Letter from the Editor
This year, the University of Connecticut has 30,525 students enrolled across fourteen schools and colleges, in one hundred and one majors. This provides diversity, endless chances to form new relationships, and the liberty to take a class on nearly any subject. It also means that it’s easy to get lost. It means that, because there’s so much to do and so many opportunities to take advantage of, life goes quickly.
My four years here have passed and—it’s hard to believe, even now—I’m no longer the painfully shy girl who never left her dorm room freshman year. This girl was so intimidated by the pressure of words like “future” and “responsibility” that she broke down in tears during her first advisor meeting. Today, my advisor, Professor Regina Barreca, is indispensable to me. Today, I am strong and confident. College is a process of self-discovery, and it’s certainly been one for me.
The Long River Review is something I feel so grateful to be a part of. It is vital, in my opinion, to any student’s experience of UConn. My relationship with the journal began when I was searching the English Department website, desperate for a way to meet people who love the same things I do. Our school is so large that I often feel it is more difficult to meet people; we get lost in the traffic of dining halls, in and out of classrooms, and in crowds at parties. My attempts to engage people resulted in being surrounded by hoards of others who were just as nervous and unlikely to start up a conversation as I was.
The Long River Review forced me, as it forces everyone who reads it, to slow down. Just for a while. While reading student submissions, I got to know people I had never met before in a way that the obligatory “What year are you, what’s your major?” introduction had never allowed. I’ve fallen in love with the poetry of my peers and been haunted by lines of prose as I drifted off to sleep on my twin xl. One Saturday, I got home from work late; it was after 3 am. My roommate and best friend, Sara, was waiting up for me as she usually does. I sat her down at our dining room table and read her some of the anonymous poems from the stack I had been going through all night. We cried together at the end of a sweet, sad poem about a dog that had been hit by a car. In the end, the poem did not make the final editorial cut. Nonetheless, it remains in my memory, and that night it connected me to an unknown fellow writer I had probably passed in the hallways. In the moment that I read that poem, the author and I knew each other. And as a result of that connection through words on a page, I no longer see strangers the same way.
We’re always ready to write each other off. We all do it. I’m sad to admit I do it all the time. I first meet someone and almost automatically assume that they don’t have anything to say that will be worth the time it takes to sit and listen. The Long River Review is an invitation to listen. It’s a reminder that we are never alone, never lost. We just need to share our stories and read the stories of others.
The Wallace Stevens Poetry Prize
The Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction
The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize
The Aetna Undergraduate Creative Nonfiction Award
The Long River Graduate Writing Award
For the best piece of writing in any genre by a graduate student
Joseph Darda, Fiction
The Long River Art Award
Alan Huck, Photography
Gloriana Gill Art Awards
Jordan Cote, Photography
Jeanne Donegan, Photography
Michelle Penney, Drawing
- Editor in Chief
- Faculty Advisor
- Managing Editor
- Poetry Editor
- Poetry Panel
- Fiction Editor
- Fiction Panel
- Creative Nonfiction Editor
- Nonfiction Panel
Christopher De Marchis
Ryan Lee Gilbert
Amanda Montes de Oca
- Translations Editor
- Interviews Editor
Ryan Lee Gilbert
- Blog Editor
Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest, 1st Prize
Limbo at Christmas
On Christmas Eve, My Daughter Asks About The Manger And I Remember Her Half-Sibling, Dead, Whom She Does Not Know Or Know Is Dead.
“When he [the Emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to kill, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.”
—Macrobius, The Saturnalia
They’re always trying to conceal a stranger
body under garment scrap, straw piles,
behind sealing stones, or away in mangers
where the oxen sag and their maker scuttles
himself in a snag of skin. It’s like the point
of those stories is the violence little
ones bring to the world. The stars go out of joint.
Men go. Wise men. Client kings shudder and clutch
their raw inch of globe like a fallen groin.
It’s the season for forgetting such
things. We place the figurine of the child
in the nativity scene where it can’t do much
harm. We fit the sexless mother and her mild
husband behind the rustic crib, arranged
to face the painted sheep and the lacquer smiles
of shepherds, the blackface men in turbans, the strange
ballet of angels in drag. We like to sing
along to the radio carols. Eat. Exchange
gifts. Take photographs to remember things,
to forget ourselves. This is the season
for freezing. Still, we huddle and fear like kings
in a gospel, waiting for children to strike us.
I Did Not See The Dead Child. I Did Not Know It.
It Was Not Baptized.
“Extra ecclesiam nulla salvus: outside the Church, there is
—St. Cyprian of Carthage
“The state of grace is absolutely necessary for salvation. In an adult an act of love may suffice to obtain him sanctifying grace and so supply for the lack of baptism; to the child still unborn or newly born, this way is not open.”
—“Allocution to Italian Midwives,” Pius xii, 1958
At baptism, the priest leans in and spits
on his thumb; he wipes the ears and nostrils
of the child with the thumb and the spit
and dips the thumb with the spit in the holy oil.
Ephpheta, he says, be thou opened.
Next, he anoints the little one with oil,
once on the breast and once between
the shoulders like a scapular. By then,
he’s exorcised the salt and slipped it between
the baby’s lips and the devil’s work. Even
salt has a rite for becoming; even salt
has a right to be claimed, called, even
without knowing, the little creature of God.
That’s what it means for our words to sanctify:
they tell what will be in the violence of God.
He must have a love of unfinished things
to make them whole and make them holy broken.
I Grieve For Things That Are Not Due To Me.
I Do Not Understand the Economy Of Salvation.
“…one does not grieve through being deprived of what is beyond one’s power to obtain but only through lack of that which, in some way, one is capable of obtaining. Thus, no wise man grieves for being unable to fly like a bird or for that he is not a king or an emperor, since these things are not due to him…”
—Summa Theologica, question 70, article 2
From the Latin, limbus, meaning the hem
of little parts
between your sclera and cornea: blood and stem
cells, fibrous tissues; or else it means the margin
of the human
heart along the fossa and the remains
of the fetal aperture; or else it calls
the edge of Hell
something. Limbo. It makes it seem less awful
to imagine a place for lost children;
you call it names
like that: a rim, a lip, near oblivion
but not. In the old traditions, it gave
a little hope
to mothers who had made their wombs the grave
reminders of a stranger’s death; and it gave
some little piece
of the father’s body to the child’s grave:
blood and stem cells, fibrous tissue, enough
a stranger body out of once they’d left
the old one behind, stuffed under the ferns
in the garden
or hung from shrub roots in the earth to warn
off moles from broken toys and pocket change,
the carcass of
a favorite cat. None of it seems more strange,
the hem, the limbus of Hell, than the fact that
this creature of God,
should die at all without its simple rite
I Imagine The Angels Of Death Must Pray For A Child In Limbo.
“Infantum autem vestrum potestis Eidem Patri Eiusque misericordiae cum
—Evangelium Vitae, para. 99
“God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”
—Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1257
Of the little parts
of the human:
the edge of Hell.
You call it names:
a little hope,
some little piece
in the Garden
this creature of God,
Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest, 2nd Prize
Town of my Mother’s Despair
Pigeons coo from their perch
on the sill, half their horny fingers
missing, gnawed off during winter.
In this town we pass like strangers.
To avoid you seeing me weep,
I clench my jaw.
In our family, despair is handed down
like jewelry, mother to daughter.
We bear its ancient studs and stones.
The old Jew mothers who crossed
the Atlantic toted this gold on their
shoulders from Germany, from Alsace–
Lorraine. O Sarah, O Madeleine, O Lenore.
Mama, in the photograph your eyes sink,
sea heavy. The bell behind your head tolls:
you have failed, you have failed.
In the photograph you’re twenty-six,
same age I am now. Behind you,
a window, a gray city.
A small iron bell hangs above your head,
almost touching the black seaweed of your hair.
You’re sick with Crohn’s, gaunt.
Mouth slightly open as if you might speak,
teeth, dull shells. The front two are fake.
In your eyes the suicides of our family
sag like caught fish.
I used to think the pit a curse
we either got or missed, as if
the plague could zoom past, breeze on our cheeks.
How stupid. It’s scatter-shot.
This town gets dark early. On stumpy goat legs,
carbon copies of Papa’s, I hurry home.
Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest, 3rd Prize
The rib of a whale was once used as the structural arch for a house. Instead of creaking in the wind, the whale house sounded; like the deep, far away rush of mistaking the sound of blood in your veins for an ocean current, constant as a hum.
There’s a little boy inside the house, tucked in under his blue blanket in his trundle bed, who looks up at the ceiling, with its great beam (he is too young to know any better, he sees the whale bone and forms the idea that the biggest trees are luminously pale on the inside) and he stares at it as he falls asleep, to dream wild dreams down in the depths of the sea, sleeping in the belly of his whale house.
Stop up your ears with your pillow and you’ll hear it.
(It is entirely frivolous to wonder; this house, could it be
Read all you want about the whale, tomes of dusty pages, but
you’ll never quite grasp how large it is. Most people don’t just stand outside of buildings, they check their pocket watch or
they walk inside.
Jonah probably embodies the natural reaction to the whale.
Go on a whale watch, play with your camera while they dive, get a shot of the spray when they exhale, you still won’t know how big they are. How can you? On the deck of that boat, you’re a metal whale yourself.
The boy in the whale house knew exactly how big a whale is. His name was probably Jonah.
He knew the same way you go into the kitchen and reach for the light switch on the right.
If you told this story to a small child, would they furtively step away when you poured yourself a glass of water, to run around their own house trying to find a giant whalebone encased in the plaster. More likely buried in the yard.
Check the closet by the stairs.
Later, during nap, to dream of deep-sea squid, all estimated 150 feet, silently gliding by like a submarine. Look into its eye and see if you can see any passengers, hands to the glass, staring wondrously back at you.
Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, 1st Prize
Erin Townsend’s “Decorative” won the Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction. However, this piece is under consideration for a national prize, so we asked her to provide us with another piece.
He calls me that afternoon, because our family isn’t exactly known for planning ahead.
“There’s a party tonight,” he says. “My apartment at six. You coming?”
Our family also isn’t big on hellos.
“Tonight?” I go to check my watch and realize I don’t have a watch, so go to check my phone, which I then realize I’m holding to my ear. I sigh and give up. “It must be past four by now, Jason, and it takes a good half-hour to get to your place.”
“Mom and Dad won’t be there.”
“…What kind of party?”
“It’s Michael’s birthday. I figured we’d have food and beer, play Taboo or something. Not a party party, just some people in a room together, really.”
Michael has been my brother’s best friend since they were in kindergarten. I guess they got along so well because they were both a little weird—Jason liked comic books and Star Trek, and
frequently taunted that thin line between Semi-Regular Guy and Nerd of the Year. Michael wore glasses and was known primarily for his imitation of what I imagined a pterodactyl would sound like.
“A gathering,” Jason is saying. “I figure he’s turning twenty-five and can legally rent a car now, so we might as well throw him something. It’s a Black and White.”
I squint at the phone. “It’s a what?”
“A Black and White,” he repeats, louder. “Y’know, a theme party? We were going to do something more interesting, like superheroes or Doctor Who characters, but it would’ve been too much effort. So it’s Black and White. So wear black. Or white.”
“I haven’t said I’m going yet.”
He snorts. “Well, do that, and then wear black and white.”
“I have a paper due Monday,” I insist, “and someday I’m going to have to clean the apartment so I can remember what color my rug is.”
“It’s Saturday. Do it tomorrow.”
I frown at the floor.
“Or write some of it tonight and show up late,” he continues. “Just wear something black.”
And then he hangs up, because our family is just as big on goodbyes as we are on hellos.
• • •
Sometimes it feels like we’re not siblings. We don’t talk, really. Not about anything important, not for any notable length of time. Ever since Jason left for college, graduated, got his own apartment, we’ve had no reason to talk. And when I left for college a couple years later, neither of us even had the time. We say “hi” when we see each other, we watch some of the same tv shows and reference some of the same movies. We exchange truck-driver vocabularies like old friends. Every now and then we make an effort to invite each other somewhere, but it’s more out of obligation than anything else. We feel like we should.
I don’t mean that we don’t love each other. We have to. It’s
But every now and then I get the feeling that if we weren’t
related, we would be happy having nothing to do with one another.
• • •
I decide on my little black dress. Not because I’m bent on
looking presentable for once, but because it’s been in my closet for a while and I’ve never had any reason to wear it. It feels useless, I think. Unloved. I don’t want to give it the impression that it’s only there for show.
It’s strapless and a little too big, so I have to secure it with safety pins. I twist the back around to the front and weave the pins in from the inside so they’re less noticeable, pinching the fabric
together as I go. By the time I finish, there are twelve metal rods lacing up the back and it fits perfectly.
It’s a bad idea, I know. I’m going to have to wear heels, and I can’t stand in heels for longer than half an hour without wanting to kill myself. I’m going to have to keep pulling the dress up because no matter how tight it is it’s still going to ride down. I’m going to have to breathe very carefully or else the pins will pop, and then I’ll have to twist the thing around again and fix it, and hope it stays.
But I’m stubborn. I’ve spent a good hour trying to pin it, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to take it off now.
I spend the next two hours writing my French paper at the kitchen table, sitting upright and swallowing air like it’s poisoned.
• • •
The only time Jason and I ever really talked was one night when we came home for my mother’s birthday. Everyone else had left and Mom and Dad had gone to bed because Mom had had too much to drink, and Dad had work in the morning. I went outside to sneak a cigarette in the driveway and promised Jason a couple drags. He only smokes when he drinks.
We talked about college and about relationships and about our parents. Jason told me that he was only in engineering school because Mom was pretty overbearing when she wanted to be. He’d wanted to be a writer. But he was so good at math, Mom thought he belonged at mit. He told me that he’d always felt some weird compulsion to impress Dad, even though he was never around. He wanted Dad to like his music, and his clothes, and his favorite movies. He wanted to make him proud, somehow.
He said he loved Jessica, but he was bored. He was so bored. Every party they went to she either fell asleep or left early because she was tired. The most exciting thing she liked to do was hiking, and even that was a bit of a stretch. But they had an apartment together now, and he couldn’t just back out. He was stuck and he didn’t want to end up like Uncle John, alone and depressed and still living in his parents’ basement.
I told him, maybe it was just a slump. Every relationship had ups and downs. Jessica was a sweet girl, and he loved her, right?
He said yeah, sure, but then he was quiet for a while before
one of us came up with a different topic. We talked until two,
staying outside and sharing cigarettes until we couldn’t feel our
• • •
By the time I show up, most of the food is gone. The leftovers of a buffet are sprawled across the kitchen counter like a rotting corpse: salad spoon bones, skeletal green bean fingers, a bloated pan of chicken grease for a stomach. I decide I’m not hungry. My dress would pop off if I ate anything, anyway.
What’s left of the party is already in the basement, playing Apples to Apples and swimming in a soft, melodic techno song that Michael is doubtlessly to blame for. The number of people I know is pathetically limited—Jason and Jessica, obviously, and Michael, and Michael’s younger sister, Carrie. There are a few other people I’ve never seen before, mostly wearing beanies and band T-shirts, and I feel terribly overdressed.
“Hey,” Jason offers, as I reach the bottom of the staircase. He’s wearing a black tuxedo T-shirt that he stenciled back in high school. “Way to take your fuckin’ time. Want a beer?”
“Uh, sure,” I say.
He picks up a Shock Top Ale from down by his shoe, twists off the cap, and hands the bottle to me.
I manage a “thanks,” eloquently mumbled.
“Sit down, we’re about to start another game,” he says, pointing at an empty seat. “And nice outfit.”
At first I think he’s being sarcastic, but he’s smiling, so I smile back, smooth out the front of my dress, and take the space at the end of the couch.
The game is fun for a while, even if I have to sit straighter than usual to make sure I don’t come undone. I finish my beer and have another, and another. Jason has a fourth, and a fifth. Jessica says she’s tired, and goes upstairs to sleep; the Band T-shirt Kids leave shortly after. Michael decides that the word “predictable” fits
“a cheap motel” better than “women,” and Carrie wins that round of the game.
“C’mon,” Jason protests. “Women are so predictable.”
“Are you kidding?” Michael waves the losing card a few times for
emphasis. “Women are like needy, emotional, authoritative Rubik’s Cubes. With occasional psychotic tendencies. And tampons.”
Carrie snorts. “Just because none of them will go out with you, Michael, doesn’t mean they have psychotic tendencies.”
“But they do. And they give you chores—”
“Wait.” Jason raises his hand. “Are we talking about women, or are we talking about your mother? Because they are not in the same category.”
At that, Michael pouts, but Carrie laughs and pushes her hair back and keeps her eyes on Jason.
“But everyone else is predictable,” she presses.
Jason leans forward onto his elbows and grins. “Boring, and predictable,” he says, slowly, and it sounds like a challenge.
• • •
Jessica is a sweet girl.
Jessica is an engineer. She can’t stand most science fiction movies because the pseudo-science explanations they have for things make her cringe. She wears cardigan sweaters and running sneakers and simple silver earrings. She has a long list of books she wants to read before she kicks the bucket and most of them are
Oprah’s Choice. She goes to bed early and wakes up late, and spends
a good deal of time knitting, because she likes the idea of being able to make her own sweaters. She’s knitting me gloves for Christmas.
Jessica and Jason have been together for over four years. They have an apartment together on the southern border of Massachusetts. Two years ago they adopted an old Chihuahua but it died, so a few months later they adopted two tiny mutts with stumpy legs. The year after that they took in a stray cat that had been visiting their back porch.
Jessica is comfortable with Mom and Dad. When she and Jason visit, Mom and Dad let them sleep in the same bed with the door closed, even though they’re usually very strict about those kinds of things. Jessica knows our grandparents on both sides on a first name basis. Jessica has been adequately introduced to our extended family, and goes to all of our family functions for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. The only time she doesn’t is when she and Jason are visiting her relatives instead.
Jessica is part of the family.
• • •
When one o’clock hits, I have long since thrown off my heels and spend my time trying to find an appropriate way to sit cross-legged. Michael has work sometime in the morning and tells Carrie he’ll see her at home, probably, if that’s where she’s spending the night. I kind of want to leave too, but for some reason I agree to drive Carrie home when she asks.
None of us are particularly interested in the game anymore. I’ve found a blanket and try to find a position that doesn’t
compromise the metal spine of my dress. Jason and Carrie laugh about inside jokes that I don’t get, sitting next to each other, leaning. I think about Jessica, upstairs, alone, and waiting for Jason.
Something pops, and I can feel a pin sticking sharply into my back.
Neither of them really notice when I leave for the bathroom, which is fine because I’m pretty sure my dress is about to fall off anyway. I close the door and twist the dress around to glare at the pins, taking a few of them out, rearranging them, weaving.
When I come back out, Jason and Carrie are sitting a little too close together, and they pull apart slowly like strips of Velcro. Jason stands, opens his mouth, closes it again. His throat twitches with a swallow.
“Hey,” he says to me after a beat, “let’s have a cigarette.”
I decide that I’ve made my dress too tight, this time. It hurts to breathe.
• • •
When I was six, my brother told me, I had a Furby. One of those furry, talking things that said “feed me” and “I’m hungry” and “more,” and it scared the shit out of me, because it would blink whenever I walked by, and it made this low, mechanical grinding sound in the middle of the night. He told me one day that he skinned the thing and put it in the kitchen doorway so that Mom would find it when she woke up the next morning.
He told me that she screamed pretty loud.
I don’t remember if that actually happened. I was just happy to have the freakish creature out of my room. But for a while, in my head, Jason was the Valiant Protector of Little Sisters from Furbies all over the world.
• • •
“I’m a terrible person,” Jason says, once the door is closed behind us.
I light up a cigarette and breathe in a lungful of smoke, let it out slow. “You’re not,” I tell him, but I don’t really have any evidence to back it up, so I don’t say anything else.
By the time Carrie decides to come outside, I’m almost finished with my cigarette. The door slices shut behind her. I point out that my beer is empty, because it’s the only thing I can think of to say.
“Go upstairs and get another,” Jason tells me. “They’re out on the porch.”
I purse my lips.
“Please,” he insists, “please go get a beer.”
Carrie is staring adamantly at her own shoes. Chewing my tongue, I turn, making my way up the porch steps to the fortress of six-packs and snatching the last Guinness Draught. I can see my brother through the railing. I know, I can see both of them, but I don’t look. Instead I lean back against the glass doors to the
inside, watching the dark of the trees, listening to the faint
smacking sound as the two of them press their lips together.
This dress is fucking stupid.
I go home without saying goodbye.
• • •
When I finally take the dress off, there are grooves left in my skin that seem to linger forever. The safety pins have left gaping holes in the fabric, loose threads dangling past the zipper. I throw the dress away.
• • •
Later, I watch Jason and Jessica curled up on the couch. She reads a book. He’s doing a crossword puzzle.
Sometimes they hold hands, and sometimes she tells him she loves him. He’s doing a crossword, so he’s not even really paying attention. But she tells him anyway. She kisses his forehead. She smiles. She could do so much better and I know it, so I turn to watch the television instead.
Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, 3rd Prize
Sometimes Jessie couldn’t handle it. She stopped and started the well-practiced movements of her routine: the commute, the schoolwork, her mother. And those few minutes in between, when she was not continuing with these motions, she thought: wouldn’t it be easier if this just stopped? This question pervaded her thoughts in bursts, like a radio coming in and out of reception. Sometimes the answer was clear, other times it was muffled with static.
Jessie’s mother was aggressive, angry, and often irrational. The concoction of medications she took helped to a degree. Valproic acid, Divalproex, Lamotrigine, Seroquel, Klonopin, Lithium, as well as a host of anti-psychotics, helped to split her mother into a variety of different people. Some days all she could do was watch tv in a blurry, numbed haze: “The Klonopin Days.” Others, in a manic state of zealous work, on the phone for fourteen hours straight cutting marketing deals for the online businesses that hired her: “The Divalproex Days.” Jessie loved her mother. She knew that love is something that you have to work at—it doesn’t just happen, it has to be fought for.
Sometimes on her forty-five minute commute to community college from the small town where she lived, Jessie got lost. Not literally. She would just fall off the rational part of the mental map. It was almost a game. The car moving at a steady but unsafe ninety miles per hour, gliding through the slight turns of the highway, she imagined which parts of the median would kill her instantly. Just a little jerk of the wheel, and she could win this game. She knew all the spots: the tight turn under the bridge between exits fifty-four and fifty-five, the concrete building at the end of exit ramp seventy, the bridge over the bay.
Positive: it wouldn’t look like suicide—just a tragic accident. It would be instantaneous. Negative: her mother would lose the car. It was far from new, but losing it would definitely put even more monetary strains on her.
• • •
Jessie’s mother was agitated. From her bed she waited for lunch. Bringing a plate with a sandwich and some chips, Jessie went through the motions. She hoped along the way that her dedication would affect her mother’s mood enough to allow her to go out tonight. It was a Seroquel day, so she was likely to just want peace, quiet, and sleep. Her mother was sitting up in her bed, huddled over her laptop. She stared through the screen, typing with two fingers in sporadic bursts.
“Can I use the car tonight to go see a movie with John?” Jessie squeaked out the words as her mother started to pick at the food.
“I’d rather you stayed in tonight.” The words were mechanical. Her eyes didn’t break from the screen. “Anyway, I may need a ride to the bank later.” Coldly the words registered.
“I could go for you now if you want. I don’t mind.” Jessie
realized the absurdity of her plea, knowing that offering to help wasn’t likely to improve her chances. It was like tiptoeing through a minefield.
“I’ll think about it. I’m busy now.” The single keystrokes came down harder, producing an angry chorus of buttons pressing.
Jessie left her mother’s room and wandered the empty house. A few hours later when she came to plead her case again, her mother was asleep. Another night alone.
Sometimes Jessie missed her dad. He couldn’t handle the tough love of her mother (or maybe just preferred the effortless love he felt for his new wife) and it drove him away. She saw him every once in a while on holidays, birthdays, never for very long.
He was an after-image.
The brief times with him, her memories, would play like a projector, mirroring his new life. He was happy with his new wife and daughter, her half-sister and stepmother. It was like
watching a movie of her happy childhood—the way he loved this new
woman, the way he took this new daughter on long bike rides with that
precarious child seat on the back of his cycle. It was all so familiar.
• • •
John wrote Jessie little poems in anth 101. They were short, silly, and meaningless. They, nonetheless, made her heart flutter.
“I wave hi to you,
And you wave hi to me, in Anthropology!”
John was one of the few people she knew from Tides Community College. They always sat toward the back of the cafeteria, which had been haphazardly converted into a lecture hall. John would ask if she had done the daily assignment, to which she would generally reply yes. After the first two weeks of doing this, Jessie just started passing him the assignment at the start of class. That’s when John started buying her lunch.
Sometimes on the long walks from the parking garage to her classroom buildings, Jessie would run through the better
memories of her childhood (something about seeing the bicycle racks, she thought). Her mother taught her how to make jewelry out of the dandelions at the lake, her father bringing them ice cream, which she ended up feeding to the ants. It was a memory
infection, the happiness of pre-adulthood tainted by its own collapse,
affliction by association. The divorce.
Her father moved out, but left the #1 Dad mug. Her mother couldn’t keep the house and moved them as far away from that “worthless bastard” as she could. Jessie remembered the strange haze of those days. She became detached from herself; it was like she was acting out real life, but not really living it. She remembered mailing a letter for her mother, who had stopped going out. A man at the post-office asked her if everything was okay. She remembered listening to a familiar voice use her mouth.
Jessie couldn’t remember when the thoughts started, just that at first they were always accompanied by rain. A gentle shower or a torrential downpour—it didn’t matter. She had just been so tired when she went for that walk. She couldn’t stand being in the stingy little apartment, her mother constantly shouting at her father, the lawyer, the doctor, the bill collector over the phone. That bridge with the cars speeding below it was a good place to rest. It was
raining that day.
Her thirteen-year-old self being picked up by the police for standing on a bridge over the highway. Someone had called it in after they’d passed her there twice. It couldn’t be healthy, a kid looking over a bridge for that long. The doctor said it was common. Attention-seeking behavior in a time of crisis.
That shrink didn’t know anything. Neither did she at that age.
Now, she knew that the three-story bridge was likely to only break
her legs. Nine stories is the safe limit to jump to guarantee a
Positive: quick, dramatic, easy to pull off. You just have to find a proper building. Negative: hard to make it look like anything but suicide.
• • •
Jessie sat in the coffee shop waiting for John. He generally came with some sandwiches he bought from the tiny school store, the kind that was suffocated with layers of plastic wrap.
Suffocation was an appealing method if you could prepare the situation. You needed an “exit bag”—generally a bag full of helium or nitrogen with a draw cord that could be secured around the neck. The reasoning was that the inert gas of the bag would render you unconscious quickly, and the lack of oxygen would do the rest.
Positive: painless, good odds of success. Negative: obvious, hard to procure and put together materials.
John came through the door, smiling and holding two sandwiches. He waved to Jessie and stopped at the register to order something. John had dark hair, almost black, and light blue eyes. Jessie liked the contrast; it made eye contact unavoidable.
He sat down across from Jessie, sliding a coffee and sandwich her way. “Thanks.” Jessie smiled and continued to pretend working. John pulled out his laptop and made himself look busy. Jessie struggled to unravel the sandwich from its exit bag. Drifting off, she wondered how she would fill such a bag with helium. She could use multiple balloons and try to transfer them. Or possibly just walk into a store and fill it herself. Would anyone question her? Jessie fidgeted with the bag.
“Having trouble there?” John said closing his laptop. His eyes connected with hers.
Jessie hesitated. “You remember that story they used to tell kids in grade school? The one about the boy who cried wolf?”
Jessie felt strange; she was speaking her mind openly. “What if they were wrong about him? What if every time he cried wolf, the wolf just ran away?”
“That’s weird, I just read a study about those kinds of stories. Apparently they cause grade school children to lie more frequently, rather than less,” John said, unpacking his own sandwich with ease.
“It makes sense to me. It’s like the boy in the story. If he really wanted to get his way he should have just kept lying.” Jessie tried to act casually, taking a bite of her sandwich.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if a wolf really did show up, he should have just yelled that everything was fine, but that he needed help with the
herding. That way others would have come, and if the wolf did run, it wouldn’t be so bad.”
“I don’t know. I feel like the more lying you do, the bigger hole you dig yourself into.”
“You’re probably right,” she said, lowering her eyes. Jessie finished eating, and sipped her coffee. She looked at her empty sandwich bag, wondering how much they charge for helium.
“Can I throw that out for you?” John said, gathering his own trash.
Jessie hesitated for a moment, fidgeting with the empty bag. “Sure.”
• • •
It was her late day—Tuesday. She didn’t get home till after eight. The lights were off in the kitchen as she came in the door.
Her mother hadn’t made dinner. With a sigh, Jessie put a pot of water
on the stove. Something was wrong. She could hear the tired sobs.
She entered her mother’s room knowing what she would find. A crumpled woman bent over a mess of paperwork. Her hair fell over her face in odd knots, some of it still being held back by a forgotten tie. Jessie instinctively sunk beside her, closing thin
arms around her sobbing mother’s head. She pulled close, smoothing her knotted hair, soaking the moisture from her face into a sympathetic sleeve. Her mother was shaking violently, clinging to Jessie as if trying to steady herself. Financial papers lay scattered around them. It was often like this at the end of the month—her mother working frantically to find money for the medication, rent, and tuition. Jessie wished she could cry. She slowly helped her mother find her way to the bed.
She crushed two of the Ambien and mixed them into tea with an extra teaspoon of sugar. It was probably a Valproic acid day; it was hard to judge because of the breakdown. The combination of the Ambien and Valproic acid should knock her out immediately. Her mother took it without question. Jessie picked the bills from the floor, burdened by how cumbersome they felt in her hands, and by how little she knew about the financial situation. It couldn’t be easy, being a single mother. Jessie tried to be a good daughter, but she always felt selfish.
Jessie emptied the dishwasher, leaving the steak knives for last. Slitting your wrists isn’t a very successful method. Jessie had read on some Internet site: “down the river, not across the stream.” You had to slice down the ulnar artery. Most people would cut across it, but this would make the bleeding process take much longer. If you cut down the artery it was much more efficient.
Positive: incredibly easy, all you need is a sharp object. Negative: painful, time-consuming, clichéd, and obvious.
Her phone buzzed on the counter. She felt a familiar pounding in her chest. It was John. Dinner? A Movie? Another rejection? Your choice. ;), the text message read. Jessie wasn’t sure how to respond. She always felt that getting close to people was dangerous (maybe this was just her way of reconciling her lack of friends). Another person she might hurt. If she were alone in the world, everything would just be easier. She could just find a nice nine-story building.
But she liked John. She could imagine him closing the gap, his breath warm on her face, their lips gently meeting. John might make her happy.
• • •
Jessie’s mother was chipper and on the upswing. She was in a manic state of activity when her daughter got home. She appeared to be searching for something in the kitchen, the cupboards open and the cabinets ajar, utensils scattered across the countertops.
Catching sight of her daughter, Jessie’s mother panicked. “wait! You can’t be in here yet! Go back outside and come back in two minutes. I just need two minutes.” She made shooing motions, and Jessie reluctantly responded. It had to be a Lamictal Day; she generally reacted well to Lamotrigine, unless she got the shakes.
“come back in, jess!” Jessie came back through the door, to her mother standing over a carefully wrapped package placed on the swept-clean kitchen table.
“What’s this?” Jessie asked, examining the package a little closer. It was wrapped in old Christmas paper, held together mainly by scotch tape, though it looked like her mother had run out, as there were several pieces of masking tape marring the colorful red and white snowflakes.
“Open it,” Jessie’s mother said, beaming.
Jessie started ripping the pieces of tape from the tacky winter Christmas patterns, revealing the bland neutral of cardboard underneath. As the wrapping was torn, it became evident that the box contained a brand-new laptop.
“I thought now that you’re in college, you need something that’s a bit more portable.” Her smile grew, taking over her face.
“Holy Hell! Thank—this is too much. How did you afford this?” Jessie was dumbstruck. She really did need it. Any student commuter knows the pain of a three-hour break in between class
without a computer.
“Is a mother not allowed to spoil her daughter? Now, go get ready. We’re going out to dinner tonight.” She turned dramatically and began to tidy the mess of the kitchen.
“Well…actually, Mom. Uh, my friend John invited me to dinner tonight, so maybe we could go out tomorrow night?”
“Why don’t you just invite him to join us? I’d love to meet your friend.”
Once this idea entered her mother’s mind, there was no
Getting ready for what was supposed to be her first date, Jessie carefully picked a tight green dress to wear. She put on her favorite pair of jeans under the wonderful dress, knowing that her sense of fashion was a bit unique, maybe a little off. Everyone in her family was a bit off. She remembered her father’s reaction to her being picked up on the bridge.
He blamed her mother: too strict, too hard on her, too controlling. He was wrong, but he was also spiteful, in the middle of a divorce. He was just a voice over the phone, a ghost.
Her mother responded even more dramatically. She had her own nervous breakdown. Her condition was much better back then. She was in control. The drug regimen wasn’t so heavy, more consistent. On that overpass, imagining the spatter of Jessie’s body below, it was too much for a mother to handle. Jessie came home from school one day to find her pulling out her hair in clumps, surrounded by empty medication bottles. She remembers calling the ambulance, the phone too close to her mouth, collecting moisture. That’s when the twice-a-week appointments began. The doctor was a small man with bifocals and a nasally voice.
She remembered him telling her the dangers of “crying wolf,” of how much it could hurt your family. This was before she knew anything, anything about the real dangers of “crying wolf.” About not being allow to hold scissors or to have mirrors, about the pills and furniture with padded edges. They would remove the anchor points from doors so patients can’t hang themselves: these specialized doors always had some tacky soothing mural painted on them.
• • •
First dates are awkward. First dates with your manic mother are traumatic. Jessie just wanted to disappear. John was late. Her mother commented on it.
“Hey, you,” John said, approaching from behind Jessie.
“You must be John. I hear a lot about you.” Her mother smiled. Jessie wasn’t sure if this was a good sign or not.
“All good stuff, I hope. Nothing about the criminal record or stealing cars, right?” John smirked and sank into his seat next to Jessie. “Pleased to meet you, Ms. McCusker.”
“Charmed,” Jessie’s mother replied.
Dinner was awkward. John was wonderful, gracefully maneuvering the conversation from that of school, to art, to work. He wasn’t (or at least did not appear to be) put off by this strange meal. Jessie was even more quiet than usual. Before he left, John told
Jessie that he’d see her tomorrow.
The ride home was much more awkward than the dinner.
“So are you two…together?” Her mother tried to sound as
innocent with this question as she could. Jessie could tell when
her mother asked a loaded question because she always did something else to make it seem casual. This time she was searching the radio stations.
“I don’t know, Mom…I would like it if we were.” Jessie just
wanted to be home.
“Are you having sex?”
“What?! No. That’s…What?” Flushed with blood, she sped up the car.
“I’m not sure I like him. Charming enough, but a bit…” Her mother began into a tirade about boys these days. That she just didn’t want her only daughter hurt. That she was thinking for her sake. That blah, blah, blah. Jessie zoned out. She thought about how long it takes to die from carbon monoxide. The science behind it was not precise, but she estimated that with the proper equipment (an industrial hose and several roles of duct tape) and her car, which was fairly fuel efficient, it would take about six hours. It’s all in the concentration of co in the car exhaust. It would be much easier if she just had an empty garage. The less ventilation the better.
Positive: painless, easy to do. Negative: time-consuming. Very obvious.
“Jessie?” Her mother broke through.
“John?” Her mother looked impatient.
“Mom, I like him. It’s my choice. I’m not a little kid anymore.”
Her mother’s face turned to stone. “I just don’t want you to end up like me and your father.” Jessie could see her mother’s hands shaking. A strange sensation of guilt rose from her stomach and into her throat.
• • •
Jessie sat up. The sun began to paint the sky with bursts of
yellow and orange. She hadn’t slept. Wouldn’t it just be easier? Easier to sleep forever? No worries, stress. No responsibility or
future—just the endless black nothingness of sleep. That’s what
Jessie thought death would be like.
She got up and went to make herself some breakfast. She found her mother’s medication sprawled all over the counter. It was an unmedicated day—she could always tell by the traces of misplaced anger throughout the kitchen: a broken glass in the sink, a magazine overturned on the floor. Her gut began to ache with feelings of guilt. The pills spread across the counter were like candy. Jessie just wanted to gobble them all up, and fall into numbness. She left without eating. The drive was a tired haze of nodding in and out of consciousness. She was exhausted from it.
After the divorce, she had always had trouble sleeping. She and her mother moved a lot. Four different states in her high school years: looking back, it wasn’t such a bad thing. She saw a lot, and grew up a lot faster than most of the kids her age. This was probably one of the reasons she didn’t make any friends.
A large oak tree dominated the curve in the road ahead. She didn’t want to turn with the road. It reminded her of Dante’s seventh circle of hell, where the suicides are turned into trees. It wouldn’t be so bad to be a tree, alone, strong and independent.
She arrived in Anthropology. John wasn’t there. She got out her phone to message him, see if he was coming. His number wasn’t even in her contacts. There was no record of their conversations.
Love is hard. Loving her mother was hard. Sleep-deprived and without John, she no longer wanted to be in class. She casually got up and left fifteen minutes into the lecture. Not knowing where she was going, she sat in the small coffee shop where she and John would get lunch. She checked Facebook. Her account had been
deleted. She began to feel tears well in her eyes and wasn’t sure why. She had to leave.
She started back toward the parking garage. Arriving at her car, Jessie put her bag in, but decided that it was not in the best interest of her vehicle for her to be driving it right now. She walked not really knowing where she was going. Finding herself on the top of the parking garage, she scoffed to herself. It was only five stories high.
The wind was cold and blew lightly, gently lifting Jessie’s hair into her face. She might survive the jump. They’d lock her up in a padded room somewhere, a mural on the door of her suite, probably some tropical beach. She’d have to face her family. She’d have to take all of those horrible pills. She’d become her mother.
“Jessie?” A voice hesitantly probed from behind. She turned. John was walking, his bag in hand, toward his car, down toward the other end of the garage roof.
“Are you okay?” Jessie knew she must look a mess. She thought about the question—a small voice whispering in her ear. Crying wolf.
“Yeah.” The voice was familiar, but not her own.
“Your mom…called me.” John said, sounding embarrassed for her.
“I know.” She looked back out down toward the street. There were several people in some kind of bicycle race on the street below.
“What are you doing up here?” John said, after a moment of tense silence.
“Watching the people biking. I miss biking,” Jessie lied.
“We should go sometime,” John said, nervously approaching a little.
Jessie looked toward the edge again. She saw herself falling.
Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, 3rd Prize
You are new here. You are from The States. Not from New York, but Seattle. A rainy city on the west coast, tucked into the far upper left corner of the map. It is a place they don’t know here.
And you are first seen sitting on the landing, three stairs above the door where your roommate lay dead. She is wrapped up in her duvet, white but for the hardened blood where her head is. You haven’t touched her. They ask if you’ve touched her. You say, “No. No.” They know that you’ve touched her. They know that she shouldn’t be on the floor. They know she didn’t wrap herself in the duvet. They know you know what happened here. They know that you did it.
They do not speak English. They demand answers to questions you cannot understand. There is a frenetic pace to their Italian, to the Italian of the Polizia di Stato. It is not at all like that of your
professor; their Italian has none of his measured, careful inflections. It is slang, perhaps, unintelligible to foreign ears.
• • •
The poliziotti are now yelling at each other. Now they are pointing at you. You shake your head. “No. No.”
They grab you—both of them. Grab you by the wrists and drag you down from the landing, down the next flight of stairs, out into the cool November morning. You are whisked into the back of the Fiat. They are rough with you. There is a commotion outside of your building. Raffaele is arguing with the poliziotti. He knows nothing.
Pressure and heat slowly build in your head, moving quickly towards your face. Hot, salty tears slowly trickle down your makeup-less cheeks. You are shaking. You are nauseous. You are driven so quickly through town in the back of the Fiat that your keen sense of direction has been totally lost. You no longer know which way points towards Seattle.
You arrive at the station. You are taken from the back of the Fiat, a hand under each of your armpits. You are taken at a near-run pace to a concrete room with a low table and a low chair. You are stripped of id, of money, of jewelry. Your right wrist and left ankle are cuffed to the top of the low table and the left leg of the low chair respectively. You are aware only of the dim fluorescent
lighting. You are hunched over. You cannot obey your body’s
demand to arch your back and release the accumulating hydrogen in your back. This is a habit. The pressure between your shoulder blades accumulates steadily.
You are no longer here. It is December 2005. You are eighteen.
You are an excellent student. You have never left Washington. You can lean back for a satisfying pop pop pop of your Th4-Th7
vertebrae at any moment. You will complete your biology exam tomorrow morning and your mother will arrive on campus at one o’clock pm and bring you home for the holidays. Your extended
family, who all live in and around the greater Seattle area, will
descend on your family’s home and exchange gifts and pleasantries. You will tell them about your success at uw, about your stellar
first quarter, about your confidence in your decision to pass on Georgetown and stay close to home. You will tell them about the numerous student-teaching opportunities provided by the secondary education program. Your just-graduated cousin will pull you aside and begin to sell you on the merits of spending some time, perhaps just a quarter, maybe a whole year, out of country. She will sell you on the excitement of learning a new language, of experiencing a different culture. She will sell you on the ease of travel throughout the continent. She will sell you on the wonders of European men and European drugs. She will sell you on the excitement of hashish and raves. You will be sold.
But now you need to go to the bathroom. You have stopped crying. You have been hunched over at the low table to which you are handcuffed for an unknown amount of time. You later learn it was fourteen hours. You debate peeing in your pants. You do not know whether or not you are being watched; you assume that you are. You do not know whether your cessation of hysterics will be seen as an admission of guilt. You no longer feel pain in your back. A general ache has settled into every part of your being. Nothing throbs. Not your wrist cuffed two clicks too tightly. Not your elbow that was struck with great force by the closing door of the Fiat. You descend into numbness. You grow dizzy.
“Acqua,” you say. “Acqua.” They will not bring it. They do not bring it. You are not thirsty, they say. You are told to admit your guilt.
“Lo sappiamo!” they scream. Again. Again. You shake your head.
“No! No!” You were not there. You were with Raffaele, in his room a floor up. You were not there. You say none of this. You only look down at your scuffed, white, lo-top Converse and the concrete floor and shake your head.
• • •
A guard wakes you to change. You are handcuffed and placed in the back of a Fiat. You know this routine. You are driven forty-five minutes out of the country and into Perugia proper. You duck your head as the Fiat nears the entrance to the underground
garage where you are unloaded and covertly taken in through the
basement of the courthouse. You are avoiding the media. You meet with your lawyer. You smile. You are still numb.
It has been nearly four years since you were dragged, poliziotti at your elbows, into the concrete room with the low table. The four years passed have been spent in a women’s-only prison on the outskirts of Perugia. These years have passed in Italian. They have passed in the unpredictable hysterics of olive-skinned, dark-eyed female criminals. These years passed, at first, slowly; court hearing after court hearing, the English still significant, translators
ubiquitous, an eye remaining always towards Seattle. And then the first verdict was handed down: guilty. The first sentence: twenty-six years. The first appeal: denied.
Then the years rolled by quickly. Your parents stopped visiting: too expensive. Contact with your attorney was limited: your second and final appeal was buried deep under red tape. It would be years, they said. You continued. You felt nothing.
Weeks became months became seasons. The Italian sky with which you were so enamored those first six weeks of foreign freedom became just the sky. Il cielo. The deep-orange sunsets and the Umbrian hills became merely land and consequence. This was life, seen through steel bars in an under-maintained, overcrowded, women’s-only prison on the outskirts of Perugia, where you only heard Italian and the days came and went inconsequentially.
So you now stand with your high-powered San Francisco
lawyers. Your parents are seated in the front row with your sisters. They are now twenty-two and sixteen. This is the final time you will stand in this courtroom. The final time you will stand and memorize the intricate woodcarvings on the front of the judge’s stand. The final time you will understand every word of the Italian-only proceedings while your lawyers listen to a translation through an earpiece. This is the final time a family reunion will be held in a courtroom. You have a hard time putting your finger on the tenor of the statements. These have all been delivered before. The pubblico ministero delivers words about his feeling, his deep-rooted, God-confirmed sense that you did it, that you killed. Your defense argues, in English, for your innocence. The evidence is shaky at best: their evidence, that is. For the circumstances are now four years gone; the forensics proved little. Your defense is careful not to insult the Italian legal system: they are careful not to insult the utter stupidity of the logic used by the Italian lawyers—the sloppiness and obvious prejudice with which your case was treated.
You are lectured by the judge: lectured for your being so close to this crime, lectured for your attitude during the court proceedings, lectured for your refusal to back down from your damning statements against the poliziotti. You are not from here.
The verdict is delivered in slow motion. This is not the slow motion of an action movie: the laws of physics still apply;
nothing moves at half-speed. Five minutes is five minutes. But all life lived and to be lived stands still. You are on the edge. Your life of
Umbrian sunsets, of olive-skinned inmates, of extraordinarily small beds now abuts a life on the banks of the Puget Sound, of house pets and Seattle Mariner games, of Mt. Rainier and Interstate 5.
A girl by your name stands in this courtroom, your courtroom, with the intricate woodcarvings in the judge’s stand, dark-paneled, well-lit, cozy but not claustrophobic. A girl by your name, now
twenty-four, stands with her head down, her hands clasped, the tears
already beginning. And you stand while he delivers, while the judge reads the verdict, while the courtroom reacts, while order is called. You hear nothing. You walk.
The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize for Poetry
Some moraines desiccate without a creak—
A thousand year sift back to sand.
Spots of moth wings, evolving dustily, spread quicker than soil’s grain
and the grain flakes in the same gray waves that moths create
when they twitch into flight.
Moths step across the vinyl siding’s
cratered porch light,
studying the shoals of glow. They do not eat. Their wings’ scales chafe
and chalk trails, square to square across the lit screen. They mistake
electric light for the moon.
A moth’s life quivers by in only weeks.
And for a thousand years
a glacier sloughs its dross and yaws,
coffered scrapings in the frozen
slatches of its waves.
The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize for Prose
I stand in my mother’s kitchen. The phone is ringing. I know that “Cell Phone ut” is my brother’s number and listen for someone to pick up. He is going to remarry this winter, and it is a wedding I will not attend. The phone rings again, but no one answers.
My brother, Adam, is six years my senior. He moved out at nineteen. He joined the Air Force, and never came back. During seven years of service, four tours to Iraq, a four-year-old child, and a bad marriage, we’ve spoken once: He asked me if our mother was home. I said no. We hung up.
My brother taught me how to ride a bike; he built me a tree house; he snuck me Cokes from the high school vending machine. He took blows for me.
“What the hell do you have to pick on her for?” he would ask my father. He was there the time I set the microwave on fire. He brought me to lacrosse practice. He cradled my bloodied, broken fingers after they had been slammed in the car door. And he built me the most elaborate fish tanks I have ever seen.
Yellow tangs, clownfish, blennies, and dottybacks; I know these
now by sight. My brother would sift through brightly colored corals
and gravel with his fingers, his arm drifting through the tank, eerie-like, as the angelfish darted behind the rocks. Gobies would
seek refuge in the anemones, and at night I would wander from tank to tank, watching the blennies dig gravel tunnels, spitting rocks out of their mouths, bouncing along the tank floor like seals. I would run my fingers along the hoods of the filters where the salt had crystallized and breathe in the smell of the ocean, the glow lighting the dark room. It was a world that to me was deep and endless and blue.
We spent summers on the coast of Maine. Our mother brought us to the beach, and I refused to step into the water. Sharks. Instead, Adam brought me to the estuary. He would wade into the water, combing the sand with his hands, and then extend them out to me, showing me what lay in his grasp.
“Come look,” he would say. Crabs, snails, starfish. At night, when we lay in the hotel, I would curl into his side, watching the rise and fall of his diaphragm, thinking of the tanks. The worlds he built for me were always safer and far more beautiful and real than what the Maine shoreline could provide.
When my brother enlisted in the Air Force, the tanks were
disabled. We stopped speaking. Phone calls from overseas were pricey, hard to come by, and devoted to his girlfriend. The only envelope I got was for my birthday. I opened the card and grains of desert sand stuck to my fingers. I touched them to my tongue and imagined that his world in the sky was the same as under the water. Endless and blue.
He came home for his first leave two years after he left. I was fifteen, excited, nervous, and disappointed. War had changed him. He was hardened, tan. His speech was brisk, concise. I tried to ask him about his stopovers in Germany, the herds of camels in the Middle Eastern sunshine, but he wouldn’t respond.
“It was nothing,” he said.
Instead, I lay awake at night, listening to the ticking of my mother’s marriage clock and the sounds of my brother pacing the kitchen for hours on end. I fell asleep to the rhythm. The next day as he was pulling out of a Subway on Main Street, he drove his Honda into a van. In the seconds after the collision, he thrust his arm through the closed window because he had watched a friend burn to death while trapped inside an armored vehicle. He showed me the stitches on his arm, and his fear was tangible. I could imagine the metal warping on the truck, the screaming of the soldier, the heat radiating into the Iraqi air.
Later that week, it rained. I stood in my neighbor’s living room, listening to John Travolta belt out “Greased Lightning” as the police handcuffed him. I watched from the window as they placed some boy that I no longer knew into the back of the cruiser. My father had dialed 911 because he believed that my brother was a danger to himself. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The silence became permanent. The government sent a social worker to the house. A small, delicate looking woman with a pixie cut. “Tell me about your family,” she said.
I had nothing to say.
My brother called two months later. I walked through the
kitchen as my father spoke with him on the phone. “Do you want to say hi to your sister?” he asked. I paused in the doorframe, hopeful.
I try not to remember that I have ever known my brother post-war. I try not to remember the alienation that exists between us
because I have never watched my friend burn to death in an
armored vehicle, or shot down a man, or slept in full gear with a gun in my lap. I try not to remember the late night pacing on the kitchen floor, the ugly scar running down his left arm. I try not to remember The Silence. I try to think only of the fish, because those little worlds he created for me were always calm and beautiful and silent.
I stand in my mother’s kitchen. No one is home and the phone is ringing. I consider picking it up, and my mind teems with possible discussions I would like to have with Adam: Did you see my niece this weekend? Is she still obsessed with Scooby-Doo? We used to watch entire marathons when we were kids. Did you finally get rid of the old Chevy? I hate the Toyota I’m driving. Is it true that there’s still snow on top of the mountains out there?
I think that this time we will speak; I wipe the sweat from my fingers onto my shorts and reach for the phone, a hello already on the tip of my tongue.
And then I remember.
The Aetna Undergraduate Creative Nonfiction Award, 1st Prize
I sit on a patch of carpet at J’s feet. My family and the dog have gone to New York for the week, and rather than live alone I stay with my boyfriend of a year. Most nights I curl in his bed, the air conditioner running, Gone With the Wind in my lap as gangs of
college guys clutter the rooms below. South Park and smoke and low-pitched giggles float up the stairs.
But tonight J makes me come down. The guys are heaped across the couches, still except for the rhythmic passing and
packing of the bowl. Just empty shells of men until Abbott carries in the baby mouse. I set my beer on the table and watch as he drops her down the back of Jake’s shirt, who jumps and screams. The boys laugh; they toss her from hand to hand, dangling her by the tail, flicking her with their fingers, until I shove J and tell him to stop.
“Let’s feed it a firecracker,” says Abbott, and there are giggles of agreement. “I had a hamster in my dorm freshman year. We fed it a pot brownie once and it freaked out.”
“What happened to it?” J asks.
J sets the mouse in a Tupperware bowl and puts her in the bathroom, where I stand at the sink, hand-washing my hair. I don’t smoke, and I think that if I can scrub away the sticky sweet smell of pot, I can go out, drive down to the river, stop at the aaa Diner, anything to leave.
The mouse is infinitesimally small, rib cage heaving, and I
finger her into my palm, tenderly, like a wet leaf. I charter her down the stairs where the boys don’t see me, or else don’t care, and out into the street. The air is hot, the clouds push in off the river, and I walk to the woods that run along Route 17. Headlights sweep through the trees, and I sit on the curb, listening to the murmur of televisions floating from the screen doors of houses.
The mouse will die, and I am reluctant to release her from my palm. I gingerly run my finger up and down her spine, and I set her in the grass where she does not move, and walk back to the house.
The boys notice this time. They have found the empty bowl.
“What the fuck is your problem?” J asks. His hazel eyes are all pupil and look like black buttons or lumps of coal. He kicks an empty Budweiser can and it pings off my knee.
“What the fuck is your problem?” he repeats.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Tell me.”
I’m sitting on Auden’s kitchen counter. She is an old friend from high school and we spend summers together like we did when we were still seventeen. She throws her keys down on the table and turns to her mother.
“Alyssa’s boyfriend is a douche bag and she won’t break up with him.”
“You don’t say,” says Mrs. Miller. She is ironing a pink collared shirt in the dining room and is unimpressed.
“J deals drugs; he has a temper problem. Alyssa has an anxiety disorder. Do you, with your medical expertise, think he is a good idea?”
“Well if you have an anxiety problem you shouldn’t be with someone who has a temper,” says Mrs. Miller. “People with
anxiety disorders need partners who are stable and calming.” She puts down her iron and sprinkles some water on the shirt. “Aren’t you a Pisces?” she asks. “Try a Taurus boy.”
I have left towns, houses, my dog, my brother. In Ovid’s
Metamorphoses, the great heroes like Achilles and Odysseus leave whole lives. They travel to the underworld, walk through the River of Lethe, and choose new ones as birds, warriors, servants.
It’s so easy.
But whenever I’m finally ready to leave J, I draw long lists of pros and cons.
Pros: He teaches children’s tennis. When the kids make a hit he
can’t get to in time, he grins and says, “Too good for me,” and they giggle and shriek. He watches Jeopardy with his grandmother
every night, even though she is dying of Alzheimer’s and no
longer remembers who he is. I sleep better in his bed, my forehead
touching his shoulder, my arm draped over his stomach, than I do in my own.
Cons: He deals drugs. He drives so fast and so recklessly that when we make a turn I clutch the sides of my seat and shut my eyes tight. He is dropping out of school. He calls and I don’t want to pick up the phone.
I never leave.
My father and my brother watched baseball all my childhood. They sat in front of the television, my brother tapping his toes, my father slamming the table with his fist and shouting, “Let’s go,
But it is J who teaches me the game. He takes me to a double header and patiently repeats which half of the inning is the top and which one is the bottom, even though I ask again and again. He
explains that foul balls only count as your first and second strike, but never the third, and that a golden sombrero is when a player strikes out four times in a single game. It comes from something called a hat trick. A foul ball is hit up the left side and I shut my eyes and cringe. He catches it and gently tosses it into my hands.
I sit in a lawn chair, seven-month-old Leah in my lap sucking on a bottle and playing with the straps of my dress. Jamie, who is my favorite child, peddles his Big Wheel in circles. I have taken care of him since he was ten months old, and now he is four, and sweet, and calls out when he sees me in town. “Hi, Rissa,” he says. He has a speech delay. I’ve parked the car at the end of the driveway to keep him away from the road, but he peddles across the grass and onto the sidewalk. I call him back.
The pavement is warm on my feet, and the summer sky is high and endless and blue. The only sounds are those of Alex’s laughter as he sprints across the lawn with his Super Soaker, the humming of the lawn mowers, and the birds chirping. I’m adjusting Leah’s hat and considering taking her inside. There is laundry to fold, and lunch to make, and piano lessons at twelve, and I hear the car before I see it. Bob Marley blasting at fifty miles per hour.
It’s J’s blue Volvo and I’m already standing, calling Jamie off the sidewalk, when Alex squirts him with his Super Soaker. Jamie screams, turns, and tips into the road. My whole heart stops.
I think that this is what it must be like to be a mother. J is too high to stop the car, and I am paralyzed by the weight of Leah in my arms. No matter what the outcome, I will lose because to grab Jamie I must drop Leah. I imagine her hitting the driveway, her small skull jerking forward upon impact, spurting blood, or Jamie under the car, his ground hamburger body and pool of warm urine in the road. I will lose because this is some sick trick the universe is playing on me, making me choose.
When I arrive at J’s house that night, I will slam my car door and scream, and the neighbors will stare. I will ask J why all stoners have to be such dipshits and he will say that he doesn’t remember the ride or the Big Wheel or the child. He will say that it is my fault and what kind of nanny am I, letting a four-year-old ride his bike on the sidewalk, and I will lose, because he’s right.
But I do drop Leah. I set her down, hard, and I run to Jamie, who is tangled in his Big Wheel, crying. I am only fifteen feet from the
car when I yank him from the pavement and onto the grass, the Volvo clipping the Big Wheel, sending it spinning into the mailbox.
He never even swerves.
We meet my junior year of high school. I’m sitting in the cafeteria and have enrolled in calculus. I don’t understand anything and have put my head down on my textbook when he walks over and eases it out from under me. He goes over my work. “You can’t just take the derivative,” he says. “You need the chain rule. Two cosine squared is four cosine negative sine.” He is a senior, the tennis captain, a track and fielder, and my partner in honors journalism. He comes from a Jehovah’s Witness family.
“You spend too much time with J,” Tyler says. He is driving us to our favorite hiking spot, even though I say I don’t feel like hiking. He thinks he has authority on the matter because we have been friends since we were six. My feet are propped on his dashboard, window rolled down. “And between quitting running and breathing in all that second-hand smoke you look like shit.” He turns into the lot. “No offense.”
I get out of his car, look at the trail and shake my head.
“I can’t,” I say.
He’s shouldered his pack and looks at me funny. “What do you mean you ‘can’t’?” He asks.
I picture all the times we’ve hiked to the top: The sunlight lights my hair, mud cakes on my calves, and the slight strain on my body feels welcome. I toe the edge, looking down at the world until Tyler hooks his fingers in my collar and pulls me back. “If you have a case of vertigo and topple over the edge, I’m not saving you,” he says. We sit, and he pulls out his slr and tries to feed a chipmunk from his palm.
“I can’t,” I say. “I feel like I can’t breathe. I’ll faint halfway up.”
Tyler adjusts his pack straps and shakes his head. “I believe it,” he says. “You look like shit.”
Alex runs ahead of me through the cornfield, and I carry Jamie on my hip because he is too afraid to walk through the maze by himself. The whole world is yellow, encapsulated by a blue sky, and the field undulates in the early fall wind, stalks bobbing their heads, rustling. Jamie has a cold, and I keep using the red sleeve of my jacket to stem the flow of his runny nose; wisps of hair escape my ponytail and whip into my face.
When Alex is out of breath and we are thoroughly lost he asks me why the seasons change. I can think of no other reason but something abstract about the tilt of the earth, and I tell him the story of Demeter instead. I have just gotten to the part where Persephone takes the pomegranate when we reach the exit and the woman at the gate stops me.
“You have beautiful children,” she says, and I am taken aback. I am about to correct her, and say that I am just the morning nanny, when I realize that at twenty I could be twenty-two, or twenty-six. The boys have my deep brown hair, high cheekbones, and wide eyes. I set Jamie down and he clings to my calves.
The next day, I panic. I text my twin, Tara, and I ask, “How old are we?” because for a few minutes I really can’t remember.
Girls I graduated high school with have children. My best friend is getting married in May. We lived across the hall from each other freshman year, and on Friday nights we would call out where we were going, who we were meeting up with.
I imagine the future I want, and I live in a farmhouse that overlooks the river. I have a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, with a copper coat and white paws, who accompanies me on late night runs. I have three boys, and I tell them the stories of Odin and Sleipnir. I am married. He teaches. I write on the side. He and I watch the Patriots on Sundays. We backpack the Grand Canyon. We talk about Orlando, and Atwood, and The Things They Carried, and circling the lake again and again. We talk about the last chapter, the one where O’Brien writes Linda back to life, and how it was the truest thing I had ever read. And he understands. Everything.
All J talks about is numbers. Every two weeks he buys two ounces of weed. It is a $600.00 transaction. The ounce is divided into eighths, which run for $37.50 each, the price of which is then jacked to $60.00 an eighth. This generates a $360.00 profit, or $180.00
an ounce. Sometimes, if someone asks, he’ll pick up half a dozen tabs of acid, or mushrooms, or Oxycontin—a synthetic heroin—as well.
Of course, the profit is all relative depending on his mood, the quality
of the cannabis, who he’s selling to, how much he smokes himself.
“You should go out with Peter,” Becca says. We have just gotten
back to UConn for the fall semester and breakfast is our 7:30 routine.
“I agree with this,” says Emily, pointing her spoon at me for emphasis. “You’re all he ever talks about.”
“And you two would just be so good together! You’re so
nervous, and he’s so relaxed. It would be perfect.”
“I can’t,” I say. “I feel like his mother. And this oatmeal is
“You’ve got to get the Quaker packets,” says Emily.
“Wait,” says Rachel. “Doesn’t Alyssa already have a boyfriend? Doesn’t he go to Eastern?”
I push my oatmeal to the sides of my bowl and don’t respond.
“I don’t really see him as a deterrent,” Becca says. She picks up her mug. “You should go for Peter.”
Melanie’s lying on the table and I’m in the chair next to her, knees drawn to my chest. I’m thinking of her baby who probably has elbows and a heart that beats 150 times per minute, and a vacuum sucking it all out. I rest my head on my knees.
“Do you want to know how many weeks pregnant you are?” asks the technician.
“No,” she says.
“Do you want to know if you have a multiple pregnancy?”
The technician turns off the monitor and leaves the room.
I examine my Adidas.
“You sure you don’t want me to call Ben?” I ask. She shakes her head. “Because this is what he’s for,” I continue. “To be supportive, and hold your hand, and be miserable with you while we partake in the communal killing of your fetus.”
“Fuck him. I didn’t even tell him,” she says.
And in the irony of the moment we break into giggles, and laugh until there are tears in our eyes and stitches in our sides and I think I might throw up. She exhales.
“I told him that I might be pregnant, and he said that if I was he wouldn’t do jack shit for me.”
“Then why don’t you leave him?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “You don’t understand,” she says. “You’re so lucky. J would never do this to you.”
“No,” I say. “He would.”
“Take a deep breath,” the nurse instructs. She hands me the spirometer. “When I say go, breathe out as with as much force as you can for as long as you can.”
I do so, and the monitor beeps and draws a trajectory across the screen.
The nurse shakes her head. “Again,” she says.
I repeat the test half a dozen times. The doctor looks over the graphs. “I’ve seen worse,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders. He listens to my lungs and looks over my chart. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” he finally says. “Sounds like anxiety. I’ll write you a prescription for Xanax. You’ll be fine.”
“But I can’t breathe,” I say. “It’s not in my head. I can’t breathe.”
The doctor sighs and rubs his temple.
“Anxiety is a mental problem that manifests itself in physical ways. Some people come in complaining that they’re stressed and that they frequently vomit. You look in the toilet and there’s vomit. You say you can’t breathe and I look at the graphs.” He picks them up and waves them in front of me, “And you can’t breathe. It’s real. But your chart says you ran 10-15 miles a week this summer. People with breathing problems can’t run 10-15 miles a week. You’re fine. Take the Xanax; it’ll loosen your chest. Go find a good therapist.”
I twist the folds of my dress in my hands.
“Maybe you’re not doing well in school,” he says, not unkindly. “Maybe you’re in a relationship with someone you’re not happy with. Your body’s trying to tell you something.”
I have been with him for fourteen months, and I don’t understand why I don’t leave. I’m unhappy. I can’t breathe. I feel sick to my stomach. I grind my teeth in my sleep to the point where I need a mouth guard.
I try to write it out on paper, and I think that if I write well enough I can bring him back to life the way I first knew him. I write the little moments in the south of town, down where there’s only farmland, and we walk through the meadows. I write the shape of his knuckles, the firmness of his wrists, the sharp curves of his shoulder blades, and in the end, that’s all I’m left with. I’ve been over everything in my head so many times that it’s no longer real. They’re just stories. I made them all up.
I want to tell J that I keep trying to write him back to life, but that I am no O’Brien, and I don’t write well enough, and never will, but he won’t understand. Instead, I say, “I want to break up,” and J looks at me and shakes his head.
“No,” he says.
I think I mishear him.
“No,” he repeats. “We’re not breaking up.”
I block his calls, I drop off his stuff, and two days later he shows up outside my dormitory unannounced. He is screaming. He is
belligerent. He wants to be let inside. He says I have three minutes to get down there before he comes up.
My roommate asks me if she should call the police, but I don’t know, and I don’t care, and I walk to the bathroom to sit on the floor. There is a girl lying on the bottom of the handicap shower with a bong and a bottle of Glade, and I feel like I am in Wonderland.
“Are you okay?” I ask her.
“I think so,” she says.
She sees me sitting with my head on my knees and returns the question. “Are you okay?” she asks.
“I think so,” I say. And then, because I have never been good with irony, I start to giggle and that’s how my roommate finds me. Sitting on the bathroom floor, laughing, with some campus drug addict that nobody knows, while J is outside, counting aloud in the October morning air.
I scrub out the sticky smell of weed from my clothes and my hair. My lungs feel clean. My future is fraught with possibility.
I breathe better. I run.
After the first three-quarters, my lungs sear; my ankles ache. After the first mile, I put my foot down, and either because I have stepped the wrong way, or the ground is uneven, my ankle does not support my weight and gives out, sending me tumbling forward.
I sit; I wheeze, and Peter, who has reached out to catch me, sits at my side.
“It’s okay,” he says. “Your body isn’t used to this; you haven’t run in a year. You’ll get better.”
I lie back in the grass, and I don’t think I will. But then he’s pulling me to my feet, and I put my arm over his shoulders, and I walk home.
The Aetna Undergraduate Creative Nonfiction Award, 2nd Prize
Do not fall in love.
You will break up.
Nine months later you will want to be with her again. You will tell her this and she will meet you in an elementary school
parking lot on a cool May night. She will crawl into your arms in the front seat of the Volkswagen Rabbit that your parents bought you in high school. In this Rabbit the two of you have driven to and from several concert venues, through Western Mass., all around Rhode Island, and to the northernmost township in Vermont, where you vacationed with her father’s family. You have driven to the beach in this Rabbit to skinny dip with the sun rise. You have both been interrogated by policemen who found you half-naked in the back seat of this Rabbit in a Little League baseball parking lot.
“Do you want to be here?” the cop asked her, because you were eighteen and she was sixteen and eleven months.
“Yes,” she said, “he’s my boyfriend.”
They just told you to leave.
This time, in the elementary school parking lot, you will not kiss her but you will touch her skin, her scalp, her ears, strange places you will remember how to caress. You will think that
after two semesters apart you will be together again. During these two semesters you will have missed several events. Each other’s birthdays—your twenty-first (a big one), her twentieth—one Halloween and two costumes, one Christmas and many handmade gifts, a score of weekend hiking trips, and countless concerts in Northampton, Boston, and Providence. You will think that everything will be okay again, like it was for those three years, two and a half of which were more than you had ever hoped for in a relationship. But you will be wrong.
The next several months will go something like this: You will begin caring about her more, as much, if not more than you did while you were together. Your happiness will rest solely on the amount of attention she gives you. She will reclaim what beauty she has lost in your eyes over the past nine months. She will again establish herself as the single most beautiful woman you have laid eyes upon and you will again become consumed by thoughts of her.
These thoughts will begin when you wake up every morning in New York City—four hours from home, four hours and thirty
minutes from her—and roll over to see if she has texted you
during the night, or if she has woken early to say good morning. She will not have texted you. You will want to text her badly but you will fight the urge. You will check your phone several times on your two-block walk to the path station, from Morton to Christopher Street. You will wait anxiously on the 10-minute ride under the Hudson, during which you will not have cellular service. You will see a mother and a father with their son and you will not be able to avoid thinking that this could one day be you and her. Once you climb the stairs from the station in Hoboken, New Jersey, you will check your phone again. There will be no new messages. You will check to make sure you have service. You will have full service. There will be five bars. There will remain no new texts. You will walk into your cubicle and sit at your computer all morning, still fighting the urge to contact her. You will finally text her after considering for nearly a half hour what to say. You will say something that requires a
response (“how is your day going?” or “did you sleep well?”) but she won’t respond for some time. That will only be the morning.
You will ask her to visit. After weeks, she will finally come for one night, a night riddled by equal parts laughter and argument. When she is back home, she will call you while driving, when she has nothing to do and no one to speak to. She will rely on you to get through her rides. You will let her talk as long as she likes. She will complain about traffic, and about her internship taking stool samples from farm animals (granted this is good reason to
complain), and how much schoolwork she has. You will listen with understanding. She will call you when you are out with friends. You will step outside the bar to answer and you will give her as much time as she needs. You will call her when she is out with friends and she will not respond.
Strands of her distinctly colored hair will begin appearing on your shirts and on your pillow. In this case it is strawberry-blonde. You identified it as such the first time you met. It was crucial to you landing a second date. You spent time with no one but her for over two weeks. You went everywhere and did everything with her, but you did not kiss her until you had been seeing one another for three weeks because she had never kissed a boy and you wanted more than anything for this to be pure, for this to be perfect, because
already you sensed something special. You became a sappy, genuine, and romantic person. You made her things and wrote her poetry. You woke up early on holidays like Valentine’s Day and wrote on her car with window paint, saying embarrassing things that did not embarrass you in that moment.
Now, in this moment, you will pull the end of a single strand of hair with two fingers and it will slide and slowly depart from the flannel shirt with which it will have bonded over several nights. All the while, you will be considering what her full head of hair feels like between the webs of your fingers. You will remember it on your
bare chest and you will remember dragging your right hand through
her mane, from her forehead to the small of her neck. This single hair will measure the same length, but its volume will be far less.
Over the phone, you will repeatedly tell her that you want to be with her and she will ask why you can’t just go with the flow. “Just let things happen,” she will say, and you will want to scream. She will tell you that she pictures the two of you being together in the future and possibly marrying (like that couple on the subway) but that she needs to “figure things out” first. She will not tell you exactly what it is that she needs to “figure out.” She will tell you that you said these same words to her six months ago with the same vagueness and you will deny this. She will insist that you did say these words and she will attach a time and place to your having said them. You will realize that she is right. You did say them. You will regret having ever said that you needed time to figure things out because that will be so far from what you now feel.
You will feel that you should be together right there and then. You will consider all of the things you will miss in coming months. Two birthdays. Your twenty-second, her twenty-first (a big one). Another Halloween. Two more costumes. Another Christmas. More gifts. Soft kisses. Many weekend hikes. Many concerts in Northampton, Boston, and Providence. You will dwell on the people that will have these experiences with her instead.
Every friendship you have will mean nothing in comparison to what you want to have with her. This will overwhelm her. You will adjust your approach accordingly. Rather than coming on as the heartbroken, crazy, pathetic ex-boyfriend that you have become, you will begin talking to her normally, as a friend. You will not have breakdowns on the phone and you will resist the urge to text her while you are alone in New York and she is out with friends in Providence. You will make an effort to “go with the flow” and to “just let things happen.”
You will tell her several times that you are giving up, and you will not talk to her for several days at a time. You will go for long runs along the West Side Highway, along the Hudson River. These runs will be your only hours of peace. But this peace will not last. You will cave. You will text her, or perhaps she will text you because part of her is beginning to want to be with you again. This will only make your life more difficult because only part of her, and not all of her, will want to be with you. She will make you feel terrible about yourself even if it is not her intent. You will be pathetic. You will be an asshole. You will learn to hate. You will learn to cry. You will exercise what you have learned.
She will invite you to her mother’s third wedding, which will be an extravagant event at a ritzy country club in Rhode Island with ritzy people. You will have a great time. A worthless argument will erupt following the reception. You will sleep alone in your Volkswagen and spend the next morning crying.
In the following weeks and months you will not eat breakfast in the morning. You will gag if you try to eat toast. You will vomit in your dreams. You will Google this to see what it means. The second search result will give an explanation of what it means to vomit in your dreams. It will mean that you have “a desire to get rid of
something in your life, perhaps because it is overloading you or
because it is mentally or emotionally toxic (it brings you down).” You will not get rid of anything; you will not change anything about your life.
Summer will end, and the fall semester will begin. You will struggle to get work done in the wake of your depression. You will continue trying to convince her to be with you. You will
continue vomiting in your dreams. It will be as terrible as vomiting while awake, but there will be no physical evidence of your having
vomited so no one will comfort you. No one will rub your back or dab your forehead with a cool, damp face cloth.
Eventually, you will be forced to get rid of something. You will stop talking to her. Weeks will pass. She will try talking to you. You will ignore her. She will have missed her chance. You will realize that during the three months described in the paragraphs prior, she was a saint. She will have dealt with your depression, your
loneliness, with a patience and pure goodness that you will be unable to match. She will have talked you through certain lonely nights in New York. She will have established herself as a better person than you. Your sadness will turn to guilt, your heart to pulp.
She will be broken. Her love will be unrequited. She will text you. She will tell you that she is crying hysterically. You will have
experienced her crying hysterically many times. You will know
exactly what she looks like—contorted face, tear-drenched cheeks and neck, running mascara, silent screams. She will look hideous.
You will be hideous.
The Long River Graduate Writing Award
The First Day of the Rest of Your Life
Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Say it.
You wake before sunrise. The digital alarm clock—unset,
unneeded—sits idle beside your bed. You are wide-awake. But this does not surprise you. Nothing surprises you. You are a human
dynamo. The room is dark, but this is not a problem; the furniture is familiar. After all, this is your furniture. This is your house. You own this house. The hardwood flooring is cold against your bare feet. But this does not bother you. Nothing bothers you. You are a live wire. You stand and creep to the window and pull back the curtains and stretch grandly like a bird ready to take flight. You say, “I’m like a bird ready to take flight.” You make a cawing noise. You are earnest. Irony is dead to you.
You take a shower—not to clean yourself, but to sing. The acoustics are superb in your bathroom. You sing it: “The acoustics are superb in my bathroom!” You sound marvelous, like a bathroom-bound Pavarotti. You sing “Desperado” and “Tequila Sunrise” before shampooing your hair. You towel off, bowing politely to the steamed-up mirror, and brush your teeth. You do not shave. You are ruggedly handsome. You are a human dynamo.
You dress in chino shorts and a vintage Hawaiian shirt buttoned to your breastbone. You look good. You model this outfit in front of the mirror beside your dresser. “I look good,” you say. You return to singing: “And freedom! Oh, freedom! Well, that’s just some people talking!” The acoustics are not superb in your bedroom. You curse Don Henley. You stop singing. But you are not upset. Nothing upsets you. You are a mover. You are a shaker. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Say it. “Nothing upsets me,” you say. “Today is the first day of the rest of my life.”
You are taking a trip, a trip to the kitchen followed by: the trip. “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m going to see the world!” you proclaim to the microwave. It does not respond. “That was Jimmy Stewart,” you inform it, rapping its door with a knuckle. You need supplies. You pack granola bars, beef jerky, cans of beans and franks, cheese crackers, trail mix, banana chips, peanut butter, marshmallows, fruit snacks. You are ready for the open road. “I am ready for the open road. I am a human dynamo.”
The car—your 1971 Oldsmobile 442—is one fine ride. “Damn, you are one fine ride,” you say to it. You back out of the garage. The top is down. You are on the road. The neighborhood is asleep. “Early bird catches the worm,” you say.
Mrs. Garciaparra is walking down b Street, a bright yellow radio headset resting atop her graying pouf. You slow down.
You rest your arm on the back of the passenger seat and call to her: “Early bird catches the worm, eh, Mrs. Garciaparra?”
She nods. She does not appear to hear you.
You give it another go. You are a go-getter. “Early bird catches the worm!” you repeat louder. You flash her your thousand-watt smile.
She nods again.
You grunt and wave and peel out. “Whoo-hoo!” You are a human dynamo. You are laying rubber all up and down b Street. “I am laying rubber all up and down b Street. Crazy old Garciaparra, ha.” You pat the dashboard of the Olds.
You merge onto the interstate and set the cruise control at fifty-five. suvs blow by you. You have always suspected that this is the busiest stretch of highway in the nation. You say so: “Shoot, this must be the busiest highway in the nation. I am on the busiest highway in the nation.”
A pickup with a bumper sticker reading, “Cheney-Satan ’08” flies past. The ensuing squall causes your shirt to flap so violently that a button—a handmade coconut shell button!—pops off and strikes you in the forehead. Your shirt is now buttoned to your navel. You yell, but your voice is muffled by the wind. “Hmph, hmph, hmph!” You shake your fist in the air. But this does not perturb you. Nothing perturbs you. You are a cool-headed man.
You consider their bumper sticker. You do not recall the name of the current president or vice president. Neither Cheney nor Satan rings a bell. The last time you voted was 1976. You voted for Ford. You think. According to Raymond McPhail, Esteemed Leading Knight of the local Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks #699, the ballots are electronic now and “complicated as all hell.” You do not like those words, electronic and complicated. You have no plans to vote again, ever. You have no need for the government. You are a lone wolf, a maverick. You have a thought, which you share with the Olds: “Satan sure is an unfortunate name for a politician, eh?” You laugh. You are a witty man. You are a human dynamo.
You are taking the trip.
You sing into the wind, “Lord, I’m southbound! Yes, I’m southbound! Whoa, I’m southbound, baby! Said I’m southbound!”
A young couple in a Jeep stares at you from the passing lane, two car-seated children in the backseat. Where is this couple headed? To a daycare, you presume, to drop off the kids and steal a few moments alone, feigning freedom for one delusional afternoon.
You laugh at this: “Ha!” You return to singing: “Lord, I’m southbound! Yes, I’m southbound!” The acoustics are superb on the open road. You are Pavarotti. You are a human dynamo.
The trip meter reads 62.2 miles. You need gas. You pull into a Valero. The Olds has a seventeen-gallon fuel tank but you, wise man that you are, only give it a quarter-tank at a time. “Easy on the wallet, easy on the mind,” you say, as you replace the nozzle and twist the fuel cap back into place. You go inside to pay. You do not trust machines. According to Clifford Dyer, Esteemed Loyal Knight of the local Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks #699, he once lost $300 to an atm machine outside the a&p. He attempted to deposit $150 and, in the blink of an eye, the machine took his money and deducted $150 to boot. Machines are for fools. Machines are not for you. You are sharp as a pistol. You sing, “The kids in Bristol are sharp as a pistol! Whoa, oh, oh! When they do the Bristol Stomp! Whoa, oh, oh!”
“Bravo,” the Valero clerk says, slapping the counter, as you enter the mini-mart. “Those are some lungs, all right. In fact, I think I can just about see ‘em, uh-huh.” He gestures at your shirt which is, you have to admit, wide open. Both of your nipples are visible and, in the harsh light of the Snack Center, you can see the long gray hairs that grow from and around your areolas. This poor young man is intimidated, you realize. He is growing a thin blonde mustache, not much of a mustache at all. Your mustache during the war: now that was a mustache. This young pup, he doesn’t know the first thing about body hair. He doesn’t know the first thing about the male anatomy. He is not a human dynamo.
“Four-point-zero-zero gallons, son,” you say, dropping your checkbook on the counter. “I see you’re trying to grow a mustache, best of luck.”
He does not acknowledge the dig. “I’m afraid we don’t take checks here, mister,” he says, gesturing to a bright yellow sign
beside the register. “Cash and cards only.” He punches the amount into the cash register and deposits an entire candy bar into his mouth. “Cash or card, mister?” he asks, gnawing on chocolate and caramel.
He is doing this just to goad you on. You will not be provoked. You stare him down.
He continues chewing, mouth open.
You continue waiting, jaw squared.
He swallows and you watch as the mound of chocolate passes through his esophagus with a gulp.
“I only started growing this two days ago,” he adds, rubbing the hair above his upper lip with an oil-stained forefinger. He is missing the tips of both his middle and ring fingers, you notice. “It needs time still, uh-huh.”
You continue to stare. You are a mover. You are a shaker. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. You will not be provoked.
“Where are you headed, mister?” he asks, apparently changing up his strategy. “I’ve seen an awful lot of out-of-towners through this morning and, well, we don’t get a lot of out-of-towners, not at this hour. Where are you headed, mister?” he repeats, looking out over the vacant Snack Center.
You consider divulging your destination—you like that he calls you “mister”—but you decide otherwise. “South,” you say. “I’m
He makes a clucking noise, pressing his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “South, uh-huh. I wouldn’t have taken you for a card shark, but I suppose that’s the trick, uh-huh. You aren’t going to win if the other guy knows you’re a shark.” He laughs at his own insight.
You are not a card shark but you like the idea. You nod mysteriously. You are mysterious. “I’ll pay cash,” you declare, removing a fat wallet from the front pocket of your chinos. You always keep it in your front pocket for long drives. After all: “I’ve got to keep my hips in line, right?”
“I’m sorry, mister?” He inserts a second candy bar into his mouth. There is still a bit of caramel caught in his mustache from the first bar. This offers some credibility to his mustache, you decide.
You wave him off and open your wallet. Dense young pup, you think. You leaf through last week’s receipts to the cash. “Fourteen seventy-two, if I’m not mistaken.” You are not mistaken. You are a whiz, a genius.
“Hey, that’s pretty good,” he chortles. “You do that all in your head, huh?”
“I did, indeed,” you say with nonchalance. You give him a ten and a five and let him keep the change. You consider informing him that the change will be twenty-eight cents but you resist; after all, no one likes a show off.
“Good luck at the tables,” he says, as you attempt to cram your oversized wallet back into your pocket. “Now, what did you say your name was again, mister?”
“I didn’t.” You are mysterious.
“Ah, I see, the mystery man, uh-huh.” He slaps the counter,
delighted. “Well, I like your style, south-bound mystery man. You are all right in my book.”
He is right. You do have style. “My friends call me Johnny,” you say as you exit the mini-mart, the entry-bells chiming shrilly. You have always wanted to be called Johnny, like Johnny Tremain, a Son of Liberty. You are a Son of Liberty. You are a go-getter. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
You drive south, one arm on the wheel, one resting behind the passenger seat. You put on your sunglasses and drive. You stop for gas again. This clerk is not growing a mustache. She is a woman. She takes checks. She is pregnant.
“Expecting, huh?” you ask, signing your name with flair.
She nods. “My first. Our first.”
You hand her the check. “Right.” You are not interested. You need no one. You are a maverick. You are unbridled. You have no need for the sweet and biting smell of baby poop. You are footloose. You are on the open road.
You continue south.
You stop at a rest stop to pee but your benign prostatic
hyperplasia is acting up. “Goddamn, bph. Goddamn you!” you yell at the pink urinal cake, sitting there smugly in the stainless-steel trough, taunting you. You pick it up and hurl it across the restroom. It strikes a mirror and drops into the sink below. You pump your fist. “Three points!” You are a human dynamo. You zip up and leave.
You stretch out in the parking lot beside the Olds. “One and two,” you count, putting your weight into one hip, then the other. “One and two.”
“Long drive, I take it?” a man in a light blue polo and light blue jeans asks. For a moment you think he is wearing a romper suit. He drives a station wagon—a station wagon, ha!—the only other car in the parking lot.
“Indeed,” you say. “Longest drive in years, decades.”
“Ah, well, that looks like a fine car for a long drive,” he says,
admiring the Olds. “My dad once owned one a bit like that.” The man appears utterly fatigued. His words spill from his mouth, as if his jaw is unhinged and he can do nothing to keep these absentminded syllables contained and unspoken. He is a man trapped. There is a half-deflated inner tube sticking out of the back hatch of his car. This is his vacation, you assume, his quote-unquote vacation. He is not a maverick. His presence is making you weary.
Your energy flags. Do you recognize this sensation?
You do not. You do not know fatigue. What is fatigue? You do not know. This is the first day of the rest of your life. Say it. “This is the first day of the rest of my life,” you say. You are indefatigable. You are a human dynamo.
“Me too, friend,” he responds unhurriedly. “Me too.” He leans against the station wagon, a two-tone brown Ford, and scratches his hairless arms. “Where is this long drive taking you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“South.” You are mysterious, you remember. “I’m heading south.” You are Johnny Tremain.
He nods and glances in the direction of the restrooms. “Us too,” he says. “My wife and daughter.”
“Wife and kid, eh?”
“Sure, that’s right.”
“Wife and kid, eh?”
“Sure, friend. My daughter turns six next month—Katherine, Katie.”
“Wife and kid, eh?”
He raises an eyebrow.
This man is smothering your get-up-and-go attitude. It is time to hit the road. It is time to complete the trip. You offer a brisk wave and hop in the Olds and pull out.
You glance back to see a woman and a young girl in a yellow sundress join the man. The girl tugs at his shirttail. She is ready to go. You can see, there in the late-afternoon sun, one long strand of blond hair caught in the corner of her mouth, stretched taut across her flushed and freckled cheek. The man sees it, too. He kneels in front of her, knees on oiled pavement, and gently tucks the hair back behind his daughter’s ear.
You put on your sunglasses. You need no one. You are a lone wolf, a maverick.
You fill up the tank twice more. “Four-point-zero-zero gallons,” you declare both times. The gas is getting cheaper as you continue southbound. But of course it is. This is the first day of the rest of your life.
You arrive at your destination: the destination. You pull into the parking lot of Cleopatra’s Wild Goose Casino and Hotel, like a card shark ready to run the tables. That clerk was all right, you think. You could be a card shark. You have that look, ruggedly handsome. You are a mover and a shaker. You have style.
“The convention is the first right, Sir,” the bellhop at the
hotel door informs you, “the Grand Master Ballroom.” He mimes
buttoning up his shirt.
You are amused by his eccentric gesture. Kids these days, you think. You nod. “Obliged, young man.” You hand him a fruit snacks wrapper and wink. “Obliged.” You are surprised that he knew your purpose: that you are here for the convention. You want to ask him how he knows, but you don’t. You are not amused. Nothing amuses you. You are a go-getter, a pistol. Besides, you are quite obviously the Grand-Master-Ballroom type. You strut through the burgundy-carpeted foyer. You are a human dynamo.
The doors to the ballroom are closed. You are late, you suspect. You check your wristwatch. It reads a quarter past eight. It has not run in quite some time, but you can’t say no to ten-carat gold. “Can’t say no to that, eh?”
You open the door. You are hit by a booming voice, all power: “You can take charge. This is your life. Own it! You are a wheeler and a dealer. You are a human dynamo!”
The audience roars. You feel the warmth of this energy pour over you, saturate you with collective fervor. You step inside and close the door and take a seat in the back row. The house is full for Mac t.t. Fleet. You are buoyant.
He is buoyant. He prowls around the stage with an oversized microphone in one hand a bottle of Fiji water in the other. He wears all black, slacks and a buttoned-down button-up. His sleeves are rolled up. His goatee is immaculate; from the back of the ballroom it looks as if it is tattooed onto his chin. Mac t.t. Fleet is at work. The audience is rapt.
“We have a new member,” he announces. “Welcome, friend. What is your name?”
It takes you a second to realize it: he is talking to you. The rotund man seated beside you gives you a nudge. You stand. “I’m Johnny,” you say as loudly as you can. “Johnny Tremain.”
Mac t.t. Fleet stops prowling. He looks at you, standing there in the back of the ballroom, sunglasses still on. “Ladies and
gentlemen, today is a very special day for our friend Mr. Tremain.”
The audience nods in agreement. A few people whistle.
“Mr. Tremain, come on up here and join me.” Mac t.t. Fleet beckons you with a wave.
You cannot feel or hear a thing as you walk down the center aisle of the Grand Master Ballroom. You are about to meet Mac t.t. Fleet: the Mac t.t. Fleet. But this does not intimidate you. Nothing intimidates you. You are a human dynamo. You are about to meet Mac t.t. Fleet. You climb the six stairs to the stage.
Mac t.t. Fleet puts his arm around you. His arm is sinewy and
somewhat damp. “Johnny, let me ask you a question,” he says. “What are you?” He holds the microphone up to your mouth and nods.
“I am a human dynamo.”
The audience roars.
You say it again, louder, “I am a human dynamo!”
The audience roars. A tremor of ecstasy spreads from your bad hip through your body. Nothing intimidates you.
“That is right!” Mac t.t. Fleet bellows. “Now tell us, Mr. Tremain, what is today? What is special about today?”
You take the microphone from his hand and turn, facing the audience head-on. You strip your sunglasses from your face and hurl them to the floor. “Today is the first day of the rest of my life!”
The audience roars. You are loved.