Tag Archives: family

My Secondhand Lonely

(Klaus Vedfelt/Getty)

Zoë Gadegbeku | Slice | Spring/Summer 2017 | 15 minutes (4,081 words)

If it’s a Sunday, my mother is probably tucked into her bed, the stillness of the time between rest and the week’s unrelenting pace hanging heavy in the air, late afternoon light filtering through the half-drawn lavender curtains. She is probably reading, or maybe dozing and waking to the sounds of frantic sirens from the latest crime drama she has been engrossed in. The next morning, she will collect herself into the polished package she presents at work, just enough foundation to accentuate her cheekbones, dressed in a black suit with thin white pinstripes, her silver jewelry angular and slightly threatening like the point of her chin, eyes glaring above her glasses frames as if to say, “Don’t try me.” She has spent years building and defending her independence, interrupting a supposedly comfortable solitude only occasionally with relationships with men who eventually show themselves to be unworthy of her time. Still, her single motherhood never looks tragic to me, in spite of backhanded compliments that are supposed to affirm her strength: “Ah, in fact! You Mama Essie, you’re not a woman, ooh! You’re a man! Look at all the things you have done!” Working twelve-hour days, giving her family stern, frills-free advice, laughing with such unrestraint that it’s almost possible to see the fillings in her molars, she is single-minded in her mission to be excellent in every way. I can’t quite remember the exact moment she started to say, “Dzifa, I just want you to be happy. I don’t want you to end up like me.”

It may have been after I left home to go to college, after she began measuring my absence in the number of weekends she spends alone or how long it has been since I last called, but it is always distressing to hear, and I never let her continue long enough to give an explanation for this lament. I snap at her, “Why would you say that? Don’t talk like that!” Most of the time she sighs, or repeats in a resigned near-whisper, “I just want you to be happy, that’s all.” I’m only now growing to understand why being like her is supposedly an undesirable state in which to “end up.” She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.

* * *

I’ve been engaged in the slow, careful process of constructing my own solitary fortress for the past five years — four in the unhealthily competitive atmosphere of an elite private college, one at a graduate program in the cold of Boston that feels unhealthy in a different way, as I’m constantly picking through my pain for the most exquisite parts to exploit for a story, or to bring the heavy black woman perspective, coded as “nuance,” to certain classroom discussions. I’ve learned how to carve bricks for the boundary around myself out of intricate excuses to explain away the obvious strain in my tight smiles: “Oh, nothing, I’m just tired.” “Yeah, I have so much shit to do, but it’s cool.” “You know, I’m a writer, so I’m always in my feelings.” Or my default reply, also inherited from my mother, “It’ll be fine. I just have to get on with it.”

I’ve developed great skill at stacking these platitudes between myself and anyone who may see me often enough to notice the cracks in my poor performance of strength. My aesthetic is always adapting to sustain the deceit. There are days when the hyper-feminine and form-fitting serve as the perfect costume: black skirt with slits on either side, paired with a black top making up for the modesty of its high neck and long sleeves with its slightly see-through material. On other occasions, I put on my tomboy disguise, still silhouetted in black but this time in the form of jeans and round-neck sweatshirts a few sizes too big, hiding a body that still feels uncomfortable at times with its dips and curves that I don’t always want to display. Each compliment is more than a validation of personal style; it is a warning to never let the mask slip: You always look so good. Always on point. Honestly, how do you do it?

Every word is a confirmation of what I’m convinced will happen if I choose to deviate from the customary gracious smile, responding instead with “Actually, I’m not okay. I’m scared and alone. Can you please talk to me?” As far as I’m concerned, the trick of “not looking how I feel,” another coping mechanism I’ve modeled after my mother’s never-ending capacity to keep going even on her most sorrowful of days, has succeeded to the point where no one will know how to react to my crumbling before them. There’s never an appropriate time to reveal the extreme isolation of harboring feelings you don’t quite understand, and every attempt lands clumsily in the space between myself and the other person, unashamed in its messiness but too frightening for either of us to touch any further beyond prodding the issue tentatively with a few ill-placed jokes.

She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.

I tentatively crack open the door on a subject that I almost never speak out loud for fear it would swallow me with its terrifying reality. I drop vague references to how much I’m “going through it” at inappropriate times, like on the walk to the train station with a friend after class. I’m held back in my lonely place by the fear that I’ll expose the ugliness of my perfect farce. No formulation feels right or reasonable: I don’t know what this is. Every month since the spring of 2014, without fail, a smothering fog settles over me, before the premenstrual bloating and the pimples set in. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, every month with no exceptions. I think about ending myself for seven to ten days, every month, for two years. I flinch when my train rushes to a stop in front of me, only a short platform and a stripe of yellow paint between myself and its force. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, tears threaten to flood me in a too-hot shower, right before classes, in the middle of weekly check-in meetings at work.

It has taken this long to even allow these thoughts to whisper in my mind, because the training offered by my mother’s example has helped me to erase these grim blotches from the gleam of my effortless presentation, because for a part of those two years I dated someone I was always nervous would dismiss this horror as one of my “emotional excuses” for being a bad girlfriend, because if I don’t “get on with it,” there are friends who would find their calls unanswered at 4 a.m. when they have boy-related anxiety, or job-related anxiety, or what-am-I-doing-with-my-life anxiety. A heavy hand with the concealer hides the puffy eyes I get from going to sleep in tears I can’t explain, and I can get on with the lonely business of faking a life.

* * *

I recognize a similar show of flawlessness — albeit without the morbid subtext that stalks me — in Molly, the successful, gorgeous counterpart to Issa’s slightly inept persona on the HBO series Insecure. I can see traces of my mother’s charm in Molly’s relaxed laugh in front of a room full of colleagues as she makes a presentation, the ease with which she plays a game of dominoes with three men in the parking garage, spotless outfits in variations of ivory and cream standing out against her dark skin because she knows how striking that combination can be, and also that we, her admiring audience, won’t be able to ignore its stunning effect. It only takes the quick fade-out announcing a new scene for me to begin to see the unraveling of Molly’s perfection, so familiar and expected that I feel as though I’m the one pulling at its increasingly fraying edges.

In one scene, Molly gets a text, a simple “Hey” from Hassan the engineer, the latest man she’s seeing, or “the Arab guy,” as another character refers to him. Molly seems almost wistful as she reflects on how “different” he is, and the fact that she never imagined ending up with someone who wasn’t black — which seems a rather permanent statement to be making after only three dates. Of course, Hassan inevitably lets her down, and when Molly later recounts the story to Issa over dinner, she ends with a resigned “That’s my life” before lamenting the futility of navigating a dating scene which almost always seems to play out against her no matter whether she’s smothering, aloof, demure, or any combination of approaches to letting men know that she is interested in pursuing a relationship. The brilliance of the show lies in lifelike moments like these, when I see two black women using humor to avoid hitting too close to the heartbreaking center of the moment they’ve just shared: Issa offers a “broken pussy” as the explanation for Molly’s dating woes. “I think your pussy is sad,” she says. “It’s had enough. If your pussy could talk, it would make that sad Marge Simpson groan.”

I see myself in Molly’s wavering smile, in her attempts to keep herself together for colleagues and a larger anonymous public, in the possibility that this could be who I am becoming — this woman who thinks she has figured out how to measure herself in appropriate proportions, to always be more than enough for every situation, incredibly qualified for her job, head-turning from board meetings to restaurants, only to discover that her sole reward could be the yawning void where a life partner and peace of mind should reside.

For every shred of fear of a loveless, lonely future I feel, there seems to be an infinite number of reminders that I should be ashamed to crave romantic companionship to the same extent that I’m working toward academic and professional success. Gloria Naylor’s Ophelia seems to be pointing fingers at my weakness when she says, “I was never in that camp of a night out with someone is better than a night alone. I was someone, and there was always something to do with me.” My favorite poet, Warsan Shire, appears to echo this accusation of low self-worth on my part, “My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.” It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.

Listening to the two black women hosts of the official podcast for the TV show, Insecuritea: The Insecure Aftershow, deepens the embarrassment that I think I should feel for empathizing with Molly, for seeing in her the reflection of the same act my mother and I, and many other black women, fictional and otherwise, have been putting on for our entire adult lives. The hosts laugh about how “pressed” Molly feels to find a man:

“I wasn’t expecting to see a woman in 2016 who’s willing to openly say, ‘I just want to be married,’ cuz I feel like I don’t see that a lot anymore.”

“Right, I think for us we tend to be either/or . . . like either you’re heavily career-based and you’re just going hard in that direction, or you’re more family oriented and you’re just focused on building that side.”

Even as the radio hosts slip in the disclaimer that they are speaking only from their own experiences and those of women they know personally, the archetype of the no-nonsense black boss lady stands in plain view, complete with shoulder pads à la Teri Joseph from Soul Food in the early 2000s, or immaculate white suit and precise side part like Molly. I feel as though I am hearing the retelling of a myth that predates my existence — the independent black woman who doesn’t need anybody. I am drinking in the idea that longing for a love connection was a trivial concern, and that personal ambition and the gleaming summit of career success should suffice until such time as a woman decides to shed her professional sheen in favor of the muted tones of motherhood, marriage, and all the accompanying trappings. Being anything less than enough — yearning for another person outside of oneself, for the chance to be seen without the masks, to be cared for in the way one cares for others — then becomes off-brand for an unstoppable black woman™.

* * *

As I try, and fail, to fully understand what it means to revel in being alone, Toni Morrison writes to me through Sula on her deathbed, Sula who has truly lived life rather than plodding through it at a gentle pace. Her estranged friend Nel challenges Sula’s last boast that she is “going down like one of those redwoods,” majestically, and not “dying like a stump” like everyone else. Nel’s skepticism demands a deeper explanation: what does Sula have to show for this supposedly grand life of hers?

“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.”

“Lonely, ain’t it?” Nel’s question sticks out in my mind like the point of an index finger toward a shameful secret unfurled before a judgmental public. Lonely, ain’t it.

“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

Sula gives me the language to describe my loneliness, to hold it away from myself and dissect it, tackling its complex mesh and dissecting it piece by piece in the hope of finding some fulfillment on the other side of its demise.

It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.

Loneliness may exist for me as a craving for romantic love, as a hope that a partner may be able to help me untangle the web of reasons why I feel alone with my emotional turmoil, but it also moves far beyond the presence and potential abandonment of a lover. It lives in the moments after a strenuous day, when my monthly distress threatens to destroy the titanium resolve I have bolted down firmly over any hints of softness that may betray me. It is in my trembling lips pressed tightly together, but not hard enough to stem the outburst of sorrowful isolation that eventually spills over the edges of heavily made-up eyes, streaking jet-black down my face. I’ve cried the full length of the ride on a red-line train and onto the bus. In public I crumple into myself and wallow in the awareness that no one will be waiting at home or on the phone to listen to me cry, no one will turn away from their own worries to listen to mine. I’ve cried staring directly into the faces of strangers shut tight with lack of concern, or with apprehension that my tears may open a gateway to some erratic and potentially dangerous behavior that could affect them. All this lonely isn’t mine. Even after I get home, I imagine it still clinging tightly to my hair and clothes, smelling like the man in the faded navy hoodie sitting next to me on the train, who didn’t seem to care that I don’t want to chat.

Loneliness rests in the soft tap on my shoulder, clad in my favorite wax-print outfit, a wrinkled hand, a quiet smile leading to the question, “You’re from Nigeria? Or Ghana? I saw your dress and I knew.” Every African woman of a certain age on the train could be my great-aunt or grandmother, with the same manner of folding their arms in front of their chests, the same gold-framed glasses with perfectly round lenses. We are looking for relatives, long left behind and hardly spoken to, in each other’s faces.

Yet, I can’t afford to immerse myself in the sentimentality of being lonely, to make sweeping statements about the nostalgia that immigrants face, miles and temperature points too far from the Equator’s reassuring heat, to address it as a uniquely urban plague that defines the landscape as much as skyscrapers like glass cages and an anonymity that crushes those who are unable to fend for themselves and bolsters those who have come to escape a dull elsewhere they used to call home. This lonely I’ve been carting around every month for the past two years is sinister. My lonely is life-threatening, as it grows more and more difficult to convince myself that anyone would notice the space I left behind if I were to cease to exist. My lonely is my mother’s, but it’s also a secondhand acquisition that could be hormonal or psychological, one that scares me into concealing what could be a very serious mental health condition whose dimensions I haven’t been fully able to grasp. My lonely is also that of Ahine, my best friend, who moves from work to home and back again amidst London’s eternal dreariness, isolated in the exhaustion of striding forward in her career while helping her mother through illness, who sends me a tearful voice message after months of unusual silence to explain how her loneliness felt so insurmountable that it seemed easier to retreat further into herself than to reach out to anyone. It is also Bre’s, when we pass each other on the street, and at the exact same moment we are screaming private crises but somehow cannot topple the boundary of expectations and break down to each other. We make eye contact, and she smiles. “Where are you off to?” the single cowrie shell in her locs flashing back and forth as she shakes her head slightly to the rhythm of her waving hands. Later I’ll explain to her that I was marching as fast as I could to disappear onto a crowded train before someone caught me out of character, drinking back the lumps of sobs forming in my throat, and she’ll already know.

“Girl, I was going through it too!” So why didn’t we stop for each other?

There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support. We take care of ourselves only to the extent that we can paste on a cheerful face and keep showing out and showing up for others to feel at ease, keeping our hurt and our fear tucked away in the desolate, uncharted territories of the hours in the early morning when sleep is replaced by a depression that appears impossible to chase away. Twenty-five years after Sula’s death, Nel visits her grave and mourns not only the loss of her friend, nor the betrayal of the affair between Nel’s husband and Sula, nor the secret the two women shared of the day a little boy drowned after slipping from Sula’s grasp and into the river. “Sula?” Nel calls into the emptiness, with only the leaves and the ground beneath her feet answering her call. “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” Nel’s cries descend into an endless loop, “circles and circles of sorrow,” as she realizes that the source of her loneliness had roots deeper than the absence of her husband. “Girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” The gaps between myself and the women in my life grow wider and more impassable the more we hide our difficulties from each other under the guise of being, or at least appearing, strong.

* * *

I finally speak my agony out loud one Wednesday in September of 2016, because my mother’s training has not prepared me adequately for a time when private suffering becomes unbearable and spills out into the open no matter how much I try to halt its flow. I’m standing in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, my reflection framed by its glossy black border. I’m about fifteen minutes away from the arrival of my bus but unable to keep putting on my face because I’m not confident that my wobbly hands won’t stab my eye with the mascara brush I’m holding. There is the familiar tightening in my chest and my throat, and I try to steady my shaky breath by inhaling and exhaling deeply. Panic is winning a silent war against me, and I whimper as quietly as possible so as not to alert my two roommates. It wouldn’t do to bother them while they’re also getting ready for school and work. Instead I call my mother in Accra, hoping she can hold some of this chaos for me.

There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support.

“Baby, just try to calm down. Take deep breaths. Oh, baby, I’m so worried about you . . .”

I cry to her with my head tilted back so I don’t damage the mask I’ve just painted on. I’m not terrified because my morbid thoughts have intensified but because they are now beginning to overpower my desire and ability to just get on with it. I make it to the bus stop right as the bus pulls up, and I’m even twenty minutes early for work. I look good, always stylish, as my supervisor says, my hair at its hugest and fluffiest, the way I like it, because the humidity hasn’t started to shrink it yet. Later that day, the distance across the desk between myself and my favorite professor doesn’t seem quite as vast because I blurt out a summary of the monthly struggle I’ve been navigating, sharing with her my fear of conceding defeat to loneliness by even considering seeking the advice of a therapist.

“I don’t know, it’s just such a lonely feeling to know there’s no one who can listen the way I listen to them, so that I have to go and talk to a stranger.”

Her eyes widen behind the smudged lenses of her glasses with a concern that I know isn’t pity, but still makes me anxious.

“Zoë, it’s one thing if your friends are a safety net that you can fall back on, but if you don’t have that . . .”

* * *

There was a time when I controlled my lonely, when I would have been glad to claim ownership over it, to take it by the hand and along with me on adventures only I could see or appreciate. Being an only child meant that I was a self-contained source of my own joy. I climbed the twisted trunk of the same forget-me-not tree almost every day of the long vacation between July and late September, most of its velvety yellow flowers stuck in the red gravel at its base. Sometimes I was brave enough to jump back down from among the branches, following the path of descent back to solid ground that one of my slippers invariably took; other times I would have to wait for my mother to come back from work to help me down, my grandma’s arms unable, or more like unwilling, to get me out of my self-made predicament. I grew up always carrying a place for myself where the only other invited guest was my imagination, which allowed me to twist life’s mundaneness into whichever shape intrigued me the most. It seems fitting that the process of reclaiming my lonely as a place of satisfaction with myself, rather than a haunting jail that I’m too scared to escape, is a solitary one. I want to feel motivated to keep living for my own sake and not solely because giving up would alter the lives of people around me, to be “on point” for myself and not to be just a symbol of “black girl magic” for other people to cling to. I’m throwing away these secondhand burdens to avoid handing them to the daughter I may have in the future. I don’t want her to think it’s her duty to hold the fractured pieces of herself together long enough to fool others into thinking that her strength is unmatched. I’m prying open the vicious clamp of my lonely trap and pointing it out to other people in my effort to rid it of its power. No, I’m not okay. Can you please talk to me? 

* * *

This essay first was first published appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of SliceOur thanks to Zoë Gadegbeku and the staff at Slice for allowing us to reprint this essay.

Giving Thanks, Silently

Most years, my husband and I celebrate Thanksgiving twice: first on the actual holiday with my family on Long Island, then again that Saturday, in the Hudson Valley, with his. While there are nice aspects to both celebrations, it can also feel like an exhausting hustle.

This year it all seems particularly overwhelming. Maybe the non-stop onslaught of upsetting news is to blame — from our president’s efforts to dismantle our democracy, to the barrage of necessary but demoralizing reports about men in power sexually assaulting and harassing women and men — or the prospect of discussions about these horrors with people at different ranges of the political spectrum; but I feel as if I’m already experiencing the tryptophan effect, and I’m still a good 24 hours away from consuming any turkey.

Next year, I would like to do what Nina Coomes’ family used to do on Thanksgiving: take a silent retreat.

At Catapult, Coomes reflects in a personal essay on those times with her family at St. Mary’s of the Lake, a Catholic seminary in Illinois. There, Coomes and her Japanese-American family engaged in extreme unplugging — no reading, talking, using digital devices, and listening to music; they were allowed to write, draw and play the piano.

The retreat gave us all time away from the bewilderment we tended to experience around American holidays. By the time we first visited St. Mary’s, we had lived in the US for almost five years, but holidays and the surrounding sociocultural expectations were still a source of stress for us. Spending the weekend in silent contemplation and companionship proved a good way for my family to ease into the American holiday season; to take what we appreciated and understood—quality time together, to reflect and feel grateful—and leave what we didn’t, such as football, Black Friday shopping, and the white-meat portion of the turkey. Silence provided us with a touchstone to return to what we held dear as we continued to acclimate to a new country and culture.

While it was initially difficult for the family to acclimate to the silence, once they got used to it, they came to like it.

On our first Thanksgiving retreat, I was a seventh-grade bookworm of the highest order and had just received my own textbook-sized laptop. I was sure I would be bored to death with no one to keep me company but my little sister and newly uncool Mom and Dad. And at first the silent gesturing seemed infuriatingly slow; communication of the simplest ideas took minutes, minutes that slid by in what felt like an eternity. But after the initial frustration, the silence around us seemed to deepen and warm. Moments when one of us might have snapped at the other over a dropped piece of pie or a hand in an almost-slammed door were smoothed over more quickly, because the expression of frustration and anger had been relegated to facial expression.

To express affection or care without words, we sat close to each other, took long walks together, or fell asleep in overstuffed armchairs, side-by-side in puddles of late-afternoon sun. Silence made us more patient, more creaturely, somehow truer to ourselves. We did not have words to give thanks, but somehow gratitude remained, flourishing and becoming all the more tangible. On Sunday morning following that first retreat, even after we pulled away from the gates of St. Mary’s, our quietude persisted. It was with a lingering sadness that we slowly eased back into verbal communication, reluctant to return to the world of sound.

Read the story

The Itch and the Touch

(Alessia Pederzoli / Getty)
 Evan Lavender-Smith | The Southern Review | Fall 2017 | 37 minutes (10,132 words)


Mom called last night to say that when she and my brother went to Good Sam’s yesterday, they found Grandpa John totally naked in the bathroom, his butt basically stuck in the toilet seat, unable to get up, and it was a good thing my brother was with her, Mom said, because dealing with her father when he’s naked is one thing she just can’t bring herself to do. “I can’t deal with his penis,” she said. I told her that I understood, which I do, as often, in recent years, when I’ve been in the position of having to deal with his penis myself, I’ve thought the very same thing, viz., “I can’t deal with his penis.” Mom said that she went into the other room — Grandpa John’s bedroom / dining room / living room — while my brother and a nurse hoisted him from the toilet seat, cleaned him up, and got him dressed. Mom was trying not to cry while describing this scene to me, I could tell; I believe Mom fears crying while talking on the phone with me, worried that if she were to cry, I might get annoyed. Apparently, I am content allowing her to believe that I would get annoyed were she to cry, so she doesn’t. When Grandpa John dies, a death which his GP has suggested is now imminent, I have no doubt that Mom will cry while relating the news to me, but it remains to be seen whether I will or will not get annoyed.


Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time at Good Sam’s with Grandpa John. A primary topic of discussion has been Grandpa John’s so-called itch.

“How are you feeling today, Grandpa John?” I’ve often asked him.

“Not good,” he’s often replied. “It’s this damn itch again.”

We’ve taken him to several doctors to see what can be done about the itch. When the doctor asks Grandpa John to describe his symptoms, Grandpa John replies thus: “I itch!” And when the doctor asks him to elaborate, thus: “Everywhere! All the time!”

We took him to a dermatologist who told us we ought to see a neurologist. We took him to a neurologist who told us we ought to see a dermatologist.

Grandpa John’s GP finally told me there’s no reason he should be so itchy all the time. She pulled me aside in the exam room to say, “I’m convinced that the itchiness is all in his head. You might consider taking him to see a psychologist.”

“A psychologist!” Grandpa John said, riding shotgun in the minivan on the drive from the GP’s back to Good Sam’s. “But it’s an itch!”

“I’m just telling you what the doctor told me.”

“Do you know what doctors do? Evan, do you know what doctors do?”

“They practice.”

“You’re goddamn right they practice,” he said. “And that’s all they do.”

I suggested that maybe we should give the topical route another go, maybe stop off at Walmart and try to find something there, as none of the various pills he’d been prescribed had seemed to have any effect on curbing the itch.

In the Walmart parking lot, Grandpa John turned to regard me with his amber fit-over sunglasses. “I’ll wait here,” he said. He fished in his wallet, handed me a one-dollar bill.

“Generic, then. Travel size. Good. We’ll see how it works and go from there.”

In his lenses my reflection remained still for a long moment. He fished in his wallet again, pulled out a hundred. “Don’t bring back any change.”

Standing shirtless in his kitchenette later that afternoon, with his arms raised as high as he could get them, Grandpa John said, “You’ve got to get the whole back. And get it low. Yes, like that. Get it lower. Here.” He unbuckled his belt, pulled his pants and underwear all the way down. “Get the cheeks. Get all over the cheeks and then hit the tops of the legs, the fronts and the backs. Get everywhere. And get the crack. Get it good. Yes, like that. Use the whole bottle, we’ve got ten more. We’re going to snuff out this itch if it’s the last thing we do.”

“Grandpa John told me you cured the itch,” Mom said to me on the phone that night. “I can’t believe it. All those doctors! What’s this special itch ointment you found? He said it was expensive.”

“Johnson’s Baby Oil. I bought a hundred dollars’ worth. No itch-relieving properties whatsoever.”

“I don’t understand,” Mom said.

“I think he just wants to be touched.”


“He’s already got me penciled in for an hour and a half tomorrow, between church and poker.”

“Gosh,” Mom said, struggling to suppress a laugh, “it must be hell getting old, right?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Nude massage sounds pretty good to me.”

“Evan, I appreciate you so much. And so does he. And so does the itch, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, right,” I said. “The itch.”


On the days I drive over to Good Sam’s I always take a few minutes to come up with a list of things to talk about to which I can later refer while Grandpa John sits in his reclining chair staring at me blankly. Driving over earlier today — the A/C on full blast, fending off yet another sweltering New Mexican early-November afternoon — I considered the possibility of discussing the Republicans’ foreboding sweep of the midterm elections; my predictions for the upcoming Panthers-Eagles Monday Night Football game; my son’s lack of progress at piano; my daughter’s enrollment in hip-hop dance class; the Yankees’ qualifying offer to D-Rob and the likelihood that he would turn it down; the comical nature of our family’s recent trip to the annual Renaissance Faire; the comical nature of our family’s continued failures to housebreak our new puppy; and, if Grandpa John seemed up for it, Mom’s newly established plan for moving him from his assisted-living place at Good Sam’s over to long-term care at a local nursing home called The Aristocrat. My mental list of conversational possibilities would generally consist of even more items, maybe a dozen or so, but my son and daughter, who’d agreed to accompany me to Good Sam’s this afternoon, would serve, I hoped, as they had during past visits, as readily available means of conversational diversion were things to get silent and awkward between Grandpa John and me, or, were Grandpa John in an especially bad mood — were things to get combative between us, as they occasionally do — as conversational wedges, conversational shields.

“So,” I asked the kids, lowering the driver’s side visor to spare my eyes the afternoon sun’s harsh glare, “what are you guys going to talk about with Grandpa John?”

“Probably politics and stuff,” my son said.

“Probably just football and stuff,” my daughter said.

“Not good. Instead, I should like for you,” I said to my son, “to talk to him about stuff besides politics, because I’ve already decided that I’m going to talk to him about politics, especially about the midterm election results, and, besides, you don’t really know anything about politics. And you,” I said to my daughter, “I want you to talk to him about something besides football, because everybody knows you hate football, and because I’ve already got some stuff planned to talk to him about, about football.”

“So what should we talk to him about then?” my son asked.

“Yeah,” my daughter asked, “what should we talk to him about then?”

“What you guys should do is try to think of stuff to talk about that’s going to make Grandpa John feel better about dying,” I said. “Try to come up with stuff about what it’s like to be a kid, to encourage Grandpa John to conjure up images from his childhood and reflect on them with feelings of satisfaction and contentment about a life lived completely. Maybe think about something that happened recently on the playground at school, or in the cafeteria, or in the classroom, or at PE or something. Poignant interactions with other kids, your frustration with curricular requirements, the developmental travails of prepubescence. Something you did that got you in trouble. I know Grandpa John used to get in all sorts of trouble when he was a kid.”

“He did?” my daughter asked. “Like what sort of trouble?”

“Yeah,” my son asked, “what sorts of things did Grandpa John do to get into trouble when he was kid?”

“Talking in class, forgetting his backpack at home,” I said. “Not taking the puppy for long enough walks in the evening.”

“What kind of puppy did Grandpa John have when he was a kid?” my daughter asked.

“Yeah,” my son asked, “what kind of puppy did Grandpa John have when he was a kid?”

“I don’t remember. Maybe a Yorkshire terrier?”

“A Yorkie? You mean like Bucky?”

“That’s right. His puppy was the exact same breed as Bucky.”

“Cool,” my son said.

“Yeah,” my daughter said, “cool.”

“Not so cool, actually. If I remember correctly, Grandpa John’s Yorkie died at a very young age. Nobody ever took it for long enough walks in the evenings so its muscles atrophied and it just sort of withered away. Please don’t mention that to Grandpa John, though. I know he’s worked hard to forget it.”

A stoplight ahead of us turned red. I decelerated, bringing the minivan to a halt. None of us spoke for the duration of the red light.

After we’d started moving again, my daughter said, solemnly, “I’m going to take Bucky for a really long walk tonight.”

I scanned the rearview mirror to find that my son’s face had flushed red. “Dad,” he said, also solemnly, “I think we ought to take Bucky on a really long walk tonight.”


the old man and the outhouse

(as recently narrated to me, for the umpteenth time, by Grandpa John)

Can’t remember who he was, some old geezer from the neighborhood. I’m ten, see, eleven, still in my short pants. The old man’s trudging up the hill to the outhouse on his way to take his morning dump, newspaper in one hand, roll of tissue paper in the other. And I’m in the mulberry bushes with my buddies, see, watching, hiding out. And then I says to them, after the old man shuts the door behind him, I says to my buddies, real quiet-like, “OK, boys, now let’s tip the shit house over with the old man inside.”


Did Grandpa John have a dog as a kid? The image I have of Grandpa John’s father, given the former’s disturbing tales of abuse suffered at the latter’s hand, the intensity and immediacy of which has always been compounded by Grandpa John’s fondness for the historical present, does not at all jibe with the image of a yapping puppy running around the house. I guess I could imagine them owning a Doberman pinscher or a pit bull, maybe a German shepherd. I suspect that Grandpa John became a serious dog person only later in life, after his wife, my grandmother, the mortally emphysemic Grandma Blanche, died. While Grandpa John is not the type of man to admit of such a correlation — I can’t hear him saying, “Daily cuddles with this shih tzu eases the pain and anxiety associated with the unfortunate early passing of the love of my life” — it seemed obvious enough: during the twenty or so years intervening between Grandma Blanche’s death and Grandpa John’s matriculation at Good Sam’s, he was to be found without a canine cuddling companion for never more than a few days, that being the amount of time it took to have someone come in and dispose of the old dog’s dead body and then have someone else come in with an assortment of new puppies from which Grandpa John would proceed to make an unceremonious and often ill-advised selection.

What you guys should do is try to think of stuff to talk about that’s going to make Grandpa John feel better about dying.

No pets allowed at Good Sam’s, however. With Grandpa John’s escalating depression and his fondness for super cute dogs near to our minds, we decided, a couple of weeks back — associating Grandpa John’s contentedness, even Grandpa John’s happiness, with Grandpa John’s proximity to a real puppy’s wet nose and a real puppy’s rough tongue and a real puppy’s real soft puppy fur, as opposed to these things’ mere photographic representation all over the walls of Grandpa John’s bedroom / dining room / living room — to smuggle our new puppy into Grandpa John’s apartment at Good Sam’s. But, alas, Bucky’s little contraband nails kept puncturing the heavily bruised, grotesquely translucent, tissue-thin skin on Grandpa John’s hands and arms and cheeks. “Your puppy’s claws and my old-man skin aren’t the best of bedfellows,” Grandpa John said. He sat in his recliner, lesions along his arms oozing dark blood, Band-Aid wrappers strewn across his lap.

“They’re not claws, silly,” my daughter said. “They’re fingernails.”

“They’re not fingernails, stupid,” my son said. “They’re pawnails.”

“Nails, claws, whatever. Words don’t matter,” I said. “What matters is Buck’s tearing the shit out of Grandpa John’s old-man skin. Now, you two, put down your iPads and get him off.”

Grandpa John, bleeding, said, “Buck.” He stroked Bucky’s back, giggling.

“That’s right,” I said. “Buck. We named him after you.”

“No we didn’t,” my son said, playing on his iPad. “You said we named him after Starbuck from Moby-Dick.”

“No we didn’t,” my daughter said, playing on her iPad. “We named him after Star­bucks. Dad took me there to get a cake pop right after we got him from the breeder.”

“You got a cake pop?” my son asked, incredulous, looking up from his iPad. “Dad, is that true?”


blind par three

(which often follows “TOMATO” in the manner of a coda)

So me and my buddies, we’re twelve, thirteen, see, and we’re hiding out in some bushes, right beside the green, waiting for a threesome to tee off at the bottom of the hill from where they can’t see the flag. As soon as that last ball hits the green, we all of us scramble to gather them up. They trudge up the hill, the golfers do, take about five minutes searching around for their tee shots. Then somebody thinks to check the hole. The looks of disbelief on those men’s faces, Evan, I’m telling you, their hoots and their hollers. Dancing around the green, hugging each other, kissing. They’re over there crying real tears of joy.

And we’re in those bushes crying a few of our own, too.


While driving over to Good Sam’s this afternoon, we approached a stoplight. Although we were the only car at the intersection, the stoplight still turned red.

“How come we have to go to Grandpa John’s all the time, anyway?”

It used to be that Grandpa John could drive himself around. A few days before Mom’s official revocation of Grandpa John’s driving privileges, the kids and I found ourselves in the harrowing position of having to trail Grandpa John in our minivan as he drove his own car, a Toyota Solara, across town, from Mom’s house all the way back to Good Sam’s. It reminded me of watching my son play a racing video game called Gran Turismo shortly after we first got it for him: dashed white lines on the asphalt signifying nothing, other cars on the road existing not in relation to the lives of humans and human families but only to that of the POV car’s maniacal caprice.

Grandpa John’s driving privilege coup de grace occurred after we pulled up behind him at a red light and the sound of a police cruiser’s siren issued from somewhere beyond the intersection. I suspected that Grandpa John wouldn’t be able to hear it, given the recent debacle involving his $5,000 hearing aids, the result of which was that he’d been left with only the left-ear one. As the police cruiser came into view, I flailed my arms wildly in the minivan and repeatedly mouthed the word no, hoping, I guess, that Grandpa John might look up at his rearview mirror and see me, causing him to pause long enough — curious as to why his grandson was acting the fool in his minivan — to allow the cruiser to pass through the intersection unimpeded. The light turned green; Grandpa John stepped on the gas. The police cruiser’s tires screeched; its front bumper came to rest only inches before the driver’s side of Grandpa John’s car, which continued to slowly, nonchalantly traverse the intersection. Aghast, I looked on as the officer flailed his arms inside the cruiser, as he repeatedly mouthed what I presumed to be the word no. Beyond the cruiser, off in the middle distance, the driver’s side tires of Grandpa John’s slow-moving Solara left a dashed white line in their wake.

“Yeah, how come we always have to go to Grandpa John’s? Why can’t he ever drive over to our house?”

Grandpa John sometimes says to me, “It’s hell getting old.”

“You know what my biggest problem is?” Grandpa John sometimes asks me. “What’s that?” I say. “Old age,” he replies.

“Today the doctor finally gave me some information I can work with,” Grandpa John says to me. “Oh yeah?” “Yeah,” he says to me. “She told me that I’m old.”

“Evan, I have some advice for you,” Grandpa John says to me. “Don’t ever get old.”

“Don’t worry,” I says to Grandpa John. “I won’t.”

I lived with Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche for a summer back in high school. Grandpa John was a senior VP at Waste Management, Inc., and he procured for me summer employment at a local dump.

I recall a torn wrapper from a packet of peanuts lying on the living room floor, Grandma Blanche telling Grandpa John to pick up the wrapper and put it in the trash. “What do I look like to you?” Grandpa John asked, watching televised golf, popping peanuts in his mouth. He wore an immaculate dress shirt, pleated slacks, ribbed socks, sparkling shoes. “You’re a garbage man, John,” Grandma Blanche said. “Do your job.”

When I returned home from work in the evenings, I was not allowed to enter the house until I had stripped down to my skivvies in the garage, placed my reeking work clothes in a trash bag, and cinched it all the way closed. I deposited the bag in the laundry room and raced across the house in my underwear — fearful that Grandpa John would catch a glimpse of my bean-pole figure and make a gibe about it — to the bathroom, where I showered and then sat on the toilet for twenty or more minutes enjoying the bathroom’s cleanliness, its spaciousness, its austerity . . . a far cry from the state of our cramped and often filthy bathroom back home, let alone that of the Porta-Johns at the dump. I would listen expectantly as the soles of Grandpa John’s oxfords tapped toward me from the hallway, as he knocked on the bathroom door to inquire as to whether I’d fallen in, as Grandma Blanche averred that teenagers require privacy of toilet and he really ought to leave me alone.

There was a rumor going around the dump that all of us worked for the mafia. “You mafia?” we’d ask each other, knee-deep in mounds of trash.

I was supposed to be saving up all my paycheck money for college, but I put aside a little each week for a portable CD stereo, which, maybe halfway through the summer, I finally purchased, positioning it on the marble-top dresser well beyond the foot of my bed. In the evenings, after Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche had released me from further familial obligation, I popped Nasty Nas’s groundbreaking Illmatic into the CD player’s tray and kicked back on that glorious California king with my elbows splayed out on either side of my head as it rested comfortably against the bed’s massive mahogany headboard. My hairless legs were crossed, my bare toes wiggled. In the huge gilt-framed mirror hanging above the dresser on the far side of the room, I studied an image of myself rapping along with Nas. Grandpa John’s house in Palm Springs was immense, palatial, nothing at all like his place at Good Sam’s; the guest room was in a whole other wing from where Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche’s bedroom was, so I was afforded the luxury of appreciating Nas at such a volume as Nas was intended to be appreciated: loud. “The World Is Yours” became my anthem. I recall lying on my bed in the guest room, slipping an eager hand beneath the elastic band of my boxer shorts as I watched myself in the mirror — the world was mine. I immersed and projected myself into the music of black culture, spending every weekend afternoon poring over the hip-hop CDs in the music section at the Palm Springs Barnes & Noble, memorizing track listings, taking assiduous note of rappers’ wardrobes — the world was mine. The large metal label on the back pocket of my Karl Kani jeans had scratched the absolute shit out of one of Grandma Blanche’s Windsor armchairs — the world was mine.

A loud banging issued from the other side of the door. Grandpa John entered the guest room, nude, livid. “Turn down the jungle music!” he yelled. His penis looked like a miniature human being.

We watched a movie together, something racy. During a sex scene, Grandma Blanche briefly removed the oxygen mask from her face to ask Grandpa John, “Why don’t you ever make love like that to me?” She returned the mask to her face; I listened to the cadence of compressed oxygen being released into my grandmother’s lungs. Grandpa John steadied his gaze on her. He replied, “Why don’t you ever make love like that to me?”

When I returned home from work in the evenings, I was not allowed to enter the house until I had stripped down to my skivvies in the garage, placed my reeking work clothes in a trash bag, and cinched it all the way closed.

I remember Grandpa John’s forearms resting on the dining room table, straddling his dinner — as if protecting it from some phantom threat: theft, mice, the swaying of a boat — fork in one hand, knife in the other, or, when not grasping cutlery, his fingers in loose fists, his thumbs pointing ceilingward.

And Grandpa John whiffing a three iron, swearing. Grandpa John repeatedly whiffing a wedge, chipping the ball with his foot.

Grandpa John kneeling in the pew, fingering a rosary, supplicating, trembling, the skin above his socks showing. Grandpa John smelling of Brut cologne, shoe polish, dry cleaning.

Grandpa John muttering curses under his breath while steering Grandma Blanche’s wheelchair up the ramp to the pulmonologist’s.

Grandpa John placing a finger above his left cheek, pulling down the skin, widening his eyes, asking, “Do you see anybody in here who cares?”

The three of us watched Jeopardy! together. Alex Trebek said, “He takes a green group of cowhands, prepares them for the drive, and then leads it.” Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche shouted at the TV, simultaneously, “Who is James Cagney!” Alex Trebek: “He watched the eighteen fourteen bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British ship and wrote a poem about it.” Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche, simultaneously: “Who is James Cagney!” “The name of this two- or three-toed mammal comes from Middle English for —” “Who is James Cagney!”

Grandpa John awoke at 4 a.m. every morning and set to work at doing the dishes, as Grandma Blanche no longer possessed the strength required to load the dishwasher without breaking stuff. The kitchen was on the other side of the house, and yet, as I lay in the guest room bed vying for more beauty sleep before having to get up and get going to the dump, it was as if the racket Grandpa John made in the kitchen sink was happening in my ear. I now believe that the cleaning of those dirty dishes was Grandpa John’s cross to bear; he was announcing his frustration with the conditions of his life — viz., the unassailable fact of his wife’s imminent death — via an exaggerated clanging of pots and pans.

On my last day of work at the dump, Grandpa John insisted on picking me up, giving me a break from the long bus ride home. He rolled up to the chain link entrance in his DeVille, all the windows rolled down, the back seat plastered in thick plastic sheeting.

My coworkers, eyes bulging, mouths agape, looked on.

“He mafia,” one of them said.


happy birthday

(specially requested on the kids’ birthdays, in hopes they will better appreciate all the good things in their lives)

My old man, that would be your great-grandfather, he says to me, “No way, Buck.” He says, “Buck, you are fifteen years old.” The old man says, “I seen some war myself and it ain’t pretty. No way am I sending a son of mine off to that hell.” But his answer doesn’t go over too well with me, see, so every day I get up out of that bed and I sit down at that table and I have another go at him. “Don’t forget my birthday’s coming up,” I says. “You gotta sign for me.” And every day the old man says back to me, “No way, Buck, I’m not signing it.” But I don’t let it go, no, you bet your ass I don’t. “Ask your mother,” the old man says. Evan, you did not know my mother. If you’d known that woman you’d know there’d be no chance of her ever signing it. So I keep pestering and pestering the old man every day, see, and when my birthday finally rolls around I get out of bed real early and I head over to him with the form and the pen and I says, “Sign it.” The old man looks up at me, it’s the one time in my life I ever seen that man scared. His hands are shaking, like this. The old man looks down at that form, takes up that pen, signs his name to it with tears in his eyes.
“Happy birthday,” he says to me. I grab the form and I run out of that house as fast as I can.

“Yes, it’s true, I got her a cake pop. In fact, I take her there to get cake pops all the time. Whenever you’re not looking, we hop in the car and go to Starbucks for cake pops. Now, I would kindly ask you to get your puppy off your great-grandfather before he skins the old man alive.”

Grandpa John giggled. Bucky sat in his lap chewing on a Band-Aid wrapper.

“Buck’s named after Grandpa John,” I said. “End of story. Another word about it and no screens for a week. Now, Grandpa John, explain to these two rabble-rousers why everybody used to call you Buck.”

Grandpa John dabbed at crimson blood on his arm with a monogrammed hankie, set the hankie down, returned to stroking Bucky’s back. He cleared his throat. “I believe it was on account of my teeth. But then they gave me new teeth in the navy, better teeth. The name stuck.”

“Did you guys hear that? Grandpa John was in the navy. He fought in the Pacific to preserve the freedom and the way of life you two so enjoy today.”

“Thanks, Grandpa,” my daughter said, without looking up from her iPad.

“Dad, can you sign me in?” my son said, handing me his iPad. “Yeah, thanks, Grandpa. It’s a free app, Dad, I swear.”


The first episode of Ken Burns’s 2007 WWII documentary, The War, is entitled “A Necessary War.” Despite having watched this entire documentary three, maybe four, maybe five or six or maybe even seven or eight times — I watch documentaries on my iPhone to help me fall asleep at night — I can remember little of it beyond what the episode titles call to mind. “A Necessary War”: the United States’ entrance into WWII was necessary, unlike so many other wars in which we’ve found ourselves embroiled, because, in the case of WWII . . . but I’m unable to paraphrase Ken Burns’s argument as to why the U.S. involvement in WWII was necessary; I can’t remember it. Although I can, if put to, knowing Ken Burns’s politics as I do, attempt to fudge a summary, with no small confidence in my attempt’s resemblance to Burns’s thesis as I imagine it’s laid out somewhere in the documentary’s first chapter. Thus: Hitler, the persecution of the Jews, to preserve the way of life all of us so enjoy today; contra Vietnam, contra Persian Gulf, contra the so-called War on Terror, wars that involved the U.S.’s largely unnecessary engagement, viz., there was no Hitler involved, there were no millions of Jews being murdered, and, most importantly, there was no actual imminent threat to those many existential comforts afforded the U.S.’s middle and upper classes by means of our country’s hegemonic, globally oppressive late-capitalist regime.

One morning, a couple of weeks back, after a night spent watching and/or sleeping through the first few episodes of The War, I arrived at Good Sam’s eager to pick Grandpa John’s brain about his necessary involvement in WWII’s Pacific theater. Upon arriving, I found him asleep in his recliner with his mouth wide open, the TV on full blast, his raucous snores duking it out with exclamatory constatives from obnoxious local TV ads. I have been repeatedly admonished by both Mom and Grandpa John to wake up the latter whenever I arrive at Good Sam’s to find him sleeping, as they believe that the palliative effects of family interaction trump those of beauty sleep for Grandpa John, but, as I consider sleep a precious resource, one that should never be squandered, doing so remains rather difficult for me. My first recourse is to lower the TV volume and sit down on one of Grandpa John’s barstools in his kitchenette, pretend to play with my iPhone, simply wait it out. If only I possess the patience to wait long enough, Grandpa John will eventually wake up, I know; but, despite possessing great patience, as Mom’s often told me I do, I do not possess such patience as to sit contentedly amid the sound of Grandpa John’s sporadic grunting, the sight of his spittled chin, and the stench of his apartment’s moldy carpet for very long. My next recourse is to silently approach sleeping Grandpa John, kneel down beside the recliner, and whisper sweet nothings into whichever of his ears contains a hearing aid. My next recourse is to pat him gently on the leg. My next recourse is to grasp him by the shoulders and gently shake him. My next recourse is to pull his hair, gently. My next recourse is to yell at him, gently, or to gently pluck out one of his few remaining eyebrow hairs. My next recourse is to dispose with all gentility and retrieve from one of the cupboards in his kitchenette a pot and a pan, which was my final recourse on this day, the morning that found me eager to pick Grandpa John’s brain about the U.S.’s necessary involvement in WWII.

Standing above an openmouthed Grandpa John, studying his fake teeth, I clanged the pot and the pan together. He awoke, scanned the room to get his bearings, assuring himself that he was still alive. “Evan,” he said, wiping spittle from his chin, “thanks for waking me up.”

“Not a problem.” I sat down beside him. “So, Grandpa John, there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about. In my opinion, World War II is the only truly necessary war the U.S. has ever been involved in, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Horseshit!” he replied, spewing saliva in the direction of my mouth.

I placed the pot and pan on the carpet, retrieved a hankie from my pocket, wiped my lips. “What I mean to say is,” I said, “it was necessary for the U.S. to get involved in World War II, in order to preserve the way of life we so enjoy today, in contrast to our engagement in other wars, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, the so-called War on Terror, wars which posed no imminent threat to our way of life. But, in the case of World War II, Hitler was on the march, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, so it was necessary for us to get involved, wouldn’t you agree?”

“You bet your ass it was,” Grandpa John said.

“And so you fought in the Pacific, then?” I said. “At the age of sixteen? And so that’s how you lost your teeth or what?”

Grandpa John did not immediately reply. I’ve often attempted to bait him into telling me about the time he spent, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, fighting in WWII’s Pacific theater. I’m not sure why this interests me as it does. It may be that the details concerning a teenage Grandpa John fighting for his life in the Pacific feel important to me because they contrast so starkly with details concerning my son’s enjoyment of his life: affixing brightly colored plastic interlocking bricks together, depressing buttons on remote controls, gesturing on touch screens. Could it be that I harbor a secret desire to learn of the horror of Grandpa John’s Pacific theater existence if only to project it, in my imagination, onto an imaginary mode of existence suffered by my son, transferring onto my son’s chubby preteen visage the horrors of war as once experienced by Grandpa John, in order to bring tears to my eyes, in order to watch as my son, in my mind, struggles in the face of wartime atrocity to retain some semblance of continued attachment to the peace of mind he so enjoyed back home while playing with his Legos, playing with his PS3, playing with his iPad mini? Yes, it’s true, I am very eager to place my young son’s life in jeopardy, in my mind. Or could it be that I want to know about Grandpa John’s life, to know as much as I can, before he dies? Grandpa John is dying, he’s been dying for some time, but Grandpa John once lived, too, and it’s important that knowledge of his life is given an opportunity to live on, at least for a time, in someone’s mind — in mine.

“Maybe the itch really is psychological,” I said, “maybe it comes from holding in all that stuff about World War II for all these years, never telling anyone about all the innocent people you killed or whatever, ever think of that? Maybe you should tell me about all of those horrible atrocities you witnessed in the Pacific, Grandpa John, and then maybe the itch will finally go away and I won’t have to keep giving you those full-body nude massages all the time.”

“I may be eighty-eight years young, Evan, but I’m not in short pants anymore.” Grandpa John motioned toward the urine- and spaghetti-stained heather sweat pants covering his legs. “Your parenting tricks won’t work on me.”

It could be, also, that I’m eager to hear Grandpa John tell his war stories simply to afford me an opportunity to throw on my narratologist’s cap and study his use of the historical present a bit more. I’ve always been especially attracted by Grandpa John’s manner of narration; while I’ve never considered myself a particularly gifted storyteller, hearing Grandpa John tell his stories evokes in me a hopeful sense that the gifted-storyteller gene yet resides dormant within my genotype, and perhaps the cadences and the colloquialisms and the excessive use of detail associated with Grandpa John’s historical-present narrative delivery will finally trigger the gene’s phenotypical manifestation in me, in my writing, and at long last I will enjoy that role so often fulfilled by Grandpa John over the course of his eighty-eight years — viz., the life of the party — as I will that of the commercially successful novelist whose gruff, vernacular, and largely transparent prose style finds his reader tearing through pages, having fallen inescapably into the world of story.

‘Maybe the itch really is psychological,’ I said, ‘maybe it comes from holding in all that stuff about World War II for all these years, never telling anyone about all the innocent people you killed or whatever, ever think of that?’

“Grandpa John,” I said, “you’re dying, you’ve been dying for some time, but you once lived, too. And it’s important that your life is given an opportunity to live on, at least for a time, in someone’s mind. Ever think of that?”

“In whose,” Grandpa John said, “yours?”

“That’s right,” I said, “in mine. And then I can later transfer memories of your life, as you’ve related them to me, to my kids’ minds, and then they can later transfer those memories to their kids’ minds, and so on, affording you and your memories a kind of immortality. Ever think of that?”

“Here’s what I think,” Grandpa John said. “Let’s cut out the middleman. Bring those kids of yours over here and I’ll tell them my stories myself.”

“Even better,” I said. “To be honest, the itch stuff and the immortality stuff was all a ruse, you’re right. What I really want is for the kids to hear your stories of wartime atrocity and have the shit scared out of them. I want those kids scared straight, Grandpa John. They need to start appreciating all the good things they have in life. And, moreover, I think it’ll be good for my writing to have one last opportunity to carefully scrutinize your use of the historical present.”

Grandpa John asked, “You’re going to do what to me?”


tell carl arenz

(a companion piece to “Happy Birthday,” which I’d heard only dribs and drabs of over the years until a few weeks back when Grandpa John, feeling magnanimous after my curing of his itch, finally agreed to narrate it to me in its entirety)

It’s my sixteenth birthday, see, I already got the form signed by the old man, I’m standing in line at the recruitment office in Ottawa, Illinois. “Army or navy?” the officer asks me. “Marines,” I says to him. He looks me up and down. Back then I was a bean pole, Evan, just like you. “How about we go with navy?” the officer says to me. “That’ll work,” I says to the officer. They put me on a train to boot camp up in
Michigan that same day, I don’t even go home for my things or say good-bye.

(“What?” I says to Grandpa John. “Is that true?”)

You bet your ass it’s true. Six weeks later my mother and the old man show up in Michigan, come by the barracks, but it’s already lights-out so the old man tells me through the window they’ll be back the next afternoon to take me out for a steak dinner. I can see my mother out there weeping, she can barely stand to look me in the eye, she’s got both her hands on the window, moving them around like, trying to get at me through the glass. My folks head on back to the motel. Come morning word arrives we’re shipping out that same day, nobody knows where to. My folks show up to get me
that steak but I’m already long gone. For all they know I’m on my way to France.

(“Are you kidding me?” I says to Grandpa John. “That’s crazy!”)

You’re damn right it’s crazy. From the age of sixteen and one day to the age of nineteen and one day I saw my parents’ faces for exactly two minutes’ time. So now I’m on the train, see, and word is we’re headed to Californy to catch a boat to the Pacific, nobody knows where to, and I’m seeing in my mind my mother standing outside those barracks banging on that window, weeping up a storm, falling to her knees and praying to God, “Don’t let it be true, my baby boy’s headed off to war and I didn’t even kiss him good-bye.” Evan, you did not know my mother. That woman’s heart was bigger than . . . that whole refrigerator there. So I’m on the train a few hours, feeling real sore about it, all tore up inside, crying my eyes out, and then, all of a sudden, I start recognizing places I know, some familiar landmarks out the window. “We’re in Illinois,” I says to myself, “and we’re coming up on Ottawa.” I can’t believe my eyes. We pass through Joliet, Morris, then head down into Streator. You know Streator. The train pulls in at the station to pick up some folks, it’s the dead of night, and I’m home, see, we’re just down the road from Ottawa, but what can I do about it? I’m looking out the window, and right as the train’s fixing to go, I make out in the distance this old hobo strolling through the grass. So I calls out to him, leaning as far out the window as I can, with my hands cupped around my mouth like this, I calls out to the hobo, “You know Carl Arenz?” And he calls out back to me, the hobo does, like this, “Sure I know Carl Arenz, who don’t know Carl Arenz?” See, everybody knew Carl Arenz, even the hoboes, he owned the only automobile dealership for miles around, and he’s also my uncle, see, my mother’s younger brother. So then I calls out to the hobo, like this, “Tell Carl Arenz tell his sister John Lavender’s headed to Californy where he’s gonna catch a boat to the Pacific and fight them Japs!” “OK, will do!” the old hobo calls out to me. And then I calls out to him, I calls out to the hobo like this, “And tell Carl Arenz tell his sister John Lavender misses his mother!” “OK, you got it, no problem,” the old hobo says, “anything else I can do for you?” So then I calls out to him, right as the train’s pulling away, I’m choking on my tears because I’m headed off to war and I didn’t kiss my mama good-bye, also because I can tell the old hobo’s already four sheets to the wind and he probably won’t remember any of what I’m saying, so I cup my hands around my mouth like this and I calls out to him as loud as I can, in a mean, threatening way, like he’s in big trouble if he don’t do it, like I’m a real soldier, like this. “You better tell Carl Arenz tell his sister John Lavender loves his mother! You better tell that Carl Arenz give his sister my mama a kiss good-bye from her baby boy John Lavender!”

That old hobo’s eyes go real wide. I think he gets the message that time.

(“Grandpa, that’s incredible. That’s amazing!”)

You bet your ass it’s amazing. Now, I want you to guess who’s sitting on that porch rocking in that rocking chair when my mother gets home from Michigan.


My uncle quits his rocking, stands up, and the minute she’s stepped onto that porch he places his hands on his sister’s cheeks, gives her a kiss. “From John,” Carl Arenz says to my mother.


When we finally arrived at Grandpa John’s this afternoon, we found him in his reclining chair, earsplitting shrieks from the TV bouncing between his bedroom / dining room / living room’s four walls, his mouth wide open, his body unmoving. My son and daughter stood before him awhile, heads lowered, arms at their sides, trembling hands precariously holding on to their iPad minis.

“Should we go tell a nurse?” my son finally asked.

“Yeah,” my daughter asked, “shouldn’t we go tell somebody?”

“Guys,” I said, “come on. He’s just not snoring for some reason. It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Dad, it’s totally obvious. Look at him. He’s dead.”

“Yeah, Dad, look at him. He’s totally dead.”

He did look very dead, they were right. And yet often I’d arrived at Grandpa John’s to find him thus, absolutely certain of his death until such time as he’d awaken with a start and call out my name, to ask — as I pilfered his drawers for hawkable keepsakes and spare change — why I was going through all his stuff.

I leaned over Grandpa John, listening for his breath, examining his fake teeth. “Sweetie,” I said, extending my hand toward my daughter while training my eyes on Grandpa John’s shriveled uvula, “take your barrette out. I need to borrow it for something.”

“No way,” my daughter replied. “My hair looks fabulous today.”

“Yeah, Dad,” my son said. “Her hair looks really great today.”

“Do you guys still have that dog whistle app on your iPads?”

“But Grandpa John’s human,” my son replied. “He won’t be able to hear it. And even if he could, it wouldn’t matter anyway.”

“Yeah, Dad,” my daughter said, “it wouldn’t even matter. Dead people can’t hear things.”

“He’s still got his hearing aid in.” I pointed toward Grandpa John’s droopy earlobe. “Turn up the volume all the way and position the iPad’s speaker directly against it. I guarantee you that’ll wake him up.”

“From the dead?” my daughter asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

My son flipped the cover from his iPad mini and swiped to unlock. He opened the dog whistle app, placed the iPad mini’s Lightning port against Grandpa John’s ear, fired up the inaudible whistle. After a few seconds, Grandpa John’s eyelids fluttered — and then they opened very wide.

“It’s just like in that book,” my daughter whispered, “with the guy.”

My son whispered, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

“How are you feeling today, Grandpa John?” I asked Grandpa John.

“I’m alive, aren’t I?” Grandpa John replied.

I shot the kids a knowing glance. They raised their palms and shrugged their shoulders. Grandpa John wiped the spittle from his chin. The kids sat on the floor, crisscross applesauce, positioning their iPad minis in their laps.

“Guys, Grandpa John is more interesting than an iPad,” I said. “How many more chances are you going to have to come over here and socialize with Grandpa John, on the one hand, versus the other hand, the hand which holds not just these iPad minis but which will, doubtless, hold many future-gen iPad minis? There are no next-gen Grandpa Johns on the horizon. Put them up or else. I’m serious.”

The kids grudgingly closed their smart covers. Embarrassed, Grandpa John fake burped. And then he said: “Evan, today’s the day I’m going to tell your kids my war stories.”

“Kids,” I said, turning to the kids, “today’s the day Grandpa John is finally going to tell us his stories of wartime atrocity.” I grabbed the iPads out of the kids’ laps, sat down on the love seat, pulled my pen and notepad out of my pocket, licked my finger. “Grandpa,” I said, “why don’t we start with the story of how you lost your teeth. Do you need some water? Are we good to go here?”

Grandpa John cleared his throat. “The only thing I need, Evan, is for you to get the hell out of this room. I’ll tell these kids my stories on my own.”

“Yeah,” my son said. “Get the heck out of here, Dad.”

“Dad, out,” my daughter said, “right now. Or else.”

“Grandpa John,” I said, “seriously?”

“Hallway,” Grandpa John said to me. “Right now.”

“Out,” Mom said. “Right now, you two,” by which she meant Grandpa John and me. “I’d like to have a minute alone with her,” by which she meant her mom, Grandma Blanche. “Wait in the hallway,” by which she meant the hallway at the hospital, outside Grandma Blanche’s room.

Grandpa John and I shuffled out. We sat on folding chairs beside the door.

“Don’t you ever smoke,” Grandpa John said to me.

“I won’t,” I replied, pretending to massage that portion of quadriceps beneath the right pocket of my jeans in order to assure myself of the continued presence of my pack of cigarettes.

“Those two women in there,” Grandpa John said, turning to me. “They’re the loves of my life.”

He regarded my slightly askew baseball cap, my XL hoodie, my unlaced Timber­lands. His eyes teared up. He patted the leg of my Karl Kani’s, right near where my cigarettes were.

“Those two, plus you,” he said, gripping my hand, “are the three loves of my life.” He squeezed my fingers really hard. “Plus your brother. That makes four.”

I remember sitting in the hospital room after Mom told us it was OK to come back in, receiving eyefuls of the afternoon sun’s harsh rays as they made their way in through gaps in the window blinds. I remember Grandpa John kneeling bedside, fingering a rosary, trembling, supplicating, and I remember Grandma Blanche’s body beneath a long white sheet. I remember her rhythmic, cartoonish jaw movements, like a goldfish breathing.

I remember the window blinds. Crazy knots in the drawstring, bends in the slats, a couple slats missing. I remember Grandpa John getting up to futz around with the blinds’ drawstring, Mom telling him to cut it out or else. As Grandma Blanche inhaled one last time, Grandpa John was still over there at the window trying to coax the mess of slats into place, as if darkness were more amenable to life. After silence greeted Grandma Blanche’s final exhalation, Grandpa John let go of the drawstring. I remember him turning toward us to say, “To hell with it. It doesn’t matter, anyway.”

After returning home from Good Sam’s and eating dinner, the kids suckered me into accompanying them on their walk around the neighborhood with Bucky. We took him all the way to the stop sign at the top of the street, then turned to make our way back home, west — and there was the horizon, and there, atop it, a big fat setting sun, and everywhere a regal New Mexican sky with quilted streaks of lavender, orange, and green.

“Guys,” I said, pointing at the horizon, “there’s no app for that.” I pulled out my phone, snapped a picture. “Eat your heart out, Apple,” I said.

“Yeah, Apple,” the kids said. “Eat it.”

As we began to make our way home, I instructed the kids to relate to me every­thing that Grandpa John had said that afternoon at Good Sam’s concerning his experience in WWII’s Pacific theater, when I’d stood outside in the hallway with my ear pressed against the door attempting and mostly failing to discern the familiar cadences of Grandpa John’s historical-present narrative delivery.

The only thing I need is for you to get the hell out of this room. I’ll tell these kids my stories on my own.

“No way, Dad,” my son said, zipping up his lips. “Grandpa John told us we had to keep it under lockdown.”

“Yeah,” my daughter said, throwing her arm forward, flicking her fingers. “And he told us to throw away the key.”

Bucky stopped, sniffed at some petrified dog poo, maybe his own. I offered to make the kids a deal. If they would be willing to tell me what Grandpa John told them, then I would be willing take Bucky on his nightly walk, sans their accompaniment, for one week’s time.

“Nope. You’re going to have to do better than that.”

“Something way better, Dad.”

We continued walking. A quarter or so of the sun left above the horizon, I told the kids that if they told me every last detail of what Grandpa John had told them, then they could have an additional hour of screen time on Saturday of the upcoming weekend.

“Are you kidding? That’s practically nothing!”

“Yeah, that’s not a good deal at all, Dad!”

Bucky stopped to sniff at a discarded condom. I offered the kids a final deal. If they didn’t tell me every single last detail of what Grandpa John had told them, not only would they lose all their screen time for the upcoming weekend, but I would never again, for as long as they and/or Bucky lived, accompany them on their walks around the neighborhood in the evenings.

“OK, fine, we’ll tell you. But are those other deals still on the table?”

“Yeah, we’ll definitely tell you, Dad, but what about those other deals you offered us before?”

We stopped at the top of the driveway. The other deals’ continued validity was contingent upon the narrative quality of the story they must now proceed to relate to me, I told them. We sat down together on the short crumbling rock wall athwart the drive, and what little light remained at the horizon illuminated Bucky’s tiny teeth and the kids’ lips and cheeks and eyes as they proceeded to relate Grandpa John’s story of orthodontic wartime atrocity, culminating in an instance of highly questionable divine intervention, thus:


how grandpa john lost his teeth

(as told to Bucky and me by the kids last night, at the top of the driveway, right as the sun was setting)

So Grandpa John’s job on the boat is to help aim the big gun at the sky and try to shoot stuff down.

Yeah, Grandpa John’s a gunner’s assistant. His job’s to help gun down them Japs.

(“Don’t say Japs, guys. Please call them the Japanese.”)

And he’s out on the ocean in that boat, in the Pacific Ocean, in the ocean near to where the Japanese live, the island of Japan.

Yeah, he’s out on that ocean, Dad, and then all of a sudden these planes start coming in. Bam bam bam bam bam! It’s crazy! There’s planes everywhere. And those planes are shooting at Grandpa John and his friends. Grandpa John is only sixteen years old during this story. That’s barely five years older than me! Isn’t that crazy?

(“That’s totally crazy, yes. I hope that makes you appreciate all the good things you have in life.”)

So everybody’s running around on that deck and everybody thinks they’re going to die.

Yeah, Dad, everybody’s super scared. Everybody thinks they’re totally goners, even Grandpa John.

And so then a bunch of them boys start heading belowdecks. There’s just too many planes in the sky, see. When you look up at first you think all those planes are birds, like seagulls, because you’ve never seen anything like it before, because the only thing you can think it can be is a bunch of seagulls flying around.

But they’re not seagulls, Dad. They’re Japanese fighter planes trying to kill Grandpa

Yeah, and all of Grandpa John’s buddies, too! All them boys!

And so then Grandpa John’s buddy, the main gunner guy, he, like, totally bails.

Dad, the main gunner guy gets so scared he pees his pants. He has to go below­decks to get a new pair of pants.

No, that’s not what happened.

But that’s what Grandpa said. He said the main gunner guy had to go change his pants.

He was just joking about that part, stupid.

You’re stupid!

No, you’re stupid!


So Grandpa John is all alone up there with the big gun now because his buddy got scared so he has to start shooting the gun himself. Dad, we’re going to have to tell you all about how those guns work because you won’t understand this story if you don’t know anything about how those big guns really work.

Dad, there’s this thing that can get super hot on the gun, see, and it’s the assistant gunner’s job to take that thing off the gun when it gets hot and replace it with another one of those things that’s not super hot so that thing doesn’t get too hot and explode the whole gun.

But Dad, now that the main gunner guy peed his pants and Grandpa John took over the main gunner’s job to shoot, there’s nobody to take off the thing when it gets super hot.

Yeah and Grandpa John’s aiming the gun up in the sky without any help and shooting it all on his own!

And he’s shooting them seagulls down like crazy!

What? No. He’s shooting them Japanese.

Yeah, he’s shooting them Japanese. That’s what I said.

No, you said he’s shooting the seagulls.






(“Guys, come on. This is important. Please.”)

And Grandpa’s shooting so much that the thing on the gun starts getting super hot, but there’s no one there to take the thing off now because that was Grandpa’s job but now he’s shooting the gun on his own because everybody else totally bailed and went down belowdecks.

He’s shooting that gun at those Japanese planes so much and the gun starts getting super hot and now it’s burning his hands off but he has to keep shooting it or else we might lose the whole war out there!

Yeah, Dad, we’re about to lose the war out there in that Pacific!

And then the gun starts turning bright red like the bottom of the fireplace. But even redder than that, Grandpa John said.

Yeah, way redder. But he still keeps shooting that gun even though his hands are getting totally burned.

His hands are totally on fire, Dad!

Yeah, Grandpa John’s hands are on fire for real now then the whole gun explodes right in his face because there’s nobody to take off the hot thing and that’s how he lost his teeth.

Dad, the gun exploded right into Grandpa John’s mouth! It melted all his teeth!

Not melted them. Knocked them out.

Yeah, that’s what I said. It knocked out all his teeth.

But then this is the really crazy part.

Yeah, this is the really crazy part, Dad. You’re not going to believe this part but it’s true.

Dad, Grandpa John died for a little while out there in the Pacific.

Yeah, Grandpa John died for a little bit. He went to heaven. Did you know about that part, Dad?

(“No, I don’t think I was aware of that.”)

Yeah, Grandpa John totally died. Isn’t that crazy?


Grandpa John totally died and went to heaven and that’s when he had a little one-on-one with God.

Yeah, Dad, Grandpa John had some face time with God, for real, up in heaven.

But Dad, now this is the part that Grandpa John made us swear never to tell you.

Yeah, our lips are totally sealed on this part. You’re going to have to offer us something really good this time.

Like new iPads.

With retina displays.

And not minis.

Yeah and not minis. With expensive cases, too.


Yeah, Dad, deal?

(“How about I take away your current ones only for an evening, rather than a fortnight?”)


Deal and so Grandpa John says to God, “I sees what’s going on here, God, I sees what you have in mind for me, and I’m not too happy about it.”

Yeah and Grandpa John says to God, “God, listen up. I’ll make you a deal.”

Grandpa John says, “I’m not too happy about any of this because I’m only sixteen years old, see, and I haven’t even barely lived yet and already you have it in mind for me to die.”

“And so here’s the deal, God,” Grandpa John says to God. “You let me live today and I promise I’m going to do something real special for you.”

Yeah, Dad. Grandpa John says, “If you let me live, I’m going to marry a woman named Blanche, and with this Blanche I will have a daughter named Gail.”

He meant Grandma Gail, Dad. That’s your mom!

Yeah, Dad, totally! And listen to this. And then Grandpa John says to God, “God. And my daughter Gail will have a son named Evan.”

That’s you, Dad! Grandpa John was totally talking to God about you!

Totally, Dad. And then this is what Grandpa John says next. This is for sure the best part. Grandpa John says to that God, “OK, God. And then my grandson Evan will have two children of his own. And their names will be Jackson and Sofia.”

That’s us! Grandpa John totally told God about us! Can you believe it?

But now wait, this is totally the most amazing part. Grandpa John says, “Now you listen up, God, and you listen good. I’m making you a real good deal here. If you let me live, there are going to be two kids in the world named Jackson and Sofia, and that Jackson and Sofia are going to be just great, they’re going to be the best kids in the history of the world, even if they fight a lot. So what do you say, God, because this is my final offer. Deal?”

And Dad, you’re not going to believe what happened next. You’re not even going to believe what God says to Grandpa John.

God puts his hand on Grandpa John’s shoulder, like this. And then God says, “Deal.”

Dad, God told him he’s got a deal! And he even touched Grandpa John on the shoulder! Like this!

Yeah and then Grandpa John woke up in a hospital somewhere on some boat.

Yeah, but Grandpa John totally died, Dad, for real.

Dad, it’s true. But Grandpa John totally lived, too.


This essay first appeared in The Southern Review, the venerable quarterly journal of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry published by the Louisiana State University Press in Baton Rouge. Our thanks to the author and The Southern Review staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

The Doctor Will See You Now

Harri Tahvanainen/Folio Images

Sarah Miller | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,614 words)


I was at the eye doctor’s Monday and my phone rang, which is unusual. It was my mother’s cell phone number, even more unusual. I didn’t answer, because the eye doctor was just about to put in dilating drops. “I think my uncle just died,” I said, and realizing that sounded weird, added: “I’m pretty sure that’s what that phone call was, because my mother never calls me, and he just had a stroke and was about to die, so.”

Before the eye doctor could respond, I continued, “It’s not that big a deal, because he was a jerk and no one ever talked to him. Except some lady he was sort of with. Sort of. But they weren’t having sex, because he couldn’t breathe that well anymore.”

My eye doctor is Mormon and maybe 62. His office is in a shopping center in Grass Valley, a former gold-mining turned pot-growing town between Tahoe and Sacramento, with long summers and a short winter that’s getting shorter. I have heard there are a lot of Mormons here but he’s one of only two I know. The other one is extremely lapsed. My eye doctor is not lapsed. He was wearing an aggressively dorky short-sleeved button down shirt, as if to head off at the pass the hoards of women certain to hit on him that day.

I sensed I was barking up the wrong tree by telling my 62-year-old Mormon eye doctor that my mom’s brother had just died and that he was a jerk whose breathing problems had prevented him from having sex. He stepped back, holding the drops like he might hold a cocktail, if he drank. His wedding ring was stainless steel and enormous, like his wife had their sub-zero refrigerator melted down to make it. He cleared his throat. “Do you want to call your mother back?”

“You can put those drops in first,” I said. “I might as well get it over with.”

Read more…

My Half-Sister’s Half a Life

Illustration by Wenting Li

Jeannie Vanasco | The Glass Eye | Tin House Books | October 2017 | 2,543 words (10 minutes)

In the Memory Game you’re expected to find two matching cards. My dad’s left eye and his right didn’t perfectly match. The i and the eye don’t perfectly match, but they sound the same. Jeanne and Jeannie sound the same, but we don’t perfectly match. I could write this story chronologically and divide it into three parts titled “eye,” “i,” and “I.”

But I worry that I lose authority as a storyteller if I recall memories from age four. I could preface some of those memories with “I remember.” Or, in memoir, is such subjectivity implied? Like “I see” and “I hear,” “I remember” is almost always an unnecessary filter. Maybe I can preface the more detailed memories with “I remember” — a defense against any reader who thinks, There’s no way she remembers playing the Memory Game when she was four, or It couldn’t have been the Memory Game — its so symbolic. It feels forced.

Do I need to be more selective with direct dialogue, or introduce hindsight perspective, or lean on my mom’s memories? I’ll keep some of her in the present tense. I’ll show how I often ask her questions, such as: “Did it happen this way?” “What was his illness called?” “Did Dad accept the loss of his eye?” But if I excerpt conversations with her that concern only him, then it looks like I care less about her life stories.

I’ll write another book after this, a book for her.


Not once did my dad say Jeanne’s name in my eighteen years with him. My mom did when I was eight.

I was dancing in my bedroom with an unlit candle when she called me downstairs. My teacher, Sister Paulina, had asked three second-grade girls to lead our First Communion ceremony with a dance. The dance required me to hold a candle above my head, and I was terrified of setting the church on fire. I practiced at home almost every day for a month.

When I walked into the living room, my dad was in his chair, holding a small white box. As my mom explained that he had a dead daughter named Jeanne (pronounced the same as my name) “without an i,” he opened the box and looked away. Inside was a medal Jeanne had received from a church “for being a good person,” my mom said. My dad said nothing. I said nothing. I stared at the medal.

Later that day, in the basement, my mom told me Jeanne had died in a car accident when she was sixteen. I sat on the steps as my mom folded clothes and confided what she knew.

Two other girls were in the car. The car could seat three people in front. Jeanne sat between the driver and the other passenger. The driver tried to pass a car, then hesitated and tried to pull back into her lane. She lost control and the car crashed. Jeanne was the only one who died.

“Your father blames himself,” my mom said. “He can’t talk about it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He gave her permission to go out that night.”

Jeanne had asked him if she could see a movie with her friends. He asked what her mother had said. “She said to ask you.” He said it was fine, she could see the movie. He had no idea his first wife had already said no. He and his first wife weren’t speaking.

“Did you know his first wife?” I asked.

“No, he was divorced long before I met him. All this happened in New York.”

It happened near Newburgh, where he and his first family had lived. I knew only Ohio. In my mind, all of New York was made of skyscrapers, taxicabs, and car accidents.

“What did Jeanne look like?”

My mom said she’d never seen a photo.


I painted portraits of Jeanne in watercolor. I titled them Jeanne. My art teacher told me she was disappointed that “such a good student could misspell her name.” From then on, I included an i.


“I wanted to tell you about Jeanne before that,” my mom says after I ask why she told me when she did. “But your dad, he worried that you’d misinterpret his intentions. I told him, ‘She’s going to find out someday. Don’t you think it’s better she hears it from us?’”

“Did Dad have any photos of Jeanne?”

“No. He told me his ex-wife wouldn’t let him have any. But for some reason, she gave him the medal.”


Throughout my baby scrapbook, I’m referred to as “Barbara Jean,” “Jean,” “Jeanie,” and “Jeannie.” In one letter, my dad calls me “My Darling Daughter Barbara Jean.” In a letter to my mom, he calls me “Jeanie” and “Jeannie.” My parents had planned to name me Jeanne.

“That or Jean Marie, actually,” my mom says. “Her given name was Jean Marie. She went by Jeanne. Your father simply saw the name as a sign of respect. He even spoke with a priest about our naming you after her, and the priest encouraged him to do so, provided he never compare you. ‘I would never do that,’ your father said.”

But while my mom was asleep after having just given birth, he named me Barbara Jean, after my mom. When he told her what he’d done, she said, “That’s no name for a baby.” She thought Barbara was too old-fashioned. That, and two Barbaras in one house would be confusing.

“When I told him I wasn’t calling you Barbara, he got this sad look on his face. He meant to do something sweet,” she says. “He always had good intentions.”

Legally my name remained Barbara Jean, but my parents called me Jeannie. My dad added the i.

“Just said he was adding an i,” my mom says. “He never explained it.”


I remember the spring day that I stood alone in the corner of the school playground, thinking about Jeanne. Cars passed by with their windows open. I often wondered if my dad thought about Jeanne every time he drove our car. A classmate, another second-grade girl, asked what I was doing.

“My half-sister died,” I told her.

“I have a stepsister.”

I tried to explain the difference between a half-sibling and a stepsibling.

“We share the same dad,” I said.

“I didn’t know you had a half-sister.”

“Four of them,” I said, or maybe I said “three.” I didn’t know if Jeanne counted, or if she counted more because she was dead.


I have no clear memory of learning about Jeanne’s sisters — Carol, Arlene, and Debbie — but I know my parents told me about them before I learned about Jeanne. Arlene is the only one I knew throughout my childhood. She lived in New York. She visited us four times in Ohio — five if you count when our dad was dying.

“Arlene is beautiful,” I told my mom after Arlene’s first visit.

Arlene’s dark brown eyes matched her hair. Thick and wavy, it fell just past her shoulders. Later I’d show photographs of Arlene to boys I liked; I wanted them to think that I’d be beautiful someday, like her.

“She was a model once,” my mom said. “I think she modeled wedding dresses for a catalog.”

Arlene often called, wrote letters. She mailed me unusual presents: hangers with illustrated wooden cat heads, vials of sand from Jerusalem, a pair of earrings that looked like pale orange pearls. She even trained her cockatiel to say “Happy birthday, Jeannie.” She sent a video of it. I wrote thank-you letters; they went through several drafts. I wanted my cursive to look perfect.

Carol and Debbie I’d never seen, not even in photographs. Debbie was a hairdresser in New York, and Carol owned a candy shop in Rhode Island. Carol, the oldest, was my mom’s age. Beyond that, I knew nothing.

Once, while my dad was on the downstairs rotary, I listened through the upstairs rotary. I was in the second grade and often eavesdropped. I could hear one of his daughters — not Arlene, I’d have recognized her voice — yelling. My dad mentioned me, and she yelled more. I quietly set the phone on my bedroom carpet. I could still hear her. When no more sound came from the receiver, I looked through the grate in my bedroom floor. My dad was at the dining room table, his head in his hands.

“They were mad your father had his first marriage annulled,” my mom explains. “It was after your First Communion. You asked him why he couldn’t take Communion with you. He said it was because he was divorced. It’s a man-made rule — that you can’t take Communion if you’ve been divorced. If you annul the marriage, the church basically says the marriage never existed. His daughters took it personally. He didn’t mean anything against them. He wasn’t disowning them. He did it for you.”


Jeanne would come between me and almost everything I did. I studied harder. I researched the lives of the saints and how I might model their behavior. I sat before my bedroom mirror with a notebook and documented my appearance and what exactly I needed to fix. I needed to be a smart, kind, beautiful daughter.

I tried not to hear her name when he said my own.


I followed my parents to their graves. Rain made it difficult to find our way.

“Where do I walk?” I asked, afraid of disrespecting the dead.

My mom told me to follow her. We passed a smaller fenced-in area where fresh flowers and toys were at almost every grave.

“The children’s cemetery,” she explained.

My dad stood farther ahead of us, underneath a tree. He motioned us toward him.

I looked down at two headstones printed with my parents’ names and birth years: “Terry J Vanasco, 1922,” and “Barbara J Vanasco, 1942.”

“Where do I go?” I asked.

“You might have a husband someday,” my mom said. “You’ll want to be buried next to him.”

“But I want to be with you and Dad.”


I call my mom, ask if she remembers that day in the cemetery.

“We took you to see the graves?”

“That’s what I remember,” I say.


After Jeanne died, my dad bought burial plots for himself and his wife next to the plot for Jeanne. When he and his first wife divorced, she demanded that he forfeit his plot because she didn’t want him buried next to their daughter. He agreed. Soon after the divorce, he went to court again, this time for beating up “a bum” on the street.

“Why should you be alive?” my dad asked him. “You’re not working and my daughter’s dead.”

The judge remembered my dad and let him go.

My dad’s sister Anna told all this to my mom, who at some point shared it with me. I don’t know if I learned this story before or after seeing my parents’ headstones, but the two stories juxtaposed together make sense, writing-wise. Still, I call my mom, ask if she remembers when she told me about my dad losing his burial plot.

“I don’t,” she says, “but did I ever tell you: when I went with your dad to his father’s funeral — this was a couple years before you were born — the funeral director told me about your dad losing his cemetery plot. The director said, ‘In all the years I’ve worked here, I’ve never heard of anything like it — denying a man burial next to his daughter.’ Your dad’s ex-wife eventually did offer him the plot — this was when you were a little girl — but your dad refused it. He said, ‘I have a family here.’”


It was my parents’ twelfth wedding anniversary. I was ten. A snowstorm swept through Sandusky. We had plans to celebrate at home that night. We were in our car leaving the grocery parking lot when my mom abruptly told him to stop the car.

She left it, slammed her door, and opened mine.

“We’re walking home,” she told me.

My dad looked back at me.

“Come on,” she said. “I’m teaching you a lesson.”

“What did I do?” I asked.

“I’m teaching you you don’t need a man.”

I told her there was a snowstorm. It was too cold to walk home. Our house felt far away.

“Stay with him if you want,” she said and began to leave us.

I apologized to my dad and ran after her.

My dad slowly followed in the car with the front passenger window down.

“It’s a blizzard,” he said.

She ignored him.

I asked her why she was angry, and she ignored me.

He pleaded for us to get in the car. Home was at least two miles away.

She yelled at him to leave us alone. He looked at me, and I looked down at my boots. When I looked up, our car was disappearing into the falling snow.

“What if he dies in a car accident?” I asked.

“He’ll be fine.”

“But there’s ice.”

“He won’t die.”

I watched my breath chill before me and disappear.

We walked in silence along the shoulder of Milan Road. When I looked behind us, snow had already covered our tracks. Snow plows rumbled by. A few cars came and went. A man offered us a ride and my mom waved him off.

“We’re almost home,” she lied.

The man drove away.

“Your father doesn’t trust me,” she said.

The friendly man who worked in the checkout at the grocery store, my dad thought was too friendly, she explained.

My dad often told us to wait in the car while he checked out. I always thought he was being a gentleman, bringing the groceries to us.

“Your father doesn’t trust anyone,” she said.

“What about me?”

“You’re different.”


When we reached our house, he was at the kitchen table, his head in his hands.

“Dad,” I said.

I yanked off my boots and ran to him.

My mom walked past us and into the basement. He followed her, and I went into the bathroom and lifted the door to the laundry chute. I heard my dad apologize.

That evening at dinner, they smiled at one another and held hands.


“Sometimes he drove me nuts with his possessiveness,” my mom says when I ask about the snowstorm. “His father was the same way, apparently. Your dad’s mother would go to the grocery store, and your dad’s father would time her. Your dad thought it was horrible, but then he went and did the same sort of thing to me.” She pauses. “After you left for college, your dad and I were on the back porch — and he asked if I regretted our marriage. ‘Of course not,’ I told him. ‘Why would you ask me that?’ He said he knew how unreasonable he’d been. He said he was sorry. He said he was afraid of losing me. Your dad would have been happy, just the three of us, in a cabin out in the woods. He said you and I were all he needed.”


From The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco. © 2017 Jeannie Vanasco. Used with permission of the publisher, Tin House Books. 

Two Brothers, Two Earthquakes

Rescue workers working through piles of rubble in Mexico City in 2017 (left) and helping a victim in 1985 (right). (AP Images)

Jesus Jimenez | Longreads | October 2017 | 13 minutes (3,155 words)

September 19 started out as a tranquil, but eerie day in Mexico City. The sun rose at 7:24 a.m. over the Popocatépetl volcano and onto the homes and offices and workplaces of the city’s nearly 8.9 million residents.

That Tuesday morning, commemorations were being held throughout the city. It was the 32nd anniversary of the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people in Mexico’s capital in 1985, causing 412 buildings to collapse and more than $3 billion in damages. Mexican law states that all schools and public institutions are required to hold earthquake safety drills every September 19. Some places choose to practice their safety drills earlier in the morning to avoid interfering with their work or school days, while others participated in the national earthquake drill scheduled for 11 a.m.

Just after 1 p.m., my uncle Ángel Jiménez was walking to the local market to buy some fresh produce. He pulled out a note on his phone to double-check his grocery list before turning it off to conserve the remainder of its low battery life. As he put his phone away, a peculiar thought popped into his head. If an earthquake ever happened again, I don’t care what happens to me. I’d be OK knowing my wife and two kids are safe.

“It was a one of those crazy thoughts,” Jiménez says. “It was one of those things you feel silly for even allowing it to pop into your head. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a premonition.”

At 1:14 p.m. the supermarket started shaking. Initially the shaking didn’t scare Ángel. Mexico City is in a subduction zone, which means the oceanic Cocos plate is slowly sinking under the continental North American plate, making Mexico prone to earthquakes. On February 5, 2012, a 4.8 magnitude earthquake shook Guerrero, Mexico, 218 miles from the nation’s capital. On May 6, 2013, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake struck Puebla, Mexico, 82 miles southeast of Mexico City. Earlier in the month, on Sept. 7, a deadly 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit offshore Chiapas, Mexico killing at least 90 people and damaging hundreds of homes and buildings.

Although earthquakes don’t happen every day, Ángel and the people of central Mexico are familiar with slight tremors. Ángel is blind, but he doesn’t use a walking stick, nor does he have a service dog. He didn’t think running out of the market would be a wise idea if he couldn’t see where he was going, so Ángel held onto one of the counters. He wanted to take cover under the counter, but his muscled, 5-foot-9-inch frame couldn’t fit. At first Ángel thought something was wrong with the counter, as if something was loose.

“It felt like a light tremor, then there was a sudden jerking pull,” Ángel says. Within a matter of seconds the shaking turned from innocent and forgettable to forceful and historic. It would be hours before Ángel would learn that the shaking came from a 7.1 magnitude earthquake about three miles northeast of Raboso, Mexico, 70 miles southeast of Mexico City.

As the shaking intensified, Ángel had flashbacks to the devastation that occurred 32 years ago. He’d been here before. Read more…

On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump

Nicole Chung | “All American,” from Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America | September 2017 | 16 minutes (4,037 words)

There were so many disturbing moments in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that it’s difficult to identify any particular one as the worst. Up there at the top of the list: Donald Trump narrowing his eyes and shaking his head as he called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman,” during the final debate. He probably didn’t count on feminists laying claim to the words he’d used to level an insult. At the post-Inauguration Women’s March on Washington, many women bore signs proudly emblazoned with those words. And on October 3rd, Picador will release Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an essay anthology edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, featuring essays by 23 women including Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, and Samantha Irby, among others. The following essay from the collection, by writer and Catapult editor Nicole Chung, captures the frustrations of dealing with Trump supporters, including one’s own family members.  

Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor


When I made an appointment to get my hair cut two weeks after the election, it was with a new stylist, a white woman in her 30s with a streak of purple in her hair. She commented on the loose, rumpled waves that show up whenever my hair gets damp, and I explained that the slight curl appeared only after I had children. She welcomed the avenue for small talk: How many kids did I have; how old were they; did I have a photo? I pulled out my phone and showed her the picture on my home screen, my two girls at the beach.

Oh,” she said, visibly surprised. “Is their dad American?” Yes, I told her. So am I. She went on to ask “what” my children were, and whether I thought their coloring was “more olive, or more yellowish like yours?” Later, as she snipped away, she revealed that she and her father and her boyfriend had all voted for Donald Trump.

Though her comments about my kids were the most offensive, it’s her assumption about my nationality that has stuck with me in the weeks since. She identified my husband as “American” when what she meant was “white,” isolating and othering me in the process. There is nothing out of the ordinary about being taken for a foreigner when you’re Asian American; by itself, without years of similar accumulated remarks, her slip might not have bothered me. But in the same month that Donald Trump was elected to our nation’s highest office, this white woman’s unthinking words served as a stinging reminder of just how many people in this country look at me and see not an American, not someone like them, but an outsider, intrinsically different.

Read more…

The Oldest Restaurant in Kabul: Where Tradition Trumps Rockets

Illustration by Joe Gough.

Maija Liuhto | Longreads | September 2017 | 10 minutes (2875 words)


In the Old City of Kabul, there is an area known as Ka Forushi, the bird market. Visiting this old, roofed bazaar with its tiny lanes, spice sellers, and dancing boys is like walking into a scene out of “One Thousand and One Nights.”

It is here, among the clucking chickens, crowing roosters, and cooing doves, that Kabul’s oldest restaurant, Bacha Broot, has been serving delicious chainaki — traditional lamb stew — for over 70 years. Bacha Broot, named after the original owner who had peculiar facial hair, is from the Dari, meaning “boy with a mustache.”

While wars have raged on the restaurant’s doorstep, very little has changed inside. The claustrophobic stairs, the sparse interior, the tiny door easily missed in the maze-like bazaar; all in their original state. While modern fast food joints lure Afghanistan’s younger generations with pizza and burgers, Bacha Broot stays loyal to its recipe for success. The famous chainaki — lamb on the bone, split peas, and onions cooked for four hours in tiny teapots — has drawn customers for decades, during war and peace, good times and bad.

Read more…

The Whistleblower in the Family

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Pearl Abraham | Michigan Quarterly Review | September 2017 | 18 minutes (5,007 words)

“The power of narrative stems from the narrator’s ability to be there and then, as well as here and now.”

— C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power


In 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, my father, a man with rabbinic aspirations, was deep in his own pickle, indicted for conspiracy and fraud in the federal summer school lunch program.

Nixon was brought down by Deep Throat, the pseudonym given the informant who passed information to Washington Post journalists about his administration’s involvement in what came to be known as the Watergate Scandal. My father got off somehow.

With him in court for one of his hearings, I suffered his ashen face, then his palpable relief when the case was deferred or dismissed, I’m not now sure which. I also don’t know whether his case made headlines the way rabbinic and priestly scandals do these days, “Five NJ Rabbis Arrested for Fraud and Conspiracy” a recent one.

Read more…

Why the Most Beautiful Poems Defy Understanding

At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.

I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.

This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.

Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.

A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.

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