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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Bestest Mommy

by Hazel Smith

I’m the mommy and so I am the smartest bestest mostest good cook in the world and my beautiful little boys tell me so and I am better than Laura and better than Mrs. Dyck and certainly better than the soccer coach and the violin teacher who are not the bestest at all.

And I make Peppy Pancakes with healthy ingredients, and, since there are healthy ingredients in the pancakes, we smother them with butter and syrup and we get sticky and we always burn the last batch because we forget to take them off the griddle.

And I’m the mommy and Jennifer is pretty and Mrs. Roelfsma is smart and the band teacher is a favorite, but I am still the one they greet after school with a hug.

And I make Peppy Pancakes with healthy ingredients and one kid likes Aunt Jemima syrup and one kid likes corn syrup and we get sticky and I hear tales about school … sometimes.

And I’m the mommy and Patti is awesome and college is GREAT and kayaking is the new pastime, but I am still the one waiting at the door on weekends and we ALWAYS make Peppy Pancakes and we don’t burn the last batch because the two man-boys eat them all up but now I am lactose intolerant so we don’t use butter and the man-boys stick up their noses at margarine and they have a new affinity for maple syrup.

And I make Peppy Pancakes because Son #1 is bringing home Whatshername. I don’t bother learning their names anymore because none of them seem to grab his heart and stick around for long. We sit at the dining room table on our best behavior and I explain to her that there are only healthy ingredients in these
these pancakes so it is OK to smother them with syrup and when they are all eaten, my son says, “Thanks Mom. Great meal!” and I am once again the smartest bestest mostest good cook in the world … until he deflates my balloon with the words that ensure that I will no longer be a necessary part of his pancake life. “Could you please email me the recipe?”

And my face changes. I don’t want him to have the recipe. I don’t want him to cook Peppy Pancakes and maybe make changes to the recipe, maybe make them even better than I do. I want him to come home and enjoy my pancakes. “What’s the matter?” he queries.

“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.” I manage a smile. Bestest mommies can do that. They know how to smile when inside they are sad. He looks at me quizzically, aware he has said something that is bothering me, but he can’t figure out what that could be. I smile bigger. “I’ll scan in the recipe and send it to you. No problem.”

And I do. And I have a little cry all by myself and a few tears fall down onto the scanner and maybe make their way into the recipe and through cyber space and stay with the recipe when it reaches my son, although I think it really only arrives with lots of love and good wishes.

And I do learn the newest one’s name! She is called Claire and she is very pretty and she comes with attachments. She has a small son and a smaller daughter. They are too young to remember their parents’ divorce, but I can tell that she has done a good job in raising them. They are polite and they are gentle with the cat. I watch my son interact with them and I realize that he must be modeling himself after someone because he is kind but firm and I can tell they like him and he likes them. And he has brought them all for Peppy Pancakes, and I start to tell Claire about how they are only made with healthy ingredients so it is OK to put lots of syrup on them, and she says, “I know. I’ve heard all about them. And I’ve heard nobody in the world can make them like you do!”

And I take out my electric griddle and assemble the ingredients and it is very hard to do because my feet are not touching the floor and I am floating around

the kitchen in a haze of love and with the realization that my son has done something beautiful for me and that indeed I am the bestest mostest wonderfullest mommy in the world. And that makes me very happy indeed.

Hazel Smith is the bestest mommy, but now that her sons are in their 30’s, she no longer can fix problems with a kiss and a cookie. Newly retired, she has returned to an earlier love of writing. When her kids were younger, she was published regularly, but somehow got out of the habit of scratching down her thoughts and sending them off to editors. A recent article about her grandfather’s pioneering days in Western Canada, published in an anthology of women’s writing, has changed that. She lives with her husband and their cat; the husband is quite self-sufficient; the cat requires constant snuggles.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Possibility of Rain

by Marlene Olin

The sign on the trailer reads Sales Office. Inside, a platter of crudité sits on a shelf.
"A condo to beat all condos," says the realtor. "Picture white sofas. Rivers and Rauschenberg. Glass walls that kiss the ceiling and hug the floor."

When he inches closer, I inch back. Brandishing a brochure, the man points towards the water. Three hundred yards away the ocean slaps against a newly dredged beach.

"You'll stand out on your balcony and see straight to Key Biscayne," he says. "A million dollar view."
Again he inches forward. I inch back. I smell his aftershave and see the wet spots under his arms. Forwards. Backwards. It’s like a dance. When I dig for my car keys and head towards the door, he sidesteps in front of me. The A/C must be set to seventy yet sweat beads on his upper lip. His hand slips like a fish into mine. "They're going fast," he says. "Better get in your deposit. Cash is best."

Suddenly his fingers grip my shoulder. "Make a left to find the expressway," he tells me. "Be sure you take a left."

Instead I head east. Two blocks later the manicured hedges and courtly palm trees disappear. Instead the ground is littered with old newspapers and stray cats. A battered sign says Welcome to Historic____." The rest is graffitied.

I'm an intruder in a truly strange land. I pass a cemetery of concrete caskets. Wooden churches are streaked white, listing. Small houses look like bunkers with grills on the windows and bullet holes in the walls.

Then there they are. While I'm looking to my right and gazing to my left they pass in front on me. One second they're on the curb--the next moment they're negotiating the pavement. It's a small bike, fit really for a kid, but the old man pumps it like a piston. One foot is missing. Instead an empty pant leg is rolled up like a sleeve. A little boy holds onto a handlebar, running, trying to keep up.
At first I think the child is steering, his brown knuckles clutching the handlebar so hard the white shows through. I suck in air when he trips over a rusted can, his knee skimming the asphalt. But the old man doesn't flinch. Instead he plants his one good leg and glances at me. Two, three seconds pass and the man refuses to look away. The glance sticks.

The air is thick with humidity—I can swear I hear lightening crack—so I flip switches. The wipers swoop like eyelashes. I've pushed the washer button for good measure and crane my neck to watch them through the mist. Together they head toward the sidewalk. Five feet. Three feet.
I want to linger. I imagine their path weaving in and out of the street, picture a wave of onlookers watching their wake. Perhaps a dog will follow. Maybe a woman with an apron and a batch of freshly baked cookies sits by the kitchen clock and waits.
Instead I floor the gas
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. She recently completed her first novel. Her stories have been published in Vine Leaves, The Saturday Evening Post, Upstreet Magazine, and Emrys Journal. She will be featured in Poetica and The Edge in the coming months.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


by Paige Towers

Let’s say that your sister is a born-again Evangelical Christian. And let’s say that she got married and had four kids. Let’s say that it’s also possible you feel that she’s replaced you with so many others: a constant group of like-minded followers who host each other for dinners, baby-sit on weekends, and pray with their arms raised high. You do not belong.
Let’s say your sister lives in the suburbs in Iowa, and you secretly judge her for that, because you left and lived all over. Shall we say that you felt the need to leave in order to understand the world better? That you crave new experiences. Total acceptance of something higher is naïve, even dangerous: this is what you’ve come to believe. (By the way, that judgment that you hold is no secret. She always knew.)
In all those places you have traveled, whenever there was a face that caught your eye on the street, it was almost always because it looked like hers. Small face, thin lips and pretty eyes—those features were everywhere. Which is to say that your sister is everywhere, but that’s just you being a writer.
Or maybe a fool, if you can point out the difference.
The distance between the two of you serves only as a stubborn reminder that you aren’t about to accept that she accepts any of this. You’ll come back when she comes down. But until then, her image is shadowing you, popping up on every continent.
I read an essay once in a writer’s workshop on my peer’s experience of accepting Christ. The writer was sixteen at the time and was staring at a patch of blue carpet, hands and knees on the sanctuary floor, waiting, hoping, praying, that she would have some sort of breakthrough and finally join the unquestioning minds around her. She was a “late bloomer,” according to the Evangelical church’s pastor.
And when the moment came, she said the feeling was incredibly warm and euphoric. It was like being cuddled in a blanket, but a blanket that was the size of the universe. She at last felt, or knew, what everyone else felt, or knew.
That is until she began to question this experience. Once she did that, it faded away and all that was left was her ability to scrutinize and write about it.
I can only relate her experience to my experience of getting high.
But my experience is stunted, because this is what I know about getting really, mind-altering high (as opposed to just, you know, regular high)—it requires a total acceptance on the part of the consumer. This is something that I’ve never been able to do. I can trace the steps for you, which already signals that during these times I’m still conscious of reality and in-control.
First: There’s that drop in your stomach that occurs right when the acid seriously kicks in.
Then: It’s like your blood has gone cold and your body is weightless.
Last: Everything begins to tingle so hard that it hurts. It feels like you’re frozen in that exact moment of when the rollercoaster starts to tip over the edge of the top of a steep incline.
Then what comes next, in my experience, is a choice. You can choose to fall into the pain and let your mind go. This often occurs while being in a mass of moving people, loud music, and colorful lights. You join into the universal high that exists in that moment in some club in Berlin, or Amsterdam, or New York City, or wherever you may be. The feeling is apparently exquisite.
Or, you can choose to fight it, swallow the pain down, and get off the rollercoaster to nervously watch everyone else ride the ride. With masochistic determination, you can closely monitor the rapidly firing synapses in your paranoid mind and question the effects that this drug is having on your body and everyone else around you, which is what I’ve always done so as to avoid landing on the floor, or in someone else’s bed, or in a cab that I can no longer direct the way—
But where is home? Well, this one city block, at least until the next leasing year. And I’ll admit it. It becomes exhausting to play the part of the lone foot soldier. What’s even more exhausting is when you try to see everything with your eyes wide open, skeptically examining every person and thing you meet along the way. A stranger is always reason to suspect. An overly passionate piece of advice gives you reason to doubt. A place where everyone is content and in agreement is dubious. You often use words such as “misgivings,” “evidence,” and “caution.”
You even told the peer in workshop to take out the paragraph at the end, the one where she mourned the loss of blissful acceptance and debated whether she really knew anything at all. You were satisfied with the narrator having successfully eluded such hallucinations: the end.
Yet, spotting the face of that person you love in a busy crowd in a foreign place like Bangkok or La Paz or Tokyo does not raise a red flag. You are certain, in that moment, as much as a person can be, that it is your sister. And you’re truly elated to see her.
What if you could have that moment of overwhelming joy last past its initial two-second rush? If that rush enveloped you, would you need to keep searching, or would you be content to stay?
Let’s say you love your sister, yet you won’t accept her and her beliefs, and you can’t figure out why and thus keep questioning. Let’s say that she closed her eyes once and suddenly lived everywhere, but that you kept walking, and couldn’t find a damn thing.

Paige Towers earned her MFA from Emerson College and her BA from The University of Iowa. She taught Creative Writing and Composition at Emerson, but currently lives and writes in New York City. Her work can be found in McSweeney's, Honesty For Breakfast, Spry Literary Magazine, and is forthcoming in So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Last Seltzer Man

by Shayla Love

        A Dodge Man with a Mercedes Grill
        Pia Lindstrom had a great pair of legs, but that wasn’t what Walter Backerman remembers about her.
        After an interview with Walters father, Al, she looked into the Channel 4 WCBC-TV camera and said, “Its a shame that after 55 years of continuous service, that Mr. Backerman senior will be the last seltzer man in the family. His young son Walter is enrolled to start law school in the fall.” She flashed a smile. “Its a shame. There are too many lawyers out there and too few good seltzer men.”
        That was 40 years ago. Turns out, the world was spared another lawyer.
        I met Walter on the corner of 7th Avenue and 22nd street after he dropped off his son, Joey, at school a couple blocks away. His seltzer truck is an advertisement, photo album and scrapbook, all at the same time. The sliding doors are printed with images of seltzer bottles from television, 19th century France, and recycling bins.
        Like other aspects of his life, this truck started one way and became another. This is a 1995 Dodge Sprinter, but youd never know it, since Walter fixed a Mercedes grill to the front. Walter is good at adding a little glamour to everyday things. Like a Dodge, or a blue collar delivery service job.
        The front seat of his truck is filthy. It looks like a space where coffee has been spilled and a lot of life has been lived. The wall behind the drivers seat is covered with pictures of celebrities. There are autographed head shots and faded news clippings. Like all good photos, they carry a thousand words per picture, per star, of where and when Walter met them, and how they became his friend. A poster from “The View,” is signed by the whole cast.
        “Barbara Walters is like a faucet,” Walter said, as he stirred sugar into his coffee. “You know what the faucet does? It runs hot and cold, you follow me? My wife said to me, lets be real. This woman could pick up the phone and call the president. How important is Walter the Seltzer Man in the scheme of things?”
        Pretty important. Walter might be the most connected man this side of Hudson Street. His stories jump from news anchors, to movie stars, to investment bankers, to that time he tried to give Mayor Bloomberg an antique seltzer bottle—the kind he delivers everyday—and almost got arrested. When detectives showed up at his Queens home later that day he said, “You guys came all the way from city hall, youre lookinfor a big story and all you found was Walter the Seltzer Man. Are you relieved or disappointed?”
        He gave bottles to Whoopi Goldberg and to Alec Baldwin. He knows where any movie star lives in Manhattan because hes been inside their homes. Hes enamored by the stars, and pins their names on his stories like award ribbons. We were driving south on 6th Avenue, past the old Air America station, when Walter blurted, “Rachel Maddow, Im mad at her. I still like her, but Im mad at her.
        After Air America went out of business and Maddow moved to MSNBC, Walter never got his bottles back from her. This is one of the few things you can do to get on his bad side.
         Walter is protective over his bottles. They are his livelihood, his passion and his personal collectibles. Most of them are as old as he his, 60. Some are older. Still, he doesn’t charge deposits; he operates on trust.  When a bottle comes into your home, its a loan of faith directly from the seltzer man, to you. This big man with big stories, has a big heart.
        “From time to time, a bottle breaks,” Walter said. “I got a kid, last stop on 23rd. One time, he took all my bottles and threw them down the incinerator. A case of blue bottles. He said it was fun. I told the old guy who takes care of him, 30 dollars,”—when the real value was hundreds. “I did it because I felt for the guy.”
        Walters green eyes are tired from fatigue, but they light up a little each time he begins a new anecdote. I ask him about other difficult clients hes had, partly because Im curious, partly because I see how much joy it brings him. Walter tells me he delivered to Calvin Kleins mother.
        “At the beginning, Flo Klein was nasty,” Walter said. “I turned her on a dime.” Soon she was giving him a bottle of cologne for every holiday, be it birthday, Christmas or Chanukah. It isnt his style, but he valued the gesture. Mostly, he thinks its important to be able to make a friend out of an enemy. 
        We reached our first stop; Peter Cooper village on 1st Avenue and 20th street.       
        “Whats up baby? Im delivering seltzer.
        A guard walked out of a gatehouse. “To who?”
        “What do you mean to who? Im the seltzer man, you never heard of me?”
        Walter had been to Peter Cooper Village that morning. But he was coming back for an older woman.
        “Shes a nice old lady, she wanted to sleep,” Walter said. We had come from the west side, and Walter had made an unnecessary loop in morning rush hour to return.
        We parked on a service road. Walter pushed down on the tops of the bottles in short jabs, to test the pressure. He was listening and looking for the spurts of seltzer that come out and the sounds of the hiss. He wont give out a bottle he isnt happy with.
        Walter delivers in a modern vehicle that runs on gasoline. His radio plays top 40 hits and he had a coffee that morning from 7/11. But when he slides open that door and puts that wooden crate on his shoulder, he may as well be climbing out of a horse and buggy. There’s something beautiful about an anachronism walking down 1st Avenue; he takes the whole street along with him.

        The Fountain’s Head
        A seltzer delivery man used to be as common as a milk delivery man. Each seltzer man had his own route that he inherited from a father or an uncle. They got their seltzer from seltzer fillers in Brooklyn, Long Island, or the Bronx. There used to be hundreds of fillers, and even more seltzer men. Now, the number of seltzer men can be counted on one hand. Only one finger is needed for the fillers. Gomberg Seltzer, run by Kenny Gomberg, third-generation seltzer man, is the only place to fill an old, pressurized bottle in New York City.
        Its hard to imagine a time when these antiquated bottles were as present in every home as a stick of butter or a frying pan. Soda water was invented in 1802 in Dublin, and made its way into restaurants and businesses, eventually being mixed with syrups and liquor. The individual “soda siphon,” a version of which Walter sells today, brought seltzer into personal residences. A Harpers magazine article from 1872 recommends that the summer seltzer drinker enjoy it ice cold, and speaks favorably of adding lemon. Hot seltzer, usually chocolate or coffee flavored, was not as popular, and has not stood the taste test of time.
        The production of bottled sparkling water, busier professional lifestyles, and large soda corporations caused this business to lose its fizz over the last 50 years. I asked Kenny what his grandfather would think, if he knew that he was the last seltzer filler. Kenny couldnt come up with an answer, it was that unfathomable. Like Walter and Al, his is a family affair. His son, Alex, just joined the legacy.
         Compared to the loud trucks and bustle of the city, the nondescript factory building is a kind of oasis. The bottles are filled with New York City tap water and carbon dioxide. The valve is sealed immediately, so that no pressure leaks out. A bottle can retain its carbonation for years. But these are active bottles, and they all visit the Gombergs on a weekly basis. Its a cycle thats been happening at Gomberg Seltzer since 1953.
        After another hiss and the spray of overflowing carbonation, a hard working bottle gets a little rest before it’s sent out again with Walter.

        We left Peter Cooper and drove west, along 9th street and stopped in front of a brownstone right before 3rd Avenue. Walter and I walked into a beautiful townhouse with a Japanese style garden in the back. An elderly woman came to the door.
        “Im glad youre here, glad youre in town,” Walter said. “Where are the kids? School?”
        “No, theyre at a museum today,” she said.
        “Thats nice. You got beautiful grandkids, both of them.” Walter put the seltzer down and admired renovations that had been done in the kitchen. “Myles is getting real handsome. Its nice that theyve got you to come visit. Im real glad youre here today, dont worry about paying. Ill catch up, I always catch up.”
        “Dont work too hard!”
         We left. He didnt get paid for that delivery. He said hes not worried.
        “The seltzer man always gets paid.”

        “In the South Bronx in the 1980s, a black man fired a shot gun into the air.”
        I am riveted, and so is the deli man making our sandwiches. Walter continues his story.
        “I is Sweet George,” the man yelled, in front of a seltzer filling factory. “Now I runs this shop!”  This show of power would help protect Sweet Georges property, money and delivery men. One of those men was a young Walter Backerman. They had to fill at odd hours to have enough time to make all their stops. Walter, and his assistant Frankie, would carry two loaded guns with them at all times to ward off thugs and robbers.
        When Walter made his route in tough neighborhoods, he would call a meeting of all his helpers. He said, “Anybody comes to stick you up, just call my name. Ill shoot em in the back, Ill flip ‘em over to make it legal, and Ill pull my money outta there.”
        Its hard for me to believe these stories, as I watch Walter chat at the register and tell the cashier to have a nice day. Hes never hurt anyone in his life. He told every old lady wed seen on the route how nice they looked. He will buy anyone a coffee. When his assistant, Frankie, got old and senile, Walter couldnt bear to fire him. Frankie was so run-down that when he stood on the corner holding a coffee cup, a passerby threw a quarter in, thinking he was homeless.
        “You dont understand, I didnt want him,” Walter said. “I pay him good money. I just cant cut him loose. When someone gives you that devotion, I cant cut ‘em loose.
        Walter showed me a stack of wooden crates an 80 year old customer used to make, six a week. At that time, Walter didnt need them. But he kept buying them because he didnt want to discourage an old man who needed the money.
        “Id rather give the guy 30 dollars for the boxes and keep him working,” he said. “Cause I want someone to keep me working.”
        Thats what it comes down to these days. Kenny, Alex and Walter just keep going. And by doing so, they support each other.
        “Looks like Im not working today, cause Im just bullshitting with you,” he said. We were parked in the West Village and had delivered to two more apartments and a restaurant. “Im tired. Some days you get up and youre all perky, and some, the week just gets to you.”
        We ate our sandwiches and Walter took the opportunity to show me around the memorabilia-laden truck. He pointed to a photo of a young man with long curly hair and white bell bottoms.
        “Thats me when I was my son’s age.” Walter said. “I was there helping my father. I was going to start law school, going to go that summer. Then, my father got emphysema and he almost died. So I started helping him. I was supposed to help for six months. Take a leave, go back. It just was never the time.”
        When Walter talks about his father, all the celebrities and name-dropping disappears. Al Backerman becomes the only famous man in the world. I wondered earlier how a young man could give up law school and the promise of a comfortable life. It was for the chance to be with the biggest star of all. Al died in 1998 from lung cancer.
        I picked up a bottle at random. It was heavy and the glass was thick all around. The top said, “Al Backerman 1952.
        “Thats the most beautiful bottle in my whole route,” Walter boomed. “Al Backerman, thats my father. And the date, 1952. You know whats important about that bottle? Thats when I was born. So I was in diapers and that bottle was making money for the family.”
        I’m starting to realize that the seltzer route, at every stage, is an homage to heritage. An homage to the past, from the present. To fathers, from their sons. The reusing of the bottles, and the repetition of the route, echoes its respect to tradition.
         We drove up to our last delivery, in Alphabet City. It was my last stop too.
        Walter gives me some things to take with me, before I go. He gives me a worn tour guide of Manhattan based on film shoots and celebrity homes, an open invitation to knock anytime on the door of his truck, and a photo of him and an old woman wearing a Superman shirt. Its his favorite celebrity hes met.
        “Thats Noel Neil,” he said. “In the original adventures of Superman that I used to watch when I came home from school, she was Lois Lane. Shes 92 years old. And I still like her.”
        I looked at the photo, which was carefully labelled with a name and date in blue ink.
         Noel Neil is not the superhero in this photo, I thought.
         Walter has no cape, no a body suit. He is a just man with trouble paying the bills, two kids and wife on disability. He is a man who has an injured shoulder, a long delivery route, 70 pound crates of seltzer to carry up three floor walk ups, and no heir to his throne. You could say that he has super strength.
        Walter has no regrets about giving up law school to work with his dad. He didnt lose much, he only gained. He became tied to a lineage that goes back to his grandfather, who drove a horse-driven seltzer buggy in 1919. Its a place for men to teach lessons, and Walter received a full share of them.
        “They used to say if bullshit was electricity, Al Backerman would put Con Edison out of business,” Walter said.
Our sandwiches were eaten, the seltzer was delivered, and all that was left was for Walter to teach me one of his father’s lessons. “People don’t always need hear the truth. When my Aunt Stella at 65 was dying of stomach cancer, my father went down, took a week off from the routes and he went down to say goodbye to his sister. At the end, she was frail, falling apart, nothing to her, she put lipstick on. She had a couple days more to live and my father said, ‘You know Stella, I have a crazy feeling youre gonna get better cause you look great.And she said, ‘Oh Al, I just put some lipstick on. But do you think? Maybe youre right. Oh, thank you.And thats the last time my father saw his sister. She died right after that.
        “In 1998, my son Jonathan was three months old and Joey was a year and four months old. My father had lung cancer. I remember looking out the window of the hospital and knowing that my father was never going to make it down to the street. So I took my sons, Jonathan in my hand and Joey in my arms. And I wanted—even though they would never remember—I wanted them to see their grandfather.
        “My father had a morphine drip, but for some reason he got up. He took the mask off and he saw the kids and he said, ‘Walter, what are you crazy? What are you bringing kids to a hospital for? All they got here is sick people, youre crazy, you shouldnt have brought them here.And I said, ‘You know Al, I think youre getting your energy back. I think youre gonna be perfect, and youre gonna be all right, and I miss you on the route. I want you outta here. My father looked at me and he said, ‘All I do is dream about the route. I wish I could rest already.’”
        I hopped out of Walter the Seltzer Mans truck, looking up at him from the sidewalk. I wonder if he will ever get to rest. Walter took my hand in his and couldnt resist giving me one more piece of advice. “The most important thing is just being a human being, and saying the right thing for a person who needs it at the time. And that is my last story for today.”

Shayla Love is a journalist and storyteller living in New York. She is a reporter for the Norwood News and has been published at, Gothamist, and iMediaEthics.