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Animals Saved Me
by Richard Gilbert

First Place, Creative Nonfiction Prize

1994, Indiana

My aged Labrador Retriever is dying, and I’ve come into the garage this Saturday morning to check on her. Tess has been declining for some time—I can admit that now. She’s been sleeping more and moving stiffly. When she quit eating and took to bed, I couldn’t deny her aging any longer because, undeniably, her time itself had come. She’s not even whimpering, but animals don’t dwell: they deal. And so, intentionally or in effect, they hide their pain. Anyway, I can’t let her slowly starve or die of dehydration. It’s on my shoulders to call an end to Tess’s suffering, and I have. Our veterinarian will euthanize Tess on Monday.

Tess retreated a few days ago to her thick cushion out here in our quiet attached garage; her nest is beneath the wooden stairs into the house. “Hey, Tess,” I say, squatting to pet her. She raises her head an inch from her green canvas pillow, and tries to thrust her snout forward; her tail stirs but doesn’t thump. Flies lift from her rusty black coat. Flies have found her—though it’s still spring, barely May, not even June, and cool. Our vet thinks she has extensive, advanced cancer. She’s thirteen years and four months old, a good age for a Lab. But too early, of course, for me.

I hear a car crunching up our gravel driveway, and I raise the garage door to see my wife’s coworker Rebecca approaching in her soccer-mom van. She parks in the driveway and waves, and we walk together to our front door. Halfway up the gentle paved incline, she stops and says, “Oh! How’s Tess doing? Kathy said she’s sick.”

“Not good. She’s not even drinking now. She’s staying in the garage.” I gesture to the open bay.

“Is she going to be okay?”

“No. I mean, she’s dying, Beck. Tess is an old dog. Old for a big dog, anyway.” A sound stops me—Tess barking from the garage. Hearing my voice, she’s barking. She’s calling me even though I just left her—maybe because I said her name—and it’s a gut punch. She hears me and needs me.

“It’s okay, Tess! I’m right here.”

“So what are you going to do? Have her put down?” Rebecca’s tone and the intent way she’s peering at me make me uneasy. She’s searching my eyes, her own eyes bright and intense, her head tilted solicitously to one side, her expression pert and greedy as a monkey’s. Her avid curiosity feels unseemly.

“Yes. Monday. I want to spend some time with her today and tomorrow. Then that last trip to the vet’s—”

“I may have to do that with Glad,” Rebecca says, referring to her family’s Rottweiler.

Glad? What’s wrong with her?” I picture Glad: thick, doggy, strong as an ox—if not in the prime of her life, not far past its midpoint. She seems gentle with Rebecca’s three young children, and beloved by her oldest, Melissa. I’d never liked the looks of Rottweilers, probably influenced by their fierce roles in movies, but she’s like a big nonchalant hound and won me over.

“Yeah, she’s getting impatient with the kids. She could bite someone.”

“I guess you know your dog. But I’m surprised.”

“Anyway,” she continues, glancing across our flowerbed, the late daffodil varieties still blooming, “we need a smaller dog. Missy and I have been studying breeds. We really like the Cavalier King Charles spaniel.”

Rebecca once mentioned her childhood obsession with dogs and how she’d memorized every breed. I also recall her saying she’d had to euthanize their previous dog, just before they got Glad six or seven years ago; how she’d carefully researched a replacement, or maybe said she’d always wanted a Rottweiler, a breed on her childhood list. Something about her story had sounded odd then. Now I know.

I’ve loved an array of animals since boyhood and aspire to become a farmer—I keep laying hens, supply eggs to an organic store, raise and butcher broiler chickens, and sell some of the meat to neighbors; I’m trying to act professionally in my new realm, not overly sentimental even about pets. But I love dogs, and dogs, like horses, are essentially sacred animals in our culture. Dogs are also possessions, though: short of inflicting outrageous public cruelty on them, owners hold their lives in their hands. I know some animal rights activists might view me as equally callous, since they consider animal agriculture mass murder and liken pets to slaves. My contrary sense stems partly from humans’ coevolution with dogs, cats, chickens, and livestock. But it’s not history or logic that tells me in my bones they’re wrong—it’s love.

I hand off Rebecca to Kathy and walk down the sidewalk in the mild sunshine and into the dim garage where Tess waits. We’ve had a good run together, and sometime this weekend I plan to tell her so. I’ll thank her. The span of Tess’s life, I’m surprised to see, has taken me from late youth into early middle age. I recall what Mom said last Thanksgiving, watching Tess jerk herself across the family room: “Tess has gotten old. She doesn’t have much time.”

“Oh, she’s okay,” I’d said. “She has arthritis in her shoulders from playing Frisbee. I probably need to get her on an anti-inflammatory.”

Mom didn’t argue—she saw what I couldn’t see. As on one of her previous visits when she’d told me, “You’ll never put your heart into another place like you have this one,” and I’d just looked at her. I wonder now if she sensed that the passion Kathy and I were expressing in and around our home, in an outpouring of projects and purchases, carried a seed of restlessness.

~

I’ll learn, in the decades ahead, it will be easy enough to remember my happiest days: the six years we’ll live here in the white colonial-style faux farmhouse Kathy and I built on eight-and-a-half acres just over a mile from the cute downtown square of Bloomington, Indiana. A fortuitous alignment of hard work and lucky timing has taken us far. Not just materially but emotionally.

Our two kids, Claire and Tom, need me. I’m busy at the publishing house where I work, and I write a popular gardening column for the local newspaper, where once I’d been a star reporter. Kathy is ascending at Indiana University, already promoted from professor to department chair. The kids attend a new elementary school built on our road. I take them camping on our land, and we fish and swim in our own pond, an acre of blue water behind our dream house. (Tess, already eight years old when we moved here, in 1989, swims too, snorting with effort as she circles us as we wade, tread water, or glide in a canoe, and the kids laugh as I yell, “Look at that big old black water rat!”) Kathy and I have busy weeks and we race around, working and running errands; we discuss squeezing in a vacation; we’ve lost ourselves in our busy lives. In landscaping that echoes our starter house, I’ve placed a pin oak in front of our manse, to shade it from the western sun. A windbreak of pines we planted as seedlings now stands twelve feet tall in rows across our homestead’s western and northern borders, a green embrace.

We’d owned the land for several years before building, and we’d planted and planned. We had the pond dug. One day soon after our house was finished, I ordered Tess to sit before my orange tractor outside the garage and I took a photo, which I tucked into a thickening album labeled “The Farm.” Now every summer I grow a patch of vegetables, and, all around us, flowers. During our first summers here, two moments—of grace? consciousness?—sink into my soul. Holding Tom in a wooden rocking chair, I sing him bedtime lullabies, his warm heft in blue footie jammies soft against my chest, and I gaze out his window at the neighbor’s two horses grazing in the long Indiana dusk. Another night, on my way to my own bed, I step into Claire’s room beside her sleeping form and am riveted by the sight of the pond glowing in her double windows: lit silver by a full moon, the crescent of water shimmers as bursts of light flash across its luminescent surface.

Mom’s visits can turn tense, since she yearns to discipline Claire, our oldest child, whom she views as needing to be taken down a notch. A sore point with me, since I feel she was destructively harsh to me as a boy; her strategy of breaking her children, through whippings and shaming, seems at best superfluous when insecurity is already the human lot. Once, shortly after she’d arrived here from her home in Florida, I found her staring at Claire, who was prattling before her on a couch—Mom looked, with her coldly fixed green eyes and still pose, like a snake about to strike a clueless mouse—and I intervened with some distraction. In another decade, I’ll overhear Mom begin to analyze her mother with one of her siblings. How, when they were growing up in backwater Atoka, Oklahoma, during the Depression, she showed affection only to one of her ten children, the first, a cherished son. How she treated the others indifferently. And probably, based on how Mom raised me, disapprovingly. My clearest memory of Grandmother is of her examining me with her dark eyes as I sulked.

Our harmonics still clash—Mom gets huffy, I get prickly—but we possess affinities, too. I’m the only one of her four children who shares her affection for books and chickens. And a few years ago, as we drove in Bloomington, she bestowed a surprising blessing. “You’re a good father,” she told me. “All you boys are. You didn’t have a good example. Your Daddy wasn’t—he didn’t take the time. But you’re good fathers.” Mom, so tough, actually marveled.

Because I’m happy, her sketchy performance as a grandmother rolls off my back. I see now, so many years later, that my happiness is why I didn’t become angry at her in that incident with Claire. (Mom saw my happiness then, of course.) In another life, when I was unhappy but didn’t know that, either, Mom gave me Tess. When she remarked on Tess’s decline, I wonder if she remembered that bright spring day, thirteen years before. I wonder at my blindness—Tess was on her last legs. Mom had handed me a cue to see and affirm that simple truth. We might have lingered, and I might’ve told her all that Tess had meant to me. Except Tess’s story wasn’t over yet, not to me; I couldn’t even imagine it would end. When Mom comes, once or twice a year, it’s celebratory, and maybe I don’t want reality to intervene.

Cooking is how Mom expresses love. This phase of life and of my relationship with her becomes crystallized in one memory. I’m with her and my little family around our antique oak table, where we’d eaten her standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes. On this mild evening, overlooking our pond from our bay-windowed breakfast nook, Tess gnawing a bone nearby on the family room rug, our bellies full after Mom’s feast, we’re playing cards and laughing.

~

That Monday I drove to our veterinarian’s, looking blankly at trees, lawns, strip malls. Our vet walked out to the parking lot and I opened the rear door of our Mazda van. Tess lay in the luggage compartment where I’d placed her on a blanket. Her muzzle was white; her black coat was dull; her expression, always kind, was weary. The vet gave her a shot in a foreleg and the light fled her brown eyes. She went so fast.

I buried her on the far side of the pond in a grove of river birch, and planted a clump of daffodils in the raw dirt. Later, standing there, Claire, age eight, cries and Tom, five, looks pained. “Let’s make a cross,” I say, and we do. I assemble it in the basement, and there we paint it in rainbow colors: aqua sky, green trees, yellow flowers. I wonder about our Methodist church’s position on using this sacred symbol to honor a dog, and decide I don’t care. I must do something for the kids, from whom I hid Tess’s death and burial, thinking those would be too wrenching. (A mistake, in retrospect—Claire, as an adult, feels I cheated her out of a chance to say goodbye, which makes me realize I’d probably been trying to shield myself from her emotion.) Our graveside commemoration feels necessary, even profound, in honoring our feelings of gratitude and loss. As long as we live here, which I don’t know will be for only two more years, this colorful cross, screwed together from scrap boards, marks Tess’s grave.

With her death, for the first time in years I think of our first days together. I see myself as a young reporter in Florida, a skinny guy with hair like Elvis, cuddling his new puppy and beaming. When she’d run to me to give and receive love, Tess didn’t know to stop—I’d squat and call her, and get knocked on my butt, laughing, with Tess suddenly in my arms, licking my chin. Sometimes, at bedtime, I’d forget to put Tess in her crate before turning out the light and climbing into my own bed, and in the sudden darkness, the black puppy was like an iron cannonball streaking invisibly at my shins, coming hard and fast and low across my bedroom floor.

I regret my last photograph of her, in our family room here. Aiming the camera at Tom, I caught only her hindquarters in the background, accidentally, as she moved unnoticed out of the frame. As our children grew, Tess had moved to my periphery. She’d stood front and center with me for but a few years, finally shuffling to the edge of a stage grown larger than I’d dreamed possible. Increasingly, she’d lived more in Claire and Tom’s world than in mine. Their gentle panting overweight buddy. Seventy-two pounds of love. She was their first animal friend, and their first incomprehensible loss. My own stunned realization at Tess’s graveside: how fast not just canine but human lives pass. I’ll struggle to remember that insight, but what I know forever is that when you encounter an aged dog, you regard a walking vestige of someone’s former life. You see an old dream. Explaining to others the nature of that dream, let alone grasping it yourself, isn’t simple. I had a dog and then she died. There’s the basic plot, which lacks explanatory power. Knowing anything worthwhile about that event sequence takes knowing the meaning of “I” and “had” and “then.”

A dog’s death, like a human’s, throws you into the past’s jumbled narratives. Into considering a story’s beginning, middle, and end. You flash through phases, arriving at last where you stand. I was a young 26 when Tess entered my life, changing it; I was 39, a different man in different shoes, when she exited. Standing there beside Claire and Tom at Tess’s grave, I felt chastened and soberly aware, stilled for an instant in the onrush of time.

 

1983, Indiana

Kathy and I bought our first house, a tidy limestone ranch, 1,100 square feet, in an old development beside Bloomington’s bypass at the point where you could see, across the way, the football stadium. We’d briefly rented a log cabin on the edge of town, but this house felt permanent. A widow who’d built it with her husband had lived there alone once he passed, and then she’d died. Dusty spirea shrubs stood in a row along its back wall; the house’s picture window framed a lofty pin oak out front; hoary spinach-colored junipers sprawled along the blacktopped driveway.

Almost an acre of lawn sloped to the road, and I’d walk out past the oak with Tess, her tail raised and thrashing, and hurl a blue Frisbee toward a quince bush on our lot’s far corner. Tess ran flat-out away from me and caught the disk over her shoulder in a flying leap, like a wide receiver snagging a Hail Mary pass downfield. Somehow we’d worked out our timing. With the Frisbee captured in a decisive snap, she’d let her momentum carry her into an easy circling lope, her head nodding like a horse’s as she returned.

Every afternoon I drove my tan Mazda pickup an hour north to my job, on the night copy desk of the Indianapolis Star. A red and white Igloo lunch bucket jiggled on the seat beside me. I was learning the names of northern trees and shrubs. Weekends were for projects. Kathy and I rented a machine and blew shredded newspaper insulation into the house’s cramped attic. We rolled milky white paint onto its dry plaster walls—the bitter smell of latex paint still brings me back to that low ranch on Saville Street. The weather was clear and arid that August, autumnal; the baked clay soil cracked an inch wide in spots. Our first cat, Natalie, a gray tabby runaway who had adopted us, hunted the chipmunks that overran the yard. Inside, under the widow’s thick green wall-to-wall carpeting and its crumbling red waffled backing, we found hardwood floors; we staggered under the heavy rolls of carpet and padding, aiming for the bed of my truck. Everything was new each timeless sun-struck hour. Lingering in bed on a weekend, we felt the morning’s cool breath die in the hot blue windless afternoon.

If I want to see the face of young love, I have only to review photographs of us then. In almost every one, we’re embracing and grinning, or kissing. In our wedding picture that fall, taken by a friend of Kathy’s, we kneel in lush ryegrass I’d planted in the garden plot behind our house to enrich the soil. I’m between my wife and my dog, one arm around Kathy’s waist, over her red sweater, and the other draped over Tess’s glossy black shoulders. We’re smiling, and Tess, in this odd situation—summoned into the garden, told to sit with us facing a stranger—appears meek, abashed, lovable.

With Tess, we’d felt instantly like a family. I liked Kathy having her own relationship with Tess. It pleased me to see her kind interactions with my dog; though more reserved than I was, with my Frisbee, my commands, my jokey exhortations, Kathy had also become Tess’s master. In her brisk maternal way, it felt as if Kathy had adopted my child from a previous marriage. Which, in a sense, she had.

~

How well humans remember beginnings and endings. We can bookend an era easily, but middles blur, not shiny new, not dramatically or at least unmistakably over. I was 28 and Tess was two when we moved with Kathy to Bloomington. It felt as if my life had at last begun. Driving a U-Haul into that busy, prosperous town, I recall thinking The spinning threads of my being can wrap and hold fast here. That grandiose metaphor turned out to be true. But I struggled and failed to grasp the chasm between then and now—an eye blink before, I’d been a footloose journalist in Georgia and Florida, jumping to a bigger newspaper every year.

What I couldn’t see in this glorious new start, on an otherwise forgotten day in June 1983, was that Tess and I had entered our Middle Period. Which quickly became subsumed in a succession of momentous firsts with Kathy. When we bought the faded house on Saville Street, my only asset to contribute to its purchase was my name. Tess had already made her contribution, as my companion in courting this tall brunette with the big smile. Kathy took it from there. It being me. She took me from there. And if that sounds passive, I had gambled my future on her. Instead of returning to my good job on the Orlando Sentinel, after a fellowship year at Ohio State University where we’d met, here I stood beside her, with Tess. I’d followed her first to Carbondale, Illinois, where I’d worked for eight months on a little newspaper and bought my little truck, and then on to Bloomington. And though we hadn’t yet married, and I was broke, Kathy expressed her faith in me by having me co-sign our deed. I’m awed by this now, though it seemed only natural, if magnanimous, then. A sense of my humility lingers, part of my larger wonder that we’d become a couple. In my recollection, I left this unspoken. Maybe the past burns away such connective tissue from memory, like a dream that starts without preamble. But if I could go back in time, I’d order my younger self to take Kathy by the hands, look into her brown eyes, and pour out his love. She’d plucked me from oblivion. Maybe I knew then, as now, I’d end up bawling. I had written her letters and poems. Anyway, I possess photographic evidence of my devotion: all those hugs and kisses.

When I’d taken Kathy home from Carbondale to meet my parents for the first time, I’d gotten embarrassed in front of my mother by my constant displays of affection toward Kathy. I wasn’t just holding her hand—if my arm wasn’t gripping her waist, I was squeezing her shoulder or rubbing her back. “I can’t stop touching her,” I actually said to Mom in a shy mumble. “I know,” she said. “I’m afraid you’re going to grab me by mistake.” The story I prefer to tell about that historic visit involves Dad dragging out his prep-school yearbooks to show Kathy, and Mom sitting her down at the breakfast table to inquire about her family. Such major endorsements—they’d basically ignored, as politely as possible, previous women. During Mom’s friendly grilling of Kathy, I could see she identified with Kathy’s large, hard-working family, prominent in their farm town. Mom sat leaning forward and smiling, her compact frame and frosted blonde hairdo contrasting with Kathy’s height and loose brown hair. With Kathy nervous in the spotlight, I kept handing her bits of Mom’s famous oven toast, bread coated with butter and crisped to an explosive crunch. For years I joked that I’d fed Kathy eight pieces during her interrogation, until my exaggeration became our remembered truth.

Maybe astonishment at one’s unremarkable past is a facet of adulthood best left unremarked. Yet it does seem remarkable to me that the following year, now over thirty summers gone, we drove my subcompact pickup truck to Florida from Indiana to see my parents again. Visiting them, apparently, was what we’d do each summer. (No need to board Tess this time: she came with us, in the bed of my truck, under an aluminum topper.) Kathy’s parents had died young, and while I had no sense mine would ever pass away, I craved their knowing Kathy. I wanted to share our romance, I suppose, and to receive their blessing. Besides, though we had little free time, we had even less money, and visiting was cheap. So we left our limestone ranch on its rise and headed south. Upon reaching Georgia, we took back roads through the state’s western side, which eventually brought us to my favorite uncle’s home. After our overnight there, as we departed on the last leg of our trip, a drive of eight hours, my aunt handed us a dozen sandwiches, mostly meatloaf. Another endorsement of Kathy—an effusive one, though perishable.

As we followed our scenic route, we shared our bounty with Tess, handing her sandwiches, moist with mayonnaise and fragrant with onion, through the matching pair of sliding-glass windows in the truck’s cab and its topper.

~

Two years later, in May 1986, we drove home from the hospital with our newborn daughter. We got Claire inside just ahead of a violent thunderstorm. My five-foot-two mother, commanding our tiny kitchen, whipped up a late breakfast. Amid the aroma of buttermilk biscuits, Mom stirred spicy sausage gravy with a wooden spoon; our lunch of pinto beans with smoked ham hocks was already simmering. Tess stood below, hoping for spills.

Having left the Indianapolis Star’s night copy desk for more regular hours as a reporter in Bloomington, that winter I had time to hunt grouse with Tess. Cradling a heavy shotgun, I slogged through rough terrain for hour after hour, walking until my feet and hips burned, watching Tess quarter. During two hunting seasons, the only grouse we ever saw flushed out of range because I didn’t trust Tess’s nose—it had been too long since we’d chased birds. Head down, her snout buried in weeds, she sniffed frantically and her tense body ponged, her tail blurring in a furious lateral arc. She was making game! She was almost atop a bird! That became clear as a grouse rocketed away at 70 miles an hour, borne upon its own startling noise, the sound of a giant shuffling his deck of stiff cards.

I’d trained Tess to hunt, when she was a pup in Florida, by triggering and encouraging her instincts. First, I’d thrown training bumpers, tubes of white plastic, encouraging her to fetch, and later I tucked live homing pigeons in the grass to teach her to find birds. I taught her to swim in the brackish Indian River a block from where I was living, and started throwing her bumper into the water. I’d make her sit beside me as it splashed down, and then I’d thrust out a rigid hand and yell “Back!” The code in her DNA for hunting and retrieving exploded—how thrilling to see Tess hit the water in flying leaps after our plastic prey.

Four years before that grouse—ancient history—I’d shot a pheasant cock over Tess at my professor’s farm in Michigan; I’d packed him in ice and driven to Carbondale to cook him for Kathy. Even then, with my outdoorsy dream manifest, I suspected I’d rather raise and tend birds than thrash through freezing bogs trying to kill them. But there was the appeal of a working dog as a special sort of friend, a sentiment perhaps stemming from my most basic affinity, for animals themselves. This love dawned with my memory, on a farm in Georgia, and continued after my family moved to Florida. There I stood one night, at age nine, weeping and pleading for a dog before Dad. And after his assent, Mom found us one, a sullen beagle named Dolly, who refused to obey or learn tricks and who wouldn’t even lick me. Atop the dressers in my bedroom stood bubbling aquariums full of fish or pressed into silent service as terrariums for snakes I’d caught. “You’re really tuned in to animals,” Kathy once remarked, when I was raising a batch of ducklings for our pond. “You see what’s going on with them, what they need.”

“Animals,” she added, “were how you related to your parents. They were your bond. Animals saved you.” She referred to the affection Dad and I shared for his cattle in Georgia; to my blue parakeet Hattie, surely a gift from Mom, chattering in our farmhouse kitchen; to his and my laughter in Florida, years later, when Dolly’s grudging pleasure over getting belly rubs embarrassed her; to my adolescence when he got me some ducks. And how, after I hatched their eggs in an incubator in my bedroom, Mom taught me to supplement their mash with hard-boiled egg and bits of dry oatmeal.

Good memories, the usual, and then something earlier surfaced. Once, a flock of birds flew into the big windows of the Grants discount store in our Space Coast boomtown, Satellite Beach. They were sparrows or finches, dusky olive-brown with a slash of clear yellow on their upper breasts. Anyway that’s how I picture them, the scads of slight birds dotting the green concrete sidewalk. Maybe a storm had blown them in from the sea, just across Highway A1A from the store, and they’d veered into the lighted glass. Many were stunned, not dead. Mom saw that, darted into Grants, and bought a birdcage. We stuffed woozy birds inside, and took them home as pets. Soon we turned them loose, as they never settled down and, in our greed, we’d collected too many, but the incident amuses me. So earthy, so Mom. In front of Grants, a store selling parakeets and canaries, free birds!

~

Kathy delivered Tom on a blue and gold October morning in 1988. By then, photos of Claire often included Tess, who stood patiently as Claire stuck hats on her head or wrestled dresses over her hindquarters. A year after Tom’s arrival, we began building our dream house on the remnant of a forty-acre farm. Our little limestone ranch sold surprisingly fast, and the new owners wanted immediate possession. Kathy found a rental on the other side of the university, a board-and-batten cracker box with a fringe of brick façade below its picture window. Our temporary neighborhood was thick with other houses hard-used by generations of graduate students.

As we moved in, our nearest neighbors, two guys who had added onto their own modest house and heavily landscaped their yard, stared and turned away. Another messy family with bratty kids and a crazy dog, I imagined them thinking. Later, I saw one of them standing at the curb in front of our trash and recyclables, hands on hips, furiously shaking his head—apparently I’d placed our refuse on the wrong side of our driveway, too close to their property line. They favored Labradors themselves and owned two yellow males, the chunky show type. “Is she spayed?” one of them demanded over the fence about Tess. Their dogs were neutered, so the issue wasn’t relevant, just a judgment about our trashy dog and, by extension, our low-rent lives. They hustled their dogs inside whenever Tess entered our backyard.

Having a dog exposes you in the way having a child does. Or having a mate. Or relatives. Or anyone, really. You want your beloved to escape wobbles like the ones that shaped your own trajectory. You try to teach a pup or a kid; to support your partner; to get along with family members. But your bond makes you see others’ judgments about this entity orbiting you so closely. Vulnerability can hit with a pang. That’s just the fine print you hadn’t noticed about love.

In storage with most of our possessions was a painting of Tess, which today hangs on a walnut-paneled wall of our TV room in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. My older sister, Meg, commissioned the portrait from an artist and got Kathy to sneak some of my photographs. So many years later, I look up at Tess looking out, wearing her red nylon adolescent collar, her eyes alert and calmly concerned, her ears cocked to hear my wish. Under her painted gaze, I prepare to weatherproof her leash, a strap of brown leather, now 35 years old, with shallow scars and thin cracks in its dark surface. Only half an inch wide and a quarter-inch thick, its edges tapered and beveled round, the leash feels good to hold. I squeeze it lying limp and velvety in my palm. That first winter in Carbondale with Kathy, I pored over a small glossy catalog, debating lengths, widths, colors. I picked this six-footer made from a single piece of cowhide; instead of using steel pins to secure loops for a human hand at one end and for the collar snap at the other, its maker cut slits and cinched it back on itself and, above the snap, formed neat braids. I selected a matching leather collar, to replace the red one Tess had outgrown, and although the collar is long gone, her leash has served three successor dogs. Along its length I massage Montana Pitch Blend, a mellow amber goop of pine resin, mink oil, and beeswax, working extra into the slits and braids, which are stiffening. These strong, handsome links appear simple, yet defy my understanding—I’d never get it back together if I pulled apart its tight connections.

A few nights after treating Tess’s leash, I dreamed pit bulldogs circled me while I was out walking her. We were back in Indiana. But then Tess was gone, and alone on a muddy unpaved road, I struggled toward our white house, which in the distance appeared smaller, shaped differently, not quite in the same place. No pond glimmered behind it. I stood trembling on the dark wet road, unsure how to make my way home.

 

1981, Florida

“What about your choice of a retrieving breed? You didn’t ask me when you picked your wife. If you’re satisfied with that choice, you ought to be able to pick out a dog. If you didn’t do well in that choice, you should have learned something.”—Richard Wolters, Water Dog

 

You’re in an early, short, mistaken marriage. So is your wife. Not that you fight. Instead, you’re like two passive kids, equally burdened and blocked, who can’t help each other. Yet it surprises you that she can ignore such an adorable puppy that you, her husband, adore. You think a loving wife should embrace your dog and, ideally, also cut your hair. You don’t wonder if you’d embrace her cat, if she had one, which, thank God, she doesn’t. Does she?

Soon it’s time for you to leave for your fellowship year at Ohio State. You aren’t sure what your wife will do, but she comes too. You hadn’t imagined the challenge of renting a decent apartment near campus with a dog. You were a newspaper reporter, gainfully employed, but you’ve become a student with a dog. You visit squalid apartments and duplexes in scary neighborhoods. In a student ghetto, you find a decent two-bedroom, the end unit in a tired 1920s townhouse, its sooty bricks sucking light from the somber Yankee sky. Look, there’s a place on the corner to sell your blood plasma. You pay extra rent each month for Tess, and keep the place spotless.

Your wife leaves, returning once for a quick uncontested divorce in a downtown courtroom. Before ice narrows the Olentangy River, a few blocks from your apartment, you take Tess every afternoon to swim and fetch her Frisbee. The winter is long for a Florida boy, but you’re cozy, reading inside with Tess lying nearby on the stiff gray carpet. You aren’t just a broke divorced graduate student, his thick hair starting to thin, living in a threadbare apartment: you’re a guy with a great young dog who loves and needs you. Once, she growls at you when you take away her juicy steak bone, and you throw her down and yell into her face—teaching her humans have rights. Once, you playfully blow air at her with your new hair dryer, and when you’re at school she chews it apart—teaching you dogs have rights too.

In spring, you want to date a woman who is lecturing in your department while she writes her doctoral dissertation for the University of Michigan. You teach different sections of the same class, and trade handouts and ideas. But asking out Kathy scares you witless. You’re bad. She’s the first good woman, as you think of it, you haven’t run from—going all the way back to high school—though you won’t connect those dots for years. Having Tess, heedless of human shame, helps. Kathy pets her, though intimidated at first by her size—she’s a big dog, in Kathy’s eyes—and by Tess’s intense focus. After the first time you leave them alone together, Kathy admits her fear: “Sometimes Tess looks like she wants to eat me.”

“No,” you reply. “That’s love.”

Kathy plans to return to Ann Arbor before relocating, somewhere, for her first job as a professor; you plan to camp in your history professor’s farmhouse, south of Ann Arbor, and write freelance articles. And really, it’ll turn out, to see where Kathy goes. Meantime you’ll hunt pheasants with Tess, write a letter to Orvis asking to attend their wingshooting school for free so you can write about it (No thanks, comes the reply), read your professor’s old New Yorkers, and think about Kathy. She’ll accept a job, in southern Illinois. On the way to Carbondale, she’ll visit you at the farm and you’ll wander alfalfa fields together and watch Tess try to catch voles. You’ll laugh at Tess’s frantic, comically fruitless pursuit of the puny rodents. And you’ll laugh at her again that night when, smelling the bread Kathy bakes, she drools. Tess, at once goofy and comely, will seem to you the earthly embodiment of your deepening celestial love.

But first, to get you out of Columbus, your friend Bailey sells you a white Chevy Bel Air, a 1969 muscle car, and you cram its wide, gas-hungry body with your possessions. As you prepare to drive to Michigan, leaving your sedan idling at the curb, Tess prancing on its front seat, you walk into your landlord’s office. “Thank you for your tenancy,” he says. He promises to mail your damage deposit after he inspects. But he keeps the money, because he’s sleazy and because he can. That $300 constitutes most of your net worth; its loss stings far worse than your divorce—already hard to recall. In time, though, it will be as if he gave you a gift by stealing your nest egg because you’ll never forget the exact sum, which, like anyone’s remembered past, accrues interest.

~

I saw the film Tess in the Cineplex on Merritt Island, Florida, probably alone, late in the winter of 1981. That sense of flying solo strikes me today, as I was newly married, as does my naming a puppy after a young woman destroyed by male lust. While there’s precedent for men naming boats and horses and the like after women they find desirable, I recall feeling embarrassed when I told Mom, who’d just given me the puppy, where I got her name. To Mom’s credit, she merely nodded.

A year before, I’d given Mom and Dad a puppy. I hadn’t learned you should never surprise someone with an animal. I knew that in theory—a college girlfriend having once impulsively gotten me a puppy I made her return—but I hadn’t yet learned it. Or I believed in exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t gift someone with an animal they hadn’t even asked for. Especially a puppy, whose housebreaking and socializing take time and effort, aside from any formal training. Yet I did it, did what my girlfriend had done to me. In 1980, newly returned to my home county in Florida from a newspaper in Georgia—back really because I was eager to share in Dad and Mom’s creation of their retirement home and nursery business—I enlisted the help of my siblings in purchasing for them a costly registered chocolate Labrador puppy from an unusually handsome field strain. Shortly afterward, Mom backed her car out of the garage and fatally squashed the pup as it ran up behind her.

But that’s not when I learned giving them a puppy had been a mistake. I learned that in spring 1981, just after my twenty-sixth birthday, when Mom gave me Tess. Awful timing. As a reporter, I put in long days. I’d applied for a year-long fellowship for journalists—way up north, at Ohio State—which the previous year I’d won but declined, and how would I go with a puppy if I got it again? I didn’t even know what I’d do with my wife if I got it. But Mom saw how desperately I wanted a Labrador—obviously why I’d given her and Dad one. So she made my dream come true by contacting a courtly family friend, George Moreland, who owned a quail-hunting plantation in southern Georgia near our old farm. She must’ve told him she needed help getting me a Lab from working stock. He drove Tess to their nursery in West Melbourne, and she called me that April morning. I drove down there fast from Cocoa Village. I recall how black the puppy looked on the emerald grass, and my and everyone’s joy.

Mister George raised pointers, not retrievers, although at big events he used Labs for fetching dead quail. I imagine a buddy owned, or helped him locate, Tess’s litter. Overwhelmed with getting a puppy, I asked no questions and got no information about the little female’s origins. No kennel name, no purebred’s registration papers, no date of birth. I started training her from books, a library with three books by Richard Wolters, who, breaking with tradition, advocated that their training start early in puppyhood. My yard was minuscule, so I walked her down to a park along the river. Our hazard there was fried chicken—bony scraps thrown into the grass by picnickers—and I had to run and take them from Tess. After four months, she was fetching trussed pigeons, unhappy but unharmed, from where I’d hidden them around Mom and Dad’s acreage. Finally, when Tess was barely five months old, I mailed in our entry fee for a field trial near Tallahassee. Such events reflect waterfowl hunters’ need for dogs that can mark fallen birds and retrieve them over long distances, while obeying hand signals if necessary, even while swimming, to find multiple birds or birds moved by currents. I had no idea how Tess would fare, never having seen another working retriever outside of my books, and I got worried. What most people want from a dog, I realized, was what I’d always enjoyed, a lovable couch slug.

What I was doing with Tess was different. Much harder, more absorbing, and electrifying when Tess took me with her on her jubilant retrieves. Together we were having new experiences, growing. “You needed to love something without constraint or fear,” my sister recalled when I asked her, years later, what she’d been trying to memorialize by giving me the painting of Tess. “No matter where you went or what you did with your life,” Meg added, “Tess didn’t demand explanations or make any real or veiled critique.” Meg’s carefully chosen words felt compassionate toward me but ripe with implication, themselves a veiled critique. I thought of our mother, who, when we were growing up, gave piercing looks and stinging whippings, spoke insults that stuck. You’re bad. Or at least that was my experience as her moody middle child, her difficult one, the kid who resisted her. Then, in late middle age and into old age, Mom stopped trying to dominate us and even started kissing us. She’d changed herself into someone much more loving. This wasn’t my mother of memory—unless, provoked, when she returned. After Kathy and I moved our family from Bloomington, amidst the initial wreckage of our new life in Ohio, I must’ve sounded too plaintive on the phone one evening. “You’re needy,” Mom said—a contemptuous slap. You’re bad. If I’m honest, my tone was pleading, for sympathy over what we’d done to ourselves. Years later, a therapist said, responding to this story, “People have needs.”

What is love? Acceptance, friendship’s bedrock—the degree of acceptance sets the depth of the relationship—also seems an essential element in love’s molten core. Acceptance affirms and encourages, and I crave it, the deeper the better. Dogs, of course, offer it totally. And part of that is they forgive your shortcomings. It’s not lack of awareness—they remember how you’ve hurt them accidentally in a stumble, and know if you’re the type who lashes out. All the same, offering their endless affection, they bestow bottomless acceptance. You’re good.

~

Stepping up Tess’s training underscored my inadequacies as an outdoorsman. I’d never even shot at a duck, let alone possessed the accessories of waterfowling’s ancient craft—the camouflage-netted green boat, the hardwood duck calls, the corded decoys, the long-barreled shotguns—but maybe I’d have to become a hunter—for Tess. Or maybe field trials would become our substitute for actual hunting. Imagine, then, Tess on her first retrieve before the field trial’s watching gallery, gathered at the edge of a cow pasture. Tess dashed out and grabbed the bumper. She spun and returned, her ears flying. Halfway to me, she stopped. Lowered her head. Dropped the bumper. Tucked a shoulder and flipped onto her back. And began rolling ecstatically atop the first manure patty she’d ever smelled. Laughter all around. Even I laughed—what could I do?—but my face burned. I’d warned Tess off Kentucky Fried Chicken, not cow flops.

“Your first retriever?” someone asked.

Many of the field trial Labs grew huge, the muscular males often exceeding 100 pounds—rangy, powerful dogs built to traverse North America’s big landscapes. They towered over Tess, one of the few puppies run that day, but I didn’t mind that she was little, growing toward an adult weight of maybe sixty pounds. It bugged me, however, that Tess wasn’t as pretty as the other dogs. I noticed her black coat’s brown cast, her sharp face. I imagined this was the price of being bred by quail-crazy Georgians more focused on their elite setters and pointers.

Tess did better that day retrieving from a big pond. She hit the water hard and swam fast toward the bumper. She went straight out, grabbed it, and paddled back. “She’s a game little thing,” an older man said. She was—Tess was game. Whatever else she was or wasn’t, from her unknown lineage in backwoods Georgia to my inept training in suburban Florida, I took those words as truth. Some people were criticizing trial dogs for having such high energy and strong prey drive that they lacked an “off switch”—too hyper and hard-headed. Tess seemed okay—my love for her prevented my fretting much on that score—though she’d whip around excitedly, examining faces for clues a fetch session was in the offing. Even inside, she ran instead of ambled; trained not to jump on people, she’d ram them when enthused. “Purebred dogs are hyper like that,” David Bailey, my friend and coworker at the Cocoa newspaper, observed one evening about Tess. She’s not, I almost cried. She’s a field trial dog! I felt a lonely, confusing distress, especially since a cruel consensus had apparently formed: my wife gasped out in response, leaning forward while shaking her head and waving her hands in helpless mirth, “She’s dumb.”

Later, preparing to leave together for my fellowship in Ohio, my wife and I were also clearly breaking up. “Maybe we should have a baby,” she said. In a confused last-ditch way, she’d been trying harder to connect. “God no,” I said. “That’d be a disaster.” I’d married her only because she’d wanted to, the first woman who had wanted me permanently. I didn’t ask myself whether I wanted her forever. Or, honestly, at all. Looking back, I never knew her. A middle child too, she didn’t speak of her childhood either—except to mention that, as an infant, she’d stared silently for so long at her parents they’d had a doctor examine her. Her parents had come to our house shortly before our wedding, traveling from Texas to meet me and my parents. Her father, a corporate executive with a beet-red face from high blood pressure, told me that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal had showed up to cover a colleague’s retirement unshaven and wearing a tee shirt. I could hear Tess breathing hard against the door of our bedroom, where I’d sequestered her, and I thought, At least they covered his damn retirement. Her mother said almost nothing but—wordlessly staring herself—seemed both distant and overbearing. “She’s a real bitch,” Mom said later, giving me a piercing look. After they left, my wife told me they’d vetoed our notion of getting married outdoors at my parents’ nursery.

I have no photographs of that long-ago wife, but I possess one she probably took of me and Tess at the field trial, sitting beside each other on the pond’s bank, waiting our turn. Just before I sent her on her scored water retrieve, we’re intently focused. She’s on my left and sitting staunchly. Just in case, I’m holding her red collar. Her chest juts forward and her entire bowed body radiates energy. So does mine. We look out as one, our heads thrust toward the water, thick as thieves, tight as ticks, a team. Buddies. Partners.

~

Before she died, Mom let it slip that my first wife used to filch cash from Dad’s wallet. When she told me, my father long dead, I felt shame for what she and Dad had discovered—shame compounded by my assumption Mom had informed my sister back then. She hadn’t, Meg told me. Thankfully I’d usually gone to their nursery just with Tess. I’d trained her to find birds there with homing pigeons I’d borrowed from their neighbor, my friend Joe.

Mom loved Joe too, and Dad was jealous of our relationship with him. One evening before I left for Ohio, Dad frowned when I defended Joe’s dog he’d accused of chasing his ducks. Joe also kept ducks and chickens, so I considered it unlikely his dog killed poultry. I’ve since revised my opinion, having learned how situational a dog’s behavior can be. Anyway, Dad’s dismissive response addressed something else. Apparently repeating a saying, which I’d never heard but instantly got—and just as instantly resented—he said, apropos of my defense of my friend’s dog, “Love me, love my dog.”

Isn’t that really the issue here? Isn’t it always? Isn’t any story, told long enough, about love or a cry for love? Kathy was right, animals saved me. They gave beauty, emotional comfort, and a bridge into human relationships long before I realized the depth of my shame or blamed it on Mom. Before I realized that she’d been repeating her own mother’s example. Before I factored in my distant father’s effect on both of us. Before I’d made some of Mom’s mistakes as a parent myself, and added my own. Before I’d learned that I cannot separate my insecurity from my intrinsic nature. So lately, when I recall their silence, when I grieve what now seems my loneliness within that lonely family around the TV—surely not as forlorn as in my memory, but  awfully quiet—I try to see that my parents were doing the best they could amidst their own suffering. “They talk about ‘dysfunctional’ families,” Mom once protested, out of the blue, during the go-big 1980s. “Every family is dysfunctional.” Which goes too far, unless Mom meant that no one gets exactly what she needs. But it’s true we existed in the broad flood plain between Happy Hills and Raging River. You hiked out early, if you had sense.

At the late start of my expedition, Mom gave me a dog. Tess, the best birthday gift a mother ever gave her son, was love.

Comics = Cultural Criticism: An Interview with Bill Kartalopoulos

by Gina Tron

Cartoonist Bill Kartalopoulos.

Bill Kartalopoulos once lived in a large apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, known as the Cartoon House. In 2012, VICE called the home “a giant flophouse where cartoonists live.” Cartoon House was full of goodies: crazy art on the walls; easels and cartoonist’s desks; a giant bubble-letter neon sign that read “CARTOONS”. It was a space where the big names in the art world often came to hang out and drink wine (or more likely, Pabst Blue Ribbon).

In addition to cartoonist parties, the space hosted numerous creative theme parties, including one inspired by the Harmony Korine film, Spring Breakers. I had the luck of attending a few of these soirees, which is how I first met Bill. He was always pleasant, seemingly unfazed as he spewed dry humor with ease. When I think of him, I imagine him as he looked then: clad in a sweater and circular-framed glasses, always appearing effortlessly cool.

Kartalopoulos is a critic, teacher, and author, as well as the editor for Best American Comics, the #1 New York Times best-selling series published annually by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In addition, he is writing a history book about comics to be published by Princeton University Press. Kartalopoulos has written on the topic of comics for publications such as The Huffington Post, Publishers Weekly, World Literature Today, American Book Review, The Comics Journal and others. He teaches Comics History in the MFA Visual Narrative program at School of Visual Arts, and Graphic Novels at Parsons’ The New School. Currently, he is the programming director for the MoCCA Arts Festival.

GT: Do you still live in the Cartoon House? I love that place.
Kartalopoulos: No, I left it about three years ago and it got turned into a nicer, more expensive apartment — like most places in Williamsburg.

GT: How did you become the series editor for the Best American Comics?
Kartalopoulos: The Best American Comics series has been running since 2006. It’s part of a bigger line of titles, such as Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, et cetera. They all pretty much follow the same model where there are a series editor and an outside person who doesn’t work at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who works on the books for a certain number of years but also collaborates each year with a special guest editor, typically a more well-known person in the field.

Matt Madden and Jessica Abel — a husband-and-wife team who are both comic artists but also teachers — had that [series editor] job for six years, but they left because they got a residency in France.  I guess they recommended me to the publisher and I went in and interviewed. It worked out well.

Working on the book has been interesting and enriching in a lot of different ways. It’s also a very visible project.

Comics can respond quickly to an event and communicate a response.

GT: What are the responsibilities of a series editor?
Kartalopoulos: The way these books work is that they each have an open submission process. There is an address that anyone can send work to. An author or comic artist can send their work in and it doesn’t matter if it’s been published or self-published. On top of that, it’s my job to, in essence, make sure that we get everything that we should be getting. So, in addition to the large volume of stuff that comes in through the open submissions process, I also do a lot of outreach.

If I see that an artist has posted something about a comic or zine that they have self-published, I may individually email them to ask them to send their stuff in. I spend a fair bit of time just looking around at comic book stores and comic shops to see if there is anything that is not in the submissions pile that I should have. I go to festivals and walk around and ask people to submit their work. I also talk to colleagues and friends who know a lot and they sometimes have been really helpful in recommending work that may not have been on my radar. So, I end up with a huge quantity of comics. I also look around online because there are so many people posting comics online. It’s not possible to keep up with all of it but I at least make an effort.

I spend a ton of time reading through the various works I’ve accumulated then I make a pre-selection of about 120 pieces that I think are the most outstanding pieces to send to the guest editor. Then, the guest editor makes the final choices about what goes into the book. They have some latitude, too, to bring in some material that they have discovered on their own. I’m always surprised in a good way to see the final choices the guest editor has made.

Once they have made their choices, then I have to reach out to all the artists and get preliminary formal permission to include their work in the book. I write a foreword to the book every year and the guest editor writes an introduction. I also compose a list of about 100 notable works that we also list in the book in addition to the work that we are printing. That is a place to at least mention the work that I saw and appreciated but didn’t make it into the final volume.

I also have to communicate with the art director at the publishing house and the designer. We deal with decisions that come up in the course of figuring out how to design and organize the book. We find an artist to draw the cover for the book. We’ll also commission some original art for the book, even though much of the art is already published.

GT: Are there any factors you consider when making your choices on the art?
Kartalopoulos: During my conversations with the guest editor, I try to feel out the kind of work they like to see and if there is anything, in particular, they are interested in so I’m not wasting their time.

GT: What kind of influence does your past work with Art Spiegelman have on your work with Best American Comics today?
Kartalopoulos: Working with Art was a huge education because he has a real encyclopedic knowledge about comics. On top of that, he also has a really strong analytical and critical point of view. Spiegelman — together with his wife, Françoise Mouly, who is the art editor of the New Yorker (and has been since 1993) — edited in the eighties and early nineties a comics anthology magazine called Raw, which has a reputation for being one of the best comics anthologies of all time. They were very selective about the material that they chose and were attentive to design and presentation.

The standard that was exemplified in Raw persists in Art when he is looking at new work. He is always interested in knowing what is new in comics, but at the same time, he also has a real high standard for excellence. On top of that, Art works very hard; he has a perfectionist tendency towards the projects that he gets involved in. So, all of those things have, to a greater or lesser extent, informed a lot of the projects and work that I have gotten involved with.

Working with Art Spiegelman was a huge education because he has a real encyclopedic knowledge about comics.

GT: Tell me about your upcoming book.
Kartalopoulos: I’m writing a general history of comics for Princeton University Press, focusing on North American comics. It’s a book that is badly needed, I think. It’s something that comes out of my teaching. This book would certainly be useful for me to have in my teaching, but it would be of interest to general readers too.

There are a lot of books about individual subjects in comics that have come out in recent years, ranging from multi-volume reprints of well-known comics like Peanuts or Little Orphan Annie to biographies of comic artists, like the creator of Wonder Woman.

There are also a number of books about specific subjects such as American comics in the 1950s. The list goes on. But there isn’t a Comics History 101 book for someone who just wants to understand the broad overview of the story and to see how all those other pieces fit together in a sort of narrative. So it’s a little backward, in the sense that we have all these very specialized books, but we don’t have a book that should function as a starting point.

GT: Why are comics so important right now?
Kartalopoulos: There are a lot of reasons why comics remain relevant. For one thing, I think they are unlike a lot of other visual media — ones that require budgets; a lot of people; access to technology, or all of the above. Somebody can make a comic with pretty modest means. It does not take a lot to make a comic. It’s basically just pen and paper. In theory, you can do anything with that. You can create an entire visual world that way, whether it’s a personal world or a fantasy world.

I also think that we live in a visual culture. I don’t really think comics are necessarily on the cutting edge of that visual culture like they used to be because technology keeps moving forward. I think that comics at one point seemed like a step beyond prose towards a more visual narrative, but now we have so much video and interactive online content. Comics start to look more traditional somehow by comparison.

Comics take a bunch of images and put them together in a coherent and articulate way, where you go from image to image, and from text/image combination to text/image combination. Then you look at it all and it all adds up to something. If there is an intelligent cartoonist at work then there is a design behind it all. By the time you get through reading it you can comprehend the design and see that there is maybe a larger concept behind it. I think that that in a way is almost like the equivalent in poetry relative to our visual culture, which is so incoherent. We just go from web page to web page, from video to message, from this to that to the other thing. You can get really drowned by this mosaic of stimulation over the course of the day as you consume media, but by the end of the day, it may not add up to anything or you may have to struggle to make it add up to anything.

It does not take a lot to make a comic. It’s basically just pen and paper. In theory, you can do anything with that.

Artist Nadja Spiegelman with “Resist!” at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.

I feel like comics process all those elements and present them in a coherent design. It models a deeper understanding of fragments of text image combinations. I think, from a media studies point of view, there is something to that because it is a very direct medium and should have an ongoing grassroots appeal as a way to express oneself visually.

GT: How can comics be utilized in our current political climate?
Kartalopoulos: There is a newspaper that just came out called RESIST! that was edited by Françoise Mouly and her daughter, Nadja Spiegelman. It was full of comic strips and cartoons — mostly drawn by women — initiated after the presidential election and published in Time for the Women’s March on Washington. They made thousands of copies of it and gave it away at the March. That shows how comics can respond very quickly to an event and communicate a response, a point of view.

Other work can be much more considered. There’s an artist called  Joe Sacco who creates book-length journalistic comics. He goes to war zones, and has been in places like the former Yugoslavia and Palestine, and has created these very journalistic research-based projects where he interviews a lot of people, does a ton of research, takes photos and creates sketches, and then goes home and works for years to produce hundreds-of-pages books about a subject.

That certainly does not permit an instantaneous response like the newspaper I was just talking about, but there is a lot of value to that work because it shows something about how long comics can document something real, true and important in a way that other media can’t. He can put the reader in places where the camera can never go. He can present these characters, real individuals, in a way that represent their points of view intimately. It’s closer to the way that a writer would work, but he is able to provide visuals in the manner of a documentarian without the need to provide the kinds of happy accidents that make a good documentary.

Edna, With Her Mouth
by Katherine Schaefer

First Place, Creative Nonfiction Prize

Edna, with her mouth closed, was not a fashion model, but she could have passed for one. She was stretched and slender everywhere: swan-necked, narrow-waisted and -hipped, her long, lean legs tapering into finely-turned ankles. She had elegant feet, graceful fingers. Her dresses hung from her straight, narrow shoulders as if flawlessly draped on a J.C. Penney mannequin, one of those matte-painted, bald ones with staring, vacant expressions. If I think of Edna in this way, remember her as still and silent and sphinxlike as a mannequin, I see her beauty, even now, forty years later, as if she were right here in front of me.

Edna with her mouth open was something else entirely. The first and last and only thing you saw about her was teeth. Edna had the worst set of buck teeth I have ever seen, or will ever see in my lifetime. If Edna’s body was classical in its architecture, like the fluted column of a temple in its pure vertical simplicity, her open mouth was positively Baroque, all curves and angles jutting this way and that—excessively, extravagantly deformed. No garden-variety overbite, Edna’s teeth were so dominant they took over her face and everything else about her person. Yet for all their mesmerizing there-they-are-ness, I couldn’t ever really look at them. When I try to pull the image of her teeth up in my memory and take a good, long look—stare at them in my mind’s eye the way I never could in real life—I can’t seem to get a clear picture.

Or maybe I can. It began with her gums, which protruded far beyond the frame of her thinly-stretched upper lip. Fully exposed to the air, Edna’s gums were pink and healthy-looking, but somehow reminiscent of an internal organ not meant to be visible outside the body. The teeth themselves projected even farther forward into space, and also crossed over one another, not a one of them in its rightful spot. Just to look at Edna’s teeth was painful; you imagined having them in your own mouth, stretching your lips to fit, trying to contain them in a space too small to ever manage. You couldn’t help but look away while you unconsciously ran your tongue over your own front teeth, feeling them still there in their proper places, smooth and wet under the movement of your tongue. You’d give a small, relieved sigh, and press your lips together, the upper and lower meeting easily, effortlessly, over your own, merely ordinary, teeth.

Who was Edna to me? Just a woman of my mother’s generation, though older than my mom by maybe a decade. I must have watched her more closely than I realized, back when I was a young girl, then a teenager, wondering about her life there on a farm a few miles west of the one where I grew up.

As painful as it was to look at Edna’s teeth, how much more painful it must have been for Edna to have them. This, too, could be clearly seen: the way she raised her hand to her mouth to shield it from view when she spoke, when she laughed. And, it may surprise you to know, she spoke and laughed often. You might think she’d remain silent and observant, only listening to the conversations flowing around her at the church Mary Martha Guild or the neighborhood Home Projects club. When Edna listened, she kept her lips closed and followed the stream of talk, her shiny black irises darting from speaker to speaker, her head tilting like a hen’s eying the ground for a piece of cracked corn. But Edna was not shy, as you might expect, nor a wallflower, despite her unfortunate teeth.

Edna’s voice was the second thing that ruined one’s initial, closed-mouth impression of her. It was perhaps more high-pitched than most, but with this wobbly up-and-down range that also included some low, guttural tones. When Edna talked, the words exploded from her mouth as if she simply had to say something, even if she knew it would be better to stay quiet. She began in a burst of high notes, then ended low, her phrases punctuated by trills of nervous, stuttering laughter. Surely the way Edna spoke was influenced by her teeth, the rapid staccato of words, her difficulty with enunciation, but there was more to it than that. Her voice had a swallowed, gobbledy quality that must have been simply how Edna sounded, teeth or no teeth. Truth be told, Edna’s voice resembled nothing so much as what you’d hear coming from a poultry barn full of caged white turkeys: that loud, shrieking up-and-down gobbling that almost makes you want to scream, yourself. And what with her skinny, stretched-out neck and those bird-bright eyes, the resemblance to poultry was all the stronger.

Whenever Edna joined into conversation, she talked so fast and her words were so garbled that it was hard to understand what she said. I noticed how people sort of skipped right over her and continued on with their own line of thought, which come to think of it, is how most conversations seem to be carried on, even without Edna or someone like her in the group.

Maybe part of my fascination with Edna was because she had this thing that was so obvious to anyone who saw her. I almost said “so obviously wrong,” but there wasn’t anything wrong, really, with Edna’s teeth. They still functioned: she could eat and speak and just plain live with those teeth. They just weren’t your normal, everyday set. There were other women in Boon Lake Township who had something different about them, something obvious to anyone looking. Sharon Meyers had a goiter, a big one, round and pink, like an extra breast attached to her neck. Louise Steffen wore leg braces and walked with a terrible see-sawing limp. As a girl she’d had polio and was shut up in an iron lung for months, learning to walk all over again upon her release from that metal prison.

But unlike the trials of Sharon and Louise, Edna’s teeth weren’t caused by an illness. It was simply how they grew in. And even though Edna held her hand over her misshapen mouth, everyone could still see it. I wondered how she could carry on with such a conspicuous flaw and still remain so cheerful. Because secretly—and this may be the heart of the matter—I felt like something was wrong with my own mother or, if not “wrong,” then at least “not right.”

On the outside my mother looked normal enough. I watched her assemble herself, layer by layer, when she got ready to go out, the way she armored herself to face the world. Girdle, slip, dress. Hairspray, lipstick, powder. Coat, gloves, handbag. The same stuff all the other ladies wore. Mom was neither pretty nor plain, stylish nor frumpy. Not fat, not thin. She could have been anybody’s mother, if you saw her from a distance. But she was my mother and I saw her close up. And there was something wrong with her, some hidden flaw. It was nothing that showed on the outside, no obvious defect to cause her unhappiness. But she was unhappy. Could other people outside my family see it, too, concealed beneath her armor of normalcy?

It was Mom, after all, who taught me to be so observant, always on the lookout for imperfections, especially female ones. When I was a teenager, she often recited the litany of my faults as we stood doing the dishes together, telling me what was wrong with my hair (lank), my clothes (tight), my posture (slouched). Her own mother had done the same for her, Mom told me, back when she was young, helping to correct her flaws. The ones that showed, anyway.

 

But back to Edna. You might think from what I’ve told you that she was unmarried, an old maid as she would have been called in that time and place. But no, Edna was married to a farmer named Lyle Lubke. Lyle was as silent as Edna was voluble. He was average-looking, possessing no physical characteristics to distinguish him from all the other farmers I knew, including my own father, with their insulated coveralls and Redwing boots and oil-stained work gloves. In summer they wore canvas caps from the feed store or the seed corn supplier; in winter they switched to plaid wool hats with the earflaps turned down. Cigarettes drooped from their lips as they went about their work, milking the cows, feeding calves, watering heifers, forking down silage, fixing the barn cleaner, the tractor, the water pump, the electric fence, always something: fixing, fixing, fixing.

I can still hear Edna’s voice so clearly in my mind, but I couldn’t describe Lyle’s if my life depended on it. The neighborhood men always talked amongst themselves about how Lyle had fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, and while he’d come back from it alive, he wasn’t the same as he’d been before. Not only did Lyle never say a word about the Battle of the Bulge, he never said much about anything at all. He was a deeply silent man, but his reasons for that were known and respected, and people let him be.

Edna and Lyle had five children, spaced apart over twenty years. The three boys’ names all began with the letter W, the two girls’ with a J, I don’t know why. The two girls and the youngest boy took after Edna, though their teeth were less flamboyant than hers. The two older sons favored Lyle in looks and manner and even speech—making solemn, slow statements only after measured consideration. The three who resembled Edna talked like her as well, that same high-low, swallowed gobbling that made it hard to understand their words.

Joanne, the elder daughter, babysat for my siblings and me once, staying at our house for a few days when my parents went away on vacation. She was tall and slender, like Edna, but more modern, with harlequin glasses and a dark blonde flip. The first night when Joanne was making supper, I brought a Mason jar of canned peas up from the cellar for her to heat on the stove. Instead of pouring the extra liquid down the sink, Joanne carefully drained it off into a coffee mug. “Who wants the pea juice?” she called out in a gleeful tone, holding the cup high. Huh? My sister and I were horrified. Pea juice? “Don’t you all drink the pea juice over to here?” Joanne said. “We all fight over that at home.” No, we said. You can have it. She drank it down, although with less pleasure than she might have felt in the face of our disinterest.

The next day at lunch it was the same thing with the pickle juice. Joanne said her family loved pickle juice. Olive juice, too. It was a treat to them, a delicacy. What a waste it was for us to pour it down the drain. I imagined Edna in her kitchen, holding up a cup of brine, a green-tinged nectar made of salt and vinegar to tempt her brood.

It’s not such a big thing, the Lubke family’s drinking of strange juices. It was just one of those glimpses into the mysteries of other people’s lives, those being lived inside the walls of farmhouses that seemed as impregnable as fortresses. For all the ways the people of Boon Lake seemed exactly alike—landowner farmers, either Catholic or Lutheran, all with German surnames—there were still these small, secret differences between them that I began to collect. Maybe Joanne did the same thing, only in reverse, when she returned home from her babysitting stint. Guess what? she may have said the next time her family clamored for castoff pickle juice. The Schaefers don’t even save it. They just pour it down the sink! And they might have shaken their heads at us, wondering how it could be.

 

My quest to gather information on the Lubkes wasn’t easy. Their farm was set so far back from the road that nothing could be seen except the rounded, silver top of their silo sticking up above the cottonwoods. They had the longest driveway of all the families on our bus route, a whole quarter-mile, heading straight north and disappearing into the planted windbreak. Wayne, the youngest son, was closest in age to me, in the same grade as my big brother, Bill. Wayne had asthma, the only kid I knew that did—another mystery back then, asthma. I didn’t know how to spell it, but it sounded exotic. When the school bus stopped to pick him up on winter mornings, Wayne came down the aisle to his seat, red-faced and gasping from the cold. He’d be bundled in a stocking cap and scarf, his breath frosting the wool over his mouth, eyelashes icicled, nose dripping as he thawed. Every morning he sat down on the bench seat beside my brother, across the aisle from me, and just wheezed. That’s OK, Wayne, we’d say, patting him on the back gently. Just breathe. We stayed quiet and listened to the wheezing of Wayne, feeling each whistling, gasping inhalation as if it were our own, hoping he would get his breath back soon, for all our sakes.

I’d sometimes think of Wayne at the end of that quarter-mile straightaway, having walked its length, or worse, run it if he was late, with the winter wind cutting across the land, so flat that even on the calmest days it never stopped blowing entirely. At the end of some farmers’ driveways you’d see a little shelter put up for their kids to wait for the bus. Most were simple lean-tos, strictly utilitarian, but some were made more charming, almost like playhouses, painted up in colors, with shingled roofs, a door, even windows. There were no such bus shelters for the farm kids out our way. I mostly saw them on the road to Hutch, the big town we went to on Saturdays to buy groceries. Those must be for rich kids, my siblings and I would say to each other. Richer than us, anyway. Probably spoiled—can’t even take a little rain. We’d scoff at the coddled babies we imagined. Still, I thought Wayne could have used one of those.

 

I traveled up the long driveway to the Lubke place only one time that I can remember. I must have been about eight when my family went to visit; I can’t recall the occasion. To me, it was like they’d let down their drawbridge so I could cross over the moat and enter the gates of their citadel. Except the Lubke’s citadel turned out to be a split-level ranch, white and featureless. It had replaced their old house, a two-story frame building original to the farm. Well, not exactly “replaced”—instead of tearing down their first house and starting fresh, they just built the new house alongside the old. After all, as structures go it was still perfectly good, so Lyle had turned it into a storage shed. There it stood in the dooryard next to the barn, its weathered gray clapboards cracked and cupped, the nail heads blooming with rust.

I was dying to explore it, so Wayne took my siblings and me on a tour. The first floor was impassable, stacked full of straw bales which blocked the sunlight and muffled the sound of our footsteps. Wayne led us up an enclosed stairway, the walls still covered in faded maroon paper, its pattern of silvery-gray ferns swooping across the walls and making me dizzy in the narrow passage. Halfway up, near a window, the wallpaper hung in shreds around a hole in the plaster, bigger than a fist, about the size of a pie plate. Beyond the crumbled edges of plaster and lath was a dark space, the innards of a wall you normally don’t get to see. Wayne stopped as he drew level with the hole. From within came a sound, a rhythmic pulse.

“Watch out, there’s bees in there,” Wayne said.

I froze. “Do they sting?” I didn’t know what scared me more, the bees or the hole.

Wayne shrugged. “They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.”

I crept up the stairs, clinging to the far wall, hearing the low hum of insects. A few bees flew drowsily in and out of the hole, light from the window picking out the edges of their wings.

The second floor was mostly empty and uninteresting, as Wayne had forewarned: rusty metal bed springs, an oval wooden frame without a picture. All I thought about later was the dark hole that held the secrets of the house, abandoned to the stifling straw, the subtle bother of bees.

Edna must have looked at that old house every day, visible out the window from her kitchen sink. Did she think of the early years of her marriage spent in that house as she stood washing dishes in her new one? It was right there in front of her, tall and plain. Sometimes people stop noticing things like that, sights they see every day. But I didn’t think about all this when I was eight. It’s only now, looking back on it, that I wonder how Edna felt, what she noticed out her window. My own mother stared out the kitchen window all the time when she did the dishes. There was nothing to see but a thin grove of ash and elm, but she wasn’t looking at the trees. She was somewhere else, far away.

 

Years after my visit to the Lubke place—I must have been about fifteen—my mother called me to the phone one afternoon. It was Warren on the line, the middle Lubke boy, asking me to a dance that Saturday at the Gibbon Ballroom. Warren was four years older than me, already graduated from high school. I had never said a word to him in my life, nor had he to me; he was one of the silent Lubkes who took after Lyle. “No, thank you,” I told him. “I guess not.” I was so surprised he’d asked me out that I couldn’t even think up an excuse. What could we possibly say to each other on a date? I, too, was the shy and quiet type.

“Hold on,” he said, when I was about to hang up. “Wayne wants to talk to you.” Wayne came on the phone, and in his rushed, garbled voice, so much like Edna’s, asked me out to the very same dance.

“Wayne,” I said, “I just told Warren no, I don’t want to go.”

“Well, I just thought you might want to go with me instead of him,” he said. “He’s older so he got first crack.”

Was that what I was to the Lubke boys—someone to take a crack at? Warren had gone into farming with his dad right after high school. He was probably starting to think about finding a wife. And Wayne? He was easier to talk to, but still—he was just the neighbor boy, my brother’s friend.

“No thanks, Wayne, I don’t want to go with either one of you. No offense, though.” There was no reason to be mean, although I did feel a little offended. Also a little flattered.

“OK then, we just thought we’d try. Bye, then. See you on the bus.”

Neither of them ever asked me out again, which was a relief. I didn’t see myself as someone who would settle for the boy next door, the way my mother always let it be known she had.

 

Occasionally my brother Bill spent the day over at the Lubke place, helping with some farm work and then staying on for dinner. One time he came home with a story, which he repeated so often over the years it became a joke. Bill described the Lubke clan gathered around the table, imitating the way they—the talkative ones, that is—shouted over each other, grabbing for the food and shoveling it quickly from plate to mouth, jabbering away the whole time. My brother parroted Wayne, with his mouth full of mashed potatoes, saying to Edna, “Ma, these potatoes taste like shit.” “Yeah, Ma,” Warren echoed in his deep, deliberate voice. “They do. They taste like shit.” Then they both had second helpings.

The first time my brother told this story, I couldn’t believe it. Bill was laughing and astonished at the same time—laughing at how Wayne’s already hard-to-understand speech became nearly unintelligible with his mouth full of mashed potatoes, yet what he’d said came out clearly enough for everyone there to understand and even repeat. And he was astonished that Wayne, a boy his own age, would say such a thing to his mother. The more Bill repeated it, the funnier he thought it was, but I was aghast.

What?” I said. “He said that! To his mom? What did she say?”

Bill shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Well, what did she do?”

“Nothing,” he said again. “She just looked down and kept eating.”

“And what about Wayne’s dad? What did he do?”

But Bill’s answer was the same—Lyle had done nothing. It was so different from what our own father would have done: the instant crackdown of a slap on the face, then banishment from the table after the extraction of an apology. More punishment later if deemed necessary. Dad would never have allowed us to speak like that to Mom, no matter how bad her cooking. (And truth to tell, she’d never been much of a cook. Maybe that’s why we never criticized our mother’s cooking at all. It was one of those sore spots you didn’t dare poke at.)

Even worse, Wayne had used a swear word at the table, and to Edna, his own mother. Our mom didn’t permit any swearing in her earshot, not even darn or jeez or golly. To her, those words were just substitutes for swearing, as bad as the real thing. So to swear at your mother, in front of your father, about her cooking! Unthinkable. But what I did think about, whenever Bill told that story, was Edna’s acquiescence, her head hanging over her plate. And about Lyle’s, too, in not rising up to defend his wife. Another glimpse behind the walls of their fortress, another mystery I couldn’t comprehend. At least it made me feel less guilty about having turned down Wayne and Warren’s invitation to the dance. (I hadn’t thought I felt guilty about that, but I must have, a little.) Because I knew I wouldn’t want to end up with someone who could talk to his mother that way, or even someone who stayed silent upon witnessing such an insult.

That’s not to say that my own mother never hung her head over her plate as we sat down to supper. She did, and as the years went by, it happened more often. Sometimes, on one of her bad days, she’d run from the table into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her; from the other side we could hear her sobbing. After a minute, my father would sigh and push back his chair, go in after her. My sister and I would take up their unfinished meals, sliding the plates into the oven to stay warm. Moodiness, melancholy—it doesn’t matter what euphemism we might have applied to our mother’s depression, because we never spoke of it. Maybe we thought if it wasn’t named, it could remain hidden, invisible—even nonexistent.

 

About Edna, I haven’t much more to say. Perhaps it’s only because I know so little about her, have so few stories to tell, that I think I can paint a complete portrait, when all I have to go on are the barest few points of a dot-to-dot puzzle. When I try to connect the dots, I can draw in the lines wherever I want, and think in the end I’m able to render her whole.

But when it comes to the Lubkes, I will forever remain standing at the end of their driveway, straining to see their homestead tucked away in the trees, a quarter mile away. It’s a distance I can’t achieve with my own family, growing up in the midst of it, too close to be able to see us as an outsider might. Not a simple dot-to-dot, the puzzle of my family is more like a thousand-piece jigsaw, one of those maddeningly complex ones made up of all one color, all one texture: a golden plain of wheat with no horizon line. The dark, green depths of a cornfield in August.

 

At sixteen, I stopped watching and wondering about the Lubkes in their farmhouse-fortress to the west. My own family was coming apart, our own fortress crumbling. I spent that year, and half the next, preparing to lose my mother. I worried over how it would come about, imagining a nervous breakdown, perhaps, followed by a stint at the state hospital in Willmar. Or she might run away, as she’d threatened, leaving the farm to begin a new life. Or, if neither of those scenarios, the one I most feared and could not let myself envision beyond a single word: suicide. It was as bad as a swear word in our house, another of those words we were never allowed to utter.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, when I was seventeen, I lost my mother in a way I’d never anticipated, when both she and my father were killed in a car crash. It was nothing I’d thought to prepare for, but merely an accident that took their lives. In the dark time that followed, I’m sure Edna was there, amongst all the other church women who brought us casseroles and cakes. But the secret attention I’d once bestowed on her had lapsed in my grief. I didn’t give the Lubkes another thought until, half a year after my own loss, I got the news that Lyle had died of a heart attack. He was sixty years old. People said he was too young, and looking back on it, I guess he was. But since my own parents had been just forty and forty-one, I didn’t consider dying at sixty such a tragedy. Not so much as I might now that I’m approaching that age myself.

People said that Lyle was out in his barn when he suddenly collapsed and died. They didn’t say who found him. I hoped it wasn’t Edna, but still pictured it: her standing at the kitchen window, looking out toward the barn, thinking that Lyle was late coming in from chores. Finally, going out to get him. It was June when he died, the beginning of summer. The bees would have already come back to life, as Edna walked (trotted? ran?) past the old house on her way to discovering his body.

How did they put it again? He died of a silent heart attack. Or: He suffered from silent heart trouble. Something like that. Of course Lyle had died in silence, I thought. All his troubles were bound up in silence. I imagined him working alone in the barn, only his herd of black-and-white Holsteins to bear witness as he crumpled to the concrete floor. The water troughs, a fallen pitchfork, the warm flanks of the cows surrounding him, while somewhere in his memory Lyle was still at war—in the trenches with his weapon, the bodies of comrades to his left and right. A Silver Star lying in the darkness of his dresser drawer.

 

On a visit home from college the following year, I heard some neighbor ladies gossiping about how freely Edna was spending Lyle’s money. “Maybe she thinks she’ll nab another husband,” one said, “getting herself all fixed up like that.” The arch tone of the speaker’s voice matched her cocked eyebrow. “At her age?” the other replied, and they laughed—dry, knowing sounds like crows cawing in trees. When I turned away they probably went back to gossiping about me, how I was misspending my own inheritance, going off to art school in the city instead of staying home to take care of my younger siblings. I didn’t have to hear it to know what was being said. Everyone watched everyone else out there in Boon Lake. Our fortresses were not impregnable. There were holes in our houses.

The next day I went to a service at my old church. Down in the basement kitchen afterward, where the Mary Martha Guild was making egg coffee and setting out trays of bars and cookies, I saw Edna. She stood straight and tall as always, her figure as slender as ever. But even with her mouth closed, I saw right away that there was something different about her. She wore a beautifully-cut dress of peacock blue wool, with a paisley scarf tied artfully around her neck. Edna with her mouth closed was still birdlike, but the birds she resembled were peacocks and swans, not chickens and turkeys.

When she saw me—I must have been staring, although I didn’t mean to—Edna met my gaze and smiled. Had I ever seen Edna smile before? Talking and laughing, yes, but had she ever smiled like this, directly at me? She held out her hand as she came forward, saying my name in a slow and careful way, as if we had just been introduced for the first time. Edna, with her mouth open, smiled and said hello and asked me how I was doing. The lights overhead reflected off the metal braces covering her teeth, like hundreds of diamonds showering the room, glinting from every surface.

Adventure Counselor
by Jocelyn Edelstein

Runner Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize

 

Yes, we all had a camp name.

A name you made up?

Uh-huh.

 

I expect to get into this, when I tell people I was a summer camp counselor. When they furrow their brow and smile. When they ask me if my co-workers called themselves Panther and Ponderosa.

Yes. There were in fact two counselors who called themselves Ponderosa.

There were songs everyone knew and silly skits and tears when goodbyes were uttered and falling in love beside river banks and forever friendships forged, then engraved upon wood cookies we wore like necklaces.

 

Yes and yes. And yes.

 

Summer camp is society’s collectively approved, communal escape into wilderness. It’s perceived as wholesome, if not a little quirky, safe, if not a little dorky.

Summer camp is the place where Americans are allowed to get more American and hippies are allowed to denounce corporate gluttony – where budding 15-year-olds come of age in cult classics and pancakes are shared with grown men named Walrus and grown women named Tiger Lily. Or Panther. Or Ponderosa.

 

I was 18 when I signed on to be part of this longstanding stereotype. A good Oregon raised girl, it seemed only necessary to invest my time in at least one outdoor oriented, nature-based summer job. I was eager and untested. I, like so many novice campers, coveted a secret hunger for wild places, but didn’t yet know about the scent below the scent – the breath of bark and moss and mushroom during damp morning hours. I didn’t know about the kind of green you never recover from. I had not waited in a forest wordless – all goose bumped skin and plant light lungs. I was clueless and desperate with excitement. I was a cult classic protagonist, a wannabe hippie, a wide-eyed wilderness virgin.

 

But they hired me regardless. I’ve always done well in interviews.

***

“Tibet, don’t close your eyes, it makes it worse!” Lily hollers to me in her sweet singsong voice as I’m raised slowly upwards over an 80-foot ravine, strapped inside a harness that feels like an adult diaper.

She calls me Tibet because this is the camp counselor name I ceremoniously chose for myself.

No, I’ve never been to Tibet. And yes, I realize now, how embarrassing that is.

 

Lily is one of my 14-year-old campers and she’s trying to encourage me.

You see, being the adventure counselor means taking groups of kids on harnessed drops over forest canyons, among other things.

And when I said yes to this role, it was because I thought we’d be hiking or running near water, maybe howling at stars in a meadow. I’m skittish about heights and I’m not a particularly strong swimmer, but I’m good at quoting poetry and I can play two Dar Williams songs on my guitar. I assumed there was a balance to be struck. I had no idea the adventure counselor led horseback rides, whitewater rafting trips and 80-foot harness drops.

 

“Tibet! You look like you’re going to throw up!” That’s Anna, Lily’s not-so-sweet counterpart, and she taps her black fingernails against the hem of her ripped jeans.

I gaze out at treetops that are neither quilted nor velvet – that are nothing like the supple emblems described in my favorite nature prose. They are just spiky, pointed wood and they will skewer me like a fat cube of chicken if this harness breaks. I hold my breath and shake my head at Elk, the harness operator. He nods his shaggy mop of sun bleached hair and gives me a let’s-do-this thumbs up and a slightly stoned grin.

I shake my head more furiously, but he’s already preparing to release the cord.

 

“Breathe!” Lily calls.

 

“You’re crazy high up!” Anna shouts.

 

I push the air out of my lungs as Elk hits the go button.

 

“Fuuuuuuck!” I scream – three – possibly four times – as I hurtle through air, as my innocent 14-year-old campers giggle until they can’t stand, as the honest wind tells my body a story of speed and force and falling.

 

And like this, my summer camp adventure begins.

***

It’s not so bad when you have a co-counselor schooled in adrenaline-based excursions. Moose, (that’s his chosen name), takes charge of the stuff I’m no good at – like charting paths through churning water in small rubber rafts and leading horses over steep ridges.

This gives me time to listen deeply, to have real conversations with our campers, to play the two Dar Williams songs I know on my guitar every night before they sleep and to tell the truth with unabashed frequency.

 

I’m scared we might be crushed under that horse if he trips.

I don’t know what we’d do if our raft sunk.

I’m not entirely sure where we are.

I don’t know how to pitch a tent.

Starting a fire is hard and we might never be able to do it without matches.

 

But when we camp along the beach I turn each raft into a castle. I string battery-powered lanterns above our heads and craft bouquets of soggy gummy worms. I make up stories about stars that lived in rivers and rivers filled with light. About the day the stars abandoned water and married sky to bring the world out of darkness. About the river, still in love, reflecting burning circles. About the water’s deep, sad beauty and the sky’s enormous gaze.

The girls hold gummy worms suspended between hand and mouth and listen with rapt focus. Moose studies the map with his flashlight and plans a route for tomorrow that will bring us adventure and safety in equal measure.

 

The summer finds its pace.

***

It’s an early morning hike when I pause with a group of girls at the threshold to a clearing. Fractured sunlight fills the veins of lucent plants as dewdrops make a fleeting plea for solid form.

The animal is so still he could be stone – brown rib cage pushing breath – head bowed toward grass and earth, antlers bigger than my torso.

 

Recognition ripples through each of us in turn until we saturate the field with our fierce collective attention. And because I want to make it real, I allow myself one word, muttered out loud – a naming of our wonder.

 

“Moose.”

 

“He’s waiting up ahead on the trail,” Lily whispers.

 

“Not the human, the creature.” I reply.

 

“Elk.” Anna says.

 

“He’s not here either,” I smirk and for a second I think I’ve won her over, but she shakes her head disdainfully.

 

“It’s an elk Tibet, not a moose.”

 

“I know.” But I didn’t know. My honesty simply surrendered to my pride.

***

In the movie Moonrise Kingdom, he’s a raccoon hat wearing eleven-year old, in Troop Beverly Hills, he’s a girl scout’s dad who was formerly an inattentive husband and in Wet Hot American Summer, he’s an asshole with a great body.

For me, he’s a quiet, bronze skinned counselor who plays the saxophone at campfire.

And though I try to keep the blush from rising, my girls can see right through me.

 

“Pine Cone’s really cute,” they giggle.

“Are you guys friends?” they query.

“I bet he has a girlfriend outside of camp,” they sigh.

 

What I know is that Pinecone makes me feel like I’m being harness dropped on repeat. What I know is that I’m only four years older than my hormone-ridden campers and I’m just barely able to transcend their terribly obvious way of crushing hard.

 

At campfire the moon is golden round. My girls hide mosquito bitten legs beneath a blue fleece blanket that they share between them. Pine Cone stands up to play his saxophone. He looks once in my direction before the first note sounds out like a wolf howl in the night.

Anna’s voice is barely a whisper – devoid of sarcasm. “He likes you. You two would be cool together.”

 

I don’t pull any punches. “I like him too. We would be cool together.”

 

She smiles a slow smile. She offers me the corner of her blanket. Saxophone notes wail and scatter and when the music is done, earth hums to help us navigate the silence.

 

***

Our muscles are strong and our burnt skin has peeled to reveal the perfect hue of summer. At night I fall asleep on a mat below a fir tree, while my girls slide secrets between tents. August’s grip is ripe.

 

In the final days of camp, Moose and I take our adventure warriors on a hike that ends in a cold plunge, or more specifically, submersion into a deep pool of frigid water at the base of a large waterfall.

Moose waits on the rim of the pool. His job – tie his rope to the rope each camper wears around their waist, so that no one is lost to the shock of icy water.

My job – hold each camper’s hand as they climb up the final rocky ledge below the pool and prepare for Moose to drop them in.

 

Instead of gripping my hand to steady her gait, Anna twines her fingers around mine. She doesn’t move up or down. Her green eyes are round. Her black mascara streaks her cheekbones.

 

“You’ve got this,” I cheer, with the same enthusiasm I’ve used on all the other campers before lifting them towards an abyss-like well of dark and freezing water.

Anna shakes her head and her fingers tighten. Then all the sound of excited kids and water crashing, it levels into static.

 

“That water is cold as shit.”

Anna nods and her eyes get wider.

“Not being able to see the bottom is scary,” I say. “I thought I was going to die the first time I did this.”

 

Anna nods again and her grip softens.

 

“But that’s why we have the rope. We’re on the other side of that rope. And you’re gonna be fine.”

 

“I’m really scared,” Anna says.

 

“I know.”
The noise of the other soaked and gleeful campers is a chant of summer, of timeless friendship, of the crazy feral forest.

She pushes off my hand and climbs to Moose. He ties his rope to hers and she readies herself to drop. Anna finds my eyes and grins.

 

“Fuuuuuuuck!” she screams at the top of her lungs.

 

Then she closes her eyes and dives into the wild, lonely water.

 

***

 

Do your kids learn your real name at the end of the summer?

Yeah.

Are they surprised?

No. Your real name doesn’t matter anymore because it’s not what you remember.

 

What you remember is that the path to the dining hall is lined by rocks the color of ochre. Hummingbirds land often on the foxglove by the archery station, electric purple wings and pinpoint beaks. Skits are silly and some songs are cheesy, but communities gathered under the cherry plume of sunset to cherish something wild – it’s as necessary as air. Without screens or ringing phones, what you remember by the end of summer is that this togetherness matters. This forest home, this crazy coexistence of senseless beauty – this matters. And we, the fearful and the fearless, we will choose pride and we will choose truth, but we will all find our way through the deep and drowning water, back to each other.

And this matters.

More than anything, this matters.

Bloodsport

Liz Blood

Richard, a Filipino tricycle motorbike driver, agreed yesterday to drive us from Alona Beach, where we are staying, to the Sunday afternoon cockfight just outside of Panglao. He’s a quiet man, but patient with my gaggle of questions. I take to him right off the bat. Are there snakes here? Have you lived here always? There are and he has. Are you Catholic? Do you have children? He is and does. Do they like the beach? Who taught them to swim? They do and he did.

Richard is youthful, but not young. When he smiles, wrinkles form tributaries at the corners of his eyes, betraying his boyish brown face. Like the tires on his bike his hair is inky black except for the salt and pepper gray beginning to overtake his eyebrows. Richard doesn’t drink and declines my offer of a beer when I return from the convenience store, though back on the road he points out the Tanduay rum posters we keep passing.

“You like to drink? It’s very good,” he tells me.

I imagine a younger, childless Richard, hanging with the boys, barefoot in the street, passing a soccer ball—and maybe a bottle—back and forth as daylight wanes and the salty breeze picks up. Though my friends and I offer to pay his way, Richard refuses to join us at the fight.

“I don’t like the fighting,” he says as he lays back on his bike, positioning his head in the shade. A ball of guilt like a thought I’ve bagged, weighed down, tied, and sunk to the bottom of my gut drops in my stomach. The beer doesn’t chase it away, but I move on. The four of us—three boys and I—agreed before we came to the Philippines that we wanted to see a cockfight. Our reasons were varied, but mostly boiled down to the fact that cockfighting is a little like forbidden fruit. Cockfighting was outlawed in my home state when I was fifteen years old. We indulged a thirst for adventure, something we could excuse by being in another culture. So off we go for hours while gentle Richard snoozes in the shade, feet on the handlebars, a bony arm hooked over his eyes.

The Panglao Cockpit Arena is set back from the road, obscured from view by hundreds of motorbikes and a mess of shrubbery and trees. If it weren’t for the signage noting its location, passersby would have little idea what goes on there past the rickety wooden fence and through the homemade turnstile. After paying a nominal admission fee, visitors—mostly locals—move through the gate and into a courtyard lined on both sides with wooden stalls. Everything here is built of wood stained with years of rain, blood, and dirt and smells damp, with a hint of mildew. In the stalls where women sell coconut juice, fried breads, beer, Cokes and single cigarettes, the wood is worn, a dingy dark grey.

Crowing cocks call out from opposite corners of the arena, each cry hails louder than the grunts and bawls of men. The winged creatures are everywhere, every which way—tied to posts, wandering the grounds, blocking the path to the bathroom, in between legs, in men’s arms. Not one cock is caged. Here, the earth is moist. Dirt, dark and damp and soft, sparsely covered by splotches of grass and scattered drops of blood. Filipino men and boys carry the gamefowl like women carry toy-sized dogs—the birds’ ribcage resting on the forearm, the hand cradling the breast. And like women with small dogs, these men talk to their pets, stroke them, pamper them, clutch them like a beaked purse. These cocks, bred to fight, are more like the pit bulls of U.S. animal fighting lore. Affectionate and loving even to their masters, these pets turn carnal in a second, revealing a ferocity and a hidden strength. Men examine each others’ fighters with eyes made larger and brighter and more intense by the burnt sienna brown of their skin and the golden, purple-black, deep red feathers of the cocks.

At the back of the courtyard sits a vaulted open-air barn. Palm tree trunks serve as pillars to a rusting, corrugated metal roof. Visible through the slats of wood, men stand shoulder-to-shoulder on bleachers, waving their arms placing bets, flicking their hands back and forth, exclaiming words and numbers rapid-fire, as indecipherable as the cocks’ crows. One makes his or, in my rare case, her way into this roofed structure through a small doorway on the courtyard end or by climbing over a railing at the back. Sunlight seeks whatever gaps it finds and falls onto the raised dirt floor of the cockpit. Sweat glistens on the men in the ring; light turns their grey hair silver and black hair hematite. Rays of light and spokes of darkness alternate like keys on a piano; jagged lines of faces are illuminated throughout the arena. I push through the crowd of shouting, smoking men to find a place to stand, elbow-to-elbow, front to back, knee to knee. A slight breeze chills the beads of sweat on my neck. I raise my head, still working my way through the congregation, and come to a bit of a clearing. The arena floor comes into clear view. In this instant, the shouts of men and cries of roosters swirl together with perfume of tobacco and blood, rum and sweat. The afternoon air seethes with sharp impressions of life and death, of an urgency made more immediate by startling each sense.

A fight is about to begin and I am bewitched. Forget that I’ve lost my friends, forget my sunburned skin and the sweat trickling down my back, forget Richard on his bike, my family across the world—there is nothing else at this moment but the vibrating surges of excitement lighting up this small patch of dirt in Panglao.

The handlers each grip their respective fighters by the hackles while the referee also secures them. Because the cocks wear a gaff—a razor shaped like the blade of a scythe—attached to the back of one ankle the handlers are careful to hold them at arms’ length. The referee says something indistinguishable and the handlers shove the birds towards one another headfirst, close enough that a strike could peck the opponent’s eye out. Their wings—so richly colored they might be paint—flutter and the crowd’s collective voice dies down to a hush, enough to hear the whoosh whoooosh of feathers. A crow erupts like a battle cry if I’ve ever heard one, as if the bird has picked up a bugle to sound its aggression. The handlers drop them to the floor and they rage. Puffs of dirt are kicked up as the birds flip over one another. Light glints off of the gaff—glittery and tragically beautiful. Their wings slash and I hope one might get away but then remember cocks don’t fly. Instead, those wings swoop and slice through the air and dust, boomerangs sailing through the leafy crown of a tree. The sight is both brilliant and bleak: a flurry of feathers, streaks of red and yellow and black. I find it impossible to keep an eye on just one bird as they lash out relentlessly at one another, aiming for a kill zone.

They will kill or be killed; theirs is a stark and simple existence.

And then it happens.

I hold my breath.

The loser—now only a bird in form, no longer a tumble of color—shudders, stumbles, and spits up blood. The gaff penetrated his lung beneath the wing. His neck lurches forward, his head follows, lilting to the side, and he falls limp to the floor—a lifeless, feathered pile that, despite the heat, will quickly turn cold.

I had never seen a living thing die before, much less get killed, and I wonder again at that dull feeling in my stomach, at the human delight in obvious suffering. Voices pro- and anti-cockfighting sound off in my head, but I hush them, take in the scene: the men huddled over fences, watching from bleachers, arms waving, faces zealous, bets placed, cries bursting forth. This could be the cocksure horde on the trading floors of Wall Street; fight night at the Coliseum. When the bird lands that fatal blow to the other—the blade piercing a kill zone, which might mean the heart, a lung, a slash through the neck—and the loser staggers, goes limp, twitches, it’s the ultimate show. Nothing commands an audience like a killing. To behold life leaving the body is like watching someone you love drive away—growing smaller and more remote with each heartbeat. It is water gone down the drain; it is downy dandelion wisps floating away with the wind.

Cockfighters talk of destiny. They say cockfighting fulfills what a cock is born to do: fight to the death. And, possibly to the envy of some men, the gamefowl meets its destiny head on. Cocks lack both doubt and reservation; their presence and intent in the here and now are unadulterated. They don’t tax themselves with thought of money or career or of right versus wrong. They are bound by no sense of time beyond this heartbeat—no past, no future; there are no meetings to attend or dates to uphold, only this one which is happening now, thus receiving full attention from the little being. Indeed these are qualities to admire—and they have been admired throughout the sport’s nearly 3,000 year-old history. The Greeks used cockfighting to engender bravery and vigor among soldiers before battle. Soothsayers warned Marc Antony of Caesar’s power, citing the fact that Caesar’s cocks always beat Antony’s. A spectator feels the breath of history raise the hairs on his neck when he views a cockfight, old as history itself.

But how can we ever really know what something is born to do? A cock is born to fight because we control its upbringing. Might we also say it is born to laze about the yard and welcome the rising sun, surrounded by a brood of hens pecking at scattered seeds? Or is it born to strut about proudly and serve as a symbol for handsomeness, dignity, and a no-fear attitude?

A man in torn jeans and sandals lifts the dead bird by its feet. The head flops, no longer working against gravity. Blood drips onto the floor and death, with its peculiar energy, fills the air. A boy looks on, perched in a tree outside of the arena. His eyes meet mine and I am overwhelmed by his stare.

My thoughts take leave of the arena and the repeated deaths of these flightless birds. They go to Richard napping in the shade. Was he born to drive a trike and wait on wide-eyed tourists? “Everyman’s work,” wrote Samuel Butler, “whether it be literature, or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.” But a portrait is very different from purpose—it is an observation rather than intent. I can look at a bird and essay a portrait. I can look at Richard and see a gentle man waiting patiently for money to take home to his wife and children—the children he taught to swim in the ocean—the ocean which engulfs this tiny island where men play at life and death in different ways.

After several hours we leave the cockpit and return to Richard for the ride home. He looks refreshed and smiles at us. From the time we come into his view to the time we reach him, he stretches a smile full of grace that cleanses the world for a moment and brightens an already vivid afternoon. He seems genuinely happy to see us and his smile makes me self-conscious at the same time it comforts me, like when someone loves you and you’re grateful for it, but feel a bit undeserving.

“Did you like it?” he asks.

“Yeah, it was fun,” I say, but as the last word leaves my lips I know I did not get it quite right. Gripping, might have been a better word. Intense, even. We drive back over the dusty roads that have baked all day in the sun that is now setting behind us, and home to the rest of our group and dinner.

___

Just over a week later I am in another town on another island having a glass of beer with strangers. My friends and I walk into an open-air bar and we are each immediately greeted and grabbed by different groups who want us to sit down and have a chat. I watch, sort of bewildered, as my friends are divvied up as if the bar crowd had divined our arrival and chosen who they wanted where. I am the last to be invited to a table and it is one made up entirely of men. They are jovial; most have great big bellies that heave as they laugh, which they do immediately after their friend summons me and I accept. Certainly they are as surprised as I am. The man to my left asks for a cup with ice and he pours me some beer. He teaches me words in their dialect of Tagalog and writes them in my journal.

“You should come teach English in the Philippines,” he says. “You should marry him, he’s an architect,” he tells me, pointing at the man across the table from me. “You should visit Dumaguete again and come to one of our cockfights.”

“Do you raise fighters?” I ask.

“I’m the pit manager.”

“I went to a cockfight on Panglao.”

He tells everybody at the table. They are surprised and laugh again. And I understand their surprise, but my appreciation of the event is no less real, no less awakening than theirs. Their world of cockfighting is, most often, a world separate from women. Like many cultures and communities, that has changed some, but for the most part cockfighting is a man’s domain. This was apparent when I entered through the wooden gate in Panglao and took my place standing among the men in the bleachers. Light and dark cast the same shadows on my softer features that it did on theirs. I may have winced more, but I never shut my eyes. What these men are dealing in—basic matters of life and death—cannot be separated by gender.

We have more beer and conversation and when I try to excuse myself from the table to leave, he asks me to give him something so he can remember me. I sit back in my chair and look down, trying to think of a thing to give. I pull off the only accessory I have—a small bracelet made of wooden beads carved in the likeness of skulls.

“Here,” I say. “You can have this.” He puts it on, pulls it near his face and peers at it through squinted eyes in the dim light.

“What are they?” he asks, maintaining his puzzled expression.

“Skulls.”

His big shoulders move sharply and quickly at an angle away from me.

“Why?”

“Well, I guess to remind us that we will die, but we are alive now.”

“I don’t like it,” he says with shake of his head and flick of the wrist. I look at this man and smile slightly, unsure what to say, what to think. That he is more disturbed by my style than I am by his lifestyle will strike me only later.

Perhaps jewelry is a woman’s domain. Or perhaps this man, surrounded by death daily, carries around enough reminders.

 

Art by Matt Monk

Liz Blood is a nonfiction writer and editor from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her essays, interviews, articles, and stories have appeared in HuffPost, AWP Writer’s Chronicle, Sierra magazine, Oklahoma Today, and elsewhere. She is a 2019 Tulsa Artist Fellow, a 2018-19 Oklahoma Center for the Humanities fellow, a 2018-19 Oklahoma Art Writing and Curatorial Fellow, and an adjunct faculty member at Oklahoma City University’s Red Earth MFA in creative writing program. Liz holds an BA in English from Westminster College and an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also hosts Seven Minutes in Heaven, a reading series of short fiction and nonfiction.

Stuck

Joey Franklin

“A million freemen may yet inhabit those counties which, while their wealth lay hidden, were disregarded for more fertile parts, but which, when developed, will furnish forth the wealth of an empire.”

–Charles Walker,
The History of Athens County, Ohio 1867

I walked through the double doors of the plasma center at eleven a.m., right behind a man who looked like he’d just spent the night in his car. His hair pitched awkwardly atop his head, and his loose T-shirt hung low beneath the trim of his bomber jacket. I stood behind him in line at the reception desk and looked around the room. I had imagined a rusty, back-alley nightmare of cracked linoleum, flickering fluorescents, stained lab coats, and crumpled dollar bills—the grime beneath the folds of Darwinian capitalism. Instead, I was greeted by starched lab coats, bleached teeth and ponytails, waxed floors, and a computer-automated check-in system—the highly polished face of a multi-billion dollar industry. I waited in line and watched the receptionist give instructions to the man at the counter. Then she waved me forward.

I read waivers and signed forms and stood for my picture. She took my weight on a digital scale, and then led me to a touch-screen computer console where I answered a long questionnaire, mostly concerning my history of sexual contact with drug users and prostitutes. I pushed the “no” button over and over, except after the questions, “Are you male?” and, “Are you feeling healthy and well today?”

After I completed the questionnaire, another young woman in a white coat pricked my finger, measured my iron and protein levels, my blood pressure, and my temperature before sending me to the nurse for a physical, where a woman in blue scrubs checked my balance, asked about tattoos and drug use, and lectured me briefly on getting plenty of protein and fluids. Then she led me to an empty place in a row of brown, vinyl reclining beds situated at the rear of the donation center.

My fellow donors, already prostrate and hooked to donation machines, were distracting themselves with magazines, paperbacks, and other reading material. One donor held a portable DVD player in his lap. Another had his face buried in his phone, and another just lay there with a vacant expression on her face, one arm in her lap and the other at her side, her forearm turned upward to expose a vein. A single crimson tube draped low from her elbow toward the ground and then arced back up into a machine that clicked and beeped at her side.

“Lie down,” said the young woman in the white coat, but with the sweet Appalachian twang of her voice, I could have sworn I heard, “make yourself at home.”

 

Once upon a time, Southeast Ohio had the largest coal deposits in the world. At its peak, the coal industry extracted more than 55 million tons of coal a year from more than one thousand mines around the state. For decades, coal from the region fueled American industry and brought thousands of immigrants to the Appalachian countryside. They settled in small villages that grew up around the mines, and breathed life into a region of the country long overshadowed by more promising territory to the west.

Of course, Melissa and I didn’t know any of this when we moved to Athens, Ohio, a college town built on the western edge of the Appalachian range. We’d both grown up in Oregon, less than two hours from the Pacific Ocean, and we went to college in northern Utah. Droughts and endangered salmon and BLM land and wolf packs were a normal part of our local-news reality. East of the Mississippi might as well have been East of the Nile.

What I did know about Ohio came from memories of my high school history books and those large pull-down maps that hung above classroom chalkboards. I could picture Lake Erie and the great dipping curve of the Ohio River, and I knew that the land in between had been the nation’s first notion of a western frontier, but that’s about it.

As for Appalachia, I knew even less, mere caricature: Hatfields and McCoys, trailer parks and drawled speech, kids named Billy Bob and family trees that didn’t fork. For us, coming to southeast Ohio was nothing more than a means to an end; a brief stop for graduate school on the way to somewhere better. I never once thought about the people who’d come before me, or why they might have chosen to stay.

 

Reclining in my donor bed, I watched Jason, the phlebotomist, move from machine to machine with a grace and offhandedness that surprised me. As he checked meters and unwrapped tubes, he rattled off the details of the donation process. Plasmapheresis, he called it, explaining that he would insert a needle into my arm and the blood would start flowing into the large, almond-colored machine standing beside my bed. He explained that the plasma would be separated from my blood in a centrifuge and that the residual red blood cells would be pumped back into my body. He warned me that I might get a metallic taste in my mouth, that I must keep pumping my hand or the machine would stop working, and finally, that despite blinking lights and warning systems built into the machine, there was a slight chance that air might enter a vein, which could make me terribly sick or maybe even kill me. Then he placed a clipboard in my hand and said, “Just sign here that you heard me explain that.”

 

The first white settlers came to southeast Ohio in 1787, led by a Revolutionary War veteran named Rufus Putnam. He had the ear of President Washington and the entire Northwest Territory to choose from, but instead of the fertile Miami River Valley to the west, or some economically strategic location closer to Pittsburgh, or Lake Erie, Rufus and his men chose the tumbling, rolling countryside of southeast Ohio. Other settlers thought Putnam and his company was crazy, but Putnam had a vision for the region and dreams of a bustling metropolis on the banks of the Ohio River, an economy fed by rich farmland and a thriving fur trade. His advertisements described a “delightful region…of a much better quality than any other known to New England,” and for that first exhibition, he signed up 60 men. Still, Ohio was a hard sell for most would-be immigrants. Even after treaties were forced on the natives, even after forts and mills were constructed, even after plans for a university were introduced, only the most desperate and adventurous settlers would take the risk.

 

I had not planned on donating plasma in Ohio, but the impossible math of a graduate student stipend divided by Melissa, me, and our two boys inevitably added up to a visit with a financial aid officer, the small hope of a big loan, and the curious anxiety of mortgaging one’s future for a chance at surviving the present. Add the specter of Christmas on the horizon and you get a perfect formula for fatherly desperation. After just a few months in Athens, I saw a poster for the plasma center hanging on a wall at school. “Save a Life,” it read, and it promised $240 a month. I was sold.

 

During the last decade of the eighteenth century, a slow drip of immigrants arrived in Ohio from the Northeast—families signing on a few at a time for a chance to test the region’s potential. And if that pace had held, Ohio might have remained for many years a sparsely populated forest of fur traders and subsistence farmers. However, shortly after the turn of the century, those farmers and fur trappers began taking notice of the coal. And then the industrial revolution turned that coal into black gold, and by the 1850s large mining interests were laying out a system of railroads to carry immigrants and equipment into the hills, and cartloads of coal back out. Labor came from England, Wales, Scotland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and elsewhere, and by 1884 there were more than 20,000 miners and their families scattered around the region. A man whose children might have starved in the old country could swing a pick underground in Ohio for a few dollars a week, chipping away at a vein of coal so deep and so thick it would take a legion of men two lifetimes to remove.

 

I have good veins, the kind inexperienced phlebotomists dream of at night. Protruding from my forearms “like garden hoses,” according to one employee, they make easy targets for even the shakiest hand. Thankfully, Jason didn’t need the extra help. “Don’t worry,” he said, as he held up the needle. “I’ve been doing this for years.” He tapped my arm, slid the needle under my skin, and just like that, I was a donor, plugged in and pumping away.

While the machine processed my plasma, I read from my book, kept my fist pumping, and occasionally looked up at the other donors around me. The man with the DVD player was still watching his movie, the man with the cell phone was still texting, and the woman with nothing still stared blankly into space. Our machines hummed along, and every few minutes a finished donor and a pale orange bottle of plasma would leave, and a new donor with an empty bottle would fill the void.

After about an hour, I’d donated my quota and my left-over red blood cells were pumped back into my veins for a final time, followed by a 500 ml chaser of saline that was supposed to boost my blood volume and keep me from fainting. On my way out, a nurse handed me a debit card loaded with twenty dollars and told me I could come back twice a week, for as long as I could stomach it.

 

Mining in Ohio was good work, if you could handle it. Small towns near remote mine entrances all around southeast Ohio were full of immigrants who thought they could. The towns had simple names like Coal Run and Buckhorn, and family names like Murray, Buchtel, and Mudoc, and optimistic names like New Philadelphia, New Lexington, and New Pittsburgh: places where people could start fresh, chase the dream of getting ahead, and, in reality, spend a lot of time just hanging on. Companies built shack housing and paid employees in scrip—play money that was good only at company stores. The hours were long and the system parasitic—the success of the mine sometimes determined less by the amount of coal extracted from the ground and more by the dollar value of scrip that never left company property. Many mining families lived on site, worked on site, shopped on site, and if the town lasted long enough, died on site.

 

Just across the street from the plasma center was a Wal-Mart. It wasn’t the only shop in town, but sometimes it felt that way. Sure, Athens had a Kroger, a BigLots!, a Lowe’s, and a few other smaller stores, but no matter how we tried to avoid it, we ended up at Wal-Mart at least once a week. Light bulbs, Band-Aids, diapers, milk, cereal, paint, shoelaces—they were all cheaper at Wal-Mart. And its proximity to the plasma center made shopping there that much easier. More than a few times I finished donating only to pull across the street to the Wal-Mart and drop everything I’d just earned on a few groceries. And there, at Wal-Mart, more than anywhere else in town, I ran into employees from the plasma center. On the way to work, or just getting off, they too made the requisite Wal-Mart stop. Sometimes we waved, or exchanged silent nods, but usually we just kept our heads down, closed up in our own little worlds.

 

Coal mining was not for the claustrophobic. It meant working in dark, low tunnels hundreds of feet underground for long hours with nothing but your partner, your light, and the rats to keep you company. It meant tight quarters and an ever-present fear that a fire might break out, a pillar might snap, and a shaft might seal itself off in a crumbling cloud of dust and rubble. On a Friday morning in April 1856, the pillars of a mine shaft near Blue Rock, Ohio, collapsed, trapping four miners beneath several hundred feet of dirt and rock. Fellow miners dug for days, and, near the end of the second week, they heard voices coming from beneath them. By the time the men had been pulled to safety, they’d spent more than fourteen days buried alive, trapped in an underground air pocket with nothing to drink but a bit of murky water collecting in a pool on the floor of the mine shaft. I imagine the entire town heaving a collective sigh of relief when their men emerged from the mine, but what could those men do but dust themselves off and go back to work?

 

 

Once, during my pre-donation screening, while the attendant was checking my protein levels in a microscope, I asked her if she’d ever seen any accidents at the clinic.

“What do you mean, ‘accidents’?” she said.

“You know, something goes wrong with a donor?”

“Sometimes we have people pass out,” she said. “A few times a year.” Apparently, a majority of problems occur while a person is simply reading about donating. They turn white in the face, get shaky, vomit, and sometimes lose consciousness altogether. One woman became so frightened by the sight of an unwrapped needle that she swore, “Oh my God,” and ran out of the center.

Later, while lying in my donor bed, my machine began to beep. It was a familiar sound. “Just an air bubble,” said the phlebotomist. Two or three times during a donation, the plasmapheresis machine detects the presence of air somewhere in the blood line and it shuts down until a phlebotomist comes and pushes a few buttons to purge the system.

“I think I can handle an air bubble,” I said. The phlebotomist gave me a funny look.

“You think you can handle air bubbles?”

“I mean . . . I can handle the beeping,” I said, and she stopped at the foot of my bed.

“Well,” she laughed. “The nurse tells me it takes at least 10 milliliters of air to kill you.” She said this in a voice that was, I think, supposed to sound reassuring.

 

Families in mining towns lived at the mercy of the companies they worked for—the steady flow of coal their only reassurance against poverty, hunger, and cold. If an accident or strike or dried-up mine rendered a town unprofitable, the company could pack up and go, leaving the men and their families to find other ways of making do.

In 1920, a coal processing structure burned to the ground in San Toy, a small mining town northeast of Athens. More than 2,500 people had moved to San Toy since its founding in 1901. The company town boasted a theater, a baseball team, and a hospital, but instead of rebuilding after the fire, the Sunday Creek Mine Company shut down one mine and eventually withdrew from the city completely. Within eight years the town was empty. What equipment could be salvaged was distributed to other nearby mines, and the hundreds of displaced workers had little choice but to pick up and follow the equipment, leaving behind a ghost town, a tiny scar on the hillside stitched together by vacant rail lines fading slowly into the undergrowth.

 

After I’d donated plasma a few times, I showed my scars to Melissa: two red dots on the insides of my elbows.

“Yuck,” she said, and turned away, unwilling to look. This is the response I got from most people who found out what I was doing. Sure, needles and blood make people squeamish, but it was also the stigma of donating itself—an act that lies on the socio-economic spectrum of desperation somewhere between not being able to pay your phone bill and stealing money from a roommate. People understood why I did it, but most couldn’t imagine doing it themselves.

Melissa never liked to hear me talk about it, and she constantly apologized, as if the whole thing was her fault. She worried about my health, that months of donating would cause irrevocable damage to my body, that for the rest of my life I’d wear a solitary track mark on each forearm, my small badge of courage, a pair of misplaced stigmata—a sign to be sure, but of what?

Rattling around in my mind was a foggy awareness that mixing needles, blood, and money was dirty business, but I didn’t know the details. For instance, in 1971, a Time article reported that more than 100,000 people donated plasma regularly in the United States, most of them “Skid Row bums and drug addicts,”—impoverished, desperate men and women who infected the plasma pool first with Hepatitis C and later, in the early 1980s, with HIV. For decades, the unregulated industry allowed cash-strapped junkies to donate several times a week at multiple locations without any screening or testing of collected fluids. The industry then turned that plasma into anti-coagulant medicine for hemophiliacs, and blood volume boosters for trauma victims. According to some estimates, nearly 20,000 hemophiliacs contracted HIV from tainted plasma, not to mention the thousands infected by hepatitis C. The federal government eventually stepped in and set up proper regulations, but by then the plasma industry had secured its reputation as blood pushers, and donors as the industry’s blood whores.

 

Coal miners were rough, dirty, wild, and ignorant. Or so the mythology says. Going down into the mines branded a person and gave permission to those on the surface to simultaneously pity and revile them. Underground five or six days a week, in a saloon or at a card table at night, coated in and coughing up black dust, miners did not live genteel lives. It’s easy to see how the stereotypes got their start. History books from the region overflow with photographs of miners, almost always sitting atop a mining cart, or posing by a piece of equipment, or squatting on their aluminum lunch pails, their faces stained, coal dust darkening the crows’ feet around their eyes and deepening the wrinkles in their foreheads. Theirs was a life of overalls and boots, of headlamps and thick denim, of grime and whistles and black phlegm. Almost universally, they look tired in the high-contrast of old monochrome photographs; and the way they lean elbows on knees, or lift hands to their hips, one gets the impression that these men were busy, that in the backs of their minds they knew there was coal to be loaded and the day wouldn’t be over until the carts were full. I imagine that a miner, stuck with a company tab to pay off and a family to feed, had little time for worrying about public image.

 

Stick is the verb of choice among phlebotomists, as in “I stuck 15 people today,” and “You can choose who sticks you,” and “Who stuck you? They did it all wrong.” The word choice always seemed so unfortunate to me—the one with the needle sticking out of my arm, the one stuck in the bed for an hour, the one feeling like a stuck cow attached to a milk pump. But I don’t think they meant any harm by it. I often told my phlebotomist I could never stick a needle into someone else’s arm. And maybe that’s why they talked about donors like we were pin-cushions; to dehumanize us, if just a little, to steel themselves against the reality of what they were extracting all day, and from whom.

 

By the late twentieth century, more than 3.4 billion tons of coal had been extracted from Ohio soil. At its peak, the coal industry employed 50,000 people in the state, but by the early 1990s, advances in technology had changed coal mining so much that fewer than 5,000 employees could keep the entire industry running. Today mines are safer, cleaner, and more efficient, but they are also emptier. Appalachian boys whose fathers grew up to be miners because their fathers had grown up to be miners have had to come up with new plans for the future.

 

Since the early 1990s, the plasma industry has worked hard to transform the donating process into the reassuringly sterile experience I endured in Ohio. There are now more than 300 certified plasma donation centers in the United States that collect roughly 15 million liters of plasma every year. The process is, for the most part, streamlined, safe, and secure. In fact, it feels as routine as, say, a trip through Jiffy Lube, with someone guiding you through every step of the process, minding the fluids and hoses while you sit and read a magazine. Plasma donation is a fundamental part of the global medical machine, and while it’s safer and more reliable than it has ever been, the donor pool is still made up primarily of the poor and underprivileged.

Here in Athens, that means the hard-knock locals like the small family I noticed one day as I was leaving the center. A couple was standing in front of the computer kiosk reserved for checking debit card balances and scheduling appointments. Their children had apparently been in the “supervised waiting room” watching movies while mom and dad donated, and now they were all preparing to leave. One child stood in front of mom and another sat on the floor chewing on a drawstring that hung from his father’s coat. The father held a third, smaller child in his arms, a little girl that kept trying to take off his hat. I wondered what the money would mean for them—the extra $120 a week.

I knew what it meant for me—a temporary buffer between my family and the end of my monthly teaching stipend, an excuse to get dessert at Applebee’s, an extra gift under the tree, and gas money for a trip to Cleveland. We needed the money, to be sure, but the poverty I felt was a somewhat artificial one. We had a little money in the bank, more student loan options than I knew what to do with, and I was working on a graduate degree. Donating was never an act of true desperation. I came here to Ohio for school, and school would be my ticket out. Those children huddling around their parents at the donation center, if they’re from Appalachia, will probably want to go to college, but, statistically speaking, they’re just as likely to drop out of high school as earn a bachelor’s degree. They are the grandchildren of miners and farmers and craftsmen, the children of Wal-Mart clerks and construction workers, and, while it’s not impossible for them to break out of the poverty they grew up in, the current system doesn’t offer them much hope.

 

In the spring, Melissa and I took our boys to see the old train depot in Murray City, a defunct mining town tucked back into the hills north of Athens. The drive took about twenty minutes on narrow winding roads that cut through green-leaf forests pocked by the occasional trailer or farm home. Murray City itself emerged from the woods first as a series of small houses, and then a new fire station beside a park, and finally as a few larger brick buildings, including a boarded-up high school, a convenience store, a bar, and an Elks lodge. Beyond that were clusters of small houses and, at the end of town, an old train depot recently converted into a small mining museum. Beside the depot sat a large red caboose that helped complete the picture of a little train stop in the middle of the woods. We parked in a gravel lot next to the depot and climbed out of the car. Across the parking lot was a long narrow greenway that I could tell had once been the train line.

The mines around Murray City were once among the highest yielding coal mines in the world, and that success meant great things for the growing town and its more than two thousand citizens. There were schools, churches, banks, retail stores, a newspaper called The Murray City News, a labor union, and four trains a day that steamed through the small depot. One dollar and twenty-five cents could get you to Columbus for the weekend, but why would you want to leave? Wake up on a Saturday morning and you could visit the doctor, take your kids to the park, and pick up some produce at Lunt’s Groceries, all before lunch. Then you could get your haircut at the barber’s shop on Locust street and still have time to see a show at the theater or watch the Murray City Tigers wallop a neighboring town on the grid iron. At night you could buy a friend a drink at one of twenty-three saloons, and on Sunday morning you could catch a sermon from five different pulpits. The coal brought the people and the people built the town and the town became the center of life for hundreds of miners and their families for nearly half a century.

Looking through the museum’s old photographs of parades and marching bands and city councilmen in sharp bowler hats, it was easy to imagine a happy life in Murray. And it was easy to see why some residents would resort to violence to defend that life. The first labor strikes occurred at the Murray mines in 1884. Locals wanted better pay and companies wanted more output, and that tension broiled up every few years for decades. Striking miners set fires, destroyed company property, and even fired shots at foreign scabs brought in to work the mines. But, amid all this, Murray managed to survive. Even after World War II, when strip mining was rapidly replacing underground operations, and Murray’s mines began to close, the city didn’t fold. Not completely. Even when the last picks and shovels were hauled away, a few people stayed put, deciding to commute to whatever job came next, rather than sell their land and look for something new.

Today, about 450 people live in Murray City. There is no bank, no newspaper, and no grocery store—and all but one of the churches has been shuttered. All the children in town are bused to schools in other cities, and those adults who are not elderly or retired must commute to Athens, or Nelsonville, or farther, for work. Other than the depot and the grassed-over rail bed, the only hint of the city’s mining past was inscribed on a plaque in a park built over an old mine entrance.

My boys poked around the museum for a few minutes, asking questions about old photographs and train tickets and a large bucket of coal in the corner, but they grew restless. We went outside and let them climb on the red caboose, snapping photos as they posed against the overcast sky. When we pulled up to the museum that morning, I wondered aloud to Melissa why anyone would live way out in such impossible quiet. But the quiet my boys sat in as I took their photo was not the quiet of a ghost town. The forests around us laid benevolent siege to the little village in the way only an Appalachian forest can, and I felt both secluded and nestled in a strange way. In that moment, the silent, wet world of the woods was enough of a reason for Murray to persist. Before we left, we climbed inside the caboose and sat on the cracked seats and looked out the window at the tracks below—tracks that had been restored just for this little memorial: two beams of oxidized steel coming in from nowhere to hold up the bright old caboose, and then quitting just beyond the car’s front coupler, a heavy steal question mark that seemed to punctuate the town’s only question: “Going so soon?”

 

One day at the plasma center, a young couple walked through the door as I tapped out my questionnaire on the computer. The man wore a pair of vintage Air Jordans and jean shorts with the words mi raza embroidered down one leg. Tattoos wrapped around both his forearms and around both calves, and he spoke loudly on his cell phone in a thick West Virginia drawl. The woman had blond, curly hair, and a strip of her midriff peaked out beneath the hem of her white tank top. They couldn’t have been older than twenty. I watched as the woman stood on the scale and then heard the attendant give her the bad news.

“Hundred and eight,” she said. “You have to weigh at least one-ten.”

The man rolled his eyes, and I heard him explain the situation to the person on the phone—he had been cleared for donation, but the woman would have to wait out front.

A few minutes later I was all plugged in, and the man on the phone sat a few beds over, still talking loudly.

“A house and a double wide,” I heard him say. “We only pay utilities.” He paused for a moment and then raised his voice: “That’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “Appalachian Ohio is the poorest place in the United States, man.” He raised his voice again, and continued: “’Cause there ain’t no jobs!” And he went on for several minutes about his struggle to find work, his hopes for starting a business, his affinity for good pot, and his frustration with the cops who wouldn’t leave him alone. “Its like no one’s free up here!” he yelled. But then his voice softened, and he said, “But it’s beautiful, dude. Come up here in the summertime. It’s beautiful.”

By then I’d been living in Ohio for more than a year, and men like this still surprised me: men for whom Appalachia was home in the deepest, most sentimental way possible, men whose families had lived in the region for generations—who knew what it took to put down roots, and also what it meant to pull them up. I have, more often than I care to admit, been guilty of the easy, patronizing conclusion that men like this are simply victims of circumstance, products of their region’s own troubled history, stuck as much by geography as genealogy. And sure, you might call what I heard in his voice anxiety, maybe even a little desperation, but when he said, “come up here in the summertime. It’s beautiful,” his voice hinted at something else—less fear of what a place might take from him, and more faith in what it might have to offer. It was a voice that trusted in the hidden promises of a sleepy Appalachian hollow, a voice he might have heard first from his father, or his father’s father, a voice that sounded that day like an invitation. And perhaps it was something like that voice that called us out to Ohio in the first place, that got me into that donor bed and selling myself a few hundred liters of plasma at a time, a voice from beyond history that calls men and women to settle strange lands and offer their own pound of flesh for a chance at life; a voice that says “come and stay a while—see what happens,” a voice that has echoed in those hills for a very long time.

 

Art by Matt Monk

Joey Franklin is an assistant professor of English at Brigham Young University. His writing has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Poets and Writers, Norton Reader, and Gettysburg Review.