bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


by Sharon Frame Gay

According to legend, angels are mystical, ethereal beings with feathered wings, gauzy gowns, and Mona Lisa smiles. They perform miracles from afar, gently pulling on the strings of our lives to veer us out of oncoming traffic, heal our sick children, or act as messengers for our prayers.

But I have learned that there are angels who fly much closer to the ground, touching our hearts with their kindness in unforgettable ways.

One such lesson arrived on a cold January day, the kind of day when even God was snuggled under blankets, sipping cocoa. He must have fallen asleep on His watch, because the winter skies cracked open with a ticker tape parade of snow, inches upon inches falling on our neighborhood. There was no filter to this storm, but rather a winter snowfall of such abandon that the dog could barely navigate his daily rounds. Absent intriguing scents, snow to his belly, he begged to come in and stretch out by the fire.

My husband, Ben, was huddled under two quilts, shivering. Radiation to his brain left his body regulating devices askew, and he was just shy of hypothermia. We both kept our fingers crossed that the power wouldn’t go out, a common occurrence in our neck of the woods.

By nightfall, the snow miraculously stopped, leaving behind a night blanketed by flinty stars, illuminated by a fresh moon. Outside, the snow glittered, lying crisp and unmarred, several inches covering our yard and driveway. Pretty as it was, there was danger in the cold, and I prayed that the streets would be navigable should Ben have a seizure and require help. As the only driver, and a poor one at best, I felt not a little panic.

As we watched TV in the back of the house by the fire, I heard a scraping noise out front. There was a steady staccato to the sound, interesting enough for me to crawl out from my blanket to peer out the front window.

There, in the moonlight, were several neighbors. Some I knew well, others I had never met. They each had a snow shovel and were quietly shoveling our driveway. I hurried into my boots and coat, grabbed my shovel, and drifted out into the snow to greet them. The world was quiet under the cloak of white, stars so brilliant that they cut holes through the cloth of the night sky, and the moon shimmered on the fallen snow, a spotlight on the faces of those who were there to help. There was little talk, just gentle smiles with a few softly spoken words and the steady shoveling. Working alongside my neighbors I experienced something deep in my soul that expanded out through my blood like tiny bubbles of champagne—a feeling of joy. Snow angels had fallen from heaven and left their mark indelibly on my driveway and in my heart.

As the cold gave way to February, there seemed some hope that spring might join us. But despite the promising slant of light as we crept closer to the sun, Ben’s condition wasn’t improving, and although the days grew longer, our lives felt shrouded in darkness. Ben needed to be moved to a facility. He left our house one dark afternoon in the back of an ambulance, both of us knowing he would not return.

I learned then that the halls of hospice are filled with angels. They occupy the corners of the rooms and walkways. The winter windows are frosted from their gentle sighs on cold panes. Some are there to welcome home the weary traveler, while others hover to support and bring comfort to those destined to be left behind. Candles flicker in the windows of those who have passed, a lighthouse for the angels, a beacon showing the way.

But not all hospice angels tread on heavenly planes. There was the man, a stranger, who spoke to me in the hallway. For a moment or two we were joined by our sorrow, commiserating, exchanging hugs. Then we turned away with sad smiles and resolve to continue our vigil with loved ones. The next morning he came to our room with flowers for me. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said with tears in his eyes. “These are from your husband. He would want you to have them.” I never knew his name, or where he lived, I knew only that he walked on this earth, an angel of bone and sinew.

Angels entered the room each day in the form of nurses, social workers, friends and neighbors. They made blankets to keep Ben warm and put hummingbird feeders outside to attract the tiny birds to Ben’s window. The birds would come, even though the February rains threatened to weigh down their feathers and push them to the ground, still they came, defying all odds, dancing in the wind.
One weary, grey afternoon, I returned home from hospice alone. It had been a sad day. A day of weariness and sorrow, exhaustion and trepidation. I needed to return to the house, feed the dog, pack a bag, get the mail—the everyday duties we must accomplish in the teeth of life’s turbulent changes. The sun was setting as I drove down my street, the hills beginning to darken, another day swallowed up in the great business of dying.

As I pulled into my driveway, I looked up towards my front door and the planter beneath the sidelight window. To my amazement, the planter was filled with bright, colorful primroses, their little faces peering out, illuminated by the last rays of sunshine. They were merry, hopeful, completely unexpected, a symbol of friendship and caring—the perfect gift when my heart was so heavy. More angels had touched me. Lovely neighbors, transforming the twilight in my heart to happiness.

Over time, angels brought us meals, drove us to radiation and chemotherapy treatments, took Ben for little jaunts and out to movies, called, wrote, and visited. Each one touched our hearts in ways that will never be forgotten. In the dark night of winter, these angels gave us wings.

Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, traveling throughout the United States and playing by the side of the road. Her dream was to live in a house long enough to find her way around in the dark, and she has finally achieved this outside Seattle, Washington.  She writes poetry, prose poetry, short stories and song lyrics.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cahaba River Literary Journal Essay Contest – “April”

The Cahaba River Literary Journal is accepting submissions for a contest on the theme "April" and continuing to accept submissions for an open call as well. For details, visit their website.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hidden in Plain Sight

by Kirk Boys

Don’s group home is painted the same yellow as a sunflower. And it strikes me as odd that a place that holds so much sorrow within would be so bright on the outside. To see it you need to be willing to get off the main road. You need to know where to turn.
I volunteer for the library. My job: select and deliver books to people who can’t make it in on their own. My client, Don, is one of those people. He lives near Renton, Washington. There is no sign; you have to know where to turn off the county road, maneuver down a long, steep driveway at the bottom of which you take a sharp right, and the group home is there, hidden in plain sight.
Four other people live with Don. His caregivers are all from the Philippines and they are very good at what they do from what I can tell. The other residents at the sunflower colored house are there, like Don, for medical reasons. They all require full-time care and more often than not, this is the last place they will live. This past July, Don turned ninety-seven. My father would be the same age if he were alive.
Don can’t see very well and his hearing is even worse, so I end up shouting at him. Not angrily of course, although, it is frustrating when you have so much to talk about and it’s so hard to communicate. I know this.
When I walk into Don’s room he smiles. That causes me to smile too.
The first and most important thing I noticed about Don is that he has an open mind. I find this remarkable for a man with ninety-seven years of living life a certain way. For example Don had not read a lick of fiction since his high school English class. So I bring Don fiction. He is open to reading anything though. I brought him Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume on my third visit. When I asked him what he thought of one of America’s most avant-garde authors, Don said with a smile, “Pretty good.”
He appreciates the smallest kindness. He spends most every day in his room, sitting in his wheelchair reading or napping. I usually find him facing into his closet, a book in his lap. He likes that spot because the light pours through just so.
I visit Don every three weeks. He causes me to experience aging in a very personal way, to consider how it must feel to need someone’s help to use the bathroom, someone to clean you up after, to wear a bib when you eat. To make the simplest decisions like taking a sip of orange juice knowing it will cause you to choke. That is the kind of person Don is though. The kind who is willing to take that risk for the sweet taste of reconstituted orange.
I had three library clients before I got matched up with Don, but each has passed on.
My volunteer coordinator at the library warned me, “Try not to get attached.”
I didn’t believe her. After all, I just deliver books.
Each of my clients has been different, their taste in books, what they wanted or expected of me. Diane was eighty three and was very specific. “I don’t want any romance or suspense. Don’t bring me biographies or memoirs or nonfiction of any kind. No sex or violence, I only want books on tape and I am most fond of cat mysteries.” Diane’s home had stuffed animals on display. A moose head was mounted in the home’s community room. There was a cougar on the prowl. A wild boar and a lynx stuffed in life-like poses prowled above the dining area. There was an elk head, a deer and buffalo too, their eyes glassy, as if unsuspecting of their fate. Diane never complained about the dead animals that stared menacingly down at her while she ate her meals. They would have bothered me.
Diane’s request for cat mysteries on tape seemed a tall order, but I looked around and found Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Had Sixty Whiskers and The Cat Who Read Backwards on tape and I took them to her. Mostly though, Diane and I would talk. In her tiny room she told me stories about her life. She bragged about her grandkids. 
“Both girls are exceptionally bright,” she said.
We’d known each other about a year when I got a call. A lady told me Diane had died and the cat mystery tapes had all been returned. She said, “There is no need for you to come back.” And that was that.
Don is only able to read large print. I go to several libraries and scan the large print stacks in hope of finding something I like and Don might enjoy. I want to believe this is not self-serving. That pushing my personal literary taste on Don is not a way of validating my own taste in books. But I must say, Don is one of the best read ninety-seven year olds in King County.
This is how it usually goes. I gather four or five books and I head over to Don’s. I knock on the door and wait, after a minute or so, Cynthia answers. She is petite with short hair and kind eyes. Cynthia almost never smiles, her demeanor is deadpan, but there is something about her. She has this warmth, a confidence, a knowing that shines through.
“Hi, is Don here?” I always ask. This is a stupid question of course. Don’s not able to go anywhere. So I guess I am really asking, is Don still alive? I hold my breath for that split second. It makes me sad to tell you this, but it is the truth. Bringing books to Don a few undeniable truths jump out at me.  They come unexpectedly and they are powerful.
“Back in his room,” Cynthia says, turning and pointing with a sort of made-up annoyance. I think Cynthia actually likes seeing me, but doesn’t want to show it, thinking it would be unprofessional. Cynthia is one of those matter-of-fact people. The ones who have the attitude you probably need if you are going to spend your days with people nearing the end of their lives. Cynthia wears a light blue caregiver outfit. She likes Don and Don likes her too. I can tell.
In the living room I see five brown recliners in a semi-circle, facing the TV. Only two are occupied. In one, a man sits, his head is laid back and drool is streaming from the corner of his mouth. His name is Joe. When Joe is awake, he screams and groans. No one is quite clear why. Maybe he wants something or he is in pain or just wants people to know he is alive and pissed off about it. Or it could be, he just wants someone to take notice of him, but that’s mostly me just guessing. Don told me he found Joe irritating.
The TV is always on the Filipino channel. A game show or soap opera of some sort blares in the background with beautiful Filipino women talking fast or singing. Just behind the recliners, out the living-room window, I can see Lake Washington. No one else can. They are faced the wrong way.
In the other chair, Lily sits with her black and silver hair knotted in a bun atop her head. She is missing a good part of one leg, from the knee down. Her stub is wrapped in heavy bandages.
“Hi there,” I say.
“Hello,” she answers politely. “He’s in his room.” She points.
I have offered to bring books for Lily, but she declines. I guess she would rather watch the Filipino channel. I don’t believe she understands Tagalog. It is as though Lillian is marking time and it breaks my heart.
I head back about then, past the table where the residents eat, their places set for the next meal. There are no lights turned on, instead, natural light fills the room with a dull gray. There is a faint smell of urine. If you were to ask me what color is sadness? I would say it is gray, without question.
“Sure you don’t want me to bring you a book?” I ask Lily, one last time.
“No thanks,” Lily answers. I feel bad for Lily. I feel bad for Joe too. It looks to me that getting old is frustrating, lonely, painful and hard. I can see it in her face. I see it in her weak excuse for a smile. They both look miserable. Then Lily looks at me as if to say, “Why are you acting so jolly buddy? Don’t you see how we are here? Don’t you see I am missing my leg, or that the guy next to me is drooling all over himself? Don’t you see this existence we’re living, here, in front of the TV and the Filipino channel? What the Hell are you doing here with your books and smiles?”
I find Don in his room, his back to me, hoping to catch enough light to read. It’s hard to tell if Don is reading or asleep, so I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Hi Buddy,” I say, trying to catch his attention.
Don smiles, “Well … hello … there,” he answers. That smile of his is worth a million-billion dollars. That smile is worth all the trips to the library and the long drive and the sadness of watching people trying their hardest to live out their remaining days in dignity. That smile of Don’s lights up the inside of the Group Home.
“How are you doing?” I shout. Then I wait. It takes a long while for Don to answer.
“Pretty good, I guess,” he says ever so slowly.
“How did you like the books I brought you?”
Don stares back at me, silent, our eyes locked. I feel uncomfortable at first, then, my patience begins to wane. There is so much I want to say, so many things I want to ask Don. Among them may be things I wished I had asked my dad before he was suddenly gone. But Don’s response is painfully slow. He can only hear half of what I say, so I repeat the question. “Did you like the books?” I shout louder this time.
As I wait for his response, I look around his room. There is a twin bed with a faded navy comforter. A single white pillow lies at the head. Next to it, on a small table, sits a Big Ben alarm clock. I notice how its ticks fill the long pauses. I observe what Don has brought to this room after nearly ninety-seven years on this earth. An old computer monitor rests on a small desk, its hard drive fan whispers, nearly imperceptibly. Two flannel shirts hang in the closet, next to some tan pants and a sweater. There are a few pictures taped to the wall. His kids, his sail boat, his wife, the pictures are old, tired, their color nearly gone, the people in them appear to me as ghosts from Don’s past. I wonder if he has somehow outlived them all.
“Life is more than one room,” Don says finally as I stand to leave.
It’s easy for me to forget, in the sparseness of his room, how smart Don is. He did research at MIT, worked on perfecting radar during the war, and then as an engineer for Boeing. He begins to cough. It happens every time. His torso heaves and his eyes water as this deep, rattling, choking, cough takes over his body. He coughs so ferociously that I begin to go for help. For I fear this to be his last cough. Then it stops, as abruptly as it began. Don swallows hard and looks at me and smiles, as if to say, “Fooled yah.”
I sit back down and begin going through the books from my last visit. I show him the cover and ask, “How did you like it?”
“Good,” he answers to a few, “Not so much,” to others. “You haven’t let me down yet,” he adds.
I don’t always have the endurance needed to stay long with Don. I don’t much like that flaw in my character. I don’t flatter myself believing that my visits are that big a deal in Don’s life or that I impact the quality of his days. It’s more convenient for me to think that way. Maybe the truth is that I don’t want that responsibility. I always feel different leaving Don’s group home. Three weeks from now, when I go back, I will have forgotten that feeling. I need to be reminded how fortunate I am. The group home does that.
When Don and I are finished, I walk past Joe and Lily and out the front door and into my car. There is a cold breeze. The air smells new, fresh and clean. I make the hard turn, then straight up the driveway and out onto the county road. I think about what the coordinator at the library said, “Don’t get attached.”

Kirk Boys is a writer living outside Seattle. He holds a certificate in Advanced Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. His work has been published in Storie-all write, an Italian literary magazine, in The Springhill Review, and was recently honored as a top twenty-five finalist in a Glimmer Train short story contest. He has two daughters, and four grandkids under the age of five, including twins. In addition to his library outreach service, he is a volunteer mentor for young writers at Richard Hugo House in Seattle.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Paid by the Inch

by Michael K. Brantley

            I remember exactly where I was sitting — the next to last seat, last row, just in front of the door — when the Bantam rooster who taught our journalism class perched on the corner of his desk and began to squawk about his disappointment with our efforts on the forthcoming first issue of the student newspaper.
            What a load of garbage, he said. Did anybody listen to directions? Do you want to be the class who kills The Phoenix? Mr. Transou was new to the school, and I think he even compared the pieces on his desk to dog turds.
Then Transou did the unthinkable. He said let’s read some of this crap. And he started reaching for manuscripts from his pile. There were grumbles as he shot down one piece after the other, mostly making the point that no one had put any effort into the assignment. I waited for my turn. People were doodling on notebooks, looking at the clock, hoping for a fire drill or bomb threat or something that would save us all.
I felt alone in my first year at the senior high school. Sporting a bowl haircut, a disproportioned body I was trying to grow into and Coke bottle glasses, I knew just one person in class — a girl I’d had a crush on since seventh grade. Everyone else was a junior or senior, mostly popular students. We had a couple of blonde cheerleaders, a couple of athletes, a handful of slackers, and some “popular girls.” Naïve as one could get in the mid-1980s, I didn’t realize that Journalism was a crip course. I thought it was a calling.
Now, Transou said, after about seven or eight pieces, listen to this one. “So, you think you know sports, huh?” As he rolled the first line of my story off his lips, I looked down and cringed. What does that make you think, he asked. No one answered.
I’ll tell you what it makes me think, he said. It makes me want to read more. That’s a lead. And the worst part is, he continued, is I’ve got a roomful of seniors in here and you let a dad-blame sophomore show you all up. That guy right there, he said. I looked up just in time to see him point my paper back at me.
Deep down, I was excited. I had spent some time on the work, banging away on a typewriter, not really knowing what I was doing. I felt the laser-like burn of eyes cast my way, eyes showing resentment and scorn. I saw what I would later come to appreciate and know as Mr. Transou’s devilish grin — a sort of sideways, sarcastic twist of the mouth, like a poker tell, which preceded wrath, a smart aleck comeback or a slash to cut someone down to size. He pushed his glasses up on his nose, flipped his black mop of hair and said it: Brantley’s going to be our sports editor. The teacher had hung a bull’s-eye on me, giving a bottom-feeding underclassman an editorial position.
The girl I had the crush on reached across the aisle and touched my arm. Good job, Mikey, she said.  I no longer cared who else in the room hated me.
•           •           •
Maybe it’s therapeutic, maybe it’s egotistical, maybe it is just angst. Dylan Thomas gave it a good turn in “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” where he compares writing to two frustrated lovers, mentions that he doesn’t write for money or fame or ambition or for a certain class. He writes for the people who won’t even read his work: “…But for the lovers, their arms/Round the griefs of the ages/Who pay no praise or wages/Nor heed my craft or art.”
A colleague once asked me if all writers were damaged. Maybe. I think my story is more about “labour by singing light,” only in my version, I’m more like a clumsy plumber in a jumbled crawl space trying to use McKenna’s left-handed monkey wrench — I keep banging my knuckles against all the pipes.
            There is deep satisfaction to making something where nothing existed, not even raw material. It is no different than the feeling a maker of fine guitars has when he puts that last coat of varnish over the headstock adorned with his name; the pride of the furniture maker who burns his mark into the underside of a cherry dinette; or the artist as he stands back and admires his work before at last blessing it with a signature. Artists don’t make a career choice, they respond to a calling, sometimes with only a byline and two contributor’s copies to serve as compensation.
•           •           •
            Within a couple of weeks of being named sports editor and getting my first two articles published in the high school newspaper, I became a professional writer. The Nashville Graphic needed a part time sportswriter — stringers, they were called — to cover my high school. The publisher had seen my stories and she had a paying job for me if I wanted it. The job paid by the inch, she said. Stringers started at 50 cents per column inch of copy published. I wasn’t sure how much money this would amount to, but I knew being paid to watch sports beat shoveling manure for the $2 an hour I was making on my brother’s hog farm. There was just one hitch. I hadn’t yet become eligible for driver’s ed. I asked the publisher if I could call her back, once I checked with my folks about transportation.
            There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “Michael, are you telling me you aren’t old enough to drive?” the publisher asked.
“Yes ma’am.”
She laughed. “You talk to your folks and call me back.”
So, for six months, Mama dropped me off at basketball and baseball games, and later at town hall meetings, county commissioner meetings, election nights and other events important to community newspapers.
I had great editors at the Graphic. The first one was straight-laced, by the book, and taught me all the rules. He taught me how to “write tight,” and take notes in a way that would allow the stories to be quickly constructed. He toughened my skin, sharpened my writing (the fewer words the better) and insisted on unbiased reporting.
My next editor at the paper was more of the artistic type. He taught me to add color, to appeal to the senses, to think beyond the plays, to put the reader in the scene.
Between them I got an education, eventually working in every department at the newspaper, and earning enough money to buy a wrecked ’84 Chevette. I was soaked deeply in printer’s ink.
•           •           •
My experience got me freelance work in college covering sports for the Raleigh News & Observer. It was good work. I got plum assignments in the eastern half of North Carolina, especially during football season, and it kept me in gas money and books. There was something wonderful about working a game, and just six hours later picking up a copy of the paper and seeing my story in the sports section. It was akin to seeing a black and white print come to life in a darkroom developing tray. In the early 1990s, there were no laptops and no smartphones, so I had to call my stories in from the nearest pay phone I could find after a game. Some nights, there was no time to write out copy. The night editor, an old school reporter I had grown up reading, had me compose my pieces verbally, straight from the notes, encouraging me as I rattled off paragraphs from phone booths in the parking lots of country stores and gas stations.
After college, I worked as editor of a local newspaper and then rejoined The Nashville Graphic. But as much as I loved the work, I started considering the future. I was newly married and we wanted to start a family at some point and have some stability. The news business is all about movement. To get ahead, you have to keep stepping up the ladder, moving and hustling and working long hours. I started to realize that very few of my colleagues in the industry stayed married, and an alarming number had drinking problems. I soon left for a job in public relations.
It didn’t take long to miss writing. I started hunting freelance work, first with a regional business magazine, then a national sports magazine, a farm publication and a bluegrass music monthly. Just as I was considering jumping into freelancing fulltime, a friend wanted to know if I was interested in purchasing his photography business. I would still be able to tell stories, just with images, not words. My notes and journals went into the bottom drawer of my desk for almost two decades. So did my calling.
•           •           •
            Books were important at my house growing up. Every night, Mama read to me — Dr. Seuss, Curious George, Sunny Books and all sorts of children’s literature anthologies. Of course, there weren’t a whole lot of alternatives after the work on the farm was done. Our tiny black and white television picked up only three channels — four if the weather was just right —and all my brothers and sisters were grown.
Though we lived on a tight, cash-only budget, my parents subscribed to the News & Observer. They read every page of it every day. There was one columnist who was a family favorite. Dennis Rogers hit every back road in the state for decades, going into towns and finding stories to fill his space five days a week. Rogers wrote about dive bars, veterans, upstanding citizens, crooks, hangings, legends, good old boys, and women down on their luck. His work was sometimes funny, sometimes gritty, but always authentic. He created vivid scenes. I learned that everyone or every place has a story, it just takes a writer to find it and make it ready to be read. My family would talk about Rogers’ pieces, and I was motivated to read so I would not be left out of the conversation.
I devoured books like a stray dog attacking a plate of table scraps. Whenever I had questions, my parents would tell me to “go look it up,” in a set of World Book Encyclopedias so old it didn’t have any mention of the Vietnam War. I read biographies of the Founding Fathers, moved on to the Hardy Boys, American history, spy novels by Ian Fleming, Ellery Queen, and To Kill A Mockingbird. I read all the Peanuts Gang collections, and every Time Life book on World War II. Today, my favorites are Hemingway, Carver, O’Connor, Fitzgerald, Moore, Rash, and Talese. Gatsby is much better at 40 than 14. I acquired a taste for poetry after discovering Collins, Makuck, Chappell, Heaney, Hayden and McKean.
Because we were so far out in the country, many miles from the nearest library, an old converted school bus known as the bookmobile made the rounds in our end of the county, with a regular stop at a country store a few miles down the road. This library-on-wheels was a treat to look forward to every week, especially in the summer. I still remember the smell that enveloped me as soon as the hiss of the doors sounded and I climbed aboard. We didn’t have air conditioning in our house, and the bookmobile had a friendly chill to it, the cold air offering a break from the stifling summer heat. It was the smell of aging paper and glue and binding and book jackets and the hands and homes that had all touched the books. It was being in the presence of words stacked floor to ceiling, higher than I could reach, that transported me to another place even though we never left the yard.
Since Mama and I were the only patrons, the library eventually made our house an official bookmobile stop, and the two ladies who drove it would load us down with an armload of new editions every two weeks. They seemed as excited to have readers as we did to have things to read.
As I got older, most of my friends started reading Sports Illustrated, but I preferred The Sporting News — it was still published on newsprint, and the writing from the venerable reporters and columnists such as Art Spander, Furman Bisher, Peter Gammons, Peter Vecsey and Dick Young had much so more style and depth. I loved stories that put me in places and ballparks and cities I dreamed of seeing one day, stories that could make me see and touch and smell the surroundings — stories that I wanted to write.
•           •           •
            In early 2012, I walked across a stage at East Carolina University and took a piece of paper that represented a Master of Arts in English. It was the end of a whirlwind year and a half that began when I decided I’d had enough of Photoshopping, crying babies, late night alcohol-fueled wedding receptions, a tanking economy and more than a few difficult customers. At 41, it seemed crazy to my family and friends for me to try to start over, especially after 17 years of running my own business. To me, it seemed long overdue. It was like the scene in “Forrest Gump” where Forrest runs across the country for years and then decides one day that he doesn’t want to run anymore, so he stops.
            I was going to back to writing, the thing I was called to do.
Two weeks after finishing my degree, I dropped my bags into a dorm room at Queens University of Charlotte to begin coursework on an MFA in Creative Writing. It is strange, but liberating when you stop denying who you are.
•           •           •
Writing is no different than sports or photography. Talent comes in handy, but really, it is sweat that makes it work. That, not talent, is how I made a living behind the camera for so long.
             Those who have known me a long time must think I’m having one hell of a midlife crisis, going to school, writing and teaching college English. I love it because the more I teach writing, the more I learn about it. Writers outgrow stories, much like clothes, as the writer gets taller and broader and the work adds maturity.
It has taken me a long time to realize a career can be enjoyed, but in the end it is just a job. A calling is a passion that may burn at different temperatures, but never flickers out.

Michael K. Brantley is a writer and Visiting Instructor of English at North Carolina Wesleyan College. His creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry has most recently been published in The First Day, The Dunes Review, Word River, Bartleby Snopes, Revolution House, Stymie, The Smoking Poet, Crack the Spine, The Fat City Review, Short, Fast, and Deadly, The Rusty Nail, The Circa Review, The Cobalt Review and Prime Number Magazine.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Bipolar Christmas

by Martin Achatz

My daughter was born at the end of an early December snowstorm. I remember the wind that night while my wife was in labor, the kind of wind that shakes parked cars. It tore up the darkness, as if it was mad at the sun for disappearing to the other side of the planet. At some point during that long, midnight vigil, I joked to my wife, Beth, “Keep it down. I can’t hear the wind.”
She didn’t laugh.
At 7:29 the following morning, our daughter was born, screaming and healthy.
The storm had blown itself out like a birthday candle by the time Beth gave the final push that brought our baby into the world. Outside, everything was blinding white and calm, a scene from Currier & Ives. Inside, I stood by my wife’s bed and stared at her and my newborn daughter, felt myself opening up, unfolding like some rare orchid in the moment. So serene. So perfect.
I’d like to end with that Madonna and child moment, tell you that later in the morning, three kings showed up and showered us with presents and food and free camel rides. But that isn’t quite what happened.
Before she became pregnant, my wife had been battling crippling bouts of depression. She’d been to counselors and therapists, talked about her mother’s death, started taking Prozac. Nothing worked. The depressions kept getting deeper and longer, as if she were on some endless donkey ride through the Grand Canyon at night during a full lunar eclipse. These lows were always followed by periods of respite, chrysalis times when my wife broke free, became all wing and sun and light.
Then Beth got pregnant. For those nine months, the darkness simply vanished. At first, we kept watch, waiting for the nose of an iceberg to appear on the horizon. After a few months of clear seas, however, we relaxed, began planning our future with something like hope. My wife seemed to be waking up after a long fallow season. Our life became a series of doctor’s visits and firsts. First hearing of our daughter’s heartbeat. First ultrasound. First time our daughter moved.
When we painted the nursery walls that autumn, my wife’s depressions were like shadows in the corners of a well-lit room. I was in graduate school, writing poems about mosquitoes and moons. Beth only had one bout of morning sickness her entire pregnancy. Approaching her due date and the upcoming holidays, we never heard the chains of the Ghost of Mental Illness Yet to Come rattling at our front door.
It took only a couple days after our daughter was born for the honeymoon to end. Beth woke up one morning and said to me, “I have a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.” These nervous feelings were omens that something dark was about to descend, and I could see it in my wife’s eyes. She had the look of a rabbit being chased by a screech owl, ready to bolt down the nearest burrow.
Her ob-gyn seemed concerned but not panicked. She gave Beth estrogen patches and told her it was the post-partum blues. We liked this doctor a lot, and both of us clung to the belief that these little round stickers of hormone would steer the UPS truck to our house to deliver a glowing package of joy to our front porch.
As the winter solstice approached, however, I would come home from work night after night to find Beth still in bed, our daughter on the pillows beside her. The bedroom was a cave filled with the smell of sour breast milk. I’d climb into bed with them and hold Beth while she wept. As a writer, I don’t often use the word “wept.” It’s too melodramatic a verb, summoning up Heathcliff and Jane Eyre on the moors. But there’s no other word for how my wife clung to my shirt and sobbed, her body convulsed with a grief so profound it made her seem unstitched, as if her bones and muscles and skin couldn’t contain it. Sadness seeped out of her pores like thick, black sap.
Pain is a part of most Christmas narratives. Mary is a pregnant teen, shunned and rejected. As a boy, Scrooge is abandoned by his father. George Bailey is suicidal. Rudolph is bullied. And then there’s Nestor, a little donkey with ears as long as elephant trunks. In this Rankin/Bass holiday special, Nestor is teased for his anatomical anomaly and eventually gets kicked out of the barn during a blizzard on the winter solstice, a night, according to legend, when animals are given the gift of speech. Nestor’s mother follows him and ends up lying on top of him to keep him warm. She saves Nestor but loses her life in the process.
Despair accumulates like heavy snow in all these stories. Yet, there are also Garcia Marquez moments of magic. Ghosts. Wingless angels. Blazing comets. The long December nights always end with warm hay and church bells and sunrises.    
The druids and Celts understood this dual nature of the winter solstice time, this battle between death and life, darkness and light. I think early Christians understood it, as well. That’s why they chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ around December 21. They saw it as a time when human beings reached through the black and cold of winter toward the warmth and rebirth of spring, the very planet tilting from sorrow to hope.
On Christmas Eve, Beth was having a good spell. For a few days, she’d been able to get out of bed, play with our daughter, and wrap presents. During the day on December 24, we made sugar cookies and fudge, watched one of the multiple broadcasts of It’s A Wonderful Life on TV.
Outside, the clouds were the color of a dirty gum eraser, smudged with the promise of snow. The lilac bushes along our property line were capped with white. Their branches rattled in the wind like startled deer hoofs on ice or stone. A storm was coming. The weatherman was forecasting several inches by Christmas morning.
At church that night, Beth and I sat with family. Our daughter slept in the crook of my arm the entire service, her velvet dress the color of evergreen. As we lit candles and sang “Silent Night,” my wife slipped her fingers into my open palm and looked at me, a thin smile on her face. She wasn’t doing well, I could tell. It wasn’t anything physical in her appearance. It was the pressure of her body against mine as we stood, as if she wanted to climb inside my skin, disappear into me.
We drove home in silence, her hand holding mine so tight my fingers ached. I thought of the new ornament hanging in the branches of the tree in our living room. It was an angel sleeping on a cloud, and on the cloud were the words “Baby’s First Christmas.” It should have been that simple, that peaceful.
As we walked to the front steps of our house, Beth leaned into me. The moon pressed through the clouds above, shedding a dim silver on the snow banks along the sidewalk, like a failing flashlight. Familiar shapes, shovels and garbage cans and bushes, became looming shadows. My arms ached, as if they were holding up not just my wife and baby, but the heavens, as well. All of the talk of light and hope and joy from the church seemed as distant as Orion or Antares.
Then I saw something move in the night. A small, hunched shape on the apex of a snow pile. I stopped and stared at it. For a few moments, it remained frozen, and I started to believe it was simply a chunk of ice, that my mind was playing tricks on me. But it eventually stretched upward, like a crocus blooming in time-lapse, until it stood half in darkness, half in moonlight.
It was a rabbit, brown and tall. Its ears twitched back and forth, testing the night for danger. I could see the Christmas lights from our front porch reflected in the black marbles of its eyes. Its body was taut, like the band of a slingshot. It stayed balanced on its hind feet, regarding me. I suddenly thought of the legend of the talking animals, of Nestor crying for his mother in the night. The rabbit looked as if it was going to speak, to impart some ancient lepus wisdom of how to avoid pain and sorrow.
I waited on that Christmas Eve, that night of turning from darkness to light, for some kind of miracle to happen. I wanted to believe that a rabbit could tell me how to help my wife, that God could become human, that happiness could overcome the black of winter.
My daughter cried out in my arms, and the rabbit bolted. I watched it scramble out of the moonlight into the pitch of the lilac bushes. Then, silence and snow and dark. We began moving toward our front door. For some reason, the distance seemed unusually hard, as if we were struggling through water or against a strong wind. It would be half a year before Beth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Those six months were filled with more deep depressions, followed by flights of sleepless energy. Some days, Beth would carve hieroglyphs into her arms with razors or knives. Other days, she would book airfare to Florida and Walt Disney World. I kept waiting for the long night to end. For a ghost bear to materialize and groan a healing incantation. Or a flock of angel starlings to gather in our maple tree and sing a lullaby. Something soft that would quiet my wife’s unquiet mind.
That Christmas Eve, as we walked to our home, I thought of the magi, struggling through desert and mountain. I thought of the sand in their teeth and hair. Their tired camels and mules. Their muscles and bones aching for water and rest. Their long journey, following a star, through the darkness toward the promise of light.

Martin Achatz’s work has appeared in Kennesaw Review, The Paterson Literary Review, The MacGuffin, and Dunes Review, among others. His collection of poems, The Mysteries of the Rosary, was published by Mayapple Press, and his contribution to the anthology The Way North was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, where he is the Poetry Editor of Passages North.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Woman Who Is Not My Mother

by Marsha Roberts

I can hear her walking toward the front door, her sensible shoes shuffling closer and closer. But the door doesn’t open yet. She is standing there, just on the other side. She’s making the sign of the cross and asking the Blessed Virgin for courage. I know this because I have seen it many times from the other side.

“Who is it?” she says, her voice the size of a doll’s.

Before I can answer, she says it again, this time pleading. “Who is it?” She's imagining the worst … no, not imagining—remembering. It is wartime and they've come to take her and her family away. The words tremble through the door again. “Please, who is it?”

I try to sound as cheery as I can. “Your daughter!”

“Who?” Mercifully, confusion spills over the terror, blunting it.  

“Your daughter… remember me?” One day, maybe soon, she won’t.

The door finally opens just a slice and she blinks in surprise. “Oh, I didn’t know you were coming.”

The sight of her takes me aback, too. It always does. Even if I’ve just seen her the day before, the first glimpse is always a shock. The woman at the door isn’t my mother. My mother would be appalled at the sight of this woman. “Why doesn’t she comb her hair, or put on some lipstick, or wear a clean blouse, for god’s sake?” my mother would say.

“Why don’t you comb your hair, or put on some lipstick, or wear a clean blouse?” Some days I actually say it before I can get ahold of myself. On those days, she fires right back. The anger that used to be folded neatly under her lets loose with full force. “What does it matter? I am old. Nobody sees me.”

“We’re going out now, Mom. People will see you.”

“If I embarrass you, then I’ll just stay home.”

We go out. She’s wearing the same thing she’s worn for the last three days. A kelly-green t-shirt, topped with a turquoise cardigan—colors clearly unhappy with each other. At the grocery store, I get the usual looks from other middle-aged women. How can you let her go out like this? Why don’t you take care of her like she took care of you?

And then it gets worse. We get to the checkout counter and she takes three candy bars from the stand and slips them onto the belt. I scoop them up and put them back. She grabs them again. I put them back. Her eyes well up and she starts crying—really crying. She says for all to hear that I won’t let her have any candy and that I’m mean and why can’t she have candy because after all, she doesn’t have anything else—candy is her only happiness and I won’t let her have it. By now our audience has turned into a jury. And they're disgusted with me. 

“Diabetes,” I want to explain.

On the way home, I tell her about the senior center dance tomorrow. Would she like to go? I look over and do a double take. It’s my mother. Her eyes are bright blue and her old smile is right there where it always was.

“Oh, yes,” she says, she would love to go. And then, with a giggle, “Maybe I’ll find a boyfriend!” Her cheeks are flushed like she's already whirling around the floor.

She isn’t my mother, but sometimes she reminds me so much of her.

Marsha Roberts lives in Mill Valley, California. Her short stories and humorous pieces have appeared in Gravel, Loud Zoo, Hospital Drive, The Marin Independent Journal, America's Funniest Humor Showcase and soon in Thrice Fiction. Some of her comedy skits have been performed by a San Francisco troupe. She just finished her first novel, The Agent, about an elegant con game. She has visualized Paramount buying the film rights to her stories and novel, so it will happen any day now.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Down the Aisle with Henry James

by Renée Tursi

In his 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James put his heroine Isabel Archer’s marriage at the story’s midpoint. Before then, nuptials had always dwelt at a tale's end. Following Isabel’s ill-considered decision to wed the pernicious Gilbert Osmond, James kept the cameras rolling, giving his readers unnerving access to a very unhappy ever-after.
Having recently entered the marriage plot for the first time in my early fifties, I am thrown off by the return of the fairytale arc in my life. My ever-after, a copiously joyful one so far, has fallen a considerable distance from Isabel’s youthful start of the tale, and presumably well past the middle. Crunching the numbers, I see I could conceivably escape any marital strife just by where my husband and I fall in the actuarial tables. “Before the charm wears off, we’ll be dead” was how the last boyfriend had spun our dating circumstance. He missed the mark for that romance. But he may be spot on about my marriage.
            Yet, while it turned out not to be too late for me to be married, I wonder if it might be too late for me to feel married.
            Mrs. Osmond strikes me as someone who, to James’s astute and life-long unmarried observer’s mind, would have a particular quality that differed from a woman who wed for the first time later in life. It goes deeper than her regret at having married the wrong man—and beyond the fact that, as James notes, “It may seem to the reader that Mrs. Osmond had grown of a sudden strangely cynical.”
            I cannot name the quality, nor would I presume to try. And that’s my dilemma.
Of course I know that marriage in this country today, at least on paper, allows for both partners to remain fully realized individuals. When I talk about feeling married, what I’m referring to is what otherwise strongly autonomous women, ones who had wed at an “expected” age, will often say to me. That long after becoming single again, they still carry a married orientation. They confess to entering rooms as an “I” with ever-so-slight a hesitation, an inner pause registering only on their own finely tuned gauge.
Being unmarried turned out to be nowhere near the “dreadful existence” my 16-year-old self, despite its nonconformist spirit, had imagined such a life. Freedom has been mine in every sense: I made my way through graduate school to an academic career. I went from my own apartment to buying my own house. I had long-term relationships, albeit always fraught ones. I never cooked. And the only diapers I changed were those of my sisters’ children. When one of my nieces was asked once what her aunt does for a living, she replied: “She gives me books.”
But I wasn’t content. I wanted a forever partnership.
That said, the dating advice to “get out there” doing the things you love so as to meet like-minded people landed on my doorstep with a thud. When what one loves most is to curl up at home with Henry James, potential mates tend to remain fictional. 
Plot lines, however, do not. Those tragic miscommunications, tortured ruminations, excruciating choices, and unrelenting disappointments James visits upon his characters were the very storylines I seemed fated to pursue. His heroines and I took on narcissists like lint. 
            After too many decades and very little effort from me, my future husband, in a stroke of impossible irony, just showed up at my door and rang the bell. 
            The day before, I had put down my book and gone for coffee at my neighbor’s, whom he was visiting. He was magnificent. His three children, too. Within a year, he and I wed, surrounded by the people we love and a Vermont downpour.
            When friends ask me “did the marriage take?”, the answer is easy. Happy sped by in a blur. Now I’m in some sort of incandescent bliss. My husband is loving, kind, brilliant, funny, patient, generous, charming, tall, and handsome. Really. When someone talks to him in front of me, I’m so relieved; it’s proof I’ve not made him up.
Astonished to have found each other “at this point in our lives,” we feel so temperamentally enmeshed that he and I are as much a “we” as I imagine two beings can be. As my stepson watches his father and me eat breakfast with our oatmeal bowls touching, he just shakes his head.
But the first time I was asked whether I was planning to change my name to my husband’s, I admitted the thought hadn’t occurred to me. Honestly, at my age, the question felt even a bit embarrassing. Like my trying to pull off a navel piercing. And now when I’m asked what being married feels like, the truth is, beyond my absolute happiness, I don’t know. I think I may have a permanently unmarried state of mind.
            So here’s what I tell people: I feel like a single person who’s married.
            Everything and nothing prepared me for this impasse. During the feminist-turbulent years of my childhood, the fact that my mother had forfeited a dance career because my father deemed it unfitting for a university faculty wife to be seen in a leotard made no small impression on me.
            “Never count solely on a man” she told my sisters and me within earshot of the spouse upon whom she could count for everything, except recognition as a sound decision-maker.
            She loved my father and she loved us. But it was clear that her life had left her in service. I came away with few convincing arguments for becoming a wife and having children myself. Virginia Woolf said what we all know: “we think back through our mothers if we are women.”
            My mother spent the last dozen years of her life a widow. As much as she changed remarkably during that period—traveling, building a house, and tramping the Vermont woods with chainsaw in hand—she would never have been mistaken for a life-long unmarried woman. Mistaken for me. Something about the tilt of her head, as though still listening to my father’s voice.
            She would also never come to like James. A perceptive reader, she found the way he loitered about in a discontented mind unsettling.
            In high school, no one had asked me to the prom; the day after, however, a boy came up to me to say that he had thought about asking me. This utterance, astounding for its Jamesian conflux of misdirection, bewildered me as nothing had before.
I could understand his deciding not to ask me. It was his telling me that was impenetrable.
            I turned to novels. There I was sure that such unfathomable discourse would be explained. I started to really read and I started to date. But the two experiences seemed to conspire to make the possibility of fruitful pairing mere fantasy.
            Had I been able to identify more with another author’s heroines, Jane Austen’s, say, maybe my decisions would have sent me down the marriage path, for better or worse, at a younger age. What I ended up taking to, instead, was James’s sensibility. There is such a profound inwardness to it all. An aching aloneness and yearning that surges through his careful studies of human behavior. I ate it up.
            If only he had chosen, just for me, to keep going his short story “The Jolly Corner.” It ends with the promise of a mature kindling of an earlier friendship. Having waited, on reserve as it were, for Spencer Brydon’s return to New York after thirty-three years abroad, Alice Staverton had been getting on with her life. She “sallied forth and did battle.” In appraising her after all these years, Brydon thinks her appearance “defied you to say if she were a fair young woman who looked older through trouble, or a fine smooth older one who looked young through successful indifference.”
            I would like to read about the married Staverton a decade down the road. Just to know whether or not James would leave her unmarried habits of mind intact.
            Perhaps only someone as never-married as James, someone to whom women often confided quite deeply, could suggest so enigmatically the transformation that the young Isabel Archer undergoes in becoming Mrs. Osmond. When a few years into the marriage James has her become absorbed into thought about her husband’s irregular conduct, he seems to imply that she is feeling emotionally alone. But not exactly solitary.
            Since I’ve been married, my interiority has withstood any breach upon my feeling solitary. This despite the absence of lonesomeness. Despite a husband who, with such sweetness, has somehow come to read my mind and to protect my every vulnerability. Nevertheless, on forms, I still search for a hybrid term somewhere between “single” and “married.”
            My life has been a rich yield from feminists before me. They gave me choice, income, and innumerable rooms of my own. Unlike Mrs. Osmond, who “sometimes felt a sort of passion of tenderness for memories which had no other merit than that they belonged to her unmarried life,” I suffer no need for nostalgia. As my husband works at his desk near mine, his presence offers neither rescue nor suffocation. He is there simply as a pure good, added to my singleness.
            James’s world denied the author the comfortable possibility of a satisfying union for himself. Maybe he is suspect, then, for presuming to write the inner life of women. But his prescribed singleness may explain why his outlook has given me insightful companionship equal to that of any female author.
            At key moments in her life, Isabel Archer has just been reading. She lays down the book and stares ahead while her intricate Jamesian contemplations take shape. It’s terrible how, after all that, she so misreads Gilbert Osmond before marrying him. 
I had the benefit of reading much longer than she did before marriage. As it turns out, a deferred ever-after has its advantages. Even if it means my state-of-mind never catches up. 

Renée Tursi is an associate professor of English at Quinnipiac University, where she teaches (mostly) American literature. Her academic work has appeared in the aesthetics journal Style, the Henry James Review, and Studies in the Novel. Her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and the Times Literary Supplement. With her submission to bioStories, she takes her first steps with a new genre.