Staff Editor Kelly Grey Carlisle Managing Editor Ileana Sherry Web Editor Ryan Diller Associate Editors Ciara Bergin Dan Farris Nipuni Gomes All staff participate in the reading and selection of work and production of the magazine. 1966 is published with the support of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and its English Department. http://new.trinity.edu Founding Editors: Mallory Conder, Paul Cuclis, Michael Garatoni, Spenser Stevens, and Matthew Stieb The copyrights of all text and images contained in this magazine belong to their respective authors.
Image credits: Above, Sarah Pickett, “The Plants Came on Tuesday.” “Soul Served Rare” cover, “1966 Anti-Cow Slaughter Agitation” back cover, and right, Mallory Alice Epping. Brian Michael Barbeito: “Barn” page 58; “Possibility” pages 99-100. Cade Bradshaw: “Rocky Mountain National Park” pages 77-78. Mallory Alice Epping: pages “Never Coming Home” pages 3-4; “Rocky River Reflection” page 9; “Greensboro Sit-In” page 18; “Claudette” pages 19-20; “Snowpocalypse” pages 45-46; pages 47-48; “Screech Owl Greenhouses, NC” page 54; “Opening Ceremony” page 59-60; “Parking Lots at Night: The Shop Girl” page 64; “After Work” page 70; “RIP Nugent Treadwell” pages 71-72; “Lingering Shadow” page 76; “Serenity Sanctuary” pages 95-96; “Raised to Slaughter” page 101. Shelby M. Rocca: “Vacancy” page 28. Jim Ross: “If These Walls Could Speak” pages 29-30.
Volume 4 Issue 1 Summer 2016
Patti See Diary of a Bone Marrow Donor: Leinenkugel’s, The Mayo Brothers, Captain Kirk, and a Nurse Called “The Badger” 3 Gary M. Almeter Twenty Percent of the Jennifers 19 Jim Ross Exercising Caution
Gretchen Legler Wealthy 47 Jennifer Young Still Parents
Robert W. Henway This Graveyard is Our Living Room
Anne Kaier Malade 77 Bob Cowser, Jr. Wee, Small Hours A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Diary of a Bone Marrow Donor:
Leinenkugel’s, The Mayo Brothers, Captain Kirk, and a Nurse Called “The Badger”
Nurse Kirk asks the Badger to choose my plumpest vein and “Get this show on the road.” The Badger runs her warm hands up and down both of my forearms, her finger like a divining rod. “Here,” she commands Kirk. He readies the 15-gauge needle—the size of a fork tine. My veins shrink inside themselves. All seven of us siblings were tested to be a stem cell donor for my brother, Joe Junior: “Joey.” I’m a perfect 10-point match. Rather than a surgical procedure that drills five excruciating inches into the hip bone to extract bone marrow and its precious stem cells, I’ll have mine harvested through apheresis: blood out one arm into a machine—spin out the stem cells—and all other liquid back into my body via a smaller needle in my other arm. Kirk tells me, “Just like being hooked up to a milking machine.” Joey will get my goods through allogeneic stem cell transplantation about a week from now. He was diagnosed six years ago with myelofibrosis, a blood cancer that causes scar tissue in his bone marrow and impairs normal blood cell production. I haven’t told many people about his illness or about my donation. I don’t want to hear “You’re saving his life.” After all, I’m just showing up and being attached to a “milker” for five hours a day. His doctors are saving his life. The nurses, like Kirk and the Badger, are saving his life. And I don’t want to talk about it at the grocery store or the local tavern. I live in the village of Lake Hallie, Wisconsin, just outside of my hometown of Chippewa Falls, population 13,718. The last thing I want is some Fox-News-watching friend of a friend on Facebook saying, “I’m praying for you.” Day One
I have two days of tests, for which the transplant team allows me to drive back and forth the two hours to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I will have to stay within thirty miles of the transplant center with a caregiver (my husband) once I begin four days of injections, which will stimulate my stem cells and move them to my blood stream to be harvested over two to four days. It’s at least a ten day process. The first day my sister comes along with me. I have back-to-back appointments— blood draw, echocardiogram, chest x-ray, donor education—which means Geralynn sits in many waiting rooms. At x-ray, she says, “I hope I see a movie star.” This is where the superrich come to be treated, a world-class hospital founded in the middle of Minnesota farmland by the Mayo family back in the 1880s. Today, Andy Warhol prints line the walls of the “subway.” Ger and I are small town gals in the big city, concerned about figuring out the subway that Joey told me connects the various medical buildings. I envisioned a speeding underground train; we’re both relieved to discover the “subway” (opposite of skyway?) is simply an elaborate walkway built beneath many city blocks so visitors are protected from frigid winter temperatures or, like today, the stifling August heat. Of course, the subway also makes it easier to get to the restaurants or upscale stores. Perhaps not the original vision of brothers Drs. William and Charles Mayo, but a spectacular underground city.
Nurse Maureen sees my address and asks how close I live to Leinenkugel’s Brewery. She tells me it’s on her bucket list to visit. “Ten minutes from my house,” I say. “You’re so lucky. I want to retire in Chippewa Falls.” Really? is my initial reaction. Instead I say, “Joe’s wife, Tami, tends bar at the Leinie’s Lodge.” Imagine a beer bar in a log home with Leinenkugel’s apparel for sale: that’s our Leinie’s Lodge. “She gets to work there,” Maureen says, a little dreamily. “Well, they pay her.” I don’t say that, as a technical aide at the local high school, Tami has to cover her family’s entire healthcare premium during summer vacation. She trades her time serving eager but sometimes sloppy drunk tourists tap beer to pay for Joey’s mounting medical bills. I tell Maureen that I’ll bring her a Leinie’s sample pack when I see her for my first injection in two days. Now I can get rid of the horrible Harvest Patch Shandy in my fridge. This new pumpkin flavored beer has “notes of nutmeg, allspice, and clove.” That is what’s written on the can; no one mentioned a “complex bouquet of dirty socks,” which is all I could taste. Leinie’s new Cranberry Ginger Shandy also has been holding a place in the back of my fridge all summer. Everything is symbolic: I’ve got goods I don’t use or need—say my own stem cells, which will replenish themselves in the next six weeks as easily as Tami will bring me more free Leinenkugel’s. Maureen leaves me alone to fill out a questionnaire about my drug use or sex with drug users. I have not “slept with a man who slept with a man.” That I know of. I’ve never used a needle except to get a flu or tetanus shot. I did not have a blood transfusion pre-1986. She looks at my responses. “You just made my life much easier,” she says. On the way home, Geralynn and I drive over the iconic bridge that connects Minnesota and Wisconsin at Wabasha. “This reminds me of Dirty Old Men,” I say. “Why? Did you have a bad experience here?” “No—the movie. It was filmed here.” How is it possible that she didn’t see this classic movie? “Oh yeah,” she says. Day Two My best friend is between jobs, and she thinks driving me to Rochester will be an adventure. Actually, whatever Karen and I do together is fun, starting in 1976 when we were eight years old. She is looking forward to a day of people watching while I go to more appointments. Halfway across the Wabasha bridge I ask Karen if she’s seen Dirty Old Men. “It was filmed right down there,” I say. “Patti—it’s Grumpy Old Men.” I laugh so hard that I nearly have to pull over. I call Geralynn immediately. At my donor education session, Nurse Sarah tells me that Joey will have my dna after his A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
stem cell transplant. I say, “We could commit the perfect crime. A jury wouldn’t be able to tell us apart.” She tells me a Law and Order episode was based on this premise. Then she says, “Your brother will still have the same fingerprints.” I might have gone too far off script for her. Of course he will. Why would anyone think a bone marrow transplant would wipe out finger prints? She says, “And he’ll no longer have a Y chromosome. He’ll have your X chromosome.” I’m sure my face reflects my shock. Everything about this is magic; I am continually stunned that I have something inside of me—hidden, minute, elemental—that could save my older brother. “Don’t worry,” she says, “He won’t wear lipstick and carry a purse.” Back on script. How many times has she said this to females donating to males? I say to Nurse Sarah, with her own canned punchlines: “My brother already does carry a purse.” She laughs and laughs. I will not tell her the story of how Joey came to carry his wife’s Lancome make-up bag when he ice fishes—the perfect size for his caught fish when he walks from hole to hole on the ice. You don’t see that on Grumpy Old Men. At each stop today, everyone, including Nurse Sarah, wants to know about my Good Samaritan kidney donation nine years ago. “How did you decide to do it?” Sarah asks. I tell her the short version: I read about non-directed donation in the newspaper and that the more I researched the more my thinking changed from why should I do this to how can I not do this. I didn’t tell my family until a week afterward because I thought they’d try to talk me out of it or, in the least, think I was crazy. When Joey found out that I was his only match among all of our siblings, he told his transplant surgeon, “Patti is saving the world one organ at a time.” This time I have to “produce,” not just show up and give a spare kidney. That donation was about me, my choice to give; this bone marrow donation is entirely about my brother, my godfather. If I’m not a good producer I will watch Joey die. The dude who received my kidney chose not to meet me. He is sixty-four years old now. I used to think of him on the anniversary of my donation. I used to think about having just one kidney. None of that crosses my mind much after nine years. My recipient and I are strangers connected by an organ that could fit in the palm of my hand. 7
Karen and I walk six blocks from the clinic to the apartment I’ve rented for my husband and me once we begin our week-long stay. There’s a thrift sale next door, and we stop to talk to the teenage girls selling their washed out Abercrombie and Fitch and Old Navy clothes. I notice an alley behind the houses, so we cut through to get a better look at the rental’s backyard. A woman in a long denim skirt walks towards us. I take a chance: “Are you Diana?” She is surprised that a stranger knows her name. I introduce myself. “My husband and I move in to your place tomorrow.”
“Oh, Patti. Do you want to check in now?” Diana chirps. We have exchanged many emails in the last month. She knows I’m donating to my brother. This is not the Hilton, but a duplex owned by a young couple who rent to strangers in need. I like her immediately. She takes us for an impromptu tour and offers the keys since she and her family will be camping for the weekend. I know from her Internet ad that she’s Swiss; her accent is charming, and I can’t help but love her beautifully crooked teeth. Karen and I still have three hours to kill before my next appointment. To get out of the heat, we walk back to the Mayo subway. We look for the chapel, which we discover is a nondenominational “Spirit Center” complete with a carpeted area for prayer towards the east. The place immediately feels like church, something we experienced weekly during our twelve years of Catholic school together. We are forty-six years old, but we giggle like we’re in second grade. The “prayer wall” is for visitors to write their prayers on paper and tuck into the expanse of floor to ceiling slotted wood. Each of us takes a square of paper. I write “Joseph G. See, Jr.” and in large capital letters below that: joey. I don’t watch what Karen writes. As I fold mine in half, I joke, “It’s like putting your name in a raffle at Holy Ghost Church. My mom always told me to fold the edge of my paper because when someone reached into the bowl, he’d grab at rumpled paper.” Karen laughs. Of course she remembers. Once Karen’s adult daughter called my house looking for her mom. “What do you need?” I asked Brittany. “Mom used her third-grade teacher’s name for the security question when she did my taxes,” she said. “Do you know it?” “Mrs. Mary Jo Fox,” I told her. Karen and I are those friends. Now we stand in front of these enormous glass sliding doors of the Spirit Center. If heaven were depicted in a Woody Allen movie, this would be its entrance. We don’t know how to get out. We giggle some more. One of us steps forward and the door opens. A miracle. My next appointment is on floor 9A, Transplantation and Clinical Regeneration. The waiting room is filled with patients of all ages wearing surgical masks. In less than ten days, my brother will be one of them, coming here for his daily vitals check-up after his transplant. Karen and I watch a ten-year-old in a mask, steroid-chubby, carefully climb into a large recliner. When his name is called, both his mom and the nurse help him stand. I tear up. The mounted television is on hgtv, and we all watch wealthy people choose a mansion from three options. Though he’s wearing a mask over most of his face and sitting behind me, I would put money on the fact that the guy who says “5,900 square feet!? Who wants to clean that?” has to be from Minnesota or Wisconsin. I’m just here to give stem cells; my body will repair itself just as it would if I gave plasma. Sitting here among patients in various stages of recovery or decline, I feel guilty given everything I have, beginning with my good health. Anyone who has struggled with an illness realizes that being healthy is the foundation of everyone’s pyramid of needs. I never think “my brother is dying.” That seems too big to handle right now.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Early the next morning I drive my husband and me to Rochester. I report to floor 8A, Therapeutic Apheresis Treatment Unit (tatu), for my first stomach injection to stimulate stem cells before harvesting four days from now. I try not to dwell on what gets injected in the stomach? All I can think of is rabies shots. A nurse gathers a half an inch of my belly fat and injects the liquid. The Neupogen mixture is thick, so it’s released slowly. Not as bad as I expected. Bruce and I check into our apartment, unload the car, and I sit and wait for a reaction, a little like expecting the stomach flu to hit when everyone else in the house is sick. Every turn, and I think, “That’s it.” Today I could experience anything from slight nausea to all-out vomiting and diarrhea or any from a long list of side-effects I’m trying to ignore. The first-ever The Simpsons marathon has just begun: 500 episodes back to back. We settle in for the next week with Marge and Homer and their kids, who feel like quirky extended family to me. I tuned in when I was a college student; I’ve been a college teacher for twenty years.
Day Four The waiting room is filled with other donors, mostly siblings of a cancer patient, like me. A pair of sisters, donor and care-giver, tells me that of the seven children in their family, two were good matches for their sister who has leukemia. Same-sized family as mine. Statistically, three of five “full” siblings—ones with the same mother and father—are a good stem cell match. Those stats didn’t hold true in my family. Two months ago when Joey called me from Rochester to say I was the only match for him, he joked, “Well, now we know at least you and I have the same mom and dad.” I ask this stranger, “How did you decide which sibling would donate?” “My brother couldn’t get off work,” she says. Since I work for the state, my time away from campus costs me nothing. Donors are offered four weeks with pay for an organ donation and a week for bone marrow. After my second injection, I walk to the apartment and do yoga for an hour before Bruce gets up. The only side effect for me seems to be fatigue. I take a two hour nap in the afternoon and awaken to children playing outside my open window. Lisa and Bart Simpson? No, they are in the living room, blaring from the tv. Days of this marathon, and we’re only up to 1996. This series has lasted longer than my first marriage and Bruce’s put together. I call Joey, as I have each day of the donation process. Today he tells me that for the past two nights he’s had visitors dropping in to say goodbye to him before his one-hundred and six days in Rochester. “All these people coming to see me, I feel like I’m going to the gallows.” He laughs uneasily. “Everyone loves you,” I say. “They want one last look.” Day Five Third injection, early Monday morning. I carry my six-pack sampler of Leinenkugel’s in a canvas bag. Cranberry-ginger, pumpkin—flavors that were not meant to be in beer, as far as I’m concerned. Taking beer onto the Mayo Clinic transplantation floor is a little like sneaking it into high school. I leave it at the check-in desk for Nurse Maureen, and the coordinator discretely hides my package under her desk. My doctor orders a blood test to check my creatinine levels to see how my kidney is dealing with the daily Neupogen injections. Back at the apartment, I work out to a P-90 X tape. I feel great, though the injections have caused a lack of appetite. My heart races around 6 p.m. every night; flutters that tell me these injections are working. This morning, I asked a nurse for permission to drive to Wabasha, beyond my 30mile limit from the transplant center. Bruce and I go to Slippery’s Tavern—home of Grumpy Old Men—for lunch on a deck overlooking the Mississippi. The place was frequented by the screenwriter’s grandfather, one of the men who were the basis for the film. Though Slippery’s existed long before the movie, the restaurant is now famous beyond Wabasha because of the film. The movie plays continuously on a small screen tv near the hostess station, and the gift A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
shop offers a glimpse of the actual ice-fishing shack used by Jack Lemon and Walter Mathau. During our walleye lunch I get a call from the transplant center. There’s a slight elevation in my creatinine, so I’m invited back in for a bag of iv fluids. I tell the nurse that I’m on my fourth liter of water for the day. “I think you’re good,” she says. When I get home from Slippery’s, I drink two more liters of water. I wonder if a person can really get drunk on water. Day Six I receive my fourth injection from Nurse Kirk, who explains in detail what will happen when I start my apheresis tomorrow. My blood will be removed via one line, filtered through the machine, where it separates stem cells; the rest is pumped back in through another arm. “Just like cream separated from milk,” he says. He shows me the fifteen-gauge needle. “What if you can’t find a big enough vein?” I ask. “Don’t worry,” he says. “We have vein whisperers. We’ll find a vein.” He tells me about one nurse they call “the Badger” because she can get any vein to submit. I go back to the apartment, do yoga again, and drink lots of water. When I’m not peeing, I feel like I have to pee. Apparently feeling full and urgent urination are also side effects. Bruce and I walk to an Italian restaurant near Mayo and sit at a booth next to a picture window overlooking the sidewalk. We watch people walk past—the lame and the wounded, caregivers pushing wheelchairs, sickly in various stages of recovery or decline—people from all over the world. “The city that mortality built,” Bruce says. Day Seven
This is what I’m here for: to harvest stem cells. Nurse Kirk tells me what he warned everyone in the desert: “If you’re hydrated, everything’s gonna be okay.” “You’re a veteran?” “Two tours,” he says. I’m guessing he didn’t do much stem cell harvesting in the desert. He calls over Nurse Badger. She’s in her early fifties with big, black-framed glasses. “How are we doing today?” she asks. She rubs her hands over my arms and we Get this show on the road. Kirk tries to distract me as the fork tine-sized needle goes into my arm. “What do you do for fun in Chippewa Falls?” I tell him that my husband and I live in a small cabin on a small lake. I kayak. We sit and look at the lake. We take pictures. I drink beer and look at the lake and take pictures. Sometimes from my kayak. “Leinenkugel’s,” he says, a little too enthusiastically. Before I know it, the big needle is in and my blood is being sucked out of me. My stem
cells collect in a bag next to the bed, and everything else cycles back. The machine puffs and dings, puffs and dings a steady beat. Kirk instructs me to squeeze a small foam ball every twenty seconds to encourage blood flow. Once I’m hooked up, Kirk asks about Leinenkugel’s Brewery. I could go anywhere in the country and say I’m from Chippewa Falls and people would ask if I know Jake Leinenkugel. Our kids went to school together. He’s not a celebrity here. Once in a while, staying in a hotel in Minneapolis or Milwaukee, we’ll catch a Leinenkugel’s commercial and be reminded that Jake is famous. His great-great-grandfather started the brewery in 1867 because of the spring water in the Chippewa Valley. The family business flourished here ever since. The Leinenkugel dynasty is even older than the Mayo empire, both of which have made people happier for part of three centuries now. Kirk lays hot blankets over my torso and arms. Heavenly. I watch Roseanne reruns to pass the time. When Kirk notices what’s on, he pitches, “We get Fox News. That’s all I watch.” “I’m good with this,” I say. No political discussions with anyone who may be inserting sharp objects into me. I spot Nurse Maureen from a distance. She’s with another patient, but she blows me kisses. She got her Leinie’s. Maureen comes over to talk with me when she sees Joey and Tami. He’s between doctor visits as part of his preparation for chemotherapy. Maureen wants to hear everything about beer making at Leinenkugel’s. Tami wows her with stories of the secret hops chamber, which is never a part of the brewery tour. Maureen says to me, “You’re in good hands with Kirk. He was a captain in the Army.” “Captain Kirk?” I say. We all laugh. Before Maureen goes back to her patient, she gives Tami a hug. Tami promises to bring her one of the many Leinenkugel’s t-shirts she has in her trunk for the Mayo staff. I lie in bed and think dramatically, Beer connects us. Joey tugs on my sock-footed toe through the blanket, an affectionate gesture of goodbye and thanks for the stem cells. Or maybe just older brother ribbing. Tami takes a photo of us, Joey leaning his face down next to mine. He’s wearing his Leinenkugel’s baseball cap, my messy shock of hair is scattered across the white hospital pillow. We both smile wide. Before I get out of here today our photo will be on Facebook, the community Tami needs to get through this. When I have a problem I turn inward, contemplative, alone. Facebook means nearly everyone I know shares their struggles with the world. Bruce arrives for the last hour of my apheresis session. Getting through five hours of this would be hard enough. I didn’t want him to sit and look at me while I’m in pain. My arm throbs from the enormous needle. Periodically my vein vibrates around the needle, like a night crawler skewered up its middle. Even repositioning my arm only helps for a few minutes. I look at the clock and consider how long I was in labor with my son twenty three years ago. This is nothing. After the process, we watch Captain Kirk seal my bag of stem cells, no more than a cup of pus-like goo. He’s holding life in his hands: stems cells are what scientists call the “body’s raw material”—cells that build all other specialized cells. dna may be the building blocks of human life, but stem cells hold it all together and have the necessary ability to reproduce A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
wherever needed. Kirk sets the bag on the counter, a little too close to the edge for me. He secures my bag of goo in a metal container for transport to the lab, where my stem cells will be counted, then frozen in liquid nitrogen till Joey’s transplant. I breathe easy for the first time since I arrived in Rochester a week ago. Kirk says, “You’re down about a quart.” A few minutes later, I reach for my water bottle and say to Bruce, “How much do you think I need to drink to replenish that lost quart of blood?” He bursts out laughing. “That’s what mechanics say when you get your oil changed.” I hear Captain Kirk laughing at me from across the room. Bruce and I walk back to the apartment, and I lay down, exhausted and relieved. It wasn’t so bad after all. My arm hurts, mostly from being in one position for five hours. I lie in bed and call my dad. One ring, two rings. I know he’s waiting for this call. I work up the strongest voice possible. “It was fine,” I tell him. “No problem.” We’re shake it off people, after all. My husband mocks me sometimes: “It’s not so bad,” Bruce says in my high voice. Dad is 88 years old. His oldest son has cancer and his youngest—the one he still calls the “baby” of the family—may potentially be in pain throughout this procedure. He’s an emotional wreck. The week before I left for Rochester, I couldn’t talk with Dad about my donation without him weeping. Now he clears his throat and asks, “Did you see Joey?” “Yes. He looks great.” For once, it’s not a lie. We’ve all tried to protect Dad from the most disturbing details of Joey’s illness. In fact, we didn’t use the word “cancer” with Dad until the last year. Captain Kirk calls at 4:30 pm. I’ve just finished watching The Simpsons, episode 350. He says the good news is that I’ve produced 3.9 million stem cells. The bad news is that I need 6 million. I’m so sad that I wasn’t a “big producer.” And sadder still that I can’t go home. I’m worn out and dramatic. When I get off the phone, I cry into Bruce’s chest. He walks with me back to Mayo for another stomach injection to stimulate stem cells for tomorrow. Day Eight
The Badger comes over for a quick consult. She doesn’t touch my arms this time; from next to my bed she points at my left arm, “That one again.” I still look away when the meat-fork goes in. Joey and Tami got up at 3:00 a.m. to drive to Rochester for Joey’s 6:00 a.m. surgical implant of a Hickman line in his chest, through which he will receive chemotherapy for six days and then my stem cells. They come to visit me after I’ve been hooked up to my milker for a few hours. The staff offered him a wheelchair after his procedure, and he took it just to have an easier way to transport their two large backpacks and his grocery bag full of pills. He lifts his shirt to show me the plastic piece jutting out of his skin. “Oh, it’s not so bad,” he says. He may be from the last generation of tough guys.
Tami leaves us alone while she delivers a baby gift to a nurse on the cancer ward. She has also brought along a case of Leinenkugel’s for the transplant doctor and a thank you card, the epitome of “Wisconsin Nice.” Joey says, “Don’t you think we should wait to give him those till AFTER my transplant?” I sent Joey a card before I left for Rochester. Inside it, I wrote, “Success is the only option”—the closest we’ve come to discussing what happens if his transplant fails. He never mentioned my card. Now he tells me he’s most worried about graft-versus-host-disease. I read about this: my stem cells might make themselves too much at home in their new body and take over. I want to say, “Just like a little sister.” Instead I say, “And then what?” “Your cells start to kill my tissue.” I imagine our cells in mortal combat, like some elaborate videogame. “But there’s drugs for that?” “Yep.” A nurse calls me at 5:00 p.m. I’ve produced 2.9 million more stem cells, but not enough white blood cells for the booster. I have to come back tomorrow morning, 7:00 to 11:00, for more harvesting. I expected this. No tears tonight. I fill my water pitcher and start drinking to plump up my veins for my last round on the harvester. Day Nine I awaken at 5:30, long before my alarm. Today I can go home. I lie in bed and pray, just like every morning. Today I say, Let me give Joey the strongest white blood cells ever. I know that after graft-versus-host-disease, infection is his greatest risk. In and out of sleep, I talk to my dead mother. I called her Mama only after her Alzheimer’s got so bad she only knew me as the nice girl who came to visit. Mama, I say now, take care of him. This last collection is white blood cells only, which will be frozen and saved for a booster—Donor Lymphocyte Infusion (dli)—if Joey needs help fighting off infection posttransplantation. Today the Badger doesn’t come out of her burrow to choose my veins. I’m almost disappointed. Captain Kirk goes for the same bulging vein for the third day in a row. “You might have quite a bruise here,” he says. I ask how he knows this collection will only gather white blood cells. He reminds me that I didn’t get my Neupogen injection yesterday, so my stem cells haven’t been stimulated to move to my blood stream. Joey and Tami stop to visit, and when he leans down to kiss me on the forehead, his lips make a big smack half on my hair, half on skin. I say, “Wow: a kiss and everything.” Has he ever kissed me before? Maybe when I was a baby and he was a twelve-year-old loving on his little sister. He went away to college when I started kindergarten. We always had separate lives—siblings who were connected by Mom and Dad’s house. Now he’ll have my dna. Closer than identical twins. I can’t wrap my head around that. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
He says, “Well, we might not be seeing each other for a long time after today.” He is at “minus six.” The day of his transplant is “zero,” and he has to stay in Rochester for 100 days—the longest trip of his life. If I know him, “99 Bottles of Beer” will be sung many times. Take one down, pass it around… As I wait for the last of my white cells to be collected, Tami says to me, “I’m just so glad that your mom and dad did IT one more time to make you.” Later today Joey starts chemotherapy, which will kill his cancer cells and wipe out his immune system to prepare his body for new stem cells. The “new life” that awaits means chemo must bring him close to death. He has a week of hell ahead of him, and I’m going home as soon as I’m unhooked from this damn machine. No one yet knows how terribly difficult his recovery will be—that chemo will cause open wounds in his mouth the size of sliced tomatoes and dotted with more canker sores than he can count. That he will suffer chronic stomach pain and diarrhea and hover on the edge of kidney and liver failure. That his entire body will be covered with a rash so that each day he will be wrapped and rewrapped in gauze from head to toe. The first weeks he survives these daily bodily horrors to get to the end goal: engraftment. No one yet knows that my stem cells will move to his blood stream and reproduce and reproduce many times over to fix his damaged bone marrow and then reproduce some more: beautiful baby cells that with time mature and heal him. Or that on post-transplant day fifty (50 bottles of beer on the wall) he will be stable enough for a weekend pass home. He and I will sit together in his sunny backyard—a gift in late October in Wisconsin—to watch Tami rake leaves and his beloved dog Buddy run through them. An ordinary moment made extraordinary by all he’s come through. Day Ten
Home, home, home. Even after twenty-four hours, I’m so happy to be home that I still don’t want to leave my house or yard. It’s time to restock our shelves, and I love shopping at our local Aldi’s—you put a quarter in to rent a cart, you can peruse the few aisles, and you bag your own groceries with your own bags. At 7:00 pm on a Saturday night, I expect to get in and get out. In the first aisle, I hear a fifty-something man say to an older woman, “Look, I think that’s a Catholic saint.” He points at a woman in full nun’s habit and long black wool gown. A beaded belt is cinched at her waist and from that swings a large wooden cross. She’s carrying a woven straw basket for her groceries. Except for her bare feet in worn Birkenstocks, this could be 1959. Though only a portion of her face shows, I recognize her immediately: Val. I was high school classmates with her older brother; Valentine and I had a health class together. She was a farm girl—tall, solid, confident—who was embarrassed when we all had to be weighed in front of each other. That’s right: I had Catholic school’s version of sex education with a girl who became a nun. I walk towards her and say hello. “How do we know each other?” she asks.
“High school,” I say. “I’m Patti.” We haven’t crossed paths since 1986. “Right!” She laughs so big I see silver fillings in her open mouth. Once for one of our Friday “non-uniform days” her brother dressed up as a nun. When Paul got called to the office, he explained to Principal Rabe, “It’s my nun uniform.” This is the same kid who had his senior portrait taken wearing a suit coat, bow tie, and Fedora—in the pasture with a cow. Standing before me tonight, Val could be her brother’s twin on “nun uniform day.” “I love this store, don’t you?” she says. I tell her that I’ve just come from Rochester and visited my first ever Trader Joe’s. “It’s a little fancy compared to Aldi’s, but they’re owned by the same company.” She says she’s heard of it. “I was in Rochester to be a bone marrow donor for my brother,” I say. We walk past the wine and beer, past the granola bars and salty snacks. I don’t know what comes over me. I tell her that my brother and I were a perfect match: “It’s a miracle, really, that I could do this for him.” That I was away for a week and I’m just back and so ecstatic to be home. Why I spill my guts to this acquaintance, I have no idea. “Are you alright?” Val asks. “Great,” I say. Then I proceed to tell her all the gory details of how stem cells are harvested. I restrain from rolling up my sleeves to show her my well-earned bruises on both arms. We keep shopping. “Well take care,” she says in the frozen foods. I’m close to the check out. As I put my groceries on the register’s conveyer belt, I contemplate how I must look to Val, Sister Something. I was too bashful to ask what name she chose when she took her final vows to become a Bride of Christ. I’ve got a streak of pink hair down my back and bright red lipstick. I married a poet twenty years older than I am. Maybe this is the woman I was waiting to be even back in 1986. “Spare parts” my husband calls me, now that I’ve donated a kidney and stem cells. The jerk who called Val a “Catholic saint” unloads his groceries behind me. I get a closer look. He wasn’t being mean, I realize. He’s developmentally delayed and has some physical ailment: he walks on the sides of his black tennis shoes. She probably does look like a saint he’s seen in books, the same way kindergarteners think Amish families are Pilgrims. As I’m arranging groceries in my canvas bags, Sister Val puts her few items on the check-out belt. I hear her say, “I’ll be right back.” Is she dashing to aisle three for something? Another shopper unloads her groceries behind the plastic divider. The cashier says, “It will just be a minute. She forgot her wallet.” “I want to pay for hers,” this shopper says. “Just tell her somebody took care of it. Don’t tell her it was me.” “$27.39,” says the cashier. As I’m exiting the store Val passes me with her “wallet,” a small metal money box she holds by its handle. “Good to see you,” she says. I smile and nod. Now I’m quiet. An updated Facebook post would have been less embarrassing—at least then I wouldn’t have to truly face anyone. This is a classic case of “emoter’s remorse,” but once the words are out, no one can take them A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
I arrange my groceries in the trunk and return my cart to get my quarter. Val climbs into a beat-up Oldsmobile, circa 1990. She spots me walking to my new red Mini Cooper. “Thank you, Patti,” she yells out of a window I know she cranked down by hand. “It wasn’t me,” I yell back. “Thank you,” she says again. “It really wasn’t me.”
Gary M. Almeter
Twenty Percent of the Jennifers
According to the United States Social Security Administration, 4,203 Jennifers were born in New York State in 1970.1 Five of those Jennifers wended their way from whatever nursery they were placed, at the outset of their lives, in isolation to avoid infections and disease, to a small town upstate where we all started high school on September 5, 1984. The school, a small, Catholic high school run by Franciscan priests, fielded seventy-five young men and women in that freshmen class, 6.66% of whom were Jennifers. There were four Marks, four Michelles, three Melissas, three Toms, three Kevins, three Lisas, three Scotts and, surprisingly—since the apex of its popularity was three decades prior in 1954, the same year Gary Cooper won his Best Actor Academy Award for his role in High Noon, when 37,898 of us were born, making ours the ninth most popular name in the United States, two Garys. Hollywood has a similarly important role in making Jennifer the ubiquitous name it was in the 1970s. The highest grossing film of 1970 was Love Story starring Ali McGraw as Jennifer Cavalleri and Ryan O’Neal as Oliver Barrett iv.2 The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, McGraw for Best Actress, and O’Neal for Best Actor. Jennifer first appeared on the Social Security Names database in 1938, when it was the 987th most popular name in America with fifty-two Jennifers born. In 1942, Jennifer was the 527th most popular name when 199 of them were born, and the 397th most popular name in 1943 when 337 were born. In 1944, Jennifer Jones won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in The Song of Bernadette, and in 1945, 986 Jennifers were born, making it the 200th most popular name in the country. It enjoyed a steady ascent to first place in 1970. All five of the Jennifers in my grade graduated on June 19, 1988, an impressive statistic in light of the fact that in the intervening four years, the class lost 28% of its original 75 members and graduated just fifty-four students. Thusly, 9.25% of the graduating class was Jennifers. I always thought being named Jennifer would have been burdensome. Teachers intuitively took to shortening the name to Jenny and appending a last initial to distinguish among them. I would have resented the ubiquitousness. I think being identified like that would have had a corrosive effect on my identity. Though I have never met a Jennifer who has told me that she feels this way. I have met some Jennifers—now mothers and/or professionals —who find “Jenny” unsuitable in both of those contexts. So, there must have been a time when they had to eschew Jenny and revert to Jennifer. On the other hand, no Jennifer has ever told me they have had to spell their name to a customer service rep. And, while they share their name with many, many of those many are the Jennifers who are omnipresent in the pages of People, e.g. Lopez, Garner, Lawrence, Love-Hewitt: the Jennifers with whom we 21 1 There was a total of 46,160 Jennifers born in the United States in 1970 or 2.52% of all 1,831,818 females born that year; the “Emma” of 1970 if you will. Jennifers account for 1.24% of all of the 3,737,751 live births, male or female, in the United States in 1970. According to the Social Security Administration, Jennifer was the most popular baby name from 1970 to 1984, when it began a rapid descent to what is now its position as the 220th most popular name for girls. There were only 1,514 Jennifers born in the entire United States in 2014. None of these figures take into account any alternate spellings of the name, e.g. Jenifer, Jinifer or Jennipher, or any variants of the name, e.g. Genevieve, Jenna, Geneva or Guinevere. 2 Oliver was the 428th most popular name of 1970 for boys. There were 368 Olivers born in the United States that year.
associate glamour. Each of the five Jennifers with whom I navigated high school was astonishingly different. Jennifer S., perpetually bedecked in Limited and Benetton, was a football cheerleader throughout her four years and dated a cadre (or bevy?) of football players. Jennifer B. wore glasses that darkened automatically when exposed to sunlight, then faded back when she returned indoors, and was a math whiz. Jennifer G. was heavy-set but jovial and, as such, was the epicenter of similarly-corpulent and similarly-jovial cohorts. Jennifer R. smoked in the girls’ bathroom, listened to Judas Priest cassettes on her Walkman, wore Judas Priest t-shirts that she bought at real live Judas Priest concerts, and was known to give her boyfriend, a junior boy who was and could only have been named Todd3, blow jobs in the janitor’s closet outside the cafeteria. One of the Jennifers spent the entire four years of high school all by herself. Jennifer P.’s bangs were clearly cut with the aid of Scotch tape. She had something approaching a lazy eye and she was shorter than most of her fellow freshmen. She never went to dances or football games or any of the other events which comprise a high school student’s social milieu, or more accurately, I never saw her at one. Her mother picked her up from school every day and, as she crossed the parking lot towards the mother’s Ford Taurus, each would wave to the other with genuine enthusiasm. A month into high school, when a football player named Todd (a different Todd than the one whom Jennifer R. orally pleasured in the janitor’s closet) asked her to our inaugural homecoming dance, Jennifer P. gasped and blushed and was clearly oblivious to the fact that the Todd was mocking her. Even Todd recognized that her naïveté made such mockery superfluous and so she was rarely, if ever, mocked again. She typically ate lunch by herself. She wore clothes which suffered the rare double defect of being both too old and too young for her—sweaters with kittens on them with corduroy blazers with leather buttons accompanied the school’s houndstooth uniform skirt with penny loafers and saddle shoes. She accessorized with none of the rubbery bracelets or hair accoutrements of the day and her wardrobe was void of neon. There were days she looked tired and frightened; and seemed physically and mentally weighed down by the textbooks she carried through the halls. Navigating the crowded hallways must have been torturous for her, as people seemed genuinely unaware of her presence. She rarely spoke; I am certain that there were days in which she did not say a single word between 8:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. When she did, she spoke softly and timidly. Jennifer P.’s two-syllable last name makes her entire name syllabically and rhythmically congruent with the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”.4 The song about two lonely people living in a church community, who cannot find a way to connect and end up living their entire lives apart until, one day, one buries the other. The unsentimental song makes the listeners, and Lennon and McCartney too, mere observers as we all keep our distance from the Eleanor Rigby and Father MacKenzie. The action is presented as though we are watching a film, e.g. “Look at 3 Monosyllabic names connote malfeasance for me. See, e.g., Bruce, Chuck, Ace, Dean, Zeke, Kip. And Todd. 4 “Eleanor Rigby” was released in 1966 on the Beatles’ album Revolver. In addition, there were 472 baby Eleanors born that year, making it the 432nd most popular name in the United States.
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him working”, and uses various tenses to further shift our perspective, e.g., “[Eleanor] died in the church” (past tense) and “[Father MacKenzie] wiping the dirt from his hands” (present tense). The questions Paul McCartney asks are unanswerable—the sort of questions people ask when they do not know quite what to say. Where do all the lonely people belong? We sing along and are made aware of the inadequacy of any answer with which we might respond. Paul does not ask the threshold question of whether solitude necessarily equals loneliness. Or what gives him the right to assess their state of mind in the first place? Is it arrogant to think that someone else is lonely? Or is it empathic? Is it presumptuous to the point of being conceited to assume that because someone is by him or herself, he or she is lonely? Is it condescending to think that because a person is by herself, then she must be lonely, like when we assume that Jennifer Aniston5 is sad because she has not given birth? I wonder now if Jennifer P. was lonely. Three decades after high school I find her on Facebook.6 She is single. She posts cat videos and cat pictures with great frequency, along with pictures of beaches and tropical settings. Most of these get in the neighborhood of two or three likes. She posts a sizable number of links to horoscopes, coupons for local eateries, and coupon codes for online shopping. Her likes include Josh Groban, the Muppets, the Buffalo Sabres, Snoopy and, inexplicably, Robert Wagner. She is a health care aide of some kind at a veterans’ home in the same small city in which we went to high school. There is a total of six pictures of Jennifer P. on her Facebook page. In all of these, she appears happy or, at the very least, oblivious to the notion that some might look at this page and think her unhappy. There is only one picture of her having fun and it is from some type of family function at an Italian-looking restaurant in 2012. Is she content with this? Could she be? In the other pictures, Jennifer P.’s eyes, if assessed and placed on a continuum between that certain sparkle which appears in someone’s eyes when they are happy and that certain hollowness which appears in a person’s eyes when they are depressed, would appear closer to the sparkle end of the continuum. This is just like how it was in high school. She never cried; never explicitly said, “I’m lonely.” It’s hard for quiet, introspective, introverted people to flourish in an extroverted world. The setting of my high school in particular seemed to neither encourage nor reward introspection. People reveled in the Buffalo Bills, heavy metal music, dirt bikes and snow mobiles and American cars, freedom, and family values; they guzzled funnels of shitty beer while parked on the shoulders of curvy rural roads listening to Charlie Daniels Band and Iron Maiden. No teenager’s prefrontal cortex lobes are firing on all cylinders, but, in my experience, rural teens put greater emphasis on excess, on bombast, on risk. Less the result of any deep-seated moral deficiency and more the result of boredom mixed with oversensitive adolescent pleasure centers. 5 Ms. Aniston is neither a 1970 Jennifer nor a New York Jennifer. She was born February 11, 1969 in Sherman Oaks, California. 6 Facebook, generally, has a detrimental effect on my well-being. It makes me unhappy. I find it alienating; I find that I am susceptible to the social-psychology phenomenon of social comparison; it makes me envious; I need it and then resent it because I need it. But wait. It also makes me feel connected to people with whom I otherwise would not be; it makes me laugh; I feel engaged when I engage; I find it encourages political participation; I often get my news there.
Seeing Jennifer P. on Facebook prompted some guilt. It’s not that hard to be nice. Also at my high school, there was an obese girl (she a wonderfully unique feminine variation of “Joseph”) and a girl with leg braces (she a ubiquitous “Lisa”) who found each other, embraced each other, and spent the four years of high school laughing together. It never looked like either was making a sacrifice to be with the other. Was it? Did they ever yearn for more? It would have been so easy for me—or anyone—to befriend Jennifer P. Or rather, it shouldn’t have been that hard. I note, and perhaps take comfort in, the fact that Paul McCartney never inserts himself into the lonely worlds of Father MacKenzie or Eleanor Rigby. He, at the apex of the Beatles’ popularity, would have had positively nothing to lose if he had stopped to help Eleanor pick up the rice or spare an hour to listen to Father MacKenzie’s sermon. It seriously would have been so easy for Paul to go to one of Father MacKenzie’s sermons. Note, too, how the people depicted in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” are not alone yet the painting is generally considered to be one of isolation and the loneliness of a large city. Not being alone does not mean you are not lonely. The world was teeming with Jennifers back then. There were Jennifers who sang in the church choir, Jennifers in the public school, the lady from “Flashdance” was a Jennifer,7 as was the lady who sang “(Love Lift Us) Up Where We Belong” with Joe Cocker8. I was remembering more and more Jennifers and starting to beat myself up for not befriending Jennifer P., when I thought of the Jennifer whom I let rest her head on my shoulder for about an hour a day for two years. Our school, the closest Catholic school to us, was still about 30 miles from where we lived. As such, my siblings and I rode a small school bus that picked us, the Catholic School kids, up, as well as kids in the Attica Central School District who attended the Genesee Valley Education Partnership boces program.9 This meant that we rode the bus with kids who attended boces program for vocational training, like agricultural science and automotive repair, as well as kids requiring special education services due to learning or developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional or behavioral disorders or communication disorders. One such person who rode this bus with us in 1984 was a girl named Jennifer R. Jennifer R. had Down syndrome. She was one of 4,917 Jennifers born in New York State and one of 63,111 Jennifers born in the United States in 1974.10 This Jennifer, born one year before the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, the precursor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which required public 7 Beals, a 1963 Jennifer. One of 11,671 born in the United States that year. Interestingly, Jacqueline saw a jump from 8,549 born in 1963 to 11,973 born in 1964. 8 Warnes, one of the iniaugural Jennifers born in 1947. One of 2013 Jennifers born in the USA that year. 9 This program is part of New York State’s Boards of Cooperative Educational Services or BOCES programs. In the 1940s, New York State created such programs so that rural school districts could combine resources for non-traditional educational programs. 10 According to the National Down Syndrome Society, one in every 691 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome, making Down syndrome the most common genetic condition. Approximately 400,000 Americans have Down syndrome and about 6,000 babies with Down syndrome are born in the United States each year.
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schools to provide children with physical and mental disabilities with an education that would emulate as closely as possible the educational experience of non-disabled students. Jennifer R. usually sat with me and we’d exchange pleasantries. When we were done talking she would rest her head on my shoulder and sing Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Going Down” over and over again until we got to school.11 She sang the chorus of “I’m Going Down” at least 14,000 times per bus ride. The chorus, as you might recall, is this: “I’m going down, down, down, down. I’m going down, down, down, down. I’m going down, down, down, down. I’m going down, down, down, down.” The song, even when sung by Bruce, is necessarily monotonous and repetitive. When sung by a pre-adolescent with Down syndrome, it becomes even more so. The ease with which this happened—and the ease with which we can make connections —is what I think of when I think of Jennifer R. The remembrance of her putting her head on my shoulder both assuages and cultivates the guilt I feel when I think of Jennifer P. walking through the halls alone. On one hand, maybe I am not such a bad person. On the other hand, it would have been so easy to sit with Jennifer P. at lunch one day a week. But it wouldn’t have been that easy. In 1984, I was 5’8” and weighed ninety-four pounds and surely resembled a Pete Rose bobble-head on a Manute Bol body as I walked through the halls. The fact that the winter of my freshman year coincided with a famine in Ethiopia and the resultant “Band Aid” and “We are the World” songs and the general and perpetual news coverage thereof made me the butt of many famine jokes. That is a long-winded way of saying I did not have the stature, socially or physically, to help Jennifer P. Her loneliness though—or the loneliness that I assumed she felt because it was what I was feeling—was something of which I was keenly aware. Once, during that winter, an upperclassman asked me if I was Ethiopian, and I determined right then and there that I didn’t give a fuck about high school and, the next day, I ate with Jennifer P. We said little. But I knew what it was like to feel lonely, and I assumed she did too. But Jennifer P. seemed nonplussed by my charity. Almost like she was not yearning for charity. She seemed perfectly content. After all, when her mother picked her up from school she always waved and smiled. So I never ate with her again. And resubmerged myself into the inveterate world of high school. This emptiness and the difficulty in communication which prevents attachment is what I think about when I think about Jennifer P. I don’t think Jennifer R. has had a bad day in her whole life. But somehow I don’t think Jennifer P. has ever had a good one. How could Jennifer P. not have been lonely in high school? How could she not be now? People who need people are the luckiest people in the world, right? I am just as inclined to avoid an argument with Barbra Streisand as I am with Paul McCartney. Fact is, some people flourish, or are at least content, with solitude. While we might dwell in an extroverted world, and as such, that world might be difficult to navigate if you are quiet or introverted, not everyone needs or seeks to be the center of attention. We might favor loud and assertive, but aren’t introspection and quiet admirable character traits too? Maybe we have no idea what people go through. Robin Williams, the manic comedian with a perpetual gleam in his eye, committed suicide. The media have been searching for a “reason” for his death to bring logic 11 Mr. Springsteen was one of 12,268 Bruces born in the USA in 1949. It was the 26th most popular name that year.
to the illogic of self-termination. When we look at Robin Williams we do not see despair or anguish. In Alan Stilltoe’s short story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” solitude becomes a means by which to achieve clarity and understanding and, ultimately, defiance. The runner is not really lonely, per se, just alone. Why should assimilation be the goal? When Henry David Thoreau12 suggested, and Linda Ronstadt13 and the Stony Poneys concurred, that sometimes it was ok to hear and march to a different drummer, perhaps they had people like Jennifer P. in mind. Maybe such people are not lonely. Maybe they do not keep pace with their companions because they hear a different drummer. Maybe Jennifer P. was merely stepping to her own music and thusly perfectly content. That said, regardless of shades or degrees of loneliness, social isolation cannot be healthy. Studies suggest that such isolation is just as, or more, detrimental to a person’s health as obesity and smoking.14 And while the process of selecting and securing a life partner is different for everyone, the motivation for doing so tends to be prompted by generally good things—for some it is with the intent of conceiving and raising children; for others it means augmenting and enhancing one’s own socioeconomic status; for others, merely finding companionship in a cold and lonely universe—and while results of such an endeavor tend to vary, the process serves to elucidate and challenge. Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company—going to football games and homecoming dances and playing foosball in finished basements—and not just in the obvious sense that we rely on others from time to time—to help us dig our car out of the snow or to lend us a cup of flour in a baking emergency. We are social in a more elemental way, as simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people. To not have that can have a debilitating effect. “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five plus years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent isolated in a fifteen-byfifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other p.o.w.s except by a furtive tapping, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” This from a man who was beaten regularly; denied adequate medical treatment for two broken arms, a broken leg, and chronic dysentery; and tortured to the point of having an arm broken again. Having too many friends can be unhealthy too. A University of Oxford anthropologist named Robin Dunbar developed something called the “Dunbar number.” This number is a limit—determined by employing a ratio between brain volume and group sizes of other animals he was studying—on how many people can be in one’s social circle before processing 12 Thoreau was born in 1817, approximately 70 years before the Social Security Administration began keeping track of baby names. And approximately 200 years before his name, after years of decline when it fell to as low as the 146th most popular name in 1994, reached #33 on the list of Top Baby Names with 9,350 Henrys born in 2014. 13 Ronstadt, born in 1946, the year before Linda began her six year run as the number one girl’s name in the United States. Ronstadt was one of 52,708 Lindas born in 1946. The next year, at the very pinnacle of the post-war baby boom, there were 99,680 Lindas born in the Unted States. There were 71,684 girls named Mary, the second-place name, born that year. 14 See, e.g., Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. and Layton, J.B., “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review”, PLoSMed 7(7), July 27, 2010.
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such relationships would become too complicated. That number is 150. Dunbar developed a series of numbers—which vary between and among different anthropological and historical groups—beginning with the 150 number which we would call casual friends. The next number, 50, is the number of people we call close friends. The next, 15, is the number of friends that we can turn to for sympathy and sharing confidences when you need it. The next, 5, is what we consider a close support group. So we need five healthy intimate relationships. What happens when a person does not have those? High school is mean. But not mean in the same way that the Viet Cong were mean to John McCain. And, with only fifty-four people in our graduating class, no one was in any imminent danger of exceeding their Dunbar numbers. But when a girl can’t find five friends, I would characterize the setting as unfriendly; and the people, including myself, uncaring if not apathetic. Even if such self-absorption were developmentally appropriate. A person needs to be touched and hugged. Girls need to help each other, groom one another, jump up and down and sing Madonna into hairbrushes. I no longer think that it is arrogant or condescending of me to say that I think Jennifer P. was lonely. Or that it was a sad kind of lonely. Science supports that assessment. My gut supports that assessment. As stated above, I know what it feels like to be lonely. My daughter, one of 1,639 Vivians born in the United States in 2007, seems—I intuitively know this—similarly susceptible to such loneliness. She is having a tough time navigating the cliques and rules established by third grade girls and the Emilys, Isabellas, Emmas, Avas and Natalies therein.15 Assuming my high school was the perfect microcosm for all of humanity, which it thankfully and definitely was not, are we to assume that 1 in 5 Jennifers is lonely? That would mean that there are at least 841 lonely 45 year old Jennifers in New York State alone. And 9,212 lonely 45 year old Jennifers in the United States. It feels wrong to think that twenty percent of the Jennifers are lonely. It feels wrong to think that twenty percent of all people are lonely. Wrong because there is no rationale for it in light of the abundance of lonely people; wrong because it would be so easy to remedy; and wrong because we have for the most part eradicated scurvy and diphtheria and smallpox. All the figures suggest there are 3,950,000 lonely people in New York State, 63,780,000 lonely people in the United States, and 1,425,000,000 lonely people in the world. Where did they all come from?
15 These are the top five baby names given to girls born in the United States in 2007.
Day after day, for twenty years, with almost embarrassing regularity, I pilgrimaged to the Silver Spring ymca. I knew—from reading research and using my eyes—you get added benefits from exercise if you go habitually to a place you associate with transforming your sense of wellbeing. You came to expect certain things. Rarely did the Y disappoint. So it struck me as out of place—even jarring—when I arrived at the Y at 7:30 one late September morning and saw two men sleeping in an older model car. One snoozed upright in the driver’s seat. The other slept behind the passenger’s seat with his legs propped up. In twenty years, this was a first. Still, I told myself, “Chill,” shrugged my shoulders, and looked the other way. When I left the Y an hour and a half later, they’d scarcely changed sleeping positions. The one closer to me, who sat behind the wheel, had his hair in little gel twists. I couldn’t see the one in the back too well. I began walking in their direction. I rehearsed, “You guys okay? You got a place to call home?” I also meant, “What’re you two doing here?” Something told me: “You’re no Good Samaritan. Walk on by.” I hightailed my way to work, but didn’t let it go. Proving I’d made much ado about nothing, I soon saw the car-dozers again, this time using the Y’s free weights. They’d been admitted three to four weeks earlier under the Y’s national “Away Program” for visitors from another Y. At first, Linda at the reception desk charged them $1.50 per person per day as “Away” members, but when they said “I don’t have it,” she waived the fee. She looked the other way when they used a staff telephone, too. After the older guy said they were peace-loving vegetarians, she suggested cheap local eats. Nobody knew the relationship between the two—the older one with gel twists looked around forty-five, and the younger one with acne around seventeen—but they gave the impression they were father and son. Architecturally, the Y looks like a derailed train with all its twists and turns. Erected in the 1920s as an “everybody’s welcome” country club, it was converted into a Y around 1960. Built using rusticated limestone in a Tudor Revival style, many original features can still be seen, such as the gym’s exposed massive wood-truss roof. People enter through an octagonal vestibule around the middle, where they pass a reception desk to get scanned in. They then turn right to reach the gym, main cardio room, free weights, weight machines, small locker rooms with saunas and individual showers, and a small studio upstairs. They turn left for more weight machines, a small cardio room, and, one level down, the large pool locker rooms with open showers and an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool. An adjoining outdoor swimming pool operates year round, except on rare occasions when it freezes over or is snowed under. Behind the far right end of the Y is a new brick childcare facility that offers coverage from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Parents usually park on the right side or behind the Y to make drop-offs. The newcomers spent most of their Y time pumping iron in the free-weight room, using weight machines, or sitting in the sauna. The son sometimes shot hoops solo in the gym. Once they arrived, they often went their separate ways. Both formed trusting connections rapidly—spotting free weights will do that. Ben—the son of an old friend—told me the father was on a first-name basis with all the weight room regulars, something few regulars or even trainers could claim. JoAnn—finalizing her divorce and screening prospects—flirted with the father. Whenever he saw her riding a recumbent, he stopped to charm her, his captive audi-
ence. Our new friends enjoyed run of the house and took full advantage of it. Tuesday, October 1 My work group anxiously trains thirty-five data collectors to enter two hundred Maryland schools to survey students starting next week. Two biggest school districts—Montgomery (mcps) and Prince Georges (pgcps)—keep ignoring us. Without sufficient work, we fear our hourly, on-call data collectors will quit before we need them. Wednesday, October 2 A bullet shower shatters windows of Michaels Craft Store in nearby Aspen Hill. My wife, Ginger, often shops there, drives past it daily to and from work. No injuries. 6:04 p.m.: a man picking up groceries at Shoppers is fatally shot on Randolph off Georgia. Ginger and I live three houses off Randolph. Her job—visiting six of her thirty-six schools daily—routinely takes her past Michaels and that intersection. Thursday, October 3 A gorgeous, cool October morning. Too early for colorful foliage. 7:41 a.m.: as I drive to the Y, a man mowing a lawn nearby is shot and killed. 8:12 a.m.: a man fueling his car is shot and killed two blocks from Michaels. 8:37 a.m.: a woman is shot and killed outside a Crisp and Juicy Chicken Restaurant nearby. Word spreads fast. Some people curtail workouts—no showers—leave the Y. I check with Linda at front desk, get clear picture of what/where. Two shootings occurred where Ginger travels from school to school. I call, leave a message, drive to work. People more distracted than usual. Many say, “I should leave, but don’t want to step outdoors.” Call Ginger again. No answer. 9:58 a.m.: a woman vacuuming her minivan is shot and killed at a gas station nearby. Suddenly, we’re reliving 9/11’s hyper-alert when every blast felt like a bomb. The only difference is now the terrorists are on the ground. Aware of the shootings, Ginger reaches elementary school in Aspen Hill for scheduled 10:30 a.m. meeting. Maintenance man in denim runs uphill, through tears shouts, “More gunshots. Trying to find out where from. Find cover. Fast.” Ginger runs to main door. Sentry behind glass door recognizes her, cracks door open, says, “Lockdown. Can’t let anybody in.” Ginger pleads, “I’ve got a meeting. The principal’s expecting me. Please lemme in.” Sentry says, “Hold on.” Disappears, returns, yells through glass door, “Sorry, can’t let you in. Principal says, ‘Meeting cancelled. Go find someplace safe.’” Angry at being thrown to the dogs, Ginger stumbles to her car, fires ignition, bangs fists on steering wheel, yells, “What the fuck?” Heads homeward with uncharacteristic disreA Journal of Creative Nonfiction
gard for speed limits and lights, inadvertently drives past scenes of three killings. 10:30 a.m.: Ginger calls. finally! “I don’t give a damn if it’s still morning, I wanna glass of wine,” she says. She keeps voicing anger at being told “go find someplace safe” when all they had to do was crack the door a little wider to give her shelter. After our hang-up, our daughter Emily, who started working in er of Prince George’s Hospital ten days ago, calls Ginger. PG’s notorious for receiving fugitives and gang warfare victims. She finished a 12-hour-shift at 8, just got home at 11. Normally her commute takes 20 minutes. “Beltway’s socked in,” Emily says. “I hope they catch this dude soon.” Ginger calls mcps security, complains, “I was locked out and thrown to the dogs.” She asks, “What’s mcps policy for locking staff out and making them unsafe?” Security officer says, “I’m sorry. We don’t have any policies. We’re on tenterhooks here. We’ve no clue how to keep people safe. Truly, you’re safest right where you are.” 1 p.m.: Ginger calls: “Skip your after-work Y visit. Get home asap.” Ginger calls mcps colleagues whose jobs require multiple school visits daily. They are likewise terrified, though the killings occurred within striking distance of Ginger’s schools, not theirs. Thousands of parents decide to pick up their children rather than allow them to walk or take the bus. Under the best conditions, Ginger hates bus duty. “Must’ve been bloody hell,” she says. I compromise. Leave work for Y at 2:30 to reach home by 4. Y members already walking to cars in groups to reduce odds of being singled out. Parents who’d left children at childcare facility located behind Y begin to enter Y’s front door, tear through Y, exit back door, dash to childcare building, collect children, run to back door with children, dash through main building, exit via front door. The father runs alongside JoAnn until she reaches her car, then jogs back into the Y. The men of the sauna (“saunamen”) debate, “How’s it possible for somebody to shoot four people in separate incidents within two hours without being apprehended?” 4 p.m.: reach home. Ginger’s following day’s events and speculation on TV, radio, computer, phone. “Right in our own backyard,” she says. I try to convince her to go walk with me. “You crazy?” she asks. “I’m going. I need to check in with neighbors.” Ginger says, “Don’t walk on Randolph. Walk the neighborhood.” That had been my plan. Usually, from 5 to 6 p.m. is peak after-work dogwalking, running, before-dinner-strolling time. Hardly anybody out. Dobermans usually barking behind cyclone fence notably absent. Before dinner, with Ginger’s blessing, I drive four miles to visit my 84-year-old mom, who lives in assisted living due to vascular dementia. Mom’s sharp, except for pervasive delusion her long-deceased father, who abandoned her at age four, is coming to visit. When I arrive, residents sit in common area watching evening news. Sobbing uncontrollably, Mom says, “With this traffic, my father’s never going to get here tonight.” After she ceases sobbing,
Mom asks, “Can you buy me a twelve-pack of coke? They say ‘be on high alert.’” Later, as I kiss Mom goodnight, she says, “Don’t be afraid. I’m not going anywhere.” 9:20 p.m.: a man walking on Georgia—just across DC line—is shot and killed. Witnesses report a blue Caprice. Death count for twenty-seven hours: six. Each by a single bullet. Ginger says, “Maybe your walks aren’t such a great idea.” Friday, October 4 Ginger insists I stop going to the Y altogether until things calm: “You’re a sitting duck coming and going. The Y’s surrounded by woodsy areas where the sniper can gun for you. It directly abuts the Beltway for an easy getaway. A killer’s paradise.” “If I’m safe anywhere, it’s the Y. It’s our refuge, our sanctuary. Anyway, why’re we talking about me? You drive through a warzone. You gonna stop working?” “Would if I could,” she answers. “We’ll both keep doing what we do. I’m worried about pulling off this survey. Schools act like the enemy’s crossed the Maginot Line. But schools are safe.” “For now,” Ginger says. “Why Code Blue though? Where’d anybody get the idea schoolchildren are vulnerable?” Around nine, Emily calls Ginger: “er’s empty again. I guess nobody’s got emergencies they’re willing to get shot for. But the Beltway’s crazy. Police are conducting random searches. I gotta get home and get some rest.” Many in DC metro, especially Montgomery County (MC), stay home rather than facing elevated risks associated with mundane activities like loading or fueling a car, lawn mowing, walking, eating out. Some keep children home sick. Ginger drives through yesterday’s warzone, feeling safe behind her steering-wheel-armor until she has to step out. Schools in MC and DC on Code Blue: students captive—no recess, no leaving the school building until day’s end, no outdoor after-school activities. Many meetings cancelled. Those that happen are half-hearted. 2:30 p.m.: the sniper resurfaces ninety miles southwest in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where a woman loading bags into her car at MJ Designs [later Michaels] is shot and injured. “Your anger dissipating?” I ask when Ginger calls. “Not a bit, but I don’t know whether I’m using anger to camouflage how totally fucking terrified I am,” she says. Authorities confirm high-powered bullets recovered from murder sites come from same assault weapon. Media brands killer: “Beltway Sniper.” “This guy’s got something against Michaels!” “He’s crafty,” Ginger says.
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Saturday, October 5 When we visit Mom, she cries we haven’t visited for two weeks. I show I’d marked my visit on her calendar two days ago. Mom says, “I forgive you.” She complains her father again no-showed. “Probably stuck in traffic.” We roll Mom out to the front porch. “So peaceful today. No shootings.” “Not yet,” Mom responds. We learn off-campus trips for residents have been suspended, including restaurant trips. Instead, more on-campus activities are planned. “Is it safe anywhere now?” Mom asks. At Y, the saunamen discuss the nature of terrorism, argue whether the sniper qualifies. Main argument against: no intent to impair national security. For: people experience terror. Sunday, October 6 I sit in the small locker room (capacity = 35 people) outside the sauna with Larry, a retired minister who spent years in Latin America. The son—with flat, short-cropped hair, unlike his father’s gel twists—walks in. “Can I interrupt?” he asks. Larry says, “Sure, son. What’s on your mind?” “D’you know how to use one of these locks?” he asks, holding up a combination lock. “Sure, easy enough. You never used one for your school locker?” asks Larry. “Naw,” he says. “We didn’t have lockers or much anything. Can you please teach me?” Larry explains the workings of a combination lock. The son plays with his shiny new lock, does some calisthenics alongside the lockers, then departs with his lock. Larry turns to me, says, “He’s so much more polite than most teenagers these days. Good to have him around.” At home, Ginger asks, “Could you please stop going to the Y until we know it’s safe?” “We’ve talked about this. What else am I going to do?” MC Police Chief, Charles Moose, promises heightened police visibility in schools. Monday, October 7 35
My work group arrives early because school data collection begins tomorrow. We rationalize that our anxiety springs from opening-night stage fright. 8:08 a.m.: a student in Bowie, Maryland—thirty miles east, in Prince George’s—is shot in front of Benjamin Tasker Middle School. Two people in my work group live in Bowie. On hearing news, one screams, “Oh, my God, I live on the same block as Benjamin Tasker. They don’t care who they shoot. It could’ve been my child. I’m outta here.” “Is there nothing this monster won’t defile?” I ask myself. Co-worker remarks, “We’ll never pull off this survey. Schools’ll shut down.”
cbs affiliate later leaks that the sniper left a Tarot card—the Death card—near Tasker with the handwritten message, “Policeman: Call me God.” Chief Moose says, “Shooting a kid. I guess it’s getting really, really personal now.” pgcps declares indefinite Code Blue. I go see Mom. “This sob’s a lousy coward, shooting a kid,” she says. “Bring ‘im on, I’ll show ‘im.” Media starts advising public to minimize time spent “exposed” outdoors. Suggests walking stutter-step, like football or basketball players: fake running one direction, then go another. Also recommend: crouch while stutter-stepping or fueling cars. Ginger adopts stutter-step without crouch. From office window, I watch people stutter-stepping to/from cars. Gruesome. Chaplin-esque. Not for me. Instead, I park in the lot’s farthest corner, where woods buffer Interstate 95, and motion to the woods, “Come out and meet me.” Media reports say student is expected to survive. Tuesday, October 8 Co-workers with schoolchildren claim teachers told students: “So the sniper can’t shoot you, take the bus—even if you usually don’t—if you live more than two blocks away. If you’ve got to walk to or from school, don’t linger. Keep moving. If you can walk, then run. Run all the way.” Two data collectors call schools fortresses, demand we provide armed guards to protect them. Data collection commences. A few schools delay indefinitely (cancel). Leave early for Y. No saunamen. Walk the neighborhood. No Dobermans. Wednesday, October 9 At Y, I talk with Joseph. For ten years he’s been dropped off daily to serve four-hour shifts in spurts over six to eight hours. He knows each piece of equipment—touches each one as if he knows its feelings—the same way Quasimodo knew his bells. He shows kindness toward Y members by consistently inquiring about their welfare and offering to help them use equipment. His imposing strength and physical stature—trimmed down Incredible Hulk— contrasts with his soft-as-a-lamb demeanor. I ask him about the father/son duo. Joseph says, “Sometimes, they wash their clothes in the shower, spread them out in the sauna, wait around, and leave wearing the clothes they just washed.” “They come here wearing gym clothes?” I ask. “No,” Joseph says, “They come in wearing, like, khaki pants with a polo shirt. They bring gym clothes and change into them just like anybody else.” “So, which are they washing then?” “Could be either, or both, depending on how long they want to wait around for the clothes to dry. That’s why people say we took in two homeless men as charity cases.” A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
“How much time they spend here?” Joseph answers, “I see ‘em two, maybe three times a week. They stay here nearly as long as me. I guess they have no place else to go either.” “They got names?” “I assume so. Never told me,” he answers. “How long they been hangin’ around?” “A month, maybe longer?” Joseph answers. “They making friends?” “Some, especially the older guy. Mostly they keep to themselves,” Joseph answers. “How you think people take to them?” “Members like knowing how quickly they’ve shown they accept the new guys despite their situation.” At home, Ginger says, “As much as I try, the show’s barely going on. Everyone’s so distracted. Hardly anything’s getting decided. Safety’s the only priority.” I call Mom. Promise her we’ll be out Saturday. Promise Ginger I’ll go to Y only once a day. She asks, “D’you have to?” With regrets, we fire two data collectors who demanded armed guards to protect them in schools. Rationale: they spread undue alarm. 8:18 p.m.: a man in Manassas, Virginia—thirty miles west—is shot and killed fueling his car. Roads and entrances to Interstate 66 closed. Cars stopped and searched. Gridlock cascades to other Interstates. Thursday, October 10 Nobody shot, few schools cancel, nobody no-shows for Ginger’s meetings. State troopers apply fbi-developed profiles—50ish white male, military background— to identify suspects. Ironically, a co-worker who’d been a medic/CO in Vietnam is stopped driving to work, searched, released. Leave work early for Y. See JoAnn and ask, “Anything going on between you two?” Eyes wide, Joann answers, “I can’t be seen with him or anyone, not yet.” Y people try to show interest in usual distractions, like upcoming World Series. “At least it won’t be the damned Yankees,” quips ardent Orioles fan. 37
Friday, October 11 9:30 a.m.: a man is shot and killed fueling car fifty yards from a Virginia state trooper in Fredericksburg (again). Witnesses report white cargo van making getaway. Authorities shut down entrances to Interstate 95. Gridlock. Cars searched. Gas stations begin providing barriers for customers to hide behind. On arriving at Y, I ask Linda about the son. She says, “Sometimes, I see him writing in a notebook. I figure he’s doing homework and think, ‘Now, that’s a good father, seeing his
son gets his homework done.’ But, whenever I get up close to see what he’s writing, he shuts the book, looks into my eyes, and smiles at me until I go away.” “He has a good smile?” I ask. “Yes, but not like his father. The father’s smile’s totally disarming,” she answers, affecting a swoon. Saunamen focus anger and fear on the U.S. Senate granting Bush war powers for use in Iraq. They applaud the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Jimmy Carter. “What a great diplomat he’s become since liberation from his Presidency,” says one saunaman. Over dinner, Ginger mirrors prevailing local gallows humor: “At least we know we’re safe here when he’s killing people two hours away.” After going to bed early, Ginger wakens with sniper nightmares. I tell her, “Our neighbors are probably having sniper nightmares too.” “What a consolation,” she says. Saturday, October 12 We pick up crab cakes to bring to Mom’s. Residents gather in the common area watching “developments.” Occasionally, one shouts advice on capture strategies. Mom says, “You know what they say, if you want to keep something safe, hide it in a place so obvious nobody’d ever consider looking there?” “Yeah.” “That’s where the sniper is,” Mom says. “Where?” “Right in front of you,” she says. “How d’you know?” “My father,” she says. “Your father?” “Yes, my father. I never know when or where he’s going to show up. But that’s always where he is.” At the Y, there’s an acrid odor in the small locker room. I leave to work out. When I return later to sauna, the odor’s dissipated. The saunamen discuss yesterday’s Bali nightclub bombing that killed two hundred. One asks, “With the fbi and all these police departments teaming up, why can’t they catch this clown?” 38
Sunday, October 13 I suggest to Ginger we walk in Brookside Gardens—a place she loves to visit in October. Shaking her head, she says, “You still don’t get it.” I call Mom, who’s partying with other residents. Y nearly empty. No saunamen. No conversation. Before retiring, Ginger says, “I hope this week doesn’t start off with a bang.” A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Monday, October 14 9:15 p.m.: sniper resurfaces in Falls Church, Virginia. Shoots and kills a woman loading her car at Home Depot. “That wasn’t the start to this week I was hoping for,” Ginger says. “The idea of moms taking their kids to school and sheltering them from a potential sniper attack is not the America that I know,” Bush tells reporters. Kids run home from school—I see them—even high schoolers. “Twisted way to promote physical activity,” I muse to myself. On her way home, Ginger observes police performing grid searches at the pet cemetery across from Michaels in Aspen Hill. When she hears helicopters circling overhead, she wonders, “What’s going on now?” Tuesday, October 15 Early morning dream: I keep a handgun in the freezer, wrapped in aluminum foil. Even Ginger doesn’t know. Even I don’t know why it’s there. At the Y, Joseph reveals the father asked for orientation to a new piece of equipment earlier. “I showed him how to use the assisted pull-up machine in the cardio room for arm and shoulder strength. He’s very attentive and diligent and pushes himself to his physical max. Very focused,” Joseph says. Later, Joseph tells me he saw the father sitting in the small locker room, facing lockers, back to the sauna, head on hands, elbows on knees, silent. “I didn’t know what to say. So I just told him, ‘Have a nice day.’” I talk with Linda on the way out about the son. She giggles and explains he was shooting hoops solo in the gym and the ball got stuck on the rim. “I told him, just jump up and get it. Tap it. But he looked at me blankly, so I got him another ball to knock it down.” A witness claims he saw an AK-74 fired at the sniper killing site. With the start of hunting season two days away, Maryland’s governor indefinitely bans outdoor discharge of firearms in MC, PG, and other close-in counties. Police release composite sketches of white cargo vans—with silver ladder rack on top and broken right rear taillight—and ask the public to notify authorities of vehicle sightings at recent shootings. 39
Wednesday, October 16
AK-74 witness discredited and widely excoriated. President Bush signs authorization into law to invade Iraq. Several articles of wet clothing drape wooden bracket surrounding sauna’s heating
The saunamen express rage that a citizen would bear false witness in such grave matters, condemn Bush’s plan to invade Iraq, express regret at not knowing how to help “two
homeless men at the Y.” Thursday, October 17 After dropping her son at childcare, Mary tears into the Y’s backdoor, runs full force into the father’s welcoming arms. At first, she pulls away, but he holds her tight, and she surrenders to his embrace. Mary says, “So frightened.” He says, “It’ll be over soon.” She asks, “How’d’you know?” He says, “It has to be.” Mary later says, “His embrace—it felt so warm, I felt relief, it gave me a sense of consolation.” The AK-74 witness is arrested, creating a new target for public fury. Local expert on serial killers explains lack of sniper strikes over weekends: “The lull means he has family obligations. They would notice if he was missing.” He insists the fear level doesn’t compare to terrorist attacks. “It’s only one a day…not 200,” referring to the night club bombing in Bali. Friday, October 18 I see Larry, the retired minister, sitting on a bench in the locker room talking with the son. I leave, walk the treadmill, come upon Larry later in the long hallway between the main cardio room and the gym. He says, “I really like that youngster. He’s not like other kids his age. He gives me hope.” Later, I walk the neighborhood. Nobody out. Still no Dobermans. Saturday, October 19 Another early morning dream: when we exhale, we project the sniper onto the world around us. He’s little more than our own exhalations. 7:59 p.m.: the sniper resurfaces in Ashland, Virginia. Shoots and critically wounds a man outside Ponderosa Steakhouse. Nails letter on tree behind Ponderosa demanding $10 million by 6 a.m. Monday morning. Sunday, October 20 Police receive a call from the sniper informing them about the location of the already-found letter. Secret Service confirms letter’s handwriting matches Tarot card’s. A priest in Ashland receives a call from a man alleging he’s the sniper. Caller suggests A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
police investigators look into liquor store robbery-homicide in Montgomery, Alabama. I go see Mom. “You bring another 12-pack?” she asks. Monday, October 21 Investigators contact authorities in Montgomery, Alabama, about September 21 robbery-homicide there. fbi links fingerprint lifted off magazine recovered after robbery-homicide to prints taken from Lee Boyd Malvo a year ago in ins detention. Investigators in Washington State say Malvo was last seen traveling with John Muhammad. At the Y, Joseph reports he saw the father in the locker room earlier, head on hands, elbows on knees, just like last week. Joseph asked him, “How’re you doing?” The father answered, “Not well.” Joseph tells me, “I think he’s depressed. I don’t know what to do for him.” Tuesday, October 22
5:56 a.m.: a bus driver is shot and killed while standing on the top step of his idling bus in Aspen Hill (again), near Michaels (again). Police scour grounds, find another note: “Your incompetence has cost you another life.” 6:15 a.m.: Ginger shakes me awake, says, “The sparrows have come home to roost.” “Who? What?” “The sniper killed someone in Aspen Hill this morning. Last time he started shooting up our backyard, he killed four people in two hours. What’s he doing back here? What’s he have against right here?” Ginger asks, her voice becoming more strident. “Is this the start of another cluster? Do I really have to go to work?” “No. Stay home. Get back in bed.” “I’ve already had three cups of coffee. I have important meetings,” Ginger says. “Call in sick.” “I can’t. But I’ll call the principals to let them cancel,” Ginger says. “Smart. Traffic’s gonna stand still. Bus drivers’ll probably all call out.” All highway exits, side streets, and interstate bridges connecting Maryland and Virginia closed. Calling out = non-issue. 6:30 a.m.: I initiate a calling tree to workgroup to require everyone stay home no matter how much they think they need to get to work. 6:45 a.m.: Y parents begin stutter-stepping across parking lot with kids in tow, throw themselves through the front doorway, tear through the building, jump out the back door, stutter-step to childcare to make drop-offs, jump through the rear door, race through the building, exit via the front door, stutter-step back to their cars, make rapid getaways. Around 11 a.m., Bill—a mostly retired professor, and part-time Y personal trainer— sees the father exiting the sauna. Looks ragged and flushed, stumbles as if on the verge of fainting, then sits on bench with elbows on his knees, and buries his face in his hands, just as Joseph twice observed recently.
Bill asks, “Is everything alright? Is anything the matter?” The father lifts his face from his hands, turns to Bill, says, “No, nothing’s the matter. Everything’s fine.” Bill says, “You must’ve had a hard workout.” The father says, “Yes, that’s it.” Later, I talk with Bill about their exchange. “As a physical trainer, I keep an eagle eye out for people who’re overdoing it. I suspect he overdid his sauna time after a strenuous workout. But maybe he’s experiencing stresses we can’t know anything about. That could explain it too,” Bill says. About now, Chief Moose at a press conference reads from the letter the sniper nailed to the tree behind Ponderosa: “We have not been able to assure anyone of their safety.” Meanwhile, the father gets a laptop from his car, returns to the Y, and asks Linda at the front desk if there’s a room where he can watch television in private. Linda tells him, “No, all the rooms with TVs have people working out in them.” So, he goes to the main cardio room across from the gym, watches television for a minute or two, comes back out seeming panicked, and says to Linda, “Tell my son if you see him I’m in the car because I’ve got a toothache. Remember to tell him I’ve got a toothache.” Later, at another press conference, Chief Moose releases the letter’s postscript: “Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.” Later still, to sniper, Chief Moose says, “You indicated that this is about more than violence. We are waiting to hear from you.” My work team, already terrified for their own children, is now convinced the sniper’s threat against schoolchildren is real. They believe schools will react as if the threat is real and will evade our requests. No way to get survey back on schedule. Code Blue? After today, maybe Code Red’s more humane. Ginger says, “Why even fake it?” Wednesday, October 23 Ginger bites her knuckles, circumvents Aspen Hill, arrives late. Nobody interested in getting on with business. Sniper’s return to Aspen Hill creates expectation of escalation. Emily calls Ginger, says er still a ghost town. “Even people with emergency conditions, or close to death’d rather stay home than face the chance—the tiny chance—of being shot.” Authorities obtain mva photo of Muhammad and fax to sniper task force. Make, model, and tag number of blue Caprice registered in John Muhammad’s name is obtained. cnn first news service to pick up on bolo and tag numbers. Two hours later, fox releases to public nationwide. As required by the sniper, Chief Moose announces via press conference, “You’ve asked us to say, quote, ‘We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose,’ end quote.” Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms issues warrant to arrest John Muhammad on Federal firearms violations. The saunamen discuss yesterday’s Aspen Hill killing, sniper threats against children, A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
and seven hundred hostages just taken during a seizure of the House of Cultural Theater in Moscow by Chechen rebels. Conversation about manifestations of terrorism takes heated turn. Thursday, October 24
12:54 a.m.: a trucker spots a 1990 blue Caprice parked at a rest stop on Interstate 70, an hour to the northwest, Trooper arrives, blocks exit. State police shut down I-70 in both directions. 3:30 a.m.: police extract Muhammad and Malvo from Caprice. One sleeps at the wheel, the other in back with legs propped over passenger’s seat. Trooper finds Bushmaster XM-15 in Caprice’s trunk. Ballistics tests quickly link Bushmaster to shootings. 7:00 a.m.: when Linda arrives at the Y, she and a co-worker talk about photos of the two men, John Muhammed and Lee Malvo, arrested as snipers, whose photos they’d seen in the morning news. They agree the photos “do, but don’t” look like the father and son who’ve been coming to the Y on and off for two months. Muhammad has flat hair, is darker, and doesn’t have that disarming smile in the police photo. Malvo looks younger and doesn’t have acne in the police photo. They talk with the Y director, who blows up at them and says, “No, it’s not them. Don’t accuse them. Don’t assume. If parents who have children in childcare hear you saying something, they’ll get unnecessarily concerned.” Linda and her co-worker agree that mum’s the word, but on the way back to the front desk, Linda says, “If they don’t come back, we know.” News of the sniper capture spreads throughout the Y like mercury spilled from a broken thermometer. Excitement, tempered by the slow realization we’ve been in their day-by-day company, cheek by jowl. We’ve sweated with them. We’ve admitted them to our circle of trust, felt compassion for them, even allowed them to comfort us. Only two days ago, they’d been in our midst, right after the final shooting. Had they come here to celebrate? The older guy hadn’t looked well and seemed anxious. Ben—recent college grad, who’d often spotted the son—says, “I put my life in the hands of Jeffrey Dahmer.” Larry—recently-retired minister—says, “I used to be good at judging character.” Joann—prospect screener—says, “Ask me when my divorce is final.” Joseph—all-around ambassador—says, “I wish I could’ve figured out what to do to help before things went haywire.” Bill—part-time Y personal trainer—tells media crowding the Y, “I can tell you what they look like naked.” Locker room solemn and quiet, just like a year ago after a Y family of four—mother, father, two girls—en route to Australia died in the Pentagon’s fiery crash on 9/11. Both times, we’d lost friends. I fixate on a vision of two men dozing in the Y parking lot, the one at the wheel with
his hair in little gel twists. A cold chill invades my gut. I feel a strong urge to scream. I know I’m not alone. I drive out to see Mom. “They caught ‘em.” “You’re telling me something I don’t know?” Mom asks. “Yeah, I know you know. They were working out at the Y.” “So were you,” Mom says. “What’re you saying?” “What did I tell you? Hide things in plain sight. Whoever’s gonna look at the Y?” says Mom. “How’d you know?” “My father,” Mom says. “I always find him where I least expect to.” “Ginger and I leave for Paris tonight.” “Fuck a duck,” Mom says. “What’d you say?” “Lucky duck,” she says. “Why’d you say that?” “Way better than a duck in a noose, wouldn’t you say?” “You surprise me sometimes.” “I’m disappointed I don’t surprise you all the time,” Mom says. “We’ll be back in a week. You expect to be here?” “Unless my father decides to take me on a trip. I’ll send you a postcard to keep you updated,” Mom says. Ginger and I take a quick neighborhood walk before heading to the airport. People and dogs everywhere. Celebratory atmosphere. No matter what people say, it sounds like, “The war’s over! We can go outside again.” You can hear Roman candles go off in their voices. Dogs do their circle dances with abandon. Dobermans! Dobermans! 6:00 p.m.: Ginger and I board our flight. Once aloft, our respiration rates slow, inhalations deepen. “You see, I was right all along. I was safe because the Y was their sanctuary.” “You win on a technicality,” Ginger says. “I was still right: The Y was the most dangerous place on earth.” “What if I’d called the police the first time I saw them and my skin crawled?” Ginger says, “Police can’t make arrests because someone’s skin crawls. And the Y people fell in love with them. They loved giving the snipers a place to park their bodies by day if not by night.” “What if I’d walked up and talked to them?” Ginger says, “You’d probably’ve hired them and sent them into schools, where they would’ve killed hundreds of children. Overnight, you would’ve been world famous. And dead. And if you weren’t, you’d’ve wished you were.”
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Word of mouth first brought me to Francis Fenton’s extraordinary orchard more than a decade ago. It was there I encountered a universe of apples presided over by a spry, loquacious, old man whose entire life, give or take a few years, had been devoted to these fabulous, mythic, and entirely ordinary fruits of the earth. I sensed during that first visit that I should get to know Francis a bit better and that I should bring my students to him as well; I was convinced he had some wisdom to pass on to us, that he knew things we should all know. So nearly every fall for ten years I found an excuse to bring my writing classes to Sandy River Apples in Mercer, Maine. There we would walk among the trees, guided by Francis, and collect apples, which we made into cider using an old-fashioned press. Francis is dead now; no whole person, like no whole apple tree, can live forever, but like Francis’s spirit and wisdom, small branches can be grafted from one apple tree to another, and in that way, some part of the life goes on and on and on. It is an August afternoon many years after that first meeting, and Francis is on my mind because I have decided to bottle our apple cider—the nearly final step in a process my partner Ruth and I began eight months earlier. The cider-making saga started on a sunny fall day in our front yard; overflowing bushel baskets of apples sat under the spreading branches of the beech tree, while nearby, upright on its wooden legs, was an old-fashioned cider press in which we crushed the apples and extracted their juice. The press, borrowed from neighbors, is as simple a machine as ever there was, all wood and sturdy iron and run by muscle—not far up the technological ladder from stomping grapes to make wine in long-ago Italy. The apples are tossed into a small box on the top of the press, which is fitted with a metal-toothed roller. One person throws apples into the box, while the other turns the hand crank that spins the toothed roller that mashes the apples, which drop into a cloth bag held up by wooden staves beneath the box. The cloth and staves sit on a wooden tray which has a hole drilled in it. When the barrel is full of apple pulp, another person turns a crank on top of the press that slowly screws a metal rod into a wooden plate that presses down onto the apple pulp until the juice starts to run, like a golden waterfall, into the tray and down through the hole, into pitchers and bottles and cans and cartons. As the pulp is compressed, the wooden machine creaks and moans and pops with the pressure, and you know then you have gotten every last drop of juice from your beautiful apples, and it is time to stop. The person turning the crank on top begins to twist it the opposite way, letting up pressure on the wooden plate. The now dry apple pulp is hauled over to the compost pile, the cider is tasted and approved of, thick and sweet and tart; the bottles and cartons and pitchers are capped and moved to the shade, and the process starts again. As drops of juice and bits of pulp get scattered across the lawn, the late fall wasps and bees appear, drawn by the yeasty sweetness. A bushel of apples will make about one gallon of juice. We pressed approximately ten gallons of juice that fall, enough to fill our new home brew bucket, plus a couple gallons to put in the freezer to serve at Thanksgiving, make into mulled cider at Christmas, and otherwise enjoy in the deep of winter when apples, fresh on the tree, are a sweet memory. Perhaps it isn’t fair to say the cider-making started with the pressing; it actually began with the apples themselves, which we collected by the grainbag-full in Francis’s orchard, him shaking the trees with a long hooked pole, the apples thudding to the ground, us ducking and
dodging out of the way as they came raining like fantastic red treasure from above. Francis, who inherited the orchard from his father, William Fenton, who inherited it from his father, Frank Fenton, who bought the farm from the first settlers in 1852, is one of Western Maine’s most respected and beloved apple men. Bucking the current market system that favors only a handful of shippable varieties of apples (McIntosh, Cortland, Granny Smith, and the like), Francis grew upwards of 143 different varieties, including at least one he invented himself— the Dolly Delicious, a yellow, thin-skinned apple that isn’t too tart, named after his late wife, whose delicate constitution favored a sweeter, less acidic fruit. On Francis’s advice, Ruth and I mixed at least seven different varieties of apple for our cider, combining sweet with tart for ultimate flavor. If Francis was making fresh cider, not to be fermented like ours, he’d often throw in a bright red beet as well—turning the juice a golden-red and adding an earthy richness. The cider recipe Ruth and I chose is as old and as simple as the apple press, as ancient as the making of alcohol itself. We invited wild yeasts to do the work of fermentation—a choice that would lead, predicted home brew experts, to a questionable product. Most encourage using store-bought yeast and the addition of several harmless but useful chemicals. But we wanted to do it the old-fashioned way, like Ruth’s ciderdrinking New England ancestors might have done. It took us a while to commit to the cidermaking process, because, well, it would take time and labor. Time spent, mostly, learning how to do something new, and labor at various points throughout the eight months, although, in truth, the cider itself and the wee sugar-eating yeasts were doing most of the heavy-lifting. After straining our fresh apple juice into a five-gallon plastic bucket, which we purchased as part of a kit from the local home brew store, we put plastic wrap loosely over the top of the bucket. After a few days, the juice began to thicken and foam, a sign that the yeasts had arrived and were starting their work. We wiped the slimy goo from the sides of the container, added another gallon of fresh cider, firmly clamped on the blue bucket lid, affixed the airlock, and set the bucket in a warm corner of the house, where it began to bubble away, the water-filled airlock burping along with a steady glug glug—the background noise to our lives for the next month. Once the glugging stopped, we siphoned off the cider from the fivegallon container to another clean bucket, leaving behind a thick layer of rusty sediment. We refilled the airlock with fresh water and moved the bucket to the basement, where it sat all through the winter and spring and early summer until Ruth decided one day to check to see what was happening to it and brought me half a cup of pale gold liquid in a glass with ice. It wasn’t the fruity, slightly effervescent commercial hard cider I was accustomed to, but it was definitely alcohol—the smell and my first sip gave me a giddy spin—and it was definitely dry, meaning the yeasts had eaten all or most of the sugar. It was ready to bottle, but one thing and another got in the way and months went by, until the cider asserted itself into my to do list on this particular August day. One of the reasons the cider rose to the top of the list was that seasonal cues—cooler nights, the sight of green apples dangling from neighborhood trees, ripening winter squash, the chirp of crickets in the dry grass, fresh local corn for sale by the roadside—reminded me that apple season would be soon upon us again; soon we would be visiting Francis again, collecting bulging bags of Romes and Cortlands, Macouns and Spys; soon it would all begin again, just like the year before. I wanted to pay the apples a certain respect and complete the A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
process we had begun—after all, so much had already been invested, so much time and labor had gone into the cider already. Another of the reasons bottling the cider finally gravitated to the top of the to-do list was that I had some “free time” on my hands: I had recently resigned from a second teaching job as faculty member in a low-residency creative writing program. The job was a pleasant and good one—helping others fulfill their writerly dreams. My labors there put enough money in the bank each month to pay the mortgage and the home equity loan, but forced withdrawals of time and energy that in the end left me feeling depleted. The decisionmaking process that resulted in my quitting ran on like an underground river for years, until one day it asserted itself as a simple choice—time or money—what did I value more? The answer seemed suddenly clear: why use my imaginative labor to make money, when what I wanted more of was time—time to do my own writing, time to care for my chickens and goats, my garden, my partner, my friends; time to once in a while do nothing at all. Yes, I was reminded, despite being bombarded with messages from every front to the contrary, there are lots of things money can’t buy—time and happiness first among them. In fact, as many sages have suggested, there might be an inverse relationship between those variables—those who are truly rich in time and spirit may be those who seem to be worldly poor. Actually, wise folks of old aren’t the only ones who are telling us that we might have it all wrong about labor and money and well-being: these days there’s a whole new field called Happiness Studies that is proving, quantifiably, that making money isn’t what makes us content, that wealth, defined as the accumulation of valuable possessions, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. So, yes, I quit a job and because of that had more “disposable” time and although I can’t account for it exactly, I’d say that in some metaphysical way or another, I was using some of the time that I’d normally spend getting paid to read student manuscripts to make my own apple jack on a sunny late summer day. Visits to Francis’s orchard usually included a tour, where he named each tree as he loped along, dodging in and out of the grassy rows. As he passed a tree, he’d impart some wisdom and opinion on the uses of its fruit (Gotta eat that one before sundown. It’ll rot on the tree), some history of its growth (Grafted that in ‘77), and related (or not) observations about contemporary life (Remember always go away from the table hungry. That’s the trouble with American people. They eat like pigs). In his mile-a-minute (perhaps he thinks he has no time to lose) slightly slurred, spit-moistened speech he’d tell his guests: That’s an old tree. My father planted that tree one-hundred years ago. That tree is a hundred years old. A century old. That’s a Wealthy. This was all Wealthys. My father cleared all this land and planted it to Wealthys one-hundred years ago. But when I came back from the Navy, the pines, ya see, had taken over, see. All this out here was pines with apple trees growin’ in ‘em. So I cleared it again and planted all these different kinds. I got so many I don’t remember ‘em all. Apple trees typically live for thirty to fifty years, but can reach one-hundred or even one-hundred-fifty. When I first met Francis the Wealthys his father had planted were getting old, like Francis himself, who was then in his early 90s. The Wealthys in his orchard were easy to spot; they were the oldest and most elegant trees: bent, gnarled, propped up with weathered barn boards where their limbs sagged from so many years of bearing heavy fruit.
Francis grew up in the modest white house which stands next to the white barn with its huge hand-hewn hemlock beams, which stands next to the long white apple shed with the big smiling dancing apple painted on the side. I was born in that house. I guess I’ll die in it, he’d say. Up until about 1940 life was okay out here in the woods and fields, then things sort of went to pot. All the guys left. They went out West. After World War II everyone left. I even left myself. He served in the Navy, but returned in 1972 to take over the farm, which had been vacant for thirty years. He loved to regale guests with stories about the ship he sailed on during WWII and the battles he fought. He wore the blue and gold commemorative ship’s hat sometimes, other times a sweaty, stained baseball cap. Most always he’d dress in a plaid shirt, long sleeves buttoned around strong, boney wrists, work boots and khaki pants, all hanging off his thin frame. His eyes were deep blue and milky, his skin colored with age spots, his hands cragged, like the limbs of the trees. He shook. A fact a life, he’d say. Aint’ none of us get out of this world alive. Francis was a connoisseur of labor—someone who had paid close attention to the ways that physical effort produced things of value, and the ways that the ratio of effort to value has changed over time. It took hard work, real labor, to replant the apple orchard after the pines had moved in—the kind of labor that is unfamiliar to many of us today—what you’d call back-breaking. My age, see, is the machine age, but before that, back then, they made powerful men, powerful men, men who could eat a big bowl of cornmeal mush for breakfast then go out and work all day, cutting down trees, taking big chips out. I try that with an axe and it looks like a beaver had been at it…in those days they’d work at it and a big chip would fly right out. Cornmeal mush for breakfast and another bowl at dinner, and they’d go to bed and get up and do it all again. My father had either a spade handle or an ax handle in his hands all his life. Those men, those powerful men, they’d shave off the calluses with a jackknife. Those were some powerful men. It’s no secret that there have been ages that have required more of us physically, in terms of our labor, in terms of our ability and willingness to transform things—trees to logs to thick barn beams, wheat to flour to bread, corn to meal to mush, apples to juice to cider. Apple cider, it’s said, was once the drink of New England. In fact, I’ve heard tell, 18th century New Englanders drank more cider than water. According to John Bunker, another Maine apple man, we began as a nation of Johnny Appleseeds, planting millions of trees from Ohio to Maine, many of them used for the making of cider. In his keynote address at the 2008 Common Ground Fair in Maine, Bunker noted that in the beginning, these millions of trees were just hybrid mutts—planted from seed and growing into whatever kind of tree the mixed dna of the two parent trees foretold—none like another—kind of like human children, who sometimes look nothing like either parent or each other. Some of these wild apples turned out to be juicy and red and sweet and tart. Some turned out to be chalky and mealy. But after grafting was invented, growers were able to take the truly outstanding apple varieties, and by cutting off a small shoot and inserting it into the stalk of another tree, exactly reproduce the desired variety. Those apples, in the end, became our “named varieties:” Cortland, McIntosh, Yellow Delicious, Granny Smith. Those are some of the names that are most familiar to us today, but one-hundred-fifty years ago, there were up to 10,000 named apple varieties, Bunker A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
claims, with hundreds of those varieties growing in Maine itself. “Sometimes we think we have more choices than our ancestors,” Bunker noted, but clearly, in the case of apples, that’s not true. They were richer than us then. Each tree in Francis’s orchard is labeled. Some tags are metal and have grown into the thick bark, while others are plastic bands with the apple variety recorded with fading black marker in Francis’s arthritic scrawl. He didn’t need the labels, of course; he knew his trees without their nametags: Black Oxford, McIntosh, Connell Red, Spy (Remember, Spy Pie, Spy Pie), Idared, Dollie Delicious (Now that was my wife’s favorite apple, see. She’s dead now. Hm. I grafted that one and named it after her. That’s the only apple she could eat. See. Nice and sweet, you know, without that acidity), Haralson, Honey Gold, Jonathan, Macoun, Northern Greening, Sweet Sixteen, Tolman Sweet, Twenty Ounce, Wolf River, Golden Delicious, Fallawater, Baldwin (Now that’s a Maine apple, a keeper, good for midwinter), Gala, Empire, Arkansas Black, Ben Davis (Shipped those clear over to England back in the day), Cortland, Cox Orange Pippin (An old folks apple!), New Delicious, Astrachan, Fireside, Russet (Them’s good winter apples, but I don’t think much of ‘em), Rome, Sheep’s Nose, Black Gilliflower, Spitzbergen (That was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple), Blue Pearmain, Thompson, Snow, Honey Crisp, Yellow Delicious, Vista Belle, Wagener, Spencer, Red Cortland, Peawauke, Paula Red, Milton, Rogers, Golden Russet, Tydeman, Hazen, Smokehouse, Winter Banana, Whitney, Wine Kist, Winesap, Wealthy, Wealthy, Wealthy. If you visited Francis in the spring, his apple shed would be empty, the wooden crates stacked willy-nilly, the refrigerator clean, the bushel, half-bushel, and peck-sized green and white apple bags lying on the table, dust in the cool, still fruity-smelling air, a yellowed notepad with last year’s penciled accountings on it. In the orchard pathways between the spreading trees would be bright green grass, pine needles, acorns, dandelions, blossoming clover, and strawberries in white flower. If you caught the week right and there’d been no early frost, the entire orchard would be pink and white with bloom and there would be the sound of the low hum of bees, their noses deep in the petals. Everybody likes apples. Everybody likes apples. Bears, bees, chipmunks, deer. Every animal likes apples. Apples aren’t native to here, ya see. They come from far away. All the way from Kazakhstan. The bugs like apples too, ya see. Back in the old days, there weren’t as many bugs. You didn’t have to spray. Now you gotta put poison right to ‘em. The bugs are tougher than we are. As we toured the orchard with Francis, we’d come across a few old oaks scattered among the fruit trees. I should have planted all oaks, Francis would say. Could’ve made some real money. He’d be the first to tell you: There’s no money in apples. Not anymore. Apples in Maine used to be big business. Big business. The Ben Davis, a famously hard apple, was packed up and sent in huge barrels all the way to England. Now, you can’t do that with a McIntosh! These days, however, Francis told my carefully attentive students, no one wants old fashioned apples. They’re temperamental. No one wants temperamental apples. You gotta go with the market. That’s farmin’ for ya. Everything is shipped in now. You can go to the store and get strawberries and lettuce in the winter! Used to be we was all self-fecicient (he stumbles over the word). We used to wait until spring for fresh things—and we had fiddleheads and dandelion greens. Spring tonic. That’s what we called it. Spring tonic. Other than that we had three meals
a day of salt pork and potatoes. Those apples you buy in the store, he’d tell my students, the ones in the big plastic bags, they come from China and they were picked a year ago! One of the students asked why it was easier and less expensive to ship apples from China than to buy fresh apples from the orchard next door, and more to the point, why weren’t Francis’s apples in the grocery store? The answer would be sadly complex—it has to do with quantity of supply, agricultural politics, the cost of labor, demand, and food distribution systems. Francis, however, would make it simple—for him, it was all about labor: No one wants to work anymore. There’s no one to help me pick my apples. No one will take over this orchard. No one wants to work for nothing, like me. Migrant laborers come to Maine in every season to pick apples, blueberries, broccoli, and other crops—providing indispensable labor, without which those industries would not survive. A friend who practiced medicine in Aroostook County, the furthest north county in Maine, also known as simply “the County,” reported that one year not even the migrant labor force could provide enough people-power to bring in the broccoli crop. Why don’t American teenagers want to pick fruit and vegetables? Everyone has an answer, it seems, but times change is what Francis would say, with no hint of judgment. Change is inevitable. What one generation values, another one doesn’t. With the gift of his old age, Francis could see into a past that my students would think of as ancient history, but which he’d regard simply as his boyhood. Given his experience with the passage of time, the far future, too, seemed just as possible to him as the past. Under his watch, we passed from the Age of Powerful Men into A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
the Machine Age, and we’re heading into another age he wasn’t sure he could name. People are in trouble now. In the Machine Age you had to know how things worked. Like that old Model T Ford over there. I took that engine and made a portable saw for logs. Just like that. All by myself. Today, they make machines that are smarter than we are. Like that Toyota pedal…I don’t know what’s comin’ down for the next generation…In the future your grandkids will be shooting around here with a jet on their backs. And all the numbers! How can anyone make sense of all the numbers you gotta have? Used to be only criminals were the ones who had numbers. Now everybody’s got numbers. In recent years, community members solved the problem of Francis’ lack of applepicking labor by converging on the orchard each fall for a day or two of picking, cider pressing, pies, picnicking, and merriment. The labor is happily supplied for “free,” and Francis would sell his many varieties of apples from cases set up under a festive tent outside the apple shed for so little money that, his daughter Carol says, he’d be lucky if he broke even. Clearly, Francis was not in it for the money. What is the connection between labor and time, time and money, money and wealth, wealth and well-being? If Francis wasn’t growing apples to make a buck, then why was he doing it? A hundred and fifty years ago, a small orchard of fifteen apple trees could provide a rural New England family with enough fresh fruit to last all year, plus make cider and feed livestock. The Wealthy, the apple tree Francis’s father planted so many of, produced an allpurpose apple perfect for country life—it made for good eating, excellent pies and sauces, spirited cider, and was good for baking and freezing. An apple tree used to be an asset—like a house or a boat or a snowmobile or a retirement plan would be today. “As recently as the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many Americans were starving, many in Maine were doing rather well,” appleman John Bunker said in his Common Ground Fair address. “They were cash poor by our standards, but were well fed, clothed, and warm. These farming ancestors understood that wealth is not something you hold in the bank or the stock market. Rather it is your land, your buildings, your livestock, your trees, your community.” What counts as wealth for me is something I have been puzzling over, as I try to make sense out of what it is to be an extremely privileged white middle-class American college professor and homeowner with a 401K and two nice cars on the one hand, and on the other hand someone who owns eighty acres of forested land (from which comes the wood for heating the house), who raises chickens and goats, and grows or collects most of the food she and her partner need for a year. The job and salary and benefits, the cars, the health insurance, and the house are one marker of my wealth. The land, the small herd of goats, the wellstocked pantry, the sunny, fertile vegetable gardens, and the flock of chickens are another. In our topsy-turvy late capitalist economy much of what one might think of as one’s personal wealth is fleeting and diaphanous, like a dew-spangled cobweb; riches that come and go with the rise and fall of invisible forces. On the other hand there is another kind of wealth that I have no trouble understanding—a breakfast of eggs and vegetables brought to the table from the barn and garden, or a pile of dry hardwood for the winter fires. Perhaps it is a sign of how fully indoctrinated I have become in late capitalist thinking that, despite the host of riches I enjoy, at times I feel “poor.” In weak moments I compare my income to that of others in my profession, and upon seeing some salaries double and triple
mine, I become green with envy and hot with indignation. What would more money buy me, I wonder? A new kayak, a camp on the lake, a log splitter, a tractor, a bush hog, an atv with a plow, annual trips to exotic far-away places, a big savings account, new Energy Star washers and dryers? Would those things make me happier? A tractor would make my life easier, but perhaps not happier. If I had my own tractor I could plow and dig and haul whenever I wanted to, but then I’d have no need to hire Ronald Pinkham, my neighbor, to till my garden each spring. I’d have no need to ask Mark Turner, who helps run the family dairy down the road, to come and spread manure. I’d not have to hire Jack Mills to come with his machine and fix the driveway or help us move rocks. When I take stock, owning a tractor doesn’t have anything to do with happiness; it has to do with convenience. What makes me happy and secure, what gives me a sense of well-being, is not what I have—a freezer full of goat meat and farm-raised chicken, a pantry stocked with dried wild mushrooms, blueberry jam, apple sauce, pickled beets and salsa, and a big bucket of apple cider brewing in the basement—but the labor and time spent putting those things there—time spent pitching hay to the goats and enjoying their animal charms, time spent tossing grain to the chickens and watching them peck and scratch for worms, time spent hunting mushrooms in sun-dappled woods, crushing and cooking blueberries into deep purple jam, time spent with Francis, collecting apples, with friends making those apples into juice, with Ruth listening to the cider go glug, glug, glug. In one tour of Francis’s orchard, we came to a tree where he had created a fresh graft. There are many different styles of grafts: the whip graft, the side graft, the bridge graft, the saddle graft, the subtle graft, and the cleft graft to name a few. Francis’s method was simple. In the spring, just as the trees were beginning to bud, he’d take a small stem of first-year growth (called a scion) from a desired variety (say a Dollie Delicious) and insert it into a cut on a healthy host tree, then wrap the cut with tape or oiled cloth. If the graft took, the stem would grow into a branch that would in years to come bear fruit. He showed us one tree that sported five different branches: a Wolf River next to a Northern Spy next to a Yellow Delicious next to a Blue Pearmain next to a Cortland. It seemed like magic to me—like delightful fancy, akin to a lemonade spring or a rock candy mountain! It seemed impossible that the little grafted scion would ever hang low with fruit, but it would. It would take time, but it would happen, eventually. Apple trees are a young man’s game, Francis liked to say, again. I think of the rural aphorism: “Walnuts and pears you plant for your heirs.” The same would be true of apples, no doubt. They say in the paper you can get apples in three to four years. Francis would pause, his comic timing impeccable. I say that’s right, you’ll get three or four apples. That particular year the apples blossomed on the tenth of March. Warmer than usual weather forced them to open early and then came an inevitable late frost. But that was okay by Francis. Trees are smarter than we are. They don’t work themselves to death. They’ll take a break this year and then maybe double up the next. On cider bottling day, I spent ten hours reading about how to bottle cider, comparing recipes, trying to decide whether to add sugar or not at the end (this would either create carbonation or blow my bottles open), learning about hydrometers, driving the hour into town and back to buy the proper dark brown 12-ounce bottles and caps from the home brew store, and finally doing the bottling and capping itself. By the time I carted my cardboard box of twenty-four bottles of cider to the barn, where they’d wait for another two weeks, I could A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
see the big dipper high in the night sky. If time is money, and I’m worth, let’s just say, $20 an hour, then I spent on labor alone $200.00 on this one step in the process of making cider. Compared to buying a six-pack of hard cider from the refrigerated case at the store, it was outrageously expensive. A lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of time—almost ten months from start to finish. And in the end it all turned to vinegar. Is my labor lost? I think of myths of wealth—overflowing pots of gold, dragons’ caves piled with sparkling riches, a bulging bag of coins, dollar bills floating down from the clouds, stacks of golden bars, golden eggs, pirate chests stuffed with glimmering jewels. What is wealth, after all? Wealth for most of us is net worth, money in the bank, a house, a car, cash in the wallet, stuff we own that can be sold. If we are lucky, we are part of the one percent of humans who own 40 percent of the world’s wealth. In fact, a smart little internet site lets you test how rich you are compared to the rest of the world’s 6 billion people. Based on the World Bank estimates that the average global annual income is $10,000, my middle class American salary puts me in the 91st percentile—right up there with the richest ten percent. I’m one of the wealthiest women in the world! That spring after my class visited with Francis, I brought him a pie as thanks—a pie made from Wealthys that I’d collected the year before and had peeled, sliced, and put in bags in the freezer, pre-mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and lemon, so that I could easily dump the fruit into a crust and bake a fresh pie. I delivered this out-of-season treat to Francis one hot May afternoon, while he was resting at the counter in his old farmhouse, eating his ice cream and apple sauce. Ice cream and apple sauce. That’s what I attribute my longevity to. Every day. Gotta have it. “By Golly,” he said to me as I offered him my home-made pie, “By Golly, that’s a big pie. I’ll have to save that for when my daughter comes in September.” I must have looked alarmed, knowing that the pie fruit had already spent seven months in the freezer, and of course it wouldn’t last until Fall when his daughter traveled again from California to Maine to help Francis with the apple harvest. But I was relieved when he added, “I’ll put it in the freezer and save a piece for her. I can’t eat that whole thing. That’s a big pie, by golly. A fullsized pie.” As I left through the mudroom, closing the creaky screen door, he was still offering his thanks: “By golly. Such a big pie. My word. You can’t buy a pie like that.” No, indeed; you cannot.
If you can help it, never go to a domestic relations court on a Monday morning. I did, because I didn’t know any better. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I were halfway through an amicable divorce that we were determined to complete without attorneys. This is very possible in the state of Ohio; it’s also a hell of a lot of work. We had completed the paperwork—all sixty-five pages of it—and I just needed to submit it for the magistrate’s approval. I had gotten to the courthouse early, figuring (mistakenly, it was now clear) that arriving first thing in the morning on the first day of the week would be an effective way to “beat the crowds.” So I was surprised by the level of chaos and confusion ensuing that morning in the anteroom to the magistrate’s chambers. The scene was more disturbing than it was frightening, and had I not been “one of them,” I might have taken a voyeuristic interest in observing some of these folks. Many of them appeared “normal” (like me!, I thought . I’m normal, I’m a together person, I’m not a loser just because I’m at domestic relations court on a Monday morning). A few were clearly drunk and very loud. A few were possibly drunk but docile. Some cried. The reason for the morning’s bedlam (as it was rather dispassionately explained to me by the desk clerk) was that couples tend to beat each other up over the weekend, which results in a rush of legal filings on Monday mornings. Ah. But I had a stack of divorce papers in my hand that needed to be filed (and whose existence was not catalyzed by either beating anyone up or getting beaten up by anyone over the weekend), and so I stayed. The waiting room was a vast and drab space. It seemed purposefully under-designed: just get some beige carpet and paint in there, try not to think about it too much. As I sat and scanned the crowd, one couple in particular caught my eye. The woman was striking, and not in a typical Midwestern, pretty-girl-next-door type of way. She was something different looking…Native American, maybe? She was forty-ish and very thin, and she wore boots and faded jeans and a loose crocheted sweater. She had perfectly straight black hair that hung midway down her back, and her neck and wrists were encircled by silver and turquoise. There was a calm composure about her and a lack of tension in her face that, along with her beauty, separated her from the rest of us. I could tell from the stack of forms she held that she and her husband were at the same stage of the process as we were: drawing up and signing initial paperwork with the magistrate that, once completed, would be filed with the court and initiate the dissolution hearing. For couples who aren’t fighting or contesting anything, marital dissolution in Ohio is a two-step process: meet with either the magistrate or an attorney and complete the paperwork; show up for the hearing and testify in person that you agree to what you’ve articulated in the documents. Then it’s final. There was something wrong with the woman’s husband, but I couldn’t tell exactly what. He was mobile, but barely, and he needed guidance regarding where to move his body next. The black-haired woman provided it, gently and lovingly, speaking softly to him in the way you would address a nervous child, but he didn’t seem to understand much of what was going on. I do not think he could speak, but he looked up and smiled at her frequently as she bent down to address him from where she stood beside his chair. They had brought another couple with them—friends or relatives?—and they, too, spoke quietly to the husband and seemed to be reassuring him. They looked at each other and then sadly at the wife when she turned away from them to help her husband. When it was time to sign the stack of papers in front of him, he hesitated and looked up at his wife once more and she smiled and nodded
and laid her hand on his shoulder. He struggled a little with controlling the pen, but he signed his name. I wondered what their story was. A traumatic head injury or a degenerative neurological disease? A brain tumor? In any case, I could only assume they were getting divorced for reasons other than “irreconcilable differences.” I suspect it had something to do with medical insurance or care, but there was really no way to know for sure. After an hour or so in which time seemed to stretch awkwardly beyond its natural boundaries, I finally had my fifteen minutes with the magistrate. She flipped through the sixty-five pages of court documents—the petition for dissolution, the child custody affidavit, the separation agreement, the child support worksheet—all fine, all correct. Pay the fee and file the papers, and there’s just one additional requirement. “You have to take a parenting class,” she said. It’s called “Still Parents.” She handed me a melon-colored tri-fold brochure that listed the bi-monthly options for attending the class. The cover read: “Divorce is a very stressful experience for parents and children. Although you may decide to end your marriage, you will continue to be mother and father. This two-hour seminar will focus on what children need from both of you during and after your divorce. The group will provide practical information that you can apply to your divorce situation. It will teach skills for helping your children manage divorce successfully. This will include handling “tough situations and tough questions.” “Oh, I…I don’t think I really need the parenting class,” I said. At that point I’d consumed a virtual library of texts on children and divorce. Once I had read the books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, I’d gone into the academic databases I could access through my job at the university and sought out large-scale, peer-reviewed, double-blind studies on children of divorce. I was trying to assuage my guilt and anxiety by reassuring myself that I’d eliminated research bias in the decision making process. I was about to drag a 13-year-old boy through this hell; the least I could do was check out the road conditions. “It’s not optional,” the magistrate said. “No parenting class, no divorce.” The “Still Parents” class was held in the facility the county uses for supervised visitation and safe exchange—the place where violent, abusive parents must take their visitation with their children, under the protective watch of Children’s Services professionals. This place is also used as a meeting ground for parents who need a neutral location at which to exchange their kids from one car to another. It’s sort of the demilitarized zone of divorce, complete with alphabet decorations covering the drywall partitions of the squat, pole-barn style building. For today’s seminar, there were about thirty metal folding chairs arranged in rows facing a large screen in the main room of the building. Bean bag chairs and plastic trucks had been shoved to the back of the room. While I sat in my chair watching the rest of the attendees register and settle in, I played A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
with the words in my head: “Still Parents” mandatory parenting seminar. Still. Parents. You’re still parents [who forgets that?]. Still parents. Parents who are still, paralyzed by fear and indecision and regret. Still, Parents. Still yourselves; relax. Your children will be fine. Be still. Finally the class began. A social worker named Barbara took her leader position in front of the folding chairs. She opened by telling us that, “It’s not a punishment that you’re taking this class.” I admit it felt like a punishment, but no one had suggested aloud that it was. Barbara also informed us that there would be a “no-texting” rule for this class. After solemnly reminding us to “Remember, divorce is forever,” Barbara played a PBS video about kids and divorce. The program began with a video collage of children making statements while speaking to therapists. The clips were taken out of context, so there was no way to know the exact circumstances that led to the children’s words. For example, one little boy told his therapist, “I cried every night for two and a half years,” and she replied, “It’s like a nightmare, isn’t it?” The film transitioned to a slide show presentation of drawings done by children in therapy. One was a heart bisected with a zig-zagged line and the title “Mom” on one side, “Dad” on the other, and the word “Love” written in the center and sliced in two by the zig-zag. Another portrayed a violent scene with a child’s voice bubble that said, “Chelsea go and call the cops. Hurry Chelsea!” Barbara then remarked, “I would venture to say that at least one of you has been in a situation where the police have been called.” I glanced around to see other people glancing around. Which one of us was it? we wondered. Later in the seminar it would become apparent that no one in this seminar had been in divorce situations that required police; they have different seminars for those people. After the video, Barbara told us to split up into groups and pick a group “recorder.” She wanted us to share the problems we were having as a result of our divorces and the problems our children were having as a result of our divorces. The group recorder was told to make lists of these problems, divided into “adult divorce problems” and “child divorce problems,” which he or she would report to the whole class after roughly 15 minutes. The seminar had seemed strange up to this point—where were the helpful tips, the practical information and skills to help our children?—but the group activity pushed it into the realm of the bizarre. My group remained mostly silent; we avoided looking at one another and at Barbara. There was one horribly awkward moment in which Barbara handed our group a clipboard upon which we were to record our lists of adult problems and child problems, and no one wanted to take it. She eventually held the clipboard directly over the center of the little circle of chairs we’d formed and said, “If none of you takes this clipboard, I will drop it on the floor.” I pleaded silently with my group that no one cave to this threat, mostly because I wanted to know what would happen next if we let her do it. Would it just lie there until the whole thing was finished? Would we have to stay over? Would we fail the class? Did my juvenile reaction qualify as an “adult divorce problem” that should be listed on the clipboard on the floor? One woman finally reached out and took it, and my disappointment welled, mostly in myself for refusing to take the clipboard, but partly because I’d really wanted to see what would happen if no one did. I looked around the room to see if there was anything interesting going on with any of the other groups, and I noticed the beautiful black-haired woman from the magistrate’s office that day. My clipboard-shame expanded then, and I wondered why she hadn’t been given
some sort of exemption. It seemed to me that she probably had enough difficulty without being forced to watch children on pbs videos draw broken hearts. Her husband was not in the class (mine wasn’t either—spouses rarely attend the same session—but hers wouldn’t have been able to attend one on his own). I wondered if she had to hire a helper to stay home with her husband so that she could come to this class. What could she possibly stand to gain from it? I watched her for a moment, as she worked quietly and graciously with the other members of her group, dutifully recording their lists of problems and listening closely to those around her with a sad face and dark eyes. I wondered how many others in this room were here not as a result of selfishness or immaturity or anger management problems, as both Barbara and the video seemed to suggest, but because they were trapped in bad situations and trying to make things better, maybe even trying to make things better for their children. Barbara reconvened the group for the “reporting” phase of the class. One group, inexplicably and for reasons that remained unarticulated, had added up the number of children they had collectively, and they reported this to the class. They had also taken a variety of “issue tallies” related to divorce: “Three members of our group are struggling with A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
separation anxiety;” “Six members are addressing children acting out,” etc. It was sort of like a PowerPoint presentation without the PowerPoint, or any point, really. All of this seemed to evidence not so much individual inability to judge appropriateness, but rather the fact that we didn’t really understand what we were doing there. The composite effect of the whole thing approximated some weird amalgamation of a group therapy session and a corporate retreat. After each group had reported their problems, the two hours were up and Barbara announced that the class was over. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat insulted walking out of the class. It felt patronizing and condescending—the teacher-student relationship established between Barbara and us, the no-texting rule, the seemingly obvious lessons about excessive conflict and violence being harmful to children. I couldn’t pinpoint any practical lessons that had been gained by the class. Barbara did at one point remark that most children whose parents are careful to protect them from the tension, conflict, and bitterness of divorce tend to do pretty well. This, presumably, was the point of the class—to teach us to be this kind of parents so that our children would fare well in the aftermath. But the vast majority of the class was filled up with nightmare stories, reports, and recollections that would horrify any marginally compassionate human being, followed by the forced group interactions and “reports.” We didn’t really learn anything, and no one seemed to feel any better. I personally felt much worse. I was left wondering, if the class didn’t provide substantial constructive advice for divorcing parents, then why exactly were we taking it? Tali Schaefer, in the title of her article on legally mandated parenting classes published in The Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, offers an answer: “What should family law do about divorcing parents? ‘Teach them a lesson,’ a legislative wave sweeping through the United States has answered” (Schaefer 491).1 I had felt this intuitively, but recognized that my impressions were unsubstantiated and potentially tainted by my emotional entrenchment. Schaefer’s article analyzes transcripts of Colorado judges’ conversations that occurred during enactment discussions that eventually resulted in legislatively mandated parenting classes (Colorado is just one of 41 states in the U.S. that mandate parenting classes for divorcing couples). Schaefer concludes that “despite its child-oriented goals, the legislation is preoccupied with casting a negative judgment on parents’ decision to separate and with blaming parents for the negative effects of divorce” (Schaefer 492). Schaefer recognizes that mandating parenting classes is “not designed to create an impediment to divorce” (492), as in the case of lengthy waiting periods between legal separation and decree of divorce or covenant marriage laws (in which divorce is only granted under a set of limited and extreme circumstances). But if mandated parenting classes do not implant legal roadblocks to the process of divorce, they most certainly trigger emotional ones, and the triggering is not strictly an accidental or collateral effect of the mandates. Consider the remarks of one judge to the Colorado House Judiciary Committee during legislative enactment discussions: It’s a class. Not mediation, not anything to do with getting the parents back 1 Schaefer, Tali. “saving Children or Blaming Parents: Lessons from Mandated parenting Classes” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 2010 19(2) 491-537.
together, but we learned that one of the by-products is just that. Judge Phillips, who is the presiding judge this year in domestic relations court, has told me that he believes that a significant number of parents, after they’ve gone to this class and realize how hard it is [for] children, that they work out some of their problems and some of them have been getting back together (qtd. in Schaefer 522). The outcome this judge refers to is anecdotal in nature, but the fact that the comment was made at all would seem to suggest that there is at least some sort of collective assumption that “marriage is always preferable to divorce.” This belief facilitates a dangerous sort of reasoning, in which potentially faulty conclusions are taken to be self-evident, and which justifies all sorts of actions that may not be appropriate. The assumption is that parents who divorce are parents who have poor judgment, and are therefore deserving of mandated remediation. This assumption also implies that it can never be good judgment for parents to divorce, despite psychological evidence that parental conflict is actually more damaging to children than divorce (Goldstein et. al). Schaefer articulates an even more disturbing implication of this assumption: “Generally, the law assumes that fit parents act in the best interest of their children and it shelters parental discretion through legal protections from interference. In contrast, the legislation mandating parent education programs assumes that, though not legally unfit, divorcing parents are not entirely fit to parent” (524). And this is a frighteningly prevalent attitude in contemporary society not confined to those who have been witness to the battleground that domestic relations court sometimes resembles. Consider the comments of one senator comparing divorce education to teaching repeat offenders how to drive safely: “[Divorcing parents] are certainly selfish in their thoughts, they are not thinking about the children, they are concerned with the divorce and very little else.... I think we need to tell these people who are so self-centered at this time that they need to buck up and shape up or ship out” (qtd. in Schaefer 525). The senator’s remarks directly link divorce to criminality—reckless driving in this case—but perhaps more tellingly, the remarks would seem to betray that mandatory parenting classes are intended, at least to some degree, to shame parents rather than to help children. If there were any evidence that such mandates improved quality of life for children of divorcing parents, then perhaps we could accept some level of judgment or shame as an unfortunate but necessary price for parents to pay that ultimately helps their children. The problem is that, despite numerous attempts, no study has ever been able to demonstrate that short-term mandatory parenting classes have a positive impact upon the well-being of children (Schaefer 501-2). In discussing the urgency and extremity of emotion with which judges and program providers urged law makers to mandate parenting classes, Schaefer notes that “They often evoked the notion that it would be better to pay up front rather than forcing the state to pay for these ‘divorce kids’ later when they filled up the prisons as adults” (515; italics mine). It’s not entirely clear from the context whether the argument here is that parents need to “pay a price” for their decision to divorce, or if the state actually believes that investing money in A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
mandatory parenting programs is akin to some sort of weird insurance program that could prevent whatever the “divorce kids” might do later in life. In any case, the argument seems difficult to defend ethically and impossible to support statistically. And there are other less overt yet perhaps more insidious structures in place. The penal system procedures and environments in which divorces are carried out exact a particular sort of emotional toll. The excessive waiting to talk to an actual human being in the domestic relations court compounds the frustration of an already frustrating and confusing experience. The fact that divorcing parties have no say in terms of when or where their mediation appointments or hearings are scheduled prevents emotional or practical planning ahead and results in lost wages at work, challenges related to child care, and a general loss of control over the entire process. The extremely complicated process for filing paperwork often drives people to hire attorneys even when attorneys are not necessary or appropriate, which in turn creates additional economic hardship to families already financially overburdened. All of this is followed by the horror-story mandatory parenting classes and, ultimately, another lengthy wait for the actual divorce hearing, in which dozens of divorcing couples sit in a waiting area of the county courthouse, watching couples walk into the judge’s office as legally joined partners and walking out crying and untethered for the first time in years or decades. I couldn’t have been the only one wondering why it was taking so long; after all, wasn’t it the court who scheduled these appointments? Did they not realize they scheduled all of us at the same time? Well…but…they’ve been doing this for years; they do it every day. Surely if there were a better way to handle the whole thing, a more dignified way, they’d do it. Right? The whole thing felt cloaked in shame, and it certainly is understandable why people back out, regardless of whether the backing out is a defensible or beneficial action. I recently received in the mail an itemized breakdown of the costs associated with my divorce. The total cost of filing for a divorce in my county is $282.21. Approximately half of that is allocated for “Clerk’s Fees” ($137.71). The remaining half is allocated to a number of different funds: Child Abuse Fund, Shelter Victims Fund, Family Violence Prevention Fund, and the previously discussed Mandatory Parenting Program. With the exception of the parenting class, the programs that were funded by my divorce exist as responses to various crimes. I realize that these programs should be funded, and that those funding dollars must come from somewhere. I find it curious that when the decisions were being made about who should pay for crimes like child abuse and family violence, someone apparently decided that the obvious answer was divorcing parents. Schaefer attributes the aggressive legislative push to mandate parenting classes to “a lingering adherence to the autonomous nuclear family ideal” (492) and claims that although the surface justification for such classes is to “help the children,” the actual effect is reduced to shaming parents: “[T]he conclusion regulators draw from their assessment of the hurdles parents face after divorce is not that parents should be helped to stand back on their feet as quickly as possible. Rather, what programs are designed to do is confront parents with the supposedly devastating consequences of their actions” (527). Schaefer argues that these messages are communicated at the expense of other, more legitimate messages that we omit: how to recover from economic hardship, how to secure adequate family housing, and how to effectively manage stress in order to effectively manage parenting.
When American parental insecurity collides with the collective hyper obsession with child safety and stability, we end up doing things like carrying gallon bottles of Purel everywhere and disinfecting surfaces for our children to the point that it’s actually compromised their immune systems. Surely we should question the efficacy of equipping divorcing parents primarily with messages of their inadequacy and sending them off to live their newly-divorced lives. At the conclusion of the mandatory parenting class, I wanted some sort of summation, wanted to know what the take-away was from the list-reporting, but there was nothing offered. As we filed out, we were each given an 8-1/2 x 11 inch, light blue “Still Parents” certificate, similar to those I remember receiving in elementary school for participation in fund raisers or spelling bees. It was unclear to me what I should do with my certificate, or what anybody might do with such a certificate. For one thing, I didn’t ever want to think about the class again. I hadn’t learned anything new or helpful, and thanks to the video and Barbara’s remarks I now had a whole new collection of mental images from which to feed my already crushing guilt. People who say “divorce is too easy these days” have never gotten divorced. I’m not sure that I can say the parenting class itself made it any harder, but it did make it…dumber. It was a dumb class. Its primary message seemed to be that divorce is a really, really bad idea. And that may even be true, but it’s sort of like abortion and gay marriage: outlawing abortion doesn’t stop women from ending their pregnancies, it just makes it more dangerous; and disallowing gay marriage doesn’t keep people from being gay or from loving each other, it just makes both a lot more difficult and painful. I don’t think the “Still Parents” class changed anyone’s mind, but I am pretty sure it inflicted several additional dents in the psyches of already frightened and fragile people. It’s tempting to make the argument that these are adults and adults ought to be able to take the heat for the decisions they make, but it’s important to consider that children are ultimately subjected to that heat as well. We ought to question how the rhetoric used to enact and conduct mandatory parenting classes feeds a system that already harmfully stigmatizes children whose parents divorce. We still use the phrase “child of divorce.” My child is now “one of them,” and I find myself wondering, If I died, would he be called a “child of death”? Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that: …if divorce hasn’t reduced America’s youth to emotional cripples, then the efforts to restrict it undoubtedly will. First, there’s the effect all this antidivorce rhetoric is bound to have on the children of people already divorced—and we’re not talking about some offbeat minority…[T]hese children already face enough tricky interpersonal situations without having to cope with the public perception that they’re damaged goods. I too wish nobody ever needed to get divorced. I wish no child ever felt like drawing a sliced heart to represent his parents, and I wish my kid didn’t live so much out of a duffle bag, and I wish the black-haired woman and her husband’s situation allowed them to access the A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
insurance or medical care he needed without going through what those of us who did it “by choice” did. But things end. And they end in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons. I guess that my biggest complaint about the “Still Parents” class is that it failed to account for almost all of them. It was so reductive and so emblematic of how we attempt to deal with complex issues: Hey, divorce is tough. We should implement something. Divorce is tough, but so are a lot of things, and we don’t require classes that correlate with those things. Losing a parent to death is tough on children, but we don’t then force the still-living parent to attend a class about raising children alone. Moving and changing schools is tough on children, but we don’t require corporate executives to take parenting classes as part of their relocation packages. My county (and counties in 41 other states) requires it for divorcing parents, because it can; because we’re a captive audience in the quest for some sort of liberation, as though that’s a possible thing.
W. H e
This Graveyard is Our Living Room
Dearest Cordelia Swan, Many Native Americans believed that in order to enter a sacred place, one must first fast. Before I headed your way, I deprived myself of sleep and I did not eat. As I walked towards your living room, I chain-smoked cowboy-killers so that the only sensation on my palette would be the sweet, addicting flavor of death. This made the journey challenging, and I stumbled along the way, the hill being the most difficult to scale while buzzed. Once I reached the cemetery, I did not smoke, for doing so would be mocking the deceased. As a self-made outcast, I’ve often found myself retreating towards cemeteries like your own. Graveyards are the only place where I can at least pretend people enjoy my company, even though I know this is only because the dead cannot tell me otherwise. I ask questions, but have yet to receive answers. Here, the distant sounds of cars and other signs of life feel malevolent, and the headstones rising out of the ground are like open arms. I do not say this to taunt your anchor, but leaving a cemetery is quite exhausting. With each step I make, I immerse myself more and more into society, and it quickly breaks up any meditative trance I may have entered. Fast cars, whose occupants are speeding off to some materialistic meeting, will almost run me over, drunk crowds with a hysteric party mentality will slur insults my way, and the bitterness of the living will assault me. I do not think you would enjoy the modern world; it is vastly different from the way it was in 1839. Some people find cemeteries to be romantic, which I do not understand. It seems contradictory to visit a cemetery with people of intimate interest. I feel like this would ruin the connective conversations even more than not fasting. I had brought some friends to the cemetery once before, and I felt oddly embarrassed about it. They were swearing and joking, and it felt like watching children make a game of poking the body at a funeral. I’m not completely sure why I am telling you all of this; you’re a five-year-old, and I doubt love was ever really on your mind. My first visit to Oakland Cemetery was actually not when I first met you. I had previously visited in the late hours of the night, and it took me until the fifth time to notice your headstone, which was glistening in the setting sun, telling your tragic tale boldly. “Died September 19, 1839, aged 5 yrs, 4ms, 26 ds.” The Freemasons erected it in 2002, and its black granite reflects the images of surrounding crumbling stones. Materials of my world juxtapose the realities of yours. You were the first to die in Iowa City, and the first to be buried in this cemetery. I don’t think I could ever explain why to a five-year-old, but I’ve imagined my own death before, but never when I was so young. What killed you, Cordelia? I hope you don’t mind me asking that; it’s all just quite unfair. Earlier, I spoke with Russell, the Cemetery Supervisor, and he is a true companion, for he cleans up your plot weekly, trims the grass, and rakes up the autumn leaves. We talked a lot about you and your cemetery, and he believes that people view this area more as a park than as a graveyard. I asked him why he thought people were so attracted to this particular spot, and he spoke of how people tended to stay in Iowa City, and this cemetery is in many ways near the center of it. Cordelia, you truly formed the heart of the city. Each procession I make towards your living room reminds me of a cortège, not unlike the one held for you many years ago. In 1939, the Iowa Press Citizen published an article about you in which they remembered how your passing “caused a gloom to fall upon the
dwellers in the city.” The adolescent Iowa City was forced to face its own mortality much earlier than expected. All the local businesses closed for your day, and people from all over the county left their homes to pay their condolences, as I do now—176 years later. They each held something communal in their hearts, but now it seems as though I am the only one to wrap your name like a black band around my heart. They called it a rare demonstration, saved only for “exceptionally noted citizens,” but what really separates us from them? How we all drift into oblivion, Cordelia. Sleep for me so I can live for you, and I’ll do my best to catch you from falling into that void of obscurity. I have to attempt to do something, just please try to do the same for me. Russell was unsure of how you died, which was something I quite appreciated. I have my own ideas and thoughts, and it’s something that has been haunting me for a while now. On my darker days, when I try to fall asleep, I see visions of a little girl being dragged off by wolves, or being cornered by a malicious man, or lying in a hay stuffed bed, coughing and gagging on blood. I try to dispel these thoughts by imagining a quiet passing, one of a slumber brought on by the melody of a mother’s sweet lullaby. However, it could have been anything that killed you, natural or hostile, and I’m desperately trying to find a way to apologize for this. I imagine you must have been like many five-year-olds, with shimmering eyes covered by long brushed hair, and with a mind overflowing with questions. I find it sad that the tables have been turned, and now it is I, the older one, who is asking all of the questions. As I stand near your grave, my body resists my every movement; it is starved and exhausted, and only wants to lie down. I find a certain irony in this, to feel so disconnected from my own body in a graveyard. I remove my hat so the Iowa breeze can wake me up, and I begin to walk around. I leave you momentarily to take in the rest of the cemetery. Dolly, your dear mother, rests in front of you, and Chauncey, your father, is not to be found. The same Iowa Press Citizen article said that Dolly’s heart shattered at your passing and that she was never the same, being deemed an “invalid.” She joined you a mere eight years later. Your poor father has a soul I can understand. With such a relentless amount of pain in his heart, he attempted to self-medicate with the indulgence of a new life. He left his mark on Iowa City by surveying the Capitol, and then hastily left for California, thus, cementing his fate as a wanderer. But, as I often find with my own attempts at treating myself, he fell harder into depression. Physical illness plagued him and he requested to return home to you and your mother. However, his journey to the cemetery plot I stand on now was a proverbial failure. He only made it as far as New Orleans, land of the celebrated blues, when he uttered his last words amongst strangers, “Dolly and Cordelia.” Yes, your memory burned on throughout him to the end. He was then buried at sea, where his remains drifted away from living consciousness. I feel quite horrible bringing all of this up, as if I am the first to deliver this shivering news to you, but I have to believe you’ve already made peace with all of this in some better place. I have to. Far in the distance is some black figure, but I hardly care enough to investigate. Who could bother lending their attention to a statue when there are spirits to stroll with? There are few other tangible creatures here, most being squirrels and deer, though some other A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
mourners occupy the space. I am not sure if you enjoy their company, but they gave me an entirely negative vibe. It was as if they felt possessive of the land and viewed me as an intruder. Some headstones have packs of cigarettes and bottles of Smirnoff Vodka resting on them, both of which are always empty. I fancy that they are tokens of love, but most likely they are just careless litter. Certain headstones merely say “Mother” or “Father,” and I want to believe that there is still someone out there who appreciates the memories of the deceased. However, I know that, like me, the dead are most likely forgotten forever. I credit this idea as the cause for the taste of bad copper in my mouth, not the cigarettes or diet, and what a tragic idea it really is. To be forgotten is to be unappreciated, to be unloved, and to no longer exist. Just a small walk down a hill from your resting place lie Evelyn and Robert Whetstine, both of whom died in September, just five years apart. They are both younger and older than you. Next to their shared headstone are two pumpkins, one white and one orange, both serving as a testimony to show that not all are forgotten. I promise to buy you a pure white pumpkin when I am finished writing this. I’ll place it like a paperweight on top of this letter near your gravestone, and the world will know that you are not consigned to oblivion. A different little girl once told me that Jewish people place stones instead of flowers on gravestones so that their tokens never rot away. Even those, however, can be carried far away. I know that eventually this letter and pumpkin will wither away under the heavy autumn rain. Even I will one day fade away. So let us try to find solace in this letter, now, while we still can. Time, at the very least, feels relative here. I continue to walk around, reading every name I see out loud like a roll call, but they all begin to swirl around in my head like a tornado. The sun starts to die for the night and change is beginning. Emotions intoxicate me and bikers startle me. Perhaps even the dead have had enough of me for one day. As I prepare to leave, I sit on your steps and call a friend to walk me home, though no one responds. Forever Seasick in Life, Robert Henway
The problem, unstated until now, is how to live in a damaged body in a world where pain is meant to be gagged uncured… -Adrienne Rich, from Contradictions: Tracking Poems If I write about my skin in an open forum where you can stare, do I invite a shaming? My mottled, peeling, scaly skin, which people fear and even loathe, lies open to your gaze. Will you turn away, or stone me with your curses, spouting fear and disgust? Have I staked myself for your eyes because I too dislike my reddened face and shards of skin, so dry and brittle? Scratching, I look away until I stretch my hand across my fine, high cheekbones and rejoice in their beauty. Yet here I am, metaphorically speaking, talking about what I can barely bear to speak about in any way but metaphor, metaphor under which I can shelter; here I am telling my tale. Do I display myself as shamelessly, yet full of shame, as my predecessors did in the freak sideshows? The Spotted Lady mottled white and brown, in speckles like an egg? The Alligator Twins with scaly skin so much like mine? The disease of ichthyosis, from ichthys, Greek for fish, grips me. How do I live with bark-like skin on my back and hands, shins and thighs? How do I regulate my inner eye, stroke my hands, hold up my head? How do I not long for a cure? Here I am on the bare public plaza, exposed to you and to myself. Make of it what you will. But I’ll tell you one thing: I don’t have any salubrious answers—nothing to help me rise triumphantly at the end of the story, no soothing strategy for how to live well in a body that’s disfigured, no way to stay sane and self-loving, and no way to walk calmly across the esplanade of years with a bold half smile. No, I don’t have it. We’re still in the slime, people, still in the slime.
Red plastic sunglasses shaded my lashless eyes as I tiptoed in my Buster Browns, squinting at the vast esplanade of Lourdes. There wasn’t a tree in sight. Two feet above me, my father had taken off his seersucker suit jacket. The smell of sweat drifted down from his armpits. He pinched a bit of fluff from my mother’s shiny hair. We stood in line to visit the Grotto where St. Bernadette’s spring rose out of the rock. Maybe they hoped I’d be cured before the seventh grade. Gingerly walking on the balls of my feet, I tried not to disturb the cracks in my heels where tight skin broke apart into fissures which bled a little. Mother fished in the pockets of her blue linen skirt and pulled out a paper fan. “Here, honey, try this.” I patted her hand as I took it, “breezy, breezy. Thanks.” With the sun stinging my back, heat began to build in my chest, pulsing against my plate-like skin. My body wouldn’t let me sweat but the fan’s tight breeze felt cool. Pilgrims jammed the thick procession. After a while, I poked my head out to see how many people jostled ahead of us. The line bulged here and there with boys in short pants and Italian women in mantilla head scarves. It seemed endless. The sound of wheels moving across the tarmac grated my ear. Nurses in stiff white caps came by pushing little covered wagons, in which people sat up if they could or lay flat if they couldn’t. The wagons came closer, near enough for me to see the sick. One was a girl, older
than I, whose head rolled back every time she tried to jerk it forward. Claw-like, her right hand waved in the air while she smiled a crooked smile, uttering guttural sounds at her nurse. She reminded me of Mabby, who went to our church at home. Every Sunday Mabby’s parents pushed her up to communion in a wheelchair. Sometimes she slobbered as she chewed the wafer. On the way out of Mass, Mabby often tried to talk to me, while her parents beamed. My father always said a friendly hello and tipped his hat to her, but I mumbled Hi and edged away toward the heavy wooden church door. Somehow I felt she would sting me, so I backed off, fearful that we were, in some way, the same—strange, different. Here in Lourdes I bent my head down and looked at my feet, grateful that the wagon wheels creaked by, taking that spastic girl with them. Eddie, my twin brother, crackled the Herald Tribune, hunting for baseball scores. Leaning down, my mother put her hand on his smooth arm, pushed her head into the open paper, and asked about their beloved Phillies. He told her the Phils just beat the Dodgers in a double-header. Then he grinned up at her. They were the athletes in the family. I could hear her silk shirt shimmy while she hunted for the National League stats. My father read his train timetable. Maybe he’d figure how to get us out of town earlier, away from this fearful place where, if I didn’t keep my guard up and my eyes down, I might see other people with skin diseases. Eddie whipped his itinerary out of his back pocket, unfolded the legal sized paper, and showed me the typewritten schedule. “Tuesday, July 9th, 1957,” he read. “Arrive Lourdes 7:43am. Leave Lourdes 7:53 pm.” He folded it again, jammed it into his pocket. “Twelve hours, ten minutes in toto.” We’d moved up near the rocky ridge that holds the Basilica church. I scanned the cool seams of rock and wondered if the massive stone building seemed heavy to the granite shoulder. The rock looked wet and really I wanted to lick it, but didn’t dare. Why hadn’t my father brought his rosary? He said it every night at home, though that seemed odd. It wasn’t a very lawyer-like thing to do. He often went to bed earlier than the rest of us. When I’d go into their bedroom to kiss him goodnight, he’d be in his pajama tops with the sheet pulled up. He generally made it through half the prayers. Then he seemed to give up. “We’ll let the angels say the rest,” he’d say, arching his thick eyebrows. We both knew the angels didn’t bother with his rosary. He’d wink at me and clatter the beads on the mahogany night table. In this endless line at Lourdes, saying the rosary would seem an obvious thing to do. A lot of the Italian women dangled theirs. Maybe my father felt embarrassed to say his rosary in public. I’d never seen him do it. But why did we come here, all this way on the sleeper? We weren’t on a pilgrimage. Not the sort parishes go on. We weren’t that kind of Catholics. We’d only be here twelve hours and ten minutes. As I tiptoed along the tarmac, the sun seemed to stab through my pink dotted Swiss dress. Fanning gingerly, trying to look as if I didn’t need to cool myself, I tried not to think about getting cured—or not getting cured. I told myself my skin felt familiar. It had never been any different since the day I was born after all. Last night on the train, my mother had murmured, “We’ll ask the Blessed Virgin for help.” But she didn’t spell out any details. We were getting nearer to the rocky cavern where the Virgin had appeared to St. Bernadette. I could see the blue sash on the Holy Mother’s statue. What would happen here? A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
My cheeks puffed. I practically spat out my breath. With a few steps we would be in front of the Virgin. Then what? Would some shadow move over my skin leaving it smooth and clean? It wasn’t as if there’d be a ceremony. We’d just file past the statue. No one had said anything about this moment. Would my scales drop to the ground there while everybody watched? My mother moved a little closer to me and squeezed my shoulders. She’d put on her white gloves. I shuffled forward. Even though she didn’t say anything, I knew how much she wanted me to be cured. Her desire hummed in the lobes of my shoulders. We moved along and she enunciated the Hail Marys behind me. When I lifted my eyes from the pavement, I began to see a wall of crutches. As we got closer, more and more came into view—rack after rack of brown wooden crutches, four and five deep, hanging by their arm rests on the rock face in the Grotto. At first they seemed immensely far away and strangely silent, although they were jumbled together. I didn’t know what to make of them. I’d never seen anything like this before. A wheelchair jutted from the rock. Leg braces dangled among the crutches. Even when I turned my head, I couldn’t get away from them. They seemed to bruise my inner eyelids. They loomed above me, hundreds of pointed tips poised above my head. What were they doing there? Why did crutches hang here? They couldn’t be decoration. People must have left them. Cured people. Old men and women who really prayed, who walked away, then left their crutches for the priests to put up. They must have really believed they’d get well. They must have needed to get well. The sleeves of my pink dress rustled as I turned away. This isn’t for me. I thought. I’ve got nothing to do with this.
The French word for the ill—malade—pleases me. It sounds like ice cream rounding my tongue—the long ah vowel, the liquid l in the middle, the soft dental d closing to an echo. I’ve begun calling myself a malade when I need to refer to my condition. It’s easier to say some things in French, which I learned in school. But there’s something else. Since I’m so reluctant to admit I’m afflicted, I hate committing to the exactitude of disease in my own language. In Lourdes malades are in a class of their own. The staff at the shrine cater to the sick, even honor them. Maybe that’s partly why so many who come to Lourdes are ill. Since St. Bernadette saw visions in 1858, sick people have come to wash in the sacred spring. Some hope for a cure. The Catholic Church recognizes sixty-seven miracles that took place at Lourdes. Unofficially, many more people claim divine help. All over France shimmering plaques in local churches offer prayers to Notre Dame de Lourdes for guérisons obtenues, cures obtained. Even if they don’t hope to be cured, the sick find special favors at Lourdes. Volunteers pull them in distinctive wagons, like rickshaws, with handles in front. During candlelit services, they have front row seats. Shorter lines let them into the cabanas where pilgrims bathe in waters rerouted from the holy spring. But you have to choose. There’s no middle way. If you get into the malade line, you are a malade—and thus open to the stares, to the frank pity, to the repugnance even, that the sick attract, even in Lourdes, perhaps especially in Lourdes where malades are cordoned off in their rickshaws from the ever moving river of pilgrims. The malades are marked, isolated. Even as a child I feared being driven out of the circle of ordinary life. I ducked the label. I had no crutches to leave at the shrine.
Huddled against the window on the bullet train to Lourdes, I asked myself why on earth I’d decided to return to a place I remembered as hideous—full of lepers and priests. It was one thing, I thought, to have been taken by my parents. They had hoped I might be cured of ichthyosis, the genetic skin disease I was born with. But to go back fifty-five years later, voluntarily, seemed almost masochistic. God knows I didn’t want to be seen as one of the hordes of sick. Why hadn’t I shaken off the memory of my first trip to Lourdes like some nightmare? Something of my deepest self seemed buried there, like a backyard well long bricked over. To uncover it, I had to go back. Even as a child, I was convinced no cure would descend on me there. With the best of intentions, my parents had raised me to evade the blatant fact of my disease—the shards of skin raised in dry ridges along my arms, the thick scales on my hands and back and feet. “If anyone asks,” my mother used to say, “tell them it’s just dry skin.” In my mind, I constantly went back and forth, trying to ignore my body, yet trying—with some success—to charm other people into forgetting what I had no way to explain. Four hours south of Paris, the train pulled out of the Bordeaux St. Jean station. Lourdes lies deep in the Pyrénées mountains, down near the Spanish border—another two hours away. I’d insisted on doing this journey alone, without a friend—certainly not on an organized pilgrimage; I wasn’t a practicing Catholic. Prayer, that old irrational instinct to plead for what I’ll never get, seemed absolutely pointless. Stretching my legs, I thought about gene therapy, the only thing that will cure ichthyosis. Strange, arid flatlands rushed by outside the train. I kicked my feet. By the time scientists figure out a gene that works, I’d be in my 70s. Leaning my head on my purse against the window, I felt tired and snarky. I closed my eyes against the sandy landscape. If the Virgin had to chat with French teenagers, I reckoned, she should have picked some Parisienne. On a Mediterranean morning, in full Kodachrome, our family lines up in front of the broadly curving balcony in a public park. My brother, in scuffed white shoes, stands next to me, grinning, but I scowl at the camera. Above white cotton socks, I scratch my legs together, itching the lesions that lie like a raised map across my shins. When I look at that picture now, I know why I glowered. In an open place, on parade, stared at, I resented the camera’s extra gaze. I wanted to turn around, lose my eyes in the blue sea behind us, and forget the way I looked. My dress matched the ocean. Made of crinkly rayon in bright blue, it sported white stripes along the buttoned up collar. When my mother bought my outfit, perhaps she thought its marine colors looked right for the Côte d’Azur. The cut of my dress hid the breasts she had noticed just before we left home, when she walked unannounced into my bathroom and cast her critical eye on my little mounds. Always uneasy even with the threat of sexual competition, she made some slighting remark and I slid deeper into the bath, trying to ignore my body even as I lived in it. As I verged on adolescence, I knew I’d never meet her standards for good looks, unless some cure smoothed out my skin. She’d toss her head back, saying, “I was never a beauty.” That meant she wasn’t flawless. But her engagement photograph blared from a coffee table in our living room. As a girl I winced every time I glanced at her lovely A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
eyebrows and full red lips. I couldn’t possibly compete—not as I was, so I tried to ignore my new breasts. In fact I shirked anything that would raise the question of dating. God knows my parents loved me, but my mother couldn’t imagine a sexual future for a girl with a skin disease and my father, ever ready to keep his daughter a child, went along with mother’s dim view of my romantic prospects. “Marriage isn’t everything,” she told me around this time. She repeated that mantra as I grew older.
A shoulder of rock bulged from the cave where Bernadette saw the Virgin. As I stood in line to enter on my first day alone at Lourdes, the shoulder shone black from oily hands. At arm level, it seemed slippery, unclean. Further down, I gripped the gritty rock with my left hand, scraping my turquoise ring. As we entered the Grotto, an African woman in front of me turned, smiled, and took out a packet of written prayers which she put in a box. She asked, in English, if I had any supplications. I didn’t, although many other people did; the box looked full. For centuries, pilgrims have left offerings at holy places. We moved on. Bouquets rimmed with plastic lay scattered across the cave’s surface. Many people threw flowers on top of a clear glass square bolted with iron studs. Although the line continued to move, I slowed for a closer look. Underneath the glass, something seemed to ripple: the spring, the original mountain spring. The water flowed from underground, spilling over a granite slab as I leaned across the ropes. The line kept hopping toward the Virgin’s statue on the right, but I circled behind the African woman to look again at the sparkling stream. Surprisingly simple. Absolutely elemental. What you worship at Lourdes is water. The place fits an ancient tradition of honoring healing springs. Before I left for France, I’d read that those with ailments—goitre, infertility, eczema—searched for help in holy wells and natural geysers. Sufferers who came to springs such as Lourdes, writes Oxford scholar Ruth Harris in her history, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, “sought solace and cure, knowing that they entered a magical area.” Some feeling for this magic rubbed off on me as I watched the spring gush under the glass. I barely glanced at the nineteenth century statue of the Virgin that’s jammed into the niche where she first appeared. Bernadette didn’t like the statue either. She told the sculptor his version looked too old—not like the small, young creature, “uo pétito damizélo,” whom she saw. Her description has ancient roots. All across the Pyrénées writes Ruth Harris, folkloric stories featured small creatures dressed in white called damizélos or encantadas, lithe sprites who inhabited the region’s forests and waters. As I leaned toward the spring, I felt comforted to know that these wild creatures had colored Bernadette’s way of describing her apparition. I loved the whiff of something animistic there, something beyond clerical Catholicism. This pre-Christian sprite laughing in the Lourdes spring stirred my every deep-well desire for some ancient alchemy. Elegant in her bouffant linen skirt, my mother giggled as we walked toward the thermal baths in a German spa town. It was still July 1957, but to my great relief, we had left Lourdes and come to Baden-Baden. “Think they’ll give us a towel?” she asked, turning to look at me as I dawdled behind, scuffing gravel into grey mist on my school shoes. For a moment I just watched her legs, muscular from golf. Then I caught up with her, swung her hand in mine. She
thought this adventure a very European outing, something none of her friends in Philadelphia would do. It would make a great story for the ladies’ locker room. This old spa town, which my father’s ancestors had left in the nineteenth century, had the kind of elegance—the string trio at dinner—that she relished. She grew up in Indiana, always hoping to get away to New York, to Europe. She loved feeling sophisticated. I knew she never bathed nude in any spa in Indiana. I felt dully nervous about stripping and showing my dry, peeling body, but she made this excursion a girlie thing to do—like trying on a splashy new dress in a department store. Catching her mood, I said, “Oh, it’ll be fun.” She smiled her ready smile. Since Roman times patrons have come to the thermal springs at Baden-Baden. Perhaps my mother thought the bath would plump my thirsty skin. If so, she didn’t say anything about it. Inside the dressing room, curtains separated us. I heard her shimmy out of her linen skirt and kick it into her hand. In my cubicle I slowly unlaced the tight bodice drawstrings of my pink dress. Cupping each shoe by its heel, I gently pulled them off, careful not to squeeze the cracks between my toes. We did get a towel, which I wrapped tightly around me. I yearned for the water, hoping it wouldn’t sting. Then the attendant opened my curtain and motioned me to come out. The soles of my feet, thickened with layers of slick skin, slid on the floor. She spoke in German, but I looked confused and called her madame. When my mother joined us, the attendant asked if she was ready, “Êtes-vous prêt?” Shaking her head, my mother said “American” and looked around for the baths. The attendant seemed surprised. “Américaine?” she said to me, “oui,” I said, “oui.” “Ah,” she said, jutting her lower lip. She handed us slippers. Then she put a firm hand on the thick ridges of skin that lay across my shoulder. Flicking my eyes down, I jerked my shoulder muscles, waiting for the inevitable comment. “Votre peau,” she said, “c’est comme un poisson, n’est-ce pas?” My French deserted me. My ears closed. She smiled and nodded a little. “Like a fish,” she said in English. “Your skin is like a fish.” What an odd thing to say. “I guess so,” I muttered, pulling away. I saw in my mind’s eye the tight silver scales of a sea bass. The comparison surprised me. I didn’t know any Greek, didn’t understand that ichthys is Greek for fish. I tried to hold this idea out at arm’s length and examine it. Did my arm look like a fish? Sort of, yes. Squirming, while my mother angrily asked where the baths were, I tried to shake off this new image, but it darted too fast into the well of my mind. I pulled my arms closer to my body, writhing on the line of this distress, ducking and hiding my head, shamed into silence. Noodling around Amazon looking for books to jog my memory of Lourdes before I returned there, I came across Emile Zola’s best-seller about the shrine, published in 1894. The great French novelist’s story, called Lourdes, follows a pilgrimage, starting on the “white train” which carried malades from Paris to the Pyrénées. He luridly describes pilgrims including Elise, a woman whose putrid nose and mouth are so disfigured by lupus that she hides behind a veil. How, I wondered, could I possibly associate with this? I told myself my condition wasn’t nearly as bad as Elise’s. And that is true. Although there is no real cure for my malady, A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
a medicine I began to take thirty years ago has greatly lessened the scales on my body. But flakes of dry skin still scruff the red plush seats of trains I ride. Ichthyosis, usually caused by a genetic abnormality, is so rare—only 1 in 300,000 babies a year are born with it, as I was— people very seldom see it. I can be an arresting sight. I cursed myself for even reading Zola, but I couldn’t stop. Sitting in my backyard brick patio in Philadelphia, I read on, every so often stopping to inhale the honeysuckle that snakes the side of my house. Zola’s heroine has what we—and Zola—would regard as psychosomatic paralysis. She is twenty-three, pretty, and pious. Her love interest, Pierre, now a priest, goes on pilgrimage with her. At Lourdes, her intense faith is rewarded. She rises from her wheelchair and walks. I cringed when I read Pierre’s response: He had lost Marie for the first time on the day he had become a priest, thinking he might as well renounce his manhood since she, stricken in her sex by incurable illness, would never become a woman. But behold! She was cured. She had become a woman…beautiful, and desirable.
Of course, I thought, she’s only sexual when she’s cured. Before that, she’s not even a woman. Why do we fear desire in bodies that are in any way different? Zola’s description of the new Marie should have made me put the book in the trash. Instead, it struck a chord. By the time I got to high school, my mother had told me again and again, before every prom, “if you can only make it through…” That meant if I closed my eyes and got through the time of dating, or rather, not dating, I could safely land in a women’s college where, we both imagined, I’d ride on my brains. In the meantime I learned too well how to live at a distance from my body. I floated above it. Down at the Jersey shore I flapped my arms in the humid sea air as if I were some prehistoric bird I could watch as a curiosity. In the afternoons I’d go to the beach with my oldest friend, Suzi, because that’s what you did in the summer at the shore in South Jersey. I sat on a towel in the hot sand in my swimsuit, hoping I could keep Suzi with me and not have to trail off after her when she went to flirt with the lifeguard. “C’mon on, Annie,” she’d say, “Let’s see what Brad’s doing.” And so I’d toss my book aside and follow her because she was full of life. We’d stand in the shallow water while Suzi called up to Brad or Jerry or whoever dangled his tanned legs from the white wooden stand. She’d chat and draw her blonde hair back behind her ear while I gave Brad or Jerry a half smile from behind my sunglasses. I’d look out to sea while heat pressed my arms and I’d dance a little safe dance on the hard sand, kicking water and waiting for us to leave, to go anywhere, even just splash along the water’s edge where she would tell me, friend to friend, how cute he was. Maybe she figured I’d find him cute too, but it hardly mattered, since I was convinced no Brad could ever be interested in me—and even if he was, I would have absolutely no idea what to say to him. My sense of myself as a woman whom no man would want and my downright disassociation with my own body lasted through my first real sexual experience. As a twentythree year old graduate student in Oxford, England—a place whose beauty never ceased to stop me in the street—I met a man whose awkwardness matched mine. The friend of a classmate, he hunched over when he walked, although he was only about thirty. However
he showed me a kind of shy attention, took me to pubs and concerts. I knew perfectly well that he was desperately lonely and so socially maladjusted other people laughed at him— during an endless goodbye at a friend’s house one night he held his hand on the metal knob of a door, which, when he finally opened it to go, turned out to be a broom closet. However his attentions put me in a puppet show where I could finally play the part of girlfriend. We walked around Oxford hand in hand, he called me darling, and when we finally went to bed, he sought to reassure me, “I can pat you,” he said, “just pat you.” Instead of caressing my mottled skin, he tapped my thighs and belly while I lay watching this happen to me, every nerve drawn in tight. For two years in her early twenties, my mother was herself a malade, sick with tuberculosis. In those days the disease could kill her and anyone who caught it from her, when she coughed or kissed. Fresh air was the only cure for a sickness more terrifying to her friends in 1935 than aids is to us. Communities stigmatized tb patients and banished them. In her Indiana home, the tuberculosis hospital stood in the woods on the outskirts of town. Locals called the building the “Pest House” because in the nineteenth century patients with contagious smallpox and other pestilential diseases had been taken there. There was an alternative: the “American Lourdes,” Saranac Lake, NY, a village buried in thick forest near the Canadian border. Starting in 1884 Saranac turned itself into a community of malades, where tb patients at various stages in their disease lived either in charity hospitals, or, like my mother, in boarding houses called “cure cottages,” which featured porches where patients sat, breathing clean mountain air, taking their temperature, and anticipating the day their lungs would be clear enough to go home—if their families would have them back. Judging by the diary she kept at the time, my mother simply would not let herself be stigmatized. In fact, sometimes she could barely believe she was sick at all. One night about six months after she arrived, she and another patient were allowed out for a film. “Mary O’D and I went to the movie,” she jotted. “It’s so impossible when I’m out to realize that there can possibly be anything wrong. I simply ache to be living again.” Her sickness didn’t prevent her from being interested in men. One January night about ten months into her stay, she heard from an old boyfriend: “Sam called last night. It not only sounded good to be talking to someone from home but gave me that feeling of excitement and of living again. I’ve been blue today and have a cold. Every once in a while you can’t help feeling how much you want to be in the swing of things again.” In August, 1936, she relished a date with a local man, including supper at an upscale club known for live entertainment. “Hal called to take me to a movie in the afternoon,” she wrote. “Got home and decided to go the whole hog and stay out to dinner. Went to the Swiss Chalet. Drove over to Lake Placid afterward. I enjoyed myself tremendously as I always do with Hal. He’s such good company.” In her diary she betrayed no inhibitions about dating just because she had tb. Quite to the contrary. She advertised her sexuality. On December 3, 1935, she sat for photographs to send as Christmas presents. In one she lounges on a wicker chair in a satin dressing gown undoubtedly heavy with sweat and scent. The fabric slopes over her breasts, lingers around her waist, and drapes her jutting knees. She leans back like a Matisse odalisque. This is not the A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
picture of a tb patient, even though it’s clear she’s just gotten up from her sick bed and will soon return to it. It’s a portrait of a young woman who felt her sexuality as powerfully when she was sick as at any other time—and wants us to know it. Undoubtedly she sent copies of this photo to boyfriends in Washington, where she’d been working as a secretary for her Congressman before she got sick, and to the young men who still wrote from her hometown. In November 1937, the doctors pronounced her cured and she left Saranac for good. After a brief stopover at home, she moved to Chicago, where she got a job in a bank and picked up her social life. Why didn’t she stay in Indiana where she’d grown up and where her mother’s family had deep roots? A lively young woman newly released from bed rest in a forest has reason to seek the vitality of the big city. Yet I think the tb stigma comes into play. In her hometown all the local families knew she had had tb—and their sons knew it. Perhaps she sensed she might not have the kind of marriage prospects there she wanted, so she left for a place where the field lay open. In a new city she could pass, could hide her tb history. She met my father, a young lawyer, at a dinner party in Chicago in 1939. He was the kind of man she had been looking for—ambitious, Catholic, tender. They fell in love and began to talk about marriage. But she didn’t let him know she had survived tb until they were almost engaged. Even she feared the stigma might scare him away. In the end she faced her fear. When she told him, he brushed it off. Perhaps she knew he would. How did her experience as a malade affect the way she raised me? When she emerged from the snows of upstate New York, she refused to be victimized by other people’s fear of tb. Later, living with a disfigured daughter, she tried hard to ward off stigma, so it wouldn’t attach to me or to her by association. She did her best to pretend there was nothing wrong with me. However, she could pass. In her mid-twenties, cured, she glowed of health. I, of course, couldn’t. But her experience with tb became the seed bed of my own reluctance to own I am malade. In many ways her defiance gave me a good start in life. She resisted doctors’ suggestions to homeschool me—to keep me away from the world as surely as those tb patients in the Indiana Pest House. She sent me to kindergarten with my twin brother without a second thought. She taught me to be charming and social. But she didn’t understand how refusing to admit I had ichthyosis made me unable to touch the texture of the body I was in. And she denied my sexuality almost completely. My father, a shy Irish Catholic, followed her lead, undoubtedly motivated by Irish diffidence about the body and all its needs. I find this denial of my sexuality to be an almost unforgiveable transgression—one experienced by many women whose bodies are different. Why did she refuse to see in me what she cultivated in herself—even while she had tb? Why didn’t my fierce, powerful mother buck the tide, go against the prevailing wisdom, and see her teenaged daughter as a woman as capable of desire as she? A simple lack of imagination? Maybe she just didn’t have the guts. Who knows how therapy works—that slow interweaving of new ideas with old ones until the new thoughts come to the fore enough to change, to some extent, the way you look at yourself and the way you act? At least it’s been that way for me. Gradually, over several years with skillful counselors, I began to understand that even a woman with flawed skin
might want a lover. This wasn’t my mother’s philosophy, of course, but by my thirties, I had wandered beyond her reach. I had an administrative job at the University of Pennsylvania which came with several sessions of free counseling; this morphed into regular therapy. At first it surprised me that my therapist simply assumed I dated. She seemed startled when I told her my affair in Oxford was the only one I’d had. But we got to work and I began to see my body differently. With frequent backsliding—self shunning doesn’t die easy—I got more at ease, began to run my hands over the curves of my calves, cupped the weight of my lovely breasts without moving my palms enough to feel my scales. I didn’t, so often, refer to myself in the third person or see myself as a stranger walking down the street. One afternoon after a therapy session, I slipped into the women’s room before going back to work. There in the old fashioned cubicle, a private place, watching my skirt fall back down over my ribbed legs, I let a thought explode in my mind: me too, I thought, me too. I can be a woman too. But to feel sexual, I had to touch my own body, with all its strange textures. I had to recognize myself as malade and weave into that recognition a sense of myself as sexy. Rain chilled the Lourdes complex when I finally persuaded myself to visit the famous baths. Pumped from Bernadette’s underground spring, the stream feeds the baths, hidden in blue striped cabanas, as well as spigots where pilgrims can fill bottles with “Lourdes water.” For hours, I debated whether or not to take a dip. Before lunch, I told myself that we hadn’t gone near the baths when I was a kid, so why would I need to now? Walking back into the complex after lunch, I remembered Flannery O’Connor’s injunction to bathe early in the morning because the staff only changed the water once a day. By the afternoon those baths would be livid with hair and sloughed off skin. Feeling a kindred soul in O’Connor, who visited Lourdes in 1958, I took refuge in the bookstore. I often do that when I’m nervous or afraid. Poking among biographies of St. Bernadette, I opened an illustrated history of her life and ran my finger across her photograph. She was drop dead gorgeous, with thick black eyebrows like Liz Taylor’s. I wanted to caress the side of her face, but she looked at me with strangely dead eyes, as if she’d hated posing for this picture. Turning away, I thought of her spring, the place where she’d been enraptured. I had to get into that water. I knew if I left town without visiting the baths, I’d accuse myself of not having the guts to do the whole Lourdes deal. So I left the bookstore and walked back across the cold esplanade. The sound of a hymn I’d sung as a child rose near the blue cabanas. I joined the refrain, Ave, Ave, Maria. My clear soprano punctuated the air until I found the line for the women’s baths. In front of me an Italian with an orange wash on her hair turned, appraised me, patted her cheeks, and gave her advice, “Sei malato? Sick? Ask him.” She pointed vaguely toward an usher. I stiffened a bit, trying to keep my voice at a friendly pitch. “What?” I said, “Uh…” She glanced at my face. It must have looked unusually red to her, even in the rain. “Let you go ahead.” This was Lourdes. Malades had priority. She pointed again to the volunteer in his neon green official vest. “No thanks,” I said, “I’m okay.” I had no intention of asking for help. This was the main women’s line. We could all walk unaided. This is where I belonged. The Italian shrugged. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Chilly pilgrims ambled toward the blue and white striped cabanas that held the baths. Inside, a strawberry blonde volunteer pulled aside a fabric curtain and motioned to me. I glanced at her name tag as I ducked in: Geraldine Murphy. “Ah, Geraldine,” I said, incredibly glad to hear English spoken. I entered a dressing room. The actual marble bath waited out of sight behind another curtain, although voices echoed against the stone. Geraldine held a blue cotton sheet above me. “We’ll just wrap this around you, luv,” she said, “when you’re out of your clothes.” I looked up at her, not wanting to believe what I’d heard. “All of them?” “That’s it.” Unzipping my pants, I did as I was told, while a flash memory of my mother’s gaiety at the Baden-Baden spa glittered in my mind’s eye. Geraldine wrapped the cotton sheet around me, and instructed me to stand in front of the curtain hiding the bath. In my bare feet I stared at the blue fabric six inches from my face. Why have I done this? I wondered. I felt like a condemned prisoner. I worried the bath water would be scummy and furiously remembered Zola’s description of filthy water with flecks of skin swirling in it. Would I add to that? After about two minutes, a French woman opened the curtain, letting my predecessor out. “English,” said Geraldine. “American, actually,” I corrected her as I walked a few feet forward. Geraldine left, dropping the blue curtain behind her. In front of me stood a marble bath about seven feet long, facing away. A small statue of the Virgin wobbled at the opposite end of the tub. Two steep steps led into the depths of the bath. The water seemed clear, despite all the other bathers, including, I thought, menstruating women. The French attendant told me to cross myself as a signal I was ready to get into the bath. I deeply resented this admonition to pray. Amazingly, I was unprepared for any hint of orthodox Catholicism. I was here for the healing spring, not for some Catholic ritual. I made the sign, but my motion must have been halfhearted because she asked me if I were ready, and I had to do it again. I dropped my blue cotton sheet and stood naked, looking down at my shins, trying to judge how much my skin flaked. At first it didn’t seem as bad as I had thought, but as I moved my eyes across my reddened thighs, chips of dead skin stood up like sea salt. My belly and breasts rose in dunes. I was a desert landscape, irredeemably cracked and dry. Clenching in my chest my growing desire to have done with this disease, to shake it off forever, I moved a little closer to the bath. After a few seconds one of the other helpers held out a wet sheet which chilled my back. The water on the first step felt intensely cold. The French woman asked me to pray to the Virgin and kiss the statue, which she held before my lips. I resented this too. What was that statue doing here? I smudged it quickly. Then my eyes glided across the bath. At the far end, the water rippled as if a sprite stirred there. I’d pray to her if I had to pray. The brush of sprite summoned up some ancient nymph or damizela, something Bernadette might have seen. On the second step freezing water stung my feet. It’s a mountain spring, I thought. Of course it’s frigid. It seemed absurd to submerge, to shock my shoulders. Viscerally, I shied away. The French woman sensed this. “Will you go in all the way?” she asked. “No,” I said. “No. I think not.”
So it was over. I turned away and someone slipped the wet cloth off me, and again I clutched the dry blue cotton sheet around me. My lower legs, which had been in the water, felt firm and refreshed, but as I pulled on my turtleneck, I thought quite clearly, get me out of here. How to describe the elegance of Paris? Lacy iron railings fronting the facades? The clip of women’s heels in narrow streets? A flash of gray silk scarf? In 1982, I spent six weeks on the Left Bank, taking a new drug, a synthetic Vitamin A, which had been used in Europe to treat ichthyosis. Although the fda had not approved it for the States, I arranged to get the drug in Paris. That is a story for another time. Suffice it to say that in April 1982, in a hotel in St. Germain, my heavy scales literally fell on the floor practically overnight, vacuumed up by the hotel maid, for whom I left a huge tip. When I got home I had a smoother body. The scales that had gripped me in plates disappeared, leaving a texture like peeling reddish tree bark. A few months later, I called a friend in Boston, a funny man whom I’d known in graduate school. Mo had a law practice—mainly representing homeless people—and taught a course now and then at the Harvard Law School. He’d known my brother during Ed’s undergraduate years in Cambridge, and when I went to Harvard to do a Ph.D. in English, Ed wrote introducing me. Mo took me to legendary pubs like the Plough and Stars, dazzled me with his Irish wit. After I left to work in Philadelphia, we kept in touch. Still, I never let myself think of him as a lover, he never made advances, and I never said a word about my skin. But after my time in Paris, with my newly smooth Parisian looks and my therapist’s voice in my head, I went to see him—without telling him about my new medicine. He said he’d meet me at the newsagent’s kiosk in Harvard Square. As I came near, he stood reading the New York Times, flicking his hair with his middle finger and thumb. I took a breath, wondering what I’d done. He saw me, folded the paper. Shuffling in his scuffed shoes, he came up to me, looking a little surprised: “You look wonderful.” It sounded like a statement of fact: you look wonderful. It shocked me. But I knew things would be different. He got me a room in a clapboard house where Harvard puts up visiting scholars, and waited downstairs while I changed into pink linen shorts and a red shirt. We stopped for an early evening drink at the airy, modern Harvest Restaurant. Sitting at the bar, I fanned my hands across the polished wood counter, showing them off. But as Mo moved his stool close to mine, I didn’t know what to do, shifted in my seat. He turned toward me. “How’s Eddie?” he asked, starting with a safe subject. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about my brother just then, but I filled him in. “They have a new baby. Little boy. About a year and a half. Named Eddie.” “Of course.” “Of course?” “Sure, guys like Ed always name their sons after them. Traditional.” I rubbed a crease in my cocktail napkin with my fingernail, wondering if I could ask how his law practice was going. “I guess so.” “My grandfather’s name was de Grasse. After the Admiral. From the Admiral, in fact.” I always knew Mo had a little fancy blood. He wasn’t pure Irish. But he never seemed to want to talk about it, so I never asked him. He reached down the bar for the peanuts. “From A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
my mother’s side.” He clenched his teeth and shook his head from side to side. “Bad.” “Why bad?” “She married down. Dad’s an Irish school teacher.” He chomped a fistful of peanuts. Then he turned directly to me, “So how are you, Anne? How’s Anne?” Nothing stuns me into silence faster than a direct question about how I am, especially when I think the questioner is unlikely to keep his attention on me for long. “Ok, ok, I’m good. Enjoying my job at Penn. With the kids. Career counselor.” “You shouldn’t be doing that. Not really. You should be writing. Teaching.” “I have to make a living, Mo. He fumbled in his suit jacket. I noticed the little shine around the pocket. “Got Red Socks tickets in here. Bleacher seats. Tomorrow night. Wanna go?” “Sure.” I leaned over to look at the tickets, feeling his warmth. “So what do they talk about, Eddie and his wife? Books? Current affairs?” I snickered a little. “No, Mo, they talk about their children.” He opened his eyes wide and shook his head. “Children! Not me. Can you imagine little Mo Fords?” “Only too easily,” I laughed. “Wild little red-heads running around driving you crazy.” We paid the bill, left, and walked down Brattle Street. Then Mo had a new idea. “I’ll take you down to the dock.” I never thought of Mo sailing. It seemed incongruous for such a long-legged man to perch, inevitably in a suit, on the side of a small boat. But I was curious, flustered, and happy that our drink seemed to be leading to a longer evening. As we waited on subway platforms, I listened to him talk. Sometimes I just repeated what he’d said, too nervous to venture an idea myself. Sometimes I chanced a joke or a flash of wit. When we got to it, the small wharf ran sideways along the river. We watched the sailboats maneuver in the stream. In the twilight the water looked cool. Mo took off his socks, rolled up his suit pants, sat down, and splashed his feet. I stood watching. He looked up at me and I grinned. What the hell. This is how you flirt, right? I kicked off my shoes, unrolled my socks, and plunged my feet into the slimy shallows. The tepid water flowed through my toes. After a few minutes, Mo stretched a foot and touched mine. Footsie. Classic. I slid my right toes against his left sole. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “C’mon over here.” A little frightened that this wouldn’t last, a little frightened that it would, I moved next to him, and leant against his chest as he put his arm around me. He smelled like soap. I rubbed my face against his shoulder, and, getting braver, opened one button and slipped my hand in, feeling the nub of his undershirt. He kissed the top of my head. Back in the tiny visiting scholar’s room, Mo and I circled each other. I sat on the bed, he paced next to it, still taking about politics. We didn’t say a word about what was really happening, though at one point, nervous, trying to be just the slightest bit hard to get, I threw back my head and said, “You’ll be going soon.” “No, I won’t.” Perhaps he knew I wanted him to stay—that I was also afraid he’d stay. Perhaps he saw his chance—a chance he didn’t necessarily foresee when he met me that day— and took it. I had no protection; neither did he. I kicked my feet against the footboard. To hell with it. I wanted to think I’d been with him. We weren’t skillful lovers, but by this time he smelled more familiar as he lightly kissed my breasts. I reached around his solid chest, feeling the light hair on his back. His sweat
moistened my hands and I forgot about my skin for a while. I slid down the sheet and lifted my legs higher, wondering if that oddly awkward angle was one that all women took while having sex. At last I gripped him. In the morning he felt remorseful, thinking he’d misread my willingness, but I told him I felt deeply pleased. I left him still half asleep, put on my shorts and went down to sit on the sunny front steps. I’m like other women, I thought, women with lovers. My affair with Mo lasted a few years, as we visited occasionally in Philadelphia or Boston. It was never truly serious, neither of us was good marriage material, but with him, I came into my body more, moved away from the self-shunning that had gripped me for so long. Months after he and I split up, I told my mother about my days and nights with Mo. She was seventy-three. I wanted her to know—before she got too old to understand—that I too had had a lover. We sat at her kitchen table while she nursed a Scotch. I tapped my hand on the blond oak. As I talked—just giving the highlights, no intimate details, wondering what a devout Irish Catholic would think of an affair—she picked up my hand, curled her fingers through mine, pleased, greedy. I stroked her thumb, rocked my hands in hers. Sitting on a metal chair in the pool manager’s office, with my faux fur winter coat falling open to my mauve swimming suit, I looked up at him while he finished his phone call. It was January 2002. The brittle smell of chlorine seemed odd. I didn’t much like swimming pools, but I needed exercise to help my fifty-six year old back feel more flexible. His eyes narrowed, glancing at my thighs. I crossed my legs, clutched my coat around my chest, telling myself it wasn’t me. This guy was just trying to get his girlfriend off the line. Still, I felt like an Alligator Boy in a freak show. When he put his phone down, I stood up and smiled, feeling my dry lips spread across my face. “Yes?” he said without moving. Maybe they just didn’t like strangers in South Philly; maybe you have to be Italian to come down here. I smiled again, explained I’d like to join an exercise class. He stared at my neckline. I tried again. “Do I need to sign in or—“ “ID?” “Sure.” I handed him my license. My home address shone in tiny print next to my mug shot. Maybe I was out of their catchment area. Lived too far away. He grew taller as he leaned over me. I scraped the metal chair against the floor. “You have swimming. Aquatics.” “Today?” “Yeah, or just swim and then—“ “Don’t know about that.” He blew out a puff of air. “We’d need a doctor’s note.” Jesus Christ. Did he think I was contagious? My voice got sharp. “This pool’s on the Arthritis Foundation, their list. Don’t you have arthritis patients? Swimming?” “We’d need a note from a doctor.” He scanned the almost empty pool. I scratched my nose. “Folks with arthritis also have psoriasis sometimes.” A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
His young assistant came in, picked up a clipboard, rapped it, left. The manager checked the clipboard as I stood up snorting: “My problem’s kinda like psoriasis. Same idea. Nothing contagious.” “No, I’m sorry, we can’t let you into the pool without a doctor’s note.” Silently, I cursed him out. Fuck you. You bastard. I’m gonna write a letter that will blow you off the planet. Tears stung my eyes. “Who’s the manager?” I managed to say. “What time are these exercises?” He told me the times and I got his name, but I knew I’d never come back. Not ever. I’d never come back to this humid community pool. Not even when I’d proved I wouldn’t hurt anyone, swimming up and down their blue lanes. As I kicked snow on my way to my car, I tried to rationalize, remembering the anthrax scare had rattled everyone just two months ago. I threw my pocketbook in the back of my Ford. Maybe this guy thought I was some kind of living anthrax powder. I stared at my windshield all the way up Broad Street, gunning past Italian funeral parlors. My torso, alive with itching, seemed full of tiny stems of skin. At traffic lights, I held on to myself, scratching and patting my arms. I knew I’d write one hell of a letter. Moving again, I kept my eyes on City Hall, which rises like a French chateau in the middle of Broad Street. Just get me out of South Philly. Just get me back to my own neighborhood where I’ll feel safe. Because that is what I felt, unsafe—unsafe because I was the butt of irrational terrors. In the literature on stigmatization, there’s an overwhelming theme: people fear contagion— that’s what makes them shun anyone whose skin looks disordered, makes them threaten to drive us out of town. Among the theories for why this is so, the least proven is the notion that in evolving, humans selected for health partly by staying clear of people with obvious diseases. Intellectually I find it easy to dismiss this theory—a favorite of far-right thinkers— because my parents were handsome. They selected health in each other, but both carried the recessive gene for ichthyosis. Scholars such as Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland bolster my skepticism about the evolutionary theory. They argue there is no proven evidence for the notion that we are genetically programmed to shun people with obvious disorders. And yet perhaps thoughts such as these linger in the minds of people like the manager of that community pool. To be fair, perhaps I felt something of the same worry at Lourdes, when I wondered if I should get into the baths at the end of the day when so many people may have “contaminated” them. But I got over my fear and at least put my toes in that icy water. Western culture from the Bible on down is full of stories I have winced to read—even when I taught them as a professor of English, a career to which I happily returned in later life. To take just one: In Milton’s Paradise Lost, on his way out of Hell, heading toward Eden where Adam and Eve are still innocent, Satan runs into the character of Sin described thus: …a woman to the waist, and fair, But ended foul in many a scaly fold Voluminous and vast, a serpent
This is perhaps the ultimate in equating scaly skin with moral corruption—another abhorrent theory that is easy for me to throw off since my skin disorder is congenital. There’s not one thing I could have done to bring it on myself. How to respond to irrational fears? I am convinced of my own essential innocence in all of this. I am a woman whose body looks somewhat strange but who is innocent of complicity in this strangeness. What else? Clothes help. Good looking clothes. As I left that neighborhood pool, I wrapped my stylish faux fur coat around me. The lovely polyester feathers flickered on my face, making me feel a little bit glamorous, even then. When I got home, I emailed the Director of the Samuel F. Fels Community Center, telling her how badly I’d been treated and advising her that I wasn’t contagious. I included a link to the ichthyosis support group where she could learn more. Hopefully the next time someone with a skin problem came to the pool, they would get a kinder reception. However, I made it clear that the Fels Pool had no place in my future. “There’s no way on earth I would ever return to your pool,” I wrote, “no way would I risk a repeat performance of the ugly discourtesy I encountered there. No way. Never.” After I’d pushed the send button, I went into the bathroom, closed the door, slid out of my slacks, pulled my bathrobe around me, poured two tablespoons of my effervescent antiitching “pink drink,” an antihistamine which surely had its source in distant poppy fields, and drank the glass completely dry. Wandering into one of the kitschy bazaars along the main avenue at Lourdes on my last morning, I bought a tiny plastic bottle to carry some holy water home. Why not? Everyone does. Pilgrims with cars chose gallon jugs, but those of us who had to fly made do with less. After all, we have the tsa to deal with. Three ounces of liquid. With a wry smile on my lips, I walked through the esplanade. The Virgin asked Bernadette to drink at the fountain and wash herself. Many people do. On that May afternoon, pilgrims from all over the world milled around the wall of spigots piped from the holy spring. An Indian rubbed water against his cheeks. An Eastern European woman, shouting for help from her husband, filled two-gallon jugs, enough for the whole parish. As I edged closer to the wall, I ducked backpacks with gray zippers. Pushing forward, I pressed against shoulders, slithered past massive pocketbooks. I kept asking myself why I wanted this water. In front of me, an older woman’s scarf smelled of cologne as she turned from the wall, plastic bottle trembling in her fist. I skirted her and saw a spigot jutting from its stones, the tap inviting my thumb. Let’s do this, I thought. Let’s just do it. As I pushed the knob, every buried desire welled up inside me. I filled my bottle, put it in my pocket, and held out my arms while the ancient, blessed water splashed across the dried skin of my palms. As I turned to cross the esplanade, I prayed to God the Father, my hands, Lord, at least cure my hands.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Wee, Small Hours Bob Cowser, Jr.
Though I moved back to rural northern New York from London a year ago, I’m still living on England time, the Greenwich Mean. My bonny lies over the ocean, as the ballad goes, and despite my efforts to shift back to Eastern Standard, I find I’m five hours ahead of myself all day long, as though my body believed I still lived with her in a turn-of-the-century row house in Kensal Green, across the Harrow Road from its vast cemetery. This perpetual jet lag, if that’s what it is, has me up well ahead of the sun, an unfamiliar time for this natural night owl. I climb from bed and find that I am swimming in these hours. And in this early light, I am strangely susceptible—things “dawn” on me. Susceptible, in particular, to poetry (though I have been almost exclusively a writer of prose). Most mornings I sit down at my kitchen table (bought at a yard sale—all my furniture in this new life is second-hand) to a book of poems. Wallace Stevens, always a fixture in my reading life, wrote that poetry “must resist the intellect almost completely,” something that I didn’t fully understand until now, until I’d passed a few dozen mornings this way. My friend Mark Irwin has said writers are “first-responders to the accidents of language,” and in these wee hours I find such accidents befall me more and more. One Monday morning last fall, after a late Sunday flight back from Heathrow, I sat at the kitchen table and looked out the two large rectangular windows across State Street to the neighbor’s lawn. His trees, full of blazing leaves when I’d left town the week before, had since gone bare, the leaves having yellowed and fallen, or been blown, to cover his lawn. “Golden grove unleaving,” I thought. Hopkins. “Yellowing lawns,” I then said aloud, to no one. Where had I heard that before? A poem of my father’s, I realized, called “Dove Season.” I have written elsewhere about discovering a sheaf of my father’s poems as a teenager (not much older than my eldest son is now) while stealing loose change from his dresser. The poems were evidence of an attention to his children’s lives I did not know he’d been paying, something I had begrudged him. I suspect finding them has changed the course of my life. But the poems rising to the surface of my consciousness now are another matter, less about the fact of the poems than their language. “A few doves are in the town now,” this poem begins. “away from the hunters’ sights,”
Sipping from the rust-colored drain beside the heating plant, or hopping in pairs underneath maples on yellowing lawns. Note the pattern of greys and brown in their wings, and the near-white of their breasts. Beauty is soft, like symphony hardly begun, a moment of suspense before the baton descends. In a book publishing course in college, I made as a final project a chapbook of all my father’s
poems I could find. I remember re-typing the stanzas in a university computer lab in New Orleans, fingers flying over the keyboard, thinking only of what his face might look like when I presented the book at the end of the term. A schoolboy’s gesture, really. But its blessed byproduct is that his phrases have been in my head ever since, lines from this poem but so many others as well. “Under the rocks,” writes Norman Maclean, “are the words.” This has happened for years, of course, the intrusion of his phrases, almost from the time I retyped them, yet while the lines of poetry once appeared rather at random, they now often seem apropos as I move into middle age, the time in his life when most of them were composed, during and after a summer he spent away from our family, working in Nashville as an editor for a small religious press. His phrases frame a moment’s perception, clarify an insight, slow a spinning world and set it aright. In the poems I find the directives he never spoke aloud: “note the pattern,” and so on. He shares modest themes and style with the well-known male poets of his generation and region, heartland poets like Stafford and Kooser. That is to say, lots of drab birds and train trestles, boredom and other ordinary miseries. The joy of a doe grazing at the cedar brake. Importantly, my father’s poems seem a site of resistance, resistance to violence in particular—the hunter’s shot but also what Frost called the “slow, smokeless burning of decay.” He has another bird poem, “Winter Beacon,” in which a young persona and his father march across a frozen field, the father cradling a shotgun in his arm and carrying a blackbird he’s shot in the pocket of his jacket. But the boy is determined to redeem the bird from winter and time, claiming its pose in death “mocked flight,” and that the feathered red crests of its wings, “limp though the bird was” (I hear my father’s voice saying “/woz/”), were “azalea bright in the dark of winter.” “Winter Beacon” must have come from memories of his boyhood in East Texas, but I imagine him composing “Dove Season” from the rocking chair in a room in my childhood home we came to call “the study.” Dad often took a cup of tea there, and I picture him regarding a few doves through the window, hopping on the lawn just below. In such a moment, amid his busy life as college teacher and father of four, silence was beauty. When I lived with my my ex-wife and two sons in a house that doubled as a hair salon, I could only manage this kind of quiet when I bought time away from home at artists’ colonies—the deep quiet and stillness leading to deep relaxation and focus and ultimately, fingers crossed, to deep insight. But this time was always so precious short, as it must have been for my father, and purchased at great cost. I remember driving home from those retreats felt like I was piloting a space shuttle back into the Earth’s atmosphere, my Subaru wagon burning through the sheer noise of family life. The shuttle always loses a few solar tiles upon re-entry. These days I have solitude in abundance, though that’s no guarantee the words will come. My anxiety can be its own noise, the sound of my own wheels driving me crazy. I know that often in these early mornings, sitting at the table with a book of poems, my elder son carries his own gun into nearby woods, hunting birds, as miles away in Tennessee my elderly father carries another cup of tea to that study window.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Our Contributors Gary M. Almeter is an estates and trusts attorney who lives in Baltimore with his wife, three young kids, and dog, Beastie. His humor, essays, and interviews have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Good Men Project, Writer’s Bone, Split Sider, and the Reject Pile. He is the first prize winner of the Maryland Writer’s Association’s 2014 creative nonfiction contest. He is currently at work on a collection of essays about ice cream and the Fourth of July.
Bob Cowser, Jr.’s most recent book Green Fields: Crime, Punishment, and a Boyhood Between won “Best Memoir 2010” from the Adirondack Center for Writers, and an excerpt was cited in Best American Essays 2012. His first book, Dream Season, was a New York Times Book Review “Editor’s Choice” and “Paperback Row” selection and was listed among the Chronicle of Higher Education’s best-ever college sports books. Cowser is also the author of Scorekeeping, a collection of coming-of-age essays, and editor of Why We’re Here: New York Essayists on Living Upstate, and his work has appeared widely in American literary magazines. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is Professor of English at St. Lawrence University and has taught abroad in France, England, and Denmark. Robert W. Henway is a student at the University of Iowa. His work has also appeared in Cleaver Magazine.
Anne Kaier’s essay “Maple Lane” was mentioned on the list of Notables in the 2014 edition of Best American Essays. Her memoir is Home with Henry. Essays and poetry appear in The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Kenyon Review, Referential, and Beauty is a Verb: An Anthology of Poetry, Poetics, and Disability which is on the American Library Association Notable Books list for 2012. With a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Kaier teaches at Arcadia University. She lives in Center City Philadelphia. More at www.annekaier.com. Gretchen Legler teaches creative writing in the BFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Maine Farmington. Her nonfiction books include All the Powerful Invisible Things: A Sportswoman’s Notebook and On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life in McMurdo Station Antarctica. Her work has appeared in Orion magazine, the Georgia Review, Brevity, and many other venues. She lives with her partner, singer/songwriter Ruth Hill, on eighty acres of land in rural Maine where they raise goats and chickens and garden, write, and make music. Jim Ross dove back into creative writing after retiring in 2015 from a career in public health research. Since then, he’s published personal essays and creative nonfiction in Lunch Ticket, Gravel, MAKE, Friends Journal, and more than a dozen other publications. Because he’s always earned his keep using words, his surprise has been discovering the demand for photos among literary magazines. A graduate of Georgetown and Howard Universities, he and his wife split their time between Silver Spring, Maryland and Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. Patti See teaches developmental education and women’s studies courses at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Her stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Salon Magazine, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Journal of Developmental Education, The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Southwest Review, HipMama, Inside HigherEd, as well as other magazines and anthologies. She is the co-author (with Bruce Taylor) of Higher Learning: Reading and Writing About College, 3rd edition (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2011) and a poetry collection, Love’s Bluff (Plainview Press, 2006). She writes the award-winning blog “Our Long Goodbye: One Family’s Experiences with Alzheimer’s Disease.” Jennifer Young is an English professor and writer from Ohio. Her work has appeared previously in Great Lakes Review and Full Grown People, and she has work forthcoming in The Offing.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Published on May 13, 2016
Among many essays: Anne Kaier takes us to Lourdes, Gretchen Legler considers wealth and apple cider, Gary M. Almeter counts Jennifers,and Bo...