by Marlene Olin
The sign on the trailer reads Sales Office. Inside, a platter of crudité sits on a shelf.
"A condo to beat all condos," says the realtor. "Picture white sofas. Rivers and Rauschenberg. Glass walls that kiss the ceiling and hug the floor."
When he inches closer, I inch back. Brandishing a brochure, the man points towards the water. Three hundred yards away the ocean slaps against a newly dredged beach.
"You'll stand out on your balcony and see straight to Key Biscayne," he says. "A million dollar view."
Again he inches forward. I inch back. I smell his aftershave and see the wet spots under his arms. Forwards. Backwards. It’s like a dance. When I dig for my car keys and head towards the door, he sidesteps in front of me. The A/C must be set to seventy yet sweat beads on his upper lip. His hand slips like a fish into mine. "They're going fast," he says. "Better get in your deposit. Cash is best."
Suddenly his fingers grip my shoulder. "Make a left to find the expressway," he tells me. "Be sure you take a left."
Instead I head east. Two blocks later the manicured hedges and courtly palm trees disappear. Instead the ground is littered with old newspapers and stray cats. A battered sign says Welcome to Historic____." The rest is graffitied.
I'm an intruder in a truly strange land. I pass a cemetery of concrete caskets. Wooden churches are streaked white, listing. Small houses look like bunkers with grills on the windows and bullet holes in the walls.
Then there they are. While I'm looking to my right and gazing to my left they pass in front on me. One second they're on the curb--the next moment they're negotiating the pavement. It's a small bike, fit really for a kid, but the old man pumps it like a piston. One foot is missing. Instead an empty pant leg is rolled up like a sleeve. A little boy holds onto a handlebar, running, trying to keep up.
At first I think the child is steering, his brown knuckles clutching the handlebar so hard the white shows through. I suck in air when he trips over a rusted can, his knee skimming the asphalt. But the old man doesn't flinch. Instead he plants his one good leg and glances at me. Two, three seconds pass and the man refuses to look away. The glance sticks.
The air is thick with humidity—I can swear I hear lightening crack—so I flip switches. The wipers swoop like eyelashes. I've pushed the washer button for good measure and crane my neck to watch them through the mist. Together they head toward the sidewalk. Five feet. Three feet.
I want to linger. I imagine their path weaving in and out of the street, picture a wave of onlookers watching their wake. Perhaps a dog will follow. Maybe a woman with an apron and a batch of freshly baked cookies sits by the kitchen clock and waits.
Instead I floor the gas
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. She recently completed her first novel. Her stories have been published in Vine Leaves, The Saturday Evening Post, Upstreet Magazine, and Emrys Journal. She will be featured in Poetica and The Edge in the coming months.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
by Paige Towers
Let’s say that your sister is a born-again Evangelical Christian. And let’s say that she got married and had four kids. Let’s say that it’s also possible you feel that she’s replaced you with so many others: a constant group of like-minded followers who host each other for dinners, baby-sit on weekends, and pray with their arms raised high. You do not belong.
Let’s say your sister lives in the suburbs in Iowa, and you secretly judge her for that, because you left and lived all over. Shall we say that you felt the need to leave in order to understand the world better? That you crave new experiences. Total acceptance of something higher is naïve, even dangerous: this is what you’ve come to believe. (By the way, that judgment that you hold is no secret. She always knew.)
In all those places you have traveled, whenever there was a face that caught your eye on the street, it was almost always because it looked like hers. Small face, thin lips and pretty eyes—those features were everywhere. Which is to say that your sister is everywhere, but that’s just you being a writer.
Or maybe a fool, if you can point out the difference.
The distance between the two of you serves only as a stubborn reminder that you aren’t about to accept that she accepts any of this. You’ll come back when she comes down. But until then, her image is shadowing you, popping up on every continent.
I read an essay once in a writer’s workshop on my peer’s experience of accepting Christ. The writer was sixteen at the time and was staring at a patch of blue carpet, hands and knees on the sanctuary floor, waiting, hoping, praying, that she would have some sort of breakthrough and finally join the unquestioning minds around her. She was a “late bloomer,” according to the Evangelical church’s pastor.
And when the moment came, she said the feeling was incredibly warm and euphoric. It was like being cuddled in a blanket, but a blanket that was the size of the universe. She at last felt, or knew, what everyone else felt, or knew.
That is until she began to question this experience. Once she did that, it faded away and all that was left was her ability to scrutinize and write about it.
I can only relate her experience to my experience of getting high.
But my experience is stunted, because this is what I know about getting really, mind-altering high (as opposed to just, you know, regular high)—it requires a total acceptance on the part of the consumer. This is something that I’ve never been able to do. I can trace the steps for you, which already signals that during these times I’m still conscious of reality and in-control.
First: There’s that drop in your stomach that occurs right when the acid seriously kicks in.
Then: It’s like your blood has gone cold and your body is weightless.
Last: Everything begins to tingle so hard that it hurts. It feels like you’re frozen in that exact moment of when the rollercoaster starts to tip over the edge of the top of a steep incline.
Then what comes next, in my experience, is a choice. You can choose to fall into the pain and let your mind go. This often occurs while being in a mass of moving people, loud music, and colorful lights. You join into the universal high that exists in that moment in some club in Berlin, or Amsterdam, or New York City, or wherever you may be. The feeling is apparently exquisite.
Or, you can choose to fight it, swallow the pain down, and get off the rollercoaster to nervously watch everyone else ride the ride. With masochistic determination, you can closely monitor the rapidly firing synapses in your paranoid mind and question the effects that this drug is having on your body and everyone else around you, which is what I’ve always done so as to avoid landing on the floor, or in someone else’s bed, or in a cab that I can no longer direct the way—
But where is home? Well, this one city block, at least until the next leasing year. And I’ll admit it. It becomes exhausting to play the part of the lone foot soldier. What’s even more exhausting is when you try to see everything with your eyes wide open, skeptically examining every person and thing you meet along the way. A stranger is always reason to suspect. An overly passionate piece of advice gives you reason to doubt. A place where everyone is content and in agreement is dubious. You often use words such as “misgivings,” “evidence,” and “caution.”
You even told the peer in workshop to take out the paragraph at the end, the one where she mourned the loss of blissful acceptance and debated whether she really knew anything at all. You were satisfied with the narrator having successfully eluded such hallucinations: the end.
Yet, spotting the face of that person you love in a busy crowd in a foreign place like Bangkok or La Paz or Tokyo does not raise a red flag. You are certain, in that moment, as much as a person can be, that it is your sister. And you’re truly elated to see her.
What if you could have that moment of overwhelming joy last past its initial two-second rush? If that rush enveloped you, would you need to keep searching, or would you be content to stay?
Let’s say you love your sister, yet you won’t accept her and her beliefs, and you can’t figure out why and thus keep questioning. Let’s say that she closed her eyes once and suddenly lived everywhere, but that you kept walking, and couldn’t find a damn thing.
Paige Towers earned her MFA from Emerson College and her BA from The University of Iowa. She taught Creative Writing and Composition at Emerson, but currently lives and writes in New York City. Her work can be found in McSweeney's, Honesty For Breakfast, Spry Literary Magazine, and is forthcoming in So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
by Shayla Love
A Dodge Man with a Mercedes Grill
Pia Lindstrom had a great pair of legs, but that wasn’t what Walter Backerman remembers about her.
After an interview with Walter’s father, Al, she looked into the Channel 4 WCBC-TV camera and said, “It’s a shame that after 55 years of continuous service, that Mr. Backerman senior will be the last seltzer man in the family. His young son Walter is enrolled to start law school in the fall.” She flashed a smile. “It’s a shame. There are too many lawyers out there and too few good seltzer men.”
That was 40 years ago. Turns out, the world was spared another lawyer.
I met Walter on the corner of 7th Avenue and 22nd street after he dropped off his son, Joey, at school a couple blocks away. His seltzer truck is an advertisement, photo album and scrapbook, all at the same time. The sliding doors are printed with images of seltzer bottles from television, 19th century France, and recycling bins.
Like other aspects of his life, this truck started one way and became another. This is a 1995 Dodge Sprinter, but you’d never know it, since Walter fixed a Mercedes grill to the front. Walter is good at adding a little glamour to everyday things. Like a Dodge, or a blue collar delivery service job.
The front seat of his truck is filthy. It looks like a space where coffee has been spilled and a lot of life has been lived. The wall behind the driver’s seat is covered with pictures of celebrities. There are autographed head shots and faded news clippings. Like all good photos, they carry a thousand words per picture, per star, of where and when Walter met them, and how they became his friend. A poster from “The View,” is signed by the whole cast.
“Barbara Walters is like a faucet,” Walter said, as he stirred sugar into his coffee. “You know what the faucet does? It runs hot and cold, you follow me? My wife said to me, let’s be real. This woman could pick up the phone and call the president. How important is Walter the Seltzer Man in the scheme of things?”
Pretty important. Walter might be the most connected man this side of Hudson Street. His stories jump from news anchors, to movie stars, to investment bankers, to that time he tried to give Mayor Bloomberg an antique seltzer bottle—the kind he delivers everyday—and almost got arrested. When detectives showed up at his Queens home later that day he said, “You guys came all the way from city hall, you’re lookin’ for a big story and all you found was Walter the Seltzer Man. Are you relieved or disappointed?”
He gave bottles to Whoopi Goldberg and to Alec Baldwin. He knows where any movie star lives in Manhattan because he’s been inside their homes. He’s enamored by the stars, and pins their names on his stories like award ribbons. We were driving south on 6th Avenue, past the old Air America station, when Walter blurted, “Rachel Maddow, I’m mad at her. I still like her, but I’m mad at her.”
After Air America went out of business and Maddow moved to MSNBC, Walter never got his bottles back from her. This is one of the few things you can do to get on his bad side.
Walter is protective over his bottles. They are his livelihood, his passion and his personal collectibles. Most of them are as old as he his, 60. Some are older. Still, he doesn’t charge deposits; he operates on trust. When a bottle comes into your home, it’s a loan of faith directly from the seltzer man, to you. This big man with big stories, has a big heart.
“From time to time, a bottle breaks,” Walter said. “I got a kid, last stop on 23rd. One time, he took all my bottles and threw them down the incinerator. A case of blue bottles. He said it was fun. I told the old guy who takes care of him, 30 dollars,”—when the real value was hundreds. “I did it because I felt for the guy.”
Walter’s green eyes are tired from fatigue, but they light up a little each time he begins a new anecdote. I ask him about other difficult clients he’s had, partly because I’m curious, partly because I see how much joy it brings him. Walter tells me he delivered to Calvin Klein’s mother.
“At the beginning, Flo Klein was nasty,” Walter said. “I turned her on a dime.” Soon she was giving him a bottle of cologne for every holiday, be it birthday, Christmas or Chanukah. It isn’t his style, but he valued the gesture. Mostly, he thinks it’s important to be able to make a friend out of an enemy.
We reached our first stop; Peter Cooper village on 1st Avenue and 20th street.
“What’s up baby? I’m delivering seltzer.”
A guard walked out of a gatehouse. “To who?”
“What do you mean to who? I’m the seltzer man, you never heard of me?”
Walter had been to Peter Cooper Village that morning. But he was coming back for an older woman.
“She’s a nice old lady, she wanted to sleep,” Walter said. We had come from the west side, and Walter had made an unnecessary loop in morning rush hour to return.
We parked on a service road. Walter pushed down on the tops of the bottles in short jabs, to test the pressure. He was listening and looking for the spurts of seltzer that come out and the sounds of the hiss. He won’t give out a bottle he isn’t happy with.
Walter delivers in a modern vehicle that runs on gasoline. His radio plays top 40 hits and he had a coffee that morning from 7/11. But when he slides open that door and puts that wooden crate on his shoulder, he may as well be climbing out of a horse and buggy. There’s something beautiful about an anachronism walking down 1st Avenue; he takes the whole street along with him.
The Fountain’s Head
A seltzer delivery man used to be as common as a milk delivery man. Each seltzer man had his own route that he inherited from a father or an uncle. They got their seltzer from seltzer fillers in Brooklyn, Long Island, or the Bronx. There used to be hundreds of fillers, and even more seltzer men. Now, the number of seltzer men can be counted on one hand. Only one finger is needed for the fillers. Gomberg Seltzer, run by Kenny Gomberg, third-generation seltzer man, is the only place to fill an old, pressurized bottle in New York City.
It’s hard to imagine a time when these antiquated bottles were as present in every home as a stick of butter or a frying pan. Soda water was invented in 1802 in Dublin, and made its way into restaurants and businesses, eventually being mixed with syrups and liquor. The individual “soda siphon,” a version of which Walter sells today, brought seltzer into personal residences. A Harper’s magazine article from 1872 recommends that the summer seltzer drinker enjoy it ice cold, and speaks favorably of adding lemon. Hot seltzer, usually chocolate or coffee flavored, was not as popular, and has not stood the taste test of time.
The production of bottled sparkling water, busier professional lifestyles, and large soda corporations caused this business to lose its fizz over the last 50 years. I asked Kenny what his grandfather would think, if he knew that he was the last seltzer filler. Kenny couldn’t come up with an answer, it was that unfathomable. Like Walter and Al, his is a family affair. His son, Alex, just joined the legacy.
Compared to the loud trucks and bustle of the city, the nondescript factory building is a kind of oasis. The bottles are filled with New York City tap water and carbon dioxide. The valve is sealed immediately, so that no pressure leaks out. A bottle can retain it’s carbonation for years. But these are active bottles, and they all visit the Gombergs on a weekly basis. It’s a cycle that’s been happening at Gomberg Seltzer since 1953.
After another hiss and the spray of overflowing carbonation, a hard working bottle gets a little rest before it’s sent out again with Walter.
We left Peter Cooper and drove west, along 9th street and stopped in front of a brownstone right before 3rd Avenue. Walter and I walked into a beautiful townhouse with a Japanese style garden in the back. An elderly woman came to the door.
“I’m glad you’re here, glad you’re in town,” Walter said. “Where are the kids? School?”
“No, they’re at a museum today,” she said.
“That’s nice. You got beautiful grandkids, both of them.” Walter put the seltzer down and admired renovations that had been done in the kitchen. “Myles is getting real handsome. It’s nice that they’ve got you to come visit. I’m real glad you’re here today, don’t worry about paying. I’ll catch up, I always catch up.”
“Don’t work too hard!”
We left. He didn’t get paid for that delivery. He said he’s not worried.
“The seltzer man always gets paid.”
“In the South Bronx in the 1980s, a black man fired a shot gun into the air.”
I am riveted, and so is the deli man making our sandwiches. Walter continues his story.
“I is Sweet George,” the man yelled, in front of a seltzer filling factory. “Now I runs this shop!” This show of power would help protect Sweet George’s property, money and delivery men. One of those men was a young Walter Backerman. They had to fill at odd hours to have enough time to make all their stops. Walter, and his assistant Frankie, would carry two loaded guns with them at all times to ward off thugs and robbers.
When Walter made his route in tough neighborhoods, he would call a meeting of all his helpers. He said, “Anybody comes to stick you up, just call my name. I’ll shoot em in the back, I’ll flip ‘em over to make it legal, and I’ll pull my money outta there.”
It’s hard for me to believe these stories, as I watch Walter chat at the register and tell the cashier to have a nice day. He’s never hurt anyone in his life. He told every old lady we’d seen on the route how nice they looked. He will buy anyone a coffee. When his assistant, Frankie, got old and senile, Walter couldn’t bear to fire him. Frankie was so run-down that when he stood on the corner holding a coffee cup, a passerby threw a quarter in, thinking he was homeless.
“You don’t understand, I didn’t want him,” Walter said. “I pay him good money. I just can’t cut him loose. When someone gives you that devotion, I can’t cut ‘em loose.”
Walter showed me a stack of wooden crates an 80 year old customer used to make, six a week. At that time, Walter didn’t need them. But he kept buying them because he didn’t want to discourage an old man who needed the money.
“I’d rather give the guy 30 dollars for the boxes and keep him working,” he said. “Cause I want someone to keep me working.”
That’s what it comes down to these days. Kenny, Alex and Walter just keep going. And by doing so, they support each other.
“Looks like I’m not working today, cause I’m just bullshitting with you,” he said. We were parked in the West Village and had delivered to two more apartments and a restaurant. “I’m tired. Some days you get up and you’re all perky, and some, the week just gets to you.”
We ate our sandwiches and Walter took the opportunity to show me around the memorabilia-laden truck. He pointed to a photo of a young man with long curly hair and white bell bottoms.
“That’s me when I was my son’s age.” Walter said. “I was there helping my father. I was going to start law school, going to go that summer. Then, my father got emphysema and he almost died. So I started helping him. I was supposed to help for six months. Take a leave, go back. It just was never the time.”
When Walter talks about his father, all the celebrities and name-dropping disappears. Al Backerman becomes the only famous man in the world. I wondered earlier how a young man could give up law school and the promise of a comfortable life. It was for the chance to be with the biggest star of all. Al died in 1998 from lung cancer.
I picked up a bottle at random. It was heavy and the glass was thick all around. The top said, “Al Backerman 1952.”
“That’s the most beautiful bottle in my whole route,” Walter boomed. “Al Backerman, that’s my father. And the date, 1952. You know what’s important about that bottle? That’s when I was born. So I was in diapers and that bottle was making money for the family.”
I’m starting to realize that the seltzer route, at every stage, is an homage to heritage. An homage to the past, from the present. To fathers, from their sons. The reusing of the bottles, and the repetition of the route, echoes its respect to tradition.
We drove up to our last delivery, in Alphabet City. It was my last stop too.
Walter gives me some things to take with me, before I go. He gives me a worn tour guide of Manhattan based on film shoots and celebrity homes, an open invitation to knock anytime on the door of his truck, and a photo of him and an old woman wearing a Superman shirt. It’s his favorite celebrity he’s met.
“That’s Noel Neil,” he said. “In the original adventures of Superman that I used to watch when I came home from school, she was Lois Lane. She’s 92 years old. And I still like her.”
I looked at the photo, which was carefully labelled with a name and date in blue ink.
Noel Neil is not the superhero in this photo, I thought.
Walter has no cape, no a body suit. He is a just man with trouble paying the bills, two kids and wife on disability. He is a man who has an injured shoulder, a long delivery route, 70 pound crates of seltzer to carry up three floor walk ups, and no heir to his throne. You could say that he has super strength.
Walter has no regrets about giving up law school to work with his dad. He didn’t lose much, he only gained. He became tied to a lineage that goes back to his grandfather, who drove a horse-driven seltzer buggy in 1919. It’s a place for men to teach lessons, and Walter received a full share of them.
“They used to say if bullshit was electricity, Al Backerman would put Con Edison out of business,” Walter said.
Our sandwiches were eaten, the seltzer was delivered, and all that was left was for Walter to teach me one of his father’s lessons. “People don’t always need hear the truth. When my Aunt Stella at 65 was dying of stomach cancer, my father went down, took a week off from the routes and he went down to say goodbye to his sister. At the end, she was frail, falling apart, nothing to her, she put lipstick on. She had a couple days more to live and my father said, ‘You know Stella, I have a crazy feeling you’re gonna get better cause you look great.’ And she said, ‘Oh Al, I just put some lipstick on. But do you think? Maybe you’re right. Oh, thank you.’ And that’s the last time my father saw his sister. She died right after that.
“In 1998, my son Jonathan was three months old and Joey was a year and four months old. My father had lung cancer. I remember looking out the window of the hospital and knowing that my father was never going to make it down to the street. So I took my sons, Jonathan in my hand and Joey in my arms. And I wanted—even though they would never remember—I wanted them to see their grandfather.
“My father had a morphine drip, but for some reason he got up. He took the mask off and he saw the kids and he said, ‘Walter, what are you crazy? What are you bringing kids to a hospital for? All they got here is sick people, you’re crazy, you shouldn’t have brought them here.’ And I said, ‘You know Al, I think you’re getting your energy back. I think you’re gonna be perfect, and you’re gonna be all right, and I miss you on the route. I want you outta here.’ My father looked at me and he said, ‘All I do is dream about the route. I wish I could rest already.’”
I hopped out of Walter the Seltzer Man’s truck, looking up at him from the sidewalk. I wonder if he will ever get to rest. Walter took my hand in his and couldn’t resist giving me one more piece of advice. “The most important thing is just being a human being, and saying the right thing for a person who needs it at the time. And that is my last story for today.”
Shayla Love is a journalist and storyteller living in New York. She is a reporter for the Norwood News and has been published at BKLYNR.com, Gothamist, and iMediaEthics.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
by Victoria Fann
I owe my life to an illegal abortionist in Newport, Kentucky. Inside my mother's womb I was with her on that January day in 1959, her shivering, me warm and safe, while she waited for Roger to pick her up on Vine Street in Cincinnati. Roger was not my father. He was a Sigma Chi frat brother who needed the $50 my father put out to some guys over beers the night before. Roger didn't have a car so my father loaned him his—a blue '57 Chevy. Little comfort it offered my mother when it pulled to the curb that morning.
The night I was conceived was enmeshed in my father's magnetic charm. His fire melted my mother's resistance. His electricity ignited my soul into existence. His charm disarmed her from the start. She fell in love with his charisma and his ability to take control of any situation. But in the end, those qualities worked against her. According to her, he drove to her parent's house one night and let her know how much he wanted her. She said no. He drove around the block and came back and pleaded with her to change her mind. Again, she refused. He did this a few more times until finally, finally, she let him in, and they tiptoed quietly into her parent’s guest bedroom. They never made it to the bed. It began and ended quickly. Then he left her on the floor shivering and ashamed, partially dressed, her dancer’s legs spread open.
When Roger pulled to the curb and saw my mother, he acted like a scared puppy. Head down, avoiding her eyes, he jumped out of the car to open the door. His crew cut and the smell of his fresh after-shave made her wince with sadness that instead of a date, he was performing a duty. "Please," she said, and held up her trembling hand to stop him. "Sorry," he mumbled, slumping back to the driver's seat.
Those were the only words spoken between them. My mother was too busy thinking she was going to die. A philosophy major in love with the Greeks, the symbolism of crossing the Ohio River from Cincinnati was not lost on her. It may as well have been a trip over the River Styx accompanied by Charon. She’d sinned and now she was descending into Hades. She’d given in to my father’s advances and the gods were punishing her. For the hour drive, she protected herself by going numb and wrapping herself in a cocoon of despair so tight, nothing could penetrate it.
Roger pulled into the parking lot of a nightclub. The neighborhood was rough, with boarded up windows, abandoned cars, and front porches covered with junk. The nightclub was overgrown with vines and badly in need of a paint job. Broken glass littered the parking lot. My mother stepped out, heart pounding, and walked around to the back door as instructed. It was Sunday, so the nightclub wasn't open for business.
My mother knocked on the door. There was no response, so she knocked again. She was about to leave when she heard a voice say, “All right, already, I’m coming.”
A middle-aged woman threw open the door. “Come on in.”
“I’m ... I’m here to ...”
“I know why you’re here, hon,” she said, a cigarette sticking to her bright pink bottom lip. She had on a tight yellow sweater with a safety pin instead of a top button. "Follow me." My mother followed her down a hallway painted gunmetal gray. Both women's shoes clicked on the worn wooden floor. Bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling. It smelled of stale booze and cigarette smoke. A man dressed in black carrying an instrument passed them. He didn't look at up, but his shoulder brushed her jacket. They passed an open door that led into the club. She could see a small stage and dance floor and a wooden bar that covered the length of one wall. The club was empty and lifeless and dark, hung over with the previous night's activities.
"In here." The pink-lipped women led her into a stark room with two metal chairs and a plaid sofa. “Take a seat over there.”
She sat down quickly on the well-worn sofa. It sank under her weight. “Your name?”
“Ruth.” Her mother’s name slipped from her lips.
Any medical conditions, you know of, other than ...?” The woman’s voice drifted off. She was standing in the doorway, staring at her nails.
“Uh ... no. Nothing. I mean I’m fine,” my mother answered and the woman disappeared, the sound of her shoes clicking down the hallway.
Minutes ticked by like a slow leak from a faucet. Drip, drip, drip. There was no sound except for the drone of a television somewhere. The room filled with the sharp, acrid scent of my mother’s fear. Her body shook uncontrollably as she tried to catch her breath while her thoughts turned to women she'd heard about who'd died from abortions. A spectrum of emotion washed over her. Shame, guilt, horror, and finally shock that my father would have expected her to go through with this alone. What kind of man …? When had she felt fear like this …? Her father would do this. Her father had made her this afraid.
"Ruth?" a loud voice interrupted her revere.
"What? Hm? Oh … is it time?" she asked, as though waking from a dream.
"Through that door, hon," said the woman appearing again and pointing to a door next to where she was sitting. Smoke eddies whirled around her head as she puffed on a newly lit cigarette. "Strip down and put on that blue gown opened in the front. The doctor will be right in."
The door squeaked loudly as my mother jostled the handle. The room smelled of mildew and pine cleaner and a sour mixture of bodily fluids. Images of babies swimming in blood filled her mind. Her stomach churned. Thinking she might be sick, she ran over to the wastebasket, and gagged, but nothing came up. She realized that she had eaten nothing since yesterday. Sweat beaded along her upper lip and forehead. Feeling thirsty, she looked for a sink, but there was none. Instead she sat down on the badly scuffed linoleum floor. She was too dizzy to stand up or undress. A florescent light hummed above her. She closed her eyes to shut out the light.
"Excuse me … miss?"
My mother opened her eyes and saw a man wearing a grayish white coat with gentle brown eyes and very dark skin bending over her.
"Are you all right?"
“Yes, um no … I mean, I just felt a little dizzy," she replied, smoothing her skirt.
"Why don't you come up here on the table so that we can talk for a minute?" His hand was under her arm gently guiding her to the table.
Once seated he pulled up a small stool next to her. "That's better. Now do you want to talk about 'your little problem'?"
"Can I have some water, please?" she asked.
The doctor wheeled the stool over, pulled open the door, and shouted, "Sally, bring me a cup of water."
Sally appeared holding a small paper cup. When she saw that my mother wasn't undressed, she glared at her, and said, "Doctor, that woman from Louisville will be here soon."
"Not to worry, I'll be finished soon." The doctor smiled at my mother until the door was closed, then his look turned serious.
"How far along are you?"
"About ten weeks, I think."
“Are you from around here?" He began to unfold the gown as he spoke.
"No, I live in the city." She finished the water, wishing there were more.
"Why don't you get undressed so that I can examine you and we can begin?" He stood up and was preparing to leave. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes."
"Doctor, I'm frightened. What if …" her voice trailed off.
“Not to worry, I do this operation every day. I know you've heard the horror stories, but I can't tell you how many women think I'm a gift from God. Now there's no time to waste, I've got a busy day ahead. We must get moving."
"What if my parents find out?" she asked, feeling frantic, tears spilling from her eyes. She wasn't ready. It was all happening too fast.
"Your parents will have no way of knowing anything's amiss. You have arranged for a place to stay for a couple of days, so that you can recover?"
"No … I haven't. Henry, I mean, my boyfriend didn't tell me. My parents will worry. They'll know something's wrong."
"Young lady, why do want to waste my time here today? You must leave. I cannot help you; it's too risky. My advice to you is to go home and tell your parents about your predicament. Beg for their mercy. Get married. But don't come back here again and don't ever tell anyone you were here."
The door slammed shut and the doctor was gone. My mother’s one chance to change her future rested in his hands. Strangely, she felt relieved. Now there was no choice. She hadn’t even considered having to recover. In fact, she wasn’t thinking about much of anything other than the fact that her whole life was ruined. Her years of dancing, wasted. Money for three and a half years of college, wasted. Her reputation, stained. Plans for the future, crushed. She had to accept her fate, and that meant having this child, whether Henry liked it or not. Surely, her mother would help her.
Standing up, my mother checked her face in the mirror. She combed her hair and applied fresh lipstick. Moistening a handkerchief with saliva, she dabbed at the streaks of mascara.
When she entered the waiting area, she saw two other women sitting on the plaid couch. Neither looked directly at her. One woman, older than she, was quite pregnant looking. Her face had the deep wrinkles of someone who labored outside. A farm wife with too many children. My mother imagined her coming here at the last moment desperate for a way out. The other woman looked to be her own age, very blond and pretty. Her pregnancy didn't show at all. My mother wanted to grab her and tell her not to do it. She imagined her parents somewhere getting a phone call telling them their beautiful daughter was dead. Dead from trying to do the right thing. Dead from trying to protect them. Dead because she was alone.
The ride home was agonizing. Roger, probably clueless, simply looked up when she opened the car door, unaware that nothing had happened. My mother then had over an hour to imagine my father's fury and her mother’s anguish. It made her heart race with fear and dread. But then, she was relieved to be alive.
My father didn’t get his way. Once my grandmother found out my mother was pregnant, the abortion was out of the question. Not that my grandmother welcomed the news with open arms. Of course, she was excited about a new baby—she loved babies. But the circumstances made it a moral dilemma.
“How could you do this to me?” she cried when my mother told her. As if my mother had meant to hurt her. Eventually, my grandmother was my greatest ally; she became my second mother, for who can resist a baby?
Soon, all the rest of the grandparents rallied. My father agreed to marry my mother. They eloped quietly to Sevierville, Tennessee. Only months away from her graduation, however, my father punished my mother by insisting she quit school and work. His commitment to her was tenuous and thin as if he were doing her a grand favor, as if she’d made some awful mistake and he was helping her get through it. Not a great entrance into fatherhood.
Instead of the celebrated welcome an infant usually receives, my arrival brought dread and misgiving. It was not the beginning of something, but rather the end. The end of freedom, the end of my mother’s love of dance, the end of innocence. Perhaps that’s why my father was in the arms of another woman on the night of my birth. Perhaps that’s why I screamed with colic for the first four months of life. Perhaps that’s why for years afterward, my mother wished she were dead.
My mother said she had to nurse me on a hard wooden chair in the kitchen so that she wouldn’t wake my father’s sleep. Our ability to bond was doomed from the start. If my father thought everything about parenting was so awful, is it any wonder that my mother began to feel that way too? She had nothing. No friends, no school, no work, no life. Just days of being on her own, unequipped to care for an infant.
This pattern of rejection from my father lasted until I was in school, and then he only began to come around because there were three of us. Liz came two years after me and Susan four years after that. It became harder for my father to deny he had a family.
Years later, my mother told my sisters and me stories of how she used to dance in toe shoes until her feet bled, how a close dancing friend of hers had gone on to star in the New York City Ballet, and how once she’d turned down an invitation to move to New York and work with Martha Graham. Clearly, she was dedicated to her art. Pregnancy changed all that. Her dancer’s body was no longer being used for art but to sustain life. The flesh and muscles she had sculpted and tortured into submission, had, in the end, betrayed her.
I didn’t learn I was an unplanned arrival into my parents’ lives until I was seventeen. The story was painful because I saw myself as someone who had destroyed my mother’s career and interrupted her education. Not that there was anything I could do about it, but I felt guilty nonetheless.
My mother didn’t have an easy time raising my sisters and me. Young motherhood was an intense struggle. Often, she barely had the will to endure. But as we matured and started families of our own, my mother has discovered that the many threads of her life, the joys, the sorrows, the fears, the triumphs have blended together over the years into a beautiful, richly-colored tapestry.
My father never really aligned himself with his role as a parent. Immersed in his obsessive pursuit of fame and fortune as a jingle writer, he moved from the suburbs of New Jersey, where we’d lived for years, into his own apartment in Manhattan. We rarely saw him after that since his life revolved around work, women, and drugs. In 1980, he died alone in a car accident on a lonely Pennsylvania road in the wee hours of the morning. He’d been performing in a bar with the late-in-life rock band he’d formed in a last ditch attempt to live his dream of being a real musician. He was forty-three.
My parents were two different people moving along two divergent roads—the trajectory of their lives colliding due to the catalytic event of sudden parenthood resulting in a mostly discordant union. In spite of my rocky start and painful evolution, the wisdom gifted to me from my parents created the ideal compass for my own journey. I explored the realms of marriage and parenting on quite different terms, making my own messes, but embracing the challenges without the extremes of either narcissism or martyrdom.
On any given day, I can remind myself that I almost didn’t make it—a bittersweet medicine that I’ve ingested and digested until it’s coming out my pores. Shifting from not being wanted into wanting to be here ultimately became the modus operandi of my soul’s evolution, except that now, in mid-life, it has a mellower, gentler edge than it used to. For that I’m grateful, and for the newly present sense that all is strangely, mysteriously unfolding as it should.
Victoria Fann has been writing essays, short stories, plays and screenplays as well as non-fiction books for over four decades. Her writing has been published in magazines, newspapers and numerous online publications. Since Jan. 1, 2013, Victoria has lived and worked as a digital nomad with no permanent address, and she can usually be found with her laptop writing and sipping lattes at cafes throughout the U.S. and hopefully soon, the rest of the world.