Standing on the Walls of Jericho

Bonnets’s Pick
Caleb J. Oakes

no vacancies
Photo Credit: LeRamz

Abraham slept with
his concubines. Fathering
a nation is tough.

Washington had sex
with his slaves. True or not, we
embrace the scandal.

My friend’s fiancé
is Chinese. He told me that
their sex makes him feel

like he is in the
Olympics. I asked him if
they award medals.

The pope still decides
the fate of our testicles.
He rides in parades

behind three inches
of bulletproof glass. That’s what
I call faith in God.

I think about sex
when I’m in church and about
God when I have sex.

I haven’t read my
bible in a year. But I
kiss it before bed.

I used to think it
helped but now I’m not sure.
I woke laughing when

I dreamt Elijah
spoke to me. He told me that
heaven has brothels.


Caleb J. Oakes is a senior at Florida State University. He will be graduating with a BA in creative writing this spring. He would give up his car and his right arm (he’s left handed) before he would give up writing. Email: cjo3[at]

Why is it that All the Republicans I Know

Bonnets’s Pick
Ron Riekki

Do people really dress like that?
Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski

tell me
they grew up poor
but then when I see photos of them
when they were younger
you can tell
they were rich
as fuck


Ron Riekki’s novel U.P. was published by Ghost Road Press. Gypsy Daughter Press publishes two of his upcoming poetry chapbooks—Leave Me Alone I’m Bleeding and Poems about Love, Death and Heavy Metal. Chicago’s Ruckus Theatre performs his play All Saints’ Day as part of their 2010-2011 season. He’s a fan of Fiona Apple, Rage Against the Machine, and the Detroit Pistons.

Build Us A Home

Bonnets’s Pick
Amy Bernhard

Photo Credit: Matt Rife

A crane descends and rips the roof from our house while my sister and I watch from the sidewalk. Neighbors are peering out their doors, wondering what the Bernhards gotten themselves into now. First it was our parrot waking up the whole block with its screeching, then it was my mother answering the door dressed as a cow for Halloween, costume complete with bloated plastic udders. And now the Fergusons gasp as the crane almost swings the roof into our crab apple tree while my mother screams.

Without its roof, our house looks like an architectural ground plan, stark and penciled in, every plank outlined, exposed. An airplane flies overhead, and I wonder if its passengers can see inside our roofless home from the sky—a refrigerator covered in stickers, piles of sneakers stacked by the front door, mother and father’s bedroom, their bathroom, the broken shower. How would these strangers judge the things that make up a life, our life, together? From the sky, I imagine our house to look like a miniature dollhouse, and my family its plastic inhabitants. Frozen in our tiny world, we wait for a stranger to reach through the open top and move us up and down, up and down the stairs.


Mother had been complaining about our cramped one-story for months—there is no room for my fabric in the study, she protested, and not enough cupboard space in the kitchen. Father mostly ignored her grievances, waving his hand as though swatting a pesky fly. It’s fine, we’re fine, he grumbled, now how about let’s get some dinner started. Our parrot squawked along with the indignant clanging of Mother’s pans as she stomped about the kitchen, burning the pork chops on purpose.

One night she crept into the bedroom my sister and I shared. Mother argued with Father that the room was too small for seven- and ten-year-old girls who needed to stretch their toes. My father lived in the attic of his house when he was a boy. I pictured him curled into a ball on his mattress, ducking his head to avoid the low ceiling. If he could do it, so could we.

Mother sat on my bed and fidgeted with the comforter, tucking it in, untucking it, tucking it in again. “There is no space for my fabric in the study,” she cried. I knew even then that our cramped suburban life was not the life she wanted; she dreamed of the city. Bright lights, sound, bustle.

She cried and told us she wished she had her own room again, like when she was a little girl, all flowers and frill. She wished her mother were still alive to tuck her into bed. She wished she still played her cello.

I lay in the dark and thought about Mother as a child, soft and girly, smelling like bubblegum and grass. I wanted to stitch her a house from her closet full of fabric, a house with violet walls and lace tablecloths that she would never have to set, because I would do it for her.


The stranger comes to us the next morning. His name is Frank, and he is here to build our new home. He ushers us around our kitchen table and shows us pictures of elegantly-tiled bathrooms and oak staircases. Pick what you like, he says, you can have anything!

Mother stirs at “anything” while Father scratches the bald spot on his scalp and squints at the pictures. He is always hesitant. Hesitant to agree to a family vacation at Disney World. Hesitant to move us out of the suburbs, away from his parents. Hesitant even to marry my mother, who was red-cheeked and young and longed for him.

My parents were set up by their mothers, who met at a knitting circle. “I hadn’t dated many men,” my mother told me once at the kitchen table. “None of the boys liked me. It was because I didn’t have a chest. Boys only care about boobs, remember that.”

I told her she was pretty. “Your father told me that when he met me.” Father proposed a year later, on top of the roof of his parents’ house. He did not have a ring. “Maybe we should get married someday,” he said.


Father finally decides on the oak staircase and four spacious bedrooms—one for me, one for my sister, one for him and Mother each. “So you can escape my snoring,” he jokes, as Mother smiles and points at a picture of a Jacuzzi. She is glowing.

After more squinting, Father is pleased. He shakes Frank’s hand conspiratorially, as men do when they know they have done something manly. Frank promises to return over the weekend to put up plastic in the living room before the crane removes the roof. He tells us our house will crumble, that the plastic will help to contain falling pieces of plaster. There will be quite a bit of dust.

“Like an earthquake,” Father explains before he tucks me in. “Some splitting and pulling apart, only this will be much less scary.”


In second grade we were assigned to draw a picture of our home. Instead of drawing our squat ranch with Mother’s snapdragon bed, I drew a mansion with wrought-iron gates and a pool in the front yard. I drew Mother and Father waving from one of the windows. “Whoa,” a friend from class breathed when I showed her. “Can I come over?” I did not tell her this was only my dream house.


Frank returns toward the end of the week with a truckload of plastic. He wipes his muddy boots on our welcome mat, leaving a smear of dirt across it. He takes off his jacket, revealing a thin muscle tee that stretches tightly across his broad chest and an orange tan that I suspect he keeps year-round. His arms are seasoned with sun.

He covers the living room with large sheets of plastic. Plastic thrown over the carpeting, the couch, the chairs. Plastic hanging above the entranceway to our living room, like a shower curtain. Plastic everywhere. My sister and I stomp on it, delighted to hear the satisfying snap underneath our feet. The whole house smells like rubber.

Frank takes me aside, tells me he will leave the television uncovered; he knows I must love to watch it. He chuckles all too eagerly, as though we are old friends sharing a familiar joke. But Frank is not familiar, he is a stranger. I turn away from his elastic smile, teeth that are clean and white and shine like danger.


Shortly before our roof was removed, my best friend came over for dinner. Mother prepared a summer pasta salad and corn on the cob. After setting the table, she asked us to bow our heads and pray. “We don’t do that at my house,” my friend said. Father asked my friend if history was still her favorite subject in school.

“Did you see that program about Napoleon on TV last week?”

My friend nodded.

“Yeah, they’re wondering if maybe the guy just blew his brains out.”

Mother asked me to pass the corn. We watched each other eat.


Frank has been working on the second story for a few days now. I hear him thudding around on the roof while I watch TV in the living room. Mother has taken time off from her job as a nurse so she can supervise the construction while my father is at work. She spends afternoons on the roof with Frank, keeping him company while he works. She checks on me occasionally, peeking through the plastic with a schoolgirl smile and glossy cheeks. She looks like an ad in Seventeen magazine.

Frank leaves around 4:30, the time my father arrives home from walking his mail route. Mother kisses him and collects his postal uniform as he relaxes into his chair, laughing as my sister and I rush to him. Father favors my sister because she is young and sweet. I am too old now for him to pull me onto his lap, although I used to love when he would return home from work smelling like rain or snow or sky, whatever weather he had walked in that day, tossing his boots onto the welcome mat while I scrambled to climb up his legs. We watched the Weather Channel together, thunder bellowing across the Midwest while animated lightning bolts sliced the edges of our state. Father had wanted to be a weatherman since he was a boy. During tornado warnings he stood at the edge of our garage and traced the sky with his middle finger while my mother, sister, and I huddled in the crawl space.

“How long until it clears?” my mother asked. Storms made her nervous.

“Maybe a half-hour or so. Just a few nimbus clouds, nothin’ to worry about.”

The three of us emerged from our hiding spot, Mother ushering my sister inside while I joined Father at the edge of the garage. He recited the names of the clouds—cumulus, nimbus, stratus—while we stood and watched them crash together.


Father paid my sister and I more attention than he paid Mother. We were his “little imps,” he liked to tease, because we were always up to some mischief. One day my sister played a Christmas recital in the local mall. She sat at the bench in a green velvet dress and plunked out the notes to “The First Noel.” After she took her bow, Father patted her head and told her how beautiful she looked, what a good little musician she was. I thought I caught a glimmer of envy in Mother’s eyes, longing for Father to touch her hair and tell her she was beautiful, too. But he never did. The only time I remember them being physical was just after Mother had tucked us into bed one night. I crept downstairs for a glass of milk and spotted them embracing at the bottom of the stairs, the hug strained and uncomfortable, like one you would receive from a distant aunt on Thanksgiving Day.

Father saw Mother as his wife. She was not a nurse, a cellist, or a quilter. Her primary function was to cook the dinner and keep the house clean, an archaic view of marriage influenced by the domesticity shown to my grandfather by my father’s mother. He was often disappointed with Mother’s inability to keep the house tidy, as she worked long hours at the hospital and taught cello lessons in the evenings. Our toys were scattered everywhere like pebbles hidden in the sand, lying in wait to scrape your bare feet. The kitchen counter was always speckled with crumbs, the floor always covered with bird seed, which fueled Father’s hatred for the parrot that Mother had brought home one day without telling him.

Frank seems to think Mother is funny. The two of them swap jokes in the kitchen, Mother’s laugh tinkling brightly, like piano keys. I’m not sure what they talk about, but it seems secretive, their heads bent close together in confidence. Their laughter is similar to the laugh tracks on sitcoms: automatic, empty, loud, like a slap.


I am sitting in my plastic shroud, flipping through channels, when I come across a soap opera. A man is holding a woman by her shoulders. They are screaming at each other. Then they are kissing. Their hands roam up and down each other’s bodies, the woman’s lipstick smeared across her cheeks, lips, neck. They look wild. The man reaches beneath her shirt and she reaches beneath his and then they are on the couch, rolling over and over in a tangle of arms and legs.

My cheeks burn. I glance around for Mother, but she and Frank are on the roof. I return my attention to the man, to his broad shoulders and hard stomach. I imagine what it would be like to touch him, warm, like June sand. I study the woman, the graceful way she swivels her hips and squiggles her eyebrows up and down, up and down. She is a beautiful ballerina, poised on her toes while tangled bodies fumble around her.

Each afternoon at three, I watch the man and woman while Mother is on the roof. Inspired by their movements, I create my own ritual. Each time they kiss, I touch my lips. They embrace, and I squeeze my arms around my shoulders, holding myself tight. I rub my neck, my chest, my legs. I kiss my arm just to see how it feels, skin and lips together. I practice in front of my mirror, squiggling and swiveling and shimmying until I hear Mother’s footsteps on the stairs, returning from the roof.

The show ends at four each day. The man and woman stop writhing on the couch and scream at each other some more. Sometimes a friend or a family member enters, and all three of them scream. They scream and slap and roll over each other. Today I switch off the TV after the show ends, the screen crackling with static as it sighs into darkness. I keep watching as the shadows of a man and a woman fill the blank screen, locked together in an embrace. The man pulls at the woman’s curly hair as she laughs and slaps his hand away, giggling like a schoolgirl with rosy cheeks.

The two of them freeze, suddenly aware of the silence behind the hanging strips of plastic. “Honey?” my mother asks.


My friends and I liked to ding dong ditch when we were little. We crept to a stranger’s porch in the middle of the night and pressed their doorbell, shrieking as we ran for shelter behind the bushes. Sometimes I would ding dong ditch alone, when I could not sleep at night. I would leave my house and ring a stranger’s doorbell, studying the sleepy-eyed victim who answered. Sometimes it was a man, scratching his head in confusion. Other times a woman, her eyes fresh with fear. Whoever it was, I imagined my life in their home. I imagined descending an oak staircase in the morning, sitting down to breakfast cooked by the red-cheeked woman who lived in the ranch house on Jensen. I imagined shooting hoops with the bald-headed businessman with the three-car garage and rottweiler on Seil. I imagined these people, and our lives together. Then after the last house had closed its doors, I emerged from the bushes and walked home.


Two weeks later, Frank is gone, along with the plastic. The front yard has scabbed over with pieces of leftover debris, little slivers of white plaster sprinkled like confetti over the grass. The crane has impatiently slammed the roof back down on us, leaving us with the dulled expressions of those who have just returned home after adventuring to some exotic land. We are despondent and bored as we wander the spacious new bedrooms, our possessions small in the presence of the rooms’ empty space. “They looked bigger in the pictures,” Father mumbles, scratching his head and standing listlessly in the doorway of his new room. Mother has returned to her job at the hospital, coming home in the late evenings to prepare dinner. Eventually she stops cooking and buys us microwave dinners. She floats up and down the stairs in a daze, sighing and dragging her body behind her. She asks me one night if I would come with her if she ever left our home. We both know what she means. I have to think for awhile. “Yes,” I finally agree, “I guess so.”

The house is large, now. There are places to hide. Mother hides in her bedroom while Father sits in the Jacuzzi, sometimes without any water running. My sister and I hide in our respective rooms, quietly as mice. Sometimes the four of us yell and slam our doors, but mostly we hide, tip-toeing around each other. Mother buys a cuckoo clock and hangs it above the kitchen table. It clicks while we eat, like a metronome, a pulse. She stacks new high heels by the front door, leaves the dishes piled in the sink. She waltzes in and out of the house, trailing a scent of smoke and dark places behind. I am not sure where she goes at night; she creeps inside without a sound. Only during her lessons do we hear the groan of the cello, strings that sing as the four of us spin delicately past each other in a blur of arms and legs, weaving up and down the stairs, waiting for a coming crescendo.


Amy Bernhard is a student of the University of Iowa’s creative writing program, and this is her first publication. Email: starrlit71[at]

Survival of the Fittest

Bonnets’s Pick
Tamara K. Adelman

I’m forced to relax when I arrive on the island before my bike and bag. So, I head to the beach with my book, Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. At first I balked at the subtitle, Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. After all, it’s just an Ironman: a hopefully safe race that happens by choice. I mean, you do sign up for these things.

The book is not about Ironmans—although swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112, then running 26.2, a full marathon, might kill some people—it’s about how fighter pilots learn to override their emotions and their instincts at crucial moments, how they focus so supremely that at times, they don’t even know who their mothers are. It’s helping me to develop the proper mindset for my fourth Ironman race, becoming a sort of bible that comforts me from my bedside table, and I’m grateful to my friend back in LA who recommended it.

Tears come to my eyes the next day when I go back to the airport and my bike box is there; partially I’m relieved, but now I have no excuse to get out of doing the race.

Ironman Lanzarote is known in the triathlon world as the hardest race there is. Perfect for me. It’s not that I’m not scared. I am. Its reputation as a survival race frightens me. Ironmans are hard enough, I know, last year I nearly perished on a course in Malaysia, but it inspired to me to sign up for Lanzarote. What makes this race so brutal is the bike course, climbing over 8,000 feet, with savage winds whipping across lava fields that have short little walls built up to protect vegetation, not triathletes.

Lanzarote is one of the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa and owned by Spain. A lot of people ask me if this is my first Ironman.

Even in Ironman, people judge you by your looks, your equipment. I try not to get intimidated because I know that I’ve trained up some of the most arduous climbs in Malibu and Ventura County, up Yerba Buena, Deer Creek, and Piuma. These climbs are worlds in themselves, and sometimes my legs turned so slowly all I could do was count to mark my progress. My legs are big and strong and I hope in some ways intimidating, even if I don’t look like a runner.

The race has a graduate school feel to it. Racers have been in the sport for a while: nobody is fat, nobody is slow, and there are not a lot of women. I’m worried I won’t make the bike cut off. I’d been warned that it may be too windy to eat and drink while biking, as I usually do. I might have to stop, put my feet down. Nutrition is a crucial part of successful Ironman racing; will I lose too much time?

There are two other athletes on the van tour of the course, and none of us can stand to look over the side when we reach the highest climb, at The Mirador del Rio. It is too scary. Of course this is where our ironman bike ride will culminate. Oh, to be a tourist admiring the view.

There are as many Americans registered as there are people from the Netherlands: 24. I have never had anything in common with anyone from the Netherlands before, and I enjoy meeting Edward, who is as big as a giant, on the bus tour. I feel instantly attracted to him, but we’re here to race, so that’s what we talk about. He’s been here all week training in the wind, trying to decide if he will use a disc wheel, which is a solid carbon wheel that is heavy, on the back of his bike. They usually produce a faster time, but are not recommended for this race because of the side winds. He thinks because he is larger athlete it will be OK for him, that he won’t blow around too much on the course. He wants to qualify for the world championship in Kona.

When we get back from our tour, we get a coffee, take a swim, and later have dinner where he shows up dressed to the hilt with nicer shoes than me, and Italian sunglasses pushed up on his head.

I stay in a hotel in Puerto del Carmen, overlooking the blue space between islands. The Mediterranean is a shimmering sheath at night. I’ve never had such a good view of a swim course, but I’m worried about the sharp left turn four-hundred meters in—not that I’ll miss the turn and swim to Africa, but how I’ll get around it without getting swum over by the 1200 other racers. There is no fresh water on the island—the water supply has to be desalinated before you can drink it, and it still tastes weird; there is a white residue on everything.

The next day Cheryl from my tri club arrives. She’s brought her friend Pam who is not racing. I’ve never met either of them before—there are 1200 athletes in the group—but they’re the closest things to friends from home I have here. Cheryl’s rented a car. I’ve seen the bike course, I say, and I don’t think we can drive it. I’ve met someone here—from the Netherlands, named Edward, and I think we should invite him to come with us, and make him drive. She is astounded, but I tell her, take my word for it.

That night, my heart rate increases as I try to fall sleep to images of the cyclists I’d seen struggling against the wind and the beautiful empty scenery. I go into the bathroom and get half a sleeping pill, which is unusual for me, but I’m glad when my eyes get heavy. I brought them in case I had trouble with the time change, not anxiety.

We start our bike course tour in the smallest rental car imaginable with Edward, the giant, driving. Pam has to sit behind him since she is so small. We all have maps and are like a group of golfers in a cart with our commentary about the road surfaces, false flats, and blowing flags. There’s only one fight: me backseat driving Edward, but to my credit I defend him for thinking we missed a left turn before we came to the land of 1000 Palms and after the hillside restaurant. We continue the great debate on whether he should ride his disc wheel.

Driving along the bike course through the towns of Yaiza, Timanfaya, Teguise, Tinajo, and Haria, Haria stands out as a romantic place that makes me want to drink beer and take a nap, which I would do under different circumstances. Arriving at the Club La Santa, the race headquarters, an athletic complex used for European training camps, Edward manages to make his own parking spot wedging between a pole and another car, a reverse parallel park, displaying a skill set that we Americans wouldn’t even think of. On the way into the compound, Cheryl tells me she’ll help Edward pick up his girlfriend who’s flying in tomorrow from Croatia. I figure she’s probably a model, and maybe he could have said something to me in all the time we’ve spend together, but I can’t worry about this now, the race is two days away.

La Santa is a “barracks” in the middle of nowhere. It is an athlete’s version of a resort boiled down to the essentials: a massive compound with a made-for-windsurfing waterway and swimming pools the right size with the proper lane markers. I buy a T-shirt that says “Enjoy the Club La Santa Lifestyle.” Now I’ve really been somewhere. I find the simplicity of the place appealing. The Germans are here; they do all the good races—and they are fast. The Belgians are here, too; they’re easy to spot on training rides, as they don’t wear helmets.

On race day, the swim goes well for me. The water is turquoise and little fish are visible below. It’s two loops, 2.4 miles, and I wish it were longer, like five miles. I’ve shaved five minutes off my time since last year in Malaysia, and I’m glad I took those swim lessons.

The bike course is like a picture book open before me. Caves, camels, castles, mineral lakes, and wild surfers lend drama to this arid landscape spotted with low white buildings on thin roads lined with bougainvillea. When I reach the spot where Mark Herremans, the pro who is now paralyzed, crashed, I slow down. Sadly there are racers who have not heeded the caution signs. It’s hard to watch racers go away in a medical vehicle. But there’s a German girl named Diana ahead and we play cat and mouse on the bike—she stops twice to collect herself and as I pass her I encourage her and she does the same for me. I tell her, it’s all downhill from here. Her accent, “It vould be nice,” echoes in my ears as it has been my only verbal input all day. Despite her complaints, I love every minute of my ride, especially when I hit the 5-6 hour mark, knowing I have it in the bag at the 2000-foot peak of Mirador del Rio—overlooking the other islands in the Canaries. I feel like I can almost see Africa beyond. It’s the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s given more personal meaning because I turned the pedals to get here. Robert, the newbie from Ireland, is near me now and we share a moment of camaraderie until I leave him behind on the descent.

Some round-a-bouts have me worried on the way in—after Malaysia last year I developed an irrational fear of getting lost on a bike course. But, I spend the last 40 miles feeling good in a way that didn’t feel suspiciously “too good” in terms of pacing and passing people easily. There’s some fast sections due to back wind and downhills with new pavement and here I’m glad to be heavier than a toothpick as I travel fast, reaching a top speed of 45 miles per hour. The best advice I got on how to approach this bike course came from Donald, who’d done the race four times before. Treat it like sailing, he said, expect wind everywhere, and have a little bit of fun with it. Donald says the race is purification for him, which gets me to wondering what he’s doing the rest of his year.

I reach the dismount line, blowing kisses to the officials and I would kiss my bike seat too, if I had not peed on it twice. I’m afraid to take my bike shoes off since I don’t have any socks on and the pavement looks hot, but I reach the transition tent having biked an 8:15, not super fast, but solid. Pam rubs more sunblock on me and it feels like a massage.

The inevitable worst part of the race is here, the marathon. It’s four loops, 6.2 miles each, along the main drag with lots of lights and people. I figure I’ll time my first loop and go from there. If it was just one loop I could do it in an hour, but since there’s four it will be slower. I see Cheryl as I head out and she’s walking, holding her stomach. Running has always been unnatural to me, my most difficult challenge, but I have trained hard. Still, my loops take longer and longer, which is not the way you want it to go. The fast people are finished with the race. There’s still company out here, but less with each loop. The coveted wristbands that mark our laps are my only hope; they feel like “Wilson” did to Tom Hanks in Castaway. It’s 5:00 PM and I’ve been on this race course since 7:00 AM.

In Deep Survival, people who were lost at sea or in the mountains survived by keeping a schedule of certain tasks, celebrating small accomplishments, and staying focused. I do this in my race. On the run, I take a salt tab every 30 minutes like I have done since I got on the bike in the morning. I’m so focused that I reset my watch on each loop to follow a schedule. Using the top and bottom of the hour is easiest. I have to pee but I’m afraid it will be too distracting. I celebrate sometimes just getting to the next light post.

According to the book, the survival experience for those who triumphed was a transformation. In some ways it meant going against their instinct: not giving up because you are exhausted. By the third loop of the run I am completely demoralized, but I refuse to lose my form even though I’m not really running anymore. I’m moving without putting my heels down, like Ian taught me, but I’m gaining little ground. I’m a tinder bundle trying to ignite. If somebody blows on me I will catch. I don’t want to disappoint Ian and Cherie (my coaches) but I have the worst blisters I’ve ever had and I’m not good at this, I think. Maybe I can tell the race people that this is hard enough, so can I have the medal anyway. But then somebody with a crisp British accent, yells, “Tamara, you are brilliant!” and I believe it.

Other people along the way say a word or two as I go by. “Anima” is one. I figure out this means, “Amazing.” Also, I hear, “Respect.” I really like this country, the people here.

I sing songs to myself—or rather broken phrases from songs: “Hey Delilah, don’t you worry, anymore…” something I’d heard at the pre-race meeting. I make a promise to myself to buy the whole CD and enjoy driving and listening to it while re-living my race from the seat of my car eating ice cream. It isn’t until halfway through the final lap, when I know I have it, that I let myself pee. It is better than ice cream.

The finish line looms, and my transformation is almost complete. I realize that in spite of the training and support from others, when my plane crashes in the Andes, when my pick comes loose in an Everest crevasse, I need to be there for myself. Even if I go to pieces, the pieces would be greater than the whole of who I used to be. A piece of me would be enough.

The lights glow ahead of me, the sound of the crowd buzzes louder. I hear real music and start running fast, getting happy: I’m on fire. At 16 hours and 23 minutes, it isn’t my best time, but it is my best race, my best finish ever.


E-mail: tadelman[at]

See the Dark

Bonnets’s Pick
Mary Evans Zbegner

Sitting down on the couch was a mistake. I closed my eyes and fatigue washed over me, wiping the errands from my mind. The basket of clean laundry sat on the floor beside me, and I knew that both kids needed their soccer shirts for the next day, and Lauren would want her favorite jeans for school. But, for a minute, I waded into the darkness and let it pull me down.

I’d been up since before sunrise to say goodbye to Dwight before he left for the airport, then rushed the kids off to school on the bus at the ungodly hour of 6:50. From there, the day had pitched forward at a steady speed: teaching from nine till noon, grocery shopping on the way home, and correcting a few research paper proposals before the hustle of after-school practice pick-ups, dinner, homework checks, showers, and bedtime. I’d set out two wine glasses to enjoy a drink when Dwight got home, and a plate of pasta and meatballs was covered with plastic wrap in the fridge if he had not had time to grab dinner before the return flight.

This load of wash had been squeezed in somewhere, but I was tuckered out. Adjusting to the September schedule always required stretching and flexing. I pictured Dwight’s arrival, the kisses, the shared wine, and smiled.

The phone rang, pulling me from a quick dip into the shallows of sleep.

Edith, my mother-in-law, wasted no time. “I heard there’s been a plane crash, Mary. U.S. Air outside Pittsburgh. Isn’t Dwight coming in tonight?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s all over the news,” Edith continued. “I know he sometimes connects in Pittsburgh on his way home from Chicago. He usually flies on U.S. Air. I wanted to check to be sure it isn’t his flight.”

“No, no. It wouldn’t be,” I said, stroking my forehead as if pulling up Dwight’s travel plans to the front of my mind. “He changed his flights—to United. He wanted to be gone only for the day so he could be home for the kids.”

“You’re sure?”

Even though I kept track of everyone’s schedule, I answered with patience. “Yeah, he wanted to be home in the morning. You know how he is.”

Dwight had always been an early riser and tried to convince everyone else of the magic of mornings. He insisted the kids wake up an hour before the bus arrived to eat a good breakfast together and review everyone’s plans for the day. Even at six a.m., he bubbled with enthusiasm, joking with Lauren about her Princess Leia pigtails or teasing Jonathan about his new habit of spiking the front of his hair.

“He hates being away overnight because he never sleeps well. You know that. So he said the United flight allowed him to go early and still come home tonight.”

“Thank goodness. It’s an awful accident. It’s on every station.”

After reassuring Edith once more, I hung up and returned to the basket of clothes. She fretted about everything, a trait she had inherited from her Italian-born mother. I knew, too, that she had been living alone for ten years after losing her husband to a heart attack, so she naturally worried even more.

I turned on the television while folding the clothes, making four neat piles, one for each of us. The catastrophe burned on every network as I automatically stacked the neat geometric shapes. Eyewitnesses reported that U.S. Air #427 appeared to be making a normal approach around 7 p.m. when it suddenly veered to the left and then nosedived toward the ground from an altitude of 6,000 feet. Camera crews filmed the dark, scorched wound where the fuselage had met the earth, leaving little debris from such a huge plane. Apparently, it had hit with such force, it was reduced to mere scraps. Huge flames had ignited the nearby trees, but debris was strewn everywhere. Some of it was recognizable: seat cushions dotted the hillside, open briefcases spilled ruined files, suit jackets spread burnt sleeves, and torn clothing hung from low bushes. Sheets of metal peeled back with jagged edges, and you could see the fire was so hot the paint blistered and sputtered. The reporters spoke in serious, subdued voices. They believed there were no survivors; all 132 passengers and crew were believed dead.

My eyes went from the screen to the clothes, my mind going to the victims’ last seconds and their families receiving the news. My hands folded the shirts into smooth squares, and matched the seams of the pants so the creases would be straight. Bundled into tight balls, socks topped the clothes pyramids. No one knew the cause, but nothing was ruled out: mechanical failure, pilot error, even sabotage was mentioned. The strobe-like emergency lights and the sirens that sounded like air raid warnings awoke a small rodent of nervousness that began to gnaw at my stomach.

I checked the time: 8:50. Dwight usually called from his layover in Pittsburgh, but sometimes the connection was too tight. Even so, if his plane was not delayed, he should have landed in Scranton by now, and if the departure time had been pushed later than scheduled, he would have called then. I decided to go downstairs to the office to check his appointment book. Not wanting to admit the reason to myself, I went quickly, almost sneakily, holding my breath and keeping fear tightly coiled and in its corner.

I was glad to see the burgundy leather of Dwight’s planner on his disorderly desk. He had not taken it with him since he would be gone only the one day. I looked at the slim black ribbon holding the place of today’s date and was reminded of the white missal I had received for First Holy Communion. I opened to today’s page. Dwight’s chicken scratch was hard to read. From what I could decipher, the first line said: “Dist. Sales Managers Mtg. 9–5.” A cramped note followed this: “U.S. Air. #67 — 7:05 a.m. to Chi.”, which was crossed out, and written above it was “United #168, 6:10.” I figured that sounded right; Dwight had left around five to make it to the airport, and he had specifically told me he was flying United.

The return flight involved a connection, one leg left Chicago and connected in Pittsburgh, and the second departed from Pittsburgh and arrived in Scranton. The numbers were written carelessly, a product of Dwight’s haste. He excelled in action, not in planning, and his legendary ability to talk for hours did not transfer to note taking. I squinted and turned on the desk lamp. The extra light helped make sense of the crooked line of numbers and abbreviations: “U.S. Air #427 — 5:52 to Pitt., United #1044 — 7:47 to Scr.” The strikeover of the line above extended onto some of these numbers, so the “427” could have actually been “421”, but the name of the airline was definitely clear.

I scanned the page to see if any other changes had been made, certain Dwight had switched all the flights to United. Had I become complacent with his travel itineraries since he left home more often since he had been promoted to sales manager several years earlier? On the large calendar on the desk where Dwight sometimes wrote reminders, September 8th was blank. Rifling through the notes by the phone and scattered over the desk, I found one with the same abbreviated flight information. My eyes stopped at the name of the airline: “U.S. Air”—and the numbers: “4-2-7”—clear and distinct. I flinched and dropped it back onto the desk. Had he only changed his morning flight to United?

A hand flew to my throat as if the oxygen had been sucked from the room. I stood perfectly still, daring not to breathe or move. “U.S. Air 427” seemed to flash like a mental neon sign. I shook my head and whispered, “No!” with a short burst of pent-up air. Stupidly, I remembered ridiculous situations when I had wished saying “no” could reverse the action: the repeated “no” over a ruined chocolate cake, burnt black because I had not heard the timer ping; my “no” upon seeing that pink sweater with an unfixable slit beside the side seam because I had been overzealous with the scissors on that offending tag that had scratched the soft skin of my stomach into a red, flaming patch. But this was different. I had only opened the book and read the flight numbers; I had not done anything wrong. The minutes ticked by in prolonged seconds that clung to each distorted moment. I shook my head again to clear the dizziness and repeated the useless “No!” I was frozen to the spot, afraid to make things worse by moving.

My jagged sigh seemed to breathe a second self into existence. This presence drifted upwards and looked down from a high perch to watch me, from where it was able to not only observe, but also to analyze and evaluate me, Mary-whose-feet-were-on-the-floor. Oddly, the Floating-Mary could choose to be just a spectator or direct my body’s movements, too. Floating-Mary was in charge and not afraid. Mary-with-her-feet-on-the-floor verbalized no thoughts or feelings. I merely completed actions, directed by instinct buried deep within an animal core.

I opened my eyes wide as if a predator were lurking nearby. My chest rose with short pants while scanning the perimeter of the room. Fear, unleashing its restraints, circled me, its prey. Before it pounced, I reached out quickly and snatched the day planner, turned toward the door, and darted up the stairs where the accident re-created a war-zone facsimile on the television screen. Floating-Mary followed me, driven by a need to know what would happen next. Fear, too, sidled up the stairs silently and crouched in the shadows.

Like a prim old lady, I sat on the edge of the couch, the planner held between my palms with my thumbs crossed over the top as if it were a hymnal. Floating-Mary thought I looked as if I were in church, mesmerized by a priest’s sermon. I stared at the TV.

“Open the book and check,” Floating-Mary said.

My body did not respond, strong and resistant.

“You need to know,” Floating-Mary persisted. “See if it’s his flight.”

I bowed my head in submission. With fingers that shook, I took the slender ribbon bookmark and opened to the page. My chin resting on my chest, I closed my eyes.

“Look to be sure,” I heard, the voice seeming to come from above.

I opened my eyes and looked at the text scrolling across the bottom of the screen: “U.S. Air Flight 427 crashed near Pittsburgh at 7:03 p.m. All 132 passengers and crew presumed dead.”

I lowered my eyes to the page. “USAir 427.” It was the same flight. I should have reacted with unbridled emotion, but I simply did not, could not, believe that Dwight had been on that plane, the one crushed to smithereens, the one smoking on my television screen. I concentrated on not holding my breath and waited for instructions from Floating-Mary, but she had decided to observe only, not processing this information either. Fear’s tongue circled its mouth as it waited for the moment to strike. Time started to play by new rules, in slow motion, each second weighed down with dread.

Suddenly, the phone rang, shrill and panicked. Both my selves merged to function, to speak and think, as I got up to answer.

“Hey, Mary, it’s Lynn. I don’t know if you’re watching the news, but there’s been an airline accident.”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“I know Dwight’s coming back tonight, so I thought I’d call— to check—”

I opened my mouth, but no words emerged.

“Mare— are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here,” I managed, taking breaths between each word but keeping my eyes shut tight, willing Fear to retreat.

“Is it Dwight’s flight, Mary?” Lynn had lowered her voice to a whisper, hesitating.

“Maybe,” I said, but it sounded more like a moan in a child’s nightmare when the monster rushes forward to attack.

“I’ll be right there,” Lynn said, and the line went dead.

I walked back to the couch, cradling the phone to my chest. The floor seemed to shift planes like in an earthquake, causing me to almost lose my balance before grabbing the armrest and collapsing onto the cushioned seat. While I rocked back and forth, Floating-Mary detached and rose again to watch. At some level the truth lurked, but we had decided to wait for confirmation. It seemed logical and appropriate; I could not conceive of anything else to do. I waited for my friend to arrive, to wait with me. A sense of unreality convinced me this could not be true. The minutes expanded. At the same time, fractions of hours collapsed upon themselves and disappeared into a black hole of time, made dense by uncertainty.

I put the phone down on the end table and picked up the remote, lowering the volume. The appointment book found its way into my hands, and I folded my fingers around it. A moth struck the screen door, making a noise too loud for its size. Jolted slightly, I grabbed the arm of the chair and cast my eyes toward the sound. The wings buzzed along the surface, causing the taut grid to vibrate in a steadily rising hum as the insect’s panic increased. Then, it flew off, and the loud chorus of crickets and katydids drowned out the newscaster’s voice. I heard myself sigh, but waited quietly because I felt separated into two halves, and the deeds of one did not connect with the thoughts and feelings of the other. I hung in a vacuum of reality, suspended.

Lynn let herself in and sat beside me. She turned to me and began to speak, but the look on my face must have silenced her. Opening my fingers, I showed her Dwight’s planner. As Lynn took the book, it slipped to the floor, but she quickly retrieved it and opened to September 8th, 1994. I knew she was doing exactly what I had done, checking and re-checking the date, scrutinizing the airlines and cramped numbers again and again, and comparing them to the news report. Then Lynn turned, and with silent tears, enclosed me within her arms, but I felt limp, like a lifeless doll.

Finally, Lynn spoke. “Have you tried to call the airlines?”

I shook my head dumbly. I had not thought of that. “Do you want the phone book?” I asked.

“Yeah, that would be good,” she answered. “Let’s call. Maybe he didn’t get on the plane or something.”

I nodded obediently before saying, “All right.”

I rummaged for the phone book in the closet and brought it to Lynn.

The tissue paper pages snapped as she flipped each one quickly, scanning for the number. Running her finger down the page and stopping, Lynn said, “Maybe this number will work.”

As I reached for the phone, it rang, the tone harsh and insistent. First, I stared at it in confusion, but then answered it quickly so it wouldn’t wake Jonathan and Lauren. Again, the two parts of me melded so I could function. Time wavered with illusions like a distant mirage of water in a desert.

“Hello, Mary?” a strange voice began. “This is David Levy, the vice president of sales from Searle Labs, out here in Chicago. We met last May at Pro Club in Hawaii.”

“Yes, I remember,” I said, wondering why he was calling, afraid of why he was calling. My voice faltered, like a puff of smoke dissolving into the air.

“Dwight was out here today at a sales managers’ meeting.”

“I know. He told me,” I said, my voice a whisper as if we were sharing a secret.

Another moth flew into the screen, causing it to twang and thrum. Its wings desperately fluttered as it tried to gain entrance, to get close to the light. I could imagine its furry body scurrying along, bouncing into the nylon mesh again and again, its head and antennae upright and alert, its crooked legs pricking the surface, searching for an opening.

“Well, I’m sorry to have to call you. Our travel department contacted me to tell me Dwight was on a U.S. Air flight that crashed tonight before landing in Pittsburgh.”

“I saw the accident on the news.” I started to breathe in shallow gulps. “But I’m not sure if it’s his flight. There were some changes. He told me he was flying United.”

“No, he was scheduled to board the plane,” David said in an even tone.

“But, you can’t be sure yet, can you?” I asked with the high-pitched voice of a child afraid of the dark.

“The travel agency contacted U.S. Air. Dwight’s name is on the passenger list. They believe he boarded the plane, Mary. There are no survivors. I’m so sorry.”

“No! They can’t be sure of that either.” I talked loudly, almost shouting into the phone, convinced he did not know what he was talking about. Wouldn’t the airlines call me when they knew? “You don’t know for sure. Why didn’t they call me? Maybe he didn’t get on. Maybe he got out—somehow—maybe he’s just wandering around—hurt—and they haven’t found him. He’s strong— and—”

David interrupted my runaway train of possibilities. “Is someone with you, Mary? Can I call someone for you?”

“My friend is here, and the kids are sleeping.”

“Can I speak to your friend, Mary?”

“Yes, but what am I supposed to do? What should I do? What if he doesn’t come home?” I held the receiver with two hands, hoping David Levy of Searle Laboratories would understand my need for instructions.

“Maybe you should put your friend on the line, Mary,” Dwight’s boss suggested strongly. “Please.”

I handed the phone to Lynn, who took it with a questioning look. She listened, saying, “Yes,” “Okay,” and “I understand.”

When she gave the phone back to me, David was still on the line. “We’ll be contacting you tomorrow, Mary, so we can help.”

“All right. Goodbye.”

Lynn and I looked at each other grimly. “What should I do, Lynn?”

“I don’t know,” she said as she slid closer and put her arm around my shoulder.

“It can’t be true. He’d get away somehow. He wouldn’t leave me.” I resisted the tears that formed suddenly like dew after sunset. “No! He will come home to me. He loves me. He loves the kids. He’ll be here soon. I know it,” I insisted. Floating-Mary ascended as the tears wet my face and neck. Like a guardian angel, she protected my core, but I didn’t understand that then.

“We’ll figure this out,” Lynn said with a forced confidence. “I’ll help you. I won’t leave you. We’ll figure this out together, Mary.” She grabbed my shoulder with desperate fingers and pulled me close.

I stood up, not wanting to be touched because it meant I needed to be comforted. Fists clenched at my sides, I paced the room with angry stomps, and then plopped down on the far side of the couch. I realized there was nowhere to go, nowhere to get answers, nowhere to hide. I covered my face with my hands and exhaled in a long sputter. A series of strangled, yelping noises followed as if someone were kicking me in the stomach. Fear stalked close by, coaxing my pained cries. They answered the crickets’ call. Floating-Mary simply watched.

I raised my face when I heard rushed footsteps and the bathroom door bang open. Palm clamped over my mouth, I knew it was too late. One of the kids had heard. A new fear took hold like an iron grip. I stood up, craned my neck, and saw the bathroom light spilling into the hall. Then the sounds of retching, the grunting of vomiting, reached my ears.

I wiped my eyes and cheeks while rushing to the door. Jonathan was hunched over the toilet, gasping between the spasms of throwing up. Walking toward him, I reached out to rub his T-shirted back. He must have overheard, I thought, and probably snuck down the hall to figure out what was going on, the news sickening him. Floating-Mary decided to pretend, telling me to reach inside for the needed role-play and suggesting the right words.

“Oh, honey, what happened? You’ll be all right. Just let it out,” I murmured, running my palm in soft circles, feeling his ribs beneath the taut skin. At twelve, Jonathan was stretching in height, but had not begun to fill out.

He looked up before another gag seized his thin frame. His face was ashen, dazed with sickness and terror. My eyes did not see my son, but a caricature like the horrified face in Munch’s Scream painting. The room spun into spirals of dizzying colors. Jonathan sounded as if he were heaving his stomach and lungs from his body trying to dislodge what he suspected. Desperate to help, to do something, I opened the cabinet, took out a washcloth, and ran it under cold water.

I sponged his forehead when he finished, then wiped his cheeks. He let me tend to him without complaint.

“Better?” I asked, terrified by what he might say.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “I guess.” He tottered to the sink and used his hands to splash his face. Then he cupped some cool water in his palm and rinsed his mouth. He gulped at the air, like a fish straining to breathe.

“What’s going on out there?” Jonathan asked. “I heard the phone ring, and then voices. It sounded like you were crying.”

I didn’t know what to say. My brain was scrambled, and I fought with the words, busying myself by straightening the towels on the rack and cranking the window closed to shut out the insects’ clamor. Floating-Mary cued my words. “Well, there’s been an accident, and Lynn is here with me. We’re trying to figure it all out. No one has the details yet. Right now, you just need to know that everything’s okay. When I know for sure what’s going on, I’ll tell you. But everything’s going to be all right.”

Jonathan’s eyes narrowed and searched my face. I knew he could tell I’d been crying, but he apparently decided I seemed steady enough. Normally, he besieged me with questions, needing to know everything, but he appeared weak and tired. I opened my arms to hug him, and he stepped forward, ducking his head down, so I could kiss the top of his head. Dwight comforted me like that, too. My green-eyed boy took a deep, shaggy breath as if he were trying not to cry, and I held him tightly. I prayed for time to collapse and surrender this moment.

“I woke up and heard you,” he said. “At first I didn’t know what it was—it almost sounded like a hurt animal or something. I heard you saying ‘no’ and crying. I stood by the door to listen, but got so dizzy. Then, I knew I would be sick.”

“Maybe you overdid it at soccer,” I suggested. “You know you always get woozy after the first practices because you run so much and you’re not used to it.”

“Maybe,” he said, but he wasn’t convinced. “I don’t know. Something’s not right. I don’t think you’re telling me everything. Are you sure you’re okay, Mom?”

I turned away and wiped at the counter, but I knew he knew. Why else would he react so violently? The taste of blood, salty and bitter, surprised me, and I realized I’d been biting the inside of my bottom lip. Floating-Mary whispered, urged me to get him back to bed before my façade breached.

“I’m fine. Come on, I’ll tuck you in,” I said, giving his shoulder a gentle nudge. He shrugged and left the bathroom, his feet making soft, slapping sounds on the tile. Jonathan walked gingerly, like someone who had exercised too much and each step brought a fresh wince of pain.

“Want the fan? It’s kind of stuffy in here.”

“All right,” he consented as he rearranged the covers.

I set up the window fan and turned it on. Its steady hum replaced the swelling chorus outside. Straightening the sheet so its cotton surrounded his neck and chin, I gave Jonathan kisses on the cheek and forehead. I rubbed the crown of his head, feeling his closely cropped back-to-school haircut. The faint iron taste in my mouth helped me speak coherently.

“You’re okay now, Jonathan?”

“I guess. You’re sure everything’s all right?”

I lied in the dark. “Oh, it will be. We’ll figure it out.”

“Okay, good night, Mom.”

“Try to sleep, honey. Love you.”

I propped the door open a bit with Jonathan’s sneaker to allow the stale air a way to escape as the fan drew in the night’s coolness. Dwight had shown me this trick years before during that hot summer I had been pregnant and could not sleep.

Stopping a few feet down the hall at Lauren’s room, I cracked the door and listened to my daughter’s soft breathing. The effort of mothering Jonathan, protecting him, had weakened me, and I needed a moment to be sure I could walk without stumbling. Floating-Mary observed Lauren from above in a detached calm. I entered the room silently, pulling up the twisted sheet and blanket she routinely kicked off. The innocent slumber of my ten-year old slowed my animal-like panic.

When I returned to the family room, Lynn whispered, “Is he all right?”

I assured her he seemed settled down. I sat, dazed, but Floating-Mary assessed that this emergency had been handled with deft, motherly efficiency and compassion. What surprised me more was Jonathan’s somewhat compliant acceptance of my poor explanation, and I became certain he had pieced the news together but had not admitted it because saying the words would make it true.

Lynn called the airlines, taking the phone on the porch, but she received no definite answers after at least four transfers to different people. The families of the victims would receive official phone calls as soon as possible. Emergency crews were working, but the dark and the undeveloped terrain were causing problems. She was angry at the workers’ apparent ignorance and indifference. I took it as a good sign; there had to have been a mistake.

I changed the channel, hoping the drone would ease Jonathan, but no show could hold our attention. The flames and rubble seemed to have cast shadows both behind the screen and behind our eyes. My body twitched with raw nerves, like a dog who in its sleep pantomimes running, its paws swiping at the air. Soft, anguished whimpers escaped involuntarily. It seemed Lynn and I sat for hours, mostly in silence, as time operated by its new rules. At some point I got up and closed my son’s door.

A little after ten, headlights swept into the driveway. I leapt from the couch as a car door opened and slammed. My body and soul joined and reached out with hopeful anxiety, a rubber band at its limits. Footsteps skittered up the walk before I reached the door.

“Mary! I just heard and ran right over.”

“Oh, Sylvia!” I saw my friend whose husband worked with Dwight. The men had worked together for twelve years, getting close, and our young families were alike in many ways. Sylvia was thrown together in rumpled clothes, wearing the broken, lopsided glasses she wore only in the mornings before she put in her contacts. “I thought you were Dwight,” I blurted before crumpling to the floor. Fear rushed in, taking advantage of my weakness. “I thought he was finally here.”

Sylvia crouched beside me, apologizing, and pulled me up and toward the couch, with Lynn helping. They sat on either side of me. A moth had gotten inside, and its grossly distorted shadow scuttled around the walls of the room as it darted around the lamp.

“David Levy called us,” Sylvia said. “He told Paul that Dwight was on that plane. I rushed over. I didn’t call because I didn’t want to wake the kids.” The words spilled from her, punctuated sharply, as if she couldn’t decide whether to breathe or talk.

“Sylvia, what am I gonna do?” I asked between sobs.

She patted my knee. “We’ll do whatever we have to,” she said. She sat up straight. “We don’t have much choice.”

It sounded so stupid to me, this solution. Asinine, even. We could do more than what we had to, couldn’t we? For most of my forty-one years I had been breaking problems down and organizing a series of steps to reach a solution. I’d been taught if I worked hard enough, anything could be solved or at least made better. I didn’t feel powerless. There was a chance this could be corrected somehow: by the sheer force of my will, the power of my love, the intensity of my efforts. I wasn’t ready to give up my life, to submit to the shock, to shut down and be a victim in a world in which time didn’t move in scientific progression and loved ones didn’t come home. I needed to handle this to prove it could be fixed.

I got up and stood by the screen door. The flimsy white-winged moths circled the glowing bulb outside, bumping it insistently, wanting its warmth, but hurting themselves in the process. I looked past the sphere of light surrounding the porch. The katydids and crickets continued their mad love songs. Jonathan had stood vigil in this way as a toddler dressed in his footed sleeper PJs. Mystified by the night, he’d ask, “See the dark?” He had turned to me for confirmation and then continued, “Hear the buggies?”


“See the Dark” is the first chapter of Mary Evans Zbegner’s recently-completed, but as yet unpublished, memoir The Goldfinch’s Song, which recounts her grief and recovery following her husband’s death in the US Air flight 427 crash on September 8, 1994, which killed all 132 people on board. E-mail: mjlevans[at]