“Three Trees” by Sarah Gorham
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “Three Trees” essayist and poet Sarah Gorham gives us three evocative vignettes, across a decades-long span, of the presence and power of nature in our human lives.
In my late teens, I lived close to Washington’s C & O canal, where I often walked along the towpath with my boyfriend, Rob. An enormous sycamore hung over the water, a Methuselah among the nearby saplings and, because of its rotten heartwood, completely hollowed out. And yet it was very much alive, with many branches of healthy foliage. A clever somebody had nailed scrap two-by-fours to it, creating a kind of ladder inside the tree. It extended to a knothole thirty feet up, where a person could peer out at the surrounding woods with the Potomac River beyond.
A sycamore’s skin is rather like sunburn: shock white to begin with, then brown and peeling in irregular patches. Its bark is too rigid to stretch, so as the tree grows, it flakes or sheds—something common to all trees, but not usually so visibly. Sycamores like their soil wet and can be gargantuan. One, in Wabash County, Illinois, measured sixteen feet in diameter and 168 feet tall. Another hollowed tree in Virginia served as a home, sheltering a settler and his two sons for nearly all of 1744. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s true. Imagine their rough-hewn table and little stools and the thin blankets they slept on, freezing in the winter, cool in the summer. Imagine their diet of deer meat and squirrel, pawpaw and berries.
Inside the tree, I felt various sensations: the tickle of ants, the disconcerting brush of spiderwebs, the irrational fear that my weight would cause the tree to fall, crushing me and the tree. After a while, there was only the dense quiet like an anechoic chamber. I was cushioned, cared for. I was crawling back into my mother’s womb, which was lined with humus rather than blood and amniotic fluid. And since I was at the peak of my estrogen cycle, I sensed something sexual too, as if I were a seed, swimming toward that egg in the sky.
Down the towpath was a small clearing in the woods, set back from the canal and a good distance from the road. Here, Rob and I waited until dark, trading slugs of lukewarm Mateus wine and, at low volume, listening to rock on his transistor radio. We made sure there were no stargazers or park rangers or cops. We had no cell phones, so there were no anxious calls from our mothers. We smoothed out a sleeping bag, kissed deeply for a long time, then stripped from the waist down and climbed into our first all-the-way sexual encounter. It was awkward, not the ecstatic experience I expected. Nothing like being inside that tree.
A year later, the sycamore was deemed a hazard to bikers and walkers, brought down piece by portable piece, and hauled away. It was disheartening to come across the stump—the towpath coated with shavings, twisted bark, and stray twigs.
And by then, the boy I loved so much had broken my heart too. After months of silence, he shoved a piece of notebook paper into our mailbox, containing only three words: How’s yer face? I said it aloud. It was the raspy sound of a saw.
Side by side on a red leather couch, with a laptop on the coffee table and a movie streaming, they really could be connected at the hip—his hand on her knee hinting at sex, her hands in her armpits, implying, Not now. They are silver maple and white oak, like the conjoined trees in their front yard—an unusual occurrence in the natural world (“hugging trees” tend to be of the same type). How does this happen? Perhaps a seed from one tree imbeds in a decaying patch on the other. More likely, their sway in the wind gradually abrades the bark on each trunk, the cambium and roots grow together, and, decades later, there’s something foresters called “gemels,” from the Latin for “twins.”
She calls the silver maple, a jittery species that grows too quickly, its leaves toothed, flashy on the underside, silver in the sun or rain. Though its limbs are prone to breakage, the tree is popular with impatient people who want their shade now.
He’s more white oak. Look at those sumptuous leaf lobes, the edges entire, glossy, and smooth, like a double-fingered hand. His are, by the way, a photographer’s dream, especially the fingernails, with their matte finish, soft like alabaster. She strokes them jealously and then fists her own fingers so the nails can’t be seen.
We wonder which tree is dominant, which was there first, which has the wider root system? Were they always interconnected, and, if so, when did the inosculation begin? Was one tree hungrier or thirstier? Was the abrasion quick or painfully slow? It looks like the maple shot up fast and the other took some time, its trajectory forced to the side. Near the base, the oak is wrapped halfway around the maple’s trunk as if holding on for dear life.
They snuggle on the couch; his arm and right shoulder overlap hers, a heavy leg pressing till she pushes him away. But his hand always creeps back, aiming for the knee/bedroom. Time, she thinks, to take in some air, a reconnaissance lap around the living room, or rummage in the cupboard for something to eat—peanuts in the shell or extra-crispy potato chips, until he barks, “What are you doing? Can’t you stay put?”
Alas, as it happened, a violent microburst tore down the two trees-that-were-one, detritus fanning out over three front yards. The upper branches were thrown in a chipper, the thicker ones chopped into a year’s worth of firewood. Once the stumps were exposed, it was clear that the trees had remained largely unique. Not visible: a hundred years of entanglement, of roots, still feeling their way through the dark.
The Z-shaped entrance to the gallery is hung with black curtains such that she must take a right, then a left turn into what feels like total darkness, hands outstretched to avoid hitting a wall. But gradually she adjusts; transitional sunglasses dissolve to clear, and she soon becomes aware of two dim pools of light hovering over a large three-dimensional cube. Inside are many other glass cubes, threaded with tiny blue and gold lights. At first, she thinks of a right-angled honeycomb, a model for a parking garage, or futuristic skyscraper.
But here is something else, an image trapped between the panes of glass. It is an etching of the original Bramford apple tree, born in Nottingham, England, now roughly two hundred years old and beset with a honey fungus. In the making of this sculpture, she reads, accelerometers are attached to the roots and trunk of the flowering Bramford and her progeny. The instruments are sensitive enough to pick up ongoing vibrations. The tree in its present form is scanned into three dimensions, and minuscule, cast-out signals are recorded, then sent along to the gallery. It’s hard to believe but true: trained scientists can discern insect and bird activity, as well as wind, passing cars, and visitors walking around the site. And there’s music too—a guitar, dissonant harp, and sawing cello, all in a meandering minor key.
The etching surfaces and falls back, swells and sinks— rhythmically, as if the tree were breathing. It’s likely, she guesses, that people over sixty would sympathize with the tree’s struggle to be seen, healed, and definitively remembered. The word “last gasp” comes to mind. There are no chairs or benches in the gallery. But sliding to the floor and forcing her legs into a half lotus, she begins to experience an ethereal relaxation, a feeling like egg whites floating languidly in a rich chicken broth. Is this assurance, that the worst of dying will end in peace?
Sarah Gorham is a poet and essayist, most recently the author of Alpine Apprentice (2017), which made the short list for 2018 PEN/Diamonstein Award in the Essay and Study in Perfect (2014), selected by Bernard Cooper for the 2013 AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. Both were published by University of Georgia Press. Gorham is also the author of four collections of poetry—Bad Daughter (2011), The Cure (2003), The Tension Zone (1996), and Don’t Go Back to Sleep (1989). Other honors include grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, three state arts councils, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Media coverage. Her work has appeared in Bomb, Kirkus, Salon, NPR, Publishers Weekly, Agni, Diagram, Utne Reader, Slate, Library Journal, Shelf Unbound, The Nation, Real Simple, Missouri Review, and more. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief at Sarabande Books, an independent nonprofit literary publisher, now celebrating its twenty-eighth anniversary. The press was selected as the inaugural winner of the AWP Small Press Publisher Award in 2013.
An Interview with Kermit Frazier
In the following interview, TMR intern Jed Graham talks with Kermit Frazier about his essay “Snow.” In that essay, Frazier delves into his childhood years spent in the Washington, DC, area during a pivotal period of American history. “Snow” was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest and first appeared in print in TMR 42:2. You can read the essay here.
A revised version of “Snow” also appears as the second chapter in Kermit’s recently released memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, published by McFarland Publishing. First Acts is a candid and emotionally evocative glimpse at his coming-of-age as a Black youth, set against the backdrop of the social revolutions of mid-twentieth century America.
Jed Graham: “Snow” begins with a powerful metaphor for the Black experience in America. Would you say this metaphor embodies your philosophy about where we are culturally and as a nation?
Kermit Frazier: Well, I suppose that one key expression, which appears in both the opening paragraph and as the final words of “Snow,” is “the stuff of dreams.” And if the dream, the ideal in some respects, is a kind of complex, substantial integration in this country or at least a respectful mixing of races, ethnic groups, classes, even points of view, perhaps, then yes, it’s still, forever, seemingly, “the stuff of dreams” as far as I’m concerned.
JG: Your childhood took place during a momentous time in American history. As you point out in “Snow,” segregation was on its last legs, and integration brought with it new benefits and complications. As a part of the generation that grew up during these times, how is your perspective different from the generations that came before you and those that came afterward, and do we get to see more of this perspective in First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age?
KF: I suppose that whatever perspectives there are of generations that came before me are rooted principally in the portraits of my parents, who were born in Washington, DC, in the 1920s. My grandparents migrated to DC earlier as young adults from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. And all of them, parents and grandparents alike, knew de jure (by law) segregation and lived through it, even thrived through it in many respects, despite it all. My memories of segregation, though, are much more short-lived, and my kids have no such memory, so to speak. And I suppose you might call that some sort of “arc of history.” Nevertheless, de facto segregation—segregation in reality—persists. Much of it has to do with housing patterns and perceptions of difference and, of course, at times out-and-out deadly discrimination still. Driving, walking, breathing while Black.
As far as the entire memoir is concerned, the actions, and incidents, are rooted in the past, principally the 1950s and ’60s, although, of course, my present self is watching over in perspective my past selves, so to speak. Also, the final chapter, “Flux,” is an afterword, whose perspective is essentially 2020, both literally and metaphorically.
JG: An especially poignant moment in “Snow” is the recounting of your mother’s experience during the upheaval of urban renewal/removal. You wrote, “When they had to move, their search for housing was traumatic for her: she was so afraid that they’d wind up homeless and on the streets.” How strongly does her experience echo today’s issues of “social and economic isolation,” and “increased gentrification?”
KF: First of all, let me say that both my mother and my father were extraordinary people. I’m largely here and who I am because of them, however critically I’ve also managed to shape myself as myself. My mother was just seven years old when her father died of meningitis at thirty-two in 1932. Her mother was only twenty-nine, suddenly widowed with four kids. She went to work during the Depression as a housekeeper for white families, helping in some sense to raise their kids as she strongly raised her own. Back then, a lot of my mother’s relatives lived in Southwest DC, which is the smallest of the four sections of the originally diamond-shaped, one-hundred-square-mile nation’s capital. But in 1847, Virginia, which, along with Maryland, donated land to create DC, had all the land she’d donated retroceded to her. Land across the Potomac River, essentially Alexandria. Supposedly, some say, because folks wanted to preserve the active slave trade there. But that’s another story. . . In any event, that’s why Southwest is DC’s smallest quadrant and why DC is about sixty-eight square miles rather than the original one-hundred. In fact, if you look at a map, you can still trace the vestiges of the southwestern diamond shape by including Arlington County, VA.
Southwest was more swampy and mosquito-ridden and thus less desirable, which is why Black folks could live there in their “shotgun” houses. But then the federal government wanted the land for itself, claimed it by eminent domain, and Black folks, all folks, had to move. And that’s not only part of the story of my mother’s memory but part of the continual co-optation through eminent domain or gentrification without building affordable housing. And that’s a main root of increasing homelessness today in cities across the country. It’s something I briefly allude to in “Flux: An Afterword,” the final chapter of First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age.
JG: What are some positive lessons you hope that individuals and families who are bearing the brunt of the current iteration of inequality can glean from “Snow” and your memoir?
KF: First of all, that memory is more than a “theatricalization of the self,” as one writer has essentially put it. It can also be both an anchor and a perspective that affects change. Look how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go. And also, that growing up itself should be a form of positive integration as one strives to merge aspects of oneself into a meaningful, positive, progressive whole. As for the country as a whole, well, that’s a whole other story.
JG: You are a playwright, TV writer, essayist, and now a memoirist as well. How has working in these different genres challenged you as a writer?
KF: Even before I enrolled in the PhD program in English at the University of Chicago, I was writing prose fiction. Then when I dropped out of that program after a year to study acting at NYU, I kept writing and had a couple of short stories published in literary journals. I didn’t write my first full-length play, which had actually begun as yet another piece of prose fiction, until the characters just wouldn’t shut up while I was acting in a play off-off-Broadway. (It was a revival, by the way, of Paul Green’s 1940s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son.) From then on, I switched to writing plays, although I continued to write prose fiction, off and on—and still do—being a playwright was suddenly essential to me and my artistic relationship with theater, especially since acting wasn’t getting me all that far. So, I kept focusing on writing plays and getting them produced. Much later I got my first television writing job, worked in Los Angeles a bit, then back to New York and on to the wonderful Ghostwriter, which I helped to create and for which I was a head writer, and then on from there—more than a dozen different television series in various genres thus far. And through it all, I’ve learned that for me, television writing is as much about making a living as it is about creating, however wonderful that can always be, while being a playwright is first about complete ownership of one’s artistic vision and then about possibly making a living.
Meanwhile, I was writing the occasional essay and book review. And then, twenty years ago, I began looking back more on my life, how I grew up, and the twists and turns of it all, which led me to begin writing about it. But I wasn’t interested in crafting some chronological autobiography or memoir, which I think would have bored me, but rather in writing a series of discrete essays, memories, each of which would begin with and grow from, or be rooted in, some metaphor. That approach was much more interesting to me. “Aspects of perception,” one of my early working titles, was more interesting to me creatively than rote, chapter-by-chapter chronology. Hence, most of the titles of the ten chapters in my memoir are one word— “Snow,” “Drive,” “Pee,” “Fire,” “Ironing,” “Geometry” —that are both concrete and image-bearing. Or they are expressions that circle and then embrace both the concrete and the metaphorical— “How I Danced,” “Reading Apprehension,” “Of Crickets and Boys.” It’s a way, I suppose, to “see” three-dimensionally as I write in whatever form. And hopefully, in some sense, each form “informs” the others as I write, as I shuffle between, or perhaps more ricochet among, them.
JG: Your body of work spans the full range of audience age groups. Are there themes or common threads that, say, individuals who watched Ghostwriter as children can revisit in your plays, essays, and memoir?
KF: Hmm. How to answer that question. . . I would say, of course, that principally I write about people, characters who are striving to define, refine, or rediscover themselves. And their struggle and drive grow out of specific needs, desires, and obsessions. To live, to be alive, after all, is to want, hope, seek, create, discover. And of course, that which constitutes story, which creates drama, which causes one to lean into what one sees or reads, to want to viscerally experience what happens next, is the obstacles characters face, be they internal or external. Hence, the characters in Ghostwriter, the multi-ethnic group of smart, curious, courageous young folks in Brooklyn, were striving to simultaneously solve mysteries and to discover more about themselves, to grow. And I hope that’s the same for the characters or narrators in everything I write in whatever form, or genre. That’s perhaps some common thread.
JG: In recent years, one of your early plays, Kernel of Sanity has received renewed attention. How does the theater world of today compare with that of 1978 when it comes to getting your plays into production?
KF: Actually, Kernel of Sanity, is that first play that I wrote while acting in Native Son off-off-Broadway. That very next year I was fortunate enough to have it selected to be workshopped at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. It wasn’t formally produced, though, until 30 years later, by Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre in New York. But the wonderful, Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel, selected it in the spring of 2020 as the inaugural presentation in her new online series, “Bard at the Gate,” which she created and produced to showcase what she considered to be overlooked plays. And that generated a full-page feature article in the “Arts and Leisure” section of the New York Times (June 24, 2020) entitled, “A Timely Reading for an Overlooked Play.” That attention has generated further interest in my work, ironically, I suppose, during the pandemic and hence online. Overall, though, except for the necessary “BIPOC Demands for White American Theater” movement that has caused theaters to deal more honestly, if still fitfully, with a number of inclusion issues, getting one’s plays produced remains an incredible challenge. Nevertheless, it’s always about the work. There’s nothing for me quite like being in a theater, in rehearsal for a new play of mine. That’s what I’m forever seeking. But of course, one must write it first. And writing, in whatever form or genre, will always be what I do.
Kermit Frazier’s more than twenty-five plays have been produced at such theaters as the New Federal Theatre, Detroit Repertory Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Seattle Children’s Theatre, and Baltimore Center Stage. Some have also been published by Broadway Play Publishing and Dramatic Publishing. In addition, he’s written for several television series, including head writer for the popular children’s mystery series, Ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in: Callaloo, Essence, Black World, Green Mountains Review, American Theatre, and the New York Times Book Review. His memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, was published in May 2022.
Jed Graham is a 2022 summer intern at the Missouri Review and a junior at Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri, where he is majoring in English and creative writing.
“Snow” by Kermit Frazier
If the weather is too warm for you right now, remember that cooler weather will eventually be here. In that spirit, we bring you Kermit Frazier’s “Snow.” The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in TMR’s 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest. It is a moving, behind-the-scenes look at the crumbling walls of segregation, and the evolving urban landscape of Washington DC–delivered through the lens of Frazier’s childhood. The essay first appeared in print in TMR 44:2. You can read our interview with the author here.
Editorial note: A revised version of “Snow” can be found in the second chapter of Frazier’s recently published memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age.
by Kermit Frazier
For all too short a time we were blissfully at one with a white world, one that wasn’t “other” when it fell upon us, for it was, in fact, a world of bright white snow that blanketed our neighborhood just as it did all others. A white world to claim, possess, revel in, yet something elusive still, temporary, melting, like the stuff of dreams. A world awash in contradictions. Cold yet comforting; soft and soothing yet slickly hard-packed over time; pristine and virginal yet driven by weather change toward slush and mush, gutter-clogging and dirty, dark and unworthy. So quick, quick, while there’s time, me and my brother and our friends, shouting down the rolling hill through the trees on wooden Radio Flyer sleds, the snow flying up all around us. Black kids in a white whirl of snow in a black world surrounded by a white one. Magical, exhilarating snow. One of the few white realities we could safely touch, feel, get next to back then.
It was a privileged sled ride because it was a special hill. Cedar Hill. Special and less dangerous for its being both enclosed and more expansive. Unlike the sidewalks of Chicago Street, down which we usually swooped early in the morning, before the neighbors cleared the ice and snow and shooed us away, belly-flopping on our sleds one after another from the corner of Shannon Place all the way down the block and off the sidewalk into the snow-covered dirt and grass at the end of the dead end street, where each of us had to roll off his sled, one after the other, to keep from being cut by the metal runners of the sled swooshing right behind. “Roll off, roll off, roll off,” we’d cry. Hearts pounding and laughing and out of breath yet eagerly pulling our sleds up the middle of the street to head back down, again and again.
No, Chicago Street was by no means Cedar Hill, which was a several block trek away. It was, instead, a street right in the middle of our black community in the Anacostia section of Southeast Washington, DC, across the Anacostia River from DC proper—a section that seemed at times to be an appendage, or even appendix, of the nation’s capital. A street that ran two short blocks from Nichols Avenue down across Shannon Place, which ran several blocks parallel to Nichols Avenue from Howard to Good Hope Roads. A community of row and detached houses for working- and middle-class black people, many of whom owned their own homes, many of which they’d either built themselves or had built, like my paternal grandfather, who’d had two homes built over the years, in fact, both on Shannon Place and a block away from each other, the newer of which he lived in with his wife, the older of which he rented to my parents. A thriving, striving black community in an Anacostia that was still, in the early 1950s, 80 percent white and essentially segregated, as was most of DC.
The white population generally stretched beyond Nichols Avenue up Good Hope Road to Alabama Avenue and up beyond Saint Elizabeths Hospital into Congress Heights, down into Oxon Run and into the Maryland suburbs. We lived closer to the Anacostia River, wedged between the hills to the south and the railroad tracks of the old Alexandria branch of the B & O line, across which lay Bolling Field at the river’s edge to the north. Other tentacles of the black community lay across Howard Road in an area initially called Barry’s Farm and across Nichols Avenue up the hill in an area that at one time was known as Stantontown.
Barry’s Farm was first developed right after the Civil War with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had bought up $25,000 worth of land from the Barry family and sold, rented, or leased it to black folks to raise money for higher education—especially for the newly created Howard University. Black families could purchase one-acre lots and enough lumber to build a house for between $125 and $300 and repay it in installments of $10 per month. Families relocated from run-down alley dwellings in the central city to renovated former military barracks near their new lots, where they could live while they built their homes. In the 1950s, though, the area was known primarily for its rows of flat garden apartments, much smaller than the houses of our community, public housing projects that were called, in a curious shift of the letter s, Barry Farms. An area where, in my view, some of the poorer, tougher black kids in our elementary school lived.
Those kids came up Sumner Road—from Stevens, Eaton, and Wade Roads—past the recreation center that anchored the huge playground that swept down behind it and Birney Elementary School. My brother, sister, and I would come with other kids up Nichols Avenue, across a bridge that passed over Suitland Parkway, which effectively separated Barry Farms from our more middle-class neighborhood, at one time known as Hillsdale. We didn’t talk about our differences much: we were simply Negro kids in an all-Negro school. But those differences were evident at times. For example, although I was friends with kids who lived in Barry Farms, I rarely hung out with them there. And my sister remembers a friend from there coming to visit her and marveling at the fact that she lived in a house surrounded by a yard.
Yet wealth and privilege were relative, for at that time I was jealous of a cousin of ours who went to Birney but rode with his teacher mother and was “rich” enough to be able to buy his lunch from the little store across the street every single day! And of course there were wealthier black parts of DC that we almost never saw—for example, way up in Northwest, on the black Gold Coast, where all the streets seemed to be named after trees. There resided Negroes from prominent families: more doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, old families with Howard University pedigrees, families who sent their kids to Dunbar High School, the academic school for Negroes before integration drained it of its brains and cachet by giving such kids other options, just as it gave Negro kids in Anacostia the right to actually attend Anacostia High School, a mere mile away from Barry Farms and Stantontown.
And curiously, although Stantontown had a different history from Barry Farms, it had a similar economic arc. It developed over several decades in the early to mid-nineteenth century after Tobias Henson, a slave in the area, purchased his freedom, eventually bought twenty-four acres and the freedom of his wife, two daughters, and five grandchildren, and gradually added more and more land. By the 1870s, his family was the principal landholder in that community. By the 1950s, however, although Stanton Road still existed, Stantontown was gone, having been condemned a decade earlier by the federal government in order to build the Frederick Douglass Dwellings, a housing project designed by black architect Hilyard Robinson, future dean of Howard University’s School of Architecture.
But Fort Stanton still stood—as it does to this day—entrenched on a much higher hill than Cedar Hill. Built during the Civil War to protect the approach to the Washington Arsenal and the Navy Yard, it was one of sixty-eight enclosed forts that—along with ninety-three batteries and three blockhouses linked by more than thirty miles of trenches and roads—made DC the most heavily defended location in the Western Hemisphere by 1864. Of course, by the 1950s there was nothing much to defend against, no more Battles of Bull Run—or Manassas if you were from the South—that threatened the nation’s capital (or at least the capital of the North) with possible invasion by the Confederate Army (curiously the Army of Northern Virginia at Manassas/Bull Run). Hence, most of the forts and batteries no longer existed. But there was Fort Stanton in all its dusty glory—a fort that principally belonged to us black kids, kings of the hill, who wove in and out of its crumbling, half-barred tunnels and jumped off a huge earthwork mound behind it that we’d dubbed “Sandman’s Hill,” rolling and daring and testing each other still.
It’s easy to understand why Fort Stanton had been so important to DC’s defense, for from there one can see clear across the Anacostia River into the central city in all its whitewashed splendor: the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the long, flat stretch of mall in between. In fact, as physically separate from downtown as we might have felt from that point on high, it was indeed a true vantage point, from which we could more easily seem to touch the sky on starry nights and view more clearly than from anywhere else in DC the spectacular fireworks show downtown on the Fourth of July. It was then that the rest of DC “deigned” to come to us, the streets around the park invariably invaded by motorized, integrated armies of the night.
But we never felt emotionally separated from that rest of DC because we had relatives who lived “across the river” in their own segregated communities. And the fact of segregation didn’t constantly weigh on our minds, either. For we did have our integrated moments—such as when my brother, sister, and I traveled daily one summer “all the way up” Alabama Avenue in Southeast to attend a music program in an elementary school in then white Fairfax Village, or when my brother and I took tennis lessons in Rock Creek Park, way up in Northwest. Other than those moments when we were young, we simply knew segregation. Knew, for example, that most movie theaters— even a couple we could reasonably walk to—were off limits to us, that although we could go to Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches, we couldn’t go to the more picturesque Sandy Point, that we could only dream about what fun it might be to spend the day at the popular Glen Echo amusement park, and that certain department stores downtown wouldn’t let us try on clothes or, if they did, made us use separate dressing rooms. Knowing, however, didn’t always keep us from not knowing. Like the time my family went on what we were sure would be a great new evening outing.
It had been a relatively short drive from our house across into Maryland along a two-lane highway. My dad had turned at the sign, slowed to the appropriate speed down the side road, and parked in a line of cars near the entrance. And there we sat, my father, mother, brother, sister, and I, early and waiting, ready to attend our very first drive-in movie. We had pillows and blankets, snacks and smiles, and the need to have a good time at this relatively new yet already quintessential American form of entertainment. I don’t remember what was playing, but it wouldn’t have mattered. With the big white screen looming ahead, we kids couldn’t wait for any old picture to start.
And when the ticket-taker’s booth came to life and cars began inching forward, our pulses raced even more with anticipation. A drive-in, a drive-in, a drive-in, as we bounced around in the backseat as though we were headed into a wondrous amusement park. Finally at the booth, we watched the young white ticket-taker lean out to greet us with a kind of automatic smile that froze into locked-jaw astonishment when he came face-to-face with my dad, wallet in hand and poised to pay. The white man—boy, really—stared at Dad, then looked away, then looked back again. He hesitated a moment more and then said, in an apologetic whisper, “Sorry, no coloreds.”
Suddenly we kids not only stopped bouncing but hardly breathed. No coloreds? But . . . what did that mean? That is, of course, we were coloreds, Negroes, but . . . huh? For an endless few seconds, Dad didn’t move, and I wondered what he was thinking and what he was going to say or do—eyeing as he was this fresh-faced white boy possessed of the knowledge and authority to bar him from a family activity he was quite willing to pay for. It was the strangest thing—not wanting our money, not wanting us to have a good time, not wanting, well . . . us. And yet it wasn’t him, per se, that white kid, for he did seem more sympathetic than angry. Nonetheless . . . What’s the holdup? What’s going on up there? I could feel white folks wondering in the cars behind us, as the heat in me, in our car, seemed to rise precipitously. Finally my father tucked his wallet back into his pocket and then maneuvered the car away from the window, out of the line, and back down the road.
It was like a retreat, like an utter defeat, and it was one of the most humiliating moments of my life. As we inched along past the growing number of cars, I kept my eyes to myself, not wanting to see how many other kids were bouncing in anticipation, how many white kids, that is, for I couldn’t imagine another Negro family having been as naïve as ours. And even if there was one joyously waiting, I didn’t want to warn them, vindictively wanting them instead to experience firsthand the rejection we’d just been subjected to.
Yet how could we have known? In many respects, desegregation had begun to come to DC toward the end of the 1950s. And a drive-in seemed so logically open yet private—that is, one could be outdoors yet still in one’s car, free from outright contact and “contamination,” together yet separate, an easeful sort of transition, an “all-deliberate-speed” kind of integration. But instead, the only speed we experienced was that of our green, squat-looking ’54 Chevrolet as my dad drove away, clearly angry but holding it in, the way he often did with an emotion he felt deeply.
We didn’t go home, however, for Dad was determined to find a drive-in theater that would admit us. I didn’t understand. Why waste time and suffer more possible humiliation? But he drove and drove, never losing his focus or his way, drove with a confidence that spoke of his experience as a part-time cab driver, drove in nearly complete silence, his desire and determination set, perhaps his sense of being a man and head of the household on some kind of line. And as he did, I began to wonder how long we would wander. All night? All year? For the rest of our lives? Wandering mile after mile all over the periphery of the “capital of democracy,” refugees in our own country, searching for a drive-in that would allow us to drive in, and perhaps recalling, each in our silent way, that until recently we couldn’t even walk into the Anacostia Theater, only a few blocks from our house and on a street called Good Hope Road no less.
But then finally, after nearly an hour, my father did find another drive-in. It was in a part of Maryland that was just outside Northeast DC.
As we spied the images on the huge picture screen and the cars in the nearly filled lot, our hearts raced once again, although more with anxiety now than anticipation. For there was no waiting, no inching up to the booth. Just straight ahead, then stop, then watch as the white female ticket-taker took Dad’s money with ne’er one crack in her proffered smile. And so in we went to enjoy our first drive-in experience, although I think each of us fell asleep from exhaustion at various times during the second feature.
Afterward, my dad drove home triumphantly. But it was a triumph tempered by the realization that metropolitan Washington, DC, like America as a whole, was still far from being integrated, far from being as open as the air to us “coloreds.”
Soon, however, integration was to come to DC with a speed that seemed more lightning than deliberate. For example, two decades later, an aunt and uncle of mine who had at one time lived in the Frederick Douglass Dwellings would buy a house on Brandywine Street in one of those previously all-white communities just above Oxon Run, that street being the same street where one of my best friends, a white boy I went through secondary school with, had lived with his family. When I’d walk home from school with him, walk in the opposite direction from where I lived, my pulse often quickened through some anxiety about moving deeper into a white community, a white world. And when I first drove along Brandywine to visit my aunt and uncle in their new home, I passed by my friend’s old apartment building knowing that not only did his family no longer live there but no white families lived anywhere on that street anywhere for blocks and blocks, palpably sensing how radically Anacostia had changed.
So radically that by the early 1970s, practically all whites were gone from Anacostia—as eventually were my family, many of my relatives, and much of the rest of the black middle class. That place “across the river” had transformed from an area that in the 1920s had the highest percentage of homeownership in the city and apartment structures as only one half of one percent of its total housing to an area that in 1970 saw 75 percent of itself zoned for apartments. That transformation came about for a myriad of reasons. But to my mind two are foremost: urban renewal and integration.
Congress had two increasingly interconnected problems on its hands between 1930 and 1970 with regard to Washington, DC: the need to accommodate families displaced by the demolition of substandard housing, particularly the alley dwellings in the central city, where many blacks had lived since just after the Civil War, and the need to expand facilities for the federal government, whose size began to balloon during and after World War II.
The National Capital Housing Authority, created by Congress originally as the Alley Dwelling Authority in 1934, was charged with the task of eradicating alley dwellings and constructing public housing in DC. Around the same time, the federal government decided it wanted to keep its agencies and workers as much as possible near the core of the city rather than push them out to the suburbs, as originally planned. That meant condemning housing and acquiring land by eminent domain, particularly southwest of the Capitol, an area that had once been too marshy and mosquito-ridden to be very desirable, an area where some of Washington’s notorious slave pens and auction sites had been situated before the Civil War, an area that had been allowed to deteriorate into a “slum” by the end of World War II. DC’s population was booming, expanding more than predicted after that war, and there were suddenly more low-income families—primarily blacks—being displaced than there was housing they could afford to rent. In addition, restrictive covenants in the suburbs prevented black families from leaving the city to find housing, even if it was affordable, which it often wasn’t. Meanwhile, height restrictions prevented the government from building true high-rises, either for government offices or for low-income families. Hence, urban renewal. Or “urban removal,” as certain critics cynically say.
Some of my mother’s family were “urbanly removed” from time to time over those years, especially from southwest to southeast of the Capitol. And although many of those old row house dwellings in Southwest were like “see-through” houses to me—that is, the back doors seemed to lie just behind the front doors—they were nonetheless home to family, and displacement is displacement. When my mom was young, shortly after her father died, she and her mother, sister, and two brothers stayed with relatives in that black Southwest. And when they had to move, their search for housing was traumatic for her: she was so afraid that they’d wind up homeless and on the streets. Fortunately, they managed to secure the last, demonstration model, garden apartment in a new public housing project near the Navy Yard in Southeast, projects other friends and relatives had moved to, projects that I considered my second home when we traveled across the Anacostia River, with kids constantly running in and out and family packing Grandma’s four-room, two-story corner place during holiday gatherings, she holding court like the queen of the domain that she was. Still, Mom’s early brush with possible homelessness was one “hit-home” example of the fact that DC proper wasn’t going to have enough public housing for everyone in need.
But across that river from the central city, from the “real” DC, across that river that met the Washington Channel at Fort McNair and converged with the larger Potomac River at Haines Point, across that river sat an area whose original residents were the Nacotchtank Native Americans (also known as the Nacostines); it was an area to which there was only the original little 11th Street Bridge for more than a century, an area that didn’t get a high school until 1935. Across that river lay Anacostia. All of that acreage, rolling and relatively expansive. Anacostia was suddenly the solution.
And so, slowly but surely, as zoning laws changed, public housing projects rose much faster and in greater density in Anacostia than in any other area of the city. And slowly but surely, the social and economic fabric of Anacostia began to change as well.
Such change was also effected—ironically for some, “tragically” for others—by integration. Gradually, from the late 1950s into the 1960s, with rigid segregation crumbling, middle-class black families began to leave Anacostia for better, larger homes in other parts of DC and in the suburbs, especially Maryland’s Prince George’s County, where the restrictive covenants fell more quickly and the housing was more affordable than in other counties surrounding the nation’s capital. Relatives and friends on my father’s side of the family began buying lots and having new homes built in Prince George’s County as early as the mid-50s. And that American-dream drive to move up and out began to break up the old neighborhood and a certain sense of family, almost literally for me, because for quite some time during segregation, at least half a dozen of my relatives lived in homes up and down Shannon Place.
Finally, in 1962, my own family moved as well, from my dad’s parents’ old house to one we bought in Northeast DC, right on the border between the city and Prince George’s County. We were moving to a community whose closest drive-in theater was, unwittingly, the one that had finally welcomed us that night in the 1950s.
Thus was Anacostia “stripped” of much of its black middle-class base just as more and more low-income black families were moving into housing projects there. What quickly followed were overcrowded schools, loss of amenities and services, and an increase in run-down housing stock and other kinds of neglect. And neglect can lead to frustration and despair, which can sometimes pave the way for drugs and crime. At a time when DC residents were finally getting the heretofore unconstitutional right to self-government, Anacostia was morphing into Ward Eight—the economically depressed voting district that the late, embattled yet savvy and tenacious Marion Barry (no kin, I’m quite sure, to the original owners of that vast farmland) consistently championed. Why, even the Metro subway system built in the 1980s threatened to bypass the area, to go straight from the federal city to the Maryland suburbs, until finally, under increased political pressure, “low-priority” stations were opened in Anacostia, one of them on Howard Road at Shannon Place, just two blocks from our old house.
In effect, a part of DC that in the first half of the twentieth century had been benignly neglected, left to its own middle-class, segregated devices, became in the second half of the twentieth century an area to which too much of the wrong kind of attention was paid at first, and then not nearly enough of the right kind.
Hence, in the 1950s, we Negro kids were riding the cusp of an era, blithely unaware of the changes that were in store, our world to a large extent proscribed and circumscribed. And that’s one reason we took our special privileges where we could, namely, up on Cedar Hill. For that house on nine acres of land was none other than the venerable Frederick Douglass Home. And because the caretaker just happened to be a member of our Bethlehem Baptist Church—a church Douglass himself had reportedly once visited in its earliest days—she tended to favor us more than other kids for prime sledding rights on snowy DC days.
In every season, the Douglass home was quite imposing, of course, and it seemed a little strange that to travel up to such a symbol of one of the greatest black abolitionists and champions of freedom and justice for black people, we had to walk from our all-black community into a part of Anacostia that was still basically white. But in retrospect, one might say that we boys were traveling the great Frederick Douglass’s own path, for it was he who in 1877 broke an all-white covenant by buying the house and property from John Van Hook and moving there from the central city.
Two decades earlier, Van Hook, along with his partners in the Union Land Company, had bought up land at the intersection of Nichols Avenue and Good Hope Road and laid out what they called Uniontown. It was to be the first DC “suburb,” a working-class, whites-only settlement (although apparently not for the Irish, who were the “black” white people of nineteenth-century America), and was intended primarily to serve Navy Yard workers with lots purchased for $3 monthly installments. “Negroes, mulattos, pigs, or soap boiling” were forbidden, rules that appealed to those whites fearing the increasing number of free blacks in their neighborhoods in DC proper. But land speculation, financial panic, and a slowdown in production at the Navy Yard—where my dad was working as a machinist nearly a century later—led to hard times for Van Hook and Co. and the sale of his prime, pristine headquarters property to, ironically, one of those hitherto barred “Negroes,” albeit a rather famous one.
Douglass died in 1895, but his second wife, Helen, organized the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, which was chartered by Congress in 1900. That association and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs joined forces to open Cedar Hill to the public in 1916. And in 1962, the National Park Service was entrusted with the care of the house. But in the 1950s, we boys felt that the gently rolling hill on which the house stood belonged to us on those snowy winter days just as much as Fort Stanton did year-round. We were black boys dreamily sledding over white snow, pushing through to a time when segregation would give way to integration, and then, little more than a decade later, to one when the population of Anacostia would be just 37 percent white, when the DC school system would be 90 percent black, when Nichols Avenue would become Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and when the Carver Theater—the only one open to us in Anacostia during segregation—would fold and later reinvent itself as the home of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia African American History Museum and then fold again when that museum moved to a new, much larger building up the hill across from Fort Stanton Park.
Anacostia has been mostly black for decades now and thus “naturally” segregated once again, only this time more insidiously so, for such segregation has had a new factor churning within it: social and economic isolation. But much change is in the air—even solidly in the works—as it is everywhere now in DC, it seems. So much so that one current complaint from many black residents is that their “Chocolate City” is melting in the noonday sun of increased gentrification, with white families buying up property black families can no longer afford and “moving back in,” desiring to be closer to the action again, thoughts of where their young children will eventually attend school placed on the back burner or distinctly on the one marked “private.” And what with the Metro so gaily gliding “across the river,” property values steadily rising, and new development lining King Avenue and beyond, Anacostia is clearly increasingly “in their sights.”
Despite all this, however, despite the elaborate plans for all manner of Anacostia riverfront development; despite the creation of a neat though rather circumscribed community of mixed-income townhouses along Alabama Avenue that rests on the site of the demolished Frederick Douglass Dwellings, which had sat on the site of old Stantontown, which was land that had been bought by ex-slave Tobias Henson; despite the grounds of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, the old insane asylum, partially making way for the Department of Homeland Security; despite all of that and more—all those so-called manifestations of freedom and progress in this country—I suspect that black boys sledding down a snow encrusted Cedar Hill might well still be black boys reveling in one of the few white realities they feel they can safely touch, embrace, get next to, glimpsed and grasped in the dead of a DC winter. That temperate climate snow—like integration of any kind, it seems—forever illusive, impermanent, the stuff of dreams.
About the Author:
Kermit Frazier’s more than twenty-five plays have been produced at such theaters as the New Federal Theater, Detroit Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Seattle Children’s Theatre, and Baltimore Center Stage. Some have also been published by Broadway Play Publishing and Dramatic Publishing. In addition, he’s written for several television series, including head writer for the popular children’s mystery series, Ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in: Callaloo, Essence, Black World, Green Mountains Review, American Theatre, and The New York Times Book Review. His memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, was published in May 2022.
“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.”