“Snow” by Kermit Frazier
If the weather is too warm for you right now, remember that cooler weather will eventually be here. In that spirit, we bring you Kermit Frazier’s “Snow.” The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in TMR’s 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest. It is a moving, behind-the-scenes look at the crumbling walls of segregation, and the evolving urban landscape of Washington DC–delivered through the lens of Frazier’s childhood. The essay first appeared in print in TMR 44:2. You can read our interview with the author here.
Editorial note: A revised version of “Snow” can be found in the second chapter of Frazier’s recently published memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age.
by Kermit Frazier
For all too short a time we were blissfully at one with a white world, one that wasn’t “other” when it fell upon us, for it was, in fact, a world of bright white snow that blanketed our neighborhood just as it did all others. A white world to claim, possess, revel in, yet something elusive still, temporary, melting, like the stuff of dreams. A world awash in contradictions. Cold yet comforting; soft and soothing yet slickly hard-packed over time; pristine and virginal yet driven by weather change toward slush and mush, gutter-clogging and dirty, dark and unworthy. So quick, quick, while there’s time, me and my brother and our friends, shouting down the rolling hill through the trees on wooden Radio Flyer sleds, the snow flying up all around us. Black kids in a white whirl of snow in a black world surrounded by a white one. Magical, exhilarating snow. One of the few white realities we could safely touch, feel, get next to back then.
It was a privileged sled ride because it was a special hill. Cedar Hill. Special and less dangerous for its being both enclosed and more expansive. Unlike the sidewalks of Chicago Street, down which we usually swooped early in the morning, before the neighbors cleared the ice and snow and shooed us away, belly-flopping on our sleds one after another from the corner of Shannon Place all the way down the block and off the sidewalk into the snow-covered dirt and grass at the end of the dead end street, where each of us had to roll off his sled, one after the other, to keep from being cut by the metal runners of the sled swooshing right behind. “Roll off, roll off, roll off,” we’d cry. Hearts pounding and laughing and out of breath yet eagerly pulling our sleds up the middle of the street to head back down, again and again.
No, Chicago Street was by no means Cedar Hill, which was a several block trek away. It was, instead, a street right in the middle of our black community in the Anacostia section of Southeast Washington, DC, across the Anacostia River from DC proper—a section that seemed at times to be an appendage, or even appendix, of the nation’s capital. A street that ran two short blocks from Nichols Avenue down across Shannon Place, which ran several blocks parallel to Nichols Avenue from Howard to Good Hope Roads. A community of row and detached houses for working- and middle-class black people, many of whom owned their own homes, many of which they’d either built themselves or had built, like my paternal grandfather, who’d had two homes built over the years, in fact, both on Shannon Place and a block away from each other, the newer of which he lived in with his wife, the older of which he rented to my parents. A thriving, striving black community in an Anacostia that was still, in the early 1950s, 80 percent white and essentially segregated, as was most of DC.
The white population generally stretched beyond Nichols Avenue up Good Hope Road to Alabama Avenue and up beyond Saint Elizabeths Hospital into Congress Heights, down into Oxon Run and into the Maryland suburbs. We lived closer to the Anacostia River, wedged between the hills to the south and the railroad tracks of the old Alexandria branch of the B & O line, across which lay Bolling Field at the river’s edge to the north. Other tentacles of the black community lay across Howard Road in an area initially called Barry’s Farm and across Nichols Avenue up the hill in an area that at one time was known as Stantontown.
Barry’s Farm was first developed right after the Civil War with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had bought up $25,000 worth of land from the Barry family and sold, rented, or leased it to black folks to raise money for higher education—especially for the newly created Howard University. Black families could purchase one-acre lots and enough lumber to build a house for between $125 and $300 and repay it in installments of $10 per month. Families relocated from run-down alley dwellings in the central city to renovated former military barracks near their new lots, where they could live while they built their homes. In the 1950s, though, the area was known primarily for its rows of flat garden apartments, much smaller than the houses of our community, public housing projects that were called, in a curious shift of the letter s, Barry Farms. An area where, in my view, some of the poorer, tougher black kids in our elementary school lived.
Those kids came up Sumner Road—from Stevens, Eaton, and Wade Roads—past the recreation center that anchored the huge playground that swept down behind it and Birney Elementary School. My brother, sister, and I would come with other kids up Nichols Avenue, across a bridge that passed over Suitland Parkway, which effectively separated Barry Farms from our more middle-class neighborhood, at one time known as Hillsdale. We didn’t talk about our differences much: we were simply Negro kids in an all-Negro school. But those differences were evident at times. For example, although I was friends with kids who lived in Barry Farms, I rarely hung out with them there. And my sister remembers a friend from there coming to visit her and marveling at the fact that she lived in a house surrounded by a yard.
Yet wealth and privilege were relative, for at that time I was jealous of a cousin of ours who went to Birney but rode with his teacher mother and was “rich” enough to be able to buy his lunch from the little store across the street every single day! And of course there were wealthier black parts of DC that we almost never saw—for example, way up in Northwest, on the black Gold Coast, where all the streets seemed to be named after trees. There resided Negroes from prominent families: more doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, old families with Howard University pedigrees, families who sent their kids to Dunbar High School, the academic school for Negroes before integration drained it of its brains and cachet by giving such kids other options, just as it gave Negro kids in Anacostia the right to actually attend Anacostia High School, a mere mile away from Barry Farms and Stantontown.
And curiously, although Stantontown had a different history from Barry Farms, it had a similar economic arc. It developed over several decades in the early to mid-nineteenth century after Tobias Henson, a slave in the area, purchased his freedom, eventually bought twenty-four acres and the freedom of his wife, two daughters, and five grandchildren, and gradually added more and more land. By the 1870s, his family was the principal landholder in that community. By the 1950s, however, although Stanton Road still existed, Stantontown was gone, having been condemned a decade earlier by the federal government in order to build the Frederick Douglass Dwellings, a housing project designed by black architect Hilyard Robinson, future dean of Howard University’s School of Architecture.
But Fort Stanton still stood—as it does to this day—entrenched on a much higher hill than Cedar Hill. Built during the Civil War to protect the approach to the Washington Arsenal and the Navy Yard, it was one of sixty-eight enclosed forts that—along with ninety-three batteries and three blockhouses linked by more than thirty miles of trenches and roads—made DC the most heavily defended location in the Western Hemisphere by 1864. Of course, by the 1950s there was nothing much to defend against, no more Battles of Bull Run—or Manassas if you were from the South—that threatened the nation’s capital (or at least the capital of the North) with possible invasion by the Confederate Army (curiously the Army of Northern Virginia at Manassas/Bull Run). Hence, most of the forts and batteries no longer existed. But there was Fort Stanton in all its dusty glory—a fort that principally belonged to us black kids, kings of the hill, who wove in and out of its crumbling, half-barred tunnels and jumped off a huge earthwork mound behind it that we’d dubbed “Sandman’s Hill,” rolling and daring and testing each other still.
It’s easy to understand why Fort Stanton had been so important to DC’s defense, for from there one can see clear across the Anacostia River into the central city in all its whitewashed splendor: the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the long, flat stretch of mall in between. In fact, as physically separate from downtown as we might have felt from that point on high, it was indeed a true vantage point, from which we could more easily seem to touch the sky on starry nights and view more clearly than from anywhere else in DC the spectacular fireworks show downtown on the Fourth of July. It was then that the rest of DC “deigned” to come to us, the streets around the park invariably invaded by motorized, integrated armies of the night.
But we never felt emotionally separated from that rest of DC because we had relatives who lived “across the river” in their own segregated communities. And the fact of segregation didn’t constantly weigh on our minds, either. For we did have our integrated moments—such as when my brother, sister, and I traveled daily one summer “all the way up” Alabama Avenue in Southeast to attend a music program in an elementary school in then white Fairfax Village, or when my brother and I took tennis lessons in Rock Creek Park, way up in Northwest. Other than those moments when we were young, we simply knew segregation. Knew, for example, that most movie theaters— even a couple we could reasonably walk to—were off limits to us, that although we could go to Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches, we couldn’t go to the more picturesque Sandy Point, that we could only dream about what fun it might be to spend the day at the popular Glen Echo amusement park, and that certain department stores downtown wouldn’t let us try on clothes or, if they did, made us use separate dressing rooms. Knowing, however, didn’t always keep us from not knowing. Like the time my family went on what we were sure would be a great new evening outing.
It had been a relatively short drive from our house across into Maryland along a two-lane highway. My dad had turned at the sign, slowed to the appropriate speed down the side road, and parked in a line of cars near the entrance. And there we sat, my father, mother, brother, sister, and I, early and waiting, ready to attend our very first drive-in movie. We had pillows and blankets, snacks and smiles, and the need to have a good time at this relatively new yet already quintessential American form of entertainment. I don’t remember what was playing, but it wouldn’t have mattered. With the big white screen looming ahead, we kids couldn’t wait for any old picture to start.
And when the ticket-taker’s booth came to life and cars began inching forward, our pulses raced even more with anticipation. A drive-in, a drive-in, a drive-in, as we bounced around in the backseat as though we were headed into a wondrous amusement park. Finally at the booth, we watched the young white ticket-taker lean out to greet us with a kind of automatic smile that froze into locked-jaw astonishment when he came face-to-face with my dad, wallet in hand and poised to pay. The white man—boy, really—stared at Dad, then looked away, then looked back again. He hesitated a moment more and then said, in an apologetic whisper, “Sorry, no coloreds.”
Suddenly we kids not only stopped bouncing but hardly breathed. No coloreds? But . . . what did that mean? That is, of course, we were coloreds, Negroes, but . . . huh? For an endless few seconds, Dad didn’t move, and I wondered what he was thinking and what he was going to say or do—eyeing as he was this fresh-faced white boy possessed of the knowledge and authority to bar him from a family activity he was quite willing to pay for. It was the strangest thing—not wanting our money, not wanting us to have a good time, not wanting, well . . . us. And yet it wasn’t him, per se, that white kid, for he did seem more sympathetic than angry. Nonetheless . . . What’s the holdup? What’s going on up there? I could feel white folks wondering in the cars behind us, as the heat in me, in our car, seemed to rise precipitously. Finally my father tucked his wallet back into his pocket and then maneuvered the car away from the window, out of the line, and back down the road.
It was like a retreat, like an utter defeat, and it was one of the most humiliating moments of my life. As we inched along past the growing number of cars, I kept my eyes to myself, not wanting to see how many other kids were bouncing in anticipation, how many white kids, that is, for I couldn’t imagine another Negro family having been as naïve as ours. And even if there was one joyously waiting, I didn’t want to warn them, vindictively wanting them instead to experience firsthand the rejection we’d just been subjected to.
Yet how could we have known? In many respects, desegregation had begun to come to DC toward the end of the 1950s. And a drive-in seemed so logically open yet private—that is, one could be outdoors yet still in one’s car, free from outright contact and “contamination,” together yet separate, an easeful sort of transition, an “all-deliberate-speed” kind of integration. But instead, the only speed we experienced was that of our green, squat-looking ’54 Chevrolet as my dad drove away, clearly angry but holding it in, the way he often did with an emotion he felt deeply.
We didn’t go home, however, for Dad was determined to find a drive-in theater that would admit us. I didn’t understand. Why waste time and suffer more possible humiliation? But he drove and drove, never losing his focus or his way, drove with a confidence that spoke of his experience as a part-time cab driver, drove in nearly complete silence, his desire and determination set, perhaps his sense of being a man and head of the household on some kind of line. And as he did, I began to wonder how long we would wander. All night? All year? For the rest of our lives? Wandering mile after mile all over the periphery of the “capital of democracy,” refugees in our own country, searching for a drive-in that would allow us to drive in, and perhaps recalling, each in our silent way, that until recently we couldn’t even walk into the Anacostia Theater, only a few blocks from our house and on a street called Good Hope Road no less.
But then finally, after nearly an hour, my father did find another drive-in. It was in a part of Maryland that was just outside Northeast DC.
As we spied the images on the huge picture screen and the cars in the nearly filled lot, our hearts raced once again, although more with anxiety now than anticipation. For there was no waiting, no inching up to the booth. Just straight ahead, then stop, then watch as the white female ticket-taker took Dad’s money with ne’er one crack in her proffered smile. And so in we went to enjoy our first drive-in experience, although I think each of us fell asleep from exhaustion at various times during the second feature.
Afterward, my dad drove home triumphantly. But it was a triumph tempered by the realization that metropolitan Washington, DC, like America as a whole, was still far from being integrated, far from being as open as the air to us “coloreds.”
Soon, however, integration was to come to DC with a speed that seemed more lightning than deliberate. For example, two decades later, an aunt and uncle of mine who had at one time lived in the Frederick Douglass Dwellings would buy a house on Brandywine Street in one of those previously all-white communities just above Oxon Run, that street being the same street where one of my best friends, a white boy I went through secondary school with, had lived with his family. When I’d walk home from school with him, walk in the opposite direction from where I lived, my pulse often quickened through some anxiety about moving deeper into a white community, a white world. And when I first drove along Brandywine to visit my aunt and uncle in their new home, I passed by my friend’s old apartment building knowing that not only did his family no longer live there but no white families lived anywhere on that street anywhere for blocks and blocks, palpably sensing how radically Anacostia had changed.
So radically that by the early 1970s, practically all whites were gone from Anacostia—as eventually were my family, many of my relatives, and much of the rest of the black middle class. That place “across the river” had transformed from an area that in the 1920s had the highest percentage of homeownership in the city and apartment structures as only one half of one percent of its total housing to an area that in 1970 saw 75 percent of itself zoned for apartments. That transformation came about for a myriad of reasons. But to my mind two are foremost: urban renewal and integration.
Congress had two increasingly interconnected problems on its hands between 1930 and 1970 with regard to Washington, DC: the need to accommodate families displaced by the demolition of substandard housing, particularly the alley dwellings in the central city, where many blacks had lived since just after the Civil War, and the need to expand facilities for the federal government, whose size began to balloon during and after World War II.
The National Capital Housing Authority, created by Congress originally as the Alley Dwelling Authority in 1934, was charged with the task of eradicating alley dwellings and constructing public housing in DC. Around the same time, the federal government decided it wanted to keep its agencies and workers as much as possible near the core of the city rather than push them out to the suburbs, as originally planned. That meant condemning housing and acquiring land by eminent domain, particularly southwest of the Capitol, an area that had once been too marshy and mosquito-ridden to be very desirable, an area where some of Washington’s notorious slave pens and auction sites had been situated before the Civil War, an area that had been allowed to deteriorate into a “slum” by the end of World War II. DC’s population was booming, expanding more than predicted after that war, and there were suddenly more low-income families—primarily blacks—being displaced than there was housing they could afford to rent. In addition, restrictive covenants in the suburbs prevented black families from leaving the city to find housing, even if it was affordable, which it often wasn’t. Meanwhile, height restrictions prevented the government from building true high-rises, either for government offices or for low-income families. Hence, urban renewal. Or “urban removal,” as certain critics cynically say.
Some of my mother’s family were “urbanly removed” from time to time over those years, especially from southwest to southeast of the Capitol. And although many of those old row house dwellings in Southwest were like “see-through” houses to me—that is, the back doors seemed to lie just behind the front doors—they were nonetheless home to family, and displacement is displacement. When my mom was young, shortly after her father died, she and her mother, sister, and two brothers stayed with relatives in that black Southwest. And when they had to move, their search for housing was traumatic for her: she was so afraid that they’d wind up homeless and on the streets. Fortunately, they managed to secure the last, demonstration model, garden apartment in a new public housing project near the Navy Yard in Southeast, projects other friends and relatives had moved to, projects that I considered my second home when we traveled across the Anacostia River, with kids constantly running in and out and family packing Grandma’s four-room, two-story corner place during holiday gatherings, she holding court like the queen of the domain that she was. Still, Mom’s early brush with possible homelessness was one “hit-home” example of the fact that DC proper wasn’t going to have enough public housing for everyone in need.
But across that river from the central city, from the “real” DC, across that river that met the Washington Channel at Fort McNair and converged with the larger Potomac River at Haines Point, across that river sat an area whose original residents were the Nacotchtank Native Americans (also known as the Nacostines); it was an area to which there was only the original little 11th Street Bridge for more than a century, an area that didn’t get a high school until 1935. Across that river lay Anacostia. All of that acreage, rolling and relatively expansive. Anacostia was suddenly the solution.
And so, slowly but surely, as zoning laws changed, public housing projects rose much faster and in greater density in Anacostia than in any other area of the city. And slowly but surely, the social and economic fabric of Anacostia began to change as well.
Such change was also effected—ironically for some, “tragically” for others—by integration. Gradually, from the late 1950s into the 1960s, with rigid segregation crumbling, middle-class black families began to leave Anacostia for better, larger homes in other parts of DC and in the suburbs, especially Maryland’s Prince George’s County, where the restrictive covenants fell more quickly and the housing was more affordable than in other counties surrounding the nation’s capital. Relatives and friends on my father’s side of the family began buying lots and having new homes built in Prince George’s County as early as the mid-50s. And that American-dream drive to move up and out began to break up the old neighborhood and a certain sense of family, almost literally for me, because for quite some time during segregation, at least half a dozen of my relatives lived in homes up and down Shannon Place.
Finally, in 1962, my own family moved as well, from my dad’s parents’ old house to one we bought in Northeast DC, right on the border between the city and Prince George’s County. We were moving to a community whose closest drive-in theater was, unwittingly, the one that had finally welcomed us that night in the 1950s.
Thus was Anacostia “stripped” of much of its black middle-class base just as more and more low-income black families were moving into housing projects there. What quickly followed were overcrowded schools, loss of amenities and services, and an increase in run-down housing stock and other kinds of neglect. And neglect can lead to frustration and despair, which can sometimes pave the way for drugs and crime. At a time when DC residents were finally getting the heretofore unconstitutional right to self-government, Anacostia was morphing into Ward Eight—the economically depressed voting district that the late, embattled yet savvy and tenacious Marion Barry (no kin, I’m quite sure, to the original owners of that vast farmland) consistently championed. Why, even the Metro subway system built in the 1980s threatened to bypass the area, to go straight from the federal city to the Maryland suburbs, until finally, under increased political pressure, “low-priority” stations were opened in Anacostia, one of them on Howard Road at Shannon Place, just two blocks from our old house.
In effect, a part of DC that in the first half of the twentieth century had been benignly neglected, left to its own middle-class, segregated devices, became in the second half of the twentieth century an area to which too much of the wrong kind of attention was paid at first, and then not nearly enough of the right kind.
Hence, in the 1950s, we Negro kids were riding the cusp of an era, blithely unaware of the changes that were in store, our world to a large extent proscribed and circumscribed. And that’s one reason we took our special privileges where we could, namely, up on Cedar Hill. For that house on nine acres of land was none other than the venerable Frederick Douglass Home. And because the caretaker just happened to be a member of our Bethlehem Baptist Church—a church Douglass himself had reportedly once visited in its earliest days—she tended to favor us more than other kids for prime sledding rights on snowy DC days.
In every season, the Douglass home was quite imposing, of course, and it seemed a little strange that to travel up to such a symbol of one of the greatest black abolitionists and champions of freedom and justice for black people, we had to walk from our all-black community into a part of Anacostia that was still basically white. But in retrospect, one might say that we boys were traveling the great Frederick Douglass’s own path, for it was he who in 1877 broke an all-white covenant by buying the house and property from John Van Hook and moving there from the central city.
Two decades earlier, Van Hook, along with his partners in the Union Land Company, had bought up land at the intersection of Nichols Avenue and Good Hope Road and laid out what they called Uniontown. It was to be the first DC “suburb,” a working-class, whites-only settlement (although apparently not for the Irish, who were the “black” white people of nineteenth-century America), and was intended primarily to serve Navy Yard workers with lots purchased for $3 monthly installments. “Negroes, mulattos, pigs, or soap boiling” were forbidden, rules that appealed to those whites fearing the increasing number of free blacks in their neighborhoods in DC proper. But land speculation, financial panic, and a slowdown in production at the Navy Yard—where my dad was working as a machinist nearly a century later—led to hard times for Van Hook and Co. and the sale of his prime, pristine headquarters property to, ironically, one of those hitherto barred “Negroes,” albeit a rather famous one.
Douglass died in 1895, but his second wife, Helen, organized the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, which was chartered by Congress in 1900. That association and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs joined forces to open Cedar Hill to the public in 1916. And in 1962, the National Park Service was entrusted with the care of the house. But in the 1950s, we boys felt that the gently rolling hill on which the house stood belonged to us on those snowy winter days just as much as Fort Stanton did year-round. We were black boys dreamily sledding over white snow, pushing through to a time when segregation would give way to integration, and then, little more than a decade later, to one when the population of Anacostia would be just 37 percent white, when the DC school system would be 90 percent black, when Nichols Avenue would become Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and when the Carver Theater—the only one open to us in Anacostia during segregation—would fold and later reinvent itself as the home of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia African American History Museum and then fold again when that museum moved to a new, much larger building up the hill across from Fort Stanton Park.
Anacostia has been mostly black for decades now and thus “naturally” segregated once again, only this time more insidiously so, for such segregation has had a new factor churning within it: social and economic isolation. But much change is in the air—even solidly in the works—as it is everywhere now in DC, it seems. So much so that one current complaint from many black residents is that their “Chocolate City” is melting in the noonday sun of increased gentrification, with white families buying up property black families can no longer afford and “moving back in,” desiring to be closer to the action again, thoughts of where their young children will eventually attend school placed on the back burner or distinctly on the one marked “private.” And what with the Metro so gaily gliding “across the river,” property values steadily rising, and new development lining King Avenue and beyond, Anacostia is clearly increasingly “in their sights.”
Despite all this, however, despite the elaborate plans for all manner of Anacostia riverfront development; despite the creation of a neat though rather circumscribed community of mixed-income townhouses along Alabama Avenue that rests on the site of the demolished Frederick Douglass Dwellings, which had sat on the site of old Stantontown, which was land that had been bought by ex-slave Tobias Henson; despite the grounds of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, the old insane asylum, partially making way for the Department of Homeland Security; despite all of that and more—all those so-called manifestations of freedom and progress in this country—I suspect that black boys sledding down a snow encrusted Cedar Hill might well still be black boys reveling in one of the few white realities they feel they can safely touch, embrace, get next to, glimpsed and grasped in the dead of a DC winter. That temperate climate snow—like integration of any kind, it seems—forever illusive, impermanent, the stuff of dreams.
About the Author:
Kermit Frazier’s more than twenty-five plays have been produced at such theaters as the New Federal Theater, Detroit Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Seattle Children’s Theatre, and Baltimore Center Stage. Some have also been published by Broadway Play Publishing and Dramatic Publishing. In addition, he’s written for several television series, including head writer for the popular children’s mystery series, Ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in: Callaloo, Essence, Black World, Green Mountains Review, American Theatre, and The New York Times Book Review. His memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, was published in May 2022.
“Queen Me” by Margaret Donovan Bauer
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Margaret Donovan Bauer’s “Queen Me” offers a candid perspective on remarriage and the challenge of parenting someone else’s children. The essay was a finalist in our 2021 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize contest.
by Margaret Donovan Bauer
When I met Andrew’s children for the first time, Griffin, age seven, came into the room sobbing, followed by a sheepish-looking Aidan, five, stopping a few feet behind his brother, waiting to see what would happen next, remaining silent as Erin, who had only recently turned ten, reported Aidan’s offense. All this before Andrew had a chance to introduce me. I was surprised that Griffin did not seem embarrassed to be crying in front of a stranger.
Andrew and I had been dating a month or so by then, and he had told his children about me, but this was the first time I visited him during a weekend when he had his kids, the first time any woman he was dating had shown up while they visited their dad’s house.
I look back and realize how telling that moment was: Aidan guilty, Griffin crying, and Erin reporting. At the time, all I could think upon seeing the children in person for the first time was, They’re so young. But given my track record with men, I wasn’t really concerned. Regardless of the rose-colored glasses I wore during the early months of our relationship, deep down I assumed I would not be around longer than a few months of these children’s lives, so it didn’t really matter that they were so young.
I do not have children of my own, and I was not looking for father material in my search for love. I hadn’t planned not to have children. Fortunately, I divorced before making the mistake of tying myself to an ex-husband I never wanted to see again after I finally escaped him. A decade passed. I didn’t remarry. A few more years, and then I was forty, childless, and recognizing that I was fine with that. Children were not the gaping hole in my life; I was on a quest for a life partner. I was not averse to dating men with children, though I had not liked the son of one man I was deeply in love with, a problem for me that he was largely unaware of (yet likely still a factor in our failed relationship). I’d found the child of another lover an inconvenience to our affair, as we had a long-distance relationship, and his joint custody meant me seeing him only one weekend a month. In truth, distance was probably what helped that particular relationship last as long as it did.
As I say, I did not have a good track record before I met Andrew, and I was afraid to hope that his warm smile, which reached into and flowed out of his big brown eyes, would not grow cold at some point when he decided that the things that attracted him to me in the first place were suddenly character flaws I needed to work on. What would it be this time? “Too ambitious”? “Too career-focused”? “Too many opinions”? What would he decide I was too much of?
Following that portentous first encounter with Andrew’s children, during every other weekend of our first year together, when his children visited from their home ninety minutes away, Griffin would at some point melt down into one of the temper tantrums he was prone to, sometimes over a minor physical offense to his person but usually over losing a game or simply not getting his way. He either cried unabashedly or erupted into an unrelenting and inescapable temper tantrum until he wore himself out from screaming. As telling as my introduction to Griffin—he crying over some minor offence and unembarrassed by being caught doing so by a complete stranger—was Andrew’s ability to wait these tantrums out, largely unruffled. Sometimes he would pick up the stiffened, screaming boy from whatever central living space Griffin had chosen for his eruption and move him into a room with a door that could be closed between him and the victims of his ear-piercing outrage. Other times, however, he just let Griffin stand in the middle of the room we were all gathered in and scream while I cringed from the noise, usually saying to me, “There’s nothing I can do once he gets started.”
I would spank his little butt, I thought in response, but I knew it was not my place to propose an alternative to his annoyingly calm response. Griffin’s temper tantrums were disturbing to all, but Andrew’s inaction was infuriating to me, at least. While this incredibly patient man could resume normalcy as soon as the screaming stopped—sometimes even while it was still going on in the background—I’d be on edge for the rest of my visit with him and his children. I envied Andrew’s ability to remain calm in the midst of such thunderous chaos, but I also viewed his not being perturbed enough about it as a problem: Why couldn’t he see that not everyone could so easily recover from Griffin’s jarring temper tantrums and resume a pleasant evening as though nothing had occurred? I was shaken, even angry after these episodes, outraged by Andrew’s response as much as by Griffin’s behavior. Griffin had no reason to care about my discomfort, but Andrew should have.
As the weeks and then months went by, I realized how Andrew’s calm was calming—if not to Griffin, at least to me. He was such a contrast to my stressful career and volatile colleagues. Andrew’s comfort within himself contrasted significantly with his son’s need to win. For once, I was dating a man who didn’t find my often single-minded career focus a challenge to him; it wasn’t unwomanly in his eyes, or emasculating. To his children, he was a devoted father, but so too was he committed to and supportive of the other relationships in his life. He was a man who enjoyed weekly long telephone conversations with his mother and who had close male friends, some that went back decades and others already developing among his colleagues in that first year of his new job in our shared community. And now me. He seemed totally committed to me. Even as the months passed, he did not seem to be trying to change me into some room-for-improvement version of his own dream woman.
Still, I was surprised to find myself buying a vacation home on the Pamlico River with this man before we had been together a whole year. Our purchase meant that he would put his house on the market and move into my craftsman house near the university where we both worked. By this time, I had been divorced and living alone for fifteen years. I was horrified when I realized what I’d done, allowing Andrew to sell the house he’d bought in the suburbs, which had enough bedrooms and bathrooms and even a playroom for his children, knowing that my relationships with men tended not to last. Though I was still very much in love with him, my experience suggested that it wouldn’t last. My parents had divorced after twenty years together, after all, and though I’d had several years-long relationships, they had all ended.
And yet, just a few months past the one-year anniversary of meeting each other, after settling in to spend the summer months at our new river house, Andrew’s children would join us for their eight-week summer stay with their dad. There were enough bedrooms and bathrooms and even a playroom for his children at our co-owned summer home. Anticipating the first lengthy period with Andrew’s children moving into my space—even as Andrew and I were just beginning to share “permanent” space—I worried that I might have made a huge mistake.
But not for long.
In early May, Andrew and I moved into our river home for the summer, and soon the children came for a weekend visit before their school let out for summer and they would join us for two months. At the river house, they found the familiar furniture that had been in their dad’s home. His big leather couch faced the river, leaving plenty of floor space behind it, where the living and dining rooms merged, since we had set the dining table in the kitchen, where we had a wide view of the river. That empty floor space ended up being the kids’ preferred board-game playing area in the afternoons while I cooked in the kitchen.
During this first test visit, at Sunday lunch, just a few hours before their dad would take them back to their mom’s, we sat around the same pine table that had been at Andrew’s house, Andrew at one end, Erin and I on either side of him, my chair facing the river view that had sold the house to us; Aidan next to me, Griffin across from Andrew: largely our regular places, it would turn out, though Erin and Griffin tended to jostle each other for the seat next to their dad. I have no recollection of what prompted my frustration at that particular meal, but I was not yet at a place in my own head where I felt comfortable in the role of disciplinarian to another person’s children, and Andrew must not have reprimanded them for whatever had bothered me. Mimicking his calm whenever he dealt with Griffin’s temper tantrums, I picked up my plate, saying, “I’m going to take my lunch and eat on the deck.” A few minutes later, a concerned Andrew joined me. I told him I was not sure if the whole summer living with his children was going to work for me. Maybe I should just move back to my house in town when they came for the summer and visit on the weekends they went to see their mom.
And then he did the exact right thing, asking me, “What can we do to make this work? What is it that you want me to do differently?” I don’t remember my answer. I just remember my relief. He did not explain to me how, not being a mother, I could not understand, as I’d often heard (still hear) from parents—particularly annoying when it comes from someone whose child you’re expected to take care of occasionally and even learn to love. Maybe Andrew was different from the men I’d previously been involved with. We agreed that this was our house even when the children were there. Andrew would take cues from me in the future so that we would present a united front to them.
Soon, a first test, after we’d set ground rules for the household so that I would not spend my precious summer months, when I was freed from teaching, cleaning up after Andrew’s children, whose stay-at-home mother allowed unmade beds, picked up clothes from wherever they’d been tossed, and didn’t mind toys left out around the house and strewn all over the floors of her children’s rooms. In our house, toys would be returned to closets when not in use. Clothes were to be placed into hampers, shoes put away in closets. Beds would be made before the kids left for swim-team practice in the morning. Upon returning from the pool, as well as after baths, towels would be hung up. Breaches of these simple rules lost them an hour of television or computer games—and we only allowed the use of electronics after the evening meal together, preferring to encourage the children to play outdoors, so those couple of hours of screen time before bedtime were precious to them.
The very first week, when I found a towel and swim trunks on the boys’ bathroom floor, I shook the wadded-up trunks out from the towel and held them up to the other pair, which had been hung over a towel bar. The smaller pair in my hands and presumably the towel they were with clearly belonged to Andrew’s youngest. Exiting the bathroom into the children’s playroom, I reminded Aidan what the infraction meant for his after-dinner activity. His shrug seemed an acceptance of the consequences of his carelessness, but when Andrew returned from work several hours later, his six-year-old suddenly dissolved into tears and climbed his daddy like a tree, sobbing as if he’d just been spanked, though he’d been perfectly happy just minutes before as we were all gathered in the living room, putting together a jigsaw puzzle and taking turns pairing up for checkers on the empty dining-room floor space behind the sofa. “What did you do?” Andrew asked the boy, recognizing the crocodile tears. I was puzzled myself but then recalled the earlier incident, so I relayed the crime and recalled the punishment. “Well, I guess you’ll remember to hang up your towel and trunks tomorrow,” Andrew said as he placed his son back on the floor. Failing to move his father, Aidan resumed the cheerful demeanor that had preceded Andrew’s arrival. A for effort, little man, but this win is mine, I thought. Your dad and I are, indeed, a united front, a “parental unit.”
“Queen me,” I said as I jumped one of Griffin’s checkers, placing my checker into the king zone.
Griffin, incidentally, never had a problem following the house rules. I believe he found them a welcome change from the hidden land mines in the house where the children lived with their mother and her mercurial husband. So while I might have been stricter about household pitching-in than their mother was, they had a clear idea of what my expectations were for household chores and what behaviors would set my temper off, while they could never (still cannot) predict their stepfather’s loud volatility, which often erupted into punishments involving hefty amounts of yard work.
Overall, it was a good first summer, but it did have its moments.
“I’m going to love you no matter what you do,” my father’s mother told him. He often shared this particular life lesson with his children. “But,” she would add, “I’m going to try to raise you so that others like you.”
My chance to pass this parental wisdom on to Andrew’s angry middle child came during that first summer at our river house, when Griffin had one of his temper tantrums while Andrew was not home. My (per)version of my dad’s shared lesson came about following another game of checkers with Griffin, at a time when we were the only two at home. Distracted by a call from Andrew to see if everything was okay, I was not paying attention—certainly not strategizing to win—when I took a triple jump that included Griffin’s only king. “Queen me,” I said as I hung up the phone, not noticing the scowl that had emerged on the little boy’s face.
“You can’t do that,” he said, loudly, startling me out of my distraction.
“Why not?” I asked.
Louder: “It’s not fair!”
Purposefully calm and quiet: “Do you want to look it up in the rules?”
Apparently not. He flipped the checkerboard over, and as checkers scattered, he jumped up and ran upstairs. My calm evaporating, I followed, yelling for him to “Go back downstairs!” and “Find every checker!” He kept going, and when he tried to escape me by seeking refuge in the boys’ closet, I crawled in right behind him.
“Get out!” he screeched.
“Right after you. You have a mess to clean up. Then you can come sit in here if you like, and I’ll give you your privacy.”
A bit quieter, but still outraged: “You know I hate to lose.”
“Nobody likes losing, Griffin,” I answered. “But what’s the big deal? It’s a game of checkers.” Silence. “What is a big deal is that nobody likes you when you act like this.”
Not tactful, I admit.
In spite of Andrew’s insistence that there was no reasoning with Griffin during a tantrum, I continued, “I don’t get it. What does it matter if you lose a game every now and then? Your parents are going to love you no matter what you do.”
“But nobody but a parent likes a sore loser,” I finished undiplomatically. Definitely not as kind and loving as what my grandmother said to my father. I don’t know if my rationale got through, but his anger did not evolve into one of his screaming rages.
I won’t say this was Griffin’s last temper tantrum, but he did eventually outgrow them, and Griffin was the one of Andrew’s children who, unbidden, would seek me out to say good-bye when it was time for the children to leave after a weekend with us, by which time, I was usually ready to resume my child-free life and had found a quiet place alone and away from the chaos. And he was always the first to hug me when they arrived. He still, almost twenty years later, cannot stand to lose, but I like to believe that I got through to him that day and that he accepted my candor as a positive characteristic in this woman who was going to be a part of his life.
Margaret Donovan Bauer grew up on the Bayou Teche in south Louisiana and now writes mostly memoir, mostly from her home on the Pamlico River in eastern North Carolina. The Rives Chair of Southern Literature at East Carolina University and author of four books on southern writers, she has served as editor of the North Carolina Literary Review for twenty-five years.
“Cover Up” by Clare Needham
In Clare Needham’s memoir about her experience as a young woman living and working in Jerusalem, the author reflects on issues of women’s bodies, national identity, and physical safety. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read our interview with Clare here.
I did not begin my time in Jerusalem with the desire to be dangerous. I arrived in that most intoxicating, infuriating, enervating, derelict, and sad of cities with a large black suitcase into which I’d folded a year’s wardrobe, plus books and toiletries. I had a postcollege fellowship at an Israeli civil rights and legal organization that soon came to feel too conservative for me. Its mission was laudable: it advocated for a greater separation of religion and state and for equal allocation of government funds for all minority groups within ’67 borders. But the organization relied on funding mostly from Jewish groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia, which were, as one colleague explained to me, “progressive except for Palestine.” In the fundraising materials I helped compose, I could not mention Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, which began about four hundred meters from our office, or its occupation of the West Bank, or its occupation and total blockade of Gaza, even as we approached the one-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. Granted, antioccupation work was not within the organization’s purview, and among the staff there was disagreement and a spectrum of political opinion. But I felt stifled nonetheless.
I was, however, free to wear whatever I liked to the office. I had two bosses, one an American who’d explained to me before I moved that I didn’t need to worry about packing a separate work wardrobe. Israelis dressed casually; they wore whatever—the organization’s press liaison liked to wear thigh-highs and little black dresses to work. My American boss now felt stuffy whenever she had to put on button-down Ann Taylor blouses to meet with potential donors. I adored my Israeli boss, the organization’s executive director, who had been a champion swimmer in a former life. She wore jeans and T-shirts, so I did the same.
My first day out in Jerusalem, before I had to report to work, I wore jean shorts. The temperature was in the mid-90s, and at noon there was a blinding white heat. Almost as soon as I left my apartment near the city center—where something like a secular atmosphere still prevailed—I began to feel my mistake. A man grabbed the backs of my thighs and parted my legs with his hand. I vowed never to wear shorts again.
I put on jeans that covered my ankles and then decided it was better to cover my shoulders as well, even if, for a little while longer, I left the rest of my arms bare. Within two weeks, I’d added a scarf to the ensemble. Often I wore a black one dotted with tiny blue and violet flowers that I adjusted each morning to hide my vulnerable neck and collarbones, then double-checked my work in the mirror—though mirrors were not necessary in Jerusalem. As soon as you stepped onto the street, your body was reflected back to you, and your body was understood as your essence. Jerusalem, reputed to be a spiritual place, was rooted in the physical, in the crudeness of surface appearance. I was a young white woman, secular, not obviously Jewish: everyone I passed reflected that image back to me.
My excessive paleness—red hair, blond eyebrows and eyelashes—made strangers often stop and demand where I was from. The first time I flew out of Ben Gurion Airport, I underwent extensive questioning— Why did I speak Hebrew? What was the origin of my last name? Was I really Jewish?—and my passport was slapped with a stickered number 5, the second most serious security rating. On my return from Istanbul, as I rode up an escalator with other passengers from my flight, airport security summoned me out of line before we reached passport control. They searched my luggage; they asked more questions. When I described the experience to an Israeli colleague, she didn’t miss a beat. “Oh,” she said, “you fit the Rachel Corrie profile. European-looking woman, traveling alone. They assume you have a Palestinian boyfriend, a blog where you write about the occupation.” (Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003 while defending Palestinian homes in Gaza from demolition.)
I did not have a blog, and my boyfriend was American, but he taught at a Palestinian university and lived in East Jerusalem, and soon I moved in with him. With the move, I became the one white lady in At-Tur, a neighborhood on the Mount of Olives, a part of East Jerusalem crowded with many histories and lives. It was a Palestinian village with an illegal Israeli settlement embedded in it, whose compound flew an Israeli flag large enough to be seen clearly from the Old City. Soldiers patrolled 24/7 outside. Christian tourists were bused in every day to visit the Garden of Gethsemane and the storied churches that spread up the slope. Our apartment was not far from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, on whose property the head of John the Baptist was rumored to have once been buried.
I would have been interested in many of these details if I’d had a different body, if I were not thinking so much about the uniform I needed to wear. Growing up, I spent time looking through a book my mother had, called How to Be a Perfect Stranger, an etiquette guide for every religion. What to bring to a Baptist wedding, what to wear to a Muslim funeral, what to avoid saying, whether to give gifts or take photographs. It was in this spirit of respect, of not giving offense, that I planned my dress. I was an outsider; I was no one’s sister or daughter; I had no family protection. I could not blend in, but I wanted to float through; I wanted to be safe.
This was not possible. One morning an old man pulled down his trousers and extracted his limp dick, holding it in his hand as he crossed the road toward me. I knew then that I’d have more problems. Still, I thought the right clothes might help minimize them. No matter the weather, though easier in colder months, when I could wear a coat, I kept on the jeans and the scarf and traded my T-shirts for long, loose shirts that fell at least midthigh. I’d learned that any part of a woman could tempt—a man once grabbed my naked left elbow and imprisoned it between his hands, briefly, before I could pull away—so I tugged down the sleeves of my shirts to cover even the backs of my hands. Though I felt like a colonizer all the same, I wanted to make clear that I was not an Israeli settler: a long skirt was out of the question. Loose red hair was too suggestive, so I put mine in a braid. I wore Supergas or low-heeled boots; I didn’t want to show my feet, much less my occasionally painted toes: that was slutty. When I went outside, I pretended to be married and wore an opal ring on my left hand.
I repeated the lie of my marriage often to Samir, one of the taxi drivers who waited at the foot of the Mount of Olives every day to drive tourists and others up and down the slope. He introduced himself to me shortly after I arrived and it became clear that I was a more permanent resident, though I’d noticed him right away, in part because he was exceptionally well-dressed. Palestinian men, in general, dressed more formally than Israelis; they wore blazers and shoes with laces, while Israeli men wore shorts and Crocs. Samir’s daily uniform was impeccable, a triumph, almost a fuck-you to the occupation, a hint of whom he might have become had he not been born under a system of foreign military rule designed, among other things, to disrupt daily life and thwart ambition. He wore a fresh white button-down shirt tucked into dark denim Levi’s, a leather belt that matched his polished shoes. Nothing he wore ever showed dirt, dust, or sweat. His head was shaved, and he managed to sport Ray-Ban Aviators without looking like a tool. He seemed imperious until he removed the sunglasses and showed his gold-flecked eyes.
He began offering me free rides, and at first, I accepted. When I sat next to him in his clean cab, I felt ashamed of what I wore, designed to minimize everything about me that was desirable. I felt ashamed of my dress because I was attracted to him, as he was to me. We never spoke about it, though often he suggested that we drive to Jericho (we never did). But I had a boyfriend, and he had a wife and kids who lived in Silwan, a neighborhood next to the Mount of Olives, where settler violence against Palestinians was well documented. Around him, I was especially aware of my American passport: I could leave whenever I wanted. My citizenship, for which I’d done nothing other than possess the random good fortune of being born to American citizens, granted me powers he would never have. When one afternoon he leaned over and kissed me as I was getting out of the car, I decided I had to refuse his rides as often as I could. So I began treading carefully down and up the steep slope each day on my way to and from work in West Jerusalem. If Samir was there, I would make small talk, then move on.
But I was far from slipping into the crowd. Often I was the only woman walking outside, or the only one unaccompanied by a man.
Late one morning, when I was on the slope and almost in sight of the taxi drivers, a man came running from behind. He slammed his body into mine and put me in a chokehold. One arm gripped my neck and the other belted my waist. In memory, it feels as if he had his pants down, though I might be confusing this time with other times, with other men who unzipped their flies as I walked past. I would like to say I fought off the man on my back, but he had the advantage of the slope, of gathering the energy of the hill before putting me in his grip. He must have chosen to let me go. He disappeared, and I ran the rest of the way down the hill, shooting past Samir and the others, propelled by fear. When something like this happened, I scrolled through my recent calls and talked to whoever was first to pick up. I screamed at my boyfriend or at a friend as I described the latest incident. Nothing they said was enough. I was outraged but stubborn, and stupid. I kept walking. Everywhere I wanted or had to go required my first getting down the hill.
Soon there was trouble every day. A good day meant only being called a slut or a Russian (i.e., a slut). A bad day meant I was touched, grabbed. And almost every evening, I would tell my boyfriend what had happened, and he’d suggest that I had a bad attitude: I just had to shrug it off. He did buy me pepper spray, which I knew I’d never use. I tried it out on our roof, and with comic predictability, a sudden gust sent it stinging into my eyes. Other people said I should move. Another friend told me to wear a hijab. I balked at the idea, in part because I knew that covering my hair would not work. I was from elsewhere, and it was visible in the way I moved; a piece of cloth could not change that. I had been in Jerusalem long enough to realize that actually I was my body: it was my essence; my body was my soul.
I decided I would become ugly, neglect my hair and skin and clothing. I would make myself repulsive, untouchable. Then I might be safe. I tried becoming more like a man: I started wearing my boyfriend’s clothes. He was disappointed; he wanted a sexy girlfriend. But the new uniform didn’t work, anyway. The incidents continued.
My boyfriend and I went on a short vacation to Greece, where I could wear whatever I wanted. I understood this conceptually, but my body did not. In Thessaloniki, we went for a walk along the promenade, looked out over the shining Aegean Sea. I had put on a dress I’d loved wearing in New York: horizontal black-and-white stripes, thin shoulder straps. We had not gone far when I insisted we turn around so I could change. I felt like a slut, I said. Someone could hurt me in the dress.
Things got worse when we got back. One evening at the end of February, I was returning from having a drink with a friend in the Old City. It wasn’t late—just after seven—but the sky was dark, and Samir and the others had all gone home for the day. I reached the base of the Mount of Olives and started walking up. The road I took was poorly paved, with no shoulder and no sidewalk, and was barely lit by streetlights, several of which had been extinguished for months—Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem paid municipal taxes, yet there was an appalling and unequal distribution of municipal services. But I had experience with this path, a sense of how to handle the road.
Five or so cars passed, a couple of drivers sounding a friendly beep of their horn to let me know to watch out. Generally when a car approached, I moved to the edge of the road and waited for it to go by. Since it was dark and the headlights were bright, I looked down at my feet each time the beams swept over my body and face. It had rained earlier that day, and it was cold. I wore black leather boots and an androgynous black raincoat that tumbled to my knees and hid my form.
Soon I was walking up the steepest section of road. My breath was heavy, and the sound of it filled my head. On one side of the road was a high stone wall that bordered private church property and on the other, directly to my left, a steep drop down to an open field, usually dusty and dry, though in late February, the start of Jerusalem’s brief spring, covered in vibrant poppies and wildflowers exuding their colors, even in the dark.
Someone flung himself at me sideways. I remember an expression, eyes and teeth—not a face. I began to wrestle with a body much stronger than mine, though both of our bodies were, in that moment, transformed by adrenaline. My mind was clear: I was an idiot, and I was going to die; it was my fault, because I’d insisted on being alone and walking. In seconds, this other body had slammed mine onto the ground. I had a gray leather bag slung diagonally across my chest; now he reached for its base and pulled it away, over my head, while I clung to the strap. He began to drag me, headfirst, back down the steep hill, pulling me behind him like a dog. I skidded along on my right side, scraping elbows and knees, but I managed to hold up my head, and that’s how I saw the idling car, the open door, and knew I’d be thrown inside. It did not occur to me to let go of the bag. I held on to the strap and tried to use all my weight to stop this trajectory: I would do all that I could not to be put into the car.
But he only wanted the bag. I was an available body lugging a bag of unknown treasure, there in the right place, the right time—for him. He dragged me until I could hold on no more. He tore the strap from my hands, and I rolled further down the road with the momentum and the slope’s decline, then stopped. I raised my face from the ground and saw the car’s taillights, its exhaust curling into the dark air, the silhouette of a man holding up my bag, then jumping into the passenger side, the car screeching down the slope. My instinct told me to pursue them. I was somehow on my feet, then running down the road; I can’t remember if I was screaming. For that moment, I was pure adrenaline. I wanted so badly to kill someone. I imagined turning superhuman, leaping in front of their moving car, smashing through the windshield, strangling them. Instead—there was never a chance to catch them; they were gone almost instantly—I turned and ran back up the hill, for once not noticing its steep pitch or my ragged breathing.
I reached our compound, stormed up the stairs, slammed open our apartment door, and greeted my boyfriend with an unsettled grin. At first, he thought I was laughing. I managed to explain what had happened, though not before backing him against a wall and knocking a glass from his hand. Then I went to my desk, took out a sheet of paper, and in a gesture I thought even then a bit grandiose, titled it “What I Have Lost.” It was meant to be a list of items from my bag—driver’s license, passport photocopy, a laminated card of the traveler’s prayer—so that I could sort out what needed to be canceled, replaced, what could not be retrieved. I tried to hold a pen and write down a few words, but I couldn’t control the shaking of my hand and kept stabbing the pen through the paper.
I went to bed with a stomachache. Lying awake, sleep impossible, I saw how things could have gone much worse. It was the first time that fear broke through my conditioned numbness, and I started to feel afraid for myself—a feeling that would become constant for the next few years. What might have happened if I hadn’t been able to pick myself up in time? Or what if I’d been taken into the car? I fell into a nightmare and woke vomiting over the sheets. For days after, I could not keep down food. My throat was raw, and my arms and ribs were sore from the pummeling on the road.
My boyfriend reversed his policy of telling me to chill: he said I couldn’t walk on my own up and down the hill, and this time, I agreed. The taxi drivers urged the same. They told me the men who’d mugged me were drug addicts, thieves from neighboring areas. The police wouldn’t do anything, as the men were also collaborators with the Israelis, and the police didn’t care about making a Palestinian neighborhood safe. Their explanation was plausible; regardless, the no-walk rule meant that after work in West Jerusalem, I walked to Damascus Gate and got a taxi or went further east, to Herod’s Gate, where I could pick up a ride in a shared car. I hated this new system; I felt trapped in the vehicles. I also hated what it confirmed. I wrote in my journal: “And then I was dropped off at the top of the hill, and the good little white girl ran all the way home.”
The mugging was an earthquake that went off only inside me, an event whose damage could never be fully shown. But its devastation was extensive. A colleague at work expressed concern that I had changed so much, even in the few months she had known me. She gave me the number of her therapist. And one day soon after, Samir found me sitting on a bench in the Dominus Flevit Garden, where sometimes I went because I was unlikely to be molested there. I was pretending to read and was listening instead to an American pastor describe for his congregants how on this very spot Jesus had wept for Jerusalem, how Christ’s tears were similar to those some of them must have shed when faced with a person who did not accept the Lord. Samir appeared during this sermon, his uniform intact as ever, and asked how I was. How was my life, my husband? I made up some lies; he nodded. He turned away, went back up some steps, where he joined the Americans and waited to provide them with rides down the hill. Then he came back down to me. He asked more questions. How was I really doing? “You don’t seem okay,” he continued. “You look bad.”
I was bad. In the aftermath of the attack emerged someone new, someone who wanted to do harm. Again and again, I had experienced how easy it was for someone to get too close, to cross a line, to touch me so it hurt. I saw now that it was easy to do. They did it because they could; they understood it was easy to do, so they did it. Most people didn’t see this, how easy it was, but now I did. I saw it, too.
I wanted to commit violence, to trespass into someone else’s life. I was given many chances. Wherever I’ve gone, people have asked me for directions, maybe because I’m often walking alone, at a good clip, so they assume I know the way. But also, likely, they stop me because I do not appear to pose a threat. In my previous life (and again, now, in a more recovered life), I thought of giving directions as a sacred duty. When someone asked which way to go, I did everything I could to direct them. I felt a failure if I didn’t know, and I’d take out a map or my phone. On a few occasions, I’d run after strangers, maybe slightly startling them, as I reappeared to say I’d gotten it wrong: they were to go right, right, then left.
In Jerusalem, after the mugging, these requests for directions presented an opportunity to abuse my power—no one would suspect me. I grew breathless with the potential. One time in particular: a pair of blond European tourists, both women, were heading toward the Mount of Olives. As I followed them, I wrestled with conflicting desires, the urge to help, the urge to hurt—or to do both, perhaps. I imagined a scenario. I’d tell them, do not walk up the hill; it’s not safe—and as they were thanking me, I’d find a way to take something from them. I imagined they’d be too distracted to notice my hand slipping into a coat pocket or purse. Or maybe I wouldn’t even attempt a cover-up: I’d approach with a smile, then take their stuff and run. I knew the city better than they, and they almost certainly did not possess my kind of fury, which gave me energy even as it exhausted me.
Instead, I called out to them from a distance and told them to take a taxi.
The fantasies made me dizzy. When I did get asked directions, I’d keep my sweating hands in my pockets, or I’d clasp them behind my back, fingers curling, just in case I couldn’t control the desire to do something more physical. I wanted especially for people who seemed protected to experience violence. I wished to trouble their lives. I would come down from these urges scared for my sanity. I fell into weird states. One day, I was late to meet a friend for coffee because a young man had asked me what time it was, and I assumed this was the prelude to an attack. So I screamed at him, and when he turned away, I followed him, galloping alongside and telling him never to fuck with me again. My friend thought this picture of my anger was funny. But I thought it was horrifying.
That year, a Christian radio host in California made a widely publicized prediction that the Rapture would begin in May and culminate with the end of the world five months later. I was unconcerned. The end of the world seemed fine by me. I welcomed an apocalypse—an uncovering, an unveiling.
I returned to the States in June. But anger and fear continued to warp the familiar. Walking one evening from the train station in my parents’ suburb to their quiet home close by, I glimpsed ahead on the sidewalk a tangle of dark shapes. My mind constructed a group of Satanists crouched close, ready to turn me into a sacrifice. I took a longer route home. As I walked, I reasoned that what I’d seen was unlikely to have been real— but I didn’t trust my body to register reality in time and avoid going into panic. The next day, I walked back in sunlight and saw that the menacing shapes from the night before were a bundle of tree branches. Every place, every person could cause a flare-up. Every landscape was strewn with traps. On a night typical of many, I abandoned a group of friends on Brighton Beach. Their chaotic energy, their eyes flickering bright as they shouted and ran into the shallow waves—suddenly I didn’t trust them. Alone, I found my way to the elevated subway platform. But there I experienced a fear of being thrown onto the tracks. The next subway station also troubled me, though I did not know why. A voice told me to go back into the night. I obeyed. I kept walking.
With time, and with the rescue of EMDR psychotherapy, I improved, and New York came to seem a safer city. While a shadow or something just outside my periphery would continue to suggest the mugger and I’d feel a surge of sick energy spike up my right side, mostly I no longer feared for my life. As my fear receded, I was granted the New Yorker’s wish, the writer’s wish, the solo walker’s wish, to feel invisible, anonymous, all the better to observe. Walking home at night in Brooklyn, I noted the regularity with which Black and Brown men were first to move to the edge of the sidewalk or cross the street as I came toward them; they knew how their bodies were perceived. I had to break the habit I’d learned in Jerusalem of walking straight toward a person if I thought they were going to fuck with me—though I knew I was not the one seen as dangerous. Still, I tried to give people space, the right of way. Here, you don’t know me. You don’t know the harm I wish I’d done; you don’t know how violent it’s been in my head. Let me move first.
I made these minimal gestures.
With time, I no longer felt the need to cover my neck or elbows or ankles. But I could not drop the urge to hide and disguise myself. For five years I wore a broad-brimmed men’s hat that turned me confident and made me mysterious. Mine was not the face people expected beneath; this discrepancy was doubtless part of its power. I wore the hat for style, and to block the sun, but also because it was slightly too big and sat low on my forehead, cast a shadow, concealed my eyes.
Late one spring evening, on a subway ride home, I noticed a young Black man wearing an incredible wool hat. It had about six inches of excess fabric that stood straight up and was stitched with a gold-sequined slightly smiley face that gave its wearer the power of having two expressions at once. We got off at the same stop, and at the corner, waiting for the light to change, he came up to ask for directions and to praise my own much-prized hat. He might even have used a phrase I was familiar with, that many people used when they described how I looked: “bandit chic.” Everyone who said those words did so with good humor: to them I didn’t look like a criminal. The young man and I were walking the same way, and we kept talking about style. He had an internship at Michael Kors and was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Within a block, a police car pulled up, and an officer leaned out to ask if I was okay. In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.
Clare Needham is a writer living in New York City. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, PEN America, MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During her second year living in Jerusalem, she worked for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and oversaw the English translation of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, published by Metropolitan Books in 2012. (Author photo by Bree Zucker)
Congratulations to the Winners, Runners-Up, & Finalists of the 2019 Editors’ Prize!
On behalf of Editor-in-Chief Speer Morgan and the entire editorial staff of the Missouri Review, it is our great pleasure to announce the winners, runners-up, and finalists for the 2019 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. The quality of the entries every year astonishes us anew, and we are deeply grateful to every entrant who trusts us in considering their work. Huzzahs and applause, everyone!
Seth Fried of New York, NY, for “Trezzo”
Katie Knoll of Iowa City, IA, for “Murphy, Murphy”
Daniel Stolar of Evanston, IL, for “The Benefit”
Diana Xin of Seattle, WA, for “Joy Comes in the Morning”
Sara Batkie of Chicago, IL, for “A House in Order”
Yoon Choi of Anaheim Hills, CA, for “A Map of the Simplified World”
Claire Cox of Brooklyn, NY for “Look at You”
Brendan Egan of Midland, TX for “The Gnossiennes”
Andrew Erkkila of Jersey City, NJ for “Dirty August”
Tim Erwin of Brooklyn, NY, for “The King of Oklahoma”
Michael Lancaster of Missoula, MT, “Out with a Bang”
Sahar Mustafah of Orland Park, IL for “Triumph”
Katey Schultz of Burnsille, NC for “Wait for Me”
Mary Winsor of Fairfax, VA, for “Do Svidaniya”
Heather Treseler, of Newton Center, MA, for “The Lucie Odes”
Runners Up (alphabetically):
Allison Pitinii Davis, of Youngstown, OH
Melissa Studdard, of Cypress, TX
Javier Zamora, of San Rafael, CA
Mary Ardery, of Carbondale, IL
Leila Chatti, of Cleveland Heights, OH
Benjamin Garcia, of Auburn, NY
torrin a. greathouse, of Minneapolis, MN
Ted Lardner, of Gates Mills, OH
sam sax, of Austin, TX
Heidi Seaborn, of Seattle, WA
TC Tolbert, of Tucson, AZ
Keith S. Wilson, of Chicago, IL
Stella Yin-Yin Wong, of New York, NY
Jennifer Anderson of Lewiston, ID, for “The Trailer”
Cathryn Klusmeier of Sitka, AK, for “Gutted”
Katherine Schifani of Minturn, CO, for “Stability Tests”
Melinda Smith of Albuquerque, NM, for “Exile in the Desert with Sarmi Moussa”
May-lee Chai of San Francisco, CA, for “Norwegian Mothers’ Milk”
Gemma de Choisy of Iowa City, IA, for “The Constant”
Sharon F. Doorasamy of Winston-Salem, NC, for “To Holdup the Sky”
Kermit Frazier of Brooklyn, NY, for “Pee”
Steffan Hruby of Minneapolis, MN, for “The Universal Hologram”
David Zane Mairowitz of Avignon, France, for “Auschwitz on Acid”
Susan O’Neill of Brooklyn, NY, for “Catwoman and Ruth”
Alex Stein of Boulder, CO, for “Why the Poets Are Lonely”
Robert Stofel from Lobelville, TN, for “The Underworld of the Farm”
Patti White of Tuscaloosa, AL, for “The Fall”
Congratulations to all, and deepest thanks to all who entered the contest this year. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
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,
“Salt Land” by Amanda Baldeneaux
Timely and fresh, Amanda Baldeneaux’s Editor’s Prize winner—her first published work— is one of those eerie fiction stories that rhymes with reality. “Hydrolic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ is endemic in Colorado,” Baldeneaux says, “with three hundred new well applications pending in my neighborhood alone.” She explores an essential question: how much of our environment are we willing to sacrifice for economic progress, and who gets make that decision?
by Amanda Baldeneaux
Many things lay buried beneath the fields of the Gillie farm: splintered seed dibblers tangled in sorrel root, Ute arrowheads, their edges chipped by plows, snapped cattle bones, and the rusted heads of severed scythe blades and spades. Those things were shallow, no harder to find than the bottle of bourbon Harlan hid beneath the bench seat of his mud-caked truck. Every family in Kester had them, relics revealed with little more than the scratch of an uncut fingernail.
Evaline knew—had always known—it was the deep things that brought ruin if exposed to sunlight: the name of Joanne’s real daddy, the scar on Jake’s cheek, the floor of the ancient seabed beneath the shale. Too long ago to fathom, the sea’s first inhabitants, soft-bodied squids, jellies, and cucumbers, had swum where corn now grew, then died and dissolved into methane and crude oil deep beneath the topsoil and bedrock of the Gillie farm land. Harlan’s family had owned the land long before Evaline came along and discovered the shale.
Before Kestract Oil & Gas gave a damn about the clay-packed tract, the first Gillies mined a living in turnip roots, rutabagas, and collards. The land fought back, and the farmers took to hanging their broken wagon wheels like trophies on the broad sides of the barn, the rims and spokes snapped in the trenches of mud where the Gillies worked themselves into graves forcing greens from the clay-thick ground. The broken wheels still hung there like phases of the moon charted across the peeling paint of the old boards.
With Harlan dead, though, farming was finished. Kestract saw to that, even though Evaline would be blamed. The neighbors didn’t know the brine water had spilled, though, so they busied themselves with other concerns that weren’t their own, like what Evaline should do with Harlan’s remains.
“Bury the body” was the consensus, but on the question of whether it should be in the Presbyterian churchyard—Harlan’s old religion—or the Baptist, Kester remained divided.
“Ashes to ashes,” Evaline took to responding. The way she saw it, Harlan hadn’t left much for her to dispose of, anyway. Pieces of his body had been calling it quits and taking their usefulness with them for as long as she’d been married to him. That would have been be fine, if the elements of Harlan hadn’t taken pieces of the Gillie farm with them each time they packed up and left. His left knee had been the first to go: years of high school track and morning PT in combat boots made that departure inevitable. His knee took the chicken coop with it. Sure, a bad storm had blown in the night and leveled the coop after the doctor declared all the cartilage shot, but over the years, Evaline saw the pattern. By the time Harlan died, there wasn’t much of him left to bury but calcium-bereft bones and the pooling skin draped over them. With the Kestract drilling rig slowly chewing away at the shale beneath the farm now, it only made sense to let Harlan’s bones be burned and ground down, too.
“Burial is God’s way.” This always came after Evaline told neighbors that she meant to cremate Harlan. God forbid anyone in this town might respond with a simple nod and a tending to their own business. Laissez-faire had never been a motto that Kester residents knew how to live by. Hell, Evaline doubted anyone born in Kester could even spell it. She couldn’t, even after three years of French in between her geochemistry courses at Bauxark College. No one had approved of that decision, either—a Kester girl shipped off to study rocks and beakers—where’d her momma gone wrong? She’d have stayed away, too, if not for the anchoring rocks holding the mud of the farm fields in place. And Harlan. As a child, Evaline had spent summers digging quartz and limestone out of the roadside, looking for streaks of crystal in the discard piles cut by bulldozers after the county roads were built. By the time she left for college, Evaline already knew about the shale and what it kept hidden inside.
Beneath was where most of Kester like to keep old things: secrets, bodies, and now the oil and gas that soaked the shale rocks just under the layers of cornstalks and soil. The Gillies had always been a farming family, naming their acreage “Gillies’ Retreat” after the turn their forefathers had made at the first sight of a salt pan stretching across the Utah desert. The risk of cracking open the salt pan’s crust and drowning drove the Gillies back into the delta lands bordering the swamps and the bayous that stretched into the sea further south. After that, the first Gillies were content to homestead the mosquito-filled bog they’d sneered at not six months prior.
The Gillies might have retreated, but at least they hadn’t joined the fraction of settlers nestled forever in the soft mud traps hidden beneath the crusts of salt out West. Those were the ones who didn’t retreat. Those settlers had left the swamps with seeds and spades in hand, following the promise of Zion and fields of ripe, dry soil. In the end, all they’d planted were their own bodies, from which nothing grew, not even stones.
“Retreat” for the Gillies, back then, had meant to run. With Harlan, though, it’d been a place. Now that he’d died, Evaline prepared to run again, and not just because she’d delivered Harlan cold to the crematorium twenty miles east and driven him back in a cardboard box on her lap, earning more scorn from her former friends.
What she did was not their business, but most Kester residents would argue that the fate of a soul is everyone’s business. Evaline never could get a straight answer out of one of those damned evangelicals about how the buried dead, with nothing but pewter coffin pins to show for all their living, would manage to rise their mud-packed remnants on Judgement Day.
Evaline had been out at the cemetery laying flowers on her momma and papa’s stones when Howard Mortuary came to move the bodies buried in the south field. All of them had died back before the century even turned, and there was nothing left in their holes but a few screws and rusted trinkets. The mortician boxed up each bit and reburied the junk, with all the pomp of burying dead royals, on the other side of the freshly paved state highway, its new lanes the gleaming black of polished shoes. Evaline had watched the “funerals” for the reburials through the smudged window of Kester Café, wondering how those folks who now fit in shoeboxes were supposed to up and wake with Christ’s second coming.
That magical thinking—the belief in walking corpses and ghosts who cared about the preservation of their coffin pins—was why she’d left Kester in the first place. She’d gone after graduating Kester High and had received her geochemistry degree as each of her brothers shipped off to the army and seminary, in that order. She’d never intended to come back here, but Harlan Gillie always had a nice smile, and Kestract Oil & Gas was willing to pay heartily for her knowledge of regional minerals. Her daddy was ashamed that she’d got all that schooling just to marry a bog pit farmer, but not nearly as ashamed as her momma after learning that Evaline had no plans to baptize her daughter or son. Harlan had talked her into it, though, and Evaline’s momma had gleefully stuffed two-year-old Joanne and six-month-old Jake into white ruffled gowns for christening. The same baptismal font where the preacher turned his hands into scoops to speckle the baby’s heads with water still stood, a little dustier, near the pulpit during Harlan’s memorial service forty years later. Harlan himself sat neatly in an urn on the communion table, the most polished he’d ever presented himself. That didn’t stop the whispers during the service, though. What could be drawn up from ash? Even Jesus needed something to work with.
Evaline found everyone’s over-keen interest in the dead suspect, but she kept that to herself. At the least the chorus of disappointment over Harlan’s cremation paused—just briefly—the speculation over who among themselves had betrayed Kester’s code of keeping buried things buried. Some Judas among them had signed a sale of mineral rights over to Kestract Oil & Gas, forcing everyone into a pool that stripped their rights to royalties as punishment for not signing in the first place. It had landed a stadium-sized well pad where the cemetery used to be. Maybe if Kestract hadn’t chosen to drill over land claimed by the dead, the town would have been more considering, but people here believed there were some things not even money should mess with.
Everyone suspected Evaline—Kestract shill in her white hard hat and unladylike boots—of the signature that stole their Veterans Memorial Parkway, their cemetery south lawn, and Kester Memorial Gardens gazebo, where hotdogs were roasted on Decoration Day. A new gazebo was almost finished over the relocated grounds, but it wasn’t the same. The worst grievance, though, was yet to be discovered by the townspeople. Evaline hoped they wouldn’t know until she was settled in the Aspen Grove Retirement Home out of state, near where Jake lived. She’d signed the lease on the place a week ago, after Kestract closed on the final acres of the Gillie farm. In two days, Evaline would hold the condo key and be far away by the time Kester found out about the saltwater spill, 500 gallons leached from the shale and now seeping into the fragile ecosystem of the soil, devouring each pill bug, earthworm, and protozoa it passed. Nothing would live in its wake; a rapture of microbes.
Saltwater spilled from a frack water pipe meant a cocktail of salts meant to stay buried in its confines of shale, hydrochloric acids, and methanol, all immune to the borders of the Gillie farm’s fences. By the time the neighbors’ fields started dying, the documents that forced the pooling would be public record, and the signer who had sold all of Kester’s mineral rights to Kestract would face their reckoning, if they were still here. Evaline wouldn’t be; the movers would have every last box out by the end of the day.
Evaline cracked her knuckles. Her joints had grown stiff, and the fall rains didn’t help. She set her coffee on the porch rail and retrieved the urn by her feet.
“Last coffee?” Jake came out and sat in the rocker behind his mother.
“I’m not dying.”
“I meant at home.” Jake twirled a spoon in his mug. “Don’t spill Dad.”
“Wouldn’t he like that?” Evaline asked. “He was the one professed he’d never leave.”
“You like it here.” Jake grinned. “I see you for what you are, Ms. Kester County.”
“You rummaging in my things?”
Jake dug in his pocket and held up a black-and-white photograph of Evaline in an embroidered sash and a dress sewn from plumes of netting and silk. A tiara gleamed on her head. “No wonder you caught Daddy’s eye.”
“Let me see that.” Evaline snatched the photo. Her momma had spent weeks sewing the dress for the county fair pageant.
“You’re going to take him?” Jake nodded toward the urn and stretched his long legs, his knees almost to his chin when he set his feet down to rock.
“It’s not Gillie land anymore.”
“It’ll always be Gillie land. There’s enough of them buried out there.”
“Amazing any of them are buried there. Do you know how many bulldozers were busted digging graves in this bowl of clay? Fools don’t learn.” Evaline set the urn on the table beside Jake. “Ashes or buried, it all ends up the same.”
“Spoken like a scientist.”
“Am I wrong?” Evaline ran her finger around the lip of the urn’s lid. Out across the fallow fields, truck engines roared to life, melting the autumn’s night-wash of frost off windshields. “Can’t stay here,” Evaline said. “Who’d find me if I died in my bed?”
Evaline laughed. “I don’t have those anymore.”
Jake waved his hand. “Small town. Give it a week.”
“It’s been years.”
“If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t gossip.” Jake leaned the rocker back against the siding.
“Didn’t you come here to help me pack?” Evaline tugged at the collar of her quilted coat. Jake didn’t know about the forced pooling or the salt spill. Evaline had always worked to keep her kids out of Kestract business, but then Joanne grew up and left to work for them, too. “Where’s your sister?”
“Here soon. Her helicopter got delayed on the rig. Winds or something. I don’t know, it was hard to hear.”
“The funeral could have waited a day.” Jake dredged the sugar crystals from the bottom of his coffee.
No, Evaline thought, it couldn’t.
No matter to Evaline what Kester thought about what she might or might not have done, though. Kester had been dying for years, since the highway went in and the train depot closed. What difference did it make if death came by economic or ecological disaster? Kestract had already put fat checks in the Kester County School District’s budget and finished the reconstruction of the mayor’s white-columned mansion. Kestract was life support, buying time God hadn’t granted. The bars were full. Boys who would have dropped out of high school and shelled peanuts now earned upward of sixty grand a year working the well pads. It was one of them, no doubt, who’d spilled the wastewater in the first place, but Evaline couldn’t bring herself to ask for names. Unlike the rest of the town, she believed knowing “who” just made everything worse. (Evaline and Constance Wimberley used to be friends. Knowing “who” put an end to it.) The spill had happened; the water had leached as she stood there, soaking into soybean fields and bog mud, killing everything on its way toward Kester proper. They already hated her for signing the forms—or so they figured she had—and nothing she said would make right the salt lake burning up plant roots and rabbit holes as the seconds passed. All she had to do was finish packing the house. Then Kestract and Kester could eat her retirement dust.
Evaline had almost laughed at the funeral yesterday, seeing Harlan in church for the first time in years. His irreverence had started simply, with skipping communion and the temptation of a spoonful of wine. He couldn’t even be trusted with a thimble of booze in the minister’s hand. His liver had already left him, taking off with the farm’s east lot, the departures always in pairs. The day Harlan collapsed in Campbells’ Meat Market, they’d sold a parcel to a cattle rancher next door to pay for Harlan’s appointments with the therapist for PTSD. Harlan was too proud to even file the insurance claim; his old buddy worked in the office on Main, and god forbid he see the request sent in from a shrink. The therapist kept Harlan’s mind around a while longer, but the liver went quickly, trailing its stench of bourbon and beer down the road with its bags. Liver be damned. It was the loss of fidelity that’d been the hardest for Evaline to take lying down. And Constance Wimberley, friend for the ages, had the nerve to sit not two pews behind her at the service. Evaline regretted not throwing his ash in her face. Constance had never gotten over Harlan staying with Evaline. She was the one who whispered loudest that Evaline had signed those papers herself, selling out all of Kester out of spite. In middle school, Constance and Evaline had been home ec partners, fixing each other’s stitches on skirts sewn with fabric too ugly to ever wear. Evaline didn’t ask for names anymore. She wished she’d never asked, “Who?”
When not bowed to pray, the Kester women spent Harlan’s funeral chattering, whispering. Well. Half those women had their first babies six months after marriage; not that Evaline could judge there. Joanne still didn’t know, and Evaline intended to keep it that way. Harlan had been willing to claim the baby, Kestract had already offered Evaline a job, and Evaline’s daddy had suffered a stroke the summer before. Marrying Harlan and moving back home had made the most sense at the time. Evaline had never even bothered to tell Joanne’s real daddy that she was pregnant. Let what’s dead lie, she always said, and she meant it both figuratively and literally.
The phrase crossed her mind again during Harlan’s service, as the preacher recounted the resurrection of Christ. Out across City Park, a drilling rig roared, rumbling its way onto the highway. Evaline squirmed in her seat as everyone watched to see if she would blush, display some semblance of shame over the sellout. Wouldn’t they like the truth, Evaline thought, clasping and unclasping her hands. None of the people in the pews had even spoken to her since the city council declared forced pooling in effect and the first big trucks puttered down the crumbling country roads into the town, throwing chunks of asphalt with their double-stacked wheels. At least Kestract had paid for the roads to be repaved, which was more than the city council had bothered to accomplish in the past ten years.
As children, Evaline and the women now fussing about the lack of a casket and the rig crews filling the diners and the shade of Evaline’s black hat had all sat together in the Presbyterian church, passing notes back and forth about which altar boy had the handsomest face. The answer had always been Harlan.
The Presbyterian church was shuttered when Evaline’s kids were in middle school, as all of Kester migrated here, to the new brick Baptist church that Evaline thought looked more like a barn than a sanctuary. There hadn’t been enough Jesus in Presbyterianism to fill these women, her old friends. There wasn’t enough of their husbands to fill them, either, Evaline figured, as she eyed both Constance and Ida McCleves down the aisle. Ida had run through three husbands, the new ones in bed before the old ones were out the door. Evaline knew. She’d been to two bridal showers and every baby shower before Ida stopped calling. It wasn’t Evaline’s fault that Ida’s third husband died in that explosion. Someone hadn’t tapped a well right and then lit a cigarette beside it. Ida smiled now at the minister’s words, hips and hat brim wide as the length of a pew, tutting her tongue over every hymn selection Eveline had made. If Jake hadn’t been there, squeezing Evaline’s elbow, she would have had a mind to slap the fabric flowers off Ida’s head.
“Ye are the salt of the Earth,” the preacher finished and stared directly at Evaline. she squirmed in her satin-lined dress.
But that was yesterday. Today, the sun rose on a world without Harlan in it, the service finished and the wake dishes washed and stored. Evaline clutched Harlan’s urn, morning light filling the small chip of a diamond on her ring. He’d offered to buy her a bigger stone years ago, but what sense was there in that? She’d laughed in his face, warning him not to touch the ring he had given her back when she was still just a girl with a waistline no bigger than a chicken’s plucked neck, a twelve-week Joanne in her belly, a college degree, and a job panning the dirt around Kester County just like she’d done since she was a child. Harlan couldn’t have afforded a bigger ring, anyway. Evaline always made more money working for Kestract in a year than Harlan could make in a decade trying to squeeze fruits from the soggy fields. She’d never rubbed that in his face, though. Not that it mattered.
She sat on the porch beside Jake, sipping coffee, calculating the viscosity of saltwater over waterlogged fields and dried cornstalks. She had hours now, maybe less, before the spill went public. Roses grew in front of the porch between the remains of lilac bushes she’d planted after her wedding—Harlan killed those with overwatering last spring. Blight set in, killing the enormous plants, their stalks blackened like someone set a blow torch to each. Harlan took everything.
A vegetable garden sat frost-crisp out back. The soil wouldn’t survive the salt or any of the other chemicals mixed into the wastewater brew. Sodium and chloride, chromium, cobalt, lead. Evaline recited the metals drawn up from the bedrock and steeped into the frack fluid in her head. As a child, reciting the periodic table had calmed her, made her feel infused with elemental properties: strength, resilience, the ability to dissolve completely and then return whole. She looked at her coffee, wondering if the tap water was already contaminated. They were on well water out here, and all of Kester on alluvial aquifers. She’d warned Harlan about this before he signed. She’d given him statistics and historical accident records till she was spent. She’d screamed at him that it was her job to know what a horizontal drill could do: she’d seen the full gamut up and down the coast. Spills, explosions, poisoned water and air. “Some things should stay in the ground,” she’d said. But leaving things there never made anyone money. He’d signed the papers, anyway.
Evaline handed the photograph back to Jake.
“Think I’ll keep this one,” he said and tucked it into his pocket. “Brody will get a kick out it. Grandma fluffed up like a queen.”
Evaline stood, studying the coffee in her mug. Was that a fleck of aluminum? She dumped her mug over the porch rail, steam rising off the mulch. “Coffee’s stale.”
Jake sipped his. “Tastes fine.”
Evaline took the cup from him anyway. “Better safe than sorry.”
“I’ll brew another pot. Don’t drink any more tap water.” She hooked the mugs by the handles and pushed through the screen door into the kitchen and took a bottle of water from the fridge. When the Gillies first chose this land, there’d been a stream running through the property, a tributary of the river that filtered the water through stones and silt before flowing past the original clapboard cabin. The stream had dried up in the ’70s, back when canals were dug into farm fields and the water bled down to a trickle. Now all that remained on the property was a thick slice of mud snaking from the peanut field and out into a drainage ditch alongside the gravel road. The ground here had always been muddy, with swamps bordering the towns to the south and the preferable farmland up north, where old oceans had left crushed mollusks and minerals composting in the rich, black soil. Here, Evaline and Harlan had fought clay since Harlan got the land from his grandfather. The clay came from the shale beneath it, and all of the shale from decomposed feldspar, mica, and quartz. The mud and the clay had compressed over millions of years, hardening into layered rocks permeated with the crushed and liquefied bones of the creatures who’d lived here before. Evaline wondered how long before the dead Gillies became gasoline, too.
The clay didn’t detour Harlan, the only brother willing to take over the farm. The ink was still wet on the title when Harlan carried his bride across the farmhouse’s creaking threshold. Clay soil didn’t much matter when pasturing cattle and sheep, as his grandfather had done, declaring his ancestors fools. Harlan, though, wanted things rooted.
“You could mold a man outta this stuff,” he’d say, trying to run a plough through the field back when his hair had been brown. His grandpa laughed when the plow snapped off its handle and pointed at the museum of broken tools on the barn wall. Harlan’s father hadn’t even tried to farm—he’d sold small appliances door-to-door down the coast.
Evaline fitted a new filter into the pot and filled it with coffee. Out in the Gillie graveyard, the bones of those who’d retreated here back in the 1800s still slept, rotting away. Maybe the Baptists were right: soil like this, the clay, could fill in the spaces between ribs and make the dead whole again. Like rhodium: resistant to corrosion and capable of converting back to its elemental form after exposure to high heat. Maybe they all could come back: Papa, Momma, her brothers, Harlan, and the baby she’d lost in between Joanne and Jake. All of Kester, way back to its founding, could be remolded out of Kester clay, fired in a kiln, and set to walk again.
Far afield, a pop of metal from the rig startled her. There could be no new bodies from this clay now, she thought, picturing the saltwater worming its way back into the ground.
“Joanne’s here.” Jake pulled the screen door open. “Movers, too. I’ll go pack up the shed.”
“Wait—” Evaline called, but Jake was gone. He did this on purpose, trying to get mother and daughter to talk. Someone had to be the peacemaker in a family of grudge holders. A car door slammed, followed by the rumble of oversized tires on gravel. Harlan would hate this much noise. He hated the churn of the drilling rig, even after the sound walls went up. He hated how the towers lit up like lightning strikes that never flicked off, keeping him up at night. Then the smells. Diesel so strong his migraines returned. He drank again to relieve the headaches. To sleep. Then the phone calls when he needed money: a quarter more of an acre. Half an acre. Whole. Evaline bit her tongue every time he reached for a bottle of Advil or beer.
She doubted that Harlan could have imagined that the expanse of acreage he’d inherited back in 1947 would shrink as much as it had. Hell, how could either of them imagine how much they’d shrink, too; bits of the body sold off to age like parcels of property at auction.
“He lived hard,” the pastor had preached over Harlan’s urn. “But he died easy.”
“He died easy.” The coroner told her that too, and the phrase was repeated by the few in town who’d respected Harlan enough to stop by with potted lilies or cold cuts and cheese trays. Easy dying: the consolation for widows whose husbands passed in the night. No cancer, no stroke. No chest-seizing heart attack or race to the county ER. Harlan went easy, unlike how he’d lived. Sometime in the night, as Evaline slept in a floral gown beside him, Harlan slipped out. He disappeared without so much as a “Goodbye, darlin’,” the most he’d ever said each morning when he left for the fields, mug brimming with coffee and brandy in hand.
She leaned against the porch rail, wishing he hadn’t taken her lilacs with him. She’d have liked to take a cutting with her to the condo, but a rose twig stuck in a bucket of sand would have to do. She liked roses well enough, but the lilacs had been her mother’s. Where she’d grown them, out back of Evaline’s papa’s store on Main, had since been paved into a parking lot. Paving everything, Evaline thought. One more obstacle for the dead to overcome in their rising.
She dumped the rest of the coffee into the trash; she wouldn’t need it tomorrow. The can would work well for the rose canes. At least he’d left those, if nothing else. Now, with the salt spill, he’d take the whole damn farm, even after his death. Evaline closed her eyes. She would have stayed, if he’d let her, if he hadn’t insisted on signing the papers.
But he had, and Kester would see that it was Harland who’d done it, and they’d say she had made him, the minion of Kestract. Or worse, they’d believe the truth for once: Harlan Gillie had sold Kester with the swipe of his pen. The last of him would be gone, then: his reputation. Evaline couldn’t bear it.
So senior living, a condo in a retirement community, just a few steps from a nursing home , where old folks like her went for their bodies to finish their wearing out. No forwarding address to be left. She’d go off grid. Underground. Whatever it took to keep the town’s respect for Harlan intact. Her own for him was already so tattered. And yet. There’d never been a fight big enough to dissolve the marriage; she loved him too much. Or Kester loved him too much, and she wouldn’t share. As long as he was hers, she’d won. The handsome altar boy. The hometown farmer and regional peanut king, savior of soil, war veteran, Elks Club President. Each feather in his cap a star in her crown. No one could touch Evaline, no matter what wrong they thought she did, as long as Harlan was hers. Plus, his damned smile.
She wondered if a day would ever pass when she wouldn’t catch herself crying for him being gone. Point three milligrams of sodium in each teardrop. Another salt spill of his making.
Evaline and Harlan had other plans before he died, but he took those with him, too. “Blood from a turnip,” Evaline’s mother had said when Evaline told her that Harlan planned to sell the cattle and farm the Gillie land. “It’s valuable land,” Evaline said, knowing already what Kestract would pay for it if she found oil anywhere near it. She’d been wrong only in that the price had gone higher than even she could have imagined.
She touched the gray pencil marks on the wallpaper beside the refrigerator. Joanne and Jake, each one’s height marked in meters up through their high school years, when both refused to stand against the wall with a ruler stuck across the tops of their heads anymore. In the corner of the floor, saturated into the tongue-and-groove oak planks, was a round purple stain from the jar of pickled beets she’d thrown at Harlan’s head when he told her about the affair. First the affair. Then his death. The quagmire of their marriage, of the town. All of it inescapable. Here were the two worn bowls on the floor where feet had stood in front of the stove every night for a hundred years, stirring, stirring. Upstairs, the room where Joanne was born, and out back two placentas planted beneath grafts of loblolly pines. Somewhere out east, Joanne’s real father, oblivious. There were many things Evaline regretted.
Joanne rapped on the door.
Evaline called, “Since when you need an invitation?”
Joanne stepped in, her tennis shoes clean and white like they were bought yesterday. They probably were. “What’s that?” She pointed at the coffee machine spitting into the brown-tinged pot.
“Don’t start,” Evaline said.
“Where’s the one I sent you?”
“The thing with a thousand buttons?” Evaline opened a cabinet and pulled glasses out onto the counter to pack. “Your father fixed this one last month.”
“The espresso machine does not have a thousand buttons.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Evaline handed Joanne a mug. “He had to prove things could be fixed. Air conditioners, baby birds.”
“Glad you’re home, Joanne.”
Joanne took the mug but wrapped it in a sheet of packing paper. “The movers are outside. Have you even started prepping?”
“I taped those boxes together.”
“They charge extra to pack it for you.”
“Since when does an upcharge bother you?” Evaline handed Joanne another cup. “When is Kestract’s cleanup here?”
“They’re sending a crew,” Joanne said. “Don’t worry about it.” She reached for tape. “You didn’t have to retire, you know. You’re too young for a nursing home.”
“Retirement community. I can’t stay here.”
“So, work up at headquarters.”
“I’ve done all I should.” Evaline sipped the new brew. “It’s 500 gallons, Jo. There’s mercury in it.”
“I said they’re coming. Jesus, Mom, I just got here. It’s not like I dumped the water, personally.”
“I didn’t say you did.”
“You didn’t do it, either.”
“Have you had coffee?” Evaline turned off the pot.
“Not enough.” Joanne grabbed another mug from the cabinet. “Should have gotten Styrofoam for moving day.” She examined the mug, dried glue smears sealing the handle to the cup. “Daddy’s work?”
“I told you,” Evaline said. “He had to fix everything.”
“Don’t talk like that.” Evaline tore tape off a dispenser with her teeth. “He did his best.”
“AA would have been better.”
Evaline closed the box. “You know they used to grow cotton here?”
Joanne shook her head.
“Destroyed the soil. Dust Bowl came. Then cattle. Weeds. Harlan always had to prove something could be brought back from the brink.”
“But you’ve given up on it.”
“I wouldn’t call moving closer to grandkids ‘giving up.’ Jesus, Jo, did you forget how to have a decent conversation with another person while out on that platform?”
“I’m just saying, Daddy would never have left this place. You run out the moment he’s gone.”
“I’m sure Kestract would lease you back the house if you want it that bad.”
“It’d go to weeds, again,” Joanne said. “Not the same without Daddy here.”
“I don’t want to fight with you, Jo. You haven’t been here five minutes, and all I want is your help putting things in boxes and taping them shut. Can you do that?”
“I tried to come earlier.”
“The funeral couldn’t wait.” Evaline threw open a cabinet beneath the sink.
“Daddy wasn’t going anywhere.”
“But the spill was. Is.” Evaline began tossing boxes of trash bags and parchment paper onto the floor.
“Screw this town. What’s it done for you lately, anyway?”
“Stay here, screw here. Which is it, Jo?” Evaline straightened her back. “I need to speak to the movers.” She pushed the door and went out onto the porch. Harlan still sat on the table.
Evaline watched as the movers rolled a furniture dolly down a metal ramp. Stray seed and corn kernels crunched under boots. There’d be no corn next year. No beans or beets or even turnips, which Harlan had grown out of spite toward Evaline’s momma. With the land all sold, oil rigs could move even closer, keep pumping the dying land like defibrillators.
Evaline surveyed the dead lilacs and then looked past them.
Out across the field, the saltwater crept like fingers out of a grave, sliding through the plow furrows. Evaline swallowed. She’d found dozens of sites for Kestract to drill, but all of them had been far away from her home; she hadn’t wanted them here, exploiting the cracks in the Gillie farm’s shale. Harlan, with his soaked liver and stubborn pride, had left blight in his wake every way he could. She considered knocking the ashes across the porch, sweeping him under the boards to lie forever with the bones of raccoons and rabbits. She picked up the urn, felt the metal ribs running from lid to foot like furrows.
In geologyit was“fissility,” the ability of rock to split along planes of weakness. It happened in marriages, too. Friendships. Whole towns. Fissility happened when the clay particles that first formed the shale aligned during initial compaction. Evaline shook her head. The only way for things to break was to line them up nice in the first place. She looked out over the land. She’d been so busy since Harlan died that she hadn’t had a chance to go further than the length of the driveway to the road; she’d like to see it one last time, before Kestract owned it forever.
“Be right back,” Evaline called. “Left some tools out in the field.”
“I’ll come,” Joanne said. “I’m supposed to be working while I’m here. Checking the site counts as work, right?”
“Boxing plates counts as work.”
Joanne rolled her eyes and handed Evaline the truck keys off the hook from inside the door.
“You never do listen.” Evaline turned the truck key over in her hand, feeling for an imprint of Harlan’s thumb in the worn plastic. The truck door screeched as she opened it.
“Hold him.” Evaline handed Harlan’s remains to Joanne. The engine fought turning over, just like Harlan on mornings after drinking at the Elks Club bar. It heaved into gear, and Evaline turned off the drive into the grass.
Away from the house, geese swept the plow furrows of shorn cornfields, rooting for kernels spit from the thresher before fall. In late September, when the stalks were tall, she’d cut corridors through the fields, tracing with her finger and the tractor’s tires the design Harlan had drawn years ago on yellowed paper. The maze had been his idea, something for the kids. He’d sketched the first maze when Joanne and Jacob were little enough to sit beneath the kitchen table at dinner, passing rolls back and forth in their fort buttressed by table and chair legs. Each year he’d updated the design, adding more corridors and forced turnarounds. Dead ends.
“You remember the mazes?” Evaline asked.
“I remember getting lost in one. Took you an hour to realize I was gone.”
“Should I have tied a balloon to your wrist?”
“I liked balloons.” Joanne turned the vent toward her, her nails white-tipped and glossy at the ends of her long, slender fingers.Both Evaline and Harland had large, panhandle palms. Harlan’s were strong; he’d dug his pencil as deeply into paper as he’d dug plow chisels into the resisting fields. In winter, after the maze-goers were gone, the candy booths closed, and Harlan too blind and blurred to drive the tractor, Evaline had returned, cropping the field for the last time, leaving what fell for the geese.
“Your daddy never could do anything in a simple line.” She drove into the ruts in the field. “Couldn’t even till straight.” She sideswiped a puddle.
They drove out to the back line. Despite the cold morning, barehanded workers clipped wire threads from poles, fencing that Harlan had unspooled and stapled himself back before they were married. Constance Wimberley’s son, Ronnie, worked in the crew. He snapped a line, severing a section of fence. Evaline stared at his bearded face, searching, as always, for Harlan.
Months prior, the rig workers drove in bulldozers. They drove in fenceposts long as telephone poles on the backs of flatbed trucks, and mosquito-tongued machines whose reels of cable tickled the dust of the bones of the first Gillies, buried a century ago here, their wooden crosses as gone as their bodies.
“Red-tailed hawk,” Evaline said, pointing at a bird perched on a fence pole down field, scanning for mice. “Remind me to mark it in the book.”
“What book?” Joanne leaned, trying to spot the bird.
“The book,” Evaline said. “I told you. Your daddy took to bird-watching before he died.”
Sometime in old age, they’d become people who wrote down in notebooks the kinds of birds they saw. They’d puzzle out the species and genus of birds by the angle of wing tips and degree of slope to the beaks.
“Getting old is easier than getting young,” Harlan had said. “’Cept for the dying part.”
“You’d be dying less fast if you’d finished your drinks slower.”
“I survived war,” he’d answered. “Everything else is dying slow.”
For all his pain, Harlan had liked his birds. He drank less the days he heard meadowlarks singing from the fenceposts or owls calling out in the pre-dawn dark. Leasing the land and selling the mineral rights beneath it had meant money—his money—would be there for things like trips to ID birdsong in Costa Rica and haul long scopes into Colorado forests, hoping for glimpses of snowy owls in flight.
With the money, they’d get an RV, drive far enough away that they couldn’t smell the diesel or see the lights on the drill glaring all through the night. They’d visit Jake and his family.
Harlan hadn’t lived long enough to hold a check from the lease, though.
“I need you to know something.” Joanne took a cigarette out of her pocket.
“You started smoking?” Evaline tried to snatch it out of her hand.
“Why’d you bring Daddy’s urn out here?” Joanne asked, dodging her mother.
“If I left him, the movers might pack him.”
“You’re going to spread him at the old graveyard.” Joanne lit the cigarette.
Joanne sucked, the end of the cigarette glowing red. “I know about Daddy,” she said. She cracked the window.
Evaline flicked the wiper blades, clearing frost and fog off the glass. “Know what?”
“That he raised me as his, even though I wasn’t.”
Evaline stopped the car, the sound wall of the drill site rising in front of them like a padded fortress.
“Where did you hear that?”
“When I came last,” Joanne said, eyes fixed on the dash. “When he was in the hospital. Probably the morphine made him do it, but at least he was finally honest.” She turned to Evaline. “That’s more than you ever were.”
“Harlan is your daddy,” Evaline said. “He raised you. That’s all that matters.”
“No,” Joanne said. “It’s not.”
“That your cleanup crew?” Evaline pointed at a line of trucks rumbling down the back road toward the drill pad. “Where’s the clean dirt?”
“I found my real dad.”
Evaline started the engine and drove up to the walls. “That’s your real dad in your lap.”
“Edgar Stills. You slept with him in college. He’s retired. A rig worker out in the gulf. Has three kids and never knew I existed. Didn’t believe it till the DNA test came back. You think I wouldn’t want to know I have two other brothers and a sister?”
“You couldn’t make the funeral but you had time for all that?”
“That’s your response?”
“Yes,” Evaline said. “Satisfied?” She put the truck in park.
“No.” Joanne set the urn in the middle and threw open the door. “My mother lied to me my whole life. You are my real mother, right?” She dragged on the cigarette, then tossed it in the mud beside a collection of spent butts abandoned by drillers. “Least he was honest with me. That’s backbone you never had.”
Evaline stiffened. Harland had used the same words when he argued for signing the lease and she’d resisted, anticipating the fight from the town. “Have some backbone.”
“Morning, Ms. Gillie. Mrs. Gillie.” A man in a hard hat patted the hood of the truck. “Heard you were coming.”
“Heard we had an accident,” Joanne said. “Too bad. We’d had a clean record here.”
The man handed Joanne a hard hat and extended another to Evaline through the open door. “Crew will get it contained in no time. I can show you the extent of the spill,” he said. “It won’t reach the house.”
“What’s it matter?” Evaline asked. “Aren’t you tearing it down tomorrow, anyway?”
The man smiled. “Not my paygrade, ma’am.”
“Wednesday,” Joanne said. “In case moving takes longer than expected.” She turned to Evaline. “I signed the papers.”
Evaline took the hat. “I’ll be a minute.”
“Movers will need you,” Joanne said. “Don’t wait for me.” She followed the man behind the sound wall.
In the pickup, Harlan’s urn rested in the dent on the bench seat. The dent was deep, pressed round from years of Evaline’s widening bottom. She shut off the truck, her body suddenly hot and spots dancing at the corner of her eyes. She glared at Harlan’s urn. He’d found one more thing to take with him before dying: Joanne. She felt her blood drain into her stomach. Her fingers went numb, and she flexed, trying to shake out the tingles. “How could you?” she asked.
Joanne had been right; Evaline did want to scatter his ashes at the graves of his kin. But now.
She tucked Harlan under her coat and slid out of the cab, grabbing gloves from the dash as she went. She set the hard hat on her head and trailed after the man and Joanne, then veered away from the direction of the incoming crew and toward the drill. A tanker truck, sloshing with water, waited beyond the sound wall. The enclosure was unfinished, but Evaline had watched it knitting closer together each day, swallowing the back field whole. The tanker’s reservoir vibrated as generators revved, ready to blast the fresh frack water through cracked shale and deep into the broken Gillie ground. The drill exploited the weakest planes of the bedrock.
Evaline went cold, seeing everything in her life as a drill: Constance Wimberley, Harlan’s dereliction to drink, her own decisions to let some things stay buried and others rise up, poisoning everything in their revelation. She’d led Kestract up and down the coast, signed a lease that ruined ancestral fishing shores, made farmland sprout pump jacks; she’d been foolish to think they wouldn’t close in around her home, too. No place or thing existed in isolation, Evaline realized.
She rounded the tanker and tugged the worn leather work gloves high on her wrists. She climbed the ladder, the rungs slippery with frozen spray. In her old work coat, hard hat, and boots, she’d look just like field crew from behind, her ponytail tucked down the back of her shirt. Evaline unscrewed the fill cap and poured Harlan inside.
“Here’s your backbone,” she said as the ash dust plumed up in her face. “Two square miles of rigid shale.” She emptied the last dregs of Harlan into the tank. When the water fired, the fractures it made would fuse Harlan’s burned bones with the bedrock of the farm, forever. He would seep up through the cracks and into the soil. He would rise, whole, like the day she met him. The way she wanted him to stay.
She resealed the tube and climbed back down the tanker. She left Joanne and drove back to the house, the empty urn by her feet.
Out in the field, a tanker backfired like a gun, and the geese, no strangers to the sound of shot, erupted off the sleeping fields, honking. They lifted together like a congregation rising and soared away to other fields. The survivors of winter and the long flight south would circle back like the loops in the maze Harlan had drawn each year, like the pattern of forward and backward momentum that was living and dying and living again. They’d pass back through come summer, after the salt-stained soil had been scooped out in chunks and the ground filled in with dust and crushed rock from some foreign place. Spring would sow young cornstalks and grass in the dead roots of the old, when Harlan would flow into the veins of unfurling green stems, rooting like he’d always wanted.
She parked beside the moving truck, stepping out and sinking into the clay; the ground tried to keep what it wanted.
“Momma, where’s Daddy’s urn?” Jake handed a box to the mover.
“I scattered him,” Evaline said.
Jake nodded. “I figured you would.” He went back inside, the storm door slamming behind him.
“Buried you,” Evaline said to the field. “Now tell the old ladies to hush.” She wiped the mud off her boots on the steps.
Evaline went inside. She pushed aside boxes to the wall where the height marks marched up like ants. She took a knife from a box and dug into the wall, peeling the strip like skin from bones. The house had sheltered them from heat, rain, and dust. It had kept the town out and the secrets in, burying them within its walls. Evaline rolled the wallpaper and rubber banded it tight, then dropped it in a box. Harlan was the land; but she was the house, and the house was her, and she would take what was hers in the end.
“Salt Land” derived from plans for a collection of linked stories about a family in the South. Each story has an ecological bent, stemming from my interest in ecology and environmental protection. Religion sneaks in often, too. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is endemic in Colorado, where I live now, with 300 new well applications pending in my neighborhood alone. My concern for what havoc this chemical industry might cause in residential neighborhoods led to my researching health and environmental impacts of fracking—and down a rabbit hole of stories about the destruction inflicted on communities and ecosystems by the oil and gas industry.
My family hails from Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri, so my stories started in the South, but as I’ve settled into Colorado, my characters have begun migrating westward, too. Stories like “Salt Land” mix my love of the natural environment with my fears for its future. I hope they’ll serve some small purpose in tuning a reader or two into the uphill battle we face to rein in carbon emissions, restock the seas, protect and preserve open lands, and reckon with our culpability in bringing the climate to this dire state. I’m hopeful, though, as I must be—I want my three-year-old to grow up to get lost in the mountains, the plains, or the woods, if she wants to.
Amanda Baldeneaux is the development director for a nonprofit serving children with special needs. She’s also a contributing editor to Fiction Unbound. She holds a bachelor’s in English with an emphasis in creative writing, and a master’s in teaching secondary English literature. She is a graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s two-year Book Project program, a Lighthouse Lit Fest Masters Class Workshop, and the 2019 Tin House Winter Workshop. An army brat, she now lives in Colorado with her husband, daughter, two dogs, a cat, and a pollinator garden for native bees. This is her first published work of fiction.
The Early Bird Special
To many readers of the literary journal scene, Jacob Appel is a familiar name. He’s published in a slew of places such as AGNI, StoryQuarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Boston Review, to name just a few. Jacob also won our 2007 Editors’ Prize with his story “Creve Coeur.” You can purchase the issue with his winning story here.
In the January/February 2009 issue of Poets & Writers, Jacob wrote his essay “The Case for Contests” (sadly, it is not available on the PW website). Among the many nuggets Jacob tosses out, there is this: “My best advice is that one should submit to contests early and often.”
We agree! The submission period for our annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize is now open. To celebrate the 20th year of our contest, we would like to offer you an additional issue of The Missouri Review at no extra cost if you submit your entry during the month of June. Winners in each genre receive $5,000, plus a featured publication in our spring issue—making this one of the top literary prizes in the country. Three finalists in each genre will also receive awards and be considered for publication.
The entry fee of $20 includes a year-long, 4-issue subscription. To take advantage of our special offer, simply submit your entry between June 1st and June 30th, and your subscription will automatically be upgraded to include a 5th issue, in digital format, for free. You may choose to receive the rest of your subscription in hard copy or in digital format. Digital format includes full access to our print version—plus the audio version of the magazine, allowing you to hear every poem, story, and essay performed by either the author (such as Judith Sloan’s 2008 Audio Documentary essay) or a professional reader (such as Kevin McFillen’s reading of Paul Guest’s poetry).
It would be super smart to read our full contest guidelines and then you should absolutely submit your contest entry by mail or online. As always, please feel free to contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about the whole kit-n-kaboodle.
1998 Editors' Prize Winner
Our 1998 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize winner was Alice Fulton, a widely published author with one book of fiction and several books of poetry to her credit. Her story, “Happy Dust,” is set in the early twentieth century on a farm governed by Mamie, a pregnant mother of four who is suffering from tuberculosis. She faces the prospect of orphaning her children, of delivering a child who will die during labor, or of delivering a child who will live briefly and miserably. In her desperation she seeks out miracle cures; she makes a pilgrimage to holy ground and prays that the baby not be a “blue baby or an idiot,” that it be born “modern, a twentieth-century child, with no muck or mire, no caul or purple mother’s marks upon it.” Armed with her prayer and Indian Perfection Medicine that she received from a nun, she faces her labor with mettle and grit. Read more at
2000 Editors' Prize Winner: "Coney Island in Winter"
The deadline for this year’s Editors’ Prize is only days away. Continuing our look at previous Editors’ Prize winners, the 2000 fiction entry “Coney Island in Winter” by Dana Kinstler Standefer. It’s the story of a woman, who, concerned for her weight, drinks only iced coffee or Tab for lunch. She works for the androgynous Bob Scheinman, a designer of party dresses, and the story revolves around their relationship, and her own aspirations to become a designer. There’s an odd sexual tension to their relationship from the start that begins to escalate once she makes her designing aspirations apparent to him. He even suggests they make a baby together. However, Bob is dying—it’s never revealed what he is dying of, but it’s not hard to guess. The story has a theme which, interestingly, explores both weight-obsession and androgyny, observing how the fashion world appeals to a fantasy of what women want to become, making the “normal” woman more of an androgynous figure. Read the story:
For more information on this year’s contest, click the link on our homepage, or got to http://missourireview.com/contest
1997 Editors' Prize Winner
Our 1997 Editor’s Prize winner, Anne Miano, was also an author who had not been previously published. “The Oboist” features a narrator who is, to begin with, a violist. As her skills progressively improve, attention is increasingly focused on her. As a result, she develops a tremor that makes violin playing impossible. She stutters and is forced to recite Hamlet at the kitchen table. She leaves her violin and takes up the oboe, grateful that it is “virtually impossible to have a solo career as a concert oboist.” Her domineering mother who dreams Julia will one day be center stage as a premier violinist never forgives her, but Julia is happy in her anonymity. Or rather, she is safe. That is until a neighbor begins eavesdropping while she practices. He leaves notes of praise and Julia’s tremor returns. Her borderline agoraphobia forces her to leave her position at the New York Philharmonic and take a position with an orchestra in California. There she lives in blissful solitude until she encounters Margaret and Walter, two unconventional shepherds who gather the lonely and forgotten and feed them tuna casserole and offer them a space in which to be their own imperfect selves. Read more at