Issues /  / Creative Nonfiction

Weeks into the pandemic, I lie on my bed at midday, listless. Outside, the fig leaves glow in the sun, electric-green mittens, all thumbs. Bees hang suspended in the garden. Yesterday I rearranged the furniture. Side tables shoved across the room, pictures removed. Nail spikes await my decisions about what to rehang, where. Does any of it matter? Upstairs, my son sorts Legos: warm colors, cool colors, translucents, dark grays, light grays. For weeks, room-bound, he inventories, the way Nepali women in the house where I lived so long ago sifted rice—the same soft, rhythmic raking; the same immersion in work that never ends.

Such activities fit this newly elastic time. Hours balloon only to constrict into suffocating rubber necks. Like a lump of salt dough, time, once a pinched pot, now shapeshifts into a heavy-winged dragon, a sad cat, a leaf etched with veins. Plenty to do, nowhere to go. Also, an actual mound of salt dough molders in the fridge, until I force my children to sculpt something so we can take photos to upload, attach to their e-learning pages, and send to the art teacher (all of which takes an extraordinary amount of time). My daughter, in five seconds, forms that simplest shape, a ring.

“Here,” she says. “It’s a doughnut. Take the picture.”

Her older brother asks, “Isn’t it bad to use all this flour for art when people can’t get flour at the store? And people are hungry?”

When the stay-at-home order in North Carolina descended, Adam said, “It’s just a bandh.” In Nepali, the word bandh means “strike,” or literally, “closed.” Maoists decreed these strikes during a guerrilla war against the government that began in 1996 and had escalated by 2000, when we arrived. During a bandh, heavy metal garage doors surged over storefronts, students stayed home, government offices closed. Together Adam and I remembered this sudden stop from our time there: the word-of-mouth news; the scurry to get flour and potatoes; the simultaneous deflation (here we go) and elation (something’s happening!). “Sometimes, just getting food from the bazaar is a successful day,” a veteran Peace Corps volunteer counseled us in training. In other words, lower your expectations. How lovely to have a little leeway, to get nothing done, to subsist and claim victory.

These early lockdown days have the same slack to them as my days in Nepal did, when time lurched and reeled in a way it hasn’t before or since—until now. In memory, that looseness takes on a velvety nap, a lush spot where the pattern changes. I charted intense bouts of productivity and futility, phases that were meaningless to anyone else or their expectations of me, which hardly existed. I set my own milestones: one hundred books, each title dutifully recorded on journal pages rippled from the damp heat. The six-month anniversary of my post-mate leaving. A year in-country. Then two years.

In Nepali, bholiparsi means “tomorrow or the day after” but actually means “tomorrow, or in five years, or possibly never.” There, I knew that what I thought would happen might not, and even probably wouldn’t, though I couldn’t predict what might happen instead. Here, that same uncertainty roosts. We who are so used to declarative claims on the future now speak only in ifs. The surprise is how pleasurable it is.

To say this while people are dying seems the moral equivalent of a 22-year-old reading Sylvia Plath’s diaries and eating chocolate while waiting for a bandh to end; meanwhile, Maoists conscripted children in the hills sixty miles away. Here, we water the sugar snap peas in windowsill cups and drape lumpy strips of papier-mâché over balloons; meanwhile, patients die with only nurses to comfort them, or no one. In one hand, I clutch grief and free-range fear; in the other, the reclamation of space eaten by our regular lives. Maybe life always throbs this way, just less starkly so: great suffering in the background; in the foreground, tiny tunnels into joy.

Each morning in Nepal I woke under the filmy mosquito net with a feeling I hadn’t known at home: relief. No anxiety. I hadn’t even named it until I noticed its absence. Who knew where I was or what I was doing? Who cared?

Twenty years later, that same expansiveness blossoms, like we’ve somersaulted outside time to find ourselves in this strange new country. Each morning, instead of bolting awake to the alarm and rushing out of the house, I wake naturally in the blue bedroom light, talk with Adam until the children crawl into the bed. When he gets up to shower, I linger with the knees and elbows of three children who nuzzle in ways they won’t much longer. The oldest is 11. This year may be the end of my decade-plus of being physically needed, prodded, tweaked, rubbed, suckled, and pinched every hour I am home. They recount dreams of diving to the ocean floor and finding their grandmother there. We play Bears in a Bear Cave, pulling the sheets over our heads and pretending to eat all the supplies the youngest has gathered for our long winter: raspberries, honey, marshmallows mixed with gummy bears. Most of us wear some version of pajamas all day long.


We think the summer will feel better, and it almost does. The children no longer weepily click through 28 versions of the same math problem. Adam and I no longer teach and grade downstairs while the youngest takes all the clothes out of his dresser and launches them up to catch on the ceiling fan blades in a soft chandelier of pant legs and underwear. Instead, we camp. We draw. We make lime sherbet. We yell at each other, then make up: there’s no one else to talk to. Life is pleasant and unbearable. I remember how easily respite pitches into stasis.

The heat in July lies down on our necks. Everything feels portentous, blurry, like a metaphor I can’t see the other half of. At four a.m. I lie awake listening to the cat locked in the basement, rhythmically bumping his head against the plastic cat door. The sound is my own brain, knocking against the possibilities (Will the virus spread to my grandmother’s nursing home? Will schools reopen? If so, will I send my kids?).

Desperate for an excursion, I take two kids out for an ill-timed noonday trip to the creek. The muggy air drones with insects, and on the hot walk home, they’ll both cry. They dangle plastic fishing rods—neon aqua, orange—into the drab, fishless creek. On a few inches of leaf-clogged muck, the bobbins float. The futility resonates. So does the hope. My five-year-old fishes in chatty, oblivious optimism, certain that the act of holding the rod will ensure he catches a fish. My daughter, eight, savors the irony. She sees it not as endeavor but game, pretending loudly to her brother (“I hope you get a big one!”) and then stage-whispering to me (“Are there even any fish in here?”).

“Yep! There are!” he answers, having overheard the whisper but missed the cynicism.

Though maybe I’m not giving him enough credit. A few days before I’d heard him upstairs, crooning to himself, Is it time to jump out a window? Is it time to start eating yourself?

Nepal did not always feel like retreat, either. Undiagnosed gastrointestinal woes marred my health. Sweating and shaky, I’d bike to school, unable to do anything but gulp boiled water. Some days, my eleventh and twelfth graders were witty and charming and asked good questions. Other days they were sleepy, silent. Some days I arrived to find my class had been canceled for an impromptu dance performance in the courtyard, students in their blue slacks and white-collared shirts perched high in the mango trees for a better view of the stage. Other days I missed class because my bicycle tire popped, and I spent the morning mopping my brow on a woven stool at a repair shack on the North-South Highway.

Mid-morning, I’d fly down the garbage-stricken streets, dodging catcalls, to eat rice and lentils in a restaurant and read in the Kathmandu Post about the refugee camps in the east, the cholera outbreak in the west, the bombs my country was dropping on Afghanistan, and Nepal’s civil war. Still, every day the weather prediction read Fair throughout the kingdom. Aggravation close, danger remote.

I believe in the danger, now as then; I know it’s out there, fear it even, but don’t feel it. I’m buffered.

By August, the fig tree has colonized our backyard and our neighbor’s, too. On a ladder, kids pluck figs with salad tongs and drop them into a waiting colander. The abundance feels shameful, like our good health, our larks to the beach, our beady-eyed fixation on procuring the next library book in the series. We’ve got more figs than we need. The ants burrow into the sweetness, drowning themselves in syrup. The birds eat the figs. They rot on the tree. It’s too much, the way their wide bottoms split into seamed red mouths, waterlogged with rain.

I sneak them into smoothies but the seeds crunch and the kids peer into their cups, suspicious. Figs collect on the counter, slowly turning gelatinous. We tell ourselves we will eat them bholiparsi.


The lesson of this year is one I learned in Nepal, then forgot: time is a function of attention. There, the strange grew familiar. The hallway’s aquamarine shadows in the compound where I lived. The tinny recorded music broadcast from temples. The short grass-brooms propped in corners everywhere: offices, classrooms, kitchens. The market baskets of radishes and cabbages and pale lumpen eggplants like premature babies. The powdery way paint rubbed off on your fingers and clothes after touching a wall. The drips after the plants lining the flat roof had been watered. The cage of late-afternoon shadow cast by the gate’s iron curlicues. The polished concrete floor underfoot in the morning. The jackfruits hanging, tumor-like, from branches. The crisp papery bougainvillea blossoms. The goat’s horn, gnawed by dogs and left in the road with a sprig of hair still attached.

Beyond my screen door, the radio played. The show opened with the national station’s jarringly familiar refrain, the riff from the 1981 J. Geils Band’s song “Centerfold.” Then a chorus of girlish singers announced that this was Radio Nepal. Rickshaws creaked past. Schoolboys shuffled along in flip flops. Rice shoots grew. Flowering vines clambered over the sagging electric wires. Stagnant water crusted with green scum and mosquitos multiplied. The Himalayas eroded. Men shot each other. I taught my classes. I drank my tea with milk and cloves. Days passed.

Here, though, the familiar grows strange with looking. We are six months into this new country, and on autumn afternoons, we go to the woods. It feels pure to come here. Also, there is nowhere else to go. Underfoot the matted wet leaves are a collage of copper and red. Neon legwarmers of moss bloom yellow around tree trunks. Fern fronds poke their green depositions through the bracken. We hear a woodpecker’s insistent, hollow metronome and stop to find him: red head pistoning above us.

The children peel decaying bark off fallen logs to reveal a hidden ecosystem of termites, grubs, and worms. One child finds a five-inch centipede with a fan-shaped head that we have never seen before. We say we’re going to look it up. We forget to look it up.

When we pass others on this trail, someone steps aside. We eye each other with new compassion, new fear. Most people mask now, even outdoors. Two months ago, they didn’t. We don’t pet strange dogs. We negotiate this dance of shared space, more aware of each other than ever in our newfound distance. The children, dashing ten feet off the trail when strangers approach, seem the most afraid. We smile sympathetically at each other, knowing that we are just as much of a threat to them, that we could be shedding virus blindly in the charged air.

The trees are half full, then a quarter. The sugar maples and sweetgums blaze with orange penumbras. Out the window, the moth-eaten fig tree sports its mottled yellow leaves like a patchy fur. So quickly the leaves are gone. The trees spindle into the sky. We stop saying “when schools open.” We stop saying “after the vaccine.” Wearily we log onto our online classes. Wearily we log off.

We long to go anywhere. We stay home. We kick around the yard. We paint. We scour the shower curtain liner. We scrub the masks with dishwashing detergent and hang them on the clothesline, where they flap; tiny, wrinkled flags of surrender. What this year is has replaced our idea of what this year will be. Afternoons, we sit on the porch and drink tea with milk and cloves.

Learning the names of trees seems a non-sacrilegious way to fill the time. Along one trail, someone—a Boy Scout? —has labeled all the trees. American beech, tulip poplar, sycamore, elm. Why can’t I tell a beech from an elm? Why did I never realize hickory leaves were so large and fuzzy? Some names we’ve never heard of, like hornbeam, and some names we’ve never thought about, like pawpaw.

The children have favorite spots in the woods. On a near-vertical hill, someone has tied a dirty climbing rope to a tree near the top. They belay down for an hour if we let them. A log has fallen at just enough of an angle to be a challenge. They tightrope up and down it, arms out. What did we use to do? It feels as if we could stay here forever, in this year of looking, of waiting. Time loosens its grip on us; the empty hours deliver us back to ourselves.

In a quiet stand of bamboo, we tunnel through the paths dogs have made. We teach the children the word rhizome. They drag home rotting bamboo tubes as staffs and swords. Someone will get hit and someone will cry and when they’re not looking, we will throw all the scattered bamboo into the yard waste bin. A few days later we will go back for more. The woods will again be new.


Winter nights, we settle into projects. The headlines read Gurneys in the Gift Shop. Field hospitals set up in tents. The number of cases rise so fast we can’t stop repeating the numbers to each other. Adam and our youngest work puzzles. My daughter and I piece a quilt. Some nights we crochet hats. My oldest draws dragons. He bends over his desk to add crenulated wings, armored plates, scales. Their tails coil in on themselves, spiraling like overpasses, requiring many interlocking and erased pencil lines. His dragons are wily, snuggly, imperious. Little speech bubbles from their mouths lodge cryptic quotes: Give me fish! Me too! Never give up!

One night, cleaning out his swampy closet, we find his fourth-grade notebook and I realize how hard he’s been working on this, for years. Among the scrawled notes on matter and Thomas Jefferson, I glimpse the disciplined hand of an apprentice practicing his craft: Eyes, one page reads, with a dozen eye shapes. Wing Types, reads another. I know I should mention that perhaps he shouldn’t have been doodling in class, that as a teacher I should feel the same chagrin I feel when my own students are so off-task. But I don’t. I feel happy. Such dark ore veining his interior world—look! He pressed so hard the graphite crumbled, shaded so carefully. I just leave him alone, two years ago, learning nothing about matter or Thomas Jefferson, but learning how to draw his way into the world, how to follow the line, how to be himself in secret fervor, how the pleasure of the thing comes from doing it. How to not know and keep going, like all of us have done this year—not knowing, still going.

To pass the time abroad, Peace Corps volunteers wrote science fiction novels or folded one thousand paper cranes. Determined to figure out how to bake western-style bread on a two-burner kerosene stove, one volunteer invented a convection oven that resembled a lidded Bundt pan. Another (male) volunteer took up knitting. He explained that he would sit in public and chat with Nepali men who came over to ask why he was doing women’s work. He claimed those long afternoons of knitting in the open air constituted “breaking down gender stereotypes.”

Some days we wanted to stay forever, like when the child dashed up to Adam on a mountain path and asked, “Do you know The Rock?” Adam, interpreting this to mean do you know of the wrestler named The Rock, said yes. The next day the child met him on the path, with a carefully lettered manila envelope addressed to The Rock, “your neighbor,” which he expected Adam to hand deliver when he returned home. We still have it. When we stumble on it in a drawer, we feel just as happy as we did that day.

Other days triggered the urge to flee. Gropings on the street. The headmaster handing over a stick and instructing you to beat a disobedient pupil. The women who stirred, sifted, and scrubbed every waking hour, while so many of their husbands and sons lounged on pallets, smoked, or played carom. We all knew the desire to escape.

This year, eventually not even our projects amuse us. Ice storms come, and then the ice falls like hardware from the trees: hinges and clamps loosed from the branches that shaped them. If you look straight out the window, not up, it appears that the sky is being demolished, torn down for some new project. This seems too obvious a metaphor for February.

De-iced, the fig appears ready, poised for some great act. The new growth on the branches darkens, with a reddish cast to the tensile threads. Tiny bumps line the surface like a teenager’s acne. I am lying on the bed again, midday, looking out the window. We are one week from the year-anniversary of when everything shut down. Another milestone.

I don’t know what it marks. Survival, maybe. We’ve done this nameless, momentous thing, and now we’re going to name it. It’s a circling back, time spiraling over itself like a dragon’s tail, neat coils stacked on top of each other; a salt dough ring pinched closed. The tidiness of a contained cycle, arriving on schedule. Not this endless yawing.

I get my first vaccine shot, then my second. My gratitude doesn’t cancel out my want. I want the noses of crocuses pushing out of the ground, and the first stalwart yellow daffodil. I want the pink-knotted camellia buds to unfurl, and the blue heads of iris to rise over the sea of beds like periscopes. I want that first warm day—though you know it will freeze again—when you run out for a minute, barefoot, and feel the dirt under your toes.


“Nothing is crisp,” a friend says, as the conversation veers from our tweens’ hours onscreen to our own loss of executive function. The blurry day could be Sunday, or Wednesday.

On screens, the children drift into a vortex: YouTube videos on how to crochet tiny whales, the Minecraft Wiki page, Ninjago episodes. My kindergardner is learning about colonial townspeople for reasons no one can fathom. On his tablet, his finger circles grainy pictures of millers, cobblers, blacksmiths. We can hardly decipher the images, photocopied from old worksheets, then uploaded: a loaf of bread lifted out of the fire could be a pond; the wheat ground into flour could be stones. Uncertain, my son looks to me. “This one? Which one?” Sometimes we just guess.

The blurriness has been unsettling, but not all bad. As soon as events are over—tantrums, classes, meetings—they dissolve in a way that feels more authentic than they used to, when time clawed along under my days like a cat under the sofa, muscling its way over with sounds of invisible ripping.

Schools reopen; we go back, masked and distant. The children don’t crawl into my bed anymore. I am in the shower while they tell each other their dreams. And yet: springtime coaxes crisp blades of grass from the dirt. I look out the window all day. This crispness is what I crave: branch, sprout, bud, robin wing. Even the clouds, fluffed and torn, have distinct borders where they meet the sky. New punctuation marks of green appear on the fig tree.

On St. Patrick’s Day, my daughter finds two four-leaf clovers in the yard. We press them in my grandmother’s cloth-bound dictionary, on the page for luck. Now she wants to press everything: daffodil blooms, wild lilacs, green sprays of weed. Once dried, she embalms these fragile shapes under wrinkled packing tape in a notebook, with a heading for each page. Random flowers. Plants I Found on St. Patrick’s Day. We feel lucky. We are lucky. We buy refundable plane tickets.

Meanwhile, the virus spike in India spreads to Nepal. Online I see images of a woman lying on a cot on the sidewalk, oxygen tank over her; images of soldiers in full PPE sanitizing their hands after transporting bodies for cremation. To feel anything but gratitude for the chance to leave lockdown feels blasphemous. And yet—

I couldn’t wait to leave Nepal. And I couldn’t stand to leave Nepal. For years I would remember how sad I was to leave and forget how eager I’d been to go. Ambivalence doesn’t mean not caring, I tell my students this year. It means having two deeply felt, contradictory emotions. I don’t want to stay, but I don’t want to lose what I found here. To go is to lose it.

What I’d miss from Nepal were people: Suja, bent over my palm with her bag of henna, squeezing out checkerboards and vines; Lok, trying endlessly to distinguish between snake and snack in English. I’d miss Anjela, the daughter of my house, her bangles tinkling as she brought me a snack in the afternoon—fried peppery diamonds of dough—and taught me its name: nimki.

All of us spent 2020 in another country, a terrain of fear and release and revelation. We likely won’t go back. For a few months, it had seemed like the drama of a global shut-down could rewire our societies and ourselves. Recalling the hope for a new society on the other side—remember Arundhati Roy calling the pandemic a “portal,” claiming it was “a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves”?—I grieve for that optimism. I asked a friend what happened to that conviction we briefly had that everything could be, must be different. She shook her head and said capitalism is too strong.

I know myself well enough not to be surprised that I already feel nostalgia for all I complained about, just as I pine for the interminable bus rides in Nepal, during which a lady might board with a chicken hanging placidly upside down in each hand, a gaggle of young girls behind her. I can still see the girls with their black eyes darting at me, then giggling and whispering behind their hands. I can still see their mother shove her chickens, legs roped together, under the seat, where they squirmed but couldn’t move. Outside, the faint shouts of peeling billboards: Coke, Hinwa whiskey, Wai Wai instant noodles.

So, yes, part of me misses the midday listlessness of the pandemic’s beginnings, back when we rocked in each hour as in the hull of a boat. Now the slack in the rope is tugged, now the days again are made fast to the cleat, and eventually, the strangeness of that time will stand in bas-relief to the surrounding years: its blurriness the very thing that, by contrast, renders it distinct—but only once it’s irretrievable.

Two years later, the fig tree is leafing out again, over my neighbor’s fence. Already I’ve almost forgotten what it looked like bare.

Anne P. Beatty


Anne P. Beatty’s essays have been published in the American Scholar, Shenandoah, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. Her work has also been listed among The Best American Essays 2019 Notable Essays. She lives with her husband and three children in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she is a high school English teacher.

paper texture

My feelings for Martin happen fast, and I have no impulse to stop them. I am in an altered state, needy for reasons to live. If my heart were an eye, it would be fully dilated. My world is so dark that I am hypersensitive to light. The smallest pinprick of hope feels like God's own rays shining through. Martin is a twinkly thing, a beacon, and I move toward it, with grandiose thoughts of destiny. There are those that might measure a love by the loyalty shown afterwards, but this is not my logic. For twenty-three years, I have proven my love for Evan. The only thing to prove now is that I'm not wrong to be alive.

The first inkling. Martin outside the hospital room. Evan in a coma, rocked by a giant mechanical mother, strapped to it facedown. It surrounds him so that all you see are hints: an ear, a lock of hair. I hold his hand, both of us tied to the rhythm of his automatically pumped breath. It counts what is left of his time in motorized beats. The room is small; the machine overfills the space. Martin leans against the wall of the hallway, his eyes lit by the light of his phone. He is relaying updates to our friends and family, people he also knows.

I may have never seen him wearing glasses, because the times we have spent together have been social. He would be in his kitchen serving drinks, his stance wide, and eyes festive. Quick to smile and laugh, he was otherwise quiet, arms often folded, fitting the role of observer. Now his eyes are on my life; he scrolls through its most painful details. The thought flits in -- partner. It comes in a flash, an impression of us, this idea that we are in this together. Before this, I had seen him from the surface, noted his looks, humor, and the love that Evan had for him.

My second inkling is at the play when I find that I am thinking about Martin's neck. Third, we end up together on Valentine's Day at the movies. Within two weeks, he's my plus one, right when the minus one hurts most. Invites pour in, two free tickets to each event, and Martin chaperones. He picks me up, pays if there is a cost, and brings me home. The inklings, if like drops of rain, now shower down. When we go to hear the jazz, I hold Martin's hand and cry as I listen as the drums drive the bass and horns into the same shared rhythm. It's grief-like, how the music swells in waves and becomes louder until it's almost all noise; then, slowly, it ebbs into an exhausted quiet. The question now is not if I'm going to kiss him, but how. It's a physics problem, how to position our faces so that our lips will touch. When he drops me off, his VW idling in my driveway, I think this could be the moment. We sit in the cover of dark, under the massive pine tree. But the bucket seats are badly angled, and the goodbye is too short to allow for my delays.

Now, I have asked him if I can come over, I have said I need to talk to him, I'm about to drive to his house. It's after seven; I've fed the kids; I leave hidden in the shadows of the douglas firs; the streetlamps subdued by the thick dark of their heavy branches. The two stands of golden bamboo watch like sentinels on either side of the walkway. They rub their leaves in the wind, a sound like rain. The cool air feels alive, it rushes forward as though to greet me. I know every inch of these narrow roads, how they bend and dip. I know the madrona around the corner, how the neon colors emerge, mirage-like as I come to the lights of Lake City Way. That terrible night they called me back to the hospital, it was at this stoplight when I realized for the first time that this might be the end. It was after midnight and waiting there, I screamed to Evan that I was sorry; sorry for his loss of his life, because all at once I grasped the truth that his life didn't belong to me. At that moment, any sense of us being bound together fell away as though it had never been real.

I head up the hill, passing all the places I often took the kids: the mall, driving classes, the burrito place, ice cream, past the place I went for yoga, the movie theatre where I took the kids with their friends, landmarks of my old life. I think of the phrase crossing enemy lines, but I know that's not it exactly; I am going against pledges of allegiance, against promises that seemed permanent but now are broken. This is the Death Do Us Part of my marriage. I drive under I-5, the thick dividing line that bisects Seattle, separating east from west. The cars race across the bridge, their headlights a bouncing frenzy overhead.

At the intersection at Meridian, I think again of the hospital, how it continues to exist. It's a few blocks away; I am thankful not to see it. The idea of it haunts me, as if a gateway there has been left open. I picture that Evan was beamed up in a channel of light leaving behind dangerously charged dust. My tires screech when the traffic moves, and the road twists through a small patch of woods before it straightens to meet 99. Like I-5, it slices through the city, but it's the old highway, slow, punctuated with roads in and out. Strange figures on the corners linger, hunched and unhinged.

In daytime this is a stretch of road where the mountains in the west appear, giant and craggy, and the sun blinds, erasing everything, but it's night, and the sun shows no interest, makes no cross-examination. A call comes in from Evan's sister. She asks what I'm doing as if she senses betrayal, and perhaps she does, because now, as I turn onto Holman, the arrow points right at what I'm about to do; I'm on the road that ends at his house.

I'm going to Martin's, I say.

I have already confessed to her about my feelings for him, believing in the strength of my renewed sisterhood; we have been made closer by the loss of Evan. Every day she texts with poetic accounts of her grief for the loss of her brother, and I respond with my usual muddled hope. She begs me not to act on my feelings, even though she says she understands the appeal. She has known Martin nearly all her life and has long ignored her own soft love for him, her own small crush. But she is in Chicago and married, has never pursued him. She says, if you do this you will be ruining something, and I say but isn't everything already ruined?

Now I am on his street. It has no sidewalks and a ramshackle feel. The cars are piled haphazardly on either side like resting beasts. Over there, a chain link fence. Next to that a tree. It's a hodgepodge of multistory and squat houses. His place is behind a hedge; it's tall and dark green with white trim. I'm at his house, I say, and I tell her not to worry, that it isn't a bad thing. Don't do it, she says one more time. I feel I am being defiant, but at the same time, I know this is just me, continuing to live.

When she says goodbye through the car's speaker, I am already half-out; already I have one foot on ground. The car beeps as it locks, kindly obedient, and I climb up the steps, these steps I know. I hear the echo of all the shoes I've worn over the years on these stairs. The air smells of the brine of the sea and rolls in like waves. Prickles of wet land in my eyelashes. Martin comes to the glass door with a crooked smile looking as if woken from a nap and says hello in a jovial way. He is in slippers, a plaid long sleeved shirt, and jeans, and I cross the threshold, remove my shoes and slide across the shiny maple floors. All around Evan is historical. I remember him in every part of the room.

What can I get you? Martin asks.

Nothing thanks, I say. I just want to talk.

The room is quiet and shiny like crystal. The white Christmas lights up year-round give a diffuse and festive light. I sit on the burgundy couch, and he sits next to me, close enough to touch but not touching. We use the polite formality of diplomats; neither of us will make any sudden moves.

I look at the clock on the wall. It's big, round, and demands that I interpret Roman numerals. For years I have looked at it, thinking I should get home. Evan and I would be at one of Martin's parties. The kids would be with us and need to go home to bed or they would be home and we'd need to get back to them. Even now they are home and waiting. Every time I leave the house, they worry, the emptiness more ravenous the longer I am gone. How easily they imagine losing me, as if I'm next to disappear. The clock says get on with it; I hear it tick.

I need to tell you something. But it's hard to say.

My mouth contorts. He flinches slightly, blinks. There are shadows in the room, and light slants in from streetlamps throwing orange on the wall. Okay, he says, and he adjusts his position, sits more upright, tilts his head.

I want to kiss you. The words are out, and my cheeks flush. He takes a slight gasp of breath. Already, I'm embarrassed. I want it but don't want it. There is some hemming and hawing from him. He's flattered, but surely, I don't mean it, it's my grief talking. He didn't mean to give the wrong impression. I say I'm sure, and it's what I want, and can I? He says he's not sure, but he agrees to allow it. He has been alone so long the air is charged around him. His arms are around me, his touch light, barely there. I turn my head towards him, and for a long time, I don't move. I mean to do it, but something stops me. It's as if the air itself says NO. Here is the fine edge of the blade. I am about to betray Evan but continuing to be alive without him is the unthinkable, not this.

He is sits behind me, holds me, and we sit like this in the quiet, breathing. I'm thinking about his face, the smoothness of his cheek, his glowing brown eyes, but I still can't make myself move, and he doesn't either. He waits calmly. I can still change my mind, say I was wrong, say I'm not ready. How readily I can imagine his relief. He would put his hand to his head, run it across his smooth short hair, take a breath, look down, and easily let me go.

But I am running away from my old life; a thing that is collapsing, a castle on fire. Once out of the burning building, there are still fields to cross, then woods, and it's all dark with branches, a rugged path full of burrs and thorns. I am here in these woods and at the same time feel that Martin is still waiting. I cross landmarks of memory. My first kiss with Evan. How he came to my door, how I took him in, how I held his head in my lap and kissed him. I come to my wedding day and cross it, the moments the children were born, the feel of his hand, the two of us singing together. It's an act of destruction to move on. I know that. It takes anger to do it; I pull from bitterness. It takes a will to destroy, but I have always had that, for better or worse. I have always been restraining my impulse to destroy things. Evan had been there to stop me before, but he is not here now.

Martin's lips are soft, warm, yielding, foreign. Even one kiss fills and startles. Even one kiss opens a chasm between who I was and who I am to be. He's a lion; his arms, his chest, the space around his neck, his kind eyes, he's all warmth and ease. He's a world, a landscape I want to find myself in. Our emptiness-es touch. Something is beginning, but my old world wants me, and the clock says nine fifteen. I say, I need to go. The kids are waiting. We part at the door, and I drive home in moonlight, on deserted streets and under the hollow spotlights of streetlamps, tiny portals that shine down, but offer no passage.

Lael Cassidy


Lael Cassidy writes poems, stories, and essays, and her work has appeared in Headline Poetry and Press, Silver Birch, Underwood Press, and Beyond Words. She has also written sixteen nonfiction children's books. She teaches at The Writers Studio and currently is writing a memoir about loss and resilience.

paper texture
*Names and some personal characteristics have been amended to protect anonymity.

The Ina Road straightaway shimmers in the sun and one-hundred-degree heat. It’s the desert summer Part One, an oppressive time before the rains arrive; it and the road become metaphors for tough times. Traffic is sparse on this west side of Tucson, an area unfamiliar to me—it’s where the storage facility is located—but I trust my phone map and move forward.

As friendly a city as Tucson is in all seasons of the year, there is an inherent loneliness to summertime. The town and its university shrink in size with the exodus of students and snowbirds, of seasonal workers. Full-time residents who can leave too, escaping the June to September heat, speeding north and east toward Flagstaff or Pinetop, or west to the beaches of San Diego. Neighborhood streets are uninhabited as families take refuge in home air conditioning or backyard swimming pools.

Past Foothills Mall, Thornydale Road, then Oldfather. The scenery changes to clutter. Buildings are clearly marked for business; they’re low-slung with flat roofs, separate or attached in strip malls. Harbor Freight, 99-Cent Store, Discount Tire. I signal left near the supersize car wash with its gawdy neon stripes and onto Camino Martin, past the corner Arby’s.

The Box sits next to me on the passenger seat. I’d strapped it in with a seatbelt and it cooperates, resting obediently in its spot; its presence creates for me a crazy sense of calm.

The road deteriorates. It punishes my car’s axle; it’s so worn and rutted in spots. The scenery shifts again to urban-industrial; I pass fronts for auto glass sales, landscapers, construction equipment dealers. My destination appears on my left, and I pull in.

Outside of my car I see further down Camino Martin where the road curves east and out of sight. Beyond it are Union Pacific tracks, and, beyond the tracks, the westbound lanes of Interstate 10, the main corridor to Phoenix. Traffic races by; there’s no stopping here.

In an empty lot next door and all along the street up to the empty train tracks, clumps of dying buffelgrass, desert invaders, rustle in the hot wind. There isn’t a human being in sight. I’m not a soul on ice, I’m a soul in storage.

“All property (is) stored at the Tenant’s sole risk, (the risk) arising from any cause, including but not limited to burglary, mysterious disappearance, fire, weather damage, mold, mildew, rodents, acts of God…”

Even with my mental images of “mysterious disappearance,” I am weirdly drawn to my new storage home in the Tucson wilderness. At five by ten feet, it’s like an inside-out version of my other home, my new and down-sized everyday-life home.

Maybe it’s because of the owners, Amelia and Allen, so quietly parental in their middle age and in their introductions. “Honey,” Amelia calls me from first utterance, wearing what I will come to recognize as her favorite and ladylike lilac sweater. “Honey, you said indoor storage, right?”

I nod. The facility, like most in Tucson, offers unit doors opening to the inside or the outside. “My relatives warned me,” I say.

Both owners laugh. “One Tucson summer is all it takes,” Amelia agrees, her face and fingers creating a strange visual for disintegration. She pulls the appropriate forms.

I’d done my research before coming here, and I knew that some storage business owners referred to people like me, potential renters, people-in-transition, as “captive audience”— there are thousands of us, and the thinking goes this way: I’ll throw my money down, I’ll slam shut the doors to my storage unit after loading it up, and then forget all about it—“it” being the compartment bearing the weight of my past, “it” being the automatic, monthly payments. There is a risk I’ll become attached to my personal, sad story and twist myself into a modern version of a pillar of salt.

“Did you know there’s lots of military here? In storage?” Amelia yanks my mind in a different direction. She rapidly fills in lines on the main rental form.

I suppose I should have known this with Davis–Monthan Air Force Base as part of the fabric of Tucson. Amelia slides the paperwork my way and continues, “Airmen write wills before they ship overseas. It’s mandatory.”

I consider this point and the “why” of her sharing it with me as I sign, measuring it against the significance of my own situation, which suddenly shrinks in importance. (Amelia sounds suspiciously like a counselor, in the manner of bartenders and hairdressers.)

Allen accepts my check then scans the paperwork for completion. “A copy of your insurance policy?” he asks, and I produce it, overly prepared as always. Allen makes copies and stamps, stamps, stamps them; he hands me a set in a paper folder.

“They lots of times pay for the whole deployment,” Amelia winds on. “Young kids, older folks. Sometimes that will be the one and only time we’ll ever see them.” She pauses, eyes cast down, to allow her meaning to sink in. “Someone else shows up to empty the box.”

“Empty the box” seems a little crude.

The sparse office smells like clean; I sniff-detect Windex and Pine Sol. There is the requisite green plant in a pot on the countertop struggling against a combination of the Tucson heat and fluorescent lighting. On the walls are fading reprints of local desert landscapes in faux wood frames, maybe Pusch Ridge, maybe the main road through Saguaro National Park. Stacks of unassembled cardboard boxes for purchase: Buy Three, One’s Free!

My Box, a broom, a can of Raid— I am set free to find my C-building unit.

The property is laid out like a military grid; the individual storage buildings are Quonset huts with A, B, C nearest the office and D, E, F lined up precisely behind. Behind the huts is open, unpaved desert dedicated to recreational vehicles, long and short, expensive and crude, ghostly in their silent disuse and accompanied by all manner of adult toys: boats, trailers, wave-runners, dirt bikes.

Building C, like all of the Quonsets, is cooled by swamp cooler, an old and relatively cheap southwestern method of heat-relief, not as satisfying as air conditioning but definitely capable of removing the edge from a 105-degree day, as it does this day. The buzz and hum are constant and so is the indoor level of humidity; my curly hair winds as tight as my internal tape-loop repeating messages from the past.

There are four heavy exit doors, one at each corner of the building, and the reinforced windows inside each door admit the only natural light. I could be stepping into a mausoleum. The storage unit doors are corrugated steel, variable in width, each one identified by a small plate affixed to the wall above it. Corridors are wide, networked; the floors are concrete. To see in the perma-dark, I discover, I must follow a special, funhouse sequence of steps: flipping on the initial light switch and flipping switches again and again as I move forward down the long and black straightaways.

Soon I am tailed by a steady tick, tick, tick of built-in timers, each one counting down from twenty minutes to zero and a return to blackness. The Box is in my arms, and I dare to look back over my shoulder, as I do many, many times in the days, months, years to come, incorporating the image as much as that weird phase of my life: the long, empty straightaway; the patches of shadow and gloom from around corners and connecting passages; the tick, ticking light switches, unsynchronized timekeepers.

On some days all of this strikes me as funny, and on other days not so much, though every day the surroundings seem strangely, unexpectedly familiar, even benevolent, like a landscape inside of my head usually bypassed, but beckoning now. It signals an experience where my surrender is highly recommended.

“The tenant agrees not to commit waste nor to create nuisance. The tenant agrees not to store jewels, furs, heirlooms, art works, collectibles or other irreplaceable items.”

The Box is with me as well as my new padlock; in a few more days, my moving truckload of furniture and other pedestrian belongings, my share of a wrenching household split, will be delivered and professionally stuffed in. The Box is the only thing I think of as “irreplaceable”; nevertheless, it’s staying here as part of a courageous mental act.

I set it down on the floor in the center of my unit space atop an old embroidered blue towel I’d also brought with me like a ceremonial cloth. I sweep out the unit with my own broom and spray the seams against insect life even though Allen had assured me that the hired exterminator followed a regular schedule. I knew Tucson in summertime and more than enough about the beetles, roaches, spiders, centipedes, scorpions, tarantulas, and snakes, all capable of amazing feats like squeezing through pinprick holes. (I’d entertained at least one of each as unwelcome summer drop-ins in other homes.) Plus, I had heard and read the horror stories about what crawled out of people’s belongings post-storage. No! When I was finished here one day, I would emerge clean, reconstructed.

Over the days and months after my unit is packed, the gates to my storage home open and close to me, close and open.

In the beginning, I visit to add household items I’d forgotten to pack or to retrieve items I had thought I wouldn’t need but do need. Sometimes I visit to indulge in second-guessing about what I packed or to make sure the Box is protected from the elements as it spends nights away from me.

I always know its location, and if I doubt it, which in those initial days I often, neurotically, do, I panic and quick-drive to storage to reassure myself, which is irrational but somehow necessary. It is very much like the first nights spent sleeping alone and terrified, tempted to call up the past and cry him over to spend the night. At some point you make a decision, either for or against the animal trap and emotional imprisonment. I am struggling to stay with the more difficult option.

“There shall be no habitable occupancy of the (storage) space by humans or pets of any kind for any period whatsoever… Any use of the storage unit other than storage is a violation of (codes).”

Alone is too small a word for the experience. Abandoned too suggestive of self-pity. Growing and developing way too pedestrian. Maybe bewildered, with its suggestion of wild or wandering, comes closest to the target.

I have a few friends on site now, like the Union Pacific trains on the nearby, active tracks. After a few weeks, I learn the daytime schedule. No matter where you are on the grounds—inside, outside—you hear the underlying bass notes first, that thrilling, thrumming song of approach opening up to the full music, the rhythmic clack of steel against steel, and then when the engine passes by, the fading sound of its distant horn, the last cars moving past and reintroducing silence.

I’d made a mistake familiar to many women and leaned too heavily on my primary relationship, neglecting other possible connections and friendships. Now I had work to do. I discover women on the storage grounds I see as manifestations of myself.

There is orderly, efficient Amelia in her golf cart, beeping, waving to me while passing by if I happen to be outside, an array of black trash bags, buckets, brooms, and mops riding in the backseat, stick handles as neat and straight-backed as well behaved children.

There is a nameless, middle-aged woman with hair as unruly as mine, but gray. She sometimes pulls up next to an outdoor-facing 5x8 in Building B, jacking up the unit door with the outrage of a spurned lover and hurling in a mash of unboxed items: shirts, jeans, towels—they fly through the air. Tufted chair cushions; two small webbed patio tables. Objects whirl end over end until there are tilted piles of stuff. A beige lamp shade here. Another one, bigger than the last, over there. The woman carries in one iron lamp base and sets it down with a smack. It rocks back and forth on the cement floor, the cord snaking alongside.

Watching her triggers memories of old Law and Order episodes and the things Angry People hide inside storage units: whole getaway cars, a victim’s underwear, the keys to unlock other storage units.

Observing the woman’s anger, feeling it inside my own body, I wonder about the possibilities of breaking storage rules and burrowing defiantly into our disappointments. Could we hole up inside? Security cameras would be an issue, for sure, but the owners have working hours; knowledge could be manipulated to one’s advantage. There would be the matter of one’s car, which could be hidden, planted in the field alongside one of the ghost RVs.

One would need the following to camp on site: a folding cot, a bedroll, Coleman lantern, slop bucket and TP, a reserve can of Raid, a well packed cooler, headphones for music, good books, but nothing in the horror genre. Here we could wallow in funk and then find out who cares about our antisocial disappearances: who notices and who doesn’t. It would be useful information.

There is another resident of Building B I see more often; we talk, but it’s like an unwritten rule here that we don’t seek each other out to talk. She reluctantly shares a mumbled “Jennifer” only when I share my name first.

Jennifer likes to roll up the door of her outside unit, exposing boxes stacked precisely around the perimeter, surgically packed, like mine. On the empty stretch of floor in front of the boxes is a small, oval, braided rug in shades of red and blue. She’s maybe forty, maybe fifty years old— it’s hard to tell. Jennifer in her Tucson-standard shorts and flip flops, a sleeveless cotton blouse, drags a webbed lawn chair just outside her unit and sprawls into it. There she basks in the sun like a Sonoran lizard with no need for company. Maybe this is her version of Paradise.

I watch her before practicing my own fearlessness, observing the theatrics of an approaching monsoon storm without feelings of loss: the buildup over the mountaintops, a restless stirring of the wind, the fingers of dark clouds creeping away from the thunderheads to stretch out into the valley. Grasses hissing in the backlot around the empty hulking vehicles and thunder, the telltale odors of creosote and wet rich desert soil. Rain begins then hammers on the metal roofs, obliterating thought.

“In cases where the owner considers it necessary to enter the space for the purpose of examining it for violation of this agreement … or to comply with this agreement, Tenant agrees that Owner reserves the right to remove contents to another space.”

It isn’t coincidence that whenever I leave the storage grounds, the iron gates on their steel tracks roll open for me before I ever reach the keypad to log in my code. I am never as alone as I believe I am.

I wave at the window, knowing either Allen or Amelia is behind it, but unable to see past the sunshield coating. Someone or both tracks my comings and goings and maybe sees more than I know: the reactive, curly hair, the crying jags tapering off now, the oversized sunglasses I often hide behind. Later, the rituals I perform.

There are no criticisms coming from the office; no efforts are made to press me for stories. There is just the gate rolling open as if I am a member of an offbeat, alternative, extended family.

Ritualbehaviors begin within a year after my move-in, escalating over time and peaking during the Tucson summers, because with my demanding but satisfying line of work as a new teacher, summers provide the time to escape inside my head and reflect on my life as it shifts and changes. In the heat, the walls squeeze inward, and the town’s exodus-cycle repeats itself.

I complete schooling; I define “good work” for myself and find it. I restrain myself from escape-dating and dare myself to discover which of my old friends are still my friends, and then I accept the outcome. I enjoy watching my growing competence along with my growing bank account, and then one day Switch Day arrives.

I drive to my storage unit, throw open the corrugated door, and discover that the wall of boxes, the furniture, has become “other,” foreign. I act on a compulsion to sort, and my experience shifts to storage as reckoning, like the final settlement of an account.

It’s a loss of mind, a frenzy of spirit, as I attack the perfectly packed puzzle. One at a time, over a period of days, I re-open every single box. New piles are formed. Keep. Discard. Maybe. I allow them to spread out past the boundary of my unit cage. The mad timers’ tick, tick, tick are accompaniments to my actions and throw me gleefully into darkness when I become too absorbed in memories: a couch tied to Sunday naps and lovemaking; the books, books, beloved books, sometimes read together; suitcases and suitcases from travels to foreign and domestic places, tropical islands, ancestral homelands; accompanying road maps, guidebooks, notebooks; mountain bikes; diving gear; ballroom shoes; theater programs; garden stepping stones; framed and wrapped works of art—mementos from a full and privileged life.

I hear a far-end door slam and footsteps approaching. It’s Amelia pushing a wide mop down the corridors, again creating order. She greets me and makes a show of her acceptance by not asking questions about my mania: unit contents and newspaper wrappings strewn up and down the corridor like a birthday party gone mad.

Space opens up inside the walls as I cart boxes off to area charities, carloads, week after summer week, summer month. Sometimes charities come to me.

This agreement shall continue from month to month unless the Tenant or Owner delivers to the other party a written notice of its intentions to terminate the agreement ten (10) days prior to the end of the current rental month.”

I move to a unit less than half the size, but discover I am still not finished. In full consciousness now, I explode through the same self-imposed exercises, examining contents anew, deciding how each thing “feels” for the new life ahead of me—what to keep and what to leave behind. Until only essentials are left. These are the things I will take with me to my first home not a rental. And the Box.

The Box was the first item into storage, and now it’s the last to vacate, the heart of the matter.

Inside it are some predictable things: packets and packets and envelopes, and smaller boxes holding cards, e-mails, letters, love notes, photos from my best days with a man I loved. But there is more.

Like every pair of lovers, we had our own unique possessions, things as silly as nicknames or as weird as antique shaving-collectibles. Inside jokes.

Every year on my birthday, my partner invited family and friends to our home to celebrate an “unveiling.” He created life-sized portraits of me in pen and watercolor to illustrate aspects of my life or personality as writer, hiker, dancer, gardener, cook. But the best thing about the portraits was that my partner could not draw; the pictures were like kinder-art, colorful and hilariously primitive, the unveilings always accompanied by BBQ and drink, lots of it. In my Box were the “studies” pre-portrait. Today I could laugh again.

It would be dramatic and final to say that in the end, years after my arrival, I purged and shredded, burned, destroyed everything in the Box. Instead, during my last day in storage, I removed every remaining item in it. Like the individual portrait studies, I dared myself to remember, but especially to remember the good.

On this same day I swept the empty floor of my humble rented home and yanked down the door. Next came the long and welcome ride to the north side of town. What remained of the Box was a nine by twelve inch envelope holding the best pieces of my life before. It accepted a gentle toss into the back seat. From my vantage behind the steering wheel and with the help of my rear-view mirror, I could barely see it behind me.

Elizabeth Berlin


Elizabeth Berlin works as both a writer and Reading Specialist-teacher in Tucson, Arizona. She is originally from Detroit, Michigan. Elizabeth's fiction and nonfiction works have appeared in numerous journals, most recently in "Calyx," "Room" (Canada), and "Storyteller," through the Society of Southwestern Authors. She was a recent, invited participant in the "Calyx" journal Audio Project. In Tucson, Elizabeth is an avid hiker and advocate for children.

paper texture

In June of 2021, the US Government released a UFO report conceding that some objects and events witnessed and/or recorded by military or other pilots remain unexplained. The report describes objects that move with speed and agility unattainable by modern aircraft. They look odd because we have metrics for what human-made crafts and lights do, and these don’t conform. I have felt that the report was a red herring. I mean, I suspected that some UFO recordings had been leaked, so a tranche of boring UFO files were unclassified as a way of appeasing excitable Roswell people.

I’m as intrigued as anybody about aliens, for so many reasons, but I’m not one of those people who, in the event of a massive UFO descending to earth, would gather atop a skyscraper holding a big Welcome sign. Because as we all know, from the movie Independence Day and the pandemic, those people who misunderstand ominous threats get exploded by lasers. I harbor a prudent fear, is what I am saying, based on a certainty that doom lurks around every corner and sure, it could just as likely be aliens who bring it.

I manage to keep the UFO current events beat on a back burner most of the time, but I was minding my own business on the Internet the other day and saw a video from December 8 in which a pilot filmed three rows of moving lights in the clouds, flying and rotating. Some rows had three lights in them, others had four. At one point a dot fades from the front row but is replaced by one in a row lower down. After a few seconds, they all disappear, like little candy buttons. The kind you eat off the paper.

On a crisp day, I can see Camp Pendleton from my front porch. In the distance, it bulks up at the furthest edge of our northwestern view in pleats of brown stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Fallbrook, from Oceanside almost to Riverside. The base covers about 125,000 acres between San Diego County and Orange County. It’s the last major undeveloped portion of the California coastline south of Santa Barbara, excepting a few small state parks.

In less than crisp weather, which is increasingly the weather, a haze blocks our view of Pendleton. Sometimes that’s the thick dewy marine layer crawling inward from the sea, but most days the smudge of smog blurs the air between here and there and makes the base unseeable, almost forgettable, until the munitions tests start. When that happens, Pendleton may be invisible, but it is also everywhere. No one talks about the explosions. I mean, sometimes on Instagram or Facebook someone will post, “Hey, is anyone else’s house shaking all day like it might collapse?” and not always but sometimes another user will reply, “Yes.”

I was watching this maybe alien sighting video over and over when my house started to rattle. My dog did what he always does, which is to skitter for my closet, clambering over shoes and boxes and nestling as far back as he can go, coiling himself into a small dog donut of terror. I know what this little quake is, but he doesn’t. And still I’d like to join him in the closet.

Unlike my sweet dog, I have access to the Camp Pendleton webpage, which has a whole section called Noise Advisory. So when your charming but janky-ass house feels like it’s going to judder right down the slope of your front yard, or like all the windows will explode in their frames, you can direct your concerns. You can find out that for example from December 18 to 22, there’s going to be Mortar Fire starting at 0600. Which means someone over there is firing High Explosive Munitions into the Whiskey/Zulu Impact area on base. You can know where the Whiskey/Zulu area is by consulting a color-coded map. You can also call the Range Operations Division Office and they will tell you what’s being blown up where. Like when I called them and asked what might it be that was shaking my whole house in Vista, the man on the phone said, “It’s artillery fire.”

And I said, “Is that like fire from a gun?”

And he said, “Yeah, a cannon,” which was very surprising to me because a cannon sounded like something Napoleon would use, or General Sherman.

So I said, “…Cannon balls?”

He said, “Ma’am it’s either the Triple Sevens or HIMARS.”

I said, “What?”

And he said, “Ma’am, just Google artillery. It’s artillery.”

And so I said, “Okay I will I guess.” And I said, “How’s your day going?”

And he said, “It’s fine. Just another day up here.”

I said, “Well, okay. So. Thank you.” And then I Googled and learned that a “cannon” includes the weapons called Triple Seven and HIMARs, both of which are machines that shoot rockets. Let me tell you something though. A Triple Seven is actually an M777 Howitzer, a behemoth of a cannon, which can weigh up to fifteen thousand pounds and requires nine soldiers to operate. The HIMAR is even bigger. It’s mounted on the back of what looks like a semi truck. It weighs almost forty thousand pounds can fire six rockets or a single missile.

Why on earth would I mention any of this? The answer is that each day their house rattles, a person’s worry accretes like sediment. Situate the intermittently rattling house in a place where real earthquakes happen. Put it on a street with wind-snapped MAGA flags. Find the house in the ever more combustible hills of San Diego, on a ridge where you can just make out the miraculous but acidifying ocean, see it there, next to a busy road where all day ambulance sirens howl like wolves, maybe racing to a school, maybe to a school, oh God, please don’t let it be a school. Inside the house a woman is forty years old, but she is also one hundred years old and has lost her wits.

By now you will have understood, as I do, that the US Military is likely A) preparing to launch a counter offensive against alien combatants or B) blasting holes into the rolling hills of Camp Pendleton so that humans may eventually seek shelter there, in caves, when we lose the battle against the aliens. Or both. It seems like both could be good. If we are being thorough. It’s a great big space, with room enough for many refugees, when the aliens come for our half-broken planet.

Last week I went to a movie with my daughter, Davi, and when we sat down and the room became dark and the opening credits began, I had the very certain feeling that I was not going to make it out of the theater alive. I mean because I could feel my heart under my ribs, pinging like an unanswerable phone—one of those old phones that shrieks when it rings. But sort of softly, though, like from down a long, long hallway. I kept touching my chest where it pinged. I started to do the 4-4-6 breathing that I heard about. In for four, hold for four, out for six. This usually helps me when I start to panic, because what else could this be but a panic. But induced by what? I breathed as well as I could, but the feeling would not abate. A little tremble started up from my chest and vibrated out to my hands and legs. Not wanting to ask Davi to leave the movie, I lay my head back in the theater seat and went to sleep. When I woke up, the movie was finishing. My chest felt the same and now I was nauseated and I had a sore neck. I went home and made an appointment with my primary doctor for three days hence. That night I woke up and went to the bathroom and threw up then went back to bed.

During the day, at my desk while I worked, I Googled chest pain and obviously that elicited some colorful results. Some were: you have heartburn; some were: you have already died and you are reading this as a ghost. I thought about going to the ER, but I didn’t. Which felt like remarkable forbearance.

On the day of my scheduled doctor’s appointment I arrived two hours early. The weather outside was so unusual, like a hurricane, which we do not have here, a wall of wind and rain and gray the palm trees were all in a real uproar, churning around on their stalks. This weather never happens here, so in the waiting room at the doctor I had the semi-conscious, narcissistic idea that the weather was inside me. Or that, looking out the window was like looking at imaging of my insides.

I was weepy by the time I saw my doctor and so his first question was, “Are you depressed?”

I said, “I might be. I’m scared and anxious.” Then I really started crying like in a very snotty way that made me grateful for the mask on my face. I just crumpled and sobbed and then I said, “I’m not crying.”

He asked, “What do you do about your depression?”

And I said, “I exercise compulsively and I do talk therapy.”

He said, “We are going to do an EKG to put your mind at ease, but I am pretty sure this pain you are describing is anxiety.”

I said I would love to have my mind put to ease. So the machine was wheeled in and they stuck the electrodes on me and I asked the tech if she had seen Captain EO because being all hooked up to these cords really reminded me of the Supreme Leader who hangs from the ceiling who Michael Jackson converts to a benevolent queen in the end. The tech said no.

She printed out the graph of my heartbeat and said she was going to check with the doctor if the printout was okay and she left and came back and said, “Okay, he wants me to do another one.”

So she did that and then she left again and I lay there on the table with all the cords coming out of me like a smashed spider. The tech came back and said I could get dressed and then doctor came back and said it was complicated, but the EKG was abnormal, that the electrical signaling was abnormal. He said he didn’t think I should worry. Which I guess is something sociopaths think is a helpful thing to say.

“Okay,” I said.

He said he had heard a heart murmur. Did I know about my heart murmur? I said no. He said he could hear my heart say lub dub woosh, lub dub woosh. He said he could hear it because I was so bony in the chest.

I said, “Thank you.” Like a total idiot.

He said he was going to order an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound for your heart, and many blood tests.

“Okay,” I said. As we walked out of the exam room together, he said, “Exit that way.”

And I said, “Sorry for falling apart.”

And he said, “What?”

And I said, “Thanks.”

Downstairs the phlebotomist was called Edith, which is the name of my friend Katy’s daughter, so I took that as a good sign, because now I was at a place where I was hunting for signs everywhere. She drew vial after vial of my blood and I said, “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll have enough left for the drive home.” And Edith didn’t hear me or didn’t laugh, which was fine, and I reminded myself that it’s OK to just shut up.

I went home, where my symptoms were the same. The echo couldn’t be scheduled until my insurance approved it. The after-visit summary printout told me I had sinus bradycardia, a prolonged QT interval and right bundle branch blockage. I did a lot of Googling. The abnormalities could be nothing, not standard beats, but beats idiosyncratic to me, beats that would not necessarily cause spontaneous heart death. I mean they did in some people, but not necessarily me. Everyone was glad I would eventually get the echo. To allay my fears.

So I waited. I spent two more days nauseated and wrung out, my chest pinging just left of center, under the bone, too deep for me to touch, but I still rubbed it constantly. Both nights I went to bed thinking I was not going to wake up the next day. I imagined every conversation with my loved ones might be my last one ever. When I kissed my kids in their beds, I nuzzled my nose into their necks, like a vampire, getting a little high on their sweetness.

On the second day, Katy and I had a reservation for Disneyland, so we went. I had been told I wasn’t dying, so why not. We got gingerbread cookies and strolled around. We rode a couple rides and then I started to feel a little woozy and my watch said my heart rate was much too high for walking, even walking around an amusement park, so we went to the First Aid station next to Star Tours. There were three nurses standing behind the desk, like standing at attention. I explained a little bit about what was going on and they said, “Do you want a paramedic?”

And I said, “Can you just check I’m not dying?” And one of them led me to a little room where they took my vitals. Another nurse asked Katy my personal details, who I was and where I lived, which was a good instinct because Katy knows more about me than I do these days, these days when I walk around too brittle, too looped on doom. My vitals were normal. Katy and I went back out to Disneyland but fairly soon I asked if we could leave and we did.

That evening, I took Davi to volleyball practice and walking back to my car I started to black out. I sat down in my car and when the billion little stars receded from my sight, I Googled an urgent care and drove myself there. The doctor there did another EKG. I asked this tech at urgent care about Captain EO, but she also didn’t know what I was talking about.

I said, “Michael Jackson was really complicated.” I tried to be quiet.

She said, “The EKG can’t get a reading because you’re shaking too hard.” It was true that my body was jumping around on the table like I was being electrocuted.

I said, “Okay, I’m going to concentrate on breathing.” The urgent care doctor said that my QT interval was exceedingly long. Like long enough to constitute an emergency situation, in his opinion. I started crying and said, “Okay.” I took his EKG printout and went to the emergency room at Scripps Hospital.

The ER was fairly busy, but when you present with chest pain they see you quickly. Or they did, because this happened during the variant gap before Omicron. They took my vitals and another EKG. I didn’t say anything about Captain EO, figuring that I had actually imagined the whole thing. That George Lucas ever made that movie. That Michael Jackson and his Muppet friends ever used the power of love to change an alien witch to a benevolent queen. It was all in my head. They had me do a chest X-ray. I went back to my seat in the waiting room and saw a young woman had brought her older mother in a wheelchair. The mother was either very sleepy or near unconscious for other reasons. The daughter went to the bathroom and a woman sitting in a nearby chair got up and put her scarf on the daughter’s empty chair.

She looked at me and said, “So no one sits in her chair while she’s in the bathroom.” I was sort of overwhelmed by that little kind act, how this stranger, who was in the ER for her own reasons, would think to save the woman’s seat, so that the woman, another stranger, would be able to return to sit by her sick mother. I wanted to say how good I thought that was, but what I said was, “I like your socks.”

But the kind woman was delighted by this, or she acted like it. She was probably about sixty, with big round blue eyes peeking over her black mask and I think a biggish nose and yellow-blonde hair, and over the course of the next two hours I would learn so much about her because, as she described it, she was an introvert with a tendency to ramble when she got scared.

Same, I thought. I am so much the same.

Here are things I learned about Christine, former Navy Nurse, mother, wife, niece of Scandinavian Wisconsinites, dog lover, and dear heart:

She has three grown sons who she says don’t love her, but who she loves with a sort of sad desperation I recognize in a lot of moms I know.

She was in the ER to get a rabies shot because her son, who had a drinking problem, had found four Labrador puppies on the side of the road in Texas and had driven them to San Diego, to Christine’s, to take care of, and one of the puppies was visibly sickly and had really bitten the shit out of Christine’s arm and a vet had advised her to get rabies shots and to call animal control, whereupon Christine’s drunken son took the ailing dog in his truck and drunk drove it back to Texas, saying that he was going to seek holistic treatment for the possibly rabid dog, no matter the fact that he had no home in Texas, since he had fallen in love with a stripper called Jasmine and spent everything he had on Christmas presents for Jasmine, who was, Christine had it from a friend, “Very bad news.”

Christine had broken her hip “angry gardening” because no one would help her. I don’t know if that meant in her life or with the weeds, and that when she had gone in for a hip replacement, she told the doctor how scared she was and she cried and the doctor also cried and they hugged and the surgery came out great.

She said that when she moved here from Wisconsin, one of her sons said he would come help but then he got tired of helping and left for who knows where. She said that her three aunts, who were like her mothers and who were all deceased, still spoke to her when she was sad, and that when her son abandoned her in Wisconsin and after she cried for two days, they told her, "Christine, get in your car. You’re going to be okay," and then she put the luggage and three dogs and two cats in her truck and drove here by herself, across the Rocky Mountains, with the cats crawling all over her in the cab of the truck.

I said, "Oh God what a nightmare," and she said, “No it was just incredible.” She tried to tell me about how beautiful it was to drive over the Rocky Mountains in the late summer because of the light and I listened and tried to understand, but I think it’s probably one of those things that you have to see for yourself.

I learned how she is a strong believer in Vicks VapoRub, for basically every ailment. She says to rub it on the soles of your feet before bed and then put socks on.

She spoke for two hours, I mean at interstices, when one of us wasn’t getting an X-ray or a rabies shot. And I’ve forgotten so much of what she said. I regret not making better mental notes. She joked about how the rabies shot might kill her. I didn’t know if that was possible, but I hoped not. I said, “I certainly hope not.”

And she said she’d had COVID early on, before the vaccine, and that she almost died. She recommended a book to me, called Quiet, which was about introverts like us, and she said it helped her understand why she was uncomfortable in the world of loud over-sharing. This might sound ironic, but I tell you, it was not. At the time.

When the doctor eventually brought me back to talk about my test results, she said,

“All your levels are normal. Your blood is normal. You have a prolonged QT, but the interval isn’t alarming. You don’t have troponin levels in your blood that would indicate damage to your heart.”

I said, “Okay.”

She asked, “How do you feel right now?” I put my finger on the spot on my chest where it pinged, right on that distant noise, that little alarm, and I said, “It hurts right here.”

She said, “Lots of things cause chest pain and one of them is anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder sometimes it’s impossible to be convinced that you’re not in danger."

I said, notwithstanding all that, “I’m still pretty sure I’m dying.” And: “There’s a lot going on…right now.”

She nodded that there was.

I said, “So when you feel bad, it’s very hard to know whether, you know, the call is coming from inside the house.”

She said, “I can give you medication to help you calm down.”

I said, “Yes. Thank you.”

After waiting on a sheaf of paperwork, I was discharged. At the time, Christine was back with the doctor, but that was okay because each time one of us had been called back by the nurse for something, we turned to the other and said “Well, goodbye. I’m glad to meet you. Feel better.” This happened probably four times.

I went home and took a pill and slept for a long time. When I woke up, I could still feel the little ping in my chest, but it was more curious to me than scary, this feeling I have, which is not a sign of imminent death, but nevertheless a sign. A blinking signal, unexplained. Every day since that day I have wanted to drive to the hospital, to put myself in the ambit of a medical professional, so that when eventually—and certainly—I keel over dead, they will be able to bring me back to this world. Even if it is broken. When the desire to drive back to the ER arises, I swallow one of the little pills they gave me and I try to breathe deep.

In one of her last chatty bursts Christine said, “My aunts always told me, you have to think of the things that used to brighten you up, or the stress will become too much. Think of the things that make you happy.”

So that’s why I’m telling you that in the ‘70s, Camp Pendleton was given fourteen Plains Bison from the San Diego Zoo. Now there are about ninety of them. Ninety Bison. Along with another herd on Catalina Island, the herd on Camp Pendleton is one of only two wild conservation herds in all of California. You’ll never see the bison from the I-5. Pendleton is too sprawling and why would they roam near the highway? You have to believe they are there, grazing somewhere in the back together. Just think about that.

Mary Birnbaum


Mary Birnbaum's creative nonfiction has appeared in The Week, Tahoma Literary Review and NinthLetter. She's received the Disquiet Nonfiction Fellowship and the Nonfiction Prize at Crazyhorse and has been a finalist at Chattahoochee Review, The Conger Beasley Jr. Award at New Letters and a semi-finalist at River Teeth. She is former editor of Lunch Ticket's Diana Woods Memorial CNF Prize and was blog editor and contributor to that journal. She resides in Vista, California, with her husband and two daughters and one good dog and one disrespectful dog. She is a closed captioner, by trade.

paper texture

The announcement came over the loudspeaker at the beginning of homeroom. Each class was to line up outside the nurse’s office at designated times throughout the day. We shuffled in our seats, giggling and pointing. The teacher quieted us down. “It’s a routine check. Behave yourselves.”

I didn’t believe her “routine check” story. This was third grade, not kindergarten. There must have been an outbreak, but I had nothing to worry about. My mom checked my head for lice. While the critters had never set up home in my hair, I would still lie down with my head in her lap and ask, “Can you check me?” She’d use a wooden cuticle pusher from her manicure set to part my hair into sections and twirl them through her fingers until I fell asleep.

As my class formed a line down the hallway at our scheduled hour, our teacher imposed a foot of space between us. Did lice have a certain range they could jump? The boy who I’m sure gave me the kissing disease in second grade tapped my shoulder. Even with the distance, he was too close. “I’ll bet you’ve got the bugs,” he teased. I shook my hair at him when it was my turn to go into the nurse’s office. No one was going to spread rumors about me having bugs.

“I don’t have bugs,” I announced and laid down on the examination bed like I did at home. The nurse sat me upright in a chair. She wore latex gloves and parted my hair with a tongue depressor, paying special attention to the area behind my ears and the back of my neck. Then I heard the familiar sound of Scotch tape being pulled from a dispenser and quick bursts of pressure on my scalp, the same way my mother removed lint from my sweater after I had put it on.

The nurse held the evidence out in front of me. “See? These are nits.” The clear tape was dotted with little yellow eggs the size of poppy seeds. “That’s impossible!” My hand went to my hair, searching, scratching. The nurse restrained me. “Stop it. There are protocols for removing lice.”

An assistant from the principal’s office entered with a clipboard and class list. He said my mother would get a prescription for a shampoo to kill the eggs. He handed me a How-To treat lice infestation pamphlet and tried to convince me it was not a sign of poor hygiene. It can spread through head-to-head contact, a shared comb or hat. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’re not the first kid in here today with lice.” More than shame, I felt outrage for my mother’s inability to see what was right in front of her.

“I don’t know why you’re so upset,” my mother said. “You love staying home from school.” She was tapping her fingers to a song on the radio as we pulled up to the pharmacy. Why wasn’t she as concerned about this as I was? “I’m staying here,” I said. I didn’t want other kids to know I was one of the unclean. “Come on, let’s get ice cream.” A smart move on her part, but I folded my arms and shook my head.

Later that night, she combed the medicinal shampoo through my scalp and read the information sheet. “If a piece of hair with an egg falls out while the lice host is sleeping, that’s you, an egg could end up on the pillow. Since eggs don’t need a host to survive, they will continue to live until a nymph hatches … huh, a nymph from a louse.” She seemed impressed by the metaphorical significance in the life cycle of lice.

Through the steam of hot water, I found the courage to ask the obvious. “How could you check my hair for lice, Mom, and not find lice?” She saw my need for parental accountability and risked telling the truth.

“I don’t know what lice looks like. I just know you like it when I play with your hair.” She waited for me to fight her as I’d done so many times before, but I realized her love for me was more important than my need for her to be all-knowing. She quietly rinsed the chemicals out of my hair. Scrubbing my head with a clean towel, she kissed me and said, “Now let’s go eat that ice cream and burn your sheets.”

M. Tamara Cutler


M Tamara Cutler is a screenwriter who brings a visual arts background to her work. Essays and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree, Longridge Review (finalist for the Barnhill creative nonfiction prize), Please See Me, Trail Running magazine, and Brevity Craft Blog. She has a diploma in Advanced Creative Writing Nonfiction from Cambridge University and an MFA in Film from New York University. She is the founder of That Place You Love’s Gimme Truth Project: .

paper texture

Lilly and Bandit stare at me from the passenger seat of the Hyundai. Their beady dachshund eyes are more interested in watching me drive than looking out the window to notice the changing scenery. They don’t know it yet, but today’s going to be our biggest adventure on this journey across America.

“Are you guys excited?” I ask. Lilly briefly glances up before grooming her front paws. Since Bandit can’t hear well anymore, he stares blankly ahead.

Two months after leaving Mississippi behind to search for a new home, I’m learning that it’s nearly impossible to find affordable overnight lodging in the southwest in April during a pandemic. By affordable, I mean a one-point-five-star motel, the kind where the door to the room sometimes shuts but never fully locks, the sort of place that’s perpetually under new management but still has a cracked pool in the parking lot with a noodle submerged in the half-foot of muck, a location with a “gym” that’s closed for maintenance and a continental breakfast that isn’t being served today.

The great thing about staying in a tent is that it’s free if you pitch it in the middle of nowhere.

It’s not even eleven a.m., and the sun is oppressive. Lilly’s long tongue hangs from the side of her snout and Bandit shimmies to the shadier half of the seat. Beneath them is one of the three suitcases I’ve stocked, my pillow, and a wad of bedding we’ve been schlepping into and out of each motel room. That’s been the most exhausting part of travel, the ins and outs, the constant packing and unpacking, which takes at least seven trips to the car no matter how little I tell myself we’ll actually need.

I turn off the highway onto a dirt road that digresses into a trail before it meanders into a vague indication of prior tire marks. The GPS likely will give out soon, which is a variable I’d not considered. That internal sense of direction most humans are programmed with isn’t part of my worldly repertoire. I’ve been lost more than ten times inside a parking lot, and truth told, it was the same parking lot several of those times. Out here it all looks the same. Rocks and sand in every direction, an open invite for those hoping to lose themselves.

When I Googled “Free Camping Nearby Utah” two days ago, Crystal Geyser turned up. The reviews said it spouts water once or twice a day. According to the directions on my phone, it wasn’t too far from the Motel 6 the dogs and I had been staying in that week in Green River, population 935. And since it’s on the side of a cliff in the middle of hot-nowhere-Utah that requires twenty minutes of off-road driving to reach, I figured there would be open spots where I could set up with the dogs for a night of star-gazing.

Camping has always held a particular lure. Ever since I was young and my parents took me on vacation to Canada, I’ve hung onto the most vivid parts of that trip. There’s a taste to camping, a smoky, charred redolence. And a distinct smell—a combination of salt and musk, fireplace and rain—a scent that sticks to your clothes and travels home with you once the fire pit’s been cleaned and the tent’s stowed in the trunk. Even the sounds in the woods are enunciated, each pronounced twig-snap and early-morning round of birdsong, all set to fire-crackle gobbling up dry limbs.

More than the sensory experience, camping requires a different speed of awareness, a slowing down that’s so palpable it leaves an imprint. Even the most mundane tasks become events, like collecting dry wood or boiling water for campfire coffee or washing dishes. That total immersion in the “herenow” is what I’m hoping to recreate.

These past few months I’ve been acquiring bucket list items, combining Google search results with my natural itch to explore and my lifelong inability to sit still. By definition, a bucket list is fluid; what’s inside can change and even be refilled, like endless mimosas at brunch. Maybe a year ago I didn’t realize how much I needed to experience the Southwest. But maybe I didn’t know a lot about myself a year ago.

I’m not looking to move to Utah, but came here because almost everyone I’ve met along my travels insisted that no cross-country trip would be complete without seeing its parks. There weren’t any pet-friendly lodging options at Bryce Canyon or Zion for under two-hundred dollars a night, and not a single campsite available, so I headed to Green River, an hour from Arches and Canyonland. And what a good call that was. Those people who talk about Utah are right: It should be on every bucket list. Sure, Salt Lake City is sterile and slightly creepy, with its massive churches and coiffed squares, its lack of Sunday shenanigans and snow-globe-without-the-snow tepid ambience. But if the only place I were to see on this trip was Moab, it would have been worth it. On the way to Arches a few days ago, as daylight crept over the sand dunes and rock formations, I pulled over onto the shoulder to appreciate the entirety of where I was. When I exhaled, out came a wave of tears. I wasn’t even to the park yet, but I’d never seen anything so beautifully desolate, so completely comforting.

I had fancied myself camping-ready because I packed hiking boots and hiking socks, along with a tent and a brand-new tubed sleeping bag. It wasn’t till this morning that it occurred to me I should buy a lighter in case that old pack of matches in my suitcase won’t ignite, and probably fill some extra water bottles to supplement the gallon jug in the cooler.

Huge tumbleweeds congregate against the side of rocks and in the crevices along the way. I do my best to maneuver around the most pronounced dips, keeping in mind that if I get stuck here, we’ll be proper fucked.

The farther from civilization I travel, the further from my brain I hope to be. Maybe all the way out here I won’t feel pangs of guilt about the trajectory of my life.

This past fall I reached a long-overdue breaking point with my Ph.D. program: the arbitrary demands, vanishing options, and lack of writing time. After I dropped out in January, I quickly came up with a new plan. When a friend from the program asked to rent my house, I painted the upstairs guest room and moved my belongings up there. I got a freelance writing job, filled the car with a few dozen books, my nonfiction manuscript, clothes, laptop, food, and dog supplies, and set off to travel the U.S. for a year to write and decide where I wanted to end up. I’m telling myself it’s an investment in finding a forever home—somewhere with a writing community that definitely isn’t Petal, Mississippi—and the only way I’ll discover it is if I see as many options as possible and start crossing locations off. The prospect of travel makes quitting school less terrible. It pushes me toward a future instead of trying to escape a derailed past.

Just as we’re far enough off-road to no longer hear highway sounds or see any indication of life, my cell phone rings. It’s my friend, who’s renting my house. He’s calling because the HVAC system is broken. The thermostat, which has been set to blast heat at 89, is keeping the downstairs in the mid-fifties. This on top of all the pipes that froze and burst under the house during the cold spell a few days before I left town—and then cracked in different spots two weeks later. Spending thousands on a house I have no intention of living in again in a place I wish I could forget is enough to make me want to head back now to sell it.

That familiar wave of house-owning panic from my prior life in Miami floods my radar. Something is broken that will have to be dealt with. Something that was brand new last year and should still work but will have to be fixed, which will cut even more out of my meager travel funds.

But I’m fifteen-hundred miles from Petal, superimposing myself on a backdrop that could easily pass for the next Tremors sequel. There’s nothing I can do about it till tomorrow, so that will have to be okay. Reception cuts off before I articulate the plan.

Eventually the car reaches a T in the road. A sign sticks out from the dry earth, directing me to Crystal Geyser, which is on the right.

The dogs grow restless when the car progresses from rumble strip bumps into convulsions as we edge our way around what looks like a mountain. “It’s okay, team,” I assure them, and make it official with one of the Snausages from the stash in the glove compartment.

We finally approach what must be the geyser. The car slows to a crawl as I circle something protruding from a flat white rock that’s stained orange from rust runoff.

When I first decided on this camping spot, “Crystal Geyser” had evoked images of clarity and serenity, a transparent structure to multiply the sun’s angles and transform them into rainbow prisms for me to behold from the tent. It would be a place to meditate and regroup. I didn’t know the geyser was man-made until I pulled up directions on my phone a few hours ago.

To be fair, prior to this discovery, I had no clue what exactly a geyser was, other than one of Mother Earth’s blowholes. The “man-made” part was off-putting, like shoving a swivel straw into an Orca’s water spout. But I didn’t give it much thought because check-out at the motel was eleven and it was already ten-fifteen.

But now that I’m here, it makes a certain kind of sense. Nothing this ugly could exist in nature. Crystal Geyser looks more like a sick totem pole fashioned out of extra car parts than a tourist destination. It extends four or so feet from the bedrock, a junkyard tree trunk on the surface of Mars. There’s not much else to do here besides wait for it to erupt—idly await idol worship—which must be why a few teenagers stand around it, their dirt bikes parked on the side of the hill. But I’d be fine if this protrusion didn’t ejaculate till the dogs and I are elbow deep into Colorado tomorrow. What would even come out?

With Crystal Geyser on my left, I follow the path toward Green River, which should be called Dank Brown River or Maybe Don’t Swim in Me. A huge RV is parked by the drop-off to the water and another is upstream. This seems like an acceptable ratio of nature to people—just a handful of us—so I proceed down the road and select a nook that I hope will provide some sense of enclosure when the sun goes down.

I back into the spot so the ass of my Hyundai points to the mountain and the front faces the river. The food and supplies are in the trunk, and they need to be easily accessible once it’s dark in case the miniature flashlight in my suitcase doesn’t work.

When I open the passenger-side door, the dogs eagerly await a lift-down. Still-damp snout stains decorate their window, floating hieroglyphics that articulate every chapter of our trip. After a quick scan for snakes, it looks safe enough to let them roam. Lilly takes off immediately and Bandit traipses slowly behind, their stubby little legs grateful to stretch.

It was in the low fifties this morning, so I threw on jeans and my NASA T-shirt. But five minutes into our camping experience, I’ve sweat through my sports bra. I fish through suitcases for shorts and sunscreen. Once I’ve tossed half my clothes into a ball in the front seat, I walk toward the mountain, drop trou, and change.

The first order of business is to put up the tent. It shouldn’t be too hard since I bought it from Aldi years ago. Aldi: a one-stop-shop for ethically sourced coffee, wool shawls, vegan meatballs, ergonomic snow shovels, five-for-a-dollar kiwis, fire pits, workout pants, and regret-it-tomorrow-but-afford-it-today-Sauvignon Blanc. When I grow up, I want to live in an Aldi, be an Aldi.

My recollection of building a tent is much hazier than my memories of being inside the thing once it was standing. That’s probably because I had nothing to do with assembling our tent in Canada.

A year after my parents got married, they finally got to go on a honeymoon. The first part was just the two of them, but they came back to take me on the second half. Bless them for this. I can’t imagine anything less romantic than spending a week in a tent with a hyperactive five-year-old who never stopped talking and couldn’t sit still. Though I have no clue what part of Canada we were in, I recall most of the other details about that trip.

I can still see my dad remove beige-colored plastic sheets and metal spikes from a bag. The process of watching the tent grow from a pile of tarps into a standing structure was mesmerizing; each hammered-in-peg and rope extension brought it closer to completion. Once he finished, there was a thin, perfect house with a zip-door and tiny windows. When my dad stood on his tip-toes inside, he couldn’t even touch the top.

Camping was everything I’d ever wanted. I had the constant attention of two adults who built fires each night so we could cook fat little hamburgers and the kind of popcorn that comes in a metal spaceship that puffs up and smells like the movie theatre. There was a beach with flat rocks that my dad could skip-skip-skip on top of the water with a magic wrist trick. After bedtime, I got to stay up and look at Jughead comics with a red flashlight pointed at the pages while I chewed Bazooka gum until it transformed from a hard, pink rectangle into a spit-out wad. Best of all, nobody had to run errands, go to meetings, or get up early for work.

Even my child-self could sense the sacredness of this departure of protocol, the deviation from a routine that would structure much of my next thirty-five years. I never wanted it to end. But for my parents it must have been some fucked shade of hell. My dad was twenty-five, new to being married and new to having a kid. And my expanding mom was nearing her third trimester of pregnancy with my sister. Although the two of them were probably counting the minutes till we could head back to Pittsburgh, flush a toilet, and order a pizza, I spent that entire vacation imagining we were the only people in the world, and this was our home.

As Bandit and Lilly sniff the nearby rocks, I dump the contents from the tent-sack: a green plastic shell, some wand-sized plastic poles connected in the center with string, and a few metal pegs. Sweat streams down the slope of my nose onto the instructions. I try to push the plastic pieces into the tube that frames the structure of the tent, but before they’re in place they come apart or get stuck.

Bandit hovers nearby, never wanting to be too far from me. Lilly has given up on exploring and is parked halfway under the car, resting in its shade. Her brown belly casts its own sideways shadow, a long oval that oscillates with each pant. When strangers see Lilly, they sometimes laugh or ask if she’s pregnant. Lilly has Cushing’s Disease and diabetes, so her stomach is perpetually bloated and wobbles as we walk. With her bald tail sticking out behind her like a reptilian antenna, she looks like something out of The Far Side, if only Gary Larson could conjure a character as idiosyncratic and resilient as Lilly.

The dogs have taken it in stride so far, this manic routine. Every few days a new town, a new Motel 6, a new Morse Code of ice machine rambles, wailing babies, and men screaming at other men in the middle of the night. Another interchangeable parking lot strewn with broken glass or discarded bits of last night’s debauchery that I have to fish from Lilly’s mouth. But camping demands a different tier of acceptance. Try telling two senior dachshunds who have grown accustomed to air conditioning and at least half a queen-size mattress that we’re spending the night in the torrid, bed-less wasteland.They remain skeptical till I drag the huge cooler from the backseat and place it next to Lilly in the car’s shadow. Now I’ve got their full attention.

If dogs believed in God, mine would worship this blue Igloo. Everything deliciously meaningful in our lives is inside. These past weeks of travel, the only semblance of routine has been the carry-over from our prior life: home-cooked meals for the dogs twice daily. Even when I was in school, no matter how many hundreds of pages of lit theory I had to read or dozens of comp papers waited to be graded, the dogs could count on bacon and eggs for breakfast and roasted meat, vegetables, and rice for dinner. Today there are all kinds of dog-goodies in that cooler, along with beer and half a Burger King cheeseburger. I take the burger out and give them each a bite so they know it’s in there. This will ensure that they stay nearby, a dachshund homing device.

I grab a bottle of water and fill the dogs’ bowl. As I reorganize the cooler to make sure Lilly’s insulin is hugging an ice pack, a revving sound cuts through the afternoon. I step around the rocks and look up the hill toward Crystal Geyser. The teens who had previously surrounded it are on the road, leaving huge dust clouds behind. Bandit clings to my ankles, his black and white spots dusted brown. The water in the dog bowl has already turned to thin mud.

Despite an hour of work, I’ve only succeeded in getting one side of the structure standing. Goddamn you, Aldi tent. Years ago, I was getting my friend’s toddler a gift and picked up one for myself. A few days later, my friend sent a picture of it popped up inside their house with their son inside, so I assumed it would be simple to assemble. But I’m starting to suspect that I’m the simple one.

Well, fuck this. It’s after one p.m.; is it time for a beer? Those PBRs are suspended in ice, so beer-y and cold. I toss the plastic shit onto the ground. The sound of the tab cracking echoes down Green River.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s okay to take a moment. But that’s usually when the doubt-chorus begins to shriek. Maybe that’s why in the past six weeks we’ve crammed in as much travel as possible. The dogs and I have been to Eureka Springs, Tulsa, Taos, Farmington, Albuquerque, El Paso, Flagstaff, Salt Lake City, and Green River. Tomorrow we’re off to Cortez to spend Easter at the Pueblo Cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park before we head toward the east coast. The travel-pace thus far has made it hard to sit and brood. Whether it’s avoidance or coping, it’s helping us keep a forward outlook.

We’re so far from the last iteration of home that each day presents a new precipice of starting over, an avenue into escape from a routine, from the grinding solitude and outmoded entirety of southern Mississippi. Travel expects a new set of eyes each morning, a vision tasked with preparing and experiencing rather than regretting or hindsighting.

As the cold beer traverses my throat, I try not to think about the events that preceded this trip. I had waited ten years to go back to grad school for a Ph.D. in creative writing, a degree I convinced myself I not only wanted but needed to get me writing after a two-year drought. The prior decade in Miami was spent attempting to recreate the energy and creative momentum I had during my time in the MFA program there, the happiest years of my life.

Though the temptation of returning to school had always been in the peripheral, it took well over a year to commit to the entirety of the plan. The process involved so much that I knew I’d need to be all-in once I started: I would have to study for the GRE and overcome three decades of standardized test-taking anxiety and subsequent test-taking-and-retaking-ineptitude; prepare a conference-length critical essay; assemble four writing samples in nonfiction and one in poetry; draft six statements of purpose and a teaching philosophy; awkwardly ask former professors for letters of recommendation and hope they remembered my writing after all that time; and come up with two-thousand dollars to fund the process. On top of that, I’d need to find a way to balance my job at the university’s writing center with fixing up my house enough to be able to list it as soon as possible; have blind faith that a naïve homebuyer would overlook a litany of Band-Aids on a property that remained a fixer-upper despite the fixing up; and have even blinder faith that a program with a nonfiction track—or even my safety school in poetry in Mississippi—would take a chance on me. Most, I’d have to bet on myself the whole time and maintain an uncomfortable level of self-faith that it would come together like one of those happily-ever-after Hallmark Channel movies my mom loves.

I make sure the dogs are tucked in the shade of the half-tent, then set the last of their Burger King bounty on the rock ledge nearby, just high enough so they can see but not reach it. Then I take off down the slope toward Green River to search for firewood.

There’s nothing better than a big fire; it’s been a staple of all my residences. One of the first things I did when I bought my house in Miami was get a burn pit for the backyard. And in Mississippi, I built one with clay fire bricks and cement the week I moved in. I’ve already assembled a fire ring here from nearby rocks. So now the plan is to snag a few armfuls of twigs and a dozen or so fat limbs to sustain the blaze all night.

I jog down the road parallel to the river, which continues around the side of the mountain. I don’t want to wander too far because the dogs will worry. After peeking into a few rocky coves, I still can’t find a single piece of wood. There are plenty of tumbleweeds, though, so I grab the one closest to me before realizing it’s covered in thorns. Since it’s already stuck in my hand, I pull it back to the campsite. The dogs watch with partial interest as I pick the biggest spikes from my palm.

After several rounds of foraging, I’ve only found a tuft of straw-like bramble embedded in a sand dune, a few blackened twigs leftover from someone else’s spent campsite, and a slew of tumbleweeds. It finally clicks that there’s no firewood because there isn’t a single tree. There’s some driftwood jutting from the middle of the river that probably washed here from miles away, but that’s it. Maybe this is why the grocery store sold plugs of pre-cut wood. But no good pyromaniac spends $8.99 to instigate a fire, especially when they’re on a strict budget.

I have enough training in the art of burning shit to know that tumbleweeds will go fast. They won’t keep the fire fed much past dusk, let alone provide enough fodder to heat the cast-iron skillet for dinner. It will be forty degrees once that sun sets, which is hard to believe considering we’re straddling the sweaty threshold of Dante’s Inferno. We’re going to have a fire even if it means burning every book in the trunk along with my manuscript.

Just as I’m about to give up and start rummaging through my backseat, I find a small tree sticking out from the side of the drop-off to Green River, a hundred yards from our campsite. It’s black, gnarled, dead. The tree juts perpendicularly, extending toward the water like an arthritic middle finger. Jackpot.

I carefully shimmy down to the side of the riverbank. With one hand gripping a sturdy treeless-root above me, I reach with the other until I’m partially dangling in the air, my tennis shoes wedged into the sand. I grip the tree’s nearest limb and pull.

It’s not budging. Its roots must still be intact somewhere below. I choke up on the limb and tug harder, digging my shoes into the ground till I’m ankle-deep in sand. I pull again and again and until I’m making those grunting sounds men at the gym let out when they have to show off how many plates they can squat. My legs cramp, a buildup of lactic acid and dehydration from this morning’s four-mile run. I pull so hard black dots collect in the corner of my vision, but my efforts do little more than loosen it from the side of the hill.

If I fall onto the rocks below, nobody will know I’m down there. I haven’t told anyone where I’m camping tonight, even my best friend Heather. My parents, who are eighteen-hundred miles away in Pittsburgh, have likely lost track of my travels by now, a blurring of bi-weekly updates from different towns with unfamiliar names. Max is in Texas, busy with his wife and dogs and work, and Lizzie’s in Pittsburgh, so pregnant that baby could come out any day now. If anything were to happen, the dogs would be alone and we’d all be screwed.

I devote my efforts to one last pull—a primal tug from that deep-down reserve everyone has for times like this. The roots break free from the earth in a clean, swift split. The momentum of release nearly sends me toppling but my grip on the root above is firm. With the last of my energy, I drag myself and the tree to the top of the drop-off. I lay in the road next to my trophy to catch my breath. No wonder the damn thing was so hard to yank from the ground—it’s twelve feet tall.

But I did it. I’ll never earn a doctorate degree in poetry but at least I’ve earned a fire tonight. This small victory leaves me smiling.

The sound of a car becomes audible over my panting. I’m nervous the dogs may be wandering on the road, so I get up, grab hold of my prize, and drag it toward camp. Mud-sweat has plastered to my NASA shirt and there’s enough sand in my crotch that it’s possible some may stay inside me forever. The crunching of rocks grows closer, so I speed up with my wood-trophy in tow.

Bandit and Lilly are in the middle of the road, waddling in my direction. Their tails wag the second they see me, even though I must look more like the Creature from the Black Lagoon than the light-haired food god they usually expect. They sniff my filthy legs, then the tree. Seemingly satisfied, the two of them trot alongside me up the road as if this is just another Friday.

A Jeep approaches, and with it a dirt cloud. We move to the side. The driver rolls down a window. He and his family stare at us. The three of us must look like we’ve been on an incredible journey to Middle Earth.

He gestures with his chin to Green River. “You getting in?” The man smiles and turns to his wife.

“Nah,” I say, my voice cracking. This is the first time I’ve spoken to a person in hours. “But it does look refreshing.” The thought of cold water washing over me is nearly erotic at this point, even that water.

The man glances behind me, at the dead tree and its crazed bundle of roots. “Well, good luck, uh, with…” When he awkwardly grins and trails off, I mentally finish the sentence for him—whatever this is you’re doing here.

We return to the campsite a few minutes later. The dogs head right to the cheeseburger. I dump the tree next to the half-assembled tent, which looks so small in comparison. The fire ring, too, seems absurdly tiny next to that which will need to go inside it. And that’s when it occurs to me that I have no way of cutting the tree into smaller pieces because I didn’t pack a saw.

The thing is, I have no fucks left to give. When so much is hard, it’s important to focus on what’s going well instead of the entirety of what may transpire.

Like two years ago, when the director of the Ph.D. program in Mississippi called to tell me I’d been accepted. I felt such relief and gratitude. Not only did I have a way out of the stalemate existence I had in Florida, but there would be writers helping me through the transition. This memory always pairs with the first time I walked into the house I bought in Petal, a hundred-year-old cottage adjacent to a horse farm. It was so peaceful there, so unlike Miami and the perpetual traffic and home invasions that it was surreal.

The trick with those happy memories is keeping them in a hallowed half-place, one independent of what might eventually become the larger story. It’s focusing on the horses on the farm next door rather than the sewage that spewed from under my house that final week in Mississippi as I dug myself a backyard toilet. It’s holding onto the poems I managed to find time to write during the half of graduate school I made it through instead of the panic attacks I had before standing in front of a classroom pretending I had something to offer those expectant students. It’s keeping the acceptance letter to the program in my inbox but deleting the thread of petty email exchanges with faculty that cemented my decision to quit. This slight tweak in perspective has helped these past months. It’s why I’ll be building a bigger fire ring instead of freaking out about what to do with twelve-foot kindling. And it’s why I’m going to see this tent as half-built rather than half un-built.

Maybe it’s a kind of optimism, knowing when half is enough. And a kind of wisdom, acknowledging when it’s not.

I can still clearly remember the last day of our half-Honeymoon in Canada, that cloudless, warm morning I’d spent hoping the world we made there wasn’t coming to an end. Just before lunch, my mom called me over to the picnic table outside our tent. “Honey, Daddy and I have something to tell you.” She plopped her hands down so I’d sit.

I knew it was a Big Thing because she patted three times, then turned to him. “Your father and I decided we’re going to sell our house in Pittsburgh so we can stay in Canada and live in this tent forever.”

My dad nodded. They both looked at the ground, then at me.

This tent? Here? Forever? I was so excited I couldn’t help but jump up and down. It was really happening. How did they know this was exactly what we needed?

Out here in Utah, I’m starting to doubt I could muster the same gusto to celebrate perpetual tent life. Especially considering I’ve not yet been able to finish putting it together. I grab the metal spikes that should secure the four corners of the tent’s floor to the earth. The directions say to hammer them into the ground. But of course, I didn’t pack a hammer, either. Sure, I’ve got three kinds of paprika in that trunk, chopsticks, infused olive oil, five decks of tarot cards, a business suit, a dog stroller, a bag of artisanal, phallic-shaped pasta from Rome, two champagne flutes, and a stuffed dog named Cooler, but not a single MacGyver tool other than a collection of miniature forks and a dull paring knife. Even though I can prepare a six-course hot-plate Italian dinner on a Motel 6 toilet, I can’t assemble a children’s tent or finish a Ph.D. program or decide what I want to be if I grow up.

In a few months I’ll be turning forty. When my dad was my age, he had three kids, was a partner at an international law firm, and had just helped me apply to college. I quit school, am living out of a car, and am so dirty it stings. I need to pull my shit together and put this tent together.

I select one of the bigger rocks from the fire ring and slam it into the first peg. It only takes a few blows. The others go in quickly once I have the routine down. By some stroke of unearned luck, the remaining plastic connects to form the crossed spine of the tent.

I step back to behold my work. That’s when I notice that it doesn’t have a fourth side—it’s just an opening with no zipper or flap. Now I know why the tent cost $6.99. But I would have happily paid an even ten for the option of us being inside something tonight. Not that it would be much help. What kind of wild animal hunting for dinner would ignore three tasty flesh nuggets because they’re protected by a taut millimeter of vinyl?

What you have to do when you find yourself in a situation like this, on the outskirts of Utah, in charge of making it through the night with two old dogs who look at you like you know what you’re doing—not only with this tent but with your life—is convince yourself that maybe what you fancied isn’t the tent itself but the idea of a tent. Sort of like how you moved to Mississippi because you craved the idea of the Ph.D. program.

I gather the dogs, grab a drink for myself and a slice of ham for them, and head into our tent-type thing. I drape one of the dogs’ blankets over the opening so we’ll have shade. When I take my shoes off, so much sand falls out that I have to sweep it into a pile. I pick up my book, roll onto my side, and make enough space so we can all share my pillow in this sweat lodge.

As the sun begins its slow creep toward the horizon, I’m so tired I could fall asleep reading Flatland. It’s been years since I’ve taken a nap, but sleep comes at me from every angle and insists on staying. For once I let myself indulge.

A few hours later, I wake up with no idea where I am or what’s happening. My eyes are crusted shut from sand, which jogs my memory. The sun has calmed a bit, so I pull the blanket from the tent and let in some breeze. Lilly and Bandit sleep soundly, their favorite afternoon activity no matter where we are.

There’s nothing else that has to be done, so I sneak out to prep for dinner. Since there’s no surface out here where I can work, I wipe off the car’s hood with a damp paper towel. Steam wafts from the silver paint. Then I assemble a makeshift counter on top of the engine, with a cutting board, knife, shoebox full of seasonings, pot holders, olive oil, skillet, and serving bowls. The sun’s grip on the day has finally eased enough for me to stop sweating as I retrieve ground beef, Brussels sprouts, garlic, eggs, and potatoes from the cooler.

I take my time forming mini-burger patties for Bandit and Lilly and slathering olive oil and salt onto the potatoes that will be wrapped in aluminum foil and tossed into the fire. By six, the sprouts are shaved and marinating in a Ziploc bag, the skillet of beef is ready to cook, and I’ve even squeezed in a bit of writing time amid the chopping. All that’s left to do now is wait for the sun to go down.

When you’re camping, sunset is an occasion—the occasion. I open a fresh PBR and climb the side of the nearby mountain for a good view.

Looking down from my perch, everything is in its right place: The tent is standing with the dogs inside, the fire ring is full and ready to ignite, and Green River passes by, its steady current carrying water onward. To the left is Crystal Geyser, which hasn’t yet erupted. Despite having over a dozen photos of the various quesadillas I’ve eaten on this road trip, as well as every “Speed Hump” sign, I don’t have a single shot of the geyser.

Up the road, a man and a woman stand outside their RV, holding hands while they await sunset. As the sky progresses from orange into purple and red, the last scraps of tension drain from my shoulders. I feel many things at that moment, but what I don’t feel is more remarkable. There’s no guilt over why I had to buy a house in Mississippi, no fretting over that last A- on the lit theory paper I wrote during a COVID fever delirium, and no trying to forgive myself for the bridges I burnt in the tiny, incestuous world of academia when I quit. It’s just that beautiful orb in the sky speeding up as if it can’t wait to rejoin the horizon.

When the two finally meet, color erupts, painting Crystal Geyser and Green River and the land between deep violet. The family standing by the RV cheers. I clap too, letting the happy echo reverberate against the mountain.

The ancient Egyptians had no word for death; they called it westing, the seamless transition from one phase of existence to another. For me, sunset has always signaled a closure of sorts, a point in the day when it’s appropriate to sit back and reflect on what’s been accomplished. Today, the dogs and I made it all the way out here. I built a fire and a tent, categorically small achievements but given the circumstances, triumphs nonetheless. And I didn’t have a single meltdown about leaving school or if I’ll ever find a community of writers.

Tomorrow after the sun rises, we will move on. Then the next day, and the next.

As night falls on the still-warm Utah sand, I make my way down to the campsite. Lilly and Bandit have awoken and wait next to the cooler, their pre-dinner moans providing a familiar soundtrack as evening unfolds.

We eat voraciously as courses come off the fire, one hot dish after the other, a meal that takes nearly two hours from sizzle to swallow. When the first stars poke out from the charcoal sky, I’m in the tent with the dogs, chewing on the charred remnants of the last potato. Lilly and Bandit have passed out in a red-meat food coma, too tired to beg, with their little heads resting on my pillow. The fire blazes a few feet away, offering warmth despite the cold night air. It would be a Kodak moment if Bandit hadn’t already pissed all over the corner of the sleeping bag and left behind a muddy pee-river.

As the day’s exhaustion shrouds me, I lie on the swatch of pillow the dogs haven’t claimed and let my thoughts drift.

I try to remember how long my parents kept the joke going, us moving to Canada. It was probably just a few minutes though I could swear it was much longer. In that stretch of suspended bliss, I’d constructed a montage that spanned years, images I still vividly recall and revisit.

The three of us in that tent, with a roaring fire waiting just outside the zip-up door. My dad taking me on adventures down secret paths in the woods to search for perfect sticks, the kind that are thin enough to shove inside a hot dog but not so skinny they break when he makes them pointy with his Swiss Army Knife. Us at the lake in the morning, watching skipping stones go on and on and on so far we stop looking before they can go plunk. And my mom making sure that baby inside her stays put, because the tent really isn’t that big and besides, three people fit inside it best.

The Ginsbergs starting over in this new land of all-the-time-outside, not caring about what we left behind, like work and school and the stuff we didn’t really need inside the house we didn’t really need. Just the three of us all the way out here. Home—at least for now.

I gaze out past the dogs, over the flames, and beyond the dry geyser, Green River, and mountain. And I take in the wholeness of the sky. The open side of the tent faces the brightest stars, a welcome coincidence. When the first shooting star passes overhead, I don’t have to move an inch to see it.

Corey Ginsberg


Corey Ginsberg's prose and poetry have appeared in publications such as Third Coast, The Gettysburg Review, The Fiddlehead, and Grist. Corey's the author of two poetry chapbooks, Bowling in the Bumper Lane and The Cold Side of the Pillow. She was the recipient of a Mississippi Individual Arts Grant in creative nonfiction in 2021. Corey currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two elderly dachshunds and is in the process of renovating an old church to transform it into a community writing center.

paper texture

I owned a house once, for twenty-four hours. In Syracuse, New York. Snowiest city in America. Vapor from Lake Ontario rises into sky, freezes, snow fall continuous, a wall. Emerald City, Salt City, an older name—Jesuits tasting the salty springs. Home of the Onondaga Nation, firekeepers of the Haudenosaunee.

I never lived in the house I owned for a day. Never saw it. I bought you a house, X said on the phone. Yesterday. House not right for some reason. Frantic calling of the realtor. Sale cancelled. The day I owned a house, I didn’t know it. I lived in a pink apartment in Florida, having left X, the man I loved. Just for a time I thought. Until we have our own house, until he’s divorced, until his moods don’t swing. Until the right medication is found.

The first time I saw him, it was a picture in a book. Yellow light of a now-dead bookstore, his poems in my hands. Familiar—I felt related. Photograph black and white. Dark hair. Gaze clear, as if he could see me from inside the book. Every time I went to the store, I’d look for it. Under a spell. I’d forget the title. Run my hands over the skinny spines, recall a letter. Forget his name, but not the poems, his face. Until one day, I bought the book, took it home.

July, we meet in a writing workshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He is like his photograph. Every day, when I arrive late—rushing from the east side of town—there’s only one seat left. Always closer to him. As if the circle draws us nearer. Until, by the last day, we’re side by side. On the fourth of July, I walk down to the harbor to watch the fireworks. Anniversary of the day I died, came back to life. Before I stopped drinking, got sober. Ash falls on the water. Invisible until I hear, Kelle. Kelle. He comes toward me on the crowded street. His seeing brings my atoms together, makes me human again.

Back in Florida, I work at the opera. Little lights come on in the orchestra pit like underwater torches. Some nights, I wear a watery-green ballgown with small roses in a line across my breast.In my seat, the fabric puffs around me like a sparkly blanket. Hundreds of paper flowers are flung in the air for Cio-Cio-San. The same bad deal being made over and over. Baby of straw rocked and sung to by a grief-crazed woman. People come from heaven in the upper balcony. Voices rise after everything is lost.

Before I’d come to marry him, I’d often fly to visit. Once we watched Groundhog Day, and it became our constant wish at the airport. For my flight to Florida to be cancelled, and we could have another day together. And because it was winter in Syracuse, and because we were lucky, my flight was often cancelled. The gift of another day together always made us joyful, giddy. On one flight, I boarded, but there was some delay. In the terminal, he waited for me to take off, staring at a photo of me in his hands, crying. A woman watched. When, after an hour, we de-planed, the woman said, Oh, you can see her again!

His words are unlike any I’d ever heard; sometimes all we do is talk for hours in restaurants. He tells the hostess that we have business to discuss and asks for a quiet table. We laugh to ourselves. I think he even has a briefcase.

I propose to him on a small piece of paper. He proposes in a note that I read on a plane.

He calls me the sweetest of all sweethearts. He says, You are 44 Anna Kareninas. He says, I am still falling in love with you eight minutes after telling you that on the phone. Snow coming.

My engagement ring yellow plastic with a large watermelon gem circled with aluminum turrets from a gumball machine. Or it is one from the set of juice-colored rings with long-lashed eyes that open and shut.


The Gachala Emerald has a turquoise sea inside and its own sun. Unseen until 1967.


Wake up, wake up, is that what my grandmother means when I sleep in his house?I haven’t seen Nana since she died. But one morning, she comes back. Her death a mistake after all. Her face right above mine. All I have to do is open my eyes to see her, but I’m sleepy—eyes heavy, sun from some summer with her on my face. No rush, she’s back. Then I wake in the narrow bed surrounded by photographs of the dead, a staring gallery of people I’ve never known, having waited too long. She’s gone.

He says that he wants to live with me in anywhere, USA. He says it is very flooring. Says, I still feel a glow from it. The city in celebration has printed posters with bright bulbs and words like stars that spell 42 Nights of Joy. He hangs one in our borrowed house. The downtown has a few new shops open between all the shuttered ones. But so many lights are strung among the streets—as if the town is one big tree. It is hard to see the darkness.

Lake water freezes in the sky. November, the light still silver. Air so cold, I feel unconcealed, and someone in a hall hands me a paper cup of tea. Buildings medieval as if we’ve gone back in time. He wants to hide me even as he introduces me. Not divorced yet. Hide a kind of hall. A hull where I grow older and think of the calendar in his kitchen with the periods marked of his last wife when they’d still been together. Days magic-markered as she’d planned for a baby that never appeared. He’d found that after several years one could re-use a calendar from long before, and somehow the numbers days and weeks all lined up exactly again.

He had so little vanity, the light blue raincoat—sky colored—that he wore to a reading was unlike any article of clothing I’d ever seen. Like a sky tent with a belt. As if he’d come from the future or the past.

It’s the closest I’ve ever been to marriage. Red wool scarf, Kentucky coat. Night sky snowing heavy on my hair, letting it fall like quiet hellos. Inside would be sadness again, his green sweater torn at the sleeves, collar, worn day after day, comfort of the familiar. Though when he touches a fall sweater in the mall store, delighting in something new, I secretly buy it. And he wears it all the time. As if he’d just been waiting for something beautiful to arrive.

When my father phones, asks, How are the lovebirds, my father is so happy. I have forgotten what that is like. The love nest, my father calls this place. I am in the love nest while the man I am in love with says, Sometimes, I’m so depressed it’s like I’m alone in the house. He says this when I am so close, I could blow on his eyelashes and watch them flutter. Watch him blink. And he means right then, he feels alone.

He says, you are still my sweet girl. Moon out the window. We spin our bodies on the bed as it moves across the night sky. So that the moon is always in our sight through the dark square while he sings to me. He says, my heart to you.

At Christmas, he holds the tiny tree in his hand. Gifts on the coffee table. Miniature statues of men and animals at play. I give him an instant camera because he’d wanted to stand outside a house, see something in the window. A pair of jeans I’d measured with my own body, trying them on in the Army/Navy store, forgetting to adjust for height. The hem hits his shins, never worn. Years later, he tells me that that day—when he was a man in his late fifties who had had three wives—he says that our coffee table celebration in the dilapidated city with the beautiful old houses during the 42 Nights of Joy was the best Christmas he’d ever had.

Emerald is my birthstone—stones in a watch, a necklace from my grandmother. He types our names together because he wants our names closer. He finds us a house in Geneva, a house west of Syracuse, a house one-hour east door-to-door in Rome. The snow is coming down. He says, I love you.

Before we arrive at the gas station in Verona, our gray car parked by the pumps, a thought had come to leave the earth for the lake. To drown in it. Step into the water at Green Lakes in my running shoes, let it cover me. But I remembered I’d been a person before all of this happened, before X—I had to save that person. I’d run back to the car. At the station in Verona, I want to hurt him, the one I love. Want him to see what it would look like without me. So, while he is inside the faraway yellow light to pay, I walk quickly to the restroom, outside door. Without telling him. Knowing he’ll look for me, see the absence. Have a little panic. It may not seem like much. But that intent to hurt the one I loved so sickened me, the turn.

The Onondaga have a casino in the dark ahead, but from there, it was lights to us, or snow—a whole nation inside this one. Before Verona, all I’d felt for him came out of tenderness. As I open the restroom door, I see him bent over the car door—maybe he was going to use that sharp voice that isn’t his, the one he used at the lake. But the car is empty.

There was no one else I wanted. Even when he is afraid I’ll leave him, mad at the deep cleavage of a black sweater I wear on a plane to meet him. I only wanted him. When he walks into a room, his light lights others up—people are so glad to see him in meetings, the grocery store, anywhere. He is beloved. When I tell him, he shakes his head.

Maybe we could have let it slide off, maybe we could have just breathed quietly in the gray car. It felt familiar, that meanness that rose up when I felt backed into a corner, the equivalent of a punch, some old thing I thought I’d given up. He says, I’m forgetting to tell you something.

I never tell the man I loved my thought to be a lake. Instead, he drives us home, and I pack my suitcase. I unpack it. Pack it again. In the airport, he is like a desolate child. We sit on a little couch curved like a comma in the center of a hall, and he cries uncontrollably. Wailing, bent over at the waist. Inconsolable. People stare, concerned. As if I am going away to war, never to return. I hand him tissues. I fly away for good.When I’d packed my suitcase, we spoke of my return. But he was always smarter than me, knew the truth especially if unspoken. That’s why he could cry like that.

He says, come home! He says, could you bring yourselfand a few thousand kissesyour laugh / your brightness / your light / your smile

i know you will bring all of you which is one reason i love you among many many

He says, a kiss is floating near your refrigerator.

I never go back to live in Syracuse. For a couple of years afterwards, when I still visited, laying eyes on him in the airport tunnel, he’d look slightly electrocuted. At first. Hair on end, eyes sparking. Then he’d calm, reveal himself. Or, it took a while for me to be able to see him.


Ten feet of snow expected when I lived there. Darkness at four o’clock. Some light always arrives, gray lifting before it falls again. I can’t draw, I say. Why don’t you draw a flower for your Nana? So, I do. Sit with him at the long dining room table for hours, night after night, drawing flowers. White light overhead. We cover all the cabinets and tables with our flowers, a garden surrounding us.

He says, hmmm, hmmm, hmmmtrying to hear your breath like that.

I haven’t made a snow angel since I was a child. He opens the back door on the black night, and I lie down in the snow. Wave my arms until I have wings.

Kelle Groom


Kelle Groom is the author of the memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster), a Barnes & Noble Discover selection, New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, and a Library Journal Best Memoir. An NEA Fellow in Prose and 2020 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellow in Nonfiction, Groom’s work appears in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, New England Review, The New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, and Poetry. Her publications also include four poetry collections: Underwater City (University Press of Florida), Luckily, Five Kingdoms, and Spill (Anhinga Press), and a forthcoming memoir-in-essays, How to Live (Tupelo Press, 2023). Her honors include residency fellowships from Black Mountain Institute, University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Library of Congress, Civitella Ranieri, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, James Merrill House, Millay Colony for the Arts, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, American Antiquarian Society, and Ucross Foundation, as well as two Florida Book Awards. Formerly on the faculty of Sierra Nevada University as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, she has also taught writing at the University of Central Florida, Valencia College, Seminole State College, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, among others. Groom is nonfiction editor at AGNI Magazine.

paper texture

I had my first abortion when I was a sophomore at Smith College in 1973. It wasn’t even a hard decision. It was an adventure. I went to Springfield, Massachusetts, with my best friend Eileen in her big-ass car on a beautiful spring day. We were like Thelma and Louise, two women shoring each other up, taking to the open road even though the clinic was just twenty miles away.

Wait, was it a clinic? Maybe it was a doctor’s office. All I remember is the table, the stirrups, the sense of something vacuuming out my uterus. I can’t even recall if I got any kind of anesthesia, just the obnoxious doctor saying, as he leaned in and focused on the space between my legs, “Funny, you don’t look like a Smithie.”

On our way back to the dorm, we stopped at a McDonald’s for a Big Mac, shake, and fries while the radio played Marvin Gaye’s "Let’s Get It On," which was more or less the anthem of our lives in those days.

The guy who got me pregnant was nowhere around. Nor did he help pay for it. Did I love him? No. He was a sociopath who haunted the bars around Smith, looking for insecure women who felt like they were ugly and would be flattered by a man’s attention. But even if I had loved him and not just enjoyed having decent sex for the first time, I wouldn’t have had the baby. Because I had no idea what I was going to do with my life or who I was going to become. A lot of things were on the table. Medical doctor, anthropologist. For a short time, I considered majoring in linguistics. I also dreamed of being a writer. But of all the refrains going through my head, there was never, I want to be a mother.

I don’t remember if I was sore after the abortion or how long I had to wait before I had sex again. It was just a medical/surgical procedure, like getting a tooth filled or tonsils taken out or a cyst removed. It was nothing. I never regretted it for a second. And when I thought about the counterfactual, what might have happened if I hadn’t, it filled me with dread.

The second decision was also a no-brainer, although this time I actually liked the guy who got me pregnant. And he wasn’t a sociopath. I was in graduate school in Austin, Texas, still drifting, thinking then that I definitely wanted to be a writer but not knowing how to do it, yet dead set on making something of my life that I could be proud of.

This pregnancy, and the one before it, were both the result of the failure of birth control. The second one was also caused by the arrogance, incompetence, or blithe indifference of a doctor at the university health services, who told me the wrong way to insert a diaphragm. When, after I got pregnant, another doctor pointed out his mistake, I was so upset that I wrote a letter to the president of the university.

I remember almost nothing about that second abortion. I can’t even recall if the father of the baby came with me. But I imagine we had a couple of Lone Star longnecks in the backyard of our house when it was over. Back then, that was just what we did at the end of a long day. And that was that. I never regretted this one for a second, either.

Eventually, I left Austin by myself to make my way in the world as a newspaper reporter, unsure if I was even breaking up with my boyfriend. At the time, I thought I could have both, him and the entry-level job at a little paper 150 miles away on the coastline, north of Corpus Christi. I couldn’t, and from the vantage point of today, it’s so obvious that he was not the right person for me. But back then, it was easy to conflate lust with love, to not want to be alone, to like having a musician for a boyfriend—and not just a musician, but a drummer. It didn’t get much cooler than that: getting to wear a Zildjian T-shirt.

Plus, there was that time he took me to visit his parents in central Pennsylvania. We were sitting out on their back porch when I looked across the lawn and saw that a neighbor had the same sign over his garage that hung over the entrance to Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei. I was too stupid or naïve, too inexperienced and insecure, too inarticulate and besotted, to denounce it and risk making a scene. I didn’t even have the wherewithal to say to him later, in private, hey, do you not know that your neighbors are serious Nazis? And then judge him on the basis of his answer. Since there was no way that I was equipped to do that, I count myself lucky that it didn’t work out.

Still, every now and then I’ve thought about what might have happened if I had had that second baby. It’s possible that by then, when I was in grad school, it might not have sunk my dreams. By then, I might have known enough to piece together what my parents used to call a schtickel career, a little career of teaching and writing gigs, which might have been okay. But I wouldn’t have been able to be a reporter unless I had someone to take care of the kid when I was at the office.

Two years later, I was working for my third newspaper, in San Diego, still climbing the career ladder, part of an ambitious group of young reporters, male and female, who were hoping to move to a more exciting city and get on at an even bigger metro daily. None of us was married, none of us had children—although a few women were starting to think about doing it on their own, like Murphy Brown. I wasn’t interested even though I knew that, biologically, I was running out of time. The media—I was part of the media—wouldn’t let you forget.

In San Diego, I had finally met a guy I really liked. It wasn’t clear where our relationship was headed, but I remember talking to my older sister Janet about whether or not I should have a baby. I had always looked up to her because, naturally, when we were growing up, she did everything first. Also, she had more integrity than anyone I knew, except for Stan, the new guy I was dating at the paper. And unlike me, she was fearless. When we were little and went skiing, she led the way down the mountain and later, after I graduated from college and moved into an apartment not far from hers, she seasoned my first wok because I was too intimidated by the instructions to do it myself.

She had her first baby at thirty-nine. When I asked her why she waited so long, she said that when she was getting her PhD (she was the only woman in her class at MIT) very few grad students had kids. Also, she didn’t meet her future husband until she was thirty-five. But most of all, she didn’t really want one. I understood. In our immediate family, not having kids was the norm.

You might not expect that would be the case since I was one of five children, which was very unusual for a secular, middle-class Jewish family in America when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties. I always took pride in our size. Our parents had more kids than any of their siblings, making us the biggest family unit at any bar mitzvah or Rosh Hashanah dinner. We were something of a freak show, a traveling circus, showing up at events with enough personnel to field a basketball team. We were even big in comparison to our Catholic friends—so big that one night, our parents inadvertently left Rachel, the youngest, in a busy restaurant in Pittsburgh. I don’t remember how far we’d driven before someone noticed and we had to go back. When we pulled up and double-parked in front of Weinstein’s, she was inside on top of a cigarette machine, the center of attention. It became the stuff of family legend, like something out of Cheaper by the Dozen.

Back then, if I met a kid who came from a bigger family, I became intensely competitive and wished for even more brothers and sisters. Because let’s face it, big families make an impression—of fecundity, virility, of a man and a woman who are getting it on like rabbits. Of course, nothing so vulgar was ever voiced in public, at least not about my parents. But there were sly insinuations, especially at their wilder cocktail parties, that they enjoyed having sex. They would have been the first to admit it. They were a very, very horny couple, especially for the buttoned-down fifties.

Here's the way it was explained to us as soon as they thought we were old enough to understand the basics of Freudian psychology, which roughly coincided with puberty: My dad had an undescended testicle—the reason he was classified as 4-F even though he was desperate to go off and fight the Nazis in World War II—and he was anxious to prove his masculinity by having a bunch of kids.

But it’s not fair to blame the situation entirely on my dad’s poor undescended testicle. Sex also meant the world to my mother. After he died, she enrolled in a series of creative writing classes at a nearby college and wrote a thinly veiled autobiographical story about a young bride having an orgasm for the first time on her honeymoon. The way she described it, there were spectacular pyrotechnics, like Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks.

Still, five kids in eight years? Looking back, I wonder if she was just as ill-equipped as I was to stand up for herself in a serious relationship with a man. Like me, she didn’t know who she was or what she wanted to be. She was so desperate to please Dad, so desperate to be loved, that she never would have said no to anything he wanted, even though it was clear to all of us, when we got older, that she wouldn’t have minded waiting for a few years to have children and might have even preferred having fewer, especially given what a pain in the ass we all turned out to be.

But instead, she got pregnant right away after they got married in 1949. She was twenty-three at the time and almost immediately had a miscarriage. That freaked someone out—either him, her, her gynecologist, or all three. And even though miscarriages happen in up to twenty percent of all pregnancies, her doctor nevertheless put her on diethylstilbestrol, or DES, a synthetic form of estrogen that was meant to prevent women from having miscarriages and was later found to cause cancer in children who were exposed in the uterus. Some studies have also shown that children of women who took DES had problems with fertility and pregnancy, which my older sister did, although it’s not really clear if that was a result of DES.

I can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have slowed down and let my mother’s body do its thing. In any case, the drug worked, or maybe her body was just ready to make children, because within a year of their first wedding anniversary, Janet was born.

Back then, most women of my mom’s age and class were doing exactly the same thing. The fact that I was freed from that burden, from that destiny, from that biological imperative, has seemed to me all of my life to have been the greatest blessing of being born in 1954 and coming of age at the peak of second-wave feminism.

Finally, in 1958, after Rachel was born, Ma asked her doctor for an IUD. At which point he said to her, “Sally, I thought you’d never ask!” By then, maybe she finally had the confidence to say to herself, and more importantly to Dad, five is enough.

And yet, despite our big family, Janet was the only one who had kids. Rachel never wanted them. Neither did my younger brother, Robert. My older brother Howard died unmarried at age forty, before he had to address the question seriously. You have to wonder why.

To me, it’s not a mystery. When it came to deciding what matters in life, the message that I got from our parents was that having kids was not enough. It certainly wasn’t as good as a big and glossy career. Technically, we dwelt in a backwater of a town in western Pennsylvania, but in their minds, they lived in the ritzy and exciting world of the New York media. They both read a prodigious number of newspapers and magazines and held up the people who wrote for those publications, and the people who were written about, as exemplary human beings. Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinem, Pauline Kael, Nora Ephron, Anne Tyler. I’ll never forget seeing my father weep when he walked out of a matinee of The Accidental Tourist.

When, in 1984, Dad sent in his class notes for his fortieth reunion at Harvard, he told his fellow alumni that he did not miss being a grandfather. That statement startled his best friend from childhood, who sent him a scolding but affectionate letter. “This largely puts you into the oddball class,” he wrote, “and probably marks you as likely to be unreliable by men who depend on grandsons who will go to Harvard to beat Yale. In short, get with it!”

As a result, for me the work of mothering was low on the hierarchy of things to do with your life, definitely lower than being a writer. I remember the exact moment when I decided that the latter was my life’s goal—after I read J.D. Salinger in high school. I thought, if he can write spare, allusive stories about the idiosyncratic Glass family, then I can write spare, allusive stories about my idiosyncratic family. Though it’s also possible that I longed to write because I was a quiet, dreamy child who often felt overwhelmed by those hyperarticulate parents, by that super-smart older sister, and by my swaggering genius of an older brother.

Of course, Stan and I had talked about having kids. He was super-clear about the subject—he wasn’t interested. He said that as a news photographer, he wanted to travel all over the world, and it wouldn’t be fair to children, if we had them. He also thought that kids should be adopted—there are so many that are unwanted, why have more?

I remember exactly where we were when he said it—in a car in San Diego—although I don’t remember where we were going. In Southern California, you spend a lot of time in cars. I do remember being slightly troubled—a big decision was being made—but not terribly upset. I don’t remember thinking that my life would be ruined. I don’t remember thinking that I’d be missing out on something great. I just knew that I wanted to be with Stan.

The only time I ever really questioned my decision not to have children was in 1993, when Howard died. I was thirty-nine. When it happened, I briefly wanted to have a baby because he was so precious to me that I ached to fill the void that he left in the world, as if that were even possible. If I would have insisted, Stan would have gone along with it. The feeling came and went as the four of us returned to Mount Pleasant for his funeral, received condolences from friends and family, and struggled to understand how someone seemingly so vital could suddenly disappear.

I did the math: If I had a baby, it would share about twenty-five percent of his DNA. But what good was that? The kid would never have a scotch with him. Deep down, I understood that the Howard Replacement Project was never a reasonable plan. It was a fanciful idea born of grief. And after a couple years, I stopped thinking about it entirely.

That’s not to say that I’ve never had regrets. I still remember the first pang of remorse. Stan and I were at a party in San Diego at the house of a friend, who also worked at the paper. One of her kids was in the backyard, holding a balloon. She let go of the string in that clueless way that kids have when they don’t quite understand that they have control over the thing in their hand, and it floated away.

Then, with her chubby little finger, she pointed up and said, “The balloon went to the ki,” still too young to pronounce the word “sky.” When she said it, I felt a stab in my gut, a pang of longing to be in close proximity to such an adorable little human every day. But those moments were few and far between. Most of the time I just wanted to hang out with the kids’ parents, gossip about work, and talk about politics and restaurants.

My gynecologist once told me, in one of our wonderful, meandering conversations that occur when I’m sitting on her exam table, trying to delay getting into the stirrups, that delivering babies gave her a sense of hope. I can see how that’s possible. Kids, when they’re not being irritating, are hopelessly cute. Like pandas or puppies. Even Janet, whose opinion was so important to me, and who didn’t particularly want them at first, said that having her son—my nephew—was a transformative experience.

My therapist thinks that I wanted them more than I’m willing to admit, and the reason that I didn’t have them was because I caved in to Stan. Anytime the subject comes up and I insist that she’s wrong, she says I’m “well-defended” against regrets, and we drop it.

She’s right about a lot of stuff, but not this. Of all the people I know, I’m probably the least well-defended against regrets. I have them about everything, including what I ate for breakfast this morning—toast instead of oatmeal. To me, every aspect of growing old has been accompanied by an unrelenting sense of loss and sorrow. And typically, when I think about how my time on earth is drawing to a close, I wonder what I have to show for it.

Not only that, but there’s some fear of missing out. Because you could be forgiven for thinking that all of society is organized around the rites of passage of children, the never-ending succession of weddings, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, and brises—lifetimes and lifetimes filled with nothing but naches.

When our mother died, Janet, Robert, Rachel, and I did everything we could to make sure she felt loved and cared for in her final days. It was right around that time that I began to wonder, more than usual, whether I’d made a mistake by not having children so Stan and I would have someone to look after us when we started to fall apart. Robert, wisely, set me straight. He told me, just hire someone. You can afford it. Besides, there’s no guarantee that your kids would even want to take care of you.

Not only was he right, but I realized all over again that there are only so many things that you can do in a day. Every morning, I make a list, then spend the rest of my waking hours scratching out the things that I absolutely have to get done, knowing full well that I’ll never do them all. My lists were even longer when I was nineteen and twenty-seven, back when I had my abortions.

In retrospect, I’m glad I crossed out the items that I did. I’m glad I got to have decades of a career as a journalist, writing about all kinds of things, including my idiosyncratic family. I'm glad I was free to become the person I had to be. Having that freedom was the only way that I could put into the world all the things inside me that had to get out.

Ann Levin


Ann Levin is a writer and book reviewer whose essays and memoir have appeared or are forthcoming in Sensitive Skin, Southeast Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Potato Soup Journal, Main Street Rag, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, Porridge, and the Read650 anthologies. After receiving a master’s in creative writing at the University of Texas, she worked for many years as a journalist, including as national editor at The Associated Press. You can read her work at

paper texture

On my phone, floating in front of a white background, are the Yeezy Boots "Sulfur." They just landed. And for the first time, I’m considering dropping a few hundred dollars on footwear. But they aren’t your typical boot. They sport a jagged-toothed sole. The metallic collar velcros around the high ankle. The fabric on the upper has been kissed by the clouds of Venus, soaked in an atmosphere swelling with sulfuric smoke. They resemble space boots. Joints that should come with their own Sulfur space suit. And for a man who just recently became captivated by chemistry, I appreciate the nod to naming a shoe after a noble gas. I say recently because I hadn’t learned any of this in high school. The gas lesson was most likely taught on the days when my mind wandered the clouds, or when I was too busy freestyling about space travel, or skipping school and watching my friends chief themselves into orbit, planting a blunt on the moon, on some Neil Armstrong shit. I was en route to dropping out like my friend, who, still to this day, hasn’t gone back for his GED. Kanye, of course, dropped out of college. I wonder if he, as an artist, still holds an affinity for the sciences. Weeks ago, I dropped out of a Coursera class on ideal gases. But not before I learned the formula for them joints, which is PV = nRT. See, I learned something. I’m on my way. Too bad I hadn’t paid attention sooner. I might have become a real chemist, the brotha you would’ve hit up for further knowledge about gases. About how gases move randomly in straight lines, like us. I might have, likewise, had a better experience in the gas chamber at basic training. I’m getting choked up just thinking about it. Tasting the sour tear gas while being stripped of my tears. Fumes choking and gripping my throat. I lifted my mask to sound off, but my breath was ripped from my lungs. My retinas felt as if they were roasting; the feeling was like my eyes would be shut forever. Every boiling liquid leaked out of my body. Words died before they were born. I felt close to death. If you had asked, I couldn’t have told you my name. For a moment, I couldn’t remember who I was. Not until a drill sergeant punched me in the chest with epic propulsion. In 1971, on the same day the Sulfur boots touched down, the U.S. spacecraft Mariner 9 became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. Even so, the Soviets were the first to Venus. Before the Venera 7, the first spacecraft to soft-land on a planet, ceased operation, pictures were transmitted back: a surface of fractured rocks resting on golden gravel embraced by a yellow sky. When Venera 7 settled on Venus, Vladimir Putin was studying law at Leningrad State University. And during his infamous Drink Champs interview, Kanye claimed he was “Young Putin.” I was ignorant of the fact that sulfur dioxide is a component of tear gas. Though, before that, early alchemists, shamans, and priests drove away evil spirits with its pungent, putrid aroma and, get this, sulfur purified “bad air.” I think about the air on the day the Father of Chemistry was beheaded. I imagine every molecule was watching, holding hands, and weeping as he evaporated into their realm. Antoine Lavoisier was executed by guillotine during the French Terror in 1794. After Lavoisier was killed, French mathematician Joseph-Louis LaGrange remarked, “It took them only an instant to cut off that head, but France may not produce another like it in a century.”Through my headset, I heard my friend die again. His Astroneer avatar had been blasted by a lethal red sapling shot from a Volatile Attactus on a planet named Atrox. I happen to adore Atrox. It’s one of the most challenging planets in the game to inhabit. It’s a kind of Venus in its own right, a saffron sky observing jade and ochre terrain cloaked in a thick, vaporous haze. A place no one wants to visit. And I like that. I also like that its atmosphere shelters gases such as helium, methane, and sulfur. I told my friend, who joined my world from Michigan, that the flora protected something that wasn’t meant for you to touch. “It’s science preserving itself,” I said. He said, “Fuck science. And fuck this fucked up planet.” I took great offense to this. I had designated myself “the gas man,” the virtual Lavoisier, harvesting gases being sucked from the air by atmospheric condensers which amass molecules and discharge canisters filled with colorful clouds, fluorescent fornications of funky fumes. I had envisioned constructing a gas compound crowded with towering silos of canisters inhabiting any gas of your choosing. I wanted to be the god of gases.Brimstone, sulfur’s archaic nomenclature, summons the harsh odor of sulfur dioxide born from lightning strikes. It was understood that lightning served as a form of divine punishment by various ancient religions. In the Bible, sulfur was associated with divine retribution. In Revelation 14:10, it states, “the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” My other Astroneer comrade might have been trying to escape this wrath. He, I’ll call him B, told me he wanted to go into the ministry. Serve the Lord. Teach people about God. He had just been released from jail for intent to distribute marijuana. I keep playing back our conversation about him considering seminary school. We’d discussed Thomas Aquinas, who, on retribution, wrote in his Summa Theologiae, “After the remission of sin, punishment is needed for two ends: to settle the debt, and to provide a remedy.” B had just been kicked out of his house and started in sleeping his car. Recently, he totaled his car while delivering for DoorDash. He uploaded a picture of the wreck in our Discord. I wished him well. I wrote, “I’ll be on grinding on Atrox if you need me.”The smashed front end of his sedan made me recall my accident on the New Jersey Turnpike at three a.m., the so-called “Hour of the Dead.” The headlights, which looked like burning stones of sulfur, blazed in my rearview mirror as the car sped up behind me. It launched into my rear bumper, propelling me onto the shoulder. I scraped the guard rail. Lost control. Then, finally, I managed to slow to a stop. The guy who rammed me also pulled over. When he exited his vehicle, he looked as if he’d been dead and had been brought back to life. I wanted God to belt him with fire and brimstone. My car, its frame bent and warped, was totaled. It all could have been God’s wrath. A form of retribution for my unholy transgressions. We all have them. We all, like gases, collide with others whom we do not expect. But thank god I wasn’t fried into fossil fuels or vaporized and floating above your head. Once, fog from burning plastic crept on the ceiling in a warehouse I worked. My supervisor, Curt—who once played guitar for a dying man as he took his last breath—pointed up at the mist and said, “Cancer.” The artist in me asks, who’s in the clouds? Do they speak through thunder and lightning? The scientist in me may ask of you, in the future, after we’ve all perished and curious souls from an alien planet land on earth, where the fumes retrace the steps of humans, that when they stumble upon your ghost, your precious particles drifting, whisper your name in the wind.

Evan J. Massey


Evan J. Massey is an African American, U.S. Army veteran who served his country in Afghanistan. His work can be found or forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Bat City Review, The Pinch, Indiana Review, Speculative Nonfiction, and various others. He holds an MFA from Virginia Tech and teaches Upper School English at The Rivers School.

paper texture


The sick flop of placenta, the feeding tube still attached, the gush of blob sliding from between my legs, so different from the sturdy bonebulk of the daughter who had preceded it. A mush, a clot, creamy like the discharge that seeped throughout both pregnancy and non-pregnancy, the tell-tale sign of ovulation I never recognized until I tried to learn how to natural-family-plan. No one mentioned discharge when I was growing up, no one told me how it would dampen and stick, a wad of self between my legs on the underwear, and even when I wiped off the clots the damp streak would remain, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Isn’t dampness supposed to be evidence of desire? Damp attracts damp; feeling wet keeps you wet if you’re a woman. But it grows cold, the discharge, a cool moisture lingering all day.

Placenta is proof of birth, and I asked the midwife to save mine all three times. The first daughter’s was planted with hyssop by the corner of the deck staircase; we were so new to our house I didn’t know that by the next spring, that spot would be shaded out. One placenta used. The second daughter's I planted with hyssop again, this time by the detached shed. It too was shaded out within the cycle of one year. By the third I had learned; I dumped her thawed jelly into a deep hole I’d dug for my new nectarine whip in the sunniest corner of my front yard. That tree has flourished, growing far beyond its expected parameters, and so I can believe, at last, in the truth of my placenta as nourishment. I suppose I have to, in order to justify the months I kept the red biohazard bag in the freezer beside the burger and ice cream, waiting for spring.

We buried my youngest daughter’s guinea pig this winter during a warm snap, the same day we’d taken her to the vet to be euthanized. My daughter’s guinea pig had developed arthritis in both her spine and her legs and she could not move herself anymore. I cared for the guinea pig like a hospice nurse, lifting her into clean hay so I could remove the poop and pee she could not crawl away from anymore. She still lifted her nose to be booped, still eagerly ate the lettuce and carrots when I held them to her mouth. I could not bear not knowing how much pain she was in. Guinea pigs will hide their weaknesses because they are prey animals, biologically trained to obscure anything that might make them a target. My daughter’s guinea pig hid her condition from us as long as possible, until we watched her drag herself to her food dish, the lower half of her body immobile, and she could not hide her deterioration any longer.

My husband saved her body in a box and brought her home from the veterinarian. I had remained behind, digging a hole deeper than any I’d ever dug, crying and waiting. My daughters and I gathered around the hole and said a few words about our guinea pig before my husband told us to look away. I couldn’t resist seeing her one more time, so I didn’t listen; I turned back as he opened the box and I saw her little body, as immobile as it had been before. He lowered the box into the hole and gently turned it over, covering the guinea pig with the medical pad her body had been resting upon. I shoveled the dirt on top of her body, a little blob, and when the hole was filled and tamped down, I shook mullein seeds.

It is still winter and it’s been a dry one, little snow or rain. I will not know if I planted her in the right place until spring, until the efforts of love reveal either their growth or their parch. Until I know if I have done it right.


A Berkey water filter system has sat atop a cheap metal stand in our kitchen since 2011, but all these years later, the stand still holds the weight without breaking. The Berkey can hold a touch over two gallons of water. I fill it approximately twice a day. The black carbon tubes inside allow water to seep through them and into the chamber below. The Berkey is chrome-plated and the spigot has hard-water crust around it, which of course it shouldn’t. I am filtering out the Missouri River, the buckets and buckets of Missouri River water the treatment plant gathers in and pushes back out, the waste of all the medications and urine and feces and vomit we flush down our pipes and send back, pushed into the river, pulled back in, pushed through filtration and pushed through the pipes, pouring out of my faucet and through the detachable spigot I spray into the Berkey.

I am telling myself the water is clean now, cleaner than it would be. But I still open my mouth when I am in the shower and strain water through my teeth, drinking the spray that pushes through the hard-water crust on the showerhead.

I am performing alchemy in my own house, water into water. What is magic but what we want to believe we see? I believe I see clean water; the Berkey manual insists that new owners put their Berkey through the Red Food Coloring Test, dropping six drops of red into the two gallons: if the water comes through clear on the other side, the filters are working as intended. I have replaced those filters only twice in the last eleven years, which is remarkable. But for $100 a pair, I suppose it is not that remarkable.

I felt like a good mother when I bought the Berkey, and I also felt like a bourgeois mother when I bought the Berkey. I bought the Berkey with a tax refund, which is perhaps the least bourgeois part. I bought the Berkey because the other moms in my babywearing group had bought Berkeys and I wanted them to respect how much I cared about the safety of my daughters too. We all cared about the emotional safety of our children, which was why we spent $75 on a woven wrap and tied our babies to us so they would feel attached and safe. My baby daughter often screamed into my face when I wore her heart-to-heart, so I preferred the detachment-parent attachment-parent baby carrier, a Beco Butterfly. There were clips instead of knots, and you could wear your baby on your back like a backpack.

That was not the right way, but it was also the right way.

I spent more time clipping my daughter in and out of the Beco than I did wearing her. I nearly dropped her on her vulnerable head more times than I successfully swung her onto my back. When I am alone and quiet, I can remember the feeling of my daughter slipping out, the quick inhale I took as I grabbed the straps at the last minute and righted them the way a person darts her head to catch a piece of popcorn. I was so anxious to appear practiced and efficient that I was reckless, unwilling to admit I was not perfect.

When she was younger and I was younger, I wore my infant daughter in a wrap made of sweatshirt material called a Sleepywrap during the dead heat of summer, sweating her against my sweating body, comatizing her in the damp warmth of July. She was sleeping because she was too tired to stay awake. I thought she was quiet because I was wearing her correctly, I had soothed her into rest.

I have nearly killed my daughters more times than I want to own. All accidents, all mistakes, all my fault. None of them died and none of them were injured but I see the narrowness of fate, my legs barely bridging the chasm as I bounced them to sleep, never hard enough to shake their brains. I hoped.

My mother grew impatient when I returned to my daughter’s co-sleeper every time I heard her cry, bouncing her back to sleep or nursing her back to sleep. During a brief lull between visits to my daughter’s side, my mother said she’d always let me cry it out; how it was hard at first but eventually I gave up and learned to cry myself to sleep. Like a sliding wall suddenly opening, I could see behind the years of uncertain sleep I had experienced as a child. I was fourteen years old, still dragging a sleeping bag into my parents’ room to lie awake at the foot of their bed because I was afraid to be alone. When it stormed, I would creep into my younger sister’s bedroom and ask if I could sleep in her bed with her, waiting out the thunder while squished together.

I did not want my daughters to need me like that.

Through the seven years of their overlapping babyhoods, I went to my three daughters when they cried in their cribs; when they grew out of their cribs, they did not cry at night anymore. They did not enter my bedroom when it stormed, they did not want to sleep near me. My daughters did not need me at night, and I was grateful because I had put in the work and the time to teach them they did not need me. I am so sad when I realize that.

I gave my daughters yellow hearts. I cut them from my baby blanket, the one I had swaddled myself in until my first daughter was born—the deadline I had given myself. I was twenty-five years old. I sewed the yellow hearts to my daughters’ own baby blankets so they could comfort themselves with the years of no-comfort I had cried into mine. I alchemized loneliness and fear into comfort. But my daughters did not need their baby blankets past childhood; they have all abandoned them now.

My blanket was warm yellow, the color of sunlight: why I needed it most in the dark.

I called my blanket Nanny after the legs in the Muppet Babies cartoon, those green-striped stockings and the purple skirt hem that indicated a caretaker was nearby. When I think of the Muppet Babies themselves, napping three to a crib, I think of how comforted they must have been, bodies touching, together.

Catch-All Drawer

Nothing in my house is random, and there is nothing in the drawers that I do not know. I placed all items inside their drawers on purpose. I do not random; I order, and then I try to dissociate what I know from what I want to be “surprised” by discovering later.

Here we are, then, the bottom left side of my desk, seldom opened. I know there were the four baby calendars—mine and my three daughters—and the copy of Cat’s Eye, signed by Margaret Atwood for my oldest daughter, and the contributor’s copy of a journal with the essay I wrote about my oldest daughter. A Wolf Envelope Company pen I must have placed inside, foreseeing the eventual end of the supply, hoping I could surprise my husband with a relic from his family history.

The comparison chart of my daughters’ infant weights, the paper I recorded to make sure I was keeping them on track.

My unburned baptismal candle, nearly forty years old, my name etched in gold.

A tin marked “Happy Mothers Day 5-9-2010” in stickers, holding a tiny plaster print of my oldest daughter’s hand. Her sister was on her way to be born in just two months, nearly here. A booklet on dinosaurs by my little brother, when he was still little, which must have arrived in the wrong nostalgia box to the wrong kid.

A yellowed newspaper article I cut out of The Daily Iowan, featuring my little brother nearly twenty years later, with the headline, “Finding his own welcome.”

A printed copy of the Langley Family Tree, typed on our old Mac Classic in a handwriting font, tracing our ancestral line to Cerdic, my forty-fourth great grandfather, a Danish pirate who founded the Kingdom of Wessex in England. This is the Mayflower line through my father’s mother, who also traces to the Mayflowerians Richard Warren and Peregrine White through my great-great-grandmother Adeline. I just spent fifteen minutes entering the family tree into because I have lost this paper before. I was lying when I said I knew everything in every drawer.

My kindergarten progress report is in the bottom left drawer as well. Mrs. C wrote “Kristine consistently applied herself to academic tasks, in which she already excelled, to seek higher levels of attainment. At the same time, she participated fully in activities, interacting cooperatively with all her classmates.” I received all plusses except in “explores addition” and “explores measurement.”

Oh, no, there is the surprise: only two of my daughters’ calendars in the drawer. My youngest daughter’s calendar is missing. Now comes the wash of guilt because I cannot say for certain she had one. I always wanted to avoid being that mom who denied her youngest the same amount of baby consideration, cataloguing, care. My little snickerdoodle, the recipe I had to get from my mother. Vanilla and nutmeg, sugar and flour and butter, nothing complicated and something everyone easily loves. That is my youngest daughter. I promised to write every day in the books I kept for all my daughters during the years they were four years old and I failed. I promised to keep a calendar for my youngest daughter and I must have failed. I promised my youngest daughter a curated Montessori childhood like her sisters and instead I sent her to a daycare we all called “preschool” at two-and-a-half because I couldn’t deal with the endless stretch of toddler daytimes anymore. I hired a nanny to watch my youngest daughter when she was not at daycare so I could work in my basement. I promised I would never send my children to daycare, and I brought daycare to them instead. No, only one of them.

Some days were more magical than others. Some days were more mundane. It is the mentions of the mundane I am grateful I recorded now. The detail of forgetting, of rote, the first layer of a house buried beneath the dirt, compressed over time, unretrievable but necessary.


My youngest daughter informed me I was a stratus cloud, or maybe that cloud was meant for my husband. I was not paying close enough attention. My daughter was telling me about the four types of clouds, and I could recall cumulus and cirrus but I did not remember nimbus, did not remember stratus. When I was in second grade, one year younger than my daughter, my friends and I stayed in from recess for a few weeks, doing “research” on weather in the school library. We called ourselves the Weather Girls, unaware of the 80's girl group, which is only funny in retrospect because “It’s Raining Men” was released the year we were born.

We lived in Oregon, and so the primary weather we experienced was rain, rain rain rain and no snow, a little ice from time to time. We knew clouds very well, but we mainly knew them as cloud cover, indistinguishable from one another.

We felt very studious and that we were doing Important Work. This was in 1989 or 1990, so while it is difficult to remember an era before computers, it was an era before computers. We had to research by looking up the correct Dewey Decimal system code in the paper card catalog kept in the cabinet made of rows and rows of skinny drawers. We matched the decimals to the library shelves and brought books to our table and then we copied passages about weather into our notebook.

We copied our copies with our best handwriting—using pen, not pencil—into one booklet. We brought it to our teacher, a woman I loved because she had introduced us to the American Girl books, Kirsten the American Girl in particular, whom I also loved because Kirsten was a Swedish girl from Minnesota like my own mother. I asked my mother to loop my hair in braids like Kirsten; I dressed like Kirsten for Halloween.

But I am distracting myself. This is purposeful because while I am thirty-nine now—it is over thirty years later—I am still avoiding the way this story ends.

We brought our pamphlet to our teacher and as she paged through the work of missed recesses, her expression grew stern. She looked up at our expectant faces and said, “Girls, this is very serious. Did you copy this from books?” We nodded, thinking our diligence in adhering to fact was a good thing.

“This is called plagiarism and it is a very serious offense. You cannot copy other people’s words and use them as your own.”

I felt sick, nearly in tears at being spoken to harshly by a teacher. I was an academic eight-year-old who loved to please her teachers by displaying her knowledge and her skill.

It should be apparent none of us had ever heard of plagiarism. We were eight. We were the Weather Girls. I was crestfallen, could barely bring myself to take back the pamphlet from my teacher, making vague promises that we would rewrite it “in our own words.” We did not return to the library; we returned to the playground. Later, during class library time, I looked through the books and tried to think of how I could rephrase “There are four types of clouds: cirrus, cumulus, stratus, and nimbus” in a way that was not copying. “Four types of clouds exist, and they are called nimbus, stratus, cumulus, and cirrus,” inverting the order, removing the “the.” I was baffled by how there was no fresh way to present fact.

I suppose that is why I enjoy altering fact now. If I cannot present fact without plagiarizing, I can change fact to mean something different instead. When I was a child, a carpool was a car with a pool in the back. I still think it should be. When I told my carpool driver there was someone unbuckled in the back seat and her voice raised with panic, I delighted in telling her, “It’s Mr. Nobody!”

A child misunderstands and is misunderstood, but the best and worst part of childhood is when you learn to understand what you did not want to learn. I miss my carpool. I miss Mr. Nobody. I miss copying passages for pleasure and feeling old beyond my years, an archaeologist who needed to excavate the words of others and print them with my own hand to bring them to life.


I do not know how to differentiate types of paper, their weights and their size, the gsm and pound, but I should. My ancestors have worked for the paper mill in Cloquet through four generations now, but that information is learned, it did not pass through osmosis or cellular knowledge the way my other traits have. My great-grandfather moved to Cloquet in 1913 to work at the paper mill, disappointed because the logging days of the Northland were over, the ones he had longed to join as a child. My great-grandfather’s father, my great-great, was one of the last voyageurs out of Montreal, paddling up the Ottawa in search of furs during the mid-1800s. My great-great grandfather was born in 1838 when the lumber industry was still swollen across North America. My great-grandfather was born in 1892, the end times. How fast they came. How fast it all left.

I should know about paper because paper comes from logs and logs are in my family tree, supporting the branches like splints. Maybe my family tree was cut down. Whose wasn’t, in those last days?

I should know about paper because paper makes envelopes, and my husband’s family made envelopes. That is not true; they themselves did not make envelopes, they oversaw the workers who ran the machines that made envelopes. My father-in-law owned the envelope company his own father had managed. That envelope company bought paper from the mill where my grandfather worked.

Put me inside an envelope, lick it and seal it and you can taste generational inheritance.

I have a large calendar on the wall near my desk which I acquired this past Christmas in Stillwater, Minnesota, on the wrong river, the St. Croix. If I really wanted to be symbolic, I would have bought it from a store along the St. Louis, which is the river smoothing through Cloquet before crashing through Jay Cooke State Park on its way to Lake Superior. The gentle tumble of Cloquet riverbed is what created the town that drew my great-grandfather; the plunging crashes which barely contained the St. Louis River outside of Cloquet are what secured Cloquet’s value. The mills were built in Cloquet because it was the final resting place for the logs which would not have survived the shale, no matter how high the river was running.

The calendar is from the Northwest Paper Company in Cloquet, “a subsidiary of Potlatch Forests, Inc.” It is a calendar from 1966, and yet the days on the calendar fall exactly where they are right now, fifty-six years later, in 2022. January first was a Saturday as it was this year. There is a compass rose on the calendar as well as the Northwest Paper Company insignia, “Paper Makers Since 1898.” The great white pine forests were gone by 1898, which is why the pulp of lesser trees was then pressed into something that could still wring dollars.

The calendar was made for the Inter-City Paper Company, based in St. Paul and Minneapolis. That paper company doesn’t exist anymore, says Google, but the Northwest Paper Company in Cloquet—while it has been sold and renamed twice since the calendar was made—still does.

I haven’t mentioned why I bought the calendar—it’s huge, maybe five feet tall and two and a half feet wide—or where I found it in Stillwater. I was antiquing with my father because he wanted to purchase Franciscan Apple dishware to add to my mother’s set—the set she inherited from her mother, the daughter of my great-grandfather who moved to Cloquet. My grandmother and her sisters collected dishware from the Franciscan line piece by piece, purchasing an item for each other as a gift during each holiday. My grandmother collected the Apple line and her sister collected Desert Rose. I imagine my grandmother, who my mother has said “always liked fine things,” quailed when Jackie Kennedy selected Desert Rose rather than Apple for her White House china. I wonder if my grandmother worried she had favored the wrong things.

My mother inherited the dishes when my grandmother died, and though the collection’s reach is broad—my mother has fourteen-some plates in every size, as well as nearly all the specialty items like hand-painted ice cream glasses—there are some missing pieces. Since Apple Franciscanware was produced until 2011, it is important to ensure that any pieces purchased to add to my mother’s collection are antiques from the 1940s and 1950s, bearing a certain mark.

I was antiquing with my father, dreaming of buying the $250 Franciscanware Apple soup tureen, so hard to justify and yet so glorious. On the main floor of the antique store was a plastic-wrapped calendar, the top half illustrated with a Canadian Mountie looking sternly at men who had hauled cargo off-ship to the shore. One longshoreman stands before the Mountie, holding a reward poster in his hand which says “$200.00 REWARD!” and shows a photo of a man’s face beneath. The Mountie’s left leg, clad in a nearly-knee-high brown leather boot, is propped atop the longshoreman’s wheeling apparatus, forcing the longshoreman to stand in place and address the Mountie’s concern. Another longshoreman looms behind the Mountie, a huge canvas bag across one of his muscular shoulders, and he is frowning at the Mountie. One step forward and the frowning longshoreman could belt the Mountie on the head with his cargo, turn, and flee.

I was reading my ancestry into the photo, the longshoremen like my father’s father who had served on ships his entire life, who died docked aboard a ship in his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, twenty miles from Cloquet. I was reading my Canadian ancestors, the great-great-grandfather who canoed upriver from Montreal one last time before dipping south into Wisconsin and settling on the Chippewa. I was reading his son, my great-grandfather, beginning the family legacy of working for the Northwest Paper Company. I thought the calendar was meant to be mine because if I did not know about paper, I needed to—at least—house paper printed in Cloquet in my own home, on my wall, the calendar reading the days the same as it did fifty-six years ago, allowing me to blur my eyes and pretend I belonged.

Lake Water

There is blue, and then there is blue-black, the blue-black of St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s robe as she stands on the bank of a river, the river’s edge blue-black as well. A birch tree with exposed roots is beside her, pine trees in the background like a frame. Kateri’s face is scratched out, because the painting on the prayer card is from the outdoor shrine in Sawyer, Minnesota, down the road from my aunt’s home in Cloquet. I love how weathered the picture is—the painting, which is the picture—because I love the idea that sainthood weathers, good deeds weather, the details obscure, and all we are left with is the image of a woman who is venerated now and the knowledge that she must have done good in her life or this painting would not exist. Blue-black is a cloak; blue-black is the color of my history.

I have a large postcard edged in blue-black, showing the blue-black mood of Lake Superior, a portrait of Duluth taken from the tower and looking east along Park Point. It is the west end of the city, my father’s end of the city, the only part of the city I know and the only part I care about. The city is visible because of the light filtering through the few spare white clouds in the painting; the city is dominated by the blue-black of Superior and the blue-black of the sky overhead. It is so ominous I could stare at it forever, imagine myself into it forever. I have and I will. My grandfather lies in a cemetery under that blue-black; my grandmother is there as well, and my aunt and my great-uncles and great-aunts. My grandfather freighted away on that blue-black into the abyss and my grandmother did not go to the docks to watch. She lived under the faint light that would occasionally pierce the blue-black. A blue-black mirror is darker, the depths of Superior impenetrable, holding the famous shipwrecks my grandfather narrowly skirted.

I do not want to be buried in the blue-black of Lake Superior, but I want to know it. When I die and my marble tombstone begins to weather in the cemetery, softening the letters of my name, I want to see Superior rise into the sky, the water hovering and disappearing into the blue-black, revealing the basin and the wreckage. I just want it for a moment; I promise not to scavenge. I want to see what lies beneath before watching the water release from the sky, submerging as I begin to forget.

Illusion Veil

I have seen my future and when someone I love dies, I do not live through it. I crumble like the weak-breathed ladies of an earlier century, corseted to hold their hearts inside their bodies, whalebone scaffolding to protect their soft innards from being touched. I wear a corset like a crab, a shell that can be cracked if my back is stepped upon, squishing me out and proving how little structure I am actually made of. I create structure to save myself, to armor myself, but I know my backbone is soft, no matter how much calcium I consume. I am a soft woman and I will fall apart when someone I love dies; I will not live through it. I will reveal to the world how incapable I am, which will not make me feel ashamed as much as I will relish the proof of my power finally being evident. Look at what I made you believe. Look at how well I did. Look at how guarded I was; you thought I did not care but now I will drown you in the monsoon of my grief.

I have always loved surprising people by revealing another side of myself.

I am constantly preparing for the ultimate surprise, the unexpected death.

I have thought through every scenario and planned for the museum, the closing of doors, the white cloth draped over the furniture as I leave everything in situ, knowing how much I will want to come back and find the moment saved.

I will only abandon the life I know because I will be preserving the life I knew.

It is possible; I can see it; it is the only way I can see it. I could not possibly touch anything in my house, could not lift a paper without knowing that was picked up by them last, I cannot replace their touch. A monument to the way things were is the only way I can live through it.

I do not believe in moving on.

I do not believe in living through it.

I see the architecture of my grief and it is my house, an arrested moment in time which will only succumb to the decay I cannot prevent. I will spray around the foundation to keep out the intruders. I will close the blinds so the furniture does not sun spot. I will tend the yard because it has always been mine to tend, but I will not move a thing inside. Let the dust bunnies pick up the last hairs that fell from their scalps, let the towels grow soft with the tucked fold of the last improper hanging as they molder.

I do not need to draw a map of the rooms I will abandon because I will carry it the rest of my days, their presence in each space, not a single room untouched by their ghost. I cannot re-enter the house because I must allow them the space to live in it. I need them to live in it again so that I can live through their death by believing they are actually alive, going about their daily householding in the home we shared, an illusion veil I cannot hold against my face to see to the other side for fear I will see nothing.


I want to interest you in the haunted apartment where I lived for a year. I did not know it was haunted when I signed a lease, but you would not know it was haunted either because technically it was not. I never experienced ghostly movements, sounds, light flickers, cabinets opening: all those things I came to fear when I lived, two years later, in a house which was truly haunted. I would like you to be interested in the haunted apartment because I was haunted by discovering how haunted it surely must have been only once I was gone. It was a three-bedroom apartment with two bedrooms facing the street and the third backed up against the apartment behind it. The apartment behind it is the haunted apartment; surely you must know my bedroom was that third. The apartment behind it was the target of arson two years before I moved in; the arson was to cover up the murders which had occurred in the apartment. The murderer broke into the apartment over Spring Break 1999, lured two women into it, killed them, and set it on fire.

Two years before I moved in, two women were murdered in the apartment whose wall adjoined my bedroom.

There; I have been more clear with you than my apartment’s landlord ever was.

In the apartment bedroom, I dressed myself in a short lavender corduroy jumper, wearing pants beneath because I was so self-conscious about revealing any part of myself. In the apartment at large, I undertook a silent, passive-aggressive war with one of my roommates for the single towel bar she felt entitled to use at all costs even if my towel was already present. I peed on her shampoo bottle in the shower and I did not tell her.

I want to interest you in this apartment because it is haunted by the pettiness of living with a girl I called a friend but stopped liking within a handful of months of cohabitation. It is also haunted by my final attempts to make a mutual friend—the sometime-boyfriend of my other roommate—kiss me. I expect you will want to know more about that situation, but if you show interest in the apartment, I will simply open the door and allow you to sign the next year’s lease. It still stands; I saw the apartment when I was visiting town this past summer. I was so proud of the apartment we called “The A-P-T” because it was the first place I was responsible for caretaking. I washed dishes in The A-P-T; I vacuumed the carpet. The A-P-T was where I watched the second tower fall and guiltily ordered a pizza delivery that night.

At night, when my boyfriend was over, we would walk the trash to the dumpster behind the building because we wanted to see the raccoons. If I stopped and looked at the back of the building, which I certainly must have, I would have been staring directly at the apartment where the girls’ corpses burned. I did not know they burned; I did not know they lived.

It is an unhaunted haunted apartment I want you to care about. I want you to know that I occupied it with the feeling I had achieved adulthood, and I only did not want it to be a part of my past when I thought about the ghosts who must have crossed that thin barrier wall, the sounds of the former occupants I thought were current that whole year, seeping into my bedroom and infecting everything I owned, everything I carried with me.


I don’t know if I have brought my daughters into the right future, if I have cleaned the right kitchen counters, if I am tucking in the blankets tightly enough to hold them safe until morning.

When I was a girl, I loved my mom’s chocolate chip cookies, a recipe which includes a mysterious half-teaspoon of water. A half-teaspoon of water is like a gob of spit; less than that. I trusted the secret to success was that half-teaspoon and if I didn’t include it, my ancestors would come after my cookie sheet in the oven and cause the cookies to burn. Like the ingredient on those signs sharing the Recipe for a Happy Home, I needed that half-teaspoon of love. Love is water, or water is love—I believe in that as I believe in the rivers which brought my family love, love defined by the jobs which brought money to buy the flour and sugar and margarine to make the chocolate chip cookies. I love a river because it is something that cannot be taken away; it is a home I can never lose.

I do not like to think about the rivers that run dry or are dammed into lakes. Permanence is necessary, not facts.

Now that I am grown, I make my mother’s chocolate chip cookies for my daughters. I bake the cookies a half-dozen times a year and yet I still take the recipe out of that red box every time, prop it against the old hinges, to make sure I am doing it right.

Sometimes I think I am a terrible person, eating Halloween candy snuck from my daughters’ bags while they are at school, and I am not satisfied because I don’t even like suckers but I feel the need to have a sweet taste in my mouth, even at the cost of the telltale plastic shreds I leave behind.

Survey Stakes

I collected stones that I found in dry riverbeds, in running creekbeds, on the shore of Lake Superior where I lifted handfuls, sifting through the waste, looking for the ones I needed to keep. I brought them home with me and I assigned them meaning; I held them against my body when I wanted to cure myself and then I placed them on their shelf, hoping their proximity would be enough. There are four stones in my yard, one atop the softening body of our guinea pig and three buried in shady and sunny corners, paperweights holding the proof of my effort in place. Attachment, another word for love.

Kristine Langley Mahler


Kristine Langley Mahler is the author of Curing Season: Artifacts (WVU Press, 2022) and A Calendar is a Snakeskin (Autofocus, 2023). Her work has been supported by the Nebraska Arts Council, named Notable in Best American Essays 2019 and 2021, and published in DIAGRAM, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, and Brevity, among others. A memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska, Kristine is also the director of Split/Lip Press. Find more about her projects at or @suburbanprairie.

paper texture

When I was nine my Momma flung herself into a year-long love affair with drugs, thievery, and a man named Eric, only to return with her hand-on-a-bible swearing she had her life together—a claim she would later admit was a tad premature. As a child, I was easily convinced, and erased all memory of her past betrayals and questionable behavior. Granny was a bit harder to win over. It took a lot of persuading on Momma’s end before Granny would allow her to take me away for a weekend—hours on the phone discussing Granny’s rules, which I was pretty sure she made up as she went along, a list of contact information for any friend Momma had nearby in case of emergency, and also the promise that if at any point I decided I wanted to come home (home, in her pointed tone, to remind Momma of where I truly belonged), that she’d head straight back. Part of me knew Granny was just getting her jabs in because she still blamed Momma for us losing everything we had to the bank, and passive aggression was her only mode of communication.

Things were eventually settled, and the next Friday, Granny and I sat in the dryer chairs on the beauty shop side of the house, waiting for Momma to arrive. She’d never been to our new house, and I was worried she might not find it. I kept turning to the window, peeking through the blinds every time a car passed by. The room smelled of burnt honey from the waxing station over by the sink. Matt, the stylist who rented out a booth, was gone for the day, and the only sound came from the hum of the Coca-Cola machine under the TV.

I could tell Granny was nervous. She kept hiking up her black dress pants and pulling at the yellow polyester fabric of her blouse, hoping Momma wouldn’t notice everything that had changed about her since they’d last seethed together in the same room. When she caught me staring as she primped her recently permed hair in the mirror, she frowned, embarrassed, and looked the other way.

A quarter to five, a dark green Durango reeled into the driveway, smoke and R&B leaking out of the half rolled down windows. I jumped from the seat, startling Granny, slung open the door, alarm bell chiming, and collided with Momma as she stepped out of the vehicle. She grunted on impact and cigarette ash landed on my shoulder. She swiped it off as she hugged me, and remarked on how tall I’d gotten since the last time she’d seen me. She smelled of Clinique Happy and Marlboro Ultra Lights.

“You miss me?” she asked. Then, “What’s that on your lip?”

She pinched at the skin under my nose, squeezing at a blackhead until my eyes watered, then wiped the sebum onto the sleeve of my shirt.

“He’s gotta be back early Sunday, now,” Granny said, as she left the doorway. She handed me the plastic bag with my clothes and toothbrush inside, then handed cash to Momma, explaining, “For his dinner tonight. Y’all need anything, call.”

Granny hugged me goodbye, whispering I love you to the cowlick at the back of my head, but I barely paid her attention. She hissed a few warning remarks at Momma as we buckled up, and waved at us as we sped out of the driveway.

It’d been so long since Momma and I had gone joyriding that I had forgotten how chaotic her driving was. The Durango was top-heavy, and as Momma kneed the wheel to light up another cigarette, I felt us lean a little too close to the cars passing by. She tossed me her purse and finally took hold of the wheel, and I noted everything I had misremembered about her face while I stumbled out the question of what she’d done while I was gone. Despite always taking my Momma at her word, there was certainly a challenge in my asking this, seeing as I already knew some part of the answer.

Nearly every Sunday for the past year, Granny and I had parked a few lots down from the duplex where Momma had been staying with her friend Nikki. We’d melt away in the afternoon heat while Momma and Nikki chain-smoked on the patio, washed their cars with moldy sponges, danced to Usher while their wine coolers splashed onto the grass. We never let them know we were there, worried we’d scare them off, but I spent the nights after wondering where I would fit into this new life she had created.

The things Momma chose to mention were motivated in her hope that I would realize it had all been to my benefit. There was a familiarity to this carefully spun narrative, similar mentions of money saved and making good connections, things she had told me the last few times she had claimed to have gotten her life together. A few years before this, she’d gotten herself an apartment in Cairo, near the hospital where she worked as a phlebotomist. The tiny, one bedroom was flooded with new furniture and an entire collection of Disney movies to lure me in, only to have Momma accrue so much debt she figured a man was the only way out. She married a guy named Roger—a stocky, bull of a man, who was recently divorced and lived with his mother and twelve-year-old son. While it solved her financial problems, she grew tired of telling people she was clumsy every time they asked why she had a black eye. After she got away from him, Granny helped her get a place in Whigham, only a few minutes from Granny’s old trailer. When I went to visit, she showed me that I had my own room with a TV, and she’d stocked the freezer with a month’s worth of chicken tenders. She explained that things were different this time, that she was growing up and was gonna be a real Momma. I’d never doubted her motherhood, but I was worried things might fall apart again. And while she promised they wouldn’t, if she had kept her word, I knew she wouldn’t be trying so hard to convince me again now.

“You still cool like me?” Momma asked, flicking the corpse of her cigarette out the window.

“Trying,” I said.

Momma laughed, rolling up the window. She turned the radio even louder than its already deafening volume, and we sang the chorus to a song we used to listen to on our trips to Baskin Robbins every day after school. I had worried that all the time apart would’ve made her forget everything we did together, but we’d fallen back into place, the same way the limbs of trees settle once the breeze is gone.

When we got into Bainbridge, Momma pulled into a Burger King drive-thru to pick up my dinner. She still remembered what I liked, chicken fingers, sweet and spicy sauce, Dr. Pepper to drink. I reached over to hug her, but she mistook my sincerity as something playful and shrugged me off, laughing.

As we got closer to her new home, I felt myself trembling with that same excitement a dog gets when it smells that it’s too close to home. Still, I pretended not to notice once we’d turned down her street, and tried to keep my eyes looking in every direction but the house I’d stared at for so many Sundays. Momma slowed down in front of her and Nikki’s house, and as I finally turned to see it, she pulled into the duplex across the street. I whipped around, jumbled, wondering if I’d somehow confused my right and my left, but as I stared at the patio with its dirty plastic chairs and sombrero ashtray that Momma had stolen from a Chili’s the year before, I knew we were in the wrong place.

When I got out, I noticed a large boat parked on the grass by the side of the house. It was one of those large boats with a steering wheel and a big motor. Green stripes down the sides. Momma grabbed my plastic bag full of wrinkled up clothes and I grabbed my half eaten dinner.

“Whose boat,” I asked.

“I got a new boyfriend,” Momma said, pulling her hair into a high pony. “He’s nice. His name’s Chris. He likes to fish.”

“That’s cool,” I said, pretending to be happy about it. I didn’t like men, and I didn’t much trust them. It had always seemed to me that they were ruining Momma’s life, but she kept going back to them. Momma mostly said she was looking for men to be my father—sometimes, in between boyfriends, she even said my dad was Brad Pitt—but I had learned pretty quickly that men came and went, and their fatherhood only lasted as long as her own personal interest in them.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had been inside a man’s apartment—they were all pretty much the same; men always had apartments that smelled like them on their worst day, masked with off-brand Lysol, and they displayed their “manly” hobbies proudly, whether it be fishing or hunting or obsession with sports. This apartment had wood paneled walls, grungy carpet that might have once been beige but was now filthy dishwater brown. There was a large, bulky TV, and a stack of Lord of The Rings VHS tapes stacked next to a statuette of a bald eagle on the TV stand. In the kitchen stood a man with a can of Sprite in his hand, working away at the stove. When he turned to see us, he smiled, reached out his free hand and introduced himself as Chris.

“Your Momma sure can’t stop talking about you,” he said.

He seemed tall, at least compared to me and Momma, who were both on the low end of five feet, and he shared mine and Momma’s blonde hair and blue eyes. I could see why Momma found him attractive, and his voice was soft and kind, but I still left his hand unshook, tiptoeing behind Momma, hiding at her shoulder. When he saw the crumpled Burger King bag in my hand, he swallowed and said to Momma, “I told you I’d cook.”

“He’s just a picky eater,” she said. “I told you that.”

I sat at the table and pulled out my now cardboard stale fries, watching him and Momma have some conversation with their eyes that they couldn’t have with their mouths while I was in the room. Momma scratched at his back, whispering something into his ear, and he nodded and went back to the stove. She sat opposite me at the table, scrounged through her purse for her cigarettes and popped one in her mouth. One of my favorite things to do when I was little was collect the butts of Momma’s cigarettes that had lipstick on them, and I watched now as the smudge of glittery brown transferred from her lips to the creamy white of the stick. I imagined sneaking this one from the ashtray later, while she was asleep, in case I never got the chance again.

Chris finished cooking—the meal was something with tomatoes and cheese, two things I hated—and sat a plate in front of Momma and then made his plate and joined us at the table. He asked so many questions about me and my life that I wondered if Momma had really mentioned me at all. He wanted to know what my favorite hobbies were, what movies I watched, and which cereal I ate in the mornings. When he asked my favorite meal, I said steak, but mostly because I just wanted to sound fancy, and Granny had always said steak was rich people’s food. He asked how I liked it cooked, what my favorite sauce was, and told me how he liked his. Part of me wondered if I was doing what Momma wanted; I knew who Momma wanted me to be when it was just me and her, but it always took me longer to figure out who she needed me to be for her boyfriends. When I looked over to her, she smiled at me, scrunching her nose.

“Your Momma said you’re homeschooled. How do you like that?”

“It’s only been a couple of weeks,” I said, wondering what all Momma knew. “Just had some problems with kids at school, so Granny figured that was best.”

“One time,” Momma started, before quietly laughing to herself, “One time, I picked Hunter up from this school he was going to in Cairo, and he was quiet the whole way home. I asked if he wanted chicken nuggets or if he wanted to rent a movie, and he just looked out the window all sad. When we got to my place, he sat at the counter and talked about how he’d had a bad day and that the kids at school had been mean, and I asked, ‘You need a drink?’ and he said yes! So I poured him a cup of Smirnoff Ice and he just gulped it down. He just looked like those men you see at bars after a long day at work. I about died.” Momma wiped her eyes, tears spilling out, now with that embarrassed laughter she had when she wasn’t sure she was allowed to be funny. “Maybe an hour later I found out he’d gotten in trouble at school.”

“Why were you in trouble?”

“I got in a fight with another boy in class,” I said.

“The kid was being an asshole,” Momma said. “I used to color Hunter’s toenails with crayon’s when he was little, and he’d gotten into my nail polish and painted his, and was trying to show them off to a friend or something, right? And anyway, this boy came up and started picking at him, and I told Hunter he couldn’t take shit from nobody, so when the boy kept going, Hunter put a stop to it.”

I waited to see what Chris would say to this. I knew from experience that men didn’t like me wading into feminine waters. Momma’s boyfriends always got mad when I brought my dolls over to their house or tried to braid Momma’s hair. If there was a moment to reveal himself as the bad guy of this story, it would be now. But he only looked at me, rested his hand over mine and said, “I’m sorry that happened. Kids can be shitty.”

After dinner, Momma made me call Granny to let her know we were safe and to tell her goodnight. She picked up after the first ring, asked me a million variations of was I okay, and then asked if I was having a good time. I didn’t mention Chris, because I wasn’t sure if she even knew about him, but said everything was perfect because I didn’t want her to have any reason to come find me and take me back. She asked to speak to Momma, and I heard her once again listing out everything Momma wasn’t allowed to do. When Momma hung up the phone, it was violently, a crash that knocked the base off the wall.

When Chris asked what sort of things I liked to do for fun, I said Monopoly. I thought it was just another one of his questions, but then he went to the bedroom, returning with a stack full of board games. Momma rolled her eyes, forever despising the all-consuming nature of these games, but agreed to play along as Chris set up the board. We spent an hour playfully arguing over money, and because I was good at the game, I knew when Chris was losing on purpose, but was grateful for it anyway.

When he finally got up to pee, Momma said it was game over, bed time because she had to work in the morning. She folded up the board and asked if I had fun. I said yes.

“You like Chris?”

“He’s really nice,” I said. “I could tell he was letting me win.”

“I told him you had to approve of him or else it was peace out,” she said, petting my head. “You ready for bed?”

Momma got up and turned the light on in a room that wasn’t hers. Momma sat on the twin bed, with its black comforter and rumpled pillows stuffed into midnight blue cases.

“Where are you gonna sleep?” I asked.

“In there,” she said, pointing to the room by the bathroom. “With Chris.”

While I knew this was a different house with a different man, I couldn’t help but wonder if the same thing would happen here that had fueled my nightmares during Momma’s time with Roger. I could still remember hearing that man slide his thirty pound dumbbells against the door before he slapped Momma around, hollering through the door for me to cut it out as I banged harder and harder, slinging my body against it with all my five-year-old weight, trying to save Momma by whatever means I could. It terrified me to think that one day Momma would disappear behind some door and never come back out.

“It’ll be alright, baby,” she said, though she didn’t know why I looked so pitiful and heartbroken. When I kept pouting she gave me a playful frown and pulled me into her lap. “You still got all of your ribs?”

She began feeling at my sides, feigned panic twinkling her eyes, and then told me I had to hurry up and lay flat on the bed so she could make sure I had all of my ribs. She climbed on top of me and dug her fingers into one rib at a time, saying, “One little ribby, two little ribby,” smiling as I screamed and cackled, the tickles radiating. Momma was the only person who ever tickled me, and it had been so long that despite how much I hated it, I refused to beg for mercy.

When she finally finished, Momma told me to hop up so she could turn down the bed and tuck me in. I did as I was told, and watched as she smoothed out the covers and fluffed the pillows. I climbed into the center of the bed, which felt too big for me and my lonesome, and she told me to keep my arms under the covers, and she tucked me in so tight, I could barely move. As I shrugged for release, she laughed so hard she collapsed onto the floor.

“I don’t wanna sleep alone,” I said. I had gotten so used to sharing the cramped little bedroom with Granny, and I never liked change. I wondered if I whined enough that it might convince her to stay in the room with me. “I’m scared of the dark.”

“Hold on,” she said. She lifted herself up off the floor and went into the other room. When she came back, Chris trailed behind her, carrying the lamp that had just been lighting up the living room.

“We can do this until we get you a nightlight,” she said, searching my eyes for approval. I could tell Momma wasn’t really sure what to do. She didn’t want to make the wrong decision, but she didn’t know what the right decision was. After a pause, she reached into her pocket and handed me her cellphone—a Nokia with stubby buttons and a mauled antenna. She showed me how to play a game called Snake and told me where to find the charger if it died. “You can play this until you fall asleep, okay?”

She said goodnight and shut the door.

I played the snake game for a while, trying hard to stay distracted and not cry from the feeling of loneliness I had in that moment. I was with my Momma, which was exactly what I had wanted, and I needed to be happy about it. I watched the line that was a snake slowly inch around the screen, gobbling up little squares and growing longer, and kept going until a text popped up on the screen. It was someone named Erika, saying she needed to see Momma again soon. I hit the end button until it went away.

I thought to call Granny, but couldn’t remember her number, and knew it was already too late, that she would be asleep. But I looked at the contacts anyway, just in case. As I scrolled through the names, some feature played Momma’s recorded voice saying the names of each of the contacts. I kept scrolling and scrolling until I got to me, and then I listened to her cheery voice, along with the crackle of wind, as she said my name. I went down and back to my name over and over again, listening to Momma say my name, realizing that I hadn’t heard it in so long I had forgotten the way she said it, and I cried, hoping I would never have to go without it again. And eventually, at some point, I fell asleep.

The next morning, I woke to Momma digging through the covers in search of her now battery-depleted Nokia. She was headed to work, she explained, and needed it in case of emergency. Her makeup was freshly applied, and I could smell the sweet, artificial scent of her mochaccino lip gloss as she leaned in to kiss me goodbye. I wiped the sleep from my eyes as I followed her into the living room, asking if I could tag along. She kept her eyes on her phone as she explained that her new job didn’t allow employees to bring their kids. Chris would watch me until she got back. When she climbed into the Durango, she dug through her backseat for a car charger and said to be good. She waved goodbye as she backed out of the driveway, her cellphone glued to her ear.

My stomach grumbled. Chris was still asleep—Momma had left their bedroom door ajar in her rush to leave, and I could see him, shirtless, messy hair, one hand down his pajama pants, as he snored into his pillow. I wasn’t sure how different he would be with Momma gone, and chose to scavenge the pantry instead of waking him. I found a Pop-Tart and settled in front of the TV, playing with the volume until it was loud enough to hear, but quiet enough that no one else could.

I tried to imagine this place as my new home—it was what I did every time I visited one of Momma’s new lives. The closest I had come to it feeling real was when Momma had her house in Whigham, but that was only because there wasn’t a man inside. Chris was nice now, but he wouldn’t always be. When Momma left, all of this would stay behind with him.

Chris woke around ten, mumbling a good morning as he shuffled to the bathroom. Two hours passed, my eyes never straying from the TV, not even aware of what was on, just hoping it would block any attempts at conversation. But then Chris was beside me on the couch, lacing up his tennis shoes, asking me to put on my own shoes so we could head to the grocery store.

“Can I stay here?” I asked.

“Your Momma said I’m not supposed to leave you by yourself.”

It was one of Granny’s rules. I can’t even say why I asked, other than maybe I was testing him to see what he would say, seeing where his limits were or where he would break. He lifted his camouflage baseball cap to scratch his bedhead.

“I won’t be no longer than an hour,” he said.

Alone, I took the opportunity to plunder. I slipped into their bedroom and peeked through their nightstands, the dresser drawers, the closet; Momma had always been such a mystery to me, and she changed with every man she was with, so I was desperate to find out who she was now. A pair of boots stuck out from under the bed like a dead witch. I slipped them on, imagining myself as one of Charlie’s angels, a spy seeking evidence of some mystery to be uncovered. My sleuthing led me into the bathroom, where I pulled open the drawers and found Momma’s makeup.

Beside the half-empty package of Q-tips were Momma’s lipsticks, including her mochaccino lip gloss. I found the burgundy lipstick she always wore, a discontinued color from Mary Kay that she’d bought off Granny back when they used to be on good terms. Momma was always so good about applying the color in one swift motion, but it took me lots of wiping and reapplying before it was perfect. I layered it with the lip gloss, and then licked some of the gloss off of the doe-foot applicator, squirming as I realized it was only scented, not flavored.

I could almost see Momma in my face. If I turned the right way, anyone else who had made me up disappeared, and all that was left was her mouth and the downward slope of her eyes that always made them look so sad. I knew that in some ways, Momma wanted me to be her, reincarnated; before she got in trouble with Granny for being sacrilegious, she’d told me a few times that I was only hers and God’s, much like Mary with Jesus. The only parts of me she wanted to exist were hers and hers alone. The only thing that ruined the illusion was the spot above my mouth. It still hurt where Momma had dug out the blackhead, and it looked angry and red above my heavily glossed lip. I took Momma’s foundation and leaned in to cover it up. I got so lost in the mirror that I jumped when the phone rang.

When I answered, Momma was on the other line. “What are y’all up to?”

“Just watching TV,” I said.

“Where’s Chris? Let me talk to him.”

I felt my nose burn in that way it did before I was about to cry.

“He’s at the store,” I said, then, panicked, rushed to explain. “I asked to stay, Momma. I was watching something on TV and he wanted me to go with him, but I asked.”

“Motherfucker,” Momma said, under her breath. “Tell him to call me as soon as he gets back. You alright?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

She said she loved me and hung up.

I panicked. I ran back to the bedroom to place her boots where I found them and shut all of the drawers I’d picked through. I tried to remember how far the door had been left open before I entered and adjusted it as so, and then I sat on the couch, hoping if I stayed still enough, nothing bad would happen.

Chris walked in twenty minutes later, grocery bags banding his forearms. He gave me a funny look which adjusted into a smile as our eyes met. I stood up, ready for him to sling me against the room as I explained that Momma had called and I’d let slip that I was home alone. I hadn’t meant for Momma to find out, I didn’t think. Or maybe I did, but only later, not when he would have a chance to hurt me. I followed him into the kitchen, apologizing again and again as he set the groceries on the counter and picked up the phone.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It was my fault. I’m the grown up.”

He ruffled my hair and took the phone off the hook to call Momma. As it rang, he drew a circle around his mouth and pointed back to me, and I realized I still had on Momma’s lipstick. Momma answered on the other line and I quickly shut the bathroom door, locking it behind me. I cried as I wiped off the lipstick with cheap toilet paper. Momma’s voice carried, and I wondered how she could holler so loud while at work.

I crawled onto the laminate of the bathroom floor and curled up into a ball, wishing I could disappear. When my crying got too loud, I grabbed the hand towel from next to the sink and stuffed it into my mouth so Chris wouldn’t hear me and think I was a sissy for crying. There was no way he didn’t hate me now.

I heard him hang up the phone, and then the rustling of the groceries as he put them away. There was a hiss from a canned drink being opened. Then there was a knock at the bathroom door.

“You alright?” he asked.

When I didn’t answer, he knocked again. He jiggled the handle. I stood up, wiping at my face, which was blubbery and tear-stained, and opened the door and told him I was fine.

He tilted his head, frowned for a moment. He handed me an opened can of Sprite.

“Mind keeping me company while I clean out my boat?”

Although I was embarrassed and still sniffling, I said okay.

I followed him outside and he helped me climb into the boat. I wasn’t sure what was left to clean, as it looked like nobody had ever set foot inside before me. He put a bucket below the spigot and filled it halfway, then mixed in some type of soap with a sponge.

“Your Momma really loves you,” he said, as he spread suds across the left side of the boat.

“How long y’all been seeing each other.”

“A few months,” he said. “All she talks about is you. It ain’t my place to say anything, but she worries your Granny won’t let you keep coming unless she has everything perfect. I’m not sure if she’s right about that, and I don’t want you thinking I’m saying you should keep secrets from your Granny, but if things didn’t go quite right this morning, maybe you could keep it quiet for now?”

“I wouldn’t say anything to get Momma in trouble,” I said.

“I know, bud.” He stood up, wiping sweat from his forehead, his blonde hair frizzing up. “You know, I always wanted a kid, so I was excited when your Momma said she was bringing you. She thinks your Granny has a bunch of rules, but she’s got plenty of her own.” He laughed.

“I don’t normally like Momma’s boyfriends,” I admitted.

“You like me?” he said, maybe a little concerned.

“I think so.”

He smiled at that.

At a quarter to five, Chris said Momma would be home soon and went out back to start the grill. I watched from the back door as he checked the propane tank, noticing as he bent over that there was a dime-sized bald spot just at the crown of his head. When I asked what he was making, he smiled and pointed behind me to the dining table. Sitting next to the salt and pepper shakers were two new bottles of steak sauce. I could feel him searching my face to see if he’d done the right thing—I had never seen a man do that before. He asked if I’d be willing to try his seasoned butter for the corn on the cob. I agreed.

Momma got home just as Chris was pulling the steaks off the grill. She announced her presence with a slamming of the front door that my memory says shook the house. She tossed her things on the table beside me, patting my head before rushing up to Chris and shoving her finger at his chest. Their faces were blurry from the smoke coming off the grill, and I tried to listen, but their whisper-shouting tangled together. If I hadn’t been so frightened of her wrath, I would’ve held up my hand and asked to take the blame.

. When Momma came back inside, she asked if anything had happened while I was alone. I shook my head. “He’s making steak, Momma,” I said. I was convinced it would kill whatever anger had built up inside her.

She spent all of dinner staring at her phone. She furiously tapped at the buttons, the clicking sound punctuating mine and Chris’s conversation. A few times, when the phone angled my way, I noticed she was talking to that Erika person. I wanted to prove to her that things were fine, that Chris hadn’t done anything wrong yet, and that I could fit into this new life of hers. I could see Momma falling into some world inside that Nokia, and I wondered if it was so much better than the one we all occupied now. Chris cleared his throat and asked about my favorite movies.

When Chris found out I hadn’t seen Stand by Me, he said we had to rectify the situation straight away. After he washed the dishes, he searched through his collection of VHS tapes until he found it and popped it in the VCR. He shifted over in his chair and gestured for me to sit next to him. As I settled under his outstretched arm, I looked over at Momma, seated on the couch, looking down at her Danielle Steel book. When I asked if she was gonna watch, she said, “I done seen it, baby.”

Chris pointed to the TV throughout the movie, explaining all of his favorite parts and quoting moments as they happened. He got quiet when the boys were sad. He said he’d had friends like the boys in the movie when he was young, and that he hoped his kids would have friends like that, too. I studied each boy, to figure out which one I might be most like, wondering how I could become one of them for Chris.

After the movie, Momma said it was time for bed. Chris patted me on the back and said goodnight, and then Momma guided me into the spare bedroom to tuck me in.

“Don’t be mad at Chris, Momma,” I said, as she shoved the comforter under my arms.

“It’s not on you, baby.” She swiped at the hair on my forehead and tickled at the fat under my chin. “Were you in my makeup today?”

“No!” I answered too quickly.

“It’s okay, I was just asking. Chris said he saw you had my lipstick on when he got home.”

I got all teary and looked toward the door. I had convinced myself that somehow he hadn’t actually seen. Even though he had been nice, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was disgusted by it.

“He don’t care,” Momma said.

“He’s really nice.”

“I know, baby.” And then, almost as if she wasn’t talking to me, she said, “I just wanted things to be perfect is all. I just wanted him to be perfect for us.”

I had learned enough to be wary of good people, but Momma had only learned to run.

She kissed my forehead and said goodnight. When I asked if I could play on her phone again, she looked down at it and started to say something. She tucked loose strands of hair behind her ear, and then typed something out. Before she hit send, without looking up at me, she asked, “You really like Chris?”


She hit send and then handed the phone to me.

“If somebody calls or texts, just don’t answer it, okay?”

The phone went off most of the night, but I willed myself not to look.

The next morning, Chris nudged me awake. I jerked up but he said it was still early, that he was headed to work and just wanted to say goodbye. Through the blinds, I could still see the black darkness of outside; even the cicadas were asleep. I settled back into the warmth of my blanket, and he said he hoped I would come back soon, maybe go fishing with him. I said I’d like that. The light coming in from the kitchen lit up the blonde hairs on his sunburnt neck, making him glow like an angel. He tickled my sides and said goodbye, shutting my door on his way out. I fell back to sleep to thoughts of him being my father, and only woke again when I heard the sound of Momma screaming.

At first, the sound didn’t register, wasn’t distinguishable enough to prick me awake from my dream state. Then, when it happened again, the word “leave” recognizable to my sleeping ear, I jumped from the bed. I got on the floor, leaning my face against the carpet so I could push my ear to the crack under the door, and there was a man talking, but who didn’t sound like Chris. There was talk of mixed signals, of missed calls, of You said come over, then you said we’re through. I opened the door and saw Momma on the couch, talking to some man who was facing away from me.

When Momma saw me, she looked back at the man with a serious face, then back to me. I was still only in my shirt and underwear, and pulled my shirt down so this stranger wouldn’t see me like this. He turned to me and smiled. He wore a fedora and a tan bomber jacket, with boots that looked ruddy and stained at the edges. Momma told me to come over, and she introduced the man. It was Eric. He had prickly black hair surrounding his mouth and covering his chin, little whiskers on his cheeks that I guessed he had missed shaving. He said it was nice to meet me.

“Well, we gotta get ready for me to take Hunter back to his Granny’s.”

Eric and Momma stood at the same time.

He walked around the coffee table and stopped at the front door, before turning back to Momma. Her arms were crossed in front of her chest, and she said, “What?” and he tapped his mouth and leaned in to her. She shook her head no, but he said he wasn’t leaving until he got a kiss, so she kissed him and opened the door. As she shut it, he hollered out, “No more mixed signals, Dee.”

Momma and I stood there in the quiet. She brushed her hair out of her face, walked back to the couch and reached for her pack of cigarettes on the coffee table. There was only one left. When she went to light it, the flame trembled.

“Why was he here?” I asked.

“Just wanted to say hi,” she said. “He won’t be back, baby, I promise.”

“Was that who you were texting last night?” I asked.

I wondered if she knew what I knew, about how evil this man was. Granny always said speaking in tongues invoked the Holy Spirit, but there were ways to invoke evil, too.

“Baby,” she said, readying an explanation.

“Chris is real nice,” I said.

Momma took a pull of her cigarette and looked around the room, at this new life she had promised me. “Come on,” she said. “We gotta get you ready to head back home.”

Hunter McLendon


Hunter McLendon is a writer living in Florida with his husband and dog. He is currently working on his first novel. This is his first publication.

paper texture

strip mall —

dusk dawns

into neon

I read the sign, Walk-ins Welcome, and look down at my scraggly fingernails.

The door jingles as I enter. Every table is filled, every chair occupied. The place buzzes with fans, gurgles, and chatter. Acetone and lavender smells mix.

The man behind the counter smiles, apparently thrilled by this bumper crop of nails.

“You go to Li when she’s done,” the man says and motions to Li, who sits on a stool, her head bowed to a blonde woman. Li massages the woman’s arm.

masked manicurist —

her dark eyes stare

from her unseen face

“Pick a color,” the man says. He stands, hunched, maybe by years of bending into feet and hands. He points the way with a nail file.

I marvel at a wall filled with all the colors of a prism. The bottles glisten, each perfectly aligned, not one half-empty or turned the wrong way. Where to start? Greens or blues, yellows or purples.

full of empty

I don’t reach for the bottle

the bottle reaches for me

Pinks are safe, I think. I trade colors with a mom and her little girl.

“No, I want glitter—like Barbie’s shoes,” the girl says.

The mom shakes her head in a way that means, “You’re too cute for me to say no.”

in every little girl’s braids

the hands of mother

touching my hair

but not me

“She’s been playing with her Barbie nail spa,” her mom says, forcing her own dimples.

I nod. I don’t have a daughter and don’t feel like talking. I pick up a mauvy shade called Rice Rice Baby. What? A bottle next to it bears a label that claims Princesses Rule. I hand that one to the mom, a bonding of sorts. I choose a color that’s almost nude and don’t look at the label.

I look around. A tattooed teenager inspects her fingertips, each wrapped in silk gauze, as if she is injured and waiting to heal. A big man jiggles, snoring in an auto-massage pedicure chair.

pedicurist buffs

callouses into

our breath

“I had to beg her not to cut the cuticle,” Li’s customer tells someone on the phone. Li doesn’t flinch, just keeps pushing her tool, as if hoeing a trough.

“I know,” the blonde woman says. “I told her to use the Barbicide.” The woman moves her phone to the other ear and hand when it’s time for Li to switch hands.

“Remember, I want gems on the thumbs,” the blonde woman says. Li tweezes a jewel from a dish held by a Buddha statue.

American Buddha —


is the new stone

When Li finishes the blonde woman’s manicure, the woman holds her hands up—sparkling, polished perfection! Li carries the woman’s purse and moves her to the next table. Li waves a hand fan over the woman’s nails before turning on a mini fan. She fusses with the angle of the breeze.

“You now,” says the manager.

I take the seat across from Li and lay bare my hands.

dark sunspots &

faded half-moons

on my old hands

the horizon

The blonde woman, now next to me, seems to miss Li’s attention. “I can pay now,” she says. She uses the pads of her fingers to finesse a credit card from her purse.

“Cash only,” the manager says and grins.

cut-rate nail salon

manicurist polishes

the tip bowl

The blonde woman hisses. “Are you kidding?” she says and then hands Li her wallet. “Open it,” she tells her. “Pull out the cash!”

Li nods and shows her the bills. Not enough.

But then the woman’s face goes red, and she loses her pinched mouth. “I—I—I’m so sorry,” she says. She raises her sparkly hands in a shrug. “I can’t believe I did this,” she says and looks around, suddenly human, a doll come to life.

I step up. “I’ve got some cash,” I say.

my last coin

cold in her hand —

sliver moon

I look at the blonde woman’s hair blowing in the fan-breeze. The Buddha laughs. I lock eyes with Li. I know what I’m meant to do. I’ll lead Li to the pedicure throne. I’ll fill the basin with rose petals and bath beads. I’ll bow to this woman and lay my hands on her feet, massaging her toes and heels, washing this dirty world from them.

foot bath —

a bubble rainbow

is still a rainbow

But this is not what I do.

“I’ll pay now, before the polish,” I say.

Outside, with shiny nails, I look back through the storefront window. The customers are gone, and Li is sweeping. Does she take off her mask or laugh with a coworker? But it’s hard to see through my reflection.

mirrored —

somewhere in the multiverse

a better me

Stacy Pendergrast


Stacy Pendergrast writes narrative poetry, haiku, haibun, and memoir. She is now dabbling in screenwriting and is adapting this haibun for the big screen. Her work has appeared in Memoir Magazine, Still: The Journal, The Fourth River, Contemporary Haibun Online, bottlerockets, and many other places. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Stacy lives with her spouse in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

paper texture

In April of 2020, just after “that Trump Lysol moment,” as the Wall Street Journal named it, when the 45th President wondered out loud if it might be possible to spray the lungs with common disinfectants to kill coronavirus, I got a call from my sister.

“Did you see that crazy press conference?” she asked. I had. “He actually said that Lysol would ‘knock COVID out in one minute’” or ‘clean out the body,’” or something like that. How could anybody think something like that was even possible? And he’s the president!”

We laughed, sure that little would come from it except his well-deserved embarrassment. And, so it seemed, days later when I read the EPA’s official response: “Never apply the product to yourself or others.” Lysol also reacted, reminding people that “under no circumstances should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion, or any other route).” That’s the end of that, I thought.

But by June the American Association of Poison Control Center would report an alarming spike in deaths from the purposeful ingestion of bleach and other household disinfectants. My sister and I hadn’t appreciated how desperate the public was for easy answers, quick routes of escape. In our family, you were just stuck with whatever mess you were born or fell into. My mother would say, “If it’s bad, deal with it. Probably won’t get better.” Meaning that the messes would likely keep coming. Our inheritance was an instinct for climbing out of the muck on the regular, while always expecting to be mired in more of the same sooner rather than later. Muck was endless. Muck was our métier.

Also in June of that same year, with public support for his management of COVID-19 in the toilet, Trump stumped at rallies in red states around the country. In Tulsa, he sought to shore up faith in his handling of the pandemic by injecting a little levity into the discussion. He referred to COVID-19 as “the kung flu.” His remarks were met with thunderclaps and roars of laughter. While he had previously referred to the virus as “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus,” this latest coinage repeated the logic of his infamous “Lysol moment” where he offered easily digestible explanations for complex, almost unresolvable problems. In the same speech, on the issue of police reform, he used the word “hombre” to describe the kind of criminal who might break into your house. The majority white crowd cheered, lusty with relief. Ah, the world made sense again! By the time he got to Phoenix a few days later, Trump needed only to mention the “many names” for the virus to get the crowd chanting, “kung-flu, kung-flu!” The master snake-oil peddler had struck again. And there was a run on what he was selling.

Asian American law student, Emily Covey, was sprayed with Lysol by a white man while she was leaving a grocery store. Covey was told to “go away, you are making us sick.” Another Asian American woman reported being sprayed with Lysol while in line at a pharmacy. “You’re the infection,” her assailant yelled, “Go home. We don’t want you here.” After he refused to move to another seat on a NY subway train, an older Asian immigrant, this time a man, was quickly sprayed with Febreze. And so on, until March 26, 2021, almost a year after Trump’s initial Lysol statement, when a young white man went on a shooting spree targeting Asian-owned and staffed massage parlors in Atlanta killing eight people, six of them Asian women. The next day, my sister called me.

“Did you see the news?” I had. We discussed the usual details. Why the shooter did it, how he got the gun, and finally, who died.

“They were all Asian women, most of them were Korean.” We were both thinking about our mother.

“If mom were still alive, I wouldn’t let her leave the house without me or Rick with her. It’s not safe. Anything could happen to her right now.”

I told my sister I’d seen a photo of one of the murdered women. She had two sons, both mixed, like us. What did she make of that?

“Yeah, I saw that too. Well, anyway.”

“Well, anyway” means let’s move on, which is one way to squash my annoying tendency to extrapolate worlds from the merest of incidents. It is, at the same time, a way of acknowledging a persistent, floating sense of dread about which you can do nothing except settle in for the long haul.

This time, the fear we felt was not for each other—we were ambiguous enough to be mixed “anything”—but for a mother who’d been dead for three years at that point. We were still dealing with the recrimination she left us holding, our memories of the endless tirades we twisted ourselves into knots trying to anticipate, her obsession with detail, to the point of desperation, which we were expected to match but never seemed to get right. My sister and I were messy, dull, unorganized, and unresponsive to her most urgent needs. We existed only to cause her more grief. Was raising us worth it? Or had she wasted her youth, just to be abandoned and forgotten once we grew up? She put these questions to us almost daily. Though, to be fair, slights could be found anywhere. In the way the lasagna ribbons broke apart right out of the box. Just her bad luck to have picked that box! Someone must have placed it in the front as a trick. She’d check the noodles better next time. She wouldn’t be anyone’s patsy. And so on.

No, we were wrong to worry about how our mother would have handled the public displays of anti-Asian sentiment. She had been prepared for just this moment. It might not have scared her at all. It might even have felt like vindication for all the effort she had put into preparing for an attack, making herself, she hoped, unassailable to even her worst critics. Yes, it might have come as a great relief to have the enemy finally in front of her, and she, ready, armed.


I cannot remember a time when Lysol was not a fixture in our home. I can still see the old teal-blue and gold can with the inverted triangle on the label emblazoned with the promise, “eliminates odors.” My mother sprayed it on toilet seats, under the kitchen sink, on drapes, on that corner of the carpet in the living room where she suspected our tomcat had marked, or anywhere she could think of that was smelly, or suspicious for germs or even if it just seemed capable of one day possibly being unclean. “Probably filthy,” she’d say, “get the Lysol.”

When my sister and I started our periods, she placed a can of Lysol in our bathroom and instructed us to spray the toilet daily “when you are bleeding.” We did not, of course, nor did we clean it with any regularity. It’s generally true that living in your own filth is often perfectly tolerable. “You live like pigs!” my mother would scream when she checked our bathroom. She’d bring a sponge and rubber gloves and Comet cleaner and stand over us, tutting, while she directed us to scrub the toilet harder. “You need to do it good! Otherwise, it’s just gonna be dirty again tomorrow!” Predictably, our efforts were never good enough. It could always be cleaner. When we were done trying, she cleaned it again, pointing out where we had failed to notice some hidden speck under the rim of the toilet.

It was a ridiculous ritual, but that made it no less effective in reinforcing a deep sense of inadequacy. It was precisely as we came into adolescence, what adults around us vaguely referred to as “a woman’s way,” that cleaning became a dire chore for my sister and me. The possibility of our success or failure depended on getting it right. It was an odd obsession with my mother, that “thing” that she needed to watch for, correct, hammer home in us. Not once did my sister or I wonder what drove our mother to be so maniacal about our state of cleanliness. What source could there be except a bad temper? The thought of her having been shaped out of anything like a meaningful experience was unimaginable to us. She was simply mean. She was simply hard on us. We had learned to shut up and deal.

“Crazy bitch,” I used to mutter under my breath when I was really being berated.

“What? What?” my mother would yell. She was prepared at any moment to come at me, looking for a reason to hit me. (What a release that must have felt like!) I was just as quick to re-group.

“I just said, ‘this is as dirty as a ditch.’”

“Hmph, you see how you are now, yeah? Keep cleaning!”

And so it went, every week for years. Once I left for college, and later, when I lived alone, I wasn’t any better at cleaning. I hated it, I avoided it, until I couldn’t anymore. Even now, whenever it’s time to clean the house, I approach it with dread and a sense of defeat, my mother’s sighs and tongue-clicks still alive in my head, the program running on autopilot. I scrub and scrub, thinking this time maybe I’ll find the trick, the technique, the breakthrough insight. Even though I know I won’t ever get it clean enough, or alter my mother’s final verdict of me, I don’t stop trying.


Psychology teaches us that obsessions have a definitive source. If we could just find that source, then we’d have an answer to the question: Why? And relief would follow. But what if there are several points of origin, not all of which are easy to trace or logically connected? When the thread between cause and effect is gossamer at best, we call it a coincidence, an observation that exists merely to tempt the imagination. Don’t pay attention to any of it, leave it alone.

Still, I can’t help noting, even if it’s a mere coincidence, that the 1930s, when my mother was born, was a banner decade for Lysol. It was first introduced into drug stores and supermarkets, and then later commercialized for home use, meaning Lysol was specifically marketed to women. Before the thirties, Lysol had been used to disinfect hospitals, giving it the imprimatur of the medical community, and promising the housewife the ability to achieve a clinical level of purity in her home. Lysol was then, as now, touted as “a trusted disinfectant” that “stops germs from spreading in the home” and “keeps homes flu-free.” Its use would render your home—the UR-promise of all cleaning products—“99.9% germ free.” (Why not 100%? “Because,” I can hear my mother saying, “nothing is ever 100% guaranteed.)

That a valued product of medical science was now in the possession of the common housewife, who could rely on it to make her home inviolate, her person invulnerable to corruption, led to an unexpected turn in its application. Women believed that by douching with Lysol—it was ominously referred to as a “hot douche”—they could prevent pregnancy by stopping the growth of the fetus, as one would an unwanted infection. By the end of that decade, a stream of medical articles emerged debunking this belief by alerting the public to the damage such “hot douching” did to women, including severe internal burns and, in rare cases, death. Just as after Trump’s “Lysol moment,” the official, medical denunciations did not stop anyone from believing it might be the cure. The women who were driven to such an extreme solution were not likely to read medical journals. But even if they had known about the research, I doubt it would have mattered. When a belief born of utter desperation takes hold it’s almost impossible to dislodge. There’s always someone for whom the gamble on a rumor or an unproven theory will be worth pursuing, even if it be to her ruin. The illusion of control is often all we need to meet the inevitable chaos of the next moment, and the next. The experts, the statistics, are mostly useless here, logic a reliable killer of dreams.


In 1961, before she could marry my father, my mother was required, like all Asian war brides, to take a Red Cross class on American domestic practices. That she was allowed to marry an American at all was a right that had only been guaranteed by the passage of the War Brides Act of 1945. It permitted servicemen living abroad to marry foreign women and bring them back to the states, regardless of any existing racial exclusion laws or quotas. Which meant that the gates of immigration, formerly effectively closed to Asians, had been flung wide open. What would happen now that there was no stopping the flow from this new pipeline? By 1961, the military had developed a complicated, multi-layered vetting process to address this concern. It often took as long as a year to evaluate an Asian woman’s chances for a successful transition to life in America. In addition to the Red Cross classes on domesticity, the process involved multiple interviews with the prospective bride and her parents, sworn character witnesses from both Korean and American acquaintances and co-workers, a medical exam to preclude any underlying communicative diseases, like tuberculosis, and, of course, any sexually transmitted diseases. The crudest, but often truest, interpretation of the program’s goal was that it was primarily intended to weed out the sexually promiscuous woman attempting to trap a soldier into marriage so she could gain access to the riches that awaited her in the US. My mother never talked about the classes or about the program, so I am forced to turn to the record for some sense of what might have been her experience running that gauntlet.

There isn’t much. The most famous is a 1952 Saturday Evening Post article about “the brides’ schools,” as they were called. It includes this description of the class: “…the brides are all sorts of people. At the bottom, there are no prostitutes, criminals, or chronically diseased … But there is everything else.” No explicit condemnation, just an opening for the reader to use her imagination to conjure the specter of “everything else,” a grab bag of potential problems. Some accounts emphasized the naiveté of “the girls,” especially their incompetence even to give birth in the proper manner: “Girls who spent their childhood in the war and postwar days living in sheet-metal shacks and sleeping on the floor have to be taught the mysteries of getting in and out of real hospital beds by the same doctors and nurses who deliver them of their half-American babies.” The slight thrill I get finding myself referenced—"their half-American babies”—surprises me. Here, my mother and I appear together for the first time in a narrative espousing the alchemic possibilities of shame. And I’m not even born yet, just anticipated as a problem.

As part of the brides’ school curriculum, my mother was given a copy of “The American Way of Housekeeping.” It was originally meant as a primer for Japanese women serving as domestic servants to American families during the early days of the US Occupation of Japan. In addition to emphasizing the importance of performing the common daily customs of a maid, such as answering the phone and cooking for the family ("under no circumstances give a child in your care Japanese food”), there were constant reminders of the need for cleanliness: “Wash your hands several times a day” and “Your own personal cleanliness is of the utmost importance.” The hygiene and personal habits of the Asian bride clearly constituted a concern bordering on paranoia. Could these Asian brides prove they were clean, healthy, and eager enough to fit in in America? Were they willing to break ingrained habits and transform the way they moved in the world? Were they worthy of this new world? The program reinforced a constant monitoring and improvement of the self, a perpetual self-disciplining. There could be no rest. And, so, there wasn’t, despite what we now know: “Never apply the product to yourself.”

That my mother made it through the battery of tests was no small feat; by the summer of 1961, when she finally received permission to marry my father, she was seven months pregnant with my sister. How must it have been to sit through the weeks-long course for “would-be wives,” your belly noticeably swelling, thinking you were, after all, the oriental floozy they thought you were? No need for a textbook, here was a living example! Was she questioned about her “condition?” Surely, someone brought it up during an interview. Did the other women in the class look down on her? Some, maybe. Probably. Was that the first of the indignities that roused her defenses, the first sense that her life would be one of constant self-surveillance, or was it just the first in her personal memory?


A concern for domestic, meaning women’s, personal hygiene appears in the margins of virtually every form of colonial history. If the native mother is not clean, then the culture is not clean, and death and disease must follow. The empire will crumble. In Korea under Japanese rule, it started almost immediately. In 1909, compelled by Imperial Japan’s need for more Korean workers, and one year before the Japanese would formally annex Korea, colonial officials in Korea set up a comprehensive registration system requiring that the movements and familial situation of every Korean be accounted for. This was a radical shift. The traditional Korean registration or census records had historically excluded women from such counting, preferring, as one might expect in a patriarchal, Confucian society, to note women’s presence only when they married. As historian Park Jin-Kyung notes, “such collection and documentation of information about Korean women enabled, for the first time in Korean history, the calculation of the total number of females and the conversion of their marital and reproductive information (for example, marriage age and childbirth) into the public knowledge of the state.” Proving that to be seen and counted is not always a good thing.

Parks points out that beginning in the late 1920s, the Japanese physician Kudo Takeki would make a name for himself as a medical reformist by focusing on re-educating Korean women on the best sexual and hygienic practices to ensure optimum fertility and childbirth rates. He even set up his very own private hospital known as The Seoul Women’s Hospital to promote and carry out his mission. A necessary step in this humanitarian effort to save Korean women from a host of “unmodern” practices was his insistence that the unfit, vicious (akutshitsu) mother must be discouraged from reproducing.” This quote is from an article Kudo published in 1930, a decade in which both Lysol and theories about how to deal with abject pregnancies in the Korean colonies flourished.

By 1938, the year my mother was born, the governor general of Korea would announce a new law requiring all Koreans to begin to adopt Japanese names. Everything about Koreans, all of it, needed to be cleansed. So began the era when one was only Korean unofficially, the body you lived in existing under a false name. How could any Korean, especially an unwed mother, ever hope to be fit? Any woman pursuing her horizon of redemption must have done so with at least a vague sense of self-loathing. Again, I can only speculate. While there is no way to know, it’s hard for me to resist following so many breadcrumbs, out of which, of course, no official history can or should ever be made. Well, anyway.


It’s possible that the basest of habits, those everyday practices of self-improvement, may be history waiting for us to find it. My mother was adamant about douching, a common, almost religious practice for married women in Korea. While she never practiced “hot douching,” she was utterly devoted to what she learned as a modern and necessary practice of “feminine hygiene.” I remember sitting on the closed toilet seat or on the tile floor, casually chatting as she douched. It was no big deal. Was this nonchalance about such an intimate habit merely a Korean custom among women in the same family, or was my mother a maverick? She often called us into the bathroom while she douched to ask the most trivial questions. Did your dad sign your report card yet? Did you remember to put the butter back in the fridge? Was that the phone ringing?

I can still see the douche bag she kept folded up under the bathroom sink, a rectangular-shaped, thick red-rubber bladder with a long, looping rubber hose attached and a clamp to regulate the flow of water. At the end of the hose was a kind of perforated, slender, bell-shaped plastic rod. You hung the bag on the shower head, inserted the rod into your vagina, and eased the clamp off to introduce the cleansing fluids. Summer’s Eve was the douche brand I remember, the label a misty photo of a white woman with long blond hair, draped in a white robe, holding a perfect pink rose. It was this state of perfected embodiment she was after as she flushed and flushed the putrid evidence of whatever she understood as unacceptable in her body away.


What is history if not a kind of sewage treatment process? Historians, writers more generally, are endlessly striving for a coherent and comprehensible narrative, the perfect body of evidence. We know it’s impossible. The final product always bears that out.

Anthropologist James Clifford, that famed skeptic of narrative objectivity, even went so far as to proclaim all such attempts as being ultimately about the self’s delusional desire for a sense of pure knowledge. The alternative? Dispense with the belief that there exists a meaningful logic if you could only properly sort the “partial” archives. Instead, follow the disparate, barely related, paths:

"My admittedly ad hoc, undertheorized solution is to always be juxtaposing
histories … Incompleteness … with ends unwoven and edges rough, is a
more realist mode of representation … I find myself offering only experiments
and failures.”

Should I let the loose ends be? Or am I obligated to at least try to tie them up somehow?

Yes, and yes. Which doesn’t help me.


I am buoyed by the knowledge that, even in official histories, there has always been an interest in the bizarre historical sidebar, the out-of-the-way places and people caught up in broader events. The Japanese back home were very interested in the smallest of details of colonized Korean life, the minutiae of their customs, their weird, daily habits, and wildly distant possibilities. A spate of pseudo-ethnographic books on Korea quickly found a readership in Japan during the 1930s. These books often included common Korean phrases, lush regional photographs, and illustrations and grid-like maps of Seoul. Whether they were in Tokyo or Nagoya, Japanese readers, be they wealthy businessmen or pig-tailed schoolgirls, could open such books and instantly imagine themselves strolling through the empire, taking in its sights and sounds and smells. Yes, there was an idle pleasure in this gaze, but, inevitably, as readers continued to delve into the subject, they were likely to encounter a creeping disgust, an awareness of the dirty work involved in civilizing these barbaric Koreans.

According to Henry A. Todd, in an article aptly titled, “Sanitizing Empire,” Arakawa Goro, a Japanese journalist traveling in Korea in the early years of empire, offered this take on the people he found there:

“ … if you look closely [at the Koreans], they appear to be a bit vacant, their
mouths open and their eyes dull, somehow lacking. ... In the lines of their
mouths and faces you can discern a certain looseness, and when it comes to
sanitation and sickness, they are loose in the extreme. Indeed, to put it in the
worst terms, one could even say that they are closer to beasts than to human

The key phrase in this case turned out to be “loose in the extreme,” as the Japanese were convinced that the biggest problem was the prevalence of shit and urine in Korean households. Some accounts were almost comically graphic. Korean houses had walls made of horse dung, and wives kept pots filled with human urine in the kitchen for washing their faces. A drawing of this practice in one book features a woman sitting on the floor and splashing the contents of a chamber pot on her face. The caption concludes, “this description is indeed a filthy one.” The equation of Korea with excremental excess was so prevalent that Korea was commonly referred to as “the shit country” and Seoul as “the shit capital.” For much of the twentieth century, ravaged by colonial suppression, a perpetual state of “suspended” war, and a violent cleaving of itself into hostile North and South regions, Koreans must have wondered if indeed they were doomed to inherit only shit, a mess, without remedy, to be dealt with, indefinitely, never ending.


When I was 11, my mother had major surgery to correct her colon. The conclusion was that she had been taking laxatives as weight management for so long that her colon had simply atrophied, unable to wrench wastes from her intestines. Ingesting laxatives daily was a habit she’d picked up from a friend in Korea who worked with her at the army base in Seoul. (It’s possible that this is the woman in long plaits in a photograph left over from those years. She leans into my mother, who lowers her head and smiles her best Audrey Hepburn come-on into the camera.) Whatever laxatives meant in Korea, in the States laxatives meant Ex-Lax, a set of bars that looked like chocolate—it was, after all, marketed as “the chocolated laxative,” making it more treat than treatment—each one wrapped in foil and packaged in a teal box with orange accents. Once, I mistook them for real chocolates, eating four pieces in a sitting. I didn’t sit for the rest of the night, not just from the effects of the laxative but from the whipping I got from my mother. I still wonder if her rage was because I had stolen and taken a drug or because I’d depleted her personal supply.

Nearly a foot was cut from her colon, the rest refigured to restore the colon’s ability to work on its own. But it would all be for naught if she went back to relying on laxatives. My dad had my sister and I tear the house apart looking for any she might have stashed. We found boxes of Ex-Lax behind the Drano under the kitchen sink. We found Ex-Lax under the mattress in the guest room, fanned out like a brown rainbow. We found Ex-Lax taped behind the deep freezer in the laundry room. Each hiding place the special domain of the housewife, as if she might simply swipe up a box while changing the sheets or unclogging the drain or setting the ground round out to defrost. When we’d finished the search, my dad told her doctor, “The house is clean now.”

My mother returned from the hospital and, as far as I know, never took laxatives again. At least we never found any more. Did she check her hiding places, or did she simply assume we’d have done a thorough sweep beforehand and give up? No matter. In time, she switched her dependence on laxatives for a preference for very strong, lightly sweetened iced tea, the latter being a reliable diuretic if taken in large enough quantities. She drank quarts of it every day, never leaving the house without a large thermos of tea. No one noticed. In the South, iced tea was everywhere. Later she added barley tea to her regimen, then cantaloupes and prunes. It was a brilliant turn, really, finding a way to adapt her need to evacuate her bowels daily without anyone being the wiser.

The lesson? Shame, too often maligned out of hand, can be a source of ingenuity for the hopelessly abject subject. Shame drives the imaginative flourish, not least the desire to re-shape the brutish story you’ve been left with. This can, of course, take you far afield, while seeming to stay close to home, because it feels like minding the details everyone else overlooks. That the effects of such haphazard efforts can be temporarily restorative may be enough, despite the inevitable fallout. And there’s always fallout.


I didn’t really come out to my mother as much as I was forced out. I wish I had been braver, earlier, but there it is. My father was dying of an aggressive form of brain cancer. My mother caught me on the phone, late in the evening, just as I was leaving to attend a poetry reading. She was calling to complain about something I can’t recall now, or maybe she was just crying. She often called me and cried. The details are fuzzy. I do remember that I was in a hurry. I was trying to button my shirt sleeves while cradling the phone against my shoulder, looking for a way to end the call. She needed me to stay on the line, to take it, and so she struck.

“I don’t know what you do there.” Her voice was coiled, ready. I was coiled too. I was tired of having to prove I was okay.

“What do you want to know? What are you asking? Just say it.”

“Some people say you are a liebsten.” The German word for “dearest,” and not what she meant.

“Do you mean lesbian?” Silence. “Why don’t you just come out and ask me? I’ll tell you.” More silence.

“Just, just stop.”

She was still crying, but now it seemed far away. A yelping grief jumped from my throat. Our merciless posture of anguish was less about my dad’s imminent death—that had been coming for almost 18 months—than about how we had so disappointed each other, and at the worst time possible. It was the end of something borne by both of us in silence and dread too long. We both needed to come out of this vindicated, to make coin out of a bad gamble. But I was outmatched out of the gate.

“Agu, if I had known you’d turn out to be like this, I would have had an abortion.”

One last exorbitant sob, and she hung up. The phone clattered over the receiver once, then once again. Finally, we’d both come clean. But it cleared up nothing. Our mutual admissions—that I was willing to force my tainted, queer self on her, and so, in that case, she wished I had never been born—severed whatever thread struggle creates between antagonists. No longer tethered by some frictional field, we were beginning to float free of each other. It was more like a death than my father’s.

A month later when I flew into a small town in Louisiana for the funeral, neither of us mentioned the conversation. We shared a room and a bed, ate bad Chinese food, and watched QVC commercials in the dark until we fell asleep. Alienation took the place of familiarity, my body no longer what she recognized, or wanted to recognize, no longer reformable, only lost, unintelligible. This was worse than my mother wishing me dead. I understood her indifference as a means of washing me away. I was now merely a placeholder for whatever daughter she’d known and cared enough about to want to salvage. Thenceforth, I merited tolerance, the sham category of recognition. And that’s exactly what I got.

The next morning, we zipped up each other’s black dresses—I hadn’t worn a dress since I was in seventh grade, which my mother harangued me about almost as much as she did my messiness—and waited outside on the curb with my sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law for the car that would take us to Mount Ararat Baptist Church. Sitting in the pew, I listened to the choir singing an old Baptist hymn, one I’d sung countless times before, “Bringing in the Sheaves.”

Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,

Though the loss sustained, our spirit often grieves.

When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,

We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

I knew then that there would be no rejoicing after the grieving. My mother and I were going to let the crops rot in the fields, knowing there was no one to welcome either of us home. We both believed each other beyond redemption, we were each not what the other wanted. Both of us had settled on reading the other through the damning categories. I was proof that despite all her efforts, she had become the “akutshitsu,” or bad mother, after all. I could only be another defect she had tried and failed to excise. I knew she could never see it any other way. And, so, I gave up on her too. She had become the backward influence, the punitive agent of a history I needed to banish if I was going to thrive. Our shared sense that history needed fixing and we would do it, the farcical belief that wholeness is possible out of brokenness, led both of us to damn the other out of hand.

I returned to Houston at midnight, hiring a cab I couldn’t afford to my tiny garage apartment in Montrose. I rolled my suitcase straight to the dumpster, unzipped it, and threw my black funeral dress in. Another thing my mother and I had in common: we were quick to jump ship. Both are forms of self-delusion, the idea that one can simply smother pain under yesterday’s cold coffee grounds and roll on.


In the last stages of kidney disease, my mother became incontinent. Her disease required frequent trips to the dialysis center, so it was not unusual for her to shit herself in inconvenient places. The car, the waiting room, a favorite restaurant. One morning, while my sister was getting ready to take her to the clinic, my mother, then living in the guest bedroom, had another accident, this time on her way to the bathroom.

It was, by any account, a pitiful scene. I was not there to witness it, nor deal with its aftermath. By that time, I hadn’t been in contact with my mother for almost twelve years. Still, I know the story well.

In the years since my mother’s death, my sister has recalled that morning many times. My job is to listen. I don’t get to say, “You’ve told me this before.” I don’t have the right to cut her off or steer her toward another topic because it makes me feel guilty. The wayward child must pay her penance. My amends is to conjure the scene in its full horribleness exactly as my sister tells it. My burden is an awareness of the memory I ought to have shared but didn’t, the clean-up I skipped out on.

And, so, I try.

My mother, frail and hunched, pushes her walker toward the bathroom. She doesn’t make it. Shit everywhere. She cries out. My sister hears the scream, runs, and finds the hallway, the walls too, streaked with pale, stooly slime. My mother sways on her walker in the center of it all. “It was disgusting, Caroline! And the smell! Awful!” Overwhelmed by it all, my sister cannot hold back.

“Good god, what have you done?” My mother is stunned. She says nothing.

“I mean, what is there to say? It’s pretty damn obvious what’s happened!”

My sister pushes her, too hard, into the tub, washes her as best she can, puts a clean robe around her, and dodges the shit-plastered floor to guide my mother back to her bedroom.

“Wait right here, don’t you dare move!”

Quickly, my sister mops the floor. The walls could be dealt with later, after my mother is dressed and out the door. But when she returns to the bedroom, she finds my mother, robe thrown open, spraying her inner thighs with a can of Lysol.

“Can you believe that! Lysol of all things! Outrageous!” My sister snatches the can away. “Mom, mom! Stop! What are you doing?” My mother, reduced to a scolded child who’s gone and soiled herself again, meekly offers only this:

“I smell so bad, and this is 99%.”

She holds up the can so my sister can read the old, trusted claim. Knowing it’s useless to argue with an addled old woman, my sister finds a jar of cocoa butter and begins to rub my mother’s legs, promising her that this is a better way to deal with the awful smell she’s made.

Did they share a tender moment, a laugh even? I’ll never know. My sister will have nothing of my desire for a saving grace.

“I don’t know how many times I washed those walls trying to get them clean. Mark yourself lucky you didn’t have to deal with it. Well, anyway.”

Meaning: it’s time to move on before I can get off in the weeds again, time to settle in, brace, for whatever is coming next.

Caroline Chung Simpson


Caroline Chung Simpson is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. She has previously published work on Asian Americans in popular culture. "Come Clean" is part of a critical memoir titled, The Family Business.

paper texture

I’ve never been good at basketball. Once, in gym class, I took a shot underneath the basket and watched the ball go straight up, then come straight down, the basket untouched.

I may be doing something similar here.

As a teen in the late 1970s, I saw an episode of a sitcom whose female main character went to an employment agency. The jaded woman behind the desk at the agency read aloud to the main character several listings for jobs that were unsuitable for one reason or another—comically so, as suggested by the sitcom’s laugh track. Finally, one listing seemed promising; by the time the woman behind the desk had finished reading it, she was beaming, and the main character looked hopeful, too—until the woman behind the desk walked away to apply for the job herself.

I understood as a teen, and I understand deep in middle age, that none of this was real. And yet I wonder: did the woman behind the desk get the job? And then I think: even if she did, the job is surely over now.

And quite possibly so is the woman.

Our society reveres nothing so much as a capable man. This man can take care of himself and provide for others. The very existence of this man is a comfort in our lives. But one day, this man will start to lose it a little. Even in the limited sphere of our experience, we’ve seen it happen to other such men.

I find it interesting that until I sat at my desk to write this, I never for a moment associated this capable man with myself. I still don’t. I have never fit my own idea of capable. I can barely drive a car, let alone fix one: if you and I are on the side of a highway in the dark and the rain because a tire needs changing, don’t look at me. And yet I have provided for others—they have looked to me for that—no, they have not even looked to me: their assumption that I would provide was so complete, and I did it so consistently, that they never thought about it. Might this not, perhaps, suggest a deeper capability? Might I not be able to learn or get better at these other things, these surface things, like cars, and one day fit my own idea of a capable man?

“One day”—there’s the problem. That day would no doubt be the day I started to lose it a little.

It is not news that time passes, that we grow old and die. Nor is it news that this is difficult to face. To say so is to shoot the ball straight up and watch it come straight down. The ball needs to go up at an angle.

What’s my angle?

What’s My Line?, a game show, aired when I was a kid. Every week, a guest sat before three members of a panel who asked questions to figure out the guest’s occupation. One week, the guest’s occupation was governor of Georgia. No one had to ask what his line was when he became leader of the Free World.

The leader of Germany, at least as I write this, pronounces her first name in a way that sounds close to “angle,” though it looks closer to . . .


One possible angle: what is upsetting or terrifying about the passage of time that is not obvious?

“I’m not afraid of dying,” I heard someone say once. “I’m afraid of dying without doing the things I want to do.” I feel that way, too. And yet, that doesn’t feel like the whole story. Even if I do those things, what then, after time has passed?

The woman behind the desk who applied for the job: let’s say she got the job, which was everything she wanted, allowing her to do what she wanted to do in life. Here’s the thing: she was excited at the prospect.

And none of it matters now.

It’s not just that I’m not good at basketball. Apparently, I didn’t try hard enough. Here’s something I don’t want to remember but remember anyway: the time I was a kid on our makeshift court and another kid, Ricky was his name, yelled at me, “You want me to pass you the ball, but you ain’t hustling for it. You want me to give it to you, but you don’t wanna do nothing for it.”

My siblings are all much older than I am; when I was little, they seemed grown to me. I never fought with them over anything, and so perhaps, at a crucial stage, I missed the importance of hustling for what I want. Perhaps for that reason, today I am averse to confrontation. Do I expect to get things simply because I am me?

I need to try harder. So:

This capable man—might he not train others to be capable before he starts to lose it a little? In that way, wouldn’t capability be passed on? But our capable man himself would still be no more.

More than that: he wouldn’t matter.

Being the leader of the Free World matters, or we’ll agree that it does. But how many of us can lead the Free World? Or lead Germany, or even Georgia? Or be Hemingway or Marie Curie? I feel sorrow for those who can’t. Most of us can’t.

Jesus, according to the religion in which I was raised and in which I no longer believe, took on the burden of our sins, dying for them.

Maybe what we need is one who would take on our sorrow over futility.

A kind of angel.

Understand, I am not volunteering for the job, even if anyone would want me.

I am sad enough already.

I also (please know that I know these things):

Watched a lot of TV as a kid.

Remember really random stuff.

Think a lot about the past.

Maybe sadness increases with age. I am fifty-seven—and, see, even that won’t be true by the time you read this, if you ever do.

This is veering dangerously close to lament. (What’s that, you say? I passed “veering” a ways back?) That is not my aim. I’ve got to try harder. Hustle, man, hustle. Angle, man, angle.

I call our basketball court “makeshift” because the “basket,” a hollowed-out blue milk crate, was attached with wire hangers to the top of a playground slide. The slide was in the middle of the housing project where my friends lived. The ball could not circle the rim before falling in, as it could with a regulation basketball net, because there was no rim, at least not one that could be circled. The ball went in, or it didn’t.

On my phone I just looked up the definition of “angel”: a spiritual being believed to act as an attendant, agent, or messenger of God, conventionally represented in human form with wings and a long robe. Forget the wings and robe, but there is something about “attendant, agent, or messenger” that I like. Actually, forget attendant too, because for some reason the first thing that comes to my mind is a men’s room attendant, who seems to me to have the worst job in the known world. That leaves us with agent or messenger. Agent, of course, puts me in mind of secret agent, a coolness trigger for any kid who watched as much TV as I did. Something cool about messenger, too, an active and physical complement to an idea—someone who has to travel, to do the nitty-gritty work of a god who is free to sit on his heavenly posterior. A marriage of the theoretical and the real, in one cool person. I see a man in a black hat, jacket and vest—things I like and wear—making his way by rail, special document in his jacket pocket. Forget God, too, since I’m an agnostic, but let’s go with messenger, even if it’s now unclear whom he is working for.

I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of dying without doing the things I want to do. No, not the whole story. But a big chunk of the story.

Come on, Ricky, pass me the ball, man! I’m tryin’ here!

What if I die without doing what I want to do? What then? I’ll be dead and presumably won’t care, since there will be no me to care. The worst part, I’m thinking, would be those days toward the end when I’m still me and know the things won’t get done. Those days will pass, of course, and then it won’t matter. But that’s the thing, and there it is again:

It won’t matter.

To whom?

In the early 1940s, during the war, two decades before I was born, my mother was a messenger for Western Union. She said she hated delivering the telegrams with the black borders.

I have in mind a different kind of messenger—a wartime messenger, yes, but in a war against not mattering. The question is, what is the message? When our man in the black hat, jacket, and vest makes his way with a cool veneer on foot, by rail, and past the checkpoint guards, when he presents his document, what on earth will it say?

See there, I’m fifty-eight now.

I saw Ricky on the street one day when we were in our twenties. It had been years. He referred to having been “locked up,” but he was now free and looking for work; he sounded positive and philosophical. He mused, wistfully, about the days of hanging out with the guys we knew, of the things done then “in the name of friendship.”

No doubt if I had reminded Ricky of what he said to me (“You ain’t hustling for it!”), he would have said he didn’t remember, and laughed, as if meaning, What’s it matter now?

That might be a good name for a game show. The guests, all dead, answer questions from living panelists, questions meant to ascertain why we should care about these people now. The game, of course, is rigged.

Imagine a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century peasant living in a region remote from any city. The peasant had no children and therefore no descendants, wrote no letters that survive, kept no diary, left no trace.

The widespread desire for fame begins to seem less like solipsism and more like the cry of someone drowning.

Self-consciousness + mortality – belief in an afterlife = HELP!

Our messenger, that capable man, with all the drama of a TV character, marches into the makeshift military headquarters, pulls the document from the pocket of his tweed jacket, and hands it over. It reads:

“None of it matters. But none of it matters.”

On our makeshift court, I take a shot, the ball bouncing off the hollowed-out blue milk crate.

The angle needs work.


In the first summer of the pandemic, my cousin and I sat outside at an ice cream parlor, under umbrellas in the rain, six feet apart (maybe a little less), masks off as we ate and talked. We somehow got onto the subject of human consciousness. I talked about what has puzzled me for as long as I can remember, which I struggle to put into words. Because I have access only to my own consciousness, I said, I have what feels to me like—though it obviously is not—the central universal consciousness. But I am one person on a planet of more than seven billion. There seems to me a fundamental contradiction here. My cousin talked about empathy and the possibility of seeing others’ viewpoints, but that suggestion only underscores what I mean: for me to sympathize with another, there must be another, one whose consciousness I cannot share and who cannot share mine. I struggled to articulate why this feels like a contradiction.

Then, sometime later, I read the poetry collection The River Twice, by Kathleen Graber. The book includes the poem “Self-Portrait in Suspension.” Here is one passage: “…How unfathomable the fact / that our urgent being ends.” We die, in other words. And here, here was a key to what I was trying to say.

How can the universal consciousness—or what feels like it—end with my death? How can it simply cease to matter?

A friend suggested on social media that perhaps what feels to me like the central universal consciousness is in fact part of a single, universal consciousness—that each of us, perhaps, has a part of it. This sounds to me like Buddhism, about which I have read little. I have little inclination to read more, since the writers are people like me, trying with no evidence to figure out what the hell is going on.

That said, my friend’s suggestion makes as much sense to me as anything else.

Perhaps the question, then, is: does a sliver of the universal consciousness matter?

Perhaps the answer is: it depends on what happens to that sliver of consciousness after he who held it is no more.

How can we determine whether anything matters in the face of time’s passage if we don’t know whether our slivers of consciousness survive? There is the question to work on.

Or . . . perhaps that is not the question to work on. Perhaps I have been thinking about this all wrong.

Here is a new angle:

Our messenger, in his hat, jacket, and vest, walks in from the cold with another missive for HQ, which reads—

“Let us assume, for a moment, that consciousness ends with death, since that appears to be our worst-case scenario. Let us assume, in other words, that our lives, our individual consciousness(es), do not matter, since they will pass away and not be remembered. Our lives, our consciousness, will not matter after we die, and thus you may say they do not matter as we live.

“Let us assume that we have lost the war against not mattering.

“This not-mattering is true for the vast majority of people who have died. Some of those people were good; some were not so good. But all are in this impermanence business together, even most who achieved fame in their own time.

“Given that this is the common fate, the lucky among the forgotten are those who were loved by others, however few, in their own time.

“Perhaps, then, the measure of ‘mattering’ must be scaled down, and the notion of eternal relevance done away with completely. To matter, in this view, would be to matter to someone during one’s lifetime.

All are in this impermanence business together. Sort of like a party.”

* * * * *

I take my shot at the blue-milk-crate basket. Let’s see if the ball goes in.

Clifford Thompson


Clifford Thompson is the author and illustrator of the graphic novel Big Man and the Little Men (2022). His other books include What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues. His personal essays and reviews have appeared in Best American Essays 2018, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. Thompson teaches creative nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College and the Bennington Seminars. A painter, he is a member of New York’s Blue Mountain Gallery, the home of his first show, in the winter of 2023.

paper texture
paper texture