It's a record! Carolina Woman received more entries in the annual Writing Contest this year than ever before, and the caliber of the work was extraordinary. Congratulations to everyone who participated.
The diverse selection of poetry and prose that was submitted demonstrates the depth of talent here in the Triangle. Immersed in vivid language and striking ideas, our editors had an extremely tough time narrowing down the entries to just a few top dogs.
We are honored that Diane Strauss, the former associate university librarian for collections and services at UNC-Chapel Hill and an author, agreed to be a guest judge for a second year. This month, she joins Carolina Woman as a contributing editor.
Enjoy the winners printed below, and discover more fine writing as we continue to publish it in upcoming issues.
Pamela Taylor, of Durham, for her poem "Transit of Venus"
Prize: Custom-made floral arrangement from Brooke & Birdie Interior Design - $100 Value
Michele Tracy Berger, of Pittsboro, for her story "Urban Wendy"
Prize: 1-year Membership in North Carolina Writers' Network - $75 Value
Ellyn Bache for "Climate Change"
Cameron Howard for "My Sister"
Julia Duncan for "Summer Diet"
Paula Blackwell for "The Burning Zone"
Heather Adams for "The Tablecloth"
Lana Garland for "The Tambourine"
Maureen Sherbondy for "The Vanishing"
Prize: Carolina Woman tote bag - invaluable
By Terri Kirby Erickson of Lewisville
The Kenmore range tried to make friends
with the other appliances, but the refrigerator
gave her the cold shoulder. Besides, he hummed
all the time and his breath smelled like moldy
cheese. The microwave made her jump when
he said ding, and his face was always dirty–
smeared with exploded eggs and bits of hotdog.
The can opener poked her nose into everybody's
business and the toaster had a crummy personality,
so making friends with them was out. That left
the dishwasher, who foamed at the mouth like
a rabid dog whenever he cleaned the dishes.
She wished the washing machine and dryer–
such a nice, quiet couple–lived closer, but they
were in the basement, a dark, dank place the owner
hardly ever visited. He seldom cooked a real meal,
either, so the range sat idle, mourning the house
from where she was recently removed, making
way for the newest model. She tried winking
all four of her eyes at the lonely man who bought
her, but he never noticed–just microwaved
his dinner and took it into the den. She missed
listening to people talk around a kitchen table;
pined for boiling pots and moo-cow oven mitts;
remembered all too well how good her belly felt
when it was full of turkey and rump roast, pork
loin and Cornish hens. Once, she felt needed,
necessary, part of a family. Now she's just
an old stove, cool to the touch, with nothing
but memories to keep her warm.
"That Year on Duncan Street"
By Megan Roberts of Fuquay-Varina
The first house I lived in in North Carolina was run by The McCaw's. I knew I was in trouble when I stood up from the toilet and saw Mr. McCaw's face outside the bathroom window. He was "cleaning gutters." That was the beginning, when I thought he was the crazy one.
Gregory hated the place from the beginning. He wanted to rent a horse barn out in the middle of nowhere. "Let's grow our own food. Live off the land. That kind of thing," Gregory would say in a hopeless way because he knew I wouldn't agree, and he knew this was just another one of his outlandish plans. Mr. McCaw was probably one of the only pieces of this house Gregory liked. "I like him," Gregory said and all I could do was stare at the recent mustache he'd decided to grow." He's a wild card." This comment was due to Mr. McCaw showing us the house on Duncan with nothing but overalls on and never turning the lights on because "all that on and off wears out the switches."
I wanted the house because it was old and cheap. I wanted the house because the people in the neighborhood looked like the people I wanted to be. I wanted the house because this was where a full professor, not an instructor like I was, would live.
Gregory became a chef in a mediocre restaurant, while I tried to climb the imaginary ladder in the wrong direction into academia. This meant we both spent long hours outside the little house we rented, and it's probably what kept us living in those conditions, meaning the house and our marriage. We both had hot tempers. The first fight we ever had was on our second date, and I slammed down my hand so hard on the restaurant table that the whole place started to whisper around us. Gregory had said something along the lines of those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. I taught English to underprivileged and unappreciative students. He was a dick from day one, but I loved him for his honesty, something I never could quite nail down myself.
There was a single black man that McCaw let live in a small room in the basement. The McCaws called this the "ground floor apartment." It was a dark cavern, the one time I saw it. Renard was the tenant down in the basement, and he was bipolar, diagnosed by a real psychologist, not the McCaws, at least that's what they said. I just nodded my head because I didn't think they should share his personal business. I didn't want them sharing mine. McCaw had come over to fix a hole in the wall before from one of our fights. However, Renard was my only "real" crazy that year on Duncan Street. The rest of us were just average-American-crazy. I knew when Renard was having an episode. It was very obvious. He turned into one of two personas. If Renard was wearing a red cape, you knew he was Batman. I preferred this product of his mania. But if he was wearing an apron, he was Lucille Ball, a much louder character. He mainly kept to himself, but I could hear him ranting through my floor, his ceiling, at times. He was never angry per se, just fervent.
I mostly avoided Renard. He was unpredictable and easily avoidable. However, he liked to sit out on a little stoop that the landlords made him right outside the basement door. It didn't face the road, so he mainly just sat and stared out back at the house directly behind us. What are you doing out here all the time, I asked after a twelve hour day at work with pseudo-illiterate teenagers and two beers at home. I'm sending out my aura of blackness, Renard said, keeping us safe. He was not Batman or Lucille Ball then, just Renard, which means fox in French, he added.
Your aura of blackness?
Yes. Don't you feel safe?
I guess so.
It's because I do this every day. I'm the one that keeps the men away.
The ones all around.
I said thank you like an idiot and made my way back inside. Maybe he was keeping me safe. Gregory was never home. I was a single woman in her thirties with three cats. The neighborhood wasn't unsafe, but I didn't walk at night alone around here, did I? Gregory said we lived right on the edge of where the city went bad. But I liked an old home, and I always seemed to pick fantasy over safety.
I came home after a long weekend at a conference, one of the many items to check off on the road to tenure. I'm terrified of flying, so I was sedated on the flight and sedated when I arrived home in a taxi to see my front door flung wide open. I went swerving from the taxi to the house. Our oldest cat met me at the door, Mr. Balls. We never fixed him. He is old and smart. He knows who feeds him, so he hadn't run off. However, Norma, the dumb one, and Hugo, the fatty, were nowhere to be found. I went running through the neighborhood like a crazed cat-lady calling for Huuuuugo and Noooooorma. The woman from the cute blue house who I'd been meaning to meet went inside as she saw me approaching. People walking their dogs tried to cross the street away from me and I would shout, "I've lost my cats!" They nodded their heads in agreement. I ran back home and tripped on the cracked sidewalk, soaring into the air and landing on my knees, skidding a few feet across the cement. I was so stunned, I was almost impressed with myself. I hadn't done anything so physical since I was a child. Then the stinging and the bleeding began and I felt my ever-present panic, only stronger.
I arrived back home still drugged and weeping and buzzing with fear. When I quieted myself enough to sit at the kitchen table and take a sip of water, I heard "meoow" coming from inside the house. It took me about ten minutes, which was pretty impressive considering my state, to figure out the cats were stuck inside the walls of my kitchen. I opened the air vent and lured them out with a slice of deli ham.
Renard, someone went into my house and you know who it was.
I don't know what thou art talking about madam. He had on his cape, which was really just a very large red t-shirt cut open into the shape of a cape.
My lady, I help the helpless.
Your diction is completely inconsistent with Batman, I said and slammed his door in his own face. I'd peeked inside, though. Immaculate within its darkness.
Two hours later there was a knock at my door. The Shakespearean Batman was there with a note in his hand. Your husband's girlfriend is an alcoholic. She broke into your house. I tried to stop her and she yelled at me. Crazy!
I read the note two more times, noticing its meaning but then I got caught up in Renard's handwriting, which was as neat as my mother's, round and small, each line connecting to the next exactly, no spaces between connections.
I stayed up for Gregory that night. I stayed up until 3 in the morning, which is when I wake up some mornings. I drank beer. Dark beer. I imagined how someone else would have this fight. I wanted to be the kind of woman that could go Jerry Springer on him. I wasn't. I wanted to open with something like, your slut almost lost my cats, and they mean more to me than anyone else in this house. Instead, I asked, "Where have you been?"
"The restaurant. Where else? We sat 400 today. Insanity."
"I came home to my cats missing. They were stuck in the walls. Someone had put them in there."
"What? You're not making sense. Hold on." He went to the refrigerator and got out a beer. I wondered if I could rip off his mustache in one yank.
"Your girlfriend," I paused, waiting to see him falter. "She was here. She opened the air duct for some reason and they crawled in."
He slammed the fridge shut. I watched Gregory calculating his lie and then his anger at being caught. Then he smiled. Maybe he was the certifiable one in this house.
He took a long sip of beer. I watched his Adam's apple move. "Mr. McCaw came to clean them out. You've been out of town, so I didn't tell you he was coming." He rubbed his hand over his mustache. Was this really my husband? "You had another one of your high-flying cocktails? Ambien and valium?"
I had forgotten about the pills' effects on me because the adrenalin of losing the cats and hearing that news from Renard had been so much, but now I remembered how tired and out of it I was. I wanted to jam that bobbing Adam's apple into his throat.
"Somehow you think another woman broke into our house and her main purpose was to imprison our cats? Really?"
Gregory pushed back his thick-rimmed black glasses, pleased with himself.
I jumped out of the chair, stumbling a little, trying to grab Gregory, to shake him or hold him, but he pushed me away, and I landed halfway onto the kitchen chair, falling down onto the floor with a clunk. He didn't come to help me up. If he'd tried to help me, I might have given in. Maybe we could have laughed over it. I felt the sting of a bruise on my thigh, and my knees were still bloody from my earlier fall. I knew Renard heard this fall, the fight. He was right below us, and I knew Renard had been listening closely for quite some time.
"Renard!" I screamed. Not looking up at Gregory, who I knew was unhinged by my reaction. This reaction was not within the unspoken agreement we had, but our marriage had been a series of acts that widened and mangled the agreement between us until almost anything was allowed, each of us guilty and unwilling to speak up.
I was screaming and crying and wouldn't look up until I heard the door open.
Renard was there in his long red t-shirt cape. Yes, me lady. He immediately sat cross-legged beside me on the ground. For the first time, I took his face in. It was acne-scarred, but still pure in a way, like a field that had been burned but was still salvageable.
I look up at Gregory. He was disgusted by me or Renard, or both of us. I knew what he and I were both capable of. That we'd been on the verge of this for some time now.
I whispered, "Renard, I want him to go. Now."
Renard stood in one graceful movement, his cape hitting my face, and smelling of wood, the pine-stump he sat on. What had Renard seen and heard of us? The midnight matches that made me lose my voice for teaching the next morning?
Gregory's punches into the walls. He never hit me.
Gregory laughed out loud at Renard's heroic gesture. But before Gregory could finish his outburst, Renard had him on the floor, and he didn't hit Gregory or even show anger. Renard stared into Gregory's eyes, and Gregory had to look away.
Renard's gaze was soft and kind. Renard pulled him by his ankles across the floor and out the door, and he looked so strong and in control. He smiled and waved like he was taking out the trash and shut the door behind them both.
I looked around the house and saw it as Gregory probably did for the first time: paint peeling back to older layers, the smell of cats, my papers stacked on every surface. I ran to the back window where I could see Renard's stump. He was already seated there, like magic, staring off into the pine trees. I knew there wasn't really another woman. Maybe I was the woman Renard spoke of. But I also knew Renard was telling me an important lie. He was a liar and crazy and he knew my life better than I did.
"Transit of Venus"
By Pamela Taylor of Durham
just like you
a rocky body
by a thick blanket
kind men choke
in your atmosphere
on Maxwell Montes
you preserve a thousand
on the surface
in your reach
or turned away
by solar tides
than the brightest
By Michele Tracy Berger of Pittsboro
Marisol pulls another strand of red hair from a perfectly glazed Dunkin' Donut, holds it up and looks at the stray bits of delicate pink icing clinging to the hair. Marisol reminds herself that her other team members working this shift don't have red hair, nor does anyone else working here. Just like the icing clinging to the hair, Marisol knows that Wendy is trying to cling to her.
When Marisol announced she was leaving Wendy's to work at Dunkin' Donuts, two weeks ago, her co-workers warned her.
"Expect a visit from Wendy," they said. Marisol looked at the goofy-looking freckled girl on the napkins she had passed out so many times to snot-nosed kids, harried mothers and dope addicts.
"She doesn't like it when we leave without warning," one of them whispered.
"You gotta to be kidding me. I'll tell her a thing or two," Marisol said. She filed their concerns of Wendy the phantom stalker under 'another urban legend' and said goodbye to the drab brown uniform, the never ending work of keeping the salad bar clean and organized, and sought her fortune among coffee and donuts.
Marisol's first week away from Wendy's is peaceful at Dunkin' Donuts. No dreams, no nightmares, no prognostications from a cartoon character. By the second week Marisol fields complaints about bad donut batches, curdled creamer, and mixed up orders. She twirls her fake emerald stud earring while she thinks. She needs this job until her jewelry business turns a profit.
"This isn't what I ordered." A man plops down a box of donuts.
Marisol peers in. "What's wrong?" she says, straining under her customer service smile.
"I ordered vanilla glazed. These are hot as hell." He rests his beach ball sized stomach onto the counter. She plucks a small red candy off a donut, smells it and puts it into her mouth. It burns.
Her fingers rush over the register. "I'm so sorry; I'll get that corrected right away."
Later, Marisol makes her way from the Dunkin' Donuts kiosk through the subway tunnel to the station dodging the many sleeping men and some women, addicts of one kind or another who murmur, shake and rage. She hugs her purse and wipes powdered sugar from the front of her jacket.
A tug at her elbow makes her look down at the girl walking beside her. The girl's face is a spray of pimples and freckles. Her red pigtails are lopsided and when the girl smiles her mouth seems to open and lengthen like a tiny alligator's. Marisol walks faster ignoring the phantom girl. This is not happening, she thinks. The girl says nothing but follows. Marisol weaves through the crowd trying to mix in with the crush of people and catch her breath.
That night, Marisol takes action. Even though her family believes in spirits, Marisol does not. She grabs a white 7-day candle from her mother's stash under the sink and lights it. Marisol runs a bath, dumps in rosewater and sea salt to ward off whatever Wendy is. She slips her dark body into the bath and tries not to think of hamburgers or donuts.
Marisol feels calm the next day. "Smoke break," her co-worker says.
"Sure," Marisol says and nods. "I'll cover." They're in the slowest part of the day – 12 to 2 – no kids going to school or coming home and no one yet needs an afternoon sugar lift. She watches as the blonde girl leaves the kiosk.
"Marisol," she hears her name whispered. She looks over the counter and then behind her. The voice gets louder. She comes around the counter and looks into the pack of straws, near the soda machine. The straws are covered in their white coats except for one. She pulls the fiery red one out. It glows in her hand. Holding the straw close, she sees a tiny plastic face of the girl smirking.
"Stop following me. You're going to get me fired," Marisol says.
"I don't want you to leave. It's not your time yet," Wendy says.
"You ever try working a salad bar after church congregations come in? I hated telling people to stop picking at the olives if they haven't paid for the salad. Wore me down."
"I'll get you a different station," Wendy says.
"I need better pay," Marisol says.
"If you come back, I could work on that. I miss you."
"What are you?" Marisol says.
"Total quality control," Wendy says as the straw dissolves in Marisol's hand.
Later that night, exhausted, Marisol wanders through the subway tunnel and rounds her usual corner. She feels someone walking too close, but when she turns around he's already there covering her mouth and pulling her to him. The man smells like sweat and onions. Instinctively, she executes the only move that she remembers from a high school self-defense class. She lifts her right foot and stomps on what she prays is the top of the man's foot. He registers no pain, but responds by slamming her into the wall. Pinning her, he leans in and bites the top of her eyebrow.
When a scream finally erupts from Marisol it carries with it a cry for help, for it to not end like this. Between the pain and body-shaking fear, a sliver of regret pierces Marisol. She thinks of all the attention she pays to cuts of amber, tourmaline, emerald and sapphire rather than to the feel of the sun kissing her face, her mother's crooked half smile, or the simple pleasure of bouncing her niece on a knee. Ashamed, her mind stretches into the night, discharging energy like a thin finger of lightning, reaching for God.
Another guttural scream mixes in with Marisol's and in a moment she feels the man's hands drop away. Pushing away, Marisol turns and sees the man in ragged clothes looking stunned. Blood trickles from his ears. People are coming toward her asking if she is alright. Hands with tissues dab at her scraped and bleeding face. She pants, a metallic taste rising on her tongue. She overhears someone say, "Wasn't a little girl with her just a moment ago?" Marisol looks past the crowd into the night but just sees strangers.
Tonight she'll light a fat red candle, one her mother uses to invite an emissary in. Tomorrow she would go back to burgers and fries. Donuts weren't for her after all.
By Ellyn Bache of Greer
Coming from Asheville, surrounded by cool blue mountains, Jess was distressed to realize that her daughter's heritage would include no snowy winters or springs of laurel and tulip. Amy would have to weave her dreams of bougainvillea and hibiscus – raw tropical magentas, sharp reds – and of leathery evergreen trees. South Florida was not a gentle place to raise a child.
They'd come because Tanner got a job. That simple. "I'll try anything for a year or two. Stick with me, baby. This is the place to make money,"
He picked her up, whirled her around, made her laugh. When he released her she said, "Don't call me baby, Tanner, hear? It makes me feel like some little helpless thing." But he kissed her and ignored that, holding baby as a measure of his power over her.
Two years later the insurance broker Tanner worked for decided to retire, giving him first refusal on the business and generous financing. "A stroke of luck," friends said, "him being able to buy in so easily." But other men had always chosen
Tanner first for clubs and teams, so Jess wasn't surprised. It was only that she resented having to stay in Florida, when she'd hoped this would provide the break that sent them back home. She longed to rest her eyes on autumn-tinged mountains, to sled with Amy down the rolling hill behind her mother's house, to pick daffodils in spring. And what would Amy have instead? A squat one-story house plopped into the sand, a St. Augustine lawn that looked like weedy crab grass, heat so dense it seemed to shimmer.
Tanner liked it. He bought a small boat and took it into the swamp, seeking out turtles and lizards and fish. Whatever North Carolina hills hadn't provided him, the cheap insect-life of South Florida did – acres of saw grass, dark waters, spiny palmettos – echoing some raw edge of his spirit she'd never seen. Once he brought home the slimy corpse of a water snake, dangling it at Amy, crying "Look. Look!" until the child screamed with terror and delight.
On weekends, as a concession to Jess's more civilized needs, they headed to the beach, letting Amy play in the sand and wade in the ocean. Tanner always seemed glad to return from these tame forays. During the week, he escaped early from the office, loaded up his fishing gear, headed for the swamp.
"You be careful out there," Jess warned.
"You trust me to take care of myself, baby." He'd never liked to be too much mothered. She said no more but began to imagine him falling off the boat, struggling with the muddy waters, succumbing to an alligator or a deadly moccasin. When her fear spilled onto Amy, she enrolled the child in a swimming class. As a toddler, Amy had paddled happily in the pool, almost swimming, until the September rains cooled the waters. By the next March Amy had lost interest, refusing ever since to venture deeper than her knees. She was strong-willed even at four. "I don't care what you do to me!" she screamed. "I won't go to swimming lessons. I won't go!"
At night Jess began to dream of drownings. Gulf drownings, swamp drownings, fallings into the drainage canals that crisscrossed the town. In the morning she spoke to Amy of the sweet reflected light that could glisten up from the canal at the end of their block, beckoning little girls closer and closer to the drowning edge.
In spring before the rains came, smoke rose from the winter-dry Everglades, from cypress and saw grass and palm. Scattered fires took their toll of the bush, leaving the air heavy with ash. Tanner shot a water bird for their dinner, a once-graceful thing with long legs, now shredded by the bullet, reduced to gray garbage. Back home her mother cooked the deer her father hunted, soaking the meat in milk to get the game taste out. But that was different – normal, tasty food – and not this abundance of slimy green life.
"You kill that pretty bird with not enough meat on it for the three of us – and you want me to cook it? Cook the blasted thing yourself."
After that, anything he brought home went straight into the freezer. Jess wouldn't cook even the fish. They spoke somewhat less, though they maintained a cool show of manners. Tanner's business had fallen off; everyone's had. He spent whole days in the swamp, doing God knows what.
One afternoon he was fishing and Amy was napping when a contractor named Drew came to the door. He sold retirement houses in a nearly-defunct development Tanner insured. Vandals had taken out some of the windows. Drew had been trying to contact Tanner for days, leaving messages, checking at his office, finally deciding he might find him at home. Jess thought it only right to invite him in. They drank bourbon and 7-Up until Amy awakened. Jess introduced Drew as "one of Daddy's clients," but never mentioned him to her husband.
Drew came back two days later and sat with Jess and Amy on the lawn. His own child lived with her mother. Jess said Amy was afraid of water, wouldn't learn to swim. "Mine didn't learn till she was six," Drew told her. Jess felt reassured.
She finally let him take her to bed in the guest room where Amy wouldn't look if she woke from her nap. Afterward Jess said it wasn't safe, she couldn't very well hide from her daughter.
"Then come out to the development," he said. "I've got a house that isn't sold, we can use that."
Jess thought he was joking, but he wasn't. She didn't think she'd really go, but she did. It was June, and the rainy season had come, quenching the fires to the west. Dark clouds filled the sky each day by noon, and by one there was a downpour.
Knowing Amy wouldn't go out into the rain to drown, Jess left her with a sitter and went to meet Drew. They had a quick drink in the empty living room of his unsold house and then made love on the plush beige carpet, over which he spread a clean white sheet. They met several times a week. By July when the rains ended, she felt as quenched of desire as the Everglades were of drought.
"I'm not coming here anymore," she said. "It makes me feel cheap." He took her instead to his furnished apartment near the beach. A longer drive, an extra hour away from home. Shades drawn against the white sun, blotting out the glut of high summer. Jess thought of Amy while she submitted to his embrace. Of Amy running barefoot on the stubby St. Augustine grass.
Of the long flat plane of the neighbor's yard, unshaded because the development was so new, because Florida trees were so squat. Of Amy drenched in sunlight and heat, drawn like a magnet to the cool, killing waters of the canal.
"Don't be silly. If the kid's afraid of water, it's for sure she isn't going to jump into a canal," Drew said. Jess heard impatience where before there'd been gentleness. She made excuses and fled.
He pestered her to meet him. Threatened to tell Tanner otherwise. Sometimes she went. Amy tiptoed barefoot along the canal banks with a giddy new terror. August, then the start of pre-school. By the time the rains resumed in September, Jess was as frantic as the small lizards that darted across her porch.
She enrolled Amy in another swimming class – no parents allowed. "I don't care how much you scream and yell, you're going."
She left her with the teacher at the indoor pool and walked out into the ferocity of the rain. She called Drew to say she couldn't see him. He was on her doorstep by the time she got home.
His skin, damp from the rain, seemed too oily, too slick for love. "I told you I couldn't make it," she said, but she took him into the guest room, reasoning that he'd finish quickly and leave her alone. She undressed mechanically, listening to rain beat against the side of the house. She felt so detached she might have been dreaming.
She didn't hear Tanner come in until he'd flung open the spare room door. He looked at her with a strange stillness in his eyes, as if he'd come, finally, to the place he'd been seeking. Then he began to yell. He pulled Drew away from her, yelling in a low primal voice she'd never known from him, garbled as if from under water. He punched Drew and kept screaming. Drew's defense was feeble, uncoordinated, heavy from love. Tanner kept punching, pounding Drew's head against the wall. Jess curled up under the covers and watched.
There was no blood. Just the battering and then the snapping of the neck. The way it took so long before either of them realized what had happened. Panic might have risen in her if she'd been the same woman who had come south, but even as her stomach churned and weakness spread through her hands, her mind was entirely clear.
"He's dead," she said.
Tanner stood in the corner of the room, his breath coming ragged. "Amy'll be finished swimming," she told him. "We'll have to close this door."
Tanner didn't move.
Jess said, a little louder, "We'll have to close this door."
She picked up Amy from the pool. Her fingers shook only a little as she drove, her voice not at all. "How was swimming?"
"I hated it. They make you put your head under."
"Is it really so bad?"
"I hated it."
She ordered pizza and served it on the patio. The afternoon shower was over, the sun was bright. Tanner couldn't eat and neither could she, but Amy didn't notice. Jess did the dishes, gave Amy her bath. Her stomach kept contracting. If Tanner went to jail, Amy would be labeled the child of a criminal. She had no mind to buy disgrace for her daughter.
"We have to get rid of him now," she said when Amy was asleep. Tanner didn't argue. Together they dragged Drew's body out to the garage and the car, leaving the lights off so the neighbors wouldn't see what they were about. She felt sick but kept working. When Tanner drove off toward the swamp, Jess cleaned the spare room – washed the walls, vacuumed, changed the sheets. Tanner returned and showered. He made love to her slowly, ceremoniously, as if to reaffirm who was married to whom.
His was the touch of a man who had extracted his price from himself and was ready to move on. It was a welcome thing.
There lodged within her a double coiling knot: of guilt, of pleasure. She wondered if she'd ever be able to leave this place of heat and water now. Maybe not. But she meant to press her advantage. She ran her fingers lightly along the curve of Tanner's jaw. She kissed his cheek. "You know what I think?" she whispered.
"I think before it's too late we'd better take Amy home."
By Cameron Howard of Lewisville
My little sister was always throwing up. Anna had horrible motion sickness until she was a teenager, and almost any drive could make her queasy. She would turn pale and quiet, pressing her forehead against the cool car window with her eyes tightly shut, peeling her body off the car door reluctantly, painfully, to yell "Bag!" just in time. So we raided the seat backs for throw-up bags on every flight, and bought Bonine in bulk. Her motion sickness wasn't a big deal; we were shocked if she didn't throw up.
I remember a babysitter driving us home from Eckerd's one Saturday morning when I was about ten and Anna was eight. We sat together in the back seat and I examined the bright blue nail polish I had bought. My sister got quiet, which was not a good sign, then nudged me and whispered "Bag." I immediately dumped out the small plastic Eckerd's bag, the nail polish tumbling onto the seat, and handed it to her. She hated the attention her motion sickness inevitably attracted, so I kept talking to the babysitter as though nothing was happening. My sister silently threw up into the bag, which thankfully held. The babysitter never knew.
Eight Years Later
After dinner I clear the table, delivering the plates and silverware to the kitchen, where my older sister, Claire, just home from her junior year of college, and my mom do the rest. Anna cuts a piece of my mom's chocolate cake and eats it with her fingers, leaning over the tin foil on the counter. She is animated and laughing, telling my mom about something that happened at school. She picks at the cake with her fingers, leaning her head back to catch crumbs.
I settle in front of the TV but soon hear shouting, a door slam, but I am sure that it is just my sisters arguing over something silly. Then I hear someone running down the stairs above me, thundering through the ceiling and then down another flight until I can't hear the TV anymore. Claire comes rushing down – she says, wildly, loudly, "My sister is throwing up her dinner."
She looks shocked at her own words.
"She said she was going to take a shower and she turned the water on and then mom came upstairs and found her..." Claire's voice cracks in a sob.
I am up and starting for the stairs and she grabs me and says "Don't go up there" but I can't stop because I need to see it and I need to fix it–I run and I hear her behind me. The light in the bathroom is on, hard and yellow, too bright on the tiles. It glares down on the sad pile of Anna's t-shirt and athletic socks in the corner. No one goes to turn it off.
Mom is standing in the doorway of Anna's room. I reach the top of the stairs and hear Mom talking in a calm voice to my little sister, who is wrenching and gasping high-pitched and then deep sobs.
"What are you doing to yourself?" I ask, choking a little yet I feel somehow calm--like I am watching someone else, someplace else.
Anna is huddled on the floor against her closet door, a crunched up ball in a pale yellow sports bra that used to be mine. She is desperately clutching a towel to her chest–her fingers are white and clenched and skeletal. She is so pale. Her black athletic shorts look too black against her paper skin, and the white closet door she is trying to sink into behind her looks dirty, almost brown, against her. Her blonde hair bleeds into her face and she is white and see through and brittle. Fragile. The continuous gush of tears and the contortions that torture her entire body will soon make her shatter into pieces.
Mom is trying to find out how long she has been doing this and how often. She is calm as she stands alone in the doorway, never stepping into Anna's room. Anna won't answer and just keeps rocking and shaking and sobbing and screaming--she keeps screaming. She screams that she is fine, to leave her alone and to get out of her life. She screams that she can control it. She screams that she hates us. Mom asks her again, "How long?" and she shoots back with almost malicious pleasure but it is so sad, "On and off since Christmas."
I can't breathe and it isn't so surreal anymore. Sobs pour out of me as Claire and I clutch each other in the hallway, shaking and crying. My mom puts her arms around us for a moment, resting her head on our shoulders. But Anna becomes more aggressive and hateful when she sees that she can hurt us. She screams "Leave me alone" and "I hate you" and "Get out of my life." Then she crumples into a bloodless heap and softly begs us to leave. She sobs that she is fine and that she can control it, but then she starts to attack us with her screams again. She never lets go of the towel, and her hands are white and bony.
I am scared of her. I have never seen her like this. This isn't my little sister. Her whole body, the clenching and screams, are visible hatred and anger, and she is lost to it. Her screams tear her throat and end in horrible guttural, grating sounds. Like her whole being is forced out when she screams. Like she had tried to do on and off since Christmas.
Later that night, after trying unsuccessfully to sleep, I get some water in the bathroom. Claire is there before I turn on the faucet.
"It's just me," I say.
"Okay," she says wearily, going back to her room.
I wake up several times that night. I am terrified I will see Anna enter the bathroom and silently shut the door. The next day, and for weeks and months to come, I can't shake that fear. The doctors and specialists say it is important that she doesn't feel watched, so I just become sneakier about my surveillance. I pretend not to keep track of what she eats. I pretend not to notice how often and when she goes to the bathroom. I pretend not to scrutinize her appearance. I still pretend not to search for any sign of a relapse.
In the weeks and months and years since, I wonder how this happened. I never thought we would be that family. The one that refuses to see the truth, the one that asserts health where there is sickness.
But we didn't see. Not my mom, not my dad, not my sister, not me. Not me.
I didn't see, not until that night when I saw, and then I knew. Knew because she was screaming that she hated me, begging me to leave her alone. She screamed that she was fine as she huddled on the floor, shaking and sobbing, broken. A pale, clenched skeleton in a light yellow sports bra, screaming at me to leave her alone so that she can destroy herself in peace.
I wonder if she ever wished there was someone beside her. Did she ever want to whisper "Bag" and have someone there, to help her? Like I used to?
I didn't see, and I can't forgive myself. Somewhere, at some moment, she left me behind.
Two Years Later
I sit up too quickly and my sleepy brain slams into my skull. Claire is sitting up, too, straight and tense in her bed. The hotel room with three little beds in one neat row is dark and quiet. One bed is empty. Thin slits of yellow outline the closed bathroom door and show where the third sister has gone.
I don't know what woke us; I only know that we are awake and terrified. We turn to look at each other and the bathroom light barely glimmers off Claire's eyes in the darkness. We don't speak, we don't have to. We stare at the door and wait.
We listen for the tell-tale sounds but hear nothing. We breathe easier and our shoulders relax. We hear the faucet running and the tiny creak of the towel rack as she dries her hands. Claire and I quickly lie down and pretend to be sleeping. The slits of light vanish and Anna slowly opens the bathroom door. I watch my sister cross the room and climb back into her neat little bed.
I close my eyes and hope for sleep.
By Julia Nunnally of Marion, N.C.
The doctor explained to my mother and me
that twenty pounds of fat
were the extra weight packed
on my belly and thighs.
So began my diet at thirteen
in the summer of '69,
a regimen of counting calories
and eating boiled eggs,
Light n' Lively yogurt,
hamburger patties drained of grease,
and boiled chicken –
no KFC for me.
And so with my mother's culinary help
I reached my goal,
sold on the idea
when I wore my first bikini
and liked the way it looked and felt
and then later
tucked a turtleneck sweater
into hip-hugger jeans
encircled by a mod wide belt,
no belly to hide.
But soon enough I sneaked
a scoop of butter pecan ice cream
from our freezer;
and I accepted two sloppy joes,
grease soaking the buns,
from my friend Elizabeth's mother
when I spent the night there.
Was that why I stayed–
to get a feast more fun to eat
than bland white chicken
or hamburger meat robbed of its drippings?
And so I gained the weight back.
But, in fact, my growing height absorbed it
so only I knew the truth.
Since that summer diet,
I've been in a fight with food,
and sometimes I win.
But I never take a bite
without worrying that I'll lose again.
"The Burning Zone"
By Paula Blackwell of Durham
The dark ash
on the cold ground.
Our church was burned down.
Pastor shakes his head.
Members stare in shock.
Tears roll down like rain,
around the burnt rubble.
As the owners of the
Gasoline soaked hands
And dead hearts.
Slither back into the
Comfort of dark
Like their Fathers before
Who hid behind
Starch white sheets and
Cold dead smiles.
"The Table Cloth"
By Heather Bell Adams of Raleigh
The wrinkles on the tablecloth
used to bother me
and the stains,
I would press my finger on them
on my way past the table
late to something
and think of all the ways in which
I was lacking.
Now we sit here waiting,
squinting at each other under the fluorescent lights
my daughter's arm on her lap,
limp as a flesh colored towel.
And I think oh God,
it could have been so much worse.
It is late when we arrive home
and the air smells spicy
from the dirty dishes left in the sink.
When she is in bed, I place an extra pillow
under her arm,
like it is a jewel on display.
I make my way back downstairs and
I see the tablecloth
with its wrinkles and stains
and I think oh
the life that has been lived here.
By Lana Garland of Durham, N.C.
Hawk. It's Jessie. Tell Darryl give me a call.
Rewind. Click. Play.
Hawk. It's Jessie. Tell Darryl give me a call.
As he lay in bed, going through the weekly ritual of playing the 1 year-old message on the discarded answering machine, he wondered about the definition of insanity he had heard the other day.
‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.'
Different result. He wondered if this was a clinical definition or something some smart ass said to impress people.
Fuck it. He just wanted to hear her voice. It's Jessie...
Sonorous. That's what her voice was. He had just learned that word in his English class while some of his classmates were half asleep. Mr. Morton spoke it and the word captured his imagination for reasons he didn't understand. Maybe he liked it because it sounded like Sonoma – as in Valley – a place he'd heard about and had wanted to visit. Or maybe it was because he liked the word somnambulist, a word for sleepwalker. He could relate to sleepwalking.
However, sonorous was the quality of the tone of her voice on the machine. It was deep without being man-ish, and laden with tinges of weariness that so characterized her last few months with lymphatic cancer. For Darryl, listening to his mother's voice in this state was a far cry better than the sound of silence her death created.
Darryl laughed, remembering the time he tried to use the word for the first time. When he had told Hawk that his voice was sonorous it almost erupted into a fight. Darryl wondered how a true moment of trying to be a kiss-ass could devolve so quickly. At the time, Hawk was a new friend whom Darryl had started hanging out with around the same time Darryl started going to the magnet school for gifted high school boys. Darryl had seen Hawk at the public school prior to transferring and knew that Hawk was too rough for him then, and even now. But once he had gotten into St. Benedict's, Darryl knew he needed allies, and quick. The asses of St. Benedict's boys were perfect for thugs looking to hone their skills, almost like a professional certification. It was standard practice, accepted by thugs and spectators alike because, in their minds, it was a small price to pay for the abandonment that would come after a St. B's education. Everybody knew that St. Benedict's boys would leave the neighborhood, go to college, and never come back.
Excluding the intimidation tactics and gangster ways, Hawk had something that Darryl thought to be redeemable. He wasn't all bully. It was just that when Hawk felt like he was being made a fool, he got violent. That was his thing. Everybody had to have his own thing in the streets they could use for protection. Hawk's anger was like a superhero's ability to fly. So when Darryl tried to make him feel stupid by using that word, Hawk had to retaliate.
Darryl used everything he had, calling on his full powers of persuasion to make the bully feel like someone had actually paid him a compliment. He had lied and said that it was something his mom had said before she passed. In doing so, Darryl found out that the mere mentioning of the deceased had a particular weight with Hawk. There was a moral code buried somewhere is this revelation, borne out of Hawk's experience of repeated loss. Nevertheless, Darryl was shocked the next day when Hawk gave him the rickety answering machine that could still play the message with Jessie's voice on it.
The sound of the gates coming down to close the bodega brought Darryl back to the present. As he rolled over in his bed to put down a bottle of beer, a tambourine jabbed him in his side. It was the only thing he had ever stolen, and it had been taken from his mother's church a year ago, after the funeral. But tonight, he thought he'd break into the church and take it back. He was half-drunk when he came upon the notion, but completely sober by the time he found himself at the church door.
"What the hell am I thinking?" In his mind, he knew he absolutely could not have waited until the light of day. His boys, particularly Hawk, would've questioned where he was going, and what he was doing with a tambourine. "Naw, I ain't no punk," he uttered quietly. They wouldn't understand. Knuckleheads, all of them. That's what Xavier, who owned the bodega, called them.
Xavier, on the other hand, thought of himself as 147th Street's answer for what plagued Harlem. "More black-owned businesses in black neighborhoods, that's what we need," he said. Xavier got up early, stayed late, and tried to mentor as many of the young guys who came through the door as humanly possible. If you were to ask Xavier if Darryl was one of his boys, he would have said yes.
On the other hand, if you asked Darryl, Darryl would say Xavier was just aw-iight. Buried in Darryl's memory was the time his mom brought her co-worker home for dinner. Mark was a white boy, and gay. Jessie would be cooking food while Mark opened up the bottles of wine, talked, or rather, performed for the two of them for hours. Mark could make Jessie laugh like nobody else. He told stories about books he had read, or an interesting date that would somehow always end with his meeting someone else. He was a good friend to his mom, so when Xavier had stood at the corner, shaking his head in disgust that this black woman would be walking this white boy to the entrance to the train station, Darryl remembered.
Darryl had wanted to go up to Xavier and punch him in the face the next day. When Darryl walked into his bodega, Xavier was trying to impress the Puerto Rican woman with two names Darryl could never remember. When she left, a boy of about 12 scurried in, retrieved a book from his backpack and dropped it off on the counter. "Aw-iight, little man," called Xavier.
As the boy left, Darryl lost some of the need to hit Xavier. Now he just felt both irritation and a deep confusion over why people he looked up to could be so fucked up sometimes. Like his father whom he barely knew who lived down south with his new family.
When Jessie died, he thought he was going to have to argue with his dad about moving down south. He thought this was something his dad would force him to do when Darryl really just wanted to finish out his last two years of high school in New York. But when his father didn't contest Darryl's wish, Darryl felt a profound loneliness that would make him proclaim that now he was a man. On his own, no longer a child, and a man. The ferocity that leapt from his heart in this moment made him want to both laugh and cry. He wanted to be able to go out into the street and pick a fight with Hawk. He wanted to scream at police officers with itchy trigger fingers.
A full year had passed since Jessie's death and Darryl felt like his lies were starting to choke him. Lying to Hawk had made him feel guilty. Even lying by omission to his father had the effect of making him feel isolated. Furthermore, the lie bore a fruit he hadn't anticipated. His father struck a deal with Xavier whereby Darryl could finish high school in New York City, living with
Xavier above the bodega until he graduated. Darryl got up every day resenting what felt like a jail sentence, being able to look down the street to see where the old life with Jessie used to be. He resented pretending to like someone he partially hated. And he resented himself for partially hating someone who did good things like helping him get into St. B's, cooking for him, and putting a roof over his head.
Darryl felt drained and needed to do something to relieve the pressure. Some act of contrition that would allow him to breathe again.
At the entrance to the church, it occurred to him to run in the opposite direction. Before the devil could do what the young man quietly hoped for, the door of the church opened. There stood Monsignor Jackson, a man with a kind, brown face with a salt-and-pepper goatee. "Can I help you," he asked. "Aw damn," the young man thought. He hadn't had time to get his Plan B explanation together in the event that he was caught.
"I found this," came from the young man's mouth as he reached the tambourine across the years, back to its original home.
Was his hand trembling?
"How do you know it belongs to us?" asked the Monsignor.
Plan C. Nothing.
The young man figured that there was no way out of this. The only way to save face was to tell the truth.
"I took it when I was a kid. Right after my mom passed a year ago." Darryl hoped the Monsignor wouldn't ask too many questions since he was new to this church, having recently come from a diocese in Connecticut. The Monsignor stared for a couple of moments and then invited him in.
Darryl hadn't been in a church for so long. It seemed a little worn for wear and the heat was barely on, if at all. Instantly, memories bombarded him, weighting his heart with happy thoughts of his mother bringing him there as a boy, trying to help him find a relationship with his Maker.
He remembered how, as a kid, it was all so embarrassing for him. All of his other friends got to go, if they went at all, to a regular church, not a Catholic one. They got a chance to see an old lady lose her wig when she got the Holy Spirit. They could dance, clap, and sing when the choir really got going with the organ racing alongside the piano. And they also got to talk back to the reverend, even while he was preaching. "Preach Rev!" "Tell the truth and shame the devil!" There was none of this at his Catholic church. But it was his mother's church.
Thinking about these days made him sad that he had disappointed her stalwart efforts to ensure his salvation. He was sad that he hadn't given her this one thing. Would it have been so much to pay attention just a little bit more? He could've even kept going on his own. There were plenty of kids who left church and then went on to do some other cool activity that wouldn't raise suspicions that they really liked it. Sometimes, they would ride in between the subway train cars, spit some lyrics in a cipher, or smoke a little weed when nobody was looking.
The young man turned to look at the Monsignor. "I want to become a priest," he said. "Many do," said the Monsignor adding, "but few are chosen. And the road to hell is paved with good intentions." The young man said, "Then you could use a person like me who already knows the way."
Tell Darryl give me a call.
By Maureen A. Sherbondy of Raleigh
one by one, they fall
along cracks of sidewalks,
inside radio talk programs,
they fold their bodies
into ant-sized crumbs
then shimmy feet first down
blades of grass.
They crawl inside metal gutters
beside leaves and twigs,
then jump on top of slanted roof
shingles, flit away into
the gray dusk by skydiving from
planes and helicopters,
they hop onto the wings
of bats and rise up toward
the full moon, they flush
their bodies down toilet
bowls in restaurant bathrooms,
then file down the earth's slopes
and slide off sharp edges
just to get away from what
I've said and done to them.