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Essays

Essays

Sherry Stratton

January 17, 2017

Skipper

First they unearth a dinner fork, twisted and filthy. Then a tiny perfume bottle, followed by a glass salt shaker, caked with dirt and corrosion. Each item, duly turned over to us, we receive with bemusement: what next? The work crew is repairing the pond they put in here a few years ago. It’s crummy weather, raw and threatening rain.

Another round of shoveling uncovers a dog ID tag. It’s rusted around the edges, and the surface is scratched, but it’s perfectly readable: Skipper— I belong to George Galos. That is not the name of the family we bought our house from, some eighteen years ago. No street address, but just the name of our small town on the next line, and the old-style state abbreviation, Ill.  On the last line, the quaint Ph. before a seven-digit number. The same exchange as ours today; we’re still pretty much a one-exchange town.

Next we’ll dig up the dog, the pond guys joke. It is not said callously, and I laugh. But I think of Slate, the cat we buried six years ago in another corner of the yard, with only a plain stone to mark the spot. Continue Reading

Essays

Mary Ann McGuigan

December 15, 2016

mary_ann_mcguigan

Out of Step

When I cut the straps off my patent leather Mary Janes, I wasn’t trying to cause trouble. I just couldn’t stand them anymore. The girls in my class wore loafers; some wore stockings already. My mother and my sisters, who took their shapely legs as a given, laughed when I asked for stockings. My legs were sticks that hung from a curveless frame. Stockings would be absurd, and they said so.

I hated those shiny shoes. They made me look even younger than I was. I had to wear them to my brother’s wedding. My thirteen-year-old sister, with her grown-up body, wore pumps and a bridesmaid’s dress. I was imprisoned in a crinoline. Making me dress this way was cruel. Eleven-year-old girls didn’t wear crinolines and straps on their shoes—even in 1960.

But I had no say in what I got to wear or be or feel and couldn’t imagine a time when that would change. Who I was or wanted didn’t matter. What mattered was figuring

out how we’d get money to eat. Wanting something for myself—even an opinion—was selfish, and my mother didn’t hesitate to point that out. I wondered if keeping me childlike served some purpose. Maybe she craved innocence.

The patent leather straps cracked within weeks, but there would be no replacing them, not until the soles had holes. So another day came, another day of looking down the rows of desks to see the loafers and the little Cuban heels the other girls wore, another day in ankle socks and Mary Janes, another day no closer to any chance of replacing them because the heels were sturdy, the soles barely worn. That night I took my mother’s sewing shears, locked myself in the bathroom, and cut off the straps, cut away at the little clasps until there was no sign of them.

From the first snip, I saw I was making things worse. Glimpses of the ragged white lining broke the flow of the shiny black trim. But it was too late to stop. I imagined repairing the damage with shoe polish or tape, but the ugly things gaped back at me, mouths wide, as if laughing, as if they knew that nothing I did could deter them from their mission of humiliating me.

Without the straps, the shoes were loose now, uneven, and they wouldn’t stay on my feet when I walked. I’d been nervous from the start about what my mother would say when she saw what I’d done, but now I was panicky, my hands trembling. I’d wrecked the shoes, purposely destroyed something she couldn’t replace, not without using money we needed for food or rent or subway fare.

I stuffed the shoes into my drawer, far back, behind some sweaters, so I never understood how she found them. She sat in the living room that night, staring out the window, down into the street, as if she’d seen these passing cars too many times before.

The shoes were on her lap, like two bruised puppies, two innocents I’d willfully harmed. She was right about me. I was selfish. There was no excuse for what I’d done.

She turned and I saw her eyes were red, her cheeks flushed. “I’ll pick you up a new pair after work tomorrow,” she said. She didn’t ask why I’d done it. I wanted to explain what it felt like to be me, the girl so unlike the others, but I had no words for what I felt, at least none that would have made sense to her. “You can stay home from school tomorrow.” Her voice was flat, no trace of anger. I’d hurt her and I couldn’t make her understand why.

I left her there, headed for her bedroom at the end of the hall. In the back of her closet on a low shelf was a large box filled with old shoes. The hand-me-down box, we called it. I dug in, pushing aside scuffed high heels and beat-up loafers, and found my sister’s Buster Browns, still molded into the shape of her feet. One of the laces was broken, but I could use some yarn for now. She’d outgrown them a long while back, but they were still too big for me. I stuffed some toilet paper into the toes, and they stayed on well enough.

In the morning, I told my mother I didn’t need new shoes and she nodded, grateful maybe, but we both understood the shoes of a child were not right for me anymore.

I wore the Buster Browns for weeks, sometimes having to curl my toes to keep them on. I rarely looked down. I learned to take small steps.


Mary Ann McGuigan’s short fiction, nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net 2016, has appeared in The Sun, Grist, Perigee, Prime Number, Into the Void, and other literary magazines. Her young-adult novels, one a finalist for the National Book Award, have been ranked among the best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library. Crossing Into Brooklyn, her latest novel, was published by Merit Press in 2015. To learn more about Mary Ann’s fiction, visitwww.maryannmcguigan.com.

Essays

S. Ferdowsi

December 15, 2016

 

Lesser Than

Iran

Iran

I am five.

I clasp the sleeve of my father’s coat tightly as we weave our way around the small, round tables on my first day of kindergarten. At a table towards the back, there’s a name tag with block letters I am beginning to recognize, S-A-D-A-F. My dad tells me to sit here and he leaves. I watch all the other kids file in and sit by their own name tags so I don’t have to watch my dad walk away. After every little chair has been filled, our teacher asks us one by one to say our names. Saa-daf, I say, easing into the first “a,” pronouncing it the way you would a smile. Sodoff, she says, brief, staccato. Sadaf, I say again, emphasizing the long “a.” Yes, Sodoff, she repeats incorrectly and ticks something off on her paper with her pencil. I become Sadaf at home, Sodoff in school. It is easier to be split into two people instead of insisting on being one.

 

I am eight.

I help my mom study for her citizenship test. I cut index cards into two halves. I number one side of each card 1 to 27 and on the other side, I write out the corresponding amendment, not understanding all the words, but carefully copying them all the same. Some amendments, like the one about guns and the one about cruel and unusual punishment and the one about states having power, are a sentence long and fit easily on their notecards. For the longer ones, I stop writing when I run out of the room. It feels impossible trying to make all the words fit in the small, white square.

 

I am ten.

I ask my dad to tell me the truth. Did someone in our family crash a plane into the Twin Towers? He looks ashamed of me and says no. Part of me knew that this suspicion could not be true, but I had been so overwhelmed by all the fear and paranoia around me that I had to make sure. Flooded by relief at his answer, I do not dwell too long on the look on his face. It is in this instance that I feel an inner battle rise in me. I am caught between two evils and only one may be the victor. One evil is sacrificing the integral part of me that feels attached to another country, to its cultures and customs and most importantly the family I have there. However, I feel a crushing sense of national duty that I ought to suppress my love for this forbidden country because my home country had become afraid of them. But then again, another part of me feels another sense of duty to the misjudged country, to my beloved family members who continue to be misunderstood there solely for the fact that unfounded fears radiated everywhere. I subject anyone who will listen to long-winded explanations about the importance of not conflating Iranians and Muslims, Islam and terror. I find it’s no use. I only end up embarrassing myself or getting confused by my own words. It feels like an unending battle and I surrender. I pick the evil that lets me negotiate less.

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Essays

Brenda Miller & Julie Marie Wade

October 7, 2016

wademiller

Exercise

Presidential

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson created the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, a test designed to prioritize exercise in elementary schools. Studies had shown that America’s children were getting flabby and complacent, and so the test included sit-ups, pull-ups, a softball throw, a broad jump, a 50-yard dash, and a mile run. If you scored in the 85th percentile in all categories, you received a badge your mother might sew onto your jacket.

I was eight years old in 1966, a child who really wasn’t even aware she had a body. I read a lot of books, slumped in poor posture on my bed, on the floor, in a kitchen chair, in the back seat of the car. I watched television—Dark Shadows, The Addams Family, Get Smart—lying on my stomach on the carpet, legs scissoring the air behind me. I ate lots of rye toast with peanut butter. I tap danced for a year, my legs clumsy in the heavy shoes. On the playground, I stuck to the perimeter, doing my best not to be seen, avoiding eye contact with the dodgeball, the handball, any kind of ball whatsoever.

I suppose we heard of the test and perhaps even trained for it, but I have no memory of any kind of preparation. I remember only terror: the shriek of whistles, students lined up, all of us shifting in our white tennis shoes to peer over each other’s shoulders. We strained to hear the teacher, who held a large clipboard and issued complicated instructions. We—children keenly aware of pecking orders, of the thin line between inclusion and banishment—were suddenly being asked to perform feats of endurance in full view of our peers.

This body: it hardly knew what to do with itself. My arms heeded no direction from my brain. My legs snaked out long and crooked in the harsh light of the sun. My skirt grew frantic with static electricity and clung to my thighs. My knee socks gave up the ghost. My ankles turned inward as if feigning sleep.

The broad jump: alone on the runway, sprinting knock-kneed and then pushing off hard at the line, only to tumble in the sand a foot or so from launch. The pull-up: straining at the bar, every muscle fiber threatening to break, and making not even one. Sit-ups: your partner humming with boredom while watching you contort, your face red and covered in sweat.

The body’s failure: it won’t be the last time your body is tested and found wanting. Continue Reading

Essays

Nancy McCabe

September 26, 2016

mccabe-imageBreathing on Your Own: Tips for Breaking That Nasal Spray Addiction

Maybe it starts with a cold, allergies, hay fever—at any rate, you’re stuffy and congested, and maybe all night you sniffle and snort and toss and turn and bounce off the bed to pace, hoping that gravity will clear your sinuses. Let’s say that you’re twenty years old, newly married, though probably it’s just a coincidence that your inability to breathe kicked in right after the wedding.

Maybe your new husband, the son of a pharmacist, compares your nighttime breathing patterns to the rumble of a Mack truck (affectionately, of course). And maybe he offers you a topical nasal decongestant and says, “Try this.” Maybe you’re dubious, but he assures you that he has it on his dad’s good authority that you should ignore the warnings on the container, the ones that caution you not to use it for more than three days.

So now, you’re twenty years old and you’re hooked. Say that not too long ago you were a girl who went to church every Sunday and never swore, a girl whose biggest rebellion was memorizing the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack after your youth minister warned you away from it. And now the beginning of your marriage has handed you disillusionment after disillusionment. It was little things, like the Jesus shower room at Rosalea’s Hotel, the tulip red building in Harper, Kansas, where you spent your honeymoon. You stood there among paintings of bearded, wounded Jesuses mounted all over the walls, warping from the steam and seemingly mocking your entire foundation. Back at home, you fixed your husband a glass of grape Koolaid, and he poured it down the drain and got himself a beer. 

Not long after, you find yourself with him at a strip club, a dark and smoky place that has no name, just a flashing sign that says, “Adult Entertainment.” Miserably, you sit, not quite sure where to look, while bored women sway to music and peel off sparkly costumes. Every garment is like a piece of your innocence, stripped away, hitting the dirty mirror that backs the stage and slumping to the floor.

And now you’re an addict. You don’t even drink and you’ve never smoked. You’ve always been an advocate of natural highs, the kind you get from stroking a purring cat or watching snow fall or listening to music or reading a great poem, but now here you are, dependent on a little plastic bottle, unable to breathe without it. You always thought that addiction required a high, but now you know that sometimes all it takes is the blessed absence of pain or struggle. And it’s such a relief to sleep deeply through the night. It’s such a relief not to toss and turn or start awake, face to face with your regrets.

With proper rest, you feel less despair about this whole mess you’ve gotten yourself into, this short-term cure, this escape that might be a bigger trap after all—the marriage, not the nasal spray.  Maybe you entered this marriage with deliberate recklessness, sad and lost and scared of your bleak, blank future when the boy you’d grown up with and loved for six years broke up with you abruptly and disappeared, moving away. Maybe you’d foolishly believed that marriage would provide a refuge from your anxiety, that somehow it would allow you to breathe again.  But no.  Here you are, and every time you inhale a squirt of medicine and feel a rush of fresh air through your open passages, you know that you’re just delaying the inevitable, that time is closing in on you. At first, you just need it once a day, but soon it’s twice, three times. You push down panic but still it’s like you’re inhaling and exhaling to the same refrain: what will you do?  What will you do?  What are you going to do?

What follows are some guidelines for breaking that addiction gradually but effectively.

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Essays

Taylor St. Ogne

September 26, 2016

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Drowning Inside the Self

My Norwegian grandmother tells me that I have “Viking blood” within me. She says it makes me stubborn and it makes me strong. When she tells me this I fidget uncomfortably in the wooden chair I am sitting on in her dining room because I do not know how to tell her that I rarely feel strong so I sit back and nod my head and tuck a falling strand of hair behind my ear.

For as long as I can remember my grandmother has always had one health issue or another. Her stroke risk. Her high blood pressure. Her poor kidneys. Her balance. Her memory. Within the past year, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Viking blood was definitely pumping through her veins at a very high velocity when she locked her pale blue eyes onto mine and said that she would “rather die than eat a low salt diet.”

God turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt when she twisted her head back to watch Sodom as it burned to the ground.

If you eat too much salt, your body begins to retain water. This is why cardiac patients oftentimes have swollen ankles.

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Essays

Barbara Churchill

August 19, 2016

Churchill imageA Thousand Words

Sitting on a trunk under the basement stairs, I slit through duct tape with my Swiss Army knife, boxes of albums sealed since I mailed them to myself ten years ago when I cleared out my mother’s apartment. She saved our memories. I worked years to erase them and could have just chucked them out with all the other garbage she’d accumulated. But still. The only thing I couldn’t throw away: her chronology of our past, yellowed pictures, pages falling out. Now, the unwilling keeper of memories, I’ve promised my sister’s husband to find pictures of her as a child, a young girl. At fifty-seven, she’s dying. We sit beside her bed in the nursing home and he thinks of the pieces of her past he never knew. I think of the present. How many more days will she suffer? Why am I drawn to fly between D.C. and Colorado every week for almost four months now to witness as she moves out of her life?  She’s all I can think about. Back home for a few days, I open boxes to fill a promise I made to Gary.

I slip pictures out, imagine my mother carefully dating them before she licks the black picture holder corners and slots photos in.  Did she cry at the pictures of Janis, a moment preserved of her child who was so sick?  I slip pictures out, leave black gaps.  Gary asked, what did she look like fifty years ago, as a teenager, before the diabetes took over completely?  His birthday is soon though Janis won’t be there and I’m the only one who can give him an answer, complete his memories.  She was pretty.  She was beautiful.  Back in the nursing home, I sit on Janis’s bed, turn pages in the tiny album of pilfered pictures for Gary, tell her again it’s for his birthday.  She stares past the pictures, gazing through the muck of dementia.  She’s lost her past, soon, her present. Continue Reading