Parking Garage Late at Night

By Valerie Maloof

image credit: slog.thestranger.com

image credit:
slog.thestranger.com

A man grabs you by the waist. You don’t know this man. He pushes you against your car, and then it’s your turn. All your years of taking self-defense classes and watching Charlie’s Angels was to prepare you for this moment. You are ready.

Your mother always knew this moment would come. Every time she talked about life she talked about the bad parts. During a thunderstorm she strapped your hot pink Velcro sneakers on so tightly, so that if lighting struck the house you could run to safety from your burning childhood home. Field trips across state lines were nothing but bus accidents. Steak, pork and ribs were nothing but choking hazards. Men were nothing but people to avoid.

You are going to annihilate this man who has grabbed you. Applause breaks will come out of nowhere. Perhaps in this garage there are security cameras that will capture you smashing your pointy elbow into this man’s face and you’ll be on the evening news. Your keys are already poised between your knuckles because how else should a woman walk through an empty parking garage? You’ll clasp both your hands like a little kid praying and you’ll swing your hands like a baseball bat, you’ll get more momentum than a punch and you’ll also protect your chest. The evening news will have never seen such a swing.

You have grown up to be a very confused adult. Tall buildings could collapse, and what’s really holding those windows in place, don’t get too close to the edge, are thoughts you keep to yourself as they eat you up inside. What kind of Mother are you going to be? Your husband will most likely be wimpy. You just know this to be true. Maybe your kids will revolt by eating uncooked fish or riding with friends in the bed of a pickup truck. Or maybe they’ll do something worse. Something you haven’t thought of yet. And that will scare you the most.

The man’s hands are still on your waist and you are still pinned to your car. That’s why you scream. You scream specific directions for him to get off you, for him to leave you alone, for him to go away, and you almost consider begging and saying please, but you don’t, and then you pant loudly while you flail your limbs like there is something crawling all over your skin and you can’t get it off you unless you flail and scream and maybe even beg.

About the author

Valerie Maloof graduated from Emerson College with a BFA in Creative Writing. She is also a student of the Grub Street writing class.

This is NOT Another Dead Cat Story

The story of Orangie was another favorite of ours for the 2015-6 year. Jen Stiff’s story is one of resilience, hope, and a cat with more lives than his human counterparts. Enjoy. . .

by Jen Stiff

Orangie lounging in the sink

Baby Orangie lounging in the sink

When my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 1997, my older brother Ryan brought home a cat for her. We were devastated, and desperate for a distraction from the daily routine of chemotherapy, doctor visits, and the heartache that comes from knowing you’re about to lose your favorite person in the whole world. We knew that bringing my mom flowers or her favorite burrito from El Pollo Loco just wasn’t going to cut it. We had to do something BIG, and in our young adult minds, a kitten was just the answer.

We knew that our mom loved nothing more than cute, cuddly, boy kitties (she thought girl cats were stuck up bitches). Though my dad detested cats, he let him stay. He would’ve done anything to bring even a sliver of joy into my mom’s life. Plus my brother and I promised to take care of the cat full time. To prove it, Ryan and I took our mom’s new kitten to the vet for shots. “What’s the cat’s name?” asked the receptionist. “Oh, we’re not naming him.” I said. “Well, your cat can’t just NOT have a name. Obviously I need to write something down in his chart.”

“Fine,” I said. “Since he’s orange, just write that.”

The truth is, we’d intentionally avoided naming the cat, because our family’s cats had a long history of disappearing after six months. We figured if we named him, we’d get attached, and we didn’t want to lose anything else we loved. Every time we lost a cat, our mom sat us down and lovingly reminded us that boy cats needed to sow their oats. “The cat just moved up the street to be special friends with the neighbor’s new girl cat. I’m sure he has a really great life there!” This explanation worked until we were in high school, when we finally took note of that vast canyon behind our house…the one filled with coyotes and mountain lions.

Nope. Not a mountain lion. . .just Orangie in a tree

Nope. Not a mountain lion. . .just Orangie in a tree

***************************************

I’ll never forget the first time Orangie died. And then came back to life. It all started my junior year in college, late one night when I was home visiting my family for the weekend. There I was, sitting on the living room couch with my roommate, Angela, trying to figure out how to score some wine coolers, when I glanced over at the footstool and noticed that Orangie was rolled over on his back with all four legs sticking straight up into the air, eyes rolled back in his head…stiff as a board. Angela, being a third year biology major, knew exactly what to do.  She calmly kneeled down beside Orangie and pretended to check his heartbeat and listen to his breathing, but we both knew she was full of it. No response. Me, being the communications major, had a better idea. “Oh fuck!” I said. “We should really call someone.”

Though we didn’t know how to conduct a thorough medical examination on a cat, we were sure Orangie was dead. I was also pretty sure this was somehow my fault, because when you’re 18 years old and your mother constantly reminds you that your brain hasn’t fully formed yet, you’re bound to make lots of mistakes…like forgetting to clean the litter box, feed the cat, and leave the toilet seat up so he could find water.

After wrapping Orangie in a fleece blanket (because I know enough about dead things to know they get cold) we frantically jumped into the car with our lifeless kitty and sped away to the local animal ER. All I could think was, “My mom is gonna be SO mad at me!!” This was the first cat we’d had who’d hump blankets on the area rug during family movie nights, who enjoyed floating in the pool on a boogie board, and who cuddled on purpose. My mom, being rather eccentric herself, adored Orangie for his quirks.

It was 1997, before normal people had cell phones, so I couldn’t even call my mom to ask her what to do. But I had left her a note on the kitchen counter, like any responsible daughter would do, and told her the cat had died and that we drove him to the vet to get a check-up.  As I screeched into the animal ER parking lot, I expected trained medical personnel to run outside, rip Orangie from my arms, and calmly tell me everything was going to be ok, because that’s what happened to dead humans on that show that was popular at the time. But instead, we ran inside to find a bored receptionist, glaring at us over her trashy magazine. Clearly we had interrupted something. “What’s your pet emergency?” she asked sarcastically, looking at the undead kitty in my arms. You see, the minute we walked through that door, Orangie rolled over in my arms, meowed nonchalantly, and started giving himself a facial with his little pink paw. What the fuck? Angela and I looked at each other, shocked. The irritated receptionist didn’t believe me when I told her Orangie was, in fact, dead, just moments ago, but she also didn’t hesitate to “…bring him back to check his vitals,” either. This was just the first of Orangie’s fake little feline death games.

****************************

The second time Orangie died happened when Ryan ran him over with his white Honda CRX. Ryan was returning home from community college one afternoon and failed to see Orangie sprawled out in the driveway, sunning himself, oblivious to the world. As Ryan drove his car up the driveway and into the garage, he heard an excruciating shriek and felt a thud under his tire. Ryan got out of the car, horrified, to find Orangie lying in the driveway, lifeless. “Mooooooom!!!” Ryan screamed like a little girl… “I just ran over Orangie!!” My mom and I ran outside, panic stricken, expecting to find a bloody mess of a cat. Instead we found an intact Orangie, slowly beginning to wag his tail and stretch his arms and legs out like he was just coming off of his afternoon nap. What the hell? We looked at each other in disbelief. Orangie stood up, looked at us condescendingly, and sauntered off into the backyard, not a care in the world.

For a few months Orangie didn’t die at all. We kept expecting something to happen to him, especially because he liked to tempt fate and stay outside all night cavorting with the creatures of the canyon. And sure enough, we were woken up one night by the screeching of a cat fight. My dad peered out of his bedroom window into the backyard and saw Orangie fighting with a “small mountain lion.” I still don’t know if I believe my dad’s description of the perpetrator, but Orangie definitely fought another creature, and it surely wasn’t another domestic shorthair. He was beat up and bloody, with tufts of fur missing from his little body. But he didn’t give a shit. He licked his wounds and walked it off.

*******************************
 Our amazing mom died in 1998. We all wished that she had 9 lives but she didn’t. She made us kids promise to look after Orangie for the rest of his life, which, she was sure, would be short. “Don’t worry, mom. We’ll take good care of Orangie. He’s going to live forever!” I reassured her. Orangie bounced around from apartment to apartment as we settled into our adult lives, until he finally moved to Seattle with my brother in 2007, where he fit right in with people who always kind of want to die.

My brother called me a couple of months ago to tell me a really funny story. My 5-year-old niece, Annabelle, had decided to play dress up with Orangie the night before. Annabelle, not being one to neglect accessories, gave Orangie a “beautiful necklace” to wear. When Annabelle ran up to my brother and tugged at his hand, saying in her sweet little Minnie Mouse voice, “Daddy, Orangie is sleeping funny…,” Ryan suspected shenanigans were underfoot. He found Orangie, lifeless, under Annabelle’s bed, with a very tight rubber band (I mean, beautiful necklace) wrapped around his neck. Ryan removed the rubber band, patted Orangie on the back, and wouldn’t you know it,  Orangie sauntered off into the living room, not a care in the world.

OrangieOld man Orangie still not giving a shit

About the author

Jen Stiff lives in San Diego with her mountain man of a husband and the world’s two most adorable creatures – pugs named Frankie & Beans. She just recently figured out she likes to write, even though she’s technically old enough to be a grandmother. She spends her free time writing for a local animal rescue, traveling, and beating everyone else at yoga.

A woman and her dogs

by Kate Feld

I am sitting in the cafe by the cathedral. I am at the little table in the window where I always sit, looking out. A woman approaches, walking down the paving stones from Cathedral Gardens towards Blackfriars. She is striding along with two enormous dogs trotting beside her. One on the right side. One on the left side. Flanking her. In perfect formation.

These dogs are huge, powerful beasts. They are white with black spots, but they are not Dalmatians. No. They’re much bigger. They have red collars around their thick necks. They are not on leads. There is a sign but she doesn’t care. She is walking through the public spaces of the city with enormous, threatening dogs who are not on leads.

I look closely at the woman. She isn’t young, she isn’t old. She’s wearing glasses and her long brown hair blows behind her, blown back by the force of her passing. Her clothes are stylish and unconsidered at the same time.

She pauses in her step and dogs pause with her. She doesn’t need to lay a hand on a dog’s back. They know.

But there is something about her face.

You look at this woman and you understand at once that she has no intention of putting her dogs on leads. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.

I stand up so fast that I knock over my chair. The crockery clinks and the ladies at the next table look up in alarm. “I love you” I say, to the woman and her dogs. I say it too loud, for these ladies and this café. I watch her until she and the dogs have rounded the corner. Then I pick up my chair and sit down.

 

About the Author

Kate Feld is a writer of essays and short fiction whose work has appeared in Neon, Caught by the River and is forthcoming from Litro. She runs creative nonfiction journal and reading series The Real Story in Manchester, UK, where she also works for Manchester Literature Festival and teaches journalism at Salford University.

Dia de los Muertos

by Sharon H. Smith

©WakelyOaxaca11501

Photo Credit: David Wakely

Lupe kneels on the cool red-tiled patio floor

loosening orange petals, divining

a journey of flowers out her door, out of

her courtyard, out the front gate.

Debemos de guiara los espíritus.

The air warm, pungent. Smoke lingering

from last night’s mesquite fire. Lupe,

her husband, and their two young girls erect

an altar: marigolds, magenta cockscombs, bowl

of papaya and mango. Shelves with lit candles,

photographs, abuelitos, amigos. The children

line up small sugar skulls that sit like soldiers’

helmets, glistening with hallowed eyes

in the candlelight. Lupe

sets out a bowl of rich chocolate mole

made for the spirits, a glass

of water to quench their thirst. In my hands,

a silver-framed picture of my mother

dressed in her 40’s fitted blouse,

mid-calf length skirt and pumps. “Aquí,

ponla aquí,” Lupe says, opening up

a space on the altar. I hold the photo tight

for a moment, then set it in the place generously

made for her and me. I look up at her there

in the community of beautiful Oaxacan

faces. Light glints like a firefly

off the frame.

 

©WakelyOaxaca11502

Photo Credit: David Wakely

 

About the Author:

Sharon H. Smith is curious, seeks out new experiences, and has a drive to share them. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and frequent collaborator, architectural photographer David Wakely. She is a writer/poet and also savors the city restaurant scene and enjoys cooking, traveling, drawing and co-leading writing retreats at her weekend home in West Sonoma County. She co-edits Birdland Journal, featuring pieces written by retreat participants. Her poetry has been published by Haunted Waters Press, gravelmag.com, Laguna Writers of San Francisco, and Juddhill.com.

It’s our first flash non-fiction week of 2016!

Laurence

by Kerry Graham

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Fingers frigid, I retreated to my car, vowing to photograph more street art later. Just as my ignition awoke, you parked willy-nilly in front of me, then shuffled to the building on the corner. Even your cap, navy, had not faded.

Scurrying from behind, eager to surprise, I startled you–vindication for the pranks you loved to play. Later, I texted my glee in seeing you again. “Me too my holiday treat,” you replied.

When I saw you next, at your wake, I forgot where I was, and why. For an instant, I nearly darted to your casket, grinning, eager to surprise.

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These images depict the street art the author was photographing the last time she saw Laurence.

******************************************

Two Coats

by Maxine Kollar

Photo credit: Zachary Kollar

Photo credit: Zachary Kollar

I can still see two giant coats on the ground out in the sun. We circled them like alien bodies at a crash site, only barely comprehending.

When I was five years old, I had to join my parents in America. I was living in Jamaica with my sister and an Aunt and Uncle. My parents had gone to America years ago to find jobs and establish households for us. By the time they were ready for us, I didn’t really remember them. All I knew was that I was leaving everything and everyone I ever knew.

What you are leaving behind is one thing, you know all of it. What you are heading towards is a whole other thing. With no internet, not even a phone, we had no idea what America was really like. But there were rumors. Someone’s cousin had said that in America you can’t go outside. A friend of a friend had told someone that people don’t greet each other on the street, they just walk right by you; this was considered a great offense in Jamaica. I’m sure there were other rumors that I didn’t hear about, being five years old.

There must have been a hundred details that went into sending two little girls to a new country but all I remember are the coats. They arrived one day, and that was when going to America became real for me. I don’t understand why they were sent. It was November but wouldn’t it have been easier for our parents to meet us at the airport with them? Maybe it was a way to ease us into the idea of America. Growing up on a tropical island, the only notion you have of cold is the shaved ice they pour syrup on.

We put on the coats on cried. We circled New York at night and watched lights down below. I don’t remember anything about the arrival or the first days but I remember the cold. I remember looking at the bare trees and feeling the icy wind and thinking, this can’t last. Surely we would all go back to Jamaica at some point soon. There was no need to be upset. Surely America, with its frigid temperature would be deemed unfit for human habitation. And the bulky, shuffling denizens; they were truly the huddled masses, not kids running free on islands. Everyone would just stand up one day and leave for warmer climates and a better life. I was sure of it.

 

About the Authors

Maxine Kollar lives in California with her spouse and three children. Currently, she substitute teaches while raising her family. She has recently published work in Specklit Magazine.

Kerry Graham lives, teaches, writes, runs, and photographs in Baltimore, MD. Her work has appeared in The Blue Hour, The Three Quarter Review, Spry, elephant journal, and 20 Something Magazine

The Old Man and the Santa Sprint

The author at the finish line with his Santa Sprint medal

The author at the finish line with his Santa Sprint medal

 

It was the first Saturday in December and the annual Santa Sprint, a 5K run to benefit a local ministry. The Olympic Trials it was not. It was a fun-run. It was a fun run – people dressed in red and green, wore festive caps, jingle bells, some brought their dogs nattily attired in plaid sweaters, and dashed, or strolled, down Frankfort Avenue and back before the road was reopened to traffic to release the barrage of Christmas shoppers.

I had run this race before. It was a holiday tradition for me. But unlike the guy who was doing high knee kicks before the start in only a singlet and teeny-tiny shorts despite temperatures hovering around freezing and a threat of snow, I had no aspirations for a podium finish. I was merely out for an easy run, and to maybe do some Christmas shopping myself afterwards.

The race went off as scheduled, sort of, at nine-ish, and after weaving through flocks of hyperactive youngsters bursting forth in every direction, and harried parents pushing oversized strollers, and groups of walkers three or four wide, I settled into a comfortable pace and proceeded on past coffee shops and boutiques and that one bakery that had the flaky croissants.

About fifty yards from the finish line, as the course veered into the middle school parking lot where we had begun, I heard heavy breathing behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and there was a young girl, not older than thirteen I would later learn, quickly gaining ground. I had a niece about her age just getting into running whom I encouraged to keep at it. I immediately got the brilliant idea to do the same for this girl, to ease up and allow her the satisfaction of passing a seasoned runner like myself. It was, after all, a fun-run, and the holidays. And truth be told, I was about out of steam at that point anyway.

As we approached the turn, I noticed a woman up ahead, standing off to the side, hollering and carrying on more than anyone else among the scattering of frigid spectators, no doubt the girl’s mother. Perfect, I thought, my opportunity to do an especially good deed by allowing her to watch her daughter outdistance me, and I would really play it up, feign to struggle to hold my position.

We got nearer to the woman, and her exuberance peaked to a crescendo. She began gesticulating wildly, her entire body shaking, her voice shrill and blaring. “Go on, so-and-so,” she yelled out to the girl, whose name I didn’t catch as I was not paying particular attention to what the woman was saying, not until she completed her sentence, “you can beat this old man!”

Wait, what? What was that? What did she say? Everything about me – my pride, my ego, my sense of worth – deflated like a Mylar balloon squashed by Santa’s sleigh. Had she just called me an old man? I did a double take to check if someone else had come upon us, some legitimately old man, perhaps Jolly Old Saint Nick himself. But it was still only me and the girl. Granted, among the participants – lots of children, and high school- and college-age kids, not to mention the babies in strollers – I skewed toward the adult end of the scale, yet I was by no means an old man.

I stared at the woman, directly, intently, for any indication, no matter how subtle, that her comment had been in jest, a joke that had fallen terribly flat, for some hint of irony, a twinkle in her eyes, an upturn to her mouth, a grin, a dimple. Something, anything. I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. It was the blasted holidays after all, and the Santa Sprint for heaven’s sake. But nothing. She meant it, she obviously meant it. That woman had just called me an old man – and she meant it.

Before I responded, and I had a few zingers, I caught myself, remembering that there was a young girl running next to me, and doing her best, and this was her mom – no matter how impolite. I resolved to take the high road, and simply said, incredulous, “Really?” which made the brash expression on the woman’s face drain blank, and offered her a terse “Merry Christmas.” She repeated “Merry Christmas” back to me, sheepishly, devoid of her prior vitriol, and I could tell that in her Grinch-size heart she felt slightly not right with what she had said about me. Nonetheless, undaunted, she continued to root on her daughter, “Looking good, honey, keep going!” – to which I replied, “Thanks.”

What followed was not my finest moment, but I had to do what I had to do or be eternally instilled with the moniker of “old man,” and what I did was to abandon any noble notion of letting this girl pass me in front of her insufferable mother. I instead shifted into another gear, and in the true name of the race, I sprinted away, running as hard and as fast as I could. I ran like there was no tomorrow. I ran like my life depended on it, like I was being pursued by a pack of rabid reindeer. I ran with everything I had left, ignoring the pleas from my body to take it easy and coast in since it was, after all, just a fun-run.

I ran with the will and the desire and the singular determination to not allow this girl to beat me, to not even come anywhere close to beating me. And she didn’t. Not only did I soundly leave her in my wake, I sped by several other runners I had theretofore been content with allowing to finish ahead of me, the timing clock proclaiming in bright red numbers that I had shattered all of my previous 5K records. I could not say that I was entirely pleased with myself for my convincing defeat of that young girl down the homestretch of the annual Santa Sprint – but I was.

At the awards ceremony, the girl came in first in the girls’ thirteen-and-under division, while I placed third in the men’s 40-49 age group. It was a win for both of us. It was a win for old men everywhere. And the tin Santa Clause medal I received for my efforts would forever be a fixture on my Christmas tree.

 

 

About the Author:

Peter Stavros earned a BA in English from Duke University, and studied creative writing on a graduate level at Emerson College and Harvard University. His work has appeared in The Courier-Journal, Literary LEO, Hippocampus Magazine, Fiction Southeast and Juked, among others. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife.

True Story: Selective Mutism has my Daughter’s Face

by Allyson Wuerth

 

painting by Coral Staley

Sawyer by Coral Staley

 

She came into this world silently, too. We held our breaths and waited for the sharp cry that came only after doctors intervened. Her lungs pulling in air and screaming only when her life absolutely depended on it. Such a birth was meant to foreshadow the way we came to know this girl.

IMG_0096

Newborn day

As she grew, we noticed that she wouldn’t speak outside our home. At all. She’d freeze, attach herself to our legs and whimper. Coupled with, what people came to call, her “shyness” were articulation problems that went beyond that of an average 2.5 year old. She had a language of her own, and my family and I became translators of a stony language. “Mem” she would say, when she meant “friend.” Her brother Tristan she would call “Chichin.” “B”s and “D”s, “M”s and “F”s, “K”s and “T”s, “L”s and “W”s all whirled around inside her head and settled into the wrong words. Family and friends convinced us this was the problem. She had the voice but not the language, the desire but not the words. The pediatrician said she was literally tongue-tied, so we scheduled the procedure to have her frenulum clipped. When the words still did not come, the doctor suggested that we get her ears checked. But when she would not acknowledge the sounds provoked by the audiologist, he pronounced her “too young.” “Come back in another year,” he said.

Her silence was under my skin, in my blood. Hadn’t our hearts beat together for nine months? Hadn’t she grown inside me, shifting her weight against my ribs? Hadn’t her heartbeat been enough to assure me of the room she would need in this world? The space she would fill? I felt her silence as a betrayal. But by whom? Of whom?

Photo credit: Kelly Kirkland

Sawyer and her brother

Our pediatrician was hesitant to recommend therapy—firmly stating that Sawyer was too young to be expected to communicate with strange adults. I wanted badly to agree, to believe that with time my tiny girl would smile at people and tell them her name when she was asked it. That she would volunteer stories or hold hands with little girls on the playground. But she’d never even spoken to my grandmother. My grandmother’s declaration still hangs over me, “She just don’t like me, doll.” There was no arguing. For my grandmother, this was just the way it was with Sawyer.

Then, after nearly a full year of pre-school, the words of Miss Mandy, Sawyer’s pre-school teacher, urged me to push harder, “We’ve never even heard her speak.” I was imploding. Really? No words? Never? As in not EVER? Miss Mandy added, as if we were two ladies gabbing over tea, “Yeah, we keep saying we wish some of these other kids were as quiet! Think of the self-restraint a 3 ½ year old must have to not speak all day!”

I called the pediatrician that evening, “I think my daughter has selective mutism.”   I spit the words out and let them sizzle between us. And her own silence told me that she–like so many doctors, teachers, therapists, I’ve spoken to since—had no clue what I was talking about.

Stages of Sawyer. . .

This photo burst–emblematic of Sawyer’s ongoing journey to find her voice…

Selective mutism. I first heard those words, all hushed and breathy sounding at a holiday cookie swap in 2011. The conversation caught my attention—some silent girl–a girl whose mother also affirmed, “She’s a chatterbox at home, I swear!”  This one a little older than my two and a half year old. Somebody mentioned a child psychologist. Another the diagnosis. I listened closer. This girl sounded so much like mine. Mine too looked through strangers and family as if they were ghosts. Mine too chatted happily in our house only to go out into the world pale and blank. I kept those two words–selective mutism– within me for another year before I unpacked them, left them at the ear of the pediatrician. Like the girl’s mother from the conversation I overheard, I too knew the difference between shyness and the eeriness of a silence that ran much deeper.

To make myself understand my girl, I had to go back to 1984 where I am walking up Davis Rd. with some neighborhood boy. He has an idea: let’s throw acorns at cars. Even though his face is too blurry to name him, his words are clear as if they were spoken only yesterday. Let’s. Throw. Acorns. At. Cars. The first two cars don’t stop. The third does. A man gets out. He has shoulder length feathered brown hair. His eyes are invisible. The neighborhood boy yells for me to run. He himself disappears into the fir trees between two raised ranches. But I am frozen. I try to scream, but no words come out. No part of me is willing to move. The man chases the neighbor boy through the trees, walks back to his car, and drives off. And there I am. Still.

Thirty years later, this moment is etched into my heart and it has the ability to change my heart’s rhythm and stumble into its beats. Why didn’t I run? Scream? Even at six, I wondered if I would ever be able to defend myself. Why had my own body betrayed me when I needed it most? As the car drove off, slowly my limbs unfettered themselves. The first few steps I took were numb, heavy, and frustrating. I wore black patent leather Mary Janes, but the feet inside them didn’t seem my own. It was the first time I remember being conscious of my own consciousness. And from that day I decided three things would always be true:

  1. Somewhere in the world there was a better version of me.
  2. Somewhere in the world there was an evil version of me.
  3. One of us wasn’t real.
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Not sure which version of me this is…

When you imagine a body wired this way, silence becomes palpable—and your body is a whisper that almost no one can hear.

For the next two years we spent our Thursday afternoons in Dr. Schiller’s small New Haven office filled with Playmobil toys from the 70s, baby dolls, play-doh, and an old wooden doll house. At first it was the three of us—me, the collector of her whispers. Later, I sat in the waiting area and Dr. Schiller and Sawyer negotiated this tricky path of communication together.

 

Later, in my bedroom we sit like old ladies folding laundry on my bed. I ask her if it’s okay for me to ask her a few questions. “About what?” She asks.

“Your talking,” I say. She looks at me uncomfortably and says okay.

And it is uncomfortable, this interview between my daughter and me. She is shifty and covers her face with a pillow. She tells me that talking to her teacher is scary, that sometimes she knows the answer but it’s too scary to say it. “What’s so scary?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Just talking.”

“Is it scary to talk to mommy?”

“No.”

“Daddy?”

“No.”

“Tristan?”

Again her answer is, “no.” I ask her about friends and classmates. She tells me sometimes it is scary to talk to them, but not mostly. I ask about Alexa, her close friend from class.

“No. It’s not scary to talk to her.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because she’s quiet…like me.”
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And so, we will navigate this silence as one, she and I.

Six years after my daughter’s birth, I sit with her after kindergarten graduation. Her classmates are busy about the room, carrying small plates of grapes and brownies. They squeal, the girls in their frill. But mine sits in her chair, mute. Stone-faced. She pulls me down beside her and whispers in my ear, “snack.”

“Let’s go together,” I say back. She shakes her head. So I collect brownies, grapes, a cup of juice. I hand them to her and she tells me she is tired. She wants to go home from this party she’s been looking forward to for the last few weeks. And so, we gather her things: the papery blue graduation cap, the brightly painted art, her backpack—these final bits of a school year. I say goodbye for her: “Sawyer hopes you have a great summer!” “Sawyer really liked the grapes you brought.” I’d be lying if I said this didn’t unhinge me, this speaking up for a girl perfectly capable of speaking for herself. What must that be like—hearing your own voice filtered through your mother’s body?

But none of it matters. Every day I learn new strategies to help her communicate, to mitigate her social anxiety.

Along with this truth, she’s left kindergarten forever.

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About the Author:

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The author and her daughter

Allyson Wuerth is a co-editor of Tell Us a Story. She is a mom, a wife, a high school English teacher, and a writer. She has published poetry in several literary magazines, and has poetry forthcoming in the anthology, Verse Envisioned: Poems from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Works of Art They Have Inspired. You can read her other two blog posts, The True Story of Why I Hate Math , Two Years and 20 Miles from Sandy Hook, and What we Miss Most by clicking these links.

A Few Seconds

by Ron Burch

The first time it happened it was your fault. You had been at a summer party that night and got carried away with a bottle of Jack until it carried you away. You don’t remember staggering sideways to your truck but you did and you drove home or at least towards home.

When everything shuddered, you awoke. There was a semi-truck with its blinking brake lights and your blue Chevy wedged under it. Through slitted eyes, you saw in your blue cab broken glass and blood. To a man screaming at you. Then the flashing reds of a cop car.

You stumbled from your door and fell and the cop ordered you to stay down. You tried to stand anyway. Don’t fucking get up, he said. You thought he was wearing sunglasses but that couldn’t be right because it was still dark outside. You said something to him and even you knew it was gibberish. Don’t fucking move, he said and crossed over to the older man with the gray beard and red flannel shirt standing next to his semi.

You surveyed your truck and noticed how the front was compacted, bent and jagged-sharded like you sharpened it in your sleep. You noticed blood soaking your jeans and you knew it was your blood and you were disappointed that you had ruined your new jeans. That blood would never wash out.

The cop told you that you were lucky to live. That you bounced off the front tire of the semi and that a second or two later you would have driven under the trailer, which would not have left any room for your head. Woulda killed you straight out, he said. He was bent at the knees, his left hand holding onto your flat truck tire, twisted because of the bent axle, for support as he talked to you as you sat there with your back against your truck door or what was left of it. The ambulance is coming, he said.

None of this was making much sense to you and you threw up a brutal puddle of dark liquid on yourself. The cop stood up, the lights of his car still flashing like they were calling your name. The cop shook his head and said, Boy, you just fucked yourself. And he was right.

The second time it happened it was a few years later. You were driving the same truck. The insurance company hadn’t totaled it. This time you were on a two-lane road coming home from a work party. After the restaurant closed, the head chef had made dinner, mushroom risotto and salmon, for the staff, serving the perfect bottles of wine to go with the meal while you all talked about your lives and where they were going. For most of the ride home, you didn’t see another car on the road. But almost getting there you found headlights coming at you. You thought it was maybe the curve of the road since you didn’t know this way too well but then you realized, almost too late, that the oncoming car was in your lane. This time you didn’t pass out. You sat there, breathless, hands strangling the steering wheel, glass and metal exploding in slow motion around you, the truck spinning and spinning and spinning until you ended up sideways in a roadside ditch. Broken glass, blood, you’d been there before. The other car, it was orange and black, kept going. Don’t know how but it did.

The cop who arrived on the scene carried you out of your truck and sat you on the side of the road. Besides being banged up, you were okay. His radio kicked up. They’d found the other car. It didn’t make it too far down the road. The driver was drunk but still alive. Later, before the court appearance, you found out that the driver had fled the country.

The cop looked at your truck and said another few seconds and the other car would’ve hit you head on, you’d be dead.

You started laughing. He didn’t understand why but you did. He checked to see if you were sober. You were because you had lived through a few seconds before.

 

The author and his broken face.

The author and his broken face.

 

About the author:

Ron Burch’s short stories have been published  in Mississippi Review, Cheap Pop, Pank and others. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart, and his first novel “Bliss Inc.” was published by BlazeVOX Books. He’s currently working on his MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. Please visit:  www.ronburch.com.

Bittersweet Fantasy at Sweet Lou’s Cafe

By Judith Alvarado

 

Sweet Lou's

A dimly lit, cavernous café/bar located close to campus, Sweet Lou’s was best known for its happy hour special: a large pepperoni pizza and a liter carafe of murky Chianti for $10.00. The first time I heard of the cafe was when my professor suggested that we meet there instead of his office to discuss my thesis; life changed forever when I agreed to meet him at Sweet Lou’s on a balmy, Indian summer night.

Pulling into the café’s parking lot that day, my mind drifted away from the present, away from the rendezvous I’d agreed to; away from fretting over what might happen after sitting, outer thighs pressed together, sipping cheap red wine while examining passages of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; away from Sweet Lou’s and the man who waited for me inside.

I was a faithful wife. Very. 17 years faithful. I had never strayed from my marriage. Oh, I fantasized about it, what an active sex life I had while my well-intentioned, emotionally distant husband snored next to me in our vast king-sized bed. Affairs were plenty as I lay next to him. Trips to Rome with the hot construction guy, building the deck on my neighbor’s house. He and I making out next to the Trevi Fountain on a humid summer day, hands roaming over each other’s tan, salty bodies. Secret trysts with the muscular Whole Foods produce man, doing it pressed up against a massive, stainless steel refrigerator in the back of the store. I even fantasized about men I had never met: a billboard ad boasted a hot male model with a smoldering stare—oh, the adventures one can have with a one dimensional person. I had an active imaginary sex life to counter the very real stale one in my bed. It was safe, only I knew about my fictional indiscretions. But to actually cheat, shifting the act from the world of fantasy into the real world, would change everything.

I knew the literal rendezvous would send tremors through my life, an earthquake of the highest magnitude, and that’s what I was thinking as I labored to push open the imposing wooden door to Sweet Lou’s Cafe. I exhaled, hard, put both hands on the recalcitrant door and thrust it open. Wide.

Round tables of different heights and diameters, covered in vinyl red and white checkered tablecloths were arranged in no particular order on top of a dark-stained wooden, plank floor. The tables sat in front of a long oaken bar that accommodated more than 25 barstools, and multiple dormant pool tables hungry for attention were on the bar’s left side. Three muted TVs tuned to various ESPN channels were spaced equally apart, mounted above rows of expectant, liquor bottles, patiently waiting to be tipped over icy, stainless steel shakers. And, an old fashioned, chrome jukebox like the one Danny Zucco from Grease leaned on as he chatted up Sandy, played The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

As I walked over the threshold, I spied him, his back to the room, sitting on a stool, both elbows propped on the bar, sipping a half-full glass of Chianti. I thought, I must appear nonchalant. Must conceal my trepidation. I spied my reflection in a smudged, long mirror with the Sweet Lou’s logo on it. I looked good, sexy. My short, silky skirt and thigh-high leather boots were perfect for this meeting. The multiple wardrobe changes were worth the effort, and I was even wearing a thong. Hands trembling, I reminded myself that I’d rendezvoused hundreds of times in my fantasies. I was always calm, the one in control, looking hot. Staring at his hunched back, I ventured further into the café, channeling my best fantasy self. My heart leapt because as I did so, he turned his head to face the door and me.

Unfortunately, though, my suave entrance was disrupted. Shattered. The heal of my leather boot snagged on a sticky, rubbery doormat, and down I went, head-first. My thunderous thud proved to be serious competition for The Rolling Stones, who I wished would give me what I wanted and get me the hell outta Sweet Lou’s. Adding insult to injury, as I lay face first on the wooden floor, I noticed a draft, a draft revealing that my silky skirt had flipped up high over my ass—I was mooning the room.

Splayed, I reached both hands back readjusting my skirt, while at the same time willing the varnished, dark, wood floor to swallow me up. Something this undignified never happened to me in my fantasies. Maybe he didn’t notice, I thought. He’s an intellectual, absorbed in heady thoughts, ruminating on nascent Marxist elements in 17th Century poetry. But a bold hand appeared in front of my face, his actual hand, not the hand of some imaginary man. A warm, manicured hand that I had to grasp. Grasp, rather than do a rewind in my head to restart a fantasy gone awry. It took me a moment to reach for it, but bracing my body and my fragile ego on his hand, I eventually stumbled to my feet.

As I got my footing, I took in his appearance, and, for the first time since meeting him two years prior, I noticed that he was a little man, and I realized that I didn’t much like him. In fact, I didn’t like him at all, but I knew that I had to have him.

 

About the author:

Judith Alvarado has been published in 101 Words and The Napa Valley Register. Her other newspaper appearance was at age 11: she was the subject for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle when she tried breaking the Guinness Book of World Records pogo stick jumping record.  Although she ended up with bruised legs and no record, she, to this day, fully embraces life’s ups and downs.

Eucalyptus Fears

By Nancy Barnes

The mountains were lovely in the light that followed the dawn. The man who led us along the trail pointed to a giraffe, a calligraphy stroke against the far horizon, then to a herd of bok, much closer, grazing on a hillside. His finger stopped on a reddish brown spot. “Look there,” he said. “That one’s half goat. It was abandoned by the herd when it was a kid so it joined a family of goats at camp. Looks like it’s come back to visit with the bok. ”

The South African teenagers at the camp where I was a counselor had all been affected by HIV/AIDS, many of them orphaned, forced to move from place to place, auntie to cousin to neighbor. I was a white American woman, a college teacher with all the comfort and privilege that suggests. These young people had endured such hardship and loss, almost beyond my imagining.

What did I have to offer them? My assignment at the camp was to teach the kids to swim. I’ve always loved to swim; swimming has gotten me through tough times in my own life. But was that enough? My life was so distant from the lives of the South African campers. I was anxious about the distance between us.

There, in the mountains above Johannesburg, the noonday sun was terrifying. The languages that careened around me at the pool– Xhosa, English, Zulu – left me exhausted. Boys strutted and splashed, shouting to drown out their fears. Thirty campers, one cabin of girls and one of boys, arrived at the tiny pool each hour.

The hour before lunch I was always starving, barely hanging on. I collected mounds of sopping wet towels and hung them to drip on the wooden stakes of the fence that circled the pool. The rusty brown goats that ambled around the cement rim of the pool liked to rub their faces against the towels.

By late afternoon the mountains darkened. All of us, campers and counselors, made our way, single-file, along a dirt path towards a stand of eucalyptus trees beyond the farthest cabin. The eucalyptus were towering mottled trees; they shed a thick, messy carpet of leaves that rustled and crackled underfoot.

Up ahead a dead tree, at least forty feet long, rested in the crotch of a living tree, maybe twelve feet up. The angle was steep. The exposed trunk shone as though polished, gleaming under scabs of bark.

Singing, as ever-present as the mountains, swelled around me. Then the crowd stilled. The camp director began to speak. “You have now entered the panic zone,” he said. “That’s right – the panic zone. For this next activity all of you, not just the children, all of you will walk up that tree. Your fear will teach you the skills you need.”

Huh? The panic zone? All of us? Was he serious? Fear would teach us? I thought I must have misheard him.

The campers couldn’t stand still; they jostled and called out, daring each other to try. A brave young man stepped into the clearing and began to creep up the trunk, his bare feet molded to the bark. My breath caught.

Panic flickered in my throat. I was in my early sixties — there was no way I was going to try that. Wasn’t I old enough to say no? Besides, I stood next to a camp director from the Midwest, a nimble-looking woman in her thirties. Like me, she had come to the camp as a volunteer. “I wouldn’t let my cat walk up that tree trunk ,” she whispered.

I felt myself rooted to the ground. I had never been daunted by the idea of learning something new, or helping others try. Certainly not afraid. Back home, I worked with kids in public high schools in the city and undergraduates at all sorts of institutions. I had experience with the hazards of adolescence, and a special affinity for that age. But rooted there under the eucalyptus, everything felt perilous.

This wasn’t my responsibility, I told myself. The South Africans were not my students. My job at the camp was to teach swimming. Water did not frighten me. I just had to get through the next hour, take some teasing and watch these amazing athletes show off.

Thomas was one of those athletes. He was Zulu, a counselor at nineteen. Tall and skinny and kind, Thomas had a sweet smile. He had been forced to move, alone, into a shack in a township just outside Johannesburg when HIV devastated his family. When he told me his story Thomas stressed how much it had meant to him when he could bring his younger siblings to live with him. His young life had demanded great courage.

One of the first evenings at camp Thomas had noticed that I was awkward and nervous when everyone began to dance. The South Africans seemed to dance as they sang, graceful as floating eucalyptus leaves, from daybreak until bedtime. That night Thomas had pushed through the moving bodies to stand next to me. He knew, somehow, that if I could step with his steps, our hips bumping gently, I would be alright.

Now, Thomas stood behind me in the shadowy grove. “He will love this insane activity,” I thought. This was a man who balanced barefoot on a thin pipe railing outside the dining hall in the first morning light, singing to greet us as we gathered for breakfast.

Through the curtain of trees I could see the figure of the young man edging up the slanted trunk, arms outstretched, teetering, seeming not to breathe as he inched one foot forward, paused, then the other. A group of girls at my side hugged each other tightly. The chanting and goading stilled; low voices encouraged him: “Don’t look down, don’t stop – you’re almost there.” “Beautiful! That’s beautiful!”

Dread settled in my chest. My private fears – being inadequate, losing face in front of the kids — blossomed into fears for them, these teenagers who had already met dangers and borne sorrows almost beyond my ken. I held my breath.

Suddenly a strong dry hand gripped mine. Thomas had stepped to my side, his sneakers silent on the fallen eucalyptus leaves. How did he know I was afraid? How could he know?

I smiled at him. Yelling and screaming erupted as the first climber reached safety and raised his fist in the air. Thomas and I stood still, holding hands.

I smiled again, to thank him.

Thomas did not smile back.

“Nancy,” he said, “I want to climb that tree. I will climb faster than he did. But I don’t know if I can keep walking to get over there.” I felt his arm tremble. “I am so afraid. There might be snakes in this grass, under all these leaves, and spiders.”

“Please don’t let me go,” Thomas said. “I have never been in the forest before.”

 

About the Author:

Nancy Barnes is a cultural anthropologist who has had a long and wonderful teaching career in college and high school, in women’s prisons, and in Burma, Mexico, and South Africa. She has only recently begun to write personal essays. This is her third publication.