Tag Archives: Sherry Shahan

An Abecedarian of Loss

By Sherry Shahan

abecedarian    twenty-six letters, each one a compact unit of communication, a twisted riddle, a maze of red tape from well-lit offices; the only means of containing my sorrow now that all I have left of my brother are memories and letters.

brother     at five, wearing a fringed cowboy shirt, he fires at stink bugs with a dime-store six-shooter; as his older sister, I stick out my tongue and wish he’d wear something more Steve McQueen in Wanted Dead of Alive. [see: s, below.]

certified mail     provides the sender—Bullhead City Police Department—with a mailing receipt for $9.28 and an electronic verification that an 8×10 padded envelope was delivered; inside, I find two plastic bags: one with key rings to a mailbox and house and a key-fob for a car, and another containing a cheap bi-fold wallet. [see: w, below.]

demon     fiend, monster, diabolical tormentor; our father who drank cheap beer bought with rent money until he was sloppy drunk and cruel (why couldn’t he just put a lampshade on his head and tell dumb jokes like that lush on TV?); in the case of my brother: alcoholism, gambling, and the perennial avoidance of employment. [see: g, below.]

edge     jagged, sharp, single-sided; on the brink, as in the precarious state right before something unpleasant occurs; a letter that arrives on my doorstep with a list of detectives investigating my brother’s claim that I poached from Mom’s estate; You’re a sad story, Sherry, and I hope you get the help that you need. Love allways, your brother (far from oblivious, in Arizona)

flies     winged insects of the suborder Cyclorrhapha, most likely evolved during the Cenozoic era; driven to lay eggs in decaying matter in order to provide their soft-bodied legless offspring a food source; a black curtain of them on the inside of the living room window of my brother’s mobile home. [see m, n, below.]

genetics     the study of heredity, or how the characteristics of living things are transmitted from one generation to the next; by which our father passed the monkey on his back to his firstborn son sixty-five years ago. 

hyperthermia     a physical state in which the body can no longer release enough of its heat to return the temperature to normal; cause of death, according to the police report, which cites the temperature inside his mobile home as between 110 and 114 degrees. [see: j, m, below.]

investigation     a systematic inquiry carried out to discover and examine the facts so 

as to establish the truth; How does a person remain in a body bag in the drawer of a mortuary for eighteen months? What else is going on that I don’t know about? [see p, below]               

july     the hottest month in Bullhead City, Arizona, with an average of 112 degrees. [see: f, h, above.]

kafkaesque     surreal or nightmarish; the conversation with an employee at the funeral home who tries to explain why they filed for a “Special Administrative Appointment” requesting $12,000 from my brother’s sparse estate. “You don’t understand the cost of preservation.” [see: i, above.] 

lament     mourn, grieve, weep, wail; not how I feel opening a bottle of wine at 2:13 am. 

mobile home     able to move or be moved because it isn’t permanently grounded—though it has a mailbox where letters and bills stack up, a 1994 white Buick LaSabre in the carport, and a rock garden with driftwood from the Colorado River. [see u, below.]

neighbor     a person living near or next door, who is almost always better than their fellow neighbors believe them to be; a part-time resident who watches my brother pull weeds from his gravel driveway and warm up his Buick each morning before going to the store for a newspaper and bottle of booze; a good Samaritan who calls the police after seeing a mass of flies crawling on my brother’s front door. [see: f, above.]

overwhelming     overpowering, paralyzing; the thought of tracking down his birth certificate from September 16, 1954, as requested by the funeral home, to prove that I’m his sister and therefore have the right to have him removed from the refrigerated drawer. [see: i, k, above.] 

perplexed     unable to grasp something clearly or think logically and decisively about it; puzzled, like when the Department of Code Enforcement explains that my brother’s mobile home has been taken from the property—“Neighbors complained of an odor”—and all of his personal property crushed by a giant claw before being dragged to the city dump. 

question      what does this all mean? [see: i, above.]

remembrance     the ability to bring to mind past experiences; things kept; recollections; blowups with my brother over our father’s ashes. Him: I want my half. Me: No way I’m dipping into the canister; our father’s ashes subsequently making a fourteen-hour Greyhound ride across state lines; my brother and I joking, after the fight, that we hoped Dad sat next to someone interesting. [see d, g, above.]

shame      remorse, guilt, regret; my soul slowly nibbling itself because I felt superior to my brother, because I own a permanent home, because I didn’t go see him in the last 40 years. 

truth     that which is in accordance with fact or reality; honesty, correctness, veracity; a certainty that his fucked-up life is somehow my fault. 

underestimated     regarded as less capable than one really is; an assessment that is too low; I believed my brother lived in a trashy trailer park but a satellite image shows a mobile home on a self-contained lot; a clerk at the county assessor’s office says my brother paid cash for the property and owned it outright. [see m, s, above.]

value     the importance, worth, or usefulness of something; “your value does not decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.” 

wallet     a flat, folding holder for money, identification, and credit cards; the last of my brother’s life force, containing: a neatly-printed list of phone numbers, his Arizona driver’s license (height: 6-1, weight: 190, expiration date: two months after his death), an AcePlay casino card (‘real rewards for real people’), assorted business cards for taxis, and a library card, all bathed in the funky stench of cigarette smoke. [see c, above.]

x      in childhood, XOXO, and Xmas; in adulthood, the way to identify a person who is not known, not really. 

yardstick      a barometer or touchstone; a standard for making judgments or comparisons; my brother’s report card: no marriage, no children, no life; I filled in the blanks with two daughters who slid class photos into birthday cards for their uncle. 

z      alphabetical position 26; the final destination from A to Z; a vocal consonant shaped like the zigzag of our messed-up relationship; ceaseless battles to be kinder to each other, botching it up time and again; the last of our phone calls, It’s just the two of us now, sis.  [see b, above.]

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.


By Sherry Shahan

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.