Tag Archives: Narrative non-fiction

The Body Forgives

By Elaina Smith

If you, O Lord, kept a record of Sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.

Psalm 130:3
The Record

Life’s meaning lives in a body. It grows with me, shrinks with me, and is buried with me when I return to dirt, my simplest form. Being raised Christian, I learned that my body came from ash. I came into this world dirty and must be purified through confession, and when I’m done, I will be called back to a place that’s supposed to be my home. I will find comfort in the unfamiliar. I will die and come back only to be judged. I will return to ashes.

I will always quantify my wrongdoings. I was taught that God measures sins in quantity, not calibre, that the murderer and the coveter are the same in his eyes. I’m afraid of forgiving myself. My therapist has told me that mistakes are what make us human and that I need to unlearn that being human is wrong, that this body is filled with ill-intent and letting it guide me through life will lead me into temptation. Maybe this body is meant to deliver me from evil.

This body doesn’t keep a record of sins. This body doesn’t need to be forgiven. This body does not need to be feared.

The Crucible

The meaning of life can be reduced to numbers on a page. Life isn’t so much a body but a series of digits. I remember sitting in the science lab with a handful of other college-bound juniors, waiting to take the test our entire high school careers had been leading up to. The girl in front of me turned to her friend and verbalized something I had been worried about for so long:

“Isn’t it crazy how our entire futures are riding on this one test?”

In 2016, the average ACT score was 21. I scored a 17. Translation: not good enough.

That number directly affected my chances of getting into college, which directly affected my chances of leaving my hometown, which directly affected my chances of finding a meaning of life that wasn’t artificial. Living in that town was living in a body that was not my own. Living in that town was living a life that did not belong to me and trying to forge a meaning that didn’t exist.

It took me 2 tries to get above a 20 on the ACT. I took the second test in a lecture hall at Ferris State University that could probably seat 100 people 2 months before college applications were due. The College Board archives your test scores, keeping a record of your sins. They only send your highest score to the colleges you apply to because, with them, there is forgiveness.

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The Sins

The meaning of life is how far this body can take me before sickness claims it. I step on a scale at the doctor’s office, and the nurse diagnoses me as healthy. I am the 38th patient they’ve seen today. I verify that I was born on 09/25/1999. I am 21 years old. I weigh 134 pounds. I am 5 feet, 8.5 inches tall. She takes me into exam room 3.

I’ve been having chest pains recently. How many times a day? Probably 5. How many glasses of water do I drink in a day? Probably not enough. But I have been dealing with panic attacks for 10 years now. How many therapists have I seen since then? 4. How old was I when they first started? 11. Is that too young to have panic attacks? The statistics say yes. I say no.

You can tell a lot about a person’s health from just a blood sample. My results came back in numbers that held a record of my sins, of all the times I’d neglected my body with fast food and minimal sleep. But who could judge me? The numbers required a translation from the doctor, who called and said everything looked fine. My body was finally able to rest.

Who Could Stand?

The meaning of life is to produce. A body at rest is a body that’s unproductive, and a body that’s unproductive is a body that’s worthless to society. I got my first fast-food job at 19. It paid 10 dollars an hour and was a 25-minute drive from my house. The store manager kept a record of my sins, watching over us on the cameras on her days off. We were allowed to take 5-minute breaks every 2 hours, as long as there were no customers in the store. If you stayed in the break area too long, Sue would call. If you leaned on the counters instead of cleaning, Sue would call. If a customer spent more than 30 seconds in the drive-thru, the regional manager would call. He could see the record of our times. Sometimes, the tills would be a few dollars short at the end of the day. Sue made us pay the difference if we were on shift. I think I ended up paying over 5 dollars to her. With her, there was no forgiveness. Therefore, she was feared.

Therefore, You are Feared

The meaning of life is to reproduce. This body of mine isn’t allowed to give up until it gives the world what it wants. A husband by 25. A mother of 2 by 30. I will destroy my body to create a new one. I will make every mistake a mother can make because once you’re in charge of supplying meaning for someone else’s life, it’s not about you anymore. It was never about me, to begin with. I’m 21, but my years are numbered on a clock that sits deep inside me. I was born with all my eggs. At 11, I started to lose them. At 45, there is a 50% chance that I will miscarry. Being a woman is a scale of whether or not I can live up to this body and the expectations you have set for it. The men I’ve invited into my room will keep a record of my sins. They will not meet each other, but there will forever be a number associated with them, attached to this body. You’ll never know what that number is unless I tell you, but I never will. With you, there is no forgiveness.

Therefore, there is Forgiveness

I acknowledge each part of my body. I listen to how the wheels turn inside it, a machine in contract with itself to keep me alive, until one day, it doesn’t. Until one day, it can’t. Until one day, a faceless God calls me home, removing me from my body, separating my physical from my consciousness like yolk and white. This body is equal parts miracle and failure and everything in between. This body cannot be quantified into pass or fail because it only speaks in terms of living and dead, flesh and ash. I won’t apologize for this body anymore.

Elaina Smith is a recent graduate of Grand Valley State University’s undergraduate writing program. You can find her on Instagram or Twitter.


By Fereshteh Molavi

Let me tell you a story, a clumsy little story. 

Not once upon a time, but this very day, or precisely yesterday, or surely tomorrow, a newcomer joins the old-timers of our city who were once newcomers too. Well, that’s just the way things happen – not that the oppressive powers of a poor country imposed it or the thoughtful policymakers of a prosperous country planned it. Strangely enough, the newcomer of our story is a novelist who is not lucky enough to write in the pachyderm language of the world or even in this country’s second official language. Yet, more than other immigrants, he lives in a world of imagination and dreams of what might be possible in the land that gave the world Anne of Green Gables. I suppose you don’t want to ask me, “Why?” Or do you?

People always say that immigrants go through a hellish ordeal in order to gain future benefits, either for themselves or for the next generation. That’s just the way things are – not that there is a pre-planned pattern for it. It’s simply the price of living in the Promised Land. Strangely enough, our immigrant writer in the honeymoon stage would be more than happy to pay any price to live in a Wonderland where he could write his novel, A Middle Eastern Double Bind, without worrying about censorship and other restrictions. 

Despite the fact that our writer comes from a land haunted by magic realism, he is realistic enough to expect that it takes time to get established in a new place – no matter whether it’s hell or heaven. After all, the fact that Canada has room for all comers doesn’t mean that immigrants get treated to a red carpet. Furthermore, our writer’s ears are sharp enough to hear the first lesson: “An immigrant is an animal without Canadian experience.” So he has to forget everything other than “Canadian life experience,” which means, first and foremost, finding a foothold in a city constantly stretching to accommodate more and more immigrants. Moreover, our writer’s memory is fresh enough to recall that even in his native land, the answer to the question “What do you do?” should be anything rather than “I’m a writer.” Because if he answered that, the next question would be, “Wonderful, but what’s your job?” Our immigrant novelist decides to temporarily sacrifice the Double Bind he longs to write in order to get bread, if not butter. Strangely enough, hunger and lack of a roof over the head have a way of defeating the pen. That’s just the way things happen – not that anything’s wrong with any particular social system that doesn’t treat writers well. 

Soon it turns out that what at first looks like a mere hiatus is going to become a life sentence. Our protagonist works hard, jumps from one survival job to another, improves his English as a Second Language, takes a never-ending series of evening courses, and grabs any kind of Canadian experience in the hope of getting a better-paying job and finding the luxury of enough free time to read books instead of newspapers or flyers and, most of all, to finish his poor Double Bind. Strangely enough, our hero, still optimistic, tries to write the novel in his mind while running to work or to school or while labouring at an assembly line or in front of a bakery oven. Time passes and brings about a change of status and a few extra bucks, at least to the extent that our new citizen can indulge himself in a cup of coffee in a Starbucks, read news about literary events and, if it doesn’t conflict with his work schedule, even attend an arts event — if it’s free. Yet, these aren’t the only changes. Rapidly his physical energy and health are being undermined. The more our former novelist experiences the Canadian lifestyle, the harder it is to call himself a writer and to remember that he had wanted to write A Middle Eastern Double BindWell, that’s just the way things are – not that the new country or even the old one has any hand in that.

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If the first lesson for the immigrant is that he lacks “Canadian experience,” the second one is that he must develop the hide of a rhinoceros. Strangely enough, the immigrant writer of our story is determined to get back on track and reclaim his literary identity. He then encounters the roadblock question, “Do you have any books published in English?” Blaming himself that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be trampled by the elephant of English, our immigrant writer summons enough energy to translate some of his works into it. From the start, our suspect writer knows that this, at best, cannot be anything other than a long shot. What becomes frustrating is that the time he squeezes in for translation means that time is stolen from finishing his Double BindBut that’s just the way things happen – not that the policymakers of Canadian arts and culture disregard the golden “Multiculturalism Act.” 

Well, if you expect a neat ending to this clumsy little story, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Strangely enough, the story of an immigrant writer whose first language is not one of the major European ones is at best nothing but A Canadian Double Bind. This immigrant, who was once a writer, takes refuge in Canada to escape from an authoritarian regime that didn’t let her be a writer by making his homeland a cage. He chooses Canada as a new home because of its fame, not only as a democratic peacekeeping country but also as a land of multiculturalism. Alas! It turns out that lack of censorship doesn’t necessarily guarantee writing and living as a writer. It also turns out that the chosen land cannot be anything more than a purgatory, if not a hell, for a writer who doesn’t write in English or French. Besides the challenges of immigrant life, which can be overcome in a way or another, this writer likely encounters a high risk of losing his professional identity. To overcome the latter, the possible scenarios are: (a) He ignores the English market and keeps writing in his mother tongue, being content with getting published abroad by small publishers with no distribution system and a tiny, random readership. He thus remains a stranger on the CanLit scene. (b) He quits writing in his first language and starts writing in English. In this case, he sacrifices his mother tongue to English and proves that multiculturalism is nothing but a myth. And, even if the writer succeeds in producing a work of quality in English, he is unlikely to compete well in the market with English- speaking, Canadian-born writers. (c) He strives to keep a balance between his dual identities and languages and chooses translation as a medium. In this case, because of the lack of institutional support, the writer has to bear his own cross and function as a translator. 

Anyway, one may say, “That’s just the way things are.” — not that anybody is wrong, other than the person who wants to live and die as a writer. 

Fereshteh Molavi was born in Tehran in 1953. She lived and worked there until 1998, when she immigrated to Canada. She worked and taught at Yale University, University of Toronto, York University, and Seneca College. A fellow at Massey College and a writer-in-residence at George Brown College, Molavi has published many works of fiction and non-fiction in Persian in Iran and Europe. She has been the recipient of awards for novels and translation. Her first book in English, Stories from Tehran, was released in 2018; and her most recent novel, Thirty Shadow Birds, was published by Inanna Publications in 2019. She lives in Toronto. You can find her on Twitter or on her website.

The Last Spring

By Katherine Hoffman

In 1983, the last spring of my mother’s father’s life had arrived. I dashed home from school, my legs spinning like the pinwheels my grandmother bought in the clearance bin at K-mart. My “snowbird” grandparents had arrived earlier in Michigan than expected. The car engine was popping, indicating they had not been there for long. I grasped at my left shoulder. My arm was less sore than two days ago when I pitched a doubleheader. My father, who had once tried out for the New York Yankees and was told to try out again if he grew 4 inches, rubbed rubbing alcohol over it to ease the pain. Can’t believe we lost one of them because Pam Marko dropped an easy fly ball. I was to pitch two more games tomorrow.

The Florida oranges my grandmother brought in were considerably better than the care packages of cheap nylons and antiquated bile-coloured 70’s hand-me-downs from my much older cousins. I remember leafing through the many photo albums my grandmother produced of each of them with masking tape labelled: Beth, Gene, Linda, Jon. Strangers who shared my DNA.

My mother sat at the kitchen table guarded, deflated and smiled obligatorily for the photograph my grandmother took. Grandma Roop was always taking photos.

My father was a fall down drunk.my mother sneered on more than one occasion.

We called him Bubba. When we stayed with my grandparents on the weekend, he told my grandmother meekly, “I am going to go downtown for a while,” meaning the Down the Hatch Bar. We all knew it.
Bubba asked for a bear hug while I peeled an orange. He smelled of cigarettes and aftershave. The red letters W-I-N-S-T-O-N were visible in his breast pocket of the ever-present beige shirt.

“Want a Budweiser, Don?” My father asked him.

“I’d like to watch Katherine pitch.” my grandfather said earnestly before I even put my books upstairs in my room. Nobody called me “Katherine.”
The adults were looking at each other, searching. He began wheezing, and his handkerchief had faded spots of pink on it, like the plastic flamingos in their front yard. As he stretched his back, I could see the most worn hole on his belt was not the notch he was using now.

As my father, grandfather, and I retreated to the backyard, the sun was bright, but a chill in the air caused me to cross my goose flesh arms. I noticed my grandmother did not follow us out with her camera, although it was armed and resting on the kitchen table. She sat closer to my mother, who was hugging herself. As we passed the driveway, the smell of the budding lilac bush was a sweet and welcome change from the salty and unforgettable odour of old snow and exhaust. The retreating snow was now confined to cotton balls hugging the base of the house. My father squats down his 5’ 8” frame, his legs strong despite his 53 years, ready to receive my pitches.   

I began to warm up, and my grandfather stood with his hands on his hips near my father…..

My father was a fall-down drunk. I had to take my mother to the hospital once.

The grass had some dew, and a breeze parted my hair despite Aqua Net’s best effort. I began to gradually throw harder until the softball whooshed from my hips. I was throwing mostly strikes with my usual fastballs and curveballs. The harder I pitched, the harder my father returned the ball to me. It popped in my glove, and a whiff of leather came. As the sun began to level, my arm stiffened up. As I wiped my acne-riddled temple of sweat, I announced, “Whew, well, I think I’m done here.” I placed my glove under my armpit and walked back. I paused and waited for the men. I could hear them talking and nodding when they glanced at me. My grandfather hiked up his pants and proceeded towards the direction of the house.

I had to take my mother to the hospital once. My brother had to walk me down the aisle.

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My father cupped his hands and said, “Ok, Kath, I want you to throw your changeup now. You know, like we’ve been working on in the gym?” The wind was picking up as my grandfather shielded his eyes and retraced his steps cautiously. 

“Dad, I have to pitch tomorrow,” I said. I could see my breath now. “Doesn’t matter. Changeups are just like warming up,” he said blithely, “or, I guess in this case, winding down.” “Come on, Bubba wants to see this,” he whined in an almost childlike tone, and my grandfather just shrugged. The changeup was not in my arsenal because I knew only one gear. Hard and fast. It seemed impossible, Houdiniesque, as if to say, “ok, I am going to make it look like I’m throwing hard and fast but am really not. Ta-Da!”

Most of my pitches were now veering out of the strike zone. One went over my father’s glove, and I could see the back of his head shake as he retrieved it from the Wagner’s lawn. The ball was now wet from the dew. My father’s throws back became wilder. One errant return throw caused me to bend my knee to the ground to stop it like any decent fielder would. I longed to be the fielder that I once was. Upon rising, I had stained my Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans.

“Goddamnit!” I said, fingering the stain like a wounded insect.

Did he hit my mother too?….. Or worse?

My father looked stunned and stammered for a bit. He lowered his voice like the way he did when a neighbourhood man came into our garage and asked his permission to borrow a tool. “Christ, Kath. It’s just a stain. It can be washed out. Come on, now.” he said, punching his glove. I then spiked my glove to the ground and sat on the damp grass with my hands on my knees, and looked towards the sky. It looked hazy, a lethargic yellow.

My grandfather slowly lumbered towards me and held up his palm to my father, like in the old photo my grandmother took of him pretending to direct traffic in front of a Model-T; He had been smirking with wavy hair like a Greek God.

I’m going downtown for a while. I pictured him waddling into the bar.

“Aw, Kath, you did just fine. Just fine, gal. Yes, sir.” he said breathlessly. I looked at the slivers of grass on the toes of his shoe.

“See, the way you are throwing now, you don’t need no changeup.” He then whispered, “that will come when it’s ready to. But only if you want it.” This lowered my gaze.

He bent over and picked up my glove with some effort. I stood, and he took out a Zippo lighter which read “Local 1292” from his pocket, concentrating on lighting his cigarette from a pendulum flame.

“Besides, things could be worse.” Smoke emerged from his nostrils like factory pipes. “Your grandmother could be out here taking pictures,” he said. I laughed. He then handed me my glove. “Thanks, Bubba,” I said meekly. “You bet,” he replied.

I noticed a fresh deep scar above his head. The funeral director could not cover it up completely when he died that summer, once softball season was over and the grass turned brown.

Katherine Hoffman is originally from Michigan and is a recipient of a Detroit Free Press writing award. She has lived in Oregon for the past 24 years.

Into the Void

By Ken Malatesta

“Galveston” is in my head. An odd byproduct of summer, COVID19, my father’s death, and sublimating grief into a series of home improvement projects. I don’t remember what “normal” feels like. I don’t imagine most people do.

Is existing ever normal? Normally, during the first four weeks of summer, I drop my sons off at park district day camp. When I pick them up, and they are sweaty and hungry and happy in the way only a twelve, nine and six-year-old can be happy- freed from strictures of school, their days spent crafting shit from paper plates and playing Gaga, foursquare, football and who knows what- I am somehow exhausted. When camp ends, they are completely in my charge. We fish, swim, wander nature parks for six weeks, and sometimes spend entire days doing nothing. Teaching for the past fifteen years has afforded me this luxury and sometimes exasperation. But there was no camp this summer, and the pools were closed, and summer coalesced into a string of indistinguishable days. So much, so a trip to the orthodontist becomes a welcome novelty.

It is August. School should be starting soon, but there are no longer beginnings or ends. June feels far away. Lingering in Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport feels even further. It took me nearly 3 months to read. The narrator’s consciousness is my own- the ennui, the fear, the exhaustion, the absurdity of raising children and existing in the 21st Century. That the narrator lost both her parents years before the events in the novel and still thinks of them daily is a terrifying comfort. The book anchored me to the time before March 13th, 2020, before COVID 19, before the world seemed to be on fire, and before my father died. I hated to finish it. 

Two months after his death, I can still hear my father’s voice, not merely the undramatic last words he spoke to me, but his voice, sentient and alive and as real, if not more real than when he was alive. Maybe Hamlet wasn’t mad. 

Maybe nothing is real except my father’s voice and Glen Campbell’s singing. 

I still hear your sea winds blowin’; I still see her dark eyes glowin’.

So I lingered in Ellman’s book, ground a patio slab to gravel with a sledgehammer, painted my kitchen cabinets, tore out carpet and installed new floors, fished with my sons. Anything to avoid writing this. Anything to keep my mind from returning to my father’s last days.

I’m not sure what is more incomprehensible, that we live or that we die. Or that we live only to die. 

“Maintaining normalcy, at least at home, seemed possible a few months ago.”

There was never anything normal about my children’s orthodontist’s office being on the ninth floor of a corn cob tower in the saddest mall in America. But it is even stranger during a global pandemic. I am not allowed in the waiting room, so my oldest checks in, and I ride the elevator down to wait and wander with my two younger sons, hoping he won’t need braces we can’t afford. We wear our masks. I’d prefer to sit outside on the benches next to the shuttered grocery store, not because of fear of COVID, but to spare myself and my sons the despair of this place. This forsaken retail dream. Its naked mannequins and five-month-old movie posters, the sun has faded. Coming soon! Coming soon!

Golfmill Mall was like this before COVID-19. Sears was its anchor store, for Christ’s sake. Value City furniture remains. JC Penney. Kohls. There is a Target, partitioned from the rest of the mall. Seeking comfort in a big box store is probably a sign of psychosis. Still, this Target seems to belong to some parallel universe we can never reach. 

Pastimes, a comic and game store is fluorescent-lit and welcoming, but an iron accordion gate and the absence of people instruct us it’s closed. In all our visits here, I have never seen it open. My sons agonize at its Funko Pop window displays. Next door, a troupe of old Korean ladies wearing face shields silently sashay at Activ8 Dance Company. We have seen their act before. A bizarre holiday routine the day after Thanksgiving- sans face shields- a year and a half ago. The memory is quaint, a ridiculous touchstone that my sons and I share with a laugh. The dancers are well-meaning, and we are no talent judges. I attribute their presence to the ambiguity of what is deemed “essential” and appreciate them as the only life in this purgatorial gloom.   

I still hear your sea waves crashing,

This is one of the dozens of daily sojourns we have taken this summer. One of the hundreds of summers’ past. I try to imagine what it would feel like if it were only the Coronavirus and my father were alive, and then try to reimagine my father dead without the Coronavirus, but my brain ambles out of focus. Both hypotheticals seem absurd, but the combination is incomprehensible. A reality that seems to atomize and re-solidify in the vacant storefronts, wandering seniors, and Korean dancers. As if I’ve been disembowelled and projected on the walls. Downtown Skokie, where we live, feels this way too. We have biked there once a week this summer, examining the headstones in the cemeteries en route. My middle son is fascinated by the dates. 1887-1945. 1874-1918. We return again and again to an out of way street that divides two cemeteries- Catholic on one side, Lutheran on the other. We idle near the parkways. 1858- 1924. 1887-1945. 1924-1984. He is transfixed. He asks questions about “Papa.” The heat conjures sudden glimpses of what summer was and could be. My father’s ghost, a global pandemic, and civil unrest cast a beautiful pall.

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“We are open,” says the handmade sign outside Paint and Party. Paint -your- own ceramics. It too is well lit, and a woman stands behind a cash register, but it is empty at noon on a summer Tuesday. Save for the doddering senior citizens wearing masks around their chins, most of this place is empty. “We are open.” It is like peering into America’s soul.  

“Win an iPad” (sic) says the sign taped to the side of an arcade claw game.  

Galveston, oh Galveston. I have never been to Galveston. Barely been to Texas.  I have no connection to this song. I actually never knew the words until this summer.

My father hated country music. The Beach Boys too. I don’t know the origins of my predilection. Something to do with summer and swinging a hammer. I spent eleven years as a concrete labourer before teaching English. 

My sons are equally perplexed, “Why do you like country music, dad?” the middle one asks.

“It grows on you, I guess. And I only like the old stuff, and only in summer.” This seems to confuse him more, but he allows it. Stranger things have happened in the past six months. He sings along and saves his follow-up questions for more poignant moments. At the cemeteries. On our umpteenth visit to the hardware store. 

While I watch the cannons splashing…I clean my gun.

 It is an anti-war song. I hadn’t noticed. 

“Why’s this guy singing about cleaning guns?” My middle son again… 

“You know, I never really heard that line till now,” I say. 

I just liked the melody, but I looked it up, and read that songwriter, Jimmy Webb, denied the anti-war part. He said it was “about a guy who’s caught up in something he doesn’t understand and would rather be somewhere else.” Sounds right.

By August, when we enter the liminal realm of the suburban mall, we all have it memorized. We like the melody. We sing as we wander the orange tiled floor, past a vacated Cinnabon, past the Lotto vending, past the shuttered kiosks and the cellular store. 

We sing songs from Apple and Onion (our latest Cartoon Network favourite) too. Aloud. To ghosts, to the brown brick, to anyone we walk past. “Bottle Catch,” and “We know how to make people happy,” and “What’ll we do today, today?” And “Classic Domino Chain Reversal.” No one recognizes these or notices our bad English accents. I like having our own language full of nonsense songs, and “Galveston,” and movie line banter. In a few years, this will embarrass them. Still, for now, this is what we share beyond me yelling at them, fighting over screen time and bedtime, and the tacit anxiety about the future, and what will we do today? 🎜What’ll we do today, today? What’ll we do today?🎜 

Maintaining normalcy, at least at home, seemed possible a few months ago.

“We persist because we don’t know any better and probably will until we do.”

And is she waiting there for me, on the beach where we used to run

We have been to the beach, but we are pool guys without a pool. So we have fished at least once a week since June. The Skokie Lagoons is our spot, but we’ve fished the Busse Woods, Lake Glenview, and Independence Grove. Always in search of elusive Bass. We have mastered catching Blue Gill and Crappy and SunFish, and I worry the novelty -even catching 15 fish between us some days- will wear thin. But we talk about Bass, how we’ll get ’em next time, different baits, what we don’t know about certain lures, and then we talk about the cartoon character Apple. 

“Why is he your favourite, dad?” they ask.

His fatalism. His absurd enthusiasm. Because he is a peculiarly apt symbol of a summer spent deflecting the reality of a crumbling world. I want to say.

“Because he’s funny,” I say.

 I do realize I am talking about an animated character that is a piece of fruit, but his mantra and perpetual hope that he and Onion be “free from suffering” makes him feel like one of us, and in moments like this- wandering the vestige of the American shopping mall-my sons like to ask “What would Apple do?” Because they know I will comply with an ad-lib imitation of Apple’s staccato deadpan and end with a resounding, “…and we will be free from suffering forever!” And we laugh.

These are the momentary antidotes to the malaise of quarantining, wearing masks, worrying about COVID, and grieving my father. 

I should call my mother. But I am terrified of picturing her in my childhood home, alone in the room where my father died. Instead, I wander malls and do the crossword puzzle and study photographs from the Tribune. Everything looks like someplace else. I take refuge in books, cartoons, an occasional 80’s movie because I can’t bear to be in this moment. I preferred thirty years ago or some foggy vision of thirty years from now. Neither is absolute or clear or true. And I wonder will I wander into religiosity or continue to be subsumed into bland meaninglessness. 

I am so afraid of dying…

Maybe it isn’t just the melody. This place should be filled with angsty teens and Sbarro odour, and t-shirt kiosks, and all the weariness of consumer wants. There is barely a food court. If Cinnabon can’t survive, how can I? And is my father speaking to me through the static of my Sports Sync radio? Someone tells me it’s pennies left in parking lots and window sills. Answers to questions I never asked. What fathers keep from their children. 

I don’t even eat Cinnabon. All that heavy sweetness. 

We persist because we don’t know any better and probably will until we do. And the raw resistance, to death, the immateriality of time, the inescapable and the routine will materialize in these bare brick spaces, the maws of empty mall benches, and assiduous old ladies dancing. 

What would Apple do? Sing, of course, happily into the void. What does anyone do?

Ken Malatesta is a teacher and writer. 0riginally from Chicago, he now lives in Skokie, Illinois.

Foraging Asparagus

By Cynthia McVay

I rush back from St. Croix in early April to my home in the Hudson Valley because I can’t miss spring. I look forward to the cheerful daffodils and aromatic hyacinths pushing up near the house, but, really, I return for the soft pussy willow, the dogwood blossoms embracing the field, the apple trees’ smear of pink on the hill, the maple’s red leaf buds against the crisp blue sky, the delicate bright green leaves of the poplars, the haze of Hudson Valley light at dawn breaking over the field. It is also prime time for foraging the fleeting fiddlehead ferns—which have only a week’s window before they unfurl and become toxic—and wild asparagus. I look at my photographs and Instagram postings from the previous year and time my arrival to accommodate all those delicate gifts of hope and bounty and culinary delight that comprise mother earth’s annual reawakening. 

Once I’m home, foraging provides a valid excuse to go for a walk, to be outside, reacquaint with the property, check on things. To take Dexter on a jaunt. There is something immensely satisfying about eating off the land, off my own land. I am fortunate to have several extraordinary meadows and ample woods, which are particularly generous in early spring when the garden still sleeps. Friends plant and tend to productive gardens, reap trunks full of tomatoes in July. My clay soil nor the deer are worth fighting—I have tried—and so I let nature decide what she will give me. And there is something about finding food rather than shopping for or even growing it, making a plate of tender wild greens particularly precious.  

I admit that foraging is a bit of a misnomer for what I do at this point. I know, for the most part, where to find the delectables. I discovered an enormous stand of Ostrich fern years ago, and so I make a beeline to that spot in the woods after hitting the stream for watercress. My secret, inadvertent crops become destinations on my walks. I scour the field and forest floor on my way. Sometimes, I am lucky to stumble across unexpected dividends, which become part of future rounds. 

I have a half dozen places I seek asparagus. However, because they are spread over acres of the field, it is hard to remember exact coordinates. Every year I tell myself that I will map them, but I don’t. The Christmas tree (complete with red bulbs) each asparagus spear becomes when it grows out would serve as a marker if John, who bales my field, didn’t take them down with the grass. So, in a way, I still have to re-find the asparagus each year. The sense of discovery still holds.

I harness and leash Dexter since he can’t be off-lead, what with all the distractions—turkeys and squirrels in the distance—before we head out the door. I put on my tall black Hunter boots to reduce the possibility of being fodder for ticks and poison ivy, but both pose significant risks. In mid-April, the meadow is still low. The spears are visible. I push away the grass and poison ivy with my toe and break the stem off at the ground. Just a month later, the two-foot-high grass obscures the asparagus. By that time, if I find asparagus above grass height, it is gargantuan and—save for the last foot—inedible. By the end of May, the grass is three-foot—Dexter can barely get through—and most of the un-found asparagus has likely gone to seed. 

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A few weeks ago, I waved a handful of asparagus in front of Dexter’s nose and said asparagus! Hoping to train him to sniff them out. And he does, especially when we are close, in an area I know has yields. The problem is, he seems to like asparagus, or at least he likes seeing me riled up. If he gets there before I do, he nips off the top, treasured inch. Noooo, Dexter!  I hold him close and am cautious in our approach.

To be fair, half of my asparagus harvest actually comes from my garden. I transplanted some from the field a decade ago, and it has spread among my perennials. But even in the garden, discovery is involved. The delicate helmeted head doesn’t come up exactly where I look, that is, where it was before or where I planted it. From the same underground root system, or perhaps the result of a previous year’s blowing red seed, it pushes up behind, through, under other plantings a foot away. While I visit the field daily, I check the garden twice on a sunny May day; it can grow six inches in a single afternoon. I keep an eye on coy Dexter to make sure he stays away from that part of the garden. And I rarely plan even weekend getaways during this time. A long weekend can mean the asparagus will grow out and go to seed, the season is over, curtailed.

I place whatever I’ve harvested in a glass with a half-inch of water until I am ready to cook them, generally when there’s a critical mass. The asparagus continues to grow, sometimes another foot if I wait a day or two. It’s comical and a little creepy, actually. These are not twenty stems of equal length and girth in a purple rubber band. Each spear has a character all its own, bulbous or slender, curled, crooked or bowed. 

I grill, roast, saute or boil them. I have had to become inventive in their preparation, as for weeks, they are a diet staple. I throw them into a risotto with ramps and fiddleheads or savour them alone. My latest favourite dish is asparagus roasted in olive oil and sea salt, then cut into bite-size pieces, tossed in their cooked oil, French feta and juice of half a lemon. Magic.

When people set out to forage, they are usually after the big five, like on a safari: fiddleheads, morels, truffles, chantarelle, ramps. Many other abundant and invasive edibles with high nutritional values interest people less, such as nettles, watercress, garlic mustard, lamb’s quarters, sorrel, elderberry, milkweed, and walnuts. And people love to eat flowers in salads or waters or teas. I have a hard time sacrificing peonies, pansies, lilac and roses. Asparagus is not generally on the list, it seems. Perhaps because it is uncommon, or not really wild, but feral, having escaped domestication. Sometimes I wonder if someone a century ago grew asparagus here in the upper field. I heard that there used to be an asparagus farm in the Hudson Valley that was chopped into a housing development. Asparagus pushes up in their lawns between above-ground pools and trampolines. I ponder how many of those homeowners recognize— or are oblivious to—their good fortune.

Foraging has become a bit of a rage, almost a competitive sport, in part driven by the foodie movement and reconnection to nature. I sometimes wonder where people are foraging. Public parks? Private property? A friend-chef texted the other day asking if she could come to forage my property. I think she was after morels, which I haven’t seen much in the past few years. I didn’t want to sound or be stingy, but I’m keeping it for personal consumption if I find a cherished morel. She had been out foraging with someone else who found forty pounds of morels. Forty pounds sounds almost wrong, an assault. I found only three morels this year. I soaked them overnight in salt water to extract the bugs, drenched them in flour and sauteed them in bacon grease, black pepper and garlic. I served them with a clean palette of boiled asparagus and savoured every morsel. Spring.

Cynthia McVay divides her time between St. Croix and an old orchard in the Hudson Valley, where she writes, forages and makes art. Cynthia’s work has been published in Orion, University of Pennsylvania Gazette, Chestnut Review, DASH, The Ravens Perch, 2019 Orison Anthology, Ragazine, daCunha’s Anthology 2, and Eclectica. Her work was the winner, the 2018 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction; performed in the UK as Editors’ Choice winner, daCunha’s 2017 Flash Nonfiction Competition. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and at www.cynthiamcvay.com.

Your Mother and her Technicolor Idioms

By Connie Millard

“I caught him red-handed, that bastard,” your mother wails during her nightly call to your grandmother. 

In your room, you sprawl on a mattress on the floor and remember the night she confronts your father about his affair, her small frame wobbling from alcohol and momentary triumph as she waves the damning picture so close to his face, it slaps him across the cheek. 

She rails into the receiver that life is unfair, that a tramp with crooked teeth stole him, that she is stupid for marrying him so young.  Well, now she’s stuck with you, and who’s going to want her now.  She drones on like a half-dead bee trapped in a house, lumbering and erratic, but her stinger still sharp.

You slip on your headphones and jack up the volume.  The pulsing bass matches the thumping of you heart as you work to ignore the familiar tang of stomach acid in your throat, bitter and meaty, filling you up like the dinner you miss that night.

“No way.  You’re like apples and oranges,” she claims the time you ask to move with your brother to your father’s house.   

“We are the girls; they are the boys.  He belongs with him.  You belong with me,” her arm chops the air, severing you from them in desperate authority.

“Remember, it’s you and me against the world.  It’s our anthem,” she pleads, fixing you with a wild stare, her watery blue eyes partially hidden by her hair, once a stylish auburn crop, now shaggy and gray.  She and grips your hands in an unescapable vice as she sings the Helen Reddy hit, her slurred voice cracking,

“When all the others turned their backs and walked away,
You can count on me to stay.”

You do stay.  Because you have never been without your mother before, not once in your twelve years.  

“You yellow-bellied brat.  Get out here and talk to your grandmother,” she shrieks, shards of her wrath hitting you like shrapnel.

Your bedroom door explodes, and you throw the covers over your head, burrowing under the blanket to hide from the monster, praying that if you squeeze your eyes shut and chant, she’ll disappear. Like an exorcism. Go away.  Go away. Go away.

“You ungrateful slob. I said, get over here.”

You say you are tired. You say you have a stomach ache. You say you will talk to Grandma tomorrow.  

Please, Mommy.

But she is strong with vodka and rage and rips the blanket off like a band-aid of an unhealed wound, leaving you raw and exposed.  She grabs a fistful of your shirt and yanks you from the bed, where you hit the floor with a thud.  She drags you along to the kitchen and reach the phone to croak, Hi Grandma.

“Oh, so you think the grass is greener on the side, Missy?” she says when you explain that you called you father while she was in the bathroom.  You cannot look at her face.

You are leaving, you say.  He is coming for you

But, you are afraid.  Afraid of your father, who does not speak to you in the affair aftermath.  Who does not contact you when you move hours away to your aunt’s house to make a new life, only to be evicted six months later thanks to your mother’s drinking.  Who does not leave an address, so when you return, you wander the streets for days, an inept but dedicated stalker, until you finally spot him, and he gives you a hug and his phone number.

“I begged him to stay, begged him until I was blue in the face.”  She sobs and squeezes your arm so hard you know it will leave an angry bruise, a black and blue imprint on your skin and on your heart.

“Fine. Go.  I don’t need you.”

But she blocks the stairs and, when you slip under her, throws her short, plump body against the door.  You use your bags to pry her away, and she latches onto your sleeve and tugs, sucking you back in, to stay, to imprison. Fueled by adrenaline, you wrench the door open.  The gush of air shocks you both. And now she kicks and shoves you outside, out of her life.  Into the rain.  Into the dark.  Into the waiting headlights.  And you rejoice because you are free, and you are no shrinking violet.

Connie Millard is a full-time working mom of three who once made it to the final callbacks for the reality television show, Worst Cooks in America.  After much practice and perseverance, she now spends her time writing stories in between stirring risotto.  Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Potato Soup, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Black Ink Fiction Drabble Anthology, among others.