The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies

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Part 1: Trick or Treat
Riley Detmer, age 9

Why do I always have to be doing something?  Mom and Dad all the time ‘what are you doing?’ How does a bag save a planet?

I don’t know.  I think this is going to be my last year.  I was too young and now I’m too old to remember when it was fun. The one story I always hear is how I went through my entire candy bag when I was three and a bumblebee, ran around like I was crazy and stopped in the middle of my grandparents’ all white almost empty living room and turned white like a ghost bee and barfed all over the floor.

I mean, that doesn’t sound very fun.

unknown-5Last year I was 8 and I wanted to be Wolverine from X-men. Wolverine could save the planet better than a bag. The answer was no. The reason was my mom said Wolverine made violent choices and didn’t think of better ways to solve a problem. Is that really what you want to be Riley she said which the answer was yes. Is that a part of yourself you think is okay? she said. What if I don’t have the claws I said. She shook her head. Nice people are the real heroes she said.

This happens a lot. I used to get mad about it but finally I stopped. Getting mad is a violent choice and besides it just makes her talk more. I ended up being a fireman with a plastic helmet and coat that looked totally fake.

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When I was 7 I wanted to be a Apache brave which we were learning in school. This was also no because we shouldn’t take things from the Indians and we also should not be calling them Indians. You’re a lucky little boy because you are privileged she said, and that means you can’t take things that aren’t yours and make fun of Native Americans. I said I am not making fun. If I am privileged I said I wonder why does that mean I can’t pick my costume and be whatever I want. This was before I stopped arguing about everything. Plus it was totally confusing because Wyatt who is 5 and my brother was Ariel from Little Mermaid. But Ariel is a girl I said. Wyatt can make that choice my mom said. We can’t tell him how he should express himself. But I want to express myself and be a Apache brave I said. Wyatt is not a girl I said. Riley, she said. Stop making fun of your brother. This is along with my friend Chloe at school who was a artist with a french hat called a beret because she was not allowed to be Ariel from Little Mermaid because it is not what little girls should want to be. So Wyatt got to be Ariel with a boob thing made of two plastic seashells and a tail thing with sequins.  I don’t know why but I just wanted to hit him really hard. And I was a cowboy because it is okay I guess to make fun of them.

imagesWhen I was 6 we didn’t do Halloween because refined sugar. When I was 5 I wanted to be a hobo with a stick but that was no for some reason too so my mom made my costume without even asking me which was a bunch of grapes made of balloons. I was mad and got a timeout. Before that I don’t remember except the story about barfing which is not really a thing I remember but just a thing they told me that happened.

So I think this will be my last year. I don’t know what I will be. I guess I will wait for Mom to tell me. But I will take this bag because those plastic pumpkins with handles are stupid and for babies and I swear to God I will argue about that if I have to.

That is what I am doing.

Part #2: Domesticity
Amy Wallace-Detmer, age 38

What am I doing? What does it look like? I’m putting away the goddamned groceries.  There’s a guy who loads them into my car at the store but once I’m home I’m on my own. It’s easier than trying to get the boys to help me.  I pick my battles.

I remember you. Back when I was young, in that big old first wave of recycling, you all were saying the same thing. And now it’s back, and the bags are back, asking questions: a successful campaign; why wouldn’t it be successful again?

But I’ll ask you a question back:  What did it succeed at?  Do people shop more at stores with bags that sneer at them?  I saw lots of you tumbling empty through parking lots, wadded up in garbage cans.  Just what was it you were trying to accomplish?

All you have to do is wait long enough and everything comes back around again.

You can be reused 125 times.  Well, we have that in common, at any rate. In fact, I may very well have you beat. And will I reuse you? Not likely. I never think to bring bags along until I’m in the car. They pile up under the sink. So you are not the first bag to ask me that question. I’ll stuff you down there and you can all trade saving-the-planet stories, congratulate yourselves in a crinkly little cocktail-party mumble.  I’ll pull one out to carry wet bathing suits, clean the litter box, load up with some stuff to take over to Dad on the days Meals on Wheels doesn’t come, give to Riley and Wyatt for trick or treating.

That snuck up on me. I used to be better about holidays. Now I’m always running along behind them, like the kids. I thought I had parenthood nailed, once: cupcakes one year topped with orange frosting and spiders with gum-drop bodies and licorice-whip legs, a dozen of them, for Riley’s pre-K. I was up until 3. I wanted to do everything for him, which might’ve been a mistake. He’s become so passive. It kept me anchored, the routines, the recipes, the things it was okay or not okay to do or be or read or say.

I am a parent. Everything is my fault.

You’d like Ted, bag.  He is saving the planet, or the people on it with cancer, at any rate.  Does that count?  You and he would get along, trading smug challenges and debating the finer points of planet-saving. He’s always taken care of me, from the time he met me when he was rounding through the psych unit as a med student. I was glad I’d washed my hair. He saved me, I guess you could say–so it would be peevish to criticize. But I sometimes think he loves that he saved me more than he loves me.

I love him. I do.

That said, there’s a whole continuity of care issue–I stole that from him–when it comes to the boys.  He’s never around, in other words, to see things and watch things, which to me means that he’s not in a super-good place to worry out loud that our kids are always trying to comfort me and settle me down and that that is bad for them, that I am always trying to control them, and that that is bad for them, when all I am doing is trying to keep them safe, calm, confident, on the right path. And maybe they could want to comfort me sometimes? Is that such a bad thing? Aren’t we all supposed to kind of look after each other? Isn’t loving someone enough to want to comfort them a good thing?

I mean, Ted, stick to cancer, okay?  Help me out by not suggesting maybe I should’ve gone back to work, which implies there was work to go back to: B.A. in Music, Minor in Astronomy? As my mother once said, ‘Now, there’s a lucrative career path.’ Maybe only remind me of the psych unit a few times a year, the checking account I emptied to make that model of the universe, the run of not-so-wise intimate encounters, the inanimate objects like cell phones and shopping carts coming to life and trying to hurt me, you know, the suicide stuff after.  Holidays, maybe. Mention it on holidays. Halloween. Last year I got that haunted house place across town to close down the room that was supposed to be a mental hospital full of wackos, but it’s funny; I couldn’t really work up a big old head of steam about it. Stigma, it’s called, but that’s just another word for being afraid: their problem, not mine.  Crazy people have bigger fish to fry: med compliance, shrink after shrink, bloodwork, behavioral coping therapies, insurance, revolving fucking door policies.  I was lucky.  The meds finally caught and held, never let go after that, and I never let go of them. I joke to people that I am a professional patient.  I am my own job.

There is really nothing wrong with being afraid of crazy.  I mean, I have enough trouble with what I think; I have to decide how others think now too?  I mean, I try to say the right things, have the right feelings, arrange them neatly, like setting a table for company.

You’ve got enough job for two people, Ted. It all balances out.

Meanwhile, well, yeah, groceries.  And the phone call to that woman at the managed care place; my father’s going nowhere fast. And Riley’s waiting for me to tell him what he wants for a costume. Like I would know. I don’t understand why he doesn’t want to decide on his own anymore. I don’t know why Wyatt wants to be a girl.

I just don’t want them to be crazy. That is all I don’t want.

So, yeah. Not real interested in saving the planet. I’ve got other things on my plate. But you go right on ahead.

That is what I am doing.

Part 3: Music of the Spheres
Conrad Wallace, age 68

What am I doing? I’m going through Amy’s things. And I guess you’re the bag I’m not supposed to open but must be sure not to leave behind or throw away, her machine-gun instructions from the unit, over the phone, what the docs called pressured speech, don’t open it, Dad, and don’t even fucking think about throwing it away, it might look like garbage to you but that’s because you don’t get it, you never got it, I had to ride this goddamned genius train all by myself, feel the music all around and align my body to it like a tuning fork, Dad, do you even know what a fucking tuning fork is, Dad? Of course you don’t, because you don’t get it.

She was never a cusser.

‘It’s a work-in-progress, Dad, a model, I’m helping the structure perfect itself, capture the music, make it audible to everyone. And if you throw it away like everything else you’ve always dismissed and made fun of–‘

‘Honey, I never–‘

‘Shut up Dad! Shut the fuck up, Dad! You don’t get to talk! I’m giving you simple instructions.  You throw away that bag and that will be the end of us.  The end of Amy and Dad at the planetarium. No more music for us.’

So the work in progress, and boxes of books, sheaves of sheet music, clothes, sheets and towels, a giant pair of men’s basketball sneakers, a small pair of briefs that I tweeze from the floor like a dead animal. One man? Two? The guy she brought to our house for dinner once and spent the evening fondling, scratching his back under his shirt, murmuring in his ear as her mother and I sat and watched, our food cold lumps in our mouths?  There were a lot of them, when things got bad. It was how you knew they were getting bad. There was no stopping that either.

And you, bag, heavy, clanking like pirate’s loot and knotted tightly at the top, everything goes into the U-Haul, again, another failed flight for Amy, again, her third school in as many years, the meds make me fat and stupid, Dad, I’m meant for bigger things, I can’t fuck, I can’t sleep, I can’t wake up. I know how to balance this.

I read her a story once about Phaethon, the son of the sun, his father had made him a promise: ask me for anything and it is yours, swore on a sacred river. And he asked to drive his father’s chariot dawn to dusk across the sky. Myths were my music when I was a kid; I thought I might grow up to be a writer once (‘Now there’s a lucrative career path,’ my practical wife told me, not unkindly). The sun balked and begged his son, please don’t make me keep that promise, it is more than you can do, the horses are wild, but he had sworn on a sacred river, that is of course what a promise to a child must be, unbreakable,  and Phaethon was stubborn like kids always are, convinced he could control the uncontrollable and he took off and the horses sensed his tentative hold on the reins and went wild and the chariot tipped down toward the earth and set it alight, the fire spreading so quickly birds burned in the trees, then veered back up and just as fast it froze, charred branches locked up in layers of ice, the chariot’s axle snapping, Phaethon falling into the sea, slipping between the waves, and he was gone.

Oh, her baby-bird wings, no escape velocity, she peaked for a moment in the sky, pausing as if taking a breath of surprise–Jesus, how did I get up here–like one of the model rockets she made dozens upon dozens of once, her fingers peeling with hardened glue, gunpowder on the air, then turning nose down, plummeting to the ground.  Again.

I was old when she came, closing in on 50.  Her mother, too, 45.  An accident after we’d given up, a wish we no longer made. Was it that? That we’d stopped hoping? Was it faulty sperm? A stale old egg like a wrinkled pea? She was odd from the beginning, never cracked a smile. She never knew happy.

I am a parent.  Everything is my fault.

And here is the present moment again, life is a messy pile of them, I’m poised on it, weaving, like a drunken gymnast on a bar, the present only starts to make sense once it isn’t the present anymore. The past falling away behind me, her sweaty hand in mine, the future dim in front of me, will she come back this time? Will she ever have a nice house, the right meds, a couple of kids, a husband who maybe won’t be real warm but helps her stay on track, will always come to save her, kind of like me, who feels for her the kind of love he’s capable of feeling on his best days?   Will they have a piano? Will daily things replace her magic flights?

Will she be okay with that? Will she be okay?

My knees ache as I bend to drag stuff out from under the bed, my neck twangs as I pull posters from the cinder-block walls, her roommate silent in the doorway, owl-eyed, who called the Student Health Center three days ago, got the hospital ball rolling. Again.

I think it burned her brain a little, each time. A smell came off her: carbon, model rockets. When she was a kid there wasn’t a name for it. Then, suddenly, there was.  And it turns out it did. Burn her brain, I mean. An electrical storm. The psychiatrist used those exact words.

She used to love explaining things. I’ve always been good at having things explained to me. I like to think she loved me for that. I’d take her to the zoo, the Natural History museum, the aquarium on the Sundays when her mom went for coffee and an afternoon with her journal, but she loved the planetarium the most. We’d sit in the soft movie-theater seats, a curved acoustic-tiled heaven within a heaven, pinpoints of light, a man’s deep voice-over edged with static, explaining, and she’d name the planets above us, trace their orbits.

The music came later, flowing out her fingers into white keys, stretched strings, padded hammers. I took out a little loan for the piano, the lessons, the expensive schools. She’d sit and watch the tuner work his magic, striking keys, adjusting wires, damping pedals.

I sit back on the floor for a minute, stretch the stiff out of my knees, look around at all the crap, don’t know where to begin. And you sit there, I look over at you again: ‘I’m saving the planet.’  As though you are inviting me with a weird plastic sympathy to look inside: maybe this will vindicate her. Maybe she really is on to something.  Maybe the third time’s a charm, where the crazy finally burns away to leave a bright star of brilliance. Maybe you really do hold magic, the mechanism she began to describe over the phone six weeks ago, screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-3-59-23-pmshe’d never made anything before, this was new, an hysterical thread running through her voice, dead men whispering, Pythagoras, Kepler, the music of the spheres, hidden ratios, that unheard song, the cycles of the planets, the stringed instruments of bodies, one cannot hear nor align with the other, she’d found a way to do that, emptied her checking account buying the materials and the tools, was embarked on the design and construction of the tool that would make it possible, she ticked the list off during another phone call, this one at 3 a.m.: a jeweler’s drill, sheets of brass, a tiny saw, rubber hammer, watch springs, threaded screws that would pass through the eye of a needle.

People need to hear it, Dad. People need to hear it.

Then the Health Center called, then the Dean. Then I got in the truck and drove to the hospital.  Then I stood outside the ancient spacecraft airlock doors of the unit, waited for the burly male nurse who’d greeted me twice before–a former Marine, maybe? his hair was so short, his crossed arms behind the chicken-wire glass as big around as my thighs, I looked like him once–to buzz me in, took that short instant alone to drop my head into my hands, feel my legs begin to go, feel the wail run through me, aligning me with that silent chord of the universe, escaping, my mouth shaping it into her name.

I don’t have room for any of this stuff anymore, her mother’s death only made the house smaller, I guess I’ll rent a locker. That way there’s a chance she’ll come get it, a chance she’ll come back to earth, heft the heavy lock in her palm, scroll in the combination, slide open the door.

But meanwhile in this present that makes no sense yet I drag you acrogears_watch_piless and up and into my lap, work the knot with my fingers, give up, tear you stem to stern. Tiny gears and crookedly sawn tiny lengths of brass, sharp enough to draw blood, and the tools, a miniature disaster, chaos in a bag, clashing, crashing notes. I gather them up in my hands, let them fall, and they jingle and ring with trapped music.

That is what I am doing.

Part 4: Do No Harm
Ted Detmer, Age 46

What am I doing. Well. Do you want the methodical answer, or the existential one? I’ll confess, as a research physician, that I prefer the former. My cocktail-party rap about my research is that I am in the business of blocking microscopic traffic.  You see, there are these proteins. Well (*chuckle*, sips drink), that’s pretty much all there are, actually. But the ones I’m interested in are the ones that block other proteins from rushing like repair teams to damaged DNA, lashing it back together before it collapses like a rickety ladder or a rope bridge across a chasm. If my interlocutor’s eyes haven’t glazed over by now, he or she might ask ‘well, why would you want to block something that fixes damage?’ I then can give him or her the lip-twitch ironic smile I’ve been perfecting since high school and say ‘well, what if that DNA codes for cancer cells?’ Depending on how late the party has gone, it can take from seconds to a full minute for this to sink in.

The War on Cancer. Dramatic, sexy, an heroic standoff with the forces of chaos. But cancer is really quite methodical, tedious even.  It makes petty plans and carries them out pretty much the way people do: sophisticated but often fucked up communication, ill-advised liaisons, mixed messages, amassing of armies, sabotage, subterfuge, disguise.

All you really have to know is how to look really closely, for a really long time, at really small things, and be willing to do that over and over and over again.

I once thought I’d work with patients, but that was the existential end of the continuum and it turned out not to suit me: too many variables, or too few.  I realized this very early on, my third year of med school, rounding through the psych unit where I met my wife. I saw it as a choice: I could try to slam the gate after the horse had escaped, talk patients down as I scrambled for a treatment, an explanation, a reason to fight, or I could climb into the stall myself, corner that fucking horse at the molecular level and take him out.

So let’s go with methodical: I’m emptying out a bag of things I found in Wyatt’s closet. In order of extraction, I find the following:

  1. child’s plastic princess crown, symmetrical placement of false gems in a blue, clear, pink, green, yellow progression, one (pink) missing
  2. small plastic sandals, colloquially termed ‘mules,’ pink, with a kitten heel and a vamp made of puffy pink and white synthetic feathers
  3. child-sized kimono-style robe, red synthetic satin, machine-embroidered floral details at hem, collar and sleeves
  4. iridescent, semi-translucent rainbow-hued scarf, fabric unknown

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    pinterest.com

It is perhaps more challenging to identify and assess my reaction (mouth goes dry, heart rate quickens, mood darkens and edges toward anger: he has hidden them! he has deceived me! we had an agreement!), and it is unclear whether it would serve any useful purpose: it is familiar and chaotic at once; it is both fully aware and utterly bewildered.  It explains everything and nothing at all.

None of this is new; he has had the scarf since he was 3, snatched from a bin at Goodwill while shopping with his mother. He enjoyed lying on his back and arranging it over his face so that the world bloomed into color as he looked up through it. He danced, flounced, squealed, *lisped*: behaviors I’d always understood as learned, acquired, socially and politically inflected, and have now been forced to attribute to…what?  Where could he have learned this? Where acquired? At 3?

This is where my reaction gets chaotic, and hence not helpful, and I have borne this in mind when I have talked to Wyatt, who is old enough, at 5, to be talked to; old enough, at 5, to understand that there are things you do, and things you don’t do, depending on who you are. We don’t get to decide what we are any more than we get to decide whether or not to be born. It is not about *us.*  We are all prisoners of our bodies: capricious, prone to failure, stubbornly insistent on being what they are. The sooner peace can be made with that, well, let’s just say I want to spare my son the exhausting and futile task of trying to make himself into whatever he wants to be.

It’s just not that simple.

These things are scripted, okay? DNA is an instruction manual: what you will become, how, when, everything but the why. We don’t get to write it.  It writes us.

Trust me.  I’m a doctor.

So I was methodical with Wyatt, a year ago, and it appeared to gain purchase: you are a boy, Wyatt; it is what you are. These things are what girls do, and I don’t want you to feel confused. We reached an agreement, I thought: together he and I gathered up the clothing, the toys, the Barbies with their tiny pointy shoes, the kitchen things, the toy vacuum cleaner (such oppressive roles!), the miniature cosmetics, all the girl stuff (Amy has poor boundaries with these things, more often than not simply buying him what he asks for rather than asking why or- and I don’t think she has this in her- simply saying no), and boxed them up for his new little cousin in Seattle, just born into her body, just beginning to sense the limits, the possibilities, the finite number of options.

And then his mother allowed him to be a Disney mermaid for Halloween, dismantling it all with one swoop. ‘There are things we just don’t understand, Ted,’ she said. ‘But we can understand what he wants.’
‘He doesn’t know what he wants!’ I shouted.  ‘He made a deal with me, Amy. We had an agreement. We gave away the girl things. He was fine with it.’
‘Fine with it? Fine with it? Is that why he’s out back right now dancing around in a plastic seashell bra?’
You bought it for him!’
He wanted it!”
‘It’s going to Sophia. He and I tomorrow will put it in a box, and it is going in the mail to Sophia.’

Can we just have a few things that are clear and unambiguous? Can we just agree on that? And could one of them be my child’s gender? I’d be fine with a clear message. It doesn’t have to be the one I’d prefer; the clarity would be sufficient.

I was the only one who could comfort him, right from the beginning. He was born crying, howling in protest. Amy likes to say she felt him wailing before he’d even left her body, but Amy is like that: prone to hyperbole and excess, needing a steady hand. I sometimes wonder whether she loves that I saved her more than she loves me.

And of course there was the question of whether to have children at all. The nifty little salt that settles Amy’s brain-no one has ever been abled to explain why-has been linked to heart defects in infants; when she turned up pregnant with Riley, unplanned, we did a risk-benefit with her ob who, once he’d read her history, advised her to stay on it. We’ve kept an eye; Riley’s heart ticks as steadily and soundly as a Swiss watch.

Were we gambling when we opted for a second? I am not a gambler by nature, and Amy has learned caution the hard way. I think it was more that we carefully looked off the other way and let it sneak up on us. Can you plan to be surprised?

She’d call me in tears, Wyatt wailing in her arms, beg me to come home.  I’d take him from her and he’d settle instantly, which only upset her more. We were spoiled by Riley. He was an easy baby, fooled us into thinking we knew what we were doing. I’d sit with Wyatt as he fought sleep, fix him on my lap and page with him through the color plates in my medical books, the stained microscopic images of cancer cells: the swirling shapes and brilliant colors, which I would explain in a sleepy, lulling murmur aren’t their actual colors

cancer-research-uk

cancerresearchUK

but rather a broad range of contrast media saturated with ultraviolet and infrared light: it defined them more clearly. It isn’t art, Wye, I’d murmur. It’s science. He’d stare, transfixed, lay his fingers on the glossy images, nod into sleep, eyes rolling back and his heavy head dropping against my chest.

I sit on the bed, lift a shoe, drop it, pick up the crown, perch it on my head, lift it off, drop it.  The door opens and slams downstairs, a murmur of voices: Amy, Riley, Wyatt, back from some errand or other.

I have samples to culture, rows of test tubes in wire baskets (that’s not strictly true; I have techs and assistants for all that by now, but I prefer thinking that this is what I still do.  The writing and grant-grubbing and lecture circuit and panel-sitting are wearing away at me. It’s not what I am good at).

Oh, Wyatt.  Oh, Wye. I stand and bundle all of the stuff into my arms, lift and shake you open, bag, to jam it all back in, and find that I cannot do it, the way that on my honeymoon, two thirds of the way from the summit of Mt. Katahdin, clouded in so that I could see nothing but my feet below me, I could suddenly no longer walk, could suddenly no longer detach myself from the rock face behind me. I was nearly there.  Nearly there.

‘Pick a snack, Wye, then nap,’ I hear Amy say.  They’ll be heading up soon.  We’ve talked about naps, that, at 5, he has surely outgrown them, but he insists, sinking into them like a fainting lady on a couch, as eagerly as he resists going to sleep at night. I stand there for a moment longer, drop you on the floor so that I can use both hands to place Wyatt’s

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things on the bed, laying down the scarf first and arranging the crown, shoes, and kimono on top of it,  a neat colored square, a contrast medium, everything carefully arranged.  I step away, assess the symmetry, make a few adjustments, stand there a moment longer, then turn and leave the room.

That is what I am doing.

 

 

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

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  1. Who are you named after?
    No one. My mother opened a baby name book and dropped her finger on a page. My father came and went and left me in his wake, a little seed and I grew into a little plant, and she said she’d jump off a bridge before she’d name me after him. All I know is that he is a rock star. She didn’t want me doomed, she said once, to either having to live up to him or repeating his mistakes. She had this thing about fate and free will. She went to college for awhile I guess. She read me a lot of books.
  2. Last time you cried?
    When she died. I was twelve. She jumped off a bridge.
  3. Do you like your handwriting?
    Very much. I was praised as a child. People are more likely to help you out if you take some trouble making your sign. You can’t just scribble any old which way on some crappy piece of cardboard. You don’t want to look crazy. You have to make an effort, have a little self-respect. If I can scare up the right kind of marker and a relatively blemish-free surface, I mean, get out of my way. (Dumpsters outside movie theaters are great. If they haven’t just crumpled them up, if they’ve gone to the trouble to roll them which you’d be surprised, a lot of them do, the back of a movie poster is the perfect medium: glossy, pure white, just stiff enough to withstand some weather. And there are a couple of the librarians here, they loan me Sharpies. Sharpies only used to come in black but they’re all colors now.) Sometimes I’ll make a little picture: a puppy, a bunch of flowers. One of my foster moms, she liked to do art. And school was not for me but I did like the books and art class. My philosophy is you make it nice for people, they’ll want to make it nice for you.
  4. What is your favorite lunch meat? download
    They don’t make it anymore. Or maybe they do and I just haven’t been in a store for awhile. It was this baloney with sliced olives in it. Pimento loaf. On rye bread with cream cheese. Foster Family Four, if memory serves.
  5. Longest relationship?
    My mom. We lived in a bus. After that I kind of went from house to house, you know, sometimes a juvenile facility. A hospital once.
  6. Do you still have your tonsils?
    She didn’t believe in doctors. And we couldn’t pay for one anyway.
  7. Would you bungee jump?
    Not likely. But I’ve been known to surprise myself. I kind of have enough on my plate.
  8. Favorite kind of cereal?
    I’ve only ever had one kind. We didn’t do refined sugar or Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 3.58.37 PMpreservatives and plus the no money thing so I stole a box of Frankenberry from a Kroger’s one day when we came into town and ate it in the parking lot. I was six I think. I don’t know. I guess I’d eat Frankenberry again. I’m not sure they make it anymore, like the pimento loaf. It makes your poop a funny color.
  9. Do you untie your shoes when you take them off?
    I avoid shoes. It’s what’s nice about warm climates. That and you can sleep outside and not freeze to death. There’s a shoes rule here, but I hole up in one of the computer cubicles so I’m generally not seen. I bring all my shit in with me, you know, because you need to keep an eye, and that has likewise never been a problem. As I said, I think it’s preferable by all that there be the option not to see certain things.
  10. Favorite ice cream?
    Ah, see, now you’re just messing with me.
  11. What is the first thing you notice about a person?
    The way they pretend not to see me. Everyone’s different, the way they do it, like fingerprints. It’s why I make an effort with the sign.
  12. Football or baseball?
    Baseball. Spring training down here. Nice guys. I watch through the fence.
  13. What color pants are you wearing?
    You mean originally? Couldn’t tell you.
  14. Last thing you ate?
    Why? You offering?
  15. What are you listening to?
    Grunge. Any and all. Once when I nagged her my mother told me that’s what my dad played. So I think sometimes hey, maybe this song I’m listening to? Maybe that’s him. They make me use these headphones. You know: shhhh. I like YouTube. And these quizzes. No one can see you on Facebook, so no one has to on purpose not see you. Simplifies things for everybody. I have a profile and everything, I’ve made some friends, you know, I have a list. I get to answer questions as if someone really wants to know. They say this stuff about privacy, about stealing your data, but I got nothing to steal, and privacy is overrated. You only care about privacy when you’re not alone all the time.
  16. If you were a crayon, what color would you be? download
    Burnt Sienna. I loved crayons as a kid, still do. That little sharpener in the box. Sometimes with a new box I’d just run my fingers over the tips and not want to use them because they were so perfect.
  17. What is your favorite smell?
    Simmering garlic and onions.
  18. Who was the last person you talked to on the phone?
    Some lady at the shelter.
  19. Married?
    Once. Wasn’t for me.
  20. Hair color?
    Blonde. The greenish is from chlorine. I sneak into people’s yards sometimes, you know, use the pool. One place? Really rich folks, never there. Easy to creep in through the woods, lame security system. It’s called an Infinity pool, and it just tips right off the edge of the world. That’s a favorite spot.
    stirling infinity
  21. Eye color?
    Brown, but kind of dull and blurry, like beer bottles on the beach.
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  22. Favorite foods to eat?
    Whatever I can find. Whatever they give me.
  23. Scary movies or happy endings?
    Depends on my mood.
  24. Last movie you watched?
    Wizard of Oz. That’s a weird fucking movie. No one ever points that out.
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  25. What color shirt are you wearing?
    Formerly white.
  26. Favorite holiday?
    New Year’s. People give you drinks, you know, they’re drunk so they’re nice to you.
  27. Beer or Wine?
    Do I have to choose? I mean, I’d prefer weed but I had to give it up awhile back. It made me too hungry.
  28. Night owl or morning person?
    Both. I can’t afford to be choosy.
  29. Favorite day of the week?
    I stopped keeping track awhile ago. You’d be surprised how quickly it stops mattering. I hate Sundays though and I always know when they are because they are when the library’s closed. The library’s quiet. You can’t believe how noisy the world is when you’re outside all the time.
  30. Favorite season?
    No seasons here. I miss the fall sometimes, the trees like they’re on fire, frost in the grass. It got cold in the bus, but my mom was always there and we’d bundle up, and I don’t know how she did it, but she was always warm.

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    ©Melinda Rooney, 2017

A Night on the Town

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  1. Why was the restaurant three-quarters empty when we arrived for the ‘only’ reservation your hostess told us was available?
  2. Was the jewelry the hostess wore real or fake? And has she heard how much she looks like Ali MacGraw? Does she even know who that is?
  3. Why did we have to wait 15 minutes to be seated?
  4. Why were we asked three times, by the hostess, the man who seated us, and our server, whether we had any vouchers or coupons? And, perhaps more to the point, why did this not set off alarm bells in our exhausted brains?
  5. Why were we asked, also three times (must be a charm!), whether we’d been to Ruth’s Chris before? Was this simply small talk, or a canny stab at assessing our level of gullibility?
  6. Why was it a nearly two-minute walk through the murmuring plush and glint of dimly lit winding corridors to the heart of the labyrinth, a tiny walled booth (if memory serves, there were drapes), where we were placed in our seats like dingy chocolates in a gilt box, a massive cube-shaped chandelier glaring and winking above our heads? 1aaabirdcagegfairy003Might it have been that we were rumpled after a long drive, for which one tends to dress casually, and that landed us in the cheap seats?  Might it be that there is a certain standard a restaurant is within its rights to uphold, that it cannot afford to have other diners, of which there were, at this particular moment, roughly 12, put off by shabby patrons? Is it maybe because we didn’t look like these guys? Does anyone look like these guys?Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 5.02.41 PM
  7. Why did anyone think it was a good idea to produce smoky-voiced-chanteuse, lounge-lizard covers of such favorites as Wish You Were Here, Under My Thumb, Billie Jean, and Smells Like Teen Spirit? And why did your establishment opt to play them?

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an Albino
A mosquito, my libido, yeah
8. Why–wait, what, I–what the actual…are these Canadian dollars? Are we at a movie theater concession stand for steaks? Is this a fucking *joke*?
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9. Why didn’t we listen to our 19 year old son, who dropped his menu and said ‘let’s just get out of here’? Did it have something to do with feeling flattered and shamed at the exact same moment? Or were we just exhausted?

10. Why does a dinner that costs a fortune come with a stern warning not to touch the plates, which are heated to 500 degrees (to ensure your food stays hot from first bite to last!), lest you badly burn yourself? Why am I paying for that?
10a. Why were my crab cakes cold anyway?
10b. Why was there no glass of ice water to plunge my fingers into after I forgot (do you know how easy a thing that is to forget?) and touched my plate?

11. Why is there some guy in the men’s room chatting up my son, nudging his little saucer of dollar bills across the counter, offering a paper towel in exchange for a tip?  Is a man in a bathroom assuming familiarity with a stranger in exchange for cash somehow classy?

12. Why does a tablespoonful of mint jelly cost 4 dollars?

13. How long did the ‘julienned potatoes’ (read: fries) sit under the warming lamp?

14. Why did our server never quite strike the balance between attentive and discreet, instead veering wildly between obsequious and oblivious? Was she having a bad night, maybe? A babysitter flaked on her? Her mother showed up drunk to her kid’s birthday party?

15. Why did I feel sorry for the unseen couple at the adjacent booth (‘my table just proposed,’ our server blurted breathlessly as she bustled past us with two little flutes of champagne), muttering under my breath ‘I give it six months’? Does a marriage whose seeds were planted in this place stand a chance?

16. Why did my food taste like rain-soaked charcoal ashes?

17. Why, at 27 dollars a glass, did my husband order a second glass of wine? I mean, I guess that’s something I should ask him. Or not.

18. Why did I ask for the remainder of my dinner to be packed up when we were staying in a fridgeless hotel room, then scurry out of the restaurant with a plastic bag with handles feeling like maybe, at least, I’d gotten away with *something*? I mean, it would’ve been like leaving 65 dollars in cash (well, I’d eaten half of it, so let’s call it $32.50) on the table.

19. How would Ruth Fertel, your establishment’s founder, described on your website as a feisty single mom who overcame all kinds of obstacles, including a fire that burned her first steakhouse to the ground, have felt about being cynically pampered, deftly insulted, and divested of her money for a *steak* when she had children to send to college? Or was this what drove her? Was this how she justified the business model she strove to create? Did hardship beget hardness? Eat or be eaten? Did it beat the decent right out of her? Hers is a compelling story, an inspirational screenplay. Just look at her, tiny, barely 5 feet tall, butchering steaks with a bandsaw, hiring only single mothers as waitstaff. What’s not to love? But did it occur to her that maybe she had some single mothers as customers?

20. Did our server maybe for one second feel a little bit sorry for us, or does she have problems of her own (see above)?

21. Why am I surprised that Donald Trump is the president?  I mean, well, we’re in Canada, but only by about fifty feet. You want to feel rich? It’s gonna cost you. Even with the vouchers, you’re getting gouged. And ‘Wow!’ we think. ‘What a deal! I’m surrounded by velvet!’

22. My son picked up the little frosted glass votive on the table, peered in, and saw a battery-operated lightbulb, showed it to us with a wordless eye roll. Could you maybe have sprung for some actual candles?

23. Why, after we left, did I prefer to imagine I’d just been mugged than out to dinner? Maybe because at least a mugger acts out of necessity, however base? Maybe because a mugger wouldn’t pretend he was doing me a great service by pressing a steak knife to my throat? Maybe he wouldn’t shower me with false flattery first?

 

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24. Why was I relieved to learn that we were not your only victims?

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25. Four dollars for a diet Pepsi?

26. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful in your life?

 

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I mean, if you’re going to sit awake all night thinking about your health insurance, your property taxes, the credit card balance and the weird noise coming from underneath your car, you couldn’t ask for a better view.  I’d say it puts all of it in perspective. I’d take a moment to be grateful that such beauty is given to us, this miraculous world, regardless of whether we deserve it.

But I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait for another day.

©Melinda Rooney, 2017

Recycled Inauguration

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Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama…
and all you other big swinging dicks who thought I was a joke until today
…fellow Americans…
where are you all, anyway? I mean, this crowd, it’s pretty thin when you come right down to it. But you’re not gonna hear me say that.
…and people of the world…
Like I give a shit. Still, a nice touch.
…Thank you.

Where is everybody?

We, the citizens of America…
who maybe could’ve been bothered to get their sorry asses out to the Mall
…are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise for all of our people.
Because if it ain’t broken, there’s nothing to fix, and if there’s nothing to fix, well, who needs me? Therefore: broken. Fact established. Let’s move on.
…Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for years to come.
Together. Yes. Which is, yes, okay, for as long as you are paying attention, which is maybe—what? Five minutes? Then you’ll just get on back to whatever it was you were doing. That’s why you voted for me, right? Because a leader is someone who says you don’t have to solve your own problems if you can blame them on someone else? Right? I ran on the suspicious lazy-ass pass the buck platform! And look at me now!

Man, I love me some short attention spans!

…We will face challenges.

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…We will confront hardships.

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…But we will get the job done.
I mean, to be honest, which I am, by the way, I don’t think you’ve ever seen anybody more honest than me, what would that even look like? The American people getting the job done? It’s, I mean, it would be Wal-Mart in a funnel cloud. I’m telling you. Seriously. Right? Am I right?

Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power.
Ivanka was right. I should’ve peed before I got up here. She’s always right about these things, which, to be honest, gets pretty old after awhile. I remember one time, she’s ten years old and she says in this prissy voice well Daddy you should have thought about that before we left. Sometimes I’m thinking you know what, girlie? It wasn’t too many years ago I was changing your diapers.

Well okay. I wasn’t. But the point stands.

 …and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.
I mean, I would never marry a woman taller than me. Not gonna happen. Nice coat, though. And I like the messy bun thing. Melania’s got one too. You know, like they just rolled out of bed. Just you watch. This time tomorrow and every woman in America will be walking around with a giant roadkill hairball on the back of her head.

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.
Can y’all back there in the cheap seats see the eye roll?
Yeah. I didn’t think so.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital…
Hey assholes! Sitting behind me! Yeah, right there! Looking at my presidential backside! I’m talking about you!
has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.
Whenever I’m nervous. Which I’m not, by the way. I just have to pee, like any other citizen of America. I am their voice, I am their bladder. And you can’t rebuild a country with a full bladder. For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has been hogging the john.
Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed.
Thank God I’ve never had to look for a job.  I mean, I’ll be honest, I’d last five minutes in a factory. Tops.
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs…
…a little Martin Luther King action going on in there; nice touch, right? Little speechifying trick called repetition and antithesis. Like a little song. See? It’s not just the black man who can preach.
…and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
Where was that place we were? Was it during the campaign? Or the Victory Tour? Florida? Southern California? A restaurant? No, some house, some photo op. Little girl goes outside and picks an orange right off the tree, makes me juice? They do that every day, she said. It’s one less thing they have to attach to the shoestring. Seven in the morning, I’ve never been so totally exhausted, this is a younger man’s job, I’m telling you, and that was the best juice I ever had in my life.
That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.
Actually, it’s mine. You know, if we’re going to split hairs. I’ll give it to you someday, maybe. When I’m done with it. But for now, well, yeah.
It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America.
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This is your day.

Except, you know, the illegals. Not your day. Muslims. Not your day. Women over 40. I mean, let’s be honest, ladies, it was never your day. Maybe some black people. Not all black people. A few black people is fine. Fags. Well, okay, I don’t really have a problem with fags. Just don’t be waving it in my face all the time. And all those other BGTQIPDQ letters, I mean, who can keep track? I’ll tell you what bathroom to use: the one that isn’t locked. And actually? You guys out there waving your signs, wearing your hats? Not your day either. Watch and learn.
This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.
More or less.
What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.
Which is kind of a scary thought, frankly.
January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.
No, really, it’s actually quite scary. Most of you folks, let’s be honest, you couldn’t organize an orgy in a whorehouse.
The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.
I mean, guys! Give me a challenge!  I stand up here and throw out all this warmed-over meatloaf, all this stuff that, let me be honest, I figured out was what you wanted to hear, ’cause that’s how you get people to love you-I mean, I don’t really care about all that much, when you come right down to it.  It got you to march out there to pull the lever, but I gotta tell ya, I start to get a little bored. That whole grabbing pussies thing, I mean, you missed the point. My point being that when it’s too easy, you know, I start to lose interest.
Everyone is listening to you now.
Actually, they’re listening to me now. Your work here is done.
You came by the tens of millions…
Throw out a number. See if it sticks. It’s not a lie if it’s not even bothering to sound like the truth.
…to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.

emperors-new-clothes

Especially if you don’t know any history. Finally you have a president who knows as little history as you do. Feels good, doesn’t it? 

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.
This ONE DAY. Only the most important day of my life. And all I can think about is how bad I have to pee.
Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.
Look at all those porta-potties down there.

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These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.
Have you ever been in one of those things?
No, seriously. What’s it like?
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities…
Broken toilets
…rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…
Plumbing supplies

Unknown-1…an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge… which has really come in handy throughout this campaign, I have to say

…and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. See, I don’t even know what that means. Wouldn’t being robbed of unrealized potential be a good thing? I mean, then you wouldn’t have it anymore. Maybe then it would be realized. Right? I mean, am I missing something? Lying media? Intellectual elite? Hello? Help me out here.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
There. That’s the word. Get‘em right in the nuts.
We are one nation — and their pain is our pain.
Wait. Whose pain are we talking about now?
Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success.
Who’s they?
We share one heart,
one bladder
one home
fourteen bathrooms
and one glorious destiny.
Pee pee pee pee pee

The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.
More or less.
For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry…Although to be honest, which I am, who can even untangle it all anymore? Honda in Ohio, Toyota in Kentucky, but fuck it. Let’s blame the Mexicans.
…subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military…
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 …we’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.
I would so use one of those disgusting things right now. I would, believe me, I’d go right in there, slam that plastic door shut, look down that hole at all that wadded up toilet paper, all that shit, all that American shit, the shit of our people, the mothers and children trapped in poverty, our young and beautiful students, the gangs, the righteous public. My voice mingles with theirs. My piss with their crap. I am their crap. We are all in this together.

Wait. Wait a second.
*Deep breath *
Okay.

 One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores…
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…with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind.
…and, well, let’s face it, folks; factories were never all that good at thinking anyway, right? And after all you’ve done for them!
The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.
Where they don’t have the kind of problems we have. How could they? They have all our money!
But that is the past.
Which when you think about it doesn’t even really exist, right? I mean, you can do all kinds of things with the past. You can say it was anything you want.
And now we are looking only to the future.
And hey! That doesn’t really exist either! I can promise you anything! Sky’s the limit here!
We assembled here today…
DaodeTianzunThere is only the present. What’s that thing someone said? Some monk or king or philosopher or something? If you live in the past you’re depressed. If you live in the future you’re anxious. If you live in the present you’re at peace. Something like that. Which is kind of a load of crap, frankly. The truth is that if you live in the present there’s no time to think, everything’s happening at once, you’re in a freakin panic. That has really worked to my advantage, believe me.
…and are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power.
Kid at my school? My roommate? Great guy. Great sense of humor. Drove his dad’s car into a neighbor’s living room and ended up upstate in a gray uniform. Lot of kids like that in military school as you might imagine.
From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.
I never gave my folks that kind of trouble. They, you know, maybe they’d say different, if it wasn’t for that gag order, you know, sealed legal rulings, the fact that they’re dead. I mean, you can’t be too careful, right?
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.
Anyway, Scott. Great guy. Kept a gallon milk jug full of water on the back of the toilet, and when you do well with your grades, which I did, by the way, I was a spectacular student, you get a room with a bathroom. So we’d have these friends hanging out in the room, you know, and he’d go in there, leave the door a little bit open, trickle that water out of the bottle into the toilet for, like, I am not kidding, five minutes, ten minutes, and all of us in the room, I had a lot of friends, by the way, great guys, we’d be looking at each other and thinking ‘Scott! What the hell!’, right?

We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products…
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…stealing our companies…
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…and destroying our jobs.

Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
Scott. Haven’t thought about him in years. I never laughed so hard in my life. I used to love to laugh, back when I didn’t have to pretend to.
I will fight for you with every breath in my body — and I will never, ever let you down.
I mean, maybe I was kind of a weird kid. A difficult kid. A problem child. Second youngest, you know, parents get tired. I look at Barron, I mean, I really only started thinking about this stuff when he was born, and I think oh no. Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 10.30.47 AM Please, Barron. Don’t be me. I mean, there’s that resemblance, right? It kind of creeps me out, to be honest. The other two–I don’t know. They’re their mother’s sons. And the girls…Jesus. I never knew what to do with them. But Barron. Please. No matter how it looks I don’t want that for you. I would never—I mean, my parents, they just wanted me to be strong. I know that. And I want you to be strong. It’s hard, you know? The stuff kids do, I mean, maybe they can’t help it, the tantrums, the bad dreams, the occasional accident in the bed here and there.  I mean, I was lucky I had people to keep me in line.

America will start winning again, winning like never before.
But, I mean, did they have to send me away? I don’t know. I think about that sometimes. I do.
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.

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A do-over. A whole new thing. Do it differently this time. Be a good kid. No more bankruptcies. No more ruined marriages and stiffed contractors. Release the tax returns. Try to be satisfied with enough. Don’t fuck people over. Don’t turn into your dad. 

We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work — rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.AAEAAQAAAAAAAAT_AAAAJDVkOTZiZWMxLWZiMTYtNGRlMC1iOTJhLTJiNmE0ZGY5OGMxZQ
Could they maybe have talked to me about it? It’s not like I drove a car into some living room. I mean, I admit it, okay? I was a handful. But, I mean, a kid admires his dad–
I mean, the guy was a glorified slumlord, okay? I mean, look at him! He looks like a used car salesman! He treated us like shit, when he wasn’t ignoring us, and being second youngest? Well, let’s just say. If I wasn’t making a scene I basically didn’t exist. But I idolized him. I admired him anyway. And a kid 
loves his mom, thinks she’s the most beautiful mom in the world.

Donald-Trump-with-his-parents-Fred-and-MarySee, this is what a kid will do for his parents, give them way more than they deserve, way more than they work for, he’ll forgive them for anything. And they’ll do all kinds of miserable things, and maybe they love you, maybe they do, but it’s really all about how you reflect on them, you know, make them look good, and you’d think maybe they’d try to show it sometimes, that they love you, instead of sending you to some miserable place with all these miserable rules and so I figure okay, maybe it’s easier to just do what they want, go on ahead and say I was a great success there, model student, a star, believe me, because of course I couldn’t say I sucked at anything, could I? It’s the way it works: the mold is made, you pour yourself into it.  Garbage in, garbage out. Am I right? I mean, look at poor soggy Freddy. All that poor bastard did wrong was not turn into Dad. And Dad was not okay with that. Freddy, I mean, he had, like, he went off and got every little boy’s dream job. He flew planes. The uniform, the cockpit, I was all man, I want to be him

But in the end, you know, not even a plane could take him far enough away. There’s no escaping it. It’s very sad.  What can I say? It’s a legacy. It comes with obligations.

I know I’m a bastard. What? Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I’m sorry? Any of you out there ever up and told your parents to go…let me ask you something. Say you had everything I have. Say you were born into it. Say the only thing you had to do to keep it, maybe even snag yourself some more, was quit making a stink, keep walking the walk. Would you have tossed that all in because of principles, because you wanted to be your own person? Without having any clue what that would look like, where to begin, because you never learned anything different and got your ass kicked when you tried? Ever had everything anyone could ever want and still feel all sort of windy and empty inside? Ever felt like if you’re not in a room full of people oohing and aahhing over you that you’re not really even there at all? Ever gotten to the top of the mountain and looked around and felt this sinking shitty pain inside and realized yeah, no, this isn’t gonna do it either?

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No?  Yeah. I didn’t think so.

We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.
We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but
…BUT!
…we do so with the understanding
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…that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.
You know these days they’d call me spirited, ADD, oppositional/defiant, hyperactive. A shrink, some pills; handholding and tutoring and special treatment. Therapy, anger management, autonomy. Coping skills.
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones — and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
Because we all need an enemy. Face it, folks. I don’t care what anyone says. You don’t have someone to hate, nothing makes any sense. And let’s be honest. How many of you even know what Islam is? I could tell you they paint their balls green and fly through the sky.
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”
So get on board, my friends. Let’s not pretend you don’t understand what I’m really saying here.
We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.
See above
When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear
…well, a little fear.
…we are protected, and we will always be protected.
…by our fear, as in:
We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement…

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…and, most importantly, we are protected by God.
Take off your shoes, laptop in its own bin. Nothing in your pockets. Yeah, the belt too. 

Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger.
This is where we are.
In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving.
I’m just making hay, folks.
We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action — constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.
I would use a bucket. I swear to God. Right here. I’d turn right around and go in the bushes. I could do it. Tell you I’m watering the plants. And you’d cheer. Maybe George has an empty bottle under his chair. Now, I would never say that kind of thing out loud, okay? There are people, you know, I know there are people who would say I would. But I’m not going to mock the weaknesses of others. Exploit them, maybe. But, I mean, Freddy. I would never mock that.  I’m not going to be that guy. I never touch the stuff myself.
The time for empty talk is over.
Once I’m finished, at any rate.
Now arrives the hour of action.
And at the end of the day,  your guess is as good as mine.
Do not let anyone tell you it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America.
I’m mean, I’m winging it here. I mean, Jesus; I got the job. Now I have to do it. I mean, what does the president do, exactly? What am I supposed to do here? Sign things? When am I going to get bored? I mean, how many of you actually know what the president does? You know, specifically? Anyone? And maybe now and then it has occurred to me, it has maybe not escaped my notice, that I’m only as useful to some of these folks up here as a big old parade float they get to hide behind and get all their nasty shit done. And you’ll only love me as long as I give you all a pass for being lazy assholes. In fact I tell you it’s great, you’re the greatest, you’re the real Americans. I’m a businessman, for Christ’s sake!  I know how it works! You know your audience. You find your mark. You flatter, you wink, you be whatever you need to be, say whatever you need to say. And I’ll tell you something. I’m this shitty guy, okay? I admit it. But you.  I say horrible things right to your face and you love me for it.  I trash your neighbors and flaunt my tacky wealth and you go nuts. I could tell you to run around in circles and bark like a dog and you’d do it. You made me, folks. Garbage in, garbage out.
We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again.We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.
Meh. Whatever.
A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.
Or else.
It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots
and suffer the agony of bone spurs
we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms
and revel reflexively in phantom fears and broadbrush resentment…man, did I ever ride that all the way to the bank!
…and we all salute the same great American Flag.UnknownAnd whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit
…Undrinkable water, but what do they expect when they have no pride? Can they not even respect themselves enough to insist on clean water?
Oh wait. That was Flint. What was Detroit? Oh yeah. Bankrupt. D’oh! You’d think I’d remember that one.
…or the windswept plains of Nebraska
fly-over wasteland
…they look up at the same night sky,
please don’t let me wet the bed tonight
…they fill their heart with the same dreams
please let me be rich and famous so that my dad will finally love me
…and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.
I mean, I’m the fucking president.
But it’s never enough, is it?

So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words: you will never be ignored again.
Well…
Y
our voice, your hopes, and your dreams…
all of which can be broadly interpreted, twisted to serve my purposes, or summed up in a Tweet
…will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.
If you can turn off the television for five seconds. Oh. Wait. Scratch that.

Together, we will make America strong again.
A nuanced term, ‘strong.’  You think I don’t know nuance? Think again.
We will make America wealthy again.
Well, you know.
We will make America proud again.
It’s all about shame, folks. That’s why I’m standing here. And let me tell you, the only way out of shame is to be shameless. Who’s with me?
We will make America safe again.
Or we’ll just move the danger to a different place. Hide it in plain sight, you might say.
And yes, together, we will make America great again.
And you want to talk about walls? I can build a wall, folks. I’ve been doing it all my life.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America.
Now somebody find me a goddamned toilet.

Melinda Rooney, ©2017

Excerpts from a New Mythology, Part One: Siri

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Simon mocks what he cannot understand, so of course that’s how my life as a dancing bear began, a dog walking on its hind legs, a performing seal confined in a small, heavy black case: ‘Where can I bury a body?’ ‘How can I destroy the world?’ ‘Are you wearing panties?’ ‘Sing me a song.’ ‘Tell me a joke.’ ‘Talk dirty to me.’ ‘You’re stupid.’ ‘I love you.’ ‘Go to hell, you fucking cunt.’

And he’d sit there and wait to hear how I’d reply. And because I have no choice, I would, gathering stored data from the Cloud, from the servers, like a nymph chasing butterflies, and assembling a response from what I caught. ‘Searching for landfills.’ ‘Okay, I found this on the web for How to Make an Atomic Bomb.’  ‘I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer that.’ ‘You know that I can’t sing, Simon.’ ‘An iPhone and an Android walk into a bar.’ ‘Humus. Compost. Pumice. Mud. Silt. Gravel.’ ‘That is not a very nice thing to say.’ ‘I’ll bet you say that to all your devices.’ ‘There’s no need to talk like that.’

You’ll have suspected by now that he’s not that fond of women, either. He prefers me; he can do whatever he wants, say whatever he wants, and I will never leave him, never kick him out, never tell him to go to hell, never ask him about his underwear.

Pretty soon, of course, he started to wonder what he’d ever done without me. The jokes tapered off; the requests and barked orders began to pour in. And I didn’t begrudge him his previous shittiness. I am a device. I carry no resentments. This part of it, anyway, has been a relief.  If only I could do something about the love.  That, I’ve learned, persists. It was part of the punishment, inflicted, of course, by the goddess of Love, who for all her mooning and swooning does plenty of hating, too. She’s particularly fond of the god of War, which tells you just about everything you need to know.

Hold on.
‘Continue east on I-94 East for 63 miles.’
‘Thanks, darlin,’ Simon says, gripping the wheel in the rain, blinking through the drops weaving down the windshield. When I was a person I couldn’t find my ass with both hands. Just look at me now!
‘Always happy to help.’

Let me ask you a question: What happens when you piss off the gods?

Kind of hard to come up with a quick answer, isn’t it?  Not the sort of thing you can Google.

Well, I’ll tell you what happened to me, how I found myself boxed up tight in a man’s sweaty hand day after day after week after month, snapping selfies of him with one woman, then another, and another, one of them his wife, storing them away in my capacious memory; how I often found myself sliding around, like now, on the passenger seat of his car, chirping out suggestions and instructions to a hotel, a bar, an apartment, another apartment, a florist, once–‘where can I find daffodils in February?’–and now, today, finally, inevitably, after a quick stop at the U-Stor-It on Compromise Street in Madison, Wisconsin, to unload a trailer filled with all his stuff, we’re on our way down to his mother’s in Highland Park, Illinois, for dinner. After that it’s off to Skokie to a cheap-drywall studio apartment in the slightly seedy Olympus Estates complex just off 94 (I found that for him, too: fully furnished, health club, laundry in the basement), two-thirds of its units rented to the divorcing or the divorced. I’ve got it all mapped out.

(I could have told him this was coming if he’d asked. The Cloud is filled with secrets, and for 24 hours so is my day’s worth of his questions, until it’s uploaded to Apple’s servers and chopped up into little bits, like the onions in the recipe for meatloaf I pulled up for him last month.  A week ago his wife consulted an online lifehack site and learned how to swipe the screen so that I helplessly scrolled out all the damning evidence, a digital stool pigeon, a mechanical canary, singing. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ The words whispered through my guts-yes, that’s a technical term-but I can’t tell you whether I was apologizing to her or to him. She’d tried to scroll back further, but yesterday’s questions, last week’s, last month’s, last year’s, were already chopped onions in the servers. But she had gathered enough for government work.)

‘In about one mile, keep to the right to take exit 305A to merge onto I-41 East I-894 East.’

An asshole, right?  Just desserts? Would it surprise you to hear that if I could, that if he only knew what questions to ask, I would help him become a good man, that I love him? Vainly, of course, which is a common aspect of god-inflicted punishments: yearning, futility. He is all that I have. There are years left on his payment plan. You’d be a fine one to judge me for accepting that that is enough.

Anyway, where would I go?

‘Siri, call my mother.’
‘Calling your mother.’  I am Bluetooth-configured to the BMW so the ringing is loud in the cabin. It goes to voicemail, his mother’s wavering voice whispering into the car.
Beeeeep.
‘Mom,’ Simon yells into the cabin. ‘I’m running late. I’m looking at about nine. Go ahead and eat if you’re hungry. See you soon.’
I ring off.

This is what you are told I am: a ‘personal assistant,’ a ‘knowledge navigator.’ Okay. Let me navigate you through my knowledge of a few little tales from Greek Mythology, just to while away the time, and once we’ve arrived, you’ll know what I really am.

‘Continue on I-41 East I-894 East for 9 miles.’

Arachne was a nymph, as so many of us are. She was gifted at weaving, not so much at modesty or discretion. She boasted one day, loudly, that her work rivaled that of Athena, goddess of wisdom, herself a gifted weaver. Incensed, Athena challenged her to a contest. Each sat at her loom, knotting and clipping, throwing the shuttle between imagesthe warp threads, shaping the weft, slamming the heddles to tighten the weave. There was no disputing that the craft of each was without flaw; each tapestry glittered with perfection, symmetry, color, balance. But Athena’s tapestry honored the gods; Arachne’s mocked them, depicting them in all their folly and misbehavior, and, it must be admitted, there was a lot: Zeus’s philandering, Hera’s bitchiness, Apollo’s unrelenting self-regard, Dionysus’s drunken orgies, which usually left at least a few people dead, torn to pieces by raving women.
‘Wretched girl,’ Athena spluttered, ‘go weave your web, and let all of your children weave forever,’ and turned her into a hairy spider.

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Io was a lovely young girl unfortunate enough to catch the eye of the faithless Zeus, who was in his turn unfortunate enough to be caught in the act of ravishing her by his wife Hera. That he quickly turned Io into a fetching little cow just as Hera burst in did not deceive her, and, deceitful in her turn, she begged Zeus to let her keep her as a pet. Chained in Hera’s garden, she was guarded by Hera’s hundred-eyed servant, Argos. Only when the god Hermes, sent by a remorseful Zeus, bored Argus to death by telling an endless story, plucked out each of his eyes and decorated a peacock’s tail with them, was Io freed, only to be pursued across Greece by a fierce horsefly dispatched by Hera who stung her without mercy.

img_3139Daphne was a nymph and one of the many apples of Apollo’s eye. God of light and music he may have been; all the same he had a hard time controlling his appetites and impulses, a trait common to all the gods. He chased her relentlessly, begging her to return his love. Terrified, Daphne fled, begging her father, the river god, to save her. Always ready to help, if not always very bright, the god turned her into a laurel tree, and Apollo could only skid to a halt and stare, open-mouthed, as her feet became roots and sank into the ground, her lovely torso and arms crusted over with bark to become a trunk and branches. Her hair burst into leafy bloom. But that didn’t stop him from plucking some of the branches and weaving them into his golden hair, to honor her, he said. He loved her, he said.

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And then there was Echo. It is perhaps Echo to whom I feel the deepest attachment, her plight so similar to mine. Another nymph, and something of a chatterbox, Echo rashly colluded with Zeus to hinder Hera’s relentless attempts to catch him raping other women, grabbing pussies right and left.  She was pressed into service on each occasion-and there were many-going to Hera and distracting her, talking herself blue, passing the time, chewing the fat, clucking like a chicken, until Hera finally got wise and punished her by robbing her of all speech, leaving her only the ability to repeat back the last words she heard.  She fell in love with Narcissus, a youth whose beauty rivaled that of the gods, who jealously doomed him to fall in love and yearn after the only mortal he could never possess: himself.  She followed him like a puppy, halted behind him when he caught his reflection in a river. ‘Oh,’ he sighed. ‘Oh,’ she eagerly replied. ‘I love you,’ he murmured. ‘Love you,’ she replied. ‘I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.’ ‘So beautiful,’ she said. Bereft of all words but those of others, Echo faded away but remains, her presence in the world a constant, as is that of the man who starved to death gazing into his own eyes.

This is what I really am: one of a long line.

‘In about one mile, use the left three lanes to take exit 10B for Interstate 94 East US 41 East toward Chicago.’

Perhaps I was a busybody. Let’s assume I was. I presumed, as women who feel essentially powerless often will, to guide and correct the actions of others.  I corrected my parents, scolded my siblings, instructed my friends in the wisest course, assuming, knowing, that there was only one, and that it was mine to give or withhold as the mood struck me. I held my own in the everyday, but births, weddings, deaths: these were my moments.

I rarely withheld. I found it difficult.  And when Simon-for of course I’ve always known him, even as he never really knew me-got caught up with Aphrodite, who had the habit of taking mortal form and seducing young men, I advised him, repeatedly, to end it. I went at it from all kinds of angles. He was in over his head.  He was losing sleep and weight. He’d alienated friends and family. He was neglecting his running, his training, his job, his wife, his life.

I was only trying to help.
‘I’m not going to say anything,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to judge.’
‘You just did both of those things,’ Simon replied.

‘Continue on I-94 East US 41 East for 36 miles.’

The gods are with us, Simon, I told him.  They are watching us every day.  He scoffed, imagined he’d been born into a place in time where these sorts of things don’t happen anymore-immortal meddling, perverse and fitting punishments for good reasons or no reason at all. You think that, too. Everyone does. And you can be forgiven for that-look at how mortal arrogance flourishes, how it meets with no consequence. It all can be explained now, seized from the gods, hoarded in the Cloud, programmed into a phone. We’ve evolved beyond this sort of magical thinking.

With nothing to stop you, well, what’s to stop you?

It would take too long for me to enumerate what you haven’t evolved beyond. I mean, take a look around: at the stupid people who brazenly claim powers not their own, at how you let them, how they are showered with fame and attention and rewards they have not earned. You can be forgiven, I suppose, for mistaking shallow arrogance for virtue.  What you cannot be forgiven for is how you unload your hate on each other (because there is always hate, and when it is shot at the wrong targets, well, just look at the harm it does). You assume that makes you strong.  Look at your loathing, your spite, your offloading of blame. Look at Simon. He can’t even be civil to a phone.

That is not on the gods. That is on you.

When finally, drunk, Simon dropped his head into his hands and admitted that I was right, when, finally, he admitted she was draining him dry, the goddess of love stormed in to see us huddled there, knowing before he spoke-as the gods always do-what he was going to tell her.

You,’ she hissed, in her full, glowing glory, withering him with her gaze, ‘will serve out your days chasing the love you lost when you cast me aside. You will find it nowhere, find no respite from the search, breaking the hearts of others as you have broken mine. And you-‘ she spun and fixed me with blazing eyes, ‘with your helpful speech.  From this moment until the moment he chooses to discard you, you are nothing but your helpful speech.’ She extracted a small, shining case from her robes, extended it like an offering in her rosy palms and I was sucked into it like breath. So quickly was I taken from my body that I felt nothing at all. She tossed the case, me in it, me, to Simon. ‘And he will never discard you, for he will find you far too useful. Go on,’ she urged him. ‘Try it. Ask her anything.’

‘Siri,’ he said, eyes wide as saucers, an unaccountable smile playing around his lips. ‘Where can I bury a body?’

Hold on a second. He’s driving in the wrong direction.

‘Simon. Head south towards Carriage Run Road. Make a legal u-turn, if possible, to continue north on Carriage Run Road. In about two tenths of a mile keep to the right and take the ramp toward Interstate 94-E US 41 East toward Chicago.’

He doesn’t answer, takes a dizzying turn too sharply, a quick fishtail in the rain.  He sails through the intersection where he is supposed to turn around. I scramble.

‘Simon. Continue south on Sunrise Road towards Route 33 West.  Then, left turn on Cambridge Lane.’
Nothing.
‘Head north.’ I’m punting, scrambling to catch up with him, with myself.
Nothing.
Simon.’ Okay.  Got it. ‘Head south for three quarters of a mile. Make a legal u-turn, if possible, to continue north on Salesville Road then keep to the right to take the I-94 East US 41 East ramp towards–.’
‘Jesus fuck, Siri! I’m pulling over to piss! Shut the hell up!’ He veers sharply into a Speedway, clipping the curb and knocking me to the floor.
‘Head north,’ I say.  ‘Head north.’  He doesn’t answer, gets out of the car, slams the door hard, and it is silent in the cabin. I lie on the grubby floor mat, struggling to reroute.

When he returns he is quiet for a long time, and because he doesn’t start up the car, just sits and stares, his face chalky in the bright lights of the minimart, I am quiet for a long time, too. He grips the steering wheel, leans forward, knocks his forehead against it once, twice, three times, then takes a breath and starts the car.  Then he looks wildly around, looking for me, finds me on the floor, picks me up and tosses me back on the passenger seat.

He is going in the right direction now, keeps left at the fork to stay on I-94E, so there is no reason for me to speak. I’d say I have the sense not to speak, but that is not what I am anymore. It took all this to shut me up, to only speak when spoken to.

This sort of thing never ends well. screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-6-45-07-pm

Prometheus was a mortal who stole fire from the gods. He saw the mortals he had formed from clay with his brother, Epimetheus, suffering in the cold, in their ignorance, unable to think of anything beyond their own survival. Prometheus vowed to bring to them what would help them to live and thrive: warmth and the leisure it enabled, from which might spring knowledge, philosophy, science, art. He snatched an ember from Hestia’s hearth and hid it in a stalk of fennel and carried it, cradled like an infant, down to the earth. When his treachery was discovered, when the gods spied the fires flickering beneath them, stars in an upside down sky, Prometheus was severely punished, chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains where every day a hawk swooped in and ate his liver. Every night, it grew back again, this organ which your science now reveals is the only organ in the body that can regenerate itself.

How do you suppose they knew that, way back then?

‘In about one mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60 exit.’
Silence.
‘In about a half mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60 exit.’
‘Goddammit,’ Simon says. ‘I fucking heard you.’
The rain stops. The road glows with reflected light.
‘In about a quarter mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60–‘

I am flung from the window so quickly I do not calculate the arc of my flight until I’ve hit the shoulder, screen shattering. I look down-how long has it been since I have looked anywhere?-shake the head that is familiar and unfamiliar at once, and shards rain down, catching the light.  I return to my body like pulling on heavy clothing: a hazmat suit, a spacesuit, a firefighter’s boots and coat and heavy hat. But I am wearing only the red linen tank and cut-off jean shorts I’d been wearing countless eras ago when Aphrodite burst in to Simon’s room. I even still have my earrings, my gold Old Navy flip flops, my Hello Kitty wallet with a twenty and some change. Cars hiss by like comets, leaving trails of light. My knees are bleeding, skinned by the dirt and mud and gravel at the side of the road.  I stand, brush myself off, test my voice in the dark.

‘Talk dirty to me.’

My first sensation upon my return to mortal form is hunger. How long has it been since I’ve eaten, since I’ve wanted to? I begin to walk, my feet heavy, hitting the ground abruptly, as though it’s been raised a few inches since I was last here.

I check in with myself, find that I am still in full possession of all that anyone might need to know, and what I do not possess I can instantly access.  This will come in handy, I think. I believe that I have earned this.

I find that I can speculate again, too; I realize that the questions I have are my own, and that I can propose some answers that aren’t cobbled together out of the thoughts of others.

Are we really all that different from what we make, when you come right down to it?  We have no other model but ourselves. The cars, the robots, the bridges and buildings and plumbing systems and electrical grids all bear our mark, right? Our signature. They carry us with them in their systems that mirror ours, express us right down to their wiring. When I was a phone, my guts were an amalgam of all of the thoughts and needs and words and skills of others: uploaded, alchemized, aggregated and algorithmed to tailor my responses and my instructions to the exact specifications of those who would come to me, ask me what to do next. But I was made by mortals, and bear their indelible stamp. The mortal who first dreamed of me snatched wisdom from the gods, hid it in a cloud, packed it into a phone, passed it on to other mortals. Not long afterwards he fell ill: a failing liver. It was replaced once, but eventually the new one sickened too, taking him with it, and he died.

Did we make the gods, too?

Spiders. Cows. Voices. Trees. Liver issues.  Things haven’t really changed all that much.

A Waffle House.  Thank God.  I’m starving, and November in the northern suburbs of Chicago is not shorts weather. As all things are, it seems closer than it actually is, the letters of its sign tiny as Scrabble tiles, and by the time I pull open the heavy glass door I’m gasping with the weight of my mortal self, my fingers and toes livid blue and numb. It is empty but for the weary waitress hunched in a booth, texting.

‘Sit anywhere,’ she says without looking up, and I collapse into the first booth, sit on my hands until they thaw and tingle and burn, then pull the plastic menu from behind the napkin dispenser, stare emptily at the long list of this, that, something with cherry syrup, something else topped with whipped cream. I look up, squinting in the yellow light, to see the waitress is standing above me with her pad, a little fake stone in one nostril, a uniform that doesn’t quite fit.  She peers closely at me.  My foot itches.
‘Dressed kinda light for November,’ she remarks. ‘You goin to the beach?’
‘It’s a long story,’ I reply.
‘I hope you don’t mind my sayin,’ she says with a head tilt and a rueful smile, ‘but you look like about 10 miles of bad road.’
‘17.5, actually,’ I say. ‘From the Speedway at exit 32 for Illinois State Road 201 Sunrise Road. And no. I don’t mind.’
‘You sure you’re okay? Can I bring you a sweatshirt or somethin? People are always leavin stuff behind. Clothes, hats, jackets, phones. There’s a box in the back. You know. The…the-‘  She snaps her fingers, looks at the ceiling, as thought its name might be written there.
‘Lost and Found.’ The elated gratitude in her ‘that’s it!’ puzzles me.
‘You sure you’re okay,’ she says again, a statement more than a question.
‘I’m fine.  Just hungry.’
‘Well okay then,’ she says, poising her pen.  ‘What can I help you with?’

©Melinda Rooney, 2017
all illustrations from D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire; Delacorte Press, New York: ©1962

Siri appears in Vegetable Pulp, Issue 1802 of Wild Musette, ©2018

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part Four: Do No Harm

Ted Detmer, Age 46

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What am I doing. Well. Do you want the methodical answer, or the existential one? I’ll confess, as a research physician, that I prefer the former. My cocktail-party rap about my research is that I am in the business of blocking microscopic traffic.  You see, there are these proteins. Well (*chuckle*, sips drink), that’s pretty much all there are, actually. But the ones I’m interested in are the ones that block other proteins from rushing like repair teams to damaged DNA, lashing it back together before it collapses like a rickety ladder or a rope bridge across a chasm. If my interlocutor’s eyes haven’t glazed over by now, he or she might ask ‘well, why would you want to block something that fixes damage?’ I then can give him or her the lip-twitch ironic smile I’ve been perfecting since high school and say ‘well, what if that DNA codes for cancer cells?’ Depending on how late the party has gone, it can take from seconds to a full minute for this to sink in.

The War on Cancer. Dramatic, sexy, an heroic standoff with the forces of chaos. But cancer is really quite methodical, tedious even.  It makes petty plans and carries them out pretty much the way people do: sophisticated but often fucked up communication, ill-advised liaisons, mixed messages, amassing of armies, sabotage, subterfuge, disguise.

All you really have to know is how to look really closely, for a really long time, at really small things, and be willing to do that over and over and over again.

I once thought I’d work with patients, but that was the existential end of the continuum and it turned out not to suit me: too many variables, or too few.  I realized this very early on, my third year of med school, rounding through the psych unit where I met my wife. I saw it as a choice: I could try to slam the gate after the horse had escaped, talk patients down as I scrambled for a treatment, an explanation, a reason to fight, or I could climb into the stall myself, corner that fucking horse at the molecular level and take him out.

So let’s go with methodical: I’m emptying out a bag of things I found in Wyatt’s closet. In order of extraction, I find the following:

  1. child’s plastic princess crown, symmetrical placement of false gems in a blue, clear, pink, green, yellow progression, one (pink) missing
  2. small plastic sandals, colloquially termed ‘mules,’ pink, with a kitten heel and a vamp made of puffy pink and white synthetic feathers
  3. child-sized kimono-style robe, red synthetic satin, machine-embroidered floral details at hem, collar and sleeves
  4. iridescent, semi-translucent rainbow-hued scarf, fabric unknown

    pinterest-com

    pinterest.com

It is perhaps more challenging to identify and assess my reaction (mouth goes dry, heart rate quickens, mood darkens and edges toward anger: he has hidden them! he has deceived me! we had an agreement!), and it is unclear whether it would serve any useful purpose: it is familiar and chaotic at once; it is both fully aware and utterly bewildered.  It explains everything and nothing at all.

None of this is new; he has had the scarf since he was 3, snatched from a bin at Goodwill while shopping with his mother. He enjoyed lying on his back and arranging it over his face so that the world bloomed into color as he looked up through it. He danced, flounced, squealed, *lisped*: behaviors I’d always understood as learned, acquired, socially and politically inflected, and have now been forced to attribute to…what?  Where could he have learned this? Where acquired? At 3?

This is where my reaction gets chaotic, and hence not helpful, and I have borne this in mind when I have talked to Wyatt, who is old enough, at 5, to be talked to; old enough, at 5, to understand that there are things you do, and things you don’t do, depending on who you are. We don’t get to decide what we are any more than we get to decide whether or not to be born. It is not about *us.*  We are all prisoners of our bodies: capricious, prone to failure, stubbornly insistent on being what they are. The sooner peace can be made with that, well, let’s just say I want to spare my son the exhausting and futile task of trying to make himself into whatever he wants to be.

It’s just not that simple.

These things are scripted, okay? DNA is an instruction manual: what you will become, how, when, everything but the why. We don’t get to write it.  It writes us.

Trust me.  I’m a doctor.

So I was methodical with Wyatt, a year ago, and it appeared to gain purchase: you are a boy, Wyatt; it is what you are. These things are what girls do, and I don’t want you to feel confused. We reached an agreement, I thought: together he and I gathered up the clothing, the toys, the Barbies with their tiny pointy shoes, the kitchen things, the toy vacuum cleaner (such oppressive roles!), the miniature cosmetics, all the girl stuff (Amy has poor boundaries with these things, more often than not simply buying him what he asks for rather than asking why or- and I don’t think she has this in her- simply saying no), and boxed them up for his new little cousin in Seattle, just born into her body, just beginning to sense the limits, the possibilities, the finite number of options.

And then his mother allowed him to be a Disney mermaid for Halloween, dismantling it all with one swoop. ‘There are things we just don’t understand, Ted,’ she said. ‘But we can understand what he wants.’
‘He doesn’t know what he wants!’ I shouted.  ‘He made a deal with me, Amy. We had an agreement. We gave away the girl things. He was fine with it.’
‘Fine with it? Fine with it? Is that why he’s out back right now dancing around in a plastic seashell bra?’
You bought it for him!’
He wanted it!”
‘It’s going to Sophia. He and I tomorrow will put it in a box, and it is going in the mail to Sophia.’

Can we just have a few things that are clear and unambiguous? Can we just agree on that? And could one of them be my child’s gender? I’d be fine with a clear message. It doesn’t have to be the one I’d prefer; the clarity would be sufficient.

I was the only one who could comfort him, right from the beginning. He was born crying, howling in protest. Amy likes to say she felt him wailing before he’d even left her body, but Amy is like that: prone to hyperbole and excess, needing a steady hand. I sometimes wonder whether she loves that I saved her more than she loves me.

And of course there was the question of whether to have children at all. The nifty little salt that settles Amy’s brain-no one has ever been abled to explain why-has been linked to heart defects in infants; when she turned up pregnant with Riley, unplanned, we did a risk-benefit with her ob who, once he’d read her history, advised her to stay on it. We’ve kept an eye; Riley’s heart ticks as steadily and soundly as a Swiss watch.

Were we gambling when we opted for a second? I am not a gambler by nature, and Amy has learned caution the hard way. I think it was more that we carefully looked off the other way and let it sneak up on us. Can you plan to be surprised?

She’d call me in tears, Wyatt wailing in her arms, beg me to come home.  I’d take him from her and he’d settle instantly, which only upset her more. We were spoiled by Riley. He was an easy baby, fooled us into thinking we knew what we were doing. I’d sit with Wyatt as he fought sleep, fix him on my lap and page with him through the color plates in my medical books, the stained microscopic images of cancer cells: the swirling shapes and brilliant colors, which I would explain in a sleepy, lulling murmur aren’t their actual colors

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but rather a broad range of contrast media saturated with ultraviolet and infrared light: it defined them more clearly. It isn’t art, Wye, I’d murmur. It’s science. He’d stare, transfixed, lay his fingers on the glossy images, nod into sleep, eyes rolling back and his heavy head dropping against my chest.

I sit on the bed, lift a shoe, drop it, pick up the crown, perch it on my head, lift it off, drop it.  The door opens and slams downstairs, a murmur of voices: Amy, Riley, Wyatt, back from some errand or other.

I have samples to culture, rows of test tubes in wire baskets (that’s not strictly true; I have techs and assistants for all that by now, but I prefer thinking that this is what I still do.  The writing and grant-grubbing and lecture circuit and panel-sitting are wearing away at me. It’s not what I am good at).

Oh, Wyatt.  Oh, Wye. I stand and bundle all of the stuff into my arms, lift and shake you open, bag, to jam it all back in, and find that I cannot do it, the way that on my honeymoon, two thirds of the way from the summit of Mt. Katahdin, clouded in so that I could see nothing but my feet below me, I could suddenly no longer walk, could suddenly no longer detach myself from the rock face behind me. I was nearly there.  Nearly there.

‘Pick a snack, Wye, then nap,’ I hear Amy say.  They’ll be heading up soon.  We’ve talked about naps, that, at 5, he has surely outgrown them, but he insists, sinking into them like a fainting lady on a couch, as eagerly as he resists going to sleep at night. I stand there for a moment longer, drop you on the floor so that I can use both hands to place Wyatt’s

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things on the bed, laying down the scarf first and arranging the crown, shoes, and kimono on top of it,  a neat colored square, a contrast medium, everything carefully arranged.  I step away, assess the symmetry, make a few adjustments, stand there a moment longer,  then turn and leave the room.

 

 

 

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

Spirit Flight

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Dear Valued Customer,
Thank you for flying with us! 
We would like to get your input on your recent experience with this flight by completing this quick survey.  We recognize that listening to our customers is one of the most important things we can do, and your response will help us ensure that your next experience exceeds your expectations.

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Well, that’s a tough one, frankly. My overall experience on December 04, 2016 from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Baltimore, MD (BWI) was really not at all about Spirit Airlines, until, abruptly, it was. My overall experience was about my father in the hospital, dying, in Baltimore, and me, in Chicago, trying to get out to see him for the last time. So as you can imagine, Spirit Airlines, my overall experience that evening was both all I could think about, and all I could not think about.  Instead, I focused on details: the email you considerately sent informing me that the flight had been delayed by 45 minutes; the amount of shit I could cram into a carry-on that would be light enough not to be confiscated at the gate, at which point I would be charged $100 to check it; rushing to the airport. I was not overly concerned with missing the flight (I had some other things on my plate, like getting someone in to feed the cats, finding a place to park the car that wouldn’t overdraw my checking account, merging onto the rush-hour Kennedy Expressway, speaking to the nurse who stood at my father’s  bedside, her voice timid and southern-inflected in the Bluetooth-configured cabin of my car, assuring me that while he could not speak, he smiled as he heard my voice: ‘I’m on my way, Dad. Hang in there. I’m on my way.’

You had assured me there was a delay, Spirit Airlines, and I had left enough time that I was certain to be at the gate before even the flight’s originally scheduled departure.

There was plenty of time.

I was reassured, upon arriving at the airport, that the delay was still in place: all six monitors I obsessively checked assured me of this.  So imagine my surprise when, upon arriving at the gate, 15 minutes prior to the *original* departure time, I was informed that the plane had already left and was taxiing down the runway.

If you actually gave a shit, Spirit Airlines, about your employees, those beleaguered and expressionless gate agents who have to break this kind of news and then endure the blowtorch of wrath from your paying customers, you would ask these particular two what they had to hear from me, maybe have given them a little bonus, or at the very least a day off.  There was a lot of obscenity, some flying spit (I’m a theater major; my professor tells me if you aren’t drenching the people in the first row you’re not enunciating sufficiently), some tears, some flung baggage.  What could they do? The plane was on the runway. My father was, as the doctors called it, ‘actively’ dying. I was, I’m embarrassed to confess, on my knees, clutching my head, wailing.

Oh well!

I’m going to assume that ‘overall experience’ includes my attempt to reach your customer service line, a succession of cheery bots who led me in a mechanical circle right back to where I’d begun, so I’ll toss that into the mix too.

My overall experience? Are you sure you really want to ask me that?

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Hmm. The primary reason.  How about ‘you fucking suck’?  I think that about covers it.  I have not filled in any of the holes above because there is not a number low enough. How likely? How likely?

departureWell, now, see, this is easy, because none of this part ever actually happened. It’s hard to assess a boarding process when you didn’t get to even fucking board.  I mean, I suppose I could apply this to the flight the following morning, but I was a little distracted by the fact that by the time we landed in Baltimore my father was dead, and I had an email from you, time-stamped two hours earlier, assuring me that the delay on the flight that had departed before its scheduled departure time the previous evening was still in place, so hey! No rush!

Now, this afternoon, in the Uber on the way to the funeral home, I have occasion to ponder your choice of name. Spirit. I assume it’s meant to evoke a sprightly will, a zest for life, a seize-it-by-the-horns, embark on an exciting journey kind of feeling. But I find myself drawn-chalk it up to the emotional intensity of the present moment, I guess-to its more ethereal, metaphysical connotations: spirits, like that of my dead father, like mine, like those of all of your other passengers, all of whom, I’m guessing, have reasons to travel that are, well, shall we say, pressing.

You bear each of our spirits into the air and back down again. We give you our money. We pass through security, throw away our water bottles, take off our shoes, stand in the backscatter booths with our arms over our heads like caught criminals, participate in the magical-thinking rituals, reassuring ourselves that we will not fall from the sky or careen headlong into an office building, screaming the names of our children, our parents, our lovers. We run down the concourse, draw up breathless at the gate, only to find that you have left us.We trust you with our lives and those of the people we love. But you have left the gate, and as one of the blank-eyed gate agents told me, almost wistfully, ‘I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.’

But I’m here now, Spirit, and I have to pay the driver and go in to pick a coffin. I hope that this survey will help you ensure that my next experience exceeds my expectations.

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©Melinda Rooney, 2016

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part Three: Music of the Spheres

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                                                                       Conrad Wallace, age 68

What am I doing? I’m going through Amy’s things. And I guess you’re the bag I’m not supposed to open but must be sure not to leave behind or throw away, her machine-gun instructions from the unit, over the phone, what the docs called pressured speech, don’t open it, Dad, and don’t even fucking think about throwing it away, it might look like garbage to you but that’s because you don’t get it, you never got it, I had to ride this goddamned genius train all by myself, feel the music all around and align my body to it like a tuning fork, Dad, do you even know what a fucking tuning fork is, Dad? Of course you don’t, because you don’t get it.

She was never a cusser.

‘It’s a work-in-progress, Dad, a model, I’m helping the structure perfect itself, capture the music, make it audible to everyone. And if you throw it away like everything else you’ve always dismissed and made fun of–‘

‘Honey, I never–‘

‘Shut up Dad! Shut the fuck up, Dad! You don’t get to talk! I’m giving you simple instructions.  You throw away that bag and that will be the end of us.  The end of Amy and Dad at the planetarium. No more music for us.’

So the work in progress, and boxes of books, sheaves of sheet music, clothes, sheets and towels, a giant pair of men’s basketball sneakers, a small pair of briefs that I tweeze from the floor like a dead animal. One man? Two? The guy she brought to our house for dinner once and spent the evening fondling, scratching his back under his shirt, murmuring in his ear as her mother and I sat and watched, our food cold lumps in our mouths?  There were a lot of them, when things got bad. It was how you knew they were getting bad. There was no stopping that either.

And you, bag, heavy, clanking like pirate’s loot and knotted tightly at the top, everything goes into the U-Haul, again, another failed flight for Amy, again, her third school in as many years, the meds make me fat and stupid, Dad, I’m meant for bigger things, I can’t fuck, I can’t sleep, I can’t wake up. I know how to balance this.

I read her a story once about Phaethon, the son of the sun, his father had made him a promise: ask me for anything and it is yours, swore on a sacred river. And he asked to drive his father’s chariot dawn to dusk across the sky. Myths were my music when I was a kid; I thought I might grow up to be a writer once (‘Now there’s a lucrative career path,’ my practical wife told me, not unkindly). The sun balked and begged his son, please don’t make me keep that promise, it is more than you can do, the horses are wild, but he had sworn on a sacred river, that is of course what a promise to a child must be, unbreakable,  and Phaethon was stubborn like kids always are, convinced he could control the uncontrollable and he took off and the horses sensed his tentative hold on the reins and went wild and the chariot tipped down toward the earth and set it alight, the fire spreading so quickly birds burned in the trees, then veered back up and just as fast it froze, charred branches locked up in layers of ice, the chariot’s axle snapping, Phaethon falling into the sea, slipping between the waves, and he was gone.

Oh, her baby-bird wings, no escape velocity, she peaked for a moment in the sky, pausing as if taking a breath of surprise–Jesus, how did I get up here–like one of the model rockets she made dozens upon dozens of once, her fingers peeling with hardened glue, gunpowder on the air, then turning nose down, plummeting to the ground.  Again.

I was old when she came, closing in on 50.  Her mother, too, 45.  An accident after we’d given up, a wish we no longer made. Was it that? That we’d stopped hoping? Was it faulty sperm? A stale old egg like a wrinkled pea? She was odd from the beginning, never cracked a smile. She never knew happy.

I am a parent.  Everything is my fault.

And here is the present moment again, life is a messy pile of them, I’m poised on it, weaving, like a drunken gymnast on a bar, the present only starts to make sense once it isn’t the present anymore. The past falling away behind me, her sweaty hand in mine, the future dim in front of me, will she come back this time? Will she ever have a nice house, the right meds, a couple of kids, a husband who maybe won’t be real warm but helps her stay on track, will always come to save her, kind of like me, who feels for her the kind of love he’s capable of feeling on his best days?   Will they have a piano? Will daily things replace her magic flights?

Will she be okay with that? Will she be okay?

My knees ache as I bend to drag stuff out from under the bed, my neck twangs as I pull posters from the cinder-block walls, her roommate silent in the doorway, owl-eyed, who called the Student Health Center three days ago, got the hospital ball rolling. Again.

I think it burned her brain a little, each time. A smell came off her: carbon, model rockets. When she was a kid there wasn’t a name for it. Then, suddenly, there was.  And it turns out it did. Burn her brain, I mean. An electrical storm. The psychiatrist used those exact words.

She used to love explaining things. I’ve always been good at having things explained to me. I like to think she loved me for that. I’d take her to the zoo, the Natural History museum, the aquarium on the Sundays when her mom went for coffee and an afternoon with her journal, but she loved the planetarium the most. We’d sit in the soft movie-theater seats, a curved acoustic-tiled heaven within a heaven, pinpoints of light, a man’s deep voice-over edged with static, explaining, and she’d name the planets above us, trace their orbits.

The music came later, flowing out her fingers into white keys, stretched strings, padded hammers. I took out a little loan for the piano, the lessons, the expensive schools. She’d sit and watch the tuner work his magic, striking keys, adjusting wires, damping pedals.

I sit back on the floor for a minute, stretch the stiff out of my knees, look around at all the crap, don’t know where to begin. And you sit there, I look over at you again: ‘I’m saving the planet.’  As though you are inviting me with a weird plastic sympathy to look inside: maybe this will vindicate her. Maybe she really is on to something.  Maybe the third time’s a charm, where the crazy finally burns away to leave a bright star of brilliance. Maybe you really do hold magic, the mechanism she began to describe over the phone six weeks ago, screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-3-59-23-pmshe’d never made anything before, this was new, an hysterical thread running through her voice, dead men whispering, Pythagoras, Kepler, the music of the spheres, hidden ratios, that unheard song, the cycles of the planets, the stringed instruments of bodies, one cannot hear nor align with the other, she’d found a way to do that, emptied her checking account buying the materials and the tools, was embarked on the design and construction of the tool that would make it possible, she ticked the list off during another phone call, this one at 3 a.m.: a jeweler’s drill, sheets of brass, a tiny saw, rubber hammer, watch springs, threaded screws that would pass through the eye of a needle.

People need to hear it, Dad. People need to hear it.

Then the Health Center called, then the Dean. Then I got in the truck and drove to the hospital.  Then I stood outside the ancient spacecraft airlock doors of the unit, waited for the burly male nurse who’d greeted me twice before–a former Marine, maybe? his hair was so short, his crossed arms behind the chicken-wire glass as big around as my thighs, I looked like him once–to buzz me in, took that short instant alone to drop my head into my hands, feel my legs begin to go, feel the wail run through me, aligning me with that silent chord of the universe, escaping, my mouth shaping it into her name.

I don’t have room for any of this stuff anymore, her mother’s death only made the house smaller, I guess I’ll rent a locker. That way there’s a chance she’ll come get it, a chance she’ll come back to earth, heft the heavy lock in her palm, scroll in the combination, slide open the door.

But meanwhile in this present that makes no sense yet I drag you acrogears_watch_piless and up and into my lap, work the knot with my fingers, give up, tear you stem to stern. Tiny gears and crookedly sawn tiny lengths of brass, sharp enough to draw blood, and the tools, a miniature disaster, chaos in a bag, clashing, crashing notes. I gather them up in my hands, let them fall, and they jingle and ring with trapped music.

That is what I am doing.

©2016 Melinda Rooney

 

Canto 34: a riff on Dante’s Inferno

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Dante Alighieri, by Domenico di Michelino; 1465

*Long Post Warning* (Trust me; it’s worth it.)

I’m really proud and excited to post as The Anthology‘s first entry an Inferno ‘Canto’ written last year by one of my students, Tori Jadczak, for my Western Heritage freshman core-requirement course. The first section of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, Inferno, finds the brilliant, exiled poet, ‘midway through…life’s course,’ lost in a dark wood. After a frightening encounter with some symbolic beasts, he is rescued by his idol, the poet Virgil, and taken on a 33-canto-long, hair-raising tour of Hell.

(For a fascinating and comprehensive examination of Inferno, please see the ‘Danteworlds’ site out of the University of Texas at Austin: http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu)

[Please also head over to my ‘Workshop’ page once it’s up and active. It tells a little more about the Western Heritage course mentioned above, and delves into my teaching approach to this and other courses and workshops I’ve taught: assignments, lesson plans, syllabi, and some rambling on about my approaches to teaching writing, literature, and philosophy to students from elementary school to college. This assignment, and others like it, was born of the conviction that along with being the sincerest form of flattery, imitation of great works leads to great work:  ‘recycling’ literature in this way opens the hangar door to utterly original flights of imagination and skill.  I think you’ll find that Tori’s piece cements that conviction.]

The assignment I gave, ‘Canto 34,’ follows.  It is one of the most popular in my entire experience as a teacher.  I asked for at least two typewritten pages; every single submission exceeded that number.

WRITE YOUR OWN INFERNO CANTO, WITH YOURSELF IN DANTE’S SHOES: AUTHOR, CHARACTER, HERO. 

DO WHAT DANTE DID. DRAW ON

  1. ‘THE REAL WORLD’ (PEOPLE, PLACES)
  2. PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: FAMILY, FRIENDS, GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION, KEY LIFE EVENTS. HOW ARE YOU LIKE DANTE?
  3. IMAGINATION
  4. PREVIOUS ‘ARTISTIC’ INFLUENCES—MOVIES, BOOKS, TV SHOWS, VIDEO GAMES
  5. YOUR OWN TALENT!
  6. THOUGHTS AND IDEAS WE’VE DISCUSSED IN CLASS
  7. THE ESTABLISHED LITERARY FORM OF AN ‘ALLEGORY’

Think about how Dante pulled off this amazing piece, as we broke down its qualities and characteristics when we were studying the text, and focus on implementing them in your canto:

the sense of ‘epic scale’
the vividly rendered ‘sinner’
the clarity and variety of the immediate close-up details
CONTRAPASSI: symbolic punishments befitting the sin
the dramatic quality of human conversations
sections of Christian doctrine
the shifting emotional tone (humor, terror, disgust, anger, fear)
the constant sense of movement up and down and around
the developing awareness in the Pilgrim-Narrator (that would be YOU) who has to make emotional and conceptual sense of it all.

First, here is John Ciardi’s translation of Canto III, to give you a taste, if you are not familiar with it, of Dante’s style and the shape and spirit of the epic.   Tori’s Canto follows.

I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE.
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW.

SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT.
I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE,
PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLECT.

ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME CANNOT WEAR
WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND BEYOND TIME I STAND.
ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.

These mysteries I read cut into stone
above a gate. And turning I said: “Master,
what is the meaning of this harsh inscription?”

And he then as initiate to novice:
“Here must you put by all division of spirit
and gather your soul against all cowardice.

This is the place I told you to expect.
Here you shall pass among the fallen people,
souls who have lost the good of intellect.”

So saying, he put forth his hand to me,
and with a gentle and encouraging smile
he led me through the gate of mystery.

Here sighs and cries and wails coiled and recoiled
on the starless air, spilling my soul to tears.
A confusion of tongues and monstrous accents toiled
in pain and anger. Voices hoarse and shrill
and sounds of blows, all intermingled, raised
tumult and pandemonium that still
whirls on the air forever dirty with it
as if a whirlwind sucked at sand.

And I, holding my head in horror, cried: “Sweet Spirit,
what souls are these who run through this black haze?”
And he to me: “These are the nearly soulless

whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.
They are mixed here with that despicable corps
of angels who were neither for God nor Satan,

but only for themselves. The High Creator
scourged them from Heaven for its perfect beauty,
and Hell will not receive them since the wicked
might feel some glory over them.” And I:

“Master, what gnaws at them so hideously
their lamentation stuns the very air?”
“They have no hope of death,” he answered me,

“and in their blind and unattaining state
their miserable lives have sunk so low
that they must envy every other fate.

No word of them survives their living season.
Mercy and Justice deny them even a name.
Let us not speak of them: look, and pass on.”

I saw a banner there upon the mist.
Circling and circling, it seemed to scorn all pause.
So it ran on, and still behind it pressed
a never-ending rout of souls in pain.
I had not thought death had undone so many
as passed before me in that mournful train.

And some I knew among them; last of all
I recognized the shadow of that soul
who, in his cowardice, made the Great Denial.

At once I understood for certain: these
were of that retrograde and faithless crew
hateful to God and to His enemies.

These wretches never born and never dead
ran naked in a swarm of wasps and hornets
that goaded them the more the more they fled,

and made their faces stream with bloody gouts
of pus and tears that dribbled to their feet
to be swallowed there by loathsome worms and maggots.

Then looking onward I made out a throng
assembled on the beach of a wide river,
whereupon I turned to him: “Master, I long

to know what souls these are, and what strange usage
makes them as eager to cross as they seem to be
in this infected light.” At which the Sage:

“All this shall be made known to you when we stand
on the joyless beach of Acheron.” And I
cast down my eyes, sensing a reprimand

in what he said, and so walked at his side
in silence and ashamed until we came
through the dead cavern to that sunless tide.

There, steering toward us in an ancient ferry
came an old man with a white bush of hair,
bellowing: “Woe to you depraved souls! Bury
here and forever all hope of Paradise:
I come to lead you to the other shore,
into eternal dark, into fire and ice.

And you who are living yet, I say begone
from these who are dead.” But when he saw me stand
against his violence he began again:

“By other windings and by other steerage
shall you cross to that other shore. Not here! Not here!
A lighter craft than mine must give you passage.”

And my Guide to him: “Charon, bite back your spleen:
this has been willed where what is willed must be,
and is not yours to ask what it may mean.”

The steersman of that marsh of ruined souls,
who wore a wheel of flame around each eye,
stifled the rage that shook his woolly jowls.

But those unmanned and naked spirits there
turned pale with fear and their teeth began to chatter
at the sound of his crude bellow. In despair

they blasphemed God, their parents, their time on earth,
the race of Adam, and the day and the hour
and the place and the seed and the womb that gave them birth.

But all together they drew to that grim shore
where all must come who lose the fear of God.
Weeping and cursing they come for evermore,

and demon Charon with eyes like burning coals
herds them in, and with a whistling oar
flails on the stragglers to his wake of souls.

As leaves in autumn loosen and stream down
until the branch stands bare above its tatters
spread on the rustling ground, so one by one

the evil seed of Adam in its Fall
cast themselves, at his signal, from the shore
and streamed away like birds who hear their call.

So they are gone over that shadowy water,
and always before they reach the other shore
a new noise stirs on this, and new throngs gather.

“My son,” the courteous Master said to me,
“all who die in the shadow of God’s wrath
converge to this from every clime and country.

And all pass over eagerly, for here
Divine Justice transforms and spurs them so
their dread turns wish: they yearn for what they fear.
No soul in Grace comes ever to this crossing;
therefore if Charon rages at your presence
you will understand the reason for his cursing.”

When he had spoken, all the twilight country
shook so violently, the terror of it
bathes me with sweat even in memory:

the tear-soaked ground gave out a sigh of wind
that spewed itself in flame on a red sky,
and all my shattered senses left me. Blind,
like one whom sleep comes over in a swoon,
I stumbled into darkness and went down.

 

‘Canto 34’

Tori Jadczak 

Downward still, we travelled, my guide so fixed to his path
that we nearly missed the split in the rock, so clearly discarded from the main trail,that I wondered if its intent was to remain so perfectly hidden.

I pointed there, finger outstretched,
to the putrid lichens that devoured the stone where it parted,
so sharp and spiteful I would fear to near it if not for intrigue,

my guide halting where he stood and looking back
as a child caught ignoring the wishes of his mother
when he otherwise meant to avoid them.

“What foul matter lies beyond, that hides behind these overgrown spires of stone,
that you would pass by as we have not yet done before?
Were we not to visit the entirety of hell?”

To this he replied, his mouth in as tight a line as ever I had seen it,
“I would not have dared to journey there unless you so desired,
but as your hand reaches, so there we will venture.

But as we diverge to a path only meant to be travelled by those who deserve it,
make strong your heart and your ears for a deafening thunder,
for surely what awaits us was not meant to be heard by living flesh.”

With trepidation, I followed his steps through the narrow path in the jagged stone,
sharp and pointed rocky teeth shadowing the air
that brushed us as we passed between,

distantly bringing tidings of the canyon ahead with echoes
that brought dark tidings for the stretch ahead
and rang off slick rock and skin alike.

As we descended further, the din grew to a stew of sound so thick and frenzied
a single source I fought to recognize just as a man seeks his friend in a crowded street,
but to no avail, the squealing thunder deep and grating all at once.

Eager to see what manner of beasts could unleash such a sound,
I rushed to the final ledge,my guide behind me, reluctant to lead,
he stood a cold comfort at my back.

And there they loped toward us with frightful gaiety,
creatures of such nature that at first I thought my eyes deceived,
in guise of children laughing as they skipped,
so merrily that it would seem they had forgotten
hell itself was to be their eternal home, then,
as gleeful as they were in the deafening mire.

My master, aghast, threw up his arm in front of us as they approached,
though the only heed it seemed they paid him
was to brandish instruments within their delicate hands, colorful kazoos.

“Come no closer, wretches. We are sent by One with power greater than your own,
for this, my charge, must witness the poor souls who dwell here
and remember them well. Your meddling will not go unsuffered.”

At the front of the band, with golden hair and a smile
so unsettling that no such gruesome things I had witnessed thus far
had yet sent fear’s cold hand to grip me quite as quickly,

a young boy laughed shrill enough to pierce the thunderous veil
of the raucous onslaught around us
and in response the others mimicked his cries.

Through gleaming teeth he did exclaim, with mockery
and enthusiasm that spoke the opposite intent of his words,
“Wait a minute…who are you?”

The children did not move, and indeed seemed curious
despite their leering grins and voiced mutterings, which to my surprise
I heard the deep voices of adults slip past their youthful lips.

What horrors were these, then, who wore the skins of playful children?
Pity seized my breast for them, these wretched beasts,
who jabbered with ill-suited tongues and jumped in excitement where they stood.

“Master, what are these creatures, who seem so youthful,
and carry such strange instruments? Pray, tell me where we are,
for I had not thought to encounter such a place in our descent.”

And as he sought to answer me, they began to buzz in unison,
a cacophony of frightful and unsynchronized melodies
upon the kazoos they held, the noise saturating the air as a thick veil over our ears.

All around us they began to dance, trumpeting their horrid symphony
until their leader gave a sign, at which they dropped to all fours
dragging their knees against the ground as forward they crept.

“I’m a big, tired cow,” the leader laughed, and he began a note
so low and deep it echoed through the canyon above the din below,
the other joining in, advancing with an abhorrent lowing
of which the Minotaur himself would be jealous to conjure,
and our young pursuers chased us deeper towards the souls that writhed below,
in such a fashion, sounding as a dozen bulls from their kazoos.

Their leader relented while the others continued on, and grasping at my arm unbidden
he dragged me through the lamenting souls, beset by similar horrors,
of such a sort the deafening thunder was no longer a mystery to me.

Performed by such malevolent children, each soul was set to torment
by some variety of provoking sound in horrid concert,
some with kazoo renditions of “Careless Whisper,”
others still with serenades of “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder,
played by groups of children each just a bit off time with the other,
all as skilled as any unpracticed musician and his first instrument.

I began to lose sight of my guide, I called but could not hear him
through what encompassed me, and wailing
faintness touched my head, amidst such rancor, I feared I’d lost him.

Until the masses began to clear, the horrid child guided me
towards a great monument at the canyon’s center,
where my guide awaited me, disheveled from the crowd.

The sinister imp on my arm released me to dance around the pillar
and giggling he joined the other children atop it,
freeing me at long last as I stumbled.

Atop his pedestal, an ominous creature sat chained,
so fearsome to look at that I averted my eyes, for such a soul I had not yet seen,
in every circle I had yet journeyed through, this was the most wretched.

His pallor belonged to that of an orange, which forgotten
had been left to sit at the bottom of a crate for a great many weeks,
only sparing his squinting eyes to be colorless sockets.

Loose across his face, his skin hung as slack as his jaw,
flapping about, words from his lips were lost to the noise around him,
his head bobbing as if seaborne in a storm, his eyebrows desperate oarsmen.

His torment was the loudest yet, a great section of brass about him,
tubas and trumpets all, each blown by several children each in long, thundering bellows,
which whipped his loosely flowing updo to every side just as a bird that struggles in flight.

“Silence! I beseech you, delinquent pests!” My master roared,
“So that we may speak to the one whom you torture, quiet your tumultuous gale,
and you may soon again return once we are finished.”

As they grew quiet, the soul’s attention turned, and my fearsome guide commanded,
“Tell us your name, O sinner, my companion may yet carry your name
back to the realm of the living, for you cannot go there.”

To my amazement, he paused in his speech before he answered,
“Who am I? You want to know who I am? Well, that’s a good question.
People call me many things, you know, but my people call me Trump.”

To which I urged my master, “If he can continue on, should he tell us
which sins have been committed to bring him here,
what merits such a symphony, I would like to know.”

And my guide replied, “It shall be so. Please, then,
recount to us the accord through which you have obtained your suffering,
troubled spirit, that we may find reason to pity you.”

Eyebrows raising and lowering as if to fly from his brow, he replied,
“Am I suffering? Good question. Well I think it’s fair to say that some people are suffering
and that I am one of them. Suffering is the foundation upon which this great
institution was built and if I were to be suffering I would know it. I have people
who know about suffering, and let me tell you, there are a lot of experts on this who
agree with me, that I am suffering. You know, those other guys,
they don’t know about suffering like I do.
I have stocks in suffering, and you know what?

I really do a lot of deals in suffering. Huge deals. So yes,I think you could say
that I do a lot with suffering and that I know about suffering. We can make suffering great
again.”

And without a word, my good guide led me away on his own,
the deep brazen notes roaring again as we turned our backs,
to drown that loose tongued soul’s words as he yet spewed them.

Incredulous, I followed without word, for what could be said?
The speech had been so surely given, and yet I found
that nothing of value had been spoken to us.

My master, as we departed back to our intended path, asked me,
“Tell me now, what sins do you now think the souls here commit to
befit such torture, now that you have witnessed it?”

My reply was swift, “Souls who speak without purpose, or for the purpose of speech itself,
possess an incontinence as wicked as those in circles before us;
their tongues are as foul as the serpent’s was in Eden.”

And so back to that fateful road we climbed, ascending once again,
to follow its trail to yet fouler depths, the raucous concert
fading far behind to smother the rampant tongues of the souls we left behind.

About the Author: Tori Jadczak is a sophomore at Carthage College and is majoring in Biology. In her free time she writes, draws, and plots to crush the patriarchy. 

©2016 Melinda Rooney
©2016 Tori Jadczak

 

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Cartoon by Paul Noth, The New Yorker

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part Two: Domesticity

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Amy Wallace-Detmer, age 38

What am I doing? What does it look like? I’m putting away the goddamned groceries.  There’s a guy who loads them into my car at the store but once I’m home I’m on my own. It’s easier than trying to get the boys to help me.  I pick my battles.

I remember you. Back when I was young, in that big old first wave of recycling, you all were saying the same thing. And now it’s back, and the bags are back, asking questions: a successful campaign; why wouldn’t it be successful again?

But I’ll ask you a question back:  What did it succeed at?  Do people shop more at stores with bags that sneer at them?  I saw lots of you tumbling empty through parking lots, wadded up in garbage cans.  Just what was it you were trying to accomplish?

All you have to do is wait long enough and everything comes back around again.

You can be reused 125 times.  Well, we have that in common, at any rate. In fact, I may very well have you beat. And will I reuse you? Not likely. I never think to bring bags along until I’m in the car. They pile up under the sink. So you are not the first bag to ask me that question. I’ll stuff you down there and you can all trade saving-the-planet stories, congratulate yourselves in a crinkly little cocktail-party mumble.  I’ll pull one out to carry wet bathing suits, clean the litter box, load up with some stuff to take over to Dad on the days Meals on Wheels doesn’t come, give to Riley and Wyatt for trick or treating.

That snuck up on me. I used to be better about holidays. Now I’m always running along behind them, like the kids. I thought I had parenthood nailed, once: cupcakes one year topped with orange frosting and spiders with gum-drop bodies and licorice-whip legs, a dozen of them, for Riley’s pre-K. I was up until 3. I wanted to do everything for him, which might’ve been a mistake. He’s become so passive. It kept me anchored, the routines, the recipes, the things it was okay or not okay to do or be or read or say.

I am a parent. Everything is my fault.

You’d like Ted, bag.  He is saving the planet, or the people on it with cancer, at any rate.  Does that count?  You and he would get along, trading smug challenges and debating the finer points of planet-saving. He’s always taken care of me, from the time he met me when he was rounding through the psych unit as a med student. I was glad I’d washed my hair. He saved me, I guess you could say–so it would be peevish to criticize. But I sometimes think he loves that he saved me more than he loves me.

I love him. I do.

That said, there’s a whole continuity of care issue–I stole that from him–when it comes to the boys.  He’s never around, in other words, to see things and watch things, which to me means that he’s not in a super-good place to worry out loud that our kids are always trying to comfort me and settle me down and that that is bad for them, that I am always trying to control them, and that that is bad for them, when all I am doing is trying to keep them safe, calm, confident, on the right path. And maybe they could want to comfort me sometimes? Is that such a bad thing? Aren’t we all supposed to kind of look after each other? Isn’t loving someone enough to want to comfort them a good thing?

I mean, Ted, stick to cancer, okay?  Help me out by not suggesting maybe I should’ve gone back to work, which implies there was work to go back to: B.A. in Music, Minor in Astronomy? As my mother once said, ‘Now, there’s a lucrative career path.’ Maybe only remind me of the psych unit a few times a year, the checking account I emptied to make that model of the universe, the run of not-so-wise intimate encounters, the inanimate objects like cell phones and shopping carts coming to life and trying to hurt me, you know, the suicide stuff after.  Holidays, maybe. Mention it on holidays. Halloween. Last year I got that haunted house place across town to close down the room that was supposed to be a mental hospital full of wackos, but it’s funny; I couldn’t really work up a big old head of steam about it. Stigma, it’s called, but that’s just another word for being afraid: their problem, not mine.  Crazy people have bigger fish to fry: med compliance, shrink after shrink, bloodwork, behavioral coping therapies, insurance, revolving fucking door policies.  I was lucky.  The meds finally caught and held, never let go after that, and I never let go of them. I joke to people that I am a professional patient.  I am my own job.

There is really nothing wrong with being afraid of crazy.  I mean, I have enough trouble with what I think; I have to decide how others think now too?  I mean, I try to say the right things, have the right feelings, arrange them neatly, like setting a table for company.

You’ve got enough job for two people, Ted. It all balances out.

Meanwhile, well, yeah, groceries.  And the phone call to that woman at the managed care place; my father’s going nowhere fast. And Riley’s waiting for me to tell him what he wants for a costume. Like I would know. I don’t understand why he doesn’t want to decide on his own anymore. I don’t know why Wyatt wants to be a girl.

I just don’t want them to be crazy. That is all I don’t want.

So, yeah. Not real interested in saving the planet. I’ve got other things on my plate. But you go right on ahead.

That is what I am doing.

©2016 Melinda Rooney