From the Pacific

From the Pacific

June 22, 1943

Dear Sis,

I’m saving my pennies up now so when I hit the States I can buy an Army uniform and have two wives. I received a letter from Jeanne today and she told me all about your wedding and how successful it was. I don’t see how it could be, especially when it meant getting married to a lug like my twin brother. Did I ever tell you how much better I was than he? That’s not all, he and I are going for a couple of rounds when we meet. Yeah, up in Longs.

Well ReillySchwerdt – you old pot, congratulations and I wish you the best of everything. Don’t forget the kiss you owe me.

P.S. I thought we were having another air raid while all the time they were celebrating your wedding.

Love and Kisses,

Artie

Loretta had a good laugh over Artie’s letter. He was always going to be the funnier of the two. She never regretted her decision to marry Harold – the heart wants what it wants – but boy did she love seeing his handwriting. Receiving his letters took what felt like forever; the Pacific was a strange place. Artie obviously wasn’t permitted to discuss the toils of war on the other side of the world, but from what Loretta read in the papers and heard on the radio, it seemed just awful. There were internment camps for Japanese citizens in the United States – President Roosevelt deemed them necessary – so she could only imagine the type of treatment American soldiers received if captured in the Pacific. She hoped Artie would stay safe. 

Summer in New York seemed a little emptier. There was a bittersweet feeling of being newly married to a man who was now halfway across the world. Loretta sat over a pot of coffee with Jeanne, admiring her delicate gold band.

“I wonder if Harold looks at this often – and as fondly.” Jeanne poked a little fun at Loretta. Loretta looked up shyly and laughed, blushing. Jeanne smiled after she realized she got the desired effect out of her new sister. 

“So,” she began, “Mrs. Harold Schwerdt. Don’t ya just love it? Married to a Schwerdt man?” Jeanne and Artie were already married, and she was just as in love with her redhead as Loretta was with her own. 

“It’s a dream come true. No matter how quick it was – that doesn’t matter. None of that does. I just want him to come home safe to me.”

“He will,” Jeanne said as she sipped again. “They both will.”

Loretta felt at ease at hearing Jeanne’s words of reassurance. Her new sister’s confidence in the safe return of their husbands helped her to truly believe everything was going to be alright. It was a warm night and the coffee was cooling off the longer they sat in Jeanne’s kitchen in Hollis. She began to think about a nice warm night at their future cottage, little ones running around and animals chirping. She listened fondly in her imagination for water lapping the shore and the creak of a rocking chair next to her. The cars and people bustling around outside the window distracted Loretta from her daydream for a moment, and she returned to Jeanne’s kitchen. Someday, she thought. 

On her way back to her house that evening, she checked to see if any more letters came in. Unfortunately, the only parcel on the table was the note from Artie that she opened up earlier that afternoon. Loretta picked it up and carefully put it back in its envelope. She put the letter in her old shoe box full of other war letters from the likes of Harold, Jack, and Ned, and put it away again until the next message would come.  

Two Pieces

This story, along with the one before it Death is a Woman were rejected from a writing contest. I wasn’t allowed to publish the stories unless they were rejected, so, here!

Swarms of people gathered at the terminal and waited impatiently for it to open. All walks of life – men, women, and children formed like hungry animals, eager to board the next ferry across. The terminal was more frightening than the boat ride, it seemed; Wet, dirty cobblestone and high cavern ceilings of what surely felt like the center of the earth gave way for a symphony of echoes from nervous voices and shuffling feet. It wasn’t just the echoes, though, but the stink of tragedy that still hung to the freshly departed passengers. The growls and groans of a three-headed beast on the other side of the foggy river was a welcome tune.

And then there was Ellie. 

She didn’t recognize any of these people. Moments ago – it seemed – she was crossing the street with her family when she dropped her doll. Next thing she knew, Ellie was in this place. She must have fallen into a sewer, she thought, and these were all sewer dwellers. She wanted to cry out for her mother, but Ellie was taught to never cry out if she was lost, because a stranger would see her alone and take her. So she stood very still instead, and looked earnestly around for her parents. 

The jolt of an ancient whistle grabbed the attention of the passengers, and Ellie found herself swept up in a wave as they gathered in an orderly line per the instruction of the ticketmaster. Slowly, she felt herself sucked backwards as large feet, petite shoes – ball gowns and hospital gowns – pushed forward. Ellie heard an old woman complain that she waited her whole life for this moment and now she was stuck behind a destitute.

“Two pieces!” the ticket man hollered. Two pieces of what? Ellie wondered. She had two clips in her hair, two shoes on her feet – two pieces of what? She was last in line, still unable to locate her parents, although compelled to wait exactly where she was, certain they would come find her. And at the back of this line, she figured, it wouldn’t be long before she found out what two pieces the ticketmaster required. 

It felt like an eternity before Ellie could actually see the call box. Just beyond it was a short pier and – at the end of that – a long boat waited in the fog. She couldn’t see the captain’s face, but he was tall and thin and she thought maybe she didn’t want to ride this boat. She’d keep her clips and her shoes. Ellie couldn’t understand why these passengers wanted to cross into the fog – and it was almost her turn – so she tapped shyly on the back of an old woman’s arm. The lady turned around and looked down at the little girl. Her face softened, sad, to see someone so young in this line. 

“Oh, you poor thing. How did you get here?”

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “I can’t find my mum and dad.” 

“Oh dear. They didn’t come with you?”

“I was just with them,” she replied. “I lost my doll.” 

“Don’t worry, dear.” The old woman put a soft hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “My husband didn’t come with me either. We can ride the ferry together.”

“Where is it going?” 

“To the afterlife, of course.” The old woman flashed a warm smile down to Ellie, but all she felt was the cold chill of fear run down her little spine. 

“I want to go home!” Ellie stomped a foot and it echoed across the floor, prompting those ahead of her to turn and stare. 

“Oh, child,” the old woman said, “you’re going to a new home. Your parents will find you there one day.” 

Ellie wanted to cry. She looked frantically for an exit, and saw none. She was alone, and only had the old woman to guide her. Eventually, it was the woman’s turn to pay the ticketmaster. 

“Two pieces,” a voice called from the shadow. She opened her hand and dropped two pence on the counter. A large palm covered the pieces and slid them into a drawer. She walked to the boat. 

“See you soon, dear,” she said. 

Ellie gulped and approached. He demanded the same two pieces. She checked her dress pockets, though she knew they were empty.

“I – I don’t have to pieces,” she said. Her throat was dry and hoarse.

“No pieces, no ferry,” he replied. His pitch didn’t waiver for anyone, not even a little girl. 

“But where do I go?”

“Nowhere,” he said, and slammed the callbox window shut. Ellie was left speechless as she stood alone at the pier. She watched the old woman turn around and saw her face change to sadness. The old woman lifted a hand in a limp wave goodbye, her head falling to one side. The boat pushed off into the fog, taking with it whatever light there was. 

Ellie sat on the ground in her dress. Her mum would have scolded her – but her mum wasn’t coming. She knew that now. She wrapped her arms around her knees and cried for what felt like hours, until a hand touched her shoulder, frightening her. 

“Why are you crying?” The woman smiled down at Ellie on the cobblestone. 

“I can’t go on the ferry, and I can’t find my mum and dad. And I’m scared,” Ellie wept. 

“You can ride with me,” the woman said.

“Do you have an extra two pieces?”

“I don’t need two pieces,” she laughed. 

Another boat arrived, different from the last. It was bigger, newer, and there was no ferryman in sight. Death took Ellie by the hand and walked her to the end of the pier. She picked up the little girl and placed her on a cushioned seat. Ellie felt safe for the first time since she arrived at the ferry terminal and thanked Death for taking her in. 

“No worries, darling. Let’s go find that old woman.” They rode into the fog.

Foresight

Foresight

I hate first dates. I hate dating in general. I hate awkward small talk — I hate letdowns. More specifically, being the let-downer. My job, my life — my commitments — all play into the conclusion I made decades ago where my personal timeline will remain solitary. It’s best that way. And when your job is timelines and time — when you know how everything plays out — dating seems a little frivolous.

    As a timeline keeper is it my sole responsibility to make sure time does what it’s meant to do — go forward. No hiccups, no hitches, no unplanned natural disasters. Many of the people in my own dimension feared the idea of possibly being assigned as a timeline keeper when they graduated the School of Intergalactic Maintenance and Monitoring, but as a type-A personality I prayed for it. My friends became black hole monitors, space debris cleaners — most of it done at home in our galaxy. But I always wanted more. I wanted to see everything, and more importantly, I wanted the opportunity to know everything. To be a timeline keeper is to know everything whether or not you want it. And once assigned, I was placed into the Think Tank — a very bland name for a very complicated, brain-stuffing process that loads the outcomes of all possible timelines I have to travel into and monitor. As soon as my brain was opened up and prepared for all things intergalactic knowledge, I was given my portal jumper and sent out into the universe. I go in, I monitor, I do maintenance; I right a wrong or two, and I go home.

And I don’t date.

    Why date when I know how and when everyone I come across will die? It’s on an individual basis, thankfully, so I am not overloaded with billions upon billions of lives. But who wants that? Every person I see, I scan. I can’t help it. The only one I can’t see is myself — they spare you that in the Think Tank. Could you imagine? Every time I brush my teeth, seeing my expiration date? Like a hard-working milk carton. Awful. I can’t complain about everyone else, though, because this is the life I wanted.

    My favorite chaotic little orb to visit is Earth. They are so primitive yet so confident in themselves. Even their language — communicating with their mouths in codes and words. Overly complicated if you ask me. Most of the living planets I visit are one language, or they just speak through their minds. Earthlings will get there someday if they don’t blow themselves up first.

    That’s my first order of business whenever I visit for maintenance and monitoring, more recently at least. I pop over to Earth every seventy years or so. My primary directive is to make sure all of their little nuclear buttons are still in the “off” position. They aren’t meant to self-destruct, and it honestly baffles me that every time I go to Earth there are less people in charge but they adversely have more power over things such as war. Earthlings still treasure wealth over efficiency and collectivism, individual power over forward-thinking. I don’t get it. Just because I am an interdimensional maintenance and monitor employee who knows all about every planet doesn’t mean I fully understand every race of beings.

    They have come a long way, though, even if they don’t see it. I certainly do. They’re slow, but they have a lot of little ones who are louder than past humans. I was surprised when I did my Think Tank update this time around, to see so many younger Earthlings demand what’s right instead of what’s easy. I told myself if things seem to be in place once I get there, I’ll hang a little longer in the dimension. Technically, I’m not supposed to linger; Timeline keepers are surprisingly lacking in the realm of free time. But I landed near Chicago, did a global scan, saw things in order, and decided why not? I work hard, I deserve a glass of wine. When I found a hole in the wall bar — I love that expression — I stopped in for a beverage.

We don’t have alcohol where I’m from. It seems like the more we learned of the vastness of the universe, the simpler we became. There’s no need for a drink after a long day because I always know exactly how long my day is supposed to be. There isn’t stress — or rather, there is the foresight of the stress — so there’s no need to crack a beer with friends at the end of the day. Conversely, there’s no need to celebrate anything either. There aren’t really any friends. There aren’t the connections like I see here where humans are busy fighting for their lives, their freedoms, their loves — and they come together after a long day and pour a drink and they laugh. If they don’t drink, they don’t, but they’re welcome anyway. And if they’re alone, they’re alone, but at the same time they aren’t. Not in a hole in the wall like this. Because everyone is collective in this space. I find it endearing. It’s something worth understanding.

I arrived at the hole in the wall and ordered a glass of merlot. Blackburn’s Belle from Cactus Park. It sounded like a fairy tale, something humans rely on because they want to believe in things like me. The space was small but inviting — safe compared to the galaxies I jump through. I sat alone and observed the people, scanning each one and watching them all as I slowly sipped my drink. I love merlot. It looks like power, tastes like Earth and its many fruits, and warms me like love and the dates I don’t have. It makes human-watching more enjoyable.

Then he walked in.

    His eyes looked like his soul was not from this planet. Usually when I see humans I see what I imagine they observe when in a zoo. Simple gazes, teeth-bearing, hugging — primitive affections that are almost wholesome to watch. But not him. He wasn’t endearing, he was engaging. It can happen sometimes — a humanoid gets stuck on a planet and adapts. It’s impossible for other humans to tell the difference, but I saw right away. He walked to the bar and ordered a beer and I observed as I always do. Then I scanned him. It was his last night alive. Poor thing.

“May I sit here?” He gestured to the open seat at my two-top and I nodded. He didn’t know what he was — old blood buried deep somewhere in the cosmos. If I wanted to I could have done a more thorough scan, but then he’d think I was just staring at him. So I nodded and smiled instead. The small bar was at capacity, and maybe I seemed to be the least-threatening to approach for some unfamiliar company. He probably wondered why a woman-passing, human-passing person was alone in a bar drinking a glass of merlot.

“Sure,” I replied. Then cringed. I never have to use my human voice. I never talk to anyone on these jobs. Rather, I’m not supposed to talk to anyone. But it was his last night on Earth, and I felt pity for him. I didn’t want him to have to spend it alone.

“What are you doing here alone?”

“Oh, you know, just passing some time after work.” That sounded legitimate.

“What do you do?” He took a sip of his beer and got mostly foam.

“Maintenance.”

“What kind of maintenance.”

“Intergalactic maintenance.” Why lie to him? He was going to die anyway.

“You work for NASA?” He seemed impressed.

“Yes.” I lied. “What do you do?” I wanted the attention off of me. Each passing moment on the Earth dimension could cause a hiccup. I should have excused myself and walked out, jumped portals, but I didn’t. I sat and listened, and watched. I had this tingling feeling in my belly — maybe of lowered inhibitions — but I was curious. I wanted to learn. That is my primary job description, anyway.

    He spoke easily and his human voice carried like a melody of some song bird I learned about in the Amazon. His eyes grew wide when he talked about college — something similar to my School of Intergalactic Maintenance and Monitoring. He wasn’t from Chicago, but he always liked it. He had dreams and hopes, friends and family — passion. Humans have so much passion.

“Can I buy you another merlot?” He pointed to my empty glass. An hour must have gone by. I didn’t even realize I finished it.

“If you buy me a drink then this becomes a date,” I said, trying to deter him.

“So what if it is?” He smiled and left the table without granting me a moment to protest, and returned moments later with a full glass of wine.

    I took a sip. A date. A first date. I checked my intergalactic watch which began to buzz because I was on Earth for too long. I was stalling, I knew, but he was interesting — and he was going to die. So I stalled. I talked about NASA; Even though I never worked there, I know all about its primitive space programs. It was easy to make things up as I went along, like a human saying their A B C’s. I rambled and hid my wrists in my lap as my watch jolted and vibrated. He talked about humanitarian projects. I checked my watch again. Almost midnight. Perfect. A nice little hiccup to help him along. Timeline keepers can create small bursts for themselves in the event of emergencies. Just make it to the next day and cause a minor slip — it will correct itself before the next solstice. I have done it for myself when trying to preserve a planet, but never on Earth, and never for someone else.

“Do you have somewhere to be?” He pointed to my watch, which I must have checked ten times in ten minutes.

“Just the bathroom,” I said. I left my half-glass of merlot on the table and walked into the women’s room. I checked my watch once more and took my portal jumper out of my jacket pocket. One minute after midnight. I took a deep breath and looked back at the door, as if I could see him seated at the table. I stayed far longer than I should have, and I would have to make up some excuse when I returned home. I didn’t get his name; I didn’t need it. His eyes were enough. And besides, he’d be dead by my next Earth visit anyway. I opened the portal and left Earth smiling, knowing the car would miss him — give him at least one more day.  

One-Way

I looked toward the mismanaged row of trees – leaning into each other and pitched curiously forward as they looked back at me. I can’t rightly explain why I chose France as the place to spread her ashes, but something about a chateau in the mountains posed an opportunity to put her where she wouldn’t want to return. There was the beach, sure, or the creek she grew up on. But I recalled an afternoon when she got the most brutal sunburn on her knees, and I recalled all the horrible memories she had in the house on the creek. I couldn’t let her burn again, or spread across the water, blanketing the murky, salted mire until she sunk beneath the surface forever.

She jokingly said, “Yeah, a one-way ticket to France,” at the deli counter of our local grocery store every time the portly butcher asked what she wanted. It turned into a ritual for them. I only remembered the phrase because I was very young at the time – that and the free slice of bologna he hung down over the counter for me each visit. I’d reach up to grab at the free food and look through the glass panes to his discolored apron pressed against the display case. He’d laugh at her jokes and she’d order meat and cheese for the week, and I’d return to my seat inside the cart alongside boxes of cereal and canned goods; I wondered to myself in my sea of groceries if the butcher was in love with my mother and what it would be like to have free bologna all the time. There aren’t too many memories that live in the forefront of my mind anymore but for some reason, as the years passed in their domino succession, out of order with the way things should be, I always remembered her comment about France.

Her death was just as much a shock as much as we weren’t surprised she died young. It had been twenty years since her last doctor’s appointment; She drank every night – and eventually every day; She never went without a cigarette between her middle and forefinger.

“Merit Ultra-lite 100s, please. For my mom.” I would hand the cash up to Kevin, the grocery store manager. He’d hand back change and two packs of cigarettes to me, a seven year old, and I’d run back to my mother in the checkout line feeling accomplished and responsible. By the time I was nineteen and she’d ask me to go buy cigarettes for her, I’d stand in defiance. “I may as well just hand you the gun along with the bullets.” 

She gave up asking me, the same way she gave up saying, “Yeah, a one-way ticket to France,” and the same way she stopped going to the grocery store altogether. A driver’s license became my freedom ticket and her death sentence expedited because I’d run all the errands and she could drink in silence and in secret without the worry of peering eyes. I could deny trafficking her cigarettes, but I couldn’t keep her from a bottle. Eventually  I looked forward to leaving, so I didn’t have to watch her hurt herself. I began to go to the deli counter on my own, but I just ordered a half-pound of ham, half-pound bologna, and a pound of American cheese. I never asked for France – France wasn’t far enough away. 

I went away to college, traveled around Europe, and by the time I was ready to start my life I had to come home to watch hers end. The hospital was only a short drive from where we lived, but it was certainly the most foreign place to me those two weeks. Bright white walls and high ceilings didn’t take away from the mental prison that I lived in. Each day, a little more of her escaped her body and crossed through veils we couldn’t see; Veils searched for with large overhead fluorescent lighting but never found. I sat in a room cramped with wet eyes and runny noses and mentally found myself as far away as possible. I stared at her body and saw a woman who wanted to escape the grocery store, the town, the house on the creek – and only found her answer in death. After we closed her casket one final time, I found myself waiting for the same thing. I wanted to be back in the cart, with her, wherever she was. 

Instead, life happened. Her urn found itself in the back of my walk-in closet, all but forgotten between a pair of suede pumps and an empty laptop box. My time with her was spent opening and closing the door to look for a sweater or a scarf. A picture of us hung in a thrifted frame on my wall where she stood next to the three year old me and looked out at my bedroom and watched me judge my changing body, saw my heart break more than once, saw my dog die – all trapped in silence, unable to escape. Sometimes I caught myself gazing into her eyes and wondering where she was in the photo. Not the catering hall where she held me on her hip – but mentally, where was she? Had she already predicted in 1993 that she wasn’t going to live 20 years more? Was the sadness always there? I asked myself where she wanted to be. Looking up at her urn on the shelf, I knew in my heart that my walk-in was not her plan of escape. Weeks passed until one afternoon the encounter with the butcher rushed to the front of my mind like he was placed there by someone.

France.

It was much easier to bring the cremated remains onto a plane than I originally anticipated; I could stow the ashes of my mother in my overhead compartment, but not more than three ounces of liquid. There are three essentials to transporting a compact container of a dead person: 

  1. They must be in an x-ray friendly box 
  2. They must be carry-on and not checked (honestly though could you imagine an overly-jostled container of dead mom exploding all over? I thought my mom would have liked that chaos)
  3. A copy of the cremation certificate from the crematory and also a death certificate for good measure 

Easy.

My mother never left the country before that day. When I was younger, I heard a story where she told my grandmother that she had a trip planned to Florida, but instead moved to the Southwest for three months to live with a boyfriend. Eventually, she returned, met my father, and married. She stopped flying in 1998. She stopped leaving town in 2009. She stopped leaving the house in 2011. At times, I blamed my own birth for her lack of exploration. I felt guilty whenever I traveled around, or when I studied abroad, because she was stuck at home. We would email back and forth – she’d say she was proud – but I also felt like she was longing. 

When we landed in Toulouse I felt more energized than exhausted from a flight to Paris followed by a flight to the south of France. It was finally happening and all it took was a couple of swipes of my credit card. With my mother rolling comfortably behind me through the airport, I picked up the keys to a small rental car and fastened her to the front passenger seat before making my way further south to the chateau. 

Toulouse itself became the perfect place to start my adventure. The city is juxtaposed between new and old, with its museum of natural history only a short distance from its space museum. In one time, a mammoth stands next to a space suit. Ancient artifacts next to tools intended to explore the universe – neither in a race with the other, both fueled by the thrill of discovery. There, in Toulouse, existence isn’t in dominoes of life and death, but rather bundled together in beauty and feeling. Time was free. It was the perfect place to release my mother.

My childhood itself was frozen in amber. I had no choice but to suspend it in time, lest the joyful moments be overrun with the crawlin, toxic monster of the end of my mother’s life. There was a time where I thought about learning to sail with her, or kayaking on the creek, or roasting myself on the dock in the summer. I rested my head on the memory of salt water and the constant smell of cigarettes and hairspray. After she died, though, my mind shifted to the odor of cleaning chemicals, the sounds of hissing oxygen, and the taste of my own tears. In order to preserve my memories, I had to displace the horrors. I turned to journals, articles, publications, and blogs – anything to keep the realities out of my mind and away from my innocence. And in order to preserve who my mother was, I had to put her where time stood still, where existence itself was one great moment. I didn’t rightly know why I chose that chateau – just south of Toulouse – but as I turned the car towards that structure, backdropped by mountains, flanked by wildflowers and a pond, seated between snow and Spring, I knew it was where she would want to stay.

Dearly departed

Yelling out,

Where are you,

doesn’t make the dead return.

Yet you convince yourself

that the tingle on the back of your neck in the black

is more than just the ceiling fan.

You want to tell yourself that they returned through the steel veiled doors

but remember, you and yours,

When you’re kneeling –

Screaming –

Pleading –

On all fours –

They left in September and they’ve never left,

Always in the urn.

Funeral Flowers

She was dead long before she stopped breathing.

Her sunken, empty eyes

held no hope as she sat idly

on the deck or face-down on the beach as the sun

breathed her in.

She seized her moments of clarity around their necks

and submerged them, whining in ether.

She starved her body of loving embrace

and recoiled to touch like she was toxic

and contagious.

And when her eyes fused shut when life burnt out,

she reached towards the ceiling for God to hold her.

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.

Twenties

I thought my 20s

would be when everything 

made sense – 

I don’t know what I was expecting, though,

since my 20s began with the death

of my mother

and ended with the death 

of my limitations.

My 20s held funerary services 

of who I thought I was –

who I thought was worthy of me.

It was the death of ignoring myself;

My 20s ended with me coming to life.

My Mother’s Prayer

A good beer

and a sticky August night

are all I need

to pay homage to my
Mother.

I am the daughter 

of Patricia – 

Of dragon woman, blue eyeliner

with limp and easy cigarette hands

and mascara wand swords.

Mother to children – 

All hers –

But only two were really hers.

Her alter is the dashboard 

of an ‘03 Mustang 

with offerings of classic rock,

a Bic lighter or three, one probably empty,

and coke bottle eyeglasses 

to see how she made most days

her bitch.

I can still hear her say it.

Her prayer.

Do no harm,

take no shit.

Amen.

Trunk space

I’ve lived with anxiety and depression for the majority of my adult life. Rather than say, “I’ve struggled” with either, I’ll take away any controlling factor and simply state, “I have lived.” They are like annoying roommates who mostly keep to themselves and then one of them clogs the toilet and doesn’t say anything, so it just overflows until I find it and then I’m stuck with the mess. I use the analogy of the toilet because a clogged toilet both makes me anxious and also a little sad. Feel free to insert whatever analogy works for you.

When my anxiety creeps up, I want to impulse eat. I want to yell. I want to run away. When I feel depressed, I want to hug my dog and live in my bed under the covers until dark and never come out. Luckily for my dog, I have extreme issues with guilt and an overwhelmingly responsibility to take care of others so it never lasts long and he inspires me to go outside, or for a trail walk, or to play fetch.

Tonight was a little different, though. I just really wanted to take a nap. I really wanted to drift off for a couple of hours and wake up a little less drowned in my own thoughts. This didn’t happen, though. The universe – and nature – decided a flash flood would be scheduled for 7 PM and I was woken with what sounded like a tornado running down my street. My dog and I both shot up and I heard my phone going off to the emergency alert system. I looked out the window and saw my neighbor Joan’s car parked with the trunk wide open.

Joan is elderly. She’s sweet, the right amount of nosy that any old woman should be, and my dog is her number one fan. She always forgets to close her trunk. Her husband had major surgery recently and she’s been inundated with helping him. There have been nurses and family members in and out of the condo next to mine in order to make sure Joan’s husband has the proper care. It makes me think of my grandpa and how rough the medical care was on the family and him for the last few months of his life. Her husband has improved, though, which makes me happy to hear.

So back to Joan’s damn trunk. I don’t even think about it, just say, “Dammit, Joan!” I throw on some pants and a tee and run outside like a mad woman and slam the trunk before the rain gets too bad. I don’t tell her. I don’t make a scene; just prevent a soggy trunk and run back into the house. When I closed the door it hit me – no matter how stuck I feel, regardless of how fucked up things may seem, I (or you) always have a purpose. There is always a purpose to do even the smallest thing for an unwitting person. I (you) always have a place in this world, even if it’s just closing some old lady’s trunk in a flash flood.