Rummaging through old family photos with the burden of displaying my mother’s life at the wake, (with the purpose, it seems, to prove the dead did not always look as they do in the coffin, polished and waxy, lips unnaturally taut), I am arrested by a sepia-tinted photo of a young girl looking out at me with a faint smile as if she could already see all the irony. I cannot cry for the difficult woman she would become, but I cry for this young girl in a sturdy wool jacket, a barrette pinning her blond hair to one side, her face, pure light like the girl with the pearl earring or Anne Frank in the attic or Mona Lisa—before the world happened to her. Before her father gave away a beloved, three-legged dog she nursed back to health, or refused to keep the piano left behind in their new house. Before worry. Before she learned her mother’s depression. Long before her spine refused to support her. Before she would ask God what she was being punished for. I cry for this girl who smiles softly at me, claiming some small peace in a big and blistering world.
After a death
it occurs to me that I need to take a hard look at myself, a sort of accounting. It occurs to me that I am easily distracted by a drop of water making its way down the pane, that I take everything too seriously or not seriously enough. It occurs to me that I feel guilty because I’m wasting time when every good minute should be spent writing or baking pies or sorting piles of mail. It occurs to me that something is very wrong with that. It occurs to me that I need to be a better person, that my students should be more vocal, that I lack some cool approach. And I really hope my husband knows I love him because I am trying to be a real person in a world where I find myself lacking every day. It occurs to me that I believed I would be a new, truer kind of woman after my mother died, with this new life stretching out across a prairie of waving grasses and endless sky. Instead I am the heroine in a black and white foreign movie where I get up every morning and make the coffee and take the turns through the day and go to bed where the nights are so long and I have to meet my sleepless self and I don’t know where to put her or what to do about her.
Raphael Kosek’s poems have appeared in such venues as Poetry East, Catamaran, and Briar Cliff Review. Her latest chapbook, ROUGH GRACE won the 2014 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Prize. Her lyric essays won first prize at Bacopa Review (2017) and Eastern Iowa Review (2016). She won the Bacopa Review’s 2019 poetry contest (Pushcart Prize nominee). Her full-length poetry book, AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY, was recently released by Brick Road Poetry Press and Garrison Keilor has chosen two poems from it for The Writer’s Almanac. She teaches English at Marist College and Dutchess Community College where her students keep her real. She is the 2019-2020 Dutchess County NY Poet Laureate. Find her at www.raphaelkosek.com
September 2, 2003. The phone rings and my sister says, “You’d better come now.” Sound like a line from a sentimental movie? Not one my family ever starred in. Not one in which I’d have chosen even a minor role.
My mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous year. A life-time smoker, she would not survive the thirteen months of poisonous treatments. No doubt that, coupled with fifty some years of epileptic seizures and the panoply of required drugs she swallowed, made her no candidate for long life. Ever the palm-reader, she predicted an early death. 70 is not bad, right?
To come now means a willingness to sit with my mother as she dies. Because I hate flying, because too abrupt, too jarring, because I no longer fly home, I decide to drive from Wyoming where I have lived since 1983. Thirteen and a half hours to Seattle will give me enough time to grieve and be pissed off at my mother. Thirteen and a half hours—getting up before the sun, heading over the pass above a valley I now call home—will keep me wary, guarded. At that time of day, wildlife cross the road before you can stop: the porcupine or mule deer, a roost-bound owl or chipmunk, suddenly crushed in my mad rush to be there now.
When I am in a hurry to get to Washington, I drive south to I-84. For a time, this route follows the Snake River toward its confluence with the Columbia near the Tri-Cities where my family lived in the early 1960s. It seems natural that I again live close to the Snake, close to the continent’s headwaters.
When I am in a hurry, I shouldn’t stop, but do: to take photos. Near Craters of the Moon a strange gold light seeps under the clouds and across the green dawn’s sage. Outside Hill City, Idaho, towers of cumulus stretch into the blue zenith. How can I not stop.
Soon the Snake will veer abruptly northward through Idaho toward Lewiston before turning westward again, and so I leave that drainage to cross the high desert country of Oregon, through Baker City, and eventually bridge the subdued Columbia at Umatilla.
When I have more time, I hug the Washington river bank before heading north through the Horse Heaven Hills, drawn to the undulating earth, picturing horses with their manes and tails lifted, racing the wind. But there are no wild horses and the only now that means anything: my mother’s last breath.
There is never a question about not going now, though I have a full-time job as a bookkeeper. My mother will die three days later, after midnight on September 6, at home, with me stretched out beside her, my sister’s best friend pressed to her other side. Both of us whispering over her body that takes her away—one soft breath at a time.
Connie Wieneke’s poetry and prose has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in Talking River Review, Camas, Split Rock Review, Pilgrimage, Stand, as well as anthologies. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana and received two fellowships from the Wyoming Arts Council. Since 1983 she has lived in Wyoming, where she has worn various hats.
Some remembered the final crackle of radio transmission like campfire. Others, the explosion over the Everglades. The chrysanthemum of combustibles: orange and white and red at the edges of the clouds. The terrific noise that had no echo. Some insist to themselves the travelers died of oxygen deprivation, as in falling asleep as when their mother or father read that long bedtime story, never completing it, tucking them in as they drifted into sleep.
Some will remember the sound of riveted seams wrenched apart. Some might contemplate the ease at which falling metal crumbles in collision with an immoveable object, such as the earth. Airplane parts folded like sodden origami underfoot.
Numbers that accompany the crash: the barometric pressure as a thunderstorm builds, the velocity of the aircraft in descent, the latitude and longitude of the crash site, the few ounces of fuel left in the helicopter when the wreckage is discovered.
What came to rest, charred and indiscernible––a precipitation of sorts: women’s embroidered handbags, men’s hats punctuated with guinea hen feathers: key limes, Miccosukee patchwork, contraband Cuban cigars. Within twisted luggage, clothes folded meticulously as a nun’s hands in prayer.
In years to come, remembered at the oddest moments: set in the nestlike hummock of sawgrass growing in brackish water, a perfectly filled and intact plastic bag with 50 shimmering tropical fish, some orange, some white, some red at the edges.
Catherine Sutthoff Slaton
Catherine Sutthoff Slaton is a West Coast writer graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in English/Creative Writing. In July 2017, she traded in her REI raincoat for a longer REI raincoat and her Doc Martens for a pair of ultrahigh Bogs and moved from Seattle to the small farming community of Chimacum on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula where in addition to writing she works her bee hives and raises dairy goats. Her poems have been published in Soundings Review (Pushcart nominee), Switched-On Gutenberg, Till, Hummingbird Press, Raven Chronicles, Tupelo, and King County Metro Transit’s Poetry on Buses Series. Her essays have been published in Inkwell, (February 2020), and WORK Literary Journal (Spring 2020). She will also be published in Rumpus, Fall 2020.
The car idled in the middle of the street. With the glint of white sky reflecting on the windshield, I could not see a driver. Detour or continue? How suspicious I’d become. Murder, drugs, kidnapping. So much mayhem in my town at the edge of the Alaskan wilderness. I was headed to the woods to forget all that, and more.
I edged to the side of the road and kept going. Closer, level with the driver’s side, I peered into the window. A young man sat at the wheel, a boy really. Dark hair, a hockey emblem on his jacket, maybe on his way home from the local high school. He faced away from me, studying something on the opposite side of the street. I followed his gaze to a weathered wooden fence a few paces away. There, atop a post, a dark shape, foreign yet familiar. My brain struggled to explain what my eyes beheld.
The boy opened his window and leaned toward me. His skin was smooth and clear.
“Hasn’t moved,” he whispered. “At first I thought it was a juvenile bald, but maybe it’s a golden.”
A boy who stops to parse eagles.
Up close, the size and power of the bird stunned and unsettled me. Standing on the ground, it would surely reach my waist. Its beak curved sharply into a deadly tip that could rip my flesh just as easily as a hare’s. It seemed indifferent to us, focused on whatever lie inside the bounds of the fence. Cat? Chickens? Small dog?
A slight breeze rippled the rich brown feathers along its back, revealing the paler juvenile tones beneath. Surely a bald eagle, since we were far from the mountainous haunts of the golden. Last summer while driving to town I spied the unmistakable white head of an adult bald eagle perched on a power pole above the marsh. Maybe this was an offspring, here in late November when it should have moved south. With winters turned so mild these past few years, if food was plentiful in a neighborhood with easy prey, why leave?
“I’ve never been this close,” he said, eyes wide.
No one passed. For minutes we shared the street. The boy, the bird, the jaded woman.
At last, the eagle raised its head and glanced back at us as if to say, “What are you doing here?” Silently, it spread its magnificent wings and lifted off.
The boy and I stretched our necks to watch it soar over the neighborhood.
“Wow,” he said.
He put the car in gear and inched forward.
“Have a great day.” he said finally.
As he pulled away I waved and followed the eagle into the forest.
Susan Pope’s work has appeared in Pilgrimage, Under the Sun, The Southeast Review Online, Cirque: A Literary Journal of the Pacific Rim, Hippocampus, Under the Gum Tree, Burrow Press Review, BioStories, and Writers’ Workshop Review, among others. Her writing reflects intimate connections to home and family in Alaska as well as a restless exploration of faraway places. Her essay entitled, “Canyon,” which appeared in Bluestem, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012.
The fallopian tubes. I remember them. I don’t remember the teacher’s name, the one who was showing us the filmstrip in the girls-only, 7th grade health class. Her mouth was always a little off on one side so her lipstick was kind of smeared, and she wore heavy pancake makeup, though she was younger than our mothers, and it was Florida where no one usually wore that. The room was darkened for the projection, and she stood just outside the light’s beam, clicking through the frames.
The shape of the whole setup of the insides, our insides, floating adrift on the white screen always reminded me of a cattle skull with the horns still attached. The fallopian tubes, I remember, had little fringed edges like stunted fingers reaching down into nothingness where one egg – one special egg each month—was chosen by something or chose itself to make the filmstrip staccato journey through multiple frames up the fallopian tubes and down the uterus into nothingness.
The teacher disappeared suddenly during the first semester. No one told us why. “Substitute” days stretched into weeks, and we gossiped “pregnant,” but somehow we thought we overheard “electroshock.” We speculated whether it would make her mouth even more crooked. She never came back. But it didn’t matter for us; we already knew everything we needed to know about being a woman.
Linda Buckmaster has lived within a block of the Atlantic most of her life, growing up in “Space Coast” Florida during the Fifties and Sixties and being part of the back-to-the-land movement in midcoast Maine in the Seventies. Former Poet Laureate of her small town of Belfast, Maine, her poetry, essay, and fiction have appeared in over forty journals and four anthologies. Two of her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and one of her pieces was listed as a Notable Essay in “Best American Essays 2013.” She has held residencies at Vermont Studios Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Obras Foundation, among others. Linda taught in the University of Maine System for 25 years and has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast program of the University of Southern Maine. Her hybrid memoir, Space Heart. A Memoir in Stages, was published in 2018 by Burrow Press. She is currently working on a literary journey across the North Atlantic following the cod. www.lindabuckmaster.com
He says the only way to learn is to watch him make it first.
He gathers peaches in a large bowl and rinses them with cold water then pats them dry with a paper towel. Next, he peels away the fuzzy skin to expose the fleshy fruit. He does this slowly, meticulously, to remove all the baby fine hair. The peaches must be completely bald, he says. They’re sweeter that way, more enticing in their bare state, soft with the natural juice that coats his fingers, and if he sneaks a taste, just one bite—so inviting, so fresh, so young with summer—they’ll leave behind a sheen on his chin, his upper lip.
To remove the pit, he slices the peaches down the center and splits them wide. It takes concentration and force, but not so much force that the peaches bruise and congeal in his grip. “If you bruise them, they’re no good,” he says, and licks his fingers. He can’t help but to remove the juice that way.
He slices the peaches into cubes and stacks them in a colander to allow the extra juice to drain away.
Next, it’s the mangoes. He palms them, adjusting his grip around one, then the other, squeezing gently and playfully, checking for spoils.
The mangoes are quickly sliced and chopped and tossed into the bowl without concern. They don’t require the gentle handling afforded to the peaches.
The fresh mint is next. He yanks them from their stalks, tears the leaves, and mixes them in with a splash of lime, and some crushed—nearly massacred—pitted cherries. Everything is tossed together and poured into a bowl.
The recipe calls for red onions, but he leaves them out. Chopping onions makes him cry and he won’t risk crying in front of me.
He doesn’t ask me to chop them, either. I’m not old enough to use a knife.
He scoops the mixture onto a spoon and suspends it in the air in front of my mouth. I’m in his world now, unsteady on my feet, uncertain as to what happens next or how we got here.
“Try it. You’ll like it. I promise,” he says.
I reach for the spoon, but he pulls away and shakes his head.
And so I do.
Melissa Grunow is the author of I DON’T BELONG HERE: ESSAYS (New Meridian Arts Press, 2018), finalist in the 2019 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Award and 2019 Best Indie Book from Shelf Unbound, and REALIZING RIVER CITY: A MEMOIR (Tumbleweed Books, 2016) which won the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Memoir, the 2017 Silver Medal in Nonfiction-Memoir from Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest, and Second PlaceNonfiction in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards. Her work has appeared in Brevity, River Teeth, The Nervous Breakdown, Two Hawks Quarterly, New Plains Review, and Blue Lyra Review, among many others. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, as well as listed in the Best American Essays notables 2016, 2018, and 2019. She is an assistant professor of English at Illinois Central College. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com for more information.