David M. Harris//We Learn What We Are From the Movies
On clear nights we could see
the drive-in screen, watch
the distant images step
and glide, through the picture
window of the living room.
Gene Kelly tapped and leaped
in silence, drove me
to dance lessons. When I took
up cigarettes, Bogart taught me
how to look manly
with them, or in a trench
coat, years before I realized
I could own one.
I tapped, and then I didn’t.
I smoked, and then I didn’t.
I wore a trench coat, and now
I don’t know where it went.
John Wayne for cowboy swagger.
Cary Grant for suave charm.
Fred Astaire for easy grace.
Dance in a Drugstore//Anne Whitehouse
The dark-eyed salesgirl at CVS
jumped into the toy collection box,
bobbing like a jack-in-the-box,
tossing her long, dark, silky hair.
She jumped out laughing,
flirting with the salesboy,
inviting him to dance
to the background Muzak.
Under the store’s fluorescent glare,
they swayed and twirled,
overcoming the boredom
of a slow Sunday night
in a dead-end job,
in step with an old love song.
Raima Larter//Solve for X
It’s midnight and she’s on the roof of the physics building with Paul. He’s looking at the stars through a telescope the physics prof set up earlier. She’s doing homework: medieval history, organic chemistry, and calculus. The sky turns overhead like the face of a great clock. Julian of Norwich, medieval mystic, looks down on them from her perch in Heaven.
The calculus text tells her the derivative of X becomes nonzero when the function begins to change. But how, she wonders, do you find X when you don’t know the formula? How do you solve for the unknown when no one has taught you the rules of algebra, much less calculus?
Julian, sensing her confusion, says, “It is necessary that there should be sin.”
Paul is hunched over the telescope viewfinder, a small eyepiece that juts out at a canted angle from the black cylindrical telescope. “I think I’ve got it!” he shouts, one eye squeezed shut, the other pressed against the cold brass. He twists a knob and says something she can’t make out—the wind whips his words away, carrying them far from her.
The branches of the tall pines next to the building create a whooshing sound, like water, bathing her in sharply-scented terpenes and other volatile organic molecules.
“What is it?” she yells back, her voice also whisked away across the valley.
He looks up, a question forming between his brows, as if he’d forgotten she was there. But then he smiles, and the slope of her unknown is tugged from zero toward infinitesimal. The heat of his breath creates smoky puffs in the cold mountain air. She can see his torso outlined beneath the tight tee shirt, his worn jeans, creased at the thigh where leg bends to form hip, his tousled dark hair and the way his smile grows to encompass his eyes as he looks over the rooftop. At her.
He waves a hand her way. “Come look at this. It’s another world. A god damn other world.”
She makes her way across the high roof, leans to press her eye against the cold brass eyepiece. Overhead, the vast Milky Way wheels to eternity above the small mountain town where her body stands next to Paul’s, the heat of Him conducted into Her through the chill air and the thin clothing that separates these two bodies.
She twists the brass knob and what seemed a reddish star resolves into a planet. “It’s Mars,” he whispers. She is transported. She travels, first, to this planet, then to the far reaches of the galaxy. She stands on a glittery branch of stars and looks back at herself. She knows then, without a doubt, that she can see the future. She will take this boy’s hand, this Paul creature, Earthling, and lead him down the stairs back to her dorm room. And the derivative will become positive.
She has found the unknown, solved for X. She now knows the rules of math and of eternity.
“And all shall be well,” says Julian, gazing down on these two. “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
My mother died in the early minutes of March 21, 2012, just as spring was coming to its fullest expression in Birmingham, Alabama, the city where she was born, married, and had her children, and where she had lived her entire life. The foliage was a promising shade of bright green. The suburban lawns were visions lined with banks of azaleas in full bloom. The year was still young; as yet, the sun’s heat had no weight to it.
On March 9, she was diagnosed with bone cancer. How long she had had the bone cancer, her doctor would not suppose. What was known was that the bone cancer was a metastasis from breast cancer she had survived fourteen years ago. For the past twelve years, she had been cancer-free, but, as it was explained, breast cancer is sneaky and insidious and doesn’t give up easily.
The doctor giving her the diagnosis stressed the positive aspects: the cancer had not spread beyond the bones, and with chemotherapy, she might live a few more years, although she would likely be confined to a wheelchair. If this was meant to be the silver lining, my mother didn’t see it that way. She confided her true state of mind to her rabbi.
“Rabbi, I know I’m dying,” she said to him when he visited her in the hospital.
“We’re all dying,” he replied.
“No, I know I am dying soon,” she said, “and it’s all right.”
He told us this after the funeral, at the shiva minyan.
* * *
As I drove along the roads of my childhood, it occurred to me that my mother’s youth had been the best season of her life. Everything afterwards was a disappointment. And she had never really gotten over it.
Inside the woman she became, there was always the popular girl, the belle of the ball, whose life had never fulfilled its promise. Once her wit and repartee had charmed girls and boys alike, and young and old; she was accustomed to being the center of attention, adored and adorned.
Long after she married and had children, flirtation lived on in her encounters with tradesmen and repairmen–Stanley at the grocery store, Gus at the gas station–men she saw casually in the course of her errands. She seemed happiest when she was flirting, but I never saw her flirt with my father. Nothing so lighthearted existed between them. Instead there was a furious passion that erupted in explosions and battles.
It is one morning at breakfast, and I am three or four years old. I don’t know what started their argument, but Daddy wants to leave for work, and Mama is angry and threatening to pour coffee on him. He is angry, too, and taunts her that she won’t dare do it. “Don’t you believe it,” she cries, grabbing the coffeepot from the stove. She flings a fountain of hot coffee that reaches him as he tries to escape out the front door, splashing all over his good suit. He screams, and she flees back inside. Furious, he stomps up the stairs and inside the house to change, cursing her but avoiding her. His suit is stained the color of dirt, the color of excrement.
That stain endures—dirty, shameful, coloring our family life for years to come. So much unhappiness and disappointment. And so little tolerance and affection.
Long before my parents met, something had happened to each of them that left them damaged. Neither was emotionally whole enough to love in an unstinting and generous way. Their connections to each other and their children were based on transactions. “I’ll do this for you, if you do that for me.” Nothing was free, and everything had its price.
This was how they related to each other, and it was how they treated their children as well.
Mom tyrannized over us because she could dominate us. The home was the only sphere in which she was powerful. Every morning Dad escaped into the practice of law. It was a place where he had reason and justice on his side, and she didn’t exist. Only within her family was she all-powerful.
My parents fought constantly about money. There was never enough. Because my mother had no way of earning money and no intention of trying, she intensified the pressure on my father. He’d left a law firm where he was unhappy to go out on his own and struggled for years as a single practitioner before he was successful. But even after success came, the obsession with money continued.
It was more than a need for money that they expressed. They thought about money constantly, how to get it, how to hoard it, how to save it from anyone else spending it. My parents let their lust for money control their lives. The conclusion was that money was worth more than we were. We were constantly being reminded that they couldn’t afford us, but they were stuck with us. They calculated each expenditure, and it was up to us to prove we were worth every cent they grudgingly spent on us.
In her battles with our father, my mother pressured us to take sides, and woe befell us if we didn’t select hers. We grew up afraid of her temper and her outbursts. “What if Mom gets mad?” we would worry, and by “mad,” we meant her screaming until the veins stood out on her neck, and her vocal cords sounded as if they were stripped raw. In her rages, she hit us, and she tore up our rooms. Once, when I was a teenager, she picked up a heavy pair of ceramic mushrooms that sat on the coffee table and hurled them at my head. I ducked instinctively, and when the mushrooms exploded against the wall, shattering into fragments, she screamed that I had broken them. And in the shadows of her screams was Mimi, trying to find a way to glue the mushrooms back together.
Mom did not care how much she inflicted hurt. The harm within her that in turn caused the wish to harm seemed inexhaustible. That she never apologized was like a badge of honor for her, as if an apology were an admission of shameful weakness.
She claimed that she hadn’t wanted any of her children, that we were all the results of accidents and mistakes. She told us that she had jumped off the kitchen table, and thrown herself down the stairs, hoping for a miscarriage, but it hadn’t worked. Even though she said this many times, it was hard for us to believe. After all, she took care of us; she hadn’t abandoned us. She shopped and cooked, sewed our clothes, made sure we went to school, and took us to the doctor.
She was kindest to us when we were sick, and then she would bring us trays with soft boiled egg scooped out of the shell into an egg cup, to be spooned up with bits of toast, ginger ale with some of the bubbles stirred out, and hot tea and saltines. She loved us best when we were babies, before we had learned to talk or to walk, or express our will, when we were still helplessly dependent. Once we were toddlers, she did not like us so well. She was sure to find something in our behavior to object to.
* * *
At our first therapy session after my mother’s death, my husband said, “It may sound blunt, but I think that your life will be a lot better now that she is gone.”
It was hard for me to hear this. It set me apart from other daughters. It was as if I could hear my mother’s voice in my ear accusing me of being hard-hearted and unnatural. She enjoyed reducing me to tears, until I had dissolved into a pool of water, like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz.
“Everyone thinks you’re a good girl, a smart girl. You’re a sneak, you’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes but mine,” she would yell at me. “I know the real you. You’re a nasty, two-faced little bitch, you’re a selfish fuck who doesn’t give a good goddamn about anyone but herself. You don’t love me, you don’t know how to love. Look at you! I can’t stand the sight of you!”
How I sobbed and begged for forgiveness, hoping she would stop. But she remained cold and hard, as ungiving as steel. And I thought what she was saying must be true, because when I searched my heart at those moments, I could find no love for her.
Ten years passed, and twenty. This scene was replayed hundreds of times, in countless variations. My mother’s gift for twisting meaning was worse than the cursing and the hitting, because it caused me to doubt myself.
When I was younger, the only way I knew how to resist was passively. While she attacked me, I stood stiff and still, my face expressionless, while my mind escaped. I imagined that I was a prisoner in a cell, peering out the bars of a window, turning myself into a bird flying free. When she gripped me violently by the shoulders and shook me so that my teeth rattled in my head, I imagined that I had left my body behind, and I was somewhere else, where I wasn’t being hurt.
She knew what I was doing, and it infuriated her. And even though I tried as hard as I could to be a stone that absorbed nothing, I didn’t completely succeed. There was a part of me that took in every word she said and believed it.
And in between her rages, my father lectured me that it was my duty to endure whatever she did to me, just as he endured it when she got mad at him. He believed that his forbearance made him morally superior, and he wanted me to be like him. He insisted and then pleaded that I should give in to her. Do it for me, he begged.
And so I would agree to give in. And then all the crying that I had repressed, the sadness and the suffering that I had been holding back with rigid control, would burst out of me, and I would sob, wanting to believe that what he was offering me was comfort.
And I would go to my mother, dread in my heart. Time and again, my dread was fulfilled. Despite my father’s promises, my mother interpreted my apology as an opportunity for a further attack. She went for the chink in my armor, and she struck deep. She struck again and again, until I was like the mutilated dragon, writhing at St. Michael’s feet.
My father’s claim of the moral high ground went hand in hand with his belief that he commanded an impartial view from this exalted place. He meted out blame. “What do you do that sets her off? She never gets mad at your sisters the way she gets mad at you. Why can’t you learn not to provoke her?”
I didn’t want to provoke her. I wanted her to love me, but she didn’t. She constantly found fault. Something I did or said, or something I didn’t do or should have done was always setting her off. Maybe she was right. Maybe deep down I was a bad person, pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. The truth was that I hated my mother, and at the same time I loved her with a painful love.
It took me a long time to learn to protect myself. It took distance. It took silence. It took decades.
* * *
At the end of my mother’s life, she stopped battling. In our last conversations, she showed no wish to fight with me. While there were no deathbed confessions or revelations, neither were there accusations or threats. I didn’t know how close to death she was, but she knew, and she kept her own counsel. She never used the word “cancer” in conversation with me. She insisted that it was her chronic fatigue syndrome and her chronic mononucleosis that was causing her problems. I had stopped challenging her years ago. I listened, and I sympathized.
In a strange way, illness always brought out the best in my mother. She was long-suffering and heroic. As a patient in the hospital, she made an effort to cooperate. On that floor, she was the nurses’ favorite. She always wanted sympathy, and now it came to her in abundance.
But she wasn’t getting better. And the depths to which she was falling took her by surprise. I could hear the shock in the tone of her voice.
The pleasures of her life slipped away from her; she could no longer concentrate on reading, or watching television. Eating, walking, going to the bathroom, getting dressed were no longer activities of her daily life. Given this state of things, did she make a conscious decision to die sooner rather than later, in order to avoid the misery that lay ahead of her? Did she will her heart to fail, her lungs to fill with fluid? I wonder what it was like for her in those final moments, alone in the hospital room. I admire her courage, and I love her for not fighting the inevitable. If I were in her place, I would prefer it her way.
* * *
After my mother’s death, I was left with a sense of emptiness. I found consolation in the family treasure trove of pictures. I loved looking at the images of my parents at the beginning of their marriage, when they were younger than I had ever known them, and their life together was a future promise. They seemed to beckon mysteriously from the unknowable past. What secrets could I unlock if I were to speak to them?
My sisters and I have fallen in love with these pictures; we copy and exchange them by email and flash drive. In these idealized images, our parents are smiling and beautiful. They appear happier and more confident than any of us ever remember them being.
Appearances deceive. Self-assertive and opinionated though my mother was, she was not confident. Despite her obvious gifts and accomplishments, she allowed herself to be paralyzed by fear. She was miserable every day of her life, and yet, long after her children were grown, she didn’t have the nerve to leave an unhappy marriage where she felt dissatisfied, overlooked, misunderstood, and unloved. She was afraid to take a risk for happiness, although she found my father emotionally stunted and self-absorbed, and she blamed him for not providing for her in the way that she wanted. Ultimately, it was not love, loyalty, or friendship that kept her from leaving my father. She had never worked outside the home, and she didn’t intend to start. She was worried enough about losing financial security that she clung to the evils she knew rather than fly to others that she knew not of.
In his own way, which was not her way, my father loved my mother very much. Once she was gone, it was touching to see how much he missed her, and how lost he was without her. Oddly enough, what he seemed to miss most was her sarcasm. Funny how I never realized how much he actually enjoyed being the butt of her jokes. When I asked him about his happy memories, he fondly recalled her witticisms at his expense, variations on the theme of how she wished she’d never married him.
“The thing with Mom is that you never knew if she really meant it or not,” I commented.
“Nah, she didn’t mean it,” he replied softly, twisting his body with shyness like a schoolboy. Or was the gesture just a manifestation of his Parkinson’s disease?
* * *
A friend who recently lost her own mother wrote me, “The best metaphor I have heard for this rite of passage is that it’s like having the roof of the house yanked off, and suddenly you’re looking up at the sky, exposed to the elements.”
I find this metaphor rich and suggestive, as it hearkens back to the maternal ideal as intermediary, shelter, protector. I picture the black sky, pricked by stars. I feel the cold wind. But I don’t feel the same way that my friend does.
I feel an emptiness, but it isn’t the vastness of space. It is more like a physical sensation in my body, located at the pit of my stomach. It can’t be relieved, or explained away. It’s just there.
Instead of a roof, it was as if walls came down for me when Mom died. From the time I was young, my mother had erected walls to try to separate us from each other. Her idea was to divide and conquer. With walls, she controlled us, confined us, defined us. The walls were metaphorical, and they were also real. Sometimes they were the misunderstandings she liked to stir up between us, the way she talked about us to each other behind our backs and goaded us with what others said about us, or how she interrupted when two of us began to have a conversation that wasn’t about her.
Now she is gone, the walls that she put up are gone, too. Each one of us sisters had spent years without speaking to the others, but now we find common connections in our shared griefs, our worries about our father.
We are trying to reach across the void my mother left when she died, and hold hands.
S.F. Wright//The English Teacher
Monday’s onerous, defeating, and depressing: the whole week’s ahead of Ed Drake. He lectures his seniors on John Gardner with the apathetic air of someone who knows he’s speaking nonsense and doesn’t care that his listeners know it, too. His students sit there, bored. The ones who don’t fall asleep, though, Drake’s sadly grateful to.
He doesn’t drink tonight; he promised himself only on weekends. But often he glances at the bottle of Seagram’s dry gin in the cabinet and prays for Friday to come quickly.
Tuesday’s like all other Tuesdays: one day gone, four to go. To change things up, and because Drake doesn’t feel like teaching—or speaking in front of a room of catatonic seventeen-and-eighteen-year-olds—he has his students do groupwork. Each group has to answer three questions on Grendel, which, to Drake, is the most boring novel ever written. The students bullshit with each other, but when Drake walks around they pretend to talk about the book.
At home, he craves a drink—just one gin and tonic—but he doesn’t. He supposes this is willpower.
That night Drake goes to sleep in a fetal position; he dreams of cold bottles of Bombay gin and glistening wedges of lime.
Wednesday Drake has his students do groupwork again. They like groupwork because they don’t have to listen to him, and Drake’s content because he doesn’t have to bore his students. And besides, does anybody really care?
The day goes smoothly. When he gets home, Drake’s in a somewhat decent mood, the workweek sixty percent over. Two more mornings and afternoons, and then Friday, freedom, and alcoholic bliss. Drake considers having a drink; he holds off, though, which he considers an accomplishment, on par perhaps with having one of his kids understand Grendel.
Thursday Drake’s students have a test, which is wonderful for the moment, as all Drake has to do is hand out the tests and sit there. But of course he has to grade these. His students know better than to expect tests back soon, though, and Drake has no intention of even looking at these until the weekend. So, except for passing out and collecting tests and walking around once in a while to make a show that he’s watching out for cheating, Drake spends an easy day at his desk.
That evening, Drake succumbs: he fixes himself a Seagram’s dry gin over ice. The first sip bites him the way his first girlfriend’s teeth nibbled his neck twenty-five years ago. He tells himself just one. But then he has a second drink, and then a third, before he cuts it out. He wants to keep drinking, though, and goes to bed petulant. But then he remembers that tomorrow’s Friday, and he’ll be able to drink as much as he wants.
He closes his eyes in anticipation of the next day, like a kid trying to go to sleep the night before Christmas.
Friday Drake has a headache. He was planning on starting Chapter Seven of Grendel but decides his students—or he—need a break.
He shows the 1933 version of Dracula. If someone asks, he can say the film ties into the Epic Hero and Monster unit (Dracula, the book, is one of the suggested texts, but Drake’s cash-strapped school owns fewer than a dozen copies). Most of Drake’s students take out their phones and put on their earphones. Drake’s about to say something but figures, Fuck it: at least they aren’t making noise. He enjoys the film, a black and white production that’s much more enjoyable than it typically would be with the promise of alcohol on the horizon.
At home, Drake orders Chinese. Then, finished eating, he puts ice cubes in a glass. He pours in Seagram’s dry gin. He squirts in lime juice. He fills the rest of the glass with Canada Dry tonic water. Then, he takes a sip.
The combination of gin, tonic water, lime, and ice is like an elixir. Drake closes his eyes, feels the welcome, numbing euphoria seep through him. He takes another sip. Then, he begins grading. He finishes ten tests, makes another drink. But he doesn’t feel like grading anymore. He puts on an episode of Breaking Bad on his laptop. Soon Drake’s on his third drink and second episode. After that, he starts to lose count—of episodes and drinks. At one point he’s so drunk he has to steady himself as he stands, and in that moment he wonders, Is this what I’ve been looking forward to all week? It strikes him as absurd, depressing. But as he’s already devoted the night to drinking, he makes another gin and tonic.
Drake’s head aches. He’s afraid to open his eyes and see how much of the day he’s slept away. But he has to, so he does: 9:14.
He takes three aspirins. He makes a cup of instant coffee. He surfs the web.
By two, Drake’s headache’s mostly gone, but he still feels hungover. Like someone with the flu, he curls up in his chair; he spends the afternoon reading Jane Austen and grading. He not only finishes the rest of the tests, but he also gets through forty pages of Mansfield Park (his second time reading it). He decides not to drink tonight; he’ll spend the evening reading instead.
After dinner—delivery again: Japanese—Drake resumes Mansfield Park. He knocks off ten more pages. He thinks how much more he could finish if he keeps reading. But by eight-thirty, the urge encroaches. He won’t, after tonight, be able to drink again until Friday. Drake taps his foot, glances at his book. He looks at the clock. He thinks of the half-full bottle of Seagram’s dry gin. He stares at the page, but his mind’s not focused on the words.
He closes the book.
Drake drinks more than the evening before. He also drinks deeper into the night. By the time he’s starting to stumble and his ears are humming, it’s nearly two. Eventually, he passes out on his bed. His glass, a quarter full of gin, tonic, and lime juice, sits next to his laptop, the ice cubes melting sometime in the early dawn.
His clock says 12:34. Drake groans. Behind the haziness and enervation of his post-night drinking stupor, the thought looms that he’s not going to sleep tonight, and he’ll be dead in class tomorrow. Why didn’t he set the alarm?
Drake’s hangover’s not as bad as yesterday’s, his body starting to accustom itself to excessive alcohol intake. Much worse than the headache—which can be assuaged with aspirin and coffee—is the knowledge that he has to work tomorrow, which means he can’t drink tonight. He won’t, in fact, be able to drink—that is, really drink—until Friday, five days away.
Drake closes his eyes. Then, slowly, he gets up and makes coffee. He sips his cup and surfs the internet. He takes a shower. He spends what’s left of the afternoon reading.
The burden of having to return to work becomes heavier as the sky darkens. Drake continues to read; he finishes forty-five pages of Mansfield Park before he stops to throw half a bag of precooked chicken in a bowl with salad mix, on top of which he puts vinaigrette dressing. When he finishes eating, he resumes reading.
Every half hour or so, to rest his eyes and revive his concentration, Drake goes into the kitchen. He eats a granola bar, crackers, hard candy. He drinks water, juice. Once he opens the cabinet and looks at the bottle of Seagram’s dry gin. It’s near the end, but with a good six or eight drinks in it. Drake, though, doesn’t eye the bottle with temptation and struggle; rather, he considers it with longing and resignation. He knows he won’t drink. It’s his habit not to drink on Sunday as much as it’s his proclivity to get drunk on Friday and Saturday.
Returning to his book after one of these breaks, Drake has something which, had he been drunk, would’ve been an epiphany, but sober, is just an obvious realization: despite how much he feels burdened by Sundays, he’s read over sixty pages, compared to yesterday when he read fifty and Friday when he read none. The expected thoughts and chastisements then abound: how much more productive he could be, if only. . .
But Drake doesn’t linger on these thoughts. For one thing, they depress him; for another, they’d make him analyze the tenuous argument that he does what he does because his choices are linked to his character and as such are shaped. The slightest analysis, though, would show the cracks in this thinking, among other things, and as the night’s getting short. . . Drake resumes reading, content, if with nothing else, that he’s making the most of this opportunity.
There are times, though, after being absorbed in his book for fifteen or twenty minutes that Drake just sits there, letting what he’s read seep in his mind, linger in his consciousness, and rub off (he hopes) in ways both tangible and intangible. During these moments Drake’s reminded why, all those years back, he majored in English. He’d like to teach Mansfield Park. He’d love it if he had students who cared. He wishes his school would take Grendel off the curriculum. He wants this sense of stimulation and fulfillment to be all he ever needs.
Until 2003, David M. Harris had never lived more than fifty miles from New York City. Since then he has moved to Tennessee, acquired a daughter and a classic MG, and gotten serious about poetry. All these projects seem to be working out pretty well. His work has appeared in Linden Avenue, Pirene’s Fountain (and in First Water, the Best of Pirene’s Fountain anthology), Gargoyle, The Labletter, The Pedestal, and other places. His first collection of poetry, The Review Mirror, was published by Unsolicited Press in 2013.
Anne Whitehouse is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Meteor Shower, published by Dos Madres press in 2016, as well as a novel, Fall Love.
Before moving to Washington DC, Raima Larter was a college professor in Indiana who secretly wrote fiction and tucked it away in drawers. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle, Writers Journal, Mulberry Fork Review and others. Her first novel, “Belle o’ the Waters,” is due out from Mascot Books in 2018. Her second novel, “Fearless,” will be published by New Meridian Arts in 2019. Read more about Raima and her work at her website, raimalarter.com.
Adrienne Pine’s creative nonfiction has been published in The Write Place at the Write Time, Tale of Four Cities, The Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine, Carte Blanche, Feminine Collective, Gravel, and other venues.
S.F. Wright lives and teaches in New Jersey. His work has appeared in Chiron Review, Steel Toe Review, and The Tishman Review, among other places. His website is sfwrightwriter.com.