The Way We Move

by Kathleen Harris

I’ve never punched anyone in my life. Nor have I slapped anyone. I don’t believe in spanking children. I’ve defended myself with a quick mind and a sharp tongue. My family moved out of Queens before I reached the requisite age of teenage girl hair-pulling fights on the Q29 Express bus. I’ve almost never had to use my hands to get out of trouble.

Just once, actually. Twenty years ago, I’d been fêted by colleagues with drinks on the last day of my job. A lot of drinks. Lost-count-of-how-many-drinks kind-of drinks, at the kind of goodbye party where your colleagues are no longer your colleagues, and feel comfortable telling you the dirtiest details of their lives, now that everyone’s guard is down and you’re a few bottles into the evening.

By fête’s end, it was just my newly-ex-boss and me, sitting on padded stools in a bar in Chelsea. We’d just ordered another God-awful round of drinks. He had a drinking problem. I knew that from Monday morning meetings. I just didn’t know how bad his drinking problem actually was.

I lit a cigarette and waited for our order. He looked at me, and asked why I was leaving him, in a mock-sad voice with a pouty face. I smirked. What the hell was he talking about? I had explained all of this when I resigned. My husband had a job opportunity in San Francisco. I had to go with him. There was a ring on my finger. I loved the man.

He stared at me. He repeated himself, this time in a colder, more serious tone. Why are you leaving me? And then he slapped me across the face. Hard.

I was stunned. Literally stunned, as every person in the bar moved before me in psychotic slow-motion ballet. I’d been hit across the face. A man hit me. That had never happened before. That had just happened. The mind registers such events out of sequence.

I turned back to him, my face frozen in the open-mouthed position it had assumed when his palm struck my cheek. He was sneering at me, and he actually raised his hand to me again. He actually had it held up in the air to strike me a second time.

I caught his wrist with my left hand as it came down — my good hand. The one still holding the cigarette. High school softball drills surfaced to defend me. I held his wrist between my thumb and first two fingers in a vice-like grip that I didn’t know I was capable of. I felt surges of blood pulsing in the veins between his weak wrist bones. Maybe it was from my own fingertips. I couldn’t tell. My heart was erupting out of my blouse.

I  held his arm on the bar. I didn’t cry from the sting. The alcohol must have numbed the pain somewhat. Instead, I told him, quietly and plainly, that if he ever did anything like that again, to me or any other woman, I’d leave a cigarette burn so deep in his hand that he’d never forget me. Ever. I’d do it right then and there if he thought he couldn’t keep that promise. I stared at him until I watched tears form in his eyes. I was bluffing. But I had to seem as if I meant every word. I had to make him stop.

Our drinks arrived just then. Somehow, the bartender had missed the slap. I let his arm go, walked out of the bar, propelled by a tsunami of adrenaline, and hailed a cab.

About the author

Kathleen Harris is a writer, native New Yorker, wife and mother living in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children. Some of her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Full Grown People, Huffington Post, McSweeney’s, Literary Mama, and Family Fun Magazine. I’ve also been named as a Glimmer Train Press short story finalist, and as a three-time finalist at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival Story Slam.

Binky Atop the Ideal Diner

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The author

by Thadra Sheridan

It was me, Terri,
my best friend Binky,
and whatever guy she was dating at the time.
I think it was Chad.
On a nondescript summer evening
We loafed about our
sleepy midwestern college town, where
nothing ever happens around here,
GOD!
Someday we were all going to
get the hell out of this place, but
tonight
we were sixteen years old
and there was nothing to do.
Chad, let’s call him Chad,
wanted to impress us all
with his urban exploration skills, so he said,
You want to see something cool?
He took us around back of the Ideal Diner,
where they’d kicked us out for cramming
eight teenagers in a booth every day after school to
split a single basket of fries and make a
general nuisance of ourselves.

It was really dark back there.
The weed colony
obscured a vast collection of
furniture skeletal remains and
unidentifiable rusty objects.
Chad scaled a drain pipe on the back of the building like
a monkey
or Spiderman
or Evel Knievel,
and we three girls looked at each other
in doubt and trepidation
and dare.
I’ve never been too good with heights,
but I’ve always considered myself
macho
Binky,  the girlfriend,
had to go first.
That’s just how it was done.
I followed her with false courage,
Terri brought up the rear.

At the top, Chad beckoned us to follow as he
slid across a narrow ledge that ran
along the brick wall that lined
a seemingly bottomless courtyard that came
between us and the rooftop
where Chad now stood.
He’d done it so fast
like a tightrope walker or
a monkey.
But we were teenage girls, not gymnasts,
so we lined ourselves up holding hands,
me in the middle,
our backs to the wall,
facing the bottomless courtyard
from which grew an elm tree
not three feet in front of us.
We sidled along this tiny ledge,
just a few inches wide,
our toes hanging over abyss
very
very
slowly.
There was nothing to hold onto,
but two hands.
I pictured plunging into the darkness onto
rusty shapes or dining room chairs
or whatever lay below,
so that’s what I did.

I tipped,
unable to stop,
ever slowly forward,
watching myself tumble to unknown.
At the last moment before my feet lost their purchase,
I grabbed the tree.
There was no coming back from this,
no reverse momentum I could imagine.
I hung at a 45 degree angle from the wall,
feet gripping the ledge,
hands clutching feeble branches,
Binky, whom I’d inadvertently pulled along with me,
hanging from my arm over the chasm.
As I accepted that she would surely soon fall to her death,
and I might be able to swing out to the tree,
but I’d most likely fail, she said,
Hey, there’s another ledge down here.

It was not twelve inches below us;
a good couple of feet wide.
You could walk it leisurely facing forward,
for chrissakes.
She let go of my arm,
just
standing there,
and I dropped down easily,
death faced and overcome.
Chad, when challenged,
admitted he knew about the other ledge, but
That one’s not as fun.

When we reached him,
I choked him to death.
Or at least I pretended to.

And we all looked out over the cornice
of the Ideal Diner,
two floors above the street
at the cars below.

There wasn’t really much to do after that.
We didn’t stay up there long.

 

About the author

Thadra Sheridan is a writer and performer from Minneapolis, MN.  Her work has appeared in Rattle, The Legendary, Specter, Blotterature, The Pine Hills Review, Abyss & Apex, on Upworthy, HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, Button Poetry, and in several anthologies.  She is a recipient of the Jerome Foundation’s Verve Grant for Spoken Word and a past weekly columnist for Opine Season.  She reads her live stories regularly at live storytelling shows nationwide such as The Moth in St. Paul, MN and Story Showdown in Oakland, CA.

Fifty Years Later

Since we opened our doors nearly 3 years ago, Tell Us A Story‘s mission has been a simple one: to publish stories about “true things” once per week, every week. We loved that model, and the way it allowed us to focus on one writer’s story each week.

But as we begin year 4 of the blog, we wanted to try out a new approach: we are shifting to a quarterly format. That means we will still be bringing you the best true stories we can find, but we will publish these stories 4 times per year: in the fall, winter, spring and summer.

We feel this new format will better accommodate submission cycles as well as our own busy lives.

We will close out year 3 with a few of our favorite recent submissions, then we’ll be back in the fall with our new quarterly schedule. Next up? “Fifty Years Later” by R. W. Haynes, first published on January 13 2016:

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Fifty years later, the writer reflected that it might not have been such a good idea to drop acid before the high school graduation rehearsal, but, by then, there was nothing more he could do than remember and regret, if regret is the right word, because there was some curious pleasure in recalling the consequences of that decision, if decision is the right word.

He remembered the ceremony itself, with Billy Bonstead*, who had also missed the rehearsal, marching a few students ahead in line with an air of having marched toward academic excellence many times before. And he remembered how the principal growled fiercely, his glassy eyes bulging with vindictive vindication, standing there with that pathetic diploma case as though it held all happiness, all futurity, all the silly bullshit that academic (if that’s the right word) bureaucrats pretend they have a death grip on.

As the writer told his students long afterward, he had replied with two words, the second of which was “you,” but the first of which was not “Thank,” even if it ended with the same letter. It happened that there fell one of those unexpected moments of total silence just as he reached the principal, so his words sounded like a war cry on the ancient steppes of Russia and were followed by a horrific gasp from the audience. He had taken the half-extended diploma case from the furious principal and walked on off the platform, noting with embattled pleasure the smile on the face of John Quincy, the student walking just ahead of him in that glorious parade.

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John was one of the first black students to graduate from Suwanoochee High School, and he had had a fair amount of hell from the rednecks and the administrative stuffed shirts. There had been a kind of lifting of shadows at that moment, possibly for many present, but as surely for John as for himself. As the closing invocation began, John lifted up his resonant voice in a powerful farewell to the school and his persecutors (more gasps), and it was easy to tell he had much sympathy among his fellow students as he announced at some length he was signing off.

What was most memorable about the night which had produced the outrageous non-attendance at the rehearsal was that on the radio was played again and again a strange song which seemed to reach to and from an unanticipated world. “The Israelites,” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces was the first Jamaican song extensively aired in the region, and it appeared to have hypnotized one or more of the late-night disc jockeys on local radio stations. Perhaps chemically-stimulated susceptibility lent it a mystical profundity that made the antics of school administrators loom even smaller than those of ants (or ticks) and inspired defiance of petty tyrants in stoned brains.

Outside the football stadium where graduation was held, the writer had parked his father’s Ford station wagon, his parents having come in the family’s other car, and he headed briskly for it, meeting Billy on the way. It had been reported that the head football coach had encouraged some of his players to give graduation haircuts to some of the more visible hippies, and Billy was evidently mindful of the need for all deliberate speed as he extended his hand in congratulation. Billy also had Desmond Dekker stuck in his mind as well, as he danced a step and sang “We don’t wanna end up like Bonnie and Clyde….”

“Watch your back,” said the writer, and Billy replied “Always.” The writer went on to the station wagon and got behind the wheel. He reached down and took up the double-barreled 16-gauge, opened the glove compartment and took out four #4 shells, loading one into each barrel and putting the others on the seat beside him. He waited about twenty minutes before he realized that no one was coming. “Good thing nobody did,” he said to himself, fifty years later.

*All names have been changed in this story.

About the author

R. W. Haynes is a professor at a South Texas university, where he teaches Shakespeare and Early British literature.

Note: “Israelites,” written by Desmond Dekker and Leslie Kong. Recorded by Desmond Dekker and the Aces. Trojan Records, 1968.

My Face

Since we opened our doors nearly 3 years ago, Tell Us A Story‘s mission has been a simple one: to publish stories about “true things” once per week, every week. We loved that model, and the way it allowed us to focus on one writer’s story each week.

But as we begin year 4 of the blog, we wanted to try out a new approach: we are shifting to a quarterly format. That means we will still be bringing you the best true stories we can find, but we will publish these stories 4 times per year: in the fall, winter, spring and summer.

We feel this new format will better accommodate submission cycles as well as our own busy lives.

We will close out year 3 with a few of our favorite recent submissions, then we’ll be back in the fall with our new quarterly schedule. Next up? “My Face” by Brandon Antonio Smith, first published on October 28. 2015:

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My Face

The Face in question

A child, sitting in the passenger’s seat

While my father drove,

I’d do my best impression of

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s

Peculiarly raised eyebrow

In the rearview mirror,

However silly that may sound.

I was enthralled by

What was known as

The World Wrestling Federation

At the time.

I would imagine having his face.

I found it attractive, unlike my own.

I detested smiling in school pictures.

To this day I’m still not fond

Of smiling in pictures in general.

My hate amplified when

Puberty debuted in my life.

Pimples soon bulged from

Every corner of my face,

And I’d scratch at them menacingly

Until they bled sometimes.

Blots and polka dots are the remnants.

I could see myself in a character like Shrek.

One of the first stories I wrote

Was unconsciously based on the ugly duckling motif.

It was about a dog with only three legs,

Aptly titled The Weird Dog.

The original was lost and I rewrote it

From an opaque memory in Mrs. Aldridge’s

Creative writing class when

I was a freshman in high school.

That version was lost too.

 

In hindsight, I realize

The weird dog always

Represented me

About the author

Brandon Antonio Smith is a 23 year old homebody from Tampa, Florida struggling to embrace himself. Thus far he’s been published in The Stardust Gazette. Writing is the closest he’ll ever come towards freedom.

Eat Crow

Since we opened our doors nearly 3 years ago, Tell Us A Story‘s mission has been a simple one: to publish stories about “true things” once per week, every week. We loved that model, and the way it allowed us to focus on one writer’s story each week.

But as we begin year 4 of the blog, we wanted to try out a new approach: we are shifting to a quarterly format. That means we will still be bringing you the best true stories we can find, but we will publish these stories 4 times per year: in the fall, winter, spring and summer.

We feel this new format will better accommodate submission cycles as well as our own busy lives.

We will close out year 3 with a few of our favorite recent submissions, then we’ll be back in the fall with our new quarterly schedule. First up? “Eat Crow” by Jaen Hawkins, first published on August 30. 2015:

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October 31st, 2013

6:15 am

I woke up an hour earlier than usual to soak a few head bandages in blood and hot glue a crow to a purse. I sat at the kitchen table, mixing corn syrup and food coloring to find the best ratio for realistic clots. The cheap gauze I used kept sticking to itself and would either absorb too much blood or not enough. The pattern couldn’t be splattered and nondirectional. It had to be congruent with an entry wound from a sharp, slightly-curved beak that had just penetrated my scalp.

While the bandages were drying I poked two holes into the top of a beige plastic purse. I’d gotten it the day before from a thrift shop across the street from my apartment. It had the clean lines of a mid-century coffee table, and thankfully a thin but sturdy inner lining. I untwisted a crows wire feet from the branch stand it came attached to and threaded them through the holes. The wires were sturdy enough for the bird to stand on its own, so I’d heated up my glue gun for nothing. A structurally sound Halloween costume with no glue whatsoever? I couldn’t really believe it either.

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6:45 am

My roommate left her Marilyn Monroe wig out on the kitchen table for me. Its styrofoam head support base donned 2-inch false lashes and red glittered lips. She was dashing, and one of dozens from my roommate’s extensive burlesque wardrobe that occupied the entire third bedroom of our Brooklyn apartment. The curls weren’t the exact look I was looking for, but the blond effect was there, and no one who pulls a highly conceptual costume together in twelve hours can be picky.

My hair was in the flattest bun possible and pinned to my crown. I cut a nude stocking at the calf, pulled it tightly over my head down below my ears, and looked like a baby conehead. I wiggled into the wig and discovered that blond is not my color. Luckily the hairline far enough down my forehead that the bandages could hold it in place without pins, so I started wrapping the cotton in different directions across my face.

I never appreciated my natural beauty as much as when I tried to make myself look glamorous and nearly dead. Can this much blood come out of my forehead? Does my coral nail polish clash with the blood clots hanging from the birds’ beaks? Is that a good thing? We should bring back this early ‘60s powder-blue eyeshadow look. Does the blood give me enough color or should I wear blush, too? Should I powder my face and risk matting-down the blood, or hope that my natural grease/sweat enhances the look? I wonder if Tippi Hedren had huge pores. Is there a difference between crows and ravens? Do I have time to make a fake eyeball to hang off the side of my face?

After securing the bandages with cloth tape, I took my favorite crow (the one with an open wingspan as to appear in mid-flight) and threaded the feet and wires through the wig’s lace scalp. I secured it with bobby pins on the top of my head and, after a vigorous headbanger test to System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!”, decided it would last through the day.

7:35 am

I concluded that the most effective costumes for any occasion are the simplest ones, because they allow you to finish so far ahead of schedule that you can cook steel cut oats for breakfast. While I was waiting for the water to boil, I walked out on our roof deck to watch the sunrise. The sky was orange over the row houses, silhouetting a pair of sneakers that dangled over the street from a power line strung between two buildings. Our neighbor came out onto her roof to water her browning herb garden. She me staring over the cityscape covered in blood and birds, and walked back inside. I felt my tummy rumble and did the same.

7:50 am

I hopped up onto the kitchen counter to eat my oatmeal. I always liked sitting there, because it made me feel tall. Our kitchen was a six-inch step up from the living room, and with my feathery friend atop my head, I could almost touch the ceiling. It was the tallest I’d ever felt.

8:05 am

I packed my work computer and coral lipstick into my bag and looked at myself one more time in the mirror. Tippy Hedren, about an hour and fifteen minutes into The Birds, no mistake.

I took a deep breath. What if I got my dates mixed up and today isn’t actually Halloween? Or what if this is the year everyone gets super serious and doesn’t dress up at all? I refuse to accept that I may be too old for this. Wait, what if everyone is terrible and has no idea who Alfred Hitchcock or Tippi Hedren is or what birds are? Luckily my neighborhood wasn’t very busy in the morning, so I could decide to abort at the last minute without too many social catastrophes.

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8:08 am

My first encounter was with two guys walking a hotdog. All three were wearing neon trucker hats. Perhaps I wasn’t caught up on my pop culture references, but I couldn’t understand why a dog quite clearly dressed as food would need a hat on top of his relish and mustard.

“Yo, that’s dope,” one of them said. The other took out his phone and took a picture. And then another picture. And then another. He took a photo of me every second as I was walking by. “That’s goin’ on Facebook, man. Happy Halloween yo!”

Okay, date confirmed, so far so good.

8:10 am

An old man with a long gray beard was sweeping Twizzler wrappers off the sidewalk outside of his deli.

“Hey!” he said, “It’s The Birds! That’s neat.” Not neat enough to stop him from sweeping, though.

Okay, I’m on a role here. I’m killin’ this shit. Best costume of all time. I win Halloween.

8:12 am

I was one block from the train station when I recognized a man. He was tall and black, with a lot of aged acne scars on his nose and cheeks. He didn’t appear exceptionally overweight, but his hands were interlaced below his belly and it looked like he was supporting a sack of yams underneath his baggy t-shirt. He’d followed me home from the subway two nights prior, whispering details the whole way about how he wanted to be my “ass-pussy king” and “fuck me all night hanging from the rafters.” As if anyone’s apartment in Bushwick had visible rafters.

I’d like to say that encountering this goose was an isolated incident – a blip during the playback of my roaring early-twenties in New York. But he was only one of many sexually-charged stalkers who thought it their solemn duty to tell every trans or gender non-conforming person they saw how sweet their ass-candy was, often so aggressively that we’d rather spend 20 minutes inside a bodega than lead them to our apartment buildings, where they’d no doubt break in and hang us from the “rafters.”

I turned my head and looked across the street so that he couldn’t make eye contact. I hoped that in the harsh light of day he’d be distracted by my crows and their gory mutilation of my body.

“Woah, that’s crazy,” he said. “Those birds ain’t real?”

Okay, he doesn’t recognize me. I didn’t answer and walked around him.

“Girl, that’s the best costume I’ve seen all day, and that’s still the best ass I’ve seen all week.”

Oh, my, gods. I need someone dressed as a pizza slice to walk by so that he’ll look away for two seconds and I can disappear behind one of these parked cars.

“Damn that’s a tight-ass skirt on top of a tight-ass ass,” he said. “Let me eat that ass-pussy for breakfast.”

I turned red and clenched my jaw. I contemplated taking my backup vile of blood out of my purse and smashing it into his right eye socket.

“I’ll let you fuck me, too, girl, after I lick your hole all day.” He stuck out his tongue and made a horrific slurping noise, not unlike Anthony Hopkin’s tonal description of human liver with a side of fava beans and a nice Chianti.

This was always the case with these overgrown turkeys; they’d say phrases like “I’ll let you fuck me” and “give me that ass-pussy” to infer “I know you have a penis and I literally want you to put it in my ass after I give you oral and put my tongue in your butt.’”But they could never actually say that, because it would be too gay and uncomfortable and embarrassing and humiliating to say those specific words to a stranger on the street.

8:13 am

All I wanted to do was get away from this loon, but a garbage truck pulled up and blocked the crosswalk to the other side of the street. He stepped closer, talking about my “sweet nectar ass-juice” so aggressively that a drop of his spit landed on my left forearm.

With no means of escape, I turned around, stomped my heel to the ground, and yelled, “THERE IS A DEAD CROW INSIDE MY ASS RIGHT NOW, SIR. DO YOU REALLY WANT TO EAT A BLOODY CROW OUT OF MY ASS FOR BREAKFAST? RIGHT NOW? HERE? ON THE STREET?”

A few people within earshot turned their heads as they walked by. The man seemed offended, appalled even, clutching an imaginary set of pearls atop his collarbone.

“Yo, that’s nasty, you fucking faggot.”

He walked away, hugging his sack of yams.

8:14 am

I stood on the corner and cried. I don’t think anyone noticed the tears, because people generally cry when they’ve been assaulted by crows.

I had programmed myself to fear only the men who hated me for being feminine. I never thought men would pursue me for sex, let alone so aggressively and in public spaces. They started following me home and touching me on the train and dive-bombing me on the street. At first I thought it was a blessing, because I’d rather be called ‘sexy’ and have my ass grabbed than be called ‘tranny’ and punched in the face. But now it felt dirty and destructive, like ­a strategic invasion and declaration of war on my body.

I shook and couldn’t breathe. When is this shit going to stop?

The train roared on the elevated tracks above my head. I closed my eyes and let the sound of scraping metal drown out everything around me. I tilted my head back and pictured Tippi looking up to a sky blackened by swarms of birds. The flocks were threatening and infinite. She squinted her eyes, pressed the wound on her temple, and said, “Don’t they ever stop migrating?”

About the author

Jaen is in her mid twenties and splits her time between NYC and Raleigh. She forgot to finish college and has yet to accept her status as an adult. You should read her blog and watch her YouTube videos.

 

 

New Schedule, New Format

Hello dear readers!

We’re back from our spring break with news of some exciting changes at Tell Us A Story.

Since we opened our doors nearly 3 years ago, Tell Us A Story‘s mission has been a simple one: to publish stories about “true things” once per week, every week. We loved that model, and the way it allowed us to focus on one writer’s story each week.

But as we begin year 4 of the blog (year 4!!!!), we wanted to try out a new approach: we are shifting to a quarterly format. That means we will still be bringing you the best true stories we can find, but we will publish these stories 4 times per year: in the fall, winter, spring and summer.

We feel this new format will better accommodate submission cycles as well as our own busy lives.

We will close out year 3 with a few of our favorite recent submissions, then we’ll be back in the fall with our new quarterly schedule.

In the meantime, we encourage you to keep reading and please keep sharing your wonderful stories with us:

All submissions must be less than 2000 words and must be based on something that actually happened to you (not to your friend or your cousin or your high school math teacher). We are also interested in very short stories (flash [non]fiction), experimental stories, poems, or plays as long as they are true. When possible, we’d like you to send us a scanned photograph or document that correlates with your story, because those kinds of details are nice.

Please send submissions as an editable attachment (no PDFs please!!!), along with images, and a 100 word (or less) biographical statement to tellusastoryblog@gmail.com.  Put “TUAS Submission” in the subject line. Please submit only one submission at a time (unless you are sending poetry).

Dog Years

by Jiordan Castle

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About the author

Jiordan Castle is a writer from New York living in San Francisco. Her work has appeared elsewhere in print and online. She gets personal at nomoreundead.tumblr.com and can be tweeted @jiordancastle.

House of the Moving Books

by Rebecca Martin

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The Existential Reader was lying on the floor again. “Are you going to pick that up?” asked my husband. “I would, but what’s the point?” I said from my seat at the kitchen table. He barely smiled. A paltry response for a decent existentialist joke, I thought, and it’s true, there really is no point. Despite our best efforts, the books in our house are always moving, seemingly on their own.

One year ago, we moved into our old wreck of a dream house, a once-beautiful place that sat on the market for three years because no one else could bear the thought of replacing a long driveway and a leaking roof or cutting back decades of overgrowth. But we were in its thrall from the start, in part, because in the center of it is a library. It is the kind of room that existed only on the board game Clue in my childhood, with four walls of shelves and a fireplace with a hammered copper hearth. The only improvement necessary there was the shelving of all of the books we had brought to our marriage and acquired since that had never been unpacked at the same time before, many of them awaiting us in boxes in our garage or my in-law’s attic. Finally, my copy of Mara, Daughter of the Nile, discovered on eBay long after my favorite book from Seventh Grade had gone out of print, sat next to John’s copy of Lincoln’s Speeches. Our refugee books had the home they deserved, and yet some still roam.

Rifling through a stack of school notices on the kitchen counter, I’ll find Catcher in the Rye, its paperback binding stiff from having been wedged on a shelf or in a box since it was last read. It is most often books that have been long-neglected, put away decades ago when term papers were completed, that confront us in this way, desperate to be read again. Surprise titles will show up on our nightstands as though directing my husband or me toward a truth in Lawrence of Arabia. We put them back on the shelves and within hours or days they have again drifted, back out in the open as though asking us why they aren’t being read, or, in the case of the French-English dictionary, why we are no longer trying to speak French.

If I pass by the library in the right moment, I can hear singing, “books, books BOOKS, booky book BOOKS.” If I sneak a glimpse, I see our kindergarten daughter, Maeve, standing on a chair, pulling out a volume of the Waverly Novels from 1880 that my mother-in-law bought as a set at an estate sale, poring over the brown musty picture-less pages of The Bride of Lammermoor with faux comprehension before restoring it to the shelf alongside the rest of the forest green bindings or placing it on the window sill or she could be grabbing one and tucking it under her arm as if rushing off to class.

Despite the documented sightings of our book spirit, my husband still takes the appearances of the books to heart. “I should read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius again,” he’ll say when he finds it lying in the middle of the hallway; but then he’ll put it down and forget about it, reflexively reaching for his tablet with more current books, like those written in the last millennium, when he goes to bed. When the tide turns Marcus Aurelius up again, he might turn to me and say, “you know, you might really like this.” “Huh, you think?” I’ll say, while replacing it on a shelf. I congratulate myself on not being prone to the suggestion of a book’s appearance until I find three copies of the cover of Northanger Abbey in the tray of our copier and am tempted to take it from the glass and sit down and read it there and then.

Were I to do that, I would likely land on a pile of dust jackets. Our books shed their jackets like summer wedding guests on a dance floor. The jackets sometimes go on to live lives of their own, collecting in piles or consorting with magazines. I wonder what compels our book spirit to dismantle them like is. All I can think is that she must be determined to get inside them, to know their secrets, which she is, as yet, unable to decipher.

Her reading now is limited to Green Eggs and Ham, which migrates some, as our other books do, but these days no further than the bedroom where it is read each night with Maeve playing Sam from memory and me the furry guy Sam pursues with his tray of food. These are some of those rare moments of parenthood that are just as enjoyable and gratifying as I imagined they would be. I tell myself, nevermind that at the foot of the bed, nestled in the carpet is a tower of From Julia Child’s Kitchen, two volumes of the Dialogues of Plato, and a 1917 copy of Lord Charnwood’s Abraham Lincoln. The stacks and the orphaned jackets and the constant book migration represent the things I never anticipated and cannot understand about my life, much like Maeve herself.

I have three children and each of them surprises me with who they are becoming, but Maeve is in some ways unknowable thus far. Her quiet other-worldliness can at times trouble us, but it leaves Maeve content, even joyful in her own experience of the world, and in books especially. Perhaps we seize upon the books as our clues to what she is thinking. Or they could mean nothing, are merely something that we have in abundance. Regardless, the moving books are our comfort. While Maeve’s purpose remains a mystery, that we all love the books is enough. Regardless of what Marcus Aurelius wrote, his mere presence peeking out from under the closet door is a sign that Maeve is one of us. So, I re-shelve and re-jacket, but I never turn to Maeve and tell her that she has to leave the books alone.

About the author

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser who is now doing the two things she has always wanted to do: writing and raising a family.  Her work has previously appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, Brain, Child, and Literary Mama, among other publications.

Fifty Years Later

by R.W. Haynes

Fifty years later, the writer reflected that it might not have been such a good idea to drop acid before the high school graduation rehearsal, but, by then, there was nothing more he could do than remember and regret, if regret is the right word, because there was some curious pleasure in recalling the consequences of that decision, if decision is the right word.

He remembered the ceremony itself, with Billy Bonstead*, who had also missed the rehearsal, marching a few students ahead in line with an air of having marched toward academic excellence many times before. And he remembered how the principal growled fiercely, his glassy eyes bulging with vindictive vindication, standing there with that pathetic diploma case as though it held all happiness, all futurity, all the silly bullshit that academic (if that’s the right word) bureaucrats pretend they have a death grip on.

As the writer told his students long afterward, he had replied with two words, the second of which was “you,” but the first of which was not “Thank,” even if it ended with the same letter. It happened that there fell one of those unexpected moments of total silence just as he reached the principal, so his words sounded like a war cry on the ancient steppes of Russia and were followed by a horrific gasp from the audience. He had taken the half-extended diploma case from the furious principal and walked on off the platform, noting with embattled pleasure the smile on the face of John Quincy, the student walking just ahead of him in that glorious parade.

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Image credit: New York Public Library Digital Collection

John was one of the first black students to graduate from Suwanoochee High School, and he had had a fair amount of hell from the rednecks and the administrative stuffed shirts. There had been a kind of lifting of shadows at that moment, possibly for many present, but as surely for John as for himself. As the closing invocation began, John lifted up his resonant voice in a powerful farewell to the school and his persecutors (more gasps), and it was easy to tell he had much sympathy among his fellow students as he announced at some length he was signing off.

What was most memorable about the night which had produced the outrageous non-attendance at the rehearsal was that on the radio was played again and again a strange song which seemed to reach to and from an unanticipated world. “The Israelites,” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces was the first Jamaican song extensively aired in the region, and it appeared to have hypnotized one or more of the late-night disc jockeys on local radio stations. Perhaps chemically-stimulated susceptibility lent it a mystical profundity that made the antics of school administrators loom even smaller than those of ants (or ticks) and inspired defiance of petty tyrants in stoned brains.

Outside the football stadium where graduation was held, the writer had parked his father’s Ford station wagon, his parents having come in the family’s other car, and he headed briskly for it, meeting Billy on the way. It had been reported that the head football coach had encouraged some of his players to give graduation haircuts to some of the more visible hippies, and Billy was evidently mindful of the need for all deliberate speed as he extended his hand in congratulation. Billy also had Desmond Dekker stuck in his mind as well, as he danced a step and sang “We don’t wanna end up like Bonnie and Clyde….”

“Watch your back,” said the writer, and Billy replied “Always.” The writer went on to the station wagon and got behind the wheel. He reached down and took up the double-barreled 16-gauge, opened the glove compartment and took out four #4 shells, loading one into each barrel and putting the others on the seat beside him. He waited about twenty minutes before he realized that no one was coming. “Good thing nobody did,” he said to himself, fifty years later.

*All names have been changed in this story.

About the author

R. W. Haynes is a professor at a South Texas university, where he teaches Shakespeare and Early British literature.

Note: “Israelites,” written by Desmond Dekker and Leslie Kong. Recorded by Desmond Dekker and the Aces. Trojan Records, 1968.

 

 

Christmas Eve for the Jews

 by Amanda Ann Klein

The news had to be bad because the doctor, the one we had never met before, would not look at or speak to us as she led my mother and me through the hallways of the ICU, still decorated with the last gasps of a hospital Christmas. She told us she would find us a private place where we could “talk” and we numbly followed her. She’d open each new door expectantly, only to sigh and say, “Ah, no, not this one, either” as if the lack of available rooms exhausted her, and not the imposition of telling people terrible news about their loved ones. Eventually the doctor abandoned this pretense to privacy and led us back to the ICU family lounge, currently occupied by a family of six. They’d been there since we’d been there, since Christmas Eve. They made themselves at home with pillows and magazines, the remnants of Happy Meals and half-finished board games.

Once we were seated, the doctor, the one we had never met before, looked at my mother and began, “Mrs. Klein…”

I could tell this was the part the doctor hated most—the naked emotion woven into the fabric of her profession. She was a woman of science and facts; she didn’t go to medical school to make sad people feel less sad. But still, here we all were.

You have to deal with us now. I do not say this out loud.

In the movie version of this moment, the doctor is a faceless body, all torso and dark hair gibbering unintelligible sounds, like words spoken underwater. A few bubble to the surface, though: “poor prognosis,” “functioning brain stem,” “nonresponsive.”

I remember wishing that I was hanging out with the family of six just then, with their board games and their cold, greasy fries, because they were still in that suspended state of not-knowing. I wanted to be them and not the person who was about to know what I was about to know, and what I was about to know was this: my father was not going to wake up.

***

My parents have been holding Christmas Eve parties for years, a detail worth noting only because my father was raised an Orthodox Jew. My brother and I were raised Jewish, too, the kind of Jewish that results in a Bat Mitzvah and two years at Hebrew High, and which is worth noting only because my father married an unconverted Protestant, thus rendering us, technically speaking, not Jewish at all. Of course, my mother never had much attachment to her Protestantism and gamely attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Ohev Sholom, the reform synagogue that performed my parents’ wedding ceremony, with the requisite solemnity, and made potato latkes the way she was taught to by the Sisterhood. Every spring my father beamed across the seder table when my mother’s matzo balls floated in their chicken broth.

My mother embraced Judaism and its ceremony and had almost no nostalgia for the religion of her youth except in one thing: the pageantry of Christmas. My father indulged her in this, allowing for the Christmas tree, wreaths, stockings, and even, one memorable Christmas Eve back in the 1980s, a visit from Santa. Still, the origins of my parents’ annual Christmas Eve parties is a subject of dispute. My mother claims it can all be traced back to me returning home from college one winter break and asking if I could have a few friends over. “The Christmas Eve party just progressed from there,” she tells me, after I give her the first draft of this story to read, “it was your idea.” But that’s not how I remember it.

I remember the Christmas Eve parties replacing an earlier era of Christmas Eves, nights when cousins in footie pajamas made blanket forts behind the couches, and grandparents and aunts and uncles, deep into a good meal and bottles of wine and photo albums, would lay out plates of cookies for Santa, always remembering to take a few good bites out before morning. Those were the Christmas Eves of my youth.

Christmas Eve in the old Tudor house, circa 1981

My brother, Santa and me on Christmas Eve circa 1981

 

Christmas Eve in the old Tudor house, circa 1981

My uncles and grandfather on Christmas Eve circa 1981

 

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My cousins and Santa on Christmas Eve circa 1981

“Don’t most people go to church or something on Christmas Eve?” I remember asking her, long after the Christmas Eve parties became ritual.

“It’s a Christmas Eve party for the Jews,” my mother explained, “because, you know, they have nowhere to go on Christmas Eve.”

Christmas Eve Party, circa 2004 (?)

My aunt and mother at the Christmas Eve Party, circa 2004 (?)

 

My daughter and my nephews at the Christmas Eve party, December 2008

My daughter and my nephews, coaxed into formal wear, at the Christmas Eve party, 2008

 

My husband and son on Christmas Eve, 2010

My husband and son at the Christmas Eve party, 2010

***

In the final minutes before the start of the last Christmas Eve Party for the Jews that my father will ever attend, I am standing in the den of my parents’ house, having a conversation I can’t recall with a person whose face I can’t quite bring into focus. But it has to be my sister-in-law I’m talking to, because I’ve gone over this night dozens of times in my mind since and I know where all the other characters are in this particular scene:

My children, coaxed into holiday-themed outfits, are playing with their cousins somewhere—the kitchen, the basement—and trying very hard not to untuck their shirts or muss their hair.

My husband and brother are in the living room, drinking from squat bar glasses, and arguing about Obama and foreign policy.

My mother is in the kitchen, carrying platters of hors d’oeuvres, specially ordered for the night, into the dining room. Several hours later, worried aunts and cousins and family friends, anxious for a way to be helpful, will pack up all these uneaten platters of food– I only remember the spring rolls, sliced at a diagonal, arrayed on a tray fringed with thin-cut carrots– into Tupperware and Ziploc bags, stacking them in neat columns in the fridge. Three days later we will throw it all away with little ceremony.

The final character in this scene, my father, clean-shaven and dressed by my mother in a red sweater and pressed pants, is shuffling slowly along the perimeter of the dining room table, eating the hors d’oeuvres as quickly as my mother lays them out. He selects a spring roll, and places the whole thing in his mouth. My mother yells, “Did you just stick that whole thing in your mouth?” She sounds amused and annoyed.

When I look back on this night, I will call this particular scene “The Establishment of Normality.”

***

My mother is a wreck because a rabbi from a synagogue that is not our own, a far more Jewish synagogue, will be coming to our house later that night to counsel our family about my father’s funeral and, to my mother’s horror, our Christmas decorations are still up.

The rabbi from our own, less Jewish synagogue is vacationing in Florida for Christmas, which is a great time for rabbis to take their vacations, but which is highly inconvenient when your Jewish father chokes to death during his own Christmas Eve Party.

“I just don’t see why I have to pack up all the decorations today,” I ask, not as gently as I meant to.

“I’m going to have the rabbi here from Chisuk Emuna and you want me to have this tree up like I’m The Shiksa Wife?”

My mother will not embarrass my father this way, with her Christmas trees and holly wreaths, in front of this new rabbi. And so I crouch down on the terra cotta carpet and begin to carefully wrap each Christmas ornament as I remove them from the tree.

A few hours later we will go to the hospital and end my father’s life.

***

But I’m skipping ahead, past the worst part.  Let’s go back to the final minutes before the start of my father’s last Christmas Eve Party. It’s December 24th, 2011. I’m still in the den, talking with someone who is surely my sister-in-law, and everyone else is exactly where I said they were—in the living room with squat glasses, in the basement in Christmas sweaters, in the kitchen with platters, in the dining room with the spring rolls, like a game of Clue. 

Then.

I can hear that something’s wrong before I see it: the sounds of legs moving quickly, of gravity reclaiming bodies, of my mother on the cusp of a scream. It is all happening in the dining room.

But how did I get to the dining room? Did I run or did I walk? I don’t know. I’m just there watching my husband drape my father’s large frame over one of my mother’s carved mahogany chairs, the ones she bought just after she and my father moved into the two-story Tudor where my brother and I were born. We are in a different house now and in this house, the two-story Spanish colonial that sits empty now, my brother is assisting my husband. They are trying to perform the Heimlich maneuver on my father.

But my father is large and his body becomes a rag doll, sliding to the carpet, which is terra cotta-colored and stain resistant. My mother is yelling, I think. I’m pretty sure I’m not saying anything, but I might be yelling too.

What’s next, what’s next? Cut to a close up of my father’s eyes, which are wide and wild. Now cut from my father’s eyes to me, looking worried, and then to my brother, and then my husband. I don’t know where my mother is, she is off-screen for now. But I can hear her: “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God.” Cut to me running into the kitchen to call 9-1-1.

The person who picks up the 9-1-1 call is a woman, or possibly a man. The person on the phone tells me what to tell my brother and my husband. I tell my brother and my husband, “Put your hand inside his mouth and see if there’s any debris in his throat,” and I am surprised when my brother complies. Seconds later, my father bites down hard and my brother swears. I can tell he feels bad for swearing. His hand is bleeding and now it’s important that the terra cotta carpet is stain resistant.

The person on the phone, who could be a man or a woman, is patient and I’m trying to be patient too. But out of the corner of my eye I see my son, who is not yet two, stumbling around in his Christmas sweater, only without his pants. Where are his pants, I think. Someone needs to change his diaper, when did I last change his diaper? And I try hard to remember. But then I also remember that I am still on the phone with a person who is trying to tell me how to tell my husband and my brother how to clear a spring roll from the lungs of a 72-year-old man who is now, officially, no longer breathing.

How long has he not been breathing?

I don’t know if I ask this question out loud, or if I just think it, or if it’s the person on the phone, or my mother, or everyone. Then the doorbell rings because, of course, we are having a Christmas Eve Party for the Jews and it’s now 6:00pm and they’re here. They arrive with bottles of wine and fur coats, and I tell them, without any context, “The ambulance is here!” I don’t stay to see their response.

Ten minutes later, my father is riding alone in the back of the ambulance. They won’t let my mother come. They don’t want to her to see what they will need to do on the way to the hospital.

Our guests are now arriving in pairs and quartets, smelling of high-end perfume and aftershave and the sharp December air. They watch us leave the house, one by one, following the ambulance away from our house and to the E.R. Their mouths are straight lines.

***

I don’t want to be in the room for it. Instead, I sit alone in the lounge, two seats over from the family of six. In the movie version of this moment, I’m watching the family of six with tears welling in my eyes. They are eating McDonald’s and playing Parcheesi, no, Monopoly. They are playing Monopoly. And I am watching them with tears in my eyes, wishing that their smelly fast food wasn’t polluting my grief.

My mother and brother are in the room for it. They are holding my father’s hands, watching as the device that inflates and deflates his lungs like a bellows slows its mechanical motion, as the IV fluids cease their dripping, as the monitors and plugs and the tubing are pulled, soft and glistening, from my father’s mouth and his nose, so that his lips might close and touch once again.

But I’m not there. I’m in the lounge and like my father, I’m holding my breath, waiting. And when a nurse I’ve never met before enters the lounge with a small paper cup of water, I know she is here for me, and she is.

She places a hand on my knee and looks me in the eyes. I think about how nurses are so much better at this than doctors are, and I wonder why that’s the case. Then she says to me, “Ms. Klein?” with her eyebrows raised, as if I might be someone other than the daughter of the man who has just died.

“You can come in the room now,” she tells me.

I follow her out of the lounge and the family of six does not notice my coming or my going. I will not be a part of the story they will later tell themselves about this December. They are still holding their breath.

My father in 1992

My father in 1992

About the author

Amanda Ann Klein is co-editor of Tell Us A Story and Associate Professor of film studies in the English Department at East Carolina University. Her fiction has been published by Word Riot, The Rumpus, The Fat City Review and Geeked Magazine.  Her scholarship on media and culture has been published by The New Yorker, Salon, Avidly and numerous academic journals and anthologies. You can read her other blog here.