Decay of the Farm

Old Man Jack’s yellow recliner sat at the entrance of the red barn on the back of the property. Like Jack, the recliner was also very old, with fabric pilled and pulled along the back and arms from years of lingering in the elements. I was often tempted to call him “Uncle Jack,” because I had an Uncle Jack, but my parents were adamant to never call him that. He never has been, and never will be. It was well enough, I figured, since he always threatened to feed our barn kittens rat poison for letting them climb all over his yellow recliner.

It always smelled a certain way in the barn, like almond liquor and oil. I didn’t know what almond liquor was at the time, but when I first smelled Amaretto it brought me to the belly of our barn where the monstrous tractor sat dormant, its keys in the ignition. The floor was strewn with kitty litter and saw dust to absorb the oil, and I dragged my sandals along the cement and felt the scrape of time. More often than I was probably permitted, I climbed the tractor with slipper little hands and dusty shoes, bits of gravel and litter raining from my feet to the ground beneath me. The seat was high and hard; The vinyl was cracked and decaying like everything else in the barn. I touched the keys as they tempted me to hear the motor and smell the oil, and take the tractor from the time capsule – but I was instructed to never touch it, so I let it continue to rot.

One day, Old Man Jack just stopped sitting in the recliner at the entrance to the barn. My parents forbade me from claiming the chair as my own due to filth, and no one wanted to touch it, so it stayed. And as I grew older, the memory of Old Man Jack faded; we never talked about him. I couldn’t recall if he ever truly was the sentry of our barn, or simply a ghost that vanished as I lost my innocence.

The recliner remained as a symbol of someone or something I knew. It went to the barn kittens – now cats – who worked the fabric down to springs and bone – and like many other things – the recliner eventually made its way to the local landfill. The barn cats were sad to see it go, but they were young and had so much more to discover. They were born in a hole behind the barn. Six babies in total – all different colors – to a sleek black mother that vanished shortly after they were born. She could have been scared away by over-excited farm kids who knew nothing of space and everything of soft, plush, kitten desires. Or, more likely, she could have been killed by a fox – an unfortunate truth of farm life.

When the mother didn’t return, the kittens were moved to the chicken coop – a small, offspring of the barn. I recalled seeing chickens once bursting out of the wooden latched door, full of life and enthusiasm. But, like Old Man Jack, the memory became a dream and I couldn’t remember if the chickens were real or just more ghosts of the barn. We plugged up the egg chute – evidence that chickens did exist one time – and kept the kittens warm. I waited under the maple tree next to the coop everyday for weeks until one finally chose me. She was black, fluffy, and mean. She was a perfect hunter, and like the other cats, remained feral to the farm. Eventually, four went away to family and friends, but two – mine and my brother’s gray short hair – remained the new keepers of the barn.

We were forbidden from entering the second shed, the one directly across from the chicken coop. It wasn’t locked up, like the recliner wasn’t hidden away, and like the keys never left the tractor, but our temptation was tested at the easy wooden latch that kept the door closed. Eventually, our curiosity overtook us on an unsupervised afternoon when the kittens were no longer kittens, and we entered the space. It smelled like oil and old blood. Two work benches sat on opposite ends, one for repairing, and one for destroying. One side held tools and the other had blackened metal hooks that hung from chains on the ceiling. The shed was cold and the air was heavy, full of iron and death. I felt, as a young child, that things were killed and skinned, flayed and cut, but not a way conducive with nature. Not for survival or sustenance, but for entertainment. Evil. The space was dirty, but it felt dirty – filth in its bones and stains behind the walls. I feared touching anything, so we put the wooden latch back. We never talked about it again, and shot out the windows with a bb gun.

The barn never changed much. It stood past the edge of our grass in perpetuity, beyond a treacherous sea of gravel and rocks – something designed and intended to deter barefoot children of summer. But we grew immune with calluses and strong will – and determination to witness the slow decay of our farm and the life that came after. I often stood in its open mouth, breathing vapors of rat poison and dust, risking my health without knowing any better. In the winter the barn stayed closed, but it watched our house from afar, and peered in through our kitchen window long after we fell asleep and until the thaw of Spring. Then, we’d return to the tire swing outside and watch barn swallows use the broken window to make their nests and feed their young in the rafters above the tractor.

I Love you. Do you Love me?

May 19, 1943

Dearest Loretta,

Received your letter of the 17th and must answer it immediately. I can’t call you up cause I don’t have any time – I’ve too much to say, so I won’t send you a telegram. Here’s the set-up – I’ll write and tell my mom about it today – I know she won’t want me to get married, but she’ll approve and we’ll get her blessings. How about your mom? I believe she’ll approve and hope to get her blessings.

The ring can be purchased when I get home, or, if you care to get it let me know and I’ll send you some dough I don’t know about an engagement ring; if you want one, we’ll get it when I get home. If not, we’ll get a very good wedding ring.

My furlough will begin in June, and I think about the middle of the month. I can’t give you an exact date now, but maybe later on I will. You can get ready in the meantime. You will have to get a blood test and I want you to do it soon. I’ll get my blood test here in camp. That way, we won’t have to waste time but I can get married right away. Where will we get married? I know in your church, so if you can pay the priest a visit and tell him about it, it would be appreciated. We can’t set a definite date yet. So everything will have to be taken care of at the last minute. Announcements will have to be sent (I think) and that will have to wait for the last minute. Sweetheart, as I’m writing, I’m getting more involved and things are getting complicated. I wish I could talk this over with you. I’m going to let you take care of everything. Not that I don’t have an interest or anything, but I think you will take care of everything perfectly. It would please me fine, and whatever you choose to do is approved by me.

Darling, I’m sorry, cause I wrote 2 pages and didn’t tell you I love you yet – I love you Loretta, I love you with all my heart and soul; and will love forever and a day. I’m crazy about you and the thought of marrying you next month is giving me chills and thrills, and already, it seems I’m living in a new world. Concerning Rock Hill, I’d love to go, but whether or not we will, it’s still to be seen. My dreams are going to come true next month. Honey I love you. I love you. Love you. Love you.

Ha  xxxxxxxxx

Harold told Loretta he’d marry her on a Tuesday if he had to, and he managed to take leave before heading to a base in Maine to wed her on a Tuesday – as promised. On June 1, 1943, Loretta officially gained the title of Mrs. Harold P. Schwerdt, and she couldn’t be happier about it. The ceremony was rather short notice, but beautiful, with Loretta picking a dress right off the rack and Harold donning his Army dress uniform. What a handsome couple, people would say about them. 

Since Harold and Arthur enlisted in the military, and after they were called to war in April of 1942, tensions were growing more and more dire in Europe, and he knew that at any moment he would be sent off to fight the Axis powers. Artie was already in the Pacific, fulfilling his own dreams. Harold hoped to use his engineering and tinkering skills to remain on the ground while in the Air Force, but it was looking like he would be in the air in no time. He completed many of the required courses already, always eager to learn and improve in any field he found himself working – but a knot lingered in his stomach. If he was going to be in an airplane, he’d most certainly have to use a gun. And if he had to use his gun, he’d have to kill. B-17s were equipped with five, .30 caliber machine guns; guns for serious damage because he knew he’d be in the thick of things up in a plane like a Flying Fortress. Harold had an unwavering love of country and a great amount of pride in being in the Army, and he resolved with himself – without worrying Loretta – that he was prepared to do whatever he had to in order to come home to his girl when all this was over. 

Loretta, with very little time to prepare, ran to the boutique three blocks over from her house with Eleanor and one of her sisters.

“It just has to be white, I really don’t care otherwise.” Loretta quickly thumbed through hanger after hanger of dresses, looking for her size.

“Oh, hush! You want something that’ll at least look good on ya, Loretta! I won’t allow you to marry my brother dressed in rags.” Eleanor had two dresses – one in each hand – and held them out in front of her for her future sister to inspect.

“I like that one,” Loretta said. She grabbed the gown and took another one of her own.

“I’m just here to judge,” Loretta’s sister said with a smirk. Loretta gave a huff and went into the fitting room. The clerk followed her in and after about ten minutes both ladies returned, Loretta in front with her choice.

“Wow,” Eleanor gasped. “You look beautiful!”

Loretta gave a twirl, “Not bad for a gal grabbing a dress off the rack, huh?”

“I have to admit,” Loretta’s sister said reluctantly, “you look elegant, Rette. Harold’s a lucky guy.” She smiled. She was proud of her sister.

On the other side of town, Harold was rushing into the court offices. 

“Yes, hello sir how may I help you today?” A secretary looked up at the man in uniform and flashed a pleasant smile.

“I need to marry my gal! Tomorrow!” Harold was breathless and eager. His leave was only slotted for a few days and he was desperate to exchange vows. 

The secretary looked in her ledger and frowned. “I’m sorry, sir. It doesn’t seem like we have any availability in the next couple of days.”

“You don’t understand, ma’am. I have to marry my girl.” Harold pleaded with her to check again, but she was correct. There were so many soldiers and civilians coming through that court office to marry that they were positively booked.

“Excuse me, soldier. If I heard you correctly, you’re looking to get hitched?” An older gentleman in a tailored suit was walking out of the offices when he noticed the exchange between Harold and the secretary. He was a lawyer in the courts.

“Yes, sir. I really need to. She’s even buying her dress right now.”

“Hmm,” the lawyer began, “could you get married today?” 

“Well gee, I think so. I have to go get her. You’re able to do that? Yes. Yes I’ll marry her today.” Harold was resolved. Loretta wouldn’t mind the expedited arrangement; she wanted to marry him just as much.

“Alright then! Come with me.” The lawyer gestured for Harold to follow him back into the courts. “You! Don’t leave for the day yet. This soldier needs to get married!” He turned to Harold, “Now, son, you got all your papers? Got your blood work and tests done? You’re clean?” 

Harold nodded. He got all his medical exams done the week prior on base. 

“Perfect! Go get your gal!”

When he looked at Loretta on their wedding day – the woman he was in love with since he was 17 years old – all he could think about was being home with her, starting a family, living in a cottage and enjoying life. There wouldn’t be a life to enjoy, though, he understood, if Hitler and his followers turned out to be victorious in this global War. This sacrifice to be away from his love would be worth it in the end, he thought, to have a guaranteed peace and to serve his country at the same time. He just had to make it home again. 

“I got the telegram to go to Bangor, Maine.” Harold sat at the kitchen table, his wife before him. He swirled a cup of coffee around in small, nervous circles.

“When?” Loretta knew this was an inevitable call. She just didn’t think it would be two days after she married Harold.

“Tomorrow, Doll.” Harold looked down, almost ashamed. He wanted nothing more than a few extra days with Loretta. He sat still and waited for her to react, or be mad. 

“Well,” she began, “you better come home to me, Harold Schwerdt.” She smiled when he looked up at her. 

“I love you. Do you love me?” Harold stopped swirling his coffee.

“Of course,” she replied.

Traveling Man

April 30, 1943
Army Air Base

Wendover Field, Utah

My Darling Loretta,

Your letter today truly was swell and was enjoyed a lot. You know honey I love you too, only I love you more. I love you all I possibly can.

Today was payday, and I got my regular pay but not my flying pay. I’ll get that some time next month (I hope). I intend to send $50 to my mother so I’ll have some dough for my furlough. Honey when I get home we’ll do the town. Maybe you think I’m silly, but every day and every night I dream of going home. I’m still wondering what I’m going to say when I first see you. Even if I say nothing, I know what I’m going to do. Loretta, you are going to be kissed; and I do mean kissed with a capital (hug too). Gee I love you. I’m still hoping for that happy day in June. I love you more honey.

Your brother Joe is a good man and he’ll make a darn good sailor. An indication is how well he took it when he left. He is a man, for I could see that when I was home a year ago. I hope he manages to get home when I do. I love to see him in his uniform.

Honey, it’s nice of you to go and see Ed. If you bring him just 1% of the happiness you brought me, he’s very happy. You’re just swell (my swell girl). I love you sweet heart, I love you lots. 

I’m glad you liked the box of candy. I hope to fatten you up so I can have more to hug when I see you. Loretta, you are going to be hugged. I love you. 

Honey, when you go over to my house again and they have some good cake, ask mom for my piece. Say, “Mrs. Schwerdt, I want Ha’s piece.”

I know how much much Abie wanted to get in the service. I feel sorry for him, please give him my regards. My regards to everybody, OK? Mom, Pop, the family, Johnna, Bena, the girls.

Honey, remember the pictures I said I had taken? Well, I’m sending them home. I only have one set, so I wish you would show them to my mother. I hope to get some more, but that’s going to take a couple more weeks. 

I think the pictures are pretty good, I hope you like them. The one picture that is faded is Jack in a summer flying suit, and me in a winter flying jacket and helmet and goggles. I’ve mentioned the name of “Ned” in my previous letters; he’s Jack’s radio man. He’s in one of these pictures, and you can recognize him cause he’s wearing a summer flying suit. The guy on the other side of me, is the 1st sergeant and a very nice guy. He’s a dummer, and really can beat it out. Yes sir, a nice guy. The close up picture of me was taken by Jack. He had the camera so I went up to him and said heil Hitler; he took the picture too. I think it came out well, don’t you?

In one of the pictures I look like a tough guy; I had that taken specifically for you. Are you afraid of me? Better do like I say or else I’ll get tough with you (I may even lop you!).

Honey, I wish you could feel my eyes on you and hear me  saying, Sweetheart. I love you, more love to you, sweets. I was supposed to leave Wendover Field Sunday May 2, but orders have been changed, so I’m good here for at least another week. Darn it. 

So my doll, your letter made me very happy. I hope these pictures make you happy. 

Bye my sweets, all my love, your honey.

Love,

Ha

I love you darling. I love you.

Letter From Loretta

October 17, 1942

Friday night

2:00 am

Dearest Soldier,

Good evening or shall I say good morning. The reason I am writing so late is due to the fact that I was gabbing over the coffee pot. Mrs. Aub and Virginia were here. Both of them are looking very well. They both were asking for you and wishing you well.

As usual, I was two to ten tonight. They are giving out furloughs so I got tomorrow off, pretty good eh! Perhaps I might stop up and say hello to Bob and Irene. Irene has been pestering me to come up but I never got the chance.

I got your card from Seattle today. Tell Jack I said thanks for the kiss he put on the card. “Your Baby” is beautiful. That plane certainly looks enormous. You must certainly feel proud to actually learn what makes it run, etc.

Tomorrow is confession again. The priest must know me by now. Every other week I say the same words. I enjoy going to church especially for the October devotions. John Harrington was given a Rosary by the priest at the Great Lakes. He’s so proud of them.

You seem to be making out very well with the course you have taken. You certainly deserve a lot of credit for having no complaint after being at Mississippi. Jerry wanted to know if you were out of there yet.

Did you visit your Uncle John’s sister yet? That should be interesting to meet a person like that.

Well, my sweets, be good and remember that you will be forever my only love.

Your very loving,

Loretta   xxxxxxx

P.S. Good night dear! I love you.

P.P.S. My regards to Jack and may the two of you keep up your good work.

O’Brother O’Mine

May 20, 1940

Wednesday

Dear Kid,

After receiving your swell letter I sort of feel ashamed of myself for not writing sooner. I know you will understand when I say it’s not because I didn’t want to write but because I don’t have enough time to write, so I’ll just let it got here. O.K. Now you will have to excuse the pencil because I can’t get any ink at the present, and then you’ll have to excuse the penmanship because I’m sitting on the deck and writing on my knee. There’s a dam lot of apologies doing on, isn’t there? I know they’re not necessary kid, but if I feel like apologizing, let me. Dot all. 

I just wrote a letter to Mom about my rifle practice today and instead of repeating it to you kid, do me a favor and read her letter when you go over to the house. I won’t have enough time to repeat it now. The first thing I want to tell you is that I graduate May 26th and that will be a day I’ll never forget. I’ve been here for more than a month already. This Sunday I go on liberty again and I’m going to have a good time in Milwaukee because the company started to break up today. All men going to cooks school left tonight on about an hour’s notice. I made signalman school but I don’t know where it is or when I go. That is whether I get a leave or not before I go. My buddy, and he’s a damn good guy, made gunners mate school and that’s the reason for a good time Sunday. I like it here and I feel swell. I must admit I’m a little homesick. Nobody could have a better reason than Butch, Ha, or myself. 

Love,

Artie 

As Loretta waded her way through Arthur’s misspellings and scratchy pencil handwriting, she smiled. She remembered fondly the letter she wrote him earlier and was relieved that it was received well and that Arthur was simply too busy to respond. Even though it never worked between them, and she was now Harold’s girl, Loretta always loved the other twin. How could she not? He was her beau in every way – except his handwriting… and maybe personality, as she thought on it more. Arthur, always the funny man, could have been seen as younger than his twin by years, even younger than Loretta, with his personality. She always admired that about him, but she admired Harold’s seriousness more. She gently folded the letter and placed it in the old envelope box that she kept in a drawer in her bedroom for days where she felt like revisiting memories. Loretta threw on a pair of shoes, found a hat, and stepped out for the short, warm walk to Harold’s mother’s house to read about Artie’s day at rifle practice; Mrs. Schwerdt was probably very proud of her youngest. 

Harold wasn’t away training for the Army just yet. He was working in the city as a sales clerk. He thought it was responsible to try and take a couple of classes of night school and work during the day in order to set up funds for him and Loretta. Although she was only 18, Harold was 20 – and a man by his own eyes – and that meant he needed to have a plan for a future with the woman he knew he was going to spend his life with. The war certainly wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down; the United States seemed closer and closer to declaring war themselves, and even though Harold always wanted to be an Army man, he didn’t want to have to fight anyone. “Not very Christian,” his mother said one day. But he would, to protect his home. 

Loretta made it to Harold’s home and sat with Jeanne – Arthur’s love – and Eleanor, of course. They read over again his experiences in rifle practice. Loretta beamed when she saw the way Jeanne’s eyes lit up when she spoke of Artie – for all his jokes, he certainly took love seriously, just like his brother. They were going to be together for a long time, Loretta thought to herself. And she thought to the dreams of a small cottage like she and Harold talked about – filled with loved ones and warm summers, fires and cookouts. She couldn’t wait for the rest of her life to begin. 

I’d even marry you on a Tuesday, you know.” 

My Honey

August 31, 1938

Dear Honey, My Honey,

I would have wrote you sooner, but I didn’t get your letter until yesterday; although it has been down  the post office since Saturday. I was glad to get your letter and still happier after I read it. It was very interesting to know that I am tied down; if you will consider yourself tied down, so will I. You know, we better be careful or soon, if you’ll let me know in your next letter, we will be going steady.

To change the subject, Monday we went out in a motor boat and went fishing. When I got home, Eddie was here to greet us. He came out with Harry at about four o’clock. We’ve been having a lot of fun with Eddie. Tuesday we went out in the same boat and went dragging for killies (bait fish). Eddie came along; he’s staying for the week. He’s a bum though, he stole my bed; now he bunks in with Otz [Arthur].

So, with nothing else to write about I’ll close as:

Steady Ha and your Honey, Love,

Harold

xxxxx    P.S. I miss you a whole lot.

My regards to all. So long.

Tied down, not unlike the boat at the end of the dock, bobbing up and down in the shiny black water. The boat wasn’t captive, it wasn’t a prisoner of the dock. Rather, it was exactly where it was supposed to be. The boat was safe against the wood pilings, buffered with a couple of buoys so as to not scratch the surface. 

When Harold was a boy he learned that in order to properly tie a boat to a dock, it was important to leave enough slack for the tides. Just enough rope to let the boat drift along the water, move with the changing sea levels, and still remain close to home. If the rope was too tight, and the water came too high, the bow would be pulled under, and the boat would sink. Harold was the boat at the end of the dock, and Loretta knew exactly the right way to keep him feeling close and safe.

“No gal’s gonna tie me down,” Arthur said to Harold, matter of factly. 

“What about Jeanne?” Harold nodded his head towards Arthur and raised his eyebrows.

“She hasn’t tied me down, I just don’t want to leave. That’s my choice.” Arthur played a defensive tone back at his brother, although Harold knew he wasn’t being serious. He laughed at how matter of fact Arthur tried to be sometimes. 

“Alright, alright,” he said. “Do you think I should marry her before I enlist?” Harold turned his attention more seriously towards Arthur. He valued his other half’s opinions more than anything. 

“What if you croak in training?” As he said this, Arthur slid himself down in his lawn chair enough to reach Harold’s with the tip of his foot and gave a light shove. Arthur chuckled then said, earnestly, “Why rush love, Ha?” 

“Profound for once, Otz,” Harold replied. He did want to marry Loretta sooner than later, but Arthur was right – something Harold didn’t often admit. 

The sun was beginning to set on the brothers’ last night at the summer home. September showed itself with a breeze that took the humidity with it as it crossed the yard, over the water and past beyond where they could see. The fire Harold started crackled low and deliberate, not ready to extinguish; Harold didn’t want it to end either, if he was being honest with himself. He wanted to linger a while longer with the fresh feeling of being tied down and what felt like the final summer of his youth. He didn’t fear change, but Harold was no stranger to uncertainty of what was beyond the summer house, and Queens, and seeing Loretta whenever he wanted. 

“So when we get home, are we heading straight down to our respective enlisting offices? I’ve been thinking of saving a little nest egg before shipping off anywhere.” Harold prodded at the fire a little, trying to push some life back into it.  

“That’s a good question,” Arthur began, “and a good idea too, I suppose. Who knows when the next war will be.” 

They finished the rest of their evening in mostly silence until the fire in front of them all but went out. Harold doused it and followed Arthur back into the house. The bags they brought sat neat along the wall next to the door, ready to leave. Arthur finished cleaning whatever was left in the sink and Harold began to rummage around the fridge for a late night sandwich. He pulled out leftover lunch meat, potato bread, mayonnaise, and cheese. Arthur turned around and watched him take out a plate and a butter knife from the drawer.

“Are you pulling my leg? I just finished the last of the dishes.”

“I’ll make you a sandwich too if you want.”

“Well alright then,” he said. He twisted his mouth around as if he was trying to decide if he really wanted a sandwich. Of course he did. “But don’t bother with a plate. I’ll just eat it over the sink.” 

Harold laughed and nodded, and got out some more potato bread. They ate in silence in the kitchen, Harold at the table and Arthur hovering over the sink. The yellow light above them hummed like the bugs did outside, and the brothers were at peace. It was these simple, quiet moments, Harold thought, that were the most important. When he and his brother could just get away from the loud, crowded bustling of Queens – of working in the city – and enjoy the hum of the bugs.

Arthur finished his sandwich and said, “Do you think we’ll look the same when we’re old men?” 

“No, you’ll be uglier,” Harold said. He let go of one, deep belly laugh before getting up to return his plate to the sink. 

“How do you figure?” Arthur began, “we look the same now.”

“Yeah but you’re older so you’ll probably have more wrinkles than me by that point, Otz.”  

“I’m not older by much!” 

“Yeah, well, you liked to tell everyone you were the older brother when we were kids, so you’re older and you’ll have more wrinkles than me.”  

“Oh yeah? Well you can clean your own plate then.” Arthur’s cheeks matched the color of his hair and Harold stood at the sink laughing at his brother while he cleaned the plate and butter knife. 

“At least we’re both good-looking now,” he said.

Arthur’s demeanor quickly changed and he stuck out his chest, flexing his arms. “That’s right,” he said with a grunt, “two of the toughest-looking fellas in Jamaica.” 

“Alright, now, put them away,” Harold said as he placed the dishes in the drainboard. He carefully hung the dishrag back over the top of the faucet and dried his hands before folding the towel and placing it next to the sink. 

“Tomorrow’s back to reality,” he sighed. “Back to finding a job and figuring out when we’re going to training.” 

“It’ll work out, baby brother,” Arthur said with a wink. 

Uninvited Guests

“Night terrors again? You didn’t wet the bed did you?” There was the guilt. She was eight – “already,” as her mom put it. She didn’t need to wet the bed anymore; no one needed to wet the bed ever, she thought. Unless they were on fire. No one needed to have nightmares of the Shadow Man all the time, either.

“It was the same one. About the Shadow Man.”

MC’s mom waved a hand limply away at this before bringing it up to her coffee mug.

“It’s just a nightmare.”

MC sat dejected before her bowl of cereal. Since her dad left three years ago, her mom could only afford off-brand cereal in large plastic bags with crudely drawn cartoons on the front. She wasn’t very hungry but ate anyway – and fast – because even if it was all in her head, the off-brand cereal seemed to get soggy faster, too.

MC and her mom had been “alone” in their small cottage for only three years, although she heard her mom say on the phone that she was alone for the last ten years. She used to not understand what her mom meant when she told her friend Marta that her ex-husband minimized her. MC decided it probably was how she feels when her mom gets mad about bed wetting and dismisses her bad dreams. Like she isn’t important.

“That bastard will get what’s coming to him even if I have to do it myself,” MC overheard one morning.

“I might know someone who can help you with that,” Marta said. MC was six then. Her mom was really angry about her dad but she wasn’t entirely sure why. Something with money. “Aloe-money” she heard a couple of times. MC didn’t want her mom to hurt her dad, even though he left, because that was bad and she knew bad people went to jail. Who would she live with then? Marta? She hugged too tight.

MC just as soon forgot about it all until Marta showed up one night with another woman who she introduced as Kiva, but didn’t say whether or not she was a friend. Kiva had a book with her – as big as a bible – but it looked very old and had writing on the front in a language MC didn’t understand. In her other hand, Kiva carried a large bag full of things – some smelled strong, some not at all. There was a knife, candles, rocks of different colors, and some other oddly-shaped items that she never saw before. Kiva hoisted the bag up onto the kitchen table with a strong arm. 

“Hello.” She didn’t shake her mom’s hand. MC thought she was rude.

“Joanie, Kiva is here to take care of your problem. You know, like we talked about.” 

What was the problem? MC tried to think. Was it her dad? Marta’s voice was pitchy and a little nervous. Normally when she came to visit, MC could hear her mom’s friend boom full stories all the way to her room across the cottage. Apart from hugging too tight, Marta often talked too loud.

Joanie appeared alarmed at this somewhat-unexpected guest, but interest nonetheless. She pointed at the knife Kiva had just gently placed on the table.

“So, what? Are you a contract killer? Are we stabbing him? Because I am not going to jail. I just want what he owes… and maybe for him to be as miserable as he left me.”

Joanie’s eyes then fell to MC. She couldn’t understand entirely what her mom meant, but the stare she gave put a knot in her stomach and made her feel like she did something wrong. Kiva’s eyes soon followed Joanie’s to the small girl standing in the doorway of the kitchen.

“A child shouldn’t be around for this.”

“Why not? It’s all just hocus pocus.”

“We are helping you get what you want from a… darker source.” Kiva said this in a low voice, with a half-sigh. She didn’t seem too happy about being in their kitchen anymore. Maybe that’s why she didn’t shake mom’s hand, MC thought. 

“Dark energies are particularly drawn to children. A child should not be here. That’s all I’m saying.”

Joanie gave MC an indignant glance before looking back at Kiva. “Fine,” she said, before waving MC off in the same fluttering dismissal she knew so well.

“Go to your room until the adults are done. I’ll get you later.” 

MC didn’t reply, only stared back at Kiva and obediently turned around and left the three women in the kitchen. Once her bedroom door was closed, MC grabbed her pillow and comforter off of her bed and set up on the floor. Next to the door jamb, MC strained her ears to try and decipher anything going on down the hall. She clutched a bedtime book in her lap, just in case someone came in unexpectedly. She could pretend to read. 

After twenty or so minutes of nothing, MC smelled a combination of burnt-out matches and herbs creep under her door. It smelled like weird cooking, burning flowers, sharp, prickly scents that stuck high up in her nose. She put her ear to the door, but still couldn’t make out what was happening down the hall. All she could tell was one voice – probably Kiva – saying something slowly, followed by two other voices saying the same thing back. She sat a little longer and then jumped back at the sound of her mom scream. MC’s heart raced; she wanted to go to the kitchen but feared trouble, and feared whatever Kiva said about things wanting children. 

Instead, she cracked her door open and poked half of her face out into the hallway. Then she heard her mom talking very loudly,

“Maybe you could warn me next time! What are you, crazy?”

“It was only a drop of blood, Joanie.”

“Shut it, Marta. You didn’t have some witch stab you in the hand.”

“Finger,” Kiva corrected. “And that’s all the blood I require from you. For now at least.”

MC stood a moment longer in shock before shutting the door again. The click of the latch felt like a band of drummers in her should-be quiet space. She put her back against the wall and sat onto her comforter. 

“A witch,” she whispered to herself. Kiva was a witch. Did that make Marta a witch? Was her mom one? That wasn’t possible, she decided, they were Christians.

The only witches MC ever knew about at six years old were the ones on television during Halloween. She was a witch just the year before. And now there was a witch in her kitchen, stabbing her mom in the finger.

MC’s bedroom lights flickered off, then on once more before turning off for good. She gasped and yelped in, holding her breath. Her eyes adjusted to the dark with the help of the moon outside and the glow of the hall light under the crack of her door. MC rolled onto her belly and wrapped herself up in her comforter, and then placed her left ear to the floor. She focused to see under her door, and jumped at the shadow of two feet running silently across. She waited a moment before putting her ear back to the floor. Two feet again – swift and silent – ran back in the opposite direction. 

“What are they doing out there?” she whispered.

The shadowy feet stopped in front of MC’s door. She held her breath and watched, thinking her mom would open the door to find her spying on them. She’d just pretend to be asleep; her head was already on the floor, she was already wrapped in her comforter. An easy excuse. She watched the feet under the door shift weight impatiently before her doorknob began to shake back and forth. It wasn’t locked – MC wasn’t allowed to lock her door – but she continued to watch, although increasingly frightened, as the door handled shook and turned. After a few moments more the shaking stopped. MC felt clammy. Her throat was dry and she could hear her heart pound in her head, thumping off the floor. She didn’t dare move. 

“Mommy?” she squeaked.

The door began to shake violently on the hinges like a dozen fists were banging on it. MC leapt back into the middle of her room and screamed. In less than a minute, the door flew open to reveal a familiar face illuminated by the moonlight. Joanie was panicked and concerned, as a mom should be.

“What’s going on? Why are you screaming? Why are the lights out?” 

Joanie directed her attention from MC to the light switches next to the door. She flicked them each several times to no avail. With a huff of frustration she turned on her heels to leave the room again. 

“Why did you do that to me?”

“Do what?” Joanie turned around, confused. “Do what to you?” 

“Bang on the door like that. Why did you do it? It scared me.” 

MC’s mom softened for once, and she knelt in front of her child. “I didn’t do anything. I don’t know what scared you. Nothing is here. Your lights just went out.”

Another figure appeared in the doorway before Joanie. Kiva stood wringing her hands. They looked dusty and much older than her face. She then smoothed out the front of her skirt and twisted a couple of rings around her fingers.

“Did you open the door?”

“Wha – of course I did.”

“Not you, Joanie,” Kiva said. “Her. Did you open the door when it was banging?”

“No,” MC said.

“Well,” Kiva said, clapping her hands together, satisfied. “That’s one person in this house who did something right on the first try tonight. I’d better be going.” She turned to Joanie, “Expect results before the new moon.”

Joanie nodded. “Should I be worried about opening doors in my own house now?”

“Well, no,” Kiva began, “not the right doors.”

“What about my door? Who was banging on my door?” MC was still in the middle of her room, tears dried up on her cheeks.

“Just something we didn’t invite. You did the right thing by not letting it in.” She turned back to Joanie, “Really shouldn’t have children around for this. Put rosemary over her door.”

Joanie ignored Kiva’s instructions and said, “Sure, I’ll be sure to find a babysitter with all that alimony that comes in.” She gave a sneer at her guest.

“Right then. Rosemary. Don’t forget. Good evening, ladies.” Kiva turned delicately on her heels and back down the hallway. Within a minute or two, Joanie and MC heard the front door close followed by Marta walking down the hallway. She stopped in the doorway of MC’s room without going in. 

“Well,” she sipped, “that was nuts, huh?”

“What did you do, Mom?” 

“Nothing,” she paused. “Justice. Make your bed up and go to sleep. I have to check the circuit breaker in the basement and figure out what’s going on with these lights.” 

A small, six year old MC put the blanket and pillows back on her bed, illuminated by the moon, and crawled up to sleep. She still felt scared. Marta hung in the doorway, still sipping her wine. 

“You alright?”

“Was that lady a witch like in the movies? Is she bad?”

Marta let out a playful huff. “Oh,” she said, “that lady isn’t a threat. There are other things to be scared of.” She sipped her wine. 

“She stabbed Mom with a knife!” 

“Why don’t you just get some sleep?” 

MC frowned as Marta took a dismissive sip from her glass. She noticed, even in the dim hall light, that her mom’s friend had red-stained teeth. MC stared at Marta’s mouth until the lights in her room came up all at once, causing her to startle. 

“Is it on?” came from downstairs.

“Yeah,” Marta called back over her shoulder. “Goodnight, MC,” she said, and began to turn.

“No hug?” MC expected too-tight hugs from Marta with each visit, and she felt like she needed one after what happened earlier that night.

Marta only hovered in the doorway before leering a smile that seemed too wide to be hers. She put her wine glass to her lips and drank the rest in a large, deliberate gulp. 

“Good thing you didn’t open the door.” 

MC said nothing. Marta maintained her toothy smile. Too many teeth in her mouth. She turned delicately on her heels and became a shadow down the hall. MC didn’t know that was the last time she’d ever see Marta. She continued to watch fearfully at her open doorway until Joanie appeared. 

“Marta left already? Without saying bye? Bitch,” she said. “Goodnight, MC, sleep well.” She stepped into her room and gave her a kiss on the forehead. As Joanie turned to shut the lights off MC stopped her. 

“Just for tonight, please.”

“Oh, stop,” Joanie said, “it was all just some hocus pocus.” And she flicked off the lights. 

Sailfish

“If we tip over, make sure you stay underwater and swim away from the boat.” 

My mom emphasized away with her left hand as she unconsciously maneuvered the rudder of our old SailFish with her right. I looked up nervously at the twelve-foot high sail, pulled tight and bowed to the breeze. I held onto a piece of rope she handed me at the beginning of our little excursion.

“Don’t let this go, alright? If I ask for some slack, give me some slack.” I nodded. 

 It was my first sailing lesson with her, and the most time I’d gotten with her that summer of 2002. She was a busy, up-and-coming real estate agent and most days were spent at Nan and Pop’s house by myself or with my brother until she got back from the office. When she asked if I wanted to learn how to sail I jumped to the occasion. It wasn’t more of a question, but rather, “Get in the boat or don’t but I’m leaving the shore either way.”

“If you do come up too close to the boat,” she continued, “you can get stuck under the sails and you’ll suffocate and drown because you’ll be panicking the whole time. Try not to panic, okay?”

I nodded cautiously as she squinted at the reflection of the sun as it bounced off the creek. I absorbed every warning she gave me – she did know best – and spent the rest of our sailing lesson in fear of the sails that could very well kill me. She gestured at me to move to the far side of the eighteen-foot boat and her hand relaxed on the ropes. Wind caught in the sails and all at once we pitched to one side. I braced my feet in the middle of the boat and held my breath. My mom sat in the back and effortlessly guided us through the strait of the creek, wind blowing her box-dye hair and messing up her usually tamed hairspray bangs. She had no fear in her eyes. In fact, they were closed. She had sailed the creek for thirty years before I joined her that day, so she didn’t need to see where she was going. She was the creek. She tilted her head up towards the sky and I watched her open up to the world and be in love with the moment. I felt myself ease my grip from the side of the boat. As the wind let up the boat slowed down, she looked at me and smiled, refreshed and new.

The creek was supposed to heal us. I believed it was magic for so many years because any time there was something wrong, the remedy was to simply go swim in the water. If there was too much sand on our feet, we’d dip them in and shake our legs around until it dusted off and floated gently home to the bottom of the creek. If our feet were scuffed up and calloused, we soaked them silently and patiently, and waited until tiny fish came up and ate the dead skin from between our toes. If we were injured while playing around the neighborhood, or if we stepped on a broken clamshell – or if we got splinters the size of posts stuck in our hands – Nan would send us away to the water’s edge.

“Go sit in the drink,” she said. “Go soak in the salt water. Salt water will clean it out.”

I took my cut up foot, or my splintered hand, and waded out into the brown-green drink, the drink that made the pain go away after a salty sting first met the wounds. And Nan was right – first the salt water would burn and then it would soothe. The cuts would turn white and after a few minutes of soaking I would study the depth of them and bake on the dock until my skin pulled tightly around me in a hug.

The water was iridescent on top and impossible to see beneath at a depth greater than a few inches. Sometimes I would cannonball off the float at the end of the dock, or off the back of the boat, and let all the air out of my body once I was submerged. I tried to remain tight and balled up, suspended in the black and the silence – away from everything except my thoughts and the fish below me. Then I’d pop back up eventually and break the surface, and stretch out on my back and float along the creek. I listened to what the water had to say, muffled and slow in my ears. I took in the drink. Calm and heavy from the salty thick water I paddled my way back to the dock and dried my skin again until it was too hot to sit still.

The adults floated in the drink, in different ways. Nan was self conscious so she would dip her toes into the water; I only saw her swim in a bathing suit a handful of times before she died. She had breast cancer and lost her left breast to a mastectomy. She stuffed the left cup of her bra with tissues or padding if she had to venture out into the world, or go to Bingo Tuesday, or go to church. The mastectomy scar was never visible in her bathing suit, but her radiation scars were tendrils that crawled out from underneath her straps and made themselves a part of her bold floral swimwear. When she did go take a dip in the drink she would go alone at sunset, as if she had a pre-arranged date with the water. Her intimate encounter left us kids as well as Pop in the house or on the deck so she could enjoy the solitude of the brine and converse with nature or the sun or God. She dipped under once or twice, a baptism. Pop didn’t mind sharing her with the creek – “My girl,” he always called her. He and Nan had been together since 1936, or 37 or 38, so he knew he’d never lose her to another.

Pop was unashamed of his body. His back was covered in broad white zig-zag scars from World War Two, and his belly was old but not fat, also folded over with many large scars that met at his belly button and went up and across, down and to the side, all from surgeries he had since he got home from Germany in 1945. He frequented his opened button-down shirt – or would forgo the shirt altogether – and place himself in front of an ancient oscillating fan. He sat quietly and patiently, his specialty. If he could no longer take the heat, he’d walk out to the dock until he reached the end like someone walking up the aisle of a church, and he’d submerge himself into the water – one dip – and dry off and come back inside. 

The adults took in a different kind of drink as well, and often. One of the first words I learned to read was Scotch, another Whiskey, another Bacardi, and another Glenfiddish, which I frequently mispronounced as Glen-fish and Glen-finch. It smelled awful to me, but Nan and Pop drank it everyday after dinner. A couple of ice cubes in a fancy crystal tumbler – it wasn’t a glass, it was a tumbler, I was told. Nan would mix hers with water and it reminded me of pee. Pop would sometimes mix his with water, or just sip it straight. They sat with matching drinks, in matching chairs, with matching coasters that were plastic and had green felt circles in the middle. The fan whirred between them, the tumblers sweating together. I never knew what time they went to bed even when my brother and I slept there; they were always frozen in those chairs, in my eyes. Relaxed, sailing along in the evening, healed. 

My dad rarely drank the liquor in Nan and Pop’s house. He was more of a beer person, with tastes varying from German to American, light or not. My mom, known for her room temperature glasses of blush-colored boxed Franzia wine, fancy in its long-stemmed glass and always accompanied by a cigarette, traded her pinks for a tall glass of Bacardi rum and Diet Coke. I was not fond of the smell of Bacardi either, and I didn’t entirely favor the taste of Diet Coke – but she drank from the moment she greeted my grandparents until my brother and I put our shoes on to go back home for the evening.

I noticed those nights, she looked different in her drink. We were mostly only at Nan and Pop’s house on Sunday night for dinner – maybe two or three more days a week during the summertime – but her eyes were not the same on those days. She didn’t have the slow, relaxed, cat-like glances with her shimmery green eyes peering the reflective black creek water. Instead she was foggy, frosted glass and tension. The wind was often either out of her sails, or too much in them and she would return home with us just to fall asleep curled on the couch, or become combative with my dad. I didn’t know this is what being drunk was, or that my mom often was drunk around me.

The adults were able to imbibe as often as they wished on the spicy-smelling drinks. Always with or after dinner – maybe it was for digestion, or maybe as a grown-up I would want a drink instead of ice cream. All I wanted to get my hands on was a glass or two of Coca Cola or off-brand Root Beer from the sale aisle, and I often had to wait for Sunday dinner to do so. For Sunday brunch, though, I watched with equal parts repulsion and intrigue as my aunt mixed together vodka – “Shhhmirnoff,” she joked – with tomato juice, horseradish, ice cubes…celery? Each pour was calculated, almost scientific. She stirred with the celery, licked the end and then took a large bite before placing the stalk back into the tall crystal glass. 

“What is that?” I cringed and looked at her as she took a deep drink of her beverage. I hated pulp in my orange juice, I thought as I watched her down tomato and vodka with horseradish. Horseradish pulp, I thought. I cringed some more. Horseradish was good with ketchup for cocktail shrimp. It wasn’t a drink.

“It’s a Bloody Mary,” she replied. She pursed her lips and then smacked them together as if the drink was not good but also necessary to her, like medicine. 

“D’you mean like Mary, Mother of God?” I was learning about these people in my Catechism class and Sunday school; we were Roman Catholics and it was generally taken very seriously. 

“Yeah, but Bloody because it’s alcohol.”

“So it’s a sin?”

“No, it’s vodka,” she said.

I thought about the Blood of Christ, wine we had to drink at Sunday mass (I wasn’t allowed to drink it, though), and wondered if a Bloody Mary was the home version of that. I then decided to stop asking so many questions and go drink my pulp-free orange juice and wait for things that were good, like bacon and Pop’s scrambled eggs. If we stayed long enough, my brother and I may have gotten in a glass of soda,  or an Oreo if Nan felt generous with her personal stash of cookies. On these mornings, my mom drank only coffee with sugar and milk. She told me she also thought Bloody Mary’s were gross. She also waited until a certain time to partake in things that were indulgent.

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.