Jamie Lyn Smith

2018, NonFiction

HOTHEAD

But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.

I Corinthians 11:15

I was born with a big hunk of bright red hair. Not auburn, not ginger, not strawberry blonde, but just straight-up Crayola-crayon red. Granted, I arrived in 1974, and so the photos from my youth have an odd, kodachrome cast to them, as if viewed through an enormous pair of sepia-tinted sunglasses. Still. The hair is pretty dang red.

Like me, my hair resisted management: slipping out of barrettes, refusing to be tamed, curling at the edges. My mother would coat my hair with olive oil at night and I would wake up looking like a chia pet. Grandma used to chide me that my hair was the only thing louder than my laugh, and suggested with pursed lips that both the follicle and the child needed training. Red hair was loud, unruly, announced itself without meaning to—it was everything I did not want to be, and could not help.

My younger sisters were born towheaded, Gerber-lipped, chill. My mother liked to dress us in matching outfits, and often chose pastels: delicate lavenders, eggshell blues, and worst of all— pale pink. My sisters’ peaches-and-cream complexions glowed, but I looked as if I had food poisoning. In family pictures, I stand scowling like a distempered animal, my skin jaundiced by a butter-yellow terrycloth romper.

It was Easter, 1984 before I finally put my foot down with the costuming. That year, our Easter dresses were pistachio tinted dotted-swiss aberrations that poofed out over these god-awful crinolines, and required itchy white tights. I snarled and fussed, until finally my mother relented- allowing me to choose my own outfit. I wore a plaid dress, leg warmers, clogs, and crocheted poncho to church. She got her revenge—in the Easter photo, I look like the triumphant doyenne of a bohemian Scottish dance troupe, while my sisters flank me in pale-green frothy lace, decorated like cupcakes.

It wasn’t just the outside of me that was redheaded, and this is where I wonder about nature, nurture, and self-fulfilling prophesy. Nearly all my personality flaws and rash decisions were blamed consistently on my coloring— fearsome temper, too-big personality, wildness, creativity, possible witchcraft. Being a redhead gave me license to fly, and I soared, dancing this weird line between reveling in and reviling my difference, the otherness with which I was inflamed.

My sisters—The Cupcakes—were compliant good-natured girls who spent hours watching reruns of Gidget and playing mild rounds of  house and school with their creepy Cabbage Patch Dolls. I scorned The Cupcakes for the company of a neighbor kid, Jason. Before he moved away, we were far more likely to be found in the woods building a human catapult out of lumber stolen from the barn, attempting to melt down various metals over an open fire, or sharpening sticks so that he and I could joust on our bikes.

“That redhead will drive me to drink,” my mother would say, banishing me to my room for some harmless stunt or another involving the nail gun, Jason, and guerilla warfare.

Overwhelmed with my management- follicular and otherwise- my mother often delegated disciplinary matters to my stepfather. He raised me with the same misguided good intent and hapless bafflement as he did The Cupcakes. I never, ever think of him as my stepfather, although that’s what he did: he stepped up and fathered when my biological father bounced. We had a bond of mutual admiration forged in orneriness, love of diesel-fueled equipment, and a tendency to believe, “Aw hell, I can do that!” More often than not my mother’s rants about my “narrow scrapes with death, fire, and dismemberment” elicited little more than my stepfather’s raised eyebrows.

“Aw, the girl’s just high-spirited,” he’d say, “That’s a redheaded colt for ya!”

He’d slip me a low-five when my mom wasn’t looking. Later, when the poor woman retired to bed with several aspirin and a stack of Harlequin romance novels, my stepfather would laugh at my antics and explain with great patience that if I was going to make a proper moonshine factory, I’d need to craft a still, procure at least six feet of copper coil, and use a soldering iron.

                                                                                #

I was the first redhead born in nearly a hundred years; the last redhead was my great-grandfather. James Louis Hendrickson had twelve children: all brunette, brown-eyed, tall. Not a single redhead among his fifty grandchildren. When I was born—the first grandchild on both sides, the first great-grandchild, copper-headed—it was a sort of triumph. Sort of.

My parents were young, scared, unmarried, and in over their heads the summer of 1973 when I was misconceived. By then there was Roe vs. Wade, Marvin Gaye was crooning “Let’s Get it On”, Laugh In went off the air and Mary Tyler Moore came on, the National Archives were on fire in D.C. and plenty of soldiers were still over in Vietnam. The rest of America may have lost its virginity, but Knox County, Ohio was stuck at third- maybe even second base. Things like the counterculture, the sexual revolution, and —most importantly— The Pill hadn’t made a dent in my mother’s consciousness.

When my mother told her boyfriend she was pregnant, he dumped her, accused her of sleeping around and denied culpability. She took my biological father to court for breach of promise and child support, but again- it was the seventies, so there was no DNA, only a blood test that was nebulously reliable.

She brought me into the courtroom, where the judge got a gander at my hair and a sub-gander at my biological father’s matching mop. It’s my understanding that there wasn’t much of a trial left to be had. Paternity was established by follicle. For my mother, my hair provided both victory in court, and a constant reminder of a man who did her really, really wrong.

To make matters more painful for my mother, while my paternity case was in litigation, Craig married another woman- a redhead. They celebrated the birth of their daughter – red haired, blue eyed, pretty as a lark—with an announcement in the local paper including a family photo that showcased brand-new wedding rings on their interlocking fingers. By 1974 there were no scarlet letters, stocks or whippings for adulterers…but a scarlet-headed, fatherless child was no different a letter when you were twenty and desperately single—and your ex bandied about town with his new wife and daughter.

So my mother put me in my grandparents’ care until she married. No one made a bigger deal of my red hair than my grandfather. He meant no harm, drawing attention to it every chance he got- for him, it was a great point of pride— “There’s my girl!” his voice would boom, “It’s the redhead!” I believe now that the love he professed for my red hair was a move to claim me, to affirm my belonging, perhaps even to teach me to be kinder to myself. This was not the least bit comforting when the entire fourth grade referred to your frizzy orange mop as “Tang.”

The unwanted attention my hair drew aggravated a host of nagging questions I could not answer:  Who was I? Was I maybe a witch? Would I grow up to be a “frisky little sorrel filly” like the dirty old man in the park suggested? Would my inherent nature- perhaps evil, nefarious, and shirking as my absent biological father’s- somehow rise to the surface?

                                                                                #

Having red hair seemed to in some strange way erase all bounds of civil behavior- one would never, for example, approach a total stranger in a supermarket line and ask her “Whoa! Where’d you get that magnificent pimple?” or declare “I just love obese women!” Why was it then socially acceptable to harass little bright scarlet me—struggling to be unobtrusive, minding my own business, trying not to glow in the dark— by bellowing, “Hey! Where’d you get that red hair?” or, worse yet- ruffling my mane and chortling, “I just love that carrot top!”

Oh and Good Lord have mercy, the questions. When I was a little girl, they were fairly innocuous. In adolescence men began to say increasingly alarming things to me in a tone that both terrified and outraged me.

“I just love redheads.”

“My wife is a redhead you know…”

“Does the carpet match the drapes?”

“Well hello, fire crotch.”

“Hey- red!! Show me that burning bush.”

“Redheaded women buck like goats.” (Et tu, James Joyce?…and eff you, too. I know Joyce wasn’t directly addressing me, but I **loved** Ulysses until that damn line, at which point the entire Joyce Honors Seminar side-eyed me, smirking, while I held the book over my face, casually propping it up with a middle finger and staring down anyone who made the mistake of eye contact.)

Some of these nasty things were said to me at work, some at parties, some in bars, some at family reunions, some waiting in line at the DMV, and once – in a cloakroom, where my boss tried to feel me up on the premise that every other redhead he hired had given him a blow job, so why not me?

I further resented my hair for the cultural comparisons and associations red hair elicited: a saloon girl, a fallen woman, the poster from Reefer Madness, that crazed ginger in the orgy at the end of Clockwork Orange—- although, I never really minded being thrown in the same lot as the stripper Tempest Storm (her autobiography is amazing). It is tiresome, though that every female with red hair is portrayed as whorish, garish, hyper sexualized, criminally insane or all the above. I have yet to date a man who has not complimented me on my hair, often in some kind of anticipation that I will be sexually wilder, capable of inducing a spectacular degree of ecstasy simply because of the amount of pheomelanin raging in my follicles.

Every redhead I know has these kinds of stories. Many stories are far worse than mine.

                                                                                #

Much as I hated what I endured—the teasing, the sly winks, the gross comments from mouth-breathing degenerates—I could never bring myself to change my hair color. (Ok, I used to indulge in the occasional box of henna, but to my horror it only made the hair redder, and me, angrier). I couldn’t be me- and ostensibly this outrageous- without my cussed red hair.

The closest I ever came to parting company with it, was when I sold it. I left my small hometown the summer after my freshman year of college and went to live in Chicago. I was ready for not just change, but transformation: eager to live in a city, to escape the cornfields, forests, and trade the chaw-chomping good old boys of my youth for glib urban professionals who owned more than one suit, and knew how to pronounce the names of all the wines on the menu. My roommate, intent upon aiding my Liza-Doolittle makeover, set me up with an appointment at a high dollar salon where Tony, the stylist, promptly offered me a free cut and $350 for my locks- waist length, never permed or colored, healthy and thick as rope.

“Cash?” I asked. Tony nodded, smiling without showing his teeth.

“Cut it,” I said.

Tony put it in a braid that hung down my back, something my mother had done nightly when I was a child. The scissors beat their wings around my cheekbones, cool metal skimming my neck. Tony lifted and trimmed and snipped and tugged, pronounced me “not the least bit tender-headed.”  I could not bear to look, keeping my gaze averted to my lap on the wispy pile of hair accumulating there. Finally, Tony sighed in pleasure, rubbed some sort of lavender- scented product into my scalp, and showed me myself in the mirror. I remember running my hands through it and thinking of an old horror film.

Mia Farrow. Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

Tony and the other stylists gathered around the chair, cooing and complimenting me, passing around and petting at the long braid now detached from my body. He handed me seven crisp, whispering fifty dollar bills. I suppressed the urge to wail.

I hardly recognized my own reflection in the storefront windows when I made my way home. Coworkers gasped when they saw me. Men stopped holding the door for me at the supermarket, offering to carry my groceries, and giving up their seat on the El. My parents sent me a postcard in response to the snapshot I mailed them, that said “TOO SKINNY. EAT SOMETHING. NO MORE HAIRCUTS! P.S. —DAD WORRIED YOU ARE GAY.”

Unfortunately, my shorn scalp did nothing to abate the redhead comments, but relieved of my big wig of red hair – and to a degree, my appearance of femininity- I felt off-balance. When I tried to brush my short little baby-doll hairs, I would automatically extend my arms too far, tugging at hair that wasn’t there any more, and leave unsightly scratches at the nape of my neck. I had one style and one look with this pixie-girl business. No more ponytails, messy buns, braids, barrettes, clips, or headbands for me: I was a one-trick pony. A roan, with no mane to comb.  

A few weeks later I bumped into Tony on the street in Lincoln Park. He took my face in his hands, tilted it to the light and said I should come back in for a trim, then asked me how I felt.

“Like Samson,” I said.

                                                                                #

I wonder sometimes if my life might have been different if I were blonde; then again it certainly would have been different if I were, you know, calm. By the time I was thirty, I had a solid reputation for a short fuse- – a tendency to ignite that got me into trouble, whether commuting on public transit, standing in beer lines at concerts, picnicking at a nude beach on Lake Austin. En route to meet colleagues for happy hour, a stranger stopped in front of me on 57th street declared that he loved redheads, and licked my hair. My coworker’s boyfriend witnessed the whole thing from the window of a bodega, later reporting to Kalli that before he could get outside he’d seen me belt the offender with my handbag while pedestrian traffic made a wide, wide berth around me.

“Why didn’t you help her?” Kalli demanded.

“Help her?” he said. “She was chasing him down the street screaming I’LL KILL YOU!”

These sorts of anecdotes were funny only because, miraculously, I somehow tended to escape unharmed, if not unhinged. Friends started to say things to me like, “Perhaps you should be more careful,” or “You know, you could have been killed…” and even, “Please, for the love of God, stop being such a jerk.”

“James means fierce, “ I’d say, shrugging off friends’ suggestions I tone things down a bit. “I guess if the hairs on my head are numbered, I’ll keep the Good Lord busy counting them.”

The fact of the matter- and the problem—is that I prided myself on the outrageous behavior that red hair allowed me just as much as I resented the unwanted attention. The red-tinted glasses through which I viewed the world let me thrive on a certain perverse satisfaction in imagining myself to be some sort of badass force to be reckoned with.

It was wearing on everyone- except, it seemed, on me. My friends began to look tired when I regaled them with yet another story about putting some perv in his place. My friend Susan confronted me after I had a spat with a woman at Whole Foods.

“You get angry about everything,” she said. “The woman was in a wheelchair.”

“So what?” I countered. “I would have let her ditch me in line, if she’d asked instead of just cutting in. But when that bitch called me a nasty ginger—”

“You were being a nasty ginger.”

“That isn’t the point.”

“Perhaps,” Susan said. “It would have been better for her to just call you an asshole.”

 She suggested I take up breathing exercises and get acupuncture. Others suggested yoga and meditation, less caffeine, Bible study, more sex, a vacation, getting my thyroid tested. I never paused my kvetching long enough to listen, let alone consider that my so-called red problem wasn’t really a problem at all—but one that others might be eager to trade, swapping their mountain of suffering for the molehill of pettiness I perched on, shouting and fighting windmills with my handbag. For a time, in my mind, I believed my scenes were defensible on the premise that prickliness was me: each red hair hackling in alert, my way of growling Beware of Dog.

                                                                                #

There’s no denying I was entirely, overly sensitive and that my cantankerousness was inexcusable. These are the kinds of things, though, that make me wonder about nature, versus nurture. To what degree is my hypersensitivity simply the result of “search for the devil and she will appear”? To what extent is my exasperation a reasonable outcome after spending a lifetime of St. Patrick’s Days explaining over and over again that I am not Irish, I’m from Ohio? As for how St. Patrick’s Day affects temperament, I challenge you, reader, to spend a full sun’s journey during which strangers pinch you and coworkers talk you like you just fell off a Lucky Charms Cereal Box….and we’ll see what a jolly good sport you are by lunchtime. I was fed up with that nonsense by the time I was ten; by the time I was thirty I’d learned to wear a hat all day and take lunch at my desk when the dreaded holiday came round.

I skipped the office party, of course, and worked late in my classroom, dreading the long walk home up Second Avenue, past the row of Irish bars. When I could put it off no longer, I went to fetch my things from the main office. There were leftovers from the festivities— a plate of sugar-cookie shamrocks with Kelly-green icing and a few half-eaten loaves of soda bread scattered around, some parsnip chips. A string of foil Irishmen sagged from the ceiling, their spindly legs and rusty beards gently bobbing in the breeze from the heat vents.

“What’s all this?” I groused, digging through the mess to try to find a book I’d left on the table that morning. My friend Kalli was also gathering up her things. “It was a party,” she said. “We missed you, Smith.”  

I launched into a tirade about my hatred of the holiday and my hair. Normally people cut me off, but she just packed up the cookies, wrapped the soda bread in plastic baggies and cleaned the table- listening through my entire misanthropic and anti-follicate recitation.

“I never knew all that about you,” she said. “But then again… nobody knows anything about you. They’re not allowed to.”

“Thanks,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say. She was right. This was true. I was awful, a lot. And a lot more awful than I needed to be.

Kalli shrugged and smiled. “I wish you didn’t hate it,” she said. Her face was wry and her voice tentative, as if extending a hand she worried I might bite. “I—hope you don’t mind my saying this, but I think red hair is beautiful.”  

Her kindness took all the wind out of my careening mills. For the first time in years—maybe ever— I said, and meant, “I never mind hearing it from my friends.”

I don’t remember the walk home that night, or feeling particularly nonplussed or light on my feet, or inexorably changed. But what I do remember is cringing—then, in the teacher’s lounge and now also— to think of the pettiness that fueled me in my misspent, reddened blush of youth. I mistook my own flame for inflammation. I remember thinking about how foolish and how useless was the quaint and convenient notion that I could do no better by others or by myself because of some random genetic trait. The problem was never my hair, the problem was a combination of my unwillingness, or inability, or bewilderment over how to channel the energy and vitality and sheer red volume of myself into a flame that lit up the room, instead of a wildfire that left a swath of scorched earth.

It feels ridiculous to look back at how long it took me to learn to accept a sincere compliment and take a joke, for God’s sake. Other than the guy I hit with my purse (who I maintain to this day, totally had it coming) it’s embarrassing now to recall how I crushed the enthusiasm of others because of my own resentment; and how long it took me to learn that graciousness costs me nothing, but a lack of generosity is an ever-mounting debt that can never be paid in full.

My hair is long again, longer than it’s been since I was a little girl, when my mother combed and braided it into submission each night into tight twin pigtails that I curled around my head before I went to sleep, dreaming of what I would become and who I was to be. But now there are long, white strands creeping into my crimson mane, and while I have no desire to return to my former, surly-girl self, oh, oh, oh- what I would give for this hair to stay that red, forever.


Jamie Lyn Smith is a native of Knox County, Ohio. An alumnus of Kenyon College and Fordham University, she is the recipient of a University Fellowship from The Ohio State University, where she completed her MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Pinch, American Literary Review, The Low Valley Review, The Boiler, The Watershed Review and Barely South. She currently teaches Creative Writing at Bluffton University, where she edits Bridge: The Bluffton University Literary Journal. Jamie Lyn is working on two new projectsEver After, a collection of short stories, and her first novel, Appalachia.

Lisa Knopp

2018, NonFiction

FREE SAMPLES

I pull into the U-Stop Convenience Shop, the last place to get gas on North 27th before you cross or merge into Interstate-80. I sort of know what I’m looking for. The four photographs I’ve seen of him reveal that he’s tall, wears wire-rimmed glasses, and has short light hair. Yet none of the photos offer a clear, close shot of his face. Just minutes earlier on the telephone, he told me that he drives a white Malibu with customized license plates bearing the shortened version of his last name, which I recognize as his username on the internet match-making site where we “met.” It’s what everyone calls him, he says. I wonder if I’ll call him that, too, someday.

Twenty minutes together is all we have. He drove into the city this morning for shopping. He wanted to meet me for lunch, but I had a brunch to attend in the late morning and a memorial service in the afternoon. A brief interview for a date is what this is. Within twenty minutes, we will determine if we merit a full weekend evening of each other’s time. From my experiences with other men I’ve met on the match-making website, I can usually determine that within 20 seconds and usually, my answer is either “probably not” or “absolutely not.” In recent years, each of the men that I’ve kept company with for more than a few dates were ones that I met the old-fashioned and rather random way — while giving a reading at a coffee house; while waiting too long for service at the Verizon store; while washing clothes at a laundromat during that brief window of time between the breakdown of my old washer and my purchase of a new one; while rallying at the state capitol in opposition to the TransCanada pipeline.

What I’m looking for. I sort of know what that is at this point in life: deep friendship and a little romance. What I don’t know is if I’m willing, yet again, to invest the time, energy, and love that it takes to really get to know and feel comfortable enough with a man that we can treasure, worry over, and receive solace and joy from each other.

A man sits on a bench outside the double doors of the U-Stop Convenience Shop, his long legs stretched out in front of him. I recognize the glasses but the hair that I saw in his photos is gone. “Candidate for a Date” (“C.D.”) rises from the bench and watches me pull in next to his Malibu. He is smiling. I wave him over to my car and point to the passenger seat. I shove the seat in my little Honda Civic as far back as it will go. As C.D. eases himself into the seat and folds each long leg into a high, sharp angle, he tells me that it’s better for us to sit in my car than on the bench because the wind was messing with the hair on his shaved head. The joke could have been amusing, but it goes on too long. Then he explains it. But of course, it really doesn’t matter what we are saying because what we’re after is a good look at each other’s faces — especially the eyes and the mouth, especially the eyes. His face is pleasant and his eyes are blue and attentive.

We chat about real estate. He tells me about the century-old farmhouse that he bought, lifted, and moved several miles to the little Nebraska town where he’s lived the past couple of decades. He refurbished every inch of it, doing all the work himself, including removing the asbestos-filled slate siding and replacing it with vinyl. I tell him I moved far north so I’d be closer to the interstate and so, closer to my job in Omaha. Yet four years later, I still don’t feel at home in this part of Lincoln. I long to return to one of the old, friendly, walkable neighborhoods nearer the geographical center of the city. But because of the lowered property values in recent years, I can’t sell my house without paying at least $12,000 to cover the realtor’s fee and the difference between what I owe on the house and what it’s now worth. Before I can sell my house, I have to paint or side it, but because the house was built in the late 60s, back when they still used lead paint…”

C.D. puts his hand on my arm and I stop talking. I suppose that I was going on and on and now I’m mildly embarrassed. “There’s a dog in traffic,” he says. The cars and trucks in the two northbound lanes of North 27th have stopped. “I bet he jumped out of the car when his owner stopped for gas or something.” C.D. pauses. “Look! He’s coming this way.”

“I’ll go get him,” I say. I step out of the car and run toward the stopped vehicles. Some dogs are so rattled around traffic. They run erratically, zigzagging like squirrels, confusing everyone. There . . . there it’s coming toward me. It’s tiny, with a tight, barrel-shaped body, and stumpy little legs. I don’t like that type of dog with its fast, mincing, ridiculous-looking steps. I prefer the more confident, graceful stride of a taller, longer-legged dog. Even so, I don’t want to see this little one with the bright black eyes spattered on the pavement or hear its piercing, final yaps.

“Here, puppy,” I say, as I bend down and extend a hand. It’s so tiny and pure white, an older dog, an older dog with a collar. If it will let me, I’ll scoop it up in my arms, take it back to the car, call animal control, and wait. In that impulsive moment, I don’t consider the possible outcomes of this act: that it might take so long for someone from Animal Control to come for the dog that I’ll miss the funeral of the old acquaintance, a woman who was younger than me and with a daughter still in high school; that no one comes for the dog ever, and I’m stuck with it; and the least likely scenario, that the dog moves my heart and I can’t let it go, even though another dog is pretty much the last thing that I want or need. But when the dog sees me, it veers and heads toward the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant. I give up.

As I walk back to my car, I realize that I’ve just given C.D. quite a bit of information about me – that, depending on his interpretation, I’m the type of woman who has such compassion for a dog in harm’s way that she attempts to rescue it or that I’m the type of woman who acts rashly, leaving a stranger in her car with her purse and keys; how I move when I run; how I look from behind, specifically, my hair and my butt. Or maybe he had his eyes on the dog the whole time. If so, I want to know that.

“Gone,” I say, as I slide into my seat. I pull my cell phone out of my purse and call Animal Control.

“You have Animal Control on speed dial?” he asks.

I nod. I realize that C.D. might think that I call Animal Control with frequency because I’m a real dog lover. But actually, I’ve listed that phone number as one of my “favorites” because on too many of my daily rambles in city parks and neighborhoods, I’ve been threatened by dogs at large. Once, I was even run down, attacked and bitten by a boxer. The puncture wounds on my leg healed long before the nightmares about the attack faded. In truth, I am the type of woman that reports dangerous dogs and files complaints against their negligent owners, and I rescue dogs in traffic. When I get off the phone, I tell C.D. that apparently others have called about the dog, too, since the woman who answered asked me if the dog I was seeing was “a little white one with a collar.” Someone from Animal Control will be here soon, I tell him. We wish the dog well.

C.D. says that he’s sorry that my job has been so stressful lately, something I shared with him in an email message earlier in the week. I’m touched that he remembers that. We talk about work place politics and how much we both dislike meetings and those folks who won’t let the meeting end until they’ve said everything they have to say at least three times. Then, we both see it at the same time: a bird whose form is familiar to me but whose plumage is like nothing I’ve ever seen. “I think it’s a blackbird,” C.D. says.


“It’s shaped like a blackbird but that’s not blackbird plumage,” I say. The feathers are light brown and highlighted with the oranges and pinks of a sunrise or of orange and raspberry sherbet. “It would be beautiful if it weren’t so weird,” I say. We watch the bird stride past the car toward the front doors of the U-Stop.

“Weird,” he says, as he slowly nods. Then the bird flies away. Runaway dogs and bizarre but beautiful birds. I feel like I’m watching a parable, with all of its familiar yet strange, ordinary yet extraordinary imagery unfurling before me. If I can tease out the meaning beyond the immediate and the apparent, perhaps these parables will tell me something essential about this man or my own intentions.

I wonder if C.D. is the kind of guy that can see the parabolic potential in seemingly random, everyday events. I’m about to ask him something along that line when he nonchalantly announces that he has bats in his attic. I’m not sure if he’s being straight with me or if he’s making another joke, with an explanation to follow. So I wait.

“You know how you usually have flies in your house this time of year and you don’t know where they came from?” He slowly shakes his head from side to side. “I don’t have any, so you know there’s something wrong.

“I took a lawn chair out in the yard the other evening and sat there and watched the attic. There they came. The bats. It can’t be good to have bats in your attic. It’s not hygienic,” he says, scrunching up his nose.

“No, it’s not,” I agree. “They’re up there defecating, urinating, shedding, and who knows what else.” I don’t say anything about rabies because I’ve heard that contrary to what most people think, the incidence of that disease in bats is no higher than that of any other wild mammal. Besides, I like bats. They use echolocation to locate and capture their prey; the females raise their young in nursery colonies of dozens or hundreds; and as a summer evening edges toward night, these flying leaves straight out of the Eocene Epoch dart and veer overhead and suddenly drop out of sight. I would never spread erroneous and potentially injurious information about bats. But neither do I want one anywhere near me, unless I’ve been forewarned of its presence.

“There are only two kinds of bats that these can be in Nebraska. Big Brown Bats or Little Brown Bats.” C.D.’s “b’s” are slightly bombastic. “A Little Brown Bat is about the size of a mouse when it’s like this.” He crosses his arms over his chest and hunches his back like a sleeping bat. His shoulders almost touch his knees. Then, he sits up straight again. “They’re only this big,” he says as he spreads his thumb and second finger a few inches. His nails are clean and nicely clipped. “But the bats that I have are a lot bigger.” He nods for emphasis. “They’re Big Brown Bats.

“I got on the internet and found a humane way to evict them. You make a valve tube out of a two-inch diameter plastic pipe or caulk tube. You cut it so it’s about six to eight inches long.” He shows me these distances by spreading his thumb and second finger. “You take a piece of plastic netting – you don’t want the mesh more than a sixth of an inch – and tape it to one side of the exterior opening on the pipe. Then you thread the tube through the opening in the roof where you saw the bats coming out. The bats can get out through the tube, but they say that because of the netting, they can’t get back in. Well, I think they can’t climb back in because their claws can’t get a grip on the hard plastic surface in the tube. Once you see that there aren’t any more bats coming out of your attic, you seal off the entry points.” C.D. has been looking over the top of his glasses at North 27th as he delivers this tutorial, but now, he turns and looks at me. His eyes are quite blue and sincere. “But I’m not evicting them just yet. It can still get pretty cold at night in April. I don’t want them to suffer.”

“That’s a good plan,” I say. “And you only have to wait a few more weeks until it’s warm enough that you can give them the boot.”

This man is gainfully employed, kind, politically progressive, not unattractive, and on cordial yet detached terms with his ex-wife and so, he meets my minimum standards. There is nothing particularly wrong with him, though his imitation of the sleeping bat was a little weird, but neither is there anything particularly right about him, though I was touched by his remark about his unwillingness to make Big Brown Bats suffer from the cold. Because of that remark, I move him from the “definitely not,” past the “probably not,” and into the “perhaps we’ll get together again” category.

I tell C.D. that I need to leave for the memorial service and that I have a big pile of student essays to grade this weekend. He tells me that he needs to get some chores done at home because Sunday morning, he’s heading out for an epic bike ride from the small town where he lives all the way to a little speck of a town near the Nebraska-Kansas border.

At this moment, it’s not Candidate for a Date in a nylon Lycra full body suit leaning into a turn that I’m imagining, but the produce aisle at the grocery store. I picture the free sample lady, the one with the big, coal black hair-do, red lips, and big, jingly, often holiday-themed earrings, placing a corn chip on each of the napkins that she’s laid out. Customers can take a chip and dip it in one of the three bowls of salsa, each filled with a different and new-fangled flavor, say, peach-mango, pomegranate, or tequila. Nearby in a clear plastic globe are wedges of blood oranges that you serve yourself on a toothpick. On a typical Saturday morning, the walk past the meat counter is a bit of an obstacle course, because of the various stations where you can sample Little Smokies sausage, shaved hickory-smoked ham on a snack cracker, and if you wait just a minute, a tiny chunk of the beef hissing and popping in an electric frying pan. In the bakery, a woman fills tiny plastic pill cups with dabs of pineapple or blueberry cheesecake. “Go on,” she says to me with a wink. “You can take one of each.”

There’s an etiquette that you should follow when sampling. You should feign interest in the product even if you don’t like it or if all you really want is a bite of free food. If the free sample lady is passing out coupons, you should take one, look it over and ask a question or nod your head to show your approval. You can throw the coupon away later. And always, thank her for giving you the opportunity to try something you’d never buy or something that you never knew you wanted until now.

At this moment in the parking lot outside the U-Stop Convenience Shop on North 27th Street in Lincoln, Nebraska, what I wish for are free samples, tiny dollops of the quotidian scooped from a typical day ten years hence, served in pill cups with tiny plastic spoons. In the first free sample, I see myself rising from my bed to close the window because the temperature falls so fast on an April night. Before I let the curtain fall back in place, I turn and see a single pillow positioned in the center of the head of my empty bed. But in the second sample, when I turn from the window, I see this man’s sleeping face illuminated by a slat of moonlight and framed by the pillow on his side of the bed. In both scenarios, what I most want to see is the unguarded look on my face when I turn from the window and see my empty or occupied bed. Is it contentment? Wonder? Dismay? Desire? Contempt? Ambivalence? Gratitude? If I could see my expression, I would know what to do and say in this parting moment before I take my leave of this man who is considerate of bats.

Before he gets out of my car, C.D. and I shake hands. I thank him for the opportunity to meet. “We’ll be in touch,” he says. I nod. And if we aren’t, I say to myself, it has far more to do with me than you.


Lisa Knopp is the author of six books of creative nonfiction. Her most recent, Bread: A Memoir of Hunger (University of Missouri Press, 2016), is about eating disorders and disordered eating among older women. Both Bread and What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte (University of Missouri Press, 2012) won Nebraska Book Awards. Knopp’s essays have appeared in numerous literary journals including Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Michigan Review, Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, Connecticut Review, Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, and Seneca Review. Her current project is Like Salt or Love: Essays on Leaving Home, which will include “Free Samples.”

Knopp is a Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she teaches courses in creative nonfiction. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. Please visit her website at http://www.lisaknopp.com

Naomi Washer

2017, NonFiction

TENSION AND RELEASE: 
DIFFUSING PRESSURE POINTS IN THE ABNORMAL ADOLESCENT

The hospital: Here are some pictures of normal kids like you with scoliosis: doing gymnastics, playing sports. You can’t even tell! We can fit you in a brace right now, today. Or you can make an appointment for a surgery.
My mother: I think we need to think about it.

                                                                          §

My spine did not cause me pain. My body never felt wrong until they said it was. The brace forced me inwards, yet pushed me out of my self: an inanimate body forced upon my failed one. Inside it, I could not feel a thing. At twelve, I lay on my back as two friends knelt over me, holding a rubber ball. They wanted to know what I would feel if an object hit the plaster. They dropped the ball. We laughed. I felt nothing.

                                                                          §

The chiropractor, neurologist, physical therapist, nutritionist: Sleep on a flat board. Lie on your right side over a plaster block while watching TV—this will elongate the S curve. Wear the brace to ballet class. Only remove it for one hour each day. Take these five supplements. Try to keep your shoulders in proper alignment. Notice how your eyes drift off to one side. No more dairy—from now on, only soy cheese.

                                                                          §

Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis has no known cause or preventative measure. It is comparable to balding. Once your genes tell you that you are going to be bald, you have no choice but to wait for the time it happens in order to control it. Likewise, in scoliosis, your genes are in control. You have no escape if your genetic construction tells you so.

There are thirty-three living vertebrae in the spinal column—seven cervical, twelve thoracic, five or six lumbar, five sacrum, and three secrets. Bones in the body hold roughly fifteen percent of a person’s body weight: a body that weighed one hundred pounds would be harboring fifteen pounds of secrets.

There is no cure for scoliosis. There are forms of physical therapy available as treatment, such as electrical muscle stimulation, in which small pads are attached to the patient’s back. These pads have connecting wires that hook up to a machine on which the therapist will choose a level of pressure and a length of time. The adolescent, lying face down, will feel the back muscles clench for as many seconds as the therapist chooses to hold.

The procedure is designed to strengthen back muscles, in hopes that the body will learn to align on its own, but the patient may feel as if the doctor is doing their best to rid the body of an evil spirit.

The medical books: Scoliosis is an abnormal curve in the spine.
The chiropractor: There is no reason to not feel normal.

                                                                          §

I learned how to put on socks. They were the final challenge each morning, after buckling the brace and molding clothing on top of it. I became stiff. My torso could not bend over in a comfortable curve to slip socks onto pointed toes. Everything took twice as long. I held socks by the heel and heavily pulled each one over the bottom of my foot. Outside the brace, the entire process of putting on socks takes all of three seconds and zero seconds of planning. It is different every time, but always involves a contraction of the pelvis, and maybe a little jumping on one foot. Inside this device, I stood upright, praising my ballet balance, and drew my foot slowly upwards from the floor, my ankle sicled in an angle possible for my hands to solidly wrap the cloth around the skin.

                                                                          §

Him: It’s not that I feel inhibited. It’s just that you don’t seem fully there.

                                                                          §

Taking off the brace at any time was a breach of contract. Anything that could not be done inside it should not be done at all: dancing, eating cheese, having sex.

At nineteen I tried out meditation, searching for my spirit animal. On my back in a field, I found it was a bobcat. Eyes closed, grass prickly beneath my arms, legs and neck. In my imagined forest, in my woods that only exist for me, a bobcat appeared from behind a bush. It did not speak, but it told me plainly: keep your silence and secrets.

That was autumn, and by spring I should have known better. On my back on a green hill, in not-quite spring, I should have known.

No one’s around, he said. Let me hear you, he said. But I didn’t speak.

                                                                          §

A shift occurs after your first adolescent relationships, when the sickening bundle of insincere endearment becomes too difficult to hold. I could never hold another body for too long. When I was fifteen my boyfriend was older; he wanted to lie together in the cool dimness of his basement with our clothes off, feeling the places our skin would touch and form together. Another living body forced upon my own. I could never hold another body for too long.

                                                                          §

The chiropractor always asked me to hold my breath when he took the x-ray. I never knew if this was a necessary part of the procedure or not. I would take off my necklace, belt, and any other metal on my body. I would press my back against the x-ray wall as he stepped into the next room to flip the switch.

Hold your breath, he’d say. Then we’d wait.

Sometimes, I didn’t hold my breath. I let the spine escape through my mouth.


Naomi Washer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal. Her work has appeared in Essay Daily, Blue Mesa Review, Split Lip Magazine, TYPO, Passages North, and other journals. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and teaches writing and literature from her home in Vermont, below a mountain, between two rivers. Find out more at http://www.naomiwasher.com

Melissa Hall

2017, NonFiction

MY FATHER, IN HOUSES

The house on Apple Drive is a small, three-bedroom starter home, with neighbors directly next door and across the street, and up the street and down the street. It is a neighborhood of young military families and thousands of children. My dad has decided that this house will become our palace. This house will be the castle in the neighborhood full of overgrown lawns and molding roofs.

He starts by planting holly bushes alongside the driveway. Slick, waxy leaves with needles at the end of each point. They draw blood when my neighbor’s basketball lands in a patch of broken limbs within the row of green bushes.

“You kids better keep that ball out of my bushes!” he shouts. But we’re in elementary school and our motor skills aren’t the best. The ball bee-lines for the same spot every time, and our hands and arms get bloodier and bloodier, and my dad gets angrier and angrier until he decides to expand the driveway because we need to be able to park both cars, and the holly bushes are gone.

Instead, rocks will border the palace. Giant rocks. Rocks that need to be placed around the perimeter of our front yard, marking the boundaries between our yard and the neighbor’s unkempt jungle. They will be regal. They will define our house from the others.

He mentions Colorado and how there are rocks everywhere, how wilderness blends with suburbia. Rocks with lawn. My mom and I don’t know what he’s talking about.

When my mom and I wonder where the rocks for this project will come from, he waves his hand like what-a-dumb-question. “There are big rocks everywhere,” he says.

Except there aren’t. We check the most logical place near our house—a sand pit with giant compact white-sugar hills that I skin my knee on if I run down the steep hills too fast and fall.

There are no rocks here. Or at least none large enough.

We check construction sites, thinking that maybe while bulldozers are bulldozing the trees and making way for a cement foundation there will be giant rocks. No rocks.

My dad doesn’t give up. He surveys the town, drives down dirt roads, drives through unfinished neighborhoods, and somehow discovers that these rocks, these perfect giant rocks, are housed in a drainage ditch behind the construction site for a Lowe’s. When my mom and I ask if the rocks are available for the taking, he waves his hand again. “Whose rocks are these?” he says. “No one’s. Ours.” However, he keeps looking over his shoulder as the three of us haul rocks up a hill and load them into his SUV. Up the hill we go, all of us tumbling over our feet and holes in the steep hill, sweating in the Florida heat, my dad directing us to the vehicle. Down we go for another rock, this one bigger than the last. Another round, and we have three giant rocks in the vehicle.

My mom and I exhausted, we huff at my dad’s smile—he can hardly contain his excitement as he discusses where the rocks will go. He has a plan for each.

At home, my dad pulls out a measuring tape, stands in our neighbor’s yard, moves to the other side of the street, gauges where these rocks will go, which direction each particular rock should face. My mom and I roll the rocks and position them, roll them over again, reposition, and when they are finally in their right places, my dad nods. “It really makes the yard look nice,” he says.

Actually, they look ridiculous, and neighbors walk by our house whispering and pointing. I can hear their thoughts: what was he thinking? This neighborhood?

They look out of place when the neighborhood goes under, according to my dad. We move away a few years or so later when he decides we need a better house—a bigger palace.

                                                                         *

One of my dad’s favorite pastimes is driving around and looking at houses. He likes to go inside and comment on the size of the rooms, the countertops in the bathrooms and kitchens, the space in the garage, the size of the lot. About each, he says, “If I were building this house I would have done it this way…” or “they could have saved more money doing it this way…” or “I don’t know what the hell they were thinking by making the room face this direction…”

We’re always looking at houses, even when we aren’t looking for a house. What can be done with this particular house? What are the possibilities?

I’m brought along because my wrists are small enough to fit into the door handle hole and unlock the deadbolt from the inside. We commit crime after crime.

My dad and I drive around Old Bethel Road and somehow end up at a lake. “It would be nice to live near a lake,” he says. “There’s so much water in Colorado. Natural lakes. Beautiful.” I just shrug. The beach is less than an hour away with see-through waters and clean white sand. Lakes are murky and slimy and contain mysterious creatures beneath their surfaces. Why live near a lake?

He spots a house on Tranquility Drive, at the end of what will become a cul-de-sac but for now is grass and trees. Trees that separate the house from the houses behind it. Trees that are old enough to have been around before the house was built. My dad is in love with the trees, but more in love with the house once we step inside after I’ve finagled my arm into the door.

We gasp. “This is the house,” my dad exclaims and I nod in agreement. The living room is a nice square-shape. The dining room is huge. The kitchen has an island smack dab in the middle of it. The walk-in pantry is big enough for a twin-sized bed. The light fixtures are brushed-nickel. There are ceiling fans in all the rooms. The neighborhood is quiet, and there’s that lake nearby, and it looks like a respectable house. A house that you could be proud to say was your own. A palace.

                                                                         *

My dad hates the idea of moving out of the Tranquility Drive house.

But he lost his job at the convenient store warehouse. Something about talking too much. Something about disclosing how much he was getting paid to other employees. Something about how boring the job is. Something about his bosses thinking he’s an overall pain in the ass.

He hates moving into the rental house on Secretariat Drive, hates the idea of renting when we could fix up an older house without them stealing our money, but mostly hates the neighborhood. “We moved off of Apple Drive to avoid this,” he says, motioning around to the neighbor’s houses. The house is behind the hospital and it’s a typical subdivision—houses on small plots of land, mere feet from each other. Neighbors park their cars on the road next to their yellow-green front yards. No rocks to be found anywhere.

He brings up Cripple Creek, Colorado. “It’s just beautiful there,” he says. “The trees and wildlife. Not so busy.” Even though he’s never been to Cripple Creek, even though he’s never even been to Colorado. He brings it up occasionally, more so lately, and how much he’d like to live there, in the woods. With the wildlife. Whenever he brings it up, he mentions that he’ll move there someday. No us, not his family, his wife and daughter, but him. He’ll be there.

He complains about the Secretariat house. Its four small rooms. None of them with ceiling fans. The window in the room next door to me is impossible to fit blinds or curtains over, so it bakes in the Florida sun. The house is hot and stuffy, so the AC constantly runs, which my mom and I never hear the end of whenever my dad is in the house.

He doesn’t take into account that the house is conveniently located near Wal-Mart, or that when the power goes out in Crestview the Secretariat house doesn’t because it’s on the same grid as the hospital. Those details don’t matter to him.

Inviting my dad’s family to come to Florida for Christmas this year—rather than us having to drive to Indiana again—was a good idea when we still lived on Tranquility Drive. The spacious living room, the comfortably air-conditioned rooms, the trees mere feet from our back door. It would have all been very nice. Very festive and impressive.
Instead, we’re forced to host gift-opening in a living room full of too-big furniture and squeezed-together sisters and brothers. Limited seating takes on a new meaning that Christmas.

                                                                         *

Fortune strikes: my dad lands a good job at a local water plant, once again, in the warehouse. It promises good hours and even better pay, enough to purchase a piece of land outside of town, away from the sound and noise pollution of the city, in the wilderness. The perfect location for my dad’s dream house.

He talks about the dream house nonstop. How he’d design it. How he’d build it with his own hands, and with his own people. How it would make more structural sense than those split-level houses with one bedroom on one side of the living room and two others on the opposite side—because who really wants to sleep on the same wall as the living room?

Does my dad have blue prints for his dream house? Does he have a notebook full of sketches? Does it contain colors for the walls or sample of carpet? Measurements? Pictures? Does he know what type of light fixtures would be in the house? Does he want brushed-nickel or dark chrome color? I don’t know, but I’m sure he has all the answers.

My dad will have a wooden plaque made in honor of his dream house: Hall Family est. 2005. But does he know that his dream house will have an unfinished backyard that you can’t navigate through, a gigantic burn pile full of old boards and nails and construction equipment that will never get burned, a slab of concrete accompanied by a load of untouched bricks for a shed that will never get built? Does he know that the arch in the living room leading into the hallway won’t be round and precise, that in fact none of the arches will be and that the one in the kitchen will resemble a penis? Does he know that his restlessness will reach its peak and that he’ll say he hates the people he works with, then quit his job? Start talking about how much he hates Florida, hot weather, and the close-minded, conservative Bible-thumping Republicans who just want to shove their beliefs down his throat? Start talking about how far away this dream house is from his family in Indiana even though he moved to Florida to get away from them? Start talking about how much he hates my mom’s constant nagging at him to get a job? Does he know that he’ll take a solo trip to Indiana—he’ll say it’s to see his mother—and then return a week or two later, and then go back to Indiana for even longer? Does he know that his wooden plaque should say Hall Family until Dad decides to quit his job and then leave for Indiana for weeks at a time and then come back when there’s family only to ask for a divorce a year and half into living in the dream house?

I don’t know.

I just know that one day we’re living in a rental house behind the hospital and the next day we’re staring at the red dirt that my dad claims will be the place for his dream house. The land he purchases affordable. Near a shooting range. Across the street from a railroad track. Located in the middle of nowhere, twenty minutes from my high school, my friends, Wal-Mart and completely surrounded by Florida wilderness. Wolf spiders sneak across the leaves. Mosquitoes breed in the damp woods. Dogs run wild because there’s no one to control them. Cars speed down the road going 60 miles per hour. I’m not impressed.

If my mom has any doubts, she doesn’t say. Maybe she just wants him to be happy. Maybe she appreciates how clearly my dad can envision his dream house, how it will have trees in the front to shield it from the dirty road. Surely, she didn’t imagine that my dad’s dream house was the last house we’ll ever live in together as a family, that she’ll be stuck taking care of my dad’s dream house on her own, that this plot of land will become part of the wilderness again.



Melissa Hall received her MFA in Creative Writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. She currently lives in Austin, Texas where she tutors English and writing to students with learning disabilities. In her spare time, Melissa volunteers as a grant writer for a local nonprofit (Kids In A New Groove), and attends as many concerts as her budget allows. You can find her work in ANON Magazine.

Cheyenne Nimes

2017, NonFiction

PULLING OFF 252

For people who want their straight lines to be straight, life itself is the problem. –Natalia Ilyin


When light changes speed, it changes direction and when summer began edging toward another part of the world, when wind changes and starts coming from the south, lowering the muscle of summer, and the back of the leaves turn against the wind, when Elvis has “expired” the day before, something finally starts or something finally ends.

The numbers hurt as August ticks by. Landscape getting seared, and hours you lay in wait. But the universe is about to make a correction. Thinnest edges of a trip to still sustain you, a girl who was resolutely connected to water, the Origin, the Sea. Gathering things as if for a hunt on the way out the house for the Morris Minor, flight risk, deployed, squealing on the way out. Vamoose, baby.

Our car some silver on the wind, And at latitude 40.02508 and longitude 75.22706 the minor moves on the Schuylkill expressway with three blood-related inhabitants: mother, brother, yourself. Executing a great escape. Sound hovers off the top of the road from cars driving east to the Atlantic, snatches of the King out dashboards, WFILfm- It’s Now Or Never…- Sometimes drivers, they cry into a Kleenex. Or you think maybe they do. Or that someone somewhere must be. The world was and is and people were and are. The brother does several crude drawings of holy men en route to nowhere. Flint tools. The mother you see moves out of her old skin and leaves it behind when past the Jersey state line. And more sun is predicted. You smell the sea. And as if fallen through an opening in space & time, suddenly there.

Everything salt litter: entire roadways, fences, up the sides of motels, windshields. All of humanity is here. Sweating & seething, teething & toning. Something speeds faster than the three of us: Ours was a giant shadow you could not see but knew was there, us washing in. Let the sun evaporate it. A wraparound light that envelops and you hope it’s enough, so shiny even more like the water than the water itself. The light that fills the world. Daylight on the skin and only there to go, basted in salt spray. Coppertone, Sun-In, Tastee Freeze and two vanilla cones in one day! Thirst. Instant tan. The brother and you body surfing the waves all the way out, lifting up and down, hitting the sand hard the way back in. There’s no past apart from right now. It’s painful to be without form and then shaped for a moment but you’re getting to like the highest rogue waves. The original blueprint. It floats by, bobbed up & down, hurled to the surface again & again. How rare for a message in a bottle to arrive safely somewhere. Something they have to find their way to. Words no one knows but the sky when it’s miles out at sea. We will arrive where we should be. It rises back up again with a force but you can’t pull it in. The sky handing back a base of salt, seeds of light, white awakening. In the bloodstream. Soaked and dried and burned out again. Salt on your lips, red cheeks, wharf rat hair. Becoming the sun yourself. The image merges with the original. At last.

Shells. Tiny pink conch. Too small to hear anything out of. You bend down, grab it up to your eyes. Whirls and smooth spirally circles which have no straight sides & no angles. Hot sun & burning shells, shells on fire. Flames enclosing the whole. Perfect cowlick swirl no one can take away. Shell: where everything makes sense inside of itself. This shell found you, so you can’t be so bad. It’s tiny, but it’s there, and real, and in your hand now. It’s the best one you’ve ever seen. It is a find.

Soon, too soon, no sun; you’re trying to get a little shadow under a white sky, the sky: a giant white blood cell. Time to go. Reality returns. Intervention of reality. Something drifting from somewhere else now nearer than before. Truth of the way things are. How cold the sky is, this color too of your mouth opening up toward it, a black hole, a cave entered so thoroughly no one ever came back. And in what light there is almost everything is taken away but the white sky we have turned into.

Day you leave. Delay factor. At the last breath, the last second. Pack, unpack. Extra day or leave now. The day a cut line. Retrenched, prehensile… A sense something is running across its own path. First there’s a fixed moment- a second or two you might stay awhile more… but worn down to a uniform gradient, you’ve abandoned the world to the devil. There’s no place left to run. The world pulls down. The universe is pulling away from you. Even low tide lays down and waits for reality. Beginning to seep back, already late for what can’t appear. You are stock characters caught in stock dramatic situations constantly chased away from one town to the next. With only the most basic of hard facts: She compresses a lifetime into a few sentences: We have to go back. You know. A wire mother. People are lining up & never coming back. Herding them in an orderly procession.

You picture Elvis, demons. Think of your 6’4 father. Dark hair of a man swinging on stage to his demons, shouting him on from behind and sometimes all around. Only time had passed in the dream. In the car now, the brother coloring in the lines a vague airstrip to somewhere-. He knows where everything is for an instant but not what to do with it. Caterpillar trucks whoosh by rocking the car shell —All you need is love and the Beatles sing it & when you’re supposed to believe them you don’t. You can’t. You did once, but that’s over. The fullness of dusk hits you in your belly. Paths cross. 1,000 mph is the speed of the shadow of the moon moving during a solar eclipse, 150 miles across the width of that shadow’s path & 150 the miles your house is from the water edge, too. The trail returns to where it began, T-minus one mile. The final approach.

Then something happens.

At the 252 Exit she didn’t slow. That round beetle was going to slake past like a close pass-by of an asteroid, keep going to get away, no 252, and at the last possible second veered right onto that ramp then off the side of the road to a complete halt. As if a map stopped here & this is off it. Near the edge of the observable universe. A cellophane standstill. How the hands are splayed across the steering wheel, gripping them as if she’s hit upon some truth in the turn-off. It stands off by itself blinking, the 252 sign, agitated electrons, & when seen from side to side or up & down it sifts straight into the atmosphere and tells the colors, an appearance held together by its opposite: blinking light: dark, light, dark, light. Trance. Declaring its independence beyond the highway signs, from the metal green mile markers to guide us there, “Home.” How many things hold so little. I have the shell in my pocket, that’s right, it burns. I have the shell in my pocket, that’s right, it burns.

The whole world collides. Phlegm streams down her face like a bad 70’s blue flick. How anyone can tell their entire story without saying a word. She screamed the street down. The birds howl out. The sky is falling in Philly. When you have enough, you’ve had enough. The layers & years that accumulate. Someone weeping in a corner, into the endlessness that’s there, yet I can’t tell who, what. But then she shook it off. Her mouth pinched to a sharp point. Wherever you happen to be, the world is organized outward from that. Mother, training ground. You look back toward Jersey, the road light, the part of the sky the ground holds up at the horizon, then see the dark, the road to the housing developments, horse shows, rotary club smugness, and it’s as if the four directions take leave of each other. Once that exact moment passes, the smidgen of hope, escape for good, you start going up Upper Gulph Road slowly, pulling gravity against its will.

The slo-mo skid into the driveway, your stomach contracts, may as well be a roller coaster at the beginning of first drop. Things we can’t name but have come back for. Wheels singe by under you, the white picket post fence metastasizing the lie rolling by. Strange-weed, pollens of weeds, house sparrows, pyrex, crème cookies, night’s edge of nowhere. Things that can tell you the whole story in a single glance. More dark is predicted. Overpowering the ambient light. And suddenly you are still, skin of your house a looming morass & porchlight blasts on but it’s still what’s called a sniper’s moon were it Vietnam, on the news inside with the father passed out, obtunded, about to pass on. Your incisors all shining with radiance under a sniper’s moon. The mother- sacrifice, martyrdom- sits, smoking, watching blue smoke rings slide up the air. The biggest difference is the predator kills its prey, while the parasite leaves its host alive. It’s night, and the dark gets darker. Everything here is stalled. We sit at the precipice of the world in a kind of veering, a silence that could scream us off a ledge. Thing we have never spoken of. All you want is to say what is. Dark matter, thought to account for 85% of all the mass in the universe, seems to attract itself through some unknown force. Your shells burn & make their own light. You can change the direction of light, but maybe not here. Collapse light into earth under your house & make the foundation real.

You close your eyes and try to imagine what it looks like when time goes by a lot faster: Walking in, edging around the corners of ming vases, tripping across senile oriental rugs. Statue, marble, male & broken. At once tall & afraid. What had been supported will cave in. The fresh cut flowers sprouting fangs as they’re walked in the house. The remains of four dismembered bodies in tomorrow’s paper. You believe if you hold still here, in this driveway, a solar eclipse will come, because any given spot on earth plays host to one every 300 years. Or you could get out the car into the resuming darkness. No one moves. More time for pictures: your father getting skeletonized, underground. Maggots lifting his body off marrow with their jagged-toothed mouths. There’s only one way to walk out into the night. The Dark Side. Sign Up Now. Even in not knowing, we know. He is not long for this world. It’s the same theory as a black hole in space. No one can see it, but by watching the environment and reaction to things around it, you know it’s there. Blood is thicker than water. A man’s home is his castle. Or, Vertical, he’d say, as he balances into a room. I’m vertical. Your years of it all, first memories, switchblade dreams, wanting nothing more than to march out to this same driveway and smash a J&B scotch bottle, to make it all just disappear, tiny marks the size of a child’s fingers and no one, not even the smallest child can disturb them and their trajectory. When they tip that bottle back to their mouth, it’s a choice, not a disease. Swishing it around in the mouth, a small sea forming there. You don’t know what he thought he couldn’t come back from. Saturated.

Someone makes a move to open a door. Then retracts the move. You sit & wish something would break. Would hit. A large body that twirls through the solar system every x number of years. And blast this all apart. Everything please burst. Sometimes leaving a soul behind on the earth is the best thing a body can do. The spirit is so unsafe in the body that it leaves. Dead. In three years. Flat-lined. And you keep repeating it just how it sounds: deaddeaddead. Thank you and good night. Laying in the bright fun baby blue plaid Vegas blazer, his fingers steepled, five burned out candles in the casket light, orange stained hands, lucky strikes. Shaken but not stirred.


Living by the Great Salt Lake, Cheyenne Nimes is a cross-genre writer currently working on poetry/nonfiction hybrids. Work is forthcoming in The Shell Game, an anthology on forms (University of Nebraska). South Loop Review, Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, Kenyon Review, Jellyfish Review, etc. are recent homes, and work is forthcoming in Threadcount and Entropy.

Melanie Unruh

2017, NonFiction

TRIAGE

The Female Body has many uses. It’s been used a door-knocker, a bottle-opener, as a clock with a ticking belly, as something to hold up lampshades, as a nutcracker, just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut. It bears torches, lifts victorious wreathes, grows copper wings and raises aloft a ring of neon stars; whole buildings rest on its marble heads.
—Margaret Atwood, “The Female Body”

I am sure I don’t need another exam, but when they finally have a room for me in triage and the nurse instructs me to put on a scratchy blue and white hospital gown, I obey because I can’t bear to explain again why I am here. Logically, I understand there are legal issues and other patients take priority, but spending two hours alone in a waiting room and another hour alone in a drafty room in a flimsy gown, waiting to chipmunk four pills that will take 30 minutes to dissolve in my mouth, seems excessive.

There is no good reason to go to OB triage, the emergency room for pregnant women, where I have been numerous times as a non-pregnant woman. The last time, I was hemorrhaging, passing massive blood clots that, the day before Thanksgiving, resembled horrific servings of cranberry sauce. No one understood what was happening to me the first time I checked in, a week before that, with inexplicable bleeding. They sent me home, saying that sometimes “blood just pools in a woman’s body”. But on this second occasion, the exam room was crowded with doctors and nurses, all trying to stop the blood escaping from my body. The woman who hooked up my IV whispered to me, “I answered the phone when you called. I’m so glad you came in.” That day I lost 1/5 of the blood I normally carry because three weeks after delivering my son, my uterus was still trying to expel some lingering piece of tissue.

Two years later I am back at triage, waiting. No blood or fanfare this time. The paperwork—a single sheet, really—sits in an envelope beside me. I keep it within arm’s reach, in case the next person who pops into the room doesn’t know why I’m here and I’m again struck dumb and unable to name the dead thing inside me.

“No fetal heart tones detected at todays visit,” it reads.  In a way, I’m grateful for the typo because it gives me something concrete to fixate my anger on.

                                                                         ***

The blame game
Drank too much tea
Went to Zumba
Got too close to cat litter
Used antiperspirant
Moved crib to catch spider
Was too sedentary at work
Accidentally ate feta cheese (twice)
Used non-organic face soap
Got a flu shot
Stressed over election results

                                                                         ***

I am trying not to have a meltdown at the mall. It’s almost Christmas, so I probably just blend in with all of the craziness: people wrangling unruly children; suave-looking Middle Eastern men at kiosks trying to catch your eye to get you to buy skin cream, hair straighteners, and cell phones; and a woman at J.C. Penney who obnoxiously drawls, “Cómo estás, ya’ll?”. I’m carrying my two-year-old son, searching for a bathroom where I can change his reeking diaper. My dad, who is visiting from back East, is pushing the empty stroller. He gestures to the sweater, toddler shoes, and purple scarf on the seat and says, “I feel like I’m pushing a phantom baby. Look,” he says to my son. “Do you see the baby? Do you see it?”

He has no idea what’s happened to me or why it’s the worst possible thing he could say right now, today, nine days before Christmas, two weeks into the most miserable menstrual period of my life. But I’m just looking for the bathroom and hoping nothing clicks in my son’s head and he remembers that, wait a minute, there was supposed to be a baby.

                                                                         ***

The bills have started coming in—the ultrasound, the triage visit, the bloodwork, the pills. All told, it cost about $550 to lose a pregnancy. I guess I should be thankful that I have insurance, at least.

                                                                         ***

Anger is not an emotion I am comfortable with. When I was growing up, my family repressed rage until we were at a full boil. Then spatulas, stereos, and remotes were hurled across the room; dolls and books were beheaded and torn; coffee tables were upended. I wish I could say that I rejected this model, that I can process my emotions in a healthier way. I’ve made progress, but in many ways, I am still a product of that environment.

What do I do with my anger over this loss? Who do I take it out on? Myself? My body? My genes? My husband? God? Society? The newly minted president? Do I just chalk it up to a fluke, bad timing, or statistical inevitability? Maybe I’ll start running again, listening to ’90s female angst rock, like Garbage and Kittie. Maybe I’ll write impassioned letters to Congress, urging for better support of women, minorities, and the poor. Maybe I’ll help my son build massive Lego towers so that we can tear them down together. Maybe I’ll channel Tony Soprano and yell at my therapist. Or my other therapist. Maybe I will withhold all sympathy from my students when they email me, hysterical about their stolen cars, their deathbed grandmas, their pinkeye, their unavoidable weeklong trips without Internet access during midterms. Maybe I’ll write an essay about the men who have called my female narrators “bitchy and bitter” or have referred to my writing about broken families and rape as “another banal walk through suburbia”. Maybe I will go for a drive in the desert, roll the windows down, and scream.

                                                                         ***

While I wait for the ultrasound tech to bring me the paperwork to take to triage, I ask the nurses at the front desk if they can please cancel my next pre-natal care appointment. They tell me I don’t have to wait, that they already know my name. I still get the reminder phone call a week later.

                                                                         ***

Melanie writes notes to herself
My son is a miracle. 
I feel old.
My husband is being so supportive.
Everyone who knew now knows. Thank God I never told my parents.
So many people have it worse.
Happy Thanksgiving: what I was most thankful for was already dead inside me.
It’s quiet uptown.

                                                                         ***

“Will we be able to hear the heartbeat today?” I ask the ultrasound tech, too excited to care that the stirrups are cutting off circulation to my feet.

“Not at seven weeks,” she says, her eyes straining at the screen.

I glance at my husband, who is distracted by our son squirming in his lap. We thought I was nine weeks pregnant, but can you really trust a fertility app?

The tech is gone for a few minutes, conferring with the midwife, before I start putting the pieces together. Nothing appeared on the display other than a gray sac she kept referring to as the “fetal pole”. We asked her several times what that meant, and she danced around it to the point that I thought I was crazy, that there was some medical jargon I just didn’t understand.

When the midwife finally appears, I know. Though my body delayed for two weeks, turning me into an unwitting grave for a thing that never was, my heart seizes upon the wound before she can name it.

                                                                         ***

I have been a fierce pro-choice woman since my early twenties. Part of me thinks that my belief system should make this loss easier. It wasn’t really a baby because life doesn’t begin at conception, I tell myself. Rationally, I know this. But at the same time, though, the thing my womb held was the promise of a baby I desperately wanted.

I’m reminded of the time I went to a children’s writing conference with my YA manuscript about abortion. Honestly, I felt a little ghoulish and reluctant to chat with the picture book writers. Despite this misplaced guilt, as someone who was writing about an important young adult issue, I had every right to be there.

Moments after the midwife broke the news, I said, “Well, at least we don’t live in Texas.” She and my husband stared at me blankly before I added, “Because then we’d have to have a funeral.”

                                                                         ***

My Facebook feed is lousy with pregnancy
“Little girl is showing herself off!”
“I cant wait to see what our little girl is going to look like.”
“I used a parking spot for expectant mothers today and only felt slightly guilty about it!?”
“38.5 weeks!”
“Everything looked absolutely perfect at our scan today! No anomalies, baby is gorgeous and healthy and definitely a boy!”
“Making it Facebook official”
“The boys are so excited to announce we are having a girl!!!”
“New year, new adventure!”

                                                                         ***

I look up fetal pole and find the following: “The fetal pole is a thickening on the margin of the yolk sac of a fetus during pregnancy.” So the amorphous thing we half saw wasn’t a fetus, but a thickening. The only thing that’s thickened is me, though. By now I would have a defined baby bump instead of walking around with what just looks like a sad gut brought on by seasonal affective disorder. I spend the winter indoors eating late night carne asada fries, reading short stories about abuse, and snuggling with an obese, hairy cat that has forgotten how to clean herself.

                                                                         ***

Sometimes, I tell myself that none of the big stuff matters: politics, religion, culture, entertainment, the environment, and the rest are pointless because we’re all just sacks of meat that will die one day. A curious thing happens when I reduce myself to a meaningless hunk of flesh, though. Without consideration for my passions or intellect, I simply become a vessel, a woman whose sole biological purpose is to bear children. I am now entering the existential death spiral, wherein I tell myself that I have failed at my primary natural task 50% of the time. I flail for a book, a law, a joke, a prayer, a conversation, anything that can serve as a lifeline to draw me back and show me that I am more than just a uterus with legs. But I come up empty.

                                                                         ***

My son wants us to have another baby, but this desire only seems based on his vague understanding of milk returning to my breasts. He thinks he can reclaim one for himself. He grows. He’s starting to use the toilet instead of diapers and his hair is more like hair and less like duck fuzz. My beautiful boy speaks in full sentences now, saying things like, “I love you, Mama” and “I want to use the weed wacker”. This summer, I will sign him up for swim classes with the city. I will hold his little brown body with ease in the aquamarine pool, my own body unencumbered, weightless.

 


Melanie Unruh has an MFA in fiction from the University of New Mexico. Her work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Post Road, Sixfold, Philadelphia Stories, and Cutthroat, among others. Her nonfiction received notable mention in Best American Essays 2013.

Mason Hamberlin

2017, NonFiction

BEFORE THE CHANGES TO THE DSM-V, CIRCA 2000–2007

for Diana C.

  1. Age six, soft-shelled, the boy doesn’t sleep at night without socks. Toes exposed, every breeze, texture, touch: elastane needles. Like peeling the skin beneath fingernails or the chill of cold, surgical instruments. Otherwise, he doesn’t care much. Contentment comes defined by shapes, hours alone with books or Legos.
    1. Also notable. No: 
      1. Nylon
      2. Shorts
      3. Nylon shorts
      4. Short nails
      5. Short hair
      6. Long stares

  2. Marina Beach, CA. Family trip (2002): 
    1. The boy wears neither a swimsuit, nor shorts. The Gap-brand bottoms that parents bought line the boy’s closet like mold, mostly asphyxiated by other suburban kid stuff—not that parents have checked. Parents just think they have a particular child.

      1. No, you can’t take your Legos to the beach, Mother says. Why’d you bring them if I said so at home? And, M, where’s your swimsuit?

    2. So the boy brings a book instead, tucks socks into sweatpants, undoes umbrella, avoids sun. The Pacific light powders the beach a brick-oven brown in the evenings, from dunes to water, a color not unlike that of passing elderly couples, their skin leathered and sagging. For the boy, this evokes an image of his chicken legs crisping.

      1. Why don’t you come off the blanket? Mother says. Come roll down the dunes with your sister and I—you can keep your socks on.
      2. I want to read, the boy says.
      3. M, please.

    3. Mother standing over the boy with sister, S. The boy shrimps around his book and pretends it’ll all go away. How can they not understand? He just can’t and, well, what about the seaweed and reeds and jellyfish and flies? And what about the sun—feels like a thumbprint smothered, hot on an electric stove—why is it there? He pushes out the light with the book’s spine.

      1. S, three years younger, bowl cut with tater-tot grubbing fingers, throws wet sand and teeters away.
      2. (The boy yells.)
      3. At distance, Father lofted on the dunes: S, no, stop that. C’mon, why can’t these kids get along, dammit?

  3. The boy doesn’t like S.

  4. Days later, a sort of self-mutilation begins in healing, when Mother tucks him in and connects the freckles on his neck.

    1. And says:

      1. If you ever hurt, pray and we’ll make you better. You shouldn’t ever have to hurt. Don’t tell anyone, but you’re my favorite.

  5. When they go to Safeway each week, S gets to ride in the shopping cart seat. But S doesn’t want to be there and M does, but Mother says otherwise, and M has done enough second grade math to know this doesn’t add up.

    1. What also doesn’t add up:

      1. How S wants to know what you’re doing right now.
      2. How about now?
      3. Now?
      4. How often Mother uses the word “socialize” when M cries.
      5. How Mother and Father always pick up S when she cries, which isn’t often and never in public. When they do, they say it’s because S has a good reason, and not having socks is not a good reason.

  6. LOUD // BIRTHDAY PARTY (2003) // NOT HIS BIRTHDAY // SISTER AND CANDLES AND CAKE AND // BALLOONS // OCCASIONAL LANDMINES // SILLY BOY // DON’T RUIN THIS FOR OTHERS // ACCIDENTAL POP // CRYING // ENTER: FATHER // LOOK, IT’S NOT THAT BAD // CRYING // IDEA // EXIT SIBLINGS // EXIT ROOM WITH BOY // ENTER BALLOONS // POP // BOY SCREAMS // FATHER BARS M’S ARMS BACK // POP // SCREAMS // BOY REDUCED // MOTHER: ARE YOU SURE THIS IS RIGHT? // BOY TRYING TO BREATHE // FLOOR TASTES LIKE SWEAT // SILLY BOY // POP // POP // SWEAT AND TEARS // PUDDLES // SCREAMING // BOY’S BRUISED WRISTS // SHAPED LIKE A MAN’S HANDS // THOUGHT BUT NOT CONFIRMED (?) // POP // POP // THINGS GO // GRAY // HOW LONG? // LONG ENOUGH // AT NIGHT, THE BOY CAN’T SLEEP // CORRECTION: NOBODY SLEEPS // PRAYERS // CRYING //

  7. S’s fault. She shouldn’t have been born.

    1. Just want to hurt her.

  8. The boy, still a boy, bounds around the suburban backyard, pretending he’s a giant, fighting robot who saves the day and decapitates annoying sisters. Defend the neighborhood cul-de-sacs from enemies, potato bugs. In his head, nothing can stop him.

    1. Not the neighbor boy, who once stole a swing right off the boy’s backyard playset. The neighbor boy who, with holes in his socks, painted their three-bedroom-two-bath with eggs when M couldn’t look him in the eye. 
    2. Not the hushed stories Mother tells. The ones about the apartments behind the house, where a man robbed a single mother of two with a screwdriver. Mother says: Nothing good can happen in a place surrounded by all those trees.

  9. Unexpected news (2005):

    1. Kids, we’re moving to France. 
      1. Your father got offered a job, Mother says. We’ve been talking. It’ll be different. But good different. It’ll be a good experience for us all.
      2. Do they have Legos in France? the boy asks. 
    2. Mother calculates it: Morgan Hill, CA to Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport is a thirteen-hour (or $1,775) flight per person. But Father’s new HR job will cover it all. The house, car, school. But the boy? Worries from Mother and Father. They research online to kill time between packing boxes. 
    3. An APA-approved website demands the following criteria:

      1. “A total of six (or more) items from (1), (2), and (3), with at least two from (1), and one each from (2) and (3):

        1. Qualitative impairment in social interaction…
        2. Qualitative impairments in communication…
        3. Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities…

      2. Delays or abnormal functioning in at least one of the following areas, with onset prior to age 3 years:

        1. Social Interaction
        2. Language as used in social communication
        3. Symbolic or imaginative play

      3. The disturbance is not better accounted for by Rett’s Disorder or Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.”1

    4. Other online literature says:

      1. “The elder of two sons, Hans Asperger had difficulty finding friends and was considered a lonely, remote child…He was interested in the Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer, whose poetry he would frequently quote to his uninterested classmates. He also liked to quote himself and often referred to himself from a third-person perspective.”2

  10. Bienvenue à la Plague spray-painted on the road sign outside. Vaucresson crossed out. New house. New country. All vines and gates and hundred-year-old buildings. From now on, the family buys more antique furniture than humanly necessary. Ungodly amounts.

  11. LDS Jesus looks down on the French congregation—brown hair, blue eyes, and canvas smile—hung from the manicured brick wall. Meanwhile, the Mormons sing, and somewhere near the front, a bishop palms the boy’s back and imparts the how-to routine of passing the sacrament.

    1. The boy (age ten): bent in half and sat in a folding chair. (Quiet? Crying?)
    2. Adjacent: a twelve-year-old sucks a pacifier. Another sneaks paper slivers of naked women, and whisper about the American basketballer, LeBron James.

      1. Après l’hymne et la prière, the bishop says, tu vas passer le pain et l’eau à ces allées, là-bas.
      2. (He points.)
      3. Continues: M, ta mère me dit que tu fais mal parfois? Eh bien, c’est ici que tu peux guérir. Tout est dans le Premiers Corinthiens 11:24. Lorsque tu touches les cœurs des autres, le toucher du Christ va t’aider.

  12. Supper:

    1. In theory, the boy says he sets the table for four. In practice, though, it’s always a puzzle—S set as far from him as possible.
    2. Come time, the soft creaks of feet down stairs notifies the boy that hungry bodies follow. He listens. The carpet—fastened down by brass rods at the root of each step—muffles each step. The old wood beneath, however, expresses pressure, like soft groans stretched between three thin floors.
    3. The family doesn’t sit how the boy imagines (paper nametags ignored), and S, most certainly instigating, sits next to the boy.

      1. She’s too close to me, he says.
      2. She’s your sister, Father says.
      3. The boy swings his hands—in defense—at a smiling S.
      4. SMILE INVERTS // WET // AND RED // AND CRYING // OLDER BOY’S HANDS HITTING SMALLER KID RIBS // BABY FAT // DAMMIT, M // WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? // FATHER SWINGING HIS OWN HANDS // PINS BOY // ONE CHILD VULNERABLE // THE OTHER: TICKING LIKE CLOCKWORK //

  13. The boy writes a note:

    1. I am so sad. S makes me so sad and I am sad because I hurt people. I hate hurting people. I wish I could die.”

    2. It has drawings of cartoon characters on it.

  14. Parents talk.

  15. Parents pray.

  16. At the office entrance, there’s a Turkish toilet—a porcelain hole in the ground. Something he’ll never use. Just like the pay-per-use pissiors filled with cigarette butts. The ones next to the Algerian street vendors with beautiful names like Réda and Pafardnam, who whisper to prayer beads and sell knock-off jerseys and watches so they can feed their families overseas.
    1. Be good and don’t talk to strangers, Mother says before hugging the boy goodbye. More for her comfort than his.

      1. Am I broken? the boy asks.
      2. Of course not, M. But I think that’s something only you can decide.

    2. Upstairs: warm air, soft space, and toys. A particular ten year old’s dream.

      1. How are you doing? the therapist asks. Fidget-y, I see?
      2. Yeah. (Eyes aimed at the bookshelf.)
      3. How so? Would you like some coffee or tea while you tell me?
      4. She puts down her pen and paper and reaches for a pair of cups and the boy knits his knuckles and stiffens. Posture noted, she stops.
      5. I can’t, says the boy. My family doesn’t drink those.
      6. Oh, I’m sorry! I forgot—your mother told me. You know, I’ve never known any Mormons to live this far away from the US. That must be a good community for you?
      7. I’m still trying to figure out how it will make me happy.

  17. Flipping through his mother’s albums, the boy sees a stained photograph of him and S. In it, he’s three years old and dressed as Batman, while she, no more than a few months, plays a bald-headed Robin. They’re slumped together, pressed like an infant’s fist. Both quiet. Both peaceful. If not for long, then at least that moment. The boy feels like he might hold the last of his baby teeth—something he lost and can never grow back. In the photo, a passed-out Batman puts his arm around Robin while she sleeps as if to say:

    1. This. I’m proud of this, my sidekick.

  18. Father will still anoint the boy’s head and pray for blessings of health. The laying on of hands, it is called. The whole congregation joins in each Sunday, the boy, the bishop, and Father elevated on a podium. The congregation, in its itchy pews, watches, prays. Older French women in floral prairie dresses tell the boy he has already shown signs of healing and the boy understands none of this, nothing of why these members of the congregation know his name, nothing of why they talk to him just now. Mother cringes, tells the boy to be polite. They are doing their best to care.

    1. An older woman to the boy:
      1. Vas-y! she says. Joue au basket avec les autres garçons. Tout ce que tu as besoin sont les Ecritures et des sports.
      2. Merci, the boy says.
      3. (He never looks up from his dress shoes laces. They’re untied.)

  19. When the boy feels ready, he and the therapist take trips out of the office.

    1. All around them, the 7e arrondissement de Paris alternates between postcard-worthy storefronts and back alley residencies. Some centuries old, with muted hues, some prewar chichi (think flower-haired cherubs carved above every second window). Others—presumably where tourists won’t venture—resemble concrete cubes with three-foot wide alleyways where they almost meet.

      1. Let me show you a place, the therapist says.

    2. Plastic and glass paneling slapped onto the Haussmann architecture: The Real McCoy Cafe. The boy and the therapist sit at a table for two, where she points out shelves stocked with American delicacies: Dr Pepper, Pop Tarts, pork rinds, Oreos, and jerky. Then the menu, which reads: american breakfast—your choice of cookie rrisp, froot loops, or kellogg’s frosties.

      1. Comfort food, she says. They tell you to grow up and then they make places like this.
      2. I haven’t had a Dr Pepper since we moved, the boy says.
      3. It’ll be my treat.
      4. (The boy cracks a smile.)

    3. Now comfortable, they begin. An exercise:

      1. Close your eyes. Inhale for three seconds. Exhale for four. Repeat.
      2. What do you hear?
      3. Smell?
      4. Taste?
      5. Touch. What do you feel in contact with your body?
      6. Slowly, let me let know, she says. Whenever you’re ready.

    4. The boy tries.

      1. Breathe.
      2. He hears the hum of bodies and vehicles in the street. Coffee shop klatch. An espresso machine hiss and the steroid-powered purr of a blender. Someone inflates a balloon: a noise like leaning off an edge.

        1. Good, the therapist says. Now try a little harder.

      3. He notices his own smell: a mother’s choice of detergent, clean clothes.
      4. He thinks about what he tastes. The acidic sips of Dr Pepper that nip and burn even after he swallows. He can’t recall what his mouth tastes without it, though. He can’t recall a time when he didn’t have a taste. Or went hungry. He thinks of the people who provided that security for him.

        1. Now, what do you feel, M?

      5. The boy feels the table’s vinyl skin beneath his palms, like thumbprints, like being hand-to-hand with a hardness, like he’d pour out feathers if cut open, more pillow than flesh and bones and boy. Even this attempt to describe it: a misnomer. He feels the shrill itch in his fingernails. He tells it that he’s tired of hurting because he feels too much. He tells it to quiet. He tells it to quiet, and for a few seconds, it listens.

Mason Hamberlin is an educator, editor, and essayist from Chapel Hill, NC. Most recently, he teaches young writers through Writopia D.C., and hopes to spark discussions about toxic masculinity and stigmas surrounding ASD. His work appears or is forthcoming in Duende, voicemailpoems.org, and Thrice Fiction. He tries to be cute @definitely_not_mason.

Kailee Marie Pedersen

2017, NonFiction

THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO MATRICIDE

                                                                                 I

After a certain age, killing your mother becomes passé: you must do it while you are still young and handsome (or beautiful). Otherwise it is an ugly thing done by ugly people. When I killed my mother, my hair still smelled of lit gasoline. Back then I was suffocated by savage arrogance, and I cauterized my wounds with apathy. A young woman is a terror to behold.

Now I am an ugly person, but not because I killed my mother. I am ugly because I sing off-key in the shower, because I leave cookie crumbs in my bed sheets, because I cannot translate French while drunk. I am ugly because in second grade a girl with perfect blonde hair asked me why my eyes were so slanty and I could have killed her.

I do not remember much of what I was like as a child otherwise, or even what I was like a few years ago, except that I quit smoking cigars to take singing lessons and was madly in love with Friedrich Dürrenmatt. I suppose I was melancholy when I was young, but I remember this in the way I remember seeing a Mozart opera with an attractive man sitting next to me—which is to say not very well at all.

My Japanese professor, ever eager to practice new grammar, once asked if high school was difficult for me. I said, Yes, I wasn’t very pretty. But I conjugated it wrong and accidentally said, Yes, I am not very pretty. Yes.

II

My childhood is defined by the suicide of history. When I was quite young, I lived in a Chinese orphanage that had a ninety-percent death rate. In the 1990s the orphanage in Nanning had “dying rooms”, where they would leave the sick babies to die alone. When I read about this, I first thought that perhaps there was another Nanning in another country that had eaten its progeny. But there is only one Nanning, and there is only one orphanage with one unfortunate girl who looks very much like me but is not quite so perfectly vicious. Thus I tell myself that this little doppelganger cannot be me, a woman who has incinerated her younger self with cigars and profanities, who has never read Barthes but still quotes him with lachrymose condescension.

I do not know why I survived. This is the arcane tragedy of my birth: what remains of me grew up in the shadow of an unfinished murder. And ever since, I have been searching for my would-be assassin, the woman who could not finish the job. The woman who exists only as a reflection, shattering across the surface of the Yangtze.

When the sun is low in the sky, I imagine her singing to herself in the rice field. Her back is always turned; she could be as dazzling as one of the Great Beauties. She could be as ugly as I am.

The past is a foreign country: they speak Mandarin there. But I am doomed to speak only one language and to watch Rome burn, incandescent, gorging myself on betrayal. And though I cannot build boats, I will drown my mother, or she will drown me first in the Zuo River, before I learn how to speak Japanese and before I learn how to swim.

III

In honeybees, supersedure naturally occurs near the end of the summer. Beekeepers may hasten this process by clipping off the leg of the reigning queen bee. Her workers will detect that she is no longer suitable, and prepare a queen cell for the impending regime change. Eventually, a virgin queen bee will emerge from the new cell.

During supersedure, the worker bees will surround the old queen in a procedure known as “balling”. They will sting her until she dies. The virgin queen will watch, her antennae high.

Bees do not feel emotions as humans do. This is true. But the bees of Virgil’s Georgics must sing their threnodies in beautiful Latin, must write their epics in honey and the second declension.

Supersedure and matricide are both derived from Latin roots.

Worker bees can only sting once before they die. But the queen’s stinger is not barbed, so she can kill as many times as she desires. A virgin queen will use her stinger to kill her sisters, the pretenders to the throne.

IV

There is a reason why certain young women are called “queen bees”. 

V

I have no sisters.

VI

I did not become a woman gently, with a cotillion or an ill-fated betrothal. I think sometimes that I have not become a woman at all, but a palimpsest, a corrupted text desperately in need of emendation. At nineteen I had a greyhound body and wrote mediocre poems about mediocre things. On a few occasions, I crawled out of bed and studied Ancient Greek. On even fewer occasions, I crawled into bed and studied Japanese.

With impending womanhood came an unbearable sadness. Once I turned twenty, I could no longer be a teenage girl in the technical sense, the kind of girl who knew everything (or at least pretended to). I have failed in many respects as a young girl, and am continuing to fail as a young woman. So far, I have not managed to murder my birth mother. Though sometimes I dream of it, with fire and sword and hatred. I am the snake that Clytemnestra birthed, with coiling black hair and a smile like a knife wound.

My friend shares a birthday with me, leading us to argue incessantly about which mythical siblings we might have been in another life. After deciding that Romulus and Remus were too obvious and that neither of us knew archery and thus could not be Apollo and Artemis, we settled upon on Eteocles and Polynices. The two sons of Oedipus, they are fated to kill each other as they contest the city of Thebes, their joint inheritance. Eteocles drives Polynices from the city, who returns with six friends and attacks the seven Theban gates. Thus Aeschylus has his Seven Against Thebes; thus Statius has his Thebaid.

My dearest Polynices’ parents, unlike mine, are Chinese.

In the end, it is as it should be: he is Orestes. I am a lacuna.

VII

You must kill your mother in the aorist tense. You must kill your mother before the finale of the symphony, before you are no longer a young woman and have instead found yourself obliterated by age. You must kill her before she buys a labrys at the hardware store and reels in your father with a fishing rod. If you do not do this, she will kill you first. Or perhaps she will make your father do it with an ancient sword, ten fists long. Perhaps she will speak to your father in the language of Murasaki Shikibu. Perhaps she might even cry.


VIII

When people ask what city I am from, I say I was born in Nanning. But sometimes I feel as though I am talking about a Lagrangian point near Jupiter, a single speck in the vast ocean of space. Asteroids at Lagrangian points between the Sun and Jupiter are named after characters from the Iliad. I read the Iliad for the first time in the ninth grade.

I did not understand it. What thirteen-year-old girl would understand the weeping of Achilles in his tent, or Agamemnon’s spite? The narrator asks the Muse to sing of Achilles’ terrible wrath, that brought so much grief to the Achaeans—the closest thing to true rage I had experienced by then was the murderous anger at my birth parents, which I had meticulously redirected to a frenzied, undisciplined writing style.

My freshman year of college, my poetry professor said he enjoyed how “wild” my poetry was. I was told my writing was “baroque” by other students, and in one case, “too Chinese”. I do not scatter references throughout my work to prove how intelligent I am—my ceaseless arrogance already tells me what I want to hear—but because this is the only way I know how to write about myself, through a glass darkly, with Greek and Latin and Japanese and classical narcissism. My desire to write is obsessive beyond comprehension, just as is the desire to kill what is left of my history.

There is no other way to describe the woman who has gouged herself into me. Only with Rococo chairs and bright sea windows, and Electra’s bitter rage. I have translated parts of the Iliad, though I still do not understand all of it. But when Hector sees Astyanax on the wall of Troy and weeps: I know.

                              IX

André Breton says beauty is an infinite train that is always exiting the Gare de Lyon but can never truly leave. “Beauty will convulsive, or it will not be at all,” he writes at the end of Nadja, which is less about Surrealism than it is about an extramarital affair. I read it one summer spent in New York City translating Ancient Greek, and some of the lipstick I was wearing rubbed off on my thumb and then onto the pages of the book. Then I wrote my friend a several-paragraphs-long email complaining about Breton’s treatment of women, which he received with good humor.

When I say that I want to kill my mother, I am only expressing a primal desire toward abjection. If I kill my mother, she cannot have any more children. The train will never exit the Gare de Lyon; it will stay suspended forever on the last paragraph of Nadja. She will never replace me. This is all I have ever wanted.

When I say that I find Breton’s writing about gender subpar, I am really saying: I would let you be André Breton if you wanted, if you asked, and we could wait for a train that will never come at the Gare de Lyon together, me with my collection of pretentious books, you with your razorblade distaste.

I returned Nadja to the library. I am sure it still has my lipstick stains on it. This is how I write history, littered with disfigured books.

When we fought, I told André Breton that my mother left me and so I have come to understand that I will always miss the train at the Gare de Lyon. I expected nothing better nor worse from him. Our stories are like all of the other stories—this is the glory of intertextuality.

André Breton and I have since reconciled. I will not be his Nadja, although perhaps it is best never to be anyone’s Nadja at all, and to make other women your Nadjas instead. And each will be like all of the other Nadjas, hungry and convulsive, a rather limp afterthought to The Magnetic Fields.

Parting will be convulsive, or it will not be at all. When I cannot sleep, I think of the moment the 1 train pulls into the 125th Street station, and you can see the edge of the sun.


X

The narrative of matricide is really about self-immolation. If Deianira dies, then so do you. I have come to know this after reading Sophocles and Tacitus, who taught me nothing about the real world except that I would be very pleased if I were never forced to read Latin again. The death of Nero’s mother was nefas, not because it was evil but because it was inelegant. Kagutsuchi did it the best of all: setting himself aflame in the birth canal, how clever. History is unkind to amateurs.

I think about the technicalities of murder while absentminded in class. I do not care about my father very much, beyond hoping that he too has also died. Once I dreamt about his death, which was satisfying in a melodramatic way. I do not know how he died except that he paid Charon two obols and fell out of the boat. Cheap Athenian revenge is the sole purview of undergraduates—Ph.D. candidates have the distinct luxury of nailing Cicero’s hands to the Rostra.

I slept excessively when I read Cicero in the original language, just as I slept very little when plotting the murder of my mother. I cannot afford a flight to Nanning—she may be living elsewhere. She may be poor or rich, married to my father, a widow, have more children, have no children besides an ill-fated daughter. Perhaps she bought herself a high, high tower and eats wild peaches dipped in honey. Perhaps she lives in a small house by a river, and if she had turned back I could have married a village boy and died hopelessly young.

I will never have children. Matricide runs in the family, I’m afraid.


XI

What did Alcmaeon say when he unsheathed his sword?
What did Kagutsuchi say to his father’s whistling blade?
What did Medea tell her children, with her bloodied hands?


XII

November is National Adoption Awareness Month. The only thing I remember about National Adoption Awareness Month is that I was translating The Women of Trachis for my Ancient Greek exam and writing a paper involving Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. The paper received a B+ for a mediocre analysis of classical reading, hastily welded together and salted generously with Bourdieu.

I know more about Cicero than I do about my birth mother. He married Terentia and then divorced her, and his daughter Tullia died in childbirth. He wrote a treatise about friendship, and so we know of his closest friend, Atticus. Mark Antony had him killed in 43 BC.

I have been told you can find out everything you need in the world from books. I have read multiple tragedies in Ancient Greek, several hundred dull lines of Ovid, and a few asinine picture books about the joys of forgiveness. But I know that there is no joy in forgiveness. There is only the slow satisfaction of watching Agrippina drown. Not even all the water in the Pacific could satisfy me; not until my history has become marginalia, my mother apocrypha.

When Tullia died, Cicero was consumed by grief. He wrote his Consolatio for her, which has since been lost.

When I kill my mother, I do not think I will be consumed by grief. Perhaps it is better to be vengeful than grieving, especially when you are a young woman. You can still cling to the afterthought of your beauty. You can still sprout wings and join the Furies.

All roads lead to Nanning. They have paved over the ones to Rome.

XIII

I have lied to you, terribly. I apologize. I cannot write a guide to matricide, because I have not yet killed my own mother. I am too much of a coward to face her. I will be a coward until I die.
Sixteen days after my twentieth birthday, it was announced that China was planning to repeal the one-child policy.

The best part of me died twenty years ago in Guangxi Province. And I will live with that knowledge for the rest of my life.

XIV

To find your mother, you must go to the forest and buy a bell from the prince of foxes. It will cost one eye; you must cut it out yourself. Then you must ring the bell and throw it in front of you. The road will rise up through the earth to greet you. You must ride a white charger east until you find a glass tower, and then you must climb up a dead girl’s hair to see your mother speaking to a silver mirror and eating wild peaches dipped in honey. You cannot look her in the eye. She will turn you to stone. Or you must hold her down as she transforms from a lion to a harpy to a bear and back again, until you realize that all the fairytales were written by the hands that strangled the king and turned his daughters into swans.

And you have lived through this story before, hundreds of times, but you utter the same words and you carry the same blade and you ride the same horse. And over and over again at the base of the tall, tall tower next to the red, red tree you will see a beautiful dead girl with beautiful dead hair, and you will hear your mother singing in the same mutilated language. You will want to say, Your child has come to fulfill the prophecy spoken by the winds and the moon. I must kill you now in this tall, tall tower with the glass door and the red tree.

But all you will be able to say is, It’s me. Goddamn you, it’s me.


________________________________________

Kailee Marie Pedersen is a senior Classics major at Columbia University. She was adopted from Nanning in 1996. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons and Identity Theory, and is forthcoming in TRACK//FOUR. She is the recipient of a 2015 Individual Artist Fellowship in nonfiction from the Nebraska Arts Council. She spends most of her time working on her in-progress essay collection, singing opera, or playing video games. Her favorite Greek tragedian is Euripides.

Cassandra Morrison

2017, NonFiction

THE KNOT

I was watching HGTV the other night, because as a twentysomething I spend more time than I’d like to admit watching people discuss the necessity of hardwood floors and the pros and cons of neutral paint colors so that one day I can purchase the perfect “fixer-upper.” But in this particular episode, new parents Jen and Jim, were looking to buy their first house in Florida. The older real estate agent was showing them a lovely home with plenty of natural sunlight and windows on most walls. However, when they came to what she suggested could be the nursery, the new mom became horrified as she looked around the room. I could see the look on her face and I knew that she felt The Knot. The nursery would be next to the patio with French doors surrounding it. The young mom said, “I would be so scared that someone would sneak in and steal the baby.”

The older woman assured her it was a safe neighborhood.

I would never buy that house either, Jen. But I think it’s because Jen and I are both neurotic.

                                                                                 *

I grew up with Stranger Danger and missing kids’ pictures on milk cartons. When I was barely walking, we went to the Shoney’s Restaurant down the street, which was usually full of grandmothers and day old Jell-O, to be greeted by a life-size Shoney the Bear. He was surrounded by friendly police officers to help guide us through this free, yet terrifying experience of making sure someone had references with which to remember me by if, and more likely when, I was taken. I had my picture taken with Shoney as a keepsake. And then one picture alone, and both my thumbprints rubbed with ink and recorded onto a sheet of paper that was mailed to my parents by the helpful police officers to ensure that I would more easily be found when I was kidnapped. I even got my little laminated I.D. in the mail, too. At the age of three, I put it into my tiny pink purse and carried it everywhere my parents carried me.

The fact that strangers could, and would, drive by and snatch children seemed like an accepted social notion to me. No one wanted their picture on the milk carton, so we learned to turn candy down, turn gifts down, be wary of ice cream trucks, never to talk to strangers, never to pet stranger’s dogs, and never to get in a car with a stranger. And if we ever saw a stranger, to tell an adult that wasn’t a stranger. And yet, it seemed even with the dressed up teddy bears and the colorful cartoons in the Public Service Announcements, that children kept getting kidnapped and killed. I knew that this meant that anyone not related to me would eventually kidnap and probably kill me.

                                                                                 *

I was a tiny ballerina once. My mom with her big 90s permed-out hair, took me to the Dancer’s Store and bought me the tiny black leotard, the tiny pink tights, and the tiny pink ballet shoes. She tied my fine mousey brown hair up into a bun, looser than most of the other girls’ because she’s never been good with hairstyles. We had been going to the YMCA for the ballet classes with Miss Babbette for about a month. I liked Miss Babbette. She had fine long hair like mine, but it was gray. She had the same black leotard and pink ballet shoes, too. And everything she said sounded like a song. When she told us to tip ourselves over like a tea pot, I heard, “I’m a little tea pot short and stout, here is my handle…”and pretended Miss Babbette was singing along. The huge room had one wall covered in windows and the other in mirrors, overlooked the outdoor pool. The old oak floors married the old oak handrails somewhere before the mirrors began and sat somewhere vastly above my twenty-four inch stature. It smelled a lot like Thursday’s swimming lessons.

On my last day as a ballerina, I learned I was going to be killed. When we all got our assignments for the annual production of The Nutcracker, I was handed a little brown mouse nose, which I immediately turned to my mom for help putting on my tiny nose. And then rehearsal began. There were masking tape Xs that me and the other brown mouse noses were to report to. Which I did, happily. We marched around following Miss Babbette as music played, and then Miss Babbette fell to the floor and all the other brown mouse noses did, too. That’s when The Knot first surfaced. I felt sick. My entire tiny body seemed tinier. I could feel the big tears welling up in my big blue eyes. I didn’t understand. Why were we falling down? Why did Miss Babbette say we had to leave our Xs?

We were dead.

We were all killed.

The other tiny ballerinas with little brown mouse noses simply left the stage to find the snack table with sliced apples and orange juice. As Miss Babbette and my mom used logic to console me, I tried to understand. I tried to stay strong like the other girls. But the tears kept coming. The Knot got bigger. We did another run-through, only this time I ran from my X straight to my mom. She pressed me tightly against her oversized turquoise sweatshirt that smelled more like swimming lessons than laundry. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be killed. Please Mommy, no.

So we left Miss Babbette instead. My mom told her she was sorry but I wouldn’t be able to be a mouse in “The Nutcracker” and she returned the brown mouse nose to Miss Babbette, whom I’m sure, gave it to some other tiny ballerina.

                                                                                 *

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the lord my soul to keep

and if I die before I wake,

I pray the lord my soul to take…

And if someone should take me in the middle of the night,

Lord please let mommy and daddy know where I am and that I love them.

I remember asking my mom if I could add the last line to my normal nightly prescribed prayer. My mom looked at me horrified, “Well of course you can pray whatever you want, but why would you think you would be taken? Where did you get that idea?” I knew there was no easy way out with that question, I had no idea really. I may have seen it on the news with the Jon Benet Ramsey kidnapping. I didn’t know, but I knew it was a fact.

I loved watching the news reporters talk about the little girl getting kidnapped because they always showed her picture. I was three years older than she was, but we were a lot alike, I decided. She wore brightly colored “Dolly-dresses” like me. We always called them Dolly dresses because we bought them at Dolly Parton stores, or that’s what I thought as a kid, but I realize now it’s probably because they look like dresses dolls would wear. Either way, I loved watching her on T.V. She was pretty, blonde, smiling, kidnapped and killed.

“Don’t be sad, baby. Nothing will happen to you, I promise.”

“It makes me feel sick and then I can’t sleep, so I ask God to help and make sure you know I love you, too.”

“Sick how?”

“Like a knot. “

I thought everyone knew what that felt like, but when describing it to my mom, I had the realization that everyone has at some point: when you learn that something you thought to be universal, is in fact not. As I described the lump in my throat, the way my head pounded and I could feel my eyes getting dry but becoming wet at the same time, the way my stomach hurt inside and outside, the way my skin felt like the nerves hidden underneath were going to fight the mesh covering them until they were outside and the way that my entire chest seemed to be on fire and the air would no longer be enough, she listened and then left the room quickly, absent-mindedly it seemed.

She came back with two orange Zantac tablets.

“It’s just heartburn, baby. Sleep good.”

                                                                                 *

In Blue Nights, Joan Didion writes about motherhood and grieving her daughter’s premature death. She also discusses how her daughter at a young age had vivid, reoccurring nightmares about someone she called “Broken Man.” Her daughter told her that after the age of five, she never had those dreams again. Didion says, “The lesson taught by the coverage [of kidnappings and murders] was clear: childhood is by definition perilous. To be a child is to be small, weak, inexperienced, the dead bottom of the food chain. Every child knows this, or did.” Children are weak. This reality is necessary to protect ourselves, perhaps. But what happens to the fear after the age of five? Maybe it just takes a different form, or for me, maybe it stays the same.

                                                                                 *

The thing about your fears is this: they could actually happen. Everyone I know is afraid of stupid things like birds or sidewalk grates or buttons.

-Buttons?

Yeah. My brother has a crippling fear of buttons.

-What kind of buttons like the buttons that a robot pushes to end our lives in the cartoons? Or the button the President has to declare nuclear war on anyone at any time?

No. Like the buttons on a shirt or a coat.

-Wait but how? How does he have clothes?

He doesn’t have anything with buttons on it that’s for sure.

-But he has three kids, how does he dress them?

They wear pullovers and Velcro things.

-You’re serious?

Yeah. I mailed him a package full of buttons once when I was mad at him. He didn’t speak to me for three weeks.

                                                                                 *

Sigmund Freud believed that all irrational fears were caused by an instinct. A deep-seated issue that taught us to react in a certain way to certain events. Something drives us to react irrationally to something that could be rationally dismissed. Fear, when used rationally, is a self-preservation tactic. Flight or fight. If you see a footprint in the mud behind your house that you live in alone, you are afraid because you know that there could be danger. When a pilot sees storm clouds up ahead, he knows to be alert and check with other pilots ahead, while the plane’s passengers only see the beauty of the oddly formed clouds.

A study from the Department of Justice reported that in 2002, of over 700,000 children that were reportedly abducted, only one hundred and fifteen were taken by a “stranger.”

But with high school came the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, and the idea of fight or flight seemed even more relevant. There was no Shoney the Bear to protect us from this Stranger Danger. As I sat in Ms. Hannah’s Honors English class with twenty-five other fourteen year olds, we watched as the images on the screen showed New York City under some sort of attack. We weren’t yet sure what kind. Even Matt Lauer wasn’t sure.

We watched the buildings go down and the terror on the faces on the screen. Ms. Hannah cried. There were no shrieks of hysteria from me or my classmates. We all sat staring, wondering what it all meant. As freshmen, we knew that there was most likely a thesis, with a narrative arc—conflict, rising action, climax, resolution.

There was none of that as we watched the dust settle on television. The literal ashes of bodies and buildings covering the street. The new fear that taught vigilance, one that suggested that no one and nowhere was safe. My generation began to live with a certain anxiety that no longer would you be safe by saying no to the candy. And no longer would anyone give you the choice to live or die, but rather they would kill you, just because. All of the strangers were once again dangers. As the dust settled over the city of New York, a dust settled into all of our minds that there was no safety in numbers, no safety at all.

The irrational fear that Freud discussed became more rational, in our minds.

                                                                                 *

I live here, or just drop me off here. I just walk down that alley and then that’s the back of my building.

-I’m not dropping you off in an alley.

No seriously, it’s fine. I walk it every night.

-I can’t be the guy who drops you off though, and you get attacked.

Oh so it’s not safe here? I know it sounds dumb, but it’s kind of nice not knowing when I’m unsafe in the city. I don’t know enough to know that it’s a bad idea.

-Well, it is always unsafe. The last time I got attacked it was by high school boys and I knew it was going to happen, I could just sense it. And then they ran up to me and shoved a burrito on my head and took my wallet.

Whoa. Around here?

-Yeah. Two blocks, next to the Chipotle. The worst part was that I was on my way to see my ex. It was not a good time in my life.

See now I won’t even feel safe in my own alley.

-You shouldn’t.

                                                                                 *

Freud also believed that all fear is from one of two places: inherited by parents or from a traumatic event in the formative years. I’m not sure though because I don’t know what my parents are afraid of, and I had a relatively trauma-free childhood. I can agree, however, when he says that a child is purposefully taught to be afraid of certain things because they are small and helpless. As a child we were taught to be scared of Stranger Danger because we were not yet capable of determining who was dangerous and who was not. “In reality,” he says, “the child at first overestimates his powers and behaves fearlessly because he does not recognize dangers. He will run to the water’s edge, mount the windowsill, play with fire or with sharp utensils, in short, he will do everything that would harm him and alarm his guardians. The awakening of real fear is the result of education, since we may not permit him to pass through the instructive experience himself.”

But as we grow into adulthood, how are we supposed to couple this learned distrust for the world around us with the knowledge that we have to go out into the world and navigate for ourselves? We must live through these “instructive experiences” ourselves after a certain age. And we’re trusted to.

                                                                                  * 

One of the next defining moments of The Knot was when I was twenty-two-years old. I was no longer tiny, but I still tied my hair up in a bun, loose like my mom did because I am also not good with hair. It was no longer mousey brown, but platinum blonde. I had the same big blue eyes, and once again I was sure I was going to be killed.

The room smelled like bourbon and cigarettes. I find comfort in the taste of vanilla and cedar that seeps through every sip of bourbon. No matter whether it is a cheap imitation or an expensive barrel-aged bottle, it tastes like life is going to be okay. Justin’s parents had enough money so that we drank the nicer bottles usually, in large quantities. The walls were hard to see because of the black out curtain I kept on the one window in the room. I loved to sleep all day and rued the moment the sun tried to ruin this for me, so the black out curtain was my saving grace. I knew the walls were white at night because they always were in my dreams. I often had dreams about spiders crawling over them. I would wake Justin up in the middle of the night to kill them all.

Spiders in dreams means that you feel trapped or entangled in a sticky situation or relationship.

It was Memphis and it was hot. This summer was one of the hottest on record. The heat would’ve probably killed those spiders, had they been real. The humidity made the air feel like a wool blanket that you can’t kick free from. The apartment didn’t have central heating or air so nighttime was one of the few times you could even think about touching another human being for any reason. I was dating Justin, who was twenty-seven, 6’5’’ and weighed close to 235 pounds. After I woke him up to kill the spiders, he laughed and told me I was crazy, but stayed awake and we took advantage of the night air. After all the bourbon we had consumed earlier, it should’ve been no surprise to me that he passed out. Yet it was. His prickly beard pressed hard against my face and his hands went limp underneath my black lace bra, the smell of bourbon flooded my nostrils and he was snoring peacefully on top of me.

The Knot in my stomach came back, and once again my body felt tinier than ever before.

I was going to die.

I was going to be crushed to death.

In my full bed, with my white Egyptian cotton sheets that naturally stayed cool, with my black lace bra and matching panties, I could not move. The tears welled up in my eyes once again as I listened to each of his uneven breaths, and felt my own breaths becoming shallower with every exhalation. I tried to use what breath I had left to yell his name, simultaneously trying to somehow push the behemoth that he had become off of what seemed like my now tiny body. His long limbs suffocated my tiny ones. I lay there shouting his name, silently crying, knowing I was going to die.

Until finally, with a jerk of his head, he woke up and rolled off of me, confused as to why I was upset. I continued letting the huge tears find their way down my face. Between hiccupping tears, I begged, please, no, Justin, please don’t kill me. He promised me that he would never kill me. He held me tightly and let me cry. He laughed and told me I was crazy, again. But he still let me sleep facing away from the wall so that I could breathe in all the cool that one small fan could oscillate.

                                                                                 *

Freud talks about the “death drive,” or Thanatos, leading to the ultimate fear of abandonment. The death drive is something I can get behind, something that makes the most sense to me because it relies on self-destruction. It’s the idea that we are pulled to the pleasure we find in the pain and self-destructive tendencies that eventually lead to death. But this death drive leads to the ultimate fear of abandonment. I’ve never been afraid of being alone. I live alone, I move to cities alone, I travel alone, I see movies alone, I drink alone, I dine alone. I am alone a lot of the time. But abandonment and being alone are too very different things. Abandoning means there was another factor: a choice, that someone made to never return. Death, of course, is the ultimate abandonment.

I had never really considered death, outside of the context of kidnapping, until my grandmother died when I was twenty-four and I found myself unable to leave the gravesite. Unable to leave her. To abandon her. After she had been lowered into the grave and the other mourners had gone, I stood there staring, wondering what the next step was. Not really for my grandmother, but for me. How do I leave? Once we leave her here, she is completely alone. I am abandoning her. And in that moment I was hysterical and inconsolable.

I don’t worry about death as a deeply theoretical topic. I worry about being abandoned, kidnapped, killed because in every one of these scenarios, someone made a choice to leave me, to hurt me.

                                                                                 *

From 865-607-4365

I’m starting to get so weird, I should probably seek professional help—it’s like I’m scared for Michael to go out without me like I’m afraid he’ll be out and die and I won’t be there for him when he dies…and I hate when I know the maintenance people will be at the house when I’m not here because I’m afraid they’ll let a cat out and then a cat will be gone and I won’t be able to keep them safe and they’ll get run over…I just want all things safe and no one to ever die or go away. Getting out of bed is getting more difficult each day and I want to die before anyone else so I don’t have to deal with their death.

Received 8:05 pm.

From 865-705-1808

I don’t think this is that strange. I feel this way at least every other day. Doesn’t everyone?

Sent 8:10 pm.

                                                                                 *

Isaac Newton’s Third Law taught us that forces exist in pairs—every action has an equal, opposite reaction. And this applies to instincts, too, as with Eros and Thanatos. Eros is the drive for life, love, happiness. Thanatos is the death drive, for hate, anger, self destruction. Freud says that life is a constant battle to balance the two, or a decision to serve one and not the other. In Greek mythology, the poet Hesiod claims that Thanatos was the son of Nyx, night, and Erebos, darkness—and a twin to Hypnos, sleep. This description is most interesting to me because these three qualities are what I crave most in my life when I feel The Knot: night, dark, and sleep.

I wonder if the self destruction that our death drive encourages is in direct opposition or supposition to trying to find some control in the chaos. There are very real dangers in the world, things that I should be afraid of. But alas, I choose to be terrified of dangers that don’t really warrant the fear I give them. Is this my personal balance between my Eros and Thanatos? To put it simply: I choose not to acknowledge how terrifying the world truly is because it is too much for me to handle, but instead I fear unlikely events because I can indulge these fears, or read statistics that make me realize they are unlikely. I can be laughed at and called crazy. I can, like Jen, choose a different house based on my unlikely fears. These neurotic fears are manageable. The fears that aren’t neurotic are not so manageable.

In Blue Nights, Didion writes of her own fears, “Once she was born I was never not afraid. …The source of the fear was obvious: it was the harm that could come to her.”z

I’m afraid of the harm that can come to me, too.

_______________________________________________

Cassandra Morrison received her MFA in creative non-fiction from Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. She has just finished a book of hybrid fiction and non-fiction that discusses Southern culture, femininity and social neuroses. Her work has appeared in Chicago Literati, Entropy, The Establishment, The Stockholm Review and LitroNY. She is from the South, gets lost frequently and is a little bit basic.

Lea Page

2017, NonFiction

HEARTBEATS AND HURRICANES

My father claimed that each of us is allotted a certain number of heartbeats at birth, and, therefore, if we were wise, we would not use them up too quickly. Even as a child, I suspected he was joking, but it was true: he didn’t exercise. That wasn’t a thing yet, back in the 1960s when I was a kid, although I remember my mother watching Jack Lalane do calisthenics on TV. I knew my father’s bad knees had kept him out of Vietnam. Whenever he played a pickup game of touch football, my mother, watching from the sidelines, would make a crack about the injury she expected him to sustain and another, her laughter tailing off, about the burden this would put on her. Even as a child, I suspected she wasn’t joking.

Despite my father being tall and rangy with broad shoulders and long-fingered hands that spoke of physical confidence, I never thought of him as athletic, and I wonder if those few stories shaped my perception, despite the conflicting evidence of my experience. He could deliver my sisters and me safely to the bottom of a rutted, tree-scattered sled hill. All we had to do was stretch out on top of his long back—my older sister first, then me, then my younger sister on top—and hold on as he guided the Flexible Flyer around the worst of the obstacles and over the rest. At the local pool, even if he was just fooling around, he would dive in from the edge like a racer, his long body stretching after the arc of his hands, a last-minute pike move keeping his body close to the surface of the water, which he would slice through with clean strokes and a satisfying base-note of froth at his feet. Bad knees or not, he was an excellent swimmer.

One summer, when we were vacationing at a beach in North Carolina, a school of porpoises came to romp just beyond the breaking waves. My parents interrupted our body surfing and hauled us out—not because they were afraid but because they didn’t want us to miss the sight. The next day, the porpoises returned, but they stayed much farther out. After the first cry from another beach-goer, my father glanced in the direction of the man’s outstretched arm, grabbed one of our inflatable rafts and ran into the churn of the surf. The red raft bobbed over and disappeared below the crests of the waves. A second man followed my father out, also on an inflatable raft. His was blue. When the colored specks finally converged, it was hard to tell if the porpoises were still out there. The two men stayed out for an interminable amount of time—much longer than the half hour my sisters and I were required to take every day at lunchtime to choke down a sandwich and a Dixie cup full of lukewarm milk.

I got bored waiting for my father to come back and returned to my own agenda of trying to replicate that one perfect ride, the one where the wave didn’t just propel me along but lifted me. Where it didn’t just drop me from its full height and then elbow me up along the coarse sand with no thought to where my head was in relation to the rest of my body but, instead, gentled me to shore, transferring me to the cradle of earth so softly that I didn’t know the wave had receded until I felt my own weight once more.

One of those waves—I have no recollection whether it was a kind one or indifferent—brought my father and his raft in. He washed sideways up the dark sand and stayed there, resting on his elbows. After the water pulled back, little pockets of air bubbled up and popped in the sand, leaving tiny holes, like a cooked pancake. Another wave broke and rushed in. The water caught my dad’s legs and swung the raft around, but the wave’s strength was spent by then, and it sighed itself back out. My father heaved himself up onto his feet, tucked the raft under his arm and jogged over to where we had our towels laid out. He hadn’t been exhausted, lying there. He’d been lost in thought. He had still been with the porpoises.

He tossed the raft to the side and flopped down on his towel. My mother closed her magazine and put it in her lap—she was sitting on a low folding chair. My sisters and I squatted in the sand, dripping, not wanting to commit to our towels, waiting to hear what he would say. He was up on his elbows again. With one thumb, he swiped across the palm of his other hand repeatedly, as if he were paging through a book.

“That’s what _____ (the guy who followed my dad out) was doing when he got out there,” my father said. “He was pretending to look through a guidebook, saying, ‘Porpoises. Porpoises.’” My dad laughed at the memory of it, his stomach lifting off the towel.

“But why?” one of us asked—my younger sister, Brooke, most likely. Dana, my older sister, about ten years old then, would have gotten the joke. She always did—or maybe she just pretended that she always did. Older sisters: they’re clever that way. I, eight years old, didn’t get the joke, but I would have been too embarrassed to admit it. No one expected my younger sister, Brooke, about to turn six, to get anything, a situation that, later, would infuriate her.

“Because,” my father explained, still chuckling, “if they were sharks, we were in big trouble.”

“What were the porpoises like?” That would have been me, but I’m not sure if I said it or only wondered it. I’m not sure if I already had a tendency to keep my thoughts to myself. I have an image of the porpoises—several—in my mind, so he must have described them.

He had been scared. The porpoises had swum farther and farther out, and my father kept paddling, determined to catch up with them. Finally, he had to admit that he had lost them, that he had, on looking over his shoulder, gone way farther out than was, strictly, a good idea. The water was languid. The ocean breathed. Each swell lifted my father and his little raft. Except, the waves didn’t lift him. The ocean confirms, if nothing else, how inconsequential we are, how we are not, in fact, the direct objects we consider ourselves to be. We are there, and things happen.

The waves lifted themselves. Sunlight tripped across the water’s surface, and shadows. Dozens of shadows. Porpoises. Each one sped towards my father’s raft, diving and flying. My father knew they were playing, he said, but they seemed a lot bigger up close. He was acutely aware of the roughness of their skin, and he wondered how the vinyl of his raft would hold up to continued sandpapering. It was a long way to shore.

At that moment, the other man had paddled up, flipping through his imaginary guide to marine animals, “Porpoises. Porpoises…” A back-up raft took the edge off their fear, and they stayed for as long as the porpoises did. While my sisters and I were being washed, rolled and scraped up the beach—over and over—our bathing suits, our hair, our mouths and noses filled with sand, my father drifted among more graceful creatures whose joy was no more palpable or immeasurable than ours.

There were no porpoises to be seen the day my father took my older sister and me into the ocean during a hurricane. It was another year. I was nine. Dana, eleven. We always visited the same beach in North Carolina and stayed in the same ramshackle motel, always for the last two weeks in August, right before school started, right at the beginning of hurricane season.

That year, a hurricane was expected to make landfall south of us. In the morning, the winds were high and unsteady, ripping beach towels from laundry lines. The plastic grocery bag had not yet come into being, so there were none wrapped around the salt-crusted fence posts and none caught, flapping, on the barbed stalks of the sea grass, but anything that wasn’t heavy or well-rooted was on the wing. Except birds. There wasn’t a single one in sight. While the rest of the motel occupants hunkered down, playing card games or watching daytime TV, my father decided it would be a good day to go for a swim. I don’t recall whether my mother, who stayed at the cottage with my younger sister, protested on our behalf.

When we took a beach vacation, we went for the beach and only the beach. By 7:00 a.m. at the latest, we would lay out our towels on sand still damp from the night air. We would set the cooler down in the long shadow thrown by my mother’s beach chair and then swim until lunchtime, when, with sullen faces and long-suffering sighs—“No, my lips aren’t blue,”—we would come back up onto the by-then hot sand, the breeze raising goose bumps on our skin, and we would sit down for that most tortuous half hour. The cooler would be opened, the sandwiches distributed, the milk poured, and we would wait. And wait. And wait, until—time’s up! Our feet would churn the dry sand and then slap the wet sand and then high-step into the breakers’ wash, and then, finally, we’d launch a dive into the relative safety beneath the next moving barrel of wave. We might construct sand castles or dig out a bathtub at the high water mark, but the majority of the day was spent in the water. Before dark, we would pack up—always the last family to go—and we’d climb over the dune and walk back to our cottage, where we would take showers and hang our wet suits and towels on the porch while we waited for supper to be ready. After we ate, we went back to the beach to watch the sunset, the sandpipers, and the teenagers, who came together in mobile groupings and then scattered, much like the birds.

My sisters and I existed as comfortably in the ocean as we did in our bodies. We had experienced our share of rough and tumble. We had come up crying and gasping, sinuses aching from a saltwater power-washing, skin scraped raw on broken shells, and we had always gone back for more—“No, my lips are NOT blue!” But the ocean was a different beast on the day of the hurricane. No one else was on the beach. The sand felt colder than the wind. The sea grass shimmied and then bent over flat, as if stunned, before it shuddered back upright. The sky loomed closer than ever. If I expected its heaviness to exert a calming pressure on the ocean, the ocean wasn’t having any of it. The waves were black. Hungry. Unfathomable. Perhaps what frightened me most was not their size but their lack of rhythm. There was no pattern of build, break, rush and sigh. If you know anything about swimming in the ocean, you know that timing is everything: gauging when the next wave will come so that you know when to breathe and when not to, when to dive and when to pray.

My breath fluttered inside the curvature of my ribs. The skin along my spine pinched. I knew—my body knew—that the ocean was truly dangerous that day. But I had no language for my fear. I had no way to formulate an actionable thought. No context from which to speak. My father had been my language, my only truth, until then.

Overnight, the heavy seas had carved out a ledge in the sand. We stood on the edge of it, the three of us, the long bones of my father’s legs separating my sister and me. I tried to hold my hair, already knotted with salt spray, away from my eyes. I could see no way into the water and no way out. I waited for Dana to say that she didn’t want to go, to speak for me, so that all I would have to say was: “Me, too.” I looked to her to be brave enough to admit that she was afraid. But maybe she wasn’t brave. Maybe she wasn’t afraid. Maybe, like me, she didn’t want to disappoint our father.

He grasped our hands. We jumped down from the ledge and hurtled toward the wall of black water. The waves didn’t curl and tumble but rose, like thick lava at a boil, and then split open, revealing a maw of spit and foam. Those waves were engulfed by others, which came from every which way, from above and from below, as if gravity itself was confused and had lost its grip on the world. I high-stepped into the surge. My father had let go of my hand, and I struggled to keep my balance, knowing that I mustn’t fall down or I would be pulled underneath the breaking waves. I knew from experience that once I was caught in their vortex, I would lose all sense of direction. It would be hopeless to try to swim for air because I would have no idea where it was, and I’d have to wait—that’s where the praying came in—for the wave to spit me out.

Just as my legs buckled, I saw my father’s body arc through the air, his arms and legs stretched to their full length, his torso turned a little to the side. My eyes followed the birthmark on his stomach as he sliced through the wall of water and disappeared—just as another wall hit me square in the face, knocking me back and, mercifully, pushing me up the beach instead of pulling me under. I struggled to stand. My father rose from the miasma and picked me up by the armpits and set me back on my feet. He took my hand, and we ran again. He held my hand so high that my feet could barely get a purchase on the sand. When it came time to dive—“Now!” he cried—the surface of the Earth had already dropped away, shearing off into some other dimension, so my father dove for the both of us, and the sinews of my shoulder screamed for me. My head broke free, and, immediately, we had to duck down under the next wave. We came up again. The ache of my strained shoulder felt cold. The surface of the water—no, that’s not right: there were more than one—the surfaces pitched and heaved.

If a wave broke before us, we dove as deeply as we could beneath it. If a wave hadn’t broken, we rode up and over it and slid down into the trough behind. Either way, dive or slide, each wave drew us farther out to sea. In the briefest moment of rest between them, I glanced over at Dana. She was focused on the next wave coming, but she didn’t look tight. I felt shrunken and less buoyant in the cold water. My shoulder hurt. My legs were already spent. The temptation to give in to my exhaustion and stop treading water rose up from the depths and wrapped an icy hand around my ankle. I panicked and tried to shout but only managed to swallow water.

“I’m ready to get out,” I finally said, coughing and trying not to whimper, but that was not entirely true. I was ready to be out. It would take a rush of energy to get out, to fight the outgoing tide, to navigate the mélee of crosscurrents, to duck when we needed to duck, to turn back and dive when we needed to dive, and to swim like crazy for the shore when we needed to swim like crazy, but that’s what we did. We ducked and dove and swam like crazy.

Then my feet met sand, and my father’s hand steadied me once more through the vertiginous foam and slide of the retreating sea. Back up on the ledge, he squatted in front of me, wrapped me in my towel and rubbed vigorously, as if he were toweling off a wet puppy. His shoulders were so broad and his hands were so strong, I felt ashamed for having given up so easily. Dana’s teeth chattered at she shivered and laughed, “Ha-ha-v-v-v-v, ha-ha-v-v-v-v.” I copied the shape of her mouth, but I couldn’t make any sound. My belly clenched with cold and undigested fear. If they found out I had been afraid, would I be left at home, from then on, with my mother and my younger sister?

My father wrapped his towel around his waist and tucked in the end. Dana and I clutched ours under our chins. As we crested the dunes, an older couple in pants and jackets met us coming the other way. Their surprised and then horrified expressions encompassed the empty beach, the dark sky and the darker ocean. Clearly, my father had taken us into that water.

What kind of man does such a dangerous, reckless thing?

I ground my teeth together to stop their chattering and flashed a frozen-cheeked, possibly blue-lipped smile at the couple as I walked past them, my bare feet leaving small pockets in the sand, my hand, the only part of me that was warm, completely enveloped by my father’s. The echo of my heartbeat against my ribs might have answered their unspoken question: “My father does that kind of thing. Together. With me.”


Some years before, my father had been in an accident on the way home from his office. The car may or may not have come equipped with seatbelts, but in any event, he wasn’t wearing one when the vehicle came to rest on its roof. The officers who responded were surprised: my father crawled out of the wreck, stood up, brushed the broken glass off the sleeves and lapels of his tweed jacket and lit up his pipe. I can just imagine him saying, when they asked him to identify himself: “Bond. James Bond.”

“Who does that kind of thing?” I ask my husband, nearly fifty years later, but I answer myself: “An idiot. A fucking idiot.”

My husband, whose only truly reckless act was, perhaps, marrying me, says, “I believe the word you are looking for is ‘awesome!’”

Why did my father take us into the ocean during a hurricane? It was reckless. It was dangerous. The only answer I have: he thought he could do it, that I could do it. He had no doubts, and his confidence was as good as a fait accompli. He hadn’t used up a single extra heartbeat.

____________________________

Lea Page is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have (Floris Books, 2015). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post, The Rumpus, Krista Tippet’s On Being blog, The Establishment, Hippocampus Magazine and Manifest-Station, among others.