(Scroll down to read winners)
At Ease, Multiand pearl necklace with sterling clasp $150 value
Genevieve Fitzgerald of Raleigh, “Soledad”
North Carolina Writers’ Network,1-year membership ($75 value)
Sharmin Mirman of Carrboro, “Saxophonic”
Wideshoe Warehouse, $50 gift certificate
Norah Moore of Whitakers, “The Albino”
New Horizons Trading Company, $40 gift certificate
Louisa Clerici of Plymouth, Mass., “A Little East Franklin Sugar”
Cookies by Design, $25 gift certificate
Stacey Sanchez Bigliardi of Raleigh, “The Heart”
Carolina Woman t-shirt
Jane Andrews of Raleigh, “Directions”
Rosalyn Lomax of Goldsboro, “Scrawl”
Jacqueline Nicole Hough of Monroe, “I Have a Mistress”
Laura Graham of Raleigh, “A Brush With Greatness”
Beth Browne of Garner, “Baggage”
- Grand Prize
- First Prize
- Second Prize
- Third Prize
- Fourth Prize
- Honorable Mentions
- Staff Favorites
by Genevieve Fitzgerald of Raleigh
Angelina wished for a fish. She’d been sick in her bed for a month and nothing helped. No medicine, not fresh air, not rest. No one had any energy for getting a fish tank, making room for it, setting up a fish light, or money either, Papa said.
Soledad sat by the child one day and listened to her labored breathing, watched her mouth puckered in sleep. Like a fish out of water, Soledad thought, and started cutting coins from bright orange construction paper. She laid them over one another, fashioning the scales of a tiny fish. A little glue. Another side, identical. She put the sides together and stuffed the fish with cotton.
“He’s beautiful,” said Angelina when she woke and saw him dangling from the ceiling by a string, face level, where she could pucker her lips at his.
“He’s yours,” said Soledad.
“I’ll call him Pedro.”
“That’s a funny name for a fish.”
Angelina started to get better. In less than a month she was back to school. On the playground one afternoon, Rosa asked Angelina how she got better.
“My brother is sick.”
“Soledad made me a fish.”
“Pedro is strange all the time. He shakes. He’s afraid to leave his room. He curls up in a ball sometimes.”
“My fish’s name is Pedro.”
“Can Soledad make my Pedro one?”
“Of course,” said Soledad, when Angelina asked her, and she set about cutting construction paper coins.
“Bigger than mine.”
“But why, Angelina?”
“Because Pedro’s sickness has been for a year.”
Soledad made the fish bigger, the size of a melon, and brought it to Pedro, who watched her warily when she came to his room.
“Get me string, please, Rosa.”
Pedro lay quietly as they hung his fish from the ceiling.
“Is this the right height, Pedro?”
“Oh, he will not answer.”
“Can you look in his eyes?” Soledad asked, looking at the boy.
“He never!” Rosa started, and Soledad saw there were tears.
“That’s enough for today, but I will come back manana, Pedro, and we can train the fish.”
The next afternoon Soledad knocked on their door, just as she’d promised. Rosa squealed, “She’s here, Papa!” Soledad was led to the bedroom. She sat on the edge of Pedro’s bed, smiled at the boy, ducked her head a bit and puffed on the fish. Pedro smiled as the orange tail caught the breath and the fish started to circle. Soledad aimed a big blow at the middle of the fish and he floated away from the bed and then near to Pedro’s chin.
“Your turn,” she said.
“But he never…”
Pedro sniffed really hard, the fish moved, and he laughed.
Soledad came for fish training each day for a week.
“What’s his name?” Rosa asked as the sun set one evening.
“He’s not my father!” Pedro laughed.
“It’s magic,” whispered Rosa.
Soledad noticed the children’s father leaning in the doorway of the tiny bedroom. “Buenas noches, Senor.”
“Call me Roberto.”
“Ah! I understand your son now! Please come help Pedro train this fish.”
The four of them blew on the fish, ate cinnamon cookies, remarked on the sunset. Nothing spectacular, but soon some evenings Pedro would be sitting up in bed before Soledad arrived.
A woman from the newspaper came one evening and took a picture of Soledad,
Pedro and Roberto Naranja. Roberto Sr. could not take his eyes from Soledad after that.
After the picture in the paper, the pharmacist asked Soledad if she would make a few fish to hang in his window. Angelina showed all her friends on the way home from school. The day Pedro went back to school, after classes Angelina marched him to the pharmacy. The center of attraction now among all her girlfriends, Pedro demonstrated fish training and the pharmacist gave them each a penny candy. The air was crisp and birds sang as they strolled home with their treats.
Roberto Sr. met Soledad near the fountain that evening. “You changed our lives,” he said, looking down at his shoes.
“Would you make one for me?”
Soledad looked at him, questioning.
“For a long time I have felt fettered. Perhaps with a fish I would feel a bit free.”
She considered. “Pedro is better now, but I will come one more evening and make another fish. And you must help.”
“Very big,” encouraged Pedro.
“So it will be like Papa.”
This one was the size of a gourd and they hung it from the ceiling by the side of the big bed. Then they had cinnamon churros and puffed on the fish and both Roberto’s and Pedro’s eyes followed Soledad up the street when she went home that night.
One week Roberto went to his first town meeting, just to get out a bit. Many people asked him about Pedro and he was happy to know so many neighbors cared. The next week he left work early Friday to stop at the pharmacy and listen to the girls standing outside the front, gossiping and blowing on the fishes that hung from the awning.
“That Pedro is a cutie,” one of the girls giggled.
The next week Roberto tried the early mass and noticed Soledad was in the front pew. Three weeks he went and watched the back of her head. And felt a knot in his gut. Every night he puffed on the fish.
“Why do you do that?” his wife snapped.
Roberto could not answer. There wasn’t a thing that was true that made sense. The next night when he came home, the fish was gone. He watched his wife in the kitchen, scouring pots and pans, too many to have been for this evening’s meal. The pile of them towered by the side of the sink.
Sunday Roberto took all his family to early mass. Afterwards Soledad waved to them and asked after Pedro.
“I have the best teacher,” the boy answered excitedly.
Roberto watched Soledad. Elena watched her husband.
Walking home with some neighbors, one remarked to Elena, “It’s quite a miracle what happened, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know. How can one tell if instead it isn’t the devil at work? I am sometimes afraid she’s bewitched my family, and God will make me pay.”
“Surely, Elena, it is good your boy is better?”
“But Roberto acts strangely now.”
Next Sunday after mass Elena, standing behind Pedro, a protective and rigid hand on his shoulder, guided him away from Soledad’s smile.
Roberto looked at his shoes.
After school Soledad found Angelina on her bed, facing the wall. “No one would walk with me to the pharmacy today, and when I got there by myself, all the fishes were gone.”
Soledad sat next to her and picked up her hand. “In my heart, I feel well-intentioned and small, even helpless. But yet I feel eyes on me like a crone. I am so sorry it spills onto you too.”
Soledad had a dream. In it she and Roberto Sr. were falling through rushing sky, in the roofless air, over his bed like the fish, faces down, head to head, arms entangled, in free fall. Twisting, trying to hold on, getting knotted, then losing hold. For somehow their arms changed to treacherous tentacles, to paws without grip, to stiff limbs of trees that could not bend to embrace. As they separated, the parachute tore. It was sickening. She woke in a sweat.
The shunning lasted for weeks.
For herself, Soledad was sad, but for Angelina she grew angry. Angry enough to think ugly thoughts. Angry enough to want to deserve being spurned. Angry enough to decide what to do.
Roots gathered at midnight, dried, ground to powder. Black construction paper coins to make a snake this time. The powder inside, and it left by the fountain. Roberto found it and carried it home. Touching it made him itch. Elena screamed when she saw it, grabbed it and threw it outside, where she stomped on it. A puff of dust enshrouded her leg. That night Roberto found her irresistible. And the next morning. Next day he ran home from work at lunch time. In a week Elena looked haggard. In a month she was always nauseous and there was a different topic for gossip.
When Angelina had friends again after school, Soledad thought absently that it didn’t matter she’d never learned an antidote, for nature had supplied one.
“How did you do it?” Angelina asked.
“Get my friends back?”
Soledad smiled a tired, distant smile. “The good is the bad is the good.”
Angelina cocked her head.
“Something was wrong. And thinking secrets and sacrifice solve things – well they don’t. Especially sacrificing you. But if you’re doing battle with the devil inside, you have won.”
Angelina shook her head.
“And maybe I was immature, but at least I wasn’t petulant.”
“I don’t get it. But look at this!”
Angelina pulled a mangled Roberto Naranja out of her skirt pocket. “And Pedro wrote me a note!” She read,
Please hide my fish for me. I’m not allowed to have it any more and I’m not allowed to see you. But maybe when we’re old enough, you will still have it and you will want to sit by the fountain with me.
“Could be a long wait.”
“I’m not in a rush.”
Soledad and Angelina pressed Roberto Naranja and hung him from the awning; set lawn chairs outside and settled down to eat cinnamon churros and to wonder about the man and the boy and to occasionally puff on their fish.
by Sharmin Mirman of Carrboro
my saxophone is eighty years old!
engraved with a top hat
and a cane
so beautiful to me
some people say I ought to polish it
but I don’t want to do that!
it has earned the right to be scuffed
no need to compete with
the new generation of cool pristine tenors
beckoning and shining seductively
in their store-window silence
my horn has been through A Lot
neglected abandoned beloved.
I return again and again and again
to hold this horn in my arms
close to my heart
a saxophone solo is a journey
of trust and surrender
jazz is a jumping
off the deep end exhale dive
into the great unknown
mysterious alchemy of warm breath and cold brass
creates a new entity that whooshes through the bell
to the holy portal where
sorrow disappears and
the dizzying soulflight connection soars
where white sparks fly and
invisible intangible response
they want us!
I let go and
I’m riding on a riff
losing myself and
finding myself at the same time
by Norah Moore of Whitakers
My father called me late that morning.
"Marguerite," he said. "Ansel Harris has a new albino calf at his place. Want to go with me this afternoon to see it?"
"Sure, Dad. I'll pick you up in the truck in an hour."
Dad's invitations to accompany him actually were requests for me to drive him to his destination. He knew that. So did I. I didn't mind.
He was 74 years old, and although still a sharp thinker, Dad's health had left him. Two serious heart attacks and trembley arms meant he couldn't much drive his old black Chevrolet pickup anymore. Mostly he just drove it into town to Sam Duncan's gas station. He and Sam played dominoes in between Sam waiting on customers.
My dad, Mason Benjamin Turner, Jr., had been a dairy farmer all his life. He did other things, too. He was a great auctioneer and an expert carpenter. He had a fair garden although Mama had tended mostly to that. All his jobs made him a good provider, as they say in Mokes County. Being a good provider was important in Mokes County. A sign of a good man.
Being a good provider was important to Dad, too. His own father, my grandfather, Mason Benjamin Turner Sr., had also been a good provider and he had taught my father well. When Granddad died, he left the dairy farm to Dad. And of all the jobs that Dad ever did, he loved that farm best.
The dairy was big and white and clean as Tom Sawyer's whitewashed fence. From a child, I loved its animal warmth. The Holsteins were big things, black and white with round bellies that sometimes growled like dogs when they were full and needed milking. The milking machines made a steady ka-thunking noise as they emptied the milk into containers. It always pleased Dad that the cows never seemed to mind the humming machines holding their udders instead of human hands doing the work, but he'd shake his head and sigh that it didn't just exactly seem right to him.
Since Mama's death from cancer six years ago, he'd kind of lost heart for work. With that and his own failing health, he had sold the bulk of his holdings, including the dairy. Because he couldn't bear to give them up entirely, he kept a few cattle around his small acreage that contained the house I'd grown up in and the barn and the well. He took care of those cattle, milking them himself, although he had a hired man that helped him.
Dad loved the cattle. He said yes, they were dumb beasts, he knew that. And when they were grown, they sort of lumbered around, but they had a contented quality about them and somehow loving. He both admired and accepted them just as they were. He often said they were fine old beasts.
When I got to the home place, I parked in the gravel path and headed the short distance to the farm house. I noticed that the white siding was beginning to get green with mildew again. Hot, humid weather did that. There were a couple of loose shingles on the roof, too. I had a thought that I would have to send someone over to wash down the siding and tend to the roof.
Not a lot had changed in the house over the years since I was a girl, and I liked it that way. Dad's worn green corduroy easy chair sat where it always had, by the fireplace. The same flowered sofa was near it, facing the hearth. Over the mantle was the big print by Courier and Ives called "Central Park in Winter." Those ice skaters on the pond in the Park kept on skating, and the prancing horses kept on pulling the sleighs. The people in the sleighs kept on laughing. Mama had loved that picture, and I loved it, too. I never really wanted to go to Central Park in New York City, but I loved the picture.
I went in and Dad had his jacket on over his overalls which, as always, with the legs rolled up. He had his old brown brimmed hat in his hand. His white shock of hair stood out hard from his ruddy face. He'd dropped weight since his heart attack and he looked sort of sinewy now, but his eyes were still blue as could be. He was standing there, ready to go.
"When you going to buy overalls with the legs short enough to fit you?" I asked.
"1'll grow into these soon enough," he replied.
This was our usual greeting.
When we arrived at Ansel's, he and Dad greeted each other as old friends do, with smiles and handshakes. Ansel had known me since I was a girl, and I hugged him and inquired after the wife, kids, and grandkids. We all had some chitchat. At length, Ansel said to Dad, "Mase, come on over and see this white calf. He's an odd one, but pretty."
We ambled over to the fence that separated us from Ansel's big pasture. Cows with their calves were scattered all over the place. The calves were cavorting around as all young things do, bumping into each other and kicking up their heels. A few were nursing. All their mamas seemed peaceful, paying the babies much attention. The albino was there, too, just as happy as the rest. That all-white calf sure did stick out from all the little black & white ones.
We watched the albino calf quietly for a long time, admiring him. He really was beautiful in that lovely way that different things often are. Ansel said, "He's a pretty thing with that white-seal coat and rosy eyes, isn't he? It's a shame he's good for nothing. Can't use him for anything. Have to send him off to market, I guess.
Cattle were business to Ansel. The business helped to make him a good provider for his family. As pretty and different as the albino was, he'd have to be put out because he wasn't a good breeder. Cattle weren't pets. Folks made their livings from them one way or another.
Dad, still watching the albino, leaned over and absent-mindedly scooped up a handful of the dark dirt we were standing on. He stood up and rubbed the dirt around in his palm with his thumb, letting the loamy stuff crumble down through his fingers onto the ground again. It was a gesture I'd seen him do a hundred times. He said, "He sure is a happy thing, Ansel. Don't you think? He doesn't even know he's different. The others don't seem to know it, either. It's sort of nice."
After some more neighbor talk, we left, waving good-by to Ansel.
As I drove back home, Dad sat back quiet in the cab of my truck for a long time. After a while, I asked, 'What you thinking so hard about, Dad?"
"Oh, just thinking about Tug. He'd have liked to see that calf."
Tug was my brother. I was ten when he was born, a fat little baby with the pale hair and blue eyes like all us Turners. I had wanted a baby brother badly. At the time, I'd thought that Mama and Dad had had this baby just for me. When I saw his round, sweet face for the first time, I fell immediately in love with him. Tug grew to be a joy in our lives. He had a sense of fun and a way with jokes. He had a capacity for affection. He had a sweetness about him. He also had Downs Syndrome.
The name given to him was Mason Benjamin Turner 111, but we all called him "Tug." When he was a little thing toddling around, Dad said he was like a little boat, tugging around. So he became Tug.
Dad, Mom, and I loved him outrageously. We had every reason to. Though he suffered all the slowness of Downs Syndrome, he was supremely good natured, interested in everything, had his own little vegetable garden by the time he was six. He loved the outdoors and went with Dad everywhere. He was, as is the way in small counties, loved by all our friends and neighbors. He helped Mama and me around the house, too, even helped us cook. He was always in our arms. We adored him.
Unexplainably, when he was ten, we lost that sweet boy. In his sleep, he simply crossed over. He was a light that went out. I never even understood what took him, and never really cared. Like so many of us faithful in Mokes County, Mama, Dad, and I accepted that his time here was done. And we put him in the family plot with my grandparents. I had never seen my Dad cry before, but when we lost Tug, I did. He hung his head and wept hard.
Through the grief and healing, we had spoken often of him, remarking on his specialness and the strange joy he had. Remembering his sweetness. It had given us comfort, and now that Mama was gone, too, the remembering still contented Dad and me. Tug had been gone for twenty years, but he was still our sweet boy.
At Ansel's that day, Dad saw an albino calf that put him in mind of Tug. I'd had no such thought of the calf, and I was caught up by Dad's comment. He sighed and said, "You know that little calf has no idea how special he is. He's just living life along. Didn't he seem like a happy thing'?"
Dad was not a sentimental man, really. But he was now 74 years old, and time must seem short. Not much more time left to look at things soft.
Two weeks later, Dad called me and said, "Marguerite, come over and help me with something, will you?"
When I got over to the home place, I went into the white shingled house. Dad was sitting in his easy chair, drinking iced tea. He offered me some, but I declined. I sat down comfortable on the flowered sofa, and we chatted on like we always did. He said he needed my help in the barn.
As we went out the back door across the porch, I wondered where his hired man was. His man always helped Dad in the barn.
When we got there, the barn was dark and cool as it always was in the summertime. It always had that new hay smell that set my memory working. As we moved into the shadows, I heard a murmuring sound in a stall. Looking in, I saw the albino calf and his mother. The calf was nursing. His mama didn't seem to mind and nuzzled him.
Dad put his arms up and leaned on the stall. "I bought him from Ansel. His mama, too. I didn't want him to be without her yet. I wanted you to see him."
We studied the pretty calf for awhile without speaking.
Then I asked, "How much did Ansel charge you?"
At length, the calf finished his dinner and sort of romped over to us. Dad reached over and pressed his knuckles on him on the hard part between his wide rosy eyes, and he drew gentle circles there against the calf. The albino leaned into the touch and shook his head.
"You going to name this one?" I asked.
" Guess I'd better. How about Sonny?"
"That's a good name."
I was thinking about what Ansel said. The calf was pretty but useless.
Dad said, "Sonny's kind of remarkable, isn't he? I bet he's good luck, too. Don't you bet?"
I told him I did. And that was the truth.
by Louisa Clerici of Plymouth, Massachussets
Real men do eat cupcakes.
No matter what your mother told you,
don't avoid a man with red-velvet cupcake in hand.
Carolina morning, one of those February pre-spring affairs,
Chapel Hill is chilly and beautiful in apricot morning light.
Strolling down East Franklin, not quite awake,
Sugarland lures me in with the scent of cafe-au-lait.
Dare I add cinnamon bun or think instead of my derriere,
and the little pink dress coveted from Carrboro boutique.
Black coffee, no sweetener, people-watching to fill me up,
I see him before he notices me, his strong hands full of butter cream,
his eyes on his prize, chocolate cake, as good as devil's food.
I am intrigued, eleven AM, not quite breakfast, too early for lunch,
it takes a confident man to choose sugar before noon.
He brushes aside a strand of long brown hair,
and I fall in love with dark chocolate eyes.
He glances at me as he takes the last bite, I know I look wistful,
I've seen what I want in a small cafe on a Carolina morning.
"May I buy you a cupcake?"
His voice is sweet, real and he knows me, my desire oblique.
I answer with the softness of marshmallow frosting,
soon we share a table by the window with a view,
of a superfine cinnamon life for two, french vanilla buttermilk,
and strawberry shortcake, flavors I've never tried.
Is this a first date, a once-upon-a-time moment,
or will he leave me alone, just let me eat cake? T
wo hours later he is still staring into my eyes, life is sweet.
by Stacey Sanchez Bigliardi of Raleigh
At night, through the years, she counted the beats of his heart. She could hear it, fluttering faster with the intake of breath, through the large thin ribs of his chest, then out through the beams of the attic and the shingles of the rooftop. It slowed with the exhalation, sped and slowed, and danced, until she tired of its rhythm and took comfort in its flawless routine.
So when at once, one night, after years of performing its domestic duties, it departed, flew from the rooftop out into the night, she was startled by its movement, by the way it strayed through its own will, straining against and severing the ties that had kept it bound to its home, and to her.
“I don’t need your explanations,” she imagined saying to the heart, perhaps in a letter left unsent. “You don’t owe me anything.”
But in the morning it had returned, and it beat within the chest of the man whose body had lain next to hers for more than ten years, whose body had continued to lay next to hers the night before, with only the heart absent. He leaned against the kitchen counter, dropping an ice cube into a mug of black coffee, as was his way. The heart followed his movements, hung in the air between them like unspoken words.
“I had a dream last night,” he said.
“You won’t forget to take Paul to softball?” she answered, and thought to rephrase because that couldn’t be right. Paul and softball. Surely she had made some error, but no. She rescanned the sentence in her mind, mouthing the words. Absurd that they should rhyme, that they had named their only son Paul at all.
“I won’t forget,” he said.
“I’ll be home very late,” she said, and, to the heart, “Where were you? Why did you come back?” The heart was not afraid of her questioning, but neither was it talkative. Jonathon, her husband, flipped through the newspaper lying on the tabletop, and he stirred his coffee with his fingertip.
Later that afternoon, as she sat at her desk in her office, sorting through names on lists and lists in files and rubbing her stocking feet into the carpet, she heard the heart again, fluttering against the windowpane. The shade was drawn, but she knew the sound of it well, and she did not need to see it to know when it was there and when it wasn’t.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, “You’re supposed to be with Paul.”
“I have many responsibilities,” the heart replied, tapping softly at the glass as it spoke.
“I’ve told you never to come here. I don’t have time for you here.”
“But I need to see you,” said the heart.
“Then you should have thought about that last night, before you took your little trip,” she replied.
The heart was taken aback and said nothing.
“Oh yes,” she went on, “I know about your little trip. Don’t think because I don’t say that I don’t know. You know better than to think you can hide these things from me. Go away.”
The heart said nothing, but it stayed for some time after, beating against the glass, pathetically, and she liked the sound, and she allowed it, and found she worked better for the noise.
That evening she managed to dodge the heart on the freeway by taking an early exit and driving through the maze of darkened sidestreets downtown. When she arrived home, Paul was in bed, and Jonathon was sitting on the couch with the television on in front of him and an open book in his lap, though he was neither watching nor reading but staring at a yellow square of lamplight and patting his chest lightly.
“How was the game?” she asked.
“We lost,” he said. “Also, Paul got hit by a ball, and they tossed the pitcher.”
“Are you doing that on purpose? The rhyming?” she meant to say, and then, “Was the pitcher’s dad mad?” but she realized that she had said nothing and was standing with her keys in her hand and staring at the yellow square of lamplight. She put the keys down on the side table.
“Is he okay?” she asked instead.
“Him? Oh, yeah. Not a mark on him.”
“I think I’m going to bed. Do you mind?” she asked.
“No,” he said, “I’ll be up in a little while.”
Over the next several nights, as Jonathon slept gently beside her, the heart continued to slip away, reappearing early, quietly, as though to suggest it had never gone. When it left now, however, it did not snap in the disconnect, but moved slowly, as though it were a kite being pulled by the motion of the wind, by the arm of its operator, its tight fingers slipping, losing grasp of hers, falling up and out into the night.
It came to her at moments during the day, odd moments, and when it did, she was conscious of the tight ball of fury lodged deep within her throat, choking her, making her gasp for air. It came to her at a restaurant one afternoon, during a business meeting, as she stood washing her hands in the bathroom while the seating was being arranged. She felt suddenly that she could not breathe, and she said nothing. She counted the beats.
“I’m sorry,” it said. “I never intended to hurt you. I only needed to know what else there is, if there is anything else. Don’t you ever want to know if there is anything else?”
She said nothing, but stood looking at her hands, hands that were still youngish but not really young anymore, at the left ring finger that had for long quiet years held only the small golden band given her as a new bride. The finger that now held an intricate, self-designed, bejeweled ring, an anniversary gift, the ring Jonathon would have given her on the day they wed had he been able to afford it. A ring she had believed represented something, a promise fulfilled and unchanging.
The heart had not said it would not leave again.
“Never,” she said, but really she did not know and vowed not to speak with it again.
It went on like this, the days and the nights, for several weeks. Although the heart continued to make its nightly journeys, it left later and came back sooner, clung to her, pressed itself into her silence through the early morning hours. Finally there came a week when it ceased to leave her altogether.
Three nights passed, and it spoke from the darkness.
“I will not leave you again,” it said, and though it offered no explanation, she knew it spoke the truth.
And she was startled by the dissatisfaction of her own forgotten heart, the presence of which she had ignored or denied during all of those long weeks of anger and unknowing. Her heart shrank from the beating thing that lay beside it, this thing she had fought for, struggled with not for weeks but years, a lifetime, this thing that now offered itself to her, this thing which she now owned.
She did not ask her heart what it wanted. She knew by its skipping, its beating pulse against the walls of her chest that what it wanted was something she would never, could never, give it.
“I will stay here now,” said the other heart, the foreign heart that had nothing to do with her own but in that she possessed it.
“I don’t want you like this,” she replied.
But it only clung to her, closer, and all was silent rhythm, the night pulsing with it. She did not know if the sound came from the other, or started within herself.
by Jane Andrews of Raleigh
Because you missed your exit
On highway 85
I got to see the rainbow framing
For the Mr. Omelet.
“Look,” I said, pointing southwest,
the way you did not want to go.
But your eyes were on the road,
Finger punching the search button
On your radio, trying to pick up NPR,
finding only static
That sounded like bacon frying.
Conrad, your black lab, breathed
His moist love
Over my shoulder,
It was like having someone read
The poker hand you are trying
Not to give away.
His primal funk filled the car
As if he were heated metal, his sighs
curling by my ear,
“We’ll never make it,” you said.
Lost between here and there, I found
I needed nothing, wanted less.
Which is why, when you stopped
At the Exxon station for gas and a Coke
I called your bluff,
and your dog,
And walked the other way.
by Rosalyn Lomax of Goldsboro
The claustrophobic closet
where I undress waist up
before the mammogram
is not a decorator’s dream.
Random marks on neutral wallpaper
make me smile, though, as I recall
my children’s glee at cryptic scrawl
of red or green or purple
on linens, garments, upholstery—
“Mom fell asleep grading again.”
English teacher’s children
love to tell their tales.
At call-back mammogram
my smile fades.
handwriting on the wall.
I have a mistress
Jacqueline Nicole Hough of Monroe
I have a mistress. She is strong and persuasive.
She is the only thing in this world that truly frightens my husband.
I have virtually stopped eating. I eat enough so that I still have a period and can keep people off my back. Maybe secretly, I want to starve myself to death and not have to deal with anything anymore. (July 18, 2008)
Her name is Ana--short for anorexia.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorder estimates there are eight million people in this country who suffer from anorexia or another type of eating disorder.
I am one of those people.
My complicated relationship with Ana reached its breaking point when I was led out of a hospital in handcuffs and leg shackles.
Technically, I had done nothing illegal to warrant all of the hardware. But when I walked into the emergency room and informed the nurse on duty that I wanted to kill myself, there are certain procedures a hospital must follow.
Ana is all about control. In the beginning, I thought I controlled our relationship. With her at my side, I have watched myself become someone I don’t even recognize. To be with her, I have lied and deceived my family and friends over food.
From the time I wake up until I go to sleep, I think about food. It usually begins with me wondering what to eat but it always ends with me not eating.
I used to love eating apples. I would cut the apple in half. Then cut each half into fourths. And then cut each of the fourths into four more pieces. It should take a person no more than ten minutes to eat an apple.
It took me an hour.
It’s not about the numbers on a scale. It’s about control. And my food intake is the one thing in my life that I can control. (June 1, 2008)
When I was 16 years old, my grandmother had a stroke.
Since the day I was born, my grandmother helped to raise me. In that moment, my life changed. I went from being a high school sophomore to being a caregiver.
This was the beginning of Ana and I’s friendship. She didn’t show up because of any abuse or neglect. Ana became a constant companion for a shy geeky teenager with few friends that was terrified of losing the one person who understood her.
Truth be known, I am a lazy anorexic. I don’t exercise or calorie count. I just slowly eliminate eating as a priority for each day.
Sometimes I watch the Food Network so I can get a food fix. It’s sad that I watch Emeril or Bobby Flay so I can imagine what a meal would be like without her voice. Anorexia is a hard disease to explain to those who don’t have it. For some, it is just a matter of eating. For those of us in the know, it is about control. Control when there isn’t really control. (March 2, 2001).
I read once that in a day a person should eat about 2,000 calories. I probably eat 800 to 900 calories in a day.
At one point in my late 20s, I got down to 73 pounds. My friends were scared and not sure what to do.
There is a picture of me at this weight. It was taken at a Memorial Day pool party. At that time, I thought I looked awesome. My closest friends saw it differently. They saw a dangerously thin woman.
In January of 2001, a physician assistant voiced the truth.
Before that visit, I was sick all the time. I would have the flu, a cold or some sinus problem. It was always something. When I finally went to the doctor, she took one look at me and asked how long I had been anorexic.
I angrily informed her that I was not anorexic.
“I am just having trouble getting rid of this cold,” I said.
“No, you are anorexic and your poor body is fighting to stay alive,” she said quietly but firmly.
She gave me a prescription for my sinus infection and the name and number of an eating disorder specialist.
At this point in my life, Ana and I weren’t ready to be separated.
I crumpled the paper once I got in my car and threw it on the floor of my car. I refused to believe what she was saying.
Throughout that day, I called friends to tell them about what was said. I expected them to be sympathetic for me and angry at the woman also. But all I got were awkward silences or “I’ve got to go.”
The one person who had the guts to talk to me about it was one of my best friends (now my husband, James). In a very calm voice he said, “She’s right. You have an eating disorder. I hope you will listen to her and get help.”
A few days later, I picked the paper up off the floor of my car and called for help.
I wish I could say I sent Ana packing but that would be the biggest lie ever.
A few months after starting therapy, I looked in the mirror as part of an exercise. I avoid mirrors. I always have because they make me feel uncomfortable.
The first thing I noticed was that I was getting a little pudgy. At that time, I was 82 pounds. What scares me the most about the memory is how upset I was at weighing 82 pounds. This is the weight of a fourth grader. I was angry at myself for weighing 82 pounds.
I have always struggled with eating. I can’t remember the last time that I just sat down and ate without stressing about it. It’s not about calorie counting. (May 7, 2001)
Ana has always been there in the background waiting for me to call her back into my life. Through the years, I had learned to keep Ana hidden.
But I accepted her embrace when the newspaper I loved went from a twice weekly to a weekly in January of 2008.
It started with me eating more junk food than real food. Then I was only eating certain foods on certain days. It soon progressed to eating only one meal a day as late as possible.
Then the newspaper was sold and my job eliminated.
Moving back home was stressful and depressing for me. Not only did I not have a job but I would be around people and would have to eat. When I lived alone, I decided when I ate.
We had just bought a home. My mother was undergoing her second round of chemotherapy for stage four metastatic breast cancer.
I started looking forward to night time. When it’s late at night, everyone is asleep. Ana’s voice subsides and I don’t have to do her bidding. There is no sneaking food into a napkin or putting it down the drain. Just silence.
The doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong. He said it could be a kidney infection. It could be. But I know why my body is messed up. . (March 14, 2002)
As with most affairs, I didn’t see how it was destroying my body, my life and my family. My two-year-old son didn’t want to eat because Mommy didn’t eat.
My husband felt powerless.
I wish I could tell him how self-conscious I feel about my body. Some days I see the skeletal body that others see and other days I see something else.
I hoped he wouldn’t notice my relapse.
He noticed. He saw how fast the weight was dropping and what I was eating. Or shall I say was not eating.
He is an excellent cook whose efforts were wasted on me.
“Here try this,” he said. “I made just the way you like it.”
He would buy my favorite foods. He tried anything to get some calories into my body.
I know my relationship with Ana frustrates and angers him. He would express his concern about my appearance and mental state.
So instead of listening to concern for my well-being, I embraced destruction of my body. I can’t explain her hold over me.
The way it alternates between craziness and numbness. How she makes nothing else matter except not eating.
There is so much that I wanted to tell him but I couldn’t so I push him away. I don’t isolate myself to hurt him intentionally.
Believe it or not, it does scare me when I look at my body with my clothes off. I shower with my eyes closed so I don’t have to see how painfully thin I am, but I am not sure what to do. . (July 10, 2008)
Some days I would see how long I could go without eating anything substantial. This is not easy when you are running after a small child with tons of energy. Each night, I would be exhausted and stressed about eating.
One night, something snapped. I knew I couldn’t live like this anymore. I decided that there was only way to get rid of her.
But when the day came, I realized I didn’t want Ana to win. Even though I was desperate, I wasn’t ready to give up.
Who would do the airplane routine after my son’s bath?
Who would know the little things about him such as his favorite shirt?
Those things were on my mind as I sat in my car wondering what to do-carry out my plan or seek help.
With all the stress, Ana had convinced me that nobody cared if I lived or died.
But I knew one person on this earth who would care—my son.
I was barely hanging on when I walked through those emergency room doors.
My problem is causing you problems. I have lost so much control in my life that I have nothing. I feel so lost and helpless. I have tried to ask for help but each time I can’t make the words come out. (August 15, 2008—from suicide note to my son.)
I came home fragile and scared. Ana wasn’t completely there but she wasn’t gone either. I was determined to keep her away.
I want to see my son grow up, graduate and have a life. I want him to have a mommy who is strong.
I don’t feel as hopeless but I still feel alone. It is hard to talk about Ana.
At my lowest point, I was 73 pounds. This time I dropped to 75 pounds. This is a lot when you are five foot one.
I used to have long, beautiful hair, somewhat of a shape and a mouthful of teeth.
Thanks to Ana, I am losing my hair, most of my teeth are gone and I feel unbalanced.
And yet my mistress still desires me.
I weigh 105 pounds. Everyone says the weight looks good on me. Ana is not comfortable with those numbers because they represent me finding strength without her.
I feel at times everyone and everything is closing in on me. They try to make me eat. It is not that simple. You can’t undo years of bad eating with one meal. (August 15, 2001)
Ana is working hard to regain a footing in my life. She whispers that she needs just a little more time with me.
Each day is a constant struggle—to eat or not to eat. I wish I could say I am completely cured. I am not and will never be completely okay.
Like a person addicted to alcohol or drugs, I will also have a longing for my mistress. So I keep reminding myself of what will happen if I let her return with full force.
The two of us can never be together again because the next time Ana will kill me.
A Brush with Greatness
by Laura Graham of Raleigh
I’ve met very few famous people, at least, that I know of. Some people seem to have near-constant celebrity sightings and brushes with greatness. These are the people who contribute to those “caught without makeup” photo essays in the Enquirer, and whose stories inevitably include something like: “and then it was like, bam! Oprah Winfrey (or Madonna, Jim Carey, that kid who played ‘Urkel’) was right there! Of course, she didn’t look like Oprah with the dark glasses, blonde wig and Wal-Mart shopping bags, but I could tell it was her.”
When I see these photos and hear the stories, I’m always amazed, and I’m sure I’d never recognize anyone. Innumerable celebrities may have crossed my path in the last 40 plus years for all I know. The one time I met and spoke with a famous person for any length of time happened only because the man in question was extremely patient and persistent in opening my eyes to his identity.
I had been working for Duke University, and was flying to a conference in Phoenix on a Sunday night. I was particularly thrilled to have been bumped up to first class for the four-hour flight. I admit to feeling slightly smug when the counter attendant called for first class passengers to board before the riff-raff. As one of the first passengers on the plane, I was surprised to see my seatmate already ensconced in his window seat. Just another perk of being a celebrity, I suppose, you get to board even earlier than first class and get to keep your pre-flight fidgeting private.
Once we were in the air, I took a better look at the man to my right. I’d guess he looked to be in his 50’s, with a long, lean, lined face and was bronzed in the middle of October. Either he had a George Hamilton-like perma-tan, or he lived somewhere toasty, I thought. Jet black hair, pulled back into a ponytail, Hard Rock Café leather jacket, jeans over skinny legs that ended, sockless, in powder blue suede Italian flats. Faces, I have trouble remembering, clothes, not so much.
I said “Hello” to my seatmate, but I must not have introduced myself to him by name. If I had, I’m sure he’d have done the same, and this could be a much shorter story. Nonetheless, we got to chatting about this and that. I asked him if he lived in Phoenix or was going on business. He said he lived in Scottsdale, a suburb, and I said that I’d lived in Phoenix years ago and had driven through Scottsdale many times on my way to visit my brother at Arizona State University. We talked about this and that, and then somehow got on the subject of golf. He played golf, I used to work for a golf equipment manufacturer, so I could hold my own on this topic, I thought.
“I do some work for Calloway.” He said, mentioning another equipment manufacturer.
“Oh? I used to work for Slazenger Golf.” I replied. “So what do you do for them?”
He looked slightly bemused. “I make some commercials for them.”
“Ah ha!” I thought. “The ponytail, the leather jacket, the shoes without socks – it all fits—he must be a director. Still, strange that he should be in Phoenix, not Hollywood.”
“So,” I said, “do you direct them?”
“No,” he said, without a trace of exasperation, “I’m Alice Cooper, and they let me be in some of their commercials.”
There then commenced a short pause while my mental Teutonic plates shifted themselves around this rather large piece of new information. Just to be clear, it was that Alice Cooper: The original shock rocker from the 70’s. Ghoulish make-up, snakes, simulated beheadings in his stage show; infernal pied piper of Goths everywhere.
“Oh!” I said, without a trace of elan, “of course you are! I’m so sorry.”
“That’s ok,” he said self-deprecatingly, “I don’t look like ‘him’ without the snake.”
“No, really, you do. Now that I know it’s you.”
Wanting to redeem myself, I wanted to say something about his work. I have to admit, however, that I’m not really knowlegable about Alice Cooper’s music. In fact, until now, the sum total of my experience with the man’s work had been watching his guest appearance on “The Muppet Show” when I was nine. It was a great episode, and I can still sing the chorus to “School’s Out,” the only song of his I ever knew.
Without thinking, I said, “I loved you on the Muppet Show!” then silently apologized to the 200 million or so Americans way cooler than I am who didn’t get to sit next to him.
“You know,” he said, “Of all the things I’ve done in my career, the only thing that impressed my kids was that I knew Kermit the Frog.”
At this point, I decided that I should just let the conversation drop, both to preserve his privacy and to make myself look somewhat less ridiculous. I figured that here is a very famous, albeit very nice, man who’s on his way home. He’s ready to relax and not spend his time making small talk with a seriously un-cool stranger who’s not even a fan.
But here’s the thing I learned about Alice Cooper: he’s chatty. I kept trying not to bother him, but he kept talking to me. Turns out, he’s a wonderful extrovert who likes to talk to strangers, so we had a lovely time discussing everything from his family, to Italian horror movies, to the current crop of poseur, wannabe rockers.
For a man with such a fearsome reputation, he was kind and charming. He even shared his M&M’s with me (My mother, when I told her, was not impressed, she said “Now Laura, I’ve raised you much better than to take candy from a man like Alice Cooper). When the plane landed, I asked him for his autograph, and we walked down the jet way together, going our separate ways at the concourse.
As he walked away, I thought he looked like one of a thousand aging hipster guys, trundling his wheeled carryon, heading home. No one would ever think he was THE Alice Cooper.
Just then, some guy at another gate called out, “Yo! Alice!” Alice Cooper smiled, waved and kept walking. And you just know that that guy is sitting in a bar somewhere saying, “Back in ’98 I was at the airport in Phoenix. I look up, and bam! Alice Cooper is right there! He didn’t have the snake, but I knew it was him.”
by Beth Browne of Garner
I dream of my baggage
packing and unpacking
digging for missing items
in suitcases stuffed full.
I collect bags of all sorts
rough muslin totes
vinyl bags with cheap zippers
a fancy upholstery bag with
I need them to bear
the burden of my failed relationships
the trauma of my parent’s divorce
my son’s near death in the NICU
along with the everyday
necessities such as pens and paper
keys and cell phone,
Kleenex and snacks for the kids.
So much to carry
makes me slow
and tired and sometimes
I dream about walking away
leaving the bags behind
just strolling off,
to swing in the air
light enough to spread my arms
give a little hop
and maybe lift off
by Anuja Acharya of Raleigh
I could not tell you
Where home is.
I suppose everyone must dig through the dirt of their surroundings
Their distant cousins, their aunties and uncles, their teachers and neighbors
like the insects of last spring, decaying caterpillars and crocuses
to find the precise placement
Of their roots.
I know where my roots are
Entrenched in the gravel, in the soggy rice paddies.
I come from the most magnificent country in the world!
Fragrant with spices, fenugreek and saffron
bursting in bright colors, pink and turquoise like so many tropical fish
With an ancient tradition so unspeakably rich
The undeniable shining diamond in the most priceless crown!
I know where my flowers shall fall
When the petals flutter down with the gust of a breeze.
I am a product of the American Dream!
Here, existence is comfortable, lavish at best
An exceptional part of an exceptional entity that stands
Proudly steadfast in virtues of liberty, equality, prosperity
Literally a mine of opportunity!
These are my roots, securely in India.
Here are my flowers, blooming in America.
But where am I growing? And what does that mean?
I dig through the red clay of North Carolina
I dig through the gravel of Maharashtra
A Walk on The Farm Road after Thanksgiving
by Beth Browne of Garner
Sun rust on trees
coin of moon
barest shaving of ivory
off one side
wind hum high
in the pines
shading of sky
mauve to teal
deep in the woods
pines now silent
and the absence of rain
watching over the land
marking my course
the cat streaking past
Officer Nicholson Arrives Homeby Beth Browne of Garner
Slow crunch of gravel outside
the predawn glow of the window.
A soft tug at the door and he’s home
still swaddled in the stretched-tight safety
of the dark blue uniform.
Peeling away the layers of his twelve-hour shift
he drops exhausted but sleepless
on the cool cotton sheet
which is mussed, but vacant.
The alarm clock bleats unheeded
as, coming and going
they ignore the widening breach
where love clings to a gravelly edge
her grip faltering
as dark birds circle, weightless,
waiting, in case she plummets
to the steep sharp floor
of the bottomless canyon.
Yardworkby Elizabeth Wallace
The front yard was divided
into squares and triangles
with red tulips in the square and yellow daffodils staged. Crocuses were carefully sidelined to accent the walk.. The pastel hyacinths were quiet in regal standing.
Winter pansies still held forth in their assigned wooden box.
One day he left a note that he wouldn't be back. He signed it simply "your husband".
Later that season a red-violet iris grew
and was soon joined by bearded varieties in dazzling white. They were crowded and could be seen swaying in unison.
Then day lilies opened of tangerine and mango and melon
and late summer roses with robust thorns started to thrive. Butterfly bushes flowered to attract circles of flight
Nests with unknown twineings formed oval dwellings
while a slender wisteria vine grew through the parch lattice
to stay in the floorboards and walls and ceiling of her house.
Lips and Fingertips
by Kristin Kirkland of Raleigh
The warm April sun kisses my skin,
Like the kisses from you
That start between my shoulder blades
And fan out down my arm,
Gliding over my fingertips,
Pausing in the space between.
by Laura Jensen of Pittsboro
They are in the middle drawer of her dresser. It is an old Victorian dresser, wide and long with a large mirror standing guard over a pink marble top. The top and all the drawers are neat and immaculate. The middle drawer is home to her underwear; soft lacy slips, panties and bras in a variety of colors dominated by pink and peach. They are precisely arranged, slips in one pile, another of petticoats, yet another of underpants, then the bras. Not one is out of place. As a child, I remember gazing in wonder at the treasurers in this drawer but never once touched anything although I can’t recall ever been told not to. Touching seemed like an invasion then and it does today.
If I was nearby when she opened the drawer, I could see the stack of envelopes and would have recognized my father’s script. It is hard to guess how many letters there are but so many that she’d wrapped them with a cord, around several times, and then tied a bow. It was string-like cord, white and green in color and, along with the envelopes I can see, look old and slightly discolored.
Now, here I am, holding the stack of envelopes for the first time. Cleaning up after the dead is such a gruesome task. There isn’t anyone else to do it, my father certainly isn’t up to it so it falls to me and it is heart wrenching. Her underwear, let alone the letters, it is all so personal. I stand for some time gazing at the open drawer. I marvel at the fact that it is still so very orderly even in her absence. In her last days she’d probably not worn underwear and I speculate on when she might have last done laundry, by hand of course, and then placed her personal items carefully in this drawer. It smells of her. She only wore one perfume, Germaine Monteil, and all her clothing and everything else she touched has her distinctive smell. I see empty perfume bottles resting in the corners of each drawer, placed there to scent the drawers like sachet. They emphasize the familiar odor.
I kneel down and begin to touch things. I gently rest my hand on top of each pile. I wish they’d disappear so I wouldn’t have to remove them and the task would be finished without me ever having to make a decision as to what would happen to these delicate intimate items. Satin, silk and lace; pale pink, cream, peach, beige and an occasional black item, peak out as the weight of my hand brushes the piles. Tears sting my eyes as memories flood my head. I don’t need to close my eyes to see her in this slip, that bra, those panties. She prided herself on her appearance even at this level, seen only by a few. Although I know she wore these daily, nothing is tattered, no holes or even torn lace, every piece is in flawless condition. It is as if she might reach over my shoulder at any moment and pluck a slip from the pile and put it on. But she will not; not today, not ever again.
I sit down on the floor in front of the drawer and lean against the bed. I wipe my eyes, blow my nose and unwrap the cord from the stack of letters, my fingers shaking slightly. Tucked under the cord is a single sheet of paper folded three times and yellow with age. The letterhead reads:
H. Healy, Jeweler & Silversmith
522 Fulton St.
It is a handwritten bill of sale dated 12/23/1930 addressed to my father. It describes a “Diamond and platinum fancy solitaire ring, blue white X perfect, weight .42 carat guaranteed. Paid, $165 signed H. Healy.”
I smile. I decide to read her treasured letters and hope the rest of these papers will also bring a smile to my face.
I realize very quickly that here I am, years later, stealing a glance at their unfolding love. By my brief mental calculation, they are nineteen and sixteen when these letters are exchanged. The diamond ring purchased from H. Healy will be presented at Christmas 1930. He will ask and she will say yes. Their wedding will be May 29, 1931. She always said she knew all along she’d marry him; his journals never mention another woman. At her young age dating per se was not permitted particularly in her puritanical family. Many old photos show them together, however, but always with groups of friends. Evidently even then he had a way with words and used his gift to woo her, sometimes from afar.
I open and read the first letter, postmarked Brooklyn August 18, 1927. Dear Little Sweetheart it begins:
“You know dear, I was just about crazy when I got your letter tonight. All the way home in the subway I was hoping and praying there would be one waiting for me. And, when I finally got home (after several years it seemed) there really was one there! Oh, golly Puss, I just tore up the stairs and without even taking off my hat and coat, I devoured your letter.”
He goes on:
“When I got up I went into the parlor and turned on the phonograph. It sounded so nice to hear it I thought. And soon I came to the Merry Widow Waltz you know, and you were sitting over on the sofa so I walked over and held out my pinkie and asked if you cared to dance. And you smiled and said uh huh and took hold of my finger and so we waltzed in and out among the chairs and the sofa; and everything was so nice and your waist felt so nice and soft and delicious like, just as it always is. I could just have danced so forever and you agreed it was nice too. But, the darned record had to run out and I discovered I had only my pajamas on and it was chilly for the window was up and worst of all you were only a pillow! Just when you are enjoying yourself so, all the sweet music stops and cold reality slaps a wet rag in your face.”
He is so in love. I can hardly stand to read his words because it feels like I’m intruding. But, I’m mesmerized. It’s so sweet, so poignant it’s palpable. I read on. In the next paragraph he says,
“Say, you have never kept house all alone for a week. I have eaten all but the wallpaper and we need that. Why do little pigs eat so much? Because they want to make hogs of themselves!”
And then I laugh. I can see his impish grin. It’s the same grin he employed years later to persuade me to eat my peas.
by Lisa Williams Kline of Mooresville
I delivered Caitlin, my first child, via C-section, on a gray January day. When I finally was scheduled to take her home, I woke to see the parking lot outside my hospital room covered in snow so deep the cars were unidentifiable humps, like mattress batting.
“Lisa?” Jeff’s voice on the phone cracked with stress. “Honey, I’m going to try to dig the car out. I’m not optimistic.”
A whole day without him? In my stained nightgown and slippers, I trundled dejectedly down the corridor. I wanted my own bed, my own shower. I wanted to dress Caitlin in the little clothes I had folded so neatly in her new dresser.
As I passed, I glanced into a room two doors down from mine, and saw a guy with an unsettling resemblance to my ex-husband standing next to a bed with a blond woman in it. He was on the phone, and even had a similar insistent, cajoling tone to his voice. “Lydia! You sound fabulous as usual, can you put me through to Jim?”
I took a good look. Good God, it WAS my ex-husband. I dashed past the doorway, instigating a searing pain in my abdomen, then leaned against the wall to catch my breath. I hadn’t seen Reid in almost three years – with no children there had been no reason for contact – and a blast of emotion triggered simultaneous waterfalls of adrenalin, breast milk and cold sweat.
What the hell was he doing here? Did he have a new baby too?
Of course, why should I be surprised to run into Reid in the hospital? After all, Reid was always in the hospital. For some reason, the moment Reid said his vows, he had became an instant hypochondriac. The high-energy marketing major I’d married transformed overnight into a guy who would do anything to get admitted to whatever ward could squeeze him in. Double rooms were better because they provided built-in conversation victims, most of whom were in no shape to run out of the room. Once installed in a narrow bed with its matching narrow closet, Reid would put a shapeless argyle sweater over his cotton gown and pad around the corridors discussing his ailments with anybody he happened to meet.
I limped, dazed, in the direction of the nursery. A rhythmic throbbing began around my incision. Behind the glass window, Caitlin slept, her tiny nearly translucent fingers folded under her chin beneath the edge of the tightly swaddled blanket. After a slight confrontation with a nurse who probably questioned my maternal capabilities with good reason, I retrieved Caitlin and wheeled her by the bundled babies behind the picture window.
I scanned the names printed on the bassinettes. And there it was. “Byer,” the last name that had been mine for four years. Inside, a baby that could have been mine but, by a twist of fate, was not.
Setting my jaw, I headed down the hall, one hand on the bassinette, the other pressed over my now-leaking incision. As I passed, I heard Reid, still on the phone.
“Jim, buddy, I just want to stop in and show you some of the key man plans we can offer.”
I shoved Caitlin’s bassinette, like a cartful of groceries, into my hospital room, skidded in, and slammed the door. I pressed my incision with my palm, which seemed right now to be the only thing preventing my intestines from spilling out onto the floor. I peered over the bassinette’s edge. Caitlin’s eyelids were purplish white, patterned with tiny pink veins.
I shuffled to the mirror. I had on no make-up, and my stomach looked like semi-congealed Jell-O. On the bright side, my hair was thick from the pregnancy, but how careless of me to neglect washing and setting it during labor and delivery. And then there was my stained nightgown, mismatched robe, and grimy slippers.
Stripping down, I turned on the shower. As warm soothing water pummeled my aching sagging body, I reflected that not only had Reid wasted four years of my life, taken our only good car, and Aunt Katherine’s oriental rug, he was now keeping me prisoner in my hospital room with the door closed. And Jeff wasn’t even here, whereas obviously Reid’s new wife, having just given birth, was. He was definitely ahead. If you were keeping score. And, I realized, I was.
Smiling grimly, I rubbed blush on the taut muscles of my cheeks
I had, with idiotic first-time mother optimism, brought a pair of pre-pregnancy black corduroys with me. Just three days ago I’d examined the waistband with hilarity and disbelief. Now I yanked them from my suitcase and tossed them onto the bed like a gauntlet, like a flag before a bull. Dammit, I was wearing those suckers. Just watch me.
I managed to pull the waistband up and over my rear end but with my leaking incision pulling up the zipper was out of the question.
Fortunately, my white maternity sweater now came down to my knees. The phone rang.
“Honey?” Jeff sounded as though he’d just run a 10K. “I can’t get the car out. They’re calling this the blizzard of the century.”
I looked out the window at the glaring white. “Oh.” I heaved what I knew was a very melodramatic and manipulative sigh. As usual, Jeff was being sensible.
Just as we hung up, Sandy, the nurse, bustled in. She plumped my pillows with karate chops. “Ready to try breast-feeding again?”
“If she doesn’t wake up to eat every four hours, you need to wake her up.” Sandy twisted Caitlin’s head and shoved it into my breast as if she were handing off a football. “You need to time each side.” Sandy slid light green liquid resembling anti-freeze within reach, then hurried out.
Caitlin had the most intoxicating smell. Just stroking her miraculously smooth and flawless cheek gave me the most exquisite feeling of well-being. I looked at the clock beside the TV and made a mental note to switch Caitlin to the other breast in ten minutes.
I awoke an hour later with Caitlin asleep at my drained right breast while the left was so turgid it had begun to leak through my sweater. So had my incision. Painfully hoisting myself out of bed, I returned Caitlin to her bassinette.
I saw that Sandy had left the door open and crossed the room to close it.
At that moment Reid stepped into the hall.
Our eyes met for one of those fleeting instants before instinctive social graces kick in.
“Hi!” We both stretched smiles across our faces.
“What an amazing coincidence. “ I smoothed my sweater to make sure it covered my unzipped pants. Maybe he wouldn’t notice the large yellow stain over my left breast or the smaller pink stain below. “I have a baby girl. What about you?”
“A boy,” Reid said. “Laura’s feeding him now. Why don’t I bring them over? Laura would love to meet you.”
Warm colostrum spurted out of my swollen left breast.
“Sounds perfect,” I said. “Give me five minutes.”
I skidded into the bathroom and tried to pump my milk into a baby bottle. After spraying milk on the mirror, the wall, the toilet, and into my own eye, I gave up. There seemed to be no way of telling which way the milk was going. Finally I squirted it into the sink. I’d just finished stuffing a folded piece of toilet paper over the soaked incision bandage when my visitors arrived.
“Hi.” Laura, pushing her baby’s bassinette, had blonde, curly hair, jingly silver earrings, and wore a man’s plaid robe. “What a coincidence, hey?”
“What’s his name?” The baby’s face was still red and, to me, he looked and smelled very unappealing.
“Reid Junior,” Reid boomed. “What else?”
“How much weight did you gain?” Laura settled herself beside Reid on my bed.
I lowered myself into the nursing chair and shifted my weight to one thigh. With both a C-section and an episiotomy, nearly any position was a challenge.
“Laura gained twenty pounds exactly, and she’s already lost all but three pounds,” Reid shouted before I could answer. “Doesn’t she look great?”
“Oh, yes.” So he was keeping score too.
“We went all natural,” Laura announced. “How about you?”
“Oh, the cord was around Caitlin’s neck so I had to have a C-section.”
Two points to the plaid team.
“Well, at least her head doesn’t look smushed,” said I, wincing at my own audacity. Two for the unzipped corduroy team.
“Laura’s labor was eighteen hours and a couple of times she was begging for pain meds but she made me promise not to let her have anything so I didn’t.” Reid squeezed his wife’s shoulder with exaggerated affection.
“Did you know we videotaped Reid Junior’s birth?” Laura said.
“I was right down there with the camera in close-up living color,” Reid chimed in. “Even when Laura was in transition and screaming her fool head off.”
“Goodness,” I said, having completely lost track of the score. Briefly, remembering Reid plodding hospital halls in this shapeless sweater, a lump formed in my throat. I knew, now, why he kept getting sick while we were married, and I was glad he’d found someone to love him.
I wish Jeff had walked in at just that moment, having hailed a passing snowplow, his black hair sparkling with melting snow, his cheeks beet red from the cold. But instead, Laura said “Maybe we’ll run into each other in nursery school orientation,” then pushed her baby’s bassinette out the door. As she passed, I looked down at the baby again. His eyes moved back and forth under his closed, translucent lids, and I wondered what he was watching in there. Then Reid and his family were gone.
“Do you want to meet them?” I said to Jeff the next day when he finally arrived.
“No,” said Jeff. He has never had a desire to revisit the past. “We need to get out of here. It’s supposed to start snowing again. Ready?”
“We just need to put on Caitlin’s snowsuit.”
Her bowed spindly legs reached only an inch or so below the crotch. Her little hands barely reached the suit’s armpits. Jeff leaned over her, his face fatigued, but with an expression of such pure tenderness that I caught my breath.
Sandy, pushing a wheelchair, patted the seat, indicating I was to sit down. “Hospital rules.” I sat. “Now, Dad, why don’t you let Mom carry the baby.”
Jeff was Dad. I was Mom. This was a whole new world.
Working Teen, cir. 1979
by Margie LeMoine of Apex
One summer, I balanced on a barn roof and spread
silver paint on the sheet metal,
scantily clad in a string bikini, suntan oil
and dime store shades.
Late spring, I straddled endless rows of bush beans,
back bent, hands reaching for weeds,
yanking, tossing, and feeling sunburn
on the strip of skin where shirt parted jeans.
Bundled in a pink parka, I hauled a sledgehammer
to the frozen pond and smashed
a hole in the ice for cattle and horses
then dashed to board a steamy school bus.
After high school, traded mortarboard for hardhat,
steel-toe boots and waders, and
knee-deep in foul, brown paper pulp,
I hosed corrugated medium down a factory drain.
At nineteen, I stowed three soft-sided Samsonites
in a Carolina-blue Volkswagen diesel, and drove
five hundred miles with the windows rolled down,
starved for the burden of books.
by Maureen A. Sherbondy of Raleigh
Bernice pats the lump of pocketed black pistol for reassurance as she enters Charlotte Savings & Loan – the same bank where she and her ex-husband, Jack, once had an account.
Five years earlier he’d emptied the account of their life savings: one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. She received that darn postcard a month after Jack disappeared with their money. In the hall mirror, fifty-six-year-old Bernice had looked up to see anger flushing her pale skin fuchsia and even her hair grew angry red when she stared at the postcard. A picture of the sun setting over glossy water in Cabo San Lucas. HOLA! in white loopy print mocking her. More like good-bye forever. Adios.She had torn the slick postcard in an angry fit seconds later; her arthritic hands throbbed now just thinking about it.
One hundred and fifty thousand dollars! She repeats the number over and over with each angry step taken toward the teller line. What she could have done with that money! Paid medical bills, prescriptions, a meal out at McDonalds every once in awhile. When her 1982 Honda Civic died, she’d resorted to walking or taking the bus. Little by little her freedom eroded. There were only so many places the bus could transport her, there was no deviation from the set route; and lately she had trouble walking the half-mile journey to the closest bus stop.
Wiping snow from her Goodwill boots, her toes tingle. The boots are half a size too small, but at least they provide protection from the cold; what could she expect for four dollars anyway? She blows onto her swollen hands to warm them.
Jack’s pistol also feels cold. He purchased the pistol ten years earlier, after Bernice was assaulted at the Piggly Wiggly by a robber who absconded with Twinkies, a Dr. Pepper, and two hundred dollars. Bernice had tried to stop him, by grabbing his hoodie, but after he’d regained his footing, he’d pushed her into the pimple-faced bagger and she had fallen, bruising her hip. At fifty-two Bernice had been a strong woman, robust and tall, standing inches over the robber. But it seemed that day in the Piggly Wiggly, the strength flew out of her.
Bernice was no longer angry with the robber or with Jack. Anger was replaced with fear of becoming a street person – a beggar on the streets of her Mint Hill neighborhood. Women from her former book club, docents at the local museum, cashiers from the grocery store would stare at her with pity and then look away.
Pride. Her mother had instilled a sense of pride in Bernice. One day, when her stomach growled for food, Bernice hopped on a bus to the Social Services office. Inside, she stood on line with the pathetic, down-on-their-luck men and women. There she waited, the completed application for assistance wilting in her hands. Then a vision appeared, her mama, who had raised Bernice on her own without the help of a single person or the government. Her mama’s voice echoed Have some pride, Bernie. Bernice’s hand trembled, and she left the line, tossing her application in a trashcan outside.
Bernice was not angry, but she was broke. At the age of sixty-one, wrinkled beyond her years, with no college degree, her only skill was painting. Unframed abstract works of art adorned her apartment walls. She had talent, but not enough to land a gallery show. Bernice had never owned a computer or even sent an email. After Jack abandoned her she scraped by with her job at Jasper’s Family Grocery Store, where she swept and mopped and stocked the shelves. But, two months ago, without notice, when she showed up early for work one Monday morning, an Out of Business sign glared at her from the locked door. There was no severance pay and because she’d been paid under the table, there was no unemployment compensation either.
After fifty job applications in sixty days and no interviews, she’d run out of steam and hope. Her resume was handwritten; maybe that was part of the problem. Her checking account was overdrawn and even the change jar of pennies and nickels was now empty. Yesterday, she’d sat in a booth at the city diner drinking water and stealing small containers of strawberry jam. When the diners at the next booth left behind two uneaten pancakes and half an egg, she’d switched tables, and shamefully eaten the scraps.
The mere thought of living on the street at the height of winter sent shivers up her spine this morning when snowflakes fell outside her apartment window. Bernice hates the cold and had wanted to Florida years ago, but like so many things, that never happened. Why had she never been to Paris to see the Louvre? Or Rome? Was she afraid? The years blurred together in a gray haze, and here she is, still living ten miles from the hospital where she was born.
There are no relatives, except Cousin Mattie in California who sends Christmas cards but has her own problems: breast cancer, a divorce, two alcoholic sons who keep moving back home and crashing her old car. Bernice doesn’t have the heart to ask Mattie for help.
This morning the eviction notice stared at her from the front door, when she locked up, and she had ripped the yellow notice down, then gone back in her studio apartment and cried for hours. Had her neighbors seen the notice, she wondered as she sat in the faded floral chair, staring at the kitchen counter. Then it hit her. Mixed in with late bills on the counter was an unopened white envelope. Ripping it open a statement drifted out of the envelope from the Social Security Administration, telling her that in ten months she’d begin receiving eight-hundred-and-fifty-dollars a month.
“You’re next,” a young man taps her shoulder and nods, pulling her from her daydream and back to the bank.
“May I help you?” asks a perky middle-aged teller who is wearing too much mascara.
The gun feels like an extension of Bernice’s hip, she presses the handle with her shaking left hand. The painful bruise throbs from that robbery ten years ago.
One year in jail would hold her over. Just the other day on the news she heard about a felon who had received a one-year sentence for robbing a local convenience store. She imagines that the prison will be like the one Martha Stewart stayed at in Connecticut. They showed the prison on television – it didn’t look bad, more like a small community college. Martha probably baked for the inmates and made crafts. Maybe the prison officials would allow Bernice to teach painting to the other women. In a place like that perhaps she’d make some new friends, women down on their luck – at least they’d have that common bond.
A warm cell, a bed, a blanket and pillow. She didn’t need much. Some paper and pastels.
Less than one year and Social Security kicks in, one year and a spot might open up on that waiting list for Royal Oak Terrace – that HUD senior citizen facility two towns over. The one with the window boxes of purple flowers in spring, and patios where the residents sit and read and talk. She could spend her time painting those flowers.
The blonde teller is saying something to her. “Ma’m, are you OK?”
Suddenly the face before Bernice is her ex-husband, Jack. Jack with his wiry black hair tinged with grey, his eyes that always appear as if they are squinting, the eyebrows that come together and look like one thick eyebrow. His thin lips are sipping Mai Tais on that beach in Mexico.
Some blonde woman is rubbing lotion on his shoulders. Green bills are sticking out from his bathing suit.
Bernice pulls the gun from her sweatshirt pocket and raises her voice so it is clear and firm. “This is a stick-up.” She pulls a large Ziploc bag from her other pocket and hands it to the perky teller. “Place some twenties in here. Just a few.”
The teller’s hands are jittery, but she does as she’s told. She slides ten twenties in the bag. “This enough?”
“Yes. Now slowly hand me the Baggie.”
Gasps ring out in the bank.
“Are you for real, Ma’m? Don’t I know you? Don’t you have an account here?”
“No questions. Now, press the alarm. Do it now.”
“What? You want me to push the alarm? Why?”
“Just do it.” Bernice looks around for a uniformed guard, but sees only customers fleeing the bank. She takes her Baggie and walks to the corner where the loan officer’s leather seat welcomes her. For a split second Bernice considers taking off, but her aching hip and her arthritic knees would not allow a speedy departure. So, setting the gun on the flat grey carpet Bernice kicks the pistol towards the door, then raises her hands into the air, as if her hands will touch the stars. She waits this way as sirens grow louder and louder in the distance.
Someone You Don’t Know Who Loves You
by Sarah Simpson of Cary
I’m standing in line to return a Christmas present from my father when I see them there. Just like in the pictures. He is sitting in the child’s seat of the shopping cart and she is gripping the handles of it and making wide-eyed faces so he’ll laugh as their mother hands a receipt to the cashier. Your children. Your wife. Well—ex-wife. I cannot see her face yet and have only seen one photograph of it in which she was wearing dark sunglasses. She was standing between the children as if to claim them as hers alone, one arm around your daughter and another hand reaching down to your son’s chest; he held it, perhaps to keep his balance. Standing up was still relatively new for him then. But now he is three and your daughter is seven. Your wife is forty-two. You are thirty-eight, and I am twenty-five, and we are in love with each other.
It takes me a while to realize that I’m not looking at a photograph. I wait for my heart rate to slow but it doesn’t and I remain disoriented, staring. Your daughter is even prettier in person. In all the pictures she was wearing different expressions; her hair looked mousey brown in some, beachy blond in others. The various angles changed her face completely, as did her smile in this one and her frown in that. But in all of them she had your eyes—blue and heavy-lidded. Maybe her mother has eyes like that, too. I won’t know until she turns around. And when she does, will she have any idea? Will she glance at me and get a feeling?
Your son—you imitate him all the time, slip into his voice without meaning to. On your nights with them I always look forward to what funny quotes you will relay to me. You talk about your daughter first—how she cried when you came to pick them up, and cried again once at your place, and shook her hands in this weird way and said she missed Mommy and wanted to go home even though it had only been a few minutes. You’ve actually taken her home early some nights because you don’t want to force anything. You want to be her ally. Other nights she’s made it through with a phone call to Mom and a project to distract her from what must be the excruciatingly slow passage of time. She sits at your kitchen counter and numbers the blank pages of her notebook, makes lists of anything that comes to her seven-year-old mind, copies down everything you do, every word you say. You wonder if she’s doing this for what she thinks is her mother’s benefit. “Poor thing,” you say, your head drooping. “She’s such a sensitive creature.” And I feel my eyes sting again. You ask if I’m all right. I have a soft spot for father-daughter relationships, but I am not the issue.
Then to lighten the mood you tell me about him: “Little guy was fine. What’d he say tonight?” You’ll look up at the kitchen light to ponder (he says cool instead of school, tote instead of toast, amn’t instead of am not) and while waiting to laugh at your son’s latest I’ll realize that I’m sitting in the same chair your daughter was in just an hour ago. Later, as if reading my mind, you’ll ask if it’s weird for me to be in your house, knowing your kids were just there. You’ll ask if I’m comfortable here. I am. Are you comfortable with me being here? You are. And then you’ll read my mind again. “I wish it could be more…” You’ll lace your fingers in a fist, release them, say, “Some day.”
Yes. Some day. I thought that maybe a year would be adequate time for your kids to accept that you’ve moved on, but it’s already been half a year and I don’t see how another six months will be enough. I’d like to meet them before they grow up too much more, especially the little guy, but if I have to wait three years I will—seems like three years should definitely do it. But you will have to make that call. You’ll decide what’s best for them and I will agree, even if for some reason what’s best for them is what’s worst for me—even if it means I never see you again—I’ll do it, because I love them.
I realized this two months ago while lying with my mother on her bed. We were slightly drunk and glossy-eyed and I was having little revelations, speaking every thought out loud. “I already love his kids,” I said, stunned by the profundity. I don’t fool myself into thinking I even know your kids, but in this case I don’t have to know them to love them—which simply means that I want what’s best for them regardless of how it will affect me. You have unwittingly taught me that this is all love should ever be. It is a liberating paradox, as every truth is in some way or other: love presents us with and simultaneously frees us from ourselves.
I step forward in the line. This area is for returns and exchanges only, and there is a row of four cashiers. Your wife and kids are still at the third one down. There is just one person in front of me, and if your family has not left when my turn comes, my chances of standing right beside them are two out of three. And maybe you wouldn’t think it, but I want to stand beside them. I want to hear your son’s voice. Right now I can only see his little mouth moving but he seems to be talking to himself, maybe just loud enough for his sister to hear. She is still holding onto the shopping cart handles, leaning back and looking up and letting her mouth hang open. Her blond hair hangs down from the back of her head in tangled waves. My hair looked just like that when I was her age, only dark brown. I find myself wishing for seven years old again and your daughter as my best friend. Your son looks up at the ceiling with her but cannot see whatever she sees as she swings her head back and forth.
The man in front of me must have forgotten something because he steps out of line and heads for the exit doors in a huff. I move forward. There is now nothing but air—perhaps fifteen feet of it—between me and your family. I could speak your children’s names and they would hear me. We could make eye contact. I could smile at them. Give them hugs and smell their hair and kiss your son’s sticky cheek. I could tell your daughter that everything is going to be all right and that she needn’t take on the worries of her parents or any adult. She needn’t feel guilty—and I’m not talking about the way people say kids blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. I’m talking about guilt for leaving Mom twice a week to have dinner with Dad. Guilt for not wanting to be with Dad even though she knows (she must know) he loves her. Guilt for crying all the time and not knowing exactly why, which reddens Dad’s eyes with patient concern, which makes her cry even more because he is so patient. But your daughter doesn’t know me and even if she did, you’ve told her all these things again and again in your sincerest of voices. Children just don’t understand how true it is, how many lives we get and how many different kinds of okay there really are.
Your wife shoves an item I cannot see into a white plastic bag and then throws the bag into her cart. I still haven’t seen her face. The cashier’s face is flushed; his eyes strive for apology but don’t quite make it—there is just a hint of smugness, and something close to relief as he watches your wife gather her purse. She is tall (I knew this), thin (she teaches yoga part-time), and her skin is probably tan in summer but is now faded to fair. You must’ve made a handsome couple. A perfect little family, on the outside. I notice her thin wrists and long, slender fingers as she puts a hand on your daughter’s head. I want to see her face, and just as I’m about to glimpse her profile she pulls the sunglasses back over her eyes.
I hear the cashier saying Next person—Ma’am?—Miss? as your family walks away, as your wife lifts your son from the shopping cart and lets him stand beside your daughter, who tickles his belly and says something to which he responds, “No, I amn’t!”
Loud and clear. I am suddenly breathless. I step aside in the line and the person behind me goes ahead without seeming to notice my distress. I watch them recede through the blur of what must be tears, but your kids are hardly real now, because I do not exist. I may as well be a photograph they’ve never seen.