Monday Morning in America

It’s another Monday morning in America and someone is blowing leaves.  They are soggy and heavy and so the diesel huff of the machine that must blow them labors like a foghorn through the filters of walls and windows.  The man or woman (let’s face it, it’s almost definitely a Latino man) no doubt wears large ear protection, flame orange or forest green probably, and he aims the snout of his laborious machine back and forth like a metal detector, creating little mulchy mountains of sopping, heavy, red, brown and yellow.  He thinks as he does this about his life.  He has the debt on the credit cards to move around—one pile to another.  He has the boxes of family memorabilia to move around—from one room to another.  He has the troubles in his marriage to move around—from one conflict to the next.  He has the physical ailments that move around—a tweaked shoulder heals to reveal a sore sciatic nerve.  Where the fuck do the leaves go?  Eventually, he knows, they disintegrate into sludge, a viscous liquid that can be washed down sewer drains to join the clearer runoff from the many deluges the city hosts in this season.  But, still, they are ultimately leaves, are they not?  Even if in miniscule particle and imperceptive to the eye somewhere out in the heaving black ocean, there is still something of the maple leaf there.  He can’t decide whether this notion gives him relief or despair.  There is the possibility of both—lightening at the thought of permanence, burdening at that same.  He finds a banana yellow leaf improbably propped by circumstances of wind and other leaves against the mostly denuded trunk of one young maple.  The leaf is nearly bone dry.  He cuts off his blower and unearths a Bic from his cargo pant pocket, holds the flame steady until the leaf catches and a cautious line of fire slowly defeats the dampness, curling the whole thing into a frail skeleton of ash.  He crushes this in his fist, wipes his palms together until all that is left of the leaf is a tiny ball of gray-black.  He doesn’t hesitate or fight the urge, just pops it into his mouth and swallows the acrid crumb.  He cuts his blower back on and goes back to work, feeling, from time to time, his guts working their acid to disappear forever what was just second ago a piece of the world.  Later, he will go home and step over the boxes of his children’s kindergarten art waiting for a home in the entryway.  He will smile at his wife and kiss her—to her surprise—when she greets him with a gripe about the lack of cooking oil in the house.  He will stretch out on the floor of his apartment and wait for one of his small children to climb on top of him and explore his face with her hands and eyes and tomorrow he’ll go to the next street on which leaves obscure the path.


Kaya Part 2

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The dog and I had a rocking summer. I was looking down the barrel of a senior year of college and despite the cushy liberal arts ticket that I had to ride, I didn’t let myself off easy and there was a load of work to do, so I took that as entitlement to fuck and run, twist and shout, drink and wander. The dog was, more often than not, a passenger on my right forearm, nigh 9 pounds, boarding metro busses and secreted into greasy falafel joints, neon-bloody dive bars, friends’ cars and the occasional dance club without any trouble. Mostly the dog and I lolled the first half of days around my best friend’s apartment where the dog stalked the roommate’s cat, a pair of cartoons without a musical score.


But I left her at my pop’s house if I was bound for something that struck me as irresponsible for a tiny pup to attend. My younger brother often rolled in during the tiny hours and worked through the end of his ecstasy by cuddling the dog in the climbing penumbra of day, and my father could be counted on to care for her in the evenings. There is a reel of film that I can no longer locate but the content of which is seared onto my brain, given all that came next:


Our three-legged 14 year-old lab-pit bull mix, Sky, is not pleased with the puppy’s identification of her as mother figure. Sky, though, cannot step off the carpeted runner that stripes the kitchen and living room, as the wood floor dependably kicks one of her legs out from under her and sends her into an undignified sprawl. So my puppy belly slides across the wood floor, getting as close to the Sky’s grayed, snapping pit jaw as she dares, then flipping over onto her back to bare a bright pink belly to vehemence of her elder, who can’t quite bring herself to actually disembowel the baby. Sky snarls and snaps and stumbles, drool flying inches from the vulnerable flesh of my puppy’s center, but not once does she make contact. Eventually, when she tires, the puppy gets as near as she can, propping her jaw on her tiny paws, staring with endless adoration at her rejecting mother, punctuating the depth of her feeling with sharp yips here and there.


Nineteen months later, the fishbowl has spun again. My brother lives in Barcelona, studying at some American school and plenty more in the gothic alleyways full of fiesta. I live in North Carolina with a taciturn, sassy, gorgeous Persian woman and teach and study creative writing, and my father is preparing for his first trip back to the southern hemisphere since his plummet from the Costa Rican cliff five years prior. It is no big surprise when he calls to summon his sons home to put down Sky, which we do with no lack of ritual in our living room, breaking and rebuilding together around the void of her. It is a surprise that this ceremony is the last time we see my father, as he’s felled by an errant bubble in his blood—his broken arteries the last legacy of the earlier fall—his first night in the outskirts of Quito.



I should have known I’d make a good fool the first time I put on that stupid fucking paper ice cream cone hat.

Summertime in this thriving strip mall/dying farm town is rough. There is nothing much to do—all of the kids that can afford to fly home and sleep 12 hour nights in beds they don’t make do so. The rest of us look down the barrel of three hot months that smell like manure (the dying farms), chemical-laden asphalt (from the all the new parking lots and shit) and exhaust (from the interstate).   You know, come to think of it, the first wave of departures in June doesn’t feel bad at all. It’s nice to imagine life without racket of dum-dums at the fraternity next door—a dying fucking tradition anyway, I mean, Jesus, how do you have ONE fraternity? I guess you just have to come to Cowtown for that.

Cecilia and I had been broken up since late spring and I knew she was lurking around for the summer, not because she couldn’t afford to go home, but because she had real bad issues with her stepfather.   And possibly because she wanted to stay close to me.

I’d been working at “The Scoop Soda Fountain” in the town’s only “Legitimate (Mini) Mall!” for a few months when I was still dating Cecilia, so when she appeared that day in August with her mascara all smeared, trembling under the Food Court’s enthusiastic AC, Clarence hollered a greeting before he saw her state. Then he ducked his head and shouldered close to me. I was sweating, suddenly, standing over the sorbets.

“I think that’s your cue, dog,” he whisper-ordered, and since he was my boss, I folded up the hat and by some pre-arranged drama narrative arc, met Cecilia at a sticky round table off to the side.

She cleaned herself up and tried at a smile and I’m half-southern, so I had to smile back, even if I felt like sprinting for the north exit. But as I felt my face muscles work, I was seeing, in my mind, the night that Cecilia tried to throw herself into traffic because I broke up with her (I broke up with her because she had broken up with me, fucked this corn-fed wide receiver and then convinced me to get back together). And right at that same moment at that sticky table, I swear to God, a faux-farmer (actor, I imagine) in cartoonish overalls walked by leading a very well-groomed, very cute Holstein calf on a leash, swarmed by cooing toddlers. And Cecilia did this thing that she knows how to do where she giggles in a perfectly delighted, impulsive, young way, right through her red eyes and over her smeared cheeks, and I don’t care if you just lost your pet calf, you smile.

So I smiled.

And she leaned in and hooked my wrists and wrestled our noses close and started in on a monologue that combined erotic promise and tearful plea and I felt my heart sink and other parts rise and then Clarence appears with a banana fucking split (there was an actual cherry on top) singing in his goddam gospel baritone “Reunited—and it feels so good,” and Cecilia is smile-crying now and I took a spoonful of hot fudge that she pushed toward me to earn time because I’m pumping my brain like brakes gone out to stop this and then, I swear to God, Sinead O’Connor is singing through the mini-mall megaphone speakers (so I can’t even blame Clarence), “Nothing Compares,” and Cecilia doesn’t even have to work at it anymore, Clarence is watching, big arms folded, nodding along, and some large stroller pushing mothers who have parked for milkshakes are weepy and grinning at us and I know that the following chapter of time in Cowtown—however long it turns out to be—is going to feel a whole lot more torturous than the summer ever did.

And so I kiss her.


The young woman had caught a jetliner east to Jersey to spend the Holidays with her “best friend,” the term that she used both genuinely and euphemistically with her Mormon mother; genuinely because it was true and euphemistically because she was also the young woman’s lover or at least had been in the now-long-gone-days of Rutgers. They had scuttled their erotic passion for a passionate social media, Skype and text message friendship as the young woman slid into a bland career of marketing nearby her divorced (the scandal!) Mormon (perhaps…unwell) mother and her Jersey lover skated easily into the Queer bohemia of the Tristate. So, the Holidays of 2006-2007 broke onto the horizon pregnant with possibility and already haunted by hope.


And Christmas Day broke upon the two young lovers with a splintered gold and blue sky magic that sent them into a mania that would, before the night fell, include hi-jinks and escapades: dining and dashing from a greasy spoon in SOHO with the excuse that they had forgotten their purses at the hotel; tongue kissing atop a sidewalk vent with impractical skirts billowing like Marilyn Monroe’s and cabbies cat-calling with their horns; rifling a strangely open retro clothing shop for Audrey Hepburn costumes in which to linger at 5 star hotel bars, sipping cosmopolitan after cosmopolitan; gobbling hot slices feverishly on a frozen bench at Washington Square Park, pillbox hats askew, cigarette holders tucked behind reddened ears as the greasy shadows began to grow long. They paused only for the young woman to dial her Mormon mother twice on her Samsung Galaxy and leave sweet, tipsy apologetic messages that did not acknowledge the mother’s jilted anger at being “abandoned for the holidays.”


So it was markedly horrific in that way that only the promise of mania jilted and sabotaged by the plunge into darkness can be when the women lost track of each other outside an Irish Bar in the West Village and the young woman from Mormon country was discovered by a dishwasher in the small hours of December 26th with clothes and throat ripped in unnecessarily thorough manner, her lifeblood pooling beneath a dumpster.


The Mormon mother blamed the Jersey lover, of course, and how could she not? The Jersey lover blamed herself for without the distraction of a small bladder and a shot of Jameson proffered by a kindly Indian businesswoman, she might have not dallied in the elbowed interior of that bar while her lover slipped out the door for a smoke and toward her awful end. And so she forewent attendance of the young woman’s funeral. The Jersey lover respected the mother’s sorrow and did not disturb it by any intention for a full year. She tucked herself away into a pocket of her old life and ate Xanax and made it till tomorrow until one night she knew she might not and in a stumble fury dialed her dead lover’s phone number in the vague hope that she could at least hear her voicemail greeting and scream pain or apology or perhaps rage into the virtual mailbox.


The mother, possessed by a similar longing to, a), somehow connect with her gone daughter via telephone and, b), somehow aid the apprehension of the person responsible for her brutal death (as if they would for some reason call the number), had kept the worse-for-wear Samsung Galaxy that NYPD detectives had delivered up to her in a jumbo size Ziploc along with lipstick, tiny sequined purse, Virginia Slim Light 100s, and six orange tic-tacs. So she snatched up every ring that came in, fielding calls from clueless classmates, from advertising execs, from telemarketers, always with urgency, always with a hello? that said, instead, who are you and what have you done? The Jersey lover, to her credit, paused and bit through the cognitive fog of Xanax and rapid-cycling grief and spoke the Mormon mother’s name aloud, for the first time in her life, as a question:




And though neither party got what they had wished for when their hands punched the numbers in hopeless ritual reaching, they did find one another and they did weep together on the line and they did share stories deep into the late winter night and they did seed a relationship that would come to resemble something like that between a mother and her daughter.



Bluff was the location of the wildest and most consistent parties and, also, there was the tradition of “bluffing” to shove one of your buddies off the “bluff” at the most unforeseen moment. The irony is terrible that neither definition of “bluff” actually applied. It was a cliff. Period. A one hundred foot plummet off an upward-tilted lip of earth adorned with clover and dandelions at the far end of a county park, out of earshot of the parking lot even without the roar of sea winds that muscled up the ragged, rocky face of the cliff and stirred drunken teenagers’ hair in interesting ways. And, therefore, faking a shove off it was a lot more like a threat.


Bluff had been played on the girl once. She went out there as a freshman, which even among freshmen, was considered a pretty foolish thing to do. The crowd she rode with was peppered with other first year students clutching warm cans of Hamm’s like they were talismans, but mainly it was sophomores and juniors and even some seniors. Because she was appropriately wary of this crowd—getting good and cracked on an early Friday afternoon—she instinctively moved to the highest part of the bluff so she could observe everyone present, but of course this put her back to the open air at the edge of the cliff. When one upperclassman girl distracted her by inquiring after her peculiar ethnicity in that innocent and moronic blonde suburban way (“Ohmygod yoursooocute whatareyou?”), a redhead rocker chick with a hatchet face and leather jacket that would go on to die with a needle stuck into her arm at the ripe old age of 17, grabbed the girl and shoved her hard toward the edge. The redhead had good purchase on the girl’s backpack strap, so she probably wasn’t in any real danger, but nonetheless she shrieked, a spurt of piss got away from her, and she both vomited and began to cry when the redhead released her, disgusted.


The girl had come a long way since that freshman afternoon. She was a legal adult, however burdened with a handful of AP English essays before she could kick high school and the awful postcard town full of phony white people goodbye. She had lost her mother to a man named Ramon from Florida and her older brother to an IED in Fallujah. She still had her taciturn father that turned the engines of the town’s luxury SUVs inside out seventy hours per week, and her best friend, a wickedly smart film buff named Arthur, and a string of ex boyfriends that got more embarrassing the more she reflected. And so she tried not to. She tried to be mindful and in the moment and breathe, like her Buddhist auntie Celine had taught her once. That’s what she was doing the night of the last high school party she ever planned to attend, fittingly back on the bluff in the deep black of a late April night.


She had been there enough times with boyfriends or Arthur or on her own that she knew just where it was safe to place her feet without danger of the winds whirl-whipping her away into an ugly swan dive. She stared out at the obsidian ocean, seagulls like small triangles of cotton jagging about, using the force of the winds for swoops and ascents. She tipped a sip of German pilsner into her mouth and didn’t spit it out when the hand slid like a boa over her hip because she’d known it was coming.


His plot for dealing with her after having raped her in the bathroom at his parents’ Christmas party—she would always smell potpourri and asparagus piss at the most unwelcome moments—was to treat her as often as possible like his girlfriend. Of course she didn’t take to it and, for months, would slap him away, shout him down, spit at his giggles, but she’d found with time that all of that only made it worse. People quickly believed that no guy so adorably smitten and devoted despite her rejection could be guilty of choking her out and having his way with her over a toilet. And when she did stop protesting, when she let him put his arm around her in public, he thought it was victory. And he cooed cruel triumphs in her ear about what he would do next. And she could feel that this was the night that he would actually try.


His forearm was around her waist and his hand palmed her thigh through her jeans and she could smell the animal in him. She sighed, as if in resignation and ducked beneath his arm, coming face to face with him, albeit three inches below where he now stood on the lip of the bluff, his back to the sea and desolate song of the gulls. Behind her she could hear the inane squeals of drunken girls and false bravado of drunk boys boom and shatter in the loose thicket of Evergreens where the keg was planted. The sickle moon lit the white of his narrowed eyes and one canine tooth as he half-grinned. She shook her head, as if at herself, and slid one hand demurely onto his crotch, which responded with instant heated expansion. Before he did it, she knew it because she’d seen it happen, against designer wallpaper a year earlier: his head tip back in pleasure. She pushed hard, but didn’t have to. His eyes snapped back in time to catch hers and she’d be lying to this day if she denied the burst of pleasure in her brain, the flood of dopamine that followed the image of his going, his cry erased by the wind. She stayed and finished her beer, but didn’t peer over. She knew she couldn’t see anything at all, way down there on the dark violence of those rocky, sea-smacked shores.

Domestic Disturbance



God, we fought like dogs. No use in denying it. It’s true to say it was passion but all the assholes in the world would say that’s just me trying to get lipstick on a pig. Doesn’t matter anymore, but for the sake of telling the story I’m gonna insist: it was passion. Loved that woman with a power that terrified me—terrified me she’d meet someone better, which would’ve been easy, terrified something’d happen to her at her job (she worked in a fuckin’ nail salon and so I spent time researching hazards in nail salons), terrified she’d just disappear like a dandelion spore, float off into a sunray and morph with all that light. Lyla was that beautiful to me—ninety pounds soaking wet and barely a hair on her golden body besides her honey hair to my two hundred pounds of mediocre man meat. I didn’t start off doing anything more than worshipping her but the fear crept in as it does and by our second year we were gnashing teeth and I was putting holes in the plasterboard on the regular and the cops got accustomed to coming around, would look all tired and put out when we answered the door, like they were our parents and we ought to have been sleeping. But wasn’t ever a mark on either one of us and so they always just threatened us with noise complaints. Neighbors hated us of course. I liked to tell my buddies too that it was the fuckin’ that bothered them the most, but truth is that the fighting was probably louder and certainly worse to listen to. I was jealous, sure I was. I’m not even ashamed of that. I heard a preppie kid in a bar say one time that jealousy was for insecure men and yet when I stared over at him he cut his eyes away and hit the road without even finishing his funny little drink. So I don’t know about that.


Anyway, point is, that on a November night not two days after Thanksgiving we were laying it out like we never had before: leftover turkey was mashed in the rug and glasses were broken in the sink and Lyla had definitely pointed a carving knife at me and I had taken a hollow-core closet door off the hinges and decorated it with fist holes. Phone rang off the hook, neighbors stomped and banged and eventually the officers showed up. This time one of them, it was a skinny Mexican cop, he told me, no shit, wagging a finger at me that you know, Elway, sooner or later everyone thinks you gonna actually hit that woman and kill her. Now, I have no way of telling you why the way he said that struck me as funny and I bet Lyla couldn’t tell you either, even though she was the one that started crowing first when I shut the door on the coppers. Like he’d said something really funny. I don’t know, I guess when you get deep enough in a spit and vinegar kind of love affair, you forget what you’re even fighting about—I couldn’t tell you now what it was that night. Sometimes you’re just fighting and the only way out is walking or fucking, at least for me, because, see, I wasn’t ever going to lay a hand on Lyla. Maybe that’s what was funny to us. We got straight to ripping shirts off each other in the living room and stumble-wrestled our way to the bedroom and I don’t mind saying I was already pumping away by the time her back hit that thrift store mattress. We got into that rhythm of it where it’d get real quiet and we stared into each other’s eyes as I went harder and harder. That’s what was happening: me, on top of Lyla, my hands on either side of her face, trying to pump my way right into her blood, like I wanted to disappear inside of her, when the frame snapped and the bed caved inward like a goddam taco and my hands slipped onto her throat as we fell downward and her neck snapped under my fingers.


When that Mexican cop came in to cuff me, I could see him trying to look angry. But he looked more spooked, like he’d jinxed the holy hell out of me, Lyla, and just maybe himself.



So there’s this: was a kid, one of the crew, always a bit more daring, a bit more wild, a bit more in the face of the world. In high school days he was more likely to challenge an enemy to a proper fight than get in a sucker punch. He was more likely to gobble a tab of acid and stay all day at school, advertising his eyes to his homies. He was also more likely to run when a cop told him to freeze. This kid vanished, in a manner that seemed gradual to his crew but, they all admitted eventually, might well have been very sudden. When did you see him last? I don’t know…six months? You? What about you? Perhaps more than any other hijinks, this kid was known for the seeking out sucking down of adrenaline, which proved most effective via tagging the city’s face at ever-increasing heights, literal and figurative: a billboard off the freeway; an exit sign over downtown’s busiest ramp; the 34th floor ice-black windows of a sky scraper that erupted just as high school wound down. These feats seemed impossible to people who didn’t know him, but to those who’d carried spray cans alongside him or at least gunned a getaway car after application of his peer pressure, they knew—he could shimmy and leap like a monkey, use his feet like hands and also vanish into thin air upon the arrival of the cops. He wrote lots of things: blue! (the exclamation point calling into question the association of sadness); dikt (from “addict,” some said); live, sometimes and, others, evil, and others both placed together by the angle of a window’s reflection—liveevil. The kid did not discourage the rumors that flowed around him, especially the one about him having native blood and some of the sleight and smoke of the trickster. It was after a few rounds at the grimy tavern that the crew of boys habited on Thursday evenings that they decided he really was gone, be it gradually or suddenly. Seven smart phones sat flaccid on the scarred table—no trace of him caught in a single filter accessible via the World Wide Web. Later, the crew of boys—now men, with jobs, some, wives, others, kids, one—would agree that it was the next morning that they saw Ghost, looped across the cheap façade of the tavern they drank at. Certainly none of them had noticed the tag before, and certainly its appearance on boxcars and bathroom stalls and bus bumpers and freeway exit signs crowned with nests of razor wire, was new. The crew of men thrived on this mystery, sending text messages and photos to one another whenever a new iteration was glimpsed, no one ever coming straight out to say it, but everyone hinting at it: he’s back. A year and some weeks after the conversation at their tavern, the crew of men celebrated one of their weddings on the waterfront and as per custom, they orchestrated an escape to suck down a doobie and relive whatever felt urgent to relive. On a tiny rooftop deck of a deco hotel, the sun bleeding out in the jaws of the mountains, one of them spotted it—a ferry, fat and slow, chugging away from the city, pumped full of strangers and their various lives, their tangle of victories and shames and hopes. Ghost, the size of the flank of the boat, four times the height of any man, painted with a hurried precision, sliding toward illegible in the growing dusk. The men did not speak of him again. When one or another would consider it during one of the increasingly long lulls in barroom chatter, he would think: what is there to say?

How to Slip Your Cage



For survivors of Narconon and the Church of Scientology

First, pretend to be delighted that you get to enter. If you buck and fight, it will only end in your blood spilt and a longer time until you are ultimately free. If you buck and fight, they will take the violence out of you and turn it against you so that your first couple of days in the cage will be spent on the ground (not that there is anywhere else to be) and in agony—trust me, I made the wrong choice. So you must enter willingly, will forth a tear if they don’t flow naturally, act relieved to finally be getting the help you need.


Second, do not look for a comfortable place to arrange your body. You will not find it. There are no chairs, no bunks, not even so much as a ledge to perch your ass upon. You have a floor and walls with the uneven roll of hand-hewn log cabin, so leaning your spine against them is no relief. You have to figure out how to sit on a dirty wooden floor in a way that doesn’t produce agony or, if like me, this is impossible—with all the bruises and scrapes—you have to learn how to sit through agony. This is probably the best thing, so in that case, if you need an extra dose of agony to create the necessity of sitting through it, disregard step #1.


Third, eat the vitamin blasts that they push on you through the cracked door as if there were the most delicious fucking snack you’ve ever tasted. Suck down the horse pill capsules like they are pieces of your lover whom you can only save by devouring. Feel the gritty work of those capsules in your abdomen, the slow slink of a hundred doses of vitamins into your veins. Trust not that they are good for you, not in their claims that they will silence the voices in your head or extinguish the gnawing need for dope, but trust that compliance is your only hope of escape and so swallow those fuckers.


Fourth, defecate and urinate in the bucket. Do not succumb to urges to paint arcs on the dark wall. It will not spite them because you will be forced to live with the stench and ultimately clean it up. Do not succumb to this also because it will make you appear yet more deranged and will extend the time you spend in your cage.


Fifth, when they bring stacks of paper to sign, sign. Do not ask questions and do not try to read the tiny font in the weak light that slices a rectangle around the door. Do not attend to useless thoughts about your rights, or lack thereof, or the meaning of your signature on those many pages. Refusing to sign, or asking questions or trying to read the tiny font, even, will probably earn you another blast of vitamins and another day at least to consider the foolishness of resistance.


Sixth, when the voices get louder, listen closer. Because here’s the thing: the voices are your own. And even if they’ve landed you in a lot of trouble in the past, when you’re locked in a cage breathing feces in the dark for long enough, jailed by people with blind faith, no mercy, ballpoint pens and vitamin blasts, the voices will begin to serve you instead of betray you. The voices will tell you the truth: that these people are not going to let you out until you deny your voices. That these people are not going to let you out until you profess that your cravings for dope have subsided.


Seventh, if the voices guide you, obey them. If they say to scream out in agony, do so. If they say to scream for mercy, do so. If they tell you to mutter gratitude to your captors, do so. If they tell you to remain silent for long stretches, do so.


Eighth, when you no longer expect the door to open, expect the door to open.


Ninth, when the door opens, remain still and make an attempt to smile.


Tenth, when they ask you if you think you are ready to come out, tell them you think you need just a little bit longer.



For C.A.F.

The first time she remembered feeling it was when her older sister leapt to her death from the roof their two-story home. The girl had sort of known it was going to happen, in the way that five year olds know anything: a burst of violent language between bigger people like an explosion of blackbirds from a wire, her sister’s boots thumping the staircase. Eventually, the creak of the eave and the broken cry that ended with a thud. It was in the way that thud shot through the bones of the house, that’s the feeling that carried the girl away. That first time it was parrots and waterfalls, a kaleidoscope of them—purple rivers and a perfect sunset on the hazy horizon. She could float more than fly because she didn’t need to exert any effort and the air was kind around her small body. When she was pulled back into the world by a social worker’s cold, callused hands working her face, into the tumult of looping emergency lights, the screams of her mother, the girl was angry and swung at the social worker and ran to her room and packed pillows around her, praying to return to the world of color, of parrots and rivers.


The second time it happened she was a couple of years older, thigh pumping a silver streak scooter down her block on a blazing July day. The SUV with college football flags flying from the antenna rounded the corner with a yip of tires and maybe that’s what made her Labrador yip back and then leap street-ward, as if to defend her. The driver was provoked by this or perhaps merely drunk and put down her beloved dog with a millimeter adjustment of his wheel. The girl sat down on a sidewalk square and soon she was underwater, but could breathe fine, twirling and jetting in the Caribbean blue, being kissed by turtles on her dimpled cheeks and tickled by tiny yellow fish along her ribcage, her legs encased in shimmering scale. When her mother scooped her up from the concrete shouting consolations into her ear, the girl screamed in reproach, broke from her mother’s arms and ran back to the sidewalk square and sat hard, staring at the dog’s broken muzzle, as if she might go back.


She did not go back, not again until she was a teenager and a new transfer to a suburban high school, her family having slammed behind them the haunts of their old house in the city. The girl was smart and self-directed and quiet and drew fantastical, breathtaking portraits of beautiful demons in the margins of her notebooks and earned straight A’s. She walked home with her head held high and the stares of hungry boys glanced off her shimmering helmet of jet-black hair. It was strange that she attended the party, stranger still that she followed a boy she barely knew into a basement for a shot of liquor harder than the Riesling she clutched in a paper cup. After the slog of booze—after which she planned to march straight back up the stairs and out into the spring night of manicured lawns and lightning bugs’ performance—it was already done. Whatever the ball-capped boy had dropped into her shot passed through her brain and knocked her knees out. She went that time to a tropical mountainside where she swung in a hammock, gazing out across a hazy valley, smelling orchids and hearing the laughter of children. Because when she opened her eyes all she saw were the slack jaws and cruel, pin eyes of many boys, flashes of canine teeth and tongues, she closed her own eyes again and again and was able to return to the hammock.


Nowadays the girl has grown into a woman and lives in the foothills of the mountains, in a large, bright house on a hill where she often doesn’t lock the door. Her twin sons are wild things, already, at the age of five, marked with hard knocks of life: falls from trees, accidentally swung sticks, door-slammed pinkies, etc. She sleeps well and dreams vividly and sometimes is sorry that dawn has come—not because she doesn’t anticipate the day ahead, but because the dream is a shame to leave.





The light of the carousel is not kind. It’s the kind of light you’d expect in a dentist’s office, not searing down onto the fantastical hoop of painted ponies bobbing on brass poles and delighted, red-nosed toddlers. It seems that every carousel I’ve ever seen has one sleigh on it—a flat bench that might fit a small family, just in case someone not able or willing to scramble up the slick plastic side of a horse wanted aboard. I stand between two ponies, my palms on the lower backs of my son and his friend. We are directly behind the sleigh. After the first couple of revolutions, a few dozen squeals of joy from my kiddo and the dozens around us, I finally notice the woman on the sleigh. She’s wide, white-haired, somewhere amid a rocky seventy-something years. Her jacket is cheap flannel and a dusting of what might be flour rides her right shoulder. Her hair has segregated itself into greasy clumps. At her side are the rumpled, hard-held bags responsible for the ugly title that pops in my mind as flashbulbs pop around us: bag lady. She crosses one leg over the other and leans back, her slab of worn face aimed out into the night, over the heads of all the whooping, waving parents. No matter what scape the carousel presents her with—damp wall of a department store, squads of bike cops massing for an impending protest, the sixty-foot Evergreen the mall has garishly decorated, even Macy’s brilliant North Star—her expression never shifts, nor does her gaze. She takes what she’s presented with, every once in a while lifting a thick, ragged thumbnail to her teeth. She’s spent three dollars for this sleigh on this carousel. She’s spent three dollars to go around and around wrapped in cruel light with children’s laughter spilling around her. The thought that she represents the inverse of childhood, of joy feels ugly, but there it is. Maybe the carousel is a reminder to her of a long-lost child—her own, or herself. Maybe her cloudy eyes are seeing something after all. She’s a reminder, maybe, to us young parents to not just let ourselves and our children be carried round and round and round until all we are left with, like her, is memory.