Editor Kelly Grey Carlisle Managing Editor Julia Camp Assistant Editors Brian Holmes Jennifer Jussel Kara Killinger Miranda Moyle Georgie Riggs Sarah Wysocki
All staff members participate in the reading and selection of work and the production of the magazine. 1966 is published with the support of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and its English Department. 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: Front cover, back cover, 53-54, 61-62, 65, 76, 77 Jordan Bruce. Pages 13-14, 52, 89-90, Daryl Farmer. Pages 3-4, 32, 33, 85, Mckenzie Laurent. Pages 21-22, Soleil Gaffner.
Volume 6 Issues 1 & 2 Summer 2018 Mary Brindley Looking Glass
Adrian Koesters Just After the Riots
Ryan McDonald 500 Years of Sugaring
Ben Miller The First Forever
Connor Wood 100 Years Past the Middle of Nowhere 53 Jane Marcellus Real Kid
Jennifer Lang No Going Back
Amy Peterson On A Clear Day
The eye is like a mirror and the visible object is like the thing reflected in the mirror… If a mirror should possess a soul, it would see the image that is formed on it. –Avicenna, Compendium on the Soul
I can easily recall with near perfect clarity the eyes of my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Dunne. Or rather, the eye, the right one. Mr. Dunne was tall and balding, with a gray fringe around the base of his head and a thick gray-brown mustache shadowing his upper lip. He’d lost his right eye in his early twenties, and in its place, he wore a glass one. Of course, everyone knew this prior to entering his class. The school was a small K-8 with just one teacher per grade, and even if you didn’t have older siblings or a mother who had worked in his classroom like I did, you’d have heard about the fake eye. You’d also have heard Mr. Dunne singing on your way to the art room or the library. Occasionally, these songs had some tenuous educational value, like when he sang the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” to teach Caribbean geography. More often, he just sang to expose his students to real music: The Beatles and Jim Croce and other legends of classic rock that he’d listened to in his youth. “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape/ you don’t spit into the wind,” he’d bellow. “And you don’t open a paint can with a screwdriver,” he added one day, pointing to his fake eye. I imagined the real eye being pulled from its socket with a sound like the pop of a corked bottle. I pictured it sitting on the end of the screwdriver like a marshmallow, a round white ball looking back at his good eye, and a younger, less bald Mr. Dunne taking a moment to wonder about it before screaming for help or passing out. The glass eye could almost pass for a real one, even though it was a little larger and the whites a little whiter than his left. But the iris was the exact same blue. What gave the fake eye away was its movement, or the lack thereof. Where the left eye looked, the right one followed only slightly, in small mechanical jerks. If you asked him to, my older brother told me, he would take it out to show you. I never asked, afraid of what I thought was behind it: a dark, gaping hole that opened right into his skull.
The earliest physical proof of artificial eyes was found in an ancient necropolis on the border between Iran and Afghanistan. The eye, a small hemispherical object made of animal fat and tar, belonged to a six-foot priestess who migrated from Arabia nearly 5,000 years ago. Her height alone was unusual, but that eye would have been her most interesting feature by far. Engraved with lines radiating from the pupil and painted gold, it would have dazzled in life, mesmerizing all who sought her advice and confirming the mystical, prophetic abilities of its striking owner. Five millennia underground did not completely erase the eye’s magic. When archaeologists found it, it was still lodged into her left socket, still marked with decorative grooves, still flecked with bits of gold.
While most artificial eyes produced today are made in acrylic, a handful of ocularists— people who make them—still use a centuries-old glass-blowing technique, a method of true artistry. First, the ocularist heats a glass tube over a Bunsen burner, then blows it into a perfectly smooth sphere with dark glossy pupils that reflect the objects in front of them. Using fine, colored glass sticks or thread, he recreates the flowering blues and browns of the iris as well as the web of thin blood vessels in the white of the eye. A single eye takes hours to make, and every detail from size to color to iris pattern is customized to match the patient’s working eye. The purpose of an artificial eye is no longer to dazzle but to disguise. Unlike prostheses worn for functionality, it is purely cosmetic, worn to hide an absence from others, or perhaps, to restore some sense of self that was lost to whatever illness or accident took the eye. Still, what power lies in this unseeing work of art, that by its mere resemblance to a real eye, it can give us a sense of completeness and identity! I imagine that the job of an ocularist is a peculiar one, to so closely study the eye of another, to observe with scientific exactitude the characteristics that make it unique, and then to replicate this strange, mysterious organ with the skill of a master artist in the palm of your hand. ab Eyes are the second most complex organs in the human body—only the brain is more intricate. Made up of over two million moving parts, the eye can see as many variations of color. Each part is essential to its function—its ability to receive and refract light, detect motion and depth, and transmit visual information to the brain. Because of the interdependency of all parts of the eye, proponents of intelligent design long believed that the eye was irreducibly complex; that it could not have evolved from simpler, less complete versions. Even Charles Darwin understood how absurd it seemed that natural selection could have brought about such an intricate organ. But he also argued that because the eyes of any organism can be placed along a graduated scale of complexity, each variation being not only useful but also advantageous to the organism itself, then it fits well within his theory of natural selection. Still, until relatively recently, scientists believed that eyes evolved separately in each animal phylum, meaning the eye would have had to evolve at least thirty-five times. Not only that, but similarities and differences across species added to the difficulty of explaining the eye’s evolution. How could natural selection account for the very different but equally complex eyes of both humans and insects? Furthermore, if evolution is a series of random mutations, how could it explain the strange likeness of squid eyes to human eyes? In 1994, Swiss scientist Walter Gehring discovered a mechanism that explained the possibility of eye evolution. By isolating the gene responsible for eyes in fruit flies and replacing it with the same gene responsible for eyes in mice, Gehring found that not only did the fruit fly still develop eyes, but it developed the compound eyes particular to its species. This gene was the Pax6 gene,
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what Gehring called the “master switch” because it “switches on a program of some two thousand genes, which then gradually unfolds.” The eye, he concluded, had to be “invented” only once. From there natural selection took over. Each new eye borrowed from the previous and built upon it, providing evolutionary advantages to the organism: the ability to move to or from light, to detect predators, to see in multiple directions at once, and to capture the smallest gradations of color. And because of the increased visual field and depth perception granted animals with binocular vision, two eyes are a greater advantage than one. ab
The one-eyed character in movies and books is often the creepy or ghoulish if not outright villainous archetype. Mr. Dunne was anything but. He wore pink shirts and novelty ties with musical notes or rubber ducks or floating heads of The Beatles. He hung a Nerf basketball hoop over the door for spelling bees and rewarded our hard work with Dunkin’ Donut holes and ice cream sundae parties. And his teaching methods were unlike any I’d experienced before. We learned about Ancient Egypt and Rome via team simulation games, and geography via pop songs and jokes. “Why did the Kansas man peer into his neighbor’s window?” Mr. Dunne asked one day. We stared back at him, waiting to see what this had to do with the blank US maps on our desks. “Topeek-a!” he finished. We laughed, then we wrote “Topeka” in the outline of Kansas. “Alright how about this one,” he continued. “Ask me the capital of Alaska.” “What’s the capital of Alaska?” we chorused, now onto his game of wordplay. After a pause, he said: “Hm, I don’t remember. Juneau the answer?” For all of his playfulness, what I loved most about Mr. Dunne was that he took me seriously—my work, my ideas, my propensity for creativity. He even took my jokes seriously. Once between lessons, I approached him with a joke I’d written. “Mr. Dunne, do you know the definition of deice?” I asked. He began to answer, but he stopped when he sensed that I wanted to tell him. “You take de ice off de plane,” I finished in a thick, singsongy accent, pinching my thumb and fingers together, flailing my hands. I’m not sure if it was the play on words or my poor imitation of an Italian mobster that struck Mr. Dunne, but he exploded with laughter, a high cackle that was quite unlike his speaking voice. The suddenness of his reaction took me by surprise, and I laughed back at the comedy of a grown man with a scrunched-up face and a mustache curling around the underside of his nose, mouth open wide to expose yellowing teeth. And those eyes, one real, one glass, disappearing behind years of laugh lines. ab
One-eyed icons: Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Falk, James Thurber, Hannibal, Dick Vitale, the Cyclops,
Slick Rick, Teddy Roosevelt, Red Pollard, Mike Wizowski, Andre De Toth, pirates. ab The eye as a symbol of extra-visual power goes as far back as the earliest civilizations. Ancient Egyptians, following the myth of Horus who used his gouged-out left eye to bring his father Osiris back to life, buried eye-shaped amulets with the dead to protect them in the afterlife. In ancient spiritual and philosophical traditions such as Hinduism and Taoism, the third eye in the center of the forehead just above the brow is associated with clairvoyance and insight, and in cultures across the Mediterranean and West Asia, people wear an Evil Eye talisman to ward off curses cast by a malicious stare. And we find Eye of Providence, God’s watchful eye, surrounded by rays of glory in Christian iconography and crowning the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill. But the power of the eye is not merely symbolic. It is human. Perhaps you recall the June 1985 issue of National Geographic, one of the most famous ever to hit magazine stands. You know the cover—the one of the Afghan woman, her head shrouded in a red scarf, her gold-green eyes fierce and penetrating. Those eyes. A caption in the lower right-hand corner reads “Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee’s fears.” No doubt the photographer was haunted, too. No doubt he knew the impact one photo could have on the world. In one flash of a camera, he captured a deep history of pain and suffering of a people, awakened a primal sense of compassion in anyone who looked in the woman’s eyes, and burned her stare deep into our memories. ab Mr. Dunne loved wordplay. He began English lessons with word games and introduced my class to puns, idioms, and double entendres. He expanded my understanding of language, how to play with it and the importance of sound and that a single word can have many meanings. So, I cannot ignore the fact that there is a word that means both student and “the dark circular opening in the center of the iris of the eye, varying in size to regulate the amount of light reaching the retina.” Pupil comes from “pupa,” Latin for girl, or doll. In the case of eyes, the pupil is so named for the miniature images we can see reflected in it. If I could have ventured close enough to that dark, tiny mirror, I’d have seen a girl with too-thick eyebrows and hair cut by her mother and clothes worn by her sisters a decade before. I’d have seen a body changing before her and friends changing around her and wondered why she never knew the names of pop bands or why she was constantly embarrassed by the thought of liking a boy. I’d have seen someone who wanted to both return to the easy years of childhood and skip ahead to adulthood where, she imagined, all awkwardness and insecurity didn’t exist.
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My first middle school dance found me standing awkwardly with Mr. Dunne and his girlfriend Nora, who was helping him chaperone. Earlier that day, I’d caught Mr. Dunne kicking a soccer ball down the hallway to the eighth-grade teacher, and was now doing my best imitation of him, telling Nora with playful authority that he’d been misbehaving in school. She laughed and he cackled. As the first slow dance started and the girls in my class paired up with the boys, I announced that I was going to leave. “Aw, don’t be a party pooper!” Mr. Dunne teased. For a moment, I contemplated staying. Maybe the other kids wouldn’t notice that I wasn’t dancing or that I didn’t know any of the songs. But in the end, I left, and Mr. Dunne turned back to face the rest of my classmates, their small, doll-like figures dancing on the surface of his right eye. Of course, Mr. Dunne’s right eye wasn’t actually seeing anything. It was the left cornea that bent the light rays; the left iris that expanded and contracted to control the amount of light; the left retina that received the image—a tiny, inverted doll on the back of the eye—and sent it in millions of light impulses to the optic nerve and finally to the brain where it was turned right side up again, where his mind’s eye perceived something greater than the image being distorted by the reflecting pupil. ab Like saucers, like hawks’, like diamonds, like fire. Bigger than our stomachs, on the ball, at the back of our heads, and in our minds. We are the apple of them, a sight for sore ones, easy on them, another set of them. We catch them, bat them, scarcely believe them. Objects of revenge, beholders of beauty, opened to the truth and blinded by love. Peepers, seers, oculi, mince pies, there’s more than meets these baby blues, these antique jewels, these star-filled windows into our souls. ab
What is that power of the eye to dazzle us, humble us, capture us? I suppose it might be the watching as much as the looking. Watching implies a kind of scrutiny or judgment that we place upon the world and that the world places back on us. In The Great Gatsby, the watching eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg serve as a motif for the loss of moral values in America, a constant reminder that we are bound to the consequences of our actions. This watchfulness is what Sartre called the gaze of the Other, by which we become self-conscious and self-aware. Perhaps, then, we need the gaze of the Other upon us, to see and judge us and affirm that we exist. Eyes serve as a common motif in surrealist work, often larger-than-life, disembodied, and recontextualized. René Magritte’s painting, “The False Mirror,” for example, depicts a human eye with a blue iris that is actually a cloud dotted sky. Are we seeing the sky reflected in the eye, or is the eye opening up to some new reality? Similarly, the dream sequence created by Salvador Dalí for Hitchcock’s Spellbound begins with a hypnotic montage of faceless eyes that dissolve into the dream’s strange setting: a room in which walls have been replaced with a nightmarish curtain of
gray-blue eyes. A man slashes one of the eyes in half with a giant pair of scissors, revealing another one behind it, and the dream that continues to play out is reflected on the surface of this final eye. Works such as these are meant to unsettle us, to undermine our assumptions about what we see and what we believe to be true. And perhaps nothing is more unsettling than the opening scene of Un Chien Andalu, another film by Dalí, in which a woman’s eyeball is cut open with a straight razor. The director, Luis Buñuel, claimed that there was no real significance to any of the images in the film. Yet, we can’t help shuddering as the man holds open the woman’s lids with two fingers and rests the sharpened razor against her cheekbone. We instinctively recoil as the fine metal edge presses delicately on her expressionless, unflinching eye, and then look through parting fingers as it slices easily across the cornea, the contents of the eye spilling out onto the blade. Watching, we can’t help but feel a chilling sense of our own human fragility, and our morbid curiosity. Or maybe what we feel is fear, that dread we experience when we face the possibility that behind the eye lies no light, no mystery, no soul. ab In almost every makeover movie that I loved growing up—Sabrina, She’s All That, The Princess Diaries—there is always that one scene where someone helps the geeky girl buy new clothes and de-frizz her hair and put on lipstick. The seemingly most important moment of the makeover montage is always the removal of glasses to reveal the bright, doe-eyed beauty queen who was presumably there all along, hiding behind oversized lenses. Now, finally, the geeky girl is no longer invisible. Finally, she will be noticed first by the popular guy who will break her heart, then by the nice guy who claims he always saw the smart, funny, beautiful girl she is. Movies like this, of course, are playing upon the proverbial “eyes are the window into the soul.” And, like real windows, there is as much looking in as there is shining out. When Mia finally chooses Michael at the end of The Princess Diaries, he asks, “Why me?’ “Because you saw me when I was invisible,” she replies. That’s nice, but Mia certainly doesn’t go back to wearing glasses, and her life will undoubtedly continue its upward trajectory, at least as far as The Princess Diaries 2 is concerned. A -2.0 prescription, it seems, was the only thing between her and true love. In a New York Times article titled, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This,” Mendy Len Catron challenges the link between eyes and love by recreating a twenty-year-old experiment in falling in love. Conducted by psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron in 1992, the experiment tested the possibility of creating closeness between strangers. It began with a 45-minute period in which partners asked each other a series of personal questions that became increasingly more intense as they went on. The questions started off simply: “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” and end with deeper, more personal questions like “Of all the people A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?” Finally, and this last part was the clincher, the partners were asked to engage in four minutes of silent eye contact. The result: many participants reported feeling closer to their partners, and two people got married to each other six months later. So, Catron tries the experiment with an acquaintance. They meet at a bar and spend the evening asking one another the thirty-six questions that Aron gave to his participants. For two hours they exchange personal stories, confess fears, and admit attraction to the other. But when they get to the four minutes of eye contact, Catron finds herself contemplating the eye itself—its shape, its structure, its biological reality. In the end, she concludes that it is not eyes that make us fall in love, but choice. The eye, she writes, “is not a window into anything but rather a clump of very useful cells.” Maybe Catron was right—maybe there is little more to eyes than the biological facts, but she certainly doesn’t disprove the theory that eye contact allows us to connect deeply with another. “You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love,” she writes. They do. We see the world, and the world looks back at us with eyes of its own. Our eyes can communicate with more depth and nuance than is possible with spoken language, their reach more universal. We convey all shades of fear, adoration, lust, hatred, respect, confusion, worry and contentment with the slightest movement of the eye, the slightest shift in focus. And sometimes, our eyes give us away: when we are bored, our pupils contract; when we are interested, they dilate. Maybe this kind of silent communication is just another evolutionary advantage, but I think it’s more than that. If we break eyes down until all we have left are a “clump of very useful cells” then we overlook the fact that their size, shape, color, and unique iris patterns are exactly what make them personal and, therefore, powerful. The sudden eye contact in a game of peekaboo can make a baby laugh, and deep eye contact accompanies our verbal expressions of love. And what about when people die? We prep their bodies, touch their cold hands, but we close their lids, unable to bear the dimness in their eyes. ab
Mr. Dunne got sick toward the end of my seventh-grade year. We saw him start to lose weight while his skin began to yellow. But he wanted to finish the year out with his students, so he ignored the fatigue, the pain, the loss of appetite, and promised us he’d be back in the fall. “Cancer,” my mother gently told me that summer, “but he’s positive he’ll beat it.” That July he married Nora. It was a big backyard wedding, attended by all of his friends, family, his two adult children from a previous marriage, and his former colleagues, including my mother. “He was just as quick-witted as always,” she told me after. “Still upbeat and laughing.” In August, he died. There was no real memorial service, according to his wishes. Everyone who might have gone had celebrated his marriage with him just weeks before, and perhaps he wanted
to be remembered the way my mother had described him at the wedding: funny and laughing and living. Every August before that last one, on the last day of summer vacation, Mr. Dunne and his longtime friend and colleague, Mr. Stanton, kayaked together on nearby Glen Lake. The lake is small, but it is deep and clear. Unlike other lakes in the area, all of them dotted with summer homes and busy with swimmers and speedboats, Glen Lake is enclosed inside a state park, bordered by a thick fence of evergreens. I can imagine Mr. Dunne and Mr. Stanton stopping in the middle and quietly leaning back in the boats to observe the panorama of beauty, to inhale the crisp earthiness of an approaching autumn, to hear small waves lapping against the side of their kayaks, the plunk of a jumping fish, the melancholic whistle of a late summer bird. I can also imagine Mr. Dunne interrupting the peace with a joke and the two of them laughing, Mr. Dunne’s sharp cackle slicing through the quiet. One of these times, Mr. Stanton would later recount, Mr. Dunne paused and said in a rare moment of reflective seriousness, “When I die, I think I’d like to be cremated, and I’d like my ashes spread here.” ab At the temperature at which a body is cremated, 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, glass just begins to soften and stretch out of shape. For two hours the body burns, all moisture disappears, and everything that was once hair and skin and heart turns to ash. But a glass eye would first become glossier, brighter, then sink into the cavity of disintegrating tissues behind it. Its color would change, and the ash forming around it would collect on its surface as it cooled. But it wouldn’t have fully melted, and it certainly wouldn’t have turned to dust. Before Mr. Dunne’s ashes were given to his family to be spread across Glen Lake, the crematory operator would have sifted through them to separate out any inorganic material. I imagine he would have found the glass eye buried in the ash and plucked it out. Maybe he paused for a moment and dusted it off to get a better look at it. I wonder what power still radiated from that tiny mirror, or what remained of it: the iris blurred, the pupil stretched, the soul escaped.
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Just After the Riots
When I was thirty-nine, we determined the best thing for me was to have a hysterectomy, and one thing about it was really funny, right after it was over and I was awake, the doctor came into the room and gave me a huge shot of hormones and for about forty-eight hours I had the breasts of a sixteen year old, although for sure not the breasts I had at sixteen or any time really before or since. But after that shot, I couldn’t stop thinking how I kissed a girl once, a girl three or four years older than I was, which would have made her maybe fourteen or fifteen, a girl I could see was far more stupid than I was but who I could not see was also far more deliberate, because, as I think about it now, she must have had much more consistent training for what she was about to undertake than I had had, and not being able to see that, I thought it was all right, that I was going to be all right about it. There were garages behind the houses on the street we lived in Baltimore at that time, the garages were part of it—we lived in a frame house instead of a row house by then, but the garages were like the ones behind your great-grandmother’s row house, flat roofs covered in tar and tar-paper, sitting low in the alleys below the edges of the back yards, their sloped squareness like a stage, which we were thrilled by, felt decadent to have at our disposal, I guess. The girl and I started there, making things up—playing “house” and “doctor” but without any of the outcomes you’d have if you were playing those with a boy, which to date I had not yet done. But the first time she kissed me we’d been playing games on the roof for several days, and we’d been having fun, a lot of fun, and she never made fun of me or threatened to beat me up just for doing something stupid, which I would be showing my gratitude for without having to say a word, I expect up there on the roof with her my gratitude was shining from every pore of my face. And the day we moved inside from the roofs to her house I looked forward to it, because there would be dishes and kitchen ingredients, like at Pam’s and Miss Carrie’s, to stage our dramas better than we could outside, though we wouldn’t have the sky to ourselves, and that was something to give up, at least that’s how I felt about it. As it turned out, once we got indoors she had just the one feeling, so odd I thought in a person that age, but now I understand it, she was using the kissing
to get to that feeling. I can still sense her mouth, determined and strange. She knew what she was doing, I’ve discovered since. I would open my eyes and look around the room, or look at her nose or try to see her lips. It didn’t feel wrong, exactly—it felt familiar and it felt a little dead. I wish I could say more than that, I wish I could say I was enjoying that part or I knew why I kept going back, but I wasn’t and I didn’t. This one time right before I got to know her, I was coming home from somewhere, and these girls who lived next door to her, who I knew a little and maybe had gotten into a fight with or they were friends with someone I’d definitely gotten into a fight with, I’m not sure now—anyway, they came out on their porch that day and started pelting me with raw eggs, seriously, I couldn’t tell you why except that I’d broken apart from the herd of my friends and maybe that’s just what you did if you came
upon somebody who broke away. I’d have done the same, I think. So then I think, because I know the girl and I met not too long after this, she might have been looking out her window, seen my humiliation, seen me run down the hill crying like a baby. I don’t know, but it’s interesting she lived next door and soon I’d be going there, braver than I’d ever been, and those weak-assed girls who’d pelted me never again showed their faces on that porch when I was around. It takes a while to put things together. I knew, and didn’t know, where she was headed the day she called me to the bathroom door, she sat on the toilet, a stained Kotex pad pinned to her underpants with the tiny gold safety pins they used then to keep them on—and here’s the odd thing, I really wanted a couple of those safety pins, I had a passion for things that were smaller than they were supposed to be, didn’t get over that for years. At any rate, there was a stain on her pad, a thin stripe of dark red-brown, that’s what she wanted to show me. I didn’t know what it was and she didn’t say, she just lifted it up—like she was holding out a bologna sandwich with the soft white bread folding down over her palm, that’s what I thought of at the time—and then she leered and though I recognized that look from elsewhere, as I’ve done many another time in similar circumstances before and since, I didn’t say anything, I don’t think I even showed anything on my face. She began to go—well, we always said “go,” we’d have been killed for using a word like “pee”—right while I was standing there, and I just started talking over the sound of it, as if none of this was too much and I was fine and she was really the best friend I’d ever had and I couldn’t wait to find out whatever other delights she might have in store and by the time she finished I was starting to be convinced she would be the best friend I was ever going to get, as the apartment had begun to get dark, though it wasn’t late, but instead of starting things up kissing again, she took me outside to see her cousin, who we met in the twilight, having crossed York Road, which I was never supposed to do, which I think I may have mentioned to her, but who knows? The cousin was about the most standard-issue, greasy, mouth-full-of-wet-garbage, unsatisfactory specimen of a Baltimore white boy she could have invented—but of course by then there was no need to invent him or anything else and, Boy, she’s stupid, I thought. She told him about showing me the pad and how dumb I’d been about it and how much I didn’t know, and they both laughed at me, as if that’s what I was there for—maybe you know what that’s about, maybe not—but I played that part, too, agreed by my stone-cold smile and frozen body, happy to be here, come on down, what do you need? I began to really hate her then, of course, hate being near her, and that’s how smart she was, I think she knew I wouldn’t be able to stay away until I’d gotten an opportunity to show her up big time. In some part of my mind I think I knew what was ahead there with the cousin, too, but it never did get around to that, at least not as I recall, which I think is right because I think the last thing that happened before we could go back to see him was that she suggested we go to “the woods,” this odd little patch of trees and growth you could find right A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
in that part of the city, back behind Julie’s house, a girl I’d gotten into a fight with and who had beaten the crap out of me at least once, whose older sister, I knew from the reports of Michael Teevis, who broadcast everything you least wanted to know about the people you most wanted not to have to think about, shaved her pubic hair, he said, the mere vision of which was still completely nebulous in my mind, despite the view I’d gotten of the small thin black V of hair this girl who I was following into the woods had displayed on the toilet—what I can tell you is all I could think about was my great-uncle’s heavy metal razor and ceramic shaving mug with the shaving brush and sour-smelling bent brown bristles. I’d cut my finger badly once on that razor, I don’t know why, I was pretty little, maybe three, I’m sure it was just curiosity, I bled all over the place, so couldn’t imagine taking anything, least of all a razor, to that part of myself, and I wondered and hoped very hard that this wasn’t going to turn out to be one of the things a person had to do once she got that hair, a worry the sight of the black V had immediately reassured me about to some extent, although I felt certain the personal habits of this particular girl were not ones to which I ought to be aspiring, but the day we went to the woods, I was almost, but not quite, ready to admit I’d had enough. We sat down on a log. She didn’t say anything at first, but the thing was, in general she was a pretty taciturn person, especially for someone her age and with what she seemed constantly to have on her mind. We started in kissing, and being in the woods for the first time the kissing felt harmless, less like something bad you would never do in the presence of most adults than it had begun to feel in her house. I admit I was excited out there with her, scared but excited, that’s all I can say. After a slow minute she took her head away and straightened up and we sat side-by-side in the quiet, the feeling of closeness to her not real but very pleasant. I closed my eyes, I’m not sure at her request or my own inclination, and when I did she took my hand
at first gently and then so tight it hurt, so that I was startled and surprised she would hold me so when I had never resisted before and even then, I’m not sure I realized we were headed to a new place, but that was mostly because I was trying to figure out what I’d done that she’d hurt me like that or hold my hand so I couldn’t direct it myself, not, and this is true, that I wanted to direct it anywhere. I was panicked but half-waiting to see what would happen next—there was something in me that said I had to wait and see before I’d accuse anybody of anything definite, before I could say it had happened. I know they teach kids the exact opposite now, but what I did wasn’t something I’d been taught, it was something I had learned. After a very short moment, and by now I was looking full into her face and could see how wild she looked, she pulled the hand up under her blouse—I remember it was a button-front with a wild bird and flower print on it—and under her brassiere. The breast was cool, hard, and full, the way breasts start out at that age, I was learning this for the first time at that moment, the feel of it chaotic, indecent, shocking in turn, that’s all I can tell you, not exciting, not fun, there was no giggling or promising not to tell, it didn’t
last two seconds. I yanked my hand out and stood up and turned to her. All I wanted was to slug her. Immediately the smile on her face told me that what she wanted more than anything was to hurt me but bad, one of those things you get in an instant and in retrospect seems as if it must have played out in much longer time, but happened like that! and I knew that more than anything she wanted, she wanted to hurt me and if I hit her she’d have a reason to do it. This I knew. I remember realizing playtime was over but good, the universe as I had rearranged it done for, I standing in front of her and she still sitting, grinning, waiting, and then I felt cold and knew if I stayed one more second, whatever was coming would kill me or turn me back to the person I had just begun to stop being, before, and yet I can also tell you I felt the temptation to stay. Not because I liked what was happening, but because I didn’t. Then I guess the adrenaline kicked in and I did turn and run, as fast as I’d run down the empty street that other day with raw egg running down my head, and though I’d never been in that part of the woods and didn’t remember which way we’d come in, I didn’t fall or stumble or even get that awful shot of pain in my ankles I always did when I ran too far too fast—I was just flying, riding whatever good thing it was that was getting me out of there and away from her, the trees and bushes and ground around me and her face and body brushing past me like crowds in a market or at a fair, images circling and I moving through them, shame and disappointment and again the indecency driving me blindly but blind to where I was heading and would remain for the next thirty years after. I can tell you I never wanted to kiss another soul for a very long time, not good morning and not good night and not come here and show me what you’ve got. But when the doctor gave me that shot, and I saw myself ballooning, as it were right before my eyes, all I can say is I thought of her, that girl, and I have hardly been able to stop thinking about her and who she was in the more than ten years since. I still wish anything about that time had been normal. I wish this were another kind of story, 18 I wish there were something that had at least been dead serious and that I had wanted what I had gotten, but it wasn’t and I didn’t—it was bad and dangerous and I had gotten myself into it because I thought I was smart enough to tell the difference between what was real and what was safe and what wasn’t. I wish I could tell you we had just been two girls who knew they would soon be moving on to better even if probably straighter and narrower things, but that until then, for those few days or weeks we had been the human beings we thought of ourselves as, girls who could look A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
into a mirror and say, “Huh,” and be perfectly content. It’s only today, talking to you, that I think how wrong I was, and still am. There is nothing otherwise I recall about my time with her. I do remember that not too many months before, we had come home from a visit to my grandmother’s, and they’d just shot Dr. King, that’s right, I remember now, that’s what you and I had been talking about when I thought of all this again, the anniversary was yesterday and all of what happened came back to me. I don’t know if I told you how pleased I was a couple of years ago when you were awestruck by “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” how good it felt to know your memories of that letter would be so rich, although you were in junior high and I know I still don’t have much of that story. But we took a cab from Grandma’s house back home to Mom and Don, the man she was about to marry, and for once we drove slowly all through the city out to that little white frame house in Govens, as if the cab driver was one of those who felt his job in addition to telling us to knock off cracking our chewing gum was to teach us a little something along the way. I don’t remember what he said other than that, though we all said later we feared he might not take us home after all, there was something about him. But through the window, and we had not been allowed out of the house even to go in the yard that morning, April 6th or 7th, everything in the world looked like the six o’clock news. We drove past the 14th Regiment Armory, that vast edifice with so melodious a name, we saw the soldiers—National Guard, but I didn’t know that then, I thought they were the Army— wearing camouflage and carrying guns, posted all over many of the streets close to that place, as if Viet Nam had just walked out of our televisions and into the streets, which I realize is a dreadful thought in comparison
but was what I thought when I saw them, I know we sat through that drive in silence and I’m pretty sure your aunts were as terrified as I was, but I don’t think we ever talked about it and as I say, I didn’t think about it for years, though when we got home we gave desperate and I’m sure funny accounts of the ride to Mom and Don. And after what happened with the girl and for years after that, maybe not consciously but wherever I stored what I knew to be true I believed that likely from then on any kind of combat was going to be possible and even just around the corner and that what life did have ahead, not all the time but often enough, would be sudden, sickening encounters when someone I did or didn’t know would wield a rifle or a breast and I would be helpless to do anything but submit or run, but that deciding, even evaluating what was put in front of me would amount to no more than a plate of food I would either finish at that table or swipe to the floor and never come back. You’ll think me weak for this admission, I know, but I want to tell you all this now so that you’ll understand, there were explanations for so many things I did later, mistakes I made or things I said within your earshot that I could not account for
or even after a while apologize for, and that these had nothing to do with what I am telling you now, but because I closed myself to so many things for so many years, closed them off with those others I barely recall and wouldn’t tell you if I did remember them. And I doubt there is more beside this I could say, except that who we are is not because of that girl or because my birthplace was shattered by a larger violence that erupted in the name of an honorable cause, but because of all of the large and small occasions that created them both, that they and we come from the same place. If some part of that place and that time I could get closer to without hurting you, I would, but I will tell you that what you know and what you can do anything about are hardly ever the same. But also, and this is the thing you’ll discover, I think, how many roofs you’ll walk over and how many streets you’ll be willing to lie down in for someone you love before you’d even consider letting them look into that kind of truth. How far your body will go before it has to open your mouth.
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500 Years of Sugaring
One: As the sixteenth century neared its end, an aging Queen Elizabeth I developed an appearance that some regarded as beyond unpleasant. Having survived smallpox around the age of thirty, her face was scarred. Years of other illnesses caused her hair to thin out into gray wispy strands. Frizzy reddish, yellow wigs, white foundation made of vinegar and lead—a concoction that gradually ate away her already damaged skin—and red lipstick containing the poisonous, impairing mercuric sulphide could transform the Queen into the icon the public knew her to be—the Virgin Queen. The effort to do so would always inevitably fall short. Little could be done about her repulsive breath, unintelligible speech, and her black teeth. Queen Elizabeth was rumored to indulge in luxurious sugary sweets such as pastries, wine, glazed roasted meats, and chocolate drinks. Her feasts featured large sculptures constructed using the same white granulates that we know as table sugar and mix into our coffees and tea. As Queen Elizabeth’s teeth continued to rot and fall out, people close to her sought out a remedy. She was supposed to appear pure whenever she was in the public’s eye, until the day she died. They decided to use more sugar. Sugar was so scarce in Europe at the time that only royalty could possess it. So they deduced: if God chose the monarch and to also limit sugar to the monarch, then the qualities of sugar must be as divine as God and Queen Elizabeth themselves. It was pure white. Its taste was far sweeter than any plum, berry, or wild honey native to England. It could be placed onto one’s fingertip and rubbed onto her teeth. The Virgin Queen’s image nevertheless deteriorated and the public took notice. And yet, even still, sugar became a symbol of great wealth and power. It is said that aristocratic women began to blacken their teeth to look like the Queen. ab
At a recent dentist appointment, when my dentist was scraping my teeth with his sickle probe, he found new cavities. He sighed and asked if I was still drinking a lot of soda, a bad habit I’ve had since I was a preteen. I told him that I had “relapsed” after a few clean months because my workload at graduate school piled up. “It’s my coffee,” I added. Still hovering over me lying in the reclining chair, my dentist expressed his sympathy. He’d been through dental school. He tried his best at giving life-advice: my hard work and success won’t mean as much if I have to pay hundreds to thousands in dental bills every year. Plus, he told me, no one wants an ugly smile. Embarrassed, I found relief in imagining that if Elizabethan aristocrats were there—dressed in frilly, ruffled peacockish clothing—they would vehemently object to my dentist’s advice. With every cavity found, their admiration of me would grow. They’d think I was an esteemed, significant member of society. I wanted to defend myself. I had been working sixty to seventy hours a week throughout the previous year, pulling two or three all-nighters a month. I had a monthly income that was enough
to break even, a maxed-out credit card, and $70,000 in student loans. I wanted to achieve the goals and aspirations I have for my career. I wanted to tell my dentist that I’d start taking care of myself once all my hard work materialized into a fulfilling job and stable salary, but I knew my dentist was right. Saying all this would only confirm to him that I was making excuses to justify my wants and confusing them with needs. Also, if the aristocrats discovered who I really was, they’d be disappointed and in disbelief: How does a peasant like you have sugar? The answer to this question, at least in the Western world, really goes back over 10,000 years ago to Polynesian islands where humans first grew and harvested sugarcane. Roughly 9,000 years later, sugarcane made its way to Arabic markets. By the thirteenth century, sugar was traded from Arab merchants to Venetians. Soon after, the Venetians began growing sugarcane on Sicily and Crete. Towards the end of Queen Elizabeth’s life, when her mouth was nearly toothless, Spain and Portugal established sugarcane plantations in Brazil and Cuba, enslaving Africans and natives for slave labor, which made sugar reliably affordable to aristocrats of the Elizabethan Era. When the status of sugar fell ever so slightly from the purity of the Virgin Queen to aristocrats—the next highest social class, but nevertheless a lower class—sugar became something that now represented potential; the next class below aristocrats still did not have access to sugar. They wanted to taste it, and so, sugar continued down the socioeconomic ladder in western societies. From poor to rich, everyone living now in America has easy access to sugar to the point where sugar is an additive in many typical foods we eat. It should be noted that, obviously, consuming sugar no longer does anything to raise a person’s social status. Our indulgences aren’t to the same effect as Queen Elizabeth’s or aristocrats’ usage. Instead, sugar only causes diabetes, tooth decay, heart conditions and more. It’s physically addictive. It’s extremely unhealthy, and yet it’s one of our favorite pick-me-ups. We know all this. I know all this. For some reason, we still consume gross proportions of sugar greater than an Elizabethan aristocrat could imagine possible. So I ask this: what are we still doing with sugar? Two: In 1771, a twenty-two-year-old Richard Twining took control of his family’s thriving business, Twinings Tea—still today an international distributor of tea. It was located in London right across the street from the Royal Court of Justice and near the predominantly aristocratic West End. Nearly a century had passed since England colonized Barbados and Jamaica, began enslaving millions of Africans, established their own sugar plantations, and since Portugal gifted England the ports of Tangier and Bombay as part of Princess Catherine of Braganza’s dowry in her marriage to King Charles II, which effectually put England in front of the tea business. (Coffee was not as popular because prices were driven up by the British East India Company’s only provider being unreliable, small productions in Yemen and Eritrea). By 1771, because of this expansion of colonialism and slavery, most of England could now afford sugar and had been introduced to tea. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Richard was born equipped with the name of a well-known family. He had a long face with a broad forehead, high eyebrows, and a big pointy nose. He was regarded as intelligent and humorous. He shouldn’t have had any problems running Twinings Tea successfully, being that it was the royal family’s official supplier of tea, a wholesale distributor for numerous coffeehouses, inns, and other businesses, as well as a highly frequented shop that sold tea by the cup and retail to wealthy clientele—many of them lawyers, clergy, and doctors. But, he did. Say if in 1771 a lawyer finished a trial at the Royal Court of Justice and afterwards he went to Twinings Tea. He would be served a cup of tea in which, per custom, sugar as well as milk would be added. As the lawyer would socialize, he would drink his cup of tea, which was not at all cheap; the government taxed tea exorbitantly and the British East Company had a monopoly on tea, selling it at about six shilling per pound. Because of this, that year alone, roughly half of the estimated four to seven and a half million pounds of tea that made it to the island of Great Britain was heaved onto the shore illegally. Commodities like tea and sugar can blur wants and needs together, especially when people believe they belong in their everyday life. Elsewhere in London at the same moment that the lawyer was drinking tea, a laborer who earned around only ten to fifteen shillings a week would have been at home making a brew using smuggled tea. He too would add sugar, which was somewhat affordable legally as it wasn’t taxed nearly as much as tea. What the laborer would taste may have been of the same quality as the tea served to the lawyer at Twinings Tea, but it is quite possible that the tea leaves he bought were fake, secondhand, or adulterated with sawdust, sand, or floor sweepings. Most often though, the laborer would have his tea as doing so was commonly the case then for the working and middle class. With every hard-earned spoonful of legal sugar dissolved into a brew of warm illegal tea, which helped fulfill the desires of common folk without ebbing their ability to pay for essentials, Richard Twining was faced with both a threat and an opportunity. The threat in this was that anyone could do the same and buy illegal tea, taking business away from him when smuggling already was significant competition. The opportunity was that an immense amount of potential customers would buy tea from Twinings Tea if they could. In 1783, Prime Minister William Pitt met with Richard Twining for consultation as the government was under great pressure from angry tea dealers losing too much business, in addition to common citizens frustrated because while tea was becoming the national drink, nationally, many couldn’t legally buy it. Richard argued for a tax cut that would significantly lower prices of tea and eliminate any incentive to smuggle. The Prime Minister listened. The Commutation Act of 1784 reduced the tax on tea from 119 percent to 12.5 percent, making up for the difference in revenue with a tax on windows. By the start of the nineteenth century, having initially inherited Twinings Tea as a tea shop that served only the privileged and prestiged, he had rendered tea into ubiquity: the modest kitchen shelves and pantries of the average laborer’s family that now spent 5 to 10 percent of their weekly income on tea and sugar. They could taste the indulgence of past rich and royal life submerged
into their routine, simple cup of tea. They could depend on tasting it again and again. In the night, in the day, they could wrap their hands around a warm cup of tea and watch steam evaporate. With each sip, sweetness could grace their tongues and they could harness some of the drink’s heat into their bellies. They’d hope that there’d be enough until they needed more. Three:
“DEAR SON: [...] Imagining it may be equally agreeable to you to know the circumstances of my life [...] I sit down to write them for you. To which I have besides some other inducements. [...] Having emerged from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world, [...] my posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated. —The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
At the age of sixteen, Benjamin Franklin was an apprentice at his brother’s printing press in colonial Boston. He wanted to learn to read and write proficiently so he could do well in life. When the others left during meal breaks, Benjamin would stay behind at the printing press and study. However, he still needed to eat. During his studies, he came across Thomas Tryon’s The Way to Health and read of a sober, vegetarian diet. Tryon advised to consume foods and drinks with bitter or plain bodies that were complemented with doses of something sweet—usually fruit, honey, jams, and sugar. Benjamin selected foods from Tryon’s book that were quick and easy to put together: “potatoes or rice,” “hasty puddings,” or “a bisket or a slice of bread, a handful of raisins or a tart from the pastry-cook's, and a glass of water.” He believed that he was able to get so much from his studies in so little time because Tryon’s diet gave him a “greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and drinking.” Thomas Tryon, the author of several other popular self-help books published during the 17th century, believed that because sugar is sweet and pleasurable, it was beneficial to one’s health in moderation. Yet, follow the logic of just this small portion of the book’s longform title: The way to health, long life and happiness, or, A discourse of temperance and the particular nature of all things requisite for the life of man as all sorts of meats, drinks, air, exercise &c.. If health, long life, and happiness are an end and temperance is a means, what then is the difference between the journey and the destination? Tryon believed that the moderation of sweet edibles like sugar demonstrated respectability and morality—qualities of a person that sixteen-year-old Benjamin dreamed of being known for one day—which prompts a long list of clichés including “you are what you eat.” Later in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin lists thirteen virtues a person should live their life by; the first is “Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.” I suppose Tryon and Franklin’s advice is somewhat empirical. In terms of sugar, I am not at all temperate. I frequently drink too much soda during late nights working on graduate school work A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
and all it does is make me feel jittery, on edge, and I get little done. Besides that, my diet is not that much different fundamentally than how Benjamin Franklin described his own when he was a sixteen-year-old apprentice. When Benjamin consumed the sugar in a “hasty pudding” or a “tart,” he would have maybe gotten a little buzz or at least to eat something pleasurably sweet. He thought it was something good for him, something that helped him carry on with his studies. Quick, calorie-loaded things that one can eat to make most use of one's time. In any case, the diet of sixteen-year-old Benjamin had a similar purpose to mine now: the pursuit of happiness—an integral principle Thomas Jefferson took from Franklin’s essay “On True Happiness” and adopted into the US Constitution. In this essay, Franklin wrote, “The desire of happiness in general is so natural to us that all the world are in pursuit of it; all have this one end in view, though they take such different methods to attain it, and are so much divided in their notions of it.” Benjamin Franklin framed his autobiography essentially as life advice to succeed in pursuing happiness. This is how I interpret the message sent by this particular Founding Father: to get to the destination that is happiness, do whatever makes you feel the feelings that you want to feel always until you find yourself feeling those feelings always. Something doesn’t seem exactly right with this message. It makes perfect sense to me that sustaining sugar highs will not make me happy, but I have always thought that the nature of happiness—that which makes it come and go—means that happiness is an emotion, not a condition. I can’t always be happy. No one can. That said, I am still in pursuit of something. Is it well-being, security, or am I simply missing out on the present by overworking to gain something in the future? This is for sure: by both definitions of the word, sugar is a vehicle. It channels good feelings and it helps me move forward—especially when I’m unsure of where I’m trying to go and if I’m going the right way.
Four: From the Report of the Commissioners on Conditions in Factories, published in 1833: “Edward Jones, father of the deceased, says the deceased Jane Jones was upwards of eight years old, and was employed in the manufactory of Edward Williams. The time she was daily employed was from twelve to thirteen hours, including meal times, which were half an hour for breakfast, an hour for dinner, and half an hour for tea.” Imagine the world of this child factory worker, Jane Jones, as it was when she died: the year was 1832 and the factories in Newtown, Wales were booming. Green pasture fields where cattle grazed rolled in the outskirts of town. A riverbend hugged the town’s center, which had steepled chapels, rows of two-story brick houses, and roughly 82 flannel factories and twelve long three- or four-story textile mills. Following trend with the Industrial Revolution, the population of Newtown had nearly quadrupled from roughly 990 in 1801 to some 4,550 in 1831, Jane Jones still one of them. Consider the toll taken on a child when they have to repeat the same tedious task for twelve to
thirteen hours, often much longer, six days a week. All Jane knew of the moments she was awake was the rumblings of operating machines and a one-sided conversation with clattering, rattling, and banging. Sounds that echoed in her sleep. On a typical day, a factory whistle would shrill through Newtown’s early morning darkness and Jane would eat a breakfast that was once the core of Queen Elizabeth’s diet: bread, meat, and sugar. Most mornings, she’d have bland bread spread with jam. She’d drink a cup of tea with sugar. The initial touch of the cup to her lips would taste sweet; the tea would then occupy her mouth, bitter and herbal; its warmth would thaw the path down through her throat to her chest, filling in the empty spaces of her belly, and hopefully it’d be enough to make it through the many hours she had to go until her tea break. She would start working and her tongue would dry. If Jane were a piercer, one of the less dangerous jobs for children in textile factories, she’d be stationed at a spinning mule—a machine with more than one thousand fiber threads, most often cotton, that are fed through a stable end, spaced apart and latticed five feet over to wooden spindles. These oval-shaped spindles are lined up along an opposite, moving end. In motion, a spinning mule looks something like a skinny, 100 to 150 foot tall accordion steadily being played: moving out—twisting and spinning the threads into yarn—and back in—wrapping yarn around the spindles into balls—every fifteen seconds or so. Operated by a trained adult, Jane and usually a second piercer would walk back and forth along the spinning mule, in and out with the accordion motion. Whenever fibers broke loose from the thread, they would nimbly reach over the moving end, roll their thumb over the break, and the fibers would reconnect. If unaddressed, these breaks would cause the yarn to bunch up unevenly on the spindle, wrap too loosely, or get caught in the machine and Jane would likely receive some form of punishment. She may get slapped with a leather belt or forced to wear an iron weight around her neck, or a fine would be taken out of her meager weekly pay of about 15 pence, money her family of factory workers really needed. Jane couldn’t afford to lose focus. A minute steeped in boiling water will draw 10 to 40 milligrams of caffeine out of tea leaves; five minutes can get up to 100 mg, which is a little less than coffee. After about forty-five minutes, Jane would start to feel the caffeine from her breakfast tea as the caffeine would have been pressing a number of beneficial buttons in her metabolism: the effects of her body’s neurotransmitters would be enhanced, notably dopamine as it would help her concentrate; her brain’s adenosine receptors would be blocked, making her less able to feel sleepy; catecholamines including adrenaline would increase, quickening her heart rate and blood flow, giving her muscles more energy. In tandem with caffeine, the table sugar—sucrose—that Jane used to sweeten her tea would be split up by her small intestine into simpler sugar molecules, fructose and glucose—glucose being more useful as it is sent into her bloodstream to go fuel her body cells and brain. This would happen as quick as fifteen minutes. Additional glucose metabolized from the carbs of the bread she ate would join in afterwards. All together, she would feel more alert and able as she endlessly walked back and forth keeping watch over the spinning mule’s hundreds of threads, which would A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
break about five or six times a minute. So Jane drank tea with sugar at breakfast—her first sip would reveal to her body that it was carrying glucose, causing the pancreas to release insulin, and the insulin would disperse throughout her body like an army of messengers, traveling to every cell that helps her mind think and her body move to sound the alert: it’s time to work! During the thirty-minute tea break in the mid-afternoon, Jane would drink tea with sugar again. The answer to the question of how many more hours Jane would have to work is the same as asking how much money her parents needed or what quota the factory was trying to reach. Another question is why manufacturers often provided tea and sugar for these breaks at the factory’s expense. The message: keep working. Something would never feel right though. The other half of sugar, fructose, would diminish the ability of Jane’s brain to distinguish the energy her body was using from the energy she was consuming. At this point, the fiber that’s found in raw sugarcane, but lost when it’s refined into sugar, would counter the fructose and inform the mind on behalf of the body: enough. Fructose without fiber would likely make Jane feel that she needs to eat more, confirming the paradox she may already be aware of: she is hungry because working at the factory is exhausting; she is exhausted by working at the factory because she and her family have little and are often hungry. The feelings that Jane would have felt after drinking a cup of sweetened tea would have been fleeting. Her base condition would always resume eventually. The breaking of the threads was never-ending. She’d feel weak and tired. “John Jones […] was there last Friday morning between eight and nine o'clock; the child, Jane Jones, was warming herself at the fire, the deponent being at his work, with his back turned towards her. Another child cried out that her clothes had taken fire. Deponent immediately ran to her assistance, and endeavoured to extinguish the flames; but before he accomplished this the child was severely burned. ” She died seeking warmth.
Five: There’s a commercial from Coca-Cola’s 2016 ad campaign that I’ve seen a few times and, each time, has made me feel somehow both optimistic and pessimistic about the future. I am suspicious that the commercial wants me to feel increasingly reassured every time it plays: a hand comes down on a digital alarm clock on a nightstand that reads: 7:00. Upon touch, the opening bassline from a cover of “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie begins. The bassline is steady and the song builds around it as we see a montage of Millennial teenagers struggling through school and extracurriculars: a boy looking in the mirror slaps himself
awake; white teeth revealing braces, biting the bottom lip of its mouth; a finger scratching off bright pink nail polish; a pencil filling in circles on a test exam; hands holding pencils to said exams down a row of desks; a student rubbing his face; a violinist messing up a lick; a teacher looming over the test takers; a clock ticking; a teenage soccer player grabbing another’s jersey, tripping, and getting a red card; “Un-der Pres-sure”; a glimpse of Coca-Cola iconic green-tinted glass bottle with beads of condensation appearing; a drop of sweat dripping down a boy’s temple; a mom with a baby in her arms lecturing her teenage son while he is rapidly chopping vegetables by the stove; the face of a diver with his back to the pool taking a deep breath, about to jump, preparing, accidentally falling, flailing in the air, dropping into the pool, immediately punching through water and kicking back up; “Un-der Pres-sure”; bubbles are rising up in the Coca-Cola bottle; a ballet dancer falling from the point of her toes; a daughter and mom fighting in the car, the daughter gets out; the teenage boy who slapped himself awake is down on his knee and reaches for the hand of a teenage girl, their hands touch, drums build up, fireworks, he stands up, a white froth of bubbles pushes against the top of the Coca-Cola bottle, the music stops— Release. The bottle cap pops and a fountain of black liquid miraculously erupts. The song opens up into a reprise sung by a choir. Several coke bottles are opened in a flash—psht-psht-psht-psht. The Millennials each have a drink and, now they can overcome: the boy and girl embrace in a kiss; the parent and daughter hug; when the soccer team loses, the player walks off the field and takes solace in the Coke he is drinking; the mouth with braces belongs to a Homecoming Queen; the student rubbing his face during the test is now outside laughing with friends; dinner has been served and the teenage cook is seen downing his last sip of Coke; the dancer pirouettes; the boy and girl end their kiss and begin to open their eyes; the diver’s dive is a perfect swish and so this time he lets gravity take him its full length down underwater. Just at the point where his descent stops and his ascent is supposed to begin, Coca-Cola’s logo appears over the water and the tagline is “Taste the Feeling.” ab Before 1980, the taste of Coca-Cola wasn’t as syrupy and sweet to Americans because real sugar was used. Coca-Cola switched to high fructose corn syrup because subsidies on corn made it cheaper. Before 1916, the feeling after drinking Coca-Cola carried a greater buzz, as it had a greater amount of caffeine. That year, a judge ruled that Coca-Cola had to use less of it for health reasons, but he still let the company use some for “the product would lack one of its essential elements and fail to produce upon the consumers a characteristic if not the most characteristic effect which is obtained from its use.” As stated on an 1885 label, Coca-Cola’s predecessor, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, was designed to be (1) an “ideal nerve tonic,” (2) a “health restorer” or (3) “stimulant.” In the Atlanta
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Journal, the inventor of Coca-Cola, Dr. John Pemberton, explicitly stated the drink’s purpose: to “compel all who are addicted to the use of opium, morphine, alcohol, tobacco, or other narcotic stimulants to live on the coca plant.” The drink was medicine meant for Confederate veterans like himself who had developed morphine addictions after being injured during the war and anxious Atlanta housewives too. For reasons you can clearly identify, the formula was never successful as a medicine; Dr. Pemberton’s personal addiction to morphine never subsided. However, the formula did make for a regionally popular drink. When Atlanta prohibited alcohol in 1886, Dr. Pemberton simply replaced wine with sugar syrup and carbonated water and kept the cocaine, which was used until 1903. He no longer sold his concoction as medicine, but as a fountain drink named Coca-Cola. Dr. Pemberton deemed Coca-Cola as a “temperance drink,” perfect for those who had to follow the law, but needed a vice. Throughout its history, the formula of Coca-Cola has been designed for drinkers to like what they taste and what they feel, and for these two senses to work together and resonate with customers. ab At the end of the 2016 commercial, Coca-Cola puts their logo and the tagline, “Taste the Feeling,” up over the swimming pool. The last image is of the diver suspended underwater. This is how the commercial makes me feel both optimistic and pessimistic. The feeling of that successful dive will always be his. But in reality, he’d get out of the pool and the crowd would applaud. The judges would give him a score. Then, it’d be on to the next dive. So it goes. Instead, the feeling is untouchable, submerged in the diver. Coca-Cola sells a promise with their sugary, carbonated beverage: we can have for a brief moment something happy and everlasting whenever we want, whenever we think we need it. And yet, we don’t see the diver come back up for air.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
The First Forever Ben Miller
An essay from
One Origin of Love: A Romance of Writers in the City
Mid-January 1987 That a certain tall writer wearing mint green curtain tassels for earrings and I, in thrift store finds, met by accident, in a cool pool of fluorescence, while registering for second semester workshop classes at NYU, and not while pursuing hot company at one of the throbbing low-lit hunting grounds of Then—the Palladium, the Tunnel, the Saint—meant we were unguarded, and as forthright as we were then capable of being about the past (her 1970s Brooklyn, my iffy urban Iowa), and current part-time jobs, rental apartments, literary ambitions. Daytime circumstance meant we could actually see and hear each other, receive somewhat accurate intimations of compatibility—note how our peculiar potions of fervent dreaminess and creeping circumspection melded. Too, the timing allowed us ample time to retreat. Weird as it sounds, we parted at dusk—receding figures powdering into poofs of bluish gray beneath tips of Washington Square tree limbs sharpened to stilettos by last light—so an affair could commence later that evening. Returned to her apartment on 4th Place in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens—the place shared with two former college classmates and a black and white Siamese feline, Spider—my new friend slipped off those four-inch tassels from M & J Trimming. She posed the sort of fraught questions anxious individuals will concoct around bedtime: Does he have a hometown honey? He must! But if not? What if it was a choice between marrying Ben now or never seeing him again, which would you choose? She placed her wager, slept—off and on. Flopped across the thick foam rubber slab on the floor of my horrendous half of the studio above West 4th Street in Manhattan, I mistrusted good fortune differently while also counting terribly on it. Sinuses spoke with the volume of Homer and the ick of Poe. The Tell-Tale Torrent. I soaked paper towels with luminous subject matter. I drenched lengths of toilet paper. Beauty and truth, as well as nightmares and confusion, generally pierced me first between the eyes then spread to the lungs. It had been so since I was a double-chinned kid, leaning over a soap-scummed basin, launching loogies at a plugless drain before waddling to the School of Torment. If I sneezed and if I hacked, something awful or wonderful, or awfully wonderful, or stupendously awful, had occurred or was about to. Because my NYU-assigned roommate Him, Arts Administration M.A. candidate, had pranced off to his SoHo hang Raoul’s again I had the pleasure of occasionally not wiping, allowing waves of excitement to break without hindrance, pixilating stale air with sensuous spring-like moisture. Anna, I sneezed. Anne, I coughed. Anne or Anna, she went by both monikers, a fetching double-ness to go with her identities as New York artist and admirer of the rhubarb pie her Midwestern relatives served, and served. The duality that puzzled others made such sense to me—submitter of a poem (“New York, New York I Love You So”) printed in pencil on notebook paper to The New Yorker when I was 11, the first time anything I was traveled east—that I refused to decide what to call her. I favored every name she answered to. Were our funny courtship one of those capacious paintings skyscraper lobbies host, there would be verbose splashes of primary colors combined with an internal-ness of white referencing the reality that our “official” first date did not occur until nearly a year after we met. The duration counts as a roA Journal of Creative Nonfiction
mance’s most abstract chapter, yet it is cited with as much glee as other details whenever the curious ask—not knowing we will take the question maybe too seriously—“How did you two meet? Where?” On University Place, waiting in lines, we exchanged a fury of fascinating words and looks.. That fabulous storm sent us reeling in different directions that eventually propelled us back to each other— momentum in disguise, a whimsical circle. Like anyone else, we had been previously stung, in various ways, by attachments. These experiences contributed trepidation to the excitement equation. Anne/Anna, I discovered later, was coming off an unsatisfactory affair with a Philadelphia med student. Directly before that there was a drunken Amherst dandy who didn’t even recall the first time they slept together. Men began hitting on her on Court Street when she was fourteen. Hey Baby. Males had been dull, rude, threatening, at points charming too—but it was all always about their careers and their egos, not her requirements. Slow might not be bad. A 1980s Victorian affair. Fearless oath. Wait. I had not had many dates up to this point, even fewer intimate experiences. The first time, my Junior year of college, I ended up with the sexual version of a skinned knee. My partner, majoring in Psychology—the textbook kind—laughed to see bleeding sores below the head of my sex. Perhaps—no, most likely—had I not been sexually abused as a child (which she didn’t know) I might have laughed too. But the wounds appeared to confirm the terror that prospects of normalcy had been permanently ruined by molestation—that I’d never be capable of easy, healthy, and enjoyable physical relations with a partner I cared for. It hurt to pull on my underwear after in her END APARTHIED poster-decorated room in old style Rood House. It hurt to walk back to my modern dorm on the other side of the campus. Cotton brushing wounds felt like a straight razor shaving skin. The next morning one of the sores was covered with a vanilla sheen of pus. That night my lover? Girlfriend? Enemy? saw me sitting in the library, legs spread wide, grimacing, trying to study Kant. She snuck up, whapped me on the shoulder, and I jumped. She laughed again. I was speechless, twenty-one on the outside and twelve on the inside, frozen on a pee-stained mattress after an angry mother had pawed what she pawed and left, giggling and singing “If I die before I wake, Lord I pray my soul to take.” The young liberated woman I had lost my virginity to thought she had the cure and silently mouthed the words. Again? Saturday? Again!? Already? Would getting drunker on her favorite drink, the Tootsie Roll (orange juice and DeKuyper’s crème de cocoa), help? Pushing through blood to come out the other side, ecstasy scrawling its happy story from brow to chin and lower? I was of course too embarrassed to see a doctor. The blisters hurt for weeks, and left a ring of scars, black commas of hesitation on skin. For individuals touched by certain things, emotions are always a wind to suffer as well as savor—a tailwind and a headwind. Tabulate these months of complete separation after I met Anne/Anna as our first forever. A chunk of calendar well settled into history’s silt, but for me yet verdant, restless, riven with amazements.
Late January 1987-September 1987 I started off for the first E.L. Doctorow workshop after walking back up Broadway at the end of another shift in the library of the New York Stock Exchange. I walked to save the subway fare and to relax. At the apartment I undid a mold-like tie knot and stripped off a fetid brown jacket, changing into other rank, but merrier, Goodwill clothes. I pinched a registration card. It guided me, like a rudder, up Washington Square East until I met, coming the other way, a brutal briefcase devil child of Adam Smith’s free market economics. Leather impact on knuckles opened my enslaved hand. I recited obscenities. Card flew onto pavement. In slow-mo it happened, near the corner where I had exchanged goodbyes with Anne/ Anna. Irreplaceable form! flipped then slid toward the street the Hudson New Jersey Ohio Oblivion! In a sec I caught up but in that sec I saw myself losing to random gust the class and a future. Card caught, I rushed ahead, breathing hard. I felt almost, almost, possible again. Whatever I strolled that year, I was accompanied by an entourage of secrets, some acknowledged, some unacknowledged or half acknowledged, most of them dusty, one gleaming. I had stopped paying rent to NYU the previous October, two months after I arrived on the Lake Shore Limited, the Amtrak line out of Chicago I had boarded upon arriving at Union station on another silver train met in Galesburg, Illinois, hometown of poet Carl Sandburg and nearest stop to Davenport, the eastern Iowa city where I grew up scared beside the swirling PCBs of the Mississippi River. I did have that day job filing Annual Reports, entering stock data, stinking up Capitalism’s Capital for 30 hours a week, but the hourly pay wasn’t enough to fund lodging, utilities, food, tuition, books, mugs of ale at the Corner Bistro on Jane Street. After a bit of thought, I just cut out the biggest cost, the rent. A visit to the chaotic NYU Housing Office (Chinese take-out boxes on file cabinets, MSG-dulled clerks forking the rest of lunch behind folder-heaped desks, soy-sauce splattered Grandpa of a rotary phone) encouraged the strategy. For five minutes I had stood at the office entrance, hands on hips, observing. No one asked why I was there. No one, I think, saw I was there. Radios oozed “easy listening.” Chuck Mangione plays Club Cubicle Maze aka the Embassy of Dandruff. I had been going to beg these slugs for mercy? Confess I was short? Apply for an “extension if possible”? There was a danger in doing their job for them. It might get done. They might recall the importance of evicting students. I wheeled around and left them to the chewing of their egg rolls. When the December rent bill for $330 arrived I dropped it in the kitchenette trash to commingle with fragments of Him’s gourmet pretzels (procured at the Union Square market from a junk food chef beneath the Martin’s banner) and Him’s goat cheese puck wrappers pleated like tux cummerbunds. Same for January’s bill. February’s. Manhattan garbage, I had heard, was carted away in barges to a Staten Island landfill. Which NYU do-nothing would trek there to tweezer out an invoice charging me for a twelve-foot width of parquet flooring, unfurnished save for a desk, bed slab, and empty cracker boxes I hoarded because I must go about clogging my life with crap like any other good American, and because, well, I didn’t know why. I was not proud of the scam. I tried not to think about it. When I did I was—or could usually A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
find a way to be—pleased I hadn’t given up hope of remaining in the city with Anne/Anna in it, and the Strand’s Eight Miles of Books, and door in the mod curving brick niche on 8th Street that led to Electric Lady studios where Jimi Hendrix sang his song of sixpence. What had happened to my parents, and to an uncle, was not happening to me. They, separately, had come to New York in their twenties to be quickly driven back to Illinois to be major producers of grief, the fog and the fire others were given to drink. I’d settle up eventually, I reminded myself. If it was stealing, occupying a corner I was not paying for, the far bigger crime would have been accepting New York was too expensive, returning to a place I belonged in less. A workshop classmate from Virginia, Dean King, and his girlfriend Jessica, a painter attending the New York Studio School, threw a Valentine’s Day Party at their large apartment in an industrial building in the wilds above 23rd Street. Billy’s Topless bar was around the corner on Sixth Avenue. The invite asked guests to bring a homemade valentine with them. It did not occur to me to ask Anne/Anna to the party. I did not have her phone number. It occurred to me to think of her (and her 35 cent 1972 pizza slices and progressive parents continually rebelling against their Minnesota heritage, refusing to mention—let alone observe—Hallmark holidays) as I made my subversive valentine. It consisted of cardboard found on Seventh Avenue. The best thing about this cardboard was the square of foam rubber it came with—attached exactly in the middle. What a bonus. Into that filthy foam I cut a heart. On cardboard I wrote: LOVE MACHINE. PUSH BUTTONS TO MAKE IT. (Art had usually been about taking the risks I avoided in other realms of life, and I was not alone. Ray Bradbury, who sent his characters to Mars, couldn’t drive a car.) Every guest made it. All laughed, Dean especially. He was selling articles. He was far ahead of the rest of us but not arrogant. His good humor saved him like mine buoyed me. The buttons were two circles inked on the foam square. When pushed, a heart shape became visible, appearing to rise like bread as surrounding foam peeled away. When the buttons were released the heart vanished: it just looked like trash again. There were no calls and no knocks on the door of 13F in Building One of the candy-colored Washington Square Gardens apartment complex—a superblock bordered on the South by Bleecker, on the North by West Fourth, on the east by Mercer Street, on the West by LaGuardia Place. Each week my rent strike worked, I relaxed a mite more. February lips of river ice pressing the long island melted into the calligraphy of sun scrawled on a gray current and still no knock. Fresh air grappling with my bangs, I knew—I thought I knew—where Anne, the writer, was. Ink led there and back. I wondered about the location of Anna, the rhubarb pie lover. Did she take the R train for purely sentimental reasons? I had escaped my harrowing Midwest, only to meet another version of the region—the opposite of sordid—in her enthusiasm for baked goods, barefoot hops across sizzling public pool decks, Blue Mount State Park. I kept close the tones in those simultaneously gentle and forceful sentences. The largess of a symphonic pause preceded: “Anna—that’s what my Minnesota German aunts call me. They pronounce the e like an a.” In that moment I imagined language would next not only flow from her mouth but her greenish eyes too, her flaring nostrils, the husks of her ears. I kept revisiting the memory of a scene near the English Department elevator. Us leaning against a wall to keep from collapsing of the joy in saying more more more. Her grins strokes of a watercolorist’s brush
sifting surfaces to attain depths. I glimpsed Anne/Anna in the distance now and again on the NYU campus sprawled like a clumsy octopus around the fuss and regalia of Washington Square Park. The flit of a linen scarf like a flag flying from her elegant neck, gone. The angle of a hat and the flair of blond hair entering an NYU stone soul-sucker, ahead, turning, gone. The rest of her winter in Brooklyn on 4th Place? Her spring? Eventually I learned that for dinner she often cut a few slices of Cracker Barrel cheddar cheese to accompany a few stoned wheat thins and a cocktail made of Seagram’s 7 and 7-Up. The Seven and Seven. When she and the two roommates made a proper meal, they often purchased makings at a neighborhood store called Pastosa on Court Street. Puckered pillows of mushroom ravioli drizzled with the sun-dried tomato sauce. Other things: Switching on the light in the bathroom in the middle of the night startled the ceiling. It moved, she thought. No, a water bug did, still the largest she has ever seen, five plus inches, length of a small shoe, crawling across the plaster. Cover mouth. Turning to look out the kitchen window in the back of the apartment on a Saturday, she beheld a guy tending tomato vines behind a building on the next block. He wore dungarees, the high belt, the tank-top tee, and a side arm. The curved grip of the gun glistened in the light. He bent over, appraising the growth of fruit. Hanging on the wall in the apartment was framed lithograph of St. Anna she had found on the street, brought home and hung up. For some reason the lithograph had been pasted over another picture. Just the edges of the second picture were visible and they gave no hint as to what was hidden. Alone one night, she saw a rag rug under the frame move. It jerked forward a few inches then halted. It did. It did. Anne/Anna always seemed to be at least a block away. The continental length of a hall removed. Green down jacket and snow boots far ahead, then gone. We were jumping in by easing in at the speed at which diamonds form? Sensitive entities, apt to be overwhelmed, hitting pause, not letting us discount or defy our chances? Anyhow, we each had a pre-existing love to tend—the passion that brought us together at NYU—the precipitous writing pursuit the rest of a life must learn to grow around, to work around, in the tender manner of cliff moss. At 16 University Place her flower-print dress fluttered down stone stairs with their edges blunted by generations of ascending and descending student traffic. Getting lost myself in the city made a happy ending for my adventure seem the most plausible. My main entertainment then—other than cadging diner counter coffee refills—was meandering with aimless verve. For one thing, walks put a healthy distance between—temporarily made me inaccessible to—the voodoo (pennies, those cracker boxes) furnishing the edge of the studio across from Him’s framed SoHo art, copper pots, BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) brochures. Him attended BAM events frequently. He took cabs there and home. He talked up BAM artists. Bill T. Jones Robert Wilson Laurie Anderson Peter Sellars. Aesthetic glory aside, I could only conceive of the place as a venue for A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
families such as the Flintstones due to the way Him said “BAM!...BAM!” louder than any of the other words he ever did say. I went this direction. That. I walked straight to straighten crooked ideas out. Would I someday reach BAM’s eight-hour operas and find an audience consisting of Phoebes with PhDs not the barefoot Freds and Wilmas? I ambled strolled sidled away from sad Iowa crap and when it caught up I moved faster, gave sad crap the slip. How companionable were 14th Street intersections populated with plenty of other pedestrians to die with me if a Fink Bread truck hopped the curb! How relatively tidy even the alleys were! I had arrived expecting I might need to shovel a path through rat-infested refuse to get anywhere. Folks back home in checkout lines talked down the city and folks back home had it wrong. They had not traveled enough. They had watched Taxi Driver too many times. In 1987, on windy days, why litter appeared to be cleaning up the litter, Good Samaritan Big Bag sweeping small bags and cans into a cute gnarl. I was further astonished by how relatively crime-free streets were after the previous summer of haughty Davenport neighbors that had never talked to me before sidling up to the uncut fringe of front terrace grass and essentially paying snickering last respects to 22-year-old literary fodder they heard was about to go off and die at NYU, of NYU, both. Long after midnight I weaved home from First Avenue and the only law-breaker I encountered was me. From First to the Bowery. Still breathing. Across desolate Astor Place. Still intact. Made Broadway and crossed without injury. Chugged on past the touristy Caliente Cab Company Mexican restaurant still open at 2 am, serving Tequila shots and housing New York’s safest cab. Where could it careen? It was half a cab, a life-sized plastic cartoon parked amid tables of slurring harmless galoots. Not one wheel spun. The muggers? Crack sellers? Dismemberers? Con artists? Embezzelers? Poisoners? The hit men and the pimps and the gun-slinging lovers done wrong? For the most part—stress most part—they operated at a splendid remove from a gentrified fairy tale island-within-an-island of reverent Ramones fans’ visits to CBGB gloom and free paperbacks, free hardcovers (William Dean Howells, Erica Jong, Tom Clancy) set out on Sunday afternoon on Bank Street stoops. Soon to come: purple NYU trolley stops! The white-collar crime was downtown and in midtown, other crime uptown, and in Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn. A few blocks from my apartment, on Sullivan Street, the mob boss in the bathrobe and slippers, Vincent Gigante, lived quietly with his mother. In the middle of the night he left in a stretch limo to take care of business where the business was done. I had never occupied a better address. I felt safer than I ever had in Davenport, Iowa, and chances were I’d remain alive as long as I avoided crack and AIDs and landlords and demagogue editors like Gordon Lish. Above the towering eight-story musical note (clock in the oval) gracing bricks of the sheet music company on Astor Place, Carl Fischer, interstellar expanse unfurled like a cosmic stroller top, nurturer of stumblebums, no cover for clubbers of the innocent. When a city changes, a city—to flourish—has to learn to love itself all over again. Finally I had gotten it! Manhattan’s preoccupation with Manhattan was a rather sweet survival tactic not fatal narcissism! The borough had to exist in a constant swoon of courtship with itself because it was in a constant state of evolution due to daily anarchic influxes of talent, investment, ideas, energy, successes and fail-
ures. Theater reviews food reviews architecture reviews exhibition reviews and off-key office word-ofmouth did the wooing, turning residents on to the “newest of new” things within reach. When enough “newest of new things” concentrated in a specific postal zone, the neighborhood got re-named just as new lovers’ invented silly names for each other. The Lower East Side had stepped out as this in-demand item, The East Village, prior to my arrival in 1986. Fresh social ardor had magically inundated changeless sticky joints (like Dempsey’s Bar on Second Avenue, like the Sonali on Sixth Street) with an alluring perfume of novelty. The retail coronation had as well given the squatters in rotten buildings on the alphabet avenues past numbered avenues substantial and acknowledged prestige. They were now a nose-ring-wearing hot-pot-cooking gardening constituency Democratic politicians courted. I made fewer trips to King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut than I had earlier. It had gotten too hip and too deafening. I couldn’t hear myself dream in there. Anne/Anna and I frequented separate dank basement Ukrainian East Village taprooms with separate groups of classmates. I thought I had a good reason for continuing to visit the Blue and Gold tavern where a shiv had been pulled on me. The sea glass green bottles of Rolling Rock were cheap. On the jukebox: Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” with its winsome accordion intro and also Bobby Darin’s prayerful “Beyond the Sea.” Playing the latter tune at the townie bar near the small Iowa college I attended had been my version of mass: Somewhere beyond the sea, somewhere waitin’ for me… The bartender was a baseball bat with a Russian lady attached. There was a pool table where I played games with classmate Vince and another friend, John Hunter, who had said the thing that caused a shiv to be pulled. “Hello,” he said to the wrong man who considered the greeting to be from both of us, and felt very outnumbered and reacted accordingly. Anne/Anna visited the Holiday. It was nicer: banquettes. First and Second Avenues, like Sixth and Fifth and Seventh and Eighth Avenues, like Houston Street and 23rd Street and every street in-between, were subject not only to the gilding spell of real estate speculation but also to a distinct era in all its brawling caterwauling odiferous splendor. The New York minute of LBOs by Kholberg Kravis Roberts LLP and Donald “The Donald” Trump being married to Ivanka and Liz Smith writing about it in her gossip column—humid plates of kasha and perogies at the Kiev—muttering Strand Clerk Roger’s spindly back pocket pink comb unequal to his rock star bale of dry blond hair—David Lynch’s hit movie Blue Velvet playing at the Waverly Theater for months—Paul Simon’s Graceland riffs ringing out from the last of the transistor radios, and U2’s Joshua Tree anthems too—Joel Oppenheimer’s page-long political poems in the weekly edition of the Voice that also supplied newcomers with the best apartment listings and job offerings, the most desperate of that lot waiting at blue plastic newspaper street boxes to be the first to get the latest issue when the bundle was tossed from the van or surging right into the editorial offices to snatch copies there. The minute of the Bob Wade’s huge lizard sculpture crouching on the roof of the Lone Star Bar at Fifth Avenue and 13th Street. There, without a regret in retrospect, I had once spent two week’s worth of food money to hear Junior Wells sing the blues to James Cotton’s harmonica playing. Susan Sontag harassing clerks at Spring Street Books and of critic Diana Trilling hiring one assistant after another that could not withstand her severe standards, questions, criticism. Resourceful Vince—who had fabricated recommendations to get into the writing program: what better proof of A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
one’s fictive power?—lasted just weeks The track-lit death of the cool St. Mark’s Place counter-culture scene was itself a cool thing to go see: Franchise stores? There!? Warhol—58—died in February after gall bladder surgery. WARHOL DEAD!? Manhattan without Warhol? (I can’t be the only one who hoped the estate executor would stumble upon a forgotten Factory cupboard stocked with 58 replicas of the real live Andy.) In March John Gotti—the Teflon Don—was acquitted again. The same month AIDS activists invented the pink triangle slogan: SILENCE = DEATH and a music industry PR firm stamped sidewalks with the title of Prince’s new album: Sign o’ the Times. Superstitiously, I stepped over the white letters as if to step on them would break Prince’s back. Near the tunnel exits dreadlock dudes in Shakespeare-grade rustic attire (rubber smocks, burlap ponchos, tattered plastic pantaloons) pounced on stopped vehicles, pointed a squeegee at a windshield and took the glass hostage, scrubbing while the Big Bad Law Firm Partner of an hour ago whimpered in the front seat of his BMW, digging for ransom money. Tompkins Square Park trashcan fires warmed stockbrokers and junkies and outerborough oddities partying side-by-side. In the ash-flecked glow one eve a bearded Vladimir grabbed my cuff. “Come back to Queens to my mother’s house, I’ll make you meatballs,” he pleaded. “We’ll listen to Zeppelin.” It was 3 am. Meatballs and Zepplin I translated as Drug you, strangle you. Hippie Yippie Commie rhetoric gamely persisted. Radicals who once made Nixon sweat—say David Peel—say Tuli Kupferberg—say William Kunstler—were now doing the one thing more impressive than dominating The Conversation. They were refusing to give up writing, litigating, wailing lyrics despite being beside the point during the reductive red tie reign of Reaganism. I relished the endless forwardness and endless backwardness of this NYM. It cost a dollar to buy a tarnished token to ride the 4 or the 5 or the A or the F wherever. The doubloon pallor of tokens made it seem a waste to drop one in a thankless turnstile slot, but I did— when my flat feet hurt—when I couldn’t walk another bleeding block. The slender stretch of the Houston Street sidewalk east of Lafayette I nicknamed the “cement tightrope.” Cracks, dips and an incredible variety of micro-angularities stretched between honking traffic and gray-on-black-on-grayer-on-blacker pissed-in soot-crusted bird-scuzzed entrances to four and five and six story buildings where I supposed families lived, and liked it. (What was there not to like about New York? Only what you hated about New York.) One Saturday, tip-toeing along the tightrope, I looked too long into a tenement entrance, and sad Iowa crap caught up. I recalled the stench of the basement where my younger brother Howard—in another hazy parlay to make cash to buy drugs—installed a coop and tried raising the pigeons that flew in and out broken windows, shitting on heaps of clothes under the laundry chute. His disgust at his own actions made it impossible for him to sleep in that 1911 home turned into the 1975 pit. He came home high, passed out on the small front porch in his gray drooping underwear, parted legs trailing down splintering stairs, scrotum reflecting dawn’s first light. That is, when he did not pass out in the palace of one of those wealthy East Side friends attracted to his animal ways. He pissed in the side yard like the cats and other family members (me too) who considered it a more sanitary environment than the one bathroom for eight. He…forget it, smile, forget it, cut it to ribbons with a grin like you can, like you started doing at age fifteen, whacked out on Emerson and Whitman and Joni Mitchell. I made sure it was quite some time before I walked the tightrope again. The biggest actual threat I faced in Gotham assumed the form of a peanut. A shelled peanut
from the bag I bought at the Grand Union grocery store on LaGuardia Place from taciturn Elton, the check-out lane man in the red smock who ignored my jokes and questions but—out of boredom—became attached to the noise and did nod a centimeter. A fragment of shell I was sucking the salt off for dinner got stuck in the squishy pouch of tissue that had formed around an impacted wisdom tooth. A day later the spot throbbed. No insurance, I visited a free clinic for poor students located in one of the cottage-sized buildings on the cobblestone Washington Mews. I ducked in the gnome door, waited my turn under a low gnome ceiling. Toy windows. Toy chairs. The short bearded dentist (gnome gone to seed?) who toyed with me. “Say AH UM SUNFLOWER like Allen Ginsburg says AH UM SUNFLOWER.” I AHed. I UMed. He UHed. He OHed. He gave me a coupon for free agony to be redeemed at an NYU warehouse where dentists were trained en masse in an enormous room. I went. I saw the row of torture chairs and the students in their torture practice outfits and the squat instructor strutting from chair-to-chair. A secretary led me to an empty seat. She tied a bib around me. Student Theodore murmured He..llo. I sat. Sergeant Calcium demanded I open my aching mouth. Without bending to peer in, he roared: “They all go…OUT!” Theodore commenced asking questions about hammers. I made a break for it. I flung the bib behind me. I’d heal on my own thank you. A bearded classmate from South Africa, Keith Adams, invited me to accompany him to the Town Hall concert of exiled jazz pianist Abdullah Abraham. Keith’s father was a drummer, his mother a painter. They had fled the Apartheid regime and started an arts-oriented school in a neighboring African country. I met Keith where he told me to meet him: the 42nd Street sidewalk behind the New York Public Library, where chess players set up folding tables. He played games there, he said in his mellow baritone, then chuckled. For a moment I thought better of chess players. One at least could laugh. Then I glanced back as we moved on and still perceived a passel of pale atrophying over-dressed males surreally alone in a busy public space, hunched, tensed, devising the end of our world. We walked a block north to a side entrance of the famous auditorium on 43rd Street. Keith whispered something commanding to a white guard. Guard stepped aside. Minutes later we were walking across the varnished stage! toward front row seats! Would anybody else claim them? Keith softly told me not to worry. Nobody claimed the seats. The concert started. Trumpet and drumming on top of Abraham’s percussive piano playing. At intermission, retreating to the bathroom, I found two musicians accusing Paul Simon of ripping off African music when making Graceland. I listened with my eyes fixed on webs of urinal cracks. The porcelain was as old as the charge of exploitation of black music by whites. Hearing Graceland cuts after that I always heard, in the background, the rage of these men. Show ended with lanky Abraham in the tan suit swiveling, fist raised then pulling down as legs, knees bent, lifted. Keith and I danced in the aisles. From out of nowhere, since arriving, I had been receiving numbers of visitors, none possessing any solid sense of my peculiar situation before they came, whether they were good friends or slight friends or former friends or even family. None could stay with me if Him was there: hard news to break. Him forbade guests. Him feared I would—in the busted-desperado-from-the-boonies tradition— start turning tricks on my foam rubber bed slab to make ends meet. (Him had loaned me bedding. Had the honor of Bergdorf Goodman sheets to protect.) None of these guests had particularly come to see me, A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
a good thing really, but I did see them when they were not seeing sights—Rockefeller Plaza, Liberty’s Statue, Time’s Square, the World Trade Towers—that had inspired the splurge on a bus or plane or train ticket. I treated each guest to the $6.95 chicken Dinner for Two at BBQ and repulsive icy Technicolor drinks in large goblets, fulfilling my role as generous host by adding to the nauseating order a tangle of thin onion rings akin to a fried blond beehive wig. John Suhm, a Japanese-American sculptor, came first. He had dropped out of the college I went to. He lived in Chicago with his Hyde Park parents now. We somehow scraped up funds to attend a gig at the Blue Note. To in fact enter!—not peek into—the mirrored club gravitas and fend off the reflections of the waitress, and the waitress herself, trying to sell us top shelf booze. We did it while absorbing the swinging delicacy of violin jazz played by its elderly master Frenchman Stephane Grappelli in the longsleeved flowered shirt. He had played with the blazing fast guitar player Django Reinhardt in the 1930s. Maybe, in his imagination, he still did. Divide the cover charge by number of notes and each must have been almost free. Next came the first black female graduate of the Ringling Brothers Clown College in Florida. Kathy the Clown and I had a raucous coffee together at a basement cafe on East Ninth Street. Espresso fortified, in full hilarious throat, she rocked a helpless table with pantomimed stories of oversexed midgets and boorish acrobats and the current circus owner, Kenneth Feld. It was “Feld, he…”—“But Feld…”—“Feld and I…”—“When Feld asked me…”—for many draining minutes. She was trying to attract show business agents and Broadway directors not present because we were miles from the Great White Way. She boarded the flight home with I HEART NY t-shirts for beloved family members in Fresno, including her father, the decorated WWII bomber pilot who—Kathy taught me—had done more than “Pappy” Boyington, the pilot the hit TV show “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was based on. Then, just when I thought I might be spared—for a month at least—from expenses and stress of welcoming people not there to see me but the lights, I got a call from Stephanie, my deflowerer. She was staying uptown in the neighborhood of Yorkville in the vacant apartment of a relative of a member of the Unitarian Church she attended in Des Moines. Could I—laugh—show her the town? It was the same laugh from the dorm room, the same fun sound I couldn’t join in, which made me feel like a freak. Same giggle, same mall designer glasses, same long black hair, same compassionate political views. For the trip she had bought an Italian belt in Iowa’s capital city that was not an Italian belt. Like many Midwesterners she wanted to see “SoHo.” We did not share a meaningful word or touch. (The most meaningful part was running into a martini-swigging coot in a cravat in Yorkville bar who had known playwright Lillian Hellman and was happy to cackle about it.) I was not asked how I felt—what the maudlin expression on my face might mean—but she got tired of the look pretty fast, and spent the last day touring Manhattan by herself. It was the worst I had felt since my sick sister Marianna had been sent to visit me in November because the rest of the family did not want to spend Thanksgiving with her eating disorder and cigarette-charred seventeen-year-old voice with its ten-year-old diction belying the fact that she was perhaps the most intelligent of three sisters. “Pupsee wupsee Benjy Boy!” If half of me had been lost to that hellhole on Crestwood Terrace superintended by a married pair of unbalanced down-and-out at-
torneys, more of her had died there, among the strewn yellow legal pads and copies of the West Law Review and Mad magazine. I suspected she had been raped by Howard as the rest of us shivered elsewhere in the nest. My own bout with anorexia at fourteen—dropping from 215 to 105—had been triggered by abuse. The difference was my hunger strike against the powers that molest ended after about a year, when I decided that suicide was the least helpful tactic of self-fulfillment ever invented, and started— with the glutinous smiles and Miracle Whip—to put meat back on the pieces of me left. Marianna had made no choice to live yet. Her fair bony face was blue-veined, her eyes headlights in fog. She coughed and she puffed, puffed, puffed. How could I put her calorie-affrighted mind at ease during the nation’s most gluttonous holiday? I knew of a rancid diner in the East Village off Tompkin’s Square Park. Any Thanksgiving dinner there was guaranteed to be so foul it would be a meal to naturally, instead of unnaturally, push aside. We walked over. We sat in front of the untouched yellow glue of gravy and perfectly circular cold-cut-like slices of turkey, scouring our yapping mouths with hot coffee, trying to forget. Failing. It made me feel much better, after Stephanie’s humiliating visit, to sit and listen to spring—the resilience of romance—in bird-filled Washington Square Park and in the Loeb student center theater where Astrud Gilberto, though she had a cold, insisted on snuffling through a set of samba love songs. In the same venue, on a different night, Saul Bellow serenaded students with his phlegmatic committed drone. Son Adam, the dark-haired editor, introduced him. Out shuffled Nobel’s pal. His fiction had been recently rejected by The New Yorker. He was like the rest of us. He got even too—the genius way—calmly. Insecure he was too, and unbowed too. American literature, in his view, had a fertile future, and not just because he was not dead yet. Because there existed peculiar new realities for novelists to incorporate—like the key-shaped cake secretly presented to Iranian officials by U.S. envoys plotting to better ties after the hostage release (Iran-Contra Hearing Finding). I swallowed twice, hearing this rich news, wishing culture alone might be lived on. All during this period Anne/Anna and I appeared at part-time jobs and did them, fingers attuned to duties, thoughts wandering. Her route to her swivel chair took her K-Swiss tennis shoes along the brownstone coast of Clinton Street to St. Ann’s, a private school founded in the 1960s by former vacuum cleaner salesman and changeling, Stanley Bosworth. Her boss was “Linda.” Her tasks menial like mine. Because the incompetent cannot ever have too many managers I was now not only supervised by the terse Exchange librarian, Jean Tobin, and her loud boss Joe, but also by Jean’s movie-loving assistant Jane (who cleverly smeared Chapstick on a pink tissue for me when I asked to use some without considering the implications for her reputation, selfishly thinking only of my raw lips), and by a VP with a corner office, boppy Melinda, as well as by the other even higher executive who had dared to hire me, stentorian Senior VP William Early (handlebar mustache) in the office dominated by a grand Churchill quote re: fortitude housed in a black plastic frame lacking grandness/fortitude. Dick Grasso supervised Early—Early told me. John J. Phelan, Exchange President, supervised Grasso—Early added. Throw a Greg in there somewhere too, and a Joel, and Abrasive Richard who ran the press operation. I was the fairy tale pea under a stack of overstuffed shirts and pantsuits. In October of 1986, weeks after I entered the city, when I was jobless, living on oatmeal and Sixth Avenue exhaust, job apA Journal of Creative Nonfiction
plications rejected by Haagen-Dazs and the River Café and a dozen other places, I spotted a small rectangular piece of paper tacked to the NYU English Department bulletin board by the secretary Danny. It advertised data entry positions for grad. students and I called and Early—the strangest manager— interviewed me and ta da! I was hired to make the wrinkles of the other managers buck as they tried analyzing the tiny but palpable environmental disruptions caused by my out-of-date duds, compulsive note scrawling, finger-combed hair, piquant stench of the Tabasco sauce I colored my staff cafeteria clam chowder pink with. The effort supervisors spent corralling that vibe was time not spent pestering other plebes, making that gang fond of my mess: Mike, Verna, Regis, David, another Jane. I never missed a day of being a fairy tale pea. It had its eerie pleasures. During Annual Report season I unpackaged the hundreds of slick publications sent to the Exchange library by listed companies. Each included a chipper LETTER TO SHAREHOLDERS bragging about the previous year’s financial results and promising bigger profits soon. Beautifully printed, the shiny pages smelled of printing chemicals. They displayed many hues of CEO suits (robin’s egg to navy to charcoal to indigo) and the one look power insistently assumes: flabulous wattle thrust out, neck stiff, shoulders stiffer, fangs aplenty. I enjoyed staring at my face reflected on covers featuring (usually) a shot of the corporation’s most successful product posed atop an absurd pedestal. Cheese on velvet—sedan on sandbar—siding in a bassinet (it looked like). Capitalism had pupils and irises then. Soul was what any System most lacked. One unfailingly fine part of each workday, whatever the weather (for I didn’t mind weather) was the forty-minute commute on foot. I unhooked the clasp on a small gate and crossed the Asian garden hidden between Washington Square Village buildings. Fountain never on, always off, but painted aqueous blue. Pebbled stone benches. Teak trellises appearing to my eyes to be growing daily, trying to become tea houses. Fruit tree canopies, wispy willow trees, penthouse pearls of morning light descending to bless a journey. I took Bleecker Street to Mercer to Houston to Broadway, following its topographical slant down through Chinatown’s density and up through airier Tribeca, past the Javits Federal Building and the wheelchair-bound beggar always there at the top of the City Hall subway stop stairs, jingling. Wings of thin feathered hair. Peach skin. Dropping coins into the blue Parthenon coffee cup, I forged onward, past J&R Cigars, tower shadows closing around my threads gliding in a stream of traders that had gone to Yale, that ordered pastrami from Wolf’s. Another delicious part to anticipate was the reliable arrival of Charlie’s silver snack cart on the library floor in the mid-morning and again in the mid-afternoon. Charlie wore the tall chef ’s hat and the starched apron. He sported a wiry salt-and-pepper mustache. He introduced me to the concept of putting half and half in coffee. Sold me a first buttered matzo. None of it cost much. He summoned Brooks-Brothers-clad cosmopolitan employees from offices and cubes with a black-handled bell like the one-room schoolhouse marms once wagged in Nebraska! Obscure ancestor of the big bellicose bell on the Floor that commenced each trading day with the clanging heard from Tokyo to Paris to Brussells! I reveled in the drama of dour execs flocking to the scart in good moods suddenly, reading glasses unleashed from pink faces and dangling, wisecracks about the Mets and the Yankees and the Knicks, pocket change singing in plump palms, tongues all but dangling in anticipation of the next Diet Coke, next Drake’s Cake, next bag of the faux Bavarian pretzels. They were sheep too. The minute Ronald
Reagan began testifying in the Iran-Contra hearings held by Congress was the minute they gathered in bunches around conduits of news on the floor—radios, televisions—and held their breath. They needed him to get off no matter what he had done—without the Great Fakir in charge, taxes might rise. I was less and less afraid of execu-swagger; more and more interested by execu-frailties. In the elevator I heard the Chairman of Merrill Lynch, William Schreyer, speak with emotion to an assistant about a Connecticut branch manager who had just died of a heard attack. He cared without opening his mouth wide: very professional. Words seemed to seep from lapels of a suit the color of diarrhea. He could resolve my rent fix with a stroke of his fountain pen? No time to inquire. The elevator hissed open on the “Member’s Floor” with its formal white-coat service dining room, locker room, artifact cases. As the Chairman seeped away like humidity, I admired the cubbyholes full of polished wing-tips awaiting traders who wore running shoes while working, buying with one motion, selling with another motion, yelling as much as they liked. Of course the best part of the NYSE gig was the reverse commute at 5:00 p.m. Office doors popped open. Gobbling last grabbed hunks of the latest pizza-sized GOODBYE EMPLOYEE X reception area Mrs. Field chocolate chip cookie, admin assistants (1980s secretaries) headed for the 2 train or the 3. COOs, CFOs, CEOs departed for their Upper East Side penthouses or compounds in Westchester or “Jersey,” they called it, leaving off “New.” Intense, but perfectly organized, routines of profiteering unraveled into a free-for-all of contortionist subway squeezer in-ers, the manly panhandler in the nun costume rattling a coffee can (as he/she would rattle it until exposed by the New York Post), falafel carts hitched to bumpers of trucks steered by curmudgeon’s in Greek Fisherman caps, bikes swerving around stuck limos, valises following, the belted coats, golf umbrellas, canes, and Panama hats. Once my backpack sounded like teatime. Tucked inside were a pair of bone china cups swiped from an abandoned tray in the hall. Capitalism’s Capital had this influence: it convinced me I needed dishes. (A few minutes ago I ran a finger along the gold rim of one of those cups. Wherever our marriage has gone in search of nourishment, this booty goes too, clattering like another small sin accruing a nice interest rate.) Oh, and classes. NYU instructors stood out like expensive museum figurines in storage in colorless classrooms off butt-strewn corridors of the 16 University Place building. Because NYU did not yet offer an MFA option for creative writers, we were required to take at least one traditional English class each semester—that is, required to impersonate scholars—to earn the available MA. I had chosen an American literature survey course taught by Kenneth Silverman as the second of my real courses, eager to fill cavities in my education, and it worked. The professor (two piece suit, thick hands) had earned the Pulitzer in 1984 for a biography: The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. He talked up a new publishing venture, the Library of America, definitive editions of the nation’s most indispensable books. He used the first two volumes, along with other books, as course texts. Herman Melville: Typee, Omoo, Mardi. Nathanial Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches. Silverman was an amateur magician and hid that surprising affinity well except for one moment, during a lecture on Walden, when he thrilled at Thoreau’s slight-of-hand prose trick, escaping the ordeal of having to describe another year on the pond by saying, simply: “Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed: the second year was similar to it.” Doctorow dressed like the gent on the Dial dust jacket that he was. The sport coat. No tie: open A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
shirt. He was at work on a new novel: Billy Bathgate. His voice had a slight Geiger counter crackle. His talent at line editing was such that he did not have to review student work prior to class. He could glance down at a specimen never before seen and in real time trap, dissect. Many teachers tried the trick and many failed. He advised: “Don’t show anyone your book until you have at least 100 pages completed.” Then he ordered us to bring in the first ten pages of what we were working on. The only thing I was capable of finishing in the fall—the one sentence holiday card addressed teacher John A. Willams and my classmates—had earned me the C for Christmas. But something happened that second semester. I wrote a novel. Page 1, first paragraph: Lines were already beginning to form in the middle of the street when the Marshall came to get me out of bed. “You’re late again, Tove!” he screamed. “Up! Up! Life awaits!” I’d heard the sound of the morning trumpets, the excited chatter of the other spectators as they were getting dressed (“Think we’ll getta pet the horses?” “Wanta trade candy afterward?”), the rumble of the motorcade as it whizzed up the street but for once I didn’t care. I wanted to miss out. The Parade is set in a nightmarish burg called Upton. Tove Boon, the narrator, is a child. Decades prior to his birth, the local adults had abandoned disappointing homes and mediocre civic institutions. They lurched into a non-stop circular trudge away from the notion of community, embracing a fanaticism of constant celebration. Infants conceived on ornate floats are sent to the sidelines to join other children in an orphanage called Spectator house. The orphans have a day job of cheering on neglectful parents until they themselves reach adulthood and are inducted into the marching band. Paraders hooray stumble hooray sleep hooray live hooray die in the middle of the pothole pitted street. Pick-axe wielding looters from nearby towns have denuded blocks surrounding the parade route. Tove’s unprecedented refusal to clap for the insanity of the adults sets in motion a series of events that finally halt the disaster’s monstrous momentum and destroy its despotic dune-buggy driving Grand Marshall, the villain with seven chins. These grotesque circumstances—and characters physically, mentally, emotionally deformed by cynicism and bitterness—allegorically (i.e. acceptably) addressed just about everything that had happened to me up to age eighteen. Blank-eyed moaning mother inches away and inaccessible. Father prone on the recliner, wrapped in loose mummy bandages of the Sports page. Dwelling fallen to ruin in a decent neighborhood and ignored by authorities. Everything the novel addressed—the shredding of the social contract, the family legacy of abandonments and betrayals—except the toughest subject, what I loved, what saved me. Mighty Coltrane saxophone solos subverting a wobbling turntable’s ineptness. Lifelines tossed into the broiling (August) or freezing (January) sea of a bedroom by poets, essayists, novelists. Salted anchovies burning the tongue like the right verb I might one day speak at the right time. The backyard lilac’s vivacious aroma. Day-glo filigree of Fillmore East concert poster reproductions in a paperback fished from a Kmart bin. Grateful Dead Saturday September. Quicksilver Messenger Service Friday April. A student in the class, Karen, worked for an agent. She told the agent about my work and more— she brought the agent chapters in early May. The agent dialed my number. I had just paid the bill at a bulletproof Broadway kiosk so the phone rang. “Let’s meet at my home office, Ben.” I did not know what it meant. I wanted to find out. Her white balconied apartment building resembled an off-course
cruise ship. It was moored across from the church at that swerve of Broadway above Houston—the orchard bend—where apple trees a Dutch landowner refused to cut down changed the city’s map. In the granite lobby stood a farmer-sized urn filled with funereal flowers that were real. It was too quiet. The lobby attendant asked my name, my business. He sent me up. I went up in the outfit I had checked in a mirror three times before I leaving the studio and judged acceptable…but then again: context happens to be everything. I did not like the personal disarray polished surfaces of the elevator car revealed. A different, more concentrated, hush greeted me in the upper floor hall. I reached the door with the right number on it after rechecking my notes. I knocked. The personality of a broom answered. Swooshes of arms, swooshes of legs, swept me into one well-appointed room, another room, onto a couch. Swooshes as in a futile attempt to brush aside the irresolvable conflict between commerce and art? I sat on the edge of the couch, not easy, a spongy couch. “Can I get you a glass of water?” While I was thinking about how to answer correctly the water arrived. I held it but did not drink. I already felt wet like a hothouse pane, drips of condensation for eyes, other drips for a nose. “I’ve read your marvelous book! It has tremendous possibilities. It reminds me of ‘Beauty and the Beast!’” (Hit TV show of that minute.) “Okay.” “I see exactly where you are coming from…” Did she? Lives were messy; art should not be too neat. Life was not sensible; art should not be too sensible. Life was vibrant, though, and books might be that. “I want to send the manuscript to Barbara at New Directions but I need you to re-type it and fix the typos and make it better. A summer project! Here’s a contract. I’ll represent you for the traditional fee. Sign here.” I signed, caught so off guard by not wanting an agent that I got one. “Wonderful. We’re set then.” Go, GO. Alpha Broom called after: “Let’s meet again in September! When you get the advance, you can buy a computer…” And new shoes! my shame added. I can’t tell anyone, I thought in the glossy elevator. I won’t! The impertinent promises! The bull! Nor I did have to tell anyone. None of what the broom predicted happened—nothing—a clean sweep. While my second semester literary hullabaloo was proceeding apace, Anne/Anna endured the first writing class taught by Susan Minot, minimalist author of Monkeys. Ms. Minot read from her journal at the start of each class. Not happy about how long a student was spending in the restroom, Ms. Minot sent another student to remind the ill woman that the class was waiting. Ms. Minot spent hours re-writing stories handed in. The semester was trouble for all, teacher and students. Anne/Anne received one of the few As dispensed although her prose had also been revised to smithereens. Janet—the class’s most vocal student—protested a B. She called Ms. Minot up and demanded! she support! her estimation! with evidence! Instead of doing that, the grade was changed to an A. Janet let everyone know about it too. At the end of May I walked around the 34-mile perimeter of Manhattan in one day with a group called the Shorewalkers. Dean, of the Valentine Party, invited me to take part in The Great Saunter. He had the idea to do an article about the group led by its intellectual grizzly-man, Sol. We were less than thirty wearing idiosyncratic urban hiking gear—Gore-Tex and Nikes to denim cut-offs and heritage boots. I wore Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars. When observant Dean noticed the condition of my socks through a hole in the high tops he gave me a new springy pair of snow white ones. I thanked him. We started off from South Street Seaport just after dawn. Rounding the Battery, ten minutes later, A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
we started up the west side. There was no bike path back then. Mostly we followed ankle-vexing mud ruts between the leaden Hudson River channel and the holiday highway of zooming Mercedes Benzes. Already I was lagging behind. The gap grew drastic fast. Sol had compass-appended followers in the group who revered his every grouchy environmental statement and one devoted activist was sent running back to me with three plastic whistles on three lanyards. Delivering the gospel of Sol, she advised me to simultaneously stuff these whistles in my mouth and “blow like bejesus if a dog gets after you in the Penn Yards.” “What…are the Penn Yards?” I asked but she had already raced off to rejoin the pack. I donned whistles. I was determined not to die. I was determined to finish. Intrepid Battleship museum. The Penn Yards, accessed via a hole in a warped chain-link fence, proved to be a dog-less paradisiacal jungle of rust weeds crickets. George Washington Bridge with the little red lighthouse of picture book fame directly underneath. Stare fixed on the bobbing ant-heads of the rest of group, a half mile or more ahead, I sauntered as best as I could—having no clear understanding how sauntering was different than ambling—along the railroad tracks on which I’d entered the city in September 1986, another vague sleep-deprived visage in the window of a rocking train car. I stopped at every public fountain to drink (the hell with cholera, diphtheria, dysentery) and fill my cap with water that rained warm down my neck and back when I slapped the cap back on. It was hot. It was hotter. The annual walk, after this, would be held earlier in May to reduce the likelihood of strokes. I wore a hole in the sole of one of my sneakers with more than twenty miles to go. For the rest of the day I kept plugging the hole in the rubber with various pieces of trash that worked well then did not. Cup lid. Foil. Cardboard. Reaching the half-way point, Fort Tyron Park, I found the rest of the group—Dean! Jessica! Robert! Grizzly Sol!— done with bag lunches and park cart food, starting off again. I did not stop to eat lest I get lost. All the way through the Harlem River gorge and down the East Side I fell behind all over again until the last miles when others lagged. I walked in with a 90-pound psychologist in her 80s who offered to buy me my first martini when we reached South Street Seaport. She described the photo of FDR in her office where she treated the neuroses of Wall Street. She said she had voted for FDR. She told me I could do it! Bleary, at a zombie-slant, licking crusty lips, I thought for a moment she meant I could vote for FDR too. I told her I’d like that. No more Reagan! We entered the blessed Seaport food court around dusk. The martini was served in a plastic cup and tasted like a sacred snake’s bite. It was more than a week before I ceased walking on flat cement as if on an invisible grand staircase. Could I wiggle slog write browse meander through summer with the aid of dishes, the luck of no landlord knocks? Well, I had to. Would Anne/Anna and I have coffee? Not yet. Her summer turned out to be the summer of the move to Eight First Place with one of her roommates. My June July August = the sweltering blur of pressing repeat on NYSE, on EAST VILLAGE, on WEST VILLAGE, on BACON CHEESEBURGER DELUXE AT JOE JUNIOR’S, on LINZER TART AT THE WAVERLY, on PARADE. For the second time in less than a year I was called into an Exchange office for a solemn discussion about body odor. This time boss Melinda did the calling. There had been another complaint. (Jean, the librarian, I was sure it was.) Melinda—in the most respectful voice she could summon (chirps)— broached the sensitive issue once the door was closed. “I don’t understand,” I told her. “I shower daily.” “How often do you do laundry?” she asked. I had to admit not often. “When was the last time you had
your jacket dry cleaned?” I knew about dry cleaning, I assured this middle manager. I had learned about dry cleaning from another middle manager during the last B.O. sit down, but dry cleaning was costly, and… Before I could point out said jacket cost fifty cents at the Rummage Closet, a fraction of the price of one visit to a dry cleaner on Fifth Avenue, Melinda kindly cut me off and suggested I simply change deodorants and I promised to visit Lamston’s, the Broadway drug store, as soon as I got off work. She appeared pleased. She exposed her teeth and the highlights in her hair flicked. I was not a stinker to the core! Deep within that reek existed a receptive team-player with a potential to better myself, and help the group succeed in a future of Exchange trading volume exceeding 2,000. That was going to be it, I prayed, but Melinda had more news. Her husband, the other executive in the family, had accepted a job with Kawasaki in Japan, Tokyo. They were moving! She was not addressing a pea then. I did not know whom she was addressing Kawasaki Relocation Timeline to. She looked at me like I was this green leafy wilderness, mysterious and unaccountable—solitary terrain she could safely skirt, talking to herself without feeling weird in the slightest. I nodded. It was true. This was part of my chronology too. Though I had always had big problems, I was also always the kid the teacher sat next to the sucker with even bigger problems, knowing I would listen to nonsense and care for nonsense and not mock and not complain because that happened to be my dysfunction—too much patience with the nonsense. “Kawasaki is arranging the move, offering us house options. I love sushi! I’ll find something in finance.” I looked at Melinda like she was a national park, a majestic American space of ambition bone muscle chirps that deserved to be fully reckoned with in the workplace but which, in many ways, could not be reckoned with in a workplace, neither by those above her nor those below. She stood when the Kawasaki details ran dry. “Congratulations on Japan!” I said, stepping forward as if to hug her, and she jumped back, and we laughed. “Where are you going on summer vacation?” She asked. “Vacation?” I asked. I did not care to chance a return to Iowa madness yet. I chanced only a single day-long NYU bus trip to Atlantic City with thirty partying nursing students that I did not know and my oldest New York friend, John Hunter, the Auden reciter and shiv inviter and reluctant student at NYU’s Courant Mathematical Institute who was turning into an artist, covering walls of a rented room in a triangular building at Lafayette and Houston with charcoal nudes. John had a new girlfriend, the painter named Lees. She had been going to come on the trip but then something came up with her day job and she couldn’t. I had only met her once. She was slight and French. She had a Joan of Arc haircut. She gestured at things with her Marlboro Light. I had seen the outing flyer pinned to a bulletin board at the NYU student center. The trip cost ten dollars, but every passenger received $25 in quarters for the slot machines. What a deal! A better-than-free way to see the mob resort where Burt Parks crooned “There she is…Miss America…” those many times at the end of the many stupid pageants my isolated family watched to feel for a few illusory hours like a part of something larger, prettier, than our petty disaster. Freckled red-haired John in his wire rims and perpetual v-neck sweater, and I in my Buddy Holly glasses and Bermuda shorts, did not gamble quarters away at Trump Castle, at Caesar’s Palace, at Harrah’s. We were famished. We shared a meal at a casino restaurant and walked on the gray hard acres of beach between the docks of blinking attractions. It was as if the sand had been mixed with a gravel additive called UGLY to drive tourists back to the poker A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
tables. John gestured at gulls with his Marlboro Light. We looked at the ship-shaped clouds scudding above the shipless sea. We talked about the prose of Virginia Woolf (blame the waves) and day job travails. John had started working as an actuary for an insurance firm, munching figures and spitting out mortality rates for different ages, sexes, regions. The plan was to quit school and work there during the day and draw and paint at night and on weekends. At John’s firm it was common knowledge that one of the number munching clerks, at precisely the same time each afternoon, retreated to the restroom to masturbate. “I guess it makes him feel more alive,” John murmured. With what arrangement of chirps would Melinda handle that workplace etiquette conversation? I wondered. Then coaxed out of John more stories about the isle of Jersey, off the English coast, where he grew up mowing lawns while reciting Auden. It was the place where Gerald Durrell, brother of Lawrence Durrell, raised leopards and zebras. The place where nightly a man—a non-drinker—went from pub to pub singing, at each stop, “Danny Boy.” What might I tell John about Anne/Anna? I had reached a point of having to see her again to be sure she existed...and at last I did. A few weeks later I settled into a miserable chair in a miserable room at 19 University Place and in she walked as in walked the tired-looking teacher in jeans, Wesley Brown. No time to exchange greetings. None! For the next hour we snuck peeks at each other across the oval conference table that made a student feel, when first sitting, like a valet asked to parallel park a station wagon in a matchbox. She saw my drugstore spiral notebook and plain chamois shirt. I was making a self-conscious effort to dress less self-consciously (less colorfully) after the bizarro imbroglio of re-writing The Parade. I saw her European notebook and gold curtain tassel earrings and hat bow akin to a pastel aeroplane swooping down to land on the tarmac of a cotton brim. Was the dress from Canal Jeans, the vintage store I passed on the way to the Exchange? Peeks confirmed a number of things. That out of 8 million New Yorkers I had not found anyone else more interesting, and neither had she. That we were the kind who could keep faith without guarantees. Not because we were extraordinary but due to the first understanding we shared. We were these two writers. Remaining diverted by the demands of making art was being loyal to ourselves, the biggest key to being real to each other. When she slid a slice of paper into the halo of light cast by the bulb in the green glass shade of an antique lamp in her Brooklyn bedroom—when I swiped at peanut shells in a 13th floor corner, clearing a delta of desk space for the Brother typewriter to rest on—we were both in the delicious grip of the same troubling but irresistible task that had instantly drawn us close in chill departmental light in January of 1987. We adored writing for the daft requests it made of us—for what we put into it rather than what we got out of it. I loved her loving writing in that inconvenient way, and so damn much. She loved my loving writing in that way, so damn much. First off, after first meeting, we had traded stories, our story of writing as kids on couches and in libraries, locking out adult malaise, and this night, before and then during a ten-minute break, we marveled again at how nothing much had changed.
100 Years Past the Middle of Nowhere Connor Wood
Instead of an address, I’d been given coordinates and a description: aim for this latitude and longitude, then look for two trailers in a horse corral. Eastmont, Nevada is an actual ghost town, and I arrived at night so it was impossible to tell which of the battered structures might lie within a horse corral. The place was silent and dark, except for a single square of light in a trailer at the edge of what passed for a town. I’d been in the car for thirteen hours, and I wasn’t about to sleep in it too. I knocked on the door. Pat, the PhD student running the study, wasn’t there1. Brian and Kristen, the other two technicians, were. We drank beer from unlabeled bottles, ate jerky from unlabeled bags. Pat, Brian told me, was the brewer and hunter. On the table was a large topo map, and I found Eastmont at a gap in the Toiyabe Range. North of town were four large black circles drawn hastily by hand. Some wildlife research requires a rigidly defined study area and strict sampling protocols. Trapping coyotes demands the opposite. The next morning we followed the single gravel road out of Eastmont, north into emptiness. On either side of us were mountains, corrugated and green and rising abruptly from flat sage. We met Pat at the homestead of a tough old guy named Jerry, who’d been a hot air balloon pilot for twenty-odd years before buying a plot of land an hour past the middle of nowhere. Jerry had built a log cabin and a corral, dug a well, set up an array of solar panels. Pat had just finished kegging an oatmeal stout he’d made. Naturally we all had some, ten a.m. be damned. Pat said the next couple days would be admin and logistics, then trapping would begin in earnest. Nearly a third of a year lay before us without rhythm or pattern, but it felt strangely full, comfortingly full. We had two sites in the Toiyabe Range and two in the Egan Range, the mountains that framed a long desolate valley (which was technically a basin—the little water it saw never left). A web of unmaintained dirt roads allowed us to explore as necessary, and we traversed an area roughly one hundred miles long and seventy-five wide. The valley was dust and basin sagebrush, with a herd of skittish pronghorn, hordes of jackrabbits, and ravens and massive golden eagles that seemed to subsist on roadkilled rabbits. Where the mountains rose from the valley were groves of mountain mahogany, piñon pine, aspen, and sometimes juniper. Higher still, the trees gave way to grasses and black and pygmy sagebrush. Endless sage: velvet leaves that scented the wind, and gnarled limbs with flakey bark that hid the nests of sparrows and larks. Red tailed hawks and prairie falcons patrolled the skies, and kestrels perched along the fences separating cattle grazing allotments. The roads were all bad, many impossible to travel without shifting to 4L and first gear and picking a careful route. Some were dizzyingly steep and carved from sheer slopes, others flat and gut-rattling rough. When the rains started late in the season, a storm carved hip-deep ruts through the softer ones. But there was no rain the first nine weeks. Three days of snow in early June, but no rain. The skies were blindingly clear, marred only by plumes of dust that scurried across the valley in 1
Pat isn’t around Eastmont much these days either; his work on this project landed him a job as the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s Predator Biologist.
the afternoons. The air was so dry we only got sweaty sitting on the hot seats of the trucks, which was just as well because it was so dusty that we would’ve been caked in mud otherwise. We scouted for signs of coyotes along empty roads through jungles of willow in ravines, and along windswept plateaus where mountains rumbled along the faded edges of the sky in all directions, snow still clinging to their flanks. We set coyote traps—spring-loaded steel jaws that snap shut when a small pan between them is depressed. It doesn’t break bone or skin, but it hurts like hell. The trap is attached to a spring, then a short chain, then three feet of metal cable. Dig a shallow depression and drive the cable into the ground all the way to the chain, then pull on the trap as if your life depended on it. If you can’t get it out, neither can a coyote. Then loosely bury the chain in dirt and arm the trap. Sift coarse sand or anthill dirt over the trap (both drain water well and don’t cake into mud if it rains), then a fine layer of the original dirt over that. Next add a scent lure (Gusto, for example, which is made from putrefied skunk glands) and a visual lure (a stray cow skull, or take a shovel and dig a faux fox den and spray fox urine (from the bottle with the scent lures) around the entrance). Then wait. We set fourteen traps the first day. The next day, twelve more, then ten more after that. We set them at road intersections, canyon junctions, saddles between valleys, spots where we’d found scat: the places we thought coyote traffic was likely. If we caught a coyote, we’d collar it. Each collar had a GPS tracker and a radio transmitter. When the battery runs low, the collar is designed to automatically release itself from the animal. When it has been motionless for more than twenty-four hours, it switches from a slow beep…beep… beep to a double-time beep beep beep, and if you want the GPS data, you need to go find the collar. Once a month Pat chartered a plane to check the status of the collars he’d deployed the previous summer. When the pilot reported a mortality signal, we’d hike out to the coordinates, triangulate the transmitter, and search out the collar. Sometimes they lay half-buried in mud or tangled in sage. Sometimes they lay with their bearer, a withered carcass of matted fur and bones that almost always had a bullet hole. ab Once, Eastmont had ten thousand people. Now the official population is seven. Squinting beyond the ruins and across the ages I could watch it all unfold. The tectonic plate beneath our feet was stretching, cracking, breaking. Along those thousand faults the pieces tipped, one end sinking into the furnaces, the other rising up from the desert bearing veins of silver. Row after row of mountains, and between them, planed by wind and water and time, basin after basin. The animals had little use for the silver and the plants dug mostly for nitrogen, so the land remained empty and wild. But when desperate dusty white men began to find that silver, the place exploded. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Eastmont was born of necessity as men came in droves with a shovel and a prayer, and in a matter of years it went from a spring along a half-forgotten trail to the county seat. It even had a Chinatown. The coyotes, mountain lions, and golden eagles were shot and poisoned. The mule deer were nearly hunted out. The rat population boomed as the human population outpaced its rudimentary sanitary systems. The merchants made money hand over fist as the miners burrowed into the mountains. They burrowed and burrowed and soon they’d wrung dry every mine they could dig. Then Prosperity, that damnably fleeting mistress, disappeared, and most everyone chased her shimmering skirts. A few stayed to raise cattle and a few stayed just to stay, but the town’s zenith had passed. On Fridays in the summer the population sometimes climbs past twenty. The saloon was always open; Henry and Bertie sat on the porch and people came by or didn’t. The church had a service every other Sunday. The place played its part, and when the role ended, it watched quietly as the world forgot. The mountains remain, impassive, barely altered, future islands in a future sea. ab
We set webs of Sherman traps for small mammals. Sherman traps are little metal boxes about the height and length of a shoebox and half the width. We could catch whatever liked the smell of birdseed and peanut butter and could fit through the door, which would snap shut behind them. The web array, a central point with twelve spokes of twelve traps each radiating outward (plus four more traps at the center), is the optimal trap configuration to measure the density of small mammals. That information is important because small mammals, mice and voles mostly, are coyote food. Each site had two webs; we ran each web twice for four nights at a time. The biggest hazard was rattlesnakes waiting outside traps for the dinner they smelled inside. We did nighttime rabbit surveys. An hour after sunset, we’d cruise through the sites at about seven miles per hour with spotlights out both windows. Whenever we saw eye-shine, we would identify the eyes (cottontail? jackrabbit? pygmy rabbit? mule deer? cow? hallucination?), measure the distance with rangefinders, and record the location. Like the Sherman trap webs, this was a way to measure the density of coyote food2. But collecting the data was more a test of endurance than intellect, and we passed the nights listening to a.m. radio talk shows about aliens and conspiracies, listening to music and making up rabbit-themed lyrics, telling stories, lapsing into long silences. We walked miles of dusty roads, clearing off the coyote scat so that we could periodically walk those roads later in the season and pick up new scat. Analyzing the contents of the scat would tell Pat what the coyotes were eating, which could be compared to the prey densities. One evening we drove down to Eastmont and drank beer behind the trailers as the sun went down. Then Pat with a bottle of homemade jalapeño wine and we with our beers walked over 2 The technique is known as distance sampling, and it is actually the same analytical paradigm underpinning the trap web arrays.
to the saloon. It was the kind of place where you could do that. Music spilled out when the door banged open as kids ran across the street shouting. Henry and Bertie were sitting on the porch, unfazed. Henry was an old man with a big white beard, a respectable belly, and a toothpick perpetually hanging from the corner of his mouth. Bertie was a tiny, wizened woman with an easy smile. Pat gave her the wine. “The Pickers are playing tonight, which I expect you know,” Henry said. “Thank you for the wine, Pat,” Bertie said. “Sure thing, I hope you like it. I’m pretty happy with this batch.” “I’m sure we will.” “Bigger crowd ‘n usual,” Henry said. “The Bishop crew came out for the show.” “Jerry here?” “Haven’t seen him, but I expect he’ll turn up.” I followed Pat inside, glad to know someone who knew someone. Weathered men with guitars and cowboy hats sat around a small table with beers and a bottle of whiskey. The leader wore a black felt Stetson and a striped shirt with pearl buttons, and had a deep voice perfected by forty years of cigarettes. Everyone shut up when he sang. Around them sat old folks in chairs, then men in jeans wearing cowboy hats or ball caps with sunglasses on the brim and women with dyed hair. I talked to a couple guys, who confirmed that they were the Bishop Crew. They said they all came over now and again to see the Pickers play, but no one seemed to know when or how the tradition started. When they learned that I was trapping coyotes, they wanted to know if I got a rifle. No, I said, no rifle. Just radio collars. No rifle? No rifle. Everyone bought everyone else drinks, cheered after the music, talked and teased between songs. The singer, Oz, motioned for another beer and didn’t immediately get one. “I ain’t holding this can up cause I’m toasting you sons of bitches,” he shouted, “It’s cause I need a new beer.” Laughter, and a can lurched forward from the bar. The walls and ceiling were smoke-stained wood and laden with rusty saw blades and spurs: real things that were put up long ago and had gotten old up there. There were photos of Eastmont, people that were long dead standing with children that might’ve been sitting in the room. The beers were all coming out of a big icebox under the bar, the whiskey from bottles people had brought. We left some time around midnight, and they played on and on, the little place vibrant with life. Light and laughter kept the darkness at bay, and later as the last taillights faded, each would return to his own part of the night knowing full well the value of good company. It was perfect, and it was then that I decided that when I wrote it all down, I’d scramble the directions and the landmarks3. ab 3
Which I did.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Deep in one site was a spring-fed stream that funneled into a red rock canyon. Pat said it would be a good spot for a trap, and dropped me off with a compass, a GPS, and a radio. They were going to extend the trap line farther south; I was to explore the canyon as far as possible, then hike out and meet them on the ridge. I crossed a meadow and entered the rounded red gates of the canyon. Cool air, lush mats of still-dewy grass, and coyote tracks: two sets, the big prints of a male and the smaller ones of a female. I took pictures, noted the coordinates, and continued. The stream bounced from one wall of the canyon to the other leaving soft banks of dark mud. And in that mud were occasional tracks. They, like me, had been moving downstream. Probably in the early hours of that very morning: the tracks were crisp. Then aspen and willow clogged the canyon, and I saw small depressions of crumpled grass leading away from the tracks to the trees. Very fresh sign. The canyon felt alive, electric with the presence of the Other. It wasn’t just narrow stone walls with trees and grass and a few wildflowers rising to wide sage slopes with some rough dirt roads under a cloudless sky. It wasn’t just my world. To the coyotes, these same features carried different meanings: water, good rabbit hunting, bad rabbit hunting, mountain lion danger, the margin of my territory abutting that of the old male who might not be able to defend himself soon, the border shared with the young male who might be a problem if we both make it to next spring, cattle grazing, good mouse hunting, that intriguing smell on the cow skull that appeared yesterday along the road to the north. There was no sense in following the tracks into the aspens so I scaled the wall of the canyon. At the top of the ridge I found the road they’d taken, but I couldn’t get Pat on the radio. The sky was clear and silent, and it was over an hour before I saw the truck. ab
Drinking beer with Jerry and Oz early one afternoon, looking out at the valley. Oz had come by to borrow some specialized tool, which, to both of their surprise, Jerry couldn’t find. Both had built their own houses and if they weren’t both violently opposed to the notion, they probably could have built a small city. (Oz: “To build your own house, you need two things. You need a strong lower back and you need to be built just like you.” —he nods to me— “I’m built the same way. You could boil me down and there wouldn’t be enough fat to feed a mouse.”) Jerry had taken his time, and lived for two years in a teepee while the place came together. Oz did it all at once, impelled to do something with the pile of telephone poles he’d bought under uncertain circumstances for $300. They discussed their latest projects then lapsed into silence. “This is good country,” Jerry said after a time. Oz nodded. It was, and, for now, still is. But the last thing they meant by “country” is flags and borders. No, they meant an empty place upon which you could exert your will, a canvas stretched and primed but unmarked. It’s not the gaudy patriotism of Mount Rushmore or rape-and-run attitude
of the robber barons who pillage public land for oil and gas or the hedonism of desert golf courses and strip malls. It’s setting up a tank and a hose next to the hot springs to make your own hot tub and staring through the crosshairs at a treed mountain lion but not pulling the trigger and building your own home entirely off the grid and living life on precisely your own terms in the face of a holy and inexorable adversary: the land itself. If you don’t keep leather boots well oiled, the heat will crack them apart in a year, and in twenty the scrub will reclaim every inch of land you’ve turned to pasture, and the huge basins themselves are but eroded ruins of mountains torn down by wind and water to pool between ranges. And yet they sense that the chance to fight is the ultimate victory, and thus what passes from day to day as an adversary is actually a truer god than most. Good country only stays good with an abiding and rarely spoken ethic. Even a rarely-used road will scar the sage for decades, and if everyone built just roads, the whole place would go to shit. It is good country because it remains wild, because it is still shared with almost everything that was there originally, because not doing everything that you’re technically free to do is part of the bargain. Good country is kept good by a deep respect for the canvas and the other painters. They’re here because of the freedom the land affords them, not because of what they can extract from it. “You need a project a year to keep the desert out,” Oz told me. I wasn’t sure if he meant out of your pasture or out of your head, and I realized that there wasn’t much of a difference. ab We spent weeks, off and on, in a high aspen grove that was alive with birdsong. It woke me before dawn, and I’d crawl out of my tent, shiver, and watch the sunrise amidst the jumble of music. I could see pastel mountains in the distance and scraps of cloud, as if the peaks had quietly floated away in the night. Then the sun would crest the rise and within minutes the sky would be a burning blue expanse without depth or texture. The dew would disappear, and we’d check the traps: Sherman or coyote. I saw elk and mule deer and wild horses. I found the nests of warblers, robins, finches, juncos, and sparrows. A pair of mountain bluebirds nested in a cavity in an aspen near my tent. I knew when their eggs hatched because suddenly they were flying constantly through camp with insects caught in their beaks, like winged pieces of afternoon sky. Soft winds rustled the delicate lime leaves as towering white clouds lumbered slowly eastward. I thought idly about people I knew in that distant world in which I used to live, the one which I suspected had kept on turning just fine without me, and it was pleasant, not lonely. Their troubles and mine had abruptly diverged, and there was nothing else but lying under this particular tree and listening to the birds and the breeze that I had to be doing right then. And even if there was, there was nothing else I could be doing. Another camp lay along a stream below a rocky knoll draped in piñon scrub that offered A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
views into the next valley. For days, ours were the only tire tracks. Heat stilled the world, and by dinner I’d drunk four liters of water and was still thirsty. I’d climb the rocky knoll with my whiskey and look out at the valley. The stars were the only lights. Nothing else, not a house or a car or a fire. Not even a satellite treading the night. Lightning jumped between clouds hidden by black mountains, but I never heard a sound and the storms stayed somewhere beyond the horizon. I tried to take notes by headlamp but gave up because it drew into its orbit so many moths that I couldn’t see the paper. All was silent, though not by the absence of sound, and still, though not by the absence of motion. I was tiptoeing across a giant stage, and the curtains were drawn but the set was empty, the seats unfilled. Too early? Too late? Or perhaps this, all along, was, is, will be the show. ab
Wayne lived across the valley from Jerry and about two centuries behind everyone else. Midsummer he and his crew rounded up a hundred head of cattle and drove them into a corral of gnarled piñon pine trunks held together by wire. They had a smoldering fire with two brands, a bench with a couple coolers, and a bucket half full of blood and testicles. Black cattle milled about, braying and skittish. Two men on horseback navigated the herd, twirling lassoes and scanning for calves. “You’re up,” Wayne said. One of the riders had hooked a calf and was dragging it in by the hind legs. I followed him towards the center of the corral. He walked quickly, giving the instructions just above a whisper. No time for questions, the calf slid past, and Wayne grabbed the rope and yanked. The calf was pulled taught; I grabbed tail and ear and heaved it to the ground. Dust mushroomed out and the calf strained, eyes wild. Wayne was at its head, knife out. I knelt hard just behind its shoulder, pinning it down, grabbed the front leg, bent it at each joint. Wayne cut a notch from each of the calf’s ears, tossed the black triangles away. Henry waddled over and he pressed a brand against the calf and I felt it heave against me. Gray-green smoke hissed up and I smelled burning hair, then burning leather, then burning flesh. It hissed the whole way through and that was the only sound save boots and hooves treading dirt. A woman injected the calf’s neck with antibiotics as Wayne felt along the calf’s belly, made an incision, dug around with a dusty bloody finger, slid his knife in, pulled out a small pale testicle, found the other, cut it out. I saw the brim of Wayne’s hat nod, working this close with hats on you rarely see anyone’s face. He stepped away, I looked to the rider, who nodded, then I stood away. The rope went slack, the calf jumped up and hobbled back to the herd. The smell of burned hair and flesh would cling to my clothing for days. A couple hours, and all the calves were fixed, and they opened the gate. A handful of riders guided the herd back towards the mountains. Henry and a couple others opened beers. “Anyone want nuts?” asked a woman with the bloody bucket. “Anyone want nuts?”
The whole process has barely changed for centuries. Hasn’t needed to. I appreciated that as much as the glimpse of their world, and the same could be said of coyote trapping. Wildlife biology has eagerly embraced modernity. We glue radio transmitters to butterflies to track their migrations. We use genomics—the same high-throughput genetic techniques that mapped the human genome—to trace the evolutionary history of endangered species. We use Bayesian statistics—an approach more sophisticated and far more complex than traditional probabilistic statistics—to run population models on supercomputers4. The hardware in the collars is a triumph of miniaturization and durability—tiny microchips and a pea-sized accelerometer wired to lithium-ion batteries embedded in epoxy. And, like all GPS products, they’re dependent on a fleet of satellites orbiting the planet. Those satellites are operated by the United States Air Force, and the processes that enable them to pinpoint the location of a coyote are a direct result of the Cold War. But at the end of the day, if you want to put that fancy transmitter on a coyote, you need the animal in your hands. The techniques of the trapper are an art earned by years of dedication, and though the traps themselves have been refined over the centuries, the fundamentals haven’t changed. Trapping is, as it has been since the dawn of our species, the elemental confrontation of man and animal. “If we caught a coyote, we’d collar it,” I said earlier. In the scientific literature, that might read, “We trapped coyotes using steel foot-hold traps, and attached GPS breakaway collars with VHF transmitters.” What both versions contain but do not emphasize is the marriage of two worlds born millennia apart. ab One morning Pat and I had an angry bobcat in a trap, were charged by a mule deer when we howled for coyotes, and found a coyote pup in a trap at the far end of the canyon I’d scouted. We couldn’t collar a puppy because a collar snug enough to stay on a pup would choke an adult, and it probably wouldn’t survive to adulthood anyways. So Pat pinned the pup and I pried the trap off its foot, and it darted away, tail between its legs. We reset the trap and headed back to Jerry’s. That was the most that had happened any one morning all summer and we both wanted to wager a couple beers that it was the most that would happen any one morning for the rest of the summer, but no one would take the bet. By late July we’d only collared one coyote, which Pat and Brian had processed. If that worried Pat, he didn’t show it. He’d collared five the summer before, and if push came to shove, he could hire a helicopter crew to collar some animals in the winter. “From what I’ve heard, that’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” he said. “They track the animals from the air, and from about twenty or thirty feet up they shoot nets out 4 One prominent biostatistician, however, has warned against “statistical machismo.” If a simple t-test will suffice, he said, there is no need to do anything more.
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of a modified rocket launcher.” We were tuning traps in the shade of the trailer at Jerry’s, testing the tension on the pan, where the animal would step. We’d arm the traps, trigger them with a spring encased in hard plastic that measured psi, adjust a tension by tightening or loosening a little nut on the trap. “Then they’ll swoop down and the shooter will usually jump from pretty high up and secure the animal before it hurts itself. Then they’ll basically duct-tape the coyote’s jaws shut, collar it, cut it loose, and get another.” “Shit man, why aren’t we just doing that?” I asked as a trap snapped shut inches from my fingers. “Cause it’s a couple grand an hour.” “Oh.” “We’ll get one though.” No coyotes the next morning. No coyotes the next morning. No coyotes the next morning, but one gray fox. No coyotes the next morning. Then we caught a twenty-six-pound male5. Pat pinned him, handed the pole to Kristen, gave him a dose of sedatives. Within a few minutes he was out and we moved back in. The animal we’d been hunting all summer was finally in our hands. We shut and covered his eyes, measured his body and monitored his vitals. Pat activated and tested the GPS collar. If it worked properly, the collar would record over thirty-five hundred time-stamped locations over the next two years. Even with just a fraction of that, Pat would have an incredibly intimate portrait of the animal. How big is its home range, does that change with season, what ecological variables influence its movements, how much ground does it tend to cover, roughly how many other coyotes can fit into the mountain range? And much more, but the science of it didn’t really matter to me right then. All I felt was the visceral awe of seeing this predator laid out before me. I’d trapped marten before, and they snarled at us from inside the traps. I’d respected them for that, but we’d caught them at will. This coyote, though, had taken months of finesse. Pat had cycled through an array of fifteen or twenty foul lures special-ordered from grizzled old trappers (a coyote will never check the same lure twice) and we’d scouted the terrain and carefully crafted the trap-sets, and then pulled them, and come back weeks later and set more and then pulled them again, and come back again to set more, and now we had the creature before us. The last thing in the world I wanted was a rifle. The coyote’s paw was unharmed, so after double-checking the fit, Pat attached the collar6. 5 Twenty-six pounds is normal for males in western North America. In the east, which they have colonized relatively recently, forty-pound males are not unusual. 6
He carried that collar for eleven months in the Toiyabes before it dropped off. The collar from another male
We’d set up a dog crate in the shade of a tree and covered it in branches, and Pat lay the still-limp coyote inside to sober up. The whole procedure had taken just twenty minutes. We returned an hour later and Pat opened the crate. The coyote shot out and disappeared into a gully without a backward glance. The day before, from the ridge above that trap, I’d howled at the top of my lungs and just as the echo died, coyotes howled back. First pups, then adults. I was giddy: without knowing what I was saying, I’d conversed with the true residents of the mountains. With one of them finally caught, I felt more like a cunning stranger than an awkward imposter. ab Late August. We followed routine quietly. After the morning trap check I’d lie in my tent crucified by heat. It was too hot to read or sleep or write with the mesh door zipped up, and with it unzipped there were too many flies to read or sleep or write. So I’d just lie there and wait for the cool breeze that rose every afternoon, bringing clouds and sometimes rain. We’d scout new roads for traps, set a few, stand on empty ridgelines and howl and listen for a response as the echoes faded. We sawed firewood for Jerry. We watched the sky as it turned from burning blue to low gray to a fiery fugue to a sea of stars. Pat cooked a chicken on a spit whittled from an aspen branch; I mashed potatoes with a cudgel carved from an aspen log. We pulled the last traps without catching another coyote. I woke the final morning disoriented: there was nothing left to do. From Jerry’s porch the visible world was hemmed in by low blue mountains. Written like runes on the landscape were gravel roads without discernable destinations, rulerstraight from one horizon to the next, and wild wandering alluvial fans at the mouths of the canyons pouring dust into dried rivers. Space as an expanse to be traversed or space as a matrix through which to wander: either way it was the logic of expediency, but they spoke of different worlds. And though I was returning to the former, I sensed that for a time I’d come close to belonging to the latter.
revealed that he spent three months in one mountain range, moved thirty miles in two days to spend another three months in a different range, moved ninety miles in three days to yet another range, and was shot two weeks later.
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In the first place, I wanted the bike. I had asked for it—mostly because I had the idea that it’s what kids have. Kids have bikes. I had seen that this was true both on TV and on our own block, where Kay Lynn and her brother Rusty, next door, and Diane, two doors the other way, and Keithy Edmonds and both the MacArthur boys and Dean who mowed our lawn on Saturday afternoons and Kelly who took professional acting lessons because her mother thought she looked like Judy Garland all had bikes. They tooled around, making wide rick-rack arcs around parked cars or pedaling fast toward some imaginary emergency. If I had a bike, I would be one of them. Meaning I would be a kid. The bike would make me a real kid. I didn’t explain all that to my parents. For one thing, I thought it should be self-evident. I had just turned seven. Some of those kids were younger than me. My parents should know it was time I had a bike, but I didn’t know how to say that. So I just said, one afternoon when my father was sitting in his big chair in the living room, the Daily Oklahoman spread open in front of him, and my mother still at work, “I want a bike for Christmas.” It was late November, past my birthday. Just after Thanksgiving my mother would bring the box with the aluminum Christmas tree in from the garage, and we would move the stack of old newspapers from the coffee table and set the tree up there, facing the picture window so the neighbors could see. We would decorate it with bright red balls and tiny snow angels and spiky green stars. My father would ask what I’d like for Christmas, and chances were good I’d get what I wanted. A bike was a big deal, though. It seemed good to ask early. I waited, and when he didn’t answer, I said again, “Do you think I could have a bike?” He moved his hand slightly, ruffling the newspaper. I looked at the grey type on the back. He didn’t say anything for a minute, and then he said in a vague voice, “We’ll see.” It was a bad sign. ab We lived on a street called Lancaster Lane, a long narrow street of starter homes that were among the cheapest you could get on the desirable side of Oklahoma City in the mid-1960s. Our neighborhood was called West Nichols Hills, an area of manor-named streets that jutted out straight from the curvilinear avenues of the real Nichols Hills, where what my mother called “those rich people” lived in houses with semi-circular driveways and lawns groomed smooth as moss and doorbells that chimed half a symphony when you rang to sell Girl Scout cookies. A tall hedge divided our end from theirs. West Nichols Hills houses were all alike: single-car garages, scrappy lawns, and boxy shrubs that passed for landscaping. Most were owned by young couples who crammed themselves and two or three children and a dog into a thousand square feet, give or take, until they saved up for something bigger. The dads had jobs like working construction or selling insurance, and the moms stayed home in un-air-conditioned houses, sweltering in the summer heat. I knew we were different. My parents were old—that’s one way we were different. My mothA Journal of Creative Nonfiction
er was in her forties, my dad in his sixties. She went to a job; that made us different, too. Every weekday morning, she set off in her black Plymouth Fury with chrome above the headlights that looked like her penciled-on eyebrows to work as a secretary. My father worked odd hours in a discount store selling refrigerators and washers and dryers and TVs and air conditioners on straight commission, which meant he only brought home a paycheck if somebody bought something. He had been, earlier in life, the kind of salesman who traveled the road. That’s what he had been doing when my mother married him. In her late thirties, an “old maid” in those days, she had quit the job she’d had for seventeen years to go on the road with him, touring around Colorado and Wyoming and Kansas with sample cases of floor tile in the trunk of his Cadillac. If I hadn’t come along, as she put it, they probably would have gone their separate ways. Since I had, they cobbled together a life on Lancaster Lane. We had stuff—that made us different, too. Not just the Cadillac, a boxy green model from the late fifties that looked out of place on a street lined with Fords and Chevys. And not stuff like the people beyond the hedge—we were too poor for that. But my father could get things wholesale, so we had the only window air conditioner on the block and an automatic dishwasher, and I saw The Wizard of Oz turn to color after Dorothy is whisked from Kansas at least a year before my classmates. My mother worried about what all that stuff cost, even wholesale. It’s not that she minded the comforts of air conditioning and the dishwasher, but she said it wasn’t polite to act like we were better off than other people, and she didn’t like our house being a conversation piece, which it was. “Can we come in and feel your cool?” the Smith kids asked one day soon after they moved into the house across the street. There were three of them, all younger than me, two girls and a boy. My mother was at work, my father napping. I told them to be quiet, then watched as they stood in front of our air conditioner, arms held out to feel the cold air. “Do you want to see our ice cubes, too?” I asked. I liked our ice cubes. They came from a little box in the corner of the freezer. You could see them up there, lined up perfectly straight, like the Radio City Rockettes, until the contraption they were in swung up and over and the ice cubes tumbled into a plastic tray. “See,” I said, picking one up to show them its half-moon shape. I let them each hold one. At times like that, I felt like we were just a little better than people who had to make do with window fans and square ice cubes from metal trays. But all that stuff, and my mother’s job, and being the only child of older-than-most parents, made me feel different. A bike, I thought, could fix it. ab Why I thought a bike was the thing that could make me normal—for that’s how I saw it—is no surprise. Kids with bikes appeared everywhere, especially in advertisements. “Dreaming of a bike for Christmas? Make sure it’s a Western Flyer. You’ll wheel around town in style,” reads one ad
showing a sleeping boy with visions of bright bicycles, rather than sugar plums, swirling about his head as an approving Santa looks on. “What dreams are made of…Roadmaster,” proclaims another. Again, a boy sleeps contentedly while downstairs, his new bike waits next to the tree. A girl wheels along happily, waving to friends, in an ad that promises, “Back at school, everyone will envy the boy or girl” on the bike with “space age style.” One ad features a tiny girl—maybe three or four—beside her pink Schwinn “Pixie,” with streamers and removable training wheels, while another shows a slightly older girl—though younger than I was—admiring her Schwinn “Tornado.” In yet another, a pig-tailed girl zooms by on a blue bike. Bikes were synonymous with childhood, and I was missing out. ab At first, I didn’t think I would get the bike, but then a few days before Christmas, I saw my mother slip out the kitchen door on her way to the garage with a basket of laundry. “Wait for me,” I said, following her down the steps and along the narrow sidewalk that edged the house to the back of the garage. I was a clingy child and followed her everywhere. She half turned. “It’s a nice day. Why don’t you stay out here and play?” But it wasn’t a nice day. It was cold, grey—the soupy grey of a snowless winter. The grass was dead. There was nothing to do. I spied the thing immediately when I stepped into the garage. It was in the corner near the front, covered with an old blanket. “What’s that?” I said, springing towards it. “Nothing. Come help me fold.” I could see, though, beneath the blanket, the edge of a tire and silver-colored metal that turned out to be the kickstand. “Jane! Leave that alone.” But already I had pulled off the blanket. There it was, blue-green and new, with whitewall tires and a little chrome rack over the back wheel. Mother put the clothes basket down and came to stand beside me, the surprise obviously over. “Well, do you like it?” I knew the correct response. This moment was scripted; I had seen it on TV. A new bike! My job here was surprise, delight. But the wheels were huge and the seat was high and when I tried to take hold of the handlebars, I could barely reach the far one. It was an adult bike. As if reading my mind, my mother said, “We thought you would grow into it.” She rolled the garage door up. Winter sunlight poured in. “Would you like to take it out on the driveway?” I walked the bike around the black Plymouth, onto the narrow edge of concrete between the car and grass. It careened and nearly toppled as I pushed. “How do you like it?” she asked again. “I love it.” ab
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Opie Taylor loved his bike. In an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, Andy rewards Opie’s good report card with a new bicycle. “It’s neat!” Opie exclaims, eyes wide, when he first sees it hidden behind the couch where Aunt Bea sits, extra pillows piled high at her back in a futile attempt to hide the surprise. Although Opie’s straight A’s turn out to be Miss Crump’s clerical error, Andy lets him keep it. “Go on, ride your bike,” Andy tells him in the last scene, as Opie throws one leg over the seat and wheels easily across the yard. From the front porch, Andy and Aunt Bea look on approvingly. ab After we had eaten supper and the news was over and my mother was checking the TV listings to see what was on next, my father laid the newspaper aside and looked at me. “Now, I don’t want you riding the bike in the street,” he said. He was sitting in his big chair. Despite its thronelike position in front of the TV, I never saw him as the typical patriarch. People said he spoiled me. I don’t remember who said that. Neighbors. Relatives. Maybe teachers. All I remember is concerned disapproval that emanated from the world at large. Now he resembled a king issuing a decree. Mother sat on the couch, the TV Guide in her hand. I saw her glance up from it, brow knit disapprovingly, mouth pursed as if she were biting a sour cherry, but she was silent. “You’ll just get killed in the street,” he said. “You can ride it up and down the driveway and around the back yard.” The edict clamped around me like great metal jaws. The driveway, wide enough for one car, was just long enough for her Plymouth and his Cadillac parked end-to-end. Even if the space between the cars and the edge of the concrete were wide enough to pedal, I’d have to get off at the curb and hoist the bike around to go back the other way and then do the same thing near the house, over and over. Our back yard was big, but riding around in an endless loop missed the point, like riding a real horse on a merry-go-round. “But everyone rides in the street,” I said. “Well, you’re not.” 69
ab Just before Andy says, “Go on, ride your bike,” Opie asks, “Pa, when you was a boy, did you have a bike?” “Yeah, why?” Andy answers, as if it were a given. And one of the dreaming-boy ads advises, “Bring Dad down to Western Auto today.” There seemed to be a general agreement: All dads had once had bikes. Dads knew about
bikes. That’s how the world worked. But if my own father had ever been on a bike, he never mentioned it. Bikes were around during his childhood. There’d even been a production boom in 1899, the year he was born, and an ad in his county newspaper from not long before that says you could send off to the Elgin Sewing Machine and Bicycle Co. for a “strictly high grade” Gunning Safety Bike. But they were apparently eyed with suspicion. The year my father turned eight, two local boys around his age were fined and sentenced to community service for what the newspaper called the “danger and annoyance” of bike-riding on sidewalks. Of course, that was in town. Out on the farm where my father grew up, the roads weren’t yet graded. And I doubt his family could afford a bike. By the time he got a pair of shoes, they’d been worn first by each of his four older brothers. He walked to school or rode a mule. He’d grown up in a different story. ab Where I rode my bike wouldn’t matter until I learned how. The day after I found it in the garage, my mother wheeled it out onto a flat, open area of the back yard where there was nothing but dead grass, yellow the color of hay, poking out through the rock-hard dirt. My father stood on the back porch, arms crossed, watching. Mother set the bike up and held it while I climbed onto the seat. I pawed the air for pedals but couldn’t reach them. “Get off and I’ll lower the seat,” she said. She got pliers and jimmied the thing around. When she had managed to lower it, I got back on. “Do you think you can ride it?” my father asked. The truth was I didn’t know. Sitting there gripping the handlebars, toes just touching the ground, with nothing in sight to hang on to, I struggled to hold the thing upright. I liked the bike, though it seemed made for someone I wasn’t yet, and might never be—the kind of girl you’d see on Clearasil commercials or The Patty Duke Show, smiling and thinking about boys. And I was no athlete. On the playground, I tangled my feet in the jump rope and instinctively ducked when any sort of ball came toward me. Trying to skate on the sidewalk in front of our house, I could barely make it three or four feet before toppling onto the grass or grabbing the post of our gas lamp. I’d take the skates off, relieved to plant my feet on solid ground again. “I can ride it,” I told him, because I didn’t want him to think I couldn’t. I toed the right pedal up to where I could reach it and put my foot on. If I could shove off with the right foot, I thought, I would be able to put my left foot on the pedal when it came back up and around. But as soon as I picked up my left foot, the bike listed to the side. Instinctively, I put my foot back down to catch myself. I tried a couple more times, but the same thing happened. “Maybe we need to get you training wheels,” my mother said finally. “Do you think she needs them?” my father asked. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
That was like him. He thought I should be a genius at everything. My off-pitch singing would take me to the New York stage. When teachers said I wrote well, he predicted an early Pulitzer. Nothing was supposed to be hard for me—even something he didn’t want me to do. “I don’t know how else she’ll learn,” my mother told him. “She’ll just get on and ride.” And the thing is, I wanted to just get on and ride. Training wheels were for babies. ab You’d think a man who’d spent his life on the road, who liked the gleaming chrome of a Cadillac (even bought used) and owning the latest conveniences (even bought wholesale), would understand bicycles. I can’t say the problem was gender; he was always telling me to go places and make something of myself. And he didn’t mind if I walked in the street. I often walked as far as Kelly’s at the end of the block, and once I crossed May Avenue, with its four lanes of cars, to walk up and down the aisles of the Humpty Dumpty Supermarket, buy nothing, and walk home, though I never told either parent that. And of course, I walked beyond the hedge, where the other kids rode their bikes. It was a parallel world, a through-the-looking-glass miracle—a place to imagine other possibilities. At least that’s how it was for me. ab
After a few more attempts in the back yard, my mother began to fret about the bike. She’d left home during the Great Depression and was always worried about money. If I didn’t learn how to ride the bike, she said, what they had spent on it would be wasted. I suppose in a way a big bike made sense; I wouldn’t outgrow it the way I outgrew new shoes. One weekend, when we had gone to the farm where she’d grown up and she and I were walking across the yard toward the garden to gather vegetables, she stopped. “Come here a minute. I want to show you something.” We had been walking along easily, but now she had her severe look—brow knit, mouth taut. We practically marched toward the long low wooden building that had been my grandparents’ house before they built their new one in the late twenties. Part of it was a garage now, the other part a chicken coop. They clucked around our feet, pecking at the ground for bits of food. My mother stopped by the porch. It had become a storage space for things that were no longer used but had never been thrown away: my grandmother’s wringer washer, a grinding stone off its frame, rusted farm machinery. Among all that, leaning against the house, was a bike. “See there,” my mother said, pointing. “That was my bicycle. I used to ride it.” She didn’t say, “There was nothing wrong with me. I could ride a bike, so what’s wrong with you?” but it felt like that’s what she meant.
I looked at the bike. It was smaller than mine, the right size for a child. Perhaps we could take it home and send my too-big bike back and I could learn to ride this one. It was hers, so it would be free. But the frame had rusted and the tires were flat and the seat bare metal with no cushion. Some enterprising animal had probably taken whatever the seat had been stuffed with to use as a nest. I envied that animal. Unlike me, it knew how to make good use of a bike. “Where did you ride it?” I asked, because it seemed like I should say something. That bike must have been a luxury when she was a girl during the boom years before the Depression set in. Her face softened a little, remembering. “Around the barns, up to the pond. Just around.” She motioned with one hand to indicate the flat expanse of Oklahoma farmland. I pictured it: my mother young, riding down narrow paths and across fields. Riding must have come easily to her. But the farm just seemed like a giant back yard. What was the point? We stood there a minute. Then she said, “Come on. Let’s go to the garden.” ab I did play with other kids. I played house with Kay Lynn and Kelly and Diane and dress-up in an old red taffeta half-slip that had been my mother’s, safety-pinning it over one shoulder in a look that was half Tarzan, half Cinderella. She could be a fun mom, digging it out for us to play with. Like the ice cubes and air conditioner, that taffeta slip made me feel important, if not popular. But everyone on our block, parents and kids alike, knew I was The Girl Who Can’t Ride a Bike. Kids teased me. Keithy Edmonds was the worst. A tough, muscly kid a year younger than me, he made wide circles on his Sting Ray one afternoon while Kay Lynn and I played on our porch. “Jane can’t even ride a bike,” he taunted in a sing-song voice, rising up off the banana seat to show his superiority. “I can, too,” I said, but we went in the house to get away from him. ab Not long after that day at my grandparents’, my cousin Teresa came to stay with us for a week. Terri was five years older. My mother said maybe if I saw Terri ride, I would ride, too. Whether I could not ride or would not ride seemed to have become indistinguishable—a problem of will as much as ability. The bike was brought out through the garage into the back yard. My mother cleaned it off and inflated the tires. She said again what a shame it was, since they had spent so much money. Terri mounted the bike while I stood with my parents, the three of us clumped together on the tiny back stoop next to the flowerbed full of scrappy mint plants. She rode straight out alongside the fence that adjoined Kay Lynn and Rusty’s yard, through the soft grass and out into the sticker patch near the back fence. She stood up on the pedals, pumping hard, her brown hair flying as she rounded the clothesline with its old wires, rusted and sagging, strung between two T-shaped posts.
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Then she turned and rode towards us, slowing the bike down and bringing it back up to where we stood. She stopped in front of us, one tennis-shoed foot scraping the ground. “That was good, Terri,” my mother said. “See Jane. It’s not hard,” Terri said, her voice sweetly coaxing. “Now you try.” I don’t know what happened next. The memory ends there. Did I try, once more, to straddle the bike that was still too big for me, pushing one pedal around while trying to balance before faltering and teetering over, with everyone watching? Or did I simply stand there, immobilized by shame, as the bike was wheeled back into the garage? ab In A Wheel Within a Wheel, Frances Willard’s book about learning to ride a bike as a grown woman in the 1890s, she writes that failure comes from “a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel” and that “the will is the wheel of the mind—its perpetual motion having been learned when the morning stars sang together.” I bought the book later, when I had gotten far away from Lancaster Lane, far from our narrow world bounded by the hedge and Humpty Dumpty. I was living a life of my own making—one where, for a while, I washed dishes by hand and dried my clothes on a line and watched a tiny black-and-white TV and cooled my house with a swamp cooler and bought only the things I needed. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford better—I had a graduate degree and a good job—but it filled a longing of some kind for something I’d missed out on. I didn’t buy the book for Willard’s intended feminist metaphor. Although, like Willard, I had come to see that riding a bike was more than learning “the location of every screw and spring, spoke and tire,” I intuited that there was a mystery that had been unavailable to me, a magical point where you go from not riding to riding, the transition barely discernible, like the space between breathing in and breathing out. For me it wasn’t about a “wobbling will,” but faith born of permission—the thing I didn’t have as a child, not really. Willard’s book had been retitled How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. I bought it because I wanted the answer: “How, Frances, did you learn?” But that was much later. ab 73
It was also later that I heard about my half-sister’s skirmish with a parked car. My father’s daughter by his first marriage and decades older than me, she was lithe and athletic. Growing up, she had liked to get her bike going fast and let it roll downhill, feet off the pedals, arms out to her sides. Once, when she attempted this feat with a yo-yo in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other, she plowed into a parked car. The car, the bike, and my half-sister were all the worse for wear. “You’ll just get killed in the street,” my father had told me. Maybe my half-sister’s accident
explains his fear. Or maybe not. I’ll never know. ab Also much later, I learned that six percent of adult Americans have never learned to ride a bicycle. One could see this as an elite group. ab When my parents decided I wasn’t going to ride the bike, they relegated it to the back of the garage, where it loomed behind some empty boxes like a ghost you tried not to see. I saw, of course. Despite everything, I liked the sporty way it looked leaning on the kickstand. Big red reflectors were wedged into the spokes on each side of the wheels. I envisioned them catching the light as the wheels spun like kaleidoscopes while a more confident, popular me pedaled up the street, smiling and waving to neighbors. Once, out there alone, I sat on it. The metal had gathered greasy dust and the tires were flat. Pumping the tires and trying again hardly seemed worth the trouble. Even if I could ride, I still couldn’t go beyond the driveway and back yard. Then one evening, when my mother and I had eaten supper and my father was working late, I asked if I could walk to Kelly’s to play. It was midsummer and still light out. Approaching Edmonds’ house, I saw Keithy’s parents—both of them—teaching his little sister to ride her bike. She was on a smaller version of Keithy’s Sting Ray, its bright pink streamers fluttering from the handlebars. Keithy was nowhere in sight. “Jane, can you ride?” Mrs. Edmonds asked. She squinted and smiled at the same time, shading her face with one hand. She had a no-nonsense look—pedal-pushers and no lipstick, hair short and wild—that made evading the question impossible. “Sure she can,” Mr. Edmonds said. “Honey, let’s let Jane ride your bike.” Keithy’s sister got off and before I knew it I was atop the white banana seat. Mr. Edmonds promised he would hold on to the back. “I’m right here,” he said. “I’ve got you.” I found the pedals, gripped the handlebars. Off to one side I could see Mrs. Edmonds and Keithy’s sister looking on. I heard Mr. Edmonds’ voice in my ear, sensed his grip on the back of the bike. And then we were off. I heard the clop of his foot soles on the pavement, felt the breeze in my face. Round and round my legs pumped, through the wind past a parked car, past Browns’ house. For a moment I wavered, turned the handlebars, started to fall, but he caught me. Again, his voice: “I’ve got you.” Then we were going straight. For just a moment, it seemed, I knew how birds felt, gliding aloft as the world passed by. How far did I ride on my own before I glanced around and noticed that Mr. Edmonds had let go? That he was standing in the distance behind me, arms open, smiling? That I had been glid-
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ing along on my own, balanced and confident—a real kid? Instinctively, I put one foot on the pavement and skidded to a stop. “That was good!” Mrs. Edmonds said, running up to where I had stopped not far from the MacArthurs’. “See there, you can ride!” “Of course, she can ride,” Mr. Edmonds put in. “We knew you could do it.” And here’s the secret I never told anyone: I knew it, too. I had ridden a bike on my own, if only for a few minutes. I felt something curiously solid inside me, new and entirely my own. I got off the bike as they gathered around me. They all beamed, including the sister. “That was good,” Mrs. Edmonds said again. “You’ll be riding around here in no time,” Mr. Edmonds added. And if this were TV, that might be true. I would learn to ride my own bike, growing into it at last. My mother would quit worrying so much about money. My father, seeing my happiness, would have a revelation about modern childhood. Maybe, if I promised to be careful, he’d even let me ride in the street. The world would open, its contradictions and confusing boundaries magically disappearing. But it was not TV. From where we stood I looked back at our house. I saw the black Plymouth in the driveway, the mimosa tree in the yard, the gas lamp that didn’t work, the porch that needed painting, the unplanted flowerbed lined with grey river rocks. Through the picture window I could see that my mother had turned on the table lamp the way she did in the evenings when the sun started to set because she said it made the house feel homey. It was like looking back at the Earth from space must be—a blue marble whose particularity was the thing you’d never realized, the thing that mattered more than beauty. “We need to go inside now, but come over sometime and we’ll help you practice,” I realized Mrs. Edmonds was saying. Mr. Edmonds was wheeling the bike up to their garage, the little sister running along beside him. I don’t remember if I said okay or was polite enough to thank them, but I remember knowing I wouldn’t go. I forgot all about going to Kelly’s. I turned around, and I started back toward home.
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No Going Back
When we told our kids about our intention to move to Israel, all three balked. Our eldest informed us we were ruining his life, then his thirteen and eleven-year-old sisters sobbed. Usually I cried, not them. “I don’t want to live there full-time,” Daniella, the older one, shouted. “Summers in Israel are enough.” Our August tradition began long before she was born. We’ve visited that desert land no matter what: missiles, wars, suicide bombings. The youngest stood at the dinner table and stomped upstairs, my husband chasing after her. Daniella marched into the living room and belly flopped onto the sofa. “What’s the point?” she whined. “We did this two years ago: left our friends, moved there for a year, left there, moved back to New York. I want to go to high school here like my friends. Why are you doing this to us? Again?” Daniella had been ten the last time we tore her and her siblings from their Westchester County lives to spend twelve months in the Middle East. This time she had more at stake: ninth grade, the first year of high school in America, last year of middle school in Israel. How could I explain that I owed it to Philippe, my French husband, her father, who after fifteen years in my homeland wanted to fulfill his dream of returning to his Holy Land? I squeezed next to her. “Well,” I said, stroking her hair. “It’s Abba’s dream. Abba’s always wanted to live here. We’re doing this for Abba. I owe him time. There.” “But why would you make us go through that again?” My middle child never gave up easily. She thrived on verbal discourse. The hairdresser always called her the Little Lawyer because she would sit on a phonebook in the styling chair and jabber for thirty straight minutes. This past year in school, she participated on debate team and adored rehearsing her argument. I wrapped my arms tightly around her tiny frame. “It’s for Abba. It’s his dream.” “But why?” she wailed. “It’s not fair.” The words I’d expected to hear; Daniella’s motto par for her place in their birth order. I wanted to answer but couldn’t. Answering meant telling my teenager more than she needed to know about our multicultural marriage and our complex compromises to stay together. On that sweltering August evening, I muffled my tears as much as I could, our sadness blending together. 78 ab 9th Grade: Kita Tet Soon after we settled into our new house in Raanana, a quiet city near Tel Aviv, Daniella started school. For months, she was mad, speaking like a spoiled child in exclamation points. “The building should be condemned! There’s only twenty kids in my entire grade! I miss A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
my friends! I want to go home!” For the past eight years, she’d attended a private Jewish school in a sprawling campus abutting the Long Island Sound with three times the number of classmates. Nothing could compete, especially not a two-story, stone structure with peeling paint and cramped classrooms. Whenever someone asked how she felt about the move and about her future, she always responded the same: “I’m going back to the States for college.” It was too early to subject her to the truth: because Philippe and I had changed our status to new immigrants after meeting and marrying in Israel in 1990, we were citizens; because we were citizens so were the kids; because she was a citizen, she wouldn’t be free to leave the country at eighteen without the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) permission; permission wouldn’t be granted for anything other than a trip abroad with a set return date for her recruitment. In Israel, every high school graduate either serves in the army (women for two years, men three), in a twelve-month national volunteer program, or, following extensive testing, is exempt due to some physical, mental, or religious issue. I had no reason to believe my daughter wouldn’t serve. But, if she tried to leave, she’d be barred entry into the country for several years and face army imprisonment. I’d known this all along. When I’d agreed to move back to Israel, I accepted this fact but had not yet been able to explain it to her; denial fueled me. She—and I—needed more time. ab 10th Grade: Kita Yud Daniella’s attitude shifted. She loved how the whole student body—middle through high school—bonded with each other and with the land during the annual three-day hiking trip. She was agog with stories about guest speakers at special assemblies: the father of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive for over five years by Hamas until his recent release as part of a prisoner exchange deal; a former IDF general who had fought in several wars; a handicapped woman who was injured in a terrorist attack and now serves in the Knesset. On Memorial Day, when students participated in a moving ceremony to honor those who have fallen, she recalled every detail: who spoke, who sang, who shared stories of loss. She revised her life-after-school vision: be a paramedic in the army then apply to medical school. 79
ab Summer Vacation: Hofesh HaGadol “Oh my god, I got it!” Daniella screamed when I handed her the oversized white envelope with the return address written in Hebrew—Israel Defense Official Mail under its emblem, a sword integrated olive branch. She tore it open like a present.
“What?” “Tsav rishon. I can’t believe I got mine!” Called tsav rishon, the expression translates into First Call. Students start receiving their slips depending on where their sixteenth birthdays fall in the coming year. Born in April, Daniella would be among the first to undergo the ritual testing. “I’m so excited. I have to call everyone and see who else heard,” she said, dashing upstairs, cell phone in hand. In a grade with less than two dozen students, they treated each other like brothers and sisters. I couldn’t believe she was the same child who’d stomped so fiercely, fully opposed to moving back to this country. Her transformation made me understand the power of immersion, bathing in another culture’s mind frame and social norms. It wasn’t as easy for me, and I envied her adaptability, how simple she made changing languages and lifestyles seem. To prepare for First Call, Daniella sought input from cousins, upperclassmen, and her brother, Benjamin, serving in the IDF, a decision he’d made and a process he managed on his own. After each conversation, she reported back to me: so-and-so said she should do blood and urine tests and take results with her to tsav rishon; another suggested drinking water before the physical to weigh more; someone else told her to perform poorly on the Hebrew test so they allowed her to take the aptitude exam in English. But in the end, it was beyond her control. ab 11th Grade: Kita Yud Aleph After six intense hours of exams and evaluations, Daniella entered the front door distressed, barking at me like a rabid dog. “My kaba’s fine, but my dapar’s low because of some lame electricity cut, and I got a low physical profile because I weigh under fifty kilo.” She glared at me. “Do you know what that means?” I shook my head, lost in IDF-acronym-ese—kaba, dapar, shmapar—yet another foreign language. “I can’t serve in a combat unit! Damnit! I can’t be a paramedic!” Her exclamation points hurt my ears. She buried her face in her hands. I listened, little else I could do. But inside, I was perturbed. How could any parent guide a child through such anomalous and unfamiliar circumstances? When I was growing up and venturing into the world as a young adult, my mother often joked that she was living vicariously through me. But nothing I did was too drastically different from what she or her mother had done. Daniella couldn’t contain her disappointment. Her disappointment consumed me. I consulted friends. Everyone said the same thing: bombard the recruitment office with faxes, use connections, play the Israeli way, and pull every possible string. As much as she didn’t want to take that route, she surrendered, contacting every name she had acquired over the past months. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Daniella’s class trip to Poland diffused her frustration, changed her focus. She returned a staunch supporter of Israel after visiting the Warsaw Ghetto, concentration camps, and the Zbylitowska Góra Children’s Forest, a mass grave where eight hundred teenagers were executed. She talked and talked, reminding me of the days when she had sat in the hair stylist’s chair in California. “We saw the same places as Benjamin, but I think it was more meaningful for us, at least for me.” He’d visited the camps with his American high school. “I was with a bunch of Israelis from around the country. You can’t imagine how many of them have grandparents or great grandparents in the Holocaust. None of my friends in New York did. Anyhow, picture this: hundreds of teenagers marching with the Israeli flag draped down their backs, walking over the train tracks at Auschwitz and Birkenau. When I looked up, I saw blue and white waving in the wind. It was so crazy. So powerful.” A part of me identified with my daughter. The intense, deep connection to Israel and my upbringing as a Reform Jew in northern California had turned me into a passionate young woman. Every summer at camp and during youth group events, I’d been indoctrinated to understand the horrors of the Holocaust and the importance of creating a nation for the Jewish people. Now, Daniella understood too. But, unlike her, I’d never marched with its flag on my back. I’d never fully understood the price this country pays to exist until watching my kids tuck their dog tags beneath their uniforms. I’d never broadcasted to the greater world: I’m Israeli, I live and belong here. Because for me, living and belonging weren’t necessarily synonymous.
At Yom Hameah, a trial day and rite of passage for every future female non-combatant recruit, Daniella was assigned a group for role playing and simulation exercises. Civilian professionals observed and evaluated a few hundred adolescents based on public speaking, leadership, and teamwork. Throughout dinner, she talked nonstop. “I have no idea how I did. I was quiet, intimidated by loud Israeli girls. If they judge me on participation, I definitely won’t get anything good.” “Okay, but you did your best, right?” I hated how cliché my words sounded. But as much as I tried to put myself in her shoes, I couldn’t. I’d never moved as a child, lived in a different country, or spoken another language. I’d never undergone rigorous physical or mental testing as a teenager. The mountain Daniella faced seemed insurmountable. “Any mail?” became Daniella’s new mantra. Every day after school, she asked. Her constant questioning made me understand just how much space the IDF occupied in her mind. “Yes!” I heard her scream from her bedroom. “I got my Manila. Finally!” I’d heard about this thing for months from my friends and always envisioned a manila envelope. Instead, it arrived by email: an online questionnaire to match girls with compatible units.
“Quickly calling Benj for help.” She slammed her door—not with anger but with enthusiasm. When she eventually surfaced for dinner, she harped on the military’s ineffective computer system. “Unreal. Every time I answered a question and pressed send, the system crashed. So crazy. I don’t know how the army can function.” If anyone of us tried to change the subject, she brought it back: the Manila this, the IDF that. Sometimes I wished she were a machine I could turn off. Days later, the technical bugs resolved, Daniella submitted the questionnaire. Again, she yelled from two floors up, her voice bouncing off the cold, stone walls: “I’m so happy. Go me! I might actually get into an interesting unit.” She rattled off the Hebrew for me to decipher: Spokesperson Directorate and Foreign Affairs. “Sorry, I have to call my bro for advice. I’ll keep you posted.” “Go,” I said, blowing a loud kiss, feeling lighter even though the names she’d said sounded heavy and unwieldy and would take me months to memorize. Go was the best I could offer: no anecdotes, no connections, no words of wisdom. ab Summer Vacation: Hofesh HaGadol Before Daniella left on a volunteer medical program in Ghana, we heard sirens and raced for shelter. As soon as we returned to safety, she downloaded the RedApp to receive updates whenever Hamas launched a rocket into Israel, later dubbed Operation Protective Edge. “Do you have to?” I asked. “It’s not good to know everything.” “Maybe, for you, but I disagree.” I wanted to avoid our reality, especially with Benjamin in uniform for two more months, while she wanted to face it. I tried to evade the news, while she read every headline. When had we swapped roles, or had I always played this backseat, backstage part, causing her to step up and take charge? In Africa, Daniella’s only access to news was Al Jazeera, an English-language Qatar-funded TV channel. She ranted during her occasional phone calls about the one-sided reports and the absence of other perspectives. Seeing how slanted the broadcast was deepened her conviction to serve in the army if not as a paramedic than in some communications-related capacity, to portray a more positive picture of her homeland. I marveled at her make-the-most-of-it, go-with-flow-ness—attributes I lacked. ab 12th Grade: Kita Yud Bet On a colorless winter day, I escorted my daughter to Tel Hashomer recruitment center, A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
which hosts students to gripe and problem solve about the army process. She navigated through a maze of courtyards and corridors without once asking for help. “Please just let me talk,” she whispered as we entered a room of cubicles. I acquiesced. A soldier summoned her, checked her file. When Daniella mentioned how much she wanted to be a paramedic and had been faxing her request, he interrupted. “You cannot. Stop faxing. You don’t weigh enough. Your profile doesn’t match.” Even though Israel is a country where pushback usually wins, this fight wasn’t winnable. At that moment, I understood that the opinions I’d sought months earlier from friends had been for naught. The IDF is bigger than my daughter, than Philippe and me, than every one of us together. “I’m trilingual—English, Hebrew, French,” she said, knowing the value of languages. “I matched with Spokesperson Directorate and Foreign Affairs but haven’t received invitations to interview.” He checked the system again, then beckoned another soldier. “Both units already interviewed their annual quota,” the second soldier said, “but people turn down one unit for another and free up spots. I’ll re-enter your name. Savlanoot. Olai.” As in patience, maybe. My daughter thanked them and we left, hopeful that her outcome might change. “That was great. You did great,” I said on our way to the car. “Now savlanoot, like the soldier said, olai.” Every so often Daniella said, “I’m trying not to think about it.” I knew what it meant. End-of-year exams intensified. Graduation neared. The Spokesperson Directorate’s office called for a one-on-one interview and requested she submit a practice pitch to The New York Times, an article placing the army in a favorable light. Daniella obliged. Finals ended. Spokesperson Directorate’s office called again for group interviews. The incessant waiting for news made me think about the medieval allegory “Psychomachia,” about the conflict of the soul, about how patience is a virtue. Savlanoot. ab
Summer Vacation: Hofesh HaGadol One day after work, Daniella’s phone rang with a private number. She jumped. If the army called, it was from a private number. “O.M.G.! I passed! I can’t believe it. Last step is written exams next week.” How she managed all the communication and tests in Hebrew astonished me. The morning of the exams she was full of energy and expectations. The evening she was spent, a bundle of pent-up frustration. “Do you know whose face is on the two-hundred shekel bill? Or where some battle I can’t even remember the name of occurred? How am I supposed to know any of this when I’ve never heard of these places or people and haven’t grown up here? I left so many answers blank.”
Daniella flung herself on the living room couch, reminiscent of the night we announced our move back to this country. I stroked her back. “I’m sorry.” An all-encompassing apology for every sorry thing I couldn’t express: for moving here, for subjecting her to this, for not being Israeli. As the temperatures soared so did her nerves. Until, late August, when the army called to assign her to a one-month basic training followed by a two-month course for the Spokesperson Directorate, and, for the first time in years, she relaxed. I don’t know who felt more pride—her or me. I thought about my American friends and what they must feel during the college application process. Mostly, I thought about how different our lives were now, and that as different as they were, there was no going back. ab Draft Day: HaGiyus Daniella looked as innocent as a schoolgirl dressed in leggings, a t-shirt, and fluorescent orange Nikes, her hair neatly tied in a ponytail. “You excited?” “Nervous actually.” I wasn’t sure if our nerves were the same. For the past six weeks, soldiers had been stabbed— at bus stations, gas stations, checkpoints. I hadn’t been sleeping well since the incidents had started in September, grateful my son was no longer serving but fearful for my daughter. I teared up easily when anyone asked about her recruitment. I worried about her riding a bus in uniform. When we—Philippe, Daniella, my in-laws, her best friend, and I—arrived at Tel Hashomer base, the security line snaked down the block. Once in the courtyard, I scanned the pandemonium. Hundreds of dazed teenage girls gathered with parents, siblings, friends. People held up selfie sticks for photos. Families laid out breakfast on picnic tables with pita, tehina sesame paste, yogurt. A noxious odor of nicotine wafted in the air. We sat, glimpsed screens with names and ID numbers flashing in red, and waited as a voice boomed over loudspeakers announcing bus departures in Hebrew. My petite, once naïve daughter was about to grow up really fast. I yearned to hold her back from getting on the bus and to shield her—from being exposed to physically and emotionally difficult tasks, from being thrown into the vast unknown, from an experience I’d never be able to grasp. Would she wish to rewind the past four years, return to New York, and enter college with her peers? Would she blame, forgive, or perhaps, one day, thank us? I couldn’t answer any of these questions. Neither could she. An hour later, Daniella’s name appeared on the screen. We walked toward the bus. Girls shrieked. My father-in-law took her head in his hands, lightly folded her chin in, and kissed her forehead. My mother-in-law pecked each of her cheeks, the traditional French bises. Philippe craA Journal of Creative Nonfiction
dled her head in his thick hands and recited the Hebrew prayer for safe passage. Daniella clung to her friend, due to enter the army later that week. My eyes welled. I watched my daughter in wonder. She smiled, even laughed. She insisted on carrying her bags even though tendonitis in her arm had recently flared. I squeezed her as hard as I could while whispering last minute messages in her ear: “I love you. Be strong. You’re amazing. I’m so proud of you. Stay safe.” I would have continued had she not pulled away. I thought of the U.S. army ad campaign: It’s not a job, it’s an adventure. Since she was little, Daniella has thrived on adventures, both real and pretend. She called that night. “Big news, my platoon has guard duty this weekend. I’m stuck here for two weeks and didn’t pack enough underwear. But I have to go. I only have thirty minutes to shower, use my phone, and get ready for bed. I’ll call again. When I can. Bye for now.” She blew a kiss into the phone. ab
Basic Training: Tiranoot Two nights later, while Philippe and I watched Friday Night Lights in bed, his cell rang. “Everything’s okay,” she said, “for the most part. The girls are nice, but the food sucks. I’m barely eating.” “Is it like camp?” Philippe asked. I laughed. We’d spent ten years in America’s northeast and never sent our children to sleepaway like their friends. She had no idea what it meant to live in rustic, sparse conditions. “Yeah, except we have no rights. I have to ask my commander’s permission to go to the bathroom. My tendonitis is killing me. Because we’re on guard duty this Friday night, we got guns. Mine’s huge, as big as me.” I gasped. If she was in a non-combat unit, why did she have a firearm? “We have to carry them everywhere, to the bathroom, shower, dining hall, and it kills every time I pick it up.” Ughs, sighs, and shits caromed in my mind. She rambled, her voice a mixture of excitement, overstimulation, fatigue. “Meanwhile, did it rain there today? You should see where we’re sleeping. In tents without sides, so it rained inside and soaked our stuff. The only dry thing I have is the uniform I’m in.” She giggled. Her resilience baffled me. We hadn’t heard from Daniella in forty-eight hours. When she called on Friday afternoon, her voice teetered. “Are you okay?” I asked, wanting—but not wanting—to know. A truism about my life in Israel. A continuous theme in our mother-daughter relationship. Her favorite subject in school
had been Civics. She’d loved sharing the latest events—suicide bomb in Jerusalem, stabbing in Tel Aviv, sirens in the south—even when I told her I couldn’t stomach the news. I’ve never asked but wondered if she considered me a wimp or a wuss, names my brother used to call me. “Not really, no. I feel ill. Everyone does. But I just cried for the first time. Everyone else did days ago. My arm really hurts from the gun. It’s swollen and numb.” “So tell your commander!” My turn to exclaim. “No, they’re young, new nineteen-year-old recruits, so incompetent and disorganized.” I could barely understand her through her tears. “Yesterday, they woke us at 3 a.m. to drive to a shooting range down south. We got back at midnight. I was desperate to shower, washed my hair in freezing water, went to bed and woke up from the cold in the middle of the night. The level of hygiene’s horrible. Someone had lice; they checked six hundred girls’ scalps, everyone hoping for bugs to be sent home for two days. Oh, and tonight I have guard duty from 10 to 1, either alone or with someone.” Guarding the base—against what or from whom—I didn’t want to know. She talked. She cried. I gripped the phone. I couldn’t fathom the thought of shouldering such responsibility at eighteen. Is this what she and her new recruit friends talked about during basic training, or did they discuss their boyfriends and after-army dreams? At her age, I was in college, rushing a sorority, meeting gaggles of girls, talking about the campus, our majors, boys, where we came from, why we had chosen Northwestern University. I was so immature, so self-absorbed. The next morning, I retrieved a missed voice message from Daniella, making me cry anew. “I forgot to tell you. Learning how to shoot was beyond insane.” She paused, breathing heavily into the phone. “I got into the bunker. Me and seven other girls. Three went to shoot first. The commander explained what to do. I just sat back.” Her voice dropped. I sensed her fighting tears. “It was a crazy feeling. So many, like, these girls, who, like… None of us want to take anyone’s life, but because we live in this country, we have to know how to aim and pull the trigger so we can kill somebody. It was a very powerful moment for me.” Her voice stabilized. “Really intense. Okay, so sending lots of love and talk to you tomorrow.” She smooched the phone. “Bye.” I pressed play to listen again, to detect the ups and downs, the point of collapse and the place where she pulled herself together. How many times had she told me she didn’t want to be that girl, the one who cried to her commander nonstop, or called Mommy? And yet, this isn’t the life I—and probably she—had foreseen for her. I couldn’t understand what she was trying to prove and to whom. 86 Despite our aversion to football, Philippe and I binge-watched three episodes of Friday Night Lights. The intense, small-town Texas drama helped me forget my daughter’s drama. Late one night, my phone buzzed. “We’re leaving early tomorrow morning for the next three days. We can’t bring phones and won’t be able to communicate. I’m just telling you: don’t try to call.” What more could I do than tell her I loved her? I wrote, sorted laundry, cooked dinner, and tried not to think about Daniella. Only when A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
she called, after returning to base, did we hear how they’d trudged for miles in the dry heat of the desert, carrying guns and wearing heavy vests and helmets. How they’d slept in their uniforms and boots with guns under their heads in the cold of winter. How it was like playing GI Joe, crawling on their stomachs and forearms on the ground. “It was crazy. I kept telling myself to get through it in order to pass basic training. I just hope it’ll always be a surreal scenario. That I’ll never have to do any of this in my lifetime.” I found my new mantra: not in her lifetime, not in my lifetime, not in our lifetime. When Daniella arrived for her first free weekend, I couldn’t believe how much weight she’d lost. Her pants were so large she could have squeezed two other girls inside. I became the ultimate Jewish mother, determined to fatten up my child. A memory flashed of a three-year-old Daniella playing dress-up in a golden princess costume at preschool in the Bay Area where she was born; a diamond-studded tiara atop her head while she twirled to show off her beauty and magical powers. Fifteen years later and on the other side of the world, in a country where war preparation is anything but pretend, she still looked like she was in dress-up clothes. I felt a familiar pull, one I’d been battling with for years: the me that wished we’d stayed stateside where she would have been a typical American teen dressed in collegiate swag instead of army fatigues versus the me that burst with parental pride and admiration for this crazy land called Israel and all that it means to live here fully. The me that wanted a singular American identity versus the me that embraced my family’s multicultural worldliness. ab
Spokesperson Directorate Course: Course Mashakay Dovrut Exactly halfway through her class, Daniella called: “Can you come? Now.” Her base was forty minutes south. I made it in thirty. After passing weekly, rigorous, written tests all month long, she’d been summoned to some higher-up’s office and told she wasn’t passionate or assertive enough. She didn’t fit their profile and should collect her belongings and leave. In the car, she replayed her part of the conversation, tears sliding down her face. “I sat straight up in my chair and said, ‘Do you think every soldier here fits one profile? Why would you want everyone to fit the same box? If my job will supposedly be sitting at the North America Desk and interacting with U.S. media representatives, then I need to remain composed to encourage the media to portray the IDF in a positive light.’ Finally, I stood, saluted, and marched out of the office.” I had never seen my daughter so devastated, her confidence so smashed. I had never felt as helpless as a mother.
During the next nine days, Daniella followed orders, took the bus into the central base in Tel Aviv, and did mindless office work while some commander or sergeant or general glanced at her file: maybe, maybe not. But Daniella had no desire to wait and see. If this experience had taught her anything it was that if she wanted to do something meaningful and challenging, she had to make it happen. She emailed and texted and called every contact sheâ€™d made in the course and Israeli-style maneuvered her way into a highly desirable, highly competitive International Coordination unit in the Air Force. Perhaps she possessed magical powers after all. My daughter looks like sheâ€™s still playing dress-up in her uniform, but she left the land of imaginary play long ago.
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On a Clear Day
Fog over the river. From the top of Fortress Marienberg, we stand shoulder to shoulder, arms brushing, overlooking the clouded city of Wurzburg. The brightest spot in our view: a row of tourists under umbrellas. They bob and curl like a caterpillar on the cobblestones, inching toward Old Main Bridge. It’s our last night together after traveling Germany’s Romantic Road; tomorrow Jason will fly home to Texas, and I will go on to France alone. Back at the Babelfish Hostel after sightseeing, we are sharing a sofa in the common room before heading to male and female dorms for the night. My feet on his lap, I read facts aloud from the guidebook. I say: Did you know X-rays were discovered here, in 1895? He looks straight ahead and doesn’t answer, says: How did it feel when Michael was sketching you? Michael. Jason’s Babelfish roommate. A slender Polish artist, pale, blond, 22, a year older than we are. He had joined us for dinner the night before. We’d sat around a table on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant and ordered pizza and beer, watched people pass and the sun set, talked about American movies, the source of Michael’s heavily idiomatic English. After dinner, Jason had asked Michael to sketch me. A corner of Michael’s mouth turned up. He found a pencil. He told Jason: You always start with the eyes. I flushed when he started with my eyes. Jason says: How did it feel when Michael was sketching you? I don’t know, weird, I say. You can keep the sketch. It was Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen who discovered x-rays. He was the first winner of the Nobel Prize. He says: How did it feel? Like I was being seen by a stranger, I say. Like he was Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen. He says: I see you. Are you jealous? I ask. He says: No, he’ll never see you again, but I get to see you every day. It felt like he was undressing my face, I say, remembering the specific heat of his eyes moving to my cheekbones, my chin; lingering on my lips, my neck. He says: Your face is an open book to me. I look at the guidebook again. The ink from its thin pages smudges my fingers. The first x-ray ever made was of a hand, I say. Rontgen turned off the lights and put his wife Anna’s hand in the path of the rays over a photographic plate. When he developed the picture, he saw her bones, and the dark shadow of wedding ring, solid as phalanx and phalanges. Don’t change the subject, he says. My eyes scan the paragraph. Thermal conductivity. Polarized light. Electric current. You were the one who asked him to sketch me, I say. Coil. Tension. Phenomena. You blushed when he complimented your beautiful eyes. He’s adopted a light, joking tone.
I liked his Polish accent, I liked the way he used English, like he was a character in a movie, all “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.” I liked the way he winked after he made jokes. He says: I shouldn’t have asked him to draw you. I saw the way he looked at you. It felt like no one had ever looked at me before. He says: I’m looking at you now. You see what you’ve always seen. I was new to him. He says: This picture doesn’t really look like you. Maybe I look different now. Maybe I look new.
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Contributors Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born writer and copywriter living between the U.S. and the U.K. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and made her publishing debut in Numéro Cinq Magazine. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Adrian Koesters, is a poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer. Her first book was a work on trauma and spirituality, Healing Mysteries, published by Paulist Press in 2005. Her two books of poetry, Many Parishes and Three Days with the Long Moon, were published by Baltimore’s Brickhouse Books, and her first novel, Union Square, will be published in October 2018 by Apprentice House of Loyola University Maryland. Other nonfiction has appeared in 1966, Oakwood Magazine, Assay Journal, Under the Gum Tree, and in the anthology, Becoming: What Makes a Woman. She currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska. American born, French by marriage, Israeli by choice, Jennifer Lang writes about her divided self. Her essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Ascent, The Tishman Review, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. Her honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and being a finalist in the 2017 Crab Orchard Review's Literary Nonfiction Contest. Find her at www.israelwriterstudio.com and follow her @JenLangWrites. Jane Marcellus’s work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Hippocampus, and Gravel, as well as newspapers including the Washington Post and various academic journals. She is a co-author of Mad Men and Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (Peter Lang) and author of Business Girls and Two-Job Wives: Emerging Media Stereotypes of Employed Women (Hampton Press). She lives in Tennessee. Ryan McDonald is a writer who grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Northern Virginia.
Ben Miller is an essayist and fiction writer. He is the author of River Bend Chronicle (Lookout Books, www.riverbendchronicle.com) and his prose has appeared in many journals, including the Kenyon Review, the New England Review, the Yale Review, the Harvard Review, the Southern Review, AGNI, Ecotone, Raritan, and One Story. His essay “Bix and Flannery” was chosen for the Best American Essays anthology by Louis Menand. Miller’s awards include creative writing fellowships from the NEA and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, as well as a research grant from the Schlesinger Library. He is married to the poet Anne Pierson Wiese.
Amy Peterson is a writer and adjunct professor whose work has appeared in River Teeth, St. Katherine Review, The Millions, The Other Journal, The Cresset, Books and Culture, and elsewhere. She is the author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World (Discovery House). Connor Wood is working on a PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is studying spotted owls. His writing has appeared in the New Mexico Review and Zeit|Haus.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction