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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Stage Six

by Dawn Corrigan

Global Deterioration Scale, Stage 6:
People in Stage 6 require extensive assistance to carry out daily activities.
They start to forget names of close family members and have little memory of recent events. Many people can remember only some details of earlier life. They also have difficulty counting down from 10 and finishing tasks.
Incontinence is a problem in this stage. Ability to speak declines. Personality changes, such as delusions, compulsions, or anxiety and agitation may occur.
Average duration: 2.5 years

6/14/09
It’s often said that old age is a second childhood, but at eighty-nine, my Nan more resembles a cat. Specifically, a cat washing her face. All day long, every day, she rubs and rubs her face. Sometimes with a tissue, sometimes just with her fingers. And just like a cat, she periodically licks those fingers, or the tissue, then resumes rubbing again.
But unlike the experience of watching a cat giving itself a bath, watching her rub her face all day doesn’t fill me with a sense of well-being.
I try not to let it get to me. I try to look away and just listen as she tells me—again—how she earned her retirement because she worked as a senior tax compliance agent at the World Trade Center for forty years.
At first, Grandpa and I used to remind her that the Towers only stood for twenty-eight years, not forty, and that her career with the New York State tax division lasted eighteen; but our facts can’t compete with the cadences of her imagination. The phrase “senior tax compliance agent” in particular seems to give satisfaction.

6/23/09
Over the weekend my uncle calls to say she’s complaining of abdominal pains, so on Tuesday after work I run in to check on her.
“How are you feeling? Is your tummy any better?”
“Yes, I’m feeling a little better today. My stomach was so rumbly, and I kept having to run to the bathroom. I thought I was pregnant.”
When I burst out laughing, she rolls her eyes upward. “God forbid!”

8/13/09
In August she’s still rubbing. She’s also begun to complain that she has something in her eye, which she surely does, a result of the constant rubbing. She puts makeup on, then rubs it off. She covers her face in Vaseline, she rubs it off. Finally, my aunt makes an appointment for her to see a psychiatrist.
I take her to the appointment. On the drive over, she tells me her father came to visit the other day.
“He drives the car and comes to see me,” she explains.
In the office I tell the doctor about these hallucinations, and about the rubbing. I try to do so furtively, so she won’t know we’re talking about her. But of course she does know.
“What are you saying?”
“I was telling him you have these sores by your eye,” I say, brushing her temple.
“Oh, that’s where my husband punched me,” she says, looking straight at the doctor with a deadpan expression. “It’s all right, it will heal.”
Other things may be deteriorating, but her sense of humor—tough, outrageous, of another era—is still intact.


8/25/2009
Less than two weeks later, she falls and breaks her hip. I wait with her in pre-op.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she says. “I would be very lonesome if you weren’t here.”
The surgical nurse stops by to remove her dentures and jewelry.
A minute later, she asks, “Where are my teeth?”
I explain where her teeth are.
“I bet they’re talking about me.”
She says she’s cold, so I ask for some of those warm blankets from the little blanket ovens that are the nicest thing about a hospital. The nurse brings two, tucking one over her and draping a second around her head, forming a kind of halo.
“I look like an angel now. Where are my teeth?”
I tell her.
“They don’t want me to swallow them during the surgery?”
“Right!” I say, happy she remembers something.
“But where are my teeth?”
I tell her.
“They were afraid I’d bite them,” she says.

9/13/2009
After the surgery, she’s moved to a nursing home for four weeks of physical therapy. When I visit a couple weeks later, she’s out in the hall by the nurses’ station. She gets excited when she sees me, and throws her arm around me and gives me a big kiss. Then she says, “People are going to think I’m a lesbian!”

9/20/2009
The four weeks she spends in the nursing home are by far the longest interlude she and Grandpa Dom have been apart since they married in 1966. And because Dom isn’t around and she doesn’t understand why, she imagines the worst, like any jealous lover.
After the first week she starts telling me about all the fun Dom’s been having. “He’s been playing cards—and dancing! I had no idea he could dance so well! You should have seen him doing the Charleston! He was great.”
Part of the problem is she doesn’t know she’s not at the assisted living facility anymore. The corridors, the staff wearing scrubs, the wheelchairs parked in corners—the details of the nursing home are just too similar to the ALF where she and Dom have lived for the past two years. Her fading memory can’t parse the difference The only possible explanation she can fathom for why she doesn’t see Dom is that he’s staying away on purpose—because of his wild new social life.
However, it’s also still important to her that she should appear as a sophisticated, worldly person in my eyes—as she has for my whole life. Therefore, she makes an effort to mitigate her jealousy: “That woman he was dancing with, she was great too.”
When Dom and I visit her together on Sunday, though, the gloves come off.
At first she keeps it fairly good-natured. Ignoring Dom, she addresses me. “He has a girlfriend, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“It’s okay. He can have a girlfriend. In fact, he can have three girlfriends.”
“No one could argue with that, Nan. That’s very generous.”
My grandfather, however, is not amused by this largess. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he tells her nervously.
“What’s your girlfriend’s name? You know, the tall one.”
“My only girlfriend is Frances.”
Frances is her name. She isn’t fooled by this trick.
“No! You know who I mean.”
“Dawn,” he says.
“Hey!” I say. “Leave me out of it.”
“The tall one,” she says again.
All of a sudden I have a terrible feeling I know who she means. Her friend Sara at the ALF is quite tall, a fact she’s commented on frequently.
“The tall one,” she says again, looking at me impatiently.
I shrug. “I don’t know, Nan.”

10/1/2009
On her last night in the nursing home, I arrive to find her telling one of the staff members, a young woman who’s been extremely nice to her, to “Shut up!”
“Nan! I don’t want you to tell people to shut up.”
I sit next to her. After a few minutes, she says, “I guess I’m getting older. I get scared. But I’ll try to do better.”
I take her for a walk outside. Back in her room, she starts going through her drawers in preparation for the next day’s departure, about which she’s very excited.
In one drawer there are several boxes of tissues. I notice one is covered with her handwriting, in a narrow column that runs the length of the box.

Frances was playing
all by herself
Dom was downstairs
or upstairs
and I was
all alone

From
now
on
I am
playing
by
myself
The
hell
with
Dom

To the best of my knowledge, it’s her first poem.

12/28/2009
A month after returning to the ALF, she breaks her other hip. She’s back from the second surgery by Christmas, but she can no longer walk. This time she refuses to participate in physical therapy. And there isn’t much you can do to make a person with dementia do something she doesn’t want to do.
Even before the dementia, there wasn’t much you could do to make her do something she didn’t want to do.
When she returns to the little apartment she and Dom share, it doesn’t go well. She immediately begins falling a lot. When I stop in a few nights after Christmas, he’s agitated.
“Thank goodness you’re here! She’s trying to get out of the bed.”
Dom and I start the lecture: You have to be a good patient, etc.
“You fell TEN TIMES,” I tell her, holding up my ten fingers.
“Oh, my.”
“You have to do what they say,” I continue. “Otherwise you’re going to wind up crippled for life, and you’ll never get out of that bed.”
She nods in agreement with me. “They have to do what,” she begins. Then I see she knows she has it wrong.
“They have to ...” she shakes her head. She’s trying, she really is, but dementia and a lifetime of her true temperament are fighting against her.
She tries again. Slowly.
I … have to do ... what they say.”

1/10/2010
By the new year it’s clear she isn’t capable of independent living anymore. She’s moved to the ALF’s specialty unit, up on the third floor. Dom remains in the apartment downstairs.
Tonight when I arrive she’s just been served dinner, a hot dog and fries. There isn’t a lot of extra room in the specialty unit dining room, so I tell her I’ll go see Dom and then come back once she’s finished eating.
When I return upstairs, I’m happy to see she’s made a good job of her hot dog, finished the fries, and is working on a serving of pudding.
“Did you see Dom?”
I admit I did.
“I played a trick on him. I pretended I was mad when I wasn’t. That was mean.”
I agree it was mean.
“Mean, but funny.”

5/7/2010
In May, she turns ninety. When I arrive on the big day, she’s dressed up in a new outfit, hair freshly permed, a corsage on her wrist, and clutching the strings to some balloons in one hand. Dom holds her other hand. She’s very excited. While we wait for the other guests, she wraps the string from the balloon around her neck like a noose, pretending to hang herself. Then she looks for my reaction.

My aunt and uncle arrive. We sing and pass out cake.
In her room afterward, she rubs her belly and mumbles. We look at her with concern. Is she complaining about wearing a diaper again? Does she have a tummy ache? She rummages around for a moment, then suddenly produces a package of cookies she snuck out of the goodie basket downstairs and stuffed down her pants.
When I crack up she smiles, pleased she still has an audience for her comedy bits.

10/26/2010
In October, she falls again. The ALF staff takes her to the hospital to be checked out. By the time I get off work, she’s already back on the specialty unit.
When I arrive, there she is, sitting in the middle of the hall in her wheelchair, in lavender from head to toe. There’s a scratch on her nose, but aside from that she looks fine.
In my hand I hold a notepad, which she regards with great interest.
While I chat with staff, she takes off her left sock and tries to hide my notepad in it.
The staff member excuses herself. “She’s hot shit,” Nan says, after she leaves.

6/13/2011
Shopping in a secondhand store, I find a pink jacket I think she’ll like. Her clothes are always going missing. I think she sneaks into the other residents’ rooms and hides them in the drawers.
The jacket looks like something she would have worn years ago, when she was, yes, a senior tax compliance agent, and she looked the way Dom described her to me last night:

I used to drive her around, you know, when she had to go see
some of her clients. The ones who were likely to give her trouble.
But I’d just hang back and let her work. Sometimes I’d look up
and see her on the street in front of me, wearing her suit just so,
and the sun gleaming on her blonde hair.

So I buy the pink jacket, and take it to her, and bundle her into it. She buttons all the buttons, and we play with the sleeves for a while.
“I’ve loved you since the day you were born,” she says.


Dawn Corrigan has published poems and prose in a number of print and online journals. Her debut novel, Mitigating Circumstances, an environmental mystery, was published by Five Star/Cengage in January 2014. Currently, she's working on a family saga set in southern Italy, Hell's Kitchen, and South Jersey. She lives in Gulf Breeze, FL. Learn more about her work at www.dawncorrigan.com.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

bioStories Alum Annie Dawid's new book

bioStories Magazine alum Annie Dawid has a new collection of poems titled Anatomie of the World forthcoming in February. The book is available for pre-order now at Finishing Line Press.



Tuesday, November 15, 2016

New Anthology Available

ENCOUNTERS, a new anthology of fifteen diverse pieces that have previously appeared in bioStories magazine, is now available in trade paperback and as an ebook. Here's a chance to sample some extraordinary essays bound together on the theme of unexpected encounters that can change our lives. Links to purchase are available through the website.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Anodyne

by Sonia Arora

In those days there were no bright digital numbers, blue against black, assuring you had found the right place. You’d turn the dial and find the radio station, sometimes jiggling to avoid static, cobwebs of sound muffling the tune, until you found just the right spot and heard U2, Prince, or some other idol of your liking. You’d hear such artists in the grocery store and at work, and so you imbibed the songs of the 80s, and they stayed in your bloodstream long after, even if you chose not to seek them out at live concerts.

Maybe I was counter-culture; maybe I was queer. This Yonkers girl, having lived in both Punjab and New York, found succor in the devotional music of kirtan, mystic poetry set to a harmonium, like a piano with a pump, and tabla, like bongo drums. Not something I could often find on the airwaves. Devotional music was the hum under my breath as I traversed the world of public high school delving and questioning American Literature, European history, biology, trigonometry, and so much more

Kirtan caught me like unspooled thread. I latched onto Punjabi poetry about finding the beloved. It echoed the language of my grandparents, who were slowly slipping away from my life. My grandfather died when I was sixteen, prompting family members in Ludhiana to quarrel about property and inheritance. My family was disintegrating. The music, the poetry, remained. In them, I found shelter. As I took the 20 bus down Central Avenue to high school, I tapped my knee to the rhythms of kirtan, dhun dhanakadin dhun, as if home could be eternal in the wavelength of sound or in the Punjabi hymns of shabad. I searched for the outdoor bazaars of Ludhiana pink carrots and mooli (radish), among strip malls and the Yonkers Raceway.

I could not turn the dial to find it. Instead I’d play tapes, worn from use, forwarding and rewinding to find my favorites, like the one about not being able to fall asleep until seeing the beloved. I would also hear it live in the gurudwara, a place of worship for Sikhs. I’d ride the melodies, slowing decoding each song, knowing some words and figuring out others through context and still others through the lilt of sound. “I have come a long way, seeking shade and sanctuary, beloved. I place my trust in a greater consciousness, losing all my sorrow and pain along the way.” In Punjabi, it sounds so much better, like laasi sounds better than yogurt shake, like gol mol sounds better than chubby. Still I continue the journey, one of language, one of culture and race, translating sometimes and others times venturing inside the music without translation.

Ultimately, it’s the mystic poetry that hooks me, realizing only when Prince died that he is of a similar tradition. In my middle aged funk, Prince guides me through the post punk landscape helping me transcend boundaries of cultural identity. Prince sings, “I wanna be your brother/I wanna be your mother and your sister, too/There ain’t no other/That can do the things that I’ll do to you.” There is a spiritual shabad or hymn Punjabi, “Tu mera pita, Tu hai mera mata,” which translates into “You are my father, you are my mother, my friend and my brother.” Of course, there is no rock star straddling a guitar in a purple outfit singing the hymn. Rather, there are men, sometimes women, with turbans sitting aside a holy book draped in silk playing music. The shabad makes me think like a Zen philosopher. In the relations of this world you can find a connection to loving consciousness and loving consciousness is beyond relationships.

Somewhere there is a connection between the fingers on the frets of Prince’s guitar and the palms on the tabla, between the pain of living and the subsequent search for meaning. As I age, I find some relations and lose others. I dream of my grandparents’ home, 698 Gurdev Nagar, for if I were to try to search for the brick and mortar, the veranda with the gecko skittering across the ceiling, the crow my grandmother shoos from the lemon tree, I’d find an altogether different home, reconstructed by another family. Too scared to find the reconfiguration, instead, I awake to find a lost tune vibrating within my body.


Sonia Arora has been teaching literature and humanities for almost twenty years. Her work as a teaching artist takes her into classrooms across Long Island, New York City, and Philadelphia where she explores oral history, digital media, poetry, activism, and film-making with youth in elementary, middle and high schools. She has published short fiction, poetry and essays. Publications include: Apiary; Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching; Prompted, an anthology printed by Philadelphia Stories, 3-2-1 Contact, Sonic Boom, and more. For more information about her work, go to www.ed-lib.org.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Conflagration

by Brent Fisk

In what should have been my future, I’d have turned my small record shop into a giant retailer with a cadre of devoted customers seeking advice on what album to buy next: Which Big Star record is best? Where to turn once the grooves of Kinks Kronikles are too worn to play? Who else has a voice as pure as Sandy Denny’s? I envisioned a homely couch where like-minded fans could sit and talk music. A cooler in the backroom stocked with Nehi and Warsteiner. A pinball machine beckoning from one corner. Rack after rack of brilliant albums. Reclaimed bookshelves stuffed with tasteful erotica, foreign poetry, the odd Scandinavian police procedural.

Instead I’ve strolled down a quite different career path. I’m a staid librarian at the local university. The IRS no longer hounds me for financial records so they can discover every small equivocation and the fuzzy math of my desperate record shop self. Those papers turned to ash in the arson that followed the burglary. This current job is easy to leave at day’s end. I can forget it like a coat hung on the back of a door. I no longer reek of incense and patchouli. When I wake in the middle of the night it’s because I have to pee, not because of the sheer terror of a negative account balance. I know the true meaning of the hoary phrase, a smoldering ruin.

Little I wished for has taken place; not the stacks of pristine vinyl, not the sought after bootlegs of Bowie in Berlin. The closest thing to books I sold was a steady string of High Times magazine. There were few acolytes I turned on to Parliament and Funkadelic. To keep the doors open we sold metal one-hitters, water bongs with a markup that staggered the imagination. Every black dude with a neck tattoo wanted to talk about the joys of marijuana. Rednecks in manure-smeared boots wouldn’t say two words to get laid, but walked up to the paraphernalia counter and were positively chatty. There were a host of words customers could not say. As the signage said, the pipes were for “tobacco use.” Utter some joke about pot, and the customer was out the door. We carded everybody who looked under thirty.  It was part of the unwritten local ordinance. You want to run a head shop, you have to act like Wally Cleaver.

So I had to wonder what it meant that early morning in December when the phone rang in the dark. Some random wrong number, another smash and dash, or the police entering with a warrant? The dispatcher’s term for the building: Fully engulfed. My wife and I huddled across the street, feet in the gutter, fire hoses snaking across the blocked-off road. It poured rain though it did nothing to dampen the fire. The eaves of the roof belched clouds of thick black smoke and steam. Orange flames broke through the ridge of the roof. Among the flames, horrors were loosed both long term and short. The ATF agents were saying arson, the three investigators with side arms strapped to their waists noted every red flag as I answered their questions. My wife was a sound sleeper—could she vouch for my whereabouts? Sure I was there when the phone rang, but what about the hour before? The bald investigator asked if I’d raised the coverage on the building and contents. Would it matter that my insurance agent required it? Was I current on all my bills? They scribbled in notebooks as I looked at my feet. 

My life was a snarl of insurance claims, follow ups with the fire department, and desperate attempts to salvage business records and inventory. There were levies for unpaid taxes. Insurance payments were delayed “pending the investigation.” I let employees go one by one and tried to start over in a florist’s basement. The mice shit everywhere and silverfish nested in the posters. I grew to loathe the smell of incense but could not wash it from my clothes.

Then one day the police made an arrest. Some drunk at a bar knew details we’d never released, and after several hours of interrogation, he finally fingered the person responsible. Pretrial dragged on for half the year before the judge ultimately gave the guy probation. As part of the guy’s sentencing, I get a $400 money order once a month for twenty years, no interest. I closed my doors and filed for bankruptcy.

Maybe those years are a total loss. The thousand fears I was afraid to tell my wife. The thoughts I choked on like smoky air. That’s such an easy phrase to say, “a total loss.” But things are gained as well. You are forced to stand stock still and let things pass. You strip away a shallow film and lay things bare. I have settled up with the government. I love my wife, and miracle of miracles, she still loves me. I own a small house near the park. A student loan big enough, let’s say that it owns me. Still, I come home to a mess of cats that swerve between my legs. I pull an album off the shelf, listen to Linda Thompson, Nina Simone, the soundtrack to Grease. The afternoon light can be caught in a glass of wine.

An envelope with money inside is sent a few days late from Owensboro by that other person marked by my fire. There are days I can almost feel the kind of sweat that must have come when the investigators first knocked on his door. I wonder if he loves his job, if he struggles to make ends meet, if he’s come to loathe each stamp he sticks on payments he sends me. Does he own the door he unlocks? Does he have a wife to kiss, cats that mew behind a screen door hungry to move through the world? When he stares into the embers of a fire, does he also think of loss, all the choices we both have made, intermingled and reduced, how they drift away like ash?

Brent Fisk is a writer from Bowling Green, Kentucky. His work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Rattle, Fugue, Folio and other literary journals.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Lighthouse

by Sheila Moeschen

That spring brought a slow thaw and Beccas divorce papers.

Will you come with me to do something? Becca asked.

Of course, I said without hesitation. What are we doing?

A ritual, she said giving her eyebrows a theatrical wiggle. We laughed.

Three years ago Becca and Neil were married at the lighthouse. In the same way it called ships to harbor, the lighthouse was an irresistible draw for couples. Maybe it represented the idea of a light pricking the darkness, hope housed in a tower of brick, glass, and metal to them. Becca and Neil claimed this site as their own the way so many others had before them, grafting wishes for constancy onto a place where erosion was inevitable.

After the brief ceremony we posed on the rocks in our mismatched bridesmaid dresses like the oddest collection of mermaids just finding our feet. We shivered as the salt wind lapped at our bare shoulders and ran its sticky fingers through our hair. The April sky was the color of blanched sea glass. High, thin clouds hurried across the horizon; we barely made it to the backyard reception before the first fat rain drops fell.

Shit, Becca swore as we pulled into the narrow dirt parking lot of the lighthouse grounds. Its really windy.

We are on the ocean, I said drily. She rolled her eyes and popped open the trunk.
Becca reached for the metal bucket and handed it to me while she fished out a small bottle of lighter fluid, a lighter wand, and a bag of stuff. Photos, a few Birthday and Christmas cards, the marriage license, a piece of material that looked like it came from a flannel shirtthese were the things of our alchemy.

Thats it? I said. I dont know what I was expecting exactly just that there would be more of it.
  
Were not exactly having a bonfire here. Yeah, thats all she wrote, Becca replied giving the trunk a hard slam. We started up the path toward the lighthouse.

The had marriage unspooled the way marriages do when theyre held together with safety pins and fear. He wasnt mean. She wasnt reckless. They had unsaid expectations that bloomed like rust on a fender. They experienced frustrations and disappointments, hurt and resentment that slowly grew into the understanding that they had mistaken love and connection for a choking need to outsmart loneliness.

You know what I said when he proposed? she asked the day she told me he was gone, that they were done and the marriage had really ended. I shook my head. I said to him Are you sure?’” Becca sat back in her chair and chewed on the wisps of her cuticles. “I should have known as the words were coming out of my mouth. I should have known.”

The lighthouse is perched high on a grassy, slightly rounded rise. Below it thick fingers of rock jut out to form jetties that you can easily walk on when the tide is out. Behind the lighthouse, the land forms a basin. It drops off in a series of short cliffs to form a wide inlet where people boat and scuba dive sheltered from the ocean.

“There,” said Becca pointing down into a part of the inlet a short way below us that curved slightly away from the main property. “Less chance of someone seeing us and messing up the ritual.” She pronounced the word “ritual” in a terrible, fake British accent. We giggled, suddenly nervous.

Earlier in the day as we drove along the coast, Becca talked about closure and moving on, all the right things you’re supposed to reach for even when you’re nowhere near them. She needed a way to sever herself from the past, she said. She wanted to be free of the weight of her sadness and what she felt was her biggest failure.

She laid out her vision for how it was supposed to work—a quiet place, a bit of flame, and later scattering the ashes into the sea. Sweet and clean release. She said there were words she would need to recite.

“A prayer,” I said helpfully.

“More like an intention,” she answered.

“A spell!” I said. A chanted promise, a lyrical beacon. Now it was my turn to give my eyebrows an exaggerated wiggle. We cracked up and stretched our arms outside the windows, palming the wind, letting the sun slide over our skin.  

Together we picked our way down over the rocks that were jagged and forked like the scales of a dragon’s back. With no flat surface, we made do in a small area that straddled narrow tidal pools. Becca nestled the bucket as far down as she could and still reach it. I gave her the bag, it felt wrong somehow for me to over-handle these meaningful things. The unseasonably warm autumn afternoon meant that plenty of people were roaming the grounds. We could see them wandering around just above us and expected points and shouts any second.

Our attempted ritual proved pathetic. The wind kept snatching away the flame. We huddled closer to form a human shield around the bucket, twisting it this way and that, but the wind was everywhere. We could feel eyes on our backs. We knew we were pressing our luck. A little burned, a lot didn’t. We compromised, tipping the bucket toward the ocean to let it fill with salt water, drenching whatever was left. It would have to be enough. It would have to make magic in some way. That was the point all along, wasn’t it? To purify, to cleanse, to ruin what had already been laid to ruins in order to feel like you are walking around with a few less broken pieces.

“We’ll find a trashcan to dump what’s left,” I said. She nodded. “It was a good ritual. It counted, I’m sure it did.” She nodded again, looking more resigned than assured. We could have burned the entire ocean in that bucket and the moon for good measure and it would never ease the uncertainty that lived with her now.

We let the arms of the coast release us back to civilization, driving home in silence. I thought about Becca’s wedding reception and the way the rain ran off the tent in ribbons and forcing people to huddle around small cocktail tables in the center to avoid getting drenched. The flower girl stood at the tent’s edge, palm out to catch the rain, shifting from foot to foot, itching to cause trouble in the puddles. Becca took her tiny hand and danced her outside. I watched the friend I had always known flicker in and out of focus as if she were the subject of a jumpy, Super-8 film and summoned acceptance. The flower girl shrieked and hopped around. Becca twirled the little girl in a dizzying spin, laughing despite the cold and wet, determined to make this the shiny, storied day she was promised it would be.


Sheila Moeschen is a Boston-based writer and photography enthusiast. She is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post and her work has also been published in Niche Magazine and Red Line Roots. Sheila is currently at work on a nonfiction book about women and comedy. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Recycling Wasn't Always Fashionable

by Martha Clarkson

My mom heard that Libbey-Owens would pay money for old glass at their plant in north Portland. Libbey drinking glasses sold in sets of four in the dime stores in 1972.

To get this money, my mother had to find glass. She drove her little blue Beetle around to restaurants in the area, asking for empty liquor jugs. Bartenders at three lounges were willing to save their empties for her. The three restaurants were Poor Richard’s, the Mandarin, and the tile-faced Pagoda, all within a few blocks of each other in a district called Hollywood. During the day she made her rounds, hefting the bending boxes of jugs into the front trunk of her Beetle and more into the backseat, reached awkwardly in the two-door car.

Sometimes she took me along on her collection route. I didn’t like going to the bars. She was only allowed to pick up by day, before opening, so as not to interfere with business. Walking into the dark empty bar to find an employee spooked me.

My father drank in public at places that I assumed were similar, at lunch and after work, making deals with his advertising clients, and sometimes losing them, depending on how drunk he got or how badly he’d estimated how drunk the clients were willing to get.

I didn’t like going to the liquor store either, government-run, walls always the same sour green, rows and rows of bottles behind the counter, their gold and black labels calling to the customers. And I never went to the liquor store with my mother because the stance she presented to the world was that alcohol was evil. She never drank at a social dinner out, but ordered a 7-Up in a haughty tone, something I never heard her use any other time, while the other guests gave their directions to the waiter, words like “up” and “with a twist.”

But at home in the evenings she drank vodka posing as water from a yellow Tupperware glass on the kitchen counter. The yellow glass’s contents came from under the sink, behind the onion bin, a half-gallon jug of Popov, secretly poured.

Our garage was underneath the kitchen, off the basement, a typical design for a house on a steep hill, and after dinner, which was sometimes cooked well and sometimes a disaster, depending on the action seen by the yellow Tupperware glass, she’d head to the workbench and start smashing. She wore glasses anyway, but never any goggles. She’d empty a box except for one jug, and smash that one to bits, because the recycler would only take broken glass, and on and on this continued until the box was full of fragments. She had to learn what weight she could lift in pieces, versus jugs.

I think in the beginning, my dad wondered if she’d adopted this hobby to pour the last bits from each bottle and keep a liquor stash on her workbench, which really was hers, because my dad was hard pressed to pound a nail, let alone operate a drill or know the purpose of a vice. But that wasn’t it, there was plenty of booze upstairs behind the onions. She was not desperate in that way.

The Libbey plant was a mammoth metal structure supporting two large angled sections at the top resembling a claw. I rode to the plant with her, the little Beetle sagging on its tires, wending through security to get to the consumer recycling station. The red-lettered sign by the huge scale read “No color contamination.” My mother had diligently sorted brown, green, clear. The burly worker wouldn’t even help us unload. At thirteen, I could barely lift the boxes, but my mother hauled them out like they held duck feathers.

We put the boxes on the commercial scale and the man in the blue jumpsuit paid my mother from a wad of bills in his deep pocket, between six and eight dollars. We drove home, the car floating on the road like a piece of plastic.

The money from the recycling was what drove her to do it. She was a Depression child, had grown up poor, with the bad molars from not going to the dentist to prove it. My mother paid cash for everything and used paper money even if she had the change. At night, she’d dump all her coins into a blue ceramic piggy bank by the phone. Twice a month we’d go to the bank, a square glassy building close to her bottle pick-up spots, and deposit the money. She’d show me her passbook with the updated modest total and tell me it was a secret from my dad, her stash. I wondered if she planned to run away.

She didn’t run away. She wasn’t the type. She was just saving for a rainy day, which she seemed to think could come at any moment from my father’s business decisions. The recycling went on for two years. Sometimes I helped her in the garage. I liked it when she left me alone down there after dinner to smash the glass. The first time she did, I was surprised how satisfying it felt to slam the family hammer down on those jugs. I combined the activity with swearing, which made it all the sweeter. “Break, fucker!” I shouted at the glass. I had loved learning the word “fuck” the year before. When I was done, I found the sweeping up of errant chips peaceful. Then I’d plant the broom on its wall hook because I’d get yelled at if anything was out of place, and walk up the stapled vinyl steps to the first floor. I’d sneak through the back hall to climb the carpeted upper flight, not wanting to see her staggering around the kitchen. My father offered to buy her a dishwasher each year, but she declined on the basis of losing cupboard space. What she really wanted was that time alone in the kitchen after dinner with the yellow glass on the pretense of washing dishes. Most of the them were chipped from the unstable handling. Two or three glasses broke a week. When I grabbed the stair’s handrail, a splinter of glass poked into my palm, but I kept my wits enough to skip over the stair that squeaked.

Martha Clarkson manages corporate workplace design in Seattle. Her poetry, photography, and fiction can be found inmonkeybicycle, Clackamas Literary Review, Seattle ReviewAlimentumHawaii Pacific Review. She is a recipient of a Pushcart Nomination and is listed under “Notable Stories,” Best American Non-Required Reading for 2007 and 2009. She is recipient of best short story, 2012, Anderbo/Open City prize, for “Her Voices, Her Room.”