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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lessons in a Chitlin

by Carol D. Marsh

I’d had it.
No matter that I was the one who had dreamed of this place for years, had slogged through the building’s three-and-a-half year gut demolition and renovation using untold quantities of dogged determination and more yelling at the contractor than I’ll ever confess. I’d been ecstatic to move with my husband into our apartment on the second floor in December 1995 and prepare the building called Miriam’s House for its first residents—Washington, DC’s homeless women living with AIDS—in March 1996.
And no matter that I already had fifteen months as resident manager of a house for homeless pregnant women, where I’d been taught a series of painful lessons about the difficulties a middle-class suburban-raised white woman encounters when living with eleven street-wise black women. Why I underestimated the power of our differences after having learned it so painfully then, I couldn’t have told you. Perhaps I thought I had already discovered everything I’d need to know to live and work at Miriam’s House.
I hadn’t. And so, by June, I’d had it.
This resident hated the rules, all of them, and complained loudly every chance she got. That one snarled at my cheeriest greetings. And Tamara. Oh, goodness, Tamara. Who had walked up the front walkway, the first resident to move in on our first day, with a call that I knew immediately I’d remember forever. “I’m home!”
Home, a concept I’d formed while growing up in not-one-bit-integrated suburbia in the sixties and seventies, had become so fixed in my mind that there was little of the conceptual left in it. And though part of me knew this home would be very, very different from my pretty imaginings about how well we would all get along and how grateful they would all be, imagination dominated nonetheless.
Tamara—with what was to me a gleeful, sometimes spiteful, persistence that made a mockery of that cheery greeting on her first day—set about disabusing me of these notions and any others I might have had about myself and how I would be in Miriam’s House. And though most of the residents were friendly and willing to help me bridge our differences, I let Tamara’s combination of bold disrespect and sly baiting overshadow all that was going well.
At a house meeting: Why ain’t you piped purified water into the ice maker? Makes no sense to have good water to drink if we have to put that ice into it. You ain’t thinking.
In the dining room after dinner: You all shoulda heard Carol in the car on the way to the emergency room when I had that fever. (Taking on an overly sweet, childish voice) ‘I hope you’ll be okay. You know I’ll stay there for you.’
Before long, I was avoiding her. I’d slip away from the TV room or dining room when she came in. I’d brace myself for her onslaughts in house meetings and wait for her to be done, responding with just a few words if at all. I couldn’t figure out how to relate to her without incurring her contempt and getting my feelings hurt yet again. I gave up. Avoidance seemed the best policy.
But best policy or not, it simply was not sustainable in that small community.

I stop on my way down the stairs and sniff. Good lord, what stinks?
        What I’m smelling cannot possibly be food, at least, not in undigested form. So, in mystified ignorance, I follow my nose into the kitchen, where the nauseating odor seems to emanate from a pot on the stove. I lift the lid, take a whiff of the steam rising from the boiling mess, and gag.
        I look around and see Tamara, watching me and grinning. “Chitlins. My favorite.”
Oh. It is food. And that is Tamara, ever ready with the quick and slicing jibe. I rearrange the expression on my face. “Hmm. Chitlins. What are they?”
        “Insides of pigs. Don’t worry, I cleaned ‘em good. I ain’t triflin’.” She gives the pot a stir, sending another plume of noxious steam into the kitchen's humid air.
        Insides? I want to gag again. Watching me, Tamara's smile broadens. Something in me stiffens its spine against my too-easily hurt feelings and decides to try something new as she asks what I had for dinner.
        “Tofu stir fry,” I say.
        “Tofu? What the hell is that?”
        I risk a quick grin at her. Here’s my chance. “Sorta like fermented soy beans.”
        “And you think chitlins are bad? Fermented beans? Sounds disgusting.”
        “Not as disgusting as chitlins.”
I’m a bit shocked at myself for answering in kind, stiffened spine or no. This is not how I usually speak to the residents, especially not Tamara. I steal a wary glance at her to gauge her reaction: still grinning. Whew.
“No way my chitlins is worse than them beans.”
Once she has settled the lid back onto the pot, thank God, Tamara turns to send the spoon clattering into the sink and pivots back to me. “No way.”
        “You don’t know that. Have you ever tasted tofu?”
        Later, I realize this is what she’s been waiting for.
        “Okay, I’ll eat a tofu if you eat a chitlin.”
        Oops. This is not where I expected the conversation would go. But her knowing smile galvanizes my pride—it surely cannot be my stomach—into agreeing.  

        The women who taught me the most—about myself, about life at Miriam’s House and life in general—were the ones who fought me. Well, I saw it as fighting me, at the time. Averse to conflict and wanting to be liked, I wished we’d all just get along. Meaning, I realize now, I wished they’d all act like I needed them to act.
I came to see that women like Tamara, the ones who complained and resisted and stomped on my every frayed nerve, were waiting and watching. Too many well-meaning people had proved unreliable. Too many ill-meaning people had doled out injury. I believe those who struggled and pushed were those with the most to lose, precisely because they had lost so much already. And as the one with the power, with a lifetime of advantages they’d not had, it was for me to prove my trustworthiness to them. Not the other way around.
What finally worked, what finally broke through, was almost always some small, spontaneous gesture of mine that grew out of an otherwise mundane encounter in the course of a regular day. It was almost always something simple, yet that nonetheless set the stage for a moment of grace and generosity made possible because I relinquished a little bit of my desire for control.

Tamara happily goes to the cabinet for a plate as I leave, rather less happily, for my apartment upstairs to get “a tofu.” Belatedly suspicious of the alacrity with which she had proposed and been ready for the deal, I realize my sense of having the upper hand is an illusion. I look at the innocuous bit of tofu as I put it on a small plate. At worst, tofu is tasteless, but since my husband stir-fried it with soy sauce and a few spices, this has a pleasing flavor I couldn't imagine chitlins having. I’ve been had. But the tofu and I go downstairs to our fate.
        As soon as I enter the kitchen, Tamara grabs the tofu off the plate, pops it into her mouth and chews enthusiastically. Watching me. I stare at her, suspicious.
        “At the treatment center they only cooked vegan food. Never did get to like it, but I can eat it.”
        She swallows, turns to the stove and lifts the lid off the pot.
        “Okay, and now for the chitlin.”
        Dipping into the pot, she pulls out a pale, half-curled strip of something pale and limp. The now-familiar odor sidles toward me. She puts the thing on the plate. She holds the plate out. I put the chitlin into my mouth. My teeth close on it. Already anticipating the taste—as judged from that smell—I had firmly resolved not to allow my expression to reveal any disgust or, what was more likely, fear. But I had neglected to prepare for the texture, and it feels as though I've placed a slimy, hot rubber band in my mouth. My resolve, conquered by a chitlin, falters and flees.
        “Acccchhhh!” I spit out the offensive thing onto the plate. “It’s like rubber!”
        Brown eyes regard me slyly from beneath a wig's bangs. “You have to eat it. I ate the tofu.”
        She’s right. Very quickly, so as not to give my mind or stomach or taste buds a chance to protest, I throw the chitlin into my mouth, give a couple of ineffectual chews, and gag it down.
        Then we go into the dining room, Tamara and I, and we take chairs in front of the stereo where she fusses with the CD player so we can listen to some Yolanda Adams. The sun is setting, the room in dusk, but we turn on no light. It’s just the two of us, smelling of chitlins and finding the beat.

Carol D. Marsh is a recent graduate of Goucher College’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction program. Her master’s thesis, from which this piece is taken, is a memoir of seventeen years as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House in Washington, DC. Her stories have been published in Soundings Review (awarded Runner-Up in the 2014 First Publication Contest), Jenny Magazine, and the Chronicle for the American Chronic Pain Association. Readers can find her blog here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Last of the Flower Children

by Susan Lago

            My aunt is sixty-eight years old and lives in a two-room house in a picaresque Vermont town. From floor to ceiling and from wall to wall, Aunt Jenny’s art hangs on the walls, from the beams, balances on tiny tea tables. A squat black wood-burning stove provides her and her common-law husband, Herb, with all the heat they need, all the heat they have. She is scarves and patchouli and wood smoke. She is cassette tapes and gluten-free and long hair, gray now, but still curly and wild.
            In the morning, I wake in an unheated bedroom to Vermont in late November, but I am cocooned under three down comforters. Only the top of my head is cold. I jump out of bed, push aside the heavy damask curtain in the doorway, and emerge into the heated dimness of the main living area. It’s six in the morning and the air hangs heavy with marijuana smoke and the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Jenny is there with Herb and her best friend Grace. “You’re up!” they say. “Coffee?” asks Grace. My sister and I are staying at her house, which is about twenty-five feet from my aunt’s. Grace has three bedrooms in addition to the main room. Grace has a door on her bathroom. They call the world formed by their two houses, “The Compound.” Now she offers me what’s left of the joint, but I decline with a shake of my head and make for the coffeepot.
            Time moves differently here. It’s not just the weed, it’s also the heavy curtains on the windows and the silvery northern sun. I shower in the claw foot tub and dry myself with a hotel quality towel. Later, Grace explains that she’s accumulated the down comforters, the towels, and most of her clothes from the odds and ends left at their local laundromat. “You wouldn’t believe what people leave behind,” she says, taking a hit off the joint. “More coffee?”
            Over rice-flour pancakes with berries and maple syrup (Vermont, of course), the conversation turns to the logistics of growing one’s own marijuana crop. Hydroponics. Special lights. Cross-fertilization. Grace sighs: “We just couldn’t make the cost-benefit work,” she says. The clock says seven-thirty. Grace takes out a baggie filled with green buds and rolls another joint.
            Here, then, are the last of the Flower Children.
            Or maybe they’re hippies, but Flower Children sounds prettier and seems a more apt description for the way Jenny, Herb, and Grace harmonize with the environment of The Compound. In between the two houses is a bower loosely enclosed with wrought iron fencing and decorated with a rug, a bistro table, and several mismatched chairs. The table is covered with a patterned cloth and both it and the rug are soaked with last night’s rain. There are gardens, both flower and vegetable. Wherever the eye rests, there’s something to see, something lovely and strange and filled with a kind of lambent light. Wind chimes make music in the breeze.

            My aunt was born in late November 1945 in a predominantly Jewish Boston neighborhood. She is the younger sister by eight years to the day. She, my mother, and their father—my grandfather—all share the same birthday. In fact, that’s why my sister and I have driven from New Jersey to Vermont. My mother passed away ten months ago. This is Aunt Jenny’s first birthday alone. We didn’t want her to be sad, and we didn’t want to be sad, on this first birthday without my mother.
            I sit on Aunt Jenny’s bed/sofa and flip through an old photo album. I come across a picture of a teenaged Jenny. How old is she here? Fifteen? Sixteen? She has a bouffant hairdo as carefully styled as a wig. Impossible to reconcile this image with my memories. Yet it’s her, despite the tweezed eyebrows, the teased hair shellacked into place. There’s her cleft chin, her smile. When did the transformation to hippie take place? Yes, I could ask her, but she’s prickly about her past, the same way she bristles when I take out my smartphone to check my email. In 1969, the Year of the Hippie, Jenny would have been twenty-four. She had already been to college, Mass Art, had already been married and divorced. She had lived through the assassinations of MLK and JFK, saw the Beatles morph from moppets to acid-heads. I have only the faintest memory of her from that year; I was only six-years-old. But at some point, the bouffant was replaced by long hair, and the young married woman went to live with her equally long-haired boyfriend.
            To the awkward kid I was, Jenny was my grimy glamorous aunt. She had long red hair and eschewed deodorant. She was a singer-songwriter who traveled around in a van with her boyfriend, their band, and a dog. The van had a bed! and Jenny’s artwork on the walls. It smelled like BO and canine, but I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, kind of like my Barbie Camper crossed with the Boxcar Children. The band made its way up and down the east coast, playing at coffeehouses and bars. The dog’s name was Home.
            She called herself a gypsy. They lived according to their own rules in the van that was their house as well as their transportation. From time to time, they stayed with friends they referred to as family. On the other hand, my family—my mom, stepfather, and me and my sister—lived in a ranch-style house on a lake in suburban New Jersey. We had things my aunt did not—an oven, a swing set in the backyard, mortgage payments. When she visited, these familiar things faded into olive green seventies-ness.
            In those days, my mother was different from the mothers of my schoolmates. A poet, feminist, and artist, she wore a hand-knit purple poncho and taught my sister and me that bras and make-up were societal constructs that objectified women. But born eight years before her sister, my mother’s life was somewhat more mainstream: married, she had two children, a house, and a job. She lived inside society’s conventions while my aunt whirled free in her own orbit. I believe my mother yearned for that life. As much as she loved us, my sister and me, she wanted to be the barefoot artist in the park. Instead she was a suburban mom who had to fit her art in the spaces not occupied by the demands of family.

            By the time Aunt Jenny turns up in my memory, it is the summer of 1972, and we are traveling across country to see Alan Ginsburg. This was my aspiring poet mother’s idea. So we take off in a borrowed station wagon: my mother and stepfather, me and my sister, and my aunt. We drive her crazy, my sister and I, with our constant bickering and attention-seeking neediness. For some reason, our journey to SoCal takes a northerly route through Massachusetts, where we stop to visit my grandparents, and then up to Vermont to see old friends.
            “This is where I get off,” my aunt says. She probably doesn’t actually say those words, but that’s what happens anyway. She falls in love with the Green Mountain state. She jumps off the merry-go-round of sticky-fingered children and games of I-Spy and License Plate. And so Vermont becomes the closest thing to home my gypsy aunt knows for the next forty years. Vermont is her base even in the years she travels with her band, and then later from craft show to craft show where she sells her handmade silk-screened wearable art. Somewhere along the way, the long-haired boyfriend is replaced by Herb.
            I remember visiting her in Vermont sometime in the late seventies. She and Herb lived in a log cabin on the side of a mountain. I remember being horrified that there was no bathroom. “What do I do when I have to go?” I may have whispered to my mother. “We’re in nature,” laughed my aunt (the cabin was very small; there was no place for the whisper to hide). She handed me a roll of toilet paper and pointed to the door. Why wasn’t there even an outhouse? I can’t remember. The cabin was heated by a wood-burning stove, and my aunt made me the most delicious cinnamon toast I had ever tasted with thick brown bread dripping with butter. The two-room house she lives in today is an echo of that cabin, only it has a real working bathroom even if its only barrier is a turquoise-colored beaded curtain instead of a door.

            Why does she choose Vermont and not some other hippie enclave such as Haight Ashbury or Greenwich Village? Maybe because Vermont has a proud history of welcoming pioneers, artists, and outcasts. It’s no wonder that despite Vermont’s inhospitable winters, the state became a haven for my aunt and her friends when they wanted to get off the hamster wheel of the work-to-live ethos and live close to the land. And it’s no surprise that my aunt, an artist and musician who actively lived the counterculture, gravitated to Vermont in the early seventies. After all, the state offered the appeal of pristine mountains, fresh air, and the possibility of living the Flower Children’s ideals of peace and love in a communal environment set just outside the boundaries of The Establishment.
            There’s something else beneath the simple lifestyle, however. Another side. An economic one. Both Aunt Jenny and Grace rent, not own, their houses. Their clothes mostly come from hand-me-downs and scavenging. The economics of The Compound are based on share and share alike. The three adults share one car (Jenny’s) and one computer (Grace’s). They had also shared illegal cable until the day before our visit when the cable company upgraded their technology to digital and the signal disappeared. Grace is considering splurging for monthly access. After all, the winter nights are long. No one’s complaining, but maybe that explains the abundance of weed.

            “Remember Jefferson Airplane?” my sister asks. It’s Saturday night, our last night in Vermont. We’ve eaten dinner at Aunt Jenny’s: a quiche made with tomatoes that they grew in their garden and dried in the sun, salad, falafel, and white wine. Now we’re back at Grace’s, finishing off another bottle of wine and passing around a joint.
            Nods all around. My sister is younger than I am by three years. Lean from years of yoga and holistic juicing, she’s approaching fifty, but she’s not there yet. In Jefferson Airplane’s heyday, the “Summer of Love” 1967, she was one-year-old. She’s nostalgic for a past that she never experienced.
            Grace is sitting on a period sofa covered with a white linen cloth. She’s wearing an old-fashioned cotton nightgown and robe, white with lacey flounces and puffed sleeves. She has masses of gray-streaked hair and wire-framed glasses, and holds a roach clip that’s about a foot long, which she waves like a conductor’s baton while she talks. The rest of us sit on mismatched chairs in varying degrees of wobbliness. There are doilies. Like my aunt’s place, every available space has something on it: framed photographs on the wall, including one of a young Bette Davis, china figurines, lamps, a stack of wood next to the stove. The effect, though, is less chaotic than at my aunt’s where angels made from recycled materials hang from a rafter and her mixed media sculptures share space on her kitchen table with stacks of books and an altar. Grace’s place is more rustic bed-and-breakfast than bohemian artist.
            “I have a videotape of a George Harrison concert,” says Herb. More nods.
            “We could watch it,” says Jenny, but nobody makes a move to go get it.
            I take a couple of hits off the joint and feel my brain slow and softly stall.
            “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young,” says Grace. “They don’t make music like that anymore.”
            I am overwhelmed with missing the dark tropes of the gangsta rap my son listens to. The anger, the misogyny, the shameless worship of material wealth—everything the Flower Children reject---may seem as quaint one day as Simon and Garfunkel’s gentle warning to “slow down.”
            The talk circles round again to the logistics of growing your own marijuana. I can tell this is a conversation they have often. I don’t have much to contribute, but now I’m stoned so it doesn’t matter.
            Where are the Flower Children now? Some sold out. They’re CEOs of companies that exploit workers overseas. They worry about their retirement accounts and the effect of the recession on the equity of their homes. They take Xanax instead of smoking pot and dropping acid. They take Viagra and Lipitor. Some of the Flower Children live in Florida in gated retirement communities. They play tennis or golf. They’re members of book clubs. They shop at Wal-Mart. Some of the Flower Children are dead of drug overdoses or alcoholism. They never got to watch their grandchildren play videogames where they shoot villagers or kick prostitutes in the head. Some of the Flower Children still live by their beliefs in peace and love. They head up philanthropic organizations; they speak out against social injustice.
            And some of the Flower Children are right here in this small New England town, kicking it at The Compound, which, one could say, is a kind of retirement community for aging hippies—a mini-commune. They grow their own vegetables and wear clothes they buy in thrift shops or find discarded in laundromats. They may own computers and cell phones, but they are not a necessity. If they can’t afford to pay for access, they’re fine without. They make and sell art and music and homemade gluten-free pies; they eat, drink, and smoke with friends. They don’t have much, but what they have they share. Age doesn’t seem to matter. Jenny speaks fondly of a twenty-year-old woman with whom she works at their local health food store. “She’s an old soul,” Jenny says. “She’s one of us.” To me, accustomed as I am to various electronic alerts, traffic, the demands of a full teaching load, and two college tuitions to pay, life here feels stagnant, yet it’s filled with beauty. They live a humble existence, but I’m not sure if that’s because they dropped out of society one day and never wanted to drop back in, or if they surprised themselves by getting old. When you’re young, it’s hard to imagine yourself forty, fifty years into the future. Then suddenly, ironically even, there you are. Smoking weed or shopping at Wal-Mart.

            After the wine has been drunk and the weed has been smoked, I pull out the yahrzeit candle I brought from home to light in remembrance of my mother’s birthday. Tradition says you’re supposed to light the candle to commemorate the loved one’s death day, but my family has never been big on tradition. My aunt is a practicing Buddhist; my sister follows her own yoga-inspired path. We were all born Jewish, but I’m the closest thing this family’s got to a practicing Jew so I brought the candle. My aunt takes out some old photographs. There’s one of her and my mom when they were little girls, another of me and my aunt taken when I was about fourteen. We’re both young and lovely in the way of heedless youth. She spreads the photos out on the low table in front of the sofa. We light the candle. No one knows the prayer in Hebrew so we just wish my mom a happy birthday. We all join hands and cry a little.

            On the day we leave, I take pictures of us all with my iPhone. Herb asks to see the pictures so I hand him my phone and show him how to swipe through the images. Now seventy-six years old, he suffers from COPD. He quit smoking cigarettes years ago, but still smokes weed every day, all day. “Where does the picture come out?” he asks, turning the gadget over in his hand. I am in a place outside of time, or stuck in time, or timeless. When I step outdoors, the cold is like a slap in the face. I see the wisdom of burrowing. But time rushes back to me all at once and the effect is disorienting, yet heady.
            As we drive away, my sister and I wave and wave. Jenny, Herb and Grace, a tableau in front of The Compound, wave back. I don’t know then that this is the last time I will ever see my aunt. In less than three months, she will be diagnosed with end stage uterine cancer. Shortly after, she takes to her bed, barely able to put two words together. On March 20, 2014, my Aunt Jenny dies, barely more than a year after her sister. One less Flower Child, one last glimmer of light and love gone from this world.

Susan Lago teaches composition and literature at Bergen Community College. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in publications such as Pank Magazine, Word Riot, Per Contra, Monkeybicycle and Prime Number. Her short story, “Songs from the River,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011 by Pank. She lives in New Jersey with her two children and a sweet little cat.

Monday, March 16, 2015


by Amanda Forbes Silva

        I stretch on tiptoes to inspect the choices behind the glass. Although I am only six years old, I already know my passion—chocolate chip. Besides, the Northville A&P doesn’t have as many choices as Custard Time, so there aren’t any new flavors to distract me from the tried and true combination of chocolate flakes folded into vanilla ice cream. Mom pulls a ticket from the deli counter while I wait for my cone. 
        I am the oldest child and the only one who can help Mom run errands. For that, she treats me to an ice cream cone before we scan the aisles for Similac, diapers, and dinner ingredients. A single scoop is a nickel and I can already feel the coin in my palm growing warm and sweaty.
        “Here y’are.” The man behind the counter extends the treat towards me, and I can tell the scoop is just barely balancing against the edges. I hand him the nickel, eager to cup the cone with both hands, determined to fix the wiggle with a quick push of my tongue. 
        “Say ‘thank you’,” Mom reminds me.
        “Thank you.” I repeat, turning toward the shopping cart. I’m ready to help Mom find everything on the list, which is long, and we have more errands to run after this.
        I take two steps away from the counter, trying to secure the scoop in place with my tongue. I fail, feeling the mound tilt. In an instant, a dripping chocolate chip flower blooms on the scratched linoleum by my toes. 
        Heat rushes up my neck and spreads across my face. Mom brought me along to help and I’m making a mess.
        “Oops! What happened?” Mom swipes a few napkins from the metal holder on the counter and scoots around me. She spreads one over the splatter, picking up the melting mound in her right hand, and zips another over the rest with her left. “There we go, honey,” she says, rubbing a few drips off the toes of my saddle shoes. She strides over to the trashcan and pushes the runny napkins into the barrel. I just stand there, empty cone in hand.
        “Let me see that.” She takes the cone from me and approaches the man behind the counter. “Excuse me? Can we please have another scoop of chocolate chip ice cream? The last one got away from her.” She tilts her head in my direction and smiles.
        The man bends, disappears to the sound of metal bouncing against metal as he lifts the lid against the cooler. Mom leaves another nickel on the counter and turns around to face me with a new cone. The ice cream is sitting on top like a figurine on a wedding cake. Mom notices, too. “Just be careful, I don’t think he pushed it down hard enough,” she whispers. 
        I nod, about to explain how that was the problem the first time, but I stay quiet. We have shopping to do. I take the cone and lift it to my lips. Mom wraps her hands around the cart handle and we maneuver our way around the displays and deals. The towering boxes of crackers and cookies and the rows of polished fruit distract me, and my second lick sends the ice cream into a free fall before it meets the floor.
        I am horrified. We are still in plain sight of the deli counter and haven’t even pulled one item from the shelves. Next time, Mom should just leave me home and bring the babies instead. Oblivious, she chooses tomatoes, sliding each one into a plastic bag. I don’t want to tell her. But I have no choice. I can’t reach the napkins on the counter, so I will never be able to clean this up on my own. Leaving it here isn’t an option either. I could never eat the sugar cone fast enough to distract anyone from the evidence on the floor.
“Uh, Mom?” 
        “Mm-hmm.” She still hasn’t noticed. I stand there, wordless, until she spies the hollow cone in my hand. Her brows furrow. “Again?” I look down, manage a quick nod before Mom brushes past me and I hear the snap snap snap of the napkin holder as Mom yanks out a bunch and cleans up my mess. 
I don’t even want ice cream anymore. I just want to get away from the deli and out of this store. My eyes cloud up and heat rushes the back of my neck. Crying will just prove that I am a baby, but the faster I try to blink and hold back the tears, the harder they push forward. 
        Mom leans her palm into my shoulder and guides me back to the counter. The same man stands there, hairy arms resting on each other over his chest. He reminds me of a muscled man I saw on a poster when the circus came to Northville last spring. He has seen the whole thing happen for the second time but doesn’t register any expression of surprise, aggravation, or even amusement. 
        “Me again!” Mom chuckles and pulls another nickel from her wallet. She takes the cone from me and hands it to him. He leans toward the vat, scoop in hand, silent. “Do you think you can really push it down into the cone so it doesn’t fall again?” He nods, but emerges with another precarious looking creation.
        Mom eyes it, one brow raised, but takes it and bends down to face me. I wait for the reminder to be more careful, but instead watch as Mom pushes her tongue onto the ice cream until I am sure the cone will crack. She moves her tongue around the top and edges, flattening the initial drips into a neat little mound before handing it to me. Her lipstick somehow remains intact after the process and she straightens up, beautiful, confident against any obstacle.
        “Everything takes practice, honey.” She winks at me, rises, and leaves the nickel on the counter. “Thank you very much,” she says to the man. Smiling, she takes my hand, and leads me back to our cart.
        I spend the rest of our shopping trip mimicking Mom’s control. I think I’ve done well, finishing the cone and depositing the napkin that once secured it into the trashcan on our way out to the parking lot. But, I’m disappointed when I climb into the car and catch my reflection in the passenger window. The smeared ice cream around my mouth reminds me of the circus clown who made balloon animals and I try not to think about how much practice I need.

Amanda Forbes Silva received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. Her work has been published in bioStoriesEmpty SinkEmrys JournalThe Riding Light Review, and Vine Leaves Literary Journal, later anthologized in The Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2012. Amanda spends times away from her own pages working as an adjunct professor and freelance writer. Interested readers are invited to check out her website at:

Monday, March 2, 2015


by Lisa Richter

My father has collected us from our scattered lives to huddle here with him. We are in the family home, in the basement, the den of my childhood. My older sister, Lori, stands to my right, my younger sister, Lynn, to my left. We fall into position unconsciously. This is the way it's always been. In countless family photos and events we stretch our smiles, eldest to youngest, me pressed between.
He sets a deep box before us. The aged thick cardboard is embossed with a bronze hue. Paper peels at its edges; dust stripes its lid. Hutzlers, the logo says, a once glitzy Baltimore department store now defunct.
A tabletop fan whirs on a steady swing. A dull, flat light falls from the ceiling bulbs and is sucked into the concrete. The floor is thickly painted to keep the dust down. Anchor straps on the storage shelves keep the danger at bay. Bars on the window keep the bad out.
Forty years ago, this room breathed open and free. I drew highways with chalk on the then raw, unpainted floor. I created magical kingdoms from shelves left mobile. I climbed through that window, always gaping wide.
Strapped to the ceiling beams is my grandfather’s handcrafted seesaw and jungle gym, squeals of laughter memoried deep in their aged wood. Laughter once owned this basement, now gutted. The drone of the fan swells in this strange emptiness where memory pulls. My father’s drying Levis dangle from a strung clothes line, swaying in the pushed air. The A/C runs. It's early autumn, but the air feels icy. A blast from the fan catches me. I shiver.
The box waits, centered within our huddle. Mom’s box. My father taps its lid. “It's time,” he says.
I gasp as the fan pushes another blast across my skin.
My mother died in my old bedroom, four springtimes ago, bathed in the same soft light that I had known as a child. When I arrived that evening, the hospital bed had been dismantled, the drugs and syringes packed, the boxes taped over and brought downstairs, the TV moved back to the kitchen. Only the IV drip remained as a reminder of her presence, the gangly apparatus standing where my Humpty Dumpty lamp once sat.
It's how my father processes life: tidy up and move on, stick fiercely with the positive. Anyone asks, the answer is an upbeat “Can’t complain.”
“Hey, girls,” he says. “Look through this.” He taps the box again. “The last of Mom’s things. And listen, whatever you don’t want, hand it over.” He yanks his thumb in the direction of the driveway as he strides outside to the gaping mouth of the dumpster. The largest one available, it smothers the bottom of the drive. It's filling too fast. In a couple of days, the seesaw and the gym will find their way into it.
This is it. The final weekend. Right now, right here. My sisters and I are to take what we can of what remains, the rest goes. There will be no discussion. The house is sold. The car donated. Truckloads dropped off at the Catholic charity in Baltimore. Taxes paid. Lawyer notified. Inheritance discussed. My father wields a ten page checklist, and he will settle it all, so that we will not be burdened.
He will take his bed, a dresser, his Lazyboy, the family photos, and a small suitcase of clothing and check himself into a senior facility near his church, where he is a beloved elder. Six months ago, my father looked ten years younger than his age. Now he is a withered man, though his smile is still bright. His doctor has said he has a couple months left, maybe six if God allows. He is dying, too.
The tape on the side of the box is yellowed and dried. The fibers barely grab the cardboard. Lori runs her finger under the band, and it releases with a dusty pop. She lifts it slowly, then looks at me and Lynn, offering. We don’t move. She wedges the lid off. Nylon fluff, satin embroidered flowers. A gust from the fan grabs the fabric, tosses its blossoms in a flutter.
The lid slides away. Tissue, brittle and gray, wraps the contents. A card rests on top, my mother’s handwriting.
There is no stopping it now, our descent over the edge. I'm already there, in the barren blue-black where orphaned bodies float, where impressions sink in padded silence, where lungs echo with the swell and shrink of fake breaths, where pulse drags and ticks like a metronome set low, where not a whimper is allowed, not one, because that tear, that first tear, will be the end.
My father slams another item into the dumpster. His will is his strength. When my mother was moved home to die, he selflessly tended to her medication, performing a ritual of injections every two hours day and night, to ease her pain and chemically nourish her. He pushed on relentlessly, unaware that a kiss, an embrace, might have healed so much more.
My sisters and I read the card silently. My wedding trousseau, 1957. Written for us to find. I lift out the fabric, a cloudlike fairytale of full, translucent white. It smells of tired cardboard, but it is exquisite. Two pieces unfold: a negligee gown and a light cover-up. The gown’s tight bodice of woven lace falls to generous yards of sheerness. Wide lace bands flow over the shoulders. The sleeves of the cover-up poof wide, trimmed in satin with a satin tie at the neck, the same airy nylon, the same fullness. The effect is at once both angelic and daring, a holiness awed by sensuality.
Her spirit flies from the box as I hold up the gown, its wrinkles already disappearing. I lay the trousseau garments on the table.
There is a second tissue-wrapped package. Two 1950’s crinoline half-slips unfold. Lori shakes them out, and they bounce open into wide stiff skirts. There is, too, a glamorous scarf hat, also white. Its satin label reads Christian Dior, New York.
A third package contains a silk communion dress, my mother’s from 1936. The veil is included, its delicate lace disintegrating, and a pair of small white gloves with a pearl button closure. We have a photo of my mother wearing this, kneeling in the cathedral receiving communion for the first time, her eyes glistening restless, shining dark like her hair.
 The box is now empty. We stand motionless, unable to close it, or move it, waiting for my father to return and take it away.
The fan swings, its current stirring the abundance of white before us. Lynn finds a loose rosary protruding from some tissue. It slips easily into her pocket. When her son lay critically ill with leukemia at age three, word spread until the entire archdiocese of Baltimore was praying for him. The moment the oncologist gave up, Nicholas regained strength and made an inexplicable, complete recovery.  
My mother was buried on Nicholas’s birthday; my father will be buried on mine. “That makes us special, Aunt Lisa,” he will whisper to me in the approaching spring as we share a seat in a cavernous sedan, his suited young body in black.     
Lynn folds the communion dress, the veil, the gloves. She lays them in a pile behind her. These will be hers. Being touched by grace gives her the right. Lori and I nod.
Lori looks at Lynn, then me. Lori has survived a divorce and stomached already one divide of shared goods. She has learned to be selective and cautious. She lifts the crinoline skirts. “Take them,” I say. “They are perfect for you.” She smiles, relieved. “I’d like the hat, too,” Lori says, looking at Lynn. “It would mean a lot to me.” Lynn grasps the Dior and strokes its sides. She inspects the weave, smells it briefly. After a time, she returns it to the table. Lori takes her pieces, puts them aside.
The trousseau remains. I lift the sheer gown, and it swings before me, flaunting the desires of a woman alive in her skin. I imagine my mother as she once was, the woman in the photos, the electric mind in fabulous clothes laughing with friends and dancing on the boardwalk. The woman she was a lifetime ago, before the silencing began.
I want to believe that it was beautiful for her, at least those initial days of the exuberant freeing from virginity. I want to connect with that spirit, its powerful innocence, its vibrant determination. I want to unfold in its embrace.
My sisters look solemnly at me. Though they will not give up their treasures, they are sorry, sorry for me, sorry that I must retain the trousseau of that first night. It makes them uneasy, this billowing enticer, a participant in our parents’ coupling.
I don’t explain, I don’t have to. This is my right as the one silenced in the middle. I don’t tell them how thrilled I am, that it isn't exactly the gown that I want, but the energy it contains. If I can touch my mother’s essence maybe I can once again find my own truth, and through this, offer my daughter a possibility to claim hers.

It's evening, and I soak in a rose mint tub. A bubble hovers on my skin. I blow it a gentle puff and it is carried off perilously on an air stream. I pull a toe through the foam at the surface. A fragrant mist rises.
I step from the bath and towel dry, tapping each water droplet until it pops on my skin. I wrap my hair up high and slide the negligee over my warm shoulders. The bodice’s soft lace presses against my breasts. The fabric is forgiving, light as a joyous thought. It's true: my mother was my size once.
I slip into the cover-up letting the satin tie dangle open. The aroma of rose is rich in the soft light. “Mom,” I whisper. “Are you here?”
I spin a pirouette. The fabric lifts, the flowers dance.

Lisa Richter is a fiction writer and poet and a member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Her work has appeared in The Santa Monica Review and is forthcoming in the Squaw Valley Review, Orange Coast Review, and Unbroken. She mentors at WriteGirl, cooks when she’s not writing, and lives hilltop in Laguna Beach, California. She has a daughter and a son.