Archives For Nonfiction

Shortly before the state line, the woods gave way to a narrow clearing and a tidy brown building. There were no neighbors, no fluttering signs, no cars in the dirt patch out front—just a slightly crooked wraparound porch stacked with chairs, whatnot shelves, and miscellaneous maple sugar jugs. A dog’s tail wagged slowly around the corner. “Wait and ask the owner, Lilah,” I reminded my seven-year-old as we walked up.

We had tried to stop at two other antique shops that turned out to be closed on Mondays. We were two hours into the day’s drive, not counting the stop at a port-a-potty badly in need of service. I had driven eight hours the day before. The strawberries we had picked up at yesterday’s farm stand were gone, so we were working on a substantial bag of sugar snap peas. I chose this store by virtue of the fact that it was open and that it might erase the port-a-potty as my most recent memory.

The door was ajar. A half-sheet of paper posted by the front door read “No public bathrooms, no food or drink, no unattended children.” The corners were curled.

Dressers and picture frames filled the space, stopping short of clutter. A sign atop a table informed me that I should ask the proprietor if there was something I didn’t see, as he might have it upstairs. An uneven-looking black cat lay on the floor. “Ask first,” I reminded Lilah.

“Can I please pet the cat?”

“Sure. He’s friendly,” the owner replied. He sat behind the counter, well into his sixties, wearing brown sunglasses and an ill-fitting baseball cap.

“Do you have any hat racks?” I asked. “I mean, like coat racks?”

“No, I don’t think I do. Are you from Massachusetts?”

“No, Vermont.” I wasn’t sure how being from Massachusetts connected to coat racks.

“Oh. You look familiar.”

This often happens. People think they know me. I suspect I have an ordinary face. “I look familiar to a lot of people,” I told him.

“Oh,” he went on. “I used to teach at Suffolk University. I could have sworn I knew you.”

“Well, I lived in Swampscott as a teenager, but I didn’t go to Suffolk.”

“Oh.”

“I have a cousin who lives in Boston. We look a lot alike. Maybe you’ve met her.”

“Did she go to Swampscott High School?”

“No, I went to Swampscott High.”

“Oh. Oh well.”

The cat got up and moved away, as cats are wont to do. Lilah began looking around. Mindful of the sign up front, I stuck with her. Another sign with capital letters barred the way to a back room.

“You can go back there,” he told us. “But I don’t think I have any coat racks.”

“Why did you leave Boston?” I asked, skootching around the sign.

“It got too crowded.”

“I hear you. We lived in Boston before Vermont. Way too many people. Too much pressure. Who needs it? You know what: do you have any small mirrors?”

“I might have some in this room over here.”

Lilah asked, “For my bathroom?”

“Yep.”

I circled through the rooms, pointing out the shovel against the wall so Lilah wouldn’t step on it.

“You see anything?” the owner called.

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

“No hat racks and not the right mirror,” he replied. “We’re not doing well today.”

I circled around to the desk again. “You have a nice shop, though. Really nice stuff.” My legs had lost their stiffness, and it was getting towards time to get back in the car.

He glanced up. “Thanks, Emily. I’m sorry you couldn’t find anything.”

I froze. I mean, I actually felt colder. “How did you know my name is Emily? Did I tell you that?”

“I don’t know. You just look like an Emily.”

“No, I don’t. No one ever thinks I look like an Emily. Did I tell you my name?”

“You didn’t,” put in Lilah. She’s seven, but she’s a third child, so she listens to people. She remembers everything the adults say.

“You must just look like an Emily.”

At this point, I probably should have thought we were about to be abducted and chained to a radiator in the basement, or at the very least to a turn-of-the-twentieth-century armoire in need of refinishing. But it hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

“Did you ever teach at Swampscott High?”

“I did,” he admitted. “I taught you.”

“You did? Who are you?”

“James. Mr. James.”

“Oh, my goodness! ‘Bee! I’m expecting you!’” Turning to Lilah, “You know how, when I read that Emily Dickinson poem, I say it ‘Bee! I’m expecting you!’ I do that because that’s how he read it!” In an antique shop on the side of a rural highway several states away from home, I’ve run into the English teacher who made me cry 25 years ago and who pretended he didn’t know me and the first thing I do is quote Emily Dickinson. Again with the not sinking in.

“I didn’t recognize you!”

“I look different.”

“You had a lot more hair!”
“Yes, I’m totally bald now.” He lifted his hat partway and rubbed his head.

Mr. James had been my junior English teacher and the sponsor of the Animal Rights Club. I had hung around his classroom a lot, hoping my English teacher would recognize and name me as a writer. I was also in the Animal Rights Club, being in my vegetarian phase. My senior year, he had wanted me to take over as president of the club, but I was already leading the Toys for Tots program and trying to start an Amnesty International chapter. “You care more about people than about animals,” he had indicted me, incredulous at my distorted priorities.

As my teacher, he had been exciting, captivating, engaging. He had a lectern with notes, but his body was always somewhere else in the room, subject to unresolved dynamism. He would throw back his head and yell, “I saw Streetcar at Café La Mama, in drag,” and the other kids would roll their eyes and go on doodling, but I joined Mr. James in escaping these suburbs, knowing that somewhere in the Village, Tennessee Williams was being performed with a male Blanche and a female Stanley, and we two understood the reason for it. He didn’t belong here among the football players who drank at the golf course on weekend nights and the preppies on the soccer team. If I appreciated him hard enough, perhaps I didn’t belong here, either.

He had encouraged me to read deeper and pushed me to write better. He also had bad days, when he had snarled withering comments that left me sobbing because we were too much alike for it not to matter. We shared intensity and social awkwardness and a love of the theater. His moodiness and temper were signs that he was wrong for this place, and I didn’t want him to change. I just wanted him to be a little nicer towards me.

Now, a quarter-century later, he had hidden from me in his shop. “Why didn’t you say anything?” I asked.

“Well, I figured you’re cool. When other people from Swampscott have come in, I haven’t said anything. I didn’t want them to know. I made a clean break.” He repeated, “But I figured you were cool.”

We shot the shit for half an hour or so, Mr. James and I. “You were too flamboyant for a town that was pretty socially conservative,” I offered. In the eighties, when a teacher was gay, you didn’t talk about it except in whispers in the lunchroom or during late night phone sessions with boys when your parents thought you were asleep. He certainly didn’t talk about it. Were we talking about it now? You could never tell with men of a certain generation whether they were closeted from themselves.

“Oh, yes,” he replied, then dropped it.

He told me how he had gone in one day, fifteen years ago, on the first day of school, and realized he didn’t want to be the English department chair anymore. “I didn’t have ties to anyone, and so I left in the middle of day. I didn’t even go back in for anything—my pictures or anything.”

I showed him pictures of my sons, my dogs, my husband. Told him I had a doctorate in literature. He told me he had run a restaurant for a while. “I’d wanted to try that, so I did. And then one day I didn’t want to do it anymore, so I closed up shop. I lost a lot of money, but I left it.”

His dog wandered in, an old mutt with giant brown eyes and a few rotting teeth. I knelt down to pet it, stabilizing myself in the thick white fur. Lilah went off after a three-legged cat.

“Watch out for that one,” he warned. “She bit me and I had to go to the hospital.”

“Don’t pet that one, Lilah.”

His posture was tense, as though he was trapped behind his counter. I got the feeling he was weighing whether my discovering him meant he would have to flee this place, too.

I told him about a couple teachers I keep in touch with: Mr. Shapiro who hates Florida but lives there because his wife loves it, and Ms. Duncan who found her life partner after two divorces and decades of single parenthood and who has just moved to Pennsylvania—I think—to be near her grandchildren. I filled him in on former students: Julian, who works in voter rights and has a family, and Nicole, who became a reporter and lives near me with her husband. Mr. Shapiro has two rescue dogs, I told him. Julian is still a vegan, and Nicole has a high-needs rescue dog. Maybe if he understood we were all still animal lovers, he would take off the brown sunglasses.

He told me about another teacher who had also quit. “It was harder for him. He’s married. All I have are my animals, which is how I wanted it. And they can always come with me.”

Lilah and I needed to get moving. Our own rescue dogs were at home, waiting for us to return.

“I don’t want people to know where I am,” he said. “I figured you were cool. I don’t want people coming in looking for me.” I recognized it as a plea, a throwing of himself upon my animal-loving mercy.

“I won’t tell people, but can I at least tell Julian and Nicole I saw you? And that you’re doing well?”

“Oh, sure, them. They’re cool. But I don’t do Facebook or anything.”

“I won’t put it on Facebook.” It’s not like the misanthrope with the three-legged cat in the antique shop off a sleepy rural route is the best candidate for Tuesdays with Morrie anyway. “You kind of outed yourself to me when you used my name.”

“I’m glad I did. Otherwise, we’d have passed each other and never known it.”

“It was good to see you. Be well.”

“We’ll probably never see each other again,” he said. “I know you’ll do well because you’re in control of your life.”

“Unless I stop by on my next road trip,” I reminded him. “Of course, by then, you could have packed up and moved on.” I looked around at the desks, framed maps, and washstands. I could come back next week, and it all could have disappeared. More likely, it would still be here, but the man and the animals would be gone, driving down some other rural road states away, headed for another border.

Lilah and I went out to the patch of dirt, opened the car windows. I didn’t pull out my phone and post to Facebook. I wouldn’t reveal his location even to Nicole or Julian. If all a man has is his own loneliness, he will protect it with all his might.

I put the key in the ignition and drove away, headed home to the mountains and home that awaited me, my little girl in the back seat reading quietly and eating peas.

 

Emily Rosenbaum has worked as a speechwriter and a teacher. Her publications include Prime Number, Glamour, Motherlode, Kveller, Bitch, Skirt, the Ms. Magazine blog, and Brain, Child, and she is the author of Cooking on the Edge of Insanity and Princess Wishes and Monorail Dreams. Her first play, Calypso’s Corner, was produced May 2016 at Open Book Theatre Company in Southgate, MI.

Emily holds a doctorate in American Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives in Vermont with her husband, three children, cat, and two dogs—Beezus and Marley. This bio is one of the few things left in the house that Beezus has not chewed.

The rain came, not hard, but consistent, more than a drizzle yet less than a downpour. The rain forced me to pay attention. I hadn’t driven these roads in over twenty years. And back then I was a passenger—oblivious to routes and road signs, attuned only to rows of corn melding into pinelands. My brother entered the old house address into his phone’s GPS, but I told him to mute it. I wanted to navigate myself—to test my memory.

I usually drive a minivan where all passengers have their own fiefdom; the driver and third row shout to communicate. Now, however, we were practically sitting in each other’s laps—my brother, Mom, Dad, and I—in my husband’s four-door sedan. Yet we were cozy in the car in the rain, weaving our way through South Jersey, pulled toward the ocean.

Ben, my brother, almost didn’t make the drive with us. I got the call around eleven-thirty the night before: my mom, whispering on her cell phone in her bathroom, afraid of being overheard. My brother and his family were staying at her house. Ben’s wife needed him at the same time as our errand. Her mom was arriving on an earlier flight, so Ben had to get her from the airport. Rachel couldn’t do it because she didn’t want to drive my mom’s car. So that was that. My mom’s voice choked.

After thirty minutes of texting, fugitive phone calls, and speaking with my brother—deliberately using “I” statements, as in, “I feel like Mom really needs our support right now,” instead of asking, “Why are you being a dick?”—and my husband rearranging his work schedule so he could handle our kids’ school logistics, Ben was back in the car with us. I would drive, and I would have him home in time to get his mother-in-law from the airport.

I pulled into Mom’s driveway the next morning to see Ben fiddling with Dad’s smoker—checking the flame, adding water. Smoke ascended though the rain, and the sweet aroma of wood and meat reached inside the car. My stomach rolled. We both walked to the house, shoulders hunched against the rain. “This some kind of morbid joke?” I asked him, nodding at the smoker. He laughed.

Inside, Ben’s younger son watched cartoons from the kitchen table, a half-eaten bagel before him, cream cheese on his upper lip. He wore pajamas and smelled of cocooning sleep. We played tic-tac-toe while Mom finished getting ready and Ben scuttled about. Then we left, leaving young Benjamin with cartoons until his mother and older brother came down.

We got Dad at nine and were on the road by nine-thirty. I brought rainbow Twizzlers since, technically, this was a road trip. Ben said they tasted like chemicals. For much of the drive we talked about when my parents had the place in Harbor Isle. We’d make the trip every weekend in the summer to clean the beach house between rentals. We all had our jobs and had to execute quickly; turnaround was only two hours.

Ben and I would spring from the car and attack bedrooms first before advancing through the house. Check drawers and under furniture for forgotten items, Windex all glass (especially the slider), vacuum, sweep, scrub, and then outside: sweep the porch of sand, sweep rocks back into yard, and weed the gravel parking bay. Mom had both bathrooms and the kitchen, which I now know is the short straw. Dad had their bedroom, some kitchen, checking for damages, and making any repairs. One year the renters blew up the microwave, so he had that task in a forty-five-minute window. We would stink so bad afterwards. And we’d be famished. That was Saturday for years. We would get the house two weeks around the Fourth of July and then the whole off-season. I grew to love winter beaches, the winter ocean.

After my folks moved from Pennsylvania to Vermont, we came to spend entire summers at the place. We certainly couldn’t make the drive to Jersey to clean every Saturday, and it was inconceivable to my parents to pay someone for what you could do yourself. And to have the house sit empty was an incontrovertible waste of money. So, starting after high-school graduation, I worked at the beach for the summer.

We created a new routine then. When Dad was in Harbor Isle, he was on the beach by 8:00 a.m. with a book. He’d return to the house to make lunch—usually deli sandwiches on fresh rolls with peaches or nectarines—then bring it down to the beach for us and whoever was visiting. Depending on what shift I was waitressing—and whether I was working at a breakfast or dinner place—I’d be down there with him. We’d park ourselves and read. We had bottomless supplies of Atomic Fireballs. They weren’t breakfast, but we’d just pop them all day.

Mom’s favorite time on the beach was late afternoon. The blazing midday heat had passed, leaving behind a warmth without punishment. There was more space as families had packed up. She would read or play paddleball with Ben or, more often, talk with our company. The rainbow arc of folding chairs rang with laughter. She probably would have stayed until sunset if she wasn’t compelled to feed everyone dinner.

The house was by 55th Street—the south end of the beach. There was a falling-apart fishing pier on the beach around 59th Street, the last numbered road in Harbor Isle. There were neither lifeguards nor houses past this point, and the beach was sparsely populated. The pier was a good distance for a walk. “Going to the pier,” you’d say when you needed to stretch your legs. We’d walk farther, past the pier—a line of decrepit catamarans lay tucked into the dunes; men sat beside each other on a single blanket; on lucky days, tide pools revealed their secrets—all the way to Gull’s Inlet and threaten swimming to Baytown, but the pier was our landscape, our orientation. Even walking north, the other way along the beach, you’d turn and see the pier in the distance and know about how far until home. After my oldest was born we took a big family photo there before sunset, all khakis and white shirts in front of the blue ocean.

There was a jetty beside the pier, too—rocks Ben and I would dare each other to scramble. Once I slipped and cut my foot and it became infected. I was surprised, since I believed salt water had magical healing properties, but the pools around the jetty were stagnant. We’d find mollusks around the rocks, would search for crabs and interesting seaweed.

My last year waitressing—college graduation and the real world loomed—I used my tip money to buy a painting of the pier at sunset. I thought Dad would object to using my hard-earned money on something frivolous (something that was not college textbooks), but he didn’t. He suggested I get a good frame. My parents have a different painting of the fishing pier. The colors in theirs resemble sunrise. I wonder about this—sunrise and sunset over the same pier—and realize mine is the one with artistic license.

The pier is gone now. My mom reminds us of this as we cross the bridge into Harbor Isle.

“Put the windows down,” I yell mid-span. “Can you smell it?” I leave the windows up, though, because of the rain.

“Smell what?” Ben asks.

“The ocean,” Mom answers. “Don’t you remember? Dad always put the windows down crossing the bridge.”

We tell her we know the pier is gone. We wonder if it came down during Sandy or if it was before that. My parents sold their place years ago. They had rented houses since then, bigger places removed from our old spot, but we couldn’t remember when the pier disappeared.

We’re on the island now. Farther north, Harbor Isle feels more like a small town—an old department store, bigger churches, town hall, and the boardwalk are up that way. The barrier island narrows moving southward. There’s a grocery store and a few shops where we cross the bridge at 34th, but that quickly disappears into neat rows of cottages, two-story rentals, and the occasional McMansion. There are no tall trees. You could bike this whole city in a few hours. Ben and I often did.

I drive past the old place and eventually park around 58th Street near a first aid station and public bathrooms. Nearby, there’s also a meager playground and a wooden pavilion people use for meetings and to wait for stragglers coming off the beach. A light on the first aid building shines through the rain. Because of the light, we’ll take that path through the dunes and down to the beach.

We brace ourselves.

Now we’re outside the car in the rain, huddled around the passenger door.

“We’re too obvious,” Mom chokes. Her wool coat smells from being wet. Her eyes do not match the coat’s snazzy elegance. Her head is damp, but she’s oblivious to the rain. Ben’s not wearing a hat or raincoat either. He’s in jeans, an argyle sweater, and dress shoes. My raincoat hood is up and pulled tight, making my face a small bread plate. I grab an umbrella from the trunk and silently thank my husband for his practicality.

“Here,” I say. “I’m blocking you. Come on. We’re just going for a walk.”

Dad’s ashes are in Mom’s purse. She’s clutching it like an old lady, like her own mother held her purse in public. “God, your father’s heavy,” she almost laughs. “Okay. So my son is in from Oregon. And we used to have a place here. And he was home, so we wanted to visit because it’s been years and—”

“Mom!” I cut her off. “No story. We don’t need a story. We can be on the beach.”

“In the rain? In December?” she whimpers.

We wind our way to the shoreline, walk south, down beach, guessing where the pier used to be. There’s no sign of it or the old jetty. I look for seashells as we weave toward the water.

We discussed with the funeral director how this should be done. The respectful way to distribute ashes. How to account for wind. How to rinse the bag so you’re not carrying a film of your loved one inside what is essentially trash. It made sense in his office. Here, on the shore, it’s another story. Mom’s the only one who thought to wear boots. Ben says he will do it; he will empty the bag, and Mom is okay with this.

We’re beside the water now. This is it. It seems there should be a ceremony, a something. I say a few words, read a quote from Saint Francis de Sales. Mom talks a little, but words come hard. We’re all crying when I notice two circles of light up the north end of the beach.

“Headlights,” I warn. “Headlights.”

Mom closes her purse to Ben’s outstretched hands. We walk up the beach toward the headlights, hoping to cross paths quickly so we can finish our job.

“What if they stop?” Mom asks. “What if they stay here? They know what we’re doing,” she declares.

“Nope,” I say. “Nope. We’re good. This will pass.”

Ben turns to say something, but the wind catches his voice.

I get beside my mother. “We’re doing our best,” I say, leaning in close. “Dad has to know we are doing the best we can.”

“We need to spread out. Look busy,” she says as she peels away from me.

The headlights are closer. Two shapes have formed. It’s a bulldozer and a public works car. We look preoccupied with the stormy winter surf. I still wonder what that beige sea-foam stuff is. Between the tide and the rain, I don’t know why it doesn’t dissolve. It just stays on the shoreline like some gross ring around a global bathtub. We sidestep the billowing foam. I look for shells. The rain comes down harder.

“Can you help us here?” I ask the sky. “We’re trying. We’re trying to do our best.”

Ben has stopped walking. We can see the truck and car down beach, but don’t think they can see us through the rain. Ben’s found a channel running to the ocean, a narrow inlet following an unseen curve in the sand. He declares that the channel will work. Mom is glad he won’t have to wade into the ocean wearing his jeans and nice shoes. “These aren’t really my good shoes,” he replies.

There is no time to repeat the words from before. Ben bends low beside the channel and I hear my mom’s voice, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” My mouth responds, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Only neither of us is very clear. I know she said those words, but we aren’t speaking. We clutch each other near Ben beside the water with Dad. Keening. Ululating. We are not doing that, but I think of those words. We latch onto set prayers, but the noises from our mouths are not that either.

Dad is in the water and the moment passes.

As we stand and begin moving to the car, Ben nods toward the dune line and the first aid station slightly down beach.

“We were at the pier,” he says. “That station was just past it.”

“You’re right,” I say. “Yes—there’s the old pavilion. Yeah. That would have been near the end, too. We didn’t think of that.”

“So we got Dad pretty close, then,” Mom half asks, half states. “We weren’t there originally. We were going to do it farther down—we walked that way first.”

We pause to scan the landscape for any sign of the pier, the jetty, any memory to help our orientation.

“What are the chances that channel was there?” Mom asks. “That wasn’t where we were going to do this initially, you know?”

Small pumpkins and gourds dot the sand beside the path along the pavilion, the path we didn’t take down to the beach. It seems random, but Thanksgiving was days ago—Halloween less than a month before that.

We drip water inside the car. It smells of wet wool. I use clean tissues to mop Ben’s face as he talks to his wife on his cell phone. He bats me away with his hand, but he’s laughing. “Stop wiping my face,” he says.

“Stop dripping in my car,” I respond.

We have to get back to Mom’s so he can turn around and go to the airport for Rachel. I’m starving. I want a hamburger, onion rings, and a black and white. I would settle for a mega omelet and a pot of coffee. Mom eats the chemical Twizzlers. “I feel so much better,” she declares. She sounds it, too. Her eyes are tired, but not pained. Winding though backroad southern Jersey in the rain, Ben talks about his older son. I navigate home by sight.

 

Kate McCorkle received her master’s degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of the Holy Cross. She has regularly attended the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio since spring 2012.  In 2015, her essay “Laundry” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She won second place in tNY Press’s (formerly theNewerYork Press) 2015 bureaucratic writing contest. Her work has been published in The Anthology of Cozy Noir; Apiary Online; Crab Fat Literary Magazine; Diverse Voices Quarterly; free state review; Juked; Midway Journal; New York Press; The Penmen Review; The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society; RKVRY Quarterly; Sand Hill Review; and Westview.

A Day in the Life

You are old enough to speak and feel but you have no real thoughts and you can’t believe how annoyed you become when your stepfather watches The Lone Ranger and The Three Stooges with the television at top volume at 5:30 in the morning before he goes to work where he welds all day long on black-hulled ships from around the world.

Your mother goes to work too, she does something at the State Department and you’re an only child and school is out for the summer and you have to spend your days alone and your nights hidden because your mother and stepfather are doing the unspeakable in the dark and when the lights come back on all they do is watch television; Quincy, Bonanza, and Charlie’s Angels, mostly—or, it’s Sunday again, and no one but you attends mass even though the St. Genevieve’s is only at the end of the road, and when you walk back home all they do is watch the Saints lose another game once again in the Superdome.

But it’s mostly the weekdays that are torturous. You’re not quite old enough to be truly turned on by your stepfather’s Playboy collection but you thumb through them anyway because you know it’s something you’re not suppose to be doing. Even at the age of eight, you are genuinely startled that the pages of Playboy actually smell like the nude women on the page. You also notice how your step-father’s sacks of gunpowder which he uses to reload his shotgun shells are as intoxicating as the scent of the slick pages of Playboy. Then you rush from the room because you feel like someone is watching you, even though you know that no one could be watching you, but already Catholicism has damaged you forever.

You are a strange child of course, but what child growing up in the 1970s in a working class household is not strange? But you especially; for the school’s test reveals that you are somewhere right in the middle of precocity and stupidity—you read on a high school level but your analytical skills border on retardation.

You find strange ways to destroy the time between the moments of solitude and the visits by your parents—you kill honeybees with your feet; you smash them until they can’t so much as flicker a single dying wing. You gather a handful of them, and crawl under the enormous white wooden house that your mother rented ever since she left your father two years ago because Father was a wife beater, although not a child beater, and you are conflicted, somehow arrogant, because he never beat you, only mother. You are under the house and the cool mud-packed earth feels good on your skin. You bury the bees with all the rest of the bees you’ve killed during the summer—you’ve pushed a twig in the dirt for each bee grave you’ve dug. Perhaps this is the world’s only Bee Cemetery, since you’ve made sure the graves are neatly arranged in rows of six under the wonderfully spacious house, just down the street from Bayou St. Genevieve. You tell no one about the Bee Cemetery, because you somehow know this is a ludicrous thing to do even for a child, but you keep killing them just the same.

You spend hours on the bayou watching many things that eventually bore you and so you turn and go home but before you get to the gate of the huge chain-linked yard, you walk to where there’s thick brush and tall pines, where there is a pit of trash; some of the trash is very old, going back to the 1940s. At the pit, you break ancient bottles of Dixie Beer, Nehi root beer, and Milk of Magnesia bottles by the dozen. You feel guilty about what you are doing, but you do it just the same because you love the sound of busted glass, there is nothing better than breaking old bottles, even if the bottles are so old that they’re sacred; a car pulls up the shell laden drive near the dump, you think of the naked women and of the smells of the pages of Playboy and of gunpowder and you’ll think about it later on tonight when they’ll go to bed and the strange sounds will come from the walls again, like they do almost every night, and then the long silence before the sounds start up again; you think how magnificent it’s going to be when you climb out of your window and escape into the grassy yard where you’ll jump ten feet in the air and run faster than any animal on earth under the heavy moonlight.

1978

Louis Bourgeois is co-founder and editor of VOX PRESS. Bourgeois, the first graduate of the University of Mississippi’s prestigious MFA Creative Writing program, is also the author of 6 books of poetry and in 2008 his memoir, The Gar Diaries, was nominated for the National Book Award.

Not all of my experiences during the Vietnam War were unpleasant. There were a few “enjoyable” experiences when I was in Vietnam during those days; days that ended on a high note. One might get the idea, from the glut of stories and movies that arose out of that war, that everything which occurred during that peculiar time was either horrific or life threatening. That was not quite the case. There were brighter moments; moments that were still frightening, dangerous, and thought provoking, but in another way.

LCM-6 (Landing Craft, Mechanized)

LCM-6 (Landing Craft, Mechanized)

While stationed in Cam Ranh Bay, I was an LCM-6 boat captain. My chief function was to transport the local Vietnamese who worked at the Cam Ranh Bay Naval Support Facility (NSF) to and from their village each day. Those were the cooks, gardeners, painters, and housekeepers, all of the jobs deemed too menial for regular Navy guys. The few who spoke English worked in the PX or the enlisted club.

It was a forty-five to sixty minute ride from the base, across the wide expanse of picturesque Cam Ranh Bay, to the small village of Bagnoi (Bah-Noy). I did this twice a day, every other week; just me and one crew member. We alternated weeks with another boat crew. Roughly fifty workers were carried on each trip. Our morning run was at 5:30 AM and the evening run, to return the workers to their village, was at 5:00 PM. In the interim hours I was the base diver, doing odd diving jobs in the bay or in the areas surrounding the bay, up and down the central coast of Vietnam.

 

Left:                                        Cam Ranh Bay (South China Sea view) Right: Cam Ranh Bay (bayside view)

Cam Ranh Bay (South China Sea view)

One day, around three in the afternoon, I was summoned to the infirmary. When I arrived, I was greeted by a U.S. Navy doctor, who informed me that he wanted me to take a young pregnant Vietnamese woman across the bay to her village. He said that it was time for her to stop working at the base, but, “don’t worry,” he said, “she was not due for at least another two weeks.”

I was told to take the Lighter, Amphibious Resupply Cargo (LARC), which was a huge, balloon tired, amphibious boat/truck; as it would be more comfortable for the woman.  A “lighter”, is an open barge or boat used to load or unload ships offshore, or to transport goods for short distances in shallow water. I was one of only two men on the base certified to operate it.

Cam Ranh Bay (bay side view)

Cam Ranh Bay (bay side view)

I looked around for someone to go with me, as a crewman. The only individual I could find, that wasn’t otherwise occupied, was a sailor named Henderson. He was a bit inebriated from hanging around the Enlisted Club all afternoon, but he was available. It appeared to be a simple task, requiring little of him, or I; just drive the young lady across the bay, up onto the makeshift road, over to the village medical hut, then return. What could go wrong?

Henderson and I helped the young mother-to-be up onto the LARC and headed down to the waterfront. I drove off the road, over the beach, into the water, and when deep enough, switched the controls into marine mode. This allowed the propellers to turn, instead of the rear wheels, and slowly, the three of us headed across the bay. A LARC’s top speed in the water was close to seven knots, as opposed to my LCM, which could do double that speed.

About a quarter of the way across the bay, I noticed that Henderson was either passed out, or sleeping, on the front seat next to me. The young lady was reclining on the rear seat. Suddenly she reached up and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and her pretty, coffee colored, almond-shaped eyes stared into mine. In soft broken English, she said to me, “Baby come now.” That was something that no one had ever said to me before. Well, not without a comma after the first word. I didn’t know how to respond, so, initially, I ignored her. She was determined, and quite motivated, though, and tapped me once again on the shoulder. This time, she said in a noticeably louder, more informative voice, “BABY COME NOW!!” with a discernible emphasis on “NOW!”

OK, I admit it, I was stumped. I had no idea as to what to do, or how to react to this situation. So, I shook Henderson awake. As he approached consciousness, he looked at me through his scotch-induced stupor. I said matter-of-factly, but with a slight air of authority, “Henderson, go deliver this girl’s baby.” Henderson squinted his eyes, smirked, and told me to go f*** myself. I said, “Hey, I’m the boat captain. Go deliver the baby!”

He then explained to me, with somewhat slurred speech, that he should drive the boat, and I should deliver the baby, because he was in no condition to do anything that “technical.” I saw that this was not getting us anywhere, and I sensed that the young lady was becoming noticeably impatient with our bickering, so I relinquished the helm to Henderson, and climbed into the back seat. She was a couple of years younger than me, about seventeen or eighteen, and very slightly built, like most Vietnamese, except for her cantaloupe sized belly.

Lighter Amphibious Re-Supply Cargo (LARC)

Lighter Amphibious Re-Supply Cargo (LARC)

I looked around for some blankets, or towels, or anything soft, (they always did that in the movies), but all I could find were orange kapok life vests. I spread some of them out on the aluminum seat and helped her lay down. She laid her head back on two more of the vests that I had propped up as a make-shift pillow. I reached under her and, without her protesting, slid her black pants off, then her panties, and positioned one more life jacket under her rear.

 Orange Kapok Life Vest


Orange Kapok Life Vest

She somehow got across to me, using mostly body language and hand gestures, that she had one child already, and assured me that she had a good idea as to what was supposed to happen. I think that was what she was trying to tell me. I hoped that was what she was trying to tell me. I was counting on her guidance. I lifted her left foot up onto the top of the seat back, and placed her right foot beside the seat onto the floor. I positioned myself between her splayed legs…and, together, we waited. She started to have, what I learned later, were contractions. I held her hand and stared expectantly between her legs, which, at that point was still a very appealing sight.

Soon, though, a transformation took place.  Her teeth gritted, her eyes closed tightly, her chest began to rise and fall quickly, and she squeezed my hand hard; much harder than I would have thought her small delicate hands were capable of. I watched her push. Low guttural moans emanated from deep within her. Her breathing came in contorted gasps. My eyes were agape. I saw something happening. I saw the top of a baby’s head, or what I presumed, and wished was a baby’s head. Then I thought, You idiot, of course it’s a baby’s head. What else could be in there? I saw her stretch open. She stretched wide enough to make any man feel inferior. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It was amazing, creepy, and frightening, and beautiful, all at the same time. This ethereal, mesmerizing moment was shattered abruptly, though, when a gallon or so of some type of fluid squirted and oozed out of her, all over me and the life jackets.  I was disgusted. A couple of minutes or so after this, the baby’s entire head made an appearance. It was like being in a National Geographic film. I knew enough to put my hands under the baby’s head to catch it. She made another few grunting noises, and only moments later, the baby squirted out of her like a wet bar of soap out of a squeezing fist.  I caught it. There was a great deal of blood, and…other stuff. Soon after her initial expulsion (the baby), something else slid out of her, attached to the tube that emanated from the baby’s belly. Now, at that particular point in my life, I was completely unaware of the existence of placentas. I thought something was going seriously wrong. Seemingly important parts were falling out of her. Was I supposed to try to put them back in?

I screamed at Henderson, “Hey, what the hell is this?”

He turned around, gazed into the back seat, held back a gag, and just said, “Oh, shit!”, then turned back around and continued driving the LARC.

I told Henderson to give me his shirt. Without argument, and without turning, he passed it back over the seat. I wrapped the baby, and all of the extra parts, gently into the shirt, and handed the bundle to the mother. Henderson found a relatively clean rag in the front of the boat and tossed it back to me. I soaked it with some of the drinking water we had on the LARC and gently brushed it across the mother’s forehead and face; she was sweating profusely. I gave her a drink, then wet the rag again and took the baby from her. Very tenderly, and very softly, I cleansed the now crying baby as well as I could, and handed her back to her mother. As she cuddled the baby, I cleaned up between the mother’s legs and her thighs. She held the shirt-wrapped baby tightly as I washed her. When she was comparatively clean, I put her panties and pants back on her. I asked her if she was all right, using only international body language. I smiled, arched my eyebrows, spread my arms wide, with palms up, and slowly shook my head up and down, hopefully showing her that I expected a response. She dazedly smiled back up at me, with pretty much the same look that Henderson had exhibited earlier. How funny, I thought, to find myself with two people buzzed in such totally different ways, for totally different reasons. Clutching her baby tightly to her chest, she smiled softly and shook her head up and down. I took that as a signal that she was ok, and as well as could be expected, under the circumstances.

Twenty minutes later, we reached Bagnoi, and drove the LARC out of the water, much to the shock and amazement of those locals that were nearby watching. They had never seen a boat become a truck and head off down the road. The new mother guided me to the local medical center. We dropped her off and she gave me a soft kiss on my cheek and softly rubbed the palm of her right hand down the side of my face, as she was carried away.

We headed back to the base. Henderson was semi-conscious all the way, mumbling something about me owing him a shirt. I was as high as I had ever felt, euphoric at the thought of new life, in a place where I had witnessed so much life come to abrupt, violent ends. Yes, truly one of the “up” days.

Richard H. Kirshen is  a retired business owner, and Navy veteran, living in South Florida, where he was raised. He has been married for 41 years, has two sons, and three grandchildren, and is just getting the hang of this retirement thing.

Author’s note: I have changed the names of the people in China to protect their identities.

1996. The driver took my mom and me to a tenement in Guangzhou, a sprawling city in southern China that my mother still referred to as Canton, the name used prior to the Chinese Communist Revolution. We met my mom’s childhood friend, Wai Fong, at her house. The woman’s whole appearance came out in geometric angles, from the sharp corners of her trapezoid-shaped eyeglasses to her short, puffy triangular hairstyle and the small, narrow points of her elbows and shoulders. Even her movements seemed disjointed, as if her anatomy was somehow misaligned.

Wai Fong introduced us to her family: her husband, Sung Bok, a man who saw it as his life’s mission to put more pounds on my skinny frame by feeding me nonstop; their son, Cheun Chi, a quiet person with a keen interest in military history; and his wife, Mei Heng, a young lady whose brusque demeanor toward me suggested a slab-sized chip on her shoulder. Mei Heng was the only one who spoke English.

We shared spirited conversation and a home-cooked meal of sautéed string beans with garlic, an entire fish bathed in a deep-fried batter, and a plate of shrimp and cabbage. My mother and Wai Fong reminisced into the evening. Then Cheun Chi and Mei Heng insisted we sleep in their nearby apartment because it provided more comfort, and they offered to stay with Wai Fong for the duration of our visit.

Wai Fong and her son led my mom and me into an alley to walk to his place. Torn-up potholes impeded our path, and dark, faceless walls pinned us in on either side. The lingering stench of something dank and decaying overpowered my senses in the stillness of the night.

I shouldered a travel bag and walked behind Wai Fong, who guided us with a flashlight. She held on to my mother’s arm, as if leading a child across a treacherous intersection. Cheun Chi, toting my mom’s bag, flanked them to the right. The flashlight’s narrow beam penetrated the darkness, allowing us to avoid piled boxes of garbage or empty crates strewn about.

I said, “How far is this place?”

“Wai Fong tell me it close by. You remember she say her son and Mei Heng come visit all the time?”

“Right.” A moment later I asked, “What does Mei Heng do?”

“Some kind import business, so her English helping her for that.” She lowered her voice. “I heard her husband go out lots girls before, some very pretty. He picky, so not want to marry.” She fired a glare at me. “She skinny, really not pretty, but she the one he choose. Maybe that the good way.”

“For who?”

“That working for them.”

A strained silence. I broke it. “Did she seem friendly to you?”

“Sure. She tell me a lot. Why you ask?”

Mei Heng made a number of comments to me about the US culture that bordered on rudeness—remarks about the superficial and extravagant excesses of our cars and clothes, as if America somehow grated on her. I wondered if I had unknowingly insulted her in some way. “It’s probably nothing.”

Wai Fong’s “close by” stretched a lot farther than my definition. We turned corner after corner, weaving around alley potholes to a lone beam of light that exposed gigantic cockroaches scurrying along the ground. The size of small rodents, they could’ve starred in a Stephen King movie. It made me thankful we walked in the dark, because God only knew how many of them infested the alley. Wai Fong talked to my mother in a tone one might use strolling through Balboa Park on a hazy Sunday afternoon.

Finally, we stopped at steps in front of an eerie stone building, where darkness partially concealed towering double doors. My imagination went to work on what awaited us inside.

Wai Fong climbed the steps and aimed the light at the keyhole. Her son unlocked the door, shoved it hard, and it swung back with a loud, rickety sound. We entered an enclosed, shadowy space and needed to duck under a line of clothing. Down a tight hallway, I heard televisions inside rooms. Empty plastic pails hung on the opposite wall, and buckets of clothes soaking in water created another obstacle in our path.

Near the end of the hall, Cheun Chi opened a door and flicked a light switch. We stepped into a dinky studio smaller than the living room of my San Diego apartment. A tiny couch with stubby metal legs and thin vinyl cushions took up most of the room. Its advantage must’ve been portability because it didn’t look the least bit comfortable.

The place brought to mind the scrunched conditions in Hong Kong: up against the couch, an old refrigerator with a toaster oven on top; square aluminum table in a corner and metal folding chairs stacked underneath; near the door, a TV braced on a board between cement blocks; large white Thermos next to a tray of glasses and dishes by the TV; wooden ladder attached to the wall in another corner, probably leading to an attic or storage area.

Cheun Chi and I dropped our bags by the couch on the cold, hard cement. Wai Fong took my mom and me to the refrigerator, opened it, and pointed to a plastic pitcher on a shelf. Apart from that and a few condiment jars, the refrigerator was empty. She directed my mother to the Thermos and gave instructions while flipping the top open to allow a trail of vapor to escape.

Mom said to me, “This the hot water. If we need for wash or drink, can use.”

“Drink?”
“She say have to boil water to drink. The one in ’frigerator okay, already boiled, but if need more, use from here.”

“What do you mean if we need to wash?”

“The bathroom outside.”

Wai Fong went outside to bring back a bucket. She placed it under the Thermos and depressed a lever to release steaming water. She shut it off and handed the bucket to her son. Wai Fong retrieved plastic grocery bags from under the couch, then headed out into the hallway. Cheun Chi carried the bucket after her, and my mother and I followed.

Wai Fong lifted a Tupperware bowl from a rusty nail on the wall and walked to the end of the corridor. She opened a moldy wooden door to reveal a dimly lit space that approximated the area of a custodial closet. I saw a dirty sink, with an equally grimy rubber hose attached to a faucet. Pails of various sizes lay scattered on a counter blackened by sludgy filth, and the cement floor reminded me of my high school auto shop.

Wai Fong spread the plastic bags on the counter. Cheun Chi set the bucket on them and directed the nozzle to fill the container. Wai Fong scooped water out with the Tupperware bowl and slowly poured it into the sink while explaining to my mom.

My mother said, “Only cold water from here, so have to bring hot water to make warm for take a shower.”

“Shower?”

“She say use the soap to wash and bowl for rinse off. Take plastic bags to put clothes and towel. Put more bags on ground to step on so feet not get dirty.”

“We bathe here?”

“Not only us. Everybody in building.”

“A communal shower?”

“That what she say, so have to make sure lock the door.”

On cue, Wai Fong shut the door and fastened the steel hook to trap us in.

My mom said, “They wash dishes here too.”

I once visited a board-and-care facility for mentally ill patients in San Diego and thought the accommodations inadequate and demeaning. Compared to this, that was the Waldorf-Astoria.

Wai Fong unclasped the hook. Cheun Chi emptied the bucket and gathered the plastic bags. We followed his mother out. She stopped at the only door on the other side of the hall and forced it open. Wai Fong pulled a string chain and an outhouse appeared complete with a cement floor basin and a wretched smell.

“Let me guess, the toilet.”

Mom didn’t respond.

Wai Fong, with Tupperware bowl, simulated dumping water into the hole.

My mother said, “After use, put water.”

Was this why Mei Heng had reacted so strongly at my mere mention of the American lifestyle? Did she see me as a rich and pampered brat? Could that be why she didn’t accompany us here?
The next day, my mom and I took a bus with Wai Fong, Cheun Chi, and Mei Heng, who had invited us to stay at her parents’ home for the weekend while they vacationed. Wai Fong’s husband did not accompany us. We rode in an old creaky coach that felt like a dilapidated school bus in dire need of new shocks. After forty-five jarring minutes we arrived at Foshan, a city west of Guangzhou known for dragon boat races, elaborately staged Chinese opera, and prominent examples of ancient Asian architecture.

We got off at a soaring residential high-rise, and Mei Heng led us through its neatly landscaped circular courtyard to a modern elevator. On the twelfth floor she directed us down a carpeted hallway to a door displaying a green plastic mat on the porch.

We entered a spacious living room with a hardwood floor. I saw functional furniture: high slope-backed couch and chairs without cushions, a short, curve-legged oval coffee table in front of the couch, brass lamps on matching end tables, and a twenty-inch TV on a stand with a rack of magazines underneath. A stainless steel Thermos and drinking glasses on a tray sat atop a bureau next to the TV. A wood-framed picture of wild horses galloping on an open plain hung on the wall. I could see part of the kitchen from the entrance and four doors down a hallway. Compared to Mei Heng’s apartment, this was a penthouse suite.

Mei Heng guided me to a room equipped with a double platform bed. A small chest of drawers and a night stand with a clock and a lamp completed the furnishings.

She said, “You stay here.”

Mei Heng seemed more abrupt with me over time. Whatever the reason, it made me uncomfortable, and I noticed myself distancing from her.

I put my travel bag on the mattress and thanked her.

She nodded and left.

Later, my mother came into my room and told me Mei Heng had offered to take us to see some historical temples.

I hesitated. “Tell her thanks, but I’m tired. I’ll just hang out here.”
At dinner, Wai Fong prepared a meal of steamed rice, fried bok choy, chicken, and bitter melon soup. We ate at a square, Formica dining table against the wall in a kitchen that dwarfed the others I had seen in Hong Kong. Still, it was smaller than the one in my San Diego apartment. During a lull in the conversation, I said to Mei Heng, “Your parents have a nice house.”

She continued to chew, then swallowed. Looking at me out of the corner of her eye, she said, “Okay, but maybe house, eh, more big in your country.”

“It depends. I live in a one-bedroom apartment that’s a lot smaller than this.”

Surprise registered on her face. “But you have car?”

I hesitated because when I mentioned my car on the first night, she had unleashed a diatribe about American excess.

My mom broke in with a comment to Mei Heng. They talked, and soon, Wai Fong and Cheun Chi joined in. Their discussion diverted the topic, and I breathed a little easier.

In a while, Mei Heng said to me, “You speak, eh, good English.”

I nodded. “Thanks.”

“But you speak no Chinese?”

Her eyes stared straight into mine. I said, “Not much, no.”

“Maybe hard for you, that.” An accusing tone.

I spooned some sour soup with chunks of bitter melon into my mouth, chewed, swallowed. “It’s not so hard. Everybody speaks English in America.”

“Maybe hard if family Chinese.”

She turned, reached for some bok choy, and spoke to Cheun Chi.
Late that night my mother and Wai Fong talked with Cheun Chi. I stepped into the kitchen for a glass of water and stopped in the living room. Mei Heng sat on the couch in an oversized T-shirt and baggy sweat pants, her legs crossed in a yoga position, watching a program about Hong Kong.

I decided to make one last attempt to be cordial. “That place is getting a lot of attention right now,” I said.

With her narrow eyes still fixed on the screen, she bobbed her head and said, “Yes. We are very looking ahead to Hong Kong come back.”

“The people here are excited about it?”

“You know, we go to Beijing, eh, two months ago. We see the watch, eh no . . . clock?” She hand-traced a large circle.

“That’s right.”

“But with the, eh, numbers to show how much the time before when Hong Kong come back to us.”

“A clock counting down the days?”

“Days, hours, eh, smaller.”

“Minutes?”

“Yes, that.”

“Do you have pictures?”

She turned and studied me. Then she hopped off the couch, went to the bureau, and retrieved a stack of film envelopes from a drawer. “Come. I let you see.”

I sat near her on the couch and set my glass on a cork coaster on the coffee table as she thumbed through the envelopes. She glimpsed the first picture of each and rearranged the order of the piles.

“This the good one.” She pulled out a set of photos and flipped through them. She showed me a picture of her on a huge stone structure besieged by a mass of people in the background. “Here, we are visit the Great Wall.”

“Wow, I didn’t know it was that high.”

“Very big. We need to climb go up.”

She handed me a photo of Cheun Chi on steep stone steps.

“It looks like a castle,” I said.

She passed me another of the two of them in a guard tower on the Great Wall. The shot was off center, as if someone unfamiliar with the camera had snapped it.

“Is it really as long as people say?”

“Long.” She spread her arms far apart. “You will go to Beijing this trip?”

“We’re planning on it.”

“Good. You see. You keep, eh, walking and walking and get tired, but it never stop.”

More pictures of them there. The next envelope held prints taken inside a military museum: Cheun Chi next to a huge tank emblazoned with a red star, Mei Heng in front of a rifle exhibit, another by a display of handguns, old Chinese military uniforms and helmets, hand grenades in a glass counter.

“A lot of weapons,” I said.

“Oh, all the kinds. Cheun Chi like to see the guns, so he like this place.”

“Where is this?”

“Close by the Tiananmen Square.”

“You went there?”

“Yes, is the famous place. You go, you will see too.”

I remained quiet for a moment, wondering if I should ask about the tragedy. Would the people here even acknowledge it?

“Did you know about the student demonstrations there?”

“Everybody know about that. The very bad thing. Many days on the TV.”

“Really?”

“Yes, the news show, eh, many days.”

“So you know what happened?”

She nodded. “That the really bad thing. I was watch the TV night, eh, June, four”—she held up four fingers—“nineteen eighty-nine. Many students at Tiananmen. They yell loud, say the bad things about the gov-ment. More yell and scream. Then TV go off.”

“You turned the TV off?”

“No, by self. Everybody the TV go off. Nobody see after that.”

“They shut off the broadcast?”

She nodded.

“So people didn’t see what happened?”

“We do know. Everybody know that the bad thing.” She shook her head slowly.

“You know students were killed?”

She nodded. “The gov-ment give them the chance, tell them go home, but they do not listen. The gov-ment send the train for them, eh, pay for that. But they keep stay, not listen, make bad, so the soldiers have to shoot.”

I stared at Mei Heng in disbelief—her grim face, eyes stony and remorseless; her expression conveyed regret at an ugly but necessary action.

Mei Heng was my age. She worked, had gone to school, and knew English. She was married to the son of my mother’s oldest friend. Had my mom stayed in China, my life probably would not have been too different from Mei Heng’s. Still, I couldn’t imagine justifying the slaughter of unarmed students. How could Mei Heng be blinded by this kind of denial? Did other Chinese people feel the same way?

And how to respond? In my heart, I knew the massacre was wrong. But could I say so? She invited us to stay at this house as her guests. Her mother-in-law pulled strings to help us find a tour of Beijing. We were in her country.

But how could I remain silent? Those young people gave their lives for their beliefs—the right to protest, democracy, freedom of speech—principles that founded our country.

“Mei Heng, I have to tell you that I see it differently. Those students didn’t do anything wrong,” I said.

She gazed at me with a hard-edged focus.

I continued, “They were just voicing their beliefs. They weren’t hurting anyone. In the US, we feel that if something is wrong, you speak out. And you work to change it. That’s very important to us and it’s something we’ve always supported.”

She stayed silent for a moment. Then she said, “We know your country strong. You have the big army. But why you try hurt us? Maybe you have the army, but we have that too. You have guns, we have. You have ships, we have too. Maybe you are big, eh, but we are not afraid.” She glared at me, her eyes striking like bayonets.

“Wait a minute. What do you mean we try to hurt you?”

“Your country help Taiwan. You give the guns and, eh, ships for them. Why your country do that? Taiwan part of China. The people Chinese. They should come back to us. Soon, Hong Kong come back. Taiwan, too. But your country try to stop this, help them.”

Was that how people in China saw us? Street bullies attempting to dictate the policies of other nations by a show of brute force? How to argue? Had we not supported Taiwan? And did we not sell ships to them? Neither a politician nor diplomat, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of defending our country’s foreign policy.

“In the past, we have seen Taiwan as more independent than China. When we see countries that are trying to be free and self-governing, we help.”

“Then you make hard for us.”

I stared at Mei Heng for a long time. She regarded me with the kind of look I used to get from the American kids at school. Only now it came from Chinese eyes.
Raymond M. Wong is grateful to live in San Diego with his wife and two children. He earned the Eloise Klein Healy Scholarship and the MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in USA Today, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Small Print Magazine, and Segue. “Divided” is an excerpt from his memoir, I’m Not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence (Apprentice House 2014). Visit his website: www.raymondmwong.com.

I. CATHARTIC SUFFERING

 “The only work that will ultimately bring any good to any of us is the work of contributing to the healing of the world.” – Marianne Williamson

In the summer of 1989, my final summer before junior high school, I was voraciously reading anything I could get my hands on. My favorite books always had dark themes involving young women in extreme situations. Teenage girls fighting to survive sexual abuse, prostitution, drug use, or even being institutionalized were always on my radar. A few of these books stand out in my memory: Lisa, Bright and Dark by John Neufeld; Born Innocent by Bernhardt J. Hurwood; I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green; Randy by Jack W. Thomas; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Phoebe by Patricia Dizenzo; Cindy by John Benton; Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews; Lovey by Mary MacCracken; Daddy’s Girl by Charlotte Vale Allen; Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber; and One Child by Torey L. Hayden. All of these books portray neglected and abused children living through traumatizing and sometimes horrifying situations.  I would cry my way through all of the horrors experienced by these troubled, abused, and above all, neglected young girls feeling everything I imagined they felt i.e. fear, pain, hopelessness, and heart break. It was safer to let my heart break over the pain of these fictional girls, because by the end of their books they would be rescued by a friend, teacher, social worker, or some other Good Samaritan. I could weep over their suffering, because it would end; even if mine wouldn’t.

Even though I felt shaken, disturbed, and sick-to-my-stomach drained during these readings, this was, I believed, cathartic suffering. There was a camaraderie and outlook these characters and I possessively shared. Setting aside my personal connection to their circumstances, I knew I was learning something valuable about human depravity, abject hope, and chosen survival. This was not the kind of teenage angst portrayed in serial books like Sweet Valley High, The Babysitter’s Club, or even The Nancy Drew Files; this was true misery penned by people who understood what it meant to be victimized and lived to tell the story. This was something I needed in my life, if only I could find a way to move the hope I found on the printed page to my own flesh and blood heart.

My parents cringed at my strong identification with the anguish of these fictional characters. If asked, they would patently deny any personal connections to the subjects of: incest, verbal/emotional abuse, and childhood trauma. My father believes (and has always believed) that I am an overly sensitive, emotional woman who cries more than she works; and that is a cardinal sin for him – crying. For him, crying over one’s emotional pain is unacceptable, because it is not physical pain. Therefore, it can and should be controlled.

My father is an admirer of silence. I secretly suspect that he hated my youthful love of these books because the authors’ were shouting openly their personal struggles. From his point-of-view the protagonists in these confessional novels should have just shut-up and dealt with life: Phoebe should just have told her parents she was pregnant and dealt with her situation; Lisa should have kept her mouth shut about her schizophrenia; the teachers in Lovey and One Child should have minded their own business; Sybil should have kept her delusional, attention-seeking lies to herself; and the author of Daddy’s Girl had no right to share family secrets with others. If I had my choice my father would have been teaching a special education class in an urban area, filled with troubled boys and girls in need of help, talking them through their personal traumas, giving himself wholly to the nurturing of others, stopping only to raise his own children with love and compassion. Unfortunately, there are other ways to be a parent.

 

II. THE BIG FESTIVAL

OF ABUSE

         “Most of the pain we feel is nothing more than a story that needs telling.” ― Ashly Lorenzana

Many literary agents, editors and publishers refuse to invest in confessional stories and novels on the subjects of abuse and mental illness because they are considered white noise. Sadly, this leaves a vast number of countless abused men and women without a voice, while insulting those who have chosen to pen their tales in the process. The notion that readers have grown bored with stories of survival or do not consider the issue of abuse in its many forms important is contemptuous. If that were the case, Sylvia Plath would never have published The Bell Jar; Ken Kesey would have thrown One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the fire; much of Nabokov’s work would never have made it out of Russia; Dave Pelzer’s stories would be collecting dust on a book shelf; and Hayden’s lost children would have slipped through cracks vanishing into oblivion. And these are just a few examples from more recent literature. If you add in stories and novels now considered classics—it’s one big festival of abuse.

Readers in search of healing, however, do not set the market standard, many as they may be, since they are far outnumbered by the sexual-seeking and lascivious fans of E.L. James. Popular culture has always set the publishing standard and Americans have begun turning an apathetic eye to any writer who does not offer sex, violence, and a happy ending. Stories of survival and healing, pale in a publisher’s eyes when compared to the top-selling seedy worlds of teenage angst-ridden vampires or contract toting sadomasochists. Thus, the space for confessional realistic fiction is shrinking a little more each year.

When the average reader does manage to tear themselves away from the sci-fi/fantasy and erotica landscapes so prevalently published, they are not likely to focus their attention on anything or anyone other than themselves. When I was in seminary, a fellow cohort expressed utter frustration and contempt for women who shared their stories of abuse and healing. This female student wondered why victims of abuse had to bring it up at all; she believed it was her job to ask someone sharing their story of healing why they chose to do so in the first place. She concluded this rant by asserting that people who share these things most likely did it for attention; attention she did not feel they deserved. She was not alone in her feelings; the majority of the class agreed with her. Talk about indifference.

 

III. A REMAINDER OF HEALING

“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” – Hippocrates

When Neufeld published Lisa, Bright and Dark in 1969 it was immediately noticed by critics and readers alike, and it has remained a best seller for over forty years. Some considered it no more than a cheesy, after-school special waiting to happen, while others saw it as a raw, honest look at mental illness among the suburbanian classes. Neufeld’s own thoughts on his now internationally acclaimed novel reflect these two viewpoints:

What I wanted to do was write a short book, full of emotion and detail and excitement, for readers of all ages. I didn’t know that Edgar Allan would be regarded as a children’s book. It was. And when it was, everything fell into place. The minute Edgar Allan was launched successfully; I sat down to write Lisa, Bright and Dark. It, too, was a success so there was no turning back.

Neufeld’s novel and others like it are the presentation of humanity, the presentation of a human choice: we can choose suicide or healing. Many experiencing the reality of the themes present in confessional literature will choose suicide; only a small remainder will choose healing. The presence of confessional literature does not determine whether or not an individual will choose suicide, but many who experience cathartic suffering through this genre of fiction find an opportunity for healing.

My father would say that these books offer nothing more than blame. He laments the fact that many survivors of childhood abuse have begun to tell their stories laying blame at their parents feet. This opinion has been forged in the scars left from his own traumatic childhood: he was beaten, sexually abused, and abandoned through indifference and death by those he loved. First by his mother whose departure caused him to hate, and second, by his grandmother whose death killed any love that had begun to grow within him. To this day, he sees no need to discuss, let alone, write about things that he has already survived; things that cannot be changed. My own experiences have shown me that healing is possible through knowledge and identification. The knowledge gained through reading confessional literature is that no one is alone and healing can begin through one’s identification with the fictional characters that make up these novels. This is not my father’s way, but it is mine.

All healing is internal, and due to this, the various characters, plots, and themes found in confessional literature are as diverse as pain itself. If the story is realistic, filled with suffering and chastened hope, best to allow it to be what it is: an opportunity. Like the characters that fill the pages of these books that I have come to treasure, we feel we can’t go on, but we find a way. Our fathers will carry on in their way, our friends will support or leave us, we will be schooled by contempt in our communities and then, against all statistical logic, we will survive and remain to tell a healing tale.

 

Lisa Korthals is a native of Iowa who currently resides in Minnesota where she is pursuing the publication of her first novel. Lisa has already received a B.S. In Language Arts Education from Wayne State College, Wayne NE and a Masters in Theological Studies, from Bethel Seminary, St. Paul MN. More of her writing can be found on lisakorthalsblog.com/. She spends her free time enjoying life with her husband and two daughters.

What of this next story have my friends heard?  Nothing.  Not on a hike or at a bar, on a boat or by a fire.  Not a word.

My calcifying bovine valve lasted until graduation from St. Lawrence University, but by then I was in bad shape.  Over the year and a half leading up to commencement I did my heart few favors.  In the spring of my junior year I studied abroad in London and partied my way back and forth across Europe.  As usual, I acted as if everything was fine, that I had no reason to hold back.  I landscaped again over the summer to whip my ass into shape but my collegiate lifestyle and heart were catching up to me.  It felt like slowly being horse-collared from behind.  By Christmas of my senior year my physicality had dissolved.  So had my energy.  I continued the charade of a happy twenty-year-old with life by the balls: Tommy College would not cry mercy.  Then, at a cardiologist appointment in January, Dr. Vermillion said what I had been waiting for years for him to say.

“After you graduate in May, that’s as long as we can wait.  Then, the valve will have to be replaced.”

In high school the doctors had warned me that choosing a tissue valve was risky because it could harden and cease to perform.  They were correct.  When I was fifteen, five or six years had seemed a lifetime away and in some respects it was.  I had to repeat to myself that this second valve replacement surgery was real.  Real real.  No pretending I was okay anymore.  Unlike the first valve replacement, this procedure was not preventative.  The fibrillations occurred frequently now and leaking backflow at the valve was extreme and my heart had grown to a dangerous size.  My demise was gradual in transpiring and because of my denials I was relatively unaware of how dire my condition was until Dr. Vermillion spoke.  For months I had labored on the basketball court or mountainside, baffled by my lack of wind.  I had never been so breathless after so little exertion, but any associations to my leaky bicuspid valve and my ballooning heart eluded me.  I couldn’t acknowledge my fate lest it become real.

The time to live or die had come.

I tried to scare myself into being brave.

Alone at the computer screen my fingers began tapping keys.  My attention was aroused by a video of an aortic valve replacement.

I uncovered circumstances of my past that had been veiled by anesthesia and repression and the passage of time as well as questions about my future.  I watched the video several times, squeamishly, intrusively, repeatedly pausing and replaying eight hours paired down to as many minutes.

Of course there was a lot of blood.  The camera was mounted above the table and focused on the patient’s chest, oriented vertically on the screen and bathed in iodine-tinged light.  The ribs were draped with linens except for the skin encasing the sternum.  Twenty seconds in a latex-gloved hand skated a blade across this smooth surface.  I watched the weight of the body on either side of the slice separate this supple membrane and like a paper cut the blood was a moment before arriving.  With rough precision the surgeon passed a spinning blade over cartilage and bone, sawing the sternum in half.  I imagined bits of body spraying under the saw guard.  The video cut to the next scene: the double-walled sac protecting the heart, the pericardium, was scalpeled.  Two clamping instruments pulled apart the sides as the blade progressed, revealing the beating heart.  I was immediately struck by the sharpness of these tools and their proximity to tissues wet and tender, vital and thin.  And the simplicity: it looked like an X-acto knife with which I once cut up a frog in biology.

Inside the myocardial chamber, the aorta was cannulated – its fluid was drawn off with a tube – and the blood came, pulsing out of the artery and filling the pericardium.  The blood spattered the latex hands until the tube could be secured in the hole to divert the flow.  Like fitting a casing on a sausage press nozzle, the aorta was stuffed with the cannula and sutured to it.  Soon the insentient patient was surviving on the extracorporeal cardiopulmonary bypass, an apparatus that circulated blood and oxygen throughout the body, bypassing the heart.  The beating heart was a spirited and dynamic organ.  The steadiest of hands could not manipulate a scalpel, needle, and surgical thread without shredding it to ribbons or perforating its jumping walls, thus the importance of the heart-lung machine.

Bloodways were vented and clamped.  Tiny guy-wires appeared to steady the chamber tissues in the video frame like ropes tied to a hot air balloon.  The wires were there to deliver electrical impulses to stimulate the heart if necessary after the void was closed.  The blade carved back and forth under the gentlest of pressures and the surgeon excised the valve, leaving as much cardiac muscle as possible to anchor the new tap.  When it was removed the defective valve was white and lifeless and as rubbery as boiled calamari.  Two pairs of latex hands held metal sticks and wires steady and another inserted replacement valves of various sizes, testing for fit.  This was not a gentle process.  Once chosen, the new bovine valve was attached to the end of a probe and crammed into the hole.

I looked away.  I was tempted to pause the video.  There was no sound, no verbal direction from the surgeons, or clinking instruments, or humming and beeping machines.  No banter, to keep things calm, of last night’s dinner, next week’s fishing trip, the sexy new intern.  I could only hear my computer breathe and feel the slow, labored dub-dub, dub-dub, dub-dub inside me.

Tweezers poked and looped and pulled the thread to sew the valve anchor into the heart walls, tugging it tight.  The camera window pulled back to reveal the steel clamps that maintained the thoracic cavity’s yawn at a width of two fists.  Then the replacement valve was rinsed in dishes of chemical or water, I could not tell which.  All of this I could see, but what about smells emanating from the body?  The exposed slabs of pectoral muscle?  The veins of fat cushioning the inner chest?  The blood burning at cauterization points?  The cow tissue took a last dip in the sterilizers before the sutures were placed in the valve sewing ring.

If you have ever looked through your closed eyelids at the sun, then you know the color of the blood-soaked linens, the way the bright light played on the redness through a videographer’s lens.  The knots were tied and pressed firmly with a finger and I could all but feel a prodding from within.  The physiological recognition pinched my breath, as finite and sudden as bursting a perfect bloody bubble.

In its stillness, the heart looked less alive than the latex hands, a similar shade of disposability and engineering.  The aorta halves were piped together and rhythm returned.  The heart resumed its dance.  The surgeons wiped the cruor off of their fingers into their workspace.  The pinkish halves of chest muscle were inspected for adverse bleeding and cauterized before the hole was shut and stapled at the bone and sewed at the skin.  Each tug of the thread raised the flesh until the twenty-inch incision was zipped closed.

So, I thought, meTomorrow. 

Outside the window bright stars held steady in the sky.  I wondered.  Omitted from these eight minutes were facets of preparation, about which I had questions.  Primarily, how could a heart surgeon sleep knowing the next morning he or she was the life support?  And if I could pick my surgeon, who should I choose? 

These questions were answered the next morning.

In a hospital bed, minutes away from the scary-real preparations, he smiled at me.  He grabbed my ankle and patted my foot.  He turned to my family and introduced himself in the most compassionate of ways.  He registered the tension in my throat from holding everything in and the ways in which I could never be as brave as I wanted to be because my heart was losing.   He leaned his strong body over me and I understood his greatness and his power.  His sharp eyes were alert and embraced me and he secured my hand in one of his and held my shoulder with the other and spoke to me the words I needed to hear.

“I am very, very, good at what I do,” Dr. Jude said.

I felt my chin drop to let air in.  I didn’t want to cry, I wanted to be brave, but I wanted to believe he would be brave for me.  To my parents he said, “I will care for your son as if he were my own.”  We believed him and all other questions became irrelevant.  He wiped tears off my face and stood again to leave and with my sleeve I wiped away the rest so I could look at my family and watch the wizard disappear again behind the curtain.

*

I was wheeled to a prep space.  I put on a gown and felt self conscious about what it covered, what it didn’t, but this was the costume I had to wear.  I clung to the sheet and followed a resident nurse’s instructions.  I sat up in bed and slouched out of the gown.  I laid back down.  Another resident with an electric razor sheared the hair from my chest, exposing the scar that already existed.  A vacuum attachment collected all the hairs into a plastic box on the handle.  Iodine was slathered on my sternum in a cold wet tickle.  A third resident dabbed numbing cream on my wrist and explained what it was.  I wished I could swallow gallons of the stuff. 

I was a body on a board.  It was time for the arterial IV but my wrist was not numb.  The resident opened a package of blue arm-length plastic tubing as skinny as guitar string.  I stiffened.  With a cone-shaped device like a pen cap he punctured the skin on my wrist below the stump of my thumb and taped this portal to my arm.  He pushed the tubing into my arm through the portal.  Blood ran down my arm and onto the sheets.  The room was very cold.  I sweated profusely.  Nobody wiped away the blood.  I was rigid from head to toe and my arm flashed with electricity and fire.  I wanted to scream at this motherfucker.  My breathing was shallow and I looked from the blood to my toes and back again.  For a moment I was distracted by a nurse wrapping an ID tag around my wrist and another nurse swaddling my thigh with a blood pressure cuff.  Nobody talked to me.  I was a stiff body on a board, paralyzed by flashes of electric prickings at my elbow.

The tubing felt like it had poked through the artery and was stabbing raw nerves, but I couldn’t move.  The IV nurse muttered an apology and removed the tubing.  It was coated with blood.  This nurse got a fresh piece of tubing.  He inserted this tubing into the portal and I felt swelling pressure along my arm as if the tubing plunged all the blood in the artery back up into my arm, resisting compression like a hydraulic press, blood leaking out of the plastic portal.  Fire.  A metal file grating raw nerves or a hammer tenderizing the bundle of fibers in my elbow or both.  There was not a trace of numbness.  There was pain, seasick pain.  I needed a towel for my face, to sop everything up.

In his most cheerful voice I heard the nurse ask me how the numbing cream was working – did it do the trick?  He must have known the answer because he perspired along his receding hairline, his zitty chin and greasy nose.  I sweated more.  I shook my head no.  Not working.  He pulled out the second tube and examined it.  Blood dribbled down my arm.  I couldn’t look away.  My respiration was ragged.  Then he tried to insert the IV a third time.  And I was spent.  Defeated and dehydrated.  I hated this nurse very much.  He said he might have to work an IV into the other arm.  I could not possibly hate him more but then he said, I will just have to insert the IV once you are under anesthesia.

I wanted to scream.  I’m not your practice cadaver!  I detested him even though he was part of a team of people trying to fix me up.

Moments later I was wheeled away.  I was a twenty-two-year-old pediatric cardiology patient about to be operated on by somebody who normally repaired flawed infant hearts.  Last month I received a B.A. in English Writing at St. Lawrence University’s commencement.  During senior week I partied my ass, as if nothing was wrong, as if I wanted every person in the goddamn world to know I was normal.

I was not normal.

My heart had ballooned.

I was close to dying.

Expecting the surgery and either the recovery or the cremation afterwards, I had not applied to graduate schools.  Instead of being grateful for the opportunity to replace the valve, my post-graduate prospects were depressing.  It wasn’t just the surgery that depressed me, but separating from my college friends and my brother, from college life, from the illusion that my life was perfect.  I was smashing into the truth.  I was being exposed to everyone and to myself.

During my final semester, I turned down an invitation to publicly read my work because I was ashamed at how I could not stop myself from sweating.  I denied the ubiquitous commotion within.  My heart was working overtime, cadging moments of calmness in a lopsided game.  If you have ever tried to remain composed in a confined space while carrying on academic conversations with people you respect and admire all the while wiping perspiration off your temples, from under your eyes and off your forehead, matting your hair and soaking your clothes, every day for a year, until it becomes as normal as breathing except that you plead for it to end, then you understand my plight.  I pretended to go to the bathroom during classes, during meals at the dining hall, at the pub with my professors and during meetings with my advisor, to walk around in the North Country winter air, mopping my forehead with paper towels and imploding with frustration, considering the next excuse to escape to my townhouse where there were clean, dry clothes.

A few months before surgery, I had driven to Key West with the guys for spring break.  One of the consequences of a fat heart was that I sometimes felt dizzy.  At the wheel on the Jersey Turnpike my vision blurred again for a long moment and I endured the whirling dizziness and hoped I wouldn’t pass out in the rush hour traffic, injuring or killing myself, my friends, other travelers.  I was a selfish fool who was too proud to admit a weakness and relinquish control.  I was mercurial and hidden from view.

Thirty hours later we made it to Key West and it was party time.  Day after day we drank Red Stripe on the beach, threw a Frisbee, floated in the ocean, and napped in the sun.  On Duval Street it was Happy Hour all day.  We ate raw oysters on weathered porches and our tabletops grew empty bottles like glass leaves on mangrove trees, our heads as heavy as sand-filled balloons.  There was no end in sight to the partying: I bounced from bars to clubs to rooftop lounges and wet T-shirt contests, double-fisting vodka tonics and Dark ’N’ Stormys, scarfing street meat after last call and clambering back to our crib with mustard grease on my shirt and the crumblings of sand and weed in my pockets.  Every day I was the last person standing.  I had something to prove.  Sunrises were my specialty, a beer in one hand and a joint in the other at the edge of the mangroves, the docks, the Southernmost Point in the United States before crashing on the windswept, sun-soaked peninsula jutting into the water, milky blue with salt.

On a bare-chested walk on the beach it just came out:  “What’s that scar,” somebody asked.  Unlike when I was asked the same question before streaking through The Quad during freshman orientation at SLU, I told them, and that I’d have another surgery in June.

“The new valve will probably be mechanical,” I added.  I was amazed that after four years together one of my closest friends hadn’t noticed my incision before.  Had I been that good at concealing it?  Or did I subconsciously emit a Don’t even ask vibe?  I didn’t want to ruin our pleasant jaunt in the sun or stifle the energy that was surging that spring.  I didn’t want pity, either.  Instead, I was amazed at how good it felt to tell the truth and to receive genuine concern.  I was relieved and grateful.  For the first time that I could remember, it felt good to acknowledge my scar and how much my friends could care.

In the operating room now there was only me supine on a table.  Nobody talked to me.  Nobody asked how I felt.  Everyone prepared, like roadies before a concert, sliding cabinets here, opening and closing drawers there, testing electronics and counting supplies, tuning instruments and flowing in chaotic choreography throughout the room before the main act arrived, the man with the steady hands about to take center stage.  There was no pillow under my head and I was cold from sweating so much.  Above me were racks of austere lights.  Somebody mentioned the gas, told me there was oxygen in the mask to help me breathe and remain calm, but I knew better.   A nurse fitted the two prongs of the oxygen hose into my nostrils, tucked the tubing behind my ears, and before mumbling a reply I was out.

*

I felt as if somebody with the best of intentions had shot me in the chest.  Instead of an exit wound I felt the radial distribution of shrapnel inside of me.  It was ironic that a physically insensate organ caused so much pain.  What was worse was that I knew exactly what was coming.

In ICU, life sped up and slowed down because of the drugs and the waiting.  The universe folded inside out and the ineluctable nature of my predicament exposed my seething self.  I had been sawed open and was roiling with pain and conscious of little else except my inability to prevent it.

The ICU lights were dim and I perceived the presence of my family.  Focusing on anything other than the backs of my eyelids was impossible.  In fact, I couldn’t even focus on those.  Sitting up was climbing Mt. Everest.  Breathing expanded my thorax and felt like swallowing shards of glass.  I needed to breathe to live, therefore I needed to hurt.  I burrowed inside fractions of seconds of distraction: the perception there was a heater in my mattress, the crinkle of a magazine page, a nurse knocking at the door, the jostle of an IV stand as a drip bag was replaced, the sensation my lips were cracking, my mouth was dry, and something was crammed down my throat.

Otherwise, I floated in a cloud of hurt.  To have had a valve replaced before did not help.  I would not recover as quickly as before because of the preexisting scar tissue, the areas of trauma traumatized a second time.  There were new anxieties ahead, too.

Time warped on and I became sensitive to my whereabouts in the semiconscious moments between doses of sedatives.  Morphine slithered through my veins but it did not debase my discomfort.  The valve became me and I became the valve.  Delirious, I could only make mental deals with mystical powers, so I did.  In a perverse trade offer, I asked for blistering, pus-filled, cracking, oozing acne in every pore on my face for the rest of my life instead of this.  Take my brains, my courage, anything, but cure my heart.  I asked to go bald.  I asked to go sterile.  I asked for greater doses of morphine.  I ask for unconsciousness.

I never promised to believe in any gods or attend any churches.  I felt like I was dying and I didn’t know what to do.  I cared a lot about living and I wanted to live normally, productively, actively, but that seemed undetermined and conceptually frustrating.

My subconscious was the only mental engine connecting me to pre-surgery thought and with it I asked my family if the surgeons did the Ross procedure – replacing the diseased aortic valve with the pulmonary valve and then replacing that with a cadaver valve, an advantageous procedure putting my own tissue in the more critical position.  No, they said, the match between the valves was poor.  The new valve was mechanical.  I muttered fuck and cried awkwardly because among my newly acquired accoutrements was a polyvinyl chloride tracheal tube several millimeters thick that was in my throat.  There was also a catheter tube in my penis, IVs in my arms, an electronic clamp on my finger registering vitals, blood pressure cuffs on my limbs, and drainage tubes sutured into my stomach and neck.

The next day a nurse began shoving pills up my ass and washing me with sponges.   Rolling onto my side to accept the suppositories was a monumental effort requiring me to constrict chest muscles that gripped my sternum, pulling at my bones.  In agony I held my breath but that maintained the tension, so I exhaled, which also hurt.  There was no escape.  Shove as many pills up my ass as you like – just lift the house off of my chest and throw a bucket of water on the fire inside.

I was doped up and buried with pain that had taken on the presence of a tsunami.  The doctors visited.  Fragments of conversations stuck.  Ten hour surgery.  Dr. Jude looked knackered.  Twenty five percent chance I would not survive.  I love you.

I took amnesiac medicines so I wouldn’t remember most of the torment but chemistry only covered so much.  The drugs could not clot a conversation between my surgeon and another doctor, their words floating through the doorway past beeping machines and blinking lights to the bones of my inner ear.  The internal bleeding is significant.  Then: We are not going back in, Goddamnit.  The surgeons realized the door to my room was opened and we were listening.  They closed the door.

My memories expanded with the days.  Blood drained through two tubes inserted below my ribcage and accumulated in a calibrated plastic box.  As my intravenous painkilling regimen was reduced I became wary of the box’s contents.  I marked the passage of time by each fluid check.  Over the days it changed from red to pink to yellow-clear.

The breathing tube was replaced with a mask to facilitate independent respiration.  Unfortunately, the large volume of oxygen in the mask overwhelmed the delicate membranes in my nostrils, triggering a torrent of blood from each and I was back at the beginning, a worried, helpless five-year-old with a gusher.  The nurses pressed a hamper’s worth of towels to my nose for hours.  Missy, my girlfriend, assisted the ICU crew.  I tilted my head backwards and several finger-sized clots slipped past my nasopharynx and into my throat.  I choked repeatedly, violently.  The dynamic tremors were prying apart my stapled sternum and I was fearful of reopening myself.  I received an injection of platelets and bundles of gauze were packed up each nostril.  The bleeding finally stopped.  I shook and shuddered uncontrollably and the thin hospital blankets did not warm me so Missy laid on top of me to hug the coldness away.  The next morning I was too weak and sore to hock a loogie, so we all took turns suctioning the phlegm and blood clots out of my mouth and throat with a large plastic eyedropper.

Day four I was moved from ICU to the pediatric ward.  The walls displayed cartoon fish and my feet touched the footboard of the bed.  The nose plugs made eating difficult because chewing and swallowing completely closed my airways.  I suffocated with every bite.  Phish could have offered to play a private show for my friends and me, but I would not have cared less.  At night, unable to sleep because of the nose plugs and physical trauma, I slurped paltry amounts of green Jell-O, watched episodes of This Old House and The Wizard of Oz on TV, and drifted off into hallucinations, night skies dripping onto a green city, black rain shifting shapes, tarry figures that pulsed under the stars.  These chartreuse dreams were beautiful.  After restless days and nights, Missy sleeping in a chair beside my bed, the plugs were removed and I was overpowered by an unclean odor that defied the imagination: the oily stench emanating from my body.

Since the urinary catheter was removed, I’d been pissing in a bottle that he sometimes emptied for me.  Otherwise I lugged my drainage box to the bathroom.  In the mirror above the sink I saw the paleness of my face and the blackness of my stubble.  I yearned for the sun.  There were plentiful, but untouchable, amounts of it outside my window.  After my family went home in the evening, a voluble volunteer visited me to play board games.  In my reticence, I parried his attempts to strike a conversation and he left with the boxes under his arms.  I felt relief because to befriend him would mean that I wanted company, that I was lonely and homesick.   The Lakers and Pistons played in the NBA Finals but I didn’t watch.  A few days ago I could not have imagined standing, but even my progress couldn’t placate a crankiness that was replacing the politeness I had employed in ICU when the only thing I could control were my manners.  I also could not get used to the clicking and thudding of the new valve.

The nurses encouraged me to move about so I shuffled to the window.  A rainstorm had passed through the city and I stared at the dark clouds in a blue sky.  The faintest of rainbows arched across evening like a gateway to the vast spaces of the world to which I suddenly longed to return.  That was all it took.  A small glimpse of the vitality in the world that awaited me and I began to turn a corner.  I realized I felt more alive because I was almost dead.  When I recognized what was missing, what was precious, what made me happy, pestilent thoughts evaporated.  My mind was drawn to friends and family and I began to anticipate the rest of my life with eagerness.  Most of the gratitude I felt for my life came from my memories of those people: the smell of a muddy trail in the springtime woods on a group hike; cookies in Mom’s kitchen; cruising nowhere with Dad in his car; the sound of a train rolling past campus at dusk while I walked to the library and crowd noise swelling to welcome Phish to the stage; a soccer ball rolling through the grass and returning the pass; the crackle of a fire, water sloshing in Venetian canals, the shamrock drawn in foamy head of a Guinness, and midnight rides in Parisian police cars with Missy; a handful of forks and a grape pie; the grip of cold lake water.  These memories made me feel I had had the experiences of somebody twice my age.  A prognosticator I was not, but I decided to love what I lived and live what I loved in the time that I had.

*

Five days after surgery the doctors were satisfied with the clarity of the fluid draining into the box and decided to remove the tubes.  A nurse peeled away the rusty bandages from the two entry points.  With shining scissors, he snipped the sutures anchoring the plastic hoses to incisions in my belly.  Firmly gripping one tube, he pressed his other hand just above the one-inch slit and, in an aggressive and unannounced motion, yanked the bloody thing out.  A thick burn crept into my flesh.

“The second tends to be more difficult than the first,” he said.  A red-black clot oozed from the slit.  I focused my consciousness on a bundle of red balloons in the corner of my room and braced myself as he clutched the other tube.

Without the tubes I was wheeled to the electrocardiogram room to check the new flow.  I felt incredibly nervous because this would be done on the same machine in the same room in which my demise had been monitored over the years.  The technician smeared warm gel on my tender chest.  She gently slid the wand from place to place and took pictures.

“This is where the traditional shape of a heart as we know it comes from.”  She pointed to the screen.  I saw the two halves.  She printed the image and tucked it under my arm, saying, “Beautiful, I think.”  This was the loveliest valentine I had ever received.

Confronting death, I realized, was actually a way to think about living and, as I gained strength and discarded tubing and wires and angst, I felt increasingly eager to get on with my life.  On the sixth day I was discharged.

 

Thomas N. Mannella III earned a B.A. in writing from St. Lawrence University and a Masters from St. John Fisher College, both in New York. His writing and photography have previously appeared in various other magazines and journals. Currently, he teaches English and Environmental Literature in Naples, NY, where he lives with his wife and sons around the corner from the house he grew up in.

 

1959: Dad and three of the four boys are at the little yellow linoleum table in the
kitchen alcove of a tight but tidy post-war bungalow. Mom is pregnant, not daring to hope
that this fifth child will be a girl so she can call it quits on carrying babies, twisting her hands
into the frayed apron around her waist, starting to straighten up in the kitchen as she always
does while the guys dig in. Where is Lorne, she asks. The quiet one, easy to overlook. The
pork chops and mashed potatoes are going fast and if he’s not there soon, well – the gravy is
almost gone already. It’s hard to make much gravy from pork chops. She sends the eldest, the
one on the end of the dinner bench who can slip out, to go fetch his baby brother.

It’s not a lengthy search, down the short hall, behind the closed door of the shared
bedroom.

“Hey Keeker Weaker, dinner.” No response. He pushes the door open. “Keeker!”

I’m standing over a newspaper spread, arms flailing, making intense buzzing,
sputtering sounds. Gears grinding, pistons firing, the thunk of a door. My arms windmill
wildly. Laid out in front of me is today’s newspaper – a full page ad from McFarlane
Goodacre Motors – the full lineup of 1960 Mercurys. But I am not there, not in that room.

I have already turned the key, slipped a 1960 Mercury Comet into reverse, backed out
of the driveway, thrown the long shift lever with its white knob up into D, spun the red
steering wheel with half-moon chrome horn to the left and pulled into traffic. Down the street,
right at the corner, a rolling stop at Knudson’s corner, pointing the chrome Comet hood
marker through the neighbourhood, down the hill past the Paramount Theatre, window rolled
open, elbow on the door, one hand on the wheel, cruising …

“Keeker Weaker!” My brother’s shout finally cuts through like a truck horn. It’s a
wonder I didn’t have an accident, so startling was the interruption.

Decades later, I look back in wonder at that car buzz – how far it took me, how
strongly it took me. Where did it come from? Brain researcher Yvonna Reekie writes about a
possible ‘brain disorder’ in her work on autonomic arousal. Autonomic as in automatic, not
rationally thought through. The theory, in my limited understanding, is that certain stimulus
triggers are acted on by the amygdala (our instinctive brain) without having to travel to the
prefrontal context for more complex consideration and debate. This is good when you need to
pull your hand away from a flame or flinch to deflect an object flying at your face.

But there can be other, atypical, triggers. For me, it seems, the mere sight of a car
elevates the blood pressure, narrows the visual field, essentially reduces me to the level of
Pavlov’s dogs.

Over the years, I learned to minimize the merciless teasing from baffled brothers by
sneaking into the basement or turning on the taps in the bathroom behind a locked door. Like
a schizophrenic who learns not to voice his visions, I found ways to bottle the buzzing, to grip
my fists together so tightly that the arms couldn’t fly off in their car-powered arcs. The veins
in my arms bulged, blood not circulating; my hands built calluses.

I was possessed. It was religious possession, it was time and place transcendence.
And only the layering of 50 years of living have kept me somewhat intact, in place.

* * *

Summer 2009, on the high plateaus of central Mexico. I didn’t come here for the cars.
I came seeking sabbatical, including sabbatical from thinking about cars.

Back home, I lead a citizens’ group battling, educating, meeting, talking, presenting to
shift the balance on the streets of my city in western Canada. It’s about cars – and more. Our
rapidly growing group asks the community to rethink it relationship with cars – to broaden its
definition of streets – to include the way that people on foot, people sitting on a bench, people
on bikes or wheeling a wheelchair create a richer, healthier urban tableau.

City politicians and traffic engineers are starting to say the right things: “transportation
alternatives,” “pedestrian-friendly,” “human scale streets.” But it’s been three years of taking
photos, schlepping my laptop and PowerPoint around the service club circuit, posting other
cities’ fine examples on the web, sending newsletters and, damn it, the sidewalks still end
short of their destinations, short of reason, while the bleak black lanes of asphalt dedicated to
cars continue to widen and multiply.

So my wife and I have landed in Leon, bound for San Miguel de Allende, and to my
dismay I’m noticing cars. Our shuttle driver slides us into a big-shouldered black Yukon,
starts it up and leaves us (air conditioning running) to help another passenger search for
missing luggage. We stretch out, cool off, make small talk with fellow passengers while I
ponder the significance of sitting in a Yukon, idling away on a high dry plateau thousands of
kilometers south of the real Yukon territory in northern Canada, where the glaciers recede at
record pace.

With the search for luggage abandoned, we are just nicely away from the airport when
the driver veers off the highway into the ditch, careening towards a corrugated metal Quonset.
Whoa! Interesting. This seems to be an intentional ditching. He drives the Yukon straight into
the shed: junk food immersion. The walls are terraced with jalapeno chips, limon nuts,
cookies, coolers of Cokes and Fantas, and of course cervezas: Caronas, Sols, Modelos.

We bump back up onto the highway happy – happy to be driven, to be on the last
stretch of a journey. The other passengers in the front two rows, my wife and I in the back.
This is good– I can strap on my seat belt, sink into the cavernous leather darkness and leave
the conversation to others, including my wife, who knows my quirks, my craving for
restorative solitude.

As always, the vehicle windows turn the outside world into a TV screen, a passing
entertainment. I’m the only one, I’m sure, to notice when we slide by the GM assembly plant
at Silao, just south of Leon – 1.2 million square feet, idled by the recession of 2008/09. This
Yukon likely came out of that plant – it and its cousins the Suburban, Escalade and Avalanche
(another good Canadian image) were assembled here.

The two-lane asphalt to San Miguel and the semi-arid terrain is not dissimilar to twolaners
running through Arizona or New Mexico, but when we enter San Miguel de Allende,
things change quickly. Courtyard walls close in, narrow walks at their foot, tight cobblestone
colonial streets – the Yukon like a naval cruiser navigating narrow creeks, passages out of a
different time and different place.

We disembark into a flood of mechanized sounds, surging up and down the winding
city canyons. Grinding gears, rattling loads, a small bore motorcycle’s whine, the rumble and
thrumb of engines. High electronic beeps signal something, somewhere, backing up. The
streets are a-buzz.

Suitcases stashed, we join a walking tour. My legs thank me. In recent years, I have
rediscovered perambulation with a vengeance. Walking, biking, running = sanity. I sometimes
think that my brain and legs have been hardwired with a certain dependent circuitry. Must
move, must get outside, outside myself. Calming through movement.

“When I was a child,” our guide Jesus says, “we played soccer in these streets.”
Imagine children chasing balls down these cobblestone canyons. Now, tires squeak on
polished stones as drivers negotiate tight corners, reverse, try again. A steady stream of green
and white Nissan Tsuru taxis, VW bugs in various stages of repair, reclamation and
customization wind past parked vans, scooters, tiny cars and hulking SUVs.

A small pickup grinds past, bearing the burden of two massive megaphones on its cab
and a bed full of campaign signs featuring a handsome candidate. Behind that, a dapper
copper-skinned man with silver hair, wearing sharply pressed tan shirt and slacks – driving a
fire-engine-red quad. A little hatchback passes, its (count’em) eight occupants bouncing and
swaying on an overloaded suspension, then a white Isuzu pickup with black Policia markings,
flashers on the cab and two uniformed officers riding shotgun in the back, holding the flasher
bar for balance. Behind them, a woman steers a small scooter, one sweet faced little girl
standing on the its flat little floor between her mom’s knees, an older girl on the seat behind,
holding on. Not a helmet to be seen.

Pedestrians, pushed to the sides on narrow stone ledges, bob in and out of the stream
with a patience that speaks of experience, resignation, adaptation. Though filled with
pedestrians, these streets are far from ideal for anyone with mobility problems. The stone
walks are uneven, curbs sharp, power poles and other barriers frequent. A wheelchair would
be impossible here. Stone and adobe walls butt up tight to the walkways, here and there
swinging open to reveal calm courtyards beyond. Behind a 17th century carriage door (just
slightly ajar) a man is dipping a sponge in a bucket and lovingly wiping down a bright white
late model Toyota Camry.

To my Canadian sensibility it’s a tangle of contradictions – what’s that red off-road
quad doing on the road? – don’t the police realize it’s unsafe to ride in open pickups? – where
is a functioning headlight on that old beater?

But the aspirations, the relationships between people and their vehicles are no different
here than in the U.S. and Canada. I see it in the smoked black-out windows of the Ranger
pickup and the shadowy man behind, the old VW bug with the customized yellow wheel
wells, the man in the cowboy hat with the truck he has kept running for half his life. The
vehicle becomes the identity.

I have come to this UNESCO World Heritage Site with its narrow winding calles and
colonial edifices in no small part to be in a walkable city. To live where people commute on
foot, where frutas are at a stand three doors down, not at a supermarket a 20 minute drive
away, where life slows to a human, not automotive, pace. Yet cars fill my brain.
I am anxious; it may be an anxiety disorder. I am anxious about things that other
people appear not be anxious about. There are many ways in which I think myself outside the
stream of humanity.

I am anxious about the cars. Yes, ordinary cars. The taken-for-granted motorcade of
metal that streams across every continent (save Antarctica) day after day, night after night,
growing louder and more common by the moment. I don’t think we really understand cars.
Or maybe it’s just that I don’t understand cars. Or, no, maybe I understand cars but don’t
understand my car anxiety. The uncertainty makes me anxious.

Perhaps it’s addiction. Dependence and resentment. But if so, if I need help, who
would I turn to? I know of no professionals, no specialists, for my concerns. And I can’t be
the only one who needs help.

Cars are everywhere. Cars and enablers. We are all in this together.

* * *

On-air and online, the world is consumed with trepidation about the future of the
automobile. Hands are wringing over the loss of 100,000 automotive-related jobs in the
United States in the past year – and another 36,000 in Canada. We learn that three million
American jobs are dependent on the industry. The U.S. Department of Transport is promising
$12.5 billion to upgrade the aging American highway infrastructure. It’s as if we have no
options, no choice. The heartbeat of America has skipped a couple beats and all we know
how to do is administer economic defibrillation?

We want the car industry to revive so that we can add to the 17 million people already
killed in vehicle accidents? Fire up more carbon monoxide, 90% of which in metropolitan
areas is car-created? We want to gear up again, to continue evangelizing cars to the
developing world, so that China and India like us will sport three cars for every four people.

Think of it: China would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars (more than the current world
population of 795 million cars); India alone would have 660 million by the year 2050. The
land required for highways and parking for those cars would approach that now planted in
rice.

But no, we are terrified because General Motors eliminated 2,641 dealerships in the
US and 260 in Canada in 2009. We are concerned that new vehicle sales fell by 49,000,000
in 2009.

Are we suicidal? Like the heroes in Bruce Springsteen’s anthem Born to Run, “In the
day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream, At night we ride through
mansions of glory in suicide machines.” Suicide on the highways being romantic because a
great rocker sings about it; less so, the ragged stories in garages across America where sad
figures pursue suicide by vehicular hypoxia (breathing car exhaust).

We drive on. Destination unknown.

* * *

We remember our first cars like we remember favourite Christmas gifts, the deaths of
famous people, and our first sexual experience. Sometimes all of the above are woven
together. My first car was more satisfactory that my first sex, so I’ll tell you about the former.
It also lasted a lot longer. Cost a bit more. OK, they’re not really comparable.

Tank was my 1954 Chevy four-door sedan. Bullets could not penetrate its panels. Red
with white roof and palomino patches of black here and there where the paint had peeled.
Inside, you could get lost in the deep, sweeping and musty grey seats, big as mom’s couch.
My college buddies and I could pound the heavy metal dashboard with impunity. Few of the
gauges worked. The massive yellowed steering wheel was primordial, as if excavated, not
ivory but some sort of plastic compressed through eons of pressure. At six feet tall, I was just
able to peer over its arc and reach the tiny pedals hidden way down on the distant floor, where
dust puffed up from gravel roads.

Tank moved ponderously. Cornering took some serious pre-planning. You couldn’t
wheel it casually into a parking lot while smirking at the girls. It required labour, attention.
Tank wasn’t cool in any sense except the way that anything a young, poor, university student
owns takes on a certain ironic cool. My best friend from childhood, Davey Christensen,
drove a truly cool car – a customized orange 57 Chevy with those sharp tail fins, a round tach
sitting up on the dashboard like a rifle sight, fat tires and “mags” as we called chrome wheels.
Davey had earned my eternal loathing at age 14 by turning our whole little walk-to-schoolAuto
together-and-look-bored group against me. Four years later, somehow, owning a car that was
the antithesis of his souped-up Chevy became my self-declared badge of honour.

I eventually let old Tanker go because the brakes were getting squishy – coasting me a
few feet past stop signs – and the brake shops didn’t have parts. Had I known, then, about
junk yards, I would have realized I could have found 54 Chevy brakes cheap and kept Tank
running.

Each car since has become shorthand for a life passage. The beige 66 Chev sedan was
a transition vehicle. After university, married and with our first child on the way, we loaded
the Chevy to the roof with liquor boxes of books, pots and pans, and handmade hippy clothes
and headed six hours north to my first ever “permanent” job. Then came the 1976 Dodge
Aspen station wagon, Robin’s egg Blue, hand crank everything. A tall stick shift like you
would find on a tractor or 1940s farm truck. It was my welcome to higher finance, loans, adult
money anguish: a harrowing purchase process, the greasy sales guy vs. me, with my hippy
hair shortened into some kind of gawdawful mullet and my doubts about my expedition into
adulthood dripping off every fringe of my shaggy soul. No contest.

Later, with two pre-schoolers, we moved to the lake and I was working in the city, so
we downgraded from the Aspen wagon to two older, iffier, units. Perhaps that vehicular split
foreshadowed our marital split. A couple of years later, I packed the kids and their clothes in
the hulking deep green Fury II and left my soon-to-be-ex with the Ford Cortina. Built in Great
Britain, I think. A wimpy excuse of a car.

This is how badly, how sadly, I can care about stupid little car things. Just after the
divorce, I was down and out and my big brothers (who must have felt a sort of pity for my
lack of worldly common sense) bailed me out. Brother Pat – already well on his way to the top
of an impressive corporate pyramid – “sold” me his late 80s Zephyr stationwagon with the
plastic woodgrain paneling for a price considerably below market. I bused down to Calgary
to pick up the Zephyr and the only thing, the only thing, on my mind the whole ride down and
when I walked into their suburban split-level and made small talk with my sister-in-law was
headlights. Square or round? Talk about geeky. Round was old school, quaint, dated. Squared
was what was happening, squared was a new world that said ‘hey, headlights can be a
different shape’ and I couldn’t for the life of me remember whether this particular year of
Zephyr was the last of the rounds or the first of the squared.

Pitiful. But damn, I was happy when we stepped through the side door into the garage
and the headlights squinted at me in all their squared glory. I’m a little different, I realized
then – and whenever the buzz hit hard. Because the buzz was still humming down there
somewhere, hidden below all the accommodations of adulthood.

How did I get here? Oh yes – Keeker buzzing over the sheer dream of a car, and the
self-created mythology of Tank. My little motorcade of memories. What ever happened to
motorcades, anyway? I sometimes imagine my life as a modest little motorcade, led by Dad’s
60 Olds, followed by the various incarnations of me riding in Tank, the Aspen, the Caravan
that came with my hockey dad era, a couple Maximas. It wouldn’t draw much of a crowd, that
motorcade.

* * *
Cars changed us.

Cars moved right into our lives. Now we build them special little homes, or annexes to
our own. They sit with us, move with us, consume with us. They inhabit our lives, our
dreams.

We created many tools, many appliances, many assistive devices in the past 200 years
but none has become our muse, our identity, like the car. What about humanity has not been
changed by cars? Our sexual lives, our families, our urban planning, our careers and
employment options, our eating habits, our economy, our popular culture?

For a recent example, it is instructive to look at the Starbucks brand. In its early days,
Starbucks pursued an identity as ‘the third place.’ Founder Howard Schultz had been
impressed by the coffee houses of Italy, where people socialize over a cup of espresso or
cappuccino. The coffee bar is the third place after home and workplace. When Starbucks
built its first drive-through, it was (unknowingly?) throwing in the towel on the ‘third place’
brand claim. Our third place is the car. Having given up on the ‘place’ strategy, Starbucks
has since sought to become the purveyor of exotic choices in hyper-personalized coffee
concoctions.

Drive-ins are popular because they don’t force us to leave our beloved cars. Initially,
companies and planners thought that restaurants with major drive-through business required
smaller parking lots than eat-in diners. People take their purchases and head onto the
highway or head home, right? Wrong. Research found that many of us purchase at a drivethrough
then pull into the restaurant parking lot and eat in our cars. What is going on here?
Are we really that lazy? Sometimes, yes. More typically, we are saying that we prefer the
ambience of a paved parking lot and a view of a concrete wall broken only by giant trash
cans, over the ambience of the plastic booth, where we have to watch / hear / pretend-wedon’t-
notice the unruly tribe next to us.

At least in our cars, we say, we can play our own music and generally be ourselves.
The addition of DVD and other built-in child pacifiers in large SUVs and vans adds further
incentives for harried parents to stay put in their rolling home.

The car is ours. A restaurant is not. The car is us.

* * *

What is rational? Does rational matter?

In my home town, I have taken up with religious zeal the cause of pedestrian and
cyclist rights. With millions upon millions of our tax dollars going into ever-wider
expressways and intersections to serve the cancerous spread of big box stores, where are the
sidewalks, the bike paths?

Cars create the ability to move great distances quickly but, ironically, they soon create
the need to move great distances. The downtown theater closes and a big new one is built in a
fringe retail suburb – so that it can have acres and acres of parking for cars. Historic
sculptures are moved so roads can be straightened and narrowed. Pedestrians are prohibited
from crossing the broad multi-lane streets for “safety” reasons.

* * *

Another take on the chasm between Tank and Davey Christensen’s 57 Chevy. Flash
forward to late 2001, early 2002 and I find myself in therapy. Clinically depressed with, as my
therapist noted calmly, a suicidal bent that was uncomfortably close to being a plan for action.
She was a charm, my therapist – like someone handing me a simple flashlight, down in the pit
where I had been digging, digging, for months. She saw, too, that I was meant to move, that
depression starts with stasis, with a hunkering down – literally and psychologically – that I
needed to get up on my hind legs. Move my body. Rediscover the childhood joy of running,
running for no reason.

I sat in those sessions, feeling a gradual lightening, a return of breathing room, the
lungs able to fill with air. Becoming less weighted, less freighted. I walked out of the
therapist’s office one evening, out onto the street, striding past the parking meters and angled
cars for a few moments before realizing that I didn’t know where mine was parked.

Turning, looking. Then remembering that my wife had dropped me off, that I didn’t
need to find the car, didn’t need to drive. My heart jumped at the prospect of letting my legs
stretch out and just go.

Writing today, with the distance of years, I can clearly see the self-defeating behavior
that started, in adolescence, with Davey and the previously friendly gang of kids he literally
turned and ran with – away from a dumbfounded formerly happy-go-lucky me. I saw my
adolescent self and the ability to turn, to look in different directions. To change not the event,
not them, but me.

Cars aren’t about mental health. Or are they? All I know is that, walking my way
back up out of the open pit mine of depression, I had learned two things: it helps if you can
stand back from a problem and shine a bit of light on it; and for every negative situation that
arises there are a variety of possible responses. We don’t always have the knowledge, skills
and inclination to choose alternate routes, but they are there.

And on a more person level, I should learn to move without a car.

In retrospect, Tank was more symbolic than I ever dreamed at the time – my modest
and perhaps perverse pride in its uncoolness a highly healthy thing. I didn’t have rich parents,
wasn’t a mechanical car-tinkerer and no fairy was going to drop a hot rod into my backyard.
So I would just drive an old beater, drive Tank, as if it was cool.

* * *
The market is said to have lost its confidence in the auto industry. It’s sad and it’s not
sad that, in the past couple years, cars have taken a double-whammy: a jackknife rise in oil
prices led many to park their wheels or significantly cut use; the American mortgage and
banking crisis pushed the teetering GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy.

The big American car makers I have no sympathy for. Between greedy unions and
absolutely dumb design (what the hell is a Pontiac Aztec trying to be anyway?) to an inability
to follow the Japanese model of continuous improvement (no, we didn’t need something
different than a Ford Taurus two years after it topped the best selling vehicle lists, we just
needed a better Ford Taurus, year after year after year, like Honda does with the Civic) to the
frankly unconscionable rolling cruise ships called Escalade and Excursion (advertised,
inevitably, despoiling a pristine mountain outlook somewhere in Montana), well, I rest my
case.

The Japanese manufacturer Nissan makes the most popular car in Mexico, the Tsuru.
A sturdy little compact, it is the taxi of choice in Mexico City and here in San Miguel de
Allende. Tsuru means crane in Japanese. Native Japanese cranes were thought extinct in
Japan in the 1920s until a flock of ten were discovered and carefully nurtured back to
numbers that have taken them off the endangered list.

Cars, like real estate developments, are often named for natural resources that are in
peril, or are even being threatened by their namesake development / vehicle. Predator Ridge
golf course, near my home in Alberta, chases the last wild predators further into the
mountains, becoming a playground for predators like investment advisors.

Mustang cars and open range for horses… Dodge Rams and decimated mountain
sheep. We buy the mythology, don’t worry about the reality.

* * *

The only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys. And cars start their
claim on our young very young. Check out Delta Enterprise’s “Cars Theme Room-in-a-Box”
– an automotive fix for the infant who has barely left the teat: “A room’s decor can now be
filled with your child’s favorite Disney Cars.”

Over my decades of birthdays and Christmases, I received and therefore collected an
idiosyncratic cluster of car toys – a red Mercedes with operable gull-wing doors, Robin’s egg
blue 58 Chevy, an old Model A with operable engine crank. I couldn’t geek out over toy cars
with the same abandon as in my childhood, so I did the middle aged guy thing and start
cruising classic car shows and auctions. I was curious, initially, to see if there were any
perfect matches for the cars of my childhood – like the 57 ‘Plodge’ – the Canadian Dodge
Regent, which was really an American Plymouth with a Dodge grill. Dad owned a red one.
With pushbutton automatic tranny on the far left end of the dashboard. I could give you more
details, more than a normal person wants to know.

Over the years, car show followed by auction followed by classic cruiser night,
curiosity grew into obsession. Where were those cars I remembered? I needed to find them,
and I needed to have one. Preferably a 1960 Olds Dynamic 88. Dad’s glory car. Not the most
popular car of the their era, they are few and far between. This extended my search, show
after show. The search, the planning, I kept mostly to myself until one day when my wife and
I had one of those full and open marital conversations that most guys hate. The bottom line is
that she made an incredibly rational case for children’s education, travel and about 49 other
priorities coming before a collector car. I agreed but, fuming inside, went away and collected
all my toy cars. I was going to stop this car obsession. Now. I piled all the cars in a cupboard
back in the corner of the basement work room.

No one noticed but me. No one cared but me.

The cars sat in their dark cupboard. Days went by, weeks, months.

And there came a day when I was down in the work room, opened the cupboard
looking for a tool, and realized that I had forgotten my cars.

* * *
Where did it really begin, the infatuation, the adoration? The transcendence. Henry
Ford famously proclaimed that he wanted to “democratize” the automobile, not quite
inventing but certainly refining the very idea of the mass production factory, for the express
purposes of selling a Model A or T to every American (read: North American – we Canadians
and the Mexicans, bookends to the American auto narrative epic, are different-but-the-same
when it comes to cars). Is it democratic for us to be dupes?

Ford’s democracy, like the other democracy, started with men. Attend any car show
(ladies) and you will find a universe 80% populated by guys. A significant proportion of
whom are wearing T-shirts with smokes rolled into the left sleeve.

Yet women are the decision-makers (or key influencers) in 80% of vehicle purchases.
The exception is that band of hard-core car guys who rarely consult a woman on a car
purchase and (in my anecdotal experience) are perfectly willing to test the strength of the
marriage bond by bringing a ‘new’ antique or fixer-upper, unannounced, on a summer Sunday
afternoon.

Whether they are hands-on at the dealership or online or not, women are the ultimate
arbiters for most purchases. As a rule, they are less passionate about style and power but no
less than men see the car as an extension of themselves and an extension of their living space.
And even if car addiction and obsession is just a guy problem, it’s still a problem, isn’t
it?

* * *

It’s mid-March 2005 and the orange sun is relaxing towards the tops of the dusty San
Jacinto mountains as the stream of vehicles begins forming a structured flow along the broad
black streets of Palm Springs, east into Indian Wells. The air feels like good fortune – such
warmth, amid the explosions of blossoms and banks of golf green roadside grass.

My wife and I certainly feel blessed to escape the dark north and fall into this smooth,
shining line of cars winding along wide streets lined with explosive spring blossoms to slip
into smooth lanes. Feeling the comfort of certainty, the calm of deliverance from difficulty.
Expansive expensive racing tires turning onto a flat gravel parking lot, a controlled and gentle
crunching. A regiment of attendants in sharp clean vests, each with a fluorescent green X back
and front, wave each car into place with practiced precision. The line never stops moving, the
cars slide into their grid on the open field, and patrons emerge for the modest walk. Here and
there you hear the gentle hum of a motorized convertible top going up.

Up and down the rows, this could be a European and Japanese luxury car show:
Mercedes, BMW, Ferrari, Lexus, Land Rover, Jaguar, Infiniti. The colour palette leans
heavily to polished metals – titanium, slate, bronze. Half a dozen of those, then our bright
blue Ford Focus with an orange Budget rental sticker. I step away from it, stand next to the
black Porsche while my wife gathers her things.

The conversations are quiet, contained, as clusters of two, four, six people make their
way to the spacious entry gate, up the broad walkway and into the stadium. Inside, the most
expensive seats at courtside are the last to fill. In the upper reaches, the white concrete
terraces and blue seats are taking on the checkered variety of humanity.

A tennis audience is polite, controlled. Murmurs and nodding heads between points,
near silence during points as the players grunt into the thwack of balls, sneakers squeak on the
court. When the match is over, Belgian Kim Clijster having politely dispatched American
Lindsay Davenport, there is an orderly and unhurried return to the lot, where the beeps of
security systems and winks of tail lights signal remote controlled locks opening. As expected.
No surprises. These are the comforts that money can buy. It is a world apart and it is
comforting, the soft retreat into fine and capable cars, responsive cars that absorb and cradle.

As I use the key to unlock our rental (as if anyone would steal a Ford Focus, in this
company) I’m thinking I might as well have saved the admission and just walked the rows of
cars for two hours. Two months later, I buy in. I buy a BMW.

* * *
In my Dad’s latter years, I wanted to buy him a big, loaded Olds. Ads in the 80s and
90s said “Not your father’s Oldsmobile anymore.” What was wrong with being my father’s
Oldsmobile?

The Olds was Dad’s glory car, in my mind. Earlier, when I was preschool or early
elementary, he sold cars himself, bringing home a ‘tester’ many days at noon. He would take
me for a spin around the block before returning to work. Packard, Hudson, Mercury, Pontiac.
Those dashboards, gear shifts, dials, chrome. For some reason the push-button controls of the
54 Dodge automatic keep coming back to me – the lever he threw up to take it out of park, the
magic of just pressing D for Drive.

Then came the seven years he was away, living out west with my grandparents, trying
to sell the hotel they co-owned but nobody wanted, the very first Pembina oil boom already
bust. And somewhere in there he landed the Olds, bought when our next door neighbour, who
had no kids and therefore more money for cars, traded in his 1960 Dynamic 88 for a 1962.
Dad dashed to the dealer and brought home the big blue boat with horizontals fins and the
scrolling speedometer that gave me such a buzz when it crept above 60 and turned from green
to orange. I always wanted him to push it into the red – over 70.

He drove it back and forth on his bi-monthly visits, arriving with a big bag of junk
food from the struggling hotel he managed, taking me for a spin around the block. Then over
the years, after he moved back home, he switched to newer smaller cars. Always, I could tell,
he would have wanted the big Chrysler 300, not the little Dodge Demon. Or maybe I just
wanted that for him. He never had extra cash to throw around, nor did I.

I wanted better cars for him and now I realize it’s because cars were about all we had.
I was the last boy, after the thrill of putting together a baseball team or curling foursome with
the older guys was fulfilled. I was the one whose adolescence happened a few hundred miles
away while he was busy stocking the tavern, slinging beers, sweeping up.

Father, son, car. Or maybe father, car, son – the car being the bond, the connector.

I have repeated the pattern, haltingly but not without some knowledge of what I was
doing. My glory car was recent. They call it the ultimate driving machine and, sure, that’s a
marketing line. But I had scouted BMWs for years, driven them hard and soft and finally,
with online searches and multiple phone calls, closed a deal on a sweet little 330XI located,
providentially, out on the coast in Vancouver. Which would necessitate a two-day drive home
through the Rockies. This, I needed to share, so I flew out with my adult son Eric.

Eric lived with his mother through his teen years and in the years since we have found
few touchpoints. Sports is one. Cars might be another, I thought, so I concocted the road trip.
At the end of the drive, we are cruising down main street in the tourist town where he lives,
sun roof open, windows down, the lake shimmering in front of us. Rolling slowly, Eric
driving, enjoying the moment. On the sidewalk, a couple young guys walking toward us,
noticing the Beemer, admiring. One of them calls out, “Cool wheels.”

“Thanks man,” Eric answers and his pride is palpable. In a rush of parental desire I
wish I could instantly will to him everything represented in the moment – success, admiration,
easy luxury, and a finely crafted German driving machine. Something like a father-son-car
advertisement, only real. The machine, the moment, my yearning for a certain father-son
bond, inseparable.

As with my own father, I want it to be about more than the car. But I wonder.

* * *

The American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) and the World Health Organization
(ICD-10) list seven criteria for addiction; a person exhibiting three of the seven is considered
addicted. Here, loosely adapted, are the questions – for me, for you:
1. Tolerance. Has your usage increased over time?
2. Withdrawal. When you stop using cars, have you ever experienced physical or
emotional withdrawal? Have you had any of the following symptoms:
irritability, anxiety, shakes, sweats, nausea, or vomiting?
Auto Arousal 21
3. Difficulty controlling your use. Do you sometimes use cars more or for a longer
time than you would like? Do you sometimes drive just to drive?
4. Negative consequences. Has your use of cars had negative consequences to your
mood, self-esteem, health, job, finances or family?
5. Putting off or neglecting activities. Have you ever put off or reduced social,
recreational, work, or household activities to spend more time with cars, or
thinking about cars, or with car-related media?
6. Spending significant time or emotional energy. Have you spent a significant
amount of time obtaining, using, concealing, planning, or recovering from your
use of cars? Have you spend a lot of time thinking about your next use? Have
you ever concealed or minimized your use? Have you ever thought of schemes
to avoid getting caught?
7. Desire to cut down. Have you sometimes thought about cutting down or
controlling your car travel, car use, or time spent with a car? Have you ever
made unsuccessful attempts to cut down or control your use?

Psychology, of course, deals with individuals, families and small groups. It offers no
perspective on whether, by exhibiting the criteria, a society could be considered addicted,
considered mentally ill.

* * *

My newfound holier-than-thou / not-a-car-addict stance snuck up on me. Some days I
find myself walking or biking to working and wondering, ‘where did my Beemer go?’
To tell the truth, my wife has a Machiavellian streak and it may have been her plan all
along. If so, she moved her pawns strategically. First, she said she wanted a new car, to
replace that 95 Maxima that was really quite a decent car but by now a few years old. I was
half way to the string of car dealerships down at the south end of town before she added the
but. But, she would first sell the Maxima at the start of her upcoming work sabbatical and we
could get by with one vehicle while she wasn’t working.

Sounded like a plan to me. Gave me an extra few months to research and – best of all,
too cool – test drive just about everything within our time zone.

The trick was that, by the end of the sabbatical, “we” (in marriages it is often
reasonable and sometimes necessary to speak in this way) realized that we were getting along
quite fine with one car. Problem: our one car was my Beemer. My sweet treat. And it simply
wasn’t practical. There is, despite all the dismissive critiques, a certain amount of utility in a
‘Sports Utility Vehicle’ and that’s the direction my searching sent me. Towards a BMW
SUV, of course. As always, the test driving was worth it – whether or not we ever made a
switch. In the end, though, prices that climbed up to double or more than a ‘regular’ vehicle
kept me in check. We bought a very nice 2007 Toyota Rav4. It is, really, a very good
vehicle. Excellent. Everything I thought it would be.

It is not a BMW.

* * *

First man, then machine. Built for the road ahead. Land Rover: go beyond. For boys
who were always men. It’s how the smooth take the rough. More horses, fewer
seconds. Different rituals, same spirit. Beyond rational. Get the feeling: Toyota.
Think, Feel, Drive. Put the fun back in driving. Drive = Love. Have you driven a Ford
lately? The real question is: when you turn your car on, does it return the favor?
Driven by passion. Designed to improve your performance. Size matters. More feline
than ever. Unleash a Jaguar. You’re due, definitely due. Dodge: grab life by the
horns. Have kids; keep your style. Chevrolet: an American revolution. Driving is
believing. Shift expectations. There is no substitute. When you get it, you get it. Oh,
what a feeling. It’s a miracle but we’ve made it. Engineered to move the human spirit.
Lexus: the passionate pursuit of perfection. What a luxury car should be. What a
luxury. Everyone dreams of an Audi. There’s only one. Creating a higher standard.
Imagine yourself in a Mercury now. Mean but green. Like always, like never before.
The heartbeat of America. The ultimate driving machine. Accelerating the future. The
art of performance. Dream up. Open your mind. The power of understatement.

* * *

Sandwiched between the TV ads tonight, a brief CNN item on the death of a promoter
at a Monster Truck show in Madison, Wisconsin. The county sheriff calls it a “freakish
accident.” Eight days earlier, a boy at a show in Tacoma, Washington, was killed by flying
debris. The coverage tonight includes a five second bite of condolence to the family of the
deceased promoter. There is no further commentary on the concepts of our society’s
‘monsters,’ our freakish entertainment, the screaming absurdity of lining up vehicles in a
stadium and then gathering, in the thousands, to applaud larger, more brutish vehicles
crushing them. Oil on the ground like the blood of slaves to the lions. Our world of cars has
become so. Cars have redefined our normal.

Like you, I am unable to say where this will go. You might think the 2009 collapse of
GM and Chrysler signalled a change in our relationship with the car but if anything it’s the
opposite. The leaders of the United States, Mexico and Canada united in declaring the central
importance of automobiles to our economies, our societies, our lives. If anything, as nations
and as societies we are becoming more enmeshed in the auto tangle, not less: the U.S.
government owns 80% of the “new” GM, while the Canadian government owns another 12%.

In the coming decades, cars will proliferate throughout Asia and the Indian sub-continent. The
emissions issues may be addressed with new technology, when we finally start running out of
petroleum fuels, though it’s also possible that we will be far too slow to respond and will find
that our little hothouse planet is increasingly uncomfortable for us.

Even with low-emission improvements, even if we achieved cars that ran entirely on
electricity or other power, there are still the issues of resource consumption in the vehicles
themselves. Over 12% of today’s car parts are plastic, and that percentage is growing as
manufacturers aim for lower weights for fuel efficiency. As our world population grows,
where will carve out more and more room for highways, streets, parking lots, garages?

In the meantime, I will have decisions to make. Do I find an excuse to buy a fuel
efficient little BMW Mini to tuck into the garage of our new second home out on the west
coast? Do I continue to learn to rediscover the bicycle and public transportation? Can I
satiate my needs at cars shows, pacing the rows in a reverent daze, or do such activities make
it worse? Not many AA meetings are convened in pubs.

I don’t suppose I can really psychoanalyze myself. I have, though, learned some tricks
and picked up some tools. Recovery is never a straight road.

And I don’t suppose there is much chance that a society bound up in the auto
adoration addiction thing is going to design itself a clear and simple little path to a placid
pasture where we all dance around with unicorns. Should I worry about what’s next? We’re
all in this together.

There are a variety of routes. There are choices.

But you don’t just turn off the buzz.

 

Poet and non-fiction writer Lorne Daniel lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. He is a past winner of the Jon Whyte Memorial Essay Prize (Alberta).

She wasn’t just seventeen. She was only ten, eleven at best. It’s hard to tell now
because back then she had already been left behind one grade that I know of: first grade,
and I’m assuming it was just that one time.

Her name was Billie Bell. Stop for a second and try to picture a ten-year old girl
named Billie Bell. What do you think she looks like? I’ll start you out. Dirty blond hair in
pixie-cut bangs. Skinny. What did Holden Caulfield call it? Roller-skate skinny? Oh
yeah. She was poor, not the poorest in our class, but definitely challenged in holding
clothes together enough to keep her warm in winter. Dresses that were never patched or
worn through, but getting there. If she had a heavy coat, all I see now is something beige,
maybe with a thin, fake-fur top. But mainly I remember her sweaters. Nothing bright,
nothing pullover. Just those thin off-white ones that she never buttoned, although she
always seemed cold to me. Her hygiene wasn’t the worst either. Some of the more
downtrodden grammar school kids smelled bad, and some showed visible dirt patches on
their upper arms. Billie was never like this; I never smelled anything bad coming off of
her, but that still didn’t stop most of the boys from yelling “Cooties” if one of us ever,
purely by accident, touched her.

I remember her for several reasons. One is that when she was determined—
solving a math problem at the chalkboard, defying an attempt to be bounced out of a
dodge ball game (she never succeeded but would always grin after being hit with that
oversized red rubber ball)—her tongue would protrude from her mouth and she would
bite down on it. Her way of showing how earnest she was; how great her effort was.

When she did this, she looked like “Nanny,” my maternal grandmother. So yes, even now
when I see Billie Bell, I see my Nanny.

Another reason I remember her is her teeth, or rather, her upper gums. While her
front teeth were mismatched and irregular (They weren’t so bad and years later I saw the
same teeth on my Rock and Roll idol Neil Young), Billie Bell would never wear braces.
Her family would never be able to afford braces. Of course, neither could mine for that
matter.

But those gums. The way they looked was way beyond compare.

She didn’t smile easily or often. Given her academic and social struggles, why
should she? Given a home life that, admittedly, I knew nothing about, why would she?
But when she did—perhaps after hearing the teacher say something warm; perhaps on
seeing one of her few friends; perhaps on seeing that year’s Christmas cookies displayed
for all to enjoy—it was her gums that truly smiled.

Big red gums that overwhelmed those misshapen teeth.

Gums that I am afraid no young lover would ever want to make contact with.

As I said, Billie didn’t smile that often. But, and here she was thankfully and
relievedly normal, her smile was eminently preferable to her cries.

I remember seeing her cry only once, but I remember it so vividly because, of
course, I was the boy who made her cry.

On the occasions when our enormous, elderly, and deaf fourth-grade teacher,
Miss Navie Ball, left the classroom—most likely to head to the cafeteria to supplement
her mid-morning or early afternoon snack—she’d appoint one of us as class monitor,
which was nothing but a sanctioned method of allowing kids to tell on each other. The
monitor would compile a list of anything wrong or felonious that his or her classmates
did, and in this process most of us learned, whether we understood it or not, what life in
old Bavaria was like in the mid 1930’s. Really, if you even whispered one syllable of a
word loud enough and the monitor heard it, you went down on the list. And when Miss
Ball returned and saw the list? Actually, I don’t remember the exact penalty, though it
was likely a journey to the principal’s office or a note to your parents. Once, however, I
did see her physically lift a boy named Don Franklin right off the ground and fling him
across the room as if he were a paper Frisbee. What had been his offense? Simply being
out of his seat, looking at what one of his friends had drawn. But, as you’ll see later, he
deserved something of this sort for his future crimes.

We all wanted to be class monitors. For nothing seems more crucial to a fourthgrade
child than being in charge, being able to give orders. Being the source of fear.

My turn finally came on a sunny day in late winter. Our classroom emitted steam
heat so we were all comfortable, if not a bit glowing. I sat at Miss Ball’s desk, my beadyblue
eyes taking in all. The monitor doesn’t have to let the offender know when he or she
has transgressed, and so the power seems infinite and unchecked. Most monitors seek out
those who have bothered, annoyed, or actually hurt them in previous months. Next, are
the previous monitors who deserved their own date with the principal.

Much later, I saw what our monitors really were: Kapos. The most hated of the
hated.

But back then, in my classroom monitoring time, I must have written down ten or
eleven names in the seven minutes Miss Ball was away, likely devouring more corn
muffins. And when she returned, she simply took my list and began calling out the
names:
Brenda Gwin
Mike Folker
Keith Clark (one of my former best friends)
Billie Bell.

What any of them did, I knew even then, was nothing really. Passing a note;
getting out of their seat; laughing at something foreign and unknown to me. Billie, I
think, simply asked her tablemate a question. Softly, quietly, she disturbed nothing and
no one. She never did.

I don’t remember the other offenders’ reactions now. Perhaps red faces or steely
stares.

But I do remember Billie’s.

She looked at me, and I, I could see.

And then she started crying, and as Mrs. Ball took her out of the room, I heard
her. We all heard her:

“But what did I do? What did I do?”

I didn’t know what the word “inconsolable” then.

But right then when she crossed that room, my heart went boom. And so I
rejoined the world of my peers, sitting there in a world of my own. In some ways, I think
I’m still sitting there.

******

Still, that wasn’t the worst thing I ever did to her. Thankfully, she never knew this
other thing. This thing that I did that was so horribly normal and therefore, much much
worse.

It was the Christmas party back in mid-December. Or rather, two weeks before
when we all drew names for our “secret Santa.” I originally drew “Samuel Ware,” not
one of my close friends, but a solid guy, unusual only in his Hawaiian background: dark,
exotic, very Polynesian-looking. He was a safe “get,” though, and I had a few minutes to
ponder what I might buy him. And then:

“Hey Terry!”

It was Don Franklin, sidling up in a gesture of, I now see, desperation.

“I got Randy Ford’s name, but I’m already buying him something because our
families always swap gifts. So do you wanna switch with me?”

Randy was also a good friend of mine and given the harmless nature of this
request along with the benefit of bestowing my friend with a new game or Hot Wheels set
of cars, I thought, why not?

“OK.”

“Great. Here ya go,” and he grabbed Samuel Ware right out of my hand and
replaced it with…

Billie Bell.

Don squirmed his way back across the room, and I couldn’t yell out, “Hey, you
lied! You stuck me with Billie Bell!”

Thank God I didn’t do that, though I know a few who might have.

But what I did do, naturally, was follow Don’s model.

I don’t think I have to explain why the thought of giving Billie Bell a Christmas
present was so abhorrent to Don Franklin and to me. But I need to. It had something to do
with our names forever being associated; with the rest of the class linking us; and with
Billie somehow getting the impression that he, that I, actually didn’t mind her.

That we, I, liked her.

So I sought out three, four, five classmates, pulling Don’s trick, until finally
someone just as gullible as me responded and made the illicit trade. I got “Jennifer
Jones,” an athletic and tall girl who, as fate played it, got my name too. Whatever I gave
her is lost to me. What she gave me was a Dr. Ben Casey jigsaw puzzle. My family and I
spent that Christmas working on it, the green surgeon’s scrubs driving us all crazy. And
when we got to the end, what drove us even crazier was that three or four pieces were
missing.

Maybe it was Elise Harris, or Marie Ashley—a gorgeous, slim girl with long
blond hair—whom I suckered in for Billie’s name and for a gift that virtually no one
wanted to buy for her and give her. But in the end, someone did: Elise or Marie.
Whatever it turned out to be—a pencil set or pair of gloves–Billie accepted that
present on the Christmas of her fourth-grade year, never knowing the truth of what went
on behind her scenes. She ate the iced sugar cookies that Randy’s mother brought and
sang the Christmas carols with Miss Ball and the rest of her classmates, as if nothing
were wrong. As if everything was beyond compare.

Which maybe it was at our fourth grade Christmas party at 2:00 on the last Friday
before Christmas. After that day we had a two-week holiday, returning just after New
Year’s, most of us adorned in new clothes, comparing all our winter gifts.

And Billie looked the same of course, no worse for the wear really. Never
knowing or suspecting or feeling jealous or hurt.

Now she’ll never dance with another. OOOOOOOh.

At least that’s what I thought. But then, in this as in so much of life, what do I
really know about any of it?

What I do know now, though, after years of studying and teaching great works of
literature is that the original definition of tragedy is based on the classical model of
Shakespeare and the ancient Greek dramatists. In these there is a tragic hero, a highplaced
figure brought low through his peculiar tragic flaw: jealousy, over-weaning
ambition, pride.

While it takes an older, or at the very least a high school kid to begin to “get”
such a definition, I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit for understanding the
nature of tragedy at a much earlier age. Again, I wouldn’t have used that word at age
nine. I wouldn’t have known anything but “sad” or maybe “pathetic.” But when I looked
at Billie’s gums, when I saw her standing there crying because of me, and worse, when I
saw her standing at our party, happy and innocent and ignorant of what I had done to her,
somewhere inside me—right in the very heart of me—I knew what tragedy was.

And I knew what my role in this multi-act play had been.
Terry Barr’s work has appeared in Construction, Full Grown People, Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Tell Us A Story, and is forthcoming in Sport Literate, Blue Lyra Review, and Melange Press. He is a regular contributor to culturemass.com, and lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters.