Schenectady by Robert Boucheron

     The Dutch arrived by proxy in 1609, with the voyage of Henry Hudson up the river that bears his name. They built a fort at the tip of Manhattan in 1614, and another fort at the site of Albany in 1624, the farthest point that ships could reach. They were keenly interested in the fur trade, especially beaver. They also sent colonists to farm. Headed by Arendt van Curler, a group of Dutch farmers from Albany bought land to the west from the natives in 1661. On the south bank of the Mohawk River, they built a square village of four blocks surrounded by a log palisade.

     “Schenectady” is supposed to derive from a Mohawk word that means “beyond the pines,” referring to miles of flat, sandy pine forest. There are many early spellings of the name, which strikes some people as comic. It was a standing joke in vaudeville to say that a character was from Schenectady.

     The place had a strategic cachet, probably recognized by the Mohawks and then by the Dutch. It was a natural crossing point for land and water travel. A ferry was established, and in 1808 a bridge designed by Theodore Burr. An engineering marvel, the Burr Bridge was constructed of wood trusses on stone piers and covered with wood siding. At 900 feet, it was the longest such bridge in the world at the time. The wood structure was replaced by steel in 1874. That in turn was replaced by a modern highway span, but the stone piers remain.

     Schenectady far outgrew its origin. The little square village became The Stockade, an enclave of eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses. A fire in 1819 destroyed much of it, including a commercial waterfront to the west, on a channel of the river called the Binne Kill. The Stockade became the state’s first designated historic district in 1962. Now restored, with cobblestone streets, it hosts walking tours and an annual outdoor art show.

     English warships took control of the New Netherland colony in 1664, and the English crown renamed it New York. But the Dutch people, their language, and their landholdings persisted. Dutch names are still common in the area, and the First Reformed Church holds pride of place. Built of gray stone in a massive Romanesque style, shaded by trees, it broods in the middle of The Stockade. Soon after my family moved to Schenectady in 1966, my older sister was married there, and we joined the church in a kind of quid pro quo.

     From the start, the Dutch brought African slaves to the area, and Dutch men took native wives. During King William’s War (1688-1697) which also goes by other names, French soldiers from Canada and their Algonquin allies attacked Schenectady. This fact was proclaimed in a lovely cast-iron sign, the first thing you saw on entering the city from the north: 

     Settled by Van Curler 1661

     Burned by French and Indians, February 8, 1690

The attackers killed 62 people and took 27 captive, both numbers including Africans. Marking the same event, a New York State historical sign in The Stockade notes the following:

     Ride of Symon Schermerhoorn
     On night of Feb. 8, 1690, although wounded
     he rode 20 miles to Albany warning settlers.

     According to the Schermerhorn Genealogy and Family Chronicles by Richard Schermerhorn, Jr., published in 1914, Simon (1658-1696) and his brothers Jacob and Cornelius were masters of ships plying the Hudson between Albany and New York as early as 1684. The shipping business prospered, and the family became wealthy. Simon moved to New York in 1691. “The tale of his famous ride . . . at the time of the Schenectady Massacre has been repeated to many generations of Schermerhorns.” The similarity of the story to Paul Revere’s ride in 1775 is striking. The story does not say why Schermerhorn escaped instead of staying to fight. It does say that he was shot in the leg, rode through bitter cold, and arrived in Albany at five o’clock in the morning, “more dead than alive.” 

     Schenectady continued to figure in conflicts. The French and Indians attacked again in 1748. During the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Saratoga, an important victory for the Americans, was fought not far to the north in 1777. General George Washington visited at least three times, including a sleepover in 1782.

     After the Revolutionary War, inhabitants at last broke the power of the Dutch landowners and achieved representative government. Schenectady acquired a city charter in 1798. Around this time, in 1785, the Schenectady Academy was started, to be refounded as Union College in 1795. The college moved in 1814 to a campus planned by the French landscape architect Joseph Jacques Ramée. A model for other American colleges, including the University of Virginia founded in 1819, Union College has the first comprehensively planned campus in the United States. From the Union College website: “We are a small, residential, independent liberal arts college committed to integrating the humanities and social sciences with science and engineering in new and exciting ways.”

     Union’s centerpiece is Nott Memorial Hall, named for the first president, Eliphalet Nott. Designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, built of stone, and completed in 1879 in an elaborate Victorian Gothic style, the building has sixteen sides and a polychrome dome raised on a clearstory drum. Paved with colorful encaustic tile, the interior is ringed by cast-iron balconies. Formerly the campus library, the Nott Memorial is used for lectures, concerts, and exhibitions. In the 1960s, I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah there. It appears as a backdrop in the 1973 film The Way We Were, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford.

     In the 1790s, Schenectady shows up in an literary context, the Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin. Born as Henrietta-Lucy Dillon, Madame de la Tour du Pin was a French-English aristocrat. As a girl, she lived at the court of Versailles. She and her husband fled France during the Terror. They reached Boston and then New York, where other French exiles gathered, including the Marquis de Talleyrand and Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who would later write La Physiologie du goût. In 1794, with young children in tow, Monsieur and Madame de la Tour du Pin sailed up the Hudson to Albany.

As we did not wish to stay in Albany itself, General Schuyler undertook to find a nearby farm for us to buy. . . . The property was four miles from Albany, on the line of the road which it was planned to build from Albany to Schenectady, a town which was then expanding rapidly.

     By her own account, Madame de la Tour du Pin became a capable farm wife. “My butter was much in demand.” She adopted the dress of the local women, cooked and cleaned, and bought two African slaves.

One day, towards the end of September, I was out in the yard, chopper in hand, busy cutting the bone of a leg of mutton which I was about to roast on the spit for our dinner. . . . Suddenly from behind me, a deep voice remarked in French, “Never was a leg of mutton spitted with greater majesty.” Turning quickly round, I saw M. de Talleyrand and M. de Beaumetz. They had learned our whereabouts from General Schuyler.

     The de la Tour du Pins stayed for two years, until the political situation in France allowed them to return. While they lived in their rustic log cabin, “a pretty cart laden with fine vegetables often passed our house. It belonged to the Quaker Shakers, who had a settlement six or seven miles from us.” The cart driver invited them to visit, and they did.

     The settlement was Niskayuna, led by Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) from Manchester, England. Niskayuna, also called Watervliet in historical accounts, was the first Shaker village, started in 1776 and formally organized in 1787. Niskayuna grew to about 350 members at its greatest extent, and it dissolved in 1938. Much of the farmland was redeveloped as the Albany County Airport. The village is now a historic site open to the public.

     The Shakers and their mystical, celibate lifestyle were seldom talked about in the 1960s, an era more concerned with the Vietnam War, women’s liberation, the new sexual freedom, and drugs. The Shakers are known today through their design of tools, objects, furniture, and buildings; for innovations in seeds, farming and food distribution; and for the equal status of women in their communities. Two of the best books on Shaker society are The Communistic Societies of the United States, From Personal Visit and Observation (1875) by Charles Nordhoff, and The People Called Shakers (1953) by Edward Deming Andrews. More recent studies, including one by Priscilla Brewer, have examined Shaker beliefs, how their communities evolved, and reasons for their decline.

     At Niskayuna, nine buildings of the central cluster are preserved, as well as an orchard, a herb garden, a pond, and the cemetery where Mother Ann Lee and other early leaders are buried. It is a peaceful, rural place. In its heyday, according to the self-guided walking tour pamphlet:

The Watervliet community operated as a mini-industrial center where woodenware and chairs were mass-produced and agricultural products manufactured for sale to the outside world. They were among the first to standardize production and make use of quality controls. . . . Shakers invented a vacuum sealed tin can and canned hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables.

     The meeting house built in 1848 resembles a gymnasium, with a sprung wood floor for the communal dances which were the Shaker form of worship. The dances grew out of the original “shaking” in religious ecstasy. Gestures were symbolic—hands were extended with the palms up, for example, to receive divine gifts. Since Sunday worship was open to the public, it became a performance for which the congregation rehearsed. The meeting house contains bleachers for spectators, as well as high interior windows for Shaker elders in an upstairs room to keep an eye on things. Shakers were noted for their healthy lifestyle and longevity. A secondary benefit of the dances may have been exercise, a forerunner of yoga and movement classes today.

     The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 was a decisive event for Schenectady. The canal connected Lake Erie in the west along the Mohawk valley to the Hudson River, a navigable route from the Midwest to the seaport of New York, which quickly outgrew all other ports on the east coast. In the 1830s, railroads were built on the same route, among the earliest in the United States. Industry sprang up in a string of upstate cities: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, and Troy. Iron manufacturing was an early pursuit. Schenectady and Troy became known for cast-iron stoves, and during the Civil War for production of artillery.

     As in New England, water power led to establishment of mills on the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers. The Harmony Mills are a group of red-brick buildings in Cohoes near Schenectady, similar to the complexes in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts. The site is open to the public. Begun in the 1830s and extensively rebuilt in the 1860s, the Harmony Mills are documented in black-and-white photographs, measured drawings and text in A Report of the Mohawk-Hudson Area Survey by Robert M. Vogel, published in 1973 by the Smithsonian Institution.

The Harmony Mills took a great interest in the well-being and surroundings of its employees. The company built tenements for its workers. . . . The Mastodon Mill is an unusually elaborate example of Victorian textile mill construction. The two principal blocks, north and south, built several years apart, are similar and coaxial. Each is of five stories including the usable mansard attic.

     Railroad industries thrived in Schenectady in the late nineteenth century. They consolidated in 1901 as the American Locomotive Company. In 1887, Thomas Edison, based in New Jersey, moved his Edison Machine Works to Schenectady. Soon after, in 1892, Schenectady became the headquarters for his General Electric Company. ALCO and GE, as they were called, developed huge industrial plants. Each was a complex of buildings and streets surrounded by a fence with gates, a city within the city. Other manufacturing included carriages, brooms, and a patent medicine called Dr. Carter’s Pink Pills for Pale People. But Schenectady styled itself “the electric city” and “the city that lights and hauls the world.”

     In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany and Poland, as well as African Americans from the South, came to work in the factories and in construction. The city reached a peak population of 96,000 in 1930. Industry was marked by innovation. Schenectady acquired the second commercial radio station in the United States, WGY. In 1928 in Schenectady, General Electric produced the first regular television broadcast. Politics were progressive. George R. Lunn was elected mayor in 1911 as a Socialist, and again in 1915 as a Democrat.

     Charles Steinmetz (1865-1923), a mathematician and electrical inventor employed by General Electric, was a notable figure in Schenectady at this time. He was born in Wroclaw, Silesia, in what is now Poland, to a German Jewish family, with congenital dwarfism, hunchback and hip dysplasia. From boyhood, he excelled in school. As an adult, he was about four feet tall, crooked, with a beard. Photographs often show him with a cigar. He came to the United States in 1889. Steinmetz helped to develop alternating electric current and electromagnetic motors, and he amassed over 200 patents. To provide engineers for the new field, he started the electrical engineering department at Union College. He also served as president of the city’s Board of Education and president of the City Council.

     With other scientists, inventors, and executives, Steinmetz built a house for himself in the General Electric Realty Plot, a 75-acre tract that became one of America’s earliest planned communities in 1899. Adjacent to the Union College campus, the Realty Plot features grand homes in a variety of architectural styles, including Tudor, Dutch Colonial, Queen Anne, and Spanish Colonial. Among the wealth of details is a copper dragon perched on the roof ridge of 1226 Wendell Avenue. A modified California Bungalow at 1155 Avon Road was the first all-electric house, demonstrated in 1903. The Brown School was built in 1905 for Realty Plot children and run by Helen Brown. The First Unitarian Society, designed by Edward Durrell Stone, was built in 1961. Groot’s Creek Ravine runs through the middle of the tract, privately owned and maintained as a natural area and bird sanctuary. 

     In the middle of the twentieth century, Schenectady produced a historian. Larry Hart (1920-2004) was born in Schenectady, attended city public schools, and graduated from Union College. From 1945 to 1960, he worked as a photographer and reporter for the Schenectady Union-Star, and from 1960 to 1980, he did the same for the Schenectady Gazette. He wrote a weekly column called “Tales of Old Dorp” for the Gazette, “dorp” being a Dutch word for a small town.

     Hart compiled three books from his newspaper column: Schenectady’s Golden Era: 1880-1930 (1974); Tales of Old Schenectady, Volume I: The Formative Years (1975); and Tales of Old Schenectady, Volume II: The Changing Scene (1977). Self-published and abundantly illustrated, the books show colorful characters, local businesses, natural disasters, building demolitions, and vanished landmarks. In his preface to Volume II, Hart says:

The anecdotes selected for these volumes of Tales of Old Schenectady do not follow any chronological timetable. Instead, they are told at random in non-textbook fashion for the enjoyment of those who prefer to take their history in easy doses.

     As in other upstate cities, in 1925 the Erie Canal was filled in to become Erie Boulevard. A landmark at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street was Nicholaus German Restaurant, remodeled in 1901 with a turret and cornice to recall the Old World of its owners, Louis and Sophie Nicholaus. At first, it was a men’s saloon with a red mahogany bar and brass rail, with hotel rooms above. The restaurant expanded under later generations. Hart devotes several pages to Nicholaus, including the talking parrot Loppa, a scarlet macaw from Guatemala who entertained patrons in the bar from 1907 until his death in 1936. At that time, he was stuffed and added to the décor. The restaurant closed in 1975, but the ornate building still stands.

     In 1933, Schenectady acquired a new City Hall, a neoclassical confection like a huge wedding cake, designed by McKim, Mead and White. But from the Great Depression onward, the city declined. ALCO shrank to a shadow of itself, and the plant closed in 1969. General Electric steadily reduced its manufacturing. After World War II, retail business moved to the suburbs, especially the triangular area between Schenectady, Albany and Troy.

     In 1946, the federal government established the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, with General Electric as its operator. KAPL was located in Niskayuna, several miles away from the main GE plant, and adjacent to GE’s Research and Development Center. The two research centers provided a host of well-paid jobs for a highly educated, international work force.

     Niskayuna in turn became an affluent suburb. In the 1950s, the town reorganized its school system. In 1957, it completed a new high school, staffed with newly hired department chairs and teachers. Rapid growth required an addition, and in 1967 the building doubled in size. From a report titled Niskayuna Schools at 50, “the school population rose from 1,530 students in 1968 to 1,870 students in 1974.” A vocational-technical program offered job training. As a college preparatory school, Niskayuna ranked high at state and national levels. It placed bright students in a fast track, with senior year courses at the college level for advanced placement credit. In the 1960s, elective courses included computer programming and Russian language.

     When my father took an executive job at General Electric headquarters in 1966, he bought a new house in a new subdivision that lay in the Niskayuna district. My brothers and I attended Niskayuna High School.

     I took my studies seriously, earned high grades, and was president of the Honor Society. Bookish and awkward, I practiced each fall with the soccer team, though the coach rarely let me take the field in a game. Small for my age, I played one of Medea’s children in a school drama club production of the play by Euripides. I played clarinet in the school band and orchestra. Thanks to a program set up by the music department, I took clarinet lessons from Augustin Duques of the Juilliard School. He and a brass colleague drove up once a week from New York City. I joined the Junior Etude Club, a city-wide group that met monthly to perform. A 1968 photograph in the Gazette shows four new members seated on the grass, with me holding a guitar. I never played guitar, so the photographer must have staged us.

     In the 1960s, the downtown district was dreary, centered on a seven-block stretch of State Street, but it still had most of its buildings. They included banks, a New York Central Railroad station in the Beaux Arts style, and the dour Schenectady County Office Building at the top of a hill. The Carl Company was a multi-floor department store where my mother worked briefly. Hermie’s Music Store sold sheet music, instruments, and musical supplies. I often went there to buy clarinet reeds. Proctor’s Theater, built in 1926 as a movie palace and vaudeville theater, with an interior arcade, was a cultural landmark. There I saw the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The behemoth Hotel Van Curler, Georgian Revival in style and built of red brick in 1925, went bankrupt in 1968. It was renovated as Schenectady County Community College, part of the State University of New York system.

     Schenectady had a YMCA on State Street. On rainy summer days, the Schenectady Inner City Ministry day camp met in the gymnasium. I was a counsellor. On sunny days, we boarded school buses and drove to a camp in the woods west of the city. About equal numbers of poor black and white children got their first dose of nature. As counsellors, we were encouraged to get involved with the children, so I visited the slum where many of them lived. The neighborhood called Hamilton Hill, just south of downtown, was my first dose of urban poverty.

     General Electric moved any lingering executive jobs from Schenectady to its corporate headquarters in Darien, Connecticut in 1980. Some manufacturing remained, notably of large turbines used to generate electricity. My father transferred to a GE plant in Virginia. My younger brother Edward graduated from Union College, while my older brother Pete moved from tool-and-die machine work at the main GE plant to making custom experimental apparatus at GE’s Research and Development Center. Schenectady as a whole continued to decline until the end of the century.

     At that point, the state government in Albany realized that it could develop office space in Schenectady more easily than in the capital. State Street filled gaps from demolition with new office buildings. Schenectady gained population in the 2010 census, up to 66,000. When I visited then, after an absence of thirty years, State Street looked revitalized, with newly planted trees. Hermie’s was still in business, and Proctor’s Theater had been freshened up.

     Samuel Johnson wrote, “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone.” Allow me to introduce myself, then. I am from Schenectady.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK), The Short Story (UK). His plays will be staged this year in Concord, North Carolina and the Detroit Fringe Forward Festival.

Bellewood by Robert Boucheron

     In recalling childhood, we visit islands of memory that shine in a dark sea. We navigate a course from dot to dot, steering by dates and facts like stars we dimly saw back then. We guess at causes. We make up motives for other people and even for ourselves.

     What follows is set in the 1950s and 1960s in upstate New York. That I lived there at that time is certain, but the story is what I choose to tell. Or is it my parents’ story? They made all the decisions. They and other family members contradict me. I quote these characters in their own words. I cite letters and documents to buttress my case. These attempts to deceive will be painfully obvious.

*

     In 1953, my father started a new job at General Electric Company in Syracuse, New York. Pierre Boucheron, Jr. was thirty-two years old, a lean man about six feet tall, with an olive complexion. He wore his stiff, brown hair in a brush cut. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he wore a class ring sculpted with a beaver, nature’s engineer.

     Pierre bought a lot near the village of North Syracuse, and he hired the developer to build a new house. This man, Bellinger, called his tract Bellewood, and he named the streets after his family: Mary, Cynthia, Patricia, and so on. One Bellewood Circle, at the corner of Leroy Road, was completed the following spring. My mother Charlotte sold the house in Roslyn, Long Island, packed up, and moved her three children: Charlotte, Pierre III, and myself, a baby. While doing this, she was pregnant. Edward was born that summer after the move.

     At General Electric, my father worked for the Heavy Military Electronics Department. During the twelve years he stayed, he developed color television hardware and computer applications for weapons and navigation, things for which the company acquired patents. He researched new products and methods, he traveled to manufacturing plants in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, and he studied to be a manager.

     As I child, I understood none of this. My father’s work was mysterious and invisible. It took up regular hours, and it paid a salary. He left early each morning carrying a lunch box and a thermos bottle filled with hot coffee. After five o’clock, he returned home. He talked to my mother in the kitchen as she made dinner, and they drank martinis.

     He made the martinis in a large metal cup with a strainer coil in the lid. He loaded the cup with ice, gin and vermouth, shook it for the right amount of time, and poured the liquid into a glass shaped like a shallow cone on a stem. He added a white onion or a green olive skewered on a little plastic sword. I asked once to taste a martini. It was bitter, I made a face, and my parents laughed.

     To unwind, as he said, my father gave a blow-by-blow account of his day, full of the names of men, bosses and coworkers, their rivalries and thwarted schemes, the stupidities of management, and his own accomplishments. His talk was peppered with stock phrases that haunted me. What did they mean? Why did he repeat them?

     “That went over like a lead balloon,” he would say. A certain man was “a prima donna” or “God’s gift to mankind.” His boss was “our fearless leader,” to whom loyalty was due, but anyone’s “motivation” could be questioned. Proud of being an engineer—he wore a wool suit, a white shirt and a necktie to work—my father had boundless contempt for “salesmen.” His own father was a marketing director for another company, an irony that was beyond me. “That’s trivial,” was clear enough, but “six of one to half a dozen of the other” was a problem in arithmetic. Though he worked in television and often watched it, he called it “the boob tube” or “the idiot box.” Most baffling was the phrase “as sure as God made little green apples.”

     One day, the thermos bottle came home filled with liquid nitrogen. At work, my father was studying a super-cooled electronic system called cryogenics. Standing in the kitchen, he did tricks with the liquid nitrogen. He inserted a rubber band, which came out brittle and shattered. He turned the bottle upside-down to pour, but the stream vaporized as it fell.

     The house we lived in had one and a half stories, with two bedrooms on each floor and a steep wooden stair. With about 1500 square feet of floor space, it was substantial for the 1950s. It stood on a flat, quarter-acre lot planted with grass and flowering shrubs: lilac, mock orange, forsythia, and honeysuckle. A weeping willow tree stood in a low spot that collected rainwater. Our house was one of four models repeated throughout the subdivision.

     Bellewood was filled with English, German, French, Polish and Hungarian surnames, yet everyone was white and middle class. Many of the men were engineers who worked for General Electric, Porter-Cable, or other industries. The women kept house, but some had careers. Betty Wright was a registered nurse, Anne Raqué had been an executive secretary, and Henrietta Smith was an art teacher, married to a piano tuner and musician named Art. Creative and bohemian, the Smith family was magnetic and right next door. They had three children, a live-in grandmother named Mrs. Wells, and house guests from Japan, Korea, and who knows where.

     Street by street, on foot and bicycle, I came to know the subdivision. The Village of North Syracuse was about a mile away. As young as age eight, I walked there by myself on a two-lane road with traffic, under Interstate 81, to the barbershop on Main Street. With coins in my pocket from an allowance, I walked to a general store on Taft Road, and another on Church Street. Both stocked toys and candy.

     While walking with the family, though, I lagged behind. Something caught my attention, and I got lost—on the street, in department stores, at highway rest stops, and at sites of historic interest. We took day trips by car in summer, to the New York State Fair in Syracuse and to tourist attractions like Fort Ticonderoga. My father drove with the windows down, and the smoke from his cigarettes blew on us in the back seat. He wore tinted shades clipped to his glasses. When not driving, he flipped the shades up, like a beetle about to fly away.

     We attended Andrews Memorial Methodist Church in the village. Sunday service was a dressy affair. Men wore suits and women wore hats. Because my mother waited until a convenient moment came, Eddie and I were baptized as toddlers one weekday in an empty church. We went to Sunday school. Art Smith recruited me for the handbell choir, which was for boys only. My father seldom went with us on Sunday. As he said, he was “not a joiner.” He belonged to no clubs and played no sports. Yet he helped to design a new pipe organ for the church. Art Smith must have recruited him.

     By contrast, my mother played contract bridge with three women’s groups which met at different times of day. A graduate of Wellesley College, she worked full time at keeping house and raising four children. She made all of our family meals, and we always ate dinner together at the table. Mother liked to cook. She experimented, and she tried recipes from the New York Times Cookbook, Joy of Cookingand Clementine Paddleford. She baked bread, pies, cookies, cakes, and muffins. At Christmas, she made loaves of stollen, a yeast bread studded with dried fruit and almonds, some for us and some as gifts. Kneading dough one day, she threw it to me, and we played catch with the elastic, floury ball.

     Since my mother was busy in the kitchen much of the time, I lingered there too, until she ordered me out from underfoot. The radio was always on. In the morning, Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club was broadcast “from high atop the Hotel Allerton in downtown Chicago.” The comedy routines included Aunt Fanny, with her signature tune “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

     When not cooking or washing dishes, my mother knitted socks and sweaters, and she sewed on an electric sewing machine. By way of a hobby, she wove—she had a table loom and a floor loom, a large wooden frame in the basement. She was a great reader, had a head for numbers, sang well, and as she said, “I love to people-watch.”

     Here is her letter dated Friday, September 21, 1962, to my sister Charlotte, who had just left home for college.

     What a busy day! We are going on the Stewarts’ boat tomorrow and come back Sunday, so I’ve been making food to take. We’re celebrating Pete’s birthday this evening—I made a double Dutch cake this morning, got a cute little 1 ½ lb. canned ham and baked that. Also made two loaves of bread and four pans of sweet rolls. Pete wanted meatloaf, so I made two, one for us to take tomorrow. Zowey! Hard on the feet.

     Many people I speak to ask about you. Dad and I are so glad you called Wednesday evening. You sounded elated, and we hope it keeps up that way.

     Bridge at Barnharts’ last evening, and I went up by bike—yours. The light is grand, but the air was chilly. We have been having real cold weather. We’ll probably freeze on the boat. Guess I’ll go in blue jeans and sweatshirt.

     Mrs. Eachus came back this morning with weaving books and got all the information on looms we had. She really means to get one. By the way, when she arrived, guess what I was doing—washing the breakfast dishes. So she dried. Poor Eachuses! She wanted to know if we’d heard from you.

     I am sitting in the car at Northern Lights Shopping Center. Dodie is having heels put on her shoes. The boys are browsing through Sam’s. And this is my chance to write. The house seems strange, even if there are still five of us left. I’ll mail this now and see about buying a dish rag.

*

     A creek ran through the Bellewood subdivision, a stream no more than a few inches deep. It was narrow enough to jump across, from grassy bank to bank. The rear boundary of the lots it flowed past, the creek was no-man’s-land, or so it seemed to a child.

     Every family in Bellewood had children. We played outside in shifting gangs. In winter, we played in deep snow, tunneling through drifts, sledding, and throwing snowballs. In summer, we played running games: hide-and-seek, kick-the-can and war. Hide-and-seek had verbal formulas which had to be shouted word-perfect to be of any use. Kick-the-can benefited from poor visibility at dusk, with grass made slippery by dew. War involved gun battles, sometimes with water pistols, prisoners bound and blindfolded, daring escapes; and dramatic death agonies. We disputed who shot whom first, and therefore who was dead.

     On a summer evening, we chased the fogger. This was a cart that sprayed insecticide to keep down the mosquitoes which bred in the creek. Men of the neighborhood took turns towing the fogger behind their cars at dusk, when there was no breeze. We raced ahead and lay face down on the grass. The white, sweet-smelling fog washed over us. The fogger roared. Deafened, our lungs filled with poison, we writhed in ecstasy.

     We played on swingsets in anyone’s yard. We played in weedy vacant lots, on the tar-and-gravel streets, and near the house in a cautious way, knowing that we might be watched. At all times and in all weather, we played in the creek.

     Where the creek crossed Leroy Road through a culvert, it widened to a shallow pool. The south bank had a seesaw and stubby mounts to ride, a half-hearted attempt at a playground. The ground here was pebbly and strewn with trash. The creek, for that matter, was polluted by runoff, drains from washing machines, and more. Each house had its own septic tank, and the drainfields were prone to mishaps. Foam clung to the edges of the creek, and objects lurked in its bed—shoes, cans, a pouchy, airless ball. Still, the water was clear. Minnows lived in it, frogs and creeping things.

     The culvert frightened me as a child. It was dark, the bottom was slick with algae, and cobwebs hung in the air. Another toddler dared me to walk through it in a low crouch, the same one who dared me to climb to the top of a willow oak in his back yard, or to balance on the top rail of a fence and walk as on a tightrope. Three times, I made careful steps halfway through the culvert and chickened out. Finally, tired of my own fearfulness, I dashed all the way through to daylight, splashed with mud and glory.

     In rubber boots or barefoot in summer, with or without friends, I waded in the shallow pool next to Leroy Road. Bending double to use my hands, I built dams of sand and gravel. I observed patterns of ripples, the rising flood, and slowly drowning islands. As water overtopped it, the dam eroded. Then it broke and gushed a torrent. This moment of disaster was worth hours of effort. My back ached from bending like a farm worker in a field, and my feet grew numb, but I was never happier.

     My older brother Pete introduced me to the jungle. This was a marshy area upstream, overgrown with reeds and poison sumac, which was death to touch. Trails wandered through the jungle, which steamed under a pitiless sun. The mud and rotting plants smelled vile.

     “Is it the breath of a cougar?” I asked.

     “Yes,” Pete said. “Cougars lurk on low branches. They spring out of hiding and eat you.”

     “You’re walking too fast.”

     “You have to keep up. But stay on the path. One false step, and you’ll sink up to your neck in quicksand. No one will hear you cry for help.”

     There were forts in the jungle, but all I saw was a small clearing, with a fallen tree trunk that served as a bench. Pete never specified what they did, the gang of older boys. I believe they sat solemnly in council, trooped through the jungle in single file, raided a fort with bloodcurdling yelps, and perfected their skill with knives. Every boy had a jackknife. Some had ropes and other useful gear. Pete’s specialty was pulleys, which he rigged between trees to transfer cargo. Their training as Boy Scouts was not for nothing.

     Farther upstream, beyond the jungle, was a private dump. The creek was a trickle here, down a steep bank, engulfed by briars. Pete and his friends roamed the hillocks of the dump and destroyed whatever they could find—bottles, boards, crates and paint cans. I was drawn to construction debris—bricks, lumber, and globs of plaster that looked squishy but were hard as rock. I collected ceramic tiles and scraps of wood in a damp cardboard box to carry home.

     We had a bin of scraps, a miscellany of wooden dowels, dominoes, offcuts, shingles, and alphabet blocks. Eddie and I built cities that sprawled across our bedroom floor. The ceramic tiles were good for floor slabs—the cities were multi-story. Eddie had a catapult that launched empty thread spools by means of rubber bands. We laid siege, lobbed boulders, admired the ruins, and cleared them to build again. I later became an architect, while Eddie became an engineer and joined a firm that made thermonuclear bombs.

     Where did the creek flow downstream? One listless, overcast day, Eddie and I explored. Exiting Bellewood, we plunged into a dense forest whose canopy blotted out the sky. Along a streambed that twisted and turned, we trudged for miles through uncharted wilderness. There was no path and considerable underbrush. The trees had giant roots that were hard to step over. We wore shorts, and our legs got scratched.

    “Where are we?” Eddie asked plaintively.

    “I forgot to borrow Pete’s compass,” I said. “Lichen grows on the north side of tree trunks. If we get lost, we can find our way back.”

    “I’m hungry,” Eddie said. “Did you bring supplies?”

    “No. Tighten your belt a notch.”

    “It’s lonely out here.”

    “An explorer has to keep going, regardless.”

    “I want to go home.”

    We never discovered the end of the creek.

*

    Our living room had a Windsor chair. Made of wooden spokes and slabs, the chair resembled a cage. It had a rounded back, a double hollow carved in the seat, struts like those on a biplane wing, lathe turnings, and an oval tray on the right arm. I say oval, but the shape was more of a teardrop, and it had a slight tilt. You could write on it or lay open a book, but eating was risky. A plate or bowl was apt to slide.

    Too hard and bony for comfort, the Windsor chair was an apparatus. You could crawl under it, hang things on it, bang the spokes like a xylophone, roll toy cars around the curves, and shake the bars of your jail in despair. Once, I climbed up the back and tipped it over, unaware that I posed an eccentric load.

    A little wooden drawer hid under the seat. You could see it by lying flat on the floor, or by looking between your legs, upside-down. When the chair was vacant, I pulled the wooden knob, and was surprised when the drawer came all the way out. A runner on each side fitted snugly in a slot. With practice, I learned how to close the drawer. Since it was empty, I put things in—a penny, a cat’s-eye marble, and a plastic scoop that came in a can of ground coffee.

    Our grandmother Dodie brought the Windsor chair from Hartford, Connecticut, and she often sat there. She spread a magazine on the oval tray. Her head leaned back, her eyelids drooped, and she snored. We had an overstuffed couch and armchair, a Welsh dresser, and a dining suite. The house was modern, with large windows, clamshell trim, and a one-car garage. It had a furnace, ducts, and a thermostat, but no fireplace or chimney.

    “How will Santa Claus get in?” I asked.

    “Through the front door,” Dodie said.

    “But the door is locked at night.”

    “Santa Claus has a key.”

    “Does he have keys to everyone’s house? Because that would be a lot.”

    “He only needs one. It’s a master key.”

     Dodie steered clear of grandmotherly clichés like knitting. In her late sixties, she had arthritis in her hands. She wore old-fashioned clothes that smelled of camphor, and she had a stock of archaic lore—gypsies, bad luck, and the evil eye. In the Windsor chair, she took one child at a time in her lap and told about her youth in the 1890s. Children picked wildflowers and twined them in wreaths. Dodie learned to play the zither.

*

    On a wall over the dining table hung a large painting, oil on canvas in a gilded frame. The painting showed a young woman in a long white gown and blond braids standing on a stage, with her mouth open. Behind her stood a man in a red robe, hat and shoes, with a sinister mustache and a sharp tail sticking out behind. Red flames flickered in the background. Below, with his back to the viewer, was the top half of a man in a black coat with arms raised, holding a baton. The man in the red costume was clearly the devil, but what was happening?

    Our grandfather, the advertising director for the Radio Corporation of America in the 1920s, had commissioned the painting. It was reproduced in magazine ads for radios. Other ads showed well-dressed people at home listening or dancing to the Radiola, RCA’s brand name. These early radios were large, operated by vacuum tubes. They came in handsome wooden cabinets, which were expensive. But there was no radio in this painting.

    After a detour of many years, the painting passed to me. Then, in a junk shop, I found The Victor Book of the Opera, subtitled “Stories of the Operas with Illustrations and Descriptions of Victor Opera Records” and printed in 1929. In that year, RCA bought the Victor Talking Machine Company, the leading American producer of phonograph records and players—the Victrola with its white beagle-terrier mascot named Nipper. The book confirmed my hunch.

    Loosely based on the play by Goethe, the opera Faust premiered in Paris in 1859. It was popular in New York in the 1920s. The opera “with its conflicting human passions and religious sentiment . . . amazing wealth of melody . . . and colorful orchestral treatment” shifts the focus from the elderly scholar Faust to his young love interest, a soprano named Marguerite. She wears a long white gown and blond braids. Mephistopheles, however, a bass dressed in red, steals the show. He behaves like the devil, deceiving, tempting and mocking the other characters. A child could easily mistake his sword for a tail.

    Faust does not have a duet between Marguerite and Mephistopheles, though they appear onstage with others. The painting, then, shows the essence of the opera, not an actual scene, with the conductor in the foreground. This is what you could hear on the radio—live music, an exciting story, and high culture.

    The grandfather connected with the painting was married to Dodie. But she lived near us in a garden apartment, and he lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He visited us in North Syracuse for a few days one summer while she was absent. A dark, cultured, energetic man of seventy, well-dressed, he brought a tray of slides from a trip to Paris and projected them on a wall. He brought a supply of liquor, which he drank in the evening. And as gifts he brought children’s books in French, which we could not read: Bambi, Histoire de Babar, and Le petit chaperon rouge. Was this grandfather also the devil? Why did he live in Fort Wayne, Indiana?

*

    As a toddler I waited for the morning school bus with Charlotte and Pete and tried to climb aboard with them. Once, I slipped past the bus driver. My mother had to fetch me from the school. I have an early memory of sitting with Charlotte on the living room floor, writing letters of the alphabet with a pencil on scraps of wood. By the time I entered kindergarten, I could read and write, and my theory is that my sister taught me. She denies this.

    Legally enrolled, I found school tedious. Coloring printed drawings with crayons struck me as childish, so I used the wrong colors. The teacher made me stand in a corner. I quickly completed written assignments, then chattered and giggled with classmates. The teacher scolded me. Eager to please, I blushed at reprimands.

    The school building was brand new, one story, built of concrete block and large sheets of glass, with a polished terrazzo floor and a flat roof. The curriculum and teaching methods were up-to-the-minute. New York State had a Board of Regents for public schools, and standardized tests were the norm. North Syracuse schools also tested students for sight, hearing, teeth, and muscular reflexes. They gave immunizations for polio, and they evaluated IQ, though they kept those results secret. They offered classes in art, sports of all kinds, social dancing, and field trips to museums, state parks, and the Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station, itself brand new in 1961. In the era after Sputnik, a field trip to a hydroelectric power station was something Soviet children would envy.

    Once a week, the Catholic children boarded buses which took them to a parochial school for something called “religious instruction.” Those of us in the decimated class had art. We cut and glued construction paper into colorful chains for a Christmas tree, or valentine hearts, or Easter baskets. We painted pictures and modeled with clay. We pressed our hands into pads of plaster, which dried and hardened. Our hands outgrew the casts in a year. The Catholic children missed all the fun.

    We had two music teachers, Miss Philips for singing and Mr. Harp for instruments. We sang every day, using children’s song books that included “White Coral Bells,” “Frère Jacques,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Dixie,” and “The Erie Canal Song.”

    In the third grade, the whole class took a test in sound pitch and pattern that lasted for hours. The Seashore Test for Musical Ability was devised by Carl Emil Seashore in 1919. Students who did well could then take free weekly lessons on a musical instrument. I chose the clarinet. I took lessons, learned to read music, and practiced at home every day. The elementary school had an orchestra and a chorus, which combined to present two concerts each year. In the cafeteria, which had a curtained stage at one end, Mr. Harp conducted beautifully, while parents listened in folding chairs and applauded.

    On November 22, 1963, as I warmed up on clarinet for the concert scheduled that night, my father came upstairs from watching television. He was in tears. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the concert would be cancelled. This was one of two occasions when I was conscious of national events. The other was Kennedy’s inauguration, which I watched on television in the school library. Each teacher sent one student from her class to watch, then to describe the ceremony to the other children. The word “execute” in the oath of office confused me, so Miss Rand explained it to us.

    We had free subscriptions to Weekly Reader, we had spelling bees, and we had assignments to write in class: book reports and personal essays. At some point, maybe in the fourth grade, we had a series of reading comprehension exercises printed on cards in color-coded boxes. The exercises were self-scored. Students competed for points and speed, to see who got through the rainbow of readings faster.

    Charlotte graduated from high school in 1962. College was by no means assured. Her grades were mediocre, and our father was reluctant to pay for it. But our mother “put her foot down,” Charlotte says. She left for Minnesota, and I got her bedroom, until she came back for vacations. For months at a stretch, then, I had a room of my own. It contained a desk, dresser, and twin beds with padded, pastel headboards. I listened to the radio, played with a tape recorder, and did homework at the desk.

    From age ten, on odd scraps of paper, I wrote letters to Charlotte. While cleaning house for a retirement move, she found a stash and sent it to me. The letters show a precocious brat with an outsize vocabulary and an urge to make up stories. They include drawings. They complain about school and mention a craze for Monopoly. They ask questions, such as: “Did you find the rubber alligator I put in your suitcase?”

*

    By the mid-1960s, the boom in federal defense spending was over, and prospects at the Heavy Military Electronics Department looked dim. My father at age forty-four was not ambitious in the sense of money and power, but he sought advancement in the corporate world. For all his talk about independent thinking and starting a business, the steady paycheck and the pension plan were too good to pass up. Above all, he wanted work that engaged his intellect and made use of his skills as an engineer.

    He applied for executive jobs within General Electric, and he tried a “headhunter” for positions outside. The result was a new job at company headquarters in Schenectady, New York. Again, he started work before moving his family, again he bought a new house in the suburbs, and again my mother was left to sell the old house and pack for the move. We left on a bitterly cold day in February, 1966.

    In town on business recently, Eddie visited Bellewood. He found it unchanged from our childhood. “That was the time to leave,” he says.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories, essays, poems and reviews appear in Bangalore Review, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, Tishman Review, and other magazines.

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.