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.

***

An image of the author, Kermit Frazier.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.

 

“Snow” by Kermit Frazier

If the weather is too warm for you right now, remember that cooler weather will eventually  be here. In that spirit, we bring you Kermit Frazier’s “Snow.” The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in TMR’s 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest. It is a moving, behind-the-scenes look at the crumbling walls of segregation, and the evolving urban landscape of Washington DC–delivered through the lens of Frazier’s childhood. The essay first appeared in print in TMR 44:2. You can read our interview with the author here.

Editorial note: A revised version of “Snow” can be found in the second chapter of Frazier’s recently published memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age. 

Snow

by Kermit Frazier

For all too short a time we were blissfully at one with a white world, one that wasn’t “other” when it fell upon us, for it was, in fact, a world of bright white snow that blanketed our neighborhood just as it did all others. A white world to claim, possess, revel in, yet something elusive still, temporary, melting, like the stuff of dreams. A world awash in contradictions. Cold yet comforting; soft and soothing yet slickly hard-packed over time; pristine and virginal yet driven by weather change toward slush and mush, gutter-clogging and dirty, dark and unworthy. So quick, quick, while there’s time, me and my brother and our friends, shouting down the rolling hill through the trees on wooden Radio Flyer sleds, the snow flying up all around us. Black kids in a white whirl of snow in a black world surrounded by a white one. Magical, exhilarating snow. One of the few white realities we could safely touch, feel, get next to back then.

It was a privileged sled ride because it was a special hill. Cedar Hill. Special and less dangerous for its being both enclosed and more expansive. Unlike the sidewalks of Chicago Street, down which we usually swooped early in the morning, before the neighbors cleared the ice and snow and shooed us away, belly-flopping on our sleds one after another from the corner of Shannon Place all the way down the block and off the sidewalk into the snow-covered dirt and grass at the end of the dead end street, where each of us had to roll off his sled, one after the other, to keep from being cut by the metal runners of the sled swooshing right behind. “Roll off, roll off, roll off,” we’d cry. Hearts pounding and laughing and out of breath yet eagerly pulling our sleds up the middle of the street to head back down, again and again.

No, Chicago Street was by no means Cedar Hill, which was a several block trek away. It was, instead, a street right in the middle of our black community in the Anacostia section of Southeast Washington, DC, across the Anacostia River from DC proper—a section that seemed at times to be an appendage, or even appendix, of the nation’s capital. A street that ran two short blocks from Nichols Avenue down across Shannon Place, which ran several blocks parallel to Nichols Avenue from Howard to Good Hope Roads. A community of row and detached houses for working- and middle-class black people, many of whom owned their own homes, many of which they’d either built themselves or had built, like my paternal grandfather, who’d had two homes built over the years, in fact, both on Shannon Place and a block away from each other, the newer of which he lived in with his wife, the older of which he rented to my parents. A thriving, striving black community in an Anacostia that was still, in the early 1950s, 80 percent white and essentially segregated, as was most of DC.

The white population generally stretched beyond Nichols Avenue up Good Hope Road to Alabama Avenue and up beyond Saint Elizabeths Hospital into Congress Heights, down into Oxon Run and into the Maryland suburbs. We lived closer to the Anacostia River, wedged between the hills to the south and the railroad tracks of the old Alexandria branch of the B & O line, across which lay Bolling Field at the river’s edge to the north. Other tentacles of the black community lay across Howard Road in an area initially called Barry’s Farm and across Nichols Avenue up the hill in an area that at one time was known as Stantontown.

Barry’s Farm was first developed right after the Civil War with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had bought up $25,000 worth of land from the Barry family and sold, rented, or leased it to black folks to raise money for higher education—especially for the newly created Howard University. Black families could purchase one-acre lots and enough lumber to build a house for between $125 and $300 and repay it in installments of $10 per month. Families relocated from run-down alley dwellings in the central city to renovated former military barracks near their new lots, where they could live while they built their homes. In the 1950s, though, the area was known primarily for its rows of flat garden apartments, much smaller than the houses of our community, public housing projects that were called, in a curious shift of the letter s, Barry Farms. An area where, in my view, some of the poorer, tougher black kids in our elementary school lived.

Those kids came up Sumner Road—from Stevens, Eaton, and Wade Roads—past the recreation center that anchored the huge playground that swept down behind it and Birney Elementary School. My brother, sister, and I would come with other kids up Nichols Avenue, across a bridge that passed over Suitland Parkway, which effectively separated Barry Farms from our more middle-class neighborhood, at one time known as Hillsdale. We didn’t talk about our differences much: we were simply Negro kids in an all-Negro school. But those differences were evident at times. For example, although I was friends with kids who lived in Barry Farms, I rarely hung out with them there. And my sister remembers a friend from there coming to visit her and marveling at the fact that she lived in a house surrounded by a yard.

Yet wealth and privilege were relative, for at that time I was jealous of a cousin of ours who went to Birney but rode with his teacher mother and was “rich” enough to be able to buy his lunch from the little store across the street every single day! And of course there were wealthier black parts of DC that we almost never saw—for example, way up in Northwest, on the black Gold Coast, where all the streets seemed to be named after trees. There resided Negroes from prominent families: more doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, old families with Howard University pedigrees, families who sent their kids to Dunbar High School, the academic school for Negroes before integration drained it of its brains and cachet by giving such kids other options, just as it gave Negro kids in Anacostia the right to actually attend Anacostia High School, a mere mile away from Barry Farms and Stantontown.

And curiously, although Stantontown had a different history from Barry Farms, it had a similar economic arc. It developed over several decades in the early to mid-nineteenth century after Tobias Henson, a slave in the area, purchased his freedom, eventually bought twenty-four acres and the freedom of his wife, two daughters, and five grandchildren, and gradually added more and more land. By the 1870s, his family was the principal landholder in that community. By the 1950s, however, although Stanton Road still existed, Stantontown was gone, having been condemned a decade earlier by the federal government in order to build the Frederick Douglass Dwellings, a housing project designed by black architect Hilyard Robinson, future dean of Howard University’s School of Architecture.

But Fort Stanton still stood—as it does to this day—entrenched on a much higher hill than Cedar Hill. Built during the Civil War to protect the approach to the Washington Arsenal and the Navy Yard, it was one of sixty-eight enclosed forts that—along with ninety-three batteries and three blockhouses linked by more than thirty miles of trenches and roads—made DC the most heavily defended location in the Western Hemisphere by 1864. Of course, by the 1950s there was nothing much to defend against, no more Battles of Bull Run—or Manassas if you were from the South—that threatened the nation’s capital (or at least the capital of the North) with possible invasion by the Confederate Army (curiously the Army of Northern Virginia at Manassas/Bull Run). Hence, most of the forts and batteries no longer existed. But there was Fort Stanton in all its dusty glory—a fort that principally belonged to us black kids, kings of the hill, who wove in and out of its crumbling, half-barred tunnels and jumped off a huge earthwork mound behind it that we’d dubbed “Sandman’s Hill,” rolling and daring and testing each other still.

It’s easy to understand why Fort Stanton had been so important to DC’s defense, for from there one can see clear across the Anacostia River into the central city in all its whitewashed splendor: the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the long, flat stretch of mall in between. In fact, as physically separate from downtown as we might have felt from that point on high, it was indeed a true vantage point, from which we could more easily seem to touch the sky on starry nights and view more clearly than from anywhere else in DC the spectacular fireworks show downtown on the Fourth of July. It was then that the rest of DC “deigned” to come to us, the streets around the park invariably invaded by motorized, integrated armies of the night.

But we never felt emotionally separated from that rest of DC because we had relatives who lived “across the river” in their own segregated communities. And the fact of segregation didn’t constantly weigh on our minds, either. For we did have our integrated moments—such as when my brother, sister, and I traveled daily one summer “all the way up” Alabama Avenue in Southeast to attend a music program in an elementary school in then white Fairfax Village, or when my brother and I took tennis lessons in Rock Creek Park, way up in Northwest. Other than those moments when we were young, we simply knew segregation. Knew, for example, that most movie theaters— even a couple we could reasonably walk to—were off limits to us, that although we could go to Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches, we couldn’t go to the more picturesque Sandy Point, that we could only dream about what fun it might be to spend the day at the popular Glen Echo amusement park, and that certain department stores downtown wouldn’t let us try on clothes or, if they did, made us use separate dressing rooms. Knowing, however, didn’t always keep us from not knowing. Like the time my family went on what we were sure would be a great new evening outing.

It had been a relatively short drive from our house across into Maryland along a two-lane highway. My dad had turned at the sign, slowed to the appropriate speed down the side road, and parked in a line of cars near the entrance. And there we sat, my father, mother, brother, sister, and I, early and waiting, ready to attend our very first drive-in movie. We had pillows and blankets, snacks and smiles, and the need to have a good time at this relatively new yet already quintessential American form of entertainment. I don’t remember what was playing, but it wouldn’t have mattered. With the big white screen looming ahead, we kids couldn’t wait for any old picture to start.

And when the ticket-taker’s booth came to life and cars began inching forward, our pulses raced even more with anticipation. A drive-in, a drive-in, a drive-in, as we bounced around in the backseat as though we were headed into a wondrous amusement park. Finally at the booth, we watched the young white ticket-taker lean out to greet us with a kind of automatic smile that froze into locked-jaw astonishment when he came face-to-face with my dad, wallet in hand and poised to pay. The white man—boy, really—stared at Dad, then looked away, then looked back again. He hesitated a moment more and then said, in an apologetic whisper, “Sorry, no coloreds.”

Suddenly we kids not only stopped bouncing but hardly breathed. No coloreds? But . . . what did that mean? That is, of course, we were coloreds, Negroes, but . . . huh? For an endless few seconds, Dad didn’t move, and I wondered what he was thinking and what he was going to say or do—eyeing as he was this fresh-faced white boy possessed of the knowledge and authority to bar him from a family activity he was quite willing to pay for. It was the strangest thing—not wanting our money, not wanting us to have a good time, not wanting, well . . . us. And yet it wasn’t him, per se, that white kid, for he did seem more sympathetic than angry. Nonetheless . . . What’s the holdup? What’s going on up there? I could feel white folks wondering in the cars behind us, as the heat in me, in our car, seemed to rise precipitously. Finally my father tucked his wallet back into his pocket and then maneuvered the car away from the window, out of the line, and back down the road.

It was like a retreat, like an utter defeat, and it was one of the most humiliating moments of my life. As we inched along past the growing number of cars, I kept my eyes to myself, not wanting to see how many other kids were bouncing in anticipation, how many white kids, that is, for I couldn’t imagine another Negro family having been as naïve as ours. And even if there was one joyously waiting, I didn’t want to warn them, vindictively wanting them instead to experience firsthand the rejection we’d just been subjected to.

Yet how could we have known? In many respects, desegregation had begun to come to DC toward the end of the 1950s. And a drive-in seemed so logically open yet private—that is, one could be outdoors yet still in one’s car, free from outright contact and “contamination,” together yet separate, an easeful sort of transition, an “all-deliberate-speed” kind of integration. But instead, the only speed we experienced was that of our green, squat-looking ’54 Chevrolet as my dad drove away, clearly angry but holding it in, the way he often did with an emotion he felt deeply.

We didn’t go home, however, for Dad was determined to find a drive-in theater that would admit us. I didn’t understand. Why waste time and suffer more possible humiliation? But he drove and drove, never losing his focus or his way, drove with a confidence that spoke of his experience as a part-time cab driver, drove in nearly complete silence, his desire and determination set, perhaps his sense of being a man and head of the household on some kind of line. And as he did, I began to wonder how long we would wander. All night? All year? For the rest of our lives? Wandering mile after mile all over the periphery of the “capital of democracy,” refugees in our own country, searching for a drive-in that would allow us to drive in, and perhaps recalling, each in our silent way, that until recently we couldn’t even walk into the Anacostia Theater, only a few blocks from our house and on a street called Good Hope Road no less.

But then finally, after nearly an hour, my father did find another drive-in. It was in a part of Maryland that was just outside Northeast DC.

As we spied the images on the huge picture screen and the cars in the nearly filled lot, our hearts raced once again, although more with anxiety now than anticipation. For there was no waiting, no inching up to the booth. Just straight ahead, then stop, then watch as the white female ticket-taker took Dad’s money with ne’er one crack in her proffered smile. And so in we went to enjoy our first drive-in experience, although I think each of us fell asleep from exhaustion at various times during the second feature.

Afterward, my dad drove home triumphantly. But it was a triumph tempered by the realization that metropolitan Washington, DC, like America as a whole, was still far from being integrated, far from being as open as the air to us “coloreds.”

Soon, however, integration was to come to DC with a speed that seemed more lightning than deliberate. For example, two decades later, an aunt and uncle of mine who had at one time lived in the Frederick Douglass Dwellings would buy a house on Brandywine Street in one of those previously all-white communities just above Oxon Run, that street being the same street where one of my best friends, a white boy I went through secondary school with, had lived with his family. When I’d walk home from school with him, walk in the opposite direction from where I lived, my pulse often quickened through some anxiety about moving deeper into a white community, a white world. And when I first drove along Brandywine to visit my aunt and uncle in their new home, I passed by my friend’s old apartment building knowing that not only did his family no longer live there but no white families lived anywhere on that street anywhere for blocks and blocks, palpably sensing how radically Anacostia had changed.

So radically that by the early 1970s, practically all whites were gone from Anacostia—as eventually were my family, many of my relatives, and much of the rest of the black middle class. That place “across the river” had transformed from an area that in the 1920s had the highest percentage of homeownership in the city and apartment structures as only one half of one percent of its total housing to an area that in 1970 saw 75 percent of itself zoned for apartments. That transformation came about for a myriad of reasons. But to my mind two are foremost: urban renewal and integration.

Congress had two increasingly interconnected problems on its hands between 1930 and 1970 with regard to Washington, DC: the need to accommodate families displaced by the demolition of substandard housing, particularly the alley dwellings in the central city, where many blacks had lived since just after the Civil War, and the need to expand facilities for the federal government, whose size began to balloon during and after World War II.

The National Capital Housing Authority, created by Congress originally as the Alley Dwelling Authority in 1934, was charged with the task of eradicating alley dwellings and constructing public housing in DC. Around the same time, the federal government decided it wanted to keep its agencies and workers as much as possible near the core of the city rather than push them out to the suburbs, as originally planned. That meant condemning housing and acquiring land by eminent domain, particularly southwest of the Capitol, an area that had once been too marshy and mosquito-ridden to be very desirable, an area where some of Washington’s notorious slave pens and auction sites had been situated before the Civil War, an area that had been allowed to deteriorate into a “slum” by the end of World War II. DC’s population was booming, expanding more than predicted after that war, and there were suddenly more low-income families—primarily blacks—being displaced than there was housing they could afford to rent. In addition, restrictive covenants in the suburbs prevented black families from leaving the city to find housing, even if it was affordable, which it often wasn’t. Meanwhile, height restrictions prevented the government from building true high-rises, either for government offices or for low-income families. Hence, urban renewal. Or “urban removal,” as certain critics cynically say.

Some of my mother’s family were “urbanly removed” from time to time over those years, especially from southwest to southeast of the Capitol. And although many of those old row house dwellings in Southwest were like “see-through” houses to me—that is, the back doors seemed to lie just behind the front doors—they were nonetheless home to family, and displacement is displacement. When my mom was young, shortly after her father died, she and her mother, sister, and two brothers stayed with relatives in that black Southwest. And when they had to move, their search for housing was traumatic for her: she was so afraid that they’d wind up homeless and on the streets. Fortunately, they managed to secure the last, demonstration model, garden apartment in a new public housing project near the Navy Yard in Southeast, projects other friends and relatives had moved to, projects that I considered my second home when we traveled across the Anacostia River, with kids constantly running in and out and family packing Grandma’s four-room, two-story corner place during holiday gatherings, she holding court like the queen of the domain that she was. Still, Mom’s early brush with possible homelessness was one “hit-home” example of the fact that DC proper wasn’t going to have enough public housing for everyone in need.

But across that river from the central city, from the “real” DC, across that river that met the Washington Channel at Fort McNair and converged with the larger Potomac River at Haines Point, across that river sat an area whose original residents were the Nacotchtank Native Americans (also known as the Nacostines); it was an area to which there was only the original little 11th Street Bridge for more than a century, an area that didn’t get a high school until 1935. Across that river lay Anacostia. All of that acreage, rolling and relatively expansive. Anacostia was suddenly the solution.

And so, slowly but surely, as zoning laws changed, public housing projects rose much faster and in greater density in Anacostia than in any other area of the city. And slowly but surely, the social and economic fabric of Anacostia began to change as well.

Such change was also effected—ironically for some, “tragically” for others—by integration. Gradually, from the late 1950s into the 1960s, with rigid segregation crumbling, middle-class black families began to leave Anacostia for better, larger homes in other parts of DC and in the suburbs, especially Maryland’s Prince George’s County, where the restrictive covenants fell more quickly and the housing was more affordable than in other counties surrounding the nation’s capital. Relatives and friends on my father’s side of the family began buying lots and having new homes built in Prince George’s County as early as the mid-50s. And that American-dream drive to move up and out began to break up the old neighborhood and a certain sense of family, almost literally for me, because for quite some time during segregation, at least half a dozen of my relatives lived in homes up and down Shannon Place.

Finally, in 1962, my own family moved as well, from my dad’s parents’ old house to one we bought in Northeast DC, right on the border between the city and Prince George’s County. We were moving to a community whose closest drive-in theater was, unwittingly, the one that had finally welcomed us that night in the 1950s.

Thus was Anacostia “stripped” of much of its black middle-class base just as more and more low-income black families were moving into housing projects there. What quickly followed were overcrowded schools, loss of amenities and services, and an increase in run-down housing stock and other kinds of neglect. And neglect can lead to frustration and despair, which can sometimes pave the way for drugs and crime. At a time when DC residents were finally getting the heretofore unconstitutional right to self-government, Anacostia was morphing into Ward Eight—the economically depressed voting district that the late, embattled yet savvy and tenacious Marion Barry (no kin, I’m quite sure, to the original owners of that vast farmland) consistently championed. Why, even the Metro subway system built in the 1980s threatened to bypass the area, to go straight from the federal city to the Maryland suburbs, until finally, under increased political pressure, “low-priority” stations were opened in Anacostia, one of them on Howard Road at Shannon Place, just two blocks from our old house.

In effect, a part of DC that in the first half of the twentieth century had been benignly neglected, left to its own middle-class, segregated devices, became in the second half of the twentieth century an area to which too much of the wrong kind of attention was paid at first, and then not nearly enough of the right kind.

Hence, in the 1950s, we Negro kids were riding the cusp of an era, blithely unaware of the changes that were in store, our world to a large extent proscribed and circumscribed. And that’s one reason we took our special privileges where we could, namely, up on Cedar Hill. For that house on nine acres of land was none other than the venerable Frederick Douglass Home. And because the caretaker just happened to be a member of our Bethlehem Baptist Church—a church Douglass himself had reportedly once visited in its earliest days—she tended to favor us more than other kids for prime sledding rights on snowy DC days.

In every season, the Douglass home was quite imposing, of course, and it seemed a little strange that to travel up to such a symbol of one of the greatest black abolitionists and champions of freedom and justice for black people, we had to walk from our all-black community into a part of Anacostia that was still basically white. But in retrospect, one might say that we boys were traveling the great Frederick Douglass’s own path, for it was he who in 1877 broke an all-white covenant by buying the house and property from John Van Hook and moving there from the central city.

Two decades earlier, Van Hook, along with his partners in the Union Land Company, had bought up land at the intersection of Nichols Avenue and Good Hope Road and laid out what they called Uniontown. It was to be the first DC “suburb,” a working-class, whites-only settlement (although apparently not for the Irish, who were the “black” white people of nineteenth-century America), and was intended primarily to serve Navy Yard workers with lots purchased for $3 monthly installments. “Negroes, mulattos, pigs, or soap boiling” were forbidden, rules that appealed to those whites fearing the increasing number of free blacks in their neighborhoods in DC proper. But land speculation, financial panic, and a slowdown in production at the Navy Yard—where my dad was working as a machinist nearly a century later—led to hard times for Van Hook and Co. and the sale of his prime, pristine headquarters property to, ironically, one of those hitherto barred “Negroes,” albeit a rather famous one.

Douglass died in 1895, but his second wife, Helen, organized the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, which was chartered by Congress in 1900. That association and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs joined forces to open Cedar Hill to the public in 1916. And in 1962, the National Park Service was entrusted with the care of the house. But in the 1950s, we boys felt that the gently rolling hill on which the house stood belonged to us on those snowy winter days just as much as Fort Stanton did year-round. We were black boys dreamily sledding over white snow, pushing through to a time when segregation would give way to integration, and then, little more than a decade later, to one when the population of Anacostia would be just 37 percent white, when the DC school system would be 90 percent black, when Nichols Avenue would become Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and when the Carver Theater—the only one open to us in Anacostia during segregation—would fold and later reinvent itself as the home of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia African American History Museum and then fold again when that museum moved to a new, much larger building up the hill across from Fort Stanton Park.

Anacostia has been mostly black for decades now and thus “naturally” segregated once again, only this time more insidiously so, for such segregation has had a new factor churning within it: social and economic isolation. But much change is in the air—even solidly in the works—as it is everywhere now in DC, it seems. So much so that one current complaint from many black residents is that their “Chocolate City” is melting in the noonday sun of increased gentrification, with white families buying up property black families can no longer afford and “moving back in,” desiring to be closer to the action again, thoughts of where their young children will eventually attend school placed on the back burner or distinctly on the one marked “private.” And what with the Metro so gaily gliding “across the river,” property values steadily rising, and new development lining King Avenue and beyond, Anacostia is clearly increasingly “in their sights.”

Despite all this, however, despite the elaborate plans for all manner of Anacostia riverfront development; despite the creation of a neat though rather circumscribed community of mixed-income townhouses along Alabama Avenue that rests on the site of the demolished Frederick Douglass Dwellings, which had sat on the site of old Stantontown, which was land that had been bought by ex-slave Tobias Henson; despite the grounds of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, the old insane asylum, partially making way for the Department of Homeland Security; despite all of that and more—all those so-called manifestations of freedom and progress in this country—I suspect that black boys sledding down a snow encrusted Cedar Hill might well still be black boys reveling in one of the few white realities they feel they can safely touch, embrace, get next to, glimpsed and grasped in the dead of a DC winter. That temperate climate snow—like integration of any kind, it seems—forever illusive, impermanent, the stuff of dreams.

***

About the Author:

Kermit Frazier’s more than twenty-five plays have been produced at such theaters as the New Federal Theater, Detroit Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Seattle Children’s Theatre, and Baltimore Center Stage. Some have also been published by Broadway Play Publishing and Dramatic Publishing. In addition, he’s written for several television series, including head writer for the popular children’s mystery series, Ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in: Callaloo, Essence, Black World, Green Mountains Review, American Theatre, and The New York Times Book Review. His memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, was published in May 2022.

“Jenny Dies by Jet Ski” by Anna B. Moore

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Anna B. Moore’s sentimental narrative “Jenny Dies by Jet Ski” is a delightful exploration at the intersection of memory, soap operas, and life.

 

Jenny Dies by Jet Ski

By Anna B. Moore

 

Two years after my mother left, I decided to use my savings for a nine-inch black-and-white Magnavox television. It cost seventy dollars and took up nearly half the space on the desk in my bedroom.

“She saved up her own money for it,” my father said to everyone: his colleagues at the college, his sister over the telephone, my older brother at the dinner table. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Third grade ended; the second custody hearing began. Dad drank bourbon, read The Mill on the Floss in his recliner or met with lawyers; my brother ran through the alleys of Grinnell, the town where we lived, with his friends. Iowa endlessness. An echo of tires on the street, a bark of neighbors’ dogs on their chains in backyards, a squeak in the hinge of the breadbox door.

I discovered the soap opera One Life to Live. I watched it from my bed, images muted by afternoon light and shadow from my windows—images mostly of Karen Woleck (played by Judith Light, her first role before her launch to fame on Who’s The Boss?). Karen was keeping a secret. She met men in hotel rooms and then drove home to wait for her husband Larry to get home from his job as a surgeon at Llanview Hospital. She was in a constant state of withheld tears, her voice quaking as she took illicit calls on their upstairs phone or told Larry she had to run to the store for a steak and instead drove to the Wallingford Hotel to turn a trick. Her hair was blond and combed back over her head like Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, held in place by what I thought might be scalp grease. Why didn’t Karen wash her hair? How could Larry be unaware that something was incredibly wrong with his wife? He saw patients at Llanview hospital in his white doctor’s coat, hair swooshed across his forehead like a wing. He came home ready for dinner and then some affection by the fire as Karen trembled or stared over his shoulder into their living room air.

During commercials, I shuffled my cards for a new game of solitaire. It was bright outside and very hot, the air in my room even hotter, my windows all open wide. We did not have air conditioning. It was 1979. Karen was on the witness stand, testifying against the twin brother of her pimp, and goaded by the prosecutor, she lost control and confessed to being a hooker. The whole town watched as she shrieked that she liked it, that she couldn’t help it, that she was so lonely. A feeble breeze blew; a lilac branch scraped against my window screen; a shadow swayed on my grungy, yellow rug. Her screams were the only sounds inside the house. I was transfixed.

*** 

When my mother had lived with us, she sometimes ordered me to play outside, even if it was winter. I never knew what to do, so I stood stunned and alone by our swing set, my arms tight against my body, my fingers cold and stiff inside my mittens. Sun gleamed on all that snow, and I squinted into the white. Our sandbox was crusted with ice. The glare hurt.

In summertime I still felt blank, but there were more options on a Saturday afternoon, when nothing was on TV. I might sit on the wooden swing, the chain warm in my hands, and pump my legs but then lock my knees so I could watch my feet sweep across the cornfield behind our backyard and into the sky. I might climb the weeping willow and wait on a branch, or crawl under the back porch and stare at the barn, or chip paint from the house with my finger and watch a line of ants move across the sidewalk. Time was eternal and relentless. I needed emphasis, benchmarks, beginnings and ends, starts and stops, conflicts and resolutions.

They began on Monday with Ryan’s Hope, but it was the longest half hour ever. It started at 11:30 AM and only prepared me for All My Children. I wondered about their mother. Who was she? I pictured a woman in the sky with a slender face and lots of lipstick, her delicate white hand reaching down to all those unrelated people in Pine Valley. She held them through corporate takeovers, dog attacks, abducted children, heart surgeries, imprisonments in dark wells, near-drownings in distant grottoes. Erica Kane, the show’s heroine (played for decades by Susan Lucci, star of the ABC TV movie French Silk), left me bewildered. She just wasn’t that pretty, with her sloped nose and tiny chin, her movements ungraceful and guarded. At a photo shoot in New York City (the photographers and crew on location), with an actual skyscraper and fountain behind her, Erica posed, her arm a stiff branch over her head, bejeweled evening cape draping from her body like a tablecloth.

The reflection of my bedroom door was bright on the screen of my Magnavox, washing out the starkness of blacks to whites. Passersby stopped at the fountain, whispered and nodded, beamed at Erica’s beauty. I sat on my bed and held my koala bear against my side, fiddled with his black felt claws. A crowd formed, applauding at the way she pretended. Fade to commercial.

***

Ten minutes before noon, ten minutes before one, ten minutes before two, and ten minutes before three, ABC showed a preview. It started with a chorus of “Love . . . in the afternoon,” to violins and harps. A beat and then a clip of usually a couple—a hero who grabbed a heroine or said heroine’s sister or best friend or cousin or mother—and declared his love or lust. These scenes occurred in a variety of settings, each of them spotless and free of clutter or dust or uniqueness. Living rooms lined with matching drapes, hotel hallways with polished end tables, entryways with wall-mounted coat racks. If the couple were outdoors, they made their declarations in parks with lots of brick retaining walls and iron fencing or on benches of boathouses, light shimmering to indicate a reflection of nearby water. They had sex everywhere, especially after a shipwreck or plane crash on an island. They might split a coconut and then kiss and fall to the sand below the view of the camera.

But previews might also cut to veiled widows in mourning, unshaven killers of children, suited businessmen wrongly found guilty of murder. A gun might fire from a dark corner; a body might drop. A tornado might cave a ceiling into a roomful of people, ballroom chandeliers crashing to the floor, women screaming. ABC played the same previews for several days, so after two or three had passed, I waited for a new Love in the Afternoon, watching my clock and counting each commercial as it ended, my hands poised over my solitaire game: One. Two. Three. Four. Then the screen turned to blue, the logo gleamed, the song began, the sun flashed through the circle in the letter b of abc to Jack and Lily or Tom and Erica or Asa and Olympia or Tina and Cord or Robert and Jackie Templeton (the role that skyrocketed Demi Moore to stardom). I flipped three cards from my stockpile. Why did they use the word love for kissing and invisible sex but also for death, crime, and natural disasters? I moved a King to a blank space. The preview ended. I felt in my chest the ache for the show to resume, that painful splinter between fade out and fade in. Not a sound in the house.

***

After the custody hearings ended, my brother and I moved to Iowa City to live with my mother. Ryan’s Hope was canceled and replaced by Loving. I watched it from the new, used bed my mother had bought for me, a single foam mattress atop a maple bed frame and a plywood board. My television sat on the desk that had belonged to my grandmother.

Loving was set in a town called Corinth and focused on Lily, an ill and sickly-looking piano virtuoso with pale skin and fragile limbs and stiff blond hair. She wore only white, mostly dresses layered in ruffles with long sleeves and Victorian necks. Her father Garth forced her to practice piano all the time and rarely let her leave the house to go out with the other kids. But then Jack came along, his chest wide as the sky. He was relentless and adoring, calling up to her like Romeo . . . they fell in love . . . Lily wanted to leave her father but couldn’t; she was too little and white, and for some reason Corinth was always so dark . . . Jack was running through an indoor street . . . and then Lily was gone. They sent her away to become less frail.

My mother had covered the surface of my grandmother’s desk with a pane of glass. It reflected the television itself, its white sides and screen; a tarnished silver cup that had belonged to my father’s mother, where I kept pencils and pens; a lamp whose base was a heavy bottle of Dom Perignon that my parents had shared decades before to celebrate my father’s doctorate.

As I got older, after Loving was canceled, my mother sometimes watched soaps with me on the nineteen-inch color Magnavox in our living room. We sat on the couch, my feet in her lap.

“Do you think she’s beautiful?” I asked about All My Children’s Jenny Gardner (the role that ignited Kim Delaney’s career). Jenny’s lips formed an overbite that gave her face a perfect pout. Beneath her slanted cheekbones, I saw her sadness, her tender desire. I felt it in her eyes when she was a working-class teenaged servant, when she was on the run in New York, when she became a model after Greg broke her heart because he became paralyzed. I was thirteen.

“Almost,” my mother would say. I sipped water from my plastic Iowa Hawkeye cup, the black logo faded. “But there’s something off with her nose.”

“Do you think she’s beautiful?” I asked about One Life to Live’s Tina Lord. Tina had mousy blond hair that feathered several inches out from her head, bulbous lips that looked slightly blistered, and glassy blue eyes. Her life was rich with suitors. She had sex with cowboy Cord Roberts, her true love, in the back of a pickup truck on a bed of hay, a few strands in her hair when they sat up afterward.

“No. I don’t even think she’s pretty.”

“Do you think she’s beautiful?” I asked about General Hospital’s Bobbie Spencer. Her smile was so wide it looked like it hurt her cheeks, and her breasts were enormous. She took a hospital patient’s blood pressure, grinning as she squeezed the inflation bulb.

“Not beautiful. Just pretty.” Didn’t anyone ever say anything about Bobbie’s breasts? How could everyone in Port Charles not notice them?

“Do you think she’s beautiful?” I asked about Erica Kane. Erica’s husband, Travis Montgomery, arrived home from political campaigning and saw her standing by the fireplace, waiting for him.

“No,” said my mother. “But she does have beautiful eyes. She’s very pretty.”

Travis breathed hard through his strangely large nose, removed his jacket, and said, “I have missed you beyond reason.” And then he swooped her up to the bedroom, one arm under her knees, the other around her back. Erica folded her legs into him and clasped her arms around his neck.

The only people who told me I was pretty were older women—mothers of friends, passengers on the Greyhounds I took to see my father on weekends, clerks who sold housewares at Younkers. Boys did not compete for me. Jealous girls did not plot my ruin. I owned no evening gowns. I had no confidence or ambition, only lavish longings. Travis held Erica’s face in his hands. The windows behind the television revealed a ground-level view of our street, our driveway, a square of our front lawn that my mother mowed herself despite our status as renters. They were in bed now, their bodies under gleaming soft sheets. Erica placed her slender palm in the center of his hairy chest. I bit a cuticle.

***

Viki Buchanan was not who I wanted to be—matronly and giving and proper to her core. I envied nothing about her. It was my day off from work. I was twenty-two, pulling bongs on the couch in my apartment, letting the soaps fall, one after the other. One Life to Live was all about Viki—her split personality, her heart transplant, her breast cancer, her unearthed brothers and sisters, her amnesia, her vast wealth and newspaper empire. But I did not want to transplant myself into her body or kiss men like she did, like a nun—self-consciously, with a closed mouth. If I use my tongue, Viki seemed to say, if I exhibit hints of desire—a hard exhalation, a shimmer of saliva—I might gross you out. I did not want her short, feathered hair or her business suits and frumpy turtlenecks or her unsculpted and middle-aged body. She had been middle-aged since I was seven years old, her dress and demeanor as far from sexy as the horizon line from my bedroom window in Iowa—that line I always felt but could never comprehend. No one ever explained it to me until I was in high school and took an art class, where a drawing teacher called it the vanishing point, where lines and planes merge only to disappear.

Pulling bongs to falling soap operas day after day when you are twenty-two or watching them fall without bongs when you are thirty-three, is to waste time, kill time, while away, hold off, sit around; to twiddle the thumbs, watch the clock tick, drag the feet; fritter, putter, dawdle, tarry, delay, dillydally, loiter, lollygag, piddle, trifle, idle, vegetate. It is longing, yearning, mooning, coveting. It holds everything still.

***

Summertime in Grinnell. I was old—about to start junior high. I was honoring the visitations in the custody agreement, but I no longer wanted to because there was nothing to do at my father’s house. My brother was back in Iowa City with my mom. The yellow rug was still on my bedroom floor—a deep yellow fuzz, the color of a chick that was far too dark—and I must have brought my television over from Iowa City because it was there on my desk, the windows behind it, the lilac bush scraping away.

Over the previous year, General Hospital had run the Ice Princess story line and invented Luke and Laura, the first supercouple, the pair who originated the term. Their nemesis, Helena Cassedine, was played in a few episodes by Elizabeth Taylor, whose movies I had never seen. She was my father’s favorite celebrity to complain about—beautiful, he said, but a dreadful actress and getting so fat. But General Hospital had given me so far the most exciting story of my life, one that did not and did not and did not end: Luke and Laura’s love, Robert Scorpio’s English accent, the World Security Bureau (like the FBI), an evil snow machine that the Cassadines were planning to fire at Port Charles from their secret island. Luke, Robert, and Laura were hiding in the giant plastic trees and leaves of the jungle, plotting overthrow. Laura was the wanted, the desired. She always had been, but her gums were large and her lower jaw inflated and her hair defied category, neither blond nor brown nor red. But she was the center of two men. She worked in a bar.

Luke and Laura’s wedding had happened in a November, so I never saw it because I was in school. Shortly afterward, Laura disappeared. But now she was back in Port Charles, following Luke, eavesdropping. I’m still alive! she would fantasize. I’m still alive! I love you and I never stopped! But she kept stalking instead. On a Friday, she hid around a corner or behind a shrub or inside a barrel or beneath a window, listening for a moment to reveal herself; on Monday, a few dockhands would walk past her barrel, or another woman would walk into the diner and throw herself at Luke, and Laura would change her mind. Devastated and confused, she would follow someone else—her mother or brother or father or cousin or former friend.

Time was running out, because Laura was about to leave Port Charles for good and allow Luke to think she was dead forever. But at the last moment, she decided to return to the scene of their wedding—the grounds of a mansion. A vast shady lawn, a giant hedge. She walks the grounds in a blouse and a tight skirt and heels. Luke has decided to return to the grounds at the very same time . . . they keep missing each other . . . around some trees . . . around some pillars . . . Luke stands on the balcony overlooking the sweep of lawn, downing champagne in his grief . . . he is about to leave . . . and then he sees a woman in the distance, walking toward the gazebo . . . he drops his glass, leans forward, cannot speak, spins around, runs through the mansion and onto the grass. . . .

“Laura!” He holds his hands out in front of him like a zombie, reaching for her. I am standing in the corner of my room, my hands on my chest, panting.

She spins around. Sees him. Takes him in, holding her tiny pocketbook in one hand.

“Laura!”

They run and embrace. Laura is silent and Luke is hysterical, weeping with joy. Laura lets herself be held. I weep too—all that love, all that loss. The hot breeze through the windows is stifling. I had been waiting for that scene all week. I smile and cry, smile and cry, the sounds of my sniffles lost in the screams of Luke’s joy, ringing through the walls of the house. He holds her.

Oh, to be there instead of here.

 

***

For the last two decades, Anna B. Moore has been publishing creative nonfiction, essays, and short fiction in a variety of literary journals and magazines, including American Scholar and Smokelong Quarterly; work is forthcoming in Identity Theory and the Offing. Her first novel will be published by Unsolicited Press in 2024. She lives in Northern California.

“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.

Cover Up

Clare Needham

 

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)

 

 

“The Ride” by Robert Stewart

BLAST, TMR‘s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Robert Stewart’s “The Ride” recounts the story of his wife’s determination in completing a month-long cross-state journey on horseback and the role he played as a semi-silent supporter.

The Ride

Robert Stewart

We touch these stars above.
Fresh distances. Rider and Horse are one.
—Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus

 

I am trying to track down my wife. She rode off by horseback two days ago, not to the crests of Montana or shores of Morocco but into rural Kansas and Missouri, along reaches available to me by truck in a few hours—the subtle gravel roads of four miles per hour, among sunflowers, wood bees, ticks, and barns, sagging into history. This is beautiful country. It is flat, dry country with half-completed homesteads and suburban ranch homes among acres of fescue and foxtail or soybeans laid in along creeks. Most houses sit back off the road a ways, and for Lisa to get permission to water her horse or pitch a tent, she gambles twenty minutes or so, three or four times a day, to ride up a stranger’s gravel drive toward the front door, dismount, remove her wide straw hat, fix her hair, execute a smile, and hope someone’s home.

She got started at 11:15 AM on Wednesday, mid-May, two days ago, on a solo horseback trip of three weeks or three months, however it goes. By instinct, it seems, given my profession as an editor, I seek order in the patterns of roads and stories that I imagine we both might discover in the weeks ahead, albeit me in support only. She headed out from her horse’s rented pasture, near Edgerton, in east-central Kansas, south on Crescent Hill Township Road in the direction of Osawatomie, once home to John Brown, his Jayhawker, antislavery forces, at least two massacres, and configurations of “bleeding Kansas,” which my mind has begun to conjure.

Sparky, the dog, and I kept up with her (he on foot, me by car) for a while, until she seemed to settle in and find her pace. Then, at a curve where the gravel road turns dead south, I stood beside the car and watched her ride about a mile until she and Chief, her Missouri Fox Trotter gelding, disappeared behind a hill.

Have you ever watched your wife of five years vanish into a horizon line? Two years ago, Lisa started her own consulting business, took every job, worked nights, weekends, holidays. She banked her earnings, and this summer, as boss, owner, and sole proprietor, gave herself time off to travel. By horse. That first day, Chief’s shimmering red coat and bulk made for easy tracking from a rise on the prairie. The horse spooks easily: at a rusted tractor, a windmill, a cow and its calf; so if you were to watch the horse and rider, your wife—if you are lucky enough to have a wife you admire—you would see them shift in the road from right edge to left, to shy from monsters of all sorts, monsters under a bright sky. A trash can is a monster. A single hay bale. A highway overpass could be an opening into hell, and Chief no Orpheus to lead her out. She must walk him through and reward him with a prune on the other side.

Earlier today, she was “separated from her horse,” as the expression goes, on a chipped-rock road where a horned cow charged the fence, sending Chief into a swirl and Lisa down on the rocks. The horse paused and looked back at her from a hundred yards off, then took up a trot, as Lisa called it, “heading for home.” It turned out that a young man driving to his boss’s house about two miles down that same dusty road stopped his pickup to gather Chief by the reins and drove on, holding his arm out the driver-side window, which is how he came to lead the horse into his boss’s front yard to wait for its owner. “I didn’t figure she needed to walk farther than necessary,” he would say. Kindness.

I sped immediately southward sixty miles, when she called, to find her sitting on her poncho under a tree and the horse tied to the grille of the truck. Her left sleeve and half her white shirt blazed with blood. She had gotten a ride from a lady after the “wreck” and would later get five stitches at the county medical center, along with two hours of advice from the doc: “Call off this ride,” he said. She won’t. I have faith in my wife’s faith.

She will go on, and I will wait each evening at home for her to call and confirm that she has settled in somewhere, putting us both motionless in time, as poet Archibald MacLeish says cryptically, as the moon climbs. Acquaintances want to know of her, Why do it? She has dreamed of going off alone on horseback since girlhood, and she has in mind writing projects that later will leaf out from the trip. All good, all beside the point. A woman riding by horseback alone on these back roads helps even me with this distant aesthetic—as MacLeish has said of poetry, so it is with her—that she should not mean but be. She wants to be a dreaming girl again, the girl who rode bareback in the red-shale gullies of Oklahoma and, later, over the wooded hills of her parents’ farm in Missouri.

You should have seen the collection of bulls and cows, all horned, in the pasture we walked Chief past the day after Lisa’s abrupt dismount—some Brahman bulls, some Highland and Lowline or Zebu, for all we knew—maybe fifteen head collected under a wide shade tree, lying or standing in such tight congress and with such fierce eyes, you would understand whose law passes on life and whose on death in these parts. The law of power, the law of speed, the law of standing with one’s kind. One cow of that group had charged Chief the day before, sending Lisa’s body onto the jaw-rock road.

A public garden in Paris, France, has a Greek marble sculpture of Theseus appearing to get the best of the Minotaur, a confrontation I take, now, as factual and real. I will drive these gravel roads every week or two during Lisa’s ride, delivering supplies to her in the territory of many-shaped creatures, in a Kansas or Missouri county of dust and ditches bordered by wire fence and hedges of mulberry and sage. Our GPS-enabled phones don’t always match maps ripped from atlases, and sometimes I want simply to hand Lisa a spool of string that will lead her through the labyrinth.

The time has come, five days in, for me to once again track down my wife. I have beside me in the truck the checklist of supplies she has dictated in several calls during the week. Before leaving Kansas City, I stop at Starbuck’s for 24-packs of VIA Instant, at CVS Pharmacy for bug repellent and sunscreen, at Sutherland’s Lumber for forty feet of nylon rope to replace the length she lost, then at the Hy-Vee Party and Liquor for Budweiser and ice, which I put into the cooler, and which, after this ninety-five-degree day, I darn well better not show up without.

Farther south, I stop by Backwoods Outfitters to replace a ripped rainfly for her tent and pick up heavy-duty twist ties, on impulse. I stop at the Flying J truck stop in Peculiar for gas. I stop in Rich Hill at the Amish café for sandwiches we will share on the tailgate of the truck once Chief settles into pasture or on the new picket rope I am bringing. I have more vitamins, nutrition bars, vacuum packs of salmon and tuna, small cans of beef, and a canister of individually wrapped prunes, Chief’s favorite snack. I always forget something. I always run late. The list lying on the truck seat has directions to her vicinity, scribbled landmarks, town names, likely roads she will be traveling, all of which insinuate into my thinking a kind of purposefulness, a belief that I am a participant on this trip. I am not. Not even close.

These are roads I did not know existed. 1700 Road. 2300 Road. All dust and gravel. North of Drexel, where Lisa crossed into western Missouri, gravel roads have names; south, they have numbers. A girl about eighteen tells me this outside a Drexel Casey’s, as she and two younger sisters, all with the same round, freckled faces and Fudgesicles, open the enormously long doors of their Camaro. She laughs about the road names. I had been north of Drexel, looking for Sharon Cemetery Road, and missed it, which was a good thing. My wife was south of there already, riding down what I knew—from her—only as the first gravel road east of Drexel off of 18 Highway. When I ask about finding 18, the girl at the Casey’s describes it as a “sixty-five-mile-an-hour highway,” which means blacktopped. The gravel road my wife said to look for turned out to be 1800 road, but the girl at Casey’s told me people there just call it “Old Ballpark Road,” if they call it anything.

The afternoon has gotten on; I am hoping my wife has found a place to stop for the day. I turn onto 18 Highway and then right on what seems to be the first gravel county road, unmarked, though I pass field roads, farm roads, driveways, gravel trailing into some expanse or another. After I drive two miles or so, blowing a plume of white dust, an older gentleman working on a tractor beside his house looks up and waves me into his driveway. “She’s back there,” he says and points. “Drive on back through the yard. It won’t hurt nothing.”

My wife is down the slope a ways, in a grove of black walnut trees. How did that gentleman know who I was? I am starting to love everyone. I can’t explain it. It’s just to say, they are sweet. Human beings in the best sense. It is not my nature to drive across someone’s yard, invited or not, forty acres in size or not. I park near his truck and introduce myself. He’s Jerry, and his wife is in the house with vertigo. We talk, and I thank him for helping out my wife. “Nothing to it,” he says. “She won’t take up much room.” That’s all. When I walk down the slope to where my wife is grazing the horse, Jerry goes back to work on the tractor.

***

Each day of her trip now, I follow in my mind the roads she might be on, with fences behind which curious donkeys, bulls, llamas, and horses would be tracking her progress, or beside a paved road, where a fellow on a riding mower would wave and stop to give directions. This second Sunday, I seek relief at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, near my office in Kansas City. On what can I concentrate but the pale dust of country roads or satellite views of where, in my perpetual speculation, she might be now? The Gospel has Yeshua rising into heaven, and two men in white, called, in Willis Barnstone’s translation, “informing angels,” saying to the crowd that watched Yeshua rise up, “People of Galilee, why do you stand there gazing into the sky?” The sky has come to a little screen, and I spend too much time gazing into it, or down from its satellite. What kind of spiritual vision is this, in my life, that I have become unsettled by the unknown? Relief comes in seeing myself in the company of those people in the Gospel, likewise unsettled.

“We can’t be kind or courageous in the abstract,” the priest said this morning, “but only in a given place and situation.” I teach this to my writing students, or try to. Theory comforts, and comfort gets us nowhere, is how I take that message. Lisa and I like to assume the world’s general beneficence, and I wonder how much hope I can claim against how much faith. Here at home, my bed—our bed—feels embarrassingly comfortable, the coffee maker an abomination of efficiency, the cast-iron skillet wearily weighty as I carry it four steps to the stove top. These things I know, and I am their witness. I tell my students, Write what can be known. I do not say, Write what you know but what can be known; in that difference lie the world’s offerings. The phone rings, and Lisa relays the number of a particular gravel road to orient me to her location; then the phone empties itself of sound, flat and dark as cured iron.

I am often consoled by others that I can talk to her daily for progress and hear the comforting punctuation of hoofbeats among our words. Such power of connection, however, lives for me, now more than ever, within the equal power and certainty of her separateness. Spouses, parents, friends, once saw their people off on ship or train or wagon and let them go. Had to. The tantalization of satellite and cellular communication reinvents for us, in the way of technology, a new kind of separation.

A Zen monk once asked his teacher, “Both speaking and silence belong to the relative world: How can we escape these two errors?”

The teacher replied, “Partridges chirp among the scented blossoms.”

I am not so smart as to understand the range of that response, or why Lisa and I decided not to install in our phones an app called “Find My Friends.” In promise, that app would locate her at every moment, clop by clop, the sky dropping its pin like the tail on a donkey. We thought about the illusion of separateness and how each day has as its finest moment the moment of revelation. We travel, have maps, phones; and Lisa calls to say a coyote loped across the road with a rabbit in its mouth. I detect in her words a stillness. Her voice comes out of nothing, or perhaps out of the wind. We have this connection, the satellite and cell phones chosen, the loping coyote, which looked, as it ran, neither left nor right, and her on horseback mere feet away.

Is it within me, then, as for the great teachers, to neither speak nor stay silent? My mind shuttles among signs of the material good. The more she moves through the physical universe, the more transcendent she seems. “When the holy spirit moves in you,” Yeshua says to his people, “You will receive the power, and you will be / My witnesses.”

The sky early this summer burns blue—not the blue of a distant glacier but the whitish, torchy blue of an acetylene cone. This will be a summer of drought.

Before Lisa ends her ride for good, cornstalks now green will expose roots baked and shut down. Later, while she is still riding, a friend in northwest Kansas will write to say, “One hundred fourteen degrees, and wind.” We all will take this heat together, suburb to spread, as one weather wag would say on radio. The country Lisa rides through now has known all that in past years, as well. An older gentleman Lisa once knew in Vernon County, Missouri, remembers dust so thick in the 1930s, he said, “All the babies had to leave town.” These very counties on each side of the Missouri-Kansas line carried on horseback Kansas irregulars and Missouri bushwhackers in the 1860s, burning barns and homes at will, sometimes to crusade for a cause, sometimes just for meanness. Lisa rides the same land where Jake, the narrator in the border-war novel Woe to Live On by Missourian Daniel Woodrell, would flee in panic after attacking a farmstead in Missouri. “Hog paths became our highways,” Jake would relay across time. The land spreads and rolls in gullies and sections, as it did then. The people, especially the people Lisa meets on farms and ranches, however, do not hide in the barn when a stranger rides up their road. These days, they open their doors. They bring water.

***

Each afternoon, not too late, if possible, Lisa rides up on a house, hoping for hospitality. In my telephone earpiece or sometimes in person, I hear her detail the scenes—an extended family having a birthday party for one of the nieces in their side yard looks down their driveway at this woman riding up on a horse. She does not ride past and wave, as would a neighbor in a pickup. She turns in, like a dream delivery. My earpiece relays her stories each evening or day, sometimes vivid, extended stories, sometimes sketchy; and my earpiece does a good job relaying the ritual. But it can do nothing to relay the experience itself.

Because of Lisa’s experience, however, I have the honor of meeting a gentleman in the early stages of dementia named Harold Gene Spain, who owns and now has started to give away to members of his extended family large sections of Dade County, Missouri, western edge of the Ozarks. He’s not tall, wears a black, smallish cowboy-style hat, and repeats his stories. When he insists on feeding Lisa’s horse himself so she can go on with me into Golden City to the café, Lisa, of course, objects. But Harold Gene’s wife, Joanne—a trim, elegant woman of the farm, in complete possession of herself—whispers to Lisa, “It’ll be good for him.” Harold Gene walks off with a bucket of feed, as if the horse belonged to his own daughter.

Lisa had ridden onto their property earlier than normal in the afternoon and asked for a place to pasture her horse. It was hot. While I drove after work for my weekly run to bring her supplies, she spent a couple of hours visiting with the Spains and had met their grown daughter still at home, with Down syndrome, and the daughter from about half a mile east on County Road 182. “You know,” Harold Gene said to me when I drove into his drive and stepped out of my truck, “We’re adopting her,” meaning Lisa. His voice said it as a joke, I think. “After you two go to dinner,” he says again, “she can just stay here with us.”

“She’d probably like that,” I say.

“She’ll be staying here,” he says.

This night, Lisa wants to rest up in a nearby motel, while Chief is safe in his pen at the Spains. When we return in the morning, I attend while Lisa retrieves her saddle from the cab of Harold Gene’s pickup, parked in the pole barn, and saddles Chief. Chief stands at the hitching pole, calm, as Lisa has come to say, as a good Amish horse. We all visit into late morning, and Lisa tells me to take a photo of her hosts. “Let’s get daughter in here with us,” Harold Gene says, meaning Lisa, geared up in her wide hat and spurs. I touch the screen for its electronic click and set in time Joanne Spain, Harold Gene Spain, and my wife, all standing bravely together. Less than twenty-four hours ago, no heartbreak existed. Now, they prepare to say goodbye.

County Road 182 runs east and west, and Lisa on her horse heads west, back in the direction of flatter farmland. This will turn out to be the final week of four weeks and one day. The road swells between cool dips where creeks move, and on a rise every half mile or so, some kind of house or barn. I creep along ahead of her, keeping sight in the mirror, stopping now and then to watch how Chief reacts to a congregation of cows and bulls or a farm dog that had charged my truck and trotted back to its yard. She turns her horse directly at those dogs, faces them, while edging away. I see from the rise ahead, she handles that dog easily. Textbook: the one about horse handling she could write. Today, more than usual, I stick with her a while, not ready to drive home. In the distance ahead, I see the crossing where she will turn north; behind me, I know, she will pass a farm soon with three dogs, at least. The speck of her wide straw hat appears over a rise, then the stately bounce of her horse, approaching that yard, and out pour the three dogs, silently from this distance, like the flickering of an old film. They swarm her horse, and I see two more dogs, at least five total, and Lisa turning Chief in circles to keep them from biting his legs.

Five furious dogs swirling one horse is entirely unreasonable, so I prepare to crash through what seems to me an invisible yet palpable barrier between my life in support—an outsider, observer—and Lisa’s life alone on the actual ride. I turn back toward her, windows up, and drive my four-by-four half-ton air-conditioned Silverado through the pack of farm dogs, dispersing its fury, muffling its menace. Two of the bigger dogs persist along the road, even after the others run off, but those two she faces down and soon regains the four-beat gait of her Missouri Fox Trotter, the get-along amble of the long ride.

Days earlier, she told me, two German shepherds came up behind her horse, snarling and nipping, until she felt Chief make a jerk with his body, whichwas, in fact, Chief kicking one dog in the head, enough dissuasion to convince both dogs to go lie down a while, up on their own lawn. “Lions cannot daunt him,” says Cervantes of the knight errant, “nor demons affright nor dragons, for to seek, assault, and overcome such is the whole business of his life, and true office.” We have, here, however, not Quixote but Dulcinea, undaunted. She insists on hauling the saddle in her arms morning and evening; she cinches, halters, grazes, or grains her own horse and, at end of day, hoses him down if her host has a hydrant handy. One day, just one, she digs to the bottom of her pommel bag for the Ruger .380 she carries, which holds six plus one rounds, the “plus one” being the round she now chambers after some over-friendly farmhand stopped his truck and stood way too close, pressing his arm on her thigh, on a low section of farm road. She knew he then went up ahead to his work, where she would soon pass. This, she told me later, after she had moved through, her arm still wrapped to cover the wound from her earlier fall, her horse calmer now and used to what the road brings, hulking hay bales and wild turkeys. All went well as she passed the man. A nod. A “See ya.” A little legal silver salute lying at the top of the open pommel, never raised.

Lisa offered no animosity toward those dogs or toward the horned cow, the aggressive farmhand, or the panther yet unseen in the grass. No sentimentality, either. The dogs, she said later to a friend, were doing their jobs. Their jobs, to be dogs. “Yield to the willow,” wrote Japanese poet Basho to his pupil, “all the loathing, / all the desire of your heart.” When I now read that little poem, I imagine the willowy legs of the horse kicking out and back under its huge body. Wind then enters the image, and I begin to lose my serenity entirely; I realize that I have taken the poem wrong. That first day, when I stood on a rise and watched Lisa ride out of view, I wanted to learn to adapt to the new reality we faced, each on our own. I had my own projects to return to. I had my rationalizations, that this separation could be put to good, productive use. I did not want to be poor in spirit, as, I think, Basho suggests; I did not want to consider the willows or, for that matter, the lilies.

Instead, I had burdened that little poem with an argument for analogies—comparisons between the lilt of horse and limbs of a tree, the contrast between brute and beauty—as if Basho were asking for an appraisal. I had yet (have yet, most likely) to understand how to neither speak nor be silent. How to avoid those two errors. If Lisa needs water, she asks for water. She does not ask, How deep is the well? I speculate, but perhaps that speaks to why she has found so many welcoming folks. She needs a place to camp and graze her horse, and, in that simple sincerity, she makes good company. No one could have told me this on the first day of Lisa’s trip, that she, Lisa, would become the landscape and I a trespasser.

***

At about 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the final day of her trip, I am in my office, unraveling a failure of subject-verb agreement in a written report submitted to me. I become momentarily lost, forced to trek backward through the meandering trace of a sentence—from its grammatical subject, the rocky shore, to an errant participial verb looking (over the edge), as if the rocky shore were looking over the edge of itself. Road maps, even grammatical ones, take on added significance lately; so when I find syntax disconnected from its message, I imagine a telegraph line must be down, somewhere, in high winds.

The phone rings. Lisa says, “Call around and rent a horse trailer. I need you to come get us.” How much more direct can a statement be? I need you to come get us. The Buddhists would call her statement perfect sincerity. I jot it down on a ruled pad. Call around. Come get us. No shift in point of view; no ambiguity. For her sake, I had hoped that the ride would have gone a few more days and returned her by horse to Chief’s rented pasture, where she started out. I am, however, unaccountably relieved that we—and yes, my presumptuous participation shows up again in that plural pronoun—have made it through: horse, rider, me.

I have a project. I find a sixteen-foot stock trailer for rent near Harrisonville, Missouri, and that will do. Lisa had ridden—actually, alternately walked and ridden—beside a four-lane highway that June day in ninety-eight-degree heat and horse-high weeds for two miles in the wrong direction, and I am to find her in the shade of a cabin undergoing renovation off Highway E, south of Archie, her horse unsaddled in the same shade. That’s it.

When I pull onto the gravel side road, about an eighth of a mile off the four-lane and its pickups flinging themselves north at seventy-five miles per hour, I believe I will be arriving at a moment of stillness. I am wrong. Lisa seems more energized than ever, roused by drought and sun and contentment that she has arrived at her time to end the ride.

She had thought she might ride longer. She had thought she might ride shorter. The Zen scholar R. H. Blyth has written that there is a Sun Buddha and a Moon Buddha. The Sun Buddha lives 1,800 years; the Moon Buddha lives one day and one night. Says Blyth, “Wherever life is, it is life.” When I arrive, pulling the rust-scoured stock trailer, I prepare myself for any kind of emotion. I find no particular drama discernible in Lisa, just contentment in being at this place and time. She is a woman in action who tends to stay in action, and she leads her big, trusting, muscular horse up a steep hill from the cabin to the road and lets him stare a moment into the trailer. If Chief has a memory of his past, as a trail horse working in the Missouri Ozarks, he will sense that this trailer signals the end of the workday. We don’t know what he thinks, but we know that old training allows him to step with little shyness onto the trailer deck and in.

I will ride on her adventure, now. At dinner parties and receptions, wherever one person perks up enough to ask about this ride, I will find a soft seat from which to gaze again over the pieces and scraps of landscape I myself saw through barn slats and below the sun visor of a truck window. I suspect those people will be rare, and that the telling of this story will best be realized privately, in Lisa’s own writing. There, she will turn her experiences and her terms in directions that will guide us over these and other roads. One of my wife’s favorite living poets, Marie Ponsot, reportedly said while recovering from a stroke, “Syntax is a tool more important to human existence than the wheel.” More important, maybe, than the horse. So it is, now, that our rig rattles westward along Kansas Highway 52 on its way to 69 North, then 152 farther west toward Edgerton, piecing together the right roads in the right pattern.

 

***

 

Robert Stewart’s books include Working Class: Poems (Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2018), The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art, & Values(essays, Serving House Books, 2014); Outside Language (essays, Helicon Nine Editions, finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Awards 2004, and winner of the Thorpe Menn Award); Plumbers (poems, BkMk Press 1988, revised second edition 2017). He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for editing from the American Society of Magazine Editors, the magazine industry’s highest honor; he was editor of New Letters magazine for eighteen years, until March 2020, and managing editor for over two decades previously.  Essays on travel and language have appeared in North American Review, Borderline, and elsewhere. He directed the Midwest Poets Series at Rockhurst University in Kansas City for thirty-six years, until 2018. 

 

 

 

Lisa D. Stewart’s account of her ride, The Big Quiet, was published in June 2020. Publisher Meadowlark Books says of the memoir:

“At 54, Lisa Stewart set out to regain the fearless girl she had once been, riding her horse, Chief, 500 miles home. Hot, homeless, and horseback, she snapped back into every original cell. On an extraordinary homegoing from Kansas City to Bates and Vernon Counties in Missouri, Lisa exhausted herself, faced her past, trusted strangers, and stayed in the middle of her high-strung horse to document modern rural America, the people, animals, and land.”

 

“Dead Ear” by James Steck

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal.  In “Dead Ear,” an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, James Steck writes about ER medicine, a sudden hearing loss, and the discovery of his Buddhist faith.

 

Dead Ear

James Steck

 

When I was thirty-five, I went deaf in one ear.

Nothing had really gone wrong before. I’d had the usual romantic reversals, but I was successful in school and at work; I was an active outdoorsman, and I was reasonably happy.

I woke up one morning with my ear feeling stuffed, as with a bad cold. I didn’t usually prescribe medicines for colds or take them myself, but on this occasion, my ear was so plugged, I took a Sudafed and went to work. As it happened, an ENT surgeon walked through the ER on his way to his office. I told him—and I thought I was merely engaging in small talk—that I had the worst case of Eustachian-tube dysfunction.

“Can you hear the phone with that ear?” he asked. He said it with that flat tone some policemen use.

Since it was the ear I usually used, I recalled that I’d had to switch sides with the phone that morning when I’d talked to a teller at my bank (an activity that used to be possible). The ENT guy arranged a hearing test for when I got off shift that day.

For the hearing test, I sat in something like a telephone booth (another anachronism, like phoning a bank teller) and the audiologist sent a series of squeaks into each of my ears. When she was testing my bad ear with squeaks, I had a difficult time distinguishing the squeaks from the sounds of silence. I imagined that those latter sounds were from cosmic rays or from my own brain electronics. I regarded the hearing test as a school quiz. I strategized and tried very hard to raise my hand at the right moments.

I’d gotten only one sound correct, the loudest one, at 100 decibels. In the audiologist’s office was a pamphlet explaining the decibel system. It said that 100 decibels was a level equivalent to the sound of an explosion.

The cause of my deafness was a rare condition called “sudden sensorineural deafness.” I read about in my favorite textbook, a British textbook. British texts were more concerned with the clinical story than the technical aspects. The language was cool, like David Attenborough talking about mangrove swamps. In the case of sudden sensorineural deafness, the book said when it struck, many patients heard the sound as of a great door closing.

The ENT doctor prescribed prednisone for two weeks and said it might work. “Take care of your other ear,” he said. “No rock concerts or scuba diving. Carry earplugs.”

This wasn’t good that he emphasized preventive medicine.

In the days after my hearing loss, before my brain compensated, I walked around with a noiseless right hemisphere. I could see palm fronds shaking and birds with their mouths open and bicycles gliding, but there was no sound whatsoever. I went to a dinner party where the people on my left were engaged in their usual repartee but the people on my right were opening and closing their mouths like freshly caught fish. Moreover, I worried that they were talking about me. The audiologist had warned me that newly deaf people could be a little paranoid.

The prednisone didn’t work at all. I was frustrated because it seemed that in the ER I could always do something. The treatments I administered there always worked—at least partially, or for a while.

Around this time, I visited my parents back in Wisconsin. Even though it was fall, my little town looked as if it were hunkered down for winter. The dull redbrick houses had all their windows and doors closed. I took a walk to the local Catholic church, St. Jude’s, the center of my social life during my teens. There was almost no one on the streets, and when cars passed, the drivers looked straight ahead without acknowledging me.

St. Jude’s was unlocked. It was the first time I’d been inside a church since college. The modernistic stained-glass windows looked pretty good. I could make out the scene of Veronica offering Jesus her handkerchief and Gabriel announcing the pregnancy to Mary. There was just a trace of incense, as if it were being used as air freshener.

I spotted the votive candles, of two sizes, one-dollar and three-dollar. I genuflected, made the sign of the cross, and did what I saw Guatemalans do: I tapped my coins on the candle stand to wake up the saint whom I was petitioning. I paid for and lit one of the bigger candles. I prayed that my hearing would come back.

I went back outside. I did not actually imagine that votive candles would improve my hearing, but I did put my finger in my left ear to test whether I was still deaf in my right.

Some years later, a friend of mine contended that there was scientific evidence that prayer did some good, but you had to be praying for another person. That would explain why I was still partly deaf. I prayed only twice more in my life (for seriously ill family members), and both times it worked.

I did some reading about deafness. The fullness I’d felt in my ear was the usual way patients recognized that something was wrong. It was less common to perceive the loss of hearing directly. Like most people with sensorineural deafness, I also got tinnitus, ringing in the ear. Tinnitus is a phantom sound generated by the brain in the absence of input from the ear. The brain needs constant acoustic stimulation, as if it’s a toddler singing “La, la, la.” The frequency of the tinnitus resembles the lost hearing. Low frequencies sound like the ocean and high frequencies sound like the neighbor’s phone. My tinnitus sounded like that place between radio stations when you’re driving in the West.

I got in the habit, when I was at a table with a group of people, of sitting at a certain corner facing the rest of the group and, whenever I was walking, gravitating to my companion’s right side. Once, I met someone who was also deaf in her right ear, and we ended up circling each other like mating geese.

No one knew the cause of sudden sensorineural deafness, but the most popular theory was that it was caused by a virus, based on some positive evidence: traces of the herpes virus in the diseased ear.

Needless to say, I always got a worried when I caught a cold or when my good ear started ringing. There was a period when I supposed that dehydration was the cause of my plight and I walked around with a bottle of water always in hand.

At some point, when the topic came up, I told people that a virus had caused my deafness and that “viruses have to live too.” I meant that. Not that I was a partisan of viruses, but I appreciated the interconnectedness of life. My observation about viruses was the result of a satori—a sudden enlightenment. The enlightenment was largely ineffable, but it had to do with the comparative triviality of my suffering. I felt as if dwelling on it somehow took away from other people’s distress, as if world suffering were zero-sum.

I told my friend, Ginny, the Buddhist, the one who said I wasn’t breathing right, about my satori, and I mentioned in passing that I’d had perhaps a dozen such satoris in my life. This was even before I hit my head in Tikal. For example, I told her, during my surgical rotation in medical school—the rotation in which I didn’t see the sun at all—I was walking home one evening, and I noticed the light from a streetlamp broken up by an oak tree. I suddenly understood, “Let there be light.” Light precedes and is necessary for life. My insight was undoubtedly prompted by the compression of all my free time in those days into my walk home. At my report, Ginny seemed almost envious—insofar as a Buddhist can get envious.

 

*   *   *

 

Although I hadn’t been to church since college, I considered myself a cultural Catholic. The Jesuits had a saying that they didn’t seek to have influence over a boy for his entire life—between the ages of thirteen and seventeen was sufficient. I think they were onto something. I liked church rituals and Renaissance art. I liked cathedrals and Gregorian chant. I regarded romanticism as Catholics’ gift to the world. I embraced the idea that we should behave as if someone were watching and as if we might die (probably in a bus accident) later that day. I did not discern that Protestants held any principles that differed from those of good banking.

I did think too much about dying. I had a fear of dying myself, and in the ER, I had a fear of other people dying. Months went by without my witnessing any patient die. If a patient was critically ill, I got them to the elevators. If they weren’t breathing, I intubated them and got them on a respirator. If their heart wasn’t beating, I put them on an external pacemaker. If they were brain dead, I let the people upstairs decide what to do. I did not want to watch anyone die.

One day in 2010, I had a patient with a perforated stomach. The stomach’s hydrochloric acid was pouring out over his insides. He was a middle-aged Thai fellow, gray and under-nourished from chronic suffering. He looked like the victim of some nineteenth-century historical tragedy. The reason for the perforation was stomach cancer. I gave him several doses of morphine, but his mouth remained stretched in a grimace.

I thought that something could always be done. I called the surgeon on call, who leafed through the fellow’s chart and examined him briefly. He wasn’t a mean surgeon; he had the thick dark eyebrows and humorous eyes of the black Irish. He was said to have “the best hands” in the department.

He came out of the workroom shaking his head. “You can’t sew up the stomach when there’s cancer there,” he said.

“Just cut the cancer out and sew up the remaining tissue,” I said. The patient kept crying out, and I couldn’t think straight.

“I’m sorry. It can’t be done.”

“I’ll call someone else.”

As a courtesy, the patient’s oncologist came down from clinic. He walked in and out of the patient’s room as if there were a revolving door at the entrance. He said to me, “Why is the patient suffering like this?” He said it in a soft, perplexed way. It sounded like a philosophical question.

“I was trying to get a hold of surgery,” I answered.

“He’s dying,” the oncologist said. He ordered five times the usual dose of morphine, and after the patient got the drug, he stopped breathing, forever.

A few weeks later, a banker in his seventies came in with a headache that he knew from the beginning was not good. He was especially tall and a little awkward, and he had a fringe of gray hair. He looked like the sort of person who’d played basketball in high school because of his height but had gone no further in his sports career. That the headache was serious wasn’t evident to me at first.

After ordering a CT scan of his head, I stayed at his bedside a minute with him and his wife. I mentioned that I liked my bank because the tellers were nice. He was keenly interested in what bank it was and what it was about the tellers I liked. Because he had come to the ER during a financial panic, I commented, “People don’t like bankers so much these days.”

“People have never liked bankers,” he said with a smile.

It was the last thing he ever said. His face suddenly took on a dazed expression, and his eyes unfocused, just when the tech arrived to transport him to the CT suite.

“He may be having a stroke,” I said to his wife. “We’ll see what the scan shows and what we can do about it.”

“No, he’s dying,” she said like a teacher gently correcting a middle schooler.

She was right. There’s not much room for the brain in the cranium; otherwise the bone couldn’t serve its evolutionary purpose of protecting it. On this fellow’s scan, I could see a white torrent of blood, and I could see the blood pushing his brain downward against the unyielding tentorial membrane, squeezing his brainstem. The brainstem functions—breathing, temperature control, heartbeat—went out one by one, like the lights of a great city at night.

That evening I turned on the television and by happenstance landed on a PBS program featuring a favorite poet of mine, W. S. Merwin. It was a documentary about Siddhartha Gautama. I was rapt. Gautama had been born in Nepal; a week after he was born, his mother died. In midlife he became concerned with the problem of suffering. No matter what your circumstance, he said, you will end up losing everything you love, but there is joy in the transitoriness of things. Twenty-five hundred years before John Lennon, Siddhartha Gautama imagined there was no heaven and no hell. Twenty-five hundred years before Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust, we are carbon,” Gautama imagined that we are all recycled and therefore that the next person you meet could be the Buddha. Ginny was right. And on account of a TV program, I became a Buddhist.

 

***

 

James Steck practiced and taught emergency medicine for forty years. He is married with two adult children and lives in suburban San Francisco. This essay is one chapter of a memoir of his working life, entitled People Who Are Trying to Die.

 

 

“Chromie Thief” by Terrance Manning Jr.

Growing up poor is the subject of our new featured prose selection, Terrance Manning Jr.’s “Chromie Thief,” a nostalgic essay that delves into how we find strength through the things we hold on to. The essay first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of TMR.

 

Chromie Thief

Terrance Manning Jr.

We’d only just moved to our new house on Summit Street when Dad moved out. He left his toolbox in the basement—some faded Craftsman box filled with wrenches and crowbars. My brothers and I scrambled to claim it for ourselves, but my older brother, Chris, took it over, staking ownership by decorating it with the stickers he’d gotten from the vending machine at the movie theatre: Freak. Big Attitude. And, of course, the way he often did with my younger brother Jonny and me, proclaiming proudly, “This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.”

At the hobby shop on Lincoln Way, she pushed my treasure across the counter. “We found them,” she told the owner, this slinky-looking old man with tiny glasses. “Buried in the attic of our house.” She kept saying “we,” though it was I who had found the coins, which was frustrating. I wanted to speak up, explain to the owner that—of course—I would be the one receiving any payment. But before I could, he slid the book back.

“You got about a buck’s worth, kid. Want the money or the book?”

I chose the book.

On the way home, Mom walked slowly behind, as if more disappointed than I was. I kept fast-walking ahead and having to wait at the corners for her to catch up. Even disappointed, I still felt the excitement of filling the thing, adding to its value, stuffing a coin per year in every pre-cut slot. It was—along with my lucky, quarter-machine rabbit’s foot, my tin-toy Rusty Wallace car, and a yellow marble I’d found by the Monongahela—one of only a few items I kept in a shoebox by my bed. A box of worthless treasure that I was determined to make valuable, despite Mom’s moping.

Though later, as we got used to Dad’s absence, there was a certain lightheartedness about her. She didn’t have a driver’s license or a car; she just liked to walk. She walked all over our neighborhood, across Faucet and Lincoln Way. On sunny days, she’d come home with big overflowing Rite Aid bags weighed down to her knees. Because she, too, loved her things: her lipsticks and perfumes; her blow-dryers and sandy face soaps; her on-sale Point Break VHS and Richard Marx cassettes. She’d play music in the dining room, singing along with Marx and belting “Should’ve Known Better” and “Don’t Mean Nothing” so loud you could hear her from the front porch.

At night, she made spaghetti and we ate it for days, until the microwave couldn’t warm it without transforming the noodles into slushy piles of sauce and water. On special occasions, she made us sloppy joes, ham barbeque, macaroni and cheese. She bought groceries from the Schwan’s man—a guy who drove around the neighborhood in a military-looking truck, selling frozen food from side compartments. He’d stop by once a week, knock at the door, and my mother bought something every time—until, eventually, we ran out of money. Then, she’d close the blinds, too embarrassed to turn him away, say, “Shut your mouths,” and we’d hide behind the couch so he’d think no one was home.

I thought everyone ordered from the Schwan’s man. “Got them fish sticks from the Schwan’s man,” I’d tell my friends. “Got some French toast sticks, too!”

“French toast sticks?” they’d laugh.

The last thing left from the freezer was a triple box of frozen garlic bread. Mom called it “ice-box surprise,” and we ate every slice, stuffing more in our mouths before we were finished chewing. I was up all night puking garlic, the smell of it in the snot dripping from my nose, the taste of if it in my mouth for days—cursing my mother.

But she was twenty-nine and separated and single in a new house. On good days, she was energetic, even funny. I just never understood why she slept so much or why one day she’d be smiling, laughing, and the next screaming that we were starving little pigs. I remember how beautiful she looked happy—a transformation. She had the bluest eyes. A smile full of gray teeth from some pills she’d taken as a kid for her heart condition. I wonder now, older than she was then, what she dreamed of, if she imagined a different future or a different reality, one where she was a writer or a poet-millionaire, where she’d gone to college and never married. Though none of those dreams would have distracted her for long, not when money dwindled and food did too, and she was reminded suddenly of her sons—hungry, growing, uncontrollable boys.

She’d retreat into her bedroom, sleeping late with the blinds pulled shut, the only light the glimmering blue of her midafternoon television while she watched soap operas alone under a heat-rimmed blanket. And my brothers and I would crowd the stove, reaching our forks over the flame, burning hotdogs and salami and ham until we’d smoked out the house and eaten all that was left. Then we’d sneak out to find what we could at our friends’ or in the dim, unattended aisles of the Co Go’s or Jimmy Mart.

***

My brothers and I still shared the street-side bedroom, but we had an open basement and a garage. We cranked Dad’s wrenches to tighten wheels or change bars on our bikes. Then we rode wheelies up and down Summit Street. We built jumps behind St. Angela’s Church, the tanning salon, synagogue, and Taylor Neilson’s front yard. We bought twenty-five-cent donuts from Feig’s Bakery and ate them on the curb out front. It was ’94, when everyone’s biggest joke (or threat) was to “Lorena Bobbitt” you; when everyone, it seemed, rode a GT or a Diamondback; and everyone—really—had suddenly always loved and listened to Nirvana, using Kurt Cobain as a fill-in for those moments when they were feeling these complicated, unexplainable emotions: did-bad-in-school anger, lost-my-dog sadness, or fear of getting old. They’d cast their eyes to the street, assume a certain pensive look, and say, “Fuckin’ Kurt Cobain, man,” an act of which I am, unfortunately, many-times guilty.

My best friend was Dave Sheerer. He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and chubby in the cheeks. He was quiet but prone to turning red and screaming, “Fuck you, dude” when pushed too far. I met him after he rode his bike into an open sewer grate. The next day he pedaled back up the street like it hadn’t happened, eleven stitches hanging from his face like a goatee. We were the same age, same grade, and he was, like us, an outcast. Kids called him “Dave Queer” because he was shy and wore glasses and the name rhymed. But after he split his chin, my brothers and I accepted him, told the story over and over, how the skin sagged, how he climbed out and didn’t even cry. Because that was how we measured toughness—if you cried or not.

When we weren’t riding bikes or marching through the woods to swing on the vines behind my mother’s house, I was helping Dave with his paper route. People used to invite us into their homes, offer us sandwiches. They paid Dave with thin envelopes and offers of Pepsi or milk. Here and there, he’d throw me a few bucks for helping out. But the real perk came with the trust of Dave’s customers.

I was happy at Dave’s.

I used to think his family was rich. Not in the size of their house, but in the things they had: two cars, a van, a fully packed refrigerator, snacks in the cabinets; a computer, two La-Z-Boy recliners, televisions in four different rooms; and unlike ours, their walls were decorated with family and school pictures. Anything we’d had hanging on our walls had burned up when the first house burned down. We didn’t have stuff stored in spare rooms, boxes filled with memories. We had a television, a radio; we had a glass-door chest where my mother carefully placed plastic plates; she called it the “china cabinet.”

Stuff, no matter how random, equaled class. I wouldn’t have said that then, or even thought it, but I must’ve felt it—that invisible connection between things and a better life, one with consistency, even happiness. That powerful feeling of claiming: This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.

I remember Dave’s dad had this penny jar at the top of their steps. It was a giant five-gallon jug spilling pennies from the mouth. The thing drove me crazy. I imagined them finding out that I was a coin collector and giving it to me.

“Well, T-bone,” they’d smile, “you’re a collector now. It’s time for you to take this jug and call it your own.”

***

This was the year my brothers and I, along with our friends from the neighborhood, became enchanted by the mesmerizing power of chromies.

All of us believed that with shiny things came big rewards. Like Vinny G’s thick, silver rope chain slapping off his chest as he boxed with his brother in their front yard, or the twenty-four-inch rims on Henry P’s eighteen-wheeler that he used to let us buff at five dollars apiece, paying always, when we finished, from this thick, unfolding wad of cash. We all wanted wads like that. We wanted chains and bracelets. So we scratched and scrambled for anything with value.

That summer, we were after “chromies”—chrome-plated valve-stem caps for tires.

We didn’t buy them; we “jacked” them; we wore them on our bikes. Some kids wore classic ones—shiny hexagons. Some had polished black aluminum ones. Some had dice or eight-balls or skulls with red-pin eyes. One kid glued nine-millimeter bullet shells over plastic stems and rode around as if untouchable as they flashed and glimmered between his spokes.

Like any collectibles, the more diverse and unique they were, the more valuable. There were brand-name chromies, for instance—Mercedes, BMW, Ford—that came with high trading value. This kid Ryan “the Weirdo” Turner had every set. He kept them in a giant pickle jar to show them off: the silver-winged, the gold-crowned, the half-moons and diamonds. We’d avoided him since the time he pulled his dad’s pistol out and held it to his head threatening to pull the trigger, but all of us knew he’d trade brand names for war chromies—guns, bullets, skulls, and grenades. He was so bent on building a war collection, you could get a couple pair from him for a single set of red-and-silver storm-trooper heads.

But we weren’t satisfied with stem caps. We started snapping hood ornaments, too. Same logic: the shinier, the more unique and expensive, the better. My brother Chris was the first to do it, and we followed in step. We stole them from the vehicles parked up and down our street.

Not every vehicle had them, only nice ones, the occasional Lincoln or Buick. “Dude,” we’d shout, cruising down some street. “Some sick-ass chromies back there.” We’d drop our bikes, sneak up, and take them before anyone could catch us. Then later, we’d sit around my garage comparing, trading, even exchanging them—sometimes—for money or food.

When we stripped all the streets, we moved to parking lots. Small ones in front of Big Ed’s or National City. Then church lots, where there were always nice cars, always a variety of brand names to take. We’d ride in on sunny days and scour the lot for any blinking signal of chrome. When we spotted them, we’d twist them free as church bells rang and the steeple glistened in the midafternoon sunlight, because, like a trip to the Weirdo’s, it was worth it. A few sets of caps might get a buck or two from guys who paid cash—older guys or guys too afraid to walk up and steal shit themselves. Here and there, someone might pay five or ten bucks for a hood ornament—a Pontiac or Mercedes—and that was free dinner.

I used to imagine extending my reach as my collection grew, taking the search into new neighborhoods, making bigger money in bigger cities. Just my brothers and me, “the boys.” Maybe friends we could trust. Chris would be our leader, since he stole without fear or hesitation. We’d become the most powerful chromie thieves in Pittsburgh, rich with every brand and design. People respected stealing because stealing was a kind of control—and we were all seeking that wonderful, maddening feeling of it.

I was so obsessed that one day, standing on the corner of Lincoln and Guise, I watched hungrily as a Corvette slowed for a red light, engine rattling and purring, with (not real) diamond-topped chromies shimmering from its tires.

I couldn’t help myself. I slipped around the back, started stripping them in the street. This old woman behind us started honking, and the Corvette driver opened his door, shouting. But I’d just stripped one cap, and chromies were only valuable in pairs. Nobody wanted one.

I went for the other—nearly had it, too—but the light turned and the driver slammed the gas and drove off, pulling my hand in a snapping turn that flung me off balance, sending me rolling in the road. My arms were brush-burned and bleeding from the tumble, and I yelled, “Fuck you” to the woman as she honked past.

“You all right?” Dave asked as he ran over, laughing.

“I’m fine,” I said. I dusted my knees.

“You got the one,” he said, grabbing my shoulder. But I shuddered him off and whipped the chromie as far as I could throw it.

Dave chuckled and shook his head, the way he always would when he figured whatever he had to say wasn’t worth saying anyway.

“Fuckin’ Kurt Cobain.”

***

My mother had a hole in her heart, and when she was nine, she’d had open-heart surgery to repair it. After the operation, the doctor told her there was a chance she wouldn’t live past twenty. The way my mother tells it, the doctor was less encouraging, an asshole, had made her cry: he said she’d be lucky to live to twenty. She says in high school, people teased her about the scar the surgery had left. Guys at the bus stop called her “worm chest.” She says my dad came down to the bus stop and beat them up—no words, no shouting. He just started fighting.

The story makes me laugh—picturing Dad in his early twenties, hair still long and black, thin dark mustache, walking to her bus stop, that face he makes when he’s mad.

My mom says, “Your father was crazy—always beating people up. He’s a violent man. He’s an abuser.” In that way they differed. He hardly talked about her. If he did, it was dismissively, some sarcastic comment about stealing his credit cards. But she took every opportunity to trash him. It made us uncomfortable—not the lengthy, teary-eyed proclamations of guilt, but the spotlight she was always shining, illuminating all the worst parts of us. We felt as anyone might feel: embarrassed, angry. Like all she had was the bad; the only memories she kept were her worst.

As a child, she’d had three fathers. All “abusers.” All “animals.” Her own father had been hard to live with. He used to beat her always, and my grandma, too.

Once, he beat Mom so bad she wet her pants. He dragged her up the steps by her hair and threw her in the tub with her clothes on, calling her a dirty pig. She was twelve. I was well into my teens, maybe sixteen, when Mom told me this story, and I felt an overwhelming anger, hate, and helplessness. I told her that if I ever met the guy, I’d punch his throat in, make him shit his pants, calling him a dirty fucking pig the whole time.

She said I was like my father. I told her, “Damn right I am,” but she shook her head. She wasn’t giving me a compliment.

The last year my brothers and I lived with her full-time, I was still a kid; I was eight. We didn’t know about her childhood. We only knew that she was either in the darkness of her room or somewhere alone, and that when it came time to eat and there was nothing in the fridge, she’d get overwhelmed and find reasons to scream or slam her bedroom door, or—early on—shell out half-hearted beatings to try to control us.  But they only ever left us laughing.

Then, when we were down to a cabinet full of green beans and tomato sauce, my mother handed us food stamps and sent us to the gas station for frozen dinners and root beer. We loaded bags—filling them with candy, with Butterfingers and peach rings and Skittles—and bowed our heads at the counter as we handed over those big paper ones and fives. Getting outside was a victory, and we swallowed down the candy before we got back home.

I hated those trips. I used to linger around the magazine aisle pretending to read until that perfect time when the store went suddenly empty. I’d slide up to the register, quickly pay, and be out the door.

But one day, Mom gave me a twenty-dollar stamp and sent me for a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs. “And bring me all my change,” she said, because we liked to snag a buck or two of the real cash you’d get back.

I waited outside the front doors with my hands in my pockets, whistling. I was waiting for the rush to pass.

When the parking lot was empty, I whipped inside, grabbed the milk, the eggs, a Reese’s cup, and a Coke, but as I darted to the counter, this tiny old lady tied me to it. We shared a glance, one that asked who would get the courtesy of checking out first, but cars were unloading in the parking lot, people already pumping gas, others walking in.

“Sorry,” I said, and pushed my stuff onto the counter.

The clerk wasn’t happy with this choice. He was a tall, skinny man with a fully gray ponytail. He was known for watching kids like a hawk, proclaiming often, “Two students at a time,” as it was printed on the glass. We called him “Ponytail.”

“Ladies first,” he said to me, scolding. He handed back my items. Then, as if to dismiss my childish decision, he said, “Anything else, ma’am?”

“Yes,” she said. “The lottery.”

People spilled into the store as the woman enunciated numbers, slowly. “Seven. Eight. Eight. Four. Five straight. The rest boxed.”

The bell on the door rang, and a girl from my school walked in with her mother. I saw her recognize me. I turned back to the counter. The little old woman had shimmied away, and in her place was Ponytail, glaring.

“Wake up,” he said. “Got a line behind you, Hoss.”

I put the milk and eggs on the counter. He rang them up. I handed him the bill. He stared at it a moment, then he held it above his head, high in the air, and examined it against the light in front of everyone. He shouted into the back room, to a guy reading papers and making marks in a log, “Jim? We give cash back for food stamps?”

“Yeah, Bob,” the guy said without looking. But I suspect Bob knew. He was teaching me a lesson. My body was so stiff, I could hardly collect the change. After that, when I needed something from the store, I didn’t pay for it; I stole it.

***

Though she’d never admit it, my mom was a thief, too. She wasn’t as blunt or reckless as we were, but she could scheme. Number one on her list of schemes was returning: taking things back after using them halfway.

She was the returning queen—a pair of shoes, a half-melted candle. She always had an explanation: it didn’t fit, or it smelled like shit. She even took lipstick back and claimed she was allergic. Then, when there was nothing left to take back, she bought dollar items with twenty-dollar food stamps and pocketed the cash.

She was brilliant at making small money last, which I didn’t think about then—how we’d be out of food, eating diced tomatoes and garlic bread, and she’d be buying lipsticks and George Michael cassettes. She had to know that my brothers and I were stealing. We’d bring home throwaway cameras or G. I. Joes or cap guns with extra caps. How could we have paid for these? She didn’t ask; she ignored. Chris used to keep cash in his wallet, money he got for chromies or for bike parts from a bike he might have taken, and my mother would sometimes find it on the dresser. She wouldn’t ask questions. Instead, she’d pluck a five from it. If he complained, she’d cry and say we took advantage of her, that she did our laundry and made us vanilla milkshakes and provided a heated house for us to sleep in, and by the way, Your piece-of-shit father hasn’t sent us money.

That was the only argument she needed. We’d go back outside to roam the neighborhood, and she’d go back to her bedroom with impunity, because, I think, we must’ve thought she understood what it meant to take, since so much had been taken from her. Besides, the more my mother ignored, the less she tried to control us, and were free because of it. Though I would’ve taken the warm bedrooms, video-game dens, and family dinners of my friends over the kind of freedom my brothers and I shared.

Over time, we kept getting into trouble, kept stealing. We were the first to be blamed for every crime in the neighborhood. A porch set fire, a house egged, a tire slashed, a windshield bricked, and the police showed up on Mom’s doorstep. She’d apologize. Then, later, she’d chase us through the house calling us “rotten,” screaming that we’d end up in prison. She’d break us off, catching us in a corner with a wooden spoon, a book. If it hurt, we refused to cry. Though mostly we laughed, like the time she chased Jonny through the house smacking his naked, pre-bath body with a belt, leaving welts all over him, and Chris and I laughed so hard it hurt, even when she started whipping us, too.

I don’t remember what was funny, except that Dad’s beatings were worse—a fist, a steel-toed boot. Maybe that’s why we laughed, like there was something funny in the difference, the innocence of my mom’s punishments compared to the brutality of my dad’s.

But there was resentment, too—growing since Dad had left. Mom didn’t work; she “rested.” She said Dad wouldn’t pay child support. He said he paid every month, that she was spending it on herself. She called him a deadbeat, a drunk. He called her lazy, a victim. She’d say he was lying, that he’d beaten her, was a monster. He’d tell us she’d taken money from him, called his work to threaten him; she was a schemer, a thief.

It wasn’t easy choosing which one to trust. It was easier to react, and we reacted to the shift in power at Mom’s.

Chris was the first to harden, to become bold. He was only nine when he started smoking weed, breaking into places, vandalizing. When confronted, he was vicious. He’d tell Mom to leave him the fuck alone, and though I wanted him to shut up, he was our leader. Jonny and I backed him. Mom’s innocent beatings started losing innocence. She’d use anything in reach to hit with, screaming so loud we couldn’t hear each other laughing anymore.

We didn’t know a family night, or domestic games, or dinners and prayers and smiles at the kitchen table like at Dave’s. We knew Mom’s bad days, her screaming, her blaming us for being like our father. We rarely saw her leave her room. Between Mom and Chris, the choice was easy. Chris took care of us. He stole sandwiches from the deli. He went out on his bike and came back with beef jerky and Pepsi. He stuck up for us. He fought for and protected us. Like those nights Dad used to come home smelling like whiskey and ground steel beneath his welding coat. He might wake us up and make us march into the kitchen, make us call him sir, stand about-face against the wall. Or he might play Mellencamp and Springsteen and lift us up to dance while he slurred the words to “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” and “Born to Run” and Mom shouted over the music to turn it down, to let us sleep, that he was drunk. But as the music switched, his mood tended to switch with it. When that happened, it was Chris who stole us away to our room and locked the door, so we could lie in bed and pretend to sleep, no matter how late the music blared in the kitchen.

Now, on Summit, Mom treated us like enemies—as if we were the dark, grizzly shadows of our dad, left behind to torture her, to taunt and remind her of a life she didn’t or couldn’t have.

“Your father is a violent man,” she was always saying.

She held—like no one I’ve ever known—deep, scarred grudges. I could hear it in her voice when she spoke to us. It was the darkness she returned to, in her bedroom, in her heart, where she was a woman filled with hatred and regret. Maybe there, she felt alive, even powerful in her anger. Or maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe she thought that if she hid away and slept, her life might be different when she woke.

***

By the end of summer, my shoebox overflowed with chromies and hood ornaments. I’d lock my bedroom door and dump it on the floor. I’d spread everything out neatly, looking over it, counting, logging. I had skulls and crosses, chrome and gold. I had arrowheads, spades, and bullets. A hundred hexagons, fifty rounds. I had ornaments wrapped in bandannas: jaguars, eagles, a Mercedes three-point star. Wrapped carefully in a white bandanna was a chrome angel with thin, sleek wings and a spine arched as if melting in the wind—my prized piece.

I’d open the blinds and let sunlight pour over everything, walking slowly around as it glimmered there.

I had my pennies—as many years as I’d pulled from wallet change or the give-a-penny at the BP. I had a 1909 VDB and an 1857 eagle’s head, rarer and more valuable than the others. I had all I’d taken from Dave’s customers (except the candy): fluffy pens, staplers, paperweights, and glass figurines. I still had the porcelain baby’s head, my favorite, with its tiny, pinpoint eyes and grinning lips.

I could stay for hours, drunk on value as I ran my fingers over all I’d collected, all I’d stolen. All mine. All me. All glowing in the middle of the floor, as if I’d opened up my chest and let my chromie soul melt onto the hardwood.

Down the hall, Mom’s television would play softly through the walls, a murmur. The muffled sound of soap-opera voices. Or a movie. Or, sometimes, only music—the sound of Restless Heart spilling through the house as I examined my treasure.

 ***

When autumn came, it stripped the neighborhood to a bare, windblown brown. It was chilly. The vines behind the house swung into the air and back again, as if the ghosts of ourselves were swinging without us.

I fist-fought Dave after school one day for a reason I don’t remember. He’d made fun of me or challenged me or wouldn’t let me come over for dinner—and we fought. I choked him. He pulled my hair. Neither of us wanted to punch, so we didn’t. I just called him a pussy and he turned red and told me “Fuck you,” before he stormed up Faucet Street.

At home, my brothers and I were in trouble. Chris had stayed home from school again. Jonny was mouthing off. I was leaving things around the house. Mom was tired, she told us, had a headache, and wasn’t in the mood for bullshit. No dinner. Get the fuck to bed. So we marched to our room.

“Can’t wait to live with Daddy,” Chris said loud enough for her to hear. “Least he feeds us there.” Then he threw his fist to his lips, smiling.

“Debbie cooks,” I said, because this is what we did. Partly to test my mom. Partly to pretend, among each other, that we didn’t care. I knew that mentioning Dad’s girlfriend, overtly comparing the two, might change our circumstances.

Mom hated Debbie. She hated her so much, in fact, that she refused to call our pajamas “pj’s” (which is what Debbie called them), and insisted on “jammies,” despite how ridiculous it sounded. Sometimes when we talked about Debbie, Mom attempted to be better, nicer, in a kind of competition.

“Wish we lived with Debbie,” I said. Those walls were paper thin.

We lay around making fart noises under our armpits, laughing, shelling out comments to the walls, until, finally, Mom burst into the bedroom with a belt and started whipping us with it, shouting again to go to sleep.

When we finally turned out the lights and Mom left, slamming the door, we lay in the darkness, breathing heavily.

It was impossible not to laugh.

Jonny farted, and we lost it again. I fell off the bed with a thump, holding my stomach. I don’t even know what was funny. But we were boys, each a year apart and hungry and used to sleepless nights.

When Mom came back in, she charged at Chris, who until then had been making more comments than any of us. She grabbed him by his hair and dragged him into the hall, smacking him in the mouth.

At first we laughed at him, but she wasn’t easing up. Jonny and I followed them out. We called lightly for her to stop, to let him go.

Chris had this long, dark hair that fell equally down the sides of his head into an early ’90s bowl cut. He used to stand in front of the mirror for so long soaking it with hairspray and mousse, combing it into perfect swoops in the front. In the hall now, my mother had handfuls of it. Her face was a terrible, screaming red. She smacked ceaselessly at him. Jonny and I pulled her wrists, tried peeling her fingers from his hair.

“Let him go,” we said, shoving. But she was strong—much stronger than we’d ever known her to be.

At the old house, she hadn’t punished us; my father did. When he came home, she’d tell on us for mouthing off or leaving the yard or breaking a dish, and he’d pull out a paddle, line us up in the kitchen, and beat us individually while she begged him, eventually, to stop. But Summit Street was a training period for my mother. She had figured out, I think, that we responded to pain—and it had to hurt. Unlike my father, she hadn’t learned to stop.

Jonny punched her first. He was seven. He hit her in the stomach. I shoved her. Chris stood up. She kept his hair but grabbed me, too. She threw her weight into me, smashing my head and shoulder through the hallway wall, stunning me. She dragged Chris through the living room to the front door and pushed him onto the porch.

“Stay the fuck outside,” she screamed.

She jammed the ironing board between the handle and the baseboard, told Jonny and me that she’d call the cops and have him arrested if we let him in. She said they’d come and take him away; we’d never see him again. She said to shut our fucking mouths. This time we listened. This time we went to bed.  This time, we lay quietly in the dark.

***

That night, Chris slept on the front porch. It was cold, and he didn’t have anywhere to go, so he curled up inside his shirt and slept with his head on the stoop.

In the bedroom, I ached to go outside. My face was scratched; it burned a little where it was cut. I stared out the window, where streetlight shadows played off the side of the neighbors’ house. I kept looking for Chris, waiting for him to run down on the road and goof around or flip us the finger, but he never came. I could hear Jonny breathing in the dark. I knew he was awake, too, by the way he breathed, but neither of us was willing to make a sound.

I could’ve opened the bedroom window and called for Chris, but I was too scared that he’d be taken away. So I lay instead, imagining Chris outside—a rock—and feeling sad for him.

I tried thinking good things: of eating a giant bowl of pasta or ice cream; of rollerblading down Henderson Street or riding bikes behind the church; of Chris and his old guitar; how he’d gone to a few lessons, had learned some chords, how he stood on my uncle’s table once, in front of my family, and sang all of Garth Brooks’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” and everyone clapped and cheered. When he finished, he smiled for them.

I remembered how, at night, Chris would strum the guitar to make Jonny and me jealous. We’d ask to play and he’d say no. Until, one night, Jonny tried grabbing at it and Chris knocked him over the head with it. It wasn’t even hard, a thump. But Jonny started crying. So Dad came in, took the guitar outside, and smashed it to pieces against a porch post.

I can see it still, the look on Chris’s face when he heard the guitar rattle and break outside the window.

Dad dragged the broken neck of the thing into the kitchen, whipped it against the wall, called us ungrateful assholes, and dealt his beatings. Mom begged him to settle down, but when Dad drank, he was either the most passionate man, whiskey-voiced and full of brokenhearted love, proclaiming always his deep loyalty and debt to us—“I love you boys,” he’d say. “My sons. I’d die for you”—or he was angry, with a darkness covering him, and he’d become a different man.

Mom taunted him the night he busted up the guitar, called him “Tough Guy” to draw him from us. She challenged him, pushed him. Then he smacked her. And she ran from him. And he chased her down the hall, punching her in the back.

My brothers and I lined up in the kitchen—about-face—the way Dad preferred, to show him that we had surrendered, that he had nothing to prove; we feared him.

***

The night Chris slept on the porch, I imagined him strumming his guitar again, singing Garth Brooks the way he used to sing it—reluctant and willing all at once, voice cracking at the end of the lines. It’s one of a few peaceful images I still have of him. I wanted so badly to be bigger then, to give him that at least—my braver self—and walk into the living room and open the door. But he didn’t need it. He understood having things taken from him. Besides, Mom didn’t hold anger the way Dad did. She fizzled out, felt sorry. I expected her to fold that night and let Chris in. But she didn’t.

I had underestimated her; we all had.

My only offer to my brother was to stay awake all night for him. I could rescue him that way. I imagined running away, emptying my treasure box, my coins and chromies and marbles and G. I. Joes, and selling it all for a hundred bucks. My brothers and I could live on our own, be chromie kings. We’d twist and snap every blinking speck of chrome from everywhere we went. We’d become rich. Maybe even famous—or feared. We’d be powerful then.

But at some point in the night, the quiet black sky turned to blue, only slightly, and I fell asleep.  In the morning, Chris was gone. At first light, he’d walked a few blocks to a friend’s house and called my dad to come and get him.

After that, despite months of arguments, court battles, and the Allegheny Family Division maintaining Mom’s custody, all three of us went to live with Dad in Bethel Park.

***

We never became chromie kings, as I had wished for that night, but we continued to steal chromies from every back alley and driveway of the neighborhood until the summer ended and we went back to school, or eventually lost interest.

How could I let go? These things that meant so much. That I worked so hard to take. These small pieces of those older than me, those wealthier, those happier, those who had enough that they didn’t have to take from others. Those flickering, sharp-edged chromies that I chased down the street as I would a dream. That I chased as if to steal a better version of myself. Things that—as the good always did—ran forever from me, back to a nicer neighborhood with nicer people living a nicer life. A place I didn’t know how to get to, other than try and steal it.

Chromie thief: desperate and chasing.

My mother, too. Woman lost. Woman on her own and living with rage and haunted by her memories. I won’t say that we were too young or that she was struggling with depression, because it’s more than that. I realize now that I don’t know her. Not then. Not ever. She’s become a mother in glimpses: her dark hair piled in a bun; her face smiling. Her striking, sad blue eyes. On sunny days, walking back from the store, shifting grocery bags between her hands. Trying to cook and failing. Singing Marx in the kitchen. And I feel sorry for her. I wonder what she thought of us then. That we’d stolen from her? That we’d given? We could be beasts—starving, angry, and wishing we were better than we were.

I regret that.

But maybe everyone should be allowed to cling to those things that strengthen them—even if it hurts, or makes them worse. At least, for a moment, they can pretend to have fixed themselves.

Even now, when I pass a car in a parking lot or a church or walking into the bank, I glance down at the tires and look for chromies. I don’t even know why, or what I’d do with them. It’s a habit, a reflex, my eyes always seeking that flutter of light from something small and fleeting. Or maybe I’m waiting to kneel down on the road, knees bending in the sunlight, to strip away all the chromie caps from all the black tires, so I might breathe again that stagnant air—the same brutal smell it’s been for twenty years.

 

 

 

Meet the Author

This essay was the first thing I wrote out of graduate school, without the trusted eyes of an MFA workshop or thesis advisor—which was both frightening and freeing.

Originally, I had this memory of chromies, of stealing and collecting them as a kid, that I’d been playing with, trying to figure out why it had stuck with me so long. As I was writing into it, reliving the sight of a pair of chromies or their smell or the feeling of them in my hands, I found myself interested in the value we assign things, especially insignificant things, and the way that empowers us. Mostly, I wanted to know why. I knew I wouldn’t stop until I answered that question or at least came close to it. What I didn’t know was that this essay would become my mother’s as much as my own. Or that I’d save the document as “Mom’s Chap” for a year before finding a title that represents us both, for different reasons.

I still don’t know, fully, what this essay is about. Maybe dreams, or pain, or disappointment. Maybe it’s about escaping. But it’s also about holding on to things—whether valve stem caps or memories—to try and find strength from them. It’s also about my mother, who, despite our differences, was tougher and more complicated than I ever gave her credit for. I hope others can find connection here, a little bit of his or her own story. I’m just happy that someone (other than my wife) actually read this and enjoyed it. And I’m happy, now, to let it go.

***

Terrance Manning, Jr. is a graduate from Purdue’s MFA program in creative writing. Recent work has won the Narrative Spring Story Contest, the Iowa Review Award for Fiction and Nonfiction, and the Crazyhorse Prize in Nonfiction. Other work has appeared in Witness, Boulevard, Southwest Review, Ninth Letter, River Teeth, and the Normal School, among other magazines, and his fiction and nonfiction have received special mentions in the Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories. He lives and writes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Mythopoesis” by Daniel Vollaro

BLAST, TMR’s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. Our latest selection is Daniel Vollaro’s poetic memoir about the myths that form our identities and worldviews.

Mythopoesis

Daniel Vollaro

 

Let me tell you about the time I heard the sound of drumming coming from a hole in the ice.

It begins on the cove at Spruce Run Reservoir, on one of those glorious Saturday mornings in December when the air crackles with cold and the entire world feels as if it will shatter with one sturdy kick. We are moving on the ice, little bundles of momentum in secondhand down jackets and twice-patched snow pants and black gloves and hats knitted by our mothers and grandmothers, circling and figure-eighting in an awkward ballet that moves to the scraping of metal blades and the slapping of our hockey sticks on hard ice.

This is hockey in the cove, without a new pair of skates or a proper ice hockey stick between us. The puck is the only regulation item on the ice (someone’s brother’s best friend supplied it). The rest is hastily dragged out of closets and garages and thrown together to resemble, more or less, the hockey players we have seen on television. This is the era of Bobby Orr, the Esposito Brothers, and Wayne Gretzky. We play with football jerseys and plastic street hockey sticks. The goalie is wearing his gold Pop Warner football helmet. I am skating with my mother’s speed skates. The blades are twice as long as those of regulation hockey skates, and because of this, I cannot turn quickly, so I am always bumping into other boys or skating out of bounds. The big sports in our town are wrestling and football. Most of our families are too poor for hockey, not like the kids from Tewksbury and Cranford, whose parents can afford to spend hundreds of dollars for proper equipment and ice time. No, we are woeful amateurs, laughing at our half-assed skating and hacking our way around the ice and calling out lines from the movie Slapshot, which just came out this year.

“Yeah, sure, old-time hockey.”

“I’m puttin’ on the foil.”

“Iron League, baby. Iron League.”

“You can’t put a bounty on a man.”

“I just did.”

The reservoir is frozen solid from one end to the other, and we are skating in the tiny cove nearest to our housing development, just a five-minute walk away. We all know that the Indians are down there, twice buried, along with the farmhouses and the ancient oak trees and the old ironworks from the Revolutionary War and the body of the woman who chose to drown rather than abandon her home when the waters filled the valley.

We move like kids who only lace up their skates once or twice a year, legs splayed out, bent over at the waist, teetering and crashing into one another, falling on our asses and skidding across the ice. Our sticks are thrust out in front as we move, sweeping and stabbing after the puck, which slides languidly through and in front of us, as if it is moving in an entirely different dimension, completely disconnected from the game we are playing.

The game is barely a game. I am in it, but I do not know the score. I don’t even know all the kids on the ice or how many players are supposed to be on a regulation hockey team. From my vantage, barely able to keep upright, the ice is a chaotic battlefield with boys whizzing past me, shouting and war-whooping, while others lie splayed flat or are on their knees, laughing and gasping for breath.

Out of this pandemonium, someone connects with the puck and sends it sailing toward the goal nearest to the lake end of the cove. The puck appears to be rocketing toward the goal, which is undefended at the moment, but at the last second, it curves and misses, sailing out to the middle of the reservoir in a straight line.

I am nearest, so I skate after it. As soon as I leave the pack, my ankles straighten and my legs cease their wobbling. This is much better, I am thinking. My skates are designed to go fast in long stretches, and I feel the speed building in my legs.

The puck is still moving unimpeded toward the other side of the reservoir.

“Hey, the ice cracks out there,” I hear a shout from behind me. Then laughter. I glance down at the solid, rock-hard sheet of ice beneath me, at least six inches thick, probably thicker. They’re just messing with you, I think. No turning back now.

 The puck keeps going.

I am farther out from the shore than any of us has gone yet this year. We are afraid to venture behind the familiarity of the shallow cove, afraid of the holes hollowed out by hot springs and the possibility of one of us falling through a patch of soft ice.

I feel a new chill coming off the ice.

The puck slows ahead, and I am finally gaining on it when I spot the first crack—a hair-thin line that slices down through the ice. It is subtle, almost invisible, but definitely there, and it runs deep.

The puck finally stops, and I catch up with it. I turn, swing my stick back with both hands, and take a hard swipe at the black disc, sending it rocketing back to the pack of waiting boys.

I can hear it then, a low rumble behind me, from somewhere in the general vicinity of the reservoir’s center. The sound is coming from far off, but it appears to echo against the low hills surrounding the reservoir and then boomerang back in my direction. The rumbling ceases suddenly and is immediately followed by a sound like wind blowing over a taut wire—the unmistakable song of cracking ice.

When I turn to gaze back in the direction of this sound, I see it for the first time—a column of white smoke dancing on the frozen lake. The column is spectral and wavy, but it stays fixed to the same spot in the ice.

I hear the rumbling again.

I am dashing back to the safety of the cove, moving as fast as my skates will carry me.

 

* * *

 

More boys arrive, and the game finally loses whatever thread of order was preventing it from descending into an all-out brawl. Some of the kids from over near Demott’s Pond think hockey is the Hanson brothers, sticks swinging and chopping at anything that moves. It is getting ridiculous.

At some point, Danny and I peel off and head toward the column of steam rising from the middle of the lake.

“We could skate all the way across,” I suggest.

“That’s not a good idea,” Danny says.

Danny is brave and tough—everyone knows this—but he is cautious too. His dad is a town councilman, and Danny is always reminding us of this fact, as if to say, “If I get in trouble, my dad will be in trouble too.”

We leave our skates behind, stashed in a hollowed-out tree trunk. We don’t trust the boys from Demott’s Pond. Skating beyond the cove is not an option because patches of snow are glued to the surface of the ice. Also, there are ripples frozen into the ice, tiny wavelets caught in midmotion when the reservoir congealed from a liquid into a solid. There are cracks, too, bigger than the one I saw earlier. Some of them are the width of a finger or a golf ball, each filled up with packed snow.

We walk. Each step is careful. It is Danny’s idea for us to space ourselves out on the ice. If we walk close together, he says, that might put too much pressure on one spot.

“It’s still thick out here,” I say.

We’re looking down as we walk, especially in the patches of clear ice. We are plumbing the dark blue depths for signs that the ice has thinned out beneath our feet. The ice is opaque, mercurial, full of whitish grains and tiny bubbles and hairline fractures. There is a dark body of water down there somewhere, but we cannot tell how far beneath our feet it begins.

The temperature is dropping, and the wind is picking up, piercing through the gaps in our winter coats, little daggers that stab at our pink skin underneath. I can feel my earlobes beginning to numb, and the tips of my toes.

We push on.

Danny knows about the reservoir. His father has told him things, or so he says.

“There are hot springs down there,” he says. “Down near where the Indian burial mounds are.”

We never tire of telling the story of the Indian burial mounds. They are in a secret place in the valley beneath our feet, a hidden grotto located in a clearing with big stones marking each of the four directions. For two hundred years, the grotto was watched over by a Delaware Indian family that had refused to move west with the other New Jersey tribes in the late eighteenth century. They stayed behind in the valley, vowing to protect their ancestors’ bones forever. Over the subsequent generations, this family became Westernized. They ceased dressing and speaking like Indians. They cut their hair short. They joined churches and lost the feel and heft of their native traditions. They blended in. They assimilated, but never so much that they forgot who they were and why they lived in that valley.

We first heard this story from the older boys in our neighborhood. There was no origin for this myth, no author. We simply accepted it as an article of faith.

Now those burial mounds lie under the deepest waters of Spruce Run Reservoir, and the last member of that Indian family who refused to move away sometimes returns to the shore to stare in the direction of that burial ground. He lives in an old trailer in Glen Gardener, on a hill with a view of the reservoir from his front porch.

“I don’t believe that story,” Danny says.

“Believe what you want,” I say. “It’s true.”

The wind picks up again, fiercer than before, lifting snow off the ice and pushing it across the surface in an ankle-high sheet like a layer of fast-moving sand particles. Some of the snow swirls up into a funnel that dances across the flat horizon like dust devils in the desert. Is this what I saw before, a snow devil? The wind dies down, and the funnel evaporates.

“We’re lost,” Danny shouts over the wind.

“No way,” I shout back.

“Where are we going?” Danny asks.

I don’t say it, but we are following a mirage.

 

* * *

 

Even as the wind is howling around us, I am thinking about Indians. They are never far from my mind, having long ago entered my personal pantheon of heroism, alongside Bruce Lee, General Patton, John Wayne, Robin Hood and his Merry Men. We play Indians easily, as if the role was scripted long before we were born, a mash-up of warrior-shamans from the Sioux, Cheyenne, Nez Perce, and Apache tribes who wear feathered headdresses and ride horses across the plains in a never-ending Hollywood fantasy reel. New Jersey was the home of the Leni Lenapi and the Delaware and the Powhatan Renape Nations, but they were long ago pushed out and eventually forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. There are no reservations or Indian kids with long black ponytails pumping gas at the local Citco station. There are no souvenir shops. There are only rumors and whispers of their long-ago passing—stories about trails turned to colonial roads turned to highways; that inexplicable pile of moss-covered stones in the woods; the never-ending search for arrowheads (though I have yet to find one); the persistent lore of ruins and burial sites now covered over by the murky, impenetrable waters of a man-made lake.

And there are the places with Indian names, so numerous that we have made a game of remembering them. Danny and I play it. One of us will pick a letter—H, for example—and then try to name all the New Jersey places with Indian names.

“Hackensack,” I say.

“Hoboken,” Danny sings out.

“Hopatcong,” I offer.

“Ho-Ho-Kus,” we both say together, belly laughing because we love the way it sounds.

 “Psych,” he says, pushing me.

“No way, I said it first.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

“Hockhockson,” Danny says.

“No way, that’s not a real place.”

“Is too. It’s a swamp.”

“Swamps don’t count. It’s only towns and cities.”

Spruce Run Reservoir was made in the year of my birth, 1964, by building a nearly hundred-foot earthen dam and then flooding the valley behind it with over ten billion gallons of water. This man-made lake was waiting for me when I arrived in Clinton two years later, just a ten-minute walk from my house (Later, I would learn that the reservoir was created as a hedge against drought and to provide an always reliable source of water to northern New Jersey). I was mesmerized by the scale of it. The dam towered over the northwestern corner of my hometown, looming up behind the Little League field like a giant tidal wave that had been frozen and fossilized at the precise moment it was about to crash down on the town. I sometimes stand in the outfield and gaze upon this dam, contemplating the biblical enormity of deluge, the possibility, however remote, that this massive earthen wall will suddenly break, drowning all of us.

The reservoir envelops my life, strange and terrible, as if I live within walking distance of an outsized footprint left by the gods. It is always there, as water is to all life, running through me.

We were instantly drawn to it, in the way that water always attracts people. We would walk the five minutes from our front porch to the water’s edge, through the neighborhood and down the gentle slope of Union Road to where it bends through a stand of trees and then disappears abruptly into the mossy brown waters of Spruce Run. Where, I often wondered, does that road lead?

As a boy of five or six, I traveled there often with my father.

“If you follow the road underwater,” he grinned, “you will come out on the other side.”

I tried to imagine what lay down there. Closing my eyes, I let my imagination step forward into the cool water and slowly, one careful step at a time, continued to walk on Union Road. Soon the water was at my waist, then my chest, then swallowing me whole, head and all. The water was unclear, with a greenish hue, but my the eyes of my imagination soon adjusted to the dark, and I saw that I was descending into a valley. There were full trees down here, with green leaves still attached to branches and dangling like stoic tropical fish in the fading light. I passed streetlights and abandoned cars, with fish swimming peaceably through the open windows. And when I finally reached the bottom, I stood on a street very much like the one I lived on, except for the crushing silence. There were no children down here, or birds, or even the sound of a plane passing overhead, only empty houses and a yawning loneliness that frightened me so much I opened my eyes with a gasp and squeezed my father’s hand to make certain I was standing on dry land.

From my first memories, the reservoir was always there—a quiet, gloomy deep from which, somewhat perversely, my first thoughts about the natural world took form. Spruce Run was alive with its own unnatural rhythms. Most winters, it would freeze, which seemed perfectly in keeping with the behavior of any other lake in the Northeast, but in the spring and summer, the Water Authority would deliberately siphon off water, which caused the shoreline to recede. These man-made droughts were not predictable; they could come at any time and might last weeks or even months before the water table would suddenly rise back to normal levels. The water level would sometimes drop as much as twenty feet, exposing a ring of previously submerged mud along the shoreline that baked hard and dry in the sun within just a few days. The reservoir was only about ten years old, and there were old things still visible in that layer of mud—a wine bottle, full and still corked; boots; toppled tree trunks; truck tires; the foundation of a house with half of a brick chimney still standing. The surface of this new shoreline would crack and flake like peeling skin, and if the drought lasted long enough, blades of grass and fingers of skunkweed began to poke through these tiny fissures in a hopeful grab for sunlight. A drought could last one week or half the summer, but at the end of an especially long one, the newly exposed shoreline would be covered by a carpet of green that was indistinguishable from the old shoreline.

During these droughts, I would sometimes wander the shoreline looking for the Indian burial ground. I didn’t know what to look for. I picked through the blades of new grass, searching for arrowheads, and although I never found anything remotely Indian in these excursions, I never lost faith.

 

* * *

 

We stumble on the hole by accident, just as we are huddling to decide whether or not to keep looking. Danny sees it out of the corner of his eye when the wind dies down for a moment. The spectral white column has reappeared over the ice, this time very close. Just twenty feet away.

“Over there,” he points.

The hole is not big, perhaps four feet across. Its edges are ragged, and the ice around it has thinned out. We can see air bubbles trapped underneath, just a few inches below the surface. Tendrils of steam dance on the water’s surface.

We edge closer to the hole, one tentative step at a time.

We hear it then, a cracking sound from far off, carried in the wind, and then from a closer position, a deep rumbling that increases in its pace and frequency until it becomes a steady rhythm.

Maybe it isn’t drumming that I hear (and speaking as an adult who has subsequently known Indians and visited reservations and heard the sounds of chanting, tremulous and trance-inducing as they float up from the steady beat of the hand drum, I am now certain that it could not have been drumming). As we stand near the edge of that hole, peering down into its deep, wet blackness, I can feel the collective mystery and terror of that reservoir staring back at me through this single unblinking eye. The dark power of ancient death radiates up from beneath our feet, and it seems to me in this moment that I can gaze through the iris of history itself, into the three centuries of Euro-American farmers who lived and died in that valley and the eons of native peoples who came before them, and somewhere, floating inside this steaming black vortex, my own story, an infinitesimal speck—a birth certificate from Kingston, Rhode Island, with my name in those raised letters that feel like braille, a ship’s manifest for a transAtlantic passage from Italy in 1900, and, further back still, a cavalry sword and a few stories about a Union soldier whose horse was shot out from under him once and who twice homesteaded in North Dakota after the Civil War ended.

Today, if you ask me simply, where did you come from—and if I could somehow, for an instant, untangle myself from society’s expectations of how I should answer that question, free myself from the stultifying logic of genealogy and culture and race, names on a family tree that trace the chain of begetting fanning out behind my name into the anonymous oblivion of Scotland and England and Naples—if I could speak of myself in mythopoetic terms—I would say that I was born from that reservoir. I rose up out of those still, murky waters, then stood on two unsteady legs and walked upright on land for the first time.

 

Daniel Vollaro is writer from northwestern New Jersey who now lives and works in the Atlanta Metro area. His essays have been recently published in AdbustersBoomer CaféLitroMichigan Quarterly ReviewRise Up Review, and the Smart Set. His fiction has been published recently in Foliate Oak Literary MagazineMobius: The Journal of Social Change, and Thrice Fiction. He is an associate professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College, where he teaches writing courses. Read more of his work at danvollaro.com.

 

 

 

 

An interview with Marin Sardy

Marin Sardy‘s essay “A Shapeless Thief,” about her mother’s schizophrenia, first appeared in the Missouri Review (37:2) and later became part of her new memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia (Pantheon, 2019).  You can read Marin’s essay here.

Last month we talked with Marin about the development of the memoir and her new book project.

 

Evelyn Somers: Initially you saw your book as an essay collection.  How and when did you realize you were working on a more cohesive memoir?

Marin Sardy: Even when I was writing the individual essays, I had a sense that they would be able to collectively tell a larger story. They were each about some slice of my life, and I suspected that if I put enough slices together, some kind of arc would emerge. I didn’t know what that larger story would be, however, until far along in the process. It wasn’t until I started writing the chapters about my brother’s homelessness—which I wrote last—that I saw that much of what had been driving me had always related to questions about how my family’s long history with mental illness came to bear on my brother’s struggles with schizophrenia. I also found I had much more to say about my brother’s story than I had expected, which gave some of those parts more of a flavor of narrative memoir than of the highly selective, tightly constructed essays I had produced first. So it was a lot of letting things happen as the words came out and paying attention to what the words were telling me, and looking for the connections that became visible after everything was down on the page.

 

ES: Did the early publication of some of the pieces give you more confidence going forward with the book?

MS: Definitely. More confidence and more skill. The practice and the encouragement I got along the way turned out to be integral to the final product. In retrospect, I’m so glad the book developed the way it did, though it took a much more circuitous path than I ever expected. Taking the time to fully shape the essays that later became chapters, stepping back from them and letting them steep for a while before returning to the work—that allowed my ideas to percolate, so that by the time I was thinking in terms of a book, I had really developed my own perspective about mental illness and knew what I wanted to say. And how I wanted to say it!

Also, going through the process of submitting to journals and working with editors helped me understand how my work fit into the larger literary landscape. The people I knew who were getting book contracts weren’t trying any of the weird conceptual and structural approaches I was taking in my essays, but when I sent my pieces to literary journals, I got a lot of positive feedback. So the successes I had in the world of litmags gave me more confidence to take that work into the realm of New York publishing and see if someone would be interested. And someone was.

 

ES: Can you say a little about the process of turning a group of individual essays into a memoir–for instance, even though The Edge of Every Day is not a traditional chronological narrative, were there gaps in the story that you realized you needed to fill in?

MS: My first reaction to this question is actually to laugh because when I look at the finished book, all I see is gaps! And that was a deliberate choice, and it kind of surprised me when early readers of the manuscript commented on how well it all seemed to flow together. But I never really thought of it as “I’m turning a group of separate essays into a memoir.” To me, the essays were not very separate from one another anyway, and I don’t feel like I’ve entirely transformed it into a memoir either. My editor and I were not aiming for it to be “a memoir” in the typical sense. Here’s an example: When I first sold my book based on having about two-thirds of it written, my editor, Catherine Tung, asked me if I’d be willing to add some “connective tissue.” But she also assured me that, for the most part, it should keep its “highly fragmented” shape. That sounded fine to me. Several months later, when we were talking again about the book in depth and I was saying I had this chapter and that chapter to add, none of which qualified as “connective tissue,” Catherine said, “You know, looking at it now, I really don’t think the book needs more connective tissue. ” And I just thought, “No, it doesn’t need it at all.” So we scrapped that idea and never looked back.

I just focused on telling all the parts of the story that I felt were necessary to include, and on telling them in the ways they needed to be told. I really believe in listening to the material, in letting it tell you what form it should take. And it just became what it wanted to become, which is somewhere in between a memoir and an essay collection. What I did end up changing to make it more memoir-like was so minor it hardly registers to me now. I rearranged a few paragraphs at the beginnings of some chapters that were formerly essays, so that each one opened on me rather than on some other topic. I cut out redundancies and added a few sentences to clarify shifts in time and place. And of course, we were very strategic about the order in which we arranged the chapters—loosely but not strictly chronological. But that’s about it. Now we’ve labeled it a memoir, and that seems to work for people. But I think of it more as, maybe, “memoirs”—or, as my subtitle says, “sketches.”

 

ES: In your research for the book, you spent some time learning about the neuroscience of schizophrenia. Did that change how you wrote about your mother and brother?

MS: Yes, very much—but largely in ways that it’s now hard to put my finger on. The early research I did, in the first couple of years of writing about schizophrenia, fundamentally shifted my thinking about mental illness. And it wasn’t just neuroscience, but also philosophy—the phenomenology of psychosis. And that change in my perspective pervades the whole book. The biggest thing the research did for me was show me where I had been making unfounded assumptions about what I’d witnessed. I had been personally relating to schizophrenia for decades, so I had a lot of my own ideas about it, most of which were unexamined and some of which were incorrect. Being forced to confront and then question my own perceptions and conclusions opened me up to many new paths of inquiry. And that got me excited about delving deeper into what I had experienced, what those things might mean, things I hadn’t considered before. So I was able to approach the topic, and those relationships, from an open place rather than a restricted place. It proved so creatively fruitful and became a way for me to transform what were deeply traumatic events in my life into something that revealed a broader view of what had happened, a view that could be much more useful to readers.

 

ES: What was the most important discovery you made in writing the book–either about mental illness or about writing?

MS: Most importantly for me, the writing process enabled me to rediscover my brother. To remember who he was as a person, who he always had been, inside his illness. For so many years, my focus was on his schizophrenia—how it affected him, how it harmed him, how I could or couldn’t help him. And I grieved deeply for what was lost when he became ill. But all of that focus and intense emotion, I later realized, had the effect of obscuring his actual presence in the world. After writing the book, I felt very bad that I hadn’t been more cognizant of that while he was alive. The book, and all of the sorting through my memories and feelings that it required, eventually made it possible for me to find him again inside his own story. So in a way, after losing him twice—first to illness, then to death—I got him back as a result of writing the book. It’s sort of the Wizard of Oz effect: searching and searching, only to find that what you’ve been looking for was there all along.

 

ES: What’s your next writing project or challenge?

MS: I’m pleased to be able to say that I am beginning work on a second book. It’s in the nascent stages still—just a lot of research and notes—but in the last several months I’ve begun to see what I want it to be. Like this first book, it will discuss mental illness. But it will largely focus on an artist whose work I have long admired, who died in 2012: a photographer who lived with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, and whose work in many ways reflected her struggles. I hope to tell parts of her story and include a fair amount of art criticism as well, in which I engage deeply with her images and reflect on them in terms of my own experiences with mental illness.

 

 

 

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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 HouseGuernica, the RumpusFourth Genre, Missouri ReviewARTnews, 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.