Happy 118th to Ariel Durant

A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within. 

Will and Ariel Durant

Ariel Durant was born Chaya (her English name was Ida) Kaufman on May 10, 1898, in the Jewish ghetto of Proskurov, or Chmelnitski, in the West Ukraine. 

Ariel Durant helped organize the material for the first five volumes of Will Durant’s opus, The Story of Civilization, a multivolume concise popular summary of human history. She pleaded with him to do justice to the medieval Jews in The Age of Faith (vol. 4, 1950), so Will also included an insightful essay on the roots of antisemitism. Because of her numerous contributions, Will insisted they share authorship.

- From the Jewish Women's Archive

The Swing of Bridges

Grasshoppers hop over more than grass. Last week, one hopped into the cuff of my pant leg then hopped out just as quickly. I keep telling people this—strangers on elevators, anyone trapped with nothing to say as interesting as this—about the grasshoppers hopping on me and ignoring the vegetation, but no one seems to think it significant. I hardly know what it means myself, except that I am looking down as I walk rather than ahead into the distance.

Aesop thought grasshoppers lazier than ants, who work the summer’s duration, building their homes and storing food to survive the winter. At first snowfall, the grasshopper knocks on the ant’s door, wanting to get warm and seeking succor, when the ant refuses to unlatch it and the grasshopper starves and hops no more. Chekhov, though, understood the species better. In The Grasshopper, Olga Iranovna cheats on her dull doctor husband with an artist with a full palette of paint of every color. Bed hopping is not her sin, however. It is the vanity that prompted her to allow another man to undress her, and even that unserious, we see if we are paying any attention. Grasshoppers, after all, must hop somewhere. Only they can choose where, Chekhov implies, if they spring just so. They can choose to ignore my boots, for instance, though they seem to like them. The story is not a dramatic one.

In Central America, grasshoppers are eaten raw or boiled, seasoned with chilies and dropped into a soup that suffices for supper. Aside from humans, most of their predators are other insects. Large ants top the list, those with ample homes they’ve built through laborious warm hours. Which makes me think Aesop unfair to those that hop by way of traveling from place to place rather than march directly forward. To those who have no choice to bounce up then down while ants work their life away in drudgery, never bothering to leap over a blade of grass even, instead carrying it on their thoraxes to build another godforsaken castle.

Three years ago, our guide in Costa Rica warned us we would grow dizzy before we crossed a swinging bridge if we walked too fast across it and did not pause to catch our breath. I saw no reason to listen or care or what to do about it should the landscape start to spin, which would only add interest to the vista. So I ran back and forth then back and forth again across each swinging bridge, faster than anyone else, I noticed, and was proud of it. Faster than, the guide advised, I might wish in a few more hours, puncturing the clouds with my fingernails amid this cloud forest that made trees look as if they were exhaling smoke like dragons. I ran twice the distance in less than half the time as anyone else, just to swing a mile or more above our cabana while wearing my straw hat, bought especially for the trip so no insects would make of my scalp a residence.

Only once I fell asleep did the swinging begin again, if only inside my head I couldn’t escape from, each bridge swinging twice as far from side to side while stretching twice as long as it had done before. I awoke dizzy to howler monkeys’ mating calls deep within the night. The same howler monkeys here as in my same Chicago zoo, only these wilder and louder too. The very same species with the same fur color, though those in Chicago hardly needed to howl to woo—the only sex partners available were swinging on the selfsame rope, the next room over separated by a low gate they could easily hop over. Males and females shared the same acrylic-painted habitat, the one I fled to once the sound of my neighbors’ sex on either side of my bed awoke me past all falling back asleep again. To take a walk and get some breakfast and let the luckier ones lie later beneath the covers.

Their howls can travel up to three miles of dense, dark forests, while their short snouts and nostrils round as pennies can smell odors up to two miles in the distance. This while I lived for three consecutive years no more than half a mile away from their room painted to resemble the Costa Rican jungle they would never see in person, when I rented an apartment that overlooked the reptile house aside the carousel. The single male lion often woke me at 5 am, but at 4, when the howler monkeys started howling for the sex my neighbors had just finished, I lay still unconscious, as yet unwakened to the desire that started the swinging bridges swinging. The zoo had only two monkeys then, and I had to leave my apartment to hear them.

I was 27 and my parents both just eight months dead when I traveled to the jungle. I would put any amount of money on my credit card needed, I told myself, to get as dizzy as I could without falling from canopy into forest’s middens dense with insects busy beyond reckoning. Only I didn’t know that the dizziness wouldn’t set in until 24 hours after I ran across one swinging bridge after another one. I knew even less that it would never leave entirely afterward.

Dizziness itself, however, is not a medical condition and divides into lightheadedness and vertigo. The former often results, at worst, in fainting and is caused by a momentary loss in blood pressure or flow of blood to your cranium. Its causes—allergies, anxiety, illness, or drug abuse—sound serious, though in truth they are minor. There are ample ways to address them all. It is only with vertigo that you’re in trouble. Vertigo is in essence delusion, and there is never any cure for that I know of. By definition, you feel as if the world is in motion, that you are whirling, falling, or tilting when there is no actual movement.

Only this is not strictly accurate, is it? The morning after I ran back and forth across the swinging bridges they were no longer swinging beneath me, I knew with perfect clarity. If they were swinging at all, it was for some other tourists. I was not delusional yet stuck within a dream I could not burst from. Still I was whirling. I was falling. I was tilting, as close to the sun as the earth itself in summer, trying to break from its orbit, I couldn’t help but feeling it was that serious as I lay there reeling. There is no escaping this when you live on a planet that not only whirls about a star too bright to stare at directly but tilts toward and away from it willfully, as with sexual attraction and rebuff, undecided whether it will have sex with someone or not.

We cannot escape this ball of rock we call our planet that is in truth falling into the sun’s centrifugal fire regardless. The orbit is only a result of two conflicting forces, that of the earth’s gravity and the inertia driving earth to flee its orbit. The sun’s greater gravity, I’m told, acts as a mediator, keeping us from traveling any farther. Ultimately, though, planets either want to spiral entirely in on themselves, collapsing into a harder contraction of their own matter, or escape their orbit altogether. Because they can do neither, they do both. And some of us experience vertigo as a consequence once we realize we are ourselves similarly conflicted. Once we realize there is no such thing as sitting still in a universe as restless as this is.

Ever since I visited Costa Rica, all bridges are swinging bridges to some degree. It is only a matter of the bridge’s flexibility. My vertigo has since abated, though my awareness of living on a planet torn between falling farther into itself and exploding into space has hardly subsided. I also sleep less well, so that I can hear the howler monkeys before the lions now, awaking me. I live in a different apartment though still only a mile away or so from the same caged animals.

Today I walked home today from the dentist through the monkey house, though I didn’t bother looking at any of them swinging on plastic limbs of trees, because I have a cold and am already well aware of what they do, calling across the jungle for a mate lodged safely in the other room. I coughed three times during my dental cleaning and asked the technician for some water, which she gave to me in a plastic cup the same size as a thimble. And leaving the monkeys and reaching a grassy area across from the camels, I lay down on a bench and covered my eyes with the arms of my jacket, listening to the grasshoppers’ mating song, which like other species only males bother to vocalize with any vigor, leaving the females largely silent, teasing the jingle into a symphony with multiple movements. Male grasshoppers scrape a row of pegs along the inside of a hind leg against a forewing all afternoon. Crickets merely rub one wing against another, after the sun has set, so as not to compete, I’m guessing.

I spread my legs wide as a wishbone and almost fell asleep with the sun pressing into my stomach, a weight of warmth I could not lift if I’d wanted. And when I walked inside my apartment complex and stood waiting for the elevator beside a man with eyes the color of corn syrup, I started to speak of grasshoppers then stopped myself in time. I looked up into his face rather than down at my feet for once, where no insects were left singing for any love.

I told him instead about a movie I had just seen the day previous, a very old one by chance, I warned him. Marlene Dietrich played a vaudeville singer deep within Morocco’s sands, where Gary Cooper was in the foreign legion. Of course they fell in love, I told him, not wanting to state the obvious yet felt compelled for the sake of adherence to the story. Both strung other lovers along and had their fun while feeling fairly cheated. Because Gary Cooper would keep tramping through the Sahara with his unit, until she finally joined the gypsy women leading donkeys following in the soldiers’ footsteps, taking off her heels and walking barefoot through the desert, spurred on by only lust, I felt sure of it, though I couldn’t think of a better reason. At this, the man in the elevator laughed, though I didn’t see what was so funny. A bell then rang, the doors slid open, and I stepped onto my floor. He waved goodbye and said her feet must have gotten burnt, when I nodded and looked down at my boots by force of habit. I had avoided talking about grasshoppers landing on my toes, yet feet were still my focus, though neither of us had looked down once during our brief conversation.

Butterflies die always with their wings folded down, anyone who has ever tried to mount one on a needle knows from experience. To display them, even if only for your own collection, you must apply chemicals to relax their muscles post rigor mortis. To make them look lifelike again without shattering them into a second death gorier than the first one. I only know this from hearsay, though. To butterflies I have always preferred grasshoppers and locusts.

When any organism dies, however, the muscles at first relax, becoming more flaccid than they were in life when the blood swam warm if not hot to boiling. They only begin to stiffen after a number of hours, in humans starting with the eyelids, jaw, and neck. A cadaveric spasm, an intensive muscle contraction at the exact moment of death, occurs rarely yet is more common in violent deaths. Drowning victims usually display evidence of their end by the fact that their bodies are often still seen to clutch weeds or grasses, revealing that the person remained alive while entering the water, negating the need for a post-mortem. Cadaveric spasms crystalize the last moment of life in kinetic action. They occur quite often among victims of erotic asphyxiation, those who believe too much oxygen interferes with sexual stimulation.

Is all of life a stiffening then? A journey to and away from suppleness and nothing beyond this? Whose muscles are softer than those of babies and the elderly, however? Those closest to the unrelenting stiffness on life’s other side. So while we’re as supple as we can hope to be—while we’re stiffening en route—let’s walk back and forth, from one end of the bridge to the other, swinging as we go. Looking for the grasshoppers hopping on our toes.

Ever since traveling to Costa Rica, I have observed something else aside from my growing delusions of vertigo. I can feel the vibration of the train approaching the platform from several miles away, as if I am a howler monkey’s opposite, one who keeps quiet and only listens for desire alone. I can hear my husband’s footsteps on the sidewalk here inside my apartment while he is yet blocks away, coming home from work. I can hear the approach of people and trains by feel alone, as the deaf know music, with their hands pressed to the walls and floorboards, nodding to the rhythm as waves of sound shake the room.

I hear no more than anyone else, I’m sure, only at a farther distance. It lends me no advantage.

Because I have never crossed a bridge that I didn’t want to recross as soon as I got to the end, have you? Just for the fun of trying to make it swing on its truss and become a pendulum. Some people, I know, have other places to go—life must continue from one point to the next if you’re making progress—but I have never crossed a bridge for anything other than the pure pleasure of it.

In my mother’s last month of life, I drove her to a covered bridge festival, a festival only because there were so many bridges over so many small rivers to wait in line to cross and hope you made it over without drowning, because they were wobbly, let me tell you. Only as soon as we drove over the first, we were sure it wobbled too much to broach any more. And my mother had always had a fear of bridges, so what the hell were we doing here? I may have suggested it because I wanted to die with her.

Any bridge, by definition, raises this one question: Is passing over a body of water better than diving inside it? Meaning, might we not be missing something by not swimming across instead?

I think so. I think so. No, I am certain.

Because not all bridges are swinging ones, making us feel the movement of the planet beneath the feet which grasshoppers find so buoyant. Which is not to say I still don’t make use of bridges when I need them, to get someplace faster than I would otherwise. Though whenever I do hurry, speeding so I lose my breath, I find myself growing firmer, less supple than I was before I crossed it.

A week before I went to the dentist, I had my annual pap smear with my gynecologist, when she also felt my breasts for lumps of cancer. She said my breast tissue felt remarkably soft and spongy, so that if I ever had a tumor I would be sure to know it. Which was another way of saying, I thought, they were bridges just on the point of collapse, swinging bridges that never did stay still to begin with. That until I died of cancer the grasshoppers might hop onto my breasts as well to have someplace soft to rest.

How can any doctor—dentist or gynecologist or any other—examine me, though, without seeing the primary disease at hand? That of crossing from one side of a bridge to another without moving forward. Why does she do this, you ask? Weakening a bridge saggy and swinging as it is? Looking for love, I suppose, in a world without her mother. Because no one will ever replace her.

She died from breast cancer metastasized to the bone, to the point that she couldn’t move her neck to look down or side to side or even sit comfortably without more morphine injections, to the point she became addicted. And so as we drove across the one covered bridge at the festival feeling ready to give into the river running beneath our tires, she stared straight ahead, into the landscape eclipsed by the bridge. When I wished to God we could have gone swimming instead.

Because the ports in her arm for the chemo kept her from even taking a bath. She had to wash herself with only a cloth. And since that time I have admittedly tried to drown myself in the tub, when my lungs still keep inflating themselves. There is nothing to do except breathe here, I tell them, so let’s shut things down. Only they are like grasshoppers caught within my ribs, unable to sit still however much I might want to arrest them.

A cement bridge straddled an arroyo that would flood regularly in the home in which I came of age in southern Indiana. There was no way to move it, to make the cement swing, yet for a while I often did jump off of it, only five feet into the watery grasses thronged with snakes, frogs, and what I knew even then to be grasshoppers as industrious as they need be below it. I leapt far enough to bruise and scrape my needs if do little more damage. The jump felt just high enough to feel I was flying for a moment. And then in summertime, the water felt so cool, though it was never deep enough to swim in, even if I had cared far more frogs than I happened to do then. More mud and silt than river at most times of year, it turned my skin a different color, so that I looked camouflaged to raid the jungle. Before entering the house, however, I sprayed myself off with a hose as best I could manage, when my mother would spot some patches of mud left over and rub them with a washcloth she would later use to bathe.

Though most grasshoppers spend the majority of their time jumping as high and far as they please when they’re not singing, they can fly when they want to, let’s not keep forgetting. Higher and faster than you might think with wings strong as those of birds. So it only makes sense for me to look for them in the horizon rather than down at my boots, where they keep gathering. And I can hear a train yet miles away without hearing anything except feeling the rumble beneath my feet. I can feel this world is swinging sitting in this chair of mine and feel dizzy still when I close my eyes. I can let the ants build the houses and shut me out of them forever.



About the Author: Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in literary magazines including [PANK], Prick of the Spindle, Gravel, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Beetroot Journal, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Midway Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit.

Gulftane, Shalimar, and Testosterone by Michail Mulvey

     On Saturday afternoons, especially in the summer, I’ve been known to cruise classic car shows. I’m hoping to find a 1956 Chevy Bel Air. A ’55 will do, but not a ’54. The body style is not the same. There’s usually a classic car show on the town green in Colchester, the next town over from Hebron, where I live. You can probably find a classic car show on every town green in America. We are a country obsessed with automobiles, old and new.

     When I find a ’56 or ’55 Chevy Bel Air, I’m sixteen again. The sight of those classic lines takes me back to that seemingly simpler time when my world consisted of only two things: cars and girls. When the owner of one of those Bel Airs fires up his V8, just a whiff of exhaust, tinged with a hint of burning 10W40, evokes memories of my first car and my first true love.

     These days I see a car as just a means of getting from point A to point B. Don’t get me wrong, my 2014 Honda is fun to drive and has many fascinating features: keyless entry and ignition, automatic climate control, rear-view camera, right-side blind-spot camera, lane departure warning, touch-screen interface display, iPod USB interface, Pandora audio streaming, Sirius Satellite Radio capability, Aha compatibility (whatever that is), Bluetooth connectivity, satellite-linked navigation system with voice recognition, seven speakers, CD player, HDMI interface (to hook up a flatscreen TV?) and lots of other features I’ve yet to figure out. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock would feel right at home in my Honda. I’m sure there’s a control somewhere on my dashboard or console or touch-screen interface that would allow me to shoot Photon torpedoes at SUV’s driven by those Klingons who cut me off on I-84.

     My Honda may be loaded with a veritable cornucopia of twenty-first century technological features – it even talks to me! – but my Honda has no soul. It’s all micro-chips and electronic gadgetry. It even smells of the twenty-first century. More importantly, my Honda has no memories.

      When I was fifteen, I couldn’t wait to turn sixteen, get my license, buy a car, and go out on car dates. Like most teenagers, I was passionate about cars and girls, twin passions fueled by gasoline and testosterone, a highly volatile mixture that propelled many a boy into manhood.

      To understand these twin obsessions, you have to understand the culture of 1960’s America, especially the early 60’s, before Vietnam. Life seemed simpler back then. I say ‘seemed’ because, as Marcel Proust once said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Looking back over a half century, though, - if you ignored the threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union - life ‘seemed’ to consist of stupid parents, stupid teachers, fast cars and pretty girls.

      When I was in high school not as many guys had cars as today, so if you had wheels, you were a chick magnet – even if you had a face like Richard Nixon and a body like Nikita Khrushchev. With a car I could take girls to the Starlite Drive-In and Cummings Beach, and if I had the cash, I could even take a date to New York City. Back in 1964, when I-95 wasn’t so congested, the bright lights of Manhattan were just a half-hour drive from Stamford, my home town. And with a car, I could escape the city housing projects where I lived.

      To save up for my first car, I stacked shelves at Tony’s Grocery every day after school – for $1 an hour. Later I added a night job at the Ferguson Public Library shelving books for $1.25 an hour – minimum wage at the time. On weekends – when the weather allowed – I caddied at Hubbard Heights Municipal Golf Course. I saved money by working in the school cafeteria during my lunch period in exchange for the free meal.

      I turned sixteen the summer of ‘63. Two weeks after my birthday, I went to the DMV, took the test, passed, and got my driver’s license. I had my passport to other worlds. But I still needed a means of transportation. I counted my savings and came up short. The cars listed in the automotive section of The Stamford Advocate were out of reach.

      My automotive future – and social life – looked dim, indeed. Until my Uncle Norman, a mechanic, came to the rescue. I’d told him I was on the lookout for a used car – a cheap used car – so he offered to keep an eye out for me. One Saturday afternoon he called and said he’d found a car – and that it was cheap.

      “How cheap,” I asked.

      “Just come look at it,” he answered. I hitched a ride to Norwalk where my uncle lived with his new wife, my Aunt Jane. Parked in front of their house was a four-door, two-tone green 1956 Chevy Bel-Air.

      “It’s yours,” he said, smiling and tossing me the keys.

      “How much do I owe you?” I asked, hoping I had enough to pay him back.

      “Don’t worry about it. Use the money you’ve saved to pay for your insurance.”

Belaire

      I stood there for a long moment, admiring my car.

     “There’s a dent in the rear bumper and rust behind the headlights, but just use some Bondo, sand it down and paint it,” my uncle said. “And it burns oil. You’ll probably have to throw in a quart of oil once a week, and maybe a can of STP.”

     I didn’t care if there was a dent in the bumper or rust behind the headlights. I didn’t care if it burned oil. I didn’t care if there was a dead body in the trunk. It had wheels!

     I thanked my uncle, hugged my aunt and drove off. Even though it was a chilly day, I rolled down the window and hung out my elbow. I turned on my radio, tuned to 770 AM, WABC New York, and cranked up the volume. The DJ must have heard I had wheels now and was on the loose: “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Get Around,” and “Pretty Woman,” blasted from the radio. My radio. My car radio.

     I smiled and waved to the pedestrians I passed on my drive home:

     “Yeah, I’m driving. That’s right, I’m driving my car. Check it out,” I said to anyone who looked my way.

     When I got back to the projects, I sat in my Chevy for a while playing the radio and revving the engine, hoping everyone in the neighborhood – especially the girls – would notice. They did. My Bel Air burned more oil than expected. In fact, it wasn’t long before I filled our courtyard parking lot with white smoke. Later that week, as my uncle had warned, when I stopped off for gas – Gulftane at 28 cents a gallon – I had to add a quart of oil.

     But I didn’t care. It was mine, a 1956 Chevy Bel Air, two-tone green (Sherwood green and Pinecrest green), front and rear chrome bumpers (like an empress dowager covered in jewels, my Bel Air was festooned with chrome), four doors (with hand-cranked windows), eight cylinders (a 265 cubic inch, 165 horse power V-8 that got 16 mpg), three-speed manual transmission, shift on the steering column (three on the tree), push-button AM radio with one speaker in the dashboard (Murray the K, Herb Oscar Anderson, and Cousin Brucie were my favorite DJ’s), long, cloth and vinyl bench seats (no seatbelts), not to mention enough room in the trunk to fit at least three bodies – I snuck my friend Marty and his girlfriend into the drive-in on a double-date many a night. Air-conditioning consisted of two hand-cranked, side-vent windows that allowed you to regulate the air flow in the front.

     As predicted, now that I had a car, I became a chick magnet – sort of. Two girls asked me to our high school homecoming dance. I took a girl I met at a party in Greenwich instead. Jean was nothing like the loud, gum-snapping queens in tight skirts and heavily-hairsprayed beehive hairdos who ruled the halls of Stamford High. She had reddish-brown hair and blue-green eyes. Jean was quiet, thoughtful and very bright – what she saw in me is still a mystery. It had to be my car.

     We were an unlikely couple, this girl from Greenwich and the kid from the projects, but we hit it off right away. After the party Jean let me drive her home. And for the next year or so, I drove her to the Starlite Drive-In and Cummings Beach and Bruce Park and Sherwood Isle and Playland and the 1964 World’s Fair. And one magical night, to a fancy restaurant in Manhattan.

     And with a car, me and my buddies could go cruising after school. We’d all pile into my Bel Air and slowly patrol downtown Stamford, radio blasting, checking out the girls. We’d head for Tony’s in Shippan where we’d wolf down scalding-hot onion rings and greasy French fries, then sooth our burned tongues with ice-cold Cherry Cokes. We’d hop onto I-95, I’d floor it – put the pedal to the metal - and hit 65 mph back when the speed limit was 55. We were rebels. We were cool. James Dean and Marlon Brando had nothing on us. Life was good. I had wheels. I was in love. To quote my Uncle Bob, I had life by the short and curlies.

     When I left for the Army in the summer of 1965 I loaned my Chevy to my mother, expecting to get it back when I came home on leave. “Make sure to add a quart of oil every time you get gas,” I said as I reluctantly handed her the keys. “And throw in an oil additive every once in awhile. STP.”

     Six months later my mother wrote, “The Chevy died.” I’m sure I cried when I read her letter. It was towed to the junk yard and crushed, then sold to Japan, no doubt, where it was melted down and probably made into a 1966 Honda. As my Chevy was about to be crushed, I’m sure it cried out, “Wait, I have stories to tell!”

     I got out of the Army three years later, in the summer of 1968. In the fall I’d be heading off to college – a small teacher factory in Danbury called Western Connecticut State. In need of a car, I combed the automotive section of The Stamford Advocate and found a 1955 Chevy Bel Air for sale. Call it Karma or whatever, but it was the twin of my ‘56 Chevy: two-tone green, four doors, eight cylinders, and, of course, high mileage.

     I should have known better, but I didn’t care. I had to have this car. Maybe I hoped this ‘55 Chevy Bel Air would magically transport me back in time, a time before Vietnam. Having drifted apart those three years, I also hoped Jean and I could pick up where we’d left off. But it was not to be. I’d been to war and Jean had been away at college for two years. We were not the same two people who’d said heartfelt goodbyes back in the summer of ’65.

     Jean, an English major at UCONN, later mailed me a quote from one of her literature texts:

“ … in the orbit of the world you are the North Pole, I am the South – so much in balance, in agreement – and yet … the whole world lies between.”

     I reluctantly drove off to college that fall in my 1955 Chevy Bel Air.

But like my dream of picking up where we’d left off in 1965, a few days short of Thanksgiving, my Chevy also died. Before it was hauled away, the tow truck driver told me that the ’55 Bel Air had a critical design error in its engine oiling system. Both my Bel Airs, it seemed, had died from a dearth of 10W40.

     In dire need of transportation, I bought another car – a 1963 VW Beetle. Eventually, I also found another girlfriend – her name was Christine. But she was no Jean.

     That summer of 1968 I learned the hard way what Thomas Wolfe wrote long ago:

“You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love … back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake … away from all the strife and conflict of the world … back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting …”

     On the rare occasion when an owner lets me sit in the driver’s seat of a ’56 Chevy Bel Air at a car show, I’m back at the Starlite Drive-In or Cummings Beach or Bruce Park or Sherwood Isle or cruising downtown Stamford with my buddies. I run my hand along the bench seat and instinctively look to my right, thinking I might find Jean next to me – hoping I’ll find Jean next to me.

     If I close my eyes, I swear I can smell Jean’s freshly-washed hair and the scent of her perfume – Shalimar was her favorite. I feel the warmth of the Starlite Drive-In’s in-car heater at my feet – even though I know I’m at a car show and it’s only the sun streaming through the side window. I can almost taste the stale concession-stand popcorn and the cardboard-like concession-stand pizza.

     I sense the warmth of Jean’s body next to mine as we huddled on those cool nights at Cummings Beach – again it’s just the warmth of the sun reflected off the vinyl seat.

     I run my hand along the seat, a bench seat as long and smooth as a three-cushion sofa, a bench seat that allowed your girlfriend to slide over and sit so close she was almost in your lap.

     My Honda sometimes speaks to me – it’s a woman’s voice – “In one hundred yards turn right onto North Main Street” – but it doesn’t speak to me like Jean spoke to me those nights at Cummings Beach when we gazed out over Long Island sound and listened to soft rock on the radio. Every night Murray the K on 1010 WINS greeted the lovers parked at the beach with, “Hello all you submarine race watchers out there.”

     Those spring and summer nights were a feast for the senses – and an assault on restraints and inhibitions: the fragrance of Jean’s perfume, the taste of her lips, the soft touch of her hand on my face, the salt air from Long Island Sound, the twinkling lights from the opposite shore and the constellations above, the whisper of waves caressing the sand, the soft music from car radios tuned to stations that played love ballads just for us –“A Summer Song” by Chad and Jeremy was one of our favorites. Sometimes you’d hear giggles or even laughter coming from the surrounding cars. If you listened carefully, you might catch the sound of softly-whispered promises.

     This woman’s voice that occasionally speaks to me while I drive my Honda from point A to point B probably comes from a computer chip hidden somewhere behind the touch-screen interface or under the dashboard. Is it still called a dashboard?

     I don’t know this woman in my Honda. I don’t recognize the voice. But I know it’s not Jean. And though this woman may recognize my voice, does she really know me? How can she? We’re complete strangers. And I know this woman in my Honda isn’t really there. I look but there’s nobody in the seat next to me.

     I can’t touch this woman’s fingers, hold her hand in mine, caress her arm, her neck. I can’t smell her hair or breathe in her cologne. I can’t look into this woman’s eyes.

     I can’t feel her breath on my neck. She can’t run her fingers through my hair or caress my face. She can’t speak to me with her eyes.

     I can talk back to this woman in my Honda, but does she really hearme? Does she hear me? If I said, “I love you,” what would she say? I’m sorry. I don’t understand.

     There are many gray heads in the crowd at these auto shows, old men lost in thought as they stand next to those classic cars – Mustang, GTO, Barracuda, Bel Air, Corvette, T-Bird, Camaro – old cars that take these old men back to that summer when they were sixteen and all that seemed to matter were cars and girls. They’re back to that time when Gulftane, Shalimar and testosterone fueled their world. They all have stories to tell, these old men and these old cars.

     “We can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young,” said Thomas Wolfe.

     Thomas Wolfe was wrong. I’m sixteen again. We’re all sixteen again.

 

 

About the Author: Mike Mulvey is an instructor of English at Central Connecticut State University. He holds degrees in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. He’s had over twenty short stories published in well over a dozen literary magazines and journals, print and electronic, in the US and the UK, some dubious, some noteworthy, some you’ve probably never heard of, and a couple that are now belly up. But last year he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost.

Edith by Andrew Kubrin

     When my Uncle Jay was six years old, his beloved grandmother Edith died. She was laid out in the front room of the house on Shady Avenue in Pittsburgh. It is curious that this ceremony took place at all, given the strong Jewish preference for burying the dead before sundown. But I receive this story from my uncle, who retrieves it from memory, and if I have learned one thing in composing this history, it is that we are creatures of feeling. We form our memories from emotion, which inhabits every corner of the mind. Sometimes it’s hard to find the actual, literal truth.


     My grandfather Sam and my great-uncles Sam, Harry, and Meyer would have carried Edith into the house. I imagine a ceremony of great solemnity, the men in their dark suits, my grandmother and her sisters clutching their handkerchiefs and weeping. Perhaps there was some undignified maneuvering as my elders struggled to bring the broad, heavy coffin through the narrow door. At length they placed the casket on sawhorses before the piano. Edith lay with unearthly stillness in her bed of tufted satin. Her pallor was waxy white. Her small hands lay primly upon her chest. A few hairs strayed from her temple. The adults went in first for the viewing, murmuring condolences to one another as they paused by the casket and placed a hand on its edge. Poor Edith! Such a kind, gentle woman, and a beauty too. All those years in the slaughterhouse, up to her elbows in feathers and blood, and never a word of complaint.

     When the adults withdrew, the children entered the room to make their acquaintance of death. Uncle Jay lingered by the door, mute with fear and grief. His sister Phyllis strode directly to the casket and stood on her toes, looking down at her grandmother. Edith was white and utterly still, like a figure carved out of tallow. The planes of her face had softened imperceptibly. Her eyelids were papery and laced with purple veins. A certain grimness had set in around her mouth.

     Phyllis suppressed her shock at this sight with an inner exertion of will. She was nine years old. She would not be daunted by death. Her face drained of feeling. Her fingers gripped the coffin edge. A malign imp cavorted inside her. She cocked her head to one side, then turned to face her brother. “Come and see.”

     “No,” said my uncle, in a tremulous voice. “I don’t want to.”

     “Why not? Are you scared?”

     “No.”

     “Scaredy cat.”

     “Am not.”

     “Are so.” Phyllis turned and looked once more into the coffin. Then she turned back towards her brother. “I think you should kiss her.”

     “No!” Jay took one step back.

     “Yes!” Phyllis turned and seized her brother around the middle, bearing him towards the coffin. “Kiss her! Kiss her!” Her arms encircled him; he thrashed in her grasp; she bore him ever closer; he writhed and flailed; she brought him face to face with death; his tiny feet struck glancing blows against the coffin, which rocked atop the sawhorses; and as a horrified boy struggled to be free, a lifelong enmity was born.

     After the funeral, my grandmother placed a photograph of Edith on top of the piano. Wherever Jay went in that room, its eyes seemed to follow him.





About the Author: Andy Kubrin has published essays and reviews in The Florida Review, Fourth Genre, and The Journal of African Travel-Writing. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, where he blogs occasionally at www.andykubrin.com.

 

Under the Packard by Joanell Serra

     In the summer of 1975, my childhood clung to me like a tattered cape that I was determined to throw off. In anticipation of my tenth birthday at the end of August, I taken to wearing a cast off pair of dungaree jeans, too tight and halter tops. I’d kicked my Barbie trailer to the Netherlands of the basement and instead eyed my older sister’s things enviously: bikinis, a roach clip on a key chain, the Fleetwood Mac album that played continuously. Rumors lyrics were embedded in my psyche that summer, mixed with the sound of gin and tonics being mixed up for my parents, in pitchers. Two of my cousins, from my mother’s infamous Crossin clan, had come to stay with us that summer, and their presence forced my family’s façade of acceptability to crack.

     “Joanell, don’t forget your suit.” My mother dangled my hideous bright orange one piece bathing suit from her hand, leaning out the back porch window. Her hands were twisted with an invasive, painful and crippling disease. The older girls would be wearing bikinis. I plucked the childish bathing suit from her hands, by now almost immune to noticing their tortured state, and reluctantly forced the suit into an over-stuffed duffle bag that smelled of camping trips — smoke and pine trees.

     I listened as my sister and cousins got ready inside, their voices wafting through the open window. My Florida cousins had arrived in June with long hair, deep tans, and a mountain of experiences. Suzie, the oldest, openly kept her cigarettes in her pocket and talked about her “tits” at the dinner table. Sammy, the younger, was more demure and soft spoken, until she found something amusing and laughed a deep rumbling laugh that stopped us in our tracks. And then demanded we laughed with her.

     “Did you bring a towel? Does Aunt Pat have towels for us?” I heard Sammy asking someone. We were bound for Milford, Connecticut. A beach town. We would need towels.

     “Did Stephanie ever return my Coppertone?” Suzie, sounding irritated with my older sister. “And where the fuck is Joel? My cigarettes are in his car.”

     For a month, since my cousins had arrived from their home in a Florida trailer park to be under the care and influence of my theoretically more stable, and educated parents, I had been on the fringes of this Crossin Family Sorority. The Florida cousins were older and prettier and had more experience with everything except my mother’s cooking. Which they loved. The cousins quickly formed a tight bond with my older two sisters, while my brother hid in his room, and I would jump up and down on the sidelines. They would find ways to have me around without ever really including me: I could go to dinner with them, but I’d have to wait in the car while they got high first. I could visit the tent they’d pitched in the back yard, but not actually sleep there with them overnight. Most nights I watched as they put on skimpy clothes and lipstick, then raised the volume of the TV as they snuck out the door, my only consolation a bag of Cheetos.

     But strangely, I was to be included on a weekend trip to Milford with my cousins and my sister Leslie. To be chaperoned by our ancient Great Aunt Nana.

     Hence I found myself waiting in the back yard, watching for my Aunt’s ca with equal parts trepidation and anticipation. Jersey heat seemed to lick at me. Sweat pooled in the hollow of my back as I squatted at the edge of the pebbled driveway, examining the stones one by one. I collected a few that shone with the pale colors of dawn. Pink ladies in a sea of grey. I had three rocks in my pocket by the time my I heard a car in the driveway, somewhat apropos as I was nearly drowning in my own anxiety.

     I leapt out of the way as Aunt Nana, my maternal grandmother’s sister, drove her 1958 black Packard Sedan up the driveway at an alarming speed, rocks spewing behind her. The car lurched as she stopped and threw it into park, and then seemed to sigh and belch when she turned it off and climbed out. Dressed in a faded yellow cotton summer dress that reached past her knees and sturdy black sandals, she carried a purse that could only be called a carpet bag. She waved to me, calling me forth for the obligatory kiss and squeeze hello.

     Nana’s face was a mottled map of deep wrinkles and brown spots that had merged into continents across her nose and cheeks, and she sported tufts of hair that emerged out of her nose, her ears, and other moles. She was small and wiry, with the appearance of frailty, until she wanted my attention. Then she would grab my skinny arm and squeeze with a vice-like grip. She’d whisper whatever she needed to say in my ear, all the while wheezing, a huffing train-like sound.

     “How’s your mother?” She’d say. Wheeze, Wheeze. “Are you taking good care of her? You kids need to take care of her you know.” And then, as I bobbed my head yes, vigorously, I knew above all things my job was to take care of my mother, she would give my arm a final squeeze that brought tears to my eyes. “She has it very rough.”

     “I know.” From the day I was born I knew. It was as clear as the fact that my hair was brown and my nose was my father’s. My mother’s life was hard and we needed to take care of her. Except she was always taking care of us.

     My mother had cooked all morning to assure we were properly fortified over the weekend. So along with the suitcases and beach chairs, we loaded a lasagna, potato salad, cold cuts, and soda into the trunk of the Packard.

     “Joanell can ride up front with me” Nana announced. “You other girls get in the back. The knot in my stomach grew tighter.

I ducked into the front seat, a dank smell rising from the floor, the leather seats cracking underneath me. The older girls giggled as I made a panicked face at them over the back seat. Nana was not only old, she was borderline blind, and I was all of ninety pounds. Why was I the front seat choice?

     Nana clucked as I made a futile search for a seat belt. “No need for a belt, Missy.” She seemed insulted by the suggestion, her wrinkly throat quivering. She scooped up Whiskers, her dog, from the driveway and tossed him onto my lap. I let out a panicked squeal which set the back seat into gales of fiendish giggles. They all knew the only thing I feared more than Nana was her dog. I loved most dogs. But not this cocker spaniel mix, a cranky, flatulent, and mean spirited old dog. Whiskers was possibly older than Nana, also blind, and most importantly, had a skin condition that made him periodically turn and bite at himself, as if ravenously hungry for his own flesh. Nana’s prophylactic treatment of this condition was Vaseline, from head to toe. Whiskers was so greased up you could imagine him hurling down a bowling alley with the right toss, taking out every pin.

     I squeezed myself against the door, which didn’t shut “just right” as we barreled up the New Jersey Parkway. Whiskers held his slippery ground on the seat between us. Nana kept his leash on so that she could give him a yank if he started to attack himself with those evil little teeth. Convinced he would miss his own shank and sink them into mine, and frightened we were going off the road at every turn, I prayed. We flew past the New York State border, lush green hills giving way to a stunning view of the Hudson.

     We were not the first generation to be packed off to Nana’s for parental respite. Thirty years earlier, my Crossin Grandmother, a bipolar caught in a manic upswing, put all four of her children on a train from New Jersey to New York to Connecticut. They had Nana’s address written on their coats, asking the world to “Please deliver them.” Amazingly, they arrived unscathed, without any intervention by the Police, CPS, or any of the agencies that would descend on four young children traveling alone today. What seemed to be most startling to my mother, in the frequent retelling of the story, was that they’d actually changed trains at Grand Central Station, without getting lost. Nana took them in, again and again, as Regina came and went, in a long saga of periodic, almost spastic, parenting. And now, a generation later, my mother now gathered her nieces for the summer, in her own home. Respite again, although the actual circumstances of their parents remained a mystery to me.

     On a particularly hard turn, the dog Whiskers slid right off the seat onto the floor in front of me. In a flash of nine year old brilliance, I stomped on his leash, pinning him to the floor. For the next two hours, despite his ominous, fang baring glares, I didn’t release his leash. I avoided touching the seat next to me, still covered in Vaseline, and stared straight ahead, alternating Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s.

We’d crossed into Connecticut when Nana called out, “Who wants Dunkin Donuts?” And made a sudden left turn and hurled the Packard across two lanes of traffic. My Aunt, oblivious to the screeching brakes of an eighteen wheeler, careened into a parking lot. The lot that was actually a steep incline straight up off the freeway. She pumped the gas as she lurched up the hill to the curb, and then turned it off. The Packard shuttered, spit, and then ticked, dismayed.

     Nana grabbed her suitcase sized purse. “Be right back. Leslie you still like Jelly donuts?” And then she disappeared into the dismal looking store. There was a collective catching of our breath.

     “Christ.” Suzie kept saying. “Fucking Christ, that was close.”

     My sister admired my handiwork with Whiskers’ leash. “You sure he can’t get to your leg?” Leslie had been bitten by dogs twice. More family lore.

     “Yes, I have him pinned down pretty tight.”

     It was Sammy who said, after a minute, “Guys? Do you feel like the car is moving?”

     “Shit!” Suzie yelled. In fact, the car was not only moving, it was picking up speed, rapidly rolling backwards towards traffic. An enormous steel cargo truck was pounding down the road, and the Packard was on the way to intercept it. Everyone screamed. At me.

     “Joanell! Get the emergency brake!”

     “Step on the brakes!”

     “Move it into park. Joanell, it’s not in park!”

     Did I need to remind them that I was nine? That I had no idea what any of those things were? And that if I moved my foot too much either way, Whiskers would get loose and take his revenge on my young flesh?

     In a move of heroic proportions, my cousin Suzie, age 14 going on 28, threw herself over the seat, head first, and dove into the well of the driver’s seat, holding the brakes down with her hands, while her younger sister jumped over as well and yanked up the emergency brake. The car slowed, jerked, and stopped. The traffic hauled past, just a few feet from our bumper. My legs shook so much I was afraid I couldn’t hold the dog down much longer.

     Suzie looked at me in dismay, bordering on disgust. “Joanell, what the hell? Don’t you know what an emergency brake is?”

I pointed out my age, but apparently in Florida driving is something you have mastered by nine, at least on the beach. Or if your parents were really drunk. You at least knew how to pull up the emergency brake, for God’s sake.

     We sat in a shaky silence as we watched Nana toddle down the steep parking lot to her car. I waited for her to exclaim in surprise that her car had moved twenty feet from where she left it, but she appeared not to notice. She passed out the donuts, making sure to give my sister Leslie the white powder jelly one, and then we got back on the road.

     An hour later we arrived, the smell of the ocean wafting around us as we stepped out of the Packard and stretched. Late afternoon sun splashed off the water, across the road, and a sliver of optimism surfaced in my heart. Perhaps this would be a lovely weekend at the beach, after all. Like they had in the books I read about teen girl detectives.

     We’d barely entered the house, a small cottage with the paint peeling and a faint smell of mildew on everything, when Nana announced the bedroom arrangements. “Leslie, take your cousins to the upstairs bedrooms. Joanell can sleep down here with me.”

     The other girls began to gather their duffle bags and clop up the narrow stairs. I saw my weekend before me: trapped in the wheezing ward, sharing a bed with Nana and her horrible beast of a dog. The other girls upstairs, free.

     “No!” I shrieked. “I want to stay with my sister!” It was all too much for my pre-pubescent spirit: the slimy, nipping dog, the near death experience, a scolding because I didn’t know how to stop a car. And now this. Exiled. Tears forced themselves out the corners of my eyes, even as I wiped them away fiercely.

     My sister Leslie, clearly taken aback, seemed to calculate that if she didn’t come up with a quick plan, I would disintegrate. As the older sister, it would be her job to put me back together again. Worse, she might have to take my place in our great Aunt’s bed.

     “She can share with me!” Leslie announced, quickly angling me towards the stairs. I felt myself propelled up the steps by Leslie’s will and Suzie’s hands, while Sammy grabbed my duffle bag.

     “But that bed’s only a twin,” Aunt Nana said in a half-hearted protestation.

     “We don’t mind!”

     The girls gathered around me, as my unbidden and shameful tears continued to fall. My embarrassment grew, I was sure to be banished for this display of childish vulnerability. My cousins and sisters were tough. There was no crying in Crossin-land.

     But Suzie, generally the sharpest, took pity on me. When our oldest sister wasn’t with us, as was the case that weekend, Suzie was the leader of the group by being several months older than Leslie and, as she put it, “the only one with tits.” She announced once we got the bedroom door closed, in the spirit of sympathy, “We should get Joanell high tonight.” My spirits soared.

     Later that evening, back from a walk on the beach, I went from being the left behind child to one of the gang. The smell of brackish salt water mixed with the marijuana smoke and patchouli oil one of my cousins had rubbed all over her body. In a stroke of adolescent brilliance, we gathered underneath the Packard, convinced Nana wouldn’t notice her charges were getting stoned in the backyard, if we were underneath this hulking black mammoth.

     I snuggled next to the others, itchy from the sand in my bathing suit and the crab grass beneath us, the clove and oregano smell of fresh weed wafting from the tiny promising joint, giggling with the others as we imagined Nana finding us out. We took bets on whether she would know what we were doing if she found us, whether Nana had ever seen weed, or gone on a date, or, god forbid, had sex. I choked on the remains of my ice cream cone, laughing. I was so happy, or maybe high; I wasn’t sure.

     Over the years, when my friends and counselors along the way expressed shock, even dismay over my early drug use, I knew they were right. But wrong.

     We were, in our pre-teen delinquency, still innocent in many ways. None of us knew the depth of the depravity that ran like a vein down the arm of our genealogy, or imagined how our own lives would follow well-worn pathways of despair. Later, we would split off like braches from one twisted tree, growing in opposite directions. We would enter rehabs, prison, therapy, and colleges. We would end up at disparate ends of morality’s spectrum: tormentor, victim, protector.

     But not that night. That warm night when the sun seemed to never actually set, I watched my cousin Suzie laugh, under the car, her taut belly rippling like a drum. Sammy lit the joint, and as the flame flared, her face glowed with the beauty of her strong cheek bones and warm brown eyes. Leslie and I dissolved, pounding our fists on the ground at a joke Suzie made, our hair blending together in an auburn puddle, our eyes streaming with tears. That night we passed the joint back and forth and let the bonds of blood and smoke tie us into a knot of love and loyalty that would never fully dissolve.





About the Author: Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. A long time creative writer, she recently had a play win in the California Writers Club Short Plays Contest. She will have pieces in 2014 in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. She is currently finishing a novel.

Westbound: Day 64 by Stephen Benz

In Glenrock, Wyoming, a municipal park borders Deer Creek, a freshwater stream that once provided a natural rest stop for Oregon Trail pioneers. By this point in their long journey, the trail travelers had become sick of the North Platte’s brackish water. Deer Creek was the best source of “sweet water” that they had found in weeks of hard travel. Laid out over the site of the old pioneer camp, the latter-day park where I’ve stopped to pass the night includes not only campsites but also a kind of recreational complex—softball fields, dirt parking lots, and a rodeo arena. There’s also something I’ve never seen before in a campground: an operating oil jack.

     Alone in the park, mid-afternoon, I set up the tent, a quick task. Then I sit on the picnic table, reading Thoreau and slapping mosquitoes while the creek babbles and the oil jack churns away. Having lost my way on the career track, I am now more or less following the Oregon Trail, camping out of the car, reading the American Transcendentalists and the journals of Lewis and Clark as I go. I’ve told friends I’m doing research, but this journey has become more like a haphazard attempt to reclaim the westering spirit supposedly latent in all Americans—“the prevailing tendency of my countrymen,“ Thoreau called it. He himself wanted to walk all the way to Oregon. “Westward I go free,” Thoreau said. “That way the nation is moving.” And so for nine weeks now, I have been drifting westward, more or less, putting Thoreau’s thesis to the test. The endeavor has brought me here, to Glenrock.

     Later in the afternoon, some other folks arrive, disrupting the solitude I’ve enjoyed for a couple of hours. First, a groundskeeper in a county pickup truck, who unloads equipment and sets to work chalking the softball field. Looks like league action tonight. Then a camper truck that has seen better days tours the campground, driving the entire circle before selecting a site adjacent to mine, as though trying to annoy me on purpose. I can’t understand why with an otherwise empty campground anyone would want to camp next to the only other camper in the place. Nothing I can do about it. It is, as folks readily say, a free country. My new neighbors, an older couple, haul out their equipment and set up camp. Folding lawn chairs. Strings of colored lanterns. An artificial carpet. A shelter that surrounds the picnic table—plastic top to fend off the rain, mesh walls and a zippered door to provide mosquito protection. Meticulously, they conduct their camp chores. Pumping water, lighting a charcoal fire, arranging kitchen utensils on the picnic table in preparation of the evening meal. They’ve got propane lanterns, a gas stove, a radio; in short order, their campsite is up and running, a glowing, humming borough of two. While the woman works the cooking equipment (already the smell of grilling meat fills the air), the man studies the contents of his large tackle box. He glances up to see me watching him, gives a wave. “Hey neighbor, how’s the fishing?”

     “Sorry, not much of a fisherman.”

     A bewildered look crosses his face, a look that says something like, “What the hell? A red-blooded American male, doesn’t like fishing? Well, it takes all types.” Out loud he says simply, “That so?” and I feel like I’ve let him down. “Well, come on over and have a beer.”

     “I was just about to go for a walk,” I say, a small lie to avoid an involved conversation. “Maybe later.”

     “All righty, then, me and Betty will keep a cold one for you.”

     Now committed to my little lie, I set off down the loop road to visit the site’s attractions, starting with a close-up view of the oil jacks. Their sucking-insect motion mesmerizes for a while, then I head over to the ball field, where warm-up is underway. I take a seat in the bleachers. The brilliant fire of sunset flares then fades. The game begins in a pool of electric light, eighteen grown men at play amid the cheering, groaning, and laughing of their families in the stands. When one older player takes his turn at bat, a tiny voice yells out, “Come on, Grandpa!” His teammates take up the chant, laughingly imploring “Gramps” to come through with a hit.

     All over America at this moment, games are in progress, amateur to professional, little children trying to act like grown-up players, elderly folks trying to be kids again. Boys, girls, men, women everywhere engaged in acting out the particular choreography of baseball, a precise choreography that nonetheless allows for the idiosyncratic interpretations of both the virtuoso and the rank amateur. Here in Glenrock, it’s a rather clumsy interpretation of the dance; but such is the beauty of the game, such is its inherent grace even when performed by the graceless, that I am compelled to watch to the conclusion, just to see how this one insignificant performance of the national pastime will turn out.

     Even when the game is over, I tarry to watch, a sideline observer, as the teammates shake hands, slap backs, laugh together. The lights fade on the field. It’s time to go, but they linger in the parking lot by their pick-ups, chatting, making the most of the moment. In a few hours they’ll be back at the plant for another day of work. The kids clamber into the truck beds and are given the honor of holding dad’s glove and bat. The light of headlamps leads the line of trucks out of the parking lot, back to the highway, and soon the park is dark and still. The sounds of crickets and oil jacks take over. I walk back to the campground, cutting across the dirt of the rodeo ring. It’s late, and with any luck the neighboring campers will have retired. I realize now that I’ve delayed my return to the tent in part to avoid the fisherman and Betty, to shirk “the cold one” he’s keeping for me and whatever strained conversation would have to go with it. As I approach the campsite I feel a sense of dismay when I see the propane lanterns lit up and the colored glow of the strung-up globes decorating the neighboring site. It appears they’ve been waiting for me.

     “Here he is, Betty,” the old man says. “Hey, neighbor, ready for that beer?”

     Suppressing the urge to beg off, I take the cold can and drop into the proffered folding lawn chair. Betty is working crochet needles. The old man—“George Henderson, and this here’s my wife Betty”—sets aside a fly he’s been fooling with, and together we form a triad on a patch of artificial grass. We’ve come to the moment that I seem to fear (though I’m not sure why), the moment of small talk, the tedium of chitchat.

     And sure enough, George starts right in with the usual questions, Where am I from? Where have I been? Where am I headed to next? Since the only honest answer is I don’t know, I don’t have the slightest idea, whatever I say comes out evasive and inarticulate:
Oh, well, just following the breeze, no particular plan, going where the road takes me. These are euphemisms, upstanding citizens like George and Betty must surely know, meant to gloss over my lack of any vocation other than drifter, wanderer, vagabond. All of which is to say, No, I don’t have a job. No, I don’t have a purpose in life. Yes, I am aimless and shiftless, the poor wayfaring stranger. I am, I am.

     But to my surprise, George gets a kick out of my answers. He likes the phrase and repeats it: “Just following the breeze, huh?” He comes back to it even after the conversation has moved on to the price of gasoline, good fishing spots, the weather.

     “Just following the breeze,” he says again. “Sound like anyone you know, Betty?”

     “Yes, dear.” Betty smiles wryly and continues to crochet a small sweater. For a grandchild, I’m guessing. She works the hooks quickly, efficiently. Everything about her is neat and organized—her ironed dress, her sprayed-and-set hair, the carefully arranged utensils on the table. Even her wrinkles seem to follow a precise pattern. No question she is a meticulous personality. She doesn’t strike me as someone who would care to associate with anyone “just following the breeze.”

     “She means me,” George says. “I was once like you.”

     “He still is, believe me,” Betty says to George’s delighted guffaws.

     He’s taken two more beers from the cooler. I have to admit the cold beer tastes really good sitting in a campground on a warm evening somewhere in the vast American interior.

     “Oh, yes, a lot like you.”

     The red and green glow from the colored globes above us—the string runs from the side of the camper to a tree—warms his face and makes him look younger. He’s a small, thin man with a boyish face despite the wrinkles. He gives off a sense of energy, somehow, even though his movements are slow and deliberate. I can imagine he was once called a “feisty fellow.”

     George goes on to tell me his story. He quit high school at fifteen and ran away from home. “Couldn’t stand the old man, the way he would beat on me.” George soon fell in with the hobo set and rode the rails all around the West. During his wanderings, he got beat up and arrested more times than he can remember. He drank and did drugs. He fell out of a train car in a small Oregon town and ended up in a hospital where he met Betty, a nurse. For some reason she took a liking to him, or at least felt pity for him (“That’s more like it,” Betty says) and took to preaching to the lost soul and caring for him. By the time he recovered, he had fallen for the pretty nurse, but he knew he had no hope of winning her unless he proved worthy. He went to night school and got his diploma. Then the war came and Betty joined with Red Cross and was sent to Guadalcanal. George enlisted, but was shipped to Europe. He wrote often to her, but nothing arrived in return. When the war was over, he went back to Oregon hoping to find her. She was there, all but engaged to a childhood friend, but inexplicably she still was drawn to the former hobo. He went to college on the GI Bill and graduated with a teaching degree. For thirty years thereafter he taught high school and always kept an eye out for the wayward boys, the potential drifters like he had been. When retirement came, he got back on the road, “traveling respectable” this time and “just following the breeze” as had been his inclination all along. Now, though, he had Betty along to keep him and camp in order.

     It’s well after midnight when the story finishes and we put out the lanterns. George and Betty retire to the camper. I’m left alone, lying awake in the tent, listening to the stream and the creaking oil jacks. In spite of myself, and in spite of my intrinsic reticence, I keep meeting people who seem to have something to share with me, clues to what comes next. And so tomorrow, I’m bound for the next stop, somewhere farther down the American road.

About the Author:
Stephen Benz
Along with two books of travel essays--Guatemalan Journey (University of Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely Planet)--I have published essays in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, and other journals. One of my essays was selected by Ian Frazier for Best American Travel Writing, 2003. Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, I now teach professional writing at the University of New Mexico. I also offer workshops in travel writing at the Taos Summer Writers' Conference.

Bewitched at Aqueduct

by Melanie Lee

     A Saturday at Aqueduct meant sitting in the dining room at one of the long rectangular tables draped with white tablecloths and keeping our feet in the shadows, on the sickening, deep rose carpets hotels love. One long pane of glass looking onto the grounds was divided into single windows. Squares of grey opaque curtains — more hotel things — occasionally blotted out the sky. TVs showing the horses and jockeys and the high, fast voice announcing which horse was now ahead or behind who in the race were hung all over the room. In case you wanted to see the races live you could go out through the small right-hand door near the window. The crowd in the stands was a sea of men in black and grey jackets craning their necks to see the horses. No one wore fedoras or coats with lapels like the men who went to the races in the movies. Some looked down at their white rectangular racing programs, scanning the print for a sure bet, then looked up, resigning themselves to what? The chance of a breeze, the crowd of heads, the luck of the right horse?

     Allan had recently bought a horse that had won two races, so the maitre d’ always greeted us with a flourish and led us to our table with a bow. Allan was a new element in my life, brought in by my mother. Unsure of what owning a winning horse meant, I walked in a field of haze. I was in sixth grade at a new school. I spent these Saturdays at Aqueduct wondering how to sit at the table, how to walk around. My lap always felt I should be running in the wind. We had a photograph of Allan in the winner’s circle, my mother beside him, showing the world his horse, the renowned jockey and the wreath of roses. I wondered how the horse felt.

     At times Allan would lean over, show me the racing program, explain about win, place and show and what the odds meant. Once or twice he consulted me before he made a bet and one of our horses showed. This was neat, sort of. The uncertainty of winning made the hair stand up on my arms. What was I supposed to do with them? I wasn’t sure why I was smiling.

     One Saturday I asked for money so I could place a bet. Allan nodded, reached into his pocket and brought out fifteen dollars. He asked me which horse I wanted. I studied the program and tried to remember all the rules he’d taught me. After I chose a horse, we walked out of the dining room to wait our turn at the betting windows. We looked at the odds posted for our horse. 231 to 1. I tried to calculate how much we’d win if the horse won. Allan surprised me by telling me that we would place the bet to show, not to win or even place. I didn’t argue, figuring he knew what we were supposed to do.

     All of the clerks were lit bright, light green from banker’s lamps. When we got to a window Allan told our wrinkling clerk that I’d be placing the bet. The clerk nodded, then waited. Allan smiled encouragement as I told the clerk “$15 on Number 9 to show.” The clerk’s hands were fast as they changed the money into a ticket. I clutched it as we passed the people still on line or on walking about, most of them on their way to the stands.

     We were going to watch the race from our table, on the closest TV. We had to wait for the other races to finish. Once it began, I understood all the shouting and pounding on tables people did as the horses rounded the last curve and ran straight for the finish line. I shouted and pounded, too. In case it would help, I shouted louder, pounded the table harder. Our horse crossed the finish line next to last. Allan smiled at me. “You win some, you lose some.” He turned around and walked toward my mother at the other end of the table. The odds hadn’t guaranteed anything. I watched people talking at the other tables, wondering how they stood the uncertainty. I never mustered the wherewithal to ask my mother or Allan for money to let me place a bet again.

     Many Saturdays later, Allan’s son joined us. Allan Jr. was sixteen and slouching in chairs. We were all spending the usual hours sitting around waiting for the outcomes of races, getting crumbs on the tablecloth, pushing the silverware around, when I saw Elizabeth Montgomery sitting at a table not far away. Samantha from “Bewitched” on TV! I looked at my mother. She looked at me with her head down, her mouth a slit. “No, you can’t get her autograph.”

     “Please?”

     “No, you can’t.”

     I watched Miss Montgomery for a while. She was sitting with only men, chatting with them all. The closest one, sitting to her left and facing me, was a disappointment: balding, wearing a plaid suit, had reddish messy hair, pasty skin and flabby cheeks. Miss Montgomery seemed happy even so. I kept checking on her to be sure, but there she was, chatting away.

     My mother rarely left the table, but today she decided to go with Allan to place a bet. Before they got too far she turned around. “Don’t ask for an autograph.” Then they went out into the crowd, leaving just Allan Jr. and me sitting at the table. Allan Jr. was in charge.

     I was moving more silverware around when I looked up. Miss Montgomery had risen. She was walking slowly, looking straight ahead. Her dress was a pattern of irregular stripes of different browns, tans and white. She was tan. A couple of gold bangles rested on her hand. Her beige heels added to her lift. She entered the short passageway leading to the bathroom.

     I looked at Allan Jr. He looked at me, then out the big window. He jerked his thumb toward the bathroom. “Go ahead.” I gathered up a program and a pen. She had almost reached the white tiles by the time I entered the passageway. It was blue, ladylike. My heart was thumping into my throat.
     I dragged my toes on the carpet and then my feet danced a little as I wondered, was I or wasn’t I going to ask her to autograph my program? I stood still. I thought my thoughts sounded like a street-smart New York City teenage TV wise-guy. It was a matter of courage. I didn’t know if I had any. I wasn’t going to lose mine if I did.

     I looked up to wait until she was done washing her hands. She was walking back up the passageway. I let her get past me but not too far. “Miss Montgomery? May I have your autograph?” She turned around.

     She was beautiful. Her long blond hair was shiny and wavy, like a mermaid’s, hanging below her. “Of course” and she stooped down, her tanned legs smooth, her heels lifting for a second. She was just as gracious as you hear celebrities are. While she was signing, I blurted out, “My mother told me not to ask you for your autograph.”

     “Oh, your mother loves you.”

     How could Elizabeth Montgomery be so beautiful but so mistaken? I followed her heels along the carpet. And what was she doing with that dumpy man with his pasty, flabby face, plaid suit and bald head? We did not say good-bye as we entered the dining room. My mother had not returned.

     I showed the autograph to Allan Jr. — he murmured “Yeah” — sat down and played with the small coating of water that had settled on the outside of my glass. My mother finally came back. I waited for her to look around. “I got Elizabeth Montgomery’s autograph. Allan Jr. let me.” He nodded. Her face froze in a twitch; her mouth was a straight line again. I showed her the elegant, delicate, blue up and down signature, its pretty loops and tails. She was silent. When we got home, I scrounged around for my autograph book.

     I found it crammed under books and pencils in my bottom desk drawer. The white cover peeked out like a promise. I lifted it, found an empty green page opposite an empty blue one and taped in the autograph. There were more empty pages in that book than I wanted to look at but now that Elizabeth Montgomery was in it maybe some of my new sixth grade classmates would write in them.

     On an afternoon ten years later, I was rummaging through the desk for things to take with me to my first apartment. When I uncovered the autograph book I flipped the pages, taking in most of the same blanks until I found the autograph. I looked at my room. Boxes were everywhere. I needed to clear up the clutter, do something at long last about those blank pages. I studied Miss Montgomery’s loops and tails for a long time, and finally acknowledged that I could not keep pretending her signature would bring me anyone’s friendship. Knowing what would never change, knowing I would be able to remember forever what Elizabeth Montgomery’s signature looked like, I tossed the whole thing, white cover and all, into the wicker garbage pail. And I’m tempted to end this story there, with the garbage pail and memory of determining loss. But writing all this down has shown me what tricks of perspective looking back can play. My surprise that Allan had told me to place the bet to show that day long before I met Elizabeth Montgomery kept pricking my breastbone like the corner of a misplaced ticket. I stopped writing to feel it out, to look at it.

     Time stopped breathing here, just for a moment. I saw all the bettors, I saw Allan, I saw my mother. Because the horse was such a very, very long shot, betting to show was the best chance I had of winning anything that day. Now I’ve been captured by a strangling tenderness for a time, for times, when the bet was the best tenderness available and I had thought there was no tenderness at all.




About the Author Melanie Lee:
In 2010 I began to work on pieces to publish with the help of Elizabeth Stark and everyone else at Book Writing World.

Currently, I write about family relations and what I find in nature. I just finished reading the beautiful Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich and now I'm reading another beautiful book, Willa Cather's One of Ours. Poemcrazy by Susan Wooldridge is the book I've been going to for reminders on how to fuel zinging words.

I live with my husband, my daughter and her dog. I’m the one who takes the dog to the park every day. My husband wanted me to tell you he’s the one who walks the dog late at night when it snows. You can find my blogs at onegreendolphinstreet.com.