bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: www.biostories.com. Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Harvest Moon

by Lisa Conquet

It was our seventh anniversary, but being first time parents made our marriage seem new again. Still, I struggled to focus on this exciting beginning while I was dealing with another life coming to an end. It was past evening visiting hours when my mother sent me home. Staying as late as possible had become our daily ritual. On this night, the doctor and nurses were impressed with her turn-around. Her fever was down, her stats were normal, and they told me she was out of the woods. Both the doctors and my mother insisted I go home and get some rest.

I held her hand and looked right in her eyes, “Are you sure you want me to go?” She smiled at me, “I feel better. Go home and at least have a late dinner with your husband. Besides, it’s cold in here and you should be wearing a sweater.” She winked while squeezing my hand and I was relieved to feel some strength … and warmth. I lingered a bit longer, hoping my idle chatter could fill the void of my conspicuously absent siblings. Two extra visitors’ chairs had sat empty for weeks, since the first day they promised to come, then used traffic and distance as an excuse to opt out.

I slowly walked to the door, then stopped and suggested I call the house so she could say goodnight to my daughter. She and her granddaughter spoke briefly, then she said something that caused a noticeable shift in my level of confidence, “Grandma will always love you, goodbye my precious.” She never said “goodbye”. It was so strange to hear, and it stayed in my ears like the phantom shadow that remains after staring at a naked light bulb.

My mother was in a hospital forty minutes from my siblings, but just down the road from the sweet dollhouse where my baby girl would soon be fast asleep in her crib. I got home quickly, with enough time for my husband and I to piece together a dinner, but I could not feel celebratory.

Too worried to sleep and too exhausted to stay awake, I lay in bed in that odd mental space that allows you to remember dreams and merge them with the days’ thoughts. I dreamed a future with my mother living in the new house we were planning to build. I dreamed her watching my daughter playing with the siblings she did not yet have. I dreamed a house filled with love and laughter. I dreamed until I drifted off.

The phone pierced the peaceful silence of that autumn night. I knew what I would hear as I fumbled for the receiver. Today, I can’t be sure if the voice was male or female, I just know it said, “Come back, she won’t make it through the night.”

I do remember grabbing that sweater, cozy and wool, an optimistic gift from her that never fit my wardrobe but became my security that fall. Like a blanket, it gave comfort and a warm embrace during those lonely nights when the cold chill of knowledge lingered in quiet hospital corners and the wind wrestled the remaining stubborn leaves to the ground.

As I pulled that sweater over the t-shirt I had been sleeping in, I frantically dialed my brother. I begged him, “Come now.”  I knew there would be no visiting hours for her tomorrow. My siblings would have no more opportunity for an excuse not to show up … again. I called my sister who protested—it was late, her car wasn’t working, it was a long drive—she always had excuses. I told her to ride with our brother, or hitchhike, but get here.

I drove blindly, blinking back tears, my throat filled with a scream that had no sound. I wiped my eyes as I turned onto the empty highway and found myself staring in disbelief at the oversized, red-orange moon hanging before me. My heavy heart tried to soar but any hope was tied to the weight of reality.

When I arrived there was chaos, a patient was coding, nurses raced a crash cart down the hall. I held my breath. I crossed my arms. I tried to find warmth in the sweater. I knew. I walked slowly in the wake of the scrambling nurses and doctors. I heard them yelling, “Come on, your daughter is on her way,” and their collective sigh when the heartbeat returned.

I hesitated. She had a DNR order. They all knew that. Yet they did every thing they could to bring her back. I backed down the hall a bit and watched them hurriedly clean out the room. I slowly walked up to the nurse’s station to ask how my mother was doing. She looked up and stared for a second. I pretended. She played along. “She’s not doing very well. Really, you need to say your goodbyes.”

I called my brother again. They hadn’t left Queens. My sister was stalling. My brother was angry. I knew they would not make it, still I insisted they come. I really wanted them to show up for her, just once. I caught my breath and went into her room. Her skin was no longer pale, but ashen, the sad remains of what once offered so much warmth and light.

I kissed her forehead, and was startled by how cold it felt. I grabbed her icy hand and told her I would not leave her alone. I felt as if she sighed, but really it was just the machine breathing for her. I told her they would be here soon. I so rarely lied to my mother. I told her the baby was sleeping and dinner was good, though I couldn’t tell you what I ate.

I talked until the priest arrived to give her the last rights. We prayed. I checked the clock. I knew she was waiting for them. She always waited for them. They were always late, if they showed at all. The machine faltered, or she did. The nurse flew in to check. My mom had been here for a while, and I could see in the nurse’s eyes my mother had found a way into her heart. She looked at me solemnly and took a deep breath. As she exhaled, the machines began screaming and the code was announced again. I was hurried out the door. The doctor came to me, “Your mother has a DNR …”

I looked into his eyes and they softened. I thought for a moment about the magnitude of the decision I was about to make. One never thinks they’d be so casually dressed for something as important as deciding if your mother should live, even if it’s only for a few more minutes.

I held his eyes as I spoke. “I know, but let’s see if we can keep her here until they come to say goodbye.” So they ran in and I watched the flurry of activity. A well orchestrated dance of madness. Purposefully attempting the impossible … again. To what end?

They did all they could. I know. I watched. They … we … ignored the inevitable until it became too obvious. Finally, the doctor looked up at the clock and I knew. Instinctively, I checked my watch as well. Yet, just like when someone asks you the time seconds after you’ve looked at your watch, I had no clue what time it was. At that moment the past and future collided, leaving a present filled with pain.

Moments later I heard a mournful howl in the hall. I knew it was my sister. My siblings had finally arrived. As usual, they were late. This time, she would not forgive them. This time, they would not forgive themselves.

That fall I let go of my mother … and my family. My siblings blamed me for their missed opportunity to say goodbye and stopped speaking to me.

I donated that sweater in the spring.


Lisa Conquet grew up in NYC where she thrived on the energy and the mix of cultures that reflected her own blended heritage. The city fed her soul and her love of words. As a copywriter for a Madison Avenue ad agency, she utilized her psychology degree to entice consumers, then went back to school and turned the tables. Now she is a psychotherapist who uses poetry to help her clients. Lisa has had many work related health and wellness pieces published without a byline. She has also been published in Babble and her poetry was recently published in The Ekphrastic Review. She is working on a poetry collection about motherhood and loss as well as a guided journal to be used in conjunction with therapy.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Appalachian Eulogy

by Robert Dugan

          I grunted while wrestling the heavy, dusty box wedged in crawl space of my apartment. I had outgrown the cramped place, and my teacher’s salary allowed me to purchase my first home. In preparation for the move, I divided my possessions neatly into two piles. One held the things I would take with me; the other I would donate to a local thrift store. The destiny of the current box was unknown as I dragged it from its lightless resting place. I pulled the box into the open air through a flurry of coughs and sneezes.

I opened the box, and a face stared up from a pile of crinkled photographs. The face was that of a young man who sat in a small plastic kiddie pool wearing torn Levi’s, an oversized belt buckle, and a camouflage ball cap. There was a scuffed, golden fishing hook bent around the bill. A cigarette dangled from his lip, and he held a beer in his hand. There was a pile of cash on the coffee table in front of him. He couldn’t have been older than eighteen or nineteen. I studied him for a moment, ashamed that it took me so long to remember a good friend.
A redneck from Roanoke, Chris drove a red Camaro with peeling and pock-marked clear coat. His southern drawl deepened toward incomprehensibility the more he drank; I loved the musicality in his speech and the way he spoke in southern aphorisms. We were part of an inseparable group of friends joined by our shared fondness for engines and alcohol.
          The night I took this picture eleven of us were jammed into Jake’s trailer back in the woods. Jake and I had been childhood friends. His father died of alcoholism and left him a house, fifty thousand dollars, and a social security check. He’d pissed it all away by the time he was seventeen.
It was a Friday, pay day. Jake added his wages from his job sweeping factory floors to the pile of cash on the table. I hunkered in the threadbare chair and listened to their planning. I’d begun to tire of their constant pill chasing.
“How much we got all together?” Jake asked.
“About eighteen hundred,” Chris replied.
“Make sure and save forty for pizza,” I added.
“Call Doddy and get him over here to make a sale,” Chris said.
“Already done. He said he’d be here in thirty.” Jake shuffled the cash together and removed two twenty-dollar bills. Varsity Blues played from a VCR connected to the flat screen. I took a sip of my whiskey and crushed my cigarette in the ashtray before lighting another. I’d never seen so much cash up close.
It would buy a lot of pills and many hours of oblivion.
We’d graduated from drinking and smoking in our parents’ basements. We used to raid their liquor cabinets and replace what we’d taken with water. We prayed they wouldn’t notice a missing pack from a carton of Camel Lights. Things were a lot different now.
I could hear someone crushing the last of the old pills on the kitchen counter behind me.
“When you gonna get in on this?” Jake asked.
He’d been pressuring me to join everyone else snorting pills.
“Leave him alone,” Chris said. “If he don’t want to, he don’t have to. He’s got good grades. Let him drink his Jack and smoke if that’s all he wants to do.” Chris was a couple years older than us and had more perspective. He worked for a mom and pop tiling outfit. He was skilled enough to work, but not certified, so he struggled to make a living wage. He hadn’t advanced since high school, unable to afford an education. I watched him work and spend, resigned to a wretched circular existence. He knew how life would change after high school. He knew enough to realize that whatever grand ambitions we held would devolve into Appalachian hopelessness. I appreciated that he took it on himself to defend my restraint to the others and wanted to believe that he admired my discipline, my ability to say “no,” that he respected my good grades and envied my stable home life.
Doddy’s headlights shone through the front window glass and obscured my view of the TV. He stumbled in through the front door, eyes glassy. “Hydros are eight, so are percs. Oxy is twelve a pill. How do you want it mixed?”
“Just give us a little of everything.” Jake handed over the money.
Doddy counted out the pills, and just like that, a week’s wages for a group of young men walked out the door.
Chris cut up the first pill from the newly acquired baggy on a ceramic tile that sat on the coffee table.
The pills, the pizza, and what was left of the money were gone by Sunday morning.
Pills were more expensive than heroin, but the guys rationalized their purchase through denial. Pills had none of the social stigma of heroin, which seemed the stereotypical drug for the hardcore addict. Heroin use represented an indictment, the acknowledgement that they had moved from occasional drug use to dependence. For a time, they paid more to be able to say that they did not do heroin. But eventually the price of denial became too high, heroin, too cheap. When they finally gave in, they snorted it for a time. Shooting it seemed a step too far.

When I started my first semester of college, little by little I parted ways with my friends. Once I was exposed to more people and greater ideas, I chose Saturday night study groups over weekend parties at the trailer. In time, I replaced my old drinking buddies with English professors and education majors.
I had been walking to my car after a class when an unfamiliar number rang my phone. It was Jake. All he said was, “Chris is dead. Overdose. Viewing is Friday. I hate to be so short man, but I got a lot of people to call.” Jake hung up without waiting for me to ask questions. I was shocked, and sorrow hit me hard.
They’d found Chris dead with a needle in the back of his arm among a pile of dirty laundry. Chris didn’t look real lying in the casket with his ball cap on. The fishing hook crimped around the bill reflected the glow of the overhead lights. I wondered if the morticians polished it when they did his makeup and stitched his lips closed.
“Chris loved cars and fishing.” The minister stated flatly as he looked down at his notecards. I resented the old man for giving the eulogy. The speech meant to immortalize him in our memories should’ve been given by the friends he had left behind. His grandmother had taken quick control of the funeral arrangements. She cut many of Chris’s friends out of ceremony in an effort to minimize attention to the way he died. The ceremony would be tightly controlled, the minister the only speaker. “It’s a difficult thing when the Lord takes such a young life. Chris was in the fullness of his vigor, but like all life, he was suffering. He’s gone home to be with Jesus now, to be clothed in the splendor of his glory, to walk without pain or torment for all eternity.” The irony of the minister’s words gave my grief a jagged edge. Chris was an atheist; of that I was certain. The minister’s words were for Chris’s grandparents, not for us.
When the preaching concluded, we stood and filed past the casket. After I said my goodbyes, I turned to leave, facing the family. I struggled to avoid eye contact with everyone gathered to mourn his passing as I made my way down the aisle. I was ashamed. I knew I played no part in his overdose, but I felt complicit in it.
I hadn’t seen the bulk of my old friends in years. I’d stopped coming around once I started college, once heroin entered the picture. At the time of Chris’s funeral, I was in the midst of student teaching and wrestled with a schedule that left little time for socializing or drunkenness, and I was worried that, despite my successful resistance thus far, I would find myself addicted to something far worse than Marlboros.     
We left the funeral hall and headed to the FoodLion parking lot to sit on tailgates and bench seats, a familiar and comforting ritual. I was the last to arrive, and I noticed that Chris’s usual spot was empty. I imagined the faded red Camaro sitting on the cracked asphalt between the barely perceptible white lines. I made a lap around the parking lot just like I used to and drove up to a warm greeting. I parked, got out, and lit a cigarette. One by one, I met the eyes of those around me, lingering on each person for just a moment.
We caught up and took stock of everything that had changed between us and within us. Our tight-knit group had splintered into several smaller ones, divided along the lines of what was considered acceptable substance abuse. But for that brief time, all of those divisions melted away. Tragedy brought us a fleeting togetherness we thought we’d lost. We picked up where we’d left off. We talked about the days before life became so complicated, before we’d experienced loss, and for those few precious hours we were together, unencumbered and honoring memories of Chris.
As we were starting our goodbyes, Jake grabbed a can of white spray paint from a truck bed tool box and sprayed Chris’s name in big, sloppy letters in his empty parking space. We all contemplated the awkwardly-drawn letters, and then one after the other we left the scene, the roar of muscle cars and lifted trucks underscoring our vandalism.  
Now, years later, I barely recognize that young man in those photos, with his smirk, the cigarette dangling from his lip. I struggle to recall the names of all of those young men I once held so dear, and I wonder if any of the others have died. I have grown so far away from them, and from that place we made for ourselves. I’ve traveled the country and expanded my worldview. I have my own family. I earned a Master’s degree in education. I run my own classroom and am regarded as an expert in my field. I now have kids of my own, one natural, but hundreds more who I work hard to guide as a teacher.
I still make my old lap around the Food Lion parking lot, though only after buying groceries. On Friday nights, teenagers still gather under the florescent lights. They sit in the same spot that we did a decade ago, smoking cigarettes and talking. The spray-painted memorial has been covered by fresh asphalt. As I pass them and they wave, excited to see their teacher outside of school, I survey the faces, and in some of them I see someone from my past, someone nearly forgotten.


Robert Dugan lives in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia with his wife and daughter. “Appalachian Eulogy” is his first publication. He teaches creative writing and secondary English. He hopes to teach his students to find strength in writing about their life experiences. He wants to thank Anne Larson for encouraging him to seek publication and his wife for her unwavering support.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Becoming a Real Girl

by Pam Munter

I was never much good at becoming a girl and I loathed every bit of the relentless indoctrination.
Early family photos either show me looking uncomfortable in frilly girl’s clothing or smiling broadly while wearing my preferred dirty jeans and tee shirt. My mother offered to teach me to cook, but I had no interest. Sewing was completely a non-starter. I wanted to be outside, hitting a tennis ball against the wall or riding my bike around the neighborhood. When my mother decided I had earned too many Girl Scout merit badges, she refused to sew anymore on the sash “because it might hurt the other girls’ feelings.” When I was in the first grade, I wanted to be called Phil. An outlier at an early age.
All this is coming up now because I’ve been having phone conversations with my junior high school Homemaking teacher. We first met over sixty years ago, a time when becoming a paragon of the socially acceptable female was a more urgent matter than it is today.
In the 1950s, girls were expected to learn the gender-based domestic arts to train for their foreordained positions of wife and mother. The only women I knew with a real job were my teachers and all of them were married. I felt as if I were living in a parallel universe. I didn’t want to sit around and gossip over coffee every morning, make fun of men’s foibles, or mold a rug rat into some better version of myself. So I went my own way, not an easy road in that unforgiving sex-role stereotyped era.
Contrary to conventional expectation, however, junior high provided a sense of freedom and worth, an oasis of achievement and recognition. I thrived in band and drama, excelled in English and social studies, and looked forward to PE every single day. Eighth grade would have been just about perfect if it hadn’t been for that dumb requirement all girls had to take Homemaking.
I walked into the Homemaking class that first day to a noisy room of eighth grade girls, spotless kitchen appliances adorning every wall, and a youthful-looking teacher smiling at us in optimistic expectation.
“Welcome to Homemaking class, girls. I’m Mrs. Potts.”
I laughed derisively.
“Is she kidding?” I asked my best friend Jacquie Weiss sitting next to me. Jacquie never took her eyes off the teacher. I could see she was transfixed.
“She’s so pretty,” Jacquie cooed. I hadn’t noticed, but I saw how perky and animated she seemed, her long dark brown ponytail bobbing around with every movement. She didn’t look that much older than we were.
Jacquie and I had been friends since the fourth grade when we met as we walked to school. We were an odd pair from the start. Jacquie was gawky with frizzy hair and a big nose. I was chunky, already a victim of persistent acne and my blonde hair always seem to go in its own malevolent direction. Mrs. Potts was perpetually pulled together, dauntingly so. I was not happy to be in there at all and, as the days wore on, I began to look at her as a daily reminder of the woman I could never be. I was both repulsed by the assigned meaningless tasks and yet fascinated by the teacher expecting me to do them. My way of dealing was passive-aggressive resistance. When we had projects like baking cookies, I leaned on my baking partner to make the decisions. I became the flamboyant official taster. As the students were entering the room each day, I wrote a mordant aphorism on the board or some sarcastic comment I had cadged from a joke book. I quoted H. L. Mencken: “A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.” Or, “If you can smile when everything is going wrong, you’ve found someone else to blame.” A thirteen-year-old wisecracking iconoclast is hard to stop.
Jacquie’s approach was more direct. She hung around after class as long as possible, asking her questions.
“I saw an E in your signature. What does that stand for?” This was a cheeky question in this era, a time when there was a strict wall between student and teacher. Knowing a teacher’s first name was pure gold even if moot, as we never would and never could use it.
“My first name is Elizabeth but my friends call me Liddy.”
This was a major coup for Jacquie. We had always been competitive, at least I was. But this was a contest I didn’t think I wanted to win. I let Jacquie do the reconnaissance and continued to hide behind sarcasm and trenchancy, my go-to demeanor in adolescence. And yet I wondered who this alien being might be. Liddy Potts? Really?
To her credit, Mrs. Potts never stopped my blackboard protests. I knew I was pushing the limits of convention but she treated me as she did all the other girls, with warmth and friendliness. It was confusing.
I had already found two strong female role models among my teachers who were much more to my liking: my drama teacher, who good-naturedly challenged me at every turn, and my band teacher, whose warmth was exceeded only by her wry sense of humor. Mrs. Potts was running a distant third. I decided to cede her to Jacquie. While I made it eminently clear who I did not want to be, Jacquie had long ago decided her fondest dream was to be a wife and mother, a sort of Mrs. Potts without the professional career.
I had thought of Mrs. Potts from time to time—on my wedding day; when lecturing on the role of sex-role stereotypes while teaching a class on the Psychology of Women; and, oddly enough, as I walked to the podium to deliver my keynote address before 2000 people at an International Women’s Day conference in the 1970s. I didn’t understand the reasons for these flashbacks but they were surely there.
The years and decades passed. Jacquie and I reconnected on Facebook. She had, indeed, become a housewife and mother, living in a small town in Northwest Washington. I became a collector of college degrees on my way toward becoming a clinical psychologist and a writer, among other things. I did marry and have a son. A year after the divorce, I met a woman with whom I shared my life for three decades.
With the passage of time and a senescent sense of responsibility, I decided to contact those few teachers who had impacted me so I could thank them. The older I grew, the more aware I had become of their overarching influence. My band teacher had tragically died of diseases related to alcoholism and Alzheimer’s; my drama teacher and I exchanged a few emails, had dinner once, but she died soon afterwards. I Googled Mrs. Potts and found she was teaching ballet in Oregon. I emailed her and she answered almost immediately, asking me to call her.
Unexpectedly, I felt the flush of that familiar adolescent anxiety. Call my Homemaking teacher on the phone? The formality of the past clung like cobwebs inside my head. But I did make the call, and she sounded happy to hear from me.
“Mrs. Potts? Um. Liddie? It’s hard for me to call you that.”
She laughed. “It’s OK. Call me what you wish.”
“I am surprised you remembered me. It has been, what, well over five or six decades, right?”
“That long? Of course, I remembered you. Really, you’re the one I do remember from all my years of teaching.”
I paused to take that in and inhaled deeper than necessary. I was afraid to ask, but I did.
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know. There was something about you. I could tell you needed something from me, but I didn’t know what it was.”
Of course, she was right. I needed her acceptance, her reassurance that I was OK as I was, that it was perfectly fine if I didn’t fit the feminine stereotype. It was more important coming from her because, as a teacher of the “feminine arts,” she was the avatar of the cliché I was expected to approximate.
We chatted for a few more minutes, then she told me she was coming to stay with her cousin just a few miles from where I lived in Palm Desert, California. Would I be up for a visit?
“Absolutely,” I quickly responded. Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted that to happen. Did I want to be reminded of my obstreperous past? A time that was painful, poignant and uncertain? And yet, maybe I could learn more about myself and answer a few leftover questions I had about her.
Twenty years earlier, I had written an autobiography and more recently, recorded a CD at Capitol Records. I sent both of them to her with trepidation. She was not mentioned in the book in favor of the other two role models and I hoped her feelings wouldn’t be hurt. It turned out she didn’t read much of it. I wondered why.
I had quickly decided not to serve lunch because the mere thought of preparing something to eat for my former Homemaking teacher was too fraught with anxiety. It was bad enough that she would inspect my interior decorating. I could still remember the lecture about how to file one’s nails (in only one direction) but I knew I had missed other more relevant Homemaking tips. I had a fear of being graded again.
A few weeks later, the doorbell rang. I opened it and saw an older Mrs. Potts, but the same bubbly elfin woman I had observed so long ago—and still wearing the ponytail, now completely gray. We hugged and she sat down on the couch. I brought her up to date, briefly outlining the past fifty years or so, and she did the same. Her husband had died many years earlier, leaving her with three children. They had lived in a remodeled schoolhouse, where she was now teaching classes in bodywork and providing an occasional B&B retreat for groups wanting a bucolic place to meet. At a pause in the conversation, she looked down at her lap.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course.”
Her big brown eyes met mine like a laser. “Why were you so angry back then?”
          It was the ghost of Jacob Marley coming back to haunt me for my misdeeds. But, needless to say, she had nailed it. I thought I was being funny and clever and hadn’t experienced it as anger.
I gave her a perfunctory, abbreviated answer but knew I’d have to think more about this. Whatever I told her was enough, apparently. We moved on to more casual conversation and she left, promising to write.
Over the next ten years or so she sent me her Xeroxed Christmas letter, adding a few personal sentences. I wrote back, telling her what I was doing. Then last December in her annual note, she said she wanted to call me and asked for my phone number.
Two months passed and I wondered if she had become ill or even had died. By now she would be eighty-seven or so, living alone in that big schoolhouse. Then the night of the Oscars, I was preparing for bed about ten o’clock when the phone rang. The caller ID told me it was E. Potts. Liddie.
“I’m so glad to hear from you. How are you?”
She told me she had been ill for more than a year, lacking energy and losing lots of weight. It didn’t sound good.
“I read your book finally and listened to the CD, trying to hear what you were trying to do with each song.”
This was a different Liddie than the one I had entertained in my living room years before. When she referred to my book, she didn’t seem to realize it had been over thirty years since it was published. She was confused. Her thoughts wandered.
“I was such a young teacher then. We aren’t so far apart in age, you know.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll be seventy-four next month.”
“That’s young!” we both laughed and then she added. “You’re the only student I’ve ever talked with outside of class. I have thought about you through the years.”
I was stunned. “Oh, yeah? Why is that?” I kept my tone of voice casual but steeled myself, afraid to hear what she might say.
Her voice grew louder. “You made it clear: ‘I don’t want to be here.’”
That made me laugh again. I guess an adolescent is no expert in subtlety. She continued, “I didn’t know what to do with you. I had taken classes in education and psychology, but I wasn’t prepared for that. Or for you.”
“Looking back on it now, I was intimidated, I think. You were pretty, effervescent, accomplished in the areas in which I had no interest or aptitude, and feminine—everything I wasn’t.”
She seemed surprised at this characterization. While I had sensed her openness to conversations like this, she didn’t seem a habitually reflective person. Then I realized she was seeking information about who she was then, just as I had been.
“You know, I told you I’m finishing up a degree in creative writing. In fact, I just had an essay published about that time in my life. I don’t mention you by name but it mentions what went on for me then. I’d be happy to send it to you, if you’d like.”
“Yeah, I would. I remember you saying when we met that you felt unattractive and fat back then but the photos in your book show you looking thin.”
“Well,” I chuckled, “Do you think I’d show the reader a photo that wasn’t flattering? But my body did change a lot, up and down. My weight was part of the power struggle between my parents. You’ll read about it when I send the essay. Maybe it’ll help answer the question you asked back then about my anger.”
Another pause, this one a little longer.
“I admire the fact you’ve found meaning in these years. I wish I could.” She went on to tell me that she never read a newspaper or watched TV and didn’t keep up with what was happening in the world because it was too distressing. I could hear the sadness in her voice.
Now we were entering the well-trod territory I had once occupied in my role as a clinical psychologist. The next comment I would make could launch me into a different type of relationship with her—helping to guide the last part of my junior high school Homemaking teacher’s life. Almost sixty years ago, she wanted so much to teach me how to be a real girl. Now, in one of life’s many ironies, I was capable of helping her learn the essential skills she would need in her final years. As I carefully chose my words, I thought of it as paying it backwards.


Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986). She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer, and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback, The Legendary, Scarlet Leaf, Down in the Dirt and others. Her play “Life Without” was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

My White Tribe


by Vic Sizemore

On July 7, 2016, I forced myself to watch the video of Alton Sterling’s son breaking down and crying, "Daddy," as his mom spoke to reporters about her husband’s death at the hands of the Baton Rouge police. The video was heartbreaking, but the endless cataract of online news almost immediately churned it under.
One of my daughter’s summer reading assignments for fall semester was Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Both of her older brothers had read it for English class as well. It was first published in 1945. In an autobiographical sketch, Wright speaks of the “dread of being caught alone upon the streets in white neighborhoods after the sun has set.” He says, “While white strangers may be in these neighborhoods trying to get home, they can pass unmolested. But the color of a Negro’s skin … makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.” Reading Wright’s book, my daughter will get a glimpse into what it was like to be a black boy in the United States seventy years ago.
I never read Black Boy in school. In fact, I cannot remember being assigned a single black writer until I chose an African American Literature elective my junior year in college. I was raised in a place that was not only lily-white, but white with a red neck. No black people lived up the Elk River until a woman moved her black husband and mixed-race children into a trailer beside North 119, between Elkview and Herbert Hoover High School in Clendenin when I was young. From passing cars, people hurled slurs and rocks at the children as they tried to play in the yard. Kids laughed about it at school. Eventually someone burned a cross in the trailer’s front yard—that was the story going around—and the family moved away. Nonwhite people did not often venture up the Elk River, not willingly.
My world was even more circumscribed than redneck Elk River culture. I was part of a frightened tribe that hid inside the Baptist church and looked with suspicion at every passing fad, television show, and popular song. Everywhere and at all times, Satan was trying to sneak his subversive message into our homes. We had to be diligent.
White Evangelical Christians, by definition, could not allow nonwhite Christians to join the tribe. They did allow nonwhites to come around for worship and fellowship, within reason, as long as they behaved in an appropriately white-Evangelical way. Acceptable nonwhite Christians—born again and in doctrinal, political, and social agreement with my tribe—fit into two basic groups: black believers, and nonwhite-other-race believers. The only times I ever saw nonwhite-other-race believers up the Elk River was as an object lesson for one missionary or another, a curiosity to marvel over. This was the 1970s.
However, because a born again black family sent their children up the river to Elk Valley Christian School, I became good friends with several from the Black Believers tribe. I played football and soccer with them, chummed with them in the hallways and classrooms. What I didn’t understand back then was how difficult it was for Doug, Tammy, Donald, and Steve, riding up the Elk River from Charleston every day on the green EVCS school bus with kids Tammy, in a conversation many years later, called “country ass creekers.” Not a single day went by for them without racial taunts from open racists. In addition, there was the continuous stream of microaggressions from us who liked them and meant well.

On a long ride home from a football game in seventh grade, Donald and I sat together in the dark bus, outside lights flashing across our faces. The bus reeked of sweat and diesel, and the plastic bus seat in front of us was cracked and dry. I talked of a job I’d been doing since sixth grade, picking up garbage in the parking lot down the street in Elkview, at the Goody Shop. They paid me seventy-five cents and a milkshake of my choosing. I usually got cherry because it finished with a pile of chopped up maraschino cherries in the bottom, slippery and chewy and sweet enough to make your stomach hurt. Sometimes I brought my brother or a friend to help pick up all the trash, and the shop owners—they were the parents of a former classmate, from my days in public school—would pay  us in money and milkshakes. I remember them as kind and generous people.
Donald and I talked of other things, and eventually, because the bus ride from Ohio Valley Christian School was long on those old busses, we eventually fell silent and listened to the cheerleaders harmonizing beautifully, but for far too long, on the nana nananana part of Journey’s “Loving, Touching, Squeezing.”
“If I lived in Elkview,” Donald said after a long stretch, “we would do that Goody Shop job together, wouldn’t we?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We would.”
At that point, I felt a rush of deep affection for my friend. However, I knew even then, that life would be dangerous for Donald if he lived up in Elkview. I was not angry or outraged—I had no idea it could be any different—but I was deeply sad for my friend sitting on the bus there beside me.
Looking back, I see the green and white Elk Valley Christian School bus lumbering across the Ohio Valley, hitting I79 South back toward Elkview, West Virginia. Inside, the girls in their green cheerleading culottes, and boys in their grass-stained uniforms, flirt and sneak kisses and touch those secret, off-bounds body parts, just as teenagers have on busses since teenagers have been riding busses, and did on carts or in barns and woods before that, back into prehistory. On this bus, there were these two boys, one black and one white. The white boy was not rich—far from it; his father was a poor Baptist preacher in a poor place—but he had white skin and blue eyes. He had a free pass into a world barred from the black boy, no matter what he did to gain access.
I had the same affection for Steve, Doug, and Tammy that I had for Donald. They were in my core group of friends until I left Elk Valley Christian School trying to get away from oppression of the religious kind. I loved them, but I also I remember hearing white students say things like, “Hey man, who hit you and blacked your face?” and “What’s worse than a face full of zits? One blackhead.”

In 1955, a black boy named Emmett Till from Chicago made the mistake of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. White men dragged him from his cousin’s house in the middle of the night, strung him up in a barn, beat him, and gouged out one of his eyes. He was defiant, cursed the white men who tortured him, so they shot him dead, tied a seventy-pound fan to his neck with barbed wire, and threw his carcass into the river.
That’s what it was like for a black boy in 1955.

In 1958, Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell preached “Segregation or Integration, Which?”  In the sermon, he preached, “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line." He warned that integration "will destroy our race eventually.” For shock value, he added, “In one northern city, a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife." 
In the early nineties, I attended seminary at Liberty University where there were more South Koreans in my classes than African Americans. For all the rebranding, the black community had still not forgotten Falwell’s civil rights record. One of the black students was Hiawatha. He educated me. He told me to watch how people reacted to him, and I did, hanging back so their reactions wouldn’t be mitigated by the presence of a clean-shaven white guy in a tie. Indeed, people gave him nervous glances in convenience stores. The young white girls at school gave him wide nervous berth in the hallways. I was astonished. Hiawatha shrugged it off in weary resignation.
Hiawatha became president of the graduate student body after the faculty deemed the elected president unfit to serve because he had been divorced. A charismatic speaker, Hiawatha received invitations to preach all over the south, and was eventually extended an offer to come on staff at the seminary after graduation.
We discussed it over lunch one day, and he eventually said to me, “I don’t want to be their token black.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “They love you.”
“Yeah?” he said, looking straight into my eyes. “Let me try to date one of their daughters.”

Recently, after I’d watched the documentary about food deserts called A Place at the Table, I was being taxi-dad, driving kids around town. I discovered that a kid I know and see relatively often is not only poor, but experiences every day what is now euphemistically called “food insecurity.” Not incidentally, the kid is African American.
All three of my kids are musicians and the circles in which they move are as diverse as any you will find in Lynchburg, VA. They have formed friendships with their black peers. It could be heartening to see what appears to be Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of “little black boys and black girls … able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Outside of school, however, things can get awkward fast. The disparity is undeniable—even if it is uncomfortable to acknowledge. One side of town is booming economically due in large part to the torrent of federal financial aid money pouring into nonprofit Liberty University, where Donald Trump recently gave the graduation address. At the same time, Lynchburg’s poverty rate is abysmal—for whites it is nineteen percent, which is over four percent higher than the national average. For blacks in Lynchburg, the poverty rate is thirty percent. According to the City Council’s analysis, the poverty is intergenerational.
Just as it was with Donald and me, these kids are on a path that will likely split along racial lines as they grow into adulthood. While they are reaching an age at which they notice and show discomfort with these inequalities, they also encode poisonous systemic notions about race, wealth, merit, and opportunity.
Take opportunity: My children do not have limitless opportunities—we live on teachers’ salaries—but their family and social situations have placed them on a springboard that, if they choose to use it, will launch them into success. They will have to work hard, but their work will pay off, and there is a safety net if they fail once or twice. Not so for many of their friends on the other side of the racial divide. Where my kids find a springboard, these friends too often find a fence, and behind that a wall.
I get push back from members of my tribe on this. Because they do not want to the R label, they discuss this issue carefully. Why do I hesitate even now to use the word, when racism—individual, institutional, and systemic—is such a massive and undeniable problem?
Is racism undeniable? Not in my tribe. I inevitably get some variation on two defensive responses: “You are the one who is racist, because you think black people need handouts, can’t be successful on their own merit,” and, “It is not fair to take away what I have earned fair and square and give it to someone else who refuses to work.” Race is always close to the surface in these discussions. In an online argument, one of my tribe—a member of my family—wrote to me, "Excuses, blaming whites and one party voting will never allow the African American community to excel. Ditch Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and make some changes."

The root assumption of both these claims is that most everyone starts with a similar array of opportunities, and some have squandered theirs, or at least not worked quite hard enough. This is simply not the case. In “The Case for Reparations”, Ta-Nehisi Coates gets to the point. He writes, that, “America was built on the preferential treatment of white people—395 years of it.” It is not ancient history either. We live in an America, “in which black college graduates still suffer higher unemployment rates than white college graduates, and black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.”
I do not want my children growing away from their black friends, but I fear it will happen. I do not want them to grow into the advantaged Monopoly players who will someday run into these childhood friends in line at the movie theater and assume they are better off—which is nearly a statistical certainty—because they are smarter and have worked harder. I do not want their black friends—bright, beautiful, and talented kids—to circumscribe their dreams as experience is teaching them every day that they must.

During the winter of 2014, we were at my parents’ house for Christmas. They were both old and feeble. My mother had Alzheimer’s, though they had not told us yet, though we could tell she was getting forgetful. My parents are still Fundamentalist Baptists; more topics of discussion are potential sources of conflict now than are not. We sit cringing, waiting for comments about Muslims killing Christians, or gays trying to take away religious liberty. This particular Christmas, making small talk in their living room while we waited for my brother and sister to arrive with their families, dad asked me about my community college teaching.
“You teach a lot of black students?” he asked.
“Yes,” I told him. “I do.” Some of my composition classrooms are over fifty percent black.
“They struggle a lot more than the other students don’t they,” he said. It was not a question.
I went into a monologue about all of the students I teach, the economic and social conditions under which many of them have to cobble together a college education, the challenges they face. He looked at me blankly and nodded. It was clear I was talking to myself.
Flipping through their new Elkview Baptist Church directory, on one of the ministry team pages, the men who run the sound booth stood proudly for their picture. One—a man I had gone to high school with—wore a tee shirt with the Confederate flag emblazoned across his chest. The caption: If you think this is hate, you need a history lesson. I pointed it out to my sister. She shook her head.
My mom asked our oldest son Evan about his life, and he talked about school and marching band and his girlfriend. She was interested in the girl, so Evan pulled out his phone to show her a picture. Evan’s girlfriend was in marching band with him. He was a drummer and she was in color guard. She was also Asian. My mom looked hard at the picture and said, “Oh.” She said, “Is she a dark girl?”
He looked at me, his eyes wide, somewhere between bemused and astonished. I shook my head, and he understood. Let it go. How can you possibly call it out every single time? Why would you ruin Christmas by being bristly? Anyway, she’s old, what good would it do?
What good does it ever do? The response I saw from my tribe to the murder of nine black worshipers in their church in Charleston, SC was not encouraging. They were angry and they were outraged—outraged not because nine human beings were dead, but that people were calling for the Confederate flag to come down. People who attended Elk Valley Christian School and were, as I was, friends with Doug, Tammy, Steve and Donald posted Confederate flags to their Facebook pages, just above diatribes and cartoons disparaging President Obama. No mention of the nine dead. I was dumbfounded in the face of it.

As 2015 ended, the news filled with reports that a grand jury had decided not to indict the police officer who gunned down a twelve-year-old boy with a BB gun. He was a big boy, one witness said, and scary. He was a black boy.
In August of 2016, a blistering report from the Justice Department outlined a culture of racial bias in the Baltimore police department after all the officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray were acquitted of any charges. This followed similar reports coming out of Seattle, Chicago, and Ferguson, MO. Members of my white tribe posted videos of police officers pulling over black people and giving them ice cream, and called this evidenced that black people were overreacting, being too sensitive.
I watched the news of Alton Sterling’s death at the hands of the police, and wondered what has changed. I saw his boy weeping uncontrollably. I heard him call out, “Daddy.” He was a black boy. Summer, 2016.
In 2017, White nationalism has roared into the public square, commandeering the American flag to fly alongside the Confederate flag as symbols of the real—white—America. The concerted efforts at black voter suppression continue, now at the national level led by the President’s own executive action. The Attorney General is dismantling the checks on abuses in the criminal justice system and rescinding the previous administration’s directive that the Justice Department begin to disengage from the for-profit prison industrial complex. He is ramping up the war on drugs with its racially discriminatory laws. His Justice Department will begin suing colleges and universities, on behalf of white (and Asian) people, over affirmative-action admissions policies. This is what making America great again looks like to my tribe.
Yesterday, up the road from my hometown, in Charlottesville, VA, Richard Spencer led a crowd of white nationalists who carried torches and chanted Nazi slogans. They were protesting the slated removal of a Confederate statue—or maybe it was the Festival of Cultures happening in the same park, which celebrates the rich cultural diversity of the city. It looked for all the world as if they were trying to take the United States back to the time when Richard Wright wrote of not being able to walk in a white neighborhood without fear. Then again, maybe less has changed than I want to believe.
The city council in my town recently held an open community meeting called Poverty to Progress. I attended the breakout session on education where citizens brainstormed ways to help underserved kids in our city meet the many educational challenges they face. My wife attended the housing session, as her teaching and research involves service learning in the poorest downtown neighborhoods.
I volunteer with a nonprofit called WordWorks and we tutor the children in these neighborhoods in language arts and creative writing. I also see my teaching at the community college as a way to work directly for the causes of racial and economic justice. It is embarrassingly little; I could do more.
Because I am white, I could easily disengage. By default, I could move in circles no more diverse than those of my youth up the Elk River. I could still talk a good liberal game at parties, decry the actions of the present regime, and forget all about it on the way home to my white neighborhood where I will sleep without fear. My black friends and acquaintances—my black students—do not have that luxury. I remember what John Stewart said in the wake of the Ferguson unrest. “I guarantee you that every person of color in this country has faced an indignity, from the ridiculous, to the grotesque, to the sometimes fatal,” he said. For them, “race is there and it is a constant. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it.”


Vic Sizemore’s fiction and nonfiction is published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, [PANK] Magazine, Silk Road Review, Reed Magazine, Eclectica, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award and has been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart Prizes. Sizemore teaches creative writing at Central Virginia Community College.



Friday, August 18, 2017

Proxy

by Paul Juhasz

     A father is the world writ small

On a cold, clear winter weekend morning, of the kind pictured on postcards and calendars, Derrick called to see if I had any plans.
I didn’t.
          “Why don’t you come over and bring your bike. There’s a park near me with some trails and a pond. There’s usually someone playing pond hockey, so bring your skates and stick.”
          “Sounds great. See you in a bit.”
I hung up and went to ask my father for a ride.
          He was, as always, lukewarm about any plan involving Derrick. To counteract these nascent reservations, I told him we planned on playing hockey, assuming his love for the sport would trump any misgivings he might have.
This turned out to be a tactical miscalculation on my part.
          Fixing me with a piercing stare, he asked, “What are you really going to do?”
          Puzzled, I repeated the plans Derrick and I had made.
          “Yeah, right,” my father scoffed. “Try again.”
          “What?” I asked, spreading my hands in the universal sign of befuddlement.
          “I don’t think hockey is Derrick’s sport,” he dismissed.

In the summer of 1985, it was decided by whomever decides such things that it was no longer financially feasible for the small borough next to my town to operate a junior and senior high school. Thus, the borough was subsumed into the surrounding school districts and as a result, the North Haven class of 1989, as it entered its eighth-grade year, ballooned by about two dozen students.
The only ones I really interacted with was a somewhat shady triumvirate named Paul, Jason, and Derrick. All three boys hailed from a section of town that bordered on New Haven, and thus they had the exotic appeal of inner city kids to the student body, while being tainted with a suspect (for a middle class, predominantly white, demographic) urban past for the faculty.
I quickly made friends with Paul, who insisted we shared a bond as “name brothers.” Unfortunately, he was the first to confirm the fears and suspicions of the faculty. On a weekend school trip to Martha’s Vineyard, he was caught shoplifting and, in a desperate attempt to escape, punched a police officer. A rumor (later confirmed) quickly circulated amongst the rest of us that this was not his first run-in with the cops, and thus Paul faded out of my story to seek the educational merits of the Lincoln Academy for Wayward Boys. 
Jason was clearly headed down the same path. He would regale us with accounts of his half-dozen or so sexual conquests (most of them confirmed directly or indirectly by the other party), some of which I now recognize toyed with the definition of date rape. He was in no less than four fights and had been suspended twice. He narrowly avoided getting busted for selling weed in the boys’ locker room, and to impress some girls (or perhaps because word got back to him that it was my big mouth that started a chain of events that led to him nearly getting busted for selling weed in the boys’ locker room), he reenacted a scene from some horror movie by dragging his plastic unbreakable comb across my throat, drawing blood and leaving a gash that was visible for days after.
And this was all in the first two months of the school year.
Even though he had been friends with the other two since first grade, Derrick was different. He rarely got in trouble (although he was not in the least adverse to some illicit alcohol or a bag of Jason’s wares). While not terribly successful academically, he at least seemed to understand what school expected of him. Perhaps because his father and both older brothers had spent years working the night shifts at local factories, he had a matter-of-fact worldliness and maturity about him, as if he knew what his niche in life was fated to be, had accepted it, and was simply waiting until it was his time to grab a punch card and begin a life of hard labor. While most of us rode the adolescent wave of emotional turmoil and soaring dreams, Derrick kept us grounded with his stoical pragmatism. Many interpreted this as pessimism and found Derrick depressing; I found it comforting, as if when around Derrick, I was excused from having the goals and future plans adults expected me to have. With Derrick, I could just be.
My father, however, while never outright blocking me from it, preferred that I not hang out with Derrick or invite him over to our house.
“Why don’t you call someone else instead,” he would frequently respond when I would ask if Derrick could come over, “like Jason.”
“I like Jason,” he would respond to my unasked question. “He plays baseball. I remember him from last season.”
So the fact that he supplemented his income by dealing pot, that he was a burgeoning rapist, or that he tried to slit my throat with a comb, all of this, in my father’s mind, was trumped by the fact that he played baseball.
I was always confused why he would prefer the nascent criminality of Jason to the calm, placidity of Derrick.
Of course, I understand it perfectly now.
Derrick, you see, was black.

I was able to overcome my father’s myopic, stereotype-fueled sense of what sports black people could play (although I did not recognize that this was the issue at the time) through a sustained program of wheedling and cajoling. But still, as we drove over to Derrick’s house, I could tell he wasn’t thrilled.
          For all the inner-city associations Derrick had placed on him by others, his house was not actually inner city. He lived in a run-down and forgotten residential niche engulfed by an industrial complex separating North Haven from New Haven. But his neighborhood was far from the hygienic, well-maintained, and hermetically-sealed slice of suburbia most North Haven residents enjoyed. Chickens roamed the front yard at one neighbor’s place, while a screen door frantically clung to its frame by one hinge at another. In the midst of this disrepair, Derrick’s house stood out, an older home desperately struggling to maintain a noble decency amidst such advancing squalor.
          I think this also upset my father. I believe he would have much rather preferred Derrick live at the chicken house or the house with the clichéd car on cinder blocks. If he was irresolute at the beginning of the drive over to Derrick’s, he was downright grumpy as I left the car.
          “I’ll pick you up at 2:30,” he yelled as I grabbed my bike, skates, and stick from the backseat.
          I stopped for a moment and gave him a confused look. This was another strange development. He never gave me hard deadlines when he drove me to other friends’ houses. Typically, I got a cursory “Call me when you want to be picked up,” before he drove off, already mentally engaged in whatever activity he had lined up next.
          Perhaps I should have collected, pieced together, and heeded these early warning signs, but I didn’t. Instead, I rode through the brisk winter air with Derrick across backyards, service roads, and scraps of evergreen woods until we reached the park. There was indeed a pick-up hockey game, so we laced up and played. My father’s racial assumptions notwithstanding, Derrick proved a perfectly adequate hockey player. After a few games, Derrick smoked a cigarette on the pond’s frozen banks with a few other kids, then we rode over to a nearby Cumberland Farms for a post-game meal of Honey Buns, Bugles, and Mountain Dew, with the now-extinct Bubble Burger for dessert. Then we rode back to Derrick’s house.
We were so frozen by the time we got back that the tepid water with which I washed my hands was scalding. Derrick’s older brother, Donnie, insisted we have some hot chocolate to warm up. As we were alternately drinking and using the mugs as hand-warmers, Donnie turned to me and asked, “What was your name again?”
          After I responded, he continued, “I think someone was here asking for you.”
          I looked over at the clock on the kitchen range and noted that it was 3:45. Muttering a mildly annoyed “Ah, crap,” I asked to use the phone and called my father, not looking forward to the lecture I assumed was coming.
I barely got out a, “Hey, Dad,” when he cut me off with a growled “I’ll be right there.” Before I could say anything else, he hung up.
          Still, I wasn’t too concerned. I had been late before and had been forced to listen to lectures on the importance of responsibility and punctuality, so I figured that that was what was in store for me this time too.
         
          The first indication that this was something different, that what was coming my way was not a product of my father’s annoyance but of his fury, was the fact that when he arrived at Derrick’s house, he did not come to the door. Eschewing the driveway to pull up at the curb instead, he sat in the car, both hands gripping the wheel as he stared straight out the windshield. My bike was jammed in across the back seat, so he had clearly gotten out of the car, but for whatever reason, he chose not to come to the front door to get me. In fact, I don’t really know how long he was waiting there; only a serendipitous glance outside by Donnie let me know he was there at all.
          “Is that your dad?” he asked.
          After glancing over his shoulder, I confirmed it was.
          We all watched him for a few moments, expecting something, a wave or a honk, some indication that this was a normal adult picking up a normal son at a normal friend’s house. When it seemed clear that nothing of the sort was likely to happen, I headed for my shoes and then the front door.
         
The previous summer I had worked in my father’s factory. He had long since left a cushy job at a scrap metal conglomerate and, bit by the American entrepreneur spirit, used most of his retirement fund to start up his own precious metals recovery plant, and he hired me to work on the factory floor pouring various compounds of molten metals into fifty or 100-pound ingots.
The air was opaque with the fumes given off by the smelting metals, and temperatures at the furnaces frequently passed 120 degrees, making for a day of sweltering, physically-draining labor. The other factory workers were all Jamaican immigrants with varying levels of English fluency, and their amalgamated cacophony of Creole and broken English completed the picture of what I imagine one of the levels of Hell looks and feels like.
After my first day at work, my father called me into his office perched above the factory floor, which granted him a god-like view of his impish, dark-skinned factory hands. He told me to sit and I gladly did, completely used up from the day’s work, muscles aching where I did not know I had muscles. As I was trying to recover from the physical cost of the day, my father said, “I want to show you something.”
He then called out to the floor below.
“Ernie! Come up here!”
Almost before the order faded, Ernie was standing in the office. He must have run across the floor and up the stairs to get here that quickly; no easy task after a ten-hour shift on the factory floor.
“Ernie, take off your shirt,” my father directed him.
“Sir?” a confused Ernie replied.
“Take off your shirt,” my father repeated. “I want to show Paul something.”
As if suddenly in on the plan, Ernie replied with an enthusiastic “Oh, yes sir,” and complied, revealing a staggeringly developed chest, carved with canyons and mesas of muscle mass. It was as if his chest was chiseled out of the very material he spent his days pouring into ingots. The smile on Ernie’s face left little doubt that he was fully aware of the impression this muscularity had.
My father walked around Ernie, beaming with pride.
“You see this?” he asked. “Impressive, isn’t it? Ernie, tell him how old you are.”
“I’m sixty-two, sir.”
“Sixty-two, Paul! Sixty-two,” my father could barely contain the satisfaction the entire scene was giving him. “Look at those pecs,” he added, slapping his hand against the solidity of Ernie’s chest. Ernie’s smile, impossibly, grew even wider.
“OK, Ernie, that’s it. You can go.”

“Hey, Dad,” I began, sliding into the passenger seat.
          “Don’t you say a word!”
          Still not believing he was seriously angry, I ignored this initial piece of advice. “But Dad . . .” I countered.
          Through gritted teeth, he once again cut me off.
“Not. One. Fucking. Word.”
And so, I didn’t say a word.
He, however, said many.
“Do you know what it’s like,” he asked, “to knock on a strange door and be told by the man who answers that not only are you not there, but he doesn’t even know who you are? I had to stand there and be told ‘I don’t know your boy.’! Do you have any idea what that’s like? To be told by that kind of man that he doesn’t know my son? I had no idea where you were, if you were okay, which house you were even in.”
While I could not say so, I found these positions rather ridiculous. He knew which house I was in because he dropped me off. Why should he fear for my safety when he knew where we planned to go and what we planned to do? If he was so worried about me, why didn’t he drive over to the park and try to find us? And I could only assume “the strange man” in question was either Donnie or Derrick’s father, and since both were still sleeping when Derrick and I left, it made perfect sense that they did not know who I was. All of this, I thought, should have been quite apparent to my father.
But enjoined to silence as I was, there was no way to interrupt the diarrheic flow of logically questionable rhetoric, I did the next best thing—I zoned out, escaping into a world where I was vaguely aware that things resembling words were being spewed at me while I occupied my mind with more interesting matters. I started, inspired no doubt by the day’s pursuits, with a quick review of the current roster of my beloved Philadelphia Flyers, identifying whom I would trade if I was in control of the team. I then moved on to an impromptu list of words that sound dirty, but really aren’t (“pumpernickel,” “bumper pool,” “English muffin”), before closing with a quick assessment of what I thought some of the hotter girls in my school probably looked like naked.
I was interrupted by a particularly loaded phrase of my father’s: “So, this is what we’re going to do.”
This was a phrase he had used for years to transition from the instructional portion of a lecture to the punishment phase. I think he adopted the first-person plural to gild whatever he had in mind with an espirt de corps, as if whatever punitive measures he selected were a group decision and something, that while unpleasant and inconvenient, just had to be endured by the whole group, which, of course, was just me.

When I was six or so, my family took a trip to Disney World, and at the airport, I remained with my father after he dropped off the rest of our group at Departures, and then walked to the gate with him. As we negotiated the ever-shifting expanse of people and luggage, we were approached by a Hari Krishna. Much of what he said to my father was beyond me, but I do recall him saying he would like to present us with a flower and a gift, offering me a candy cane. Although my father did not stop, he politely slowed down his pace. “Keep the flower,” I remember him saying, but he made no objection to the man handing me the candy cane.
As we left the spiritual proselytizer, I was in high spirits, having scored some free candy early in the morning. I was admittedly a tad bit uneasy about the fact that it was late spring and thus not exactly prime Christmas-themed treat season, but if my father was not concerned about a stranger with a straggly cat tail dangling from the back of his head handing me five-month-old candy, then I sure as hell wasn’t either.
          Before we got to our gate, we were hit by another solicitor, this one a well-dressed young black male.
          “Excuse me, sir,” he began, stepping in front of my father, who had no choice but to stop. “How are you today?”
          Perhaps because we were within sight of the gate with ample time before our plane boarded, my father responded, with a slightly bemused “I am fine. Thank you.”
          “Wonderful. I am collecting donations for the United Negro College Fund today and . . .”
          “N—,” my father began.
Anticipating the coming rejection, the man quickly changed tactics. “And what a lovely young man you have with you. Here you are, young man,” he said, handing me a beautiful, inviting, red paper-wrapped, cherry-flavored Tootsie Pop.
          Two pieces of free candy, all before nine a.m.! I had no idea what to expect from the Magic Kingdom, but at this point the airport seemed magical to me.
          The man turned his attention once again to my father.
          “Now, sir, I know you want the very best for your son, and I’m sure that includes wanting the very best education he can get. And I know you feel, as so many other generous Americans do, that young boys and girls of color deserve the very same educational opportunities as your son.”
          I glanced up at my father, expecting to see him confirm what the young man so clearly took as a self-evident truth. The bemused look was gone, replaced by one of pure malice. Grabbing the lollipop from my hand, he smashed it into the man’s chest, growling “Keep your fucking candy.” Seizing my hand, he pulled me toward the gate without a backward glance at how his “donation” was received.
          Naturally, I asked why I couldn’t keep the lollipop. He grumbled something about how taking candy from strangers was dangerous.

 “So, this is what we’re going to do. When we get home, you are to go directly to your room and take down your pants. I will be in there shortly to give you a spanking.”
Ignoring his earlier injunction for silence, I blurted out “A spanking? I’m fourteen years old!”
“I don’t give a shit if you’re fourteen or forty-two,” he replied. “If I want to give you a spanking, I’m for damn sure going to give you a spanking!”
Having now passed the age of forty-two, I realize this last claim is just silly. I’m quite confident that if he tried it now, I could take him. At the time, though, I just thought this was a bizarre idea. Not bizarre in the sense that he used the phrase “If I want to give you a spanking,”—a declaration that would cause any decent Freudian to reach for a notebook while nodding knowingly—but bizarre in the sense of “How in the hell did we get here?” The punishment, from my perspective, just did not seem to fit the crime.
The remainder of the drive was spent in deafening silence. Once we pulled into the driveway, my father said, “You go directly to your room and get ready; I’ll be in there shortly.”
Gradually recognizing that he fully intended to go through with this, I went to my room and waited.
And waited.
And waited some more.
While I was waiting, my phone rang. It was Derrick, calling to see if everything was “cool.”
“Your dad seemed to be acting weird,” he explained.
“Tell me about it. Do you know what . . .”
In the very definition of “unfortunate timing,” that was the moment my father came into the room, preceded by the scent of Scotch.
“Who are you talking to?” he demanded.
I realize now that things would have been better for me if I said I had started calling the 1-900 phone sex numbers again (an issue I would really rather not discuss), but I wasn’t thinking fast enough for that at the moment.
“Derrick,” I blurted out.
His eyes seem to glaze over a bit and then he drawled, “Hang up the phone.”
I started to comply, but I feared taking my eyes off him. I wanted every nanosecond of advanced notice I could get to prepare for whatever he had in mind—for I now fully realized that this was for real. Because of this, the process of hanging up the phone was sloppy and, apparently, too slow for my father’s taste.
He helped by grabbing me by one shoulder and forcefully spinning me around, then pushing me over the edge of the bed in what is known worldwide as “assuming the position.”
And then the spanking began.
My dad only managed a few smacks before his arm got tired or his hand got too sore. Whichever the reason, he quickly decided the spanking was not going as well as he had hoped and called in the big guns. Even though he had never used it on me before, I intuited what the crackling sound of leather sliding over denim meant. And the subsequent slicing pain, followed immediately by a sharp, cracking sound, confirmed those intuitions.
                                            
When I was nine, my father and I were driving down the Merritt Parkway to a youth hockey game in some rich New York-wannabe western Connecticut town when he noticed he needed gas. He was already in a foul mood when we pulled into the next Mobil station.
I think his disgruntlement was mostly caused by the embarrassment of looking unprepared. My father liked to present (in front of me particularly) the image of complete control; he extolled the virtues of preparation and responsibility, and missing something as basic as making sure you had enough gas to get where you’re going before you set off I’m sure caused a fair amount of mortification.
Usually in these situations, he would deflect any blame onto me, transferring his self-imposed humiliation into a lecture on how I was culpable for this unfortunate and regrettable lapse in preparation. But in this case, he had no such option, for even the most self-deluding excuse cannot be founded upon the idea that when a nine-year-old borrows the car, he needs to remember to return it with a full tank of gas.
In the early 1980s, the gas stations along the Merritt were still full service, so my father was able to channel some of his frustration at the situation by ignoring the humanity of the approaching attendant. Staring straight through the windshield, he barked a terse command of “Fill it” before the attendant even cleared the rear passenger door. Forced to cut off his routine greeting, the attendant could only get out a garbled “Goo—yassir” before spinning on his heels to begin the process of feeding the car. Something in the tone or style of the voice must have caught my father’s attention, though, as he spent the filling process spying on the attendant through the side-view mirror, breaking his concentration only once to glance at the dashboard clock and complain about how long it was taking. This seemed unfair to me, as this pumping the car full of gas seemed to be taking as long as every other pumping the car full of gas, but I did not say anything, shamefully thankful that someone else was the target of his petty frustrations.
Then we heard the hollow thump indicating that the pump had shut itself off.
Then we heard it again.
And then, a few seconds later, again.
And then one more time.
I had had enough experience at gas stations to know what the attendant was doing; he was playing the game “Hit the number,” when you try to coax the pump to stop on the bill amount you prefer, usually an even dollar amount, but sometimes to match the exact amount of cash you had on you at the time. My father played this game quite frequently and I can recall vividly one time when he was caught without his wallet and euphorically matched the gas total to the $3.27 he had in the change compartment.
So I was as surprised as the attendant when my father growled “Don’t ever fucking top-off my tank again” as he handed his credit card through the window.
 “I didn’t mean anything by it, sir. I was just trying . . .”
“I know what you ‘were trying,’” my father cut him off, the last two words offered in a mocking impression of the halting speech pattern the attendant had.
“You were trying to run up the bill on me,” my father accused.
My father then violently shoved the clipboard and completed paperwork back at the attendant, adding, in lieu of gratuity, these parting words:
“You fucking nigger!”
          As he peeled out of the station in either anger or with the bravado that often masks fear, I looked through the rear-view mirror in time to see the attendant throw the clipboard down onto the pavement, sending the paperwork he would need to submit so the station’s owner could collect on the sale twirling out across the highway to be churned into irrelevance by an endless stream of automobiles.

I had always prided myself for the noble, if not heroic, manner in which I met the few, more age-appropriate, spankings I had received as a younger child, stoically accepting each whack of the hand while denying my father the satisfaction of seeing me try to squirm out of the way of the next blow.
But against the belt, no such stoicism was possible.
After the first two strikes, my father had to use his off-hand to hold down my thrashing body as he continued to lash out with the belt. My reptilian brain was on full-fledged escape mode and eventually I slid off the foot of the bed. My dad, consumed within the moment, used a foot to pin me down by the shoulder before continuing to strike. As I rolled about on the floor, I caught a glimpse of him in the floor length mirror I had hanging behind my bedroom door. He was twirling the belt above his head like some demented do Indiana Jones.
With me on the floor, the arrangement of the room furnishings now made my ass a more difficult target; that or my father was not satisfied with the force he could generate with the altered arm angle necessary to whip the belt past the corner of the bed. After one last attempt, he tossed aside the belt.
But this did not mean my beating was over.
It just meant the kicking began.
          As I desperately tried to find an orientation of the fetal position that would protect my battered ribs while not unduly exposing my impossibly sore ass to the unrelenting assault of my father’s work boot, a most incongruous series of thoughts occurred to me.
          I thought once again about the scene with Ernie.
Once he was dismissed from my father’s office, an insinuation of an object lesson haunted the silence. Only, there didn’t seem to be a clear lesson. My father didn’t seem to be trying to make a point, or if he was, he was being far too subtle. In fact, the scene did not really even have the father-imparting-wisdom-to-his-son feel. The display didn’t seem designed to imply, “Here’s what happens when you work hard” nor did it seem a more generic lesson on the merits of physical exercise and its connection to aging well.
Instead, the whole episode was like a man proudly showing off one of his more prized possessions. Re-situating the principle characters into the 1850s, it would not have seemed out of place in the least if my father had me inspect Ernie’s teeth.
As the blows continued, I thought of that gas station attendant and the lost credit card receipt.
I, of course, have no idea what, if anything, happened to him because of this (although, with the arbitrary significance that children frequently attach to random events, I did worry about it from time to time in the years that followed) but I do know what happened to me because of it:
Approximately four years later, while my father was savagely beating me, I would recall this moment and have an epiphany:
          I think my father may be racist.
          Of course, I realize now that the evidence was conclusive, but it hadn’t registered until that moment. When my father had excused his bigotry by asserting that he “wasn’t prejudiced against black people but against lazy people; it just happens that in my experience blacks tend to be lazy,” or by insisting that “some of his friends were black,” I had accepted this as sage refutation of any charge of racism offered against him. It was only as I grew older, and gained a greater depth of life experience, that I realized just how pathetically cliché he was being with these feeble attempts to gild his intolerance.
Finally, I thought once again of that young man at the airport, and of my father grabbing the lollipop from my hands and forcibly slamming it into the man’s chest.
The mistake the man made was, I think, similar to the one Ralph Ellison depicts in Invisible Man, where the narrator runs afoul of a group of white men when he dares suggest the goal for blacks is not just “social responsibility” (an idea with which his white audience does not seemingly have a problem) but “social equality” (an idea to which his white audience responds with much hostility). When the young man was simply asking for donations to help black students pay for college, my father found this a charmingly amusing topic; but as soon as he made the implication that there should be equal rights to equal opportunities, my father’s sense of racial propriety was offended, and the young man’s petition was dead on arrival.
          I think something similar was driving my beating. My friendship with Derrick represented a threat to my father. By ignoring his passive aggressive efforts to steer me toward alternate friends, I was unknowingly rejecting the fundamental assumptions upon which he built a portion of his world. Since he styled himself a decent man (and his bigotry aside, he was), he did not outright forbid me from playing with him, nor did he directly challenge my innate view of Derrick as an equal.
Yet over the months of my friendship with Derrick, the tension was building. Whatever internal checks his basic goodness provided ultimately proved insufficient when he had to go humiliate himself in front of Derrick’s father, for I have no doubt that to humble himself by asking a strange black man—a poor, working class black man at that—for help with something so personal as finding his son must have been a humiliation for him.
His internal checks overwhelmed, he had to have some type of release, and while, as a functioning member of a civilized society he couldn’t get his release by beating Derrick or Derrick’s father, he could find it by beating me in the privacy of my own bedroom.

I say in the privacy of my own bedroom, but that turned out not to be the case. Although neither of us noticed it at the time, when my father forcefully spun me around and pushed me down over the bed, I was unable to fully comply with his previous demand to hang up the phone; I only got the handset partially on the receiver.
As a result, Derrick heard the entire attack. At some point, he got his brother Donnie on the phone to listen in as well. I found this out a few moments after my father, his sense of ethnic hierarchy satisfied, had left the room. As I lay on the floor trying to catch my breath, wheezing  through my bruised ribs, I heard Derrick’s muffled voice call out, “Paul?”
          He had to call out a couple more times before I was able to understand what was happening and pick up the receiver.
          “Are you ok? Do you want me to call someone?”
          “No, I’ll be all right.”
          There followed a silence, as neither one of us knew how to address what had just happened. 
Fortunately for us, Donnie did.
Piercing through our collective awkward silence, he did an impromptu impression of what he just heard.
          “O, God, Dad, please stop beating me! I swear I’ll hate the darkies, too, just please stop hitting me.”
          Using an exaggerated squawking voice for my role, Donnie went on. “O, dear Jesus, stop kicking me. I won’t be friends wit da niggas; I swears I won’t be friends wit da niggas.”
          Despite ourselves, and despite the pain it caused, both Derrick and I were soon rolling with laughter.

          While Donnie used humor to address my pain and embarrassment, Derrick ultimately opted for a different tactic.
The next day seemed normal between us. He gave me a big smile when he saw me in homeroom, then told me that Donnie had decided, in light of my sacrifice for the cause, to make me an honorary black man.
Derrick said he planned to make up at T-shirt for me indicating such, but nothing ever came of that.
But in the days, weeks, and months that followed, Derrick subtly and gradually began to talk to me less and less until one day I discovered an unbridgeable divide had been constructed and that I had lost my friend.
For years, I assumed that Derrick rejected my friendship out of disgust or fear of my father’s explosive form of racism.
But then, years later, re-enacting the traditional pilgrimage of all freshman in college, I ran into him at our high school’s Thanksgiving’s Day football game. After the scripted—and therefore comfortable—exchange of greetings and pleasantries, there was once again an awkward pause.
I decided to fill it by plunging right in.
          “Hey, Derrick, I’m sorry my old man scared you off. But you know, just because he is what he is, that doesn’t make me him.”
          Derrick looked away, staring at the horizon silently for a few moments, before slightly shaking his head and responding,
          “That’s not what happened. I didn’t stop talking to you because I thought you were like that too. But what I heard on the phone . . . .,” he trailed off, was silent again for a beat or two, before finishing “I didn’t want you to ever go through that again. And I was afraid if I was your friend, you would.”
          Life is funny; even when Derrick was no longer my friend, he was one of the best I ever had.
And he didn’t even play baseball.


Paul Juhasz has presented at dozens of academic conferences before turning his hand to creative writing. His mock journal, Fulfillment: Diary of an Amazonian Picker, chronicling his seven-month term as a Picker at an Amazon Fulfillment Center, has been published in abridged form in The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas and is currently being serialized in Voices de la Luna. Currently, he is working on Daddy Issues, a collection of short stories, and has just completed his first novel, Junk, based on his experiences riding a truck for 1-800-GOT-JUNK the last eighteen months.