You learned, early in life, how to become a doll. You learned to show emotion in carefully measured doses, each tear equal to one pull of the string along your spine. Just enough to make your owner hold you closer, stroke your silky hair, pat that one tear dry.
You learned to be careful. Too much emotion, and your owner would wail that you were malfunctioning, that your glass eyes might burst. Your owner would peer at every inch of your porcelain limbs, searching for cracks they might need to patch up. They would squeeze your rigid wrists, clutching you tight, till their worry hurt more than any fear or loneliness of your own.
You learned that porcelain is beautiful for its fragility, for that moment it seems about to shatter, but somehow survives.
You learned how to sit on a shelf and wait and watch.
You learned to yearn for arms around you.
You learned that the wrong arms burned.
You learned that if you held all your thoughts and desires inside you, away from your owner’s prying eyes, your wishes would make their own kind of heat. Demanding and furious, just like a heart.
You learned to break yourself, to crack one porcelain finger, then two.
You learned that destruction is the closest thing to love.
You learned about masking tape, duct tape, Super Glue. You learned that people see what they want to see. They see what will keep them from breaking.
You learned that life as a doll is no life at all.
You learned that there is so little we choose. You learned that sometimes, we can’t get up and walk. Sometimes, there’s only one way off the shelf.
You learned there’s not so much difference between a fall and a jump.
Stephanie Parent is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC. Her poetry has been nominated for a Rhysling Award and Best of the Net.
On the day Scott passed, vultures soared the gray skies in dozens. When they first came
down to me in the yard, nearly to my roof, I could hear their wings fold like water.
I have found no evidence of a carcass.
This morning I awoke from a dream, the first one of him since he died, but I lost it in
a sunlight that rose and fell as if he were toying with my dimmer switch. Prankster. (He would
warm coins with a lighter to sting me awake from our hangovers.)
Home from college my first fall, we were driving with our windows down. Leaves adrift
crimson across the hollow, testing the wiper blades of his most recent car. Junkers that would
always break down before the next one.
I was making fun of the music blasting from his cassette deck when he started to cry. Just
one tear. Was he sleeping in his car again? Cut off from parents, all his siblings except a sister?
Lured into another dicey scheme or on the run from someone with a code?
Is this samsara? he asked me once, after I had given him my copy of The Tibetan Book of
the Dead, which I had only skimmed.
The pages of his old letters, some on the backs of court-order forms, float from my desk,
filing cabinets, rise from junk in random drawers: ghosts I’m only now answering, a loneliness
I so easily set aside as if it were my keys.
Written from jail, Scott’s last letter came with the Prayer of St. Francis. (Animals were
always following him.)
Vultures have gathered in the pines. Batting their wings in the dark conifers as if the trees themselves desired flight, held back in place by their roots. Each bird shoves the next into air. They flap, then glide, for a time.
But I don’t think that they’ll be coming back.
B.J. Wilson is the author of two poetry collections, Naming the Trees (The Main Street Rag, 2021) and Tuckasee (Finishing Line Press, 2020). His work has appeared in Atlanta Review, Frogpond, Gravel, The Louisville Review, New Madrid, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University, a writing fellowship from The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, and a Pushcart Prize Nomination for his poetry. B.J. lives and teaches in Jacksonville, Alabama.
This is a note to say I’m really sorry I peed on your green suede boots, your favorites. I hope you’re not still mad. I know you had to throw them in the trash because the smell doesn’t go away, and I’m in real big trouble.
I’ve decided to come clean, tell you the truth why I did it. I just hate when you take me to the vet. First you put me in that tight cardboard carrier and it makes me very nervous. I get carsick on the way to the vet and that’s not fun at all. And Dr. Braun always wants to check me, and he has bad breath. And the food…it is really yucky there. They don’t have my favorite albacore tuna, and I feel very confined and my claustrophobia acts up something fierce. You know I get anxious when I hear the dogs barking in the other part of the building.
I need my space to roam in the yard and cruise in the house. After all, I have my favorite places where I take my beauty naps. I love when the sun shines through the patio door and warms me up on the red velvet sofa. I have my scratching chair and I have to watch the neighbors from the living room window. Somebody’s got to do it. I love being able to jump on your bed and cuddle in the morning until you get up and get me my breakfast.
You’re right. These are all excuses and I should not have peed, but the truth is I get really sad when you and Mister go away. As soon as I see your suitcases coming out of the closet, I start to hyperventilate. I know Dr. Braun suggested Valium for me but I agree it might be better if he prescribed it for you.
I resolved to take an anger management class and I promise, promise, promise, I’ll be a much better kitty. Please give me another chance, but promise you won’t go away and leave me at the vet any more. And just for future reference, I prefer Chicken of the Sea Albacore.
Joanne Jagoda is a longtime resident of the Oakland hills. After retiring in 2009, one inspiring workshop, Lakeshore Writers, launched Joanne on an unexpected writing trajectory. Her short stories, poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared on-line and in numerous print anthologies including, Quillkeepers Press, The Awakenings Review, The Deronda Review, Dreamers Magazine, Passager, Better After 50, Heat the Grease We’re Frying up Some Poetry, Is it Hot In Here Or Is it Just Me?, Project Healthy Love (Riza Press) and Still You, Poems of Illness and Healing. Joanne received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has won a number of contests including the Benicia Love Poetry contest. Several of her poems have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Benicia Herald. She continues taking Bay Area writing workshops enjoys Zumba on-line and spoiling her seven grandchildren who call her Savta. Joanne’s first book of poetry My Runaway Hourglass, conceived while she was home sheltering-in-place, was published in summer of 2020 (Poetica Publications). Joannejagoda.com
We almost feel sorry for them: twisted spines, uneven limbs, dwarf stature, and either bulbous bellies or anorexic torsos. But we finally decide on one that will do. Although not perfect—too short and portly—it’s ours once we saw its trunk and haul it to the car. We can put it on the card table where I grade papers. Once strung with lights, hung with ornaments, and topped with Father Christmas in his fur-lined red robe and bulging pack of presents, we won’t feel sorry for it, won’t notice its deformities.
We have the day off because both parochial schools where we teach celebrate the Holy Spirit’s visit to Mary (Mother of God). Not being Catholic, we learned from attending required monthly Mass about the Immaculate Conception which, to us, seems quite a stretch.
I prefer the Emersonian church—trees, sky, and a path to follow—or not.
Before hiking up and down rows of balsam fir, Scotch pine, and blue spruce, we stopped our Taurus station wagon at a shack looking like a single-seater outhouse. A man came out and I handed him my Christmas bonus, a green piece of stationery that declared its bearer worthy of one cut-your-own Christmas tree.
I’d seen Father B. before, but rarely, only at all-school Masses where all the abbey monks participate. And last year, here, because Father B. planted and tended to the trees. He had a cowboy face, tanned, lined, and leathered. He wore jeans, a school sweatshirt, and blue knit cap. He saw the letter and, perhaps vaguely remembering me, his smile broadened.
“Father,” I asked after the usual “Good to see you again” back and forth, “how’d you wind up in charge of the tree farm?”
He leaned down so he could look across me and take you in as well. “My name means ‘little farmer’ in German, so I thought it fit right that I take care of the nursery. Or, as I prefer to call it, the forest.”
When the abbot discussed with Father B. his role in the abbey, “I convinced him that taking care of the forest was my calling. I got the job.” He preferred taking care of trees over taking care of classrooms. “The trees don’t talk back to you, like kids do.”
You said you didn’t like cutting down live trees.
“For every one that’s cut,” Father B. said, “I’ll plant five more.”
Four days later, my brother and mother help decorate the tree. I’m 32-years-old, and up until tonight, the tradition has been to put up our widowed mother’s tree in her Chicago apartment.
“Things change,” my brother, a psychiatrist, reminds us.
Next morning, I write in my journal about not wanting to relive those nights decorating the family tree, when told what to do and pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Nothing back then compares to life now, setting goals, and setting out to find them.
Now, I find, is five times better.
Richard Holinger’s books include Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences (Dreaming Big), a collection of humorous essays about surviving life in suburbia, and North of Crivitz (Kelsay Books), poetry focusing on the Upper Midwest, available at richardholinger.net. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, Witness, Boulevard, and have garnered four Pushcart Prize nominations. Degrees include a Ph.D. from The University of Illinois at Chicago in Creative Writing. Holinger lives an hour west of Chicago in the Fox River Valley. He has been a teacher, security guard, stock boy, busboy, workshop facilitator, and columnist.
As I walk home, I see the back of a picture frame by one of the windows on the second floor. I imagine a lifetime kept in a couple of drawers, someone’s slippers carefully placed under the bed, the folded duvet — I can’t think of the colour. We never know how far far is until we are there. I walk home carrying my backpack and a shopping bag. I have just popped into the supermarket after dropping my son at school. Inside this backpack which I carry with me everywhere, I keep my wallet, the house keys, a pocket kite, and an emergency umbrella.
Most days I’ll buy a treat on my way to pick him up — you know the way children are always ravenous after school. This week it will be a gingerbread man. I am walking home, and this small town has become my ‘hometown’ now, no matter how far it feels. The years, the ocean, it all contributes to this inconclusive equation. It’s my own private epic, this invisible saga where all I have is what’s in me, not what I carry. And what I hold in my arms and tend to on a daily basis is an extension of my seeking; it’s the reward for not staying. It is a strange set up to be born to leave, but that’s how I see it now, our birth being the first departure.
When I was younger I often though of Laika. But it was only when I finally moved to this country at the age of twenty-two that I felt an even deeper connection to her journey; the bewildering clash between innocence and adventure. It became some sort of amusing allegory during my early days as a foreigner, back when I was unfazed by the distance.
I am home now writing this. There’s a pile of laundry on top of the drying rack, waiting. This morning there were doves by the empty bird feeder, waiting. And then some time after that, my son stood by the door with his raincoat on, holding his water bottle and book bag, waiting. We rushed past the puddles born out of the rain that fell overnight, and he ran towards the falling leaves, trying to catch them.
On the way back as I walked past the nursing home. I noticed the picture frame with its back to the road, and next to it, a glass vase with artificial flowers.
He was sat on a bench as she clutched her bag. They were strangers then. She asked him if he knew the time, he said it did not matter, “this is where we are now”. His name is John and her name is Mary. Years later, a week or so before their daughter’s wedding, John finally tells Mary that that was a lie, that it does matter. Mary does not understand what he means, and so she hugs him, thinking this is about their little girl being all grown up now; about the young couple’s big move abroad.
Mary offers John a coffee but he says nothing. He stands by the window, looking into the distance. “What is there?”, Mary jokes as she hands him the coffee anyway, the steam rising from the cup like a lone feather. And John says, “all these years and I never wanted to think of this, of how this time would come, and how we would find ourselves alone again, almost like strangers.” Mary immediately stops in her tracks as she handed out the cup which John did not see. She begrudges the sign: no one could ever cling to a feather. For a moment Mary considers telling John about the broken pane, and how that particular window is long overdue to be replaced. And the tree which they both can see from where they stand should have been trimmed last autumn, and so they’ll have to wait until November, after the first hard frost. Yes, deadheading and pruning should take place every year after the first frost.
She gathers enough strength to ask him, “how do you mean, ‘almost strangers’?”. John says he wants to book a ticket, he does not know where to; and that he would like to travel and see how far he could go before he came back again. Back again. Mary grabs hold of his words almost the same way she had clutched her handbag all those years ago, when she first laid eyes on him, and asked him the time. She brings the cup to her lips and takes a sip of John’s sugarless coffee, fallen leaves look a lot like feathers, she thought.
Luciana Francis is a Brazilian-born, UK-based writer of poetry and fiction. She holds a BA (Hons) degree in Anthropology and Media from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work appears in various publications in Brazil, the UK, and the US, including Popshot Magazine, Literary Mama, Minerva Rising, amongst others; her poetry is forthcoming in two anthologies as well as in the print issue of Confingo Magazine. More recently her micro-fiction has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and Best Short Fiction Awards.
Fast/efficient—I was competent in both. Each task was prepped and aligned to reduce wasted time and eliminate unnecessary arm, leg, head, and hand movements. Every action was gauged against an internal stopwatch. I successfully turned daily living into an obstacle course race with a satisfying red pencil finish line crossed through each to-do list item. My heroes were robots, sleek purveyors of performance perfection. They got the job done.
In my first week as an art handler at the Brooklyn Museum, I was tasked with cutting individual archival storage mats for their extensive collection of John Singer Sargent watercolors. Easy. “Measure twice, cut once,” I was advised. Not likely. I immediately reconfigured the poorly set up frame room, creating a mat board—cutter—artwork assembly line. I could now accomplish the cutting with just a quarter-turn of my body.
In poetry, there is a moment called a “turn” where something unexpected is introduced that changes everything. Opening the first portfolio of art was like pulling back a curtain, being struck breathless. Gone was the tidy frame room. I was gliding along the dappled waters of Venice, finding a bit of shade against a mossy bank, silenced by the play of light across the beautiful façade of Saint Mark’s Basilica. With each watercolor, I was transfixed. Rapid strokes, translucent to opaque brushed dabs of color, created infinite moments. I felt I saw directly through the artist’s eyes.
Nearly nothing got done. Maybe one or two mats an hour. My shame was mixed with wonder and hunger for more beauty, more journey. Day after day, I toured Venice.
“How is it going with the matting?” Sarah Fay, the seasoned curator of the collection, inquired a month into my employment. No lie could explain why I’d only gotten a tiny fraction of the massive collection safely into their mats. I fully confessed my greedy fixation, this unproductive love affair.
She gazed at me, her eyes narrowed. I waited for the inevitable, “You’re fired!”
“Isn’t it marvelous,” she said, “that moment when you realize that our job in life never really was to ‘get it done.’ Our job is to fully live it, let it wash over us, wave after wave. That’s why we’re here.”
I followed her gaze, gently taking in our surroundings. Our eyes caressing each carved pilaster, gliding further upward into the airy, sunlit dome of the museum’s vaulted marble ceiling. Finding a space where breath itself is sacred, where the one and only responsibility is simply to be.
Slow now, and even older than Sarah was back then, I see how that turn in my life touched every aspect of my existence. Slow to taste each morsel, slow to let go of the hand of a friend, slow to leave a moment full of generous giving. There is no race except the one you create. Measure twice, cut once. Take your time. I promise you, what needs to get done has already happened.
Lou Storey is an artist and psychotherapist living on the edge of coastal New Jersey with his husband of thirty-three years Steve, and a happy bounty of dogs, cats and chickens. Lou’s writings have appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times Tiny Love Stories, as well as an assortment of poetry magazines and various academic journals related to mental health.