Posts tagged ‘nonfiction’

“Magic Kingdoms”

Ponca wasn’t saved. The thought sat like a weight on my chest. Grandma didn’t attend church either, but Mom insisted her mother believed; Ponca, my grandpa, was another story. He was a wayward soul – someone we prayed for earnestly as if faith was something that could strike a person from above, like lightening.

Mom credited me with her own salvation. “You brought me to Jesus Christ,” she liked to say. What she meant was that I had come home from my Lutheran kindergarten singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” She claimed that it was the first time she’d really heard and believed the message that Jesus died to save sinners. She’d had no problem identifying herself as a sinner (her grandmother was Southern Baptist), but the belief part had apparently been lacking during all of those years of attending church with my dad, my sister, and me. Once she did believe, she worried about those who didn’t, including her own father.

Her version of heaven was an exclusive country club reserved for those with the correct set of beliefs. I imaged it looked much like our Lutheran church with God wearing white robes and sandals. According to Mom, our Mormon neighbors who followed Joseph Smith’s teachings belonged in the same unsaved category as Ponca. Instead of praying for their souls, Mom harped on the threat they posed. We had to be vigilant, to resist their attempts to convert us. It didn’t occur to me to question her judgment of our neighbors until I was much older, but even as a child I couldn’t believe that God wouldn’t save Ponca.

 

Once my sister Amy and I were old enough, we spent a week each summer with my mother’s parents at their home in Grand Junction, Colorado. Their house sat on a plateau looking across a vast arroyo at the Colorado National Monument. During our visits, we drove to reservoirs, picnic areas, and national parks. If we were on a day trip, Grandma sat next to Ponca on the ivory, vinyl bench in the red Ford pickup and stared at a creased map. From where I sat opposite Amy in the cab, I could see the top of Ponca’s shiny, brown freckled scalp peeking through his oily strands of hair. His nose ascended ruggedly from his face like a geological formation. The nails on his fingers were thick and coarse from years of fieldwork in remote areas surveying land where uranium mining breathed life into tiny towns and years later sucked it back out just as quickly. With one hand on the wheel, Ponca whistled along to Johnny Cash’s crooning from the 8-track player. Periodically, he slowed down and used his free hand to point out patterns of multicolored strata in sandstone.

Nature was Ponca’s cathedral. He spoke about how the earth was formed the way a priest might read Holy Scripture. When I stood with Ponca, Grandma, and Amy under Delicate Arch near Moab, Utah one summer, I felt my own insignificance next to its grand scale. It was the way I was supposed to feel about Jesus dying for my sins.

The summer that I turned 15, my grandparents took Amy and me to California in their RV. With the brown, rust, and gold décor, the vehicle seemed like an extension of their home: a miniature version that included a removable kitchen table that transformed the space into an extra bed. Our route included natural wonders like Lake Tahoe, Monterey Bay, and Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Yet, my grandparents also grasped the need for two teenaged girls to experience a slice of American culture a la Walt Disney. I’m not sure it had ever occurred to my parents that we might enjoy a trip to the Magic Kingdom. If it did, Dad likely weighed the money involved along with the infamous LA traffic and quickly dismissed the idea. Disneyland would have been my mother’s worst nightmare: a crowded venue that was a tribute to Walt Disney, whom she disliked almost as much as the founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith. She had little use for what she considered to be fairytales.

The highlight of our trip to the Magic Kingdom came when I convinced Amy, Grandma, and Ponca to ride It’s A Small World. After the four of us stepped into a boat, we entered the tunnel underneath the clock tower. The displays with mechanical people dressed in costume were larger than life. The kaftan-clad African tribesmen looked nothing like the photographs of native people in my parents’ National Geographic magazines. Sombreros and mariachi music blurred past followed by Hula girls shaking grass skirts. Display after display bombarded me with intense colors, patterns, ensembles, and lyrics sung in different languages to the familiar tune.

Finally dolls representing each culture came into view, clad in white versions of their traditional garb singing English words in unison. When the ride was over, I insisted on taking it two more times. Something about the music invited me in and reassured me that we were all the same regardless of what we looked like on the outside. Despite all of its garishness, the ride celebrated diversity. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, the song “It’s a Small World” contained a similar message, albeit a secular version, of lyrics I’d learned in Sunday school: “He’s got the whole world in His hands” and “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” These were the songs that had shaped my dream of becoming a Christian missionary, like my art teacher in sixth grade who had lived in Papua New Guinea for a decade. As such, I could convert native people before my Book-of-Mormon-totting counterparts got to them. I had no problem thinking of living among strangers in a foreign land and reading the Bible to them, but approaching Ponca was another matter entirely. I loved him just the way he was.

At dusk, we left the park as fireworks exploded above the Magic Kingdom. Traveling north on Coastal Highway 1 in California and through the Sierra Nevada for the remainder of our trip, I heard, though the mountains divide/and the oceans are wide/ It’s a small world after all.

One night at a KOA campground, Grandma climbed up into the mattresses above the cab wearing her nightgown. Amy took the top bunk and I, the lower near the back of the vehicle. Ponca walked past us fully dressed.

“I need to use the John W. Crapper, then I’ll come to bed,” he commented.

“Carl, what will their parents say if they repeat that?” Grandma hollered from atop her perch.

Amy and I giggled. We’d never tell on him. Such moments were our little secrets. Minutes later, Ponca pushed the accordion door open, snapped it in place, and turned off the lights.

“You girls don’t peek,” he instructed as he stripped down to his white undershirt and briefs that glowed in the dark and crawled up into bed next to Grandma.

From my bunk bed, I prayed for Ponca. Only it wasn’t a prayer for him to have faith so much as it was a hope that God had big enough hands to hold us all.

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Wendy Besel Hahn has an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in So To Speak, Front Porch Journal, andThe Chaffey Review. She is a regular contributor for Around Reston. To learn more about her writing, please visit: http://wendybeselhahn.com.

“An Orange Glow”

There was a house at the bottom of a hill by the shore. It was coated in a clotted-cream-colored siding perpetually speckled with dirt.

A sturdy oak sat in the back yard, centered between the off-white vinyl fence and a deck only big enough to fit a white plastic chair, a small sea-glass-encrusted table, and an ashtray.

In the summers, around 11 in the morning, the sun would hit the glass sending waves of color onto the siding. Blues and creamy whites would crash into deep greens to make a color so similar to the ocean.

After rain, my father’s Newport cigarette butts would swirl around like fish in the murky water of that ashtray. I would take my finger and push them around, sometimes naming them, sometimes not. My father watched me once, pick a snubbed wet butt from the pile and raise it to my lips. His grey blue eyes watched as I lifted it to my lips like he always did. The taste was bitter and harsh and filled my tongue with the taste of ash. Tears filled my eyes and ran in hot streams down my cheeks before my father grabbed my wrist between his thumb and pointer finger, tugging me along as I screamed for my mother.

Under the oak they built a sandbox.

Sitting and drinking Yoo-hoos, my sister and I watched my parents carrying buckets of sand across the three blocks from the shoreline, adamant about not paying for Quikrete play sand with real sand so close. Their faces were puffy red as they trudged back and forth filling the pit my father had haphazardly dug. Her chestnut colored curls were tamed in a ponytail but strands still poked out like a chia pet. His balding head, with its horseshoe ring of speckled grey hair, was damp with sweat. They kissed once when they were done, before my father left to go inside, leaving my mother to watch us play. She gave us a soft-sweet smile as we built sandcastles and dug holes to China, clicking her thumb nail between her two front teeth and looking back at the house.

Now, my mother tells me that isn’t what happened. In her stories her hair was pin straight with the strong scent of Just for Me relaxer still clinging to it. My father sits at the sea glass table overseeing through a cloud of cigarette smoke as my mother poured sand. They both sighed when my sister and I started tossing clumps of sand from the box, peppering the pockets of grass and weeds around us. Snubbing his cigarette, my father turned toward the house, tossing one hand up in frustration, and left my mother to watch us play. I like to believe she remembers it wrong.

Inside it was always warm. The walls were coated in pinewood panels that soaked up the daytime sun. Beige carpeting followed you from room to room, the same beige carpeting that has followed me in every home I have had since.

The entryway was worn, showing the heavy trails of feet that were dragged through the front door. It was stained slightly brown and matched the wood grain on the walls. There was clutter. From that day, and the day before, and a month before that. It was crowded with no hiding places.

On the top floor there was a door that led to a loft. The loft was kept bare except for three bay windows facing east and a bench had been covered in pillows and groaned under the weight of two people.

Often, my mother would wake me, quietly, from my bunk bed to watch the sun rise, nestled in the loft. Wrapped in a soft blanket, she rubbed the sleep from my eyes with a soft swipe of her thumb. We never said anything. But we would watch the sun peak over the horizon till everything coated in an orange glow.

As the sun cleared the shoreline my mother would kiss my forehead, tuck a blonde curl behind my ear and sneak us both back into bed.

My mother tells me now I can’t remember that house or the sunrises. What three year-old could? She reminds me I don’t recall the fighting on the nights that she took me from my bed. The way she trembled from either sadness or anger as she gathered me in her arms. How she would whisper to herself that the new house would be better, that we would be happy there. That things would change.

When I was nearly four we moved three blocks away into a house that was a bastardized mix of Victorian and Colonial style. The yard was bigger and had no oak or sandpit, but we all had our own rooms to escape into. It was painted a sea foam green that resembled no ocean Inearly four we moved three blocks away into a house that was a bastardized mix of Victorian and Colonia would go years without watching the sun rise together.

On the fourth floor there was a tiny window in our bathroom that faced westward enough to see those three bay windows. Inside, the bathroom had a sandy brown tiled wall that mixed with a cloudy sky mural that had already started to chip. I remember stealing a stool from the hallway closet to watch new families when they moved in. I could see the Harrises move in with their dog, and the Olsens a year later with their new baby. No one stayed for long–three families in four years, in fact. I liked to think we left our stain there, that somehow the new family could see our faces in the wood paneling, hear us as the house groaned when the heat kicked on. We were trapped in the walls.

One night, when I was almost six, my mother snuck me out of my room as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Her grip on me was tight as she strained to lift me high enough to see over the white windowsill. The skin of my thigh was pinched between her ring and middle fingers as she shifted me so I could see the orange glow was a fire.

Glass cracked, wood splintered and sirens clanged as whips of orange light rose from our old bay windows three blocks over.

The flames were bright and stung my eyes as I stared into them. My mother was tense holding me, her breath shallow but constant.

When it was done, and our old home was left steaming and crumbled, my mother carried me to my room without a word before tucking me back into bed.

Now, my mother tells me I remember it wrong, that together we watched the flames burning from that tiny window, my fingers tangled in her curled hair, tugging on the strands till she winced. She gave me a small-sweet smile, the same I remember getting that day in the sandbox, as I took her strands and wiped them across her cheeks for forgiveness.

I like my memory better. The one where she kissed me, no tears in her eyes, and smiled as she tucked me into bed, before leaving me in the blue black light of morning.

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Stephanie Bills is a Baltimore-based writer/photographer/blogger. She is a recent graduate of Baltimore University’s MFA program. She would also like to remind everyone that she can quote Top Gun better than you and all your friends.

“To Love Him”

Tesia’s eyes were like a fly, bold and alert from the expression on my face. I had never heard my mom cry before. She was a strong woman, sometimes scary, and she commanded the house without question. So, as I sat across from Tesia silent with the phone to my ear, I was more in shock from my mother’s gurgled words than what she actually told me. I got up, phone still to my ear, and shoved my notebooks from the table into my bag.

Andrew hurry. The click of the phone was frantic.

“What’s going on?” Tesia asked, the stick of her DumDum swirling across her lips.

“I gotta go,” I said, adjusting my jacket. I wondered if the guilt I felt was plastered on my face. Either way, her embrace was comforting, and while I waited for my older brother Chris to leave his class, I had never felt more in need of consolation. His door slammed, and the frustration on his face was obvious. His soft hazel eyes juxtaposed the deep canyon crease in his forehead, arms tightly crossed.

“Dude, what the fuck? I just failed my quiz.” Chris and I were always taught failure is not an option; A’s are not a choice. Maybe he’ll understand.

“Ryan’s been in an accident,” I say.

“What kind of accident?” he said, arms uncomfortably dropping to his sides.

“The kind that ends at the hospital.”

 

When our Ford Focus whipped out of the Chaffey College parking lot, Chris’s eyes only left the road to check the clock on the dashboard. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it too. Is mom timing us? It’s already been twenty minutes since I hung up the phone, and we are only passing the 15. “It’ll be at least another thirty before we reach Loma Linda. Tell her that.” The red taillights in front of us paced themselves, and while Chris’ grip on the steering wheel grew tighter from nervousness, my seatbelt reminded me of Tesia’s hug, her hands patting my back as if to say it’s ok, you didn’t know.

“Dude, she was crying,” I said. His eyes widened from surprise. I suspected his reaction was the face I made when I heard mom stumble over her words for the first time.

“And she didn’t tell you what happened?”

“ No. Just…” I couldn’t wrap my head around anything she told me. “Just to come to the ER at Loma Linda.” I felt irresponsible for not remembering. I knew keeping quiet was easier; he couldn’t judge me for my apathy. Chris was always hard to gauge. He was as distant to Ryan as I was, but if he received the call first, Chris, the rebel, worldly and relatable, would have turned into Superman and drifted across the sky like a lens flare to meet my parents in the lobby.

Ryan was always in his own world. When Chris and I would be up late studying for finals to top off another 4.0 semester, he was watching reruns of SpongeBob. While we were seventeen and twenty touring overseas under a record deal, he was fourteen, flooding the front yard watching the intricacies of the flowing water stream down the sidewalk. Everyday, he waited by the mailbox for hours to talk to neighbors about whose Christmas decorations were still up in April or how late the mail women was today.

It was never his fault. He was born that way, but I chose to accept it rather than understand it. As the car jolted with every acceleration of traffic, the shame in my stomach that usually dissolved in the acid only cut deeper on the long drive to the hospital.

 

The ER smelled like dry blood and rubber. People lined up cramped along the walls in wheel chairs and on gurneys. They all looked dazed, glossed over eyes never meeting mine. We ran up to the women behind the desk, idly typing away. She didn’t have any fucks left to give.

“Hi, we are here for Ryan Eames,” Chris said. “He been admitted to the ER.”

She skimmed her computer screen and looked up at us, her screen glaring across her glasses. “Down the hall, make a left.” She handed us stickers with the words guest on it. “Here.” The tone of her voice was deep, unmoved by the chaos around her. She was used to the rubber and blood. No matter how we left, she wouldn’t remember us, and I’d never felt so insignificant.

“Thanks.” Chris grabbed them, handed me one, and rushed down the hall. I followed behind, eying a drugged teenager on a gurney with his leg in a cast. He breathed so quietly, drowning out the cries and screams around the corner. When I passed him, he stared blankly at the wall. It didn’t matter if his eyes were open, everything was a jungle he turned his back to, and I was just another strange tree.

“Andrew, you made it.” My grandma’s crackled voice grabbed my attention, and as I collided into her one-armed embrace, I could tell she had been crying. “Your mom called, and oh God, Ryan…he just didn’t pay attention.”

“Did you see him, Gram Cracker?” I asked.

“No, but they’re all in there; Papa too,” she replied while pointing her good arm to the wall behind her. “I saw Chris came too. That’s good. He needs you both.”

“I know.”

I told her I’d be back to keep her company once I let everyone know I arrived. I was unclear if I said that to keep her company as Papa, the veteran, stood knee-deep in the action, or if I just couldn’t handle what was on the other side of that wall.

When I let go of her hand, I rounded the corner and saw my mom, grandfather, and Chris on one side of a room separated by a curtain. I stepped in.

“You’ll be ok Ryan,” Papa said to the back side of the curtain.

As I stepped further in the room, I saw Ryan’s weathered down Vans sticking off the edge of a gurney. They twitched incessantly. As my mom turned her head as a gut reaction to Ryan’s scream, she saw me and wiped her tears.

“Ryan, Andrew’s here too.” She motioned me to come closer, and I cautiously obliged. With each of my steps, I saw more of Ryan. He was unmistakable. His tanned legs squirmed, covered in hair and dirt from the showers he never took, and his ratted brown shorts he wore all summer were torn, as if a velociraptor has chased him down.

“Un-dwoo.” My named slurred from his mouth. I took my last step and looked up at his face the surgeon was sewing together.

His face was split down the middle horizontally. His top lip laid limp like a torn flag, separated into two halves beneath the base of his nose. The bridge of his nose, once round like a parrot beak, was flat as if the earth grated it down like it was nothing. He extended his bloody hand to me, shaking from the weight of his arm.

I grabbed his hand in mine, as my father held his other. I never touched his hand before. It was so coarse, from the sprinklers he dug out of the ground and weeds he pulled. And when he gripped my hand harder, still shaking, I wondered if my father noticed the same things.

“Yuh hewa Un-dwoo,” he said. His brown eyes were splattered red from his river tears, and as I stood in the ER, holding his nubby fingers in my palm, I was Simon of Cyrene, helping Ryan carry his cross. The mountain he faced felt so large, and all I could do was ease the burden of his climb. And beneath his blood-soaked hair, he didn’t remember all the times I wasn’t there; he only lived in the moment. This was the first time I saw my little brother, an extension of me, my blood across his disfigured face.

“Yes, I’m here Ryan,” I choked.

“Big brothers always come to rescue their little brothers,” the surgeon said beneath his mask. “Now, I’m going to give you another dose of anesthesia before I put your lips together, ok big man?

“Nuh shouts. Nuh. Nuh.” Ryan tried to shake his head, but all he could was clamp down on my hand.

“I have to give you a shot, big man. It’ll make you feel better.”

It wasn’t the surgeon’s fault. He couldn’t have known. The autism wasn’t as obvious as his lips. Shot was a bad word. Like fuck. To him, the surgical needle was less scary than the injection needle because when the doctor said stitch, Ryan thought of Disney Channel.

The surgeon turned to my father who stood unwavering in Ryan’s grip with a worried look in his eyes. “Sir, he’s eighteen. I don’t need parental consent to not prescribe the anesthesia, but, I’m asking if you’d like me to continue.”

My father nodded.

As the surgeon looped the needle through Ryan’s flesh, his body flailed like a drunken seagull. I never saw him react to pain before. When my mom noticed Ryan had sliced his hand as a child, he hid it in his pocket until his entire pant leg was bloodied and stained. He was afraid he would get in trouble. Like always. He stomached pain like an alcoholic. But here, beneath the white lights and his terrified audience, Ryan made it very apparent ever prick of the pinpoint hurt.

“Da-ee! Da-ee!”

“I’m here,” my father responded. “Daddy’s here.”

Every time the needle entered his lip, he screamed like clockwork.

“Da-ee!”

And like clockwork, my father responded, “I’m here.” Even he, the man of men, patriarch of my life, let his tears puddle on the floor.

We stood in a semi-circle around the operation, trying to soothe his pain, his aches, the hurt he finally felt comfortable showing, because everyone in the room remembered that his body was eighteen, but his mind was seven. This was a child covered in the body of a man.

For the first time, I wanted to hug him. To love him. The love that I never gave him. I wanted to go back in time and jump between his face and the pavement he slammed into at forty miles a hour on his bike. I wanted to be his helmet. But I couldn’t. I was just a brother’s hand.

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Jac Manfield is a published poet and fiction writer based in Southern California. In addition to being an internationally published songwriter, he is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Jac’s latest project is a collection of short fiction titled “Anguish: A Collection of Short Stories.