By recognizing, encouraging and rewarding Chicago’s most talented young artists, The Luminarts Cultural Foundation expands their creative opportunities and enriches their lives, while enhancing the cultural community of our city.
As strong advocates of art education and appreciation throughout the greater Chicago area, Luminarts creates and conducts competitions in visual arts, jazz and classical music, and creative writing. Luminarts Fellows of all social, economic and cultural backgrounds receive grants and mentorship opportunities, and their work is celebrated through visual arts exhibits, musical performances and an annually published anthology.
Luminarts provides motivation and support for our emerging artists, inspiring them not only to continue their artistic pursuits, but also to serve as inspiration for other aspiring artists.
Founded in 1949 as the Union League Civic & Arts Foundation (CAF), Luminarts Cultural Foundation was created by members of the Union League Club of Chicago as a separate, not-for-profit organization. Deeply rooted in the Union League Club of Chicago, Luminarts strengthens the cultural community of Chicago by upholding the club’s century-long tradition of advocating for the arts. Luminarts is dedicated to encouraging our city’s outstanding young artists so that their emerging talent might be heard in performance halls, read within libraries and homes, and exhibited in galleries, museums, and the hallowed walls of the Union League Club.
CREATIVE WRITING & JAZZ COMPOSITION & ARRANGING EVENT
This event will feature live performances and readings by Luminarts Fellows in both the Creative Writing and Jazz Programs. Copies of the 2013 Luminarts Review will be distributed.
Luminarts welcomes talented young artists of all social, economic and cultural backgrounds. As a young visual artist, musician, vocalist, or writer from the Chicago area, we invite and encourage you to compete for grants, creative opportunities, and to become Luminarts Fellows.
The Luminarts Cultural Foundation offers extensive opportunities for Luminarts Fellows, including grants/project support, lectures, workshops, mentorship and facilitated conversations that provide valuable insights into building a successful career in the arts and strengthening our community of participating artists. Visit our events page to view upcoming opportunities.
Project grants from the Foundation are available to support residencies, master classes, exhibition expenses, professional travel, etc.
While these grants can be used for a broad array of career development opportunities, applicants must demonstrate how the funding will support this development, and how the funded experience will in turn benefit the Chicago community. Luminarts Fellows, including first- and second-place award recipients from previous years, are eligible to apply for a grant.
Introducing the Chicago area’s most talented, emerging young artists. Join us in celebrating their exceptional creativity and work.
Lyric Baritone, Voice
Winds, High School
Piano, High School
Strings, High School
First Division (age 14-17)
Second Division (age 18-22)
Third Division (age 23-27)
D Flat Tune – Piano
The Timeless Package
7 Steps to Heaven
On the Sunny Side of the Street
Stella by Starlight
Some boys at school called Brother a closet-case
to my face and their lips were moving but no
music from their mouths. That’s the kind of thing,
Brother says, mama can’t find out. Home alone,
brother barely makes a sound. Mama says he’s
tender. Never told her when his fist crunched
into the fender of some old man’s pickup for calling
him pink. Pussy. That’s the kind of thing leaves you
on your knees at midnight clawing for the revolver,
leaves you begging for the boys that threw you
onto the gravel shoulder to pick up the tire iron
and bust your skull to end the pain. Brother is the kind
of boy who understands families hang men like him
out to dry. Brother says it’s a good thing Daddy
moved out long time ago. Brother says he isn’t
like other boys in this town, has a brain big enough
to pay his way through college. Brother never met
another boy who lusted after the man in the moon,
who found constellations in the sunbaked freckles
of a farmhand. Brother carves his heart out
in the pages of old hymnals looking for the note
that could carry him the farthest away. Brother says
must be other boys in other towns that don’t
like calf-roping and cow-tipping, that don’t spend
their nights staining women with whiskey breath
and oil-slick hands.
The table is important
the structure, the legs
the removable panel
stored behind the china
case the six matching
chairs, the four that don’t
the corner chairs
the good silver,
the one everyday knife
the yellow water cup
a cigarette burn
on the side, red nail
polish on letter opener,
placemat, remote control.
Her grip is firm and dry
as Sunday palm
and Sunday Psalms
resound from television,
radio, from between
her eyes pressed to slits
her voice a partisan
dialogue of invocation.
And we only concerned
with our rice and eggs
the bells tinkling
the hems of our dresses
our impatient legs
a hymn against our chairs
of which the table is important
the structure, the legs
the burnish grain, grains
of white rice wedged in cracks
her lip wedged between
teeth, her grip an anchor
against the warm wood
persistent as she insists
that what is really wrong
with our family is
we don’t eat together
our mothers can’t cook
worth a damn and nobody
prays over their food.
Sundays are different. I chew
on a cigar in a hammock in the backyard
and maybe light it. Clip it when it gets soggy,
sip it, exhale. My breath
is irregular or regular.
It can be both.
I tug on a glass of Kate’s iced
lemonade, tighten my jaw to the sun and its setting.
On the seventh day
the Lord rested. Today it’s August, getting late.
Boxcars buzz the horizon. The cottonwood shade
saws along the lawn’s grasses, here and, now in the wind,
here, not wearing
a spot in the blades’ wave or wale.
Sundays are for grace, apology: the eyes, wetting,
tighten like knotted wood. This is hydraulics:
water, faithful, displaces. As the Lord
laid one hand upon His fence
and so rested.
Mornings, under the linen sheets, the whitewashed
walls and oak headboard, Kate asks,
Mass today, Joe?
and we both giggle, slow, like two adults;
and the curtains with their white-hat-tip and bow, and the day
already warming on the porch,
already setting out about its impressive business.
This is forgetting,
if only the night previous: the hot wind
and the cottonwood seeds
streaming through the open window, into the too-soon cooled
pot of oats; the raising of our voices
at first to combat
the train whistle, then later, not minding
to return. Not minding—
It’s true, the money is thin, smoke-like,
like our skins, wet
calico. We have always been so close to love,
at our most defined with a line
of laundry hung between us
and the humidity
gathering for the evening like a soft scab about the knee
or the inner ankle. What happens
when the Lord has finished his resting—
and the entire country
is hammocked in railways: boxcars, Pullman’s heading west
with young wives, husbands, children, their dear copper pennies, their candle-lit
letters, their fatigue—
A man’s thoughts
are like the cottonwood seeds, stuck on the sweat
of the glass of lemonade, pulled, then
leaving with the wind. They carry his own pastures, open and unarranged, they carry
the next and next, past the line of black willows
in the wake of an engine
heading north, to Philadelphia, Cincinnati,
to Chicago—aiming for daybreak, Monday,
but already late, and fixed
to its one track, station to station,
unable, this week, to rest
and incapable of forgetting. Knowing.
There is its whistle, thin and pressured
and, yes, carrying; there
is its own vague line
of dust, lit just now as though by its cleanest will:
from the trackbed,
from the rutted road that leads to the trackbed,
and the red-lit path crossing
the yard, gate and whitewashed porch step, to rise.
Drought wrote me a letter
of honeyed loneliness, asking
for forgiveness and all I could do
was send back a postcard.
Greetings from Moab, Utah.
I want to know this place alone.
My grandmother shows me Christmas
cards of her friend’s sons: eligible
blueblood bachelors with parted hair
and voices like the hum of a television.
I asked you to come here, West
with me because you’re not like them,
but still true ceremony cannot be
earned with you loving me—
or things, backpacks with lots of
pockets and an airbag, animal
crackers, Gore-Tex boots and heavy
film cameras, electric word games,
whiskey, jet fuel, synthetic shorts
and jolly ranchers to ease discomfort
or boredom or solitude or suspicion.
Half my pack is water, that sap
I sprinkle on horsebrush in envy
of their preciseness, the deliberate
means toward survival, competent
women of the desert with no
headaches, no blood, no need
to know anything or get married.
Are you lonely? Does pollination
feel like shared flesh, are sibilant
petals in the wind reciprocal
whispers of yes, I’m thirsty too,
but at least we have each other.
Or do you, flower, color my failings—
my inability to walk until we drink
or my shaky hands when he leaves
the urgency to end these days in sex
and this inescapable rapture
in my appetite to think—to attach
a you, assign logic, and antilogic,
but never nothingness, never nature’s sublime!
How did the horse die at Dead Horse Point?
She could not drink. She fell
off a red cliff and dropped
to the First Circle of Hell,
black rear wrapped by the serpent
until she bucked it off.
She couldn’t hear Satan’s charms. Stop
Driving up I-70 you ask
why I must live at a certain altitude. It’s for
creation and a good time and I suppose
it all comes down to ceremony
which I may only know on the
page. It may falsely present itself
in fleeting moments
like a ten minute rain
in bloody canyons
or this unplanned discovery
of a large natural tunnel by our campsite.
It is so long that in the middle
I can’t see any light—I howl,
lost in this tunnel of rock: eaten
by the jaws of Satan, or nice scenery.
Hot red dirt turns to purling
stream, light into dark for miles
of dread. Some demon must live
here. Where did you go? At least
it’s cooler here in the dark
celestial wetness woos rock
into deathless submission plus
now, my feet. Something must live
in these quiet splinters, shadows
crawl to the edge of the tunnel
to feed on stolen sunlight. Finally
in your absence I know something new—
not ceremony but my own disappointing fear
my turn to safeness, to light, to you.
I envy the lizards who
fly across brick
dirt with purpose.
But perhaps in my female position,
I can offer a salve for the sickly
paranoia of today’s consumption
With words—we meet a boy at a gas station
with long hair and a voice like erosion.
He tells us where to camp that night while
spitting sunflower seeds into the street.
He’s haunted—on the hunt with me
for symmetry of dirt, to let go
of the spilled wine and cinnamon girls
and tie-dyed lawn chairs and making love in tents
to reach a site of ceremony. I buy
a banana and some candy for the road
and bite my tongue until it bleeds
so I don’t tell him, give up you will die
flailing and alone, a dried out deer
hit by a car because you didn’t have someone
to tell you it was coming. Truth appears as rain,
friend: it does not come.
Drought writes me no letter—
that may have been in a dream, of
yuccas with their eyes rolled back
into their heads, reaching for rain
in a rainless sky with a will
that I will never taste unless
I ever get lost in this desert.
My letters are borne of drought:
of the paintbrush, and of red rock,
of my failed essays into the earth,
and of this truth: our love, our walking
of this desert together.
The piano is out of tune with the ages
of neglect, a layer of dust colonizing on
top of the keys, so that every note
reverberates through the air heavy
with heat—dry, thieving Saharan heat
that trades water for a brew of
dread and desperation, and poor to taste—
in the cracking cement walls,
in the three rusting green metal bars
on the window, just the one, as if
burglars would find value in the
wrinkled leather couch that still smells
like my grandmother, or the canvas of the
Coptic church down the street she painted
two of: the other for the church itself and her
allies, her friends, within it,
whose haven has endured
alongside her own—
this house that has seen four generations.
There is dust on my fingers now
I let it in, a keepsake—
there is no one left to walk
these halls, to climb the curved, narrow steps
to the roof and watch the hot orange sun
settle into dusk, and listen to the call to prayer,
which is unintelligible to me but still musical,
and attempt to translate the graffiti
that lines the wall across the street
a forgotten wanderer’s shot at storytelling
(the moral: I was here), and count
how many strays live in the bushes and
commiserate with those
who call the streets their home.
The green-shuttered doors wave a farewell,
a salute to me—the last generation
to bear witness to a history
now ending, but
forever in memory.
When I was eight, I saw the early Spring
cherry trees bloom in late October.
The trees’ buds came to us twice that year
and everyone questioned whether or not
it was a blessing or an omen.
Their white-pink petals grew rapidly,
filling the sky with their sweet scent.
Wind from the north picked up the blossoms and
carried them across the unnaturally green hills.
Only two months before, the land looked
like the surface of the moon—burnt and barren.
Nothing but dust and craters.
Even the dead bodies were ash.
But when fall came, the grass grew thicker
and taller, the rice crops overflowed with sterile grain,
the color of the flowers patterned the fields
with vibrant blues, purples, pinks, and yellows.
After so much destruction, the flourishing plants naïvely
encouraged us to slowly rebuild our once flourishing city.
The following piece contains the Arabic word taita, which means “grandmother.”
“Rah amileek shaglee betgenan,” Taita says to me.
“I’m going to make you something beautiful.”
Her hands move slowly in a delicate pattern.
“I’m going to make you something beautiful.”
“Farjeeneh keef.”—Show me how.
Her hands move slowly in a delicate pattern.
The red yarn spools from Taita’s black dress.
“Farjeeneh keef.”—Show me how.
She weaves the thread around the needles.
The red yarn spools from Taita’s black dress.
Wind rustles the honey locust trees as mopeds pass below us.
She weaves the thread around the needles;
They slide-clink against each other in a rhythmic pattern.
Wind rustles the honey locust trees as mopeds pass below us.
She places the needles in my hands, her hands around mine.
They slide-clink against each other in a rhythmic pattern.
The mileesee bush fills the air with mint.
She places the needles in my hands, her hands around mine.
Taita lets go and lets me try by myself.
The mileesee bush fills the air with mint.
I twist the red yarn around my index finger just as she had.
Taita lets go and lets me try by myself:
My hands fumble with the needles.
I twist the red yarn around my index finger just as she had.
Taita lets me struggle:
My hands fumble with the needles.
I make a mess of the red thread.
Taita lets me struggle.
I make a mess of the red thread.
“Ma barif keef.”—I don’t know how!
She pulls me between her arms.
“Ma barif keef.”—I don’t know how.
“Malesheh”—“It’s okay,” she tells me.
She pulls me between her arms;
Her grey cashmere sweater brushes my cheek.
“Malesheh”—“It’s okay,” she tells me.
Jasmine flowers pirouette against billowing towels as the wind passes through Marmarita.
Her grey cashmere sweater brushes my cheek.
She takes the needles from me.
Jasmine flowers pirouette against billowing towels as the wind passes through Marmarita.
Taita wraps the red yarn around her index finger, sweeps it across the needles.
“Watch,” she tells me.
They slide clink against each other in a rhythmic pattern.
“Rah amileek shaglee betgenan,” Taita says to me.
I’m going to make you something beautiful.
A pond and waterfall—
How the falling stream rages upon the rocks
and against the sharp, cutting edges,
its wild torment exhausting
until, wearied, finds deep water.
All the stones along the banks
grow green with moss,
as if to say
“All things shall age.”
The bottom is too deep to see.
The koi fish tend the depths;
a noble burial.
A Japanese garden
bursts with poetry.
A lifetime could be spent
lauding every rock,
chronicling the music
of every open sound.
Earth might be made barren
for need of paper.
Within all this beauty, I fear
that I will lose my pen
or run out of ink;
a terrible precipice.
When I was young I would kneel in front of the church
Scabbed knees pressed to concrete
Leaving imprints I’d trace my fingers over lazily
In the shadows of the summer sun
And I would collect the mosaic tiles that fell off the walls
Color identical to the Mediterranean Sea
My family left behind
All those years ago
Until my cupped hands were overfilled
Mosaic tiles and the dream of warm seawater spilling out
I watched them glitter
Thought they were more precious than diamonds
Bits of cheap plastic falling off the walls
Of a church I no longer believe in
With scars now on more places than just my knees
And the feeling that I’ve become
What my family has left behind
During the week he went missing, I saw Kevin everywhere. I saw him frozen, half-buried in a drift; or deep in the underbelly of a lake where fish waited out the winter; or red and rotting on a roadside, a cylinder void shot through his brain. It wasn’t like when our friend Julian died, how I thought the body they found belonged to some other skeleton boy with black hair and gray eyes, and how I couldn’t let go of it until the wake, until the casket. There was no body this time, just a void.
When seven days became eight, Kevin materialized on my apartment steps, a thousand miles away from where he went missing in Colorado. I should have been angry. Julian would have been. He would have come up with something searing to say. But I was still numb.
“God,” was all I had, and it came out an exhalation.
“How’s it going, Brooke?” Kevin said, casually, as if we had met by accident at a gas station, and not at all like he had hitchhiked, taken two buses, the subway, and then walked two blocks to get here.
Before I could answer, he pulled me against him. His coat smelled like salt and the kind of wet that never dried: feathers, mold. We never used to hug before Julian died. I didn’t know what to do with my arms. So I let them lull heavy at my sides like oars. We were still so close that when he swallowed I could feel the bob of his Adam’s apple as if it were a hard ball of ice lodged in his throat. “I’m good,” I said. “Okay. How are you?”
“Really fucking cold. Can we go in?”
“Yeah,” I said. I waited for him to let me go.
It had been two months since I last saw Kevin at the funeral where we sat with the principal mourners though we weren’t family. It had been two months since Julian’s mother wrapped her knobby arms around us and said, “I’m so sorry,” like it was all her fault. Two months since my mother, between cigarettes on the church lawn, told me it was a sickness, like cancer or pneumonia, and she didn’t care what the Catholics said about purgatory. Afterward, I took the train back to Chicago, to the apartment I shared with Michiko, but I couldn’t tell her the whole story about Julian, just that he was my friend and now he was dead.
In those two months, Kevin’s eyes, which used to be bright and opaline, had emptied out.
“You look like shit,” he said to me.
“You should have called,” I said, digging in my purse for the apartment keys.
“About that,” Kevin said, readjusting his backpack. A truck belched to a stop on the corner, but he talked over it, almost yelling, “I threw my phone into the Rocky Mountains.”
I turned to him with the keys in my hand and raised eyebrows.
“Consider it a gift for the future. Like those time capsules people bury underground with their shit inside. It will stay frozen for centuries. Isn’t that better than a Polaroid of a water tower, or a copy of that quasi-erotica novel everyone’s mom is reading?”
I unlocked the door and let him in first. He stomped his feet on the carpet so loud it echoed through the whole stairwell.
“Did you really?”
“No.” He gave a single laugh. “My battery died. But I should have. I hate texting. I want one of those old phones that just call.”
I opened the door and started to take off my wet boots. Kevin looked in from the doorway. Because of Michiko, the apartment looked as if we had been living there for years rather than six months. She had a gift for walking through alleys just as people were taking down old furniture. We had two almost-matching green sofas, a 1920s traveling trunk coffee table, and a shag rug that used to belong to our Ukrainian landlord upstairs. Michiko caught him before he threw it in the dumpster, and he even carried it upstairs for her and helped her move the couches. My contribution was a wall of thrift store framed pictures of people we didn’t know.
“Nice,” Kevin said. “Bohemian, though. I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“It’s my roommate,” I said. “Most of this stuff is hers, or from Craigslist.”
Kevin took off his shoes and put his socks inside them even though they were wet.
“Julian talked these up,” he said, walking over to the picture frames. “Which one did he buy? Wait, let me guess.” After a few wrong guesses, he pointed to a black and white photo of an old man in a bathing suit a swimming cap that Julian had found in the bottom of a suitcase at the thrift store a few blocks away.
“Do you want coffee or something?”
“Yeah,” he said. “And the grand tour.”
He followed me into the kitchen, where he sat down at the table that came with the apartment. Some screws were loose so the top tilted, but we kept it anyway because it had some initials of past residents carved into it, how people did to trees before they realized it was killing them. Kevin touched the letters, maybe looking for mine. I still hadn’t added them next to Michiko’s. Sometimes I still felt like I would want to look back on this year as a time I wasn’t anywhere.
Kevin inspected the mismatched mugs next to the sink, the windowsills, which Michiko had lined with stolen flowers in soil-filled mason jars. The first week we moved in, we went around to parks and front yard gardens digging out single flowers from their roots, methodically untangling them and stripping them of their companion plants before replanting them. The roots pressed up against the sides of the glass like thin white veins.
“You know,” Kevin said. “You should try the no cell phone thing. Just think of all the hours I didn’t spend staring at Facebook hoping it would show something worthwhile instead of pictures of people’s cats and what they order at restaurants.”
I laughed because I couldn’t think of anything to say. I had been leaving my own phone in my backpack most of the time. It had seemed more important not to look at it than to look at it, probably because I kept breaking promises to myself that I would erase Julian’s cell number, which had been canceled and then reassigned to a teenage girl named Cary.
I opened cabinets, looking for the folded-over bag of coffee I saw the day before. It wasn’t there, which meant Michiko must have finished it.
“Michiko is out of coffee,” I said, and Kevin mock-sighed. I found a box of tea on the first shelf between the ramen noodles and the peanut butter and offered some to him.
“Yeah, fine,” he said, though both of us, the three of us, had been instant coffee drinkers in high school. Michiko, on the other hand, said she didn’t believe in instant coffee and, once we moved out of the dorms, bought a brand new coffee pot. It was probably the only new thing in the whole apartment.
I brought out two mugs and my box of chamomile. It was the sort of thing my mother would have done if you woke up with night terrors, if your stomach was upset, if you had been wandering through snow for seven days, if your carefully orchestrated life was falling to pieces around you. A cup of hot chamomile to her was a God-given panacea, the only one besides prayer she couldn’t consider a vice.
“How long were you out there?” I asked Kevin.
“A couple hours. Where were you?”
He gave another short laugh.
When the microwave went off, I slid a mug across the table with the bag still in. The drowsy scent of chamomile caught me unaware and I let myself collapse into one of the folding chairs we had been using as kitchen chairs since the year began. Come spring garage sales, Michiko had said, we would get real ones. Kevin leaned over the mug. He inhaled the steam through his mouth. The pink of his nose and cheeks began to fade.
“Does steam have a taste?” he asked without looking up. “Or is that just the smell?”
I thought of the questions Julian would sometimes come up with late at night while the three of us sat in his grandmother’s red rooster kitchen. “Is art a form of prostitution?” he would ask us. “Could what we call love just be sadness at anticipated loss?” Kevin and I would choose a side and talk, and then choose the other side and talk some more. Julian would give answers that showed he had been thinking about it for days, maybe weeks. But we liked listening to him. He always thought of things in ways I never did, but once he put it into words, it was like I had been thinking the same thing all along.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
“I don’t like tea,” Kevin said. He straddled the rim of the mug with his lips and took a hesitant sip. “It just tastes like hot water.”
“I know,” I said. “Sorry.”
He took a sip and said it was okay. When he set the mug back down, some of the water sloshed out onto the table, forming a dark ring.
“His mom asked me if he was unhappy,” Kevin said suddenly. He looked out the window and I looked at him. He was seeing Julian’s mother, the strands of her blond hair that escaped her ponytail and gave her the rushed look living in the country usually took out of people; the emptiness her face had at the wake and after, like everything she was living for, had gone, and she had no idea what came next, what there was besides mourning. “I didn’t know what to say.”
“We’re all unhappy,” I said. I thought I was being witty, or something, and that he would laugh his quick laugh and that would be it. But he didn’t.
“He was, wasn’t he?” he asked. It came off as an accusation, somehow. As if I had known it was coming.
Last summer, there was a day when Julian and I sat by the old barn as the sun slid toward the horizon. That day, Kevin wasn’t there. Kevin lived in town with his parents and his sister Monica, in a house with a garage, central air conditioning, and no silos anywhere in sight. Julian and his mother lived with his grandmother, who lived next door to me. That particular afternoon Julian had already finished his book, and I kept looking from mine to the crescent burn above his T-shirt collar, or to his bare legs, a couple of inches away. I asked about the writing project he had been secretly working on for months now, and he said he had given up on that. Then he went a long time without saying anything. When I asked if he was okay, he said something raw, something I didn’t think too much of at the time with the sun in our eyes and sand still clinging to our shorts, but that I think about now, ten years later, knowing what I know. Still it isn’t so much the words that matter. I don’t remember them faithfully, only vaguely, the way you half-remember things by putting your own words into them. And I don’t want to repeat them to anybody. But maybe when you are a kid, nineteen, the words don’t matter so much as the feeling. And he said them as if they were the last ones he wanted to say, in a dying voice, the voice of someone waiting for his last breath—or maybe for the space after that, the heavy silence where the next breath doesn’t come.
I had a list of all the moments where I thought I could have changed things and I wanted to keep them for myself. So to change the subject, I asked Kevin, “Why did you run away?” I fit my words into the pocket of silence that came when he breathed.
He didn’t answer right away, but blew into the mug. I wondered if he thought going away for school would make it easier. Not having to see Julian’s bedroom window, how it was always dark after, like the space between stars. Not having to talk to his mother as she sat on her back porch looking at the corn and seeing other things. Not having to see Julian’s old car in the driveway or wait for the day where it wouldn’t be there anymore. But maybe, away at school, he had come to realize he needed those reminders. Without them, Julian had already started to fade from memory, a little each day, becoming less himself and more some abstract thing he couldn’t hold on to.
“I didn’t.” He still didn’t look at me.
“You’re a missing person,” I told him.
I heard Michiko’s key in the lock click into place, Michiko who had no idea that Kevin had been missing for seven days, or how Julian did it himself in a rest stop bathroom, sixty miles from home. It didn’t seem the kind of thing you told a person who had met him only once. I imagined it sometimes: a trucker knocking on the door. He had been five, maybe six hours on the road, two large coffees since his last stop. It was the kind of bathroom where you had to borrow the key from the register to go in. He had been waiting a long time, patiently at first. Maybe he had seen Julian go in. But Julian had been quiet, the unnoticeable kind of quiet. Maybe no one had seen him go in. And then, the guy at the register got out the spare key and they opened the door and saw him and it was quiet. They stood there for a while not knowing what to do. Maybe the clerk threw up. Maybe the trucker closed the door. But they stood there, quiet, strangers, privy to this last scene, life running its way out through the grooves between the scuffed tile floor, pooling over piss stains and grime. Julian. They didn’t even know his name. They only knew he was gone.
Our front door opened and Michiko called a hesitant, “Hello?”
“In the kitchen,” I told her. “Kevin is here.”
“Hi, Kevin,” she called back.
When she came into the kitchen, Kevin stood up and shook her hand. She smiled at him the way a lot of girls in high school used to smile at him. He still looked like the kind of guy who could have played a sport competitively if he weren’t so into space travel.
“Did you already have lunch?” she asked us. When I said no, she started rattling off a list of the things we had on hand and what she could make with them.
As she spoke, Kevin unzipped his jacket and hung it over the back of the chair. Then he removed his hat, one of those knitted winter ones with tassels. He folded it into a half-moon, laid it on the table, and complimented Michiko on her thrifted furniture. So I didn’t feel so bad leaving him while I went to the public library to work on a class project I made up. When I got home, I was glad to see him already asleep on the couch.
The following night, at this bar where Michiko’s cousin Penelope worked, we got a tray of free shots. Some mix thing they wanted to try out. Kevin was sitting closer to Michiko than to me, and laughing at her when she closed her eyes to take one.
“So what’s your major now, B?” Kevin asked.
I rolled my eyes, but it was probably too dark for him to see. I had only changed majors three times. Kevin and Julian had a running joke that I changed every semester to be able to take classes marked Majors only. But what would happen is that I would go through a honeymoon phase with each major, for half a semester, before realizing that European history meant I would probably have to teach it, and that nursing didn’t mean taking blood pressure, but smiling at people who were going to die as if they weren’t, and that literature was mostly useless out in the world. Kevin had decided on engineering before even applying to college. If Julian had gone to college, he would have studied writing, but he decided he didn’t want to pay to be assigned books he could read on his own and to listen to other people discuss them when they had barely skimmed them the night before. I thought that sounded about right, but my mom made me go.
“Still Women’s Studies,” I said.
“Still useless,” Kevin said.
“Useless is what I’m going for. I’ll get a job at a progressive start up magazine where the women don’t shave their legs and the men are afraid of being yelled at for holding doors open.”
“At least you have a plan this time. What about you, Michiko?”
“Environmental science. Saving the rainforests, and the oceans.” She smiled.
As Michiko told Kevin a story I’d heard before about two of her professors and their long-standing feud over global warming, I turned to the stage to watch the band. I didn’t have any favorite bands in college. I just listened to whatever was playing: no band names, no song titles, just impermanence. I liked the feel of listening to something and knowing I would probably never hear it again.
While I was not paying attention, Kevin ordered us glasses of Jameson. Michiko changed hers to an ice water with lemon. Kevin watched me wince with the first sip. The whiskey burned down to my stomach, where slowly it sat and uncoiled. But then the warmth spread up and out through my body, and the winter outside seemed farther away. I took another sip and savored the burn this time, letting it roll down my throat and fill my body with sluggish heat. We fell into uneasy silence. I swirled the whiskey around in my glass for something to focus on. Then, I slouched as the world started to shimmer and move around the edges. The music took over for a while. Acoustic guitar and ukulele, some kind of brass horn, and a girl singer with a voice like red wine.
“Hey,” Kevin said to Michiko after a few minutes passed. “You’re drinking water at a bar?”
“She doesn’t like alcohol,” I said.
“I like some alcohol,” she corrected.
“Taste mine,” Kevin said and pushed his tumbler to her. “If you can handle it, I’ll get another.”
She looked to me and I raised my eyebrows. I could tell before she reached for the glass that she was going to. She prided herself on being the type of woman who would try almost anything once. Every time I tried to live like that, I ended up wishing I hadn’t.
“Just a taste,” Michiko said. “I’m meeting my grandmother in an hour. She flew thirteen hours from Tokyo and she wants to eat at the Rock and Roll McDonald’s.”
“All the more reason. I’ll order another one.”
“No, no, no,” Michiko said as she reached for it, but she was laughing. She took a bird sip and made a face.
“I knew you wouldn’t like it,” I said, taking another sip. “I don’t even like it.”
“It burns,” she said, gasping, and gulped down a mouthful of water.
“After a while, you stop noticing it,” I said.
Kevin asked Michiko where she was taking her grandmother, besides the Rock and Roll McDonald’s, and nodded at the places she named like he knew them. But having grown up six hours away, we never came to Chicago the way people from Chicago came up by us. They were hungry for the blue sky and long curved roads leading nowhere, the weeds along roadsides no one ever cut down, the general sense of abandonment the woods gave off. It has taken me ten years and a failed marriage to come back to my parents’ house. Ten years to be able to listen to the loon calling across the lake every night like a banshee and the tall trees between our house and Julian’s knocking together in the wind. In the city, I was never alone, even when I was. That’s why I liked it. There was always someone else in the apartment below watching Oprah or standing in line in front of me at the coffee shop and ordering a green tea latte.
As Penelope set down our next round, she leaned in and squeezed my shoulder. She whispered, “Take it slow, girly.” Kevin was on his third glass of whiskey. I was on my second. Michiko with her ice water was talking about the time she visited her grandmother in Tokyo, in one of those high-rises that costs as much in monthly rent as a semester at college, and when Kevin interrupted, “Julian stayed here once, didn’t he?” Michiko stopped mid-word. I looked at Kevin to decide whether it was the whiskey talking or if he was drinking so he could say this.
“For a week,” I answered. He asked when and I said last November. He asked when again and I said about three weeks before.
“Three weeks before he killed himself,” Kevin clarified.
Michiko looked from Kevin to me and finished the rest of her water. In the months since it happened, Michiko had never asked me how he died. I searched her for signs of surprise. She looked at the thin, silver watch on her bony wrist and then back at me. She had stayed the weekend Julian came to visit. She had brought out a badly subtitled movie in Japanese that she had to stop a few times to explain to us. She had liked him, the way he had invited her out to brunch with us, and had complimented the painting of speckled goldfish she did that was hanging over the couch. What I saw in her face was surprise but not only that. I should have told her.
“And he didn’t say anything?” Kevin asked. I shook my head. I kept my lips pressed together.
“Michiko,” Kevin said, like he had forgotten she was there sitting at the table across from him, staring into her cup of melting ice. “Michiko, you have an outsider’s eye. Did our friend Julian look like somebody who was getting ready to kill himself and leave no note?”
“No,” Michiko said, her voice unsteady. “I don’t think so. We went out for pancakes,” she explained. “Are you okay?” she asked me and I nodded.
Kevin turned to look at me. “Did you sleep with him?” he asked.
“No,” I said. He nodded as if this explained something and turned to watch the band wrap up their set, the bassist going through their names and telling us all to visit their Facebook page.
It was on my list, sleeping with Julian. Instead, when had he stayed that week, I just listened to the hush of his breath in the night, just watched his shadow shift in sleep, just let my own body lay still beside his on the mattress, close as I could without touching because we were best friends.
“We should go,” Michiko said.
Kevin finished his glass and frowned at her.
“I’m sorry,” he said and then made eye contact with Penelope as she collected his empty tumbler and mine from the table. “One more before we head out?”
“You’ve already had three. Maybe you should wait a while,” I said. Michiko chewed on a piece of ice from her glass.
“Brooke,” Kevin said, shaking his head in disapproval. “Penny, can we each have a shot of whatever that was in honor of my dead best friend?”
Julian and I had talked once about how we would do it if we were to do it. Not by pills, we had decided. Not by drowning. Something quick. But we had been laughing. We weren’t serious.
I looked at him and said, “Okay.”
She said, “Okay,” too.
“Coming right up.” Penelope went back to the bar.
On the stage, the band packed up instruments noisily, as if that, too, was part of the show: a discordant finale fizzling out as conversations got louder. Penelope came back with three shot glasses on a tray and we each grabbed one and held it up. I tried not to think about Julian’s reasons, because to think about how he must have felt doing it, how worthless, how alone, made everything hurt.
“To Julian,” Kevin says, “In a better fucking place.” And the three of us drank. Kevin, finished first, slammed his empty down hard on the table so that it shook.
I tried to swallow without tasting, but it didn’t work. I blinked slowly and as my eyes readjusted to the dim light, it felt for a moment like he was there, too, an echo, or a ghost.
“I have to get going,” Michiko said, taking a breath mint out of her purse and placing it on her tongue. “I need to get to my grandma’s hotel by eleven.” She offered me one and I took it. Kevin took three or four.
“Your grandma parties late,” he said, grinning at her before popping all the mints into his mouth. “Maybe we’ll see you guys later at the club.”
“One too many,” I said.
“I’m not drunk. You don’t need to worry about me. Michiko’s grandma, on the other hand.”
“In Japan, it’s almost one in the afternoon right now,” Michiko explained. “It’s like going out for lunch.”
A new band started, something harder and darker. Kevin rocked in his chair to the music and Penelope brought the bill over to us.
We walked with Michiko to the L stop. Kevin shook her hand over the turnstile for longer than necessary and apologized for bringing up the dead boy and putting a damper on the night. She said it was okay, in the placating way we have all learned to talk to people who have had more than we had without knowing it. At the rumble of the approaching train, she disappeared with a wave and Kevin and I were left standing in the stillness that followed.
“Let’s go to a club.”
“How about Navy Pier?” he asked. “I’ve never been there.”
“It’s a long walk,” I said, thinking in a few blocks he would tire out and pay for a taxi back. He had on his backpack and ripped shoes.
“I like walking.”
No stars were out, at least not with all the light pollution. They were out there somewhere. I just couldn’t see them. But I could see the moon. Waning moon. At home, you could climb up Julian’s barn roof and see all the stars, like a big light-map of earth, cities all lit up. When you looked across the fields and surrounding woods, everything was black, except for a few windows off in the distance. You could forget anything up there, lose yourself imagining worlds you’d never reach. I was wondering if I’d ever lie on that rooftop again.
We walked a long time before making it to the Red Line. We went past the corridor that continually smelled like homeless piss, and I pulled out my and Michiko’s U-Passes from my purse. We got down to the platform as our train pulled away, so Kevin took a seat on a bench next to a man playing “Here’s to the Night.” He threw five dollars into the man’s case and we sat there listening until he finished. Then another train rattled in and we climbed on. It was mostly empty, except for a young guy in a hoodie sleeping in the back and a group of stoned teenagers probably on their way back from a show. None of them wore coats.
Outside, back in the cold again, the lake wind blew right through me, despite my coat and hat. I could hardly feel my feet, but heard them crunch old snow, so cold it was frozen dry. A few cars passed us on Lake Shore, kicking up the half-melt of roadsides and we reached the lake, icy waves lapping against the concrete breaker. “Here,” Kevin said, and passed me a flask from inside his backpack. “Liquid warmth.”
“Don’t you drink anything besides whiskey?”
“It is a gentlemen’s drink. I am a gentleman,” he said and I shoved him.
By the time we passed under the red archway to the Pier, vendors had long since packed up, shoppers had gone back to their heated homes. The Ferris wheel, lightless, sat forlorn and snow covered, while the seats dangled in the wind with the sound of shifting iron. The canvas coverings of the few ships large enough to stay moored were pulled taut by wind and released again with the sound of flapping wings.
“Navy Pier,” I said, demonstratively.
“Lonesome,” Kevin said. “Ghost town.”
It didn’t take us long to walk the length of the Pier, past the closed-up ice-cream booths, empty trash cans, ghosted ships, firefly lights of buoys. We sat facing the lake and let our legs dangle toward it. We reached the point in the night where we had drank enough whiskey to feel warm anywhere, even lying on our backs in piles of shoveled snow. It seeped in wet through my jeans, but all I felt was numb. I thought of how easy it would be for someone to just slide into the water and disappear, invisible, unheard, into the dark. Kevin took the flask out of his backpack again and handed it to me. We sat for a while, passing it back and forth.
“So what did you guys do when he was here?” Kevin asked.
I had shown him my favorite breakfast place and my favorite pizza place. We had read in the park and visited some secondhand bookstores. We had done some of the tourist things that I hadn’t had a chance to do before, like visit museums and eat pastrami Rueben sandwiches. One night, we stayed up late reading ghost stories with a metal flashlight he brought me, making fun of the eyewitness accounts until he fell asleep and I couldn’t. Another night, he showed me an envelope full of pictures of the house in Portland where he lived until he was ten, when his dad died and he and his mom moved to Wisconsin to live with his grandma. He had told me he was glad we were friends. We hadn’t kissed. We almost hadn’t hugged goodbye when he got on the train. Maybe he knew it then, waving at the gate, that I wouldn’t see him again until he was dead. It made me feel sick to think like that so I stopped.
I shrugged. “Nothing really,” I said. “Nothing worth dying over.”
Kevin exhaled through his nose and said my name. “You don’t want to talk about it, do you?”
I shook my head.
I tried not to think about that day by the barn and the words that Julian had said about not knowing what it was all for, or why, or how much it hurt. How I had had an idea I couldn’t articulate. Something about becoming a pillar of light or an upward turned palm. But the images weren’t distinct enough. You couldn’t reach out and grab them the way you could other ideas. They flashed in and out like lightning bugs, until you couldn’t be sure if you were really seeing the glow or just the memory of it. It wasn’t enough. Then I tried not to think about the time the two of us drove down to the big lake and I thought maybe he would kiss me, but instead he rolled up his sleeves. He asked me to help him, but I didn’t know how. Then I tried not to think about how he had told me not to tell Kevin, not to tell anyone, and how I never did.
We drank from the flask of whiskey until it was empty, until it was two in the morning and the streets behind us were empty. We sat with the tall buildings and flashing lights. For a moment, in the still, it was like home.
“Do you ever think what it would be like if we could do everything over again, knowing the things we know now?” Kevin asked after a while.
“Yeah,” I say. All the time.
“I think we could have saved him.”
I couldn’t help crying.
The snow melted slowly around us, leaking into our coats and wetting the down feathers inside, wetting the skin of our backs and legs, but not reaching us, not yet. The lake breeze chapped our faces and turned our noses pink, and Kevin turned to me and said something I didn’t hear right that he refused to repeat again.
He called a taxi and then led me, crying, to it. He put his chapped hands on my shoulders and in the cab wrapped them around me.
When we got back to the apartment, I sat down on the bed and Kevin touched my forearms with fingertips that felt blue and white and lonely. He handed me a Kleenex. I didn’t say anything. Then he pulled us down so that we were lying side by side, watching the shapes of light that passing cars and L trains made on the ceiling. He touched my face. When, after a while, he turned and slipped a leg between mine, slipped cracked lips to the base of my chin, sighed against me, it wasn’t me who pressed back, though I could taste the whiskey steam of our breath and it was warm and live. I watched my body and his body, and my body didn’t pull away. But inside it, I felt a great sinking, a hollowing out, an ending. I tried to focus on things I could see: the crack in the window where a stream of air entered unwanted, Julian’s flashlight on my nightstand, the framed pictures of us on my desk. I felt him then, as if he were in the room. Kevin didn’t. Maybe we don’t see our ghosts in the same places.
When it was over, Kevin held my head to his chest where it was warm, and Julian Dead watched from a corner shadow. I told myself this should have been the moment where afterward, things were easier. But I knew it wasn’t. In his car by the lake I had told Julian that time was the only thing separating us from a future where everything was okay. But I hadn’t known then how long time stretches out when all you can do it wait for it.
Mrs. Hagerstrom, my 5th grade teacher, said none of us would make it in high school unless we had nice cursive.
Even in 5th grade, I found the word “nice” empty and meaningless. Still, I wanted so badly to “Make it.” #standards
In Twitter it doesn’t matter if your words are nice or grammatically correct, only if you fit the character count: 140 symbols & spaces.
I pressed my pencil so hard against the paper when I wrote that the tip would break, or wear down to a nub, before the end of a paragraph.
Education should make us better problem solvers. I rarely use my cursive but if I needed to, I could. #educationreform
A paragraph is three to five sentences on a single subject w/a clear and direct opening & a closing that flows to the following paragraph.
My friend Ali would Make It. She was good at everything. Her paragraphs were each 4 sentences linking seamlessly together.
My sentences gummed up; my paragraphs never formed neat little bricks. Every word seemed a Pandora’s box releasing a swarm of ideas.
I once leaned in to smell Ali’s ponytail while waiting in line for recess. In my journal, I wondered if this made me a pervert. I was 9.
Twournal.com lets people make a journal of their tweets. My tweets are not private & this is the first time I’ve admitted to hair smelling.
Her hair was thick and blonde with darker layers, swept in by a blue scrunchy. It smelled empty, like a just cleaned plastic cup.
People have connected the letters of the Latin alphabet for over a thousand years. Ali and I began to learn the art of cursive in third grade.
Each of Ali’s letters tilted elegantly at a consistent angle. Her characters sailed along her page, hand in hand, by the same soft wind.
I’m not a pervert. We were just girls. I was drawn to her cursive, the easy way she mastered everything, rather than her hair.
The first grand master of ornate penmanship was Platt Rogers Spencer—he opened a penmanship school in Upstate NY in the 1830s.
Spencer’s script was based on philosophical ideals of beauty & the sublime. Students learned by copying samples of his writing. #conceited
In my class, Cursive Max, a laminated paper doll, rode an R shaped roller coaster across the chalkboard. We copied Max’s journey at our desks.
We only learned a few letters a week. I collected the letters of my name, wanting so badly to sign it—officially, cordially.
Cursive is a sign of class. An 1845 Penmanship Manual had gentlemen copy out, “A neat handwriting is a letter of recommendation.”
Hair, too, is a sign of class. Even if I spend time on mine, I look like a bad version of picture day: greasy & haloed w/fuzz.
The accompanying ladies’ penmanship guide read, “A fine specimen of Ornamental Penmanship is a speaking picture.” Words to be seen—not read.
My grandmother writes to me regularly. I love receiving her letters, but I can only make out certain phrases; they read like a too distant radio station.
A letter from her may say—drove to Maine—Anna says———apple season———over to your mother’s———should be nice. Love Grandma.
I often wonder if Mrs. Hagerstrom would give my grandma’s script good marks. Her letters do look nice, but her meaning is indiscernible.
George Gaskell—Spencer’s pupil—wrote Gaskell’s Compendium of Penmanship (1883) the textbook standardized ornamental script across the US.
The aim was no longer to pen script that matched one’s social role, but to produce letters that were indistinct from any other good pupil.
Coder, Jack Dorsey, created Twitter in 2006. Today, 6 yrs later it has over 500 million distinct users who post 340 million tweets a day.
I have a twitter handle and find it comforting that many of my followers do not know me personally—my words are obscured by anonymity.
Script became a mark of authenticity. Ben Franklin called the printing press “a distraction from meaning.” It hid an author’s identity.
Celebrity gossip sites often talk about what celebrities tweet about. @beyonce @beyonceknowles @therealbeyonce. How do they know who’s who?
@MargaretAtwood once responded to my tweet, but when I stood in line 2 hours for her to sign Alias Grace; she didn’t even look at me.
Some authors still write their work in longhand: Toni Morrison & Stephen King—But most script has been relegated to the personal diary.
I studied abroad in college & kept no diary. Instead I wrote long facebook messages to my old roommate. She was less friend than e-diary.
In high school, teachers preferred typed papers—easier to read. But they could not require it; not everyone had access to a computer.
Ali & I took all the same classes. We both did well—but she did better. We’d peer-edit each other’s work. I could find nothing to correct.
Like cursive, I learned to type in school. Weekly “Information Technology” class meant Mavis Beacon & Oregon Trail. I aced it.
Over the last century students have continued to learn script in school, only it is no longer about beauty, but efficiency.
Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing (1894) taught letters formed from rhythmic motion of the shoulder and arm. No more laborious hand cramps.
Palmer’s script fit the speed of commerce. Teachers drilled students w/commands: “swing up & out come in swing along,” 200 syllables p/min.
Public school can’t claim responsibility for my QWERTY mastery. I owe that to my AIM account & my efforts at popularity through Chat.
Is technology destroying handwriting? Teachers fretted over the first Sholes and Glidden typewriter. And now, will texting kill cursive?
RE@SaveCursive—a 2010 study in the Chronicle of Higher Education found that 97% of students use texts as their primary form of communication.
Texts get to the point quickly—160 characters or less. Tweets are designed to fit 1 text: 140 characters a message, 20 for a user name.
Worst-case scenario: a generation that thinks the word you is one character. Best-case scenario: kids who choose words wisely.
Like texting, the Palmer Method emphasized speed—script that could compete with the typewriter.
The Palmer Method also rewarded regiment through militaristic muscle memory—advocates claimed it was script that could reform delinquents.
Cursive requires the writer to practice and be deliberate, not universal student strengths. Texting is more impulsive than that.
Some handles tweet so often—any one tweet holds less gravity. That’s what the format’s meant for: disposability.
I’ve had a Twitter handle for 3 yrs but only have 183 posts. I get so hung up on the words I chose: Are they witty? True? Worth saying?
My parents say before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? I’d rather write that my grandmother said this, but she rarely speaks.
In Twitter, as in essays, I have trouble getting my whole thought into the allotted space. With 160, I swear, I’d be expressive & precise.
Senior year, I won the Daughters of the American Revolution citizenship award. For the state prize, I submitted a timed, handwritten essay.
When I use less characters or time than I’m given, I wonder if I could say more. But if I’m intentional & clear, a few words are enough.
Public education doesn’t produce good thinkers, but good workers. Be on time. Stand in line. Don’t smell hair. Order and predictability.
As a student, I wanted my assignments to offer unique solutions to the questions posed. Who wants to grade 25 of the same paper?
The DAR topic was The Pledge. I said the pledge was not a passive act, but an affirmation of free thought & speech, even in dissent.
“In some countries, like China, citizens are arrested for speaking out against their government. Americans are free to disagree . . . ” I wrote.
“ . . . on birth control, on marriage equality, on war, and still pledge allegiance to the one Republic for which the flag stands.”
The year before I had laughed at this award—I could never be a DAR, I was an immigrant mutt and who really cared about lineage anyway?
When I won, I backpedaled. It was an award for citizenship you guys, & besides, revolutionists are–by definition—badass and egalitarian.
The DAR were the daughter’s of those who supported radical change, not the daughter’s of Rush Limbaugh. They were progressive.
American revolutionaries relied on a relatively new tool—the newspaper—to distribute political pamphlets rebuking King George.
Innovation is revolutionary because it pushes us forward & because it moves faster than politics can understand or control. #organicchange
Look at the Arab Spring—technology upsets tyranny. One tweet read, “We have no national press coverage in Iran. 1 Person=1 Broadcaster.”
Last year a couple in Egypt named their baby Facebook. In 2003 a couple of celebrities named a baby Apple. This was way after my DAR essay.
At the time, G. W. Bush was in office. I had once named a gerbil Chelsea Clinton out of admiration. I thought my essay both honest & patriotic.
I should’ve known that an essay contest on The Pledge would need more than honesty. I hadn’t thought much about politics and education yet.
Folks work in education ’cause they love kids & learning. No one wakes up & says—I’m going to devote my life to the mundane torture of youth.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort, that means states can choose to improve public schools, or not, whatevs.
The initiative offers a shiny new benchmark system for education, coordinated by the National Governors Assoc. Center for Best Practices (NGA)
& The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The standards define the knowledge &skills students should learn in their K-12 careers
so that they will be able to succeed in entry-level college courses & in workforce training programs. This is all from their website. #standards
The standards do not include cursive. Also, the Association & the Council would probably be longwinded and terrible tweeters.
When I wrote my scholarship essay, I sought answers that hit at some essential truth, hoping it would resonate with others.
My essay didn’t win. DAR didn’t return my paper so I never saw their critique. The girl who won was dull & nationalistic—her hair was ok.
Ali was the salutatorian & soccer team captain. Her Brazilian BF—a football goliath—went to Harvard. Ali went to Brown & played tennis.
Now he’s in law school and she’s in med school where she’s the only aspiring doctor ever to have perfect, legible, loopy, nice handwriting.
I feel bad for them all and I like the way I write. I feel bad for them all and I like the way I write. I feel Bad For Them All And I LIKE
The barrage of political slaw & angry tweets embarrass me. I imagine the handle’s jaw unhinged—belligerently flapping. Do they have regrets?
My 2nd grade teacher made us spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in front of the class. I thought this a waste of time & space—I failed.
I believe education should make students better problem solvers. Children should practice ingenuity. #organicchange #educationreform
The newly proposed standards require 5th graders to use technology to collaborate & interact w/others. By this, they mean email.
Both standards & cursive can feel oppressive. Regimented letters across dotted lines. Copy this ’til you get it right. State tests in 2014.
In 2006, only 15% of SAT testers wrote their essays in cursive. The cursive testers earned slightly higher test scores on average.
Are the cursive writers smarter? Maybe the evaluators were seduced by penmanship. Some dress for the job, others write for the grade.
Cursive supporters say it encourages accuracy & fine motor skills. Writing helps engrain information; typing doesn’t have the same effect.
Who cares about the SAT? Brazilian BF once drunk dialed Ali’s parents, at 2am—from 200mi away—asking to be let in. No thank you. #standards
What I mean is, the few gray hairs sprouting on my crown make me feel dignified. I’m pretty sure Ali dyes to recall her blonde high notes.
A successful education helps one think for oneself, show discernment, builds good citizens, helps Americans compete in a global market.
The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Some dictators are more afraid of tweets than they are of opposing armies.”
RE @BanKiMoon: The well-flexed texting thumb is mightier than the sword, but also the pen.
A Wall Street Journal columnist called cursive’s end “a further hollowing out of the human personality—a colonization of the human mind.”
Which cursive end does he fear, Gaskill’s gilded letters? Palmer’s script of commerce? My cursive arrhythmia or Ali’s lettered ballet?
W. H. Auden once said, “Most people enjoy the sight of their own hand writing as they enjoy the smell of their own farts.”
I work in my university’s writing center. Student papers abound with passive voice. Sentences are needlessly wordy, convoluted &baroque.
I ask these writers to pick the most important words, to cut back a bit. They won’t, 1 boy told me the lavish wordage made him sound smart.
Ask, and the student can explain their idea, direct & meaningful aloud—but on the page the words grow too ornate to bear their own weight.
If they had to learn through tweets, would it colonize their brains? Perhaps it would force them to distill their thoughts down to a truth.
Students don’t learn to churn butter or yolk horses anymore yet our intellect survives. Read a book or Google these skills. #educationreform.
Once I learned to spell on paper, my parents switched to spelling in sign language to share words that they didn’t want their children to catch.
Soon, cursive will seem like hieroglyphics. Script, as enciphered code, will be more valuable than it ever was in class.
Email is a Standard & thus dead. When I reply to co-workers, I can’t express shit. I am always “excited” or “looking forward” to something.
Wouldn’t an email sent with my true feelings be refreshing to read? Could it unite through honesty, even if it wasn’t nice?
Business and education, and the business of education, they’re all more complicated than honest communication.
I’m not afraid of losing cursive; it’s only a medium for thoughts on a page. But students must promise to continue to think.
Twitter is a medium too, and needn’t be the end of anything. Resisting change doesn’t suit a country built by revolutionaries.
If there is something worthwhile to be said, then eventually someone adept will cut through the nonsense and quite plainly say it.
Yesterday on the train I watched a woman thumb away on her phone; in the adjoined seat, her child practiced signing Emma on the wall in pen.
No one on the train stopped her. Neither did the train stop, nor the Governors of America. Together, we kept hurtling along.
The older boy stepped out from the dull brown shadows of the woods and into the sick white brightness of a snow-covered field. He moved through the knee-high snow with all the stocky awkwardness of a boy just past puberty, all the muscles of a man, and none of the sense to use them. A .22 rifle was slung across his shoulder. He raised his hand and flattened it across his forehead, shielding his grey eyes from the sun as he looked out across the field.
The clearing was surrounded on all sides by thick and twisted second growth, the Appalachian Mountains soared up over the tree tops, over the whole of the Shenandoah Valley, lost in clouds and distance. The wide, round stump of a massive oak tree stuck out of the snow just inside the clearing. “This looks like a good spot,” he said.
His younger brother stepped to the edge of the clearing beside him. He was the spitting image of his older brother, with the gray eyes and wild brown hair, but he was smaller, scrawny, and thin. His right eye was purple and black and swollen, red blood seeped from small cuts in the ruined eyelid.
The boys stood at the edge of the clearing, shivering beneath their heavy flannel jackets, the ice air stinging through their homemade stocking caps and mittens. “This is the spot,” the older boy said, adjusting the weight of the rifle on his shoulder.
The younger boy hung his head, he nodded, he whistled and called at the crippled old dog that had stumbled through the woods behind them. “Get on boy, come on, come on boy.” The dog, eyes filled with all the foggy wickedness of cataracts, limped slowly toward them, struggled to lift his soft, arthritic bones over the snow bank at the edge of the clearing. Twice the dog fell as he tried to step over the deep snow.
The younger boy’s shoulders slumped at the pitiful sight. He walked to the dog and picked him up. With the dog in his arms, the boy thought he could smell the rot of old age working on the dog’s insides, could feel the slick, thin fur coming out in clumps. The dog quivered in the boy’s arms.
“We can’t do this,” the boy said to his older brother.
“We got to.” The older boy reached out and ran his hand along the dog’s back, feeling the crooked and crumbling vertebrae, “I love ’em as much as you do, but look at ’em, he’s nothing but suffering. ’Sides, the old man will know if we don’t, and he’s liable to give you another one of them swollen eyes.”
The younger boy kicked at the snow. His eye wouldn’t open since his father had socked him for trying to hide the dog in their milk shed.
“We could just let him go, let him live in the woods. He’d be alright.”
“Brother, he’d have it worse in the woods. He’d starve if he didn’t freeze first. And he’d just come wandering on back home, he knows the way, and then we’d both get a beating.
“And anyways, this looks like a good enough spot. Go on and set him on that stump.”
The younger boy shook his head, but crunched through the snow toward the stump. He sat the dog down and knelt beside him. He looked the dog in the eyes, let the dog bump his cold, wet nose across his cheeks. The boy drew a long breath.
“It’s gonna be alright,” he said, scratching behind the dogs ear, “I hear they got more squirrels for chasin’ up there in heaven than all Virginia combined.” The dog’s legs shook under his own weight, he looked up at the boy and whimpered.
The older boy called at his brother, “C’mon back over here. C’mon.”
The younger boy felt the heavy sting of tears at the corner of his eyes, made sure to wipe them away before he turned back toward his brother. He gave the dog one last pat on the head and turned his back, started walking to the edge of the woods. It felt like the cruelest thing he had ever done. The dog gave out a weak bark.
“Alright,” the younger boy said, reaching his brother, “Just get it over with.”
The older boy swung the rifle off of his shoulder, he pulled back the lever, he clicked off the safety, he raised the sights to his eye and he looked down the barrel at the dog. Shaking legs, wet eyes, mangy, grease clinging to sagging flesh, ribs and spine sticking out sharp. The shaking dog began to urinate and the piss dribbled and dripped down his leg.
“You gonna take that dog out and shoot it,” their father had said that morning, “I’m tired of its stink. Ya hear me, boy? You gonna get yer brother and yer gonna go get rid of it, or I’ll snap its neck and toss it in with the hogs.”
It wasn’t an empty threat. Both boys could remember when their little sister had hidden a kitten in the sock drawer of her dresser last summer. It was just a tiny thing, not even weaned yet, she had to feed it milk from a baby bottle. Soft white and black fur, sweet little eyes it could barely keep open. She had it for a week before their old man found it. He heard it mewing one night and came flying out of bed.
The boys had heard the mewing too, and they laid awake in the bedroom they shared, hoping the old man was too drunk and passed out to hear the little kitten. They heard the stomping too, heard their father’s heavy footfalls stomping down the hallway toward their sister’s room, right across the hall from their own. They heard their sister start screaming and their old man screaming back, heard the thud of the old man bouncing her off the walls, heard the kitten give out a choked, gurgling sound, heard their sister start sobbing.
Their own door flew open. The old man stood there holding their sister by her hair with one arm and the kitten in the other, its eyes closed, neck all twisted in wrong directions. The old man’s eyes were red and wild.
“Did you know about this?” their father roared, “Did you know this whore was keeping an animal in my house?” The boys just stared.
The old man ripped the wool blanket off the older boy’s bed and slapped him across the face, “Get up, get up, get yer asses outta bed and yer comin’ with me.”
They followed the old man out of the house in silence, he dragged their sister with them, his hand still curled up all vicious in her hair, the kitten in his other hand, dangling by the scruff of its snapped neck. They followed him out back, out toward the barn, to the hog pen.
“Imma show you what we do with bullshit like this, ya hear me? Can’t pull shit like this in my house.” Their father threw their sister to the ground and started banging on one of the hog pen’s posts. The hogs came wallowing out, snorting and grunting. “This is what we do with bullshit like this,” their father said, and threw the dead kitten into the pen with the hogs.
The hogs were on it instantly. And it was the sounds the boys and their sister wouldn’t forget, the ripping of the kitten’s soft fur, the tearing of skin, the crunch of bones. The kitten was gone in less than a minute.
Their father grabbed their sister’s arm and pulled her back to her feet, just to slap her hard with the back of his hand. She went down again. The older boy felt his guts slam up against his rib cage like they were ready to take a run at the old man. He didn’t move an inch.
“Fuck up again,” the old man said, “and ya’ll will be the ones laid up in that pen with snapped necks.”
As he looked down the barrel of the gun, the older boy couldn’t stop hearing the crunch of that kitten’s bones. His aim wavered but he steadied himself. He aimed at the dog’s chest, where he hoped the heart would be. He wanted it to be quick, but he couldn’t shoot for the head—he’d have to look the dog in the eyes if he aimed for the head. He ground his teeth, clenched his jaw, felt his muscles tighten up until they wouldn’t move—even his body didn’t want to do this.
“We have to,” he said to his brother and the dog and himself.
He pulled the trigger.
He wasn’t really sure what had happened at first, but all of a sudden he was lying the frozen ground. The gun had gone off, straight up in the air, and his brother was scrambling across the snow toward the dog. He got to the dog and scooped him up in his arms and took off across the clearing, heading for the woods on the far side.
The older boy yelled after him, “Wait! Stop!”—frantic because he knew that beneath all the snow in this clearing, only a few yards beyond that lonely little pine tree, was an old farmer’s pond. He knew it was plenty deep, plenty hidden under the snow, and the ice would still be plenty thin this early in the winter. “Brother stop! The pond!”
His brother didn’t stop, he just kept on running, tripping over the snow with the dog in his arms, running for the woods. As his older brother kept shouting behind him, he felt the ground change beneath his feet, heard the sound of his running change from the thick thudding of his boots on frozen dirt and grass to a thinner, hollow sound. And then he heard a different sound altogether. It was crackling. He heard the crackling, and the dog whimpering in his arms, he felt the falling and the needles pushing through his thick winter clothes and into his skin, the hammer slamming into his chest, pushing out all the air in his lungs. He felt the darkness and the icy crush of the water closing around him like a blanket, so cold it burned. He felt the dead weight of the dog dragging him down and down and down. He felt the immediate, the urgent, the horrifying need to breathe, to go up, to get to the surface with its air and its sunlight.
His feet hit the bottom and the dog was wrenched from his arms. With stiffening hands, he reached out to grab at the dog, but couldn’t reach him, the dog drifted away, into the cold and the dark.
The boy pushed off from the bottom of the pond, but when he got to the surface, he couldn’t go up anymore, couldn’t see the sunlight through the thick snow covering the ice over his head, couldn’t taste the air. He slammed his hands against the ice as hard as he could, but the water slowed his fists, the cold sucked at the thin, stringy muscles of his arms, making them go rigid and weak.
The older boy ran across the field, he had seen his brother fall through, could see the hole where he’d dropped into the water. But with all the snow, he couldn’t tell where the edge of the pond was. He began digging at the snow, got on his knees and spread his arms out in wide arches, desperate to find the edge of the ice.
The younger boy saw a light wink on out of the corner of his fading sight, this thin line of golden light that raced through the dark frozen world below the ice. He thought that maybe it was heaven, maybe all those stories his Ma, before she had gone to live with god, had read him from the bible, maybe they were true, maybe he was about to die and this was god, this soft golden light, light that he imagined he could feel the heat from even in the cold water, maybe this was god and the angels and he was saved. With the last of his strength, the last of his breath, he pushed himself toward the light and looked up into it.
The older boy looked down through the ice he had uncovered beneath the snow, and there beneath that slick, shining ice he could see the pale face of his little brother looking up at him. “Hold on, brother! Just hold on!” He had grabbed the rifle off of the ground as he ran across the field, and now he sat on his knees and slammed the stock of the gun into the ice. Sharp pieces flew into his face, into his eyes, but he had made a small hole. His brother was drifting away, down away from the surface of the water, his eyes rolling up in the back of his head. He slammed the rifle again and again against the ice, the hole was getting bigger, but not fast enough. His brother began to sink. He stood up, leaning his shoulders and his head over the rifle, throwing all of his weight into each blow against the ice.
Just as he finished his coffee, just as he set down his coffee mug and the paper he had been reading, the boys’ father heard the crack of the rifle in the distance. “Good,” he thought, “It’s done.”
Deirdre pretended not to notice the man watching her through the bedroom window. She propped against her headboard with a detective novel shielding the lower half of her face, focusing on her quickened heartbeat instead of the words on the page.
She’d moved to Memphis two weeks ago, carrying boxes up the staircase of the old Victorian house with sweat beading her arms and slicking back her long blond hair. And ever since that initial night of unpacking, she’d caught this next-door upstairs shadow watching a total of eleven times.
The first time, she’d yanked the curtains shut, her hands shaking slightly. He wasn’t even a proper man, really. Just a shadow in an unlit window, the idea of broad shoulders and an upheld head. If he passed her on the street, she’d never even recognize him.
But around the third or fourth time, she just went on folding towels or finishing the crossword with a new sense of theatrics. She knew this intrusion was supposed to make her feel disgusted or threatened, but she felt distant from these emotions, as if they were just flat words on paper, the way a map might show the course of a river but give no idea of its depth, its wetness.
She shifted on the bed now, crossing and uncrossing her legs, aware of the sheer stretch of her body from skull to soles. She had a habit, in private moments, of unraveling her physical existence until she was just a floating string of consciousness. But the shadow’s stare pulled her back into herself with a soft, not-entirely-unpleasant anxiety.
Memphis had drawn her in with the guitar twang and neon hum of Beale Street, cheap Elvis key rings, Southern whiskey and sweet tea, and this worn-down upstairs apartment she planned to hang with yellow curtains and white Christmas lights. She’d been raised on moderation—frozen TV dinners and powdered drink mixes, the wait for the yearly tax return—and growing up, she’d always thought that there must be something beyond. All these worlds coexisting with her own, separated by invisible membranes—what must it be like to have money, or influence, or some incredible talent? As a child, she spent hours leaning her head against her bedroom window, daydreaming about all the people she would never be.
Thirteen months ago, she’d graduated college with the feeling her life had flatlined before it properly began. Then, the passed-down pension of ten thousand dollars arrived as unexpectedly as her late aunt Magda’s aneurysm, with one posthumous order: “Do something irresponsible.”
So here she fled, from the post-grad ache of her childhood bedroom, the mockery of her neglected English degree. And Memphis did hold something for her, hidden in the shifting silhouette of that neighboring window—the blooming, secret joy that she was worth being watched.
Now, she stood slowly to stare straight at the man’s shadow, solid and unapologetic under her gaze. Outside, the sky was dark with light clouds, bleach spilled on denim. The air full of thick mosquito whine and the smell of cooling asphalt. The dark, the sounds, the shadow’s eyes all caressed her tired body. She gripped the curtains and stood, letting the world outside hold her up. If she fell backward, she was sure the air molecules would arrange to cushion her, to suspend her in space like an illustration she’d once seen of a woman in an occult trance floating in air as if it had been water. The night folded her into its velvet creases and moon-bright hems.
She leaned forward, feeling still and calm, empty save for the soft pleasure humming from her stomach. Her lips pressed into a thin smile. In one smooth movement, she pulled the curtains shut, and turned back into a foolish girl in an empty room, embarrassed and alone.
In the morning, she escaped the heat of her apartment to sit on the front stoop with a mug full of iced tea pressed cool between her knees. A peeling white front porch wrapped the front of the house like a scarf thrown thoughtlessly around a mismatched outfit. The entire place had the look of a southern belle who’d fallen to drink and forgotten how to dress herself. Dissected into three apartments, a neglected glamour came from the building’s contrasting windows—one overwhelmed with potted plants, another lined with empty liquor bottles, one blocked by bed sheets printed with cartoons.
Downstairs was split between a single mom and her teenage son, and the elderly landlady with two miniature poodles named Apple and Clark Gable. Though she felt no kinship with these neighbors, she related to the house’s gradual decay. She liked feeling it at her back, now, patiently coming to pieces. She fished an ice cube from the mug and shifted it inside her mouth, cheek to cheek, until it melted to a sliver that she held on her tongue.
These first weeks, she’d lived primarily through secondhand sounds. Hesitant predawn birdsong, and the yapping dialogue of the two downstairs poodles as the mail flap snapped open-shut. But these small details did not make up an entire life. Instead, she felt suspended, waiting, though she did not know for what.
Certainly not for the neighbor boy, hitting his skateboard into the curb with a terrible grinding noise and sprawling across the sidewalk in front of her.
He transformed into a pile of awkward angles and scattered papers—the obtuse bend of his elbow against the concrete, his summer school books hemorrhaging loose pages. “Shit,” he said.
She set her mug on the top step and stood to collect scattered papers. “Are you alright?” she asked, red-faced and flustered.
He looked up at her, blinking as if he’d just been elbowed awake. “You’re the girl upstairs,” he said slowly, making no move to collect himself from the concrete.
“Yeah,” she said, pushing papers into a clumsy pile and holding them down with a laminated library book. “Deirdre. Or Dee, most people call me Dee.”
He propped himself up on his elbow. “I live downstairs. Finn.”
“Oh! Like . . . ”
“No,” he interrupted. “Not like Huckleberry.” His southern accent rounded the sound of his vowels, and it sounded somehow too mature for him, as if he’d adopted his voice from watching old movies.
In the following pause, Deirdre teetered back nervously on her heels, though Finn didn’t seem bothered in the least. He twisted into a sitting position, feeling his scraped elbow absently so that his fingers smeared with blood. “I don’t read Mark Twain, on principle. Too many jokes at my expense.”
“Is that why you’re in summer school?” she asked.
“Retaking American Lit,” he shrugged. “I don’t like poetry much. I want to be a physicist.”
She picked up a slim book, leafing through the first few pages. “Well, I think you’ll like Whitman, then. It’s about how everything’s connected to everything else. I celebrate myself, and I sing myself.”
He stared blankly.
“It’s Song of Myself. The first line.”
He reached for the book, paging through as if he didn’t believe her. “I haven’t read this yet. That’s next week.”
“I wrote my senior thesis on Whitman.” She felt the warm pride of ownership—Whitman was hers, an old acquaintance she could parade into conversations, a stooped old ghost with a long white beard clinging to the crook of her arm. But the glow faded quickly—why would this sleepy-eyed teenager care? It all seemed so silly, now—the notes, the deadlines, the theories. What had she accomplished, in the end, besides the phantoms of neglected drafts on her laptop? “If you ever need help, I have boxes and boxes of notes.”
When he nodded and promised he’d be by, she felt a flutter of nerves—was it somehow indecent, to invite this teenage boy to her apartment? Did she want him intruding on the rooms she’d kept so mercifully separate from the flow of the outside world? But she pushed the doubts away, smiling as she returned to her seat on the stairs, saying yes, that would be nice, to have a bit of company.
When the phone rang in her pocket, she realized she hadn’t spoken aloud all day. Even at the grocery store, she’d wordlessly handed over her credit card, not meeting the cashier’s uninterested eyes. She thought that maybe Finn would drop by later. In the two weeks since he’d collided with the curb in front of her, he dropped by every couple days, and she realized now that she went entire days only speaking to him.
Now, halfway up the stairs with a bag of groceries, she pulled out her phone and propped it between her shoulder and ear as she unlocked the front door. “Hey, mom.” The jangle of keys. “I’m good. Really good.”
Her mother was already asking about job applications and cover letters, fluent in the language of obligations, which to Dee always translated to the language of guilt.
She put the bag down on the kitchen table before moving to open her bedroom door, staring at how the sunset faded purple to orange, the color of a day-old bruise. The window across the way was empty. What detail could she offer to hide the fact she spent whole afternoons in a trance, staring at the way the shadows shifted across her bedroom wall? “I’m tutoring a neighbor boy. No, pro bono. I know, I’m a saint.”
This was not entirely true. On his first visit, Finn had looked through her notes for fifteen minutes before pulling out a baggy of pot and asking if she got high. Before, she’d never liked the way smoking made her mind echo and her thoughts feel far away. But maybe in this new life, she liked new things.
Her mother began a long story about a rude mechanic, and Dee thought suddenly of her aunt Magda, her mother’s dead twin. The two women had hardly been identical in their middle age, but Dee had always been surprised to hear the familiar cadence of her mother’s speech coming from her aunt’s mouth. Now, she thought the opposite—that the ghost of Magda’s voice still resided in her mother’s throat. She couldn’t help but think of her mother as incomplete in the absence of her sister, something rendered useless by its missing half—a single sock, a saltshaker with no matching pepper.
When she was young, Dee always found Magda so elegant, sweeping in each Christmas in a secondhand fur coat and a smear of blackberry dark lipstick to match the wine she drank well before dinner. She would sit and tell Dee about Oscar Wilde, the Berlin opera house, Fabergé eggs, the original endings to fairy tales, the meanings behind Elton John songs. Though she only saw Magda once a year, on those nights Dee always felt there’d been some mistake, and she’d been born to the wrong sister.
“Hey, mom, I’m sorry,” Dee interrupted. “I’ve got to run. I just put dinner in the oven.” She wondered when she became the sort of person who could lie so effortlessly. But she felt, suddenly, that nothing exhausted her so much as hearing her mother talk about her oil change. She hung up and stared into the empty window of the neighboring house. In the absence of the shadow’s stare, she felt somehow insignificant. What was she supposed to say to her mother? That her only friendship was with a perpetually stoned teenage boy? That her neighbor watched her through the window almost every night of the week, and that she secretly enjoyed it?
She pulled a shoebox from under her bed, leafing through old letters and notes to pull out a faded photograph in a plastic frame. There were not many pictures of the twins as young girls, but Deirdre had found one in a bedside table drawer when they’d gone to clean out Magda’s apartment. The girls had their arms around each other, but they did not smile. It might have been the instant before a smile, posed and waiting for the ordered “cheese,” but the solemn look on the matching faces came across as eerie and somehow prophetic.
Dee thought of how some cultures worshipped twins as oracles, wrapping them in beads and fine cloth as if they were gods. She stared down at the photograph for a long time, at the twin sisters frowning straight out of the frame, as if they could see out across the future at how their young lives will draw further and further apart until they ended at this final, permanent separation.
Later that night, Finn came over with two cartons of cold Chinese leftovers and a tightly rolled joint. They sat at the kitchen table and blew smoke into a toilet paper tube stuffed with dryer sheets to hide the smell. After three hits, Dee’s fingers tingled and when she shifted her eyes, her brain took a few seconds to catch up.
When he smoked, some door in Finn seemed to click open; where he was usually still and distant, as if each sentence spoken aloud had to be processed from far away, he was now fluent and animated. He talked about infinity, moving his hands to shape his words in the smoke. The mathematical rules that held the universe accountable, the architectural beauty of an 8 turned on its side.
“I don’t really believe in poetry,” he said, gesturing to the books stacked on her shelves, the counters, any flat surface.
Dee let out an affronted laugh. “Luckily, it continues to exist whether you believe in it or not.”
“Why did you come here?” he asked abruptly. His conversation had no transitions, which she found oddly refreshing—he never hid the migration of his curiosities.
“Here?” She looked around the kitchen with hazy eyes. Why had she come here? She thought of the straightforward answer—the inherited money, the pull of a new city. Then she thought of Magda’s apartment, arranged in such carefully orchestrated opulence—glass-topped tables, gilt-framed renaissance reproductions, a lamp with a base shaped like a harp complete with taut silver strings. When they’d gone to box it all up, everything seemed tacky and sad—the three empty Creme de Menthe bottles hidden below the kitchen sink, the seashell ashtrays spilling with spent butts, the smell of stale smoke like a physical reminder of lonely last days.
Finn’s question bounced in her skull—why here? She thought about the inevitability of human life to grow so small—to condense down into a house, a room, an hour, a minute. “My neighbor watches me through my bedroom window.” It wasn’t an answer, but it felt like one.
“What?” He let out a yelping laugh. “Your bedroom? Can I see?”
When he came over, she always shut her bedroom door out of some sense of modesty. But he was already standing, turning the knob, moving to stare across the space between houses to the empty room across the way. “It doesn’t freak you out?”
“No,” she said, following behind. “I know it should, but it doesn’t. Is that fucked up?” She sat on the edge of the bed and imagined her words floating in the room, loose and disconnected.
“Yeah,” he laughed, sitting next to her. “He’s definitely a perv, right?”
“I dunno,” she pursed her lips and shut her eyes, and far-off noises curled in her skull—the squeak of rusty brakes down the block, the clatter of pans downstairs. “Probably. Probably a pervert.”
She hadn’t told anyone about the man because she liked having something that belonged to just her. The nervous enjoyment of something taboo, the freedom of a stranger’s perception. She could be anyone, through those hidden eyes. Just a girl in a window, framed by soft light.
“Sometimes I feel like nobody can see me,” she said slowly. “Not even like I’m turning into a ghost. Like I was born a ghost, and I kept waiting to turn solid, but instead bits of me just kept blowing away.”
The words echoed in her brain, but she couldn’t remember where she started. What had they been talking about? She wondered if she’d made sense at all. “I’m really stoned,” she muttered, cradling her head in her hands.
Finn laughed appreciatively. “Just enjoy it.”
So she closed her eyes, back into the darkness where distant noises grew and settled to stay. She lay back on the mattress, her hands stretched to cover her face, fingertips buzzing where they brushed cheeks, lips, forehead.
Finn spread out next to her, eyes closed, hands folded across his stomach in coffin-pose. She wondered distantly if he would try to kiss her. She would have to turn away, tell him it was time to go home for the night. But he made no move to turn toward her, and she felt foolish for considering his interest at all.
Instead, he talked about space and time and physics, about how once a scientist synched two clocks and sent one to space and when it came back down they were an hour different. That astronauts age more slowly among the stars. That if you move fast enough, you won’t be subject to time.
She rolled to stare at his profile, and she could swear that in the half-light coming through the window, he glowed.
“You say you don’t believe in poetry, but that was poetry right there,” she told him. She knew the difference between them now: he glows, she fades; she shrinks, he expands.
He opened his eyes to the ceiling. “That’s not poetry,” he said. “That’s all real.”
When Finn left, she knew the man would be watching before she even came back to her bedroom. It seemed inevitable, the way some mornings she could feel storm clouds gathering outside her window before she even pulled open her blinds.
She stood in front of the window and undressed before she could process what she was doing. The echo of her heartbeat pulsed through every part of her. This, too, seemed inevitable. Just this morning, she’d mercilessly scrutinized her naked reflection—her hair limp and greasy with summer sweat, her arms flabby and pale. She had gone so far as to grab a handful of stomach fat and squeeze until four red streaks of unkind fingers stayed behind on the flesh.
Now, she felt vast like a Greek God, one of those broad-hipped goddesses sculpted with swords or tridents, war helmets and bare feet. She didn’t even mind her mismatched bra and underwear, or the thin triangle of hair growing up from her groin to her bellybutton. The shadow kept watching, free of judgment, free of disgust.
She unlatched her bra and pulled down her underwear, feeling a thrill travel down her spine to the deepest parts of herself. She had wanted this for a long while, the exposure of her skin, the abandoning of modesty. She’d planned this undressing, sometimes, with a little twist in her stomach, never sure if she’d ever really follow through.
Now, she stood for a long time, until the shadow in the window blurred in her vision, just another smudge of dark on darkness. The breeze on her skin, the goose bumps rising beneath her fingers, her heart beating too fast in her chest: she leaned toward the window and thought of how good it was to feel.
Finn did not come back for four days, but when he did everything felt just the same. He set the last end of the joint in the saucer they’d been using as an ashtray, and she got up to pull two cans of diet soda out of the fridge. He popped his open without a word of thanks, and when translucent brown bubbles rose up through the metal opening, he licked them from the side absently.
She’d always been gifted in seeing faces in shower stains, or animals hidden in the whirl of wood grain. Now, she stared at Finn’s face as if something would be revealed if she just recognized the right patterns. The secret to his optimism, maybe. The way he just kept growing and growing, silent and unstoppable. Like a tree with roots deep in rich soil. Like a rumor everyone knew, but couldn’t recall ever hearing spoken out loud.
She felt so young in the world, and so old in her body. She felt so large in the room, and so small in the universe.
He moved to light a cigarette, but she cut him off with a sharp wave of her hand. “Window.”
“Really?” He looked around the room, still sour with the smell of pot.
“Yes,” she said. “I abhor cigarette smoke.” She savored that word—abhor—tasting of licorice in her dry mouth. A word she would never speak sober. She whispered it up to her ceiling again as he moved through her bedroom door to the open window, but before she finished the second syllable he was back.
A tremor started in her stomach and resonated to her fingertips and the base of her skull, like electric sand running over her skin. She stood unsteadily, following Finn. And there was the shadow, still and watching.
She sat on the edge of the bed, and it shifted as Finn sat next to her, watching her through bleary red eyes. And as she looked at him, his shaggy hair and his young face, she knew that a gram of pot costs twenty bucks, and the Sparknotes to Whitman were better than her old notes, and Finn was seventeen, and he wanted to kiss her.
She was not this woman who smoked and drank and sat alone in her apartment for days. She did not seduce teenage boys. She called the police on men who peeked through windows at nighttime.
But through those shadowed eyes, she could be anyone. Just a snapshot of a bedroom, a square hint of light and life. And as Finn moved in to kiss her, she turned her head away, but she guided his hand to her left breast. He floated his fingers, then squeezed too hard. She let out a little hum of encouragement and shifted closer across the mussed sheets.
And now she was outside the window looking in as she guided the hand lower, over stomach and hips, and she winced at the first scrape of fingernails, the swell of knuckle pressing inside her. This was not what she wanted but it was too late to stop, and besides, she was too far away—she was outside the window, staring from a shadow in an empty apartment. And she did not want this, but she pressed her hips up and moaned, and it was just a show, a one-act play, an orchestrated climax before curtain call. Finn breathed heavy but his eyes were far off. Her moans sounded false, her movements felt false, and she should have felt sick but instead she felt alive—startlingly alive, and startlingly visible.
Then it was over. His eyes moved to look anywhere but her face. He muttered something about going home, his mom getting off work, and in that instant she hated him. She hated that he was gone before he even left the room. She hated that he would not come back.
The front door clicked shut, and her hate turned back on herself. She lay down and let it beat in her chest like a second heart, pulsing through every part of her.
As she listened to the sound of Finn’s receding footsteps on the stairs, she knew she would not be a poet because her life was not a poem. It was made up of bathroom lines, control top panty hose, bad parallel parking jobs. Things so typical that they might as well not exist at all.
And she knew, now, that it did not matter who was at the window, or whether the blinds were drawn open or shut, because she would always end up back here, tethered to her own body.
Stanley Trazinsky was on recess duty when Bobby Fleming vanished from the face of the earth, never to be seen again.
Stanley, or Mr. Stan as his students called him, hated recess duty. There was too much that could go wrong, too much to keep track of. The fourth and fifth grade boys had a fierce rivalry; there was at least one fight each week. The third graders, an oddly adventurous bunch this year, would try to wander out of the playground and go for a walk around the block. Someone else, meanwhile, would get hit in the face with a basketball and need consoling. Stanley always felt uncomfortable reassuring crying kids, because the school had strict rules on how he could do so. District policy didn’t allow any teachers to have physical contact with students, so Stanley would stand awkwardly by the tearful child and say, “there, there, you’re okay.”
No, Stanley much preferred the classroom, where he was an imparter of knowledge for his fifth grade students. As Mr. Stan, he introduced activities and made learning enjoyable. Inside, Stanley was Respected. But when he walked out the double doors to the blacktop, a transformation occurred in both him and the students. Outside, Stanley was Authority, hated and feared, the spoiler of fun, and the kids, while generally well behaved and eager in the classroom, were wild, untamable beasts. Alas, once a week, it was his turn to stand guard during the half hour of recess. He would leave the peaceful sanctuary of room 223, wistfully flip off the humming florescent lights, and step out onto the asphalt.
Stanley was contemplating how unfair life—that is, recess duty—was as he watched the kids frolic on the play equipment. He decided he should write a poem about the Atrocity of Recess and send it off to some unknown literary journal. He was already smiling at the pleasure he would get from composing the poem . . . it would give some meaning to bearing the duty of recess. He began to muse in his head. Recess, recess, how art thou . . .
Nope, that was terrible.
The sun beats down; the feral children scream . . .
That wasn’t bad. It was in iambic pentameter, at any rate. He brainstormed rhymes for scream while he watched his students Bobby and Timothy swing in higher and higher arcs on the swing set. Beam, deem, ream, ice cream . . .
Timothy’s longish brown hair was whipping back and forth, but Bobby had spiked his blonde hair with gel in an attempt to look cool. His hair remained still as he whooshed through the air. Stanley had never before realized just how tall these swings were. At the top of each arc, Bobby and Timothy were at least ten feet in the air.
One reaches heaven, thinks he’s hot as steam. Stanley scribbled the two lines in his notebook, always tucked in the back pocket of his jeans. After dinner on Thursdays, it was Stanley’s routine to peruse his notebook and see if there were any poems worth expanding. He would tear out any pages he wasn’t happy with, crumple them up, and toss them toward the wastebasket. He usually missed.
Bobby jumped off at the peak of his swing, rose for a few feet more, and began to fall. “Dammit,” muttered Stanley and began to run as Bobby hurtled toward the earth. If Bobby wasn’t hurt, he would need disciplining. If he was hurt, he would need help.
A hole opened in the earth, and Bobby fell into it.
Stanley blinked, but continued running. Did he just see what he thought he saw? Did Bobby just disappear into the ground? He reached the swing set. There was no hole. There was no Bobby, either. “Timothy!” Stanley called to the other boy, still swinging as if nothing had happened. “Where did Bobby go?”
“Weren’t you just swinging with him?”
“I wasn’t swinging with anyone.”
Stanley guessed he must have been seeing things in the harsh sun. A weird reflection. He looked around to see where Bobby was, since he clearly hadn’t been swinging. Not playing soccer, not shooting hoops, not playing tag on the jungle gym. Bobby had definitely been in class earlier; he had been one of Stanley’s “victims” called upon to do a long-division problem on the board during math. Now he was gone. Per protocol, Stanley walkie-talkied the front office. “It’s Stanley. There’s a missing student, Bobby Fleming. Did he go home sick today?”
“Hang on, let me check,” said the secretary. A pause. “The nurse hasn’t sent anyone home today. And there’s no Bobby Fleming on any roster. Was that the right name, Bobby Fleming?”
“Yes. He’s that kid who spikes his hair and wears rock band T-shirts.”
“Hmm, I’m not sure I know him. At any rate, there’s no Bobby Fleming or Robert Fleming enrolled here.”
Stanley was baffled. Of course there was a Bobby Fleming. What other fifth grader, as Bobby once described himself when asked to explain his fashion, was on a “mission to bring back punk”? Perhaps a computer glitch had caused Bobby to vanish from the secretary’s roster.
Just then, the recess bell rang, so Stanley needed to begin shepherding the students back into the school. He decided he must have been daydreaming; students simply didn’t disappear into the earth. Stanley had always had an active imagination when he was writing poetry. Bobby was probably somewhere else; the playground was large. Stanley easily could have missed Bobby, especially if he was playing a game like hide and seek. “My mistake, I guess everyone’s accounted for,” he said into the walkie-talkie. “Sorry to bother you.”
However, back in the classroom, Bobby wasn’t back in his desk. This was troubling. Stanley asked if anyone had seen Bobby since recess.
“Who’s Bobby, Mr. Stan?” asked Mary Abrams.
Stanley checked the class roster. Doyle, Eric. Ebelly, Joshua. Griffiths, Amanda. No Fleming, Robert.
“Never mind,” said Stanley. “I must have been thinking of my class from last year.” The fact that no one remembered Bobby convinced Stanley his eyes and imagination hadn’t been tricking him—Bobby had really disappeared. Stanley struggled to get through the rest of the day, unable to concentrate on long division or the Boston Tea Party. He let the class get ready to leave ten minutes early and sighed audibly when the final bell rang.
He and his fiancé Myra returned to their apartment at about the same time. Shakespeare would have called her a woman “that love’s own hand did make.” Her long hair, coppery and shiny like a newly minted penny, enchanted Stanley; her eyes were as deep and mysterious as Lake Michigan; her delicate fingers and well-toned arms could play Stanley like a human trombone. She was a Latin teacher at Edison Middle School; they shared a passion for educating and a particular love for poetry. Both of them loved lobster and hated cantaloupe. It was as if the universe had pulled Stanley’s dream woman right out of his head.
Myra had a fantastic memory; she could recite a stanza of poetry relevant to nearly any situation. Stanley loved this. She had a knack for remembering faces and names, too. This skill made her a great teacher, and a great fiancé—she had helped Stanley seem much more socially capable at teachers’ conventions, whispering to him the names of people he only vaguely remembered.
Stanley told her about his day.
“And then,” he finished, “the whole class had no idea who Bobby was! Hang on, I think I might have his last math test in my bag, he got a B minus . . . ”
Stanley ruffled through the math tests. Bobby’s wasn’t there.
“Stan,” said Myra. “Are you sure there’s a Bobby Fleming in your class?”
“Yes!” responded Stanley emphatically.
“I believe that you believe in him,” Myra began. Stanley immediately knew where she was going. “But if no one else has heard of him, how do you know your mind isn’t playing tricks on you?”
“Because. I saw him. Disappear. Into a hole. That then disappeared.” Stanley thought about this a second. “I should see a doctor.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Myra, gently rubbing his hand with hers. “At least not until it happens again.” Stanley agreed; he didn’t want to garner the reputation of being That Teacher with Mental Problems.
The following week, during Stanley’s next shift on recess duty, it happened again. He was peacefully sulking and glaring at the students, silently composing a third line to his poem on recess. He watched a first grader digging a big hole in the sandbox—perfect inspiration. Some dig holes in the box of sand. Not enough syllables this time, Stanley thought. Stanley didn’t know the student’s name, but he recognized her from lunch; she always walked down to the cafeteria with Melinda Munson’s class. She had placed her sneakers and pink socks on the grass outside the sandbox so sand wouldn’t get in her shoes. She stuck her fist down her hole, pulled out a clump of sand. Stuck her fist down again, and pulled out another clump. Stuck it down a third time, lost her balance, and put both her hands in the pit. She rested for a moment, and then her arms, head, body, legs and feet all fell down into the hole.
Stanley swore and swore as he ran to the sandbox, not knowing what he feared worse—if the girl had disappeared into a very deep hole, or if there was no hole at all.
There was no hole.
In fact, there was no evidence anyone had ever been in the sandbox; even her socks and shoes were no longer on the grass. For this reason, Stanley decided he had again been seeing things. But just to be sure, he popped into the first grade classroom after the school day ended. “How are you, Melinda?”
“I’m fine, Stanley, thank you. How can I help you?” Melinda Munson was close to retirement, and had recently dyed her curly greying hair blonde. She was a larger woman and had a deep, booming voice. She had a slight hint of a British accent, having lived in England as a child.
“I just wanted to make sure everything went well today,” said Stanley. “Did everyone come back from recess unscathed?”
“Of course they did! Did you see some ‘scathing’ that I should know about?”
“Oh, no,” said Stanley hurriedly. “But you know what it’s like out there, so much is going on. Sometimes you miss things. I thought it would be a good idea to check with all the teachers to make sure I’m doing a good job.”
“You’re doing a hell of a job out there, Stanley,” declared Mrs. Munson. “Keep up the good work! The kids love recess and always come back happy.”
Stanley tried to approach the issue one more time, slightly less obliquely. He had to be careful, though; Mrs. Munson was known for unintentionally spreading rumors. Her loud whisper carried across the teachers’ lounge, and now the whole staff knew about the unfortunate band teacher’s affair with a grocery store clerk. “I’m just afraid one of the kids will disappear on me someday,” said Stanley. “You know how our third graders are, always wandering off.”
Mrs. Munson laughed. “Yes, that’s true. None of my students have disappeared yet, though.” Because Stanley didn’t know the sandbox girl’s name, he couldn’t ask directly about her, but he would keep his ears peeled for reports of a missing child. He bade Mrs. Munson a good night, drove home, and sobbed into his pillow. He clutched its corners, tears dampening the flannel case. He had never suspected people still went insane, always assuming “insanity” was an overused term that had been especially in vogue in the nineteenth century. But here he was, going insane. He couldn’t explain it any other way.
Stanley couldn’t trust his senses anymore. He knew he had seen Bobby and the first grader each fall into a temporary whole into the earth. But he was the only one. The whole world couldn’t be wrong. He was confused. He was crazy.
No. Stanley refused to accept that. He sat up and wiped his face. Bobby had been in his class last year; he had simply been daydreaming the swinging incident. The same thing must have happened with this first grader. Stanley had always had a vivid imagination; that was one of the reasons he went into teaching. Perhaps he was taking brief naps on the playground, or maybe he needed his eyes checked. But he was not insane. He did not need to see a psychiatrist.
And for a few weeks things were normal. He and Myra fought over whether they could afford a new car and also purchase a larger apartment. Stanley’s car was a clunker. It had 235,000 miles on it, only the driver door opened, it had just one seat belt, and the brakes would need replacing soon. Stanley didn’t want to put any more money into it when he could tell it was about to fall apart entirely, but Myra wanted to save so they could move to a nicer home.
“I don’t feel safe driving to work in my piece of crap car!” Stanley found himself yelling at last, after a week of passive aggression and snide comments.
“But this lousy apartment is so old and rotten!” Myra retorted.
“The apartment is fine, Myra. You said you loved it when you moved in with me. Besides, it’s certainly not going to fall apart and strand you on the side of the road. It doesn’t make weird noises and emit putrid puffs of smoke.”
“Your car’s been doing that for years, it can wait a few months more—we almost have enough saved to afford the Seventeenth Street place. I don’t want to blow that on a new car.”
It felt good to fight with her—it was what regular people did.
Class became ordinary again, too. He taught his students PEMDAS and the capitals of the United States. He shared with them his favorite poems by Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson.
But then in May, Eric Doyle slid down the slide and kept going into the ground after his feet struck the woodchips. Everyone’s reaction was the same. No one knew where he was, or had even heard of him. His name wasn’t on the roster anymore. Stanley felt powerless, not competent to fulfill the requirements of his job and keep his children safe.
Again the thought of seeing a psychiatrist occurred to Stanley. It didn’t seem like such a bad idea anymore. But he couldn’t bring himself to make an appointment—he got as far as dialing the office, but hung up after the first ring. He didn’t feel like he needed help. He knew what he was seeing, what he remembered. It was the rest of the world that had a problem. Stanley needed more information, more evidence, before he would seek a professional. He decided to try an experiment, and counted the number of names on his roster. There were eighteen. He scrawled 18 at the bottom of the roster, wrote 18 in a corner of the whiteboard, even scratched 18 into the top of his desk.
When he got home that night, the first thing he said to Myra was, “There are eighteen students in my class. Remember that.”
“Well, happy anniversary to you, too!” said Myra bemusedly.
Shit. Stanley had forgotten. He glanced at his calendar and saw BUY FLOWERS (ANNIVERSARY) in bold red lettering written in his to-do list; Eric’s disappearance had so distracted him that he hadn’t checked his calendar all afternoon. “Happy anniversary, Myra,” he said sheepishly, wondering how he could improvise a romantic evening.
They had met five years earlier on a hiking trip for recent college graduates who had found jobs teaching in the Green Bay area; everyone would be beginning their first year of instruction in the fall. This excursion was organized annually as a chance for young teachers to bond, and in true Wisconsin fashion the hike occurred rain or shine. As luck would have it, Stanley found himself marching through pouring rain, but next to a gorgeous young woman—Myra. But it was not her beauty that most attracted Stanley to her. He loved that they argued whether Dante’s Inferno or Boccaccio’s Decameron was the more entertaining Italian Renaissance work. As they clambered up the slippery bluffs of Lake Michigan, Stanley and Myra fell behind the rest of the small group. His hand sought hers, grasped it. As the deluge continued to pound from the sky, Myra pointed at one of the bluffs—there was a small cave they could take refuge in. Well, it wasn’t really a cave, Stanley noted as they approached it, but more of an outcropping of stone jutting out from the rest of the bluffs, forming a small shelter.
Inside, Myra groaned, “Ugh, I hate wearing wet clothes.” They were sticking to her tightly. Stanley almost said that he loved Myra in wet clothes, but didn’t want her thinking he was the sort of man who would make a comment like that. Next thing he knew, however, Myra was peeling off her top, saying, “Maybe it’ll dry off by the time the rain stops.”
Stanley stared at her wearing just her bra, speechless for a moment. Then he said, “Good idea,” and took off his own shirt.
“You ever read the Aeneid?” asked Myra.
“Arma virumque cano,” answered Stanley.
“You’re Aeneas. I’ll be Dido.”
But unlike Aeneas and Dido, who were unofficially wedded in the cave near Carthage, Stanley and Myra had a reasonably paced relationship that did not end in heartbreak and suicide. Myra had proposed to Stanley just last year.
The week after their anniversary, during recess, Stanley watched four girls from his class revolving on the merry-go-round. Amanda Griffiths pushed them faster and faster until Molly Thischer was hurled off the circular apparatus. She disappeared into oblivion. Stanley wasn’t surprised when the remaining girls assured him there had only ever been the three of them spinning on the merry-go-round.
Stanley suppressed the panic growing in his chest; school was not the place to have a mental breakdown. Back in room 223, he checked the roster. Seventeen names. The number 17 was at the bottom of the sheet, on the whiteboard, and in his desk. He swallowed hard.
At dinner that night, he asked Myra, “How many students did I say are in my class?”
Stanley slammed his fist on the table. “There were eighteen last week, I know it! Molly Thischer disappeared today. That’s four now. She was off the roster, which had eighteen names on it!”
“You told me to remember seventeen last week.”
Stanley exploded. “Myra! You and the rest of the world don’t get it, what it’s like to see my students die. That’s what it feels like—they’re breathing, laughing, playing one minute and gone the next. But no one mourns them with me. I’ve been trying to stay calm, but I can’t anymore.”
Stanley fell silent, took three deep breaths. Myra looked on the verge of tears. “Don’t cry, Myra. I’m sorry for yelling.”
“No, it’s not that. You were right to yell. I’ve been really insensitive lately, haven’t I?”
Stanley didn’t answer.
“I thought that if parents weren’t reporting missing children, if they weren’t on the roster, there wasn’t any problem. But they’re missing to you. You care about the kids. It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. You’re losing your students.”
“They were real, Myra, and I think it’s my fault. They only disappear when I’m watching them, when I’m near them. I’m the only one who can remember them. Pretty soon there won’t be any left, and it will all be because of me. I should resign to protect the kids.”
“Don’t do that!” said Myra. “What else would you do? Find a job where you never interact with other people? And then what? Would you leave me to make sure I don’t disappear?”
“Myra, I’m scared. You could be next.” At some point Stanley had stood up. He sat down again. “I think it’s time to get help. I don’t know if this is all in my head, but it might be. I’m going to make an appointment with a psychiatrist.”
Myra nodded slowly. Stanley got the phone and called the psychiatric office at St. Vincent Hospital. The doctor’s schedule was quite full; the first opening wasn’t until the summer. Stanley booked the appointment.
Weeks passed, the school year ended, and Stanley’s seventeen fifth graders were excited for middle school. He finally talked Myra into getting a new car when his rear bumper fell off on one of his trips home to school. The first Saturday of summer break, the day before Stanley’s appointment, they decided to drive his clunker to a dealership to see if it had any trade-in value.
On the way, the brakes gave out. They were approaching a red light and Stanley found he couldn’t slow the car down. “Fuck!” yelled Stanley, stomping the brake pedal in vain.
Myra screamed as they entered the intersection and smashed into the red minivan. Only Stanley’s seat had a seat belt. He jerked forward; his neck snapped forward and back and he felt himself rapidly losing consciousness. In the split second of the crash, he realized that Myra would not be as lucky as he was. She flew headfirst through the windshield toward the road as cars around them screeched to a halt, a gaping hole remaining in the glass.
When Stanley awoke, a paramedic was wheeling him on a stretcher toward an ambulance. “Where’s Myra?” he gasped urgently.
“Myra! She was in the car with me! Went through the windshield.”
“You’re confused, sir,” said the paramedic. “You were the only one in the car. Your windshield is only cracked—there’s no way a person went through it.”
“No! Myra was with me!”
“Sir, you were very lucky today. Everyone survived the crash, but we’re going to need to take you to the hospital for observation.”
Stanley stifled a sob as he was placed in the ambulance. Whatever had happened to Myra’s body, she was as good as dead.
After a battery of tests and questions, Stanley called his parents. “Mom, I was in a car crash today.”
“Stanley! What happened? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m at the hospital now, but just for observation. But Myra didn’t make it.”
“You know, Myra. I’ve been dating her the past five years. You’ve met dozens of times.” After each statement, Stanley paused, but his mother only returned a blank silence. “My fiancé,” he tried again. This triggered a reaction.
“You’re engaged?” squealed Mrs. Trazinsky. “But I’ve never met anyone named Myra. You haven’t had a girlfriend since college, as far as we know. Why didn’t you tell us about her?”
“YOU. MET. HER.”
“No, we didn’t.” Stanley hadn’t told his parents about the disappearing students, and had never dreamed it would happen to Myra. But there was no other explanation—she was missing in the same way as Bobby and the others. Stanley felt very tired. He dreaded and desired being alone. “Maybe I’m concussed, then. Hallucinating. The doctors say I’m fine though, physically at least. But I should go to sleep now. Love you.”
Mrs. Trazinsky started to protest and say something else, but Stanley hung up.
By coincidence, Stanley had been taken to St. Vincent Hospital, where his psychiatrist worked. He was released early the next morning; his night of observation had not uncovered any serious problems. Without a car, Stanley went for a walk until it was time for his appointment, since there wouldn’t be time to take the bus home and back again. Stanley spent a fretful morning rehearsing exactly how he would phrase his problem for the psychiatrist, describing the disappearances exactly as he saw them, making no mention of the idea that everything was all in his head. The psychiatrist seemed very understanding, accepting Stanley’s story, though he asked many questions after Stanley finished speaking. At last he pronounced, “I believe you’re experiencing stage-five visual hallucinations. We’ll need to do some more tests, but today our time is up. I’m going to start you off on some medication”—the doctor scribbled a prescription—“but you’ll need to come back and see me in a week. If anyone else disappears, write down as much detail as you can. How they disappeared, what you were feeling before and during the experience, et cetera.”
Stanley was livid about his diagnosis. A mere hallucination? Myra? There was no way he had spent the last five years of his life with a woman who never existed. How many times had they made dinner together? How many times had he picked her stray bronze hairs off his sweaters? How many times had they kissed passionately on moonlit strolls through the park, their twin shadows melting together? Myra wasn’t a hallucination. She was simply gone. Stanley couldn’t explain where or how she had gone. But she was gone.
Stanley was finally sure of what he had suspected since Molly Thischer had disappeared: he was the cause of the disappearances. Stanley vowed he wouldn’t force anyone out of the world; no one else would suffer the same fate as Myra and the children. He called the school and resigned. He didn’t leave his apartment for weeks, he ignored phone calls. He avoided all human contact.
Stanley spent his days composing elegies for funerals that would never happen. Myra, Myra, Myra my dear, why did you have to disappear? Stanley’s poetry littered the house—whenever he wrote a line he wasn’t satisfied with, he ripped the page out of his notebook and threw it in the general direction of the trashcan.
Myra consumed his thoughts. When he wasn’t writing poetry, he remembered the years they spent together. They had canoed down the Fox River last summer; Stanley fell out of the boat and Myra had to haul him back in with her paddle. They had written lesson plans together, gone to poetry slams together.
Stanley decided he was mentally sound. He did not take his new pills; he did not return to the psychiatrist. But he still refused to leave his apartment.
When he ran out of food, he ordered delivery and left money outside the door with a note scribbled on the back of a poem: “Leave food. Take money. Knock twice. Go away.” One day, as he ate a slice of cold pizza for breakfast, he noticed a discarded poem that looked eerily like Myra. The crumpled ball was sitting in the corner, and now the sun streaming through the window illuminated what could only be a human face. It was like origami, paper folded and contorted to form Myra’s head. The eye sockets were empty and the head was much too small, but besides that, the similarities were uncanny. The paper was smooth where her cheeks were; part of the paper was folded up to make her delicately pointed nose; there was even a crease between her two puffy lips. His poetry, written in black ink, spilled down the face’s sides where her hair would be. Stanley set the paper Myra on a table and stared at it. Surely Myra hadn’t been reincarnated in this wad of paper. Surely it was just a strange coincidence.
But it couldn’t be a strange coincidence, because under the coffee table was another crumpled poem that looked like Bobby. He remembered this poem, an ode about Bobby’s descent from swing to soil. He set this next to Myra, and scoured the house. He found them all: the first grader, Eric and Molly.
Stanley gazed at them for hours, poking them occasionally, hoping they would do something more than stare with their eyeless sockets. Stanley thought of reciting the poem Myra’s head was made from. He had borrowed a pair of lines from the Roman poet Horace; Myra would have appreciated the inclusion of Latin in her elegy:
“Multis ille bonis flebilis occidit
“Nulli flebilior quam mihi, Myra.
“She died, well worth the tears from one and all,
“But no one tear-filled more than me, Myra.”
Stanley stopped reciting. “Myra?” He looked down at the table.
“Stanley, help us. We’re trapped in your poems.” The paper crinkled loudly as the lips of Myra’s poetic head moved back and forth. Her voice was very soft; he leaned down to better hear.
“How can I help?” Stanley felt suddenly alert and alive. He would do anything to restore Myra and the children.
“You must destroy what you wrote in these poems, and then we will be free.”
“How should I destroy it?”
The lips did not move. He repeated his question, and still received no response. He tried reciting the poem again, tried reciting the other poems, he screamed the names of the disappeared, all in vain. The paper heads exhibited no properties beyond that of folded paper.
But the instructions were clear enough. Destroy the poems, and everyone will return. He began with the first grader—he knew it was selfish to protect the people he cared most about, but he didn’t care. He didn’t want to accidentally destroy Myra forever when he seemed so close to getting her back.
He crumpled up the first grader’s head into a tighter ball of paper. Nothing happened. He unfolded it completely. He scribbled out his words. He shredded the paper into tiny pieces. It was fruitless; nothing happened. The thought of burning the paper occurred to him. He got out the grill lighter.
The flame shot up from the remnants of the first grader’s poem-head, but her body still did not reappear. Stanley realized that to destroy the poem, it was not enough to destroy the paper it was written on. He had to erase all memory of the poem, but how could he forget something he had written and memorized?
It wasn’t too hopeless though, Stanley thought drily, noticing he had forgotten the important task of dousing the fire. He couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like the torn scraps were still intact, immune to the fire stretching up from them. The fire’s cantaloupe-colored tongue licked the air, tasting the apartment. The tongue kissed Myra’s lips; her head burst into flames, but the paper itself did not shrivel or burn. The fire spread to Bobby, Molly, and Eric. A pizza box ignited, then Stanley’s book of Shakespearean sonnets. Stanley stood mesmerized; the fire was very bright, but Stanley could see the five paper heads, motionless and unharmed in the fire. The corners of Myra’s lips moved at last, curling upward in a ghostlike smile.
The inferno swirled around him, and soon his whole apartment was ablaze. Stanley didn’t run, searching for some sign that the five people had been released from their poetic prison. He began to become overwhelmed by the smoke and the heat.
He felt dizzy, he couldn’t remember where he was.
There was fire. Lots of fire.
Something started to materialize in front of his eyes—no, several somethings—but Stanley’s last thought was that it was just a fire-induced hallucination.
I was beginning to feel like I knew Martin. Martin was the man who had lived in the house I had moved into just yesterday. He had been old, and passed away a few weeks before in his sleep, and he had liked to travel. I had found an old tape of his with a blue label on the front that said “Yellowstone” in scratchy, ballpoint pen. Luckily, I had discovered the old video player in the basement, right next to the stairs, beneath a broken radio and a few tins with cats on them.
The whole house smelled like the elderly, a combination of cat hair, dust, laundry detergent, and fish oil pills. I had hung up air fresheners in every room, and when I plugged the VCR in to play the video, I was relieved that the living room now smelled like minty cat instead of musky cat. A couple, both at least in their seventies—Martin and his wife, I assumed, since their faces matched the numerous pictures on the fridge—appeared on the screen after a few seconds of an unknown wedding. They were sitting next to each other in the very living room I was currently seated in, maybe ten feet to the left, on the loveseat.
“Hey there friends and family! We’d like to take you through our trip to Yellowstone!” said Martin, on the television screen. His wife, whose name I didn’t know, remained silent, but beamed at the camera. She was wearing a pink knitted sweater and large, thick glasses. Her hair was slightly blue next to Martin’s grey. Martin wore a plaid shirt, and he was rounder in the middle than I thought he would have been. His wife was robust as well.
Music began to play on the television. Martin had to have created the video before the advent of proper film editing software, because there were extended pauses between every tune, and the music did not properly align with the images. The music he had chosen was classical, each one a somewhat famous tune I recognized but could not recall the name of. I watched shots of geysers and lakes and distant bears fade in and out. In would fade a shaky shot of deer tracks, fade out, fade in a close up of a green and brown leaf, fade out.
I wondered if this was the most exciting vacation Martin and his wife had taken. The house, where I was now, was in South Bend, Indiana. It was a respectable size, more than what most people had, when you thought through a worldly perspective. I hadn’t seen pictures of any other vacations, though. I had rummaged through the rest of their videos and all there had been were copies of old Blockbusters, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Braveheart,” and a few weddings. Perhaps Yellowstone had truly been their big adventure.
“Well Martin,” I said to the loveseat to my left, where the video had shown them sitting. “Was it worth it?”
Just then, the last image of Old Faithful faded out into black. Martin and his wife returned to the screen. The music cut out with a strict click. “Thanks for watching with us,” said Martin. He patted his wife’s knee. “We really had an incredible time.” There was an extended pause as Martin and his wife held their smiles patiently for the camera. Martin’s wife then turned her head and opened her mouth to speak to her husband, but before I could hear her words the screen went black and produced the white fuzz I recalled from my childhood, signaling the end of the film.
I was irked I had not heard Martin’s wife speak. I wondered what her feminine touch had brought to this house before she died. I was sure, though I had never been told, that it was she who decorated every corner and piece of furniture with images of cats. There was cat hair still buried deep into the carpets, but Martin’s daughter had told me that Martin had not had a cat for years.
I didn’t think the house a good one for cats. Not for any structural reason, but the house was underneath a large oak tree, and every two to three minutes an acorn would drop and startle me. It sounded like the quick pop of a phone dropping, or some other fragile object hitting a hard floor. The acorn would then roll down the roof of the house, clattering all the way, and I would suppress the urge to run outside and try to catch it. If the noise irritated me, I was sure any cats would have been unhappy, since by nature they are easily startled.
The white fuzz on the screen began to make noise, the kind of buzzing that always came with such a snowy image, so I turned the television off. My phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out to see my mother had messaged me, and my long-term girlfriend was calling.
“Hello?” I said, as I picked up the phone.
“Hey. How is it?” she asked me. Her voice was falsely enthusiastic. She was somewhere crowded. I could hear voices in the background, and the clinking of silverware.
“It’s great,” I said. “I like it a lot. Definitely less stressful than the city.”
My girlfriend laughed at something I did not say.
“Who are you with?” I asked, and immediately regretted it. I did not want to sound whiny. I was the one who had left.
“Oh, just a few friends,” she said. “Marissa, Anna, you know.”
Her roommates. I knew that she was naming those two because I was comfortable with them. It irritated me that she would not name the rest. I didn’t say anything, though, because we both knew I was the one who had left.
“I’ll come back to the city next weekend,” I said. “After I get settled in here.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’m going to let you get unpacked. Call me later!”
She always made it seem like I was the one who needed to hang up the phone. That I had things to do, not her. It wasn’t true.
“Bye,” I said. She had already hung up.
There really was very little unpacking to do. My parents had bought the house for me complete with furniture and everything Martin had left in the house when he died. His children didn’t want to deal with the effects of their last parent. I had sent Martin’s daughter a photo album I had found, but the package had been returned. I wondered if the two were even close.
“Martin?” I asked in the direction of the loveseat. “Did you have any close family at all?”
I didn’t want to sit around the house all evening. Classes hadn’t started, I still had a few days before that, and I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t sure if there were any meet-and-greet events that I hadn’t heard about. I had never really been good at keeping up with social media, which meant I missed a lot of opportunities to make friends. Until now, I had been alright with that.
“I’ll go for a walk,” I said. I wondered if talking to myself was going to become a habit, if all people who lived by themselves began to talk out loud, to an invisible person in the room. I had no desire to become a mutterer.
The weather was warm when I walked outside. I dead bolted the door and walked straight into the low hanging Confederate flag hanging on Martin’s porch. I had seen the flag upon my arrival. It was difficult to miss, the size of a large baby blanket, with the blue cross and stars hanging from two thick metal clasps above the doorway. The hooks looked similar to the carabiners rock climbers used.
I had known, of course, that Martin would be somewhat of a radical like this, but it had still shocked me to see such an obvious display. Then I remembered that Martin had most likely been born and raised during a time when displaying this type of flag wasn’t considered racist, or immoral. I wondered if around here it still wasn’t, if I was simply looking at the flag with a city perception. I knew then Martin and I would be closer now that he was dead than we would have ever been had I met him while he was living.
I took off to the left, after I had walked down the short gravel driveway Martin had never had paved. The neighborhood was old enough that each house looked different from the one next to it. That’s how you can tell the age of the neighborhood. New suburbs have strict codes about the aesthetic properties of their houses. You can only choose from certain designs, and even certain colors. At my parents’ house, you can’t have a shed, or a basketball hoop. My dad had been angry, not because I had wanted a basketball hoop (he was honest in telling me I would never be great) but because he had no special place to put his tools. That irritated him, because the garage was nowhere near large enough.
One of the houses I was walking by had a sign in front of it that read “Today! Garage Sale!” in thick, blue permanent marker. I wondered if today actually meant today, or if the sign was left over from a few days ago, or even a few weeks. The sign looked dirty and faded from being rained on, and though it hadn’t rained that morning I had hope it was still relevant. I thought a garage sale was a great way to meet the neighbors, and so I turned into the driveway and walked up to the house. The garage was open, and in it a few tables were set up displaying brightly colored, circular rugs. The rugs were not large enough to put a coffee table over, but they were too big to place in front of a toilet, or underneath a floor lamp. Two women, one in her thirties and the other much older, perhaps in her late seventies, were sitting behind the middle table, in the far back of the garage. I walked directly toward them as I examined the rugs.
“Is today the garage sale?” I asked the younger one. They were both abnormally fat. Larger even than the people who take up two seats on the trains in the city.
“It’s every day,” said the older one. Her voice had the distinctive gravel of a smoker. The younger one looked down at the rug she was knitting and avoided my eyes, so I looked over at the older woman.
“Oh,” I said. “Where I grew up, garage sales were only a few days during the summer.”
Neither of the women replied. I made an effort to pick up a few rugs, two blue and a yellow, before setting them back down and looking at the women again.
“I just moved in a few houses down,” I said. The two women nodded. Neither raised their eyes to look at me. “The one with the Confederate flag,” I continued.
The older woman’s chubby fingers started to weave faster; I thought she might be getting irritated with my presence. I let the silence drag out a few moments and shifted my weight onto the back of my heels, then forward to my toes. I had worn some old jeans and Notre Dame shirt. I thought the shirt would have sparked some conversation. Maybe they were all tired of talking about Notre Dame here.
“Martin hated that flag,” said the younger woman, quietly, perhaps a little mournfully. “His daughter put it up there and he couldn’t get it down.”
“I’ll take it down,” I said. To prove my eagerness I turned immediately back toward the driveway and walked to the street. “I’ll take it down,” I said, again, over my shoulder. The women had stopped weaving their rugs and watched me as I turned right, back toward Martin’s house.
I called my girlfriend when I walked through the front door, thinking perhaps her dinner had ended. Or had she been at the bar? I wasn’t sure. She didn’t answer. I thought about how to get the flag down. I didn’t have a ladder, and it was much too high to reach. I wondered how Martin’s daughter had put the flag up. Perhaps she had her own ladder. Was there one in the basement? I decided to go down and check, even though the basement gave me chills.
I walked to the stairs, carefully unlocking the hook at the top of the doorway, the hook I used to determine if anyone else was in the basement hiding. You couldn’t walk through the door then hook it from the other side. It was pure precaution. I flipped the lights on before walking down the stairs, which creaked on each step as I put my weight down. Was I getting too heavy for stairs? I thought perhaps I had gained a few pounds over the past few months. Once the sex with Megan had stopped, I stopped worrying about my naked body.
Once down, I scanned the basement for a ladder. I didn’t see one in the first few rooms, all finished and furnished with brown leather furniture and Coca-Cola decorations, but even mustier and more cat haired than the upstairs. I moved quickly to the back of the basement, where I knew there was a workroom, the only unfinished portion. Martin had arranged all his tools there; I figured it must be where he kept any ladders. I switched the workroom lights on and immediately spotted a small step stool buried in the back corner beneath a broken ceramic cat Martin must have been meaning to fix, and a dirtied pile of gardening gloves. I was over six feet tall; the step stool would be enough to reach the flag. I removed the ceramic cat with its ears broken off and placed it on Martin’s wooden workbench. The gloves I set on the floor. I reached for the ladder and noticed a brown jar behind the stool. The jar was no bigger than my outspread hand and had been labeled, with a white sticker, “Ethel.”
Is this Ethel’s jar? I wondered. Was Ethel Martin’s wife, or someone else? I pulled the stool forward to grasp the jar. I lifted the jar and placed it on the workbench next to the cat. The lid came open easily, despite the hinges being rusted in the back. Inside the jar were thickly clumped ashes, like dirty kitty litter. I snapped the lid shut and put the jar back on the floor. I lifted the step ladder and hurried back up the stairs, shutting off lights behind me. At the top of the stairs, I pushed the door shut and relocked it.
“I’ll keep the step ladder upstairs, I think,” I said. I could see the loveseat in the living room from where I was standing and I said, “Martin, I think I found your wife.”
It was getting dark outside and I figured the garage sale was closing down the street. I wondered how many rugs other neighbors had bought, if any. Perhaps they bought them and used them as pet beds. I hadn’t seen any of the rugs in Martin’s house. I felt the two women must have resented him for that. I took the step stool outside and unhooked the Confederate flag from its post above the door. In the morning, I would buy an American flag.
Before I went to bed I called Megan. When her voicemail came on, I imitated the voice and intonation the way others did when familiar commercial jingles played on the television. “Hi there! It’s Megan!” I said, in an imitation of her girlish pitch. “You know what to do, so leave me a message after the beep! Ciao!” The phone beeped and I decided to leave a message.
“Hey,” I said to the machine. “I think we should talk about your future plans. When are you going to move here? Would you? Call me back.”
I double-checked that the doors were locked, and checked the basement door a third time before walking through Martin’s bedroom door to lie down. I had changed the sheets, but I still sometimes believed I could feel Martin’s lonely indent in the very center of the mattress. We never asked where he had passed away.
“Martin, why would you keep your wife in the basement?” I asked the empty room.
I was in the kitchen pouring a bowl of instant oatmeal when I saw the flag waving above the doorway. I paused mid-pour to stare as it flapped slowly with the wind. It was not the same flag, I could see the old one in the kitchen garbage where I had folded and placed it the night before, but it was the same Confederate flag. Newer, but identical.
I pretended to be calm as I hurried back to the bedroom, eyeing the loveseat as I rushed past it. I grabbed my phone and saw Megan had not called, but I dialed her number anyway and waited for the inevitable answering machine to pick up.
“Hello?” She sounded overtired, but I didn’t ask how late she had been out the night before.
“I took down a flag last night and someone put another one up.”
“Slow down, my head hurts.”
“Who were you drinking with?”
“Are you really asking me that question like that? And really, that voicemail you left me, are you kidding me? You brought that up over an answering machine?”
I inhaled through my nose and flared out my nostrils. This used to tell Megan I was angry but she couldn’t see it.
“You’re the one who went to law school. You don’t get to ask me who I was with in that tone.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, although I wasn’t sorry. “Are you still coming down next weekend? We can talk then.”
“You said you were coming back to Chicago,” she said. She was right, I had said that.
“Someone did put up a flag I took down, by the front door.”
“Good, maybe that will give you something to do.”
I wasn’t paying attention to Megan anymore and when I began to focus on her words again. She was saying, with passion, “You need to have something to do. You’ve done nothing but get to law school and now that you’re in law school you don’t even care about it. I just think that if you really loved something it would have a positive impact on our relationship, but you don’t, you never have anything to talk about. What would I even do in South Bend?”
“I agree,” I said.
“You do?” she asked.
“I do.” I was anxious to check the house and look at the flag.
I hung up the phone and walked into the garage. I looked around to see if anything had been disturbed. I debated going to the grocery store but I had gone the day before. I would need another reason to leave the house. For now though, I wanted to take the new flag down. I thought Megan was right; the flag mystery would keep me occupied until classes started. I could set up a camera, or turn the lights on in the kitchen at night and watch for someone to appear. The idea was thrilling. I retrieved the step stool and took it back outside. When I was standing on the stool I reached and touched the flag. I was wrong, it was not identical. This one was thicker and the colors were richer. The blues and reds of the flag looked fresh, unwashed, and the flag had no wrinkles from being folded up. I pulled on the hooks holding it up and realized whoever had hung it had taken extra pains to keep the flag attached by winding twist ties through the flag’s loops. I patiently unwound the twist ties and took the flag down. I brought everything inside and set it on the kitchen table, where it could be clearly seen from the window. I wanted the flag hanger to know I was not only aware of the game, but playing.
Until the evening, a good twelve hours from then, I had nothing to do. I washed all the dishes, even the clean ones that I felt had simply been sitting in the cabinet too long. I wanted to erase the smell of cat dandruff from Martin’s house. As I was washing, though, I began to worry that the dishes weren’t enough. I decided then my day would be spent cleaning. The floors were mopped, and I ran the vacuum vigorously over each carpet. Whatever cleaning product I could not find I wrote down neatly on a pad of paper Martin had smartly left by the fridge. The pad had cartoons of cats walking along the edges of the pages.
I had avoided the basement through all the cleaning, but finally I felt it could be ignored no longer. I unlocked the top door and walked carefully down the steps, keeping my feet on the far edges of each stair so that the middle would not sink in. At first I picked up items, tossing the things I would not need, such as holiday decorations and old gift cards to sports goods stores, of which Martin had dozens. I discovered Martin had collected not only Coca-Cola memorabilia but Marilyn Monroe posters and wooden duck carvings. Some of the ducks were beautifully painted with dark greens and blues. I decided to keep them and lined them up on the stairs, one on each step, from largest to smallest.
“What do you think, Martin?” I asked.
Then, I moved to more difficult tasks. I mopped and vacuumed, dusted and swept where I could. Martin had lined the basement walls with framed black and grey pictures of various forest animals. I wondered if he had drawn the images himself, but even upon closer inspection the signature in the bottom right corner of each drawing was still illegible. Each picture frame was wiped down. I rounded up as many cat decorations as I could and carried them out to the large garbage can in the garage, until it was filled with cat pillows, cat drink coasters, and ceramic kittens. The garbage can still had some of Martin’s old garbage, which made me feel odd, like he wasn’t quite finished with his house.
As an afterthought, I returned to the basement and grabbed the urn. The “Ethel” label was peeling off. I tried not to think clearly about what I was doing as I dumped the contents of the pot down the drain in the kitchen. I then took the urn, ripped the label off, and set it to soak in the sink, which was still soapy from my earlier cleaning.
I had cleaned so long that the sky had begun to dim, and I remembered the initial task at hand. I thought my best bet was to simply watch for the flag hanger, as I did not have the funds to buy a camera. I walked through the house and switched off all the lights. I ended with the bedroom light so that in case someone was watching they would believe I had gone to sleep. I checked that all the doors were locked, then circled around again, being careful not to trip or stub my toe in the darkness of the house.
It was when I was seated at the kitchen table, facing the front windows and door that I realized I had not eaten all day. Even the half-poured bowl of uncooked oatmeal had been dumped into the garbage and the dish washed. I pulled out my phone and sent Megan a message.
“It has to be the old fat woman or the young fat woman,” I wrote. “They knew about the flag.”
“Were you even listening to me earlier?” she wrote back. “Did you leave the house?” she sent a few minutes later.
Now that I was paying attention, my stomach had begun to grumble and tighten painfully, but I worried that the fridge light would tip off the flag hanger. I thought that my phone light could be just as bright, so I ignored Megan’s message and turned the phone off. I sat quietly, as still as I possibly could, listening to the acorns drop and waiting for the flag hanger to reappear. As I was waiting I touched the flag I had pulled down and left on the kitchen table. I hoped the hanger had seen it earlier. I felt he or she must have walked by the house during the day, perhaps while I was cleaning the basement, to see if their prank had been bountiful. It only made sense. The flag was unfrayed, a perfectly new fabric without a seam out of place. I thought about a time when the Confederate flag would have hung from many houses. People had such passion then, for their country and other things.
“Martin,” I said to the empty kitchen. “What game are we playing here?”
I masked my disappointment by turning on my phone and checking my messages. I had seven from Megan. I didn’t feel like reading them all, so focused on the last two.
“—and if you haven’t left that house you’re proving me exactly right.”
“Jason, do you even want to be there?”
I thought about the ashes I had dumped down the sink. If that was Ethel, her ashes, then I had disposed of a body by draining it. Ethel was part of a watery world now. If Martin had kept her confined in this house, she was now free of it, to intermingle with the mice and the drains of other houses. Eventually, I hoped, she would be drained into a lake that cats drank out of.
“Would you like to end up in a lake in a jungle?” I asked the sink. “With lions and tigers lapping you up?” Big cats would please Ethel, I figured, but most assuredly not Martin. If Martin had liked cats as much as his wife then the majority of the cat decorations wouldn’t have been banished to the basement after her death.
I showered quickly and checked the basement door. Still locked, no one had been down the stairs. I walked outside and looked again for a flag, and was again disappointed. I decided to walk back to the garage sale. I would ask the two fat ladies their names. I would invite them over for tea. I would buy a rug.
As I was rounding the corner I saw a cat disappear into the trees at the edge of the street. The cat looked to be white, but was dirtied so that it was more ivory, or yellow, like the animal canine teeth people sometimes wore as jewelry. I decided, for Ethel, I would put a bowl of food out for the cat that night, with milk. The garage sign was not at the front of the fat ladies’ driveway. I stood at the edge, trying to look casually over the house to see if the fat ladies were even home. The garage was closed. I noticed their grey house was actually blue, just faded. The paint around the edges of the windows had peeled back to reveal brown wood, and the roof needed to be re-tiled. I thought I could offer to find them a handyman to fix it, if they came over for tea.
I decided to knock on the front door. I was nervous, as if I was asking them each on a date and meeting their fathers. I stood taller and pulled my shoulders back before I walked past their garage, turned up the walkway to the front steps, and rapped three times on the door. There was no immediate answer, but I heard wood floors groaning and the sound of a stool being pushed back and scraped across the floor. Heavy steps preceded the slow turn of the doorknob and even slower opening of the door.
It was the young fat woman. She was dressed in something I can only describe as a muumuu, or a poncho patterned with flowers that might have been meant to hit the floor but instead stopped in the middle of her calves. Her brown hair, a rather nice shade of copper, was rolled up in curlers. I saw that she expanded from the middle and was equally round on all sides. Her head looked like the cherry on top of a cupcake.
“I took down Martin’s flag but it was put back up,” I said. “Did you take it down again?”
She shook her head no. The floor creaked.
“Would you like to come over for tea? I have a few days before classes start. I’d like to meet the neighbors.”
She didn’t have time to respond before the older woman, it was the same voice I remembered from before, called from the back of the house, “Girl! Come help me move this box of rugs!” and without even a goodbye, the door was slowly, but forcefully, closed.
I was upset, but I had no desire to create strife between neighbors. I made the short walk back to Martin’s and my home with a quick step. My heart rate was already up from the brisk walk when I noticed the red car parked in my driveway. It was a Volkswagen Jetta, Megan’s car. I wasn’t excited. A spontaneous trip like this could only mean the inevitable end was closing in, more quickly than I had expected.
She was sitting on the steps in front of the front door. I was happy I had remembered to lock the door. She must have been sitting outside at least for a few minutes because her hair was windswept into blond tangles. Seeing her sitting there, one thin thigh crossed over another, wide-spaced brown eyes and heart-shaped faced resting in her hands, elbows on her knees, made me remember she was beautiful and I wasn’t. Worse, she was more intelligent. I was especially put off by the Confederate flag waving above her head.
“We need to talk,” she said.
“The flag,” I replied, stepping behind her to grab the hanging monstrosity. “Did you put this here?” I asked her, spinning to face her angrily.
“What?” she looked confused, even disgusted. Her nose wrinkled attractively, like she had smelled something foul. “No. It was your neighbor, five minutes ago.”
“Who?” I asked. I was trying to tug the flag down, but it wouldn’t tear. I thought longingly of the step stool, it would be difficult to go inside without answering any more questions.
“Jason, are you listening to me? I’m done.”
I stared at her. She was small, not much above five feet, and I noticed her eyelashes were almost as long as cat whiskers.
“What neighbor put the flag up?” I asked, looking at my feet. I felt tears and a hard knot in my throat.
“The old man across the street. He said Martin’s daughter had ordered one from him every year. He had put up the new one yesterday, but saw today that it wasn’t there. I don’t think his memory’s too good. Jason—”
“Did you tell him Martin was dead? There’s no need for more flags.”
“Yes, he wasn’t upset. He just said he’d stop putting up new flags. He makes them.”
“Oh Jason,” she said, putting one long-fingered hand on my cheek. I saw her whiskery lashes were damp. “You knew this was coming, didn’t you?”
I stood still, afraid that if I moved her hand would no longer be touching me, and I wouldn’t feel that touch ever again.
“Say something,” she said.
“How’s Chicago?” I asked. “Are you having fun?”
“I knew it. I knew you were pushing me away to ease your guilt. You left, and you think we shouldn’t try, fine. This is about that study you found on divorce rates, isn’t it?” Her hand dropped angrily. “You got what you wanted. Go fuck your law school girls, I’m sure they’ll be just as boring as you.”
I watched her stomp down the stairs and open the door of her car. The wheels spun in the gravel as she drove off. When the car was a red speck down the street, the ivory cat appeared, pausing to weave between my ankles. I opened the door and let him in first, then followed. I decided to leave the flag, for Martin’s sake.
I wasn’t hungry yet, so I sat on the couch in the living room. The cat jumped onto the loveseat where Martin and his wife had filmed the video and curled up comfortably.
“Well, Martin,” I said, first believing I was talking to him, but then deciding Martin was a good name for a cat.
“Well Martin,” I repeated, “It’s just us now. Just the way I wanted it.”
I was relieved Megan had left so easily. Classes started in a few days. I would have a clear head well before I had to dive into my studies.
“And I’m not boring,” I said to Martin.
“I’m not boring,” I said again, as I went to get a bowl of milk. “I have a cat. And you.”
I looked down at the cold face in the coffin. I looked at the face that was once so happy to see me. I looked at the closed eyes that were once so powerful, knowing that those eyelids would never open again. Pictures of her surrounded the coffin, but they did little justice to fully portray how great the woman I was mourning truly was. Every worthwhile memory I had showcased my loving Grandma, and the prospect of her no longer being in them was . . . well, like I said, I’m not one to cry. I remembered back to when she was still able. Memories, especially of my grandmother, always possessed a strange power over me.
I remembered in vivid horror the day Grandma died. I remembered every excruciating, stabbing detail of December 26.
The day after Christmas. A day where families can bond and be happy together. A day where children can laugh and rejoice at their newfound toys. It is also a day I felt the painful sting of death. It is a day where all my past memories culminated into a dawning realization, when all the meaningless stories I quietly berated grew into something more. A day when I learned that the world is so much crueler than I thought. So much colder. So much scarier. So much darker. And so much better.
We were visiting Grandma at the hospital. It was depressing as usual. I couldn’t bear to see a woman I loved so much degraded to the confinements of her bed, oxygen mask, and IV lines. Drip, drip, drip went the clear, impersonal liquid into her veins. Her host of medical conditions had forced her to be tube fed, and I assumed the liquid to be a disgusting cocktail of artificial, tasteless supplements, engineered with cold, hard science.
My family had circled around her bed, giving what comfort they could, describing our Christmas vacation to Wisconsin Dells—how we went skiing, how we ate so much food, and how we went to that mini-golf place she loved so much. They were softly caressing her hand, attempting to coax some sort of happiness from her to take her away from the stony hospital, even if for just a few moments. But she wasn’t paying any attention. She wasn’t even looking at them. She was looking at the back of my head.
I stood apart from my family, out of their little circle, looking out of the room’s window into the darkness. I was an absolute brat, but I’m not one to cry. I hate crying. I couldn’t look at her. How can I? How can I look at the woman who once carried me in her arms, only for me to carry her in my arms? I fidgeted with the gum wrapper in my hands. How can I look at the woman who once fed me when I got sick, only for me to feed her when she is here now? How can I look at the woman whose eyes were once filled with such promise for the future, for my future? Only now, her eyes were filled with a sad, distant look in her eyes, brimming with regret, fully aware of her agonizingly slow withering from existence? She still wanted to do so much, and still had so much to say. I had never been more convinced how much truth rang in the saying “age is wasted on the youth.”
“Lucas,” said a stern, quiet voice. I snapped back from my silent monologue.
I turned my head. My dad was boring holes into me with his eyes, but that’s not what caught my attention. My grandma did. I saw her sad, loving eyes. Part of the reason I couldn’t bear to look at her was because every time I looked into her eyes, I recalled a part of my childhood.
I remembered back to one of the many walks I had with Grandma when I was younger. I was walking to school with her, our hands linked together. It was a crisp, autumn morning, a morning where the sun shines, the birds sing, and the wind blows ever so slightly on our cheeks.
“What would you like for lunch, Lucas?”
Back in kindergarten, I only had one diet—pizza. Obviously, I eagerly replied “Pizza!”
She smirked, not very surprised at my answer. Suddenly, she paused to look at a tree.
Grandma always carried this book with her, as if it was her lifeline. She picked a yellow leaf off of the tree and put it in her book. It was a strange quirk of hers. She would take any leaf from any tree without any sort of prejudice, and at random times. At five years old, I never understood why she did it. After all, a leaf is prettiest when its green and flowing with life, but when she put it in the book it died and became flaky and brown in just a few days. I used to imagine how horrible the leaf must’ve felt, left to rot, confined, used up, and sapped of all life. It must’ve been terrible inside that tight space.
“Hmm?” She looked down at me, seeming mildly distracted at the prospect of a new addition to her collection.
“Do you think I can look at your book?” I used my most innocent child’s voice.
She chuckled and absent-mindedly handed me the book. I opened it up, looking at the crumpled up dead leaves, preserved and flattened out. Without thinking, I took one out and it fell apart into tiny pieces, falling through my hands like sand.
I looked at my hand in horror, then looked back up at her. I could tell she was very mad, and very disappointed, but was doing what she could to control her emotions. However, that didn’t stop some of the anger from seeping out.
“Lucas! What have you done?!” She was blatantly furious.
I was speechless. I tried to say something, but only chokes came out. Tears began to fall. Only my grandma seemed to have the power to make me cry.
She hastily grabbed her book and set it on the grass. “You know, Lucas, how would you feel if you were that leaf? How would you feel if you were preserved in a perfect bubble, only to have it suddenly pop without warning, while you watch yourself fall to pieces and deal with the world? You’d be crumbled, destroyed, and broken beyond repair.”
Now I really began to cry. Grandma seldom got mad, and I just bawled and bawled.
Having let her anger out, she became overcome with her motherly instincts. “Hey darling, it’s ok. I’m not mad, it was just a mistake. Actually, I’m rather happy you did that. Its bubble has been popped, and it was trapped inside that book, unable to move on. Now, it is free and can move on with its life and perhaps go back to see its other friends up in the sky. See? The leaf is happy now.” She gestured at the now microscopic remains of the leaf flowing with the wind.
I began to go from bawling to soft sniffles as I calmed down. She smiled at me and gave me a deep hug.
“I’m sorry, Grandma. Do you still love me?”
“Don’t be sorry, Lucas. I’m the one who should be sorry. You were right. And I will always love you. Now wipe your eyes dry.”
She handed me a tissue and we resumed our walk to school once more.
“You were right. It’s good to pop the bubble,” she repeated to herself.
I barely heard her as I watched a flock of geese fly overhead. They weren’t in their usual V-formation. They flew aimlessly with no leader to guide them, like lost children looking for their grandmothers, only to find emptiness in return.
My father’s voice called me back to my reality, my distorted day-after-Christmas. I realized that I had a running nose and tears were streaming down my face, creating a few drops on the hardwood floor.
I looked at my dad. “Yeah?” I was still disoriented from my memory.
He sadly smiled, as if in understanding. “It’s time to say goodbye.”
I came into the circle surrounding her bed. We all gave our goodbyes, shaking her hand, giving false promises of seeing her again next week. I shouldn’t say false. We would definitely be seeing her again next week, but flowers would be at her side, her eyes would be closed, and she would be in an eternal bed.
I patted my grandma’s hand, still remembering the lively woman who walked me to school, but instead seeing a woman with sunken features. I looked in her eyes and I felt a tug at my heart. Tears began to emerge once again, but I managed to hold them back. Strangely, as I looked into her eyes, I felt a sense of foreboding, something that she was trying to tell me. It was as if she didn’t want me to leave, that she wanted to spend more time with her family, that she knew something we didn’t. I saw pain, misery, and longing. I am not a person who believes in superstition, so I pushed that strange omen aside. I stood up to leave with my family, giving Grandma a wave of the hand. We all began to leave her bedside and out the door.
She gave me a fleeting look, a single tear running down her face and staining the pillow.
I again felt a pang of sadness. I couldn’t bear to look.
I closed the door between me and Grandma, and I just walked away.
The car ride back home was quiet. We all felt empty when we saw Grandma’s condition. The first step back home was a sigh of relief for all of us.
I sat down at my computer, trying to process everything that had occurred. I had to calm down a little and clear my head, so I decided to go to the library with my dad. Nothing made me relax more than curling up with a book and being transported to Egypt, or perhaps the center of the Earth, or maybe even Mars. My dad, however, went to the gym. No surprise there. He wanted to maintain some level of fitness.
My dad and I drove in silence. We both knew what was going through our minds. How much longer could Grandma last? Remembering how old Grandma was always reminded me that none of us was immortal, and that included my dad. I had no doubt that he was thinking the same thing. I gave him a quick glance. Surely it couldn’t be. He was still so strong, so smart, so capable. He was the supporter of our family, and very successful in everything he attempted. So successful that distant relatives called him regularly asking for money. Those always ended in raised voices and angry hang-ups.
He still had so much energy. He still had so much wisdom. He worked hard to get where he was, and he didn’t plan on losing it any time soon. At parties he had the loudest voice. At weddings he led the toasts and speeches. At home he constantly played with our dog. I still depended on him greatly. But when we stopped at the intersection, as I looked over at him, I could see the toll the past fifty-three years had. He stretched his aching joints, cracked his calloused hands, and let out a tired sigh. I had to face the truth. My dad was getting old, and he knew it.
I remember the pointless tasks my dad gave me. Do the dishes. Wash the dog. Shovel the snow. Mow the lawn. Turn on the sprinklers. Pick the weeds. Whenever I challenged his pointless chores, he spit out the same slew of lectures. I want you to be responsible. You need to be independent. I want you to learn. You need to be a man. He had a lot of sappy words. I always argued, saying, “I’m only twelve. Why do I need to do this? Gimme some slack.” He always responded, “Because one day, Lucas, I won’t be here anymore.” I didn’t listen to him, because when I knew that I lost a fight, I refused to listen to anything. I ended up doing his meaningless tasks anyhow, being smart enough to know how to avoid those annoying lectures again. “Why doesn’t he do this himself,” I thought. “What a lazy bum. I wish I had a different dad.”
Being twelve years old, I didn’t know what he was saying at the time. I thought I knew it all. The realization of Dad’s age was a shock to me. Fifty-three years. What a long time to live, to breathe, and to experience. Now, it was time to pass those years on. He was in a rush to give everything he learned to me in the everlasting hope that I will succeed and achieve heights that he could never imagine.
As we rode over a bump, the entire car jolted, and I came back to my surroundings. I opened my eyes, startled, and looked at my dad once again. He was steadfast on the road ahead of him, determined to punish his muscles in order to gain just a few more days to teach his son. I silently thanked him for all of his nagging lectures and rigorous chores.
I laid my head down again. We still had about twenty minutes until we got to the gym, so I still had some time to recollect my thoughts.
Maybe that’s why dad wanted to go to the gym and stay fit. He didn’t want to grow old. Nobody did. They all wanted just a few extra days. I thought back to my Grandpa, when he, too, fought for just a few extra days.
When I was ten, my dad and I visited Grandpa in his Chicago nursing home every Sunday. Every visit seemed to make my dad sad, yet angry. He tried to tell something to Grandpa and, when he couldn’t hear it, my dad had to raise his voice to near shouting level. He became very frustrated at that. His anger dissipated into depression as his father, too, fell into such a feeble state. Every visit my dad wore a smile on his face, but had a tear in his eye.
One Sunday, we came to the nursing home my Grandpa was in. Grandpa was sitting in the lobby, watching TV. We said our casual hellos, how-are-yous, and nice-to-see-yous. It was near lunchtime, and Grandpa had his lunch on the tray in front of him. Dad saw that Grandpa couldn’t reach to eat it, didn’t have the strength to pick up a piece of jello, so Dad reluctantly picked up a spoon and fed his father, bite by bite.
Grandpa was always a fighter. He was an army man and learned to do everything on his own, by his own. His pride and determination was endless. So when Dad began spoon-feeding him, he tried to fight. He had no power to move his arms, so he fought with his eyes and his mouth. He refused to open his mouth. Dad’s spoon met closed lips dozens of times, until finally, Dad had to open Grandpa’s mouth and force his father to eat food. I saw all dignity leave Grandpa’s eyes. Dad could too. In its place was the sense of defeat, of the realization of how dependent Grandpa has become on everyone, and how hopeless he was without them. Dad, Grandpa, and I all knew this, and Grandpa became ashamed.
Grandpa finished his meal, Dad spoon-feeding him bite by agonizing bite. Dad reached for the milk for Grandpa to drink, but Grandpa motioned that he would do it himself. He moved his arm toward the cup, violently shaking the whole time, and lifted it toward his mouth. At this time he was shaking so much, some milk began to spill out. But Grandpa didn’t want anyone to intervene. When Grandpa brought the cup to his mouth, he finally broke. He dropped the cup, and the milk got over his clothes. Dad and all the nurses reached for napkins and towels to clean the mess, while I just watched the whole scene in wondrous confusion. I looked at Grandpa. His eyes showed a soul destroyed, annihilated, and decimated, beaten down in his recent attempt to eat his lunch on his own. I couldn’t imagine the fall from a proud, renowned military soldier into a weak old man incapable of lifting up a five-ounce cup.
Dad and I only stayed for a few extra minutes. He tried to put aside that embarrassing event and handed Grandpa a newspaper. He continued to hang around Grandpa, trying to coax a conversation out of him and trying to use his energetic charm, but Grandpa just looked out the window with a distant, regretful stare. His pride and dignity was so depleted, he couldn’t look Dad in the eyes. Dad eventually stood up, said his goodbyes, his see-you-next-weeks, his have-a-nice-days, and walked to the elevator. I followed closely behind him.
My dad pushed the elevator button, looking down at the floor the whole time. I looked up at him with my childish wonder. The elevator doors opened, and we walked in. A deafening silence filled the room. In a spur of naivety that I regret today, I asked my dad a question.
“What’s wrong with Grandpa?”
He looked down at me with a knowing look, smiling slightly at how young I still was. He let out a long sigh and looked back straight ahead.
“Lucas. Can you promise me something?”
I joyously looked at my dad with eagerness, always hoping to please. “Sure, Dad! Whatever you want I promise I’ll do it!”
He sadly smiled at me. “Promise me that, if I ever get to be like your grandpa, promise me that you’ll shoot me. That you’ll kill me. That you’ll never let me become like him.”
I stood open-mouthed at him. Unsure of what to say and not wanting to disappoint, I followed through with my promise. “O-Okay Dad. I-I-I promise.”
He nodded and looked back at the elevator doors with a deep stare. He patted me on the head. “Thank you, son.”
I nodded a “your welcome” and replicated the same deep stare of my dad into the elevator doors. Dad? Dying? No . . . He can’t die. I thought he was joking at first, but he had an utmost serious expression on his face. Why would he say this? Why would you want to die? What is this that I feel? I became very confused at my first taste of how gray life really is.
The elevator doors opened, and Dad put his arms around me as we walked to the car.
I felt a nudge at my shoulder, jolting me from my memory. I looked dreamily at my dad.
“Hey, Lucas. We are here. Would you like to get off?”
I look out the window, quickly wiping off my tears to avoid him noticing, and look up at my version of paradise. I see the kids playing in the children’s area, the librarians filling up my favorite coffee, and people from my school studying for finals after break. I open the car door.
“Thanks, Dad. Call me when you get here.”
“Yeah, sure thing. Would you like me to pick pizza up for you?”
“No, it’s fine. By the way, Dad, I love you.”
He looked at me with a strange look, but then showed a smile I haven’t seen in a long time. “I love you, too.”
I walked into the library and did the usual—checking in with the librarians for any holds, inserting quarters into the coffee machine, and paying my late fees.
I needed to escape from my life for a little bit, so I decided to go see how the kids were holding up in Perdido Beach.
I was rereading the book Plague, my favorite book in the Gone series. I came to a scene where a young boy by the name of Hunter was being eaten alive from the inside out by insects.
When I read, I tend to completely absorb the identity of the book and treat the scenes as my own, which is one of the reasons I love to read. Through reading of his screams of pain, a question rang through my mind: Is it better to live longer filled with excruciating pain and suffering or to die with some shrivel of dignity?
The scene struck a chord with me, a chord that left me vexed. While I don’t (nor, I hope, will ever) know a person who has suffered the same fate as Hunter, I pondered on the thought of mercy killing. The same question Sam, Hunter’s friend, asked himself rang through my head once more. Is it better to live unhappy or die with pride? I quickly flashed back to the pain and emptiness in my grandma’s eyes and the promise I made to my dad. “Promise me you’ll kill me.”
I jumped a little bit at the vibration of my phone in my pocket. It was from my sister. I felt all life drain out of me when I read the life-changing text.
7:34 pm: “Grandma is dead.”
I stood outside, waiting for my dad. I was distantly staring at the school near the library when I heard the group of teens next to me talking about their plans for the rest of break. I heard a deep voice speaking his mind on how stressful school was. ACTs, school, and girls were total crap. Another voice chimed in that he shouldn’t forget that research paper for Mr. Whoever due after break. I heard him cuss at the teacher and complain about how tough he had it. I smiled at this glimpse of the outside world. He was incredibly lucky. I was envious. I wished I were in his place, stressing about my pre-Calc homework, about the year Napoleon was defeated, about the girl in English who glances over and blushes occasionally, instead of how expensive a coffin would be. I wish I could just ignore Grandma and pretend she didn’t exist. Truth be told, I half wish she didn’t. I wouldn’t have to deal with my pain, my fury, and those broken bonds. I would be at home, concocting an excuse on why I didn’t do my Chemistry project. But she did exist. I’m happy she did. I smiled in remembrance of my memories, and then felt a tear fall at the fact that the source of those memories is gone. Now I’d have to deal with the products of death. I wish I could put it off, but that’s not how life works. I’d learned from Grandma that the more you wait, the worse it gets. I’d learned from her that facing your problems is what makes a man.
Dad pulled up to the curb with a face of utmost seriousness. There’s no escape. I’d have to face my fear today. Now, not later, is the time to grieve. A time to face my pain, my fury, my devastation. A time to face broken bonds. A time to face the cold reality of death. I opened the car door and stepped into what would be my first rollercoaster of life.
Dad drove us to the hospital as fast as he could. I saw a crazed look in his eyes that I haven’t seen since Grandpa’s death. He was just as scared as I was. We both thought that this must be a joke, that she must certainly be alive, that this stoplight is taking too long. We both felt an air of silence flow through the car. We both believed this all to be pure fantasy.
When we got to the hospital, we ran to the information desk, desperately interrogating the front desk woman where the Heart section was. I have never seen such alarm in Dad’s eyes, even when Grandpa died.
We entered Grandma’s room, Mom covering her eyes with a napkin, a priest looking down in prayer, and Sister doing the same. Both of us must have looked outlandish. A dad with ragged hair and eyes wide, trying to take in the scene in front of him; a teenage son beside him, trying his best to maintain his cool, but ultimately failing upon seeing the cold lips of the woman in the hospital bed. His eyes, too, were wide and staring at the bed. His shoulders were shaking from shock, and sobs were rippling through him, yet he did not cry. He stood there, body racking in obvious grief, eyes shifting in an attempt to absorb the scene, but did not cry. He held himself in faulty dignity.
It was an imperfect moment in time. The world seemed to hold its breath. Yet clocks still ticked, phones still rang, and the TV nearby had the audacity to play a laugh track. The world exhaled, and the room turned to look at Dad and me, with the exception of one.
“Hello. And you must be . . . ,” the priest said, doing her best to maintain face.
My dad cleared his throat of his lump. “W-We are relatives of . . . of . . . ”
She gave the fakest face of compassion I have ever seen. “Mhmm I see. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
I already detested this woman. She wasn’t sorry. She didn’t understand who the woman on the bed was. She was only saying sorry because there was no other choice. She couldn’t say, “I’m happy she’s dead” or “Well, crap happens,” so the default option is “I’m sorry.” She tried to give comfort and understanding as any human being does, but she didn’t know the pain of knowing the woman on the bed and then experiencing the sting of that broken bond. She didn’t know us until the hospital called her just thirty minutes earlier. She was sorry, but could never truly be.
We all took up the same positions we had three hours earlier. The family was surrounding the bed, and I resorted to staring at the darkness out the window. The only difference in the room was the flat line of the EKG and closed eyes of the bed-ridden woman.
I wondered if this was reality or not. It certainly feels like it isn’t. Three years ago, when my grandpa died, I hadn’t felt like this. This was certainly much, much worse than I thought it would be at the library. Now, I was intensely jealous of the conversation I overheard at the library. Saying it would be painful was an understatement. I was dying. My throat was hurting, my head was pounding, and my body was struggling to keep itself up. Saying I would be angry was also an understatement. I was ready to explode at the slightest tick. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins as I fantasized burning the entire building down for not saving my grandma. My body was too paralyzed to do so however.
Saying it would be scary was the grossest understatement of all. It was bloodcurdling. The fear jumped out from the dark and stared me in the face. I wanted to jump out of the three-story building and just run. Maybe I would break my legs, but I didn’t care. I wanted to run away from my problems, run to God knows where. I’ve been scared before—I’ve had to bulldoze a linebacker twice my weight to no avail—but this was definite fear. I was lost. I had nowhere to go. I was afraid that if I took one step I would fall, fall to . . . to nowhere.
I stood at the window, away from the bed. I was hurting, angry, and scared.
“Lucas,” a sad voice called out to me.
I had to restrain myself from whirling and punching the voice. So I slowly turned my head toward him to see my calm dad. I knew better than to disobey that voice, and I saw in his eyes that he wanted me to come to the circle, as a family.
I walked over and looked down. I saw the face from my childhood. The face that has fed me so many times. The face that always smiled. The face that was always there. Now it was gone. I couldn’t believe it. This has to be a dream. I was praying that I would wake up and just laugh it off. But this was no dream. This was a nightmare.
I finally broke. I looked down at those eyes, and realized that they would never be open again. My fear, anger, and pain overwhelmed me. My feebleness and shaking overcame me. I collapsed on the couch. I cried for my anger. I cried for my loss. I cried for Grandma.
All great things must come to an end, but so do all terrible ones. Grandma taught me that. We began to walk out of the room, and I was the last to leave, Dad watching me the entire time. I stood up, aware of a new lightening on my body as I regained control of my arms, legs, and mind. I looked down at my watch. 9:30 pm. Ninety minutes since we arrived at the hospital. Ninety minutes of pain, anger, and fear. Ninety minutes of tears. And it was worth it.
I walked out of the room, saying my final goodbyes to Grandma. I would be seeing her again next week of course. I let out all my emotions, and it had certainly been a weight lifted off my chest. I was content, feeling a sense of closure. I had accepted Grandma was gone, and knew that she would still live on inside my memories.
As we walked out of the room, I heard the nurses whispering in the silent afterglow.
“Cause of death?”
“What? How? We had an oxygen mask on her and everything.”
“She took it off herself. God knows what kind of pain she had . . . ”
I stopped in my tracks, but quickly resumed walking to avoid suspicion. I caught up with my dad at the elevator, also still wiping his tears, and began to process what the nurses had said. Were the words true? Or was my grief-riddled mind playing tricks on me. I tried to push the fact that my grandmother killed herself, but the conversation the nurses had just kept staring me in the face like a massive problem. I couldn’t deal with it, not now. I was too conflicted. But Grandma always said to face your problems.
I began to process what I’d heard and faced the facts. Grandma killed herself. I was furious at first. Why would she do this? Does she not know how much we would have to go through when we were gone? I asked all sorts of questions while I stood in silence, diverting my rage toward Grandma’s idiocy.
I tried to look for an answer. Then I remembered back to three hours ago, when her eyes told me what she had endured. I felt my stomach turn at how strong-willed Grandma was to go through the chemotherapy, the loss of strength, and the fading memories. The fleeting tear on her pillow as I closed the door made sense to me. She wanted her very last memory to be me.
Shivering from the cold air of the graveyard, I looked at the face that taught me so much once more. I remembered the promise I made my dad, the one about maintaining dignity, the one about mercy killing. I wondered if my dad thought about the same thing when we visited Grandma. Maybe he would never want to look like her, just like how he never wanted to look like Grandpa. He saw the cold eyes, the sad eyes, the eyes that were lost, the eyes that were exhausted of all spirit. He would never want to be the empty shell that Grandma had become: alive in all senses, biologically, but dead in all the rest.
Grandma must’ve thought the same. She hopelessly tried to stay in this world, but she was consumed by and living on cold science, devoid of human spirit. She woke up to take pills, instead of waking up to watch the birds. She woke up to bathe in chemicals, instead of waking up to smell the flowers. She woke up and watched me live my life, completely separate of hers. She woke up each and every day, dreading life, and seeing the one bird she cared for and nurtured for fifteen years fly away and turn from her. She saw her pride and joy live an entirely alien life that she used to be part of. It was a horrible feeling, to want to do so many things but unable to do so, and teeming with regret. She decided to end the misery, to end her suffering, to end her pain, and to make her little bird—me—the very last memory she had. She left the world on her own accord, in her control, of her own command. She decided her own fate. She popped her own bubble, and did so happily. Because it’s good to pop the bubble. I taught Grandma that.
I call them Aunt and Auntie although they’re the same. I’m all the same too, in a different way, and they call me Dollars. I live with them but we’re not related. We don’t look alike, anyways. I’m brown and little, and they’re pale and tall tall tall.
We have a garden here, plus groves and a pond and a pine forest with animals in it. Over the ridge and down the road we have a wall of real red bricks with broken glass set in the top. We have real glass windows, too. We are in a place where it’s warm all the time.
Aunt and Auntie wear black coats, boots, gloves, and glasses. They wear all this even though it’s warm all the time. When I come in for breakfast Aunt and Auntie are already in place and my food is laid out on the table. I have thick dark bread and water and bird eggs. Aunt and Auntie don’t eat when I do.
“What are you going to do today?” says Aunt.
“I might go to the grove. I want to see the oranges when they’re still little.”
“It will be a nice day,” says Auntie.
“Good! Later I’ll read. Soon I’ll have read five hundred.”
The book I’m reading has kids in it who are a family and go on adventures. There’s an oldest sister and her younger sister and another kid who’s related to them by being their cousin, and the oldest girl looks after the other two when they go out to have fun and learn things. I wish I had a sister, but I’m happy with just Aunt and Auntie.
“When you’ve read five hundred books we will celebrate,” says Auntie.
When I leave I kiss Aunt and Auntie each on their gloved hands. They wear all that so they don’t expose their skin, which they say is very sensitive. I’ve got a different idea, though, even though I don’t really like to talk about it. That’s because I’ve seen what their skin looks like, their real skin. Under their coats and gloves and things, Aunt and Auntie’s skin doesn’t look much like skin at all.
I don’t like to talk about this much either, but I have bad dreams a lot of the time. I dream that this girl is screaming my name, like “Dollars! Dollars!” But the word is wrong. It isn’t my name after all. Sometimes I dream that the man who gave me birth is chasing me, the man Aunt and Auntie took me away from when he treated me so bad. He yells my name all wrong too and he says this:
I’m coming for you, Dollars! I’ll twist your neck!
Then I wake up and I see the outlines of Aunt and Auntie in the dark.
“Just a dream,” says Auntie. “We took him.”
“But he’ll get me. He’s going to get me as a spirit.”
“Hold the teeth,” says Auntie.
I nod. My throat feels dry, like I’m sick. Aunt and Auntie pull out their necklaces. I can see them in my mind when I’m talking about them, exactly how they are in real life. I’ve held those teeth so many times. Aunt and Auntie count to the right place and hold the necklaces out to me. The bad man who gave me birth, they keep his molars sixteenth from the knot. They’re the color of dirty foam on the pond after a storm. As long as they have his teeth, they hold his spirit and he will never touch me again. When Aunt and Auntie kiss me goodnight, their breath smells like meat and sweet rose paste and dust.
I finish my five hundredth book and Aunt and Auntie throw me a small party. I ask them to make it just us. When I turned seven, Aunt and Auntie brought in some other kids my age for my party. I’d almost never seen kids my age, but I read about friends so I knew how to behave. I was proud of our house because some of these kids had never even seen things like real glass before. I was proud of Aunt and Auntie too. Everybody is scared of them and these kids were really impressed with seeing them up close. When they left I promised to write them, but I wrote and wrote and never got any responses. After a month I asked Aunt and Auntie and they told me that they had not let those kids go again. I locked myself in my room and cried and cried for days. Aunt and Auntie were so worried and upset that afterward they promised they would never take anyone when I told them not to.
For my five hundredth book party Aunt and Auntie bake a cake with powder blue frosting and candied violets on it. Then they bring down the little black cassette player and they play me my favorite cassettes. I dance around the dinner table and sing at the top of my voice and laugh and laugh. Aunt and Auntie aren’t in a laughing mood. I can’t tell why, but sometimes they are like that.
I’m excited for another reason, too, one that I keep secret: I hope that once I read six hundred books, they might give me teeth of my own.
I read in my 501st book that pinecones can predict the weather (the way Aunt and Auntie can). I would like to be able to predict the weather too, so I go out to find a cone in the pine forest. You won’t believe how big it is here. It is really really big. The house is on sort of hill in the middle of everything, and at the bottom of the hill are the groves and gardens and the pond, and around everything is the forest, like a nice safe wall.
When I find the perfect cone I bring it back to the main road that leads up to the front of the house. The road is made of white quartz gravel that sparkles in the sun. I sit down in the rocks and make a small glittery pile. The heat makes me sleepy, and in the grass down the road the dry bugs are snoring. I set my pinecone on top of the pile and speak for him.
“I’m going to see my sister. She lives just over here,” says the pinecone.
Then I hear something from down the hill. It’s a big, horrible shriek, and it goes on and on shrieking all old and rusty. It’s the sound of the gate, the gate we never, ever open. It seems like it lasts much longer than it should, and even the bugs shut up like they’re scared.
“Dollars, come on the porch,” says Auntie.
I look around. Aunt and Auntie are already behind me with their necklaces out.
“Get here, now.”
I feel someone coming. It’s like when the shadow of a cloud passes over, and you notice it’s suddenly colder and suddenly darker. I look back at the road, but the forest hides the place where it meets the gate.
“Get on the porch now!”
They yell so loud and at the same time that it makes my ears hurt, and before I know what I’m doing I run to the porch and before I know it I’m crying. I hate it when they speak at once. It’s too much. My head rings and my eyes are hot and blurry. The bugs start to whine in the grass again, louder than before.
“Stay on the porch,” says Auntie. She’s quieter now because she knows they’ve scared me and she’s sorry. But I can’t stop crying.
For a long long time there is nothing but the sound of the bugs whining and me sniffling. It’s a long walk from the gate to the house, but someone is coming. Slowly I catch my breath and my tears dry up, but my shoulders keep on shaking.
We all see her at once, at the bottom of the hill coming up the white quartz road. She’s straight as a piece of grass, and she looks dirty and beaten up. When she’s closer and I can see that her skin is dark and shiny like leather and her clothes are torn up. Her lips are sucked in and her face is blank and tight and speckly. Her eyes jump around like grasshoppers, first at Aunties and then at me. But I can feel her eyes get sticky on me, like I’m the important person here and Aunties are just in the way and not the other way around. She stops almost right at the bottom of the steps and just stands there with her arms hanging and her eyes jumping around.
“You’re Do-lo-res?” she says. She says my name, only wrong. I bolt up straight and look at her. She knows me from somewhere, and suddenly I know I’m supposed to know her. A rumble rises up like the sound of the bugs. It feels like it’s coming from all over, but I realize then that it’s coming from Aunt and Auntie. They’re growling. All at once I know what they’re about to do.
“Don’t take her,” I say. I grab onto Auntie’s coat and she pulls it out of my fingers.
“Don’t say that.”
“You have to promise.”
“Don’t you want your first teeth?”
Suddenly all the blood rushes up to my face and I feel like I might throw up. The woman stands, just too far to hear what we’re saying and she looks angry that we haven’t spoken to her yet. I don’t know who she is but she looks tired and poor and we should take care of her, like in a book where a poor stranger shows up and you have to feed them and give them clothes, and then in the end they’re important somehow, like they save you from drowning or it turns out they have a secret fortune. But if I let Aunt and Auntie go they will take her just like that.
“You have to promise not to hurt her. I don’t want her teeth. Promise not to take her. Promise to me!”
“Be quiet,” they say together, and my ears start ringing again.
“Promise to me! Promise!”
The sound of the blood fills my ears and the dark stranger woman goes blurry like a heat mirage. I know they do not have to promise; as long as I tell them not to, they will not touch her.
The woman clears her throat.
“I’m here for Do-lo-res.” She says my name that funny way again, like she’s got a rock in her mouth.
“Who is she?” I ask Aunties.
“We do not know, Dollars.”
That’s a lie. Aunt and Auntie know everything. The stranger woman smiles between Aunties and me, but a bunch of her teeth are missing, and the ones still there are brown. Her eyes are yellowy and roughed-up looking.
“I just want to see my little girl,” she says.
“You have seen her,” says Auntie.
“I need to talk to her.”
“Why are you here?”
“I told you. I want her back.”
“I have more right to her as you do. I’m her Mama and she’s mine!”
That’s when it falls into my head that this stranger is the woman who gave me birth. I tug Aunt’s coat and say, “Aunties, can I talk to her?”
Aunties look at me like they swallowed something awful tasting. Then Aunt lifts me up effortlessly. Her face up close is very pale and her coat smells warm and dusty. She carries me through the big doors and into the house, but Auntie stays on the porch. I twist over Aunt’s shoulder and see her there for just a second, standing on the steps with her necklace raised over the woman’s head. Then Aunt closes the big door. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen them apart. I feel a little sick again. As we walk down the hall, Aunt begins to speak.
“The people who gave you birth were intolerable. When we came across you, you were starving, frostbitten, beaten, and violated. We took the man who gave you birth, strung his teeth, and captured his spirit. Then we stole you away with us.
“Why did we steal you away with us? Every child up north is sick and starving. We have taken children like you and strung their teeth, but instead we stole you. We could have abandoned you by the side of the road or on the doorstep of a house where they would have taken care of you, but instead we nurtured you. We stopped asking ourselves why. Now the woman who gave you birth has come to find you, but we need you to remember who raised you. That woman may call herself your Mama, but you belong to us.”
The lady called Mama won’t leave us, and Aunt and Auntie won’t send her away. They say she can stay only because she shares my blood but that she isn’t allowed into the house. Mama doesn’t mind; she sleeps on the porch. After I read, Aunt and Auntie tell me to walk with Mama around the grounds. In the morning and at night I take food to her. She’s like a pet dog, but the dirty kind that you don’t really want for a pet. She showed up one day, and as long as she’s here we have to take care of her.
I can’t walk around by myself anymore. When I try to slip out of the house, Mama shows up.
“What are you up to, Dolores?” she says. “Why don’t you let Mama along?”
Soon I learn to sneak out the back door. But if at sunset Mama sees me coming in again, she narrows her eyes and speaks from the shadows in her corner of the porch.
“Oh Do-lo-res,” she says. “Are you keeping secrets from me?”
“Unh-unh. I’m just coming in.”
At dinnertime I have to feed her again. She sits on the porch steps in the dark, watching fireflies. The slice of light that spills from the door makes her sweaty skin and yellow eyes all shiny. The crickets and cicadas roar away in the grass. The white quartz road glows blue in the moonlight.
“Sit with me, Dolores. What do we have to eat?”
I sit and put the plate into her hands. Aunt and Auntie never send silverware with Mama’s meals, but Mama seems not to notice. She picks up the rabbit right in her dirty hands. I don’t look at her. Instead I watch the spots of green light winking in the grass.
“Isn’t it pretty?” she asks between bites.
“Just like you. Such a pretty little girl. If you ever went out in the real world you could find some sweet pretty little boy.” She elbows me in the side. “I met your Papa when I was only a little older than you. You could meet all sorts of kids your age, make a few friends.”
I scratch a bug bite. Mama elbows me again.
“Do you remember when you lived with me and your Papa?”
“You were pretty young. Things weren’t as fancy as they are here, huh! No big fancy house, no glass. We keep it simple. We work for our food. You must go crazy, sitting around here doing nothing every day. You’re locked up here all by yourself, nobody to play with, none of your friends, none of your little brothers and sisters.”
That gets my attention.
“I have a sister?”
Mama falls silent. She’s all frozen up staring out at the fireflies, like she’s seen somebody waving at her from the dark. I look out into the road but there’s nothing out there, so I ask her again.
“Do I have a sister? A real one?”
“Quit bothering me. I’m just trying to eat my dinner. Didn’t anybody ever teach you how to be polite to somebody? Those old hags don’t know how to raise a kid to be polite. Why don’t you crawl off and sneak around in the woods for a while?”
“I wasn’t sneaking!”
“Has anybody seen Dolores? Has anybody seen her sneaking around in the woods? I think she’s up to something, and what’s worst, she comes around and lies like a little liar. Who, me? Not me! I’m just a little liar.”
I can’t move. I want to get away from her but there’s nowhere to go. My face is so hot that it feels like the whole muggy night just rolled over onto it and now I’m stuck and I can’t breathe. Big hot tears squeeze out of my eyes.
“I’m going to be watching you. From now on you’re going to spend time with your Mama, like you should, instead of sneaking around and causing trouble. Don’t even think about trying to slip away from me, because I know your tricks and I’ll be there first. If you’ve never learned in your life how to respect somebody then I guess I’ll have to teach you the hard way.”
I get up and go inside and she doesn’t say anything or follow me. I bolt the big door but I can’t get far enough away from her. I hope I don’t run into Aunt and Auntie while I’m crying, but they probably know anyways.
I get ready for bed but I can’t sleep. Underneath this awful guilty feeling there’s something else that’s keeping me up. I can’t forget what Mama let slip before she got angry. She said I have a sister.
Mama usually gets mad at night, but by the next morning she’s always extra nice to me. This morning her hands are behind her back and she says that she has a present for me and I have to close my eyes. I do, and when she tells me to open them I see she’s made me a little toy out of pine needles bound together.
“It’s a person!” I say. I didn’t even know Mama could make something like this, and I turn it over and over. It’s really cool, even if I’m too old for toys like this. “How did you do it?”
“I’ve had a lot of practice.” She smiles and I still can’t help but look at all the gaps in her teeth. “I can teach you if you like.”
On mornings when she’s nice like this, I can usually ask a bit about my sister without her getting all upset. As we walk to the pine forest together to gather needles I ask her, “How old is my sister?”
“Oh, younger than you.”
“What’s she like?”
“Littler than you. She’s got straight hair, too, and she takes good care of it so it’s soft and shiny. She doesn’t let it get so frizzy as yours. She’s quiet and respectful and she likes to help people.”
I can picture her in my head. I have a little sister! I’ll be able to read out loud to her and brush her hair and give her piggyback rides. I can’t wait to meet her.
“What’s she doing now?”
“Don’t ask so many questions. Let me talk, and you just listen.”
I’m quiet, but she doesn’t say anything. We reach the forest and sit down on a bed of baked brown needles. It smells warm and piney here, which I like.
“I had three kids,” Mama sighs. She’s starting to gather up needles. “I almost had twice that, but they didn’t make it. I can’t have that many kids anyways, I’ve got other things I need to do. I had you and two littler girls with other Papas. That’s how it goes. Your Papa took you to live with him for a while when he found out about those others, but then he was killed and you got stolen away. While I was working my older girl was supposed to watch the baby, but the baby caught sick. I did all I could but nobody would take care of her without money. People owed me up and down, but when I went to get my money nobody paid up, and so my baby died too. So I only had you and your little sister.”
I listen to Mama like I want to write down every word. I don’t just have a little sister; I had two sisters. Somehow the other one being dead makes her feel even closer to me. Nobody took her teeth so her spirit probably wiggled loose and got free. She might be near me right now.
“What were their names?”
“Mm. We named you after me; my name is Dolores, too. The baby girl who died was Valentina. I named her for a friend of mine, after your Papa was killed. And your sister is Jennifer.”
“Jennifer,” I say. It’s exactly the sort of name I would have picked if someone asked me to choose a name for a sister. “Who is Jennifer named after?”
“Nobody,” says Mama. “I liked the sound of it. Now be quiet so I can show you how to make the doll.”
When we get back to the house I tell the big news to Aunt and Auntie, but they don’t seem excited. I tell them the names of my sisters exactly the way Mama told them to me, Valetina, Jennifer, and me, Dolores. I tell them about the accident that killed Valentina. When I’m done, Auntie speaks up.
“Where’s Jennifer now?”
“I don’t know, she didn’t say it. But probably still up north, just waiting around while Mama is down here.”
The only thing Aunt says is, “Jennifer must be lonely.”
Mama and I are figuring out how to read the weather with my pinecone. We sit on the porch to escape the white noon sun, but it’s still hot hot hot, so hot that the oranges are done being ripe and we have to wait until it gets cooler to pick more. I read out loud for Mama from my book about pinecones, and when I can keep her attention she seems interested. Mostly, though, she just wants to talk about her own things.
“Aunt and Auntie can tell the weather, too,” I tell her.
“It doesn’t take much smarts to know when it’s going to rain,” said Mama.
“They really can, though. They can tell the future and everything.”
“Did they tell you that?”
“No, but I’ve seen them do it. I know they can.”
“They aren’t. They’ve never lied to me in my whole life.”
“Who’d tell you otherwise?”
I want to talk about something else now. “What’s the weather like in the north?”
“Not so damn hot. In the winters it snows; I bet you don’t remember snow.”
“No, but I’ve read about it.”
“Ha! That’s no experience. You can’t learn about anything when you’re shut up in a little room. Don’t go thinking you’re smarter than anybody else just because you’ve read a lot, because maybe you know about pinecones or weather, but if you tell that to anybody at all they’ll come right back at you with something much smarter and much more practical. I know how to take care of babies and work and find food, which you know nothing about.”
“I know a lot of things, though.” Now that I’m more used to Mama I can sometimes stick up for myself with her, or at least not cry. But it’s true that I don’t know how to take care of babies or find food.
“What’s the point in knowing something if you can’t use it? Once you’re out in the real world you’re going to learn real smarts. Your sister might not know how to read, but she’s better than you at trapping an animal or fighting off a mean boy, so don’t go acting like you’re above her. You could learn a thing or two from her.”
“But when am I going to see her?”
“You ought to come back with me when I go up north.”
“I don’t think I could leave. I need to stay here.” I’ve thought sometimes about going north with Mama, learning the “real smarts” she talks about, the adventures I could have with my sister. But until Aunt and Auntie give me teeth of my own, I wouldn’t feel ready.
“Just a visit. We have to leave soon if we’re going, so we get a good start on the traveling before winter sets in. If you can’t come for a visit, I’ve got to leave by myself soon anyways.”
“I thought you would stay the winter!”
“I can’t waste my time down here all winter long. You’ve got to come with me. We’ll stay the winter, you, me, and Jenni all together, and then come right back. It’ll be fast now that I know where I’m going.”
“Aunt and Auntie wouldn’t want me to leave.”
Mama only shrugs. I guess she doesn’t care.
When Aunt and Auntie and I sit down for dinner that evening, I’m too nervous to ask. Almost a week goes by, and Mama pesters me for my answer more and more every day. She’s getting angry. One day the pinecone balls into a fist like it’s going to rain, and it’s that day that Mama blows up.
“You want me to die, is that it? You’ll keep me here until it’s too late to travel and then shove me out alone to freeze to death on the road.”
I know that’s not what I want, but I can’t help it and I still feel sick with guilt. That night it rains, hard rain without lightning or thunder. At dinner Auntie asks, “How many books have you read, Dollars?”
“Um, 512,” I tell her.
“You have been neglecting your reading.”
“Mama wants me to spend more time with her.”
“So we notice.”
I put down my fork. “She asked me to go north with her.”
Aunt and Auntie stare into their laps. Their faces hold no expression. I get goose bumps looking at them.
“She said I could meet my sister, Jennifer, and that it’s only for a visit. We’ll come back here by next year.”
“It is too dangerous,” says Aunt.
“Mama says she knows how to handle the traveling. And she got all the way here, so that has to be good for something.”
“We cannot trust her to take care of you. Something could happen to you. If you want to see the north, we will take you next year.”
“But she’s leaving soon. What if something happened to her? And how would we find my sister?”
“Where is your sister?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who is taking care of your sister?”
“I don’t know. She’s really smart, so she can probably take care of herself.”
“If Mama left a girl younger than you to take care of herself, then she cannot be trusted to take care of you.”
“Nothing is going to happen to me! I can take care of myself. Mama will teach me to take care of myself. I’m not a baby anymore. This could be my only chance, that’s all, so I don’t want to miss it and then look back and wish I’d gone with.”
“Why did she come to find you now? You have lived with us nine years.”
They know something but they aren’t saying it.
“What do you mean?”
“Why did she come now, if she already has a child in the north?”
“What do you mean? Stop going around it, I’m done with all this going around and around. If you want to say something then say it.”
“Dollars, we do not think your sister is alive.”
Everything goes real quiet. I feel like I’ve tipped over backward in my chair and I’m still falling, waiting to hit the floor. Aunt and Auntie have never lied to me. They can tell the future, and they know everything.
“We do not mean to upset you, but we cannot let you trust this woman.” They speak at the same time, but they are whispering. The sound sends prickles up and down my back. “Why would she come for you unless she had nothing left?”
But that’s all I hear because I finally find my legs.
Through blocked ears I hear my bare feet slapping down the hall, slapping down the stairs. I tear around the corner and I’m at the bolted door and then I’m outside.
She’s sitting on the steps, just out of the rain. Her eyes glow yellow and her mouth full is of holes. I slam the door behind me. My whole body shakes and my teeth are clamped tight shut.
“Ready to go?” she says.
I can’t answer through my teeth. I only stand there trembling.
Mama rises from the steps. She looks like something that was buried and clawed its way out of the ground. She takes a step toward me.
Mama stops. She tilts her head. The rain hisses into the grass.
“We’re going to see her,” says Mama.
“Where is she now?”
She starts toward me again.
“In the north. We’re going to see her.”
“Aunt and Auntie say she’s dead.”
The first slap makes my head ring. Then all the wind goes out of my stomach and I’m almost off my feet. She screams but I can’t understand it and it all blurs together but I manage to haul the door open and together we stumble inside. She’s got her fingernails in my arm and I feel them tear the skin. Thunder starts to roar and she’s hitting me, hitting me, bashing again and again into the side of my head until I really do fall and crash into the ground, but that is the last blow. Suddenly she is wrenched up high above my head. I can see her up there by the ceiling, her sticky eyes wide, her mouth twisted open. Then Auntie cracks her in half.
Mama howls. Auntie hurls her down into the floor like she’s breaking a sack of ice. Mama breaks and breaks and breaks. Then Aunt grabs her by her neck and swings her against the wall, leaving a bright spray on the pale paint that grows bigger and bigger with each blow. She’s seems tiny in Aunt’s hands. The thump, thump, thump sound as she hits the wall is so loud I can feel it on my face.
Then Mama drops to the floor next to me. She’s been mashed up bad. Her mouth and nose are all one red mess and her eyes are half closed. There is blood in her hair at the corner of her forehead and her arms and legs are folded up at angles that arms and legs shouldn’t fold at. My throat starts to squeeze again and again and I throw up my dinner and everything before it until I’m throwing up thin soup that burns my mouth. I realize my lip is split open when the acid stings it. When there’s nothing in my stomach left for my body to squeeze out, the tears come.
I can’t answer, can’t stop crying. I try to speak, try to say, “You promised.” But when I open my mouth one big long wail comes out from the bottom of my lungs. My mouth tastes so bad my throat starts to squeeze again.
Auntie hauls me up. I can’t move. My whole body aches and feels like nothing at the same time. While she holds me, Aunt starts to clean me with the hem of her black coat. She wipes the blood and soupy puke from my face and starts to check me over for other wounds. Mama is on the ground not moving.
“Dollars,” says Auntie. “You’ll take out her teeth, your powers will rise up, and her spirit will always be with you. Then Aunt and I will bury her tonight.”
I nod again. Auntie lets go of my shoulders and Aunt reaches into her coat. She pulls out a loop of empty cord, waiting just out of sight all this time. She puts it in my hand but I just sit there. Aunt and Auntie straighten out Mama’s body and fold her hands on her chest. They smooth back her bloody hair and close her eyelids. But still Mama doesn’t look nearly peaceful or sleeping or anything. Blood is spreading around her head.
“Her teeth are already loose,” says Aunt, like this is a good thing. “Come forward.”
But I can’t, so Aunt lifts me into her lap and holds me by the body’s side. I can smell my own vomit on Aunt’s coat. Aunt and Auntie remove their strands of teeth from the insides of their coats and tell me to repeat what they say. I do.
“I receive you and bind you to the matter of your body. By taking this token, I lead your spirit and you will follow.”
I feel in the red wound on her face but it takes me a while to find the place where her teeth are supposed to be. I’m so dizzy that I can’t even see. When I yank hard one of her rotten teeth slips right out. It has two points and it’s red with blood. Auntie shows me how to tie it on the cord, which takes a long time since my fingers are trembling and numb. There is only one more thing to be said.
“I hold you and guide you. I will never permit you to be separated from me.”
Auntie places the cord over my head. It catches on my ear and I unhook it so it falls around my neck. I wait, trembling in Aunt’s arms.
“You feel the power. You control the spirit,” says Auntie.
But I don’t feel anything. The necklace is so light I can’t even feel that.
“Talk to your spirit. Guide it where you will,” says Aunt. But there’s nothing there. Mama is laid out on the ground, her face mashed up and her body broken, and there is no spirit.
I slip out of Aunt’s lap. It takes a huge effort just to stand.
“Dollars,” says Auntie. I look at the strands and strands of teeth around her neck, and the strands and strands around Aunt’s. I shake my head.
“There’s nothing,” I say.
I take off the necklace and let it fall on the floor with a click.
Auntie reaches out to stop me, but Aunt catches her. Auntie tries to push her off.
Auntie shoves at Aunt but Aunt holds on. As I watch they struggle with each other, one trying to pin the other, one reaching for me. Both of them begin to cry. Now it’s Aunt reaching out and Auntie restraining, and they switch again, a tangle of sobbing black clothes and pale faces and huge bodies fighting with each other, fighting themselves. I can’t look anymore. I push open the heavy doors. The rain is light now, like mist. I run down the porch steps, down the white quartz road, through the dripping pine forest, running even though my body hurts. I have to pause to unlock the iron gate, but when I’m past I run again. The long grass sticks to my wet legs. The night sucks me in deeper and deeper. Then I am gone.
“Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. I’ve got a beautiful feeling everything’s going my way.”
I wake up late, again, because my alarm clock failed to alarm, again. My body, though, is smarter than the broken alarm. It wakes itself up. And I do something different: I turned on the TV. It’s turned on to the Retro channel, one of the five hundred channels that play movies 24/7 and “Oklahoma!” comes on a few minutes after the dark screen flickers to life. The opening song shoots out of the screen, a bit too loudly for 6:30 in the morning, but I can’t bring myself to turn it down, to turn it off. I sing along and think of my father.
Granny called, Auntie called. Granny calls again, and I’m awake to answer.
“Tell your mom she needs to come here,” her naturally high voice stated unnaturally deeply. I am slow to respond, but I do as I walk down the hall, down the stairs, and into my parents’ half-vacant room.
My mother lies there, sleeping, but never soundly. Always half awake, she is immediately aware of my presence within the room. I relay the message and she moves quickly into action, grabbing clothing, reaching for her cellphone. I listen to the speaker from my mother’s cellphone. “ . . . intubation . . . I.C.U . . . unstable . . . ” I don’t pick up much, but my mind puts the words together without permission from the cancer patient’s daughter.
“I’ve got a beautiful feeling . . .”
My mother leaves and the house is quiet. I walk to the bus that will take me to the train that will take me to the rest of my day. Music off, earphones out, shades away, cellphone in my bag, I just walk . . . and miss my bus.
A call from my Granny that I miss. I call back and miss a call from my mother, both saying the same thing. “Get here now. Move quickly.” But I stay. I stand slowly after too long and gradually wade back to the house on my slow street in that fleeting morning. It takes me twelve minutes to walk to my house from the bus stop five minutes away. I count the flecks of dust that ride along with me in the air. The landscape is abnormally vivid. The green of the thorns, the black of the potholes, the yellow of the bared canines of the canines. I notice the crickets, how they chirp at this hour and the pale moon, still slightly visible in the sky.
I move and think to myself, Could this be the day? The day that I lose my father? Both of my parents lost theirs prematurely. What if history repeats itself? I think of last words and last thoughts, of last breath and I cannot move faster.
“Oh what a beautiful morning . . . ”
I can see the thoughts that my father lost floating around the room, pushed out by the medication sliding into his body through a tube. I see the ignorance in my brothers’ eyes, hear the anger in my mother’s jaw, feel the apathy in my sister’s lips. Masks that cannot hide or shield, not even comfort, they are something to put forward other than sorrow. And I. I sit in the corner, no less of an imposter than the rest of my family. I sit with a joke readily on my tongue. Ignoring my sister, I smile confidently, encouraging the doctors that can’t help but discourage me. My brothers are bickering, my mother is consoling and my sister is silencing, but I.
I am only pretending. Hiding the fear that I know we all feel despite my sister’s words, her face, her actions. She tries to find sympathy when all she shows is apathy and I am unwilling to turn the other cheek.
“Everything’s going my way.”
“I hate it when people try to ask if I’m okay, to ask how I’m doing, like there’s something wrong—”
“Then show them there is something wrong, because there is.” I’m already angry. How dare she look to me for support when she can’t muster some for her own father?
“What do you want me to do, paint a scared look on my face?”
“Yes, Rachel! Can you afford to show some concern for the man who raised you? Who loves you? Whom you love to ignore?”
“No, I won’t do that.”
“That’s so disgusting,” I spit at her, the venom tangible on the silver walls of the elevator.
“You’re disgusting,” she responds, surprised at the energy with which I express my revulsion.
I am cursing my sister in my mind. She doesn’t deserve her family. How will she feel when she loses it?
The silence emanating from me pushes my sister’s van toward my goal: a release, a refuge. Just for a few hours, only as many as it will let me have. I know that it isn’t fair me to want to escape when my father doesn’t get to. He lies in his bed and I run. Yes, my mother pats me on the back, thanks me. The repugnance only grows in my stomach, the back of my head. I’m no white knight, no saint. A brave face, maybe, but behind it lays thoughts I wouldn’t even put onto this page. I am more lost than ever.
“Oh, what a beautiful day . . . ”
But I have a name.
And then, a prayer. Some whispered, some shouted, but all the same words. Sometimes lucid, often jaded. And questions, statements made without understanding. “When is it Zoe’s turn to wear the mask?” The mask of oxygen, he wants to know. And so do I. The cold floor where I sleep at the foot of his hospital bed twists my neck and forces the answer. When will the meaning of my name become apparent? When is it “divine life’s” turn to wear the mask?
“I’ve got a beautiful feeling . . . ”
And the doctor asks about the book. The book of faith, I tell her. Of testimonies like mine. I see the cynicism in her eyes, in her response:
Good intentions, but they mean nothing here, so I smile and ignore her. They speak and believe that what that what they think is absolute truth, that what they say is law. I am distracted by the weight of their conversation that I refuse to join. So much air, not air, though. Only oxygen that forces its way into unwilling lungs. And it’s time to escape again. I hold back the sigh of relief that my father cannot comfortably muster.
“Everything’s going my way.”
In front of a congregation. They’re weeping, bawling. Fight the urge to console, to say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Then remember the reason they cry. Step up to the stand because it’s time to speak, but don’t. Just sing. Isn’t that what he’d expect?
“All these people have come to see you. Time to perform.”
A song written for him, not realizing the irony, or the poetry, the revolting beauty of naming it “Air.” It’s his anthem now, immortal, the way he is. And in that moment, though hatred hasn’t been decided, it doesn’t matter. He’s mine.
Ignore the “Your family is in our thoughts,” and the “We’re praying for you,” and most importantly the “He’s in a better place, now.” Useless words that do more damage than the experience itself. Don’t cry, don’t reminisce.
Do they belong? Existence does, if only for the moment. Reject it.
And I’m back. School’s returned, though I haven’t completely and I’m thrown in with the rest of the class of 2015 for the sophomore slump that I didn’t believe existed until I experienced it. I’m assimilating poorly, but I can see more than I could see before.
I see scars.
There are scars on his arm and scars on her leg, scars on a wrist like the ones in my head. I wonder if they’re just as visible or if people know they’re just as painful as the physical. Instead of being wounded, I’m simply different. I’m still battling whether or not to care if they notice the change, although I wonder how they could ignore it, not a change so definitive. They don’t, aside from the few friends that cheat. But I suppose if it’s my right to keep it a secret, then it’s their right to uncover it. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that nothing belongs to me, that there’s no such thing as an inalienable right, not to the universe, not to fate or whatever else it is that we blame for our problems.
I’m back at school and not at church, but as much as my present self has transformed, my past self has not. I think of God and say: I don’t know you. I don’t know whether I should be angry with you because you didn’t fix him, didn’t save him, or if I should stop believing in you because you couldn’t. Or do I just let it go because you don’t exist.
That’s where I stop.
“ . . . know how dangerous that is?” The police officer looks at my face expectantly because the head of my accomplice is buried in her hands, her shoulders heaving. I stare back at him, my face expressionless. I do not answer.
“What do you think I should do now?” he asks rhetorically. How should I know? You’re the cop. Do your job and I’ll do mine, I think. He takes out a pad of lined paper and begins asking me questions: my name, my age, my address, what school I go to, then turns to my friend to do the same. I instinctually lie about my address, giving him my grandmother’s and my home phone number that isn’t even in service. It just rings—like his voice. He waits patiently as I call my mother’s cell phone. I ask her to come get me at the green line station and she agrees, but that isn’t enough for the officer. He tells me that he needs to speak with her.
I can’t hear him over the sound of the trains stampeding above us, but he says:
“My name is . . . ” Okay, it was dark, I know. “Your daughter and one of her girlfriends were . . . ” Dark, but I knew what the train schedules were. “There won’t be a ticket or an arrest, but . . . ” Oh, please, I know I can’t be arrested for not getting hit by a train. “They’re minors and policy is . . . ” The only time you wish you weren’t a minor talking to the police. It surprises me how bored I’ve become with the situation. It was just a train. My “girlfriend’s” father arrives and handles the situation coolly, without being emotional. He speaks to the officer after shaking his hand, and then sits down to wait for my mother to arrive.
“Why would you do this, Zoe?”
I wonder why adults ask questions that we don’t have the answers to. Why do we jaywalk? Why do we litter? Why do we speed? I didn’t think that it was a big deal. None of them are smart or legal, but humans are largely unintelligent and illegal by that token.
“You do know that that was a bad thing to do, right?”
My mother looks at me, watching my face. I know that I should feign regret, but I can’t force my face right now, not tonight.
“Have you done that before?” my mother asks me. I contemplate lying, but there’s no point. “Oh, several times before. There weren’t ever any policemen there before, though.”
“Don’t you know how quickly trains move?” Again, she looks at my face for the response. “Most people who get hit by trains don’t survive, Zoe.” My mother is trying to evoke an emotional response from me, I assume.
“Would you want to survive that?” I reply incredulously.
“Oh, Zoe!” my mother looks away from me.
“Well, I imagine that after being hit by a train, your quality of life would be less than—”
“Yes, but it isn’t just about your life! You’ve got your family to consider,” my mother responds, the tears falling through her voice.
It’s dark, I am walking away from the parking lot of the Caribou Coffee that I’ve just left. I’ve run out of places to go to get away and a conversation pops into my head.
“When we were younger, we used to hop trains. We’d jump into train cars as they passed by.”
I know the voice and the place: my father in his purple jeep, reminiscing on the way to Evanston, the town where he grew up. I can’t recall my response to this, but I imagine it was something along the lines of “That’s reckless,” or “How dangerous,” or “What did Granny think about that?” But things have changed. And who am I to say that jumping trains isn’t a completely rational, sane pastime if I don’t try it? I’d subconsciously made my way to the Metra station as I thought back and walk up the stairs and onto the platform. I look both ways. This isn’t an intersection, Zoe. I look both ways anyway and step out onto the tracks.
My mother soon gives up attempting to elicit a remorseful response from her daughter and says: “Well, you are a child. You don’t know how valuable life is until you’ve lived more of it. That’s why God gave you two parents.”
“One,” my mouth responds without permission. She stares at me.
“God gave you two parents,” she replies indignantly.
“And then took one away,” I finish. There’s a beat.
“Your father did plenty of stupid things to get himself killed.”
“Dad used to play with trains,” I state.
“That was stupid, too.” She shakes her head. I can hear tears, but I can’t stop the words.
“Trains didn’t kill him.”
I remember when he told me, told us, my sister and me. We were complaining about how we’d been working all day to make sure that our family would “have a happy Thanksgiving” only to have our father excuse himself from the table early, without touching the majority of his plate. He must’ve overheard us or read our minds because he burst into the room where we convened and told us without suspense, without pause for dramatic effect. He simply stated when he was diagnosed, what procedures he’d had, what the next steps were. My mind was racing back and all I could think: Where was I two years ago? What had I been doing that I hadn’t noticed that my father was sick? This couldn’t be happening. This only happens in movies, not to people like us, not to good people like my father, not to innocent people like me. That was the beginning for my sister and me. The first time she hid how she felt because she knew it’d cause her pain to do otherwise. And I didn’t understand how she could forget her father’s feelings.
It hurt me too, Dad. I didn’t ask questions because I wanted to know the answers; I asked because I wanted you to know that I cared. I didn’t research everything I could find because I wanted to be knowledgeable; I researched because I hated knowing how long I was oblivious. I didn’t visit you in the hospital because I wanted to see you weak and emaciated; I didn’t go to watch you die. I didn’t refuse to cry at your funeral because I didn’t miss you, because I don’t love you and wish that I had more time, that I hadn’t wasted so much time. I didn’t cry because it is my job to take care of your family, the family that you left behind. And we can go to as many places in as many countries on as many continents in the world until my mother can learn to be okay more often than not. But that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t trade absolutely every vacation, every consolation prize, everything, every single thing we have to spend just a few more minutes with you. Every one of us would, even my sister. But I know that it isn’t fair to ask you to come back to your broken body in this broken world to a life and a family that wasn’t ready, that isn’t ready to lose you forever. And, Dad, I am so sorry. I’m sorry.
It’s warm here in the familiar setting behind my house, the summer before sixth grade. He’s wearing a red sleeveless shirt, the one that exposes his less-than-public-appropriate tattoo that he got when he served in the navy. The barbeque is warming and he sits back contentedly. Sharing him with three siblings, I don’t always get the quality time that I never thought I needed with him. But today, he and I sit together, sometimes talking, often not.
“Zoe, could you make the hamburgers? The grill’s about ready,” he says, preparing his station for the work ahead. I sigh. I’ve been a vegetarian for three weeks now, but I comply, walking into the house and washing my hands. After I’ve finished, I bring out the patties for him to cook and change the radio station in the garage. Our favorite song comes on, one to which we know all of the words. We immediately respond to the music, dancing and rapping along with Will Smith. I open the grill to check on the food and see two heads of corn sitting on the fire. I look up to see my father, dancing and smiling, singing and laughing, goofing around and being my dad. It’s warm here, close to his light, breathing his air. I smile, knowing that he hasn’t forgotten.
And neither will I.
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