I’m sitting here ankle deep in the brown blues of this creek,
hoping the slim oak board bridge we made doesn’t break.
Yoda is completely absorbed by the colors in the water
near the gray rocks a few yards ahead of me. His chocolate fur
always seems clean even after his usual afternoon dirt bath.
My mom told us to stay up on my yard away from the evergreens
where our small bodies always get lost in this forest between
our houses. The green of the trees touching the grays in the sky
and I hope you snuck out the back window
climbing over trash cans and those scratchy bushes.
The afternoon settles into night and I finally see your flashlight
through thick branches and can almost spot your orange Converses. You rush
and dip your feet in, bringing bug spray and pizza pockets,
and we pop out the tape-deck with my homemade radio recordings.
Next year we’ll be able to drive and our late nights will extend
to Taco Bell runs and Evanescence on a car stereo
instead of these shared headphones. Yoda’s shaggy mane
is tough and gnarled with mud and I soak up the earth and sounds and you
my best friend Amber, not hearing the rumble of my mother’s voice
beneath the sudden hard dropping of rain
Dorina Pena graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with her B.A. in English Writing: Poetry in 2008. She got her M.F.A at Carlow University in Creative Writing Poetry in 2011. She has a chapbook published titled Family Tree by Monkeyman Press and she has individual poems published in Voices in the Attic anthologies and the Pittsburgh City Paper, as well as the journal Girls with Glasses. She is currently sending out her full length manuscript Masking White and her second chapbook Black History. She resides in Philadelphia, PA with her husband.
Blusters at full sail. I will fill my pockets with
Rubies and expectations, book passage on a
Perfect merchantman and trade with heaven.
Peter McEllhenney’s work has appeared in the Seminary Ridge Review, Referential Magazine, Blast Furnace, the Apeiron Review, and previously in Philadelphia Stories. His poetry was part of the 2015 R.S. Thomas Literary Festival in Aberdaron, Wales. He blogs at PeterGalenMassey.com.
Aminah Abutayeb is a full-time MFA candidate at Fairleigh Dickinson University concentrating on poetry. She is an Assistant Editor at The Literary Review and currently works at the Writing Center in William Paterson University. Her poem is forthcoming in Common Ground Review. She lives in Northern New Jersey.
Robert Fillman is a Ph.D. candidate and Teaching Fellow at Lehigh University, where he also edits the university’s literary magazine, Amaranth, and runs the Drown Writers Series. He was named the judge of the George S. Diamond Poetry Prize by Moravian College for the 2015-2016 academic year, and has been featured as a “Showcase Poet” in the Aurorean. Recently, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Apeiron Review, The Chiron Review, The Common Ground Review, Glassworks, Kudzu House Quarterly, Spillway, Third Wednesday, and others. He lives in eastern Pennsylvania with his wife, Melissa, and his two children, Emma and Robbie.
We forgot to water, we forgot to open the flue, so the living room quickly filled
with clouds, smoky gray, a locomotive engine had taken a wrong turn,
ending up against your parents’ figurines, gold frame caught in mid-undulation, draping over
the fireplace mirror, bubbling milky-blue paint and the bar wheeled in for special occasions.
Sliding open to be washed by winter, we had years of thirsty African Violets, not dead yet.
I found you prone with a tiny angel, your hands folded to hold it.
Blue angels climbed to the top of flagpoles posing in mid-flight
reigning over that spring day 19 years before when there were orange-robed singing monks,
and smoke-damage was covered in grape vines painted, roaming the room.
Sliding open to be washed by winter, we had years of thirsty African Violets, not dead yet.
Violet-themed bedclothes, lavender bath rug, the flowered towels, thick enough
to grab fistfuls, digging my nails into my numb palms, your dead ones already cool to the
touch. Wading into wailing, all the while, picturing you up in blue and purple and orange
sliding open to be washed by winter, we had years of thirsty African Violets, not dead yet.
Julia Blumenreich is a poet and finishing her 19th year of teaching 4th grade at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, PA.. A recipient of a Pennsylvania Arts Council grant for her poetry, she has read her work in various venues including the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, and Muse House in Philadelphia. In 2012, she collaborated with the visual artist, Wendy Osterweil, on ‘Reforesting: An Homage to Gil Ott’ a poetry/ sculptural installation/print show at The Painted Bride Art Center. Four of her poems have been set to music composed by Kyle Smith and were performed as part of “Lyric Fest” in 2014. She’s published two chapbooks: Meeting Tessie (Singing Horse Press) and Artificial Memory (Leave Books) and has completed a poetry manuscript called “So You Wonder.”
Ruth Rouff is an English instructor and educational writer living in Collingswood, NJ. In addition to being published in a number of literary journals, she has written two young adult nonfiction books. Her poetry/creative nonfiction collection Pagan Heaven will appear this November.
The first step is to fall in love with the only boy that ever remembered your name. His charmed smile and kind eyes wage a coup against reason and you don’t even notice. Ryan snakes an arm around your waist and your heart flips. “I like that you have some meat on your bones,” he whispers to you, pinching your side. “The girls I date are usually bony.” You automatically hold your breath, sucking in the fat that cleaves to your hips and middle. Martina, the last girl he dated, boasted a 00 jean size, and his summer fling, Steph, had collar bones that could be registered as lethal weapons in all fifty states. The Rice Krispie Treats your mom snuck into the side pocket of your backpack churn in your stomach. You wish she put weights in there instead. Then, at least, studying would count as exercise. But you hate sweating. And celery. Your t-shirt feels like a second skin, clinging to the valleys of your stomach. His grip is too tight and you feel the fat pinch between his long fingers. You try to leave, “Math homework,” you say. He tells you to do it later and leaves a trail of kisses down your neck. One assignment won’t affect your grade that much.
You haven’t done homework in a month. That’s fine because math can’t kiss you back. The tests on the fridge slump, curling from time and lack of achievements. Your mom asks if you’ve gotten any of your tests back, cracking a mom-joke about the fridge looking bare. Except that every grainy inch of it is crammed with magnets from each state your dad went to rehab. “The Rehab Tour” your mom had joked. Good one. You mumble that your teachers are swamped with work in the middle of the semester. She puts another batch of cookies in the oven. You tell her that you’re going to the library to study. Your mom puts chocolate chip cookies from the cooling rack in a tin for a studying snack, but you throw them in the garbage cans out front as soon as you’re out of sight. Her cookies are pillows of chocolate and your breath catches as they arc into the trash. Pull your shirt down over your hips and take a detour to his house. He kisses you the way they do in movies: his face crushed against yours. His lips are slow and smooth against you, while yours are clunky and inexperienced. But in that moment, cradled in his arms in his unfinished basement, it feels like love. The warmth of his chest envelops you like an old blanket protective and safe. Did your dad ever kiss your mom like that, before he started drinking?
She brings him Tupperware containers exploding with Mexican Wedding cookies when she visits him. They are gunked with too much powdered-sugar, messy and over-the-top, like him. Can kisses do that? Lock you into his gravitational pull until you’re too far gone to turn back? More dust collects on your books and in Ryan’s arms you can’t recall what a prime number was even if you wanted to. The midterm is tomorrow. The library closes. You are still in his arms.
You won’t notice yourself changing, not at first. But it’s inevitable, like your dad’s tenth relapse. Don’t fight it. Ryan makes an off-handed comment that you never do anything he wants to do. At the first hint of disappointment, your heart rate skyrockets and cold sweat beads down your back. So you agree to go to his boring car meets even though you tell him you hate going, they always reek of weed and none of his friends so much as acknowledge that you’re there. But you need him. You need him and he doesn’t need you. So you tag along, following him around like a baby duck and coo at the lowered, rusty GTIs and Jettas haphazardly parked in the vacant lot. Bro enters your vocabulary more than you’d ever hope to hear, let alone say. You even start dressing to fit in, which mainly consists of hiding greasy waves under a snapback and wearing Calvin Klein underwear with low rise jeans so the band winks overtop. You ignore the push up bra effect for your side fat. You haven’t eaten cookies, but they hang around your hips like an over-protective brother. You hope he notices how hard you’re trying. You hope it’s enough.
Next, wait for your best friend to leave. You think this is impossible. A ten year friendship can withstand anything. You’ve endured Lizzie McGuire getting cancelled and Sarah Pratt taking Derek to the formal instead of Lisa. You’ve huddled together in matching ugly Christmas sweaters and smeared mascara because your dad was rushed to the hospital. That trip—there would be many others, but this was the first–your mom baked every cookie in her Pillsbury recipe book arsenal, the flour seamlessly fused with her pale hands. That time was the scariest.
By the fifth time you and Lisa had the drill down. You ride your bikes to get pints of ice cream, paid for in quarters from your piggy bank. It was always Chocolate Therapy, two spoons, and two heads pressed together. When Lisa got her wisdom teeth out, her face was bloated and drooling. Chocolate Therapy. Your mom’s face was flour white with red blotchy eyes. She made another mom-joke that Chocolate Therapy was cheaper than real therapy. She dug her spoon into the container and swiped a mountain full of ice cream, fitting it all in her mouth and choking on it.
Lisa buys Chocolate Therapy tonight. A solo bike rides down a wet road. A single pair of tires sloshes through puddles, kicking up mud on her faded jeans. One spoon peeks over the top of the container. One spoon and four servings. She takes a deep breath, preparing herself for the density of the pint. Lisa hopes that each spoonful of melting therapy will evaporate the image of her long-term boyfriend underneath a freshman cheerleader. That freeze-dried brownies and congealed dairy could erase his smug face when she walked in. Or worse, her best friend walking away. You were at Ryan’s, watching a documentary and snuggling your face deeper into his chest.
It ends with a walk to the car. You walk out to your car with Lisa and there are daisies tucked under the windshield wipers. Ryan steps out from behind your shitty Hyundai armed with your favorite candy. You squeal and run to him. He sweeps you into his arms and you never imagined anyone could lift you off your feet. Ever. Lisa rolls her eyes, a habit incurred from years of sitcoms and two older sisters. The eye roll was an imperative currency in her household growing up; for the bathroom, the last cookie, and the remote. While you are flying above her in Ryan’s outstretched arms, she rolls her eyes so hard they nearly leap off of her face. “We get it,” she mutters. Ryan drops you to your feet, wrapping his arms around you. You both laugh, his smile presses into your cheek. Lisa slams the passenger door, visibly frustrated with her arms crossed. Ryan brushes a stray tendril from your eyes. “Frozen yogurt tonight. Me and you. Documentary on Netflix. What do you say?” Lisa leans over and honks the horn repeatedly until you finally break free of his touch. “JESUS! Of course, but can it not be the Banksy one? We watched it like ten times!” You giggle and kiss him, running to the driver side with your hands over your ears. Lisa angrily slumps down in her seat, knowing that you won’t remember the plans you made a week ago for a movie and Chocolate Therapy. Knowing that you’ll blow her off. Again and again. And she wonders if ten years can replace dignity and loyalty.
Mom gets the call. Dad relapsed. Again. His sobriety is as fleeting as time. The hospital begins to feel like a family reunion. Your mom sends the nurses Christmas cards, and all of them know you by name and are armed with an ample supply of awkward hugs. Your mom paces outside of his hospital room. You call Lisa from the payphone. No answer. No Chocolate Therapy. You call Ryan. You sputter into the phone all of the things you’ve been too afraid to say in person. The Rehab Tour, your mom’s cookies, Chocolate Therapy. You wish you didn’t have to leave it in a voicemail where it can be quickly ignored and erased. But what choice did you have? You never go into your dad’s hospital room. Seeing him from the hallway, slumped in a backless gown with tubes sprouting from him like particularly fragile weeds, makes it real. He is always in and out of the house. Mostly out. You honestly cannot remember the title of his last job or the last time he even had a job. Your mom is more ATM to him than wife. If you never go in, he is still the guy that rented It Takes Two and brought you Reese’s Cups. He watched it with you three times because you kept falling asleep on his chest at the exact same part. You sit in the waiting room and read bad magazines. This one is fifteen years old. You think you remember reading the horoscopes a few hospital trips ago. There was an article about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen; you read that one before, too, but this time you could have cried right then and there, big, ugly tears that leave ruddy splotched-cheeks and turn your nose red. Lisa is never going to call you back. You chose Ryan over a ten year friendship. You aren’t even sure if he is going to call you back. Or if he was worth it. How do you deal with this by yourself? You never had to be alone with it. In the waiting room or at home.
This is the final step of getting lost. Ryan says he found a new girl that’s different from anyone else he’s ever met. He met her at the car meet when your dad was dying. When the nurses tried to resuscitate him. When the heart monitor bleeped over and over like gun shots and your mom collapsed from shock. When you took the bus home because you couldn’t face it. Apparently Ryan hardly checks his voice mail these days. He says that you and he have too much in common. It’s too boring, he says. He talks about her bouncy blonde hair and how she paints. She’s gorgeous, he says. He talks about how cute she is with paint-stained fingers. And she’s a vegan. You bite back rage. He prattles on about her and you wonder if he lifts her off the ground or brushes hair from her face. Maybe he kisses her in way that makes her hold on beyond a reasonable doubt. You wonder if she likes documentaries. He kisses you on the cheek and you pretend that your hair doesn’t smell stale and oily. Does her hair smell like that? Do vegans use shampoo? He speeds out, his car scraping the lip at the end of the driveway. The snapback feels too tight and you spent a paycheck on underwear that he won’t get to see. You wonder if he’ll bring you up in conversation. Will she be jealous? Probably not. You slink into the house. Your lower lids act as a dam against the threatening tears, but it bursts when you walk into Disney re-runs of Lizzy McGuire. You want to call Lisa. Tell her about the hippie Ryan dumped you for. Tell her about your dad. Dead. Lifeless. Devoid of Life. You still can’t get your head around it. Can ice cream fill a vortex swirling in the center of your chest? Blood thumps in your ears. Good. At least you’ll have a new pain to focus on. There are no cookies waiting for you when you walk inside. The air is cool, rather than its usually oven-related sticky heat. Your mother is sitting numbly on the couch. This time her arms are not pasted with flour up to her elbows. They are clean. Spotless. You haven’t seen the freckle on her forearm in years. A new magnet is added to the collection. This one from the funeral home on the corner. New wrinkles crease her eyes and a new vein bulges from her forehead. A black dress with tags is draped over the kitchen chair. You sink to the ground, wishing you felt your dad’s flannel pressed against your dreaming cheek. When you felt safe. For the last time.
Jenna graduated summa cum laude from Ocean County College with an Associate’s in Liberal Arts. She transferred to Stockton University, where she is currently enrolled, majoring in Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing, and minoring in Writing. She has been published in a few small publications. She edited for the Sojourn, which is a school-affiliated magazine about South Jersey history. She aspires to be an editor, while continuing to write, and hopefully revealing a silent truth about the human condition.
I don’t remember when the panic attacks began, but I remember where.
The first one hit as I ascended the deck of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the twin span across the Delaware River connecting Delaware to southern New Jersey, a bridge I’d driven across hundreds of times over the past twenty years. My mouth began to fill with saliva and my throat felt swollen, on the verge of closing altogether. My tongue seemed to swell and I felt my heart pound as both my hands sprang off the wheel and clasped tightly over my mouth. Somehow, I managed to keep control of the car till it reached the summit of the bridge—and immediately, I felt normal again, not dying at all, just casually driving down the western side of a bridge that moments before had tried to kill me.
These attacks must have happened a dozen times since their onset, though I don’t know why. The Delaware Memorial Bridge. The Commodore Barry Bridge a few miles north. The Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin, both entryways into Philadelphia. Every time I tried to cross them, my body rebelled and I nearly passed out—until, of course I reached the summit and slowly and comfortably descended the other side.
I began using avoidance strategies, sometimes driving miles out of my way to cross lower bridges like the Tacony-Palmyra north of Philly, or even driving as far north as Trenton where I-95 crosses a much narrower stretch of the Delaware on a lower bridge under which no commercial freighters need pass.
Let me stress this: to be unable to cross a bridge is to be forever trapped in New Jersey. And that is a trap no one would wish to be caught in.
Then, years later, during a desperate chain of Google searches, I found an unlikely savior in the sky blue uniform of the Delaware River Bridge Authority. “Acrophobia Escort,” a service provided free of charge to those, like myself, constitutionally incapable of driving themselves over the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
Masculine ego, I assure you, takes a back seat the first time you dial a cell phone and ask someone to send you a hero to save you from driving your own car.
This is how it works. You park in one of the secure areas off to the side just before driving onto the bridge. On the Delaware Side, this is Memorial Park, a wide place on the shoulder with a row of flagpoles commemorating the war dead of Delaware; on the Jersey Side, it’s a place called the “Jersey X,” a central median where two lanes criss-cross, also presided over by flagpoles. You dial a number, select from an automated menu, and finally you get a human voice.
“Yes, um,” I muttered unintelligibly the first time I called, “I need an escort.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“I need an escort,” I blurted out. “An acrophobia escort.”
“Where are you located, sir?”
“I’m on the New Jersey side.”
“In the X?”
“The X—the place with the flagpoles?”
“Uh, yes,” I said, blushing. “I’m by the flagpoles.”
“Make and model of car?”
And then you wait. Eventually, a police car pulls up behind you. You wait for a moment and one of two officers inside leaves his vehicle, approaches yours with a liability release, you sign it, then he climbs into your car, adjusts the seats for his decidedly more masculine frame, and barrels your very own vehicle over the bridge at police velocity.
“I, uh, don’t know what happened,” I told the officer sheepishly that first time. “I’ve driven across this bridge all my life, and then about ten years ago, I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
“You wouldn’t believe how many times we hear that, sir,” the officer said. “It’s a pretty common story. And we drive five, six people across almost every day.”
I was so relieved to hear he didn’t think I was some sort of effete freak, that I began to use that line every time I used the service: “I just don’t know what happened . . . “
One day in mid-summer, feeling rather confident if not proud, I pulled my Subaru into the Jersey X and made my call.
“Okay, sir, as soon as we get two men available we’ll have someone there to assist you.”
“Thank you!” I practically sang, then sat in air-conditioned comfort, jamming to the radio, drumming along on the steering wheel as I waited for my personal chauffeur to arrive.
Before long, I saw a cruiser pull up behind me with only one cop inside. His partner must be driving up separately, I thought.
And then I saw a figure in the back seat: a large man, little more than a shadow sitting behind the driver on the passenger side.
Jesus, I thought. What the hell’s going on—he arrest somebody on the way to drive me across? I strained to look in the rearview mirror, hoping to see another cruiser. And where is his partner?
Then the back door opened, and a giant emerged.
6’4” if he was an inch, 280 pounds or more, the man from the back seat unfolded out of the police car and towered over it. Wearing a white tank top—a wife-beater, my mind insisted—his bald head sweating profusely, he slammed the car’s door and stepped over to my car. I unrolled my window just a crack.
“Well?” he said.
“Well what?” I said weakly.
“Get out the car, man. It ain’t going to drive itself across that bridge.”
As I watched, he pulled on a midnight blue shirt with a patch sewed onto the shoulder—a patch with a picture of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
Uneasily, I climbed out of the car and went around to the passenger’s side. When I got there, I found the door was locked.
He clicked me in and said, “Why you got the doors locked? You think somebody’s going to kidnap you?”
I could feel my face redden as I got in and fastened my seatbelt.
“Who’s going to kidnap you?” said this giant sweating man behind the wheel of my car. “You got a face only a mother could love.”
I looked at him doubtfully as he pulled out into traffic.
“I got to baby you and drive in one of the center lanes or can I keep it here on the outside?”
“Uh, here’s fine.”
He drove for a moment in silence, then he sucked his teeth and said, “You know you could drive across this bridge if you really wanted to. Couple shots of Jack and you be just fine.”
My eyes widened in shock. “You’re not supposed to be telling me that!”
He squinted at me and showed his teeth. “Fuck I look like, a cop? I’m a working man, son.”
Then I guessed what had happened. Dispatch must not have been able to round up two policemen to share the duty of driving me across the bridge. The one they did locate must have grabbed this giant off a job painting or operating a crane—that explained the sweat still gleaming on his head. It might not have been regulation, but at least I was crossing the bridge.
“You look like you from the sixties,” he said. “Why don’t you just fire one up and drive your own ass over this bridge?”
He looked at me. I looked at him. And suddenly we both exploded in laughter.
“You lived in Colorado right now, you’d be going out your way to drive over bridges just to see if you could get Rocky Mountain higher.”
We laughed the rest of the way over the bridge, I telling him how my dad had worked with Bob Marley for a year in the Chrysler assembly plant outside Wilmington, he saying how he was almost sixty and thinking about retiring from the bridge crew and starting his own business driving people back and forth over the Delaware. When he got to the other side, he stopped the car and put it in park. I pulled out a ten and handed it to him.
“The cops won’t take tips,” I said from experience,” but come on, let me give you this.”
“No can do,” he said, lifting his hands in surrender. “Against regulations.”
“Well then let me give you this, then,” I said offering him my hand.
He took it, shook my hand and said, “All right man, you have a good one.” Then he stepped out of my car and was gone.
I was still laughing as I pulled through the toll booth and drove on my bridge-free way. I thought of the big man’s pipe dream of driving people like me across the bridge for a living. People like me, I thought, smiling and shaking my head. They’re in for a hell of a ride.
R.G. Evan’s Overtipping the Ferryman won the 2013 Aldrich Press Poetry Prize. His novella The Noise of Wings was published by Red Dashboard Press in 2015. His poems, fiction and reviews have appeared in Rattle, Margie, Paterson Literary Review, and Weird Tales, among other publications. His original music, including the song “The Crows of Paterson,” was featured in 2012 documentary All That Lies Between Us. Evans teaches English and creative writing at Cumberland Regional High School and Rowan University in Southern New Jersey.
Horace. An ugly name. The music they’re playing at the funeral is annoying. She’s sad. A little bit, maybe an emotionless sad, cold like a Chicago winter, but hollow and bitter, an almost obligatory sad, as if some downtrodden and suppressed human impulse was finally trying to escape the deep recesses of her being, stimulated by the sobs around her.
The parlor was inexpensive. Why are the flowers real? She paid for fake ones. They were 100 dollars cheaper. If she gets billed for it, she’ll complain. They’ll feel bad for her. The death of her son was a twisted asset. They’ll have pity on her and her empty purse and her empty sadness. Her empty guilt started to creep up in her consciousness but she silenced it as the music got quieter and the cheaply clad priest stepped up to the pulpit. Horace.
She remembered the day Horace exited the womb. Along with gestational fluid and blood- her blood, he had stolen her blood and almost killed her in the process, she was unconscious at that magical moment when he finally saw the artificial hospital light, and along with all that blood, he stole something else, her sexuality, tilled her garden and made it fruitless as a poet would say.
Horace. Right, the ugly name. Why did she choose it anyway? Who was Horace? A philosopher? A mayor? Who knows. She liked the sound of it, the breathy “Hor” followed by the “ace” like the hissing of a poisonous snake. He called her a whore sometimes. Not Horace, he was much too innocent. Frustratingly innocent. Whore was what she heard when she told him that she had a child growing in her stomach. The word whizzed through the air like a bullet and struck her in the head and the stomach. It bounced around in her skull, found an opening within the folds of her cerebellum, and embedded itself there, becoming a part of everything that she thought and did and saw and heard and cried about. An abortion. Her avant-garde friend Allison had whispered that word to her over coffee at the campus café when she broke the terrible news. Allison, with the unkempt hair, bookish yet aggressive mien, and intimidating blue eyes.
They had kissed once, passionately, in Allison’s dorm room at Smith, then had both looked at each other with eyes that shimmered with the glint of fear and excitement. Allison was frightening. Where did she work now? At that feminist magazine, on the Upper West Side, with the apartment overlooking the park and her hair, these days, was even more unruly, her eyes even more frigid, her diction even more acerbic. Abortion. She only heard the “or” when Allison had said that. The sound left Allison’s lips and entered her ears and immediately the “or” turned into whore and she looked at the black coffee shamefully and said “I couldn’t.” It was 1958 and things were different. The progressive doctors were in New York or Boston and she was so young and scared. Besides, he didn’t want her to. His eyes! How they had immediately obscured her view, blurring out everything but the lively, blue irises. She had gazed at him timidly and fawn-like. Nineteen, young, knowing no other men but her father and the few boys she had known from around town as a child.
He smiled, his voice was buttery and sharp, like a knife cutting butter and spreading it all over her naïve heart.
“You look like you could use some help,” were the words that flowed out of his perfect mouth and spread over her like the water of a warm bath with rose petals in it for added fragrance.
What had she said? It didn’t matter. He helped her carry her books and coffee to a table in a secluded part of the café. He introduced himself with the charisma of a politician. A professor at a nearby college, some dignified-sounding position in the math department.
“And what about you?”
Who was she? A first-year English student, from a small town in Pennsylvania. Was she anything else? That was all she could muster and he laughed and told her about a time he had been in Philadelphia for a conference. She laughed, though she had never been to Philadelphia. Her father thought it was noisy and morally derelict. He was thirty-six. She told him her age, expecting him to walk away and leave her by her juvenile self, but he didn’t, and they talked for hours and arranged a time to meet for dinner.
The priest was chanting something about life everlasting and salvation and the children of God. God. If there were children of God, she wasn’t one. She hadn’t loved God and God had clearly never loved her as a punishment, but with funerals and death it’s always important to leave a little bit of room for God in case he really is sitting up there in some celestial paradise, loving all of his mortal miscreants. The last thing she wanted to do was condemn her dead son to an eternal life of fire and brimstone after condemning him to a waking life of more or less the same. She was an awful mother. Almost humorously awful. But how the hell had he turned out so great? He was the kid that all the other mothers cooed over and she was the misguided and impure giver of birth who “just needs to figure herself out before she ruins her son’s life.”
She had heard Jane Klein say that at a meeting at the school. Jane Klein, plump from a life of bourgeois comfort who knew nothing about the world outside of the picket fence that surrounded her meticulous yellow house with a little sign hanging next to the front door that said “God welcomes you.”
That filthy-clean suburban fortress made her cringe whenever she drove by. Too many trees. And the yellow of the house reflected the setting sun like a pool of urine against the amber and orange backdrop. Jane Klein lived on Main Street in that pristine town. Fairview. Typical name for a typical town of fairness and plainness and depressing stagnation. Horace went to the high school there, though they did not have the good fortune or affluence to reside in its clean avenues. The birds were always louder there, she noticed, when she would begrudgingly pick her son up from music lessons or after-school tutoring sessions or any of the innumerable activities he did.
The state had a program that let students from low-performing schools study at high-performing schools. It was news to her at the time. He came home with a pink paper with lots of small words on it that she neglected to read. Did she even help him with his application for the program? Probably not. Or maybe she had skimmed over an essay he wrote for the application, half-heartedly pointing out a misplaced comma and telling him it was otherwise good. She often did that. He asked her at the worst times for help. What else was she to do?
“Mom! I got in! I’m starting at Fairview in the fall!”
She had tried to smile but was tired and the smile ached and she had a headache and ended up frowning and asked him how he expected to get to and from the school which was 40 minutes away from where they lived. Poulter Station. She remembered when she first was looking at apartments. Poulter Station or Thornwood. The three-year-old child was pulling on her hand and she looked down at him and said the two names in her head. Poulter Station sounded like a slaughterhouse or a dreary factory of the first industrial revolution. Thornwood didn’t sound right. It was too sharp and jeering and shouted at her, Thorn! Wood! Thor! Nwood! Hor! No, Poulter Station it needed to be. The schools were listed as some of the worst in the state. But did she have a choice?
“There’s a bus that will take me! And they’ll pay for my lunches and I can do any of the after school activities!” Too much energy for her, and she remembered looking at him, annoyed that he was happy and loud and celebratory.
The sniffles in the room were like a chorus, and that teacher of Horace’s, with the short blonde hair and the glasses and the Ivy league degree was sniffling more loudly than the others, like a rogue, cracking voice that is conspicuous in a uniform chorus. Someone put their arm around her, and the sniffling got louder, as if the arm that was meant to comfort her made her even more sad; or maybe it did make her feel comforted which somehow translated into tears. That didn’t make sense either but sometimes someone else’s touch is so powerful and so vital that the body is flooded with emotion, and tears come when they shouldn’t. She looked at the other faces. The somber visages made the room seem darker. All of the eyes were cast to the ground or focused on the priest, who was talking now about the Afterlife and “the better place above.”
The better place above. Those necessary words that promise some sort of deliverance from the evils of the mortal world, but aren’t those words mere conjecture, and don’t we believe them only because we want to? She wanted to believe them. So she did. She pictured Horace with his incessantly smiling face, making friends with angels and cherubs and God. She had been so harsh to him. But he had been so harsh to her. Not Horace, Horace didn’t have a harsh bone in his body. Him. Professor Penley. Harsh.
“Call me Jack.”
That first dinner date had been magical. She barely spoke, letting his words silence her world and serenade her. They ate a rare fish dish that she didn’t like but that she ate because it was expensive and he kept saying how it was the best he had ever tasted and she wanted to impress him and act like she had a refined palate so she said it was a bit salty but that it was tender and also one of the best she’d ever had. He had smiled at that. That smile was the fuel for the engine of her desire for him and after a few more fancy dinners he started to kiss her when he said good night, and then she was sleeping at his apartment on campus.
The blonde teacher gained control of her sniffles and looked at the priest. What was her name? Ms. Stanley? She knew Ms. Stanley because Ms. Stanley had taken her aside one day and was telling her that Horace would “be a shoo-in for Harvard or Princeton, and I really want to work with him on his college applications but I need to know, and I’m not trying to pry, but I need to know, more or less, what your financial situation is and if we may need to apply for scholarships…” Financial situation. Her financial situation was embarrassing.
After he called her a whore he didn’t speak to her for a few weeks. Even before that, when she would sleep at his apartment, Jack seemed increasingly detached, attributing it to a thesis paper he had to write, but he smiled at her less. Their intimacy was rushed and lacked passion but she was too naively enamored to take note.
Her finances were a white envelope from Jack’s office at the university in Connecticut. The envelopes came once a month. They were generous, comparatively, considering she had no other income.
“There’s something I need to tell you. I have a family. A wife and two kids. They can’t know about this.” His beautiful eyes were cast to the ground when he said that, and in that instant she thought she felt Horace kick, but she was only two months in, the bump small enough to still be kept clandestine, although Lauren Topfield, from Hartford, whose father was a senator, commented earlier that day that “women really should be more careful about their weight in university.” She knew Lauren Topfield was talking about her but she was not offended, she was glad that no one suspected that within her slowly expanding stomach was a child conceived out of wedlock and a dark red stain on her womanhood.
“And my thesis is finished. They want me back in Connecticut. I can’t stay. I’m sorry I called you…I’m sorry that I called you that.” She received his words with icy silence and all of the golden sunshine that had lit her time with Jack was suddenly obscured by dark and ominous clouds, as grey and powerful as a tempestuous sea.
“I think you should keep the child. Anything else would be… I will send you money every month, I promise. I don’t recommend that you stay in college. It’s not liberal enough yet for women like… you, even here.” Women like her. Women who had been trampled upon by the muddy boots of men. She was angry when he said that.
But he got up and walked away before she could say anything, before she could make one last desperate attempt to fight for her livelihood.
She was weak. Pathetically weak. And she wrote a letter to the administration the next day saying that she would no longer be taking classes at the college, and she found an apartment and packed up her dismal ensemble of belongings and moved, without telling her family, or Allison, or anyone, out of shame and confusion.
Her finances were sufficient for the first few years of Horace’s life but then the white envelopes stopped coming and she wrote a letter to Jack’s address at the university and two weeks later she received a thin envelope:
I regret to inform you that Professor Penley passed away last month due to complications from a heart condition. Please respond if you require the address of Professor Penley’s family and we will be happy to provide it to you.
Department of Applied Mathematics
She was tempted to contact Jack’s wife. Without his money, she didn’t know how she could possibly provide for herself and Horace, as a single woman in a broken age when women were mothers and not providers, without a college education, without any understanding of employment, she was stranded, hopeless, useless. She responded, requesting the address, and it was sent to her. She ran her fingers over the scribbled address and decided that she would contact her own family first and tell them, and she did, she took a train to the rural town in Pennsylvania with Horace, all of three years old, in her arms. She knocked on the door of her childhood home and her father opened it, his familiar cold face that had assumed the rigidity of a stone ever since her mother died greeted her, and she told him and he stared at her in disgust and closed the door.
The priest had finished his sermon and was walking down from the pulpit. Music was playing again. What had he said? She hadn’t listened to much of it. She was distracted by the way the priest’s eyes scanned the room, like the eyes of a snake. She looked around. Ms. Stanley was wiping her eyes. Ms. Stanley. What had she said when Ms. Stanley had asked about her financial situation?
“It’s none of your business.”
“I’m doing this to help Horace!”
“I don’t think Horace will be going to college. He needs to work. And if he does go to college, it will be the community college or the state university.”
“I don’t think you realize the amount of opportunities that are available for a student like Horace. He wants to study medicine and I know the head of the Biology department at Harvard. I could get him an interview. He could attend on scholarship. I promise you, this is the best thing you could do for Horace.”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?” Ms. Stanley had faltered in the suppression of her anger and her voice was sharp and harsh.
“I don’t think college is for Horace.”
“You’re selfish, that’s what you are!” Ms. Stanley had said and the words stung. “You are doing unspeakable damage. What kind of mother are you, keeping your brilliant son from making something for himself? Show him that you love him and give him the chance that he deserves.”
She was furious and glared at Ms. Stanley. Ms. Stanley looked a lot like her, before Horace of course, before stress and eating bad food and wearing cheap make-up, when she was still beautiful and could look at herself in the mirror and be happy, but Ms. Stanley was strong and independent and beautiful and young, and the product of a different era, and that angered her. The words that came out of her mouth, prodded by wrath and corralled out of their hiding place deep within her mind, surprised her, and they burned as they exploded from her lips
“Horace has been the worst thing to ever happen to me, and for you to sit there and speak to me as if it is my duty to love him, to love a curse that I never asked for, to spend every waking hour wishing that he was gone, to break my back to provide for him when he is the last thing I wanted…” she trailed off, scared of what she had just said, scared that she had actually said that out loud, scared of the power of those words that bespoke all that she had kept inside of her throughout Horace’s life. Ms. Stanley’s face was frozen in horror. The room was silent but the words echoed, bouncing off the walls and striking her in the stomach, and the head, like cannonballs, like fiery, heavy cannonballs.
“How can you hate your own son?” Ms. Stanley finally said, in a voice wavering with surprise but searingly quiet.
She drove to Jack’s house in Connecticut a year after her trip to Pennsylvania, borrowing a neighbor’s car. She had no money. She owed rent on the dirty apartment in Poulter Station.
“I can’t keep extending your rent. You should look at apartments in Thornwood. It’s more affordable there,” her landlord had told her, giving her one more month and promising eviction if she failed to pay.
She pulled into the street on the scribbled address. Meticulously manicured lawns were like plush carpets leading up to the perfect homes and the trees and sculpted shrubs were like stoic soldiers protecting the homes from ever having to gaze upon anything even remotely unsightly.
Nine Huntingdon Lane. She parked the car on the curb in front of the house. It wasn’t oversized like its companions. It was a humble Cape with a gray stone façade, paned windows, a stately entrance, symmetrical and balanced. A woman was kneeling in the flower bed in front of the house, gardening or weeding, or something.
She stared at the woman from the window of the car. She was blonde and thin, her face was elegant and attractive but not in a gaudy way, and she looked intelligent but strong. Two children ran from the side of the house, one with a bat and one with ball, and they went to the woman kneeling on the ground and she hugged them and kissed them and threw the ball to one of them, smiling, laughing, the sunlight striking her hair and reflecting its golden radiance. The woman turned her head and her face was even more beautiful and poised in its full profile, and she looked for a second at the car, squinted her eyes, and waved questioningly.
She drove away. She cried. She cried all the way to the dirty apartment and Horace cried too, and she started to cry tears of anger and looked at Horace, whose face was wrinkled in anguish, ugly, and she wished he wasn’t there.
“How can you hate your own son?” Those words assaulted her mind as she stormed out of the school that day, they assaulted her mind as she sped home, silent with rage, with Horace in the passenger seat, they assaulted her mind as the red traffic light approached, matching the red hot fury that she felt, they assaulted her mind as she sped through it and heard a honk and screamed as a car smashed into the passenger side of the car and all she could see on the ground when she had been pulled out of the car by a medic was Horace’s college prep textbook, singed on the corners, the pages crumpled, the book open to a page, and on the page, she could read the words clearly, “Ten Tips For Getting Into The Best Schools.”
She looked up as Ms. Stanley deposited a bouquet of yellow flowers onto the already enormous pile. She saw a ghost of her young self, walking through campus with books in her arms and glasses and blonde hair and a budding sense of confidence. Ms. Stanley kissed her hand and placed it on the black casket. She looked motherly, beautiful, free.
Did she hate her own son? The words again assaulted her as Ms. Stanley walked out of the funeral parlor and her mind conjured an image of her own youthful self walking away and she looked around the parlor with disdain, longing, regret, confusion….
Alexander is a sophomore at Temple University majoring in Global Studies and Spanish. Originally from Connecticut, he attended Temple for his freshman year, and has spent his sophomore year studying abroad in Spain and Italy. Alexander enjoys reading and writing in his free time, as well as hiking and spending time outdoors. Apart from fiction, Alexander writes poetry, and has contributed to Temple University’s literary magazine, Hyphen.