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Julie Levinson

March 10, 2020

Lost Soles

Wily ghost that she is, she haunts me in odd ways. Improbably, the Moroccan slippers are one of the things that most often evoke memories of her.  I had bought them in the Arab bazaar in Grenada, a city I first heard about decades earlier in her wistful accounts of the one trip to Europe she took with my father.  My sisters and I were delighted when, after her death, we found her red leather travel diary from that trip.  It was comprised of brief lists of each day’s conscientiously visited tourist sites followed by pages of lovingly thorough accounts of what they ate for dinner that night.  Our favorite of her stories was the one about the waiter in Italy who, when my mother scarfed down roll after roll of what she described as the best bread she had ever eaten, gently slapped her hand and warned her not to get full before the actual meal arrived.  Food was the only thing she enjoyed with uncharacteristic abandon.  As a no-nonsense child of the Depression, she shunned excess or self-indulgence.  Whether by inclination, habit or history, she was more dutiful than desiring.  Or so I always thought. In her last decades, her hiatal hernia forced a reluctant self-restraint toward eating: the one activity she had reveled in unstintingly.

Longevity without pleasure was one of the many cruel ironies of living into her nineties.  Like Tithonus, the prince of Troy to whom the gods granted eternal life but not eternal youth, she felt that she had outlived whatever joys she had known.  Although my mother had been a professional musician, she no longer wanted to listen to music because she said it just made her sad.  The only old song she still liked, no doubt because it was elegiac and therefore apt, was “September Song” which begins, “Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December/But the days grow short when you reach September.”  But that song’s refrain – “And the days dwindle down to a precious few” – didn’t quite do it for her since “precious” was far from the first adjective that she would use to describe her dwindling days.

The conventional wisdom is that grief works in strange ways but I have nonetheless been caught off guard by the talismanic power of seemingly inconsequential things.  It was only after I had gotten back from Spain and began wearing the tan leather slippers daily that I discovered there was a word for them: babouches. Although that sounds like the surname of a Groucho Marx character, the word is, reportedly, a French derivation of an Arabic rendition of a Persian term meaning “foot covering.” I discovered that not only did my slippers have an etymologically migrant name but they also had a history, detailed in several websites that described their provenance.  “The traditional babouche hails from the Middle East, where Bedouins and monarchs have been shuffling around in them for centuries,” explains one. “They were fashionable amongst 17th-century French courtiers, possibly because their ultra-soft soles were suggestive of a devil-may-care attitude to dressing,” it continues.  Although, being my mother’s daughter, I could never lay claim to a devil-may-care attitude toward anything, those ultra-soft soles were, indeed, the stand-out feature of my babouches.  The simply designed slipper consists of three pieces of supple leather stitched together.   No sole, to speak of: just that smooth leather bottom made for shuffling and a back folded down under the wearer’s heel to facilitate said shuffling.  It was those smooth bottoms that led to the mysterious disappearance of my beloved babouches.

During her last years, she spent most of her time reading on her bed.  She had lived with us for upwards of two decades by then: an arrangement that bemused my American friends but seemed familiar and right to those from cultures in which the distance travelled from one’s family in adulthood was not necessarily a point of pride.  Mostly, our cohabitation worked although she did, on occasion, elicit a tetchy eye roll from me.  That happened most often in response to her incessant worrying.  Any sign from me of illness or sadness or disappointment would preoccupy her.  Ever conscientious as a parent, she was an inveterate advice giver, notwithstanding my own by-then advanced age.  So one day when, from her bed, she heard me lose my footing and fall on the stairs while wearing those evidently slippery slippers, she urged me to get rid of them.

As similar as we were, we parted ways on our opinion of the value of divesting oneself of belongings.   She was a minimalist who knew few greater pleasures than throwing things out, whisking away half-finished glasses of water or winnowing down items in the refrigerator.  I am a pack rat, saving things that I haven’t worn or used for years in the dim hope that I may want them again someday.  If I couldn’t bear to part with pieces of clothing long since unworn or with books never again to be read, I certainly had no intention of relinquishing my cherished, if ever slicker-bottomed, babouches.  Although she imbued in me her predilection for prudence, the peril of soft-soled shoes be damned!

When, some time later, I couldn’t find them, I went on an epic search, certain that I had shuffled out of them somewhere in our large house and would happen upon them in some unexpected place.  It did not occur to me until well after her death that she had, out of an excess of concern and caution, taken them from my bedroom and thrown them out.  It wasn’t the first time that she had taken it upon herself to toss out something that I held dear.  When I came home from college one year, I went on a tear trying to find an old muumuu that someone had given me when I was in middle school.  To me, it was a sacred, if tattered, object; to her, it was a rag that offended her sense of sartorial decorum and her self-appointed role as curator of the chest of drawers in my childhood bedroom.

A month after she died, and several months before it finally dawned on me what had happened to my babouches, I gave up the search and bought another pair on Etsy: bright red ones.  Their vivid color makes me think of her with aching amusement. When my aging grandmother lived with our family, as my mother later would with mine, she had her heart set on a pair of red shoes.  But my mother considered red shoes garish and unbefitting for an old lady, so she put the kibosh on their purchase. In her own old age, she told me that she regretted having done that, emblematic as it was of her lifelong penchant for saying no rather than yes to sybaritic pleasures.  I suppose my choice of color, along with my insistence on reupping for another pair of what my mother considered death-defying footwear, could be understood as an emphatic blow against discretion and caution, or perhaps as my “yes” to living large on behalf of my sadly sensibly-shoed grandmother. My mother and I would have laughed together at the grandiosity of that claim. Still, I can’t help suspecting that, had she lived to see them, those red babouches might, like their predecessors, disappear one day without a trace.

Once she died, I felt instantly old. Until then, I permitted myself the illusion, viable only through the happenstance of good health, that I remained part of that catchall category of the middle-aged.  I considered her endurance a sort of life assurance for me; while she was alive, I was out of reach of old age and death. But her passing made me admit, if not accept, that I had advanced one step forward in the queue of the mortal, with no parent up ahead of me to stave off that last footfall.  And so I shuffle along toward my own senescence, babouche-shod but orphaned and dispossessed.  Shambling onward, I hum my own September song under my breath because I am too wary of the walk to sing it out loud.

_____________________

Julie Levinson is Professor of Film at Babson College.  She is the author of The American Success Myth on Film, editor of Alexander Payne: Interviews and co-editor of Acting: Behind the Silver Screen. Her publications in journals and edited collections focus on a wide range of topics including cultural history, genre and gender, documentary film, and metafiction.​​​ She has been a film curator for museums, film festivals and other arts organizations.

Interviews

Punctuate in Conversation with Elizabeth Kadetsky

March 10, 2020

Punctuate editor, Re’Lynn Hansen, engaged in email conversation with Elizabeth Kadetsky, winner of the 2019 Juniper Prize in Creative Nonfiction. Kadetsky is the author of The Memory Eaters, a lyric memoir, published by U. Mass Press this month. Her three previous books include On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World,  a story collection The Poison that Purifies You, and a researched memoir set in India First There Is a Mountain.

As a journalist covering Latin America, immigration, and gender in the 1990s, Elizabeth published immersive journalism in Ms. magazine, SelfGlamourThe Nation, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. Her work included coverage of the underground adoption trade in Guatemala for the Village Voice and the war in Chiapas, Mexico, for The Nation.

She is the recipient of two Fulbright fellowships to India. Her short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best American Short Stories notable stories, and her personal essays have appeared in the New York TimesGuernicaSanta Monica ReviewAntioch ReviewPost RoadAgni, and elsewhere. She is currently associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State and a nonfiction editor at New England Review

The Memory Eaters is told in the context of 1970s and 1980s New York City. The memoir moves from her parents’ divorce to her mother’s career as a Seventh Avenue fashion model and from her sister’s addiction and homelessness to her own experiences with therapy for post- traumatic stress disorder. The Memory Eaters is about  consciousness fractured by addiction and dementia, and a compulsion for the past salved by nostalgia. More can be found at  https://elizabethkadetsky.com/

 

Punctuate: In your opening chapters of your memoir you celebrate your mother as a great watcher: “We watched people. My mother was fascinated by the common place. That what you saw in Vogue happened first on the streets of New York.”  You connect watching with a learning style, stating how you and your mother deconstructed the “why” of the look. You write so well of these moments of watching. Can you speak to the connection of watching to memoir writing?

Elizabeth Kadetsky: Coming of age in the 1970s, I was exposed, through my mother, to a lot of what you might call groovy spirituality that enshrined this idea that you would find truth if you just relaxed your brain enough to let it come to you. This was the thinking behind the versions of so many of the trendy ideologies that we adopted: I Ching, astrology, Ouija Board, palm reading. I don’t think that we believed in the magic of any of these systems in the least. The idea was that these were all tools that helped you get more in tune with your subconscious. So, my mother’s ideas about “watching” definitely came out of that, that there was a sort of divine intelligence that you could tap into through paying close attention in both dream and waking life. It’s funny because when I think about it now I see the pitfalls of this mindset, especially for the writer.

Sometimes I’m struck by a certain writer’s paradox, that there is a sweet spot between two strains of advice. The first is the advice that springs from these 1970s ideologies—for instance that if you “free write,” you will come upon something true and wise— or that you should “turn off the critical, self-editing” mind in order to write well. But this advice butts up against Flannery O’Connor’s admonition: “Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can write any damned thing.” O’Connor wrote fiction, but in some ways her warning is most apt for the memoirist. Perhaps it’s another version of “Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s important.” So, there’s a danger in thinking that if you watch long enough or quietly enough you will come up with something worth saying about your subject matter. Well, and now that I’m rolling out the maxims, there’s also that idea of preparation meeting opportunity from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. So, maybe that’s the sweet spot that I mentioned above. For the writer, preparation is developing a certain scholarly worldview or erudition, while opportunity is intuition and watching. Can you have enough learning so that you can match your subject to an idea, and can you make sure that that idea is complex, and not prosaic or cliché, and something that hasn’t been said about your subject before. In other words, sure you can watch, but can you also have some fresh new thought about what you are watching. That, more or less, is the lifelong argument that I had with my mother. She, I think, believed that intuition was enough. Well, this is to say that the job of the memoir writer is very hard, mixing intuition and smarts.

 

P: The chapter on MacGraw was a powerful sketch. You evoke his complexity from the many details—the overcoats, the tai chi slippers made of black canvas, and the I Ching book he brought which was wrapped in a square of silk. From a writer’s point of view, how did you assemble the sketch of MacGraw?

EK: “Assemble” is a great word for this question, because that is definitely what I did. This is the very earliest piece of the book. In fact, embarrassingly enough, I first wrote it as a personal essay in a class at Columbia Journalism school thirty years ago—while the events were still taking place. This version ended on the line “Look at the moon”—in the scene, still in the chapter, I’ve bumped into MacGraw on Broadway after a classmate has identified him as a “homeless man” (which he was not). It’s just starting to snow, and MacGraw is telling me to go to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument when it gets dark to see the full moon in the snow. That version was written probably on the same day that it happened, but it got lost. I actually recreated the essay from memory several years later when I was getting my MFA, and submitted it for a workshop.

This got lost too! Then I started fresh again when writing the chapter for the book. The anecdote and details, probably because I’d written them down so many times, were still in my memory. But clearly the essay needed more to make it successful—it had been in the works so long. In the new version I interspersed the memories with a present-day scene with my mother when she is far along into Alzheimer’s dementia and trying to remember MacGraw—I think that added the “so what” to the story. Around this time I saw an article in Vanity Fair by Sheila Weller about Ali MacGraw, who was, as it had been hinted when I was growing up, MacGraw’s sister. Ali described her troubled brother, who, she said, had been abused by their father as a child. Sheila helped me get in touch with Ali. Our correspondence was very touching and sad, and definitely brought the details to life for me again. After communicating with Ali, I wanted to bring across a feeling that I took from my encounter with her, about wanting to see a healed version of a troubled person from the past.

 

P: In the final chapter, you speak of nostalgia as a longing for a sense of intimacy,  a reconciling with what is lost. How is nostalgia connected to the idea of watching?

EK: A lot of writers have associated nostalgia with a kind of atemporality. I like Andre Aciman’s version the best, that the nostalgiac (or the “temporizer”) lives in both the future and the past, trying to connect up a fantasy or desire (suggesting the future) with a time or a place from the past. Wouldn’t it be great, in other words, if we could enjoy all the wonders of childhood, but as an adult! It’s such a funny idea, since that first snow is in fact no different from that millionth snow. Perhaps we just seek that sense of wonder, and can only find it through associations with past experiences. In any case New York City is such a homeland for the nostalgiac, having gone through such dramatic change so quickly. One can easily juxtapose old and new versions of any number of landmarks—for instance Union Square Park, to take just one. Watching closely, one sees the past start to seep through, physical remnants such as a park bench that never got replaced. Also, one can see the many different New Yorks in film. I went through a period where I watched almost every major movie filmed in New York City in the 1970s, while I was living alone in the East Village. I would wander out afterwards and find the setting for the film I’d just watched and experience this wonderful otherworldly, lonely, sense of dislocation. Whatever mindstate that created felt very rich and weighty and conducive to writing, like going to a museum and being in the presence of great art.

 

P: What role does nostalgia play in your opening chapters regarding epigenetics?

EK: That’s such a great question. This was another essay that was written through several iterations and over time, starting when some of the experiences described take place. It started while I was getting my MFA and received a grant to research my Franco American family’s roots in New England and Quebec during the summer of 1997. It started as a sort of cataloguing type investigation into family history. I didn’t have a real question, just wanted to gather oral histories and genealogy records. The genealogy research put me on the wrong course, but was seductive, as it is to so many. It took me a long time to understand that, for my project at least, genealogy was a canard (to use a French expression). But in wrestling with the research, I had to examine why genealogy is so seductive in general, and that, I think, is because of nostalgia. Nostalgia explains why everyone’s ancestor was a noble person. Isn’t it nice to imagine a rosy past for ourselves that will somehow prognosticate for a rosy future in which we are restored to our noble roots! In fact, if you go back 12 generations in anyone’s family, there are hundreds of usual suspects. There’s not a slim chance at least one will have been noble. Epigenetics is, in a sense, the anti-genealogy narrative. It chooses one ancestor and not the hundreds, and it looks at one trauma to see how the ripple effect lives on today. Perhaps this essay, then, is questioning and trying to undercut nostalgia as a lens, since nostalgia, certainly, is not the only or correct way to see the past.

 

P: You speak of the “swerves” in life that you experienced when caring for your mother with Alzheimer’s and your sister with addictions. As the daughter of a mother who had Alzheimers, I experienced the “swervings”—the real-unreal moments of which you write so smartly and eloquently. Once you had to climb a mountain in Upstate New York to get cell phone reception so that you could speak to the emergency room doctor who had treated your mother. It reminded me of a time when I had to pull my car into a tractor circle in a cornfield to maintain cell reception while I talked with a doctor treating my mother. In the writing, the swerve reveals a paradox where there had been confluence. Can you talk about “swervings” in relation to the memoir form?

EK:  That is such a wonderful image, Re’Lynn, with the tractor moving from a swerve to a “tractor circle.” I imagine that action almost as an involution. Seeing things in terms of patterns and natural forms is such a wonderful way to break out of traditional linear structure without ceding to complete chaos. The tractor circle makes me think of a whorl, while I certainly wrote a lot about things happening in a swerve pattern.

The swerve was an idea that I borrowed from a conversation that we had about Chekhov’s short stories when I was in graduate school—his stories tend to move in a linear manner following one conflict, but then, at the end, swerve off elsewhere in such a way that the reader realizes that the real problem had been something else all along. Some of Joyce’s stories in the Dubliners do this as well. While Chekhov and Joyce are certainly “traditional” authors, I think there is something revolutionary in those nonlinear patterns that they chose.

 

P: You have included stunning research on survivorship and PTSD and how the category of survivorship has been viewed in terms of surviving mass catastrophe. Along with researcher/memoirist Cathy Winkler, you question how/why violence against women does not fall into the category of mass trauma. Can you talk about the space that you created for PTSD in this memoir and its influence on the writing?

EK: My interest in creating a PTSD narrative using nonlinear structure came out of an honors creative writing class about trauma narratives that I taught in 2014. This was before Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score,” about trauma, now a best seller, —this, I think, has opened up a lot of space for finding non-traditional ways to tell a traumatic narrative that mimic the workings of traumatic memory. In the course, we looked at work by Sophie Calle, Deborah Tall, D.J. Waldie, and others. These authors found intuitive ways to break up storyline and honor the insistent ways that memories and family mysteries can impose themselves when there is trauma involved. So, I appreciate your seeing this book as opening up space for PTSD narratives, as that was definitely my intention!

 

* * * * *

Look for a review of The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky in the next issue of Punctuate.

 

_____________________________
Re’Lynn Hansen is the author of To Some Women I Have Known. Her essays and memoir work have been published in Prism, New South, Florida Review, and Hypertext,  and online at Contrary, and Slag Glass City. She has been awarded the New South Prose Prize, the Prism Creative Nonfiction Prize, and The Florida Review Meek Award. Her chapbook, 25 Sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, is about the personal nature of bird sightings.   She is an editor of Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine. She has researched early cancer vaccines at Yale’s archives for a memoir about living with cancer and she is among the first to receive a cancer vaccine in trials. Her website is at www.Relynnhansen.com

Essays

Susan Nash

March 10, 2020

Leaving A Trace

 

Last week I learned that my fingerprints are disappearing.  I was standing on the X outlined in pink tape on the floor, pressing the four fingers of my right hand onto the glass.  The tech nodded her head.

“Yep,” she said, pointing to the translucent box on her machine, “you see how light they are?  Especially the right two fingers?”

The machine agreed, flashing a red “REJECTED” in response to my touch.

The tech dabbed some water on the tip of each finger, then tried again.  This time the prints were darker.  We watched the machine, waiting.

The green light flashed.

“ACCEPTED.”

I moved right, into the small box outlined in blue tape.  Standing squarely in the center, I put my left four fingers down hard on the glass.  Four very light prints appeared on the screen.  The tech administered the water treatment again.  And again.  Finally, the green light flashed.

I had gone to the police department’s live scan facility as part of a background check required for an Encore Fellowship starting in the fall, working out of the San Jose Mayor’s office.  Assuming my fingerprints pass muster, I’ll be helping the city with its Age-Friendly City program.

Encore Fellowships are for people who have retired but want to continue working and contribute to society.  The fellowships match experienced professionals with social sector organizations and local governments.  The Age-Friendly Fellowship will give me a chance to use the skills from 36 years of practicing law in a completely new way.

The tech asked if I worked in data entry.  Apparently a common reason for fingerprints becoming less visible is the constant tapping on a keyboard.

“No,” I said, “but I do use my laptop a lot.”

As a lawyer, I have spent thousands of hours on computers: drafting briefs, writing memos, preparing outlines for clients, responding to emails.  I type fast, “touch typing” it’s called, based on a long-ago 7th grade class on a manual typewriter in which I received a commendation for my typing abilities.  There were no boys in that class.  Now I privately gloat every time I see an older male colleague hunting and pecking.  Who knew that this one small aspect of raising girls in the 1960s would actually give women an edge when the ability to use a keyboard became a critical life skill?

As if to confirm the tech’s theory, my left thumbprint came out strong and clear, no water required.  My left thumb has swung free in all those hours of tapping out letters and symbols.  The only keyboard stroke assigned to a thumb is the space bar, hit with the dominant hand, in my case, the right hand.

Device addiction, polarization, manipulated elections, loss of privacy, identity theft, poor mental health, bad posture, obesity, the utter inability to navigate without a GPS: the ramifications of our increased reliance on technology are still unfolding, often in unpredictable ways.  Now, it seems, our laptops are destroying our fingerprints.

History shows that this is no small loss.  According to fingerprint historian Simon Cole, artisans in the ancient world signed their pottery and marked cave paintings with fingerprints.  Fingerprints were used as signatures or seals to conduct business in seventh-century China.  By the mid-19th century, with its greater mobility and loss of small village society, new ways were needed to keep track of people and their history.  Once it was possible to compare a person’s fingerprints with criminal records indexed according to fingerprint patterns, modern policing was born.

We leave fingerprints because of the friction ridges that develop as our fingertips brush across the inside of our mother’s womb.  The friction ridges allow us to detect fine textures and grip rough or wet surfaces.  Although there are common patterns to these ridges – loops, whorls and arches – the places where the ridge lines end or fork are what make each person’s fingerprints unique.

Fingerprints are elemental.

The ridge endings or forks on our fingertips are called minutiae.  A good quality fingerprint image can have 25 to 80 different minutiae.

The question of how many minutiae must match between a crime scene print and that of a suspect is not simple: for decades, a match in the United Kingdom required 16 points, while in the U.S. the number was whatever the fingerprint expert said it was.  Point-counting is now out of favor, but an expert will often still cite the number of matching minutiae to support an opinion that the prints came from the defendant.

Fingerprints left on a surface can last months or years; the print alone does not allow a determination of when it was made.

When I was practicing law, I once had a client who received a life sentence for murder because his fingerprints were found at the scene, on a drinking glass in the drying rack by the sink.  The victim was stabbed to death.  My client admitted to knowing him, to going to his house sometime in the days before the murder to buy crystal methamphetamine, and to having a glass of water during the transaction.  The fingerprints on the knife were definitely not my client’s.  Nor were the hair and semen samples left in the bedroom where the body was found.  My client had a solid alibi for nearly every minute of the 48-hour time range guesstimated as the time of death by the coroner.  But, according to the People’s theory, two sets of prints at the scene meant that two people must have been involved: one who stabbed the victim multiple times in the bedroom, while the other had some water and rinsed out his glass in the kitchen.

It took me almost five years to get this man out of prison.

Fingerprints can mean life or death.

Fingerprints can be permanently lost after taking certain cancer drugs or disappear temporarily after a bee sting or an encounter with poison ivy.  Burning, acid and plastic surgery can be used to change or entirely remove fingerprints.  There are rare medical and genetic conditions that can cause a person to have no fingerprints at all.

Secretaries who spend years sorting and copying are particularly prone to losing their fingerprints, as the handling of paper causes additional wear on fingertip ridges.

It can also be difficult to capture the fingerprints of older people, as the elasticity of their skin decreases with age and narrows the space between the ridges and the furrows on their fingertips. Their fingerprints may just appear as a blur.

Since I left the practice of law I have been using my keyboard a lot, trying to write something other than legal briefs, trying to capture what it means to get older and be female in today’s world.

The more I type, the lighter my fingerprints will become.

Perhaps barely visible fingerprints are a good thing, as I will not have to clean the glass surfaces or mirrored medicine cabinet in my house as the years go by.  Perhaps I should consider a life of crime, if I can manage to leave no trace of my skin, blood, hair or nails behind.  But will I be able to enter countries that require fingerprint scans, or even get back in my own, if I can’t get my fingerprints to show up on the monitor?  Will I be locked out of my phone, denied access to my bank account, told that my health records can’t be located?  Should I be lobbying my legislative representatives to make sure that biometric systems include options, such as retinal scans, other than the ability to leave a solid fingerprint impression?  What if something happens to my eyes?

Are lost fingerprints merely one of the many indignities of aging that I can expect to creep across every part of my body?

Will I still make a contribution if my fingerprints are disappearing?

Doris Lessing tried to describe the aging process for women as a good thing:  “You achieve a wonderful freedom,” she wrote.  “It’s a positive thing. You can move about unnoticed and invisible.”

I struggle with that idea.  During the decades of feminism and striving and proving ourselves that followed my all-girl typing class, invisibility was definitely not the kind of freedom we were after.

Of course, the trope that women become invisible as they age is just a figure of speech, right?  Women don’t literally disappear as they get older.  Do they?

After the fingerprint scan, I set all the apps on my phone to facial recognition.  I re-committed to writing for some portion of every day, typing the words on my laptop, faster, furiously, sometimes pounding, fingerprints be damned, trying to make my way.  Trying to stay visible.  Trying not to leave only a blur.

____________________

Susan Nash is a former lawyer who has traded years of writing briefs in favor of chronicling the experiences of older women in our culture.  Her work appears on Considerable.com and on multiple websites at Stanford University.

Essays Uncategorized

Naomi Washer

March 10, 2020

With Bruno

 

In my first memory of life, which I recall as both observer and observed, I am four years old and waiting in the wings. I am waiting for my cue to burst out onto the stage. I can feel the heat of the stage lights and the curious eyes of the audience in the dark seats. I have woken, suddenly, though I did not know I was asleep. I nearly miss my cue. I begin to cry. Strong hands and arms behind me push me out of the darkness of the wings and into the light of the stage.

The kind of art I care about is a regression, childhood revisited. If it were possible to reverse development, to attain the state of childhood again, to have its abundance and limitlessness once more, that ‘age of genius,’ those ‘messianic times’ sworn to us by all mythologies, would come to pass. My ideal goal is to ‘mature’ into childhood.

I like to look at Bruno Schulz’s photograph. He looks like all the rebellious, brilliant boys I was friends with in school who, in one way or another, burned out and faded away. He wears a perpetual mischievous grin, as if he plans to pull the rug out from under you. He is deeply melancholic, extraordinarily dramatic, occasionally lazy, and totally inept at any practical adult skill. In short, I am quite in love with him. But like his fiancée, Jósefina, who waited for him to get his act together and move with her to Warsaw, where they would have married and had children and lived a conventional adult life—I’m certain I would have hated living with him.

Beyond this, I don’t identify with Jósefina. I identify with Bruno. Like him, I possess the impulse to create circumstances for living that serve my inquiries in art, rather than squeezing in time for art around my obligations. Still, I can’t help but laugh sometimes at his total ineptitude; at least I am fully capable of feeding myself, paying my bills, and cleaning my house without the assistance of others. It was these very skills Jósefina possessed that made Bruno hold onto the possibility of their marriage for so long: he knew he was largely unable to take care of himself, and her patience (while it lasted) was so comforting. He would have had a happy life in Warsaw.

I was walking through a cemetery in New England one summer afternoon when a friend texted me and asked if I thought it was possible to be happy and write. I said no. It wasn’t the answer he was looking for. What I did not say was why I believed this, but I believe Bruno would have agreed with me for my reasoning; for people like us, conventional ‘happiness’ is not the goal. Bruno never moved to Warsaw with Jósefina, and she stopped waiting, because he chose to stay in his hometown of Drohobycz—the space of his childhood and the geography of his mythology. Happiness was not what he sought; rather, happiness came to him through the time, space, and ability to write. Happiness was not a constant, static state he pursued but rather a manifestation of fulfillment. His drive in life was to find a language for the reality of his mythology, a language he could only seek and explore in the dim light of the houses and avenues of his village—“in the hazy light of an undefined hour.” I should have explained all this to my friend. He would have understood. Doesn’t matter—I’m explaining it now.

I am four years old and I am dressed as a clown, leading a parade, and all this is not a dream, though acting and performance always toe the line of a dream space. Acting is work, but I am four years old, so I don’t know this yet. What I know is that my real father, The Peddler, is on the stage with me, but I am forbidden from behaving as though he is my dad. I know that my real sister, The Tightrope Walker, is also on the stage with me, but I mustn’t call out to her by any other name. In fact, I must largely ignore her existence within this context. I know that my real mother, The Director, is somewhere out there in the dark audience, and to call out her name would break the fourth wall and the reality of the play, ruining the entire glorious thing.

I have attempted to uncover my private mythology, my own ‘stories,’ my own mythic family tree. Just as the ancients traced their ancestry from mythical unions with gods, so I undertook to establish for myself some mythical generation of forebears, a fictitious family from which I trace my true descent.

Not much is known about Bruno Schulz outside of what we can glean from his mythological autobiography and a few key facts from his curriculum vitae. He worked as a part-time painting and drawing teacher at a high school in Drohobycz. Aside from his failed engagement, the majority of his close friendships and relationships were epistolary. He isolated himself in a small, provincial town so he could write long letters to mentors, publishers, and friends from school. In these letters, he spoke of everyday life matters but seemed to care much more about the ability of letter-writing to draw out the details of one’s internal emotional life. He was a dedicated correspondent and cared deeply for the act of letter-writing and the literary status of letters.

Schulz began his book, The Street of Crocodiles, in the footnotes of his letters to Deborah Vogel, an author, philosopher, and painting enthusiast with whom he carried on the most significant correspondence of his short life. The mythological stories he expounded in those letters were meant originally for her eyes alone—begun as afterthoughts, aspects of his epistolary explorations. The footnotes grew and expanded and took on a literary life of their own, until they morphed into the book that would make him known beyond his untimely death. These stories of mystical horse-drawn carriages, magical birds in the attic, and a father whose unnamed illness turns him into a cockroach appear to be the stuff of fiction, but when read in conjunction with the story of Schulz’s life, they seem quite real to the logic of childhood, the mythology of dreams, and the literature of unexplained phenomena. Since the day I discovered The Street of Crocodiles, I have wondered why Schulz never attained the same level of a household name as Kafka. I find his short story on a man turning into a cockroach to be profoundly superior.

I am four years old, the youngest in a family of actors and theatre-makers who include their children in the theatrical realities they create. It is 1994, and I am performing in the first official stage adaptation of Caps for Sale, the children’s book by Russian author and visual artist Esphyr Slobodkina. My mother has struck up a kind of friendship with her, and together they have created this vision for the stage. We perform at the University of Hartford and Hartford’s historic Wadsworth Athenaeum. But it will be many years before I realize the historic significance of this event. The historic significance is secondary to what develops for me here, on this stage, at four years old—an inability to differentiate between fiction and reality; between myth and dream; truth and fact; my life and the stage.

Schulz said of Rilke in a letter: “The presence of his books is a guarantee that the mute, convolute mass of what remains unformulated in us may yet reach the surface, miraculously sublimated.” It is not until I read Schulz for the first time in college that I gain the power to see my own unformulated masses of mystery—the questions regarding the gray area between reality and myth—and gain a possible framework through which to articulate these mythic dreams. Reading Schulz, I begin to pry open the story I’ve always told myself about my life, my family, and my identity; the story of why I’ve never been able to commit myself fully to fiction or reality. I begin to find a language for all this.

The elements operating here rise out of that misty region of early childhood fantasies, forebodings, anticipations, terrors which is the true spawning ground of mythical thinking. It seemed worthwhile to condense that mythical suspension into a coherent, densely meaningful world of legends, to let it ripen into a kind of personal and private mythology without sacrificing its substratum of authenticity.

I may not be remembering this correctly, but I believe that I first read The Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz while on a plane. It would be appropriate if that were the case, as airplanes create an atmosphere of non-place and non-time that gives rise to realizations and awakenings. For most of my life, I was unable to practically tackle obligations that were expected of me. I tried, but I would inevitably slip into a non-place mid-task and disappear for a while into the space of dreams. Like Schulz’s father in The Street of Crocodiles, I could not “merge with any reality and was therefore condemned to float eternally on the periphery of life, in halfreal regions, on the margins of existence.” I believed I was a non-person who did not exist on the surface level of daily life but rather in the murky subconscious of fears, isolated images, archetypes, and imaginings. And I believed in the truth of this space more than any other.

In early childhood development theories on the brain, age four is called The Dreamer—the stage at which the child reaches something called Imagination Explosion. I was four when my real parents put me in the arms of two college student actors and told me they were my mother and father. I was cradled in the arms of a young woman I did not know while my real mother disappeared into the audience and my real father piled a stack of caps on his head—“first his own checked cap, then a bunch of gray caps, then a bunch of brown caps, then a bunch of blue caps, and on the very top, a bunch of red caps”and walked onto the stage as The Peddler before a backdrop of rolling green hills and apple trees and wildflowers.

Behind [this book] I see the contours of another I’d like to write myself. Thus I actually can’t tell if I am reading the first book or that possible but unrealized one. That’s the best way to read—reading oneself, one’s own book, between the lines. This is how we used to read in childhood, and that is why the same books, once so rich, are like trees stripped bare of leaves when read in adulthood—stripped, that is, of the commentary we used to putty over the gaps. The books we read in childhood don’t exist anymore; they sailed off with the wind, leaving bare skeletons behind. Whoever still has in him the memory and marrow of childhood should rewrite these books as he experienced them.

If I read the book version of Caps for Sale when I was four, or if someone read it to me, I have no memory of that. I only recall experiencing it—bringing the book to the stage and the story to life. Esphyr and my mother chose to add a scene from another one of her books to this play—a circus parade, led by me, The Clown—as an explanation for why the townspeople were nowhere to be found when The Peddler arrived hawking his wares. Esphyr’s illustrations from the book were projected and used to create enormous backdrop landscapes. Before my eyes, my father became a fiction and the book became the real world in which I lived.

In a way these ‘stories’ are real, represent my way of living, my personal fate. The overriding motif of this fate is a profound loneliness, isolation from the stuff of daily life […] Loneliness is the catalyst that makes reality ferment, precipitates its surface layer of figures and colors.

Loneliness is often seen as a terrible thing; an undesirable, pitiable thing. But there are some of us who manage to live both on the surface—enough to get by—as well as in the solitary space of dream; a necessary headspace for artistic development.

Schulz knew he had to reject the surface-life—a happy life in Warsaw—if he wanted to manifest his personal fate. Reading Schulz, I am able to access those figures and colors that constituted the contours of the work that was laid out for me, lying in wait for me to encounter.

There are texts that are marked out, made ready for us somehow, lying in wait for us at the very entrance to life. This is how I absorbed Goethe’s ballad, with all its metaphysics, at age eight. Through the half-understood German I caught, or divined, the meaning, and cried, shaken to the bottom of my soul, when my mother read it to me.

I cried when I encountered the stage at age four, the mythical village where my mythical family lived and traveled. I absorbed the meaning I divined from this experience—that we are both the observer and the actor in our own lives, both embedded and apart from the scenes in which we find ourselves, the worlds in which we live. After a lifetime of playing characters on stage, studying the concepts and consequences of the theatre, I came to see that writing, for me, was not the stuff of pure invention but rather a willingness to confront those initial images, the sources that present themselves to us at the gates of life, in order to delve into the particular secret language that is ours to articulate to others beyond the bounds of our particular stage.

These early images mark out to artists the boundaries of their creative powers. The works they create represent drafts on existing balances. They do not discover anything new after that, they only learn how to understand better and better the secret entrusted to them at the outset; their creative effort goes into an unending exegesis, a commentary on that one couplet of poetry assigned to them.

Art does not resolve that secret completely. The secret stays in a tangle. The knot the soul got itself tied up in is not a false one that comes undone when you pull the ends. On the contrary, it draws tighter. We handle it, trace the path of the separate threads, look for the end of the string, and out of these manipulations comes art.

Encountering Schulz for the first time was, for me, not alighting on the answer to my lifelong struggle, not tugging on the ends and setting them free, but awakening to the image of the knot itself—as if I had moved from inside the tangled mess where I could not see it to just outside it, a little above or to the side, still connected by a taut thread but able to observe the ins and outs of my particular problem; my personal fate. And I do not want an easy answer, a simple way out of the maze, a chapter to passively consume before closing the book and walking away and never thinking about it again. Instead, I want to commit to the greater task laid out before me—the task of the essayist, of the translator: to plumb the depths of narrative, inquiry, and imagery.

The ultimate given data of human life, [Schulz] submits, lie in a spiritual dimension, not the category of facts but in their transcendent meaning; likewise, a curriculum vitae that aims to elucidate its own semantic structure, that is honed to be sensitive to its own spiritual significance, amounts to—myth.

Here is a myth: Bruno Schulz, age 50, was shot dead in the street in Drohobycz in 1942 by S.S. Officer Günther. It was an act of retaliation against Officer Landau, Schulz’s protector, for killing Officer Günther’s Jewish dentist.

Here is another myth: Bruno Schulz, age 50, was shot dead in the street in 1942 by an unknown S.S. Officer. The shots were randomly fired on Black Thursday—the day all Jews were forced to move into the Drohobycz Ghetto.

Both of these myths might be true. They’re both out there. Both are believed.

So much of Schulz is lost to us—his final manuscript, so many of his letters disappeared. But what little evidence we do have of Schulz’s life tells us that to fill in the gaps with a coherent chronology would go against everything he believed and everything he stood for. If he had wanted his life subsumed by the curriculum vitae, captured in a single image, he wouldn’t have lived his life the way he did. Schulz’s life was “made up for the most part of inner events, spiritual and aesthetic quests, and writing (which in the general Slavic tradition is called, simply and boldly, Twórczość, ‘creation’), which to him is the only worthwhile concern, the exclusive purpose of best effort, and the whole meaning of existence.”

I’m not done exploring Schulz’ tangled threads, and he will never be done with me. In some ways, I will continue for the length of my lifetime following Bruno’s knotted strings the way he also followed them in others. In a review of Maria Kuncewicz’s novel, The Foreigner, Schulz described the nuances between genres which publishers and critics had no name for:

As for literary gender this novel is a portrait:

We have to postulate a special genre for [it] even if it should be the sole specimen in the category. It is a portrait assembled by the incommensurable means of narration and novelistic plot. Unlike a biography, which presents its subject in a process of sequential dynamic development, the portrait has the contours of its physiognomy fixed from the start; development tunnels into depth and becomes dramatic analysis. The actual biographical passage of time is arrested, and the various episodes of a life are arranged not chronologically and pragmatically, but according to their deeper characterological meaning for the line of fate etched in the human palm.

Bruno, there’s so much more I want to say to you, things I can’t say to others or outside the letter form. I understand why you never left home, why you taught at your own high school for the stability it afforded you to write. I understand why you never got married; why you thought artists shouldn’t get married. I wish I didn’t agree with you, but I struggle with this: I can’t decide. I prefer to be alone than with someone who does not understand my headspace.

I write this letter to you in the midst of my tangles. I am trying to draw a portrait of myself that extends beyond the borders of biography, that “tunnels into depth” and “becomes dramatic analysis.” I have to believe that it is possible to do; that it doesn’t matter what literary gender the critics assign my work as long as I ensure it is authentic and true.

I’m very far from where I began this essay, Bruno. It feels as though I’m off on a new beginning. I speak to you from the echoing chamber of my solitary life, my knot tied to yours as it tumbles down the avenues in our dark nights of the soul. Are you listening, Bruno?

I’m trying to find your lost, elusive text—The Book, that exquisitely Jewish idea of a space where all things are contained, the whole of the unseen; a text that is beyond all other texts and one that comes before them, hovering behind their frames. The Book is so immense that it can only be glimpsed in fragments. I know you knew this too; hidden in scrapbooks or newspaper clippings; hidden in the back pages of some Almanac. The more you try to control it, the more you feel it slipping out of your grasp toward some mountain far away—some ancient hilltop inscribed with obscure messages, the teachings of our Jewish ancestors who can’t let me into the cemetery because of my tattoos.

I write you this helpless letter as a means of making contact with whatever aspect of the divine has been laid out for us. When I glimpse it, I will continue writing you.

 

________________________
Naomi Washer is the author of Phantoms (dancing girl press) and American Girl Doll (Ursus Americanus Press) and the translator of Sebastián Jiménez Galindo’s Experimental Gardening Manual (toad press). Other work has appeared in Seneca Review, Passages North, Essay Daily, and other journals. In 2019, she was named one of 30 Writers to Watch by The Guild Literary Complex. She is the editor-in-chief of Ghost Proposal.

Essays

Michelle Menting

March 10, 2020

Segues Sealed

 

It’s the holiday, but the bird is gone. Breadcrumb stuffing goes on to explore new stomach linings. After the table is cleared, plates scraped, plates stacked, I take the stairs, walk down to the basement floor.

Down there: photographs, webbed and mature, glass shards giving grotesque smiles to hands, knees, proud new car owners, pets in portraits, domesticated in frames—a world of squared wood living familiar with silver garland, heelless shoes, generations of rodent shit. I recognize the license plate my sister removed from her Dodge Daytona, the car that hit that doe the year I turned twelve, the summer my sister promised to take me camping with five of my friends. Intact but still wedged against the Wisconsin aluminum: a photo of silhouettes my sister took of me, those friends, the immense lake in the background. In the scene, mist lingers around lake rocks and tween limbs, the six of us balance-beaming tree logs in water.

We were masts and sails. We dreamt of sailing.

To get to that lake, we had to pile into one car instead of splitting in two (my sister’s car had already split that deer in two). Six friends and our chaperones (my two sisters) in the family Ford Escort, where I sat in back with our bags and played tic-tac-toe with Stacey.

Stacey, who would pile into another car, five years & five teenagers later. Stacey, who would sail through the windshield of that car with those teens that night that fall a mile from my house and weeks from Thanksgiving.

This November I sit in a basement room in the center of a kept world. Rest my chin on my knees. So full and digesting all of it: the boxes of decorations, the stacks of National Geographics my mother collected when she was alive, the jars of sea glass from Lake Superior, the snapshots, the silhouettes. Everything stored in a 12 x 14 cinderblock scrapbook. Like chambers of a clogged heart: all segues sealed at the seams, it seems, and in silence, bursting.

______________________
Michelle Menting’s creative nonfiction has appeared in New SouthBellingham ReviewOcean State ReviewThreadSuperstition Review, and Quarter After Eight, among other places. Her most recent collection of poems is Leaves Surface Like Skin (Terrapin Books). She lives in Maine and teaches at the University of Southern Maine.

Essays

Patrick Thornton

March 10, 2020

Pineapple

 

Dear JonBenét,

Did you ever notice how in the grocery store checkout line tabloids are always put at just the right height for children to see them? Adults have to look down to see a tabloid, and may not notice if they’re distracted unloading their cart. Children, however, can’t help but read the headlines of tabloids. Looking back on my own childhood, it seems like every time I had to wait in line at the grocery store I was eye-level with your glossy face. I would read the headline each time, and it was always some version of your mother killing you, your father killing you, a stranger killing you. I was eight at the time, and until then had not been fully aware of the fact that children died, and that adults were often to blame.

In 1996 and 1997 my world was changing at a faster rate than I was comfortable, and I found myself perpetually anxious. My aunt got a divorce, and moved in next door to us with my two cousins. My parents took me out of school because of my seemingly precarious health, and schooled me at home. I spent a lot of time by myself. I had an overactive imagination that often turned toxic. I saw rows and rows of your face in the checkout line every week. I was learning about the fragility of the lives we create, and the lives our parents make for us, but I didn’t have the words for it at the time.

Do you think it’s creepy that I’m writing to you? I know about the man who wrote poems about you and built a shrine for you in his home. Some people thought he murdered you. I know about John Mark Karr, and how he claims to have been with you the night you died. DNA proved, then disproved, that he murdered you. But the day after Christmas, 1996 these men were already men, and I was a little boy who didn’t understand why someone wanted you dead. I suppose I’m writing to you now because I’ve been thinking about how much the world has changed since then, but you and your murder continue to exist outside the confines of time.

We are both supposed to be adults now, and I am not supposed to know who you are. Your pageant videos should only be home movies for your family, and strangers should not be leaving flowers outside the home where you once lived.

I suppose too that I wanted to write this letter because I still think about a conversation between my parents I overheard one night shortly after your murder. They were watching your parents on the news, and your mother was telling the country to keep their babies close. I loved listening to grownups talk. Did you? Everything they said seemed interesting. That night I sat on the stairs and listened to my parents talk about whether or not they would cover up for each other if one of them murdered me. My mother said she wouldn’t, my father said he would.  They talked about it like they were deciding what to have for dinner that night. They spoke so matter of fact that my already anxious brain kicked into overdrive, wondering if I needed to worry about my parents murdering me. It’s more of joke now in my family that the thought even crossed my mind, but in the last days of 1996 it felt as though all bets were off.

If I were you I’d be angry about becoming a footnote in my own death. Come to think of it I’m angry on your behalf that this has happened. The constant stream of footage showing you in pageants, the way your parents acted like they didn’t want the case solved, the theories about why there was undigested pineapple in your stomach—all of these elements overshadow the fact that a child was hit in the head, then strangled and left in her basement, and there were suddenly thousands of other children, myself included, who were afraid.

Maybe it was all a freak accident. I tend to believe it was an accident with lifelong consequences for your family. Perhaps there’s a logical explanation for all of it that was lost in a contaminated crime scene. But at the time it was more sinister—it was suddenly dangerous to be a child. And then it never stopped.

Sincerely,

A Kid Like You,

 

_______________________

Patrick Thornton is a writer and editor living in Chicago. He earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and completed a writing residency at Vermont Studio Center. He is currently the managing editor of the online literary journal and small press Ghost Proposal. His nonfiction and poetry have previously appeared in Figure 1RedividerEntropyThe CollapsarVol. 1 Brooklyn, and Ranker among others.

 

Essays

Michael Dean Clark

March 10, 2020

Precautionary Tales

One of the strangest side-effects of fatherhood is this: I often find myself in an awkward space where memories of my own childhood injuries mingle uncomfortably with those of my children. Through the prism of memory, mine are anecdotes crafted around the humor of surviving the slings and arrows of games we can no longer play on the playground and the dangers we invented when the adults weren’t looking. Did we really cheat death as a pastime before there were video cameras and social media to document it? It sure felt like it at times.

Conversely, each time I experience the blood and bruises of my children, all I find is a mingled sense of culpability and secondhand pain that feels first and foremost like fault. As a child, I was only responsible for—though rarely with—my own choices. As an adult, my task is to help my kids discover the dual reality that they must be safe but also weather the pain life will inevitably bring or they will end up hiding from what makes that life worth living. Written out, this is such a weirdly impossible task, the finding of some balance between laughing at our pain while validating the tears it creates. And yet, it’s an expectation, one complicated by the fact that childhood injuries hurt everyone involved, not least parents.

I do wonder, though, if there is something to be learned from the laissez-faire child rearing of the 70s and 80s beyond the nostalgia-drenched memes of how much better being a kid felt in those days. Maybe there’s a way of figuring out how today’s model of childhood became so restrictive. Maybe we can see the origins of our self-fulfilling prophetic thinking that made us to create a world where our kids can’t leave the house without a GPS-enabled phone for fear of their being snatched while riding their bikes around the neighborhood.

Or, maybe we’ll discover that regardless of the era, hurt will happen no matter how padded we make the playgrounds and some of us are just more fortunate than others with the fallout when they do. Maybe parenting kids is just another frame of reference through which we experience injury. Maybe we need to learn how to better negotiate those injuries if we’re going to help our children do the same.

*

In the late 70s, my family lived in a double-wide, not-so-mobile home that played the part of a Jiffy Pop in the Southern California heat and was the site of my most singularly ridiculous, self-inflicted injury. Really, it’s quite insignificant, the stuff of limited spatial recognition and fuel for light-hearted family mockery in the years since; a big moment for a four-year-old that became a dinnertime story to remind me of my humanity when I’d get to feeling too good about myself.

Dad pastored a tiny desert church in a tiny desert town called Borrego Springs for those playing at home. Mom worked as a teacher’s aide and drove the school bus to bolster Dad’s salary. We didn’t have much in the way of the material, not even air conditioning, just a swamp cooler exhaling moist air into the narrow hallway running the spine of the trailer. On the hottest nights, my brother, sister, and I would lay like cord wood on the floor directly under the vent, only slightly cooler for having done so. We’d also sleep like this in the back of our enormous brown Ford Gran Torino station wagon on long nighttime car trips. Seat belts were for suckers.

What we did have was a surplus of disposable time and 70’s levels of parental supervision. A caveat: my parents weren’t at all neglectful. They were busy scraping together a living in a town that left us, really, nowhere to go. So, we roamed—a blonde-headed group of kids often assumed to be older than we were—and found ways to amuse ourselves.

By three, I was swimming in the deep end of the pool in our trailer park on my own because learning the heat stroke was my least favorite swimming lesson. Dirt clod fights were common, lasting until someone *accidentally* threw a dust-wrapped rock and *accidentally* hit another kid in the face. Some older kids made a fort out of a small pit just outside the fence line of the park by putting a sheet of plywood over the top of it. This was cool until one guy slid inside and found a snake curled up in the fort, avoiding the same sun he’d hoped to get out from under.

Speaking of snakes, a sidewinder once slithered onto the path I walked from the bus stop to the park’s back gate and chased me all the way there. At least, it felt like that to my kindergarten brain. I’m not sure I’ve ever Usain Bolted faster and I still hate snakes.

Speaking of running, a friend of ours would walk barefoot across the asphalt paths of the trailer park in the dead of summer. Actually, stroll is a better term for what she did, unaffected like her soles were asbestos-coated or layered in callouses so thick they rendered her nerve endings useless. I tried to imitate her once, only to end up sprinting from the shadow of one bush to the next, leaving pieces of skin stuck to the path until I fell into the pool and cried.

Speaking of pain and tears and indigenous desert plant life, that brings me back to my injury. If every rose had its thorn for Brett Michaels, I guess my radio ballad would focus on a metaphorical cactus and its quills. But there’s little love anywhere in this song. And, to quote White Goodman, it’s a metaphor, but it actually happened.

*

“The boy. He fell down.”

I turned to look at Bronwyn, the four-year-old niece of a former high school basketball player I’d coached, and stood up immediately. Her face was slack with terror and the boy she was talking about was Holden. When I looked up across the section of bleachers where they’d been playing tag, I couldn’t find him.

“Where did he fall?”

She pointed to the top corner of the stands and I was running before her arm dropped. The game—alumni players against the current team—went on behind me and the squeal of shoes against the court seemed incredibly loud. At the top row, I turned right and made my way along the cinder block wall, roughly 21 feet air.

I expected to see my son, a small-for-his-age kid given to bursts of uncoordinated daring, lying in the space between the rows. Instead, I found a hole in the bleachers just big enough for a three-and-a-half-year-old to drop through, but only if he didn’t see it coming. Because I didn’t see it coming.

I crouched down and peered into the dark space below, calling his name. I couldn’t see or hear him. He’d been swallowed whole.

*

They really don’t tell cautionary tales these days like they did when I was a kid. Viral hoaxes like eating detergent pods and threats of a school shooting become equally fictional product recalls and even faker congressional committee hearings. In my day, just one kid had to get brain damage from huffing rubber cement fumes or suffocate in a refrigerator while playing hide-and-go-seek and it became an after-school TV movie played at school as a “special presentation,” a “very special” episode of Emergency, and a pithily-sloganed anti-drug campaign triggering systematic mass incarceration disproportionately targeting people of color. Say what you want, but the helicopter parenting of the 70s and 80s was swift, decisive, and most likely done by the Man, man.

Conspicuously absent from those warnings, however, was one regarding the dangers of that unassuming desert porcupine, the dome-shaped cactus. Specifically, the fishhook barrel cactus—ferocactus wislizeni to serious cactus lovers—primarily found in Mexico and from Texas to Arizona. Luckily for me, at least one found the Anza Borrego desert soil outside our trailer hospitable enough to call it home.

Its name is not ironic. Layered in thick spines with a barb-like hook at the end of each, these little bastards are usually left alone by animals looking for the water cacti store inside themselves…animals with more sense than smaller me, it would seem. We had a young, dome-shaped version in our small cactus garden. Yeah, we had a garden of hostile plants. You didn’t? We also had a pet rock on the kitchen counter and a giant wooden fork and spoon hanging from the dining room wall because these things were required in the 70s, along with radar dish-shaped wicker chairs and macramé houseplant hangers. In that spirit, did you really live in the desert if you had no domesticated cacti? Our garden was surrounded by railroad ties that likely would require a warning sign for passers-by in today’s liability climate. Probably should have put one up for me too, not that I’d have paid it much attention.

For most of the time we lived in Borrego, I maintained a generally ambivalent relationship with the various cacti there. Sure, sometimes I grabbed a flat, ear-shaped piece of prickly pear (opuntia) or a spiny grenade-round bulb of jumping cholla (cylindropuntia bigelovii) and threw it at a friend. Jokes that stung were the best kind. But those moments were rare and usually ended in a spanking, so I generally chose to abide by a live and let live philosophy with all quilled plants. I wish that fishhook barrel had paid me the same courtesy.

*

The access panel for the bleachers wasn’t where I remembered. I coached some of the first games played in the that building, years earlier, and was sure I knew where to find it until I got to the bottom of the stands and didn’t. Add that to the list of my failures that night. The gym was almost silent by that point, the game halted, and everyone in the building forming human brackets around the middle of the stands.

“Where’s the panel?!” I shouted to no one in particular and found the answer myself in a gap in the seats 20 feet from me. I had just reached it when my best friend Will, who’d been coaching the current squad in the game, lifted Holden through the open panel and set him prone onto the closest surface. He was dazed and dissolved into tears immediately when I knelt down next to him.

“He’s ok,” Will said. “I think he’s ok.”

I looked Holden over, trying and failing to find any marks or cuts. His pupils looked ok, but I’m not that kind of doctor. His irises were dark enough that their usual difference in color—they are hazel with one greening toward sage and the other a browner shortbread—was washed out. I ruffled his brown hair to see if there were any hidden marks or softness and moved his arms and legs gently. In general, he looked ok, but he was still crying. Hard.

“What hurts?” I asked.

“My back. I hit it. And now everyone’s looking.”

I glanced up to find what felt like every eye in the building trained on us. I also saw the EMT’s pushing through the gym doors. Holden saw them too and cried harder.

*

The punchline: I sat on a cactus shaped, oddly, like the bowl-cut hairstyle my parents were fond of getting ours cut into. I wish there was a cooler set up. Like I was trying to ride our neighbors moped and fell into it. But falling off Dottie’s motorized bike wouldn’t happen until I was six. Maybe I’d feel better if I’d been launched onto it one of the times my eight-years-older brother made it seem like he was going to shove me into something. But Paul was gentler with me than I had any right to expect, especially given that we shared a tiny room and he was often the one who put me back into my top bunk when I’d fall out at night.

Naw. I just wasn’t paying attention. It was hot. I’d been aggressively throwing rocks out into the open desert just beyond our trailer park—excuse me, mobile estates—and was tired. As I remember the moments before touchdown, I was vacillating between getting a drink from the hose and collapsing in the mid-morning sun so I could yell for Mom to bring me one. It must have been a Saturday or late afternoon if she was there to get yelled for.

Collapse won out and I went to sit on one of the railroad ties around the garden, misjudging the distance between me, my intended seat, and my would-be assailant. I often did this as growth spurts and their accompanying spells of clumsiness were common throughout my childhood. Simpler version, I overshot and sat directly on top of that fishhook barrel cactus with all of my four-year-old weight.

The pain was searing and immediate and caused my second mistake, well, third if you count being born, which created the possibility of sitting on a cactus in the first place. In the moment, it felt like my ass was on fire and I stood straight up, tearing several of the hooked quills out of the cactus but not my skin when I did because combining two sharp edges pointing in the opposite directions is a very effective design for keeping fishhooks and cactus spines anchored in the flesh they pierce.

*

Heather picked up on the third ring. She was having coffee with a friend less than a mile from the gym. She was also six months pregnant.

“Holden had an accident. But the good news is he’s conscious.”

“He’s conscious? What happened? Wait, were those sirens I just heard for him?”

Fear crackled in her words. I gave her a quick summary while I held Holden’s hand and the EMTs looked him over. They were more concerned than they might normally have been because a young girl had fallen to her death from a luxury box at a Lakers game earlier that week. I tried to reassure Heather but mostly made things worse.

“I’m on my way.”

By the time she arrived, the paramedics had come to the same conclusion I had. Holden looked ok, but who knew what kind of internal injuries he might have sustained falling from a height equal to more than seven of him. They’d just finished strapping him to a back board and were discussing which hospital would be best for getting x-rays and a second opinion.

“I’m sorry. I should have watched him.”

I looked down and found my daughter next to me. It was the first I’d thought of her since the fall. She was crying, quietly, and I hugged her.

“Oh honey, this isn’t your fault.”

“I’m supposed to help.”

I hugged her again, but I felt the same futile sense of responsibility for his fall. And I’m sure she could tell I did. Not even eight years old yet, and I’d taught her to carry guilt that wasn’t really hers to pick up in the first place.

A few minutes later, an EMT pulled Heather and I aside to ask which one of us would ride with Holden in the helicopter to the hospital.

“A helicopter? Really? Why not an ambulance down the street to Whittier Presbyterian?”

“We need a pediatric trauma center. There are three: L.A. Children’s, Orange County Children’s, and King/Drew. It’ll take a couple hours to get to any of them tonight.”

He was right about the traffic. It was the night before Thanksgiving, which made every freeway a clogged artery. There wasn’t really a discussion. Heather followed his stretcher to an ambulance in front of the building and, for a mere $1,200, they were driven 300 yards to the football field where a life flight landed, scooped them up, and lifted off.

“Where are they being taken?” I asked the same EMT.

“King/Drew.”

I thanked him, made a couple of brief calls to family members who were expecting us to arrive later that night, and then loaded my daughter in the van to head for a hospital known un-ironically as “Killer King,” a knot of dread in my throat.

*

On the list of best moments in my life, lying face down and pincushion up in warm bath water so my mother could pluck cactus quills from my body is conspicuously absent. The hurt and embarrassment merged in the way she kept shaking her head with a mixture of disapproval and lack of surprise at my finding a new and creative way to hurt myself. Every time she plucked out a quill, a shiver of pain ran up my spine and down the backs of my legs, drawing another head shake from her. At dinner that night, it hurt to sit, so I stood at the edge of the table while one of my siblings asked if I had hemorrhoids and everyone else laughed. It was the first of many jokes they’d pull out when the situation warranted, which was often if the frequency of their comments was any indicator.

The cactus, stripped slightly bald in one small section, was unmoved when I went out to look at it the next day. Within a week, I was able to laugh about it all, and in a couple more I’d moved on to only thinking of the episode with mild annoyance. Like most childhood injuries, the acuteness of the moment faded almost immediately while life presented perspective in new and unique pain. There isn’t even a scar to act as a memorial, just the story I’m the only one still telling because I’ve provided my family much better material in the years since.

*

When I was a young reporter just out of college, I carried a note in my wallet at all times. It read, “Under no circumstances am I to be taken to King/Drew for treatment.” As my daughter and I walked through the second set of metal detectors in the lobby of the hospital that night, I tried not to think about that note, or that County was where you went to have the wrong organ taken out or to be forgotten in a hallway while you waited for someone to come check on you. And yet, this is where they’d brought my son, whose condition was a complete unknown given the ban on cell phone use that prevented Heather from calling me.

By the time we reached the emergency room where they were treating Holden, he’d been examined, had an ultrasound that convinced him he was carrying a baby just like his mom, and was waiting for x-rays to confirm that, in fact, he had not been seriously injured in any of the many ways he might have been. A brief overview of those potential injuries avoided:

  • He fell straight down, missing every edge of a hole less than a foot wider than he was;
  • The section of steel bleacher skeleton under where he fell was the narrowest of the structure with bars on all sides creating a space about the size of the hole from fall to floor. He hit none;
  • He landed feet first without breaking a bone, tearing a ligament, or splitting his head open when he toppled over;
  • The fall was so surprising he didn’t tense up, his muscles and joints spreading the impact across his body and limiting damage to any specific place.

In essence, he dropped like a stone but landed like a pad had been placed beneath him, something so close to miraculous I often think of it that way. The kid fell 21 feet and walked away—literally—with a strained muscle in his back and a prescription for rest and painkiller. Of course, the trauma of that kind of fall isn’t always visible and can be more difficult to treat than physical pain.

*

If you look only at the bodily implications, these two incidents led to similar places, though only one had the potential to completely alter a life. This is why we don’t joke about Holden’s fall much, just remember the details and how thankful we are he wasn’t injured more severely. I also feel guilty. For his falling. For my failing.

Despite the fact that he was back to playing a few days after the accident, Holden was different, less sure and less quick to smile. Quieter and smaller, it seemed. Sometimes when I’d pick him up quickly, he’d stiffen against my arms and beg to be set down. I often wonder if his fall plays into the anxiety he carries to this day. Each time I do, the feeling of being unable to see him in the dark space under those bleachers wraps itself in the guilt I feel for all the ways I know I could have been a better parent for him in so many unrelated moments.

I wonder if my parents ever felt this way about my more serious mishaps as a kid. I assume they must have, but maybe not. It was a different time, after all, and parents had different scales to measure their adequacy against. Maybe someday I’ll ask. Holden’s almost 12 as I write this and when I ask him about falling, he tends to brush the subject off. But when he tells me the story, it always begins with these words:

“Do you remember when I fell?”

Those six words shift me from the self-centered act of keeping my own memories to validating some of his most important ones; to help hold present a concrete experience receding into the shadows of his past; to help him tell the story until it feels like it’s his to own. Maybe this is a part I can play in ushering him past the parts still lodged inside of him. Maybe I’m just lodging them more deeply. As a parent, I have no model for this. I’m the teller of my family’s stories and my folks were of the Walk It Off School when it came to getting hurt.

I can’t help but wonder what Holden’s story will include later in life. Will it be a key to his understanding himself or just a story he’s been told so many times he merely thinks he’s remembering it as his own? There’s really no way to know, even as these are the questions I think most parents end up asking themselves at one time or another.

 

_____________________
Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction, literary essays, and occasionally poetry. Most recently his work has appeared in The Jabberwock Review, The Other Journal, Pleiades, Hoosier Lit, and Angel City Review, among others. Formerly an award-winning journalist, Clark is also the co-editor of the collections Creative Writing in the Digital Age and Creative Writing Innovations (Bloomsbury Academic). Follow him on Twitter at @MDeanClark or Instagram at @mdeanclark.