An Interview with Kermit Frazier
In the following interview, TMR intern Jed Graham talks with Kermit Frazier about his essay “Snow.” In that essay, Frazier delves into his childhood years spent in the Washington, DC, area during a pivotal period of American history. “Snow” was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest and first appeared in print in TMR 42:2. You can read the essay here.
A revised version of “Snow” also appears as the second chapter in Kermit’s recently released memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, published by McFarland Publishing. First Acts is a candid and emotionally evocative glimpse at his coming-of-age as a Black youth, set against the backdrop of the social revolutions of mid-twentieth century America.
Jed Graham: “Snow” begins with a powerful metaphor for the Black experience in America. Would you say this metaphor embodies your philosophy about where we are culturally and as a nation?
Kermit Frazier: Well, I suppose that one key expression, which appears in both the opening paragraph and as the final words of “Snow,” is “the stuff of dreams.” And if the dream, the ideal in some respects, is a kind of complex, substantial integration in this country or at least a respectful mixing of races, ethnic groups, classes, even points of view, perhaps, then yes, it’s still, forever, seemingly, “the stuff of dreams” as far as I’m concerned.
JG: Your childhood took place during a momentous time in American history. As you point out in “Snow,” segregation was on its last legs, and integration brought with it new benefits and complications. As a part of the generation that grew up during these times, how is your perspective different from the generations that came before you and those that came afterward, and do we get to see more of this perspective in First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age?
KF: I suppose that whatever perspectives there are of generations that came before me are rooted principally in the portraits of my parents, who were born in Washington, DC, in the 1920s. My grandparents migrated to DC earlier as young adults from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. And all of them, parents and grandparents alike, knew de jure (by law) segregation and lived through it, even thrived through it in many respects, despite it all. My memories of segregation, though, are much more short-lived, and my kids have no such memory, so to speak. And I suppose you might call that some sort of “arc of history.” Nevertheless, de facto segregation—segregation in reality—persists. Much of it has to do with housing patterns and perceptions of difference and, of course, at times out-and-out deadly discrimination still. Driving, walking, breathing while Black.
As far as the entire memoir is concerned, the actions, and incidents, are rooted in the past, principally the 1950s and ’60s, although, of course, my present self is watching over in perspective my past selves, so to speak. Also, the final chapter, “Flux,” is an afterword, whose perspective is essentially 2020, both literally and metaphorically.
JG: An especially poignant moment in “Snow” is the recounting of your mother’s experience during the upheaval of urban renewal/removal. You wrote, “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.” How strongly does her experience echo today’s issues of “social and economic isolation,” and “increased gentrification?”
KF: First of all, let me say that both my mother and my father were extraordinary people. I’m largely here and who I am because of them, however critically I’ve also managed to shape myself as myself. My mother was just seven years old when her father died of meningitis at thirty-two in 1932. Her mother was only twenty-nine, suddenly widowed with four kids. She went to work during the Depression as a housekeeper for white families, helping in some sense to raise their kids as she strongly raised her own. Back then, a lot of my mother’s relatives lived in Southwest DC, which is the smallest of the four sections of the originally diamond-shaped, one-hundred-square-mile nation’s capital. But in 1847, Virginia, which, along with Maryland, donated land to create DC, had all the land she’d donated retroceded to her. Land across the Potomac River, essentially Alexandria. Supposedly, some say, because folks wanted to preserve the active slave trade there. But that’s another story. . . In any event, that’s why Southwest is DC’s smallest quadrant and why DC is about sixty-eight square miles rather than the original one-hundred. In fact, if you look at a map, you can still trace the vestiges of the southwestern diamond shape by including Arlington County, VA.
Southwest was more swampy and mosquito-ridden and thus less desirable, which is why Black folks could live there in their “shotgun” houses. But then the federal government wanted the land for itself, claimed it by eminent domain, and Black folks, all folks, had to move. And that’s not only part of the story of my mother’s memory but part of the continual co-optation through eminent domain or gentrification without building affordable housing. And that’s a main root of increasing homelessness today in cities across the country. It’s something I briefly allude to in “Flux: An Afterword,” the final chapter of First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age.
JG: What are some positive lessons you hope that individuals and families who are bearing the brunt of the current iteration of inequality can glean from “Snow” and your memoir?
KF: First of all, that memory is more than a “theatricalization of the self,” as one writer has essentially put it. It can also be both an anchor and a perspective that affects change. Look how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go. And also, that growing up itself should be a form of positive integration as one strives to merge aspects of oneself into a meaningful, positive, progressive whole. As for the country as a whole, well, that’s a whole other story.
JG: You are a playwright, TV writer, essayist, and now a memoirist as well. How has working in these different genres challenged you as a writer?
KF: Even before I enrolled in the PhD program in English at the University of Chicago, I was writing prose fiction. Then when I dropped out of that program after a year to study acting at NYU, I kept writing and had a couple of short stories published in literary journals. I didn’t write my first full-length play, which had actually begun as yet another piece of prose fiction, until the characters just wouldn’t shut up while I was acting in a play off-off-Broadway. (It was a revival, by the way, of Paul Green’s 1940s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son.) From then on, I switched to writing plays, although I continued to write prose fiction, off and on—and still do—being a playwright was suddenly essential to me and my artistic relationship with theater, especially since acting wasn’t getting me all that far. So, I kept focusing on writing plays and getting them produced. Much later I got my first television writing job, worked in Los Angeles a bit, then back to New York and on to the wonderful Ghostwriter, which I helped to create and for which I was a head writer, and then on from there—more than a dozen different television series in various genres thus far. And through it all, I’ve learned that for me, television writing is as much about making a living as it is about creating, however wonderful that can always be, while being a playwright is first about complete ownership of one’s artistic vision and then about possibly making a living.
Meanwhile, I was writing the occasional essay and book review. And then, twenty years ago, I began looking back more on my life, how I grew up, and the twists and turns of it all, which led me to begin writing about it. But I wasn’t interested in crafting some chronological autobiography or memoir, which I think would have bored me, but rather in writing a series of discrete essays, memories, each of which would begin with and grow from, or be rooted in, some metaphor. That approach was much more interesting to me. “Aspects of perception,” one of my early working titles, was more interesting to me creatively than rote, chapter-by-chapter chronology. Hence, most of the titles of the ten chapters in my memoir are one word— “Snow,” “Drive,” “Pee,” “Fire,” “Ironing,” “Geometry” —that are both concrete and image-bearing. Or they are expressions that circle and then embrace both the concrete and the metaphorical— “How I Danced,” “Reading Apprehension,” “Of Crickets and Boys.” It’s a way, I suppose, to “see” three-dimensionally as I write in whatever form. And hopefully, in some sense, each form “informs” the others as I write, as I shuffle between, or perhaps more ricochet among, them.
JG: Your body of work spans the full range of audience age groups. Are there themes or common threads that, say, individuals who watched Ghostwriter as children can revisit in your plays, essays, and memoir?
KF: Hmm. How to answer that question. . . I would say, of course, that principally I write about people, characters who are striving to define, refine, or rediscover themselves. And their struggle and drive grow out of specific needs, desires, and obsessions. To live, to be alive, after all, is to want, hope, seek, create, discover. And of course, that which constitutes story, which creates drama, which causes one to lean into what one sees or reads, to want to viscerally experience what happens next, is the obstacles characters face, be they internal or external. Hence, the characters in Ghostwriter, the multi-ethnic group of smart, curious, courageous young folks in Brooklyn, were striving to simultaneously solve mysteries and to discover more about themselves, to grow. And I hope that’s the same for the characters or narrators in everything I write in whatever form, or genre. That’s perhaps some common thread.
JG: In recent years, one of your early plays, Kernel of Sanity has received renewed attention. How does the theater world of today compare with that of 1978 when it comes to getting your plays into production?
KF: Actually, Kernel of Sanity, is that first play that I wrote while acting in Native Son off-off-Broadway. That very next year I was fortunate enough to have it selected to be workshopped at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. It wasn’t formally produced, though, until 30 years later, by Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre in New York. But the wonderful, Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel, selected it in the spring of 2020 as the inaugural presentation in her new online series, “Bard at the Gate,” which she created and produced to showcase what she considered to be overlooked plays. And that generated a full-page feature article in the “Arts and Leisure” section of the New York Times (June 24, 2020) entitled, “A Timely Reading for an Overlooked Play.” That attention has generated further interest in my work, ironically, I suppose, during the pandemic and hence online. Overall, though, except for the necessary “BIPOC Demands for White American Theater” movement that has caused theaters to deal more honestly, if still fitfully, with a number of inclusion issues, getting one’s plays produced remains an incredible challenge. Nevertheless, it’s always about the work. There’s nothing for me quite like being in a theater, in rehearsal for a new play of mine. That’s what I’m forever seeking. But of course, one must write it first. And writing, in whatever form or genre, will always be what I do.
Kermit Frazier’s more than twenty-five plays have been produced at such theaters as the New Federal Theatre, Detroit Repertory Theatre, 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.
Jed Graham is a 2022 summer intern at the Missouri Review and a junior at Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri, where he is majoring in English and creative writing.
“Sweet Feet” by Amy Shea
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “Sweet Feet,” essayist Amy Shea reflects on her discoveries during a summer spent volunteering as a foot-care assistant for Boston’s homeless population. The essay was a finalist in our 2022 Perkoff Prize contest for writing about health and medicine.
by Amy Shea
When I first met Rebecca, I was taken aback by her stature; she was thin, so thin, likely weighing no more than a hundred pounds. She was missing some teeth, and she kept her hair short, complaining of sometimes intense head pain. Her skin clung to her bones, and she walked with a cane. She was less than ten years older than I: in her late forties. Some days, she would come in spirited and energized, one time regaling us with a story of doing free sessions of goat yoga that had been offered near South Station. Other days, she’d come in more subdued and would sit quietly, not making eye contact.
It was 2018, and for the summer I was volunteering as a foot care assistant at a day shelter for homeless persons. Walking is a primary mode of transport for many homeless; therefore, foot health needs to be addressed with those experiencing homelessness. Problems can include athlete’s foot, foot pain, improperly fitting shoes, immersion foot, calluses, corns, blisters, and loss of toes due to untreated infection or frostbite. The most common ailments we saw in the clinic were blisters from ill-fitting shoes, as well as athlete’s foot and immersion foot from wet and dirty socks and from using shared showers in the shelters.
Dr. Jim O’Connell is the founder and president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), which opened in 1985. In its thirty-plus years, it has grown into a behemoth of safe spaces for those in need, its jewel being the Barbara McInnis House, the 104-bed medical respite unit on the main campus, plus additional sites around Greater Boston, including the foot care clinic inside St. Francis House, where I volunteered. The main campus, situated in downtown Boston across the street from Boston Medical Center, offers a plethora of services, including a dental clinic, a pharmacy, an eye clinic, an outpatient clinic for regular doctor visits for both adults and families, specialty care for those living with HIV, support for transgender people, a behavioral health unit, a substance use disorder unit, as well as a street team that meets a subgroup of homeless people (those sleeping the roughest of the rough) who can’t or won’t enter a shelter.
Dr. O’Connell wrote about his experience as a street doctor in the book Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor. The first chapter, “The Footsoak,” leads the reader through O’Connell’s entry into street medicine, where he first began tending to the feet (and other ailments) of homeless people in Boston’s oldest and largest shelter, Pine Street Inn. O’Connell writes:
In keeping with the obvious biblical allusion, the footsoak inverts the usual power structure and places the caregiver at the feet of each patient and far from the head…After wandering the city for hours, suffering exposure to the extremes of weather, and then standing in a series of queues awaiting entrance to the shelter, a bed ticket, and the evening meal, homeless persons relished the chance to sit and rest while someone cleansed and soothed their feet. (16)
Having read about Dr. O’Connell’s experience, I was compelled to apply as a foot-care assistant. Although I’d never been homeless, as a hiker and someone who didn’t own a car and therefore walked nearly everywhere, I understood the role that feet play in our health. Without healthy feet, so much of our autonomy can quickly be lost.
Leading up to my first day, I was given the foot-care assistant duties and responsibilities sheet that outlined the basics of what I’d be doing: setting up basins for foot soaks and working with nurses to assess the condition of patients’ feet, distributing socks and towels to patients, assisting patients with the application of creams and powder for the feet, engaging patients in conversation (to establish rapport, which can result in the identification of further medical issues), disinfecting and washing basins, and assisting with restocking medical supplies and other administrative tasks. Yet I was still unsure what it would actually be like. I was nervous about the unknown: what the place would look, feel, sound, and smell like. I was concerned about whether I’d do a good job and be able to follow procedures and processes. I worried about trying to remember when you needed gloves on versus when you needed to take them off. What if I was bad at handling someone’s feet? Or didn’t know how to talk to the patients? Or got in the way of the medical staff?
Ultimately, I understood that I couldn’t know it all and that my fears wouldn’t be assuaged until I got there and began putting my training into practice. But I hadn’t expected to be schooled on the importance of something as seemingly small as the sock and its power to heal, to comfort, to offer a small moment of feeling human—of feeling normal.
How often do you think about socks? Socks get dirty and wet. Of course, I knew that. But that knowledge was now placed in a new context. I had never thought about what might happen if you couldn’t clean or easily replace your socks, and it hadn’t occurred to me just how quickly they became unwearable.
Before volunteering in the clinic, my sock buying had always happened passively. I’d be in Target and know that my husband had more holey socks than not, so I’d throw a pack into the cart for him and then wind my way through to the women’s department, where I’d see some ankle socks and think, Yeah, I could use some new ones too. Those packs of socks would then get absorbed into the cost of all the other Target purchases. But when I started going to the store explicitly to buy socks for the shelter, I was taken aback. I’d think, What do you mean it’s fourteen dollars for a six-pack of men’s crew socks? ‘Expect More. Pay Less’ my ass.
Here’s the thing: not all socks are created equal. I could have bought cheaper socks, but they wouldn’t have had the same padding, softness, or weight to them. A better-quality sock will go further in keeping blisters at bay, something that all too often plagues those who are homeless, because if you can’t afford a home or food, you also probably can’t afford a taxi or an Uber. Even a bus ride is likely out of your means, which leaves you walking miles upon miles to pick up your Social Security check, meet your social workers, get to the doctor, go to the foot clinic, and then, finally, head to the shelter for the night, where you’ll leave your socks on after that long day of walking and sleep with your shoes under your head. But as they say, Boston is a walkable city—thank God for small favors.
Most of the socks in the clinic came from donations. Some socks were individual one-off donations. Sometimes people would coordinate sock drives among their friends and family and bring in a larger haul. The biggest donations the clinic received came from the annually coordinated effort between BHCHP and the Red Sox baseball team: Sox for Socks. In 2017, more than four thousand socks were collected.
Of course, I should have expected to have more than just my ignorance of socks eliminated. One day when I came in for my volunteer shift, I wore a T-shirt from the local REI store that had an image of evergreen trees and “Take It Outside” written beneath. It was the first time I’d worn a shirt with writing on it into the clinic. I generally figured it was better to avoid this so as not to offend someone: no sports teams or sayings that could be otherwise contentious. But going outside, being out of doors, what was offensive about that? But what happens when you take something and place it in a new context? What might be considered virtuous or admirable can become mocking and distancing. One man pointed at my shirt as he was bending down to scrub his feet with a small piece of pumice and said, “I’m outside all the time.”
Rebecca wasn’t the only patient who would stand out and hold a space in my memory. On my first day at the clinic, I found myself tickling the feet of a grown man. He plopped down in the chair and boisterously answered the requisite questions on the intake form: name, date of birth, did he have diabetes or any known allergies, had he received a flu shot, did he smoke (we always specified that we meant cigarettes), where his primary care physician was located (at this shelter or somewhere else), and where he spent most nights. He was jovial, and as I examined his feet, he confirmed that he was in fact quite high. Due to his size, he was unable to bend over to take his shoes and socks off and would need help with the process. I crouched down and untied his shoes, placing them to one side, and took each sock off. Then we filled two buckets, one for each foot, as he couldn’t place both in just one bucket. It was hard to miss the large ankle monitor adorning his left leg. He, like so many others, seemed to be in a perpetual state of liminality. While his feet soaked in the warm, soapy water, he regaled the room full of volunteers and other patients with soapbox banter about how certain local universities were known for their love of weed. After ten minutes or so, I took his feet out of the water, toweled them off, and began massaging cream into them. As I massaged, I heard giggling. I looked up at him, and he said, “Girl, that tickles!”
Then there was Mark, a man around my age, who came into the clinic regularly. He was fit and muscular. He looked like a bodybuilder and was someone I would refer to as the invisible homeless. If you saw this man walking down the street, you’d never know that he stayed in a shelter. He was clean-shaven and had no other visual indicators that he might be experiencing homelessness. As Nick Flynn writes in his memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, “Sometimes I point out that eighty percent of the homeless are invisible, like the proverbial iceberg, that when I walk through the city now every other person I see is someone I know from the shelter, but if you didn’t know you’d think they were on their lunch break, enjoying a little sun” (184).
One morning Mark came in deflated and tired and told us about his previous day, which had begun with him needing to do laundry. He’d thought he had money on his card, but when he got to the laundromat, he realized the card was empty, so he retraced the two miles he’d just walked with a forty-pound bag of laundry in tow to get money from someone he knew so that he could go back to the laundromat. First errand over; on to the next. He waited for the bus to take him to the Department of Transitional Assistance—the local social security offices—to pick up his check, but the bus never came. So, he walked there as well. A late-summer afternoon spent walking from errands to chores and back. It was a day to treat himself: McDonald’s. He’d saved enough money for a double cheeseburger—just enough for the burger. But thirst was getting the better of him on this hot and humid New England day. He asked for a free glass of ice water. The woman behind the counter looked at him like he was crazy and hesitated and mulled over his request. He asked again, unable to understand why his question was such a difficult one to answer. Finally, after him asking multiple times, she gave him the water but no ice.
Daniel came in regularly, yet he still struggled to maintain good foot health. Some days he was cheerfully belligerent, and other days he was borderline abusive, depending on how drunk or how sober he was. Whenever he was asked about allergies, his standard reply was, “Is alcohol an allergy?” This was accompanied by a toothless grin, which was not uncommon with homeless alcoholics. His immersion foot was so bad that the entire bottoms of his feet were covered in wet, ghostly white, pockmarked skin. Their condition was always too bad to let him soak, so we just had him apply a lot of powder to his skin and socks. We also gave him two pairs (against the one-sock policy, as stocks always ran low) that he could layer up in a feeble effort to stave off the damp. The first time I took care of his feet, they looked particularly bad, and when I told him, he shrugged. He’d spent the previous rainy night sleeping under a bridge and was soaked through by morning. What was to be expected? All the socks and foot powder in the world were no match for the streets.
Walter, a veteran who lived upstairs, came in one day with an injury to two of his toes. After one look, one of the nurses insisted that he go to the ER. Two of his toes were such a dark purple they were nearly black, and the concern was that he had an infection that could lead to him losing the toes or, worse, the whole foot. He used a cane but could barely walk a block to the pharmacy. The nurse reassured him that she’d put him in a taxi to make sure he got to the hospital. In another instance, I saw the results of infections neglected or hypothermia in the form of lost toes. When I asked one man, who was missing four toes, one of our routine questions about where he spent most nights, he replied, “Streets, sometimes the back of an abandoned car.”
As the end of my time as a volunteer drew new, I encountered a particularly striking patient. He had waited for so long to get into the clinic that day, and although we were technically past closing time, it wasn’t hard to understand why they’d let him in: he was in a bad way. He walked into the room, slowly and deliberately pushing a walker in front of him, which required all his effort and concentration to do so. Thin and frail, he grimaced as he lowered himself into the plastic chair. He winced as we helped him get his feet into the tubs, as they were in severe pain to the gentlest touch.
After soaking, he needed help applying lotion and getting his fresh pair of socks on. I pulled over the leg support stand to rest his foot on, to minimize his pain. I’d touched a lot of feet over my short time there, but as I rubbed the lotion into his legs, I felt scaly, gritty skin through my gloves, as though it would peel off just with my touch. I’d never felt anything like it before, and I had to swallow my shock, as I didn’t want him to see it on my face. To put his socks on, I rolled them down to the toe and maneuvered over his toes (where his pain was the worst), with as little contact as possible. This was so difficult that he had to brace himself to bear the pain.
One of the staff nurses explained that he likely had peripheral neuropathy—diabetic nerve damage leading to pain, numbness, and weakness, usually in the hands and feet. It’s an all-too-common occurrence among homeless people and was something we often saw at the clinic. Without regular access to healthy foods, diabetes rates are high, and for those who are homeless, this can lead to severe complications that might otherwise be avoided through proper management. When you don’t have a safe place to store your medications, your belongings are stolen all the time, you can’t afford to get to the doctor because the bus ride alone is too expensive, or you’re in too poor health to walk the miles you need to, it’s not surprising that something which would be manageable for the housed becomes.
Pain lived in the foot clinic. It came in all forms and intensities, and I dare think that if someone had had the nerve to show the happy-to-sad-face pain scale to some in there, they would have shoved it right up the person’s backside to illustrate what kind of pain they were in. For some, that pain was so limiting that they couldn’t do basic things on their own, such as removing their shoes and socks, placing their feet in a bucket of water, drying them off, then putting everything back on. I often wondered what they did when they weren’t in the clinic and needed to take their shoes or clothes off, use the restroom, or take a shower. Did they have friends who helped, or did they simply not remove their clothing or take showers?
Community is so important, especially in a setting such as the clinic. Staff and volunteers began each morning before opening the clinic with a team meeting, led by Cecilia, the director of nursing. We’d end our meeting by standing in a circle, each of us with a fist extended into the center. We’d pump our arms and chant, “One, two three: SWEET FEET! WOO, WOO, WOO, WOO!”
Our patients were no different. As with any group of people sharing a common experience, they created tight communities that looked out for one another. They shared food; they shared clothing; they shared worries about their friend who heard voices; they shared jokes. We humans need each other.
On my final day at the clinic, I saw Rebecca once more, and she seemed worse than normal. She sat angled on the chair, in evident pain. Every muscle in her face tensed as she winced. She had an abscess on her bottom. Sometimes it’s hard to understand the kind of physical pain someone is experiencing. But I could feel her pain, if only a little. Years earlier I’d had a year-long battle with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)—the scary staph that no one wants—from a tattoo that had become infected. Boils would pop up randomly on my body, the worst being a large one on my lower back, right beneath the waistline of my pants. Even wearing soft yoga pants, I remember hunching over and crying in pain the ten steps from the couch to the kitchen sink. But there’s where any similarity ended. I had a kitchen sink and a couch. I had a place to shelter in. I had doctors throwing every antibiotic at me they could. I was able to keep my wounds clean so that they healed with no subsequent issues.
I took extra care with her that day, cupping her calf—so small it barely filled my palm—in one hand and her heel in the other to lower each foot softly into the warm water and did the same to take them out. I wrapped the towel around her legs like a baby coming out of a bath, massaged the cream into her skin, moving my thumbs in soft circles. It’s such a small thing, but this contact creates a feeling of intimacy—to treat the body in a hands-on way creates a shared humanity between bodies.
Once her socks and shoes were back on, we helped her up, and the director of nursing took her into a room to look at the abscess. I wanted to give Rebecca a big bear hug to show I cared, but I was afraid I would break her. I settled for tucking her feet into a warm pair of socks, tying her shoes, and helping her to stand. Sometimes we need to feel useful, to help, as much as, or more than, we need help. In the beginning of Stories from the Shadows, Dr. O’Connell writes:
Remember that people have lived through hell and listen carefully to their stories…Each guest was invited into the clinic and addressed by name. Most homeless persons wander our urban landscapes for days without ever hearing someone call them by name, and the response was exuberant. Eyes opened, heads lifted, scowls became smiles. (15)
The motto of St. Francis shelter is Homelessness is an experience, not an identity. The clinic embodied this in practice. I’ve never been homeless. I can’t know what it’s like, but in the foot clinic, the physical and mental effects of not having a home are loud and visible. Foot care may not be the ultimate solution, but it does what it’s intended to do well by offering a brief sanctuary from that frenetic space, a sense of renewal and improving health. Dirty and wet socks came in, pained faces and broken bodies came in. A bucket of warm water and soap would be offered up, along with a choice of sock: gold-tipped, thick, thin, high, short, specialty diabetic socks. People soaked their feet, sat quietly, conversed with others, or even dozed off, leaving with clean feet and the comfort of a new pair of socks.
Amy Shea is an essayist with a PhD and MFA in creative writing from the University of Glasgow, where she wrote her doctoral dissertation, a creative nonfiction work titled Not All Deaths Are Created Equal. Her writing has appeared in Pangyrus, Portland Review, The Massachusetts Review, Spry Literary Journal, Fat City Review, From Glasgow to Saturn, End of Life Studies Group Blog, and the Journal of Sociology of Health & Illness. She works as the writing program coordinator for Mount Tamalpais College, a free community college for the incarcerated people of San Quentin.
“Dislodged” by Josh McColough
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “Dislodged,” Josh McColough expertly weaves together the narrative of a father-daughter road trip with a commentary on the delicate balance of human needs and a vulnerable environment.
Waiting on a landslide in the redwood forest
Two hours south of Grants Pass, Oregon, we encounter a flashing message board declaring Highway 101 closed. Cars are stopped ahead of us at the top of a hill where the road bends into a dark tunnel of trees near Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northern California. Two Caltrans officials in hard hats and reflective vests are turning people around. Heavy construction equipment—dump trucks and excavators on flatbed rigs—passes us in the left-hand lane and disappears into the forest.
“This can’t be right,” I insist, checking my phone. I have not received any alerts. Then again, we just emerged from the mountains, where reception was spotty.
“Can we go around?” my daughter asks.
Google Maps recalculates the quickest alternative route: a three-hundred-mile journey east back through the mountains to the interior of the state, then a return west through the mountains to the coast further south. It estimates the detour to be over seven hours long.
“Nope,” I say.
She is a high school student; I am a college English comp instructor. We are in the middle leg of a post-vaccine road trip down the West Coast—Seattle to LA. It is partly a college visit trip for her, partly an excuse to stretch our legs after a year and a half locked down in front of glowing screens. We are from the Midwest and are fed up with the flat, wearying Chicago suburbs—as two-dimensional and enticing as a Zoom classroom. I hate the virus for thousands of reasons, but particularly for what it wrought on the dynamic experience of a classroom, reducing it to nothing more than glowing foreheads. Postered walls and ceiling fans, fish tanks, gaming chairs, plaid bed covers, fairy-lit shelves, rainbow LED light strips, an occasional bong. But mainly blue LED backlit stares from deep within a hoodie. Student gazes that go on forever into a virtual middle distance while you make an utter ass of yourself on camera discussing the elements of a short story or how to write a literary analysis essay. My daughter and I are on opposing ends of the same horrific livestreaming scholastic train wreck—she knows what it looks like to witness a teacher on camera beg, cry, or yell for someone, anyone to speak up and join in conversation; I know what it looks like when a young person, already on the verge—uncertain and unsure—opts out altogether by going dark.
We needed a change of scenery.
“Never underestimate the impact that the physical landscape has on your mental health,” I tell my daughter before our trip, more as a reminder to me than anything else.
We have just reached the California coast after twisting our way down the Redwood Highway through rugged, unincorporated towns—Idlewild, Darlingtonia, Gasquet (pronounced Gas-kee). People in the towns weren’t unfriendly, but on the periphery was a population who, based on the politics spelled out in bumper stickers on custom trucks, had been living and working remotely by choice long before the virus. Plenty of handmade “No Trespassing” signs, one of which read “No Trespassing! Iraq War Vet with PTSD,” a dripping AR-15 stenciled in spray paint underneath. We snaked through sunlit mountain passes along dried-up creek beds, until a blanket of coastal fog swept over a crest and enveloped the highway for a few sudden low-visibility-on-sheer-cliffside moments. When we emerged, the Pacific opened up before us, gray and soupy. Fog and cloud cover melded together, giving everything a vaporous edge. Monolithic sea stacks peppered the base of dark green marine terraces. It was a revelatory moment for us Midwestern pilgrims, who, though we might not have set out on foot from Missouri, felt an undeniable rush in reaching the end of the westward road. We rolled down the windows and inhaled deeply. Then we rolled to a stop at the flashing sign and the line of cars and people turning back.
We approach the Caltrans official, who repeats the message on the sign. “Road’s closed,” she says and hands us a flier. “You can go back to Crescent City, or you can proceed ahead and wait in line until the road opens again at one o’clock.”
“Okay, but what’s happening?” I ask.
“There are active landslides at Last Chance Grade, and crews are working to shore up the highway,” she says. “If you want to wait in line, they’re distributing bottles of water and granola bars. But once you get in line, there’s no turning back.”
So be it.
After waiting nearly two years to go anywhere, sitting in our car for a few hours in the forest does not feel like such an imposition. Sometimes in order to move forward, you have to stay put for a bit—one of the many lessons imparted to us from the virus. We turn around and claim our moment at Crescent Beach, where we dip our toes in the frigid Pacific and watch a solitary wet-suited surfer bobbing in the waves. We stock up on water and snacks and head into the forest to wait. A flashing police cruiser escorts a line of cars into the forest at a pleasant minimum speed. It feels as though we’re on a guided tour of the redwood forest. We roll down the windows and poke our heads out to look up at the trees. After a few miles, we reach the line of those who ventured before us and stop along the side of the zigzagging road. We don’t know how close or far we are from the construction—from Last Chance Grade.
We emerge from the car, and our eyes are directed skyward. On either side of the road are colonnades of redwoods. Above us, cathedrals soar hundreds of feet and block out all but slivers of the gray-fogged sky. I reach for my phone to FaceTime my wife, but there is no reception. Not one bar.
“Is this place for real?” my daughter asks, not for the first time on this trip.
The road cuts an unnatural, gray-paved path through the woods. The coastal fog has followed us into the forest. The tops of the redwoods sway, yet there is no breeze at ground level. It feels like we are underwater. Voices are small but distinct. Clear. One man tells his kids to put down their damn phones for a second and come out and look around. The kids stay in the car. Another man opens his car door, grabs his camera, and aims his lens upward, the camera’s shutter rapid-fire clicks. A woman worries about having to go to the bathroom. She wonders if she can hold it until the road reopens. The man she’s with directs her into the forest, and she tells him she’d probably get poison oak all over her privates. Another woman climbs atop her camper and peers into the forest through binoculars in a way that signals she knows what she’s looking for. A man emerges from a RV in full spandex; he unhooks a bicycle from the rear rack, straps on a helmet, and turns on flashing LED lights and pedals ahead. “May as well log a few miles while we’re waiting,” he says as he passes us. Another man opens the door to his SUV, setting free two barefoot toddlers, who wobble onto the road. The man is also barefoot. He lights a cigarette. Someone nearby is smoking pot; this seems as good a place as any to do so. A small group of teens in pajama pants and hoodies walks up the side of the road, happy to get away from their parents.
Right now, the road is connecting us differently than when we drove it. Not ten minutes before, the man in the car behind us tailgated me and honked at me for driving slowly, though we were being paced by a police car. I could see his darkened figure in my rearview mirror throw up both of his hands in a “What the hell?” gesture. Now, he gets out of his car, smiles, and says to me, “Not a bad place to be stuck, is it? Just beautiful.”
Wanderers, all of us, forced to be still for a bit. To see what is around us and see one another. These are the kinds of friendships forged among strangers in a church parking lot.
The ground on either side of the road is covered greenly in sword fern and redwood sorrel, bracken fern, wild ginger, trillium, and moss. Shoots of yellow monkeyflower rise above the brush cover. Tanoaks and Pacific rhododendrons (a woman—clearly local—from the car in front of us tells us that we missed them in bloom by about a month) grow between the colossal redwoods. They are what we Midwesterners might think of as good-sized trees—tall but climbable. Though at the feet of behemoths, they appear wispy and decorative. My daughter and I walk across to the other side of the road and look down upon a ravine. The forest floor is brick red, carpeted with dead, needle-like redwood leaves. The trees creak softly.
Then, a whistle—flat, off-key—breaks through the forest, and another whistle calls back. It sounds metallic. It is constant, like a referee’s whistle, but there is no rise time—it starts and ends at full whistle. The whistling surrounds us like the forest itself. Everywhere I turn, it sounds like it’s coming from behind me. A long, off-key whistle. Another that calls back.
An oncoming dump truck blows its horn, echoing like an alpine horn through the forest, and people on the road alert one another. Parents gather kids in their arms, and the truck barrels by us in a whoosh toward what must be Last Chance Grade.
“Good lord,” the woman from the car ahead of us says. “What’s his hurry?”
Everything is short on this trip. Tempers are short. Hotels and restaurants and gas stations are short-staffed, short on menu items, short on services offered. Operating hours of restaurants, cafes, and bars are cut short. Grocery stores are short on items. Trucking companies are short drivers. The window of opportunity to move safely about the country is shortening (the Delta variant is just beginning to spread in the US.). Expectations of a return to absolute freedom are cut short—some states aren’t yet open for business; others never closed.
Still, all routes on our West Coast trip are flush with families packed into trucks, campers, cars, and RVs. Luggage racks, boats in tow, American flags frayed and flapping at speed down every road. It almost resembles what “normal” looked like before, until you’re reminded how far we have to go still. My daughter and I stop at a diner for lunch. The lights are off, but handmade signs insist “We ARE Open.” One of two servers on staff tells us to “sit wherever,” so we find an open table. The place is packed. Our server stops to take our order and explains, “Sorry, it’s just the two of us. And one cook.” The lights are off to save electricity (the owners are clearly short on funds to pay the bills each month during the pandemic). Despite all odds, the server is kind and smiling. She briefly mentions being happy to work again. We don’t understand why. The patrons are short on time and patience. Short on tact. Where’s my goddamn cheeseburger? I ordered it like an hour ago. You want me to go back there and make it myself?
We all fall short sometimes, despite our best efforts.
The whistling in the forest continues. Long and flat. Odd and off-key. Another whistle calls back. I wonder if it might be hikers signaling to one another. My daughter walks along the side of the road, just looking.
I hold the flier about work on Last Chance Grade and am stuck on the name. Any chances are hard enough to come by these days, I think. And everything these past couple of years has felt like a last chance. Just leaving my house to scrounge picked-over store shelves for toilet paper felt like a kind of last-chance endeavor. And truly, I am tired of thinking about last chances. What if the last time I saw my parents was my last chance to have seen them? What if the last time I stepped foot in the classroom was the last chance I had to do so? What about that last time I went to a concert and screamed in revelatory joy? Or the last time I sat inside a coffee shop? Or the last time I went anywhere without a mask? The last time I saw my students in the classroom, in spring of 2020, I told them that we might have a week or two of online classes, then would be back in the classroom for the end of the semester. That was right before spring break. My parting, in-person words were, “Have a great spring break—see you back here in a couple of weeks!” Now, I would really like to have had a chance to say, “I care about all of you; please be safe. Stay with your families or check in on them as much as you can. Love them.” We were not given any last chances to do these things until, suddenly, we had no chances for a while.
The whistling cuts through the forest. Over and over again.
The woman from the car ahead of us says, “Ooh, look, banana slugs! They’re all over the place.”
We haven’t noticed them—tiny ground creatures in a mammoth forest—but once we do, it is difficult not to spot them everywhere. Bright yellow or mustard brown, the uncanny (and unfortunate) shape and size of a larger dog’s penis, but with eyestalks. They creep about on the ground over dead leaves and hang precariously on low-lying brush like obscene, slimy ornaments. They consume the dead, and in their wake is a trail of slime-nutrients that fertilizes the soil. I crouch down to get a picture of one that is the color of a ripe yellow pepper and see an even bigger one right next to my foot.
I realize that I nearly stepped on it.
I am not a geologist, though I am broadly curious about the reasons why it might not be safe to tread upon parts of the earth, whether it be to preserve the privacy of a wounded veteran or because the ground might give way and wash you into the ocean without warning. Not that we humans are great at heeding warning signs given up by the earth. We exist upon massive lithospheric rafts that float on a layer of plasticine rock. The earth’s crust is but the skin of a grape, relative to the rest of the planet beneath us. We are reminded of this when islands burst forth in the middle of the ocean; when a long-dormant volcano awakens; or when World Series games are interrupted by two plates going bump in the night; or when a tsunami arrives, uninvited, to a tropical holiday. These events are unfortunate reminders of precisely who—or what—is in charge here. Still, we too often move through life not considering our size and stature relative to forces and objects that humble us. Geologic time. Plate tectonics. A virus. A couple of degrees’ difference in the oceans’ temperatures. More rain and less snow. No snow and too much rain. Fire tornadoes. A couple of inches more of the ocean and a few hundred thousand more people underwater.
I tell my daughter, “Stand next to that tree and spread your arms out so we can get a sense of scale.”
Some redwoods are hollowed out so cars can drive through them. Not far from where we are is a famous redwood playland (complete with a talking Paul Bunyan) that will cost admission to explore. We don’t consider how long it took for this tree to grow so large, but who isn’t tempted by a priceless photo or social media op? Our inability to see ourselves as tiny points on a much longer ecological or geological spectrum is our uniquely human blind spot. It’s where and how we fall short.
This is what will kill us all, I think, as I click pictures of my tiny daughter at the base of a two-hundred-year-old tree. If last chances are the fuel for redemption, our tank feels so close to empty.
I long to understand why my daughter and I are stuck in a whistling forest. Why our West Coast road trip itinerary—Leg 4, Day 7—was blown to hell by an ominously named piece of land. What I learn, long after we return home, makes me thankful that I did not know about Last Chance Grade while we were there. A 2015 engineering feasibility study characterizes this stretch of Highway 101 as failing frequently and the ground beneath the road as unstable. To a Midwesterner, driving along the edge of the California coast is a vertigo-inducing, heart-palpitating experience anyway. If you are the driver, the fear of falling into the ocean is more omnipresent than the image you had in your head about a fun, carefree, top-down thrill ride along a classic stretch of Americana. If you are a really specific kind of Midwesterner, you may obsessively recall grainy dashboard camera videos of cars jettisoning off the Pacific Coastal Highway into the ocean below. No guardrails, nothing stopping the car’s launch. Each time the road hairpins and the land slips away and the height above the ocean becomes clear, I get dizzy, while attempting to maintain calm for my daughter, who is in the back seat, also sick. As I recall that drive now, my palms are sweating.
But here lies Last Chance Grade, existing at the intersection of physical and human geography. There have been hundreds of landslides in this area, dating back to the late 1800s. Some of the more recent landslides have been caught on camera and are shocking in their force—their ability in moments to wash away human-made structures engineered to be permanent and unmovable. This three-mile stretch of the 101 undulates, fractures, dips and, ultimately, fails because it is built upon four deep-seated landslides that are actively in motion. The highway fails because the ground beneath, part of a large subduction zone, is not stable enough to support a highway. The geography of much of populated California is like this, though, and that a major highway runs across an active landslide may only be surprising to pragmatic Midwesterners who think, “Kind of a silly place to put a road, isn’t it?” But that thinking runs counter to the ethos of California, which my daughter and I learn later as we walk around San Francisco and a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hits at the California-Nevada border, causing rock and boulder slides along another major highway while we traipse up Lombard Street and take pictures. We don’t even feel it because we aren’t standing still.
To the east of the road where we stand is a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, home to thousands of animal species in addition to the old-growth redwoods that have existed for up to a couple of thousand years. To the west of the road, a mile or so, is the Pacific. It pounds the base of the cliff upon which the highway has been built, accepting residual detritus from the landslides. This is the physical geography.
Also to the east of the highway—beyond the UNESCO-protected forest—are multiple tribes of indigenous people who have inhabited the land for centuries. The 101 itself is the main artery that supplies communities up and down the coast with food and other essential goods. Block the artery, and food deserts are created. All human inhabitants are taxpayers. All human inhabitants are affected when the road shuts down and will be affected if the road has to be moved. This is the human geography.
The problem of the road has brought together experts in both human and physical geography to consider solutions. After years of economic impact studies, risk assessments, geotechnical investigations, ground surveys, botanical studies, wetland delineations, traffic studies, biological assessments, the road still fails. The ground is still unstable. People, communities, still are left stranded. Doing nothing is not a viable option. Though perhaps by engaging communities in coming up with a solution together, the devil’s bargain will be less difficult to swallow: Cut into some of the most beautiful, ancient, protected lands to move the highway further east; or tunnel beneath some of the most beautiful, ancient, protected lands to move the highway underground.
The two-mile tunnel is scheduled to open in 2038. As of today, it is estimated to cost $1.3 billion.
The metallic whistling in the forest sounds urgent—a bit like a call for help. I listen for voices—for people calling out—but don’t hear anything. I don’t know what it communicates. I think it sounds lonely, and then it sounds deeply melancholy. I think it sounds like a warning, and then it sounds like an urgent call for help. Dump trucks speed past us in the opposite lanes and blow their horns; the sounds ricochet off of the trees, reverberating bass throughout the forest. Could the whistling be nothing more than construction sounds ahead of us on Last Chance Grade? I am reminded of a story I heard once on NPR about a scientist in search of the quietest place on earth, free of human-made noise—aircraft, traffic, cell phones, construction, voices. You have to travel so far to get away from human noise. I consider how easy it is to hear other travelers’ conversations. People think of forests as quiet places, but they are acoustic marvels. Communication travels efficiently, by evolutionary design. Animal calls seeking a partner in the springtime. Calls warning of predators in the area. Whistling perhaps designed to baffle stranded travelers. I imagine someone up in a tree, blowing a whistle and peering down at me through binoculars, laughing as I turn around to try to find the source.
I remember a story from college of a woman named Julia “Butterfly” Hill who took up residence in the canopy of an old-growth coastal redwood. Later, I learned that the tree is still there—located a few hundred miles from where we were. She lived in the tree for 738 days on a six-foot-by-six-foot platform to protest a lumber company’s clear-cutting practices. In fact, the company’s overlogging resulted in a catastrophic landslide that buried much of the town of Stafford in
Humboldt County in 1996. She was regarded by the public as a nuisance, an eco-warrior, a curiosity, a crackpot, a neo-hippy, a savior. I remember this. From her tiny platform, she took media calls, debated CNN anchors, responded to mail she’d received from critics and supporters, studied field guides to identify the birds that inhabited trees around her; she let the tree sap cover her feet so that she had better grip while climbing. Loggers shouted vile insults up to her. It was all very loud at the time—everyone had an opinion about her, about the loggers and logging company, about the environment and “environmentalists,” who tended to be cast as a fringe, neo-cultist movement. So West Coast.
But since Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s tree residency, it has been proven that trees communicate with one another via an underground network of fungi. They work together to survive by transferring nutrients—carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, hormones, water—to one another. Within a community of trees, there are hubs—mother trees—that nurture their young by way of hundreds of kilometers of fungi below ground. They send excess carbon to the younger seedlings, and if a mother tree is injured or dying, they can send messages to their seedlings to help strengthen them and defend themselves from future issues. Mother trees are vulnerable, though. You take out a mother tree, the system beneath it likely will collapse.
The whistling continues, bouncing off trees.
The distinct whistle remains lodged in my head long after we return from our trip. After the trembling San Francisco, across the interior, seething San Joaquin Valley, down through LA. The whistling follows me. It is a call back to that place—to those hours spent in pause, waiting, looking. But I do not know how to discover the source. I sit with my laptop and some wine and fumble about with far-too-literal search terms.
Whistling in redwood forest.
Whistling noises Pacific northwest redwoods.
Odd metallic whistling redwoods Pacific coast.
Eventually, I find the right combination of words and discover a thread in a forum where others are searching for the same thing. Same location—Jedediah Smith redwoods, Del Norte county, California. Original posters describe the noise as a “referee’s whistle” or “a long, electrical whistling” with another slightly off-key callback. I’m excited by this—others heard the same thing. Crowdsourced responses mean well, sometimes. It is, they say, the trees rubbing against one another. Elk in heat. Bigfoot. Deer. Deer in heat. An owl. Military exercises. Bats. Forestry workers. Mountain lions. A waxwing bird.
A bird. A bird seems like a promising lead, so I search for birds common to that area and become suddenly grateful to the massive online community of ornithological enthusiasts’ meticulous dedication to recording sounds. I listen to dozens of bird sounds with my eyes closed. Pacific wren. Acorn woodpecker. Townsend’s warbler.
Then I hear the unmistakable, indelible off-key whistling and the callback.
Ixoreus naevius. The varied thrush.
I am overjoyed. I call my daughter out of her room, and declare, “I found it!” I play the sound for her, and she says, “Cool,” and recedes back into her iPhone. For me, though, it is a transportive sound. I am back in the forest—in those hours when we were forced to take a good look and listen to where we were. I look up information on the varied thrush, and find it is an ordinary, robin-sized bird. Mostly black with bands of pumpkin orange on its breast, wings, and head. It exists primarily in the Pacific Northwest, though it migrates seasonally up and down the coast when breeding. Still, it is a predominant fixture of the damp, green forests along the Pacific, and like grunge, its haunting call is something of a signature sound of the region. It is also held in mythical regard by both amateur and career bird lovers alike. A post by the US Fish and Wildlife Service about the varied thrush quotes ornithologist and illustrator Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who described the varied thrush as “perfectly the voice of the cool, dark, peaceful solitude which the bird chooses for its home as could be imagined.” In his 1909 book The Birds of Washington, Ornithologist William Leon Dawson described the song of the varied thrush as “a single long-drawn note of brooding melancholy and exalted beauty—a voice stranger than the sound of any instrument, a waif echo stranding on the shores of time.”
I am entranced by the descriptions of the sound itself. I stack field guides on my table at the library, and I thumb through all of their descriptions of the song of the varied thrush:
“Song utterly bizarre: long, vibrant, metallic, breathy notes spaced far apart: zeeeeeeng…. Zoiiiiiiiiing… zeeeerng…” (Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America)
“Song a long, eerie, quavering, whistled note, followed, after a pause, by one on a lower or higher pitch. Call a quivering low-pitched zzzzew or zzzeee and a liquid chup.” (Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America)
“Call a short, low, dry chup very similar to Hermit Thrush but harder; also a hard, high gipf and a soft, short tiup.” (The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America)
It is an elusive, solitary bird, not easily spotted. By all accounts, the varied thrush likes it that way. How grunge. I stare at pictures of the varied thrush, and it sparks another memory. I recognize the bird somehow, and I can’t figure out from what. Eventually, the Internet tells me that it is the bird that appears for a few seconds in the opening credits of the ’90s television show “Twin Peaks,” which is so fitting, I decide its use must have been on purpose. The varied thrush is the ultimate Gen-X bird.
In the end, it is one p.m., and miles ahead of my daughter and I, blockades open. All down the line, people return to their vehicles. The timeout has ended. I do not want to leave this place, though I want to see Last Chance Grade, maybe to thank it. This diversion will become a centerpiece memory of the trip itself. My daughter and I will recount how we stumbled into a magical interruption on our trip down the coast.
In the end, the line of cars moves forward, and we are pulled along with them. We all move on. We come out of the trees. Out of the banana slug forest. Away from the call of the varied thrush. The road twists and dips through the redwoods until the trees open up to a clearing, and we can finally see it.
In the end, there is a scarred hillside that refuses to stay put, and then a cliff over which things have been falling for many years. Covered wagons, boulders, sediment, stones, cars, trees, dead leaves, mud, construction equipment, banana slugs, fallen redwoods, roots, mycelium. It all slides down into the Pacific. In the end, Last Chance Grade turns out to be neither a place—a pin on Google Maps—nor a natural sight to behold. It is a geological riddle. As the road crosses the Grade, we can see car-sized boulders and mounds of soil that have spilled onto it from a recent slide. The road itself becomes nothing more than jagged pavement and compacted dirt—a callback to its original trail state. Above the road, Caltrans pickups and dump trucks and earth movers and graders and men in hard hats are crawling about the hillside like ants. Thousands of pounds of machinery look barely attached to the earth it seeks to shore up, and I am struck with the familiar sensation of vertigo. In the end, we pass safely across Last Chance Grade—that point of convergence between human and physical geography—a precarious road clinging, like the rest of us, for dear life against all natural forces acting upon it. A waif echo stranding on the shores of time.
Josh McColough’s short fiction has appeared in Epiphany, Puerto del Sol, Split Lip Magazine, and SPLASH!, and his nonfiction in New World Writing. Josh received his MFA from the University of Iowa’s nonfiction writing program and currently teaches English composition at the College of Lake County in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter @joshmccolough, where he mostly shares pictures of his Bernedoodle Gus.
“Years of Vanishing Completely” by JP Gritton
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In his essay “Years of Vanishing Completely,” JP Gritton recounts how anxiety over the success of his debut novel and a daily practice of googling himself led to him discovering an artist namesake from another place and time.
Years of Vanishing Completely
The beginning of this story is always a little hard to explain, so I’ll tell you the ending first. The story ends in my office, which is on the fifth floor of a Gothic revival building on the campus of a university where I’m an assistant professor of creative writing. I want to tell you that the trees stood naked and gray through the stonework of my office window. I want to tell you that it was a cold day, and threatening to rain, and that I had biked to campus in a faint drizzle, into the very teeth of the wind. But the truth is that all this is guff, window dressing, artifice. The only thing I can remember from that day is checking my email.
Like most teachers, maybe, I’m surprised when I get an email from anybody other than a student. I was pretty sure I’d never had any Stephans in my class, and certainly no “Stéphane,” with a little black beret over the first “e.” When I opened the email, I was more certain: “Cher Monsieur Gritton,” it read, “c’est avec plaisir que je réponds à votre demande.” I don’t teach French; I never have, and so for a moment I sat before my computer, my eyes sprinting over the sentences I only half understood.
And then, very dimly, it all came back to me.
I’ve put off telling you the beginning of this story because it’s embarrassing. About a year earlier, around the time galleys of my novel were going out, I’d heard from a friend of mine that a book has about a three-month window to become “a success.” This friend of mine is a writer, the kind of person who’d know. But if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure what counted as “a success” or how I would know if my own book were “successful.” When my novel came out, anyway, googling my name seemed as good a way as any to find out.
I’m embarrassed to tell you this. I’m embarrassed to explain that for about three months, I began each day by googling the words “JP Gritton”—my own name, that is. I’m embarrassed to explain how badly I needed the top hit to be a gushy review of my novel in the Times (LA, New York, London; I wasn’t picky), or the Chronicle or even the Globe. I’m embarrassed to admit that when I found no such review, I began googling unlikely variations of the spelling of my name: “J[space] P[space] Gritton,” for instance, or spelling Gritton without the second t that separates it from Gritón, which is Spanish for “he who yells.” I’m embarrassed to admit that within a couple months of my book’s publication, it had become my habit to perform a standard google search of my name, followed by a google news search, followed by a google image search. I’m embarrassed to admit all this, but that’s how the story starts. That’s how I found the goat.
This would’ve been about December of that year, maybe a month after my book dropped. Sandwiched between my toothy author photo and the graphic on the cover of my novel was this painting with my name on it. J [period] P[period] Gritton, plain as proverbial day, right there in the top right-hand corner of the canvas.
It was a pretty good painting, too. Do you know that way certain images can represent not a thing but a mood? Like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is not a portrait so much as a mysterious smile. Like Picasso’s Guernica isn’t a city in Spain but a horse screaming among flame and ruin. This goat was the same way: it was not a painting but an eeriness, an uncanniness, hair rising on the back of my neck. Dagger-sharp legs, Mephistophelean eyes, malignant horns curling from the head like smoke.
The insane thought occurred to me that it was my painting, that somehow I had done it, back in high school or something and then—I don’t know—forgotten about it? But when I enlarged the image, I saw the date next to my name.
The year before he painted that goat, in March of 1933, a dozen of J. P. Gritton’s charcoal and pencil sketches had appeared in La Grand’Goule, an arts-and-culture quarterly based in Poitiers. Of J. P. Gritton’s work, editor Raoul Jozereau gushed, “Here you will find a croquis in which there appears no evidence of naïve effort.” On the contrary, says the editor, only a supple vitality. From Jozereau, this was high praise: by the time he penned his first rave review of Gritton’s work, the critic had sat at the helm of La Grand’Goule for four years. Guest contributors to his magazine included Fernand Serreau and Henri Lejeune, instructors at the École des Beaux Arts de Poitiers and successful artists in their own right. In 1933, even as Poitevins would’ve felt the first great tremors of a global depression, a copy ran around twenty francs—seventeen bucks in today’s money.
That first feature on J. P. Gritton consisted of about a dozen charcoal and pencil sketches—a fencer thrusting, a dog pointing, a pair of soldiers grappling, tumbling to the ground—underscored by Jozereau’s breathless praise. At the article’s end, they ran a black-and-white photograph of the artist himself. In it, he’s this sad-eyed kid with black hair and a shy frown. He’s dressed in a poncey sailor outfit, like one of the Roosevelts. He looks young because, when the photograph was published, he was young: in March of 1933, J. P. Gritton was a nine-year-old schoolboy.
I’ve never been to Poitiers, but from Google image searches I have acquired a vague impression of castle keeps of white marble, downy clouds frolicking like sheep across fields of azure. A landscapist’s city, in other words, one of those idyllic French towns that seem conjured out of dream or hazy memory. And that’s what jumps out about the kid’s art, all these years later. A playfulness, an obvious pleasure in the labor itself.
“He works in complete freedom,” wrote Fernand Serreau, in the December of ’33 edition of La Grand’Goule, “for the sheer physical joy of it, without losing the calm of a child’s soul.” For Gritton, who was Serreau’s student at the École, art was a kind of game. And many years later, long after La Grand’Goule had folded, long after Serreau and Jozereau and LeJeune were gone and forgotten, I would find myself wondering if “talent” were even the right word—or anyway, the only one. Raoul Jozereau might’ve been right to call J. P. Gritton’s a “natural” ability for finding “the expressive trait,” and he might’ve been correct in asserting that his charcoals somehow capture “the attitude, the soul.” But I think he kind of missed the point. Gritton had something better than skill, something that I envied in him, now that my own art had blurred into my vocation. He had a total lack of self-consciousness. An ease in his work. A joy.
I’m not sure what J. P. Gritton would have made of Jozereau’s article, but I remember what it was like to be nine. I suspect that the novelty of seeing his drawings reproduced in a magazine soon wore off. I suspect his attention strayed to—who knows? Something else, anyway. A comic book, a serial playing on the radio, the math homework he had forgotten on the kitchen table.
It’s weird how youth, like age, can put a thing into perspective. As I read all those grand-sounding words, I detected something odd, even morbid, in all the praise, which is a word that comes from Old French, preisier, which also means “to appraise” or “to estimate.” Or else, the encomium just reminded me of a habit I’d formed at pandemic’s beginning, whenever I graded my students’ short stories: sometime in the spring of 2020, I’d begun to attach a letter to each minutely annotated draft. Some of these letters ran several pages in length, others among them included appendices and footnotes. And still I never managed to convey what I wished to. Keep going, I wanted to tell them. This thing you have, don’t lose it.
About J. P. Gritton’s paintings, Jozereau and Serreau were just as effusive. In the next edition of La Grand’Goule, Serreau wrote, “All on his own, the child is searching out new means of expression.” He had, in other words, taught himself how to paint. These paintings, Jozereau went on to suggest, “demonstrate the same stunning qualities as his sketches, but their effect is much more complete.”
What’s odd is that I’ve never been able to find the paintings reproduced in La Grand’Goule, the ones Serreau and Jozereau gushed about. In fact, the goat remains the only painting of Gritton’s I’ve ever seen. From a brief biographical sketch that appears in Les Peintres de Poitou, I know that J. P. Gritton began showing his oils at the Salon d’Orientine, the region’s most prestigious art show, in 1935. But nothing appears in the annals of La Grand’Goule about these landscapes (Cour de ferme, Marine) or the one he showed the following year (Bords de la Vienne) or the pair he showed the year after that (Intérieur d’étable, Bouefs couchés). As far as I know, after publishing Serreau’s feature in the December of ’33 edition of La Grand’Goule, Jozereau went nearly four years without so much as mentioning Gritton’s name.
I can’t help wondering what the wunderkind made of this fact. I can’t help wondering if maybe, almost in spite of himself, J. P. Gritton had grown hungry for Jozereau’s praise? Or else J. P. Gritton had suspected the truth all along: that he’d only appeared in the pages of La Grand’Goule as curiosity, as folderol—almost, as freak.
In the two-page obituary of J. P. Gritton that appeared in the December of 1937 edition of La Grand’Goule, Raoul Jozereau wrote with the usual grandeur:
In the cemetery I told the devastated parents, “All of the painters of the Orientine are gathered here today. The faithful among them suppose that a picture book must’ve been needed for the little children of heaven; as for the others, that his life was, alas, like the first light of a dawn so brilliant that it will forever brighten your days.
Or else the problem with this story is that it’s hard to remember the me I was back then. In December of 2019, I couldn’t have told you who Anthony Fauci was, for example, and I understood an N95 mask to be something worn in the vicinity of paint fumes. I would’ve guessed “social distancing” to be the name of an alt-punk group from Los Angeles. Which is by way of saying, I can’t really imagine a time in which the most urgent question on my mind was How many people are going to come to my book launch?
The answer, either way, was seven. Eight, if you count me. There was an accident a few miles down the interstate from the bookstore that hosted the event. But the truth is that eight people would prove to be one of my bigger audiences. By February of 2020, just as the three-month Window of Success was sliding shut, I’d begun to recognize a certain expression on the tired faces of bookstore managers: a narrow, slightly constipated look in their eyes, not quite pitying and not quite resentful. I felt bad for them. Here they’d gone to the trouble of setting out folding chairs and amuse-bouches, opened a bottle of wine—and nobody’d come to drink it. The publicist at my press told me not to worry about such things. People would find my work by other means, she said. I wanted badly to believe her, but by then I knew better: I knew that when you typed “J.P. Gritton” into a search bar, you found no gushy reviews in the Globe, Chronicle, or Times, and that a Google image search directed you to the online archive of the Musée Ste. Croix de Poitiers: a painting of a goat signed by me, dated ninety years ago.
On January 15, 2021, about a week after Congress reconvened to count the electoral votes of the previous presidential election, four days before what would have been J. P. Gritton’s ninety-sixth birthday, I received an email from Stéphane Semelier, an archivist at the Musée Ste. Croix.
“Dear Mr. Gritton,” read the email, “it is with pleasure that I respond to your inquiry. Jean-Pierre Gritton was a young Poitevin art student who died in the summer of 1937 in Fouras, Charente-Maritime, at the age of thirteen.” Included as attachments to Stéphane’s message were a few of Gritton’s charcoals—tigers, wolves, bears, a jai-alai player—and half a dozen rave reviews. Among the reviews of his art were the features Raoul Jozereau wrote for La Grand’Goule, a brief biography from a book about the painters of Poitou, and exactly half of J. P. Gritton’s two-page obituary spread.
I don’t know exactly what I felt, wading first through Stéphane’s email and then the twenty or so pages of archival material. Curiosity, sure, and something I might’ve mistaken for excitement. But more than that, I felt a weird kind of unbelief. This nine-year-old prodigy takes Poitou’s art world by storm and then he—dies? It was somehow too simple, too neat. And yet hadn’t it been a year of premature endings? Endings in intensive care units or in waiting rooms or on the side of the road in Georgia or on a sidewalk in Minnesota or in a bed in Kentucky.
As the weeks and then the months went by, I kept on thinking about a sentence I’d read in the three-paragraph-long biography from Les Peintres de Poitou: “All the extraordinary promise this young Poitevin might have realized in the course of a normal career was cut short by his sudden disappearance, aged thirteen.” I couldn’t make sense of this line. Jozereau’s obituary had mentioned a coffin, a hearse. Was the hearse empty? Had J. P. Gritton died, or simply vanished?
Back then, it seemed an important question—maybe even an urgent one. I should explain that the town where J. P. Gritton suddenly vanished is on the Atlantic Coast, that an image search yields a series of lush seascapes: white-capped waves crashing against a stone-walled fortress, the spire of a handsome church rising over a rocky beach. Probably, in some idiot corner of my mind, I was imagining J. P. Gritton in a little rowboat, rowing forever. It would take me many weeks to realize that the phrase “brusque disparition” has none of the sexy uncertainty of “sudden disappearance,” that it’s just a euphemism—like saying “sudden passing” when you mean something else.
I wrote Stéphane on a Friday in late March—Friday evening, in Poitiers—and he wrote me back first thing Monday morning. Included in his reply, he said, was the missing second page of Jozereau’s obituary. As for my question about the precise nature of the young artist’s demise, Stéphane explained that every source on the subject spoke of a premature death without specifying the means. Which makes sense, I guess: if you’re writing an obituary for a thirteen-year-old artistic prodigy, you’re not going to waste any ink on cause of death—especially if it’s something as banal as a case of pneumonia, a burst appendix, a touch of Spanish flu. In other words, I still don’t know how J. P. Gritton vanished, but I know for certain how he did not.
In the missing second page of Gritton’s obituary, Raoul Jozereau tells his readers with morbid relish that J.P. Gritton knew he was going to die but, for his mother’s sake, “he pretended to hold out hope.” When she briefly stepped out of the room, Gritton reportedly turned to the priest who would go on to deliver his last rites: “Mais je veux mourir en scoot,” he said. That is, But I want to die in a scooter accident.
Rest in peace, Jean-Pierre Gritton. May the picture books you illustrate for the children of heaven be met with breathless praise. May your paintings hang forever on the walls of the Musée Ste. Croix. And may we be forever grateful to know neither the hour nor the manner of our sudden vanishing.
From “Et… celui de demain” by Raoul Jozereau. From La Grand’Goule: March, 1933.
Un bouc, © Musée de Poitiers, photograph Christian Vignaud
From “Et… celui de demain” by Raoul Jozereau. From La Grand’Goule: March, 1933.
From “Et… celui de demain” by Raoul Jozereau. From La Grand’Goule: March, 1933.
From “Deux peintures de Pierre Gritton” by Fernand Serreau. From La Grand’Goule: December, 1933.
From “Les obsèques d’un jeune artiste poitevin: Pierre Gritton” by Raoul Jozereau.
From La Grand’Goule: December, 1937.
JP Gritton’s novel Wyoming, a Kirkus best debut of 2019, is out with Tin House. His awards include a Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellowship, the Meringoff Prize in fiction, and the Donald Barthelme Prize in fiction. He is an assistant professor of creative writing in the department of English at Duke University.
“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)
“Genesis” by Yael Hacohen
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her short essay “Genesis,” Yael Hacohen writes about her experience as a woman soldier in the Israeli army and challenging “the mechanisms of power.”
By Yael Hacohen
In June, the desert became even more of a desert. The dust settled on everything: between my toes, in my socks, in my cotton underwear, in my ponytail, inside every single fold of my olive-colored fatigues. Like how my mother used to tuck me into bed, the training base coated me with the thick layer of heat and sand. And I loved it.
Commander’s course was a no-bullshit environment. I shared a small corner room with five other women. We were the first women ever to be integrated into Bahad 1, the commander training base, and we were offered the best room on the floor. I was lucky; my cot was cool in the morning and warm at night. And don’t even get me started on the showers. The army had to build a whole new bathroom designated for just women, and we were the first to use the showers in it.
Every soldier I know can always remember a base by its showers, and the women’s showers at Bahad 1 were exceptional. Each stall had a blunt copper pipe and a single knob to turn the water on and off. There was no way to control the temperature, and the pipe gushed hot water. It may not sound like much, but let me tell you, after a long day of training, there was nothing like it. The pipe gave improbable pressure, Moses beating water from the stone. I would take an extra ten minutes just mulling the day over; the hot water beat down on my head, spilling over the daily occurrences, washing out the dust.
I would go over the everyday ant-like rolling aggressions. I would clean those away—as if they could be cleaned. In Israel, we have a particular word for making a woman feel like a girl: hamuda, roughly translated as “cutie,” “darling,” “sweetheart,” whatever. Hamuda was my commanding officer’s usual nickname for any woman he saw around the base, including our forty-three-year-old lieutenant colonel (even though he gritted that one out between his teeth). For me, it was the way he said it. Not as an insult, no. For him, it was almost deeper than that. Crueler.
Training started at 5 am, immediately followed by the morning 5k run, and my CO was a really, really, really great guy to run behind, if you know what I mean. He had one green eye and one blue. His ears pointed straight up toward the sky, like a puma’s. And like a puma, he had this goddamn beautiful run. His teeth sneered when he said my name, Yael, and I could see his slight, cat-like tongue curling inward. The mechanisms of power are complicated.
My CO always singled me out. During Krav Maga training, he explained to the group, “Always pick off the easiest target first,” and then he would point at me and polish it off by adding, “You’re up, hamuda.” Taking that step forward was the longest step I’d ever had to take. The whole group staring, nodding their heads in perfect acknowledgment.
I stood there, maybe twenty inches away from him, while my CO went on and on with his drawn-out intonations. And all this time, I was standing there in the middle of the training arena. It was quiet, and it was getting dark. He was going to demonstrate the most effective way to body-slam. He said it involved the element of surprise. Then he whipped around, grabbed the lapels of my uniform, and brought me so close to his body I could smell his lilac shampoo. He kicked my right shin and simultaneously knocked my shoulder to the ground. It was over so quickly I didn’t even get a chance to blink.
They tell me fight-or-flight takes only three seconds to initiate. But I didn’t fight. Instead, I dusted myself off and returned to my line. My shin was sore, my hair out of place. Like tangled seaweed, my hair stuck to my face in all the wrong places. Through the shock of it, sweat covered my eyes, my ears, the backs of my knees. But the worst was the way my group had looked at me: two parts pity, one part superiority.
Hamuda became my nickname throughout the base, and I started taking even longer in the shower— the lizards of my mind going over the event. I must have fallen a thousand times before that and a thousand times since, but I can still taste the specific dust from that one fall.
Till one Tuesday, my commanding officer was going to teach us how to pull the weakling out of an army line. He walked straight up to me and yanked my shield forward.
Don’t ask me what adrenaline tastes like—you’ll know it when it when you taste it in your mouth. There I was, standing right in the middle of the training arena. Again. He came close till I smelled lilac. I looked my commander right in the eyes, and I punched him in the face.
He fell like a plate falling off its shelf. It was regal. The look in his eyes shifted when he finally stood back up. And I remembered that I’d seen that look once before, in the Ramat Gan Zoo. A female gorilla had watched a khaki-clad worker shovel her shit to the far south corner of her pen. Her pen was jungle-themed, with large banana and monstera leaves painted crudely across the backing, an absurd painting of an overly large boa constrictor coiling itself around the painted branch. The zoo speakers continuously broadcast the deafening caws of rainbow-colored parrots, cassowaries, and cotingas. And the zoo worker had earphones in. He was just dancing to himself, out of sync with the music, shoveling. I watched the gorilla flare her nostrils. She stood up on her two back legs. Standing like that for a moment, Godlike. The gorilla didn’t even make the softest sound before she charged him. And as if on a swivel, the zoo worker twisted his head around to face her. He too had that look.
My CO stood up and straightened his uniform. He turned to the group and said, “If you are mistaken about the weakest link, just grab the next one.” He didn’t say anything more. And I returned to my place in the line.
The bible says that on the second day, God created a space between the waters to separate the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth. And while I wish I could say my CO never again called me hamuda, the truth of that one punch was this: I was never again singled out in training. Never. And that evening, that shower, the water was cleaner than it had ever been. The cool night air whispered in blue. And God called the waters of the heaven “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning of the second day.
Yael Hacohen is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. She has an MFA in poetry from New York University, where she was an NYU Veterans Writing Workshop fellow, international editor at Washington Square Literary Review, and editor-in-chief at Nine Lines Literary Review. Her poems appear in Praire Schooner, the Poetry Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Every Day Poets magazine, Nine Lines, and many more. She was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Very Short Story Competition, the Consequence Prize in Poetry, and the MSLexia Poetry Prize for Women.
“Two Kitchens” by Camille Jacobson
BLAST, TMR‘s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. In this fourth selection, Camille Jacobson combines heartfelt memories and authentic recipes to evoke a character as complex and flavorful as foie gras. That character is her mother.
By Camille Jacobson
My mother is making crepes. She pulls a large metal bowl from underneath the sink and places it alongside bursting bags of flour and sugar and a sweating quart of milk. The butter has been sitting out, and it’s reached room temperature, soft enough to cut into easily with a spoon. She wears a slightly wrinkled black linen shirt and pants, no apron. There’s a dab of flour on her collar, nearly iridescent against the dark fabric. Her lightened hair piles high on her head, secured with a barrette so that her hoop earrings show. The space between her eyebrows creases as she works through each step of the recipe from memory. Nearly every surface of the kitchen is covered. Frosted bottles of various oils and balsamic vinegar line the countertop next to jars of spice and little pots of coarse salt and pink peppercorns. Avocados, tomatoes, and onions spill out of a wooden bowl near the gas stove, and a pile of oranges sits near the sink, the fruits’ thick flesh puckered and glistening as the afternoon melts into evening.
Édith Piaf blares from a nearby speaker. My mother cracks two eggs into the bowl with one hand, whisking them together with the flour and sugar before adding in milk, the warm butter, and a splash of water. She doesn’t measure anything, assuredly pouring ingredients like a seasoned chemist. She sings along loudly to each song and sways to the rhythm, her slippered feet keeping time on the linoleum floor. She mixes aggressively, one arm clutching the bowl, the other moving briskly along to the melody at double speed. Flour billows out in big clouds, and flecks of batter jump onto her shirt. You must get rid of the grumeaux, she explains. She lifts the whisk and lets the thick batter drip down, examining the strand for any lingering lumps of flour. Once it’s smooth, she covers the bowl, places it in the fridge to rest, and sets the table for dinner. After we eat, she’ll take the bowl out of the fridge and spoon the mixture onto a hot buttered pan, waiting several minutes before flipping the circle easily with a flick. Cover with lemon and dust with sugar. Roll and eat while it’s still warm.
My mother remodeled this kitchen after I left home for college, transforming it into something unrecognizable. Everything I had known about it—the lopsided wooden cabinets, leaky faucet, wilted basil plant—had been replaced with stainless steel appliances and sleek teak cabinetry. The inelegant island and mismatched bar stools were gone, leaving instead a massive marble slab and modern benches. A touch-screen stove top lit up like a vessel ready for launch, and an espresso machine was built directly into the wall, buzzing and ready to serve at a moment’s notice. I could hear the freezer drawer coughing up ice into its container in the expansive refrigerator—a button on the front could be pressed to eject chilled, filtered water into a glass, and a melodic tune played as a reminder to shut the door. A twelve-speed blender stood solemnly in a corner next to a spiralizer, looking more like a sort of torture device than an unused kitchen accessory. Every countertop gleamed as if in a Clorox commercial, not so much as a single fingerprint visible on any shining surface.
My mother is French, Parisian to be exact; I had always thought of her as an incredible cook, and she always thought of the kitchen as her home. (My father could only make mediocre tuna melts, an atrocity to the French. He was often banned from the kitchen.) My mother’s knack for this domestic art was most awe-inspiring in the ease with which she managed to throw together random ingredients from the fridge or pantry or garden, and come up with impressive meals on the fly, every day. She had enormous flair, and when she didn’t feel like paying attention to an elaborate recipe, which was most of the time, she threw in a lot of butter and a touch of maniacal passion, never beginning to cook until the last possible second.
Simple things were what my mother loved to make the most—and what she was famous for. Her most common dinner concoction? Sunny-side-up eggs and tomato salad. That’s the sort of food she loved to serve, something that looked boring, just some fried eggs and a few tomatoes, but when paired together turned out to have the most exquisite flavors up its unremarkable sleeve. Anyway, here’s how you make it:
Eggs: In a nonstick skillet, heat a generous amount of butter over medium heat. Crack eggs into bowls and pour into pan one at a time. Reduce heat and use a spoon to baste the butter onto the eggs. Season with salt and pepper, and when the whites have cooked, shake the pan to loosen eggs from the bottom. Tilt pan, slide onto plate, serve.
Tomatoes: Chop a few heirloom tomatoes into fourths and place into serving bowl. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Grab a fistful of fresh basil, chop messily, throw into bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well. Add in pieces of fresh mozzarella if it’s on hand.
Straightforward, but in her hands, invariably perfect.
Which is why the elaborate kitchen upgrade didn’t seem to make sense, especially if I told you that my mother had not actually cooked so much as a single crepe or egg since the renovation—that those modern cabinets and complex gadgets reflected a role she no longer desired.
Certainly, no one had touched the new kitchen since it was built. I’d tried during summers home from college, but the new appliances were too hard to use, the touch screens on the stoves glitching, the coffee machine burning the beans. We’d tiptoe around it, order takeout, pretend it was not there. The irony of the great renovation debacle of that year was obvious to me: expensive, state-of-the-art machinery for a cook who no longer cooked. That was when it became clear that my mother had walked out of the kitchen for good, leaving behind the role it had provided her for years.
My mother’s instructions for her famous roast chicken: Preheat oven to 350–400 °F. Make sure the chicken is empty, rub with vegetable oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Put rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves inside the cavity. Place in a foil-covered baking sheet on the lower level of the oven. Roast for about an hour at 375°F. Check and make sure it doesn’t burn on top, and about halfway through, put some foil loosely over the chicken. You can’t mess it up.
When I was young, my parents would host a big dinner party once a month. Their friends would come over and discuss the midcentury modern furniture market and argue about politics and gossip about their other friends, and my mother would serve her famous roast chicken and potatoes with green beans, which of course she’d begin nearly halfway through the party, when everyone—including she—was good and drunk. I’d help her, rinsing and cutting the ends off each string bean while she gutted the chicken and lathered it in oil and herbs. She’d pour herself another glass of wine and toss sautéed onions into a pan with a big glob of butter before adding the beans and cooking them lightly, finishing them off with the potatoes in the oven, underneath the chicken so they’d absorb the drippings. After about an hour, when the roasted potatoes were saturated and the smell from the oven filled the house, she’d announce, Voilà, c’est fini, tout le monde! Venez manger! Our own Julia Child.
These were the glory days of both my childhood and my parent’s marriage—family meals and dinner parties carried out like clockwork. It was then that my mother taught me about the art of French cooking, and cliché as it may be, we often cooked through the easy bits of Larousse Gastronomique together; she would give me small tasks in the kitchen to make me feel important. It was around this time, and after I’d watched enough Emeril Lagasse on the Food Network, that I announced I too wanted to be a “cooker.” It is clear to me now that I simply wanted nothing more than to be my mother, whirling about the stove tops and throwing together perfect meals at a moment’s notice.
My parents divorced when I began high school, and throughout that complicated year, my mother never left the kitchen. A woman who had spent years cooking her own mother’s recipes and sticking to the easy portions of her Larousse, she now made at least one weekly trip to the nearby Barnes & Noble to browse the cookbook section. Later she would get into the navy 1989 Jeep Grand Wagoneer my dad had left her and set off for a day in the market aisles with her lists of ingredients. She developed passionate and brief attachments to new dishes. One week she fell in love with Nigella Lawson’s stuffed heirloom tomatoes. Another week it was Rachael Ray’s mini meatloaves. The next it was Mario Batali’s salmon burgers. I would return home after school, and each day without fail, she’d already be in the kitchen poaching and grilling, chopping and mincing. I’d shut my bedroom door and begin my homework, and sooner or later she’d call for dinner like nothing had changed. But of course everything had, and we’d sit and ignore the empty chair and eat Jamie Oliver’s fish tacos.
Her desperate attempts at these new recipes seem to me now like my mother’s stab at self-reinvention of some sort, her attempt to figure out out how to be a single parent and, in a lot of ways, manage the new role. Her exploits in this type of cooking, though not always successful (see: Christmas Eve Braised Short Rib Disaster), maintained a sort of familiarity—the stable image of her in the kitchen with her glass of wine and gobs of butter, running about and cooking for us.
By the time my mother remodeled her kitchen, she had met someone. Francois is a foie gras salesman. (Fatten, by force, the liver of a duck or goose, twice a day. Slaughter at 100 days. Now you have the bloated liver considered a delicacy by all of France.)
My mother’s boyfriend is also a vegan—the only French vegan I know—which my mother and I both learned during the last Thanksgiving he spent with us. To be clear, my mother loves foie gras because she is French, and all French people love foie gras. I have often wondered which she fell in love with first: François’s foie gras or François. In any case, my mother, in preparation for his arrival, had broken out our last reserves of the stuff and neatly sliced and arranged the circles of paté onto a plate as an appetizer for an otherwise American meal. We sat down to dinner, and as I reached for a dense slice to press onto my toast, François solemnly announced: Je ne mange pas cela. My mother promptly whisked the platter into the kitchen and tossed the remains of those poor geese into the trash. “Me neither,” she muttered.
The rest of the meal, the potatoes and green beans, turkey and stuffing, came from the hot-food bar of the local supermarket. I had watched as she reheated each of the items, dumping containers of congealed sides onto plates and putting them into the microwave. I sat across the table from my mother and François, watching them hold hands. My mother exclaimed that she had forgotten to add butter to the stuffing.
The thing about my mother is that she does not take anything all that seriously. This transition out of the kitchen was not a grand, premeditated statement. It was not a rejection of my father or my childhood or even her own love of cooking. It seems to me that more than anything, this was her figuring out how to stretch beyond a place she had created for herself, the one that had formed our family—and that perhaps reconstructing a part of the house we had all lived in was a way for her to reclaim ownership of the home. But maybe building the modern kitchen, with its stainless steel and glimmering marble, helped her realize that the role it implied was one she no longer desired.
Perhaps my mother gave up cooking to free herself from her position as wife, but that renunciation in many ways also forced her out of her position as mother. One day I asked her what was for dinner, and without explanation she said “takeout,” and since then I have known that she no longer wants to see herself as a woman who cooks. The kitchen is sparklingly new, but she has barely seen it, content to travel with François and spend the summers in Paris. When I come home to visit, it’s to an empty house and pristine kitchen.
It has also become clear that my mother knows all this and that she renovated the kitchen because she felt she had to—a kind of perverse acknowledgement or pallid attempt to salvage a piece of the past. The ease and style with which my mother once took command of the kitchen made her a glamorous figure in my eyes. But these days I no longer want to be in the kitchen like she once was—perhaps we have both grown out of that. It may very well be that growing up forces us to see our parents in a light that makes our desire to emulate them appear increasingly absurd—we are driven to search for something else to which we can anchor ourselves. Yet they’re always with us too, ceaselessly, uncontrollably tied to us in our ordinary moments—in the way we toss the salad with our hands or carefully flip the steaks or set the table for dinner.
Even in the old days, my mother was a washout at hard-core mothering; what she was good at was roasting chickens and mixing cocktails, all the while spewing witty comments and quick remarks that made me feel immensely grown-up. Now that I have grown up and her spot in the kitchen is empty, I often wonder what, if anything, is left.
If I were to say any of this to her, she’d probably say something biting but true, like “You’re an adult now, you can fry your own eggs.” Then she would go into the kitchen and throw together a beautiful cheese plate. The key is to choose a good variety— something soft like Saint-André or Camembert, paired with hard cheeses like Comté or Etorki. Serve with the proper knife and a few stuffed olives and baguette on the side. “You don’t need me anymore,” she would say as she lifted her glass.
“White or red?”
“A Shapeless Thief” by Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy’s debut memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia, about mental illness and her family, was published by Penguin/Random House in May, 2019. “A Shapeless Thief,” which is taken from the memoir, first appeared in TMR 37:2. The essay was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2015.
A Shapeless Thief
By Marin Sardy
My mother knows the earth’s surface is composed of tectonic plates, and that these plates move hundreds of miles with ease. They arrange and rearrange themselves, very quickly sometimes, creating natural phenomena when they shift. There is one place, the Shear, where the plates have fallen away, leaving a bare, scraped expanse extending for hundreds of miles. In another place, near Monterey, California, a plate dropping into the ocean has created a series of horizontal shelves at the continent’s underwater edge. On one of these, she says, a city thrives beneath the waves.
Sometimes plates duplicate themselves or multiply, resulting in two or more that are nearly identical and seem to contain the same location. For this reason, she says, it’s important to pay attention to details when you travel, to make sure you stay on the right plate—in the correct Roswell; in the Anchorage where you grew up. Each Roswell, each Anchorage, is a distinct colony. And if you accidentally end up in the wrong colony, you won’t find the people you know, because they’re not there. This is why flying is tricky. You go up in the air, and when you come down, there’s no real way of knowing if you’ve landed on the right plate or another by the same name. You fly to Santa Fe to see your sister, but when you go looking for her, you may not be able to find her.
So check the sky. See if it looks different today. Strange. See if it looks like a different sky than the sky you remember seeing over Santa Fe. And if you go to your sister’s house and she’s not there, look at the pillows. They might be the wrong color. These are the little things that help us know where we are.
In bits and pieces over many years, my mother has described to me this earth, the one she inhabits, expansively elaborating on the details of plates and colonies, as well as the Assay, a natural force that continually sorts us according to where we belong. It’s more than a single fantasy. It’s a whole system of rules and perceptions that constitute an alternate world—a foundational delusion that emerged slowly in her mind when I was in high school and developed into a full-scale paracosm by the time I finished college.
I’ve been told that when I was very young and my mother was still sane, she sometimes spoke of the universe as existing in two streams. First Stream was our tangible, everyday reality. Second Stream was a separate, inner place, the realm of the imagination and spirit. Then the boundary between realities became so porous that she lost track of the differences between imagery, metaphor and physical fact. The two streams ran together.
Now she doesn’t bother to explain much, because she knows I understand the basics. She’ll bring up the topic only if there are new developments, usually as a prelude to offering important advice: “Stay away from California for a little while.” Or, “Make sure you have plenty of gas!” This isn’t overprotectiveness on her part; it’s reasonable concern. Her world is one that is capable of shifting beneath her feet. The houses she has lived in, the cities they were built in, the very rock they stand on—all can be yanked out from under her.
This may explain why she moves regularly through several states, never living in the same place for longer than a year but instead looping back to visit the same spots again and again. She never flies anymore. She’ll take the train from New Mexico to Monterey. She’ll work her way by bus up to Bellingham and maybe take the ferry to Anchorage, sleeping in hostels and befriending the twenty-somethings she meets there. Sometimes she gives me a name and a number. “Hang on to that,” she says. “If you find yourself in a bad situation, this is someone you can contact for help.” Or: “Remember this name. If you meet someone by this name, you could take her home and give her a place to sleep for the night. She might become your roommate!”
My mother’s travel habit began in the grip of her descent into psychosis, twenty-seven years ago, when she was nearly forty and I was eleven. She spun into a manic six-month round-the-world romp that stretched from Hawaii to North Africa to Australia and then returned periodically to many of those places over the next several years. This was spurred by a belief that someone was after her, and it may have started because my grandparents were trying to have her hospitalized. After a few months in and out of clinics in Alaska, she went along with their plan to try one in Dallas. There the effort reached an unexpected climax when she bolted across a parking lot, jumped into a cab, and disappeared into the night. She resurfaced with a phone call, two weeks later, from the other side of the world.
I was offered few explanations for my mother’s behavior beyond being told by my father that she was “ill” and it was not her fault. At some point the word “schizophrenia” reached my ears, but it meant little to me. In place of understanding I took hold of the tokens of my mother’s travels, as if they were crumbs forming a trail I could follow to this new place inside her. Whenever she returned from a trip, she would bring back such wonders for my sisters and brother and me to pore over—embroidered housedress-like garments from Tangiers; all kinds of currencies. The Australian coins were our favorites: kangaroo, platypus. Once, my older sister organized the coins into a booklet and labeled them. Although we were savvy enough to sort out where the various European currencies came from, there were a number whose origins we couldn’t decipher from the script. My sister labeled those “Arabic Nation.” We asked our mother, but she didn’t know. She had gone missing in more ways than one.
To this day, my mother has never accepted the idea that she has a mental illness, and she has never taken medication for it. She has not been specifically diagnosed with schizophrenia, either, but she knows it is what people say about her. At least two doctors have said they believe she has some form of it. And it runs in our family—my brother began to show similar symptoms about a decade ago and eventually received the same diagnosis. (He, too, resisted the idea and ultimately abandoned treatment.) But official diagnosis for my mother would require a doctor’s observation that her symptoms have lasted longer than one month, and none have examined her repeatedly over such a period of time. For nearly a quarter century, she wouldn’t allow any doctor to examine her at all. My sisters and I, on the other hand, have observed that her symptoms have lasted for twenty-seven years.
Even as a child, the word schizophrenia struck me with its frightening poetry. Its exotic and convoluted array of letters captured the sense I had of the illness—confusing and bizarre, mysterious, infamously inscrutable. During the first few years of my mother’s illness, I witnessed what I can only describe as a disintegration. She went from leading a healthy, engaged life to being a mistrustful recluse who lived off cigarettes and screwdrivers. For a while she nearly imprisoned us in our own house, barring the door with heavy pieces of furniture and having lengths of wood fit to the windows so they could not be slid open. She was so afraid of assassins that her fear seeped into me, too. I did as she asked for a long time. After a while, though, I rebelled, and eventually I just gave up, choosing instead to detach myself by playing video games all afternoon while she fitted the TV antennae with balls of foil or simply sat very still for hours on end.
I rarely found words for what I saw my mother do, what I heard her say, so her illness seemed always to live in the shadows. In the closet, under the bed. As a child I felt schizophrenia to be a dark, shapeless thief. What other image could fit what I had seen? How does a child articulate the absence of what is necessary? The absence of sanity. The absence of the mother I had known. To my eye it appeared that, more than anything, she had been stolen.
Now, grown and far more educated, I feel nearly the same. Schizophrenia still defies the most fundamental question about it: What is it? I can tell you it is a brain disorder that causes distortions in perception, thought, and emotion. I can explain that it arises by way of chemical and physical processes inside the brain. But if I reach much further, I soon arrive at the edge of human knowledge. We have not yet grasped how the brain creates perception, thought and emotion to begin with, let alone how it produces such spectacular distortions. One important study compared contemporary researchers’ various hypotheses to the fable of the three blind men of Hindustan: each, when asked what an elephant looked like, felt a different part of the beast and described it. One, feeling its trunk, said it looked like a snake. Another, feeling a leg, proclaimed that it looked like a tree. . . .
I have only what I have seen. For instance, that the inherited wealth that paid for my mother’s globe-trotting is now long gone. In recent years, needing an allowance from my grandmother, my mother began living near the epicenter of her family, New Mexico, hopping once or twice a year between Roswell, Santa Fe, Denver, Colorado Springs and Tucson, where her six brothers and sisters and various other relatives live. This was for her a fairly circumscribed and blessedly consistent movement pattern, although she still ranges farther from time to time. Right now she is in southeast Alaska.
Because I lived in Santa Fe for several years in my early thirties, I could see her regularly. She also called often, which was important to me, since she had no telephone for most of that time, so I couldn’t call her. She was too paranoid to keep a phone of her own, but she would use pay phones and relatives’ phones. She just wouldn’t leave a message, ever, and while on the phone, she wouldn’t refer to people she knew by name, and if you lingered without speaking for more than a couple of beats, she’d hang up on you. If behind this paranoia there was a delusion, however—some belief that would make sense of this—she has never explained it to me.
A new pattern emerged when I moved to New York, and she stopped calling me. Before moving I reiterated several times that I wanted her to call me regularly, but she skirted the issue, and it was only after I left that I realized there was something in her mind getting in the way.
When I visited Santa Fe a few months later, I tried again, although I didn’t think it would make a difference. “Mom,” I said. “Call me.”
“Oh, well, you’re over there now,” she said. “So far away! I think it’s better to—to stay close.”
“Yeah but, Mom. Why does that matter? It’s a phone.”
“Hmmm. I try to call Sadie,” she said, referring to my younger sister, who lived in Santa Fe too. “I’ve been trying to call Sadie! She never answers.”
“Sadie has to turn her phone off when she’s at work. So call me.”
“Well. I think I’m just going to stay focused on what’s nearby. I just think that’s a good idea right now.”
Our conversations are riddled with these inexplicable refusals—inflexible positions she won’t relinquish and won’t, or can’t, explain. They emerge from nowhere and stick like cement. A decade ago, when I lived in New Hampshire, she called me often. But in New York it is as if I have fallen off the edge of the world. Recently she got a phone again. Now I can call her, and she’s delighted when I do, but she still won’t call me herself.
Certain places, it seems, must be avoided. When my older sister got married in Bozeman, Montana, my mother missed the wedding. I cajoled and then harassed her about it as the date approached, but she was evasive. Every time I brought it up, she shifted the focus to the lovely wedding gift she had bought.
At first I thought she didn’t like the idea of attending a crowded event, so I tried bargaining. “You don’t have to go to the reception,” I told her. “You can just go to the ceremony.” When that failed, I went all the way. “You don’t even have to go to the ceremony,” I said. “You can just see her beforehand, on that day. Or the day before that.”
I got nowhere. She wouldn’t relent and wouldn’t say why. I have since racked my brain trying to understand what it is about Bozeman. If it is about Bozeman at all. But her whole world is a cipher, and in it there are codes I can’t break.
In her youth my mother was one of those people who seemed to catch everyone’s eye. “Like a sprite,” my aunts say. “Like an elf.” Petite and pale, with a heart-shaped face and a delicate smile, she was beautiful and alluring and had a distinctive, distant charm. Now approaching seventy, thick around the middle, with her once dark hair a peppery gray, she still seems somehow like a pixie. Her eyes dart about her, and her hands flit with precision as she speaks. When quiet, she turns inward, and it is almost as if I am watching her curl her head under a wing. She isn’t beautiful anymore. Jowls hang low on her face, and when she smiles she reveals teeth weathered and crooked from malnutrition. But her blue eyes seem to have intensified in color, and her bony fingers are as articulate as ever.
These days my mother has a very clear sense of what kind of information upsets others—things “people don’t like to hear about.” So she has been in the habit, for nearly two decades, of reserving discussion of certain topics for my sisters and me.
“Marin, I’m glad you’re here because there are some important things I need to tell you about,” she says, peering at me with wide eyes, her hands clasped politely in her lap. “I’ve learned about a few things that I think you might want to do. I have found out—I’ve found out that now is a good time to move to Pluto.”
Despite her refusal to accept her illness, she knows that the world reaches her in a different form than it reaches others, and I am almost certain she knows that something about this cripples her. But she still fights for the validity of her thoughts, as anyone else would.
“Pluto?” I ask. “Like, the planet?”
“There are some exciting developments happening there right now, and you can buy a home at a good price. Right now, before it really catches on. They’re setting up a colony there. Homes for young people, and you’re at the age that you could go there and really get started on your life.”
“Mom,” I say, “I have a life.”
“Oh, but this is such a great opportunity! It’s so affordable! You could really find a nice house there and have a nice place to live.”
There is no point in arguing with delusions, but I hate to play along with them, either. Usually I engage just a little, to show I care. I offer something like, “So, how do you know they’re colonizing Pluto?” But I’m not very good at hiding my impatience.
“I’ve seen it! I’ve seen—I know this, Marin. I’ve—I understand this.” She pauses, her eyes searching. I can practically see the wheels turning as she sorts through her mind looking for a response solid enough that I won’t silently reject it. As much as she’s shared the material of her delusions with me, she’s almost never let slip anything about where they come from or how they’re formed. And she knows I’m a skeptical listener.
“Such a beautiful place! Do you know the oceans there have waves that are capped with fire? Can you imagine? Fire-capped waves?”
“That’s a beautiful image, Mom,” I say, genuinely, picturing it. “It kind of takes your breath away.”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it? And there are all these condos for sale there now! You might want to do that!”
“Mom,” I say gently, “I just really want to be here right now, okay?”
“Well, think about it and see if you don’t change your mind. Also, there’s something else I want to explain to you, too. Your uncle Robert has been staying in the condo in Santa Fe, and I want you to know that the condo belongs to me. It’s mine, and he—somebody—took it away from me. Now, while I don’t have a home at all, Robert goes and stays in that place and acts like it belongs to him.”
I’m annoyed now, inevitably. I rub my forehead. I say something like, “As far as I know, the condo has always been Robert’s.” I say it wearily, not to convince her but just because it’s a reasonable response that is neither condescending nor untrue. The condo does belong to Robert, but I qualify the statement because I recognize that I’ve never actually seen the deed.
“Well, it wasn’t always his. He went and got the papers from where they were filed, and the people at City Hall didn’t notice, and now he’s told everyone it’s his, and there are no papers, so everybody thinks it is his. But maybe one of these days, Marin—this is why I’m telling you this—those papers might turn up. So if you see, at some point, some papers that look like they have to do with a house, if you find them lying around somewhere, I want you to take them and keep them someplace safe. Because then I might be able to get my house back.”
“I don’t think they would leave those kinds of papers just lying around.”
“Well, you never know. You never know!”
Sometimes I just stare at her and remind myself that she’s on her own trip and it’s not my job to fix the unfixable. But she tends to persist until I say something like, “If I happen to come across some papers that look like the deed to Robert’s condo, I’ll do that.”
“Good,” she’ll say. “Now, what are you up to today?”
Other times, though, her voice might turn sad. As in dreams, much of the symbolism in her delusions expresses her own feelings about her life as she struggles to understand it. But this is a dream she can’t wake up from.
“All these homes I’ve had, that people have taken away from me!” she once said plaintively. She lifted her chin and gazed into the distance with innocent eyes. “It’s almost too much for a person.”
And that was too much for me. Although I know that nobody has ever taken a home from her or even claimed any property that was rightly hers, I wanted to tell her I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her. But I could never say that, really. I’ve never been able to protect her from anything.
For a decade or more, since my mother sold her last residence, she has been wondering how she lost her home. She keeps searching for a place where she can live and be safe for the rest of her life. But she’s too erratic and irrational. She has spent all the money that bought her former houses—a trust fund from my once wealthy grandfather, a divorce settlement, her own sporadic earnings. Now she rents small apartments, one after another, rarely committing to a lease longer than six months.
To explain this, I have only a theory: when she arrives at a place, it is new, unsignified, a clean slate. Then her visions and voices begin interacting with this physical environment, and, slowly, over the course of months, meanings accrue. All the powers of the universe work their way into the smallest details. Here is where a bright light visited me one night. I stayed quiet for it, and watched. Loaded with emotional import, the details often turn ominous or antagonistic. Someone has been burying horses in the backyard. I’ve seen the teeth coming up out of the ground! Eventually, every detail of the place seethes and echoes so resoundingly with the influence of powers only she can see—everything pointing back to her, for her, about her—that the only way to keep it under control is to flee.
This is, I think, why she wouldn’t live at her mother’s house in Roswell, her hometown, despite being welcome to live there for free until my grandmother passed away last year. The dozens of paintings on my grandmother’s walls made her uncomfortable. She started moving things around, hiding things. It baffled my aunts and uncles and frustrated my grandmother. I could only guess what my mother wouldn’t say outright: the paintings were looking at her, talking to her, and when they upset or frightened her too much, she had to escape. She put them away in corners to sap them of their power, and when my aunts and uncles tried to convince or force her to stop doing this, she moved out. Nowadays she rents an apartment for a few months or a year, buys a white comforter, and keeps nothing on the walls but a small cross and an image of whatever saint has recently caught her attention.
I think if she had a house of her own, she would still leave it periodically for months at a time. But she wants that house, her house. She wants to see the return of at least one of the many homes she has lost in her lifetime, which she believes were stolen. And the weird truth is that, in a way, they were stolen. Schizophrenia stole them, by taking away her capacity for long-term planning and remembering. The ability to keep track of time is a prerequisite for virtually everything a person can have or do in life. In the timeline of the universe, my mother lives in a bubble that disintegrates into chaos two weeks in either direction. That’s about the extent to which she can pin down reality well enough to manage her life within it. Beyond that it becomes too warped to be of use.
She can manage a weekly budget but not a yearly budget. She can sublet a room, but she can’t get through the paperwork required to qualify for low-income housing. In her paranoia, she often refuses to sign her name on official-looking documents. She hasn’t worked in over a decade. For several years she has lived on Social Security benefits and an allowance from the family. She can do fairly complex tasks like shopping, cooking, or balancing a checkbook, but she has trouble maintaining the relationships required to keep a job. Momentary concerns overwhelm the bigger picture, which dissipates into mist.
Trying to help my mother is a frustrating and usually useless effort. She won’t often accept help, preferring, she says, to take care of things herself. The harder we push, the more she resists. I try to be as cooperative as possible, hoping she’ll go along with my plans if I act optimistic. But mostly, my hands are tied. Over the years, we in her family have sometimes tried to maneuver around her to get her finances under control, but we couldn’t legally do much without her permission. No one could have forcefully intervened. She functions far too well to be declared incompetent. This is how it happened that she spent and wasted all she had, spending more to live than she could earn, buying and selling a long series of houses, condos, apartments, and cars, each time losing money on the deal until she had nothing left.
When people first meet my mother, she peers up at them expectantly, immediately asks how their day has been, and often says something disarmingly cute. She’s fond of giving gifts, doling them out almost as offerings to the gods: a coupon for a latte at Starbucks, a brochure for a luxury cruise in the Caribbean. “Look at this,” she’ll tell my friends, holding up the photo of a jewel-blue seascape. “You may be interested in doing something like this in the future. Maybe this will give you ideas.”
She may or may not decide to say something risky. And if she does, it may or may not be apparent that it’s a delusion. Often it’s necessary to know the people she mentions in order to know whether what she’s saying is true. Relating to my mother involves a delicate interplay between realities, one that few people are prepared to learn. So my role is to be her translator. When she speaks to friends of mine, I try to stand slightly behind her so I can signal—a sharp nod or a quick shake of the head—to indicate whether they should interpret a given story as fact or fantasy.
When my mother first met my husband (then a new boyfriend), in a Santa Fe bookstore, she pulled a book on Italian cooking off the nearest shelf and asked if he liked Italian food. She concentrated hard for a moment, and as she continued I could see her working her way toward a thought. It was clear from her manner that she was seeking, not scheming—listening, perhaps, to the ruler of her strange, secret world. Then she announced that T.J., my father, was a friend of the book’s celebrity-chef author, Giada De Laurentiis. Only after we left could I tell Will that my dad had never met Giada De Laurentiis—though my father does make great Italian food. The delusion apparently sprang up as my mother was speaking.
Other things my father has done, according to my mother, include being swept away in a tsunami in Hawaii in the mid-’80s. As she tells it, he drowned, and in the confusion, another man appeared and took his place. This man was very helpful and began taking care of us, and after a while nobody noticed anymore that he wasn’t T.J. He let everyone call him by that name, and for a while my mother believed that he was the real T.J. But a few years later she caught on, and when I was about twelve she explained to me that the man I called Dad was not actually my father but a replacement. “I call him Mr. Ree,” she said. I didn’t catch the significance of the name until my older sister sardonically spelled it out for me: “Myster-ry.”
As the rest of us experienced it, my mother divorced my father in 1984, when I was nine, in a period of sustained and probably paranoia-based rage, after nearly a dozen years of marriage and the birth of us four children. My dad, stunned and horrified by her descent into madness, moved into the house next door, and we settled into a joint custody arrangement. Years later, when I asked him why he hadn’t fought for sole custody, he said, “I just couldn’t do that to your mother.” For the rest of my childhood, my father was in that same house and my mother stayed within the neighborhood. We moved back and forth between the two homes about once a week.
For years my mother would refer to my father only as “Ree.” “How is Ree?” she would say when I was at her house. “Are things okay over there at his house?”
At some point in my teens, I dryly asked her if it bothered her that her children were being raised by a stranger.
“Well,” she said, “he seems to be a nice enough man, and he has really, truly accepted this work of taking care of you kids. So I guess it’s worked out okay.”
Her mind is forever another country, a long-lost homeland that only she has seen. And I am her bridge, even when I can’t see one side from the other.
Nowadays my mother’s delusions fade in and out, and with these shifts, her memory changes. Sometimes she still calls my dad Ree, other times by his real name. He first became Mr. Ree not long after their divorce—not long after he, in a last-ditch effort to get help for her, had her briefly committed at the state psychiatric hospital. During the next two or three years, her rage and paranoia toward him were so thick that she couldn’t speak to him without shouting, and for a while she wouldn’t allow him to see her face. She kept her head shrouded in a scarf when she drove up his driveway to drop us off. Now, when her stolen-house delusions turn toward a cabin he owns and when she tells me why it rightfully belongs to her, he is Ree. But when, maybe, she hasn’t thought about him for a while and isn’t upset about anything relating to him, Ree slips away, and he is T.J. once again.
The hardest losses for me to witness are this kind—not of home or fortune but of the relationships her illness has made so difficult. Or impossible, as for anyone she comes to fear through her paranoid beliefs. I know she feels these losses as much as any. The inevitable by-product is her own loneliness.
Even for my sisters and me, loving our mother is never simple. My younger sister, Adrienne, is an ongoing point of confusion because she usually goes by her nickname, Sadie. My mother seems to assume that Adrienne and Sadie are different people, but she doesn’t take issue with it. I didn’t even realize that this was the case until one of my aunts mentioned a conversation she had had with my mother while Adrienne was traveling in Asia. “Is Adrienne still in India?” my aunt asked. “Yes,” my mom answered, “and I think Sadie is, too.”
For a few years she also thought there were two of my older sister. I may be the only one who remains singular, and I admit this has always been a relief for me—although I know my doppelgänger could emerge at any time.
“Mom,” I once asked her, “don’t you think it’s strange that I’m the only one there has never been two of?”
“Oh, I know!” she said. “Isn’t that remarkable? It’s amazing how things can happen sometimes. Everyone but you!”
For many years, my mother was sure that my brother had, like my father, been swept away in a tidal wave in Hawaii and that this little boy who called her Mom was another child. This boy, this false son, was just as sweet as her son, however, so she embraced him as her own. But she worried that her real son was still out there, lost and alone. She only hoped someone kind and loving had taken him in.
She finds lost children everywhere she goes. They’re always young people, often travelers, and when she speaks of them to me, it is to ask for my help in keeping an eye out in case they might need shelter or a surrogate family. “You can adopt each other!” she says sometimes. One of her more elaborate delusions involves an actual organization, the Arc of Anchorage, which in reality provides support for people with disabilities but which she says facilitates the process by which people can adopt each other. Because there are so many of these orphans wandering around, she explained to me, somebody decided to help them take care of each other.
She has often suggested that I adopt my brother, whom she hasn’t seen in about ten years. She knows, because I have told her, that he is in Anchorage but that on any given day I don’t know where he is. I don’t know what she makes of that. But I can tell that she knows, from her own observations and intuition, that her son is struggling and isolated.
“Any news from up north?” she asks me every time we talk. This is her way of saying, “Have you heard from your brother?”
“Not lately,” I almost always answer.
“Why don’t you give the house a call?” she suggests next.
“You mean Dad’s house?”
“I can’t reach Tom by calling Dad’s house, Mom. He doesn’t like to go to Dad’s house.” For a long time I used this reply to evade what I never had the heart, or the guts, to truly explain. But when Adrienne told me she had already tried to explain that Tom is mentally ill, with unclear results, I thought I should give it a try too. During a visit to Santa Fe, my mother asked for news from Alaska. I looked at her squarely. “I can’t call him because I don’t know where he is, Mom,” I said. I took a breath. “He’s homeless. He lives on the street.”
She looked down, her face furrowed in annoyance, and began picking a cuticle.
“Tom has schizophrenia, Mom,” I said.
“Oh, don’t say that!” she said, pulling her hands back close to her body, still looking down and picking at her fingers.
“Mom, that’s why I can’t call him.” She wouldn’t look at me.
“Come on, now, Marin! Let’s not talk about that today.”
My words sounded cruel in my ears as they grated across her. But I hate to hide the truth from her. Her mind does that so brutally well already.
“Tom is going to deal with his life,” she said sternly, “the way he decides to. Now, let’s not talk about this.” I realized she had already thought this through. And she got it right—for years my brother has refused help from anyone, even help to get off the street. My mother understands, perhaps better than anyone, that his troubles are ultimately his to overcome.
The balm for these rough times comes in the small moments with my mother, the easy ones. Moments when nothing can be gained or lost, when one of us notices something lovely in the world: she sees a bird outside the window and remarks at the brilliance of its red wing. She bends to pet my dog and comments on how daintily she lifts her paw! For all the confusion and fear induced by her ever-reconfiguring world, it also grants her the full richness of its magic.
Driving down the road in Santa Fe one spring morning, when a gust of wind picked up a spray of fallen pink petals and swirled them over the road in front of my car, I wished she were there to see it. I knew she would feel its beauty and for a moment be filled by it. I miss her whenever I have these moments alone. One day in Central Park, I walked past a shadowy grove of leafless trees after a morning rain had left their branches laden with drops of water, clinging so densely that they seemed like pearls strung along the undersides of the limbs. “Mom!” I wanted to say. “Look at the droplets of water shining on the trees!”
“Oh!” she would say. “Isn’t that lovely!” Her voice would be high, captivated. She would pause. Her bubble in space-time would encompass us both, and for a moment I would feel as if the entire world began and ended there.
Marin Sardy’s essays and criticism have appeared in Tin House, Guernica, the Rumpus, Fourth Genre, Missouri Review, ARTnews, and Art Ltd., as well as in two award-winning photography books, Landscape Dreams and Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby. She has also been the arts editor in chief at Santa Fe’s Santa Fean magazine.
TMR Author on the Air
This week Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ramona Koval interviewed Jason Anthony about his experience in Antarctica. Anthony’s essay, “Song of Hypothermia,” appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of The Missouri Review and was the springboard for much of the conversation. We’ve posted the full essay for your reading enjoyment, and you can hear the interview here.