“Battle of the Pink Balloons” by Desiree Diaz

2014 Salveson Prize in Prose 

Emma leans back in the corner of the booth, tapping her manicured nails on the edge of the Formica table, gazing at her reflection in the tinted window to her left. A few minutes pass, and she turns her attention to the woman sitting across from her, who has recently turned sixty. The old woman has dull gray hair, green eyes framed in wrinkles, and lines around her mouth. But it isn’t the gray hair that bothers Emma─ neither the crow’s feet, nor the laugh lines─it’s the flat-chested figure.

Sitting to Emma’s right is her daughter. Emma turns to study the wavy locks of chestnut hair, framing a pretty round face set with bright green eyes. Stephanie looks so much like her that Emma thinks, It’s like gazing into a thirty-year-old mirror. Hovering just above her daughter’s head are two pink balloons filled with helium, tied together with pink ribbon, attached to a loop on Stephanie’s jeans.

Interrupting Emma’s thoughts, the waitress places a menu in front of her, fills the water glasses, recites the Tuesday specials, and says she will give them time to decide on their order. They thank her, and Emma watches her walk away.

“Well,” the old woman says, “what shall we have to eat, dear?”

“I’m not really that hungry,” Emma says.

“You need to eat something, to keep your strength up.”

Emma rolls her eyes. She leans forward, places her elbows on the table, and says, “Will you please stop talking to me like I’m five years old?”

“Momma, you can’t be five, ‘cause I’m six,” Stephanie says. Emma gives her daughter a stern look, and Stephanie slouches in her seat.

The old woman leans forward. “That’s not what I’m doing.”

“Isn’t it?” Emma clenches her fist so tight that her nails dig into the palm of her hand. “You don’t have to coddle me, Bernice.”

“I know that,” her mother says. “And stop calling me Bernice.”

“If you know, then why do you do it? Coddle me, I mean.”

Her mother closes her eyes, takes a deep breath in, and slowly exhales.

Breaking the silence, Emma says, “Stop it. Stop coddling me.”

Bernice shakes her head. “So damn stubborn, just like your father.”

“Nana, don’t swear,” Stephanie says, shaking her index finger.

“Sorry, Sweet Pea.” Turning to face Emma, Bernice says, “So stubborn, just like your father.”

“I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“Emma Jean, you have to deal with it.”

“I’m dealing with it.”

“By not eating? That’s not how I dealt with it.” As she says this, Bernice points to herself, a habit that’s always irritated Emma.

“Fine, Mother. I’ll order something.”

The waitress returns, and the two women place their order. Emma looks at her daughter as if to ask whether or not she’s made up her mind.

“Tell the waitress what you want, Sweet Pea,” Bernice says.

Stephanie studies her kids’ menu. She glances at Emma, eyebrows arched, and places her order. “I want Mickey Mouse pancakes and a large Dr. Pepper.”

“We already had breakfast,” Emma says, “and lunch. It’s dinnertime. Order off the dinner menu, and have lemonade, not Dr. Pepper.”

“But I don’t want dinner and lemonade.” Stephanie sits back, arms folded over her chest. “I want Mickey Mouse pancakes and Dr. Pepper!”

The waitress offers to give them a few more minutes, but Bernice shakes her head. “No,” she says, “that won’t be necessary. Bring the child what she wants.”

The waitress looks up, admiring the balloons, and asks the girl where she got them. Stephanie’s face beams, her eyes lighting up. “Momma had a ‘pointment in the city, and then me and her and Nana went to the fair, and I got balloons and I got a teddy bear with a big pink bow─” She pauses, taking a breath. “─but Momma said I had to leave him in the car.”

“We had great fun,” Bernice says, “didn’t we, Sweet Pea?”

“We had sno-cones and cotton candy and I went on rides and everything!”

The waitress smiles and then tells the girl she’ll be back soon with the pancakes.

Emma lets out the frustrated sigh she’s been holding in─for so long, in fact, that she’d been thinking her cheeks would burst from the pressure of it. Her eyes are drawn to the pink balloons. So round. So full. She blinks to hold back tears as she studies the figure of the woman sitting across from her. Slowly, she moves her gaze upward until she meets the old woman’s eyes, anger building inside of her as she tries to give her mother the meanest look she can muster. “Why do you always have to do that?”

“Do what?”

“Let her have her way like that. You know I don’t want her filling up on junk food.”

“It’s just pancakes, not like it’s going to kill her.”

“Mother! She’s my daughter!”

“Stop bein’ mean to Nana.” Stephanie rolls her eyes. “Just ‘cause you’re sick, doesn’t mean I’m gonna be. I don’t hafta eat healthy all the time.”

Emma slams the palm of her hand on the table and glares at her mother. “See what you started?”

“Don’t sass your mother, Sweet Pea. Tell her you’re sorry.”

“I’m sorry, Momma, but you’re not bein’ very nice, and Daddy says it’s a sin not to be nice.”

“Well, it’s not a sin when you’re sick,” Emma says. “When you’re sick, it’s okay not to be so nice sometimes.”

“But Momma, are you gonna turn into a boy?”

Emma gasps. “Where on Earth did you get that idea?”

“My friend Betty,” Stephanie says. “She told me that after you get ‘em, then if you lose ‘em, you turn into a boy.”

Bernice nearly chokes on her drink of water, struggles to get it down, and breaks into a fit of laughter.

Emma frowns. “Well, your friend Betty is wrong. I’m not turning into a boy.”

“Good, ‘cause I sure don’t want my momma to be a boy.”

Bernice, still trying to regain her composure, laughs so hard that tears run down her wrinkled cheeks.

Eyeing Bernice, Emma says, “It’s not funny.”

“Momma, I gotta go to the bathroom.”

“Okay, honey. I’ll go with you.”

“But I’m six already,” Stephanie says, “I can go by myself now.”

“Are you sure?”

“For Heaven’s sake, let the girl go by herself,” Bernice says. “We can see the door from here. Go ahead, Sweet Pea.”

Stephanie heads for the bathroom, and the two women watch until the door closes behind her. “There you go again, Mother,” Emma says.

“You know, this pissy attitude of yours is getting quite tiresome.”

“You don’t understand.”

“I do too understand. I’ve been there, remember?”

“I said, I don’t want to talk about it!”

“Well, you damn well better do something, before you piss off everyone around you!”

The other customers in the café turn to stare at the two women. Emma looks down, her face heating up. As the other patrons lose interest and return to their own conversations, Emma begins to cry. Bernice looks at her daughter, her own eyes pooling with tears. “Emi, dear,” she says, “please don’t cry. I’m not trying to fight with you, only help you.”

“I know.” Once again, Emma stares at her mother’s flat chest. “I just don’t want to look like, like─ ”

Bernice reaches across the table, covering Emma’s hand with hers. With her other hand, she wipes the tears from Emma’s eyes, searching them with her own. “Like me?”

“Oh Mother, I’m sorry. I really don’t mean it that way.”

“Yes you do, and I don’t blame you. Do you really think I wanted to look like this?”

“Well, at least you were okay with it.”

“Oh no, I wasn’t, not even close. I was just like you. Didn’t even want your father to touch me.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“I never knew you felt that way.”

“How could you? You were just a little girl.”

Emma leans back, rubbing her temples. “So,” she says, “how did you get over it?”

“You think I’m over it?”

“Aren’t you?”

Bernice looks up, seeming to be searching for the right words. “You don’t get over it, not ever.”

“But you had Dad, and us kids.”

“And you have me. And a husband. And a daughter.”

“I know.”

“And you also have options I never had.”

Emma looks down─the dainty, wrinkled hand covers hers once again, tightening its grip. Their order arrives, just as Stephanie returns from the bathroom. Once the waitress has gone, Stephanie looks up at her mother with puffy, bloodshot eyes. “Momma, I popped a balloon.” She cries, her eyes puffing up even more, cheeks flushed.

Emma fixes her gaze on the balloons. One remains round and full, the other reduced to a shriveled rubber morsel. She turns her head, locking eyes with her mother. “Don’t cry, honey,” she says, wrapping an arm around her daughter’s shoulders, “losing a balloon is not the end of the world. We’ll get you another one.”

Bernice smiles and says, “Now, how about some Mickey Mouse pancakes?”

 

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“Hidden Mickeys” by Andrea Slonecker

Hidden Mickeys

By Andrea Slonecker
 

Karen rolled the scent of new carpet around the back of her nose before she exhaled. She traced her hands along the pure white walls; freshly painted to hide greasy shoe marks. Over the past year Karen had started to hang pictures, covered with glass, on the walls. It thrilled her to set something fragile on the mantle, or on top of a carefully arranged stack of books. It was as if she was doing something illicit. When she dusted the rooms that had been bare for so many years, she would whisper, like a litany, where and when she purchased each item. She wiped the whorl of a crystal monkey’s tail and recited “Biltmore, last December, our trip to the mountains.”   She held a pair of champagne flutes etched with double hearts she said, “Macy’s, early May, to celebrate our 25th anniversary.” They reminded Karen of the ones, long broken, from their wedding. She lifted a heavy glass flute in each hand and tapped them together. They gave a dull clank. The originals were thin crystal and shuddered a chime even when empty. Still, these would work for toasting Glen at his retirement party tonight. The guests should start arriving in just over an hour.

Karen noticed a thin fiber that dulled her plaster Madonna. She wiped away the sticky web. She traced the ridge of the blue veil. She had passed a junk store, the kind of place she used to troll through with her old neighbor, Char Huber, when they were both newlyweds. The Madonna in the window had called out to her. Something in the statue’s gaze said that she knew what it meant to have a child that people whispered about. Karen wondered if, like Eileen, Jesus was Autistic. Was Mary left to gather the remnants of her social life, constantly damaged by her son’s odd actions? She saw the words in the tired plaster eyes: “No touching lepers honey, they have germs,” “stay close to mommy and daddy at the temple; I am not coming to look for you if you get lost this year.” “No, that isn’t a nice lady, they are throwing things at her for a reason.” She began speaking to the Madonna whenever they were alone. Silly things. Karen would ask the statue’s advice on the placement of a brooch, whether she should make tuna casserole or a roast that night.

Once, Karen loved antiques. She’d invent a story for every chip on an enamel bowl. Then Eileen was born. As the girl grew, every thing she touched was ruined. Either she broke it in a tantrum, or drew Mickey Mouse ears on it. Karen became tired of worn things

Karen knew that she should hide the Madonna now, but the statue transformed the empty house into something warm and still. Without the Madonna, being alone was simply lonely. Some magazine, probably Martha Stewart, said that a hostess must plan well and finish all her preparations one hour before the guests arrive then she should sit down with a glass of wine to refresh herself. Ever since Eileen was born, Karen wished for that serenity, just for an hour, and now she had it. A glass of wine, not dumped in a plastic tumbler from Disney World, late at night, after Eileen had finally gone to sleep, but in a real glass, with a stem and yellow wine charm.

***

The Hubers, who used to live two doors down managed to have a child and a perfect, quiet life at the same time. The Huber’s baby had sat on a thick quilt and chewed a wooden train. If he attempted to move off his quilt, Char Huber picked up a yardstick and tapped the oak floor at the fringe. The baby returned to the center.

“It’s so much more humane than a play pen, we can interact more easily here,” Char had explained as she glanced at the baby. “In the beginning I had to rap his knuckles, but now he knows to stay as soon as I touch the floor.” The women drank tea while the baby listened to Mozart and played. Yes, Karen thought, perhaps it was time for a baby.

Both Char’s son and Karen’s daughter were grown, or at least trying to be. A year and a half ago Eileen had moved into a supported-living apartment. A nurse stopped by twice a day to distribute meds. Eileen attended a life skills support group with others from her apartment once a week. At this meeting, everyone worked on a meal plan and shopping list for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. The apartment complex had a large dining room, and Eileen ate there every night.   She worked twenty hours a week at a nearby grocery store. She’d never gotten a driver’s license, but she rode the city bus to her job.

***

The doorbell rang, half an hour too soon. Two women stood on the porch with arms linked. Beth, Karen’s mother-in-law, tapped her powdered cheek, warm from the heated car, against Karen’s face and made a kissing sound with her red lips. Karen’s eyes itched from Beth’s perfume, Red Door.

“I know you won’t mind that we came early, dear, the traffic on I-40 was so much lighter than I planned for, and Eileen was ready to go when I got to her apartment.”

Karen nodded as she took the older woman’s coat.

“I brought you some pimento cheese; I know how much you like it.” Karen grew up in Vermont, the land of sturdy cheddar. The year she and Glen were engaged, Karen spent Christmas in Raleigh with her future in laws. She concealed her horror at the speckled blob that was presented at a cocktail party by dipping one Wheat Thin after another into it and chewing with her tongue tucked away in the upper corner of her mouth. Some of it she swallowed, but when no one was looking, she spat into a paper napkin. She spent the next twenty-seven years complementing her mother-in-law on her pimento cheese.

The younger woman wobbled into the room. The tight skirt on her red cocktail dress pinched her knees together. She wore black heels and short white gloves. Her hair, freshly dyed black, was arranged in two large masses on either side of her head. Karen walked over and embraced her.

“My goodness, Eileen, you look so dramatic. And beautiful. Dramatically beautiful.”

“Three circles, Mom.” Eileen pushed Karen away and curved the tips of her fingers as she tapped the top of her head. This had long been her sign for Mickey Mouse. Karen mimicked Eileen’s motion and tapped. So did Beth. Karen slipped her hands off her head, and crossed her arms as she turned around.

Beth walked into the kitchen; she pushed trays of Karen’s appetizers aside, and placed her pimento cheese next to the stack of plates.

The doorbell rang again and Karen excused herself. Everyone was arriving before Glen. Buzz and Char Huber, their former neighbors, stood on the porch with arms outstretched. Karen leaned in to hug them. Their wool coats soaked up the contrary hot and cold smells of winter–wood smoke, frost, cinnamon, and scotch. It beaded into droplets that Karen shook off before she hung the coats. Even though Buzz and Char had moved to a gated community fifteen years ago, they still ran into each other occasionally, at Costco or the Olive Garden. They didn’t go out to dinner any longer, just the four of them, but they’d invite each other to parties, the kind of parties you throw to make up for the lack of intimate meetings with friends who drifted away. Karen hung the Huber’s Christmas photo on the fridge each year, and each year remarked to Glen how handsome their son was getting to be. Karen pointed the way to the dining area where she had shared many meals with the Hubers before their lives began to separate.

The bell rang again; Karen took the coats from the latest guests, offered hors d’oeurvres and drinks. Glen slipped in through the garage and pulled a seat next to Buzz and Char. Karen patted and smiled her way through clots of guests to join them. Buzz rose, pulled a chair out for Karen, and offered to fill empty glasses. Karen sighed from the relief of sitting. She scanned the room to see if the party was a success. With all the vanilla candles and butter-flavored shortening, it smelled like a meal created in a beaker, but everyone was smiling. Sharon, one of Glen’s former colleagues, leaned towards a man from Karen and Glen’s church and tapped his shoulder with her glass. She could hear Buzz near the bar, his voice filtered through party chatter, telling the story of his son’s quick rise up the corporate ladder at IBM. The sounds and smells layered and blurred as light ricocheted off the candles.

The new dinning room table and chairs shone in the candlelight. They were a splurge, part of the remodeling that happened after Eileen moved out. Sometimes, when Karen was alone, she would sit in one of the chairs and lay her face on the table, feeling its perfection on her cheek. Now she splayed out her fingers to gather the sleek surface. Holding the table felt like holding the life she wanted: poised and smooth. Karen sat in the large chair with armrests. When she was a girl, Karen called this type of seat the “daddy chair.” When Eileen was little she sat in the armed chair from the old dining set. Karen and Glen felt that the arms had given Eileen boundaries and Eileen became used to it. Last year, they threw away the old one, crusted with wood glue in every joint, but each Tuesday when Eileen came to dinner, she chose the new chair with armrests.

Eileen returned to stand in front of the Madonna. She rocked back and forth on her high heels; the bridge of her nose almost brushed the glaze with each forward movement. Karen jumped up and ran to her daughter. Her daughter must not break anything today. In the months since Eileen moved out, Karen restored her home, and the peace she felt from that was too great to lose. She twisted Eileen’s arm backward and caught her as they both almost fell to the floor.

“What do you think you are doing?”

“I was just looking.”

“You could have crashed into the shelf. You can’t keep your balance in heels when you stand still, much less if you rock like that.”

Eileen pulled her arm away, and both women looked at the silent crowd.

“I was just worried that you would fall and hurt yourself sweetie,” Karen said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Why don’t you come get some of those egg rolls you like and sit down next to your father? He’s been looking forward to seeing you.”

It was true; Glen was the one who pushed to include Eileen in the party. He always had more patience than Karen did.   Karen didn’t think that this was really her daughter’s type of event. Eileen didn’t like small talk.

Once she saw that Glen would keep an eye on their daughter, Karen checked the supplies in the kitchen. Her head ached from the noise that only a few minutes ago thrilled her. Why must people use such shrill voices at parties?

Only a few pale celery sticks were left on the veggie tray. The mini quiches had disappeared down to crumbs. Karen put the last greasy egg rolls on a plate, and brought them to Eileen’s chair. Karen opened the kitchen door that led to the garage to grab more appetizers from the extra freezer and escape the noise of the party.

 

***

Neither Glen nor she were good at fixing things or building things, but they’d both been given a small Craftsman tool set as a high school graduation present, and another when they married. The three identical hammers lay in a drawer next to a larger, worn hammer that had belonged to Glen’s father. Karen picked up the old hammer and smelled it. She looked at the heavy head, black with age and full of nicks. She touched the tip of her tongue to its grime, tasted its tang and shivered. Their own hammers had never been used to build anything. They had tapped a few nails into drywall, but never found a stud.

Glen’s dad had been a busy small town doctor, but, unlike Glen, he always found the time to build things. The kind of things that lasted. He built the home that Glen grew up in, and bookshelves for this house. He built a rocking horse for Eileen. She rocked on that horse for hours, wearing out the carpet. It was the only thing that calmed her some days. She’d rock for so long that she’d throw up, then climb back on again. Karen’s own father had cut and sanded a set of wooden blocks for Eileen. Like everything else she loved and claimed as her own, Eileen branded both these toys with an outline of Mickey Mouse’s face. Unlike most of the defaced toys and furniture, Karen kept the blocks and the rocking horse. At the time, Karen was horrified when Eileen marked these toys. She threatened to put them away. But now, it seemed as if Eileen’s marks were a partnership with her grandfathers. The blocks and rocking horse were incomplete without the girl’s decorations.

Karen squeezed her short brown hair in her hands as if that would remove the idea from her mind. She remembered that she was irritated with Eileen; she didn’t want to leave space for sentimentality. She set the box of frozen appetizers down on the hood of the car while she opened the kitchen door. She re-entered the party, refreshed from her brief escape.

The crowd had gathered around Buzz and was laughing at a story about his secretary. The girl usually wore out of date glasses, stained rayon skirts, and had stringy hair, but last week she’d had a makeover, and the results were more disastrous than her original dowdiness. Buzz puckered his lips and rubbed his upper teeth, showing where her garish lipstick landed. He pinched his knees together and splayed his loafers to demonstrate her new hobble, caused by a miniskirt and high heels. He waved his arms to steady himself. Amber beads flew from the glass in his hand; they sparkled in the air, landing on the carpet and his shirt. Karen looked at Eileen and bit her lip to staunch the idea that that Buzz’s description of the awkward secretary dressing up reminded her of her daughter.

She looked at her guests staring and smiling at Buzz. He warmed the crowd, made them love him. Karen remembered how, when she first met Buzz, being admitted into his circle filled her. She could see the expansion in each of her guests. Watching Buzz, each one of them smiled a little bigger, or stood a little straighter than she had ever seen before. Buzz was always full of praise; he must have complimented the young secretary on her new hairstyle, just as he had to Elaine tonight, to every woman in the room.

Suddenly, Karen was tired of Buzz’s endless humor and charm. Looking back on all the dinners they had shared, Karen realized their laughter always followed mockery. She wondered if she and Glen, or even more likely, Eileen, were ever the objects of the Huber’s ridicule. Karen wanted to run to her guests, shake each one of them, and say, “It’s not real, this warmth, this confidence you feel. You think because you are laughing at someone else, you are protected. It could be you next time.”

Through the haze of guests, Karen could no longer hear Buzz’s flattery or even see him, until he rose above the crowd. He pulled one of the dining room chairs, the one with the arm rests, in front of the bookshelf and was dancing on it. One guest thumped a beat on the side of the couch, and another hummed a tune. Buzz turned away from his audience and faltered. At first, Karen thought the stumble was apart of the act, but then she heard the brittle collapse of porcelain and a man’s voice cursing. The guests dispersed, averting their eyes, muttering about approaching weather, forgotten until now.

“We must be going now before it hits; could be icy soon you know,” guest after guest murmured into Karen’s ear. “Don’t worry about me, dear, I can show myself out.”

She caught Glen’s look, and knew that he was headed to the bathroom to get the first aid kit. Although, first she watched Karen pulled the dustpan out from under the kitchen sink. They had followed this routine before. Glen returned with band-aids and a glass of water, he nodded his head, smiling to calm Buzz down.

“Sorry Buzz, old buddy, we’re out of bourbon,” Glen said, “how about some water instead?”

As Karen swept up the remnants of her broken statue next to Buzz, she noticed the faint, warm scent of good whisky that he had carried in the door with him had morphed into something sour and garish on his breath. She turned her head away to try to find fresh air and saw Char slumped on the sofa, squeezing the arm-rests, eyes closed. Karen could see her lips moving, muttering something too low to be heard. Karen picked up the chair the Buzz knocked over, and felt a roughness under her fingertips. She didn’t need see it to know what caused the cuts in the silky wood. The three circles were familiar to her fingers. Hidden Mickeys.

 

***

Karen returned to the garage with the dustpan and opened a box labeled “off-season clothes.” She lifted a single sweater off the top. Underneath the sweater, the box was filled with shattered colors. She dumped the remains of the Madonna with the rest, and sifted her right hand through the shards she had been collecting for twenty years. The splinters of glass scratched and stuck in Karen’s winter dry hands. She pulled one of the larger Madonna pieces out again, two thin layers of blue sandwiched the pasty interior that no one was supposed to see but now revealed its nakedness.

In the beginning, the box was proof. She never showed it to anyone, not even Glen, but she always thought about it when other parents pretended to complain, but were, in truth, amused by their child’s antics. The daughter of one mother Karen met at the playground had written the entire alphabet! In upper and lowercase! At the age of two! On the wall! The only brilliance her own child displayed at two, and at twenty-two, was that of destruction.

The box was an accumulation of individual moments of Karen and Eileen’s shared anguish–shattered, dumped, and mixed together–increasing in volume as the years went on.

When Eileen was six, she thought she might log all the remnants in a journal, but by the time it had occurred to her, the box was already established; she couldn’t remember what all the earlier items were, even though each destruction seemed horrid at the time.

And, perhaps, the reminder of this forgetting was why she still continued to add to the box. Perhaps the box was also a monument to her early vision of the perfect child, the ideal family. During Eileen’s early teens, Karen thought if she could collect, and then forget the exact moment of these pieces of her family’s brokenness, they would be that much closer to perfection themselves. Tonight, she realized that despite the Mozart, despite the shiny floors this other dream family never existed. She reached both hands into the bin and pushed with eyes closed, searching for the bottom. The first aid kit would be waiting when she went inside.

 

 

“Fountain of Youth” by Tim Bascom

Fountain of Youth

By Tim Bascom
 

For my father, who remains remarkably young

 

To reach it, they had to hike twenty minutes along a wooded creek near the big river. During summer, their clothes clung with sweat as they sidestepped spider webs and eased through nettles. They arrived hot and dusty, itchy with mosquito bites. Then the two sons dashed ahead, browning trousers as they slid down the muddy bank and jostled for a first turn under the tree-root overhang.

Just to stoop into that damp, mushroomy shade was a relief, but the place felt almost enchanted at times because of a cool breeze exhaled from the ground, emerging along with a burbling spring. The chill air wafted out of a deep hole, feeling like something straight from the fridge. It drifted into the muggy vapor of the ravine, changing the whole mood of the day.

To avoid swallowing mud, their father scooped a bowl and let it clarify. Like a rippling lens, the water magnified everything—so that pebbles bulged twice as large. Even the little trail of sand under the pool seemed to pulse with secret life.

To drink they had to go down onto their hands and knees. They took long turns bowing into the grotto, but their father stayed longest, holding a half push-up with his face nearly submerged. When he backed out, he uttered a big “aaah” as if some much-delayed need had been satisfied.

“Years younger,” he said, incantation-like, suggesting that he was going to transform before their eyes. And perhaps the water did make him younger because he turned playful. When the boys asked him, on a whim, if he would help dig a cave, he surprised them by not hesitating: “Sure, let’s dig a cave.”

Back at the campsite, he helped to pick a rounded knoll and gather the necessary tools: a shovel, a hatchet, plus a few large serving spoons that might double as hand spades. He cut a circle into the slope, forming a barrel-like entrance. He got right down on his knees, taking turns with them as they reached into the hole and scraped.

The deepening entrance was hardly wider than the father’s torso, so that when he dug, he had to shove dirt between his knees. However, he kept at it, face to the hillside, slowly disappearing, until eventually he had emptied a ball-like interior where his sons could join him. Inside, their sweaty shirts went cool on their backs. The dark hollow seemed to exhale the same mysterious mineral breath as the spring—to whisper a hint of some subterranean elixir.

They opened the space a bit further and carved earthen benches. Then they sat and looked at the entrance. In the glimmering light, the father’s face was reduced to essentials: a high smudged forehead, a shock of black hair, a well-defined nose. He smiled softly. For a moment, all three were silent, savoring their shared secret.

In that cool shadowy remove, the two boys became caught up in their own dream-like thoughts, whispering what it might have been like to come from some past era when people lived in the ground—an ancient clan with an ancient way to stay young. Their father seemed a large child himself, stooped into their small world. If they dug deeper, the youngest boy asked, could they reach the source of the spring? Would it be a lake? A cold, black lake rippling endlessly?

Finally, they crawled back out into the brilliant sun patches. They blinked and grinned at each other, hearing the jackhammer noises of a woodpecker, the crinkling of leaves under their knees. Emerging felt like being born into a new world. It felt like starting all over again.

“In My Genes and on My Jeans” by Colin Morgan

In My Genes and on My Jeans

By Colin Morgan
 
 

As I pulled onto our gravel road I could see the outline of our ranch-style house and the bins and sheds standing out against the vivid blue sky. Our road was filled with deep tracks from the semis that constantly run up and down our road and cut scars into the gravel anytime there has been a rain. When the roads are wet you have to be careful to not get too close to the edge because your vehicle will slide right off the edge of the road when the gravel crumbles under the weight. And there it was, the black plume of smoke coming out from down by our creek. I chuckled to myself, trying to imagine what dad was doing down there that he would somehow try and convince me was necessary work. I pulled into and down our drive and parked my car, running into the house telling my mom and sister hi, while trying to keep my excited dog out of the house; mom doesn’t appreciate him coming into the house and dropping dead animals onto her kitchen floor. I told my mom and sister that I was going to run down to the creek and see dad.

I ran out of the house and down our deck. Which I was glad to see was recently stained and waterproofed, because I normally got stuck with all of those shitty jobs when I came back from school. Although with the pool that was connected to the deck it was hard to complain too much about having to take care of the deck. I hopped on my four-wheeler and burned out spraying gravel into our lawn, the best manicured lawn that will never be seen by anyone else because my dad is a psycho about his lawn even though we live 10 miles from the nearest town. I sped off towards the creek feeling the warm air run through my hair and the sting of a lady bug hitting my cheek at fifty miles an hour. I reached the drive and slid through it doing my best Dukes of Hazard impression and hammered the accelerator with my feet shifting as fast as they could. I reached my dad and jumped off the four wheeler leaving it in neutral and it rolled another 30 feet from where I jumped off, nearly hitting our skid loader broadside.

“Are you blind?” my dad asks me in his slow, low, and deliberate voice. He never went past high school because my grandpa was in an accident and my dad had to take over the farm when he was 17. He is not well versed in all of the theories of farming that they teach in colleges now, but try telling him that he needs to know all of those. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken, and it has been working for him for five decades.

“Yeah, that was close I know, relax.” I take a look over at what my dad was doing, and apparently today he felt like he needed to make the creek deeper than it was, and in the process he broke a tile line that ran underneath the creek. Our creek is one of those little lazy moving creeks that look like there is only about a foot of water in it. It seems to wind and curve without a worry in the world. A leaf on the surface of it seems to move about as quickly as a snail in quicksand. However, it actually has a very fast undercurrent and is deceptively deep. In the spring the water often rises out of its steep banks and creeps into our field and up towards our house.

“That was a smooth move, huh?” I ask him, sarcasm evident in my voice.

“Shut up and get over here and help me.” I walk over next to him and see what he is trying to do. His hair is grayer than I remember and his eyes even more sunk in than before, although they still have the twinkle of a ten year old. He is wearing one of his 10,000 John Deere shirts that he has turned into a cut off and a pair of Carhart shorts, because according to him “if you’re gonna buy something, you might as well buy something worth a damn, and Carhart and John Deere are the only brands worth a damn.” His arms are already a deep bronze from being out in the sun all day and his face is so dirty it’s hard to tell if he hasn’t shaved in a couple days or is just covered in mud.

We work for a little while and then we decide that we should go and get some food before we finish. I’m standing down in the creek and can’t get up and over the creek bed without and hand up. I reach up for my dad to help me. His massive hands close around mine and I feel the calluses as he pulls me up onto my feet. My hands feel as though sandpaper has just been drug across them. I look down and see that some grease has been transferred onto my hands from his. I think exactly why I can never be around you whenever I have nice clothes on, as I wipe my hands onto my jeans to get the grease off. I hop on the four wheeler and speed back to the house, trying to avoid the Grand Canyon side tracks that are in the road thanks to the semis. Although not quite as fast as before because I know that dad is behind me and I don’t wanna piss him off the hour I get back home.

We get back and start to walk out of the machine shed, it is easy to see where I get my height from while standing next to him, although he has about 100 pounds on me, and not fat, muscle, which he likes to remind me at every chance. He puts his arm around my shoulder as we walk into the house and I am hit with a strong smell of grease, sweat, and hard work; the smell that I have grown to know as my dad.

“It’s been different not having you around here kid,” he says as he pulls his arm off of my shoulder, aware that this was something that he didn’t normally do, and I could tell that it made him feel uncomfortable.

We walk into our house, where my dad has lived in his whole life. It isn’t the biggest farm house around, or the nicest. but my parents take extreme pride in it. The landscaping is always kept in tip-top shape and the counters cleared in the kitchen. We have redone almost everything in the house since I have been alive, in order to make it look the way and have the feel that my parents want it to have. Stone floors in the kitchen give the rustic feel of an old farmhouse mixed with the modern look and feel of stainless steel appliances. The walls are mostly neutral colors but they have more vivid colors sponged onto them, giving both a dull natural feeling but also a more exciting and inviting feeling without being too overwhelming. Family pictures cover up much of the walls, make it apparent what matters to my mom and dad; family above all else. The stairs that lead downstairs have been covered in pictures on both sides of the stairwell. The left side is covered in my senior pictures and the right side the same with my sister. And then right at the bottom of the stairs, the only thing that my dad has ever put up as decoration, a massive picture of my mom and dad on their wedding day sitting next to a lake at sunset. My dad isn’t big into gifts or flowers, I could count on one hand, actually about one finger, how many times I have seen him give my mom a present, but yet there is this picture that he picked out himself, framed and put up one day for no reason. The focal point of the stairs, it just seems fitting for my dad, no reason to do it, no big deal made about it, just one day it shows up and is there.

We start talking about how the baseball year ended up at NIACC. I start talking to him and I can tell that his hearing had gotten even worse since the year before. A lifetime of not using ear protection was finally starting to catch up with him, and he just shook his head to pretend like he was hearing what we were saying rather than hurt his pride and ask us to repeat it.        Dad sits down in his chair and realizes that he wants a glass of water, he goes to stand up and it is clear to see that his age is starting to catch up with him. Five decades of working the land day in and day out have taken a toll on his rugged and scarred body. I turn away and look out the window, not wanting to see my childhood hero struggle a little to get out of his chair. As I look out of the window I look over our farm, all of the barns, machine sheds, bins, and various other small buildings and equipment. This was all mine for the taking, if I so wanted. But instead I went to college, to live my dream of playing college baseball, leaving three generations of farmers hanging in the balance. The question of who is going to take over the farm looms over my dad and I whenever we are together, time is ticking, yet nobody wants to discuss it yet. My dad because he doesn’t want to believe that he won’t be able to farm forever, and myself, because I honestly don’t know what I would say, or should do…

Dad goes out to heat up the grill to start grilling the pork chops that he smokes out back in his hickory smoker. He opens up the smoker and the smell hits me in the face like an Ali punch. Dad throws them onto the grill and cooks them until they are juicy and smelling amazing. Dad brings in the pork chop and sets them on the table next to all the other things mom has set out. We dig into the feast and with the first bite of the pork chop my brain screams dad, it is just one of those tastes that as soon as it hits your mouth you instantly think of someone, kind of like grandmas homemade apple pie. This is where I am supposed to be I think to myself, at home with my family, and most importantly, back with my best friend, my dad.

“Facing the Music” by Barbara Lange

2013 Salveson Prize in Prose

 

“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.” – Don McLean

 

American Pie

I am six years old, riding in my parents car. “American Pie” comes on the radio and I belt it out. It is 1976, the bicentennial, a very important year in my estimation. In my memory, it is always a bright, sunny day. The light coming through the windows of the car makes the black vinyl upholstery hot on my legs and I am filled with joy.

Almost forty years later, I still know all the words and when I sing along, I am still filled with joy every time.

McLean released 24 albums but this is his best known song. It is believed that the song is in reference to the death of Buddy Holly whose plane crashed on a winter night, in a cornfield north of my hometown.

 

“Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.”

 

Larry

My father-in-law passed away much too soon. I believe he was ready but the family was not. He was 56 and his death was the result of complications following what was supposed to have been a simple angioplasty. He went to the hospital for his surgery one week after my youngest daughter was born and six weeks later he was gone. I miss him terribly.

My husband did not take his father’s death well. As a child he had been closer to his mother and it was only in his twenties that he and his dad began to connect. Seeing his son as a husband and a father allowed Larry to relate to Bert in a way they never had before. When Larry died so suddenly, Bert felt robbed. He was in terrible pain and there was nothing I could do to lessen it. It was years before he could talk about his dad without being overcome with emotion. Even now, seventeen years later, he cannot or will not say dead. He will say “Dad is gone,” or “Dad is passed,” but he never says dead. He is still working through the five stages, no one moves through them the same way.

 

“I went down to the sacred store where I’d heard the music years before but the man there said the music wouldn’t play.”

 

Liz

The dining room of the nursing home where I work is bustling with the usual chaos of the lunchtime routine. I am one of eight Certified Nursing Assistants rushing around, helping the residents to their tables for lunch: steering wheelchairs and pushing chairs to tables, assisting old women and men who walk unsteadily on legs that are tired and weak. The residents take their seats at their tables, greeting their friends and making conversation while the three nurses on duty pass out lunchtime medications and the kitchen staff prepares plates and pours drinks. Liz is seated at her usual table at the edge of the dining room near the entry.

At eighty-nine, Liz has lived in this nursing home for nearly eight years. She has children, but I have never seen them. There are pictures of grandchildren on a bulletin board in her room but Liz never talks about her children or her grandchildren, in fact, she rarely talks at all. Sometimes I wonder if she even knows where she is, or who. She spends most of her time sitting in a chair looking out the window and, as far as I can tell, she seems content to do so. Because she has been here for such a long time and because she is quiet and rarely any trouble, all of the staff are quite fond of her.

 

“So bye-bye Miss American Pie drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. Them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye singin’ this’ll be the day that I die.”

 

Mom

My mother is horrified at the prospect of people gawking at her body after she dies. I have been instructed that a visitation with an open casket should not be a part of her funeral. Once, during a disagreement, I told her that I was going to donate her to the Body Works exhibit. Recently, I discovered that it is possible to have a person’s ashes made into a diamond. Perhaps that’s what I’ll do with my mom. Instead of people staring at her dead body, they can ooh and ahh about what a pretty diamond she is.

 

“…and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown.”

 

Money

My dog, Money, is not well. She has not been well for a while. The vet believes she has had another stroke. She cannot walk, she can barely stand on her own, can no longer control her bladder. I have to accept that she will likely not recover from this one the way she did the last and it is breaking my heart. She is seventeen years old and she has been mine for almost all of those years. She was a skittish little dog when we adopted her from the Humane Society. They estimated her age at 6 months and they suspected that she had been abused. She made the trip home curled up on my lap. We lived on the verge of broke at that time and naming her Money was our little joke.

It has always been her habit to follow me from room to room; now she lies on her blanket in the living room and I can hear her whine as I leave the room. She can no longer get up and follow me. I hate to leave her lying there but I need to shut myself in the bathroom to cry. I know I am going to have to put her to sleep…

 

“… something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.”

 

Pilot Error

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP Richardson died when their a plane crashed in a field north of Clear Lake, Iowa on the morning of February 3, 1959 shortly after 1:00 am. Their pilot, Roger Peterson was 21 years old. It is believed that he became disoriented in the blizzard that was blowing that night and lost track of where the horizon was. Instead of flying up, he flew the plane into the ground at an approximate speed of 170 miles an hour. It is said that Buddy Holly’s mother heard about his death on the radio. I imagine her crumbling to the floor under the weight of disbelief and grief. It was after this incident that authorities began withholding names until family could be informed.

 

“…not a word was spoken, the church bells all were broken.”

 

Holding Hands

It is March 13, two days after my thirtieth birthday. Today seems to be another routine lunch service for Liz and her fellow residents as the nurse presses the collection of pills past Liz’s lips and holds the water to her mouth so she can take a drink and swallow them. She swallows and the nurse turns back to her medication cart to mark the chart and move on to the next person when a strange noise comes from Liz’s throat. The nurse turns back to Liz to see her beginning to shake slightly. After checking Liz’s mouth to make sure it is clear she calls across the dining room to another nurse, then, because I am the nursing assistant closest to the table, she turns to me and instructs, “Help me move her into the hall so this doesn’t scare the other residents” The nurse and I each grab an arm of the chair and drag. The gurgling clicking noise coming from Liz’s throat grows louder and she continues to shake.

Now in the hallway, three nurses, the director of nursing, and the facility administrator have gathered around the shaking, gurgling woman. They discuss possibilities and take turns checking her vitals. The clicking gurgling sound continues from somewhere in her throat. The nurse who had just given the pills believes Liz is choking on them but they cannot be found lodged in her throat. I stand helplessly by while the experts stand over the old woman discussing her situation. They are all talking about her, but no one is talking to her.

While they continue their discussion, I kneel down next to the chair and take her hand, her skin is cool and dry and papery. Liz turns to look me and I begin to talk to her, “It’s ok Liz, we’re here. Don’t be afraid.” I don’t know what else to do. Though I have worked here for a few years now, I have not been in a situation like this before. Now, as we hold hands and hold each other’s gaze I continue to speak, “You’re safe. The nurses know what to do. You’re going to be alright.” I think she hears me, she keeps looking at me but, as I continue to speak, her eyes change, their gaze becomes vacant, her hand goes limp. Liz is gone.

 

“Do you recall what was revealed, the day the music died?”

 

Laughter

My father-in-law liked to laugh. I miss his laugh, it was as gruff and as genuine as he was. It was a laugh from deep inside and he only used it if something was truly funny.

I miss the times he laughed at me. He laughed because I didn’t know the difference between a tractor and a combine. The day I tried to help load pigs for market he snuck up behind me and yelled, “Careful! Don’t let them bite you!” That time he laughed so hard he almost fell over. He laughed at me a lot; this city girl his son had brought home to the farm, so curious about things that, to him, were mundane. His laughter was never derisive and that’s why I miss it. But more than his laughter, I miss our long talks over popcorn at his kitchen table.

He liked John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies and, having spent many hours watching reruns of the many movies with my own dad, so did I. He liked bad jokes (I wish I could remember even one). He was tough to a fault. He had fallen off his tractor one spring at the beginning of planting. He knew he was really hurt but he didn’t tell anyone. As a diabetic he had spent a lifetime learning to dislike doctors. Planting needed to be finished and he figured that if he went to a doctor he would be told not to work, or worse, hospitalized, so he climbed back up on his tractor and finished his work. “Didn’t it hurt?” I asked. “Hurt like a sonofabitch getting on and off the tractor but once I was there I was fine.” He went to the doctor after planting was finished, his pelvis was fractured and he was put on six weeks of restricted activity.

 

“…when the Jester sang for the King and Queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean.”

 

Family Meeting

My parents, on the verge of their seventies, took advantage of an opportunity when my three siblings and I were all together to have a family meeting and discuss details of their final arrangements. Designating their executor was an easy decision, my brother has a degree in finance so he seemed the obvious choice. Then my parents raised the topic of medical power of attorney. My siblings stiffened at the thought of making medical decisions for one of our parents if the other parent weren’t there to do the job. As I looked around the table where we all sat, I saw the fear on my siblings’ faces. Their eyes were huge, their lips pressed tightly together none of them seemed to be breathing.   There was a collective sigh of relief from the three of them when Mom said they were thinking I should have this designation since I live the closest to them and am therefore the most readily available in an emergency. It is fortunate that I am also the one who is willing to deal with those decisions. I held my dog at the end of her life. In the nursing home where I once worked I held the hands of the dying. Death is an unavoidable and while I don’t rejoice in it I do embrace it as part of the journey.

 

“Now do you believe in rock-n-roll? Can music save your mortal soul?”

 

Songs at a Funeral

My husband wants to have Garth Brooks’ song “The Dance” played at his funeral. It is a fine song but I always tell him that “The River” would be a better choice. I think it has a nicer message than “The Dance” which is much too sappy for me. This is one of our topics we debate for fun from time to time. Some of our other topics are: Pearl Jam and Nirvana – genius or crap; and Tim Tebow – good enough for the pros? These debates usually end with one of us saying, “Well you’re an idiot.”   Then we laugh and change the subject. If he dies first, I will play the song he wants at his funeral. I just hope he realizes that no matter how often he insists that he’s a Buddhist, he’s getting a Methodist funeral.

 

“I know that you’re in love with him, cause I saw you dancing in the gym”

 

Bad Day

When I took Money to the veterinarian to be put to sleep my fourteen year old daughter insisted on going with me. I would never have asked her to do this, but Money had been part of our family for Courtney’s whole life. So she rode in the car with our faltering dog on her lap, stroking her fur and speaking softly, telling her everything was going to be ok. At the vet’s office, she decided that she couldn’t go in the exam room so she waited outside the door while I took the dog in. I would have preferred to be outside the room too, but I couldn’t bear the thought of my loyal little dog dying alone. I felt like I owed it to her to be with her at the end. No one should die alone. As we left the vet’s office, Daniel Powter’s song “Bad Day” was playing on the radio when I started the car. It seemed to be playing just for us so we sat in the parking lot and sang along and cried and hugged for a while. Then we went home to listen to our cat search for her dog.

 

“…and we sang dirges in the dark”

 

Last Request

The day Larry went to the hospital for his surgery he was not optimistic. The hospital was not a happy place for him. Before they took him for surgery he said something to my mother-in-law. He said, “If I don’t make it, I want Joleen to sing at my funeral, but only if it’s ok with Barb.” I learned about this when, before Larry’s funeral, my mother-in-law came to me to ask my permission. This was no small thing. Joleen was my husband’s ex-girlfriend. They had been quite serious and his family had been very fond of her. She and I had been in the college choir together, although her talent was so far beyond mine that there was no comparison.

The gravity of this request was almost too much for me, that Larry would think of my feelings in making his request, that Betty would think of my feelings in acting on his request when she didn’t have to. It was her decision, she could have just asked Joleen and said nothing to me about it. I had the right to say no, they gave that to me, and that gift proved to me that they thought of me as a member of their family.

At Larry’s funeral, Joleen sang In the Garden and her voice was just as gorgeous as I remembered.

 

“…and the three men I admired most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died.”

“Reasons Why I Love My Mother” by Marisa Donnelly

2013 Salveson Prize in Poetry 

I am

not what you say

though my scrambled eggs

are always runny,

corners of wheat toast brown,

Purple and yellow

are complimentary colors—

I forgot this

just as I failed to remember

it was cranberry you wanted

not orange juice.

Our front staircase

now holds carpet casualties—

spilled egg,

shards of the kitchen china,

small pieces: gold, red, blue.

You woke, sitting up on your hands

commotion called you from sleep

my failed attempt

of breakfast in bed.

I am not a disappointment—

ribbons, balloons, streamers

handwritten notes on napkins

paper signs happy mother’s day

Forgiveness speaks loudest

in our shared fork,

two lip prints on the orange juice glass.

 

“The Sheep Shearers” by Joe Wilkins

The Sheep Shearers

By Joe Wilkins
 

A distinct culture has evolved out of the practice of shearing sheep.

– Wikipedia entry

 

All long necks and whiskers and three-day hangovers

sweated out on the peeling linoleum of some low-slung camper,

all greasy jeans and pearl snapshirts undone to the belly,

all black coffee and cigarettes and potted meat—

 

no one respectable, that’s for sure.

Though come March, it wasn’t about respectable.

From behind the old sofa, you watched Johnny Ahern

sprawl in a chair at the kitchen table,

 

wet trail of snoose dripping from his frog’s chin—

your mother fed him three kinds of pie,

your father shook his gnarled hand—

hand that could take a sheep to skin

 

in seconds—and said, Thanks for coming, Johnny.

Lord and the devil know we need you.

 

*

 

Skinny as a barn cat, the one that knocked on the door

and came in for chamomile tea and visit with your mother.

Her face was square and small, a ribbon of scar

from ear to chin, and after her small cup she rolled

 

a cigarette, tapped the ash into her palm. She was one of those

that could have been twenty-three or forty-two. No matter,

what you remember most is how her straw hair

was pulled back with flowers. It was yet mid-winter.

 

She must have grown them in whichever

rusted Airstream she called home, carried them in her lap

through a thousand icy miles of mountain two-lane,

set them in the sink after the table was broke down

 

into a marriage bed. And now, ringing her wrecked face—

umber buds, filigree of leaf, a crown of wild rose.

 

*

 

Milk-faced and bare-chested, trousers gone to threads,

they stood in a ragged line and stared at you. You

stared back. They didn’t speak but turned and ran

to the river. So, you followed. Picked up a rock,

 

like they did, and winged it at a carp. Together,

you floated a hunk of cottonwood to the far bank,

set a muskrat trap, jostled and laughed, and when the sheep

were sheared—the men gone into town for liquor,

 

women gathering dogs and laundry—

you sat on the steps and worked river mud

from in between your toes, felt with each breath the bluing bruise

on your chest, where, after she threw you to the ground,

 

that dark-eyed shearer’s girl propped a knee to pin you

and kissed you hard on the mouth.