Fellowship by Susan McCarty

  1. Seafood Night

EVERY FRIDAY AROUND FIVE, we stack the sun chairs in the pump room of the Maple Hills Country Club and watch the servers from the restaurant roll giant table rounds down the paved walk between the tennis courts, past the gazebo where we sit in black, regulation one-piece suits, and down to the pebbled pool deck. It takes three servers to handle a single round—to bang the rusted legs into place and hoist the table upright, to toss a white polyblend covering over the entire surface with one snap. The buffets are brought down, the Sterno lit below them. And then: steaming steel trays filled with buttered corn cobs, the garlicky reek of Oysters Rockefeller, yawning mussels and pink whole lobsters, the faint bleachy tang of cooked mollusk shell. Never mind that the nearest body of water is the catfished Iowa River. Every Friday from five to nine, the club is a Cape Cod beach, and we—who have never seen the ocean, but find ourselves drawn toward water on some cellular level—perch on our lifeguard towers as if they are crow's-nests, keeping our eyes on the water not for whales or land, but for children whose fearlessness makes them susceptible to sinking.

We dream nightly of escape. We would like nothing more than to see Iowa rolling out its infinity in the rearviews of our farm trucks, our Civics or Metros (all shamed to street-parking blocks away, to make room for the Lincolns and Caddies of the club guests). We rip through each National Geographic our grandfathers' yearly subscriptions provide. We pay attention to television and the news. Beautiful, violent things are happening a thousand miles east. And if the water inside us draws us to the water outside, in search of equilibrium, this is also true of our dark selves, the mystery of our desires, which can find nothing external to match the pressures they produce in us—not here, in the friendly width of these streets, these fields, these grocery aisles.


THE POOL OPENS AT TEN, but I'm supposed to be there at eight to set up deck chairs and check the garbage cans and test the water and fix the mix, if it's off, so the pool can open. today, I arrive at seven. I haven't really slept since last night, when Mom and Dad called a "family meeting." It was pretty goddamned obvious what they were going to tell us. It's why James has been wetting his bed lately, and why I stole the Titanic picture from the family photo album in the living room and hid it in my old copy of A Wrinkle in Time.

Ian shows up at nine, late and stoned. He's a swimmer on the college team and always has his shirt off, even when, like today,, it's too cold. His back is ridiculous, an inverted triangle—shoulders wide and pronounced from all his hunching through the water. I always get a little nervous when he's on the pool deck, on first position, on the stand by himself.

"Hey kid," he says with an easy smile. I'm pretty sure he doesn't know my name.

"Ian," I say, "pH levels are good. I didn't get to the cans yet though, so. . ."

"No problemo, chica." He waves and wanders across the pool deck to the first garbage can. It's not that I haven't checked the cans—in fact, before Ian showed up, I walked around kicking the trash cans, making sure to take all the pressure on the hard rubber toe of my tennies and yelling "Fuck you!" every time, imagining my father's soft, bearded face. He seemed the unhappiest of all of us, and this made it easy to blame him.

In one of the cans, the one by the wading pool, something shifted inside when I kicked. I drew the hinged top back and found two stupid eyes peering up at me. The thing hissed and I flipped the lid back down. I have kind of forgotten about it until I see Ian's shadow fall long into the concrete slab of the women's bathroom, where I'm stocking the toil.et paper with shaking hands, wondering what's going to happen to my brother who isn't yet old enough to realize what huge assholes his parents have become.

"Critter alert," Ian says.

The philosophy of work at the pool is smelt it/dealt it. I let Ian think he's found the raccoon. I grab the skimmer off its hook on the perimeter fence and follow him across the deck and through the little wooden gate to the baby pool area. He kicks the garbage can and there's a skittering, claws on the heavy plastic lining. He'll have to lay the an gently on its side and then get out of the way quickly, in case the coon is angry or rabid. I tell him I have his back and hold the skimmer defensively in front of me like a hockey goalie.

"Shit," he grunts, and squats the can to the ground.

"Get out of the way." I wave the net at the can.

"Jesus, get closer," he says. "I think it's coming out."

As if we're watching some sunny-day, rich-people horror movie, paws grasp the plastic lip and the raccoon emerges, spiky and damp and humping itself onto the length of the can, I an sort of frozen, watching it. I try to shake my head free of the buzz I haven't noticed all morning until now, but my reaction time is messed up.

The coon seems to be checking out Ian, lookin him up and down in a leisurely, half-interest way, and then it lunges toward him. Ian makes a kind of hoarse squawk and jumps backwards. Unstuck by his yell, I leap forward, brandishing the aluminum pole, and get the raccoon's head in the net, while it latches itself, all paws and teeth, onto the skimmer. I run to the baby pool and plunge the thing into two feet of water. The raccoon thrashes and I—or not me, but some reptilian part of me I have never met before—smash the skimmer to the bottom again and again, until I feel a brittle, twiggy snap. The coon goes limp in the netting, its neck probably broken. I feel like I might throw up.

Ian comes up beside me. He cranes his neck to look into the pool. He doesn't want to get too close to me.

"Holy fuck," I pant.

"You killed it."

My chin is starting to do this involuntary crumple that means I'm about to cry. "I didn't mean to."

"You looked like you meant to."

I drop the skimmer and it's so loud on the pavement I have to bring my teeth together to settle the vibration in my head. The coon looks small underwater—no way it was an adult. I look at it and think, I killed that. Ian offers to clean up and I go sit in the gazebo, at the pool entrance, where people sign in and pay their guest fees.

When he comes up later and asks if I want to go home, the question makes me cry harder. And when I shake my head and wipe my nose on the sleeve of my lifeguard sweatshirt, he says. "Come to the pump room," and I do because he looks confused and afraid, like I too might rise up and claw him, and I realize he thinks I'm crazy, all fucked-up over a baby raccoon, and so, when we squat on two bulbous gray metal meters growing out of the pump room floor, I tell him about last night, about my parents. I use the word they kept using—separation—a word that is pointedly not divorce. l I would rather it not be Ian who knows this before anyone else, but there is no one else. .He doesn't say anything. In the dank, chlorine reek of the room, his lighter glows under the joint he's brought for us, and the pain in my chest as I suck in smoke feels like something to be thankful for.


TWO HOURS LATER I'M STILL RED-EYED and dry-mouthed, but tear-free, sitting in the club gazebo in a manner I hope conveys both alertness and innocence. To the club mothers of Maple Hills, I want to look like the opposite of a person who would smoke weed on her guard shift. The reflective lenses in my sunglasses help—in my face the mothers see only themselves—but I realize I'm conveying too much alertness when Wendy Comstock glances up while she's signing in and then edges the clipboard nearer to herself as if to protect the privacy of her signature and club number. As if there'd be anything to do with her club number if I did steal it. Maybe a lesson with the golden tennis pro, a tan Swede straight off the cover of a romance novel. I'm imagining him bending me over the net and spanking me lightly with a racket, when a tall boy with large, rubbery features and long eyelashes wanders up to the gazebo and signs in himself and his little brother, who looks like he's about the same age as my brother James. The older one smiles and that's all it takes. The heat, the weed, the thoughts of the tennis racket, and probably, perversely, even the new of the separation have all undone me and I feel hazy and discombobulated and like the only thing that will make it all better is to be pressed against this guy as soon as possible. Phallically, I need a single point of focus. When the boys and their hairless and tawny bare chests have swept past the gazebo, I pull the sign-in sheet towards me and spin open the Rolodex to find their family info: Wychensky, Wayne and Donna. Ted and Liam.

I must have given off some pheromone, because when the third guard shows up at noon and Ian relieves me at the gazebo for my snack bar rotation, the older brother—Ted or Liam?—buys a pack of M&Ms, but manages to look, somehow, like he couldn't give a shit about actually eating them.

"You have to eat them fast, or they'll melt all over you." I try to say this in a suggestive way.

"Actually, M&Ms were invented not to melt. For soldiers in World War II. The candy shell?"

Simultaneously I feel like, You've got to be kidding me, and, I totally want to fuck you. And somehow he gets it, because he blushes, then grins an sticks the bag of candy in the pocket of his damp trunks and walks away. Hours later, I'm on the first position and the little brother comes up to the stand with his hand cupped over his eyes like a sailor. I make him stand there because my whistle and sunglasses and my great height on the lifeguard stand tens to scare kids and I'm not above enjoying that.

Finally, I acknowledge him with a nod.

"I'm Liam," he says.

"Hi, Liam. I'm Sarah."

He's brown as an almond and his hair is curly and dark. He looks like Disney's Aladdin and I'm sure someday he'll be as hot as his brother. Hotter, probably.

"My brother says he thinks you're pretty."

I make no expression and don't even move my head, but I find Ted with my eyes.. He's rubbing sunscreen on his stomach like it's the most interesting and difficult thing he's ever done.


TED PICKS ME UP FROM WORK THAT NIGHT in his Chrysler LeBaron, and some time later, but perhaps not enough time, his chewed-at finger tips are fumbling their way past my underwear, and the smell of chlorine is all around us, and all of sudden I have a new summer project which doesn't involve sitting around feeling sorry for myself.

In the next few weeks, we establish a routine: on my nights off we got to a movie, maybe for pizza and then we motor out somewhere more or less deserted and take off our clothes. Soon Ted has nuzzled, licked and put his finger s on and in almost every fevered part of me, but he refuses intercourse.

One night, I bring out a joint after we pull into a fallow field off the gravel road that winds behind a half-finished housing development. The cicada chatter around us and hundred of lightning bugs hand chest-high, at the top of the seeded grass, flashing their semaphore. I bop Ted gently on his beautiful Roman nose with a red Bic and twiddle the joint at him from my other hand. He takes the lighter and throws it out the window. "I'm not down with chicks who use."

"What?" I pull back the joint before he can chuck it too.

"No drugs, babe. Them's the rules."

"Why are you talking like that? Whose rules?"

He looks less sure of himself, his huge Adam's apple bobbing. "Pastor John's."

"Really? That guy?"

Pastor John is a balding twenty-something who specializes in Pear Jam covers on his acoustic guitar and speaks motivationally at our high school once a year. He runs a popular cross-town evangelical ministry for the kinds of kids who have great skin and expensive cars and brand of stupid, beautiful arrogance that almost takes your breath away. They get high on life and go to Very Good State Schools. Ted's one of them—he'll be off to Madison in the fall, which is close enough to pain me with a glimmer of hope that our summer thing might outlast the summer.

"Are you in his. . .teen group or whatever?"

"Youth group, and yes, I go to his Friends and Fellowship Fridays."

Ted sounds defensive and he should be.

This is Pastor John we're talking about. During last year's all-school assembly about self-respect, he preformed a country version of "Ice, Ice Baby," in which he changed the lyrics to Nice, nice baby. He frequently organizes long and awkward trust falls, preaches abstinence whenever he gets the chance. I am mortified for both of us, Ted and me. Pastor John's biggest message is that intercourse is disrespectful of a girl's body and the holy sanctity of marriage. Thank weeping baby Jesus, Ted follows only the letter of this law.

I try, I try, I do. I beg and plead and prance and suck and tease, but Ted is adamant. We seem to reach some sort of stalemate about sex, but I manage to disappear into him anyway. His LeBaron my salvation. Most nights of the week, I slide into my mother's dark house late and pretend not to hear her weeping through her bedroom door and imagine a future for myself full of adult things without adults.


2. Trial Separation

IN THE EARLY DAYS OF DIVORCE, when it's still being referred to as a trial separation, it seems that everyone does everything wrong. After swearing we won't, we bring up custody. Some of us wake at night in a cold wet beds and cry out, and other of us ignore those cries, which seem to come from a planet we don't want to inhabit, and which sound to our cringing ears like a symptom of some infectious disease we don't want to come down with. Decisions are made and boxes are packed. Some of us are upset that others of us are taking all the records and hi-fi equipment, but these complaints are deftly turned inside out and become reasons to visit the new place, the new living situation, the new beige and black leather townhouse monstrosity with Berber wall-to-wall and white plastic vertical blinds that hang like blades and dissect the view of the spewing water feature in the center of the pond behind the development.

We seem to be unbecoming a we. We seem to be becoming an us and a them, but even on either side of this dividing line we each stand alone, tucked into ourselves, the distance between us—even those of us on the same side, those of us who did not royally fuck up and irrevocably ruin it for the rest of us—enormous and growing with each passing, teary day. We hear each other's clotted breaths in the night. We no longer eat dinner together. We sit in the basement pushing our injection-molded He-Men against each other (in love or hate we don't know) and wait for the rest of us to join in, but we are scattered and wounded, and in our pain turn away from each other. Others of us see the slinking about and the downward cast of the eyes, and we understand at once. We try to sound patient and convincing: No one has every died from this. Lots of people go through this. We'll all be okay. What we really want is to run away. What we really want is for those of us who are children to stop acting like children, even though this is impossible and, in itself, a childish wish.

For the first time in years, we are truly alone. We clip our nails and toenails carefully—there seems to be all the time in the world, now, for personal grooming. we feel happy for a few days, to finally be free of the dog hair, but after a few more days we realize how awfully we miss the dog. It's the dog that finally sends us to our knees, our hands to our heads in front of the vertical blinds in the long, dogless night. When we look up again, we realize we are staring at the light on the water feature and that the color of the light is changing as we stare. We watch it go from green to blue to purple to pink to red to orange to yellow to green to purple until our lashes dry and our fists unclench.


THE SUMMER'S A LONG SLOW YAWN. James and I are at Dad's two-bedroom apartment every weekend, which is actually more family time that any of us have ever spent together. It feels like prison.

Dad doesn't have a couch, just a low glass coffee table in front of the TV, an ancient half-ton wood monstrosity with side panels and knobs, which sits on the floor, like us. James and I eat Cheetos off the coffee table from a family-sized bag. We've already watched our old pirated copies of Beauty and the Beast and Clue. Halfway through Tucker: A Man and His Dream, the TV screen fuzzes over and when the picture returns, there's a topless woman with sky-high blond bangs, kneeling between the legs of a hairy man with his pants around his ankles. The man places one big mitt on her head, crushing the anemone-like structure of her hair. Dad flies up, blocking the screen, and fiddles at the control panel of the TV. A wet smacking sound precedes the silence.

"What was that lady doing?" James asks.

I can feel Dad looking at me for help. He's always been short with us, impatient. His temper was a force that filled our house with its sound and fury, and it seems to me he's been the chief composer of our misery. I do not want to help him, but I feel protective of my little brother, so I ask James if he wants to watch Clue again, which is his favorite movie, and he says yes yes like the six-year-old he is, and when I settle back next to him, Dad gets off the floor and retreats to the kitchen. I don't know exactly what he's doing back there. Pots rumble and the kitchen faucet runs. I hear the fridge smack open, twice. It's not enough though—even from the other room, Dad's shame fills the apartment like a gas leak. I look at the TV screen and narrow my focus to the wavering, over-red images. It's a kind of meditation, except instead of calm and peace. I allow myself to fill with a rage so heavy it pins me to the ground.

It's a long time before I can stand again, and when I do, I find the rage has not abated. I grab my keys and stomp to the door. I tell them not to wait up and snarl that I'll sleep in my own bed, in my own fucking house. James is a perfect replica of my father: the "O"s of their mouths and their eyes like wounds. I open the door and no one stops me, so I slam it hard and feel, for one second, like I have won.

An hour later Ted and I are parked at the spillway. Ted is doing this thing in my vagina where he rubs one finger up and down the other, producing what I imagine is supposed to be some sort of crickety vibrato. I don't know where he gets his fancy ideas, but I don't want to hurt his feelings either. I arch my head back toward the half-open window to get a sniff of the barbeque smoke coming from a campsite downwind. All day, I've only eaten Cheetos. Ted takes my contortions as encouragement and the cricket quickens.

"Hey," I say after a few more minutes of this. "Let's go outside and look at the tube." The tube is a mad explosion of water that rushes over the dam gate at 3,500 cubic feet per second, and though our car is parked slightly upstream, it's a fairly easy walk, even in the dark, up the hill to the banked bridge directly over the outflow. Standing there, you feel as though you might be sucked into its deafening fishy roil.

Recently, before the announcement, but when things were already bad, when Mom and Dad stomped around their bedroom every night and bellowed at each other like a couple of cows about to be slaughtered, I was picking through a family photo album, trying to remember a time when their anger hadn't rumbled every wall in the house, and I found a snapshot of them standing above the tube in a the golden light of an early autumn afternoon, the day we all went fishing together—maybe three or four years ago. I remember James was fascinated by the way Dad hooked the worm and the grieving worm families they'd left behind.

In the snapshot, my mother's leaning against the chest-high chain-link that surrounds the damn gate. Her arms are spread at the shoulders like wings, her hair, longer then and maybe darker, ripples behind her. My dad's hands are at her hips. They're doing Titanic at the top of the tube. I didn't realize how bad things had gotten, until I saw that photo. And now, I can't even be here, can't pretend to enjoy my boyfriend's mediocre fingerbang, without thinking about my parents and wondering what's to become of us all. I sigh and push Ted's hand away.

"Did you hear me?" I say. "Let's go up and watch the water."

"It's dark out—we could trip and hurt ourselves. Anyway, it smells."

In an instant, the rage is back and I am ready to push this thing to the brink. I know what it takes to hurt us both. "Why can't we just have sex like normal people?" I say. "I feel like a fucking freak out here."

Ted frowns. "You know I can't."

"Oh right. Your pledge of chastity."

"It's important to me. You said you'd support me." He turns away, his modest erection wilting in his jeans, and starts the car. I pull up my shorts and thrust my pelvis as high in the air as I can to button them.

"I was just trying to get you to fuck me."

"Pastor John said you sounded like someone who'd resort to pressure tactics. And that I should be careful."

"You talked to him about me?"

"I didn't want it to be true, but now I see he was right—"

"What did you say about me?"

"—and I think. . .I don't think we should see each other anymore."

For the millionth time, I imagine Ted's legs spread out before me as I ride him like a combine; Ted's farm-boy bulk squashing me into the crumb-sharp fabric of his back seat in an ironic missionary; Ted's ass tightening as he rams into me again and again. But now I see something else too: that asshole Pastor John staring at us with heaven's disapproval souring his face.

I elbow the door open and start walking toward the top of the tube, which looks like someplace furtive and ugly in Ted's headlights. Gravel, broken glass. I climb the steep spillway embankment and don't look back. He yells for me twice, then backs his car out and drives away.

Up here, at the top of the hundred-foot drop down to the churning, angry water, is the last place I saw my mother smile at my father. The Iowa River races furiously toward me. Beyond the dam, the reservoir is placid and has the rotten fertilizer smell of something dead.


3. Youth Group

IN PLACE OF DARKNESS, there was the fluorescence of junior high hallways. In place of demons, Zach Hellerman's man-sized fist sank into our stomachs. His spit hung, chrysalis-like, from the fringe of our bangs. Our glasses: bow-broken and skittered beneath a locker; our non-existent breasts: shamed; our prematurely large breast: shamed; our ball: kicked back into the cavity of our bodies before they'd even had the chance to fully descend..

After the darkness of our daily existence, the bread of our pain, who among us does not feel a huge unclenching inside, a sobbing relief, as we stare into the linoleum of the church basement floor and hear the stories rushing wild and full from each other like the river across the dam? We feel bathed in light. The peace we've been promised, for years, by parents and various administrators, most likely erstwhile bullies themselves, finally arrives in this unlikely and alien place which smells like the hospitalish rooms in which our grandmothers moan out the ends of their lives. How unlikely seems the bringer of our peace. His mousy goatee, the shaved head that we would later understand as an answer to balding, the way his voice twangs over the top of his acoustic guitar: too precise, show-choir trained, a hickish put-on. How fitting that our savior here on earth, the man who would tell us about our savior up in heaven, would the sort of head we would want to see punched, the kid of cringing attitude that would make us understand, finally, what was so hateful about ourselves.

And so, we have learned to speak forcefully, to repulse the twin evils of drugs and sex—although many of us are still waiting, just waiting, for someone, anyone, to offer either. We've traded our skin-care secrets and exfoliated ourselves to a rosy, Christian glow. We've kissed each other during church lock-ins, and at Camp Galilee, where we also learned that Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi worship Satan, a lesson which Pastor John later encourages us to laugh off, but which nevertheless continues to freak us out. We have begun, some of us, to understand the price that such fellowship is asking—nothing less than our soul at the expense of our bodies. We have begun to fail each other.

One of us, just last weekend, tasted, finally, the seawater tang of his girlfriend's vagina—the Southern Comfort still hot in his belly—and ejaculated into his wrinkle-resistant Dockers. Another welcomed the sweet curl of methamphetamine into her lungs. We have turned eighteen and visited the Pleasure Palace with our non-youth group friends and masturbated furtively into socks. There is, suddenly, a new vocabulary; bong, dank, nug, DP, creampie, money shot, crystal, crank, tweak. Something inside us hungrily expands until we feel larger than our homes and schools and even, or especially, the basement of this church. We wake at night and touch our arms and legs and heads, certain they must have flown from us in sleep. We long to ask each other: Are we being devoured by lions or are we becoming them?


THE CORN IS NOSE-HIGH and I'm on my way to a church basement on the other side of town to eat crustless sandwiches and fraternize with the enemy. It's embarrassing, this sudden obsession. I've always prided myself on being cool with guys, less interested in a relationship then they were. The best thing about hooking up was the total-freedom feeling it gave me. Sex was something parents and school couldn't access or control. But Ted has beaten me; he's kept more of himself in reserve than me, has more secret rooms to which he could deny me access. He wouldn't let me in, but he would let in Pastor John. I wanted to talk it out, but my calls went unanswered. I imagined he could hear my anger and desperation ringing out from under the bed, where he kept his phone, and that it repulsed him. He'd stopped showing up at the pool, though his brother still came. I was thinking about sending a note home with Liam, carrier pigeon style, when I realized I could confront Ted, and possibly (in my fantasy) also Pastor John at a Friends and Fellowship Friday meeting. I would expose John as a weirdo and convince Ted to take me back. Dénouement night sex would follow in the pond at my dad's condo development. I got aa sub for my Seafood Night shift and set out to win back Ted.

But Ted has stopped coming to youth group, at least that's what Pastor John tells me when I walk into the basement and interrupt a jam session between him and three groupies. The bongos guy I recognize from school, but the other two kids are strangers, though the girl on the guitar smiles at me. The friendliness of the group flusters me. Instead of introducing myself and calling out Pastor John for being a fraud, I say, "Um. . .where's Ted?" and they look confused.

John rises, his puka-shell necklace slapping against the collar of his T-shirt, and says, "Haven't seen him in a few weeks. What's you name?"

I tell him and think I see a squint of recognition.

He says, "God's casa es su casa, Sarah. Have some snacks. we usually jam until most of the group gets here. Then I call everyone to fellowship."

I nod and walk toward the spread of drinks and food on the other side of the room, trying to avoid talking to anyone while the sunny creeps behind me sing, "I don't need no doctor, all I need is Jesus love." I drink cranberry juice from a Dixie cup and separate a long stick of mozzarella from itself, string by awkward string, as more eager kids file in and take up the joyful noise. When the music stops, I have just dragged a large piece of cauliflower through the dip in the center of the vegetable tray and put the whole thing in my mouth. In this new silence, it feels as if the protective covering around me has been torn away. A tambourine jangles faintly as its master puts it down. Pastor John yells into the calm and heavy air, "My Lord, lift me up to be with you! My Lord, call me and I will answer!"

I try to slow my stuttering heart as I turn from the buffet towards the youth group. They're all sitting there with eyes closed, smiling. John's hands are extended to the ceiling and they jitter, as if he's been struck with a neurological disorder.

"Tonight we thank you for bringing us a new lamb, named for the wife of Abraham! Sarah! Sarah, come here Sarah, and say the Lord's name with us!"

They open their eyes and look at me like puppies, and I realize they've left a notch in their prayer circle open for me on the mat. I point to my bulging cheek and keep chewing as though answering a question no one has asked. They keep looking and I keep standing there, pointing at my face, finger like the barrel of a gun, chewing, chewing, unable now to swallow as they stare, the creamy dip curdling against my tongue. My head is filled with the noise of my mouth, but I can tell the silence that binds us together is very awkward indeed.

"Sarah!" yells John, and a piece of cauliflower lodges itself in my windpipe. There's a long moment, as I try to draw my breath to cough, when nothing happens. My body feels as though it has always been here and always will be and I'll spend the rest of my life in this basement being stared at by Christian youth, me staring back—curiosities to each other, zoo animals watching zoo animals. The guitar girl's mouth moves, and from a distance and sever seconds delayed, I hear the words, "She's choking?" and then I'm on my knees, the cauliflower paste coming out of my mouth as I open it to the ground, and then someone strong and hippie-fragrant is kneeling behind me, enfolding me in a great hug, and the cauliflower is cutting a path back up my throat, and there's the sound of my own wheezing life and pain in my knees and my lonely sinner's blood pulsing hot in my ears. Like a newborn, I breathe and then I cry. The group makes noises around me and someone asks if they should call an ambulance, and then I uncurl myself from the cement floor, clear my throat, and walk out of the worship room like Lazarus from his cave.

I think about driving to Ted's house, but I know what I will find: a big happy family playing Yahtzee, the Rolexed arm of Ted's father slung around his tastefully small mother, their slippers, in the loafer style, parked side by side. Liam would say something child-wise and they'd laugh together like the stars of their own sitcom, like they were on their own cloud up in heaven and had forgotten the rest of us, down here, in our weird, hungry bodies on earth.


JAMES IS ALREADY IN BED and Dad's bent awkwardly over the dishwasher when I let myself into the apartment. I take a beer from the fridge and sip it at the kitchen bar. It burns my throat. Dad doesn't say anything about the beer so I tell him about Ted and how we broke up and I say I even went to his youth group, but it's like he's just disappeared from my life. And is this always going to happen, this disappearing? And what about you? Are you going to disappear too?

Really, I don't ask that, even though I want to manufacture a father-daughter moment. I want things to all feel okay again, just for a minute. But I also know this would be a lie.

"Better luck next time," says Dad as he closes the dishwasher door. "I'm going to bed."

Does anything sound cozier than a dishwasher at night? Even in this sad bachelor wreck of a place, where each of us is tucked into our own separate corner like water molecules—bonded for a moment, but always breaking apart.

I open another beer. The VHS tape marked "Tucker" is still sitting on top of the TV. I let the slow motor of the VCR suck the tape into its broad, flat mouth. I turn the volume all the way down. I sit on the floor and listen to the rhythmic slosh and hiss of the dishwasher. I watch through to the end.




Hourglass by Clare Beams

Willow Springs 68

Found in Willow Springs 68

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A TRANSFORMATIONAL EDUCATION, the newspaper ad had promised, so we'd come to the Gilchrist School, which looked like a 19th century invalids' home. With its damp-streaked stone and clinging pine trees, it seemed ideal for transformations, a place where a person could go romantically, molderingly mad. Here no one would find me until I was done. For the first twenty minutes of my interview, Mr. Pax, the headmaster, poured words upon our heads and seemed to require none from me. I had only to sit while he spoke of the crimes of modern education, the importance of avoiding the craze of the moment and what he called "the great, all-too-often meaningless noise of exhibition," how he thought of teaching as a process of shaping, honing, turning each young woman into the best possible version of herself. My mother, who had never been anything but her own best version, smiled winsomely and told him, "We would just lost to see Melody blossom, that's all." Yes, yes, Mr. Pax said.

But then he inclined his great shining white-ringed head toward me and said, "Well, Melody! You've been quiet, for a person whose name heralds such mellifluousness! Please, tell me something about yourself. What activities do you most enjoy?"

A pause. Then, "Go on, Melly," my mother said, for all the world as if she expected me to rise to the occasion, except there was a little too much brightness in her voice. Had she really expected it, of course—had I ever shown any signs of such a capacity—we would not have been here.

I dropped my eyes to the carpet and scoured my days for things I could speak of safely. School, which I hated. Television, which I knew better than to talk about here. Sleeping, which I liked, except when it ended. Drawing, a loose word for what I did sometimes, tattooing pages of computer paper in rhythmic, soothing swirls of ink. Reading Nancy Drew mysteries, sticking and unsticking the pads of my fingers to their bright yellow, plasticky covers until I knew they were tapestried in whole invisible galaxies of my fingerprints. I never had anything to say about them when I finished them.

"Reading," I told Mr. Pax. The word came out scratchy and prematurely old. I hadn't talked much in the car.

"Superb!" He clapped, actually clapped, his hands. "And what are some of your favorite books?"

Somehow I had failed to foresee this, though the floor-to-ceiling shelves on the wall behind Mr. Pax were lined and lined and lined with books like dull, uneven teeth. If I pretended to have read something impressive, Mr. Pax would certainly roll his chair over to the shelf and pull it out, set it right down on the desk between us for discussion. I could see myself sputtering and flecking the dusty damning rectangle of the book with spittle while my parents sagged.

"Mysteries," I said. "Mostly."

I waited for Mr. Pax's face to fall or flush with anger, for him to throw up his hands and cry, This! This I cannot transform! Instead he gave me a wide, warm illustration of a smile. "Ah, the pleasures of the whodunnit," he said. "The neatness of the ending, a satisfaction that all too frequently evades us in life. You know what I've found to be true, Melody? A taste for mysteries is often the sign of a truly orderly mind."

My mind is truly orderly, I thought, cheeks reddening with a hope and gratitude that dizzied me because I had been so unprepared for them. And next: If this man wants to try to change me, I will let him.


WE HAD DRIVEN to Gilchrist intending only to have a prospective-student visit, but after the interview my parents decided to leave me there that very afternoon, before I had a chance to lose something or fail to follow through on some simple instruction and force Mr. Pax to reconsider his assessment of me.

"You don't have to stay forever, of course. Let's just see how things work out," my mother told me at the school's front doors, where my father had already collected his umbrella. "We'll send your clothes and things straight away," she said. She leaned in to kiss me, leaving behind a crisp little cloud of her perfume. I wanted them to go—I wanted Gilchrist to begin on me—but there was something about the idea of my mother sorting through my clothes and boxing them up, my father driving to the post office with them in the trunk of his car, that made me feel as if I had died somewhere alone the way without noticing and would now be expunged. My throat began to close with tears. I told myself that the next time they saw me, I would be so polished I would hurt their eyes.

"I have tons of clothes she can borrow until her stuff gets here," said my new roommate, a girl named Molly Briggs, in a cheerful defiance of the fact that nothing she would own could possibly fit me.

"Well thank you, Molly, that's very nice," my mother said. My father gripped my shoulder. I knew he tried to put things he couldn't say into that grip.

And then the door banged shut behind them and they were gone.

"It's amazing here," Molly said as she led me to the dormitory wing. "You'll see." She swung a door open into a small square of a room, kindly pretending not to notice that I was crying. "I'm super excited," she said. "I figured I'd get a roommate eventually. I was the only one with nobody. Odd number." I went in a sat on one of the desk chairs, trying to whisk my eyes dry with soggy fingertips. "Let's find you a dress for dinner," Molly said.

"That's okay," I said thickly.

Molly surveyed me. "We all wear dresses here, though."

"All the time?"

"Mr. Pax says how you look is the first impression you make on the world." She was in the closet now, pushing hangers aside with a brisk metal sound like the opening of a shower curtain. "And the easiest part to control."

I glanced down at my lumpish, besweatered form. My experience held no support for that idea.

"Here's the one I was looking for," Molly said.

The dress was black and had a forgiving enough stretch to contain me. I sweated through it almost immediately at the armpits, but the color didn't show. Dresses, I thought, as I pulled at its hem. We all wear dresses here.


THE HATS I LEARNED ABOUT a few days later, when I tried to take my copy of The Mystery of the Lilac Inn outside for lunch. This was allowed: lunch and dinner were served on gray metal trays that you could take wherever you wanted to go. At lunch you just had to be back at the tables by half past twelve for Assembly. Routine was sacred at Gilchrist—the days were shaped to run in a smooth way that made your level of contentment mostly irrelevant—and so I felt unfairly accused when I looked up from the tricky balancing project of my tray and book and found Miss Caper in my path.

"Where are you off too? Outside?" she asked. tugging on the hat string tied beneath her chin, gazing at me from beneath the brim. The rapid fumbling of her fingers made her look even younger than usual, and always she looked young enough that the first time I'd seen her, standing before her blackboard full of notes on Tess of the D'Urbervilles on my first morning at Gilchrist, I thought she was a student.

"There's time still," I said. "Right?"

"Oh yes. Just—it's bright out there. Why don't you borrow this?" She'd succeeded in working the knot free and before I could respond she settled her hat on my head. It shaded my view of her. She was already moving off toward the faculty table, but I saw her stop and lean briefly over Molly, who looked in my direction and hurried toward me with a tube in her hand.

"Here," Molly said, squeezing something onto her fingers, and then she rubbed it—cold, cold—onto my face. Holding my tray the way I was, my hands couldn't stop her. "Sunscreen," she said. "We wear it when we got out in the daytime. Hats, too."


"The skin," Molly said, "should be like a beautiful blank page."

Outside, I sat under a tree. Nancy was about to figure out what was going on with the ghost, but I was having trouble paying attention. The paper of the book itself was distracting me, its even , frictionless fell beneath my skimming fingers. A caterpillar fell onto my lunch tray, into my salad dressing. I watched it writhe.

At twelve twenty-five I closed the book and carried everything back in to rejoin the thirteen other girls in my year at our table. I banged my knees as I took my seat, and they all turned in my direction, no particular expression on their faces, before settling again into elegant disinterest. I sat there feeling, as always in such moments, my mother's eyes on me.

Mr. Pax rose. Every day he made a speech to start Assembly. I had been listening as closely as I could to each of them, filing away as much as possible in the hopes that it would teach me how to become what everyone was trying to make me. I think that even without the effort I would have remembered whole sentences—he had that kind of voice, those kinds of words. To unlearn an old habit, I believe, takes more diligence than to learn a new one, he'd said to us yesterday. The day before: Remember that the true intellect requires so much energy to sustain that it has none left over to devote to display. It would not have occurred to any of us to equate his speeches themselves with the display of which he spoke. Though Mr. Pax strutted daily before us, shone, dripped words like syrup, everyone knew that this was not artifice. The artifice would have been to prevent himself from doing these things.

Mr. Pax centered himself at the front of the room, and turned to us. "Today, girls, I thought I might share with you a  brief history of Assembly itself."

He waited while small conversations quieted. Molly swiveled toward him in her seat.

"When I came to Gilchrist, more years ago than I would care to disclose"—the faculty, lined behind him at their table, tittered softly—"I came armed with the belief that education is nothing less than the shaping of the soul. Thus, upon my arrival, I had to ask myself: These souls entrusted to me, what form ought they assume? What shape would best suit them? It was question neither asked nor answered lightly, but eventually, an answer did come. I realized that I wished to mold not future citizens of the world as it was, but of the world as it should be. For it is my belief that the world around us has lost the grace and purity it had in earlier times, girls. That does not, however, mean that you need to do so. It was—is—my deepest wish to prepare you to stand in loveliness before eyes that no longer see as they ought, to answer with eloquence the questions of those who may or may not be capable of appreciating what they hear. I believe this sort of deportment has value no matter how it is perceived. At the end of the day the world is not my concern. You are."

The skin on my arms prickled. I ran my fingertips lightly over the bumps, trying to settle them into blankness.

"In light of all of this, I consider Assembly a sort of training ground, if you will, for your lives to come. When you stand and make announcements—even if you are simply questing after lost items or marking the anniversaries of one another's birth—you are practicing being seen and heard. And it is my most cherished hope that you are also considering, deeply, how you wish to appear and to sound in those moments."

I scanned the two lines of girls at my table, the willowy form and smooth smooth faces, behind each of which was fluid voice at the ready. I knew just how I wished to appear and to sound. Any minute now I would understand how it was done.


ON A CRISP TUESDAY near the beginning of November, Miss Caper stood in a patch of sun at the front of the classroom and talked to us about Keats and negative capability. We watched her form our desks, which were arranged in a circle and which were the same as the desks at my old school, chairs barred to the tabletops to prevent the tiltings-back of unruly boys. Not a one of us, of course, would have been inclined to tip. Miss Caper wrote, "'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' 1819" on the board, rounding the letters prettily. Then she put down the calk and began to read to us in a low, thrilled voice: "Thou still unravished bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time. . ."

She read the whole thing, though we had also read it for homework, while we clicked our pens or wrote the title and date we already knew in our notebooks. When she finished she looked up and breathed deeply. "He was twenty-four when he wrote that," she said. I had been thinking for a couple days now that Miss Caper might be a little in love with Keats.

She asked us what we though the poem meant. I never volunteered at these time, since the potential cost of a wrong answer matter much more to me than the potential benefits of a right one. The other girls were not cruel—we were kept too busy for cruelty—but I didn't trust them. They mostly ignored me, even Molly, who often seemed oblivious of my presence, in a friendly way, while were actually speaking. I had not become the way they were. I tied my hair back into the right modest knot, and I wore the right things, the hats and the sunscreen, the dresses. But my skin had stayed freckled instead of going paper-blank. No new smooth voice had blossomed in my throat. And the dresses did nothing to make me look like the others, who filled their own with foreign undulating shapes.

Miss Caper called on Lila, who was talking about the imagery of the poem, which she really thought was just so powerful, when the bell ran. Lila stopped talking instantly. "'Eve of St. Agnes' for tomorrow!" Miss Caper told us, as we closed our books and began to file away from her. "Answer the questions at the end of the poem please."

"Melody," she said then, shocking me to stillness, "a moment?"

She leaned against the edge of her desk. I walked back and stopped, leaving a safe berth between us.

"Have a seat," she said, pulling one of the desks out of its circle, closer to her. I sat. "I've been asked to speak to you. You've been here over a month now."

Words rose within me, tasting of panic, please for more time and promises of improvement—but I knew that if I tried to release them they would only clog in my throat. I waited. Miss Caper's eyes flicked back and forth between mine, as if the right and left were delivering different messages to her and she were trying to decide which truly reflected my feelings.

"We think you're fitting in nicely. Really we do. You do remember what Mr. Pax says about the outside and the inside, though?"

I tried to call up the words, which I recognized from one of his recent speeches, maybe even yesterday's. Miss Caper gave me only a few seconds before filling in the answer herself. "He says that the outside should as nearly as possible match the quality of what's within. That way, we do everything in our power to give those whom we encounter the right expectations. So a beautiful person, like you, should do her best to look beautiful."

She paused again. "Melody," she said, and her voice suddenly had the same low thrum it had taken on when she'd recited the Keats poem, "how would you like to look a little more like a Gilchrist girl?"

Without waiting for an answer, she walked over and opened a closet I had never noticed in the corner of the room. From within it, she produced a hollow stiff shell, trailing long tentacular laces: a corset. There was flourish in her wrists as she held it out to me. A new form, right in her hands, ready for handing over.


AFTERWARD, I SWISHED MY WAY up the stairs, pausing every two to breathe, and into our room.

Molly had been reading on her bed. "Oh thank God," she said when she saw me. "I was getting so sick of having to get dressed in the bathroom. I don't know why they didn't just let me tell you. Miss Caper laced you up?"

I nodded. Miss Caper had, after turning away discreetly while I closed the front of the thing around myself. The pulling of the stays had hurt. I had not made any sound, though. I told myself I was having every faulty disappointing breath I had ever breathed squeezed out of me.

"Let me see." Molly stood and slid a hand down the back of my dress. She tested the stays with a practiced finger. "Not very tight," she said. "I'll do it better tomorrow. We can lace each other now. All year I've been having to knock on Marjorie and Kate's door and get of them to do me."

The next day at Assembly, as I ate with my back straight under the force of the lacing, which seemed to be pulling me together in entirely new ways, Mr. Pax stood and said, "Miss Caper tells me that the ninth grade has just completed its study of Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.' A wonderful and wise poem: 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty. . .'" He let his voice linger, "One of the truest, most beautiful lines ever written, perhaps. For our surroundings are so often ugly, girls. Why should we not strive for beauty and bettering where they are within our reach?"

His eyes brushed lovingly over us, then. I could have sworn that they paused for a special instant on me.


IT DID FEEL, AT FIRST, as if I were moving within a body I had strapped on. My torso was suddenly unbendable: a stiff column that I had to swivel my hips to move when I walked. I couldn't quite breathe in fully, either. But it's surprising how rarely a person needs to breathe to the very bottom of her lungs in a day. Everything they asked of us at Gilchrist—the essay writing, the graphing of functions, the discussing of literature, the announcing of one another's achievements at Assembly—could be accomplished while talking no more than refined sips of air. It was only when somebody worked herself up that there was trouble: the time that Marjorie had a tantrum over her essay grade in English, for instance, and went very red and then slumped to the floor. Miss Caper produced smelling salts from her desk drawer and stroked Marjorie's forehead while she came around. I watched from my own desk and breathed evenly through the whole thing.

There was some pain: a compressed feeling and a periodic but deep ache in the ribs. I took satisfaction in this. It seemed to me proof of payment. Quickly I came to feel, when I took my corset off to sleep at night, a disbelief that I had once walked around in that state, so unsharpened and unsupported, so greedy in my consumption of air and space. Our lacing-up in the mornings became a companionable thing between Molly and me. She was determined, much more determined than Miss Caper, hampered by gentleness, had been. One morning, after a couple of weeks, she finished pulling at me and then tugged me over, back first, to the full-length mirror on the inside of our door. "Look," she said. I peeked over my shoulder. "See that bump in the laces there? That's as tight as I used to be able to get them." I did see it, a rut of a place like where the lace of an often-worn shoe hits the bracket, easily an inch below where the know was now. Visible proof of what was being accomplished.

I turned back to her. "Tighter," I said.

"Tighter? Mel, it's already—"

"I want it tighter," I said. While she pulled, I closed my eyes to imagine the moment in which my mother would first see me again. Her face before me, her eyes widening at my new swell-dip-swell, her smile knocked out of carefulness.

Other changes came as my shape shifted. The other girls were still not exactly my friends, but I could feel the distinction between us blurring. Sometimes they would call me over in the dining room even if Molly wasn't with me. I wrote letters to my parents (we were big on old-fashioned letter writing at Gilchrist) in a chatty voice I honed with pride. "Math will never be my forte," I told them, "but we all have our limitations! Hope you enjoyed the weekend with the Bermans!" In classes, I now spoke occasionally. I had realized that the teachers were so generous that they would mostly spin a wrong answer right for you. Miss Caper seemed to have taken a particular shine to my reading voice. She called don me more than anyone else in the rotation. I read the Brownings, Tennyson:

A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

"The Lady of Shalott's death," Miss Caper said, "is inescapable once she sees Lancelot, and then rises from her loom and looks to Camelot. Why is this, do you think?" she asks me. "What is the nature of the curse?"

"I guess," I said, "it's like she's supposed to be separate? Because of the weaving? So when she leaves she wrecks it?"

"Good," Miss Caper said.

Then she called on Melissa Clearwater to read "The Kraken." I let my hands drift for a moment to my waist, my habitual test, the patting-down of my dimensions. They were changed, they were definitely changed, and sometimes this brought comfort. Other times, the curve in my waist would feel too gradual beneath my palms, and I would press myself tight in fear. I was not yet changed enough. I would have to do better.

I found, with time, that the harder I tried to resist these tests—the more I tried to reassure myself that they weren't necessary, that of course my waist was becoming smaller and smaller with each day—the greater was my need for them.

One afternoon, a few months into my wearing of the corset, Mr. Pax almost ran into me in the hall. He had his head down, bulleting forth to something important. I sidestepped him at the last instant and wobbled, my balance threatened. He looked up in surprise, then smiled. "Excellent save!" he said, reaching out to steady my slipping books. "My apologies!" He leaned back to look at me more closely. "I must say, Melody," he told me, "that I hear wonderful things about you. I am very pleased."

He moved off down the hall and left me filled with such raucous joy that my heart rocketed and dappled my vision in shimmery patches, and I had to take very deliberate, measured breaths to steady it. For a moment, I felt sure of how far I had come.


THREE WEEKS BEFORE the beginning of spring recess, our poetry reading in English took a sudden turn. Miss Caper arrived bearing two stacks of brand new, slim volumes, which she passed around the room.

"Page thirty, please," she said. "This poem is by Su Tung P'o. It is called 'On a Painting by Wang the Clerk of Yen Ling.'"

She began to read: "The slender bamboo is like a hermit. / The simple flower is like a maiden. / The sparrow tilts on the branch. / A gust of rain sprinkles the flowers. . ." Her voice was still hesitant on the new stripped-down rhythms.

When she'd finished, we were quiet for a minute, trying to decide what to make of what had just happened. Finally, Molly raised her hand. "How is that a real poem, though?" she said. "Where's all the description? And the rhyme and everything?"

Miss Caper signed. "There is a very deep, modest kind of beauty in the poem we have just read, girls. It is a beauty that stems from rendering a thing precisely and quietly in words." All of this sounded all right, but she looked somehow off-balance with such a small book in her hands. "This poem is made of a series of perfectly captured moments. I think you will come to understand as we continue to read. You'll be working with pages 32-38 of the anthology for your assignment this evening."

I stared down at the book before me. I lifted it, and its lightness made me anxious.

"But I though we were reading 'Aurora Leigh' next," Marjorie said.

"As did I," Miss Caper told us. "But the headmaster wishes to make a change."

Around this time, one of the sixth graders—Lizzie Lewis, a pixie of a girl with a great mass of black shining hair down her back—stopped showing up for meals, even Assembly. The sixth grade at large reported that Lizzie no longer came to classes, either. Our curious whispers gathered momentum as the days passed until finally Miss Ellison, our math teacher, had no choice but to address them, if she wanted us to focus on the quadratic equations she had written on the board. "Lizzie is receiving special lessons from Mr. Pax," she told us, "for which she requires focused alone time." We could tell from the falsely confident way she said this that Miss Ellison didn't know what was happening, either. Still, Lizzie's continued absence gradually became old news; we stopped talking about it because there was nothing new to add and mostly forgot her.

I spent spring recess at Gilchrist, where I had also spent Christmas vacation. My parents seemed always to be traveling during the times when I could have come home: Bora Bora, an Alaskan cruise. My guess was that they were unwilling to trade the newly poised girl they glimpsed through my letters a flesh-and-blood me who might disappoint them in familiar ways. Time seemed to soften and stretch long in those two weeks. I missed Molly and her lacing. I couldn't get Kate, the only other girl from our year who had stayed at school for the break, to pull as hard. I knew for a fact that the ground I had gained was receding, because I could reach back and feel the from the lacing that I had eased back into the ruts I thought I'd abandoned for a good week, two weeks earlier. When I touched this proof, this record of my spill back over the lines that had been drawn, I was filled with a sense of powerlessness that made me bit my tongue until I tasted metal. At night, I got out my old Nancy Drew books and ruffled their pages, the furred soft sound of the paper like another person's breathing in the empty room, but even they did not let me sleep.

I would feel better once the others were back, I told myself. And anyways I had changed. I knew it. Yet it seemed to me, that in the dark, that nay progress that could be undone in this way was not real progress at all. A nightmare vision haunted me of the first day of summer vacation, being driven home in my parents' car, its smell of leather and bits of food I had dropped over the years as familiar to me as the smell of my own body. I would see in my parents' faces, each time they snuck looks at me from the front seat, the brief flight and then the dead plunge of hope—teaching me over and over that I would always be the same as I had ever been.


ON OUR SECOND DAY back in session after the break, Mr. Pax stood up at Assembly and said, "I am sure you have all noticed that Lizzie Lewis has been gone from your midst for some time."

None of us had thought about Lizzie in weeks, but we nodded solemnly.

"Lizzie has undertaken a special project for me," Mr. Pax told us. "This project has regrettably required her temporary absence from your company. But she is, at last, ready to rejoin you, and ready to show you the fruits of our labor. And what fruits they are, girls!" Or will be, when they have ripened fully."

He paused and smiled at us. "You see, Lizzie is on her way to attaining a very ancient form of grace. One that will soon be made available to the rest of you, though it will be a bit more complicated for those who are older and have already grown more than Lizzie. Her initial break has been made, but that is really only the beginning, of course. The binding process itself will take some time, indeed, to achieve the desired result."

We gasped in a united breath, straining our laces.

Miss Caper stared at Mr. Pax, her face rigid. Sweeping the room with his eyes, Mr. Pax found hers; he help them as if this were a matter of will, though he was still smiling. Finally, Miss Caper looked away.

"Recovery is still in the early stages," Mr. Pax said. "There are no shortcuts in a process like this, girls. Walking remains for the future. So you'll pardon our rolling entrance. Lizzie, my brave butterfly!"

He stretched his hand out in a summons. My eyes flew, with everyone else's, to where he pointed. But in the pause before Lizzie appeared, I saw others in the empty doorway, others I knew I was the only one to see. Each came in turn, without hurrying, to take her place in the line. I knew them all instantly. The Lady of Shalott, bent from her loom and yet graceful, one of her ivory arms banded in bright thread. The simple flower maiden, petal-cheeked, lilting as if in a breeze. Nancy, with her blond, metal-gleaming hair and the pressed slacks that fit her like her rightful skin. And my mother, my ever-lovely mother. My mother with perfection itself in her face. She moved, with the others, to the side, and then turned back toward the doorway.

Then came Lizzie, the real Lizzie, in a wheelchair pushed by Miss Ellison. Lizzie bore her abbreviated feet before her, propped on the rests: time hoofs of feet in child-sized slippers of a vivid emerald silk.

It was a slow entrance, a grand one. There was pride in Lizzie's smile. Also pain, but that was the price, as all of us at Gilchrist had already learned. And if her pain was greater than anything we had yet experienced, what she had bought with that pain was proportionately greater, too, I though: a change that was not reversible. Lizzie would never have to sit in her room and tilt her folded feet this way, that way, wondering if a slow slide had begun that would carry them back to their previous dimensions. She would know that this was impossible. Here at last was certainty. Lizzie would feel the proof of her new and more beautiful self with each step she took after this, each hair's breadth of a footprint she left behind her, the way all that had anchored her to ordinariness had been whittled down to a fine, sharp point.

I caught the sight of Miss Caper's face. It had gone very white; her eyes were wide. She saw only the pain, I thought, and not that the pain was for something. I knew there had been agony for Lizzie in getting to this point, but I also knew that nothing could hurt her after this, in any important way.

My mother and the others who had preceded Lizzie into the room were still there, but they were watching me instead of Lizzie now. Their gazes were steady, approving. I turned to look at Mr. Pax, our great shaper, whose face was red with triumph. I though that I was ready to feel my bones break between his hands.


Bird Girls by Jill Christman

Willow Springs 68

Found in Willow Springs 68

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I WAKE UP, a wife and mother, at five a.m. on a July morning in the middle of Indiana, not because my baby cries or my husband snores, but because the birds are going wild. Early bird nothing. They're all early—and their racket shakes memory down from the maple trees in my mortgaged backyard like seeds from a feeder hit by a marauding squirrel. Everything shivers and trills. I'm in a Proustian moment, fifteen years ago, zipped into a tent with my then-boyfriend, Stevie, listening to this same cacophony of whistles and peeps, breathing in the smell of wood smoke and coffee.

Still dark on a late spring morning in Oregon, not much past four and the professor of Stevie's birding class is about to take us on a trek through the woods. I know nothing about birds. Ignorant and cold, I shrug into the requisite Patagonia fleece jacket, duck through the nylon flap at the front of the tent, and join the others following the bearded ornithologist into the dawning forest.

Soft stepping over brown needles, he is our Pied Piper and we his captivated children. When he hears a particular bird noise, he holds his hand up to halt us, twenty or so bleary-eyed college students. Pointing to his ear, then to the source of the sound—sometimes visible, more often not—Bird Man whispers the name of the singer to us: Hammond's Flycatcher, Lesser Goldfinch, Mountain Chickadee, American Dipper, Bushtit. Stevie, and the other students, scribble these names down in birding notebooks. I listen, impressed, and shuffle along behind the group.

I cheated just now with the names, of course, although I did remember Bushtit and Flycatcher and also seeing the spellings of the bird sounds—pzrrt, pip-pip, treip—and thinking, Huh. Bird words. (Stevie majored in biology; I didn't wander far from the English department.) I remember riding in a university van to our campsite and I remember that early morning walk, but the thing that wedges in my brain between Bushtit and pip-pip is the sticky feeling that I didn't belong, the black-tar goo of old insecurity.

I wasn't in the class. I was a girlfriend tag-along, but there was more to it than that. I was the prissy one. I was too much lipstick, and not enough crunch. All of Stevie's bird class friends were of the outdoorsier-that-thou category and I had brought along an inflatable sleeping pad and tiny jar of half-and-half for my coffee. I can't remember anybody ever saying anything, just this sense that somehow I had been mismatched with my dreadlocked, kayak-paddling, pottery-throwing, Teva-wearing boyfriend. I felt girly in a bad way, as if my painted toenails and snug jeans were a romantic liability—no, worse, an identity liability.


MY LOVE OF BIRDS hadn't brought me to that twittering Oregon glen: Stevie had to be watched. My adversaries were young women in tie-dyed shirts, hemp bracelets and baggy cargo pants, pockets stuffed with hand blown pipes an big-belled goddess figurines, and I wanted to say, You know what? You want to know oudoorsy? You want to know hippie chick? When I was a teenager I lived on a mountain in a plastic house, okay? I rode a horse to school. We weren't camping. Yeah, I shaved my armpits, but I melted snow in a bucket on the wood stove to do it. 

This was all true. I had come to appreciate the pleasure of a soft bed and creamy coffee the hard, cold way when I was thirteen and my mother packed all our worldly belongings into a Chevy pickup tied down with fishing twine and moved us to a mountaintop in northeastern Washington. We were so far off the grid that in the winter, when the roads were impassable, we pulled orange sleds loaded with our groceries and pack animals. My mother claimed this was the kind of activity that built character, but another lasting effect of those frigid hikes was my reduced tolerance for those who thought a weekend in the woods was roughing it.

Stevie knew my mountain-girl history, of course, but I felt I needed to remind him of the tough girl that lurked beneath my feminine exterior. I wanted him to know that I could feather a soft nest and still hold off the egg snatchers with my piercing beak. Or something like that. Maybe I missed the day in biology where we learned that the females choose the males in the bird world. The males are the pretty ones. Think peacocks. Think the blue bower bird posing on his well-decorated threshold. In retrospect, some careful consideration of the actual facts might have saved me a few proprietary pre-dawn treks into the trilling woods. But like the Bird Girls, and like Stevie himself, mine was an identity in the process of becoming, and we were all involved in the awkward process of molting and feathering, craning our necks to check out our butts and see how our plumes were shaping up.

With more than a little shame, I recognized that the lessons I'd been learning in Women's Studies 101 about the patriarchy perpetuating woman-to-woman competition hadn't exactly sunk in. The Bird Girls weren't my only rivals, and they certainly weren't the crunchiest. The Ceramics Girls got dirtier, the Ultimate Frisbee Girls ran faster, the Kayak Girls, well, the Kayak Girls were tough—even I gave them that.

I tried to be the girl Stevie could love. I listened for birds in the woods, I straddled the pottery wheel and let it spray my jeans with clay juice, and I developed a mean (but ultimately ineffectual) forehand on the Ultimate field. I even paddled a small plastic boat into crushing rapids and thanked all the appropriate earth goddesses that I'd been born bottom-heavy and therefore managed to roll back up to breathe again. But I never felt tough. Worse, I never felt like the girl I was pretending to be.


YOU KNOW HOW this story ends. Not long after the bird trip, Stevie moved out, and when he left, as I predicted, he paired up with one of those gritty girls. Her name was Jill. This new Jill was everything that I was not: the anti-Jill Jill. In one of those too-honest, unnecessarily painful, post-breakup conversations, Stevie confessed that he'd felt smothered by my girliness—with me, he said, that was too much feminine energy.

A couple of months after we broke up, the Other Jill approached me on campus—baggy pants splattered with mud, shaggy hair not unattractively mussed, square hands holding a rope leash attached to a giant, drooling St. Bernard. She asked me if I'd seen Stevie. He hadn't called in weeks, she said. Unsuccessfully, I fought the urge to feel pleased.

I shrugged. Nope, haven't seen him. Poor Jill.


WHERE ARE YOU, Bird Girls, on this dawning Indiana day? The raucous songs of morning send me back to you, fifteen years and two thousand miles away. Settled, finally, in a nest I know to be mine, do I miss the parts of me that were you in those restless years of feathering and refeathering? Of never really landing?

Where are you, Bird Girls? Are you still sleeping? Perhaps you're lying awake, like me, remembering walks in the woods with birds and boys, all long gone. Maybe you're already up or haven't yet slept—rocking babies, typing reports, finishing shifts.

On this morning in Indiana, the sun colors the sky pink and my baby girl rolls over in her sleep. Having learned to hear my daughter's every shift and sigh, I know how I could have behaved on that forest path, tuning my ears rather than my jealous eyes. On the sidewalk with sad-eyed Jill, I might have said, "No, I haven't seen him. But it isn't you, you know. You're okay just the way you are." But I didn't, and of course, I couldn't. Sometimes we take our whole lives to feel safe in our nests, sometimes we miss that chance entirely. I am lucky.

Hey, Bird Girls, where are you now? Mine was a failure of empathy—for you, and for myself. Where are you?

I am here.

Hello out there. Pzrrt. Pip-pip. 

“Blue on Blue” by Susan Maeder

Willow Springs 68

Found in Willow Springs 68

There were tables of shining blond wood

in the restaurant in my neighborhood

where I took him on a dare.


Stiff white napkins,

too many glasses, too many forks

HIs chair had one short leg.


He splayed his fingers wide on

the white wall beside him. They appeared

more deep-sea blue than black.

He grinned. "See? That's you and me."


I laughed. The room hushed.

He held his hand there and pressed,

as if he might leave a mark like a bruise

when he withdrew.


I watched his eyes jump from this to that—

the lacquered card in his other hand,

the silver, the door, my lips,

the recessed corners of the room.


I felt the pressure of his knee against mine.


We never ate. We left that place.

We walked through streets of pumpkin orange—

it was Halloween—fastidious


red brick; one zigzag of neon

yellow. Victorian blue on blue.

This was my house. We went in.


This is the part where it all silks down

and the candles melt    and the space

heater groan    the phone rings twice


the fridge hums    and stops    and

hums again


there's probably music—saxophone

(grover washington jr—it 1976)    it's raining

the neighbor's dog is barking    it's raining


I'm counting

one two three    why am I counting? 


my eyes are closed

there's no silk    no melting

there's one word that cuts like a knife


four five six


and this is the part

where the rain    this is the zigzag

yellow part    the blue on blue    with the rain


coming down everywhere all at once

as if he drummed it down    comes slushing

through the gutters down   ruining


the perfect ripe    the sweet round pumpkins

with their cockeyed grins    when


the moon suddenly pops out

and I see everything

I can see everything now

even the rain itself

because there's both the moon and the rain

the moon lighting up the rain


and the moon is calling out commands

it's about the pills    it's about

the    tiny    liquid


the phone rings twice and twice

and now he's pointing at me

—is this how a knife looks?—

to cut triangle eyes and the jigsaw teeth


In that case I get to shine inside

I get to glow    I really want that light to stream

from where he carves me


But no—

It's just a pencil    or a pen    or

a wand    or a stick   and it has nothing to do with me


it's part of the Dream Time,

Aboriginal Magic, where you pinch

your own arm and your brother flinches

or you point the stick and your enemy drops

to the desert floor.


Now he's an owl

I care for the feathers, the hard-shell beak,

the elegant clawed feet,

draw out the long slow whooo of surrender



thunder    then    something like dawn.


When he comes scratching

again and again on my blue door

I'm gone


I've leaked out


I'm the panther

the mutant

the stain on the bedroom floor

Four Poems by Nance Van Winckel

Willow Springs 68

Found in Willow Springs 68

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"Outlaw Mentality"

—that's what the coroner says caught you up,
brought you down. A life of that fuck-that
stalled on the track. Hat on one side,
broken noggin with its go-
your-own-way dream
bled out on the other.

I catch your drift. To wake and stuff it
down. To sleep as it opens out. Me
and my wire cutters; widening
the fence hole. I know exactly
how few snips will
get me through.


White-hot, black-hard, the rails return
for mister you and mister not-you—there
on the path that leads to the path. Once
it fit your shoe. Blood-crust and blue-fly hum,
the one who's caught your whiff
slinks through the hole, stands
in the meadow. So like a wave,
the track goes out and comes back. REAL
ON STEEL claims the freight car
clanging into the by and bye.

Alive at the End of the World

(Gnome with Ax)


Sand and the glue from dead horses
made me. . .so you'd know me. Thirteen
seconds in a store window—you see
I'm you rowing away in a rogue dream.

Give me the full brunt of sun
on your door stoop. Make me
|the stopper atop the lower city
with its brute animal wails
I'll hear for you, loudly so.

One day you won't have a mind
to change anymore
about where I'll live on, or how,
without you.


Because B

Your arrival, admit it, was up
and out of the mud. So what,
here you are. One four o'clock
you walk across the lake.
Its ice creaks: gut syllables,
lingo between fish and fowl.

You'd refused the skates because
A) surely then you'd have to
perform a spin, and B) they could
hurt the ice. You its executioner,
you the handle turning the blade.


Last Address

What gold flitter has made of your ear
a hive? Clouds tug loose a last dream

and now the rainfall bears down
your secrets. The question's not

if the river had its way with you,
spit you out as a small inquiry

unfit for the big answer. No,
the question won't pertain to tattoos

or unmatchable DNA, but to what
world, under what sun, in what situ

we go on finding each you, each you,
the not-missed, the never missing.


We stand at the foot of you.
Bees and swallows rustle the grass

around half flesh, half bone, half
here, half gone. Dot of earth: nothing

owed or owned. Once you were a bud
in someone's belly. A swim, a sleep,

then to crown your way out. Keep
mum. Keep it to yourself, Little Prince

of the Reigning Question,
the would-you-do-it-all-again
there there, now now.


Found on the bank of the
Spokane River at approximately
2200 W. Falls Street. Adult
Caucasian male. This male was 5
feet 11 inches in height and
weighed approximately 161
pounds. His hair was dark brown
or possibly black. Clothing
worn: a pair of black lace up
boots with a brand name listed
as "CORCORAN," a pair of black
socks, a pair of light blue
denim pants with a brand name
listed as "RUSTLER," a pair of
red slightly meshed under
shorts, a dark colored T-Shirt
with the size listed as
medium and a name brand of
Identification information
obtained, no match found.
Fingerprints unobtainable.
#10042 Spokane County
Medical Examiner's Records






“The Bridge” by Kerry Muir

Issue 66

Found in Willow Springs 66

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CAMMY TUTTLE IS THE SMARTEST, toughest girl in our whole fifth grade. She has red hair, straw-straight, and wears boys' clothes. Her trademark is a tweed Englishman's cap she got at Hinks department store in downtown Berkeley. She rode the BART train there all by herself, an adventure to Berkeley, to Hinks, and this is what she picked out as a treat—this hat, this Englishman's cap. She wears vests, too. It's 1973 and vests are in, especially corduroy ones with buckles, in earth tones like rust and olive green, colors that look good on Cammy Tuttle—but then, everything does, it seems.

On the playground when we play dodge ball, Cammy slings the ball at whoever's in the middle, hard, with gusto, with glee. But she's good at being in the middle, too. To watch her, you'd think being in the middle is a fabulous place to be. Cammy dances, leaps, and flies in the air. She skids sideways on worn-out tennis shoes. She sings at the ones who try to whack her with the ball: Missed me, missed me, now you have to kiss me. She teases and taunts them, actually tries to make them mad. If they throw the ball at me, I cover my face with both hands. I don't want to see that thing hurtling through the air at me.

Sometimes Cammy's mom subs at the school. Mrs. Tuttle. Her hair is firebird red, whereas Cammy's is more like a fox's. Mrs. Tuttle's hair is not straw-straight, but curly, bushy, and cut in a chic afro. She has spidery, spindly, white-as-moonlight legs, with just the lightest smattering of varicose veins that look like someone drew them there with a toothpick. On her feet, Mrs. Tuttle wears strappy high-heeled red sandals that make her long legs even longer. She wears them in wintertime even when it's cold, wears them with sheer white stockings and a big woolly fur coat.

Mom says Mrs. Tuttle is very ill—that she won't live more than a year. She tells me this because she wants me to be friends with Cammy Tuttle, to play with her, spend time. I think, Cammy is perfect, popular, wins at dodge ball—what does she need me for? But Mom says we should reach out to Cammy Tuttle. Our next door neighbot Mrs. Papini told Mom that Cammy is having a hard time, needs to have fun, needs friends. So Cammy has been invited to my house to play.

I see her in the distance from our kitchen window, crossing the old bridge. The bridge is long—about a quarter mile across. It's wide enough that an automobile could cross it, and probably did, many years ago. But now our house sits at the end of the bridge; if you drove across it now, you'd just end up in our backyard.

I am not allowed to walk on that bridge. Actually, no. one is. The bridge has DO NOT ENTER signs on the chicken-wire fence blocking it off at each end. In the spring, hundreds of ladybugs hatch and spread themselves all over that fence, covering it entirely in red. It's gorgeous. The bridge has holes in its asphalt surface big enough for even an adult to fall clear through. You can look down into those gaping holes and see the brown creek trickling, and rocks, like stepping stones in the water, hundreds of feet below. In bad weather, the bridge swings and creaks, sways on its feeble foundation of long, wobbly wooden stilts clamped to an ancient brace. The brace is corroded and tarnished, rusty and weak—oozing with thick, wet, green pads of moss. I've climbed down the steep slope into the creek many times, sometimes alone. It's a favorite place, of mine. There's a rotting one-room shack down there, just about the water, with the Devil's head painted in red on one side. Long, sloppy drips of paint leak out, dribble down from one of the Devil's horns. In pencil, scrawled along the walls of the shack: Asshole. Fuck. Fuck you. There's wildlife down there, too. My dog Ginger once came home without her collar, wet and muddy, covered in blood and shaking. Puncture wounds from claws covered her neck and throat. Hornets' nests hide in the tall weeds. Once, me and Joanne and Susan Papini happened to step on one; we all got stung in the most terrible way. The bridge used to be painted white, but now only flecks and chips remain. Parts of the railing have crumbled away, so you could fall off the bridge if you aren't careful—or if you had a mind to fall, like Mr. Koshland did.

Back in early October, just about a month ago, Scott Koshland's dad, Mr. Koshland, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. It was in all the papers. Our parents told us to be nice to Scott Koshland because his dad had jumped off a bridge. This haunts me because Scott Koshland's father is like my father—they both have bad legs from polio. Both walk with metal braces on one leg. Both use long metal canes. I saw Dad talking to Mr. Koshland once, on the playground at the school spring fair. They both stood balancing their metal canes, hips jutting out, shifting their weight every now and then—two asymmetrical bookends in loose-fitting khakis and blue plaid. Not even a year ago. Mr. Koshland had seemed normal then—fine. Just like my dad: Normal. Fine.

These days, my normal, fine dad is glued to the Watergate hearings on our black-and-white TV. When the hearings are on, you are not allowed to talk. He sits close to the box, holding the antenna, fiddling with the brown contrast dial. He mumbles things to the TV: Oh for crying in a beer. Good question, Sam. You numbskull. You knucklehead! He turns the volume up loud. You can hear Watergate blaring through every room in the house. You can hear it in the kitchen, where I'm standing, watching Cammy come closer and closer, as she crosses the old bridge.

Cammy walks like an athlete, half skip, half normal walk. She kicks things—dead walnuts, dried-up branches, broken twigs—kicks them like she's kicking a soccer ball. Using two fingers in her mouth, she whistles a boy's sharp whistle that cuts into the air above the creek. She does funny little elfin moves on the bridge—a shuffle hop, a grapevine step, a juggling move, a twirl. A bow to the uppermost branches of a giant walnut tree. She walks up to a pothole and sways over the lip, looking down to see below. With her toes touching the edge, she lifts one leg, balances for a moment, and stretches out both arms. Eventually, she hops over the hole—a hopscotch-type hop—landing on the same leg. When she gets to the end of the bridge, she reads the DO NOT ENTER sign, then flicks it like a booger or a fly.

I open the sliding glass door of the kitchen and walk out. Behind me, the sounds of Watergate: men's voices, tapping on microphones, throats clearing, papers shuffling, southern drawls. It's summer, and my dad, a teacher, is mostly home these days. My mom and sister are out somewhere.

What to do now? Cammy Tuttle is here. What to say? We wander around the backyard, kicking walnuts and twigs, looking at the ground.

You wanna take a walk? 

Cammie shrugs. Suits me. 

I've had two bad secret habits for a while that nobody knows about. One is shoplifting from grocery store. The other is breaking into people's houses and taking a poo or a pee. I don't flush. That's my criminal trademark, not flushing, so they'll know I was there. I never steal from the houses—I just like to look around, see their things, what stuff they have, see their secret lives.

I take Cammy to Craig Wingett's house. An older boy, Craig goes to Alcalanes, the big high school. After knocking on the door a couple times to make sure that no one's home, we enter the Wingetts' through the side door and step into the kitchen. I've never been here before. My face, my arms, the hair on my head feel coated with electricity. My legs are prickly, bursting with energy. I feel wiry, capable, sharp, alive. Things look vivid, dangerous, frightening, bright: the gleam of pots and pans on the wall, the glint of knives in the rack. An old-fashioned was tub sits in the sink, filled with water and suds. Bras dry on a string in the air about the sink. Two plastic angels stand next to a row of containers that say: Sugar, Flour, Salt, Rice, Tea. Cammy finds a round blue tin of butter cookies, takes one for herself and tosses one to me. It's good. We look around, touching everything: the bowl of red apples on the kitchen table, the two place settings on rubber olive-green place mats. I go down the hall—the carpet is gold shag—past photos of Craig at age five, six, seven, eight, nine, until he's about sixteen. I can tell they're school photos because they all have that same swirly blue wall behind his head. There's Craig—or someone—as a baby. Mr. Wingett in Buddy Holly glasses with Mrs. Wingett, beehive hairdo, rays of light beaming behind their heads. A smooth golden Jesus nailed to a smooth golden cross, with a smooth golden crown of thorns upon his head. To my right, a bedroom door is the tiniest bit ajar. I peek in and see a long glass-topped dresser, silver hand mirror, silver brush, comb, perfume bottle with round rubber squirter, golden-cased lipstick. I walk in with my eye on the perfume, give myself a squirt, look at myself in the mirror. I decide I hate my overalls and short hair, wish I'd never let Mom cut off my braids. In the bathroom, I don't turn on the light when I pee.

Back in the kitchen, Cammy's twirling her Englishman's cap on one finger. She throws it up in the air, lets it land back on her finger, keeps it spinning round and round. Says to me, Hey. Come here. 


You have to see the masterpiece. 

Like Carol Merrill on Let's Make a Deal, Cammy points to the center of the kitchen table, between the place mats. The tin wash tub, still full of suds, now has Mrs. Wingett's laciest, blackest bra stretched around it, fastened in the back. There's a big red apple in each cup. Cammy takes suds from the washtub, dots bubbles on the places where nipples would be. We crack up, take bites from the apples, put them, bitten, back in the bra, and crack up all over again.

It takes about five minutes to find Craig Wingett's stash of Playboys, a stack under his bed. We sit on the floor, we crouch, we kneel, we curl up. We open to the centerfold, Miss Whatever-month, an oiled-up blonde on a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire. From what I can tell, she's in a cabin in Alaska somewhere. She's wearing a diamond choker, black spike heels, and nothing else. Her boobs are bigger than her head. We read the blurb about her in the bubblegum-pink box: her name is Kimberly. She likes warm smiles, riding horses bareback, swimming naked at the beach. Dislikes negativity. l look at Cammy. She is staring at Kimberly the way my dad stares at the Watergate hearings on our black-and-white TV. Leaning forward a little. Not blinking.

There's the sound of a car pulling into the driveway outside, and the squeak of brakes. The electricity in my body wakes up again, shocking me down to my toes. There's a scramble of Cammy and me pushing, stumbling, knocking into Craig's doorway, bumping each other, getting tangled, grabbing, clawing at walls.

Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! God! Go!

We shove each other down the narrow hall, losing our balance, hitting every photograph and tchotchke on the wall: Craig as a baby, Craig as a teen, Craig at eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, and five, the golden Jesus, the kitchen table, kitchen door. Just as we're almost free and clear, Cammy stops, turns on her heel, and runs back in the house again.

Cammy! Cammy! Cammy! Cam!

I dance back and forth on my toes, pounding the frame of the doorway. In a flash, Cammy is back, now clutching her Englishman's cap.

Go! Go! Go!

Sound of car doors slamming. The trunk door opening. Paper bags. Words.

We fly out the back door, clutching each other's sleeves, each other's hands. Cammy shoves me into a hedge, skids down next to me on the ground. I'm on my butt in the dirt, squashed in the space between house and hedge, hand over my face. I want to laugh so bad. I peek out through two fingers at Cammy, who stares straight through the leaves of the hedge. Whenever I start to lose it, she digs her fingernails into my knee. I bite my knuckle, twist my hand. I try to think of something serious and sad, to keep from laughing out loud. I think of Watergate and southern drawls, throats clearing, papers shuffling, microphones tapping. I think of Scott Koshland's dad, the air rushing fast and hard against his face; I think of a wish he might have had, just moments too late, to fly back upward, as if he had wings, to the place he'd stood only seconds before, there on the Golden Gate Bridge. I think of Mrs. Tuttle's high-heeled strappy sandals, her black coat, red hair, long legs, varicose veins, of Scott Koshland at the desk next to me, staring straight ahead. I think of anything, anything to keep from exploding and laughing and screaming and blowing it, getting caught, getting punished, getting put away. Meanwhile, goddamned Mrs. Wingett and Craig are taking about four hours to get the groceries out of their silver-blue Chevrolet. Finally, finally there's the sound of a screen door slamming shut, banging twice. Then silence, a few seconds—and Mrs. Wingett's high-pitched, wailing shriek.

That does it, we're gone, Cammy and me, running wild down Nordstrom Lane, screaming, laughing, crying, panting, sprinting through backyards. In a vacant lot where someone's starting construction, cement mixers and cinder blocks scattered everywhere, we bend over, grab our knees, hit the ground, roll, laugh, pound the dried-up earth, hold our stomachs, scream and scream and howl and cry and scream all over again.

We lie in the dirt, breathing hard in the sun. Cammy presses her forehead into the earth. Laugher bubbles up, recedes. I make a snow angel in some loose dirt. Cammy stands up, walks around. Takes off her Englishman's cap. Stares at it. Puts it back on.

I feel like an excursions, she says. I feel like going to Hinks. 

Right now? 

Yes, now. 

By yourself? 

No, stupid. With you. 

And so, less than an hour later, I follow Cammy across the old bridge, away from my house, toward the road that leads to the BART. The bridge sways and creaks, a great gray elephant's back under our feet. We look into potholes and see clear down to the bottom of the creek. I see the roof of the Devil's fuck-you shack, the muddy curve of the creek, water barely moving. I see the tall, tangled weeds, plants with red berries, thorns. Giant trees loom around us, their branches waving in the wind, forming a lacy veil of leaves over our heads like a canopy.

I follow Cammy across the bridge.

And for one moment it occurs to me, It's possible we might die.

Our odds could be that bad, our timing so crappy, our luck so slim that today might be the very day the bridge collapses and crumbles, the day the bridge falls.

But it's only fear.

Soon Cammy and I will be on the other side of the bridge, walking down Happy Valley Road. We'll ride BART to Berkeley, get off at Shattuck Avenue, go into Hinks and look around at the tall, pale walls. Cammy will get to buy one thing (a gift from her mother, perhaps?). She will choose her one thing from the men's department: a bright red paisley bow tie. I will go next door and shoplift a halter top for JCPenney's, with pale blue and white checks, its neckline a plunging V. We will ride BART back home, her wearing her new bow tie, me fidgeting with the halter top, looping it round and round the knuckles of one hand. The station in suburban Lafayette will be almost empty, the sky yellow, getting ready to turn dark.

Walking home along Happy Valley Road, Cammy will let me wear her tweed Englishman's cap. I'll let her wear the halter top, which she'll pull on over her olive-green sweater. She'll wiggle her hips as she walks and fills the cups of the halter with her thumbs, pretending to have boobs like Kimberly in Craig Wingett's Playboy magazine. By the time we get to the bridge there will be no light in the sky at all. I'll stick very close to Cammy when we walk back across. I will ask Cammy, Don't you feel cold? And she'll say, Nope, not me. I will feel tired, trying my best to keep up. Sometimes Cammy will be a step or two ahead of me, but other times I'll catch up with her and walk next to her, side by side. Every once in a while she'll say Look out. . . or Watch it there. . . , pointing to a gaping pothole. I'll tell her if I see one, too—I'll say Cammy, there's one over there. Over here, Cam. It will take us a long time to cross, but eventually, we'll get to the other side. We'll pick our way carefully, deliberately, down the bridge's pockmarked asphalt center, tiptoeing around all those potholes, so many potholes, floating in the dark.

Two Poems by Sara Burge

Issue 92 Cover

Found in Willow Springs 92

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Sexy Fish

One way to begin a new life is to be miserable in the current, so miserable you fantasize about opening a bar or food truck, anything to fool yourself more easily into believing a morsel of what yo do matters. You do a few shots on the first beautiful Saturday night of spring and they go straight to your fingertips while your husband, two drinks deeper fires up the grill and you think about a riverside bar you drank at a few years back, how it's up for sale, how you had years of restaurant experience and are still a pro at gauging the ebb and flow of a crowd, knowing how deep in the weeds the fronts and back of the house are and how to smile when you want to spit. That bar and seafood has always been your favorite, so you decide to open a seafood bar right there riverside, open air patio, little bubblies on the water, where you'll plant sunflowers and daisies and black-eyed susans and you feel yourself surfacing in your drunkenness, in the first dream you've entertained in years. A dream like a fish undulating underwater, serene in its own fishiness. You want to dive down among slick stones, into the clarity of rapids where you've always trusted your body's instincts. You will call your restaurant Sexy Fish. At Sexy Fish, all that matters is eating some fish by the river, knowing you're sexy, having a couple drinks too many until you dip a toe, an armpit, a thought into all that water, trying not to cry at all those bright splashes passing you by.


Harry Styles is The Way

I didn't care one way or the other about Harry Styles
until I noticed him smiling at me
from the sunroom of a house I used to pass by

back when we were all going somewhere.
It was startling until I realized
he was a lifesize cardboard cutout.

At Halloween, he wore a Chewbacca mask
At Christmastime, Harry was
decked out in a Santa hat.

He smiled at me for a couple years.
He never aged.
I started looking forward to him.

He became a custom, a strange jolt of comfort
when the days were too stagnant, too cruel.
Then he disappeared.

I wondered if the family moved,
or a child took Harry to college.
I kept waiting for his comeback.

Despair invaded every breath.
Every turn of the ignition.
Every window passed.

I started overcooking my eggs.
The cosmos called and said Harry would've stayed
but a lot of people didn't like the way he dressed.

A lot of people started crying in my office.
I smiled and nodded empathetically.
We all felt his absence and knew

we had to go home until he returned.
Some CEOs were brought on board.
They told us to keep going out,

even with no Harry Styles watching over us.
They assured us that there was no danger
as long as we're not afraid

and pretend everything's the way
it used to be, even though
Harry Styles is still missing.

I kept hoping he'd return
at Christmas when the son or daughter visited
or someone dug him out of the basement.

But he hasn't come back.
That sunroom is just a room,
and I don't look anymore.

That's a lie. I look every time.


“Coffee With Werewolves” by Teresa Milbrodt

Issue 92 Cover

Found in Willow Springs 92

Back to Author Profile

LEAVING TOWN IS AN ESCAPE in slow motion. As I load boxes into the back of Lee's Ford Maverick, it feels like we're in one of those horror movies she loves, fleeing danger when we can't see who's chasing us. With Vietnam, Watergate, and all the Soviet nuclear business on the radio, running away from an additional monster just adds another layer to things that could go wrong.

But nothing has yet," Lee reminds me. "The point is to get out before something does."

I know that's the case, but hearing Lee say it aloud is scary. I'm getting used to the idea of Lee and me, me and Lee, that we have a stake in each other, though neither of us have said We're a couple. We're going to stay with Lee's Aunt Florence and rent her extra bedroom. Aunt Florence knew Lee wanted to be called "she" before Lee mentioned it, and she's never asked questions about the change in pronouns.

I have a new job since I managed a transfer from my old bank to a local branch. Lee is less intent on finding work and more on locating a doctor who'll renew her prescription for estrogen and a therapist who won't tell her she's crazy. Her current doctor and counselor are five hours away in Chicago. Lee would rather not have the long drive but says it's not too far for understanding. She's been on hormones for six months. Any doctor will want her to live as a woman and take estrogen for at least a year before she considers surgery.

"More hospitals are performing them so there's less chance of being denied by some stupid board," Lee says hours later as we hang blouses in our new closet at Aunt Florence's place. "But I'll need enough money to pay for it, and who knows how long that'll take.

Lee has read everything she can find about transsexuality, which amounts to three good books, five stupid ones, and a scattering of magazines. She saw six asshole therapists in three states before she found the one in Chicago who asked non-insulting questions: Is Lee willing to give up her job and take a drastic pay cut? Is she willing to lose friends and family? Is she willing to risk the possibility of assault if someone decides she's not passing well enough?

"She's up front with me," says Lee. "There's no easy path. but I'm done lying. At least when I lose my family, I won't be the first person who's been disowned for stupid reasons."

"You have Aunt Florence and me," I say, though I know that's cold comfort.

Lee kisses my forehead. I feel her mouth strain into a smile.


AFTER THREE DAYS and a few evening chats with Aunt Florence, Lee applies for a bank teller position so she can gather references and practice being a woman in the world full-time. We bought more skirts and dresses for her at Goodwill, and Aunt Florence says Lee can have some of her old clothes. Lee is five-eleven and Aunt Florence used to be that tall before she started shrinking.

"I think of it as condensing," Aunt Florence says.

"At least we're both small-chested." Lee fingers one of Aunt Florence's sweaters as we peruse her closet.

"Give it time," says Aunt Florence. "You're blossoming."

"I'm wilted today," Lee says, rubbing her lower back. I give her a backrub before bed, turning on the radio so Diana Ross can soothe us. Lee was in a car accident ten years ago that messed up her spine. She has the kind of persistent pain that makes doctors shrug and tell her to take more Tylenol.

"The corset helps," she but murmurs I like into the her pillow. "I thought it would be uncomfortable, but I like the pressure. It reminds me to have good posture. Someday I'll get the boobs to fill out the top."

"I don't have the boobs to fill out the top," I say.

"But nobody looks at you twice when you walk into the grocery store," says Lee.

"It's because you have cute clothes, perfect makeup, and you're model slender," I say.

"If you insist," says Lee. "I still worry about my voice every time I open my mouth. It's not just speaking breathy or in falset­to. It's the cadences, the pauses, the rhythms. It'll take a while to figure out."

I massage her shoulders with the heels of my hands. For someone like Lee, vaulting between terror and defiance is a logical course of emotion.


ON THE DAY OF HER JOB INTERVIEW, which is my first day of work at the new bank, Lee gets up an hour before me so she can put herself together. I roll on my stomach and clamp a pillow over my head to steal extra minutes of rest, After a week and a half of sharing a bedroom, I know her routine. She stuffs the top of the corset with pantyhose, shaves her arms and legs (every other day), and spends forty minutes on makeup. Lee pastes down her eyebrows with a glue stick, smooths on foun­dation, lightens the dark areas under her eyes, dusts blush on her cheekbones, draws in clean eyebrows, brushes on two col­ors of eyeshadow, adds definition with eyeliner, and fills out her mouth with lipstick and lip pencil. She accessorizes with two bracelets and three rings.

I get up in time to dig a skirt and blouse from the closet and smear on pink lipstick. Behind my round glasses frames, nobody cares about my eyes.

I don't know how rigorously they interview tellers at the bank, but Lee comes out of the back offie smiling. She's never been a teller, but after being employed as a loan officer for fourteen years, she's familiar enough with the system to fake it. Lee spends the afternoon training with me and Jenny who works at the window on my left and has been at this bank since the beginning of time (according to Jenny). She looks to be in her mid-sixties, about as old as Aunt Florence, and calls Lee and me "Sugar." We wade through the day one customer at a time, supporting ourselves with five-minute coffee breaks and little stools. When we don't have customers, Jenny and I discuss our favorite brands of shoe insoles.

What did you think?" I ask Lee that evening when we debrief in Aunt Florence's kitchen with a beer.

"So much standing," she says. "I'm not used to it."

"It takes a while," I say. We need to get better shoes for Lee, comfortable, stylish flats. I changed into jeans and sneakers like usual after work, but Lee kept her blouse and skirt.

"It's nice to be in this body full time," she says. Before our move when she was still dressing as a guy, Lee stripped her shirt and tie after work and put on stockings and a dress.

On evenings when Aunt Florence isn't pulling a late shift at the diner, she works with Lee on refining her female mannerisms: keeping her legs together, crossed or uncrossed, swishing her hips slightly when she walks, gesturing with her hands when she talks. Lee has practiced these things for years and I think she does fine, but she wants more feedback.

On nights when Aunt Florence works, Lee and I have a quick dinner then drive to a bar near the edge of town where it's easy to be anonymous. I order a beer, Lee has a glass of red wine, and we practice our voices. I'm trying to speak in a lower register so people take me seriously. That was after one of the tellers at my old bank compared my tone to a cheerful pixie. I think she meant it as a compliment, but I was appalled. I want to be a dusky alto who commands respect.

"I'll go doctor hunting next week," Lee says. "That or drive back to Chicago like I said I wouldn't do. I also didn't think I'd be a bank teller."

I pat her hand across the table. "It's a start."

"I didn't burn all the bridges at the old job," she says. "Can't throw away that schooling and experience. Yet."

"Would you ask them for references?" I say.

"When hell freezes over," she says. "But stranger things have happened."


AT WORK LEE PRACTICES her voice in comfortable snatches:

"How may I help you?"

"Would you like ones or fives?"

"Thank you for your business. Have a lovely afternoon." She pops Tylenol in the break room—I think her feet and back give her more problems than her voice—and she stays with the teller job for a month before quitting. The work is repetitive, there's not much problem-solving, and wearing a plastic smile is tiring.

"I have to be okay with making less money," she says to herself and me when we go to the bar. "It's a stupid economic reality. But I need to find something less mind-numbing."

"Gee, thanks," I say.

"You're used the rhythm," she says. "And you want to save energy for your artwork. I need something with more sub­stance, but none of the higher-ups at the bank are women."

I nod. Welcome to girlhood.

'Two days later, Aunt Florence a job lead. One of her regulars at the diner said an office position came open at the insurance agency where he works.

"It's mostly customer service and paperwork," she says. "But I know Steve, the guy who owns the agency. He's a good customer and a fair tipper." Aunt Florence puts in a good word for Lee as an organized person with office experience. After a fifteen-minute phone chat with Steve, Lee wins an interview for the following Monday. She can't sleep the night before, tosses and turns beside me, but lands the job after a half-hour conversation.

"They were desperate," she tells me that evening. "Steve was was overjoyed I could type forty words a minute."

By week's end, she's answering phones, gathering forms, relaying questions to agents, and getting paper cuts. Aunt Florence hears through the diner grapevine that Lee is a hit.

"She has a reputation for retaining customers who call with questions about increases to their premiums," Aunt Florence tells us at breakfast.

"It's not difficult," says Lee. "You help people imagine the worst thing that could happen and say you can help them avoid it."

There's no sales pitch like old-fashioned fear. Over the next month Lee makes an uneasy peace with the job and devotes more time to thinking about her gestures.

"There's so much to remember," she says. "Like your head tilt. Do you think about your head tilt?"

"I have a head tilt?" I say.

"Exactly," says Lee. "It's a very feminine head tilt."

"What's the difference between a feminine head tilt and a masculine head tilt?"

"What masculine head tilt?" she says.

Before Lee and I became friends, my only concern with gender was when I could wear jeans, when I couldn't wear jeans, and when I had to wear makeup. Now I know she watches me shuffle around the kitchen as I make grilled cheese sandwiches and move like a girl, though most days I don't feel very girly.

Before we moved, Lee dragged me out to go roller skating or hiking on the weekends, but being a woman in the world exhausts her. She's started spending Saturday afternoons at the library where she shares cigarettes with Nance, the local history librarian, and checks out books about local ghosts, monsters, and assorted demons.

"Nance wrote two of them based on legends she collected from older folks," Lee tells me. She loves any story that could be the plot of a B horror flick, so I'm not surprised when she asks if I want to take a road trip on Sunday.

"An hour and a half east of here there's a cemetery where one of the stones doesn't want to stay put." Lee coughs. "They move it to the back of the graveyard, but a week later it's by the front again. It's supposed to be the ghost of a young woman. Worth checking out."

WE DON'T TAKE FLOWERS to the cemetery but Peanut M&Ms, which Lee likes, licorice whips, which I like, and Lemonheads, which we both like. We need something to eat on the drive, and something to leave for Gudrun, the girl with the wandering headstone. She was twenty-seven when she died, younger than me, though I know medical care wasn't good at the time.

I'm in charge of our maps and rub my hands together as we drive.

Lee glances sideways at me. "You achy or nervous?"

"Achy," I say. It's not a lie since my joints are stiff from the week at work, though graveyards make me anxious. I blame Lee offer dragging me to scary movies, though I never declined the offer of a ticket and all the Junior Mints I cared to eat.

It's three in the afternoon when we reach the cemetery. Lee had cranked up Carly Simon and Stevie Wonder on the radio, which makes the graveyard seem less imposing until she turns off the engine. The cemetery is appropriately gothic, with ivy-covered wrought iron gates, tombstones with engravings so weathered it's nearly invisible, and no other car in sight.

Lee parks along the shoulder, I grab the bag of candy, and we begin our hunt for Gudrun. Many of the markers are a century-and-a-half old. Some are tiny, and others are much larger and look like four-foot-high replicas of the Washington Monument. Lee and I wander for a good twenty minutes, peering at faint letters until an older lady wearing coveralls and a wide-brimmed blue gardening bat comes tromping through the grass.

"You looking for Gudrun?" she says. "That's usually the case when folks seem like they don't know where they're going. Guddie is real popular."

"We brought licorice for her," I say holding out the bag so she knows we come as friends.

"And Peanut M&Ms," says Lee.

"Aren't you the sweetest," the lady says and introduces herself as Tilda, the cemetery groundskeeper and archivist.

"Guddie's over here," she says, marching us toward the front of the cemetery. "Least for the moment. I'm sure they'll move her back, but the maintenance department is getting sick of it. Takes them longer to come every time. I figure one day they'll just leave her be."

"Why won't they do that now?" says Lee.

Tilda shrugs. "They say the stone has to go with the body. I say it don't make much difference long as they're both in the cemetery, but town council don't mind me on those matters. They want me to keep the records straight and the grass mowed."

As we walk, Lee lights a cigarette. Tilda takes her own pack of Marlboros from her pocket and asks for a light. After an appreciative puff, she tells us more about Gudrun. There are at least eight different stories about how she died, and probably more that don't get repeated as much. In one version she succumbed after childbirth—the county doctor was a twit—and she wanted to be near the front of the cemetery so he'd see her stone every day when he drove past in his buggy.

Another story claimed she died in the county asylum after she was sent there by her husband. He wanted to get a divorce and had her ruled insane, then hid her tombstone in the back of the cemetery after she passed.

A third tale suggests she was run over by a carriage owned by one of the richest men in town, who also had the largest and most expensive stone at the front of the graveyard. Even in death, Gudrun wouldn't let him upstage her.

Here she is," says Tilda, stopping by a rounded marble head-stone with an angel sitting on top. "The angel chipped one of its wings a while back, but that hasn't stopped Guddie from flying where she pleases. That stone may look small, but it's over three hundred pounds. Harold's got a bad back and Guddie's wearing him down. She'll have her way in the end.

I place three pieces of licorice in front of the angel and wonder what kind of expression she had when newly carved. She looks like she's kind smirking, but maybe that's my dream of poetic justice. Lee adds a handful of M&Ms to my offering, then gives some to me and Tilda who nods her thanks and tells us to have a lovely whatever-this-is.

There's a lesson in that," Lee says after Tilda resumes her grass-tending duties. "Someone tries to put you in your place, you just move. They put you back, you move again. And again. And again. Until their back gives out."

"How do we make their back give out faster?" I say.

"Numbers," says Lee, eating another Peanut M&M. "The more of you there are, the harder it is to move you."


NOW THAT SHE'S befriended a historian with a penchant for the paranormal, Lee has a new destination for us every weekend.

"We have to go to this town where there are mutant people living in the woods," she tells me one evening at the bar. "They were victims of a government experiment."

"Its sounds like a movie I saw with my cousin Roger when we were in high school," I say. Lee flips through her notebook undaunted.

"There's a lizard man who lives along the river near Loveland, a ghost dog that haunts the lawn around a county courthouse and sniffs people's rears, and a haunted pond with a farm at the bottom," she says.

"A ghost dog that sniffs rears?" I say.

"The pond was created when a hydroelectric dam was built." says Lee. "This farmer was kicked off his land and wasted away with grief. Now he sits on the bank looking mournful. If you see him, you're supposed to give him a beer."

"What kind of dog?" I ask.

"There's also a haunted bus just outside of Youngstown that picks up passengers and doesn't drop them off. We might not look for that one." She flips to the next page. "A couple of years ago in Defiance, people reported there was a werewolf running around shaking the doors to their houses and trying to get inside."

"How did they know it was a werewolf if they didn't open the doors?"

"The newspaper article said it was a hairy, grunting creature," says Lee. "We could hang out in a park around dusk and see what happens."

"We'll never be seen again," I say. "Except maybe for smeared blood."

"We'll get burgers for dinner," she says. "And an extra for the werewolf. Maybe it would like to chat, but everyone runs away screaming."

"I dunno," I say. "At least a couple of them might be pissed and vengeful."

"You bring the silver bullets, I'll bring the burgers," she says. "This weekend it'll be an easy drive. About an hour from here, there was an old orphanage that burned down a century ago. The ghosts of the kids who died leave handprints on your car if you come at dusk."

"Why can't we go see the dog?"

"That's the weekend after next," says Lee.


ON FRIDAY EVENING we spend a half-hour at the grocery store debating what kind of candy to buy for ghost children. Wrapped or unwrapped? Hard or chewy? Fruity or chocolate? Peanut butter, caramel, or peppermint? We settle on butterscotch disks, peppermints, and Lee's Peanut M&Ms.

"Did the legend explain why the kids died?" I ask Lee on the drive. "Didn't anyone yell an alarm?"

"I don't know." Lee wrinkles her eyebrows. "I'd prefer to think it I was a smoky fire and they drifted off in their sleep."

I nod. The other option is too terrible to consider.

"What if we bring a ghost kid home?'' I say. "They might be bored of hanging out in a field."

"We'll but leave I imagine candy so we they're not tempted to be hitchers," she says, but I imagine we could still get invisible riders in the back seat who'd sneak cookies from Aunt Florence's kitchen and spread crumbs across the floor. We'd need to have a séance. Maybe the kid would be willing to chat. I'd like to know what they thought of the world seventy years after they died, now that we have cars and televisions and radios and indoor plumbing and microwaves and environmental degradation and public service announcements with pictures of mushroom clouds. Maybe after a couple evening news broadcasts about Soviet summits, broken arms reduction treaties, and Vietnam, the kid would go back to the forest.


LEE HUMS IN THE MORNING when she puts on her make­up and kisses me after breakfast, but when I pick her up from work in the afternoon the color has drained from her cheeks. This new life must be a combination of euphoria and fear. She can wear skirts and dresses and cute shoes. She can reapply her lipstick mid-day. She can walk into the ladies' room at work be­cause there is only one toilet, but she worries she'll forget to lock the door. When she orders red wine at the bar, the waiter replies, "Yes, ma'am."

As we wait for our drinks, I note the tension in her shoulders, her fingers, her mouth. So many reminders must be pealing in her brain: Sit up. Tilt your head. Legs together. Cross your ankles. Don't take such a large swallow. At least for now, she can't break the fragile myth of what womanhood is supposed to be.


I ENJOY OUR TRIPS down graveled roads, passing cornfields and barns and country churches with graveyards populated by wildflowers and scattered tombstones. We roll down the windows and turn up the radio, nodding to farmers in pickups. I watch for cop cars and sheriffs' deputies, anyone who might pull us over for going three miles past the speed limit.

For years it's been easy for me to float under the radar as a brand of tomboy. My last romantic relationship was with a guy who seemed vanilla until he turned hippie and moved to California to experiment with psychedelics. But now I'm with Lee. In love with Lee. Terrified at what some guy who says he's in law enforcement might do if he stopped us. I've never confronted this pressure of fear, but the police are more frightening that any ghost, lizard man, or werewolf.

Lee asked her doctor in Chicago to copy part of a letter that Dr. Harry Benjamin described in his book The Transsexual Phenomenon, which she's read three times. It's a note he gives to patients undergoing estrogen therapy:

To Whom it May Concern: This is to certify that the bearer, __________, is under my professional care and observation. This patient belongs to the rather rare group of transsexuals, also referred to in the medical literature as psychic hermaphrodites. Their anatomical sex, that is to say, the body, is male. Their psychological sex, that is to say, the mind, is female. Therefore they feel as women, and if they live and dress as such, they do so out of an irrepressible inner urge, and not to commit a crime, to "masquerade," or to "impersonate" illegally. It is my considered opinion, based on many years' experience, that transsexuals are mostly introverted and nonaggressive and therefore no threat to society. In their feminine role they can live happier lives and they are usually less neurotic than if they were forced to live as men. I do not think that society is endangered when it assumes a permissive attitude, and grants these people the right to their particular pursuit of happiness. Like all patients of this type, __________ has been strictly advised to behave well and inconspicuously at all times and to be careful in choosing friends.

Lee's doctor signed the note at the bottom, a scrawl I can't read, but it looks official. She keeps the note in her purse and has four Xerox copies in a folder in case anyone snatches the original. That's happened to people with similar notes.

"Some cops will rip it up in front of your face," Lee says, but I'm glad for the insurance, no matter how small. I also don't want her traveling alone.


LEE DOESN'T LIKE that I refer to our road trips as the Tour of Terror, so I only do that in my head. This time we're going to a pond where a school bus rammed through the metal barricade and disappeared into the water. No one board bus was seen again, but locals claim the children who were on that bus grew fins and gills and turned into mer-kids.

"Why are so many legends about dead children?" I ask.

"People like tragedy," says Lee. "Have you ever listened to folk songs? Everybody dies."

Twenty seconds later, my heart speeds up when a pickup races past us, skirting too close. A cop car with blazing lights is quick to follow. Lee pulls to the side of the road as we watch dust from both vehicles settle. We glance at each other, exchanging a wordless expletive. She keeps a steady two miles under the speed limit as we continue the drive.

There's a metal guardrail along the road beside the pond and a white wooden fence around the bank. There are no monuments, markers, or battered silk flowers, but Lee says she's sure this is the pond we're looking for. She parks on the shoulder just after the guardrail. We wade through the grass and undo the latch on the gate, then spread our offering of lemon drops and peppermints at the water's edge. Lee skips stones across the pond while I think about being a kid on a field trip, drowsing in my seat or trying to read as some jerk behind me yanks my hair, then sensing the sudden swerve, my body jolting as the bus crashes through the guardrail—

Would there have been time to scream?

The kids must have panicked, then . . . they grew fins? Gills? Morphed into mer-children, their tears mingling with the pond as the gift from a forgotten water spirit changed their bodies into ones that could survive under the ripples?

"How long would it take to get used to eating algae?" I ask Lee. "Once you were part enchanted fish, would it be gross or taste like a cheeseburger?"

"They're only part fish," says Lee. "I'd think cheeseburgers or algae would be fine."

I'm not convinced it would be so easy, but I'm a picky eater. Perhaps the mer-kids expanded their palates and still enjoy peppermints. Can they poke their heads out of the pond to get the treats we left? I was never good at swimming so if I turned into a mer-person it would have benefits, but the algae-eating leaves me unnerved.

On the way home we stop at a silver pillbox diner. The white tile floor looks like it hasn't been mopped for a week, though the smell of French fry grease is intoxicating. The walls are decorated with photographs of the Little League team the diner sponsors, and each table holds a milk glass vase with a red carnation. Behind the counter a solo waitress with gray curls chats with a couple old guys. She waves at us and the expanse of booths.

"Sit anywhere," she says. Lee wears her new pink Vans, trying to cultivate a slight hip swish without the reminder of dress shoes. The waitress brings iced tea. She nods when Lee orders a tuna melt with French fries. I order a cheeseburger, but Lee gives me a long gaze.

"I thought you were easing up on cheeseburgers; she says.

"Mom wants me to ease up on cheeseburgers." I shouldn't have told her about my mother's latest theory that red meat exacerbates hereditary arthritis. I didn't think Lee would take it seriously. "I thought you were easing up on smokes."

"Not while I'm researching local history," she says. It comes in handy that we both have vices.


LEE ISN'T HAPPY TO DISCOVER that the Lizard Man near Loveland is also the town mascot. Drawings of his slim form and a couple grainy photos are featured on T-shirts, postcards, and shot glasses sold at the gas station. They also sell homemade jams, and we buy one for Aunt Florence since we need something to show for our drive. The lady working the register says gooseberry is her favorite.

"Dammit," Lee says when we get back to the car. "I don't feel like looking for the Lizard Man since I've seen him on a T-shirt."

"I'm not surprised they've commodified him," I say. "Look at Halloween. Spooks, sugar, and capitalism."

"Guess we need to find less popular legends," says Lee. "How do you feel about axe murderers?"

"I prefer the Lizard Man," I say.

"It's only two o'clock," Lee says, meaning the gooseberry jam won't be enough for this weekend. We drive an additional three hours to search for the ghost dog that wanders around the county courthouse. The sun is too high when we arrive-the dog only appears at dusk-but we walk the grounds, sit on iron benches, and anticipate the poke of an invisible wet nose.

At six thirty, Lee allows that we can take our jam and go home. She doesn't mention looking for axe murders, which is fine since I'm haunted by too many things already: my stupid joints, fear of being fired if I miss too many days at work, fear of Lee being assaulted in a dark parking lot, not being able to get surgery, or surgery being too expensive.

Maybe the Tour of Terror is Lee trying to direct her search for danger and distract herself from dangers we can't avoid. That's the logic I turn to the following weekend when she convinces me to look for werewolves. That amounts to us sitting in her car in a park at dusk. waiting for something to happen.

"Do you think the werewolf was hunting," I ask Lee, "or being hunted?"

"That's what I want to ask." says Lee.

According to Lee's newspaper reports, the werewolf was going around town pounding on doors late at night. There are many reasons for door-pounding.

Let me in! Something's chasing me!

Let me in! I'm in danger!

Come out! Someone is in danger!

Come out! You're in danger!

How do you distinguish any of those kinds of pounding from I'm a danger!

"What if the werewolf was looking for a safe place to hide?" I say to Lee. "How would you know unless you opened the door? But who'd open the door for a werewolf?"

We pause and listen to the cicadas.

"I don't think I could," I say. Speaking that idea aloud makes me feel strangely ashamed, but it's easy to imagine the werewolf going for my throat.

"I want to say I'd crack the door to see what the werewolf needed," says Lee, "but I forget how dark small towns can get at night."

"You're willing to look for the werewolf now," I say.

"Yeah." She reaches for the Peanut M&Ms in her purse. "While we have a getaway car." I hear the crinkle of the M&M bag, the crinkle of the letter from her doctor, and consider what I'd say if a werewolf came loping by.

"Have some licorice," would be the first thing, which would give us a moment to pause and chew. Not talking can be more difficult than talking, but after we got used to the werewolf and the werewolf got used to us, it might not look that scary. We could go from there.

Two Poems by Julie Marie Wade

Issue 92 Cover

Found in Willow Springs 92

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What is Far From Heaven? $800

There's a blue car as long as a boat—Melancholy motorized & sailing. There's a woman in a red coat with a lavender scarf who always looks ravishing, especially when she stands on the platform watching a salient train depart. Ravishing is the word she'll convince her husband to use as she coaxes a dance floor compliment: "It's a ravishing dress & a ravishing girl to go with it," he says, looking the part in his fancy white tux. That's how they ring in the New Year—1958—with a twist & a kiss & a lie. Her husband doesn't want to ravish her, in any archaic sense, & he isn't ravished by her, in any modern. He can see how pretty she is, how worried she is, how much she longs to please him, but as we know too well, it's the body that serves as a polygraph for all of our desires. Not what the words say, not what the clothes say, but how the flesh ignites in the presence, or even at the mention, or one desired. This film came out the same year I did. A friend saw it & said "Don't go. It's so depressing." The star is a woman I'd admired for years, not just with my head but also my body. What was that in the presence, or even at the mention, of men? Of course I went to the movie. When Frank sobs on a sofa in the dark, then tells Cathy, "I've fallen in love with someone," my first thought was How sad to be so sad about love! But hadn't I, just a few months before, wept on a sofa in the dark, then told the man I'd promised to marry, "I've fallen in love with someone"? Another friend said, "You'll really like this film. I mean, you were basically raised in the 1950s, with your family's whole generational time-warp thing." Maybe, in 2002, I wasn't as evolved as I thought. Were any of us then—and are we now? Frank still sobbing in the dark: "I tried . . . I tried so hard to make it go away!" Was it like that for me, too, a conscious denial, detecting my own lies & then grinding them down like guilty cigarettes into the earth? Or was I the Cathy of my story, murmuring "I don't understand" & meaning it. She's in the dark, & there's this whole other part of herself she's struggling to admit exists, whether or not her husband ever comes out. Desire, as we know too well, has a way of ravishing us, by rapture & by force. "I think of him, I do," Cathy confides in her friend, & by him, she doesn't mean Frank, & by think, she doesn't mean only with her mind. Anyone watching can feel the swarm of bees humming, can see the hot flush come over her face as she insists, "Nothing happened . . ." And that nothing she protests too much is about Raymond, a Black man in a barely integrated town who becomes her gardener & her friend, who opens the red door of his pick-up for her just that once—the only time he ever picked her up—which led to vicious talk, which led to violence, which led to Raymond & his daughter leaving everything behind as they climb aboard that salient train bent for Baltimore. Cathy didn't seem to know that two men could desire each other, even when she walked in on her husband in another man's embrace. She didn't seem to know that people of different races could desire each other, even when she was one of the ones who desired. On a street corner, uncoaxed by anyone, & harshly scrutinized by a group of white pedestrians, Cathy tells Raymond, "You're so beautiful." This is true, but not the whole truth. She means but doesn't say: "You're so beautiful to me." Afterwards, she runs away weeping. How sad to be so sad about love! I, too, come from a sad, beautiful place. Blue cars everywhere & Fauntlee Hills echoes those homogeneous Hartford vibes, strapped to a past that is perhaps more with us today than we would want, or are able, to recognize. In exchange for the illusion of safety comes that danger Raymond names—"mixing in other worlds." His eyes are wet with tears as he conveys to Cathy his regrets. I wonder: what do we lose, what do we gain, when we realize "things are pretty well finished for [us] here"? And what do we lose, or gain, when we realize here is pretty much everywhere?


What is Rear Window? $1000

Pretend the blinds in the film are theater curtains. They rise at the start & fall at the end, with the smooth efficiency of a stage play. For the audience, everything is clearly demarcated—our living room, his living room; our neighbors milling about; his neighbors mills about. Note elements of the mise-en-scène: Courtyard. Flower bed. Fire escape. Note the extras, whom we now call background artists: Cat scurrying up the stairs. Sleeping man supine on his balcony. Woman brushing her hair before the bathroom mirror. And there's our protagonist in his wheelchair, left leg rigid in a cast. No chance of conflating ourselves with his story, which makes it a safe place to be scared. In fact, it's the kind of place a girl can follow her father to on a Saturday afternoon—popcorn with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! spray, Shasta in sweating cans—as they begin to lose their easy way with each other. No need to talk about anything but the movie, & no one in the audience to shush & scold them as they do. It's a grisly tale of dismemberment without a drop of blood. It's a sly romance without nudity; no covers undulating with the faintest suggestions of sex. Most of all—& what the girl won't realize for many years—it's the ultimate adventure in meta-viewing: this prolonged occasion of watching someone who's watching someone who doesn't know he's being watched. Until the final ten minutes, that is. (Talk about a quick climax! But don't.) You could argue that productions of stage & screen are consensual acts of voyeurism. The character doesn't know you're watching, but the actor does. In fact, the actor desperately hopes you are. His success depends on your unwillingness to turn away. But this one's different. The whole premise is how rubbery our human necks are, bendier & bendier until they run the risk of being snapped. Jeffries isn't just bored in his last home-bound week with nothing to do but gawk & stare. HIs long career as a photo-journalist confirms he's a scopophile from the start—just as I am, just as you are. Remember the moment early on when he tells his nurse, "Right now I'd welcome trouble"? (Words he'll shortly wish to rescind.) Well, I wanted it too—that trouble. A mystery to solve. A triumph to claim. Some means of making myself useful. This longing to sleuth was something my father always humored in me. He played along with all the whodunnits howdunnits whys. It was easier, I suppose, than facing our actual mystery (my mother, his wife), the story we were living that we couldn't quite allow ourselves to believe. Jeff's nurse, Stella, tells him in a thoughtful moment I necessarily stowed away: "We've become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house & look for a change." I thought she meant it as a metaphor: Detect yourself! Maybe even meant it biblically: Take the plank out of your own eye & so forth. But then I recalled those lines many years later, slumped down in my seat, idling in a car outside my parents' house before circling & circling the block. I couldn't go in, you see. I couldn't even consider the possibility of a knock. But I could watch. Around the corner was my grandmother's house. I saw the light on in her den, the room where she played Solitaire, left the television blaring. She was hard of hearing in her old age, & I told myself I didn't want to scare her by pounding on a window in the dark. (Convenient alibi for my own fragile heart.) This film's arc spans only four days while min spans twenty years, continues still without an end in sight. No insight either. So when I say I was outside my own house looking in, I don't mean once, & I don't mean metaphorically. I mean, every time I fly across the country, it's the first thing I do. Rent a car at Sea-Tac. Take the back way down slick, suburban streets, wet light puddling in potholes. No intention of going in. No point rehearsing what to say. Just looking, just scanning the landscape for all the hard familiars—camellia tree in the mise-en-scène, weather vane that bears their changeless names. What if Jeffries's inmost truth is that he actually wants to be seen, which is to say confronted, caught? He'll face his consequence in flashbulbs, a string of frantic lights. At least then, when he plummets, he'll be looking up, gaze locked with a knowing stranger's eyes.

“If You Only Knew” by Bill Gaythwaite

Issue 92 Cover

Found in Willow Springs 92

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BEFORE MY FATHER RUNS OFF, he suddenly showers us all with attention. It's jarring at first, like having someone crowd next to you on a bus when there are plenty of seats in back. There's something desperate about it, but I'm not thinking this at the time. I'm just thrilled to be part of his world, because up until then he has been a shadowy figure, a supporting player in our lives. He's a busy executive, a senior vice-president at a famous insurance com­pany in Boston, coming home late most nights from work after my brother and I are in bed. I wait up for him, for his late-night, one minute check-ins, first to Wiley's room across the hall and then to mine. He stands at the foot of my bed as he loosens his tie, squeezes my big toe.

"You awake, Sport?" he says.

I always make sure to keep my toes peeking out from under the covers so he can grab one, but because of pride or stubbornness I never say a word before he walks away.

He goes to the office most weekends as well, and when he doesn't, he leaves the house at dawn to play golf, which he tells us is work-related, too. For business contacts. He calls golf a necessary evil, as if he's talking about a flu shot in the ass.

It is 1975.

He calls my mother every afternoon, usually to say he'll be tak­ing the last train out of the city to our little suburb.

"Why does he do that?" I ask her once after she puts the phone back on its hood. We are standing in the kitchen, the afternoon sun coursing through the windows, spilling over the Formica counter­tops. "Like he's telling you something you don't already know."

I have just turned thirteen and am getting a mouth on me.

"He likes to keep me informed," Ma says.

There might be an edge to her voice when my mother tells me this, or I might be remembering it that way, adding it in after the fact, like a sound effects engineer.

"Anyway," I tell her, "you should suggest he save his calls for some really big news, like when he's planning to make it home in time for a meal with his family."

"Now, Kevin," she sighs, "don't be so dramatic."

I already have a reputation.

"Ma!" I shout. "He's never here! Wiley pointed to the weather­man on Channel 4 the other day and asked if he was our father!"

My little brother, of course, has never said such a thing; because he's ten years old and knows better, but I still see the impact of my wise-ass words flash across Ma's face like brush fire. Soon after this, it is summer, and they are remodeling my dad's offices and he is suddenly home full time, and this is when the attention starts. He lavishes himself on us. When it happens, I am willing to forgive everything that has come before. I am powerless against it anyway. It's like a natural disaster. He's my dad.

He takes Wiley and me to Fenway three times during those weeks to watch the Red Sox play. We win every time. At least my memory has it that way. My dad gets chummy with the guys selling concessions at the Park, introduces himself to everybody sitting in our section and makes up nicknames for total strangers. He slaps people on the back too, as if he's running for political office. but like with real candidates, this routine seems to divide the crowd. He makes an impression alright, but I notice a few folks tum away and shrink back as if from an exposed power line. My brother 15 crazy out of his mind for Fred Lynn that summer, the rookie center fielder for the Sox who is having a phenomenal season. Every time the big guy comes up to the plate or lopes out to his position, Wiley stands up, waves his arms like a castaway and yells "Frrreeedie!!!!" in his shrill little voice. I am at the age when I get embarrassed by anything that causes strangers to look in my direction. I smack Wiley with my baseball glove and tell him to shut up. We always bring our gloves to snag foul balls, but they never come anywhere near us.

Ease up on your brother, Sport," Dad says and softly cuffs my ear. It is tough to be angry at Wiley. He is a sweet-natured, cheerful kid and we rarely fight, which even then I realize is beyond mirac­ulous for brothers. We love all the usual things about Fenway, the hot dogs, the hum of excitement, the quirky beauty of the place. Some years later, when I am flying over Ireland on my first trip abroad, I finally see colors that can compete with my lush green memory of that painstakingly maintained playing field. In Dublin I buy a postcard with a standard aerial shot and send it off to Wiley at Bucknell, scribbling "Frrreeedie!!!!" on the back. I know he'll understand. We're brothers. We have joint custody over certain memories, visitation rights.

My mother doesn't come to the games, but she loves to hear us talk about them when we get home. Wiley spins with excitement, almost frothing at the mouth with it. He can remember every play, every moment and he acts it all out like a stage production. And Ma says "oohhh" and "ahhh" in all the right places, like she's been waiting her whole life to hear such stories. Dad and I hang back a bit, off to the side, his arm draped across my shoulders, while we watch the show with big wide grins on our faces.


WE DO A LOT OF THINGS TOGETHER as a family that summer. It's just ordinary stuff, but it's more than we've ever done before. We go to the Stoneham Zoo and the Aquarium at Central Wharf in Boston and a Mel Brooks movie which my mother wor­ries about being too adult for Wiley and me.

"Lighten up, Gwen," Dad tells her in the refreshment line, as she gawks nervously at Teri Garr's cleavage prominently featured in the lobby poster. He gives Ma a friendly hug. Then he looks over her shoulder, catches my eye and winks, like we are sailors on shore leave.

We drive up to a beach on the North Shore during the week, when it isn't so crowded. Dad does a perfect backflip on the sand, teaches us how to body surf. The ocean is freezing and Ma forces us to get out when our lips turn a phosphorescent blue. On our way home we are sunburnt and gritty with sand, our hair stiff with salt. An announcer on the car radio mentions the first rendezvous in space between the Apollo and Soyuz spacecrafts. a hopeful sign for U.S. and Soviet relations and it adds to the optimism of the day.

At home that summer, after dinner, which we once again are sharing as a family, my father can't sit still. He moves and moves around the living room, telling jokes, doing his card tricks.

"Pick a card, any card, any card at all," he bellows, fanning the deck out in front of us like some Vegas hustler.

The tricks are lame, and I begin to figure them out, but Wiley ogles my dad as if he's a celebrity. And sometimes I can't help myself, so do I. My father was a jock in high school and college and he still has an athlete's muscular grace. He is handsome and confident, but it goes beyond his good looks, his golf tan and perfect teeth. He is a hot-shot businessman who is used to working a room. We are, I suppose, not unlike the people who report to him, a captive audience. Even that night I am aware he is performing. He wants something from us. Perhaps it is simple adoration, but much later the possibility will occur to me that we aren't in his thoughts at all.

My mother watches him too. She looks pretty and young in a pink sundress, wavy blonde hair falling across her eyes. She has always been quiet, and her movements are often slow and deliberate, like she is trying to coax small animals out of the woods. Like Wiley and me, she seems to be enjoying herself. as if she is giddy with good fortune. Though I wonder now if she was also on to my father in some way, but helpless in the face of his summer onslaught just like me.

The remodeling of my father's office is completed, and he goes back to work. We slip quietly into the old patterns, but the summer memories are fresh and real and they linger. We're still happy for a time. It is late August when I come downstairs and find my mother sitting at the kitchen table. She rarely sits around in the morning, so this is already suspicious. Usually she is preparing breakfast, putting it out for us, clearing it up. On this morning, though, she is dressed, but something isn't quite right about her. I think for a moment she is sick, but that would be truly unheard of. The dress she is wearing buttons up the front, but the buttons and holes aren't lined up right. I can see tiny ribbons of pink flesh through the material, the white of her bra. I am humiliated for both of us.

"Ma," I say, trying to advert my eyes, "your buttons are all messed up."

That's when she tells me that my dad has walked out. Her voice is flat and shocking, not like her own, or anyone's.

"Your father is gone," she says.

I know right away she doesn't mean he has simply left for work, but I ask her anyway, if that is what she means. She sits up very straight.

"He has a new job," she tells me, "a sort of promotion, a transfer to California. I didn't know until he started packing last night. He took all his clothes except the winter things. I have no other way to say it, Kevin, so I am just telling you. He's not coming back. Its not about you or Wiley, obviously nothing you could have done. He needed to leave and that's where we are."

She has rehearsed this in some manner, I think. It sounds fake, practiced, like a bad script. Or something Dear Abby might ad­vise—what to tell your kids when your husband suddenly bails on you. She must have been saying it for hours, over and over in her head, while waiting for me to come downstairs, and this is the terrible way it came out. It is totally ridiculous.

I make her say it again.

I ask if they had a fight, and she says no. She says he told her after Wiley and I had gone to bed, after his nightly check-in. I try to think if he waited at my door or held my toe a little longer, but I can't remember. I might even have been asleep. After the summer we just had, I felt bloated with attention, almost sloppy with it. There had been no need for me to wait up for him anymore.

"Didn't you tell him to stay?"

"I suppose I did," My mother says carefully. She has slumped back down in the chair now, like the air has been let out of her.

"You suppose? Why didn't you kick and scream and make him?" I ask.

I'd seen plenty of TV dramas by this point and that's what jilted women usually did, but that wasn't Ma's style. A year before this she ran up and down the neighborhood cheering and waving an American flag when Nixon resigned, but that was a rare display of emotion. Usually, she's unflappable.

"Kevin, he's been plotting it, okay?" she is saying. "The compa­ny has rented him an apartment out there already. He has a brand new address. It's happening. He's on the plane right now. It's final"

She says this as if she can't quite believe it herself. I notice we are both shaking. I can hear the wall clock ticking off seconds above our heads, a reminder that our lives are moving on without us.

"Does he want to marry someone else?" I ask her.

In those same television movies men were always deserting families for other women.

"He wouldn't say," she tells me, but averts her eyes.

I take that as a yes.

I can hear Wiley pounding around upstairs.

That's when she slips me a plain sealed envelope. I honestly don't remember what my father had written. I know it seemed as phony as what my mother had told me, something about being a man, how I'd always be his son or some other foolish crap he scribbled down on his way to the door. What I do remember is the twenty-dollar bill that floats to the floor when I open the envelope. I let it land there. I don't pick it up. When I finish reading, I hand the note back to my mother without comment. I think she expects me to tear it up into tiny pieces or toss it down the garbage disposal, ever the little scene stealer, but it is totally worthless as it is. She stares at me and her eyes begin to well up. She is sorry for me. I can see that, and that is when I feel my own tears coming, unstoppable as a seizure. .


MY MOTHER HAS NEVER EVEN WRITTEN A CHECK before my father leaves for California. She has to get books about household finance out of the library. She takes it all very seriously and begins to get organized. About a week after my father leaves she gets a small blackboard and writes out assignments and duties for all of us.

"We never had to help with laundry before," I whine, scanning the list of chores under my name. "Neither did dad. You're passing off your own work."

"I have other things to worry about now" she says. "I need your help and your brother's. We have to be like a team."

"Sure, coach," I say, snapping my heels and giving her a salute.

Wiley is looking up at us both with a worried expression on his face.

"I'll help," he chirps.

"Pussy," I mumble at him.

My mother slaps me hard behind the ear, an unimaginable oc­currence until that moment.

The three of us stand there stunned, unrecognizable, like visi­tors from another country, unsure of the official language.

"Do we understand each other?" my mother finally asks.

"Not really," I tell her, but she doesn't hit me again.


IT'S TRUE MY FATHER LEAVES for that promotion my mother mentioned. But I'm right too. There is a woman named Delores Cantwell, a junior executive at his company who is being transferred to California at the same time. She has blown up her own marriage to be with my dad, but not as gross on her end because she doesn't have any kids to ditch. Perhaps she was one of his weekend golfing buddies. I never meet this woman. A few months after my father and Delores arrive in San Diego, feeling, as one can imagine, optimistic about their future he is investigated for some financial and ethical improprieties. It's not quite embezzlement and the company does not press any charges, but my father is fired an finished in the insurance industry. Delores dumps him soon after. But instead of crawling back to us, my father stays in California to explore his options. He's a man who believes in making his own luck. I don't know all this at the time, but the essentials are pieced together later, as I get older, like the clues in a mystery novel.

We have the house, a three-bedroom Cape, in a modest neigh­borhood. My mother always refers to this as a mixed blessing. For years my father had been saying we'd move to a bigger place, in a more exclusive town, something more fitting with his growing importance at the company. He was only waiting for the right moment, but then he takes off for California before it every comes about.

The house has a number of problems, a leaky roof, air in the pipes, a crumbling foundation. It groans at night like someone in the terminal ward. My mother checks out more books—How To Be Your Own Electrician, How To Be Your Own Plumber. We all get pretty handy, in a general way. We can recognize all the tools and tackle the minor repairs ourselves. For the longest time Ma whispers "I can do this, I can do this" over and over, like it's her personal mantra, even if she is only changing a light bulb. And sometimes she mutters it as we pass in the hallway or sit at dinner, when there are no repairs in sight.

When my father loses his job in California, his checks stop coming, so my mother goes to work as a secretary in a law firm and takes classes part-time so she can become a teacher. That's when she is pleased we don't have such a fancy house. She'd never be able to handle higher mortgage payments on her own. I am worried about her becoming a teacher. I am in junior high now and teachers are known to have nervous breakdowns right in front of a class. Once, in Physical Science, we are passing a Playboy under our desks when a substitute, a tiny disheveled woman named Mrs. Hand, discovers it and starts calling us a bunch of dirty little bastards. She is screaming like the building is on fire, waving her arms about. The assistant principal finally has to come and drag her away. The last thing she says before she is led out the door (the magazine rolled up tight, like a baton, in her fist) is that she is planning to pray for us, for our immortal souls. Needless to say, we never see her again. But for months afterwards my friends and I greet each other in the hallways with hoots of, "How's it going, ya dirty little bastard?" while making the sign of the cross.

"You're not going to work at my school, are you Ma?" I ask one night when she gets home from class. It is my night to cook dinner, macaroni and cheese. Wily is setting the table. He has his own system. He doesn't like anything to match. The plates and glasses are an assortment of sizes, the silverware is from two separate patterns and each napkin is a different color. Since Dad left, my mother doesn't care about this stuff, so long as we eat.

"Don't sound so terrified, Kevin," she says.

"I'm not terrified. I was only wondering."

"Well, beggars can't be choosers."

"What does that mean?"

"It means I need to work."

"But Ma," I say.

"For Christ's sake, Kevin, if l get a job at your school I'll take an assumed name and wear a goddamned veil over my head. Okay?"

"You never used to swear."

"It's a new day," she tells me.


A YEAR OR SO after my father leaves us, my mother is still busy constructing our new life, and it is clear we are all going to survive, but that doesn't mean I am prepared for the next development. I come home from soccer practice one Saturday afternoon in September and find Oliver Voolich, the deli man from the First National, sitting on our sofa in the living room. It is a surreal moment for me, Voolich next to my mother, his hair slicked back, dressed in ill-fitting jeans and a plaid shirt. I am used to seeing him at the grocery store, paper hat perched on his head, greasy apron cinched at his waist, shouting our numbers for the next customer in line.

"Kevin, you know Mr. Voolich," my mother says, nodding in his direction.

"Yeah?" I grumble, but it comes out more like a question.

"You can call me Oliver," Voolich tells me.

"Hello Mr. Voolich," I say.

"Oliver has been kind enough to offer to help us put up the storm windows this year," Ma says.

Voolich appears to be blushing furiously, or perhaps his skin just looks blotchier out from behind the deli counter. He has the round, pinkish face and squinty eyes of a newborn. There is defi­nitely something soft and infantile about the whole package, even though I place his age at forty-five or so. He is of average height, though slightly stooped, with wide hips, a mess of curly brown hair, and no discernible chin. When I later find out he lives in a single room above Shoe Town, this feels just about right and com­pletes the picture.

At the deli counter, Voolich is patient and composed, good with difficult customers, scrupulously honest while administering the meat scale. But out here in the real world, hanging out in my living room, he is simply dull as rocks, so dull it hovers over him like body odor.

"We put up the windows by ourselves last year," I remind my mother, making sure not to make eye contact with our visitor.

"And we almost lost our lives in the process," Ma responds.

She has a point. The previous fall I had balanced precariously on top of the ladder while Ma hoisted windows up to me on the second floor. Wiley had steadied the ladder directly beneath us. We were like mountain climbers tied to one another. We knew we were in harm's way.

It's obvious that Voolich wants to be of assistance, but naturally I question his intentions. We don't need anyone new in our lives. The truth is we are doing okay. The three of us have found a certain groove of living together. If l consciously miss my father, it is in the evening when I remember his nightly check-in at the foot of my bed. Unlike most children of divorce, I hold no illusions about my parents reconciling. Although, since Wiley and I now are somewhat aware of Dad's financial scandal and the break with Delores, we half-expect him to show up one day on the doorstep, shame-faced and eager to be forgiven, like a runaway pet. This never happens wither. He barely keeps in touch with Wiley and me, while he's on his own twisted journey. Gifts arrive late, three months after our birthdays or Christmas. We suffer through phone calls laced with awkward silences. We get goofy, bizarre postcards from the guy. If you only knew how much I miss you, my father writes.

In the end, Voolich helps us with the windows, but the gawky sight of him on a ladder, drenched in sweat, laboring mercilessly, puts no one at ease.

"Good work, Oliver," my mother shouts up to him in an encouraging, anxious way as he finishes fastening the last one.

"Yeah, it's poetry in motion," I say quietly to Wiley who gives me a look like he doesn't want me to start anything.

After this, Voolich apparently feels confident enough to insinuate himself into our lives a couple of times a week, often arriving with a smoked ham or a cold cut platter. He is a deli man. If he were a carpet salesman, he might come bearing throw rugs and vacuum cleaner bags. Of course, by showing up with food, he can always count on an invitation to dinner, a fact he must have figured out for himself. My mother is always polite to him, but I notice she makes no other concession to his presence. When he joins us, she doesn't put on lipstick or tell Wiley the table settings need to match. Still, I can't be more disturbed than if my she were sitting on his lap and sticking a tongue in his ear. To my way of thinking, she is treating him far too casually, the way she does Wiley and me, her own family, the fixtures in her life. And I hate the notion of Voolich becoming a fixture in my life. To my now fourteen-year-old brain, his florid face and sagging body represent failure and despair. I am worried about what my friends will saay if they see him out with Ma. I can already hear a litany of hide the salami jokes.

Though my mother is the main attraction for Voolich, he often makes uneasy attempts to engage Wiley and me in conversation. He tells the same stories over and over again, droning accounts of his day behind a deli counter, with one day not any different from the last.

Once again it is Wiley who handles these situations gracefully. He politely answers idiotic questions concerning homework or sports, two subjects Voolich feels compelled to discuss. However,, I don't think the man is ever comfortable around us. He regards us, perhaps the way he views all children, with caution, as if looking over his shoulder in a rough neighborhood. This is brand new territory for him.

Privately, even my super sweet brother admits to his own reservations.

Yep, he is a bit of a freakazoid," Wiley tells me on our way to school one morning.

"Exactly," I say.

"But that doesn't seem to bother Ma," he adds quickly.

"No," I say. "It sure as shit doesn't."

Voolich has been coming around for over a month when I decide it is finally time to confront her about the situation. I approach Ma late one evening as she is seated at the kitchen table, course work spread out in front of her. It's her favorite spot for studying. Books and pencils are spilling out everywhere. I notice she is wearing her hair longer, wilder, less like a housewife's and more like a student's.

"What can I do for you?" she asks, without looking up from the notebook she is scribbling in.

"How long is this going to go on?" I ask.

"What are you talking about, Kevin?"

"You know what I mean. Voolich. Meat and cheese man. Is he going to become a regular thing around here?"

She looks up at me then and I can tell she is slightly amused, giving me a prim, tired smile. She has hours of study ahead of her, the house to pick up, a new day looming tomorrow.

"He's a nice man," she says predictably.

"He bores Wiley and me under the table." I don't mind enlisting my brother in this campaign.


"Don't you think he's boring?"

"Kevin, I've heard enough sparkling conversation to last me a lifetime," she says.

And when she says this, I know she is referring to my father.

"Look," she goes on, "I don't really expect you to understand, but Oliver listens to me. He truly listens to me when I talk about my day, my time at school. This is a pleasure, and something haven't really experienced before with another grown-up. It has never been easy for me to meet new people. I enjoy his company."

"Maybe it only seems like he's listening, because he's too tongue-tied around you to form actual words in the English language."

She doesn't respond to that, so I keep at it.

"Do you love this guy or something? Are you going to marry him?" I am horrified as I even say these things.

"Don't be ridiculous, Kevin," Ma laughs. "He's a friend. It's a harmless situation."

"Is he in love with you?"

"No," she answers cautiously, "Of course not."

I can tell she is weighing my question, maybe afraid to really look at it, like a puncture wound. I pause for a moment, the way a television anchorman switches gears before delivering the really serious news.

"Well, I just wanted you to know your sons are unhappy about this."

"Point taken," she says, but in such a way as to make it clear she has no intention of doing anything about it.

A couple of weeks after this, she comes into the living room where Wiley and I are watching an episode of Baretta. She announces that Voolich has phoned and wants us to join him for an outing the following weekend.

"He wants to take us all to an amusement park, to Treasure Island," Ma say. "What do you think?"

We haven't done much in the way of amusement since my dad left town. Our finances and my mother's schedule don't warrant it. The term entertainment expense has not found its way into our weekly budget. So despite my feelings for Voolich, my anxiety over his future role in our family, I can't help but look forward to the getaway he is offering us.

"Better than a wiener factory," I sigh, and even Wiley can't help but laugh.

When the day arrives though, our adventure doesn't start out well. Voolich shows up earlier than expected and loiters around the kitchen as we finish our breakfast. He follows us from room to room, bites his lip. jangles the car keys in his trousers as we grab our jackets and put on our shoes.

"Are we in a hurry, Oliver?" my mother asks him.

"No, no, no. Take your time," he says, in the sort of clipped, nervous tone which only gets us to move faster.

Voolich is so impatient to get on the road; I make sure to buckle my seatbelt as soon as I settle myself in his car, a worn-out Plymouth. I think he might want to make up for lost time and risk our lives in the process. But once behind the wheel, he reverts to type and we inch our way to the park, practically traveling in the breakdown lane. Treasure Island is located on the South Shore, half way to the Cape. We pass a number of signs for the place on the trip down, advertising water slides and a roller coaster. And on each colorful billboard the park's official mascot, a pirate with an eye patch and a hook for a hand is featured, slyly beckoning to us.

Wiley is excited, bouncing lightly up and down in the seat beside me.

"Do you have to shit or something?" I ask him. But I am smiling when I say it, because I am excited too.

Then we get there.

Treasure Island is not even an island. It sits swelling like a festering blemish at the edge of a faded resort town. It's basically a huge parking lot, with some worn tents and kiddie rides strewn about, all enclosed by a rusty chain link fence. There are about two dozen unsmiling people, grim employees and unsatisfied patrons alike, milling about under the bleak October sky, which has grown more overcast from the moment we pile out of the car. While Voolich goes to the gate to purchase the tickets, I glare at my mother with my arms folder across my chest. She's enjoyed herself on the trip down, chatting easily in the front seat with Voolich about her upcoming midterms, happy to be taking a break and to get out of the house. But now faced with her sons' disappointment, I can see she is concerned.

"I don't know what to say," she tells us, gazing around at our depressing surroundings. "But we're here now. We'll have to make the best of it."

"Okay," Wiley says.

"Dumbass!" I snap at him. "There's nothing for us here."

I get tired of my brother's perfect-little-man-routine sometimes.

Voolich comes sauntering back, oblivious as hell until he takes one look at us and asks what the matter is.

"Treasure Island isn't exactly what the kids expected," my mother says diplomatically. "Not quite what was advertised on all those billboards."

"It's off-season, Gwen," Voolich tells her, as if this explains anything.

"You have to admit, Oliver, that it looks like the place has fallen on some hard times."

"More like hard times have fallen on it!" I say.

"I used to come here as a child," Voolich says, taking a long look around him, blinking at his own precious memories. "I suppose it has gone downhill though."

"And there's no roller coaster," Wiley actually volunteers.

"I asked the fella at the ticket counter about that. Apparently there was an accident a few years ago and they had to tear it down."

We all stand there for a while contemplating mayhem and disaster.

"Well, we don't have to stay," Voolich says in a quiet, defeated tone. I am ready to turn back toward the car, but he continues, "Or we could stay and give it a try."

"That's exactly what I told the boys," Ma says brightly.

The three of them turn and stare at me, waiting for my reaction, but since I don't really have a vote I just roll my eyes and storm past them toward the entrance. Voolich clamors in front of me, back in his anxious mode. He leads us to the basketball toss and the roulette wheel, other games of chance, talking the place up like a
press agent.

"Look at the prizes! There are some fine prizes to be had! Step right up, Wiley! It's on me! Go for it, pal!" Voolich gushes, rubbing the top of my brother's crew cut.

There is a ride called The Scambler, the only one which isn't too infantile for us. Voolich has us ride it three straight times until he gets a smile out of me. He has my mother go to a fortune teller and afterwards he buys her a French beret from an old woman hawking them near the refreshment stands. I can finally see how much this day means to Voolich. He is rushing us like a frat pledge, needing to belong. Whether my mother has figured this out or not, I don't know.

He buys Wiley and me cheeseburgers, hands us ten-dollar bills for the arcade, ushers us to the men's room, all things he considers to be fatherly behavior. No matter how hard he tries, he isn't up to the easy confidence the task requires. I can't help but remember the last summer with my dad. He was lobbying hard then too, but at least he had actual charm on his side.

Voolich is shiny with flop sweat as he continues to drag us from one so-called attraction to another. The half-empty park seems to be shuttering to a halt before our eyes. The wind has picked up too and now it's just a cold autumn day. Voolich's forced jauntiness only serves to accentuate the worst of all this. When he affects the posture and accent of the park's pirate mascot, we all know it's time to go home.

Back in the car, after we finally make our exit, I am almost con­tent. Voolich's failure has been so complete and indisputable; he won't be around much longer. He'll be sent back to his gloomy life above Shoe Town. At least there's that. But on the way home, my mother, still wearing that idiotic beret, resumes their conversation about her exams as if nothing has happened and Wiley sits next to me happily consumed with the Etch A Sketch he'd won at the rou­lette wheel. It suddenly occurs to me they are going to forgive him. Worse yet, I see that they think there is nothing to forgive. Before we're on the road five minutes, Ma and Wiley each thank Voolich for giving us a fine time, how it turned out perfect after all. I am stunned into silence until Ma turns around from the front seat and glares at me until I mumble something tolerable in Voolich's direction.

Then I slump back down in my seat, looking out the window for the rest of the drive, as the South Shore drifts by. I sit there thinking about Ma's fierce optimism and her efforts to reinvent herself, how she has willed us all to move on and how she has pulled it off. And I think about Wiley's knee-jerk cheerfulness and how his perfect-little-man routine isn't a routine at all. I wonder how I've lander here among these people, like an alien spore in a science fiction movie.

Ma doesn't marry Voolich. They remain friends for another year after Treasure Island until he eventually stops coming around and hooks up with another woman, a cashier from his store. There will be other men in Ma's life, but nothing too serious as far as I ever know. She prefers not to get tangled up with anyone else's dreams, she tells me once. She is devoted to her studies, getting her teacher's certificate and taking more classes part-time, eventually earning a doctorate in education and becoming an assistant principal at a high school in South Boston, before she retires happily to New Mexico, to a clean white-washed house on the edge of the desert with cottonwood trees and scorpions in her yard. She just turned eighty, volunteers in the local library, dabbles in watercolors, and still wears her hair too long. Wiley refers to her as Our bootleg Georgia O'Keeffe.

My brother will remain grounded and kind. Kindness is Wiley's special gift. It will follow him around for the rest of his life. He grows up to run a social service agency on the Cape, making a business out of his sweet nature and good intentions. He settles down with a wonderful guy named Grady who sings in a bluegrass band, as if it's still the '70s. They adopt and raise three amazing kids, who I refer to as Wileys Embarrassment of Riches. He's a grandfather now. Like Ma often tells me, Wiley gives and gives, but he gets so much in return. But it's not until we arc on our way back from Treasure Island, in Voolich 's car, when I realize I'm not like them at all, with my high-strung nature and ticking complaints.

It's my father who I resemble. Not his swagger or smooth charisma, but the restlessness, the impatience, the always wishing for something better and just out of reach, all of which will lead to my own failed marriages, an erratic sales career, and a grown daughter who rarely returns my calls. Sometimes I still imagine my dad standing over my bed the night before he leaves us for good. The need to start a new and different life is clinging to him like a wet sheet. Something is propelling him. It's not Delores exactly or the promise of sunny California, but it's something. And I can almost make out the jagged shape of it, feel its clumsy weight, as he backs out of my room for the very last time.