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

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Furry Felonies

Furry Felonies
by Atticus Benight

          During my first year in AA baseball, the team’s marketing director, Rob, beckoned me into his office just after the start of a game. His shelves were lined with limited edition memorabilia—bobble heads, signed balls, and souvenir bats—all products of his tenure with the organization. On the opposite wall, life-sized posters hung depicting some of the team’s most promising prospects from the past several years—Kenny Baugh and Max St. Pierre.
          I occupied a corner stool, the only seat capable of accommodating my tail. As he closed the door, he lowered himself into the vinyl office chair across his desk. He scooted close to the desk and leaned in. As he did so, I noticed an odd resemblance to a young Mickey Rooney—round face topped with red hair, and a lip full of tobacco.
          “I need a straight answer,” he began with a minty tone of mock sinistry. “What are you willing to do for this club? Any limitations, tell me know.”
          “Depends on what you had in mind,” I answered with a hint of hesitation.
          “Well,” Rob continued. “Would you be willing to ‘apprehend’ a few of our competitors—put them out of commission ahead of this next road trip? You know—get the bad juju going for their team?”
          “You’re suggesting?”
          “Kidnapping,” Rob said. “More precisely—kidnapping Steamer and Diesel Dawg.”
          Comprehension dawning at last, I nodded. After considerable thought, I did what any self-respecting employee might do when their boss asked them to commit a felony—I asked for an advance.
          “I’ll need rope, perhaps some duct tape, a couple of burlap bags—I mean, you gotta have head bags,” I said ticking off my grocery list of abduction supplies, as if I had done this before. “Oh, and gas. I’ll need gas.”
          “Gas?” Rob raised an eyebrow.
          “For the drive,” I said, “and maybe fire. Mostly for the drive though.”

A few days later, I found myself outside of the Blair County Ballpark in Altoona, PA, lugging an oversized blue and purple bag through the crowd gathering at the front gates and into the stadium. Along the way, plastered all over the ticket windows, front gates, and support columns were wanted posters from the Altoona Police Department. According to the brief narrative, a six-foot tall wolf had accosted two of the most “beloved” mascots in minor league baseball over the prior weekend, and that Steamer and Diesel Dawg had not been seen around the ballpark since. One local television studio claimed to have the “treacherous crime” on video, and a few television screens near the concessions were looping the grainy footage of two over-sized, awkward—perhaps drunken—Muppet-like creatures, bumbling around the empty parking lot. Then, from out of nowhere, a white van screams into view and a fuzzy, gray, four-fingered paw hoists them inside and speeds away. The prime suspect of it all—the diabolical, sinister, no-good mascot— C. Wolf.
Little did I know that at a news conference earlier that day a young boy named Conner was recruited to get to the bottom of this “crime.” He was declared a special deputy of the Altoona Police Department and presented his badge, but the Chief of Police was at a loss. No resources that they possessed would be a match for an anthropomorphic six-foot-tall, baseball-playing wolf. But then, as though called into action by hopeless circumstance, the blue and yellow Power Rangers arrived to provide backup. Conner donned the red ranger’s jumpsuit and mask, and was charged by the Chief of Police to lead a special investigation to pursue and capture the diabolical fugitive known only as C. Wolf.
I was later briefed on these facts by a mole that we had positioned within the front office of the Altoona Curve—named Zee. She was a slender, sexy woman, with long twisted blonde hair and smelled perpetually of peppermint—the top mint aroma in my opinion.
“In something like this,” Zee began with a Cheshire grin that exposed every one of her white teeth, “there are no rules. Your goal is to evade—until the 7th inning. Then, you’re needed here.”
She opened a map and indicated a small area behind the outfield wall.
“That’s where we’ll stash Steamer and Diesel Dawg. There’s a trap door there that you can come through—we usually send a dancer out onto the field when there’s a homerun. Anyway, you’ll go through there, and the Power Rangers will be on your heels.”
I accepted my instructions and thanked Zee. In return, she pulled me in tight for what I found to be an invigorating embrace.
“You’re really great for doing this,” Zee said.
“Ah, it’s nothing,” I told her.
“No, no,” Zee insisted, unwilling to relinquish her hug—not that I was complaining. “You’re a real hero.”
“Well, thanks,” I answered as she released her grip on me.
I gathered my gear and breezed past her, through a sea of cubicles, and into a meeting room where I slipped more easily into character. When I emerged from the room, Zee brushed up against me and offered two half pats, half gropes on either side of my tail, punctuated by a subtle squeeze.
“You know,” Zee said, “I don’t often get the chance to meet another wolf.”
“Oh,” she said. “I thought Rob told you. I’m a wolf too—deep—deep down.”
After several moments, Zee revealed that she was a furry. She was self-described wolf and considered that her primary criteria for selecting a potential mate. If you were not a wolf, she would not be interested. Half curious, half frightened, I stepped from the office, slid on the giant wolf head, and readied myself for what I imagined would be the most hostile crowd I would ever face.
          When I first emerged onto the concourse, the jeers that I had expected did not materialize. In fact, children were lining up waiting their turn for a high five or a hug. One little girl, three-years old with blonde curls and wearing a t-shirt with Steamer on it, even beckoned me to bend down, and she kissed the eye patch over C. Wolf’s left eye—the one that legend says was knocked out by a rogue foul ball hit by Jose Guillen back in 1995—before the decision was made to install a higher and wider net as a backstop behind home plate.
          “Boo boo all better?” she asked in a voice that could melt any heart. I nodded.
          Before the game, I ran about the stadium—occupying random seats, offering a handspring or two in the infield, and harassing anyone who crossed my path in an Altoona Curve baseball cap or jersey.  After all, with Steamer and Diesel Dawg incapacitated, this was my house, regardless of what any of the wanted posters might imply. Even my team was wearing their home whites, while the Curve sported dingy gray uniforms. Oddly enough, the sentiment that this was my house seemed to be echoed by the fans themselves. The more I taunted, jeered, and harassed them, the more they cheered.
          Finally, when the game was about to begin, I sought refuge in the bouncy houses along the first base line as Conner and the two Mighty Morphin Power Rangers took to the third base dugout. As someone who grew up with the first generation Power Rangers, something immediately seemed off. There was a long ponytail flowing from beneath the blue ranger’s helmet, and the spandex costume was stretched to the max, barely accommodating the form of what was clearly a rather hippy, full-breasted, plus-sized woman. The uniform of the yellow ranger was similarly taxed to its limits, but with a very different, husky beer-bellied form. The stitches, straps, and buttons of bib-overalls were clearly visible through the thin yellow fabric—even at this distance. Perhaps Billy and Trini (the original blue and yellow rangers) had each undergone hormone therapy, or maybe they had mixed up their power coins before teleporting to the Blair County Ballpark. In either case, I could not help but think that post Power Ranger fame must have been really unkind.
          After the crowd was informed of the kidnapping of Steamer and Diesel Dawg, Conner and the other rangers began their pursuit. I remembered Zee’s instructions—to evade until the 7th inning, so I did just that. I bounced with a few kids in the bouncy house with a giant likeness of Steamer on top of it. That is until I saw the blue and yellow rangers enter the kid zone. Immediately I hopped out, waggled my fingers at the tip of my long, wolfy snout, and sprinted toward the fence just as a final out was made and the outfielders began trotting into their dugout. I leapt the fence, and ran to my team’s dugout where the “power punks” could not follow. It was as if I was Goldar, and the dugout was Rita Repulsa’s moon base. Once there, the rangers would not—or perhaps could not—pursue.
          I hunkered down there for a bit, until I noticed one of the players exit the stadium through a door in the dugout. At Jerry Uht Park, my home stadium, there were no doors. The clubhouse was located in the Erie Civic Center, and getting there involved a long walk across the outfield. But here, a door in the back of the dugout led to a network of concrete hallways. It was getting hot, and I needed a break, so I followed this player through the door, removed my head, and ambled through the underbelly of the stadium.
          Eventually I stumbled upon the laundry and sat in there for a few moments chatting up one of the grounds crew while guzzling a Gatorade. Just then, a yellow body flashed in front of an open door and I saw my nemesis sneaking down the hallway, glancing side-to-side. Luckily, he hadn’t looked up and didn’t see me, headless, straight ahead. I tossed the giant head back onto my shoulders and ran in toward the open door and slipped behind it, pinning myself in the corner against the wall.
          Conner entered the laundry, two drenched, foul-smelling power rangers slinking along behind him. The member of grounds crew that I had been speaking with started to grin. Just as they cleared the doorway, I slipped out and backed into the hallway. I made an exaggerated tiptoeing motion, as if I were a cartoon rabbit evading the hunter by walking in his own footprints. At that point, the grounds crewman lost all composure and I rounded the corner to a booming laugh.
          The ballgame progressed quickly and before I knew it, I was called behind the outfield wall. By the time I arrived, members of the front office staff were already wrapping clothesline around Steamer and Diesel Dawg and positioning them next to a large box that contained the transformer that powered the score board. With a boost from Zee, I scurried up on top and struck a menacing pose.
          When Conner came into view, he made a bee line straight for my prisoners and began unwrapping the rope from around their chests. Just then the other Rangers noticed me.
          “Look out,” one of them shouted
          Conner assumed a karate-like pose just as cheers erupted inside the stadium from the final out. I looked down at Zee, who was poised at a small hatch in the outfield wall. That was my cue to take the battle onto the field so that the fans could witness the conclusion. I jumped down on the far side of the transformer and waited for Conner to catch up to me. He grabbed me by the arm and flung me through the hatch and I tumbled onto the outfield just as a convoy of police cars roared onto the warning track through a gate in right field—lights flashing, sirens wailing.
          From out of nowhere, Conner emerged with a giant dog catcher’s net and he flung it over my head, knocking me to the ground. As I fell, I felt my foot connect with something and when I looked down, to my horror, it was Conner. I had just kicked the Make-A-Wish kid. For a long moment my heart plummeted and I wondered if we had taken this thing too far, but when he finally rolled back to his feet, he struck another pose for the audience, two police officers lifted me up and tossed me into the back of an SUV. The door slammed behind me.
          I removed my head and stared out of the tinted glass as this convoy began moving once more. Conner was in one of the patrol units, waiving at the crowd, and Steamer and Diesel Dawg bobbled on the back of a golf cart, finally free after a weekend of “torment.” The convoy rolled out of the stadium and onto a narrow service road that connected with the parking lot. One of the police officers opened the rear hatch and I replaced my head for the last time that day.
          When I rolled out, Conner was waiting and I knelt beside him. He stared at me with serious look on his face.
          “I love you C. Wolf,” he said. “But you’re a bad doggy.”
          The police officer grabbed one of my arms and locked a pair of handcuffs around my wrist. With my free arm, I covered C. Wolf’s eye and cowered in the most pitiful position I could. Conner motioned toward Steamer and Diesel Dawg, still poised, smiling unblinkingly on their golf cart.
          “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said with a pirate-like growl.
          Conner looked up at the policeman and said “It’s ok, he’s sorry. You can let him go.”
          “Are you sure,” the officer said. “We can run him downtown.”
          “No, he learned his lesson.”
          And with that, the police officer removed my cuff and I knelt down to offer Conner a long hug of appreciation.
          This was Conner’s wish. He suffered from a seizure disorder—though I can’t recall specifically what it was—and the Make-A-Wish Foundation offered him the chance to live out his dream of fighting crime with the Power Rangers. As I left the ballpark that day, Conner, Steamer, Diesel Dawg, and a few of the police officers were riding up the white hill of the wooden roller coaster that over looked Blair County Ballpark. I watched them teeter over the crest and rattle their way along the rickety track. And that was the last I ever saw of him. Though I think of him often, I never learned what happened to him. I’d like to picture him as a teenager now, sitting atop the Appalachian foothills in central Pennsylvania, wondering occasionally who I was—the man who played a wolf one afternoon so he could have a childhood dream come true. Perhaps he’ll read this account of that day and think to himself—“Hey, I think that’s me,” and maybe, just maybe, he’ll kick his five-year old self for wasting his wish on me.

Atticus Benight is an emerging “undercover writer of words.” His creative works have appeared most recently in The MacGuffin and Sediments Literary-Arts Journal. A native of western Pennsylvania, Atticus currently lives and writes near St. Paul, MN. You may connect with him @AtticusBenight via Twitter or Facebook. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017


by Amy Kathleen Ryan

I was on the subway. It was Sunday evening, but the train was crowded. A family got on at Union Square. The woman was tall and heavy, with an open face and thick russet hair. She had round trusting eyes. She had her little boy sit in the empty seat next to me while she sat across the aisle. Her little girl, in a stroller, she arranged in front of her knees, while her portly husband stood over them all, in the center of the aisle where he could see everyone. I made eye contact with the woman and asked if she would like to switch seats with me so that she could sit next to her little boy. She smiled and shook her head no, that wasn't necessary, thank you.
I felt trusted.
I rode a few stops with the family, and I watched the little girl. She had her mother's round eyes and lovely pale tan skin. I stole glances at the little boy. He was so small, and I felt quite large sitting next to him. He was such a little person, complete unto himself.
Again, I made eye contact with the mother and smiled at her. In New York, you do not smile at the children themselves, you smile at the parents to give them the intended compliment. Your children are beautiful. She smiled back at me. Thank you.
I had the impulse to tell her something very personal. I wanted to tell her, "I lost my baby two months ago. It died inside of me, and I'll never know why." Of course I said nothing.
The train stopped at Graham Avenue, and I got off. I didn't look back at them.

It's a tired cliché, but it really does feel like a miracle. Suddenly your body kicks into a state unlike any you've known before. You're so tired, and your breasts get huge, and you're starving all the time. Your hair gets thicker and your skin oilier. Sometimes you want to be left alone, but sometimes you want your mate so much you can't wait to tear his clothes off. You're angry one moment, crying the next, and by supper you're laughing wildly at a Seinfeld episode you've seen five times already.
Through it all you're so happy. You surf the internet for baby names, and cribs, and you learn new words like 'layette' and 'areola.' You know you shouldn't, but you tell your father because he made you promise. And he's so happy when you tell him, it becomes like a drug. You tell your mother, and her voice hits a register you hadn't heard since you were a little girl. You need another fix so you tell your best friend, and then your other best friend. Suddenly you're walking up to other pregnant women and saying things like, "Do you ever feel cramps in your lower abdomen?" and you point to the side, just near your hip-bone, and they roll their eyes and they say, "Just wait. It gets worse." And you both pretend to be tired of the nastier symptoms, but the truth is every new ache makes you a little happier because every day you're getting closer to your baby.

For our first prenatal visit I was nervous. My doctor, a warm Italian woman with a ready smile squinted at the monitor as she moved the wand over my stomach. "This screen is so…" she muttered.
I didn't watch the screen. I watched her face. If there was something wrong, I knew her face would tell me, and then I wouldn't have to hear it out loud. I looked at my husband, whose brown eyes were trained on the screen. He was trying not to show how nervous he was, but I could feel his hand sweating as he held mine. I tried to smile at him, but then my doctor said, "Ah! There it is! Just what we want to see!"
She pointed at a tiny moving dot on the screen. Just a tiny little fluttering motion. The heart.
Rich and I stared.
I'd imagined this moment so many times. I thought we'd laugh, or cry, or both. But we didn't. We didn't move; we just stared. We were perfectly quiet. We were in awe.

I had a lot of rules.
Don't buy any clothes for the baby until after the second prenatal appointment.
If you feel tired, just lie down. It's not a race.
Only one small cup of coffee a day.
Don't care about the acne. Just ignore it. It doesn't matter.
Don't buy any maternity clothes until you absolutely need them.
Only buy unisex clothes so the second baby can have hand-me-downs.
Work out four times a week. Labor is like a marathon, after all.
Don't talk about baby names with anyone.
Don't worry about things you can't control.
Enjoy this.

I imagined this child at different ages, all different ways.
If I imagined a teenager, it was a girl. She had glossy brown hair and long legs. She was rebellious, but I didn't worry too much because she had a good head on her shoulders. She loved me, but she thought I was boring. If she only knew.
If I imagined a toddler, it was always a boy. He and I played in the backyard of the house we would buy. First, I'd roll the ball at him until he felt confident enough, and then we'd toss the ball back and forth. When he fell down, he'd get right back up. He was a solemn child, and thoughtful, but he was happy.
If I imagined a baby, she was a girl again. I imagined how she'd feel in my arms, soft and pliant, so warm. She'd lay her head on my breast as she slept, and I'd curl my hand under her leg to make sure I didn't drop her. Her steady breathing would be my favorite sound in the world.

I finally understood the women who would say, "I loved being pregnant." Before, I had always found this puzzling because the process seemed so miserable. Stretch marks and flatulence, morning sickness, mood swings, weight gain, exhaustion—what's to love?
Now I know. What they love is the state of mind. Something happens to your hormones, and suddenly life becomes simpler. After decades of insomnia, you sleep like a rock. You have beautiful dreams about swimming with whales. You don't worry, not even about the baby. You're suddenly the even keel, steady person you've always wanted to be. And you're happy. Life takes on a new sheen, and things make sense. It's a difficult world, and there's violence and terrible problems, but life is beautiful. It really is.

We went on a hike in Connecticut in a little state park that we enjoy. It's full of trees and growing things. The air smells green and florid. I was very tired, but I wanted to keep going. I wanted to get to the top. Rich and I would stop every twenty feet or so while I caught my breath.
We had decided we weren't going to talk about the baby. We didn't want to discuss names anymore, or our plans to leave the city. We just wanted to enjoy the day. But I couldn't help thinking that this was baby's first hike, and I wished we'd brought the camera.
After a grueling two hours, we finally made it to the top. We looked out over a large green valley as we sat on top of a mossy rock eating bananas and granola bars. In the sky were three hawks, all of them hovering over the trees, their beaks pointed down as they looked for movement. One of them flew quite close to us, and Rich yelled out. After a while they gave up and soared toward the pastures at the bottom of the valley. I imagined what it would be like to be one of them.
When the sun hung low, we decided to head home. Though I'd been exhausted on the climb up, I was positively bouncing down the hillside. I felt like a fawn jumping from rock to rock. I felt young again, and I remember thinking that I wasn't that old after all. Thirty-six, and we finally had proof that I was still fertile. I'd begun to doubt after a year of trying, but it was all going to be okay. I felt great, and we were only days away from the second prenatal visit.
We might even be able to learn the sex of the child.

It was almost clear at first. I thought I was imagining things. It looked slightly colored, that's all. There'd been plenty of fluid, it's quite normal. It was probably nothing.
The next day there was more. Brownish, though. They say you should only worry if it's pink. I read about it in my big pregnancy book. It's called "old blood". The uterus stretches, and old menstrual blood comes loose. It happens in about forty percent of pregnancies.
The next day there was quite a lot. I called my mother. "I'm spotting."
"That can be normal."
"I've been feeling these cramps."
"Oh, I felt cramps all through my pregnancy."
          "I'm scared."
"Then call your doctor. But I'm sure it's nothing, honey."
          My husband picked me up after work. We drove through Central Park on our way back to Brooklyn. I tried not to panic. He tried, too.
At home, I called the emergency number, and ten minutes later the on-call doctor returned my call. My husband listened as I listed my symptoms. "I'm spotting. The blood is brown. My breasts feel less tender." And then I told her the symptom that had frightened me even more than the blood: "My vulva is no longer swollen."
"Oh, well. Your vulva shouldn't be swollen until the third trimester."
I didn't know what to say to this.
"It doesn't sound serious," she told me. She sounded so certain. "It's probably old blood."
Old blood. It sounded made up, like something you tell a child who has asked why the sky is blue. Because blue is a prettier color than red, you might say. You say that because you know they wouldn’t understand the real answer.
"Don't worry,” the doctor told me. “You have your second prenatal appointment on Monday. We'll take a look then."
I hung up. I looked at my husband. He rubbed my leg, kissed my cheek. “Try not to worry, honey.”
I decided I was being paranoid.
I should try to calm down.

The internet.
Chat rooms.
Dozens of miscarriage stories.
Dozens of stories from women with identical symptoms who were now proud parents.
It's old blood.
It can be normal.
The worst thing you can do is worry.
I kept remembering that hike.
The way I'd bounced down the hill.

"Are you nervous?" I asked him.
He was driving, and he didn't answer right away. The sunlight seemed particularly bright. I don't know if I just remember it that way, or if it really was unusually bright that day. It hurt my eyes.
"We're late," he said. "I'm never going to find a parking space."
I laughed at him. Trying to act normal.
I went up while he parked the car. I filled out some papers. A woman came in. She was pretty and hugely pregnant. She had a little boy with her. She asked the nurse if she spoke French, and the nurse said no. I said I spoke a little, and I tried to help her fill out the form. She got to the box that asked for the father's name. I didn't know the word for husband. I said, "L'homme?"
She shook her head at me, her lips pursed. She did not look at me.
The nurse thanked me for my help.
I hadn't been any help at all. I'd only embarrassed her.
The next moment, my tall handsome husband breezed in and sat next to me. He kissed me. Then Rich started flipping through a magazine, and I watched the woman's little boy. He had black eyes, and very short black hair. He was beautiful, and perfect. I imagined my son would be similar to him, cheerful and quiet, a little shy.
I smiled at his mother.
She glared at me.

First a technician looked. My eyes were fastened to the screen. Rich held my hand. We watched while she moved the sensor over my abdomen, again and again.
On the screen there was an empty black cone. "Is that my uterus?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
"That's not normal, is it?"
"I'm really not a doctor."
She left.
I remembered the hawks we'd seen in Connecticut. I remembered bouncing down the hillside. Two days after seeing them the blood had started.
After five minutes a doctor came back with the technician. Not my doctor. Someone I didn't know. She looked for it too. She looked and looked. She turned off the machine. She put her hand on my arm. "I have bad news," she said.
"I know,” I said. I curled up. She left Rich and I
alone.                                                         “Chairs at Rest” by John Chavers
Old blood.
Now I know what bullshit that is.

Two days later, I was teaching my writing class about a beautiful novel called Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata in which a teenager dies, and I pointed out a brilliant scene that depicts how the family members react to her death. They look for her hairs on the bathroom floor. They search through the garbage for the newspaper that would help them remember what happened on the day their beloved died. Suddenly my students were talking about how they coped with their deepest, most painful losses. One woman went to work the day after her son killed himself. Another woman couldn't understand how her mother still cooked meals after her sister was killed in a car crash.
I thought about how I'd reacted to my loss.
I realized I didn't remember anything after the appointment.
The whole day had vanished.
Like my baby.

If nothing happened in a week, I needed a procedure. Dilation and curettage. It's just like an abortion, but the baby is already dead.
But what if the baby wasn't dead? What if there'd been something wrong with the ultrasound machine? I must call and ask that question before the day of the surgery.
But I didn't call.
I couldn't make myself.
A couple days before the surgery, the doctor’s office left a message on my answering machine telling me where to go and what to do. Go to the fourth floor, room M as in Mother. She actually said that. Don't eat or drink after midnight. Bring your insurance card. Someone will have to accompany you home.
I had questions, and I left some of them on the nurse's answering machine:
Will you knock me out?
Will it hurt too much for me to teach my classes?
Will you do an ultrasound to check for the baby's heartbeat, one last time, just to make sure?
I had other questions I did not ask:
Is it wrong that I don't think of my baby as a person?
Am I terrible that I have begun to hate it?
This death inside of me that I’m still carrying around. I can feel it.
I have found a way to stop loving it, but my body can't let go.
Is that normal?

I had a terrible headache. The nurse took my blood pressure, and I told her I was dehydrated. I hadn't eaten or drunk anything since before midnight. I was worried being dehydrated would affect me. I was worried I wouldn't wake up from the anesthesia. I was worried I’d never be able to bear a child.
“Will they give me a saline drip during the procedure,” I asked the nurse as I rubbed my temple.
For the first time she looked at my face. She stopped. She said, "You really are in pain, aren't you?"
She meant my headache.

Dressed in a thin cotton nightgown and some borrowed socks, with a shower cap covering my hair, I was made to sit in a hallway with half a dozen other strangers dressed exactly the same way. It was absurd. Suddenly I had lost my identity, and had joined a temporary society: the sick ones.
There was no chit chat.
I wished I could have some water. My head hurt terribly.
I kept thinking of my husband. He was just on the other side of the door. Just ten feet away from me.
The nurse got me and led me into a large room full of hospital beds and sick people, all in the same gowns, all in plain view. Even after the absurd hallway, I was shocked at the lack of privacy. The nurse began to lead me to a desk in the center of the room, but suddenly my doctor was there, and she said, "Let's bring her in here." I was unbearably glad to see her, a familiar face in this alien, terrifying place. She led me to a small room, and she sat in front of me and said, "Do you have any questions?"
There were two women standing off to the side. They were wearing scrubs. Trainees, I could tell. I didn't care about them. "Are you going to knock me out?"
"How do you know—" I began, choked. "How do you know you aren't killing a living baby?"
One of the trainees gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. I did not look at her, but I felt cared for. To this person, I was not routine.
My doctor's voice softened. "Your baby stopped growing at eight weeks. There was no heartbeat. Believe me, we're sure."
Eight weeks.
My baby had been dead for over a month.
My baby was already dead the day we went hiking, the day I'd seen the hawks. The day I'd bounced down the hillside so happily. Baby's first hike.
I hadn't killed my baby after all.
They left me alone for ten minutes while I cried.

My doctor walked with me down a long hallway. "Why is it so cold?" I asked her. "Is that to help the blood clot?"
"It's to quell the spread of infection."
I felt grateful that she was wearing scrubs and a shower cap over her hair.
Her clothes were as humble as mine.
The room was full of people. Six of them. I lay down on the table, and they descended on me. Professional, I remember thinking.
The anesthesiologist tapped my arm. Shot me full of something. I looked at him. He could not have treated me more like a piece of steak.
"Is that the anesthesia?" I asked him.
"Yes." He seemed surprised I was taking an interest in what was happening to me.
The operating table I lay on was shaped like a cross. As they spread my arms and strapped them down, I thought how very much like Christ's position was my own. I wanted to laugh.
My doctor told me, "Go to sleep."
It seemed like a good idea.
And now someone is pulling on something in my mouth. "Open your mouth. Open your mouth. Open your mouth," she yells.
Something is pulled from between my teeth.
Two hours have passed, to the rest of the world. To me, it was about five minutes.
“What was in my mouth?” I ask the shape standing over me.
          “It was keeping your airway open,” she tells me.
I'm in one of the beds in that large room I'd found so shocking before. I'm one of the people lined against the wall. No privacy.
I don't care about that anymore.
As I waken, my middle slowly fills with a deep, horrible ache. Oh. It hurts. I writhe. I cannot stop my legs from squirming, as if the movement could help me avoid the pain. Do I tell the nurse it hurts? For some reason, I want to be brave.
The nurse comes over and says, "Do you want Ibuprofen or a Vicodin?"
"What is that? Is it an opiate?" I ask to prove that she can use medical words when she talks to me. I don't want her baby talk.
"I don’t know if it’s an opiate," she tells me.
"I doubt I need it," I say, though it hurts. It really hurts.
The nurse looks at my writhing legs and says, "I'll get you the Vicodin."
I have to wait. As the anesthesia wears off, the pain grows deeper and harder, but then finally, oh thank god, the Vicodin kicks in. And it's amazing. The pain is gone.
"My husband," I say to the nurse.
"What is his name?" she asks.
I sleep until he comes, and he holds my hand and says, "See? It wasn't that bad, right?"
He needs to believe I’m okay, but I want to say, "Oh, fuck you." Instead I say, "It wasn't so bad." I want to be brave.
He holds my hand. He knows when to stop talking. He knows I just need him to be there.
The nurse makes him leave after only five minutes.
After a couple hours recovery time, they let me go home. We take a cab. We watch the city go by. The view from the Williamsburg Bridge is so beautiful.
At home I camp out in the recliner and watch The Third Man.
The worst is over, I tell myself.
It’s finally out of me.

Slowly the vanished day has come back to me. The day we found out.
Calling my dad. That was the hardest. He'd wailed in agony, yelled to my brother in the next room, "Mike, the baby didn't make it."
My mother said things about God and heaven.
I think I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
But mostly Rich and I just lay in bed. Rich held my head to his chest and he kept saying, "Don't worry. We'll try again. Don't worry. It will be okay."
I was numb.
I wasn't in my body.
That's why I hardly remember it.

Months later, I asked Rich: “Do you ever think about it?”
“The miscarriage? Not as much anymore,” he says. But he says it sadly.
We are folding laundry and putting it away. We are quiet for a while, but soon I realize that wasn’t really the question.
“Do you ever think about the baby?”
“Well, I had that dream, remember? About our son?”
“I remember.”
He’d dreamed that he and I were walking down the sidewalk, holding the hands of a toddler who was stumbling along between us.
He shrugged. “I used to be sad thinking about it, but then I realized that dream wasn’t about the baby we lost. It was about the baby we’re going to have.”

The leaves all fell off the trees. Then winter, and then spring. It was a warm spring this year, and the trees were full again so soon.
My due date came and went.
This morning I was walking to work, and I smelled autumn—that wet leaf smell right after a rain. And I thought how beautiful it is. It really is.
I can think about the baby again. The baby I’d held in my dreams. The pliant, beautiful little creature that slept against me, she trusted me so. I remember how soft she felt in my arms. I remember how she smelled of shampoo and lotion and baby powder.
I remember sitting next to her crib, on the floor, watching her sleep.
I remember my favorite sound in the world: the sound of her breathing.
I remember all the things I’d planned to tell her, about the world. About life.      I'm sorry, I tell her now. I couldn’t hold you. I had to let you go.
Something in the way I can notice the birds singing helps me know: I am forgiven.

Amy Kathleen Ryan is the author of six young adult novels, most notably The Sky Chasers series from St. Martin's Press. She lives in Jackson, WY with her husband and three beautiful daughters. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Walk like a Bear

by Skye Davis

            When I call Joel, he tells me my name brings back memories of a comic-book character he admired as a child, Captain Midnight. He also tells me that he had hoped to have his chores completed before sunrise, but that they rarely are anymore. He needs to chop more wood, but it’s harder now; in the last ten years, he’s lost forty pounds of muscle. “So, that’s the state of my life—looks like we are on the way down,” he says in a soft, amused tone. Then he launches into long-winded directions to his home. The identifying features I am to watch for when I get close—brush and boulders. Joel’s driveway is overgrown and easy to miss from the main road.                
            The air is warm for October on Cape Cod. When I pull up, Joel jogs toward me, until I get closer; then he stiffens, coming to a stop, as a child might. I reach out my hand and he shakes it, his eyes round. 
            Joel is wearing a navy-blue sweater with a small hole at his right shoulder and pale blue jeans. In his eighties, he has a full and stiff grey beard that stops halfway down his neck. It seems alive, with unidentifiable crumbs sprinkled throughout. His nails are long, thick, yellow in places, and packed with dirt. His glasses, however, are spotless—clean enough for me to see my reflection on the surface of his eye. He’s small in stature, and barefoot. Swelling gums obscure his few remaining teeth, but what’s left of his smile is enough.
            After many years in the army, and more years as a sea captain, Joel eventually washed up on his family property in Brewster, Massachusetts, where he had lived as a child. Around the same time, he decided to stop working for a living. “I’ve never been in line with this society,” he explains. He would only take a job if it met the following requirements: if it was so interesting that his curiosity made him take it; if it was just too damned much fun to resist, even if the money was bad; or if the pay was so much money that he couldn’t say no—“But it had to be that much,” he emphasizes. At one point, he had a paper route, just for the fun of it; he also coded computers for a while, unpaid, simply because he enjoyed it—but neither job stuck. 
            Instead of working, he sleeps in four-hour shifts, just as he did at sea; up before the sun to do his morning chores, he will go back to bed at ten AM. Resembling an elderly version of Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away, Joel is happily marooned. He sees every part of the day.  
          We are standing in Joel’s driveway, or what used to be his driveway. Now the impeding bushes make it too narrow for a car to drive through, but it’s a perfect path for a bike—Joel’s only means of transportation. At the end of the grass passageway is his yard. Objects peek out behind overgrown strands of grass like predators: rusty wheelbarrows, boats, lanterns, brown plant buckets, pails of dirty water, broken bicycles and bicycle wheels, a torn plastic sled, a damaged beach chair, multiple metal trash cans, heaps and scraps and stacks of wood, an axe, a ladder, tools, carts and various kinds of netting. Blue tarps are strategically strung above old bikes and naked bushes. Solar panels are scattered around the yard like bodies.
            In the middle of everything stands a cabin. It’s tiny; what his neighbors might consider a tool shed. A skinny, dark pipe rises out of the roof, releasing pillowed smoke into the white and blue sky. “This is home,” he says, affectionately. 
            The land, tucked in a corner of the town, has been in Joel’s family for almost three hundred years. The first house, built in 1735, Joel can describe down to the rafters. He turns his back to the shed, facing a field of tangled bushes, and sketches his childhood home in the empty air with his finger. 
            The roof boards were laid vertically over the beams. In the middle of the 1800s, two little rooms were added. The kitchen had a walk-in pantry, and eventually a screened porch was added to the northwest corner—the porch where he would sleep during the summer months when he was a child. At the time, there were no trees in Brewster except for the pine forest that grew behind their home, which was a rookery for the black crowned night heron. A beautiful bird with blue wings, this heron makes a barking squawk when disturbed; when he was a child, the nights were filled with harsh screams and blood-curdling hollers.  
            When Joel returned home, he kept everything as it had been when he was young. He didn’t have electricity or running water. He had a well and a pump outside, “and it was just fine.” He heated his home with a wood stove, used kerosene lamps, sometimes gathered road-kill for food, cooking it over a harsh fire, and at one point had an outhouse built on the property in order to maintain the local housing code—something he has since given up worrying about. Then, in 2008, the house burned down.
            Joel’s family had left prior to his arrival, his parents opting for a warmer climate, his older sister—“a different one.” She lives in Indiana and now considers herself a Midwesterner, a sentiment Joel doesn’t seem to understand. “I’ve never considered myself this or that, but this is home,” he concludes, his eyes raised to where the house used to stand, his toes snuggling the same dirt they had as a child.

          Joel stares at the ground, once scorched, before us. The earth is beginning to find new life; grey, knotted plants lift out of the dirt like weak flames.
          He first left the Cape to attend a small liberal arts school in Worcester, Ohio—Scottish, Presbyterian. By the end of his junior year, he didn’t have enough credits for a timely graduation. He was a biology major, “which in those days was a very soft science,” he says. “There was no math, there was no nothing, there were a bunch of taxonomists running around pinning species and genetic names on unknown plants.” In order to graduate, he had to complete an independent study. He had read about a site in Arizona, the Aravaipa Canyon, and decided to head out there.  
            Arizona was incredibly dry. As he drove across the state, he noticed two ruts traveling across the desert toward a horizon of mountains. “I couldn’t go by it without going up there,” Joel says. He points to the top of the trees at the edge of his yard, and they morph into a series of peaks and valleys. The piles of fall leaves and abandoned projects melt into sand-colored dirt; green, sharp, desert foliage appears around us. Then, without warning, Joel finds himself in the middle of a flash flood. “All the sudden … a wave this high is barreling down the canyon!” I can see the water rise to his knees. But the flood then ends as quickly as it began. I’m not sure how he escapes. Joel’s stories seem to last only as long as his memories do, but his details are so vivid that it’s as if everything he describes he can touch.           
          While working on his independent project in Aravaipa, Joel stayed with Cowboy Fred. He spent his days in the canyon, recording the species that lived there, and returned to the farm by dusk, where he discussed shared memories of Cape Cod with Fred’s newlywed, a feisty lady with red hair who “wore two guns whenever she went to town.” There was a grapefruit tree by the walk-in freezer, covering the ground with large balls of produce. I see one in Joel’s hand as he grips the air; it’s the size of a volleyball. I watch his nails dig into the thick skin, ripping at the damp bottom of its rind. He can peel each segment away like tape, “The sweetest thing.” Two girls, Fred’s nieces, sit somewhere behind him, a bench by a barn. They ignore the scattered fruit, instead sipping on iced tea all summer.  
             At any rate,” Joel says, placing his hands in his pockets. With this phrase and a toothless smile, Joel humbly dismisses the world he’s drawn around us. Desert sand sinks back into soil and the world begins to re-materialize—tarps sprawl blue in the sun, bent bikes reappear, smoke balls above the trees. “You’re getting cold, I can tell,” he says, shrugging a shoulder toward his home. We head inside.

            As we walk toward the entrance of his cabin, Joel’s feet curve, delicately wrapping themselves around the strings of thorns pressed into the soil. His feet seem unbothered, reacting to the sharp spikes the same way they do to cold stone. “Don’t be shocked,” Joel warns, as we enter. 
            The cabin is larger on the inside than it appears from the outside, but crowded. It smells like fire. I stand in the entrance; there’s no room to move any further. The stench of the burning wood is overwhelming; with every breathe I inhale a thin layer of smoke. Timber beams stretch above us; gear hangs out of a ceiling loft. Dirty mirrors and brown paper in chipped gold frames line the walls, with a few small windows in between. Books and cassette tapes, to entertain him when he isn’t doing his chores, are stacked high everywhere possible. A broken clock with birds instead of numbers hangs on a tilt across from me. Drying clothes droop along a line stretched from wall to wall. Materials are spread on the flat, low surface to my right—somewhere underneath them, I imagine, is a bed. 
            “It’s just a bloody mess,” Joel says, climbing to the center of the room, his bare feet dodging items. There’s something odd about the fact that he addresses the chaos, that he cares at all. He settles in the only empty space, which is about the size of a big square kitchen tile, in the center of the cabin directly in front of the wood stove. Something is there for him to sit on. In the left corner, behind the stove, a stack of wood climbs toward the ceiling like a ladder. As Joel stands, crooked, he grabs the first of a series of lines that hang above him. They are tied to the ceiling beam and fall toward his reach, secured by a bowline, a sailor’s knot. The rope holds him in place as he leans over an unidentifiable pile next to the wood stack. “You can tell I’m an old seaman, I just grab a piece of riggin’.” 
            He secures himself, looping his hand in the line, and extends his other hand toward the kindling, grabbing a wedge somewhere in the middle and tugging at its edge until it comes loose. He makes his way back to the stove. He does this twice more; his movements slow, precise, balanced—as if he is somewhere in the Atlantic and the waves are steep on his bow. He stacks the three pieces of wood beside his seat.
            He sits, turning a black handle on the face of the stove. The glass window blazes red and yellow; the hinge squeaks as he opens it. He stuffs a block of wood inside. 
            After his childhood home burned down, Joel declined all offers from neighbors to rebuild. The house, in its original form, was what made it home. Any new building would be just that. Instead, he built a teepee out of local bamboo and recycled plastic in the middle of his charred land. He had a wood stove with a pipe that went right through the top of the teepee. He remembers those days with a smile; if it was cold he knew how to dress. “It was incredibly good,” he tells me, lining the stove with another log. 
            He lived there for almost four years, until one afternoon during the winter of 2011. He had just left the tent to collect more wood for the cold night ahead, “and suddenly WOOSH.” An explosion. The teepee erupted in flames. “The damned thing burned down,” he says, grunting. The stove’s hinge squeaks as he reaches for the last of his three pieces of wood. Outside the teepee, there had been a Coleman gas stove that he had used for cooking. It sat over a large pit and, due to a faulty switch unknown to Joel, propane fuel had been leaking and seeping into the soil below his home for days. 
            An article written by Doug Fraser in the Cape Cod Times explains the event was reported as a teepee fire. On the basis of that description, the firefighters could guess where they were going. Joel was known throughout town. Despite his many housing violations—improper venting or use of space heater or water heater; lack of electricity or gas; inadequate electrical outlets or lighting in common areas; failure to restore electricity, gas, or water, lack of a safe water supply, working toilet, or sewage disposal system; inadequate locks for entry doors; accumulation of garbage or filth that may provide food or shelter for rodents, insects, or other pests, or that may contribute to accidents or disease; and no smoke detector or carbon monoxide alarm—the town officials looked the other way.    
          According to his neighbor and friend, Kate, town officials have chosen to ignore Joel's disregard for codes and regulations, allowing him to live in the manner that he has preferred. In fact, when his teepee burned down, some of the town officials helped build the new cabin for him. He’s often referred to as “the man who lives in the woods,” or “the man with the beard,” or “the man on his bike.” Yet with the description also comes respect: respect for Joel and for the old Cape Cod. This peninsula was his before it was ever theirs.

Kate first met Joel twenty-three years ago, when she and her husband moved into a house down the road from his. Originally from Maryland, Kate was hesitant to move to Cape Cod, but her affection for her new home grew. When they moved to the house on Lower Road, Kate was pregnant with her third child. “One afternoon, I looked out my back door and observed a man with long hair and a beard walking around my backyard. I wasn't sure what to make of him, so I sent my husband out to see what he wanted. Rob went out back and began chatting with Joel, who explained that he was checking the water levels in the creek behind the house. After a while, Rob came back into the house and announced that, while he was certainly a character, he did not appear to be someone that was a threat.”
A few years later, Kate and Rob ended up buying the property that abuts Joel’s property, and it was then that she received a glimpse into how he lived. She admits that “There were a lot of people who cautioned us to be careful of the hermit that lived next door,” but Kate found that she admired Joel’s independence: “I thought it was kind of cool that he was living off the grid.” The relationship grew after Kate found a book about a young boy and his pet raccoon in her mailbox. “Attached to the cover of the book was a note from Joel saying ‘with your permission, I would like to share this book with Maggie,’ our oldest daughter. I was very impressed that he would ask me before just giving the book to her.” After that, Kate would often stop at the end of the driveway and chat with Joel when she saw him.
One time, when Kate and her son were checking their mailbox, Joel was just returning from running some errands on his bike and there was a dead squirrel hanging off the edge of his basket. “As Joel and I chatted cordially, my ten-year-old son just kept staring at the dead squirrel hanging off the back of Joel's bike. Joel noticed this, gave me a wink, and then turned to Alex and said ‘That's my dinner. Go get your own!’ Needless to say, my son Alex was horrified at the idea of going anywhere near the dead squirrel.” 
According to Kate, there are a lot of people around town who are a part of Joel's life. He had a friend, Randy, who worked in Boston a few days a week. Joel would take care of Randy’s dog on those days, providing Joel with a chance to eat properly. His other neighbors, Gail and John, are close to Joel. Gail frequently brings him food, and he spends every Christmas Eve with them. “Despite the fact that he drives me crazy sometimes, Joel has come to mean a great deal to myself and my family,” Kate tells me. “He is a very warm and caring person. He likes to act aloof, like he doesn't care, but that is not really his nature. He always asks about the kids. When he sees me, he's very concerned if I look tired or overextended.”
After the second fire, Joel was turning eighty and once again without shelter. Kate had seen the smoke coming from Joel's property while driving home and had offered to let him come to live with them for a few months. Instead, another one of Joel’s friends, a professional house builder, made a deal with a local lumberyard: any lumber they couldn’t sell, he would take for free. He gathered half a dozen people and it took them six days to build Joel’s current cabin.

Joel hurries me out of the cabin now, explaining that his friends always gets nauseated after staying too long. I offer to drive him to the next town over; there’s a particular local sailboat—a custom Catboat—that he’s always admired from a distance, and I happen to know the boat builder. He grabs a pair of sneakers near the doorway. “As you can see, I don’t wear shoes very much, but just for the owner’s peace of mind,” he says.
Outside, his face crinkles at the sunlight. We climb down the two steps at the entranceway of his home, one at a time and together. After making our way to the bottom, he pauses to say something he’s been holding back: “It seems that I have cancer.” His eyes squint in the sun as he massages his gut, looking to name the illness. “What’s your… begins with an R … one of those.” He hooks a finger in the heel of each shoe, carrying them down his driveway.
We don’t make it very far down the grass path before Joel stops again by a pile of solar panels resting at various angles on a metal cart. Some are large, the size of a window, while others are hardly bigger than a deck of cards. He adjusts them carefully, facing them towards the sun. We will be gone when it is at its strongest. “It’s a wonder I’m not blind,” he says, staring into a large black square. He uses them to light his home and heat his water.
After Joel completed his independent study in the Aravaipa Canyon, his college let him go on to his senior year—“I guess mostly just to get me out of there." Joel lets out a belly laugh, without the belly. Shortly after graduation, he was drafted. 
He was sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to learn how to be a weatherman. Between training sessions, the army gave each of them ten days off. They handed everybody a train ticket, “Even the married guys.” Joel exchanged his ticket for cash and decided to hitchhike to Worcester, Ohio, to visit a friend from school.
The same day, a blizzard came in from Kentucky. He hitched a ride in a truck heading north, but the storm followed them, becoming progressively worse. Joel decided to stay with the driver to Detroit. When they arrived, Joel went to the YMCA and purchased a room for one dollar and twenty-five cents. Marooned, he decided to buy a car. The next day, in the midst of the squall, Joel found a used car lot, where he bought a 1941 Chrysler Windsor sedan. It was a wreck, but the salesman charged Joel $100; “He knew he had me by the short hairs.” He made his rounds at the truck stops, looking for a large tractor-trailer he could draft behind and eventually found a driver heading south to Toledo, Ohio. 
The wind was coming from the west. Joel gestures at the gusts against the frail window of his sedan. “Within minutes there was a drift this high right across the road,” he says, flattening a palm as high as his hip. 
Joel followed the truck’s running lights. They stopped for coffee and a piece of pie. When they got back on the road, the wind direction had shifted, and it was dark. The heavy tractor-trailer held steady, but Joel kept spinning out, losing more control with each mile gained. “I couldn’t keep up with him any longer.” Joel points ahead, and we watch the truck disappear over a hill, into the dark. 
Shortly afterwards, the sedan stalled. It was about midnight, and the sides of the road were walls of snow.  “Jesus if somebody comes wheelin’ over that hill and there I am and he’s on ice and can’t stop…” he drifts off, reliving his panic. 
Joel began walking. Eventually he found a house with “one little light on.”  A man came to the door, “A son of a gun, not even in a night shirt,” Joel recalls, smiling. He owned a gas station nearby. The man wrapped his shoulders in a heavy leather coat and followed Joel to his car. They pushed the sedan a mile to the gas station, where he thawed water out of the fuel system. As Joel describes the man under his car, everything becomes small, the “little fuel line” and the “little heat lamp”—as if he’s playing with a set of vinyl dolls from his past.
He made it to Worcester by six AM. After a nice day spent with an old friend, he took off and headed back to New Jersey. 

            As we continue toward the car, Joel notices me look down at his toes. His nails are uncomfortably long and the dirt within them seems decades old. “My feet are the very best part of me,” he explains, stopping again, “Even the physicians at the hospital don’t know what I’m talking about. I say, ‘Look, you people with shoes don’t even know how to walk; you walk with your heels first.’” He demonstrates. “Watch a bear when he runs, he runs first off pigeon-toed—at least his front paws; they’re like this,” Joel spreads his toes. He explains the mechanics of the foot, how the first part that touches the ground should be the outside edge. “If there’s something like a stone or a thorn down there, its amazing how your foot, without you thinking about it, will automatically shift its weight so it doesn’t poke a nail up through the bottom.” He holds his shoes up in disgust. “You just use up a lot of energy flailing these things back and forth—when you’re barefoot, you’re light on your feet.” As we begin walking again, my boots feel heavy.            
            When I reach for my seatbelt, Joel takes the hint, reaching for his own. He struggles to match the latch with the plate. I help him. He explains that he has lost all feelings in the tips of his fingers, that he has no tactical or olfactory senses left—if he picks something up, he has to look down to see whether or not he’s holding it. “I can’t do anything delicate,” he explains.  
            I ask him about last winter. With record snowfall and freezing temperatures, I’m curious as to how he fared. It was described in the Cape Cod Times in March of 2015 as the worst Cape Cod winter ever. Joel, a man whose only means of transportation is on two wheels and who doesn’t believe in wearing shoes, responds carelessly, “I didn’t think it was that bad.” His secret: he doesn’t shovel snow; he just walks on top of it. Eventually, it packs down like soil. Also, he doesn’t have a commute. As we drive, he points to a road sign that reads “Route 124.” He comments, “That used to be just 24. Why go and make it complicated?”

            After eight weeks in New Jersey, Joel was sent to Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Fort Huachuca lies right on the Mexican border. “Well, the weather in the summertime is just blue sky and sunshine, day after day—you didn’t need a weatherman at all.” Beautiful clouds would form over the mountain every afternoon, “little puffy cumulus clouds.” They would rise, traveling almost six miles into thin air. When night fell, he watched lightning drill into the tops of mountains, the bolts of yellow lining the horizon.
            Joel and his peers spent their weekends off in Tucson, partying at the home of Agnes De Mille, the choreographer of the movie Oklahoma; a thespian friend got them the invite. The musical was being filmed in Arizona for the clouds, Joel explains; Oklahoma had empty skies: “No mountains there to make orographic winds.” 
            De Mille lived in a beautiful brick adobe building in Tucson: “You could hardly tell if you were inside or outside.” There was an irregularly shaped swimming pool with underwater lights that lit up the Sahara Desert. They spent summer nights floating in cool water, looking up at stars through the unpolluted western air. The word “unpolluted” melts out of Joel’s mouth with longing. 

            We continue along the route that connects Brewster to Orleans. Thick yellow lines center dense pavement. Houses emerge along the edge of the road. 
            “See, there used to be land everywhere,” Joel says. Growing up, he had never known Cape Codders to be wealthy. They were farmers or fisherman, and they all lived on large pieces of land inherited from their ancestors. They would have a metal pail to milk their cow, a field full of asparagus or turnips or potatoes, and a wood lot near a locust tree where they chopped their way to a warmer winter. And they shared. “Your neighbor’s cows knew you as well as they knew anybody—and that’s the way the Cape worked.” As he speaks, the houses we pass seem to dent the forest like cavities.   
            “Then the tourists started and people started coming here,” Joel recalls.  “They really liked certain parts about the Cape, and there were certain things that bugged the hell outta them.” Things like having to drive down a dirt road through the woods to get to their house, or the trip to the local general store: “You could get a can of house paint, a tablecloth, or a loaf of bread—but you could only get what they had.” The newcomers demanded supermarkets, pavement on the roads, streetlights at intersections; taxes were raised and, before he knew it, “the land was lost.”
            Joel used to have fifteen acres; now he has two. He used to have goats and chickens, eggs, milk, and cheese. The goats would walk along the stone wall that edged his property and play king of the mountain, two of them trying to knock the third off. They had incredible balance and would roam the land, feeding on anything that grew green. He had an apple orchard, where his chickens would range freely, rooting in the apple trees. His dog at the time, “a St. Bernard divided by two,” would look after them, protecting them from the fox, hawk, and coyote.
            As his land diminished and neighbors moved in, his goats still knew no boundaries. The neighbors kept finding them on their lawn or in their driveway, but Joel thought little of it, “People built their houses on my animals’ home.” Eventually, he was taken to court for animal trespassing, where the judge told him he had to fence in his goats—“And I says, ‘You want me to fence in the deer as well? I suggest, your Honor, that if those people don’t like me or my goats, that they fence us out.’”
            He was fined two hundred dollars. The judge complained that he couldn’t fine him two thousand dollars, due to the law being 250 years old. On the other hand, the two hundred dollars that Joel ended up paying, he had earned in the 1960’s. In the 1970s, due to inflation, the money he had saved had suddenly become worthless, “I says, Judge—it’s just like you were fining me $2000.”
            Suddenly, his goats disappeared. He believes the town confiscated them. He lost his dog to heartworm, something he had never heard of, and his chickens were picked off slowly. Defeated by the memory of it, Joel sighs.

            When we arrive at the boat yard, Joel is like an artist in a museum. He runs the pad of his index finger along the edges of a boat, his long nails shadowing the woodwork. He climbs ladders and peeks inside cockpits, cautiously—like a kid hanging over the edge of a lobster pool. And as he dances his palms over the various hulls, he relives his days on the ocean. 
            After his time in the army, Joel attended the University of Washington, where he tried his hand at oceanography, eventually becoming part of the scientific staff on a research vessel. He remembers the cobble beaches, the day-lit nights, and the original whaling boats. He wags a finger at certain thoughts, as when he tells me it never snows in the Arctic because there’s not enough water in the air. “It’s a very dry place, it’s a desert,” he says, happy to see my eyes widen. 
            He tells me a story about Willie Goodwin, a man he met while anchored seven miles off Kotzebue, Alaska. Willie, a local fisherman, was returning a salmon that had been tagged by the research team. “We saw this little Inuit guy, and he’s holding a salmon in his arms like this,” Joel gestures. “So, a couple of guys help him up on deck.” As they go to place the salmon in the freezer, Willie tells Joel he has a walk-in. Joel explains that while other locals dug a hole in the permafrost to store their fish, Willie dug his into the side of a hill. 
            Instead of attending the meeting, where they were to be told the results of their most recent study, Joel and a friend took “little Willie Goodwin” and went into the galley, where they sat him down at the table, got the coffee pot out and stayed awake until two AM drinking coffee and listening to his stories. “Old folklore stories, ya know, like the old woman that lives at the bottom of the sea and the battle between the sun and moon.” 
            Years later, when he was back living on the Cape, he received a phone call. It was his friend’s voice on the other line: “Willie Goodwin lives!” His friend had found an article in the New York Times about Willie Goodwin, Jr.—after four years tracking rockets, he was returning home to Kotzebue. As he tells me this, Joel catches his breath: “That about blew me away.” 

            After exploring the boatyard, I realize I’m imposing on Joel’s fourth hour awake. But when I ask him if he’s tired, he responds, “Me? Get tired?!” He has a similar response when I ask him if he was ever married: “Oh come on, this society wouldn’t let me have kids. I knew it wouldn’t work, not the way I did things.”
            When he was young, he dreamt of going to sea. He liked the feel of the helm, what it meant to handle a boat. “It’s great to get good at,” he explains. Joel became a captain during his last few years on the west coast. He bought a “split-rigged” Bristol Bay Alaska gillnetter. “She was a lovely old vessel. She would roll her scuppers when there was hardly a sea runnin’; she would just wallow, make everybody seasick.” He fished in every salmon run in Alaska; he would “knock all over” Puget Sound, British Colombia, the San Juan Islands, and Vancouver. “All I did was sail,” he says proudly. He quickly points out, though, that a captain must balance his ego as he does his ship and his schedule—four on, four off.  If you aren’t humble and careful, you can become overconfident, and too self-satisfied.
            He returned to the Cape in the 1960s after a friend of his, Jerry Milgram, called. “He says, ‘How ‘bout comin’ East?’” He was starting a sail loft and wanted Joel to be a part of it. Joel bought a VW Bus for two hundred dollars and drove east. The van was in rough shape, “A light breeze from dead ahead would slow you down to second gear,” he says, laughing. Joel didn’t last long at the loft, but Jerry became famous the day America had a clean sweep in the Summer Olympics: “His boats always pulled ahead.”

            Throughout the day, I ask Joel why he has chosen to live life the way he has—why he never took the well-paid job in Provincetown and bought a car, why he never rebuilt his home and sprung for a shower. He never has a straight answer, but instead comes up with another memory, another story.  But he does tell me, after a trivial explanation of his sleeping patterns in college, “You know why I do things the way I do? Because I don’t have any reason at all not to.” 
            In 2011, while biking home from the Brewster library, he was hit by a car. He went over the hood, his shoulder breaking the windshield. “I feel that first impact and I’ll never forget it,” he says, circling the cap of his knee with his palm. 
            When he slid off of the hood onto the road, he landed on his other shoulder, “Of course I didn’t have a helmet on—never do.” When he regained consciousness another twenty feet down the road, pain was extreme: “It’s like your skin is a bag full of red hot coals, and you are full of thorns and barbed wire.” A black viscous liquid pooled in the corner of his eye. He wasn’t screaming; he couldn’t breathe. He compares it to the feeling he had as a child when he would swim to the bottom of the bay, forcing himself to stay underwater until he found a moonstone—a rock known for its charming play of light.
            When he got to the hospital he could feel them probing him all over, but even with an X-ray, they couldn’t find one broken bone. Then they sent him up to the sixth floor. “I had a nice room, toilet to myself—had a bathtub with a handheld shower and about five big fluffy towels,” he recalls. After he showered, four nurses pounced on him with gauze to cover up the abrasions. “I told them no, get away, forget it,” Joel continues. “I’ve known all about abrasions ever since I first skinned my knee as a kid—I know they heal themselves. They take a little bit of time because they’ve got lots of skin that they have to grow, but they do it all by themselves.”
            The next day was a Sunday. Breakfast came (“Not bad, actually,”) and then lunch, but no one came to talk to him about his injuries, and by mid-afternoon Joel was bored silly. Finally, he shuffled over to the nurse’s station to tell them he was leaving. A nurse explained that there was a physical therapist coming. “And I tried to keep a straight face,” Joel recalls. “I told her, ‘I got all the therapy at home that I need.’”
            Joel knew it was going to hurt the next day and that he was going to be stiff, but morning came and he managed. He walked outside, picked up his brush hook, and started swinging, swearing a blue streak all the while “because I always get mad at myself when I do something stupid, and somehow I did something stupid when that car hit me.” Every day, for four days, Joel hacked away at the woods. By Friday, he was back on his bike: “The pain was gone.” With these words, he stares at me, a tear forming on his lower lid, blued by his iris, fighting the urge to fall.

          We settle inside the car on the way back from the boatyard, driver and passenger. As we steer along Route 124, heading back to his property, Joel describes to me the different types of cancerous cells. In the midst of melanoma, he stops—turning his head to look out the rear window. “That wasn’t a VW bus, was it?” At eighty-one-years-old, after his cancer diagnosis, Joel would bike fifteen miles to a doctor’s appointment—two hours to get there and two hours to get home. The only thing he had to complain about—terrible directions.
            He is not yet sure if he will be doing chemotherapy, exclaiming, “Those buggers don’t tell me anything.” It occurs to him that he would lose his hair: “That’s a tempting thought! Not a single soul in Brewster will know who I am if I lose this mop around my face. If I can lose this bush in front of me here, I bet I can go all around town and just be a fly on the wall.” He pulls at the strings of his beard with his nails as we turn into his driveway.
            We sit in the car for a while. Joel stares out of the sunroof at the empty trees. He was in the west when they began building houses around his property. Neighbors would complain about the birds with blue wings and their blood-curdling screams in the middle of the night. Finally, someone stomped into the woods with a shotgun, destroying every nest he could find. The first night Joel returned, he slept on the screened porch. He could hear the crickets, he could hear the bay, even the faint motor of a passing engine—but there was something missing.
             He lifts his bare foot onto his knee. The flat of his foot stares at me.
             “Your feet must be tough as nails,” I say. He presses the cushion of his finger along the curve of his foot, treating it like a foreign species, something alive and unattached to his own body. “My feet are in good shape, still soft and beautiful,” he says proudly. “They grow thicker and tougher from the inside out.” He pulls his foot closer to me, urging me to touch it, wiggling his hip out of place. I finally do. The skin is cold and stiff but smooth.
            He continues, “I guess this is the reason why I live the way I live, you find out all of these things that nobody else knows anything about—because they are wearing shoes all the time.”
I stare again at the foot I have touched. The earth is spread like a map on his skin. Dirt lines the peaks and valleys; crests of white edge his toe mounds; brown and green grids mark his heel: a topographic representation of everywhere he’s been. 

Skye Davis recently graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and is currently working as a Culture Editor for an online media company based in Brooklyn, NY. She was awarded a work-study scholarship to the Breadloaf Writers' Conference, and her nonfiction has appeared in WoodenBoat and Life on the Coast magazines. This piece is part of a series of profiles featuring Cape Cod locals, shedding light on the economic and environmental changes occurring on the Massachusetts peninsula.