If you, O Lord, kept a record of Sins, O Lord, who could stand?But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.
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 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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(Story continued below)
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.
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 theoppressive powers of a poor country imposed it orthethoughtful 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 supposeyou 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 writercomes 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 Bind. Well, 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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(Story continued below)
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 Bind. But 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 todisappoint 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 Molaviwas 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 recipientof 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.
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 mothersneered 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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(Story continued below)
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.
Daddy had on his red swim trunks with fish that squirmed when he walked. Stains rimmed the armholes of his wife-beater undershirt. The worst name ever. He pocketed his car keys and grabbed the deck of playing cards with pictures of naked women.
I pinched his arm hair. “Can I go with you, please? I won’t make a peep. Promise!”
“Not this time, honey. Besides, Mom is on her way home.”
He could’ve at least pretended to have a job—to pack a lunch pail and head out in regular clothes. Every time he left, I had this fear, he might not come back. He was in such a damn hurry he forgot to kiss me goodbye.
His shadow wobbled inside the truck cab as he backed out the driveway. I pressed my nose to the smeary front window and flipped him the bird. He slowed at the curb to wave, but my nine-year-old fists were frozen to the glass.
The truck evaporated, and I wondered when mom would really be home. First, she had to stop and scoop up my little brother from a lady with a house full of other people’s kids.
I slid off the couch and attacked Daddy’s argyles with scissors, making a spiffy skirt for my doll Carol Sue. Then I scampered off to the bathroom, squinting at the peach fuzz between my eyebrows. Mom said I was too young to pluck. Maybe a razor would work? But I worried about stubble.
In the kitchen, I stretched the curly cord on our Bakelite phone. It had a pullout drawer with a thin pad inside. The number of Mom’s work was written in red pencil. I’d only called a couple of times because the manager always sounded like he wanted to smack someone.
I traced a hole on the dial with my finger, wondering if my friend Bonnie could come over and practice smoking. We’d never truly be grown up until we could inhale without coughing. And I wanted to teach her the right way to hold a cigarette. Not between her two middle fingers.
Our wall clock said six-fifteen. She’d be combed and spruced at her dining room table with cloth napkins her mother had ironed while wearing red bareback pumps. Her father would be passing a bowl of fluffy potatoes made from a box and a platter of pork chops with crispy fat.
Sometimes it was hard being Bonnie’s friend.
Roger would ditch dinner to come over; he loved me that much. I picked up the phone and started to dial his number, then slammed it down because there was this birdbrained rule against girls calling boys. Instead, I called the cocktail lounge around the corner. “Is my daddy there?”
The guy who answered said, “What’s his name?”
“Hang on, kid.”
I heard him holler, “Anyone in here named John?”
“Sorry, kid,” he said when he came back. “He’s not here.”
“Are you sure there isn’t a John?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“Then what do you people do? Pee on the floor?” He laughed before hanging up, but it didn’t make me feel better.
I slid a stick of Beech-Nut into the phone drawer for later, snatched a steak knife off the kitchen counter, and wound it in a paper napkin.
The sun gave up the day beyond the window and backyard fence. It blew me a fiery kiss, and I blew one back, heading to the tree in the front yard. It grew from a square of dry weeds between the sidewalk and gutter.
Since our nosy neighbours were probably watching, I made a big show of hiking up my skirt before hoisting myself onto the lowest limb. From there, it was an easy climb to the branch that was all mine—the one near the top under the streetlight. Not that I was afraid of the dark. I liked places where no one could see me.
My legs dangled, ankles hooked, as I uncurled a thick strip of bark. The flesh underneath glistened and smelled slightly sweet, as if Green Apple Kool-Aid gushed through its veins.
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I felt light-headed from going all day on a single peanut butter-and-graham-cracker sandwich. The leftover goop that stuck to the roof of my mouth was long gone. I carved a lazy S, pressing down hard, watching the tree bleed. I didn’t care that I was scarring it because there was love in what I was doing.
“Sherry and Roger sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g . . .” I hacked a crooked W for my last name. “First comes love, then comes marriage . . . ” I wiped the blade on my skirt, then dug in to carve Roger’s R.
I heard our Rambler before it floated below me into the driveway. Mom got out and walked to the passenger’s side, her kitten heels clicking. She moved slowly like she didn’t want to get to where she was going.
Once inside the house, the lights flicked on. She’d put my brother to bed, probably still in his play clothes, without brushing his teeth. I’d never get away with that.
Would she come outside to look for me? Maybe if I faked a cough, she’d smear an old t-shirt with Vicks VapoRub, wave it over a flame on the stove, and smooth it on my chest.
The porch light twitched. “Sherry, are you out here?” Mom moved into the amber light, shading her eyes, a skinny shadow of herself. “Are you up in that tree?”
“Coming!” She hadn’t forgotten about me after all.
“Oh, honey. You shouldn’t be up there in the dark. Where’s your father?”
“Um, at the Piggly Wiggly?” No way I’d rat him out. He got in enough trouble on his own.
Mom took my hand as soon as I hit the ground, and I knew all I needed was her warmth. “Have you had dinner?”
I took off my headband because the metal teeth were scalping me. “Not yet.”
“How about a fried Spam sandwich? I’ll let you open the can.”
I loved the tiny key that hooked over the thin sliver of metal. I loved twisting it and hearing the sucking noise of salty jelly just pink enough to let everyone know a pig had been pulverized before being squeezed into a tin. And I loved my mom because she never forgot I loved those things.
The next morning I threw back the covers and slid from the bed, hoping to catch her in the bathroom before work, drawing on cat eyes with a liquid pencil. She’d paint her naturally plump lips with Pink Minx lipstick in a hairspray fog. I doubted Daddy appreciated his wife’s movie star qualities.
“Mom?” No answer. “Mom!”
The house was quiet. Nothing left but her smells. I stood in the bathroom
where they were strongest, inhaling sprays, sticks, and creams, wondering if my parents even liked each other.
I’d seen the employee’s lounge at her work—a square room behind the office where the mean manager hung out when he wasn’t bossing people around. The room had a mini-refrigerator, a portable hot plate, and a square table to eat on. If I squinted hard enough at the cot, the manager’s idea of getting off your feet, I could picture Mom’s overnight valise and fuzzy slippers between its wooden legs.
I climbed on the kitchen counter for a box of Cocoa Puffs, figuring Daddy spent the night somewhere else. Then I saw him in the backyard through the window. He was dead asleep in the hammock in a weird position, looking like a rubber toy.
Some kids learned to tiptoe on days when their dad worked graveyards. I learned to do the same after one of Daddy’s all-nighters. I eased the sliding glass door over its gritty runners, stepped out and dropped to my hands and knees, then crawled toward the hammock.
There was no reason to sneak. Daddy probably wouldn’t wake up if I turned the garden hose on him. He never looked like this, not even on his worst hangover days. Pale and grinning too hard, matching that awful snapshot in my dreams.
I got that upside-down fizzy feeling in my stomach and inched closer when I saw a spider on his shoulder. I figured a spider could kill a man who cheats when playing checkers with a fourth-grader.
“Daddy, wake up! There’s a spider!”
He jolted from his stupor. “You trying to give me a heart attack!”
“S-s-pider . . . . your shoulder!”
Daddy jerked, and the hammock swung, nearly dumping him on his empty beer cans. He seized the culprit, squished it gutless with his fingers, and displayed what was left on the tip of his thumb.
“Damn black widows. Females are the worst. That’s why you have to clap your shoes together before putting them on. Always remember that, okay, honey?”
“Okay, Daddy.” He pulled me in, and I pressed my cheek to his t-shirt because stinky dried sweat was better than nothing. “You saved my sorry ass, honey.”
That life-saving deed did something to me; it made me feel it was my job to look after him. Maybe because we didn’t have a dog or cat that would scratch my eyes out or one of those goldfish from the school fair that you get when your Ping-Pong ball lands in a glass bowl. Or maybe because no one else cared enough about him.
That night I felt like such a baby cradling Carol Sue when just the day before Roger and I had been practicing kissing on top of my bedspread. She shook in my arms when wordless voices bled through the wallpaper. First rat-a-tat anger, then a dull sob. “Can’t take it anymore . . . ”
I stroked Carol Sue’s stiff hair and told her the lie that everything would be okay.
Mom pleading. “Just sign the papers.”
I slipped from the bed and pulled a sheet of paper from my notebook. Using my ruler, I drew a straight line down the middle. A stick figure of Daddy on one side and Mom on the other. I set the paper on my dresser, folded it in half, and creased it until my thumb hurt. Then I folded it the other way and did the same.
Daddy’s voice. “I’ll get a job.”
“Really? Who’ll hire you?”
I tore the paper carefully, starting at the top, working to give my parents equal halves because I wanted to be fair. The teensiest scrap fluttered away on its own. I figured that lost piece was me.
I grabbed a bobby pin off my dresser and stuck it in Carol Sue’s skull. Dumb doll.
Sherry Shahan’s personal essays have appeared in F(r)iction, Critical Read, Exposition Review, Normal School and are forthcoming from Fiddlehead, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA for 10 years.
When he was 70, about the age I am now, my father taught me how to harness the power of breath. He had been an athlete in his youth, a welterweight boxer. That must be when he came to know, although I think he’d forgotten it for many years.
I was floating in the pool at his Florida retirement complex, keeping myself from sinking with lots of kicks and strokes.
“You don’t need to work so hard,” he called from his poolside chaise. “Use your breath. Watch what happens when you inhale.”
I inhaled deeply, and my body began to rise to the surface of the water.
“Now exhale,” he called, and that made me sink so that I had to splash to rise back up.
“Inhale,” he prompted, and I rose again. It was all in the rhythm. Sink a little. Rise a little. Rise a little more. Playing with the timing, I was in control.
I learned to love floating that day, the ebb and flow of water rocking me while my mindful breathing played its counterpoint, holding me from inside. Facing the sky, I watched the glide of a long-limbed bird in shadow, then tilted my head poolside. My father nodded and held my eyes for a moment before turning back to his newspaper.
Now, whenever I remember to take a deep breath, especially during my yoga practice, my father comes to mind. This is strange because he wasn’t always one to bring on calmness and peace; quite the opposite. He was given to violent rages when I was a child.
Things had changed between us, changed for the better, ten years earlier. It was on Thanksgiving. That was when he and I began to clear our way. But before that could happen, the English boy had to bring me the message.
My older sister and her family arrived around four, bringing her spirit of liveliness and jocularity.
I was leaving my Wednesday afternoon Foundations seminar at Columbia on the day before Thanksgiving. More than half of the students had been absent. That’s how I found myself walking out with a boy I didn’t know very well. I call him a boy even though he was an older student, like me. Something about his effect made me think of him as younger than he probably was. He had some sort of posh British accent, which made whatever he uttered in class sound intelligent, whether it was or not.
We walked across campus towards the gates on Broadway, and I asked him what he was planning for the next day. He shook his head, “Nothing. Home is too far away for a long weekend, and besides, it isn’t really my holiday.”
I laughed. “I know that.”
I might have invited him to come with me to my parents’ house in New Jersey if I had known him better and had different parents. Mine wouldn’t have welcomed a stranger, holiday or not, particularly not a male stranger. My own home had never been warm or welcoming to outsiders. My mother didn’t like surprises, and she’d had enough surprises in the last year. She and my father had been making quite an effort to adjust to my new divorced status and move to Manhattan.
“Besides,” he burst out, “I hate going home!”
I looked at him questioningly.
“They tell me that what I remember from my childhood never happened, and it makes me feel like I’m crazy!” His voice shook with suppressed sobs.
I kept a respectful silence, thinking, so it’s the same in England. That shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was just then reaching out to a larger worldview, and I was only beginning.
I didn’t ask him what happened. It was a short walk to the gates; we were going in different directions, and I still needed to pack and catch a late Port Authority bus home.
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That Thanksgiving, the first since my divorce, was going to be awkward. My divorce perplexed my parents, almost as much as my move to New York and dedication to studying literature. They were practical people. The only graduate work they understood was vocational—medicine or law—and that was for men. Girls married; they didn’t become. And in their eyes, I had married well—a medical student. Unlike my father, whose long hours and night shifts tending bar had been the only way he knew how to provide for his family, my husband’s intense dedication to his studies promised delayed gratification in status and money. How do I explain, even now, decades later, why I needed to get out? I remember nights when I’d leave the rowhouse I lived in with my husband, climb into my car and drive onto the empty New Jersey highway, shove the gas pedal to the floor, and scream at the top of my lungs. Nothing catastrophic happened; I guess I was lucky. After a while, I’d slow down and head back home. The door to my husband’s study would still be closed, his desk light seeping onto the hallway carpet from underneath. I doubt he’d noticed I’d been gone.
My mother was in her element early Thanksgiving morning, all burners lit plus the oven, cooking, stuffing, baking, filling their little ranch house with all sorts of wonderful smells. I followed her orders and fell back on years of routinized holiday procedures. In the den off the kitchen, my father faded into the background. Not quite sixty, he had retired the year before and gone on disability, the result of a bad fall that had shattered his heel. I had never seen him so relaxed. Occasionally I heard the rustle of his newspaper and his murmurs as he read aloud to himself or his snores as he napped.
My older sister and her family arrived around four, bringing her spirit of liveliness and jocularity. We immediately took our places at the table, my father at the head, my brother-in-law at the foot, my niece and nephew on one side, my mother, sister and I on the side closest to the kitchen. My sister and I carried in course after course, giving my tired mother a chance to rest. The family ate in silence, knives and forks scraping on my mother’s good china. Some music would be nice, I thought but knew better than to say. That would be getting above myself.
“What happened out there?” she whispered.
We ate fast. We always did, vectoring towards dessert. My sister brought in the apple crumb and I carried the pumpkin. The two of us sat back down, all set to dig in. My father looked around the table and barked, “Fran! Tea!” My mother quickly pushed herself away from the table and began to rise.
I put my hand on her arm to stop her. “I’ll get it Dad,” I said, “Mom’s tired. She’s been on her feet all day.”
He frowned and nodded, his eyes on his plate. My mother sank back, and I went into the kitchen. My sister followed me and stood beside me at the sink where I was filling the kettle.
“I thought Daddy was going to smack you,” she whispered. I looked sideways at her. She had a half smile—part confident, part rival.
“What do you mean?”
“When you talked back to him.”
Surprised, I responded without thinking. “He’s never going to raise a hand to me again!”
After a slight pause she responded “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Even now, I think of the different ways I might have reacted. I might have snapped back with “Talk back to him—what are we, eight years old?” Or challenged her by asking “Why would you think that?” But we were locked in the distant past, where sudden rages were commonplace and instant denials a given.
An image of myself as a little girl flashed through my mind. No older than four, I had run into the bathroom, the only room with a lock on the door, to hide from my father and his strap. But that bathroom lock was built for privacy not safety. He broke through with a few good slams and dragged me out from my hiding place where I had crammed myself between the toilet and the bathtub.
To this day, I don’t know why my mother used to wait until after a beating began to scream, “Stop Ben! You’ll kill her!” Why not before? Maybe shock. Maybe to save herself. Maybe to close the windows first so the neighbors couldn’t hear. How confusing it was for me to be forsaken by the same cuddling woman, my mother, who read me to sleep every night of my young life. Little Women. Little Men. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. As for my sister, three years my elder, I don’t know where she was, hiding probably. Anyway, she was too small to help back then.
Now herself the grown mother of two, my sister methodically stacked plates in our mother’s sink. Some bad memory of her own had forced its way to the surface of her mind long enough to be spoken and whisked back into hiding. Nothing. It was nothing. Now you see it, now you don’t. What lingered was her denial. She still had that half smile pasted on her face. All’s well; now and always. A year or two earlier, before I’d left home, I’d have tried to connect through our eyes, but I no longer had the desire to bond. As I watched her toggle between truth and lie (only one could exist at a time)—I wondered how my sister could keep her skull from exploding, but of course she’d had a lifetime of practice. We both had.
I thought of the English boy back in New York. “It makes me feel crazy,” he had said. It—the thing that must not be acknowledged, that was denied in plain sight. What collective will exists in some families—my family— to be able to conjure and maintain a lie over the years. I’d admire their strength if they hadn’t been so destructive.
I set the kettle on the stove without turning on the flame and walked through the dining room towards the front door. I had to get out of there. No more seeking validation from the women in the kitchen. Was that my original thought or something I’d read in one of my literature courses? I still don’t know.
In families like mine, you learned to feel danger before it happens. We three women could pick up an atmospheric shift at ten paces. My mother had not left her seat near the kitchen, and yet she was alarmed. “Where are you going?” she called urgently as I sped past her.
“For a walk,” I said, jamming on my coat. “I need some air!”
“You can’t go out now! It’s dark! Ben—go with her!”
My father rose obediently from his chair. He moved slowly, contentedly, his appetite sated, his family around him. With his limp, a faulty heart and emphysema, he was no longer a physical threat to anyone. The only scary aspects that remained were his bass growl and resting scowl face.
I didn’t want to walk with him, and yet I waited, still submissive under the influence of family. And silent, even though I was thinking that the street outside was perfectly safe. Margate New Jersey, a nice ocean town, safe night and day. It had been inside our house that wasn’t safe.
My father put his arm around my shoulders as we walked. It felt like an unbearable weight. I was still fuming from my sister’s denial and resisted the impulse to shrug off my father’s arm. “It makes me feel crazy,” the English boy had said. My breath caught in my throat, and my mind was racing. This was a moment to speak; they don’t come often. But what if he can’t take it? His heart?
“Dad,” I said tentatively.
Sweetheart? When had he ever called me Sweetheart? I took a breath and searched for the right words. “No one here will admit what it was like when I was a kid.”
“What do you mean?” he responded, still in the throes of contentment. I was sure his tone would change any second.
“I mean no one admits how hard things were.” I couldn’t get the words right. “How angry with me you always were.” I was sidestepping the physical violence, but it was the best I could do, better than I expected. He didn’t take his arm away from me. Our pace didn’t change. I was still afraid he’d drop dead, that his weak heart wouldn’t withstand my words. We walked a little way in silence.
“It was my fault,” he finally said. “I had a rotten temper.”
Rotten was a word from his fighting days. Who used such a word anymore unless you were describing spoiled food? Me. I did.
“I thought I was a rotten kid,” I found myself saying.
“No. No. You were a great kid!”
“I wasn’t great. I wasn’t terrible. I was just a kid.”
“You were great. It was me. I had a rotten temper,” he repeated. He never took his arm away from my shoulders, although I kept expecting it. He didn’t drop to the ground either, the way I’d feared.
Slowly, I became aware of our surroundings, the crisp, cool November air, the darkening bay water at the end of the block. With his admission, he had come through for me, had shown up, steady and clear. It would never excuse his violence against me when I was small, but I felt freed to make my own sense of that childhood trauma. To hold it up to a clear light and untangle my memories from family myth.
We continued our walk around the block in companionable silence. I kept my eyes straight ahead. There was no need to look at him. I felt him by my side, and I knew that it felt good to him too after all those years of isolation while we women protected him from himself. When we got back to the house, he walked directly to his recliner, picked up his newspaper and scissors from the end table, and started cutting out supermarket coupons for the weekend.
My mother was waiting for me by the kitchen door and motioned for me to follow her into her bedroom. She didn’t bother with the light. “What happened out there?” she whispered.
“Dad and I talked about the past.”
She searched my face for a moment and then shrugged. “You should have asked me. I would have told you.”
“I know,” I soothed. “I know.”
Barbara Janoffrecently retired as an associate professor in the department of English and Communication Studies at FIT/SUNY, where she taught literature and creative writing. Her essays and poetry are published in journals and magazines, such as Columbia: A Women’s Journal, Communication Arts, and The Berkshire Review. The Widow’s Log reflects on end-of-life caretaking and survivor’s healing. She lives and writes in upstate New York.
My beloved, crazy, generous, funny, bawdy, loopy, glamorous, tragic Aunt Ruth died and was buried at a Vancouver cemetery in a downpour. Most of the gathered mourners huddled beneath a canopy erected for the graveside service. I was among the two-dozen or so who didn’t fit under the shelter and stood nearby clutching our umbrellas, a patch of black mushrooms. To the sound of the drops popping on the stretched fabric of my little protective dome, I craned my neck to take in the rite—the solemnity, the mumbled words, the rain-bright colours, and most of all Ruth’s body, once so vibrant, now lifeless, inert, boxed up for eternity.
The memory from many decades ago, my twenties, welled up recently while I was in a department store shopping for a new umbrella. The one that caught my eye throbbed with a tie-dye pattern of swirling rainbow colours—a wink of whimsy to bring a little cheer to our soggy struggle with Oregon’s ceaseless rains and oppressive monochrome skies.
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Umbrella in hand, I took my place in the long line of customers waiting to check out. My mind began to wander . . . what if I’d had this umbrella at Aunt Ruth’s funeral? The rebellious young man I was would have delighted in popping it open, delivering a technicolour manifesto of my individuality, freedom, and style, loudly advertising my unwillingness to conform to colourless convention.
How anxious and uncertain I was about my identity in those days so long ago. How desperately I tried to carve myself a face.
The line moved, and I shuffled forward one place closer to the cashier.
Today when I look in the mirror, I see my face and its many familiar flaws, but I also see the faces of a hundred others too—family, friends, colleagues. We stand together, temporary survivors, protected from the rain under our flimsy nylon domes. We play out for one another our parts in the rituals we’ve created to salve the pains of our inevitable loss. We remember, we mourn; we howl with grief for the one whose number has been called.
And we’re damn grateful we have not yet moved to the front of that inescapable line.
Ross West has placed fiction, essays, journalism, and poetry in publications from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. His work has been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest, Best of Dark Horse Presents and elsewhere. He served as senior managing editor of Oregon Quarterly magazine and as a text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.
“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 Malatestais a teacher and writer. 0riginally from Chicago, he now lives in Skokie, Illinois.
I wanted to be in a cave that night, so I slept in the basement. I wanted the simplicity of sleeping alone as if the absence of her warm body beside me could liberate me from the troubles in my heart. We had a fight, a big one. And for once, I was right. She was wrong. Clearly wrong. For the last several months, since completing our colossal house remodel, I have been swimming upstream, trying to make right some of the wrongs I brought into our relationship in the wake of a terribly stressful home renovation.
In our new house, there are 52 windows — 53 if you include the kitchen skylight. Even the basement bedroom has three big windows. When I woke that morning at 5:23 am, the light through the windows had turned the previous night’s cave into something hopeful and joyful; it didn’t match my mood. I had been right the night before. This morning I was steeped in vitriolic righteousness, and I didn’t want hope and joy to crush my position.
From the windows in our living room, the Cascade Mountains and Lake Washington are visible. In the very early morning light, the crew teams glide by, mist whispering beneath their shells, the faint shouts of the coxswain bouncing off the lake until they reach our house. It’s so much sensory beauty, too much whimsy for my mood that morning. To let that in would be to soften my heart.
From our windows is the Republic of Trees. The loudest are the conifers- Douglas Firs, Western Hemlocks, Alaskan Cedars — waving their long arms in the morning breeze coming off the lake. They stand at attention, waving, but never wavering, no question that they rule the sky — the tallest, darkest, strongest, most deeply rooted. The Cherry Blossoms that line the lake are pretty and pink. They shout at me, “cheer up, cheer up,” and then drop confetti everywhere.
Hugging our house, and visible from all of our windows lives a carousel of colour — screaming red rhododendron, pink flushed dogwoods, purple and white hydrangeas, fuchsia azaleas, the persistent lilacs everywhere, purple blooms hanging, casually off-gassing their perfume.
“By the end of nine months, the house was beautiful, and we were crumbling.”
The pungency of newly bloomed lilacs relentlessly attacks my senses. I am not in the mood. The honeyed aroma takes me to summer — sitting in the sun, eating outside, diving off the pier. It’s making me grateful, eager, expecting.
On the lake, the coots and the ducks and the geese are celebrating. The coots are captivating as they buzz in and out of formation like Pac-Man characters while the ducks stay close in, lazy, relaxed. The geese loiter at the moorage down the street from my house, leaving green poop all over the shore and holding up traffic as they cross the busy street to hang out on the grassy hill below those houses with the coveted views.
The cormorants dot every buoy along the lake, standing at the ready, alerting the smaller water birds to the goings-on around the lake. It makes me think about the great blue heron I saw while I was jogging last summer. It was just us. He was quiet, pensive, sure, and so beautiful. Long legs, neck cautiously extended delicate beak, a statue in his perfect stillness. Me, panting, excited, sweating. I don’t feel like remembering that indelible moment. It’s too beautiful, and I don’t want that right now. I wanted to be mad at her that night. Nancy is generous, loving, funny, ethical, smart, and sexy. When I fell for her, when we fell for each other, we knew. This was it. Too often, it all seems too good to be true. When she fucks up, it’s unusual, and I wanted to relish in my victory that night, spend as much time as I could swimming in this sensation of being right in the face of her rare wrong.
We built our beautiful house together. When we bought it, it was ugly; the neighbours told us it was the ugliest house on the block. They said the woman who lived here was the meanest woman they’d ever met. There were rats in the ceiling, 50-year-old shag carpet on the floors, walls in places that seemed to be built to block instead of enhancing the lake and mountain views.
It took nine months to get our house ready. We gave it a new roof, new plumbing, new heating, new paint all over the inside and the outside. We tore down walls, replaced 50 original windows, and added three additional ones. We kept the refrigerator, the washer and the dryer, and one toilet. Nothing else from inside the old house survived.
Every day there were decisions. Where should the bedroom door go? How do you light a room with 18-foot fir-floor ceilings? Is it worth $11,000 to put in wood windows? Should we make the stairway windows opaque or frosted? Where does the bathtub faucet go? Can you really tell the difference between charcoal gray and black stain? How many inches between the vanity and the window? Is that light in the closet really necessary?
By the end of nine months, the house was beautiful, and we were crumbling. It was as if the lumber, wire, insulation, pipes, sheetrock needed for the construction of our beautiful house had been pulled directly from the framework that was our relationship. We were both skeletons with nothing left to give, like the tree at the end of The Giving Tree; we’d given it all away.
Help us keep the lights on
Nancy, prone to generosity, great love, hard work, and caretaking, poured the little she had left into my shell, trying and trying to create a path back to where we had been. I, disposed to isolating, shutting down, escaping, couldn’t produce a landing pad for her love. It was too much, all of the love she had when I felt like I had nothing to return. Feeling naked, starving, I turned away.
It’s too obvious now. Embarrassing. In my crumbling, weakened state, I sought nourishment somewhere else, from someone else, an acquaintance who superficially fed my ego, quenched my thirst, allowed me to escape into more shallow emotional waters.
I thought it was harmless and temporary — some emails, a handful of texts, a few coffees. And it was nothing until it became too much for me, for us. Like a crack in the plaster that is barely noticeable when it starts, my turning away from Nancy exposed us to a much bigger crash. The light poured in and our relationship, and what we had become, came into view. We could finally see ourselves, exposed as rubble after an earthquake. In nine months of caring for our beautiful house, we had neglected the life within it.
The wreckage — chunks of walls and pieces of doors and pipes and metal roofing and glass from 53 windows and radiant floor pipe parts and splinters from the deck railings — crashed down around us. The house was built, but we were demolished, barely hanging on. The light was everywhere, and we could see everything. Every crack. Every stain. Every flaw. Our neglect of ourselves, of each other, shone brightly, and we could no longer hide inside of the structure we had painstakingly created.
And so, living in our finished house, we began again to rebuild. To look outside was to see the marvels of nature — — the lake, the trees, the birds, the flowers, the sky and clouds, and mountains. And inside too was so much beauty; all of our hard work — the perfectly chosen light fixtures, the precisely measured built-in bookshelves, the special 18-foot wall that magically held the letters of the alphabet constructed from carefully collected sticks and twigs. Our blood, bones, love. But deeper in the house, we were like war victims, sweeping crushed pieces of exploded brick off of our wounded bodies, wiping dust out of our eyes, dabbing moist cloths on our cuts and scrapes. We were alive but damaged, in need of love, caretaking, tenderness.
“It’s summer now, and we are coming to the time when the light will be at its very brightest for the one day of the Summer Solstice.”
We started again — rewound, retraced our path to try to find where we had made missteps and we began to repair. Night after night we slept in our room with six windows, the lake air cooling us as we tossed and turned, trying to find our way back to each other. In the mornings, the sun shone earlier every day, waking us to the reminder that we had work to do.
All of it was new — our house, our words, the way we looked at each other and comforted each other, and trusted each other. Success came in many different ways — mad, hot afternoon sex like the days of brand new lust, crushingly honest conversations that left us both feeling like repair was impossible, moments of contentment watching the cormorants on the buoys, simple agreement on what to have for dinner, me sleeping in the basement for the first time. And slowly, we started to be able to live in the house again, to inhabit it in all of its beauty.
The house is done. It’s summer now, and we are coming to the time when the light will be at its very brightest for the one day of the Summer Solstice. The windows can be open now every day, and the lake air that flows in brings new life into our beautiful house. You can feel it. The light, the breeze, all of the sounds and smells that come with remind us. We live here. We built this house with our love.
C.L. Baptiste’s short stories have appeared in Aphelion, Mithila Review, and Lamplit Underground under various pseudonyms. She resides in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and is currently working on her first novel.
My original vision for Garden Summer was pumpkins and zinnia and fuck everything else. That vision is still within reach, despite the drip irrigation system being francamente fallado, a term my wife and I heard on our honeymoon during the introduction to a screening of Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing, at an art-house in Toledo, Spain. Actually, I misheard it as francamente flujado, which is the term we have adapted over the ensuing 29 years to describe frankly flawed things.
Fact-checking myself right now, it appears that flujado actually means not flawed but fluent. The film scholar introducing Bunny Lake probably intended to describe the movie not as flawed but rather as fallado, an utter failure. Nevertheless, my wife and I bathed side-by-side in lights of lush black and white from the early 1960s, when we were little babies. It was, as we like to say, mo-rantic.
Our love continueth; however, the simple but elegant irrigation system is defunct. This is problematic because another flaw in my gardening technique is that my wife and I leave town for weeks at a time during the summer. I keep hoping to set up a self-sustaining garden that will thrive as I hope the world will, after I die, despite all evidence that thrive is not the word you would use to describe what’s coming. At the start of this summer, the house-sitter insinuated to my wife that my hopes are unrealistic. She said, “Why does Mark keep planting things that he’s not going to be around to take care of?”
If I had been there to defend my francamente fallado strategy of gardening in absentia, I would have said, “The entire point is, you want stuff to grow when you’re gone.”
But I was not there to defend the foods I had planted for our own ample consideration: Early Sunglow Hybrid corn, Padron peppers, Malabar spinach, and Wando peas; Sugar Baby and Crimson Sweet watermelon. These were all wildcards, potential sacrifices to the truth that not everything you plant is gonna grow. For our four brown-to-golden laying hens, I cast ample handfuls of “Black Oil” sunflowers, buckwheat, alfalfa, and white oats. I envisioned returning to admire the grains and sunflowers swaying in the breeze and undulating in the summer light.
Of pumpkin abundance, there would be no doubt. I planted four varieties — Howden, Early Giant, Big Max, and Kakai. On their seed packet covers, each variety of pumpkin shared a magnificent dignity, like the first characters onstage in any Shakespeare tragedy. These eminences would be surrounded by zaps of multi-colour from bright pink, bright orange, bright red and yellow California giant zinnias. I broadcast many, many handfuls of seed in the hope of coming home to Paradise.
This is not to blame our house-sitter. She did a great job looking after the chickens.
But alas, my home garden did not thrive because unbeknownst to me – or, let’s be as honest as possible – ‘knownst but not consciously in the aware-of in the sense of doing-anything-about way — I was the assassin, for I had killed the irrigation system.
It died of accumulated machete nicks, cuts, and gouges from my overenthusiastic de-brambling. I myself might have been a body piling up, but for that, I am pretty good at following this one piece of self-preservatory advice: swing the machete away from the body. And wear long pants. And garden gloves. Ten cuidado con los dedos, that’s what I tell myself. Careful with those fingers. You might want to pick up a guitar again someday. Might want to write something by hand.
Also requiring hardly any effort was the irrigation system, when it worked. It was on a timer. The brown irrigation tubes lay flat on the ground and drip-dripp-dripped for 10 minutes in seven 40-foot-long ovals; until, due to my thrashing about with my Salvadoran machete, the tubes sprouted leaks ranging from misting station to a fire hydrant cranked open and spurting on a hot sticky day.
I tried patching these gouges up with waterproof tape, which was mostly ineffective but did, in some spots, convert a gusher to a confused and angry babble. It is difficult to confuse or anger water, but I managed until finally the entire system not only stopped working but practically disappeared.
Now I cannot even find the faucet or knob to turn it back on again. Isn’t that embarrassing? Isn’t it a blow to my masculine pride, which must necessarily be predicated on the free-flowing of fluids? Well, actually, that’s a pretty mean thing to say, and I wonder what makes me say that. Hmmm? It’s easy to insult people. What’s my plan? How about instead of insulting myself upon coming home after being gone for much of June and a chunk of July to find my garden
Now I can either pout about how my bid for garden immortality has come up short, or I can come up with a plan for how we’re going to get zinnia and pumpkin to thrive.
But why not both? Is it always wrong to complain? Who did not manage to take care of this garden while I was away – that is the question I would like to ask if I did not already know the answer is Marko.
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So what I can do to restore the garden before I leave yet again is lay down four inches of compost around the few pumpkins that are thriving, hanging in there, or barely hanging in there from my first attempt at utopia-in-absentia.
I had been using homemade compost tea, which I think killed my pomelo tree. I put compost in a plastic mesh bag and put the mesh bag into a bright green plastic 20-gallon tub. I especially like this tub because it is pliable, not rigid. So far so good, but you’re supposed to aerate your compost tea with an aquarium pump. That surpasses my mechanical wherewithal, so I just blew into it from time to time with a cut-off piece of garden hose.
My daughter Claire said this was the most Rastafarian thing about my garden, and I treasured the idea that she thought there were other Rastafarian things. I clearly need to aerate my compost tea more than just the occasional out-breath; however, because a few days after I encouraged the always problematic pomelo with a good dousing of compost tea, it dropped all its leaves, gasped, and got x’s for its eyes.
Whenever they seek my plant advice, I tell all my friends that it is natural for plants to die and natural for gardeners to kill their plants and not to worry about it, just get another one. However, I still have the skeleton of that pomelo tree in the ground because I had not been able to face its mortality until I noticed the dry brown branches are nowadays embraced by the supple and thriving vines of a stephanotis.
Over the past week, I have moved ¾ of a ton of compost, five fifty-pound wheelbarrow loads per each of six rows. I’m just about out of compost. The seventh row will have to wait for its compost until the green and brown yard waste combines with the chicken poop and decomposes.
There is a lot of exposed sycamore root back there, looking like a mouth in the ground, more specifically a hungry dirt maw, clamouring for brown and green matter, which would concern me if this was a nightmare or scary folk tale. However, it’s just normal life still, and everything is okay.
After all, once you start looking for brown matter, it’s everywhere, such as hanging from the banana trees. Those majestic green banana leaves eventually turn yellow, then brown, at which point they really have to come down because living things coming up behind them need the light.
I realized this while machete-wielding, and with all those freshly revealed sunbeams flying around, I further realized the seventh row is okay the way it is. It’s got primrose and dill entwined at one end, a wife-requested Meyer lemon tree at the other — all flourishing — and a blueberry bush in between, holding its own. Tomatillos are in the mix as well, and they will get go-go cranking as soon as the temperature cracks 80 degrees three days in a row.
If I wasn’t supposed to be leaving again in three weeks, I would plant multiple rows of tomatillos. That would be a good crop to deliver to the World Harvest Food Bank on Venice Boulevard in Mid-City. Who doesn’t like salsa verde and tomatillos are beautiful with their profuse branches and bright yellow flowers; beautiful and elegant with their paper-lampshade husks and pale green little tomato-shaped fruit.
But I am planning to be gone again in three weeks and not back again for over a month. So what I really should do is stick to the plan: zinnia and pumpkins. This, of course, is the same plan I had when I left last time, with dusty results.
Who has written of Eden after Adam and Eve? Does it prosper or become a snake pit? A few days ago, my wife informed me that our garden looks like hell before I commenced hand-trucking compost. Patchy, she said. Random. Messy. Dead. As if I didn’t know. Yet after she broke it down for me, I had to stand there on the chickenshitty porch for a while, absorbing the blow.
Everyone’s under a lot of stress these days. We had ourselves some back and forth about the garden’s status; no one hurt too badly to make up later. Things were said about the stress of quarantine. The upshot being, I resolved to structure the garden not to satisfy my fleeting whim but rather to grow food. I emailed the World Harvest Food Bank and said me and my backyard are at your service. They promptly replied back, “Awesome.” I’m sure they hear this all the time and always write back, “Awesome.” I’m going to have to show I’m serious.
Meanwhile, I have tidied up the garden and, in the process, have noted that there is much to celebrate: creeping thyme filling in nicely between the pavers, blackberries-a-go-go, the unknown bush with tube-shaped flowers the colour of candy corn, oregano with purple-flowered runners leaping into the air like flying fish. Additional grapes have taken root in the way-back, where I also planted more blackberries as part of my plan to have the wayback be an impenetrable bramble. I envision zombies and/or other marauders as these times become increasingly desperate. I am all for giving our food away but not into it being taken from us.
In one last attempt to salvage the current irrigation system, I managed to fuck it up worse so that now a row of sprinklers is going non-stop. And by non-stop, I mean, how do you stop this thing? I tried messing with the so-called control panels and got mosquito bites. I temporarily gave up, a trick I learned from recalcitrant computer printers. Give up and come back later. That usually works with printers which are wily but not as wily as sprinklers run amok.
How do you stop this thing? I called our gardener; he was kind enough to come right over and give it a shot. I admired his urgent aspect as he set about messing with the controls and began pointing out very politely how many different ways I had broken them in my frustration. “Sí, yo he roto mucho,” I confessed.
I finally called in Guy Marcia, the guy who’s going to install the new irrigation system. He promptly turned off the water to the house, then cut and capped the sprinkler tube. Problem solved. Thank you, Guy! He also identified the bush with the candy cornflowers as cuphea ignea or Mexican cigar plant. He said it’s a great pollinator and also congratulated me in general on having rich soil. He further identified a bush I had never paid the slightest attention to as arbutus “Elfin King” and pointed out its edible berry. “You have a food forest here,” he said.
I really like people who make me feel better. Thus encouraged, I continued with the pumpkin and zinnia plan, aided by my theory of crabgrass. According to my incomplete theory, crabgrass is the garden’s neural network, which considers neither what the garden might be thinking nor what the crabgrass network might be connecting.
Nevertheless, I like my theory and keep thinking about it whenever I tug at a tuft of crabgrass and either pull up a satisfying string the length of a shoelace or only a dissatisfying bit of thin, brittle blade — in which case I come back with a hand shovel and dig in, determined to show that crabgrass I am the boss, even though this is clearly a delusion. Crabgrass is obviously the boss. It has my garden surrounded and will take over as soon as school starts, and I shift my attention from attempting to nurture plants to attempting to nurture students.
School starts in three days. Fortunately, I have refined my theory over the past few weeks of planting and transplanting pumpkin and zinnia. I know what the garden is thinking: “Let’s grow some calabasas gigantes and get these zinnia popping too!” That’s not all. From the good old days of me planting whatever I felt like wherever I felt like it, the plants that thrived not only think but state boldly, “Here we are, milkweed! Here we are, pineapple sage! Here we are, Mexican cigar plant, lavender, primrose, tomatillo, chives, oregano, heliotrope, African basil, blackberries, creeping thyme, bananas, Meyer lemons, Valencia oranges, finger limes.”
I am happy to report that not only plants announce themselves. The compost has also spoken. Turn over a hand spade of soil in my garden, and you will find white powdery mycorrhizae, prized for helping roots draw nutrition. Turn over another hand spade, and you will find worms squiggling ecstatically. Nitrogen announces itself in the form of atmospheric funk. My garden has the atmosphere of bases loaded, tie game, full count; heightened in these sad times of unattended baseball games by the hot dog and mustard aroma of chickenshit. My garden is thinking, “We are here,” which is what you are supposed to say in the presence of God. הנה אני. He-nay-nee. I am here.
I have also figured out how the neural network of the crabgrass is connected. My friend Jimmy taught me. He said about things growing in the garden that aren’t what we planted, “It’s all beneficial, it’s just a matter of what else would you want to be growing there.”
Now every time I encounter crabgrass in the garden, it declares, “This is fertile soil.” Furthermore, it asks me, plainspokenly, “What would you rather have growing here?” I answer, “Pumpkin and zinnia.”
And this is how I came to realize that the neural network of crabgrass is connected to me.
Mark Gozonsky(he/him) frequently writes for The Sun, where his essay “Gritty All Day Long” appeared before being featured in Best American Sports Writing 2020. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Lit Hub, The Santa Monica Review, and The Austin Chronicle. He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches high school English. Poke him to see if he moves at gozonsky.com or on Instagram.
We see my grandparents John and Robin beginning to pack and start a new epic journey. They have been planning this trip for a long time. Both have decided to leave the dark and dreary northern part of Scotland where they were born and are leaving for the great plains of Canada. There have been exhibitions set up, and lectures were given to immigrate to the “good farming land that was for sale.” The Canadian government was hoping to bring as many new citizens as to work the land. And my grandparents were part of the wave that came across the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life for themselves.
Their choice to uproot their lives, save as much as they could to afford the fare to a new beginning showed remarkable courage and resourcefulness. Finally, their passports were approved, and they purchased third-class ship tickets. After a rough crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, they made their way into the St Lawrence River. The ship docks in Montreal and off to the train station to purchase coach tickets on the Canadian Pacific Railway for a long and arduous train ride to Saskatchewan. The first section of the trip was to Fort Williams at the head of Lake Superior. Then westbound thru Winnipeg, the forests had finally stopped. The prairie stretched to the far horizon and then to their final destination of Regina. They were both overwhelmed by the size and scope of their new country. It was not anything that they had experienced or had seen before.
John had purchased a small farm on the prairie, just outside of Regina, with the main house, a small barn, an outhouse, and a sod-covered deep root cellar. Soon their family is growing, Lloyd is born, and Elizabeth comes to join them a few years later. John is a travelling salesperson for a farm equipment company. He will sell all the necessary implements that need to run a ranch or farm. His travelling will start in the spring after the last snows. It takes many long and gruelling hours for him to get to the small hamlets, ranches, and farms to sell his farm equipment. He has to travel throughout the southern portion of the province, with his sample case to show what is available. Robin is starting to plan her vegetable garden, with the first spring plantings needing to go into the ground. During the winter months, travel is about impossible with the blizzards blowing off of the Arctic Circle. Their root cellar is a requirement to keep food available throughout the winter months. She has arranged her seeds and where she will plant them. Especially important are her onions, beets, potatoes, turnips, and carrots.
As the spring and summer rains come, her garden is turning many shades of green. Lloyd and Elizabeth help her tend the growing garden choices for the upcoming harvest time. Robin has marked each long row with a stake to show what is growing. Her kids have to keep the weeds in check, or they will hear about it. By late summer, Robin gets ready to jar and preserve her different fruits and vegetables. The many crops start to come to the time to start the process of filling up the root cellar and be stored away for the upcoming months.
Soon the first snows arrive, and John’s selling season is over, and John can return home for the winter. Many things are needed to get ready for the long winter ahead. By the end of the year, they have to make snow tunnels to get to the outhouse, barn, and root cellar. On the windy plains, travel to any city or neighbour is about impossible. They all had to be aware, especially after a fresh snowfall, that when you went outside to be aware of the bright shimmer that was present in the air. If you were not careful, snow blindness could set in.
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For the next decade, this is their daily life adjusting to the yearly weather changes. But then something happens. Slowly at first, the spring and summer rains stop. They did not know, starting in 1929, an unprecedented decade of drought set in. The spring rains had never come back. This would damage the agriculture growing possibilities of a vast area of land. Dust storms would blow the dry land around, growing crops would become hard or impossible. You could not go outside during one of these storms. Everything, including the sky, was a dull grey colour. Breathing the air became difficult; it tasted like sand. Then came the vast swarms of grasshoppers; they were in the millions, eating whatever was left.
With all of the new farming equipment, the prairies were being overploughed, and the soil started to dry out. Ranchers and farmers are beginning to see their property blow away with the wind. They cannot grow anything or pay the taxes, and land values start to drop. More of the owners are either trying to sell their land or abandoning the properties. John’s business is quickly losing customers all over the province. Robin’s garden is less and less able to grow anything. She is not happy with the choices she has to make.
John and Robin are now facing a great challenge of what to do. Should they stay and ride out this drought or leave their prairie life and move to a city? So many other families were being forced to move away from their land.
The following spring, the four are packed and go on a long train ride back eastbound to Ontario. This is not an easy trip for them. Leaving their farm and lifestyle for a new start, a new beginning. They take a final look at the farm and get to Regina to take The Canadian Pacific Railway next eastbound train. It will take them to Winnipeg and then east to Thunder Bay. After a short rest, the trip will take them around the Great Lakes and into Toronto. They will then switch to a local train to take them to their destination.
Robin and John have a family that they can move near to. They settle for Peterborough and rent a house, and John can get odd jobs, and Lloyd and Elizabeth can find work. Robin no longer has her root cellar or a need for one. But she does have a garden in the back of the house. And, in the fall, she prepares her mason jars for the winter. But this time, she has a space in the dark and cool basement.
Robin starts writing a women’s column to give helpful hints to the readers every week for the local newspaper. This is during the depression and all of the many challenges that women are facing daily. It also brings in a small remuneration to help with the monthly bills. She uses the pen name of Roberta and titles her column “Just Between Us Women.” It becomes an instant hit in the paper, and she writes for a couple of years.
So many families who lived on the Great Plains in Canada and the US had to move away to have a better life. Some never came back to their farms or ranches after many years away. The rains finally did come back to the land, but it was not the same. A whole generation of families survived the many difficult choices that were made or what the weather made for them.
You had to be a strong and resilient family to survive the challenges they had to endure. John and Robin and their family were indeed strong, and they did survive and flourish. Lloyd and Elizabeth followed in their footsteps, and both had their own families. And I am part of my mother’s and grandmother’s family.
Both of these women had a certain power over themselves. They had survived those many years of drought and then the depression and then the war. You could say they were rooted in their strengths, strengths that their past family showed them.
Robert Bakhas written and published over a dozen of his short stories, essays, and short plays in the US and Canada. He has been involved with the entertainment industry for many years. First starting as a stage manager Off-Off-Broadway in NYC, and then working in Los Angeles and Albuquerque entertainment businesses. INK Babies Literary Magazine will publish “Are You Alive” in their forthcoming summer 2021 addition. Wilderness House Literary Review will publish “A Gust Of Wind” in their 61st issue (Vol 16, no 1) spring 2021 issue. Penultimate Peanut will publish “I Like To Aggravate People In Line” in its fall 2020 issue.