All posts by Benjamin

Co-founder of gutwrench.

House Rules

By Steven Williams

Man was made to sweat. This has been the universal truth since the first mandate was broken. The rule was evident in every facet of my life, from the sermons at Calvary Baptist to the gangster rap my brothers and I listened to while our parents were away. Though he knew nothing of the latter, Lamar was the exemplar of this ideal. The natural corollary was that women were made to serve. These dynamics showed up in both the Gospels and Jazzy Belle, so we never thought to question them.

We walked with Lamar throughout the city, three curly-headed, light-skinned boys who were made to stay “on the inside” of their stepfather, arranged by age, the youngest farthest from the street. Lamar was a deacon at Calvary, though one would believe him to be a preacher. Walks, bus trips and train rides were all valuable moments to instill discipline and respect for hierarchy into three exhausted children. The underlying theme remained constant as it wove through his endless stories. If a man did not work, he was no man. For women, there was no choice – you were a lover, a mother or a whore.

As the oldest, I was expected to set the example for the other two. We constantly fought, more often against neighborhood kids than among ourselves. When Jeremy would come home with a torn shirt and bloody lip, I was scolded for not taking up for family. We three were just as often the instigators of these front yard brawls as the victims, so we knew the rules quite well. But any explanation fell on deaf ears. Fight etiquette dictated that there was to be no assistance if both parties contained an equal number of participants. We won and lost fights based on our own merit.

On the occasions that David was caught stealing, I would be reprimanded alongside him. He and I found that Sunday school loophole quite early and realized we could commit any sin as long as we repented during evening prayers. We avoided eternal damnation and still got T.I.’s debut album on release day. I prided myself on my ability to locate and discard security tags unnoticed, and I was prouder still of the contraband carefully hidden throughout the house. God was capable of forgiveness. My parents were not.

My siblings and I remained fairly unconcerned with whatever punishments were meted out, save for the whippings. Whenever an offense involved all three of us, it was much more convenient for Lamar to have us strip down, underwear to ankles, dish out an equal amount of licks and be done with the thing altogether. Whichever stepson he decided to hit first had it the worst, simply for the sheer uncertainty. The other two would count the strikes, and would at least know how many they were expected to receive. The first could only hope that the previous swing was the final one. When Lamar was finished with us, he would hang his cracked leather belt back upon the hook on the bedroom door, where it stood as our own personal guillotine in the town square.

At night, after “Monday Night Raw” gave way to infomercials, I would sit with my stepfather as he talked about the day’s work. Over the years, he had been a chef at almost every fine dining establishment in the city, but he never settled in one place for long, for there were circumstances that always seemed beyond his control. There were fights in a few kitchens. Another had far too many faggots for his liking. I would stay and listen while my mother put the others to bed. If anything happened to him, he told me, I would be the man of the house. My mother was a strong woman, but that’s all she was. She needed support.

The summer I turned 15, Lamar and I spoke with his manager, and I was hired on at his restaurant to do errand work. That summer was spent in the dish pit, in the freezer and outside sweeping cigarette butts, and I couldn’t have been happier. We would ride the train up to Five Points in the early dawn and unlock the back door with a key hidden in a lamp post. We set the chairs in silence. We cut bread crust to make croutons. When the delivery truck arrived, we signed off on the meats and I would grind and prepare the required amount for the day. This was work, and it was good.

The other employees would show up soon after the initial prep, and I was greeted with handshakes and nods. I traded dirty jokes and talked shit with grown men I’d never met before. There were certain topics and boundaries that were off limits, yet what those boundaries were was never clearly defined. I was simply expected to know them. Though I wasn’t exactly a fan of “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” I understood that any request to change the radio station would be summarily ignored. When I entered the restroom before store open to find two chefs on the verge of blows, I knew to leave for the time being and afterwards, to admit nothing to management. For me, this unspoken acceptance further established my passage into manhood.

I worked at a couple of other places throughout the next two years, but none of them held the thrill of the first. These jobs felt more like the drudgery that I grew up hearing about. At my first fast food job, my checks frequently came up short, the schedule often changed without notice, and my supervisors could have found fault with Christ Himself should He have decided to pick up a shift. In retaliation, my breaks gradually got longer, and the amount of work I accomplished while on the clock was minimal. When the school year resumed, I offered my two-weeks notice, and they fired me on the spot. I grabbed my jacket and filled the pockets full of cookie dough to eat on the way home. I had always walked to work, as my mother needed the car to get to her job, and Lamar refused to learn to drive. When I asked why, he responded with anger and accusations of intentional disrespect. I found that the best questions were those that remained unanswered.

The next job I held was in a failing wing joint in the far corner of a rundown mall. I began work three days after the initial interview with no paperwork filed. The head manager bought the place from the prior owner only a month before, and he wasted no time running the company into the ground. His first order of business was to stop selling alcohol altogether. Our Savior wouldn’t serve booze, he reasoned, and so neither would we. The attached area for bar seating was decorated with approximately ten neon beer signs, advertising all the wonderful things our customers couldn’t buy. Thus it became my job to stand behind the bar and explain that we didn’t actually serve beer, our manager just thought the signs looked nice, and that he refused to turn them off. To combat the inevitable sales drop, my boss had hired a man with a steel drum to play along to instrumental Peter Tosh songs that crackled from a cheap stereo in the main dining area. The drummer was hired for three hours every Wednesday, though he had only enough material to get through one hour. I quit on a Tuesday evening.

I never complained of these things at home. There everyone talked, but no one listened. Lamar must have come to the same conclusion;  over the years, his speeches transitioned from sermons to self-therapy. One night, as we sat in the kitchen, he spoke of the respect he had for my mother’s father, who had threatened to kill him, should he ever hurt my mother. In his next breath, he told me that he no longer found enjoyment in fucking his wife. We sat side by side at that table and were both alone.

Near the end of my high school days, any sense of cohesion between family members was worn down to nothing more than passing fancy, something that was more often the byproduct of a mutual dislike than any actual connection. The ties that held my brothers and me together were a bit stronger, though not by much. I spent as little time as I could around the house, but I kept a Nokia brick in my pocket on the rare chance that Jeremy or David would need something. I refused to look for a job.

The call came through on an evening indistinguishable from most others. A group of us were down by the train tracks in the middle of town, and I was puffing cigarettes to impress a girl that had smoked since middle school. The house phone number flashed on the screen. I answered, and my mother’s voice broke the static. I braced myself for her usual reprimands, but there was no frustration in her voice. She ignored my adversarial tone. Within a few sentences both hatred and reverence reinforced our bond. I rushed home.

The last time I saw my stepfather was through the rear window of a police cruiser. He never turned to face me. The officer asked if I had anything to say to him, but I could spare no words. By the time they left, the blood on my mother’s face was dry. The four of us that remained stood together on the lawn. We were unsure of what was to happen next. The neighbors took their noses from their blinds. I was the man of the house, and I had never felt more like a child.

Letters

By Jyll Thomas

“Hey pretty lady, can you spare some change for a veteran?” the man sat next to the entrance of Starbucks and leaned against a large dung-colored backpack. He rattled a collection of coins in a Styrofoam cup.

“Get a job,” the blonde woman breezed past him into the store. Her pearl necklace gleamed like baby teeth around her sinewy neck. She ordered a grande latte with six Splendas, foam, no cream, 120 degrees. She grabbed some napkins at the cream and sugar bar and noticed a poem tacked onto the corkboard above the serving area.

 

Even on a rainy day,

The warmth of kindness

Keeps the clouds away.

 

And this. This type of banality pisses me off more than anything. Probably written by some green tea drinker. She ripped the poem off the wall and on the back she wrote:

 

I don’t mean to be crass

Or break your heart like Cupid,

Stick a pen up your ass,

Your poems are stupid.

 

She stabbed her response back on the bulletin board.

“Bitch, I got a job. I am on call 24 hours a day, right here,” the homeless man shouted at her as she walked to her car.

“Yeah, you just keep saving the world,” she retorted.

“That’s right. I’m a goddamned super hero. I got powers you know nothing about.”

The next time Clara went to Starbucks, the same dark-haired man was perched near the door swirling an assortment of coins in a dirty cup.

“Hey pretty lady, can you spare some change for a blind man?” he asked shaking the random change flung at him by other patrons.

“I thought you were a veteran. And you weren’t blind the last time I was here,” she said.

“Like they say, it’s hard out here. You never know what you going to lose or recover.”

She noticed his green gray eyes were a bright contrast to his caramel-colored skin.

“See there, I gave you that smile, now slide me some cash for a cup of coffee.”

Clara walked into the store, ordered her drink and bought a black coffee for the man outside. If she gave him money, he’d probably spend it on drugs. She checked the corkboard to see if there was a new poem.

 

Love and compassion

Never go out of fashion.

Empty your wallet, free your mind

Abundant blessings you will find.

 

Clara rolled her eyes and wondered, what does this mean? This is just sentimental bullshit. Everybody needs money to live and be happy.  Besides, she committed a charitable act by buying the dirty guy outside a coffee. She turned the slip of paper over and wrote:

 

I wish I could believe the words you write

are the best things to do.

Even the blind man can see the light,

Your poem sucks, so fuck you.

Clara posted this on the board and stomped through the door. She handed the homeless man the cup of coffee. She thought perhaps it was the nicest thing anyone had done for him in a long while. The man took a sip and spit it on the sidewalk, hot liquid splashed all over her Jimmy Choo heels.

“Do you think you’re doing me a favor giving me this rot gut? Black coffee, not even cream or sugar? Didn’t even ask me how I take it, you just felt real big giving the bum a small coffee. Gimme a goddam pumpkin spiced latte next time,” he threw the cup at her as she ran to her car.

“Even when I try to do something good, it’s not appreciated,” Clara sat crying in her Mercedes. “I’m never coming back here, first the insipid poetry and then harassed by a vagrant. Someone should call the cops on that piece of human garbage!” And yet, he was the only person she talked to all day.

When she returned, the same man was perched on his backpack near the door swirling a few coins in a dirty cup.

“Hey pretty lady, can you spare a some change so I can get to the doctor?”

“Is he going to help you get your sight back?” Clara asked.

“I don’t know, sometimes we all have trouble seeing what’s in front of us.”

She considered this bit of sidewalk philosophy and asked him his name.

“I am known as Celino. What do your friends call you?”  A gold-covered tooth flashed in the crook of his smile.

Was this guy a gypsy? For a homeless man, he was kind of hot with his dark hair loosely curled close to his collar, honey skin and light eyes. The name, was it Italian?

“My name is Clara. I don’t have any friends. I just moved here from Tampa, and I work all the time,” she answered.

“Sounds depressing,” Celino said.

“Unfortunately, everybody can’t lead the glamorous life,” she replied.

Celino shrugged his shoulders.

“Dream big, and don’t forget my pumpkin spice latte- grande.”

She picked up their drink orders and checked the bulletin board. She wondered if the baristas took any notice of her poetic interchange but they seemed engrossed in their own conversations. Clara felt a pang of envy. She missed talking with her girlfriends about nothing and everything. Maybe she should quit the accounting firm and get a job at Starbucks.

Today’s poem was illustrated with a delicate border of vines and flowers. She wondered what he looked like and imagined he had long hair and kind eyes.

When you feel sad and alone

Reach your hand out to a friend

Use a pencil or a phone,

Broken ties can always mend.

 

Clara turned the poem over and wrote:

I thought your words were pretty lies

Now my heart is broken wide.

This life continues although it does not please us,

I must ask the question, do you look like Jesus?

 

Clara walked outside and handed Celino his latte. He rewarded her kindness with a quick glimpse of his shiny tooth.

“So, I’ll see you tomorrow,” she asked.

“Yeah, unless I’m not here then try not to miss me too much. I know you will because you’re totally in love with me. I’m irresistible.”

“You are something else,” she admitted.

Celino watched her walk to her car, the motion of her hips accentuated by her high heels.

As Clara sat in traffic on the way to work, she pondered what kind of life Celino led. How did he spend his days? He seemed somewhat normal, why he was homeless? Maybe it was because he was the only person she spoke to every day but there was something intriguing about him. If he took a shower, put on some clothes that matched and weren’t ripped, she could bring him to the company Christmas party.

She heard the whispers behind her back at work. They called her “ice princess”. Her extreme shyness and social anxiety made it nearly impossible for her to communicate. Every word that came out of her mouth seemed inappropriate or offensive no matter how hard she tried. Yet with Celino, she had no fear. At least he called her a bitch to her face.

But what about the poet? Clara imagined showing up at the Georgian Terrace dressed in a tight black dress, her pearl necklace reflecting the light of the chandeliers. The poet would hold her hand and whisper sweet words to make her laugh. They wouldn’t hide in a corner as she did at most social events. Clara wouldn’t even care if he wore a long robe and flowing pants. She smiled as she pulled into the parking deck and thought this might be the first party she would enjoy attending.

The next morning at Starbucks, Celino sat propped against the building with his head down. He saw a pair of slender legs standing in front of him punctuated by expensive shoes.  “Hey pretty lady, can you spare some change?”

“Celino, it’s Clara. Do you want a pumpkin spice latte or something to eat?”

He heard her gasp as he lifted his head and revealed his left eye swollen shut by an angry purple-and-red bruise.

“Oh my God, who did this to you?”

“Well, the prick that rolled me didn’t exactly introduce himself before taking my valuables,” he said with heavy sarcasm.

“You still have your backpack,” she said nodding at the canvas sack.

“Yeah, lucky me. Make yourself useful and get me an iced coffee with lots of cream,” he said. A black hole occupied the space where his gold tooth once shined in the early morning light.

She checked the bulletin board for the latest reply. On a torn, crinkled piece of pink paper the poet wrote:

Don’t make me out to be a saint,

Neither much of a man.

If the sight of me don’t make you faint,

Then take my hand.

 

What did that mean? Was the poet a woman, and did that mean Clara was a lesbian? She had fallen in love with the words without knowing the writer. She took the scrap down and wrote on the back:

Give me one chance

With you I have no fear.

Join me in a dance,

Tomorrow I’ll meet you here.

 

Clara’s head was spinning as she handed Celino his iced coffee. He pressed the cold drink against his busted eye. The pain reminded him of his father, fists flying screaming, “faggot”. The only difference this time was he had lost his treasures. He could feel colors colliding, voices turned from whispers to shrieks; his skin itched where he could not scratch. Clara daydreamed of going to the Christmas party with her perfect date.

The next morning, the air was crisp with the first cold day in Atlanta. Clara wore a white dress instead of her usual black business suit. Her head felt a little fuzzy from the Valium she took to stay calm when she met the poet. What if she said something stupid or the poet didn’t like her? This was worse than Tinder dating which she stopped after meeting a man who whistled every time he said a word with the letter S in it.

When Clara arrived at Starbucks she didn’t notice the naked man standing beside the door.

“Hey pretty lady, you got some change?” he screamed.

Clara gasped as she spotted Celino’s clothes strewn about the ground covering his backpack. “What are you doing?”

“Ma’am, stay back. We’ve called the police. I think he forgot to take his meds,” one of the employees held her back with his arm.

“I told you they were stolen, motherfucker,” Celino shouted. He went on a tirade about the government and getting arrested for eating pussy.

Clara had never seen anything like this. Sirens blared as the police rushed to Starbucks, she had to bring him back to reality before they arrived. She pushed the employee away from her and grabbed Celino by the shoulders.

“Look at me, it’s Clara. Everything’s OK. Why don’t you put some pants on and I’ll buy a pumpkin spice latte for you?”

“Fuck your latte,” Celino wrapped a wiry, muscular arm around her throat. “That shit has preservatives, are you trying to kill me?”

At first glance, Clara failed to notice that Celino was naked. And he held a makeshift knife, which was now pressed against her throat. A young policeman pulled up and jumped out of his car. He advanced slowly and assessed the situation.

“Officer, about time you got here, this woman is trying to murder me,” Celino said.

“Sir, I understand. Put down the knife, let her go and we’ll sort this out,” the cop reassured while approaching with the caution of a cat.

“No, you don’t understand. This bitch has been trying to poison me for weeks, she is a dangerous woman.” Celino pushed the knife into her skin. A thin line of blood dripped onto Clara’s pearl necklace and stained the collar of her white dress.

The cop took a step forward and upholstered his gun. “Sir, you need to put down the weapon and let the girl go, now.”

Celino stared with his strange colored eyes; everything lost focus except the gun. “You’re right, officer. This is how it’s got to go down.”

He pushed Clara into the cop and snatched his firearm. Celino pointed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. The policeman shoved Clara against the wall, next to Celino’s backpack. He checked Celino’s pulse and radioed for an ambulance. Helluva first day on the job.

Clara sat in shock in the same place Celino perched and charmed change from customers. She looked over and saw a familiar piece of pink paper sticking out of his backpack. She felt guilty but she looked inside and saw all the poems from the corkboard. His satchel was filled with poetry and drawings. A portrait on a piece of cardboard bore an uncanny likeness of Clara. Her face was encircled by words like: hope, blessed, love, faith as if he drew a ring of protection around her.

“Yeah,” Clara thought. “He did kind of look like Jesus.”

Grouse Wing Barrel: A Letter

By Randy Osborne

“From one wing, you can determine whether it’s a male or female. If it’s a female, you can even determine whether she had a successful brood or not. And you can tell if it’s a juvenile bird.” – Kari Huebner, Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist

“Rogue intensities roam the streets of the ordinary.” – Kathleen Stewart

*

I’m going to marry that boy, you promised the grownups. Or so I was told later, back home. Maybe impulse drove you to blurt how your future looked in a passing moment. Or maybe at age ten, an excitable girl, you actually saw the future, whole and busy and colorful. Did you know, when we met that summer, that my immediate family had just exploded? Dad gone adrift post-divorce. Mom free of the drunk at last. Edgy, love-haunted, Salem chain-smoking.

kidrandyHere’s me in 1961, the sad first-grader from Illinois, arrived with his grandparents for a week with Virginia mountain kin. He shuffles from the gas station, peels the wrap off a Popsicle. Cuts across the outfield, past the tomboy who fist-smacks her mitt, waiting for the play.

He feels her gaze on the backs of his legs.

Suddenly she’s in front of him. “Gimme a bite.” Her half-smile almost a sneer. Sandy hair in her face, eyes glittery behind like a hidden animal. The game stops. “I wanna bite.”

Her teeth sink into the icy pillar, an almost inaudible crunch. Tilts her head, lips tight, savoring. Swoons. Whips back the hair and those eyes flash open. “Now you got to give me a kiss!”

He runs.

At bedtime, she shows up again. Sallie – the big people know her name – still wants a kiss. The big people are too amused. They fail to defend him, and he scrambles under the blankets. She dives in. Amid their tussle, air under fabric quickly turns humid. He smells grass, dirt, the rhubarby tang of girl. Sallie gets what she came for. You do.

You take me hiking. We flick Japanese beetles into a pond and the trout rise, a swirly slapping froth, then gone. The trout knows nothing of the beetle’s life on the bush, nor does the beetle know of the bush’s root system (only the delicious leaves), nor does the bush know of the antlered buck’s terror as it clambers past and gunshots ring. Nor do we, as by then we’re on a distant hillside watching the Holsteins graze. You point out the salt block, sculpted by cows’ lapping into an exotic shape, a smooth glide that I will one day startle myself to recall when studying the body of a nude woman.

All the matter in the mattering world matters to us. The salt block wants our tongues. Wordlessly we’re on hands and knees, faces against the gooey-slick. A distracting texture that flavor must find its way through. Bits of straw, black specks in the slurped ivory. We rotate strokes, ecstatic. You watch me. I watch you. We can’t stop.

*

Years pass. Sallie’s in high school, my grandmother Madeline tells me, her finger tracing lines on the handwritten letter. I picture you, but fading. More years. Sallie’s married now, Mad says. I register the news as a sort of wonder shaded with betrayal, mild. Then: Sallie has a little girl of her own. I graduate high school.

Jump to 1988. Mad’s in the hospital, her colon ruptured. Coma, the doctors say. Slim chance. My uncle Theodore is delayed – in Virginia, oddly enough, where he’s visiting our people – but hits town the second afternoon, when my grandmother has miraculously awakened. He tugs me into the bright hall.

Don’t tell Mad, he says. Sallie’s dead.

In the following weeks I use genealogy websites to trace how we’re related. Did you know, or was it as much a blur for you as for me, that my grandmother Mad’s brother was the husband of your father’s sister? More than enough distance on the family tree for us, anyway. Marry that boy.

I sift newspaper clippings and righteously fume at their descriptions of you. “Thin blonde,” say the neighbors. “Wild, volatile, and irrational.” Someone who claims to know you well says you “never grew up.”

A journalist myself, I understand the grabby, often slapdash nature of reporting. Fragmentary, steps removed from a reality that’s ungraspable to start with. I understand – and fume.

The Virginia clan informs me that you “got interested with the ‘dope crowd’” early on. Estranged from your husband, you have a “pretty brunette” daughter, 16. She “appeared normal,” the newspaper says. This daughter is charged with your murder. Small-caliber handgun. “Multiple” bullets to the head.

*

I ransack the internet for details about you. Find the obituary for your mother, Eleanor, who died “unexpectedly” at age 82 in February 2011. She loved her seven children. Also gardening, animals, and Elton, her husband for 65 years. I find the obituary for Elton, 86, who followed his wife in June of the same year. Proof, an example.

One happening leads to another, I guess. Any effect depends on its cause. But doesn’t cause depend just as much on effect? Neither takes priority, both dissolve in an embrace, and this is how I stop time. Just not for long.

Radiant, youthful Eleanor, your mother in a photo that you may have seen, cradles a puppy. In one that you likely didn’t see, your dad Elton – bald, speckled, perhaps arthritic –  digs into a Christmas gift bag. Of you I can find no photos.

At this moment I feel helpless that I’m not able to visualize you, and ridiculous admitting how long you’ve been with me, and embarrassed by trying to say in what way you’ve been present. You peered over my shoulder at my slippery firstborn, red and squealing. You nodded, silent, when I acknowledged my first gray hair, plucked.

I’m better at perceiving absence (vastly much more of it, maybe why) than what’s in front of me. Is it preferable to die a certain way? Would I rather perish in a head-on crash, mangled meat? Or scream into oblivion tumor-sunk, entubed and beeping on the crackly institutional slab, their goddamned TV in my face?

From Eleanor’s obituary: “We recall occasions while growing up when our mother would take in friends who had nowhere to go.” You rode with me west when I wandered, another marriage kaput. One morning near the park where I had pulled over to sleep, I watched the hunter empty his bag of birds onto a table. His dog circled madly. The hunter unsheathed his knife and inserted the blade’s tip into the shoulder wedge of each bird, one by one, wrenching loose the feathery flaps. They came away bloodless every time. He tossed the wings into the “collection barrel,” which I hadn’t noticed until then.

I touch my companion’s thigh in the winter dark. She stirs and whispers. Your hand. Hot. (I’ve experienced the heat by placing my palm on my own bare shoulder, and I want the experience to be hers also. A peculiar fever I’ve had since a boy. Doesn’t register on a thermometer. I used to fantasize throwing myself naked into a snowdrift, the hiss and great clouds of steam … ) Now I flatten my hand against the wall above the bed. I touch her again. Mmmm. Cool. Still groggy, let her sleep.

I feel her; she feels me; we feel each other mutually and ourselves individual, apart. I feel the wall, but the wall can’t feel me. Then she feels me and feels, by way of me – who is changed – the wall. So many things are like this.

Your daughter works out a plea bargain, serves time. I hear from the Virginia people that she’s living in Roanoke, not far from the trout pond and our Holsteins. One more image: Coy leaves hide clusters of Concord grapes, thick with promise. The fog on their surfaces picks up our fingerprints, proof of contact. Next the evidence is partway inside our bodies. Between our teeth the grapes pop sweet and sudden and voluptuous. We chew them down to their bitter, irreducible skins.

Orange & Ivory: A Tremendous Night of Democratic Carnage

By Aja Arnold

Okay. Here we go.

The polls began rolling in as crowd reactions indicated the wins for each candidate. Cheers and clinking glasses for Hillary and the Democrats and uproarious boos for Trump and the Grand Old Party. These indicators were the only way I could follow what was going on as I accumulated sales at an exponential rate and acquired what felt like 30 tables. As the evening progressed, I noticed the cheers became more staggered and the gaps between clamoring noise began to be filled with boos.

Just keep moving, I thought. You cant worry about this right now. Stay focused. Remember, you dont have your old tools anymore. This is all you, no mood enhancers. Just focus on doing a good job and being sober at the same time.

As a citizen, I was ready. I was ready to begin the process of erasing Donald Trump from my memory. I was ready for the media to get back to business and return to real issues instead of frantically fact-checking Trump’s tweets. I was ready for the election to be over and for political tensions in this country to take on the process of dissolve. I was ready to see another impervious glass ceiling shattered, to make another milestone in a step towards progress. I was ready to move forward.

As a recovering addict-alcoholic, I was ready. Closing in on eight months of sobriety, I was ready to show off and impress myself with my new methods. Old habits would have called for an array of things to satisfy a particular formula I spent years perfecting to ensure that I could work at an affable, supersonic state: a shot just about every hour on the hour, a forty bag stashed away in my bra for bathroom bumps, and a cup of coffee on the side with the occasional water. I was ready to take on such a momentous evening with full force and kick ass and do it sober.

Manuel’s Tavern was whirring in chaos — eruptive with camaraderie, glasses clinking in tones of celebration, and presumptive victorious vibes emanating in every room. I took a deep breath and hit the ground running. Women were strutting around sharply in their pantsuits and bold shades of lipstick as if to shout, Im with her! Tables were all adorned with “Hillary for America” decor, beer taps flowing endlessly, bottles popping. Within an hour, I poured half a bottle of Bulleit Rye whiskey for my first table: a gay man and a lesbian, drinking their rye neat with a glass of ice on the side. They were a stylish pair — dapper, even — with their tweed blazers and bowler hats and brimming confidence. Their spry nature intimidated me. I felt not cool enough to build any sort of rapport with them, so I dropped their neat ryes and dashed, anticipating their need about every 10 to 15 minutes.

Even so, with all the decisive positivity and somewhat smug assurance in the room, it all seemed too good to be true. An impending sense of doom crept in my stomach. This was standard, though, for a naturally born-and-bred addict-alcoholic who had this creeping feeling for as long as she could remember about anything, all the time, ever. I couldn’t even begin to go down that rabbit hole. I couldn’t let the idea that Trump might become elected veer me out of focus.

What a fucking disaster that would be in here, could you imagine? All these people, drinking, gettin’ all riled up… if Trump were to win, the place might explode.  All the polls have Hillary beating Trump by a landslide and these people were ready for their savored victory.

But it all just feels a liiiiiiittle too easy. If the election is rigged, they better have it so  rigged we dont accidentally end up with Trump as President. What if

Table 43 motioned to me and raised their empty rocks glasses.

“Oh, another round of Bulleit? More ice, too? Got it.”

They nodded in approval and gave me a couple big thumbs up with gummy and jolly smiles. “Yaaaaaaas!” they called out. They must have been there for a couple hours already.

Every time I looked up from ringing in orders, I saw Trump’s  victorious creepy eyes staring back at me. I kept moving as I watched the seats in Congress go to red in the majority.

Shit, what are we gonna do? He cant become President, right? They wouldnt let that happen. How the fuck did we get here? He said he grabs womens pussies, for Gods sake. He called Mexicans rapists on fucking day one. He can barely manage a Twitter account. Hes a god damn Internet troll, and its really coming down to this, this fucking close? How is this happening right n Oh, shit, table 10 needs another bottle of chardonnay. Oh, fuck, I forgot to bring two more beers to 40. Table 43 probably needs more Bulleit. Table 21 needs another cider, ring in that round for 32, oh and dont forget food for table 41, that guy standing by the bathroom wants a Stella, and girl at 20 wants another Sweetwater. Get it together, dont get weeded. Come on. Just keep moving.

The capacity of the building peaked and the staff lost any and all liberties to move between rooms without shouting and shoving people out of the way. There was no more handling this gracefully. People at the bar went from being cool and patient to being just flat-out, total dicks. Probably due to anxiety and stress, considering the rising conditions of the evening.

Ah, yes. You know that impending doom feeling? Welcome to my fucking life.

I watched as the bartenders became fed up, throwing their hands up as kegs blew left and right, servers shouting at one another, customers flailing their arms in our direction in desperate attempts to get a measly drink or two. I looked over at one server at the taps as a tear gently rolled down her sweltering cheek.

Amid all the disorder and disharmony, I was holding it together pretty well. I kept calm as I continued moving, weaving through the crowd using my smaller stature to my advantage as I wiggled through back and forth between the bar and the dining room with about eleven drinks in tow each trip. Im doing it, I thought. Im doing pretty good. And Im sober! I havent even thought about drinking. For a moment, I felt relief and a sense of pride.

Okay, this isnt so bad. Its pretty crowded now, but nothing we cant handle. Breathe. Inhale, one two three four. Exhale, one two three four. FUCK, HE JUST WON OHIO shit, another round of Bulleit? Make them doubles? HAHA, I DONT BLAME YOU. Its okay, the Dems will come back, we still got the west coast to count. Ah, there we go, Oregon, California, Washington, oh and Hawaii, theres some blue. Everyone is slowing their roll a little. Fuck, okay, I forgot about table 21, they look pissed. Well, as they can see its really fucking busy so theyre gonna have to wait. Shit, Trump just won Florida. Gahhhhhhhhh. Alright, alright, alright, keep calm. Inhale, one, two, three, four. Exhale, one, two, three, four. Wait, what did table 40 want again? Ugh, Ill remember, itll come back to me. Just keep moving.

More people piled in just as I thought we couldn’t possibly fit another human. So many humans. Too many humans. Something needs to scourge the planet, a new epidemic.

Whatever, this is nothing. Ive worked worse and busier nights than this and totally fucked up. Nothing will ever compare to the nightmare of a shift I worked bartending alone at another bar with no glasses, ice, or vodka to make a single vodka cranberry while I had about 50 people screaming at me. I can handle anything. Ive had glasses thrown at me before, Ive been cussed at, Ive had my ass grabbed, Ive been grabbed at while behind the bar

As I was making my way to satisfy another round of drink orders, I felt someone grab my arm and pull me back. I turn around in annoyance and disgust to see Pinot Noir guy from table 10, bumbling around his table, warbling with his thickly coated wine glass in hand — the same one I had been refilling for him since 3:30 p.m. The stupid lush grinned at me with his hand still on my arm as he waved his glass at me in a charade of politeness in asking for another fill. His teeth were daubed and stained by layers of Pinot Noir and his eyes were muddled in inebriation. Clearly, he knew not what he just awakened within me. My skin boiled in a triggered sense of violation and I threw him a stare I did not miss exhibiting. With this I saw him shirk back, drunkenly orbiting the table back towards his chair.

Oof, how hard it was to not explode.

“Of course you can have another glass of wine,” I said, as calmly as I could. “But you don’t need to grab me for that.” I let out a little hiss of air, for a girl needs to breathe. I moved along, holding in my thoughts, piling them in along with all the others in my mental pressurized gas tank of emotional turmoil.

How fucking dare he touch me? Fucking people, man. He must think hes the only fucking person in here who needs a drink. Fucking typical, a straight white man getting whatever the fuck he wants. If I was a dude, he never would have thought about touching me. And this is just going to be okay, isnt it? This is how our country is going to be run. Donald Trump is going to be our next fucking president, isnt he? In a few years men will just be grabbing pussies and calling it presidential. I cant fucking believe it. Fuck him, fuck everything, fuck everyone, hes getting his wine last.

That was it. It was official. I had lost my cool and entered into “fuck you” territory, a very uncomfortable and risky place to be in while sober. Everything in my undeniable nature was nerving me to take a fucking drink and say “fuck it dude” and get tanked later. I begrudgingly returned to table 10 with a glass of wine to hear Pinot Noir guy’s gauche attempts at an apology. He continued this throughout the rest of the night, more and more profusely as he continued to get sloshed. Meanwhile, I stewed. He left me a 40 percent tip at the end of the night. Even so, this did nothing to smooth over my inner seething.

Inhale, onetwothreefour. Exhale, onetwothreefour. Shit, more boos? What happened now? Whatever, just keep moving.

Down the rabbit hole I went as I began to feel drowned by all the people waving and panicking for more drinks. Stuck with no resolve, no means of sedation, I listened to more polls roll in and our country started boiling red.

Okay, got beers for 42, thats not even my fucking table, but whatever, got another bottle of chard for 10, need a pitcher for 32 fuck, were out of pitchers, gah okay so what theyll just have to take two PBRs, okay another round of double Bulleit Rye neat for 43, oh awesome I just accidentally poured whiskey on my hand now I smell like whiskey, oof  well THAT SMELLS REALLY COMFORTING. Jesus I didnt even like to drink whiskey when I drank, oh COOL, Trump just won Alaska maybe I just need to pop some Ibuprofen and maybe this itching craving headache will go away if I do a shot of Coca-Cola and I can trick my brain into thinking I did a shot cause fuuuuccccck I want one, I need one, I deserve one.

I trekked my way back into the dining room and it felt much darker compared to when I had just left it ten minutes ago. Shit, the energy in here just dipped into, like, a deep dark realm of despair or something. Wait, why is it so dark in here? I looked over and saw two oversized frat boys slumped on the wall and saw they had turned off the light switch.

I made my way to the light switch and (sort of) gently nudged the two bros out of the way to adjust the lights back to their normal brightness. I turned back around to survey the room as I go to grab my tray of drinks and plan my route to deliver. The room looked really fucking grim, and even worse cause with the lights back up, I could see every line, every detail of grimace on everyone’s face.

Ew. This is just worse. This is so, so sad. And kind of gross. Should I just turn the lights back down? No time, just keep moving.

I made my way through the newfound sorry state of the room. It was obvious: we weren’t at a party anymore. We were at a fucking wake. All I could do was keep moving. Despite what was happening or what I was feeling, I had a job to do, people to serve, money to make. Do people tip more generously when they feel like the world is ending? Guess I’m about to find out.

My eyes continued to graze upwards towards the big screen TV hovering above table 44 to see that our country had seemingly made its choice, with Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin still too close to call. I reached to hand a young woman her pint of High Life as my eyes met hers, all tear-stained and bloodshot through the thin veil of fog of her square-rimmed glasses. She had been dethroned of her blazer, probably due to the rising heat that came in with the volcanic crowd. Her hair was now down and disheveled as if she had been pulling at it with brewing frustration, tugging in an unforgiving, sheering state of powerlessness. She clutched onto her beer silently as she gazed into its particle sum of carbonated bubbles. I wonder if she saw her reflection in her glass: an image of hopelessness and defeat, crumbled down to this, seeking the comfort of this one beer … Maybe with this I can wash away this pain. I wonder if that’s what she was thinking.

I paused and realized that reflection was just as much me as it was her, and that those thoughts were my thoughts. I had just experienced one of the most historical, distinct shifts in drinking history. I saw the drinking go from fun and celebratory to drinking out of fear and panic. Seeing the looks on everyone’s faces took me back to how my final drinking stage had been. That final shift from fun drinking to sad, scary, unwieldy drinking.

Yep. Just like that.

I wanted to stay at table 44 and hug sad High Life girl, because no one did that for me when I needed it most. But I had other thirsty eyes tugging at me. So, I kept moving. I continued to my other tables, making my way through the crowd’s various levels of fear, shock, and anger. My headspace was knocked fully out of its little protective bubble I had worked so hard to manifest. My eyes teared up slightly and I reached to rub my eyes and caught a nice, big whiff of the Bulleit Rye that had fallen on my wrist earlier. It’s warmth ensued my nasal cavity as I thought of doom and forest fires.

What the fuck am I doing? I thought. What is the fucking point?

In an effort to prevent a full-on existential breakdown, I continued to work and decided it was time to close out my tables, everyone holding their drunk and weighted heads in their hands in total despair.

Inhaleonetwothreefour. Exhaleonetwothreefour. Just. Keep. Moving. Almost done.

Finally, it was 3:30 a.m., and I sat weary in booth number seven in Manuel’s Tavern as I stared at my phone’s alert in disbelief. This was the reality we now lived in: Donald Trump was just elected as the 45th president of the United States. This wasn’t like the nightmares I’d been having months prior.

Inhale One two three four. Exhale one two thr- omg.

And then it hit me.

I have to live through a Trump presidency sober.


The last time I saw him he was serrating the ivory tusks of man, rocking
Rocking back and forth in his throne, shaking his head violently
With bursts of anguish in perpetual combustion as guilt rode him like a saddle
Years of inventory have shown he was no decent man worthy of such statutes

But alas, on top of the hill he sat

Eleven (for another Katrina anniversary)

By Justin Barisich

“Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.”
– William Shakespeare, from As You Like It

I

No one remembers 11 –
the age, the person, the anniversary.
It’s come just after ten, a big one,
a milestone for which we
sing the best songs,
light every last candle in the house.

But this year,
we visit the grave sites in silence.
They always forget this one,
like they’ve forgotten the little towns in between,
the homes still untouched after decade.

So – what’s one more year anyhow?

II

I don’t want to remember my 11th year –
when grandmother died,
when I wrote my first poem,
when I read it at her wake.
I showed the grownups in my family
how wise a child could be.
I siphoned my sadness into art,
masked it – like an adult –
too unsure of which way
half-grown boys should cry.

III

Nine months from now,
faded friends from high school
will start celebrating the 11th birthdays
of their storm-born children.
The ones brought to life by boredom,
loneliness, and all-consuming loss.

Rather than filling themselves in
with patchwork concrete,
they chose to pour a new road instead,
one they still dream of riding out
far from wherever this has now become.

IV

May you remember like a child:
the gulf’s bastard breathes in 11 today,
and we’re still trying to wipe away
her flood lines marking our sinking houses,
still sanding down and painting over
damage we’ve buried so deep
that it’ll never rise to the surface,
no matter the number of years
we let slip away unspoken.

FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA

By Tricia Stearns

Yesterday I found myself in the doctor’s office hooked up to an EKG machine, and even the machine was having a fucking meltdown and didn’t work. There were two nurses and a doctor all hovering over me trying to get the little plastic connections that were taped to key parts of my body to read from the machine on to a paper, so the doctor could medically evaluate whether I was having a heart attack. Technology. I always thought technology would eventually kill me, and maybe God was going to show His sense of humor — His little way of getting back at me for all the expletives I yell when I can’t get a printer to work, can’t figure out how to complete an Excel spreadsheet or never set my margins right the first time. Fuck technology.

Two nurses and one doctor later, the EKG machine was ushered out of the room. Together we decided that if I continued to feel like I ate every meal at the Golden Corral, then it would be wise of me to go to the Emergency Room.

At 5:45 in the evening, the Christmas do-das on the light poles of the nearby shopping center were casting colored shadows on the paper liner of the exam table. We were all tired. While they disconnected the wires of the machine, I envisioned each nurse hustling home, each yelling at her kids to let the dog out to pee, while she heated soup or zapped those Godawful Hot Pockets for her children’s dinner. My triage crew gave me a sample of an antacid, and I went home and threw the dinner party that had been scheduled since September.

But honestly, I didn’t feel well—and I hadn’t felt right for over two weeks. But I just keep moving. I drink a cup of coffee, walk three miles despite my feet yelling at me. I work though I hate it, iron shirts, cook dinner, read a bit, write essays but never revise them, give my husband and our sex life the obligatory ten minutes. Each day I move because I must.

I thought about going to the emergency room just to cancel the dinner party; after all, I never got around to making a dessert. FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

I did manage to roast dinner in the oven between the 18 phone calls an hour, ten new emails per hour, combined with a holiday luncheon where we gave a scholarship away honoring my deceased daughter.

Thus, dessert never got made, and I was tempted to cancel the dinner party.

Suzie, one of the guests, ALWAYS serves homemade pie or three kinds of cookies, along with a scoop of made-from-scratch sorbet when she entertains. Oh, and she is ready when people arrive. I, on the other hand, have to have my husband serve the first cocktail while I go back and change – and toss back my first glass of wine just to settle into social mode.

I didn’t go to the emergency room afraid I would just catch a flu bug from some other stressed-out suburbanite, combined with the fact my husband would just reschedule with the perfect people. I was almost home free. I had a roast in the oven – the ultimate answer to First World problems.

And dinner was fine. I heard laughter and compliments and merry cheer come out of my guests’ mouths. Our dinner conversation was thoughtful – with intelligent discourse on the state of our republic. My husband was profoundly pithy with dropping just the right humor when the discussion would get too heated, but the entire time I had an internal conversation with myself.

I am just so tired. I am tired of mean people. I am tired of being a people-pleaser. I am tired of dishes, cooking, work—yes, your carpet needs replacing before we put this dump on the market. What? You bought a new car a week before we close on your first house?

I went to bed reading and planning the following day, reviewing my Fitbit where I walked 19,000 steps. And I had a heart rate in the danger zone. FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

Something happened that night. I had a dream. And my deceased daughter, who died at 20, was 8 years old. And she snuggled on my lap. We were on the patio of the house we lived in at the time. She had her hair in pigtails, and she was holding my face and making me look at her as she explained her dilemma. But this time she was holding my face and looking into my eyes, and saying, “It’s okay, Mom. It’s okay. It’s beautiful here, and I am so very happy and joyful.”

And I woke up to another day of First World problems. I wish I could tell you that my attitude improved. It didn’t. But I followed the mantra, “Fake it til you make it.”

I took baby steps. I went to the office Christmas party for the first time in four years. I got people dancing who normally stick to the walls like Velcro. I took cookies to that asshole in the mailroom. I bought Christmas pajamas for my other girls, even though they are adults. I baked cookies—for my dog and HIS friends.

FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

Each day I feel less overwhelmed, personally and globally. I don’t feel I can solve all ills. But this one thing has occurred to me that has been a game changer.

The Declaration of Independence says we have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. I get what our forefathers were trying to say, and I would have been on that boat with them, cold and miserable. Upon landing, we would work the fields to grow food for my family and village.

I also believe in a Cosmic God, one that is in control of the entire universe and the soul of each human being – and my dog. In John 14-17, Jesus says God created us to be happy and joyful in this world and the next.

The Declaration of Independence was ratified by a group of tired expatriates who wanted to pursue their own democratic republic, to self assert their future and the future of their grandkids.

I get the whole Peace on Earth thing, that plays on the Muzak while I wait in line at Target. But, seriously, having peace in your heart in 2016? FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA. No way.

But, I was given a clue in my dream. I live in a world full of pain and trouble and human suffering. I do not need to add to it. I must surrender my anxiety and trust the universe.

The pursuit of happiness is just that – the chase. The get-up and hustle, the early bird gets the worm, only the strong survive, the coach yelling at you in the locker room at half- time to get your shit together and WIN.

Often in that pursuit of happiness we create Idols. We can even become our own Idol – seeking the obvious: the fast car, the material possessions, the best for our children or a politician that will save our society from suffering. And, in that very pursuit, we lose ourselves.

Through the years of working, doing and being a human, I once lost myself.

And when I lost my child in a sudden accident, the News became personal.

Tragedy is only a moment away for all of us. In any given moment, our lives can change. In my suffering, that deep internal grief that only a parent can truly understand, I have made room. I have made room to surrender to a quiet joy that cannot be bought. It does not come with my employee review or 74 likes to a selfie with my dog.

This joy is the byproduct of suffering. The suffering is the foundation of a club. I belong with other members of it, and we stand in solidarity, surrendering to pain —surrendering and living with joy despite of it.

I am too tired to pursue. Instead, I receive. I receive hope.