Scattering the Loss

By Gina Easley
By Gina Easley

By Sara Marchant


We are clearing out his apartment, sorting papers and photographs, and bottles upon bottles of medication when my sister, Rebecca, asks for one more favor. The mortuary has called and said her ex-husband’s ashes are ready for pick-up. Can we please go with her? She isn’t up for a solo trip.

It’s two days after her wedding, which was one week after her first husband’s memorial service. The entire family is still reeling from the juxtaposition—it was all we’d talked about before, during, and after the actual wedding celebration. In conversation we’d put air quotes around “celebration.” We used anger and sarcasm to mask our sorrow and confusion.

Rebecca hadn’t known her ex-husband was going to die the week before her wedding when she’d planned it, of course. She’d gotten engaged almost immediately after the divorce had been finalized, while Charles was undergoing chemotherapy; but she was living with her boyfriend already. We all knew a wedding would happen sooner or later. “But why couldn’t it have been later?” our mother had asked me, crying, the day before the wedding. “Much, much later?”

I had no good answer to give her.

Now, two days after living through the wedding, we go out to lunch first before visiting the mortuary to pick up Charles’s ashes. While we eat Rebecca wants to talk about her wedding. What did Mom think? Did it go okay? I take a big bite of fish and chew, ruthlessly leaving my mother to answer.

“That was the most beautiful wedding dress I’ve ever seen,” our mom says tactfully. She always starts with a positive statement unless we’ve really pissed her off. I shove in a bite of mixed vegetables because the critical portion of Mom’s sentence is about to arrive and I want a physical excuse (my mouth is full!) not to intervene.

Focusing on my food helps me not think about Charles. Two weeks after his death I’m still accustoming myself to not thinking about him. While he was sick, then sicker, then dying, he took up so much space in my thoughts. My life was planned around chemo trips, emergency visits to the doctor or the ER or just the grocery store and pharmacy runs. For the last few months, whenever the phone rang, my heart filled with hot liquid and my fingertips would go numb.

It wasn’t just worry for him, dread for the end; I was so damn tired—it was dread that it would never end that seized me. Sometimes I’d worry that I’d never stop feeling guilt for my relief at it ending and anger for my guilt—it was much easier to be angry at my sister. It is much easier to keep eating instead of acknowledging how I feel at all.

They have stopped discussing the wedding dress. It was a beautiful dress, like something a classy lounge singer would wear in the 1940s. If Rebecca and I had figures even remotely similar—she got the butt, I the boobs—I’d steal that dress, dye it black or scarlet and wear it to her next wedding. But the conversation has moved on from the dress. My mother is expressing her displeasure with the ceremony. “It was all Cheshire, all the time.”

Our family wasn’t included in any aspect. The groom’s niece and nephew sang. The groom’s sister (not our eldest sister) was Matron of Honor. The groom’s family composed two-thirds of the guests and as for those speeches… Well, “inappropriate” is too mild a word. Did Rebecca know that the two of her kids who’d come to the wedding (her oldest daughter flat-out refused) wept through the Best Man’s speech when he’d revealed that my sister’s affair with her new husband had been going on for two years longer than anyone had known?

“I didn’t know the kids cried!” my sister says. Here’s the weird thing, though—she isn’t upset that Mom is displeased with her. Normally Rebecca does not take criticism well. Off-hand comments that our other sister or I would shrug off have been known to send her, this new bride, into her closet to indulge in angry weeping. A chance directive from our mother, something about keeping cats as indoor pets, led to my sister not speaking to Mom for two years. Two years of silence for saying, “Keep your cat away from Rachel, she’s allergic.” But bashing the wedding as inappropriate, liquor-soaked, and hurtful? My sister is fine with it. No, it is weirder than that. My sister seems pleased.

Don’t get me wrong—she’s not happy. She defends the liquor consumption. She defends the inappropriate speech by blaming the liquor consumption, and she defends the lack of her family’s inclusion by offering, “Well, everyone is so sad because Charles died—I didn’t think they’d want to be included.”

Choking laughter overtakes me. I cover my mouth with a napkin. My mother slides my water glass closer, and my sister pats my back. I laugh harder. Tears are running from my eyes. They start to laugh, too. Other restaurant patrons are staring.

None of us wanted to be included, I don’t tell Rebecca. None of us wanted to fucking be there at all. Her daughter was the only honest one. We’re all wiping our eyes now and we don’t have to say anything.

We don’t have to say that we are angry that my sister remarried a week after her ex-husband’s funeral because she knows. I don’t have to say that I’m laughing because her reasoning is always so self-centeredly skewed because they both know. She doesn’t say that she’s pleased that Mom is unhappy with her and critical of her wedding and her general behavior these last few years because we know. Rebecca knows that we forgive her and she knows that we forgive her because we know that she is never going to forgive herself.

After a lunch like that, it’s understandable when we get in the car and Rebecca starts it, she has a brief freak-out. “Oh my god! I don’t know where we’re going! I mean, I know where the mortuary is, but not how to get there!” There is a shrill lining of panic around her words, and the air in the car tastes like chewing on aluminum foil.

Our mom pats her shoulder, not knowing what to say, what directions to offer, but recognizing panic. I back-seat-drive to the location. From spending time with Mom when she lived here, as well as Charles, I am more familiar with Hemet than my sister.

It’s an ugly city. The cracked, ill-kempt streets are laid out in a tidy grid, but it seems that if one drives too far in any direction, one hits the same boggy agricultural field. The air is brown and fetid from smog and pesticides trapped in this weird little valley populated mostly by the elderly. Traffic is both slow and erratically dangerous. Sometimes in my dreams, I drive the city’s streets, a sick animal in the backseat that I can’t clearly see or reach to comfort, its whimpers of pain forcing me to wake myself up to avoid crying myself.

When we reach the mortuary, there is an atrium filled with birds. A faux-desert scene houses little pheasants, and tiny roadrunners wander forlornly, glassed in on all four sides. They can never not be on display, but Rebecca is happy to see them. She likes birds. Watching them calms her. We wait in a musty room. I poke around, examining the literature, how the place is decorated, and what is stored in the credenza against the wall (mostly off-brand tissue boxes and religious bookmark looking things I don’t understand). I am writing a novel that is set in a mortuary; I can use this.

A man comes and shows us to a room where a wooden box sits on a table, shrine-like. We all back up. We put our hands behind our backs. No one wants to take it. We engage the man in conversation, admiring the box without actually looking at it. We all three flirt with the man; we are expert flirters. My mother and sister share a flirting style, I see for the first time. They cajole and flatter; there is a tone in their voices not normally heard, like jollying a petulant child out of his mood.

Finally, Mom tries to take the box. She is the brave one. It is too heavy for her. I help the man set it into a red velvet bag and he puts in into my sister’s arms. She does not look comfortable with this. We walk out to the car and I get my mother settled in the front passenger seat, and my sister sets the bag containing the box on my mother’s lap. My mother rhythmically pats it, as if comforting a fussy baby.

Mom agrees to take the box home with her and put it in her closet next to our stepfather. They can hang out. No one mentions that they never really got along while they were alive. At Charles’s sadly empty apartment, where Rebecca drops us off and Mom and I climb into my car, I belt the box into my back seat and start home.

Mom is unusually silent. This is understandable, I think, and a bit of a relief after the tense day. Up in the mountains she says, “You’ve come full circle. You were his ride when he found out he was sick. Now you’re his ride home.”

We are in the highest part of the mountains. We have been climbing the twisting, looping, steep, two-lane road, and then the top opened up to a stunning view—any way we look is stark California mountain. Here, on this flat opening amongst them, we seem higher yet still protected by ranges surrounding us.

I pull over because I can’t see out of my tear-filled eyes and am having trouble getting air. I’m parked on the side of the road, gasping, feeling like I’m about to vomit. My mother is apologizing and I look out the window and realize where I am. This is where I stopped to talk to Rebecca on the phone that horrible day. This is where I talked to Charles after her, reassuring him it wasn’t all a nightmare, the cancer wasn’t a mistake that my sister had the power to make him “take back.” Years before that, this is where I used to stop and vomit when my body was flush with hormones, natural and injected during my decade of infertility treatments. I am beginning to hate this beautiful spot.

“I am ready to go home,” I say. “I am ready to be done.”



My sister puts her head through the open passenger side window and says, “My husband was always a pain in the ass. Why should he be any different now that he is dead?” And she gestures to the backseat where the wooden casket containing his ashes has been sitting all this long, hot afternoon, carefully belted in.

This is the fourth stop we’ve made in our search for a decent spot to illegally scatter his ashes. Charles chose this road in a remote part of Riverside County, telling everyone who’d listen he wanted to be “thrown to the wind” here. But he never went into specifics. He never said exactly where, he never said why, and we’re wondering if maybe chemo brain was responsible for his decision because this is a damn-awful place to drift into the wind.

August is the worst of the summer months in Southern California. June and July have sucked any moisture gone, so August is lip-cracking dry and the intense heat casts a yellow glare over the afternoon. It feels like the sun is personally angry at us, driving all over these dusty roads, and has persuaded the wind to join him in tormenting us as it swirls and eddies in mini-dirt devils, flinging gravel at our toes exposed by inappropriate sandals when we dare to leave our vehicles.

The first stop we made was above a house surrounded by dead cars and some very mean looking dogs. The second stop was next to a gun range where armed rednecks were actively shooting. The third stop, we realized was outside of Charles’s specified location and his three grown children got into an argument over whether proximity mattered.

This fourth stop is a dirt fire road clinging precariously to the side of a slippery, dusty mountain, ruts and boulders line the edges. We are caravanning and my sedan doesn’t fit on the road. I am perched half in the two-lane, busy highway. My elderly mother is in the passenger seat. Even with the a/c turned all the way up, she is red and sweaty.

“Are you getting out?” Rebecca asks. I think our mother is about to cry.

“Take the ashes,” I tell my sister, leaning into the backseat to pop the seat belt loose. “I’m taking Mom home.”

“You’re not staying?”

“We’re not?” Mom asks, and she smiles at me in relief. Her back is to my sister, who doesn’t see the smile.

“I can’t drive up that road, Mom can’t walk it, and look at her”—Rebecca does and my mother flips open the visor mirror to see herself. “I think she has heatstroke. She’s seventy-four. She’s too old for this shit.”

My sister laughs while my mother nods seriously. “I am too old for this shit.” She starts to cry and my sister hugs her through the open window and kisses her goodbye.

My sister won’t take the ashes. She calls for her middle child, who calls for her boyfriend to carry the pretty little casket. I loan them my pocket knife. They look confused.

“There is a plastic zip tie on the baggy inside,” I explain. “You’ll have to cut it loose.”

I discovered this at the first stop when everyone except my oldest niece’s husband ran to look over the edge of a cliff rather than deal with the ashes. My nephew-in-law, a sweet boy from Kansas, only shrugged when I snarled, “Why the hell are we the ones dealing with this?”

I was shocked out of my irritation by the contents of the baggy. What had once been Charles was now strangely dry, chalky dust with surprisingly large shards of bone in it. I shifted the sealed bag in my hands, listening to the rustling, slushing noise, examining the end sum of my friend. When I was growing up, Charles was so handsome, he was the standard by which I judged all male beauty. Now that beauty, whittled away by his cancer, is reduced to the contents of this gallon-sized plastic bag.

There was one shard of bone, not quite arrowhead shaped, a littler smaller than my littlest finger. I planned on slipping it into my pocket when no one was looking. I wanted to keep it. I wanted to carry it in my mouth.

But Charles’s children decided to move on—they didn’t like the junk-yard look of this stop and I had to force the ash-baggy back into its covering box, shaking it roughly like a colander of pasta to make it fit. Several family members watched, but no one offered to help.

By the fourth stop, by the side of the road, I am ready to hand over the ashes. I am ready to go home. We call good-byes and love-yous out the window and drive away. “I’m sorry to make you miss it,” our mom says.

“I’m not,” I reply. “I’ve done what I could. I did what I could for him while he was alive. My duty is to the living. You look like hell.”

“Gee, thanks,” she says and points the last air vent at her face. All the air vents now hitting her, she rummages in my purse.

I place the back of my hand on the hot window at my side. “I’ve done what I could,” I say, but to myself.

My mother pulls a red lipstick out of my bag. “How ‘bout I put on some lipstick and you take me out to dinner?”

“All right,” I agree. A cool, dark restaurant would be soothing. My hand is still on the burning glass.



We are sitting around Rebecca’s new kitchen table, eating lunch, reading aloud from a book about healthy cholesterol levels, when she expresses how angry she is at her husband. My mother looks up. “Which one?”

I laugh. My sister does not. Her face is tight, but then crumples as I watch.

“Charles never did anything to help himself and then he got sick and his family never did anything to help and never brought his father to see him before he died. And his bitch sister had the audacity to hint to my little girl, at her daddy’s funeral, that we should reimburse Grandpa for the money he paid to the private nurse.” Rebecca is crying so her speech is almost unintelligible, and her “little girl” is twenty-five, but I take her point.

Our mother cries in sympathy. I bring them tissues and make cups of tea and pat them on the back occasionally. I don’t cry. I am tired. I think about the shards of bone in the bag of chalky dust that used to be Charles. I think about my stepfather’s ashes in the pirate chest in my mother’s closet. I remember that my mother has filled in paperwork naming me responsible for her ashes when the time comes. I wonder who will deal with my chalky dust when I am dead.

On the drive home my mother asks if my sister does that often, cries out of anger with her dead husband. I think Rebecca must clean up her emotions when talking to our mother alone.

“She didn’t deal with her anger at the time,” I say, feeling enlightened. “She took off. So she’s gonna have to deal with that for the rest of her life.”

“You’re right,” my mother nods her head, begins to cry once more. “You’re right.”

At that moment I see a Starbucks up ahead. I’m about to offer to pull in, buy a vente pumpkin spice latte (damn whatever the seasonal cut-off date might be) to cheer her up, but then I remember that it’s my mom in the car next to me. My mom hates Starbucks and doesn’t drink much coffee at all. It isn’t her panacea. Now who is confused? Now who is angry? Now who is unenlightened?

Months later, my throat feels choked when I see a Starbucks. I want to go in and order a pumpkin spice latte, but I want my brother-in-law back with me. I want him healthy or at least not actively dying. I want the coffee klatch to be for fun, not a treatment for the chemo shakes and sickness. I want too much, I know.

I have a terrible suspicion that I will never be able to drink coffee again. I am angry about that. I am angry about a lot of things. I am okay with this anger.


SARA MARCHANT received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside/ Palm Desert. Her work has appeared on The Manifest-Station and Every Writer’s Resource. She lives in the high desert of California with her husband and varying amounts of poultry.

Some names have been changed. —ed.

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wooden figures
By Gina Easley

By Jennifer D. Munro  

“Let me put my wife on the line,” my husband said into the receiver. Richard handed me the phone as if it were a loaded doggie-doo bag. “It’s the Greyhound Lady.” Richard was usually the talker on our family team, but he’d made his disinterest clear with a palms-out gesture at my replacement-pet search that said, “The greyhound is your deal.”

Richard’s “I’m not stepping in this turd” tone signaled a hitch. The woman on the phone introduced herself as the president of the rescue group. “I wanted to discuss your application,” she said, sounding as flexible as a fire hydrant.

I thought the problem might be my emailed application for adopting a greyhound, which couldn’t include the $50 application fee, a fee that rankled me. I’d never paid for a pet and had a soft spot for odd mutts; our current Lab mix, whose front end seemed to head in a different direction from his back end on walks, had been raised under a car by a homeless man and, as a puppy, was handed over to us without question.

The purebred racer, once placed, would cost an additional $300. This for a ribcaged dog that would be marched to the guillotine if not for my philanthropic heart and fenced suburban yard. Plunking down less money at the pet store for a puppy, no questions asked, beckoned with roly-poly enticement. But I didn’t want to be a cog in the wheel of puppy-farming. I understood the fee was for expenses, and I also couldn’t stomach the lengthy applications now the norm at humane societies: One had visited my neighborhood community center but wouldn’t let me in the door to look at the homeless cats until I’d filled out a two-page application. I left.

“Hi!” I said, all unicorns and rainbows despite the warning signs. The tangled phone cord attached to the wall of the garage, where we’d been when she called, trapped me in place. I mentally scanned our family’s schedule, determining when we could pick up the dog once we straightened out the missing application fee. We’d visited the greyhound rescue group’s information booth at a local store; a member told us about Mandy, a greyhound she thought would be perfect for us. I’d visited Mandy’s online profile obsessively, as I used to with the State’s postings of children in need of permanent homes, worrying that she would no longer be available by the time our application was processed. Now mid-December, we’d been unsuccessfully seeking a second pet for half a year after our nineteen-year-old cat’s euthanasia; a Christmas dog seemed meant to be, in a Norman Rockwell family kind of way.

The minimal application form was the clincher for my choosing a greyhound after leads on all dead-ended—calls weren’t returned, or the dog had already been placed, or we grew suspicious at the sudden, exorbitant “relocation fee” for a different dog than the one pictured. Likely I’d be axe-murdered for my department-store wedding ring when we showed up at one of these out-of-the-way doggie homes.

I’m not wild about greyhounds. They look like sullen, emaciated fashion models passing up their own wedding cake. With their tucked tails, surely this breed coined the term “hangdog.” But disinterest was the point: I did not want to adopt a pet I would be tempted to love. I would care for it, but not adore it. Pets, like kids and herpes, are for life, but I had no more love left in me. The greyhound’s gaunt appearance mirrored my exhausted ability to love again after seven miscarriages, infertility testing and treatments, a near marriage-ending series of decisions about whether and how to be parents, a hoop-jumping and lengthy foster-to-adopt license process, applying for four kids we hadn’t met but being bypassed in favor of other prospective parents, and meeting “available” children at three awkward events where hopeful couples mingled with kids who needed families. I bonded with the babies in my belly, just as I fell hard for the kids behind the online profiles and the children who knew exactly why they were eating pizza with unfamiliar adults at Kids Fests, where we had chosen a kindergartener. We spent the spring visiting with him every weekend, adoring his waterfall giggle, only to have him returned to his biological mother without an opportunity to say goodbye.

And then, fourteen years after we decided to become parents, we met our six-year-old son, Ben. His frequent endearment for me upon moving in was, “I’m going kill you, fucking bitch.” I am his twelfth mother. His most recent foster mother, whom he’d called Mommy for three years, had changed her mind about adopting him when his behaviors became too much for her; Ben arrived on our doorstep a teensy bit resentful and angry. He’d learned how to treat women by watching his birth mother’s three boyfriends, one of whom had since been incarcerated for ballpeen hammering to death a mute, disabled man as birthday yuks for another girlfriend.

Ben could have the dog to love but I wouldn’t be tempted to.

I like a dog with an urgent wag. Greyhounds don’t bark, or wag, or even move unless you place a rabbit directly in their sights and threaten them with execution if they don’t finish first. After escaping certain extermination, they collapse like Southern belles in tight corsets and can’t be bothered to feign enthusiasm in a bleak world devoid of fake vermin.

Two sets of close friends owned and worshipped greyhounds and convinced me one would be perfect for Ben. Purebreds went against my grain but I warmed to the idea of saving a dog that slinks past the finish line in last place. The Humane Society guesses (not estimates; they actually have no idea because the practice is so guarded) that over 20,000 greyhounds are destroyed each year for want of adoptive homes once their racing days end.

The greyhound application form was short.

It had taken us several years to complete stacks of paperwork, hours of training, multiple interviews, and home inspections to qualify as foster-to-adopt parents. Ten thousand children languish in foster care every year in our state (and nearly half a million countrywide) for lack of permanent homes, and vying for an expensive domestic newborn or an equally costly overseas baby didn’t fit our M.O.

We’d written checks for application fees and required reports. We’d purchased a new house, two doors up from our last one, to qualify for the mandatory square footage for a child’s bedroom. We outfitted it with the requisite equipment: safety ladders, certified fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, outlet plugs, drawer stoppers, anti-doorknob twisters. Nothing out of the norm for First World biological parents, but in a house devoid of children, struggling to extricate steak knives or bleach reminded us of what we didn’t have. We traded in our two-door cars for four-doors and outfitted them with booster seats. We bought our first bathrobes—no traumatized child should be further haunted by witnessing our naked streaks to the dryer. We posted escape routes, moved furniture away from upper-story windows, cleared out the liquor (drinking it seemed easiest), hid the matches, bought approved bath mats, turned the water-heater setting down to lukewarm so that showers lost their pleasure, made sure nothing in the yard could hold two inches of water—all before the social worker inspections.

I’d managed to fail—twice—the fingerprint clearance required by the FBI. Not only could my uterus not manage a pregnancy, but my fingers couldn’t even offer up decent prints? I regretted that I’d never gone into bank robbery, since my identity was apparently undetectable. I drove a hundred twenty miles to a different fingerprinting office, where they used the same machine but first smeared my hands with Corn Huskers lotion, and I was cleared on the third try.

No thank you to another round of scrutiny, which no biological parent had to endure, over a dog.

The greyhound application, as brief as our energy level lasted after tucking in our son every night, largely involved guilting applicants into volunteering. The necessity of a fenced yard and not allowing your ex-racer to go off leash I’d known, although our greyhound neighbors often didn’t leash theirs; the dog was done with running and wouldn’t have chased a bleeding rabbit if it had stolen its kibble. Which led me to believe that a greyhound was just like any other dog: Once you got to know the individual dog, you understood its needs and what it took to keep it safe and happy.

“I have concerns,” the Greyhound Lady told me.

On the advice of greyhound-loving friends, I had been honest on the brief application about wanting my now seven-year-old son to walk the dog by himself around our block’s quiet, wide sidewalks. “That won’t be a problem,” they said, “as long as you don’t get a male fresh off the track. Let them know what you want so you get the right dog, like a smaller female who’s been retired for a while.” The greyhound-booth worker had done just that by recommending Mandy when I’d described our needs.

Ben needed something to be really and truly his, to have ownership and responsibility, for him to know that a living creature depended on him, and neither he nor the dog were going anywhere. The greyhound would likewise protect him on walks; nobody need know that the big, morose dog was as likely to attack as a platypus. Our cat’s death, less than a year after he’d moved in with us, had devastated Ben. “It was my firstest cat ever!” he’d wailed. “I’d only just gotted him!” Our almost-fourteen-year-old Lab mix was not long for this world, either, and I needed an understudy in the wings, ready to take his place.

Following the cat’s death, Ben’s behavior took a slide: He was expelled from after-school care and served a school suspension, prompting the State to consider sending him to an out-of-state boy’s home in Idaho instead of proceeding with the permanency plan with us. A boy’s home, maybe. But Idaho? The boy wasn’t that far beyond redemption, was he? Were troublesome foster children now harvesting our nation’s potatoes? We refused this plan, to the relief, surprise, and agreement of the State (boys’ homes are expensive; we were cheap). “Any other family,” the social worker’s report read, “would have returned this boy to the State.” But wouldn’t it be better for Ben to get the message that he wasn’t going to get shipped off again if he put in a poor performance? We hadn’t told him that we’d euthanized the suffering cat, but that he had simply died, not wanting Ben to connect childish dots about what happened to family members after they became a bother.

“What if a pit bull rushes up and attacks your greyhound while your son is walking him?” the Greyhound Lady asked me. “How would he live with that memory?”

The kid had more than enough unpleasant memories to get over already for us to worry about possible future memories. But I hadn’t played the foster-kid sympathy card with her, which I was generally all-too-ready to use if it benefited him, fearing it would backfire; foster kids, particularly older boys, come with bad reputations, such as animal cruelty. Common wisdom discouraged pets for kids with a history like my son’s, but he never seemed truer to the sweet-natured boy he was born to be than when he was with our pets. Any hope for him seemed lodged in his ability to care for a creature who understood hard knocks. A greyhound would love him like only a dog wanting a walk could. Not exactly with the exuberance of other dogs, but I imagined it might skulk halfheartedly to the door at the jingle of a leash if its bladder were full.

“I’ve lived on this block for over twenty years,” I assured her. “My cat creaked around outside for nineteen years and we’ve walked our dog for over thirteen years with never a problem. All the neighbors keep an eye out for Ben. We have an active Block Watch; the annual party’s in our front yard.” This, though nothing had happened on our block except for a garden Buddha statue disappearing and an elementary schooler’s piggy bank being stolen (the neighborhood then pooled their coins and gifted him with a bucketful). This was not Skid Row. “Chances are more likely the greyhound will be slobbered to death by our mutt,” I laughed. Greyhound Lady didn’t. Then it clicked: her apprehension was the greyhound, not the child, being attacked.

“But it could happen.”

Once they’ve served their spurt of usefulness in the racing industry, greyhounds might be killed by gunshot, starvation, bludgeoning, or by more humane methods for the lucky ones. She had reason to feel over-protective, but, because of farfetched scenarios, she would pass up on a neighborhood so safe it was practically Canada?

The numbers on my application spoke for themselves. Dog: almost fourteen, though big dogs often didn’t live that long. Cat, which as a kitten had been one of my first birthday presents to my husband: nineteen years with us. Married and lived on same block: twenty-one years. I’d been in my job for ten years and my husband for twenty. We were set as omelets. “Are you turning us down?” I asked, perceiving she’d already made up her mind.

“I’m uncomfortable with a child walking the dog.”

“He’s the biggest child in his class. He’s already almost as tall as I am. Are you telling me no?” I asked again.

As a typical Pacific Northwesterner, the woman could not spit out the word “no.” We explore feelings and ensure that all parties are equally uncomfortable with a compromise that’s never implemented. The Greyhound Lady couldn’t come right out and tell me that she would not approve us to adopt a doomed dog.

I could have groveled and negotiated. But I’d compromised enough already. I refused to try to persuade someone to allow me to take in what few wanted.

The application, with its check-marked box that applicants wouldn’t use the dog for racing or animal testing, was ridiculous; as if anyone with those plans would check: Yes, I will sell it to a research lab! I didn’t state the obvious: that we had common sense and wouldn’t set Ben out with a forty-five-pound dog by himself upon arrival. We’d work up to it, eventually winding back around to what she and I both knew as the truth: like most mothers, I would be the one who ended up walking that dog, a dog I would end up loving no matter how hard I resisted.

“You don’t know what might happen,” she said.

She was right.

I slammed the phone back in its cradle, free from what I thought I’d wanted.

“Wow,” my husband said. He describes me as the nicest person he knows, but since becoming a foster-to-adopt mother, my tolerance for time wasting and bullshit bureaucracy had worn thin. Richard liked this no-nonsense new side of his polite, often indecisive wife, who had often asked, “What would you prefer?”

“She wants a guarantee that nothing will happen to the dog! That I can protect it no matter what! Yes, a rabid dog could appear out of the courteous evergreen ether, but it’s just as likely Tom Cruise would helicopter in to the rescue.”

“I told you not to be honest on the application,” he said.

“She wants to ‘process,’” I air quoted, “so she can feel good about rejecting us.”

“You should have just told her you’d walk the dog.”

“The State gave us a human being without us lying. All she had to do was meet us and she’d know.”

“Everybody lies on those things. You didn’t play the game.”

“I am playing the game!” I shouted. “There are no guarantees!”


We walked to church on Christmas Eve, the first time my husband had gone to church in the twenty-two years I’d known him. He had agreed with my suggestion of giving Ben a broader understanding of Christmas other than presents.

An unleashed little dog ran up to us and tailed us past a few houses, circling in front of us, behind us, between our legs. We stopped, though already late for church on our first try, concerned about her getting hit by a car in the twilight if she left the sidewalk. She flipped over, showing us her belly. She wriggled in the grass, her stumpy tail a white blur in the dusk, wagging fast as hummingbird wings. She grinned but didn’t bark. She wouldn’t hold still enough for Richard to read her tags. A college-aged woman emerged from a nearby house.

“Is this your dog?” my husband called out.


“She sure is cute.”

“You want her?” The five-year-old dog had belonged to her mother, who had recently died. “She’s a purebred. She has papers.”

A terrier. They have a name like terror for a reason. We’d puppy-sat one and named it Devil Dog. It had eaten our baseboards.

We returned Christmas morning with our geriatric hound to make sure they got along. The wire-haired Jack Russell pogo-sticked around him, butting his gray whiskers. “I’m not surprised,” the girl said. “She likes to stick her head in my roommate’s Rottweiler’s mouth. It’s a game they play.”

“Do you want to come look at our house or anything?” Richard asked her.

“Naw, I trust you.” She gave us the dog, her leash, bed, kennel, vet records, toys, and food without taking so much as our phone number. She couldn’t locate the American Kennel Club papers and said to come back for them, but we never did.

On the walk home, I changed the dog’s name from Moochie, which I found too negative, to Mochi, a sweet dessert. Perhaps the identity crisis resulting from giving a dog of British lineage a Japanese name might give her pause and bring some Zen to her zig-zag.

My mother choked up at the news, telling me that wire-haired terriers were her mother’s favorite dogs. I unearthed a picture of my grandmother as a young woman with her first two wire-haired Jack Russells posed beside her on the hood of a new 1936 Packard. Her handwriting on the back reads, “Peter, Lady Lou, and me.” My grandfather, mostly hidden behind a dog in the photo, isn’t named.

Mochi’s porcupine-quill fur sticks in everything: the furniture and rugs, our clothes, my heart.

I listen to my son, now legally adopted and bearing our last name, taking her for her walk, which he does every morning without reminders. “Come here, honey-bunny,” he calls in a high-pitched voice, perfectly mimicking my endearments. “Come on, sweet pea. You silly rabbit, you Mochi mouse, awwww.” He buries his face in Mochi’s neck and bears her away in his arms like a baby. He made it through the sixth grade without a single visit to the principal’s office and only two to the vice-principal’s.

I don’t tell him the truth. He thinks the dog is his. But she’s mine, all mine.


JENNIFER D. MUNRO is a freelance editor whose blog,, is the First Place Winner in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists blog competition (under 100,000 monthly readers category). She was also a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition. Her numerous publishing credits include Salon; Full Grown People; Brain, Child; Listen to Your Mother; Literary Mama; Best American Erotica; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. Her humorous stories about sex and the sexes are collected in The Erotica Writer’s Husband. Website:


Read more FGP essays by Jennifer D. Munro.

The Lack of Confidence Man

By Mark Strozier/ Flickr
By Mark Strozier/ Flickr

By Lad Tobin

From the second I read the subject line of the email—“More Information Regarding Your Apartment Check-In!”—I felt queasy. Having spent weeks looking for a one-month rental in New York and only finding places that were booked, bleak, or insanely expensive, I’d gotten used to the idea that our plan wasn’t going to work. But then, just minutes after requesting information about a beautiful apartment I found on craigslist, Gibbson’s response popped into my inbox:

Hello tobin! i am so glad to hear from you that you would love to take my apartment! I will be more than happy to keep and maintain the place for you on your arrival. The cost for a month will be $3000 and i am willingly and ready to give you discount of $600 so you are require to pay the sum of only $2400. You are require 50% of the total fund ($1200) to secure the dates you have chosen also a security deposit of $200. You are require to pay $1200 + security deposit of $200 = $1400 the total fund to pay to secure and book the dates for you will be $1400. The apartment is much available so you will need to give me more information with the exact date that you will be checking in so that i can book the date for you to avoid other people to book for the same date, i do not like disappointment so i will be more than happy to know the exact date for check in so that i can keep and retain the place for you and your wife. Here is the link for more information or pictures

I will be glad to hear from you asap. Regards Jeff Gibbson

This was way too much information for me to take in all at once: we already have the apartment? We’re getting a discount? But we need to send the deposit right away so no one else books it first?

Part of my queasiness was sticker shock: after all, $2400 for a single month’s rental was a lot of money and I am more than capable of feeling buyer’s remorse even before I buy; still, we knew from the start that this “small-towners spend a month in the big city” experience was not going to come cheap. No, there was something besides the cost that was making me feel like I was being pulled into a bad dream.

And that’s when I had to confront an uncomfortable question: was I really so petty (or, worse, so prejudiced) that I was bothered by a few uses of non-standard English, by the fact that this Mr. Jeff Gibbson was clearly a non-native speaker of English? Even while I knew that this might be what was bothering me, I deeply hoped it wasn’t. After all, I was by temperament, politics, and occupation (I teach college students how to write) conditioned to be sympathetic and open to struggling writers, including non-standard speakers of English and so I knew it would be illogical, un-PC, and flat-out unfair to draw any negative impressions or inferences about someone’s character based on a couple of unusual idioms. I could painfully imagine how well—or how poorly—I could write my own version of that same letter in my pitiful, supposedly “reading comprehension” French (“Bonjour, Gibbson, Je suis tres joyeux…”).

But there was more than an inelegant turn of phrase that made me nervous about Gibbson’s note; there was also his unsettling eagerness. I knew from all my fruitless searching that there was a seller’s market for what Gibbson had to offer, so why was he so amped up about my interest and so eager to close the deal right away? There was his almost spell-inducing listing and repetition of prices and numbers. And, still more disconcerting, there was his assumption that my request for info about availability and rates was actually a commitment: “i am so glad to hear from you that you would love to take my apartment.” I was certainly interested in his place or I wouldn’t have written him, but what’s love got to do with it? And why had he already moved on to the details of our check in?

All of this seemed to add up to a not-so-subliminal message: act right away or you will lose out. Even the supposedly reassuring phrase—“the apartment is much available”—seemed intended (from the rest of the sentence and paragraph) to convey the very opposite—the idea that the apartment was not much available but was, in fact, in much demand and, therefore, required an immediate commitment and deposit.

And, finally, there was that ominous-sounding phrase—“i do not like disappointment.” Wasn’t that a wise guy’s understated way of saying “Disappoint me at your own risk; I’m not messing around here”?


Here are two facts about me: one, I have almost never been conned or even pushed into a bad deal. Two, I walk around the world with my own little personal homeland security advisory system and—like the government’s post 9/11 Homeland Security Advisement System which keeps its terror warning constantly high, even in the absence of any known or immediate threat—I normally run somewhere between yellow and orange. In other words, skepticism is my default mode; introduce the slightest bit of suspicious behavior and I start trending towards red alert. For all of my life I’ve connected those facts. I’ve believed that I never get conned because I’m always on guard, always reading between the lines, always fearing that every subtext has a sub-subtext. Determined to avoid the double pain of a material loss followed by a how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid? blow to my ego, I’ve always reacted to every offer that sounds good by telling myself that it sounds too good to be true.


Clicking on the link to Gibbson’s apartment for maybe the fiftieth time that night, I saw that he had just added a new link: “More pictures of apartment.” Looking at one of the additional shots, I had a sudden sense of déjà vu: I was certain I had seen that photo before. And, in fact, it only took me a few minutes of scanning through my bookmarks to find that very photo in an ad for an apartment on a website that advertised short-term home rentals. But weirdest of all, except for the photos and the opening line—“An elegant apartment in a top New York neighborhood”—nothing from this ad matched up with the craigslist ad. The owner was listed not as Jeff Gibbson, but as Jack Marsh; the apartment, according to the availability calendar, was already rented for the entire fall; and there was nothing about any $600 discount.

So whose apartment was this, anyway? I decided to email Gibbson to see if he could clear things up:

Hello Jeff. Thanks for sending me that information about your apartment. I am interested but I have a few questions: First, I saw an ad for the same apartment on another website and on that website it says that the apartment is already rented for September. It gives the owner’s name as Jack Marsh. Are you renting the apartment from him? And do you have his permission to sublet it to someone else? If so, could I speak with him, too? Finally, if I came to New York in the next few days, could you show me the apartment? I look forward to hearing from you soon.

This time, Gibbson didn’t answer right away; in fact, this time he didn’t answer at all. Not wanting to lose the apartment, I decided to email Marsh directly. Within the hour, my phone rang. “Hello, Jack Marsh here. You emailed me?”

He was calling to say that the apartment I had seen online was already rented but that he had another apartment which was available for September. He gave me the address of the link so I could look at it while we talked. This available apartment —“we call it ‘The Miller,’” Marsh said, “because the playwright Arthur Miller, you know, from Death of a Salesman, he once lived in it”—looked nice enough. The problem was that the Gibbson apartment looked much nicer and had, off the living room, a beautiful, little terrace with two appealingly-angled Adirondacks chair and a little wooden table where we could place our hot coffee or glasses of red wine while we read novels and the Sunday Times. I realized that I wasn’t ready to give that up.

“But is the bigger one available as a sublet?”

“No. I never allow subletters.”

“Well, I think your other apartment might be available as a sublet; I saw it advertised on another website for September rental.”

“It must have been an old ad.”

“No, I saw it yesterday. And actually I’ve been emailing with the guy who placed the ad.”

“Oh,” he said, clearly confused. Then, just a beat later, he said “Oh” again. But this time he didn’t sound confused it all; he sounded like he just figured something out. “The ad you saw? It’s is a scam; it was put on craigslist by a con artist pretending that my apartment is his.”

“But he had all those pictures of the apartment.”

“Yeah; they just copy ’em. It’s simple enough for them to do. Hey, could you send me the link so I can email craigslist and get his ad taken down?” Clearly this whole experience was easier for Mr. Marsh to shrug off than it was for me.

“Wait, so the reason his email sounds so different than his craigslist’s ad is that he used your words in his ad but he used his own words in his email?”

I was still a little shocked at how easily I’d almost been fooled and still a little heartbroken that we apparently weren’t going to get the terrace or the discount.

Still, the smaller apartment looked nice enough online and nice enough in person, too, when, after I took the train the next day down from my home in Maine to New York, Mr. Marsh showed me around. In fact, after the Gibbson debacle, it was enormously reassuring to deal with the ultra-professional Mr. Marsh. No strong pressure to take the apartment from him; in fact, he was in all ways the anti-Gibbson. As he walked me to the door, I said that I was almost certain we’d take it but that I wanted to go home to talk and think about it with my wife. Could he hold it for a few days while we decided?

He smiled and shrugged. “Well, I can’t officially hold it: my policy is always to rent it to whoever puts down a deposit first. But I haven’t even advertised it much yet for September so it should still be available once you decide.” Feeling reassured, I was halfway out the door when Mr. Marsh said in an offhanded way, “Except I guess I should mention one other thing: the tenant in there now, he has a friend he’s been trying to talk into taking the place after he leaves. So I guess the sooner you tell me, the better, since I’d hate to have you call and be disappointed.”


I’ve got next-to-no interest in run-of-the-mill hucksters—the car salesman trying to talk me into undercoating the undercoating, the Jehovah’s Witness wanting only a small donation to save my soul—but for some reason, I am captivated by the Nigerian princesses who email me from their hospital beds or prison cells or hospital beds in a prison cell to tell me that their dying wish is to make me the recipient of three million Euros if I will only agree to be the executor of their entire fortunes that otherwise would go unclaimed since all of their families have been banished or murdered, or murdered and then banished.

In fact, the more complicated and creative the scam, the more preposterous and chutzpah-laden the pitch, the more likely I am to give the scammer my grudging respect. How else to explain why, twenty years after the fact, I still find myself thinking about the time that my wife and I once agreed to tour a time-share complex in exchange for a nineteen-inch color TV, two free airline tickets to Hawaii, or a “secret prize worth over $500”? The tour turned out to be less awful than we feared—the complex actually looked surprisingly nice—but, by the end, our two young daughters were getting antsy and we were more than ready to collect our gift and hit the road. That’s when we were ushered into a little cubicle in a big room surrounded by many other little cubicles, and the hard sell began.

As the salesman kept dropping the price thousand by thousand, I just kept repeating: “We have absolutely no interest; we just want our free prize.”

But like Sartre’s “No Exit,” we were apparently stuck in a Hell that was other people, or more specifically that was one other person: our ready to fight-to-the-death salesman, Bill. He was clearly determined to keep us there until we opened our checkbook, and we were just as determined to get the TV or tickets without committing a penny.

“Okay,” our Hell-mate finally said, “This is my very last offer.” And he wrote down a figure, folded the paper in half, and slid it across the desk.

Though I made no move to open it, Bill suddenly shouted, “Wait!” and made a theatrical lunge to retrieve the paper. “What did I just do? Let me see!” As he read his own offer, he slapped his forehead with his palm. ”Oh, God, I just screwed up big time! I wrote down the wrong amount by mistake and I just gave you a price $5,000 less than my boss told us we were ever allowed to give anyone, even family. But legally I can’t take the offer back. It’s in writing. Don’t worry. It’s not your problem—it’s mine. You just got a time share that you could turn around tomorrow and sell for a huge profit—and it’s all because I screwed up. I better go tell the boss what I did.”

And before I could repeat my mantra—“We are not buying a time-share today no matter what price you offer”—he was gone. We waited five minutes, ten minutes, but no one came back to our tiny cubicle to give us our tickets or TV. On one side of our cubicle’s walls, I heard a man yelling that he wanted his free gift while, on the other, I could hear a little kid crying. Just as we packed up our own kids and headed toward the door, a different man suddenly scurried in. “Hold on a sec. Johnson just told me about the mistake he made with you—offering you the wrong price. I want you to know that I am going to lose my shirt on this but a deal is a deal. I can fire Johnson for costing me an arm and a leg—and I want you to know that I already have—but, much as I’d like to, I can’t take back his offer. So here’s the deal you got—and I’ve got to live with.” And he handed me a pen and a purchase agreement with the “mistaken” price at the top.


It seemed like a ridiculous theory when it first came up. I was having dinner with my nephew, Sam, and his girlfriend, Isabel, just a couple of hours after looking at Marsh’s apartment, and I was telling them what had happened with the craigslist ad. “That is a pretty good scam,” Sam said, “but you know what would make it a great one? What if Marsh were the guy running the scam and he invented Gibbson in order to make you trust him?”

I laughed it off at the time, but that night, lying in the bed, I found myself wondering, was Sam’s absurdist fantasy completely impossible? After all, I found Marsh through the link on Gibbson’s email. And he was quick to dismiss the scammer and introduce himself as the real thing. Wasn’t that the oldest trick in the confidence man’s book? As in: be careful; there are con artists out there but you can trust ME. And hadn’t he sucked me in with the oldest move in the history of advertising: the old bait-and-switch? I wrote him because I was interested in the first apartment, the nicer apartment, and then was told (predictably?) that it was long gone but that he had another he could rent me. Hadn’t he buttered me up with the soft sell—“I’m not even advertising the place right now”—and then thrown in that little bomb right at the door about how the tenant’s friend might change his mind and call?

The Arthur Miller angle suddenly seemed fishy, too. Wasn’t it just a little bit unlikely that after not being able to find any apartment at all, the one place that pops up was once occupied by one of America’s greatest playwrights? I couldn’t help but wonder whether Marsh saw my name and return email address, then Googled me to discover that I taught in a university English department, and then invented the Arthur Miller detail just to suck me in further.

I reminded myself that this was nuts, that Marsh had in fact answered the door when I rang the bell and had, in fact, showed me the apartment. But that, I realized, could have been a hoax, too. It was at least possible that the real owner of the building was out of town or at least away for the evening and that Marsh had a key—maybe he was a handy man or a dog walker who was once given access to the building—and had showed me an apartment he didn’t own.

It wasn’t surprising, given my apparently unlimited capacities for skepticism and anxiety, that I found myself deeply unsettled by that possibility. What was surprising, though, was I almost wished it were true. After all, if Marsh were the real con man who, in order to fool me, invented a less trustworthy fake con man, added a made-to-order story about the apartment’s role in American literary history, and then gave me the tour posing as the apartment’s owner, we weren’t just talking Arthur Miller; we were talking Mamet. Glengarry Glen Ross Mamet.


The scariest con men aren’t the arm twisters; they’re the ear whisperers, the Iagos, the ones who use our own best and worst traits—generosity, trust, and love, on the one hand; foolishness, grandiosity, and greed on the other—against us. Or worse, they’re the ones who simply seduce us into using ourselves against ourselves. Since the clichés are true—there really is a sucker born every minute and if you build it, they will come – the best con men don’t need to be aggressive; they only need to set an attractive-enough trap … and then wait. One of the keys to the success of Bernie Madoff’s investment scam was that he played so hard to get: his strategy for reeling in wealthy investors was to pretend not to need or even want them. By creating the illusion of exclusivity—members at his country club asked other members to introduce them to Madoff as perspective clients—his services appeared all the more desirable and legitimate.

In a world filled with aggressive, clearly sketchy con men and women, the confident and confidence-inspiring Madoffian con man can have a field day. When we think we’ve finally found that one honest insurance salesman or loan officer, we are all too eager to let down our guard, and we throw ourselves and our money at him or her with gratitude and relief. “I am so happy I found you,” we confide to the last person we should be confiding in, as we reel ourselves in. “You won’t believe the sketchy offers I got from the other guys.”


Back home in Maine, at the island in our kitchen, I read and re-read the invoice for the deposit that Marsh had sent me. My wife and I had already agreed that we’d take the apartment, but with my checkbook open and my pen poised I did what I always do—I began to think through all the possible pros and cons (in both meanings of that word) of renting the apartment. I began to wonder whether I might not be falling into a trap, whether we might not find a better apartment in tomorrow’s ads, whether we should consider spending the month in San Francisco instead.

And that’s when I suddenly remembered something I hadn’t thought about in years. I remembered the time I ran into our neighbor, Joanne, at the supermarket. “Guess what happened to us?” she said. “We got an invitation to tour some condos in a time share complex.” Since the complex she named was the very same one where we’d been given the hard sell in that tiny cubicle, I figured she was about to tell me a similar horror story. “Even though we just went up there because we got this letter telling us we had won some special prize,” Joanne continued, “we ended up buying a time share. They explained that it’s a great investment — we can always sell our week for a big profit anytime we want—and the best part is that once you buy in, you can go there any time you want to use the facilities. They’ve got a pool, a golf course, a great dining room. We’ve been going almost every single weekend. We LOVE it!”

I looked again at the invoice. I took one more deep breath. And I wrote the check.


LAD TOBIN has recently completed a collection of personal essays for which he’s seeking a publisher or agent. Essays from the collection have appeared in The Sun, The Rumpus, Utne Reader, and Fourth Genre. He teaches at Boston College and lives in Kittery Point, Maine. Connect with him on Facebook (lad.tobin) or twitter (@ladtobin).

Read more FGP essays by Lad Tobin.


By Gina Easley

By Amy E. Robillard

This, honey, is crabgrass. It’s the stuff that’s been driving me nuts all summer,” I say to Steve as I point with my foot to a particularly large weed. “It’s all over our front yard and I pull it up and it leaves a huge hole and I could do it for hours, but at some point I just stand up and walk away ’cause I know it’s a hopeless fight.”

We’re walking to the hospital’s parking lot. I’ve just had a CT scan of my brain. Steve has taken a couple hours off work on this Thursday morning to drive me to the hospital because I’m so shaky from the migraine that I’m not sure I can do it myself. I drove myself to my doctor’s office this morning, but the drive to the hospital and the waiting in the waiting room and the potential need for food and drink all seemed too much at once, so I called Steve and asked him to meet me at home. I got home first and, while I waited, I Googled “brain aneurysm” and learned that what we normally think of as a brain aneurysm—the kind that kill people—is actually a burst brain aneurysm. So I could have a brain aneurysm right now without knowing it and it could be the cause of this excruciating migraine.


There’s something so satisfying about pulling up crabgrass because it all comes up at once. Find the center, gather the tendrils, and yank. At first I’d used the super duper fancy stand-up weeder I bought earlier this summer, with its eject button, but it turned out to be too slow. I wanted to be on my hands and knees pulling more than one weed up at once, digging into the earth, ridding it of the intruder that, for so many years, had passed for grass for me.

Until we moved into this house, the first house I’ve ever chosen, I paid little attention to the grass except to mow it. I always made sure that we kept the lawn mowed. There was a deep satisfaction that came from seeing the immediate transformation from unkempt to kempt. And surely at the old house we had crabgrass. But it had been Steve’s house before I moved in and I didn’t feel the same sense of ownership that I do here. The crabgrass here is maddening.

I sometimes worry that my neighbors, walking their dogs, judge us the way that I, walking our dogs, judge neighbors whose lawn has been taken over by weeds. Last year, our first summer in the new house, I quickly identified the house in the neighborhood with the tallest weeds. They were like a huge “fuck you” to the rest of us who pulled the ugliest and most obvious weeds. It doesn’t help that we live next door to a woman whose yard and garden are damn near perfect. I imagine conversations with her in which I defend the state of our yard by pointing to the work I do as a professor and a writer. While you’re out here perfecting your yard, I imagine saying, I’m inside prepping my classes or writing an important piece of scholarship. All she does in this scenario is look down at my feet, where the freshly mown crabgrass taunts. And on the afternoons when I find myself outside on my hands and knees pulling crabgrass, I imagine her shaking her head and telling me that I’ll never win. I know I’ll never win, but still, it’s so satisfying. When the entire weed comes up like a mop of hair, there’s nothing else like it. No other weed offers such a huge reward.


I’ve always been the kind of person who immediately jumps to the worst possible conclusion. Recently when our dog Wrigley began limping, I assumed it was bone cancer. When the anti-inflammatories helped, I relaxed. When the limp came back a month later much worse, I spent the night imagining our lives with a three-legged dog. Dogs recover from these things much better than people do, I told myself. We see it all the time. It’s the people who are taken aback by a dog with a missing leg. The dog herself is usually fine, running and playing like any other dog. Steve, on the other hand, always thinks the best, minimizing what I take to be life-threatening situations. For Steve, Wrigley’s diagnosis of severe arthritis on both hips was a shock. He thought for sure she’d just pulled something.

When I was a kid, I didn’t expect to live much past my late twenties. It’s not that I thought something terrible might happen to me; rather, I knew something terrible would happen to me. It’s a mindset born from years of abuse. The trauma theorist Kai Erikson wrote that traumatized people calculate life’s chances differently.

So when the doctor told me she wanted a CT scan of my brain because of the frequency and severity of the migraines, I immediately jumped to the worst possible scenario. “I’m convinced I have a brain tumor,” I said as she examined my ears.

“It’s not a brain tumor I’m worried about,” she said. “Usually with a brain tumor, a patient will come in very confused, unsure how they got here. What I’m more worried about—and I don’t want to give you more to worry about—but I worry about an aneurysm.”

Despite the migraine, I chuckled a bit. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know enough about the brain to imagine the worst-case scenario. I was an amateur at this thinking-the-worst business, it seemed.


One afternoon when I was outside with the weeder pulling up crabgrass, the UPS guy stopped by to deliver a package. “Are you pulling crabgrass?” he asked.

“Yep. It’s hopeless, I know.”

“Can I hire you?”

“I think I’ve got more than my share here, thanks.”

He shook his head and smiled as he got back into his truck.

What am I doing? I thought. I should be inside writing important scholarship.


I woke that morning with the headache. It seemed manageable for the first hour or so I was awake. But then my head really started pounding. I took a couple tramadol. Nothing. I tried to imagine going in to school, teaching my class, talking with any coherence about anything. I started crying, holding my head with both hands, massaging my temples with my fingers. It had never been this bad before. My first migraine lasted a month, my second one three days, and the last couple just a day because I’d finally gotten medicine that helped. But with this one it was too late to take an Imitrex and the tramadol wasn’t helping and I understood what it was like to want to die. I couldn’t escape myself. I couldn’t think. I canceled class for the day and called my doctor.

In the radiology waiting room, Steve and I sit quietly until my name is called. The radiology technician asks me for all of my vital info, checks the name on my paper bracelet, and asks me whether I’m pregnant. “No,” I say.

“How can I be sure of that?”

“My husband had a vasectomy.”

“I’m still gonna need you to sign a form before we do the scan.”

I shrug my shoulders. Fine with me. As he walks across the room to find the form, I say, “I’m too old to be pregnant anyway.”

He tells me that they’re now required to ask women up to age fifty-five about pregnancy.

“Ha! I can just imagine some of the answers you must get.”

“Oh, I’ve gotten some good ones. At first it was hard for me to ask, but now I just laugh about it.”

“You should write an essay about those responses.”

On the ride home, I realize that being the passenger is making me nauseous, so I ask Steve to pull over and I take over at the wheel. Somehow I feel a little better after the scan. Maybe it’s the promise of certainty. We’ll finally know how I’m going to die. Steve, of course, is convinced it’s just migraines. “If it’s just migraines, it’s gonna take years to figure out the right medication and I’m just not up for that,” I tell him.

My doctor and the radiology tech both told me that they’ll have an answer for me within an hour and a half. By the time we get home, I figure it’s more like an hour. Steve goes back to work and I sit on the couch with the dogs, imagining how this will play itself out. As the minutes and then the hours pass, the scenarios become bleaker.

  1. I have a brain aneurysm and I need immediate brain surgery to clip it. They’ll have to shave my head. My department chair will have to find someone to take over my classes for the rest of the semester. I might die. If I die, I’ll get to see my beloved dog Annabelle again.
  2. I have a brain aneurysm but surgery is too risky, so I must walk around for the rest of my days knowing it could burst any time.
  3. What they’ve found is so bad that they call Steve first, tell him to come home and get me, and we go to the doctor’s office to learn that I have weeks to live.
  4. They don’t find an aneurysm or a tumor, but they do find plaque and I’m diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.


At night sometimes, I close my eyes and I see crabgrass, its white webbed center with its blades growing in all directions. I open my eyes and try to concentrate on something else, but it’s no use. I close my eyes and the crabgrass taunts me. It knows I’ll never get it all. It will always win.

It occurs to me now that crabgrass is like cancer in that they’re both named for the crab. Cancer comes from the Greek karkinos because the tumor with its surrounding vessels resembled the shape of a crab. And the most common genus of crabgrass is digitaria, a name that likens the tendrils to fingers reaching out in all directions.


It’s not that I want to die or that I want a brain tumor or an aneurysm. It’s not that I want attention, that most obvious of explanations. I think when I imagine these scenarios what I also imagine is the freedom that comes with knowing.

After my beloved dog Annabelle died, none of the day-to-day stuff mattered anymore. What mattered was that I no longer had my Annabelle and I no longer knew who I was. But I knew who I wasn’t. I wasn’t a person who cared about who in the department was dating whom or which professor had a crush on which graduate student. I wasn’t a person who cared about the way that the people I had thought were my friends couldn’t find it in themselves to support me. I wasn’t a person who cared about who liked me or who loathed me or who didn’t know I existed. I’d lost my girl. Nothing else mattered. I wanted that clarity again, the clarity of tremendous, soul-crushing grief.


My doctor’s office called after about two and a half hours. My CT was normal. I’m normal. When she told me this, she pulled it all up at once, all of my imaginings about the end, all of the repercussions of the scenarios that allowed me the freedom that comes only with certainty. Like I do with a particularly gnarly crabgrass weed, she yanked it all and left a gaping hole.


AMY E. ROBILLARD is becoming increasingly torn between her identities as Associate Professor of English at Illinois State University, where she specializes in rhetoric and composition and the personal essay, and as essayist whose work resists academic categorization. Her nonfiction can also be found on The Rumpus.


To read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard, click here.

Growing up Atheist in God’s Favorite City

be ready
By Gina Easley

By Jenny Poore

The first time I got the instructions for how to avoid burning in hell, I was five.

I sat on my older sister’s bed as one of her friends asked me, “Are you saved? Because if you’re not saved, you’ll never get into heaven and you’ll burn in hell forever and ever. It’s easy to be saved though. Just close your eyes and repeat after me: I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. Just do that and you won’t burn in hell. See? Easy!”

I looked at her skeptically through half-closed eyes and only mumbled the words, hedging my bets because that’s what children do when told things by older, supposedly wiser people but don’t fully buy it. I was a naturally suspicious kid, I suppose, and her curly perm and blue eye shadow didn’t inspire confidence. Afterwards, she nodded her head and popped her gum loudly, satisfied with her work. My teenage sister, having had enough of me crashing her space, kicked me out of her room and changed the record on the white stereo system I coveted. I clearly remember not understanding what had just happened, but I hung onto the words “Jesus” and “hell,” those two things feeling like the most critical parts of whatever lesson I had just learned.

I grew up in a non-religious family in one of the most religious places in America. Lynchburg, Virginia in the 1980s was an Evangelical Christian mecca that is second only to Utah for the religious devotion of its residents. The disaster smash of the Reagan years and the rise of Evangelical Christianity in the political arena happened literally in my backyard as an influx of thousands moved into my town to be closer to Moral Majority rock star Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church and his freshly minted Liberty University. Our once-quiet street was suddenly three deep with cars on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. When people couldn’t get into the too-packed services, they’d sit parked at our curb and listen on the radio, completely overdressed for their Pintos and Datsuns, smiles plastered on their faces as they sang along to the hymns and nodded to their preacher’s words.

It was impossible to get away from the proselytizing. After-school clubs at friends’ houses always started with bowed heads and a prayer, and random teenagers would ask the status of your soul while you swung on the swings at the playground. As the church grew, it steadily bought up the beautiful old brick houses on my street and filled them with missionaries, families from other towns with five, six, ten kids who were homeschooled and who went door to door passing out small cards with bloody fetuses on them warning of the evils of abortion and whom to a fault could barely read. I never understood why they didn’t have to go to school, but I played with them because we were kids and they were fun and I just always ignored the warnings of what would happen to my eternal soul if I didn’t accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior. You get used to being told you’re going to burn in hell. After a while, it’s just static.

But it was a static that itched and was omnipresent. We did not go to church, but everyone we knew did. As I got older, there were lock-ins and youth groups, and Scare Mare, the Thomas Road Baptist Church–sponsored horror house that is still a Halloween tradition in my town. Before it turned overtly political with rooms like The Abortion Room and The Drunk Driving Room, it was actually pretty fun, a generic scary house with strobe lights and people jumping out at you in masks, harmless and spooky and something to do in a town with not a lot to do.

The last room of Scare Mare was always the scariest because it was after you’d left the haunted house completely. Puffed-up young men in polo shirts and crew cuts would line the path back to the parking lot with flashlights repeating in a disturbingly stern unison “Last room of Scare Mare, folks, last room of Scare Mare…” as they ushered you into one in a very long row of musty old army tents. It was always clear that this room was not an option. All attempts to skip it and just go back to your car felt forcibly cut off. I never knew anyone who got away with avoiding this last room even though we always talked about how we were totally not doing that, there’s no way they can make us go in there, the entire time we waited in line.

I was around twelve when my sister and her boyfriend took me with them the first time. As we left the haunted house and were funneled into the ancient army tents, my sister’s boyfriend just kind of shook his head in a “let’s get this over with” fashion and we took our seats in the metal folding chairs. My experience sitting in a church service was wholly limited to the rare Easter Sunday with my grandpa, some light singing and a short service and he’d slip me candy bars he’d sneaked in in his pocket. I was unprepared for the frothy and furious young man who stood at the front of the tent shouting at us and regaling us with the horrors of a forever in the fiery pits. “DO YOU WANT TO SPEND ETERNITY IN A PLACE LIKE THAT???!!!” He screamed at us, reminding us of the perversions and terror of the haunted house we’d just exited. “IF YOU DON’T ACCEPT JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR SAVIOR, THAT IS YOUR FUTURE!”

He went on and on about pain and death and depravation and was generally terrifying and foamy-mouthed until my sister’s boyfriend, recently home from the Marine Corps, and generally very strong and in-charge looking, spoke up and cut him short mid-sentence. “Hey!” he shouted. “You need to calm down. There’s kids in here.”

Slightly chastened, the lunatic preacher man slowed his roll and transitioned into the final part of the whole experience. “I’d like everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads…” He then gave a much quieter but no less passionate description of heaven and the story of Jesus and how he’d died for us and if you were a grateful and good person you’d just thank him for that by accepting him as your lord and savior so you could spend eternity among the peace and goodness of heaven and be happy forever and thank you for coming to Scare Mare folks, God bless you all, drive home safe.

I’d peeked through my eyes when our heads were supposed to be bowed and seen that, for the most part, everyone was doing as he’d told them to do, but I did spy a few hold-outs like me, others who were sneaking a look and just waiting for their chance to escape. I marveled then at the braveness of my sister’s boyfriend to challenge the preacher. You mean you can do that? You can tell people like that to stop yelling at you? If you can do that, then does that mean we don’t really have to come in here? Do I not have to bow my head even though people are always telling me to? I had questions.

Despite years of being told I’d burn in hell if I didn’t Accept Jesus Christ as My Personal Savior, I never decided to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Even as a kid I saw the fallacy of the whole process. If he’s so nice, why would he send people to burn in fiery pits forever just because of some loophole clearly based on vanity? That never sounded like something a personal savior would expect from you. Beyond that, though, I steadily became aware that there was always a streak of fear and smallness that ran through the hundreds of exchanges I’d had with the True Believers in my life. It was nothing I wanted to be a part of. I can still count on two hands the number of families that consider themselves Christian who actually act in a way that the Christ I’ve read about would be proud of. Two hands in this town of thousands upon thousands of families.

I grew up with what I now know is a siege mentality, this feeling that my universe was occupied by hostile forces who were not only not on my team but who openly and publicly proclaimed that terrible things were going to happen to me and my kind and good-hearted family if we did not jump through their very specific hoop. It’s a terrible thing to be told repeatedly in public and in private and by strangers and friends alike that you are not worthy and will be punished horribly for it. That does something to you down deep; it changes you and others you in a very specific way. I’m not sure at what age exactly that it finally happened, but at some point I embraced this “otherness” and made it my own. I have no religion, I don’t want a religion, and I am completely comfortable telling anyone that.

Home is home. though. That nightmare Halloween house is staged on the grounds of the long-gone cotton mill where my grandfather’s people all worked and lived and raised their babies. The community of Cotton Hill is still a vibrant one, where people share stories of the weaving room and the mill nursery and birthday parties on Carroll Avenue. Our memories are long. Despite the tidal wave of evangelical Christians that poured into my town starting in the eighties, I’ve always been quick to claim ownership. Though so often it seemed like I didn’t fit, here I refused to be run off. “It’s them who don’t fit,” I’d think, “I was here first.” So, like my own parents, I parked my little family right behind Thomas Road Baptist Church where for a long time after old Jerry still preached and dared all comers to try to make me feel less than, try to make my children feel less than, woe unto those who might try.

Walking my eight-year-old son home from school the other day, he said, “Michael asked if I believe in God and I told him no, and he said I was going to burn down there forever.” I looked at him and he was pointing to the ground with a smile on his face. We laughed about it because I have done my best to make my children bullet-proof in this city we live in. I have prepared them so they know that there will be people out there who will tell them mean and untrue things so it doesn’t bother them like it did me when I was small.

“Well, that wasn’t nice of him. But you know it’s not true, and you know he can’t help it. He just doesn’t know any better.” My son smiles and nods at me but he always looks bummed when this happens, because it happens and happens and happens, as it happened to his older sister, too, and it will to his younger sister as well. He is a kind boy and he would never assume awful things to happen to others for no good reason. A god like that makes no sense to him. He figured out the falseness of it long before I did.

Homeschoolers keep their kids out of our public schools because, ostensibly, it’s my children they should be afraid of. My godless, secular humanist children and their evil ways. But I learned a long time ago and I continue to see now that the pressure so often moves in only one direction. I am certain that my children aren’t roaming the halls of their schools shouting, “God is dead! God is dead!” The lack of love and generosity extended to those of different sexual orientations or religious beliefs or other ways of life is still blatant and harmful. But call them out on their unwillingness to just let others live their lives as they choose and you’re persecuting them for their religious beliefs, as if a religion based wholly on the persecution of others is a religion at all.

But not all is lost. Whenever my kids come home and tell me the latest story of how they’re going to burn in hell, I don’t just remind them of the falseness and foolishness of the statement. I also take time to remind them of the Christian families we know who are good and love us and all others without reserve, those who’d never tell us that we’ll burn in hell. It took me a long time to realize that those Christians really are out there, and if I believed in a god, I’d thank him or her for them. Because those are the people who remind us of the possibility of good in a world that so often promises us otherwise. Who remind us to not pick up and throw back the stones we so often find at our very own feet, who would never ever force us into a musty old army tent to shout.


JENNY POORE writes about parenting, public education, politics, and occasionally things that do not start with the letter “P”. Her work has most recently appeared in xoJane, Mommyish, Dame Magazine, and Role Reboot. You can follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Poore and at her blog, Sometimes There are Stories Here.


To read more FGP essays by Jenny Poore, click here.


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By Gina Easley

By Cathy A. E. Bell

Highway 50 is a memory map of smells. The dead rot of leaves compete with the wet scent of new growth. The promise of rain in the spring air makes me giddy like a child on Easter morning. My brother Dave and I are taking our eleven-year-old niece Cassidee home to La Junta, a small town where Dave and I grew up on the southeastern plains of Colorado. I’m driving us through the sprawling, open land while Dave points out familiar landmarks and Cassidee sings along with the radio in the backseat. Cattle-yard odor drifts in through the cracked windows, and Dave and I laugh through grimaced faces. Then we breathe in deeply. The scent of country. The scent of home.

Dave and I are looking forward to driving by the houses and schools of our childhood. Perhaps the urge to reminisce together is how we navigate this new phase of our lives so recently upon us: middle age. Even though our lives in Denver are separate now, we are reminded that we come from the same strands of DNA and the same places. I wonder if reliving our childhood through day-long drives, as we often do, gives us insight to the ways the past intertwines with the now. Sometimes we don’t know how we really feel until we come close to the object that excites us, or haunts us, or excites and haunts us all at once, like our mother.

Every few miles, we glimpse the Arkansas River. The slow-moving river parallels us about half a mile to the north, bending this way and that, its banks crowded with cottonwoods. We pass cows, road-side produce stands that aren’t yet open, and fields carpeted with bright green winter wheat.

Cassidee is the daughter of my half-sister on my father’s side. Cassidee is my only niece so I take her for visits as often as I can. During her spring break, I took her shopping and to eat at restaurants that can’t be found in small towns, and I gave her a ceremony and gifts marking her entrance into womanhood. Since I don’t have children, and because Cassidee lives with her dad instead of her mom (as I did), I feel an urge to mother her, an urge to give her the guidance I craved at her age. I had longed to call my mom the day I began to menstruate, but we weren’t speaking then. In the two years Mom and I didn’t talk that time, I had grown into a teenager and by the time we made up, she barely recognized me. Our relationship has always been on-again, off-again and I know that on this drive I will have to face her ghost because before we can get to La Junta, we have to drive through Manzanola, a town less than a dozen blocks long and half as wide. A town where she lives.

Any time I drive through this stretch of the highway in recent years, my breathing becomes shallow, a reaction to being close to things when it’s better to be far.


We drive past a used tire shop, an antique store, and a run-down gas station. Boarded up windows and faded For Sale signs line the streets. When we were kids, these small towns were alive with restaurants and shops, but now cattle ranchers and farmers are the only commerce left.

I try to keep my emotional armor in place as we drive through town, but then Dave asks, “Hey, do you want to drive by Mom’s ranch since we’re so close?”

I shrug my shoulders. “I guess,” I say. Secretly, I’m glad he asks. “Do you think we can find it? It’s been a long time.”

It’s been five years since we’ve seen her. We can’t even be sure she lives here anymore, but chances are, she hasn’t moved and is probably at home. She might be drinking a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette on her covered porch, and watching geese in the pond, or she could be with her third husband Ed, dressed in her plaid flannel jacket, stretch pants, and tennis shoes, checking in on the calves born in the last month.

She’s been married to Ed for almost twenty years. Because of Mom’s tendency to cast out her loved ones, it seems unlikely that she could be married to one person for almost half the length of my life, but Ed endures somehow. I admire him for figuring out the secret to my mother’s devotion.

The smallest things had always set Mom off. She’d pretend like everything was fine until the day it wasn’t, all the while adding to her mental tally of my wrongdoings (not paying enough attention to her on a visit, or mentioning her house was dusty, or dating a black man). When the list was long enough, she’d spring her reasons on me all at once, but never in person. Instead, she’d write me letters. No matter how many there were over the years, getting them in the mail never hurt any less.

I’ve tried not to take her hatred personally. She ends her relationships (her mother, sisters, and father, too) for inexplicable reasons. It’s not only me. But still, I’m not comforted entirely—being the rejected daughter holds a heavier weight.


“Did we pass the turn already?” I ask Dave.

“Yeah, it’s back there,” he says. I turn around at the next block and backtrack. I pull off Highway 50 and make a right onto an even smaller two-lane highway. The path looks familiar though Mom only lived here for a few years before she quit speaking to us the last time. Before, she lived in an old, red, two-story farmhouse, tucked in a little valley among the hills and canyons, sage brush, and juniper.

I missed that ranch. Every time I visited her she had something new to show me: her latest bounty from farm auctions (antique crocks, an old sewing machine, a loom), flower gardens she’d planted (hollyhocks and lilacs), and the latest kind of animal she was raising (pigs, goats, dogs). Mom’s enthusiasm was infectious and our visits were full of hugs and kisses and catching up. Sometimes I’d even lay my head on her lap like a little girl, trying to make up for lost time. She’d smooth my hair and say, “It’s so good to have you here, honey.” When I left each time, Mom would load me up with a cage full of parakeets or a box of fabric from a farm auction or a plant. But my favorite time to visit was spring because that’s when the baby animals arrived.

Over an Easter weekend in my early thirties, Mom took me up to the loft of the farm house to show me her new incubator. She was excited to hatch her own eggs for the first time (rather than ordering live chicks), and carefully opened the drawer so I could see the brown, beige, and ivory ovals being kept warm. “If this works out well, I might try some geese and ducks next year instead of just chickens,” she said.

Sunday morning, I was sitting on the couch reading and heard peeping sounds. I ran up the stairs, two at a time, and pulled the drawer open to see chicks pecking holes through their shells. “Mom!” I yelled, “The babies are hatching!” She brought me up a basket to put them in. “Here you go. Just set them all in there. I’ll be downstairs finishing up breakfast,” she said.

As carefully as I’d once held a fragile praying mantis, I picked up each newborn as it broke free. I ran my finger over their yellow or brown heads before placing them in the basket. I’d never witnessed anything more amazing, all the babies coming into the world on Easter morning. The gift baskets full of chocolate bunnies and Golden Books I’d received as a child didn’t compare to this surprise.

After twenty minutes, one chick still struggled to escape his shell. I picked up the egg and broke the fragments away for him. The chick’s brown feathers were stuck together, still moist. His body was bent as it had been in the shell and he seemed flattened. I held the misshapen hatchling, knowing his fate wasn’t good. Sadness lassoed around my chest. Maybe Mom would know what to do.

“Mom?” I called again. “Something is wrong with one of them.”

She came back up the stairs and looked. “Yeah, I don’t think there’s hope for that one.”

“What are we going to do with him?” I asked.

“Probably just feed it to the dogs.”

This was her world raising animals. Birth and death. Often in the same day. She helped cows give birth on snowy nights, raised baby chicks, and when needed, shot sick animals, all without a thought. Once when I came to visit and asked where my favorite, fluffy, five-pound mutt was, the dog who always sat on my lap and went everywhere with me, she said, “Ed came into the house one day while I was drinking my coffee. He asked me if I knew I ran her over. I had no idea. The truck slid in the mud when I pulled up to the house.” I nearly cried out from the horror of the dead dog, but Mom showed no emotion. Maybe she cried the day it happened or maybe she was just numb with all the death around her. Any time she felt the slightest bit of guilt, she turned cold and hard. Perhaps she turned cold and hard with me, over and over again, because she was pushing away some kind of guilt. I’ll never really know.

As we drive towards Mom’s Manzanola ranch, the warming sun burns off the morning clouds. The sky begins to change from patchy gray to bright blue. We pass a boarded-up feed store and bump over the railroad tracks and that quickly we are on the outskirts of town.

I glance at Dave in the passenger seat. Even though our mom doesn’t want us in her life, she is present every time either one of us looks at the other. We have her blue eyes and full lips. She’s never far, especially for me. Every day I see her hands in mine: large palms, long fingers, wrinkled knuckles; and as I grow older, I’m shocked to sometimes see her in the mirror, instead of myself.


For years I hated Mom for disowning me again that last time. Any thought of her was so painful, I just avoided the subject altogether, but writing about my early years, when Mom and Dad were married, has peeled away some of the protective varnish around my heart. I think sometimes she really did love me. For the first three years of my life, when Mom was only seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen, she diligently filled out my baby book in her beautiful, round handwriting. “At 7½ months Cathy waves bye, laughs like a goat, throws kisses, says Momma and Daddy and baba for bottle.” She wrote of how I loved my baby brother, David, and how I giggled when my dad chased me around the house. My first two sentences were “Oh, pretty!” and “Momma, see!”

And I know she must have loved me because I remember sleeping on the couch next to her—maybe I was two—blankie clutched in my hand, near enough to touch her while she folded laundry and watched TV. When she tried to carry me to bed, I cried and she turned right around and put me back on the couch next to her.

But her love has been capricious. She loves me for a while and then she sends a letter telling me it’s over. In my twenties she wrote, “I gave birth to you. Let’s just leave it at that.” Those words burned into my psyche. The unloved daughter. When she loved me, I felt whole. When she disowned me, I was broken. Up until my mid-thirties, I’d try to win her back again and again, and usually I would.


“I remember it’s past the river a ways,” I say.

We’re getting closer now. I’m leaning forward against the steering wheel, feeling like we’re on one of our typical adventures—it’s a game Dave and I play—finding these places.

“Yeah, past the river. And then we turn right somewhere after that. Which road was it? Road A? Road B?” Dave asks.

We drive over the bridge and look at every dirt road, searching for a landmark to jolt our memories, but there aren’t many. It’s a vast, barren land, still brown from winter. Unlike the growth near the river, trees are scarce here.

Dave spots the Road B sign. “Wait, slow down. There it is! Turn here!”

Cassidee has shed her seatbelt and is scooted up between our seats now. She leans on the console. She’s excited, so I don’t make her put the belt back on—for now.

As we pull onto Mom’s narrow dirt road I ask Cassidee to find my hat. “Quick!” I say. “I need a disguise just in case we pass her on the road.” Dave is on the side of the car closest to her house, but I decide Mom and Ed won’t recognize him. He’s transformed himself into a biker since his divorce two years ago. His hair is pulled back in a ponytail and a long, bushy goatee hides the good-looking guy underneath. But Dave is more brazen than I am. I don’t think he’s worried about being spotted. It’s mostly been me who’s been disowned. Dave only gets cut off by default. It’s like we’re a package deal and she can’t love just one of us.

I put on my hat and sink down into the seat.

The houses sit far, far apart out here; it’s mostly flat land and fences. I turn off the radio and all we hear is the crunch of gravel beneath the tires.

I went back to therapy after Mom’s very last letter came five years ago. I had emotionally come undone, again. I wasn’t sure how to navigate my life without a mother. I had written an essay about my bond with my paternal grandmother and Mom found it online. Mom wrote in part: “I read your essay. You’ve hurt me for the last time. Don’t ever call or come to my house again.” Maybe Mom was upset because I wrote that my grandmother told me the story of my birth more times than Mom had. Or maybe it was the part where Gram says, “The nuns at the hospital all thought you were my baby.”

All the other letters that came before were signed “Sandy.” This letter was signed “Mom.” I sensed a hesitation in her signature, maybe the blue ink pooled on the paper. Perhaps she thought my loss would be greater if she remained my mother until the end.


“That’s not it,” I say as we drive by the first house. Getting close, I almost forget Cassidee is in the back seat. Soon another house comes into sight.

“There it is!” Dave says. “That’s the one.”

I slow down. My pulse quickens. I’m afraid and not sure what she’d do if she sees us.

The small one-story house sits away from the road with its back to us. The dirt driveway is long, and I can’t help but feel the anticipation I used to when approaching her home. When things were good between us she’d greet and hug me the moment I got out of my car. “Hi, Pumpkin! I’m so glad you’re here!” She’d offer a spread of food when we walked into the house and when I left, she’d load me up with fresh eggs from her chickens (pink, green, and blue), pork sausage ground by the local butcher, and anything else that would fit in the car.

Dave and I point out the window: Look, you can see the barn! And that round metal roof—that’s the garage, remember? And her pond was on the other side of the house. It looks just the same.

Cassidee appears puzzled and wonders why we’re so excited and yet so afraid of being found out.

She doesn’t understand how a mother can quit being a mother. Even though her mother, my sister, has battled drug addiction, poverty, and even a nine-month term in prison, my sister always loved her children. Cassidee knows other kinds of mother-pain, but she doesn’t know the sense of abandonment. I’m thankful she’ll never have to drive by her mother’s house, afraid her mother will see her.

“What would your mom do if she saw you?” she asks.

“I don’t know. Probably tell us to go away,” I answer.

“Really? A mom could do that?”

A hawk circles high above us, looking for a snake or a chick, making a silhouette against the sun.

We get quiet as we pass by the house. Even if she were on the porch or feeding the baby cows, we wouldn’t see her since the porch and front door face away from the road. Her world is on the other side of the house, protected from the outside, protected from us.

I make a clumsy U-turn on the narrow lane, worried she might look out her window and recognize my white Saturn.

I joke that we’re stalking our mother. Dave is defensive and shakes his head. “No, we’re not.”

As we drive away from her house, I know what we have just done is an admission—one without words—a truth not spoken that we miss our mother. We don’t say it, but driving by is enough. We are still drawn to her, despite our efforts not to be.

I’m not sure exactly how my brother feels, but I can finally admit that I miss my visits with her: the ranch; her sitting at the kitchen table, bottle-feeding a rejected baby goat on her lap; the smell of straw and manure; the quiet and the star-filled nights. I miss my mother’s tall, round body hugging me—her large, wrinkled, ranch hands wrapped around my back; the smell of her, soap and cigarettes, maybe chicken feed and hay, but mostly a motherly sweetness that can’t be named, like how baby animals know the smell of their mothers. They don’t have to think about the scent; it just is. A connection from birth.

As we approach the river, I ask Dave, “Do you think she felt us just then? Maybe some motherly instinct kicked in that made her think of us, just because we were three hundred feet from her house?”

He thinks for a while before he answers. The river runs quietly under the bridge.

“I don’t know…maybe.”

I don’t say anything, but I think that maybe, just maybe, in that little moment, she stopped what she was doing and longed for us, too.

It is possible. A mom could do that.


CATHY A. E. BELL writes creative nonfiction and is a member and volunteer at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, CO. When Cathy is not writing or volunteering, she’s earning her living at the University of Colorado Denver fixing computers and servers (and other geeky things). She’s been published in The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, and other literary journals. Visit her blog or say hello on Twitter: @cathyannelaine