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Essays

Kathleen McGookey

November 5, 2019

Errand

In the self-checkout lane, the man ahead of us couldn’t scan his milk and eggs.  He smelled like smoke.  The clerk tried to fix the jam, but he exploded, that fucking machine!  She repeated the insult under her breath as she hurried past.  She was shorter than me and her hair needed washing.  All we’d needed was a half-pint of fudge ripple. When she returned with a manager, I watched my daughter watching the three of them, running her tongue over wires and brackets that hadn’t been in her mouth an hour ago, the familiar landscape altered, painful and strange.  

 

Picture of a Young Elk

It weighs nothing, this picture of a young elk tangled in a barbed wire fence in Montana.  All four legs caught up at the ankle, eyes so glazed with shock it looks dead, and I almost don’t play the video you sent.  To spare myself.  Though now my pleasure weighs something, as I listen to you tell and retell how you found a rancher with wire cutters and gloves in his truck and nearly in one motion cut the fence and spun the elk toward the open field, across which, after it staggered and shook itself, it ran until it disappeared.

 

We had our share of beautiful days

It was only a squirrel that dashed in front of our car, it made only the smallest thump.  My faith in uncertainty never wavers.  Last night, as I watered the roses at dusk, a hummingbird hovered near the spray, waiting to enter the shower of drops.

 

__________________________

Kathleen McGookey has published four books of prose poems and three chapbooks, most recently Instructions for My Imposter (Press 53) and Nineteen Letters (BatCat Press). She has also published We’ll See, a book of translations of French poet Georges Godeau’s prose poems.  Her work has appeared in Copper NickelCrazyhorse, DecemberFieldGlassworks, Miramar, PloughsharesPrairie SchoonerQuiddity, and Sweet. She has received grants from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sustainable Arts Foundation.  

Essays

Rachel McCumber

November 5, 2019

Three Essays

 

The Day Kylie Jenner Became the Youngest Self-Made Billionaire

 

“Hi. I’m calling back from
Student Counseling Services.
Is this Rachel?” I turned the
volume up on my phone
because two men next to me
on the train were talking
loudly about how Kylie Jenner
wasn’t “self-made.” I gave the
lady on the phone my informa
-tion and she told me I would
be put on the waitlist. I guess I
wasn’t the only sad, anxious
student at my school who
needed help with their mental
health. The news made my heart
sink. The last time I was waitlisted,
my mental state went from bad to
writing suicide notes. She told me
to have a good day and hung up.
The men on the train continued to
fill the otherwise silent, morning
air with their opinions. 

“Okay your copay fee for
your birth control consultation
is going to be $80, is that okay?”
The waiting room felt stale. I
knew it wasn’t Planned Parent-
hood’s fault that my insurance
charged too much, but it still
stung. It ached when I texted my
dad and asked to borrow money
and prayed we would not have
the awkward conversation about
why I needed the money.  My
phone’s notifications lit up that he
sent the money¾he always does.
Another notification in my dock
was a tweet with the Forbes article
about Kylie. My fingers burned as I
transferred money from my savings
account to my checking. I would pay
him back with my next paycheck. 


“Girl, your lipstick looks so good!
I could never pull that off, could I?”
The lady at the payment counter
was referring to the dark brown
color I had painted on my lips. I
thanked her and told her of course
she could pull it off too. She rolled
her eyes and smirked as she took
my debit card out of my shaking
hands. The fact that I worked part-
time at a makeup store somehow
came up. She asked if I had tried the
Kylie lip products and I hadn’t. They
sold them at the store I worked at,
but I refused to buy them and
help Kylie become a billionaire. At
least that’s what I told my coworkers,
when in reality, I just couldn’t afford
it. Looks like Kylie didn’t need my
help though. 

“How do you all think
consumer culture has
changed in the last 100
years?” My 1920’s history
class was always awkward
with one opinionated student
talking like a God. A biracial
girl and I were some of the
most “ethnic” people in the
class and I didn’t get her. She
often compared the plight of
being biracial nowto a black
person in the 1920’s, which I
never thought was a fair com-
parison. She started going on a
tangent about how Kylie Jenner
created an empire off lip
injections. That she marketed it
as something you could achieve
with a little lip liner. While I
agreed with her, I wondered if
anyone would have been
complaining about Kylie’s success
if she was a man. 

 

“Rachie! I need you to get two
people to sign up for credit cards
tonight! You up for it?”  I nodded
at my manager and ignored the
awful nickname she gave me. She
squealed as she turned on her heels
to continue watching people she
thought were stealing. It’s not
uncommon for big retail companies
to ask their customers to sign up for
a credit card, but it felt wrong and
saturated with capitalism. A middle-
aged woman came up to my register
with a few Kylie Cosmetic “Lip Kits”
in hand. Her delicate fingers threw
the $29 products on the counter. I
scanned them and informed her
about the in-store credit card. She
interrupted me before I could finish
my half-assed sales pitch and told me
she didn’t need it. Then her card got
declined.

This is so sweet. But why am
I crying? I sent this tweet to my
friends followed by a video from
my hometown. Though every
tweet on Twitter was either
trashing or praising the Jenner/
Kardashian empire that day, there
was a video on there that made me
cry. A basketball player on the team
for the university in my hometown
got a surprise visit from his mom,
who he hadn’t seen in two years
since he left the Dominican Republic.
My eyes overflowed with tears as the
six-foot tall young man sobbed in
disbelief as his mother walked down
the stairs of the empty stadium to
greet her son. I’m not a big sports
person, but it was magical to see his
mom glowing as she got to watch her
son play. Haven’t we gone over this?
Self-made: Having succeeded in life
unaided.

 

Dictionary.com’s twitter account sent
that message the day after. Even the
damn dictionary doesn’t think Kylie is
deserving of her title. While it was
petty, it made me laugh when I saw it
on my feed. As I walked down a stair-
well, having left class, I saw I had two
notifications. One from Chase, that my
minimum wage paycheck was directly
deposited into my account. It wasn’t
much, but it was enough to pay rent
and pay my dad back. The other one
was an email from Counseling Services.
They sent the list of available times for
an intake appointment for the following
week. I was off the waitlist and my
shoulders didn’t feel as heavy any longer. 

The day Kylie Jenner became a
billionaire seemed to be the topic on
everyone’s minds. Was it because she
came from a family of millionaires so
the term “self-made” left a bad taste in
everyone’s mouth? Or did she truly
work hard and deserve the title? Does
it really matter? I imagine on that day,
Jenner sat in her Hidden Hills mansion
with her collection of sports cars asleep
in her garage. I imagine a fresh manicure
and a set of long acrylics glued to her
nails as she holds her baby daughter in
her arms. Her child has no idea of the con-
troversy and comments her creator has
caused. Kylie pays little attention to the
explosion of notifications on her phone.
She only enjoys the company of the storm
she created. 

 

 

 

Origins


5 years old. Leander, TX.

I was wrapped in a beach towel sitting on the edge of the pool. I traced circles with my feet as they dangled in the cool water, and squinted to see from the bright sun while laughing at my family who swam nearby. As I looked down at the small waves I was making, I noticed how dark my legs were in comparison to the bright blue waters that surrounded them. My bright pink towel and swimsuit only seemed to amplify the contrast. I thought my legs looked like hot dogs without buns. My sister, Caitlin, called over to me, saying something about how crazy my hair looked. It was a lot thinner and curlier back then, so when it dried, I looked like a discount, brown Annie. Her smile beamed as everyone laughed at whatever she said. Like always, I ran off crying because I didn’t know how to take a joke. The laughter of my family rang in my ears as my sister tried to call me back over, so I wouldn’t go tell mom.

My brown-ish feet took me back across the hot concrete, up the deck, and into the kitchen. The inside of the house was completely dark as my eyes adjusted to the indoors. My mom saw me, “Hey lovie, what’s wrong?”

I half-blindly ran over to her and tattled on my sister. She started to laugh and contained it. “Why can’t I look more like Caitlin?” I asked between my tears.

Caitlin got the traits I envied from my dad: fair skin that was decorated with beautiful freckles and golden-brown hair, while I got more similar looks from my mom: easily tanned skin and my mom’s dark, mexican hair. My mom was angered that I complained about my looks because, I guess as far as faces go, my sister and I looked “just like her.” She sent me back outside and I went and sat in the shade, awaiting my sister’s apology that never came.

 

 15 years old. Lubbock, TX.

My arms started to get tired from using my friend’s mini-flat iron to straighten my hair. As I got older my hair lost most of its curl and it became so thick I had to get it thinned out every six-weeks. I was getting ready in my friend Kamryn’s bathroom while the rest of my friends sat down the hall in her room. They were discussing our most recent obsession with a new boy-band. Their laughter echoed down the hall as I yelled at them, cursing at my hair for making me take so long to get ready. Her bathroom was cluttered with all the makeup we borrowed from each other and no one bothered to clean it. The mirror contained my reflection as well as drawings of me and my friends that one of them had drawn with a dry-erase marker. I envied the doodles of my friends that had the hairstyles I wanted, but was told I couldn’t pull it off. I finished the last section and my hair looked just like all of my white friends’ hair¾pin straight.

I ran down the hall and they were all laying across Kamryn’s bed on their phones sending back and forth pictures of the boys in the band that were “our boys.” Rolling my eyes, I reached into my bag to grab my lotion. They continued to gush about the punk boys on their phone screens as I lathered up the lotion and glided it across my skin. I hated the smell of lemons, but I had mixed in lemon juice into my lotion because I had read online that lemon juice made your skin paler. Closing the lid to my lotion, I threw it back into my bag and threw myself onto the bed with my friends. They then showed me the punk band member that was “my guy.” He was really cute but didn’t look like the rest. He had dark hair, small brown eyes and olive-colored skin. The other members of the band were fair and had light colored hair with choppy fringe.

“That one is yours,” Kamryn proclaimed, like she was claiming The New World for me. I pointed out that he was the only one who wasn’t white. They laughed and said that’s why he was mine. I rolled my eyes and joined in their laughter.

 

19 years old. Chicago, IL.

The world was really dizzy. The girls at the party made a drink called “Jungle Juice” that I had only ever seen on Twitter and didn’t know it was a real thing. It consisted of pouring juice, fruit, and roughly 3 tons of liquor into a large container. Needless to say, I had quite a lot of it. It was a cast party for the show we had just closed earlier that night. It was an all black cast and we were all extremely proud to have sold out every night to share the story with others. I was only the set designer, so I hadn’t really had much time to get to know the cast as much as they did with each other. They all laughed at their inside jokes and broke away from the group to have their own conversations. I sat with another designer and gushed to her about how we needed to hang out. The majority of the party sat around the living room laughing and trying to explain the rules of the drinking game over the loud music playing. I was only half-listening and playing with the soft waves in my hair I had recently started to embrace.

The rules of the drinking game had been something along the lines of drinking if a statement applied to you. For example, if the statement was “whoever has been arrested” or “whoever is the youngest,” the person who that applies to would have to drink. They had started to play a few rounds of the game and I would just drink whenever they told me to. I leaned my head back on the wall behind me and started to sing the words to a Selena song that came over the speakers. I don’t know Spanish so I was probably saying the wrong words, but the music was so loud no one cared. Finally I heard one girl say my name over and over and I looked over at her and tried to make sense of what she was saying. “Rachel, you have to drink now” she yelled over the music. She told me to drink again and I laughed and obliged as I asked why I had to drink. “Because it was ‘whoever is white’” she yelled back. I tried to explain that I was only half white, but that my mom was hispanic. No one heard me over the music, so I kept drinking and we all kept playing the game.

 

 

Meditations on the Color Yellow

 

  1. I asked my mom what her favorite color was. She told me it was yellow. I made a noise of disgust and asked why. She said it was a happy color.

  2. My sister walked out in her satin, pink, and silver-beaded prom dress. She had decided the day before her junior prom that she was going to attend and it was the only dress she could find last minute. I was about to tell her she looked like a bottle of Pepto Bismol when she started to let all her friends in the door. I had never seen her friends wear anything but jeans and t-shirts and they filed into our living room like troops ready for battle. The girls all had on full-length gowns and I was in awe of the girl with fair skin and light brown hair with soft curls. Her dress was quite large and a pale yellow that reminded me of Belle, from Beauty and the Beast. So I was confused when I heard someone whisper under their breath that it wasn’t her color.

  3. My mom tied my hair up in the tightest ponytail¾like she always did. She yanked a brush through my hair like it wasn’t attached to a 5 year-old’s head. I coughed and coughed as she doused my hair in hairspray, and she told me to stop being so dramatic. My hands were laid on my lap and I played with the skirt of my dress to distract me from the pain. The fabric was stiff like parchment paper. It was a white and yellow plaid pattern that had little yellow flowers sewn into the hems. I knew since it was such a light color I wouldn’t be able to play outside with my cousins. As my mom finished the only hairstyle she was capable of putting my hair through, she grabbed a scrunchie off the dresser that was the same fabric as my dress and put it in my hair. 

  4. We sat around the kitchen table having breakfast and my dad yelled at our cat for trying to catch flies that landed on the cracked, yellow-painted walls.

  5. I walked barefoot down the hospital hall, clinging to the railing meant for the actual sick. My family’s car wreck didn’t do much damage to me, but my seven-year-old body was so sore it hurt to even laugh, though I wasn’t doing much of that. My Aunt Mary saw me coming from the waiting room and greeted me with a relieved sigh¾I think I might have been the first victim of the accident she saw, other than my parents. When I finally made it to the waiting room she handed me a bright yellow Wendy’s bag and told me I needed to eat something. I sat next to my cousin and he asked if I was alright, I might have said yes. Then I threw up into the Wendy’s bag. 

  6. There were baskets that were filled with things no one would normally buy at the raffle contest my neighborhood had. Everyone was putting in their tickets for the basket with candy and DVDs. I put all of mine in a soft-yellow, woven basket filled with jewelry and I won. When I brought it home, my mom kept most of the jewelry because it was “too grown up” for me and told me I could keep the basket. 

  7. My grandma drove to my school to bring an outfit for me to wear to my friend’s dad’s funeral. It was the same dress I had worn to Easter mass¾mostly black with yellow flower petals printed on the bottom half. My seventh-grade class walked from the school over to the church and filed into a pew toward the back. I had never met her dad before. It was the first time when they brought him down the aisle in a coffin. The pamphlets they handed out were a faded beige and felt like napkins. It had his picture on the front and inside there were pictures of my friend and her family. Their smiles were beaming. As they walked in after their dad, my friend and her mom had puffy red eyes and her five-year-old sister’s face was blank.

  8. My grandmother on my dad’s side was a character to say the least. Garage sales were her nirvana. The last Christmas that she was well enough to mail out presents, she boxed up random items and shipped them out to her relatives across the country. That year my mom got a fake diamond ring in a black suede box (my parents were already separated), my sister got an expired bottle of purple Listerine mouthwash, and I got a shiny, yellow piggy bank with the word “Botox” written across the side in black cursive letters. 

  9. At my confirmation I picked out a yellow lace dress to wear because I was only doing the ceremony for my mom, so I figured the dress could be for her too. Afterward, she didn’t congratulate me on letting the Holy Spirit into my soul, but how nice I looked in yellow. 

  10. My head rested on my first boyfriend’s shoulder as we sat at my best friend’s graduation party. He laughed at something I said and put his hand on my thigh, like it was a pat on the back for me saying something funny. His pale, veiny hand started to slide under the dark yellow fabric of my dress. He smirked as I allowed him to touch me, he didn’t know I just didn’t want to embarrass him by telling him to stop. 

  11. My drunk, but cute friends went around in a circle to decide on what everyone would be, if they were a color. It was unanimous that I would be yellow. 



Essays

Dorothy Walton

October 30, 2019

Funeral for a Tree

 

Actually, two of them got the chop that day. They were joined at the hip, a ropy, ossified root hidden beneath the soil where no one could see just what they were up to until the chainsaw execution was well underway and their shallow grave had already been dug.

The funeral, myself officiating, started the following week. Place—cracked, broken sidewalk. Time and duration­—every morning for an indeterminate period. Other attendees—absent. Interment and other solemnities—lacking.

Nothing prefigured their demise. After all, I was used to the Jacarandas. There they were, anytime I walked outside—lush, firm, loyal, magnificent. But early that June morning I caught sight of the first of the municipal henchmen suspended in air, a hard-hatted workman, Lego-sized in a white metal box at the end of a long extendable arm, wielding a chainsaw amid the age-old knobs and gnarls of the grayish brown branches, pieces of the trees in the street, lacy green fronds heaped on the opposite sidewalk as if the Green Giant had leapt out of bed and torn off his tunic and then some to jump in the shower.

“Careful, walk on the other side,” a workman warned.

“Tell me,” I said before complying, “why are you taking down those beautiful trees?”

“They were putting the sidewalk at risk,” he replied amiably.

But almost all the sidewalks in Mexico City somehow live buckled. Things change, over time. Bleating SUVs and belching semis multiply tenfold on narrow streets and side-streets, your favorite quiet little café disappears, muscled off the scene by a blaring, two-story saloon franchise. But the rumpled nature of the sidewalks—that remains the same.

“The building in back of them was also in danger,” the man added at my gawking stare.

That flat ugliness behind him, two stories of smoke-tinted-window office space, was apparently what they were saving. I sidled slowly off, my neck craning toward the dwindling fronds. The last intact sheltering arm of the tree they were working on, a noose of looped rope around its midsection, took a crashing vertical plunge to the pavement as the grind of the chainsaw whirred to a moment of silence.

I’d told an anxious friend the previous year when a steady old oak in her yard in D.C. was putting her home at risk, “You did the right thing, taking it down. Protect your life, protect your property.” But this was different. Or was it?

You bet your last can of Green Giant green beans it was.

My trees had stood waiting for me to come home late after work whenever I was lonely, throwing me a peak of a round pearly moon in a forbidding cloudy night sky through a purposeful break in a darkened leafy canopy. My trees had cushioned my path with bell-shaped lavender spring blossoms when I least expected it in the morning crunch. We had history, you see. Those trees were mine. That’s what was different. They were mine.

In the evening after the execution, what was left of them was a gray mass of lifeless limbs, one of the larger branches carved with an oval gape like a pale frame for a woodpecker’s mirror, another lying like a baby elephant trunk cut into pieces, pocked flesh still breathing, curving upward as if to make a last trumpeted plea before the chop. The rest was hacked swirls of debris. The main trunks had yet to come down.

The Jacarandas had stood side by side planted in a rectangle of earth lodged in the sidewalk, their seamless lace canopy sheathing the air some fifty feet above them after the rainy season had peeled off their last lavender blooms. That evening a turtledove stood probing and pecking for bugs atop the tallest trunk, now transformed as if by fiery conflagration to a stiff mimicry of a soot-colored giraffe’s head peering over the other tree, that now just a few sticks of conjoined splintered wood. Only the turtledove’s tail feathers could be seen from below in the street, spiking upward in spasmodic delight.

The next morning the hard-hatted men were back with the grinding chainsaw. This time they had a crusty flatbed truck to load all the pieces, some already sticking out from folds of what was left of the Green Giant’s frontispiece. I marched onward to the other side of the street, the roar of the chainsaw angrily slapping the air over my head where the silent fronds had once waved me along. 

In the evening, nothing but wood chips, a coating of fine yellow sawdust all over the street, and the final remains of the two trunks, each now less than a foot tall, stumped in a long trashy block of black, disturbed, whipped-up soil. A thick exposed root about a foot in diameter still held the lopped trunks stubbornly together.

And that´s when they literally got the ax. The following day was a Saturday, but still the thwacking went on for hours, as if the workmen just couldn’t quite get to the core of that mule-minded root. But get there they did, uprooting everything left, loading roots and all into the back of another truck, leaving behind a moist earthy odor, bits of plastic, splintered wood chips, concrete rubble, and two broken segments of the tattered lime-green casing of some torn underground piping. 

The trees were gone. 

I waited the following Monday under another Jacaranda at the corner where I usually flagged a taxi. But it wasn’t the same. The trees were irreplaceable, like a love that doesn’t come again, a hole in its place, even after a new love has long come along.

 

___________________________

Dorothy Walton writes fiction, drama, and creative nonfiction. She works as an aide at the Bank of Mexico, Mexico’s central bank. Born in Colquitt, Georgia, she holds a B.A. in English Lit from the University of Chicago, where she served on the poetry staff of the Chicago Review. She later taught English in Madrid and worked as a financial journalist in Mexico City. When she’s not writing, she’s usually dancing. “Funeral for a Tree” is her first published literary piece.

Essays Special Feature

Toward a Counter Memory: A Collaboration of Photography and Prose

July 18, 2019


1.) 

The first time a person on one side of the world speaks to a person on the other, a transatlantic telephone cable is laid some twelve thousand feet deep along the ocean floor. 

One wonders what conversation would be worthy of this labor. 

You call me for the first time as the ball descends on Times Square. You’re on the West Coast, where it’s still New Years Eve. You want to say hello, and you want to know what the future is like. 

The future, I say, is filled with harping angels and devils who dance on the tips of flames.  

Come home, you say. Come home now. As though home is a place we share. 

The first words ever spoken on the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant: 

Come here! I want you!

When Graham Bell died, every phone ceased ringing for one full hour in tribute. 

And what is more beautiful, the gestures we make at the beginning or the end of unsustainable desire? 

2.) 

Augustine, psychology’s most famous hysteric, is hospitalized, her disease documented in black and white photography. Augustine is so photographed that she develops a condition: she can only see the world in black and white. 

I wonder as I study those photographs how Augustine’s condition differs from love.

You wanted me, so I moved toward you with a bullet’s trajectory. 

I moved through you, fearless, full sprint through a dark forest.

You required sacrifice, so I rendered myself sacrificial.

You were jealous, so the women before you were kindling

for fires I made in your name. 

3.) 

It is known that bees are batteries of the orchard. 

That whole communities hover at hive’s center to ensure the warmth of the queen. 

As humans, we are all just Icarus, wondering as we drown why we were issued

wings we couldn’t use. 

That summer, you planted on your property what you would not give me and many fruit trees flourished.

It’s been years but I can still feel what it’s like beneath the orchard’s cool leaves drunk on rain. 

The bees use the sun and its shadows as compass

But what of days so dark the forests disappear?  

In my dream we are driving up Chuckanut,

car fragrant from spoils of the orchard. 

The true paradises, writes Proust, are paradises we have lost.

4.) 

The space between two parked cars and two birds on a wire is identical. We are hard wired, physicists say, to slow before we crash, to keep a measured distance. What this means, scientifically, is starlings and monster trucks have more sense than I do.

Here we come again up Chuckanut, boulders loosing themselves in the road, adventurers descending the mountainside to pluck fresh oysters from the frothing Sound. 

The shadows roll and join like mercury. 

It is only our bodies that hold us together.

Conspiracy, noun

A combination of persons for a secret purpose

From the latin, 

“to breathe together.” 

5.) 

Far from now, I will see you some strange evening, and we’ll embrace the way folks do when their bones are a nuisance, when the body should by all rights evaporate in the holy moment but cannot. 

For now, we must abandon one another completely. 

“For if we could be satisfied in any way,’ Seneca said, “we should have been satisfied long ago.”

Here is where the plot twists and we learn the protagonist has been a ghost all along. 

The true haunting is not that the ghost exists, but that at last we are able to perceive it. 

If you’re calling to ask what the future is like, there is love for us both in living color.

You’ll remain on the orchard, in the cool mountain air.

I’ll drive to the heart of the desert with someone new, in awe of the way every surface mirrors heaven. 

___________________________
Photographer Bio: Amber Carpenter is an MFA graduate from Columbia College Chicago’s Nonfiction program. She earned her MA in English from East Carolina University in 2012 with a concentration in both poetry and nonfiction. Her work, which includes writing and photography, has been published in Sinister WisdomTwo Hawks QuarterlyMount Hope Magazine, and Glassworks Magazine. She now lives in the Bay Area with her wife and pets. 

Essayist Bio: Piper J. Daniels is a Michigan native and queer intersectional feminist currently living in the American Southwest. Her debut essay collection, Ladies Lazarus, won the Tarpaulin Sky Book Award, was longlisted for the PEN Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and was named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction. She is the founder of a manuscript consultation collective dedicated to serving POC and LGBTQ writers. 

Essays

Daniel Uncapher

May 28, 2019

Nancy Ave.

After my parents got married they purchased a mobile home on a gravel road called Nancy Ave in southern Maine, where I met Zack, who showed me what circumcision was.

My parents had always dreamed of becoming landlords, and when they’d finally saved up enough money for a bigger house down by the river they decided to rent out Nancy Ave. They offered it to a woman named Sue, a former friend from work with four dogs, a nicotine addiction, and depression.

No one is more sympathetic towards mental illness than my parents. So we spent a lot of time on Nancy Ave trying to help Sue out, which I hated. She made me sad. Her dogs smelled like cigarette smoke and her cookies tasted like tar, so I gave them to Zack unless he didn’t want them, and then I threw them in a ravine.

 One afternoon my parents picked me up from school on their way to Nancy Ave to collect rent. I decided to wait in the car while my parents went inside. No one answered the bell but the door was unlocked so they let themselves in, stepping in full view of the bodies: after hanging all four of her dogs, Sue had hanged herself.

Zack had all kinds of questions about it for me but I couldn’t answer any of them. I wished that I’d gone inside and seen the bodies just so I’d have something to tell Zack about. I wanted to impress him. I wanted him to know that I knew things.

A family of bikers from New Hampshire moved in shortly after. They had two daughters, even younger than me, towards whom my parents were deeply sympathetic, but they didn’t like to pay rent, with which my parents didn’t sympathize. They fell three months behind and then skipped town overnight, ripping out everything they could carry and leaving the rest for us to clean up.

This time I was happy to help. The bikers had left behind all kinds of valuable loot for an 11-year-old boy: I found a boombox, which my parents let me keep even though I didn’t have any tapes or CDs for it, and a Playboy, which I took straight to Zack’s and didn’t tell them about at all. After all, my parents had their own interests to protect. They took the bikers to small claims court and won, but couldn’t actually collect any damages, and had already moved on to higher-profile projects anyway.

So they decided to wash their hands of Nancy Ave.

The mobile home sold quickly, and after the closing we went to Applebee’s as a family to celebrate. My parents gave my sister and me two checks, small in the scheme of things but astronomical at the time, to compensate us for all our work at Nancy Ave, especially because they knew I’d been eyeing a Gameboy Advance.

My sister bought a Gameboy Advance, but after studying my options I decided to get a Playstation 2 instead, which lived next to the boombox at the foot of my bed. No one else I knew had one yet, and Zack was so impressed that he’d come over almost every day to play. We’d walk home together after school and play games together with our pants down, the Playboy open on the floor, taking turns on each other while the other one tried not to die.

Zack tasted like cigarettes, too, and I tried not to touch him with my tongue, although I did everything else he asked me to do. This is how gay people live, he said, trying to impress me. One day we’ll go to college and live together and it’ll be like this all the time. Let me sleep over tonight and I’ll show you.

But I didn’t let Zack sleep over that night, and I never went back to Nancy Ave again. I didn’t know what Zack knew or how he’d learned it, and even as it was happening I didn’t understand what exactly it was that he wanted—from me, from my friendship, from my body, which was ever so slightly different than his. I’d never heard the word gay before; I didn’t know two men could do that kind of thing together.

Had I understood it then like I understand it now, however, I would’ve let him stay the night.

____________________________

Bio: Daniel Uncapher is an incoming PhD in Creative Writing student at the University of Utah and a 2018-2019 Sparks Fellow at Notre Dame, where they received their MFA. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly Review, Tin House Online, The Carolina Quarterly, Penn Review, and others. www.danieluncapher.com

Essays

Mallika Mitra

May 28, 2019

The Houses

The living room is made of sticks. Moss as the carpet, shreds of bark as the roof. 

“Where will they sleep?” my sister asks, crouched beside me at the foot of a maple tree. I run my hands through the dirt in response, pushing together a bed. Grass as the pillow. 

From the road, we must look so small. Two girls with wood chips pressed into our knees making a tiny home out of Mother Nature’s offerings. Behind us, a two-story house raises into the sky. Our mother’s silhouette visible through the front window, setting the table, making a home. 

“When will they come?” 

I glance up while twisting blades of grass between my thumb and pointer finger, making them into stairs. 

“They come at night.” 

I don’t know this for sure, but it would make sense. I never see fairies during the day. 

A twig snaps beneath my foot as I lean across my sister to pick up a dead leaf. 

I never see fairies at all. 

I found them illustrated in a book a few days earlier. Their wings looked too big for their bodies. Their bodies looked like they could be snapped like the twig beneath my foot. I wondered where they rested when their wings stopped fluttering. My mother cooks my food each evening, humming as she leans over her pots and pans. She wakes me up every morning, pulling up the curtain, her outline the first thing I see. She runs the bath for my sister and I, dipping a finger to make sure it’s not too hot or too cold. The fairies didn’t have a home in the book. 

So I decided to make one. I wanted to make a home like my mother. 

When I recruited my sister she didn’t ask if fairies were real. 

The dead leaf is now a blanket, draped over the bed and pillow. My sister puts her pinky into the ground and spins it briefly, making a small hole. She places the stem of a weed into the hole and gently fills in the dirt around it. The beginnings of a fence. She repeats this over and over, her breath heavy as she concentrates. 

It didn’t matter if they were real. 

Inside, my mother wipes down the tables. I pull off the top of an acorn, making it a footstool. My mother rearranges the books on our shelves. My sister rips a flower petal into a square, a table cloth. My mother makes the beds. My sister and I make candles out of stems. How else will they see what we’ve made? 

Until dusk falls, we mold tiny homes for creatures neither of us know if we believe in.

___________________________

Bio: Mallika Mitra is a New York City-based writer. She is currently a master’s candidate at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York where she is studying business journalism. She received her bachelor’s in English from Kalamazoo College.  Mallika has previously been published in Entropy and The Cauldron.  

Essays

Whitney Jacobson

May 28, 2019

Racking-up Signposts

Grandma Walters’s souvenir spoons hung on a three-tiered spoon rack in a nook next to her kitchen hutch while I was growing up. The spoon rack consisted of three horizontal 1x1x15 inch pieces of wood on a 15×15 inch back panel with additional wood framing each side. 

When I visited the farm as a child and wasn’t busy playing with my cousins and sisters, I’d occasionally climb on top of the Z-shaped metal stool with an orange vinyl-covered cushion stored underneath the spoon rack to order the spoons alphabetically by state. I apparently had no concern about whether my grandma had arranged them in a particular way, though if she had, she never scolded me for rearranging them to my liking. However, given that I remember organizing the spoons multiple times, someone else must have rearranged them too.

My process was straightforward and logic-driven: take all the spoons off the spoon rack, lay them out on the nearby kitchen table to sort them alphabetically, and then place them back on the spoon rack. The final step became an issue when I realized the spoon rack didn’t have fifty slots for all fifty states—it only had thirty slots (ten cavities per row), and though she didn’t have a spoon for every state, she did have multiples of some states. I compromised by pairing spoons from the same state and pairing similarly sized/shaped spoons ordered next to one another as needed. 

One time, after finally arranging the souvenirs to a standard I could live with, I announced, “There, Grandma! Your spoons are organized!”

As she walked over from the stove, to survey my handiwork I assumed, she off-handedly remarked, “Oh, I have some more in here, honey-girl!” and pulled a glass filled with additional souvenir spoons out of the hutch.

I sighed and resigned myself to the work ahead. 

My compulsive organization has a long history. When I was as young as eight, I’d pull out the fresh laundry my dad had put in my dresser drawers, refold them, and arrange them in the drawer to my liking. To this day, I am particular about having things organized—my husband, Ben, curses my knowingness: “You can tell if a cereal box is moved two inches to the right!”—and my spoon rack today follows the same ordering system I implemented on my grandmother’s.

I started collecting state souvenir spoons when I was 21. Ben and I had decided to go camping at Itasca State Park after he had been horrified to learn that I had never been camping: “How can you call yourself a Minnesotan?” 

“My grandparents have a cabin on a lake in a tiny town in northern Minnesota that I’ve visited multiple times nearly every year of my life” I huffed. “It doesn’t get much more Minnesotan than that!” 

Indeed, the summer I was born, my parents dipped me in the cabin’s lake off the side of the boat. The cabin itself is around 450 square-feet that we cram ten or more people into for sleeping purposes each summer. The furnishings are all odd cast-offs from various home updates and garage sales. Many are still the originals placed there when my grandparents bought the cabin in 1970, including the heavy, yellow Formica and chrome chairs and expandable table from the 50s. It is not a lake house.

Acknowledging my experience, but still unsatisfied I had never slept outdoors, Ben borrowed a tent from his parents, and we gathered food, bug spray, outdoor clothing, sleeping bags, and other essentials before setting off to our remote campsite. 

While biking around the trails at the park, we stopped in the Jacob V. Bower Visitor Center to view the displays and considered the souvenirs available in the gift shop as we were leaving. As I rotated a rack of magnets, pens, keychains, and postcards, a flash of silver caught my eye. 

“What’d you find?” Ben asked when I walked up to the cash register.

“A souvenir spoon!” I replied as I handed him the five inches of detailed metal with an Itasca State Park sticker on the handle.

Seven years later, my souvenir collection contains 22 spoons, but I hope to collect one from all fifty states. Twenty spoons are from states I have travelled to—I am particular on this point. I only collect them for places I have visited and done something significant in, i.e., around five years ago, Ben and I road-tripped from Minnesota to Colorado and back. Spoons from Iowa (my parents lived there), Missouri (my parents now live there), Kansas (my parents lived there), Colorado (we visited a variety of places near Denver), South Dakota (we visited the Black Hills), North Dakota (Fargo is the sister-city of Moorhead where Ben and I met), and Minnesota (hello, Itasca State Park) hang on my spoon rack. However, I didn’t buy a spoon in Wyoming since we merely drove through a corner of it.

Two spoons were kindly gifted to me by my sister, Amanda, after she travelled to Texas and Oklahoma on a Students Today Leaders Forever trip in college. But, as I have not yet travelled to those states, they are separated from the rest of the collection by a 45thwedding anniversary spoon passed down to me by a great-grandmother. Ben and I haven’t quite hit that mark as we got married just last year, so it serves as a clear boundary between the two sets of state souvenir spoons. 

As I look at my collection, the similarities and the differences among them draw my attention. The spoons are usually silver colored, though two of mine (Illinois and South Dakota) are gold colored and the exception to the rule. They typically come in two lengths: three inches or five inches, plus any additional adornment on the finial (the end of the handle). Most commonly, the finial denotes the state or a specific location within the state via a sticker or a plate within a metal design, though the bowl of the spoon may also have words, images, or an outline of the state etched into it. Some spoons have unique finials, such as my Missouri spoon that is shaped like the skyline of Kansas City or my Hawai’i spoon with silver sea turtles and the Hawaiian Islands raised in a painted blue circle with silver trim. Additionally, some have a charm that dangles in a circle underneath the top decal, such as the Space Needle charm on my Washington spoon. 

Some of my most unique spoons include my North Dakota spoon, which is real plated silver and quite tarnished. It has the state name engraved along the neck and the years 1889-1989 engraved diagonally in the bowl to commemorate the centennial denoted in its finial. I inherited it from a great-grandmother, who obtained it while visiting relatives there. I bought my Colorado spoon at the Denver Mint’s gift shop, and it has a blackened paisley print along the neck and clear crystals around the circular plate of the finial. 

My Massachusetts spoon was purchased quickly at Boston’s airport in a gift shop, and it may be my most disappointing piece. The finial is ovular with the Old North Church emerging, while Paul Revere riding a horse along with the word Boston are raised from the bowl. Despite common and satisfactory features, the metal is what disappoints me—it is a matte metal that looks handmade and as if it is painted silver. Some may argue that the metal makes the souvenir unique among my collection, but I prefer uniform, stamped shiny metal among my spoons, despite their individual distinctive features. As I recall, I could not find a spoon fitting my preferences in Boston, so I purchased the one I now have to avoid the risk of not buying one at all—and indeed, I didn’t see any others on our short trip. So, I have a spoon from Massachusetts. 

I’m keen to only purchase spoons from places I’ve been because I see them as a figurative map on the wall with colored pins inserted where the owner has visited. They are tokens that invoke stories about travels. They are tangible evidence of memories. As I’ve asked my grandpa, dad, aunts, uncles, and cousins about Grandma’s spoons, their faces have lit up in remembrance of the trips they were part of and stories they were told about the travels. 

“Your grandpa drove their motorhome through Times Square!” my dad laughed. 

“You know they drove that motorhome up where they weren’t supposed to in Yellowstone,” my aunt, Betty, snickered. “He had to back that motorhome down the edge of a mountain.”

“I remember looking through Grandpa’s eight-tracks when we went with them out west,” my cousin, Jason, grinned. “Country-western and gospel—nothing I was interested in.”

I look at my spoon from Oregon and remember renting a car with two friends and driving from Portland, where we were presenting at a conference, to Cannon Beach to put our feet in the Pacific Ocean and see Haystack Rock. I pick up my Kentucky spoon and recall the grind of a long week of contract work, but also the pleasure of making new friends, trying new food, and visiting Churchill Downs.

Sure, some I have bought in retrospect from an initial visit, like my Iowa, South Dakota, and Wisconsin spoons, but they still represent a life lived and a continent explored. I couldn’t place the first time I travelled to Wisconsin and Iowa if I tried, given that I grew up in southeastern Minnesota, approximately eleven miles from the Iowa border and 125 miles from Wisconsin. But I do remember going to Lake Okoboji in Iowa on a boating trip with my family when I was around ten, just as I recall driving to Madison, Wisconsin to buy a car with Ben in my twenties and anxiously watching the grey-green sky for hail as we drove home. My Wisconsin spoon was bought in an antique shop in Duluth. I purchased my Iowa and South Dakota spoons when Ben and I visited the states on a road trip, though I had visited the Black Hills in my teens with my family. So, ideally, I buy the spoons when I initially visit, but when that’s not possible, or not considered, I look for new adventures to obtain them.

When Ben and I recently visited New Hampshire for a friend’s wedding, we didn’t encounter any gift shops or gas stations selling the spoons. I was so disappointed we hadn’t found a spoon that I ordered one off of Amazon when we arrived home. In retrospect, I wish I’d asked my friend to find one for me, but not wanting to be a bother, I took the easy route. The spoon’s arrival was anti-climactic and disappointing. There’s something about the hunt of finding them that is essential to my collecting experience.

One may ask, how did my grandma accumulate all of her spoons if she and my grandpa were farmers? Well, when my grandpa retired from farming and the local bar he subsequently bought and sold in his late forties, he and my grandma bought a 1977 GMC Midas motorhome that they used to travel around the continental United States. Along the way, my grandma, a perpetual collector of antiques and dishes, bought her spoons. They took a three-week trip out to the East Coast to see the monuments and museums, in addition to trips to Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Las Vegas, California, and Yellowstone. Their travels were helped by my family living in Nebraska for a few years and my uncle, Jeff, moving to Colorado. After living on a farm in southern Minnesota for her whole life, my grandma wanted to see as much of the United States as she could, and my grandpa went everywhere my grandma did after they got married when she was 19 and he was 21. They didn’t see all 50 states, but I’d like to think they saw enough for my grandma’s liking before nestling down on the farm again, my grandpa’s favorite place. 

My sentiments and desires toward collecting the souvenir spoons are certainly grounded in the fact that my grandmother collected them. My grandma was rarely out of the kitchen for long, so as I organized her spoons as a child, I’d ask her about when she got certain ones, and she’d tell me about the trip to that state. Sometimes they were labeled with a place I couldn’t connect to a state (for example, my Itasca State Park spoon has no mention of Minnesota on it), so I’d ask her where the spoon came from. Occasionally, she’d have to come over and look at the souvenir herself before closing her eyes, as if to place herself at the location in her mind’s eye, before telling me where she bought it.

Her kitchen was the location of endless conversations and card games, as well as numerous memorable meals. Along with the traditional fixings, Thanksgiving meant her signature, slightly lumpy mashed potatoes; pumpkin pie doused in whipped cream; raspberry Jell-O with garden raspberries immersed; and two dozen or more devilled eggs. Christmas Eve meant chili and oyster stew with aunts, uncles, and cousins crammed around the kitchen and random card tables. Afterward, as we digested, we’d play rummy, tic, 500, or if you could partner off from the large group, cribbage.

In early November, during my senior year of high school, my family found out that Grandma Walters had colon cancer, and the prognosis wasn’t good. She started the process of chemotherapy but stopped and moved to hospice after deciding she didn’t want to live the remainder of her life in misery from its effects. I was conscious of the necessity to record the recipes that she used no recipe cards for. However, my anticipatory grief and need for hope prevented me from acting on that awareness. She died in May, two weeks before I graduated. Her death left me searching for ways to recreate that kitchen, both in taste and feeling.

In the past year, I inherited my grandmother’s spoon rack due in large part to my grandpa moving off the farm and into assisted living after he fell multiple times. Since my grandpa’s move, my dad and his siblings have been organizing, dispersing, and throwing out 100 years’ worth of possessions collected on the farm. My sister, Makayla, was there one weekend when they were sorting through items in the garage and out buildings, and when she saw grandma’s spoon rack in a discard pile, she pulled it out and noted that I’d want it for my spoons. It was quite dusty when I received it, and it doesn’t hang flat on the wall after being stored in a garage and thus exposed to Minnesota’s temperature changes. Nevertheless, I happily removed the flat spoon rack I’d found at an antique shop from my kitchen wall and replaced it with my grandmother’s cleaned and warped one. 

Receiving my grandma’s spoon rack helped bring her presence into my kitchen, but it also made me wonder where her souvenir spoons went. I’ve since confirmed that my aunt, Debbie, my grandma’s only daughter, has them, which is fitting. I’d love to have the spoons, but I respect her privilege to them. In particular, I’d be interested in spoons from states I visited prior to beginning my collection. Many I have not visited again to be able to buy a spoon from, such as states I visited on a week-long school-organized bus trip to Washington D.C. as a high school freshman. Since my grandparents never travelled outside the continental United States, I’ll have to either visit places such as Puerto Rico again, which I travelled to on a training trip for swimming in college, search for the spoons in antique shops, which is satisfactory in its own way, or purchase them on the internet, which is particularly disappointing.

In addition to the souvenir spoons on my rack, there also hang four stainless steel Stanley Roberts Lancelot teaspoons, which I treasure more than all the souvenir spoons. As I’ve gotten more and more of my grandmother’s (and now mother-in-law’s) itch for antiquing, I’ve also been on the lookout for additional silverware to make a complete set, and recently picked up a matching box of six knives. They’re heftier than the spoons.

Each individual spoon is heavier than any other teaspoon I’ve held and consciously paid attention to its weight. The spoons are thick—nearly twice the depth of most spoons I’ve seen. Beyond the neck of the spoon, the handle is a honeycomb pattern with a dot in each honeycomb. There are four dots going down the center and five along each side of the center. Between the dots and the honeycomb outline, the metal has been darkened. 

These four were given to me when I was in my early teens by Grandma Walters. She always had a hodgepodge of silverware sets, but these four spoons didn’t have any matching forks or knives in her silverware drawers on each side of the kitchen sink. I’d always seek out one of the spoons when I ate ice cream at the farm. I’d pull the Kemps gallon ice cream bucket out of the freezer located underneath the windows at the end of the kitchen counter, along with a glass jar filled with garden raspberries out of the fridge. 

Each summer, my grandma would go out and pick ice cream buckets full of raspberries and black raspberries from the roughly 10×16 feet patch behind her garage. (If I was “helping,” more berries were making their way into my mouth than the bucket.) After rinsing the berries off inside, she’d spread them out on cookie sheets and coat them with sugar. Then, they’d be divvied up into any jars she had available and frozen. 

After my ice cream turned burgundy from all the berries I dolloped on it in one of my grandma’s Anchor Hocking Fire King milk glass chili bowls, I’d grab my spoon and settle in on the couch to savor the delicious treat. I loved to take a scoop and flip the spoon’s bowl upside down in my mouth, to make sure I didn’t miss a drop. After noticing that I always pulled one of those spoons out to eat, Grandma Walters said I should take them home with me if I liked them that much, so I did. 

I wonder what my future children will collect, if anything, how it will be influenced by the people in their life, and what it will mean to them—just as I wonder how my future children will remember the sleek concave set of silverware Ben and I received as a wedding gift, if they place any significance on the household silverware at all. They will certainly see my souvenir spoon collection in a warped spoon rack on the wall, though, and hopefully they’ll ask me about it. Maybe they’ll even create some of their own memories by acquiring some of the spoons with me. 

_____________________________

Bio: Whitney (Walters) Jacobson is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth and an Assistant Editor of Split Rock Review. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have recently been published in DASHFeminine CollectiveLikely Red PressWanderlust-Journal, and Voice of Eve, among other publications. Visit her website at whitneywaltersjacobson.wordpress.com