Like water, language flows with its own convention. Words shift and change shape depending on the container, on the cultural barometer, the source of light, bend of ear. An utterance might be rigid as ice, impenetrable and bafflingly cold. A phrase equally inscrutable for its ephemeralness, mysterious as steam, foggy and evanescent. No sharp-edged land can hold back the wrath of a storm, no rock the insistence of a river’s polish.
So, too, words flung in biting inflection or soothing tone can wear down, win over, spark wonder, worry, want, well-being, wrath.
And like water, like words: women.
Chicks, dolls, broads. The fairer sex, the weaker vessel, a damsel in distress. Cleaning ladies, housewives, gentlewomen, maids. The chairwoman, the actress, the prostitute. The sister, a daughter, niece, mother. A maiden, the virgin, mistress, whore. The spinster, the crone. The bitch, the ditz, the bombshell, the jail bait, the shrew. She’s a wild child, tomboy, spitfire, butch, battle-ax, ball and chain, ball buster, cock tease. Smile, you young thing, old hag, waif, wench, witch. Tell us your stories, cougar, hell cat, minx.
“Water is something you cannot hold,” writes Anne Carson in her collection Plainwater. Still, we try: filling trays for ice cubes, glasses for guests, tubs to bathe our families.
Corsets, girdles, Spanx, cabbage soup, SlimFast, Master Cleanse. We can be held, but not contained. We are the egg and the nest and the flock flown south. As lakes flow into rivers, rivers into seas, we morph, move, dance, leak. We flow.
Welcome to Tidal Journal. We are a journal ruled by the words of womxn, whose bodies of water are ruled by the moon, whose muscles flex with strength and softness.
Welcome to Tidal Journal. We are a journal whose very title is the tidal pull and push of pleasure and pain, of stillness and flow, of process and becoming.
Let the tide pull you in.
Arielle Silver is founding editor of Tidal, former editor of Lunch Ticket, and contributor to Matador Review, Brevity, Under the Gum Tree, Gulf Stream, Jet Fuel Review, Lilith Magazine, among others. She teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she also writes for the alumni magazine. In addition, she is a performing singer/songwriter and composer, whose music has been licensed internationally for film and TV. With her partner, she leads retreats and workshops on yoga, creativity, and writing in California and beyond. www.ariellesilver.com
by Judith Huge
June 7, 2019
Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Welcome to Tidal, the new literary journal of the International Women’s Writing Guild, an organization that has for 44 years empowered women writers through workshops, community, and now publication. Here you will find work that has won honors in our annual writers’ contests, work by members, perhaps even work of your own.
Out here where I live on Cape Cod, the tides become part of your own pulse. For centuries the tides have brought in inspiration to writers and carried out messages in bottles. Today, Tidal is here to recognize the incoming work of outstanding women writers, and to provide the potential to carry the work beyond those writers' own desks and safe harbors out into a world that needs these voices amid the storms.
See Tidal as your own tide: Read it in your quiet hours, contribute to it as it inspires and shapes words from your own hands, share it with others who love words and stories as you do.
As Board Chair of the International Women’s Writing Guild, I invite you to embrace Tidal and the Guild’s mission to bring the words of women into ever-more-distant seas.
Judith Huge is Board Chair of the International Women's Writing Guild and Founder of the Goucher College Teachers’ Institute, a graduate program focused on the teaching of writing. She lives in Cape Cod, MA.
by Anna St. Sylvan
My child is crazy about horses. She's more desperate than crazy, actually. I'm not sure where it came from. Maybe horses mean light, beaming through years of darkness.
She wants a horse. I want to erase the past, which is why my family is lurching through the red-rock desert of northern Arizona, south from the snows of Montana into spring, traveling the unforgiving country of arches, canyons and cliffs.
“Papa, stop! It says horse rides,” says my child. She called the other one Daddy, before us. She’s ten, with honey-blonde hair, dark green eyes and smooth rounded cheeks.
My instinct is to please my daughter. That usually fails. On the other hand, I keep thinking, the luckiest people find passions young and derive from them lifetimes of pleasure. “It won’t hurt to ask,” I say to my husband.
His name is Rivers. He turns, steering us toward a small camper with “Bed and Breakfast” painted on one side, a neat cactus rock garden. A thin Navajo man holding a small girl’s hand emerges. The child's face is placid, obedient. I feel my belly start to churn.
My daughter knows this image well, man with small child. And others. Turquoise dress, roll of duct tape, rope, gun. It's her cross to bear. My guess is that for all the years to come simple and iconic images will emerge unexpectedly, in the most unlikely of places, brutally, toxic thunderstorms, to send her flying. Falling. Flailing and fighting. For two years this has been my hourly existence. To catch her.
I hear her growl in the back seat.
She had gone to sleep the night before growling. “I hate this place,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. The hotel room seemed perfectly fine. It had a television and a refrigerator, the basics.
“You know why,” she ground out, fire growing in her dark eyes, heart-shaped face contorted.
Once her anger’s big enough, it’s incredibly difficult to control. I’m always trying to throw cold water on it. “Actually, I don’t,” I said, calmly, lightly. “But that’s okay.”
“I feel like I’m in prison,” she said.
"Let's watch some television."
In our house my child launched jars and glasses, bit my arms, stabbed my thigh, swiftly kicked dogs. Sometimes things got so bad we had to physically restrain her. For example, if she started beating her head against the glass of the door.
“Let me go, you dirty dog,” she’d yell. With a free hand would try to hit me in the face.
“When you’re calm I’ll let you go. I’m not going to let you hurt yourself or anyone else.”
“I hate you.”
“I’m not the one you’re angry at.” When she entered a rage, her face changed. The blood drained away, leaving her pale and glassy-eyed and hard.
“Yes, you are."
“I didn’t do the bad things. Sweetheart, if I’d have known, I’d have protected you.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“Oh, yes, I would. I notice you’re trying to hit me in the face a lot. Did you get hit in the face?”
She would wail then, covering her ears with her hands in such a way that her arms shielded her face. Then she'd growl like a vicious dog. She'd get both hands around my neck and choke the hell out of me, really hard for a little kid.
Part of my journey is the attempt to drown some of the triggering images in a sea of wild joy. Which is why we are traveling the red-rock country of Arizona. Looking at the wild and wonderful world. Looking for good memories. Looking for salvation.
My husband motions toward the sign. The man is wearing glasses with silver frames. The child has dark bangs. “Horse rides?” Rivers says.
“The horses are not here,” the man says. “They are at the park.” The man turns his bronze face toward the east and nods across the flat red landscape of Monument Valley.
“Navajo National Park?”
“Yes, a few miles on.”
“We’re putting up a tipi today,” the man says. “Her birthday is tomorrow.” He nods toward the girl. “She will be five." He says they're having a traditional peyote ceremony and invites us to come back if we like.
That seems strange to me. Right now, everything is suspect. I do see a stack of lodgepoles in the yard. But I’m remembering a photo, my child’s sixth birthday celebrated by four adult men who have set two store-bought sheet cakes in front of her. My heart is a cave being hollowed out.
“Thank you,” Rivers says. “We won’t be able to stay.” Why we can’t stay has something to do with our little child and her storehouse of sadness, which darkens in certain situations. It also has something to do with a man inviting strangers to his little girl’s public birthday. Does he think we’ll pay for the experience? Will we give the child a hefty birthday gift? What’s the difference between that and how my little girl was sold?
At Navajo Park we pay five dollars and find a wooden hut with HORSE RIDES stamped in the gables. A man outside it stands looking fierce and powerful. His skin is brown and he wears a blue bandanna around his head and dark sunglasses that he does not remove. I sit with our little girl in the car, seeing the world through her eyes.
Rivers returns and says the price is seventy-five each for an hour on the back of a horse. “As I was walking away he offered to knock twenty bucks off each ticket,” he says.
“What did you tell him?” I ask. Fifty-five times three is a lot of money.
“That we’d think about it.”
A meltdown is building in the back seat. She wants to ride a horse. We promised. She remembers us promising.
“Let’s go see the visitor’s center,” I say, too brightly and too loudly.
In the Navajo Museum there's an old saddle made of gray wood. In the gift shop silver and turquoise jewelry hangs with price tags. Navajo blankets and halters are for sale.
“We should offer the horse man fifty bucks each,” I say quietly to Rivers. That’s one-third of a mortgage payment. It’s five riding lessons. It’s three Navajo bridles. But a ride through Monument Valley might be worth far more to us in the long run. It might be an investment in the future. “We have more to lose not riding than riding.”
The horseman agrees. “You need to come with me to the corral, where the trail starts,” he says. “You’ll be riding on my land, where I live with my family, riding my horses. Another couple is coming along and they’re paying full rate, so be quiet about the money. Just so you know, the road is unpaved and rough. You may want to leave your car and climb in my truck, all three of you.”
Any other time, this would be adventure. But m radar is on. We will be riding in his truck? To his place? I’m not leaving my girl’s side, her hand in mine. I’m holding it a little more firmly than most parents would. My hold is almost a grip.
I look at Rivers. He thinks it will be okay.
That quick we leave our lives behind. We plunge into the blood-orange Navajo landscape, mesas and monuments rising in the dry desert around us, blundering through the molten heat of that country, bumping across gulches, the delineations of prehistory. The rock is shale, siltstone and sandstone reddened with iron oxide, eroding into buttes and pinnacles, land of the purple sage.
I’m riding beside the horseman in the truck, my body a barrier between my little girl and a stranger. His name is Joe.
“That’s easy to remember." I’m chatty, disarming. Maybe that's how I get when I'm nervous. How long have you guided? How many horses? How far away?
Joe answers every question in a searing Navajo accent, short, terse replies. If there is no question to answer, he does not talk. He lives near the park. His job is guiding tourists on horseback. Winter is slow but the season is just starting this year. In fact, he reopened last weekend. He does a good business spring and fall. He’s always been around horses. A couple of his horses are mustangs he caught and started.
Soon we arrive at two round corrals constructed of rusty sectional fencing, six horses in one and five in another. One is tied by his halter. Another is a colt. Joe chooses six horses and leads them from the enclosures, fastening them one by one by lead ropes to the corral fence. He unlocks an aluminum tack shed, hands us forms to sign, and fetches our girl a helmet. We pay cash.
“Can we help brush?” I ask. I don’t know anything about brushing horses. He hands me a brush, another for my little girl. We move to the side of a chestnut.
“Lightly,” I say to her.
Joe is outfitting the animal when another man arrives and falls to helping. At first the two men converse quietly in Navajo then they drift to silence. Their faces are almost as red-brown as the buttes strewn across the landscape, matching the sienna of the hills that rise behind the two rusty metal corrals.
When all the horses are saddled and tethered by reins to the corral fences, Joe gives a short safety speech in English: Who has ridden? How much? Okay, beginners. Front of foot only in the stirrup, heel down. Pull right rein to go right, left to go left. Circle horse if necessary. Don’t allow him to trot or run.
The other couple murmur to each other in French. They take a long time to answer Joe’s questions and when they do answer, it is in the most simple sentences.
“You’re on the paint,” he says to my girl. She smiles broadly. I get a stallion named Spirit who, for the time I am mounted on him, doesn't live up to his name. Rivers is assigned a very spirited gelding named Ralph that has his hackamore tied to his chest to keep him from rearing.
Joe has resorted to sign language with the French couple. The woman gets a large white horse named Eagle and the man a half-mustang, half-Persian named Oso. My stallion will fight Rivers’s gelding so he has to stay separated by my girl’s paint and the French woman’s white mustang. The half-Persian will kick other horses so he has to bring up the rear. That puts me separated from my girl, riding between the Frenchman and the Frenchwoman who are trying to reassure each other across the back of my horse that all is well and that this is not an elaborate heist and that they will live to return to their two children in France.
We mount, now with trepidation and ill at ease. On horseback we are high, looking out on a landscape endlessly dry and barren, rocky, geologic in all aspects – worn stories lodged under rocks, between the shifting grains of red sand, in the red dust covering everything, the same dust that has shaken from the horses’ backs with the quick currying. Stories can be rattlesnakes and scorpions hiding under ledges, and I have learned not to reach any place I can’t see. Stories, sometimes with fangs and stingers, can lodge in the organs and in the bones.
“It’s the end of winter,” Joe says. “The horses been cooped up. They want to go. Don’t let them. They might run away.” He notices Spirit dipping his long neck toward a bush. “Don’t let them eat. Jerk their heads up. They won’t be on their best behavior. Nathan will lead you. I’ll catch up if I can get free.” This was the most he’d said so far.
One by one, loosening the reins, heeling the horses’ sides and clucking loudly, we move our horses into line. Now I am in a queue of horses. We snake along a path I can barely see through a desert, all cliffrose and brittlebush, juniper and snakewood. The horses’ ankles and hooves seem tiny and fragile as they step gingerly between red-brown rocks littering the ground and between clumps of twiggy, bristly rabbitbrush, whose narrow leaves and tiny hairs guard precious droplets of moisture. The horses pitch forward to descend into washes, always picking their way, and climb laboriously up the packed red clay of dry ravines. I watch for rattlesnakes, wanting to spot one before Spirit does.
We set out toward a far horizon. Above, the sky is a blue flower.
Since I first heard the skeleton of my daughter’s story, I have trusted nothing and no one. Now I am forced to trust a horse named Spirit I’ve never seen before. I trust him to know this dry and barren and scorched country, to know the edges of rocks and the spines of cacti, to know the dashing hare and the taloned hawk. He senses, of course, that I do not really trust him, he knows I am watching the path ahead.
I want to pretend that I am a horsewoman, that I am a horse whisperer even, that I can ride hellbent for leather across the barren wastes. I want to have a history deep as Navajo in a place with horses, I want all the stories in the rocks, I want the faces and hands and teeth. I want to trust.
But I don't.
I am a white tourist hauling around the burden of a badly wounded girl, a child rage-bomb, a zigzag line, fingernails and fists and feet. I am a white tourist caught in the trap of a child’s trauma. Traveling with my own rattlesnake, studying how to teach a child the relaxed joy of the lap, of bedtime, of songs, of cookies. How to open her heart. How to speak about the unspeakable.
I can not see my girl’s face but I watch her now moving her horse ahead of me in the line, even now over-controlling the horse, I can see that, digging her heels too hard into its flanks, speaking too sharply and jerking the reins. Her pelvis is tilted an inch too far forward. I speak to her and she knows I’m watching, always watching, the good kind of watching and the watchful kind of watching. Because the trauma that got laid in is going to come out in rage, if we can’t get it transformed. Sand to glass, rock to gem, wildling to trustee. She feels safer when she knows I’m watching.
“Ease up, sweetheart,” I say. “Pay attention. Follow Papa.” Let’s make a diamond out of this, I’m thinking.
Anyone looking on would think that we are two white tourists making a little girl’s horse-dreams come true; maybe we’ll get her a white pony one day. It will have a purple silken mane. I can’t tell you how I wish it were so, not the heavy burden of our ride through a child’s war, a mesmerizing landscape checkered with a past we hate.
The past must be reconciled. The Navajo lost what they had and got rounded up into this desolation, surviving but at a huge cost. The costs are all around us. Tension and sparseness and dark glasses. All the benevolent betrayal. Horses were part of their salvation too, the way they rode their horses into battle, hanging to one side, galloping across the hot, red desert, then returning to the river valleys and the vast grasslands where they did not have to depend on others for food.
I guess what I am trying to say is that life is full of forces that collide, which create tensions that seek to be understood, as water seeks the level. The nobility of the Navajo penned up. The innocence of a child exploited. The wildness of an animal made obedient.
Horses help us reconcile.
Our little girl keeps wanting to gallop. She lets her paint trot out past Nathan, then someone, usually Rivers, speaks to her and orders her to bring him back into line. Other times our string of riders falls quiet, the only sounds the creak of leather and the hiss of horse hooves on sand. Around us that beautiful country stretches far in every direction, dry and demanding, punctured by the waxy needles of Mojave yucca.
Now Joe catches up. He stops us so we can pass cameras to Nathan, who snaps pictures while we try to keep our horses still. The trail is long and as we ride I ask Joe questions and somehow, miraculously, he begins to tell the stories of the place. I want to remember them. They flow from his mouth, through his white teeth, and they stream past my ears and over my head and they do not land on me. They keep going. I remember Joe pointing out a butte where a certain movie was filmed, how a helicopter landed on top. I remember him nodding to a far distant line of mountains and telling of a trail-ride there, a kind of reenactment of some event in history, how it took three days. He faces the river, toward the place he caught the mustang I now ride.
His is not my story. My own soul is more botanic than geologic, loving green pastures, flowers, the juice of fruit, berries, black soil. I am here to experience erosion, the process of weathering away old buttes, turning them into mots. I am here for wind and water and for a far patch of green grass, dream of oasis.
We ride for two hours, enscribing a large circle with our queue, snaking through swales and dunes, rocks and searing sand, following Nathan on his mount, keeping our heels down, keeping our horses’s heads up, keeping an eye on the little girl. The red rock country is not my story but for a moment I pass through it on horseback, listening to a Navajo man tell stories, watching my daughter ride with her face forward, fierce and determined against the bluest sky.
Spirit’s body is warm beneath me. His coat is thick and soft from winter. He never shows an ounce of guile. He goes where I ask him to go. He seems to like me.
Later I will stand in awe that a world closed to me for so long could have opened so easily. Not my child’s healing. That would lurch along, creeping toward redemption.
What I love now, back home, is to stand next to one of our horses and lean into her body, feeling her huge warmth and her heartbreak, her hope and her fears. I like to feel her leaning back into me. She does not need me and I do not need her. But I want her. I want her smell and her whinny; and I wish that she could talk and that I could hear what she is saying.
“Ease up, sweetheart,” I say to my little girl, who is brushing the mare.
Sometimes when I am standing in the corral, dreaming, I pretend that my daughter and I are riding horseback through a red desert, leaned together in one saddle. She is talking to me as we gallop and I am listening to what she is saying but not remembering any of it, because as soon as the words spill from her mouth the wind grabs them and rushes away with them, turning them into blood-colored dust the ground gobbles up behind us. For a long time we have been leaving the angry past, racing across a fraught borderland.
Like the Navajo, we are not yet in the new world but we can see it far ahead.
Anna St. Sylvan lives on an organic farm with a herd of cows, a flock of sheep, four horses, and one red mule. She holds an MFA in writing from the University of Montana. When weeding, she thinks about courage, power, the effects of trauma, and ending oppression. When not weeding, she is at work on a book-length memoir.
by Leatha Kendrick
The trees, stubbornly bare, have fenced the sky past where
I wanted spring. It’s April again – April!
and every day an anniversary. Death days, birthdays
laid one over the other: Mother
gave up her life on April 9th,
a day I’d learned to love
with loving Aunt Virginia,
born on that date.
And how were the trees at her birth? In coves
and along the muddy river when her mother
held her, newly sprung from the dark? all the unknown
swirling out from the two of them. None of it
what they imagined. The day Mother died
down in Nashville, trees bloomed with a ferocious
hunger. The sky beat a burgeoning blue. “Maybe dying’s
like being given a box of what will be
trumpets," a poet said once. “Maybe
it feels like a mistake and you plant them.”
Each of us growing from bulb to blaring blossom,
each of us staining the noses of those who embrace us
with our pollen’s lush desire to be carried forward.
Maybe we leave no more than this
transient emblem, bright orange,
on the world – though
in the blooming we pull everything toward us,
into the impossible sweetness of our brief nectar.
Mother, aunt tucked snug under April’s flourishing grass.
As if the soil could hold anything but husk
once a bulb is spent. April glides forward
in the spin of planet and sun through the zero
of space, whatever that means – “space.”
Like clockwork, this clicking onward, this ticking
of what we call time. What do we know? Don’t I wake up
talking on to the dead? Don’t I orbit them still,
these planets and suns? And our own deaths?
Delivered unsought in a box, something we know
we didn’t order – scaled bulbs nestled
in shredded brown paper, or the diagnosis
blooming from the young cardiologist’s mouth--
mere shaped breath and sound, wet with the damp
of his living lungs. Words that disperse
as they are spoken. But I have received them,
They’ve been delivered. I’ve gathered them
into my body, an unwanted package solid as lead
lodged in my chest. It’s April, sunshine blowing
somewhere outside. Trees undoing their winter sleep,
bulbs breaking open down in the heavy wet dirt,
waxy leaves pushing green up to the light.
It’s April, the dead waiting, still, in gone kitchens,
in remembered yards, holding our births, our deaths,
the whole of time in their timeless eyes. At their feet,
lilies, still buried, gather themselves to flare.
by Christine Graf
Before I was born, before the wildflowers, I knew I would be a wound. After I was born, after the wildflowers, I knew I swallowed my mother.
I am four years old and it’s 1949. I live in a place where the yard feels like an open continent to my small body. Beyond the mown lawn, are tall grasses and a river I must not go near. The expanse of space is the territory where the body enters a new sense; where skin recognizes wind, and rain and earth smells for the first time. I am alone. My scuffed sandals are slathered in moist soil, my arms full of wildflowers picked for my mother. It is also the first time I learn the excitement of finding a gift for her I’ve chosen. I want to give her the river, the nickel colored sky, the blue behind a low slung cloud. It is the first time I remember her face in a smile, her black eyes filled with crystal before it is broken.
I go to the river, past the forbidden border, the edge. Roger the boy next door takes me there and shows me a turtle the size of a table with an upside down, leathery bowl on its back. Slow-moving, belly to earth, dark. I cried when I saw the turtle afraid of his strangeness, his sluggish body hidden as he lumbered down to the lip of the river for a swim. I didn’t know then that the turtle and I shared the same things; the earth smells, the surrendering arms of the mud, the open space of sky, the hidden swampy weeds. He carried the old world on his back, like an ancient uncle who holds his peace, while I carried the new world on my back, my arms full of flowers.
Christine Graf is a commercial and fine artist by profession. She’s been published in the Aurorean, Xanadu, Main Street Rag, Common Ground, Bryant Literary Review, Christian Science Monitor, Georgetown Review, Timber Creek Review, Hiram Review, Pinyon Literary Journal, Deronda, Theodate, MOBIUS, Chaffin Journal, Red Rock Review, Pegasus, Rockford Review and Green Hills Literary Lantern, Earth’s Daughters Journal, Front Range Review, Third Wednesday Journal, Edge Literary Journal, Cumberland River Review, Evening Street Review. Christine was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016. She’s the poetry editor of Studio And Gallery Magazine. She is also a poetry and writing coach.
by Cindy Milwe
After the lunch shift, I hid
in the restroom or went down
to the dock to suck what was left
of a lobster claw, use my teeth
on a crab leg, pull a mussel
from its blue-ringed shell.
In the bus station, next to trays
of dirty glasses, I kept my own
butter—drawn and golden—to dip
the fried fish I found, snack in secret
between the ketchup and the steak knives.
I didn’t care who had been there
before me, whose scaly hands
or bloody gums had made their mark
on what I thought to be a perk
for all those hours I scraped cole slaw
into a trash heap, wiped beer
from old barstools where people left
razor clams and napkins streaked
by tartar sauce. They didn’t know
I took their oysters and shrimp
into my mouth like new lovers,
wrapped their leftovers under my shirt
to bring down to the shore. At dusk—
no thought of the lemon wedges I forgot,
the coffee that came too late, the lost
stained check—I listened to the lapping
of The Sound, felt the shrunken eye
of the sun, watched the pink trace of light
disappear above the ocean’s lip.
Cindy Milwe has had work published in many journals and magazines, including 5 AM, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry East, Poet Lore, The William and Mary Review, Flyway, Talking River Review, and The Georgetown Review, among others. She also has poems in two anthologies: Another City: Writing from Los Angeles (City Lights, 2001) and Changing Harm to Harmony: The Bullies and Bystanders Project (Marin Poetry Center Press, 2015). Last year, her poem “Legacy” was selected as the First Place Winner of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing’s Parent/Writer Fellowship.
by Kate Felix
My neighbor says, “It’s a shame my wife doesn’t like you.”
A small shadow passes over the morning; fleeting, like a bird that glides overhead and momentarily blocks out the sun.
I wonder why he said that?
The last time I had seen his wife, she had offered me muffins and had shown me pictures of their grandchildren. The polite distance between us had seemed natural, given the significant difference in our ages.
I had wondered, when my neighbor had appeared at the front door of the house this morning, why his wife had not come with him. Now, it seems, I have my answer.
When I come up to our summerhouse, I usually bring my family. My children roam the yard like tigers while my husband watches nervously from the hill with his stick in hand; alert for the coyotes he is certain live just beyond the grass.
This time I came up to the house alone, and so did my neighbor.
I recall the way his hand had lingered when he had hugged me hello. Just a little too long. Just a little too low.
I make us tea and turn my eyes from the kettle to look at him sideways. My neighbor sits at the table with his hands folded politely atop its Formica surface, and observes me. His face is open and friendly; it is as if we are sharing a happy childhood memory.
I smile pleasantly and select two mismatched teacups from my stack. I admonish myself for my suspicious thoughts. He is a nice old man, my neighbor; the one who came to our rescue when the shingles blew off the roof and there were not enough pots to catch the leaks. .
I pour the tea and ask him what he means about his wife.
He raises his eyebrows in that way I have always found endearing, and speaks to me in the lyrical accent of the old-timers. He tells me it’s nothing specific. Just a few comments she made after I left last summer, and the fact that my email address went missing from their fridge. He tells me ‘his girl’ has always been like that: jealous of the other women.
This shadow is more like a cloud. The interruption of light is less temporary and sends a subtle chill over everything. Still, I tell my insides to stay quiet. We don’t need any trouble. We can just enjoy the tea.
He slides his hand across the table, pats my arm in a soothing gesture, and tells me what he thinks I need to hear.
He is not going to tell his wife he is here.
I take a sip of my tea and force a little laugh. His eyes catch mine and he laughs too.
I tell him an amusing anecdote about my husband’s recent battle with a lapdog, and then catch myself in the act. My husband is back in the city, probably knee deep in the cacophony of our children’s breakfast, but I have intentionally introduced his presence in to the room with my story.
I feel like a paper bag drifting across a meadow; caught up in a battle between wind and gravity.
My neighbor helps himself to another biscuit.
The room is crowded with all of the unexpected guests who have entered; my neighbor, his wife, my husband, my children, my churning insides. I long to be transported back to the moment just before my neighbor arrived, when I was still alone in my house; before everything got complicated.
I rise from the table under the guise of retrieving a napkin and increase the physical distance between myself and my neighbor.
From behind the cover of my kitchen counter, I advise my neighbor to tell his wife about the visit. If he does not tell her, it will make me feel strange. I pretend not understand the full extent of his implication and give him an easy path out.
He looks at me like a proud parent and thanks me for my forthright nature. I decide to stand in the kitchen for the rest of his visit, just to be sure.
When he leaves I come out to the porch, like I always do, to see him off. He approaches me, like he always does, for a goodbye hug.
There are usually five of us, including my husband, lined up for this hug when my neighbor departs. I keenly fell the absence of the other four. I realize, although she is always there, we never hug my neighbor’s wife.
I think back to what passed, and didn’t, in the kitchen. I congratulate myself for the way I handled things. I did not upset the fine balance of the morning. I assure myself that my neighbor now understands our respective positions. We can resume our easy friendship. I can give him a goodbye hug. To fail to do so would be to make it ‘a thing.’ I do not like ‘things.’
He wraps his arms round my waist and tells me he always enjoys seeing me. His gnarled hands slide up and down down my spine as he says it. His fingers rest low, long, and firm. There is now no mistaking his intent. The sun becomes trapped behind a solid wall of grey. I stand frozen on the porch as he invites me to drop by next week, when the rest of my family arrives.
I try to smile as his truck drives away. I try to make light of the situation for the benefit of my dark, complicated insides. I tell them to get a grip on things. He is an old coot, harmless, close to a hundred. When he grew up, it was probably fair game to take one’s chances with women who were left unattended.
Those sound like excuses.
I was never in any danger. If things had gotten out of hand I could easily have overpowered him. He is frail, elderly, and half dead.
Yes. But is physical harm all that bothers you?
It is not worth it. Who wants to blow this whole thing of proportion? Some old fart gets a little handsy and you are going to start a holy war with the neighbors?
So you are afraid of what he will say about you?
He is a neighborhood treasure. Everybody likes him. They will take his side over ours. He is their golden grandfather and we are that uptight family ‘from away.’
So you realize he has power over you.
Power? Come on. What can he really do to me?
He can make you stand there, on your own porch, and let him grab your ass.
Really, girl? Is this it? The badger next door and his saucy tea party? Is that going to be your ‘Me Too’ moment?
Were you hoping for something better? More glamourous? More sinister? More violent?
Is this what that I am supposed to confess to my girlfriends over coffee after they bravely reveal their legitimate past traumas?
Is it a competition now?
I think nothing really happened here.
Are you planning to tell our husband?
Now that you mention it: no.
So the visit will be a secret?
I think of our husband, up on the hill, slashing his stick at the slightest rustle in the grass. It is too much to deal with his cave-man antics on top of everything else.
Yet you conjured him to defend you when you told that cute little story about the lapdog, cave-girl.
I will think about it later.
Yes. You will.
* * *
Three weeks later, I pull the car into the little coffee shop by the highway. My husband is back at the house, preparing to build a fence around the yard. All three children are in the back seat. We are on our way, without him, to the sea.
My oldest son presses his finger to the window. He sees my neighbor’s truck in the parking lot.
I grip the steering wheel, stunned with indecision. The children become quickly restless for their ham sandwiches and ice cream. They demand to know why we are not going inside.
I do not want to go in. I tell my insides it is not because I am scared. It is simply that I don’t want to have to deal with a ‘thing’ in front of the children. It will not be a big bother to drive a little further. There is another coffee shop.
I look in the rearview mirror at my three children. Each one buzzes with impatience. I tell them that maybe we will try the place up the road, for a change.
My second, angriest son demands answers. He was promised ice cream.
Will you lie to him too?
My second son kicks the back of the seat.
I suddenly feel all of the energy that swirls in the car.
I see my daughter, standing on a porch, telling herself not to make a big deal of it.
I see my oldest son sliding his slippery hand across a Formica table.
I see my second son lashing out because he doesn’t know, or care, about what lives inside that person’s head.
That is when it all unravels.
I tell them about my neighbor, and the way I felt when his rough hand scratched the side of my ass. I tell them how I didn’t say anything, I just stood there and let it happen. I was afraid I was overthinking it, that it wasn’t a big enough deal. I tell the children that’s how they get you. They make you think the problem is your reaction and not the crap situation that they know damn right they have created. I tell the children we are going into the goddamn coffee shop to order our lunch and no hundred-year-old asshole with fast hands and a slippery tongue is going to stop us.
When I come up for air, my second son escapes the back seat and runs in the grass beyond the parking lot. My sorry ‘Me Too Moment’ was insufficient to hold his attention. I tell myself he is eight. It is too much to expect him to grasp the complexity of this boring, adult situation; but I am still stung by his indifference.
I walk toward the restaurant with the two other children. My daughter reaches up to take my hand and gives me a shy smile. I have become something foreign to her. She is not sure how to tread.
My oldest son stares reluctantly at the door of the coffee shop. He has lost the appetite for his ham sandwich.
We pass through the door and find my neighbor in front of us, paying his bill. He turns to greet us with his usual friendly affection. He tells the children they are growing like weeds and asks them if they will come soon to visit.
My oldest son’s response is beautiful in its simplicity.
My neighbor looks at my daughter, who stands with her eyes narrowed and seems not to notice when she steps slightly in front of me.
His milky, old eyes meet mine for a brief instant but his face does not acknowledge what we all know is happening. He is serene, jovial, and in his element.
Our movements are fluid; our tones are calm. None of us make any real fuss. The other people in the coffee shop, if they notice us at all, just see a group of friends having a polite conversation. It is all very civilized as I tell my neighbor that no one in our family will come to visit him anymore and he is no longer welcome to stop by our house.
My neighbor doesn’t blink when I say it. He just gathers his take-out container, wishes us a good summer, and slides out the door as smooth as rain. The slickness of his exit tells me this is not the first time he has navigated this conversation. I realize that tomorrow, when I talk to the woman down the street, she will have a similar, whispered confession. I think of my neighbor’s wife, slipping my email address into her kitchen garbage, and how her motivation might have been more than simple jealousy.
I realize that secrets hold power, but only if you don’t tell them.
* * *
When our order is ready, we take our food outside.
My neighbor stands in the parking lot, giving directions to a group of tourists. His hearty laugh dances in my ears and I feel a brief regret that we cannot just keep the best pieces of people; that we must consider them, always, as wholes.
We pass my neighbor’s truck on our way to the outdoor picnic tables. I notice something fluttering under the truck’s front wiper. It is a napkin, marked in red crayon by the jagged script of my second son. There, pressed against my neighbor’s windshield is his eight year old’s message:
The sun reflects off the sea of grass beyond the parking lot. I raise my hand to my forehead and squint to see what has happened to my second son. He sits atop a picnic table, watches me intently, and waits for his ice cream.
Kate Felix is a writer and filmmaker based in Toronto, Canada. Her work can be found in Room Magazine, Litro Magazine, and Reflex Fiction, among others. Her short films have been featured in over thirty festivals and her screenplays are finalists or award winners in several competitions. She has been shortlisted for many fiction prizes, has never managed to win one, but plans to keep on trying. She is the nonfiction editor for Cauldron Anthology and a reader for Tishman Review, Cease Cows, and The Nasonia.
by Wendy Coyle
The hematologist’s Stanford diplomas on the wall reflect the Transamerica pyramid and part of the Bay Bridge. Tan, with tennis wrinkles around his eyes, he says in an assured voice, “A year, maybe less.”
And you, looking like Ulysses in the storm, ask, “Ess der anyting to do about it?” This third opinion is the same as the others.
“No. Nothing. Myelofibrosis. Scarring in the marrow that produces the deformed blasts that can’t turn into regular cells, can’t make blood.” A year to oblivion. A time bomb in your bones. He continues, “Were you ever exposed to radiation growing up? We’re going to see a lot of people with this when the Chernobyl people get old. X-rays, asbestos, or…?”
You interrupt, regaining your authority. The man who owned restaurants, financed housing developments, employed Americans. “That’s not it!” you say. You stare ahead. Growing up, there was only the island, Andros in the Cyclades. Only sea and earth and air.
The doctor says, “Toxins? When I was in high school, shop class, they gave us this old paint and then solvents to wash our hands. Very bad stuff.”
But you don’t want to talk about the cause. It’s your appointment. “I have these headaches, and my hands are cold and numb. Sometimes my ears ring and ring.”
On the way home, even now, you think of food. Your business for years, your mother’s skill and love, your constant hunger during the German occupation. “I’ve got a freezer full of roasts and chickens and lamb chops. I’ll never eat all that food.” All the years in California, you never thought or talked much about the island. Even when your American daughters asked, you’d stir the air with your palm and say, “I forget. Leave it back there.”
Now, you can’t stop remembering as if the past, those memories of life, will keep your companion, Death, away. “My father made me go every morning to sell fruits and vegetables from our garden. Before I could go home, I had to sell the whole box. There was a lot of competition from grown men and women needing money like us. I’d call out and knock on doors and I went early, a curly-haired little boy, so the women liked me. Before I left the house, he’d weigh and count the tomatoes or the pomegranates or the eggplants, whatever was in season. When I returned home, he’d make me give him the exact money for each item. I couldn’t take anything for my own pocket.”
“Chocolate. I was crazy for chocolate, so even when I was small, I figured out how to get money for it. At night, when my father was sitting at the side of the house with his friends and his wine, I would go to the garden and take extra tomatoes or potatoes from the cellar and hide them by the road. In the morning, I’d pick them up and sell them too. At the store, I’d buy long thick chunks of chocolate and I’d sit out by myself and eat it all. Make myself sick. Sometimes I’d steal eggs from my mother’s hens and go sell them to buy chocolate!”
The plane moves electronically across the flight monitor over Germany toward Athens. Your hair has thinned and has a green cast from the chemotherapy, your eyes are lost deep in the sockets. You sleep head in hand, the heavy gold-link bracelet hangs loosely from your wrist. When breakfast arrives, you are like a hungry child, taking off lids, sniffing, unwrapping, sampling the yogurt, tasting the omelet. You force yourself to chew, to swallow.
“Next year, I’ll feel better, have more energy,” you say in a hoarse voice. Your blue eyes are faded, dull like weathered marbles left out in the sun and rain. You know there won’t be more energy, another year. You lean back, breathing heavily. A large sharp nose, cleft chin, high forehead, and I see how your profile will look in the coffin.
“I don’t want to,” you say.
I nod. I know you don’t want to die.
“Back then, New Year’s was the great opportunity. I was the priest’s assistant on his visits to bless the homes. He was fat and his hat was too small for his head. Women made honey cakes and walnut cookies, almond paste kaltsounia. They put out dishes of loukoumi and rose water delight and baklava and sugar korabeides. The mistress of the house offers us sweets and Greek coffee, and we eat, but the priest has many houses ahead, so swiftly we get to work. He motions me to stay behind, and he and the mistress disappear into the rooms. While he drones prayers and sprinkles holy water, I take as many sweets from the plates as I can and rearrange the gaps. I drop them into the sack I carry over my shoulder. The priest likes these special sweets even more than I do, and he doesn’t share them with anyone but me. There are many houses left to visit, so we hurry on. The priest and I are a good team. We raid the houses.”
From the ferryboat, Andros stretches in front of us; two rounded mountains come closer like soft breasts. Reversing into Gavrio port, the Penelope churns the water like an earthquake under the deck. You sling the black bag over your shoulder. Feet angled out, sailor-style, you take the metal steps fast down to the lowest deck. Shifting from foot to foot, you look around, waiting for someone to recognize. You are disappointed and say, “Once the islanders going to and from Athens all knew each other.”
“When I left Andros the first time, my mother was like a wilted leaf left to dry up in sorrow. Boys had to leave the island, there were too many children, not enough land or food. No jobs. My grandmother had four sons born in the 1880s. They all left for America, left when they were twelve or fourteen years old, and no one ever heard from them again. Were they dead or alive? No one ever knew. They went on the ships, they went to big places—New York, Chicago, New Orleans—and got swallowed. She was bitter, old, and sorrowed. Sometimes people would bring news. ‘I saw Petros four years ago,’ or ‘I heard Nick was in Chicago,’ and so on. But in those times, so far away, who knew what happened to those lost children who had to leave to survive? No one wants to go to sea. Who wants to live on a boat and be a slave? The bad weather, the same sea and sky for months, the same faces, the same work. Three boys in our family went. My mother lit candles every night for my older brothers. They were just kids. Stamatis was thirteen when he went on the Liberty ships that crossed the Atlantic to America during World War II, during the German blockade. The mines, the U-boats, so many Greeks waiting to die. Those were all Greek crews blown up, sank, and never heard from again. Do you think they wanted to go to sea?”
Thistles grow from hills of slate, and through the layers of rock caper, bushes cling to the soil. From the bus window, you look down the cliff to the Aegean and the old harbor now too shallow for boats where the breakwater, three and a half thousand years old, hooks a sheltering arm around the bay. You are home. Delicate against the harsh rocky hillside, back from the road, there is a tall whitewashed tower. Around the top, fancy filigree stonework forms angles and latticed openings. The dovecote entices doves to lay their eggs and raise their fledglings there. When you were a boy, you’d crawl inside the tiny opening at the base and climb up inside the narrow ledges to get eggs from the nests. It takes a lot to make an omelet, but doves will lay more when they see an empty nest. You sometimes went for the unfledged birds; your mother needed ten or fifteen to make dove stew, pitsunia. She would take off the feathers and heads and clean the insides of the tiny creatures. Then she’d wash, flour, and sauté them in hot olive oil. After adding a cup of red wine, she’d grind up several fresh tomatoes and put them in with the rest to simmer. Tender, sweet, the bones tasting like walnuts, you claim there is nothing more delicious.
“The war came when I was fourteen, left when I was eighteen. By then I was tall, over six feet, and I don’t ever remember my stomach being full. Our bellies ached all the time. My mother did all she could, but there wasn’t any food. The Italians had orders to take the food to send away, but they left us enough to survive. But in the middle of the war, a German commander arrived and sent soldiers to each house and took all the supplies, robbed each kitchen and cellar. They took the hams, the sausages, honey, all the oil, onions, potatoes, flour, and beans. Everything. They loaded it onto boats to send to their troops in the Balkans or Russia. Then they counted every chicken, how many eggs it laid, every pig, goat, and lamb each family owned, and wrote it in a book. They saw the crops and fruit and terraces and came back later to take the harvest and count again. We were forbidden to eat our own food, and if they found out we did, or we hid food, they would shoot us. If a goat or pig died, we couldn’t eat it. We had to tell the Germans so they could inspect it, verify it died naturally and nothing used. Sometimes it took a week until they came, and that food would rot in front of our eyes, but we were afraid. One neighbor buried a pig that died, and when the Germans came back and found it missing, they shot the father. A lesson. They were ruthless. What they didn’t send away, they took for themselves and the collaborators. It got worse, so that by the end, the island was bare, just lemons left. My mother made soup chopping and boiling lemons, mashing them up to fill our bellies so we could sleep at night. The Germans didn’t count the lemons.”
Lying on the couch at your nephew’s house in Korthion, you tap your fingers on the wooden frame and begin to sing an old song, “I was going to come last night but it started raining / She said, you should have come. I have dry clothes and a big blanket / And my body to keep you warm. / Even if it was sloppy wet, I had everything for you.”
You laugh and slap your thigh, remembering. “Last night I saw Treffonis and Michaelis in my dream. They were all dressed up, and I said, ‘I’ll go put on my good suit and join you.’ My old friends, dead now. We had iron knees in those days. We’d dance the missirlou, the zembekiko. All night we’d spin and turn and leap. In Ethonia village, up the winding steps between the walls, almost at the top they had good dances. Their plaka was the size of a dance floor with a huge tree in the center with branches spread out over the top like a roof and a big kerosene lamp. They played bouzouki and guitar and maybe accordion. All the girls wore soft dresses with high heels. One time our friend Barbonia, a huge fellow like three men, got into it. Some little guy got jealous and wanted to show off so while we were dancing, this guy attacks him with a knife, and Barbounia picks him up by the throat and holds him in the air, but the guy keeps swinging and stabbing at him. A girl jumps on and starts pounding but we pull her off. Barbounia holds him down on the rocks and pulls out the hairs of his mustache and stuffs them in his mouth. He was like a bulldog. We got into all kinds of fights at dances, but nobody got killed. We’d come home the next morning with our shirts in rags, arms out of the sockets, bloody. I will never forget those nights with the big lamps and the music and the dancing.”
“In the 1950s there was no work, and work on the ships wouldn’t go to me. My brother had been an organizer for the unions, arrested once. They knew our name and they didn’t want unions on the ships. I was desperate, and every day I went to the hiring but there was nothing. She saw me on the street in Piraeus port, I don’t know how she recognized me. I was skinny and hungry. All I could afford was a twenty-five-cent plate of spaghetti once a day. She was a big woman, each arm like a leg of lamb, and when she tucked my arm under hers, I was like a child. She took me to her house, a nice one up on the hill where you could see the bay. She cooked a big roast with potatoes and a moussaka. And she had skordalia creamed garlic sauce and stuffed green peppers. She loved to eat, and we took that roast and ate until just the bones remained, not even enough left over to feed the pigs! Then she took me down to the harbor to her husband’s office. He was a big shot in charge of loading and unloading the ships. Right there in front of everyone, she told him to find me a job. She told all the men sitting around to be ashamed that a strong young man, a son of Andros, couldn’t find work on a ship. I’ll never forget her, those arms, that roast. She made them give me a job, the job that took me to America.”
Roped to the deck or hanging over the side, you have to control the rust and corrosion on the converted WWII destroyer. You chip the deck and sides with a hammer and chisel to flake off the old layers of paint. Then you sweep up the tailings and try to avoid the powder and residue that blows into your face and mouth and eyes. With a strong-smelling solvent that burns your hands, you scrub the area day after day. You say the boredom cracks your brain, and you understand how animals in a cage feel. In the hold is British Columbian timber bound for Japan, and ceramics and furniture for California. “Jump ship,” you repeat to yourself, the only English you know.
When no one is around, the sailors say it aloud. “Jump ship. When the ship owes you money, so they don’t expect it.”
At the port of Los Angeles, you check the creased brown paper in your wallet with the phone number of a third cousin in America, and you walk away from the pier. Fresno is 120 degrees in the summer, and the cheap room upstairs in the old couple’s house smells of tar paper. On Sunday, when you are not working in the restaurant, they call upstairs: “George, Gunsmoke’s on.”
You think the heat is why you can’t sleep, why you are very very tired, and you can’t eat. All the food you could want, and you have no appetite. There’s a strange metallic taste in your mouth, and your ears ring. Your clothes hang on you. You punch new holes in your belt with a nail to hold them up. When you carry the trays from the dishwasher, your arms tremble. The waitresses say, “George, you’re young. You need to go out and have some fun.”
You told me your only real love was the girl in Greece, a true and innocent love, like it was back then. She loved you too, but how could a poor boy on a poor island get enough money to marry? How could her parents let her marry you? In California, you worked two jobs, you sent money back home, you saved. But you need more than dishwashing in greasy restaurants. You need to become legal, to get papers so you could have your own business and own property in order to go home the right way: rich. She came to the malt shop on Fourth Street every day and smiled at you. They told you she was a good Greek-American girl, Orthodox. They said you would learn to love her.
In seven years, you made a lot of money. You went to Greece in your Roos-Atkins suit, Bally shoes, and Bulova watch, and met your first love in a restaurant in Athens. She had a husband and son by then, and you had a wife and two daughters. You told her that in order to get what you loved, you had to do things that made you lose that love.
Today the sun is warm, and in the hillside cemetery above the bay, there is no wind. Your nephew Anthonis has to open the grave, dig up the body and wash the bones, his father’s bones. And it’s your brother’s corpse, so it’s your duty to go too. You’ve never done the ektafi disinterment before, you were always in America when the three years after your parents’ deaths was up. You think it’s a barbaric custom, but in Greece, where soil is so scarce and needed and so rocky, to dig a grave is to hew a tomb. You can’t make graves everywhere. The space has to be reused.
The priest watches Anthonis and the grave digger remove the grave-top picture and oil lamp and go to work lifting the heavy marble slab, then the thick cement slabs with the iron handles. Using a shovel, they crack open the wooden coffin and Anthonis kneels at the rock-hewn pit to pry off the waterlogged and disintegrating lid with a crowbar. The corpse is exposed, a skeleton dressed in a suit. Except for the tie you remember, it could be anyone.
The grave digger removes the skull, which separates easily with a twist, and hands it to Anthonis, who washes the brown matter left on it with Coca-Cola from a tall bottle. When they lift the disintegrating suit, the rest of the bones come out easily. An arm bone, the chest cavity, a hand, a thigh, and each bone are washed. The priest reminds them not to leave a single one, that every part must go into the small reliquary chest. You can’t help but think these bones were once your brother Dimitri, with the thick black hair and round stocky body who drank ouzo and danced the zembetiko at his eightieth name-day celebration. It brings back what you know: life is brief. Disease, old age, and death. This is not Dimitri any more, and in a year, it will not be you any more either. After the prayers and incense, the box with your brother’s name on it takes its place on the ossuary’s shelves alongside friends and neighbors and family.
People have to eat, and back at the house where you grew up, they serve ouzo and meze platters of stuffed grape leaves, fried cheese, and olives. The women and your brother’s widow bustle in and out of the kitchen preparing the food. You sit in the warm December sun and watch the mountain turn gold beyond the tall bamboo windbreak. The lapis waters of Korthion Bay are checkered with whitecaps. Restless, you take the familiar steps down to the yard. A goat is being roasted, and you baste it with olive oil and turn the spit, savoring the smell of meat over the grapewood charcoal. Several large pomegranates remain on the tree, and you pick them and sit at your father’s weathered slate table. You smile. You could still sell them for a few drachmas in town. You crack open the fruit; red seeds and juice spill onto the table like blood, and you begin to eat.
Adventurer, world traveler, writer Wendy Coyle has traveled 5 continents and lived many years abroad. She holds a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, has managed language schools for the American government, been an interpreter (Persian/English) for the U.S. State Department, owned a bookstore/restaurant and raised a family. Author of “Iridescent Iran”, she is a contributor to the Tehran Post and “Daftar Honar”, curator and translator of the NYC Iranian Theater Festival lauded in the New York Times. Wendy has just completed a historical novel, “Siemorq”, the story of a California girl who lives in Iran through the events leading to the fiery Islamic Revolution of 1979.
by Jordan Hanson
Steam reaches me through the perforated squares in the screen door as I stand in a narrow alley of tables and chairs, surveying the dining area. I’m already sweating. I take note of the lone grains of white rice huddling at the corners of faux wood tables, among other things. Half-tucked plastic chairs still brim with the heat of human contact, dropped plastic forks are left kicked into corners instead of thrown into the trash, and dots of brown gooey sauce stick, somehow, to the walls I’ll neglect scrubbing for fear of working too hard.
Heavy-lidded customers rest their chins in the nests of their upturned palms. One patron sips a soft drink while mindlessly chewing the exposed end of a translucent plastic straw. The other slurps burnt coffee mixed with powdered creamer and granulated sugar packaged in neon-pink paper wrappers. A baby carrier positioned between them is nudged gently with a pointer finger, lulling their newborn into acquiescence for the minutes between Saturday morning doctor appointments. Their pediatrician’s office is located two floors above the restaurant. Their pediatrician is in high demand, old, with soot-grey hair that sprinkles dandruff onto newborn cheeks. His wife will place their order by the end of the day.
The noodles are boiling. That’s what the steam tells me. When I open the door, sawed-off sides of cardboard boxes lie across a puddle of noodle bathwater no one wants to slip in. I give my general hello, a sing-songy rendition of the two-syllable word I’ve grown used to performing for them. At 7:55 a.m., I’m the fifth one on shift. I shuffle quickly to the back table, gather the money for my register, and walk up front.
Marilynn is taking an order. Next to her is a paper plate with an egg over easy, toast blackened to her specifications, and a circle of corned beef hash. A straw bobs in a Diet Coke, the Styrofoam cup the kind the workers are prohibited from using. She calls the order to the cooks in back: “Bacon one time, eggs scrambled, make it crispy!” then jots it on the back of an old receipt, taping it to the tip of her pointer finger, and palming it like a good luck charm, a luxury she’ll indulge in as long as the line remains shallow. I’m turning on my register as she pierces her yolk with one of her chopsticks. She waits until her toast is soppy with runny, golden goo, then takes a bite, her compact body turned toward me. Sipping her chilled drink, swaying gently side to side in order to relieve her calloused feet from decades of standing moored to a register, smiling at customers, reciting prices, and counting penny tips. I ask her how she’s doing. She smiles. Thick prescription glasses obscure her irises, curled hair droops across her forehead, crumbs like snowflakes dot her upper lip as a word manages to slip through the tiny gaps in her yellowed teeth—“I’m”--and then the head cook, Ben, sends out her plate.
She’s busy, so I take the opportunity to slip to the back. I pass Ben pre-cooking marinated chicken. He asks if I’m hungry.
“I’m all right, but thanks.”
I pass Fely chopping onions on a table leveled with scraps of cardboard. The wooden top is slashed with knife marks and stained with watered chicken blood. It’s the perfect size for Fely. The short base offers just enough leverage for her to grate buckets of carrots and pound bread crumbs into butterflied chicken thighs. I offer to peel her potatoes for tomorrow. She says my name like a thank-you.
I find Rayden by the walk-in, the mother hen of a roost of freezers holding frostbitten loafs of Ziplocked beef, plastic bins of boiled macaroni, and withered vegetables. My friend opens boxes of noodles with a knife left carelessly on a shelf laden with frying oil. Her thin red hair has been looped through the back of a baseball cap; her apron is wrapped around her exposed midriff; her cellphone, a couple of cheap cigarettes, and a lighter rest in her cleavage.
“Did you work yesterday?” I ask.
“Yeah.” She pulls noodle boxes from the top shelf of the walk-in, dropping them a few inches from my feet.
“With who?” I ask.
“Who do you think?”
Knowing glances are exchanged.
“When did you guys get out?”
“Not till seven, shit, and guess who had to do everything herself.” We both hear the phone ringing; we stop talking to watch it trill again, nestled in the receiver. I resolve to answer it if it goes a third time. Halfway through the high-pitched ring, body poised, foot lifted and gathering momentum for a hurried departure, I see Fely wipe her hands on the front of her apron and lift the cordless from its base. I look at Rayden.
“I’m fucking tired, you know,” she tells me.
Fely notices the hushed conversation in the back of the restaurant.
“Rayden! The noodles!” she yells.
“Fuck, the fucking noodles, gotta fucking boil the fucking ten million pounds of fucking noodles—and telling me all that like she’s my fucking boss. Bullshit.”
I smile sympathetically and she waits as I fill a bowl with yukons, then we both head to our stations: me next to Fely, who’s de-boning chicken thighs with a knife she sharpens on a steel rectangle every minute or so, and Rayden next to Ben, who’s sweating from the heat of the flat tops and the four-burner. She notices and gets him his favorite from the front, a Barq’s root beer.
At 9:16 a.m., Renee walks in. Late.
“Aye, you!” Fely shouts, hoisting a large metal pot into the sink for soaking, which makes all of us stare at Renee, who’s walking to the back, eyes closed it seems, to punch in.
“Hi to you, too, Nina,” she says, body leaning against a basket of washed towels and aprons, eyes still closed, ears perked and listening to the tiny screech of her time card being sucked in and stamped. She lets her hand hover above the mouth of the old machine. When the card is finally released, she snatches it and puts it back on the metal holding rack. Nothing more to see here.
“You stay out all night drinking, or what?” Fely asks.
“No, Nina,” Renee says, tired.
Fely lets the conversation end. I watch Renee pull a compact mirror from her purse and nestle it in among a basket of knives kept on the middle shelf of the back counter. Then she grabs a red-handled broom from a greasy back corner of the restaurant and heads for the walk-in. I follow. I need a couple more potatoes for peeling. I want to ask how she is.
The door of the walk-in is propped open with a jug of water we keep close by for a counterweight. I watch Renee crawling on her hands and knees, pulling at the layered scraps of cardboard she replaces each week in order to hide the old disgusting floor of the freezer. She’s muttering to herself, the tight curls she pulled up with her rhinestone-encrusted hairclip are falling in strands across her face. One of the short wedged heels she’s wearing falls off, rolling down the lip of the cold threshold until it lands on its side next to my toes.
“Aunty,” I say, smiling even though her back is turned toward me.
“Honey girl, is that you?” she asks, stopping to kneel and turn her head, hand flinging hair out of her face. Flecks of red lipstick stain the front of her teeth.
“Hi, Aunty,” I say and I smile again so she can see it. “How are you?”
“Honey girl, you hear what happened yesterday night?”
“No,” I lie. “What?”
“Fuck, honey girl, didn’t get out till seven,” she says, blowing an exasperated sigh in my direction.
“Why?” I ask, faking surprise.
“I’ll give you one guess,” she tells me, lips tense, eyes wide, head flicked back toward the grill where I can hear Rayden yelling, “Order’s up.”
I nod, though I know it wasn’t Rayden’s fault. I still don’t know how Renee is, but when I reach past her head to the cardboard box holding potatoes, she makes a smooching sound in my direction. I send my love back. Then we get back to work.
I keep a watchful eye on the growing line. It’s 9:30 a.m. Regulars order their usuals. It’s steady. Marilynn is making the usual mistakes—eggs over easy when they should’ve been sunny, Diet Coke when they asked for a Coke Zero. I don’t have to step in yet. I move on to peeling carrots. Ribbons of crisp orange stain my fingertips. The phone rings and I answer it.
“Heights Drive Inn.”
Static crumbles the male voice slipping through the radio waves. I assume he says, “Takeout order, please.”
“Whenever you’re ready,” I say.
The uncapped Sharpie marker I fish out of the makeshift penholder that used to hold twelve ounces of spreadable butter isn’t working. Feathered lines of permanent black make ghostly impressions of numbers and abbreviations for menu items. I repeat the order and commit it to memory: four specials, two with chicken, two with beef; one fried noodles, five large Cokes. I go up front to find a pen. Marilynn asks if I’ll check the dining area. I rewrite the order and hand it to Rayden. She needs a fucking cigarette.
“We’ll take the trash out soon, you can smoke then,” I tell her.
The air conditioning in the dining area evaporates the sweat I only just noticed beading at my temples. The radio isn’t working. A low static creates an inhospitable ambiance, and I wonder how bad Boss’s lecture will be if I keep it like this. Clusters of bodies occupy booths. Paper plates are left with abandoned remnants of a greasy breakfast that’ll double as lunch. I wipe tables with a damp cloth and notice crumpled bits of straw wrappers dusting the floor like leaves. I won’t bother sweeping yet. Parents rocking crying babies ask if there’s a bathroom.
“Sorry,” I say.
When I head back inside, the phone is ringing. I answer it. “Fifteen minutes,” I say.
When I make it back to my station, I find a grilled cheese wrapped in parchment paper, next to my carrot ribbons.
“We thought you might like that,” Ben says, shrugging his shoulders up to his ears.
I take a bite. Melted cheese forms a tightrope from my mouth to the bread until I pinch it with my fingers. “It’s great,” I tell them.
We all laugh. The phone rings. Marilynn calls another order.
At 9:55, Boss walks in. We hear the screen door rattle open and watch her squeeze through, her large midsection almost grazing the splintered door frame. A chorus of hellos reaches her, and she reciprocates each one individually without making direct eye contact. She moves slowly, shuffling her swollen feet along the smooth red floor and letting Rayden know she must be over-boiling the noodles because there’s too much water on the floor.
“Put some more cardboard, Rayden.”
“Yes, Boss,” Rayden says. She rushes to the back, poking me in the ribs along the way so we can exchange exhausted glances and silent complaints. I can tell she needs a smoke. I try to let her know I understand, but then Boss tells me to wipe the tables clean outside, so I wring out the same towel I wrung out ten minutes ago before heading back to the dining area to make halfhearted circular motions across the plastic wood grain of the tabletops.
The lunch rush sets in at around 12:30. I’m up front with Marilyn, who keeps calling.
“Next!” to patrons swaying side to side to get a look at the specials. I’m writing down an order until I’m interrupted by a woman holding out an empty cup with a long smile who tells me her daughter had a spill at their table. I go to the back to grab the mop, hoping I’ll go unnoticed by Boss, who’s assembling plates next to Ben and Rayden.
She catches me and tells me the ice needs refilling.
“Got it,” I tell her. I look at Rayden who rolls her eyes at the back of Boss’ head before turning in my direction and mouthing, “I’m dying for a cigarette.” She holds an imaginary one in front of her and puffs it down before reaching her hands toward the ceiling in a plea.
“I’m sorry,” I mouth back. Then I lock myself in the employee bathroom and let the water run until smoke leaks out from the faucet. I fill a bucket and plunge the mop head up and down, up and down before suspending it in mid-air to watch the water drip.
I meet Renee coming out of the pantry. It doesn’t look like she was crying, but the thought crosses my mind. She takes her place against the edge of the sink and starts scrubbing dishes. The phone rings. Renee answers it. Her voice betrays her, tender aggravation slips through customer service niceties, the automatic dribble of “yes sir” and “thank you” and “my pleasure.” She writes the order down but doesn’t press the “off” button on the cordless, meaning no new calls can come in. I pretend not to notice. I walk with her to the grill. I rest my free hand on her arm because I feel like she needs it. She smiles.
“Thank you, honey girl,” she tells me. She leans her head in my direction, and I reciprocate, our version of a hug.
Outside I mop up the puddle of spilled juice. The floor is still slick, so I grab a handful of coarse salt and sprinkle it over the still-damp area, because I don’t care enough to really finish the job. Customers move past me, dumping plates in the trash and telling me thank you.
“No, thank you,” I say, then I smile.
At 1:30, Boss wonders why there haven’t been any phone orders. Renee is by the back counter, holding her mirror up to her face, running a finger along the edge of her lips so she can smear the faded red onto the face of her thumb before wiping it on a napkin. I remember that morning a couple of months ago when she came in late. Her hair wasn’t twisted into her usual bun. She wasn’t wearing any lipstick. Fely asked if she had spent the night drinking.
“No, Nina,” she said. She kept her eyes closed as she punched in but kept talking. “You know Pauly, Nina, he came home this morning drunk and whatever and was hungry for me, Nina, hungry.”
Fely shook her head. “Aye,” she said.
“He won’t let me say no, Nina,” she said in a whisper, almost desperate. I saw two veins poking out on the side of her neck. “You know how he is.”
Fely mumbled something in Filipino I couldn’t understand. Then Renee grabbed the broom from the corner of the restaurant and went to the back, opened the heavy metal door of the walk-in, and dropped to her knees to pull at the cardboard. I had wanted to ask her how she was, but I didn’t.
Now I reach for the phone and press the “off” button before holding it up to my ear, pretending to investigate.
“It seems to be working fine, Boss,” I tell her. She knows I’m lying, she sees Renee staring at herself in the mirror, wiping her lips, but before she can say anything, the phone rings. I answer it.
At 2:33, Boss makes a plate of food from the leftovers cooling in metal bowls on the counter and heads to her office. We hear the door close, and Rayden calls for me. Trash time.
I wheel the hand truck into the dining area and set it down with a metallic clang against the worn tiled floor. I brace my hand against one of the open rims of the two large garbage cans tucked into the corner near the kitchen and pull at the shiny black bag, wiggling it free and placing it on top of the other one that’s already tied and waiting for transport.
I place a sticky hand on my hip and notice how greasy my over-sized T-shirt has become.
“You ready?” I ask Rayden.
She feels up her breasts to check that her lighter is still there in her cleavage before throwing me a thumbs-up sign.
We take turns wheeling the hand truck, Rayden handing me the reins as she lights up, me giving it back to her halfway across the parking lot. We throw open the top of the large metal trash containers with a decapitated broom stick and count to three as we hoist over bags filled with discarded food still warm from the stove top and half-filled sodas that drip down our arms, leaving snail tracks.
Now we smell like garbage. I pick a cluster of rice off my shirt and flick it onto the ground for the birds as Rayden and I settle down on a nearby bench.
She takes a deep drag and blows the smoke above us.
“It’s been a long day,” she tells me.
“Yeah.” We become complacent in our silence, except for the occasional “fuck” we let drop from our mouths that the other meets with a nod. In this moment, I’ve never felt closer to anyone. I think about how much I hate this job. I think about how many years I’ve spent here, how I thought I would leave but didn’t. I look at Rayden, who’s been here so much longer, who’s stubbing her cigarette out on the food-encrusted sole of her work shoe. She sees me out of the corner of her eye and laughs. I laugh. Then we get up and go back to work.
There’s an unexpected rush. I’m at the back counter peeling garlic, and Ben is talking about his daughter. The phone rings. The phone has been ringing incessantly. Marilynn is forgetting customers, leaving them stranded in a sea of hungry patrons who are all crossing their arms and shaking their heads. In a minute or so I’ll have to go up front. I’m collecting the skins of garlic that have scattered across the counter, and Ben mentions his ex-son-in-law to the kitchen.
“Used to hit her, you know.”
The metal shelves holding the stacked pans and the running water filling the sink for dish washing and the steam floating from the pot of boiling noodles are fellow witnesses to a confession we almost miss, because Rayden is trying to stop the water from boiling over, Fely is packing away her knives, and I’m wondering, with garlic skins clenched in my fist, if Marilynn is ever going to get the woman wearing glasses her large coffee. Ben’s small frame, all the more inconsequential from the way his stomach curves inward as though he doesn’t want to take in more air than necessary, begins to shake with residual anger. I see Marilynn grab the ice bucket, an excuse to leave the front. I notice Fely wiping her knives dry on a towel, mouth agape. I wonder what to do.
“That little fucker,” Rayden tells Ben. The phone starts ringing. “You know Ben, you know, this old man neighbor of mine used to always tell me these stories, and he’d always give me candy, and then he’d show me his bedroom and he’d and he’d and—” Her voice starts breaking. The phone is still ringing. If it rings two more times, I’ll have to answer it. I watch Rayden wipe her eyes with the edge of her apron. I watch her adjust her baseball cap. I press the “talk” button on the cordless.
“Heights Drive Inn.”
A familiar voice, female, drones in clear and crisp. “I’d like to place a takeout order.”
“Whenever you’re ready.”
“Two specials,” I repeat, committing it to memory. I’ve misplaced my working pen.
“Yes, my husband—the doctor upstairs—will pick it up in twenty minutes.”
I place the phone in its cradle. And when I’ve managed to scribble down the order, I hand it to Rayden, who’s watching the noodles soak in the water. I can see sweat drip down her face, obscuring her tears. I place the slip in the palm of her hand. She looks at me, eyes small and puffy.
The woman wearing glasses bangs the counter and demands her large coffee. I go up front and pour it for her. I apologize, even though it wasn’t my fault.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, offering her some sugar.
Jordan Hanson received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently teaches high school English in her home state of Hawaii.
by Catherine O'Neill
My siblings and I scoured the water’s edge looking for discarded bottles in order to cash in their deposit money so we could go play the slot machines in the nearby Freddie’s Amusement center. It was July of 1969 in Ireland and “blistering hot,” as my mother described, one of the hottest in decades. Ma had demanded Da take us to the beach. The heat wave had zapped our energy, and the sun had blotched freckles across my face. I was almost seven years old and loved the beach, even with the heat. There is no place on earth like Tramore Bay, seven miles outside Waterford city. Tramore is a dichotomous Gaelic root of “tra-mhor,” meaning “big beach.” The sand shawls the coast for miles between distant sand dunes. Tramore, a local hill town, has looming cliffs forming a promontory that juts finger-like into the Atlantic ocean. The land seems to mimic the Metal Man, a tall blue and white statue that points and stands centrally atop one of three round towers marking the rocky coastland to passing ships.
We trudged the length of the beach, kicking up sprays of salt water. I peeled sunburned layers of feathery skin off my bony arms and dusted the flakes into the ocean. My older sister Maria, nine years old, was our lead scout, followed by my brother Paddy, who had just turned eight. I trailed behind, still eye-level with my baby brother John, who had turned five in mid-July. Maria’s legs were long and sunburned. Da said she would make a great runner, with her lanky limbs, and he had signed her up for the local Athletic club. I wished I had the soft curls that coiled down her back. Maria had the best eyes, too. She could spot a Cidona bottle up to thirty feet away. When she detected one riding the waves, she waded in and rescued it. If the dark brown glass glistened half-buried in the sand, she ordered:,“Dig it out, Cidona is worth five pence, and Big Brother Lemonade and Fanta bottles are only worth tuppence.” I squatted down, scooped away the thick wet sand, and tugged at the neck until the bottle loosened. It was close to doing ground surgery on Mother Earth, delivering a bottle in a breeched position. The only downside was that the Cidona bottle was too heavy, so I passed it to John to carry. He was a stout pot-bellied specimen with the same short-back-and-sides haircut the barber had given Paddy. The dreaded crew cut that sparked all sorts of tantrums when Ma enforced it in the hot summers against the sweep of Beatlemania. According to Ma, the British had invaded every hair on my brother’s heads and every fiber of our moral existence; rock and roll would corrupt us. John didn’t mind carrying the bottle. I opted to carry and cash in three lighter glass bottles for sixpence. When all hands were full, we headed back towards the Promenade. The lifeguards housed at both ends of the Prom yelled at us not to carry so much glass.
“If you fall with all your glass bottles, you’ll end up in an ambulance,” the hairy-chested one yelled. I squinted my eyes and ignored him. Driven and barefooted, we clung to our tinkling cargo. Freddie’s Amusements was our destination.
When I was growing up in Ireland, the gaming laws were very lax for minors. Ireland embraced gambling, given its history of the world’s best stud farms and the Irish coastline, a natural race course. Gambling was social and acceptable. When Da went missing to the bookies, we often left Ma alone. Earlier, we had told her we were going for a walk. She picked up her knitting and waved. “Stay together, Maria’s in charge.” That day, we had new energy after we cashed in our bottles at the small shop next to the Prom Arcade, and we made our way to Freddie’s. It was the newest amusement center on Strand Road, furthest from the beach and closest to Richie Power’s bookie shop at the end of Train Hill, where Da hung out and marked up his Irish Field, a neat read of Irish horse racing form.
Freddie’s front doors folded accordion-style, welcoming the sea air in. The breeze flowed through rows of glimmering slot machines, mirrored from above in a panorama of kitschy ceiling tiles. The slots looked like they had been neatly tilled and planted into the shiny floor around the change lady, who sat throned in a central metal cage. She wore a black bandana and moved coinage around. I overheard someone say that she was Freddie’s mother, and someone else answered that he’d never trust his mother with the money. The waft of sea air blended with the chain smokers’ plumes of Virginia tobacco. The din of raspy voices gasped and nudged hard when they won and scowled and dropped low when they lost. A swift ocean wind offered an air change.
I loved the scent of tobacco, it was the most natural scent in my world. If you didn’t smoke and gamble in my family, there was something radically wrong with you. I had crossed over to another planet, one with lights and rows of cherries, bells, bars and the word “jackpot.” Cha Ching! I thought everyone who was playing the slots was winning. They perched at the same machine for hours and only moved to put money in or pull the lever. The woman to my left, in a stained headscarf and scaly forehead, gave me sixpence to go next door to Pipers and buy her a Club Lemon drink. “So much for the Sunny South East, I’m gasping,” she said, “but I can’t leave this machine.” When I came back with her drink, she thanked me and blew smoke in my face. I wondered what she’d do when she needed to go to the bathroom. She beamed down over her bifocals to tell me that Freddie was opening a new bingo room.
“We’re blessed,” she said, “we won’t have to wait for the bus into the Regal in Waterford anymore.” I told her I knew all about waiting for the bus. It had been an expedition earlier to travel from Waterford City to Tramore. We had walked two miles to a bus stop where a fleet of buses had passed, loaded with children’s heads poking out of every window like they were feeding from a trough of cool breezes. Luckily, my Uncle Morris was a bus inspector and let us jump the queue and get on free.
“Give the handle a little shake at the last minute if the third reel is nearing ‘JACKPOT,’ that’s what I do,” the woman said, and slugged down her Club Lemon. I decided to give it a whirl. “Stop swinging like Tarzan, Freddie will bar you,” she said. “You can play my lucky machine, I’m going over there.” She pointed at the highest stake shilling slot machines. I reached up and dropped a big dirty copper coin into a Bally slot machine next to her. I jumped up to catch my one-armed bandit. That’s what Da called the slots. On tiptoe, I pulled the handle and stretched to view the reels. They spun in dizzy splotches of green, blue and yellow, with dashes of black and white lettering that came into focus as “JACKPOT” when each reel slowed and steadied to a click. I went back onto my toes to see the winning line. I needed two of a kind or three of a kind. One of a kind was hardly worth it. I stood mesmerized by the flashing lights. Every nerve inside was warm and alive. A gush of excitement rippled through me when I won. My only goal in life at the time was to win enough on the penny slots and get to sit on one of the high stools in a shared cloud of smoke. Grownups. They were the chosen few, the regulars who carried buckets of silver coins and two packs of cigarettes. I couldn’t have cared less if I ever saw my family again.
Maria was supposed to be minding us but was easily distracted with the jukebox. Paddy and John played air hockey and left me alone. When their money ran out, they would sometimes get into trouble with the owner. Freddie had slicked-back grey hair, and he glowed like a bronzed tourist. Decked out in a wrinkle-free shirt, dagger-like creased pants, and toeless sandals, he licked his lips twice before every drag of his fat Havana cigar.
My brother John had a bad habit of butting his pot belly against the Rapid Falls machine. It was tucked away in the back left corner, next to the glass-cased psychedelic fortune teller who delivered ten sentences about the future for threepence. The future was the furthest thing from my mind. It was all happening in the present. The action. Shaped like an Aztec temple, a single penny could be offered to the Rapid Falls gods. It had to be inserted into a shrine-like orifice to slither and slide down a tortuous Amazonian cataract. Only fate and the lure of the gods would determine the wake of copper pennies to be pushed over the edge. I too lapped up the danger. The risk. It was a winning waterfall to feast on cascading pennies until John sacrificed himself.
“Watch this,” he said, and flung himself at the temple door. The machine’s alarm siren went off. Freddie roared, “I’m calling the Garda!” He stubbed out his cigar in a rage. John giggled and cleaned out the god’s rich deposits in the payout tray.
“Run-nnn!” Paddy roared and urged me to flee out the blue back door. Freddie chased us but couldn’t run in his sandals. John laughed back. We hid out behind the swing boats and counted our spoils until all the commotion died down.
I had managed to clean out my slot winnings. I had been on a winning streak at the lucky machine. I would have it all: fish and chips saturated in malt vinegar, mountain-high candy floss, and a ninety-nine soft serve ice cream cone with a Cadbury chocolate flake, followed by bumper car rides. Everyone knew McCormick’s amusement center had the best rides. The sign read “Dodgems,” but it was all about the head-on bumping I could fit in against Paddy and John in the ten minutes while the young fella on the microphone bleated out, “One way around the floor, safety first.” Pipers had the best candy floss. Paddy refused to eat the pink color, and Mrs Piper made up a batch of blue. It didn’t bother me what color the floss was. It was a direct hit of sugar to my brain once the sweet mound melted on the roof of my mouth.
We snuck back into Freddie’s to meet Maria when the money ran out. When we returned to Ma, the tide was fully out, and Da sat at the water’s edge shrouded in seaweed. Ma sat knitting a swaddling blanket for what could only be for baby Frances. Ma said she was on the way, and I wasn’t to ask any questions until she got here. Lounged back in her striped deck chair, she had tied four tidy corner knots in her handkerchief before fitting it on her head to deflect the strong rays.
This is how I remember my mother. It’s as if she is the warp and I am the weft of the same thread. The fabric of our lives had yet to be woven without either of us fully understanding the men in our lives, our gamblers. The disease of gambling which brought us together would drive us apart. My pledge was never to become her. I’d run three thousand miles away and marry a non-gambler who became a gambler. I’m no angel, I gambled too. Luck of the Irish, what are the odds? I never understood this small woman who wore a white cotton crown with her #11 knitting needles stuck out of her head like antennae. Alien and isolated. She could knit for hours, purl stitches, and pore over detailed patterns. Deaf to the sound of crashing waves, she was a world away, her eyes like unexplored caves. When I became a parent, I couldn’t help but wonder if she ever watched us during all those hours we spent in the ocean or if she knew we lied about going for a walk. I grew up thinking I was having a blast. Maybe I had delusions of grandeur. I wanted to believe we lived like jet setters while we loaded up bottles and invested recklessly, squandering our cash deposits in the bustling amusement centers along the strip on Strand Road. I don’t recall ever hearing the word “gambling.”
“Go help him pick the periwinkles off the rocks whilst the tide is still out.” Ma pointed at Dad and tossed me the big bucket when we came back from the amusements.
It felt like she couldn’t bear the sight of us at times, so I raced out to Da, and he said, “Go fetch some more seaweed.” I knew he wanted me to drape the kelps over him and shield his fair skin from the sun. I ran into the cool ultramarine waters and returned with seaweed fronds. I twizzled the lengths of seaweed down his torso. He just crouched there and didn’t say a word. I told him Ma said we should pick the periwinkles. I shook the green bucket near his face.
“Later.” He nodded and went back under his kelps. I started doing cartwheels around him. First clockwise, then counterclockwise, flinging myself every which way until I got bored and started walking on my hands. Forward and backward, watching how quickly my handprint disappeared in the ebbing tide. I flipped my limber body into a crab-like position and meandered around the water’s edge, looking at the world upside down. I seemed to find a peace and order when things were in the wrong place. By natural order, I was upside down in the craziness and right side up in the madness. The inverted image of the Metal Man still pointing out to sea.
Da walked us out to the Metal Man later that day when the bookies had closed. He read the plaque inscription and warned, “Keep out, keep out, keep away from me; for I am the Man of Misery. See that iron fella up there,” he said, pointing. “He’s wearing eighteenth-century British sailor’s clothes, a blue jacket, a red top, and white trousers. Way before my spell in the Irish navy,” he added before lolling off in the grass to do his “homework,” his choice of words to study his racing form. “Better luck for your wish to come true if you hop around the tower on your left foot,” he reminded us, and I bounded around on my left foot dodging heaps of cow dung. I thought I got my wish early when John and Paddy almost hopped over the cliff.
Ma was snoring her head off in her deck chair when we got back. Da said she needed a rest and corralled us into the water near the rocks before we rambled over to the tidal pools and started picking periwinkles, small edible sea snails.
“The French go in for these,” Da said. According to him, they loved their delicacies and their Evian, Perrier, and Volvic bottled water. “Leave it to the French to bottle water,” he vouched when a stray plastic bottle washed ashore. I was more invested to go gambling, and stretched to see if there was any return cash for the deposit money. We spent an hour filling the green bucket with periwinkles. The dark gray marine snails were plentiful off the rocks at the low-tide mark. Da would let them simmer in the big pot once we got home.
“If it’s good enough for the French, it’s good enough for us,” Da used to say after he sat us around the kitchen table with safety pins, on a mission to dagger out the turbinal meat inside and scarf it down. Ma would complain for weeks about the indigo stain they left behind in her only big stew pot.
When Ma finally awakened, she moved her deck chair to face the last rays. Da dipped back into his Irish Field.
“Do you have the money for the bus home?” she said to him.
“I do for you and the children.”
“And how will you get home?”
“Walk, it’s seven miles,” she said, and started a wild flying nunchuk action with her knitting needles that made me slink back a few feet.
“I have shoes.” He pointed to his shoes at her side.
“They’re in flitters, the heels are full of stones.” She dropped her knitting and picked them up. She rattled the small pebbles locked inside to make her point.
“Let’s see who the conductor is? If I know him, he’ll let me on free.”
“And if you don’t?”
“I’d rather walk,” Da answered with a thick pride. They turned away from one another.
These were the feral moments I could never understand about their marriage. I have to wonder now if silence is the space the heart goes to when it can find no words. It would take me years to realize that gambling is an emotional disease.
The big orange sun bowed out of the reddish streaked sky. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning,” Da chanted his old sailor adage before we rounded up our belongings to head towards the bus stop. We were always the last to leave the beach, Ma relentless not to return her rented deck chair. It was almost eight o’clock, and the long summer day of the northern hemisphere was drawing into a dreamy twilight.
We yawned when we reached the bus terminal. The families that came earlier were long gone. A few people lined up at the terminal between the barred railing. I hung upside down. The blood gushed to my head. I swished my body around like a spoon, coiling my torso to mimic Da’s upward spiral of cigarette smoke rings. He puffed anxiously as the bus driver circled the terminal area. I stirred harder. The double-decker bus pulled up next to the passenger bay. I could tell Da didn’t know the conductor. He slunk away like we all did after doing something wrong. Shame stood on end, a loose end tethered to its close handmaiden, guilt. I didn’t understand that Da had gambled away the bus fare and most of his wages. Angst was on a slow brew.
The bus loaded up. I leaned out the window and passed Da on his long walk home. He ambled, spry with a bag of kelps in each hand that he would later fling around his vegetable patch, all part of his pH plan. I didn’t know if I should wave or not. It had somehow felt like my fault he had been left behind. My anxiety settled like a fog without rising for days. I wondered why I’d funded a rollick with my winnings. Had I known, I could have given Da the bus fare. I was broke, and I’d hold out for my Holy Communion money and go back to play the shilling slots. I was never sure if Da had gambled away his bus money or had given up his bus fare so my pregnant mother would not have to walk two miles home with four children.
Years later, I separated from my gambling spouse. I returned to Tramore and crouched beside Da, who was ritually draped in seaweed at the water’s edge. The ocean sparkled and glistened, the rhythm was old and new. The horizon seemed so far, but yet so close. The cliffs cast a long shadow across the beach, drawing my eyes upward and my mind outward across time. I gazed out at the Metal Man, and the sun set into a fiery halo against the silhouette of the Man of Misery. A voided moment skipped a reality beat and became empty-hearted out of fear of being human. I picked it up, the way I did as a child, like some kind of poltergeist emotion that came and left me feeling warped. Neither of us had the emotional scope to know where to go. Tears were not part of our language. Instead, I stared out at the blazing sunset dip and blur behind the ominous Metal Man and wondered about who I became with the men in my life, my gamblers.