Coke on the Sink

My grandparents were less proud of their property and more pleased with being able to afford a small home on the water for my family to enjoy. The farmhouse was where I lived but we didn’t own it. We rented it from the neighbor next door who knew about the lightning tree. My parents lived in a condo until I was about a year old and then they decided they wanted to raise us closer to Nan and Pop and in a better school district. I remembered the moving truck that took us east, and I recalled helping my mom paint the interior of the coat closet before we left.

“Like this,” she said, as she moved her wrist up and down in gentle, dramatic sweeping motions. 

I took my little paint brush she gave me and tried but ended with swirling the brush in haphazard, rough circles all over the place. She took the paint brush back and told me to go play and that I could try some other time. I was awful at interior painting, but I couldn’t have been more than two at the time.

The farmhouse had small bathrooms. Tile ran halfway up the wall and was pink, then black tile separated the pink from the wallpaper. I couldn’t reach much, but everything was aligned on the sink – Dad’s razor, Mom’s reusable toothpick, the toothbrushes, her hair brushes – everything was on the sink. I was fascinated with her toothpick. It was metal and had a rubber pointed end and it looked like something far too important to be used for getting things out of teeth. It should have been a magic wand, I thought, or something of importance. She found me with it more than once and scolded me the same each time.

“That isn’t yours,” she said, and tore the metal pick from my grip. My magic was gone again, until I went back into the bathroom and stole it from the sink.

Nan and Pop didn’t have golden-colored magic wands in their bathroom. They had large, heavy brass ducks all over the house, and Nan had a large collection of colored glass jars and bowls and vases. 

“Cranberry glass is my favorite,” she said. When she babysat my brother and me she took us to the church-run thrift stores in search of her treasured glass. She could tell the difference between cranberry glass and a fake, but anything red and glass I found I brought to her anyway just to be sure. 

I was less interested in the glass and more interested in the metals. The brass ducks were barely movable but they were shiny and solid, strong and smooth. I ran my hands over the heads and bodies and tried to figure out how they were made. I speculated that the ducks just came that way, duck-shaped, and Nan found them in her journeys like the cranberry glassware. 

My dad kept his razor on the sink. It was heavy and metal, and I spent many mornings watching him shave his face in the mirror before work. He filled the sink halfway with hot water and carefully released a palm-sized amount of foam from a can. With his left hand, he dabbed white all over his face and then used his pointer finger to scrape the remainder into the sink where it floated on the warm, murky surface like the foam on the creek. Effortlessly, he dragged his razor along his face, removing the white and leaving smooth olive skin. I loved the scraping sound the razor made. He left a little bit of hair around his mouth and under his nose, to cover a scar above his lip. I asked where he got it and he told me Mom was giving him a piggyback ride and Nan sprayed them with a hose on the walkway. He slipped on the slate and landed on his face. 

When he finished shaving, he released the drain plug with a loud gulping sound and the foam and cloudy water disappeared with it. He replaced the razor back on the side of the sink and finished getting ready for work. I stayed for a moment to marvel at the razor. 

I couldn’t get the vision of the razor out of my mind and returned to it that evening once my dad was home from work and he and my mom were watching television in the living room. I went into the hall bathroom, just off from the kitchen and turned on the light. The razor waited for me. I couldn’t reach the can of foam, or the faucet to get the hot water to fill the sink, but I thought my dad would be impressed with me nonetheless for showing him I could also shave my face. I figured out the proper way to hold the razor – it only took a couple of moments since I saw my dad do it so many times – and brought the blade to my skin. A sharp pain hit my chin. The blade dug into the flesh just between my bottom lip and the top of my chin bone. I looked down and saw no white foam in murky water, only hands covered in warm red. Warm red on the blade and on the smooth white sink. I screamed and ran to the living room, razor still gripped tight in my palm and my parents both jumped up at the sight of my face. 

Pop hid his razor from me, or at least I decided he was intentionally keeping his razor from my grasp. He stored it high up on a shelf I couldn’t reach so I wouldn’t try to shave my chin again and instead shave off a piece of it. When my brother and I went for a sleepover, the sink in their bathroom was cleared off. Nan made sure we thoroughly brushed our teeth and then tucked us into the old bed in the spare room adjacent to hers. 

“Goodnight. I love you,” she said, and kissed us both on the forehead. “And if you get thirsty in the middle of the night, I left a glass of Coke for you on the bathroom sink.”

Nan was no stranger to the sweets. I woke up the next morning to see the Coke untouched, since both my brother and I slept through the night. I went to the bathroom and took a couple of deep, cool swigs of flat soda and made my way to the kitchen where Nan and Pop were already seated. The smell of instant coffee – very distinct from a drip coffee –  filled my nose. It was mixed with the scent of hot bacon and scrambled eggs. Pop made scrambled eggs in such a way that I only dreamed to duplicate for myself. 

Nan and Pop rotated their breakfast. Every other day they had bacon and eggs, and the days in between were filled with cold cereal or oatmeal. Regardless of Nan’s main course, though, she finished strong with two cookies. Always two. Mallomars or Oreos, neatly placed on a folded napkin on the upper right corner of her plate or bowl, waited for her to put down her utensils and dunk them for a sweet ending to a nice meal. 

I followed suit more times than not. She tried to enforce good eating habits when we were there, especially when my brother and I spent a couple of summers gaining an unbelievable amount of weight (our babysitter at the time took us to McDonald’s anywhere from three to five days a week for lunch. She was fired). One afternoon Nan replaced what would have been my normal lunch – grilled cheese and tomato soup, her specialty – with a small dish of creamed spinach.

“You kids have to start eating healthier,” she warned. 

How could I possibly want to eat healthier when the second drawer down to the left of the sink was filled with ginger snap cookies and Oreos and Mallomars and graham crackers? How could I stray from a cookie with breakfast? How could I avoid the giant dish of Hershey kisses, placed obtrusively on a table between the kitchen and the main hallway? She asked the impossible of me, surely.

The sweets were my drug. Ice cream floats and warm backyards were perfect for each other, and Nan couldn’t tell me otherwise. Nighttime Coke on the sink was expected, not anticipated. I looked forward to maybe having to get up and relieve myself in the middle of the night for the promise of sweet, flat soda in the bathroom after I washed my hands. The lackadaisical observation of my movements by my two favorite senior citizens; it freed me up to grab a cookie or two, or three on my way out the door. I was outside all day, I justified. Two cheeseburgers were not uncommon for a child who spent all day kayaking against the currents. Root beer was in the fridge because it was on sale, not because it was healthy, and my two Depression era companions never said no. They said, “I love you,” and sent me outside to play some more.

I baked in the sun until my shoulders turned purple and I felt myself shrink and shrivel up. The salt air made its way into my mouth and left me with a desert thirst all over as my skin tightened and stretched on my bones. I crawled onto the boat to jump off of the bow into the water. The creek was like a bath and I disappeared under the cloudy top and hung for a moment, suspended where she held me. 

I ran back across the dock planks to the float so I could repeat my dive. I placed my foot on the bow of the boat once more and it shifted away from where my other foot was planted. I slid forward into a split until I couldn’t hold on any longer and plunged between the boat and the dock. I felt a sharp burn as my back scraped against a rusty nail. My head went under for a moment only to see the side of the boat come back towards the dock. I scrambled out of the water and ran into the house, screaming for Nan. 

She took me into the bathroom and pushed aside the empty plastic cup that once had Coke in it, and replaced it with a bottle of clear liquid. 

“Hold still this will clean it out.” 

I turned my back to her, the space between my shoulder blades pulsating. Then came a cold touch of the liquid followed by an immediate burn, as if she went outside, found the rusty nail, and put it into my back. I screamed and ripped the curtains off the bathroom window.

“What is that?” I began to cry.

“Rubbing alcohol,” she said, panicked at my reaction.  

I sniffled and dried off, unable to see the damage she had done but certain the wound on my back was massive. My grandpa came into the house and sat down, his old man belly proud and shirtless, his knees sticking out from under khaki shorts and his feet decorated in white calf-high socks and loafers. 

“What’s the matta!” He put his arms out to me and gave me a hug. 

“I cut my back on a nail and Nan put rubbing alcohol on it and it hurts!” I was a pathetic mound in his arms. 

Pop shuffled me off his lap and stood up. “Oh wow! Is it like my back?” He pointed his thumb over his shoulder and turned around to show me his back. Although old and faded, I could see the deep white, jagged lines – scars. My injury was nowhere near as bad as his. 

“How did you do that?” 

“I had to jump out of a plane in the war. I was in a B-17. Do you know what a B-17 is? It’s a big plane. And I jumped out because it was going down and I got injured by shrapnel. Do you know what shrapnel is? It’s big pieces of metal. And then I landed in a tree in Germany. And then the Germans found me.” 

My story seemed much less interesting. I listened to Pop tell me about the plane crash for a while longer, then found Nan and apologized to her for making such a scene. She forgave me, of course, as she always did. 

“Here,” she said, and handed me a hard butterscotch candy.

Under the Oak Tree

I combed through the blades of grass with nubby fingers. A light breeze carried salted, marshy air up over the bulkhead and I sat at my mother’s feet and watched as the grass dusted grains of sand from my palms. She lay on an ancient chaise chair that was woven with plastic strips of different bright colors and had a permanent sag in the middle from too many rear ends taking a seat to watch the water. I could see, underneath the chair, how close her butt was to the grass. She lay still, watching me use earth to clean my tiny hands and I looked up at her. 

“Come over here,” she said, and outstretched her arms. 

Dutifully, I clambered up onto her lap, the plastic chair moaning in protest. Her legs were rough with stubble, and smelled like fruits and felt oily. Above us, an osprey flew circles. I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I woke up with my dark coiled hair matted to my face, the sun still shining. My mother was unmoved from her spot on the chair, still looking down at me. She smiled. I pressed my hands onto her belly, the slippery soft bathing suit giving way to my touch. The world moved around me as I craned my toddler neck around to observe the still-moving water, the busy birds, and the clouds that glided across the sky. Above us, an oak tree waved.

That was my first memory at the creek house.

The memories continued to follow me throughout my life and made themselves known, in the same way the salt came up off the shore – the same way the rain told us it was coming on a summer afternoon. Each time I’ve smelled warm coconut – or even the pungent decay of fish – I was reminded of my childhood on the creek. The scent of instant coffee and the familiar warm welcome of butter on a hot skillet bring me to quiet breakfast mornings shared with my grandparents in old wooden chairs. Sticky linoleum floors hold me now, just how they grabbed at our feet as we ran through the house and passed window after window, each with a view of the water just beyond the yard.

Years of turbulence and darkness led me away from the creek, lost not only in the world but also within myself. I was told I needed to find my inner child and make peace with her. I searched, but couldn’t find her. Months were spent driving down to the old creek house that was no longer mine, or to my childhood home on the farm. I wandered into the middle of the woods – and several times climbed into the bed of a stranger. She seemed gone. There wasn’t a milk carton to put her picture, nor a poster to make asking if she was seen. My life force and essence of who I was went missing; I tried to meditate. 

I’d think of the swingset my brother and I had in our own backyard where I’d pump my legs so hard in the hopes of stepping on a cloud. Or my mind would go to the trampoline we haphazardly used unsupervised; We broke every umbrella in the house trying to fly away like Mary Poppins. I thought of the spruce trees at the back of the farm and how I’d climb up the branches and sit for hours in the hopes of seeing something otherworldly. I remembered my deep bedroom closet that I cleaned out just for a space to hide. Those were my little girl’s memories, I told myself. That’s where she lived. She lived in fear and in shadows. She looked for unnatural things. She was never a little girl. 

Then one day I was talking about my earliest memories and it hit me as clear as that one afternoon I recalled. The little girl woke up under the oak tree. She rode her bike almost five miles each way over the summer and mixed the salt of her body with the salt of the creek. She dried off on the float of the dock, on her back and arms spread wide like the black loons that speckled the horizon and waterline from their bulkhead posts. Her body became freckled and brown and red and she didn’t care about her body on the creek, because the water always held her up above itself. 

Dirty Secrets

The evening following her death was quiet. Too quiet. My dad sat on the floor of my grandpa’s living room, surrounded by heaps of papers and bills that my mom hid around the house during the last year of her life. I later learned through my own investigation into the mind of an addict that they’re particularly good at keeping secrets. My mom’s secrets were of a financial matter. She had a credit card no one knew about, bills left unpaid, stuffed into drawers here and there, and now my dad was sifting through all of it. 

It made sense to me, though, watching him look at old bills for the first time and have no idea who was responsible for them, or how they were so well hidden. That previous summer, my mom and dad were living with my grandpa who was recovering from surgery. My brother and I lived in our childhood home across town. One afternoon my mom called me and asked me to bring the industrial-sized jug of coffee to her because they ran out and she would rather die before ingesting instant decaf.

Dutifully, I made a pit stop to the kitchen and pulled out the jug. Behind it, my mom’s Minnie Mouse glass – a souvenir from our first family vacation to Disney World – sat behind it, half-full of clear liquid. At first, I thought it was a glass of water and thought it was very strange that it was in a food cabinet. I pulled it from the shelf and brought it to my nose. Vodka. How? She never drank vodka. 

I brought it up to her that same night. Her response was, “Don’t judge me.” I knew she was drinking vodka before she wound up in the hospital, before she turned yellow, before she forgot who she was. Yet, I said nothing, because she told me not to judge her. She told me to stay out of it, and that I wasn’t the parent. So I obliged. Partly out of fear and partly because I thought maybe if I kept her secrets she’d have more to tell me until there was nothing left to hide and maybe – when all other forms of avoidance were exhausted – she’d want to get sober.

It was uncommonly warm – the day after her death – and we opened all the windows in the front of the house, the ones facing the creek. I grew up accustomed to the smell of low tide, the oddly sweet, rotten, organic smell that rose up from the muck when the water receded. When we were little, my brother and I would blame it on the other as our parents drove us near the water. As we aged, we could pinpoint the difference between creek smell and a fart.

The smell at first wafted gently and slowly into the living room. I saw my dad wrinkle his nose a bit – especially since he was on the floor and the odor was too dense to rise up the cathedral ceilings in the cape house. My grandpa, whose diet consisted all-too regularly of things like Jarlsburg cheese and canned sardines, was unaffected. When the smell arrived to me, on the couch, it round-house kicked me in the face. Putrid, rotting organic smell. Human-organic smell.

“That’s shit.”

“What,” my dad began. Then, cut off by his own sense of smell, inhaled deeply and regretfully.

“Oh my god,” he said, “what the fuck is that?”

“Huh?” My grandpa finally looked up. For a moment, my dad and I thought he soiled himself and was trying to play it casual. 

“Shit, pop, shit,” my dad said to him. “It smells like shit.” 

Our attention turned to the four or five open windows that faced the creek. It wasn’t the creek, so my dad and I both got up and walked out onto the deck.

“I think it’s coming from the basement,” I suggested. 

My dad put on his sandals and opened the basement door only to be struck with the affirmation that yes, the smell of raw sewage was down there. Enough, in fact, to flood the floor and anything buoyant enough that once sat on the concrete was now adrift in a sea of poo. 

It was concluded that the influx of visitors over the last week to my grandpa’s house overloaded the septic system and backed up a combination of water and waste, creating an ankle-deep tide pool downstairs. My dad grabbed a Shop Vac and I recoiled to the couch. He called an emergency plumbing service to pump out the tanks and, within maybe three hours, all the crap was gone – except for the smell. 

“Look at this,” he said as he walked back into the house. I did not want to look at whatever he had in the bucket he was carrying. 

“They floated out from behind the dryer.” He tilted the bucket towards me and inside I saw several large, empty bottles of Absolut vodka. 

“Holy shit,” I said. Immediately, I thought back to the summer before, and how I wasn’t able to figure out how my mom was drinking vodka and keeping it from everyone. It all made sense. Laundry, chores, grocery shopping – she hid everything in plain sight.

Zombies

Zombies

I didn’t know that people could be empty. Every vampire movie – every soul-sucking, weirdo zombie flick – I finally felt like I was on the same level as those creatures. Empty of blood, of soul, of life. How could I be alive if my entire being felt cold and dead like my mother?

Patricia was on the opposite side of that spectrum, actually. She requested to be cremated. She requested a closed casket, too. No one got to see her in the state she was in; partly because we didn’t want people to remember her bloated, yellow and diseased, and mostly because her bangs were flat and she would have never stood to be in public with her hair in such disarray. Naturally there were comments on how a closed casket must have meant she looked awful. But really, what dead person looks Instagram worthy? On the morning of the funeral we stuffed her shirt with childhood photos to be burned with her and headed to the church. From there, she was carted off to a crematorium, incinerated, and placed in a jar on the mantle of the house she almost died in to serve as a reminder that we were alone and addiction was real.

“Mm, the casket is closed. It must have been awful,” whispered one strange man to another strange woman. I sat in a high-back chair against a wall in the middle of the funeral home and observed them. I observed everyone. Each passing face, each person who I didn’t recognize but said to me, “Oh you have her smile! You look just like her!” But I didn’t look just like her. If they could have only seen what she looked like under that rented casket they’d have different opinions. 

“How did you know my mother?” I glared up at them from my throne. I was the one mourning. I had the power.

“Oh, well, uh, we didn’t. We’re friends with her sister.” 

“Well my aunt isn’t here. So you can either stay or go home.” 

They left.

I felt like a wild animal, protecting a dead pack leader from the hoards of scavengers, all sniffing around for a part of her name to shred off. It was kill or be killed. I couldn’t believe that even in death there were comments about how she probably looked – how she probably died. What did it matter? She was dead. Period. We just had to ride it out, collect the flowers that would also die, and go home. 

The house plants were certainly neglected back at my grandfather’s. Fall took an express lane to the backyard and everything that was once flourishing now hung skeletal and ominous. The dahlias I got her for Mother’s Day, Nan’s geraniums, and the hydrangeas were all limp; Grandma’s peace lily from her funeral in 2008 was also down to one, measly leaf. I didn’t have the heart to toss it so I just kept watering the same shitty greenery inside and hoped for the best. It drowned a little more each day but I didn’t know where to put my need to care for the dying. I had spent the first 20 years of my life trying to prevent Patricia from killing herself and, in my mind at the time, failed miserably at that. I felt selfish for going back to school, like I didn’t deserve to grow away from her. I was alive, and that wasn’t fair. 

I wandered campus, juxtaposed between the pressing social lives of my friends and the isolated void that my mind became. My priorities included meeting with professors – all of whom were wonderfully understanding that my situation was tragic, unplanned, and unfair. In particular, kudos to my social work professor who didn’t require me to shadow a hospital for six weeks following my residence at my mother’s bedside (although, I might add, she gave me a C for the semester for not shadowing a hospital, and it was “favoring” me by giving any more lenience). Post traumatic stress disorder was something I believed to be limited to soldiers and victims of national tragedies; I didn’t know it applied to my own personal disaster until the project announcement sent me into a panic attack in the middle of class.

My friends greeted me in varying levels of sympathy and awkward comments of reassurance, because none of them experienced consoling a friend who lost a parent to addiction. Anthony, in his usual silent manner, brought me in for a long albeit soft eyeball-to-nipple embrace. Most friends were silent, and simply hugged me, which I appreciated more than the words. One friend in particular, though, unsure of where to grasp condolences told me, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re back already; If my mom died I would have killed myself by now.” He meant well, and I found it pretty laughable after the exchange because I didn’t know how to react to a statement like that as much as he couldn’t control the backhanded sympathy dribbling from his mouth. 

I turned heavily into baking for some reason. Almost weekly, I ventured into town and bought dollar boxes of brownie mix, or dollar cake mix – whatever was on sale. I’d concoct delicious, although dangerously sweet, experimental desserts that my five other roommates loved and I loved eating. I thought to myself, if I wasn’t the only one eating a Kit-Kat filled brownie with melted peanut butter swirl then it was fine, right? Baking seemed almost cathartic at the time too. There is a preciseness to baking that doesn’t come with cooking meals. Baking is measuring cups and scales, whereas cooking is based off of feelings like, is this enough garlic or do I want it more garlicky? The answer is always more garlic. But, for me at the time, my feelings were so fucking catastrophic that I needed some regimented direction. Baking was a win-all – I had to follow steps and had control, and I could eat my feelings surrounded by friends who wouldn’t dare tell me I was spiraling out of control. For me there was no spiral; I was long gone. 

The isolation began to extend from within my head to my circles, especially my social work class. 

“Who here has lost a grandparent?” My professor raised her hand by example to the 28 of us, all of who raised a hand – almost proudly – in response to the question. “Alright, all of you. Makes sense. Everyone in here is over 18. Now, who of you has lost a parent?” She kept her hand down.

All of the kids kept their hands down. I felt hot and cold at the same time, like a fever. I also felt like for some reason she was challenging me because I had an ace in the hole to get out of the final project. Everything about my being was sensitive and vulnerable and I resented her in that moment. I raised my hand from the back of the classroom and her eyes met mine. Like magnets, all of the students’ eyes turned to see who she was staring at. I was the only person who raised my hand. I picked up my notebooks and walked out of the classroom.

That was the first time I really wanted to die. 

I thought, if I just surrendered to the pain I felt then maybe it would overrun my body and my heart would just stop, and that would be the end of it. I barely made it a month and I wasn’t ready to face the world without Patricia. She was the strongest person I knew and all of that shattered when she died – when she proved to everyone around her that she didn’t want to live anymore. I was so angry when she died I blurted out a couple of times that she killed herself, because I couldn’t understand the hold alcohol had on her. And I was angry with myself for saying it because I remembered how fucking terrified she was looking at me the night before she went into a coma. She knew she fucked up. She knew there was no going back. The end of her life came at 51 years old and I saw her trying to undo years of abuse in her mind for a second chance that she would never receive. 

I thought back to that summer, a month before I left for Oxford. I came home on a lunch break to find her in bed, blinds drawn, dog beside her. I lay down next to her and I asked her if she was sad. 

Three words. Are you sad? She immediately began to cry – the first time I saw her show any emotion other than anger in a year. I didn’t ask her to explain herself; she didn’t owe it to anyone to feel sad. I was just relieved that she finally opened up to me. Eventually I coaxed her out of her room and we stood in the kitchen. She lit a cigarette and took a long, personal drag.

“Maybe I’ll just kill myself,” she said passively through a cloud of smoke.

I took that statement so seriously. I offered to call out of work, take her somewhere – just the two of us. I didn’t want her to be alone.

“We don’t have to tell anyone,” I said.

“No,” she said, “I won’t kill myself.” 

No, I thought, I won’t kill myself.

Love on a Leash

The thing I liked most about Small Craft Brewing Company is that when I told friends I was drinking at the Small Craft Brewing Company they’d say, “Oh yeah? What’s it called?” Brian and I waited for his husband to show up. I had a flight in front of me that I drank down in order of color – light to dark – and he had a lager. A young boy walked through the brewery with a tub of candy bars and said he was raising money for his after school programs. 

“How much is it?”

“Six dollars.”

I handed him a ten, told him to keep the change, and split a candy bar with Brian who proceeded to drag me for giving a kid ten dollars for chocolate. “Whatever,” I said, “it’s for his school program. It isn’t a big deal.”

“I don’t know who let kids peddle candy in a bar anyway,” he replied.

The truth of my generosity was that I wanted to do nicer things – let go of control, man. Two months out of my break-up and I just looked for a sense of normalcy. I was so madly in love with my ex when we were together that every red flag looked like a regular flag until I took off the rose-colored glasses and saw a damn minefield of warning signs. I recounted the time I had to remind him to brush his teeth before bed, his unkempt car – the day he gave me back a week-old tupperware container, lined with the chili I hand delivered to his job. I should have broken up with him then; He couldn’t respect my kitchen wares, he couldn’t respect me. Bastard.

It was nice to be with Brian and his husband. I drifted into a nice buzz with only one beer in my flight left, pet a couple of the brewery dogs that hovered around for open hands and fallen snacks, and settled a little further into my single-ness. I was truly alone for the first time in years. My dog died seven months earlier at almost 15 years old and I had him since he was just a puppy. My grandfather died in January and it absolutely ripped my heart out. And then, I guess, my relationship died in February when the man I loved turned out to be a large, red-headed pile of crap. 

“I don’t want you to leave my life,” he said as he recounted the relationship he had on the side for months. I got my house key from him and didn’t look back. There were no second chances. Instead, I started therapy, didn’t eat for a week, ate too much for a week, went to Maine by myself, and sold the concert tickets I bought him and booked a trip to Georgia alone to research my grandfather’s war history at a museum in Savannah. When I wasn’t working or in a brewery I was in bed or wrote from the couch. I wanted to be alone. I wanted isolation. I didn’t want new people in my life.

“I can’t believe no one can take him home,” Brian said as he looked down at his phone.

“Who?”

“This puppy. He was surrendered to my friend in the fire department who works for the Brooklyn police department. His name’s Major. The person who gave him up said he was too nice to put in a shelter. No one can take him though. I accidentally sprayed him with a hose during drill last night and he wasn’t even mad about it.”  

Brian went on to tell me about how this puppy was passed around three or four places, but no one wanted him – or could accommodate him – and he didn’t know where he’d end up. He was a friendly dog, but still very much a puppy. He was a pitbull mix, probably. He was big

“Show me a picture,” I said. 

He took his phone out and showed me a single, head-on, blurry photo of what looked like a baby cow. I saw the eyes, though. He had very sweet-looking eyes. 

Damn.

“I’ll take him home.”

“You don’t know anything about him, though.”
“I don’t care. Where is he?”

“One of the girls has him at her apartment right now but she isn’t allowed to have dogs.”

“Can she bring him to the firehouse?”

“Kate, are you sure?”

“No. Yeah. I’m sure.” 

Maybe it was the flight of beer, or that I unconsciously crossed hairs with alone and lonely – or maybe I couldn’t stand to hear about a life that had no control over who wanted him – but I knew I needed to take the dog home. First, though, I knew he needed a name change. I Googled generic names and settled on Randall. 

“His name is now Randall.”

I slammed the rest of my beer and we piled into our respective vehicles and drove two minutes up the road to the firehouse where Randall would soon meet us. I was terrified, but I’m notorious for commitment so I sucked it up and waited to meet my new puppy. When he arrived he was exactly as I expected – sweet, clumsy, a little stupid, a couple of scars, and incredibly trusting. Honestly, he reminded me a little of myself.

“Hi, Randall.” 

I played with him, fed him treats, and let him drag me around the parking lot for a couple of hours before I loaded him into my car in the rain to drive a half hour back home. My last dog at his heaviest, was 20 pounds – lazy for his entire life; he was more like a house cat. Randall, was already at least 55 pounds and crazy. I truly had no idea what I was in for. He whined for the majority of the ride home so I rolled the window down in the back to give him some fresh air only to watch him squeeze his entire body out of the space and face plant onto the street.

Oh my god I already killed him, I thought. 

I pulled over and he was on the sidewalk, sitting, dazed, and bleeding from his chin.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I stared down at this terrified thing and he just looked up at me, motionless. I opened the car door and he jumped in again and we went home.

Aside from a gigantic dump that he took on the top of my staircase, Randall adjusted quickly to my condo. I muscled through two or three anxiety attacks at the commitment I blindly volunteered for and reassured myself I made the right decision. At the very least I can foster him, I told myself. Part of me was afraid of the life-long committal. I lost so much in such a short period of time that I couldn’t look at him without the fear of what I’d feel to lose him. I knew I already adored Randall, dysfunction and all. Maybe I was a glutton for punishment. Maybe I wanted to sleep next to something again.

 He needed leash training, vaccinations, antibiotics for the skin infection he had; He needed to be neutered; he needed command training (he was actually house trained already and the welcome home present he left me was more nervousness than anything), and I agreed to this – actually 64-pound – project. I knew he deserved love, and ultimately I knew I deserved love. My last dog wasn’t very friendly at all, and Randall was noticeably social. I nervously took him to my local coffee shop to adjust him to the public. 

Suddenly everyone was stopping me to say hi to my dog.

“Oh my god! He’s so cute! Is he friendly? He’s beautiful! Can I say ‘hi?’”

“Oh, uh, yeah, sure.” I was shocked at first but it was always the same. Perfect strangers approached me to greet Randall – who revelled in the attention – I socialized for the first time in months, and we’d be on our way. It was impossible for me to remain in isolation with him on the end of the leash. Sometimes we left the coffee shop and would get caught up in a group of passing people. Slowly but surely, he improved on the leash; he stopped trying to hug everyone he saw. I found myself making excuses to take him out and actively searched for dog-friendly establishments. Suddenly I wanted to meet people again.

Now, six months after he leaped from my vehicle in terror, Randall and I frequent shops and travel around. Together we met at least a hundred new people. He’s become a trail-hiking people greeter who rolls over for Donna the treat lady in Petco. I have to drag him out of the vet’s office because he wants to stay and hang out with all the vet techs. I, the lover of solitude, the hermit, the writer, leave my house with Randall at least twice a day to make sure he at least fills his social quota. I’ve never been so happy to see such happy innocence. He starts his therapy dog classes soon, and once he gets his Canine Good Citizen certification we can volunteer in libraries and hospitals together. He was the best buzzed decision I ever made.     

Under here, Underwear

Today marks eight years since my mother died and I am honoring it by purchasing new bras for myself – and not just because my dog has gone on some weird, hateful, and very personal vendetta against my current collection. His kill count has reached three in three months and at this rate I’m convinced he’s a Vietnam War-era bra burner stuck in a dogs’ body. My purchase of new undergarments is strictly for the little bits of self care that go completely overlooked by so many people these days.

I used to help my mom fold laundry all throughout my childhood. We’d park ourselves on the living room floor with two baskets of clean clothes in between us and just fold away. Usually through some deeply engaging movie like The Color Purple, she and I would be matching socks and ugly crying together. I swear it would take us at least an hour just to fold a week’s worth of socks for four people because Oprah would be on screen absolutely taking my teenage breath away. I’d fold my dad’s undershirts for work, my brother’s jeans, my own clothes – and my mom would fold a little bit of everything – glass of wine nearby – but always her own underwear and bras and pantyhose. One night, she told me very indignantly, “All of my goddamn underwear have holes in them!”

Easy fix. “Mom, why don’t you go buy yourself some new underwear?”

“I’m too busy taking care of the rest of you all.”
I thought that was a very silly thing to say considering she and I both shopped in the women’s section at the local Walmart or Target. Why couldn’t she just pick up a pack of Hanes and call it a day? Her bitterness towards her holey underwear and considering the time of day (nighttime meant drunk) led me to drop my questioning very quickly. And, for the rest of her life – 20 years of my own – I probably saw her purchase underwear for herself maybe twice.

Nowadays if I get an email from Aerie, telling me they’re selling underwear 10 for $27, my ass is down at the mall faster than I can screenshot the coupon code onto my phone. Some people don’t like Aerie underwear and that’s fine, but if I have some underwear at home with a hole in the lace or a stretched out elastic band I replace it. First of all, I feel like underwear just isn’t made like it used to be; Everything is on the extremes of granny panties to lace and very little in between at times. Secondly, I love the feeling of having new underwear because it’s like a little secret of self care that no ones sees daily but it’s something I’m consciously doing for myself.

My mom’s excuse of not being able to buy underwear because she was too busy taking care of everyone else wasn’t about the underwear at all. It was about the fact that she was so far gone in her own world of self care that she couldn’t even muster to do a positive thing for herself that no one else saw. When she and I had that conversation I was about Junior High/High School age, and only a few short years later, she was gone right before my eyes. Her anger at not being able to go out and buy some basics for herself was more like a cry that she had such little feeling of self control or autonomy that something as simple as new underwear was out of the question. No one could see that she was doing it for herself, so why do it? No one could see her surrender to alcoholism either until it was too late, so why stop? She hid her vices in cabinets and behind washing machines and at the bottom of hampers, but she couldn’t have a little good thing for herself hidden.

Now, makeup, lipstick, hair dye, blush – things that everyone else could see, things that she could slap on and give the illusion of taking care of herself were fair game. Except nine times out of ten she’d send me into the store to buy it for her while she waited in the car.

“I can’t go in there like this. Here, you know the shade of lipstick, Burnt Amethyst.” It would roll out of her mouth like a junkie about to get his or her next fix. She never left the house without lipstick on. She never left the house without mascara. And god forbid her ever stepping a foot outside without dyed hair and large, impressive bangs.

We can advertise our outward self care until we’re blue in the face but what are we doing in private for ourselves that no one can see or assess? This post about my mom is pretty different from what I normally talk about, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are all going to face some struggle at one point or another, and it’s what we choose to do for ourselves when no one is watching that really determine where we are in our path of self care or self help. The word self is right there. If we think we’re too busy taking care of someone else (or more than one someone) to do something as simple as buying some new under garments, then maybe it’s time to assess where our energy is going.

Today, my energy is going to a little bit of self care (hopefully on sale) that I can put on before my clothes and my war paint and face the day knowing I’m covering bases, even the little ones. No one’s care is worth having uncomfortable, worn out underwear over. And to broaden that for anyone who still thinks this post is only about underpants, take care of yourself, even if others can’t see it. You shouldn’t be in a competition to be the one who can put yourself out there for others the most; You shouldn’t burden yourself with folding the world’s laundry if yours are in tatters. You’ll only resent those around you if you enter the cycle of being the fixer and the caregiver. Love yourself a little bit today.

Dick and Jane

Jane sat across from Richard, a candlelit dinner between them.

“I’m sorry I’ve been taking things so slow,” Jane said. “I just haven’t been around a nice guy like you in such a long time, Richard. It’s taken me back a little.” She swirled her wine around without picking the glass up off the table.

“Please, call me Dick. We’re on our what? Fifth date already?” Dick flashed a toothy, charming smile at Jane. He did feel their relationship was a snail’s pace, but he hadn’t met anyone quite like her before. She was timid, but he found himself pulled completely into her orbit. 

“Well, alright, Dick.” Jane couldn’t keep her eyes from his. He mesmerized her.

Dick reached across the table and grabbed Jane by her hand. 

“I want to be with you, Jane. I really do. This feels right.”

She squeezed his hand in agreement and raised her glass of wine. With a delicate sip, Jane just knew Dick was the one. 

It was a less-than organic gathering of overworked thirty-somethings that brought Dick and Jane together. Modern dating found itself stifled by the need to make end’s meet in the city; it was easier, more feasible, and fiscally responsible to make a profile online and wait. Jane was a self-proclaimed bookworm – and proud of the fact (If you don’t like slow mornings and getting lost in novels on a Sunday, this might not work out). Dick was an avid book collector and seller, specializing in antiquarian pieces. He reached out to Jane and asked her what was the oldest book she ever read. He then asked her out for coffee. 

“I prefer tea. I hope that’s alright.”

“As long as we can talk about books,” he replied. 

Their first encounter was awkward, as expected. Both admitted they hadn’t been on a date in quite some time. Dick was dreamy – tall, strong jaw, the opposite of what Jane imagined an antiquarian book collector to resemble. He found her elegant, soft, mysterious – like a book he was yet to read. They seemed to feed off of each other and after almost three hours of talking books they planned a second date. Then a third, fourth, fifth. It was seamless. Their tale perfectly bound, each page turn more exciting than the last. 

After their fifth date Jane took Dick home to her apartment. It was small, although the layout was just as he expected – large windows where multiple houseplants had a front row view to the busy street below. She had several small bookshelves scattered about her living room and he busied himself with the titles while he waited for Jane to put the tea kettle on. Mostly romance novels, some horror, a handful of memoirs – Jane had a decent assortment of reading material and that pleased him. 

“See anything you like?” She entered without him noticing. She sipped her tea. 

“I only see one thing I really like,” he said, eyes on her.

They made love in her apartment regularly after that night. Dick loved the smell of Jane’s hair, her pillows, everything. He drove to clients and auctions with her moved into the front of his mind, next to the 1607 copy of Aristophanes’ Divine Comedies he was about to sell. He wanted to move her into his home, he decided. He couldn’t be without Jane. 

At first she was hesitant, “Well, it’s a great idea and I’m flattered but,” she paused. “I guess you would find out anyway.”

“What is it? Tell me,” Dick pleaded with her.

“I haven’t dated in so long because – well, because my last relationship ended with a lot of… bruises.” She looked looked down at her feet, embarrassed. 

Dick took her hand, “I am so sorry. I understand. But I’d never hurt you. I just want to be with you. If you don’t want to live with me then I won’t make you.” Jane knew he was sincere. 

“Let me think on it?”

“Of course.” 

They spent the night at Jane’s apartment again, the smell of her steaming tea kettle warmed the rooms. Jane felt at ease – and while Dick slept beside her – made her decision to move into his home. She closed her eyes and let out a deep exhale. Her story was finally getting its happy ending.

It only took a short time to pack the contents of Jane’s apartment. Her books and plants took up the majority of the moving truck. When it came to her bed, “Throw it away,” she said. “We’ll just use yours.” She smiled wide at Dick. He nodded and smiled back. Dick noted how few things Jane had to begin with, and as he helped her pack he realized he didn’t even need to rent a truck for the move. 

“Did you move around a lot?”

“My last relationship caused me to get out as fast as possible. I only took the essentials, really. And the tea kettle.” She laughed. Dick was pleased. It wouldn’t take too much effort to have Jane with him always. 

The couple settled into a natural coexistence. Jane’s romance and horror novels blended in with Dick’s extensive antiquarian collection. Jane took note of how large his library was in comparison to her little shelves strewn about her old apartment. He had an entire room dedicated to beautiful, rare, expensive works. 

“Be careful in here,” he warned, “these are my prized possessions. No food. No tea. Sorry.” 

“Oh, well alright.” Dick had several rules for Jane to follow: she was to remove her shoes when she entered the house; Squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube; Place the toilet seat cover down when finished; Turn the lights off when leaving a room. He had a lot of little rules that she wasn’t aware of when they first began their romance, but she didn’t mind. He was nicer than any man she dated, and he was so willing to have her live with him. His beautiful house was better than any apartment she hurriedly inhabited years prior. 

She grew accustomed to all of Dick’s little rules and one Spring afternoon in their backyard, after only a year of dating, Dick proposed. 

“I am enchanted by you. My life is better because of you. I want you, all of you, to be with me. Forever.”

Jane accepted without hesitation. The couple planned for a small gathering, family and only a couple of close friends. She wanted to get married in their large backyard, “Right where you proposed. A perfect ending to our love story.” 

Dick was not persuaded, though. He insisted on a ceremony away from their house, although still small. “I mean, we’ve never been married before. I want it to be classic. Romantic. Special.”

“It’ll be special as long as it’s us, right?” Jane couldn’t sway her new fiance. He planned to pay for the ceremony, regardless. Eventually she relented. She wouldn’t get her backyard wedding.

Almost immediately after the couple exchanged vows, Jane learned she was pregnant with their first child. As her belly grew, her temper shortened. She lashed out at Dick for little things, and he grew impatient with her forgetting to shut off lights, or when he found her reading one of her horror novels in his library with a cup of tea. 

“You know there’s no food in my library,” he scolded.

“It’s our library, Dick. And I’m pregnant.”

He felt his anger swirl in his chest and left the room. He couldn’t do anything to a pregnant woman. 

When little Nell was born the problems between Dick and Jane subsided. There was a perfect, cherub-like little girl before them who needed constant attention and love, and there was no space for arguing over toilet seat covers and shoes worn inside. Dick had the woman he wanted and now, a child. He got everything he wished for. 

Nell could do no wrong in her parents’ eyes. She was precocious and curious about everything. Dick thought about the day when he would teach her all about antique books, but for now – he decided – the library was off limits to the toddler. 

“No no, that’s Mommy and Daddy’s room. Someday we’ll let you in there. But it isn’t for play, sweetie.” Dick took Nell by the arm and guided her out of the room. She let out a whine.

“Why can’t you let her play in the library, Dick? It’s her house too.” 

“I’m not allowing a baby to play in a room full of paper, Jane. Especially paper worth as much as that collection.” 

“They’re fucking books, Dick. I swear you love your collection more than this family.” 

Dick was taken aback by Jane’s words. He never heard her curse before; She said shit when she stubbed her toe maybe three or four years earlier. 

“How could you say something like that? What’s your problem?” 

Nell began to whine more.

“Oh great, and now you’ve upset the baby. Give her to me.” Jane put her hands out and Nell flopped into her mother’s arms. “There, it’s alright now. Daddy is just being mean, baby.” She looked at her husband with disdain, a look Dick never saw on his wife before. He didn’t recognize her eyes. 

Nell grew, and so did the couple’s tensions. The little nitpicking fights turned to cursing and fists slamming the kitchen countertop. Dick felt as if he was losing his mind in his own home. Jane became overprotective of Nell. She insisted he install nanny cams around the house to keep an eye on her. She told Dick she didn’t feel safe. 

“I don’t understand,” Dick said, “how can you not feel safe?”

“I just don’t. What if Nell falls, or if someone tries to break in? Would you install the cameras?” Jane mentioned to Dick that she told her mother about her concerns, and her mother agreed. Dick relented and installed cameras in the library, the front living room, and the kitchen to satisfy his wife. 

A month passed. Dick grew angry. His house no longer felt like it belonged to him. He sat in the front living room, reading, when he heard a thud from the library. And then another. And another. Dick jumped up. Someone must be stealing my books, he thought. He heard Jane walk out the back door into the yard, but not return, so he picked up the bat he kept by the front door and slowly made his way upstairs. The door was shut. His muscles tightened along with the grip on his bat. Dick slowly turned the knob and threw the door open, weapon overhead, to see Nell – alone – ripping pages out of a novel from 1843.

“What the fuck!” The baby began to cry. Dick dropped the bat and scooped her up in his hands. He heard Jane walk in through the back door, panicked. 

“What’s wrong!” 

“You left the baby in the fucking library alone? What is wrong with you?” Dick was screaming at Jane, the baby in between them, crying. 

“Stop yelling! You’re scaring her!” Jane reached to take the baby from his arms. 

“I’m losing my goddamn mind!” Dick turned around and picked up the bat.

“What are you doing?” Jane took a step back.

“I feel like I don’t live in this house anymore. You don’t respect my rules.” Dick held the bat at his side. 

“Dick,” Jane started, “put the bat away.” 

He exhaled. Dick walked past Jane and crying Nell back to the front room and put the bat back where it belonged. He grabbed his coat and left. He needed some fresh air.

Later that evening, from the library, Dick heard pounding on the front door. Muffled yells were overpowered by Jane, hysterical.

“He’s upstairs! In his library! He was so mad!” 

Heavy footsteps climbed the staircase to the closed door. Dick stood frozen and confused when two police officers came in and ordered his hands behind his back. 

“You are under arrest for assault,” one officer began.

“What? What are you talking about? I’ve been upstairs this whole time!” Dick’s heart began to race. He didn’t struggle. They had to be wrong. 

As the officers led Dick down the stairs, he saw Jane, bruised and bloodied, baby asleep in her arms. 

“What the… what the fuck?” He stared at her eyes, wet with tears. “What happened?” 

“I can’t even look at you!” Jane turned away as Dick was taken outside, through the front living room, past the empty space where the baseball bat belong, and into the squad car. 

“Don’t worry, ma’am, he’ll be locked up for a long time. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“No, that’s alright. Thank you for responding so quickly. I’ll just wait for the restraining order – and divorce papers – to come through.” Jane shut the door behind the officers and put Nell in her crib. The house was finally quiet for once. 

She sat down in her office and opened the family computer. Jane clicked through the nanny cam files and found the kitchen camera. She opened it. There, Jane cringed through footage of her, hitting her own face with Dick’s baseball bat. It fucking hurt, but it was all she could do to get him to leave. His stupid rules weren’t going to get him put away. His squeaky clean record wasn’t going to get her his expensive book collection, or his beautiful house. She deleted the history on the camera – Dick must have shut off the camera before he beat me. I knew I didn’t feel safe for a reason – she decided on her alibi. When she was finished, Jane closed the computer, picked up her cup of tea, and went into her library. 

The boy who Feared Thunder

The young boy sat idly on the backyard swing as the July sun moved lower and lower, seemingly hotter – closer – than it was earlier that day. The chains creaked and popped unevenly as he rocked back and forth – an imperfect assembly done by his father. Dinner would be soon. He wasn’t trying to move, rather, the earth was moving under him. His bare feet dangled, big toes lightly kissing the patch of dirt where he and his sister spent countless summers before kicking off and jumping, trying to reach the sky. 

He observed his own shadow growing and stretching out before him, the sun to his back, as if he was watching his future and how tall he would get in the coming years. A breeze curled under his bangs, dry with salt from where they were once dampened by sweat and play. He kept his eyes on his shadow – longer, longer, until it was nothing more than a black stain across the grass. He thought to himself that he would die someday, but that didn’t frighten him. His mother told him when his grandfather died, that it’s only natural, that it happens to everyone. The young boy asked where he would go – if he would come back again. She said she didn’t know. He didn’t know how to tell his mother that’s how it worked – that he recognized his grandfather in his dreams – that he was afraid of thunder for a reason. 

The summer of 1942 held a large amount of promise and fear for the American people. The United States was already at war with the Axis Powers following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of the previous year. Artie and Harold knew from a young age that they wanted to serve in the military, but the twins weren’t prepared for killing, enemies or otherwise. Being the youngest two in a family of nine children with German immigrant parents, the boys knew that they’d be men of military – at the very least to help support their parents. Their father was a milkman in New York City, trading in his horse-drawn cart and bottles for kegs once Prohibition ended and taking on the role of a brewer; He played guitar at bars and bus terminals for extra money at night. Their mother was a homemaker who made all of the children’s clothes and maintained a home of eight boys and one girl. 

Once the war began, Artie enlisted in the Navy, being a lover of boats and summers on the lake house. His twin chose the Army Air Corps, with his eyes fixed on his second love, the B-17 Flying Fortress. For the first time in their 22 years, the twins parted ways to serve what they both believed to be a higher purpose. Harold learned the ins and outs of repairing a plane engine. Artie mastered gunnery school and prepared to leave for the Pacific. The boys kept in touch through letters; Harold always so poignant and proper. Artie, the jokester of the two, scribbled his way along with quips and poor spelling. They always looked forward to knowing the other one was safe. As twins, they shared everything, including gut feelings – the letters helped. 

Artie sat staring out at the Pacific Ocean, a letter from Harold in his hand. He had just gotten married on leave and only a few days later was called off to England to fight with the 8th Air Force against the Germans. He was proud. He was scared. He had a feeling in the pit of his stomach. Artie didn’t know where to send a return letter, so he instead addressed a note to Harold’s new wife, congratulating the couple and requesting for a way to contact his brother in the future. Once he was finished, Artie returned to the humid, sticky reality that was the Pacific Islands, watching the sun blaze red-orange as it sunk over the horizon, turning the water to fire before him.  

At night he lay awake under the mosquito net, the lamplight moon projected shapes and shadows against the barrack wall. It reminded him of when he was a young boy and his father brought home a Magic Lantern. They turned on the lamp before bed and fell asleep to the images of lions and elephants against the ceiling, a whole world within their crowded Depression home. He missed those days and thought back to them as if they happened a lifetime before, as if they weren’t his to remember. He was worlds away, killing men, and for what? To stop more men from killing more men? 

On the night of November 13th, Artie was operating with a crew on PT-154 off the Shortland islands in the Pacific. It was a nighttime anti-barge mission. Their goal was to cut the fuel sources to the Japanese who occupied the island, eventually allowing Allied forces to take over Tonolei Harbor. No fuel. No planes. No ships. It seemed easy enough, almost childishly simple. The men moved silently with the assistance of PT-155. Artie held his breath as water lapped up against the sides of their boats. They crept along about a mile south of the main Shortland Island, guided only by beach silhouettes and the stars. 

The still, unmoving night was suddenly broken by blinding flashes that came from a mile north of the PT boats. Seconds later was the boom of the artillery the lights belonged to. From the shore, three enemy rounds were fired in succession and came screaming towards the men. The first round missed with a deafening roar as it taunted the crews, bobbling around, maneuvering through the black. The second round hit its mark, tearing through the port side of the Tulagi boat like thunder under Artie’s feet. Direct hit. The third round went unnoticed as he blew towards the sky in an explosion that turned his body around and over, landing on whatever broken part of the boat remained.

The men didn’t even have the time to return fire from their turrets as another shell pierced a readied torpedo. A large flash of fire followed as whatever was left of PT-154 was thrown about the black water, now littered with debris and bodies. Shouts from the shore echoed as the crew struggled to see who was alive, only to be met with blood and cries for help. Artie lay on the deck of the boat, calm and numb in a dream. Water sprayed over his body from the unrelenting rounds against the already-dead crew. He felt the world move below him, agitated water stirring around with the earth. Artie gazed up at the November sky, flecks of magical light dancing along the ceiling of the world. He thought of his brother Harold and closed his eyes. 

The young boy woke up, sweating from the memory. His night light projected images of lions against the ceiling. The dreams never felt the same as when they first happened, and as he got older, he remembered less and less. The sky wasn’t as bright this time, the stars blurred a little more. He sat up and walked to his window where the clouds threatened to wake the world with flashes of heat lightning and the roll of thunder. One, two, three… He counted the time between the crash and the spark, just like his mother taught him – just like his grandmother taught him. He remembered the bombs more than anything else. The last thing he heard in 1943. The young boy felt goosebumps on his arms wake him further. He turned around and jumped back into his bed, eyes fixed on the lions. Soon the storm would be directly overhead. Soon, the war would be back.

Into the Kassel

“Well, fellas, here’s the new ship.”

Harold, Kelley, and crew all stood before their new B-17, Classy Chassis. It was originally operated by a pilot, Alexander, who was to replace Topin as copilot while Kelley took over his seat as the captain. Jack and Ned gandered at the damaged Shack Up. “Good job, boys. You broke the plane.” Jack stood with his hands on his hips and cocked his head dramatically and comically to the side. It reminded Harold of his mother when he and Arthur would get in trouble as young boys; she would reprimand Harold for something his brother did, and vice versa. Harold would defend himself and then ask his mother to dress them differently. The group laughed at Jack’s comment because it was funny, but also because they were still in shock that they managed to land the plane. 

“Where’s your digit?” Jack pointed to Harold’s bandaged hand. 

“I dunno, somewhere near Dusseldorf, if I had to guess.” Jack laughed, “You boys ready for this one we got coming up? Dropping in on Kassel. Going to give those Jerry’s a nice wake-up.” Jack and Ned were set up to fly into Kassel and drop several tons of bombs in their wake; each B-17 was capable of carrying up to three tons. They hoped to be home that afternoon. Harold had a letter to write back home to Loretta. 

Several days prior the Allied forces began an operation against German ball-bearing and aircraft factories. Ball-bearings were vital to the aviation industry, and used in just about all machinery. This factory in particular was assembling FW-190’s. It was speculated that the Focke-Wulf was the best single engine fighter aircraft of the war. The FW-190 took its first flight in 1939, and since then its appearance over the skies always left a little extra tension in the already strung-out airmen. If they successfully destroyed these, they could begin the process of sweeping out Germany – at least in the sky. By 1943, Germany was already wavering on its pedestal, with more and more propaganda highlighting Hitler as unstable, his people starving – and as a result more and more Jews and minorities were unjustly punished. The killing of innocent people only increased as the end of World War II – hopefully – approached.

The ships took off out of Ipswich early July 30th. Kelley and his crew departed for Germany just after eight in the morning. The low roar of the plane shook Harold with a slight uneasiness – the same uneasiness he felt each time he went up in the sky. It had only been a couple of days since their previous plane went down – but this was war and a job had to be done. If they were successful in their mission, there wouldn’t be so many planes to worry about shooting them down, he reasoned. It would get done. 

Jack and Ned flew close by to Classy Chassis – two of over 100 bombers set to destroy the Junkers and Fieseler aircraft factories that sat just outside of a small village called Dorla. The B-17s did not have the protection of the Mustang fighter planes this time, and were resolved to defend themselves as well as each other. Daytime missions were always a risky run, sure, but they had luck on their side – especially following the July 28th mission. 

After flying into Germany, Classy Chassis began its mission. They turned north. These ships moved so smooth and elegant, Harold thought, as Kelley maneuvered Classy Chassis effortlessly to the drop location. The sinking feeling in Harold’s stomach came back, knowing the crew would have to fend for themselves, as well as being unreasonably deep in enemy territory. They were over the town of Bebra when suddenly an explosion rocked the left side of the Fortress. Harold was thrown to one side and the ball turret gunner ran to his station without saying a word. Through the ten-panel plexiglass the men saw fighter planes bob and weave about their formation. From below, German anti-aircraft weapons blew a hole straight through the wing of the plane. Engine number four was completely shredded and replaced only by smoke and flame. Flak pierced the metal and the crew screamed out in confusion and fear. The sound of metal ripping from the fuselage and wings was like if every train scheduled to pull into Jamaica Station back home came in at once without stopping. The men tried to steady themselves and Kelley fought to keep the nose even as thick, black smoke poured from the portside of their aircraft. Harold felt a deep, burning pain in his back but continued to look for something to shoot at. He jerked his wrists forward to choke up the sleeves of his bomber jacket and get a better grip on the turret gun when he noticed the gash on his arm. He gritted his teeth at the pain and yelled for direction, not knowing how many of the crew were still present. 

More smoke filled the ship. Sparks flashed and Harold began to find it difficult to see. Things looked grim; they still had a bomb shaft filled with artillery, and it was confirmed that two engines on the wing were torn clean off. Harold tried to desperately see if there were any other planes around them caught up in the mess. He wanted to see if Jack was out of harm’s way and on his route back to England.

Again, another explosion. A shell effortlessly ripped through the cockpit and the oxygen systems engaged. Electric was now completely lost and Kelley knew then that there was no hope for getting this ship back to England. They had been in the sky for just over an hour, trailing smoke like a bad omen across Germany. 

The controls were so damaged that they were flying a ticking time bomb if they stayed. Thinking quickly, Adams jumped into the bomb bay and used a large screw driver to wedge open the bomb shaft. All at once, the artillery dropped from the underside of the plane with no target in mind – the only goal to lighten the load and give the crew some more air time as they thought on what to do next. 

“Bail out! Bail out!” Kelley called from the cockpit as he made his way to the bomb bay. It seemed obvious at this point. He knew their situation was making them nothing more than an easier target for German fighter pilots. Jones ran over to radio an emergency message. By the time he returned to the front of the plane, the cockpit was empty – the rest of the crew had bailed out. Papers and wiring flew around and were sucked out into the sky as pieces of metal ripped from the fuselage. Jones found his way to the bomb bay and jumped.

One by one, the men descended onto Germany in different locations. They were separated, wounded, and far into enemy territory. Jack and Ned watched helplessly from the B-17 in front of Classy Chassis, his own crew avoiding flack and bullets from the Germans, and returning fire when they could. Jack never saw Harold bail out, no less make it to the ground.

The Ferryman

When I moved back into my apartment for my senior year of college, I noticed a large black spot on the ceiling. I called my mom to tell her and ask what she thought I should do about it, but she didn’t answer. When she finally did, she was angry at me, told me, “Figure it out,” and hung up. My move back to school was a couple of weeks ahead of the rest of the population because I worked for the campus. Patricia sat on the kitchen chair, her legs elevated, cigarette limp in her hand. It curled and whined upwards. She looked tired.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend more time together this summer.”

“It’s alright. I was away anyway. I’ll be home for your birthday in October.” I looked at the clock, “I better leave. I love you, Mom.” 

“I love you too.” 

We hugged and I made my way for the ferry. Something felt off. I already decided in my head to come home earlier than her birthday – earlier than October 8th. And as I called her – and she didn’t answer – something felt even worse. She used to make me call her everyday the other three years, so what changed? 

I decided to report the black spot to maintenance, and they sent a crew of guys to come rip out a 2×3 foot chunk of my ceiling to address the black mold. It turned out to be a leak in the emergency sprinkler system, slowly releasing warm water for the entire summer.

“Good thing you caught this in time,” one man said to me. 

My mom still wasn’t answering her phone. Then, one night, my dad called me. 

“Don’t call your mother anymore right now.” He sounded frustrated with me, like I was inconveniencing my family’s life. I asked why the hell not. 

“Just don’t, alright?”

“What’s wrong? Is she sick? Should I come home? Is she mad at me?”

“No, she’s fine. Just call me if you need something from now on.”

I felt powerless and small. Clearly, something wasn’t right and I was purposely kept in the dark. It took only two days for my dad to call me again and tell me I needed to come home. He said she was sick; he didn’t say with what. He said to just come home; she was in the hospital. I knew Patricia and hospital didn’t mix well. My mother almost proudly toted the fact that she had not seen a doctor since I was born in 1990. Once I got off the phone, I collapsed to the floor. My gut – my deepest parts – knew she wasn’t coming home. 

I couldn’t sleep the whole night and by the time I got to the ferry, the sun had barely peaked up over the horizon. It was a chilly September morning, my first week of my senior year of college. I bathed in salt air and drank cheap ferry coffee. It was nearly impossible to sit still, as if I thought somewhere inside of me that I would have been able to swim to Long Island faster. I wanted to yell at the captain and tell him to hurry the fuck up.

From the moment I touched down on the island, every basic human instinct stripped itself away. It’s amazing what the human body does when sent into a literal crisis – a life or death situation. My senses went insane; I kept catching myself biting my fingers, crying silently, shaking my knees around. My dad hugged me – then my grandpa. I remember everything like it was on a hyperrealistic recording in my head. The flowers were still in bloom in my grandpa’s backyard; Nana’s geraniums still lined the driveway. The half hour drive to the hospital took longer than the ferry home. Everything around me pulled like taffy and mentally I couldn’t keep up. I just needed to see Patricia. I needed to see my mommy. 

It was so horrifying and real. It smelled. It was dry and asphyxiated me as I entered the ICU. Uncertainty. How could any of this be happening? I saw her there, yellow. Simpsons yellow. Egg yolk yellow. Yellow eyes. Yellow everything. Stringy, limp, matted hair. No makeup. She always wore makeup. No cigarette. Impossible. It couldn’t be her. I needed to snap back into reality. It spoke.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Oh God, it was Patricia. I let out a forced laugh, more so of disbelief than anything, that my own mother was so worse for wear. The conversation was minimal as I described her view outside the window. There was a 7-Eleven, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

“I want vanilla ice cream and a fountain Coke.” 

She said her mouth was dry, which I found difficult to believe especially with the insane amount of swelling in her legs and abdomen. She looked like someone who was nine months pregnant with the calves of an Olympic cyclist. I kept looking at the wall. The woman before me, demanding Haagen Dazs and fast food soda, was impossible to place in the same category as the woman who viciously dragged my hair every morning, who took care of all the kids in the neighborhood – who cursed out my principal. She was laying there, unable to move, shitting in a diaper. The person in front of me was the foil of Patricia.   

I quickly noticed that the room she was in had no clocks and it felt appropriate. Time didn’t exist in a place like that. We sat in the room, stale and stagnant; it smelled like chemicals and had a metallic, sticky taste of pending death. There, in the space of crossing over, I watched my mom slowly drift in and out of toxic hallucinations and call out for our family dog, Duffy, who sat home, unsure where she’d gone. By the time I reached the boat at the end of that weekend and gave my ticket to the ferryman I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned. Everyone gave promising, half-smile reassurance on her condition, but I knew – Patricia had burnt out. 

I was right. It was only four days before I decided to get on the ferry again and see her in the hospital. She deteriorated quickly, and it was clear she wasn’t well because instead of insulting me when I walked into the ICU she told me my hair looked nice. I leaned in to kiss her forehead, bangs matted down to her yellow shell. My dad, brother, and his girlfriend had been there most of the day. They were all puffy and swollen from crying. It was 8:20 PM, and suddenly, time mattered, because the ICU nurse told me I had to leave.

“Can you stay with me tonight, just in case?” She rolled her eyes at me to lighten the overtone that “just in case” meant, “if I die tonight, I don’t want to die by myself.” 

I crumbled in front of her, saying I wasn’t allowed but I loved her, and walked away as her lip quivered and she called out for the dog. 

When they called to say she fell into a coma that evening I felt a bizarre combination of relief and panic. I didn’t have to rush to the hospital, but I felt an obligation to do so. She lay in the same bed, eyes closed, writhing around in pain and I sat next to her and just put my hand on her arm. I told her I wasn’t going anywhere and she moaned and turned her head to the sound of my voice. We were met with a doctor who told us she had a ballpark 12 hours left to live. The finality of that – the time put on life – sent me into a spiral and I had to walk out of the room. What the fuck was happening? Why was this happening to me?

I wrote her eulogy, my head splitting open in a way that I never imagined possible. I thought I was dying too. I hadn’t showered in days, I saw people coming in and out that I barely recognized; my own family seemed like shadows. Someone brought brownies, another sodas, another baby wipes – I was in an alien environment and suddenly needed to be taken care of by everyone around me. I lost function. I became sub-human. There was a point where the only thing I could perform was the writing of Patricia’s eulogy. Talking about who she was made it easier to forget that she was technically no longer there.

We tried to swap funny stories and reminisce of her self-proclaimed title of “real estate slut” as opposed to being a broker. She rarely cried. She had a sick, dark, wonderful sense of humor. She fed everyone. She loved our family dog more than us – I was relatively confident of that. She didn’t deserve to die the way she was. 

A somber tone hit the group at once. There were about ten or so of us sardine-canned into the hospital room, some seated in the window will, a couple tossed onto chairs like old clothes, the rest of us stood, myself included. We looked around uncomfortably, mostly avoiding eye contact although the stench of sadness hung over all of us like a fog. Miraculously, Patricia began to move in her bed. Everyone jumped at the sight of a comatose, technically brain-dead woman rolling around and we all began to collectively panic. We realized quickly that someone, in their awkward, depressed shifting around, leaned on the bed controls and pressed down on a lateral lift, causing my mother’s body to pitch hard to starboard while we all looked on helplessly, trying to figure out which button made it stop.

“Oh my god! Oh my god,” my mom’s friend shouted out as my father threw himself onto her body to prevent her from rolling onto the floor. Hands went over mouths and people began to gasp until one of our family friends, an EMT, stopped the roll and lowered her back to a stable, flat position. It took all of five seconds for me to burst out into laughter after witnessing the dumpster fire that was my family. 

“She would have laughed at that.”

Her death was far less climatic than her accidental resurrection. I actually woke up to a phone call from my best friend asking me how she was coming along. When I rolled over, she took her last two breaths. There weren’t angels to come take her soul away; no soft sound of harps and horns. There was only the buzzing fluorescent tubes above us and the hiss of an oxygen machine. She and I were alone together. It was 12 days before her 52nd birthday.