Category Archives: True Stories.

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.

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

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.

Weak Tea

By Alayna Huft Tucker

We drank it to the dregs back then; the speckled fannings swirling in the bottom of a pot of weak tea; the same leaf brewed over and over all day as we assessed each new cup for its nuance, trying to discern how it differed from the previous one, finding meaning where there was none and making conversation out of mere water.

I kept a journal of tasting notes so we’d remember which ones we liked, as there were so many. Notes written in scrawling half-cursive detailing the quality of the leaf, how intact it was, how tightly curled. And the bloom in the basket; the color of the tea liquor — was it amber, crimson, mushroom, or vermillion?

We got to say pretty words like Yunnan, Anhui, and Fujian when we asked each other which province this one or that one was from. And there were some not so pretty words like Pu-erh and Lapsang souchong that were still fun to say and felt like a secret code we’d made up between us, since no one else understood anyway. I liked it when he pronounced Oolong as “WOO-long,” without a shred of arrogance, only the grinning passion of an obsessed hobbyist trying to connect to someone through shared experience.

We drank other things too, of course. Beers hopped with sticky green bitterness that tasted like grapefruit and grass clippings, balmy round Brettanomyces, and that bready rye like a cold liquid loaf of the same. We liked to talk about them together at the bar in those corner seats, if we could get them, where we’d swirl and chew and consider carefully before gulping it all down and spewing up truths in inebriated inhibition.

Whiskey was another. I loved trying to get the timing just right of sniffing at the edge of the glass, taking in the woody aroma just before the sip so that the smell of it would swirl in with the flavor and amplify it. I swore if you breathed in at just the right time it wouldn’t burn going down. We never drank wine though — we weren’t wine people.

Then I stopped drinking all of those things because she was coming. He offered to do the same, in solidarity, but I said it wouldn’t help. He took up a cream soda habit anyway while I tried virgin mojitos and raspberry leaf tea. We talked about the future.

There were so many scary words like preeclampsia, placenta previa, and Caesarean section. But there were beautiful ones too, like when fetus became baby, and how amniotic fluid (already lovely) is often just called water — I imagined her swimming through the glowing amber caverns of the watercolored wombs I saw depicted in pregnancy books. She spoke to us through the heartbeat monitor in her own delicate language in which all the words were “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh,” like a butterfly trapped in a wind tunnel.

After she came it was milk, sometimes every hour around the clock. Water for me; gallons of it to make her meals but I still felt drained, or maybe that was just the sleep deprivation. He unwound with a beer most nights, but the Saisons and Imperial India Pale Ales were replaced with cheap utilitarian Lagers, so essentially water for him too. And there was coffee, so much coffee. We didn’t see our corner seats again for over a year, and even then we just talked about her.

It wasn’t at all joyless, merely relentless — a gauntlet of a year where every hour was an obstacle course. But every time I felt as if I was on the edge of losing it, the little bean would gain some new semblance of humanity and another ounce of tension would siphon out of me, undetectably at first, but after many months of this gentle dripping I felt noticeably lighter.

Then milk became chocolate milk out of an open cup, followed by occasional juice in a real glass that I fully trusted she wouldn’t drop. I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point we stopped making that second pot of coffee in the afternoon. And I remember he and I laughing together on date nights at cocktail names like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Stubborn As a Moscow Mule. I tried Pinots and Syrahs and no longer thought they tasted like chilled rust in a glass. It would seem that somewhere along the line tastes had changed along with the tides.

This afternoon, she picks the Bi Luo Chun out of the cabinet because it’s daddy’s favorite. She can’t read the Chinese characters on the package, but neither can we. The lines and shapes are recognizable only in that we’ve seen them so many times as to have memorized them. It’s passed around and we each take a deep breath of the sweet earthy aroma. Two dainty fingers pinch at the leaf and sprinkle it into the mesh basket just as the electric kettle clicks off. Dad pours, instructing how to swirl slowly, to dowse every fine leaf and admire as they yawn and stretch out like little babies waking.

We’ll drink it flush after flush long into the evening, allowing her tiny sips and flashing a praising smile when she proclaims “It’s yummy, daddy.” And when baby’s gone to bed, we’ll sip on what’s left of a pot of weak tea and talk about how it tastes different now, but still good.

Waiting for the Phone to Ring

By Sheronda Gipson

Have you ever waited for someone to die?

It’s like waiting for a baby to be born. With a lot of false starts and senses heightened, every twitch, sigh or slight eye movement is noticed and examined.

Is it now?

My sister doesn’t want to go to sleep for fear of “the call.” You know the one. The call after 12 a.m. and before 6 a.m. that means someone you know has either been arrested or someone you know has died. The ring that is louder than normal even though the ringer volume has never been adjusted. The ring that is loud and scares the shit out of you and disorients you and makes you knock over things in the dark.

We anticipated the ring.

The first time I’d heard the ring, my mother’s side of the family was together for Christmas. It was the winter of 1989 and my cousin and I had just finished our first semester in college. My grandfather was in the hospital battling colon cancer and all the children and several of us grandchildren, were home. My cousin and I had come in from a late movie and just as we entered the sweet spot of sleep before dawn, the phone rang. One of my aunts answered and gave the phone to my grandmother. I still remember her primal moan and scream, she was doubled over and someone helped her to the bed. We all jumped up to comfort her and each other. Death began our day.

*  *  *

Before the stroke, I’d gone to see her. She was sitting in her ultraluxe reclining chair that stood her straight up or reclined full out with the flick of the remote control. It was a gift for her 100th birthday. She was joking with me, telling me, as she always did, how much I reminded her of her sister Itta B. I got ready for bed that night and she shuffled to her room to get blankets for me, even though I’d already gotten the bedding I needed. The Aunts, the rotation of my mother and her sisters that took care of Momma Nettie since she turned 95, went to church the next morning, leaving me to watch Momma Nettie. I supervised her making her own breakfast, something that The Aunts wouldn’t let her do anymore. She walked slowly into the kitchen, holding on to the doorframe and the countertop and turned on the stove burner that had the kettle of water on top. I’m not far behind, walking a foot distance behind her, arms ready to catch like spotting a toddler taking its first steps. She took an aluminum pie pan from the bottom-stove storage and put it on the counter. She walked to the breadbox and opened it, pulling out a bag of Colonel bread and put two slices in the pan.

“Baby, put me some butter on this bread. Just a little.”

I opened the refrigerator, pulled out the butter tray and cut a couple of pats of butter for her. She sat at the kitchen table as I buttered the bread and put the pan in the broiler. When the kettle whistled, I poured the hot water in her teacup and mine and we sat at the kitchen table, drinking tea, eating toast and bacon — comfortable in our silence.

*  *  *

A year later, I walked up the back steps of the trailer, bracing myself to see her. The stroke had taken a toll on her and my mother said that she wasn’t doing well. It was Father’s Day weekend, and I’d stopped in on my way to see my dad. The Aunts were in full motion: cleaning, answering the phones, propping her head with pillows, asking if she was ok, feeding her and changing her. She was sitting in her recliner.

“Hey, there little one.”

She turned her head in my direction and smiled at our family’s greeting.

“Momma, do you know who that is?”

“Sheronda.”

With strict instructions from my Aunt Margret, I fed her yogurt and we watched tv that night.

The next morning, I was leaving and I saved her hug and kiss for last. I went over to her chair and kissed her head and smoothed back her thinning gray hair.

“I’ll see you later Momma Nettie, I’m heading to see my Dad.”

Behind the water pooled in her eyes, I saw panic. She hugged me tight and when she let go, she still held on to my forearms, crying and moaning, her mind wanting to say something that her mouth wouldn’t allow.

*  *  *

A week later, at around 5 a.m. or so, my mother called.

“She’s gone.”

I’d gone to bed late that night, stomach tied in knots because the family had been told that it wouldn’t be long. So I was restless and just as I’d found the sweet spot of sleep, the phone rang.

And death began my day.