. So I will be pondering something to myself while squinting at my mostly-shaved face in the steamed-up mirror, trying to work out whether I’ve missed a stubbly patch near my Adam’s apple, and when her face appears behind my reflection telling her the next thought in my mind seems like the most natural thing in the world. Apparently this is not endearing, it’s just very, very frustrating.

The converse also applies. I sometimes share only the start of a conversation with her.

“So…” I will say on a Sunday evening, standing over the ironing board and trying not to think too hard about the fact that the weekend is coming to an end. Ages will then pass in comfortable silence before she speaks next.

“So? Go on.”

That’s when I’ll realise that I had started thinking out loud but decided not to share the rest of my thought processes with her. The cogs continued to grind but my mouth stayed closed throughout. The remainder of the conversation has been with myself, and meanwhile she has sat there on the bed taking off her make-up, looking up at me with the strange sort of expectant expression you wear when you absolutely know you are about to be disappointed. Some spouses have a whole list of conversation topics that are off limits; their in-laws might be verboten, or money, or work, but everything else is fair game. By contrast, I’m prepared to talk about anything with my wife but there are huge random holes where instead I have the discussion with myself. It’s not deliberate, just haphazard and exasperating. And yet it’s women who are constantly accused of wanting their partners to be mind-readers.

If only the problems with my powers of communication stopped there, but I’m also a shocking listener. Sound travels through the air slower when I am involved. The rustling of clothes being taken out of a basket, shook out straight and hung on an airer takes minutes to traverse our long hall and make its way to the living room, takes just long enough in fact that by the time I stand up and walk to the spare room the very last item is neatly laid out on the very last white rod. The same thing happens over shorter distances, too; the clatter of dishes going into cupboards, the clank of a forest of teaspoons being planted in the dishwasher, the rumble of the sink filling with soapy water, they all take an eternity to trickle through the open doorway and make their way to the sofa where I am ensconced doing nothing.

When I do eventually get up and make my way to the only room where something is happening, the question I ask is always the same.

“Can I help?”

The reason that my wife has taken to starting things without me is that I have to be asked to do something again and again before it will actually happen. I plan to do it, honestly I do—just after I finish doing whatever I’m doing, although what I’m doing is never anything important. Whenever I’m asked, even if I am asked for the first time, I describe it as “nagging.” This means that the moral high ground is guaranteed to be mine, which is important as good intentions clearly matter far more than actual attainment. When I do eventually do what is asked I go back to her with an expectant face, like a dog that has brought you a stick you didn’t even want.

“Do you want a medal? There’s a lot that goes on in this house that you don’t know anything about.”

I know she’s right, but half of the time I’m not properly listening.

It’s not a problem with my hearing, because I had it tested a few years back. I remember sitting in a dark room—it was more like a cupboard, really—with a big clumsy headset on and a button in my hand which I was to press it every time I heard a noise. And there were so many noises; long low beeps, little short blips, sounds that seemed to be right up close and ones that I thought must be coming from miles away, even though the booth was only small. Every single one led to a push of my thumb on the button, led to a dot on a graph and a cross on a chart and between them they built up another view of what was supposedly going on inside my head. Afterwards, the nurse sat down with me and told me my hearing was perfect. I was so expecting the answer to be different, ironically, that I had to ask her to repeat herself.

I start things at the last minute. I am late for everything. I dawdle. Those three facts are all connected. I have big ideas at bedtime, and the wrong ideas too. As the main light goes off and the paperbacks are opened, I will decide it’s time to reorganise the photo albums, or work out what needs to go to the charity shop. I will be lively and animated when it’s a time for soft, quiet words or for no words at all. Even writing this now I get a clear picture of how irritating it must be to be around, and yet I don’t mean anything by it. I have had a whole evening to talk to her and haven’t done it anywhere near enough, and as the day draws to an end suddenly I can see all the things I should have done and I don’t want to be asleep, because being asleep means you’re awake and it’s the next day and time to go to work and be parted, and I don’t want that. And I think to myself It’s okay, it’s not too late.

“Why do you want to have a conversation now? It’s bedtime. It’s far too late.”

I ask rhetorical questions all the time, which I’m told is especially wearing. The worst one is this: “Aren’t you pretty?”

“I wish you wouldn’t say that. There’s no right answer. I can’t say yes because that’s vain and I can’t say no because that’s fishing for compliments.”

“There’s not meant to be a right answer. I was just saying you’re pretty, that’s all. I’m sorry, I forget, you find rhetorical questions really annoying, don’t you?”

She looks at me.

“Ah. That’s a rhetorical question too, isn’t it?”

It would be funny if it was deliberate but it isn’t, and that makes it even worse.

My dad told me once that the worst thing about his marriage to my mother was the three little words she would say when they argued: and another thing. They would argue about something, and the argument would stop and then my mother would say those magic words like a coin dropping into a slot and the jukebox of recrimination would start up again. And another thing. And another thing. And another thing. Does it make it better or worse that I already know what my list of another things would be?

I mention to my wife that I’m thinking of writing a piece about how tiresome I am to live with. It becomes a running joke over the course of a week or so, whenever I do something she doesn’t like, which is quite often. “Is that in there already?” she says. In many cases, it wasn’t; this piece could easily have been four times longer, and maybe if I was a better listener it would be.

I can tell looking back on it that I’ve missed out so much. Doing half a job because the second half of the job is too difficult. Leaving the fridge door open when I’m in the kitchen doing things which do not involve the fridge. Putting off making phone calls or doing emails and pretending to be helpless when the truth is that I just don’t want to do things I don’t like the look of. Deliberately mispronouncing words for comic effect all the time when it wasn’t even funny first time around. Leaving my boots lying around in the living room, or in the hall, or anywhere else where they are an accident waiting to happen. Leaving the cupboard doors open when I’m in the kitchen doing things which do not involve the cupboard. I leave things open all the time, not all of them literal.

We’ve been married for seven years and she makes me so happy that I can’t begin to express it, but I find myself thinking about just how much happier we could be if only I was perfect. We would be in the Guinness Book of World Records and on all the chat shows, the official Happiest Couple In History, but we’ll never make it and it’s all my fault. We’ll have to settle for being extraordinarily happy, or at least I hope we will.

One night last week we were sitting side by side staring at something on my laptop, and the page was taking ages to load.

“Did you know that when you’re waiting for your computer to do something you constantly move your mouse pointer round in circles?”

“No.”

“You do it all the time. It’s not going to make anything happen any faster. You should put that in your list.”

I told her I would. It seemed like the least I could do.

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Nathan Evans lives in the United Kingdom and has been writing for about three years. He’s had work published in Esquire, decomP, The Pygmy Giant and Hippocampus, and his regular CNF blog Mr London Street has been shortlisted for “Best European Blog” at the Bloggies for the last two years running. Email: nathanevans101[at]tiscali.co.uk

Crying Cancer

Creative Nonfiction
Hayley Cooper


Open Window
Photo Credit: Deann Barrera

I was only a Nurse’s Aide at the nursing home for a little over one month when I saw someone die.

The first week of work wasn’t so bad. Here’s how you make a bed, here’s how you feed pureed peas, here’s how you dress them, bathe them, care for them. That was easy. The second week, they took me upstairs to do it on real people. It was harder then. The beds looked sloppy, pureed peas slid down the front of my new Mickey Mouse scrub top, some of them refused to wear clothes at all, none of them liked showers. It was hard to care for the creatures… or to get rid of the guilt I felt for thinking of them like that. But it wasn’t until I watched a woman die that I realized just how difficult this job would be.

Her name was Rosemary. She’d recently come to the nursing home from the hospital. She came to die. The other CNAs and I were told to try to make her comfortable. I tried, really I did, but the other CNAs told me that that’s what the doctor and nurses tell them as a matter of principle. It’s not really possible, especially for a cancer patient like Rosemary.

My grandmother died of cancer just before I turned five. I was too little to go to the Intensive Care Unit, so I sat with Dad in the cafeteria and ate cinnamon ice cream. Later that night, my brother, who was big enough to go to the ICU, told me stories about Grandma and her room. He said that Grandma didn’t have any hair. I didn’t believe that because Grandma had always had perfect hair—brown and wavy and never tangled like my own dirty blond hair always was. I know now that Grandma wore a wig for almost two years to keep from scaring the grandchildren. He also told me about Grandma’s sausage fingers. I giggled at that. He said the medicine made her look all swollen, like a balloon that had taken in one too many breaths. But I hadn’t believed that, either.

Then, he told me the scariest part—the thing that caused nightmares for weeks. He told me about the curtains. They were a pastel blue or green, it was hard to tell which. And they were closed. “Nah… no way!” I exclaimed. Grandma had lived on a farm her whole life. She loved the outside, even when she was inside. I had seen her on many occasions sitting in the window seat with a book in her lap. I never saw her actually read. Grandma sat, looking out the window, watching the birds, smiling at squirrels. When I asked her what she was doing, Grandma grinned and said, “Just watching the corn grow!”

He told me that when Mom bent to pray and Grandma closed her puffy eyelids, he went to the curtains and pulled one aside. It was heavier than he thought it would be, but when it finally gave, he lifted his chin and looked through the thick glass. Brick. That’s all he saw, he said. Just brick. A window that opened to a wall—no way out. He screamed and started to cry then, so Mom swept him up and took him to the cafeteria for cinnamon ice cream.

When someone dies, the other CNAs told me, you have to open the window or their spirit won’t leave the room. That’s what they said, but I know now that that wasn’t exactly true. It was the smell. It seemed so cliché—The Smell of Death. But it’s really there and for once the cliché is accurate. The dying woman had had cancer for so long that it had finished eating up her insides and was munching its way out of her yellowish, waxy body. It made oozing yellow-and-white sores all over her chest and back. The sores had opened one day and never scabbed over. Blood, pus, and life just ran out on the sheets and no matter how many times the sheets were changed and the woman was bathed, the smell of rotten skin and pus never quite left the room.

But when Rosemary died, I was in the room helping the charge nurse change her IV. The nurse had removed the first IV because the wasted woman’s vein had collapsed, cutting off her supply of morphine. Now, the nurse was poised with the needle, ready to insert it, but set it down on the bedside table. She frowned and put her fingers on the woman’s wrist. Her frown deepened.

“Go get the blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope and tell me if this lady is an orange dot,” the nurse said softly.

I jogged to the nurse’s station, grabbed the cuff and stethoscope and pulled Rosemary’s chart. The orange dot, the Do Not Resuscitate code, was affixed to the front. I looked, then again, then one more time to make sure it was Rosemary’s chart and the orange dot wasn’t my imagination. As I looked, the realization smacked me in the face. Rosemary was dead.

I called out to Mike, another CNA walking down the opposite hall, and told him to go to room 272 and prepare for post-mortem care. I went to the closet behind the Nurse’s Station, unlocked it, and hauled out the EKG machine. I thanked God it wasn’t my job to notify the family.

I learned about the procedures you have to go through when someone in a nursing home dies. Death is defined as a lack of vital signs. I searched Rosemary’s wrist for any sign of a pulse. I didn’t find a pulse, and I tried to ignore Rosemary’s eyes as I fit the blood pressure cuff around the limp arm, positioned the stethoscope above the brachial artery, and began pumping. The needle on the dial didn’t waver once as it traveled back to zero. I never heard the lub-dub of a heartbeat. I shook my head at the nurse and Mike, who came in during the procedure. He started applying the adhesives from the EKG machine to different parts of Rosemary’s body: her wrists, her elbows, her feet.

I looked away and began running water in the sink to get it warm. I looked at myself in Rosemary’s mirror. I marveled at how calm I looked, how together I appeared to be when my insides were alternately falling to my feet and then springing back up into my skull. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Flat line,” the nurse said quickly. She and Mike began removing the adhesives. I moved a basin into the sink to catch the now too-warm water, turning on the cold and adding soap. When it was almost full, I threw several washcloths into the basin, grabbed four or five towels and turned to face Mike and Rosemary. The nurse left with the EKG machine to notify the doctor, family, and funeral home.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a little longer than a blink, and stepped forward.

“Are you gonna be okay?” Mike asked. This was unusual. He usually gave me a bunch of crap, but now he seemed sincere.

“Yeah. I think so,” I answered. “My first time.”

“Oh,” Mike responded. “You never forget your first time. I still remember mine. A man named William. Colon cancer.”

I smiled thinly and set the basin on the bedside table. Mike pulled Rosemary’s hospital gown off as I pulled the sheet up to keep the dead woman covered. I wondered if it mattered. It did.

“Wait!” Mike said. He jogged over to the window and pushed it open.

A blast of cool air hit my face as I raced to the tiny bathroom. I hadn’t realized that the Smell was that strong until I breathed fresh air. I fell to my knees and began heaving into the toilet, thinking of all the people who sat there and what they did. I wished I could vomit, but I hadn’t had my supper break yet. The cool air was so light. The air near Rosemary was heavy, thick, like breathing melted cheese. I heaved again and again.

After eternity, I wiped my mouth, dried my eyes on my sleeve, went to the sink, washed my hands, put on fresh gloves, and returned to Rosemary. Mike had waited for me.

I began gently washing Rosemary’s chest, careful of her sores. Mike washed her face, then put his fingers on her eyelids and held them down. After a few seconds, he removed his fingers. The left eyelid slowly rose again. I, trying not to look at that blue, staring eye, moved on to wash an arm, lifting it oh-so-carefully, and replacing it softly on the bed. Mike washed her other arm. We both got fresh washcloths. We washed her stomach and her legs. Clean washcloths. Feet and in between toes. Clean washcloths. Her vagina. Clean washcloths. Mike rolled Rosemary toward him. Her back. Clean washcloth. Her buttocks. Clean washcloth. The backs of her legs. We were careful to cover whatever we weren’t washing and to dry immediately whatever we had washed. Habit, I suppose, nothing more.

But that eye was watching and I didn’t want to do anything that would disappoint her.

Neither of us spoke.

Mike rolled her back onto her backside and I went to the closet to get an adult diaper. When someone dies, they lose all muscle control, including control of the sphincter. CNAs put diapers on every dead person, even if they never wore one while alive. We changed the sheets and pillowcase, put a fresh gown on her body and pulled the sheet up to her chest. I raised the head of Rosemary’s bed so the face wouldn’t discolor before the family viewed the body and Mike succeeded in getting the other eye to stay shut. I combed Rosemary’s hair carefully; a difficult task, since it was falling out. Before leaving the room, Mike closed the window. We de-gloved and washed our hands. I sighed and Mike put his arm around my shoulders.

“Don’t cry now,” he whispered. “If the family comes in, you don’t want them to see you cry. You never cry in front of doctors or families.”

I felt my chin tremble, but I didn’t cry.

I didn’t cry.

I cried at my grandmother’s funeral, not because I understood death or even recognized the lady in the casket as my grandmother. I was confused about that. It didn’t look like Grandma in the casket. Somebody had made a terrible mistake, I had thought.

I cried because I saw my mother cry. When you are only five, mothers are supposed to be strong and supportive. I’d never seen my mother cry. I didn’t know that she could. Something terrible must have happened to make Mom cry.

It was wrong, all wrong. Mothers weren’t supposed to cry. Mothers are invincible, strong, comforting to others who cry, but never actually crying themselves. I burst into tears then. My two aunts crowded around me, trying to console me with comforting sounds and stories of how we’ll all meet again in Heaven. I was crying too hard to tell them that I wasn’t crying for Grandma, but for Mom.

It has been two-and-a-half years, since Rosemary died. I have done post-mortem care on an innumerable number of residents in the nursing home. I have even played Mike’s role several times, comforting newbies and instructing them as to what is acceptable and what is not. I have never forgotten Rosemary. Or my grandmother. I haven’t forgotten the nursing home, or the charge nurse who was with me that day. I will always remember that smell. I even remember the generic name of the funeral home director (John Anderson) who came to “collect the body.”

But the thing that sticks out in my mind more often than all of that other stuff is the window. I’m still not sure I believe the story of “open the window or their souls won’t leave.” I kinda think that maybe the window is more symbolic than anything else. You know, new beginning, a release, whatever you want to call it. Sometimes I go into that room and just look out that window. If it’s open, I close it. I look into my own eyes and the trees beyond them. I imagine Rosemary’s face there. I imagine Grandma. I see my mother, red-faced, puffy-eyed, helpless.

And, finally, I cry.

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Hayley Cooper is a 28-year-old housewife who has had many jobs and many life experiences. She is grateful for these opportunities, as they afford her the possibility of great writing. Hayley studied English at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, and has had poetry published in a campus-wide magazine. She is also an avid reader with two dogs. Email: cooper.hayley11[at]gmail.com

And He Remembers

Creative Nonfiction
Daniel Beaudoin


fabcom_IMG_1155
Photo Credit: Fabrizio Comolli

The drive into Tel Aviv from the airport goes smoothly so early in the morning. This grants him more time. He brakes gently so as not to skid on the gravel and eases the car to a standstill at the edge of the cliff. With the car’s front windows lowered, the air blows heavily inland from across the Mediterranean Sea, and he draws in the briny scent of the ocean. It is August, possibly his last. He grimaces and reaches for his stomach, falls back into the seat and glances down the beachfront road to his left as it snakes downhill towards the farthest end of the bay. There, in the ancient city of Jaffa, his studio lies, shrouded in the port’s early morning cocoon. At the bottom of the cliff just below him, the beige lifeguard tower stands tall, exhausted after all its years of vigil. It was here, in its shadow, that he first met her twenty years ago.

And he remembers that day.

“My name is Avital,” she said to him.

He turned to her, but the heat and the sea water in his eyes separated them like a curtain of running water. He could barely make her out as she sat in the shade of the lifeguard tower, slouched against the fence that surrounded it. He looked harder, and she slowly came into focus, a T-shirt stretched tightly over her knees, and that head, that lovely shaven head glistening in the sun. And suddenly, before he had a chance to respond, she appeared before him, silhouetted by the blinding light behind her.

She looked up at him and said, “I live across the beachfront road. Would you like to come over for a drink?”

And he remembers.

He remembers the feeling of the delicate membrane that separated both entrances to her world as he clasped her with his thumb and index finger. How she clasped both his hands and sucked on his fingers. The neat rows of medical books that lined the walls of her small study. And how, bathed in the ochre rays of the late afternoon sun, a small army of African figurines peered down at them as they made love on the carpet, statuettes of scowling men hunting and women bursting with the promise of pregnancy.

But it was the anxious look in her green eyes that stayed with him. That fleeting hesitation as she lay there, before she removed her T-shirt. At first, she hugged herself, and then gradually unfolded her arms, allowing them to rest at her sides. He reached out to touch her, and raised his lips to the scarred remains of the breast she had just revealed. He kissed and licked its nipple, leaving a shiny trail of saliva across her damaged skin. Like a stream trickling across the surface of a sun-baked desert, he thought.

“I feel as if I have known you for millions of years,” he said to her.

He jolts upright to the blare of a blue-and-white car; a cop signals him to get going. The pain in his stomach returns, again. He is running out of time and late for his final editing session at his studio in Jaffa. Around him, night had morphed into daybreak. The lifeguard tower was manned, and the beach was slowly coming to life as the beachfront hotels spat out the morning’s first batch of sunburned tourists.

Finally, once in the studio, he hurries to complete the finishing touches to his black-and-white prints of women so similar to Avital. Women he has made his life’s work to immortalize, shots of perfect imperfection. Whether Avital had survived her cancer or not he does not know; he had never seen her again after that afternoon. However, her urgency that day suggested to him that she, too, had been counting down the days.

With his hand clasping his stomach, he sits back in his chair, and thinks of the final arrangements in preparation for his photography exhibit at the Institute for Breast Cancer. Hopefully, Avital would be there. He would like to say goodbye to her.

He remembers.

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Daniel Beaudoin is currently writing his PhD at Tel Aviv University in Israel, where he also teaches, on the subject of humanitarian diplomacy. He is also a represented conceptual artist and a passionate note taker. Sometimes he wishes he could write more the way a Francis Bacon painting makes him feel: raw, uncertain, shaken and emotional. He volunteers as a mentor for high school pupils, loves the laughter of his children, the feeling when his wife is close and the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #2. Email: beaudoin.dnl[at]gmail.com

The Grace of Grass

Creative Nonfiction
Shaina Rafal


Tenacious
Photo Credit: Carol Blyberg

The cool summer wind whips wisps of hair along my neck as I scan the rocky shore before me. I hear faint giggling up the hill—and at first I think it must be my inner child beckoning me to join it as it barrel rolls down the gravel path towards me. But on further listen, as the wind cuts my ears a break, I can make out the voice of my little cousin. She is seven years old, and we are in a fight. She likes spending hours raking the lawn with her fingers for four leaf clovers. I, on the other hand, am unable to focus on a single task for more than a few minutes before I want to peel back the skin from my bones and crawl out of it, begging for a change in activity before I am bored to death and buried amongst the elusive clovers themselves.

It is the summer after my college graduation, and I am visiting my aunt, uncle, and little cousin on a quiet isle along the Maine coastline. I’ve brought a friend with me—Timmy. We are not dating.

“Just come here for a second!” my little cousin calls in a joyful tone that indicates she’s forgiven me. Her stringy black hair swings side to side as she catches up and, out of breath, tugs at my elbow.

I turn around and march up the hill, my thighs burning from lack of exercise. I’m pulled in the direction of the little beach shanty across from the home we are renting. If this shanty could talk, it would beg for new siding to protect itself from the Atlantic’s harsh blows. Its shutters dangle like those of a storybook haunted house. But just as a bruised brown banana peel yields the sweetest fruit, behind the shanty’s rough exterior resides a lovely family.

A mother and her two darling daughters make the shanty their sanctuary every summer. They live in New York City, like me, and the mother is a self-declared hippie who doesn’t comb her children’s hair and only buys toiletries made from lavender and liquorices and the like. Packed along with these organic necessities are their two cats—chubby city cats that never get to go outside except for when they come up here.

As my cousin yanks me around to the side yard, the cats scatter, and the bells dangling from their collars tinkle like a wind chime. I see Timmy. He is sitting on a beach chair wearing my cousin’s neon visor and a smile on his face. Hugging a hardback dictionary, a beautifully disheveled girl skips through the shanty’s creaking door. She is the oldest of the children gathered and the only one who can read. My eye then catches my aunt and uncle’s old black lab, aptly named Sweetie. A worn out quilt rests across her back, and a warm, welcomed blanket is draped across my shoulders by my little cousin.

“We are gathered here,” the young girl declares in a dramatically deepened voice, pretending to read from the dictionary, “to celebrate Shaina and Timmy.”

Timmy looks at me and waves as I am slowly led in his direction.

The miniature minister motions for Timmy to stand, then continues the ceremony. “Do you, Timmy, take Shaina to be your awfully wedded wife?”

Timmy and I stifle laughs at her error in words then straighten our faces.

“Sure do.” Timmy pets Sweetie, who is now standing between us, then glances at me with his kind brown eyes. I take my vows when prompted while the minister’s little sister pushes her curly coif away from her forehead and hands Timmy a ring fashioned from grass. Timmy slips it on my finger and is granted permission to kiss the bride. Our lips meet for the first time, and we process out, ducking under low pine branches as the children tear fistfuls of grass from the ground to toss at us like rice.

 

Following this trip, Timmy would take me in because I couldn’t find a real job after graduation. He would do the grocery shopping and cook for me while I’d serve coffee at the café down the street. And while I would sleep in his comfortable king-sized bed beneath the windows, he’d take the twin in the stuffy meant-to-be office.

Timmy’s and my first kiss had been set up by a crew of curious kids, and our last one was shared one year later, not long before Timmy—having lost his battle with a cancer caught too late—was laid to rest beneath a bed of clovers. And as the wind whipped over his gravesite that autumn afternoon, I plucked a piece of grass and, twisting it around my finger, said goodbye to my awfully wedded husband.

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Shaina Rafal holds a BA in Communication and Media Studies with a concentration in Journalism and Writing from Fordham University. After graduation, she volunteered in Kingston, Jamaica where she taught kids how to read using hangman. That’s when it clicked: she should be an English teacher! She worked with English language-learners in NYC before returning to her childhood school in Wilmington, DE to teach English and Theology. And the best part? Her favorite teacher who encouraged her to be a writer is just two classrooms away. Email: shaina.rafal[at]gmail.com