Bunk Beds

Matthew Bukowski

Chris was in the hospital. I wasn’t surprised. My brother does everything in excess: he talks too loudly, eats too much, is too defiant at work. He was born with too many chromosomes. Now, mom said, his heart was too big, swollen and thudding against his ribcage.

I was in bed when mom called. After I hung up, my girlfriend asked: “Are you going to visit?”

Before I shared a room with my girlfriend, I shared a room with Chris, where we were apportioned standard-issue bunk beds, a tower of brotherly accord. I had the top bunk, but other than that, we were evenly matched: matching dressers, matching Ninja Turtles sleeping bags. Our bunk beds even had cupboards with matching contents: two Cabbage Patch Kids, two alarm clocks we couldn’t read, and two banks for coins and allowances. Mom had assigned Chris and me “favorite colors” to prevent any mix-up between our possessions, so my bank—a little metal lockbox with a slot on top and dial on the front—was my predesignated blue, and Chris’s was his red, just like our sheets and our shoes and the jackets hung on pegs labeled “CHRIS” and “MATT” with curly wooden blocks. Two brothers of equal value.

But, while mom carefully matched every quarter in one bank with a quarter in the other, Chris and I inevitably diverged. He was the older brother, but by the time I was six, I’d closed the gap; from then on, I grew while he stayed in place. I learned to count the coins, but Chris just admired their shape and shimmer, and then lost interest in them entirely. I stole from his bank, and he didn’t notice. I went to one school, and Chris went to another; when our teachers told us we were special, they were teaching different lessons.

Later, I got my own room in the remodeled attic. The larger space should have been Chris’s prerogative as the older brother, but by then, mom couldn't deny that I was the older brother.

When my girlfriend asked if I would visit Chris in the hospital, I was again counting and adding, the cost of a day off, the cost of gas. I multiplied that by two: visiting now doubled the cost of a going to a funeral later. If Chris did die—if that too big heart did burst—I could halve my costs by skipping the chance to see him before. I was broke then, or at least felt broke, that naïve poverty of my first apartment in a new city. Every dollar felt sacrosanct. Sometimes, I resented Chris’s life, at home in our old room, without worry.

“No,” I answered. “He’ll be fine.”

And, for now, he is: Chris survived, his heart shrunk by the mask he wears in his sleep, connected by tubes to a tank of oxygen. During the day, he stows it under the same bunk bed he slept in while I counted pennies in the bunk above.

 

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Matthew Bukowski is a writer living in Arlington, VA. He recently received his MFA from American University in Washington, DC. He tweets (badly) from @CheeseBurgowski.

Homeland

Madison Larimore

“But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries has had the common humanity to pray for 

the one sinner that needed it most?” -- Mark Twain’s Autobiography

 

I was born hungry in a trailer on the Missouri-Arkansas line beneath a blood moon and a Scorpio sky. Our singlewide permanently rested on my paternal grandmother’s lot in a village of abandoned buildings, an almost-town of dreams never realized spilling into a manmade lake of mud and mold and acrid fish, failing to attract tourists, our lifeblood. My homeland is for dying locals. For wood paneling, humidity dew at the height of day, wolf spiders under bed sheets, and tree plague. I grew among gardens of weeds, eternal cicadas, thick incense, and gargoyles. Instead of Christmas lights, we left our Halloween decorations up all year round. 

I remember my grandfather roping a milk crate to his four-wheeler so Spanky, his blue heeler, could ride with us to the gas station, the only place within an hour’s drive to get milk. I remember tapeworms floating in Spanky’s bloated belly and yards dotted with unmarked graves, the remains of forgotten Civil War battles. We had a Ouija board to communicate with the dead soldiers, but the box warned us not to play it in a cemetery, and the whole town was a cemetery. There was a house with not one door, gallows used as a clothing line, a wax head nailed to a tree stump, burnt houses and flooded fields, toys strewn, bent, mangled, and strapped to the grill of an oversized truck, and an old school and church boarded up, the graffiti said, by Satan himself. 

The only other church nearby was Southern Baptist and led by my great-grandfather, my Papa, who gave five-hour sermons long after his dementia refused to help him make sense of them. Before he was a preacher man, he was a salesman. Before that, a thief. 

He was the first person I knew to die. He was 87, and he had just had failed open-heart surgery. As I approached his deathbed, over 80 years between us, I noticed all of the thick wrinkles, the deep purple lines that ran through his translucent skin, and I saw that his body had become a roadmap of where he had been. I lightly touched his arm and waited for him to tell me about the place where he was going. “Listen here, Maddy,” he said. “Listen closely. Never marry a Democrat or a black man.” I withdrew my hand and thought goddamn and Jesus Christ, my favorite curse words. 

I would like to believe his last words were uttered out of confusion, disorientation, and mental decline, but if you were to replace never marry with never speak to, you would arrive at Papa’s life proverb, followed more strictly than the Bible’s commandments he yelled, his vocal cords straining, spit flying, at his all-white, all-Republican congregation, his flock.

“Hell, fire, and damnation,” I can still hear him shouting. 

“Hell, fire, and damnation,” I whispered at his funeral. 

I never believed in Santa Claus or God. I preferred worshipping the sun, and by the age of five, I was already certain that what motivated me most to do good in this world, to do right by other people, was the knowledge that this is all we have. 

Although I believed I had at the time, I had not completely arrived at this on my own. My maternal grandmother, my namesake, was the only person I knew who openly labeled herself as an atheist, and she was also the most generous person I knew. She washed old people at a nursing home for a living, and as I watched Papa take hundreds of dollars during collection time from his mostly-ancient, mostly-impoverished congregation, I watched my grandma give hundreds of dollars to every homeless person she encountered. When anyone tried to talk her out of giving or giving so much, she taught me to quote Joe Rogan, the man I knew so well from watching hours of Fear Factor: “This homeless guy asked me for money the other day, and I was about to give it to him, but then I thought, why should I give it to him? He’s just going to use it on drugs and alcohol. Then I realized that’s what I’m going to use it on. Why am I judging this poor bastard?”

My father, having grown up in Papa’s harsh religion, was a closet agnostic. He never got angry with me for getting in trouble at church, for complaining and talking through the service, because he, he said, felt the same way about it. 

“Then why do we have to go?” I asked, lower-lip jutted out, hands on tiny hips.  

He gave no reply then, but later I would find out that the one time my father had tried to skip church out of defiance, Papa had whipped him. 

I was endlessly punished during Papa’s Sunday school, made to wear a dunce cap that said “Sinner” atop the naughty stool in the time-out corner for asking questions no one could answer, for asking why, for embarrassing him, and for finally proclaiming, “If there is a hell, this is it,” and “Why can’t Satan be my friend?” The only part I liked was when we got to drink the wine, and it wasn’t even real wine. Only grape juice. 

But one Sunday, I let my great-grandmother, my Mema, save and baptize me in her house, the house where I had gotten my big head stuck between the stair railings, where there were wax owls and holes in the walls that stray kittens burrowed in, simply because I knew it meant something to her, and simply because I knew she would be dead soon. Her arthritic hands shook along with her voice in prayer. I watched her instead of closing my eyes like a good girl, in awe of her reverence and deep love that I had never seen in the eyes of Papa, the preacher man, who often raised his voice and hand to Mema, but as far I knew, never struck. They both lifted me into their dirty, murky hot tub, and just like that, my soul was saved. 

When it was all over, Mema gave me a medallion that hung from their ceiling fan: “Bless this child, so filled with a love~pure and sweet, a gift from above,” it read in gold and pink, fat angel babies etched into the reverse. 

Despite being a member of one of the fastest-growing, second largest religious group in the United States, no religion, which includes atheism, agnosticism, and the unaffiliated and makes up a quarter of the population, that medallion is the only object that has made it through all eight of my moves, wrapped in crushed velvet, the very first object to go in my very first memory box. It reminds me of my Mema, my Papa, the old abandoned funeral parlor that used to be in the woods behind our trailer. When it was torn down, they burned the basement out, flames licking up as if from the fiery pits of hell. 

It’s all gone now. The trailer. My grandmother’s lot. My grandmother.

Me. 

I used to be afraid of the place I was born. Everything either dead or in the throes of dying. Rotting. Somewhere on the cusp, at the brink, on edge. Full of ghosts. 

Despite my adamant atheism, because of these things, I was too afraid to sleep. To try to comfort myself, I would take out the medallion Mema gave me, worry it, imagine some protective spirit rising from it and wrapping itself around me like a coat. 

Despite my adamant atheism, for many years, whenever I became anxious or felt threatened by some unknown uneasiness that felt like evil, I was haunted by incessant chanting to myself: I love God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and heaven, but I hate hell and the Devil. I love God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and heaven, but I hate hell and the Devil. It was compulsive, worrisome. 

Many years later, I would catch my mother whispering those exact words to herself after a fight with my father. 

So it was a thing handed down, like religion or the medallion. Like the ramshackle family farms passed down in my homeland. 

I’ve long since learned to make friends with my demons, to stop the chant before it gets to God and replace that three-letter word for another: you. But I still cherish the medallion, because I do feel blessed and filled with love. I feel pure and sweet, but also unpretending. Not always honest, but true, like the place I was born. The place that taught me to ask why. 

A gift from a blood moon and a Scorpio sky. 

 
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Madison Larimore is a writer, editor, and writing consultant, as well as an English major with a concentration in creative non-fiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Some of her writing can be found in Midnight Circus, Journey Literary Magazine, and 13th Floor Magazine. She was awarded the John J. McKenna fellowship and the Fund for Undergraduate Scholarly Experiences grant in 2018 for her creative non-fiction project, HumanKind, which you can learn more about at humankind.blog. 

 

 

 

 

American Exceptionalism

Robert d. Kirvel

Without monsters or gods, art cannot enact our drama-–Mark Rothko

When on rare occasions we encounter in the flesh the textbook definition of a character type, stereotyping’s seductive appeal can feel unsettling. Tad, the husband of my former sister-in-law, is a good old boy of the my-country-right-or-wrong, love-it-or-leave-it ilk. He donates generously to the NRA, drops everything when summoned for a cause involving bullets, and cheers from his armchair the self-styled philosophers on biased broadcast and social media because their political arguments are invariably presented, Tad affirms, in such a balanced way.

“I’ve made a donation in your name to the Flat Earth Society.” I fantasize about offering that emotionally fragrant statement—embroidered on linen and framed—to Tad next Christmas. Yet, if better judgment prevails, I will refrain from playing Santa Monster to Tad’s inner child because no one, myself included, sees the world as it actually is. Rather, humans experience things as we are, through filters of belief, bias, values, assumptions, and the local culture—call it our personal god-or-monster climate. 

It matters: what we say out loud or don’t say. Equally affective is how we convey the information. 

When I visit Tad and Sonny for a few days during the summer heat, I always remind myself why I’ve returned to the inland turf of my adolescence. The driving force behind each trip to the west of Davenport, Iowa, amidst 360-degree horizons of field corn is a desire to connect in small ways with recollections of childhood, commune with spirits of relatives departed, and remember my first true friend in life who was murdered in his twenties by a virus—that awful virus. If Tad enjoys hurling buckets of verbal gibberish toward random compass points, his faithful sidekick–chameleon, Sonny, pivots effortlessly with the slop direction. Awash in currents of mixed metaphors, my mom was fond of saying, don’t cut off your nose despite your face when you get behind the eighth ball. That she never grasped the game of 8-ball is obvious, but does Mom’s counsel about holding versus freeing one’s tongue apply to her son when revisiting corn country? Hold that question for a moment.

According to clever biologists, higher intelligence may reveal itself only during a blip in biological time and prove unequal to the challenge of surviving the long evolutionary haul. We have plentiful data to support the idea. Is it surprising then when folks are besotted with the power of astrology and crop circles and Uzies, as Tad and Sonny are? This much, at least, is obvious to me with respect to the topic of firearms: humans as a species are not sufficiently evolved to be trusted with jackknives, let alone guns of any caliber. Why is it obvious? Stuff your opportunistic interpretations of the Second Amendment, I suggest, along with all the good-intentioned framer–farmers who also believed in the curative power of leeches and a universal incapacity of the fairer sex. There might be defensible exceptions to the losing bet associated with placing firepower in the hands of half-hairy hominids—for example, when a grizzly is coming at you—but the adverse consequences for modern times are right there in the numbers. Mom favored another, borrowed notion of responsibility. So you let the cat out of the bag, so you shall reap. We reap, several thousand deaths by bullet every month. The data are widely reported, so what purpose would it serve to remind someone like Tad of facts?

Part of me knows debate is pointless when two sides are entrenched, especially on a topic like guns. If logic fails, what about illogic then? Or irony, humor, metaphor? Surely something can be gained by exploring a fresh approach when an in-law brings up, for the umpteenth time, the power and glory of concealed carry. But what might that gain be? Something just under the surface about what people say versus what they really mean? Perhaps something about interpretation. 

At the breakfast table the first morning of my visit to corn country, Tad muses out loud about a legislative initiative he supports: requiring guns in public school. Not just on the part of security personnel or teachers, but children.

“At what age would you like to see kids packing pistols then?”

“Oh, I’m thinking fourth grade.” He is serious. “That’s what we do now at our church.” He nods to Sonny, who nods back. They are both serious.

I speak slowly. “Of course, you are free to conjure visions of deranged jihadists mowing down unarmed kiddies denied the right to concealed carry, if that’s your thing, but my thing is classical music and diction.” Tad looks askance at me. 

“Yes,” I tell him, “because—joyful, sad, or bipolar—words suggest affective qualities through their dreams, and who does not like dreams accompanied by a musical score?”

In my head, I explain to my hosts, I often think about the emotional associations of words. I imagine a piccolo enjoying sprightly visions as viola suffers from depression in the dark hours, or I envision a xylophone and flugelhorn acting out episodic schizophrenia in the forest. The truth is that the very mention of concealed carry brings out the worst in me, so I am determined to change the subject by any means possible.

“That makes no sense at all.” Tad says. “What you said.”

“What part?” I ask, titillated by the prospect of rapid-fire nonsense and success in confounding the direction of Tad’s thoughts. Then I feel guilty for baiting one or both of my hosts.

“The whole thing. All of it. And what you write about too.”

Tad waves a magazine in the air over our breakfast sausages, pages open to a piece I had suggested he peruse and from which he might profit, but I was wrong. His swishy wrist motions carry a dismissive quality as he repeats that the narrative, featuring a catgut chorus persecuting one unhappy flugelhorn, makes no sense. Tad’s principal complaint seems to be that the writing in question describes as taking place in the real world something that could not happen in reality, including a musical instrument’s mental breakdown. Tad is the sort of fellow who enjoys television shows about real people and events: topless vampires, for example, seducing big-hearted hit men, and he likes to repeat plot twists in detail. I counter that the published article under discussion (my own, though I do not remind him) is a metaphor about violation and shame, that some things written may not be true in the literal sense but can capture an aspect of the human condition and elevate our personal understanding. A poem, for example. 

Tad says he does not like poetry. His flat intonation leaves no room for doubt. Here is a case of irony if ever there was one, absolutely, if you throw in some irony.

Tad, as fine looking a sandy-haired lug as exists in farm country, can suck the life from conversations and has the habit of interrupting earnest discussions to offer friends a gripping snippet about himself:

“I loved that old second-hand Skilsaw I bought years ago dirt cheap, but one day it quit. When I took it to the guy, he called back and said oil wasn’t the problem, no sir, but the air filter had wrecked the compression. I’d been using an air compressor to clean the filter and blew the coating clear off. Time for a new saw. Har, har.”

Sonny chimes in with musings about her favorite politician who has written another book in which the principal contentions are that God loves America above all nations on Earth and that Americans are God’s favored children, having never done harm to any living thing in the past or present. She rolls palms heavenward when I mutter something about the danger of positing U.S. “exceptionalism,” as Noam Chomsky likes to call it, in light of America’s history and ongoing track record of imperialism spiced with the latest iteration of Agent Orange/dioxin or something. Sonny counters that “We, as a Nation” can accomplish anything we want to accomplish, including the destruction of Iran and that other God-forsaken country over there, if we only remember to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” from time to time. She larks a snippet,

...going off to war, with the cross of Jesus...

to tease my goat. She probably thinks the tune is funny, that she’s being funny, and she is. On the serious side, she probably has in mind Stone Age clerics who advocate amputation to solve the irksome problem of bread pilfered by starving urchins. Amputation is bad of course. But is it much better when the citizens of one country fancy they have the right to set right by drone strikes the regressive thinking of citizens of another country about which they know diddly? I silently ask myself the question, not Sonny, remembering Mom’s advice. But enough of ammo and Stone Age politics.

 
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In the interval between one unguided missile from Tad and the next drone attack from Sonny, I walk far into the fields out back, and my thoughts involuntarily pivot to the nature of the human brain and its equipotential mission. I think initially about coprolites (petrified dung) and chastise myself silently for being ungenerous. I picture a pair of goldfish named Death and Destruction nibbling detritus affixed to recently unearthed archeological skulls soaking in a laboratory vat somewhere in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and rendering the bones immaculate, that image coming to mind because we are, in the end, whether we live with corn, cow dung, or subways, fish food. I think about the reality that I am a visual thinker and try to imagine what passes for thought in Sonny’s noggin. More coprolites sprint cross the visual field of my imagination. Then I remember how some neurophysiologists speculate that religious inclination, interpretable as wishful thinking or otherwise, is an inherent (better term: emergent) property when enough neurons—a hundred billion or so—get together and decide to tame fire and play canasta. So it’s really on the inside rather than from the outside that we might look for the origins of belief, is it? Other emergent properties that come to mind during my stroll on the soil are an affiliation with “us” along with an aversion toward “them” (i.e., a tendency to elevate us at the expense of everyone not us) and a fondness for hot dogs.

 
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The television blares in the family room as I saunter through the Iowa farmhouse. The flat screen remains on day and night in this otherwise bucolic place, tuned always to the same “breaking news” station. Another rant is in progress about socialism chewing government to pieces and food stamps digesting economic leftovers. 

Sonny quotes from the Bible while looking up at me. “A man who sleeps with a man shall be put to death.” Is she joking? Baiting? I suspect the King James Version presented to me during childhood for perfect attendance in Sunday school contains no such recommendation, then I remember. Am I in handcuffs? I am not. Am I free to go? I am free to go. 

Free to reminisce as well while revisiting home turf. My Mother. After her final consultation with a young surgeon, she cried as I drove her home, terrified of another hospital and the risks associated with surgery at an advanced age. Her spirits rebounded in the car that sunny afternoon after my telling her what she wanted most to hear: that she need not have the operation if that was her choice, and it was indeed her choice. I think the pigeons have come home to roost is the way she put it that day, suspecting—as I knew with assurance following an aside from the physician—that death was the likely outcome either way, surgery or no. No irony was in sight that day, except for a stint of freedom in the face of death. She was 93.6 years old when she died in my house a few months after the consultation—more precisely, in her wing of my house—in her own bed next to her husband of 65-plus years, about the same terminal age that her Grandma Comstock had attained, our stern upstate New York ancestor with the gold-rush name and fortitude of a Wagnerian handmaid named Brunhilde. Only after Mom was gone did I grasp the extent of unswaying maternal encouragement exceptional mothers award their children. Now there’s genuine exceptionalism for you.

 
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Sonny was out back petting her roses when a related thought washed over me. 

“You could have done something. You’ve ruined my life.”

Those are the most hurtful words anyone has ever spoken to me. They were snarled by my father, who had convinced himself I’d killed Mom and taken all his money, this after renovating a wing of my house so both parents could spend their final years in a serene setting with their own ground-floor rooms. Five years after Mom died, I did need to place Dad in a residential care facility after all, despite opposite intentions, because of his progressive vascular dementia. “You have no choice,” two docs and three nurses insisted following yet another trip to the ER. I rejected, then acceded to their advice when I came home from work one afternoon to inhale acrid air, find molten metal on his stove, and discover our shared washing machine had been crammed with so many blankets and sheets that the repairman needed heavy equipment to extract them. Later that week I found my father on the floor of his bathroom at 2 a.m., sorting pills into cardboard boxes for an imaginary trip, while repeating with urgency that, “the people upstairs” (in a one-story home) were ready to go. 

Many seniors are not easy to handle toward the end, and my father, who had always kept emotions under lock and key, became downright difficult. Still, after watching the quantum increments of his mental deterioration, a step-wise descent on the rungs of a conceptual ladder to living hell, after cleaning trails of detritus from bedroom to bathroom, upon feeding a parent with a spoon and living with flickering hopes and dying expectations, I know things about the end game others may not care to know. Dad, younger than Mom by about 5 years, breathed his last at the age of 92.7.

 
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My soul mate, Norm, asked me just after he was informed of his terminal diagnosis whether I would be all right. “Of course,” I shot back reflexively, meaning I’d been okay before we met, and I would be fine for the rest of my life after he departed too soon this plain of sunbeams and terror. Brave words those, spoken as much to reassure myself as Norm, but no dice. The more his health failed, the kinder he became, in contrast to my father’s withering temperament. Each time Norm comes to me in dreams, I am overjoyed, then crushed upon awakening to the conscious reminder of an insurmountable loss. 

 
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Glancing out the sliding farmhouse doors now, I see Tad and Sonny in the rose garden embracing as young lovers would in a Franco Zeffirelli movie featuring a sumptuous musical score that charges autonomic nerve endings. Tad has his hands on Sonny’s still-slender waist; she, one palm on his chest, reminds me why I’ve come back to this place for a reconnection with memories. In this moment, I love them again, both of my parents, Tad and Sonny as well, because love is eternal, if intermittent. Tad drops to his knees and hugs Sonny, with his splendid head of hair pressed against her thigh, an expression so submissive and tender, yet commanding and lovely, that it makes me feel uneasy to watch. Sonny pulls her husband to his feet, and they walk along the rose path in slow motion as if it were possible to remain in physical contact for an eternity of cloudless blue yonders in Middle America. 

I would grant them cerulean tomorrows too, particularly after recent tribulations. Sonny has always drawn as much assurance from religion as Tad from his political convictions, but both dispositions were tested by their son, “The Kid,” who walks, partly upright, a tightrope of social disequilibrium. When, during my own youth, the family went to a grand auditorium in the city for some special outing, my father always purchased front row seats in the balcony. Even if main-floor sections were available, he insisted on steeply inclined views. I remember trying to fight impulses of hurling myself over the railing and plunging to decease, and when struggling to brace back—pushing moist palms against armrests—some mysterious power seemed to yank me forward into “The Downward Path,” just as some cerebral force-field apparently tugged at The Kid.

During one visit to Tad and Sonny’s house a while back, I happened into the family room to discover the television was not tuned to the usual station. While Sonny fussed with dinner at the kitchen island and Tad scanned an Old Farmer’s Almanac, The Kid had apparently been given permission to watch a ghoulish movie about college students stranded at a remote cabin in the forest. The boy seemed transfixed but, as usual, remained silent. Then at a moment of crimson theatrical violence, The Kid burst out with the type of wicked laughter that redefines creepiness. I glanced at the parents, but neither apparently noticed, and I remember thinking—for the first but not last time—something was off-kilter in this house. 

I began to see comments The Kid was posting on Facebook about strong women, “retarded” lesbians, and feminazis. Remarks about the myth of rape in the armed forces followed, along with ridicule of transsexuals and venom directed toward obviously disturbed females outside the mainstream who took to blustering on the Internet about unequal pay and other “feminist lies.” 

“He’s sweet,” Tad and Sonny kept saying, a thoughtful 14-year-old who keeps to himself. He’s an intelligent 15-year-old who doesn’t harbor ill will toward anyone.

After seeing more recommendations from my nephew about burning people alive, I responded to his comments online from across the miles, hoping he might think twice before ridiculing others on the Internet even if the intent was a joke. Was it a joke? New posts appeared during his sixteenth year, ignorant and mean-spirited. I sent him a personal email and then another, reinforcing the idea that words matter. Misogynistic rants followed, and I sent a third email to The Kid together with suggestions about some good sources to read: Gloria Steinem on feminism, Carl Sagan’s baloney-busting toolkit to draw upon when encountering phony baloney. I urged him to consider joining a debate club at school to learn principles of fair-minded exchange. I wrote Tad there was something we should discuss regarding his son, but Dad never responded. 

A few months later, I opened Facebook and saw that The Kid “liked” a blog posing the question, “If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?” The blogger answered the question with

JEWS,

and The Kid added his recommendation: “Fags and trannys (sic).” 

The world stopped spinning as I struggled to see a way forward or back, reminding myself that Facebook is just a dumb tool. Don’t blame the tool. I decided to write a letter and send it to The Kid along with every other family member of legal age. My first draft was angry, so I toned it down and down again, nevertheless ending the letter with my disappointment and shame in discovering homophobia in the family, most of whom have known who I am for decades, but everyone? All the nephews? Did they know? I couldn’t be sure because the subject of homosexuality had never come up with them explicitly. But exterminating fags? Not acceptable. 

I got a phone call from Sonny who was almost speechless with suppressed rage. How could I send a letter like that? Now The Kid wouldn’t eat dinner and was convinced his family life was over. We talked, mostly right over one another’s words. “This is the reason I’m not on Facebook,” Sonny sobbed. “I don’t want to know these things.” She understood about my taking offense, but then she added, “You don’t know until you’ve lived it.” 

“You don’t know,” she’d said, and I knew just what she meant: what it’s like to be gay unless you, yourself are gay. I knew what she meant to be sure but did not buy it.

Tad’s reactions went straight to the mattresses, as the saying goes. He had three things to tell me:

– “You are being intolerant and judgmental.”

– “The boy doesn’t have a problem. You have the problem.”

– “If you’re so upset, you ought to see a psychiatrist.”

Someone at my nephew’s school thought the lashing out on social media might have been a reaction to bullying, and another acquaintance suggested latent homosexuality and its accompanying shame as a possible explanation, but in the heat of the moment it is doubtful anyone in my family could have responded adequately to what I was feeling. What does it feel like to be called a fag by a relative who wishes all-God’s-gay-children dead? 

I remember staring at photos of The Kid taken at a younger age, then looking out the window as if the air itself were to blame. I still wonder if he will get over intolerance one day and come out the other side. Will I? Every gay person I know is, to a greater or lesser extent, in recovery from shame, striving not to live as victim but to rise above the anguish brought on by folks who might be well-intentioned but oblivious of the pain some words elicit. For that reason, I found myself conveying to people—to my family—emotions they didn’t seem to grasp but needed to appreciate. I know this though: I will never have a child of my own, so part of my reaction centered on a hope of discovering in The Kid qualities akin to those I would have wanted to see in my own son.

 
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Reflecting on that heartache once again during my current visit to Tad and Sonny’s house, I meander outside and down the quarter-mile driveway of the property, which ends at a rural mailbox. There, I pivot to take in the cluster of farm buildings as sparks fly between my ears. Sparks associated with the present, sparks from the past. It’s been six years since my father died. It has been two years since the Facebook incident. 

I grew up with the people in this region of the country—friends and neighbors—believing something unique set us apart as not just decent folks but the best people in the world living in the best country on Earth. I still want to think that despite enduring more than a decade of childhood and adolescent shame over being the person I am. In public school, I questioned values valued locally, including beliefs in arcane forces rather than logic, dogma rather than material cause and effect, sometimes a blatant disavowal of science and analytic understanding. The predominant local values I observed and rejected could be summarized in a few words: spiritualism, regionalism bordering on provincialism if not parochialism, denial, and conformity. Or stated more concretely: (1) faith in divine agency and the superiority of one’s denomination, (2) distrust of most things urban strengthened by an affiliation with things rustic, (3) conviction that traditional ways are best, and (4) loyalty above all to one’s family and the home team. I am disloyal under more than one of these tenets, worse, I am unsilent about being gay, thus at least part monster. But what is it, exactly, my relatives really think about my being a “fag?”

Lingering at the mailbox, I picture houses down the road and dotting intersecting lanes in the vicinity, each dwelling within the context of the larger neighborhood a community of the like-minded no less than applies back home along the crowded blocks of my city. Inside the houses in both locations folks prepare dinner, laugh, love, sometimes hate, and invariably act as humans. Here in mid-America, however, the occupants know their miles-distant neighbors in a personal way because many still live a stone’s throw from their birthplace, and on any given day—every day—one hears only familiar dialects, shares comfortable views that rest on ungrounded foundations, trusts familiar flesh tones that are uniformly white, agrees on what is just and unjust, and reinforces local notions through repetition and nonstop breaking-news propaganda having little connection with realities of a complex world beyond. The local dynamic seems to involve an unlikely combination of honesty and naivety, honor and tunnel vision, virtue and repudiation.

When good people embrace curious philosophies, is it grounds for ridicule or tears? Is it possible to empathize while entirely rejecting another’s viewpoint?

 
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“So what’s your favorite?”

“Hmm?”

“Your favorite meal for dinner.”

I tell Sonny, and that’s what she fixes for us to eat that evening. At one point during the meal—my last in this house for the year—Sonny says, “I wish you’d find somebody.” How much can a person convey in five words? Worlds. I believe that had I asked her for fifty thousand dollars that night, Sonny would not have hesitated to jump in the car and drive to the local banker’s house to pound his midnight door. Wouldn’t have battered an eye, in Momspeak. 

Which takes me back to that nonlinear fiction published in a literary review Tad had fluttered in the conversational breeze over breakfast sausages the first morning of my visit. That particular story had centered on violation and shame and loss, and never before had a product of my imagination elicited such mixed reactions from readers. One friend expressed rage over its characterization of Neanderthal behavior, whereas two others called me to say the ending made them cry. Both responses were gratifying because they confirmed at least a few people were moved by the message and had made the effort to say so. Which makes me wonder: what might it have been like if the souls who understand me now—today, as an adult living in urban America—had been present during my shame-filled growing years. What might happen today if The Kid enjoyed such compatriots, and if he appreciated my history and had a glimpse of my truth?

I try to formulate what, exactly, bothers me so much about the “death-to-fags” incident and how I’d like to see it resolved. I keep hearing my Mom’s advice about holding one’s tongue. A few years ago I read a Triple-A formula summarizing responses that might help repair a wrong. (1) Acknowledge the wrong, (2) apologize, and (3) atone in some way (unspecified) that feels appropriate. Good advice or not, it seems certain that ignoring what damaged a relationship is counterproductive to mending it.

 
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Davenport, IA, and Minnetonka, MN; faithful Sonny, literal Tad, and their teenage son; my mother and father; Brunhilde Comstock and sweet Norm: I marvel at people and places and what they come to represent in a personal way. It’s not that personalities and geographies framing a life are simply what they are; that idea short-suits complexity. Contemplating elements that underlie a life is a pointing back in time to one’s history and ahead—along a tapestry of infinite textures illustrating what once was and what we still hope to experience or feel—between past mysteries and current expectations, all, matters of interpretation. 

In the foregoing snapshots from real life, the identities of people, physical locations, and family connections are camouflaged for the sake of protective decency, but the experiences and associated emotions have not been falsified. As straight as a crow flies is how my imperfect but exceptional mother would have put it. 

We journey into a part of ourselves when revisiting old haunts, and in confronting a past that contours the present we might perceive irony where none is present, misfire in aspiring to cleverness, or misconstrue intent. We recall feelings of happiness and shame and hurt. We disengage in anger, or wait for a reason to forgive human failings beyond our ken. Saying what we think, can elicit hurt sometimes. Sometimes, what we don’t say hurts most. 

 
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Robert D. Kirvel, a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, is a Pushcart Prize (twice) and Best of the Net nominee for fiction. Awards include the Chautauqua 2017 Editor’s Prize, the 2016 Fulton Prize for the Short Story, and a 2015 ArtPrize for creative nonfiction. He has published in the UK, New Zealand, and Germany; in translation and anthologies; and in two dozen U.S. literary journals, such as Arts & Letters. A collection of 22 interrelated stories, Predisposed, is slated for publication in London during 2018. Most of his literary works are linked at https://twitter.com/Rkirvel.

 

 

 

Choosing Stones

Rachel Laverdiere

I hold my breath when your eyes twitch in your sleep. Though you are now a man, I still have this desire to protect you from the men who chased you in your dreams. I forbid myself to kiss the scar above your lip or to caress the beauty mark on your cheekbone. Instead, I pull a blanket around your shoulders and lean in just enough to smell your hair. 

When you were little, you collected so many rocks they spilled from your desk and tumbled from your pockets. Over and over, I explained that you must decide which stones to keep and which to abandon to the river. I told you, “We can’t hold on to everything.” Remember when we used to skip stones? How once the stone makes contact with water, there is a bounce, plop, and plunk. But even after the surface of the water grows still, the ripple effect goes on. Molecules continually rearrange themselves. 

These days, it’s my memories that spill like stones from overflowing pockets, so I’m choosing which to purge from my mind. I remind myself that even the truths behind our memories morph. Beneath the placid surface, the waves of the past continue to tremble, but my pockets are getting lighter.

 
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On a train heading west from Yangsan, a young woman presses her lips to her child’s fluttering lashes. The boy relaxes against his mother’s arms as she kisses the small scar above his lip and the beauty mark beneath his left eye. He believes his mother will protect him from the demons chasing their train in the dark. He does as he was told—feigns sleep, eyes squeezed shut, until he drifts off. 

The travel-weary woman watches the charcoal world whip by, her forehead pressed against the cold windowpane. The heft and warmth of her child’s body keep her in the present moment. Her face looks calms, but inside resides the fear that she may not survive. A panicked bird fills the space where, months earlier, her tumorous lung wheezed its last breath. The bird squirms and flails about in her chest, but she must be strong for her child. She distracts herself by squinting out the window, by trying to pinpoint how far they’ve skipped out. 

There are obstacles holding them from their final destination—an ocean, a marriage, the possibility of death and this panic housed in her hollowed-out chest—but she smooths each obstacle into a flat stone that will skim across open water. So far, the stones have sunk because she’s miscalculated the length of time the tension will hold them afloat. With practise comes perfection.

 
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Of course, this is our story. I wasn’t much older than you are now when I held you on that train. Sometimes it’s easier to tell the stories from my past as though they happened to somebody else. My guilt has proven to be the biggest obstacle on most of my journeys. 

Years ago, you asked me about the giant men with sticks.  “How could you let him tell me that?” you asked after I told you the story. 

 
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That night I pressed my face against the cool train window piecing together the puzzle of how we’d make it home again someday. I fell into a shallow doze and woke lost in the blur of pine trees and dark mountains, but the smell of boiled eggs, dried o-jing-ah and barley tea placed us back in the train, hurtling towards the unknown. I looked down at you, a sleeping cherub, in my lap and worried that your eyes moved so rapidly in your sleep because you were afraid. 

Your dad, also on that train, had warned you earlier, “Be careful, Twaiji-ya! The big bad men with the sticks—the ones who were guarding the temple—are looking for little boys who aren’t asleep. Ahhh and now they are chasing the train!” 

The moment to save you had passed. I’d failed to stop his story, so the demons chased you in your sleep. Just remember that your dad wasn’t much older than you back then, and he never knew what not to say. I was suffering, so, not knowing how to help, he made up that story, so I could rest. You and I had been inseparable during the months I fought not to die. And you hadn’t stopped clinging to me in the weeks since we’d been in Korea.

 “Toqui-ya, I can take him.” Your dad whispered once you’d fallen asleep. But the panicked bird thudded against my ribcage. The mountains loomed overhead. I’d already lost so much. There was no choice but to keep holding on to you, so I shook my head and your dad faded further into the background. He was a stone that fell from my pocket, but I was too tired to tuck him back in.

Instead, I pressed my temple against a fresh patch of fogged glass, and watched the weathered mountains erode into hills.

 
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Later, our feet clattered across the pebbled beach, and then you waded into the shallow river like a brilliant splash of colour. Red rubber boots and a blue knit sweater vibrant against the grey sky. 

“This one, Mama?” 

I shook my head, and you pushed the pebble into your pocket. “That one is too round.” I traced your dimpled fingers on the edge of a flat stone from I’d picked from the beach, “Smooth and flat like this, so it can jump.”

I attempted to skip that stone across the surface of the river, but it sank with a plop. 

We spent the afternoon choosing stones until we got a few to skip. You filled your little pockets until they spilled, and, when the sun began to sink, I wrapped you up in my arms and carried you home.

 
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Rachel Laverdiere is a language instructor and writer living on the Canadian prairies. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction pieces are published in over twenty journals, including The New Quarterly, filling Station, and FreeFall Magazine. Rachel's flash fiction story was shortlisted for the Geist 2015 Short Long-Distance Writing Contest. Find more of her writing at www.rachellaverdiere.com or on Twitter @r_laverdiere. 

Smoke Speak

Jessica Santala

She smoked pot for the first time when she was twelve. It was 1994, and a good friend, a lean-to friend, died during a parade down Main Street. Class of 2000, her graduating class, and everyone present besides her. Adeline got caught in the wheel of a parade float. She wasn’t there at Adeline’s side, ready to pull the skirt from the wheel, to yell out like Adeline never could. She would’ve been there, could’ve been there if it weren’t for the divorce, the time legally owned by Mother. Adeline died of internal bleeding. It was thirty-miles to the nearest hospital.  

After the news came in, Mother sat down on the faded color-blocking of her New Kids on the Block comforter and offered a puff off a joint. A little something to steel the nerves.

The smoke curled around her lungs like a stuttering, slipping vice. Long and deep shivers of grief became light, became ridiculous. She laughed hysterically until she fell onto the carpet. Mother laughed. Mama’s little lightweight. The girl wondered if Mother was happy to be able to talk to her with smoke. Finally, a way to connect to her funny little tomboy.

An hour or two passed, “Walk” by Pantera blasted out of a boombox on the bathroom counter. She sat on the toilet and watched Mother get ready to go out, again. Mother spent ten years under a man’s thumb, and she’d decided to be sixteen again.  Mother forced her bangs to defy gravity with high heat and high fumes. She talked excitedly about the band she’s going to see. The lead guitarist will be mine, tonight! Mother said, with a confidence the Daughter is still trying to catch up to. She looked at the clock, seven p.m.—and asked Mother when she’d be back. By morning, Mother said. From the living room a tumult of hisses and whines; a fight between her little sisters, one eight and one nine. 

By thirteen she knew how to take care of her family. She could cook without a box, do laundry, perform first aid, and shoplift groceries like a pro. Mother had a second home, the roost—what Mother’s burned out, red-faced, man-friends called it. She knew her proficiencies kept Mother’s binges going. First the hours stretched, then days, then too many days. Dragging her feet in the morning, waking up siblings, piecing together a breakfast of commodity corn flakes and dry milk.  Little Brother, only three then, looked up from his bowl and asked her a question. Addressed her as mom. 

I am not mom, sweetie, she said. 

It was early spring when she trashed Mother’s trailer house with the help of three friends. They put cereal all over the floor, paint on the ceiling, the washing machine, the couches, and smudged red bingo-dobber circles on the greasy wallpaper in the kitchen. She was lost to her anger. Hulk angry. Break-random-windows-angry. Slice-x-marks-on-her-stomach-angry. Mother was gone for the weekend to some dive-bar with one of her listless, alcoholic, musician boyfriends. While Mother partied like a rock star, this girl was often left to rot in a youth crisis-shelter. 

Barely fifteen and Mother barred the door for good. It’s called tough love.  The boyfriend that the girl called “The Face”, due to the deep welts, the boils, crisscrossing his sunken cheeks, said he wouldn’t stay if the girl returned. Mother weights her romantic-heart over the sullen blubbity-beat of her mother-heart. I brought this on myself. The girl thinks, nobody wants me. In a few weeks she will try to commit suicide via thin ice. She will stomp and push and punch the pock-marked fissures in the early April ice over Lake Bemidji like it’s the face of Mother’s lover. She will fail at this too. 

By seventeen she’s been on her own for a year. That night, a summer night, with all its heat and possibility, forces her to the lakeshore. The lakeshore is girded by the narrow, tree-hidden, winding trestles of trail. Trails that have been there for millennia. Before trains, before lumberjacks, before Andersons and Gundersons and Sorensons landed there. Off their boats from Sweden and Norway and Finland via the east coast, pressing north till some fell off the wagon at the headwaters of the Mississippi. She felt safe on these trails—these Indian trails.  Among the creeping baby’s breath and purple thistle blooms. Waiting like a pitcher plant waits for the mosquito or the horsefly; she waited for life to surface. To come within grasp.

That’s when she saw Mother’s van parked nearby at Creepy Guy’s house. She carefully walked across the broken porch and knocked on the door. Mother answered. Pulled her inside. Blankets over windows sealed out the imagined eyes of the paranoid. Beautiful. Mom was beautiful. In the way a deranged horse can look beautiful: gaunt and reckless and bucking her legs and racing the tired tread of the carpet like a racetrack.

Oh, my darling girl. How I miss you. You are just like me. You know? You know? She speaks out the side of her mouth like it hurts to smile, like it was demanding work having such a good time. Then she tap-tap-taps the razorblade on the coffee table, builds rows of white powder.                 

Here, Mother handed her the rolled-up dollar bill. Go ahead. You’ll fucking love it.

She followed direction, inhaling the first procession of poison into the left nostril, second bump—right nostril. The dripping powder in the back of her throat tasted like melted cough drops or battery acid. Violent percolations erupt within her stomach—half butterflies, half brick and mortar. Suddenly conversing with Creepy Guy didn’t seem so bad. He even seemed interesting. The TV and radio battling each other in the background din, started to sound seemly. An aria meets performance art. A marching band at the circus—disparate noise working together toward crescendo. She began to lose footing. Had it been a few moments, few hours? Mother dissolves into the couch, picking at her nails with resolve. From Creepy Guy’s bedroom Mother was called. Mother was wrong. The girl does not love this. It was time to leave.

Back in the gentle blue-cold of the summer night she moved away quickly. The physical sphere of hysteria left behind as she took great big steps toward the water. Slowed breathing comes, and she watched the reflections of busy stars in moonlit lake water. Searching the faces of red pine, of jack pine, of skinny, prison-bar shaped birch for signs of life. For signs of distraction. She looked across the lake. If there was a person on the southern shore she would’ve yelled, waved her hands. She wanted to yell like Mother never could. Imagining she should be there, could be there to pull Mother out from under the wheel, from under her penchant for danger, waiting as it did to crush her. If she really believed any of this would work, she’d break the water. She’d send up smoke signals. She’d lay hours in tears at Mother’s feet and ask her to return home.

 
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Jessica Santala is an adjunct faculty member at Bemidji State University where she teaches writing classes. She has her MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato and is currently working on a collection of essays about family, homelessness, and drug culture in her youth. 

Passing Down Passing

Minna Dubin

1.   It is impossible to avoid the pervasiveness of Christmas. My 4-year-old son watches videos. He attends preschool (that Santa, he never forgets to give out gifts!). That my son has any idea we’re Jewish in Christian-centric America is a victory. 

2.   “Mom, we can’t sing Christmas songs because we’re Jewish people.” “We can sing any song we damn well please,” I think, but I don’t want to confuse him, so I say, “Yes, we usually don’t sing Christmas songs because we don’t celebrate that holiday. We celebrate Hannukah, so we sing Hannukah songs.” “Yeah,” he smiles, “we sing Hannukah songs.” “Do you want me to sing you a Hannukah song?” I ask hopefully. “No thank you, Mommy.” He never lets me sing. 

3.   I feel proud that he’s learning he is Jewish, but it frightens me too. I have daydreams where he proudly proclaims, “We don’t celebrate Christmas because we’re Jewish!” to the wrong person. As I teach him about his Jewishness, will I also have to teach him how to hide? How to pass? Anti-Semites aren’t just at alt-right rallies donning swastika tattoos. They live somewhere. Here even. They pass too. 

4.   Will my son learn how to pass just from being my son? As a bisexual Jew, I know all about passing. Every time someone assumes I’m straight or Christian, I have to choose whether to correct them (declare my truth) or let it go (pass). My internal meter gauges each situation and asks, “Is it safe? Is it worth it? Will I embarrass them? Will I have to then placate their embarrassment?” 

5.   Is passing down the skill of passing to my children a gift—a safety tool—or is it a burden—a legacy of shame and fear?

 
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Minna Dubin is a writer, performer, and educator. She is the founder of #MomLists, a Bay Area literary public art project. Her work has been featured in Parents, MUTHA Magazine, Huffington Post, and various literary magazines. When not chasing her toddler in circles around the dining room table, she is eating chocolate in the bathroom while texting. You can follow her work on Instagram: @momlists Facebook: Facebook.com/momlists.

Sweets

Louise DeSalvo

In Ocean Grove down the Jersey shore with her husband, she sees a woman (elderly, like her) and a man (younger, her son?) sitting at a table outside a bakery. She nods to them as she and her husband grab a nearby table, the woman nods back, the man turns away. Screw you, she thinks, marveling at the rage that rises so frequently and unexpectedly these days, Screw you, you bastard, though why she expects the return of her greeting, she can't say. Give without expecting to receive, she reminds herself. She's been trying to practice kindness, which is why she's greeted these strangers in the first place. Let go, she tells herself, let it go.

It's midmorning, and she and her husband have stopped for a rest, a bottle of water, a cup of coffee, and a tiny treat. The woman sitting next to her doesn't look well, she notices, she doesn't look well at all, she sees these things now, and she wonders what's wrong with her, wants to ask her, for she suspects the woman belongs to her new community, that of the very ill, that of the who-knows-how-long-we-have-left, but, of course, she doesn't ask. Maybe that's why her son turns away. Maybe that's why her son hasn't returned her greeting. Being with his mother is too much for him; being with his mother shuts him down.

With the clarity of insight that's emerged since she's been sick, she realizes that if this man is the only person in this woman's life, the only one she can now rely on, she won't be well taken care of, she won't be taken care of at all, she'll be shipped off to a piss smelling nursing home sooner rather than later, and she'll live out the rest of her life there with occasional visits from him that will gradually taper down, and then, one day, cease altogether. 

The woman leans over, places her hand on her son's forearm, asks him what he thinks she should do (about what? she wonders), but he sinks even deeper into his chair, doesn't answer, shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, Don't ask me what I think, don't ask me to help you, I can't help you, and I don't want to hear about whatever it is you want to tell me.

So, yes, he's unreliable and selfish as well as rude. But it seems that the son (and yes, he is her son, for she has heard him call the old woman Ma), can barely take care of himself. He's unshaven, he's slovenly, he's huge (yet there he is, eating a gigantic pecan sticky bun, one of her very favorite treats that she permits herself rarely, this one, big enough for four people, and there's another sitting atop the greasy crumpled brown paper bag in front of him that, after he's finished with this one, she suspects, still won't be enough to fill him up, won't be enough to satisfy his gigantic hunger), and, except for the sticky buns, he looks like he'd rather be anywhere but here on this far too warm for winter day, sitting next to his mother outside a bakery down the Jersey shore. 

But what, she wonders, has caused this distance, this disaffection? 

Something the mother has done? 

Or hasn't?

Enough, she thinks. Enough eavesdropping. Enough worrying about someone she doesn't even know. Enough caring about what will happen to this old woman. She's got enough to worry about. And maybe she's gotten it all wrong, for she has learned, recently, by taking one of those foolish quizzes in a magazine (she has time for that kind of thing now) that she's a very poor judge of character. Maybe the mother and her son are just having a bad day, maybe he's devoted to her and that's why he's taken her for an outing. Goodness knows, she herself is having plenty of hard times these days.

 

Sitting here outside the bakery in the warmth of the sun, she should be enjoying herself instead of getting herself wrapped up in other people's supposed troubles, for she and her husband are on a brief holiday when she sees the woman and her son, an overnight, as it turns out, so really it's not a holiday at all, but only a brief respite from the drone of their daily life, which is what they'll call it when they get home later that day and speak to their son and daughter-in-law about why they've come back so soon. It was to have been two nights, maybe three, if everything worked out well, if she felt up to it, but she tires easily, and the packing and driving and the unpacking and settling into the bed and breakfast that wasn't nearly as nice as they thought it would be from the photographs on the internet exhausted her, and she gets dispirited when she's away from home and her routine of meditation and a wee bit of exercise, which she insists upon forcing herself to do even if she isn't up to it, to give herself her best chance for--what? not recovery, surely, for that is not possible now--a little more time. And they both hated the room in the B & B--So noisy! Can you believe it, no end tables? How can they expect anyone to climb into that bed? Way too high, and way, way too hard, and those pillows, who sleeps on pillows that soft? 

And so the two or more nights of their holiday became one, they agreed on it, no fighting this time about needing to stick to their plan no matter what, he, hoping that she, by exerting sufficient will power, could overcome her fatigue and have enough energy, at least, for a stroll on the boardwalk so he could take some photos like he used to on their holidays in Europe, a place they feel sure they will never see again. He tires easily now too, he tells her when she begins to talk about wanting to go home, and the pain in his joints bothers him, he says, to make her feel better, to persuade her it's not her fault they're cutting their holiday short, it's not just her condition that's making them leave.

Her condition. They never call it an illness. They never call it cancer, she insists on their not calling it cancer, it makes what she's going through way too scary, and in calling it her condition, she knows she's deluding herself into believing that it will be an ongoing manageable inconvenience in their lives. No, she couldn't go on, couldn't enjoy the gift of the indeterminate amount of time she has left, unless she thought it so. And so she calls it my condition, and insists that everyone else uses that term, and so that's what it's become, and that's how they refer to it. Her condition.

But before they leave the shore for the long drive home, they decide not to waste this glorious morning, and since a stroll on the boardwalk is out of the question, they drive to Ocean Grove to that little bakery she's always wanted to try. And they've agreed to stop being abstemious and to treat themselves to a little snack, something sweet, she tells him she feels the need for it, and he doesn't stand in her way this time, doesn't remind her that a woman with her condition should lay off fattening food, should try to keep her weight stable. He figures she's been through so much so often and for so long--all the tests, scans, x-rays, biopsies, blood work, treatments, operations--that this little treat might lift her spirits, for she's told him she's very sad she's too tired for a walk, and she's very, very sad that they have to go home, for since they've been away she realizes how little she can do, and when she's home, she has an easier time with all this, and she's just told him it'll be better for her if they don't even try to get away from now on, and she's sorry this condition of hers prevents them from traveling, but it's too hard for her to go away and then have to return home abruptly, too hard for her to remember how they traveled to out of the way places few people had heard about. Yes, the sweet might cheer her up, he thinks, so it will be good for her to have it, and don't they say that a person with her condition does better if they have a positive attitude? 

Whenever he asks her how she is today--for she has taught him to ask How are you today? not How are you? a question, she insists, you should never ask someone with her condition, for how could you possibly answer?--she tells him she's fine, she always says that, or else, a little tired, that's all, and so he never knows how she is unless it gets really bad, and she does seem fine most of the time, she's learning to live in the moment, to be grateful she's still here, to not contaminate today with what might happen in the future, and she begins each day singing Alive, alive-oh-o, Alive, alive-oh-o when she takes her morning shower and it makes him happy to hear her singing and it breaks his heart.  

Yes, she's fine, really, except for when she's not. Those nights when she weeps in bed and tries not to let him hear her, but of course he does. Those days when she loses her glasses and bursts into tears because she can't find them, and she picks up something, and throws it across the room, something unbreakable, not like the early days when she threw cups, saucers, plates when she got angry. Those times when the pain is so bad she can't get into a comfortable position. Or when someone she cares about says something that hurts her, like when their son referred to her condition as a terminal illness, and it took her days to regain her equilibrium, and she told him never, ever, to use that term again. Or the days when she tires herself beyond reason, hoping, he supposes, by virtue of her activity, to prove to herself she's almost as good as she used to be, but she's not, and they both know it, and she will never be again, and on one of those nights when she's far from fine, she crawls up the stairs to bed, one stair at a time, and he takes her hand and pulls her up the last step, Just like you used to pull me up the ladder into your father's boat, she always says, and she smiles, remembering that first hot summer of their love, but he doesn't smile because it hurts too much to think of them so young, fit, at the beginning, instead of somewhere near the end of their love.

No, at those times, she's far from fine, but, thankfully, she isn't not fine every moment of every day. Not yet. At least there's that, he thinks, and he's grateful for it.

Right now, they're pretending that being in Ocean Grove sitting in front of this bakery is something like being on the coast of Liguria, sitting at the Primula, the local cafe in Camogli, the one where old women gather to play cards and drink aperitivos every afternoon after they do their shopping before heading home to cook the evening meal. Camogli, a place where they've been many times, but where they'll never go again, she couldn't risk it, getting sick in Italy, she's heard the most awful stories, how a friend's husband kidnapped her from a hospital in Sicily because her foot turned blue because the cast they'd put on her broken ankle was too tight and no one would do anything until the specialist who put on the cast came down from Rome, how someone knew someone whose husband's ward in Genoa was awash in inches of water and how it was days before a doctor looked at him and how his wife had to provide him with food. Still, even if she had the energy to endure the travel, which she doesn't, and getting sick more than a drive away from her doctor would send her off the deep end, she says, and so they stay close to home. And yes, they both know that sitting outside this cafe at a rusting table is nothing at all like being in Liguria, but that's out for the time being, he says, to keep her hopes up, though they both know that the time being means forever, which really means for the rest of her life, not his, she says, he could always go there after, and that's when he tells her he'll never go anywhere without her, it would be too hard, and she knows that what he says might not be true, but she's glad to hear it. So, they play this game, they pretend they're where they cannot be, and it gives them some small measure of joy to play this game together, when so much has been taken from her, from him, from them.

She's sent her husband into the bakery to get two coffees, a cappuccino for her, an espresso for him, and a sweet, something they'll both like, she says. And she's looking forward to it, as she looks forward to every small pleasure, for small pleasures are all she has now, and these, she must relish, and she does. When he's asked her what she wants to eat, for he knows how picky she is, and has always been, she's told him to choose something he knows she'll like, she can't decide, for deciding is impossible these days--she never knows what will appeal to her before she starts eating, and so she can't know what she'll want to eat. It's the pills, she reminds him, the ones that make her pickier than a toddler, make her different from the adventurous eater she always was, trying new recipes on weekends, eating anything put before her with gusto, she'll eat anything, she's always said, anything except innards.

Mission impossible, he says, as he gets up to go into the bakery to try to find something to satisfy her. They both laugh when he says she's sent him on a mission that will be impossible for him to accomplish for they know what she has asked him to do cannot be done, still he will try valiantly to do it, although he knows he'll fail. And it's because he tries to please her when she has no idea what she wants to eat or can eat that makes her love him so, yes, that, and so very much more. He knows she'd go herself if she weren't so tired, for she loves bakeries, loves food markets, loves little specialty shops, and the family has always laughed about how she's a sucker for condiments whose jars are adorned with little ribbons and how she comes out of a store carrying a jar of local honey, of cucumber vinegar, or of sun-dried tomatoes as happy as if she'd struck gold. 

They both know that what she can eat changes from one meal to the next, from one day to the next, because of the medicine that is keeping her alive but that makes her tired, lose her balance when she's walking, interrupts her sleep, gives her pains in every part of her body, peels the skin off her hands and her feet so that sometimes she can't cook, can't walk, the medicine she takes dutifully, without complaining, at least not often, counting out the proper number of pills in the morning and in the evening, and ingesting them, as she's been told, no more than twenty minutes after they've had their breakfast and dinner. 

She's a dream patient, he tells the doctor when they visit her rock star oncologist, a woman, who, when they first meet, asks what she should know about her besides the fact that she has cancer, and she is surprised, for not many doctors care about who you are, and she has trouble answering, but says, I teach, or at least I taught, I write, I knit, I have a terrific family, I love to cook and eat great food, we love--or rather, loved--to travel. Oh, yes, she does exactly as she's told, takes her pills, meditates, uses prescribed lotions on her body, tries to exercise, and he hopes all this will count for something, a longer life than the abruptly terminated one they'd at first thought she'd have, but secretly, he hopes she'll be one of those anomalous patients, a woman who is suddenly, surprisingly, unmistakably, completely normal, and he tells her this once, and she says, Don't get your hopes up; that's probably not going to happen, but hope is what he has to have, hope is what helps him get from today to tomorrow. 

Still the truth is he's more afraid of what will happen than she is. It's harder, she tells him, for the other person, it always is, but he doesn't believe it as he watches what she goes through. He couldn't do it, he says. You'd have no choice, she replies, it's not courage, it's necessity. And besides, she says, let's not ruin today because of what might happen in the future. What will happen, he thinks, but doesn't say, for he knows better than she does the inevitability of what will happen to her, to them, knows because he is--or was--a doctor.

 

He comes out of the bakery with coffees and an oatmeal cookie for them to share, and when he pulls it out of the bag she looks disappointed, but he tells her he's figured it's the healthiest choice, and at least she'll get some oats along with all that fat and sugar. And he remembers how often they'd stop for a mid-morning coffee and sweet on their walks in Italy, France, and England, and how everything she tasted, everything they ate--a croissant, a sfogliatella, a cup of gelato--she declared to be the very best she'd ever eaten, and maybe he should have gotten her an indulgence today, but he didn't want to feed her anything rich, he didn't want to be like the man they both knew a long time ago, who fed his wife all manner of fattening foods, foie gras, ice cream, pastries, despite doctors' orders, and they both said he probably wanted her to die because what he was doing was going to kill her. 

And it sometimes amused him, her declaration that whatever she was eating was the best thing she'd ever eaten, and it sometimes annoyed him, and the realist in him, the part of him that sometimes wouldn't join her in her flights of fancy, would ask her how was it possible that the last thing she ate was the best of its kind in the world, and she'd frown, and say, Don't rain on my parade, mister. And once, in Venice, as she was savoring a seafood risotto, and she was singing its praises and declaring it to be the best seafood risotto in the world, he said, How can you know that, you haven't eaten every risotto in the world? and she grabbed her purse and her map of Venice and stormed off back to their hotel and she was so angry at him that she hoped he'd get lost in Venice's warren of passageways and never find his way back.

 

An oatmeal cookie? she says, when he pulls it out of the bag. Really? And they both laugh. For he knows she means Isn't it a little too late for me to worry about being healthy? and though others might be horrified at her gallows humor, it helps them both; it lightens the load.

Still, to please him, she tries the cookie. Scoffs. Says it sucks. Finds the strength to duck into the bakery to buy something else, not the sticky bun, though she wants it, but an elephant ear (soggy), an almond croissant (soggy, too), from what has turned out to be this poor excuse for a bakery, to have with their coffees, which taste nothing like they should, and really, he thinks, she seems more upset about the poor food she's been given than about her condition, but then again, she's always been this way about food, a good meal lifts her spirits, a bad one ruins her day, and he has never gotten used to it, for to him a bad meal shouldn't make that much of a difference, though he knows how her mother couldn't feed her when she was an infant, and how her mother sometimes forgot to feed her when she was a toddler, and how her mother fed her "crap," as she put it, while she was growing up.

 

A few days before, they'd gone to a Neapolitan pizza place, the pizzaola straight from Naples, the waiters from Naples, too, and, for the first part of the meal, she was in heaven, eating the good chewy focaccia, and a pizza margarita that was just right. Then a family, a husband (light-haired, vacant eyes), a wife (long black hair, dark eyes), and two children, a boy, about four, a girl, about two, were seated next to them, and the mother ordered grilled fish, the father, stewed octopus, and there was a pizza (for the kids, they assumed, reminiscing about how they used to take their two boys out for pizza so long ago, and how much they all laughed at her as she instructed them to separate the pieces to cool them down so they wouldn't burn their mouths--Separate for coolness, the kids would say, and laugh, but not at her, they insisted, and then she would tell them they were full of it).

The little girl was hungry, she could tell, she could sense these things, but the mother sat there eating her food, offering the child nothing, not even a tidbit, while the father fed the son a piece of stewed octopus, a slice of pizza, a few shrimp from his wife's plate. The little girl took her fork, tried to spear something on her mother's plate, the mother took the fork away. The little girl reached for her brother's pizza, the mother batted her hand away. And this continued throughout the meal, the little girl wanting food, trying to get it, the mother denying her, until, near its end, the child began pretending to feed herself from the empty basket that had contained the focaccia her mother wouldn't let her eat.

Her meal was ruined. She couldn't get out of the restaurant fast enough, and he couldn't figure out what was wrong. She'd wanted to get up from her chair, take the child into her arms, feed her anything she wanted, but she didn't, she couldn't cause a scene, she knew she'd make it worse for the child if she intervened.

And when they were walking to their car, for this was a good day for her and he didn't have to pick her up in front of the restaurant and she was able to walk the two blocks to the car, she turned to him and said, She should be shot.

Who? he asked, for he never knew who had enraged her. Who do you want to shoot now?

That piece of shit mother, she replied. And then she told him that the mother sitting next to their table didn't feed her daughter anything even though she was hungry, didn't he notice, she didn't give her anything to eat, and when she described how the little girl pretended to feed herself, she began to cry, and for days after, she couldn't forget that little girl, and how she pretended to feed herself, and she'd imagine the little girl grabbing her fork and sticking it in her mother's eye.

 

As they sat and rested in Ocean Grove, the litter of their uneaten food on the table, she brightened when she noticed that the formerly derelict building opposite was being rehabilitated, its Victorian tracery now painted in accents of mauve, purple, and green.

Look, she told him, that place across the street that was such a wreck. Look at it now! They've completely renovated it, and there will be shops on the ground floor, and apartments up top, and look at how nicely they've painted it!

He couldn't understand her fascination with house renovations, with home improvements, couldn't understand how, at the end of the day, before they made dinner, she'd sit with her knitting and watch one rehab show after another on TV, the one with the cute couple from Texas who made her laugh, the one with the cute couple from California who were getting divorced but still working together, the one with the twin brothers from Canada who wore tight jeans. Before she got sick, she wasn't like this, wouldn't dream of wasting her time watching the stars of these shows gutting houses and putting them back together again far more beautiful than they had been before, and he had to admit that they worked wonders on these wrecks of house, and when he asked her what her obsession with these shows was all about, she only said, I love to see what they do to them; love to see how beautiful they turn out, and they couldn't begin cooking until she saw what he learned was "the reveal"--the moment when the owners were allowed to see their renovated house for the first time, as if, he said, they'd never seen it in progress, what bullshit, and she had to agree.

She'd learned some terms of the trade--demo day, full gut, complete rewire, cosmetic changes, structural issues, footings, load-bearing wall--and she'd make him laugh by shouting into the kitchen where he was prepping their vegetables to tell him that the particular house she was watching being renovated required a complete rewire, and they'd both groan, and say, in unison, What's that going to cost? the way the owners of the house or the stars of the show always asked the contractors. 

What he doesn't know and what she doesn't tell him is that every decrepit house that's transformed lets her pretend that something like that could happen to her. She's had recurring dreams about people renovating her body, one in which the cute couple from Texas come into her home to perform a full gut on her, and, on demo day, they take out all the diseased parts of her body and throw them into the dumpster in her driveway, and they ask her what special features she would like in her new and improved body, and she tells them, nothing special, just something that functions well, that she'd like to walk without getting dizzy, and if they could do something about the sores on her feet, she'd be grateful, she'd like them to return to a healthy shade of pinko-gray, which is what her anthropology professor taught her was the real color of the so-called white race, and they tell her not to worry, to leave it all to them, and when she awakens, they have done more than what she's asked, and she has nothing at all wrong with her, she's as good as new, no, she's better than new, and, they tell her, this new improved body will last her a lifetime, she no longer has anything to worry about.

 

When she'd gone inside the bakery to choose a few treats more self-indulgent than the oatmeal cookie her husband had picked out, she'd had trouble picking up the bag filled with her goodies (too many, she knew, too fattening, she admitted, but, so what, she'd decided to indulge herself), and she'd asked the clerk for help.

Neuropathy, she says, sometimes my hands don't do what I want them to do, and when he asks her what that is, if she doesn't mind his asking, she explains that it's got to do with nerves. It's from the cancer, she says, then corrects herself. No, not the cancer, the side effects of chemotherapy, and she imagines a team of experts coming into her home to do a complete rewire of her nervous system, and how, after, she is as good as new, no, better than new, she can once again pick up things without dropping them, button her shirts, thread a needle, feel textures (rough, smooth), and the unbearable silkiness of the skin on her husband's back.

I'm so sorry, the clerk says, I didn't know the medicine for cancer could do that.

Cancer. It's the first time she's named it. And she can't figure out why she's said it to him, and why it feels all right, and why it doesn't bother her like she thought it would. Maybe it's because the clerk has been so nice to her, maybe it's because she sees he has something awful, too, something really serious, at least it appears that way to her, AIDS or lung disease or a serious drug addiction. He looks wasted. Sunken cheeks, all too prominent cheekbones, thin as a rail. But she doesn't ask what's wrong, doesn't want to pry, but she thinks he knows she knows they both inhabit the universe of the never going to be well again.

He disappears into the back room, comes back with a special pink and white striped bag with the name of the not so terrific bakery printed on the front, picks up her ordinary white baker's bag, deposits it in the special bag, and comes out from behind the counter to present it to her. 

And then he tells her he has carpal tunnel syndrome and he's thinking about getting an operation. From doing art, he says, pointing to a blackboard decorated with chalk flowers surrounding a list of the day's special treats, and the tulips he's drawn are beautiful and she sees he has talent and she hopes he's using it, has used it, for more than just this. She knows, though doesn't say, carpal tunnel, that's the least of your problems, and she will think about him long after their encounter, just as she will think about the old woman sitting at the table with her son, and the little girl who pretended to feed herself, and she will wonder about them, wonder whether the old woman will get the care she needs, wonder if the little girl will learn to reach far across the table to pilfer something to eat from her mother's plate when she isn't looking, wonder whether the clerk in the bakery will still be alive and working there and drawing his flowers when she next returns, if she returns.

Here, the clerk says, handing her the bag with a little bow and a show of ceremony, the special bag containing what will turn out to be very unsatisfactory treats that she will throw into the garbage after just one bite. 

Enjoy, he says. And do take care.

She takes the bag, thanks him, does a little curtsy, tells him that she will take care, and that he should take care, too, for, she thinks, that's about all they can do right now. 

And yet, and yet. She already knows that the memory of that bow, that small show of ceremony, and the fact that he went all the way into the back of the bakery to get a special bag for her, will nourish her during some of the more difficult moments to come. 

 
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Louise DeSalvo began the MFA Memoir Program at Hunter College where she was the Jenny Hunter Endowed Scholar. She has published the memoirs Vertigo (winner of the Gay Talese Prize), Breathless, Adultery, Crazy in the Kitchen, On Moving, and, recently, The Art of Slow Writing and Chasing Ghosts: A Memoir of a Father, Gone to War. The House of Early Sorrows: A Memoir in Essays is forthcoming from Fordham University Press in Spring 2018. She is currently working on a memoir about cancer.