“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.
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.
“Facing It” by Sally Crossley
“Facing It,” a vivid, wise, and moving account of living with Bell’s palsy, was the inaugural nonfiction winner in our annual Perkoff Prize competition for writing about health and medicine. The essay was a first publication for author Sally Crossley and appeared in print in TMR 44:4.
by Sally Crossley
There will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
—T. S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
I’m six, seated at the old pine table in the kitchen, but instead of finishing my cereal I’m transfixed, mesmerized by the face caught in the gleaming metal of the two-slice toaster. Morning light streams through the windows on either side, hitting the curve of the toaster’s edges so my cheeks look fat, blurry, but there in the middle, that’s me; it’s true. I smile. Wrinkle my nose. Blink. Scrunch up my nose, my mouth, to make faces—happy, hopeful, sad—all of which annoy my younger sister.
“Mom, she’s looking at herself again,” she calls, so I stop, but then, after a few minutes, when I think no one is watching, I’m back at it.
Then seventeen, eighteen, gazing into the small makeup mirror on my vanity. Pretty? Plain? Ugly? Trace a dark outline along the arc where the eyelashes meet the lids. Rub in eye shadow. Twirl on mascara. Brush a bit of blush along the cheekbones. Smear gloss over the lips. Blot. Blink. Study the reflection again. My eyes too close together, though I’ve had a compliment or two about how, at the outer edges, they lift like a cat’s. But my teeth are too big, my nose really too small.
Catch a glimpse in a department-store mirror. In a window. In a rearview mirror. There I am. That’s me. That’s what I look like.
Until it’s not.
It’s October 1986, a few days before Halloween, at the end of a week when I’ve been busy sewing a clown costume for my four-year-old son. Half blue-and-white stripes, the other half white with blue polka dots, the costume is nearly finished. No mean feat for someone who, ever since home ec, has struggled with each sewing project she has begun, something the machine seemed to feel as I inched the material along the metal plate toward the needle, the thread catching, then snarling around the silver clip covering the bobbin instead of neatly locking each stitch. Yesterday, though, I managed to sew all the pieces together; just the elastic around the cuffs to go. That’s why today, my seven-month-old daughter asleep beside me, merits a few more minutes in bed.
Since my husband and I moved back to Binghamton—my hometown, a place where my husband found a better job and where I could go to grad school—I earned my MA and had our son, then our daughter, but right now I’m unemployed. All week I’ve been fighting a bad cold with a fever, my mouth full of canker sores. I’m trying to will myself back into a dream, just for a few more minutes, when my husband asks, “What’s wrong with your face?”
I open my eyes. He’s standing next to the bed, knotting his tie, studying me.
“What do you mean?”
“Go look at it,” he says.
I desperately want to stay where I am, but he looks worried, so I climb out of bed, imagining a pimple of enormous proportions. Instead, looking in the bathroom mirror, I see the problem: the right side of my mouth, along with my right eye and right cheek, droops, and no matter what expression I attempt, I can’t seem to fix it. I touch my cheeks, my mouth, my nose, all of which are sensitive—I’m pretty sure I have a sinus infection—but otherwise, everything feels normal.
I slide back in next to the baby and close my eyes. With just a little more sleep, I promise myself, I’ll be fine.
At the same time, I send part of my brain in search of an explanation. What would cause my face to droop like this? Have I ever had anything like this happen before?
Unable to sleep—it’s time I was up anyway—I look in the mirror again. The right side of my face still sags.
Usually, the only doctor I visit is for my kids, but I decide the lingering cold and fever justify a call. The fever is down, yes, I tell the nurse, but I’m also having trouble—I laugh a little, embarrassed; it sounds so ridiculous—with my face.
The doctor can see me at two.
Because I don’t want anyone else to see my face, my husband arranges to take a late lunch so he can watch the kids. The minute he walks in the door, I leave. The sooner I reach the doctor’s office, I figure, the sooner he’ll be able to fix this cold, this infection. This face. Usually, I walk; this afternoon, I drive.
He’s old-school, this doctor, his office in the basement of his house. The dark-paneled, half-filled waiting room holds half-a-dozen straight-backed chairs, and I choose one across from an older woman, keeping my hand on the right side of my face to hide it, pushing my cheek up.
But she comments anyway. “Someone’s just been to the dentist,” she smiles.
In the examining room, the doctor runs through the usual: blood pressure, heartbeat, temperature, which is a little over 100. Finally, he studies my face, then presses the skin around the right side of my mouth, my nose, my eye. “Does anything hurt?”
I tell him about the tenderness, about how my mouth is filled with canker sores.
He nods, puts away his stethoscope, then peers inside my mouth and gently feels around inside. “Does this hurt?”
I nod. “A little.”
Afterward, we sit across from each other at his desk while he makes a few notes in my file. Then he looks up and leans back in his chair. “You have a fairly severe case of Bell’s palsy,” he announces before explaining how sometimes the nerve on one side of the face dies, and doctors don’t completely understand why. “You should tape your eye shut at night to protect the eye.”
I’m trying to pay attention, but I’m waiting for the part where he tells me how’s he’s going to fix it.
He closes the file. “It could get better,” he says. “It could not.” He shrugs. “There’s not much to be done but wait and see.”
Even now, thirty-some years later, no one knows what, exactly, causes Bell’s palsy. Today, when I look it up, I see that it’s a virus, like a cold; in fact, it’s often triggered by a cold. Named after Sir Charles Bell, a Scottish surgeon who studied it in the nineteenth century, Bell’s is the same virus that causes cold sores and is related to the one that causes chicken pox, attacking what is known as the seventh cranial nerve, or the facial nerve. Once the nerve becomes swollen or compressed, one side of the face droops, making the afflicted person look like she’s had a stroke. Usually, Bell’s comes on suddenly, first becoming evident when the person tries to eat or drink. Or in the morning, when she first wakes up.
I didn’t learn any of this right away. Didn’t, in fact, research Bell’s at all. Maybe that’s because I contracted it in the 1980s, pre-Internet. And maybe, too, it’s because I was terrified of what I might find out. Instead, I clung to what my doctor had said: “It might get better. Wait and see.” Never mind that he’d also said, “It might not”; I held on to the first part of his sentence, determined to believe my face would someday return to the way it had been. But that could only work, I intuited, if no one talked about it.
Over the next few weeks, though, friends and relatives began sharing stories about people they knew who’d had Bell’s. The woman who lived in the apartment downstairs said her mother had had a bout, triggered by a draft of cold air coming in through a car window. My husband’s boss, my dentist’s brother-in-law, my aunt’s friend. But in every case, after a few weeks or months, the palsy disappeared.
That didn’t seem to be happening with me. One friend, very concerned, urged me to have an MRI, fearing a brain tumor, something I didn’t follow through with because, well, it seemed obvious. If I had a brain tumor, I would know. If other symptoms arose, maybe. But until then? I’d wait.
And I’d try not to see.
The right side of my mouth still sagged, along with my cheek; my right eye still drooped. When I smiled, I looked like those Greek masks of tragedy and comedy smooshed together: grotesque, at least in my eyes. As the days passed, I learned not to glance in a car window to catch my reflection, not to check my face in the mirror above the bathroom sink for any remaining dabs of toothpaste, not to grab a quick look in the mirror next to the door before I headed out. None of that.
By December, I was managing pretty well, I thought, avoiding mirrors, not dwelling on the fact that I had Bell’s. But then at Christmas, my brother-in-law asked if, after saying his traditional grace, we could pray for my face.
That winter, we bought our first house, a beautiful old stucco in need of repair, and as spring came on, our efforts expanded to the garden, where we dragged out broken limbs, took down trees, raked up years’ worth of decaying leaves. Between that and caring for the baby and the four-year-old, I had plenty of distractions. As for my face? I was all right as long as I didn’t look in the mirror. Who would see me anyway? My family. A couple of friends. Other moms at the park or at the preschool where I took my son. And I was gradually learning that if I jumped into a conversation, I could redirect it with a comment or question, and skip past any looks of concern about the disfigured part of my face. All I had to do was mention one of their kids.
Then one day, prompted by my mother, I made an appointment with a physical therapist who demonstrated a series of exercises that, he said, might strengthen the muscles in my face. I left with a couple of papers illustrating them, but I’d seen from his expression that he had some doubts. Going into his office, I’d steeled myself against hope. But on my way home, I decided I’d prove him wrong. I would learn to raise my eyebrow, to lift my right upper lip, to wrinkle my nose. Soon, I would make both sides of my face work together again and be able to smile.
I didn’t tell anyone about my plan, of course, in case it failed, so when a friend, visiting with her daughter for a playdate with my son, asked, “Have you thought about consulting another doctor?” the question threw me.
“Maybe,” I finally responded, reddening. “I need to think about it.”
A few weeks later, my sister asked the same question.
Both times my answer was the same, but I was furious. As with my brother-in-law’s request for a prayer at Christmas, randomly inserted into a conversation when we were talking about other things, the palsy was nothing I’d been thinking about, nothing I wanted to think about. Why bring it up?
Not that I said anything. I never said anything.
Later that spring, I went to a poetry reading at the university, and as I was leaving, I ran into a few former classmates and professors. Though it had been years since I’d been seen any of them and we’d never been close—I’d been a part-time student, married with kids, taking longer than most to earn my degree—they greeted me with warm smiles and bear hugs, anxious, it seemed, to talk to me, which was gratifying, but I couldn’t figure out why. Had we all been more connected than I’d realized?
Driving home, I replayed what had happened: the hugs, the kind words, the smiles, but those had been accompanied by, I suddenly remembered, looks of compassion, which was when it clicked: my face. They’d been offering sympathy for my face.
A prayer, a question, a sympathetic smile. Hardly reprehensible.
But I’d forgotten that while I’d adopted a plan that prevented me from seeing my face, I couldn’t change what other people saw. My friend, my sister, my brother-in-law, whomever I was in conversation with saw one half of my face move while the other half remained slack, inert. I couldn’t alter that. And yet I continued to try.
Looking back, I realize I was behaving like a very young child who, when first learning how to play hide-and-seek, puts her hands in front of her eyes and imagines no one can see her. She is hiding. And even though I had an increasing amount of evidence that my particular method was not working, I also sensed that what I was doing was the only way I, a thirty-one-year-old woman who’d simply had a bad cold, would be able to adjust to my radically altered appearance. That my face might not ever look the way it once had: What did that mean for other people? And what did it mean for me? I didn’t want to think about that.
In the many arguments I had with myself, my reasons for not seeking a second opinion varied. The doctor was a friend of my father’s; that might offend him. More, seeking a second opinion would cost additional money, which was hard to justify since I wasn’t earning any. My kids had wants and needs; they took precedence. Maybe I could no longer whistle and could only produce a lopsided smile, an ineffectual kiss, but, I told myself, I wasn’t in any pain.
What I did instead was equally instinctive. Since I hadn’t reconnected with friends I’d had when I’d lived in Binghamton before, I didn’t bother to now. Why would I want any of them to see my face disfigured like this? So, in addition to the couple of friends I’d made since moving back, I sought out other moms of kids my children’s ages who didn’t know how I’d looked before.
Now, when I reread entries from the journals I kept during those early years of having Bell’s, I find almost no mention of it.
As illnesses go, Bell’s is unusual because usually, little pain is involved. Lupus, MS, polio, now there’s pain for you. But Bell’s? For me, the only pain that occurred was when I encountered strangers and instead of smiling in response—because I still smiled automatically—they looked away. And when I looked in the mirror. Having a severe case of Bell’s is different from going gray or gaining or losing a hundred pounds or having a terrible case of acne, all of which affect how someone sees herself. Those differences come on gradually, and the image reflected in the mirror confirms that this is you.
Having Bell’s is more like being in an unexpected accident: no maiming, of course, but one’s appearance—one’s sense of self—has suddenly changed.
That’s why it’s perplexing for both the person who has Bell’s and for anyone who interacts with her. When I smile, the downward droop of my mouth suggests that I’m unhappy, even angry, because that’s how one half of my face looks. But then there’s the other half. Which is it? Happy? Sad? It’s difficult for someone looking at me to say. It’s instinctive, and far easier, for them to look away.
We marginalized people all know that it’s a fight to see ourselves clearly, to refuse to allow the way others see us to affect us too much and let that become how we see ourselves. For the unattractive or disfigured, there are the adages Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or Beauty is only skin deep or It’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Me? I secretly bought into the story of the ugly duckling. He, after all, is transformed. He turns into a swan.
“Have you thought about a chiropractor?” my grandmother, a former nurse, asked. “I read an article in Reader’s Digest about one who helped a woman with Bell’s palsy. She was completely cured!” It was three years later, and I was still continuing on just as before, but instead of taking offense, perhaps because the suggestion came from her, I latched on to the idea. Alternative medicine was nothing I’d considered, but it had a certain appeal. A miracle cure. Maybe. After flipping through the yellow pages and making a few calls, I found a chiropractor who said he’d worked with Bell’s patients before. Week after week for more than a year, he tried various approaches, but the heart of what he said was this: the paralysis was largely an issue of mind over matter. “Stay centered,” he said. “Seek balance.”
After I gave up on the chiropractor, I went back to convincing myself that as long as my face was at rest, the palsy was no longer noticeable. This bit of denial continued to work for me most of the time, but there was the occasional glitch. At the grocery store, one of the clerks, a friendly guy about my age who walked with a limp, never failed to ask, as I was checking out, “How are you?” His sympathy was palpable, but I chalked it up to what he remembered about the way I’d looked before. I was better now. “Good, good,” I responded, smiling, showing him. “And you?”
On another day, when I was pushing my cart down the baking aisle, there he was again, this time stocking the shelves with boxes of Jell-O. “How’s your eye?” he asked, touching his own.
“Fine,” I responded, and kept going. That was annoying, I thought. What was his problem? The drooping smile, that was the issue, not my eye. At home, I looked in the mirror just to be sure, facing myself head-on. Staring back at me, both eyes looked just the same, as far as I could see. There was nothing wrong with my eye.
Then one spring day, a salesclerk in a dress shop pulled me aside and in a low voice said, “I had it, too.”
I’d been looking through a rack of blouses and had no idea what she was talking about until I saw her face: one side drooped considerably lower than the other. Hers was much worse, I decided, than mine.
“Have you tried electrical stimulation?” she asked.
I nodded. I’d just finished a round, in fact, and had been convinced that finally—finally—my face looked better. I’d even asked a friend, and she’d said yes, she noticed a difference. But maybe I’d believed her because of the pain involved, the physical therapist turning up the dial in session after session, telling me to let her know when it began to hurt, something I put off doing until it became unbearable. No pain, no gain.
“Me, too,” the salesclerk said. “And then right after that, I got it on the other side.”
“I didn’t know that could happen!”
She nodded emphatically. “It happened to me.”
I nodded and quickly left, but the fact remained: she’d had the palsy. Had my friend been lying? And me, I’d been convinced it was better. Why couldn’t I see that it wasn’t?
I remained unemployed for years. I told myself this was because the economy in Binghamton was bad, which was true, but other than filling out applications at libraries, bookstores, publishers, and the local newspaper, I didn’t try all that hard to find a job. Instead, I volunteered at my kids’ school, at the church we attended, for Literacy Volunteers. At least, I told myself, I was contributing to society, and my husband’s salary was good enough that we could get by. Since I wasn’t earning any money, I kept clothes-buying to a minimum; jeans and sneakers were good enough for me. But I kept my weight down, applied a bit of makeup, still following the would-be attractive woman’s rule book so I could have the gratification of a look from somebody. Anybody.
I continued to practice the exercises I’d been given so long ago, but here and there, and always where no one would see. Not my husband, not my kids. Not even me. The best place? When I was alone driving somewhere. At red lights, I repeatedly squeezed my eyes shut, then pursed my lips, wrinkled my nose, strained to lift my right upper lip. I went at the exercises with a vengeance, determined to raise that eyebrow, to puff out both cheeks again and again as I cruised down the highway.
What I didn’t do, though, while doing the exercises, was look in the mirror. And so my thirties disappeared. For the 5 percent or so of Bell’s palsy patients who don’t recover, synkinesis often occurs, which means the nerve regenerates, but it grows back abnormally. For someone who doesn’t have Bell’s, that nerve helps bring the smile from the lips to the eyes; for a person with Bell’s, not only do the lips not turn up, but the abnormally regenerated nerve partially closes the eye whenever the person tries to enunciate or to smile. The medical term for this is ptosis.
I didn’t know this until years after I’d contracted Bell’s. Probably doctors had mentioned it, but it didn’t sink in, I was so studiously trying to ignore it. Not until many years later, after I become a high school English teacher, did I realize there were other problems.
One day, when I was teaching a colleague’s class, a student in the front row whispered something to a friend sitting next to her, then began laughing as, behind her cupped hand, she pointed at me. My face flushed. My right eye was twitching; I could feel it, and though I rubbed the skin below the eye, the twitch persisted.
I was in my fifties by then, and I had seen more than one teacher reduced to tears by something a student had said. Ignore her, I reprimanded myself. Plowing through the embarrassment, I massaged the right side of my face—discreetly, I hoped, willing whatever was going on to stop. I had a class full of students; I was in the middle of a lesson. But as the period drew to a close, I situated myself next to the desk of the one who’d been pointing and quietly told her, “I want you to stay for a few minutes after class.”
“I can’t,” she said, just as the bell rang.
“Just for a few minutes,” I insisted. My cheeks continued to burn, and my heart was beating wildly—I had no idea what I was going to say to her—but I was determined to see this through.
The student grabbed her friend by the wrist as the rest of the class filed out, leaving the two of them alone in the room with me. This girl, no doubt, expected rage or, at the very least, a lecture, which I’d considered. But at the last minute, I decided to try another tactic. As calmly as I could manage, I asked her what she had seen. Because, I told her, I couldn’t see it. “My eye was twitching, right?” I asked. “Anything else?”
Embarrassed, she looked first at her friend, then back at me. “Your mouth,” she touched her own lips, demonstrating. “It goes down.”
I nodded and then briefly explained a little about the palsy. “It doesn’t hurt,” I said. “But I woke up one day—I’d had a cold—and the nerve had died, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I just wanted you to understand.”
She apologized and left, while I, still trying to quiet my heart, knew I’d achieved something, though I couldn’t have said what.
Then came the stuttering. For anybody, this would be a problem, but it’s particularly tough for a literature teacher. Reading aloud passages to my IB juniors from Othello or from Huckleberry Finn, I found myself tripping over words I knew perfectly well: ts and ps, ds at the ends of words, were harder to enunciate, making it impossible to whip off a passage, let alone something like Rude am I in my speech / and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. What had happened? In conversation, friends increasingly had begun asking me to repeat myself, but it wasn’t only articulation that was a problem. The eye had begun sporadically tearing and closing at the same time, usually when I was trying my hardest to enunciate, further complicating any attempts to read aloud, since I needed to see the words on the page. And at night, when I was sleeping? The eye refused to remain shut. When I’d first contracted the palsy, I’d had to Scotch-tape the eye closed, and here I was doing it again.
I was seeing a new doctor now, the one who had first diagnosed my case of Bell’s having since retired, and she suggested that I see a speech pathologist. This young speech pathologist tried everything I’d tried before: more electrical stimulation, more face exercises, along with giving me a list of tongue twisters to practice—Peter Piper and alliterative phrases full of bs and ms—but slowly. In fact, I was to work on speaking slowly in general. Seek balance.
But then she urged me to consider surgery, specifically with a renowned surgeon at Johns Hopkins who specialized in something called a gracilis muscle transfer, where the doctor moves a useless muscle from the thigh to the face. That would correct problems with my smile and maybe, she hoped, with my speech.
Walking out of her office I considered what she’d said. While I couldn’t ignore the palsy’s effects on my speech and vision, I was afraid to hope too much. What if she were wrong? Yet she’d done the research. I had no more excuses. It was time.
A month later, I drove to Baltimore. I was the only patient in the waiting room, and a nurse handed me a survey to complete. How had Bell’s affected my mental health, my sexuality, my relationships: Seriously? Somewhat? Not at all? I read through the questions and then returned to the first one: my mental health. Years earlier, I’d come across a blog for people with Bell’s. A woman had written that her husband had left her because he told her he couldn’t stand to look at her anymore. That would be seriously. On the other hand, not at all wasn’t true, not if I was being honest.
I recalled the short story I’d read shortly after I had contracted Bell’s. It was about a woman who lost her face. She looks in the mirror for her reflection, and nothing looks back. Very Kafkaesque, but the story resonated especially for me because when I looked in the mirror, a face looked back, but it wasn’t mine. A little theater of the absurd, this whole thing.
So I checked somewhat, marking that answer for all the questions, and pretended to read a magazine while surreptitiously studying the faces of the people who had since come in. Just women, none of whom seemed to be disfigured. Were their issues simply cosmetic? Dissatisfaction with a nose? The lips?
What about me? Wasn’t I being equally self-indulgent, equally vain? Had I thought I was above that? I’d been coloring my hair for years. Growing up, I had been pretty. Not beautiful, not hold-the-horses stunning. Cute. So wasn’t I, at sixty-one, simply trying to look young and attractive again? Those years were gone.
I stood up to leave but at that point reminded myself that I’d taken a sick day and driven five hours after work the previous day to spend the night in a motel. I was here, after all. Before I could change my mind again, the doctor, appeared. Within a few minutes, this charming, clearly knowledgeable guy allayed every concern. He said he knew all about Bell’s and its long-term effects with the eye and the speech, and then he suggested a couple of things: Botox, to start with, then adding a weight to my eyelid, since, he noted, the fact that my right eye didn’t always close when I blinked was drying out the cornea.
Whether because of the drive or the fact that this hospital and the doctor were of a much higher caliber than anything I’d encountered before, I followed his suggestions. I had the Botox, which made my smile more symmetrical, but I’d have to keep up with the injections if I wanted that to continue. A few months later, I had the weight put in, which helped, though it wasn’t perfect.
The following winter, I switched to another doctor, this one equally talented, but in Boston, which was an easier trip since I knew the city and had relatives I could stay with. Her office was different. Nine floors up, the reception area was spacious, with a wall of windows offering a stunning view of the Charles, filling the room with light. Around the room sat other patients from who knew how far away, all of whom suffered from various kinds of facial nerve damage. Most, when I looked at them, refused to meet my gaze. These were my people.
A little girl in red-and-black leggings, a Swedish-looking design, came in with her mother. The child looked unhappy, but maybe the appearance of unhappiness was simply because one side of her face, like mine, drooped.
Then a guy about my age walked in, stopping at the receptionist’s desk to announce, “I’m here to get my smile back.” Heavyset, wearing a brown winter coat on this unusually cool day in May, he told her he had decided to have the two-part operation. “People don’t like it when you don’t smile,” he said.
The receptionist, a pretty, engaging young woman, smiled and said, “That’s not true.”
“Yes, it is,” he said congenially. “You know when people look at you, they want you to smile.”
“Let me see you smile,” she said.
He obliged, giving her a lopsided grin.
“There you go. You can smile,” she said enthusiastically.
“Yeah, but not like before. I’m on disability, so,” he said, and looked around, “you can schedule it anytime.”
It’s no small thing, the ability to smile. People take it for granted, offering a smile to someone sharing an elevator, to a passerby on the street, to a waiter in a restaurant, but a smile, apart from being an acknowledgment of someone else’s existence, also anticipates one in return. An exchange of smiles establishes a connection, maybe even trust. When this man tried to smile, I saw it: his face became that Greek mask, comedy and tragedy smooshed together. Try to read it and you’d err on the side of tragedy. Who was going to smile back at that?
The receptionist, a sweet young woman with whom I’d had several conversations on the phone, who’d greeted me by name when I’d walked in even though she’d never seen me before, had lied. The man could not smile, and he had rightly corrected her. He knew. Probably in her eyes, the lie was perfectly justified, told in order to not hurt him or any other patients who were listening. But for me, this distortion of the truth felt like a return to all the years of denial I was trying to put behind me. Because here was the other issue I’d carried with me: trust. Since contracting Bell’s, I had struggled to trust anyone.
Near the beginning of the play Julius Caesar, Cassius tells Brutus, “And since you know you cannot see yourself / as well as by reflection, I, your glass / will modestly discover you to yourself.” Like it or not, people are our mirrors. They respond to how we look, and that can’t help but affect how we see ourselves.
Each time I ask the people who love me whether my face looks better than it did when I was first afflicted with the palsy, they say, “I don’t even notice it anymore.” Since, for years, I rarely looked in the mirror, or when I did, I was able to convince myself that my face looked better than it did, who am I to judge? I used denial to protect me. But doing so became a curse.
For centuries (the palsy has been around for centuries, some art historians even postulating that the Mona Lisa’s half-smile is a result of Bell’s), there was nothing people with this disability could do but live with its effects. Ignoring them is possible, but the fact is, with age, they will get worse—not the palsy itself but the way it affects the face.
Today, four years after my last visit to the speech pathologist, following a mini-facelift, a series of Botox injections, PT appointments, and exercises, I’m still at it. I’ve now had Bell’s for more than half my life, but if continuing with all of this seems excessive, pointless, even, consider the alternative.
Because the palsy left me unable to use one half of my face to speak and to smile, over the years, particularly when I teach, I’ve become much more animated, trying to reassure whomever I’m speaking to that despite my sardonic expression, my words and humor are kindly meant. The downward turn of my lip, which undercuts whatever I say? It’s unintentional. But that can be a hard sell.
And recently, the physical therapist told me that way of compensating was not necessarily good for me. Instead, speaking slowly, training my brain to visualize a symmetrical face, a method known as neuroplasticity, should be my goal. To cultivate a kind of double vision enabling me to see the face as it really is while envisioning that both sides look the same. To see and yet to imagine, both at once. She even suggested that I videotape myself talking so I could isolate the better expressions and practice adopting those. “The affected eye,” as the doctor refers to it, remains slightly smaller than the other, the eyebrow above it, because of the synkinesis, immobile. But if I look head-on in a mirror and don’t smile, I can convince myself that the way I look is basically normal. Photographs, though, say otherwise. They catch the face, hold it still, freezing the disfigured expression.
In a class I sometimes teach on epistemology, I include a TED talk by a neuroscientist named Beau Lotte, who begins his talk with William James’s words: “We see what we see because it is useful to see that way.” Lotte’s focus is color and shape, and in example after example, he shows how our senses prove unreliable. Even though we think we can trust our senses to give us an accurate reading of the world, Lotte shows, that’s not always the case. Because we expect what we see to resemble what we saw before, we respond accordingly, even though what is before us may have changed.
Sometimes I tell myself that if I’d sought out a second opinion or if I had been prescribed antibiotics or steroids immediately, I might not continue to struggle with the palsy’s effects, yet I know there wasn’t— and still isn’t—a “right” path to follow. Some people, even now, who are afflicted with Bell’s, no matter what medicine they’re given, will never completely recover.
The goal, then, changes. These days, it’s primarily to prevent the effects from becoming worse. I now have to add drops to the palsy-affected eye several times a day because it’s red and constantly dry; the lid still does not completely close, so I pull the eyelid down multiple times a day and hold it for one minute, two. I don’t want to have a heavier weight added. I don’t want a doctor to stitch the eyelid partially closed to protect the little vision that eye has left. At night, I still tape the eye shut.
I eat with a napkin in one hand to catch any food or drink that might slide out, which happens, particularly on days when I’m tired and my cheek is more flaccid. It isn’t pretty.
My speech remains a problem, so every day, I practice saying tongue twisters.
I keep up with the Botox, the physical therapy, the face massages and exercises at least twice a day in front of a mirror, and while looking at both the disfigured half and the half that remains unaffected, I imagine both sides reconciled, aligned. I attempt to purse my lips, which works on one side but not so much on the other and half-closes the eye, no matter how much I try to hold it still. Next, I attempt to smile with my lips closed, one half stretched toward the cheek, the other stopping short; the eye, once again, half-closes, and the chin wrinkles, though I’m trying not to let it. And so on, continuing to imagine both sides the same while making sure I see that they’re not.
Not long ago, I moved to a different area, and when I meet new people, if I catch them looking, I slip in the fact that I have Bell’s. Just a sentence or two. A way to connect, to clear the air. We can move on.
When grieving a loss, people are supposed to arrive at acceptance, and maybe, finally, now, at sixty-six, that’s where I am. After years of not allowing anyone to take my picture, I’m eager to be included. Pictures, after all, are records capturing aspects of who we are at different times in our lives. But except for the occasional photo taken at my children’s graduations, my daughter’s wedding, I’m missing. My choice. I didn’t want to see. Recently, though, I discovered that if I part my lips slightly and open my eyes wide, the camera freezes that expression into a look that is less disfigured, more acceptable. Instead of a smile, surprise.
It’s a trick, but it allows me to see, to accept the face in the picture, in the mirror, in the toaster, in the department-store window, to confront both the disfigured half and the other, the two joined together in a kind of broken symmetry: that’s me.
“In 2018, I was sitting at the same pine table I mention in the opening of this piece. It was no longer the place where my family and I ate our meals but my desk. I wrote the line, “About two years ago I decided to do something about my face.” My original title? ‘Look Away.’
“In draft after draft, I kept the title and the line, liking the directness, the faintly humorous edge, the self-mockery—as if I could do anything about it! But as I continued to reshape this essay, I realized that more than making it a therapeutic exercise for me, I hoped to reach both those who have little or no knowledge of Bell’s and those who are similarly afflicted. To do that, I needed to focus on the difficulty and the necessity of “facing it”: looking head-on at this virus that so dramatically impacted my life and its aftereffects.”
Sally Crossley earned her MA in creative writing from Binghamton University after living in that city for most of her life. She also worked in bookstores and taught English in a public high school before retiring to a small town outside Portland, Maine, to write short stories and, more recently, essays. This is her first published piece.
“Dislodged” by Josh McColough
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “Dislodged,” Josh McColough expertly weaves together the narrative of a father-daughter road trip with a commentary on the delicate balance of human needs and a vulnerable environment.
Waiting on a landslide in the redwood forest
Two hours south of Grants Pass, Oregon, we encounter a flashing message board declaring Highway 101 closed. Cars are stopped ahead of us at the top of a hill where the road bends into a dark tunnel of trees near Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northern California. Two Caltrans officials in hard hats and reflective vests are turning people around. Heavy construction equipment—dump trucks and excavators on flatbed rigs—passes us in the left-hand lane and disappears into the forest.
“This can’t be right,” I insist, checking my phone. I have not received any alerts. Then again, we just emerged from the mountains, where reception was spotty.
“Can we go around?” my daughter asks.
Google Maps recalculates the quickest alternative route: a three-hundred-mile journey east back through the mountains to the interior of the state, then a return west through the mountains to the coast further south. It estimates the detour to be over seven hours long.
“Nope,” I say.
She is a high school student; I am a college English comp instructor. We are in the middle leg of a post-vaccine road trip down the West Coast—Seattle to LA. It is partly a college visit trip for her, partly an excuse to stretch our legs after a year and a half locked down in front of glowing screens. We are from the Midwest and are fed up with the flat, wearying Chicago suburbs—as two-dimensional and enticing as a Zoom classroom. I hate the virus for thousands of reasons, but particularly for what it wrought on the dynamic experience of a classroom, reducing it to nothing more than glowing foreheads. Postered walls and ceiling fans, fish tanks, gaming chairs, plaid bed covers, fairy-lit shelves, rainbow LED light strips, an occasional bong. But mainly blue LED backlit stares from deep within a hoodie. Student gazes that go on forever into a virtual middle distance while you make an utter ass of yourself on camera discussing the elements of a short story or how to write a literary analysis essay. My daughter and I are on opposing ends of the same horrific livestreaming scholastic train wreck—she knows what it looks like to witness a teacher on camera beg, cry, or yell for someone, anyone to speak up and join in conversation; I know what it looks like when a young person, already on the verge—uncertain and unsure—opts out altogether by going dark.
We needed a change of scenery.
“Never underestimate the impact that the physical landscape has on your mental health,” I tell my daughter before our trip, more as a reminder to me than anything else.
We have just reached the California coast after twisting our way down the Redwood Highway through rugged, unincorporated towns—Idlewild, Darlingtonia, Gasquet (pronounced Gas-kee). People in the towns weren’t unfriendly, but on the periphery was a population who, based on the politics spelled out in bumper stickers on custom trucks, had been living and working remotely by choice long before the virus. Plenty of handmade “No Trespassing” signs, one of which read “No Trespassing! Iraq War Vet with PTSD,” a dripping AR-15 stenciled in spray paint underneath. We snaked through sunlit mountain passes along dried-up creek beds, until a blanket of coastal fog swept over a crest and enveloped the highway for a few sudden low-visibility-on-sheer-cliffside moments. When we emerged, the Pacific opened up before us, gray and soupy. Fog and cloud cover melded together, giving everything a vaporous edge. Monolithic sea stacks peppered the base of dark green marine terraces. It was a revelatory moment for us Midwestern pilgrims, who, though we might not have set out on foot from Missouri, felt an undeniable rush in reaching the end of the westward road. We rolled down the windows and inhaled deeply. Then we rolled to a stop at the flashing sign and the line of cars and people turning back.
We approach the Caltrans official, who repeats the message on the sign. “Road’s closed,” she says and hands us a flier. “You can go back to Crescent City, or you can proceed ahead and wait in line until the road opens again at one o’clock.”
“Okay, but what’s happening?” I ask.
“There are active landslides at Last Chance Grade, and crews are working to shore up the highway,” she says. “If you want to wait in line, they’re distributing bottles of water and granola bars. But once you get in line, there’s no turning back.”
So be it.
After waiting nearly two years to go anywhere, sitting in our car for a few hours in the forest does not feel like such an imposition. Sometimes in order to move forward, you have to stay put for a bit—one of the many lessons imparted to us from the virus. We turn around and claim our moment at Crescent Beach, where we dip our toes in the frigid Pacific and watch a solitary wet-suited surfer bobbing in the waves. We stock up on water and snacks and head into the forest to wait. A flashing police cruiser escorts a line of cars into the forest at a pleasant minimum speed. It feels as though we’re on a guided tour of the redwood forest. We roll down the windows and poke our heads out to look up at the trees. After a few miles, we reach the line of those who ventured before us and stop along the side of the zigzagging road. We don’t know how close or far we are from the construction—from Last Chance Grade.
We emerge from the car, and our eyes are directed skyward. On either side of the road are colonnades of redwoods. Above us, cathedrals soar hundreds of feet and block out all but slivers of the gray-fogged sky. I reach for my phone to FaceTime my wife, but there is no reception. Not one bar.
“Is this place for real?” my daughter asks, not for the first time on this trip.
The road cuts an unnatural, gray-paved path through the woods. The coastal fog has followed us into the forest. The tops of the redwoods sway, yet there is no breeze at ground level. It feels like we are underwater. Voices are small but distinct. Clear. One man tells his kids to put down their damn phones for a second and come out and look around. The kids stay in the car. Another man opens his car door, grabs his camera, and aims his lens upward, the camera’s shutter rapid-fire clicks. A woman worries about having to go to the bathroom. She wonders if she can hold it until the road reopens. The man she’s with directs her into the forest, and she tells him she’d probably get poison oak all over her privates. Another woman climbs atop her camper and peers into the forest through binoculars in a way that signals she knows what she’s looking for. A man emerges from a RV in full spandex; he unhooks a bicycle from the rear rack, straps on a helmet, and turns on flashing LED lights and pedals ahead. “May as well log a few miles while we’re waiting,” he says as he passes us. Another man opens the door to his SUV, setting free two barefoot toddlers, who wobble onto the road. The man is also barefoot. He lights a cigarette. Someone nearby is smoking pot; this seems as good a place as any to do so. A small group of teens in pajama pants and hoodies walks up the side of the road, happy to get away from their parents.
Right now, the road is connecting us differently than when we drove it. Not ten minutes before, the man in the car behind us tailgated me and honked at me for driving slowly, though we were being paced by a police car. I could see his darkened figure in my rearview mirror throw up both of his hands in a “What the hell?” gesture. Now, he gets out of his car, smiles, and says to me, “Not a bad place to be stuck, is it? Just beautiful.”
Wanderers, all of us, forced to be still for a bit. To see what is around us and see one another. These are the kinds of friendships forged among strangers in a church parking lot.
The ground on either side of the road is covered greenly in sword fern and redwood sorrel, bracken fern, wild ginger, trillium, and moss. Shoots of yellow monkeyflower rise above the brush cover. Tanoaks and Pacific rhododendrons (a woman—clearly local—from the car in front of us tells us that we missed them in bloom by about a month) grow between the colossal redwoods. They are what we Midwesterners might think of as good-sized trees—tall but climbable. Though at the feet of behemoths, they appear wispy and decorative. My daughter and I walk across to the other side of the road and look down upon a ravine. The forest floor is brick red, carpeted with dead, needle-like redwood leaves. The trees creak softly.
Then, a whistle—flat, off-key—breaks through the forest, and another whistle calls back. It sounds metallic. It is constant, like a referee’s whistle, but there is no rise time—it starts and ends at full whistle. The whistling surrounds us like the forest itself. Everywhere I turn, it sounds like it’s coming from behind me. A long, off-key whistle. Another that calls back.
An oncoming dump truck blows its horn, echoing like an alpine horn through the forest, and people on the road alert one another. Parents gather kids in their arms, and the truck barrels by us in a whoosh toward what must be Last Chance Grade.
“Good lord,” the woman from the car ahead of us says. “What’s his hurry?”
Everything is short on this trip. Tempers are short. Hotels and restaurants and gas stations are short-staffed, short on menu items, short on services offered. Operating hours of restaurants, cafes, and bars are cut short. Grocery stores are short on items. Trucking companies are short drivers. The window of opportunity to move safely about the country is shortening (the Delta variant is just beginning to spread in the US.). Expectations of a return to absolute freedom are cut short—some states aren’t yet open for business; others never closed.
Still, all routes on our West Coast trip are flush with families packed into trucks, campers, cars, and RVs. Luggage racks, boats in tow, American flags frayed and flapping at speed down every road. It almost resembles what “normal” looked like before, until you’re reminded how far we have to go still. My daughter and I stop at a diner for lunch. The lights are off, but handmade signs insist “We ARE Open.” One of two servers on staff tells us to “sit wherever,” so we find an open table. The place is packed. Our server stops to take our order and explains, “Sorry, it’s just the two of us. And one cook.” The lights are off to save electricity (the owners are clearly short on funds to pay the bills each month during the pandemic). Despite all odds, the server is kind and smiling. She briefly mentions being happy to work again. We don’t understand why. The patrons are short on time and patience. Short on tact. Where’s my goddamn cheeseburger? I ordered it like an hour ago. You want me to go back there and make it myself?
We all fall short sometimes, despite our best efforts.
The whistling in the forest continues. Long and flat. Odd and off-key. Another whistle calls back. I wonder if it might be hikers signaling to one another. My daughter walks along the side of the road, just looking.
I hold the flier about work on Last Chance Grade and am stuck on the name. Any chances are hard enough to come by these days, I think. And everything these past couple of years has felt like a last chance. Just leaving my house to scrounge picked-over store shelves for toilet paper felt like a kind of last-chance endeavor. And truly, I am tired of thinking about last chances. What if the last time I saw my parents was my last chance to have seen them? What if the last time I stepped foot in the classroom was the last chance I had to do so? What about that last time I went to a concert and screamed in revelatory joy? Or the last time I sat inside a coffee shop? Or the last time I went anywhere without a mask? The last time I saw my students in the classroom, in spring of 2020, I told them that we might have a week or two of online classes, then would be back in the classroom for the end of the semester. That was right before spring break. My parting, in-person words were, “Have a great spring break—see you back here in a couple of weeks!” Now, I would really like to have had a chance to say, “I care about all of you; please be safe. Stay with your families or check in on them as much as you can. Love them.” We were not given any last chances to do these things until, suddenly, we had no chances for a while.
The whistling cuts through the forest. Over and over again.
The woman from the car ahead of us says, “Ooh, look, banana slugs! They’re all over the place.”
We haven’t noticed them—tiny ground creatures in a mammoth forest—but once we do, it is difficult not to spot them everywhere. Bright yellow or mustard brown, the uncanny (and unfortunate) shape and size of a larger dog’s penis, but with eyestalks. They creep about on the ground over dead leaves and hang precariously on low-lying brush like obscene, slimy ornaments. They consume the dead, and in their wake is a trail of slime-nutrients that fertilizes the soil. I crouch down to get a picture of one that is the color of a ripe yellow pepper and see an even bigger one right next to my foot.
I realize that I nearly stepped on it.
I am not a geologist, though I am broadly curious about the reasons why it might not be safe to tread upon parts of the earth, whether it be to preserve the privacy of a wounded veteran or because the ground might give way and wash you into the ocean without warning. Not that we humans are great at heeding warning signs given up by the earth. We exist upon massive lithospheric rafts that float on a layer of plasticine rock. The earth’s crust is but the skin of a grape, relative to the rest of the planet beneath us. We are reminded of this when islands burst forth in the middle of the ocean; when a long-dormant volcano awakens; or when World Series games are interrupted by two plates going bump in the night; or when a tsunami arrives, uninvited, to a tropical holiday. These events are unfortunate reminders of precisely who—or what—is in charge here. Still, we too often move through life not considering our size and stature relative to forces and objects that humble us. Geologic time. Plate tectonics. A virus. A couple of degrees’ difference in the oceans’ temperatures. More rain and less snow. No snow and too much rain. Fire tornadoes. A couple of inches more of the ocean and a few hundred thousand more people underwater.
I tell my daughter, “Stand next to that tree and spread your arms out so we can get a sense of scale.”
Some redwoods are hollowed out so cars can drive through them. Not far from where we are is a famous redwood playland (complete with a talking Paul Bunyan) that will cost admission to explore. We don’t consider how long it took for this tree to grow so large, but who isn’t tempted by a priceless photo or social media op? Our inability to see ourselves as tiny points on a much longer ecological or geological spectrum is our uniquely human blind spot. It’s where and how we fall short.
This is what will kill us all, I think, as I click pictures of my tiny daughter at the base of a two-hundred-year-old tree. If last chances are the fuel for redemption, our tank feels so close to empty.
I long to understand why my daughter and I are stuck in a whistling forest. Why our West Coast road trip itinerary—Leg 4, Day 7—was blown to hell by an ominously named piece of land. What I learn, long after we return home, makes me thankful that I did not know about Last Chance Grade while we were there. A 2015 engineering feasibility study characterizes this stretch of Highway 101 as failing frequently and the ground beneath the road as unstable. To a Midwesterner, driving along the edge of the California coast is a vertigo-inducing, heart-palpitating experience anyway. If you are the driver, the fear of falling into the ocean is more omnipresent than the image you had in your head about a fun, carefree, top-down thrill ride along a classic stretch of Americana. If you are a really specific kind of Midwesterner, you may obsessively recall grainy dashboard camera videos of cars jettisoning off the Pacific Coastal Highway into the ocean below. No guardrails, nothing stopping the car’s launch. Each time the road hairpins and the land slips away and the height above the ocean becomes clear, I get dizzy, while attempting to maintain calm for my daughter, who is in the back seat, also sick. As I recall that drive now, my palms are sweating.
But here lies Last Chance Grade, existing at the intersection of physical and human geography. There have been hundreds of landslides in this area, dating back to the late 1800s. Some of the more recent landslides have been caught on camera and are shocking in their force—their ability in moments to wash away human-made structures engineered to be permanent and unmovable. This three-mile stretch of the 101 undulates, fractures, dips and, ultimately, fails because it is built upon four deep-seated landslides that are actively in motion. The highway fails because the ground beneath, part of a large subduction zone, is not stable enough to support a highway. The geography of much of populated California is like this, though, and that a major highway runs across an active landslide may only be surprising to pragmatic Midwesterners who think, “Kind of a silly place to put a road, isn’t it?” But that thinking runs counter to the ethos of California, which my daughter and I learn later as we walk around San Francisco and a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hits at the California-Nevada border, causing rock and boulder slides along another major highway while we traipse up Lombard Street and take pictures. We don’t even feel it because we aren’t standing still.
To the east of the road where we stand is a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, home to thousands of animal species in addition to the old-growth redwoods that have existed for up to a couple of thousand years. To the west of the road, a mile or so, is the Pacific. It pounds the base of the cliff upon which the highway has been built, accepting residual detritus from the landslides. This is the physical geography.
Also to the east of the highway—beyond the UNESCO-protected forest—are multiple tribes of indigenous people who have inhabited the land for centuries. The 101 itself is the main artery that supplies communities up and down the coast with food and other essential goods. Block the artery, and food deserts are created. All human inhabitants are taxpayers. All human inhabitants are affected when the road shuts down and will be affected if the road has to be moved. This is the human geography.
The problem of the road has brought together experts in both human and physical geography to consider solutions. After years of economic impact studies, risk assessments, geotechnical investigations, ground surveys, botanical studies, wetland delineations, traffic studies, biological assessments, the road still fails. The ground is still unstable. People, communities, still are left stranded. Doing nothing is not a viable option. Though perhaps by engaging communities in coming up with a solution together, the devil’s bargain will be less difficult to swallow: Cut into some of the most beautiful, ancient, protected lands to move the highway further east; or tunnel beneath some of the most beautiful, ancient, protected lands to move the highway underground.
The two-mile tunnel is scheduled to open in 2038. As of today, it is estimated to cost $1.3 billion.
The metallic whistling in the forest sounds urgent—a bit like a call for help. I listen for voices—for people calling out—but don’t hear anything. I don’t know what it communicates. I think it sounds lonely, and then it sounds deeply melancholy. I think it sounds like a warning, and then it sounds like an urgent call for help. Dump trucks speed past us in the opposite lanes and blow their horns; the sounds ricochet off of the trees, reverberating bass throughout the forest. Could the whistling be nothing more than construction sounds ahead of us on Last Chance Grade? I am reminded of a story I heard once on NPR about a scientist in search of the quietest place on earth, free of human-made noise—aircraft, traffic, cell phones, construction, voices. You have to travel so far to get away from human noise. I consider how easy it is to hear other travelers’ conversations. People think of forests as quiet places, but they are acoustic marvels. Communication travels efficiently, by evolutionary design. Animal calls seeking a partner in the springtime. Calls warning of predators in the area. Whistling perhaps designed to baffle stranded travelers. I imagine someone up in a tree, blowing a whistle and peering down at me through binoculars, laughing as I turn around to try to find the source.
I remember a story from college of a woman named Julia “Butterfly” Hill who took up residence in the canopy of an old-growth coastal redwood. Later, I learned that the tree is still there—located a few hundred miles from where we were. She lived in the tree for 738 days on a six-foot-by-six-foot platform to protest a lumber company’s clear-cutting practices. In fact, the company’s overlogging resulted in a catastrophic landslide that buried much of the town of Stafford in
Humboldt County in 1996. She was regarded by the public as a nuisance, an eco-warrior, a curiosity, a crackpot, a neo-hippy, a savior. I remember this. From her tiny platform, she took media calls, debated CNN anchors, responded to mail she’d received from critics and supporters, studied field guides to identify the birds that inhabited trees around her; she let the tree sap cover her feet so that she had better grip while climbing. Loggers shouted vile insults up to her. It was all very loud at the time—everyone had an opinion about her, about the loggers and logging company, about the environment and “environmentalists,” who tended to be cast as a fringe, neo-cultist movement. So West Coast.
But since Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s tree residency, it has been proven that trees communicate with one another via an underground network of fungi. They work together to survive by transferring nutrients—carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, hormones, water—to one another. Within a community of trees, there are hubs—mother trees—that nurture their young by way of hundreds of kilometers of fungi below ground. They send excess carbon to the younger seedlings, and if a mother tree is injured or dying, they can send messages to their seedlings to help strengthen them and defend themselves from future issues. Mother trees are vulnerable, though. You take out a mother tree, the system beneath it likely will collapse.
The whistling continues, bouncing off trees.
The distinct whistle remains lodged in my head long after we return from our trip. After the trembling San Francisco, across the interior, seething San Joaquin Valley, down through LA. The whistling follows me. It is a call back to that place—to those hours spent in pause, waiting, looking. But I do not know how to discover the source. I sit with my laptop and some wine and fumble about with far-too-literal search terms.
Whistling in redwood forest.
Whistling noises Pacific northwest redwoods.
Odd metallic whistling redwoods Pacific coast.
Eventually, I find the right combination of words and discover a thread in a forum where others are searching for the same thing. Same location—Jedediah Smith redwoods, Del Norte county, California. Original posters describe the noise as a “referee’s whistle” or “a long, electrical whistling” with another slightly off-key callback. I’m excited by this—others heard the same thing. Crowdsourced responses mean well, sometimes. It is, they say, the trees rubbing against one another. Elk in heat. Bigfoot. Deer. Deer in heat. An owl. Military exercises. Bats. Forestry workers. Mountain lions. A waxwing bird.
A bird. A bird seems like a promising lead, so I search for birds common to that area and become suddenly grateful to the massive online community of ornithological enthusiasts’ meticulous dedication to recording sounds. I listen to dozens of bird sounds with my eyes closed. Pacific wren. Acorn woodpecker. Townsend’s warbler.
Then I hear the unmistakable, indelible off-key whistling and the callback.
Ixoreus naevius. The varied thrush.
I am overjoyed. I call my daughter out of her room, and declare, “I found it!” I play the sound for her, and she says, “Cool,” and recedes back into her iPhone. For me, though, it is a transportive sound. I am back in the forest—in those hours when we were forced to take a good look and listen to where we were. I look up information on the varied thrush, and find it is an ordinary, robin-sized bird. Mostly black with bands of pumpkin orange on its breast, wings, and head. It exists primarily in the Pacific Northwest, though it migrates seasonally up and down the coast when breeding. Still, it is a predominant fixture of the damp, green forests along the Pacific, and like grunge, its haunting call is something of a signature sound of the region. It is also held in mythical regard by both amateur and career bird lovers alike. A post by the US Fish and Wildlife Service about the varied thrush quotes ornithologist and illustrator Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who described the varied thrush as “perfectly the voice of the cool, dark, peaceful solitude which the bird chooses for its home as could be imagined.” In his 1909 book The Birds of Washington, Ornithologist William Leon Dawson described the song of the varied thrush as “a single long-drawn note of brooding melancholy and exalted beauty—a voice stranger than the sound of any instrument, a waif echo stranding on the shores of time.”
I am entranced by the descriptions of the sound itself. I stack field guides on my table at the library, and I thumb through all of their descriptions of the song of the varied thrush:
“Song utterly bizarre: long, vibrant, metallic, breathy notes spaced far apart: zeeeeeeng…. Zoiiiiiiiiing… zeeeerng…” (Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America)
“Song a long, eerie, quavering, whistled note, followed, after a pause, by one on a lower or higher pitch. Call a quivering low-pitched zzzzew or zzzeee and a liquid chup.” (Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America)
“Call a short, low, dry chup very similar to Hermit Thrush but harder; also a hard, high gipf and a soft, short tiup.” (The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America)
It is an elusive, solitary bird, not easily spotted. By all accounts, the varied thrush likes it that way. How grunge. I stare at pictures of the varied thrush, and it sparks another memory. I recognize the bird somehow, and I can’t figure out from what. Eventually, the Internet tells me that it is the bird that appears for a few seconds in the opening credits of the ’90s television show “Twin Peaks,” which is so fitting, I decide its use must have been on purpose. The varied thrush is the ultimate Gen-X bird.
In the end, it is one p.m., and miles ahead of my daughter and I, blockades open. All down the line, people return to their vehicles. The timeout has ended. I do not want to leave this place, though I want to see Last Chance Grade, maybe to thank it. This diversion will become a centerpiece memory of the trip itself. My daughter and I will recount how we stumbled into a magical interruption on our trip down the coast.
In the end, the line of cars moves forward, and we are pulled along with them. We all move on. We come out of the trees. Out of the banana slug forest. Away from the call of the varied thrush. The road twists and dips through the redwoods until the trees open up to a clearing, and we can finally see it.
In the end, there is a scarred hillside that refuses to stay put, and then a cliff over which things have been falling for many years. Covered wagons, boulders, sediment, stones, cars, trees, dead leaves, mud, construction equipment, banana slugs, fallen redwoods, roots, mycelium. It all slides down into the Pacific. In the end, Last Chance Grade turns out to be neither a place—a pin on Google Maps—nor a natural sight to behold. It is a geological riddle. As the road crosses the Grade, we can see car-sized boulders and mounds of soil that have spilled onto it from a recent slide. The road itself becomes nothing more than jagged pavement and compacted dirt—a callback to its original trail state. Above the road, Caltrans pickups and dump trucks and earth movers and graders and men in hard hats are crawling about the hillside like ants. Thousands of pounds of machinery look barely attached to the earth it seeks to shore up, and I am struck with the familiar sensation of vertigo. In the end, we pass safely across Last Chance Grade—that point of convergence between human and physical geography—a precarious road clinging, like the rest of us, for dear life against all natural forces acting upon it. A waif echo stranding on the shores of time.
Josh McColough’s short fiction has appeared in Epiphany, Puerto del Sol, Split Lip Magazine, and SPLASH!, and his nonfiction in New World Writing. Josh received his MFA from the University of Iowa’s nonfiction writing program and currently teaches English composition at the College of Lake County in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter @joshmccolough, where he mostly shares pictures of his Bernedoodle Gus.
“Queen Me” by Margaret Donovan Bauer
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Margaret Donovan Bauer’s “Queen Me” offers a candid perspective on remarriage and the challenge of parenting someone else’s children. The essay was a finalist in our 2021 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize contest.
by Margaret Donovan Bauer
When I met Andrew’s children for the first time, Griffin, age seven, came into the room sobbing, followed by a sheepish-looking Aidan, five, stopping a few feet behind his brother, waiting to see what would happen next, remaining silent as Erin, who had only recently turned ten, reported Aidan’s offense. All this before Andrew had a chance to introduce me. I was surprised that Griffin did not seem embarrassed to be crying in front of a stranger.
Andrew and I had been dating a month or so by then, and he had told his children about me, but this was the first time I visited him during a weekend when he had his kids, the first time any woman he was dating had shown up while they visited their dad’s house.
I look back and realize how telling that moment was: Aidan guilty, Griffin crying, and Erin reporting. At the time, all I could think upon seeing the children in person for the first time was, They’re so young. But given my track record with men, I wasn’t really concerned. Regardless of the rose-colored glasses I wore during the early months of our relationship, deep down I assumed I would not be around longer than a few months of these children’s lives, so it didn’t really matter that they were so young.
I do not have children of my own, and I was not looking for father material in my search for love. I hadn’t planned not to have children. Fortunately, I divorced before making the mistake of tying myself to an ex-husband I never wanted to see again after I finally escaped him. A decade passed. I didn’t remarry. A few more years, and then I was forty, childless, and recognizing that I was fine with that. Children were not the gaping hole in my life; I was on a quest for a life partner. I was not averse to dating men with children, though I had not liked the son of one man I was deeply in love with, a problem for me that he was largely unaware of (yet likely still a factor in our failed relationship). I’d found the child of another lover an inconvenience to our affair, as we had a long-distance relationship, and his joint custody meant me seeing him only one weekend a month. In truth, distance was probably what helped that particular relationship last as long as it did.
As I say, I did not have a good track record before I met Andrew, and I was afraid to hope that his warm smile, which reached into and flowed out of his big brown eyes, would not grow cold at some point when he decided that the things that attracted him to me in the first place were suddenly character flaws I needed to work on. What would it be this time? “Too ambitious”? “Too career-focused”? “Too many opinions”? What would he decide I was too much of?
Following that portentous first encounter with Andrew’s children, during every other weekend of our first year together, when his children visited from their home ninety minutes away, Griffin would at some point melt down into one of the temper tantrums he was prone to, sometimes over a minor physical offense to his person but usually over losing a game or simply not getting his way. He either cried unabashedly or erupted into an unrelenting and inescapable temper tantrum until he wore himself out from screaming. As telling as my introduction to Griffin—he crying over some minor offence and unembarrassed by being caught doing so by a complete stranger—was Andrew’s ability to wait these tantrums out, largely unruffled. Sometimes he would pick up the stiffened, screaming boy from whatever central living space Griffin had chosen for his eruption and move him into a room with a door that could be closed between him and the victims of his ear-piercing outrage. Other times, however, he just let Griffin stand in the middle of the room we were all gathered in and scream while I cringed from the noise, usually saying to me, “There’s nothing I can do once he gets started.”
I would spank his little butt, I thought in response, but I knew it was not my place to propose an alternative to his annoyingly calm response. Griffin’s temper tantrums were disturbing to all, but Andrew’s inaction was infuriating to me, at least. While this incredibly patient man could resume normalcy as soon as the screaming stopped—sometimes even while it was still going on in the background—I’d be on edge for the rest of my visit with him and his children. I envied Andrew’s ability to remain calm in the midst of such thunderous chaos, but I also viewed his not being perturbed enough about it as a problem: Why couldn’t he see that not everyone could so easily recover from Griffin’s jarring temper tantrums and resume a pleasant evening as though nothing had occurred? I was shaken, even angry after these episodes, outraged by Andrew’s response as much as by Griffin’s behavior. Griffin had no reason to care about my discomfort, but Andrew should have.
As the weeks and then months went by, I realized how Andrew’s calm was calming—if not to Griffin, at least to me. He was such a contrast to my stressful career and volatile colleagues. Andrew’s comfort within himself contrasted significantly with his son’s need to win. For once, I was dating a man who didn’t find my often single-minded career focus a challenge to him; it wasn’t unwomanly in his eyes, or emasculating. To his children, he was a devoted father, but so too was he committed to and supportive of the other relationships in his life. He was a man who enjoyed weekly long telephone conversations with his mother and who had close male friends, some that went back decades and others already developing among his colleagues in that first year of his new job in our shared community. And now me. He seemed totally committed to me. Even as the months passed, he did not seem to be trying to change me into some room-for-improvement version of his own dream woman.
Still, I was surprised to find myself buying a vacation home on the Pamlico River with this man before we had been together a whole year. Our purchase meant that he would put his house on the market and move into my craftsman house near the university where we both worked. By this time, I had been divorced and living alone for fifteen years. I was horrified when I realized what I’d done, allowing Andrew to sell the house he’d bought in the suburbs, which had enough bedrooms and bathrooms and even a playroom for his children, knowing that my relationships with men tended not to last. Though I was still very much in love with him, my experience suggested that it wouldn’t last. My parents had divorced after twenty years together, after all, and though I’d had several years-long relationships, they had all ended.
And yet, just a few months past the one-year anniversary of meeting each other, after settling in to spend the summer months at our new river house, Andrew’s children would join us for their eight-week summer stay with their dad. There were enough bedrooms and bathrooms and even a playroom for his children at our co-owned summer home. Anticipating the first lengthy period with Andrew’s children moving into my space—even as Andrew and I were just beginning to share “permanent” space—I worried that I might have made a huge mistake.
But not for long.
In early May, Andrew and I moved into our river home for the summer, and soon the children came for a weekend visit before their school let out for summer and they would join us for two months. At the river house, they found the familiar furniture that had been in their dad’s home. His big leather couch faced the river, leaving plenty of floor space behind it, where the living and dining rooms merged, since we had set the dining table in the kitchen, where we had a wide view of the river. That empty floor space ended up being the kids’ preferred board-game playing area in the afternoons while I cooked in the kitchen.
During this first test visit, at Sunday lunch, just a few hours before their dad would take them back to their mom’s, we sat around the same pine table that had been at Andrew’s house, Andrew at one end, Erin and I on either side of him, my chair facing the river view that had sold the house to us; Aidan next to me, Griffin across from Andrew: largely our regular places, it would turn out, though Erin and Griffin tended to jostle each other for the seat next to their dad. I have no recollection of what prompted my frustration at that particular meal, but I was not yet at a place in my own head where I felt comfortable in the role of disciplinarian to another person’s children, and Andrew must not have reprimanded them for whatever had bothered me. Mimicking his calm whenever he dealt with Griffin’s temper tantrums, I picked up my plate, saying, “I’m going to take my lunch and eat on the deck.” A few minutes later, a concerned Andrew joined me. I told him I was not sure if the whole summer living with his children was going to work for me. Maybe I should just move back to my house in town when they came for the summer and visit on the weekends they went to see their mom.
And then he did the exact right thing, asking me, “What can we do to make this work? What is it that you want me to do differently?” I don’t remember my answer. I just remember my relief. He did not explain to me how, not being a mother, I could not understand, as I’d often heard (still hear) from parents—particularly annoying when it comes from someone whose child you’re expected to take care of occasionally and even learn to love. Maybe Andrew was different from the men I’d previously been involved with. We agreed that this was our house even when the children were there. Andrew would take cues from me in the future so that we would present a united front to them.
Soon, a first test, after we’d set ground rules for the household so that I would not spend my precious summer months, when I was freed from teaching, cleaning up after Andrew’s children, whose stay-at-home mother allowed unmade beds, picked up clothes from wherever they’d been tossed, and didn’t mind toys left out around the house and strewn all over the floors of her children’s rooms. In our house, toys would be returned to closets when not in use. Clothes were to be placed into hampers, shoes put away in closets. Beds would be made before the kids left for swim-team practice in the morning. Upon returning from the pool, as well as after baths, towels would be hung up. Breaches of these simple rules lost them an hour of television or computer games—and we only allowed the use of electronics after the evening meal together, preferring to encourage the children to play outdoors, so those couple of hours of screen time before bedtime were precious to them.
The very first week, when I found a towel and swim trunks on the boys’ bathroom floor, I shook the wadded-up trunks out from the towel and held them up to the other pair, which had been hung over a towel bar. The smaller pair in my hands and presumably the towel they were with clearly belonged to Andrew’s youngest. Exiting the bathroom into the children’s playroom, I reminded Aidan what the infraction meant for his after-dinner activity. His shrug seemed an acceptance of the consequences of his carelessness, but when Andrew returned from work several hours later, his six-year-old suddenly dissolved into tears and climbed his daddy like a tree, sobbing as if he’d just been spanked, though he’d been perfectly happy just minutes before as we were all gathered in the living room, putting together a jigsaw puzzle and taking turns pairing up for checkers on the empty dining-room floor space behind the sofa. “What did you do?” Andrew asked the boy, recognizing the crocodile tears. I was puzzled myself but then recalled the earlier incident, so I relayed the crime and recalled the punishment. “Well, I guess you’ll remember to hang up your towel and trunks tomorrow,” Andrew said as he placed his son back on the floor. Failing to move his father, Aidan resumed the cheerful demeanor that had preceded Andrew’s arrival. A for effort, little man, but this win is mine, I thought. Your dad and I are, indeed, a united front, a “parental unit.”
“Queen me,” I said as I jumped one of Griffin’s checkers, placing my checker into the king zone.
Griffin, incidentally, never had a problem following the house rules. I believe he found them a welcome change from the hidden land mines in the house where the children lived with their mother and her mercurial husband. So while I might have been stricter about household pitching-in than their mother was, they had a clear idea of what my expectations were for household chores and what behaviors would set my temper off, while they could never (still cannot) predict their stepfather’s loud volatility, which often erupted into punishments involving hefty amounts of yard work.
Overall, it was a good first summer, but it did have its moments.
“I’m going to love you no matter what you do,” my father’s mother told him. He often shared this particular life lesson with his children. “But,” she would add, “I’m going to try to raise you so that others like you.”
My chance to pass this parental wisdom on to Andrew’s angry middle child came during that first summer at our river house, when Griffin had one of his temper tantrums while Andrew was not home. My (per)version of my dad’s shared lesson came about following another game of checkers with Griffin, at a time when we were the only two at home. Distracted by a call from Andrew to see if everything was okay, I was not paying attention—certainly not strategizing to win—when I took a triple jump that included Griffin’s only king. “Queen me,” I said as I hung up the phone, not noticing the scowl that had emerged on the little boy’s face.
“You can’t do that,” he said, loudly, startling me out of my distraction.
“Why not?” I asked.
Louder: “It’s not fair!”
Purposefully calm and quiet: “Do you want to look it up in the rules?”
Apparently not. He flipped the checkerboard over, and as checkers scattered, he jumped up and ran upstairs. My calm evaporating, I followed, yelling for him to “Go back downstairs!” and “Find every checker!” He kept going, and when he tried to escape me by seeking refuge in the boys’ closet, I crawled in right behind him.
“Get out!” he screeched.
“Right after you. You have a mess to clean up. Then you can come sit in here if you like, and I’ll give you your privacy.”
A bit quieter, but still outraged: “You know I hate to lose.”
“Nobody likes losing, Griffin,” I answered. “But what’s the big deal? It’s a game of checkers.” Silence. “What is a big deal is that nobody likes you when you act like this.”
Not tactful, I admit.
In spite of Andrew’s insistence that there was no reasoning with Griffin during a tantrum, I continued, “I don’t get it. What does it matter if you lose a game every now and then? Your parents are going to love you no matter what you do.”
“But nobody but a parent likes a sore loser,” I finished undiplomatically. Definitely not as kind and loving as what my grandmother said to my father. I don’t know if my rationale got through, but his anger did not evolve into one of his screaming rages.
I won’t say this was Griffin’s last temper tantrum, but he did eventually outgrow them, and Griffin was the one of Andrew’s children who, unbidden, would seek me out to say good-bye when it was time for the children to leave after a weekend with us, by which time, I was usually ready to resume my child-free life and had found a quiet place alone and away from the chaos. And he was always the first to hug me when they arrived. He still, almost twenty years later, cannot stand to lose, but I like to believe that I got through to him that day and that he accepted my candor as a positive characteristic in this woman who was going to be a part of his life.
Margaret Donovan Bauer grew up on the Bayou Teche in south Louisiana and now writes mostly memoir, mostly from her home on the Pamlico River in eastern North Carolina. The Rives Chair of Southern Literature at East Carolina University and author of four books on southern writers, she has served as editor of the North Carolina Literary Review for twenty-five years.
“Cover Up” by Clare Needham
In Clare Needham’s memoir about her experience as a young woman living and working in Jerusalem, the author reflects on issues of women’s bodies, national identity, and physical safety. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read our interview with Clare here.
I did not begin my time in Jerusalem with the desire to be dangerous. I arrived in that most intoxicating, infuriating, enervating, derelict, and sad of cities with a large black suitcase into which I’d folded a year’s wardrobe, plus books and toiletries. I had a postcollege fellowship at an Israeli civil rights and legal organization that soon came to feel too conservative for me. Its mission was laudable: it advocated for a greater separation of religion and state and for equal allocation of government funds for all minority groups within ’67 borders. But the organization relied on funding mostly from Jewish groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia, which were, as one colleague explained to me, “progressive except for Palestine.” In the fundraising materials I helped compose, I could not mention Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, which began about four hundred meters from our office, or its occupation of the West Bank, or its occupation and total blockade of Gaza, even as we approached the one-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. Granted, antioccupation work was not within the organization’s purview, and among the staff there was disagreement and a spectrum of political opinion. But I felt stifled nonetheless.
I was, however, free to wear whatever I liked to the office. I had two bosses, one an American who’d explained to me before I moved that I didn’t need to worry about packing a separate work wardrobe. Israelis dressed casually; they wore whatever—the organization’s press liaison liked to wear thigh-highs and little black dresses to work. My American boss now felt stuffy whenever she had to put on button-down Ann Taylor blouses to meet with potential donors. I adored my Israeli boss, the organization’s executive director, who had been a champion swimmer in a former life. She wore jeans and T-shirts, so I did the same.
My first day out in Jerusalem, before I had to report to work, I wore jean shorts. The temperature was in the mid-90s, and at noon there was a blinding white heat. Almost as soon as I left my apartment near the city center—where something like a secular atmosphere still prevailed—I began to feel my mistake. A man grabbed the backs of my thighs and parted my legs with his hand. I vowed never to wear shorts again.
I put on jeans that covered my ankles and then decided it was better to cover my shoulders as well, even if, for a little while longer, I left the rest of my arms bare. Within two weeks, I’d added a scarf to the ensemble. Often I wore a black one dotted with tiny blue and violet flowers that I adjusted each morning to hide my vulnerable neck and collarbones, then double-checked my work in the mirror—though mirrors were not necessary in Jerusalem. As soon as you stepped onto the street, your body was reflected back to you, and your body was understood as your essence. Jerusalem, reputed to be a spiritual place, was rooted in the physical, in the crudeness of surface appearance. I was a young white woman, secular, not obviously Jewish: everyone I passed reflected that image back to me.
My excessive paleness—red hair, blond eyebrows and eyelashes—made strangers often stop and demand where I was from. The first time I flew out of Ben Gurion Airport, I underwent extensive questioning— Why did I speak Hebrew? What was the origin of my last name? Was I really Jewish?—and my passport was slapped with a stickered number 5, the second most serious security rating. On my return from Istanbul, as I rode up an escalator with other passengers from my flight, airport security summoned me out of line before we reached passport control. They searched my luggage; they asked more questions. When I described the experience to an Israeli colleague, she didn’t miss a beat. “Oh,” she said, “you fit the Rachel Corrie profile. European-looking woman, traveling alone. They assume you have a Palestinian boyfriend, a blog where you write about the occupation.” (Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003 while defending Palestinian homes in Gaza from demolition.)
I did not have a blog, and my boyfriend was American, but he taught at a Palestinian university and lived in East Jerusalem, and soon I moved in with him. With the move, I became the one white lady in At-Tur, a neighborhood on the Mount of Olives, a part of East Jerusalem crowded with many histories and lives. It was a Palestinian village with an illegal Israeli settlement embedded in it, whose compound flew an Israeli flag large enough to be seen clearly from the Old City. Soldiers patrolled 24/7 outside. Christian tourists were bused in every day to visit the Garden of Gethsemane and the storied churches that spread up the slope. Our apartment was not far from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, on whose property the head of John the Baptist was rumored to have once been buried.
I would have been interested in many of these details if I’d had a different body, if I were not thinking so much about the uniform I needed to wear. Growing up, I spent time looking through a book my mother had, called How to Be a Perfect Stranger, an etiquette guide for every religion. What to bring to a Baptist wedding, what to wear to a Muslim funeral, what to avoid saying, whether to give gifts or take photographs. It was in this spirit of respect, of not giving offense, that I planned my dress. I was an outsider; I was no one’s sister or daughter; I had no family protection. I could not blend in, but I wanted to float through; I wanted to be safe.
This was not possible. One morning an old man pulled down his trousers and extracted his limp dick, holding it in his hand as he crossed the road toward me. I knew then that I’d have more problems. Still, I thought the right clothes might help minimize them. No matter the weather, though easier in colder months, when I could wear a coat, I kept on the jeans and the scarf and traded my T-shirts for long, loose shirts that fell at least midthigh. I’d learned that any part of a woman could tempt—a man once grabbed my naked left elbow and imprisoned it between his hands, briefly, before I could pull away—so I tugged down the sleeves of my shirts to cover even the backs of my hands. Though I felt like a colonizer all the same, I wanted to make clear that I was not an Israeli settler: a long skirt was out of the question. Loose red hair was too suggestive, so I put mine in a braid. I wore Supergas or low-heeled boots; I didn’t want to show my feet, much less my occasionally painted toes: that was slutty. When I went outside, I pretended to be married and wore an opal ring on my left hand.
I repeated the lie of my marriage often to Samir, one of the taxi drivers who waited at the foot of the Mount of Olives every day to drive tourists and others up and down the slope. He introduced himself to me shortly after I arrived and it became clear that I was a more permanent resident, though I’d noticed him right away, in part because he was exceptionally well-dressed. Palestinian men, in general, dressed more formally than Israelis; they wore blazers and shoes with laces, while Israeli men wore shorts and Crocs. Samir’s daily uniform was impeccable, a triumph, almost a fuck-you to the occupation, a hint of whom he might have become had he not been born under a system of foreign military rule designed, among other things, to disrupt daily life and thwart ambition. He wore a fresh white button-down shirt tucked into dark denim Levi’s, a leather belt that matched his polished shoes. Nothing he wore ever showed dirt, dust, or sweat. His head was shaved, and he managed to sport Ray-Ban Aviators without looking like a tool. He seemed imperious until he removed the sunglasses and showed his gold-flecked eyes.
He began offering me free rides, and at first, I accepted. When I sat next to him in his clean cab, I felt ashamed of what I wore, designed to minimize everything about me that was desirable. I felt ashamed of my dress because I was attracted to him, as he was to me. We never spoke about it, though often he suggested that we drive to Jericho (we never did). But I had a boyfriend, and he had a wife and kids who lived in Silwan, a neighborhood next to the Mount of Olives, where settler violence against Palestinians was well documented. Around him, I was especially aware of my American passport: I could leave whenever I wanted. My citizenship, for which I’d done nothing other than possess the random good fortune of being born to American citizens, granted me powers he would never have. When one afternoon he leaned over and kissed me as I was getting out of the car, I decided I had to refuse his rides as often as I could. So I began treading carefully down and up the steep slope each day on my way to and from work in West Jerusalem. If Samir was there, I would make small talk, then move on.
But I was far from slipping into the crowd. Often I was the only woman walking outside, or the only one unaccompanied by a man.
Late one morning, when I was on the slope and almost in sight of the taxi drivers, a man came running from behind. He slammed his body into mine and put me in a chokehold. One arm gripped my neck and the other belted my waist. In memory, it feels as if he had his pants down, though I might be confusing this time with other times, with other men who unzipped their flies as I walked past. I would like to say I fought off the man on my back, but he had the advantage of the slope, of gathering the energy of the hill before putting me in his grip. He must have chosen to let me go. He disappeared, and I ran the rest of the way down the hill, shooting past Samir and the others, propelled by fear. When something like this happened, I scrolled through my recent calls and talked to whoever was first to pick up. I screamed at my boyfriend or at a friend as I described the latest incident. Nothing they said was enough. I was outraged but stubborn, and stupid. I kept walking. Everywhere I wanted or had to go required my first getting down the hill.
Soon there was trouble every day. A good day meant only being called a slut or a Russian (i.e., a slut). A bad day meant I was touched, grabbed. And almost every evening, I would tell my boyfriend what had happened, and he’d suggest that I had a bad attitude: I just had to shrug it off. He did buy me pepper spray, which I knew I’d never use. I tried it out on our roof, and with comic predictability, a sudden gust sent it stinging into my eyes. Other people said I should move. Another friend told me to wear a hijab. I balked at the idea, in part because I knew that covering my hair would not work. I was from elsewhere, and it was visible in the way I moved; a piece of cloth could not change that. I had been in Jerusalem long enough to realize that actually I was my body: it was my essence; my body was my soul.
I decided I would become ugly, neglect my hair and skin and clothing. I would make myself repulsive, untouchable. Then I might be safe. I tried becoming more like a man: I started wearing my boyfriend’s clothes. He was disappointed; he wanted a sexy girlfriend. But the new uniform didn’t work, anyway. The incidents continued.
My boyfriend and I went on a short vacation to Greece, where I could wear whatever I wanted. I understood this conceptually, but my body did not. In Thessaloniki, we went for a walk along the promenade, looked out over the shining Aegean Sea. I had put on a dress I’d loved wearing in New York: horizontal black-and-white stripes, thin shoulder straps. We had not gone far when I insisted we turn around so I could change. I felt like a slut, I said. Someone could hurt me in the dress.
Things got worse when we got back. One evening at the end of February, I was returning from having a drink with a friend in the Old City. It wasn’t late—just after seven—but the sky was dark, and Samir and the others had all gone home for the day. I reached the base of the Mount of Olives and started walking up. The road I took was poorly paved, with no shoulder and no sidewalk, and was barely lit by streetlights, several of which had been extinguished for months—Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem paid municipal taxes, yet there was an appalling and unequal distribution of municipal services. But I had experience with this path, a sense of how to handle the road.
Five or so cars passed, a couple of drivers sounding a friendly beep of their horn to let me know to watch out. Generally when a car approached, I moved to the edge of the road and waited for it to go by. Since it was dark and the headlights were bright, I looked down at my feet each time the beams swept over my body and face. It had rained earlier that day, and it was cold. I wore black leather boots and an androgynous black raincoat that tumbled to my knees and hid my form.
Soon I was walking up the steepest section of road. My breath was heavy, and the sound of it filled my head. On one side of the road was a high stone wall that bordered private church property and on the other, directly to my left, a steep drop down to an open field, usually dusty and dry, though in late February, the start of Jerusalem’s brief spring, covered in vibrant poppies and wildflowers exuding their colors, even in the dark.
Someone flung himself at me sideways. I remember an expression, eyes and teeth—not a face. I began to wrestle with a body much stronger than mine, though both of our bodies were, in that moment, transformed by adrenaline. My mind was clear: I was an idiot, and I was going to die; it was my fault, because I’d insisted on being alone and walking. In seconds, this other body had slammed mine onto the ground. I had a gray leather bag slung diagonally across my chest; now he reached for its base and pulled it away, over my head, while I clung to the strap. He began to drag me, headfirst, back down the steep hill, pulling me behind him like a dog. I skidded along on my right side, scraping elbows and knees, but I managed to hold up my head, and that’s how I saw the idling car, the open door, and knew I’d be thrown inside. It did not occur to me to let go of the bag. I held on to the strap and tried to use all my weight to stop this trajectory: I would do all that I could not to be put into the car.
But he only wanted the bag. I was an available body lugging a bag of unknown treasure, there in the right place, the right time—for him. He dragged me until I could hold on no more. He tore the strap from my hands, and I rolled further down the road with the momentum and the slope’s decline, then stopped. I raised my face from the ground and saw the car’s taillights, its exhaust curling into the dark air, the silhouette of a man holding up my bag, then jumping into the passenger side, the car screeching down the slope. My instinct told me to pursue them. I was somehow on my feet, then running down the road; I can’t remember if I was screaming. For that moment, I was pure adrenaline. I wanted so badly to kill someone. I imagined turning superhuman, leaping in front of their moving car, smashing through the windshield, strangling them. Instead—there was never a chance to catch them; they were gone almost instantly—I turned and ran back up the hill, for once not noticing its steep pitch or my ragged breathing.
I reached our compound, stormed up the stairs, slammed open our apartment door, and greeted my boyfriend with an unsettled grin. At first, he thought I was laughing. I managed to explain what had happened, though not before backing him against a wall and knocking a glass from his hand. Then I went to my desk, took out a sheet of paper, and in a gesture I thought even then a bit grandiose, titled it “What I Have Lost.” It was meant to be a list of items from my bag—driver’s license, passport photocopy, a laminated card of the traveler’s prayer—so that I could sort out what needed to be canceled, replaced, what could not be retrieved. I tried to hold a pen and write down a few words, but I couldn’t control the shaking of my hand and kept stabbing the pen through the paper.
I went to bed with a stomachache. Lying awake, sleep impossible, I saw how things could have gone much worse. It was the first time that fear broke through my conditioned numbness, and I started to feel afraid for myself—a feeling that would become constant for the next few years. What might have happened if I hadn’t been able to pick myself up in time? Or what if I’d been taken into the car? I fell into a nightmare and woke vomiting over the sheets. For days after, I could not keep down food. My throat was raw, and my arms and ribs were sore from the pummeling on the road.
My boyfriend reversed his policy of telling me to chill: he said I couldn’t walk on my own up and down the hill, and this time, I agreed. The taxi drivers urged the same. They told me the men who’d mugged me were drug addicts, thieves from neighboring areas. The police wouldn’t do anything, as the men were also collaborators with the Israelis, and the police didn’t care about making a Palestinian neighborhood safe. Their explanation was plausible; regardless, the no-walk rule meant that after work in West Jerusalem, I walked to Damascus Gate and got a taxi or went further east, to Herod’s Gate, where I could pick up a ride in a shared car. I hated this new system; I felt trapped in the vehicles. I also hated what it confirmed. I wrote in my journal: “And then I was dropped off at the top of the hill, and the good little white girl ran all the way home.”
The mugging was an earthquake that went off only inside me, an event whose damage could never be fully shown. But its devastation was extensive. A colleague at work expressed concern that I had changed so much, even in the few months she had known me. She gave me the number of her therapist. And one day soon after, Samir found me sitting on a bench in the Dominus Flevit Garden, where sometimes I went because I was unlikely to be molested there. I was pretending to read and was listening instead to an American pastor describe for his congregants how on this very spot Jesus had wept for Jerusalem, how Christ’s tears were similar to those some of them must have shed when faced with a person who did not accept the Lord. Samir appeared during this sermon, his uniform intact as ever, and asked how I was. How was my life, my husband? I made up some lies; he nodded. He turned away, went back up some steps, where he joined the Americans and waited to provide them with rides down the hill. Then he came back down to me. He asked more questions. How was I really doing? “You don’t seem okay,” he continued. “You look bad.”
I was bad. In the aftermath of the attack emerged someone new, someone who wanted to do harm. Again and again, I had experienced how easy it was for someone to get too close, to cross a line, to touch me so it hurt. I saw now that it was easy to do. They did it because they could; they understood it was easy to do, so they did it. Most people didn’t see this, how easy it was, but now I did. I saw it, too.
I wanted to commit violence, to trespass into someone else’s life. I was given many chances. Wherever I’ve gone, people have asked me for directions, maybe because I’m often walking alone, at a good clip, so they assume I know the way. But also, likely, they stop me because I do not appear to pose a threat. In my previous life (and again, now, in a more recovered life), I thought of giving directions as a sacred duty. When someone asked which way to go, I did everything I could to direct them. I felt a failure if I didn’t know, and I’d take out a map or my phone. On a few occasions, I’d run after strangers, maybe slightly startling them, as I reappeared to say I’d gotten it wrong: they were to go right, right, then left.
In Jerusalem, after the mugging, these requests for directions presented an opportunity to abuse my power—no one would suspect me. I grew breathless with the potential. One time in particular: a pair of blond European tourists, both women, were heading toward the Mount of Olives. As I followed them, I wrestled with conflicting desires, the urge to help, the urge to hurt—or to do both, perhaps. I imagined a scenario. I’d tell them, do not walk up the hill; it’s not safe—and as they were thanking me, I’d find a way to take something from them. I imagined they’d be too distracted to notice my hand slipping into a coat pocket or purse. Or maybe I wouldn’t even attempt a cover-up: I’d approach with a smile, then take their stuff and run. I knew the city better than they, and they almost certainly did not possess my kind of fury, which gave me energy even as it exhausted me.
Instead, I called out to them from a distance and told them to take a taxi.
The fantasies made me dizzy. When I did get asked directions, I’d keep my sweating hands in my pockets, or I’d clasp them behind my back, fingers curling, just in case I couldn’t control the desire to do something more physical. I wanted especially for people who seemed protected to experience violence. I wished to trouble their lives. I would come down from these urges scared for my sanity. I fell into weird states. One day, I was late to meet a friend for coffee because a young man had asked me what time it was, and I assumed this was the prelude to an attack. So I screamed at him, and when he turned away, I followed him, galloping alongside and telling him never to fuck with me again. My friend thought this picture of my anger was funny. But I thought it was horrifying.
That year, a Christian radio host in California made a widely publicized prediction that the Rapture would begin in May and culminate with the end of the world five months later. I was unconcerned. The end of the world seemed fine by me. I welcomed an apocalypse—an uncovering, an unveiling.
I returned to the States in June. But anger and fear continued to warp the familiar. Walking one evening from the train station in my parents’ suburb to their quiet home close by, I glimpsed ahead on the sidewalk a tangle of dark shapes. My mind constructed a group of Satanists crouched close, ready to turn me into a sacrifice. I took a longer route home. As I walked, I reasoned that what I’d seen was unlikely to have been real— but I didn’t trust my body to register reality in time and avoid going into panic. The next day, I walked back in sunlight and saw that the menacing shapes from the night before were a bundle of tree branches. Every place, every person could cause a flare-up. Every landscape was strewn with traps. On a night typical of many, I abandoned a group of friends on Brighton Beach. Their chaotic energy, their eyes flickering bright as they shouted and ran into the shallow waves—suddenly I didn’t trust them. Alone, I found my way to the elevated subway platform. But there I experienced a fear of being thrown onto the tracks. The next subway station also troubled me, though I did not know why. A voice told me to go back into the night. I obeyed. I kept walking.
With time, and with the rescue of EMDR psychotherapy, I improved, and New York came to seem a safer city. While a shadow or something just outside my periphery would continue to suggest the mugger and I’d feel a surge of sick energy spike up my right side, mostly I no longer feared for my life. As my fear receded, I was granted the New Yorker’s wish, the writer’s wish, the solo walker’s wish, to feel invisible, anonymous, all the better to observe. Walking home at night in Brooklyn, I noted the regularity with which Black and Brown men were first to move to the edge of the sidewalk or cross the street as I came toward them; they knew how their bodies were perceived. I had to break the habit I’d learned in Jerusalem of walking straight toward a person if I thought they were going to fuck with me—though I knew I was not the one seen as dangerous. Still, I tried to give people space, the right of way. Here, you don’t know me. You don’t know the harm I wish I’d done; you don’t know how violent it’s been in my head. Let me move first.
I made these minimal gestures.
With time, I no longer felt the need to cover my neck or elbows or ankles. But I could not drop the urge to hide and disguise myself. For five years I wore a broad-brimmed men’s hat that turned me confident and made me mysterious. Mine was not the face people expected beneath; this discrepancy was doubtless part of its power. I wore the hat for style, and to block the sun, but also because it was slightly too big and sat low on my forehead, cast a shadow, concealed my eyes.
Late one spring evening, on a subway ride home, I noticed a young Black man wearing an incredible wool hat. It had about six inches of excess fabric that stood straight up and was stitched with a gold-sequined slightly smiley face that gave its wearer the power of having two expressions at once. We got off at the same stop, and at the corner, waiting for the light to change, he came up to ask for directions and to praise my own much-prized hat. He might even have used a phrase I was familiar with, that many people used when they described how I looked: “bandit chic.” Everyone who said those words did so with good humor: to them I didn’t look like a criminal. The young man and I were walking the same way, and we kept talking about style. He had an internship at Michael Kors and was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Within a block, a police car pulled up, and an officer leaned out to ask if I was okay. In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.
Clare Needham is a writer living in New York City. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, PEN America, MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During her second year living in Jerusalem, she worked for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and oversaw the English translation of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, published by Metropolitan Books in 2012. (Author photo by Bree Zucker)
“Intro to Nursing” by Jessica Watson
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. “Intro to Nursing” by Jessica Watson was the runner-up in TMR‘s 2021 Perkoff Prize competition. In this reflective essay, part confession, part elucidation of process, Watson gives the reader an inside view of the challenges faced by an early career nurse.
Intro to Nursing
Author note: All reports included in this essay are recreations; in the interest of protecting identity, they are not actual patient reports.
The first rule of diagnosis I learned in nursing school: a diagnosis must be stated in terms of a problem, not a need. In our simulation labs on the third floor of the School of Nursing and Health Studies at the University of Miami, we’re clad in hunter green scrubs, our school color, representing the leaves of the Florida orange tree. Our school’s mascot is the ibis: elegant, white, gangly wading bird—the last animal to take cover before a hurricane and the first to reappear afterward. We live in the most hurricane-prone state in the country: hurricane alley lies just offshore on a path that ends in our living rooms. Green amid swarms of white lab coats and blue scrubs, we nursing students are easily recognizable in the local hospitals: Jackson Memorial, the University of Miami Hospital, and Holtz Children’s Hospital.
As students, we learn to identify problems while thinking on our feet through encounters with simulated patients like the SimMan® 3G. Laerdal, a medical supply company, makes several lines of manikins for emergency, trauma, military, and nursing scenarios. There’s Crash Kelly, MegaCode Kelly™, and Extri Kelly, who I can only imagine needs to be extricated somehow. For peds, PICU, NICU, neonatal, and labor and delivery nurses: Premature Anne™, SimBaby™, and MegaCode Kid. Patient-care manikins like Nursing Anne, Nursing Kelly, and Next Generation Harvey®-the Cardiopulmonary Patient Simulator, prepare student nurses for the fundamentals. For complete disasters, there’s The Ultimate Hurt.
In crews of three or four nursing students, we enter the bay to greet our manikin reclining on a gurney. The sim lab educational team debriefs us with a few sparse details about Harvey Sims in advance: thirty-five-year-old man, came in with shortness of breath, history of peripheral vascular disease. The rest of the scenario plays out during our visit. Our visits are called encounters, and this distinction ups the ante. We’re not just visiting the manikin; we’re encountering him; we’re unexpectedly faced with something difficult or hostile. In the first few simulations, I’m paralyzed by the sight of Mr. Sims. He’s stiff as the diaphragm of my stethoscope, rubber skin pulled taut on his plastic frame, eyes and mouth in perpetual surprise. His face unnerves me, and the metal springs inside his ribcage squeak with every chest compression during CPR.
In sim lab, we fail the simulation if we don’t fake sanitize our hands. I train myself over and over to remember to reach for the pretend sanitizer pump on the pretend wall, mimic rubbing my hands together with sanitizer made of air. I exaggerate the performance, exclaiming how clean my hands feel. “I’m rubbing a golf-ball sized dollop of sanitizer for no less than twenty seconds until my hands are dry. I’m rubbing my palms, back of hands, fingers, and wrists. Now I’m letting it air-dry completely before moving on,” I say to the instructors observing us.
We rehearse the moves with our manikin Harvey before we use them on real people. “Hello, Mr. Sims. My name is Jessica, and I’ll be your nurse today.” I put my stethoscope on his stiff chest to listen for lung sounds. I take his pulse by putting my fingers on his wrist, where his thumb juts out rigidly. I shine the penlight in his eyes and pretend that his pupils have reacted. My encounter with Harvey involves so much playacting that I’m not sure where to look or what to think. Do I pretend he has a pulse? Do I maintain direct eye contact with his painted-on, permanently surprised eyes? Do I wait for the voice on the overhead speaker to shout out that his lung sounds are diminished?
The first step to solving a problem is being able to describe the human body as succinctly as possible. We distill the myriad components of what keeps everyone alive and healthy into systems, hemispheres, quadrants, markers, and metrics, which are compared to a baseline or “normal” standard—a mountainous task made more attainable through the use of shorthand.
The first time I see a nurse’s patient report in its entirety, I’m overtaken by anxiety. If I was the type to faint or hyperventilate into a full-blown panic attack, this would be the moment. Instead, I’m the type to hold the spring of boiling, frothing water in my throat so that my own volatility blisters my insides. I spend several months learning to decipher these reports. My anxiety is made more severe by the realization that soon my job will involve assuming responsibility for the safety, health, and well-being of each person under my care.
Even so, I can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of the nurse’s report.
Patient 1 Report
|Patient Hx:||HIV, ESRD w/ HD, pericardial effusions|
|Neuro:||opens eyes, – commands, pupils sluggish|
|Respiratory:||desats to 70’s during suction; CPAP* 5/5/40% (*vent setting)|
|GU:||HD Tu, Th, Sa; anuric|
|GI:||1 liquid brown BM; OG @ 50 – osmolite 1.5 @ 35 ml/hr|
|Peripheral:||RUA fistula +/+, R foot amput.; RLQ blake drain; 4 lap sites|
|Labs:||BG 168/185; Na+ 134; all else WNL|
|Lines:||L SC CVC, L fem a-line, L AC #20|
|Drips:||vaso @ 0.04, neo/levo standby; precedex @ 0.4|
|To Do:||CT Head; Check CXR; T&S|
|Ask MD:||Na+ 134|
|Notes:||rec’d 1 unit PRBC’s à Tmax 100.2|
So much of what we learn is passed down from nurse to nurse, and this is also true of shorthand, which for the most part I learn on the unit. I study the way more senior nurses write their own reports and orders on the order sheets. Sometimes I’m given someone’s report in its entirety at shift change. RUA is right upper arm and RLQ is right lower quadrant. The shorthand for lines tells us whether it’s in a vein or artery and where on the body. The first time we lay eyes on a patient, even before, during report, we begin a critical thought process.
Peripheral refers to extremities, or limbs, as well as peripheral vascular findings. Peripheral is where I document assessment findings such as surgical drains, dressings, and wounds, fistulas for hemodialysis, and amputations. Peripheral also means skin. Skin tells a story. Patient 1’s Report tells us about hemodialysis three times a week and a fistula on the right upper arm where machine lines connect with blood vessels for cleaning. I put my finger on the fistula and feel a buzz like the throat of a purring cat. My fingers tickle. Using the small diaphragm of my stethoscope, I listen for a woosh, a bruit. If both are present, it’s patent, +/+ on the patient report. If neither are present, I have a problem.
The doctor diagnoses Patient 1 with HIV, End Stage Renal Disease, and pericardial effusions. The nurse might diagnose the patient with something related to fluid volume or risk for infection, given that the patient receives hemodialysis. A nursing diagnosis can change minute by minute, depending on the patient’s vitals and response to treatments. In practice, a nurse responds to the patient’s needs faster than the time it takes to formulate a nursing diagnosis, but nursing school emphasizes these diagnoses and care plans in an effort to train the student nurse to adopt a certain critical thought process. As a nurse gains more experience, nursing care begins to arise from something more akin to instinct. Like the night I leaned in the doorway of my patient’s room, number two on the liver transplant list, watching him try to sleep, sensing that something was off. First a simple question: “Do you know where you are?” Then drawing a blood gas, alerting the team, rolling a ventilator to his doorway to keep on standby.
My first job taking care of real patients is critical care nurse in a multisystem intensive care unit in Orlando. The streets here don’t flood like they do in the city of my alma mater, but we find ourselves inside the cone of probability enough to adopt the ritual of annual hurricane prep. I’m on the hurricane team my first two years on the unit. Team A for Hurricane Michael, which means I sleep over and work the two day shifts on either side of my sleepover. Team B for Hurricane Irma, which means I work the day after the hurricane, when the power is out across most of the city and downed trees still line the roads.
The nurses on the unit range from fresh out of nursing school to veterans of twenty or thirty years. Every new nurse goes through a rigorous sixteen-week training program with an assigned mentor, which includes additional study outside of work. Our patients are the sickest of the sick, except for some in CVICU or lung transplant. We get our share of liver and kidney failure, transplants fresh from surgery, end-stage diseases, respiratory failure, sepsis, complicated GI surgeries, and chronic care patients. We wrap our code cool patients in Arctic Suns, affix pads to their skin which circulate cold water that drops core temps to 32-34°C: therapeutic hypothermia. We have a fair number of transfers to hospice or palliative care, plus withdrawal of life. Sometimes we get laterals from neuro or a patient with heart failure awaiting transfer to CVICU.
I’m assigned the color royal blue for my unit. My scrubs are Cherokee, Grey’s Anatomy, and Healing Hands. I buy a pair of New Balance memory foam sneakers and compression socks with rainbow stripes and polka dots. The socks compress at 15-20 mmHg and imprint ridges on my calves. It’s a 10-percent discount if I show my hospital badge.
I buy scrub pants with as many pockets as possible: two on the seat, two in front, with a pocket or two nested inside each, and the occasional added thigh pocket. On the loop of my thigh pocket, I clip a hemostat, ready to go. Hemostats resemble scissors but grip like needle-nose pliers. Of all my tools, this tool has most often bailed me out of a bedside situation, elbow deep in a “clean” procedure I can’t step away from. The grippers on the nose loosen any tubing wrenched too tight, needed in a pinch when changing and troubleshooting lines.
My EKG calipers ride my pockets next to the pens, ready to measure the distances on a heart-rhythm strip. Each patient has a unique heart rate and rhythm. The peaks, troughs, and distances between them, each accentuation, tells us where in the heart the beat originates and how long it takes the chambers to fill with blood and squeeze. All the heart songs are printed on scrolls every four hours and glued to paper. I unclamp each patient’s three-ring binder, put the strips in their rightful place. Scanning morning labs, I rub the critical labs bright with yellow highlighter, make them pop with alarm. Orders must be written with a black pen, so I carry several.
Before I enter the patient’s room to assess them and determine problems, I sanitize my hands. Then again after I touch anything in the room, again before touching the patient, and again after touching the patient, and once more outside the room. In nursing lingo, this is known as “the five moments of hand hygiene.” I’ve abbreviated “the moments” because they specify “after body fluid exposure/risk, and before clean/aseptic procedures,” as well.
Usually, I think of a “moment” as being a more intimate occasion. Perhaps even a momentous one. That might be the intention of calling them “moments”: to transform hand hygiene into an inviting self-care experience—a sort of rebranding of infection prevention as a self-indulgence. At the least it’s a helpful mnemonic device. Here, take a moment for yourself while pausing in the hall just outside your patient’s room. Drop a glob of sanitizer in your palm and rub your palms together as you breathe in and out. Take this moment, and every other moment of hand hygiene, just for you.
A single piece of paper determines my plan of care for the day. It’s the nurse’s patient report, given at 0650 then again at 1850, plus any notes, labs, meds, or other details I’ve scribbled onto the sheet. Sometimes I forget the sheets in my pocket when I wash my scrubs. In the drum of the washer, the paper disintegrates into a million pieces that coat my pant legs and sleeves like a light dusting of snow. I wash and rewash the scrubs, then pick the remainders of white pulp off the valleys of my pocket seams. By the end of day, the paper will be softened like butter by folding and unfolding, moved in and out of my scrub pockets a hundred times. Sometimes I check my pockets just to make sure it’s still there.
Patient 2 Report
|Patient Hx:||DM, substance abuse|
|Labs:||BG 600’s on admit|
|Lines:||L AC #18|
|To Do:||BG checks Q1H|
|Ask MD:||Pt requests morphine|
On a bad day, bed management sends us the difficult patients: according to report from the emergency department, a patient with a history of substance abuse who let his blood sugar go to get access to opiates. He claws at his hospital gown in bed and flails his arms and legs, disheveled locks of dirty blond hair partly covering his face. After I receive the Patient 2 Report from the outgoing nurse and respond to his first several call bells, the nurse manager of our unit tells me that in a previous admission, he was caught rubbing his central line on the toilet to get an infection in order to lengthen his stay. Technically, he’ll need to be on an insulin drip, which requires blood-sugar checks every half to one-hour. Technically, that falls under ICU jurisdiction. He’ll be on the call bell every ten minutes asking for morphine. As soon as I administer the morphine, he asks for more.
The secretary, the one answering his calls with her push-button speaker, will ask me for a plan, as in, “How are we going to handle this?”
The way I handle this problem, which is also the secretary’s problem, creates more problems. In addition to answering my patient’s call bell every ten minutes, I have to figure out how to get the patient to stop using it every ten minutes.
Nursing Diagnosis: Powerlessness related to institutional environment and unsatisfactory interpersonal interaction as evidenced by secretary asking, “How are we going to handle this?” and reports of frustration over inability to perform previous activities.
Here, the problem is powerlessness.
In response to the secretary, I stop at her desk on my way to the med room and stare at her a minute before responding. I’m tired. It’s around 7:00 in the morning, and I am not yet ready to be bombarded with call bells and needs and problems. “What can I do?” I say, then get back to work.
My response makes her cry. I only find out because the charge nurse that day, there to offer assistance and supervise the nursing staff, pulls me into the break room. She wants to ask me my version of what transpired with the secretary. She emphasizes that the secretary is a tough lady, and it’s extremely rare for her to cry.
A new problem arises, one I didn’t intend to create, one with origins I don’t entirely understand.
A nursing diagnosis is different from a doctor’s diagnosis. Because of the differences between doctor and nurse in scope of training and treatment, nursing diagnoses can focus on spiritual and psychosocial concerns. It wasn’t until 1980 that the American Nurses Association defined nursing as “the diagnosis and treatment of human responses to actual or potential health problems.” Emphasis here is on human, while medicine (what doctors practice) is thought of as prevention and treatment of disease. In essence, nursing treats the human, and medicine treats the disease. The spiritual realm is one area that nurses are permitted to diagnose and treat. For instance, we don’t need an order to call a rabbi to bedside. We don’t need to ask a doctor if the chaplain can pay a visit or if we can hold hands at the bedside and bow our heads in prayer.
As a nurse, I can diagnose patients with impaired religiosity, impaired individual resilience, disturbed personal identity, spiritual distress, powerlessness, situational low self-esteem, risk for compromised human dignity, risk for loneliness, risk for chronic low self-esteem. My favorite diagnosis of all is perhaps the “imbalanced energy field” because of the way it flirts with the metaphysical and territories wholly unknown.
For care of the patient with an imbalanced energy field, nurses ‘evaluate energy fields’ and perform ‘therapeutic touch.’ In a step called “the unruffling process,” therapeutic touch resembles Reiki as an intervention, wherein nurses lay hands two to six inches away from the patient’s body to “dissipate impediments to free flow of energy within the system and between the nurse and client.” The last part always gives me pause—the exchange of energy between nurse and patient. Suffering is painful to observe and engage, but there’s no avoiding it at the bedside. I believe empathy works in part by absorption of another person’s energy when in close proximity, and this can be an overwhelming and painful sensation felt within the body. How does the story our body tells change through that exchange?
Patient 3 Report
|Patient Hx:||Liver transplant, Etoh|
|Neuro:||opens eyes, + commands, agitated/paranoid|
|Lines:||R FA #20|
|Ask MD:||Pt delusions|
I remember well most of those encounters with patients when a powerful energy was exchanged. One of my youngest patients with liver failure was a twenty-something with stringy black hair and piercing, mistrustful eyes. On the second day I cared for her, she became convinced I was trying to kill her. Most nurses learn how to develop a sense of humor when it comes to these things, but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. My patient scrutinized my every move and action. A self-consciousness overtook me, and guilt bloomed within me like an open wound. I started to feel raw and vulnerable, my emotions just at the surface of my skin so that an air current might set them off. All my efforts to convince her that I was here to ensure her protection and safety failed.
She watched me unwrap syringes and draw up medications. As I explained to her what the medications were and reached for her IV, I knew she was thinking about what she might do to my hands and how to turn the medicines on me.
Patient 3 Diagnosis
Nursing Diagnosis: Patient has risk for other-directed violence related to paranoid delusions.
Subjective Data: The patient states, “The nurse is trying to kill me.”
Objective Data: The patient has clenched fists and jaw. The patient eyes me suspiciously.
Plan for Care: Continue reassuring the patient. Continue reorienting the patient to time and place. Continue to explain the purpose of the liver failure medications. Continue to reassure that you’re administering medications for liver failure and not a lethal dose. Ask the patient if she wants family present. Ask the patient if she wants to speak to the chaplain. Continue to pretend that you’re not deeply, irrevocably uncomfortable, that you won’t remember this for the rest of your life, that you don’t begin to wonder if you are trying to kill the patient, because the patient is so convincing, because there is one reality outside the patient’s room and another reality inside the patient’s room. Pretend that when the hepatologist visits the patient, that you and the patient aren’t both crying for help with every sinew and muscle in your bodies.
Originally, ‘imbalanced energy field’ was called ‘disturbed energy field.’ The diagnosis of “disturbed energy field” was removed from the tenth edition of Nursing Diagnoses: Definitions & Classification 2015-2017. The editors explained their decision thus: “all literature support currently provided for this diagnosis is regarding intervention rather than for the nursing diagnosis itself.” The diagnosis returned in the eleventh edition of Nursing Diagnoses: Definitions & Classification 2018-2020 as “imbalanced energy field.” The difference between the two diagnoses, although a difference of one word (imbalanced rather than disturbed), embodies one of the goals of nursing: to be nonjudgmental. The word disturbed itself casts judgment on the diagnosis (and person); it tinges the diagnosis (and person) with something undesirable.
The ideal nurse is first and foremost nonjudgmental, perhaps so much so that they have one foot in the realm of the kind of implicit acceptance of anything human we’ve come to expect from our spiritual and religious communities. The ideal nurse wouldn’t use the word disturbed to describe anything about their patients. The ideal nurse legitimizes their patients through acceptance and listening. Imbalance within the body connotes more legitimacy than if something in the body is disturbed. An imbalance can be restored through care and attention, while a disturbance, like a colony of wasps getting knocked out of their nest, is not likely to be put back together into anything resembling its former self.
What is the difference between a problem and a need? For some reason, I often think of needs as being unmet, and problems as getting solved. You solve a problem; you have needs. When needs aren’t met, do they create problems? Are problems needs that can be met? Can a person have needs that aren’t problems requiring correction? The more I think about it, the cycle between need and problem seems like a hungry beast that can never be content. Do we feed it? Does medicine feed it?
Then again, why must our needs be problematized? Why can’t we state our needs – loudly, declaratively. Why can’t we make grandiose proclamations of need to the person next to us in the cafeteria sandwich line?
A problem can be physical, psychosocial, spiritual—so why is nursing tasked with the job of addressing all of them?
I need to breathe versus “patient has impaired gas exchange” or “ineffective airway clearance” or “anxiety.” I need to be closer to God versus “patient has impaired religiosity” or “spiritual distress” or “moral distress.” Outside the hospital, we have needs. Inside the hospital, our needs are transformed into entities with actionable plans and interventions executed by nurses for measurable outcomes.
“A nursing diagnosis is defined by NANDA International (2013) as a clinical judgment concerning a human response to health conditions/life processes, or vulnerability for that response, by an individual, family, group, or community.” It’s interesting that the diagnosis concerns the “human response.” Why human? Is there any other type of response? It’s interesting too that the diagnosis doesn’t just pertain to the patient, the “individual,” but can also extend outward to family or even an entire community. And it’s interesting that nurses’ responses can extend to ”vulnerabilities” as well as health conditions.
As nurses, we know that when the patient has experienced brain death and there’s nothing that can be done to reverse this condition, that sometimes the most vulnerable person is the closest family member. My first brain-dead patient was a woman who attempted suicide by an overdose of blood pressure medicine when five weeks pregnant. She starved her body of oxygen long enough that only a ventilator and continuous medication could keep her alive. Her husband was adamant that she was going to make a miraculous recovery and “walk right out of this hospital.” The family of my patient viewed me with suspicion whenever I entered the room to change a bag of medication or reposition her. The health care team was keeping her indefinitely in a steady state that couldn’t last forever, while the family pushed back and fought about prognosis.
Taking care of the husband was as important as taking care of his wife:
Patient 4 Diagnosis
Patient Hx: wife admit s/p suicide attempt, anoxic brain injury, five weeks pregnant
Nursing Diagnosis 1: Husband has complicated grieving related to his wife’s brain death as evidenced by lack of acceptance of the death, persistent painful memories, self-blame, distressful feelings about the deceased, and mistrust of the health care team and translife representatives.
Nursing Diagnosis 2: Husband has ineffective denial related to his wife’s brain death as evidenced by husband states, “a miracle is going to happen, and she will walk out of this hospital” and husband also states, “they just want her to die so they can harvest her organs.”
There are five stages of grief, more or less. We don’t necessarily move through all of them in sequential order. The husband embodied the first two: denial and anger. Sometimes he transitioned into bargaining, when I could hear him begging God for help. I felt stinging anger in his eyes when he looked at me; it was my natural instinct to look away. Before acceptance, the grieving might lapse into a depression—what the body does when it feels powerless.
Patient 5 Report
|Patient Hx||lung CA w/ mets, malignant pleural effusions; pt RRT to ICU for respiratory distress|
|Neuro||opens eyes, – commands|
|Cardiac||ST 110’s; systolic 90’s|
|Respiratory||Bipap 12/4/80%; sats low 90’s, tachypnic; use of accessory muscles|
|Code Status||Ltd to Bipap|
Because I can’t remember anything about the weather, or time of year, I don’t know when exactly this patient came to me. I know it wasn’t long after I got off my sixteen-week orientation with my preceptors sometime in February. Less than a year earlier, I’d passed my nursing license exam. Let’s say that it was late spring in central Florida, when the heat was beginning to build by midday and you could feel it pressing down on your face like a wet xanthosoma leaf.
I remember her as having long white hair that flowed over her pillow. Inside our perfectly climate-controlled hospital, there still wasn’t enough oxygen in the air for her. There would never be enough oxygen. The Rapid Response Team rolled her into my empty room on a BiPap, bilevel positive airway pressure, accompanied by her husband and daughter, who reminded me of New England, my home: modest in manners and appearance, forthright in speech, and stoic in their grief.
Since her code status was Limited to Bipap and she was already on Bipap, I had the sinking realization that there was nothing else we could do. No intubation, no CPR, no medications to restart her heart. Unless she miraculously recovered from her respiratory distress, she was going to die. I knew what it was like to try to assuage a family member begging for a miracle, but her husband looked to me for guidance. I had never had a patient in this state who was Limited to Bipap, had never gone through the motions before of caring for someone this way.
Her face was engulfed in the machine, a transparent breathing mask with a flexible cushion sealant that molds to the contours of the face. Straps go around the head and the mouthpiece connects by accordion tubing to a machine on wheels that houses the oxygen supply and control panel. The triangular shape fits over the nose and mouth for maximum gas exchange, but she looked so uncomfortable, head tilted away as if repulsed, back arched reflexively, that the BiPap appeared to be parasitizing her.
Her husband, a mild-mannered man in trousers and a button-down, sat dutifully in the bedside chair as if awaiting instruction from me. As his wife labored to breathe through the BiPap, he turned toward me, outside the room, and asked, “Is this it?”
Before instinct comes paralysis. But this wasn’t simulation paralysis; this was the real world.
There was an innocence and bravery in his voice, but what really unnerved me was how much faith he placed in my ability to answer this question. As though I knew exactly what was happening and what to do:
Patient 5 Diagnosis
Nursing diagnosis: Ineffective role performance related to despair as evidenced by me sitting in my chair looking despondent while her husband turns his head toward me and asks, “Is this it?”
Related Factors: Inadequate role preparation, skill rehearsal, and validation; unrealistic role expectations as evidenced by the fact that I never knew what it would feel like to let my patients die; inadequate support system because at the end of the day I couldn’t tell anyone what I did at work, I moved to a new city for this job and didn’t know anyone; stress; lack of role model
Subjective Data: Altered role perceptions; change in self-perception of role; change in usual patterns of responsibility or capacity to resume role; role overload; powerlessness
Objective Data: Inadequate adaptation to change; inadequate confidence; ineffective role performance; inadequate external support for role enactment; role strain, confusion, or ambivalence; uncertainty; anxiety; depression
The problem: I had never rehearsed this scenario before, didn’t know the protocols. I never thought of nursing before as the absence of action, as the opposite of saving a life.
The need: I needed support, backup from one of my colleagues. I needed to feel less alone.
Protocols exist as a way to continue the choreography of care despite any emotions. They tell the body what to do.
A senior nurse working the rooms next to me stepped in. I had met her in the lunchroom before. She was the nicest of the nice. Management often paired green nurses with senior nurses for these occasions.
She spoke in a hushed tone: “Your patient’s dying, right. Let’s make sure this is what they want, then write the orders.”
I followed her into the room to speak with the family. She answered the husband for me, “Yes, this is it. Is this what you want?”
Jessica Watson is a writer from New England who calls Florida home. She recently finished an MFA in nonfiction and became a nurse after dropping out of a PhD program in oceanography at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. She’s currently at work on a collection of essays blending research, personal narrative, embodiment, and cultural criticism. “Intro to Nursing” is her second essay published from that work in progress. Growing up, she never wanted to become a nurse, but now she considers nursing one of the most profound professions.
“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.
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.
“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.”
2020 Miller Audio Prize in Audio Documentary: “Climb When Ready” by Arlie Adlington
Arlie Adlington’s “Climb When Ready” was selected by 2020 Miller Audio Prize Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the winner of this year’s Miller Audio Prize in Audio Documentary. We’re so excited to feature Adlington’s winning submission in its entirety below.
Arlie Adlington is an audio producer based in London. He has worked on documentaries and podcasts for people like BBC Sounds,VICE, Tate, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio4, Scottee and The Dig. He says, “I’m especially passionate about making queer radio, working with young people and trying to help the audio industry become more diverse and accessible to everyone. A couple of my favourite projects have been co-producing the podcast series ‘NB’ (which aimed to ‘dismantle the gender binary, one big question at a time’), and making podcasts with 16-20 year olds from Brent as part of the London Borough of Culture programme for 2020.”
Here is Adlington’s winning submission, “Climb When Ready”:
This piece is about climbing and being trans, and how I think those two things go together in a unique and special way. It features my friends Cass Adair and Martha Bennett.
When I made this, I’d been thinking a lot about how stories about trans people – when they’re made by people who aren’t trans themselves – are often very reductive, and sometimes quite objectifying. I think when trans people talk about our lives in our own words, what we have to say is usually much more interesting, and not necessarily what cis people are expecting us to say. So I wanted to make a piece about some stuff that had been on my mind at the time, so there’d be a tiny bit more trans radio in the world.
The piece first aired on the “Sports” episode of Short Cuts, on BBC Radio 4 in November 2019.
“From Kafka’s Window” by Jeffrey Condran
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. When writer and editor Jeffrey Condran found his novel research on Franz Kafka colliding with the need to shelter in place, the result was this delightful literary reflection on how Kafka would have fared during a pandemic.
From Kafka’s Window
An Essay of the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Jeffrey Condran
Catching myself daydreaming recently, it struck me that there are many reasons to believe the Czech author Franz Kafka would have known just how to handle himself during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kafka could fairly have been described as a hypochondriac long before he actually became chronically ill with tuberculosis, from which he died in June 1924 at the age of forty, and he had perfected the routines of a professional invalid, often visiting sanatoriums during his vacations from the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute to take faddish cures. My favorite among these is Herr Doktor Hartungen’s institute in Riva del Garda, where there were constructed several Lufthütten—little shacks with no glass in their windows so that the fierce winds coming off Lake Garda would storm through, the fresh air theoretically invigorating the health of patients with respiratory ailments.
More to the point, Kafka contracted and survived influenza during the 1918 pandemic, taking to his bed in October and not rising again until more than three weeks later, his temperature at one point recorded as 105.8 degrees. He endured long days in which he could barely breathe and soaked his bed through with sweat. For much of this time, his family believed he would die.
To be honest, though, these experiences aren’t really what I have in mind. Kafka’s potential pandemic “success,” let’s call it, has more to do with temperament. Sheltering in place, living in quarantine, and becoming acclimated to the idea of illness over an extended period take their toll. The Internet is awash with stories of people dealing with the sudden change in their lives, struggling to adapt to new responsibilities at work, in child-rearing, and in the care of the sick or elderly.
Everyone I know or talk to feels a kind of fatigue. Many are not getting enough sleep or eating well; they’re drinking too much, and even if their hours are being shared with family members, compared to pre-pandemic days, people often feel alone—cut off from the idea they had of themselves before the disease struck. Our Zoom meetings and teleconferences only bring into stark relief how much we miss our friends and coworkers or, if you’re an educator like me, our students. What’s ensued is a new sustained level of anxiety, yes, but also an ennui that develops when we are alone for too long in our minds, a condition that has us seeing the world in ways both claustrophobic and kaleidoscopic.
Isolation, insomnia, claustrophobia: a world still recognizable but steeped in incomprehensible, anxiety-inducing change? All these circumstances are immediately familiar to anyone interested in the life and work of Franz Kafka. So often in his diaries and letters, Kafka describes himself standing alone by the
window of his father’s house in Prague and bearing silent witness to a society he either couldn’t participate in or, just as often, simply chose not to. It must be remembered that he organized his life around quiet and isolation in order to dedicate his time spent away from the Insurance Institute to reading and writing.
Kafka biographer Ronald Hayman believes this was, for the young writer, “an alternative to suicide.” And there’s absolutely no doubt that Kafka was most at ease with his own company, dreaming even as a child of ways to remove himself from social situations that made him uncomfortable. In many ways he fits wonderfully the stereotype of the bookish introvert: the undersized boy who is chosen last for every team and hates mathematics, whose “Terror at his inadequacy led straight to daydreams of escape. What if he could get up invisibly from the school bench, slip like a ghost past the teacher, and through the door and out into the undemanding air?” It was a path that would eventually lead him to the safety of the family home, the familiar confines of his bedroom, where the only way he had to talk to potentially difficult people was through the voice he used in his letters.
Kafka was a deeply invested letter writer, partly due to the control he could exercise over the persona that came through on the page. Letters also offered a way to test out ideas that might eventually find their way into his fiction; and they were a method of procrastination from the creative writing on which so much of his self-esteem rested. Hayman says of him, “Kafka could better overcome his nervous reserve when writing a letter than when looking into another human face,” and he was “also writing to the people (and especially to the women) who looked at him with an indifference he found intolerable.”
Arguably most famous among his correspondents was his first fiancée, Felice Bauer—Kafka was engaged four times, but never managed to marry. His side of the correspondence was voluminous: in all, he wrote more than a quarter million words to Felice, telling her how much he missed her, how marriage and rearing children were among the greatest things a human being could achieve, how if they were bold they might run off together and visit Jerusalem and see the growing Zionist project for themselves.
This bold, enthusiastic Franz Kafka, however, is mostly literary invention. When it came time to visit his fiancée in person or make tangible plans for a wedding, suddenly a new Kafka appeared—the real Kafka, perhaps—who found so many obstacles to action in the real world: there were complications at work, ruffled feathers to be smoothed over with his parents, and, most important of all, the concern that these pedestrian, middle-class aspirations would take him away from his one true calling, literature. Oh, yes, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kafka would have been wonderfully free to let his pen take him wherever it would. Why not be a letter-writing Cyrano de Bergerac when the virus would prevent any flesh-and-blood lover from climbing Felice’s balcony and making love to her? In the safety of medical isolation, Kafka the literary lover could thrive.
I’m teasing Kafka here a little bit, possibly because it’s so easy to do. His romantic failures are a broad target, and his writing is filled with characters who are dithering and ineffectual, especially against the largely invisible tidal influences of social institutions—or maybe simply against fate, against the world. I often dwell, for example, on those people in 2020 whose pandemic thoughts turn to ideas of crime and punishment. This disease, some suggest, comes to us not by chance, not even from some geopolitical adversary, but from the hand of an unknown power. We are like the victims in Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” who have the law they have ignorantly broken tattooed onto their bodies. We’ve clearly done something terrible, and we’re being punished for it—we simply don’t know what “it” is.
Even if your mind doesn’t turn to cosmic powers to understand COVID-19, there’s no denying that people are desperate to understand themselves and the world within the context of the disease. When I had to stop seeing my students in March and rethink how we’d finish the semester, one of my assignments asked them to keep a “Plague Diary”—the name my attempt at levity, even though I knew what they wrote in the diary might be some of the most significant work they did all term. My hope for the assignment was simple: I wanted a mountain of words to act as a shield against the unknowable. Even if those words offered no solutions to the writer, I suspected they’d eventually take on an unexpected power. My decision was partly influenced by the diary Kafka had started in 1910. It was a place that “gave him a pretext and a medium for talking to himself.” And, as the years went by, he came to rely on the sounding board those pages represented. “I won’t give up the diary . . . I must hold onto myself here, for it’s only here that I can.”
Many of us will emerge from sheltering in place changed in unexpected ways. Before COVID-19, I’d thought of myself as an introvert who, through professional obligations, had compelled himself to pass as an extrovert, expending a tremendous amount of emotional energy to keep up the performance. What have the online personality quizzes taken to calling it? The extroverted introvert? That was me. Except as the months of quarantine ticked by, I went from feeling like a caged animal inside my apartment, desperate to get a drink with my friends, to someone who had legitimately lost all desire to speak to anyone. I dropped out of a Zoom book club, I answered messages two weeks after they were sent—if I answered them at all. Even showering felt optional. Deodorant still is. The only person I wanted to hear from anymore was myself.
And, of course, in a pandemic all that troubles you rises to the surface. In the normal course of our lives, the daily routine is filled with obligations that distract us from our troubles. So many people simply don’t have time to examine their lives and deal with whatever emotions develop. Not so, now that isolation has created an echo chamber from which it is impossible to escape. Maybe this is simply a long-overdue reckoning, but for many people, the process is painful and, at least for the moment, unrelenting. Alone with ourselves, we must face down what Kafka called “the swampy viscosity of time.”
There is no better example of this than in Kafka’s most famous work, “The Metamorphosis.” From the moment Gregor Samsa changes into a beetle, he is kept confined to his bedroom, largely visited only by his sister, Grete, who brings him food and sometimes tidies the room. In his isolation, his only pastime outside of acclimating himself to his new insect body is to eavesdrop on the conversations of his family. What he discovers is that his transformation, which has clearly made any kind of employment impossible, has threatened the family with economic ruin. His elderly father must take work as a bank messenger, his mother earns money sewing undergarments, and his sister, whose musical talent might have seen her studying the violin at the Conservatorium the following year, has taken a job as a clerk. Gregor is distraught at the way he’s let down his family, feeling “hot with shame and grief.”
It’s impossible for me to read this section of the story without immediately thinking of Americans whose lives have been transformed by the loss of their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic and who must rely on the inconsistent help of government stimulus and unemployment payments. Who, like Gregor when assailed by the chief clerk’s admonition that a season of the year to do no business at all “does not exist . . . must not exist,” must despair when they hear Ivanka Trump suggest that the unemployed should simply “find something new.” Aggravating this financial need is the historical relationship of Americans to their employment; it is, for many, the mainstay of their personal identities. To be so suddenly unmade by this invisible virus, to live in fear of your life and to no longer know yourself so easily as you once did, is a catastrophe that has many, again like Gregor Samsa, literally climbing the walls in despair. And when exhaustion comes over us, as it eventually must, what’s there to do except lie wherever it is we’ve found ourselves and wait for something to change:
Often he just lay there the long nights through without sleeping at all. . . . Or he nerved himself to the great effort of pushing an armchair to the window, then crawled up over the windowsill and, braced against the chair, leaned against the windowpanes, obviously in some recollection of the sense of freedom that looking out a window always used to give him. For in reality day by day things that were even a little way off were growing dimmer to his sight; the hospital across the street, which he used to execrate for being all too often before his eyes, was now quite beyond his range of vision, and if he had not known that he lived in Charlotte Street, a quiet street but still a city street, he might have believed that his window gave on a desert waste where gray sky and gray land blended indistinguishably into each other.
His vision dimmed by the new reality of his transformation, Gregor’s inner eye, the one governed by his tormented brain, sees only the gray haze of the unknown. Through the frames of our windows, what do most people see today? Often now, the view is the even crueler irony of clear, blue summer skies, the sunlight dappling the green leaves on the trees, our personal prisons verdant with a possibility that, until a vaccine is created—or peoples’ behaviors change—will continue to taunt and elude us.
Those who choose not to follow CDC guidelines for wearing masks to cover the nose and mouth and who refuse to abide by any of the recommended procedures for social distancing are, to be blunt, reprehensible. Anyone even vaguely familiar with ideas regarding freedom versus responsibility in a democracy will know what to do. Kafka might have been terrified by the anti-maskers; at the very least his hypochondria would have been piqued. Yet I can’t help but believe he also would have understood them. Those who have grown weary after months of isolation, who fear for their financial well-being, or who are desperate for the company of others, are simply all too human. To check my frustration, I often think of what it would have been like to have fallen in love during, say, the second week of March. To have been kept apart by the threat of the disease. As I say, even Franz Kafka, notorious introvert, would sympathize. For him there would have been moments when, like so many of us this summer, he was almost bursting with the desire to get out into the world and see people. Even for the man whose life has been described as “a series of hesitations” that left him full of self-loathing and who professed that “because reality is so terrifying, the only refuge is in the pretense that everything is happening to someone else, an alter ego,” Kafka still hated the idea of being completely excluded from the world. To save himself, he relied on what so many of us rely on, and which is now in such short supply: happy accident.
One such moment well known to Kafka biographers occurred during his law school years. Studying for an exam on Roman law, Kafka paced back and forth in front of his window that looked out on Zeltnergasse. A dress shop was across the street, and the young woman who worked there often stood outside its door. Through what Kafka describes as a series of “signs”—one is left to imagine exactly what those signs might have been—they agreed to meet at eight o’clock. When Kafka appeared on time, to his surprise another man was there as well. The woman took this man’s arm and had begun to walk away when she discreetly signaled that Kafka should follow. They went to a place on Schützen Island and drank beer, Kafka setting himself up at the table next to the couple. When they left, the other man walked the woman home, said good night, and then Kafka watched her disappear inside the house. She reappeared a few moments later, and at her suggestion they went together to a hotel on the west side of the river. Kafka described the night he spent with the shop girl as “charming, exciting,” and wrote that he finally had some “peace from the constant whining of the body.”
It being Kafka, however, he looked back on his unexpected night of passion with tremendous ambivalence, even describing it as having been “vile and filthy,” though that didn’t stop him from spending a second night with the shop girl in the hotel before the Kafka family left the city for a long summer vacation. Eventually, time lent a different perspective. Recollecting the incident seventeen years later, he described his lover as “a good-hearted, friendly girl.” Maybe this is what quarantine makes us desire most, the possibility that fate has something remarkable in store for us, some happy accident that will transport us in unexpected ways—if only it were safe to go outside. If I’m going mad, if all the world is crumbling around me, let me die in the arms of someone good-hearted and friendly. Looking down on us from his window, Kafka would have understood.
Begley, Louis. The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head. Atlas & Co., 2008.
Brod, Max, ed. The Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken Books, 1965.
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka. Da Capo, 1995.
Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Schocken Books, 1971.
Hayman, Ronald. Kafka: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 1982.
Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1984.
Jeffrey Condran is the author of two story collections, A Fingerprint Repeated and Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night. His debut novel, Prague Summer, received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award’s Silver Medal. His fiction has appeared in journals such as Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the 2010 William Peden Prize from the Missouri Review. He is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books.
“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.
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.