“Genesis” by Yael Hacohen
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her short essay “Genesis,” Yael Hacohen writes about her experience as a woman soldier in the Israeli army and challenging “the mechanisms of power.”
By Yael Hacohen
In June, the desert became even more of a desert. The dust settled on everything: between my toes, in my socks, in my cotton underwear, in my ponytail, inside every single fold of my olive-colored fatigues. Like how my mother used to tuck me into bed, the training base coated me with the thick layer of heat and sand. And I loved it.
Commander’s course was a no-bullshit environment. I shared a small corner room with five other women. We were the first women ever to be integrated into Bahad 1, the commander training base, and we were offered the best room on the floor. I was lucky; my cot was cool in the morning and warm at night. And don’t even get me started on the showers. The army had to build a whole new bathroom designated for just women, and we were the first to use the showers in it.
Every soldier I know can always remember a base by its showers, and the women’s showers at Bahad 1 were exceptional. Each stall had a blunt copper pipe and a single knob to turn the water on and off. There was no way to control the temperature, and the pipe gushed hot water. It may not sound like much, but let me tell you, after a long day of training, there was nothing like it. The pipe gave improbable pressure, Moses beating water from the stone. I would take an extra ten minutes just mulling the day over; the hot water beat down on my head, spilling over the daily occurrences, washing out the dust.
I would go over the everyday ant-like rolling aggressions. I would clean those away—as if they could be cleaned. In Israel, we have a particular word for making a woman feel like a girl: hamuda, roughly translated as “cutie,” “darling,” “sweetheart,” whatever. Hamuda was my commanding officer’s usual nickname for any woman he saw around the base, including our forty-three-year-old lieutenant colonel (even though he gritted that one out between his teeth). For me, it was the way he said it. Not as an insult, no. For him, it was almost deeper than that. Crueler.
Training started at 5 am, immediately followed by the morning 5k run, and my CO was a really, really, really great guy to run behind, if you know what I mean. He had one green eye and one blue. His ears pointed straight up toward the sky, like a puma’s. And like a puma, he had this goddamn beautiful run. His teeth sneered when he said my name, Yael, and I could see his slight, cat-like tongue curling inward. The mechanisms of power are complicated.
My CO always singled me out. During Krav Maga training, he explained to the group, “Always pick off the easiest target first,” and then he would point at me and polish it off by adding, “You’re up, hamuda.” Taking that step forward was the longest step I’d ever had to take. The whole group staring, nodding their heads in perfect acknowledgment.
I stood there, maybe twenty inches away from him, while my CO went on and on with his drawn-out intonations. And all this time, I was standing there in the middle of the training arena. It was quiet, and it was getting dark. He was going to demonstrate the most effective way to body-slam. He said it involved the element of surprise. Then he whipped around, grabbed the lapels of my uniform, and brought me so close to his body I could smell his lilac shampoo. He kicked my right shin and simultaneously knocked my shoulder to the ground. It was over so quickly I didn’t even get a chance to blink.
They tell me fight-or-flight takes only three seconds to initiate. But I didn’t fight. Instead, I dusted myself off and returned to my line. My shin was sore, my hair out of place. Like tangled seaweed, my hair stuck to my face in all the wrong places. Through the shock of it, sweat covered my eyes, my ears, the backs of my knees. But the worst was the way my group had looked at me: two parts pity, one part superiority.
Hamuda became my nickname throughout the base, and I started taking even longer in the shower— the lizards of my mind going over the event. I must have fallen a thousand times before that and a thousand times since, but I can still taste the specific dust from that one fall.
Till one Tuesday, my commanding officer was going to teach us how to pull the weakling out of an army line. He walked straight up to me and yanked my shield forward.
Don’t ask me what adrenaline tastes like—you’ll know it when it when you taste it in your mouth. There I was, standing right in the middle of the training arena. Again. He came close till I smelled lilac. I looked my commander right in the eyes, and I punched him in the face.
He fell like a plate falling off its shelf. It was regal. The look in his eyes shifted when he finally stood back up. And I remembered that I’d seen that look once before, in the Ramat Gan Zoo. A female gorilla had watched a khaki-clad worker shovel her shit to the far south corner of her pen. Her pen was jungle-themed, with large banana and monstera leaves painted crudely across the backing, an absurd painting of an overly large boa constrictor coiling itself around the painted branch. The zoo speakers continuously broadcast the deafening caws of rainbow-colored parrots, cassowaries, and cotingas. And the zoo worker had earphones in. He was just dancing to himself, out of sync with the music, shoveling. I watched the gorilla flare her nostrils. She stood up on her two back legs. Standing like that for a moment, Godlike. The gorilla didn’t even make the softest sound before she charged him. And as if on a swivel, the zoo worker twisted his head around to face her. He too had that look.
My CO stood up and straightened his uniform. He turned to the group and said, “If you are mistaken about the weakest link, just grab the next one.” He didn’t say anything more. And I returned to my place in the line.
The bible says that on the second day, God created a space between the waters to separate the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth. And while I wish I could say my CO never again called me hamuda, the truth of that one punch was this: I was never again singled out in training. Never. And that evening, that shower, the water was cleaner than it had ever been. The cool night air whispered in blue. And God called the waters of the heaven “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning of the second day.
Yael Hacohen is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. She has an MFA in poetry from New York University, where she was an NYU Veterans Writing Workshop fellow, international editor at Washington Square Literary Review, and editor-in-chief at Nine Lines Literary Review. Her poems appear in Praire Schooner, the Poetry Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Every Day Poets magazine, Nine Lines, and many more. She was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Very Short Story Competition, the Consequence Prize in Poetry, and the MSLexia Poetry Prize for Women.
“When I Pulled Over on the Side of the Road” by Katey Schultz
This craft essay by Katey Schultz is proof that inspiration doesn’t follow a particular timeline. In her case, a story percolated for over decade before she saw it take shape. What resulted was “Wait for Me,” which appeared in the summer 2020 issue of the Missouri Review and was a finalist for the 2019 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. You can read the story here.
What matters about the above side-by-side photos is not that they’re blurry or that the handwriting is illegible. What matters is that eleven years ago I was still waitressing two shifts a week and hadn’t published my first book but was so desperate to write down these words that I grabbed whatever I could find.
The blurry image is the new wine list I was trying to memorize. The handwritten image is my scribbles on the back of that wine list, and if you dare attempt to make out the words, you’ll see that, oddly, I wrote from the far right corner, over to the left (rather than our standard composition direction of left to right.
So many years later, this sheet of paper is still tacked to my bulletin board as proof that sometimes writing maxims are actually true: You have to let time pass. The story will reveal itself through drafts. Write whenever and wherever you can. Just start; worry about finishing later. It’s OK if you don’t know how you’ll get to the end.
If you’d told me those things the afternoon eleven years ago when I pulled over on the side of Interstate 26 in North Carolina and started writing, I would have rolled my eyes. Not because I didn’t believe them (well, maybe because I didn’t believe them). But because I had yet to experience just how deep the roots of story can go or how successful its final bloom can be.
For at least seven or eight years, I did nothing with that sheet of paper other than to move it from bulletin board to bulletin board, file to file, wall to wall, as my life expanded around me. I moved a few times. I got married. Bought a house. Had a kid. Went to a residency. . . .
And there, at Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts’ Pentaculum artist residency, “Wait for Me” unspooled. I had the wine list with the scribbles in my folder of other similar scraps and notes. I had reread it a week or so beforehand, in anticipation of the uninterrupted work time a residency affords. When I sat down to write, I didn’t even have to take out that wine list. The voices were already there, waiting. The activity of the opening scene appeared as vividly as my own hands in front of me. The characters—somehow I knew their gender roles should be reversed from my initial scribbles, that the girl would bully the boy, not the other way around—were talking faster than I could type.
But I’m not going to lie and say that “the rest is history.” That’s a cop-out, and, besides, it glosses over the very best of what happens for writers when inspiration, discipline, time, and alchemy line up. Which is to say, I opened up Google Maps, switched it to satellite view, found a small town in West Virginia, moved the screen around a little bit until I found Morgantown, and then a not-too-distant large swath of forest and a lake. Now I had a setting I could work from, manipulate, and make my own (fictionalizing some bits, borrowing other bits).
From there, another maxim proved true: Landscape is character is plot.
At least, for me it is. Because as soon as I hear the voices of my narrators or characters in dialogue, I have to make their feet touch the ground in order to believe whatever they’re going to do next. And as soon as their feet touch the ground, they’re in reaction to the world around them. After that, plot really gets going.
By the end of that residency, I had a draft of the story not too terribly different from the version named Finalist in the Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith’s Editor’s Prize.
KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for both titles, gold and silver medals from the Military Writers Society of America, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, National Indies Excellence Finalist recognition, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com.
“Hockey Forever, or for as Long as It Lasts” by Jenny Shank
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “Hockey Forever, or for as Long as It Lasts,” Jenny Shank writes about her son’s passion for a sport and what it’s like to see her child finally find comfort in his own body.
Hockey Forever, or for as Long as It Lasts
By Jenny Shank
When my son Sam is five, we try soccer. Sam skips around while the opponent, unchallenged, scores. When Sam swims, he sinks. At tennis, he flails. In kid yoga, he clowns. In gymnastics he can’t copy the instructor’s movements. When Sam is six, I coach his T-ball team. He heaves the ball with a weird sidearm and drags the bat instead of swinging it. He’ll learn, I think. But throwing and catching are so hard for him that he’s mad. He flings rocks in the outfield and knocks down bats in the dugout. Kids call “Sam!” in disgust, the way Jerry Seinfeld used to pronounce the name of Newman, the nefarious postman. I love baseball. But after two seasons, I hang up my coaching hat. I coach my daughter’s basketball team too, but I don’t even attempt that with Sam. I’ve seen him try to dribble.
Eventually, after years of searching, we learn Sam has sensory processing disorder of the sensory-seeking type. That means he has to move—run, push, climb, and play—as frequently as possible, or else his self-control disintegrates. Often kids with this type of SPD are athletically accomplished because they are so motivated to practice.
But Sam also has dyspraxia, a lifelong neurological problem that impairs coordination and working memory. The occupational therapist charts his manual coordination at the second percentile, his fine-motor coordination at the third, his body coordination at the fourth. He has trouble following multistep instructions. I always thought he had good balance, but the OT finds that when Sam closes his eyes, he falls over. His proprioception is hampered. He only knows where his body is in space while he’s moving. He has to work ten times as hard as other kids just to sit, walk, write, or tie his shoes. These simple tasks demand intense concentration. But when Sam doesn’t get enough exercise, he causes havoc, hitting us and throwing things. Fate relishes a cruel combo. Fine. He plays outside, alone.
One day, a hockey game on TV captures Sam’s attention. My husband, Julien, perks up. Hockey was his sport. We take Sam to an ice rink. Sam is fascinated with the Zamboni. He studies its every slow swoop, the ice glistening, refreshed behind it. We sign him up for Learn to Skate. He goes every Saturday, year round. He doesn’t tire of it. He asks for a birthday party at the rink and rides the Zamboni like a young Canadian prince. We sign him up for Learn to Play Hockey. He can’t follow complicated directions, but he loves to play. Finally, when he’s seven, he joins Mites, the youngest level hockey team. Every time we ask if he wants to continue, he says yes. Every day he asks, “Do I have hockey today?”
Sam learns to play hockey in a dingy one-rink facility that looks like it smells like an armpit. The water fountain breaks, and tiles fall from the ceiling. The rink’s semipro team usually seems to lose. Expectations are low all around, which always works best for us.
But the year after Sam joins Mites, his hockey club demolishes the armpit rink and celebrates the grand opening of a new facility, modestly titled the Sport Stable. They should have called it the Taj Ma-Hockey.
This immense, gleaming building contains three rinks. Lavish banners emblazoned with the club’s every achievement for the past four decades hang above the ice. There are basketball courts, three indoor turf fields, and a weight room, used for something called “dryland training.” A big-screen TV blares in the lobby. Smaller screens, mounted everywhere, list locker room and rink assignments. There’s a sporting goods store, a coffee shop—the espresso kind!—and a bar. Each of these amenities boasts its own hockey-themed name like Sticks! They host “Wine Nights” for “Hockey Moms,” the flier for which cracks Sam up every time he reads it. The Zambonis are new here, covered with ads from local merchants, race car style.
Monarch, the Sport Stable’s home-ice high school team, immediately wins the state hockey championship when they relocate from the armpit rink, as if channeling the Stable’s grandeur. The Sport Stable employs a vast, impressive coaching staff. The director once ran USA Women’s Hockey, leading America to two world-championship gold medals and a silver Olympic medal.
When Sam is almost nine, he tries out for Squirts and makes it, just barely. Squirts, the division he’s aged into, is more demanding than the Mites. We worry the place is too intense. Five hockey sessions a week seems extravagant, insane. But dyspraxics can’t learn without repetition. And when Sam comes home with sweaty hair, I know the evening will unfold gently, free of SPD meltdowns. No other sports appeal to Sam or lie within his range. Hockey is all motion, no waiting.
Only hockey. This, or nothing. With trepidation, we bring Sam to the Taj.
He’s a little awkward on the ice. His puck handling lags. He can’t always copy the fancy skating moves the coaches demonstrate. Sometimes he holds the stick with just one hand. It takes him forever to learn a crossover. In games, he hangs back, all his aggression dissipated by the Zen of ice gliding. But he can basically do it. He skates and shoots and passes. The exercise strengthens him and regulates his system, like lulling all the bees inside to calm with wafts of smoke.
There are over eighty kids on different Squirt teams at the Sport Stable. We counted when the rosters were posted, to determine how much cover we had. There are three Aidens and a Caden on his team. We should have named him similarly, for camouflage. Still, maybe the coaches don’t even know his name and Sam can enjoy his dazey hockey bliss-out in peace, without sticking out as particularly unskilled, making his way to the top of next season’s cut list.
“Sam likes the sensations of hockey,” I say. “He doesn’t care about the gritty specifics.”
I make a practice of trying to understand Sam’s sideways brain. Sam likes the ice, freshly glossed. The slide of his skates over the smooth surface. The little curls of ice his blades shave off. The cool air rising off the rink. The cavernous ceiling of the arena. The stick in his hand. The clatter of the pucks and sticks against the ice. The majesty of the Sport Stable. The happy bustle and good vibe there.
When the expensive Boulder Bison jerseys arrive, Julien spreads them out on the carpet in our living room. They are shiny and regal with an embroidered bison patch. Julien ties the laces at the throat, smooths them with his hands. He doesn’t even have to speak for me to know what he’s thinking. “I would have loved this when I was a kid,” he says.
For a moment, each of us silently reflects on his gothic-horror childhood with a schizophrenic mom, which involved no music lessons, sports teams, fancy jerseys, birthday parties, or motherlove.
“It isn’t fair,” I say.
“If I’d had coaches like Sam’s, I would have been a pretty good hockey player.”
Julien started hockey at twelve, on a rough-iced indoor rink in New York whose shed-like enclosure was so flimsy that once someone flung a stick and it broke through the siding to reveal the light of day. “I started too late,” he says.
“You would have been great,” I tell him.
“Sam can’t even appreciate this.”
“I know,” I say. “Aren’t we lucky that we can spoil him with things he can’t even appreciate?”
As the first game approaches, Julien worries that Sam still might not understand offsides. “If he screws this up, his team will be mad at him, because he’ll keep getting penalties.”
Julien wants me to show Sam a video because I am the Sam whisperer. Or the closest thing we’ve got to it. “I coach baseball and basketball,” I tell Julien. “I don’t know hockey.”
“Hockey is really simple. There are only like three rules.” Julien looks terrified that the coming game will hold the charlatanry of our parenting up to the light.
I can’t convince Sam to watch Julien’s video, but I draw a misshapen hockey rink on a piece of paper. Are they oval? In any case, there are three important lines, I think. (There are actually five.) “Look,” I say to Sam. “The puck always has to cross this line first, before you can skate past it.”
“Okay,” he says.
“If the puck leaves this area—” I have no idea what any of the lines are called, so I just point, “You’ve got to skate out too, or the ref will whistle at you.” And your dad will have an aneurysm, I don’t add.
“Okay,” he says.
The first game comes. Sam’s team wins because one kid scores five goals. Sam doesn’t do anything spectacular, but he doesn’t get called for any penalties. It is a joyful relief.
In the third game, Sam scores a goal. A very Sam sort of goal. Julien witnesses it and texts me. “Sam may have scored. Trying to figure out what happened.” Clearly, to the average spectator, it didn’t look like your orthodox goal. But I’d be surprised if anything Sam ever does is orthodox. Sure enough, on the team website, Sam’s name is credited with a goal. I ask Sam about it.
“I was trying to get out of the way, because I thought Aiden was coming to get the puck,” he says, his brown eyes growing wide as he tells me the story. “But he didn’t come get the puck. So I just kind of put my stick down, and somehow it went in.” Sam is still surprised about how his attempt to flee resulted in a goal.
Getting out of the way is one of Sam’s prime survival techniques. He knows his hands don’t work as well as the other kids’ hands. I have seen him, in a game of dodgeball in which all the other eight-year-olds were boldly vying to catch and throw, instead run, evade, and hide, staying well clear of all the action, until he was the second-to-last kid standing. Because he can’t throw well, he can never win, but he can at least delay losing. I like to think he gets this from my grandpa Harry, an infantryman who survived a 120-day span of various battles in World War II in which he was engaged with the enemy for 99 of them. Nazis shot him twice in four days, but he survived.
Later, Sam reads the tag on his jersey and confronts me. “It says OT Sports. Did you put me in an occupational therapy league?”
“No, that’s just the brand name. It stands for overtime, probably.”
“Look at me,” he says. He’s watched a video on YouTube about how to tell if people are lying to you. “Your eyes are wide. You’re lying.”
“I’m not lying. You’re on a regular hockey team.”
Sam plays four games. The season is underway. We think maybe he can skate through, unnoticed.
One evening after practice, Julien and Sam arrive home and realize that Sam left his new fleece jacket in the locker room. Sam screams. “It’s going to be lost! Stolen! I’m never going to get it back!”
Because of his SPD, Sam’s nervous system is always cranked to eleven. The slightest derangement of the universe triggers his fight or flight response. When Sam freaks out, he breaks things and throws things. Food hits the floor. Chairs crash. He’s ripped a hole in the window screen, broken the fence, trashed a photo he didn’t like of him and his sister. After years of effort, he doesn’t bite us anymore and hits us less, but his freak-outs are still alarming. The more exercise he gets, the fewer freak-outs occur. We finally learn they aren’t personal. And Julien and I will do anything to diffuse them.
Though it’s late and he hasn’t had dinner, Julien leaves to fetch the jacket. When he returns, I can tell something is wrong. He looks shaken but tells me he’ll talk about it later.
When the kids are in bed, Julien whispers the story to me. “I thought the jacket would still be in the locker room, but Coach Jill had it. She asked, ‘Are you Sam’s dad?’ I felt like I was falling.”
“So she knows his name,” I say. These coaches are good.
Julien nods. “She told me, ‘I’m having trouble reaching Sam.’”
This meant she thought he was goofing off. There’s always the risk that someone will interpret Sam’s slow progress and intermittent attention as insolence or laziness.
“I panicked,” Julien says, “but I used my Toastmasters skills.” He’s been going to club meetings for years and has finally conquered his fear of public speaking. “I tried to tell her about him. Maybe you can e-mail her?”
“Sure,” I say. Most adults who interact with Sam eventually turn to me for an explanation of his being.
I Google Jill. She placed fifth in the 1986 U.S. Figure Skating Pairs Championship.
She is an expert, a professional. She has the snapping eyes and elfin, tousled haircut of a go-getter. She might not understand us bottom dwellers, clinging to the underside of hockey like barnacles to a swiftly moving ship. I met her once, when I was five minutes late getting Sam from practice. He was trying to be a tough guy but wavering near tears. “He was really worried,” Jill said, with an alarmed look.
Julien presses his hand to his forehead. “When I was talking to Jill, I felt overwhelmed with sadness and shame.”
“I go through that too,” I say. “For me it was worst when we found out he couldn’t read.”
If it’s possible for a person to be made of books, then I am made of books. Reading is my love, my profession, my therapy, my life. When I enter a house with no evident books, I’m suspicious of it. I stick close to the exit. So when it looked like reading might not come to Sam, I despaired. I wept. And then I worked. I brought him to specialists and found him a reading tutor. I hired an occupational therapist for his handwriting. I spent hours every day searching for books he might like and reading with him. I took more jobs to pay for it all.
Somehow, I taught him to read.
“The sadness is part of this,” I tell Julien, “But you don’t need to feel shame. This is nobody’s fault. Think of how brave Sam is, to go out there on the ice, when everything is so much harder for him.”
“But are we crazy? Signing him up for this elite hockey club?”
“He wanted to do it. He tried out. They let him on the team. We’re hurting no one by taking up the last spot on the lowest team.”
When Julien reads the e-mail I write to Jill, he cries, even though he rarely cries. I don’t know if he remembers how often he told me, when I was crying over the reading thing, that it was going to be okay. Julien had trouble learning to read and nobody even noticed, much less helped him. One day he picked up The Hobbit and that was all it took. He painstakingly worked his way through Bilbo Baggins’s quest, the sentences making more sense as they accumulated behind him.
Every year we discover some new, basic thing that Sam can’t do. He can’t open the snack wrappers in his lunch. He can’t cut pancakes or carve soap with a knife like the other Cub Scouts. We become grievously alarmed. And then we work on it.
I hug Julien. “Sam doesn’t have a terminal illness. He’s just terminally Sam. He’s doing better than a lot of kids with SPD.” SPD often accompanies more serious concerns—autism, chromosome disorders, early onset puberty.
Sam’s condition, by contrast, seems almost comic, like a wise guy was sitting around a bar deciding what maladies to dole out and went, “Oh, I’ve got a good one! This thing where you have a compulsion to play sports but you’re no good at them!”
Jill never answers my e-mail, and I take that as a good sign. She’s sensitive enough to know something is different about Sam and compassionate enough to want to help him. Still, it’s clear we can never hide out among the normals. We will always be caught.
Sam will play hockey for as long as he loves it, for as long as the team lets him, for as long as we’re willing to haul him to the Taj five times a week. It won’t solve everything. It won’t take all the despair away. But when he’s on the ice, in motion, Sam’s padded legs crouched as he glides, the cool air moving across his neck, he can feel where he is in the universe for once and go quiet inside. So, for a moment, I can rest quiet inside too.
Jenny Shank’s novel The Ringer won the High Plains Book Award. Her stories, essays, satire, and reviews have appeared in the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, the Toast, and Barrelhouse. Her work has been honorably mentioned by The Best American Essays, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and her mother. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, and she tweets @jennyshank.
“Dead Ear” by James Steck
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. In “Dead Ear,” an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, James Steck writes about ER medicine, a sudden hearing loss, and the discovery of his Buddhist faith.
When I was thirty-five, I went deaf in one ear.
Nothing had really gone wrong before. I’d had the usual romantic reversals, but I was successful in school and at work; I was an active outdoorsman, and I was reasonably happy.
I woke up one morning with my ear feeling stuffed, as with a bad cold. I didn’t usually prescribe medicines for colds or take them myself, but on this occasion, my ear was so plugged, I took a Sudafed and went to work. As it happened, an ENT surgeon walked through the ER on his way to his office. I told him—and I thought I was merely engaging in small talk—that I had the worst case of Eustachian-tube dysfunction.
“Can you hear the phone with that ear?” he asked. He said it with that flat tone some policemen use.
Since it was the ear I usually used, I recalled that I’d had to switch sides with the phone that morning when I’d talked to a teller at my bank (an activity that used to be possible). The ENT guy arranged a hearing test for when I got off shift that day.
For the hearing test, I sat in something like a telephone booth (another anachronism, like phoning a bank teller) and the audiologist sent a series of squeaks into each of my ears. When she was testing my bad ear with squeaks, I had a difficult time distinguishing the squeaks from the sounds of silence. I imagined that those latter sounds were from cosmic rays or from my own brain electronics. I regarded the hearing test as a school quiz. I strategized and tried very hard to raise my hand at the right moments.
I’d gotten only one sound correct, the loudest one, at 100 decibels. In the audiologist’s office was a pamphlet explaining the decibel system. It said that 100 decibels was a level equivalent to the sound of an explosion.
The cause of my deafness was a rare condition called “sudden sensorineural deafness.” I read about in my favorite textbook, a British textbook. British texts were more concerned with the clinical story than the technical aspects. The language was cool, like David Attenborough talking about mangrove swamps. In the case of sudden sensorineural deafness, the book said when it struck, many patients heard the sound as of a great door closing.
The ENT doctor prescribed prednisone for two weeks and said it might work. “Take care of your other ear,” he said. “No rock concerts or scuba diving. Carry earplugs.”
This wasn’t good that he emphasized preventive medicine.
In the days after my hearing loss, before my brain compensated, I walked around with a noiseless right hemisphere. I could see palm fronds shaking and birds with their mouths open and bicycles gliding, but there was no sound whatsoever. I went to a dinner party where the people on my left were engaged in their usual repartee but the people on my right were opening and closing their mouths like freshly caught fish. Moreover, I worried that they were talking about me. The audiologist had warned me that newly deaf people could be a little paranoid.
The prednisone didn’t work at all. I was frustrated because it seemed that in the ER I could always do something. The treatments I administered there always worked—at least partially, or for a while.
Around this time, I visited my parents back in Wisconsin. Even though it was fall, my little town looked as if it were hunkered down for winter. The dull redbrick houses had all their windows and doors closed. I took a walk to the local Catholic church, St. Jude’s, the center of my social life during my teens. There was almost no one on the streets, and when cars passed, the drivers looked straight ahead without acknowledging me.
St. Jude’s was unlocked. It was the first time I’d been inside a church since college. The modernistic stained-glass windows looked pretty good. I could make out the scene of Veronica offering Jesus her handkerchief and Gabriel announcing the pregnancy to Mary. There was just a trace of incense, as if it were being used as air freshener.
I spotted the votive candles, of two sizes, one-dollar and three-dollar. I genuflected, made the sign of the cross, and did what I saw Guatemalans do: I tapped my coins on the candle stand to wake up the saint whom I was petitioning. I paid for and lit one of the bigger candles. I prayed that my hearing would come back.
I went back outside. I did not actually imagine that votive candles would improve my hearing, but I did put my finger in my left ear to test whether I was still deaf in my right.
Some years later, a friend of mine contended that there was scientific evidence that prayer did some good, but you had to be praying for another person. That would explain why I was still partly deaf. I prayed only twice more in my life (for seriously ill family members), and both times it worked.
I did some reading about deafness. The fullness I’d felt in my ear was the usual way patients recognized that something was wrong. It was less common to perceive the loss of hearing directly. Like most people with sensorineural deafness, I also got tinnitus, ringing in the ear. Tinnitus is a phantom sound generated by the brain in the absence of input from the ear. The brain needs constant acoustic stimulation, as if it’s a toddler singing “La, la, la.” The frequency of the tinnitus resembles the lost hearing. Low frequencies sound like the ocean and high frequencies sound like the neighbor’s phone. My tinnitus sounded like that place between radio stations when you’re driving in the West.
I got in the habit, when I was at a table with a group of people, of sitting at a certain corner facing the rest of the group and, whenever I was walking, gravitating to my companion’s right side. Once, I met someone who was also deaf in her right ear, and we ended up circling each other like mating geese.
No one knew the cause of sudden sensorineural deafness, but the most popular theory was that it was caused by a virus, based on some positive evidence: traces of the herpes virus in the diseased ear.
Needless to say, I always got a worried when I caught a cold or when my good ear started ringing. There was a period when I supposed that dehydration was the cause of my plight and I walked around with a bottle of water always in hand.
At some point, when the topic came up, I told people that a virus had caused my deafness and that “viruses have to live too.” I meant that. Not that I was a partisan of viruses, but I appreciated the interconnectedness of life. My observation about viruses was the result of a satori—a sudden enlightenment. The enlightenment was largely ineffable, but it had to do with the comparative triviality of my suffering. I felt as if dwelling on it somehow took away from other people’s distress, as if world suffering were zero-sum.
I told my friend, Ginny, the Buddhist, the one who said I wasn’t breathing right, about my satori, and I mentioned in passing that I’d had perhaps a dozen such satoris in my life. This was even before I hit my head in Tikal. For example, I told her, during my surgical rotation in medical school—the rotation in which I didn’t see the sun at all—I was walking home one evening, and I noticed the light from a streetlamp broken up by an oak tree. I suddenly understood, “Let there be light.” Light precedes and is necessary for life. My insight was undoubtedly prompted by the compression of all my free time in those days into my walk home. At my report, Ginny seemed almost envious—insofar as a Buddhist can get envious.
* * *
Although I hadn’t been to church since college, I considered myself a cultural Catholic. The Jesuits had a saying that they didn’t seek to have influence over a boy for his entire life—between the ages of thirteen and seventeen was sufficient. I think they were onto something. I liked church rituals and Renaissance art. I liked cathedrals and Gregorian chant. I regarded romanticism as Catholics’ gift to the world. I embraced the idea that we should behave as if someone were watching and as if we might die (probably in a bus accident) later that day. I did not discern that Protestants held any principles that differed from those of good banking.
I did think too much about dying. I had a fear of dying myself, and in the ER, I had a fear of other people dying. Months went by without my witnessing any patient die. If a patient was critically ill, I got them to the elevators. If they weren’t breathing, I intubated them and got them on a respirator. If their heart wasn’t beating, I put them on an external pacemaker. If they were brain dead, I let the people upstairs decide what to do. I did not want to watch anyone die.
One day in 2010, I had a patient with a perforated stomach. The stomach’s hydrochloric acid was pouring out over his insides. He was a middle-aged Thai fellow, gray and under-nourished from chronic suffering. He looked like the victim of some nineteenth-century historical tragedy. The reason for the perforation was stomach cancer. I gave him several doses of morphine, but his mouth remained stretched in a grimace.
I thought that something could always be done. I called the surgeon on call, who leafed through the fellow’s chart and examined him briefly. He wasn’t a mean surgeon; he had the thick dark eyebrows and humorous eyes of the black Irish. He was said to have “the best hands” in the department.
He came out of the workroom shaking his head. “You can’t sew up the stomach when there’s cancer there,” he said.
“Just cut the cancer out and sew up the remaining tissue,” I said. The patient kept crying out, and I couldn’t think straight.
“I’m sorry. It can’t be done.”
“I’ll call someone else.”
As a courtesy, the patient’s oncologist came down from clinic. He walked in and out of the patient’s room as if there were a revolving door at the entrance. He said to me, “Why is the patient suffering like this?” He said it in a soft, perplexed way. It sounded like a philosophical question.
“I was trying to get a hold of surgery,” I answered.
“He’s dying,” the oncologist said. He ordered five times the usual dose of morphine, and after the patient got the drug, he stopped breathing, forever.
A few weeks later, a banker in his seventies came in with a headache that he knew from the beginning was not good. He was especially tall and a little awkward, and he had a fringe of gray hair. He looked like the sort of person who’d played basketball in high school because of his height but had gone no further in his sports career. That the headache was serious wasn’t evident to me at first.
After ordering a CT scan of his head, I stayed at his bedside a minute with him and his wife. I mentioned that I liked my bank because the tellers were nice. He was keenly interested in what bank it was and what it was about the tellers I liked. Because he had come to the ER during a financial panic, I commented, “People don’t like bankers so much these days.”
“People have never liked bankers,” he said with a smile.
It was the last thing he ever said. His face suddenly took on a dazed expression, and his eyes unfocused, just when the tech arrived to transport him to the CT suite.
“He may be having a stroke,” I said to his wife. “We’ll see what the scan shows and what we can do about it.”
“No, he’s dying,” she said like a teacher gently correcting a middle schooler.
She was right. There’s not much room for the brain in the cranium; otherwise the bone couldn’t serve its evolutionary purpose of protecting it. On this fellow’s scan, I could see a white torrent of blood, and I could see the blood pushing his brain downward against the unyielding tentorial membrane, squeezing his brainstem. The brainstem functions—breathing, temperature control, heartbeat—went out one by one, like the lights of a great city at night.
That evening I turned on the television and by happenstance landed on a PBS program featuring a favorite poet of mine, W. S. Merwin. It was a documentary about Siddhartha Gautama. I was rapt. Gautama had been born in Nepal; a week after he was born, his mother died. In midlife he became concerned with the problem of suffering. No matter what your circumstance, he said, you will end up losing everything you love, but there is joy in the transitoriness of things. Twenty-five hundred years before John Lennon, Siddhartha Gautama imagined there was no heaven and no hell. Twenty-five hundred years before Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust, we are carbon,” Gautama imagined that we are all recycled and therefore that the next person you meet could be the Buddha. Ginny was right. And on account of a TV program, I became a Buddhist.
James Steck practiced and taught emergency medicine for forty years. He is married with two adult children and lives in suburban San Francisco. This essay is one chapter of a memoir of his working life, entitled People Who Are Trying to Die.
“Treading Water” by Dionne Irving
In “Treading Water,” novelist and essayist Dionne Irving recounts her experience of racial battle fatigue in the context of her lifelong relationship with water and the fraught history of race and swimming in America. The essay first appeared in TMR 39:2.
As long as I have been able to afford it in my adult life, I have found, whenever possible, a swimming pool. I learned to swim in Canada of all places, the only little black girl in my swimming class. I had been anxious to get in the water for as long as I could remember. My only delay was the tubes I’d had put in my ears at three years old. I come from island people, and my love of water happens on the pre-reflective level, joyfully, and with abandon. The smell of sea, of salt, of chlorine, of damp, slightly moldy bathing suits—all make me happy. My people come from Hong Kong, India, Africa, Scotland, and have ended up in Jamaica, Canada, and now the United States. I am the first who will have lived most of my life here. My family history is a collection of names and a handful of dates, most lost or faded. Like the way the ocean pounds away at the shore, our history, like the white sand of the island, slips through my fingers all the time.
Both heritage and joy bring me to the water. I swim laps, sometimes in community swimming pools or at fancy gyms with heated pools and bins thick with flutter boards; I will sometimes emerge from a stroke to see an older black person staring at me, the man or woman usually in his or her sixties or seventies. They might be a part of a water aerobics class or running in a physical therapy pool.
If I catch their eye they will say “Hello” or “Good morning” or “Good evening.” Our pleasantries break them from some kind of trance. I return to my laps, turning my head usually to the right, in order to take a breath. I love feeling my lungs expand and contract as I move through the water. I am aware of them for the first time all day. I marvel at my body’s capacity to stay buoyant, to take in air, to propel me forward. There are no sounds but the thrum of my heart and the cadence of my breath. In these moments, I understand the human body as a beautiful construct. When I stop, out of breath and panting, those eyes are on me again, watching.
As a symbol, water can be heavy handed. My writing students too often use it as a metaphor. They come back to it again and again to indicate cleansing or purification.
Bad students’ poems are usually where one finds water used as a metaphor to describe rebirth or the miraculous. But I find that I come back to it as often as my students do. Water captivates me. Water is refreshing but powerful, pleasurable, and dangerous. Figuratively, literally, symbolically, it has no equal for potency. Water is both backyard Slip ’N Slide and tsunami.
When we swim, when we plunge into oceans or lakes or backyard swimming pools, we feel some mastery over water, as though it could be ours to control. In these spaces we don’t wear much clothing and are in close contact with strangers. In and around these bodies of water, we reveal our public private parts. I think about this every time I pull on a bathing suit. I look at the way each of my “flaws” becomes visible and open for judgment. As we swim together, we experience intimacy regardless of age, race, or size. Each time we enter the water in a public space, we show ourselves.
It took me a few years of living in the United States before I understood the way water is loaded for African Americans. A horrible legacy surrounds water, and the story of who has access to it is a story dominated by a violence that is intricately tied to the ongoing battle for civil rights and against racism in the United States. In a hearing regarding public swimming spaces in Baltimore in 1954, just after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, city solicitor Edwin Harlan said, “There must be segregation in fields of intimate contact or else there may be trouble.”
Trouble. What a wonderful word. Purposefully vague, it can suggest innumerable possibilities. Perhaps it was the kind of trouble that Harlan had in mind that resulted in a married couple’s arrest. Only two hours south of Baltimore and four years later, Mildred and Richard Loving would find themselves behind bars after breaking anti-miscegenation laws. Trouble begets intimacy, and intimacy is always trouble for those who believe fundamentally that skin color implies basic biologic difference.
Intimacy has certainly brought me my fair share of trouble because I have a very white life. To steal and alter a line from the old platitude: Some of my best friends are white. My white life happened in the way one usually does: I grew up middle class, attended mostly white schools, a mostly white college, worked in mostly white offices and went to mostly white graduate programs. English departments, for all their best efforts, are still primarily white spaces. I live in the Midwest, which is largely white, and where most of my coworkers and almost all of my students are white. I have compounded this racial isolation by marrying a white man, so much of my family is also white. In my life, so filled with whiteness, I avoid talking about Ferguson, about Eric Garner, about the movie Selma. I don’t remind people how easily I could have been that fourteen-year-old, bikinied black girl in McKinney, Texas, who was recently slammed to the ground by an overzealous police officer on the lawn outside a largely white pool.
Because I am often the only person of color in the room, these topics become loaded. I risk becoming the angry black woman in the eyes of those around me. I risk sounding like I am delivering a sermon, or instruction, or chastising. The angry black woman is a powerful archetype. The finger-waving, head-snapping sister-girl is an image I have to work hard to combat. Not because it represents any part of my character, but because it is the only lens through which many white people see a black women’s anger. It’s as though any time I am angry, I am liable to “go off.” My fear of this image often silences me in meetings where I might like to speak up. It makes me hesitate in moments where my temper flares; it alters my behavior in every single facet of my life; it is one of the things that contribute to my invisibility. So I have avoided conversations that could externalize the pain I’ve felt welling up inside me over these past few months in response to the sad state of the world.
The truth is that even intimacy cannot assure that people I love won’t disappoint me. The malaise and nausea I feel when I recognize the rhetoric of racism and privilege coming out of the mouths of people whom I have confided in, brought into my life, whom I work with and respect, keeps me off the Internet and away from the papers for days; it makes me send incoming calls to voicemail. It visits me with the symptoms of a depression so deep and so all-consuming that I have, more than once, closed my office door in the middle of the day to cry. I cannot eat, cannot sleep, cannot write, and cannot think.
A friend recently sent me an article about a condition called Racial Battle Fatigue. In a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, the authors focused on generalized anxiety disorder and found that people of color in the United States suffer from the condition at alarming rates. Defined as more than six months of general, free-floating anxiety and worry, the disorder was present not only in black people but also in soldiers of all races who live in theaters of war. It is a condition of living in a constant state of anxiety when the perceived threat can come from those who you are close to. I read the piece and thought, “Aha! So it isn’t just me.”
My friends, my extended family, are good, well-meaning people. They are loving, they are accepting, they are generous, but they are people who take their privilege for granted. They don’t have to live in fear of what may happen to them or to their children at an innocent pool party.
Who has access to water and who doesn’t, who is allowed to swim and when and where and how that swimming takes place connotes a privilege. When I read about how other forms of racial discrimination began to be dismantled after World War II, I kept coming back to swimming pools as battlegrounds. In his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Jeff Wiltse explores how, as public places starting in the North became increasingly more desegregated, whites simply abandoned municipal and public swimming pools for private pools and country clubs. A 2010 study by the USA Swimming Foundation conducted by the University of Memphis found that nearly 70 percent of African American children couldn’t swim. The reasons for this statistic are varied, but the result is a greater number of drowning deaths of African American children each year. Not everyone has the privilege of recreational water, something I’ve learned a little at a time throughout my life. Only now do I consider how I, a young black woman moving confidently through the water, might have warranted a closer look.
I was a teenager when my family moved to Florida from Canada. I didn’t understand then what water meant in America, and what it continues to mean. I didn’t know the way access to water could communicate the underlying issues of race, class, and privilege in the United States. Instead, what I imagined was the beach, the ocean lapping at my toes, and the soft sand. It was a scene that conjured everything that was good about the water. What a disappointment, then, when instead of being close to the beach, we were landlocked in northern Florida, nowhere near the water.
That fall I joined my high school swim team. I was the only person of color, my face little more than a smudge in the back of the yearbook photograph. We swam at the local university early in the morning. We got to practice at 5 am,and were in the water for an hour and a half and then off to high school on the other side of town. In the semi-darkness, the air was damp with the early morning and tinged with the chlorine I loved so much. I loved making my way down the lanes as the sun came up. It was the only time of day when I felt like me, the girl I’d been in Canada, the one who wasn’t always confused and heartbroken and alone. I didn’t understand Florida, and maybe I never would.
“Perfect form,” my high school swim coach would call out at each practice. “But you’re too slow!”
These words, I suspect, were meant to push me to try harder. But I was immune to coaching. I lost every race I competed in, finishing slowly, behind almost everyone in my heat. Half the time, I forgot I was competing. I lost myself in the dreamy state of being submerged in water still warm from the sun’s rays the previous day. I thought about the life in Canada I’d left behind and tried to forget that I was in this odd place, already stiflingly hot by 7 am.
In the locker room, my teammates, all white, wanted to know what I was using to shampoo my hair. They asked if I washed it every day. They told me I “talked funny,” and they would ask me to repeat those same distinctly Canadian words to hear the ways the vowels sounded in out and about and house. My teammates sounded funny to me, too, their words like a set of jangly keys coming together rhythmically in a song I didn’t know the words to. I would mimic their accents to entertain my mother and younger sister on days when we all felt down.
In the water, my teammates cheered me on, told me I would do better next time. They didn’t seem to understand that I wasn’t discouraged by my placement in the races or by my clear lack of athleticism. I couldn’t explain to them that all I really wanted was to be in the water. I didn’t want to be coached or cheered. I just wanted the connection to breath and body and self. Just as people do now, they watched me then, too, but perhaps for different reasons, staring at me from the sidelines as I made my way up and down the lanes.
During that first year in Florida, I swam mostly at home in our family swimming pool. It seemed to me the ultimate luxury as a Canadian girl, being able to swim outdoors into September and early October even. A dream, but not an altogether pleasant one. But then again, all of America was like a dream, familiar in some ways but the rest of it so unfamiliar, so confusing.
My understanding came in the form of a searing punch that connected with my jaw after I left math class on a scorching hot October afternoon. I turned when someone called my name, but didn’t react quickly enough to see the closed fist that connected with the right side of my jaw and sent vibrations shooting up through my face. She hadn’t drawn blood, but I clutched my cheek, thick with pain. The pain floored me and made me drop to the patch of grass between two portable classrooms. I had never been hit before. The girl towered above me, her message clear: You’re either with us or against us. What I wasn’t clear on until later that day was who that “us” was.
“You speak too proper,” a girl confided in me as she helped me press paper towels soaked in cool water onto my face. “You act too white. People don’t like it when they think you think you better than them.”
Too white or too black. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was a way to “act” black or white, that one was inherently better or worse. To be “too” something implied that you needed to find a balance, or, more to the point, that your pendulum should swing toward your own race in a way that made you easy to understand for other people. That way no one would question your grooming habits or the way you spoke. At my high school it meant you signed up for girls’ basketball or track and field. It meant that if you were smart, you joined the Black Brain Bowl Team (not its white counterpart, called simply the Brain Bowl) but it certainly did not mean you joined the swim team and signed up to be on the yearbook staff.
I managed to wash the mud from my shorts that afternoon before my mother noticed. But my face—black and blue, swollen and puffy where the girl’s fist had landed—was less easy to hide, and my mother certainly noticed.
I can’t recall the details of the lie I told. Something highly improbable, I’m sure. I relied on my ability to tell a good story. Mostly, I was ashamed. Most fourteen-year-olds think they know everything, and I was no different. I wanted to think I understood the world implicitly and that it had order and sense. I didn’t want my mother to know I had seemingly miscalculated who I was and my place in this new, bizarre world. I was ashamed that although I’d always made friends quickly and easily, I was so emotionally tone deaf that I could not pick up on the rhythms, the strokes, and the breath of this new place.
I can still feel the lingering effects of that punch, all these years later, the way it indoctrinated me into the subtleties of racial life in America, the way I continually find myself being indoctrinated. I’m grateful that there are no longer any overt punches. Instead, a thousand microaggressions land, as painful and as visceral as that closed fist against my jaw. And in my white world, I see those around me taking language for granted. Language—the words we use and the words we choose—is a privilege, and taking things for granted is at the very heart of privilege.
I dragged my feet on where to go to college, and through a combination of apathy and chiding from my parents, I ended up at Big Southern University. In the summer before my sophomore year, I signed up for Multi-Ethnic American Literature. I had taken an American lit class the previous fall with the same professor, who had managed to crack open Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for me. When the book came into focus, I felt as though something made sense, as if the book announced something I had long felt but never been able to articulate. It seemed to explore the sense memory you have in the water when you know innately when to breathe and where your body is most buoyant. I had learned when, where, and how to be invisible in America. When to talk, when to stay silent, when to make sure it felt like I wasn’t there at all. In his novel, Ellison expressed the invisibility I cultivated and made sense of it, identified a purpose. As I began to understand that desire, I wanted to unpack it, to explore it.
But at Big Southern U, who was I to unpack it with? My professor’s summer syllabus looked exciting, full of authors I hadn’t read. They are now authors so dear to me that I hardly remember who I was before I encountered them: Octavia Butler, Sherman Alexie, Gayl Jones, and many others. That syllabus became a kind of personal canon for me in those interim years when I languished in corporate America before deciding to return to graduate school.
At a college known more for football and partying than academics, that six-week session was a popular way to squeeze in (or more frequently to make up) a class and not let it ruin one’s entire summer. In six weeks, most of us would receive three credits toward our major or toward satisfying another requirement in the English Department.
The classroom was in an older building that hadn’t been outfitted with the bone-chilling industrialized indoor winter in June that is Florida’s calling card. In the stuffy classroom, my T-shirt stuck to my back and my hair clung to my head, frizzing at the scalp. I would go swimming when the class was done. I could see the pool from the window of the classroom, cool and inviting. It was the same pool of my thwarted high school swim-team days; I seemed to keep coming back to it.
As I do now in my own college classes, the professor had us each introduce ourselves and talk about why we were taking the class. But first he discussed the class and pushed us to consider our own identities, to consider the ways in which race and privilege might define how we considered the texts we were going to read.
Most of the introductions were generic and similar, announcing a desire to learn whatever the student could from the semester. Some students told stories about their own backgrounds. Many were first-generation college students or students who wanted to learn more about a cultural heritage that had been whitewashed. With my professor’s ears, I know now that these are things students say to please the teacher. But then, I didn’t pay much attention. I was terrified of speaking in public, and I waited anxiously for my turn to come, trying to figure out what I was going to say about my interest in ethnic American literature. It would destroy my invisibility if I had to explain why I needed to be invisible.
Eventually I told a story about a racial heritage spanning four continents and owing mostly to the lasting effects of colonialism, ship travel, and—of course—slavery. When I got to the end I felt relieved, ready to return to a kind of invisibility and prepared to listen to the two or three rows of students sitting behind me.
“I’m excited to take this class because it’s amazing to hear about other people’s backgrounds, because I’m just white.”
The words caught my attention immediately. I craned my neck to see who had spoken, a girl in a long, paisley-print skirt, her crop top exposing the soft expanse of belly atop the skirt’s waistband, and her curly hair frizzing away from her head. She was one of the girls I had taken to avoiding in college, those who smelled of patchouli and decorated their dorm rooms with Bob Marley posters. That kind of girl tended only to be interested in the fact that my Jamaican parents might somehow be indicative of a secret stash of pot. In my Canadian upbringing, I had never heard anyone call himself or herself “just white.” Greek, Romanian, Czechoslovakian, Irish; elementary school seemed to capture a wide swath of eastern bloc countries and colonial outliers. Lunch was so inclusive that one could trade a bologna sandwich for some curry chicken or exchange a Jamaican meat patty for a piece of baklava. What did this mean, “just white”? It implied that somehow, in this class of diverse backgrounds and narratives, whiteness was somehow not as exciting, as interesting, as exotic. It was the opposite of being “too white.” “Just” implied a kind of blandness and homogeny in an American cultural paradigm that cultivated and elevated whiteness and simultaneously normalized it to make it less interesting or important. Whiteness, I had quickly learned in my American education, was the standard for beauty, intellect, and acceptability, but no one should admit this or discuss it, particularly not a white hippie girl in a multi-ethnic lit class. Was whiteness somehow not going to be valued in this class? To say “just white” seemed like treading water, not moving toward understanding the course’s purpose and not able to look back and understand what came before this point in time. “Just” implied stasis, a lack of growth regarding ideas of whiteness or anything other than whiteness. “Just” was a lie. The professor chuckled a bit. “None of us are ‘just white,’” he said. “Whiteness is a construct and a category like any other that we will unpack this semester.”
Later that day in the water, I swam my slow freestyle up and down the middle lane. Taking my time and measuring my breath, I made sure to remember the way the girl’s skirt had dragged on the floor, the ring in her nose, and the timbre of her voice: high pitched, girlish, and loud. I gathered these details for a story as my arms glided through the water, barely making a splash on its surface, the sun hitting my goggles as I came up for air again, and again, and again.
“Just white” stuck with me for an entire year. I told the story to a group of friends in a coffee shop, to my older siblings, to my new friend Keith, who like me had parents from the Caribbean and a passion for death metal. The combined naïveté and irony of the statement was typical of so many attempts at racial parity that came out so wrong-headed at Big Southern University. There were those people who tried to convince me that they did not see race, the boy who shied away from introducing me to his parents, the classmate so stunned that I had passed college Algebra on the first try. “You must be really smart!” he marveled, while flipping through his basic math text.
It was at about that time that I met her again, this time at a meeting for the staff of the school newspaper. The girl, this time looking decidedly less like a relic of the 1960s introduced herself as “Alice.”
“Oh, I know you,” I blurted out. “You were in my ethnic American lit class last summer. You were the ‘just white girl.’”
It came out without any thought. I hadn’t realized that this anecdote might be less funny to the person who was the butt of the joke.
“What?” she said, confused.
She furrowed her brow, and I recounted the story to her about her shame at being “just white.” She looked embarrassed, and I felt bad. This person whom I had used in an anecdote for a year had no clue what her language that day had implied. And at the time I didn’t fully understand what that privilege meant. It was a funny story to me, and I didn’t see the ways in which it indicated a naïveté about the world.
“Wow,” she said. “That was dumb. I don’t even know why I said that. My family’s Italian.”
She was chastened, and in that moment of shared embarrassment, we started building a friendship. In this moment of revelation, we seemed to be able to find a kind of honesty. This ability to speak freely to each other became the cornerstone of our friendship. We had agreed to be honest with each other in a way that meant we confessed too much, but it also meant that we held onto each other’s secrets.
My husband, who studies the politics, philosophies, and theories of race, tells me that authentic intimacy might be the thing that helps people move beyond issues of racial difference. He reminds me that if we truly know a person, race recedes into the background and becomes secondary to who they are. I am not his black wife, but his wife. I want that to be true. I don’t want to be anyone’s “black” anything. I only want people to see me, not black me.
As I look through pictures online of the history of the desegregation swimming pools, I click past images of children, black and white, still standing in groups segregated by race, not touching. The white children are in the minority. In the photos each group looks at the other warily. I want to believe they got to know each other, that the intimacy of the shared swimming space meant they learned each other’s names and lives. But the other images, the ones that show a hotel manager throwing muriatic acid into a swimming pool where whites and blacks swam together to protest the segregated space, make me believe otherwise. Intimacy, even when it is only the kind that comes from standing close to one another in bathing suits, is just as frightening when it arrives in a friendship.
After Alice and I graduated from college and moved on to other cities, we visited each other periodically. We slipped back into the roles we knew so well from college: the girl who was “just white,” who said directly, bluntly what was on her mind and in her heart regardless of whom it might offend; and me, caustic and mean, the one who collected small details and used them to make jokes at others’ expense. There are other things I could say about the ways in which our friendship morphed and changed over time that might round her out, things about her wicked sense of humor, her willingness for adventure, her openness to new things. There are times we laughed so hard we cried; we shared experiences that make for excellent cocktail party stories. There are times I cried on her shoulder or she on mine. These are all measures of our friendship, a relationship defined not by our differences but one that seemed to transcend them.
Even so, invariably over the years, we would have odd or awkward moments between us when all of a sudden the girl I’d called “the just white girl” would rear her head and I wasn’t sure what to do. She introduced me to new people as her gorgeous friend, always noting my tiny waist, my ample bosom, and my skin. Only later did I understand that this seemingly flattering list was actually reducing me to my physicality, a collection of pleasing and palatable parts. Again thinking she was being complementary, she would reduce me further, nudging me toward whiteness by telling me she was blacker than I was when she ridiculed me for a succession of white boyfriends, when she told me she thought about dating a black man but never could because of how her parents might react.
We both got master’s degrees in English; she focused on literature while I pursued creative writing. We exchanged professional materials, swapped dating stories, continued to travel together and were in each other’s weddings. Over the period that encompassed my twenties, she was one of my closest friends. As we closed out that decade of our lives, we both, suddenly and rather unexpectedly, found ourselves divorced.
I was excited at what seemed to be a fresh start for us both of us as we entered into new and promising relationships. Alice and I were living closer than we had throughout most of the previous decade, only a six-hour drive apart, and it seemed the opportune moment for a visit. I had met a wonderful new man, intelligent and kind. Less than a year later, he would become my husband in a ceremony that excluded most of the people we know. In that first blush of new love, what I wanted most of all was for him to meet the people who were important to me.
On the drive from Atlanta to Chapel Hill, the sky opened up no less than half a dozen times. Fat drops and steady waves of rain made it feel as though we were crawling along the freeway.
Alice lived in a former cotton and dye mill, recently converted to lofts, on the banks of a river just outside of Chapel Hill. The water in the river churned a muddy brown from the pounding of the constant rain. We held sweaters over our heads and ran into the building as quickly as we could in the late summer rain.
The floors, original to the space, had been heavily varnished, and the contractors had left the occasional textile button or staple to offer what real estate agents and home design shows will often call “character.” On their website, the management company advertised the space as “rural renaissance done right.” The idea of a Southern “rural renaissance” only made me think of the South’s rural history, so closely linked to slavery. I could still hear the overtones of cotton culture. The idea of renaissance “done right” was a juxtaposition that embodied the contemporary South completely. It wanted to revise its past, to focus on its glories, to ignore its fundamental truth.
In the stairwell up to her loft, I kissed my boyfriend. I was excited at the fun weekend ahead, the good time we were going to have. When we arrived on the top floor and knocked on her door, she pulled it open and said, “Oh, good, you got a little fat too!”
I was taken aback by her words. She was trying to make a joke—at least, I think she was. Was it a way to dissipate some tension she felt about the visit? About herself? I wasn’t sure. We drank some wine. Then some more. And then we shared a bottle of sparkling wine when we got to restaurant.
“You look happy,” she remarked when we went to the bathroom midway through the meal.
“I am happy,” I said.
It was true. It was the first happiness I could remember, after a protracted and grueling divorce, after several years of a bad marriage and a life I felt I had settled for.
“I am too,” she said quickly as we washed our hands in the big farm-style sink. In what I thought was a celebratory gesture, she ordered more sparkling wine when we got back to the table. Instead, the mood of the evening shifted startlingly and suddenly. Alice started in with stories of our college escapades and then shifted to a series of stories that seemed intended to lay bare for this new man in my life the worst parts of me, those that would make him cringe, feel insecure, and lead to conflict.
He got quieter and quieter. By the time the evening ended, he would barely look at me. We returned to her apartment, and my boyfriend and I barely spoke. Tossing and turning on her fold-out couch, I tried to figure out where things had gone so wrong. When I finally drifted off to sleep, he got up and walked down to the river. I awoke, startled, after he had been gone a little while. The rain from the previous evening had started coming down harder and faster. The river churned dark and fast. I had no idea where he was or when he was coming back.
After several hours, he did return, cold, wet, muddy, and shivering, I was angry, relieved, and overwhelmed. I was frustrated with him, with myself, and with her. We had a frenzied exchange in the dark, whispering hoarsely, resolving nothing. Somehow I felt I had done something wrong. There was some code of whiteness I had broken, had overstepped, or had failed to see. In that moment I was the outsider. And as Alice woke up and the day began, it seemed that I was the one whom everyone was angry with.
Treading water is hard work. You appear still from the water’s surface, as though you are levitating, yet below the surface, your lower body and arms work frantically, kicking and pounding against the water’s pressure. The energy you exert just to keep your head and neck aloft will tire you out quickly enough. It is one of the best illusions in swimming: the surface doesn’t indicate what is going on below.
I tried to make everything right with them both and to keep my head above water. The day went from drizzly to a downpour, the water less like droplets and more like buckets dropped from the sky. We got soaked going to lunch, and we agreed to stay in that evening. We planned to grill on the communal patio in her converted mills, a giant concrete slab with a roof. The space was lined with an array of gas and charcoal grills, one of those contemporary spaces that invite apartment dwellers to be neighborly. It was this community that had attracted Alice after her divorce, when she felt adrift in a city to which she had relocated for her ex-husband.
Still rain-drenched and cold, I felt exhausted but nevertheless relieved that as the day neared its end I had been successful on both fronts. My friend and my boyfriend both seemed more relaxed, more at ease.
We decided on kabobs and spent the early evening cutting up vegetables and meats. As Alice chattered on about the new place she was living and her fellow tenants, the phrase “porch monkey” hissed and slid out of her mouth like a water moccasin. I was stunned to silence for a moment, and then I said, “What?”
“Oh, you know,” she said, slicing up hunks of smooth, pink, raw chicken and running them through with skewers. “I mean hippie kids who come out to the porch and eat everyone’s food without asking. Porch monkeys.”
But I didn’t know.
“Start over,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “It isn’t racist,” she said. Alice’s tone implied that I was being overly sensitive.
I hadn’t said much of anything at all, yet something in her understood how loaded her words were. How racist the phrase was. Did she think it was okay to say it because she didn’t think I was “really” black? She knew she was wrong but didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to give her an out, so I said, with the slightest hint of a joke in my voice, “I don’t think that expression means what you think it means.”
She shrugged. “That’s what they are.”
She was done with the subject. She had moved on to considering which vegetables to grill next, and I stood there, flummoxed.
The origins of the slur porch monkey are nebulous. However, the words have been used alongside jungle bunny, yard ape, coon, nigglet and a host of other racial slurs that emphasize the animalistic when it comes to black people. The history of assigning the phenotypic characteristics of a monkey or ape to black people goes back even further. It is meant to dehumanize, to make a black person a beast, to ascribe qualities of the feral, the frightening, the untamed, the uncivil and brutish to our people.
I exchanged a glance with my boyfriend across the room. He, too, was incredulous. He was white, I thought. He got it. How could this woman, one of my closest friends for over a decade, be so obtuse? Or worse, so cruel?
Language is tenuous and ever changing. There is nothing fixed about it. All three of us were English professors, and we understood this. Language was our livelihood, and as close examiners and interpreters of that language, to assume that words are without power? It seemed naïve; it seemed callous. This “porch monkey” thing, like a weeping wound in the middle of the meal preparations, compounding everything else that had happened that weekend. While she had been intent on first trying to use my past to subjugate me, when that hadn’t worked she seemed to have gone for the last thing left, the color of my skin. But she had done it covertly, quietly, sneakily. She made my race itself the problem. And what could I do but stand there stunned? I had two options: to reopen the turmoil bubbling beneath the surface or to let it go.
In hindsight, I made the coward’s choice, the passive-aggressive choice. I stayed hurt, and I said nothing. I helped her finish making the kabobs, and we went out to the impromptu party that had assembled on the common patio. But I didn’t stay long. I felt conspicuously black in this forced community setting. And when I heard her retelling the porch-monkey joke over and over again to the delighted young urban professionals, hipsters, and trust-funded hippies who had gathered to draw community from each other, I felt the beginnings of that soul-crushing sadness with which I had become so familiar.
In the days afterward, that’s all I felt. On the way back to Atlanta, I tried to discuss it with my boyfriend, not having the language in that moment to articulate why these two words had bothered me so much. Why I couldn’t just let it go as I had a million times before with her, with other people. A few days after our return she sent me an e-mail in which she wrote the following:
We swore to be honest, so I’m going to tell you what I see. I have to say these things to you because if I didn’t, I would feel like I failed you as one of the few people in your life who can say this. I love you very much, and I want you to be happy. Here’s the real problem: your boyfriend has eliminated YOUR ability to be honest.
The words stung, because there was truth in them. I hadn’t been honest, but the person I hadn’t been honest with was her. I couldn’t tell her the way the words she used resonated in my head. That I felt like she had tried to annihilate me with that phrase, over and over. How I’d thought about it for days after, trying to figure out why she hadn’t understood. But I kept coming back to myself again and again as the person who was at fault, because I hadn’t been honest, I hadn’t been intimate. I had closed the gates to her without giving her an opportunity to defend herself. But really, how many chances do we get? I don’t have an infinite number of chances, so why must I give them?
The truth is that no matter what I accomplish, no matter what I do, no matter what I don’t do, some people in the world will always see my dark skin, not me. In their eyes, I am a rare exception. Like a tap-dancing dog, I am dazzling but not indicative of what other dogs might do.
The term “racial microaggression” has been around since the 1970s and describes the overt and covert ways in which people of color receive messages about how race defines them. It is the most powerful catalyst of Racial Battle Fatigue. It is the casual use of a phrase like porch monkey. It is the student who said I had made her “a bit less racist” because she assumed most young black women were “pregnant, on welfare and ill spoken.” It is the professor who told me that no one wants to read stories about people of color and asked if I weren’t limiting myself by writing those stories. It is the yoga instructor who told me with a pat on my upturned ass during the middle of a class, “We need to get more of your people out here doing yoga. It’s good for them!” It is the friend who fingered my hair and asked if I had a weave. Any one of these things on its own dehumanizes me; the hundreds that I keep in a file on my computer exhaust me. It is enough to make someone not want to get out of bed in the morning. It is a society that devalues your personhood, a friend who makes you an object, and a stranger who turns you into a curiosity.
Like language, a soul is very tenuous. What does it mean to have one? In what way can it be hurt? Can language injure the soul? I cannot point to an injured spot on my body to show a doctor where I have been hurt by language, but the injury manifests itself in creases in my forehead, fluctuating weight loss and gain, in the defeated look in my eyes. I register it by counting the days I fail to leave my bed and eventually in the ways in which I brutalize myself emotionally. All of this. But it’s that drizzly North Carolina afternoon I can’t forget. A small choice of language from, as Alice put it, “one of the people who were supposed to love me,” hurts me most.
The pain echoes still, because no matter how much water I treaded, no matter how much I tried to make Alice (and so many others) feel comfortable with my blackness, I never seemed to get the same in return.
Years later and back in the water, I am eight months pregnant. My pregnancy has brought me back to my body in a way I thought only swimming could. I am acutely aware of each movement, each moment, and each breath. I feel another life, just beneath the surface of my skin, doing his own laps, making his way alongside me.
Swimming relieves the aches and pains of pregnancy, the weight of my yet-to-be-born son on my back, on my belly, in my hips. In the water I feel light. I glide through, effortlessly, forgetting the twenty-five extra pounds on me, feeling like myself in the way I only can in the water. It transforms now, as it always has, the rhythmic movements, the focus on my breath, the concentration it takes so that I slice through without much of a splash.
Swimming clears my mind, offers me a kind of meditation, a meaningful connection between my body and my mind. Between my body and my baby’s. In the water I hear my heartbeat and that of my son echoing though my ears above the din of the senior water aerobics class in the next lane.
I have already found a place for him to swim. By the time he is six months, I plan on bringing him into the water. This desire lives alongside a list of things that all parents want for their children: health, good schools, a passion for reading. I feel strongly about this. I want him to love the water the way I do. I want it to be calming. I want him not to be frightened but to be soothed by it.
He will be my first blood relative who is American. Much of the legacy and the baggage of his skin will be foisted on him before he takes his first breath. But he will also have roots in Kansas, like the President. In the middle of that state, there is a small Kansas town where he will be able to see his last name etched on the side of a building and to find his great-great-grandfather’s picture on the wall of the Main Street Deli. This is one of the things my husband can offer him, that stake in American life that is inaccessible to me. All I have for him is water. Water that is murky at times, and a fluid past absent of dates, names, photographs, or specificity.
Originally from Toronto, Ontario, Dionne Irving has published work in Boulevard Magazine, LitHub, Missouri Review, Story Magazine, and New Delta Review, among others. She has a novel, Quint, forthcoming from 7.13 Books and a short story collection, Islands, forthcoming from Catapult. An associate professor at the University of West Georgia, she lives outside of Atlanta with her husband and son.
“Helpline” by John Hales
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you all are well and staying sane. Today’s essay by John Hales won the 2010 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction. In his essay, Hales writes about the challenge of keeping one’s sanity and stability in the face of stressful circumstances–a subject that’s especially relevant to readers today.
By John Hale
Although we weren’t exactly drug-dependent, at least in terms of how drug dependency had been defined in the mimeographed packet we’d been handed while undergoing volunteer Helpline training, and we weren’t stoners compared to some of our friends who toked even more than we did, most of us who worked shifts at the university’s telephone crisis line smoked a lot of marijuana. We joked that it was an occupational hazard. All that stress. All those panicked calls from people not right at that moment enjoying the effects of their own drugs of choice, or telling us at great length the ways their lives truly and deeply sucked. We lit up the second our shifts were over, often on the way to our cars in the union building parking lot, sharing a joint and, if someone had thought ahead, a bottle of something, anything, alcoholic. And then, weather permitting, adjournment to a nearby city park to smoke and drink some more. All that drug talk on the phone; all that human misery we couldn’t avoid ingesting a fair amount of as it cascaded over the phone: fears of where bad trips were heading, thoughts of suicide, more mundane yet really depressing narratives of loneliness—I’m so ugly, I’m so alone, I’m so pathetic I’m calling you.
Adding to the stress was our twenty-four-hour stretch of professional sobriety, begun (like airline pilots) no later than midnight the night before, a Helpline rule we took seriously. Even though most of us didn’t spend the week stoned anyway—our drug abuse mostly began the moment we were off the phones for the night and for us with Friday shifts continued only through the weekend—we understood that we needed to arrive for work straight and sober because in contrast to our relatively inconsequential daily lives, our work here had real consequences, and we didn’t want to fuck up. I was only twenty; I needed all the focus I could muster. But the second we were off the clock, we found release in weed.
We probably would have benefited more from prescription pills for anxiety or depression—pharmaceuticals that targeted the symptoms we’d caught from our callers. But marijuana, the opiate of the Helpline people, had to do, combined with nature in the form of the nearby park we’d head for. Or maybe it would be straight home for sex with a loved one, or somebody at least willing—once almost with a really nice volunteer I’d shared a shift with, she as stressed and stoned as I was.
My most anxious shifts were Friday nights, four P.M. to midnight—shifts I was assigned routinely for reasons probably having to do with the fact that I seldom had plans for the weekend anyway—spent enclosed in the tiny too-bright windowless union building office Helpline had been allotted, just big enough for two small desks, three volunteers and four telephones. One phone was kept available for reality-check calls to Poison Control, or, scariest of all, last-ditch calls to the Salt Lake City Police Department when it looked like our efforts were failing to keep folks from offing themselves or falling off some horrible edge only they could see. We were amateurs, after all, volunteers trained during a frantic pre-semester week of day-long orientations, and so we basically just took in what callers had to say, our responses limited to what the professionals who’d oriented us called “reflective listening.” As in:
“I’m so depressed. I have no earthly reason to keep living.”
“I hear you saying that you feel depressed and that it’s difficult for you to find reasons to continue living.”
Sometimes we were allowed to ask questions that might lead to useful answers: “What did you take? Do you know how many? Can you find the pill bottle and read what the label says?” Sometimes we’d offer referrals, phone numbers of helpful organizations we read off a ragged Rolodex. Sometimes we’d offer sympathy or even suggestions, both of which we’d been told in no uncertain terms not to provide but did anyway. Sympathy was unprofessional, suggestions beyond our competence, and both were beside the point for the average caller. Even so, we couldn’t help reaching out in more personal ways—it was called Helpline, after all, not Reflectline. And because our orientation hadn’t given us much instruction in maintaining professional distance, we were touched more often than you might think, which made our work harder, the dope smoking more necessary. We wanted to help. We cared.
Sometimes we did help, a little. It was easy to mock reflective listening, but I learned that being listened to was not something people experience much, and even our idiotic line-by-line rephrasings occasionally nudged people’s spirits to lift so they finally hung up with a nice “Thank you, I feel a little better.” But too often our clumsy efforts simply weren’t up to the task. When the hallucinations were literally overwhelming—a voice speaking from a really bad trip, saying that the walls were closing in and the caller’s heart was actually stopping (I can feel it! It’s stopping! )—saying, as we were authorized in these cases to do, “Listen to me. Your heart isn’t really stopping. It’s just the drug” was the answer to a question the caller had tripped far beyond asking. And when I heard myself saying into the handset something like, “I hear you saying that you’re holding a gun to your head,” I knew I was way in over my own head. And then the dropped phone, the ominous silence: far worse than the dial tone of a hang-up. By then we’d called the cops, our last resort, which we hated to do.
Most late spring nights, after shifts both harrowing and ho-hum, after the first joint or two, those of us not heading home for the comfort of sex could be found inhaling more quantities of illegal substances, well past the legal hours of one of Salt Lake City’s smallest parks, just off campus and built around a reservoir paved over for tennis, with swing sets and picnic tables and trees that shadowed the streetlights. We talked shop, alas, but only in the brief fragments of attention good marijuana allows, and then gradually switched to subjects not tethered to human tragedy. I wonder today why those of us without love lives wanted to keep hanging out with the same folks we’d just spent eight hours with in what was basically a bunker, and a not very well-defended bunker at that. Maybe that’s why marijuana was our drug of choice. It offered the perfect balance of community and isolation; you share a joint, you sit in a circle, you try to carry on a conversation, but weed carries you deeply into yourself. And after all those strangled connections over telephone lines, and a room that closes in with stress and anxiety and sweat that trickles down your neck during the worst calls, it’s by yourself you finally want to be. Marijuana allowed us to withdraw into ourselves communally, in the proximity of people who understood.
Maybe that’s why my one post-shift assignation was a failure. Either too much smoke, or not enough, the joke went, and we hardly knew each other. But earlier that night Nicole and I had worked through a really bad call, didn’t know the outcome, and so along with being stoned, we’d done way too many straight shots of callers’ despair, and we desperately, and impossibly, needed both connection and withdrawal from human need of any kind. So we—kind of—connected, but I felt somewhere else, and I think she did too. We joked about it later, were less awkward with each other with time, but never tried again.
By late April that year, the first and only year I’d grapple with mental health challenges other than my own, finally it was warm enough at two A.M. to allow hours of outdoor dope smoking, although even during the winter, we’d sometimes huddle in the snow, so anxious were we to get as far as possible from the room’s four close walls echoing with human pain and need. But in the deepest winter we’d more often circle up in someone’s small apartment, and when well stoned and hungry, brave the bright neon lights of Bill and Nada’s, an all-night diner that somehow, in the polarized early seventies, catered to both heads and cowboys, who’d seat themselves according to their outfits in booths on opposite sides of the long room: a United Nations of otherwise mutually antagonistic types seeking late-night comfort without the complication of eye contact or conversation. Outside was best, though—smoking herb in nature, sprawled on the park’s new-grown grass.
One night that spring, the park wasn’t nature enough, so we headed south toward Moab. Apparently we needed sandstone. We’d finished our shift on time. Some nights calls would continue beyond midnight (we tried hard to not think about crises that undoubtedly occurred after hours: phone calls met with a soothing but unhelpful recorded message), and because we cared about the person on the other end of the line, we kept talking until we could hang up gracefully and politely, albeit without solving any problems. But that night, all was quiet at midnight, and we headed out, lighting up as we locked the union building door behind us.
“I want the desert,” Kenny said. “I just need to fucking get out of Salt Lake.”
“So do I,” I said, not having felt any such need until Kenny mentioned it, but immediately recognizing how right he was.
“Let’s get Sal. He’s gonna want to go too.” Sal was Kenny’s roommate, a political science major heading for law school, once he got his grades up. Kenny was a psych major, and Helpline credits actually counted toward graduation. Nice guys—not good friends, but easy to hang with and funny, and Kenny and I had been through some tough shifts. I was an English major. I wasn’t sure why I was volunteering. I kept forgetting to register for the class, so I never got the units.
“Plus, we need his car,” Kenny said. We knew that my piece-of-shit Fiat gave us a place to do a number and might get us back to our apartments but probably wouldn’t make it to Moab. Kenny had a Jeep, but with a ratty, leaky top, and it was a four-hour drive through some mountain passes, and cold, high desert at the end. Also, we needed Sal’s stash, something that went without saying.
Sal was watching TV, half asleep, but he too thought Moab was a great idea. As we knew he would, he volunteered his car, a ten-year-old Plymouth Valiant that he called the Blue Val. It had long since faded beyond something you might have been able to call blue, but it was dependable, and Sal and his car were inseparable.
We stopped at my apartment long enough for me to grab my sleeping bag and a coat. And a war-surplus poncho I’m pretty sure had done a tour in Vietnam, and a bag of cookies and a couple of cans of chili. We chipped in to fill up the Blue Val at an all-night gas station, launched ourselves on I-15 and headed south, lighting up a thick joint for the road. Sal—there was never a question of who would drive—reclined against the angled back of the driver’s seat, inhaled deeply and manipulated the column shift with dignified slow-motion ease.
I passed out before we hit Provo, too often the first to go under, finding in unconsciousness the best escape I seemed able to make that year. I woke in Price a couple of hours later, stirred by bright service station lights and more demands for cash, and stayed happily awake while we sped south. The Blue Val would hit maybe ninety, and with no traffic and the Utah Highway Patrol apparently home in bed, we made it in a couple more hours to the Arches turnoff, a mile or two before Moab, past the dimly lit but unmanned National Park pay station. We drove the curvy road until we turned off on a short dirt track, then motored far enough away from the pavement to keep the Park Service from noticing that we were where we shouldn’t be: far from the official campground, beyond the law in so many ways.
This is the part of the trip I remember, the last leg from Price, the narrow dirt road, our illegal, makeshift camp. Whatever the night sky looked like had been lost in the headlamps, the tunnel of yellow light the Blue Val barreled through, but when Sal switched off the lights, the sky just pounded us with dark. Our eyes slowly adjusted to blackness, then stars, the broad, moonless expanse of what would become in a month or two the summer Milky Way, stars from horizon to horizon, those famous sandstone national-park formations now simply looming black cutouts against all those points of light, each star a cold piercing distance from the others. I remember the eastern horizon, just a little pale, the barest beginning of sunrise, the sun still hours from finally putting those stars away.
We threw down our sleeping bags on the sand and watched the sky as we lay limp, taking it all in.
“Oh, wow,” someone said.
“I hear you saying, ‘Oh, wow,’” somebody answered.
But finally we didn’t anything, just passed one more joint from hand to hand. It was completely quiet, no wind at all, no traffic, no harsh campground Coleman lights. Although Arches had long since ceased being the anonymous outpost presided over unevenly by Edward Abbey in the ’50s, it was a long way from the busy recreational destination it is today, and that night in 1972 it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
I surprised myself by not immediately falling asleep—in spite of the long drive, the stressful shift and my habit of never staying awake long enough to truly enjoy the drug I’d ingested. And by not thinking very much. I lay there on my sleeping bag for a long time watching the sky, feeling the sand shift beneath my neck and shoulders as I made myself completely comfortable.
I remember one thought coming to me that night, at that moment: I don’t care. I just don’t care. I’m not sure I even cared about the beauty we’d driven hours to behold. Other than being somehow beyond caring, I’m not sure what I was actually thinking that night. But I’m pretty certain I’d stopped thinking by then about the dropped phone, the deadly silence on the other end, the long, detailed narratives of abandonment and betrayal and aloneness.
Although I don’t remember exactly how my shift had gone that night, the one I wasn’t thinking about just then, I’m tempted to remember it as a hard one. Today, I recall all too clearly the details of some really bad shifts, when the voice at the other end stopped being merely sad and self-pitying, stopped giving me helpful answers to questions that we were allowed by training and policy to ask, and started sounding at once both matter of fact and slurred, with longer pauses between short, monotone fragments of just giving up.
We hated to call the authorities, but we’d be genuinely scared about what might be happening to the person we’d been listening to for an hour, who’d finally stopped talking, standing beside the open window, we’d imagine, or collapsed beside the phone. We knew the police dispatcher would trace the call, cops would race to the address (or, alternatively and unpredictably, take their own sweet time), break down the door, and assess the situation, calling an ambulance or the coroner. Or possibly they’d just search the place for drugs, having been given probable cause. By us. This was bad enough—the jackbooted-thug approach to mental health services, the drug bust we’d so helpfully narked. But also this: once we’d made the call, we were completely out of the loop. We’d never know what they found. Policy prevented the authorities from telling us, so we consistently imagined the worst. Either way, there were consequences to the decisions we were too young, and not wise or experienced enough, to make.
More likely that night it had been the usual: voices telling stories of simple, awful loneliness, ten o’clock Friday night completely alone. The suicide calls made me crazy with worry, but the routine calls, all those voices connected to all-too-ordinary lives of meaninglessness and just simple profound sadness, in some ways took the heaviest toll.
Tomorrow, like it or not, we’d be up with the midmorning sun, too bright to ignore. There would be a drive to a place with picnic tables, the realization that other than a bag of chocolate chip cookies, we had nothing to eat—no can opener for the chili, let alone anything to cook it with. We’d drive into Moab for supplies, mostly beer, and pay the uniformed ranger on our way back in and find a legal campsite for the night, which we’d pay the Man for too. A nice beer buzz, maybe some more weed, then the afternoon hike to Delicate Arch, that hard, dry sandstone horseshoe, graceful and fragile and literally above everything, above the complexity of green, the danger of drowning. It’s simple up there—just rock and sky.
Maybe that’s it, about that night: it was simple. Nothing to untangle, no bodies to pull from the depths, no frustration with the routine insufficiency of mirroring human tragedy, hours operating on the failed theory that understanding one’s place in the great scheme of human desire and disappointment is the first step toward happiness. Many years later, I can say I wished it worked that way, but I’m still pretty sure it doesn’t. I’m not sure I believed even then the theory, having observed its routine irrelevance in Friday-night practice. So maybe a fleeting sense of one’s place amid all that unfeeling, uncomplicated landscape is possible, when stoned enough, literally miles from what troubles the world you’d been having a professional one-way conversation with, in the company of a couple of guys you liked okay, each in your own stoned fog.
About the sandstone, though, and nature—the all-night drive that still makes all kinds of sense to me. When somebody—probably Kenny—said, “Oh, wow,” I wish the person who’d reflected humorously (okay, probably me) had said something smarter, less smartass, more true, or at least useful.
“I hear you saying that being in this landscape, stoned, at four in the morning, feeling the chill desert air, smelling sagebrush, watching the eastern sky pale behind distant desert mountains, satisfies a deep need, provides clarity, supports the best kind of spirituality, answers at least a few of the hardest questions and makes us all happy.”
Of course, nature isn’t any simpler than anything else humans negotiate their way through. Trust me on that—I’ve read Emerson. And as I think about it, maybe it wasn’t nature at all, or even the drug that helped disengage my frontal lobes. That night, it was partly where I wasn’t. It wasn’t the place I had done time in and driven miles away from. Space, for sure, the open black sky, stars bright pinpricks, the distant mountains—no sweaty armpits in a tight, floodlit room. Responsible only for my own pathetic self. Not much in the way of consequences, no complicated connections with despairing strangers or even good friends.
I was happy, I think. Or, as I keep thinking about that night, maybe I wasn’t thinking. Or for that matter exactly happy. For example, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about my own sense of not knowing who I was—at all—and where I was going, and come to think about it (which I didn’t right then) my own low-grade loneliness, my anonymous student life, my having no one to go home to, not even the meager hope of some future, less strained hookup with Nicole, the kind and beautiful Helpline volunteer. But I knew this much: I’d put real time-and-space distance between myself and that windowless room of phones and white walls, connected by telephone lines to other bare rooms of despair and heartbreak, the bright, cold city, everything I was running away from that night. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t care. Care was simply not required. Morning was coming, neither called for nor begrudged, but with creeping slowness all its own that may have been just what I needed.
He has published essays in Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Southern Review, Hudson Review, Ascent, and in the anthology On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors. His work has been cited numerous times in Best American Essays and in Best American Science and Nature Writing, and has been a finalist twice for the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. He has also earned a Pushcart Prize, and he has been profiled as one of Twenty-Five Nonfiction Writers to Watch in Writer’s Digest.
“Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. “Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith won the 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for essay. Through recounting her longtime friendship with the titular Rachel, Rose Smith examines female friendship, as well growing past societal labels such as “outcast” or “misfit.”
by Rose Smith
The early September light on the lake is unreliable. It’s late afternoon; clouds race on the wind and the water laps the shore. Flashes of sunlight glint off restless waves in quick succession. The surface of the water changes from gray to bright blue as the clouds pass over the sun. I am looking out the window over one of the small lakes near our home in upstate New York. This is after I get married but before I get pregnant. I’ve spent the summer waiting for a baby to quicken: a baby I know is close but elusive. Beyond the lake is a cornfield, stretched out across the hills. The tips are turning brown. The corn gathers sweetness, waiting to be cut.
Standing here in the “Perla Suite” of the Glass Lake Inn, I feel a cool breeze coming off the water. I am wearing a white strapless top with boning in the bodice. My white pants stretch snug across my hips. Draped over it all is a sheer white sheath that I made yesterday. My friend Rachel is wearing a white wedding gown with a train and bell sleeves. The cut of the bodice shows off her long, straight neck and pale shoulders. Her golden hair is swept up into an elaborate twist. Behind me, gathered around the bride, are the two Megs and Rachel’s college roommate, Nazeera, who flew in from Prague to be here. I took the train up from the city, where I had been working. Rachel wanted us all to wear white: something breezy, flowing, and all white at her wedding. Nazeera is wearing an ankle-length peasant dress. It’s perfect.
One of the Megs calls me back from the window. “Did you design your dress?” she asks me.
“Yes,” I tell her, even though it’s really just two rectangles of fabric sewn together. “But it’s pretty simple.”
“I wish I could sew.” Her name is Meg. Her best friend since first grade is named Meg too. We are almost thirty, and the two Megs still look alike: short and pear-shaped; blond, close-cropped wavy hair; intelligent glasses. In fact, they both look just like they did in high school. Rachel and I, on the other hand, are unrecognizable from our teenage selves.
Rachel’s mom comes into the room, and a jolt of electricity runs through our little group. It’s time. We follow her out of the inn and onto the lawn leading down to the shore. The groom, fifteen or so years older than we are and born and raised in the city, waits for us on the other side of the lake. Rachel’s mom hands each of us a large silk scarf. The Megs get royal blue and emerald green, Nazeera a deep gold; mine is peach. We drape them over our shoulders so they hang long in the back, flapping in the wind behind us as we walk. Rachel’s mom kisses her on the lips and hurries off to her car. She’s driving around the lake to the other side, where the wedding tent is set up. The “gaggle of girls,” as Rachel calls us, will be traveling by barge, called like sirens across the water by the groom’s saxophone. Rachel is marrying a Jewish jazz musician named Saul. She even converted for him. A chupa and a glass to break and a rabbi all wait for her in her new life on the other side of this water.
I am sure we are a beautiful sight from the shore, but the wind is rough, and the barge is really just a raft with a motor that some teenage boy is steering from a crouch behind us. My hair stands straight up, and my eyes water from the cold. Our scarves whip frantically as the raft motors through the water. I watch as a long ribbon of golden silk lifts high into the air. It hangs suspended, almost still, in the chaos of wind and mist. The setting sun rests in its folds, a kind of floating origami light box. I think of my husband, standing near the shore with the other guests. I can’t make him out yet in the distant crowd. The scarf lands on the surface of the lake and is subsumed in an instant. Nazeera turns and lunges as it disappears. She almost falls overboard, and we scream and cling to each other, laughing and holding each other up, until Rachel’s dignity gets the best of her; she straightens up and faces the music.
I can see Saul standing on the shore now. He stands erect in his black suit, blowing on his horn. Snatches of the music carry on the wind, and the disjointed song is haunting and sad to me. Rachel’s jaw is set, and her back is straight, as always. Her eyes are wide with her smile, and her beautiful hairdo is a mess.
I’m in my new bedroom, with the new yellow bedroom set we bought when we first moved here. Two twin beds, for if I have a sleepover, and a matching dresser and vanity. I lie in my bed, reading Little Women again. Lots of the pages I already know by heart. The other yellow bed sits there all made up. There haven’t been any sleepovers. No one has even sat there. I’ve thought about messing up the covers just so I won’t feel so bad when I see it.
My mom pokes her head around the doorway. “Go outside,” she orders me.
“Quit reading and go outside. Enough is enough.”
“I don’t want to go outside.”
I look at her.
I put my book down and pull on my shoes. This new town couldn’t be more different than home. First of all, it’s mostly forests here, and so quiet. At home there were sidewalks and streetlights and always, at night, the noise from the go-go bar on the corner. Our new house is at the top of a steep hill, on a curving street lined with wooden houses. It’s the summer before I start sixth grade at a new school. I’ve been here almost two months, and I still don’t know a soul. I’m getting pretty nervous.
I walk down the impossible hill, feeling the rubber soles of my running shoes grip the slanted asphalt. There are no sidewalks here. A few miles down the highway are the 4 Corners Market and a post office and a dance school. At the bottom of the hill is another cornfield. Viewed from above, it looks like a giant patchwork quilt. The corn is so tall it is like a forever forest of waxy green stalks, millions of them, standing in a row. There’s a patch of grass before the first rows of corn and a big shade tree. I sit under the tree and lean my back against the trunk. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself. I imagine I am Jo in Little Women, when Amy sets off for Europe. I don’t have any hope at all of going to Europe. Two girls come out of the house across the street and start toward me. I stand up when they step on the grass.
“You moved into my grandma’s house at the top of the hill,” says one of the girls.
“The blue one?” I ask.
“Yep. That’s my grandma’s. You didn’t buy it, you’re just renting.” She’s a pretty girl with blond hair that curls around her shoulders. She has boobs, too. I can see the outline of her bra under her T-shirt.
“OK,” I say. The other girl is hanging back. Her hair is long and straight like mine, but hers is golden and shines like silk. She has a straight nose that makes her face look as though it belongs to a woman, not a girl. Her body is like mine: skinny and childish.
“I’m Kristie,” says the pretty girl. “And this is Rachel.”
The room is mostly dark, our faces pale and luminous in the moonlight. Rachel’s house is far from town, an old farmhouse at the end of a long lane, and the stars out here are always the brightest they’ll ever be on earth. The Megs are here, and me and Rachel. We’re sprawled out on pillows and blankets in the downstairs living room. Her parents are asleep upstairs.
“Have you seen Kristie since graduation?” Rachel asks me.
“No. Not a word. She doesn’t call back or write. I even stopped by yesterday, and her mom told me she wasn’t home yet. But I think she was there.”
“I never understood why you were friends with her,” says Meg.
“She was so mean,” says the other Meg.
“She was my fiercest defender.” I say it with bravado, to make everyone laugh, but really I feel bereft and confused.
“Well, maybe she’s disappeared because you don’t need her anymore.” Rachel says it in her mom voice, but her tone is also kind of sad for me. I look at her white hands as she gestures in the faint light. She stretches her neck back and forth, popping the bones into place, crack-crack-crack. Rachel’s hair is cut. After we graduated from high school, she cut all her hair off, short like a boy’s. I can’t stop reaching over to touch the back of her neck. As ever, Rachel sits erect, back rod-straight, among the rest of us with our slumping, curled frames wrapped around pillows. She has grown into her woman’s face, and she is beautiful like a runway model, gaunt and rare.
“Ok . . . boyfriends,” I say. We are home for the holidays after our first semester of college. I still don’t recognize myself in the mirror, but my confidence is growing.
“I have important information for you girls,” Rachel starts. I am alarmed by her instructive tone. She definitely did not know anything about boyfriends three months ago. She went to school in Montreal. We visited the college together during the fall of our senior year. We wandered around that campus with her dad all day, and I left feeling inadequate and out of place, but Rachel seemed galvanized. In the car, I sat in the back, leaned my head against the seat, and stared out the side window while Rachel and her dad talked all the way home.
“I’m telling you right now not to do anal.”
“What?” squeaks Meg, sitting up.
“You know, sex in the butt.”
Oh, my god, I didn’t even know that was an option. “I thought only gays did that.”
“No,” says Rachel. “My roommate and her boyfriend decided to try it, and she started bleeding everywhere and I had to take her to the emergency room and she had to get stitches. Stitches. Up there!”
I breathe a small sigh of relief that she is only talking about her roommate. As far as I know, Rachel has never even had a boyfriend. She went to the prom with the Flemish foreign exchange student who was like twenty or something. Of course I didn’t go at all.
“Oh, my god, Rachel. That sounds horrible.”
“Consider yourself warned.”
“OK. OK.” We all look horrified for a few moments, and then I start to laugh. And then we are all shrieking and laughing and falling in a pile and clutching at each other to keep from rolling off the mountain of pillows.
When we can breathe again, I say, “Chip and I never even thought of that.”
“Oh, maybe Chip did,” Rachel suggests. She raises her eyebrows at me. We have a suspicion that the nice boyfriend I got at the end of our senior year is really gay.
“Oh, shut up,” I tell her. “And anyway, it was enough for us the regular way.”
“You and Chip had sex?” Rachel.
“Oh.” Other Meg.
“Yeah,” I answer. I surprise even myself that I admit this.
Everyone is silent for a moment. I feel intensely embarrassed.
“Oh, honey. I didn’t realize that you were going through that back then.” It’s her mom voice again, and she’s so full of love for me, and caring, that she suddenly even looks like my mom. I hate it when she does that.
We want to ride down the impossible hill. We go through the options, eliminating the ones that seem too dangerous or dumb. Bikes? Too out of control. Tire? No one wants to be upside down. Roller-skates? Only Kristie has them. I have a red wagon that belongs to my brother. The pinstriping is peeling up in places, and there is a dent in the front corner, but if we put a blanket in the bottom to make it soft and cushiony and hold the handle so we can steer, it seems like the best choice.
Rachel and I climb into the wagon at the top of the hill and stare down the asphalt incline. I’m in front, and she’s wedged in behind me. The cornfield below is brown and dry; the stalks have all been chopped low to the ground, and the rows of brown dirt make stripes in the land that stretch far into the distance. The air is cold, but it hasn’t started snowing yet. Soon, the snow will cover everything, as far as I can see. Soon, this will be the best sledding hill in town, and everyone will be here on snow days. We’ll have to wait our turn to slide down our own hill. For now, though, Rachel and I are about to drop. This is when Rachel still thought of her body as reliable and strong. Before she had to be careful.
Rachel steps off the barge and gingerly places her satin shoes on the wet, sandy bank. The Megs hold her train up away from the water. Nazeera and I climb gracelessly down into the spongy grass. I hold her arm as she hops down, and I realize: Nazeera is the roommate. With the stitches. I am wearing my new heels, a fancy designer pair that I bought in London when I was working there. They look more like art than shoes. The photographer snaps, snaps, snaps.
Once we are away from the water, the evening feels calm and familiar. Early fall in upstate New York. The sky goes from a cool blue to a pale pink and settles finally into a charcoal. I keep getting the sensation that there is someone nearby, watchful and waiting to join me. The stand of weeping willows by the shore is black in silhouette, a group of old women bent over their work: veiled, gnarled, intent, immobile. It’s a waxing moon; the stars are stealing the show, and it feels like home.
I move through the crowd, looking for my husband. He’s a big, gregarious type, tall and broad shouldered, with a heavy brow and dark eyes. I spot him talking to Rachel’s dad. He’s gesturing wildly, telling a story. Rachel’s dad is jumping up and down, switching feet, bobbing his head. He’s a lanky man with a long beard and graying hair that curls around his ears. He’s wearing a tie and a vest. When her dad sees me, he puts his arms around me in a big bear hug. As he lets me go, he pokes me in the ribs and says, “Quite a man you’ve got here.”
My husband winks at me. Rachel’s dad is pleasantly stoned. The three of us stand peacefully, looking out over the party.
The guests are a mix of old hippies (Rachel’s parents’ friends), hip jazz cats and intellectuals (Saul’s friends), a few upstate farmer types (neighbors), old Jewish New Yorkers (Saul’s family), and us (Rachel’s high school friends). Rachel’s Aunt Helen walks over to us. She’s wearing a pillbox hat trimmed with pearls. She looks smaller than the last time I saw her and so frail my breath catches as I say her name. She pulls me in and puts her palm on my cheek. “Oh, look at you,” she says. “You take my breath away.”
“This is my husband,” I tell her. She laughs as she pats his arm and gives me a told-you-so look. In a way, I love her like she’s my own.
Rachel’s mom comes by to tell us to find our seats for dinner. My husband pulls me to him as we walk, his hand firm around my waist. He fits his fingers into the shape of my rib cage. He likes the sharpness of my bones. How close to the surface my frame is. He likes to feel the elemental structure that holds me together. Once we find our table, I tell him I’m going to find the bathroom. “Be careful in those shoes,” he tells me, his lips close to my ear.
Near the bathrooms, I run into two guys from high school. Jonathan is about five foot three, and Sev must reach six foot five. They were the tallest guy in the school and the shortest. And they were inseparable. Jonathan married one of the Megs last year. I’m happy to see them.
“He looks like a guy you would marry,” says Jonathan.
“Your husband. He looks like a guy you would marry.” An awkward moment ticks by while I try to figure out what he means by that, and what I should say.
Sev steps in, “You look beautiful. You really do.”
“Thanks, Sev. I’ll see you guys after dinner.”
Rachel put us at a table with some of Saul’s friends from the city. The guy on my right is telling us about his job as a puppeteer on Sesame Street. I start to tell him about the dream I’ve had a thousand times, where Big Bird takes me flying over the red cliffs of southern Utah, but someone is beginning a toast, and we all turn in our seats.
It’s one of the hip jazz cats, and he speaks almost as if he is singing:
“O Saul, you lucky, lucky man.
O Rachel, you happy, happy girl.”
The school nurse opens her door again to let the next kid into her office. Rachel’s last name begins with G and mine with H, so we are always next to each other. Lines, lockers, assigned seats. The Heffner twins are making fart noises, and Kelly Ferraro is giggling stupidly at them. I roll my eyes, and Rachel tosses back her hair. We thought about wearing makeup today, but I decided against it. I don’t like to draw attention to my face. Makeup certainly won’t make it better. I told Rachel on the phone last night that she doesn’t need it anyway. She said maybe we’ll try it for the seventh grade dance on Friday.
The door opens, and Kelly goes in. We are all wearing undershirts today, so the nurse can do her tests and not embarrass anyone who doesn’t need a bra. Like me. Like Rachel. Kelly definitely wears a bra. The Heffners stop farting when the door closes. The lights on the ceiling of the hallway drone like summer insects. When Kelly comes out and Rachel goes in, I stand alone and try to appear disinterested. The twins lean against the wall, yawning and blowing spit bubbles. Rachel comes out with her hair shining and her shirt all rumpled. I want to smooth it for her as she passes, but the nurse is calling me in. The nurse’s office is small with beige walls and a metal desk. There are a couple of cots and some curtains for when you have a headache during class. I pull off my shirt. I’ve been through this before. I fold at the waist and put my forehead against my knees. The nurse puts her hands on my back and feels up and down my spine. I know why they do this in ballet auditions, but I can’t imagine what this has to do with school. She tells me to put my shirt on and go back to class. The Heffner twins look bored as I walk by.
The first day Rachel wears her back brace to school I am surprised. Not by the fact of it. I knew it was coming. It’s the metal and hard plastic that throw me. There are metal rods on the front and back of her body rising up her spine, straight and cold and ending in a plastic rest to hold her chin up, to pull her neck long and erect. The molded plastic that encases her waist and hips is vaguely pelvis-shaped. She is wearing her sister’s clothes because they are a size larger and button over the brace.
We stand at the mirror in the girls’ bathroom. It’s time for PE, and we are hiding out. Not for the whole class. Just to get our bearings. I look at Rachel. She’s brushing her hair, letting it hang like a waterfall down her back. From behind, with her hair down, you can’t tell she is wearing a brace. I catch a glimpse of my own face. It’s getting worse as I grow. I was only three when we had our car accident. Riding along the dusty road, windows down, dry air blowing our hair, sitting in my mother’s lap: that is the moment I am thinking of when I look in the mirror. The moment before. Next came the moment after.
Here’s what happened in the space between: My mother’s arm slammed into my ribs as she pulled me tight to her body. We were both hurled forward. Her face hit the glass of the windshield. Shattered. Shards finding purchase in her left cheek. Body arced into a grotesque shape. No arm thrown up in fear, hands still firmly wrapped around me. Below, as the shards fell, was my face. Smashed. Between the metal dash, and her stomach: blouse, skin, muscle ribs tendons uterus placenta amniotic, my brother, his beating heart.
There was blood everywhere. My mother lifted me out of the seat and set me beside her on the road beside the truck. The car in front of us was folded in on itself. The driver stood by, her tongue worrying at a cut on her lip. Her hands were at her sides like caught fish.
My mother was wailing. What she was saying didn’t make sense but it got under my skin and into my flesh and stayed there like a warning.
“Just live, she screamed. Just live!”
At the hospital her cheek was sewn up, a five-inch seam from jaw to temple. I was taken into surgery. The bones in my face were broken. Shattered. The university surgeon contemplated mending the bridge of my nose, my destroyed cheekbones, my broken jaw, my caved in sinuses. He had the skin pulled back to assess the damage. Defeated, he carefully sewed up my flesh, covering the chaotic mess with neat, loving stitches. That night, speaking softly to my mother, he attempted to explain: complex craniomaxillofacial trauma . . . soft-tissue injuries as well as multiple fractures to the underlying skeleton . . . growth will lead to secondary deformities needing surgical intervention. “You’ll have to wait until she’s grown,” he said.
“For what?” she asked.
“To fix her face.”
From behind, with my hair down, I just look like a little kid. In art club I am learning to make stop-motion animations after school. Rachel and the Megs are working on self-portraits. They sit at tables with mirrors in front of them and sketch in the lines of their features. Mrs. Reed tries to get me to start on a self-portrait, but I won’t relinquish the 8mm camera. I love the world it contains inside its glass lens.
After months of phone calls with the insurance company, my mom has made an appointment with a surgeon in the city. She says it is time we find our doctor. The operation to fix my face is still many years away, but the process is beginning. The long wait until I am “done growing” is almost over. Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror—the concave center where it was smashed in the accident, the flat nose, the hollow cheeks—I suddenly feel close to Rachel. We are like sisters now. Odd. Separate. Undesirable. Then, as she spins around to go change out for gym, I realize that she may not want to stay friends with me now. Before, we just ignored the fact of my face and instead complained about our flat chests and skinny legs. With me as a friend, she becomes half of a pair of misfits. I’m not even sure I should stay friends with her.
She walks through the door ahead of me, stiff and erect, her neck pulled long by the silver rods. I think of her like that while I am in dance class in the afternoon. My own neck is long and straight, but free. As I step out onto my new toe shoes, I balance there: my back arches, my leg rises in a high arabesque behind my head. I no longer take for granted the way my body curves and bends at will.
It is a May weekend, and we are in my mom’s baby-blue Bonneville. I’m at the wheel. Rachel is shotgun. The Megs are in the back. They are singing the harmonies of some show tune. One of the Megs is the lead in the high school play. I roll the window down all the way and look over at Rachel. Her hair whips around her face until she catches it in her hand and twists it all into a golden knot on top of her head. The seat belt stretches across the metal bars of her brace. I wish for her straight nose and fine high cheekbones, her perfect jaw. The sounds of the wind and road drown out the warblers in the backseat. I am wearing a white button-down shirt and black pants. So is Rachel. The Megs have their clothes with them. They’ll change when we get there. Where we are going is Aunt Helen’s wedding. She has asked us to be the waiters at her “dinner under the stars.”
“My Aunt Helen is getting married,” Rachel says to no one in particular. We are all a little shocked by this fact. Aunt Helen always seemed like one of us. A grown-up version, but still one of us: a woman too strange for anyone to love.
When we get to Rachel’s house, her mom puts us straight to work setting the long wooden tables out in the garden. There are lanterns hanging from tree branches. Cut flowers stand in canning jars. They’ve rented folding chairs, and someone has already placed them at the tables. Meg and I lay the plates out while Rachel and the other Meg arrange silverware.
“Fork on the left,” calls her mom. Rachel rolls her eyes. I pretend to stab myself in the chest with a butter knife. Rachel holds up a fork and pretends to throw it at her mom’s back. “Stop laughing and get back to work, girls! The guests will be here any minute.”
I need to pee, so I sneak inside the house. It’s a farmhouse like ours. At least a hundred years old, two stories, wood siding, steep eaves. Everyone enters through the mudroom on the side of the house. I don’t even know where the front door is. The downstairs bathroom is occupied, so I go upstairs. Helen is standing on the landing. Her ivory dress is trimmed with antique lace at the collar, cuffs, and hem. It’s fitted at the waist, and the narrow skirt falls just below the knee. Her ivory leather shoes button across the instep. Her hair is gold, like Rachel’s, but short and shaped into finger waves around her head. A small piece curls in front of her ear into a spiral on her cheek. She takes my face in her hands and cups my cheeks in her palms. Her hands are warm and dry. “I hear from Rachel that you’re having your operation this summer,” she says.
I feel the heat and color rise under her palms. No one else ever mentions this to me. Other than my mom, only Helen is willing to talk about it directly.
“What will they do?” she asks.
I move her hands so I can show her. I hold my finger up to my lower jaw, “They’ll cut bone out of here,” I move my finger to point at my upper jaw, “and then insert bone up here. Then they’ll put in cheekbones carved from my hip. They’re still deciding what to use for the bridge of my nose. Maybe a rib,” I tell her.
“Oh, it is amazing what doctors can do, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see how beautiful you are. And just when Rachel gets to take off her brace. What a pair you will be then!” She’s feeling romantic. I’m starting to get embarrassed. She looks around us at the narrow wooden staircase and runs her hand over the smooth, dark banister. She’s just remembered what we are doing here.
“It is my wedding,” she says. “I better put on some lipstick.” She has Rachel’s face, just thinner and older. Her skin is so white, it is almost translucent. Her trademark red lipstick always seems too much to me on her pale lips.
“I’m so happy for you, Aunt Helen,” I tell her. “Congratulations.”
My husband holds me close on the dance floor. Rachel and her new husband dance by. I do a little hop to avoid stepping on her train. Our eyes meet, and she raises her eyebrows at me. I know she’s as surprised as I am that we are here. With husbands. Rachel’s parents dance up and grin at us. They are happy. Soon they will fade into the dark outside the tent’s glow to get high, but for now they are present and accounted for, dancing the first dance. The next run around the dance floor, Saul is dancing with Rachel’s mom and Rachel’s dad has Rachel spinning and laughing.
The band, full of famous jazz musicians I’ve never heard of but that my husband is impressed by, ends the song with a bang. There’s an expectant pause, and then I see Aunt Helen walk slowly across the riser. Her husband has his hand on her arm as she takes her place at the microphone. She’s thin; her dress drapes over bony shoulders, blade-like forearms, jutting clavicles. Her bald head is pale in the twinkling lights of the tent. She has left the pillbox hat behind. Earlier she told me, “I just don’t have the energy for wigs anymore.” She moves carefully, and she is so fragile that I expect her to whisper.
We breathe a collective sigh as she begins to sing, a cappella. Her voice is strong and clear, “Like a bird, on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free.” At that, the band strikes up, and she swings the tune, just a bit, while we all smile up at her. In her hands, the song loses its ponderous tone and skips lightly, hopefully, toward freedom. She has been in remission before, but the news about her lately has been pretty bad.
My husband gets called to shoulder the chairs, and as the Hava Nagila builds, Rachel and Saul are lifted above the crowd. Rachel’s mom grabs my hand and pulls me into the circle. Her sister fits in on my other side, and we begin the spinning, circling dance that gets wilder and more frantic as it goes on. We are singing and stomping and kicking our legs in the air. Rachel is laughing. Saul has his hand on her arm across the gap between their chairs. My husband is holding the leg of her chair high in the air, but his other hand is on her waist, holding her firmly in place. I feel the heel of my shoe clip off the back of the dance floor, and the whole scene tips backward. And then I am on my back in the grass, just outside the reach of the tent’s light. Rachel’s mom and sister clasp hands to close the gap I’ve left behind, and I watch them spin away.
I try to stand, but my foot gives way in a burst of sharp pain and heat. I crawl over to a chair nearby and pull myself into it. The tent is glowing and pulsing with energy. The song is reaching its crescendo, and Rachel’s cheeks are flushed bright pink as she drifts past, lifted high above the crowd of dancers. The band transitions smoothly, and it doesn’t take long for my husband to find me sitting on a folding chair with my bare foot propped up on a table. “Do you have a broken wing, tender bird?” he asks me. He calls for a doctor. Two psychiatrists and an ophthalmologist tell me that my foot is definitely not broken. Their wives all disagree. My husband says we are going to the hospital for an x-ray.
“Just let me sit a moment,” I tell him. Out here on the lawn, it is dark and peaceful. Inside the tent, children slide across the floor in their socks, and old aunts dance arm in arm. We sit together watching Rachel’s dad: his tie is loose, his waistcoat unbuttoned. He’s got both of his daughters, one in each hand, dancing with him. He’s grinning like mad and hopping from foot to foot, waving his arms in the air. The girls are laughing as he spins them away from him and back in again.
“Look how happy he is,” my husband says. “So happy with his daughters. So much joy he can’t stop dancing and smiling. It’s utterly goofy. Totally free. That’s me out there someday,” he says. “That’s me, so happy.”
The lake sends a breeze over the lawn. A cloud moves, and moonlight flashes over us, illuminating the trees all around. There it is again. That feeling that someone is watching, waiting. We’re ready, I think. Come on.
Rose Smith was born in Utah and raised in Arizona and upstate New York. She is the winner of The Missouri Review’s 27th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Her story, Idaho, was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s 2018 Story Contest. Rose lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and their two children. She is currently at work on a novel.
“Ronaldo” by Andrew D. Cohen
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Andrew D. Cohen’s essay “Ronaldo”, which won the 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction, is today’s selection. In this piece, Cohen profiles his relationship with his eccentric father-in-law, exploring the complicated endeavor of loving the “black sheep” of the family.
By Andrew D. Cohen
My wife and I have this running joke about my father-in-law, Ron, a blind-in-one-eye, seventy-nine-year-old retired golf pro with a penchant for canines, Carl Jung and awful stock picks—about how he might have survived the Holocaust if he’d been there. In one version he’s waiting in line for the gas chamber, working on his golf swing, shifting his hips, talking to himself as he tends to, when he draws the attention of an SS guard and his trusty German shepherd. “Vat do you sink you are doink, vermin?” screams the guard, who happens to be a long-suffering golf fanatic, over the barking, lunging dog. Before long, Ron is critiquing his swing (“No legs! You gotta move the legs!”), analyzing his psyche (“You’re afraid. That’s why you’re not bringing the club head back.”), even offering up a casual analysis of the Führer himself (“A few issues there, wouldn’t you say?”), all the while cozying up to Oskar, his new favorite dog.
In another version, “Ronaldo,” as I’ve called him for years, is standing naked in the showers, everyone around him dropping dead from the Zyklon B pumping in through the vents, enjoying the warm steam, when he realizes that his perennially clogged sinuses are miraculously clearing out. When the Nazis finally open the door, he walks out, breathes deeply and shakes his head in disbelief. “First decent breath I’ve taken in forty years,” he announces, making a mental note to find out the stock symbol for the company that makes the stuff. “It’s going to be big,” he tells the dumbfounded guard.
In yet another version, Ronaldo, whose remaining teeth look like they’ve been through a stump grinder, gets brought in by none other than the Angel of Death, Joseph Mengele, who immediately gets to work, pulling, prying, ripping up his gums and teeth, causing Ronaldo, famously stoic, to groan as his head is yanked to and fro. When the procedure is over, Ronaldo slowly stands, turns his head right then left, works his tongue around his mouth, puckers his lips a few times and shrugs. “You did for me in five minutes what those crooks in Beverly Hills couldn’t do in fifty years,” he says, shaking Mengele’s hand. “And for free!”
They’re tasteless jokes, I know, especially because Ronaldo actually lost some of his family in the Holocaust. But they make my wife and me absolutely keel over with laughter, partly because of just how over-the-top they are and, too, because, as my Polish grandmother, who sustained her own losses in the Holocaust, would say, “Every joke has a little truth.” But mostly, I suspect, we laugh because, as the Yiddish proverb notes, “Better to laugh than to cry.”
Which is to say, if we weren’t laughing so hard, we’d probably weep.
The story of Ronald Irving Weiner begins in an apartment in Northwest Chicago in 1934, but the first time I met him, the place our story begins, is West Los Angeles in 1991, when, as a college sophomore, I ventured across the country with my first-ever girlfriend to meet her parents over spring break. Back then Ronaldo was still head pro at the city’s largest public course, giving lessons, overseeing the other pros, managing the driving range, organizing fundraisers and running the shop; for a while he also ran the restaurant, but after a few months of real chaos, with employees doing drugs in the kitchen and cooks sending out burgers without meat on the buns, he wisely called it quits. The shop’s handwritten posterboard sale signs and florescent lights reminded me of those stuffed bargain-basement stores on the Lower East Side my mother schlepped us to as kids. Only instead of gray and navy Bar Mitzvah suits and winter coats, it was crammed with boldly patterned Polo shirts (“Two For One This Week!”); obscenely colored pants and shorts; sweaters, pullovers; caps etched with logos for Dunlop, Titleist, Ashworth, Ping; racks of Foot Joy socks; stacked boxes of spiked shoes (“20% off Last Year’s Styles!”) in an array of hideous color combinations; display cases filled with balls, tees, gloves, grips; and, of course, lots of clubs, club-head covers and bags. In the back, past the register and repair counter, where you could have your club regripped for a few bucks, down a hallway and beside a gated emergency exit, stood a beige, windowless cell with two wooden desks scarcely visible beneath the cascade of receipts, invoices, newspapers—any filing cabinet in that office surely stood as some sort of ironic statement—as well as a money counter, several leather briefcases, half-a-dozen adding machines and a warehouse worth of office supplies that Ronaldo shared with his mother, Mildred, an irascible septuagenarian who’d managed his books for twenty-five years.
All of this was both disorienting and a little exhilarating for a young man from New York City who’d never set foot on a golf course or, for that matter, been to Los Angeles—a young man accustomed to visiting his own father in a polished office high above Wall Street. Also disorienting was the small, tunnel-like building out front, just past a busted fountain, where the automated ball-dispensing and washing machines that had replaced Ronaldo’s father after his heart attack during the 1978 Sunstar Classic clinked and clattered like something out of an old sci-fi movie. And, just beyond, the range itself, a bustling double-decker affair with forty-six stalls teetering over a few hundred yards of mesh-enclosed grass across which a white, caged ball cart rumbled.
But what you really had to see was the cast of characters: the outcasts, misfits, perverts, criminals, ex-criminals, future criminals, schemers, crackpots, Hollywood castoffs, depressives, loonies, loners, oddballs, drunks and recovering drunks and miscellaneous hangers-on milling about, teeing off, ducking in and out of the shop, making small talk, fast talk, any kind of talk, virtually all of whom would eventually borrow and/or steal money or other material goods from Ronaldo (if they hadn’t already), including Saul, an addled Jewish man who wore a wide-brimmed hat on which someone had stuck a “Chief Advisor” pin as a prank too many years ago to remember; Tito, the shop manager, for whom Ronaldo had recently posted bail after he’d been caught “carrying a huge gun”; pros like Rich Johnson, who wanted to take over the place and to that end had secretly gotten the city to audit Ronaldo; Bill Knoll, a chronic gambler whom Ronaldo twice caught stealing gloves from him and who would eventually kill himself because of all the money he owed the syndicate; and Ed Roberts, AKA “the lover,” who slept with the older ladies at the local Jewish club until the husband of one saw Ed driving his own Mercedes down Wilshire Boulevard. There were also a few families of Hispanic gang bangers who worked in various capacities when they weren’t serving jail time. Did I mention the homeless guy living under the range? I mean, there should have been a sign over the front door that read, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses . . . The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. . . .” For a while I figured that harboring the “huddled masses” was just a function of a public course in a city teeming with personality.
Only later did I realize it was mostly because Ronaldo always loved a loser.
Ronaldo’s populist roots were established in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, a Jewish enclave where his German forbears started arriving back in the 1880s. A small, handsome, coordinated kid who allegedly didn’t talk till he was five, he lived with Mildred, widely known for her temper (“They heard her screaming down the block.”); his father Jacob, or Jules, an overweight, semipro ball player-turned-insurance salesman, a gambler who was the primary object of his wife’s fury; and his sister Joane. Much of his extended, lower-middle-class, very unobservant (they kept a Christmas tree) Jewish family lived on the same street. They organized informal get-togethers involving music and cards—gin rummy for the women, poker for the men—and “official” family meetings where they’d decide, among other things, which charities to donate money to (“Five bucks here, five there. We were broke.”) For the adults, there were golf outings at the public course, where Ronaldo showed up after his baseball game was canceled one Sunday in his sixteenth year.
Even now Ronaldo can’t say what he liked about the game, though it was more than the fact that, a natural athlete, he “could hit the ball pretty good.” There was something else, something “interesting,” something that in its very elusiveness compelled him. And over the following months, while his friends were going to parties, Ronaldo spent his evenings sneaking into Edgewater Country Club, a goyish club six blocks from the apartment, where the fence had a tear wide enough for him to squeeze through with a shag-bag and some clubs. But he admits that had it not been for Jules winning a few hundred bucks on a game show that spring and Millie giving an executive decree that they were moving to Los Angeles, nothing might have come of it. “It was probably the worst thing she ever did,” Ronaldo says about his mother’s decision. “If we’d stayed, I might have had friends, maybe gone to college. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have had the golf.”
That winter, with no friends, no direction at school (“No one encouraged me.”) and no rain or snow to interfere, Ronaldo would sneak into Wilshire Country Club, where the lights from the parking lot cast enough light to see one of the greens, and hit balls. Though he joined the track team in the spring, once he realized that the coach only showed up for Friday meets, he’d skip practice and take the bus to the public course to make a few bucks caddying and practice his game. Two years later he enrolled at L.A. City College, where he played on the team for five terms before realizing that academically he “didn’t know what the hell he was doing.” To avoid the draft, he enlisted in the army and was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington. A few days before he shipped out to Alaska, his sergeant set him up to play a round of golf with the general. He came up one stroke shy of the course record. “You’re not going to Alaska,” said the general, who kept Ronaldo around for two years as his teacher.
Ronaldo still likes to talk about how the general would pull up with his chauffer in his Cadillac each morning, flags blowing, everyone standing at attention except Ronaldo, who would be leaning against a jeep smoking a cigarette. “Let’s get to work,” he’d tell the general.
Ronaldo is the rarest of rarities: a Jewish golf professional with a blue-collar sensibility. He has the sort of deep faith in work of people who have worked since they were old enough to earn money. And not just any work, but hard, physical work. Ronaldo prides himself on his ability to get his hands dirty, do the heavy lifting. To listen to him talk about his postmilitary life—taking the bus seven days a week from his parents’ apartment to caddy and, once he turned pro, to teach; and later, after winning the contract for the range and golf shop from the city in 1965, not just teaching and managing the shop but cleaning machinery, unloading inventory, digging up the range—is to listen to someone who understands his experiences first and foremost as a laborer. In his telling, the reason he quit drinking in the ’70s was not, God forbid, because it was affecting his home life with his wife and young children but because he couldn’t function at work. Even when I came to know him in his late fifties, Ronaldo was on the range at 5 AM after a storm, ankle deep in mud, digging out balls.
It’s not that Ronaldo has anything against having money or, for that matter, being a successful businessman. He just can’t stand the pretense and entitlement that usually come with it. You should see him walking around the country club that he and his wife joined a year before I arrived, a concession to his desire to play somewhere people wouldn’t hock him for lessons. All these well-heeled men approach him, saying, “Ron, so nice to see you” and, “Hey, how ya doing, Ron?” and Ronaldo shakes their hand and mutters, “Prick.” “Jerk.” “Cheat.” “Fake.” “Phony.”
I mean, if there’s one thing Ronaldo hates it’s the know-it-alls, the self-satisfied, the smug, the neat or otherwise put-together. “Ego,” he’ll say about such people. “All ego.” When Ronaldo says this about you, you might as well have been condemned to the lowest level of hell.
Nor is it just successful people he doesn’t like. The only companies Ronaldo will even consider investing in are those so beaten down by the markets, so inundated by lawsuits, that it will be a genuine miracle if they ever recover. And while he has by most counts a deep, even profound love of all things canine, the truth is, his feelings for them only extend to mutts, mongrels and crossbreeds: the scrappy, the abused, the borderline demented. He’d sooner let a purebred walk off a cliff than let it into his embrace.
In many ways, I was just the type of person Ronaldo loves to hate. My parents were lawyers. I’d gone to private schools; I’d hardly worked a job in my life. And I could tell he was studying me when he took me to hit balls soon after we arrived—that it was a test, not about whether I was good enough for his daughter but about whether I was good enough period. But he must have sensed my own distaste for pretense because later that evening, his wife, Pat, told me, “Ron says you have a high level of being.”
I didn’t know what the hell he meant. But we got along pretty well after that.
Ronaldo has always been a befuddling conglomeration of Eastern philosophy, mysticism New-Age hucksterism and psychobabble, most of which he’s picked up over the years from the frantic, peripatetic reading of someone trying to make up for a missed education. I mean, his bookshelves are filled with psychological texts, philosophical tracts, spiritual and metaphysical manuscripts, most of which are so dense, so impervious, that my eyes glaze over any time I attempt to read them. And while his mastery of the ideas in them might be considered a work-in-progress, his assimilation of their language is complete. You can’t get through a conversation with Ronaldo without being peppered with words like “psyche,” “being,” “awareness,” “soul,” “unconscious,” “persona” “spirit,” “false self” and “human potential.” And it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a Caesar salad, or the Lakers, or the latest scandal in Washington, either. He’s a sort of maddening mosaic of ideas whose pieces at first glance seem orderly, comprehensible, even appealing, yet, upon closer inspection, don’t quite come together.
The closest thing to an anchor in this raucously fluid universe of his knowledge is the work of Carl Jung, which he stumbled upon not long after he sobered up, a few years after my wife was born. He was by then already knee-deep in the ideas of Krishnamurti, whose skepticism of knowledge confirmed Ronaldo’s distrust of know-it-alls, and Gurdjieff, whose faith in the power of work to transform the individual more or less approximated his own. But it was Jung’s idea of “the shadow”—that beneath our egos lies this dark, insidious underbelly—that really struck a nerve, not just validating something Ronaldo had long sensed about the world but also giving him the language to speak to it. Moreover, Jung wasn’t some highflying academic: bullied as a kid, depressed as an adult, he’d dived into the mess of his psyche, battled his demons and come out, the archetypal hero, transformed.
It’s difficult to overstate how profoundly Jung’s ideas have influenced Ronaldo: they’re the closest thing to a belief system, a personal mythology, he’s ever had. They inform every aspect of his life, and he is constantly analyzing people in their context. And while he seems open to the possibility that people can, like the Swiss psychiatrist, transform themselves, he takes palpable pleasure in their missteps and failings, those moments when they reveal just how fucked up they really are. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” he will intone at these moments in an ironic nod to the radio show of his youth.
And then he’ll growl, with something approaching glee, “The Shadow knows.”
There’s always been something of the cave man about Ronaldo, and by that I don’t mean he’s barbaric, violent or emotionally primitive, let alone crudely shaped or unattractive—he’s a very handsome guy. Rather, it’s his way of moving through the world. He grunts and he groans and doesn’t always speak in coherent sentences. He’s disinclined to wash his hands after using the bathroom. His jaw, chronically clenched, has reasonably been compared to a pit bull’s, and his shoulders and back are a tangle of muscles that befuddles the most experienced masseuse. His physical strength is as remarkable as it is unassuming—his handshake can bring a large man to his knees—and he is capable of startling bursts of athleticism. And then there is what I want to call his stunning tolerance for pain, though to refer to it that way suggests he actually feels.
I mean, there’s something quite literally sense-less about Ronaldo: he can’t register smells or, thanks to a botched root canal, feel his chin or bottom lip, let alone taste much of anything. He won’t hear you unless you shout, and a minor stroke has left him all but blind in his left eye. On those occasions when he does feel something, he feels in the extreme: a debilitating reaction to dust, a feverish reaction to beef, a frantic fear of the cold. Even his attempts at self-care have a distinctly prehistoric flavor: he dutifully takes vitamins but swallows them by the handful; he eats a healthy, high-fiber cereal each morning but devours half a box per sitting; his first course of action for a boil on his abdomen is to grab the closest needle; and his daily fitness routine consists of limping around the block after his dog, intermittently pedaling his stationary bike while reading the paper, doing a dozen sitting-arm push-ups on the diving board, pumping a couple of rusted dumbbells, and squeezing those hand-grips that came of age in the’60s.
Then there was the incident years ago when his daughter had a fledgling skin-care line and she walked in on him dipping his morning bagel in a bottle of her hand cream.
When she told him, he shrugged and kept right on chewing.
That year the city put out a formal request for proposals for the golf range and shop concession.The winner would be awarded a new five-year contract. This wasn’t the first time Ronaldo had faced this situation since he and his then partner, Jimmy “the Scotsman” Fairburn, beat out thirty-five other bidders in 1963. But for most of the previous decade, Ronaldo had had a steady if informal month-to-month arrangement with the city, so the announcement caught him off guard. Still, he was successful and, to his knowledge, well-liked among the powers-that-be, and he had no reason to think this was anything but a formality.
So he put in his bid and did what he usually did: grunted and got back to work.
I’d be putting it mildly if I told you Ronaldo has a long history of atrocious investments. If there were some kind of lifetime record or Olympic event for bad investments, he’d have won it ages ago. It’s always the same, too: he becomes infatuated with some oddball company; he studies its reports, talks to its reps, listens to conference calls; he does a thorough psychological analysis of its senior officers—and then he invests every last penny he can find. Over the following weeks, he watches the stock’s every tick, devours every headline and message-board posting; he becomes nearly prophetic in his conviction about the company’s future. Even when the stock falters, he maintains it’s just the “shorts” screwing around, and when allegations emerge against the CEO, causing the price to tumble, he insists they’re baseless. Just to prove his point, he doubles-down on his investment. Only when the company files for bankruptcy and the CEO is safely behind bars—only when he’s lost everything—does he entertain the possibility that he made a mistake.
I shiver to think about the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of dollars Ronaldo has lost in stocks over the years. Which is to say nothing of the money he’s poured into pockets of corrupt consultants, fink lawyers, shady contractors, crooked handymen, fast-talking salesmen, scheming employees or former-employees, freeloading relations, losing causes of one sort or another. “They all want my money,” Ronaldo will say. To which a fair reply would be: “That’s because they know you’ll give it to them.”
I mean, for someone who considers himself such an expert on the human psyche, Ronaldo has exercised some exceptionally poor judgment when choosing whom or what to get involved with. So when he hired a flamboyant civil rights lawyer, radio personality and aspiring golfer—let’s call him Calvin—to help sue the city for underhandedly awarding the previously mentioned contract to a large, Asian corporation, we braced for the worst.
By then I’d known Ronaldo for a decade. I was engaged to his daughter but liked him in his own right. Though I didn’t want him to lose the range, I was concerned: “He’s a civil rights lawyer, Ronaldo: What does he know about this?” But Ronaldo insisted he was “sharp” and had “no ego,” and they got to work, filing motions, subpoenaing files, generally gumming up the works at City Hall. They talked constantly, plotting their next moves but also wading into personal matters. Calvin, with no family of his own, became a de facto life coach for Ronaldo. “Buy your wife flowers,” he’d say. They also played golf, at Calvin’s insistence, for money, which, due to Ronaldo’s huge skill advantage and Calvin’s huge personality, resulted in more than one flare-up. Before long, however, they’d patch things up and pick up where they’d left off.
It was by most standards a curious relationship—more so, I suspect, because no one could remember the last time Ronaldo had had a friend. More than once I worried aloud to my soon-to-be-wife about where it might lead. But Ronaldo really seemed to like Calvin, in whom he had found something of a kindred spirit, a partner in fighting the world’s “evils.” And whatever they were doing vis-à-vis the city seemed to be working: that spring the courts made the city throw out the contract and restart the process, giving Ronaldo at least a couple of more years on the job.
Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it would end badly.
One of the many lost souls who showed up at the range over the years was an eighteen-year-old kid I’ll call Jeff, who came in looking for a job in the early ’70s. Handsome, just out of high school, he seemed honest and eager to work, so Ronaldo hired him, first as a range worker, later as a salesman and, eventually, as store manager, a position Jeff kept for several years before heading off, with Ronaldo’s blessings, to find his fortune. Now and then Ronaldo would hear about some new business Jeff was trying and failing at until the day, five years later, when Jeff called to say he was opening a massage parlor and needed fifty grand to complete construction.
This was 1984, when for most people the words “massage parlor” still brought to mind AIDS, prostitutes, seedy affairs of one kind or another. But Jeff said it would be high-end, nothing illegal, and Ronaldo liked him, had practically raised him, so he gave him the money. “I didn’t think about it,” Ronaldo recalls. “He needed the money. I had it.” He figured he’d never see it again.
As it turned out, the business took off. There was nothing like it at the time. The economy was great, and the locals had plenty of disposable income. Over the next decade, Jeff expanded services, hired more people, opened half-a-dozen more locations. Somewhere along the line, thankful for Ronaldo’s support, he made him a general partner.
After a lifetime of disastrous investments, Ronaldo had finally picked a winner.
And this softened the blow when, after three years of court appearances and who knows how much paperwork, Ronaldo, just shy of his seventieth birthday, learned that he and Calvin had lost the fight to the city. Sure, he was being screwed by a bunch of money-grubbing politicians. Sure, his life’s work was being co-opted by a multinational corporation. Sure, he’d been given thirty days to pack his stuff and leave. But at least he wouldn’t be broke.
So he did what he had to: he sold off the carts, the ball cleaners, the buckets, all the tools and machines and as much inventory—pants, shirts, sweaters, shoes, caps, bags, clubs, grips, socks—as he could; he stuffed the rest, along with the vast contents of his office, into his three-car garage. He attended a surprise party at which every living misfit, loony and hanger-on who’d ever showed his face at the range appeared to give their thanks and make an impromptu speech. He gave who knows how much money to his now former employees. And then, forty years after he’d started, he walked out.
And for a while it went okay. I worried he might fall into a depression or even keel over like his father, but whenever I called, he was in his office watching television, screwing around in the market, seemingly unperturbed. Each day he’d meet old Saul and his former manager, Tito, for lunch and then visit Millie in the nursing home; afternoons he played golf with Calvin who, out of a love of irony or out of sheer idiocy, invited Ronaldo to be the “Stock Guru” on his radio show. One night, while out walking old Zaharias, he even found and took in an abandoned mutt he named “Lucky.”
For a guy who’d just lost the organizing principle of his life, it could have been worse.
What went wrong with Jeff is hard to say. Maybe he started skimming off the top or doctoring the books. Maybe he felt sick of sharing his profits with someone who didn’t do the work. Whatever the case, soon after our wedding, Ronaldo concluded that Jeff was stealing from him and, with Calvin’s help, sued him. A protracted legal battle ensued, which in the short term deprived Ronaldo of most of his income and in the long term ruined his peace of mind. Occasionally, because I hated to see him spending his retirement like this, I suggested he try and talk things out with Jeff. “No, no, I’ll get him,” he’d say. “You’ll see.”
By then Millie was dead, Saul was in a nursing home and blind Zaharias had walked into the pool and drowned. Ronaldo’s sister, Joane, was dying of emphysema, and Tito was smoking crack again. Ronaldo was spending his time studying legal documents, devising ways to reduce his household budget and generally counting the days till justice would be served. To add insult to injury, it became readily apparent that the Asian corporation that had taken over the range had no plans to do what it had promised in its bid. “They’re so bad,” he’d say when the subject came up, though to be honest I was beginning to wonder who “they” referred to.
Then one day Calvin borrowed fifty grand and promptly stopped answering his phone.
It wasn’t the money that upset Ronaldo; he’d lost plenty of that before. It was the shame, the disappointment, the deep sense of betrayal. He’d trusted Calvin, given himself over to him, not just financially but emotionally and psychologically. And the betrayal, along with everything else he’d recently been through, seemed to confirm what he’d always believed about the world: it was a bad place filled with fucked-up people, and he was a fool for believing otherwise. “It was my fault,” he said. “I misjudged him. I was dumb.”
My eight-year-old son, Ezra, who, in addition to being crazy for his grandfather, is an astute observer of human behavior, once noted, “Grandpoppy just sits wherever you put him.”
It’s true: set Ronaldo down in a coffee shop, on a park bench or living room couch, and he’ll usually keep sitting there until someone tells him to get up. On those occasions when he moves of his own accord, it’s not at all clear why. Watching him is a bit like watching my dog, who, after hours of lying around, will for no obvious reason get up and move to another room.
This has always been the case. Ronaldo’s wife, Pat, admits they’d never have started dating (she approached him in the elevator of their building), gotten married (she got pregnant) or bought a house (Pat insisted he put in an offer, so Ronaldo lowballed it, assuming the offer would never be accepted) had his hand not been forced. It’s reasonable to assume he’d never have put in a bid for the range in 1963 had his mentor, Jimmy Fairburn, not taken the lead. And it’s a safe bet that had the city not screwed him, Ronaldo would have died running his shop.
Sometimes you really have to wonder how Ronaldo has accomplished anything in his life. To say he is a creature of habit is a gross understatement: left to his own, he’d keep doing whatever he is doing for all time to come. He has an almost pathological fear of change and quickly becomes enraged in the face of new or unforeseen situations. And I’m not exaggerating much when I say he hasn’t thrown anything away in fifty years. If you don’t believe me, check his office, packed with yellowed golf magazines, decaying files and dust-covered, broken desk supplies. Or his garage, still filled with everything—hundreds of used clubs, balls, rusted tools, shoes, shirts, caps—that he couldn’t sell from the shop; or his medicine cabinet, a recent inventory of which revealed a dozen tubes of Ben Gay, half-a-dozen bottles of Bayer, ten tubes of Preparation H, a split, leaking tube of Prell, several bottles of St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, too many tubes of toothpaste to count, four bottles of Pepto Bismol, God knows how many packages of single-blade razors, five canisters of Colgate shaving cream, half-used and rusting, an array of partially used Dr. Scholl’s products, hundreds of golf tees, piles of discolored change.
I didn’t realize just how stuck Ronaldo was until a few summers ago when my wife and I spent several days trying to clean out his clutter. By then Ronaldo had found another lawyer, a young Jewish guy (“Very bright,” Ronaldo said, which meant he didn’t charge too much), who helped him negotiate a staged though pitiful buyout—thanks to the recession—from Jeff. He insisted he never thought about Calvin anymore. But you could tell it was all still eating him up: the mere mention of Jeff or Calvin or the golf course was invariably followed by a rant about the “evils” of the world and wild vows to expose their corruption. “The things I’ve got on Jeff,” he’d say, shaking his head. “I’ll sue him again when he’s done paying me.”
Sometimes, I confess, I felt embarrassed listening to him. He sounded like a crazy man. I even began wondering whether he’d somehow concocted all this “corruption,” whether the dramas with the City, Jeff, Calvin, were just the paranoid fabrications of his fucked-up psyche—whether on some level he wanted to lose, to be betrayed, stolen from, left alone. “Ever wonder why you’ve been ripped off so often?” I asked him once. “I mean, don’t you think it’s strange?”
Ronaldo, predictably tone-deaf, shrugged: “Maybe they know a dummy when they see one.”
Which might explain my reaction that summer when, after spending the better part of two days loading up his driveway with junk from his garage, we returned from lunch to find him moving it back inside. “What the hell are you doing, Ronaldo?” I said to him.
“Good stuff,” he said. “I’ll use it.”
“Use it?” I said. “You haven’t used it in forty years!”
As I watched him heave a busted dresser back into the garage, I wanted to scream at him, tell him how stubborn, small-minded, pathetic he was—how he deserved everything he got and worse. But I knew I’d regret it. So I just said, “You’re fucked up, you know that, Ronaldo?”
He didn’t object. He just kept dragging stuff back inside as though he hadn’t heard a thing.
The case against Ronaldo as reliable father, trustworthy husband, responsible member of the adult community, is both long and well-documented. Catch a family member for a moment and he or she will tell you about his irresponsible investments, his emotional absence, his inability to remember family milestones, his habit of turning on people, his stubborn attempts to negotiate by himself situations he’s ill-equipped for, his generally messed-up priorities. With more time, they’ll regale you with colorful tales of how he once dropped his oldest son off at the wrong preschool, or how he had his teenage son welding without eye protection, almost blinding him in the process, or how he used to send his sons out to collect balls on the range with mattresses tied to their backs while the golfers used them for target practice. And while everyone agrees that Ronaldo isn’t so bad anymore, no one is rushing to put anything of value into his hands.
Over the years I have had ample opportunity to observe his shortcomings and to develop my own case against him—for leaving my eight-year-old at a public putting green in L.A. while he went to browse the local Jung Library; for playing chase with my sons with no regard for the street; for clomping around our house in his muddy shoes and knocking up the walls with his suitcase; for convincing me to invest in a biotech company that promptly went bankrupt. Yet no matter how compelling the evidence seems, no matter how furious I get, something about all the criticisms and judgments feels misguided. Even, at times, dishonest.
I mean, in a lot of ways, Ronaldo is as reliable as they come: he ran a successful business for forty years; he put his kids through private schools; and his irresponsible investing notwithstanding, he’s paid all his bills on time, all the while bailing out many people who needed help because they couldn’t put their lives in order. And while he can turn on people abruptly, he’s shown the ability to come around to a more considered perspective over time.
Even on the domestic front, Ronaldo has, in his own, idiosyncratic way, proven himself to be quite capable. As, for instance, when he set my wife straight when she was depressed back in college and thought she was losing her mind. “Nothing wrong with you,” he said. “I feel like that all the time.” Or when he showed up at the last minute to extricate his younger son from a doomed wedding; or when he walked in on his forty-fifth wedding anniversary with flowers for his wife and a card in which he’d scrawled, “It’s been wonderful”; or when, after lots of hemming and hawing and only because the baby was asleep, my wife left him in charge while she ran errands. Predictably, the baby awoke and Ronaldo, unable to find baby food, took out a jar of jelly, tied the baby in the booster seat (he couldn’t figure out the clips) and fed him.
Sometimes I think the reason Ronaldo gets such a bad rap is because he just won’t stand up for himself. On the contrary, he seems perfectly willing to absorb all the judgments, accusations and rebukes anyone wants to heap on him. “Go ahead,” he seems to say. “I don’t mind. I’ll bear my failures and disappointments and all yours too.” He’s up to the task: hang around with Ronaldo long enough, and you get the sense he’ll endure just about anything. And rather than diminishing him, it seems to be a source of real strength—a well-spring of patience, even compassion that those around him actually rely on even as we continue to dump on him. “The truth is, I wouldn’t know what to do without him,” his wife confesses. “I’m the one who needs him. He’d be fine without me.”
Ronaldo hangs on to his stuff and we hang on to him.
A few years ago, tired of stuffing my younger son into a bike seat he’d mostly outgrown, I rigged him up a piece of wood on the rack on the back of my bike. At one point as we were out cruising along, the bike hitched and slowed, and then my son screamed. When I looked down, I saw his foot wrenched in the spokes of my wheel.
I went into a sort of shock: I couldn’t believe what I’d done. How stupid! How reckless! How completely irresponsible! Even after I learned it was a relatively “good” fracture, that he’d fully recover, I couldn’t talk to anyone, not even my wife. Then I remembered Ronaldo and picked up the phone: “I really fucked up, Ronaldo,” I told him, gushing with shame.
“We’ve all done that,” he said. Then he laughed. “Some of us more than others.”
I took the first decent breath I’d had in days.
Four or five days a week I call Ronaldo on my way to work. I talk to him more than I talk to anyone except my wife. He’s always in his office, his dog Lucky at his side, watching his stocks, reading the news, “organizing” his stacks of files and papers and magazines. One day he comes across Millie’s love letters to his father; another day he finds the minutes to the family meetings in Chicago; still another day he stumbles on an article about him nearly breaking the course record at Fort Lewis. We talk briefly about my sons, two uncommonly bright rays of light in his world (“They are good!”), before digging into the latest scandal in Washington (“Bunch of egomaniacs.”), the opera his wife dragged him to (“Makes her feel rich to go.”), the Jung book he recently dusted off (“Very deep.”), the old range worker who called him recently (“Needs money.”), the theories of his old mentor, Gene Andrews (“Lost the 1959 North/South Tournament to the Jack Nicklaus.”). For a guy who seems so completely out of touch—for a guy who starts singing Purim songs during Hanukah—Ronaldo has an uncanny ability to recall miscellaneous information; sometimes, just for fun, I’ll quiz him: “Who starred in the 1932 All Quiet on the Western Front?”
“Who won the first Masters Tournament?”
“Probably Horton Smith.”
“What’s the speed of light?”
“One hundred eighty-nine—no, 186,000 miles per second.”
“Who was the twenty-fifth president?”
“McKinley? Not sure.”
At moments like these, I realize Ronaldo’s mind is a lot like his office: everything is in there; it’s just a matter of finding it.
Invariably he tells me about his latest stock—a two-dollar Chinese coal stock that was trading at sixteen a few years ago. “You’re going to lose your shirt again, Ronaldo,” I say.
“No,” he says. “Not this time.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“This one is different,” he says without irony. “You’ll see. A little more time.”
“A little more time,” he says about organizing his office.
“A little more time,” he says about figuring out his psyche.
“A little more time,” Ronaldo says about nailing Jeff to the wall.
In this regard you could say Ronaldo is one of the great optimists: he really seems to believe that, given enough time, he’ll eventually get everything sorted out, fixed up, organized, accounted for. Yet I can’t help wondering how much of this is fueled by a fundamental sense of failure—a basic refusal to accept himself for who he really is.
Sometimes I want to tell him: “Ronaldo, you did good, you know that? You really did.” But I have the sense he wouldn’t quite believe it, that to acknowledge as much would be to undermine most of what he understands himself to be.
It’s as though he’s dedicated himself to a lifetime in the land of failure.
It’s a beautiful summer evening in Los Angeles, and I’m standing with Ronaldo at the local pitch-and-putt where he hits balls when he doesn’t feel like putting up with the schmucks at the club. He hardly plays anymore—he just hits balls, two, three hundred a day, as many as his stiff legs will allow. Whenever we’re down for a visit, I go along, not because I have aspirations as a golfer but because I enjoy the time with Ronaldo.
For the better part of an hour he puts in a determined effort, giving me pointers (“Your wrists! You broke ‘em!”), psychological insights (“You think too much.”), and mostly unmerited encouragement (“You could be a player.”). Before long, however, my back begins to ache, my hands blister, and I find my way to the nearby bench.
“I’m working on something new,” Ronaldo calls, tossing a few balls onto the grass. “Something I never quite thought about and very few teachers even know about, and if they do, it’s unconscious, so they don’t teach it.”
As I watch him loft one ball after another into the air, I realize it’s been almost twenty-five years since I first went out with him during my spring break. His hair is white now; he’s smaller, somehow, but in his cap and khakis and collared shirt, he cuts much the same figure he did all those years ago.
“Nice shot, Ronaldo,” I call as a ball rolls just past the pin.
“Still going left,” he mutters like he can’t figure it out.
The park lights snap on; we’re the only ones out here now. But Ronaldo continues to talk to himself, debating, grunting, moving his weight like he’s banging up against life’s great mysteries. Then he shrugs, lines up his next shot, and swings again.
Andrew D. Cohen teaches English at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two sons. His essays have appeared in Confrontation, Under the Sun, the Saint Ann’s Review and elsewhere. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, he received the 2007 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Award. 
“Swarf” by Tyler Keevil
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Today we offer Tyler Keevil‘s “Swarf,” a riveting essay about an accident and medical emergency in another fraught time of global recession.
By Tyler Keevil
Hot swarf hit me in the eye, the pain insane, furious, awe-inspiring. The pain was so intense it seemed to take on shape, flare red: shards of fire illuminating my cornea. Inhuman pain.
I cried out, cringed, wilted. I fell to my knees, penitent. I made a variety of gibbering animal sounds. I moved my hand towards my eye, clutching at it without making contact—as if I could draw the pain out through force of will. It was my right eye, and it was tearing and welling and leaking: a stream of water down my cheek.
I had let go of the jigsaw, and it was now winding down, caught in the sheet of metal, the teeth grinding to a halt. The factory floor was silent, empty, still. I had been working late, alone except for my boss, John, who was in his office. The job was a set of four electrical boxes that we were going to ship to Slovakia, if and when we got paid. I was not trained or qualified for that type of work, but I had a good eye for cutting precise lines. And it was the only work we had going. Most of the staff had been laid off. I don’t know why John had retained me. There’d been others with a lot more experience. But I didn’t need full-time, or regular hours, and he could call me when odd jobs came in—like these Slovakian boxes.
I stood up, leaving the saw stuck there in the sheet of metal. I tried to blink, or reverse blink, but my eye didn’t want to open. I had no idea how bad it was. I didn’t know if the swarf had gotten stuck in my cornea or if it had sliced right through and the trickling liquid was not tears but aqueous fluid: my eyeball deflating like a pierced water bladder.
I made my way across the factory floor. I say “factory,” but it was actually a large industrial unit on the outskirts of Newtown, Powys. The Hendre Industrial Estate. The company was DC Electrical, and I had been with it for three years, since the beginning. It had started with an ad in a shop window and some work in my boss’s shed—a shed at the back of his house in Llandinam. There were just two employees, and we rotated since the shed was only big enough for one person at a time. It was cold and lonely, but the work was satisfyingly simple. We were building engine looms and wiring harnesses. John had made his own layout boards: plywood sheets with nails tapped into them and pencil outlines of the looms. We strung wires around the nails, following the pencil lines, and put “crimps” on the ends of the wires. It was like an elaborate version of a child’s toy. We did well at it, for a time. John rented a small industrial unit and hired more staff and then upgraded to this bigger unit on the estate, so we could take on bigger jobs. It had begun to feel like a real business.
Now there were bits of wire and half-finished jobs scattered over the floor. We had a dozen sets of shelving filled with components that we had never and probably would never use. Wincing and squinting, I picked my way through that minefield and over to John’s office, which was partitioned off from the rest of the factory. He stayed in the office quite late. He always put in a full day, even when we had no work. He focused on sending out electronic flyers and offering free quotations and generating more traffic for his website.
I knocked. “John?”
He was in his chair, adjusting a spreadsheet. He swivelled towards me, swivelling a bit too far, and had to pivot back. I didn’t say anything. I just squinted at him, my cheeks streaked with tears—or eye fluid. I still wasn’t sure which.
“Swarf?” was what he said.
He didn’t tell me I should have worn my safety goggles. None of us used them. We didn’t wear earplugs, either—even though the sound of the saw blades on aluminium was blood-curdling, ear-piercing, a banshee shriek that had physical force. Roger, my old boss from the ice barge, would have been furious and disappointed in me. He was half deaf and missing a finger and had always been meticulous about safety gear on my behalf. But at DC Electrical it wasn’t the practice. Partly that was misplaced machismo. But it was also partly a general and hopeless malaise, a feeling of impending defeat. We were like soldiers who simply didn’t bother to put on their helmets before heading into the fray. We expected things to go wrong. Things were going wrong. People were losing their jobs, and companies—ours and others—were going bankrupt. Mortgages were being foreclosed. Banks were failing. It wasn’t just factories, either, and the hard industries. Restaurants, cafés, libraries. All going, or gone. And my wife’s community theatre company as well.
Safety goggles and earplugs weren’t much protection against that.
All of that seems connected to John’s reaction. His expression was not one of surprise, but more like glum resignation: another small tragedy, or minor disaster.
“Let me have a look,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s nothing.”
But it came out strained. My eye was throbbing in its socket.
“Look up at the light,” he said.
John was a tall man. Maybe six-four or five. He was thin and had red, receding hair that he kept shaved short. He wore round, wire-rimmed glasses. He looked at me through those glasses and pried open my injured eye, using his thumbs to pull back the lids. My vision was distorted. His face was blurry, as if underwater. His mouth moved, fish-like.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “There’s a few flecks in there.”
“What do we do?”
He let go of my head, and my eye clamped shut again. I peered at him with the other. He was already gathering his DC jacket—we had company jackets—off the back of his chair.
“I’ll take you to the surgery.”
“You think I need surgery?”
I had visions of them slicing open my eye, draining it, stitching it back together.
John said, “Hospital. We call it surgery, over here.”
“I have to get the seven o’clock train. I’m going to Aberdyfi.”
I was supposed to be joining my wife and her family out there, for Christmas. That’s something I haven’t mentioned and probably should have: it was Christmastime. This all happened on Christmas Eve.
“The surgery isn’t far from the station,” John said. “We should have time.”
He helped me into my jacket and had to partially lead me outside. It was cold, just above freezing, the parking lot striated with sleet. Across from our unit, on the other side of the industrial estate, several workers were leaving the Laura Ashley factory. Most of them were middle-aged women—seamstresses and milliners. I saw them on the way in and out of work, and all I’d ever done was smile or nod. I didn’t know them, but I knew their jobs were going, too. That whole factory was closing after Christmas. It had been around for a long time—the chain had started there—but now it was going. The workers plodded to their cars, hoods up, heads bowed against the sleet. They looked like phantoms, the shadows of people.
I followed John to his car: a purple Astra with a loose wing mirror and a cracked windscreen. We got in and he turned on the lights and they illuminated our Unit: Number 31. The big loading bay door was half open. You could see the floor of the factory, all the half-finished projects and detritus, including the box I’d been working on with the jigsaw firmly planted in it. I asked John if he wanted me to pull the door down and lock it.
“Naw,” he said and put the gearstick into reverse. “Nobody’s gonna steal that shite.”
His car smelled of stale smoke and sour milk.
Our industrial estate was outside the town limits. On the drive in, through filaments of sleet, John’s headlights lit up the town sign: Welcome to Newtown, a new town since 1286. From there we rattled past the sprawling Tesco, which had seemingly sprung up overnight, glowing like an alien spaceship that had just landed, unwelcome and unwanted but completely overpowering, and the McDonald’s, glowing as well—a satellite ship, maybe—the planning of which had triggered a half-hearted and hopeless protest that the Council had overruled.
From there we turned onto the High Street, or what we’d call Main Street, back home. At that time—six o’clock—everything was shut. Several of the shops had been closed down permanently and boarded up with plywood. Red and white “To lease” signs were plastered across the wood, but many of them were peeling, faded. The other stores—mostly discount clothing chains and charity shops—had dark windows, some spider-webbed with cracks. In the bus shelter, a few kids were huddled in a pack. One of them was nursing a two-litre bottle of cider. He saw me staring and flipped us the piss-off sign, his fingers curled like claws, as if lacking the strength to straighten.
“The burnt out ends of smoky days,” John said.
I looked at him curiously. He had never said anything like that.
“What do you mean?”
“Some crap poem we had to learn in school. Always stayed with me.”
The surgery—or hospital—was on Park Street. It was a squat, low structure, built from brick and concrete. It had that Soviet Bloc feel of some of the British architecture from the ’60s, and didn’t look large enough to be a hospital: it was more like a medical centre. A single outdoor bulb glowed above the entrance. John pulled up as close to it as possible, and I hopped out while he drove off to park, his tires peeling rainwater from the pavement. The doors were locked. It was dark inside and seemed to be closed, abandoned. I knocked on the glass and stood hunched in the cold, squinting. Behind me, runoff was drizzling from the awning in a latticework of water. Then something crackled at my elbow. An intercom.
“You have to press the button,” a voice said.
“Oh,” I said.
There was a button next to the intercom. Whoever it was seemed to be waiting for me to press it, so I did.
“Yes?” the voice asked. It was reedy, melodious.
“I’ve got some swarf in my eye.”
“What? You got what in your eye?”
“Swarf. Like little flecks of metal.”
“That sounds serious.”
“I hope not.”
“You better come in.”
There was a pause, and then the lock vibrated, so vehemently that the entire door seemed to shake. A minor earthquake. I didn’t reach for it in time, and it had re-locked, so we went through the whole process again: button, buzzer, grab, and the second time I got it.
As I went in, a light flickered on, possibly automatically. I was at the end of a long corridor that faded into darkness further down. The ceiling was made of rectangular tiles, stippled with lesions, and the floor was a single strip of yellow linoleum, bubbled in places like burnt plastic. The walls were decorated with laminated info-posters about colds, hand-washing, meningitis symptoms, STD testing. There was no reception that I could see, but after a few seconds a door to my left opened and a man padded out. He was portly and moved softly and was wearing a pale-blue uniform. I took him for a nurse or an orderly of some sort, though he didn’t say as much. He simply said, “The swarf.”
“You’ll have to wait for the doctor.”
I couldn’t tell by his voice if he was the same person I’d spoken to on the intercom.
“Is the hospital open?” I asked, uncertainly.
“The A&E is open. The rest of the services shut at 5.30. We don’t have the staff anymore. They’re merging us with Welshpool, next year.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“You may as well come with me.”
He led me to another door further along the corridor, pushed it open, and flicked on the light. It was a basic examining room: padded leather seat, stool, cupboards, countertop, sink. I walked to the centre of the room and turned around, unsure what to do next. He told me the doctor would be a few minutes—there had been a fight in town—and then he left.
I sat uneasily on the padded bench. The faux-leather was torn in places, and pale stuffing leaked out like fungus. An analogue clock loomed largely on the wall, but it didn’t seem to be working: it was stuck at noon, or midnight, and the second hand vibrated without actually advancing. While I waited I experimented with my one-sided vision. It’s not quite true, what they say: that when you lose an eye you have no depth perception. I still had some, but things definitely looked flatter: more like a picture of reality than reality itself.
After about ten minutes the doctor arrived: a petite woman with a prominent nose and dark, short-cropped hair. She was wearing a wrinkled lab coat which had a brown stain over the breast pocket. It might have been coffee. She was drinking coffee from a disposable cup. She settled onto the stool by the table, looking wearily relieved to be off her feet for a minute.
“Tell me how it happened,” she said, the words faintly accented.
I explained about the jigsaw, the aluminium electrical box, the spray of swarf. She listened and nodded and didn’t reprimand me for not wearing my safety goggles. I kept expecting it, from somebody. I was waiting for it, as if the admonition could absolve me somehow, or heal me. But if so, that wasn’t going to come from this doctor. She’d heard enough and seen too much.
“Let’s have a look,” was all she said.
She got me to stand up and stretched a fresh length of protective paper across the examination table. The paper crinkled as I lay back on it. The sensation reminded me of doctor’s appointments as a child: those awkward yet comforting check-ups.
She turned her back and scrubbed her hands in the sink, using a bright pink liquid soap that reeked of disinfectant. The swoosh of the tap dwindled to a trickle, then a drip. Last came the crumpling whisper of paper towels as she dried her hands.
“Long shift?” I asked.
“They are always long,” she said, “and now my colleague is sick.”
“I heard there was a fight.”
“It is true. At one of the pubs. A boy got . . . glassed.” She lingered over the strange use of the noun, then shook her head. “It is not good, in this town. So much violence.”
“I live in Llanidloes.”
“It is better.”
She came to stand over me. I felt calm and trusted her, which isn’t always the case for me with doctors, but she had that capable air about her. From her pocket she brought out an ophthalmoscope and shone it in my bad eye, which she held open with the forefinger and thumb of her other hand. The glare of the light was like a tiny star, right there in front of me, and before the glare I could actually see the swarf: these three dots that floated like satellites across the void of my vision. I was gazing into space, the solar system, the galaxy, eternity.
“I can see them,” I said, reverently.
“Yes,” she said. “At least three pieces. Look left.”
I did. “It’s okay though, isn’t it?”
“It will be. Look right.”
In that direction, I had a distorted view of the clock on the wall. The minute hand still hadn’t moved. The second hand was reverberating in place. As I stared at it and time stood still, the doctor explained that if the pieces of swarf were left in, the salt from my tears and lacrimal fluid would cause the metal to rust, and adhere to the cornea. That could lead to infection and permanent damage. She’d seen it before.
“Jesus,” I said.
“It is best,” she told me, “to deal with these things quickly. You cannot deny it or delay. We cannot help when a bad thing happens—but we must be able to react to it.”
“My wife told me something like that once.”
“Then she is wise.”
She had such a particular way with the language. It was accented but always certain, specific. She switched off her ophthalmoscope and went to the counter. There were drawers beneath it and cupboards above it. She spoke to me as she opened and closed them. She told me there were various ways to remove swarf. One she had learned, and was going to try, was by using a magnet and needle. You placed the needle against the swarf, and then connected it to the magnet, which magnetized the needle and drew out the swarf. But the needle had to be in the exact position. If you tried to line it up after it had already been magnetized, it might pull the swarf laterally across the surface of your cornea, scratching it or gouging it.
“This is bad,” she said. “It makes the risk of infection higher, you see?”
“I see,” I said and smiled at the irony.
She didn’t. She tore open a plastic packet and from inside plucked a suturing needle maybe two inches long. The magnet she got from another drawer. It was a small disc, about the size of a quarter, set within a chrome casing and attached to a butterfly clip. It looked like a basic fridge magnet, and possibly that’s all it was. She laid the needle and magnet out on a medical tray—the kind that’s affixed to a wheeled trolley—and rolled that over to me. She exchanged the ophthalmoscope for a headlamp similar to the type dentists wear. The glare from that was brighter, wider: it obliterated what remained of my vision, as if I were staring into the sun or having a holy revelation.
“Look straight ahead,” she ordered me.
Amid the glare, I saw a rod appear. The needle. It looked enormous. I was helpless, at her mercy. It was ridiculously, dangerously intimate. A slight slip, and that was it: my eye would puncture and split in a burst of ooze, like the eyes we’d dissected in biology class. I remembered, still, the feeling of the cornea bending and then giving beneath the edge of my scalpel. The Frankenstein thrill of it. Playing god with cows’ eyes and pig fetuses.
“Do not move,” the doctor said.
I held my breath. I felt the faint pressure of the needle and heard the click as she brought the magnet into contact with it. I thought I could sense the way the metal hummed when magnetized, since it was still touching my cornea at the time. Then the giant needle withdrew. The headlamp glare strafed away: the doctor was placing the swarf in a petri dish on her tray. The process was repeated again, and a third time—like a blessing ritual. At that point she took off her headlamp and reverted to the ophthalmoscope.
This time, I could see faint halos where the swarf had been embedded. I could see the absence of it. She told me that even in half an hour or so, the flecks had started to rust, and with a disinfected Q-tip she daubed at the rust repeatedly, sponging it away. Her face was very close to mine, and I could make out the pores in her skin, smell the coffee on her breath.
When she was done, she put the Q-tip aside and again peeled back my lids, checking under them, studying the edges of my eyes.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“I am worried that you have blinked some away. That it could be hidden.”
I blinked repeatedly, feeling my eyes water.
“Is that bad?”
“So long as it is not on your cornea, it will not cause lasting damage.” She turned away and then glanced back. “But do not go for any MRI scans, please.”
She laughed, which was eerie and unexpected. I didn’t know if she was joking or half-joking or serious about the warning and laughing more about the foolishness of going for an MRI scan after this. But of course I wouldn’t have thought of it. I knew they were to do with magnets, strong magnetic fields, so I could imagine the outcome, or thought I could: tiny and microscopic particles ripping out through my cornea, my eyelids. A burst of pain.
“How do you feel?” the doctor asked me.
“I don’t know.”
“It is so valuable, your vision.”
She washed the eye with saline, then put a gauze pad over the lid and affixed it in place with medical tape. I was meant to leave it on for at least twenty-four hours. She told me I could sit up, and shortly after, there was a knock at the door. When the doctor opened it, John was standing there. He stepped inside and saw me with my patch and started laughing.
“A pirate,” he said. “Blackbeard.”
“Or Odin,” I said. “I’m all-seeing, now.”
The doctor smiled wearily. She snapped a lid on the petri dish, held it out to me.
“Do you want to keep these?” she asked. “A souvenir, yes?”
I accepted them. Through the clear plastic lid I could see the tiny projectiles, and when I shook the dish they whispered like grains of sand. Mysterious and portentous.
“We should get you to the station,” John said.
He had sobered, perhaps sensing that he had disrupted a different kind of mood. The doctor walked us to the entrance to let us out. John said he’d parked a few blocks away and offered to go get the car. I stood outside, under the awning, and the doctor waited with me. The sleet had turned to rain, which spattered into puddles on the tarmac, making it simmer.
She shook her head. “This country,” she said. “This weather.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m living under water.”
“In my home, it never rains like this.”
I asked her where she came from, and she said the name of a province in India that I did not know.
“And you?” she asked. “Are you European?”
“I’m from Canada,” I admitted. “Vancouver.”
She gave a curt nod of recognition.
“It is very beautiful there,” she said. “Why did you come here?”
“I don’t really know.”
“Maybe one day we will both get to go home.”
I told her it was nice to think so.
John got me to the station ten minutes before my train. I offered to just hop out near the station entrance, but he said it was better to wait in the car than the rain and pulled up in a disabled bay—or what had once been a disabled bay. The paint markings were starting to flake and fade and were barely visible, so it was hard to tell.
John turned off the headlights and switched on the interior lights so he could roll another cigarette. He was supposed to have quit, and perhaps had quit: he’d promised his wife when they’d had kids, a few years back. But he had recently started smoking at work and his wife must have known, from the smell in the car. If this had caused any problems between them he hadn’t mentioned it. They had bigger issues to worry about, just then.
John thumbed the lighter on his dash and said, “I’m going under.”
He had said things like that before, but I knew this was different.
“Those boxes you’re building,” he said. “I doubt we’ll ever get paid for them.”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
“No. But it’s happening.”
“We could stop. You don’t have to give me work.”
“Bought the supplies, didn’t I? Not much point in letting it all go to waste.”
“Are you going to ship them?”
The lighter popped. He used it to light his roll-up and cranked down his window. You could hear the rain out there, senseless and relentless as artillery fire. He smoked for a time, and I thought he’d forgotten about my question until he said, “Suppose so. There’s still the chance they’ll pay. And if not, what the fuck am I going to do with them?”
He talked a bit about the supply chain and distribution and things I didn’t really understand. About how one link breaks down, and it has a domino effect. If the Slovakian company had fallen behind in its financing, and couldn’t pay for the boxes, then he couldn’t pay his employees, or the suppliers of the components we were fitting—cables, crimps, timers, trip-switches—and they, in turn, couldn’t pay the providers of the raw materials they used: mining and textile companies. It was a domino effect. You get enough dominos, and you get a recession, or a depression.
“And they all fall down,” I said.
“You’re still paying me.”
“You’ve been with me since the beginning.” He looked sidelong at me. The car light cast long shadows on his face, making him look old and tired. “But there might not be much work after these boxes. After Christmas.”
“You’re too smart for this shite, anyway.”
“I don’t mind so much.”
“What about your writing?”
“I’ll never make anything at that.”
A car swept by, its beams carving out cones of rain. A big puddle covered the street, and beneath the car’s bumper the water churned like the wake of a paddle wheeler, floating by on the deluge.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Fold my tents. Hope they don’t come for me.” He ashed out the window. He was taking it surprisingly well—but that could have been for show. “Thank Christ the house is in Rebecca’s name.”
Rebecca was his wife. She had trained in marketing and taken a break when they’d had kids. But now she was getting back into it. She’d originally set up a small home-studio in their attic, and had now rented an office in town. She was doing well, John often told us. First with pride and then, increasingly, with a sense of wonder and puzzlement. I didn’t know what, exactly, Rebecca did—and I got the feeling John didn’t quite know either.
“I can look after the kids, I guess,” John said.
He said it with a touch of sarcasm, but not so much as somebody else might have. I glanced at my watch. The train was due. I told him it was time to go, and we shook hands, formally, which we’d never really done before—not even when he’d hired me. There hadn’t been much of an interview. Just a tour of his little shed. It had been a nice shed. I’d always felt safe in that shed. It was work. I’d just arrived in Wales. Any work was good. I was just trying to get by, as they say. I was exempt from any pressures of success or advancement.
“Merry Christmas,” John said, with neither cheer nor bitterness.
“You too, boss.”
I shut the door. He forgot to turn off the interior light, so I could see him clearly as he backed up, then pulled out of the lot: his wan profile, his reddish crown of hair. Cocooned in that glow, he floated to the end of the street like a will o’ the wisp, then faded out of sight.
Tyler Keevil is an award-winning writer from Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of three novels – Fireball, The Drive, and No Good Brother – and the short story collection, Burrard Inlet. “Swarf” won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for nonfiction.
Last Call for Submissions to the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize
The LASY DAY to enter TMR‘s Editors’ Prize has arrived
And with it, the last call. The 29th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize Contest closes tonight! You have the rest of this Tuesday to go, so don’t fret. Let fly your poems, your stories, your essays. How many poems in a parliament of owls? How many stories in a skulk of foxes, or essays in a shrewdness of apes? How much soaring or falling in none of those things? Only you can tell us. We can’t wait to hear you.
Best of luck, and with gratitude for your art,