All posts by Benjamin

Co-founder of gutwrench.

Remnants of a Smoldering Fire

By Cat Taylor

Twirling in my grandmother’s kitchen
To the sound of bluegrass
And the smell of something vaguely
Apple Cinnamon
I declare myself
A princess
She whirled around
Hand on hip
Looked at me
And said sharply that NO,
In this family, we are witches
And I called myself a Good Witch
And I wonder
If I had been a bit older
And she a bit more tired
If she would have told me how
Redundant that is

My family is full of witches
And it has been so watered down
So distilled that
Once it reached me
The only thing left
Was the memory
Of the fire

Witches were not burned for being witches
They were burned for being women
And I think
There might be a metaphor
Waiting to be picked from their ashes
About women and fire
Or powerful women, and men’s fear of them

My grandmother told me
When I brought her the 2nd bumblebee
That day
To keep this fire
And she taught me
That this fire in the belly
In the brain
Can be the gentlest sort of thing

And yesterday
When I looked in the mirror
I saw her eyes
And what a joy it is
To see that this witch’s fire
No longer burns you
Or puts you on trial
But holds you
Keeps you safe

And a week ago a wasp got caught in my bedroom
And as I held her
Gingerly
In a cup with a half-written poem below her
I marveled
At the way her fire kept her alive
And fighting
And how my fire kept me alive
And fighting

But this is not just a self-reflection
This is a call to arms
That when you feel that fire
In your belly
In your brain
That restlessness
And quiet displeasure with the world
Remember
Your ancestors were witches
Or at least
Strong women
And I think that is mostly the same thing
There is so much light
To be spread with your fire
But also, so much
That needs to be burnt down
Call it a rampage
Or a reclamation
Or a controlled burn but
Use it, passionately
To spite the ones
Who used it against your mothers so long ago
But please
Don’t forget
That your fire
Is the most witchy, gentle thing
And you can use it
However you damn well please

Dogs Rolling in Carrion

By Anthony Elmore

After months of toting cinderblocks, sweeping lots, gutting fish, my boss asked me a life-changing question. “You got a pair of brown pants?”

I put myself through college through a mix of student loans, petty theft, and temp jobs, back when that was actually possible. I worked as a dishwasher, a bricklayer, a fish cleaner, a flavored ice vendor, and a janitor, and that was in just in one week.

“Take the first gig offered no matter how shitty, dirty, or dangerous,” my roomie advised on my first day as a day laborer. When you proved yourself reliable and kept your bad habits off-site, the agency offered the premium gigs. Like the Gold Leads in Glengarry Glen Ross, I longed for the premium gigs, the ones that paid a staggering $5.75/hr.

At 6:00 am, five days a week, I packed my backpack with my textbooks, that day’s lunch, and a water bottle – with a “Yes” on the tip of my tongue. The company, Labor Ready, occupied a cinderblock building near the corner of Nebraska and Fowler in Suitcase City, Tampa. A sign stating “Daily Work. Daily Pay.” in English and Spanish was posted over its barred window. I parked and locked my bike on a fencepost, signed in and took my bench among haggard men, and waited for my name to be called. Many of the laborers, a mix of white, black, and Hispanic, lived nearby in cheap trailers, cramped hotel rooms, the Salvation Army or homeless camps. These men seemed born with a roofer’s tan, a janitor’s stoop, dimeslot eyes, and stained work pants.  A handful were drug addicts or alcoholics who worked for that day’s score. I was the only college student in the mix, and I kept that fact low key to avoid explaining why a “rich kid” needed to do dirt labor.

After being placed on academic probation at college a few years earlier, my parents felt they had exceeded their parental generosity and said, if I wanted to try college again, the tuition was on me. I traveled overseas for two years, returned to the States, and moved to Tampa to attend USF. I’d prove to them, and myself, I could work myself through college without any of their help. That meant being carless and sharing a Suitcase City bungalow with no A/C with two roomies.

For months, I said “affirmative” to pushing brooms in damp basements, to toting bricks and sheetrock up three flights of stairs, to stacking lumber, to demolishing old buildings with a sledgehammer. Lunch was a PB&J or a baloney sandwich and fruit, but the work demanded more from my body than my stomach could store, and I’d leave the site ravenous with hunger. After work, I’d turn in my hours, get my check, and cash it at the Shell station next door for a $.75 fee. I biked to school balancing a Taco Bell bean burrito or a McDonald’s burger in one hand and arrived to class reeking of sheetrock dust. Only two years of this, I convinced myself, I’d have my degree and slip into an indoor job in an air-conditioned office. This was me, feeding dues tokens into the Capitalist vending machine and earning that “character” that is only found after belittling labor.

After a savage construction lot gig, my day had come. Like Jacob’s seven yearlong toils, the agency found me worthy of the coveted golf resort gig and my sunburned face brightened. My brown slacks were ready. I would report to the agency at 12 noon that Saturday, and in one day, I’d earn my share in utilities with leftover cash for a cheap 6-pack.

That Saturday, I reported to the agency where the agent paired me with three Hispanic men. Like myself, a majority of the laborers didn’t own cars, and car owning laborers got $2.00 a head for anyone they drove to a job site. I climbed in the backseat of the late model Buick land yacht and said nothing as we drove to the resort.

The golf resort lay in New Tampa, a housing development of beige-hued and Spanish tiled micro-mansions a safe distance from Ancient Tampa’s bad roads and working poor. At the resort’s security gate, our Land Yacht queued behind a Lexus, a Mercedes S-Class, and a Range Rover. The driver showed the guard at our worksheets.

The guard panned his eyes to survey the car and its occupants. “Report to the administration office, and only there.” He radioed ahead, and golf cart with two security guards sidled beside us to escort us to our destination.

The admin office stood among a cluster of newly planted palm trees buttressed by 2×4’s. Inside, we met David, our crew boss who was in his late 20’s and always had a Styrofoam coffee cup in his hand, who gabbled and fast-walked us to a swimming pool.

“We got simple rules. Do as I say. If you don’t have something to do, find me. Don’t stare at the guests.” He halted at the pool gate. “Especially at the pool. We had guest punch out a server for staring at his wife’s rack too long.”

David tasked us with breaking down a kid’s birthday party and setting up poolside tables and chairs.

With the pool job completed, David sent us to a banquet room to set up tables and chairs for a sports shoe trade show after-party. The fresh vinyl cologne of new sneakers insulted my Payless sneakers with duct tape patching the hole in the sole.

At lunch break, I couldn’t afford the employee menu at the snack bar, so I ate my warm process cheese sandwich and Lance peanuts. The meal barely replaced the spent calories, so I held a dim hope that I’d get kitchen work, where I could sneak some bites of food. And for the second time that week, fortune smirked at me.

David passed us to the banquet boss, Frank, who assigned us to the dishwashing room, a steaming chamber of white tile and dull stainless steel. The permanent dishwasher, a tall, elderly Black man introduced himself. “I’m Robert Johnson, not the one who made a deal with the Devil. Now y’all don’t grab any food from the kitchen, because they’ll probably be leftovers later. Y’all might get lucky. I hear the rich folks are partying it up tonight.”

Robert assigned another temp and me to unload the bus tub carts and scrape the dishes. The next man rinsed the dishes, loaded the dish racks and fed them to the into the dish machine’s steaming maw. A train of three-tiered metal carts arrived overflowing with dishes and silverware and times; it took two of us to haul them. Two hours under the near-deafening clatter of dishes, my hunger resisted the stomach-turning stench of decaying meat and vegetables.

To our relief, the bus carts arrived overflowing with chafing dishes and banquet platters, signaling the end of the party. Frank sent us to the party tent to break down tables, chairs, and banquet ware. A long party tent abutted the kitchen’s service entrance and stretched the length of the golf green, the sand traps shined like porcelain disks under lithium lights. The muggy weather was a touch better than the noise and fug of the dish room. The band onstage packed up their instruments, ice sculptures dribbled, people lingered at the bar.

I pieced together intel about the party from nuggets of server banter. The fete was a charity event, and the guest of honor was retired General Norman “Stormin’” Schwarzkopf of Desert Storm repute. Settled into retirement, he held court at the bar with a covey of admirers men, talking and intermittently sipping his drink and toking a cigar. His new uniform was a short-sleeved cabana shirt, dock shoes, and a relaxed mien of accomplishment and earned rest. Transfixed by the general’s presence, a gamey smell caught my attention.

I wondered how I missed it, its blackened tusks and heat seared eyelids. The stripped carcass of a boar lay on its belly on a bed of wilting lettuce on a table not far from me. It was a medium as boars went, about 200 pounds, and mostly stripped bare of its flesh. The sight made my gut seize, first out of disgust, then out of hunger when I noticed healthy bits of flesh clinging to its bones.

I nudged a banquet server for more intel, and he said the general went boar hunting in the Florida scrub the day before and took the beast down with a single rifle shot. His hunting party cooked the beast in a Hawaiian style fire pit that morning and brought it to the resort in the bed of a pickup truck. When the banquet began, the general and his companions carried it like on a board like pallbearers into the banquet tent to thunderous applause.

Servers moved the boar’s table to a curtained section of the tent where the bus carts were stored. Frank gave us a 15-minute break, so everyone gathered around the carcass, waiting. A banquet worker arrived and said, “Boss says it’s okay. They don’t want it.”

We meekly looked at each other to confirm what we’ve heard, then we seized on the carcass. Hands thrust into the greasy cave of the boar’s chest cavity and tore off strips of meat and hind parts. Fingernails scraped on bone. We jammed fistfuls of flesh into our mouths and juices dribbled onto their clothes. I thought it indecent, but my bones and stomach lusted for lean protein. I reached over their heads and yanked a tendril of flesh from the boar’s thigh. It tasted like dark meat chicken with a grassy aftertaste, but it silenced my gnawing belly. We fought and fed on the carrion left behind by the rich. An eye popped out and hung from a singed nerve.

One of my Hispanic car mates cut off the boar’s cheek off with a pocket knife. “The head. It’s the best,” he confided and offered me a piece.

He was right, the fat melted like pudding in my mouth and left a grassy aftertaste and satisfaction.

The chefs arrived with their cutlery sharp and ready and ordered everyone aside. They severed limb bones, tore them from the joints, exclaiming how they made excellent soup stock. One of them decapitated it and hauled the head away on his shoulders perhaps to make boar’s head cheese or to display the skull in his living room.

The slick sounds of chewing brought stories. A Robert Johnson recounted how as a child he’d go boar hunting with his uncle, once taking down a legendary 500-pound hog. People once lived or died by the rifle, and bullet’s width away from life or starvation. Now we scraped at the bones of rich men’s kills.

Frank returned and ordered us back to work. Food drunk and my energy renewed I worked until midnight until all the dishes and banquet ware was washed and stowed, and tables and chair sets locked into storage. After David signed our time-slips, we slung the stained grease t-shirts into the hamper, dressed in our street clothes, and climbed into the Land Yacht to return to the agency to get paid. My exhausted co-workers barely had the energy to light their cigarettes. As we approached the guardhouse, two security guards blocked our path, stern, judgmental faces bathed by the headlights.

The guard from before approached the driver side. “Everyone step out of the car, please.”

Puzzled, we climbed out of the car. The other guard ordered the driver to open the trunk. They argued some, but the driver popped open the trunk. “We had reports someone stole shoes from the trade show,” he said to us.

He centered on the smaller man and asked him. “Those look new. Are those the shoes you came here with?” His sneaks looked new and resembled the ones from the trade show display, but bore a couple of scuff marks. He didn’t speak English or pretended not to, so the driver translated what for him. A chrome badge and a dollar an hour more enabled the guard with god-like authority over our fates.

“He came with those shoes,” I said, defending him, probably lying. “I drove here and have been staring at them since Tampa.”

The guard pulled me aside. “Between us. Are you telling the truth?”

“Yes,” I defended. “Those are his shoes.”

White people expect other whites to share their prejudices, regardless of rank and station. Whether he stole the shoes or not, I wasn’t going to lose my ride by flipping on him.

“Well I guess I’ll have to call the sheriff,” he bluffed.

“Okay then,” I bluffed back.

The guards commiserated at the guardhouse for a minute and returned. “Alright, we have your driver’s license numbers. We’ll report the theft to the police so you’ll all be getting a visit from the police.”

Sure, whatever, we all thought.

A mile down the road, certain the police weren’t following; a chuckle emerged from the driver, which set off a round of laughter.

“So white boy, we Mexicans are trouble. No?” the accused man asked.

“Don’t matter either way. Even if he did steal the shoes, I wasn’t going to say shit. Sometimes you need a pair of shoes that bad. I was thinking about taking a pair for myself.”

One of the guys lit up a thin joint and as it made the rounds, and we marveled about the boar. We laughed and bitched about the resort, the rich folk who paid fortunes to eat and get tanned away from us poor folk.

“In Honduras, man, we have javelina. Big sonofbitch. Good meat,” the driver said.

We returned to the agency, got paid about $45 for the whole day, my share of the power bill. They put my bike in the trunk and drove me home. I took a lukewarm shower; clean soapy scents conquered the odors of the Florida Wilds. I never got the Honduran men’s names, and I’m ashamed of that fact.

I slept for five hours, and reported to the agency that morning for a new work adventure, to scrape at the bones and scraps and rags they wealthy allowed us, like dogs rolling in carrion.

 

Still Life with Mason Jars

By Shannon M. Turner

Every time I go home to visit my grandmother, certain things occur.

  1. My grandmother asks if I’m dating.
  2. She bemoans the state of the world, despite the fact that all the people she prefers are currently in power.
  3. At least one painfully long silence descends. I would rather watch even Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy! than talk about the topic she has chosen (which is usually politics or my dating life).
  4. I give her a pedicure. She presses a twenty-dollar bill into my palm, like I’m a politician she’s trying to bribe. I make ardent protests. She mentions how much she’d rather I do her feet than “those people in the shopping center” (her coded language to disguise the racism).
  5. As I’m preparing to leave, she asks if I’m “doing OK.” Others might mean this question in a health or spiritual manner. She means money. She fills my arms with canned goods and leftovers.

At times in my young adult life I bristled at the final step, felt she was implying I wasn’t taking care of myself properly. The hidden message was that I needed to try harder, get out of my nonprofit lifestyle. Until I reached a comfortable plateau – perhaps marriage? – she needed to keep me alive, nine cans of Hormel Frank and Beans at a time.

One day, after I’d had enough therapy, it hit me. It happened when I was standing at her door, arms loaded, and she said, “Oh, but what about some tuna?”

I just looked at her square in the eyes and said, “I love you too, Ma.”

She stared back at me blankly, caught at her game.

I’ve made this joke with her many times since, and it only works about half the time. She hates it. This is not a woman who likes to talk about feelings, even in the most roundabout way.

As I’ve grown more health conscious, I’ve gotten better at saying no to her store-bought canned goods and yes to home-canned goods. These days the supply of the latter is dwindling. They’re like gold to me.

* * * * *

Two years ago, my father did something shocking and awful. It tore our family apart, breaking everything in reality as we knew it. In response, my mom did something very brave and left him within the week, ending their 44-year marriage. We’ve spent the better part of the last two years living in this through-the-looking-glass-world.

In the final years of my parents’ marriage, they lived on a small farm. They canned a lot of delicious food, and for the rest of my life, my nose will recall the smell of fruits and vegetables in Mason jars cooking on a stove. I can close my eyes and see the beauty of all those jars, their gorgeous colors. The orange-red of the tomatoes, the khaki of the green beans floating in their salty juices, the deep purple of the blackberry jam, the strange off-white of the sauerkraut. All lined up on their own shelves like stripes in an Appalachian pride flag.

Often asked to come home and help with canning, I never wanted to. I found any excuse to be unavailable. The thought exhausted and sickened me. I enjoyed the results of their labor, but I never wanted to see how the figurative sausage got made. Part of me, I think, could feel the growing resentment in their marriage.

My father loved to garden, and spent many hours out on his little square of land. I think the only peace he ever really knew came when he worked the soil and then stood in the evening air to survey his work. I watched him there in the gloaming, wondered what he was thought about in those moments, and wished I could preserve him there so he wouldn’t shuffle back inside with all the anger that seethed under his crooked front tooth.

Middle of the summer, he would start to bring in his crop. He ceremoniously plopped his yield on the kitchen countertops. The piles grew and grew. He spread tomatoes of every variety and size on newspaper and towels.

The remainder of the work was left to my mother. She didn’t want to do it – had never been asked – and some of the produce began to spoil before she started. She was tired from a lifetime career of nursing, in a lot of pain from a body that betrayed her, and the last thing she wanted now was to be a farm wife. This was how other aspects of their relationship worked, too. Or didn’t.

Anyway, their combined efforts paid off. Despite the mood of creepy, controlling tension in the dining room, we smiled and nodded over the saved food.

* * * * *

One day recently I found myself staring, yet again, at the wall of my grandmother’s pantry.

I know it probably feels important to you to know to which of my parents Ma gave birth. She’s my mom’s mom. Thank goodness his mother didn’t live to see this time in our lives. It’s still important, though. They were all a tight little unit. Ma has had a very hard time wrapping her mind around all that’s transpired.

The pantry collection has slowly turned from half glass jars to mostly Food City brand metal. As I was saying no to this and maybe to that, she picked a couple of “real jars” of green beans from the bottom of a far right shelf.

Although both had the same year on the lid in my mother’s beautiful handwriting – I always meant to make her some labels – one looked a funny color, the juice pinkish. “That jar’s not right, Ma. I think it’s turned.” She smirked at it dismissively, set it back on the shelf, and handed me another, which looked fine.

For many years, out on my own, I maintained a special shelf dedicated to my parents’ jars. I went to it for special occasions. I might be cooking dinner for a gentleman caller or friends and wanted to impress them, or maybe I was feeling homesick.

Since The Great Departure from Reality, the designated cabinet has dwindled like my grandmother’s stock. I stopped thinking about that shelf. It made me sad.

But a week or so after bringing home the green beans, I had just the right plans for them. I would fix one of my favorites – a meal made completely of summer veggies. Green beans, corn-on-the-cob, new potatoes in garlic and rosemary, and (of course) sliced tomatoes.

I opened the beans. My nasal passages were immediately assaulted by the most rancid smell I have had the misfortune to encounter. And I’ve encountered some pretty bad smells.

Working at a camp while in college, I cleaned Porta Potties – one of which had been misplaced and forgotten for an entire season. In my twenties, my basement apartment in the Virginia woods featured one wall in the bathroom closet so attractive to mice that, trapped, they died in it. My roommate and I endured the ripe fragrance of their decomposition on a regular basis. Once, when I worked for a dance company, the grease trap shared by several restaurants in our parking lot baked in the sun every blessed summer day. Awful.

Yet, I have never smelled anything like these beans. It was like a dead man’s halitosis.

I pulled my shirt up over my nose, raced outside and dumped the contents in the far corner of the backyard. Then I put the jar in the dishwasher and forgot about it.

When, a couple of days later, I thought to put a few more things in the dishwasher’s unwashed half-load, I opened the door and again was nearly knocked off my feet by the stench. I ran the dishwasher half full, which was appalling to me.

Later – as an amateur environmentalist who eschews the heat cycle – I opened the dishwasher to let things air dry. That smell? Still. There. Now it had invaded all the other dishes.

I ran a second cycle with soap and bleach, mourning the waste of water. Afterward the stink remained, only somewhat less. In surrender I put away the dishes, then placed ramekins of bleach, vinegar, and baking soda inside the dishwasher and put the offending jar away in a cabinet with all my beautiful, now-empty collection.

A few days had passed when I went to the cupboard for a jar to store some trail mix. The whole area smelled like fetid compost.

How was this even possible?

I became locked into a pattern. About twice a week, I’d visit the dishwasher, then the cupboard, and inhale their atmospheres like a drug-sniffing dog. The smell stayed unpleasant, but I was fascinated with its slowly receding awfulness, lured unconsciously into my own ritual. It was like when someone says, “This smells awful – here, smell this!” That urge to make a horrific sense experience communal and shared, witnessed and justified.

Eventually, I got one of those car deodorizers for the cabinet. My jars now smell like Ocean Breezes or Spring Rain or some such.

I started to think about the green beans episode as a sign. A message, but of what I wasn’t sure. After two years of not speaking to my father, was the jar a final revenge he managed to exact upon me? All the previous humiliation wasn’t enough? Maybe it involved a wider curse, the sins of my family handed down to me with a screw-off lid.

If I could have seen the tragedy coming, I would have hoped the relief after would have been so much greater and more explicit. If you actually ‘open a can of beans’, isn’t there supposed to be some revelation in the exposure?

In the end, I concluded that smell was the specter of deep, persistent, near-impossible-to-shake grief. There’s no covering it up, and no absorption rate that’s measurable. Gradually, so slowly you barely even notice, by throwing the doors open, letting the light shine in and the air blow through, one day an empty jar becomes, not a reminder of what once filled it, but a vessel for something new.

For Sale: One Uterus, Never Used

By Rykie Belles

FOR SALE: ONE UTERUS, NEVER USED

Well, wait, how are we defining the use of a uterus? To clarify, it has never been occupied by a sentient being that Seller is aware of. There was some question a year or so ago, but that turned out to be nothing. Probably. Most pregnancies end before the individual in question even knows they’re pregnant, though, so who can really say?

Anyway!

It’s a newish model. Roughly 35 years old taking into account gestational time and fetal development. Fertility declines after 35, or so they say, but honestly that’s all the ovaries, so don’t worry about it. If you’re looking to gestate a human being, this beauty will do it for you. Probably. Seller has never tried, cannot confirm–

–Wait, sorry, no. Seller would like to make it clear that she has engaged in sexual intercourse to completion with a human male, both parties being presumed fertile. More than once. Many times, even! Seller was a late bloomer but bloomed PRETTY WELL, thank you very much. It’s just that there has never been an attempt to, ya know, create a child.

Still under limited warranty, which is to say the Affordable Care Act. Thanks, Obama!

(Seller cannot guarantee said warranty will continue to exist; see also: the Voting Rights Act, civil and human rights in general, the U.S. Constitution, and a habitable planet. Buyer assumes all responsibility for costs of care and repair post-warranty or post-apocalypse.)

As an added bonus, this uterus is currently playing host to a small object of plastic and hormones known as an intrauterine device, approximately two years old. Seller was told by doctor to expect that to function approximately seven years total due to declining fertility mentioned previously. Do you want a new uterus but not a baby? Then this bad boy is just the ticket! Skip the hellishly painful insertion process and get all the benefits of nearly infallible birth control with few side effects! Do be aware that you’re gonna have to get it taken out at some point, and that’s probably gonna hurt a lot. Seller does not know, cannot confirm.

Price….? Well, now, before we talk money, let’s look at the facts. Surrogacies can run up to $45,000. And remember, this bad boy is in mint condition. Never taken out of the box, never unwrapped, raised in a smoke-free environment. Cleans itself every 28 days like clockwork for the last two decades. No history of STDs. This is an A+ uterus.

On the other hand, Seller is hella motivated. She just wants to fuck without worrying about getting pregnant, right? Honestly, she thought that an IUD would help with that fear, but anxiety is a bitch. And speaking of a bitch…

Look, I like you. I feel like we’ve got a good rapport—like I can trust you. So let me just tell you a secret: Seller is real, real tired of having a menstrual cycle. Some people find that a hormonal IUD will eventually taper off their bleeding, but that hasn’t been the case here.

So I think if you’re willing to talk to the seller, you can probably strike a deal. You take on the twice-monthly aches. Now, that’s during menstruation and during ovulation, mind, and that’s not just cramps. It’s also excruciating hip pain, and headaches, and pain in the lower back and the actual pelvic bone that makes moving around difficult and keep Seller awake at night. You also take the monthly depression spike. It’s a big one! PMS is not a joke—and speaking of which, you take the lifetime of being a punchline for dudes who say they’re “comedians” or “artists” but secretly just hate women, and the way that some of them still giggle when a tampon falls out of your purse even though they’re in their goddamned 40s

You take all that, give Seller $10, and I think you can walk away with this bad boy tonight.

A Love Letter from My Dead Name

By Jordyn King

Dear Jordyn,
It is June 29th.
My 23rd birthday, and your first.
And though you know who I am
I have no idea who you are just yet;
That’s okay, though. Part of the beauty of shedding an identity
is the ability to craft a new one, and
I have a guess about the beautiful
person you’ll become.
Now, I have some things to ask you,
but first and foremost,
I want to congratulate us or…
you.
You searched for your name for a full year,
and I think you found the one tailor made for you.
It is strange to think we are the same person, but this point,
our birthday, marks a completely new chapter in your life
So Congratulations, Jordyn. Truly.

I want to make a couple requests of you,
if you’ll allow me.
You don’t need to heed them all,
but I think it’s gonna help.

1: I ask that you remember me.
It’s hard for me to accept that I’ll be gone forever,
and I know you’ll do great things without me holding you back, but still,
I ask that you keep a part of me in the most secret chambers of your heart
So that when the road seems hardest, you might remember who we once were
and celebrate how far you’ve come, and how much further you can still go.

2: I ask you to forgive me my shortcomings:
I know they’ll probably follow you,
but I want it stated that my sins are not yours. Let your first breaths be pure
and free of guilt about my past.
I will carry those to my grave for you

3: I ask that you keep on fighting.
I know you will; it’s part of who I became and, therefore, part of who you’ve always been. But for the sake of the people
we both love, I want you to hold your fist high,
and fight like you have nothing left to lose.

4: Love everyone. Love them fiercely, and without hesitation or remorse.
I was never really known for regret, except once…remember that one,
to remind you of the consequences, and then love everyone anyways.
Love them through heartbreak and through bad times and falling outs.
Love them always, and love them the way I love being you.

5: Finally, I ask that you love yourself.
You are the future we didn’t think would be possible,
the person that we never thought we’d live to be when we were younger.
Remember to love yourself,
and be kind to yourself.
And remember that you made it
for all of us.
So happy birthday Jordyn.

Forever in your heart,
[REDACTED] Your Dead Name

What R U Made Of?

Gutwrench Journal conducted this interview with artist and letterpress printmaker Lennie Gray Mowris in December 2018. Mowris’ work is available at lenspeace, and she is also the designer of the Gutwrench logo.

GW:  Hey Lennie, what would you say the highlight of your year has been?

LM: The highlight of 2018 is that it totally took me by surprise. I started this year with a whole plan, and then had every intention except for one derailed. This year the AIGA National Design For Good Task Force, which I have served for the last three years, published The Path to Impact. It is a social impact framework that guides the creative process from 0 to sustainable & socially responsible design. Our team won a $30,000 grant to continue developing the work, and it took off in ways I never expected. I started traveling to chapters to talk about Design for Good and combating social bias. I found myself on a platform for every philosophy I’d ever built my studio or artwork around, and I was leading dialogue, facilitating strategy, inspiring creativity. I fell in love with my strategy design career all over again, but it came with some sacrifices to my print studio for the sake of time.

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GW: Tell me what keeps you passionate about your art.

LM: Art for me isn’t about passion, it’s about process. I never considered myself an artist until I found printmaking, which is the foundational craft for graphic design. It’s an intentional communication to an unknown person in an unknown environment, in order to motivate an outcome or change human perspective and behavior. The print studio was always a way to do that by my own hand. I want to facilitate the communications that resonate with diverse groups of people and physically hold on paper the intention I put into the ideas. So for me, it’s problem solving— an exploration in how words, pictures, and colors bring us closer together or drive us further apart. How sensitivity to the nuances of each culture can strip communication of inherent violence and foster inclusive peace.

If passion comes into it, I’m passionate about the people who help me understand humanity better by way of their vulnerability with me. I care. Deeply. About all the humans. I feel honored to have been trusted with so many people’s grief, pain, trauma, relationship woes, and also their hope, love, resilience. Humans are complicated but amazing nonetheless. I cherish my community and my relationships that live from their heart.

GW: What I love about your work is that it is creative, beautiful, political, hand-crafted and timeless, and that seems like an incredibly difficult balance to maintain.

How do you start something new?

LM: It’s funny you ask this because right now everything is new – but also old. Since my work is about process, it’s always in a state of becoming, just as I am. It’s organic and alive. It informs me as much as I inform it. At first I was a sustainable graphic designer, I made logos and flyers, but that was the surface. Then, I built the print studio, and I was a letterpress printer… and graphic designer then came second. The public persona built ended my identity there. But those things were just the steps I needed to take first in order to build the studio into what it was always meant to be. Path to Impact is the strategic process I’ve been using and refining with other industry leaders in impact design, I’ve bet my entire career on the strategy work, my presses were always a tool for that goal.

Reconciliation is my favorite word, my whole life is about finding that sweet spot in complicated problems & systems so they flow better with less violence in the process. I’ve learned a lot along the way, I’m about to let some of the ways lenspeace has been before go. My print work is going to become more fine art and mixed media, and less production art. I’m about to disrupt my whole process as I bring in new people to help. Everything is new to me right now, and I’m learning every day, but I’m terrified. That’s the long answer.

The short answer is, time. I start something new when what is old isn’t working anymore, or when opportunity defines my path forward for me. I commit, but I’m not afraid to cut ties and pivot into something new if it isn’t working.

GW: When we last spoke, you were asking ‘What are you made of?’ In what ways are you still addressing that? Are any other questions on your mind now?

LM: Well, I never addressed it in the art I intended to create this year. I hope to correct that next year. I was hoping to have a discussion about what it means to be human through art, instead this year was literally about what I’m Made Of.

I’ve been pushed to every emotional extreme and had to not to lose my chill. I’ve had to heal- unpack the social problems we’re complicit in during one of the most troubling political periods of my life. I’ve had to find flow I never knew I had. Master the 24 to 48-hour trip to new cities. I crawled out of the collective depression that has befallen society the last three years. Being an empath doing empathy work is a lot of emotional labor, and staying in touch with joy is an interesting exercise. Whatever I’m made of, it’s a beautiful blend of rage & love, and I’m OK with that.

I’m still exploring this question, but I want to make a switch in the language as I focus more on the idea of WE.

“What Are We Made Of?” I want to explore what happens when people come together to achieve common goals. Because life isn’t about any single one of us, it’s about making it work for all of us.

The Great Moonbuggy Race

By Sarah Beth Nelson

My father called to tell me and my sister that we had a new baby brother on the day I was leaving for the Great Moonbuggy Race. I was a senior in high school. My sister was a freshman. I went off to school that morning thinking how strange it was to suddenly get a new sibling when I was almost 18 years old.

img_3867After my last class, I went to the parking lot to meet up with the rest of the moonbuggy team and our physics teachers. We piled into two rental vans, one of which was hauling a trailer with the moonbuggy inside. Then we set out on the four-hour drive from Suwanee, Georgia, where our high school was located, to Huntsville, Alabama, where the Space Center was hosting the moonbuggy race.

On the drive, I kept thinking about my new baby brother. And the more I thought about him, the worse I felt. I had had a good relationship with my father when I was young. I especially appreciated that he supported my dream of becoming an astronaut. When I was four years old I decided to become an astronaut after learning about Mars: The Red Planet. Red is my favorite color. I had to get there, and being an astronaut was the way to do it. Maybe it seems silly to choose a career based on a favorite color, but think about it. If I could go to a whole planet that is red, what else could I see as a space traveler? A lot of kids want to be astronauts when they’re four. But I was different. I was really going to do it. Even then, I had a sense that you can’t always count on adults. I knew that if something is important, you have to make it happen for yourself. So, I promised myself that I would visit another world someday.

I started planning right away. In elementary school I worked hard at math and science. I entered science fair competitions and Invent America. I was that kid who’s projects always looked a little too good and people would wonder, “Did she do that herself?” The answer is, “No. No, I did not.” It wasn’t that my dad did the projects for me. They were my projects. But he would get excited about helping, and maybe ended up helping too much.

My mother also encouraged me in my love of space. She signed me up as a member of the Planetary Society. A few times a year I got their publication, The Planetary Report, full of color images of stars and planets, and articles about things like what elements scientists believe must be present for life to be possible.

Both of my parents saved up to send me to Space Camp, at the Space Center in Huntsville, as soon as I was old enough to go. That was the summer after fourth grade. The next summer, after I graduated from elementary school, my parents got divorced and my father moved out. He was remarried before the end of the year.

My sister and I went to see him and our stepmother every other weekend. He no longer helped me with my experiments and inventions. And after a couple of years, he called one week to say that, from then on, when it was our weekend with him, he would pick us up on Saturday morning, instead of Friday night. He and our stepmother were tired at the end of the work week. Everyone would have a better weekend if we came on Saturday. But I didn’t have a better weekend that way. I missed my father terribly after he moved out. I was incredibly hurt that he could so easily give up even more of the small amount of time we had together.

In high school, I joined the marching band. The first time I had a competition on one of my father’s weekends, he said, “I’m not taking you to that. Just don’t come this weekend.” I had more competitions. I joined more activities. By my senior year, I hardly saw my father at all.

I was jealous of my brother. My father couldn’t tell him not to be there on Friday nights, or when he had activities my dad didn’t feel like driving him to. He would have my father in his life in a way I hadn’t for half my childhood. But at the same time, I desperately wanted this for my brother. Even though I hadn’t met him yet, I loved him. I wanted my dad to be better for him than he had been for me. Late that evening, we arrived at a motel in Huntsville. I shared a room with the only other girl on the moonbuggy team.

In the morning, we drove to a parking lot outside the Space Center and took the moonbuggy out of the trailer. It didn’t fit in the trailer fully assembled, so we had made the wheels detachable. We screwed the wheels onto the axles and a couple of the guys started test driving the moonbuggy around the lot.

Our moonbuggy was a feat of engineering. It had a rectangular metal frame that was pinched in the middle. There were four bicycle wheels – one at each corner. It was pedal powered, by both the front and back driver. We had levers to steer. There were two things about the moonbuggy that we were particularly proud of. The first was the universal joint in the middle. From that joint, the moonbuggy could bend up and down, something it would need to do while going up hills and into craters. It could bend side to side while going around corners. And it could twist, if diagonal wheels were both going over boulders at the same time. The other thing we were really proud of was the limited-slip differential we had put on each axle. An axle and the two wheels attached to the ends can be a solid unit, all moving together. But, if the two wheels need to rotate at different speeds, like while going around a turn, that can put strain on the axle. The limited slip differential allowed the axle and wheels to act as a solid unit most of the time, but also permitted a little give under pressure. Our moonbuggy was truly a masterpiece.

I should have been mentally preparing myself for the race. When it was our turn to do a timed run of the course the Space Center had created to resemble the surface of the moon, I would be one of the drivers. But I wasn’t preparing myself. I was thinking about my brother.

My father had become so disappointing in recent years that I had been considering writing him off – just not going to see him anymore. That seemed less painful than trying to keep him in my life and being constantly reminded that he didn’t care if I was in his. I couldn’t do that anymore, though. Writing him off would mean not seeing my brother. I wanted to be there for him. I thought he might need another adult in his life that he could count on.

I looked up just in time to see the guys run the moonbuggy into the curb. The front wheels moved on their axle as they hit. “Stop!” I yelled. “You’re breaking the moonbuggy!” They didn’t listen to me. They backed it up and got it going even faster. This time the moonbuggy jumped over the curb and came to rest in the grass. The front wheels were spinning freely now, the threading completely stripped where they were screwed onto the axle. I was right: they had broken the moonbuggy. But it was important to know about that weakness before the race. They took it to the repair tent and welded all the wheels onto the axles. It was much stronger that way. We would have to well and truly break it to get it back into the trailer, but that would be after the race.

My physics teacher had seen me yelling at the guys. She led me behind the trailer. “Sarah, you are showing signs of panic. You don’t have to do this.” She thought I was panicking about the race, and was offering to replace me as a driver with someone else from the team. I had spent the past fourteen years preparing to drive a moonbuggy. I could drive a moonbuggy. I wasn’t ready to have a new baby brother.

My opportunity to drive the moonbuggy was slipping away from me, though, and it meant so much more to me than my teacher realized. I started my senior year still on the trajectory of becoming an astronaut. I was in advanced placement (college level) physics and calculus, even though I had already met my high school’s science requirement and could have taken an easier math. I wrote a research paper for my physics class on how scientists search for extrasolar planets (planets outside our solar system). And, I signed up for the moonbuggy team.

At the same time that I was using all the math and science I had learned over the years to help design and build the moonbuggy, at the same time that I was researching conditions on the surface of the moon to anticipate what the race course would be like, I was applying to colleges. And it was a moment of truth. Was this really the path the rest of my life was going to take? I was also in my fourth year of marching band and my third year of Latin. I was in advanced placement English. I had been taking piano lessons for almost as long as I had been an aspiring astronaut. I loved all of these things. And I knew that I wanted to have kids someday. I had no doubt I could find a way to both have children and be an astronaut. But I figured that a round trip mission to Mars would take at least two years, probably longer. I knew what it was like to have a parent who wasn’t around as much as I would have liked. I didn’t think it could be part of my plan to have kids and then leave them behind. In the spring semester, I committed to starting at the University of Georgia the next fall, as an English major.

After that, the moonbuggy project became bittersweet for me. It was the culmination of a lifetime of astronaut training. Driving in the race would be my big send off to my childhood dreams. But only if I actually got to drive.

I needed to stop panicking. I told myself I could figure out how to be a big sister to my new sibling later. Right then, I had another child to think about: myself. I had promised my four-year-old self that I would visit another world some day. It was time for me to drive across the moon.

N64

By Mauree Culberson

Dear Daddy,

I hope you are enjoying Thanksgiving. I bet you can have all the dairy you want in the afterlife and the salt crystals fall from the sky like snow on your dinner plate, and no one tells you that’s too much.

I was sitting watching some awful film in the living room with our relatives, and I overheard mom and sister asking Andrew if he’d ever carved a turkey before. It was a stupid question or, at bare minimum, rhetorical. Of course he’s never done it. You have always carved the turkey.

It’s just another example of a hole left in the family without you in it. The gunmen stole you from us. They left holes in you that ripped through the seal of our family, leaving us ragged, like a scorched kitchen towel from some long-forgotten mishap.

This Thanksgiving lacked what you provided. No one was there to egg on rivalries or differences of opinions between relatives for the amusement of the rest of us. No one was called out for their exaggerated claims to shame the unreliable narrators who tell you parts of their dramatic life stories. No one complained too loudly that my sister only made fourteen desserts. No one challenged the decades-old tradition of me doing almost no cooking whatsoever. (I ‘stir up’ cornbread from scratch and then crumble that and other breads for the dressing. Then I go back to doing nothing. Little sisterhood has its privileges.)

There was no one to command all the males to do all the heavy lifting. There was no one to pack the car with our luggage the night before we left or to insist we don’t bring it in ourselves. No one handled trash and recycling without being asked. No one conducted the ‘now what are we watching’ TV council. No one was there to hear my aunts yell, ‘Shut up, Maurice,’ when they’d had enough of being teased. No one rolled their eyes when discussing who was invited to drop by and who was told to …. ‘Have a blessed holiday.’ No one lamented all my mother’s good deeds that go unthanked.

I slept next to mommy in your spot. Mom still sleeps neatly on her side of the bed. Your reading glasses are still there. There’s an opened pack of gum which I bet was yours still sitting on your dresser. Some of your mail is there, next to your Sunday school book. I laid there and cried. I whispered to my sleeping mother, while looking down at your slippers which are still on the floor on your side of the bed, “Mommy, I want my daddy back.” That was dumb, I know. I just long for the days when my mother could fix anything. She could fix a toy, break a fever, make broccoli taste good somehow, and soothe me to sleep. She can’t fix this broken heart, though.

In the morning, I looked in your closet that you share with mommy. All your suits are pressed. Your best suits remain in plastic … minus one, the one you’re wearing right now. Your ties are in color order and displayed for easy selection. I put my feet in your shoes, like I did when I was smaller, and flopped around a bit. I remember putting my feet on top of yours as we danced around once.

When I took a shower, many of your toiletries were missing. It’s sensible, I reminded myself. Yet I felt sad until I went looking for toothpaste and found it all neatly put under the sink. When I stood up, I saw your bathrobe still hanging on your hook on the back of the bathroom door.

I stepped out to the vanity to do my hair. I wondered and couldn’t resist opening the drawers on your side. The bottom drawers contained clean, perfectly folded white underwear, undershirts, socks paired and separated in white black and then all other colors. The top drawer hid an item I’d never thought I’d see again. I saw your phone.

Your phone is way outdated but bright red because black phones are hard to find in the dark, you’d said. Sometimes you’d forget to take it with you. I used to think this was rebellion against  technology in general but I later came to realize that a built-in GPS and calculator was an intellectual affront to an accountant who lived in the same city for 60 years. Nestled next to it was the car charger. That’s where the gunmen found you, in the car. The car is now back in the garage. No one drives it, it just takes up its usual space.

For a few glorious moments, I imagined you were just out of town and traveling light. I smelled your deodorant and your cologne. I fake yelled back at you complaining that my showers are so long they take up all the hot water. I danced around the room a bit putting my mother’s many brooches to my chest, as if I’m trying them on at a store. I get carried away and bump the dresser holding one of the brooches in my hair, when a card slips out that’s tucked next to a jewelry box. I open my mouth to fake sassy reply ‘Nothing is broken, geez!’ to your usual grumble when there’s an unexpected noise … but I’m deflated by the piercing words on the pointy white index card.

You’re not here.

That realization coats me thickly like giblet gravy. My relaxed shoulders tense. I close the drawers and put your slippers away back where I found them. I take off your robe and pull the plastic covers back down on your suits. I put back the piece of gum I took out of the pack on your nightstand. My mom left or put all these things this way. I better put them back before one of y’all catches me and … before mom catches me. It could get weird, or she could get angry. Discussing our innermost feelings is prohibited per the roaring lion standing firmly atop a box securely locked, marked ‘Feelings, etc.” on our family crest. Plus, if she cries, I’ll cry too, but I won’t be able to stop.

The white index card asked for an opinion on the care of your gravestone and burial plot.

You’re not out of town. You’re not complaining about my shower time, or the bumping noise, nor are you carving the turkey. I’m not a little girl who snuck into her parents room to play dress-up.

You’re not here.

You’re at plot N64 in a hole in the ground. All that is displaced in the soil is nothing to what has been displaced in me. I cannot patch these holes. We will not be whole again, this family, not like we were.

I spotted a pair of your socks on the floor. I’d let them escape the drawers, but, when I went to put them back, I opened the wrong drawer first. I opened the undershirt drawer a bit wider than before, and I found bags and bags of them. I lost it. My mouth covered on my knees, and I heaved, letting gigantic tears bombard the plastic bags.

You seemed … we seemed like we didn’t love each other sometimes. We fought so much. You could be harsh and angry, and so could I towards you. You were stubborn and gave me that stubborn quality that has served me well.

In those plastic bags were decades’ worth of Father’s Day and birthday cards. Some were on decaying newsprint with dashed lines clearly made by tiny hands. In the bottom, the bags had collected confetti, glitter, ribbons, macaroni pieces and other bits from the temporary medium of cards. Bunches of paper scrawled on in purple ink, pencil, drawn on hearts, scriptures and glued-on cotton balls kept tucked away but kept in preservation and reverence.

Encased plainly and put in the drawer, buried memories lie yet unmarked. That drawer has no holes. It is full.

Your BabyGirl (still),

Mo

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The Undead Have No Dignity

By Jessica Nettles

Lily stood at the weathered wooden door of what had been Marvis-Dorna funeral parlor back in the day. She smoothed the skirt of her black dress and adjusted her hat and veil with her gloved hands. The dress was uncomfortable and hot, not one you’d wear on a late spring afternoon in Alabama, but it was the only one she owned. Had Mary Kat, her daughter, still been with her, she’d have teased Lily about clinging to traditions that no longer mattered to anyone else in town. She wore the dress, hat, and veil to assure herself that she was respecting Edwin like a good Southern wife would. Rules may have changed when folks started going off, but that didn’t mean she had to.

A tear rolled down one cheek, and she reached into her small black purse and pulled out one of Edwin’s handkerchiefs she’d nabbed before she left to make this final step in the ritual of the dead. Her family had always said she was a bit cold, but that wasn’t true. After people started going off, grief was something that just held her back from helping others, so she shut it away altogether. Can’t be strong if you’re a blubbering mess. Loving Edwin meant being strong once again. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and knocked. The door opened.

“Ah, Miss Lily, come right on in, we’ve been expecting you,” said The Coroner. He was wearing an immaculate black suit with a matching black tie, as was the custom. His hair was slicked back like an old-time Baptist preacher’s.

The Coroner took her arm and led her to an office, which was fine by her since her arthritis was acting up something fierce since Edwin’s fall in the kitchen only an hour or so before. Even though she’d taken one of her pills, her hips and feet were aching. She sat down in a floral wing chair while he moved behind his polished teak desk.

“Would you care for some coffee or tea?” he asked with a gentle smile.

“Iced tea? Oh, I’d sure like some,” she answered.

The Coroner rang a tiny silver bell. A girl in a clean apron and a black dress brought in a tray holding a sweating tea pitcher decorated with blue and purple mophead hydrangeas like the ones in full bloom by Lily’s porch and two tall glasses filled with ice cubes. She smelled of gardenia and walked with a small shuffle. Lily studied the girl’s pockmarked face. The last of the children went off last year after a wicked wave of chicken pox, a disease once eradicated. Was that the Dickerson girl? Maybe not.

The ice clinked in the glasses as The Coroner stood, took the tray from the girl, and nodded for her to leave. She hissed softly through her bared teeth as she stood, hands still extended. The Coroner snapped his fingers right at her nose, and her hiss stopped short.

“You may leave now, Rose,” he said.

Rose Dickerson. I was right, thought Lily. She remembered when the family had Rose in lockdown before the little thing had gone off. The girl was the last of the chicken pox group. Folk were chattering for weeks after, saying that maybe whatever caused the going off was moving on. Lily had almost believed this was a possibility, and then a whole cluster of folk who lived by the depot at the edge of The Community, went off on Saturday afternoon for no good reason.

The girl’s pox-scarred arms dropped to her sides. She walked right into the doorframe, backed up and did it again. The Coroner set the tray on a serving table next to Lily’s seat. He approached the girl from behind and set her in front of the door, patting her back as she exited.

“Rose is still … in training,” he said, approaching Lily, who fidgeted with her hat, trying not to stare. “Shall I pour?”

“Please,” Lily replied, charmed that she could hear music in the background. It was a song from back in the day, but she couldn’t remember the name of it. Canned music was a luxury these days.

She took the cool glass of tea and sipped it, pleased that The Coroner took his duties seriously. She considered what she’d written in his job description after his role was deemed necessary in the changing environment.

Civility is a skill The Coroner must have since he will deal with the citizens of The Community daily.”

Not only had this particular Coroner been civil, but he’d also proved to be proactive in ways they’d not dreamed of three years ago. He brought changes that, at least in her observations, had made The Community a better place for everyone, including the Gone-Off. As she sipped iced tea, which was perfect in the teeth-cracking way tea was at Homecoming dinners when preachers were still sent here and church was still a thing, The Coroner sat back down, folded his hands, and smiled at her.

“My Edwin. He passed earlier, but he ain’t gone off yet,” Lily said. “I’m sure you know that.” She knew what he was going to say but felt like she needed to speak the words anyway.

Edwin hadn’t ever liked the way this was done, but she’d told him it was the best they could manage considering the way things had gone, and it was better than folks doing things that would worsen their predicament. He’d voted against the changes suggested by The Coroner after he was hired, but she’d stood with The Council, especially since she was the head at the time.  That one thing had become the one bone of contention between her and Edwin till an hour or so ago. As much as she knew that what The Coroner did was the best thing for all involved, for some reason losing Edwin was harder than she’d dreamed it would be.

The Coroner frowned and said, “We can’t take him if … “

She hung her head and said in a whisper, “If he ain’t gone off.” She took a sip of the iced tea, letting it run down her throat. Then she asked, “What if he didn’t want you takin’ him?” She knew she’d gone off script now but didn’t much care what The Coroner thought about that. She knew what he’d say. It was law.

“Mrs. Smith, you of all people should understand how this works.”

She nodded, and said, “But he never wanted all this.”

“None of us did, Lily,” responded The Coroner. In another time, folk might think he was one of those Baptist evangelists who did tent revivals in August.

He moved from behind the large, shiny desk and pulled a chair up next to her. Then he took her hand in his own. Even through her gloves, his hands were like ice and made her own hands ache the way the cold from Edwin’s body had when she’d moved him earlier.

“You and The Council wrote the rules for a reason. Making exceptions wouldn’t serve The Community,” he said.

She pulled her hands away, rubbing them.

“Can’t I keep him at the house? I need the help. We got no kin left to help. He won’t be any trouble, I promise,” she asked.

“The entire community needs him. Keeping him home is selfish, Miss Lily,” he said.

The grief she’d packed away over the last three years, flushed over her and took her off guard. This wasn’t the first going off she’d attended to, but of all of them, this was the worst. She started gasping and tears flowed down her cheeks. She was losing Edwin twice. She’d been able to manage herself better when Mary Kat went off by pretending her girl had gone off to Auburn for school again. This time, pretending wasn’t an option and besides, Edwin deserved to have his wishes respected after all he’d had to accept the last few years. She dabbed her wet cheeks with Edwin’s monogrammed handkerchief as she fought to regain some self-control.

“I just want to give him some dignity,” she whispered.

“And he will be treated with the utmost in dignity just like your Mary Kat and all the rest. He’ll be of service to The Community, just like he’s always been.”

“So if something … like a tooth or somethin’ falls off while you’re workin’ on my Edwin, could you save it for me?” she asked.

He shook his head but snickered. “No, ma’am. Unfortunately, you know we cannot allow keepsakes.”

Lily nodded and took one last sip of tea, which soothed her. Business concluded, The Coroner stood. As he guided her to the door, he picked up the tablet off his desk. Lily could see the screen, which was filled small photographs of members of The Community. Lily could see Edwin’s photo flashing red.

The Coroner tapped his tablet and said, “I can see that you locked Edwin down. That’s excellent. Now, you just go on home. You wouldn’t want to miss the grand event.”

She looked up at him and said, “Edwin won’t be hurt?”

“I promise.”

Lily saw little comfort in this promise. The Coroner guided her by the elbow to the front door and bid his goodbye as she stepped out. The sky faded from fuchsia to deep azure dotted with pale clouds as she walked down the as-of-yet unlit street back to her house. By this time, she and Edwin would have had supper and been sitting outside on the porch, watching the sunset. It was one of her favorite times of the day because they would sip the last of the tea from supper, have dessert, and talk about the day. Or they would reminisce about the days before the wall when they could go to the movies or go to the famous fish fries at Screamer Church nearby. Sometimes Edwin would sing hymns with her, and the neighbors would come and sing too. After the wall, the hymn singing happened less and less, as they seemed pointless to most of their friends. Edwin would still sing them once in a while, especially at sunset. Now Lily wasn’t sure she could handle a sunset without his growly voice.

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As she passed her neighbors’ houses, she could see some of them eating supper at picnic tables in their back yards. It was cooler to eat outside this time of year, especially for those without air conditioning. A few sat out on the porch and waved as she got closer to her own home. Now that they’d seen her in the black dress, it wouldn’t be long till everyone knew one of the elders had passed. She imagined that some of the men would be taking bets on when Edwin would go off even before she began eating her own supper.

The house was quiet and shadowy when she unlocked the door. She was used to Edwin listening to the local radio reports in the evenings before supper, so the silence emphasized the emptiness of the house, which echoed through her. As she walked by the radio, she turned it on. The warm light of the console chased away the darkness spreading through the living room, and the voice of Chuck Landers from down by Screamer filled the air as he reported the safest parts of the lake to fish. At least she could pretend that Edwin was with her for now.

Lavender-scented Pine Sol made the entire house smell like Friday cleaning day even though it was only Tuesday and she’d only scrubbed the kitchen floor and counter where Edwin had fallen hours before. She touched the yellowing page touting the rules of The Community posted on the pantry door and thanked the Great Whosit that she’d done her best to follow the law. She also gave thanks that Edwin hadn’t gone off and tried to take a hunk out of her arm – something The Coroner would fix – while she bathed his body to prep him for the lockdown room.

The law was for the best, but right now she hated every part of it. Edwin was right when he voted against this new order, and she knew, if he could, he’d be shaking his head and saying he told her so. He’d also tell her she’d done her best and that he couldn’t criticize that.

She remembered how deaths were handled before the wall was put up and The Coroner came to town. Sometimes caskets would be open so that everyone could take a last look at the deceased, all made up, dressed up, serene in his or her repose. They’d be surrounded by family, friends, onlookers, and a mountain of flowers in all shapes and forms. People would bring food to the family of the deceased, sit around and tell stories after gathering at the church to tell everyone how wonderful the person who passed had been in life. She tried to remember the last one of these affairs she’d attended. Jo-Jo Walsh. It had been a quiet affair at the funeral home where The Coroner now lived. Quiet until Jo-Jo sat up and bit Reverend Jackson as he stood for the benediction.

After that, funerals weren’t considered exactly practical by The Community. Death could no longer be a sentimental moment. As she ate her supper and listened to Mimi Landers, Chuck’s wife and co-owner of WSCR, talk about the latest murder at the Screamer Hardees, she mourned those days as much as Edwin’s passing. After she joined The Committee, she had to be strong. No more weeping. The Coroner was right. Her request to keep any part of her husband from The Community was selfish and so was any sentimentality she may feel about Edwin’s death.

She had no time or option to go to pieces or sit with friends and remember Edwin’s kindness and the happy moments they’d shared over the last fifty years. Instead, her memories of his last moments would include how she grumbled as she dragged his death-weighted body from the tub to the lock down room, knowing that if he went off, she’d be gone too.

When people started going off after they died, the living had to take steps to take care of them before the town suffered the fate of other nearby towns. At first, Lily remembered voting to turn people out on the far side of the lake in what used to be Comer. The Council figured that they could keep them out of town with one of those invisible electric fences till they could figure out how to control things better.

That didn’t work. Electric fences worked for dogs and horses, but not for those gone off.

The dead returned home. Once that happened, there was an emergency vote. The Council got all the men together and they first built the wall around town The Community. Then they required lock-down rooms in every home. There were gatherings to help build the lock-down rooms each weekend all that first year or so. The ladies would put out a spread of food at the community center and the menfolk would work till they connected the room to the grid at what was the funeral home.

She could see part of the high metal wall from her light green porch glider, where she sipped on a glass of sweet tea and watched the moon begin to rise and cast a silver glint on the pines on the other side of the fence. A slight breeze blew, and she heard the rustling of her pink and blue hydrangea, which was in full bloom. The delicate scent of sweet olive wafted past, and Lily breathed it in. At least some things were evergreen, she thought to herself.

In the gloaming, Lily could see her oldest friend, Mary-Walton, wearing her cat-eye glasses, which glinted silver-purple in the brightening moonlight. Her curly silver hair made her look like she had a halo around her head.

“I brought y’all a pie,” she called to Lily.

“Mary-Walton, he’s passed,” Lily said.

Her friend paused halfway up the walk. “Oh my Lord, Lily! You shoulda called me! Has he Gone-Off yet?”

“Not yet,” Lily said.

Setting the pie down on the porch rail, Mary-Walton joined Lily on the glider. She pushed her foot forward to start a little rocking movement. Lily smiled at the comfort it brought her but said nothing because there was nothing to be said. Her friend understood, and they sat together for a spell. One street light fluttered at the corner down by Mary-Walton’s house, and the radio had gone fuzzy in the background. A white truck marked with a large blue C rolled by. The back of the truck was filled with hoes and baskets of ripe tomatoes. Fred Whitmore, one of the Community farmers, waved from the driver’s seat. There was groaning coming from the trailer it pulled behind it. Both women waved at Fred because that was part of porch sitting and it was just plain polite.

“Edwin’s going to a better place, Lil’,” Mary-Walton said.

“I want to believe that,” Lily said. A tear rolled down her cheek. Her friend looked surprised but pulled out a tissue from her flour-powdered apron.

“It’s better than turning him loose,” she said.

Lily patted Mary-Walton’s hand and said, “You mean turning him out.”

“You wouldn’t want him comin’ back after you.”

“He said to me that he didn’t want to go this way. Ain’t his wants important?” said Lily.

Mary-Walton frowned and said, “You wrote the laws, you know.”

Lily nodded. She’d wrote the rules with The Council. They’d all thought this would be over after a spell. The laws were meant to take care of everyone, even those who’d gone off.

“If there weren’t laws, we’d have to shoot ‘em all. You coulda shot him instead.”

“Yes. I could have,” said Lily.

When the Coroner offered to upcycle the gone-over, The Council immediately voted and approved the motion. No one discussed how he would do this because the idea would serve The Community in a positive way and keep people from having to shoot their kin.

The green light next to the kitchen door began to flash. Lily looked over at Mary-Walton.

“Well, I guess it’s time.”

“Well, I guess it is.”

After just a few minutes, a white panel van bearing the familiar blue C arrived. Two men got out. One had a noose stick, and the other wore a shoulder holster.

Both said, “Evenin’, Mrs. Smith.”

“Mighty fine evening, Phillip,” she said.

“Mighty fine, Mrs. Smith,” the brawny man replied.

“You okay, Mrs. Smith?” asked his partner Darrell Grover, who was younger and blond. Lily remembered dragging the boy to his mama after Sunday school the day he said a word she wouldn’t repeat to Angie Daniels. Any other time, she’d ask how his mama was.

She nodded. Mary-Walton put her arm around Lily’s shoulders. The men entered the house. Lily could hear one of them unlock the metal door. All Pallbearers had master keys for Lock Downs. She heard loud snarling and she heard someone say, “Whoa there!” Then there was a scuffle. Soon the young man led Edwin out onto the porch. Gone-Off Edwin turned his head and snarled at Lily, reaching toward her. His face was gray.

“Oh God…”

Mary-Walton snatched her away quickly.

The second man came out of the house, and quickly put a snub-nosed shooter at Edwin’s back. There was a thwip followed by a grooooan.

“Dammit, Darrell! You weren’t supposed to bring him out here without the hood!” he yelled.

“Sorry, Phillip,” said Darrell.

Lily couldn’t stop staring. That…thing…wasn’t…couldn’t be…no…not Edwin…not…

“Mrs. Smith…” said Phillip.

“I’m…I’m fine. What—” said Lily. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen someone gone off, but this was different. It was her Edwin.

“He’s going to a better place, Lil’,” said Mary-Walton.

“There is no better place than The Farm,” said Phillip.

Edwin had become placid, his snarl replaced with a blank stare that went right through Lily.

Philip looked at Lily, tipped his hat, and stepped off the porch. Young Darrell led the slow-moving Edwin to the van, where he was loaded in the back. Phillip drove the van into the gloaming as Lily stood and watched silently. Mary stood with her.

“Mary, I think I’d like some pie about now,” said Lily.