Crack the Spine
Crack the Spine Issue Seventy-Five August 7, 2013 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2013 by Crack the Spine
Matthew Hall Return Jessica Housand-Weaver Persephone Rising Wendy Sue Gist Inside the Turquoise CafĂŠ Angela Morris Death by Pen Cap Darren C. Demaree Emily as Outside for Hours Amelia Daigle Sugar Song Robin Gaines Dreams for Two
Cover Art by Ann Privateer A poet grounded by a rich sense of place, Ann Privateer grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. There she kept lists of words in a notebook while walking in the woods or on icy shards of the Chagrin River. She moved to L.A., California to continue college, married, then moved north to raise a family. Now, a retired teacher, she spends part of the year in Paris, France with family. Her poems have appeared in Manzanita, Poetry Now, Tapestries, Entering, and Tiger Eyes to name a few.
Matthew Hall Return Helen’s father smoked a pack of Pall Malls a day. He also believed that the Hasidic Jews who lived in Holly (two towns over) had been conspiring to buy up all the property in his neighborhood, as he’d claimed they’d done in countless others throughout central New Jersey. He’d sit at the kitchen table, smoke wafting from nostrils, and expound on his theory. “Not that I’m an anti-Semite,” he’d told Helen during one of her monthly visits. “But once one of ’em moves in, it’s just a matter of time.” Helen’s mother’s perfunctory response: “You know your father.” He’d started a campaign to make his front lawn as unattractive as possible, which Helen found ridiculous because her parents’ house was not for sale. Still, he believed that by failing to mow the lawn, weed the flowerbeds, and fix the fence post that had been snapped in half during a nasty nor’easter, no one would want to buy the Martins’ place across the street that had already been on the market for three months. “He’s harmless, dear,” her mother had said, waving her hand as if her husband’s sabotage efforts were no more worrisome than a fly that needed shooing. “No one takes him seriously.” But after he returned home from the discount garden center with two dozen ceramic gnomes, Helen knew that some people would take him seriously. Did her mother continue to believe that her husband of forty-five years was harmless after he paired off the gnomes and placed them in sexual poses along the front walk that led down to the mailbox? To Helen, the most disturbing configuration sat under the mailbox itself: two gray-bearded gnomes 69’ing—their red pointy hats shooting out from between each other's legs. Helen wasn’t sure at what age men became harmless; her seventy-year-old father had been transformed into one of those silver-haired, arthritic men whom people simply tolerated. Once, during breakfast at Star’s Diner in Allentown, her father had said to their waitress: “Tell José or Juan that the eggs were runny today.” He’d never been inside the kitchen nor so much as glimpsed one of the cooks’ heads peeking out from its swinging doors. The waitress had smiled and cleared their plates without saying a word. Helen wondered if she'd been too busy to correct him or if she knew that explaining why it was offensive to assume that the kitchen staff was Latino would prove futile.
And five years earlier, at Thanksgiving, her father had stood up from the table and asked Helen: “Are you a dike?” Her mother shook her head and spooned more stuffing onto Aunt Millie’s plate. Helen refused to answer the question. She’d never married or had children—never had a boyfriend for more than three months, either— hence her father’s assumption that she was gay. Two decades before that Thanksgiving, when her father had, for the first time, inquired about her sexuality, Helen considered the idea that she might indeed be a lesbian. She wasn’t sexually attracted to women, but wondered if that was because she’d never experienced a woman before. How could she know if she preferred something if she’d never tried it? The problem: she didn’t know any lesbians with whom she could experiment. When she’d finally summoned the courage to walk into a gay bar in Brooklyn, Helen discovered that none of the women cared to help her discover if she was in fact gay. No one had attempted to buy her a drink that night— so she'd bought her own. Five cranberry and vodkas later, the bartender with the crew-cut and thick black rimmed glasses told Helen that maybe she should call a cab. Helen decided that she must be heterosexual; if she were gay, she’d thought, these women would have smelled it on her. *** Two weeks after her father littered his front lawn with the sexually explicit gnomes, Helen lost her job. She lied and told her parents that she’d been let go from the preschool. “Cutbacks,” she told them. “Seems to be happening in a lot of schools these days.” What she failed to mention: when the children were curled on spongy blue mats during nap time their shallow breathing had seemed to synchronize; with the lights off and a slight breeze coming in through the windows, Helen had joined their collective, metered breath and fallen asleep, too. By the time she woke up, the blood from Danny’s severed index finger had already painted his shirt and pants, and the white tiles he stood on, a rich cerise; he hadn’t shrieked or cried when the paper cutter’s blade came down upon his tiny digit, and when he stood in front of the arts and crafts table—his detached finger cupped in his bloodied hand—he remained silent still. She knew that paper cutters were forbidden—the first item, in fact, on the preschool’s NOT ACCEPTABLE FOR CLASSROOM USE list. After her termination, Helen wondered where her disregard for rules came from. She often parked in loading zones, failed to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, and refilled her beverage at the Burger King even though a sign specifically read: No Refills. As far as she
could tell, poor Danny’s finger had been the first casualty resulting from her need to circumvent the rules. When her boss, Abby, pulled her into the small office that sat at the end of the school's lone hallway, Helen was unprepared for Abby's rapid-fire questions. How often do you fall asleep under the arts and crafts table? No, it was not the first time—there was a blue nap-time mat there and a pillow; several children have come forward and recall seeing you under there on many occasions, Helen. Of course they didn't use that word—I know they don't know what occasions means. Why did you not inform us right away after it happened? No, that's not reasonable. There are five other teachers in this building who could have helped you with the other students. You know that, Helen. At some point during Abby's interrogation, Helen reached for her throbbing ring finger—the one that always seemed to get the imbedded hangnail. The cuticle would swell and redden and contain its very own heartbeat. She usually went to extraordinary lengths to avoid touching it, but each time Abby posed another question, Helen tightened her grip and squeezed the inflamed finger. Her eyes burned. She got dizzy. And Abby's words sounded as if they'd been submerged in water, reminding Helen of her summers at the YMCA, where she'd sit at the bottom of the pool and scream as loud as she could, but no one ever heard her. She guessed that Abby's manicured nails never suffered such afflictions. Abby never seemed to suffer, period. You know this is bad, right? Yes. You know I have fire you, right? O.K. Abby allowed her to stay late that day to collect her things. Helen removed her favorite finger paintings from the classroom's yellow cement walls, the ones she'd painted alongside the children. The popsicle stick house sat on the windowsill; she couldn't bear to leave it—she'd worked too long and too hard on it. When she arrived at her apartment that evening, she heated the end of a safety pin with a lighter. In the bathroom, over the sink, she slid the pin between nail and skin, and squeezed hard. Yellow pus seeped out and pooled on her nail.
A week later, Helen convinced her landlord to allow her out of her apartment’s lease without a penalty. On the first of the month, she pulled into her parents’ driveway with her Volvo packed with clothes and books and the popsicle stick house, the only items she hadn’t sold on Craigslist. “Of course you can stay here,” her mother told her on the front walk, surrounded by copulating gnomes. “Temporarily,” Helen assured her mother. “Until I find another school.” Her mother dismissed this statement with a wave of her hand. Helen regarded the gnome pair next to her mother’s foot: one had its face buried in the long grass; the other stood at its rear, a pipe squeezed between its lips. On that first night back in her parents’ house, after she’d hauled the black plastic garbage bags filled with clothes to the guest bedroom on the second floor, Helen collapsed on the twin mattress that butted up against the room’s lone window. At some point, her mother knocked on the door—or so Helen thought; she knew she might have dreamt it. “Hungry, Helen?” she thought her mother had said. After midnight, something moved under her pillow. Without lifting her head, Helen shot her hand underneath and searched for the culprit. She grabbed hold of some small, skinny thing. Moonlight glowed through the lace curtains, and she recognized Danny’s finger, still caked in blood, fluttering in her palm. She knew it was impossible—his finger had been successfully reattached that same day he’d sliced it off—yet, she felt its warmth and, albeit slight, weight in her hand. Downstairs, a door slammed. Helen opened her eyes, saw the pair of white Nikes still on her feet, sat up and pulled the curtains from the window. A figure stood on the front walk. After her eyes adjusted to the dark, she recognized her father as he bent down and picked up a pair of gnomes from the grass. Did her mother know he was out there? He pulled a cigarette and matches from flannel pajama bottoms. In a single deft move, he lit the cigarette, bent down, and picked up another gnome pair from the lawn, then another. Smoke rose from his neck and shoulders. He arranged each gnome pair on the front walk, where, Helen assumed, the grass would not obstruct his presentation. The only gnomes not to be relocated: the 69’ing pair under the mailbox, which sat upon gravel. Maybe he has dementia, Helen thought. Her father stepped on the cigarette butt while lighting a second one. After a long drag, he crossed his arms and scrutinized his gnomes. Helen slept—for the first time in years—until eleven o’clock. After showering, she emptied the garbage bags and filled the bedroom’s dresser with her clothes. Downstairs, she made coffee. A note
sat on the counter. Her parents had gone to the supermarket. Did she still like Cornflakes? They would pick some up for her. And don’t make plans for dinner. The Grants are coming with their son, Allen. He lost his job, too! She vaguely remembered the Grants, her parents’ neighbors and only friends for the past ten years, and hadn’t been aware that they'd had a son. She knew that Mr. Grant had recently retired from teaching middle school language arts; her mother mentioned this often, along with how beloved Mr. Grant was in the community. “You should see it,” her mother’s familiar story began. “Everywhere he goes, former students chat him up, saying how much he’d meant to them—how much he changed their lives! Can you believe it?” Once, Helen had thought about reminding her mother that she was a teacher, too—that she might have had at least some positive affect on her students. Mr. Grant, however, had probably never allowed a student to chop off a finger while he napped under a table. But he must have had his off days. Who could be expected to be at 100% all the time? “When Allen called us and needed to return home,” Mrs. Grant said at dinner, as her husband salted his pot roast, “of course we were concerned.” Helen’s mother gave Allen a pat on the hand; Mrs. Grant looked upon her son, who appeared oblivious that he’d become the topic of conversation, shook her head and continued: “He’s a good boy—you know that, Claire.” Her mother said, “He certainly is.” She looked toward her husband. “Right, Harry?” But Helen’s father stared out the window at the Martins’ house across the street. A silver Lexus sat in the driveway—the realtor’s car. Helen had been told, no, warned, that Allen was some math or engineering wiz but had some problems, and that she should attempt to treat him as normal as possible. Apparently, if Allen got upset or frazzled—her mother's word—he might have one of his episodes. This made Helen think of Andy Russell, a former student of hers, who'd spend most of the day silently drawing or coloring. Without warning or provocation, he'd start to scream and throw whatever his hands could grab, terrifying the other children and Helen, too. The third time it happened, Helen wrapped her arms around the screaming boy, squeezed him against her chest. He fell silent. And while she wasn't sure why this assuaged Andy, she was happy to have facilitated the reprieve from the horrific pictures she imagined forever playing in his head. Helen’s gaze kept falling on Allen’s curly black hair. It looked wet, but she knew it wasn’t. It had had ample time to dry; before her mother served dinner, Mr. Grant had opened a bottle of red wine and
discussed the impending election with her father (neither was thrilled about their choices) for what must have been thirty minutes. Allen’s graying sideburns and stubble gave him away: Dye job, Helen thought, and a poor one at that. “Of course we had room for him,” Mrs. Grant said. Her husband shook his head in agreement; a wad of pot roast bulged his cheek like chewing tobacco. Under the table, Allen removed his shoe and extended a bare foot toward Helen. “And the Thompson’s son, Frank, moved back in with them a month ago,” Mrs. Grant said. “Lost his job, too—worked for one of the airlines. It’s like an epidemic. Just awful.” Helen used her foot to push Allen’s away, which seemed to send him the wrong message—he returned it with renewed determination and force. When his sweaty toes clung to her shin, then her knee, working up toward her plaid shorts, Helen attempted to make eye contact with him—to tell him with eyes what her foot had failed to say. He did not look at her, however. Once again, he seemed oblivious to his surroundings, stared at his plate and shoveled mashed potatoes into his mouth. “Helen’s sure to find something soon,” her mother said to the Grants. “Maybe Mr. Grant can take your resumé, dear. Right, Bob? You must have connections still.” “Sure do,” Mr. Grant said. “What’s your certification in?” “Certification?” Helen said, as Allen's foot lingered on her knee. “As in what can you teach,” Mr. Grant said. Helen did not respond; instead, she reached under the table and grabbed Allen's foot; she squeezed his big toe hard enough to get his attention. Then pushed it away. “Preschool,” Helen's mother said. “Helen teaches preschool.” “I'm sure I can make a few phone calls on your behalf,” Mr. Grant said. Helen's mother smiled, reached for the wine bottle, and topped off his glass. For the first time, Allen looked at Helen. He appeared disappointed that she’d not enjoyed his footgroping. Helen wondered where he'd been employed; that he’d kept a job long enough to be laid off instead of fired seemed impossible. “That slimy realtor's sure making a killing,” Helen's father said, his attention still on the Martins' place. “Martin will be lucky to get out of there with half his money,” Mr. Grant said. “Buyer's market.” Both Mrs. Grant and Helen's mother pursed their lips and shook their heads. “Just awful,” Mrs. Grant said.
Helen's father scanned the table. “Wonder how he'd feel if it was his neighborhood. Bet you not one Jew would—” “We've got peach cobbler,” Helen's mother chirped, springing out of her chair. “I'll start the coffee. Got vanilla ice cream, too.” When her mother scurried into the kitchen, Helen took this as an opportunity to excuse herself from the table. “I'll help her with the coffee,” she told them. Her mother was busy at the sink and did not notice when Helen walked through the kitchen toward the bathroom. Only later, after the Grants left, did her mother knock on the bathroom door. Helen sat on the covered toilet seat, staring at the grout lines in the shower. “Everything all right, dear?” her mother asked. “Fine, mom,” Helen said. Fine, she thought, though she worried that nothing seemed fine, and that sitting in the bathroom for nearly two hours without having to so much as pee—feeling content and safe in the well-lit, confined space—was the exact opposite of fine. *** U-Haul trucks became a familiar sight throughout the neighborhood. On weekend mornings (the busiest moving days), retractable metal ramps scraped asphalt, rousing Helen from bed. Grown children piled furniture and boxes and clothes inside their parents' garages. This downsizing reminded Helen of the big bang in reverse: universes had begun collapsing in on themselves, returning the newly unemployed children back to their origins—to the smallest speck of primordial existence. The number of cars in each driveway appeared to double, however; some children settled for parking on the street, though Helen had witnessed one hysterical, aproned mother, whose Lincoln sat curbside, direct her son's Mustang toward the center of the driveway like an air-traffic controller shepherding a 747 to its gate. The FoodMart on Route 35 became overrun with mothers bumping elbows and jostling for position in front of the meat and poultry section. Swollen shopping carts thronged the aisles. One afternoon, Helen's mother came home exasperated and sweating—the deli section had run out of yellow American cheese and slow-roasted honey turkey breast. She'd been made to wait fifteen minutes, then informed that boiled ham and swiss were her only choices—if you could believe that. The returning children, for the most part, did not insist on special treatment or elaborate home cooked meals. In fact, they made themselves useful: lawn mowing duties were taken over for aging fathers; gutters cleaned; pools vacuumed; flowerbeds weeded. Helen became proactive, too, and decided to take a razor blade to the rotting grout in the guest bathroom—years of soap scum and spotty mold had turned the grey lines a pus-yellow. Her father
attempted to assist her, but his hands turned to stone soon after they'd started. So he sat on the covered toilet seat, chain-smoked and watched her work. She stripped off a chunk of caulk from around the base of the tub, and asked him, “Do you think you might have gone overboard with all the gnomes?” He sat, legs crossed, and considered her question. Then said: “Overboard with the gnomes?” “Yes,” she said. “Maybe it's time to give it a rest, you know? It's antisocial behavior, Dad—not to mention creepy.” Either he hadn't heard her or decided to change the subject. “Mr. Grant said he'll take that résumé any time you're ready.” “Right,” she said, running a finger along the new space she'd created between the tiles and tub. She'd almost lulled herself into believing that she was like the other returning children—those who could point a finger at President Bush for fucking up the last eight years, and at the too-big-to-fail banks, and the scum of the Earth who made millions off dividends and betting against bad investments. At night, however, flat on her back, staring through lace curtains, she knew that the plummeting economy had nothing to do with her termination. She was different from them. She'd caused Danny's accident. She was responsible. “Helen,” her father said, “you're bleeding.” She looked down, saw a fist that didn't look like hers clenching the razor blade. “Shit,” she said, relaxing her hand. The nerves came alive then, sending sharp pain signals to her brain and back down to her palm, where a slender gash, lined with blood, ran parallel to her thumb. “Here, use this,” her father said, handing her a wad of toilet paper. That night, after she'd made tea, she discovered her mother curled and asleep and snoring on the living room's sofa. She looked frail and much smaller than the woman who'd once grabbed an eightyear-old Helen by the hair and dragged her across the kitchen floor, after Helen made two proclamations: she hated her parents and would no longer accompany them to church. It now looked as if the slightest breeze would flake off her mother's skin, carry it away, and leave only brittle bones behind. She touched her mother's hand; it felt like cold tissue paper. She grabbed the blanket off the sofa's back, covered her with it. Helen then ventured out onto the front porch, where she watched her father rearrange gnomes again. He failed to notice her as he went about his work. The late August moon provided ample illumination. Her father mumbled to himself as he squatted on the front walk. He patted the top of a
gnome's long purple hat, picked it up and placed it on top of a gnome-orgy he'd been, apparently, working on for some time. He giggled and coughed and lit a cigarette. Helen looked down the street, scanned the rows of identical houses—only their colors and variations of window treatments distinguished one from the next—and wondered how many returning children found themselves disconcerted by their parents' behavior. How many among them worried about stove burners left on for a third and fourth time? Did their parents fall asleep with lit cigarettes wedged between fingers, like her father? Did they fear, like she did, that they alone were capable of detecting the moment when the cigarette hit the floor and engulfed the shag carpet in flames? Did they worry about break-ins and floods, about carbon dioxide filling their parents' houses and killing them in their sleep? She knew that some of them must have been anxious about another harsh winter—their fathers shoveling heavy, wet snow, hearts pumping too fast and hard, then giving out. Or was it just her? *** She woke up at seven o'clock—downstairs, her mother made a racket with the coffee machine and frying pan. After failing to fall back asleep, she decided to join her parents for breakfast. At the table, her father buttered rye toast; he nibbled half of it, but then put it down and turned toward the window that looked out onto the street. Her mother brought two steaming coffee mugs— said how nice it was to have all three of them eating together for once. “Your father usually stands at the counter and wolfs down breakfast like he's at the Port Authority,” her mother said. Helen reached for a cantaloupe. “Since I have you both here,” she said, “it's a good time to talk about cleaning up the front yard.” Her mother hadn't sat down yet. “Speak to your father, dear,” she said. “Outside's his realm.” Helen looked to her father, but his attention was fixed on the street. “So, Dad? Think it's time to retire the gnomes or what?” Without warning he sprang to his feet, knocking over his coffee mug. Helen and her mother watched as he darted to the front door and then outside. They could see him through the windows; he ran full speed toward the mailbox, where a young couple—dressed in identical blue Nike track suits— stood, waiting for their miniature pinscher to finish peeing. The dog's skinny leg hovered above the 69'ing gnomes; piss bounced off the top gnome's red hat. Helen's mother did not stick around to see what transpired once her husband reached the young couple: she ran into the kitchen for paper towels to clean the coffee, which had started dripping onto the wood floor. The dog was still peeing when Helen's father grabbed it and tossed its black and brown body into the middle of the street. Its head bounced off the pavement; its legs twitched. The woman—
hysterical and shaking—ran into the street and scooped her dog into her arms. The young man stood unmoving. Helen's father turned and headed back up the driveway. Paper towels in hand, Helen's mother reappeared at the table just as her husband of forty-five years opened the front door. When he sat down, she said, “Watch it, Harry, floor's still wet.” Then her mother returned to the kitchen, the soaking wad of paper towels cupped in her hands. The half-eaten piece of rye toast sat untouched; her father buttered a second one. Outside, the young woman continued screaming. The police said they wouldn't cuff him if he came willingly and without incident. When the police cruiser pulled out of the driveway, Helen got to work on the front lawn. She gathered all the gnomes, carried them three at a time to the garage, lined them against the back wall. Her first instinct had been smash them on the driveway—sweep them up and throw them away—but she knew her father would replace them. She decided to make a deal with him: he could keep them in the garage, pair them however he wanted to, as long as they never made it onto the lawn again. He'd fight it, she knew, but limits had to be set. Perhaps his night in jail will make this transition easier on him, she thought. She checked the gas and oil levels of the lawnmower; she emptied the still-full bag of dead brown grass clippings. She walked in straight lines; stopped often to unclog the mower's blades; emptied the bag of clippings seven times. Her mother came out with iced tea. No one stopped by to thank her for cleaning up her father's mess, but she knew they must be watching from behind windows. On her knees, she weeded the flowerbeds. She thought about how she'd only planned on staying with her parents temporarily. But the word temporary conjured up so many images in Helen's mind, that its definition eluded her. Was her father's insanity temporary? Maybe her job had been the temporary thing, and returning to her parents had been inevitable. When he returns he'll be frightened, Helen thought, as her hands dug in the dirt. She grabbed a stubborn root and pulled. Next door, Mr. Grant opened the trunk of his Oldsmobile, heaved a black suitcase inside. He'll worry about losing control again. Allen followed his mother to the passenger side door. Mr. Grant sat behind the steering wheel, adjusting the air-conditioning and checking the mirrors. When they pulled out of the driveway, Mrs. Grant stood near the mailbox waving and smiling until the Oldsmobile rounded the corner and disappeared. She lingered curbside, shaking her head. She rubbed her palms together as if to keep them warm.
He'll slip up窶馬eed to be reminded what's acceptable behavior. But he'll try his best to be as normal as anyone else. That autumn, U-hauls continued to fill her parents' neighborhood. Some weeks more children moved out than in; and some weeks Helen lost count.
Matthew Hall has just finished Monmouth University graduate school and lives in New Jersey, where he teaches middle school. He enjoys spending summer months, over-caffeinated and writing, in coffee houses. He is currently working on his first novel.
Jessica Housand-Weaver Persephone Rising He shoves back into her those thousand seconds of stinging where some quivering Jersey Giant once bit hard, the man-beak whittling its crude chicken scratch against the secret walls of her well, newly mined and still raw. She scratches back, clawing up through that tunnel he tilled, rubbing out his fingerprints with her fingertips penetrating the slick stone places mounting her own deep mausoleum spitting out the ache and the grit until, gasping, she is risen.
Jessica Housand-Weaver is an MFA graduate student at The University of Arkansas at Monticello and co-editor of UAMâ€™s new magazine, Gravel. She has been published or is upcoming in Stone Soup Magazine, Poetic Voices Magazine, The Dark Fiction Spotlight, Mused-The BellaOnline Literary Review, Mocha Memoirs Press, Malpais Review, Fickle Muses, Poetry Pacific, and The New Poet, among others. She currently lives in the mountains of New Mexico with her husband, a disabled veteran, their two children, two step-kids, four dogs, and a flock of freerange chickens.
Wendy Sue Gist Inside the Turquoise Café
Inside the Turquoise Café, under a figurative painting of a cougar with a hand-crank egg beater fluttering over its head, Judy, glitzed in cowgirl bling, sucks from a straw. Her Mason jar of blonde iced tea perspires. Through glass stained picture window, she spots tottering birds on dove-white branches thick, dropping in droves from a sycamore grove next to the dry creek. She fans cheeks the texture of aspen bark with a laminated menu. Parched leaves disintegrate in sunlight as fowls tumble dead. A tall wedge of green-chile-cheese quiche caves into itself alongside mixed greens on a porcelain plate in front of her. Outside, the heat rises to 113 degrees. Swamp cooler hums. She showers salt over fare and says to server Kelly (the latter’s hair black as a carpenter bee’s back and sweat-glued to her deep-lined forehead), “I witnessed a wildcat turning tight circles at Dewey’s ranch. Come down out of Red Colt Canyon. Starving. Round and round it pawed. Got some kind of whirling disease.” Kelly refills the Mason jar from a clear plastic pitcher with a drip-proof spout. Open door gulps hungry breaths of hot air blown in from the graveyard creek. Judy says, “I hate going out there.”
Wendy Sue Gist was raised in the forest of the Southwest on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Burningword Literary Journal, New Plains Review, Oyez Review, Pif Magazine, Rio Grande Review, RipRap, Sundog Lit, The Chaffey Review, The Fourth River, Tulane Review and other fine journals. She currently resides in southwestern New Mexico.
Angela Morris Death by Pen Cap An Essay
I couldn’t tell you why I’d stripped off all my clothes. There was no logical thought process as to why getting completely naked would at all help my situation, but I did it anyway. I guess it was some sort of subconscious jester. We come into this world naked, might as well leave this world the same way. A sort of purity. Anyways I was naked and laying in an empty tub, not really registering the chill of the porcelain, as I spoke into the phone. I kept saying over and over again, “Heart attack. I think I’m having a heart attack.” My boyfriend was on the line with me. “What do you want me to do?” “I’m going to call 911. I think I’m having a heart attack.” It wasn’t a heart attack. The feeling like your chest is falling apart. The panic when your left arm starts to ache. First at the elbow. Then it spreads to the forearm. Who knew panic attacks could be so tricky. “Faulty serotonin receptors,” my doctor told me as I sat in his office a few days later. Your serotonin regulates your levels of anxiety. Anxiety in its intended state can be healthy. It steers people from doing dangerous and potentially stupid shit. It’s okay to have a healthy fear of poisonous spiders; it motivates you to prevent being bitten. It’s okay to have a healthy fear of dark alleyways in bad sides of town; people can get raped or murdered. My anxiety levels, however, aren’t healthy. They’re not normal. “It’s called a panic disorder,” my doctor told me. My brain’s receptors don’t always pick up the serotonin my body is naturally trying to produce. So while I’m home alone, peacefully watching TV or reading a book, I sometimes start feeling like I’m having a heart attack, like I’m dying. There is no warning, no stimulant to justify such a reaction. My brother has the same problem. Supposedly it’s genetic. “Lexapro,” my doctor said to me, handing me a sack of medication that came in sample packaging. A month’s supply. An antidepressant that’s supposed to help my brain receive the serotonin it needs to keep me at a healthy level of fear. The samples have been in my medicine cabinet for two years now, completely untouched.
I had called 911 before the bathtub incident. My boyfriend had been sitting in the passenger seat of my car, holding his intestines in his hands. We weren’t aware at the time, but his intestines flopping out of the knife wound had actually stopped the bleeding, which helped save his life. “It was a complete stranger,” I had told the 911 operator. I assumed the assailant was on PCP, why else would he randomly attack my boyfriend after we couldn’t offer up any booze or money, but I didn’t tell the police that, not right away at least. I was more concerned with driving away from the scene of the crime, 24th Street and Walker, in front of a friend’s house. The ambulance met us a few blocks over. The news spread quickly and half our friends were standing next to Jay as he rolled out of my car and onto a random lawn. Grass stuck to the sides of his intestines as he rolled around, repeatedly saying, “That motherfucker stabbed me, I can’t believe that motherfucker stabbed me.” Once at the hospital, Jay went straight into surgery. The doctors opened his entire abdomen vertically so they could pull out his intestines to see if it or any other organs had been punctured by the six inch blade before they put him back together and stitched him up. He lucked out. Caught a nasty infection from the knife, but ultimately healed fine. The rumors spread almost instantly. This wasn’t Jay’s first rendezvous with death. In fact, it had been his third in the last year or so. We had been in a car accident a few months prior to the stabbing. My car had flipped over a median, and Jay hadn’t been wearing his seat belt. While the physics of force would conclude that Jay should have been thrown out of the car, he wasn’t. He made it out with only a few stitches About a year before that, he’d been doing lightening protection in New York, and while harnessed to the top of a skyscraper there had been a small explosion. Someone didn’t dry out a pipe well enough before inserting a rod and Boom. The bandana Jay constantly wore prevented the metal shards from puncturing his face, and his sunglasses had protected his eyes. He ended up with some pretty wicked burns on his hands, but still rather lucky. Getting stabbed was just further confirmation for the rumors of immortality that began circulating. “He can’t be human. I sat on the lawn with the guy and drank a beer with him as he held his own intestines and waited for the ambulance,” one friend would later tell his side of the story. Another would talk about the visits to the hospital where Jay stayed for fourteen days after being stabbed. “Jay just walked around carrying the Wound VAC attached to his knife wound” – a machine that literally sucked the infection out – “as he’d sneak outside the hospital to smoke. Nothing can kill the guy.” I
spent fourteen nights in a hospital chair thinking about Jay’s nine lives and some sort of feline connection he might have. Jay is currently on his way to becoming a licensed skydiver; he welds around dangerous oil rig equipment ten hours a day, five days a week; he enjoys climbing on top of buildings around the city at night with a twelve pack of beer or a bottle of whiskey. I currently still think I’m dying from time to time. I’ll be typing at my computer at night and Bam, my chest will start to tighten up, my fingers stiffen and go numb, and I’ll have to remind myself it’s not a heart attack. I watch Jay live an unhealthy life style. An asthmatic smoker, he’ll sometimes use his fast acting inhaler seven times in one day, when you’re not supposed to use it more than twice a day because the steroids in it strain your heart. He always meets his 40-cigarettes-a-day quota. He’ll chase 750 milliliters of Johnny Walker with fast food. He’ll scale buildings a little more intoxicated than probably is safe. But I’m convinced Jay will die from something mundane. He’ll accidently choke on a pen cap. He’ll eat a cantaloupe that no one knew was exposed to salmonella. Death by pen cap. Death by cantaloupe. The heart attack will be saved for me. Today, I sat in my doctor’s office to hear he’s never seen anyone as young as me have cancerous polyps in their intestines. Fifteen percent of women over the age of fifty get them, he tells me. But there isn’t a statistic for twenty-four year olds. When they removed the polyps a few months prior, they sent me home with pictures of my intestines from the procedure. I didn’t mention that I’d seen intestines before. “Good thing you don’t have a family history with this sort of thing,” my doctor says. I remind him that my grandmother died of colon cancer. His face drops slightly. He tells me the polyps will keep coming back, continue to grow, that “we” are going to do “our” best to catch them in time. From now on, I’ll have to repeat the procedure every so often. I get the feeling though that my doctor is trying to prepare to hear that at some point, the procedure will be returned with unfortunate news. On my way home I think about the years and years I spent smoking one-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day. I think about how I used to drink a pint of whiskey every night. I think about all the times I’ve laid out in the sun and my friend who was just diagnosed with Melanoma. I think about the heart-attack feeling. Death by intestines? I get home. My boyfriend asks me how it went. I tell him. But I’m extremely calm. I’ve been calm this entire time, which I find slightly odd for a person with an anxiety disorder. But I’m not anxious. Mixed wiring, I call it. I guess I’ve been in a few life threaten situations myself. I was in that car accident
with Jay. I grabbed my mace when the PCP assailant grabbed his knife. I was once in a full classroom, the doors locked, the lights off, while I phoned campus security to let them know we heard several loud booms and screaming from inside the building and that there was speculation that it sounded like artillery fire. I’m looking at possible cancer. All the while, throughout all the incidents: calm, calm, calm. I sit in front of a computer at night during peaceful times and think I’m having a heart attack. Mixed wiring, for sure. “So what happens if they don’t catch the polyps in time,” my boyfriend asks. “They have multiple cancer treatment options these days,” I say. The thing is I will die at some point; I really think I get that. Mortality has never really slipped my mind, even when I speed going down the highway or when I climb buildings with my boyfriend or when I sit in a doctor’s office. Death by pen cap. Death by cantaloupe. Death by heart attack. Death by cancer. Certain things might just be unavoidable. But I’m calm. What else can I be?
Angela Morris resides in Oklahoma City with her pit bull, Rollins. She is currently working on her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Central Oklahoma, where she was the recipient for the Bob Burke Endowed Scholarship in Creative Writing and the assistant for the Southwest Everett Literary Award. She currently serves as an assistant fiction editor for the literary journal Arcadia Magazine and is employed as a staff writer at the UCO College of Fine Arts and Design. Angela grew up in a bilingual household with an immigrant mother who installed in her a love for travel and a musician as a father who taught her that art is a way of life. When Angela is not busy studying she travels, her recent conquests including Europe, Thailand and the ever-so-exotic Las Vegas, Nevada. Her travels, as well as her love for music and history and her personal experiences, serve to inspire and influence her writing. Her goals in life include seeing a live performance by the band Mischief Brew and getting accepted into a Ph.D. program to study Literary and Cultural Theory. She is very grateful to her boyfriend for reminding her that while hard work is absolutely necessary in higher education, it’s okay every now and then to sit on a rooftop, listen to music and relax.
Darren C. Demaree Emily as Outside for Hours
There is pain, exploding in nature, nestled as the evolution of nature, the tearing up of life as we knew it only a day before. Emily, visceral witness to the developing creeks, forcing their way through old rock, insists this is courage & the end of the world will simply be a stop to the future, not the destruction of the past. Sheâ€™s been outside for hours now, watching things from our back porch, swearing she feels real momentum building up for our world to last for a long time, for the water to find us, our feet, to be playful before the end.
Darren C. Demaree is living and writing in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children. He is the author of "As We Refer to Our Bodies" (2013) and "Not For Art Nor Prayer" (2014), both are forthcoming from 8th House Publishing House. He is the recipient of two Pushcart Prize nominations.
Amelie Daigle Sugar Song She’s got this high-pitched nasal hum, but when she falls down to alto range there’s this sweet spot where the vibrato’s not too strong and we’ll sit with our drinks and she’ll hum like that, letting the rhythm slide in and out of focus, taking her time with the note that hits her mouth just right. The note that tastes like silky sugar, she sings it over and over, makes a one-note arpeggio out of that sweet spot under her soft palette and all the way down her throat. I try to suck it in through my straw, but it’s thin and it tastes like air, not like mellifluous caramel cotton that falls on me wave after sweet deadly wave. When I step out into the world its sheer absence of song always rings in my ears. The world sounds unbearably empty without her, the flat and dull song of air moving past me, the sound of the spaces sound travels in between stones, bricks, metal. It was hard to pick up on at first, but once I started I couldn’t stop listening to the sound of her song in everything, everything, even the simplest of verbs.
Amelie Daigle holds a bachelor's degree in English Writing from Loyola University New Orleans, where she had the pleasure of editing and contributing to two English department journals, Revisions and The Reader's Response. She currently attends Boston College, where she is a Ph.D. candidate in the field of English Literature. Her work is forthcoming in the Diverse Arts Project's Fall 2013 publication.
Robin Gaines Dreams for Two An Essay After thirty years of sharing a bed with the same man, I still wake most mornings and wonder what he dreams of. Shooting under par at Augusta? A hat trick in his over 50-hockey league? A different body lying naked next to him? Those would be my guesses. Dreaming about the big stuff that makes a life together? Not so much. On the outside, Rick is chatty, easy going, an unflustered mid-western guy’s guy. Inside, he’s a steel firewall of reluctance. He likes to “think things through” and sometimes all that thinking can take years. Left with a husband who can’t make a decision and life ticking away, I’ve had to dream big for the both of us. And most of those dreams, from the number of children we had to the homes we’ve lived in, were never Rick’s dreams. Everything my husband loves most in the world he never really wanted. Still, over the years, we’ve managed to cultivate the essentials of coupledom: love, mutual respect, and trust. Rick has repeatedly told me after the baby’s birth, the furniture moved in, the puppy now a dog, that we made the right decision. But I wonder what our life together would look like if I didn’t work so hard to paint the canvases for him? Would he have taken the job that changed everything for us? And how different our family dynamic would feel with only our firstborn to love? His inability to make a decision and my inability to accept his indecisiveness is the part of our marriage that rocks our mostly sturdy boat. The latest journey over choppy seas for us was convincing Rick that a piece of property on a lake in northern Michigan that included a spooky 100 plus year-old farmhouse with a nest of rats and a collection of old Saturday Evening Posts covered in raccoon poop would translate into our dream lake house and art studio. The first time we saw the property was on a trip north to look at a cottage for sale. The cottage fit out needs but Rick hated the low ceilings, the narrow stairs, the damp musky smell of some other families boarded up summer memories. Turnoffs for him where I saw charm. The realtor mentioned the lot for sale across the lake and we drove around the tip to check it out. Rick dismissed the lot and spooky house sitting on it as looking “condemned”, so we got back in the car and drove the four hours back downstate with me percolating with ideas how we could fix it up. Six months later we drove north again with huge coffees and high expectations for a cottage that looked great on paper. It had new dry walled ceilings and a beautiful view. When Rick found out the
fresh drywall was due to burst pipes the winter before, I saw the shadow of gloom move over him. Tell Rick, the Hugh Hefner of real estate (he likes homes new, easy, and if possible, cheap) anything about the messed up internal organs of a house and he is running to the first vacant lot he can find. So we crossed the dirt road to the spooky house property once again. “Too much work,” Rick told the realtor as we ducked and hobbled over fallen trees and overgrown vegetation. When I nearly impaled myself on a crumpled pile of wood that was once the outhouse, I felt that first flutter of new beginnings, those familiar stirrings of what ifs that overtake my imagination. “It’s perfect,” I shouted through the brush. Standing very still, I closed my eyes and saw our family of five and an elderly lab on the porch of a white shake sided house looking out at the lake while the ancient evergreens sashayed in the wind. I saw the old farmhouse with a new roof and a coat of paint and my daughter’s paintings drying inside. The image was as clear and real to me as what Rick saw with eyes wide open: a dilapidated farmhouse beat up from neglect on property strewn with decades of junk. “Not a chance,” he said. The mantra he repeated time and time again during our married life when my dream was his nightmare. Like most people who’ve survived to middle age with an intact marriage and their sanity, Rick and I have weathered our share of disappointments and a few tragedies. It’s the way we see over or threw these setbacks that defines the story of us. We are the cup half-empty, the cup half-full couple and are entrenched in our roles. Years ago when we lost a newborn baby to a congenital heart defect Rick was happy we had a healthy toddler at home to raise. “Why push our luck?” he said when I told him I wanted another baby a year later. “Because we always wanted three children,” I reminded him. Not budging on the issue, and me not giving up, I made appointments. It took a department of genetic counselors and more than a few OB-GYNs in the practice to convince Rick that his fears of the same birth defect occurring again in another pregnancy were remote. And there was the other lake house; the one we broke ground for the week of 9/11 and moved into the week American troops invaded Iraq. We should have known the bad karma this house would bring us. I didn’t believe it until I saw two men, in what looked like space suits, taking water samples down on our beach one fall day. It turned out they were Hazmat suits and the property and shoreline where our one-year old house sat was contaminated. After a lengthy legal battle to get our money out, we moved the furniture into storage and hunkered down.
“Let me think about it,” was Rick’s next reaction to the lot when the price had come down once again the following year. Let me think about it always follows Not a chance, which in Rick-speak meant there was a glimmer of hope that the lot and spooky house might be ours one day. Now, lest you are reminded of Sandra Bullock’s acceptance speech for the Oscar (“Did I really earn this or did I just wear you down?”), I am not one of those. I don’t badger and nag. I nudge and wait. I paint the outline I want Rick to see and let him paint in his own colors. From the dead-end job I suggested he leave in his twenties to start his own business, to our three children that complete our life; in the culmination of thirty years of big moments, many were meant with indifference. So, why have we stayed together when we wanted different things? He grew up in a household where his father, an inventor, a businessman, a writer, drove a Corvette and flitted, happily, from one unrealized dream to another. I grew up in a household where my mother drove a Gremlin without power steering and shopped with coupons every Thursday and Friday, hating every second of her life. Our journey to adulthood couldn’t have been more different except for the fact our fathers both died young. I come to middle age knowing that humans tend to run from lives they fear. I ran from my mother’s version and Rick ran from his father’s. And maybe that’s how we roll as a couple. We get to a median point of decision from opposite directions; I drive north, he drives south. Eventually we meet at our destination halfway. Sure, not all the roads I’ve taken him down have been without a pothole or two. Yet, ask Rick and he’ll tell you most have been fulfilling adventures. The dog he didn’t want twelve years ago but now bathes in the backyard and gently cleans the crusts from her eyes. The town we eventually settled in to raise our family. Friends. Health decisions. The list, now three-decades long, with more in the plus column than the minus, is my shining achievement of vision and determination even if I never set out to do it on my own. Rick was always a part of the dreams even if he wasn’t a willing participant. Sometimes, no many times, I wish he could have seen from the beginning the positives where before there existed not one. Rick’s aversion to change is told time after time in worn out anecdotes our kids like to recite. The swim trunks and Gap jeans he’s worn since Clinton was president. The same cereal in the same bowl every morning. The Buick he drives with over 100,000 miles. He’s not a cheapskate. He’ll share a $100 bottle of wine with friends on a Wednesday night and write tuition checks for our nieces and nephews without hesitation.
We bought the property five years after that first visit. When he wanted the spooky farmhouse torn down as the lot was being cleared, I convinced him to wait. Wait and see what the house could become if cleaned up inside and given a chance. Wait to see how we could make it part of the story of the new house, part of the continuing story of us. He did. The lake house and renovated farmhouse now art studio is everything I imagined and everything he didn’t. After a long haul of contractors, overruns, and bad assumptions, I asked Rick when we pulled up to our brand new white shake sided cottage, “Is this what you wanted too?” He smiled up at the roof where the cupola of the copper angel I picked out to honor our deceased newborn daughter turned slightly in the wind. “All I ever wanted was you.” No matter what else we face in our married life, what dreams are concocted and sometimes shot down, we made one decision a long time ago when I wore a simple white dress and a garland of flowers on my head and Rick a dark suit that matched his long hair and beard. We were young and stupid but somehow made the best decision of our lives. The one we made together.
Robin Gaines's short stories can be found in various literary journals and anthologies. She has written for newspapers and magazines and received her master's degree in journalism from Michigan State University. Gaines finished a novel-in-stories and is currently working on a novel about love and the cost of not loving each other enough. She lives outside Ann Arbor, Michigan with her family.
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