A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Staff Editor Kelly Grey Carlisle Managing Editors Paige Roth Ileana Sherry Production Manager Ileana Sherry Associate Editors Ciara Bergin Sara Di Blasi Josie Hammons All staff members 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: “...Giggles” and page 78. “In Hiding” cover and “Almost Spring” back cover, Mallory Alice Epping. Jade Arch: pages 3-4. Madeline Baker: pages 13-14, 31-32. Ciara Bergin: pages 7, 23-24, 72, 77. Cade Bradshaw: pages 21, 37-38, 46, 53-54. Mallory Alice Epping: “In Hiding” page 2; “Arthropod” page 10; “Ocracoke Skimmer” page 12; “Piggly Wiggly” page 36; “Duke Energy” page 42; “House Of The Sun” page 43; “Golden Year” pages 47-48; “Outside Of Jersey” page 51-52; “Magic Pill” page 57; “Honey Bee” page 65; “In Bloom” pages 65-66; “Killah Bees” page 66; “Bricks” page 76. Josie Hammons: page 60. Andrea Medina: “Velas” page 27; “Bolt” page 30; “Blood Door” pages 67-68. “Pansy,” pages 61-62, © 2011 by Johnno_Oz at Flickr.com. Used under creative commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode. Modified by insertion of text.
Volume 3 Issue 1 Summer 2015
Mike Petrik Under the Umbrella
Asale Angel-Ajani We Travel Like Other People
Christine Stewart-Nu単ez A Study of Nuns, Light, and (Eventually) Love
Carrie Shipers On the Mat
Antonia Malchik Bitterroot 37 Jason Howard To Have and Have Not
Deb Fleischman Migraine Material
Alison Townsend Planting Pansies: A Love Story
Judy Bolton-Fasman The Death Certificate
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Under the Umbrella
The black clouds that had rushed across the island opened on me the moment the truck pulled up beside the massive, stone monument marking Columbus’s first incursion. These San Salvador June squalls were early in the hurricane season and they never lasted long. But they did move in fast, soaking the island with intent and force. “Let’s get them under cover quick,” said Dr. Baldwin, emerging from the truck’s cockpit. I took one of the five-gallon buckets lowered by my dive-partner, Katie. I hunched my body over the bucket’s mouth in an attempt to block the poisonous fresh water from my charges and shuffled the few hundred yards to the safety of the nearby pavilion’s thatched roof. The force of the rain stung the back of my neck and ears, burnt by two weeks of snorkeling with my back to the sun. The others joined me under cover with two more buckets as lightning arced into one of the salt marshes of the island’s interior, punctuated with a sharp crack “No distant rumble to give you a head’s up down here, is there?” said John, pulling off his soaked wetsuit top. We were assisting on his study that week. In each bucket, a half-dozen black, jelly-doughnut-shaped bodies bristled with long thin spines that waved in a chaos of directions. In the bucket I carried, two of the creatures were jetting white volcanic plumes from a point at the very top of their bodies. Three others were birthing a steady stream of tiny pink-orange globules that cascaded through the spaces between their haphazard spines. A smell something like overripe fruit mingled with the briny tang of the bucket’s salt water. It made my stomach growl and my mind wander to the cheese, turkey, and mustard abandoned with the cooler still in the back of the truck. “They’re mating,” I said. The creatures were the long-spined sea urchin, Diadema antillarum. They were why I’d come to this tiny island in the extreme southeast of the Bahamas chain. And, we hoped, they could be a key to saving coral reefs throughout the Caribbean. A few months earlier, our team had met for the first time in the front row of a dark classroom to learn the scope of the project. St. Lawrence University Professor of Biology Brad Baldwin spoke over a grainy time-lapse projection showing a fleet of Diadema sweeping in a black cloud across a visibly thriving Caribbean reef. The reef looked unchanged in their wake, but Dr. Baldwin explained how they had groomed it like lawnmowers. With their three-sided beaks, called Aristotle’s Lanterns, they had rasped away massive amounts of algal growth, clearing space for juvenile corals to settle and colonize. He went on to describe the importance of this role, and how prevalent they had been in the 70’s and early 80’s. So prevalent, that while working in the Keys during this time, he and other researchers would occasionally split open one of the urchins just to watch the wrasses and triggerfish swarm in to feed. Today, this would be a heinous crime for any diver to commit in the Caribbean, and particularly for a pacifist marine biologist such as Dr. Baldwin. In 1983, a disease struck the Diadema populations near the Panama Canal and killed them en masse. It took less than a year for the sickness to spread across the Caribbean and pushed the Diadema to the brink of extinction. Within a few days of the onset of symptoms, a population would crash to 2-7% of their original numbers. Researchers across the Caribbean were stunned. It was the largest mass mortality of a marine organism that had ever been documented and remains so today. 5
On San Salvador, in one of a few pockets left in the Caribbean, there were a few hundred of these urchins
surviving in a tidal creek. Our research would document what had happened to the reefs since they left and try to find why the survivors were continuing to struggle in making a comeback on the inshore reefs. I didn’t much care about the plight of the Diadema when I was brought on for the project. I’d done research for Dr. Baldwin before and had a background in aquatic biology and conservation, but I was mainly interested in what conservationists and ecologists call umbrella species—the big, easily recognizable animals like sharks, redwoods, wolves, or polar bears that can be easily marketed to the public. It made sense to me that it would be much easier to simply protect polar bear habitat, thereby protecting an entire Arctic ecosystem, than to ask the general public to care about the demise of a rare, arctic shrub or a species of vole. But, newly scuba certified, I figured the trip would let me get some hours of research-diving under my belt and potentially put me in the water with something at the top of the food chain. I was in the water mere hours after landing at the single runway, single room, single customs officer airport. In the first pass over the coral heads of Monument Reef, the impact of the urchin’s absence was obvious even to my untrained eye. The colored, live heads of the corals that built the reefs—star, brain, elkhorn, and staghorn— were small and scattered. Instead, thickets of green and brown algae dominated. Occasional bursts of purple and red, sea fans and rods—the soft corals—swayed above the shrubbery. In the sand at the edge of the mounds of coral and algae were heaps of bleached white rubble—the skeletons of deceased coral. Whether they were gone from out-competition by the algae, we weren’t entirely sure. It could also be a separate or compounding result of the, even more ominous, warming of the water, which might prompt a sudden exodus of the zooxanthellae—a symbiotic, photosynthetic dinoflagellate living within the tissue of the coral and providing it with energy. A few stoplight parrotfish foraged on the field of algae we passed over. I dove and swam alongside them. With my breath held, I could hear the crunch and clomp of their grazing. Later, kneeling in white sand with bath-warm-water up to my armpits, I listened as Dr. Baldwin gave us the names of the algae benefiting from the Diadema’s demise. Most were scientific and cold: microdictyon, neogonialithon, and lobophora. Others were a bit more inviting: sargassom weed, padina, Neptune’s shaving brush. That night in our lab at the Gerace Research Center, we learned to identify the algaes; as well as the herbivorous fishes that had the potential to replace the Diadema as grazers. A week later, we had fallen into a routine of surveying near-shore reefs for herbivore counts and percent coral cover statistics. The results were depressing. We broke the routine to survey a very different sort of reef, taking a small skiff captained by Edberth, the drummer for a local band that played at the research center’s nearest bar, The Shortstop. He piloted the skiff over a two-foot surf, banking sharply without warning, or seeming need, and soaking one side or another while the sky blue shirt that stretched over his barrel gut remained miraculously dry. We traveled beyond two tiny keys named White and Green—the former for the droppings of the thousands of gulls, boobies, and frigate birds whose nests granted the island protected status; and the latter for the shrubs that sustained a unique subspecies of iguana that had been driven extinct on the main island by pet dogs and cats. We continued on Edberth’s zigzagging route until we reached a line of isolated white-capped breakers. Katie and I were equipped with scuba gear because this reef, Gaulins, was a high coral ridge that stretched down more than thirty-five feet—much deeper than the previous reefs we had studied. With one hand holding my regulator to my mouth and the other clutching the dive slate and pencil tied to my wrist, I rolled backward over the boat’s side and descended to the ocean floor. Katie followed soon after. On the bottom she tapped her head with a closed fist, signaling okay. She’s a much better diver than I. She
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controlled her buoyancy without thought while I struggled to keep my body a few feet from the bottom and parallel to it. The rest of the team was on the surface above us moving toward a gap in the breakers. They dragged behind them the meter-square, pvc constructed quadrats we would use to calculate the coral cover and an inflatable orange raft that flew the white-slash-on-red diver down flag to warn off boaters. The bottom was a wash of white all the way to the edge of a green wall. It was a graveyard for the branching corals, a tangle of long white eklhorn and sharp pointed staghorn skeletons. We reached the ridge of the offshore reef. It stretched in each direction as far as I could see, completely covered with algae, by far the worst we had seen. I followed Katie through a canyon in the ridge and emerged upon a different reef entirely. Massive live stands of elkhorn meters long stretched out into the open water beyond the wall, giant mounds of star coral sprouted like gold lawns punctuated with groves of purple fans and blue rods. Even neon green splotches of rare cactus coral sprouted with abandon. And fishâ€”I had been amazed by their abundance at the other sites, but here there were literally hundreds in a glance. For thirty-five vertical feet the wall itself was alive. We began our thirty-minute survey, during which we would tally the herbivorous fish on the reef, no small task here.
Katie and I set off in one direction along the wall, and the two survey pairs of snorkelers set off in the other. It didn’t take long for me to discover the reason for this reef’s health. No Diadema were present, but my dive slate was quickly filling with tally marks. One turn in the reef brought a herd of gray Bermuda chub grazing in a slow bovine fashion at imperceptible algal growth. Another saw synchronized squadrons of dozens of blue tang that darted in and out of the corals. The most impressive was a line of massive parrotfish—stoplights, rainbows, and blues—all waiting in an orderly queue. At the line’s head was a particularly large, neon-blue parrotfish that was, unusually, floating with its head pointed to the surface and its mouth hanging open. A team of four-inch creole and blue-headed wrasses picked at parasites in the parrot’s gills and scraps of algae caught in its beak. The Diadema might be gone, but they had been replaced with ease by these herbivorous fish. We finished our fish survey and went through the steps of measuring percent coral cover. I didn’t need my meter stick to estimate the total area of live coral within the quadrat dropped by the snorkelers onto the reef. It landed on a single massive brain coral. I wrote 100% on my dive-slate and held the pvc square up for them to retrieve. Back on the boat, I asked Dr. Baldwin what was so different about this reef that let the herbivores and thus the corals thrive. Edberth answered for him. “Nobody fishes or spearfishes out here. It’s too much work to get out, and it’s deeper.” It was more than just that though—ocean currents also scoured the offshore reef. I had felt it in the water. On the first leg of our survey I barely kicked my fins, on the trip back to where we started I burnt half the air in my tank with the exertion. This force was constantly sweeping away the nutrients that were allowed to build up on the other reefs. Coral reefs are, ironically, the deserts of the ocean in terms of nutrients. It’s the reason that coral is ever able to out-compete the more prolific algae. But human activities in the Caribbean are heavy and concentrated near the coasts. Through development, fertilizer run off, and destruction of the natural filtration systems of the mangrove forests, we flood the reefs with the nitrogen and phosphorous the algae need to grow. For the next phase of our research, our team sought to determine what was preventing the Diadema from moving out of their breeding population in Pigeon Creek and onto San Salvador’s reefs. This migration of the disease-resistant survivors back onto reefs had begun to occur in other parts of the Caribbean, most notably in a well-documented case in Discovery Bay, Jamaica. For some reason, it wasn’t happening in San Salvador. John, who was developing his own study on the issue, theorized that it was the packs of carnivorous triggerfish that patrolled the reefs. Triggers are voracious, diamond-shaped predators that attack in force and are known to patiently chew down the local spiny lobsters’ antennae spines bite by bite until the prey is left defenseless. To test John’s hypothesis, we manufactured pvc and netting cages, half of which had closed tops, half of which were open. The idea was that the closed cages would protect the Diadema we placed on the reefs, and the open ones would test the John’s predation hypothesis. The cages constructed, we set out into Pigeon Creek to collect a small number of urchins for the experiment. Pigeon Creek is a channel to a large brackish estuary that runs swiftly enough with the tides to make it impassable at times. The channel was famous at the Gerace Research Center for shark sightings, usually juveniles, but sometimes a large bull or lemon shark. I should have been excited for the prospect of a run-in, but I wasn’t. The visibility was too low for me to see them anyway, and I found my bravado paled at the thought of that infamous bullet head and triangle teeth emerging from the murk. With this image in the back of my mind, I entered the channel and let it push me toward the shallow stretch of the estuary
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we knew as Diadema Town. We kept close together on the way up the channel. The water was even murkier than I had expected and allowed for less than ten feet of visibility—compared to the 60-80 feet we’d had on the reefs. In addition, the channel shimmered and pulsed where the fresh water ran into the salt, creating a disconcerting hallucinatory effect that further lowered the visibility. I dove often beneath this halocline separating the two types of water.The salt water below was colder, but clearer. With the current, we covered the quarter mile to Diadema Town quickly. The place earned its name. The river bottom was peppered with small, submerged islands of coral. In almost every one of those islands were nestled a few spiky black jellydoughnuts, some were literally covered with the Diadema. We filled an inflatable raft with a few Diadema, cautiously prying them up from below with a removed fin. They could be handled safely only from directly below, held on the flat of one’s palm. Because we needed to kill a bit of time before the tide would slack and permit our return down the channel, we explored Diadema Town. I was letting an anemone’s long pink tendrils tickle my hand with millions of tiny, weak harpoons, when I heard a frantic splash and a shout to my right. I set my knees in the sand and raised my torso up out of the water to see John balancing in the sand on his fins and holding his digital camera high out of the water. “Shit, shit. I can’t believe that!” he shouted. He pointed a few feet in front of John. “Do you see that? Do you see that thing?” We were all standing straight up now. I thought the worst—a big bull shark. Instead, in the water a few feet in front of him beating its tail and opening and closing a mouth filled with very visible teeth, was the largest barracuda I’ve ever seen—easily over four feet in length and thicker than my thigh. Shaped like a submarine, only with a hell of a lot more teeth, it looked plain mean. And I write that now knowing the dangers of anthropomorphic personification. I’ve never seen an animal look so definitely and happily malicious. “Oh, that’s Barry,” Dr. Baldwin laughed. “He’s the authority around these parts. It’s a touch shallow for the big sharks to come in and bully him.” I didn’t care if it had a name, I wasn’t too comfortable with ‘Barry’ sizing up my submerged calves. “He ate it. Swallowed the whole thing,” said John, camera still held above his head. His voice was nasal from the pressure of his goggles and he was talking around his snorkel mouthpiece without realizing it. “There was a triggerfish; it was lying on its side under a coral head. I thought it was sick or something so I touched it, but it didn’t move, so I flipped it upright. Then it shot off all of a sudden and that thing flashed right past me and ate it whole.” On the swim back, towing the raft full of Diadema, we swam in an even tighter group. While removing our fins we sat in the shallows of the beach where we’d parked. Dr. Baldwin laughed and pointed a dozen yards offshore. “Look who’s keeping an eye on us.” ‘Barry’ had followed us on the quarter mile swim. I shivered at the thought of him gliding alongside me, indiscernible in the murk. I could see why the predatory triggerfish might have avoided the Diadema of Pigeon Creek: that barracuda was an effective deterrent, the sheriff patrolling Diadema Town and singlehandedly protecting its besieged inhabitants. We loaded the urchins into our white buckets and raced a set of thunderheads to Monument Beach and shelter.
Back at the shelter, our hunger eventually led us to make a dash out into the storm after our lunch. While we ate, the urchins in the first bucket continued to mate, and the others joined them. Because they reproduce simply by releasing their gametes into the water column, it is believed reproductive activity in these and other urchins is initiated through a chemical trigger produced when the urchins are present in large concentrations. That makes it difficult for the Diadema to re-establish itself. It is unlikely enough larvae will settle out of the water column onto a reef and survive to adulthood to trigger a successful reproduction. I felt for the Diadema that did settle to the reefs and survive.They were likely to never reproduce, to never get the biochemical cues they needed, to forage alone until they were picked off by a triggerfish, or a turtle, or in their sleep by an octopus. After lunch, the rain slackened and the lightning stopped. Swarms of gnats, absent in the heat of the sun, now emerged en masse and harried us as we brought the urchins down to the beach. For the next hour, we worked steadily fitting numbered squares that weâ€™d cut from rubber gloves on to the serrated barbs of the urchinsâ€™ spines and towing rafts full of tagged Diadema to the reef. No researcher had yet worked out an effective means of tagging Diadema, and John was hoping to develop a publishable method. Dozens of times, my fingers slipped from the rubber or found their way onto a roaming spine, which acted like a hypodermic needle, injecting venom a dozen times more painful than a bee-sting. Worse, the downward pointing barbs, which John hoped would hold the tags on, made it difficult to free my fingers from the spines. The only solution was to twist the finger, breaking off in my flesh a black sliver still soaked in venom. It happened with every slip, and my sweat and the swarming insects made that a common occurrence.
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When all the urchins had at least three tags, guarding against the normal breaking and shedding of spines, we loaded them back in the raft and towed them over the largest coral stand of Monument Reef. I held the first urchin on the flat of my palm and lowered it into a cage. The lumbering creatures moved with intent to huddle together in a corner of each enclosure, and the tags floated up off their spines almost in unison. Frustrated and stinging with the venom and the tags’ failure, we weighted the cages down with coral rubble and swam to shore. John and Dr. Baldwin would return a month later to complete the study. They were kept from the reef for the first half of their allotted stay by fierce storms, and when they did snorkel out to the cages, their frustration was compounded. Something, likely the sharp beaks of triggerfish, had made quick work of both the open and closed cages. They had ripped through the mesh and enjoyed the Diadema buffet we had provided them. John described the scene as a slaughterhouse floor, with rings of broken spines circling each hollowed carcass. We spent our final day on San Salvador relaxing in a cove known locally as the Grotto. The whitesand beach ran out along a point, at a right angle to a sheer cliff face. Late in the day, John and I snorkeled out along the cliff’s side to where a cold freshwater spring seeped from underground. Conical limpets, fossil-like chitons, and the Diadema’s smaller cousin, the rock-boring urchin clung in scattered clusters below the high tide mark of the wall. We caught some of the little urchins. The previous day’s Diadema spines had left our hands covered in duct-tape bandages that these softer-spined cousins now clung to with tickling tube feet. “I should have made a study of these little guys,” said John. I wished I could feel optimistic for the reefs of San Salvador. The Diadema Town population was booming, and more and more fertilized eggs are being flushed out the channel of Pigeon Creek each season. Most of these are probably swept out to sea and gobbled by any of the many planktivorous creatures that cruise and float the ocean’s pelagic zones, but more and more must be settling as juveniles onto the island’s reefs. I hoped it was a mere matter of time and chance before a concentration capable of surviving to adulthood and mating successfully would establish themselves in the cracks and ledges of the outlying reefs, though now this worry over re-colonization pales against the looming threat of the warming seas. The work goes on, but the broader challenge is asserting itself more and more, looming over any concerns about ecosystem fragmentation and habitat loss, trophic cascade, or extinction. On the snorkel back to where the rest of the group was setting up our picnic lunch, I spotted a Diadema with a golf-ball-sized body wedged into a crack in the cliff wall. Its black spines were obscured by white, opalescent sheaths. It waved them frantically. Dr. Baldwin had shown us a few similar urchins in Diadema town.This was a juvenile. Leaving it nestled in its shelter, wedged tight enough that I doubted it would be dislodged against its will, we returned to the beach with news of the discovery. With ham and cheese sandwiches held up in our pin-cushioned and bandaged hands, we toasted the potential.
We Travel Like Other People Asale Angel-Ajani
The door to the bathroom stall next to hers slammed. Christina jumped a little and held her breath. When she heard the rustle of toilet paper, she exhaled slowly. She looked at her watch, a fake gold Rolex that she had bought off the street in Bangkok a few days ago. She still had another forty minutes before they called her flight. She sat down on the toilet. Her black pants were around her ankles. She put her black Prada bag on her lap and ran her hand over it before she opened it. She had bought it from the same guy who had sold her the watch. It looked so much like the ones she had seen in the magazines, and she made sure that the little triangle faced out so that everyone could see. The purse and the watch made her feel like she had something. She unzipped it and stared at the plastic bag inside. When she pulled at the knot that tied it together, the echo of it crinkling in the bathroom stall was conspicuously illicit. She coughed to drown out the sound. My God, she wondered when she saw the contents, how many pellets are in there? She silently counted. Eleven. Not many, she consoled herself, but her stomach felt full. She was already carrying nearly seventy. She picked up one of the pellets and held it in her hand. It was about two inches long and as thick as her thumb. She thought of them as rubber bullets, sized to kill an elephant. She turned it over in her hand. The woman next to her flushed the toilet. For a moment, she thought of flushing the pellets down the toilet too, but she hated to think about what would happen to her, or worse, her children, if she did. She thought of the little girl who was outside the bathroom waiting for her. Christina knew that the girl would be standing up against the wall, her head looking down to avoid the eyes of curious passersby. She thought about the two of them this morning when she had braided the girl’s hair. She knew she should feel some anger toward the girl; it was, after all, her fault that she was sitting on this toilet with these pellets on her lap. The first three pellets went down easily enough. But the fourth and fifth pellets made her gasp for air. It was as if rubber was suffocating her from the inside out. She gagged on the sixth pellet. It went down. With the rest, she did something that she had never done. She inserted them into her vagina.
She had left Nigeria for Bangkok a week ago carrying a bag that Mr. Wilson had given her. It was 1996, and by now she had worked for Mr. Wilson a few times, even though she never liked him. “He smelled fat,” she would describe him, “like cooking grease.” It was true that Wilson was obese. At least three hundred pounds, she figured. He was also short, balding, and wore thick glasses that magnified his eyes. He paid her well, but she couldn’t stand to look at him. Whenever she met Wilson at the roadside shack that served as a bar near the Sheraton Hotel in Ikeja, Lagos, their routine was always the same. She arrived early and sat drinking a Coke or lager. Wilson would arrive and she would pretend not to notice him until he and his friend sat near or next to her. He always seemed to be in deep conversation with the man he brought along with him, and she would wait patiently for him to stop talking and acknowledge her. Wilson never introduced her to the man, and she knew enough to never ask. The first time she met Wilson was at his office. Her cousin Sunny drove her to a small building in the business district of Lagos, Victoria Island. It was a squat, unimpressive building that had an import/ export sign on the front. Her cousin led her to an office blanketed in wood paneling. Wilson sat behind a big wooden desk. Two other men sat on the only chairs in the room. One of them got up and offered his seat to her. Wilson nodded and smiled at her, and then looked at Sunny through his thick glasses. “I’m hoping that the good Lord is looking after you and your loved ones?” Sunny had nodded quietly. The air conditioner whirled loudly, muffling the sound in the office. Christina had noticed that her cousin had been silent since they had gotten in the car to drive over. He was
clearly nervous. She didn’t know why, but anger towards her cousin started to bubble up inside of her. He was acting weak. And worse, she thought Sunny looked like a little boy standing there, wearing baggy gray jeans, a matching jean jacket and a red t-shirt. He looked like a street boy compared to these businessmen. “Why can’t he be more of a man?” she wondered that afternoon. “He looked like he didn’t belong.” That’s when she decided to sit straight in her chair. She remembered how she rolled her shoulders back, trying to appear more confident, more professional. She was at this office because she needed to make money. That was all. She wasn’t going to let Sunny ruin that for her. Wilson looked at her. He was smiling. “But,” Christina said, “there was nothing nice about his smile. It only made him more ugly.” She could see that Wilson was what was called a “big man,” a man revered because he had money, power, and connections. She knew the type. They would drive down the streets that separated her neighborhood from the rest of Lagos. She would see their fancy cars on her way to the bus stop, kicking up rocks and dirt, forcing old women to move out of the way, and sending young children scrambling to avoid being hit by a speeding Mercedes. She would watch those cars zoom past her, wishing that she had the money for a car like that, wishing that she were important enough to have a place to rush to. She could tell by the look on her neighbor’s faces that they all wished the same. “I came to see if you have any work for me.” Her voice came out louder than she had intended. She felt her cousin shift uncomfortably. Wilson’s eyes went from her face and then swept across her body, finally resting on her feet. She had worn her navy blue sandals with a little heel. They were her nicest shoes but they were scuffed. She tried to tuck her feet under the chair and hit the wooden backing with a loud knock. Wilson wasn’t smiling anymore. “You have children?” he asked. “Yes,” she said, surprised that he would care. “What are their ages?” She hesitated, “Uh, four years and six months old.” “Unmarried?” “Yes.” It was only half the truth. She did have a man, Pious, who was the father of her children. She once considered him her husband but now he was a drunk and gone most of the time. She heard that he was busy with some woman who lived near Apapa and she was glad about that. Wilson was considering her, she could see that, but why these questions? “I don’t hire no bush ladies,” Wilson gave a quick nod and a smile to his friend sitting closest to her. It was some kind of joke between the two of them. The man chuckled. He continued, “I only take on sophisticated ladies. Ladies who know how to act, who don’t talk too much, do you know what that means?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Where are you living?” “Okota,” she lied. She didn’t want him to know that she lived in the sprawling slum of Ajegunle. One of the oldest and largest of the two hundred ghettos that cling like a fungus to nearly every surface in Lagos, Ajegunle is a place that even God forgot. Christina, like the millions of other residents of the slum, had never known what it was to live outside the wooden shacks and half-built cinder block huts. She had never had running water, basic sanitation, or reliable electricity. Each house was stuffed with people. Trash littered the paths and floated in the black fetid lagoons and main canal that ran through this area that the residents called “The Jungle.” Christina had lived in the same house in Ajegunle almost all her life, sharing three small rooms with her mother, grandmother, an uncle, two sisters, four nieces and nephews, as well as her two kids.
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Christina came to Lagos as one of five young children her mother carried with her when they moved from the Northern state of Kano late in the 1970’s. They arrived at the tail end of the Nigerian oil boom and Christina’s mother, a widow, cut loose from the constraints of her Islamic faith and alone with her children, brought her mother and sister to the big city to live and work. Even then, Lagos—a chaotic organism of waterways, bridges, swamps, and islands—was a bustling city with its own rules. Even her arrival into Lagos was less than extraordinary. Christina was one of a half million people who came to the city in search of something better than the barren dust fields of the north. But under the politics of the patronage collective, dreaming seldom creates opportunities. Even before Christina was born, dishonest and often brutal military men ruled Nigeria, the most densely populated country in Africa, until a brief reprieve brought a civilian to power. By the time she started school, the entire country of Nigeria fell under the shadows of corrupt military dictatorships that took root in the 1980s and lasted nearly twenty years. As a result, many from the ranks of the middle classes stumbled into the gradual nightmare of poverty, while large numbers of the poor, of which there were already so many, slipped rapidly into the fog of extreme destitution. Christina remembered how her early days of elementary school ended abruptly when her mother could no longer afford the fees. Luckily, by the time she was forced to abandon her education, she had gained enough skills to write her own name, do some basic math, and, by forming the words out loud, read a few simple sentences. She worked hard to make sure that these skills did not leave her as an adult. Growing up, she had always worked in service to others. First at her mother’s stall in the market, then as a helper in her grandmother’s makeshift restaurant, and later as a seamstress with her sisters and a laundry woman at a hotel. And she was always a hairdresser. She never made more than about $9 usd a month and wanted, more than anything, a chance to make some changes in her life. Christina wasn’t placated by far-fetched dreams and she didn’t expect that anyone would rescue her. She was agnostic in every way. Except in the lies that she told strangers about herself, on the rare occasion that they should ask. To others, she had finished school, was respectably married, worked an unidentified job at a big hotel, and lived in more neutral areas of Lagos, like Okota. The truth is, in her typical waking and working day, Christina seldom met new people to test her story on. And if she met anyone new, they usually looked past her, seeing only a common woman with nothing special to offer. She peered at Wilson with eyes that hid her desperation. She had worked on Sunny for almost a year to set up this meeting. She didn’t know how much Wilson knew about her, and she waited to see if he would challenge her lie. “Right.” He said. His chair groaned loudly when he leaned back in it. Wilson crossed his hands over his belly, stretching the limits of his tan, short-sleeved shirt. He nodded his head, like he was thinking over things. She knew that he would hire her. “Sunny,” Wilson gestured her cousin over to the desk with his chin, “get her some new clothes and take her over to Charity’s place to have her hair done.” The man who had given her his chair and who was now standing by the door threw a wad of Nigerian naira over to Sunny. Sunny caught it with one hand and stuffed it into his jeans pocket. She guessed that Wilson had others working for him. She would later find out that he employed not only Nigerians, but also some white people, mostly women from Europe, Turkish men, other Africans, and young Nigerians who were British nationals. Wilson turned to her and said, “Come back in three days. We’ll see how you look and then we’ll see how you do.”
Since that first meeting, she had done four runs for Wilson, all to Germany. About her time there, she can only remember how cold it was and how she sat in front of the television in her hotel room for a week. This was her first time in Thailand, and Bangkok was different from Germany. It was more like home. Hot, chaotic, and congested with traffic. Christina wouldn’t know it to look out her Thai hotel bedroom window, but there were lots of Nigerians hanging around Bangkok. Then, in the mid-to-late nineties, for Nigerian traffickers, Thailand was the main base for shipping opium from the Golden Triangle countries and processing it into heroin to be sent out to the rest of the world. It helped that Thailand had yet to crack down seriously on drug trafficking and that almost everyone, from customs officials, to airport security and flight attendants, all had a price for their blind eye. A night before she left Bangkok, the Nigerian man who met her at the airport when she first arrived, Emeka, came to her hotel room bringing with him a dark bag, airline tickets, and a young girl, who was carrying a small piece of pink luggage with a cartoon character on the front. “What’s this?” Christina had asked. She had worked with others before, both men and women, black and white, but never a child. “Your daughter.” Emeka sat the girl on the bed. Christina looked at her shoes. They were plain brown sandals, new. Probably bought just for this trip. She looked at the girl’s toes. They were unpainted. Must be about twelve, but looks nine, Christina thought, eyeing the girl. There was something about the way she sat motionlessly while staring down at the floor, her shoulders slumped slightly forward, that made Christina feel sorry for her. It was as if the girl felt Christina watching her, because she put both her hands in her lap and picked earnestly at a nail. Christina could not believe that she was going to be traveling with the girl. It just didn’t feel right. She turned to Emeka, who was a tall man in wire-rimmed glasses. With the exception of the cell phone clipped to his belt, he looked more like a schoolteacher than a drug runner. “Are you sure she isn’t going to be creating any chaos?” She was nervous about this particular trip. This was her first time traveling out of Bangkok, and she had no idea what to expect. “She’s fine, she’s fine,” Emeka brushed her concerns aside. “Listen, this is what you are going to do,” he said as he sat on the edge of the bed, his back to the girl. Christina thought that he moved with a grace reserved for dancers or athletes. “Two tickets to Italy.” He took the ticket out of the bag he was carrying and placed them down next to him. “Wear this on the plane,” he said as he pulled out a bright yellow blouse and handed it to her. Christina took the shirt and held it up. It was plain and a little big, but it would fit. He held a box out to her. She knew that it was a box of laxatives. “Take these tonight and in the morning.” Christina had heard it all before. Suddenly, the plane tickets caught her eye. Before she could stop herself, she had reached out and picked them up. She knew she was not supposed to and waited for Emeka to yell at her. When he didn’t, she quickly opened the folder and touched the thin paper lightly. She liked they way the tickets fit in her hands. They made her feel efficient and respectable. They made her feel important. Back home, she kept all her ticket stubs and her napkins with the airline logos pinned to her wall in her room. Christina ran her eyes over the text. A thirteen-hour flight to Rome. This would be the longest trip she had made. She looked at the ticket for the girl. She could at least learn her name. Christina felt the acid in her stomach rise up to her throat when she saw the words, “Ruth Azizi.” Of course the girl’s documents were forged. But Emeka, or whoever he worked for, had taken Christina’s last name, her proper family name, and given it to this girl. Seeing her name, “Azizi,” attached to the name
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of a stranger made her angry. She thought of her father, and his father. Both were already dead but she was killing them again, letting their name be used for this. There was nothing she could do about it now. She only hoped that the girl’s papers looked good enough. “I’ll fetch you in the morning. Be packed.” Emeka’s voice brought her back into the small hotel room. He reached over and yanked the tickets out of her hand. Christina closed the door behind him and looked at the girl, who had not moved. “Ever done this before?” Christina asked. The girl moved her hands off her lap and placed them on the bed. Christina tried again, “Your name is Ruth, right, girl?” The girl said nothing. “C’mon.” She was getting angry. “We had better eat now.” Christina reached out with her foot and nudged the girl’s leg. She saw the girl look at her, suspicious. “You think anyone is going to care if you starve? Suit yourself. It’s a long flight and if Emeka didn’t tell you, it’s better not to eat on the plane. So I say eat up now.” The girl reluctantly got up from the bed and followed her out the door to the small restaurant across the street from the hotel.
The next day, in the afternoon, with suitcases packed, they sat and waited for Emeka. She had given up trying to get to know the girl. It was like speaking to a wall. But for some reason, Christina still felt sorry for her. The girl resembled an earwig. She had a long thick trunk of a body. Her head sat on a neck so skinny that it seemed miraculous it was able to support any weight at all. Her lower jaw jutted forward and looked like two long pincers. Christina could not figure out how this girl ended up in Bangkok. She was still thinking about this when Emeka knocked on the door. He was carrying a small black backpack and a plastic bag with cans of Coke in it. He set the pack on the only table in the room and opened it up. He pulled a can of Coke out of the plastic bag and opened it. He then took another bag from the backpack. This bag was tightly wrapped in layers of cellophane, foil, and more cellophane. She watched him carefully cut it open with a small pocketknife. “Ready?” They were ready. They had eaten a meal the evening before and had taken laxatives a few hours before bedtime. They ate nothing for breakfast or lunch. Christina was used to this routine, drinking water or juice when she was hungry. The girl seemed to be having a bit of trouble not eating, but Christina figured that she probably knew what hunger was like or she would not be here. Emeka stood by over the contents and counted out two piles. When he was done, he handed Christina a small blue plastic bag with her count inside. She took it from him and went to get a bottle of water from her bag. She had bought it last night when she had taken the girl out to eat. “Coke?” Emeka called out to her as she sat down on the edge of the bed. “No, I have water.” Christina knew that they could not tell she was nervous. The truth was that she hated doing this, swallowing drugs. Whatever she made from these runs she had set aside to start her business. She dreamed of having her own hair salon someday, a real salon, where rich ladies sat in plush chairs and were surrounded by chrome and mirrors. A bona fide salon, not what she had now: two small wooden boxes that sat out in her dirt yard in front of her house. She also wanted to buy her kids clothes and send her daughter to school. It had been more than six months since she had last made a run, but it was always the same. She looked in the bag, counted the pellets, asked Emeka for his number, and then began
her second inspection of the hard rubber pills. She had learned on her second run to do this: look at each package carefully, squeeze it a little to see if it was tied tightly; see if pressure split the rubber prophylactic. Usually there were more than three rubber layers. Sometimes there were only two. Sometimes they were different colors. Sometimes they were all white, looking like cut off tips of surgical gloves. Sometimes they were dipped in wax. Sometimes they varied in size. The one thing that was always the same was the difficulty in swallowing them. She remembered how sick she felt when Wilson, at their third meeting, complemented her on her seemingly natural abilities to open up her throat so that the pellets slid down it without making her gag. But this was only because she had been told by her cousin Sunny to practice for a week using whole orange slices. After looking carefully at the pellet she held in her hand, she tilted her head back slightly and dropped it in her mouth. With her bottle of water at the ready, she took a drink, but did not gulp. This was the next lesson she had learned on her second trip. To swallow or gulp creates gas, and if you drink a soda you’ll only feel fuller. She had tried to explain that to the girl last night when they had crawled into bed next to each other. But looking over at the girl now, she saw that she did not refuse the offer of the Coke. She went back to focusing on her bag. She took her time. It was like sitting at a meal picking at a plate of food for an hour or two. Emeka paced the floor, checking their progress. He kept looking at his watch. Their flight was tonight. They still had several hours before they got on the plane. Christina did not like to have this stuff sitting in her stomach too long before the flight, but knew that she would not be allowed to swallow all of these pellets just before getting on the plane. The body needs to get used to 60 or 70 pellets. She had also learned this on her second run. Christina had her back to the girl but could tell that the poor thing was not doing well. The girl was gagging, coughing. Every time the girl coughed, Emeka would raise his voice and say, “Enough with all the noise. Just get on with it.” This only made the girl more nervous. After twenty minutes, the girl fell into a coughing fit again, but this time, she could not seem to stop. She seemed to be making herself sick. Emeka didn’t show any sympathy. He went over to the girl and hit her across the face, shouting, “Shut up, you stupid girl!” he force of the slap sent the girl to the floor, knocking over the soda, spilling it. This enraged Emeka, and he went after the girl again. There was a part of Christina that wanted to stay out of it. If someone was crazy enough to bring a child into this, then they should deal with it, she thought. But she couldn’t. She had a daughter of her own. She waited a few more seconds, until she saw that Emeka had brought his foot back to kick the girl. Christina jumped up and stood between Emeka and the girl. A short, thick woman, she was about half the height of Emeka, but she outweighed him easily. She thought that if he had not hit her the day before, when she grabbed the tickets, he might not hit her now. Behind her, Christina heard the girl scramble to her feet, run into the bathroom and close the door. Christina heard her sob. “Enough of your yelling. Someone will hear you,” Christina hissed. Emeka froze. He looked at Christina with rage. “We have an hour before we have to leave,” he complained, “and this stupid girl is making a show of it.” Cursing, he went over to where the girl had been sitting and swallowing her pellets. He counted how many the girl had left. Then he tied up the bag and flung it at Christina. It bounced off her chest and fell to the floor. “Pick it up!” he ordered. She looked him in the eyes. She could see his nostrils flare. She kept her eyes on him, wary, when she squatted to pick up the bag. “You’ll take the rest of hers.” Christina was not going to argue. She went back to the edge of the bed
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to finish up her pile. Her hands had started to shake. She did not want Emeka to see her cry. She stared at a dark stain on the bedspread. The space between her eyes had begun to hurt. She took a drink of water, drew her head back, and relaxed her neck muscles as a pellet slid down her throat. “You have twenty minutes to finish up. Then you go get that stupid girl.” Emeka pulled his cell phone off his hip and went into the hallway. Christina did not like the feeling she was getting in the pit of her stomach. It was not the pellets that she had already swallowed. A month or two later, when she sat in a prison cell in Italy, she would think of this feeling as forewarning. The very feeling she had the moment she met the girl. By the time they got into the car to go to the airport, it was nearly dusk. Usually, Christina loved this part, the coming and the going to the airport. It was the only time that she could really see a city. She looked out the window and watched a man ride his bike through the thick congestion of cars and mopeds. Her eyes followed him until he disappeared behind a crowded bus. With all of the traffic, Bangkok reminded her of Lagos. She opened the window slightly and leaned her head against it, letting the warm air of the city hit her face. She wanted to go home. She allowed her thoughts to turn to her children. She wanted to be able to protect them, give them the things they needed. But most importantly, she wanted them to be proud of her. She wanted her children to look at her and see a woman who was making something of her life, achieving her goals, striving. She looked over at the girl sitting next to her. As they neared the airport, she silently pleaded, “Please let me reach Lagos safely. Let me see my children. This is the last time. The last time.” When she got out of the car, she realized that she had sweated through her yellow shirt.
Afterword I conducted research in Rebibbia Prison in Italy for over a year interviewing imprisoned African women and men. When I wasn’t inside Rebibbia, I was outside interviewing lawyers, social workers, and in some cases friends, co-defendants and family members of the individuals that I was speaking to on the inside. I also travelled to Africa and Asia to gain what I hoped would be a fuller understanding of the lives of West African drug smugglers. Extending my research scope beyond the borders of Italy was not unusual. As a student of Anthropology I was taught that in order to write a meaningful ethnography one should aim for “thick description,” an ideal made famous by Clifford Geertz (1973), which calls upon all ethnographers to think not only about the techniques they used to get their information, but how to render it once they put that information on the page. For nearly a full year, I diligently catalogued information and generally made myself busy with the importance of the data gathering side of things, never really considering what my efforts would amount to. Then late one afternoon, I came stumbling back to my flat after a full day of interviewing at Rebibbia. I had sat through six hours of recording (short hand, no electronics were allowed at the time) some of the most painful memories of women who spoke of the days they were arrested, the children that they left behind, the situations that led them to drug trafficking. A close friend of mine had just arrived from California three days prior. I recall how she stood in the kitchen making coffee when I came in. “How’d it go?” She asked looking at me. She seemed ghostly, half in Rome and the other half still over the Atlantic waiting to land in her body. Perhaps it was my exhaustion, or the heat of the late Spring, but I started recounting my day releasing a long string of stories that had burdened me not just on that day, but on days prior: stories where women were sold or traded for weapons or drugs; stories of girls hidden in the floorboards of boats to be used as sex slaves and drug mules. The stories, or at least my summarized horror of them, went on a bit more until my friend interrupted me. “Oh, right. These women sound like typical drug mules.” What struck me about her comment was not how cold it sounded, but how the “story” of drug traffickers, more specifically imprisoned ones, seems to be a story that we already know. When I did finally sit down to write, to test out this idea of “thick description,” I knew that I would have to go far beyond the professional norms of evidence and statistics. I would even have to go beyond a more autobiographical story that had me, the researcher, at center stage. Because, certainly in the end, this form of story telling privileges the author’s experience but not the women who lived it. In fact, I knew I would have to look to the kind of writing that resembled something that reflected the immersive research and emotionally engaging writing of creative nonfiction writers. If I wanted a reader to be able to bridge the gap of understanding between her and Christina in a deeper or more meaningful way, I had to strive for the kind of intimacy that “public creative nonfiction” (as Lee Gutkind calls it) usually achieves. From the stand point of craft, I knew I would have to tackle description with the specificity and heightened awareness of fiction, go tight with my lens, but stick to the facts. It took me ten years to finally write in a way that I think vividly captures the nuances of some West African women drug smugglers. Christina’s story is one that we can learn from, not just about trafficking drugs, but what it means to be a woman with dreams, a woman whose risk taking is complex calculation and certainly not one that can be merely written off as a story that we already know. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
A Study of Nuns, Light, and (Eventually) Love ~ Christine Stewart-Nunez
During that trip to Munich in 2009, waiters served spaetzle, bratwurst, pretzels, and beer just as our stomachs growled; the glockenspiel played as we rounded the corner; sunshine replaced rain-wrung clouds as we stepped into the plaza; and my son Holden dozed off in his stroller just as we entered a church. At the end of the center aisle, I paused before Mary, imagining a habit-cloaked nun positioning the vase of pink roses at the statue’s feet. From a pile of fresh candles, I selected one and touched the wick to one of the seventy or so already flickering. The candlelight illuminated Holden’s relaxed face. Soon, I’d learn that sleep was complicated for Holden; I’d learn to pray under fluorescent light. In a couple of years, a simple trip to the grocery store would be an experiment in patience and timing.
The presence of nuns in my life is mysterious and my persistent interest in them is baffling. Even in that German church, I imagined one. Yet experiences point me toward meaning. Between my sister’s birth and mine nine years later, a Catholic nun—a close friend of my grandparents—coaxed my soul into my mother’s womb with prayer. The nun’s prayers and my mother’s love coalesced, and voilà: light in the dark space of my mother’s womb. I have no memory of this woman who claimed me as half hers, but my mother raised me with the knowledge of my mystical parentage nonetheless. As a first-grader, I sat by Sister Monica Mary at Mass and mimicked the way she folded her hands in prayer. I tried to concentrate, but the stained-glass windows glowed like slabs of translucent candy. A fist thick, and uneven, the glass refracted cerulean, ruby, and goldenrod on the pews and floor. When the priest transformed a piece of bread into the Body of Christ, a soft light sparked inside of me. I closed my eyes for a moment, and when I opened them again, the sun had shifted: my classmates knelt beneath a rainbow’s end. The day after first grade ended, Sister Monica Mary and I ate sandwiches in her white-painted kitchen. She gave me a mobile of spoon-sized fish woven out of pastel ribbons as a goodbye gift. Suspended on a clear, nylon thread from a delicate metal arc, each fish sported a plastic eye. On mornings when light bent its way around the catkins on the pussy willow bush outside my bedroom window, it filled the hollow spaces at the core of each fish and made them buoyant. The fish swam in a sea of sunshine. Among my childhood collection of stuffed animals and Barbies were two nun dolls made by Sister Pacifica—my maternal grandmother’s aunt. Née Beatrice McNaney, Sister Pacifica was born in 1895, entered the order of Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary at 19, and taught primary school in Chicago and Montana until she died at 35. The dolls’ black habits were starched and dusty, and I loved to roll the tiny beads of their rosaries between my index finger and thumb. As I stroked their porcelain cheeks, I wondered how she made them and why. In my mid-twenties, my friend Milaine taught me the practice of guided meditation to manage stress. “Close your eyes,” she said. I welcomed the temporary surrender to the bright afternoon sunshine streaming through my apartment’s windows. “Imagine that you are walking on a forest path. Very little sunlight makes its way through the trees…” As Milaine described a scene, I relaxed. I imagined the branches, the brush alongside the path, even a clearing with a boulder in the center. I sat on the rock. Then, without prompting, I had a visitation. A woman in a hooded cloak the color of blue asters approached me. When I asked to see her face, she said, “You’re not ready.” My eyes snapped open. “Who’s the nun in your life?” Milaine asked. “I kept seeing her watching over you as you meditated.”
Eight years later, I planned a trip to Italy with my mother—a trip she had wanted to take for years. My grandfather’s stories of “liberating wine cellars” in Italy during World War II fascinated her. I booked rooms at convents hoping to meet a nun who spoke English so I could strike up a conversation. Our room in Rome was so clean my sandals squeaked on the tiles and my fingertips, searching out the bathroom light, returned to me free of dust. The nuns had been there, scrubbing every inch, which comforted me when nausea sent me racing to the bathroom—I was eight weeks pregnant with Holden. The rooms, painted ochre, felt warm, not like the dim fluorescence of typical rooms. The nuns cleared and cleaned and cooked and disappeared. As if refracted light through a stained-glass window, they left traces of their care, not words. Mysteries resist explanation, but they invite obsession. A nun praying me into existence, the fishmobile making me feel buoyant, “meeting” a nun during meditation that my friend perceived as well; mystery doesn’t conform to the ways I usually understand. But sometimes, if approached obliquely, I make discoveries. The light in the imagined womb, the stained-glass windows, woven fish dangling in the sunrise, low light in the forest, and the clean light of Rome—in all of these images, the element of light suggests itself as a way of understanding. As a child, I knew these sources of light: candle, fireplace, light bulb, sun. The candles at church: tall Paschal candles, Advent candles, the stubby red candle at the center of a Christmas wreath, the rows of short flames near the baptismal font. Reading books by the fireplace in the home I grew up in, I occasionally stared into the glowing pieces of orange wood, white ash falling off. To change a light bulb, I imitated my mother, rocking a loosened one back and forth to see if it was burnt out or just screwed in wrong. Eating breakfast in the kitchen, I watched the sun as it appeared on the roofs of neighborhood houses, and I studied the sun’s outline on the pages of my science book, a yellow splotch with a bracelet of planets on the wrist of the Milky Way. I recall learning something about light traveling as waves, about travel between planets taking “light years.” I imagined that light moved on lengths of clipped yellow yarn, a magic carpet of sorts, invisible to my eye. Now I see the same yellow yarn in the blanket Holden’s had for years. It’s the same hue as the floss he used for the counted cross-stitch he’d tried before seizures began to disrupt his sleep and focus. In 1801, Thomas Young devised an experiment that persuaded the scientific community that light acts as a wave. In his experiment, sunlight through a pinhole passed through two slits. When they hit the film on the other side, the wave nature of light caused interference, resulting in bright and dark bands on the film. Young’s pinhole test made sense with conventional wisdom—light behaves as a continuous wave. Yet in the early twentieth century, Albert Einstein thought that the idea of light traveling as wave didn’t make total sense with what he knew to be true about energy. He knew that electrons are dislodged if light reached or exceeded a threshold frequency, so something in the current theory was incomplete. He proposed an alternative way for light to behave—as a particle, a photon. With Einstein’s theory of the photoelectric effect, scientists began to understand the duality of light, how it behaves as both a wave and a particle. Suddenly—mystery explained by reason. When I direct sunlight through the pinholes of observation, I find bands of understanding and mystery. The word “love” shines forth in the blurred space between.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Then, as if some threshold has been reached, as if a photon ejected from some mechanism in my brain, I see how light vibrates with love. They act in tandem, both logical and mysterious forces, measured in different contexts, behaving in dual ways. There can be ways of loving we can see and canâ€™t see, love that makes sense and love that operates as mystery. If I shine love through a pinhole of my own experience, I understand its wave-like behavior. I felt the hormone-induced love for Holden when he was bornâ€”how logical to love that little moon-faced being from my body. I parented him on a scale I knew, one I could senseâ€”teaching, playing, tending. Holden liked to explore cause-and-effect at preschool, so we donned lab coats and conducted experiments with baking soda, water, and vinegar. He enjoyed dumping sugar into bowls, so we mixed, cut out dough, baked the cookies, and decorated them with yellow and red sugar sprinkles. He wanted to practice his letters, so we made homemade Valentines for his preschool class with stamps and stickers, and he wrote their names himself. He got cranky in the late afternoons, so we relaxed on the couch listening to music. And then, when he was four, my normal child was diagnosed with intractable epilepsy and, two years after that, Landau-Kleffner Syndrome. LKS is characterized by a regression of language use and academic skills as well as an abnormal electroencephalogram (EEG). In the active phase of LKS, chronic seizures leave Holden in a fog. Sometimes it lifts long enough for light to emerge, and he expresses his
needs and thoughts. But because LKS eroded Holden’s ability to use language most of the time, I have to use other ways to build our relationship—a tough task when nearly all relationships are word-infused. And sometimes, during sleep-deprived murkiness, when it’s tough for him to function, Holden hits or kicks me. Once, when he didn’t want me to turn down the volume on his iPad he hurled the charger at me, leaving a tiny welt on my back. LKS alters the way I enact love; the context for love changes. Now, I see how my love must behave –I move in for a hug before he can hit me. When he shoves his plate of sourdough French toast and peaches onto the floor, when he whines for hours for macaroni and cheese that he doesn’t eat, I’ll shepherd him to his room before the tantrum. Nuns taught me the dual behavior of love; being Holden’s mom enabled me to name it, understand it, enact it. In Germany, I knew the places I needed to go but had no idea how to get there until the last moment. A plane flight from London to Berlin. A taxi to a rented room where I woke up twenty-three floors into the sky. Research in German rules of the road. A day driving on the Autobahn from Berlin to Königsbach. A toddler correcting my two-word German vocabulary. Daytrips to Bingen and environs planned the night before. Even though I left Holden at home with his father and grandparents, the LKS was still active; I knew attending to him wouldn’t be easy. As I soaked up research for projects and filled notebook after notebook with ideas for writing, I thought about Holden all the time. In Speyer, I stumbled into the courtyard of a Baroque church, the Kloster St. Magdalena. Setting my cup of coffee outside the church itself, I opened the heavy wooden door: inside, light and shine—not from a bank of flickering candles, but from the clear-paned windows drenching the whole interior with brightness, light bouncing off the ornate marble and metal altar. White walls culminated in a vaulted ceiling painted lemon-yellow and mint-green. And I caught my breath when I saw her: a habit-wearing nun in her mid 80s, kneeling at a wooden pew, hands folded in prayer. She barely moved, and I barely breathed. I wept silently. An old nun had prayed me into existence. If this nun here prayed for Holden, could her words accomplish with mystery what my will and love could not? As I’m experimenting with this essay for what feels like the last time, a former student, Catie, emails me with an invitation for tea. A few weeks later, the five of us—me, my mother, Holden, Catie, and her son, eight-month-old Joseph John—sit around a table in the public library’s coffee shop. I set Holden’s hot chocolate in front of him. Holden takes a quick sip, then looks back down at his iPad, already immersed in a game of Angry Birds. He doesn’t even take off his coat. Settling in with our cups of chai, Catie handed Joseph John to me to hold. In two days, she’ll be back student-teaching and at the semester’s end, will move to California to reunite with her husband. “I chose an unconventional path after high school,” Catie says. Immediately, my mother and I sit forward in our chairs, ready for a good story. A muted winter light illuminates the room from the large glass windows on this floor of the library. Glancing at the late-winter snow, I expect to be chilled, but Joseph John snuggles into my arms and warms me up. I imagine Catie trekking through Mongolia, waiting tables in Las Vegas, or living an artist’s life in Seattle. Instead, “I was a nun for eight years and lived a cloistered life, first in Alabama and then in Arizona,” Catie says, pausing to brush her dark hair back away from her eyes and reading the look of surprise on my face. She turns her mug of tea slightly and takes a sip.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
I don’t know how much time passes before I ask a follow up question, or if it’s my mom’s comment that sends Catie down a path of describing that experience: why she left that life, what she missed. I couldn’t get over the serendipity of yet another nun in my life, one I didn’t even recognize the whole semester she’d been in my class. Even though Catie often spoke in class, she rarely shared personal details like the other students did. There was always a veil of mystery about her. Maybe it was her prettiness—clear skin, sparkling eyes, warm smile—but I couldn’t imagine her youthful energy bound up in a cloister. I couldn’t imagine the chatty, thirty-something woman who sat before me now living her days in prayerful silence. But that seems to be the pattern for me: nuns, light, and love—even when I least expect them. Mystery and understanding comingle and yield a new way of loving. Catie sent me a hand-made card and a burgundy candle before she left South Dakota, a loving prayer bound in words with the promise of light: I wish you greatness in your art and skill, joy and happiness in your family, and health for your blessing—the life of a son and the wonderful impact your love and his presence cultivate in our world. I laughed and cried when I read it.
On the Mat
If I say I’m a fan of professional wrestling, I feel as though I have to qualify that declaration in multiple ways. Yes, but I don’t watch as much of it as I’d like. Yes, but sometimes I love the idea of wrestling more than wrestling itself. Yes, but I also feel guilty for enjoying it when I consider all the wrestlers who’ve died young (or even not-so-young) because of the physical and psychic injuries the sport has inflicted, or when I consider the backstage machinations that can determine a wrestler’s success or failure independent of his skill (these are also, complicatedly, part of what I love). Although I’ve been peripherally aware of professional wrestling since my early 20s, thanks mostly to my husband’s sporadic viewing of Monday Night RAW, until two years ago I never would’ve described myself as a fan. Yet despite my reservations about identifying as one now, the evidence makes it difficult to deny: my ever-increasing historical knowledge of the sport, the Randy Orton hoodie I wear to faculty meetings, the shelf of autobiographies and action figures I’ve acquired, my infrequent and wholly inappropriate dreams about Ric Flair, both in his 1980s bedazzled robe and blonde mullet glory and as he is now, all alcoholic jowls and raspy voice. Occasionally, people find it necessary to inform me that professional wrestling isn’t real, that the outcomes of the matches are predetermined and that the action, including the injuries wrestlers seem to suffer, is fake (“kayfabe,” in wrestling parlance). All of which is absolutely true, and none of which negates the effort and athleticism wrestlers display as they twist and spin and arc their bodies through the air, executing moves that without years of practice and a meticulous sense of timing could cause real harm to themselves and their opponents. What’s most real—and most worthy of admiration—is that they perform these moves night after night, usually without anyone suffering serious injury, although we should remember that wrestlers define “serious injury” very differently than do most people. While theories abound about who watches professional wrestling and why, none of the theories I’ve read seem sufficient to explain my own fascination. I’m a poet, a feminist, and a professor of English, someone who, by training and inclination, is often highly suspicious of the messages propagated by popular culture. Yet I love The Crusher Lisowski and Haystacks Calhoun, who were stars of the territorial era (before wrestling was nationally televised) and died long before I was paying attention, and I also love C.M. Punk and Daniel Bryan, who were prominent when I started seriously watching wrestling two years ago, though neither of them (because of retirement and injury, respectively) is working as I write this essay. It seems to me that a substantial part of wrestling’s appeal has to do with power, with the ability to enforce moral codes and deliver justice (even if that justice may take questionable forms). “Babyfaces” have fans because they’re the good guys—morally upright and determined to play fair despite the obstacles they encounter—but “heels” have fans, too, because the notion that these villains have license to cheat, steal, and take what they want based on their superior size and cunning is highly appealing to those of us who at times feel tempted to do the same, even if our lives lack opportunities for us to act on those urges. Adding to the complexity is that a face may be provoked to “turn” heel and vice versa, as demanded by the ever-changing series of feuds and alliances that make up wrestling’s overarching narratives. One of the things that draws me to wrestling is its emphasis on performance, the extent to which wrestlers use their bodies to physically express the emotions of the characters they play. They not only have to act, they have to act out what they’re feeling in ways audience members can understand, whether they’re watching from cheap seats in the arena or from their living rooms. Wrestlers also have to speak well at the mike, and those who can’t usually are assigned a “manager” to do their talking for them. Paul Ellering spoke for The Road Warriors tag team both to burnish their images as inarticulate, bloodthirsty monsters and because Joe Laurinaitis and Mike Hegstrand lacked the necessary extemporaneous speaking
skills; today, Paul Heyman is so good at speaking for his “clients” that sometimes the actual contest feels extraneous. This emphasis on speech—and most televised shows begin with ten or fifteen minutes of talking before the first blow is struck—allows wrestlers to remind the audience about other incidents in a particular storyline, to insult the skill level and personal proclivities of their opponents, and to make explicit promises about how they’ll use their bodies to punish the bodies of their enemies once the starting bell has rung. In the ring, wrestlers embody both power and the ability to control their own fates, which is the exact opposite of how they actually live their lives, especially given that professional wrestling currently has just one major promotion, Vince McMahon’s WWE, with TNA and a handful of small independent circuits operating under the radar of all but the most dedicated fans. To be a wrestler is to spend weeks on the road away from home and family, to live without health insurance or job security, and with almost constant physical pain.Wrestlers are powerless not only with regard to their employment status—as independent contractors, they can be “released” (which really means fired) at any time—but also because they live at the mercy of the shifting loyalties of fans and the vagaries of their own bodies. While a handful of wrestlers do achieve huge contracts and mainstream name recognition (Hulk Hogan, The Rock, John Cena), most never reach that level of success. And yet my research has taught me that for a wrestler, missing a scheduled performance is among the worst things you can do. Wrestlers pride themselves on showing up and giving the audience a good time regardless of injury, contract status, or personal emergency. They often say that once they step into the arena, and especially once they’re in the ring, they focus only on putting together the best possible match and that everything else fades into the background—at least until they’re backstage again. This is a large part of what I love about wrestling—knowing that good wrestlers, despite being tired and in pain, despite their worries about slipping down the “card” (the list of each night’s bouts) or getting dropped, take pride in putting in a good performance, whether they’re headlining WrestleMania or “jerking the curtain” (working the first match) at a house show in Peoria, Illinois. And they do this knowing that most fans will never be aware of what the effort costs them. When I imagine myself as a professional wrestler—sometimes I imagine myself as a professional wrestler—my fantasies fall into several distinct categories. One of these focuses on the culture of wrestling as work, the customs and practices I’ve learned about through my research. I know, for example, that as a newcomer, in the locker room my task is to introduce myself to anyone I don’t know, offering the traditional fingers-but-no-palms handshake meant to demonstrate my ability to “work smooth” (effortlessly, without hurting my opponent), and then to stay out of the way, keeping my eyes down and staying silent unless directly addressed. I know that I’ll have to take a “rib” (prank) or two, and that how I react to those ribs, my ability to laugh at myself rather than display hurt or anger, will be a significant determinant in how my coworkers feel about me. I know that when my opponent and I are planning our match, I should make sure he’s not taking advantage (“liberties”) by putting in all of his best moves without including mine. I know that in the ring it’s my duty to “sell” (react as though the blows are real) my opponent’s moves, that he may test me with a sudden change in plans or “hard-way shot” (making real contact) we haven’t discussed beforehand, that I’ll need to watch both him and the ref for the cue that it’s “time to go home” (finish the match). And I also know that if no one is “waiting at gorilla” (behind the curtain separating backstage from the entrance ramp, named for wrestler and long-time announcer Gorilla Monsoon) to shake my hand after I’m finished, I’m not well-liked and may be at risk of being let go.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
My other fantasies focus more on performance. In these, I stride toward the ring in my customdesigned costume and boots while my theme music blasts through the speakers and thousands of fans applaud and scream my name. I already know whether I’m going to win or lose, but what matters to me most in those moments is the enthusiasm, even love, I feel from the audience. Sometimes, I dream of winning a championship belt, of holding it above my head or draping it over my shoulder while confetti falls from the ceiling, my music plays, and fans scream ever louder as I bask in the glow of my hard-earned victory. These fantasies persist despite what many wrestlers say about the pressures of being a major titleholder, how hard it becomes to say no to the company about schedules or character arcs, how once you’ve held the belt all you can think about is how long before you’re asked to lose it (“drop the strap”) and what that might mean for your future. Championship belts aside, in my most persistent fantasies I imagine myself stuck somewhere in the middle of the card—reliable, reasonably skilled but not a superstar, the kind of wrestler referred to as a “hell of a hand,” which sounds like a compliment but isn’t. Wrestlers thus identified have little chance of ascending to the main event or major title status because they’re perceived as not exciting or charismatic enough to attract fans or to be convincing champions. As workhorses rather than show ponies, they’re called upon to make their opponents look good while rarely being assigned long-lasting storylines of their own. While it’s possible to overcome this designation (as did Chris Jericho and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the 1990s), wrestlers who are so labeled still show up night after night determined to do their best, despite knowing that their full range of skills may never be appreciated by their bosses and that they’re likely to see those with less talent and dedication move up the card while their own careers remain stalled. My mid-card fantasies are not completely a surprise. The truth is that to imagine myself as powerful in the wrestling ring is to admit how often the opposite is true in my real life, how often I stutter or clench my fists or bite my tongue because what I really want to say is neither welcome nor wise. I may joke about cage matches at faculty meetings, but we’re not really going to have one, and if we did I might be asked to “do the job” (lose)—although at least I’d be able to hope for a rematch with a different outcome. As a wrestler, I’d receive instant feedback from the audience every time I performed based on the “pop” (positive reaction drawn by a face) or “heat” (negative reaction drawn by a heel) that I received. If the crowd communicated that I was failing to “get over” (make fans care), I could make the necessary adjustments, if not that night then the next. And, even though I might be lied to by my coworkers and my employer, I’d have evidence of my approximate worth based on my spot on the card, my salary, the caliber of my opponents, and how often I appeared on TV. I would, in other words, have what I lack in my actual life: evidence of how I’m valued (or not) by those who determine my fate—the students and administrators at the college where I teach, editors of the literary journals to which I submit my poems, friends and family who may love me too much to tell me the hard truths. I may dream of being Ric Flair, whose skills and ability to draw fans were so widely acknowledged that he nearly always succeeded in his contract negotiations despite his occasional bad behavior, but I worry that I’m actually more like Brian Kendrick, a mid-carder who threw so many locker room temper tantrums and was so hard to work with that “You’re Fired” practically became his middle name as he bounced from promotion to promotion. Like most people, I’m probably a little bit of both, but on any given day it’s hard to know which way the scales have tipped. If I’m currently a fan of professional wrestling, and this essay suggests that I am, I don’t think I’ll stay one forever. Past experience tells me that eventually, I won’t disavow wrestling so much as I’ll allow my interest in it to be replaced by something else, the way I have, over the past twelve years, given up coal-
mining, ghosts, the Bible, and monsters as objects of nearly obsessive interest. At some future date, I’ll donate my wrestling books to the thrift store from which many of them came, retire the sweatshirt I’ll by then have worn ragged, sell or give away my action figures, stop dreaming of the ring. I’ll revise and polish my poems, arrange them into a manuscript that may or may not ever be accepted for publication. I’ll give up wrestling and move on to something else, something just as unlikely and, once I’ve lived with it for a few months, just as fascinating. But experience also tells me that I’ll remember wrestling fondly and take occasional interest in it, clicking on internet news stories, tuning in to watch it on TV when there’s no other alternative. I might forget some of the more arcane knowledge I’ve acquired, confuse one wrestler or historical match with another or misidentify the moves I’ve taught myself to recognize, but I like to think I’ll remember the important lessons: The worst thing you can give a wrestler is free time. Once you’ve held the belt, you always want it back. You may have great technical skills, but you won’t work unless you can engage the crowd. If your character isn’t catching on, it’s best to take a break, then come back as someone else. If you’re toxic in the locker room, you probably won’t last. No one ever really retires from the ring, but good wrestlers go out on their backs, losing their final matches to make way for their successors. `Wrestlers wrestle for the same reason writers write: because they just can’t help themselves.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
She hasn’t lived there in over forty years, but every now and then my mother still brings up “the ranch.” Each scant member of my family knows what “the ranch” refers to: that spread in the wrinkled draws of Eastern Montana where my mother was raised, where she learned to drive an eighteen-wheeler and ride a horse, and to love, under the tutelage of her father, every particle of the virgin prairie block resting in the middle of several thousand acres devoted to wheat and cattle. Made of sharp rises and hills, curious with old teepee rings and buffalo wallows, that pastureland stayed virgin because her own grandfather had wanted it that way. When my mother was fourteen her father bought a Cessna, and later a little aluminum Luscombe, and taught her to fly; when I read the memories she’s written down, they often feel sketched from this vantage, descriptions of the prairie’s buttercups and yellow bells specked among the cattle ranging over the pasture and the forever-sky. It’s that bit of prairie my mother yearns to protect these days, even more than she longs for a lost life of wind over the fields. “Who owns the mineral rights on that prairie block?” she asks, the words burdened with longing, to hold this one little bit of earth, to know it will be safe to love, if not ours to own. My grandfather worked the land as long as he could, but finally sold up in the early 1990s—you can only do so much when you’ve got one non-farming child and three granddaughters immersed in books instead of soil. “I don’t know,” I tell her truthfully. After my great-aunt and then my grandfather passed away, that piece got snarled in a legal muddle and, in any case, plenty of people in the American West don’t own the mineral rights to their land. It could be the family who currently farms it; it could be a third cousin we’ve never spoken to; it could be some faceless resource extraction company. The latter thought is terrifying: someday my mother will wake up in her house over the mountains, listening to the coal trains pass by, and know somewhere more vital than her heart or her gut that a drill—for oil, for natural gas, fracking fluids, methane-bed coal extraction, it doesn’t matter—has pierced the soil she is made of. She asks me because, in a fit of alcoholic mistrust, my grandfather rewrote his will to leave his money to my sisters and me, cutting our mother out. Somehow amidst all those legal documents we hope that the prairie block’s state of being will leak through, though the ranch was sold before I knew Grandpa as anything but a tall, blue-eyed alcoholic—with a passion for Montaigne and a hacking cough formed from a lifetime breathing wheat chaff—who made a packet investing in risky wheat futures and used to startle the house awake with tequila-fueled midnight renditions of “Git Along, Little Doggies.” We’re used to thinking of sustainability in the very short term—farmer’s markets and the comforting prospect of renewable energy. But take this one spot of land, the one my mother treasures almost as much as she does her grandchildren. Sustainability means it can provide for human life: food, warmth, water, shelter for as long as geologically possible. Once we’ve stripped it for resource extraction, or exhausted its agricultural potential with fertilizers and herbicides, that possibility is gone. Within a few short years, even in human terms, so are the jobs that made the sacrifice attractive. We all know these arguments; if not, we should. What we are not allowed to talk about is the loss of a human’s love for her landscape, for the dirt under her feet, for the contours of the land that have shaped her breath, her worldview, her heart. When this is lost, we have sacrificed her ability to connect with something that is, for lack of a better word, holy. Land that sustains not just the body, but the soul.
I was born in Bozeman, at that time a humdrum cow town whose highlight was the soggy Sweet Pea festival in midsummer. Montana still felt isolated then. When we visited my grandparents in their little house near “the ranch,” the four-hour drive rolled across highways that were almost always empty. There
were so many lacks in my childhood—lack of transportation, jobs, culture—that I grew up believing the home I loved could never change in any material way, believing the qualities that made it whole and beautiful would prompt in all people a desire to treat it gently; I grew up believing in my bones that the land under my feet would always be there. Now, as a friend put it, “Bozeman’s crapped itself out all over the valley,” with thousands of bloated houses like the barely-belted paunch of a domineering, small-eyed man. Like most things, it’s not all bad. The wealth that’s poured in from those following people like Ted Turner and Jane Fonda into the Gallatin Valley’s “scenic beauty” made possible a shocked residents’ 2002 stand against the opening of a new coalbed methane mine in the valley; still, there are only so many obscenely large housing developments you can build before those clear mountain streams are all tapped out and nobody’s got a view of the ranges anymore. To those of us who grew up with the tiniest aftertaste of the pioneers’ hardships in our mouths, it seemed like the sheer weight of money crushed whatever freedom was left. It used to frustrate me, back in my teenage years when my mother started talking about these things, the way she’d compare herself and the ranchers she’d grown up with to Native Americans, more victims of a culture that recognizes ownership in terms she doesn’t believe in. I used to get annoyed at the way she’d go on about what land means to those who have grown up enmeshed in it, and I hitched “the ranch’s” name to an eye-roll, boredom barely harnessed. I could not share in feeling bereft or stunned at the ease with which those who cared little for it could seize the soil that formed her home to rip out fuel and leave only waste, while over the mountains those with wealth earned elsewhere built manicured suburbs of Houston and Hoboken. The loss of the prairie is one I have only recently understood. Now I, like my mother, have watched my Rocky Mountain home eaten by heretics, watched hills I have walked freely closed to me by the fences of people who will never know or love them as I do, people who are only moved by the thrill of possession, not the humility of awe. I know now how my mother felt when the land she thought was safe was handed over to others who would be able to “make something of it.” “Montana, like all frontiers, is about seeing ourselves in the midst of possibility,” my mother once wrote in a piece on conservation easements for a now defunct local magazine. “We will transform the land, use it, but never use it up; our steers will fatten, and the grain will grow; we can dam the rivers, and they will still hold fish; forests will give timber and never be eroded or scarred. Now that same landscape we looked to for eternal youth seems to be telling us our choices are running out.” She wrote that piece back in the early 1990s, a time when million-dollar gated communities seemed the greatest threat to what was left of our wildernesses and waterfronts. That was before the explosion in oil production fracked its way around Billings near the North Dakota border and started moving west. By 2012, the extraction companies were test-drilling for oil and gas among the tiny, rare purple bitterroot flowers hiding along the Rocky Mountain Front, a landscape so beautifully fragile you can almost feel your heart tear with a desire to protect it. The housing developments that ate up my hometown are only surface scars; the drilling will dig the heart out of yet another piece of the kind of Montana landscape that makes you believe in something never-ending. I will say something sacrilegious here. When the planes of September 11th flew into New York City’s twin towers, I mourned deeply for the lives lost, for families broken. But I did not think that some part of me— my country, my way of life—had been attacked. This was the refrain heard all over the news: “They” have
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
attacked our values, our lifestyle, what makes our society cohesive. I could not accede to this claim. My life, I was only beginning to understand then, was tied to the vitality of the dirt I’d been raised on, not to the urban landscapes under assault. I was living in Boston at the time and watched colleagues and friends hold one another and cry. I wondered, heretically, Will this someday help them see how my mother feels? How I feel? Every time a new hydraulic fracturing operation is opened, every time I see land broken and raw for the sake of the coal or copper beneath, every time a development of multi-million-dollar homes plops its overweight rear end onto one of the mountains I love, a vital part of me is attacked. This is happening to people like me all the time, every day. My community is made of the Shuar people whose land will be sacrificed to enormous open-pit gold and copper mines swallowing their ancient homes in the Ecuadoran Amazon, of hard-working farmers in North Dakota and Pennsylvania whose free-range cattle are sickening from natural gas fracking fluids seeping into their soil and water supplies, and of, yes, the Blackfoot tribe whose teepee rings still mark the prairieland my mother loves so much. Those with no respect for older, deeper values have always felt that they can put the land to better use than those who live in symbiosis with it. They can use it, or use it up, or destroy its ability to sustain life for generations. They drive machines into that which I hold sacred, caring only for the short-term economic gain that will be achieved, caring nothing for the irreplaceable that will be lost. And every one of us is complicit in the act.
In 2012, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks lauded the success of a stream remediation project over twenty years in the making. For the first time in decades, there is enough westslope cutthroat trout in Silver Bow Creek near Butte that the FWP was able to enact catch-and-release regulation in a waterway previously so toxic with heavy metals that fish trying to swim into it just up and died. Smelters, concentrators, and precipitation plants operating in the late 1800s to early 1900s dumped enough mine tailings and sewage into the creek to contaminate areas at least twenty miles downstream, earning the area a Superfund designation in 1983. Silver Bow is now a $120 million cleanup project that’s been ongoing since 1999. Montana’s governor noted on the announcement of the westslope cutthroat’s comeback that nobody had been able to fish in Silver Bow “since our great-great-grandparents.” You can bet that anyone trying to stop toxic dumping at the time would have been accused of being anti-jobs and probably been labeled a kook and run out of town. The same response comes these days out of areas submitting to modern coal mining in Appalachia: “What use are the mountains to us,” asks one coal-miner’s wife in Erik Reece’s book Lost Mountain chronicling the environmental devastation wreaked by mountaintop-removal mining, “other than coal?” What use was Silver Bow Creek after it had been so polluted you wouldn’t dare eat a trout from it even if one survived? If only our great-great-grandparents last fished there, how many generations of families lost out on catching their own dinner, drawing from the water running by their front doors, how many children unable to cool their ankles under the cottonwoods on hot summer days? “We need to find a new way to see ourselves and our possibilities in this landscape,” my mother wrote in that article on conservation easements in more hopeful times, before man’s appetite for energy consumption gained new life through cheaper technologies and, let’s face it, a backlash of resentment against the environmental movement. “Not just for the people who are still fortunate enough to live on the land or the professionals whose vocation is in the natural world, but for the rest of us: the nurses, prep cooks, attorneys, real estate agents, and mill workers—all of us who once held a piece of forever and are beginning to feel ourselves displaced. Because if this isn’t home, we ask, what is?”
My mother’s writing has a tang that can only come from a childhood spent on the land—a farm, a homestead, a backcountry cabin. When you grow up watching bugs, your feet in the dirt, spend dark winter mornings tending to the animals, afternoons squinting over the wheat fields, your words can smell of April’s wet-snow Chinook winds, or taste of the dust on a hot August afternoon when the earth is gasping from drought. This intimate relationship with nature—not always a pretty one—is something we in the U.S. are on the verge of losing, even in our literature. I cannot write like that, raised in a town, my memories of sidewalks and day hikes and fights with my sisters, and later of some connection missing, something my mother has but I can only ever crave. You can’t make up for it as an adult. The land doesn’t talk to you in the same way it talks to her: once a little girl with unruly blond curls squinting at a camera, the prairie spread out behind her, now a senior citizen setting up in the local farmer’s market to sing her songs about land and loss, ownership and virtue, about the coal mining and hydrofracking among the unkempt foothills of her youth—the twisting, bitter pain that comes from knowing her world is run by those who see the land she loves as nothing more than a product to be assigned a market value.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
The stories our society’s writers produce—the occasional book that forces us to see the dying birds, the lungs damaged by power-plant particulates, the burst in cancer rates downstream from chemical factories—these seem to be the only tools that awaken the national consciousness to our dependence on a damaged ecosystem, to remind us that “a growing economy” cannot sustain us forever. This knowledge has an urgency for me, yet the writing I do—so unlike my mother’s—feels short of the mark. “My father and I stood once / on a piece of bluestem prairie / under a cold sky,” begins one of my mother’s poems. “Shouldn’t this beauty belong to everyone?” ends an essay I once wrote about the wreck of my hometown. I know which of these speaks to the heart. The way I write about the land—and all the self-sustaining, energy-conserving skills I shore up for survival in an uncertain future—will never have my mother’s spirit. But it’s all I’ve got to offer. When the last person is gone who grew up crunching across frozen mud, the slap of winter in her face, who knew from girlhood the scent of a thunderstorm about to break, how the ground creaked when it was thirsty, the fear of a lost cow on the far pasture—when there are no more childhoods like this, humanity will have been struck a blow that will change it forever. The land that can shape this kind of life is shrinking daily. Some of the very swathes of wide-open prairie and grassland moved into conservation at the time my mother was writing about the popularity of easements were the same ones test-drilled by hydraulic fracturing operations for oil in early 2012. The land trusts that sought to preserve that space have no rights to the energy resources resting underneath the wildlife and wildflower habitat; more crucially, they have no right to keep the mineral owners from drilling.
What does it mean to live on this earth, in Big Sky country or anywhere else, and to plan futures for our children, if none of our activities can provide livelihoods for more than a generation or two, and if our choices preclude sustaining life for our grandchildren? There is nothing like the prairie after a thunderstorm. The clouds break up and move east, and you can see them for miles, and then that wide sky takes a deep breath and you’re hit with happiness being wrung out all the way down through your gut, like one of those perfect carefree days of a childhood summer, the kind every generation says doesn’t exist anymore. The air coming from the wrinkled toes of the Rocky Mountains winds around the grasses and tumbleweed, and you wish you could just lie there all day and not speak a word, feeling the tides of geological layers and the thin film of fertile soil creak beneath you. Except that you are on someone else’s land, or someone else owns the rights to the minerals compressing themselves through the eons, and on the highway nearby the megaton trucks are carting equipment for Alberta’s tar sands oil production, and the fishing creek still holds traces of cadmium and lead, arsenic and zinc, from the last century’s mineral booms (how many years will we keep despoiling land in the name of jobs and cheap energy, fooling ourselves that we now have all the answers, that we’ll do it right this time, and then spending decades cleaning up afterwards so that we can live?), and over the rise, where Square Butte rises flat-topped and enormous out of sudden twists in the landscape, my mother’s cousin tells me that state-owned forest was chopped down for vacation mansions where wealthy hunters come once a year to shoot wolves and plumb into a water table that is already little more than a trickle. The local news is all about the new gold rush in oil and natural gas, reminding residents of a time when, a little south and west, Butte was called the Richest Hill on Earth, saying nothing of the poisonous pits that still send noxious fogs through the streets of one of the country’s largest Superfund sites. They speak of energy independence and a person’s right to earn a good living, silencing the fact that the history of these booms is not made of romantic Jack London figures but of brute industrial strength—like that of the Anaconda Mining Company that built Butte’s copper-mining wealth by leveling mountains and filling open pits with wastewater so poisonous that a hundred years later high-tech noise emitters still warn migrating waterfowl away (in 1995 the bodies of three hundred and forty-two migrating snow geese were found floating dead in the arsenic- and cadmium-rich Berkeley Pit, their insides lined with burns). You remember that right now construction of terminals on the West Coast is being reviewed to ship unfathomable tons of coal from the pine-scented, fishing stream-threaded Bitterroot Valley straight to Asia’s power plants. You think of those most precious of commodities, clean water to drink and clean air to breathe, damp and cold from the mountains; and the most precious of all, a place where you can rest your eyes on the horizon and feel rooted and whole. A church with no walls. And you are told you are an eco-extremist, a job-killer. The bitter taste in your mouth comes not from the wheat chaff blowing through the grasses, or the insecticide residue the crop sprayer left before the sun was up, or even from fear for your children’s and grandchildren’s futures as we burn our way through this soft, hospitable climate. It’s from knowing that the connection you have with the land, the roots generations deep, can never be sacred; that you dare not teach your children to love what can never be saved. For five generations my family has lived in what’s called the Last Best Place—Montana, the word itself making me feel like a lovesick teenager, all watery-kneed and faint-hearted. My young son and daughter could be the sixth, if I take them back to the home I love, if I dare.
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My mother wrote a folk song a few years ago, about an old cowboy dying in his trailer and refusing to leave his land to the oil company. The refrain “I’d rather give up heaven than Montana” speaks to me of heartache and loss, and a bare speck of hope that we might yet save what is vital. For those who want nothing more than for land to sustain our love, and a simple life for us and our children (“nothing more?” my mother noted when she read this essay; “isn’t that everything?”), this is a war we are always on the edge of losing, if not already lost. It is a war that women like my mother have launched battle cries for again and again, only to be muted by the voluntary deafness of a society that finds their truth—our truth— uncomfortable. But no amount of organic wheat or carbon offsets, no quantity of wind turbines or local heirloom tomatoes will, in the end, make any difference to this land’s ability to sustain us if we do not learn to value equally—or perhaps more—our relationship with the land, our love of the home. Whenever I send my mother money—some repayment of what should have been her share of my grandfather’s leavings—I write “spirit of the prairie fund” on the check’s memo line. I started it as a briskly scrawled joke, but over time it has grown in unspoken importance for both of us, as if we were between us keeping the prairie-rapers at bay. Keeping the prairie alive, and through it, ourselves. My pioneer ancestors’ bloodline that homesteaded “the ranch” with care and caution has petered thin, but the love of the land—beyond love, beyond passion, not love but a connection so deep that facing its loss feels like my own death; not pain, but the loss of myself, of who I am—runs through my mother and me like a vein of some mythical unadulterated and unchangeable metal, never corroding, never degrading, never fading. It’s like DNA. Once I was old enough to understand what I had, when it was taken from me, then I knew what it was, the creed my mother tried to teach me. I know that wilderness, too, can be a religion, and its sacred places can be stolen from those of us who, in our hearts, truly own it. Our gods can die.
To Have and Have Not Jason Howard
You are just eighteen when this photograph is taken, standing in front of an American Red Cross door, the words “Blood Donor Service” stenciled on the frosted window. Behind you, a silhouette of a nurse is just visible through the crackled plate glass, the sleeve of her uniform ironed into a tight crease. She must be dowdy, we think, with salt-and-pepper hair peeking out underneath her white paper hat and gnarled feet supported by orthopedic shoes. But you—you are all New York chic; you from a poor Jewish family, reclining against the doorframe in your tailored navy blue dress and jacket with the stand-up collar that makes you look like an iris bursting from its stem. Diana Vreeland has dressed you for this shoot, pulled and tucked your sleeves and blouse with its polka dots and pussybow collar, made sure that red leather handbag is dangling from your left wrist just so, your hands shrouded in navy gloves. And your face, framed by waves of lacquered hair showering from a white skull cap, drawing us to those eyes—always those sultry eyes—innocent but fierce, gazing headlong into the camera. Come closer, they say, inviting, before flashing a warning: not that close. You want us at a distance, Betty Bacall, Harper’s Bazaar cover girl of March 1943, and that is part of your allure, what beckons the legendary director Howard Hawks to call you cross-country to Hollywood for a screen test. When you arrive, those Tinseltown costumiers and makeup artists swoop in and cluck all around you, want to change you—to shave your hairline, to straighten your slightly crooked teeth, to pluck your thick eyebrows. But no, you say, that’s what got me out here in the first place, got me away from being plain old Betty Joan Perske from Brooklyn. You turn that steely gaze like a hawk on those hired chickens flocking and flitting about, knowing, as you would say in your salty tongue, that nature is not something to be fucked with. That if it’s good enough for Diana Vreeland and Harper’s Bazaar and Howard Hawks, it will damn well just have to be good enough for Warner Brothers and the rest of America. They comply, knowing when to leave well enough alone.
But two thousand miles away in east Tennessee, they don’t even know you exist, do they Betty Mae? You who are just a few years younger than the movie starlet Betty; you whose family can’t afford to buy the latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar, whose father has been blackballed from the coal mines, whose mother has set out to produce a large family that will come to number eleven children in all. You came right in the middle of the brood: invisible, forgotten, always wondering if you matter as much as the others, if you are even worth the little amount of money you have cost your parents living in these poor hills. And yet that doesn’t stop you from dreaming, does it Betty Mae, of being carried away from this lonesome holler by a tough guy like Humphrey Bogart, who will arrive like a knight in his burgundy Buick Roadmaster, dressed in brown slacks and a checked blazer with a silk pocket square, his pressed shirt closed at the neck with a bow-tie, a dark fedora cocked ever so slightly on his head. You fantasize about leaving with Bogie, of bouncing over these rutted roads in that big convertible, of sailing across the Atlantic to Casablanca, or to the Caribbean and on to Martinique, where the pair of you will live on unfiltered Chesterfields and rum and Coca-Cola. You don’t confide these visions to anyone. You know you can’t, because you would be laughed under the pine boards of the front porch, pushed down even farther than they have you now, down in that cool dirt with the lost jacks and marbles and strings from broken white half runner beans that have fallen through the cracks between the planks. But these dreams are yours, as precious as the coal in these mountains, and you carry them with you when your family moves north into Kentucky, into another holler not so different from this one, where you will live in a house next to the railroad tracks and dream
of hoboing one of those passing trains that rattle the windows to rendezvous with your Bogie and escape. The one bit of advice you do take from Hollywood, Betty Bacall, is to change your first name for the silver screen. It’s too ordinary, pedestrian; you need something with a hint of danger to match your scorching looks. Your grandmother’s name? they ask, but when you reply with Sophie, they crinkle their noses: too Jewish. They settle on Lauren and you agree, and soon you are on set for your first picture, To Have and Have Not, teaching Bogart how to whistle, matching wits and lips in scenes so hot it’s a wonder that thirtyfive-millimeter celluloid didn’t melt right then and there, liquefying in the cameras, flooding the lenses and gears, and dripping out onto the studio floor. What was it like, Betty, to fall in love before an audience of millions, to have your first kiss with Bogie captured on screen, to break up a marriage with Hedda and Louella chronicling your every move in their gossip columns? You didn’t give a damn about the ruckus, did you—you were Bogie’s Baby and that was all that mattered as the two of you had to meet in studio dressing rooms and cars on l.a. sidestreets and on the shoulder of Highway 101 before you were able to finally get hitched. And then you were the envy of Betty Mae and thousands of others like her who wanted your insolence and swagger, who dreamed of your houndstooth jackets and those blinding klieg lights and sweltering soundstages. Their hearts broke for you when Bogie died twelve years later and you had to start over, walking out the side door of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills with your young son in hand, a grieving widow with a spine of steel. You fell into the arms of Sinatra, that talented, self-centered cad who didn’t have an ounce of Bogie’s integrity, who wined and dined you and proposed marriage, but dropped you like a stranger in the night when word leaked of your engagement. He behaved like a complete shit, you wrote later, a generous statement, but instead of wallowing in your heartache and embarrassment, you held your head high, set off back home for New York, kids in tow, ready to work and remake your life. And before you knew it, love came calling again with Jason Robards, another great talent, and you were both on cloud nine for a time. But turns out he loved his Scotch more than you, and when you found a letter from another woman, what did you do? You didn’t take his shit, did you? No, you kicked his ass out faster than you could say Blood Alley, and the next thing you know you’re the toast of Broadway, winning two Tonys, writing your memoirs, living a life of your own design, by yourself. And what of you, Betty Mae? Looking not like Lauren Bacall, but Patsy Cline before there even was such a creature, all slinked up in your rose-colored velveteen dress bought for $5.59 from The Fair Store in downtown Pineville, propped up at the oak bar in the Continental Hotel, glass of Canadian Club on the rocks in hand. You talk a big game, just like the other Betty: your favorite movie star, the one who captured Bogie, the one you save your quarters to see onscreen at the Bell Theater, weathering a hurricane with gangsters, helping an escaped jailbird hide from the law, falling in love with John Wayne in China. You want Bacall’s toughness, her backbone to stand up and go toe to toe with the men, to slap back when smacked around, but you don’t have it; you never will be able to summon a counterpunch from that petite frame of yours and those hands with the delicate fingers that break my heart when I see them now in photographs. You couldn’t fight back at fifteen and you found yourself “in trouble,” sent away as soon as you began to show. You had that baby, then three more by different men, but when the last wanted to do right by
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you, offered marriage, what did you do? You turned and walked away, refused to see him again. You tried to make your own way, cleaning houses for a dollar a day, those little hands scouring silver and plunging into steaming dish water. But it was all too much. So you drank harder, ended up marrying a man who wasn’t worth a pile of dogshit, just because he had a bit of money and could get you out of your parents’ house. He beat you black and blue, and if I could go back in time, I’d do like Bogie and pistol-whip his ass, a gift from the grandson you never knew, then pull that brown bottle from your thin lips, wrap you up in my slender arms, cradle your bruised face with these hands that resemble yours, tell you all that you will miss out on if you don’t get away, if you don’t find your inner Bacall and believe her line The next time I get slapped, I’d better do something about it. Or better yet, don’t let there be a next time. But I know you wouldn’t listen, just like you didn’t listen to your daughters when they tried to convince you to leave the bastard. Turns out your life depended on it, and when you died at forty-eight, no one knew whether it was murder or suicide, because a good case could be made for each. “Awful thing to look back on your life and realize you’ve settled,” Bacall says in The Mirror Has Two Faces. But what if you’re not the one here to do the looking?
Legend. A word you hate, Bacall, one you rightly believe to be thrown around too lightly in this era of two-bit floozies who show their knickers when exiting a car just to get a headline, of confections who claim the word artist but don’t produce anything that can be remotely considered art. You even bristle when Nicole Kidman, a remarkable talent, is described as a legend—you have to be older, you growl to the interviewer—and you especially loathe it when the distinction is slung in your direction, you who live to be eighty-nine. But face facts, Betty. That’s what you are, what you have been for nearly seventy years, since that instant you waltzed across the screen, threw those matches at Bogie, and crooned “How Little We Know” in that low, leathery voice, accompanied by Hoagy Carmichael. Deep down I
think you know it, too, you with your Tonys and Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award and honorary Oscar and National Book Award, you who have spent your lifetime not kowtowing to Hollywood or taking any guff from anyone. You did it your way, didn’t you, and isn’t that what a legend does? It’s not just about age and talent, but about awareness and gravitas, and you have both in spades, Baby. And in your final years, you’re not afraid to return to where you started, in front of the photographer’s camera once again, showing that exquisite face, the one you refused to have pulled and plumped and tightened with a facelift or Botox. No, I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that, you declare in an interview, and once again you have put your money where your mouth is, that mouth that is lined from all those years of cigarettes and cocktails and laughs, those moments when you have thrown back that thinning mane of greying hair, turned those beguiling eyes toward the ceiling and let loose that smoke-stained chuckle that fills the room. You’ve put it all on full display—your crow’s feet and drooping eyelids and liver spots and sagging cheeks—all those years and stories and people that live on in every one of those beautiful creases. Diana and Harper’s and Howard and Bogie. All those films—the good and the bad, for there have been both—the Broadway shows and memoirs. Sinatra and Robards. Your three children and California sunsets and winter afternoons spent walking your papillon in Central Park. It’s all there, Betty Bacall, your gift to all the Betty Maes of the world. If Betty Mae could see you now—and somehow I believe she does, she does—she would say that you lived for her too, always looking forward and never back, spending all those years by yourself, telling it like it is, having something to prove to the very end—not needing any man to validate your talent or beauty or existence. You gave ‘em hell, she would cry, raising her glass of whisky in your direction, before calling you over to huddle with her at the bar, dying to know just how you pulled it all off. 52
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Migraine Material Deb Fleischman
I hear voices, then shuffling as the door swings open, flooding the darkened room with a blinding incandescence. Squinting, I raise my head to meet a face I vaguely recognize. “Deb…is that you?” I used to think of hospitals as anonymous sanctuaries, like churches, or zoos, places you could duck into and avoid detection. A San Francisco transplant, I will never grow accomstomed to living in rural Vermont. You can’t hide in a state with the distiction of having the smallest capital in the Union, navigating a teeny universe where the ER physician lives a mile off the road from you and is friends with your friends. Wyatt and I bump into each other at potluck gatherings, in the supermarket aisle, and often, at the movies. But the last place I’d expected to see him is at work. “Hey, Wyatt,” I say wearily, covering my eyes as much from the shame of recognition (a pastylooking vampire at large) as from the glare of the lights now searing my corneas. At times like these I think of trepanation, about the only migraine cure I haven’t tried. Given the incessant throbbing at the base of my cranium—going on two days now—drilling a sizable hole in my skull, though primitive, seems like a pretty good idea. Trepanation has been around since 3,000 BC. Hippocrates endorsed it to treat head injuries, and during medieval times it was believed to cure migraines and epilepsy by releasing the demons within. Surprisingly, trepanation is still practiced today. I recently watched a surgeon on TV perform this barbaric procedure on a woman who suffered from chronic depression. The drill looked like an old fashioned mechanical corkscrew. When the doctor deftly reached into the hole in her skull with his magic wand and touched some receptor, the patient’s face lit up like in the game Operation. She went from comatose to giddy in an instant. I’d read about other crude migraine treatments: bloodletting; applying a hot iron to the head; inserting a clove of garlic through an incision in the temple; and drinking the juice of elderseed, cow’s brain, and goat’s dung dissolved in vinegar. Lying on the ER gurney, I consider these options before settling on the drug industry’s fast food equivalent. “Demerol,” I say to Wyatt, who is busy listening to my heart and lungs. “Demerol,” I repeat emphatically once he removes the stethescope from his ears. Like most narcotics, Demerol not only kills pain, it also induces sleep, which I need most, which I deserve. But it’s not the sublime refreshing kind that makes you stretch when you awake to greet the new day. It’s something more along the lines of dying in the desert, desiccated and paralyzed. But migraineurs like me can’t afford to be picky. Wyatt oks my request for narcotics but puts his foot down about staying the night. “You can sleep here for a few hours,” he says. “But then you’ll have to go home.” I feel rejected, my condition not dire enough to warrant an overnight stay. Then I remember it’s 4:00 AM. The nurse arrives and I gingerly relinquish a vein in my wrist. The cool liquid oozes and fans out through my body. Words slur. “Youcngoonow,” I say to Wyatt. “Umgontoslip.”
One morning, while my mother was washing my twin sister’s face, I disappeared. A passing stranger found me on the sidewalk, deduced the trajectory of my flight from our first story window, and returned a two-year-old toddler to my unsuspecting mother. I appeared unfazed. X-rays later found I had fractured my skull. Looking back, even knowing as I do today the underlying neurological causes of migraines, I’m suspicious of that fall, and believe it may have triggered my first migraine, which occurred in early adolescence.
A full moon wedged through the blinds the night I awoke gripping the bed to steady myself against mounting convulsions at the base of my skull. I looked at the light beseechingly and pressed my thumb against the hammering. It idled briefly, then raced into overdrive. I ran to the bathroom and evacuated from one end. Then I dropped to my knees when the first wave shot past my intestines, up through my stomach, and out my esophagus, like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. But the throbbing, which had momentarily taken a back seat to the nausea, resurfaced, and I lay on the bathroom floor, grasping my occiptal ridge, knowing that if I moved even a fraction of an inch, my head would erupt like Krakatoa. Hours later I staggered back to bed, having emptied myself of all matter, liquid and solid, with nothing but dry heaves and a dull ache to lull me to sleep. During high school, these attacks and the fear of them began to change my life and I dubbed anything that might set one off, migraine material. That included drugs and rock and roll. I shook my head at getting high and invitations to Grateful Dead shows. “No thanks. I’ll stay home and watch reruns of The Waltons.” At college I eliminated the migraine trigger foods, all of which make life bearable—chocolate and red wine, mozzarella and parmesan, pastrami and bacon. I stopped playing basketball, staying up late, going to parties, traveling—any overexertion and stressful activity that might prompt an attack. In my thirties, I followed the holistic approach to little avail. I lived on a diet of feverfew and dong quoi. I took my vitamins and minerals—B, C, Calcium, and Magnesium—and oils—cod liver and flax—religiously. I ingested amino acids, 5-HTP, and L-tryptophan. Then came the homeopathic era. Later, trips to the acupuncturist, chiropractor, massage therapist, and hypnotherapist, followed by cranial sacral therapy, Feldenkrais, yoga, meditation, a stint in an isolation tank, and finally, cognitive behavioral therapy. For six weeks, I charted my headaches with the moon, menstrual cycle, food, sleep habits, and, of course, stress level. I mean, it would be nice if it were a food allergy, or related to the weather, some rare pollen, my husband—something to isolate, someone to blame. “Morning,” chirped Gabe halfheartedly as I stumbled into the kitchen after an agonizing, sleepless night. “Fuck the morning!” I wanted to yell, but Jonah, our four-year-old, was eating breakfast. The bones behind my eyelids felt bruised; the drumming, like some cloying pop song, pierced my psyche. What really set me off is what Gabe didn’t say, what he didn’t do. He didn’t ask me how I felt. I felt like death. (I looked like death.) He was also fresh out of gestures, like hugs and shoulder rubs. But it wasn’t always that way. I met Gabe on an 11-day Sierra Club trip. There are many reasons I married him but chief among them was his ability to withstand pain. The last evening before hiking out of the mountains, a bunch of guys attempted to move a widowmaker off the trail. A dead branch fell from the top and hit Gabe in the head. He grinned like the Buddha, blood curdling against his forehead, while a retired doctor (his instruments sterilized in the cook’s spaghetti water) sewed him up, a zig-zag of 24 stitches to the scalp. The next day, as we prepared to leave, Doc put the kibosh on Gabe’s plan to carry his 60-pound backback down the mountain. Even with his skull wrapped in bandages, I thought, that’s the guy for me. Strong. Resliant. Hardheaded. The week I got pregnant, we were in Juneau, Alaska. Gabe was upstairs in the youth hostel frying lamb chops and I was downstairs in the women’s bathroom, vomiting. A girl saw me and scowled, thinking I’d had too much to drink. “Find Gabe,” I sputtered from the mouth of the bowl. In a flash he was in the stall, wrapping his arms around me, lifting my hair out of the torrent, and pressing on that spot at the base of my skull. He offered no words, just gestures. And they were more than enough. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Migraines tend to recede during pregnancy and miraculously, for my last two trimesters, they disappeared altogether. Elated to be migraine-free and having a baby, I looked forward to my new life, brimming with optimism. But after I gave birth, the intense six-hour show-downs morphed into 48-hour debilitating affairs. Migraines now arrived in the middle of the night—slow, sustained drumbeats which gnawed at me day and night, leaving me brittle and wired, like a lit firecracker. Throughout his childhood, my son Jonah was able to sense my migraine and offer up a silent hug. This brief nurturing held me aloft for much of the day but one morning he was busy pouring syrup on his scrambled eggs. “That’s stupid,” I said. And before I could take it back, he was sobbing. I apologized. I said I didn’t mean it like it came out. I had never called him or anything he did a name, especially ‘stupid.’ I looked to Gabe for support, but exasperated and late for work, he turned away and folded Jonah in his arms the way he used to do with me. On the way to the bathroom, my heart imploded. Magnum, a migraine awareness organization, lists mothers the world over as the population most prone to migraines. In the shower I began to panic. How the hell would I be a mother today? Did Gabe have any idea how much energy it took to be with a child? Granted, he was a teacher and had one hundred children a day and homework to grade at night. But I had zero sympathy for anyone but myself. “I’ll never forget the look on Jonah’s face when you called him ‘stupid!’” Gabe would rehash before we decided to separate for good. “I didn’t call him stupid! I said what he was doing was stupid! This whole conversation is stupid!” And what about everything Gabe forgot to remember? The effort I made each day in spite of my migraines. How awesome a mother I was most of the time. You know what I will never forget? The look on Jonah’s face when he woke up and saw what the tooth fairy had brought—a crisp $2 bill rolled into a mini scroll tied with a strip of birch bark and my tiny handmade card spilling gold fairy dust beneath his squashed pillow.
In 1968, Joan Didion debuted “In Bed,” her essay that exposed her closet disorder to the world. “I had no brain tumor, no eyestrain, no high blood pressure, nothing wrong with me at all: I simply had migraine headaches, and migraine headaches were, as everyone who did not have them knew, imaginary.” With that she started a revolution. Four decades later, migraines have attained celebrity status. Everyone from Michelle Bachman to Ben Afleck has admitted to having them. In 2008, in an Op Ed piece for the New York Times, Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco wrote that during concert tours a bucket was kept off stage in case he needed to vomit. In the Wilco documentary, I Am Trying To Break your Heart, Tweedy is shown throwing up into the toilet during a recording session. Use of the term migraine is so ubiquitous that the word headache is practically passé, with everyone now claiming to have migraines. But in spite of its ranking and the billions invested in migraine drugs, for the true sufferers, migraines remain one of those stigmatized afflictions, like depression or alien abduction, which, even if you admit to it, make people question your sanity. I turned forty before I seriously considered drugs. On the eve of the Millenium, I rode into the new century on one of my suicide migraines—the kind that finds me writhing on the bathroom floor speaking in tongues. “Call 911,” I commanded Gabe. “Deb, you’ve been through this before. You just need to stick it out a little longer,” he offered without a hint of empathy. “Call 911, you fucker!!” I barked back from the toilet bowl, sobbing angrily, vowing to divorce him as soon as I got some morphine. It was ten below the night he drove me, along with our sleeping twoyear-old, to the nearest ER. I expected to see a few sick souls in the waiting room, but when we arrived, it was empty as a cheap Chinese restaurant, all flourescent lighting and no patrons. Well, I thought, at least there’ll be no wait. A man entered my cubicle wearing blue scrubs, sporting snazzy, red Converse high tops, a scraggly long beard, and a shoulder-length braid, looking a little like Ram Das with a stethoscope. “Hi. I’m Dr. Strom.” A laid-back emergency room doctor. The kind they tolerate in small states that lie along the migratory path of refugee New York physicians, tired of treating gunshot wounds in eleven-year-olds. He watched me clutch my half-filled vomit pot to my chest like a life preserver, and quickly ran through a litany of drugs, like a waiter taking my order at a four-star restaurant. His recommendation? Imitrex—the migraine cure-all. Imitrex was nothing short of miraculous. I felt like Dorothy, belatedly informed that I had held the power all along to be saved. If only I’d believed—in drugs. Fifteen minutes after receiving the shot, my head cleared; my stomach settled; I felt born again and declared my intention to “stop suffering.” But it was a short-lived conversion. The drug’s effectiveness was inconsistent at best; migraines rebounded hours later, lingered for days, retreated and returned with baffling capriousness, ushering in the era of drug trials. Drugs and doctors dominated my early forties. In between trips to the ER, I said yes to everyone— osteopaths, neurologists, psychiatrists—and everything—a parade of pills offered in prescriptive doses, analgesics, tranquilizers, and anti-depressants. “Try them! Try them!” urged the specialists, holding up signs like Sam in Green Eggs and Ham. Depakote. Elavil. Fioronal. Trazodone. Ambien. Klonopin. Zoloft. Celexa. Remeron. If only they’d worked.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
“Deb.” “Wha?” “It’s 11 am. Time to go home.” Wyatt discharges me from the ER, and I spend the afternoon asleep at home in a drug-addled haze. I awake in my darkened bedroom. Depleted and depressed, I lie still and listen to Gabe put Jonah to bed. He is reading from The Chronicles of Narnia, his voice even and steady, and as I listen to the tale of the four children and the White Witch, I wish that I could enter another world where I could rise like Aslan from the dead. I think about time, how it feels warped, how after all these hours I have no sense of the rest I craved. Then I have a silent cry about the futility of this decades-old battle I have fought with a variety of therapies that had culminated in an apparent addiction to the ER. Gabe turns out Jonah’s light, passes by our bedroom door, notices it ajar and gently closes it. I want to call out to him but the exertion seems futile. I remember the first time he took me climbing up a volcanic butte in Northern California. At some point, snow made the trail impassible but Gabe was confident that we could free climb our way to the top. He was way ahead of me, unaware of my growing struggle to keep calm in the face of outcroppings of bolders that threatened to capsize. I gripped the corner of one and it shifted, sending a shower of black lava stones down the butte. My heart jumped, my lungs constricted, but I held on tenaciously, waiting for Gabe to save me. “I’m going to take care of you,” he whispered when he finally backtracked to my spot. “I want to take care of you,” he repeated in his wedding vows. “I’m sick of taking care of you,” he would say just before he announced his intention to divorce me. Dr. Sibley, my GP, believed depression to be at the root of my migraines. During my last visit, he ordered me to add Welbutrin to the anti-depressant diet he would have had me live on if only I weren’t so stubborn. Anti-depressants are often prescribed to treat migraines because they boost serotonin, the golden mood neurotransmitter, low levels of which have been linked to migraines and every other ailment known to mankind. “Here, have some serotonin with your steak. You’ll feel better.” Midway through my divorce, I finally gave in to Zoloft because along with my head, the container that held my heart was about to explode and there was no way my lawyer would allow me to come apart on the stand. “Just until the trial’s over,” I said. But three weeks on the drug, another force charged with keeping me balanced and sane took a sharp plunge. For the first time in my life I found myself unable to orgasm. “Orgasms are what come between me and a plunge off the Golden Gate,” I resolutely informed Dr. Sibley. “I need to get off Zoloft.” “What you need, is to stay on the Zoloft and up your dopamine levels to reverse the Anorgasmia.” Then he handed me enough free samples of Wellbutrin to take me through winter.
“Is there a difference between regular Advil and Advil for Migraines?” I asked the local pharmacist. “Because they both contain 200 milligrams of Ibuprofen,” I added, holding up the boxes for his perusal. Three years had passed since I had effectively become a drug addict. But I had never noticed over-the-counter meds that targeted migraines. “Have you tried this?” he asked, handing me another common pain killer I had heard advertised a million times. He wore a white coat with a plastic blue name tag engraved with his first name, and looked
directly at me with one eye while the other warbled off to the left. The wandering eye caused me to move with it until I was staring at and away from him at the same time, and when he disappeared behind the counter I wondered if he knew something the doctors didn’t. My mother had always told me that reference librarians were the most overlooked and misunderstood professionals. “We’re not clerks,” she would say, “but repositories of untapped wisdom.” Was the same true for pharmacists? My grandfather had been a pharmacist. Back when he entered the trade, druggists functioned like chemists who actually prepared and compounded the pills and powders that now sit in prepackaged jars. “It contains caffeine,” explained the pharmacist when he resurfaced, “which has been used to treat migraines for centuries.” I looked at him skeptically. Besides, I wasn’t a coffee drinker. And wasn’t caffeine a migraine trigger? But he was right. Two tablets at its onset, and my standard two-day debilitating migraine disappeared within minutes. In January of 2012, my brand was recalled because of potential contamination with opiate painkillers at a packaging plant. Luckily, I had stocked up during my latest purchase and had enough fast-acting gel-tabls to last a few months, though when I ran out, I panicked and seriously considered paying $175 a bottle on Amazon’s black market. What is the value of a preempted migraine? Had I stumbled upon this simple cure early on, would my life have taken a different turn? Might I have become a Deadhead? A Wall Street trader rather than a stay-at-home-mom? Might I have at least saved my marriage? Here’s the truth: Sometimes I feel a migraine looming and I don’t take the pill. I resist it for the same reason I resisted SSRIs, because they’ve become society’s panacea for suffering, much of which I value, like PMS, parenting, and sure, migraines. It’s only after you’ve seen your life as a horror movie that it actually becomes tolerable.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Planting Pansies: A Love Story
It was the latest spring that I had ever experienced and too early to plant pansies. But when I saw them, lifting their sweetly splotched faces at The Bruce Company nursery, brave in the 38-degree Wisconsin weather, I couldn’t resist buying a few to tuck in a rustic basket near the front door, as I do every April. It is my annual ritual and the first act of the gardening season, though it’s almost always some weeks before I can do much else. This was reinforced by the fact that the pansies at The Bruce Company were displayed under a protective awning. One garden assistant I consulted—asking “Isn’t it early for pansies?”—confessed that they were wheeling the carts into the greenhouse by late afternoon. Their pansies were barely even hardened off. I knew I’d be carrying the basket in and out of the garage every night. But who can resist pansies, their bright faces, their velvety petals and the sense of possibility they bring after winter? The next day it was sunny, and, as I transferred the root-bound pansies from their flimsy plastic containers to a large pot that fits inside the basket, I couldn’t help feeling hopeful. I had selected purpleon-purple “black” pansies with inky centers, and the bright yellow ones with black “faces” that look like little lions. They are my two favorites, though I also like the white ones with purple faces and the solid orange ones so inappropriately named (at least for the season) “Halloween.” I’ve loved pansies since I was a child at Wild Run Farm, my parents’ small place in rural, eastern Pennsylvania, where my relationship with gardens and the larger natural world began. Each spring, my mother bought me an entire flat of pansies to plant in a flowerbed alongside the house. Turk’s cap lilies—the kind with spotted cheeks—grew at the back of this bed. Although they cannot possibly have been in bloom at the same time (lilies are midsummer flowers), in my mind’s eye they always are, memory’s magic lantern superimposing one frame over another in a seasonal composite that fascinates me, even as I know it to be inaccurate. Although I never felt poor as a child—in large part because of my mother’s ingenuity and powers of imagination—my parents didn’t have much money. My mother made our clothes, tended a huge vegetable garden (much of which she put up), raised chickens for both eggs and meat, built me a dollhouse on her jigsaw, and scavenged auctions for antique furniture that she painstakingly refinished. Purchasing an entire flat of pansies had to have been an extravagance. Still, she did it every year because pansies were my first and favorite flower. I loved them for their silky petals and faint sweet scent. I pressed my nose to each one before I planted it, inhaling its blossom deeply, each sniff a sensual delight, the parasol-like petals pressed against my nostrils as if becoming part of me. Which they were, on some level, for one of the pansy’s many supposed medicinal attributes is the power to strengthen our memory. Kneeling on the damp grass before the freshly spaded earth, the flat beside me, I’d dig a hole for each plant, sprinkling in a bit of compost as my mother had instructed, pressing the earth gently but firmly into place around each one. As I did this, my mother taught me other names for pansies, beginning with the most obvious and well-known pensée (from the French penser, “to think”), for what dwells, hidden in our thoughts. “There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts,” is what Ophelia says in Hamlet, my mother told me, though it would be years before I read the play myself, pricked by the vulnerability in the line when I did. But there are other names too, ranging from heart’s ease to love-in-idleness to flame flower to stepmother to herb trinity (its three colorful petals symbols of the Trinity). Of all these names, I think I like heart’s ease (which is Elizabethan in origin, signifying innocence and unspoiled love) best for the tenderness and sense of rest it suggests. Perhaps this is why my mother, who would die of breast cancer only a few years later, when I was nine, bought them for me. I cannot know what she thought, watching me as she worked in another part of the yard, perhaps already ill herself, only that I was vaguely aware of her presence, as indeed, I am sometimes aware of her spirit today. After my
mother’s death, there were many years when I did not have a garden. But I will never forget the feeling of being turned loose and entrusted with my own piece of ground and a flat of pansies. It was my first garden, coming even before the plots she lined off for us in her vegetable garden, and it marked me for life as one who is happiest with her hands in the earth. Even as I enter my sixtieth spring, a padded rubber garden pad cushioning my knees, planting pansies grounds me and reminds me that, though I did not have her very long, my mother gave me vital gifts, ones that still sustain me. These personal gifts are part of a larger tradition, for pansies are one of the oldest flowers in cultivation. The wild pansy is the ancestor of today’s garden center variety. Elizabethan writers and herbalists celebrated the pansy for both its beauty and usefulness. Dried and purified, it was mixed into a cordial believed to be helpful in heart disease; another reason, perhaps, why it was called heart’s ease. But it was also used to heal wounds, to help blood disorders, build up weak nerves, combat exhaustion, ease nervous complaints and counteract jaundice. As a poet—prey at times to debilitating depression and anxiety—I wonder if brewing up tea from a tincture of pansies would strengthen my nerves. But instead I content myself with sprinkling their little cousins, Johnny-jump-ups, into my salad. Their bright faces are blue, gold and deep violet, and I take delight in being a “blossom-ovore,” like a bee or a rabbit, or the doe and fawn that ate my pansies when I lived in Oregon, nibbling them so delicately I couldn’t bear to stop them. Without saying a word about it, my mother taught me with that first flowerbed that gardening is a form of love, an emotion with which pansies have been long and profoundly associated. According to botanist Laura Martin, my Celtic ancestors brewed a tea made from pansy leaves, which they used as love potion. The leaves (which are roughly heart-shaped) were also used to cure broken hearts, though I can’t imagine how, except perhaps, in the form of a poultice. When I encountered A Midsummer Night’s Dream in college, I reveled in the fact that the play is shot through with pansy folklore, where even a bit of the juice “on sleeping eyelids laid, / Will make a man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees.” I wonder, did I fall in love with gardening because the first thing I saw after sniffing my flat of pansies was a plot of earth waiting to be planted? I cannot say for certain, only that every garden since is an echo of that original one at Wild Run Farm, our first love always our greatest. As is obvious from their appearance, pansies are related to—and developed from—violets. The domestic, tri-colored violet or Johnny-jump-up that I like in my salads, grew, self-seeded, at my parents’ farm, its bright face springing up even between cracks in the concrete pad before the barn, was developed from violets and is the ancestor of the modern pansy. According to garden writer Diana Wells, in her fascinating book, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Johnny-jump-ups were first bred by a gardener named Thompson, who worked for a British naval commander in the early nineteenth century. In 1810, Thompson bred the first “blotched” pansy, which he described, quite poetically, as “a miniature impression of a cat’s face steadfastly gazing at me” from a stray bed. Perhaps it is this quality of looking back at us, as if there is some mysterious exchange going on between us, that humans find so appealing about pansies. After Thompson’s discovery, pansies became fancier and fancier, bred in pastel colors, some with double blossoms. But I prefer the simplest ones and comb garden centers for antique varieties. They feel the most pure and real to me, more closely related to their wild purple cousins, and most like what I planted as a child. In the spring, when violets, from which pansies were developed, bloomed in the Pennsylvania woodlands at about the same time we planted pansies, my mother and I set forth, buckets and spades A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
loaded in the back of her old, grey Plymouth station wagon, on what she called wildflower expeditions, looking for plants to dig up and transplant into our garden. She especially delighted in violets, which she loved for their scent and color. Violets come with their own load of lore, stretching back to the Greeks, for whom they were a symbol of fertility. Both the Greeks and the Romans drank a wine made from violets, and made violet conserves and cosmetics. Violets have always been associated with love and were actually the original heart’s ease. Perhaps they are what Elizabeth I embroidered on the cover of the prayer book for her stepmother that I find pictured on the Internet. What can that motherless daughter of the murdered Anne Boleyn have been thinking, I wonder, as she wielded the needle and wool? I hope the image eased her heart. Some years after my wildflower forays with my mother, the taste of violets took me back to the Pennsylvania woods and my first full garden. In high school, immersed in an accelerated program in French, I often shared violet-flavored pastilles called Flavigny des violettes with my friend Kathy as we studied together.The sweet, almost ineffable taste of the candies was an instant trigger, recalling sugared violets my mother once put on a cake. Produced since the ninth century, Flavigny candies are made from a single anise seed, spun round with layers of a violet-flavored sugar coating. Their web site brags that each batch of pastilles takes over five days to make, and I imagine the individual candies turning and turning, sweet and nacreous layers building slowly up around them, each one like a tiny pearl. I also learn that I have recalled their name incorrectly. They are actually known as Anis de Flavigny, which isn’t nearly as evocative as what Kathy and I called them. Might the name have changed, or was Flavigny des violettes our private reference, a way of revealing our connection in French? I don’t know. But memory contains its own truths, so I will call the candy by the name that feels real to me. I am relieved to see, however, that the pastilles can still be ordered in a charming keepsake tin, decorated with Victorian-era paintings of violets, and good for storing tiny treasures in when the candy is gone. So pretty I could never bear to throw them out, several of the tins rattled around my desk for years. I was introduced to Flavigny des violettes by Madame DeBaerstrand, my high school French teacher, who shared them with Kathy and me once after class. We adored the idea that we were eating flowers and Flavigny became a habit. Lost in the sea of our senior year, unabashedly romantic in our patchouli-scented, Indian print dresses and hippie beads, Kathy and I solemnly offered pastilles to one another before bending our heads over the lime-colored journals from France that Madame had given us to practice our French in. She announced that we were to keep a personal journal, writing in what she said was “a more natural and spontaneous manner” than the drills in our textbook permitted. I taped a photo
of my sister and brother and me playing on the beach at Cape Ann the summer after my mother’s death in my journal, describing it in my halting French as “très triste, très calme et très solitaire.” “Very sad, very quiet, very lonely.” To which Madame wrote, “C’est comme une rêve,” in the margin. “It’s like a dream.” Alongside another entry, made after Kathy took me to visit the herb farm near our town, I pasted in sprigs of rosemary and thyme, along with a handful of violets, which prompted me to write about Flavigny pastilles. I described them as tasting “une teinte plus fonceé que le bleu du crepuscule.” “One shade deeper than the blue of twilight”—a line like that I am most happy with when I write them now. A few weeks later, speaking with me privately after class, Madame sat me down, commented on the way my journal differed from those of my classmates, and asked a question that moved me forward into my life: “You do realize don’t you, Simone,” (her pet name for me, since mine did not, apparently, translate well into French) “that you are the real thing? A writer. Un ecrivain. ” I didn’t, of course, but Madame’s words, coming at a lost and painful time in my life, when I was being bullied and abused by my harridan stepmother, aroused in me the same sense of possibility planting pansies with my mother had so many years earlier. Scribbling words down until I “got” something gave me the same feeling of quiet satisfaction and wholeness that I’d felt when I patted earth firmly around the pansies in that long ago garden, their happy faces looking up at me, as I sat back on my heels, contemplating what I had created. Madame’s perceptive observation planted something too, taking me back to a gift I thought I had lost. Sadly, I didn’t keep up with my French (which I loved), letting go of it in college because I felt intimidated by my male French professor, an aging hippie-intellectual type, who was nothing like Madame. My little green journal disappeared on one of my many moves, and I rarely purchase Flavigny des violettes in my adult life. But I cannot taste them without thinking of Madame and what she gave me. In the spring, when violets erupt in a sea of purple on my back hill in Wisconsin, I pick them and make tiny bouquets, recalling the hesitancy, vulnerability and possibility of my adolescence, and before that the hours spent roaming the woods with my mother, searching for wild things to add to that first garden already brimming with pansies. The violets in my backyard here connect me to the pansies I have planted in the front of the house, which in turn link me back through every year I’ve ever planted them. They remind me that we love flowers not only for their physical beauty, but for the way they anchor us in our lives, accompanying us through time that stretches beyond our personal history into a past that unfolded long before us, even as we bend to plant this year’s flat, the purple and yellow faces splotched with black, looking up at us as if they know all this and more. Begin again, the pansies tell us, their petals shining with the oldest possible story. And so I do, my mother’s gardening hands alive in mine each spring as I kneel before them.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
The Death Certificate Judy Bolton-Fasman
State of Connecticut Department of Public Health Decedent’s Legal Name: K. Harold Bolton. K was for “Kenneth.” K slipped in as my father’s first name. K anchored Dad’s signature, followed by an illegible tail of script meant to be read as “Harold Bolton.” K signaled Dad’s return address on envelopes—envelopes that contained the occasional paid up bills, glittery Valentines, or sugar-frosted birthday cards. K adorned envelopes that were also marquees for my name. “To: Miss Judith Frances Bolton,” he wrote in big, beautiful red letters. K was for Kenneth, a name that Dad never spelled out, never used. A spook of a name. He was simply called Harold. Unlike its phonetic counterpart, “C”, “K” is unambiguously hard, ramrod straight on one side, making it the perfect letter to lean on. A letter from which to fly the flag that Dad revered, the Stars and Stripes he flew from his bedroom window on every national holiday. The flag that eventually draped his coffin. Dad raised me in the long solemn shadow of his initial K, like a mushroom that does not need sunlight to grow. A patch of dusk in which good posture, impeccable manners, outcomes he deemed fair, and natural reticence thrived. Date of Death: September 4, 2002 Late in the morning of September 4, 2002, Bobby, Dad’s aide, fed him strained pears laced with Sinemet—a medication that produces dopamine in the brain—when he began choking. In a healthy person, dopamine is created in the central part of the brain, the substantia nigra, and is crucial to human movement. Sinemet is generally effective for five years. Dad had been taking it for ten. He continued on the medication because there was nothing else to prescribe for him. He continued on the medication because my mother insisted that it would work again. Bobby adjusted Dad’s bib, a dishtowel clasped with a safety pin to catch food and drool. Dad spit out the pears. Bobby brought a straw to Dad’s lips. Dad choked on the Ensure milk shake, which had been happening more and more frequently. Bobby tried again. My father had not opened his eyes all morning. He moaned. He always moaned. My father stopped breathing. The can of Ensure was full. County of Death: Hartford
Town of Death: Hartford My father meant to die in New Haven County, New Haven, Connecticut—his birthplace, his hometown. My mother said that Dad’s family exiled her to Hartford after she and Dad married. It wouldn’t do for them to have her, the young Cuban girl who didn’t know a salad fork from a dinner fork, flitting around the Woodbridge Country Club. Dad quit the club and his job in the family CPA firm on Chapel Street in New Haven.
Place of Death: Hospital—Saint Francis (Outpatient) Saint Francis Hospital was a couple of miles down the road from our house at 1735 Asylum Avenue. I was stitched up in the emergency room there when I fell off my bike with the banana seat. I had ridden it around and around the driveway—my mother’s parameters—with my hands waving in the air. Dad’s makeshift tourniquet stayed on until a doctor sewed 14 stitches near my elbow. Several years later, I collapsed in that same ER with depression and anxiety after my sophomore year of college. A girl I went to high school with was the intake coordinator that night. “How did you get to be such a mess, girl?” she asked. My father sat next to me with his head in his hands. Date of Birth: January 19, 1919 Almost a palindrome of a birthdate. Age - Last Birthday: 83 In the last years of Dad’s life, I bought him Earth’s Best baby food by the case. After the first couple of months, the manager at Whole Foods asked me if I had twins. “No,” I said. After a year the manager asked me, “How old is your baby now?” “Eighty-three,” I said. City & State of Birth: New Haven, Connecticut Citizen of (Country): U.S.A. A New Haven boy through and through. Like him, his three children were born in New Haven. My father was a purposeful man. A first generation American. Last Spouse: Matilde Alboukrek But was she his only spouse? That’s always been the dark question my father never answered. Was Deceased a Veteran: Yes If Yes Give War: WWII (sic) Branch: Navy In just three months, Dad was immersed in everything navy. It was 1940 and he was fast-tracked to become an officer who was desperately needed for the war effort. They called these young men Ninety Day Wonders. My father was 21-years old and when he came up for air he was saluted as an ensign. Residence State: Connecticut County: Hartford Town: West Hartford
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Number and Street: 1735 Asylum Avenue The plaque nailed to the door at 1735 Asylum Avenue read “K. Harold Bolton.” 1735 belonged to Dad alone until, near the end, my mother finally took possession of it. Until then, the house had never been under her name, as if her volatility would have cracked its very foundation. My father also played out a divorce scenario in his mind. But illness thwarted his plan to leave when the children were grown. Father: William M. Bolton After his father died, my father chased his whiskey with a beer and chased his beer with another whiskey. He played that game of tag in his closet. My father, of the once hearty toasts at holidays and cheers at Yale football games, sat on the floor and wept like the mourner he was as he drank from his tarnished silver flask. Mother: Anna Rosen When my daughter was born, my father’s hands shook from Parkinson’s disease and he could not hold her. Tears glazed his eyes when I told him that I had named his first grandchild Anna, after his mother. “Beautiful name,” he said. Immediate Cause of Death: Cardiopulmonary Arrest The hard truth is that my father died of a broken heart. Actual or Presumed Date and Time of Death: 15:04 PM , September 4, 2002
The Decedent Was Pronounced Dead: September 4, 2002, 15:09 PM The moment my father died, my eight year-old daughter Anna and I were in a line that snaked past three storefronts to buy challah for our Rosh Hashana dinner. We were expecting nineteen people that weekend. Rather than the typical braided loaf, the Rosh Hashana challah is round in shape, symbolizing the never-ending cycles of life, the creation of the earth, the circular progression of the generations. Anna and I bought four of those round challahs, two chocolate loaves of sweet flaky babka, two loaves of spongy honey cake, and an apple pie. The last two desserts were meant to complement the apples we would dip in honey with the hope for a sweet new year. By the time we got up to the counter, my father’s body had just arrived in the hospital morgue and Weinstein’s Funeral Home had been notified. Anna and I pulled up at 4 o’clock with a trunk full of baked goods and our mouths full of sugar cookies. I saw my husband Ken at the end of the driveway, hands behind his back, pacing. “My father died,” I said before I got out of the car. “My father died.” Life altering events that we anticipate never play out the way we imagine them. I once told a friend that I wanted Dad to die. “Why?” she asked. “You can still hug him.” Didn’t she understand that my father was a living version of death? Didn’t I understand that Dad was still alive? The rabbis of the Talmud have had a lengthy discussion about a soul that is neither living nor
dead—a goses. They illustrate the point with a story about Rabbi Judah, whose students prevented his soul from departing to heaven by praying for their teacher to live. But there was fierce competition from the angels who prayed for the rabbi’s earthly existence to come to an end. Rabbi Judah’s maid took matters into her own hands and shouted from the rooftop: “May the prayers of mortals overwhelm the prayers of the angels.” But when she witnessed Rabbi Judah’s suffering, she changed her prayer to: “May the prayers of the angels overwhelm the prayers of the mortals.” Her prayer was not powerful enough to override those of the rabbi’s students, so she distracted them by smashing a pitcher. Momentarily startled, the students stopped praying long enough so that Rabbi Judah’s soul could escape from his tortured body. The moment I understood that Dad was dead, I wanted the pitcher to be whole again. I wanted to hug him again. Dad died on September 4th to enable me to consolidate my grief. He was considerate that way. I knew exactly what I had been doing two years earlier on September 4th. My father-in-law Dennis died of a brain tumor on September 4, 2000. It was Labor Day. I answered the phone at 10:30 in the morning. “Dad stopped breathing,” my brother-in-law Steven said. “Do you mean that Dennis died?” I asked. He hesitated for a moment. “Yes, that’s what I mean.” Certifier—Name: Illegible Degree or Title: MD “Your father is going to live like this for a long time,” said a tired, acne-scarred resident during my father’s first hospitalization. One night I sat up late with Dad in the hospital, taking his pulse over and over, feeling the interminably strong beat of his heart. I wandered the halls to find a nurse to replace the empty I.V. bag, but instead saw the same resident asleep at the nurses’ station. A primer loudly announcing its subject in capital letters, parkinson’s disease, was face down on his belly. He had fallen asleep reading a how-to-manual, something akin to “Parkinson’s Disease for Dummies.” Funeral Home: Weinstein Mortuary Funeral Director or Embalmer Signature: Morton L. Weinstein
Was Body Embalmed: No My mother planned her own funeral when Dad died. She believed that whatever we chose for Dad—the pine box of a traditional Jewish burial or a burnished mahogany-finished coffin, a shroud or a suit—would be her fate too. “And he is entitled to be buried with full military honors,” my mother added. We three children were set on burying Dad in the traditional pine box, but Mom would have none of it. She was adamant that Dad, his body gone rigid from disease long before rigor mortis set in, deserved every immortal luxury. The day before the funeral, Mort, the aptly named undertaker, watched us volley back and forth about how to bury my father. Mort’s hands were clasped, almost prayerful, on his elegant black desk.
Behind his right shoulder there was a door, which I hadn’t noticed until he opened it to usher us to the other side. It was time to go casket shopping. “I won’t even tell you the price of this one,” Mort said in front of the deluxe model. The coffin was lined in satin and lead. He knocked on the lid. “Practically air tight.” As we went down the line, each coffin was a little less burnished, the lining a little thinner. There were more chances for air to seep in. My mother stopped at a gleaming mahogany casket. The honey brown shade matched her bedroom set. The coffin was lined in a shiny, rippled white satin and had a matching ruffled pillow. “This coffin is not that air tight, but it staves off decomposition a lot longer than the traditional pine box.” I sensed that Mort disliked decay as much as my mother did. For her part, my mother is terrified of gusanos—worms. That’s what Fidel Castro called her and the other Cubans who left the island rather than serve la revolución. We slipped back into Mort’s office to talk price. “We no longer have an installment plan.” Mort had a great memory. He remembered the trickle of payments my mother sent him for her parents’ funerals thirty years earlier. “The coffin you picked out for your husband is ten thousand dollars,” he told my mother. “I don’t want a pine box.” My mother was adamant and maybe just a little guilt ridden that she had not taken proper care of her husband. In his last years, my father constantly moaned, bayed really. I begged my mother to let him take painkillers. “I don’t want him on Cloud Nine,” she said. Ruthless woman. I swear my father died just to get away from her. “This is the Cadillac of coffins,” Mort said of the mahogany model. Even though my father was a Chevy kind of guy, I blurted out, “We’ll take it.” The process of decomposition would be slowed down. Dad would be buried in a suit instead of a shroud. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had cheated a humble man out of a humble funeral. Burial, Cremation, Removal (Specify): Burial Cemetery: Beth Israel Location: Avon, CT The soul attends his funeral. We headed west to Avon, a suburb trying hard to be country chic. The cemetery accommodated the overflow from the original Beth Israel cemetery in Hartford. As the limousine climbed up Route 44, we passed the entrances to some of the out-of-the-way parking lots where I made out with my high school boyfriend late into the night. As the hearse pulled up, the gravediggers and the vfw sergeant—trumpet in hand—looked bored. If only they had drunk beer at Dino’s with Dad; broken bread with him—the round, crusty Portuguese bread that he loved—at Maria’s Bakery in Hartford’s south end. The open grave looked too big, then too small. Rabbit hole. Hellhole. My father’s hole. Waiting to be filled. The last bit of kindness that one does for the deceased is to bury him with no expectation of anything
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
in return. Dad’s best friend in college, Mache Neiditz, shoveled large clumps of dirt that thwacked against the coffin. Once, twice, three times. My friends Miriam and Ze’ev Raviv were next. But when I reached out to take the shovel from Miriam, she stayed my hand and stabbed the mound of dirt with the shovel so that it stood upright. Just as dying is a solitary act, each person must confront death alone; each person must take a shovel that stands on its own to bury her dead. I shoveled furiously, but did not come close to filling in the hole. After several minutes Ken put his hand on my arm. He whispered that there were others waiting a turn. He and Bobby would go last to finish the job. Date: September 6, 2002: The eve of Rosh Hashana. The butcher is frantic. No one has picked up the brisket order. He phones an hour before the holiday begins. “It’s too late to get your meat,” he shouts at me. “But you’ll have to pay for it anyway.” “I was at my father’s funeral,” I say softly. The phone goes dead. Of Hispanic Origin? If yes, specify (e.g. Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, etc.): No In 1952, my father pretended to be of Central American origin to participate in the CIA-instigated overthrow of the Guatemalan government. Yet, in the end, he still spoke Spanish like the gringo that he was. Race: White But perennially tanned during the years he poked around in Guatemala. Usual Occupation: Retired Auditor & C.P.A. And spy. He served his country, but was ordered to sit out the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. By then he was a family man rather than a CIA man. Marrying his much younger Cuban wife had not put him closer to the action after all. Kind of Business or Industry: State of CT But really the Central Intelligence Agency. But the agency will neither confirm nor deny that my father was on the payroll or in the field. Nor is there any denial or confirmation that my father had a daughter while he was in Guatemala. But I know he did from D., his friend, his colleague, his CIA handler. The girl’s name was Ana. Maybe that’s the reason my father cried when he held my daughter, Anna. Education: College: 4 My father always said, “I will be a Yale man until the day I die.” 75
Our Contributors Asale Angel-Ajani is the author of Strange Trade: The Story of Two Women Who Risked Everything in the International Drug Trade, a nonfiction account of African women drug smugglers imprisoned in Rome, Italy. Published widely in academic, literary and trade journals and magazines, her fiction and non-fiction writing explores isolation, violence, race and racism, gender, memory, and writing practices. Angel-Ajani holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Stanford University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The University of Hong Kong. Before moving to Hong Kong, where she is currently a professor of Creative Writing and Humanities at Hong Kong Baptist University, she taught at New York University and the University of Texas at Austin. Judy Bolton-Fasman has completed a memoir entitled “The Ninety Day Wonder” from which the “The Death Certificate” is excerpted. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Rumpus, Salon, The Boston Globe, the Forward and other venues. Judy lives outside of Boston with her family.
Deb Fleischman’s recent work appears in Neutrons/Protons and Vermoxie, and is forthcoming in 1966, and Nonfiction, the Little Fiction, Big Truths food anthology. Deb co-founded Write Mondays, which offers writing workshops to middle-high school students in central Vermont. She holds a B.S. in political science from M.I.T. and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Volume 3 Issue 1 Summer 2015 Jason Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words, coauthor of Something’s Rising, and editor of the forthcoming anthology The Women We Love: A Gay Homage. His essays, features and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, The Louisville Review, The Nation, LUMINA Journal, Sojourners, and on NPR. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches at Berea College. Antonia Malchik’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Orion, Lunch Ticket, and Aeon, among many other publications. She is the managing editor of STIR Journal and a regular essay contributor to Full Grown People. She is working on Against the Grain, a memoir about motherhood, woodworking, and the lost competence of her pioneer ancestors. Mike Petrik received his MFA from the University of Memphis and is working on a PhD at the University of Missouri. He spends his summers with his wife Bethany and daughter Willa on Block Island, Rhode Island, where he is working on new recipes for the island’s invasive species. His work has appeared in The Journal, Sierra Nevada Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Owen Wister Review, Animal, Pinball, and elsewhere. Carrie Shipers’s poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and other journals. She is the author of Ordinary Mourning (ABZ, 2010), Cause for Concern (Able Muse, 2014), and Family Resemblances (University of New Mexico, forthcoming) as well as two chapbooks. Christine Stewart-Nuñez is the author of five poetry collections: Snow, Salt, Honey; Keeping Them Alive; Postcard on Parchment; Unbound & Branded; and The Love of Unreal Things. Her piece “An Archeology of Secrets” was a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2012. She is an Associate Professor in the English Department at South Dakota State University. Alison Townsend is the author of Persephone in America and The Blue Dress, as well as two chapbooks. Her work appears widely, most recently in journals such as Chautauqua, Parabola, Quarter After Eight, Southern Review, and Zone Three, and she has a “Notable Essay” mention in Best American Essays 2014. Emerita Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, she is completing a collection of essays, The Name for Woman is River: Essays Toward an Ecology of Home.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
The Summer 2015 issue of a literary journal dedicated to creative nonfiction informed by research. New essays by Alison Townsend, Asale Ange...
Published on May 14, 2015
The Summer 2015 issue of a literary journal dedicated to creative nonfiction informed by research. New essays by Alison Townsend, Asale Ange...