The Medicated Writer

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

By David Ebenbach

The writer Janet Burroway once famously said that “in literature, only trouble is interesting,” and it’s become a truism in the world of writing. Well, I recently gave a reading where, afterward, I argued that trouble isn’t the only interesting thing in literature. (Honestly, I don’t even think Janet Burroway meant her quote the way we hear it.) And I guess I sounded like a dangerously well-adjusted person for a minute there, because the moderator followed up by asking me how I have anything to write about if I’m not troubled myself. “Doesn’t all literature come out of being miserable?” he said.

•••

Let’s just get this out of the way:

Bupropion, three 150mg tablets once per day, prescribed for dysthymic disorder—that’s depression—usually taken with my breakfast-time glass of cold water.

Though sometimes it’s a glass of seltzer. Because who doesn’t like bubbles?

•••

When my first collection of short stories came out (Between Camelots), a lot of readers asked me the same question:

“But why is your book so sad?”

And I had answers. (In my experience, when you ask authors about their work, we usually do have answers, but we are pretty much guessing, or offering the provisional as fact, or wishing.) My typical answer was that literature in general and short stories in particular are supposed to be sad. After all, per the Burroway quote again, only trouble is interesting. And short stories are long enough to get their characters into trouble, but not long enough to get them out of trouble again.

(This claim of mine is very obviously not true, of course. I can think of a whole lot of good stories where characters end up getting out of trouble. I can even think of a couple of good stories, off the top of my head, where there isn’t any trouble in the first place.)

And then the person would usually go on to ask me this question:

“But why is your book so sad?”

•••

This is the place where I give you the etymology of the word dysthymia. But I haven’t looked up the etymology of the word dysthymia, so I’m going to make it up. Dys probably comes from the Greek for “not” or “can’t” or “against,” or something like that. And thymia, I’m going to say, comes from the Greek word that means “the understanding that good things, lovely things, are also possible in life.”

•••

One thing I know is that there are two worlds: the real world and the writable world. The real world is the real world, every complicated bit of it. The writable world, on the other hand, is what the writer notices and values and sees as material.

The writable world is only a subset of the real world, of course.

In some cases—in some mental states—it’s a very small subset.

•••

Or maybe Dysthymia comes from a single Greek work that describes something big.

I’m talking about an interior howling, a howling that starts up whenever the world reveals a little flaw or problem. You’re out walking and you see a dent in a car door, an abandoned lot, paint peeling from the side of a house, two people arguing, a stray dress shoe lost along the curb, a flush of shame crossing a person’s face. Anything. The size of the flaw doesn’t matter here. Regardless: Howling inside. A howling wind, rising to the chest, a desperate keening, in the throat, cold in the gut.

Anytime. Everywhere.

•••

Maybe this howling—this one voice, consuming but incomplete—is your whole writable world.

•••

But writers worry:

If I do something about my depression…

If I get a therapist, or (even more) if I take pills…

Will it kill the writing?

This can be a very scary question. For a lot of us, sitting down to write is the only thing that ever managed to quiet the howling. Not completely, and not for very long, but still—some relief there.

What if I lose the writing?

•••

Mental illness is the worst kind of illness, it seems to me, because it’s the only kind that produces excuses and lies to protect itself. When you get the flu or break a leg or have a heart attack, you never think, “Oh I should just work through this on my own.” You never think, “Well, this is just my artistic temperament.” You never think, “But I need this problem, for my work.”

Asthma means “You should do something about this.”

Diabetes means “You should do something about this.”

Cystic Fibrosis means “You should do something about this.”

And Dysthymia means…?

•••

You worry that writing is going to leave you.

In fact, you are so committed to writing that you’re willing to neglect your mental health just in case mental health is a threat to your work.

(Does that sound like a person who’s ever going to stop writing, with or without pills?)

•••

Does all literature come out of being miserable?

I’d like to answer that question with a different question: What about all the literature that never arrived because of being miserable?

What would Virginia Woolf have gone on to write if depression hadn’t killed her at the age of fifty-nine? What would Anne Sexton have written? David Foster Wallace? Sylvia Plath? Ernest Hemingway?

•••

My experience:

First there were the pills that didn’t work or caused other problems—side-effects and whatnot. It took a little while to find the right ones. But now I’ve been on the right ones for something like nine or ten years.

Life is better. And I don’t just mean that I feel better, though I certainly do. I mean that I look at life and see that it is a more complicated, better thing than I used to believe.

The howling has quieted.

And it turns out I still need to write as much as I used to. Or maybe more.

I mean, it’s been a busy nine or ten years, these years of medication:

In the three-and-a-half decades before the pills, one short story collection—my book Between Camelots—was published.

In the one decade since, three more books of fiction got published—including a new story collection and a first novel this year—plus a poetry chapbook, a full-length book of poetry, and a non-fiction guide to the creative process.

This is not the story of a person who’s lost his writing.

•••

Meanwhile, my writable world has gotten a lot bigger. I still write about the sad things, because sadness is part of the world’s truth, but it’s only part of it, so I also write about the ridiculous things, the electric things, the absurdity, the quiet beauty and the louder beauty of things.

A writer who believes that things are only sad is a writer somewhat out of touch with reality.

It’s as if I had been working for many years in a tiny room, staring at a tiny few things to write about, and now I’m working in a great big room—or, in fact, out in the open world—staring at everything, seeing things I’ve never been able to see before, seeing it all.

This also means seeing things—even stuff I’d already been in the habit of noticing—in their full complexity. It’s a bummer that the car has a dent in it, sure, but it’s still a car; it can still take people places. The house with the paint peeling is still a house; people can take shelter there. The two people argue and the other person’s face flushes because those people care about something.

•••

Now, I’m not saying pills work for everyone. I’m not saying therapy works for everyone. (Though I think there are a lot of folks who would benefit from both.) I’m not even saying that pills and therapy solve everything. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I still need to write is that, when I don’t, I do get a bit sad again. Not as sad as before, but a bit. In other words, writing still supports me. It’s just that now it has help.

What I’m really saying is I no longer believe that only trouble is interesting.

•••

What if your writing had more than one voice? What if it had the whole world to draw on?

•••

After I get done with another morning of writing, I come out of my office and pour myself a glass of water (or seltzer) and start a bagel toasting, and then I open the little prescription bottle.

Bupropion pills are tiny and white and round and smooth. Even taking three at once, even in the same swallow as a B-12 vitamin, they go down very, very easily.

•••

DAVID EBENBACH is the author of seven books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including, most recently, the novel Miss Portland. His work has been awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, the Patricia Bibby Award, and more. Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.

Read more FGP essays by David Ebenbach.

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Rocket Science

Photo by Jenifer Corrêa/Flickr
Photo by Jenifer Corrêa/Flickr

By Kate Haas

They gazed at me impassively, the man and the woman, each carefully neutral face masking—or so I imagined—the boredom of the entrenched bureaucrat settling in for a fifth hour of substitute teacher interviews.

“You arrive at the classroom,” said the guy, reading from a paper in front of him. “You find a vaguely written lesson plan. There are no administrators around to help. No one in the main office at all. What do you do?”

It was an implausible scenario, containing a hole a second-grader could have spotted. I was not here to point that out, I reminded myself. I was not here to be a wise-ass. This was my first formal job interview in seventeen years. I was here to play the game.

•••

Back in the 1980s, yanked by divorce from the stay-at-home life she’d imagined would continue indefinitely, my mother took the first job she could find, writing jacket copy for a major evangelical publishing company. My sister and I snickered at the freebies she brought home from the office: Christian Archie comics; spiritual marriage advice; and our favorites, a series of YA novels by a guy who operated a ministry for teen prostitutes, each book titled with the name of a girl (Vicki, Lori, Traci), its plot detailing her sordid downward spiral from teenage rebellion to the streets, followed by an uplifting finale at the ministry’s safe house, and a tearfully repentant Lori (or Vicki or Traci) flinging herself into the arms of Jesus.

My mother was an agnostic whose crammed bookshelves reflected her highbrow literary tastes: Jane Austen, Henry James, The New Yorker. But the divorce settlement favored my father, a man with a sometimey attitude toward child support. So with kids to raise and bills to pay, Mom peeled from our VW’s bumper the sticker proclaiming the Moral Majority to be neither, pulled on her nylons, and went to work.

“A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do,” she used to tell my best friend Clare’s mother when they got together on weekends to drink cheap white wine and swap stories about their lawyers and no-good exes.

•••

“It’s not about how good you are,” Clare counseled a few days before my interview. Like me, my old friend had quit teaching years ago. She’d recently gotten back in. “It’s whether or not you can speak the lingo.”

I remembered the acronym-larded professional development sessions back in the day, mandatory powerpoint presentations aimed at tired teachers surreptitiously trying to grade papers and plan lessons while simulating dutiful attention to the flavor of the month in educational strategy.

“It’s way worse now, with all the Common Core,” Clare said. “Don’t get me started. But you remember: redirect, assessment, collaborative learning, ownership, SSR.”

“SSR—shoot, I forgot all about that.” (SSR, for the uninitiated, stands for Sustained Silent Reading. SSR is to regular old reading as “sanitation engineer” is to “janitor”: the same damn thing.)

“Don’t worry, sister, you know what you’re doing,” Clare said. “Just tell ’em what they want to hear. Play the game.”

•••

I quit teaching high school at the turn of the millennium to stay home with my baby. It was a choice I was able to make because my husband earned just enough to support the three of us. But there was another reason I quit my job: I didn’t have the passion. The great teachers had it. Walking past their classrooms, you heard the bustle, felt the energy. Those teachers shone, with a core of dedication that couldn’t be faked. Sure, they griped about the troublemakers. They rolled their eyes, recounting some mouthy tenth grader’s outrageous comment. But their voices—exasperated yet understanding—gave them away. They loved those troublemakers.

I didn’t.

I was a decent teacher. I worked hard and planned my lessons carefully. I told my students that everyone has a story to tell. Real or imagined, we all have that story. I explained point of view, and starting a new paragraph every time the speaker changes, and providing necessary background information. I reminded them, more times than I ever imagined I would, to end sentences with punctuation.

My students wrote stories and essays and workshopped them together, drafting and revising multiple times before presenting their finished work. As a class, we applauded each presentation, and I pinned the finished pieces ceremonially to a special bulletin board with a shiny silver border. The kids acted like all this was no big deal, but it was.

When I informed my ninth graders that they would memorize the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, they didn’t believe they could do it. “Fourteen lines, guys, fourteen lines,” I told them. For the next month, we started every class by standing up and reading the prologue in unison. Sometimes we marched around the room reciting it. My students made a great show of rolling their eyes and muttering. (“Dude, can you believe this?”) But around they went, quietly at first, shuffling on the scuffed floor, then with increasing gusto: Two houses, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene…They had it down in two weeks. It was only fourteen lines, after all.

Sometimes, even at the end of a long day, the thrill of this would hit me: these words, ringing in the California air, four centuries and a world away from their birthplace.

But I didn’t have the passion. I was weary of contending with the core of disruptive students who filled my classroom, angry kids I couldn’t seem to reach. I envied people who were done at the end of the workday. My job was a never-ending slog of lesson-planning, essay-reading, and grading. It ate up every evening, and every weekend, and I couldn’t imagine continuing and raising a family, too. When I quit to stay home, the freedom was exhilarating.

Still, four years later, I felt a pang when my license expired. I didn’t want to teach again, but it was disquieting to realize I couldn’t. The licensing commission had a lot of nerve, I thought. No longer good enough were my master’s degree, years of experience, and the slew of National Teacher Exams I’d passed. Now they wanted coursework before I could renew. That meant going back to school. My children were one and four. It wasn’t going to happen.

But what if the worst occurred? What if I was left on my own, like my mom, to raise my children? All the stay-at-home mothers talked about that. Few of us were in a position to easily re-enter the professions we’d left. Without my teaching license, what job was I qualified for that could support a family?

I tried to ignore those questions. Life insurance would take care of me if anything happened to my husband. As for the other possibility, I tried not to think about that, either. My husband brought me flowers every Friday and sent hand-drawn postcards when he was out of town, even for a night. He wasn’t going to leave me.

Part of me didn’t believe that. It was the part that remembered the wave. That’s what we call it now: the divorce wave, the surge of broken marriages beginning in the 1970s and peaking when my mother got her job with the Christian publisher. By the time those waters receded, not one of my friends’ families remained intact. Forty years later, Clare and I are still sloshing through the ruins, trying to spot the faulty foundations, the unstable beams, to identify exactly which imperceptible weaknesses rendered our parents unable to withstand the tide. Even now, part of me can’t help thinking of divorce the way I did as an eleven-year-old: a catastrophe that strikes without warning, a tsunami on a clear day.

That teaching license was my only route to higher ground. I needed it back.

When the kids were finally in school, I dug out my expired license and called the state to find out how much coursework was involved in renewing it.

“Fill out Application C and send in fingerprints and $225,” said the young man on the phone.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “But what about the education credits? How many will I need?”

“No credits. They changed the law four months ago. All you need now is the application, the fingerprints, and the $225. Do you want me to send you the forms?”

They changed the law.

I was unprepared for the elation that surged through me, the rush of astonished gratitude—all of which I promptly poured forth upon the hapless guy on the phone. It felt, at that moment, as though he had personally intervened on my behalf; if I could have reached through the phone to embrace him, I would have. Then, like Cagney or Lacey interrogating a perp, I proceeded to grill him. Was he absolutely sure about this? It applied to all licenses? Finally, I thanked him profusely, my brain thrumming like a violin string. In the space of a few minutes, with no effort at all, my employment prospects had shifted from service industry to professional grade.

Not that I wanted to teach again. I’d built up a freelance editing business over the years, and it was paying for extras, like summer camp and music lessons. I was done with the classroom. We didn’t need the money. I didn’t have the passion. But now—now I had the option. I was standing on higher ground.

•••

Just ask an English teacher, and they’ll tell you: nothing gold can stay. The easy license renewal turned out to be a one-time deal. Four years later, it wouldn’t be so simple.

“I don’t care what you have to do,” Clare said. “Don’t let that license expire.”

She didn’t need to elaborate. For three years now, ever since her husband left their marriage, Clare had been wading through deep water. From the opposite coast, I’d cheered her efforts get back in the classroom: enrolling in graduate school, taking after-school teaching gigs, updating a resume with a thirteen-year gap. The hardest part was renewing her expired license, an epic bureaucratic campaign spanning eighteen months and involving the tracking down of records in three states.

“Letting the license expire was my biggest mistake,” she warned me every time we talked, a speech that always reminded me of the anti-drug commercials of our youth. “Don’t let it happen to you.”

I didn’t intend to. After a semester of online coursework at my local community college, I possessed the fresh transcripts necessary to satisfy the state licensing commission for another three years.

Now here I was in the district administration building, interviewing for a job. Not that I wanted to be a substitute teacher, exactly. But this time, it wasn’t about whether or not I had the passion. What I had was two teenagers, one of whom would be applying to college in a year. What I had was residency in a city where substitute pay is among the highest in the nation. I could set my own schedule if they hired me here, contribute to the college fund, and still have time to write and edit. What I had, in fact, was the prospect of an ideal side gig. Yeah, I wanted this job.

But I didn’t need it.

My husband’s position at a public agency survived the recession, thanks to a stable tax base. And after his seventeen years there, we’re no longer balancing on a financial tightrope, the way we were when I first quit teaching. The mortgage would be paid on time if I bungled this interview, and the orthodontist’s bill. No one would go hungry in my house if these two didn’t like my answers.

I wasn’t thinking about that—not consciously, anyway—as I explained how I would amend that vague lesson plan on the fly, make it specific. I was focused on playing the game, nimbly referencing stalwarts of the Language Arts curriculum, like Of Mice and Men and Raisin in the Sun. I avoided pointing out that under no circumstance—except possibly the Rapture—would a public school’s main office be devoid of personnel at eight a.m.

Neither interviewer spoke when I finished. They looked at me expectantly.

I’d already described my disciplinary strategies and my approach to lesson planning. I’d talked about meeting each learner at their level. Wasn’t I speaking the lingo? Hadn’t I demonstrated my professional competence?

I launched into another example, this one based on using classroom clues to devise a lesson. Art on the wall indicates a unit on the Middle Ages? I’d have students write a dialogue between a serf and a knight, or an artisan and a priest.

Still no response. What more did these people want?

“I could do dozens of things in this scenario,” I said, perhaps inexpertly masking my exasperation. That was when it happened, when I heard myself add, “You know, this really isn’t rocket science.”

•••

My interviewers flicked glances at each other, then fixed me with identical fishy stares. After a long pause, the woman said “Do you have any questions for us?”

No, I did not.

I berated myself all the way to the parking lot. Substitute teaching is not, of course, rocket science. But Clare, or anyone who really needed that job, would never have permitted herself to say so. She wouldn’t have been so careless, not with the water rising around her.

But we all have a story, and in the one that’s mine to tell, my toes have never even gotten wet. I’m still not certain how to account for it.

At forty or fifty, not everyone is the same person they were at twenty or thirty or wants the same things. No one understands that better than people like Clare and me, who lived through the wave, who watched our fathers—and it was mostly the fathers—decide that, after all, our mothers were not the women they wanted to grow old with. For us, marriage felt like an extraordinary gamble, like stepping aboard a rocket, equipped with nothing to calculate its trajectory but love and hope.

My judgment is no better than Clare’s, or her mother’s, or mine. I haven’t worked at my marriage any harder than they did. Yet in my story, the man who seemed fundamentally decent and kind at twenty-five is still both of those things twenty years on. The young woman who decided to spend her life with him hasn’t changed her mind about that. The waters have held back from us. Which is why I’m standing here on dry ground, secure enough to be a wise-ass at an interview, a writer who doesn’t actually need a day job. Most of the time, it all feels like the sheerest luck.

Maybe they appreciated my honesty. Or maybe anyone with a credential and a pulse was going to get that job. Either way, I was hired. And that felt lucky, too.

•••

KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, OZY, Slate, and other venues. A regular contributer to Full Grown People, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Read more FGP essays by Kate Haas.

Just. Don’t.

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

By Catherine Newman

This is just one thing that happens: a software developer writes me a nasty, condescending email in which he says he’s sorry only that I understand nothing about technology.

Years ago I had purchased a lifetime subscription to an app of his, and my querying email about downloading it onto my new computer (“Would you please tell me how to …?”) has been met with his suggestion that I will need to purchase an upgrade for my new operating system; the old version of the app doesn’t work any more. “Hmm,” I have written. “Do you think that’s what I understood ‘lifetime’ to mean?” And he has replied that yes, it should be. He has explained that I do, indeed, retain my right to use the old, unusable system for the rest of my life, so I still have exactly what I paid for.

I’m shaking. That’s how mad I am. “He never would have written me like that if I’d been a man,” I say to my husband Michael, who nods slowly in a way that makes me want to kill him.

When I tell a friend this story over lunch, she says, “I’m sorry, no. What if the post office were suddenly, like, ‘Oh, a forever stamp? No, no. That’s from before. You can still use it, but your mail won’t go anywhere.’”

“You’re saving my life,” I say, and she laughs and pats my arm.

•••

Something is wrong with me, only I don’t know what it is. Or how to fix it. In the middle of the day or night, rage fizzes up inside my ribcage. It burns and unspools, as berserk and sulfuric as those black-snake fireworks from childhood: one tiny pellet, with seemingly infinite potential to create dark matter—dark matter that’s kind of like a magic serpent and kind of like a giant ash turd. This is how it is for me right now.

Or how it is sometimes because also I smile a lot. I make an applesauce cake with brown sugar icing, because I know the kids will say, “Yay! Yum!” when they get home from school—and they do. I write a beloved editor a note to remind her how grateful I am for our years of working together, and she responds, “Oh god, me too!” I walk in the woods with my fourteen-year-old daughter, and we alternate between admiring the electric green fuzz of springtime and speaking intently about the complexity of gender, which she is turning in her mind like a Rubik’s cube. We whisper in our pussycat’s ear and laugh when he pushes our faces away with his bored paw. I read fantastic novels in bed like the world is ending and there are just these fantastic novels to read before it does. When I finally click off my headlamp, I experience the luxury of wrapping myself around my husband’s warm, dreaming bulk. I’m friendly and funny. I’m easy to work with.

Only, also, I’m not, even though I always was before. But now I’m biting my angry tongue. I’m sitting on my angry hands so I won’t wrap them around somebody’s infuriating neck. There is acne bubbling up from underneath my lined and angry red face. “I pretty much just hate men,” I say, smiling, and some of my friends laugh, some tighten their foreheads in puzzlement. Sometimes, in the night, my mind is like a butterfly net, lunging after injuries so I can pin them into my aggrieved display case.

Part of it is hormones, I know. I wish they were visible, like when the radiologist injects you before a scan, and you can see the dye pumping fluorescently through your veins. Sometimes I actually feel as though I’ve been injected with something—not dye, though, as much as testosterone. Amphetamines. I worry that I’m going to land on the other side of menopause, blinking in the sudden sunlight, wondering where all my friends and family and work went.

But then it makes me so mad even to write that, because part of it is not hormones. Part of it is the fact that so many men are assholes. I am just so sick of it.

•••

Something I’ve written gets passed from an editor I’ve worked happily with for ages to her brand-new boss, who suggests that my stuff is a little too “voicey.” “Your voice is good, it’s great!” he’s assured me, in the note accompanying his almost grotesquely word-for-word edit of my piece. “But it’s a little much, you know?” Cue the black-snake firework. Yes, the pellet is already there, sure, but it’s these jerks who put a match to it, who trigger its furious unfurling.

The wagons circle on Facebook, where I complain about the editor. “We love your vagina!” I write, by way of analogy. “I mean, it’s great, it’s beautiful. But could you do something about the way it looks and smells?” I get amen from the women. Some of the men mansplain to make me laugh, which I do. And one man writes, in earnest, “Tell me about it! In my profession, you get mansplained, womansplained, childsplained, everybodysplained.”

“That gives me kind of an All Lives Get Splained feeling,” I write, irritated by his willful erasing of power from this problem, and he doesn’t write back. I’m torn between anger and regret—Ugh, my temper!—but then the regret only makes me angrier. Why should I feel bad? I write funny, mean emails to the editor and then, without sending any of them, quit my long-standing gig there.

•••

A friend of a friend dies—a woman my age with an arrestingly beautiful and vibrant presence—and I stalk her mourners online in a strange way. “She was the kindest person I have ever known,” somebody writes, everybody writes, and I wonder if she was ever angry or horrible. I hope she was; I hope she wasn’t. A man she knew for a matter of months writes a long explanation of who she really was, inside. I hate him, hate everybody. I wish I were the kindest person anyone had ever known. I worry that Michael wishes I were more wifely: pretty and perfumed, willing and gentle. I’m furious just imagining this. But also sorry.

I watch a Youtube video about a large dog trying to sneak past the sleeping housecat on his tippy-toes because he’s afraid of her. There is something comically familiar about this scenario.

•••

“We don’t have any cold cuts for school lunch,” the seventeen-year-old says, peering into the refrigerator.

“Oh, your highness, a thousand pardons!” I cry from the kitchen couch, where I am sitting beneath the cat, and my gentle, sweet-hearted son raises his eyebrows.

“Just that I’m putting them on the shopping list,” he explains, and I sigh, say, “Sounds good. I’ll get some ham.”

•••

My daughter’s young, butch guitar teacher stays after their lesson to kvetch with me about men and politics. I’m frying onions at the stove, wearing an actual apron, and I brandish my spatula, say, “Fuck them all,” and, bless her, she laughs. Courtesy and wrath crash together in me like cymbals. I’m a fucking etiquette columnist, for god’s sake! But while I do believe in goodness, in compassion, I don’t believe in smiling while men spray their hot and aggressive horribleness into your face. My daughter manages to inhabit kindness and fierceness without splitting apart at the seams. She is my role model.

•••

A friend recommends a particular garlic press on Facebook: “I have bought probably half a dozen presses in my life, this is the only one that didn’t make me angry.” I laugh, and am relieved that other women are angry too, about whatever. There’s a nasty woman joke in here somewhere, but I can’t bear to put Trump in this essay. He is its missing center.

•••

My parents visited once when we lived in Santa Cruz, and Michael and I took them to a fancy seafood restaurant at the wharf. We sat at an open window over the sea, eating crab claws and lobster bisque, the sky the unbelievable blue of a child’s painting, while a seagull stood in the window the whole entire time, choking on a starfish, hopping around on one foot, intermittently gagging and barfing, three of the starfish’s five legs jutting from its mouth. “This is lovely,” my lovely English mother said unironically, and I think I laughed. Absolute perfection with a gagging seagull in the middle of it is pretty much my entire life.

•••

Here’s a confession: my interaction with the software developer escalates, and I end up letting him know that I’m a journalist. He writes back a blisteringly angry email, calling me out on threatening him obliquely, and I apologize. “Life’s too short for this,” I write. “Forgive me. I was angry. I shouldn’t have written that. But I don’t think you are communicating honestly with your customers, and I hope you do.” He never writes back, and I am seething and, now, also humiliated. I know you’re supposed to forgive people, even when they don’t ask for forgiveness. But it is so hard.

•••

My boss walks into our office while I am looking at a Fuck the Patriarchy needlepoint pattern on Etsy. I already have a framed cross-stitch on my wall that says The way to have a friend is to be one, and I believe deeply in both of these sentiments. “I’m turning back into an angry feminist,” I say, and he says, “I wasn’t aware you’d stopped!” He’s a poet and I have been his secretary for fifteen years.

“When you’re done complaining, make me some damn coffee!” he says, but he is kidding. He fills the pot, makes the coffee. He’s as fierce and gentle as my daughter, as anybody I know.

I don’t always feel just one way. I’m not always sure. And maybe that’s what it is to be a grown-up—living in the middle place, where you can’t decide quickly about everything. A misanthrope, in love with the world.

•••

CATHERINE NEWMAN is the author of the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy, as well as the food and parenting blog Ben and Birdy. She is also the etiquette columnist for Real Simple magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Boston Globe, and many other publications. Her first middle-grade novel, One Mixed-Up Night, will be published by Random House in fall of 2017. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family.

Read more FGP essays by Catherine Newman.

Lift

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

By Jennifer Richardson

My grandfather Woody occasionally picked up hitchhikers. We only knew about it when he mentioned it in passing. He certainly never did it when my sister or I, his only grandchildren, were in the car with him. This is not to say he was overly conservative in our company. A swig from an airline bottle of Smirnoff while driving was on the acceptable end of his personal scale of safety around kids.

Woody would drop news of his latest lift into casual conversation as if it was no big thing, because to him, a child of the Great Depression, it was no big thing. The two defining stories of his personal mythology were both Depression-related and he told the first one with tremendous pleasure at every family gathering. It was the story of how he, along with his parents and siblings—Burl, Vernyl, Leonard, Pauline, and Helen—headed west from Arkansas and the Dust Bowl along a wood plank road in a used hearse. Mistaking them for a funeral procession, other cars on the road would stop, the passengers doffing their caps. The other story is that he picked cherries for a penny a pound when he eventually made it to Redlands, California. He told this story less often and, when he did, there was no nostalgia.

In the intervening years of the mid-twentieth century, he achieved the American dream that still exists today, even if it’s largely unattainable, rising to middle-class wealth as a salesman for the gas company. His childhood of grinding poverty stayed with him, surfacing in the stories, his pleasure in growing his own food in his backyard vegetable garden, and the combination of fearlessness and empathy that occasionally led him to stop and pick up a stranger on the side of the road.

My grandfather’s circumstances when I came to know him were a world away from those when he arrived in the Golden State; my own experience at that age overrode any knowledge I had of his past. That experience, as a child of the eighties, was hysteria over mall kidnappings that had ingrained into me to never get into a car with a stranger. The thought that someone would actively solicit getting into a car with a stranger and that my grandfather might be such a stranger was wildly illicit and dangerous and strange. I wanted to know everything.

I would, however, learn nothing. My grandmother Willie’s dagger-eyed distaste for my grandfather’s disclosures always cut the conversation short. Her reaction was not one of concern for his safety, although that may have been the pretense, but rather a cool disdain for his violation of bourgeois norms. She had also come from severe hardship, first in the panhandle of Texas where the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 orphaned her before she was one, then in Oklahoma before finally making it to California. She was a career woman, working her way up to head the San Bernardino County DMV, and, together with my grandfather, had achieved a standard of living that included flocked wallpaper in the guest bathroom and membership at the Arrowhead Country Club. Willie, understandably, had no interest in behavior that lacked alignment with this hard-earned status.

•••

Both my grandparents have been gone for years now, but my husband’s recent foray into driving for Uber reminded me fondly of my grandfather’s predilection for providing transport to strangers. When Doug first broached the idea about a year ago, I reflexively resisted. Surely our insurance wouldn’t cover it—a drunk person would vomit in the car, think of the wear and tear! Hiding just under the surface of my purposefully reasonable objections was a smidgen of my grandmother. My protests turned out to be unnecessary. Our 2004 Volvo was too old to meet Uber’s standards.

This was not the first time my own bourgeois hang-ups had led to discomfort about my husband’s job. Early in our marriage, after a decade working in the entertainment industry and the heady early days of the internet, he had turned down a non-optional work transfer to Dulles, Virginia so that we could stay in Los Angeles. In the aftermath of that decision, he bobbed around some start-ups before landing part-time work at Los Angeles International Airport, employed by an acquaintance who had a contract to maintain the airport police’s computer systems. One of his jobs was cleaning out the keyboards in airport police cars. He had no qualms about his menial tasks, although he did find the depth of seriousness exhibited by one of his colleagues amusing. This colleague, who had been charged with training my husband on his first day, had presented him with a PowerPoint in which he declared with characteristic post-9/11 American earnestness, that, armed with tiny canisters of compressed air, their mission was to “save lives.”

We bonded over this joke, but the subtext for me was that he was working with losers and, well, you are who you surround yourself with. To put it another way, at this point in my life I was unclear on the distinction between who you are and what you do for work. (Fifteen years later, it’s something I’m still teasing out.) My husband seemed less concerned about the potential for disastrous Svengali-ism at the hands of Mr. Saves Lives. In fact, he was downright relaxed. Much to my annoyance, I often found him in a state of repose on our couch when I arrived home from work. He had been in full-time employment since he was seventeen, he occasionally reminded me. He deserved a nap.

•••

Late last year Uber relaxed their rules and our old Volvo, affectionately known as Virginia, was in. Deterred by my earlier reaction, Doug didn’t tell me about his first drive until after it was done. He need not have been concerned. My qualms had subsided, which I attribute in part to the life-changing magic of not giving a fuck—to borrow the title of a bestseller—that comes with every hard-won year of my middle-age. My ease was also a product of our financial security relative to the position we had been in when my husband worked at the airport. This time we didn’t need the money, a fact that served as a psychological buffer. It was an updated version of my grandmother’s flocked bathroom wallpaper, only this time it gave license to take the stance opposite of hers. She and I were two generations apart, bonded by our adherence to two sides of the same snobby coin.

It also helps that Doug dabbles in other more conventionally middle-class pursuits, most recently interning as a marriage and family therapist. He’s a Gen-Xer, but he has a millennial’s predilection for the gig economy which is handy, since apparently, we’re all going to be working multiple part-time jobs till we die. In addition to Uber and the intern hours working towards the therapist license, he does freelance project management and offers his services as a pet-sitter on Rover.com. Sometimes the dog he watches semi-regularly, a pit bull/Australian cattle dog mix, comes along with him when he drives Uber, which has gone down surprisingly well with his customers. I think there’s more potential synergy to tap between my husband’s varied vocations: micro-therapy sessions for the length of your ride, uberPOOL as group therapy.

After all, people love to talk in an Uber. (I know, I’m one of those folks recently lampooned on SNL who always asks my Uber driver how long he or she’s been doing it.) The company may go down in history as the poster child of the on-demand economy, but that is missing the more interesting sociological point. Uber may be a smartphone app, but the experience it facilitates feels like one of the last places left where strangers still speak to each other. I’ve never been on either side of the hitchhiking equation, but I imagine the dynamic, assuming nobody is committing murder, is more akin to Uber than cab.

In just two weeks, my husband’s Uber stories top anything I’ve heard at the corporate watercooler in twenty years. His first passenger’s boyfriend packed parachutes for people about to skydive solo for the first time, a stranger’s life literally in his hands. His second was a neurosurgeon from Ecuador who lives in North Carolina, with whom he discussed the convergence of psychology and neuroscience. Then there was the wheel-chair bound young man who declined assistance as he folded up his chair, explaining that six months earlier the hydraulic lift had broken while he was working on his car, paralyzing him from the waist down. In Santa Barbara, a Manhattan couple got a ride to an anti-Trump party in a mansion in Montecito. On inauguration day, a military man on his way to Port Hueneme explained he would be watching the ceremony because “I voted for him.” That afternoon two gay Latino brothers, both high as kites, got a lift to the TGI Fridays in Oxnard to meet up for drinks with friends.

My husband claims the part of Uber he finds most interesting is the technology, fascinated by the algorithms of supply and demand. But every day that he drives he tells me his best stories with obvious relish, and I listen to these tales of strangers with vicarious delight. These are the stories I never got to hear from my grandfather, the ones he took to his grave.

•••

JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her husband now drives for Lyft, and she’s yet to convince him to pick up a hitchhiker. Find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.

Read more FGP essays by Jennifer Richardson.

Cleaning Girl

By Allen Goldblatt/ Flickr
By Allen Goldblatt/ Flickr

By Rebecca Weaver

Oh my god … what is that smell? My boss and I had just crossed the threshold of his house. Dark, shades drawn. Bikes and skateboards in the corner and hanging from the wall. A couch converted into a bed in the living room. He had a greasy brown ponytail and pale blue eyes, one of which would twitch unpredictably. The second you thought it was done, it started up again. Mostly he kept his eyes on the floor.

“So, yeah. It’s been a while. I lost my last cleaner a couple weeks ago.”

An orange cat with matted hair strolled across the back of the sofa to me. I reached my hand out to pet it. It sniffed and backed away.

“Yeah, they’re shy,” he said to the floor.

“I like cats,” I said.

“Oh!” My boss looked around. “You have more!”

Across the living room, two were lolling around on the couch atop what looked like a baby blanket of cat fur. Polluted cream clouds against navy blue cushions. In the slants of daylight I could see wisps of hair floating. It had to be at least a year since any other human had been in this place. My eyes watered. I’m not even allergic. By the time my day was over I would count six cats, but there may have been more.

“Well, give us a tour!” my boss said.

•••

I started cleaning houses in 2011 a couple months after I graduated from college. I had moved to the Bay Area with my older boyfriend, and I—along with my degree in Dramatic Literature—couldn’t get a job anywhere. The recession and the boom in Silicon Valley were chewing up San Francisco and even the coffee shop baristas were really out-of-work professionals in their thirties and forties making latte art. The hipster cafe (we still called them hipsters then) was getting into full swing. I’d only worked in shitty coffee shops earlier in the 2000s when they were grungier, less sleek, with more couches and board games and plants, java vibes held over from the nineties.

I didn’t want a job but I needed one. I mostly wanted to be left alone. It was a relief to clean. My dad had just died two years earlier from cancer and I saw his face all day long. Sometimes he was healthy and laughing, and sometimes his face was gray like cement and his hair was growing back in mousy patches after the chemo.

My motivation to begin a post-college life was unpredictable. I kept making to-do lists to start an acting career or to write a novel, but the lists just made me feel like a failure. I’d set up auditions then wouldn’t show up, unable to imagine how I could ever speak in front of people again. I had panic attacks where it felt like my blood was carbonated and I was afraid I might start screaming any moment.

A funny thing that happens when you’re in deep grief: you forget why you’re depressed. I spent years waking up and reminding myself that my dad was dead. Later in the day I would forget and try to remember why I wasn’t able to drag myself to the dentist or wash the dishes. And then I would have to tell myself: Your dad’s dead, he died from cancer, he was white and skeletal the last time you saw him, he looked down at his hands when the hospice nurse spoke, he was embarrassed when he knocked his coffee over at Christmas because he was less than a month away from dying and he was weaker than anyone knew or could understand.

And I would think, Oh, that’s right. I would then collapse and crawl into bed and click around on health websites or read books on how not to get cancer.

I didn’t have any friends in the Bay Area and, while I wanted them desperately, I couldn’t handle people my own age, their happiness, their bored wit. I had nothing but emptiness; even my laugh sounded false and far away to me. I had studied acting in school and I wanted nothing more than to be invisible.

•••

My boss—I’ll call her Dani—was a springy soccer mom with wiry hair, zero body fat, and the best, chipperest, can-do attitude I’ve ever seen. She wore sweatshirts with the neck cut out like in Flashdance, leggings, and white Reebok sneakers. She once injured her back in yoga class because she wanted to be the best. We found each other on Craigslist and I started cleaning the day after she hired me.

Sometimes Dani would meet me on the road in front of the house and we’d tour it together, but other times I’d be on my own. People showed me their cleaning supplies and told me how they liked certain things done. One woman had a typed up list for every single surface of her home and a specific cleaner required for each item, including faucets and light fixtures. In a Berkeley apartment an old cat swatted at me and meowed sourly like it was sick. It stalked me around the apartment and couldn’t be deterred even when I threatened to hit it with a chair. I got it behind a bathtub and had to call my boyfriend. He came and chased it out with a broom and it screamed its way into the guest room I’d already cleaned. We locked it in and, when I left, I opened that door and ran. One house had two heavy metal musicians that had gargoyles for knobs on their kitchen cabinets. In their bathroom they had essential oils and Chanel products and in their basement they had a thousand dollar sauna.

My boyfriend and I were living in an in-law apartment in the hills of El Cerrito—the cheapest place we could find with some of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen and an incredible view of San Francisco. We didn’t have a couch so we hung out on the futon mattress on the floor or on a blanket on the carpet by the TV. At night we’d look across the bay at the city we couldn’t afford.

Our landlord, who I’ll call Jim, was a skinny Carradine brother–lookalike in his sixties with a gray bushy mustache and wild eyes. He liked to chitchat and once caught me for two hours by describing at least five different episodes of Ancient Aliens and bringing down a photo album with photos of his old girlfriends and his fiancée who had been a model and had died tragically from cancer. Once I had to go up into his home to deal with the WiFi, and he had Playboy covers from the eighties in frames on his wood panel walls.

Another time he wanted to show me an option for a refrigerator he had in his garage. The garage was filled to the ceiling, three quarters of it full, with boxes stacked haphazardly on top of one another. They looked like they hadn’t been moved in a long time and the cardboard had softened over years of fog rolling in across the bay. He pointed at the boxes. “My mother’s wedding dress is in there. I can’t bear to go through her things.” His mother had died the same week as his fiancée. Almost twenty years ago.

•••

My boss and I toured the rest of his home, a bungalow on a dead end street in Oakland. The cats scattered as we walked the rooms and then softly tiptoed behind us. The kitchen at the back was surprisingly neat, just a couple crumbs on the counter. The bedroom seemed all right although the air was suffocating. As it turned out later, there was solid mass of white and gray cat hair under the bed an inch thick, like a secret rug.

He brought us to his office, a long narrow room running the length of his living room on the opposite side of the house. There was an enormous desktop computer setup with speakers and a soundboard where he would later sit almost the entire time I was cleaning. The smell was pervasive in here, sharp and unwell. In the corner was a closet without a door, a bright light overhead. He nodded toward it. “So the real part that needs to be cleaned is over here.” We walked over and hit a wall of ammonia and stench I’d never experienced before nor since.

Twenty-five square feet of cat piss. The two boxes of kitty litter were overloaded and the cats had taken to going on the floor where he’d spread newspapers. It was clear he’d waited maybe a year, maybe more to clean this closet other than a quick scoop of the kitty litter and another layer of newspaper which was now about one to two inches thick. I could see cat urine shining on some of the rotting floorboards where there were holes in the paper. A cat hopped out and ran past us, leaving wet paw prints through the office.

“Wow! Oh! Okay!” Dani clapped her hands and turned away. She smiled wildly, blinking hard, her knuckles whitening in front of her chest. I kept my face neutral and held my breath. We looked at each other a second. The room was silent as her mind ticked. She’s getting me out of this, I thought. This is not part of the job description.

“Well!” she said finally. “She’s gonna need some gloves!” She pointed a finger at the sky, triumphant.

“Yeah, I got some,” he said from the other side of the room. He’d never even come with us to the closet but instead watched us from afar, testing the waters.

“Well, how about she leaves that”—she stepped delicately away from the closet and I followed—“to the end, cause that’s a big job!” I’m from the Midwest and I can tell you that there was practically a “dontcha know” at the end of that chipperest of statements. It was all well and good. We’d take care of it—meaning me.

“Yeah, well, that’s the main thing I need done.” His eye twitched as he looked around at his walls, his fingernails, anything but us.

“Well, it’s a whole house cleaning we agreed on, so that will wait to the end.” Dani pinched her lips, firm, and he agreed as he walked her to the door.

A few minutes later she was gone and I was cleaning, sucking the hair carpet and kitty litter crumbs off his couch, dusting tables and shelves that hadn’t been cleaned in a year. He barely had enough rags for the job. I eventually resorted to vacuuming his shelves of cat hair and dust before using a cloth. He worked at his computer, some unknown alt-rock playing on his speakers. Every once in a while he’d laugh asthmatically at something online. He sat five feet away from the cat closet. I had to step out to his backyard regularly just to breathe.

•••

Recently, back in Wisconsin, my mom had had to put down our dog Hans. Hans was a huge, fluffy Golden Retriever that would lie on the bed with her when she cried for my dad. The dog would rest his squishy face by hers and let her release her tears in a torrent and wait patiently for her to let it go. His legs had always been weak and one day they stopped working and he couldn’t carry himself any longer. She was on her own in our family home and I was in California, cleaning houses. When she told me Hans was gone, I fell to the floor in my kitchen and sobbed uncontrollably until my neighbor knocked softly on the wall to please stop.

It occurred to me once that cleaning people’s houses felt as if I were helping to prevent their homes from rotting. The moisture on the bathroom ceiling, the dust on the bookshelves. Dead skin cells everywhere. I cleaned and thought about how we were all trying so hard not to die. Stainless steel in the kitchens. Everyone wanted it and yet the stains were sometimes impossible to remove. It reminded me of fingerprints on iPhones, but permanent. A polished lifestyle that had no room for human dirt and oil. Touchscreens that aren’t meant to be touched.

•••

I once wrote a script for a short film about this experience. I wrote the Cleaning Girl working her way through his home with one eye on the guy the whole time. Petting the cats when she could for comfort. Avoiding turning her back on him for too long because sometimes she could feel his twitching eye on her body. Texting her boyfriend out on the back stoop so someone knew where she was. The Cat Guy passive aggressively bringing up the closet two, three, four times as a reminder that “that had to get done,” while she insisted every time that she had to clean everything else first. Only in this version the Cleaning Girl found her courage and stood up to the Cat Guy, called him “disgusting,” and threatened to call Animal Services, eventually storming out. She even gave a cupcake to a homeless guy on the way to the freeway at the end because what the hell, why not.

I never made that short film.

This story is not like that one. This is the story of how I did the job.

I had the gloves. I should have had goggles. The air was thick with dander and urine. Stinging, acidic, ammonic in my lungs, I imagined them raw and red like the back of your throat when you’re sick, though really I have no idea what lungs look like other than drawings from textbooks. My entire chest hurt and my eyes watered and my nose burned all the way up through my forehead. I closed my mouth and worked as long as I could without breathing but then I realized I had to and breathed under my shirt which kept slipping as I carefully picked up flat, inch-thick pads of newspaper, soaked in cat urine and shoved them into plastic garbage bags.

The cats watched me from around the corner, eyes wide in that pointed, appalled way that cats have, glancing down at their soggy, rotting bathroom and back up at me.

•••

I drove home without the radio on. Rush hour from Oakland to the Berkeley Hills. My head throbbed all the way to the back of my skull. I didn’t know if I could tell my boyfriend or my mom or anyone. I had taken my shoes off and put them on a newspaper I’d found on the floor in the back. Soles sticky with cat piss.

I got home and scrubbed myself raw in the shower and crawled into bed. It was six o’clock on a Friday and I would spend the entire weekend sick in bed with head and body aches. I clicked around on my computer and found a movie on Netflix and waited for my boyfriend to come home. I was sick and I hated myself but I really didn’t mind. I was grateful for a reason to fall apart. My dad had been dead for over two years and my mom was alone and I was doing the wrong thing in the wrong place and it felt exactly, exactly right.

•••

REBECCA WEAVER is a writer/director/actor raised in Wisconsin and living in Los Angeles. Her first feature film, June Falling Down, is currently playing at film festivals around the country. Visit JuneFallingDown.com and SilverLeafFilms.net to learn more about her work.

Transference

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

By J. J. Mulligan

My daughter has begun to do this thing where she tucks both of her little thumbs inward and then clenches her four fingers around the thumbs into tight fists held in front of her, all while tensing the muscles seemingly in her entire body. She doesn’t breathe for a few seconds as her face grows from a porcelain white to pork pink and finally to bullfighter-cape red. A few veins stick out in various places and she shakes slightly from the effort, as if her thirty-two inch body were lifting some invisible too-heavy weight. Then she abruptly stops, unclenches her hands and releases everything she had previously tensed. The red leaves her face and she goes about whatever she was doing before.

She did this the first few times in the same afternoon. We asked her what was wrong, why she did that—as if she could respond—and then finally we told her, “No! Don’t do that!” She understands surprisingly much for a one-year-old, but she kept doing the clenching and tensing no matter how many times we admonished her in Spanish first, then English although she understands it less. My wife began to cry and I was at a loss for words to console her. We called the pediatrician, not sure what was happening with our daughter. The pediatrician asked us a few questions: Did she have a far-off look in her eyes after the “episode”? Did the actions seem involuntary? No and no, we said. Another string of questions led the pediatrician to rule out seizures and thus he saw no need for us to take her to the emergency room. Because we had the one-year visit scheduled already in two days, the pediatrician told us not to worry—he would look at it then.

Those two days, of course, were agonizing. Any new parent that hears the word seizure in reference to their child, even if it’s to say that they don’t suffer from seizures, is incapable of ignoring possible symptoms. We looked for a far-off look in our daughter’s eyes at every turn and analyzed every movement to make sure it was voluntary.

Two long days later we were in the pediatrician’s office, with our daughter receiving the necessary vaccines, her height and weight being checked, blood drawn to check iron levels and so on—all the standard one-year visit formalities. At some point, between vaccines, our daughter tucked her thumbs inward, clenched her fists as tightly as she could, and tensed her entire body. She turned red and visibly shook from the effort, this time looking more as if she were ferociously constipated than if she were lifting an invisible weight. The pediatrician pulled the needle back and asked us if this was what we had called about. Yes, we said, this is exactly what she’s been doing that has us so worried. That, the pediatrician responded, is your daughter’s way of expressing her frustration or anger at something. Because she can’t speak yet, she has to show or let out her frustration in other ways. It’s perfectly normal, he concluded, and in fact, from the age of one up until eighteen or twenty months, she will have moments of intense rage, with outbursts of tears and screaming that could last several minutes. We should ignore these moments and not try everything in our power to console her—the outbursts will pass with time.

My wife left the appointment satisfied with the pediatrician’s explanation—seizures left her mind—and ready to ignore our daughter’s future fist clenching scenes and moments of rage when they should start to appear. I, on the other hand, was distraught; I knew that the pediatrician didn’t have the full story and neither did my wife.

During my days, I represent immigrant youth from Central America who can’t afford an attorney and are being deported—many of them will be slaughtered by gangs in their home countries if they’re returned. What my wife and the pediatrician had not taken into account was my daughter’s time alone with me following those days when the world seems to have you in its teeth and won’t soften the bite. The times when I would come home from work destroyed from my interactions with the Department of Homeland Security and she would cry deep and uncontrollably into my face while I tried to put her to sleep. Or a fifteen-year-old Salvadorian girl would share the rapes she had suffered on her journey to the United States, and then my daughter wouldn’t eat the food I had prepared for her that night. Or a young woman, an undocumented college graduate, would beg me to find some form of immigration relief that she could possibly qualify for so that she can live out just a slice of the American Dream she was told existed for everyone, and there would be nothing I could do for her, and then my daughter would thrash around while I was changing her diaper and everything on the changing table would be a mess, dripping to the floor. All of these moments would intertwine inextricably with the 2016 presidential race, the ominous cloud hanging over everything and all of us.

In those moments, where my thoughts would seem profoundly dark although the sun had just set and rays of light still broke through the Brooklyn townhouses visible from my daughter’s bedroom, I would clench my teeth and tense my whole body, not breathe for a few seconds and if there had been a mirror nearby, I likely would’ve seen my face turning red as well. I would shake slightly from the invisible but actual weight and if I was holding my daughter in my arms, I would hold her a bit tighter and sometimes even jump up and down a few times, begging her through gritted teeth to stop crying and go to sleep, eat her food, or be still while I changed her diaper. The throbbing at my temples would become less dull and unrelated frustrations would blend together. My daughter had undoubtedly picked up her fist-clenching, body-tensing behavior from those moments—I know it and no explanation from the pediatrician can change this. The frustrations of my days representing immigrant youth in an unfair system, interspersed with the twenty-four-hour news cycle on the general decline of American policy and politics—including a man that wants to deport everyone, all of the young men and women who have become more than clients to me—are bleeding into my nights with a rapidly developing baby, who soaks up every emotion and stimuli her father gives her. These are the cracks on the hardened shell of a man who keeps everything in.

•••

In one of my rare escapes from the house after work, I met up with a friend at a bar not far from the Nostrand stop I get off at the other day. As with any conversation for the last six months, we talk about the presidential race and it feels as if we are summarizing an episode of Jerry Springer more than the intricacies of the highest office. I try to share some of the things I see and hear at work, but as often happens, not much comes out. I say the government is unfair and that President Obama, a man I love, is complicated when it comes to immigrants and immigration. Complicated indeed, replies my friend. He brings up the basics: the two million deportations carried out under President Obama that have torn apart families versus the Executive Orders signed by him to protect young immigrants and the undocumented parents of US citizens.

We change the subject. This friend of mine has a more hands-on job than mine: he works at a butcher shop in Park Slope. I prefer to hear about his job, since he’s always creating new sausage recipes and so on. He mentions a Banh Mi flavored sausage he is tinkering with.

After we clink glasses on our second beer, he tells me something he’s never told me before about his job, and it sticks with me. He tells me that he has no problem advising each person that enters the shop which cut of meat is the freshest that day, which would make a great dinner and the best way to cook the meat; that he derives pleasure from imagining the customers enjoying their meat products; that he even enjoys slicing the meats and arranging them on display. But, in order to do all of this, he said it is vital that he cannot think about the lambs being slaughtered.

I thought about this a lot on the walk home. Every immigrant youth that has come into my office has the same question, the question that has forced itself into every legal intake I’ve recently done, every application I’ve completed, every court appearance, as if none of these painful and tortured migrant lives really matter in the end. It is the question everyone working with immigrants—and maybe all of us in general—cannot escape: What if he wins the presidency?

Eleven million people will be deported, he says. No Muslims will enter the country and Mexico will pay for a wall to keep everyone out of the U.S.

My friend’s comment came into my mind again tonight on the way home from work.

Now it’s one a.m.

I have sat at this couch since eight p.m. watching a map of the United States of America slowly and incomprehensibly turn more red than blue. I listened half-heartedly to analysis and prophecy—teetering between falsities and doomsday—finally turning the television off when the end was all but assured. I didn’t wait for the final call or hear either candidate speak; I held a slim hope that I was already asleep and the morning would reveal the actual reality. My eyes have been closing for some time and there is no one awake to talk with me. This could all not be happening.

Asleep or awake, I get off the couch. I pour myself a glass of water and go into my daughter’s room, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, to the new world. Once they have, I look into her crib and see her lying on her back, arms and legs in a peaceful outstretched X with her chest slowly rising and falling in the middle. I reach into the crib and pick her up. She murmurs slightly and moves a bit as I put her on my shoulder and carry her to our bed. My wife is sleeping just as peacefully—she has an early day tomorrow and was convinced enough by the confident and uniform predictions that tonight held no surprises. She watched the first states being called, shaking her head when I tried to explain what little I understand of electoral college. Then she went to bed and I thought I would follow soon after. My wife, the immigrant. America has just slit her wrists.

Looking at my wife and holding our daughter in my arms, I become more aware, somehow more at ease than at any moment in the last year—as if all of it has been a daze of too many deadlines and deportations played to the soundtrack of bigotry and racism. I know what is happening now: the dull fear, the this-will-never-happen, is reality. I am awake. I feel my daughter in my arms and shiver at the thought that my days had been transferred to her in some way, that her bright eyes and developing mind are soured by emotions I have let overrun me. How do you help others without destroying yourself, your family? How do you keep a belligerent world from seeping into your daughter’s bedroom? My fatherhood has been enveloped by a dark blanket which I just now—ironically—feel that I am shaking off. This is the moment we have most feared coming true. And I find that we are ready for it.

I lay our daughter next to my wife and crawl into bed next to them. My daughter has kept on sleeping just as peacefully as before, like her mother. I roll onto my left shoulder so that they fill my view. It doesn’t seem so dark now; I can make out all of their features. I think to myself that every day will be okay if this is how it ends. I breathe deeply and instead of tensing muscles and clenching teeth—symptoms of the anger and frustration I’d felt so much in the last year—I discover love and comfort where it has always been. The world away from our mattress matters as much as an itch on a toe as you fall asleep: you leave the doorstep of sweet dreams if you scratch it. These women next to me are my lifeline. I see this as if a blanket has been lifted.

My eyes are too heavy now but I steal one last glance at them, then I quietly fall asleep. Tomorrow the world will be different, but this and us will not. We were part of a tussle; now comes the war. Tomorrow the fight erupts: the butcher is coming for every lamb.

•••

J. J. MULLIGAN is a non-profit immigration attorney representing immigrant youth who cannot afford an attorney in New York City. He is a new father, former college basketball player, and a diehard San Francisco Giants fan. His writings and translations have appeared in his mother’s native Chile and in various publications here in the U.S.

The Guys

Courtesy Naomi Ulsted
Courtesy Naomi Ulsted

By Naomi Ulsted

We moved a year ago, but my office is still cluttered with boxes, the dumping ground for random stuff without a home. I’ve made a goal to put away one box a week, so as I was digging, I rediscovered The Guys. Opening a drawstring cloth bag, I pulled out a tiny crocheted lion, its yellow yarn hair fanning out haphazardly. There were sixteen more little Guys in the bag. White and black panda bears, little tigers, other little animals that could have been bears, but maybe tigers. I received The Guys over thirteen years ago, gifts in a dark bar on slow afternoons.

•••

It was quiet at the Rose and Thistle pub and I leaned back against the bar, watching a thin haze of smoke linger up near the ceiling. It was early so there were only few patrons, drinking and smoking. Later tonight, after ten, the smoke would be thick and dense in the dark. We didn’t care. We took drags from cigarettes at the edge of the bar in between drink orders.

My early afternoon regulars were there. Denny and Joe sat with their pints of Bud Light, and Carleen with her glass of red wine. Thomas was playing video poker in the back, where, alongside the bar, behind a curtain, there were three video poker machines. Thomas was the oldest of the group, who were all well over fifty. I figured Thomas was over seventy. His face was wrinkled up, both in good and bad places. He had soft white hair that straggled over his forehead in lazy curls that he didn’t bother combing. He wore the same jeans and plaid shirt over his thin frame every day. The curtain rustled and he stood at the opposite end of the bar, holding his empty glass.

“Ready for another, Thomas?” I asked, reaching for the bourbon. Thomas was always ready for another. I pulled out the milk carton.

“Yep, might as well.” He inhaled from his cigarette. “How’s that class going? Your class on all those old books.”

I smiled to myself as I poured the milk. “You mean my Milton class?” I was studying Eighteenth Century Literature.

“Yeah, that one.”

“Good,” I said, handing him his bourbon and milk. “I love Milton.”

“Glad someone does,” he replied and gave me a crooked smile.

I leaned over the bar toward him. “Why do you drink that stuff? It looks awful.”

“Good for the belly,” he replied. “You should try it.”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Got something for you,” Thomas said and reached into his jeans pocket. He pulled out a tiny crocheted bear and held it out for me. It was orange with black stripes. It might have been a tiger, except for the ears, which were distinctly bear like. It had a thin, black yarn smile and two tiny googly eyes glued on.

“I love him!” I exclaimed, holding him up. “Look everyone,” I held him up to the three regulars at the bar. “A new little guy.” They nodded at me and Thomas, and Joe gestured to his empty glass. “Thanks, Thomas,” I said and stuck him in my apron, so his little orange head was poking out.

I had several of these Guys already. He crocheted them himself with tiny needles, straining his eyes over the thin yarn, and stuffing them with fluff. Frequently, he crocheted them tiny hats or gloves or little vests. He never left me any money for tips, but once every couple weeks, he threw his money into the machine, drank his bourbon and milk, and gave me one of his animals.

Denny and Joe knew him a little. He’d been an iron worker, but had spent all his money on bourbon. He’d had a family, but none of them talked to him anymore. He lived in a home with a couple other elderly people a few blocks away.

“Thomas,” I said once, as he leaned up against the bar and took a drag from his Pall Mall. “Don’t you have any grandkids to give these to? I feel bad taking these guys. I know it must take a long time to make them.” I ran my finger over a little brown bear with blue felt eyes.

Thomas sighed and the wrinkles in the sad places on his face seemed deeper. “I have some grandkids,” he said. “But their dad doesn’t much want to see me anymore.”

“Why?” I asked.

Thomas looked down as he talked. “I did some things. Made some mistakes.”

I leaned over toward him, holding out the bear and said in a soft voice, “Maybe you can undo those things. You know, start over.”

“No,” he replied and looked up at me with his clear blue eyes. “Too late for that, I figure. You might as well take them.”

•••

By the time I quit working at the bar, I had seventeen of these little animals. I kept them in a shoebox as I moved from apartment to apartment, finished school, moved to Astoria, and married my husband. I pulled them out now and then to finger their tiny ears and look into their googly eyes.

When I moved back to Portland, my son, Logan, was just six months old. I brought him into the bar one afternoon, just to say hello. The smoke was still thick and I was much more concerned for my baby’s lungs than I’d ever been for my own, so I only stayed a few minutes. The owner told me Thomas had passed. He’d been transferred to a nursing home and died in his sleep there. Some of my old regulars had gone to the service, but no family had come.

When Logan was two, five years after I’d left the bar, I pulled out The Guys. They quickly became favorites. Logan named them all in ways that made sense to him—Motorcycle, Cupboard, and Window, for instance. We sat on the floor of the living room with a set of giant Legos and made enormous castles for the Guys. Motorcycle would be asleep in his bed, while Cupboard stood guard on the turret. Window rode in the back of the police car to jail, having been apprehended by Lion. The Guys had long conversations with one another, achieved great acrobatic feats, and slept in bed with my little boy. Many times I wished I could have let Thomas know that The Guys were alive and well, living in castles my son built.

Both my children are older now and don’t play as much with The Guys. The little vests and mittens had gotten separated from their owners and I was worried The Guys would be lost in the maelstrom of toys, so I gathered them up. Now they’re lined up on a shelf, looking down at me while I write. The crochet work is in great shape, with stuffing only popping out of a few. But they’re worn. They’ve been played with and kissed. Their yarn is grungy and some are missing eyes, although I superglued many back on. Their little smiles are frayed.

When I found out Thomas had passed away with no family attending his funeral, I was angry with his son. What could Thomas have possibly done to merit what I saw as this neglect? But there are things. I saw only the old man, kind and loving. But kind people can be terrible people capable of terrible choices. Kind people can harbor deep wells of regret. I have people in my own life whom I have cut off, who I will never invite back in, who will never know my children. It doesn’t matter how kind they are to the people in their lives now. But those little guys have spread love in my family. It was too late for Thomas with his own family, but it was not too late for him to spread love in mine. So one night as I took a writing break, I noticed The Guys looking down on me. I went upstairs and poured myself a bourbon and milk. “Cheers,” I said to The Guys. It wasn’t half bad.

•••

NAOMI ULSTED is a memoir and fiction writer from Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her two boys and her husband. Her work has been published in Salon, Luna Luna, Maximum Middle Age, and Narratively. She is also the director of a Job Corps center for training under-privileged young people.

Stinger

pocket doll
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lori Jakiela

The scorpion’s name is Cupcake and Cupcake looks pissed.

“Oh, come on,” a zoo official with a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist says. “How scary can it be with a name like that?”

He’s talking to a girl. The girl is on Cupcake’s side of the safety rope. The zoo official is on the other. It’s the girl’s job to pop Cupcake’s carrying case open. Then she’s supposed to reach in and scoop out Cupcake like a gerbil.

From the way the girl is shaking, I’m sure it’s her first time.

I should say, “Honey, are you crazy? Don’t do that.”

I should say, “Sweetheart, how much are they paying you?”

To the zoo official, who is about my age and still wears his baseball cap backwards, I should say, “Why don’t you put your hand in there, dickhead?”

Instead I bring my ten-year-old son over to watch.

•••

How I became this person, I don’t know.

Earlier, I wanted to hang out at the shark tanks. Then on the rickety bridge over Otis the Alligator.

Zoos trigger something primal in me. I don’t pay attention to the cute animals. I’m interested only in animals that, if things were fair and cage-free, would kill me. A zoo visit is about defying mortality, maybe. Most things are. It’s something not to talk about, though, especially with my sensitive ten-year-old son, who worries the snow leopard is depressed, wonders if the komodo dragon is lonely, and likes the penguin house most of all.

•••

We were on our way to check out venomous snakes when I saw the Live Animal Demonstration sign.

How I justify watching:

I read somewhere that most scorpion stings are the same as bee stings.

I convince myself Cupcake is some sort of eunuch, a domesticated nub where a stinger used to be.

I think if someone’s going through the trouble of picking up a scorpion the size of a Pop-Tart, the rest of us should pay attention.

“You’ve got to see this,” I tell my son, who is a more decent person and who would rather not see this at all.

•••

Cupcake’s whole body is a claw. She’s backed into the corner of her carrying case. Inside the reptile house, under ultraviolet light, Cupcake glows like a club kid at a rave. But out here, in the sunshine, she’s so black she’s almost purple, one oil-slick bruise. Her carrying case is pink, plastic, the kind usually reserved for hermit crabs, starter pets. It’s the kind of case kids store Barbie shoes in.

“Look, sweetie,” I say to my son. “She’s going to pick up that scorpion.” I point, like I’ve just said something wise, a life lesson.

I’ve become the muscle-guy from earlier, back at the aquarium. He flexed, pointed to a tank, and said, in a low and serious voice, “What we have right here are fish.” His pretty girlfriend clung to his bicep and cooed.

My son doesn’t coo. He backs up, because he’s not an adult, because the world hasn’t worn his heart to a nub, an overused eraser, because he still feels things.

“Why would she do that?” he wants to know.

The girl is ponytailed, in a powder-blue polo shirt with the zoo logo stitched on the chest. She looks like summer help, an intern, maybe. Maybe she’s getting minimum wage. Maybe this is unpaid life experience and she’s chalking up college credits she’ll have to take out loans to cover.

“Because she’s in training?” I say, and of course it comes out as a question.

“In training for what?” my son wants to know.

•••

I’ve had a lot of awful jobs, terrible internships. “Life training,” people called some of them. None involved handling a scorpion, but still.

•••

Once when I was a flight attendant, a pilot made me hold a door shut during take-off and landing.

There was a mechanical problem—the door wouldn’t lock completely and the handle would start to open on ascent and descent. It was something that would normally ground the plane, but the pilot had a date in D.C. that night—one hot blonde, one strip-club steakhouse, jumbo margaritas served up in glasses shaped like boobs.

The pilot didn’t want a delay.

He said, “Did you bring a parachute?”

He said, “You’ll love the way you’ll fly.”

He said, “Come on, I’m joking.”

He said, “Just don’t let go,” and winked.

I was young. I needed that job. I did what I was told. I pushed my whole weight against the handle and the handle pushed back. I don’t know how dangerous it was really, but I could feel the cold air whistle around the door seal. The steel handle frosted and shook and any minute it seemed the door would burst and I’d jettison out, cartoon baggage, still strapped in my jumpseat and smiling. I’d been taught to smile on the job no matter what. I did that. The door handle inched open and I kept calm and the passengers kept calm. They looked at me like I knew what I was doing and I pretended to know what I was doing.

We went on like that until one guy started hitting his call button. He kept at it through the short flight. He was doing sign language to show he needed a drink, that he might choke and die if he did not get a drink, like this lack of drink was cutting off what little oxygen he had left.

I smiled. He did not smile back. I shrugged and pointed my chin toward the seatbelt sign overhead, which demanded I stay seated, too—sorry, sorry—and that we’d both just have to hold on.

I held on. He kept pressing his call light like a game show buzzer. The door stayed shut. By the time we were on the ground, I was shaking. A red imprint marked my palm from the handle, and the man who wanted a drink was so angry he wrote down my name. He threatened to write a complaint even though I got him snacks and a diet Coke to go.

The pilot heard all of this but pretended not to.

“I think I can, I think I can,” the pilot said. He pulled his pilot-cap low, gangster-style. “Nice work, little engine,” he said, and patted my hip on his way out of the cockpit, off to his margarita-boobs and his blonde and the thick steak he liked juicy and medium-rare.

•••

It’s been a dozen years since I had a job like that, which is maybe one reason I can keep watching the girl and the scorpion now. Empathy is an easy thing to lose, like car keys, like the name of that one actor who played in that movie about scorpions, you know the one.

“You can do it,” the zoo official says as the girl loosens the clasp on Cupcake’s case.

•••

“You forgot what work is,” my father used to say, meaning me and what I do for a living, the way I push words around a page. He meant, watch it. He meant, first you’re on one side of the glass, then the other. He meant, be kind.

He meant, it’s not work if it can’t kill you.

He meant what work does to a body, but work kills people in many ways, I think.

•••

At the entrance to the machine shop where my father worked for thirty years, a sign counted down the days since the last accident. The numbers were flip charts. The numbers didn’t go above two digits much. It was someone’s job to turn those numbers forward and back. Imagine that job.

My father had so many metal shavings in his skin he’d joke that he’d set off metal detectors at airports. He never wore a wedding ring because rings could catch in the machines and take a finger or worse.

“I want to keep all my fingers,” he’d say, “so I can show the foreman where to stick it.”

•••

“I mean, seriously,” the zoo official is saying, “Cupcake?”

It’s a punchline he’s sharing again and again.

•••

When our son was first born, he cried all the time and no one in our house slept much. At first we thought it was colic, but it went on and on and the pediatrician shrugged and said some children are born sensitive like that.

“He’ll get used to it,” the pediatrician said about my son and the world.

My husband worked a terrible corporate job back then. His boss liked to stretch an eight-hour day into a fifteen-hour day too often to count.

Once, after a stretch of six long days in a row, my husband came home and went into the kitchen. He took a serrated bread knife to his forehead. He carved. Blood ran into his eyebrows and down his cheeks. He came out and showed me. He looked proud. I felt sick. But then he called his boss and said he’d been in a car accident and wouldn’t be in to work the next day and maybe the next. I cleaned his forehead with peroxide and we celebrated with drinks and take-out from an Italian restaurant nearby. Everything felt, for a moment, manageable. We remembered we were happy. We remembered we loved each other. Our son slept some. We did, too.

“Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said.

A knife going across a forehead wouldn’t make much of a sound.

•••

“In training for what?” my son wanted to know about the girl.

•••

The girl shakes even more now, like she’s about to stick a fork in a toaster. Cupcake’s case is open. Inside, Cupcake flexes her tail, her very operational stinger. I look down at my son, who’s squinted his eyes shut.

The girl tries to breathe. She cups her hand and lowers it into the case.

“Okay,” she says to the zoo official, who’s beaming. “Now what?”

“It’s not what you look at,” Thoreau said. “It’s what you see.”

“Things do not change,” Thoreau said. “We change.”

The girl nudges her hand under Cupcake.

She brings the creature out to show us, a heavy dark heart in her palm.

•••

LORI JAKIELA is the author of three memoirs—most recently Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books 2015)—as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point 2012), and several chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more. She teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and co-directs the summer writers’ festival at the historic Chautauqua Institution. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. For more, visit http://lorijakiela.net.

Read More FGP essays by Lori Jakiela. 

Peach Courage

masked woman
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Richardson

Earlier this year when I was trying to work up the courage to quit my job, I went to see the performance artist and musician Peaches at one of those “in conversation” events at a Berlin art gallery. I had moved to Berlin with my husband in 2015 for my job, with the mutual understanding that we would only stay for a year. That deadline was looming, and I had cold feet.

The setting and inspiration for the talk was an exhibition of sixty-five photographs by Cindy Sherman, an artist who’s been tackling the concept of identity in her work since she first started taking her portraits of herself in the 1970s. Sherman usually works alone in her studio and the resulting pictures often portray social and cultural stereotypes, from starlets and pinups to, more recently, aging society ladies and fashionistas. I first came across Sherman through her so-called History Portraits. I was taking an early Italian renaissance art history class at college, and the counterpoint of Sherman’s Madonnas—often equipped with obviously prosthetic, exposed breasts—made me laugh. Sherman doesn’t title any of her works, but they’re often referred to by the numbers curators use in exhibition catalogs and, as in the case of the History Portraits, thematic groupings. In other words, Sherman declines to identify any of her pictures about identity.

I nabbed a seat for the discussion in the second row with a perfect view until, minutes before the program was set to start, a middle-aged woman doused in perfume and wearing a matching white fur jacket and hat sat down in front of me. It quickly became clear she had no intention of removing the hat—which was the primary offender in blocking my view—and when she turned around, I thought I may have figured out why. She had black hair, the texture of which looked like a wig, with spare tendrils of odd lengths spilling onto her shoulders. The hat seemed to be holding the whole arrangement in place. Her coral-red lipstick was smeared and she wore black eyeliner and a blank stare as if the point of her eyes was to absorb the snatched glances of those of us around her. A closer inspection revealed she was wearing rather fabulous high-altitude platform shoes, the heel of which was scalloped in gold metal. When the second man approached to kiss her hand, I was sufficiently intimidated to lose my nerve over asking her to remove the hat. She looked like a Berlin version of one of Sherman’s Hollywood/Hampton Ladies, a series of photographs displayed on the wall at the back of the room, and it only occurred to me the next day that she could have been Sherman donning a disguise to attend a talk about herself. This would certainly explain the hand kissing.

If it was Sherman, she wouldn’t have been the only one in the room fiddling with her identity. I was there straight from work and dressed in my version of a businesswoman costume—Isaac Mizrahi for Target blazer, Banana Republic dress, Wolford black tights and LK Bennett boots—feigning to be a fan of Peaches when, in fact, I had just read an article about her in a magazine a month or so earlier. I was a legitimate fan of Sherman’s, but on some level I was attracted to the event by its association with the radical art of Peaches. Simply by attending, I was asserting my identity outside the narrow confines of a normie, trying on the idea of what it might be like to be the kind of person who’s a fan of Peaches. I was too timid to go to a club to see her, but here in a gallery at the gentle hour of seven-thirty p.m., Peaches was accessible to me.

•••

In addition to being an artist and musician, Peaches—who was born Merill Beth Nisker—is a forty-nine-year-old Canadian super-fan of Sherman. Like Sherman, Peaches’s work explores identity. While we think of Madonna and Lady Gaga as our culture’s pre-eminent pop-star chameleon queens, Peaches’s subversive take on identity, particularly when it comes to traditional gender norms, exposes their work as merely conventional. The video for Peaches’s recent single, Rub, was banned from YouTube, perhaps for being “a lesbian desert sex scene, but without the male gaze,”—which is how one of the video’s co-directors, artist Lex Vaughn, explained it to The Daily Dot. During the course of the conversation at the gallery, Peaches screened this banned video along with the one for Dick in the Air, in which she and comedian Margaret Cho don fuzzy onesies complete with built-in, penis-like appendages that they proceed to, you guessed it, wave in the air.

In person, Peaches is nothing like you might expect from her videos. She wore a baggy brown dress that hung in swags around her like something from a Greek statue, Dr. Martens boots, a couple of hair extensions, and no makeup. As she remarked to the interviewer when asked about her penchant for elaborate stage clothes, sometimes dressing down is its own version of a costume. Her manner was down-to-earth and engaging while displaying a self-assured intellect. When the interviewer occasionally veered into presumptive lines of questioning, Peaches managed to disarm him with the politest of is-that-sos?

Commentators on Sherman’s work sometimes characterize it as an assertion of identity as a performance. When asked her views on identity, Peaches answered that it’s something we’re constantly creating through trial and error, starting with the identity-less child who learns by mimicking her parents: the child sees her parents holding a phone and holds a spoon up to her ear. I like this concept of trial and error better than performance; it asserts an earnestness where performance asserts artifice. The two can, of course, co-exist.

At one point the conversation turned to Sherman’s series of the Hollywood/Hampton Ladies. What’s easy to read in these portraits is satire of the desperation of middle-aged women, both their makeup and their facial expressions trying too hard. But Peaches pointed out that Sherman is also showing us their vulnerability inherent in this set of headshots designed to garner interest for their third act in life. Where I previously was simply in-on-the-joke of these portraits, I could now intimately—and uncomfortably—relate. The Hampton/Hollywood Ladies had something to offer me, a willingness to try and to make myself vulnerable in the process I was going through in defining my own next act.

At the end of the evening Peaches stood in front of the room and performed an unexpected costume change, using the draped dress as a beach towel changing device. Now donning a blush-colored sequined shorts romper, she belted out an excruciatingly raw rendition of Private Dancer. It was earnest and imperfect, an ending dedicated to the concept of quite literally exposing oneself. People whooped and applauded, smart enough to know they had seen something special.

•••

My takeaway from my evening with Sherman and Peaches wasn’t inspiration to embrace an identity radically different from my own. I am early middle-aged and inexorably shaped by the values and mores of life so far, and I didn’t leave the show ready to dye my hair pink and join the circus. They are the artists and it’s their job to operate at the radical edges of identity to show the rest of us what’s possible, giving us room to maneuver in the space in between. But I did take the experience as a reminder that my relative financial security was a ticket to engage in some trial and error about what I would do next, to emulate the toddler that Peaches had described.

She also seemed to be telling the room to be brave. Watching her perform considerable feats of derring-do like changing her clothes in front of a room full of people before belting out a vocally challenging song—and then, crucially, seeing that nothing bad happened—was a life affirming thing. To put it coarsely, I took her performance as a sort of creative invective to grow a pair. So much of my resistance to change—specifically leaving my job—was fear-based: that I would never find a job that paid this well again or that I would never find any job again. The inquiry pretty much stopped there, failing to go to the next step and ask “and then what?”

It reminded me of one of my favorite regular features in a Sunday newspaper magazine, an interview that always asks the subject “What would you do if you lost everything and had to start again?” Invariably the answer inspires less dread than one would imagine. Often it evokes the opposite in the interviewee—a sense of liberation, an opportunity to get back to what he or she loves. In other words, the answer to the question “what’s the worst that could happen?” usually isn’t that bad. Even if Peaches had bombed in her performance and everyone had booed, well, so what?

Years ago I was receiving instruction in sitting meditation from a zen Buddhist priest. Whenever I tried to sit cross-legged, one of my legs would invariably fall asleep. Alarmed, I called out to the teacher that my legs were falling asleep. “Is that so,” he responded, more statement than question. Without having to spell it out, the teacher had made his point: what’s the worst that could happen if my legs fell asleep? Not much as it turns out. If it got really bad I could always uncross my legs, an option that, remarkably given it was always wholly in my control, I seemed to have ruled out because I thought it would mean I was doing meditation wrong.

This is another abiding fear of mine in life: that I am doing it wrong.

And this, perhaps, is the siren call of artists like Peaches and Sherman. They are decidedly, unabashedly doing it wrong. Sherman’s Madonna is squirting milk from her plastic boob and Peaches is waving her penis in the air, both of which make it just a little bit easier for me to remember that quitting my job wasn’t really living life on the fringe. What could possibly go wrong?

•••

JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her writing has recently appeared in the anthology, A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis, as well as Fiction Advocate, ExBerliner, and Remedy Quarterly. You can find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.

Read more FGP essays by Jennifer Richardson.

Glimpsing Richard

boy running
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Randy Osborne

We had reached that routine-but-often-dramatic juncture in testimony when the victim is asked to point to his assailant and describe what the perpetrator is wearing.

It shouldn’t have been difficult.

Richard Ackerman—gaunt, pockmarked, in his mid-thirties—had finished telling how he was beaten and robbed by two men. One suspect had eluded police but today the other, a blond, sneering youth in a navy-blue jail jumpsuit, sat at the defense table with his lawyer. “He’s right there,” Ackerman said. “He’s got red hair and he’s wearing a black cape.”

On this slow courthouse afternoon in 1981, a nutty, disruptive event taking shape in what should have been an ordinary string-up for a standard-issue mugger could turn into column inches. Journalist me, in the public section, leaned forward. After a pause, the prosecutor sighed. Fists on hips, he regarded Ackerman: a problem. And a problem not for the first time in Rockford, Illinois.

“Let’s start over,” he said. “Can you point to the person who did this to you, and describe what he’s wearing?”

Ackerman’s deep-set eyes darted at three people in the benches with me: a young woman (probably the defendant’s girlfriend); a retiree picking his teeth with his fingernail (he was a courthouse regular); and me, in my red plaid shirt, sniffing out a possible story.

“There,” Ackerman decided. “He has brown hair and he’s wearing a red plaid shirt.”

I doubt Ackerman remembered me. More likely he panicked and, believing he had done the wrong thing, sought to fix his blooper—may it please the court —by the quickest available means. But I won’t forget Ackerman.

•••

Nine years old, summer, I trudge across the Whitman Street Bridge, aimed for the Burpee Museum of Natural History, where I will traipse the creaky floors—alone but for the stout curator, who checks me sideways—amid the stuffed birds and the glassed-in replicas of dinosaurs. Visit to visit, they stay the same, which pleases me and lets me down. A fatherless boy, I become an appreciator of artifacts.

I don’t notice Ackerman until he is beside me, and says hello.

A teenager with bombed-France acne scars, he wears an East High School jacket (cloth vest, fake leather arms) despite the heat. I’m already scared because of the bridge—height, water—and now this. His eerie solemnity and a slow manner, like a spider about to strike. Apropos of nothing he volunteers that he owns one hundred pairs of Levi’s jeans and sleeps at night in a coffin. Do I want to see the jeans, the coffin?

I run like a kid in flames.

In the following weeks, Ackerman pops everywhere in my neighborhood. The other boys, I discover, know all about him. “Has he showed you his dick yet?” Mickey Lindell wants to know. Everybody laughs. Ackerman, they say, is always talking about his denims and casket, and asking boys to visit his house. (Nobody does). And, at every opportunity, Ackerman is showing his dick.

Later I find out his first name and miss the pun. He terrifies me. All the grown men of our households have abandoned us—because of me, somehow, I believe. My father leaves my mother who sends me for raising to my grandmother, whose husband abandons her for another woman the year after I arrive. I am bad luck for grown-ups, goes my mantra, bad luck. Later, twice divorced, I will become bad luck for myself. But today this Ackerman apparently wants to be my big brother. When I tell my slightly-older-than-me uncle about Ackerman, he says, “I’ll bust his face!” but he’s laughing, too, and plainly useless.

Thanks to the ever-present jacket and his distinctive posture—rigid, soldier-like—I can spy Ackerman a block away, make detours. For the rest of my years in grade school, I manage to evade him. Other boys, I hear, are less fortunate.

My mother remarries and we relocate a few miles west of town. High school comes and goes. I suffer college briefly, and drop out for my first job in journalism, covering cops and courts.

Again, still, Richard is everywhere.

He keeps getting busted on misdemeanors—disorderly conduct and, of course, indecent exposure. At this point I’m equipped to see the humor in his escapades, which I chronicle for the newspaper with quiet glee. What an embarrassment to his family, Ackerman! Especially his older brother, a cop who ends up taking Richard into custody on his most serious offense, car burglary.

Officer Ackerman must have included in his narrative the make and model of the vehicle his brother pried into with the crowbar. Later I wished I’d had the sense to track this information down. Didn’t seem important at the time, but it would later.

•••

“There,” Richard said, and pointed at me in court. “He has brown hair and he’s wearing a red plaid shirt.”

The prosecutor shook his head, the judge grinned into the sleeve of his robe, and the public defender leaned back in his chair, half-smiling as if Ackerman’s horse had crossed the finish line first but would shortly be disqualified.

“Fifteen-minute recess,” the judge said.

The trial ended with a guilty verdict for Ackerman’s attacker. Over the years, Ackerman continually found for himself more low-grade trouble. Free on bail, Richard he misbehaved again.

He joined an open-casket funeral where he didn’t belong. Until someone singled out this odd stranger, Ackerman spent long minutes gazing at the body—almost meditatively, a mourner told me later. Officers had to drag him away. In another incident, Ackerman complimented the ass of a sign painter downtown, who didn’t see the humor, and gave chase. “You’re cute when you’re mad!” the fleet-footed Richard yelled over his shoulder, according to the police report. Repeatedly, incorrigibly, Richard showed his dick.

After the car burglary, the state made a move to revoke Ackerman’s probation and send Ackerman to prison for a while. (This clownish freak!) I flipped through the weighty file. A manila envelope slid into my lap: the pre-sentence report, a confidential document that clerks are instructed to remove before handing over any paperwork. Secret because it contains hearsay—interviews by officials with family, friends, and associates, material used by the judge to decide whether to give the probationer another chance or lock him up. I opened it.

Although, in my published account of the matter in re: Ackerman, I couldn’t quote from material that I was never supposed to see, but I’m at liberty to tell you here. Richard is beyond harm. He died in 1998.

His mother said in the report that Ackerman had not been normal since he was a lad—not since about the age I was when I met him, not since the day he tapped his pale father on the shoulder, shook him gently, and opened the car door wider to let the cold body fall sideways onto the garage floor. Tailpipe smoke must have floated around them, boy and man. His mother found him running in circles and screaming. The report does not disclose if the car is a Ford or Chevy or Oldsmobile. I wonder if things might match up.

Match up, like two images of him that persist for me. Ackerman in frantic motion, dizzy from the carbon monoxide and from whatever this loss had begun to mean for his soul, never fully known or understood, maybe, by him. Surely not by me.

And then Ackerman on the witness stand, trying to make right his wrong. His finger extends at me, the plaid-shirted one, an ill portent—the damned boy who makes the men run away. As if I am again and forever accused.

•••

RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Randy Osborne.