Category Archives: True Stories.

Dogs Rolling in Carrion

By Anthony Elmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay then,” I bluffed back.

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

Sure, whatever, we all thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Still Life with Mason Jars

By Shannon M. Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How was this even possible?

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

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

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

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

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

For Sale: One Uterus, Never Used

By Rykie Belles

FOR SALE: ONE UTERUS, NEVER USED

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

Anyway!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.