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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Existential River

by Daniel W. Weinrich

“You don't drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.”

The headlines today told of how somebody went missing in the Snake River. I’m not sure if there was alcohol involved, but there’s a damn good likelihood someone was stewed to the gills when they hit the water and sank to the bottom. The message gets repeated. “Don’t drink and boat, or don’t drink and swim, or don’t drink and drive and so on.” In spite of the warning, people still decide to take nasty risks.
A few years ago, a guy I knew, a drinker and a non-swimmer, climbed on a rubber raft to float the frigid water of the Snake River with four other people. Ready for the party, they also dragged along two ice chests full of beer. Oh, and no life vests.  
I can hear them now: “Life vests are for pussies.”
A beer fell off the raft and my friend dived in after it.
Fast forward twelve hours when search and rescue dragged the river for his body.
Here’s something: Instead of having to pull old dental records to identify his body, he owned one distinguishing mark. “Existentialist” was tattooed in big block letters on his back.
“Existentialists” are people who believe they are solely responsible for creating the meaning of their existence. This belief system suggests that personal essence is flexible up to the terminal point of death. No one can define what kind of person you are until all the votes are in and your potential is exhausted. If you have been a bad person for most of your life, at the last moment you can redeem yourself, repent or do something heroic. Up to our very last breath, we have the potential for determining our role in history.
 Anyway, two days after the existentialist drowned, they found his body wedged in a head gate several miles from where he’d dived in to save the beer.
“Is that him?” I imagine a searcher asking.
“Not sure,” another one says.
“Roll him over.”
“What’s does that say on his back?”
“Exist, Exist-ential-ist…something like that. That’s a big word to have tattooed on your back. I’ll bet that cost a pretty penny. Maybe he should’ve spent the money on a life vest.”
 Rather than the cost of his tattoo, I wonder about the horror of dying from the lack of oxygen. That’s got to be such a bad way to go, struggling like mad to find sustenance where there isn’t any. And really, that’s the heart of the existential concept, trying to find meaning where there might not be any at all.

When I was younger I went on a search for meaning in Asia and I discovered how to survive under water. I spent time in Phuket, Thailand learning to scuba dive. The dive shop was later demolished by the Tsunami of 04. Some of the people who taught me how to survive in the depths probably died from all that water. The thoughts of them drowning keep me up at night.
Looking back, I have a history with water running amuck and destroying property and killing folks. While I was in high school, the Teton Dam collapsed and flooded the Snake River Valley, ruining good stuff and killing lots of animals and a few people. After the devastation my friend, Boyd, and I volunteered to help clean up in Rexburg and Sugar City.
Boyd has a dry sense of humor. He makes hilarious observations and never cracks a smile. Recently I cruised to the old neighborhood where we grew up. We used to swim and float in the irrigation canals and were forever getting yelled at by farmers. They didn’t want us drowning in their ditches. “That’s what swimming pools are for,” they would shout.
I stopped over at Boyd’s house. While we were talking he picked up his son’s box turtle and dropped the softball-sized creature into the full wading pool. The turtle sank like a rock, settled on the plastic bottom and started walking as if oblivious to the change of environment. Little bubbles wandered to the surface.
“Do you know what he’s thinking?” Boyd said.
“Not a clue,” I said.
“He’s thinking, ‘where did all the air go?’”
I laughed. The turtle motored along under the water, looking side to side on a leisurely stroll and patiently searching for whatever was missing. I rescued the pet, put him back on the grass where he didn’t miss a beat and walked into a world full of air.
Boyd’s life is similar to the turtle’s experience. His world has changed. My deadpan friend has a serious medical condition. His career as a policeman and DARE officer is finished. Doctors suspected a stroke, but tests didn’t indicate that conclusion. The results of the medical and psychological examinations indicate a problem with his thinking since he occasionally makes wacky decisions. There appears to be a lack of oxygen or a lack of something that occasionally chokes out his rational thoughts.
Boyd’s supposed to stay home and collect disability checks. Some people might see that situation as a windfall. He doesn’t. I don’t either. We want more meaning. We’ve always talked about living a full and complete life where people remember us as being kind and generous. Being remembered for living off the system’s charity feels like the legacy of a parasite. He hates that idea.
Here’s a little good news for Boyd’s life change from police officer to retired citizen lacking oxygen: Instead of hanging with the criminal element and teaching students about the evils of drugs and alcohol he now gets to spend quality time with his kids and grandkids. That’s a nice thing he’s looking forward to.
We need that. Something to brighten our lives so we aren’t overwhelmed by the array of tests and challenges life can serve up. Boyd’s situation leaves me thinking about a quotation from Fredrick Nietzsche, who died from a brain problem, the advanced venereal disease called “tertiary syphilis.” I doubt he died with anything tattooed on his body, although “Existentialist” in capital letters would’ve been quite appropriate.

“They played by the sea, and a wave came and carried off their toy to the depths: now they are crying. But the same wave shall bring them new toys and shower new colorful shells before them. Thus they will be comforted; and like them you too, my friends, shall have your comfortings—and new colorful shells.”
I like the image of that rhythm Nietzsche describes, the waves moving in and moving out, taking and giving. Human beings can learn how to appreciate what is in front of them and not be resentful when predictably our toys are dragged off to the depths, which is pretty easy to preach and extremely difficult to implement.
How do you explain to the mother who lost her son to the river, or to the mother losing her son to some brain disease, not to have resentment or other negative feelings about the workings of the universe? This is the certainty of the past. The universe predictably removes things we value and replaces other things that aren’t always as attractive or functional. And people want to know why we lose good things. People want to know the punch line before the joke is over. What does this all mean? And the answer is? You can’t peek. You have to wait for the ending.

A college friend offered a novel answer to the existential question. We were hunting jackrabbits near Hamer when the topic of life’s meaning came up. A freak-of-nature explosion of the rabbit population caused millions of rabbits to eat everything edible in Hamer’s farming community. The frontage roads were covered in bloody gore from all the varmints attempting to cross the asphalt. My buddy Eric said, “Why do you think rabbits go to the road to die?”
We laughed with gallows humor. The question is pretty ironic if you think about it. All those dead rabbits on the frontage road either were victims of multiple accidents or, according to Eric, responding to an unconscious choice created through instinct.
“Like salmon swimming up river to spawn or birds flying south for the winter, maybe jack rabbits go to the road to die.”
Eric, the potato farmer, expanded on his theory of eternal life: “If all roads lead to death, then no roads would lead to immortality. Without roads to die on, the jackrabbits could live forever. Avoid those things that kill you and you might live longer. Tell people to avoid roads, go back to the woods and deserts and sea-sides and see what happens.”
That’s a silly notion with some profundity. We have the capacity to avoid things that might kill us. There is a ton of academic and medical research telling humans to stay away everything from food additives to iPhones. Our parents and our public service announcements tell us to be careful and not take unnecessary risks. Don’t eat paint chips, avoid exposure to radiation, wear sunblock, use a helmet, put on a damn life jacket, don’t use intoxicants and engage in dangerous activities. Even with that there’s no promise of living forever. From my experience, eventually time sneaks up on you and defines you.  
None of the jackrabbits we hunted in Hamer appeared to live forever. Statistically rabbits that didn’t get run over or shot or poisoned were allowed to starve to death over the long winter. Eric offered this summary. “Death is death, whether injected by lead poison or delivered via lack of nutrition.”
The end is the end. At least that’s how as college students we justified taking the lives of rabbits in the desert. “They were gonna die anyway.” In spite of Eric’s theory of immortality, all the evidence suggests we are all destined to die.
Shooting at a million jackrabbits spoke more to the thrill of camaraderie than some morbid fascination with death. Some of my college chums drank beer while handling firearms. One of them took shrapnel to the face that left a permanent scar under his eye. There’s another example of survival skills given to human beings lacking common sense. “Mindless Youth,” should have been tattooed on our backs. Whether you fall into the Snake River or get hit by a bullet intended for a jackrabbit, you end up completed. Defined for eternity in the local paper.

I spend time reading obituaries in the Post Register and often assume between the lines of those who died after combating a “life-long illness.” The life-long illness creating all this suffering is life, of course. Life is an illness for some people. Existentialists would say human beings “decide” to live in misery. They believe human beings enduring the most horrific conditions can develop positive meaning in their suffering. “It’s not the kind of disease the man has; it’s the kind of man that has the disease.”
That’s a quotation I like. I also like this one: “Life is terminal.” Or better yet: “I have one less thing to worry about. I know I’m not gonna die young.”
I’m at the point in my existence where death is happening more frequently and moving ever closer to me. My mom has failing health. Dad is gone. My buddy’s father is waiting for death. “He’s just tired of being in pain.” Pain without relief might encourage folks to give up. Morphine agitates him and makes him crazy. The pain puts him into a life of unbearable torture and no narcotic can knock out the agony. He just wants it over. He wants the process of aging arrested. He wants to pull a “Freud.”
Sigmund Freud killed himself in addicted approximations with cigars and cocaine. In his final moments he requested a lethal injection of morphine to complete his essence.
             Unlike Freud my current goal is to grow old well and die naturally, if that’s possible. I’ve lived with the delusion that I wouldn’t get old when that’s not the case. Time ticks by, my hair grows thin and gray and my offspring are young and vital as I once was. Look at my cohorts from Ammon. Look at the folks I went to high school with, or attended college with. They look old. Real old.  
Not surprisingly, certainly they are making the same judgment of me. In spite of my stout belief in personal agelessness, people from my past must see me rambling around a Home Depot looking for paint or weed killer and think, “Damn, he’s getting old.”
In the blink of an eye I’m no longer the boy running through the potato fields, climbing barbed wire fences into pastures, jumping over ditches, navigating a trail through the foothills to the succulent apples and plums in the Smith’s orchards. I’m the old man sitting on my back deck watching the kids trudging through the fields and thinking, “I’ll bet those kids are up to no good.” I inhibit myself not to yell at them or to warn them or somehow intrude on their day.
I want to shout: “Watch out climbing the fence that you don’t bust it down or get cut on the barbed wire. Be careful in the big ditch, there are some deep and swift spots.” Or maybe I could warn them: “Look out, you’re gonna get old just like me and that can be scary.” Even though I can argue either side of youth or age when it comes to scariness, I often prefer those summer days, those carefree goal-directed moments when a group of young boys searched for pop bottles to exchange for candy at Kelly’s market or hiked miles for a green apple or floated the ditch in old hot black inner tubes. We gulped water from garden hoses and rested in the shade of ancient trees in afternoons lasting forever.
So I could yell from my deck overlooking the Ammon fields irrigated with muddy canals, “Love these days! Love these beautiful meaningful days!”
The kids would probably remember the grumpy old guy who used to yell crazy things at them while they explored the wilderness around their homes. I hope they would remember me screaming about the love of life and the preciousness of each moment.
Mostly I hope they learn to appreciate the roaring of destiny, the giving and the taking waves that wash over us all.

Daniel W. Weinrich received his Bachelor and Master degrees in Experimental Psychology from Idaho State University many moons ago. He spent a few years in Japan studying the marital arts and seeking enlightenment. Later he did a stint at the University of Utah in Counseling Psychology while working in Salt Lake County for the Substance Abuse Division. While living in Idaho Falls, he’s worked in the public and private sectors dealing with issues related to addiction and mental illness. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Idaho in Adult and Organization Learning, doing his research on addiction. He currently works for the Idaho National Labs as an employee assistance counselor. He has been the Clinical Supervisor at the Addiction Rehabilitation Association for ten years and is involved in the Drug Courts. He has several writing awards for his novels, short stories and poetry. Dan enjoys being with his family, writing, snowboarding, testing prototype parkboards and collecting Godzilla toys. His family enjoys avoiding him.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Night Watch

by Paul Pekin

        I'm no good at political arguments, one side always right, the other always wrong. The current uproar over police shootings finds me outside my comfort zone, finds me disagreeing with very good friends. "I'd like to see," I told someone I very much like and hardly want to quarrel with, "I'd like to see Jon Stewart make a traffic stop on a dark lonely road, walk up to the driver's window, and make that arrest."
        "That's not what we’re saying," she replied, with some heat. Of course there were good police officers, and no one was blaming them, she acknowledged. It was just that …
        My side of the argument was lost before I could find words for it. Could this be because, after many years and many jobs, I finished my working life as police officer? Not something I ever planned on doing, but a man needs work, health insurance, a shot at a pension, and sometimes you take what is out there. Life, you know, happens.
        So I stay out of these arguments. They bring me back to the days when I drove a beat, wore a uniform, carried a weapon, and was expected to routinely do things I never, in all my life, planned on doing. Such arguments feel personal to me.
        Instead of making an argument, let me tell you a little story. Imagine me, a man in his fifties, finding himself working for the county forest preserve police, a small department, but police all the same. Guns, squad cars, uniforms, radios, all the stuff that sets you apart from the rest of the citizenry. Walk into a Burger King on River Road at nine pm and you will be seen not as a person, but as a cop. And, as a cop you will, almost certainly, take a seat facing the door, because you never know who might come walking through it.
        When I drove these late shifts, I was always alone. It was my job to lock up the forest preserve gates and see that no one came into the woods after hours. If it had been up to me, this sunset to sunrise rule might have been a bit different, but it wasn't up to me, just as it wasn't up to me to decide how fast people could drive, or where they could park. I locked up the gates, I chased people out, and I arrested those who were up to mischief, mischief mostly being large bonfire parties involving teenagers and alcohol, parties I would have gone to myself when I was a teenager.
        The night I almost shot the kid happened in this context. I'd already closed all my gates. It took hours to do that. And now I was just driving from one grove to another, looking for a little action. Yes, I did look for people to arrest. The nights were long and tedious, and time passed so much faster when I was processing a drunk driver or, more likely, chasing a gang of kids out of a picnic shelter.
        That night there was someone in the shelter at Davis Woods. When I pulled into the parking turnaround, planning on killing a few minutes going over my reports, I heard what sounded like firewood being broken in the shelter. It seemed odd because I could see no fire, nor could I smell smoke. But this particular shelter, a stone structure built back in the WPA days, was distant from the road and surrounded by trees, which made it popular with certain people. It was a place I kept a watch on.
        But the last place on earth where I thought someone would point a gun at me.
        I got out of my squad-car, locked it, and started down the path, flashlight in one hand, baton in the other. The moon was out, I could see pretty well, and my flashlight was turned off. If it turned out someone worth arresting was waiting for me to arrest him, well, I didn't want to scare him off.
        What seemed odd was there was no sign of a fire in the fireplace. So what was that cracking sound I had heard? As soon as I stepped off the path and onto the concrete walk, I switched on my light, one of those long black police flashlights with about eight batteries, very bright, and also very heavy in case of a fight.
        Instantly I caught a figure in the beam, a male who spun around before I could identify myself and, using a two hand grip, aimed a pistol directly at my face. I'm dead, I thought. My own weapon was safe in its leather and no way to get it since my hands were already full, one with my flashlight, the other with my baton, "Police," I shouted, pointing that metal baton at him, exactly as if it were a gun. "Put that down or I will blow your head off!" I may have used the f-word as an intensifier. In certain situations, a wise cop will try to sound a little fiercer than he actually is.
        This is a story I have told many times, and the next line always is, "It took me and that kid almost fifteen minutes to find his gun, that's how far he threw it." Then I explain it wasn't a real firearm, just a pellet gun, not quite a toy, for no one in his right mind would want to take a pellet to the forehead, but still, not a real firearm, nor did it even look all that real once we had found it.
        The kid, and now I saw he was only sixteen at the most, had been playing "war" with his buddy (who, I suppose, was still running). They had been shooting at each other with these pellet guns and when I arrived with my flashlight, quite naturally he had mistaken me for his antagonist.
        "Don't you know you can put an eye out with one of those things," I said. I couldn't resist a little joke. Meanwhile, I was thanking all the gods that protect the police that I had been reckless enough to approach that shelter with my baton in my right hand, and not my loaded Smith and Wesson.
        I wrote the kid a ticket and confiscated his pellet gun. We met again about a month later in court. I never expected to see him there because these personal recognizance tickets we gave out were little more than invitations. But there he was, and my favorite judge, the one who tossed out so many of my tickets, was in charge. This isn't going to go well, I thought. This judge had never looked favorably upon me or my fellow officers. He seemed to think cops wrote tickets just for the fun of it and routinely lied in court. But this time, fingering the kid's pellet gun (offered in evidence) he got it. And delivered a very well put lecture to that kid. "You can thank this officer for your life," he said. And the kid did. No further penalty was necessary.
        I suppose the point of this story should be obvious. When the talk turns to "police shootings," I think first of myself, and there is no way this cannot be. So I back away. I say, yeah, that cop shouldn't have used the choke hold, shouldn't have fired the extra shot, shouldn't have done whatever they say he did. I leave unsaid the way it feels to get out of a squad car and walk toward the unknown, and why a person would do it.
        I could have killed that kid. I think that.
        And if he had been something more serious than a kid with a pellet gun, who knows what he might have done with me.

Born in 1928, Paul Pekin currently draws a pension from the Cook Count Forest Preserve Police, the last of a succession of jobs that included teaching Fiction Writing at Columbia College of Chicago, English Composition at the School of the Arts Institute, owning a little mom and pop store on Diversey Avenue, and working as a letterpress printer back in the days when there was such a thing.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Kitchen Elegy

by Jean Ryan

I need to write a cook book, a friend has told me. By this she does not mean recipes, she means secrets. The kind only cooks know.

We worked for the same catering company, this woman and I, and she wants me to tell our story, to tell the story of all cooks. She wants me to lay bare the work we did so that someone might acknowledge it.

I understand this. I spent sixteen years as a line cook and four years as a caterer, and when I finally left the cooking profession, scarred and exhausted, no one noticed. After two decades of hard labor, I wanted to see some mention of it: a note in the local paper, a plaque with my name newly etched. All those thousands of mouths I fed—didn’t they add up to anything? They did not. Like a plate of food, I was there and gone.

Line cooking is a sort of magic act. Before you are eight sauté pans, smoking and bubbling, and a grill loaded with meat and fish in various stages of readiness, and somehow, amid the firing of orders, you are delivering every one of these dishes in the right combination at the right time. You have no idea how you’re doing this; you’re moving too fast for thought. Suddenly a cowering server appears. He has dropped a plate and needs a re-fire. For a second you look at him without comprehension, and then a murderous rage floods your body. Your tickets have turned into a blizzard. You will not find your way back.

I still have cooking nightmares, endless dreams in which I can’t get my food from the stove to the warming lamps. There is a white scar across my knuckles, a wound from the blade of a food processor. My forearms are blemished with old burns, most of them from oven racks. I can point to each one and tell you which kitchen it came from.

And then there were the other accidents. Walk-ins gone warm. Hours lost replacing a ruined soup or looking for Band-Aids swallowed in bread dough. Never a lax moment in the cooking arena. I recall the day I pulled on one of those giant oven mitts and felt something fast and urgent streak down my arm. I screamed and flung the mitt across the kitchen, and the mouse it had harbored scurried under the sink. I couldn’t blame the little guy—it had been a cold night.

While restaurants are riddled with trouble, catering can be even more dicey: the terrain is unfamiliar and access can be difficult. Once inside these grand homes, you have to figure out how all the high-tech kitchen gadgets work; it’s no good asking the trophy wife—she’s never spent time in that room. The most dreaded disaster is food shortage: one of your ten fruit tarts gets crushed on the journey, or a waiter breaks a wine glass near your mashed potatoes and destroys the entire dish. I don’t think people appreciate the scope of catering: how you have to prepare the food, then load it into a van, then unload and cook it and serve it, and then wash all the dishes, all the pots and pans, all the forks and plates, every water goblet, wine glass, coffee cup and brandy snifter. And god forbid you should break anything.

While I was still working in restaurants, I often escaped into the walk-in, the only place a cook can scream. Sometimes I went outside, sat on an overturned bucket and just let my body tremble. One evening a rat emerged from a dumpster a few feet away and paused to study me, his black eyes bright and questioning. Comrade, I thought, looking back at him with tenderness.

Oh, there were high times, too—I wouldn’t have lasted without them. Magnificent victories. Indulgence. Hilarity. Cooks play as hard as they work. This is the bargain, the immutable law.
In the end, it wasn’t the cuts and burns that made me hang up my apron. Nor was it the work—I figure my body could have lasted another ten years at least. It was the incidentals that finally undid me, the avocado under my fingernails, the veal stock that wafted from my clothes and hair. I was sick of the whole soggy mess: the bloody bar towels, the greasy stove vents, the mountains of innocent carcasses. That’s what began to bother me most, the doomed innocent.

Very early one morning I was in a kitchen fileting salmon when I heard the unmistakable cheeping of a mouse in distress. My heart sinking, I went on a search and found the poor thing under the stove, stuck to one of those horrible glue traps. I tried to pull him off, but it was no use. Drowning, I thought, would be the least violent way to go, so I filled a bucket with warm water—it seemed kinder than cold—and slid the creature in. I turned away, unable to watch, and when I looked back a few seconds later, he was freed of the trap and swimming circles at the surface—the warm water had dissolved the glue! I cupped him in my hands and carried him out to the garden. Not long after that, I freed myself.

I’m employed at a plant nursery now, a gentle job that leaves no blood on my hands. Having traded my chef’s knife for a pair of bypass pruners, I’m happy trimming shrubs instead of meat, deadheading flowers as opposed to fish. Even if I wanted to return to those trenches, I no longer have what it takes.

Before enlisting in a cooking career, one might first consider the lexicon. Cooks work at stations “on the line” and orders are “fired.” Microwaved foods are “nuked,” well-done dishes are “killed,” food picked up late is “dead.” “Buried” is probably the most evocative term. This is what happens when a cook loses track of her orders, when the long row of tickets in front of her face no longer makes any sense. This affliction can strike at any time and there is nothing a cook fears more. Response is swift. The stunned soldier is shoved off the line and someone more fit for duty takes over.

Last week I dined at a posh Napa valley restaurant with an exhibition kitchen. I eyed the cooks with sympathy, remembering when this trend began, how much we resented being on display. Watching my kin in their natural habitat, their heads down, their arms in constant motion, I felt a surge of solidarity. I wanted to make eye contact, to show my support, but I knew they couldn’t risk it.

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Other Voices, Pleiades, The Summerset Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Blue Lake Review. Nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press. Please visit her website at:

Thursday, January 29, 2015


by Lou Gallo

When they cut off my Uncle Henry’s legs I was off smoking weed with a girl who said she was the great-great-great niece of President William Henry Harrison, the one who never made it to the White House. I remember an efficiency rank with cat piss and stale Purina, a green cotton spread on the mattress, Southern Comfort, vanilla candles, and Jim Morrison in the background, her favorite, though I inclined toward Jackie Wilson or Ben E. King. I’d hate to think we reached the sublime right as that blade dug into my uncle’s bones—must have smelled grisly like when dentists drill into some sick molar.

He was a big man who would capture you at reunions and boom the secrets of direct marketing, mail order, and free advertising. My cousins and I tried not to meet his eye, but he always cornered Sandy because at the time she had those new breasts, which he always managed to brush against. Back then it disgusted us, though now I think I understand; I was out trying to do the same thing, not with Sandy, although she too crossed my mind. He just seemed so old and his teeth had turned into kernels of corn. He had a wife, of course, my mother’s sister, but aunts and mothers don’t figure when it comes to love you can call love.

The decline began when a drunk broadsided Uncle’s van and they had to pry him out with crowbars and two-by fours. A miracle he survived, everybody said. Broken ribs, two crushed legs, spleen damage—there’s more, always more, but at some point you lose count. We saw him a few times buzzing around in a wheelchair with two massive casts on his legs. The doctors discovered diabetes during their probe and that’s what finally ruined him, not the accident. His skin started to swell and blacken with gangrene long after the broken bones had mended.

Years later I saw him out at his ranch-style house in Picayune, where my family and I drove for a mercy visit—even I dimly aware that a finale had commenced. He slumped in the same wheelchair with a green shawl hiding the missing legs. He didn’t talk much anymore but sometimes he’d laugh at a joke or groan. Aunt Ruth said he had high fever all the time and felt horrible. He no longer tried to corner anybody and his voice had shriveled to distant static. He didn’t even notice Sandy, who’d come along for the ride. I saw him pick at a tray of cheese cubes stabbed with party toothpicks. Mostly, he sat in the corner and stared at some game show on television.

Before the funeral I had too much to drink. My sister, cousins and I clumped together in a vestibule—I’d brought along a new girlfriend who smirked a lot as we made snotty comments about relatives we hated. Everyone wore black except us. We planned to invade the French Quarter soon as we could slip away from the wake. My mother had dragged me over to the casket to take a last look at the man who once spent an entire day locating a suitcase of mine; the railroad has lost it on my trip to New Jersey, where Uncle and his family lived before he retired back home to the south. It was easy and free staying with them while I spent my days and most of the nights prowling Manhattan. I never thanked my uncle for his trouble.

We headed straight for Bourbon Street. My cousins and sister disappeared soon enough and I wound up in Lafitte’s Blacksmith shop with Wanda, who smoked two cigarettes at once, white fangs dangling from the meat of her glossy violet lip. I drank vodka martinis until all the shitty things she said about life, love, politics, men and God shrank into the screech of some pitiful insect. But, God, she had gorgeous legs, chiseled, they seemed, right out of a vat of Coppertone. Someone started to plunk “I’m Walking” on the bar piano and patrons gathered round to sing.

Dimly, I heard Wanda call my uncle a pig. It was my fault. I‘d told her all the stories. But just then I felt pretty sorry for him. “You don’t know one God-damned thing,” I growled as the room spun. When I stood up to leave my knees quivered and I knew I was headed straight down before I got anywhere, faster than that dumb president who missed the White House or an old man with no legs.

Louis Gallo's work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Rattle, Missouri Review, Southern Review, Mississippi Review, New Orleans Review, Baltimore Review, Portland Review, Texas Review, storySouth, and Greensboro Review, among many other journals and anthologies. His chapbooks include The Truth Changes and The Abomination of Fascination. Gallo was the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. He teaches at Radford University.

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.