Karen Carpenter was emblazoned into my retinas in the mid-1970s. I see her as the delicate, elfin creature who tiptoed into the spotlight inside the Hersheypark Arena and simply said “hello.”
That night, Karen wore a bell-bottomed, lace pantsuit and a metallic gold belt. Pantsuits were the rage then. Everyone was wearing them from Gloria Steinman to Charlie’s Angels. But this pantsuit! Fashioned entirely of beige lace. I imagined an elderly, nimble-fingered woman from Bruges, pins pressed tightly between her lips, toiling under weak candlelight with her loyal, calico cat by her side. The lace maker had read the measurements sent by the famous American pop star to a tee. That pantsuit fit like an elegant glove.
As soon as I sat down in my seat eight rows from the stage’s lip, I pretended my concert companion wasn’t there. I vanished the form of her body inside a navy pea coat perched loosely around shoulders into thin air. I blockaded her Shalimar perfume scenting our section like an old flower delivery inside a closed room and concentrated instead on the hopefully intoxicating qualities of second hand pot smoke.
I have no idea how or why my mother and I came to be sitting at that concert together. It was out of our ordinary. We never transcended. We never became more than what we were by blood. We almost never did “friend things.” It wasn’t meant to be. We were too different, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Even with the attendant mystery of why my mother and I attended a concert together once, I remember what a good performance it was. In addition to Karen Carpenter’s outfit, I have a permanent recording of her unique and beautiful voice inside my head: deeply resonant, pure, strong. But when she sang of being on top of the world, her smile was staged, a Cheshire grin on a thin face. Her brother Richard, seated at the piano, had the opposite problem. He was too consistently perky, bobbing his head every second note even during the sad songs like the one about rainy days and Mondays and having the blues.
It’s raining on a Monday. My mother forgets what day it is now. Her short-term memory has gone missing and the other parts of her, her distant memories, her sense of humor, are frequently on the fritz.
Today, she has forgotten more than usual. The index card standing at attention in the middle of her kitchen table is waiting in vain to learn: “TODAY’S DATE IS…” The Lilliputian billboard offering a daily reality check has taken the place of traditional, cheerful seasonal centerpieces and candleholders. I pick up the nearby red pencil and print: “Monday, October 7, 2019.”
“Here is your tea, Mom. No sugar, right?”
“I don’t want that milk.”
“Tea requires a drop of milk, remember? To protect teeth enamel. How about a cookie?”
I open the “sweets cabinet” underneath the toaster oven, noting the blackened toast crumbs and frozen pizza cheese coating the bottom tray like an ugly scab. Some changes about this kitchen of my childhood I will never get used to.
My mother’s sweets cabinet never harbored much promise while I was growing up in that house. Not today either.
“Fig newton or a gingersnap. Unless you want a Saltine or a box of golden raisins.”
“No chocolate chip?”
“No chocolate chip.”
“Forget it then.”
I give her one of each kind of cookie. She bites and chews.
“These cookies are stale. I can’t believe your father hasn’t inhaled them yet. Still good though. These are the classics, figs and snaps. Stick with the classics, Virginia. You’ll never be sorry.”
My mother stands. Limps. Retrieves both cookie boxes. Leaves the cabinet door open in a wide yawn. Takes one more of each variety for he paper plate. I put up my hand in protest when she reaches in for more. She hands over two fig newtons anyway.
“Speaking of the classics, Mom, how about pea coats. Remember those? People still wear pea coats.”
“Those were smart. Nice, big buttons with embossed ship anchors I think. Sailor coats.”
“Remember when you and I saw The Carpenters at the Arena? Remember the lace pantsuit Karen Carpenter wore?” I ask.
“I don’t really like pantsuits on women. Pantsuits make them look like astronauts.”
“What’s wrong with women being astronauts?’
“Nothing, I guess. If you want to fly to the moon, go ahead.” A rare laugh erupts from my mother, but it doesn’t succeed in changing the flat expression that has come to reside on her face.
“Do you remember that, though, Mom, when you and I went to the Hersheypark Arena and we saw The Carpenters? We sat really, really close to the stage?”
Outside, the rain intensifies. In the street, drops dart earthward, bounce off the standing, trampoline puddles. A red bird waits under a grey shrub, twitching nervously. Down the cement sidewalk, across the street, and up an identical walk, Mrs. Milhimes’ has arranged her customary, autumnal display of rust and yellow mums. The straw-hatted scarecrow stuck in one of the pots doesn’t like cold rain on his face. He’s slouched forward. He’s waiting it out.
My mother blinks, smiles weakly, swallows cookie.
“Yes, I do. I surely do,” she responds. “Didn’t we have a lot of fun together.”
I open my mouth and close it. Outside, the red bird decides she can’t wait huddled underneath shelter forever. She leaps, lifts her wings and flaps silently away.
Virginia Watts is the author of poetry and stories found or upcoming in Illuminations, The Florida Review, The Moon City Review, Palooka Magazine, Streetlight Magazine, Burningwood Literary Journal, Ginosko Literary Journal among others. Nominee for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2019 in nonfiction, Virginia resides near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
My husband’s eyebrows became electrified in Costa Rica, anarchistic caterpillars, with mohawks. Punks. We called them Syd Vicious throughout the vacation and laughed every time. My granddaughter toddled in too-large flippers. Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.” That’s what she reminded me of, and I laughed every time. And I nuzzled her. Everybody nuzzled her. What a tonic.
My daughters and I wore our Polish thighs like trees. They wore theirs proudly, like oaks or redwoods. I tried to hide mine. I had decades of experience showing shame, like a peasant or a shrub. The native men let their bellies brag, buttons unbuttoned. I liked that about them, which was surprising. Maybe because they weren’t really handsome. The native women were beautiful but always sweeping.
The water in Costa Rica was perfect. No difference between water and body and air. No need to flinch. We floated in infinity pools like Jesus, drank pina coladas, kicking our legs on underwater stools made of volcanic stone.
At breakfast, white-faced monkeys, like two-toned jesters in bells, swung along the eaves above us, comically charming. Then they swooped down and stole all the sugar bowls. Then they flaunted their booty. Sugar packets were dangling from their ironic smiles. Sugar packets fanned out like large paper dentures. One monkey wore a bowl on his head, and then dropped all the Splenda on our heads. Only the Splenda.
I thought I looked great for my age in Costa Rica. Then I saw the photos and saw a peasant from L’Vov, a woman shorter and squatter than the others. My body’s a potato. My hair’s an Eastern European riot. At least I’m modern for L’Vov. I have a singular style. This is what I tell myself for consolation.
And anyway, this is a poem about my husband’s eyebrows, not me.
Leanne Grabel, M.Ed., is a writer, illustrator, performer & special education teacher (in semi-retirement). Currently, Grabel is teaching graphic flash memoir to adults in several arts centers and retirement communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. In love with mixing genres, Grabel has written & produced numerous spoken-word multimedia shows, including “The Lighter Side of Chronic Depression”; and “Anger: The Musical.” Her poetry books include Lonesome & Very Quarrelsome Heroes; Short Poems by a Short Person; Badgirls (a collection of flash non-fiction & a theater piece); & Gold Shoes, a collection of graphic prose poems [https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/gold-shoes-by-leannegrabel/]. Grabel has just completed Tainted Illustrated, an illustrated stretched memoir, which is being serialized in THE OPIATE. She is working on a compilation of 45 years of illustrated writing. She and her husband Steve Sander are the founders of Café Lena, Portland’s legendary poetry hub of the 90s. http://www.orartswatch.org/conversations-with-leanne-grabel/
We stand in our black catering aprons waiting for the wedding ceremony to end. For the guests to hike up the hill with their demands. There is a lull before the storm.
I watch as a bee lands just inside a half-empty glass perched on the counter behind the bar. It is late in the season, and the bee moves slowly, sluggish in the cool afternoon, as it hurtles toward its fate. It approaches the ledge and hovers over the surface of the lemonade. I wonder how long the drink has been sitting out.
The bee lingers, enticed by the sticky sweet, but hesitant. It gathers a lick—a sip—and suddenly tumbles all the way in, flailing and muttering, unable to buzz under the weight of the mild yellow liquid. It is like watching a young man fall in love with the wrong woman.
There is a gravity that cannot be argued with. The bee submerges and reappears, struggling in fits and starts, foaming up the liquid. It goes still—then, thrashes again, harder than before.
I am a rapt audience. Small-talk swirls. I’m not paying attention, except to the bee. I stand waiting on this ceremony to end. Waiting on this bee to die. Waiting on whatever can grow out of this arid pause.
And, it dawns on me—a dull ache that deepens with every damp wingbeat against the glass—how I am complicit to this suffering. I witness death encroach and pull back and resurrect again and again and again. The natural way of things.
Eventually, it’s me who breaks. I can’t take it any more.
“Will someone kill that fucking bee?” I say unkindly, a hint of upset braided into my voice. I am brimming with fury, an emotion that surprises even me, its bearer. Appalled by my own curiosity at how long it will take for the bee to die, I berate myself, wishing I could muster kindness, a shining compassion for it all. For the bee and those watching it and all the eyes and minds adjusting to the very thought of something so merciful—the intrepid act of living, right up to the edge, to the very, very end.
The soft-spoken-Millennial bartender with a Jesus-beard turns and in one unbroken gesture dumps the contents of the glass down the floor drain. He has the grace not to smile at his own quiet act of saving the world.
Anna Oberg is a professional photographer living and working in Colorado. When she’s not hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park with her camera, she writes from home. She holds a Master’s degree in American Literature from Eastern Kentucky University. This is her first publication.
At 2:30 a.m. and two weeks early, her water breaks. She calls her mother. I pack: notebook, pen, phone chargers, On Becoming a Novelist, my laptop, my clothes, her clothes, the duffel bag, grogginess, excitement, hope, fear.
At 3:26 a.m., I text my family. “Her water for sure broke this time. Now at the hospital.” On the delivery room couch, I take the January stillness into me. Because of her principal’s promise of being fired, she sits in the bed, tethered by machines and data, and tries to lesson plan. I read, underline, and write page numbers on an ink-smudged sticky note under the front cover. We wait in peace only broken by the occasional nurse’s check.
At 9:15 a.m., her parents and sister arrive from over four hours away. We worried they wouldn’t make it in time. We didn’t know they had ten hours to spare.
At 11:24 a.m., contractions cause her to clamp hands on the bars of the bed. I sit on the couch devouring donuts necessitated by low blood sugar. Unsupportiveness consumes me.
At 12:30 p.m., she’s stopped dilating. Eight is her plateau but ten is the magic number. I begin to get impatient. Anxiety cascades, overloads, and overflows my brain. What if my daughter’s heart stops beating on the monitor? What if they both die and leave me?
At 2:00 p.m., she’s pushing, breathing, pushing. I need to check the mail. Have my comics been delivered? “You’ve got to remember to breath.” I could have taught all my classes by now. “Make sure to keep your chin down.” No more pushing. Instead, walking, standing, leaning. Why can’t they get her out? What if she is in there too long—her head squished and her brain damaged?
At 4:10 p.m., there’s no more natural birthing, but instead, an epidural after the point they said it was unsafe. I watch without watching through the reflection in the mirror above the sink.
At 5:30 p.m., the bro anesthesiologist throws the cap for another needle across the room at the trash bin. He misses just like his efforts to relieve her pain. She’s delirious and shouldn’t feel her legs by now. She can still feel everything.
At 5:40 p.m., the doctor and nurses talk about what to do. They decide a caesarean section is the only choice if after another hour and a half nothing changes. She’s too tired to care or worry, but neither of us wanted that option and thoughts of her death return.
At 6:15 p.m., she’s still not ready. They give her more drugs, but they’ve stopped telling us what they’re pumping into her. I write this and everything else in my notebook. At first, these were notes for a poem, but now, it is record just in case.
At 6:30 p.m., her delirium breaks. “I need to push!” she yells.
At 7:36 p.m., I cry more than anyone else even Gwendolyn, my healthy daughter.
Seth Kristalyn holds an MA in English from Kansas State University. His work has never been published. He lives in southwestern Kansas where he works as an English instructor.
Henceforth, your wife declares, Friday night is christened family game night (which will later turn into Friday movie night, which will later turn into leave-us-the-fuck-alone-night, which will probably one day turn into let’s-Skype-the-kids-who-live-3000-miles-away-night). As a Mormon, you are supposed to believe families are eternal and despite your best efforts you are tethered to each other in this life and the next, like a string of cosmic paper dolls. You volunteer to make dessert. You select marshmallow surprises, a kind of gooey cinnamon biscuit discovered in an 8th grade summer cooking class. You are the only boy in class. The girls in your kitchenette wear fake nails and fake smiles and with fake whispers so everyone in class hears compliment you on your tits as you put on your apron. You don’t tell them how you stand at the mirror pressing little boy boobs together wondering if God made a mistake, which you believe is impossible because in the 8th grade you still believe in a benevolent deity. You come home crying, accusing your mother of hating you. Why else would she enroll you in a class for girls? She says one day you’ll thank her and—after thirty years still refuse to admit this to her—she is correct. In college you host dinner parties and discover college girls don’t want Neanderthals for husbands and find your dexterity in the kitchen arousing, as does your wife who has on occasion whispered inappropriate things in your ear as you prepare bœuf à la Bourguignonne. Dip marshmallows in melted butter and roll in cinnamon and sugar mixture. Wrap each marshmallow in pre-packaged croissant pastry dough, pinching dough at corners to seal marshmallow inside. Cook at 350° for ten minutes. Game night is Pictionary. Your turn proves complicated: self-portrait. This is confusing. Which self? As a firm believer in the multiverse you live in many hypothetical realities. You are a 16th century alchemist in the Bohemian court of Rudolf II with a cabinet of curiosity envied all over Europe. By day you are a fin de siècle flâneur in Paris, but by night a steampunk inventor. You are abandoned by your aristocratic parents because of a congenital heart defect and raised by gypsies in Budapest and educated on the high seas by cleft-palate Somali pirates before coming to America where you write leftist poetry loved by millions of New Yorkers. You are a vulture fighting over a roadside carcass. Again and again your lives return to the problem of religion. You practice messianic Judaism with Sabbatai Zevi and atheism with Rousseau. You make love to Rābi al Basri the Sufi mystic, take a vow of silence in Pangboche, protest slavery with the Quakers, spit on Christ as he walks to Golgotha, talk to jellyfish on a mescaline odyssey with a Navajo shaman, run through a busy market in Kabul wearing a fashionable C-4 vest shouting Allahu Akbar, and are a disembodied spirit sitting at the judgment bar before three empty chairs. Smoke fills the kitchen. A few of the marshmallow surprises are crisp sugary delights. Most have exploded into charred goo. You return to the drawing pad and as you draw a stick figure are seized by the possibility that in all these inflections of yourself, all of your transdimensional Whitmanesque multitudes, you have the same wife and the same four children and the same literary anonymity and the same kitchen full of smoke, a hope so impossible—so absurd—you have faith it has to be real.
Ryan Habermeyer’s debut collection of short stories, The Science of Lost Futures, won the BoA Short Fiction Prize (2018). He received his PhD from the University of Missouri and an MFA from UMass Amherst. His prize-winning stories and essays have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, his work most recently appearing in or forthcoming from Bat City Review, Hotel Amerika, and the Los Angeles Review.
Back in the day when we wrote letters to each other (with a pen or a typewriter or, in that odd transition time, writing on a computer, printing out the letter, and sending it through the mail), I remember more than one correspondent signing off with “in haste” above his signature. Virginia Woolf, reviewing some newly-found letters of Horace Walpole (1717-1797), whose correspondence would eventually fill 48 volumes in the Yale edition, says that he often used some variation of “in a violent hurry” at the beginning or end of his letters. A whole bookful of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters exchanged with the Duchess of Devonshire was titled by its editor In Tearing Haste, because of the ubiquity of that phrase in Leigh Fermor’s letters—though from their length and the care with which he composed them, you would not have thought him in a hurry.
No one writing an email or a text these days bothers to put down that she is in a hurry. When messages fly from writer to receiver at the speed of light (“twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is” according to Eric Idle and Clint Black), saying she’s in a hurry is superfluous. The medium is the message about speed here. Yet she still underlines her haste by skipping capitalization and punctuation, while abbreviating to the point of indecipherability. but u no im just :) 2 hear from her
Michael Cohen has been publishing personal essays (The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review and elsewhere) since his retirement from teaching. He lives on the Blood River in Kentucky and in the Tucson Mountains. His latest book is A Place to Read (IP Press, 2014).