Category Archives: True Stories.

For Sale: One Uterus, Never Used

By Rykie Belles

FOR SALE: ONE UTERUS, NEVER USED

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

Anyway!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What R U Made Of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you start something new?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Moonbuggy Race

By Sarah Beth Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N64

By Mauree Culberson

Dear Daddy,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re not here.

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

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

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

You’re not here.

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

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

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

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

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

Your BabyGirl (still),

Mo

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From the Backroads of Rural Mississippi

By Sarah Shields

In the seat of my bike, racing down a backroad, skin blistering in the sunshine, my aunt hollered at me from her porch swing,

“You got a rat’s nest in the back of that head of yours, Sarah.”

But brushing my hair was the least of my worries. I was in constant motion—had too much to do, to see, to explore.

The heat was waiting on me.

The days were so hot it felt as if the heat enveloped your whole body as soon as you stepped outside, and when you breathed deep, the humid air turned to liquid in your lungs.

Cars rambled slowly down the distant highway. The table saw hummed and wood whined as my Papaw created a masterpiece with his hands, bending it to his will. A roar echoed from the garden down the road. I knew if I waited long enough, I would see my father proudly posted atop his red 1986 Massey Ferguson tractor.

Smells mixed together in the air. Sawdust, old leather, honeysuckle, freshly turned dirt.

And heat.

If you’re from the Deep South, you understand the way heat smells.

After moving to what my family termed the “big city,” a man once told me,

“You smell different, not like soap or perfume, but something else.”

Maybe a mixture of the sawdust, honeysuckle, worn leather and heat has seeped into my pores, clinging to me, branding me, reminding me and anyone else who comes close enough of my Mississippi roots.

I can remember walking down that backroad named after my family, thinking how idyllic it was, but not knowing that word at the time. The tree limbs hung loosely over the road, almost as if they were longing to touch the gravel as much as I was. It looked like a scene so many Southern novels describe.

Old, shaded, beautiful. Touched by time, yet untouched by the world.

If you caught it at the right moment, the sun would make its way through the leaves onto the blue gravel pavement, creating something almost magical. Like you had been transported back in time to a place that wasn’t as affected by life and circumstance. That’s the world I grew up in. Riding horses and bikes along the old pavement, never fully understanding how special and tragic it was.

Now, as an adult, the veil that covered my eyes as a child has faded.

I understand that Mississippi isn’t fondly regarded by the rest of the world. It’s the home of racism, homophobia, sexism and obesity. I can attest to all of these things being a part of Mississippi. They are the reasons I moved to a larger, more tolerant Southern city.

But what people don’t understand are the summer days on a Southern backroad. The ones with sawdust, honeysuckle, heat and just a hint of magic.

Boots Sarah

Dungeon Bait

By Dani Herd

I started performing at the Renaissance Festival when I was 16 years old. At one of my first rehearsals, I was presented with a little blue badge that read:

Dungeon Bait.

Get it? ‘Cause it was illegal to have sex with me, and also ye olde time things! Huzzah!

I loved working at the Renaissance Festival, but the Dungeon Bait aspect was weird on a lot of levels. During my second season, I was 17 going on 18, and the subject of my impending legality was one of the talks of the towne. Like a lot of counterculture performing arts communities, RenFest can be pretty touchy-feely and lovey-dovey. Therefore, there was a lot of well-meaning, but confusing discussion of who was going to kiss me first when I turned 18.

There was someone whom I wanted to kiss very much, and whom I was starting to become confident wanted to kiss me back. He was much older than I was. My protective female friends didn’t want me to kiss him. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, but I also didn’t really want to kiss anyone else. And I also didn’t want to lose my place in this community that felt like the first place I’d ever really belonged. I was gonna have to kiss someone.

To be very fair, I also really liked the attention. Boy oh boy, no one in high school thought I was this worthy of kissing! I’ve still never felt as attractive as I did when I was 17 years old at the Renaissance Festival. I didn’t want to turn 18, because then I wouldn’t be attractive or exciting anymore. Once that Dungeon Bait pin was removed from my chest, what would the point of me be?

My first RenFest kiss ended up not being a) on my terms, or b) when I was 18. The afternoon joust was going on, so things were relatively quiet on the rest of the site. I had wandered up toward the front gates, aimless but probably happy. That’s when the Guy From the Drum Booth approached.

I flirted with the Guy From the Drum Booth almost every morning. He wore a vest without a shirt underneath, and he made me feel pretty and special. I did all of my opening morning bits up on a hill near the Drum Booth, and maybe that’s why he thought it was okay to walk up to me and kiss me when I was alone, at work and 17.

It happened, and I pulled away awkwardly. With concern on his face, he asked me, “What’s wrong? Do you have a boyfriend?”

I hated that he said “boyfriend.” We were still on site for crying out loud. Patrons could walk by at any time! Ask me if I have a sweetheart or an intended or something! Preserve the illusion while you’re kissing me without my consent, please!

My 18th birthday was indeed a festival day. And I couldn’t kiss the person I wanted, so I made a big public show out of kissing the notoriously sexiest guy at RenFest. He wore a teal kilt, and a lot of people wanted to kiss his face. And I did. In front of everybody. And everyone cheered and laughed and clapped and everyone was looking at me and I was thrilled and I was tired.

I was proud of myself, because I had solved the problem. I had kissed someone, fulfilling my sexy, sexy prophecy, but I had done it on my terms, hadn’t I? Today I’m not sure that I did. Because my original terms probably wouldn’t have involved kissing anyone on my eighteenth birthday. Because my original terms wouldn’t have included feeling like I had to kiss someone.

When you turn 18, you’re supposed to hand down the Dungeon Bait badge to the next underage girl who works at the Festival. I never did.

A few months went by, and Dragon Con came. After midnight, wearing my beloved maroon muffin hat, I shuffled onto the elevator. I was still freshly 18 and not ready for all of the wonders/horrors of Dragon Con After Dark, and so it was past my bedtime.

Before I could push any buttons, three drunk young men stumbled into my elevator of solitude. It was decidedly not bedtime for these geek-bros. One of the guys looked me up and down in all of my newly legal, trembly, muffin-hat-clad glory, and declared:

“Look at you! You must get all the nerd dick you want!”

And you know what? Sure, gross. But at least he assumed that all the nerd dick-getting was on my terms.

And so it is.

Manic Depressive Pictures Presents

By E.M. Yeagley

On a good day, you and your mother wait on Cora’s doormat while the cast recording of South Pacific seeps through her wall. She answers the door looking radiant, with the front of her hair done up in tight pin curls, a bright red smear of lipstick on her dentures.

She’s still young–young for a grandmother, certainly, and she looks good. She dyes her hair red or black, depending on drugstore sale prices. Cora has tiny tits and a huge ass, but taken all together, it works.

When things are calm, her apartment smells of coffee and lemon Pledge, and she gamely pretends to be offended when your mother screams in mock terror at the velvet Jesus above her toilet. Cora has a sixth sense about kids–she’s hidden shoe boxes painted to look like treasure chests throughout the apartment. You make a beeline for one, parsing through the costume jewelry, the telescopic cigarette holder, the homemade Play-Doh, the seahorse-shaped cocktail stirrers.

She and your mother play Gin Rummy at the kitchen table. After a couple of hands, Cora starts with the funny stories. The punch lines often involve her lobbing a real zinger at an unsuspecting stranger:

“—in the checkout line! I said, ‘Lady, if you ram me in the ass with that cart one more time—’”

“And I told him, ‘Phil—it is Phil, right? Try wishing in one hand and shitting in the other, and let me know which Phils up first. Ha!”

Stories are her specialty. Visiting, she calls it, although conversations with Cora are generally one-sided. The stories are funny, and you’ll laugh, but uneasily. You were there the time she chased down a guy for braking too quickly. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” she yelled against his rolled-up window, squeezing your hand hard enough to bruise. “I had my granddaughter in the car! I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest!”

When Cora finally comes up for air, your mother asks about her Lithium, and she demurs. When pressed, she tells your mother to back off, that she feels great.

In Cora’s bathroom, your mother finds a mostly-full prescription bottle at the bottom of the wastebasket, beneath a wad of lipstick-blotted toilet paper. Post-its line the wall next to the mirror–project ideas, song lyrics, Bible verse, grocery lists.

There are telltale signs of hypersexuality, too: a cologne-reeking, pit-stained undershirt slumps over the toilet tank, beneath the velvet Jesus. Your mother imagines its anonymous owner taking a leak eye-to-eye with our savior. She remembers the time she overheard one of Cora’s boyfriends saying that crazy chicks make better lays, and prays that, whoever he was, he brought condoms and was kind.

In the kitchen, there’s a confrontation. Cora doesn’t need the pills anymore. Her own daughter doesn’t trust her. Everyone’s full of shit. Everyone’s a piece of shit. It’s time to go home. Your mother takes a deep breath as the door closes behind you.

Once upon a time, Cora was married to her high school sweetheart, your grandfather. He was a police officer and, later, a TV weatherman. When you were still an infant, your mother took you to the television station to meet him. “Just let me hold her once,” he pleaded. “Just five minutes.”

Even in front of all those cameras and people, she handed you over reluctantly, stood close enough to snatch you back and run. You peed down his shirt; he covered it up with a jacket and delivered the weather like everything was normal. You never saw him again.

Because it seems so unreal, you sometimes have to remind yourself that long before you were born, when your mother and aunt and uncles were still children, your grandfather exploited Cora’s mental illness in order to conceal his own.

Late one night, Cora woke up and walked out to the yard. Your grandfather stood in the dark next to his cruiser, eyes wide and wild. In the back seat lay a bicycle and two small sets of clothing, two small sets of underwear.

“I was teaching them how to swim,” he told her. “If anyone asks, that’s what you say.”

And that is how she found out what he was. What he’d done. That’s how she figured out that he’d been doing the same to their children, his sister’s children, and now neighborhood children. When Cora tried to leave with your mother and her siblings, he called his buddies at the police station, and then the hospital.

“My wife is having another episode,” he said. “We’ve been through this before. She a needs a few months of rest and quiet; she responds well to electroconvulsive treatments.”

At the house, they looked at her–howling, spitting, throwing punches–and then at him–calm, concerned, controlled. A fellow officer. A man. Your mother and her siblings were too terrified to speak. Cora didn’t stand a chance.

He signed the forms; they pried her lips apart and shoved a bit between her teeth, ignored her when she swore to them that she saw this thing and knew it to be true, and worse, and worse, and please, I need to save my children, please. Strapped to that table, with 460 volts rattling her skull, she alone knew the real reason he sent her there, and if she wasn’t crazy before, well.

From time to time, you think about this, and your stomach will twist up and go sour. When Cora is being especially combative, you try to put things in perspective:

If she wants to talk nonstop and listen to show tunes and eat junk food all day without getting shit from anyone, why not? If she gets satisfaction from causing scenes in the supermarket checkout line, can you really blame her? So what if she passes out and burns the house down. Has she not earned it?

Later, you learn that it continued for years. That your grandfather’s second wife was complicit. His own mother was complicit. You learn that his mother did the same to him and his sister. You collect pieces of the story, each more abhorrent than the last, and file them away. You feel powerless, as Cora must have.

When your grandfather enters into hospice, half of Cora’s children go to watch him die. Once he’s dead, she refuses to collect his social security money.

***

Now she takes you to Chuck E. Cheese and shows you how to spot the tables with abandoned pizza.

Now she has a new boyfriend who used to be in the Black Panthers. She’s permed her red hair into an embarrassing White Lady Afro and wears a dashiki out in public.

Now she’s up all night with you building pillow forts, distracting you from an ear infection. She lets you eat two full rows of Oreos.

Now she insists on handing out condoms from a plastic Jack-O-Lantern outside the 7-Eleven.

***

You’re almost grown now; your life has been better than you realize. Cora lives with you, and today she’s talking an awful lot. If she in any way notices the tightening at your jawline or the apprehension in your eyes, she won’t let on. You run through the mental checklist of warning signs, ultimately concluding that this is just Cora being extra Cora-like. It isn’t always so easy to tell—she’s enthusiastic by nature. She speaks loudly and irreverently regardless of her mental state. Life has taught her that the most important thing is to be heard.

Not for the first time, you’ll marvel at how much smarter and funnier and weirder she is than other people’s grandmothers. You once found among her stuff a high school report card that sums things up nicely: Cora is unusually bright, it said, but prone to outbursts and difficult to control.

On a manic day, Cora begins early, long before the sun rises. She hasn’t slept in a while and has more energy than she knows what to do with. She wants action, excitement, noise, people—above all else, she craves conversation, but no one is awake. She takes a shower to pass the time. The night air filtering through the open window feels incredible against her skin. She throws open the shades and decides against getting dressed, although she will put on one, two, three coats of lipstick. Sometimes she’ll stay naked all day; you learn not to bring friends home after school when she’s high.

She makes a pot of coffee, drops a Danny Kaye record on the ancient Zenith, and scrubs down the kitchen.

Manic-Depressive Pictures presents:

Hello, Fresno, Goodbye!

Produced by R. U. Manic

And directed by Depressive…

By the time the record ends, she cannot wait any longer and heads for the phone. If they don’t answer, she calls back. If they do answer, she calls back.

On a manic day, Cora serves you a box cake buried beneath three inches of icing–Happy Birthday in her vining cursive, three months early. Egg salad straight out of a mixing bowl. On the first bite, you crunch down on shell. No time to peel the eggs.

Perhaps she’s bought nothing but bananas for weeks. There are green ones piled on the counter tops. Dense, bruised bunches in brown paper bags abandoned just inside the door. Bananas fill the freezer, blackening against the scummy drifts of frozen condensation. The house reeks. Fruit flies congest the air in ashy clumps; layers of their tiny, dried out husks collect in the windowsills, in the stove’s drip pans, behind the sofa. Walking through the kitchen is much like witnessing the final hours of Pompeii.

Your mother reaches her limit, finally chucking them all in the dumpster. Cora is livid. “How dare you.”

The years pass. The rest of Cora’s body catches up with her big ass. She gets meaner, as old people often do. Her highs aren’t as high–she’s irritable and obsessive more often than euphoric–but the lows, the lows are abyssal.

On a bad day, you find Cora sitting on the sofa in the dark, smoking pack after pack of Marlboro Lights. Her speech slurs; she may scream or sob or press the heel of her hand against her temple when you ask if she’s okay.

On a bad day, Cora might tell you that she’s ashamed of you, that you make her sick, that your mother is useless, that you are the reason your mother never finished college. She finds the chinks in your armor and digs in. Once you are exposed, she becomes glass shards and serrated edges.

***

Now she’s taken too many downers, tripped and busted her forehead open; you hold her hand as the surgeon sews her back up. “You should have left me there,” she says. “You should have left me.”

Now she’s sitting on the floor with a pair of scissors, cutting your mother’s work uniforms into tiny pieces.

Now she thinks she’s psychic; the Virgin Mary talks to her, tells her that all of her children forgive her.

Now she’s in the hospital again, and although it’s the right thing to do, your mother hates herself for sending her there.

***

Once that well of dopamine has run dry, foul memories take Cora hostage. On a terrible day, she won’t open the door, no matter how long or loud you knock. If you are especially brave or especially unnerved, you might force your way in.

It could be that she’s in bed, stretched into a shapeless old sack from too many days without rest. Or perhaps she’s so overwhelmed by the aggregate of her life’s tragedies that her legs cannot bear her weight. Or she’s finally given up, the unthinkable, the unspeakable. That time may come, but for now, Cora presses ever on.

An Experiment

By Junior Knox

The inside of an atom is mostly just empty space, and now you know how this story ends.

I wore a gray knit dress to the Roxy to protect myself from the empty space; from the cold in the dead of a Buffalo winter. In simpler times, the Roxy was unpretentious games of pool and ten 19-year-olds squeezing together around a karaoke mic for Bon Jovi. Now, it is more cocaine than camaraderie, more salaciousness than celebration, but some stories just require the glory of a dive bar and my tongue in a stranger’s mouth.

I ordered gin and tonics.

In certain corners where unpretentious pool was still played, Kelly was the wild-haired brunette that paused to make eye-contact before flicking her wrist and connecting the cue with the ball. She set her cue down and approached, flipping her curly hair back with both hands.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hey,” I replied, sipping my gin and tonic.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“I already have one,” I said, shaking it so the ice sloshed around, cube against cube, atoms hitting atoms.

“When you’re finished?”

It seemed a direct relationship, then, that the less gin and tonic I had in my glass, the closer we moved to each other, her arm first around my waist, then my hands in her hair, and finally, her lips to my earlobe.

“What was your name again?” She murmured.

She leaned over the bar, and after a minute, held another drink out to me with hands that were fragrant with the scent of her hair. My own hands took away the warm earth scent; natural and clean.

I drank, and told her my story. I drank, and tipped the strippers on top of the bar as she tipped her head back for free tequila. I drank, and danced with her, white arms outstretched in a dark room, floating and trailing brightness like an acid trip. I drank, and when I kissed her I tasted whisky and garlic.

“You’re pretty like an alien,” she said, and I went home with her.

***

It was a Sunday later that week, and I’d had two glasses of wine.

I watched Kelly as she settled back on her bed. I had already noticed how often she would throw her head downward in that exaggerated motion, grab her hair with both hands, and toss her great mass of brunette curls back behind her head. It seemed, then, that movement was her neutral state, and I was there learning how to dance.

In her room, an open suitcase was on the floor, overflowing with clothing. She was visiting from New York City for the holidays, she explained, and hadn’t bothered to unpack or separate dirty laundry from clean. It was her old room in her childhood home, and that would have been obvious even if she hadn’t told me. Family photos and old trophies lined the walls and the shelves.

She bounced up from the bed to show me her softball pictures.

“I used to be a blonde!”

I could barely spot her as she pointed to the photo before she tossed it aside and picked up a worn Stephen King paperback.

“Do you read?”

She sat back down next to me on the bed and began to flip through the pages. I watched her hands, bone beneath flesh, as they flexed and curled in such a way that the tiny creases in her skin seemed to disappear. I watched her thumb let loose one page at a time, until I looked up and realized she wasn’t looking at the book at all.

My nose inches from her nose, I felt like I should have something to say. Instead I waited, breathing, taking in the scent of childhood homes and softball trophies mixed with earth and ozone and New York City.

She laughed, so I laughed, too.

“I’m really reaching here,” she said, and only then did it dawn on me that she was waiting to be kissed.

I kissed her slightly open lips. It was imperfect, and our teeth connected. She laughed, so I laughed, too.

***

For the next several days, it was bars and coffee shops and ski-jacketed passersby breathing moist clouds into the cold Buffalo air outside the windows. I tried to count the seconds just to slow the minutes down, but the sunlight faded anyway.

I can see us as if we had been caught on a time-lapse camera. The sun zooms over us as blurs enter and exit around us, chattering nonsensically and gesturing wildly and spilling coffee that dries at once in sticky puddles.

Kelly jerks her head to look at me and bats her eyelashes rapidly and her hands move on my arms and pull on my clothing and caper with the disposable coffee cups until she has broken them down into their fundamental components of paper and plastic and cardboard.

Eventually, the film slows as my memory catches up.

“Let’s go to my place,” she said, because her bedroom was our reward for burning daytime. I drove, and she messed with the knobs on my radio, and we found a song to remind us of each other.

I sang to her as we pulled up into the driveway. I sang as the stairs to her room spun under my feet.

“Just put your hands on me and hold me,” she replied. “Just put your fingers in me and hold me just like that.”

I did as she asked, blood moving from my core to fill my capillaries and light my extremities like a forest fire. If I failed, that night, to rescue limbs and hair and fragrant hands and gray knit dresses, it’s only because the compound molecules in volatile gases were bursting apart, and there was not enough whisky or wine or flesh or tongue to absorb the energy that resulted.

“I don’t know what to do,” Kelly said, and I wondered what could cause such concern, if I’d somehow spilt my emotions around us, crimson and sticky and staining, or if it was my arms tangled in hers like roots gone wild.

It didn’t matter anyway, because the women just came to her.

“The women,” she said. “They just come to me.”

It was a warning, and I knew this, even as I bloomed like poppies out of place on white linen.

“This isn’t what I do,” I said, but I didn’t mean it.

What else could be said? She had the best intentions.

“I have the best intentions,” she said. “There’s not a mean bone in my body. Ask my family,” she said. “Ask my friends.”

Will you think of me when you’re in Atlanta?” She asked.

“Does it matter?” I said, but I didn’t mean it. I’d already given her what she wanted and the rest was just my undignified heart pumping undignified blood and neural patterns firing away, confusing pleasure and love and sex and infatuation.

It was the small hours of New Year’s Day when the affair came to an end. I had spent the night fighting sleep, alternating between accidental slips into slumber and inhaling the earth; the sweat and the sweetness and the sex implied by the scent of the curly mane spread out on the pillow next to me.

She had hinted the night before that I should be gone before her parents woke up, so at six a.m. I reached over the side of the bed to find my pants. I looked over at Kelly, her eyes closed, bare back flawless in the dim light. I pushed myself off to lift myself off the bed, and she reached over and grabbed my arm. Pulled me back to her, her mouth next to my ear.

“No,” she said. “Stay. Never leave, never leave.”

Did I leave? I must have. I awoke sometime later in the day, in the guest bedroom at my mother’s house. I put my hands up to my face and breathed deep.

***

I came back to Atlanta a scientist.

I tried to replicate the experiment. I tried to duplicate the chain of code, to unlock the combination that would yield the eccentric whose hair I could wrap around my fingers in a curly knot.

I came back to Atlanta an artist.

I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with bare white walls and beige carpet. I tried to paint the walls a crimson grid to match the brick of Brooklyn, white-outlined and stained with graffiti and bird shit.

I came back to Atlanta a storyteller.

I saw every picture of her girlfriends, those she rode through Manhattan on the back of her scooter, those she took to Europe, those she sunned herself bronze with on the beach. I planted her in every corner of my apartment, and when she grew, we traveled, too, from one room to the next. My ceiling was decorated with our slide-show when I would lie on my back and project us from my skin.

I came back to Atlanta an asshole.

The women, they were pretty like aliens, like grasshoppers, they tasted of seawater and cigarettes and some of cherry Chap Stick. I don’t remember their last names, but I remember the patterns their fingers traced on my back as I fell asleep.

Emma had curly hair and wide eyes and a Jersey accent. We pillow-talked about women and heartbreak and the city. I told her I didn’t want a relationship. Donna was big, pretty, and Jewish. Dark-haired and dark-complected. We slept together a handful of times until I made a joke in poor taste. We stopped seeing each other. Amy was African-American. Her nipples were pierced and she had a tattoo on the small of her back. She could have been a model but she was short. She told me she didn’t believe in love. Marilyn was three years younger than me and had just come out to her parents. We had very little in common but she fell in love with me anyway. She told me this via email after I broke her heart. Hannah was a skinny blonde who wore too much makeup. I took her out with my friends and she drank until she couldn’t stand up anymore. When I told her she couldn’t come home with me again, she spat in my face. Natalie was tall, taller than any girl I’d ever been with. I called her “girlfriend” for a little while. Together, we counted out how many we’d had, and I felt ashamed. We tried to stay friends but it didn’t work out. I never slept with Michelle but I may have teased at it. Eventually, I started breaking our plans. She emailed and called and sent me texts, and then she stopped.

Some had freckles. Some had moles. Some had birthmarks. Some didn’t shave. Some had terra-cotta-colored nipples and invisible areola and coral hair between their legs. Some wanted more than one night; some didn’t want anything more at all. They were teachers and nurses. They were accountants and account managers. They worked retail and government jobs. Some were artists, some were writers. Maybe they wrote about chemistry and oxygen and compound molecules bursting apart.

I cut my hair off, then I let it grow some more. I bought a scooter so I could feel the wind rush by my face as I zipped through traffic in the city. I met girls in bars and introduced myself as “Junior,” and when they put their hands in my hair, I put my lips to their ears and told them about the light and the noise and the pavement that radiates warmth even at night in New York.

The Lisa Turtle Rule

By Jon Carr

I grew up a homeschooled, black Republican from Los Angeles who went through a brief Gene Kelly phase. I have the unique honor of having been beaten up by just about every race, religion and sexual orientation. I was the UN of ass-kicked.

I was a black nerd.

The 1990s were a simpler time. We all just assumed that Mel Gibson liked Jewish people, Danny Glover had just recently gotten too old for this shit and Gary Busey was a respected actor. Every kid had a role model. Most of my friends idolized Tupac or Ice Cube, but for me it was Gene Kelly. Regardless of whether or not today would be a good day, there was little chance I would have to use my AK. For the black nerd, there was little representation in life or on TV. We had Lisa Turtle from “Saved By The Bell,” Carlton Banks from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and the bane of my existence, Steve Urkel. All my white friends would jokingly call me Steve Urkel. This would have seemed racist, except that all my black friends called me Steve Urkel.

During the late 80s and early 90s, there were quite a few African Americans in television and movies. We were able to do anything: be a doctor, be a gangbanger.  We could do anything except violate the “Lisa Turtle rule.”

The rule was simple: We never get the girl or guy. We can get a girl or guy, but never the girl or guy.

But you know what? I got the girl once. Her name was Jill, and she was the prettiest girl in school. Actually, I was homeschooled, so she was the prettiest girl in the homeschool group. Every homeschool boy wanted her. One day after a pretty hardcore game of four-square, I walked off the court looking pretty hot. That is when Jill caught my eye and motioned for me to come over.

It turns out she had a secret to tell me, and it could only be whispered in my ear.

I leaned in close as she said, “There is a girl at school that likes you.”

With all the cockiness of a 16-year-old boy, I looked her straight in the face and whispered back, “OK, who is it?”

She slowly said to me, “She is very near you right now.”

I looked back and cocked one eyebrow before saying, “Yeah, but who is it?”

This went on for a while. Finally I figured it out.

She liked me, and I was crazy about her. What followed was the most wild, intense, passionate, powerful, and emotionally fulfilling two weeks of my life. I was determined to be the best boyfriend I could be. I bought her only the finest jewelry from Kmart and took her to the biggest movies.

Things like Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld.”

That did not go so well. Yet, despite this, she still seemed really into me. So I was surprised when she pulled me aside at school and told me we had to talk. It was a simple conversation, and honestly I have forgotten most of it. In fact, the only thing I remember is a single statement.

She said, “My mother says that it’s not a good idea for us to date.”

“Why?” was the thought running through my head.

What was different about me as compared to her boyfriends before or after. Did I have a reputation as a bad boy? See the aforementioned Gene Kelly phase. Did I come from a bad family, or were we too poor? My parents made the same money as her parents. We were all friends.

My mind raced because I knew the answer, but I desperately wanted it to be something different. I wanted her to break up with me because I was too fat or too ugly, because I was too poor or too stupid. I wanted her to break up with me for any reason other then that, because I could change those things. I could grow out of those things, but that’s not why she broke up with me. I had made a mistake.

I broke the Lisa Turtle rule.

The Lisa Turtle rule is based on Lisa Turtle from Saved by The Bell. The show lasted five seasons, totaling 126 episodes — not including The College Years and the New Class spinoffs. Throughout the series, they tried every relationship combination you could imagine: Zack and Kelly; Zach and Jesse; Jesse and Slater; Kelly and Slater.

Every combo except Lisa and anyone.

Every party and dance they went to, Lisa somehow magically produced a mute black kid that we had never seen before and would never see again. She was the queen of the B-storyline. Zach, Kelly, Slater, and Jesse handled the A-storyline, while Screech and Lisa generally dealt with the B-storyline.

It’s true that Screech was always trying to get with Lisa, but as we all know, Screech is crazy. It’s the Lisa Turtle rule. You can do whatever you want, but ultimately, the story is not about you, and above all, you don’t get the girl or guy.

It’s Lando Calrissian in “Star Wars,” Calvin in “Freaks and Geeks,” the secretary from “3rd Rock from the Sun,”Astrid from “Fringe,” Charles Gunn from “Angel,” Jazz the Robot from “Transformers,” and it is why Winston from “New Girl” will never get Zooey Deschanel.

I know what you are thinking. There was one episode in “Saved by The Bell” where Zach and Lisa liked each other. That is true, but before that episode ended, they came to the same conclusion my girlfriend Jill’s mom did: “It’s probably not a good idea for them to date.”

A friend once told me that he sometimes fantasized about coming back years after a girl dumped him. He would return rich, handsome and successful and make her regret ever breaking up with him.

As I stood there in that empty classroom watching Jill leave, I realized there would be no fantasizing for me. There was no amount of money, fame or success that would alter the reason she broke up with me. It was the one thing I could never change. I broke the cardinal rule.

I was supposed to be the Danny Glover of this story—a funny straight man that helped my Mel Gibson shine. But for a moment I tried to be Mel Gibson. I tried to  be a part of the main story. I guess my audience just wasn’t ready for that.