Heaven

“The Nativity,” oil on canvas, by Gari Melchers, c. 1891.

by Mike O’Mary

It was a spur-of-the-moment thing:

“Put on your winter coat and get a warm blanket,” I told my daughter. “We’re going out to look at Christmas lights.”

When I was a kid, one of the highlights of the holiday season was driving around town looking at everyone’s Christmas decorations. Our family—seven kids and two adults—would pile into the station wagon and off we’d go.

Normally, my father and a car full of kids was a volatile mixture. But it was different at Christmas. When you put us in our pajamas, wrapped us in our blankets, and took us out for a late-night ride to look at Christmas decorations, it was actually peaceful in that station wagon.

But that was then. My days of riding around in pajamas and blankets are pretty much over. However, one of the privileges of being a parent is that your children provide you with a legitimate excuse to do some of the things you haven’t done since you were a kid. And so, we set out in search of wonderful, awe-inspiring Christmas lights.

Unfortunately, things seldom go according to plan when you try to recreate your childhood. Some little variable always changes the equation, sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse. Such was the case that evening when I took Kathleen, my little six-year-old variable, out for a Christmas drive.

I had in mind a little subdivision in the neighboring town of Sycamore, Illinois, about five miles from our house. My wife and I had gone there earlier that week for a Christmas party, and we both thought it was nice that everybody in the neighborhood had decorated their homes. However, rather than drive through Sycamore to the subdivision as I had done with my wife, I decided to save time by taking the back roads. It turned out to be a bad choice.

We saw a few decorations at farmsteads en route, and when we got a little north of Sycamore, I turned down a road that I thought would lead to the subdivision. I was wrong. We drove around for half an hour without seeing any lights at all, let alone Christmas lights. However, while we were lost, we had a very interesting conversation:

“Daddy,” Kathleen asked, “Do you believe in Santa?”

“Do you?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Then I do, too,” I said.

My answer seemed to be acceptable. Score one for Daddy. Soon came another question.

“Do you believe in God?” she asked.

This one caught me off guard. I’m sorry to say despite attending St. Elizabeth Elementary School and serving as an altar boy, and despite a higher education that included exposure to Hinduism, Buddhism, existential philosophy and the theological writings of Paul Tillich, I was not prepared to give my daughter a definitive answer at that moment. I had never been able to assimilate any of the things I learned into a set of beliefs that made much sense to me, and it seemed to me that an appropriate answer would require a lengthy discussion of abstract and complex theological and philosophical thought. And after all that, it still pretty much comes down to a leap of faith.

The thought of trying to explain all of this to my daughter in a few simple words seemed overwhelming. However, in all my feeble reflections on the subject of religion and God, Being and Non-Being, I have come to one conclusion: I do not believe that there is nothing—which implies that I must believe that there is something. And so, I took a leap that night and provided my daughter with a slightly boiled-down version of what would otherwise have been a very lengthy and probably confusing answer.

“Yes,” I said.

Her response: “I do, too.”

There was a short pause, then: “Daddy, do you believe in heaven?”

I thought for a moment. “I believe we will always be together,” I said.

“I think Pop is in heaven,” said Kathleen.

Pop was Kathleen’s great grandfather. He had died earlier that year after a long illness.

“It made Grandma sad when Pop died,” she continued.

“Yes, it did,” I said.

“I know what Grandma’s mom’s name was,” she said. “It was Gram.”

“That’s right,” I said.

“I liked Pop,” said Kathleen. Then she added, “It’s not nice to make fun of old people.”

“No, it’s not.”

There was another short pause.

“Everybody dies, even if they don’t think they will,” said Kathleen.

There was no skirting this comment. “Yes, that’s true,” I said.

In all my feeble reflections on the subject of religion and God, Being and Non-Being, I have come to one conclusion: I do not believe that there is nothing—which implies that I must believe that there is something.

We drove along the blacktop highway, cutting across the countryside. I hadn’t noticed it until then, but at some point it had started to snow—big, heavy, wet flakes. Other than that, it was a very still, dark December night. My daughter was quiet for a long time, but she was alert, looking out the window, thinking hard. Finally, she spoke again.

“I’m a little bit afraid of dying,” said Kathleen.

Fear of dying … at last, a subject that I knew something about.

“A lot of people are afraid of dying,” I said, “because we don’t know what’s it’s going to be like.”

“Yeah, we don’t know what it’s going to be like in the ground or if we’ll go to heaven,” she said.

I did not want her to have nightmares about being in the ground. “You don’t actually go in the ground,” I told her. “Your body does, but by then you’ve left your body.”

She thought about this, and then said, “I don’t get you.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “Wherever you go, I’ll be there.” This I truly believed. I could not imagine any circumstances, even death, that would cause me to drift very far from my daughter.

“And Pop will be there,” said Kathleen. “And Gram.”

“That’s right.”

The conversation went on like that for a while longer. I was a little angry with myself for not being more prepared for such a conversation, but I was pleased to see that her mind was already at work on some of life’s biggest questions. I took comfort in the realization that my daughter would probably be able to figure out most things for herself—which means she’ll be a lot better off in the long run than she would be if she relied on someone like her father to figure things out for her.

While all this was going on, I was still not finding the neighborhood. At some point I realized that Kathleen didn’t really know why we were driving around. When I said we were going “to look at Christmas lights,” she thought I meant that we were going to a store to buy more lights for the Christmas tree. By the time she figured out the real purpose of our trip, she was pretty tired. When I finally found the neighborhood, she was asleep.

It was just as well. On second glance, the decorations in the neighborhood seemed ordinary and unimaginative. There was nothing particularly wonderful or awe-inspiring about them. I drove around for a little while, but by then I was tired, too, so I turned around and headed home.

The whole excursion could have been pretty depressing. I had wanted to show my daughter some wonderful Christmas lights. Instead, I got lost. Then, when I finally found the neighborhood, the lights were nothing special. It was a far cry from the memories I had of driving around, looking at decorations when I was a kid. But that’s okay. We had discussed Santa and God and heaven and death—a conversation I would not soon forget. And at the end of the evening, I was heading home while my daughter slept like an angel in the seat next to me. I would not trade that drive with my daughter for anything.

Just then, Kathleen opened her eyes a little.

“Daddy?” she asked.

“Yes?” I answered.

She didn’t answer right away. I looked over at her. She looked very warm and cozy—very peaceful—the way a child in warm pajamas and a blanket should look when out for a Christmas drive with her father.

“Yes,” I repeated softly. “What is it?”

“Maybe this is heaven,” she said.

I thought about that for a moment.

“Yes,” I said. “Maybe it is.”

*

Editor’s note: “Heaven” was first published in 1996 in The Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine and was quietly passed around by its fans. Years later I received a copy (of a copy of a copy) tucked inside a Christmas card, and I tracked down the writer. Mike’s daughter is now grown and married. “Heaven” is the anchor piece in his collection Wise Men and Other Stories. Feel free to share the link and continue the story’s legacy. —SRJP

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Mike O’Mary is author of Wise Men and Other Stories and The Note. He is also the founder of Dream of Things, which publishes memoirs and anthologies, including Saying Goodbye: to the people, places and things in our lives. Mike has published stories and essays in the Sunday magazines of The Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Baltimore Sun, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Detroit Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Montana (MFA in Creative Writing, MA in English Literature) and the Second City Comedy Writing Program.

The Flying Dutchman

“Reichenberg Bahnhof,” photograph by Annette Gendler, 2009.

by Annette Gendler

February 3, 1946. Rain pounded the railcar’s roof. Karl felt as if inside a drum. A stuffy drum, smelling of wet wool and unwashed bodies. He could not see outside as he was standing in the back, too far from the window. It was dark outside anyway. In early February night settled in by five. He had no idea of the exact time. His pocket watch had been one of the many things the Czechs had robbed him of.

As wagon commander he had to be close to the door. It was his job to confer with the authorities whenever the train stopped somewhere, to monitor those who were allowed to step out, to commandeer his fellow travelers into queues when food was dispensed at a train station.

One woman, her long gray hair stringy and plastered to her head, clutched a basket with her few possessions and insisted on standing by the door, ready to jump out whenever the train slowed or came to a halt. “My son! My son! I have to get to my son!” she muttered on and off. Karl found out from a neighbor of hers, who traveled in one of the other railcars, that her son had been killed months ago on the Eastern front.

On the first leg of the transport they had been in a Czech freight car with the door left ajar to let in fresh cold air. Karl watched the woman’s eyes dart back and forth over the passing landscape. He studied her and felt his own grief stir, felt its pull, knew he had to be grateful for whatever it was in his psyche, and in his wife’s, that had saved them from succumbing. Two years ago their younger son Klaus had died from diphtheria, seven years old. Within a week he was gone. How does one live with the death of a child? And how does one, with that ache already pulling, look ahead at a future that is nothing but gray fog, a life without any of the parameters one has known?

He watched the woman, watched her eyes, and knew how she had gotten lost. And while at every stop he restrained her, with the help of another man, to keep her from running off, he wondered if he was doing the right thing.

His wife Hanne was close by. Most of the time Karl felt her staring at him, her eyes beady in the half-dark. She stood, slightly slumped, her arms around their twelve-year old son Helmut. The boy had dozed off, leaning into her, his cousin’s flowery scarf still tied around his neck. The tah-tong, tah-tong of the train had lulled him to sleep.

Karl knew that Hanne, always concerned with others’ welfare before her own, worried about his health: The heart attack he had suffered the previous summer, on the very morning they had to give up their house, and his exhaustion now from months of forced labor and imprisonment. Worrying about him gave her focus. She was probably concentrating on how she could get some soup into him, even though they only had an old ceramic mug of lard left. She was resourceful and caring, and still young at 36.

They could look into each other’s eyes when the train passed a streetlight and a streak of yellow rippled over those huddled inside. Their eyes would lock then, but the moment was always too brief to manage a smile. They held each other’s gaze, secure and grateful in the other’s presence. That, he knew, after all else had been taken away, was what counted. They were together. The two of them, and their boy. That was all that was left of the 54 years of his life.

Standing in the dusk of that rattling railcar, on February 3, 1946, on the first transport of Germans out of Reichenberg, Bohemia, bound for the U.S.-occupied zone of Germany, he looked back on his life. He felt as if he was marveling at an illuminated snow globe, turning it in his hand: The figurine of a man in a housecoat, sitting up late at night in his library, his slippered feet up on the desk, dictating a short story to his wife who perched on the sofa, her dark bobbed head intent on the notepad on her knees.

He had not seriously entertained the thought of fleeing, of packing up for some other place, for he could not see another place, could not imagine that it would be any better in a Europe flattened by war. How does one give up the house with the newly installed copper pipes, the rebuilt porch, the emerald and amber colored glass in the entryway? The dormer window from which Helmut had strung his toy cable car? The library Karl had amassed over the years, the textbooks he had co-authored, the archives of the newspaper he had edited, the files of manuscripts of the plays he had written for Prague’s German radio station? How does one give up the tree-lined streets, the way to work past the turreted museum, the memories of summers spent by the Talsperre Lake? The favorite table at the Café zur Post, the waiter who brings the mélange without asking? The Sunday afternoons spent with his sister’s family? The graves of his parents, his boy?

The train rattled on, hurling them farther into the unknown. That was what terrified him the most: the unknown. As a German in Bohemia, he had weathered several momentous political shifts: Why should he not have weathered this one? Why should he not remain who he was, a German in Reichenberg? Not a Reich-German, no never; even though the border to the Reich was so close, his affiliation had always been with Prague, with Vienna, not with Berlin. He was at heart a German of the Old Austria, of the old monarchy of his youth.

He weathered the Nazi reign when Reichenberg became regional capital of Hitler’s annexed Sudentenland and when, due to his stature as a former city councilman for the Social Democratic Party, he was not on the right side of the fence. When his Jewish brother-in-law died in 1938, Karl became the guardian of his half-Jewish niece and nephew, a further complication. He endured SS interrogations due to accusations that he had used “Jewish money” to finance his house on Grillparzerstrasse. He bore the demotion from principal of the Girls’ Middle School to plain subject teacher. He only avoided the Volkssturm, Hitler’s last effort to halt the Allied advance, to which men and boys of all ages were conscripted, because he was already doing air defense duty for the Red Cross.

Unbeknownst to Karl, his existence in Reichenberg had already been signed away in December 1944, when Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met in Tehran to determine the post-war order of the world: The German problem was to be solved. Never again would any German government be able to claim territories in the East. The German population would be expelled from Eastern Prussia, from Silesia, from Bohemia, from Romania; all Germans herded into one territory. It was only a matter of practicality as to when and how.

On May 9th, 1945, one day after the official unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, the Russians bombarded and then occupied Reichenberg. From then on the Germans in Reichenberg and the rest of Bohemia became outlaws.

In the days right after the war, all German men had to report to hard labor. First Karl spent days dismantling fortifications. Then he managed to get recognized as member of the Red Cross and was allowed to work as a paramedic at Reichenberg’s train station. Trains crowded with German refugees from the East, carted out of Silesia, had rolled through. Sometimes the Czech guards forced them off the train, chasing them into the streets like unwanted cattle. Other times they had them unload their few possessions, then pilfered through wicker baskets, suitcases, rucksacks, and tossed the emptied luggage back up. One militiaman’s sport had been to pour the milk out of any baby bottle he found, laughing hysterically as the milk splattered onto the platform and the helpless mother’s eyes widened with terror.

On August 13, 1945, Karl and Hanne’s house on Grillparzerstrasse 5 was confiscated. They managed to argue their way out of the internment camp, on the grounds of the pending anti-fascist documentation, and were assigned one room with a kitchen in the suburb of Johannesthal, which they shared with three other women.

After the loss of the house, Karl concentrated his efforts on obtaining extension upon extension of their lodging permit for their room in Johannesthal, banking on his anti-fascist paperwork coming through. Permits were only granted on a monthly basis, and thus, in October, Karl had gone again to the Národní Výbor to reapply. While he was granted an extension for his family, he himself was ordered to stay for a long interrogation: What had his role been during the Volkssturm? What did he know about Werwolf, the alleged Nazi resistance group that had supposedly operated behind Allied lines? Ultimately they kept him in the camp, first for a day, then for a few months.

The memory droned on in his mind: roll-call at five, breakfast of bitter coffee and one slice of bread, at work no later than seven, unloading potatoes. He figured he hauled an average of eight tons a day, until after five weeks a cart jammed him against a wagon and he was laid up for ten days with broken ribs. Then on to other “commandos,” that is, assignments: moving furniture, clearing air defense bunkers. Work never ended before eight. The coal “commandos” had been the worst: unloading coal from eight in the evening until six in the morning, then back to the regular “commando” at seven.

In mid-December he was fortunate to be assigned to the German library where all the German books, gathered from the emptied homes, had been dumped and needed to be sorted. He worked every day, even the Christmas holidays. Cataloging books suited him, even though, as he wrote down titles and opened up cloth-bound volumes embossed with gilded lettering to note the year of publication, his stomach would wind itself into a knot at the sight of the owners’ names, often scrawled in ink on the inside covers: What greater symbol could there be of a culture, an era, coming to an end, than piles and piles of books, swept off the shelves of the villas and studies, their owners carted off or crammed into an internment camp?

The cities reduced to rubble, their streets imposing a kind of containment grid over the heaps of debris, the half-standing walls, the teetering balconies, the dangling shop signs. The countryside, largely hills, some forested, loomed gray and desolate in the barrenness of winter.

In the meantime, Hanne badgered the Referent to get Karl free. Several times she was dismissed without getting an appointment. Finally she managed to have someone jot down Karl’s name. Then it turned out that his file was lost, and without the file they could not do anything. Finally, by asking around among his fellow inmates, Karl managed to find out the name of the inspector who had interrogated him back in October, and Hanne called on that inspector. In mid-December Karl’s file materialized, but by then the Referent was on sick leave, and nothing would happen until after Christmas. On January 20th Karl was finally ordered to appear at the police station, only to be asked: “So why are you in the camp?” “That’s what I want to know from you,” had been his reply.

It had been a misunderstanding. Four months of his life had been a misunderstanding. On January 25th he was released, with the offer to be wagon commander on the first government-organized transport into the U.S.-zone. He accepted right away, for now it was the best choice. With his anti-fascist certification still in limbo, he would not have been able to obtain another authorization to stay, and of the four Allied occupied zones, the U.S. zone was known to be the lesser evil.

While the Allies had acquiesced to Czech President Beneš’s insistence that the problem of the German minorities in Czechoslovakia be solved, once and for all, by driving them out of the land, they decreed that it would have to be an orderly and civilized transfer. Through a series of meetings in Prague in early January 1946, American and Czech officials confirmed the plans for the transfer: Each trainload would include 1,200 persons in 40 heated cars. The Czechoslovak government was to provide sufficient food for the trip and for three additional days. Families were to be kept together, clothing was to be adequate, and every person was permitted to bring along personal belongings totaling 30 to 50 kilograms and an allowance of 1,000 Reichsmark.

The transport Karl and his family were now on adhered closely to that agreement. They pulled out of Reichenberg on February 3rd, packed into closed freight cars, little coal ovens providing some heat. Two buckets were dispensed per car: one with drinking water, another to be used as a toilet. At each train station along the way—Prague, Pilsen, Taus—watery but warm food was provided: boiled potatoes, cabbage soup. In Furth im Wald, the border town on former Reich territory, now under U.S. command, they were transferred into a converted Wehrmacht hospital train. Passengers from three Czech freight cars were crowded into one Wehrmacht car.

They rode on. Most of them standing, each person unable to claim more floor space than their feet under them. Maybe it was luck to be on the transport in winter. Karl imagined how unbearable the heat and smell would be in the summer, with all those people up against each other. Maybe they were fortunate after all, to be rattling on, passing through Nürnberg, Würzburg, Aschaffenburg. The cities reduced to rubble, their streets imposing a kind of containment grid over the heaps of debris, the half-standing walls, the teetering balconies, the dangling shop signs. The countryside, largely hills, some forested, loomed gray and desolate in the barrenness of winter.

Karl had been told that they were bound for the rural area of Odenwald. He had only a faint idea of where that was. Not as far as Frankfurt, that he knew. The authorities had also told him, in case people got unruly, that the ride wouldn’t be much longer once they passed Aschaffenburg. But people were too tired, too beaten to be unruly. They waited, holding on to each other through the bends in the tracks when the car swayed left and right. Even the woman desperate for her son had stopped muttering and stood silent by the door.

Eventually, some time after Aschaffenburg, the train screeched to a halt. This must be the destination, what other reason would there be to stop? For a moment, all was silent, inside and out, only the rain continued to drum. Then a gust of wind beat against the railcar’s sliding door, yanking at it like a desperate person wanting to gain access. But the despondency was inside. They were the homeless, come to be spilled onto a ravaged land.

Karl opened the door, and immediately the icy rain cut into his face as he peeked out. The rain was turning into sleet and came down like miniature razors on his uncovered head. A few uniformed men stood at the end of the platform by the only lantern that drew a yellow circle into the dark. American soldiers, he figured. He could barely see them as the wind whipped at him. They did not advance. Five or six other figures appeared, coming towards him, carrying dim lanterns. “Red Cross. Red Cross. Come on. We have tea for you.” Karl nodded at Hanne. This was it.

As the storm battered the train, his fellow travelers clambered out, some pulling blankets over their heads, others not minding the storm. The scene reminded him of the first act of Wagner’s opera “The Flying Dutchman,” when the doomed ship, condemned to sail the oceans for eternity, finds shelter from a storm in a Norwegian fjord and the locals walk up to the strange vessel, gaping at its ghostly crew. Yes, they were landing, arriving like the cursed captain and his shipmates, dependent on the goodwill of those whose shore they had landed on.

While Karl stood, half leaning out of the car, holding hands, reaching down suitcases, an official strode up, cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled: “Endstation! Alles aussteigen! Endstation!”

“The Flying Dutchman” is an excerpt from Annette Gendler’s memoir Jumping Over Shadows, published by She Writes Press.

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Annette Gendler is a writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, Bella Grace, and Artful Blogging, to name a few. She served as the 2014–2015 writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. Born in New Jersey, she grew up in Munich, Germany, and lives in Chicago with her husband and three children. Visit her at annettegendler.com.

Grief, Furniture

“A Green Couch,” oil on canvas, by Theo Felizzola, 2013. Used with permission.

by Beth Bilderback

This couch is comma-shaped and covered in rich green fabric. Its cushions are stiff and springy, causing a cell phone tossed casually to bounce several inches. This couch required the exertion of two large men to wrestle it into our tiny house, and will never leave it again unless I knock down a wall or two. Not many have sat on it yet—my father, sinking down with an old man’s “Oy;” my teenaged son, stretching out to see if it can hold his full length (it can), my son’s new girlfriend and her mother, perched awkwardly on the edge while I try in vain to extract conversation from them.

This couch was made for grownups, vintage grownups of the 1930s, cinch-waisted female grownups and men who wore hats and drank martinis. Then it landed with the second generation of the family, beginning another life with my sister’s in laws, who decided it would live in a very large wood paneled room, facing two corn-colored armchairs, in a house ruled by collies named Mac, and later, poodles named Mister.

Thirty years later, the last relative leaves, unwillingly, to calcify in assisted living, never knowing the house is being cleared out and sold. This couch moved out of its dank living room to a sunny upholstery shop where it spent two weeks being reinvigorated, like Dorothy in the Emerald City, becoming the color of Emerald City, losing the forlorn moldy smell of its former life, but not the ghosts of the many rumps that sank down upon it.

This couch is not like that couch, the old gray green one, the first I’d ever bought after a lifetime of sad futons, from a Haggerty’s salesman named Kwame who wore expensive shoes. That couch was so soft you wanted to pet it, but began sagging in the middle and required propping up with wooden blocks, that couch was where I spent seven years of Saturday nights talking to my boyfriend, the tall, pale boyfriend who, if I am being truthful, bought me the couch himself, and who is gone now, gone like smoke, though not gone like the couch, which was carted out the door by thrift store volunteers, one of whom mentions he used to own the very same couch, the couch with which he started his marriage. The boyfriend left of his own accord, after a short conversation on the couch, and then a long hug, which should have spoken volumes, but did not.

This couch will get to know my sleeping body, a room away from my bed, fraught with insomnia, new territory where I might finally rest without waking every few hours, a clean slate, a patch of grass in a quiet forest, a rivulet running over stones, a long drink of water, dreamless, peaceful.

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Beth Bilderback is a writer living in Norfolk VA. She has work forthcoming in KYSO Flash.

An Author’s Life

“The Tax Collectors,” oil on panel, by Marinus Van Reymerswaele, c. 1540s.

by Emile DeWeaver

Last month, my friend (we’ll call her Lisa because she’s shy) wanted to know the most important thing I’d learned about craft. Lisa had recently made the leap of faith to explore her writing talents, and she was taking me up on my open-ended offer to workshop. I held back the first pieces of advice that rushed to mind: Write every day (which I don’t do), show don’t tell, copy Strunk and White’s Elements of Style by hand (which I did do). I wanted something pithy she could feed her muse and grow wings, something I hadn’t read in a book.

“Write until it scares you,” I said. Then I cringed because I realized I’d just quoted Luis Rodriguez.

I tried again. Lisa described well-meaning people who told her she should write about this or that aspect of her life or job, and I worried their demands might stifle her emerging voice. “Unburden yourself of others’ expectations of your writing.” I’d come closer to a maxim suitable for christening her author’s life, but I’d erred telling her what I thought she needed to know. Perhaps it would help her, but it wasn’t what she’d actually wanted.

A small panic crept down my melodramatic spine; I felt as though I were failing as a teacher. In retrospect, we were clearly just two friends talking craft. In the moment, I had to say some profound shit or ruin the future of Lisa’s writing!

“Bad writing is good writing,” I said.

Her eyes reached for politeness, but spilled incredulity. I had come closer to what she’d originally asked me, though, so I pushed on, explained how I’d discovered that bad prose is good. I’d learned this a couple years ago when I’d taken up NaNoWriMo’s challenge to write a novel in a month.

I’m a writer for whom bad prose, stale plot, and flat characters degrade my will to keep writing. It’s distracting in the way that messy workspaces distract compulsively neat people. But when I set about to write a novel in a month, I had to navigate that distraction. Poor writing still drains me, I couldn’t have written 2,000 words a day, while working overtime and attending classes at Patten College’s Prison University Project, without persisting. I knew I’d have to adapt going in, so I committed to writing horribly.

For 30 days, I wrote meandering descriptions of lampposts, indulgent ruminations—whatever kept my fingers moving earned itself a spot on the page. I already knew wretched prose uglies up a page. What I didn’t know: bad writing is clear. Clarity on the page shocked me. What I wanted to say, I said. I didn’t say it concisely, but floating amid swamps of digression were crystal isles of clear intent.

Writing outside my chosen medium relieved the pressure of my own expectations, which relieved the pressure of writer’s block.

Stagnant word swamps entail lots of telling the story rather than showing it. Whatever one says about the inelegance of telling, it’s a clear form of narration. A passage to make the point: “Jack and Jill went up the hill, and Jill giggled because Jack kissed like a trout.” Though this passage doesn’t move me, it presents a clear narrative, and likewise, after writing 50,000 words that read like addresses on cardboard, I had a clear rendering of a novel-length story. In 30 days.

Writers’ processes differ, but here’s my truth: Writing is hard and I hate it; revision is easy, and I want to take it to the movies, then get to third base. I could spend 30 days filling two chapters with pretty paragraphs, but in half that time, I could rework six chapters until nothing but beautiful paragraphs remain. So if you can push through the initial feeling that you suck, bad writing is good because beneath terrible writing, the best words you’ve written wait to emerge. If Lisa carries that on her journey, I’ll be happy.

Although bad writing is good writing proved the best I could muster on the spot, it’s not my most valuable discovery. After Lisa has written pages and pages of horrendous prose (which, with revision, will become pages that fly on her butterfly voice), I’ll tell her the most important thing I’ve learned about craft.

Experiment outside your chosen medium.

Writing outside my chosen medium relieved the pressure of my own expectations, which relieved the pressure of writer’s block. Do you remember the first things you wrote? In grade school, I didn’t get writers’ block. I simply wrote, and teachers got starry-eyed for the awkward kid with ballerina words. I didn’t experience writer’s block until I learned to write “properly.” With knowledge came standards and self-expectation that checked the ballerina words and judged them insufficiently graceful for my vision. Each time I stepped outside of my medium, I entered a sphere wherein I had little knowledge to burden my process. The result: I retained an adult’s acumen, but I wrote with a child’s freedom.

My initial resistance to experimentation had more to do with time than with confidence. True, it scares me to step away from my area of mastery, but like Rodriguez, I’m committed to writing into my fear. Time, on the other hand, has a special hold on me. As a man who’s been serving a life sentence since childhood, I carry a sense that I’ve wasted a life span’s time. To waste any more sets my molars grinding. I thought that whatever time I might spend writing, say, rough poetry, would waste the time I could be using to finish polished fiction. This sense of misspent energy resulted from misunderstanding what experimentation offered me. It took several months of writer’s block for enough desperation to build in me that I became willing to try anything.

When I explored nonfiction, then poetry, I realized I wasn’t wasting my time, because diversifying my craft yielded synergistic benefits. The concision I learned in poetry showed up in my essays. The humor I discovered writing personal essays about difficult subjects emerged in my fiction, and the confidence I’d found in narrative prose infused my poetry.

If writing outside my chosen medium hadn’t strengthened my fiction, I’d still recommend it. We often compare writing to a journey of discovery. We won’t always like what the adventure reveals, but the things we face will make us better, stronger writers—award-winning writers with God-complexes. We might uncover pleasant surprises, that we excel in several mediums, that the writer’s block we experience typing that short story about climate change is in fact our muses telling us a poem would better serve the vision. We might also learn something just as discovering we are literary Da Vincis: what we want to write isn’t necessarily what we’re meant to write.

What we want to write can result from the influences of whom we admire. Admiration provokes imitation, but the writing we dream will crown the New York Times bestseller list demands its own individualized space. It serves us to take a leap of faith away from what we hoped we’d write, if doing so creates the space to accommodate our wings.

omega man

Emile DeWeaver is a columnist for Easy Street. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Nth Degree, Drunk Monkeys, and Frigg. He lives and writes in Northern California.

My Own Struggle, Or An Exercise in Autofiction

“Weeping Nude,” oil on canvas, by Edvard Munch, 1914.

by Isabella David McCaffrey

5:20

The puppy’s awake. Fuck.
“It’s okay,” I murmur sleepily, placating Maddie, magically granting myself glorious hours of sleep.
Snuffle, whine, bark.
Clearly, I’m still dreaming.
“Okay, w’be right there,” I lie.
“What time is it?” My husband wakes in a panic.
“It’s just the puppy, sh!”
Stock-still, rigid with fear, we will everyone asleep.
Silence.

6:12
The puppy begins whining insistently from her crate, whines about to turn into barks, potentially waking the baby. That cannot happen! I spring up immediately, unlatch the crate, carrying Maddie’s squirming bulk downstairs, forestalling her latest trick—squatting in place on my husband’s uncle’s old bank rug, still the nicest thing in our house, even though we’re now officially grownups. Huffing after five steps, I wonder how this will work when she’s bigger, which, because she’s a Newfoundland, will be sooner than later.

What I really ought to do, if I were a good person, is take her outside for a walk. The temperature is an excruciating 19 degrees. But I’m no saint, the snow is still falling thick and fast from the midnight blizzard, so I spread a wee pad in the kitchen and coax her to go on it.

“Hurry, hurry,” I whisper as encouragingly as I can without waking the baby, who, after her 2nd birthday party yesterday, is now really “the toddler.” In this old house, every sound can be heard from every room, and we thought the matchboards were charming. Fools.

We live in beauty like ballerinas, tiptoeing in fear. The puppy evades my hands, goes to lap up huge mouthfuls of water, then immediately squats beside her bowl. I pretend this doesn’t annoy me so as not to create any issues surrounding her potty-training. Or is that for human babies?

Whatever. I know if I don’t go back to bed, or at least the couch, I’ll be a mindless zombie the rest of the day. Harper was up three times in the night with bad dreams. Luckily, none of them fully woke her, but I went to her crib, stroking her birthday-cake-stained cheeks the way she likes until she fell back asleep. Her father, whose turn it was at bedtime, plopped her in her crib, face unwashed.

I try not to think about the shameful state of her skin as I open the second volume of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and, not so much escape my present reality, as sink into a more deeply felt version of my current hell. I admit it’s a book I picked up because of the buzz surrounding it, but the book has so far has been a pleasant surprise. The series was on all The New Yorker’s 2014 best reading lists. Stunned by universal agreement among the contentious intellectual gliteratti of New York, I was curious to read them myself. Or at least one of them—this despite comparisons of the books with In Search of Lost Time, which feels more like a bucket list daredevil feat than a collection of words to savor.

Contrary to my expectations, I find Knausgaard is really good and, even better, accessible. Not pretentious at all as I feared but funny, empathetic, honest. The New Yorker described his writing as “Autofiction,” a new word for me and a literary trend I have a hard time explaining to my husband.

“Isn’t that just memoir?” he asks.

“No…” I say uncertainly. “At least, I think it’s not fact, just his own life he’s using maybe.”

“How is that not memoir?”

I’m stumped. I’ve recently read an excellent article on the subject, and I hate that I retained none of it. I decide it’s more helpful overall if I’m well-rested than well-read. Rolling over on the couch, I ignore the freed, delighted puppy, wreaking havoc in the family room.

9:00
Maddie relays it’s time to play again by barking in my ear. I start reprimanding her, then see the time. My husband, I can tell from the scraping noises outside, has been up for a while now, shoveling snow. It’s still coming down in sheets of white instead of lovely, individual flakes. I worry briefly about the roof and then think there’s no point worrying now. The roof’s the least of it.

Daycare’s closed again.

I make myself a cup of coffee before I wake Harper, who, if left to her own devices, can easily sleep until 11. It can be tempting, especially if I’m on a roll, working on deadline, but I’ll pay later. She’ll be up all night, making such a racket it’s impossible to sleep. I check my email and see there’s absolutely nothing but some annoying shopping offers.

I can remember the days before email when letters were still written, although rare. We lived for days, weeks, months, even, without hearing from each other. Now, I can’t go one morning without receiving some notice from the world that I exist, which feels like a moral defeat. How strange that my daughter won’t recognize this difference. I decide Knausgaard would sympathize, and this cheers me up a little.

9:30
I go to wake Harper, still dead to the world, so crashed from her own sleep interruptions she’s let the pillow carve a deep line into her tender cheek. Like her mom in some ways, she looks more as if she’s recovering from a drunken revel than a toddler’s birthday. The watery coffee isn’t doing much for me, but Starbucks and its bitter jet fuel is closed today, too. My fatigue is so intense it’s like a heavy stone in my heart, almost like unhappiness. I know it is only fatigue, though. If I could just sleep a few more hours, I’d be right as rain, but I can’t. I have to keep Harper on schedule or face imminent doom.

The party yesterday was the real disaster. Everyone else had a good time. I’m grateful for that, but it’s been such a January, so cooped up, that having people around suddenly only drained me further. After a week’s snowbound isolation, I lost the ability to make small talk. When my friend’s dapper husband, Neil, tried to tell me about the resort where they’d just vacationed, either from envy—which I’m ashamed of—or social ineptitude—which I’m equally ashamed of—I couldn’t take it in.

“That’s how it is when you have kids!” Neil finishes a joke about vacationing with children in tow. Neil, a doctor and graduate of Princeton, is one of those people whose free-time makes for an impressive CV. I pretend to know what he’s talking about—that having kids is the reason you might do nothing on vacation—but laugh a little too late, too out of synch, revealing my mind is working hard to make the connection. He looks at me strangely. I feel as if I should apologize, explaining I’m rusty at small talk, because I’ve only spoken to a non-verbal 2-year-old and a puppy for eight horrible, icy days.

No, too pathetic. Instead, I pretend my distraction is the boiling kettle and run away, proverbial writer’s tail between the legs.

Yes, well at least, Knausgaard would definitely approve.

10:00
When Harper refuses to eat her breakfast, I spoon the yoghurt in her bulging cheeks for her. I still haven’t wiped off the frosting from yesterday, because when I tried, she began screaming at a glass-breaking frequency like a beached dolphin, a new trick of hers. Illogically, she hates water in small amounts, yet loves it in large bodies. Now, she won’t eat, so I have to put on Sesame Street to distract her—a useful, albeit craven, trick.

Bright, shiny celebrities have all adopted the show, ruining the pure, untrammelled memories of my celebrity-free childhood. I feel I’m regressing somehow as Jessica Alba describes the “scrumptious” birthday cake. Thinking snide things about Jessica Alba and her actual likely consumption of cake, I try to clear my inane thoughts, sensing another moral defeat.

In fact I’m annoyed at myself for knowing (and judging) the pertinent facts about Jessica Alba’s mothering that I’ve read in magazines at the gym, things like she’s so busy with her projects that seeing her daughters once or twice a week before bed is a feat to be aspired to. When does she see them then, I wonder? I don’t judge her for that, so much as for exhorting other women to live her “ lifestyle.” Why does Jessica Alba imagine she has the answers simply because she’s rich and beautiful and adored by millions of strangers on Instagram? Well, okay, I know how that sounds, but it’s not envy. It’s not; it’s irritation over the celebrated tautology of ubiquitous jackasses.

Jessica grins at the camera so desperately I begin wondering if an orthodontist has paid her to advertise his handiwork. Admitting defeat in the face of this shining idiocy, knowing Knausgaard would definitely empathize with my dislike of disliking famous people, I have to go to the other half of the room and let Harper feed herself, even though this means 3/4 of the yoghurt will end up on the floor and therefore in the puppy’s no doubt lactose-intolerant torso.

11:01
I reread the Autofiction article on Flavorwire, so I can explain it to my husband (and to myself), but it’s hard to concentrate with Count Dracula singing the number of the day. Meanwhile, because of the blizzard, my husband couldn’t make it in to work, taking the opportunity to practice his trumpet downstairs between calls. I read, lodged between alternating cacophonies.

Harper loses interest once Sesame Street is halfway through, adding to the melée by banging on the security gate, emitting squeals of dislike; she’s not a fan of the new puppy, who endlessly re-enacts the iconic Coppertone Baby moment. I’m determined to finish reading this article, before I accede, but, like the puppy’s, certain cries only increase in intensity if ignored.

1:30
Harper is down for her nap at last. I can read, work, write, think, sit for two blessed hours. First, I contemplate the article I’ve just reread on Autofiction, or the Next Big Thing. Shamefacedly, I consider trying to write an Autofiction novel since that’s the trend of the future, but wouldn’t that, as Karl Ove puts it in his (not) memoir, be “contemptible” as it is “the writer’s sole duty to search for something different?”

Well, Autofiction is technically new, but now it’s been identified as a trend—like cat eyeliner then or wearing winter white. When the masses catch on, is it no longer cool? Will self-consciously Autofictive works count as Autofiction or is Autofiction self-conscious by definition? On the other hand, if Autofiction is reminiscent of Proust, isn’t it simply a revived interest, not a new phenomenon?

Well, according to the article I read, Autofiction is simply writing that “vigorously reasserts the self.” So, not memoir but rather a contrasting of the drowned, paranoid, deflated self in postmodern literary experiments by Pynchon, De Lillo, and other uber-masculine writers whose work I’ve actually always been too intimidated to try, all because, once in a Barnes and Noble, a very pale, bespectacled employee with a blond goatee loftily told me Gravity’s Rainbow was the best book ever written.

I thought anything that could so please that self-important, unsmiling personage probably wouldn’t please me. I hadn’t yet experienced the phenomenon of Harry Potter, in which I learned that something which feels intensely personal can be liked by, well, everyone under the sun until the planet is almost depopulated of trees.

Luckily, I’ve learned as much by the time I heard mention of Karl Ove, or I might have dismissed him as well, as too lofty for my tastes. And I’m enjoying his book for the exact opposite reason. Knausgaard manages to make even the most ordinary subjects fascinating; he goes so far as to crow about this talent in the narrative, albeit putting the actual words in the mouth of an intellectual crony who lengthily praises Knausgaard’s ability to make brushing teeth, walking down the street, buying groceries, pushing a stroller fascinating material. Indeed, Knausgaard depicts so-called “ordinary” experiences with an unabashedly laser eye. Reading him makes me wonder how much I take in of my every day world myself.

If I were to try the same, how much could I recall? I think of a passage from a novel of Kundera’s, which one, fittingly, I can’t remember. In it he describes the act of reading simultaneously as an acting of forgetting. My mother, a voracious reader, is the queen par excellence of this feat. It doesn’t matter if she’s only just slammed a book shut, she won’t remember a word of it or the name of a single character, but she will invoke the book if anyone asks, adding only whether or not she liked it.

This foggy recollection of a great masterpiece more than satisfies her needs, while, somehow, if I can’t recall character names, I feel I’ve failed. Is my highly selective memory much better than vagueness? Is that all living is, getting through the day until the next one? Remembering nothing of substance in between except a handful of majorly memorable moments? Remembering Harper’s 2nd birthday party but not the day after? Not today? Not acting as if my own ordinary life is worth taking in?

At least Autofiction, by paying excruciating attention to the self, seems to say, although we are plagued by forgetfulness and a million distractions, the self is worth paying attention to, real attention, not the self-pitying kind but the harrowingly minute attention a scientist pays proving a thesis. Or in Knausgaard’s words, describing his struggle:

“…the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined my efforts.”

If I could I so honestly admit dissatisfaction would it be as profound a study of the self’s struggle or just whining, and then what? Does hyper-awareness bring pleasure then or only more pain? And what does that change? Nothing? Everything?

Those are only more questions, granted, but that’s also the exciting thing about Autofiction—it proves there are mysterious worlds yet to explore. The novel isn’t dead; new forms can yet be born, there’s a whole brave, new world of the exquisitely wrought self to navigate and chart, many questions to ask and answered. And of course, questions are where we, writers and their readers, must begin.

Why are we reading? Why are we writing? Not to live another life, surely, but to feel we are living the lives we have with as much self-awareness as we can muster. Painful or pleasurable, it’s worth witnessing your own life. If Autofiction explores the self without conventional plots, perhaps it’s because that’s worth focusing on, minus all the space conventional denouements, deus-ex-machinas, or other predictable, rehashed devices demanding that fascinating characters are put through familiar paces.

And now, I’m finishing this essay, hoping I’ve sounded as deeply profound as Knausgaard, knowing, in trying, I’ve failed. If I truly evoke him and his brutal brand of honesty, I must admit all I’m really thinking in my heart of hearts is please stop snowing, sky! Please let the daycare open! Most of all, please, puppy, please for God’s sake pee outside.

Unlike Knausgaard, I have to admit, at the end of the day, I’d just rather not think too deeply about some of this stuff; I’d prefer to escape. Probably, the next book on my reading list won’t be New Yorker-approved but a hard-boiled detective novel, or something about talking dragons. It’s pleasant, very pleasant, to fantasize about the possibility of flying far, far away—at least for a little while. I’d hate to snub the glitterati, but perhaps made-up plots still have some value in our lives, after all.

omega man

Isabella David McCaffrey’s work has appeared in Best of Black Heart Magazine, The Lascaux Review, Adbusters, Slippery Elm, Every Day Fiction, and elsewhere. She was longlisted for the Venture Award and is the winner of Tampa Review’s 2014 Danahy Fiction Prize.

Warped Optimism

“Lovesongs,” oil and graphite on wood, by Audrey Kawasaki, 2011. Used with permission.

by Diane Payne

After making the one hundred mile drive with my daughter for the Breast MRI appointment, she takes off to meet an old friend who is a medical student at the hospital. “Oh, no, is this going to be a Grey’s Anatomy booty call?” She ignores me and takes off to have way more fun than I will during my 90-minute appointment. She gets a booty call. I get a booby call. I’m already feeling like a curmudgeon about this MRI.

I’ve been coming to this clinic for years. They know my high-risk history. I was there two weeks ago for a mammogram. I’m not a stranger. They have my medical records in their hands, yet, just as someone is squeezing my breast for a mammogram or injecting me with the dye for the MRI, they always ask: “Who in your family has had breast cancer?”

Seriously, you don’t know? And when they ask the age of my mother when she first learned that she had breast cancer, and I say 30, they always shake their heads, cluck a bit, and sigh. When I report my sister is now cancer-free, they seem a bit more relieved. “Ooh, aunts and cousins too. You’re lucky you haven’t had a biopsy.” I feel like they’re going to say yet, but they control themselves.

Doomsayers.

Standing there with my breasts flopping, we could talk about anything. I’d be game to discuss hairballs, toothpaste, bad cheese, or Brad Pitt (not Angelina Jolie).  I don’t want to talk about my long list of relatives who’ve had breast cancer. Shirtless, I want to walk down the hallway, sagging breasts flopping merrily as I leave their clinic. “I don’t need to be here,” I imagine myself saying as my parting words.

Instead, I get to shove my breasts down a couple of holes, and am warned not to move or I’ll have to do the MRI all over again. This technician doesn’t even ask me what music I want to hear. She just shoves the large headphones on and walks away. I have to ask her for the plastic ball to squeeze. “Just in case I feel claustrophobic.”

She shakes her head no. “You’re a pro at this. You’ve been coming here, since,” she looks at the report, the report that lists all those relatives also, “since 2006. Wow, sometimes twice in a year.” She hands me the ball and shakes her head again.

No, I won’t be claustrophobic? No, don’t you dare squeeze that ball.

Why do I bother informing them that I am claustrophobic?

“It will only be twelve minutes of actual screening before I return with the dye.”

Only? Twelve minutes of listening to the pneumatic drill. What about all the minutes before getting the scan positioned correctly? How do those minutes count?

I resign myself to the MRI and immediately find myself in panic mode. I am over-reacting. I know this, but can’t calm myself. She doesn’t turn on any music. She looks like a country western person. What if she’s Christian rock? I want to squeeze the ball, but don’t want to face any more time here. I can feel my heart beating rapidly. I’ve done this before, I can do it again. I am being an asshole. I think of assholes at work to distract myself. Thinking of them depresses me. This is not a good time to suffer from depression.

My heart continues beating way too fast. Maybe I’m having a heart attack. I can’t think about my heart. Instead I think of a lover who named his dick Harry. The scan begins and the loud noise starts to comfort me in an oddly unnatural way. It’s so loud I can’t think of my poor heart pounding rapidly against the machine. I wonder why men are so stupid as to give their dicks names. Dickhead is the perfect word to describe these men. I can’t imagine naming my vagina Sally. Sally’s horny. Sally’s sweating. Sally’s lonely. Sally doesn’t miss Harry.

A cancer thought happens. I don’t want to think about losing my hair. In the past, I’ve made these weird deals with myself that I won’t color my hair again if I lose it to chemo. Once it grows back, that’s it. The chemo, ragged grey. No more henna.

I don’t want to think those fucked-up cancer thoughts. I’m an optimist. Albeit a grumpy one. Overly happy optimistic people piss me off. Everything is pissing me off in this damn machine.

I think about my daughter being on a booty call. I miss being young.  In this depressing hole, I’m supposed to think, but at least I’m alive. At least it’s not called the Cancer Clinic. Or is it? Maybe I’ve been coming here for years and just thinking it’s called Breast Clinic. Maybe it’s Breast Cancer Clinic. How do I overlook these crucial details?

My heart. I must quit thinking these thoughts.

When I told my daughter how much this MRI would cost me, she said not to do it. “We could fly to a beach for that money.”

Yes, a beach would be a much more useful way to spend money than sitting in this damn MRI. Siting on a beach or in the MRI? What is wrong with me? I have choices. No, I’m guilted into taking this precautionary MRI. Again and again and again. “If we catch it early, you’ll be so much better off, “ the radiologist said after recommending this MRI.

They’re so upbeat in this joint.

A few weeks ago they had their bright pink ribbon Christmas tree standing in the office. One year I was there while someone put the tree up. A pink ribbon tree in the Breast Clinic. Isn’t that a bit much?  I felt more and more depressed with each pink ribbon ornament she placed on the tree. We don’t want to think about cancer while we are in the hospital for our appointment with the Breast Clinic. Humor us. How about a glass of holiday sparkly while we are waiting to see the doctor? How about an upbeat tree with no awareness message? Can’t we have a normal tree like normal people? I would never be a friend with anyone who had a pink ribbon Christmas tree set up in her house.

Humorless staff.

I was defensive with the radiologist after the second round of mammograms and the ultrasound in one month, and had said it seemed a bit unnecessary to have the MRI since both sets of mammograms and the ultrasound had all been deemed benign, nothing suspicious. “It’s what we may be missing,” he said, leaning over me while I sat there in the dressing room, basically unclothed.

Doomsayer.

The noise stops and the technician arrives to inject the dye.

“You’re doing great,” she says. “Just twelve more minutes.”

“The headphones are driving me crazy.”

“Don’t move,” she scolds, ”or you’ll have to come back again.”

The twelve minutes is never really twelve minutes. I obsess over how long the twelve minutes really are, the twelve minutes they actually count. My heart starts pounding. I want to pull the headphones off and squeeze the plastic ball. Let her comfort me while I’m having my claustrophobic crisis. She doesn’t seem the comforting type.

I regret eating that large slice of olive pizza at Whole Foods right before this appointment.  My head is supposed to be shoved facedown in this foam pad, as if I’m having a massage, but my nose has to be free for air or I believe I can’t breathe and I will start to panic. Why can’t I be more normal? At least I don’t have a pink ribbon Christmas tree. I wonder what would happen if I puked down that hole designed for my resting face. I wonder how many people have barfed doing a breast MRI. Wonder if some people are so panicky that they have someone sitting in this radiation room, screaming assuring shit at them while the scan takes place.

And then it’s over.

My daughter is punctual. Her face is flushed. She’s had a much better ninety minutes than me.

At least I’m alive, I think. The Breast Clinic has warped me.

Screw that perverse thinking. I want a booty call.

omega man

Diane Payne is the author of Burning Tulips, Freedom’s Just Another Word, and A New Kind of Music. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, The Christian Science Monitor, and hundreds of other literary journals. She is the MFA Director at University of Arkansas-Monticello.

Hidden in the Bone

“Drunken Noah,” oil on canvas, by Guido Cagnacci, 1640.

by Jim Krosschell

Lately, as I’ve progressed from little walks around the living room to real walks around the block, the neighborhood seems to be different. I don’t mean the houses, or the hope of approaching spring, or the everlasting trees. I mean you passersby, although I doubt you’ve changed from a couple of weeks ago. I’m the one seeing things in a new light. I’m the one that’s changed, not that you’d notice from the outside. You can’t see the little incisions on my belly, or the pad in my pants. Just as I can’t see what’s going on inside you, the pain in your back, the apostasy of your son, your impending bankruptcy.

You probably keep your stoic face on in public, not giving much away, carefully hiding intelligence or emotion or embarrassment, and if you occasionally smile at a baby in a carriage or frown at an idiot blowing his car horn, it’s a measured response, not meant to engage or provoke. I’ve rarely thought about this, being generally more interested in nature than in people. But now, now that I have my own secret homunculus, a cancerous prostate whose excision may not have been entirely curative, I look at your facade with new sympathy. I wonder what’s going on beneath.

It’s good that we keep our secrets hidden. Can you imagine the chaos on the streets if we didn’t, if we were mastered by our environment like the littlest of animals? Merely sitting on a fence, a sparrow twitches, jerks, and startles as if it were being electro-shocked for insanity. A squirrel in the balsam chatters crazily and fluffs its tail and displaces its head so suddenly that I marvel at the physics. A human is not so maneuverable, or freely responsive; indeed, our depressions and cancers so madly expressed would make our neighborhoods uninhabitable, what with the resulting hernias and concussions and fistfights in the coffee shops.

We big animals, we meat-eaters, can’t be acting out at every provocation. We must dissemble. We hide our troubles, we conserve our energy, we wait for prey, we scratch and stretch, we conquer much more than are conquered. The lion, to take the obvious example, is famous for imperturbable lolling. But even the littler carnivores, still a distance from the top of the food chain, display a breath-taking nonchalance. I once watched, for two hours on a December morning in Maine, a fox lying almost motionless on warm rocks at the edge of my yard. It assumed it was safe in the sun. How simple, even joyous, life is when the belly is full, when pain ebbs, and when, in the higher reaches of consciousness, the human mind holds out hope for the future. And if none of these apply, when pain gnaws on emptiness, when things go wrong, the natural response is to strike out with claw or knife to slash and satisfy. The blood gets up. Except that most humans don’t succumb. Most of us don’t turn warm-bloodedness into hot-headedness.

So we don’t often punch the walls or beat the kids. In the progress to civilization, fight or flight has been bred out of our genes. We survive now by buttoning up, walking out our days in patient and beguiling decorum. But is evolutionary advantage all that rewarding? What have we lost by conducting our tantrums in private?

When things go wrong . . . Maybe that’s the clue. Sometimes the insults to your body and soul should be too great to bear alone, even in our safe and wealthy country. That’s what has opened my eyes. As I walk in these late winter days, I watch all of you more closely now, for a little hitch in your strides, for a grimace quickly squelched. I know now that most likely a little animal is burrowing away inside, fate unknown. You are keeping it at bay.

And if that tall fellow over there, walking his poodle and looking so healthy, does get the big one, the terrible cancerous unconquerable complication hidden in brain or bone, let him scream like a blue jay in the spruce. He doesn’t need to suck it up as if he were auditioning for the role of Homo civilis. For whom is he living at times like this, the species or the self?

omega man

Jim Krosschell worked in science publishing for 30 years. His essays have appeared in PANK, The Louisville Review, Waccamaw, The Southeast Review, Contrary, Southern Indiana Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and elsewhere. He blogs at One Man’s Maine.

Face Value

“Self Portrait as a Painter [detail],” oil on canvas, by Marie Ellenrieder, 1819.

by Randy Osborne

“I don’t expect you to remember me,” she says. The Atlanta bar is loud around us. She’s maybe late 30s, with dark hair and eyes, apple cheeks, a certain kind of defiance about the lips. She tells me her name, Jessica. “We were pen pals almost 20 years ago,” she says.

I stare hard at her and ransack the mental files. Nothing. Later I will learn that Jessica heard my name from what turned out to be a mutual friend, who knew I’d be in the bar on this night for a special event. It’s over and the crowd is shuffling out.

Jessica goes on, apparently untroubled by my blank stare. “You worked at Creative Loafing.” Dimly I recall that job at the weekly alternative newspaper, but Jessica not at all. “I was a college student at Oglethorpe. I read one of your columns—something about family, I think—and sent you my poems. You wrote back.”

She lowers her eyes. “I still have those letters. I just wanted you to know how much they meant to me.” She was ready to quit writing in those days and I encouraged her, she says.

“Do you want to see them?”

*

In the past couple of years, I’ve started collecting old handwritten diaries and letters. The hobby arose as if out of nowhere, intense and mysterious. When asked to explain it, I tell people about my father.

Tom prowled yard sales for antiques he could mark up and resell. At his bank-teller job, he sorted bags of coins, plucking the rare finds and replacing them with his own pocket change, worth only face value. One of the first to own a metal detector, he haunted public parks on weekends, waving his wand like a dowsing rod. He unearthed tiny balls of tinfoil and flip-tops from soda cans, an occasional brooch pin or bauble.

One day as a toddler I stood at his side when he dumped onto the table his latest pile of flea-market junk. A hardcover book fell to the floor. When I opened it, the spine crackled. Spidery script in ancient ink lined the crumbly yellow pages. Wedged between them was a lock of hair, snipped and preserved more than a century before. I exhaled and the filaments trembled as if alive.

My spare bedroom is piled with crates full of folders and padded envelopes, the scribbled records of the pasts of strangers. Not that I plan to profit by passing them on. These I am keeping.

*

The scans arrive by email from Jessica. My letters, dated between June and November 1996, are not handwritten as I hoped but generated by an old-style dot-matrix printer, probably in Creative Loafing’s office. Most striking about them is how little my “correspondent” voice has changed, given all that history. Brisk, jaunty, self-deprecating. Is there an essential me? An immutable set of qualities that add up to an entity, myself, never to be mistaken for another?

As part of my day job—I’m a biotechnology journalist, handling the daily news of DNA and disease—I was assigned a few months ago to write about a saliva-based genetic test that purports to find predisposition to disease. I spat in the test tube.

“You have really good genes,” the consultant told me after checking the results. Except for one hitch: one copy of the APOE3 gene, which confers an average risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and one copy of the APOE4 gene, which means high risk. About 22 percent of the population bears this genotype, and it doubles my odds of Alzheimer’s.

When I am held down screaming in some filthy public hospital (so I envision it) as the nurse finds a vein, what of that essential me will exist?

In one of the letters to Jessica, I mentioned that although she has referred to prose as a blind corridor, she did not go so far as to call it a brick wall. “Even those who pretend we know what we’re doing are really groping along.” I described my father’s recent accident, which rendered him a paraplegic, and my fumbling attempts to handle his affairs. Maybe this is what prompted Jessica to send me an essay next, about her own father. “I like the way you folded into the second version of the truck-stop story how he is aging,” went my reply. At the end, “Maybe I will get to meet you someday! That would be good. I have things to ask you about fiction vs. non-fiction, and the difficulties of each.” How non-fiction can become fiction so easily, as recollections fail.

November 1996. In another year, the newspaper job would end. In two years, my wife would leave me a letter—also dot-matrix, in a business-sized envelope—on the pillow of the guest room where I had been sleeping. And then I was divorced.

*

They tow my decrepit Subaru from the parking deck of our apartment complex. Having misplaced the title, I avoided the hassle of getting new tags after I moved here from California. The truth is, I pretty much neglected the car altogether. Probably because of the flat tire, someone reported it as abandoned. I don’t bother visiting the impound garage to harangue some bored clerk in his cage. What’s a car anyway but the means of transport? Like the body hauls the soul around, until the soul alone is transported … somewhere. No doubt the Subaru will be auctioned or flattened for scrap, so I let my driver’s license expire, too. My watch quits working and I throw it away. All of this I recognize as the wordless language of relinquishment.

I’ve waited a long time to get old. After high school, I knew that I needed more life in order to have anything worth saying to a blank page. I wanted to claw the calendar pages off in bunches and accumulate a past. I wanted to let time etch lines in my face and scorch my soul. It happened, but I don’t know much more today than before, though I feel friendlier with the questions, more patient. Less patient, too, almost violently so, as the death clock ticks on. I’m pushing 60. It’s not pushing back.

Still left to quit is my job. I phone a financial advisor to ask about retirement prospects. He wants a list of assets and I almost laugh. As he will, when he gets the “list.” It’s on the night after this conversation when shy Jessica sidles up to remind me about the letters.

“You did a good thing,” she says.

I guess Jessica’s age is about the same as mine when our letter exchange began. Such women look away from me in the street. Everyone understands this is instinct, simple biology, and nothing personal. Their DNA makes them not return my gaze for the same reason my DNA makes me hope (absurdly, because then what?) they will. Our respective strands of chromosomes, our stranded chromosomes, want only to replicate with the optimal candidate. For mine, they are it. For theirs, I am not.

Yet another, larger part of me feels a wash of relief at not much caring. The soul separates from the body, which is not much of a big deal. Can it be starting already? What’s astounding, so lucky, is that they came together in the first place.

“A few years ago I ended a relationship that was murdering the joy out of me,” Jessica writes in a follow-up email to the letter scans. Quickly she apologizes for the “melodrama.” She’s “re-entering the world” and trying poetry again, she says. I tell her I’m glad. Her father has just turned 83, she adds. “My parents had kids late, which makes them the age of my friends’ grandparents, which gives me an odd perspective sometimes.” She mentions his “creeping Alzheimer’s. At least he’s still around, which I know isn’t ever guaranteed, and everybody expected him to be gone by now.”

*

One of my early letters to Jessica closed with, “I want to help and am running out of time.” Another scrap of unintended melodrama, true in one way during the moment of composition—I was headed out the door, late for a flight—and more broadly true in another way now.

If I see her again, I’ll tell her, since it’s possible she will understand, about my stockpile of handwritten letters and diaries. About the form of treasure they make up for me in the language of those who’ve relinquished everything, happily or not. About how the once-blank pages are filled with insistent claims, clamoring to be heard, silently bursting with what we’re expected to remember.

“Face Value” originally appeared in Full Grown People.

omega man

Randy Osborne writes in Atlanta, where he teaches creative nonfiction at Emory University. He is finishing a book of personal essays, and is represented by Brandt & Hochman in New York.

Sunday

“Co-op Store and Gas Station,” photograph by Dorothea Lange, 1940. Courtesy National Archives.

by Lee Martin

A porch swing sways, and the chains in the eyehooks screwed into the rafters let out their lazy creaks as if this is a day of rest for them, too. Or nearly so. They still have to support the weight of the neighbor who pushes ever so lightly with her foot and feels the breeze on her face and listens through the window screen to the radio playing dance music in her living room. The faint sounds of big band tunes: “Moonglow,” “In the Mood,” “Begin the Beguine.”

Somewhere down the street, a screen door taps against the frame. This is one of those afternoons when the air is so still that sounds travel. Someone is listening to a Cardinals’ game on the radio; someone else is turning the pages of the Evansville Courier, or the Vincennes Sun-Commercial,  or maybe last week’s Sumner Press that they’ve finally found enough time to read. The pages rattle just a bit, but not in an unpleasant way, more the way a soft brush sounds when swept through a girl’s long hair.

And maybe it’s that girl who sighs, daydreaming about the boy she loves.

Uptown, a ceiling fan turns slow circles in the sundries store where the girl’s mother sits behind the counter using a file on her fingernails and watching the hand on the Bubble Up clock click off another minute.

Across the street, in front of the TV Repair Shop, a boy and girl sit on the hood of his Impala and watch the color set that’s always on in the window even though they can’t hear the sound. The boy has a Pall Mall between his lips, but he hasn’t lit it. He keeps flicking the lid of his Zippo open and then, after long intervals, closed, and the woman in the sundries store closes her eyes and remembers her husband when she first fell in love with him and how he was never in a hurry, how she thought they had all the time in the world.

“Baby,” the boy on the Impala says, and he draws out that long “a” sound as if it’s the sweetest taste he can ever imagine, and he wants to hold onto it as long as he can.

Eventually, the Impala inches away from the curb. The woman in the sundries store switches off the ceiling fan and turns the deadbolt lock on the door. Her daughter writes her boyfriend’s name over and over on a piece of notebook paper, her handwriting all loops and tails. The baseball game ends and the radio goes off, its hot tubes ticking as they cool. The newspaper slips to the floor as the reader dozes. The porch swing, empty now, sways a time or two and then is still.

Call it a sleepy town. Call it a dead town. My hometown where once upon a time on summer Sundays there was time, if we wanted it, to listen. I hear the porch swing creak, the radio play, the baseball announcer murmur, the girl sigh, the newspaper pages rustle, the ceiling fan turn, the clock hand click, the Zippo open and close, the boy say, “Baaa-by. Oh, Baaa-by.”

I hear it all, and my listening tells me this: when it comes to our writing and our living, nothing is too small a thing.

The lock turns at the sundries store. The woman’s sensible heels make gentle tapping noises on the sidewalk as she starts toward home, taking her time as she strolls past the houses where baseball games and newspapers and porch swings and lovesick girls have gone silent. So slow and dreamy her pace until she climbs the steps to her house, takes the doorknob in her hand. Just before she turns it, she whispers to herself, Baa-by, Baa-by. That word. Just before she goes inside, she sighs.

omega man

Lee Martin is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever and other works of fiction and nonfiction. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Secrets in the Landscape

“The Wounded Man” (self portrait), oil on canvas, by Gustave Courbet, 1854.

by Cathy Herbert

He looked like a hungry baby bird, gasping for breath, eyes watery and unfocused. At that moment, shortly before his death at age 92, I realized that my father’s face was absurdly long and narrow, almost pointy at top and bottom. In old photos, his black curly hair broadened the crown, and a prosperous life filled out the cheeks and chin. Once, he had been movie-star handsome.

No photographs marked his return from World War II after more than two years as a prisoner of war. Behind the barbed wire, he ate bread made with sawdust and beet pulp. His robust six-foot two-inch frame withered to 120 pounds of skin and bone. When the war ended in a forced death march through a blizzard, he survived—barely.  If a farmer had not come along…if the farmer had not stopped…if the farmer had not been willing to allow the scarecrow of a man to be placed upon his cart…if the cart had not stopped at the barn…if there had not been other Allied soldiers in that barn…if one of those soldiers had not had soup to share…if there had not been straw and rags to help ward off the cold…if…that day would have been his last.

What happened to him was reported after the war, in official documents designed to place blame. He wrote his version of the facts in small, precisely printed words that fit within the margins of a well-worn volume detailing the battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. I remember, most clearly, the subtitle “Where America Lost Her Military Innocence.”

“What they wrote, it didn’t happen that way.” He was agitated for a moment and then collected himself. He looked away and intermittently rubbed the top of his smooth bald head, as if to reassure himself that he was still sitting in a comfortable chair in his living room.

“I took out a machine gun nest, but we were surrounded by Germans. We had no choice but to surrender.” He looked somewhere farther in the distance. Arms across his frail chest, he rubbed his pale elbows. “We were lucky, it was an early skirmish. They didn’t take prisoners after the first few days.”

“They let them go?” I asked, not sure what else could happen.

“They were shot. There were too many. It slowed them down too much.”

Even later, when official hearings sought to lay the framework for war crimes investigations and trials, the facts, as typed on white paper, were too pristine to be real. There was no place for the sweat-drenched sheets, life-long evidence of my father’s recurring nightmares. Or the texture of the congealed lime-green muck that spewed from his lungs at the end of his life. The respiratory infection and pneumonia that killed him were vestiges of the damage done years earlier in the war’s toll of tuberculosis, pleurisy, and malnutrition.

The day he went into the hospital that last time, he told me he was not at all afraid of death. He did not believe in God.

“After what I’ve seen?” he shook his head. “No god would let that happen.” Still, he kept the small version of The New Testament, with its cover of carved hardwood from Jerusalem. It had been a gift from the church pastor to commemorate his high school graduation. The inscription confidently asserted that my father would have a happy life in Christ. I believe that he kept the book, not for its content or benedictions, but because it served as a memory of what he had been, before the trajectory of his life was cut, cauterized, and separated into two parts: before and after Kassarine Pass and the camps.

What surprised me the most about my father how hard he tried to reconnect the tendrils of the two segments of his life. Above all, he never lost his belief in the possibilities of the world around him. Once, somewhat seriously, he told me that life was really a series of brief opportunities to change the randomness of events and create the world you want. If you miss those opportunities, the world-as-it-might-have-been flows past, lost forever. I just stared at him for a time, thinking of the chance encounter, the story often told, of how my parents met. He was driving his mother’s car on an errand. On a whim, he chose a new route that took him down the street where my mother lived. On a quiet afternoon, a boy in a moving car drove past a plain squat house just as a girl walked out the front door and down the front steps. Their eyes met. They smiled. He found out who she was, asked her out, and that was that.  Later, they would remark…if he hadn’t gone up 21st Street…If she had been two minutes late…If she had been two minutes early…If the car hadn’t started…if his mother had decided to go to the store that day…if…if…if…Moments of chance and, after, nothing is ever the same.

On the day he fell and fractured his hip—the event that set in motion the events leading to his death two months later—he had left the daily newspaper in his car. I still have it, stored in a box full of old papers and photographs. Its headlines, about DUIs and sick fish in Tampa, Florida, serve as a faded reminder of how quickly life can change, how any day can be the one that unmistakably separates life into a before and an after, with a chasm between the two. I wonder how many of us have such moments somewhere in our lives.

Not long after he told his story of the war for the first time, and the floor of my rental car was littered with foil from Toblerone chocolate bars and empty take-out coffee cups, I made a detour in my route across what was then West Germany to visit a narrow strip of land that jutted out into the Baltic Ocean, the site of one of the camps where he had been held as a prisoner. He had been there very briefly; the camp where he spent the longest time was the notorious Stalag II-B farther east. In those days, travel there—beyond the Iron Curtain—was impossible.

I found nothing in the landscape to guide me on a gray and chilly day in midsummer. My German was laughably limited. When in doubt, I simply said “Es tut mir leid” or “I’m sorry.” It would do for almost anything, a friend had said, although I had nothing for which to apologize. “They like good manners,” my friend had added. I thought of my father, in a boxcar so crowded there was no room to lie down, travelling from Tunisia to Germany.

I imagined that the camp had been situated in one of the fields between the water and the dense, lightless forest. Undoubtedly a desolate stretch of “no man’s land” formed the perimeter. It would probably have been similar to the spaces I had seen along the wall between East and West Germany, omnipresent throughout my trip. Would it have been visible from the beach? From the nearby town?

On the beach, a few people attempted to sun themselves wearing postage-stamp sized swimwear or nothing at all, lounging like beached seals. Within walking distance of the water, rows of parked campers served as summer homes. Flowers tendriling up short picket fences suggested stability amid the trailer hitches. The prisoner-of-war camp had become nothing more than a buried secret, somewhere beneath the landscape.

After the war, while my father recovered in a French hospital, an American officer with too many ribbons of valor told him that—if he wanted to go home—he must agree never to talk about what had happened to him. The officer dangled two pieces of paper, dreams that floated, intertwined, in the air. One required his signature and promised his silence. The other was his transfer for the transatlantic trip back home.

Many years after his return from the war, my father joined a POW support group and decided that he no longer needed permission to speak about his life. He told his secret story in a torrent of anguish, although, somehow, we all had always known. He had hated all things German and, at times, had a distant, jittery, otherworldliness about him. Even in the days before his death, he still, on occasion woke up screaming, sweat-drenched with terror.

“They didn’t care about us,” he reminisced in such a tired and manner-of-fact tone that he could have been reading the phone book. “The money was going to rebuild Germany. There was too much business at stake. So it just turned into Hogan’s Heroes or Steve McQueen on a motorcycle.” Still, he liked those escapisms, the former, a TV series with a laugh track, made fat German prison guards the butt of every joke. He enjoyed seeing the people who almost cost him his life treated with such ridicule. As for the latter, the film The Great Escape, who wouldn’t root for the beautiful blonde actor on a motorcycle, flying over barbed wire with the sun on his face, looking like he was on his way to a beach down by Santa Monica.

When I finally learned of my father’s history, it did not seem remarkable. After all, I had grown up near Washington, DC, and I already knew of secrets buried beneath my feet. Fort Hunt, a few miles south of Alexandria, Virginia, was created to mount cannons to protect the towns along the Potomac River—along with Washington, DC—during in the Spanish American War.  Remnants of the fort still exist. In photographs posted online from my high school reunion (I did not attend), the graduates, now middle aged and mostly gone to paunch, posed for a group shot amid the ruins in a well-mowed field. But no trace remains of the nearby complex that had held 4,000 German prisoners during World War II. Reportedly, some of the POWs were held in underground bunkers, but now, no one knows. After, files were destroyed, records lost in a fire, and the buildings demolished. However, photographs have been posted on the Internet. It is said that many of the German scientists who later fueled the efforts to place an American on the moon had been held there. I wonder if every place holds a secret or two.

In 1945, the Allied prisoners, thin and weak, lined up inside the barbed wire fence. In rows, they moved out into the blizzard, my father among them, weak with dysentery, tuberculosis, and pleurisy. The German Shepherds, with sleek coats, instilled a will to move, at least for a time. An Allied doctor, an officer still in reasonably good physical condition, pleaded with the guards. They threatened him with the dogs. All of this is recounted in detail in war crimes reports. The doctor saw the futility of arguing with the dogs’ razor teeth and predatory eyes. He went back to his place in the long line of men. Ashen faced, they walked.  Labored breathing and coughs punctuated the winter silence, filled with the smells of vomit, urine, feces, fear, and death.

In the hospital, just before he died, one watery eye, a distant blue, like the Potomac on a good day, stared at me. I kissed him lightly, noticing, as if for the first time, that he really did shave his head. A slight rim of soft white hair circled his ears, and his eyebrows grew a bushy orange. I could not understand his slurred speech. Almost translucent, he faded into the pillows and blankets, a frail mound in a large bed, red hospital socks peeping from under the sheet and thin blanket. I remembered that, since the war, he said his feet were always cold. They were never again warm enough.

I realized that, in the time we had spent together near the end, I had finally been able to see him for what he was—a fragile man who had always tried very hard, sometimes against terrifying odds. And I had learned what he had known since the day his life divided into two parts: even though secrets may come to the surface, we are never really done with them. They bind us for all our lives.

Just before he died, he often was not completely lucid. I wondered how many of his memories faded with each beep of the machinery. The lines on the monitors occasionally spiked into red zones, alerts sounding a high-pitched scream. No one responded. The room was cold.

Someone had gathered his belongings and placed them in a clear plastic bag, clothes folded, diabetic-support shoes neatly placed together. They had Velcro strips, not laces. His wallet contained his POW and Veterans Administration ID cards, his driver’s license, and two $20 bills. I stared at the photographs on his IDs. In all of them, he smiled, looking into the camera with hope. It occurred to me that this tidying-up had been done so that, when he died, his survivors could quickly scoop up his effects. The room was almost ready for the next occupant.

omega man

Cathy Herbert’s work has been published in The New York Times and other venues. An MFA graduate from the University of Delaware, her paintings have appeared in solo exhibitions in major cities and have been honored with numerous awards. She owns Cherbert Editorial and writes for medical journals and consumer audiences.