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Friday, September 29, 2017

River Passage

by Susan Pope

Hockey posters—two walls’ worth. A row of ball caps slung on hooks. The requisite electronics—TV, computer, smartphone. Dishes caked with dried food. And over every inch of floor space, camping gear, some with price tags still attached.
Perched on the bed in my fifteen-year-old grandson Cason’s bedroom, I watch him pack. Tomorrow we leave for a raft trip, on a river we’ve never seen with people we’ve never before met. He’s had five months to get ready. His mom—my daughter—has quit nagging. He could have recruited his grandpa, my husband, to help. But he knows that Papa—the name Cason calls him—would just say you’ve got the list, check it off, pack it up. That leaves me, the organizer, explainer, and most of all, the soft touch.
I miss talking with Cason. We used to have moments of conversation in the car, on the way to hockey practice, when his sister and parents weren’t around. Little things: How he hated math. Liked his new hockey team. Hoped to catch a king salmon this summer. Now he rides with his buddies who drive, so the two of us rarely speak except in passing.
Cason asked for the trip. Not this trip specifically, but any river trip. I’m not sure why. “Sounds like fun,” is all he said when I asked.
His family—my daughter’s—does not camp or fish or hike. “Roughing it” is a cabin with running water on a lake surrounded by all the mechanized toys an American family could desire. To Cason and his pickup-driving, four-wheeling, dirt-biking friends, my husband Jim and I are the quaint old bird watchers, nature lovers, greenies.
But something made him curious, made him want to find out for himself if our stories were true—the river journeys that changed our lives, the adventures, mishaps, near disasters. Maybe it was the passion in our voices or the faraway looks in our eyes as we sat around a family dinner while Cason half-listened to us reminisce about running rapids through the Grand Canyon or dodging ice on an Arctic river. Maybe he just wanted a way to impress his friends. Whatever his reasons, here was this boy turning sixteen asking to spend time with his grandparents—on a river, no less.
As his life is opening up, our lives are narrowing down. We have this brief moment in time when the dreams of the old and the young intersect, while Jim and I are still hardy enough in mind and body to give him this gift. Of course, we said yes.

Pen poised to mark off items as he packs them, I read from the gear list.
First aid kit. He unzips the small nylon bag with the Cabela’s tag still on it. Band-aides, gauze, alcohol swab, tweezers, eye drops, Neosporin ointment.
Socks. Two pair.
“Why do I need one?” He asks.
“To keep the sun off your neck, wipe the sweat off your face. We’re going into the desert in summer.”
 “I’ve got one, but you won’t like it,” he says.
“What’s not to like about a bandana?”
He ducks into his closet and retrieves a neatly folded blue and red piece of cloth. With a flip of his wrist he opens it out. It’s a Confederate flag.
“Not appropriate. Not anywhere.” I’m about to launch into a lecture and history lesson when I notice the half-smile on his face. He’s baiting me. Of course I won’t approve. He knows that. I remember doing this with my father, but not until I had left home and was in college. It’s called breaking away.
What I can’t stand is Cason’s sullen, sarcastic, and disrespectful side. Screaming and door slamming are easier for me to handle than silence or outright refusal to help with something so simple as carrying groceries up the steps.
Yet just a few weeks ago, at a Father’s Day barbeque, he was the perfect son and grandson, serving food, cleaning up, smiling. Which person will he be when we’re out in the wilds without his parents as the enforcers?
As for me, I’ve taken a silent vow to be the warm, relaxed grandmother who lets Cason experience the river in his own way, enjoying the terrain and our companions, taking responsibility for himself. No nagging, no hovering, no treating him like the four-year-old he sometimes seems to be.
But I draw a line at the Confederate flag. “Dump it,” I say. “If you don’t have another, I’ve got an extra.”
Cason shrugs, then drops the bandana back in his closet. We return to the last few items on the packing list. He starts pulling knives out of drawers, off his desk, from his closet. “I’m not sure which ones to take.”
“No knives on the list.”
“But I’ve got to take one.”
He lays them out on the bed. A small stainless-steel pocket knife, a bigger one with a bone handle, a sleek silver one that when he hits a button pops out a long, menacing blade. We used to call it that a switchblade, the kind used by gang members and criminals in the movies I watched as a kid.
“What are you doing with so many knives?”
“I collect them. I buy them with my own money.”
I’ve known this kid all his life—changed his diapers, cradled him when he was sick, comforted him when he was hurt—and these are the tools he shows me to prove he’s grown up. Inhaling slowly, I hit the pause on my internal alarm and point to the plain silver knife on the bed, the kind that unfolds into a pocket tool kit—knife, screw driver, pliers, everything you could need to repair anything. “Take that one.”
He slips the knife into a small nylon bag with his first aid kit and resumes packing from the list. Broad-brimmed hat, camping towel, long sleeve shirt. With each item he grills me. “Why do I need this?”
I should be more patient, relishing this rare opportunity for conversation, but there’s only so much you can explain about a raft trip through the desert Southwest to someone who’s never been there. Besides, I have to get home to my own packing.
“Trust me,” I say. “If it’s on the list, you need it.”
1:00 a.m., Vernal, Utah. In our motel room, a pale blue light radiates from the next bed. Cason’s face is aglow with flashing images from his cell phone screen.
          “Cason,” I whisper. “Shut that thing off.”
          A grunt. Covers rustling. The flashing glow shifts from one side of the bed to the other.
          “We have to get up early.”
Another grunt.
Beside me, my husband kicks the covers, mumbles, and turns over.
No electronics on the river. No cell phone coverage there, so that’s our deal. Cason said he was fine with that. Later, I’ll find out he’s loaded his phone with an entire season of Grey’s Anatomy and brought a solar charger.
I want Cason to find life more compelling than images on his screen. I want this trip to be successful, memorable, even life-changing for him. I want him to fall in love with rivers, canyons, the desert, a world beyond.
I believe one journey can change a person’s life. The Grand Canyon changed mine. I was fresh out of college, traveling with my then-husband, backpacking with cheap equipment and ill-fitting shoes. We descended from the rim in February to two nights of camping in single-digit temperatures, hiking the trail beside the river, then trekking ten miles back up, icy trail beneath our feet, stars scattered extravagantly across the ink-black sky. Every step was agony but also triumph. For two Alaskan kids on their first traverse of the United States, the world opened up, the map of the country becoming more than just abstract shapes on the pages of our social studies books. More than that, I discovered a person could strike out into unknown territory for no reason other than to find out what the rest of the world looks like.

Sluggish here at our put-in, the Yampa River, which straddles Utah and Colorado, will gather speed until it merges with the swifter, bigger Green. At the end of the trip, we’ll run a long string of rapids as the Green rushes to join the Colorado.
Helmets on, life jackets zipped and buckled, paddles raised, the two men I love most in the world are poised to shove off into the brown water on this first day of our journey. Grandpa and grandson. They’ve never kayaked together, and Cason has never floated a river. Yet without hesitation, he slips into the inflatable double kayak in front of Jim. A few moments of circling, drifting, bickering, swearing, and they float away. I’ll see them—hopefully—at our first camp. 
          This is what I wanted, grandpa and grandson working together, sharing an adventure. As I snap their picture, I’m proud but also a bit jealous. They’re off without me.
I find an empty space on one of the blue rubber rafts and hop in. Together, we are twenty-two guests and six guides in a flotilla of six rowing rafts, one paddle raft, one double kayak and three single kayaks, all traveling at different speeds but never out of sight of each other. With the exception of our guides and two sisters ages thirteen and ten, everyone in the group but Cason is over fifty.
In early evening, we dock our boats on a hard-packed river bank. Jim and Cason—wet but intact—have managed to propel themselves successfully down the river. Together with our group, we haul the rafts and kayaks up on shore and tether them, then form fire lines to unload gear—folding tables, chairs, stoves, pots, pans, dishes, coolers of food, and waterproof bags containing tents, sleeping bags, and personal gear. A pattern we will repeat at each new camp on our five days along the river.
When the boats have been emptied, Deja, our trip leader, yells, “Campers: Set up your tents.” 
We each grab our two waterproof bags and scurry to find shady camp spots. After surveying our options, Jim picks out a flat space big enough to pitch two tents and far enough away from any snoring neighbor. Working together, we three assemble the tents we’ve rented from the guiding company. When we’ve mastered the mechanics of poles and pegs and our two identical tents are pitched within a few feet of each other, Cason throws his gear into his tent, then stands beside me while I pull out clean clothes to replace my smudged and sweaty ones. I hold back a barrage of questions I want to ask—about the river, the guides, our fellow travelers, and most of all about whether he’s having fun.
“What do we do now?” he asks.
I’m not sure what to say. The options seem obvious. “Sit, watch the water, swim, take a nap, go for a walk, take pictures,” I tell him. “I’m going to wash up in the river.”
He wanders off to sit by himself in the crescent of canvas chairs facing the river. I stifle an impulse to rush over and sit beside him so he doesn’t feel lonely. This is the empty space I wanted him to experience. 

Day two. Cason tries out his skills in the paddle raft with some of the seasoned river runners in our group while Jim and I split up into separate rowing rafts. Our journey takes us through narrow canyons, sweeping meadows, abandoned ranches, and old outlaw hideouts. We tie up in early afternoon and make camp on a floodplain at a curve in the river.
When we’ve pitched our tents, the group scatters to find patches of shade, awaiting a hike that will start when the heat of the day has passed. An hour later, we fill our water bottles and pull on day packs.
Cason remains in his canvass camp chair in the shade. “Hiking is boring,” he’s declared repeatedly whenever I’ve invited him to join me for a walk at home. The truth is that hockey has made him a sprinter, not an endurance athlete.
Bross, our wiry, twenty-something guide, will lead the hike. With his rumpled brown hair, big sunglasses and gray hoody, he could be one of Cason’s high school buddies. “You coming?” he asks Cason.
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you are. Get going.”
Bross grabs a pack, tucks in a first aid kit and a bag of granola bars, slings a jug with extra water over his shoulder, and starts walking.
Cason jumps up, fills his water bottle, and hurries to catch up with Bross.
The trail that begins behind our camp switchbacks up the canyon wall. At the top, we’ve been promised a vista of the river, where we’ve traveled and where we’re headed. As our group of twenty snakes up the hill, Jim dallies to take pictures, while I fall behind trying to spot birds with my binoculars. Cason takes the lead with Bross.
At a fork in the trail some forty-five minutes into our climb, Bross and Cason pause in the shade of some thorny bushes while we stragglers catch up. I sip from my half-empty water bottle, feeling light-headed. Even now, in late afternoon, the air feels no cooler than when we made camp. Alaskans, we’re not used to this desert heat. I worry that Cason’s not drinking enough water.
As I weigh whether to express my concern, Bross articulates it. “Drink water,” he commands, and Cason obliges with a big swig out of his red bottle.
From here the trail is not as steep, but now we labor in soft sand, so the way is no easier. Where we reach solid rock, the trail levels off, ending abruptly at the canyon rim. I peer over the edge at the brown river curving gently below, bright yellow pods of our tents spread out along the bank. I’m dizzy—the heat, the height, the edge—so I step back while others pose for pictures against a backdrop of unobstructed sky. I take pictures of the guides, the other hikers, and Cason, slightly apart from the group, at the rim’s edge, smiling back at me in his red Oklahoma Sooners tee shirt, blue ball cap with American flag on the front, red water bottle in hand.
While I fill my bottle with the extra water Bross has carried all this way, Cason wanders off. When I turn back, he is sitting by himself on an overhanging ledge, feet dangling into oblivion, gazing over the canyon. My brain yells get back, stay away from the edge, you’ll fall off, while my stomach flips and lurches in its own panic dance.
Even if I yelled, he’s too far away to hear my pleas, so I motion for him to get back, but he doesn’t see me or pretends not to. I wave again. He lies back on the flat rock and stares at the cloudless sky. In my mind, the ledge cracks, gives way, and his body hurtles to the valley floor.
I turn away. He’s showing off, testing his limits, feeling the power of his own body.
When I turn back, my husband is approaching the ledge. He’s talking some sense into Cason, I think. But no, they’re both leaning over to watch something below the precipice. I gesture at the two of them, but they pretend not to see.
I rush to Bross and point to the two crazy guys on the brink. Bross shakes his head and waves them back. Moving slowly, Cason pulls in his feet, takes a swig from his water bottle, leans over for a final look, then rises and rejoins us. Jim follows.
Day three. I join five other women in the paddle raft with Travis, one of the guides. We’re at his command, relying on his well-timed directions and expert rudder skills to pivot us from lethal boulders and rubber-piercing logs. The afternoon heat beats down on my bare legs. Even though slathered in sunscreen, they feel as if they’ve been basted in olive oil and roasted in the oven. Whenever we have a few seconds’ break in paddling, I unzip the mesh bag strapped to the pontoon in front of me and gulp water from the bottle within, only to be put back to work by Travis’ sometimes frantic orders to forward left, right, back paddle, stop.
In my peripheral vision, a shape drifts past. It’s a big rowing raft with Cason at the oars. Bross stands behind him, ready to avert a disaster if necessary. Cason flashes a quick smile and continues rowing. I grab my camera from its waterproof case and snap his picture. Broad-brimmed hat, orange-framed mirrored sunglasses, faded red life jacket, blue tee shirt, yellow and blue and orange gear bags lashed behind him. Facing forward, he’s leaning into the oars, propelling his raft through the riffles.
How different we are. My life has been careful, measured as I’ve mustered the courage to take risks, unsure in my body, while Cason is confident, competent, a risk-taker. In another culture, he’d have harpooned his first whale by now, shot his first seal, killed his first caribou. Instead he’s here, learning to master the art of reading a river.
Later, as we sit next to each other watching the river at sunset, Cason says, “I wish my family could be here.”
“Your sister hates bugs and your parents don’t like to camp. They’d hate it.” 
I catch myself before blathering on, realizing I’ve cut off a chance to find out what the trip means to him, and to say what it means to me.
 “You’d like to share this with them,” is what I finally blurt out.

Day four. The Yampa, the last undammed tributary of the Colorado, has merged with the broader, more powerful Green River. We’re camped near a wide, grassy valley just past Jones Hole Creek, a clear, swift stream that empties into the Green.
Cason is now Bross’ sidekick. “Guide in training,” Bross calls him. Bross has mastered the unique set of skills essential to a good river guide—river running, local knowledge, yarn-telling, bravado, and above all, patience. Not a bad role model for a teenage boy.
We ready ourselves to hike a trail that follows the creek. The guides promise opportunities to cool off with plunges into the cascades and to view rock pictographs and petroglyphs left by the Freemont people who lived in this country long before the first Spanish explorers.
Bross will stay behind, on dinner duty with Deja and Bob, another guide. I call out to Cason who has slipped into his tent to take a nap.
A muffled moan.
I call again.
“Uh, uh,” he mumbles.
I want him to have this experience. But I want him to choose it.
We leave without him. When we return hours later, bringing stories of still-vibrant drawings by ancient people, immersions in icy water, and encounters with snakes, Cason greets us with a slight nod from a chair in the shade. Hair combed, clothes changed, he looks fresh and clean, his red shirt drying on a tree limb above his tent.
“Bross and I floated down the river,” he says.
The logistics elude me. After floating the river, they’d have to paddle back upstream to return to camp. “How’d you manage that?”
 “We hiked up to the creek, put on our helmets and life jackets, floated down the creek, then down the river and back to camp.”
Slowly, I comprehend their feat, undertaken without boats. Frigid water, bouncing over boulders, dodging sweepers, dog-paddling like mad to reach camp before being swept down the mighty Green. “Wow, that’s quite a trick.”
What I don’t say is What were you thinking? What was Bross thinking? I wanted Cason to discover a sense of himself on this trip, but letting go is harder than I imagined.
It’s our last night of camping. Exhausted hikers leave the campfire one by one, saying goodnight before they slip into bed.
Cason sticks with the guides at the fire. I take toothbrush and water bottle down to the river. On the way back to the tent, I contemplate nudging Cason out of the circle, allowing the guides their night to kick back and drink a few beers, sparing Cason the inevitable foul language and stupid tourist stories. But, as I catch his face in the glow of the fire, he looks older, like a taller, leaner version of someone I once knew. So I duck into my tent, slip into my sleeping bag next to Jim, and leave Cason and the river crew laughing around the fire. 

The next day we face the biggest whitewater on the river. One long intense stretch that must be scouted, pondered over, strategized by the guides. They’ve done it before, many times. But each run is different. The river never stays the same.
I decide to ride with Garth. Measured, cautious, conservative, college math teacher in his other life. Jim chooses a different raft, while Cason of course rides with Bross, who takes the most aggressive run through the rapids, drenching everyone in his boat. When we reunite at the take-out, Cason’s grinning, eyes wide, wet clothes clinging to his body. 
          “That was so much fun. I want to do that.”
“Do what?”
“Be a river guide.”
          This is what I wanted: For him to fall in love with rivers, to find a world beyond cell phones, hockey, and pick-up trucks. And for me: To step aside and let him.

Back at the Microtel in Vernal, I awake to a familiar blue glow in the bed next to me. I get up and gently tug the cell phone from Cason’s sleeping grasp. He jerks awake and snatches it back. Doctors and nurses flicker on the screen. He’s back to Grey’s Anatomy.
          “Cason, we have to get up early.”
          “I don’t care.”
          I climb back in bed and think how nothing has changed. And how everything has.

Susan Pope writes nonfiction from her home in Anchorage, Alaska. Her work has appeared in Pilgrimage, Damselfly Press, The Southeast Review Online, Cirque: A Literary Journal of the Pacific Rim, Hippocampus, Under the Gum Tree, among others. Her writing reflects intimate connections to home and family in Alaska as well as a restless wandering in faraway places. Throughout her career as counselor, teacher, and researcher, she has continued to pursue her first true love, writing. Her essay entitled, “Canyon,” which appeared in Bluestem, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Harvest Moon

by Lisa Conquet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I donated that sweater in the spring.

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Appalachian Eulogy

by Robert Dugan

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 8, 2017

Becoming a Real Girl

by Pam Munter

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

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