Having Backbone

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Terry Barr

I watch her remove the jar of Maxwell House from the top kitchen cabinet. She lets me sniff the stuff inside, the coffee, in the only form I’ll know it for many years. She spoons two helpings into her open dull-green cup, one of a set of six. Except for the colder weeks when they are used for that still rare serving of hot tea, these cups are my grandmother’s exclusive property. When the pan of water is ready, she pours and then stirs in just a bit of sugar. Often her coffee accompanies a buttered and heated slice of yesterday’s pound cake—as if any more butter were needed. More often, the coffee complements her lunch of country vegetables and meat that, when I was a boy, I couldn’t bring myself to try. Not that I try the coffee either; it will be years until, freezing to death at a ball game, I opt for coffee over hot chocolate since there won’t be any hot chocolate on this night at this little league ballpark.

Sometimes your elders are right: coffee does taste bitter. Two sips and I’m done for fifteen more years, until grad school and doctoral pre-lims and the stimulant of champions. My Maxwell House will be “fresh ground” from a can, but my grandmother will have been dead by those same fifteen years. I’ll wonder about the distance between instant and ground, between black and au lait, between us, and our tastes.

It will be another form of coffee, though, that will bring me back to her.

•••

My Carolina Wild Dog, Max, strains at his leash. He’s smelling it now, not the collards I’m slurping but the bacon they’re cooked in. I pull out a meaty morsel and make him sit. We always sat for our supper when I was a boy growing up in Bessemer, Alabama. Unlike me back then, Max has to be asked only once to come to the table. He’ll do anything for bacon and, truly, I understand.

In this moment, coming back from a trip to visit our daughter in Virginia, we’re sitting out front of the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Virginia, in chairs provided for “wanted loiterers.” My wife nourishes herself with creamy tomato dill soup, a grilled cheese on wheat, and Coke. My pinto platter is not only accompanied by homemade chow chow, and those collards (when the waitress asked “With or without bacon?” I looked at her, at Max, at myself and wondered who’s kidding whom?) but also by a triangular wedge of cornbread, which is a little bitter because they clearly don’t use Rumford Baking Powder.

Max hovers between our chairs because it’s raining now. He might look a bit Lab-ish, but he’s no water-lover. I’m sucking my beans and greens down faster than I want because the once-drizzle is picking up now, compromising the integrity of my lunch. These collards are so fine I don’t need the pepper sauce that I ritually use. Soon the rain lets up, and so I sip my Red Rooster coffee in peace.

Old-time mountain music rains down on me from the Floyd Country Store speakers, making me think of those Saturday afternoons of my childhood, watching The Wilburn Brothers or Porter Wagoner on TV with my Nanny. While I don’t own any music like this, don’t even plan to, when I hear it, I know exactly where I am, and I relax.

Inside the store, where along with pintos and collards you can also order roasted root vegetables—rutabagas, turnips—with gluten-free bread or a cup of Brunswick Stew, I note the blue-dyed hair of one server; the punk cut of another. The man handling sales at the other side of the store sees my Alabama Crimson Tide t-shirt and offers that his grandson is a Tide fan, from Decatur.

“They’re a mighty good team,” he says, and I agree. I tell him how much I’ve enjoyed the food, and while he is gracious, I’m definitely not providing him unheard of news.

Originally, I brought us to Floyd for the coffee, and while I was upset initially that today, and any Monday or Tuesday, Red Rooster Roasters is closed, if they hadn’t been, we might not have wandered, lingered, and found a meal that transfixed me, for when I saw the words “Pinto Bean plate,” my fate was sealed. I had found “home.”

Max feels similarly when we reach the beginning of the big woods. He looks like an old “yeller dog,” a retriever of sorts, but as I said, he’s skittish of water. He yearns for mountain paths; when we take him hiking on Caesar’s Head or Paris Mountain back home, he feels a spirit that can’t be explained, only experienced, which he does as fully and heartily as I attacked those collards. He wants a good trail, and other Carolina Wild Dog owners get this. When he gets the look in his eye, all I can say to him is “It’s okay, boy, I understand.”

It’s what he’d say to me if he could when he sees me eating today.

What he doesn’t know, of course, is the memory that this meal evokes: Saturday lunchtime with my grandmother, Ellen Crowe Terry, her stooped back hunched over her plate. Early on, I didn’t understand what that meat is she’s chewing, or why the smell of those greens appeals to her. I had my home-fried cheeseburger in front of me and wondered how anyone could prefer something else, something almost unnamable.

•••

I would have never heard of Red Rooster Coffee or Floyd had it not been for Yo Cup, a side-street coffee house that opened in my college town back in 2013 and closed this past Christmas. Originally, Yo Cup’s owners offered only frozen yogurt with various fruit and candied toppings, coffee drinks, and homemade cupcakes in both vegan and gluten-free varieties.

My college town, or more accurately the town incorporating the college where I’ve been teaching for the past thirty years, is a former mill village, populated by roughly nine thousand people. The mill closed back in the 1980s, and now there’s not much to do or see there. The town square has its Confederate monument; a train line bisects the middle of Broad Street, the town’s main artery; and while there are one or two lunch/meat and three joints and a Cuban cafe, the main food industry is clearly pizza. There is House of Pizza, Dempsey’s Pizza (formerly Pizza Inn), Pizza Hut Express, Little Caesar’s, Papa John’s, and there used to be Tony’s Pizza, but nine thousand people, including the one thousand students at the college, can consume only so much pepperoni and dough.

At the college, I teach courses in Southern Film, Modern Novel, American Literature, and Creative Nonfiction. When I started in the late eighties, I was told that people in the town didn’t exactly cotton to the professionals at the college. Town and gown, truly. At my initial interview on campus, I spied a downtown movie theater, and my first comment to the group interviewing me was my joy at seeing the old movie house.

“Well, they’re tearing it down next week,” my hosts said with attendant irony.

That told me much, but I still thought I was moving to a college town. Actually, after the interview and a couple of half-hearted searches for housing in the town, I didn’t move there, but chose nearby Greenville. That is, my wife suggested Greenville—it was at least a city that might offer her work. The town, she said, scared her. And I know better than to question her fear. Actually, I understood.

The image of any college town, to me, includes certain features: used or independent bookstores; pubs; homey cafes; alternative or vintage clothing stores; and coffee shops. This little town, though, contained none of these. Actually, there was a place called Robert’s Drive-In that had hamburger plates, and after I ate there once, I reported my discovery to my department chair who promptly informed me, again with all due irony, that Robert’s was a former Klan hangout.

How do you not tell new faculty beforehand of racist history?

I found in the end that I could live without hamburger plates, vintage clothes, and used books, but no coffee?

Our faculty lounge had an old Bunn coffee maker left there decades before by a retired dean. Supplied monthly by a new crate of individualized packets of Folgers ground coffee, complete with powdered and decidedly non-dairy creamer, what we had was not even better than nothing. Eventually, I bought my own coffee maker, brought my whole beans and ground them in my office, and stored half and half in the mini-fridge installed in the lounge.

And though I enjoyed my coffee, I felt like a snob. A snob all alone sipping coffee in his windowless office.

The town now has a McDonald’s and a Waffle House. If I lived there, I could see going to WH late for the experience. Students do that, I hear, or they go to the Sonic Drive-In. I don’t know. It all sounds sad and depressing, a far cry from the Jolly Cholly’s, Dari Delite’s, and Kollege Klubs, in Montevallo, Alabama, the college town of my undergrad years.

So when Yo Cup opened and provided several tables, couches, and piped in alternative sounds from the manager’s iPod, I thought, finally, a place to be.

It was almost hip.

They served lattes, shots in the dark, macchiatos, chai, with soy and almond milk alternatives. The chalkboard listing all the drinks, in flowing, colorful script, even contained my favorite, Café Au Lait. In most small coffee houses I have to instruct the servers how to steam one-third milk to two-thirds dark roast. Yo Cup knew its drinks, and all I said was “Café Au Lait,” and voila, a perfect blend. Just the right amount of froth in a clever design. What killed me, though, was the flavor of the coffee itself.

“What kind of coffee is this?” I asked Courtney, the owner.

“It’s Red Rooster, the Funky Chicken blend,” she said. “My husband and I found the roasting house last summer in Floyd, when we went to Floydfest.”

“Floydfest?”

“Yeah, it’s this great mountain music festival every July. You ought to go.”

Over the months of Yo Cup, I sampled a Bourbon Barrel Blend—definitely hints of the South’s favorite whiskey in the brew—the Sumatra and Farmhouse Blend, and the Old Crow Cuppa Joe.

I love the Old Crow, and I understand now, given its name, the resonant reason for why I would.

•••

My grandmother, Ellen Crowe Terry, led anything but the life of a typical southern woman of her age. At some point either she or her father changed the family surname from “Crow” to “Crowe.” Was this putting on airs, an attempt to distance the family from the common bird of nuisance, or from an almost forgotten tribe of Native Americans? If so, it didn’t work for me—I always saw that black bird when I heard her maiden name—even though I hadn’t seen the spelling change until last week in a family tree my daughter’s husband Taylor is filling in. A Crowe is a Crow is a Crowe again.

Ellen’s family came from northern Alabama, on her father’s side at least: Talladega or nearby Anniston depending upon whether you believe Ancestry.com or my mother. Whatever the town, the Crowes were rural folk, farmers, and from this area they eventually moved to Bessemer, a wide-open mining town to the southwest of Birmingham. In Bessemer, Ellen met a phone man, GC Terry who hailed from Cortland, Alabama. The Terrys were rural folk, too, as I know from family stories and from driving through Cortland once. It’s about as big as Floyd, and as my mother warned, almost every business sign I saw proclaimed that this hardware store, this transmission shop, or this used furniture place was run by a Terry. I could have stopped at any one of them. I should have stopped at least at one of them just to see whom I came from, but I didn’t. A girl in another state, a girl I used to love, beckoned.

My grandmother Ellen—I called her “Nanny”—loved to travel. Unlike my mother, Nanny saw Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, searching for and dealing in antiques.

“She especially loved Chicago,” my mother says, though I don’t remember if I ever heard why.

Before I was born and for the first few years after, my Nanny ran antique stores in Bessemer, one I remember on 19th Street, another not too far away on 9th Avenue, the Super Highway. I remember floating through the various rooms of her shops, all lavishly decorated and independent of each other. Who might live here? I wondered. It was like having another house, though, just as I was admonished in the formal living room of our own house, I was not allowed to touch anything in the shop.

Over the years, Nanny procured our family’s dining room set—mahogany table and six matching chairs—as well as my parents’ Queen Anne bedroom suite. My mother’s house still holds these and many other antiques: vases, side tables, and lamps, all from my grandmother’s wheeling-dealing days.

While those signs of her life were always evident, what was often missing from my mother’s younger days was my grandmother herself.

There’s a photo I found recently of my mother and her father at GC’s retirement dinner in Birmingham. He was wearing a double-breasted suit, tie in a Windsor knot. My mother had on an evening dress and looked so glamorous. No older than seventeen, she was her daddy’s escort at this commemorative occasion, because my grandmother was gone, traveling somewhere, finding new-old goods.

I look at the photo and wonder both about what I see and what I can’t.

•••

In her waning years, my Nanny turned her bedroom in the house I grew up in—the house she had been living in since the 1920s—into an artist’s studio. She painted in oils. Still-life of fruit. Old country barns. Flower arrangements. Not really primitive but not polished either. I can see her, perched at the edge of her rocking chair, dabbing into her palette, scattered tubes of oil paint around her, her easel holding the picture of the day, for Nanny finished one picture per day in the summers and winters of the last years of her life. These paintings would lie under her bed, in all corners of her room, piled at her feet. Many were framed; many more stacked on top of each other.

She died in the summer of ’71, and I have no idea what happened to all those works of her mind. My mother kept a few, but the rest? It would be nice to imagine them on the walls of homes near and far, or maybe in one of those roadside antique shops in the country somewhere, near Floyd, where they appreciate the gifts of random and unknown stars.

I wish I had even one of those gifts. I can’t even tell you anymore what one of them looked like, though I can still see the scene of their creation, the spattered paint on the carpet where she worked, near her slippered feet. She always painted in nightgown, robe, and those heel-less slippers. A woman of leisure, herself a subject that no one could ever capture.

For a woman this independent and self-sufficient, even aloof—though she kissed me every night and called me her “darlin’”—you’d think her taste in food would run toward lobster newburg, filet mignon, or baked Alaska. French cuisine befitting one who travelled to large and exotic cities. Not that she wouldn’t eat any of these dishes if served, or the creole pork chops, country captain chicken, and Italian spaghetti—whose recipe my mother got from our second generation Italian neighbors down the street—my mother prepared every night.

But left to her own devices, Nanny preferred simpler fare, rural foods like hominy, baked sweet potatoes, turnip or collard greens, corn muffins, cayenne and Tabasco peppers, and fresh chow chow she’d make herself. Once, she let me try a green cayenne. She cut it open and told me to just put my tongue in its center, where that white meaty layer lurked. I learned quickly that water won’t stifle that sort of heat.

“Try milk,” Nanny advised.

Seemingly more than anything else, though, she loved backbone meat.

When I envision her at our kitchen table, sitting at the end closest to the electric stove, hunched slightly over her plate of country goodness, it’s always a noon winter Saturday. Early on in these memories, my mother might have fixed me a cheeseburger—still to this day the best sandwich I’ve ever had—fried and then with the cheese melted on top in the oven, ketchup and mustard only.

At some point on one of these Saturdays, though, I got up the gumption to try the backbone meat, maybe with some corn or fried okra. It was another cold day, the sun still shining through our multi-paneled breakfast room windows; the bare cherry tree beyond telling me the time of that season.

I discovered then that backbone meat was good, that it was succulent with brown gravy. Then I tried some short ribs, a delicacy now that farm-to-table restaurants in the South charge twenty-five to thirty-five dollars a plate to taste. I haven’t seen backbone meat hit these menus yet, and just last week I asked my mother if you could still buy it anywhere.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I saw some at Publix just the other day.”

“When you come up in a few weeks, we’re gonna have to get some so you can show me how to cook it.”

I’m almost sixty-one years old and still learning life lessons. I can fix the short ribs, braise collards, fry corn, slow-cook pintos and any other dried or fresh bean—olive oil, beef bouillon flakes, salt and/or sugar, and maybe some Cajun spices—fry green tomatoes, and bake numerous varieties of corn bread.

I can make all day meals, and though I try my hand at more sophisticated dishes—boeuf bourguignon, shrimp creole, turkey with oyster dressing, sweet potato casserole, even borsht—I feel proudest when I’ve shucked and cut and creamed my white corn; when I’ve turned slimy okra into salty, slightly-floured fried popcorn; when I’ve brined chicken in salt water and fried it to gluten-free-floured perfection. When my collards, cooked with bacon, melt in your mouth. When my lima beans or lady peas make you want to shout or cry and not worry about the gas to come. When you slice open my cornbread and melt a pat of butter inside and want to stick your face in it, too.

I’d wanted to take this Floyd route many times before, but time and distance held me back. Something kept calling to me, though, and now I see that it wasn’t just a place I had heard about. It was a link to my past. A memory of food and love that I was longing to taste again. And to share.

•••

TERRY BARR is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother, published by Third Lung Press. His work has appeared in Vol 1 Brooklyn, Eclectica, Left Hooks, Wraparound South, The Bitter Southerner, and, of course, Full Grown People. He blogs for The Writing Cooperative at medium.com, and can also be found on terrybarr.com. He eats and lives with Nilly and Max and Morgan in Greenville, SC.

Read more FGP essays by Terry Barr.

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Rescuing Adrian

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Naomi Ulsted

I got the call at ten-thirty at night. It was typically dramatic, as my family was at that time. “They found him,” said my mother. I hung up and shook my boyfriend awake. I let him know I needed to drive to California with my mother tonight. I was meeting her at midnight in the parking lot of the House of Pancakes in Salem, Oregon. We were going to get my brother.

Adrian was twelve and his face could be found on cartons of milk with the giant words “MISSING” on them. He’d been listed as a kidnapping victim since my stepdad (Adrian’s real dad) had driven off with him eight months ago. He’d actually been gone for a while before that, but these were the questions I imagined the police asking my mother.

He’s with his father?

You had custody?

You had custody but you allowed him to live with his father?

You’re not sure of the date he actually went missing?

You’re the one who left the marriage?

You have how many children? Five?

Said or unsaid, these questions delayed the process. Officials put that file on the bottom of the pile.They were questions I still had myself. The weeks had gone on. My mother began taking anti-depressants. I was in college, reveling in books, falling in love and pretending that I had a stable family who didn’t kidnap each other.

•••

My oldest son, Logan, is telling me a very long story that has something to do with Minecraft. As I put away the dishes, I listen to him with about twenty-five percent of my brain. I say, hmm mmm and yeah, and that’s funny, when I realize that he’s just told me something that’s supposed to be funny, although I have no idea what it was. With my remaining seventy-five percent I’m planning what to put in the kids’ lunches and preparing for the eight-thirty meeting I have at work. Adrian used to talk about comics like Logan talks about video games. When Logan finishes his story, he looks at me expectantly. I laugh, hoping that was the appropriate response. He wraps his gangly arms around me for a spontaneous hug, which is something he does still, even though he’s nearly twelve. I run my hand through his thick hair, which needs another cut. He is almost as tall as I am.When he was younger, I sometimes called him by my brother’s name.

•••

My mother had custody of Adrian, but rather than force Adrian to move with her and his three younger sisters into a two bedroom apartment with new stepbrother and stepdad, he was allowed to continue living with his dad and me in our mobile home in Camano Island, Washington. My mother was choosing her battles. I was just starting my senior year in high school, so my mother, thankfully, had left me there as well. Adrian and his dad wiled away the days eating ice cream from the carton and watching Tron. I tried to drag Adrian out of bed so I could drive him to sixth grade, but he was too big and stubborn for me. I gave up, leaving them both sleeping. This went on until my stepdad and Adrian moved to their own apartment and I was the only one left at home, finishing high school. I went to school, worked at the grocery store, sautéed mushrooms for dinner and listened to the silence of the house, telling me it was time to go.

After my first semester at college, I spent Christmas with my brother and my stepdad at their apartment. We ate pizza and they both fell asleep early on Christmas Eve. I stayed up reading Adrian’s X-Men comics, carefully replacing them back in their plastic sleeves when I was finished. Shortly after that Christmas, my stepdad quit his job passively, by not showing up, stopped paying his rent and disappeared with Adrian.

•••

Last summer, Logan went to an overnight camp for a week. He had been excited when we signed him up, but the week before it was time to leave, he insisted he didn’t want to go. His stomach hurt. He couldn’t sleep. I showed him videos from the website of kids around the campfire smiling broadly. I talked about camp games, bonfires and horseback riding. I assured him he was going to love it, so he reluctantly rolled up his sleeping bag. But the camp rules didn’t allow phones and as the week approached, I tried to stifle my own fears. What if some of the kids were cruel to him? What if something horrible happened and he didn’t feel like he could call me? Outside of the letters I wrote ahead of time for him, I would be unable to reach him. By the time a handwritten letter from him arrived in my mailbox, he’d be home. While he was gone, I dreamed when I went to pick him up, he wasn’t there. Kids were reuniting with their parents all around me, but no one knew where he was. I tried to call the police, but over the line the officer said things like you left him there in the woods with a bunch of strangers? and he didn’t want to go, but you pushed him into it?

•••

I left my car at the House of Pancakes. As I climbed in next to my mother, she handed me a thermos of coffee. We pulled onto the freeway. She was all business, filling me in on the way. They were in a small town in northern California. The policewoman who called her had suggested that she just go back to sleep and come get him tomorrow. Adrian was fine so there was no rush. My mother said she’d been looking for her son for eight months and he’d been found, so how could that stupid woman tell her to go back to sleep? She’d come and get her son right this instant, thank you. Adrian wouldn’t have to spend one more night with that asshole he had for a father. I sipped my lukewarm coffee, extra sweet like my mother always made it, so it tasted less like coffee and more like a melted candy. I wondered how we got to be so dysfunctional. I was in a small, private college that I’d bullied my way into with good grades and multiple phone calls and I didn’t see anyone around me with families like mine. I was nineteen and not yet done being embarrassed about my entire life up to this point.

We drove into the night, up through the curving hills of the pass, often silent. I knew I was supposed to be helping my mom stay awake, so I tried to talk about my classes, my friends, my boyfriend, but she didn’t ask many questions. I knew her focus was elsewhere. As we pulled into a lonely open Chevron in the Southern Oregon town of Grants Pass, she said, “I should have never left him with his dad.”

“How were you supposed to know he was going to take off?”

“I should have known. But I’m getting him back now. He’s going to be part of our family again.”

I didn’t mention that her new family with my second stepdad was not my idea of our family and probably wasn’t Adrian’s either. None of us kids knew what our idea of family was anymore. She gripped the wheel tightly as we drove south and the shadows of the trees flew past.

Eventually, she told me to go ahead and lie down in the back. The back seats had been turned down so there was a space large enough to curl into. I pulled a blanket around me. Adrian had never called while he was missing, causing my mother to go frantic with worry. I had figured he was safe. My stepdad had never hurt him. Not physically anyway. However, I also knew my stepdad was a broken and twisted man, one with dark wounds inside. I couldn’t be totally sure of anything about him. Before he disappeared, he’d written me letters describing the futility of life. He was giving away what meager things he had left. I watched the darkness through the window and wondered why my brother had never called. When I woke three hours later, the sun rose over the mountains of northern California.

•••

Logan complains loudly and frequently about school. He tells me he’s bored and he’s learning nothing. In the morning I wake him and he rolls over, whining do I have to go? As if I ever tell him anything different. Yes, you have to go. If he were allowed, he would eat ice cream out of the carton and watch Tron all day. I make him go to school. I get dressed, make lunches and make myself go to work. I don’t call in sick to stay home reading all day and watching bad movies for hours, complaining that going to work is just buying into the system and letting corporate American run your life. I am not my stepdad. I am my mother, who forced herself to finish her last term in college while Adrian was missing, made lunches for my sisters every day and tried to create a family, as complicated and exhausting as it was.

•••

I took over the driving and a couple hours later we rolled into Ukiah, where my brother had been living for the past few months. My mother had closed her eyes, leaning her head against the window, but she had not slept. I longed to grab coffee, but my mother was not stopping. We pulled into the police station parking lot to get Adrian. I wondered if my dad was in jail and if I’d have to see him there.

Inside, I was unnerved by the police officers and the official feel of everything. It was as though I was in a world where I didn’t belong. My mother told the attendant at the front who she was and we were asked to wait. Nobody seemed to be in much of a hurry. After a while, a man came out to shake our hands, introducing himself as an officer. He led us back to a small room where we sat at a round table.

“Where is my son?” my mom demanded, embarrassing me with her aggressive voice.

“Adrian is just fine,” the officer said in a placating voice. “You can get him shortly. I just need to go over some paperwork with you.” In the conversation, the officer said things like, just needed to get away for a while, didn’t mean to cause a big problem and were just getting on their feet. When he told my mother that Adrian had been allowed to go back with his dad yesterday to their apartment for one last night, my mother flipped her lid.

“You allowed what?” My mother had that hysterical tone she got when she was about to throw something. I hoped she wouldn’t. My mother had thrown glass plates, laundry baskets and toys, although generally not at any person. Once she threw a plastic Sesame Street mug so hard it chipped the Formica counter, leaving a vivid reminder to stay out of the way of her wrath. My mother pounded her fingers on the paperwork, stood and slapped her purse down on the table, demanding to know why, when my brother had been kidnapped and missing for so long, he was allowed to go home with the person who kidnapped him. I wondered if I should move the stapler out of her reach.

Even I could tell my stepdad had gotten to this officer. I’d only just recently begun to separate myself from my stepdad’s manipulation and to recognize it for what it was. It was just a year ago that I’d secretly arranged a visit between him and my three younger sisters, against my mother’s wishes. He always seemed so sad, such a victim of circumstances, such a victim period. Nothing was ever his fault. Emotional wounds. Neglect. He twisted things to where I found myself forgiving him, feeling sorry for him, blaming someone else. Sometimes myself.

My mother was having none of it. The officer looked at her as if her hostile behavior proved everything he had suspected. I wished I had slept more. I wished I had coffee. I wished I was at home eating breakfast with my boyfriend. I had a philosophy paper to write. I wished I was anywhere else but here. The officer finally broke in. He told my mother that Adrian could be picked up now. However, he suggested strongly that my mother shouldn’t go, since she was obviously volatile and would likely upset the household. My mother looked like she might upset the entire police force in about five seconds. “I’ll go, Mom,” I said quickly. “I’ll get him.”

•••

Logan and I read together every night, still. He knocks on my bedroom when he’s sick, his lanky form a shadow in my doorway. When he’s in trouble with his dad, he brings his tears to me. When he is pushed or punched at school, he eventually confides in me. He curls his thin body against mine when we watch Harry Potter. I can’t imagine him being without me for eight months. I can’t imagine what I would do or say. What I would throw.

•••

The apartment was one in a row of one-bedrooms on a street with cracked sidewalks with tufts of struggling weeds in the yards. My stepdad opened the door when I knocked, giving his small, sad sigh. “Sorry,” he said, “that you had be here.” He kicked a few empty Chinese food cartons out of the way as he shuffled to the kitchen. His dark hair flopped in his eyes. He wore jeans and a ripped tee-shirt. I doubted he was working. Probably doing advertising copy for the local paper occasionally and calling himself a writer. My brother came in from the hallway, lugging a box of comic books.

“Hi, Nomes,” he said. His hair was greasy and unkempt and he was distinctly taller than I remembered, with ankles showing under his too short jeans. He smiled at me awkwardly, then looked at his dad.

“I’ll get your bags,” my stepdad said, heading down the hallway with a hangdog look.

Adrian and I put his comic books in the car. “Can I have a hug?” I asked and he leaned in. He needed a shower. As we separated, I felt the weight of the trip, my mother sitting back at the station, steaming mad, the months of waiting. As we looked at each other, I crumpled into tears. “Why didn’t you call?” I asked, covering my face with one hand, the other gripping the trunk.

He looked at me, surprised. “Dad said we might as well wait to call until we got our apartment and knew where we were going to be. And he said if I called then I’d never be able to see him again.” He leaned over to pat my arm as I continued to cry. “It’s no big deal. I was fine,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.” He repeated it, “It’s going to be okay, Nomes.”

•••

My mother and I took Logan to the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. It’s an incredible museum full of twists, turns, nooks and crannies. Kids climb up in a tube through the walls and into the ceiling to spy on the people below. Dark and sneaky spots lurk throughout. I thought Logan was right ahead of me, but I lost him. I tried to keep calm, telling myself he was just in one of those dark corners, sorting out a spy code, looking over a watch with a secret blade. I had left my mother choosing her spy name. I walked quickly back through the entire museum, scanning all the crowds. I hurried through the rest of the exhibits, not noticing anything but the fact that he was not there. When I reached the gift shop a second time, I counted back. He’d been missing maybe twenty-five minutes. If he’d been taken, he’d be twenty-five minutes down the road now.In some unmarked van. A lot can happen in twenty-five minutes. I found a security officer and trying not to look like I was hysterical, I described Logan. He radioed out to the other staff and we began walking back through the museum. Thirty minutes? Thirty-five minutes? My breath shortened as I realized that this could actually be happening. The thing that terrifies every parent.We turned the corner to see a different security officer standing with Logan. “Hi Mom,” he said. I started crying. Surprised, he reached over, patting me. “It’s okay,” he said, “I was fine.”

•••

What I remember is Adrian arguing with my mother on the long drive home. He hadn’t been to school the entire time he’d been with his dad so he’d have to repeat sixth grade. Adrian’s protests went on and on as the miles distanced us from California. Insisting he didn’t want to go to school. Demanding his own room. Informing her that his stepbrother was jerk. His stepfather was a sellout to society. My mother tried to reason with him until she finally argued back, in frustration. He was twelve years old, she was his mother and by god, he would be living with her and following the rules of her house. That’s what I remember.

My mother remembers none of that. She only remembers being so grateful, so relieved, so happy, as the road took the three of us back up north through the long afternoon and into the night.

•••

NAOMI ULSTED is a fiction and memoir writer. Her work has been published in Salon, Narratively, and Luna Luna. She is currently working on a middle grade urban fantasy, with help from her son. She lives with her two boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, where she is also the director of a Job Corps center training program for at-risk teens.

Read more FGP essays by Naomi Ulsted.

Urban Race Car Driver’s Manual

Photo by dodge challenger1/Flickr

By Laura Zera

  1. Punch the number sequence on the garage-door keypad with increasing agitation until you get it right. Slide into your supercharged Mini Cooper—red, with white racing stripes—and start it up, engaging “sport” mode so the exhaust backfires when you take your foot off the gas. You like this feature. It makes you feel like a renegade, just as when you drove your first car, a loaner from your father. You were sixteen, and he’d known you for less than a year. He hadn’t a clue about your lead foot when he handed over the keys for a 340-horsepower, four-barrel Dodge Challenger. It was orange, with black racing stripes.
  2. Turn on the radio, harumph at the commercials, and plug in your phone. Scroll through the dozen or so playlists to find one of the only two that you ever play anymore: The Tragically Hip, whose song lyrics have replaced mitochondria in the cells of one out of every three Canadians, or Little India, a band you adore both despite and due to your nephew’s role as bass guitarist.
  3. Crank up the tunes to drown out your next-door neighbor, who near-permanently idles on the front porch to chain smoke and cough a wretched aria that crescendos with him hocking multitudes of loogies over the edge. Sometimes he coughs so hard he vomits, and you almost vomit. Sometimes you want to swear at him, but the menace of the teardrop tattoo on his face keeps your words in check.
  4. Throw the gearshift in reverse. Inch back until you clear the garage; hit the gas and rocket to the driveway’s end. Execute this maneuver by looking over your shoulder, a habit ingrained since your Young Drivers of Canada lessons. It strikes you as ironic that your father paid for the program; it hadn’t struck him as necessary to help with food and rent when you first fled your psychosis-afflicted mother and had nowhere to live. Your sister intervened, negotiating two hundred bucks a month from him so she could move into a bigger apartment and you could have a bed. Once you saw how it worked, you started scheduling your own appointments at his office to plead for what you needed: cash for your senior high school trip; cash to buy a prom dress; cash to see a therapist. He squirmed and flinched and cleared his throat. You took his money.
  5. Hit the brakes hard.
  6. Turn the music down a notch so the neighbors don’t think you’re a tool, though you’ve always loved the adrenaline whammy of operating a moving vehicle while rocking out. You even remember the song that was playing the moment the Dodge Challenger slammed into a lamp post, after your attempt to beat Mike in his silver Honda turned into a fishtail on a corner. Your father was upset that you wrecked his car. You pretended you didn’t care. Physically, you were fine, aside from glass in your hair and a bruise or two. Your cassette tape had a permanent warp at the moment of impact. It was in the middle of Black Cars by Gino Vannelli.
  7. Avoid looking in the rearview mirror. You don’t want to be reminded of the dark circles under your eyes.
  8. Look in the rearview mirror to check for chia seeds between your teeth. Notice the dark circles under your eyes.
  9. Roll back past the perimeter hedge and scout for the sibling set who always seem to be traipsing past your driveway but won’t make eye contact with you. Their mother doesn’t, either. It all started one sweltering day in July, eight years ago. Your husband walked three lots south to their house and asked the patriarch to turn down his music. Its booming bass broke your concentration while you worked on the eulogy for your father’s funeral. Papa was drinking. He swore at your husband for coming onto his property without a shirt on and disrespecting him. Meanwhile, you were trying to write something that was respectful. The anecdotes all originated within the last decade; it had required that much time to cease being merely transactional with your father, for you to pull back on your condemnation of what he wasn’t and allow some acceptance of what he was. Loving is more difficult than driving, you’d discovered. But you were determined to stand in the front of the hall at his service and demonstrate—to his friends, business associates, yourself—that you’d been an attentive enough daughter to speak to his character and accomplishments.
  10. A cursory check for traffic.
  11. Pull out into the street. As you shift from reverse to first, let your car roll before you hit the gas so anyone who’s looking can tell you own a standard, thus putting you in an elevated category of drivers. It’s also vital to impress upon the young man across the street that middle age doesn’t equate to boring and feeble. And yes, you admit, you advance this point with your loud music, too.
  12. Drive off, taking both hands off the steering wheel to fasten your seat belt. The German engineering in your British car makes it so it practically steers itself.
  13. Keep the speedometer under thirty until you turn the corner, otherwise you will be one of the many your husband curses at for speeding on your street.
  14. Head for the highway so you can push the needle on your tachometer past five as you shift into sixth. This is when you need to hang on to the wheel. Right now.
  15. Pull out into the left lane to pass a taupe Toyota, and another taupe Toyota, and an orange Dodge Challenger with black racing stripes. The model was restarted in 2008, a year before your father died. You feel a familiar pang of regret, wishing once again that you’d dropped by a dealership with him and taken the car for a test drive, an homage to how far the two of you had come, outdistancing expectation and obligation. And yet, still not far enough. You would have appreciated the chance to rack up another hundred thousand miles with him before his engine gave out, even knowing the limits of his responsiveness: As much as you itched to bring up the old days—when you were a six-year-old at Christmas and he didn’t show up, and a thirty-three-year old on your birthday and he didn’t show up—if he couldn’t address his failings as a human, neither could you. Emotional limits have an upside, though. In your father’s shortsightedness, he didn’t see your failings.
  16. Sing as you drive. Even if you don’t know all the words, sing. Emulate the vocal stylings of Adele mashed up with Dave Grohl, and scream and thrash your head around and drum on the steering wheel until your conscience is deaf.

•••

LAURA ZERA’s work can be found in Catapult, Quartz, The Washington Post, and other places. She has completed a memoir and is working on a novel set in South Africa. Website: laurazera.com. Twitter: @laurazera.

Regeneration

By Mark Morgan/Flickr

By Carla Sameth

Do you ever have one of those days where nothing feels like what you want to be doing? Like when you said goodbye to your twenty-one-year-old son who is visiting you and your wife in Connecticut where you’re staying temporarily, and he’s heading over to New York City, by train, to experience the city on his own terms? And you are nervous—like old times?

•••

Do you remember saying goodbye to your son as he went into the first inpatient treatment center? Do you remember leaving that day sobbing swimming pools­ worth of jagged tears? Ear-shattering howling when you were in your car. You thought you’d lost him forever. He blamed you for all of it: the drugs, the anxiety, his unhappiness. You saw the other boys. You’d see this again. You knew about the bullying, imagined the fear, intuited the sense of aloneness. Perhaps he was still hating, while desperately missing you, his mom. Trying to run away and wanting to climb into bed with you. He was still tethered but the line was frayed.

Once you left him at summer camp and he was the one who would not stop crying, who would not stay on the bus while other kids gave quick hugs and skipped happily away for the summer. Later, you might wonder if you should have turned yourself in to the Child Protective Services because you insisted he go. After all, you had plans, he was going with your friend’s son and you couldn’t just send her boy without your son. Then he sent that letter—you know, the please, Mom, rescue me now before it’s too late letter. And when you called, he told you he was okay, not to come. Later you wondered: were they threatening him with something?

•••

Did you know that worms fly onto your car and manage somehow to hold on even as you drive rapidly down the freeway? What makes them cling so steadfastly to the windshield? What are they doing there? Is it fun? Is someone scared for them? Are they saying Wheeeeee!!!

There is a man, Mark Hostetler, who calls himself a “Splatologist” and studies the “bloody show” that appears on windshields. He wrote, That Gunk on Your Car: A Unique Guide to Insects of North America and will tell you what are the most common insects to splat and leave road kill on a windshield.

Another article by Forest Health tells us about Canker Worms on windshields when I see a picture it looks like the worm on our windshield this morning. We—my wife, my son, and I—all wondered about that worm during the twenty minute drive to the train station to drop off my son where he’d take a train to New Haven and another to New York City.

My son’s dad, who I divorced long ago, was nostalgic about departures in a particular way that I can relate to—like saying goodbye to a loved one in a train station. But he was talking about an ex-girlfriend, “the one that got away.” And how you know that’s the end when you hug goodbye and say, I love you.

When my wife and I said goodbye to my son this morning, we knew he was coming back on Monday, and we know that we will see him again before he goes back to California. But what if someone murders him, or rapes him with a steel pipe, or really anything in the youth hostel? And what if he’s so tired and jet lagged (remember, he said he couldn’t sleep all night) and he loses all his identification? And he gets picked up and put in immigration detention indefinitely because he looks so much like he’s from the Dominican Republic, or Ethiopia, or Brazil. What if he’s racially profiled and accused of something that justifies a taking down by police, then he’s arrested, and he ends up on Riker’s Island?

•••

The worm must have lost the battle and been blown off from his sticky spot on our windshield or crawled off as if nothing fazed it. But it’s no longer there. I looked it up and I’m quite certain this is that sticky worm from North Carolina. How did it get there on our windshield here in Connecticut? I was in Charlotte two weeks ago but didn’t go by car. Did the worm come back with me? Come out of my suitcase, my clothes, my hair? Or maybe I ingested it by mistake and it came out in my poop.

•••

Saying goodbye to my son this morning hurt my heart. There are so many things I wanted to do, to be, to give, as a mother. I wanted to leave my son with the ability or means to have financial security, a house (but my second marriage and recession killed that), with a sense of self worth and safe refuge always (although, my wife and I don’t even know where we’ll be physically living in some years). And of course I wanted to be the all-encompassing earth mother.

I can say that he knows I’ll always be there for him. But always calm, I didn’t make the grade. My list of regrets is long and it’s more like an A –Z essay of all the ways I failed.

•••

Thinking and feeling: Worms have a brain that connects with nerves from their skin and muscles. Their nerves can detect light, vibrations, and even some tastes, and the muscles of their bodies make movements in response.

So they have a brain. Does it cause them pain—do they use it to torture themselves?

What about a heart? (This same article says they have five hearts!)

My son wonders what would it be like to be that worm—would life be simpler, easier, less painful?

What does it mean when my son imagines it easier to be a worm then to live his own life?

I get it; I’ve thought about being a cow.

But if a worm has five hearts and each heart can be broken many times in a lifetime, do worms live in constant grief?

•••

My son says his cousins (my sister’s two kids) are just perfect. I ask him to consider himself an amazing person: passionate, creative, with a great sense of humor and justice. To consider all that he is—partially because of what he went through—who created him/his family, and the experiences positive and negative. His recovery that helped solidify the spiritually sound young man he is. I tell him, again, that he has a big life ahead of him. He didn’t have a ready answer but said he thought he knew what I meant. I tell him I love my niece and nephew, but my time with him, well, I didn’t have the right words, but it’s a real three scoop banana split, maybe strawberry, pineapple and hot fudge, without the calories, and more. It’s joyous I tell him, my life with you, or when he sends me a link to a song or movie and watching it makes me cry. The posts on FB where he tells me that he is proud of my graduating from my MFA program. At fifty-seven.

My son has sometimes seemed like he wished to be someone else. Or that his name be Joe, instead of Raphael. When he was about five, a young girl he went to preschool with would come over to play, and one Friday afternoon they fought over the possession of a worm. Don’t worry, they regenerate, they’ll repair themselves my mom told me when I said I imagined they would rip it in two soon. My mom knew these things; she scored the highest in biology (Regents exams) in New York in her day. Raphael wanted to bring that worm to Shabbat dinner. This is not something my sister’s mother-in-law would have appreciated. I was odd enough already—single mom, lesbian, biracial child, financially…variable.

If worms can regenerate, I wonder if they become two brand new beings?

Do people regenerate themselves; do parents secretly hunger for this, an ability to create a second chance for all the earlier screw-ups? Do they live through their children and then try again with the grandchildren, employing entirely different strategies?

I couldn’t regenerate my business and I’m happy to say I finally traded it away to write for pennies or a kick in the pants. Worries fill my head in a way I doubt would happen as a worm but I suspect at ninety- or one-hundred-years-old, I’ll look up and say, And I went all this time without being homeless or hungry. And my son was just fine. God, I hope I don’t live that long. I just want to be a good enough person for the rest of what life I have. And maybe someday spend time with a grandchild or two.

My wife seems to have no desire to be reborn a worm on a windshield. She says she hates people and rails against every living human in her most curmudgeonly times. She doesn’t wish for regeneration, only rest. Once when I wailed about my stockpiled fatigue to my son’s dad, When do I get to rest? he said, You rest when you die.

My son used to cling to me and we seemed inseparable. And then, in his early twenties, it became time for my son to separate from me, and he had to pull away in a manner that felt almost violent in its starkness. When he was in his teens, drug addiction tore him away from me while at the same time we were still fiercely, unhappily intertwined. In recovery, for almost two years, our relationship under repair and thriving, I saw and spoke with him far more regularly than my friends did with their kids who went away to college. They sobbed tears of empty nesters while I was grateful for getting back my loving son. Then it was time for him to move out of the young man’s recovery house and get on with his life. And his young sober social life was more alive then what most of us experienced (not sober) at that time in our lives. Out there enjoying himself, without the same contained structure of the recovery house he’d lived in for almost two years, after we’d been together so intensely all his young life, he sometimes didn’t return a call or text for a few days. He acted like a “normal” twenty-year-old. I got my first dose of empty nest. He was really leaving home, leaving me, and in a healthy way.

I felt gutted. I just remember his little boy head falling over my shoulder when I carried him, asleep. Warm, soft, muggy sweaty lovey heavy feeling.

I remember his little baby lips moving in his sleep, nursing, leaving little milk blisters from sucking so much. And I remember how many ways a mom is split in half each time we say goodbye to our children: at birth, the rare moments one of us sleeps, at preschool where he feels torn away and you wonder whether he sat alone playing in the sand all day like you found him, or at the last residential rehab where there were more drugs inside then outside? I don’t know if we regenerate or not. Or if we are left unmoored. With only phantom limbs.

When my son left for New York this morning, he seemed ready. And tired. He said we snored and his long lanky body was too big for the sofa. My wife and I argued over whose snores kept him awake. And I wonder, will I hear from him today? That he arrived safely and is living his dream of traveling alone in New York City?

He probably has forgotten about the idea of being a worm right now. I miss him.

And I know that I can’t be the sticky worm on his windshield though; I’d fall right off.

All five of my hearts are breaking.

•••

CARLA SAMETH is a writer and mother living in Pasadena. Her story, “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which ran in Narratively, was selected by Longreads for “Five Stories About Addiction.” Carla was selected as a fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP) at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA).  She is a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets. Carla has an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University. Learn more at carlasameth.com and on Twitter: @carlasameth.

 

Lake House

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Milena Nigam

We arrive at the cottage at night, feeling for the gate latch in the dark. Then, with our arms tightly around the two boys, we slowly make our way down the stone stairs through the patio garden. Kamal, my husband, uses his cell phone to light our path in a single, glowing square. A wolf spider freezes above the screen door, and because the kids are with me, I pretend there’s nothing scary about opening a door in the dark when one enormous spider and who knows how many others hidden outside the cell phone light hover within touching distance.

“Do you have the key?” I whisper to Kamal.

“I’ve got it,” he says in his normal voice, the volume exaggerated over the gentle chorus of night bugs chirping from the forest behind us. We all have loud voices in our family: Kamal, Oscar, Simon, and me. In the dark, standing before the empty cottage, Kamal’s voice booms.

“Can I choose my room?” Oscar, our eight-year-old, asks.

“Shh shh shh,” I say, uncertain of being there until we’re inside.

Kamal unlocks the door.

“Ho, ho, here we are,” he says, punching along the wall to flick the light switch.

The inside smells like baked wood, warm air that hovers without circulation. Here we are. Mingling with the ghosts of my family.

•••

My great-grandparents purchased the cottage on Quaker Lake in 1906 and named it Forest Lodge. The story I know is that the cottage was built as a boarding house for the laborers who constructed the first homes around the lake. Before my great-grandparents bought it, the boarding house was split in two, with one half moved onto a neighboring plot of land. Our family’s half has the Great Room: a heavy, smoky space with a floor-to-ceiling fireplace built from the large stones mined around the lake. The Great Room staircase is made of birch logs, the papery bark curling where it has torn, just like the trees outside. Each bedroom has its own corner sink with only a cold water faucet, so small that it takes just the gentlest of fingers to work it. The wood around the sinks blooms in red water stains from a century of washing.

My great-grandparents died when my grandmother was young, but she still spent every summer at the cottage with her older brother and their commanding Grandfather Sisson. When my mom was a child, she and her sister spent one month every summer at the lake; their cousins enjoyed the house for the other month. By the time it got to my generation, we visited Quaker Lake to celebrate milestones: my grandparents’ fortieth and fiftieth wedding anniversaries, the one-hundred-year anniversary of Forest Lodge.

When Kamal and I were first dating, he joined my family at the lake for a weekend before my college graduation in nearby Ithaca, New York. The water was so cold; the spring ice had just recently melted. Kamal loves to swim. He had his bathing suit on that first afternoon, so of course I had to follow, wrapped in my oversized towel, shivering in bare feet on the stone walkway down to the lake. Before I had time to even dip my fingers in to gauge the temperature, Kamal dove off the stiff diving board, large bubbles escaping from his nose underwater. When we returned to the cottage together a half hour later, damp towels hanging heavily around our bare shoulders, Kamal’s black hair tousled every which way into spiky needles, my grandfather greeted us on the porch, rocking on a wicker chair with a golden old fashioned in his hand.

“Kamal, good job,” he said. “You got her in.” My grandmother was in the kitchen, puttering around with dinner preparations. “In every couple, there needs to be someone who helps us more reserved folk have a little fun.”

My teeth chattered. The sun behind us was weak.

“Papa, I just don’t like being cold,” I said.

He smiled at me. “But you had fun, didn’t you?”

•••

My mom’s cousin, Tom, and his wife, Wendy, have owned Forest Lodge for the past twenty years. Tom inherited it from his father, my grandmother’s brother. They are in their late seventies. Owning the cottage is becoming burdensome for them, but they would like to keep it in the family. Kamal and I live in Pittsburgh, a six-hour drive away. Having the house at Quaker Lake would be a dream come true for both of us. We’ve been talking about the specifics over the phone with Tom and Wendy since January. They invited us to spend this week before Labor Day to test it out. Our assumption is that we will buy the house from them in September.

•••

We drop our bags on the floor in the front room and go immediately to the dock to stare across the black water where my grandfather used to dive, where my aunt lost her engagement ring. Outside, the air is still and cool and the kids are finally quiet. Kamal lies on his back on the carpeted boards and searches through the Milky Way, the stars stretching above us in wide, dusty swatches. We go back inside, brush our teeth in the little corner sinks, and fall asleep cocooned within the deeply stained wood slats that make up the floors, walls and ceiling of the second floor.

•••

The last time we were at the cottage, just months earlier, it was a short visit to deliver my mother’s ashes to the family mausoleum in Binghamton, New York. My stepfather saved the last handful to sprinkle into the lake water. Before the sun dropped over the pastured ridge, two perfect rainbows bent across the white sky. Oscar, our older son, had been so in love with my mom that he often misbehaved in her presence. He and I sat silently in our kayaks on the darkening water and watched those rainbows until the moment they were no longer there. I have no belief in God, spend no time in spiritual inquiry. Those rainbows, however, hit me hard, reminding me that there are things in the large, large world we don’t understand. Connections hidden in physics, in chemistry, in the metaphysical. A perfect double-rainbow.

•••

When I wake in the morning, steam is rising off the lake. Simon, our younger son, and I take our breakfast onto the front porch and wrap a fleece blanket around our legs. Oscar and Kamal fish off the dock. They pull something glittery out of the water, and Oscar’s bare feet slap against the stone walkway, then up the porch steps.

“We caught a fish!” he announces, then runs back to the dock. The sun has burned through the morning steam. He and Kamal grasp the slippery body, and Kamal removes the hook. Oscar uses both hands to toss the fish back in the water. He runs back to the porch.

“Can we buy this house?” he asks. “Please?” His front teeth are coming in, squeezing out the space of several lost baby teeth. I love how his tongue smacks thickly in his mouth when he speaks. In September, he will start fourth grade, which was my favorite year in school.

Simon puts down his toast on the blanket. “Please? Can we buy the house?” he asks. Simon is growing his hair long; silky brown chunks hang past his ears. He’ll be in first grade soon. Under the blanket, his skinny legs are warm next to mine.

From the porch, I watch my husband on the dock. He stands still, looking out. A fracking truck rumbles down the narrow road on the far end of the lake.

We told the kids we would make our decision at the end of our stay, that we wanted to enjoy our visit to Quaker Lake without spending the whole vacation thinking about something as huge as buying a house. But of course we’ve already decided.

“I don’t know,” I tell the boys. “Daddy and I will tell you when we get home to Pittsburgh.”

“I think we should buy it,” Oscar says.

“We have to buy it,” Simon says.

The one thing I had been uncertain about was whether I might be scared at the cottage. Whether, without grandparents and parents and my sister and cousins, it would feel too lonely. My mom and grandfather both died during the past year, my grandmother just a few years before them. But it’s not ghosts that I feel at Forest Lodge. Instead, it’s the certainty of history. My family history. And now, looking into Oscar and Simon’s faces, I see it’s their family history. It’s so clearly our futures, too.

•••

We make tacos for dinner. The gas burner ticks and then catches, the flame chasing around the circle until it’s well-controlled. Kamal browns the ground beef while I dice grocery store tomatoes, and we talk quietly about the cottage.

“The drop ceilings have to go,” he says, speaking of the kitchen.

I nod my head yes. “But I don’t want to change the feel in here,” I say. “It’s dated. I love that.” The light wood cabinets have brass fixtures; the countertops are pale yellow laminate threaded in splotchy amber veins. One of the cutting boards is a polished piece of a neighbor’s old diving board. “I remember sitting at the table with Gam and Papa, shucking corn. Eating tuna fish on white bread and drinking 7-Up.”

We count things. Weeks of paid vacation. Weeks of unpaid vacation. Years until retirement. The miles from Pittsburgh. We brainstorm how to spend as many days at the lake as possible.

Tom and Wendy call us after dinner.

“We just want to check in. See how everything’s going,” Tom says. He and my grandmother grew up in Binghamton, only a half-generation apart. Over the phone, he sounds just like her, taking time with his vowels.

“How are you?” Wendy asks, almost in a whisper, like telling a secret she wants to take back.

“The cottage is great,” I tell them. “Just like I always picture it. The boys love it.”

“I’ve asked Jeanie Coughlin to stop by this week to say hello. She was great friends with your mom growing up,” Tom says.

Kamal writes me a note on a pad of paper by the phone. Tell them we’ll make arrangements for me to fly out to Binghamton next week. We can hire a lawyer to draft the sales documents. He’s ready.

Simon comes down the stairs in his fleece skull-and-bones pajamas. He can’t fall asleep. I hold back relaying Kamal’s note to Tom and Wendy. We can figure it out in a few days. After Simon is settled in his bed, Kamal and I tuck under our down comforter. We have to stretch across the king-size mattress to find each other.

•••

On our last morning, we take turns swimming the quarter mile across the lake. I swim first. Kamal ties a rope between a boogie board and the rowboat and pulls Simon, in his bright yellow life vest, behind him as he rows. Oscar paddles his own kayak.

I’ve swum across the lake a handful of times, always an event when we gather at Forest Lodge. Like every other time, I’m nervous before heading out. The water is cold. I push off from the algae-slick ladder and curl up my legs until I’m past the waving underwater plants. I know the fish won’t nibble at my skin as long as I keep moving.

Kamal rows beside me. Oscar shouts he wants to paddle ahead. Simon sings an adventure tune from his board. I do the breast stroke with my head above water, like always. My hands meet in front of me, my arms white beneath the surface. Scoop and glide. I blow out through my mouth but the glacier smell of the water still makes its way into my nose. It’s untouched, primeval. I have swum this length with my mom and my sister, with my stepfather. With my aunt in the rowboat, towels piled on the bench seat beside her.

•••

Before Oscar was born, I had a miscarriage. I was pregnant for thirteen weeks, the second half of the short pregnancy spent holding my stomach against waves of nausea. I bled and then cramped and then lost what had been growing inside me. The depth of loss took me by surprise.

“I don’t understand how I can miss something we never had,” I cried to Kamal from the toilet, blood clotting between my legs.

He kneeled next to me, his fingers stroking the palm of my hand.

“It’s because we’ve lost the future,” he said.

•••

When we get home to Pittsburgh, I email Tom and Wendy to tell them that we absolutely want to buy the house, become the next owners of Forest Lodge. Kamal reaches out to our local real estate agent to understand what needs to be done, even though she won’t be part of the final transaction. I don’t hear anything back from Tom and Wendy, so I wait a few days and try again by email.

Kamal’s schedule at work is pretty open. He can book a flight to Binghamton next week. Does that work for you?

The next night, Tom calls.

“I’m sorry to say we’ve changed our minds,” he says.

On the extension, Wendy speaks at the same time. “It’s just too much, you see.”

“It’s my fault,” Tom continues ahead. “I hadn’t talked clearly with Wendy. It turns out, we aren’t ready to sell the cottage.”

I scan my memory, racing through the many, detailed conversations we’ve had over the past eight months. Tom going over phone numbers for the handyman, for the pest control. Tom and Wendy telling us about the families around the lake, suggesting a summer camp the boys will want to try. Both of them certain that our family will love the lake as much as they have.

Tom slips in, almost as if I won’t hear it, “You see, we decided we couldn’t sell it when our granddaughter visited for the fourth of July. She just loves it too much.”

“But our visit was at the end of August,” I say, finally part of the conversation.

Wendy explains, “We were hoping you wouldn’t like it. Then we never would have to tell you we changed our minds.”

•••

I go through a period of mourning. I don’t know if the loss is more difficult because my mom died the year before, or whether I should know better, having lost my mom so suddenly, that a house is just a house. It’s difficult to tell the kids we will not be buying Forest Lodge. That Quaker Lake is not our home after all. There is an emptiness that precedes me through the parts of each day. It is a painful autumn. November is the anniversary of my mom’s death.

“I could see our retirement,” I say to Kamal. The Steelers game on our neighbors’ TV flickers across our living room windows. This time of year, Tom and Wendy are closing up the cottage for winter. “We’d be there, sitting on the porch, looking across the water while the sun goes down over the ridge.”

“I could see it, too,” he says.

•••

MILENA NIGAM is a Pittsburgh-based writer and a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She was a finalist in Cutthroat Journal’s Rick DeMarinis 2014 short story contest, and her work has appeared in Slice, The Fourth River, Lunch Ticket, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs and has recently completed a collection of short stories.