The Day Before, by Trevy Thomas

As soon as my husband left, I opened the basement door and made myself enter the dark, sometimes moldy hole in the bottom of our home. I’ve lived in five houses with basements and avoided every one of them. This basement had become a storage place for the things we seldom used. I’d prefer that it remain empty so there would never be a reason to visit it, but my husband believes in storage. Now I had a reason of my own to need it.

Most of the stuff that was piled around the edges of the small concrete cave would be useless: Christmas lights, a spare cabinet, collections of things that once belonged to people now dead—the ones who lived and left their lives just in the nick of time. Theirs was an era of bomb shelters that proved unnecessary. I was no longer sure that would be true for me.

As the U.S. and North Korea batted nuclear threats to each other like a ping-pong ball, my anxiety grew until I too was puppeteered to action. Determined to educate myself on wartime preparations, I knew it was best to act in secret. My husband didn’t believe there would be a nuclear war, or, if there were, that we’d die immediately. He thought preparations were foolish, and I worried he might dispose of mine, particularly the lame bag of paper plates and can of green beans I’d managed to stash so far.

My talk about preparing seemed to upset him. At first, I thought it was because it made him worry he’d married a woman with potentially questionable intellect. But I noticed him pay attention as national discussions continued, and the CDC issued statements suggesting such preparations. Then I began to suspect that what was really underlying his denial of the situation was fear—a motivator we shared. Our responses to it were just different. Maybe taking precautions made the unthinkable too real a possibility for him, in the same way not being prepared made the potential horror worse for me.

I used a big chunk of the morning studying Google search results about various preparation tactics: sheltering in place versus moving, understanding different types of radiation particles, what to pack in an emergency kit—which we should definitely have, according to government officials. We were absurdly unprepared. I started a list on an orange sticky note, which quickly filled. Then I opened a Word document and created a bulleted list. As a writer, this is the kind of preparation that felt most comfortable. I was beginning to wish my husband believed in the possibility of surviving disaster, so he would take over readying the creepy basement and leave me to my checklists.

There were so many things I’d have to assemble. Flashlights, lanterns, batteries, canned food, water, medicine, newspapers for dog (and human?) elimination, trash bags, a hand-crank radio, spare cell phone battery, change of clothes in case either of us entered the basement from a radiated outdoors, wipes for washing contaminated skin. I pushed back from my laptop, feeling overwhelmed, and began to understand why my husband didn’t want to face this. My quiet day grew silent, ominous, creepy. I had visions of eating canned green beans with a plastic fork in the dark, moldy, poo-filled basement.

But I’d learned a few things. For example, there’s a very good possibility of immediate survival after a nuclear bomb, given adequate shelter, but any exposure to fallout could cause the development of cancer at a later time. So, while my preparations might spare us short-term disaster, they could still result in a tradeoff for slow painful death, the kind any one of us might get at any time without the aid of a bomb.

My gloom grew into a lonely depression. I wished he’d return from the gym, so I’d have good reason to shut the door on my thoughts. I’d always imagined that having a spouse would lighten my dread of life’s most frightening circumstances. We could talk about our fears, make plans together, maybe put a blowup bed downstairs, and laugh about the romantic possibilities inherent in our makeshift shelter. Instead, I had to prepare by myself, in secret, shamefully.

A few days later, I went for a facial and broached the subject from the comfort of a spa table. Through the warm steam, my aesthetician suggested that my experience reflected a common gender difference. “Women are caretakers. It makes sense that we’d be the providers of comfort in a disaster.” Her husband—an atheist like mine—had also shunned her wartime preparations, and she responded by packing and hiding a survival bag for them both. “I tossed in a bottle of face moisturizer just in case.” It felt good to laugh about it. But I was surprised by this coincidence in our husbands’ refusal to believe in survival. Maybe there was a connection between not believing in a spiritual being and certainty of death in a nuclear strike. Was it my belief in the possibility of something—unknown, mysterious, unnamed, but still something—that led me to prepare for our certain safety? I already knew that my spa friend had a very devout faith in an organized religion that promised a secure afterlife. Her bag was packed and stashed.

Back home, my list had become overwhelming and I hadn’t even finished the suggested reading. I skipped over some details, like designing a meetup plan, making note of local authorities, and downloading apps that could provide further instruction. I hoped there was enough time before the bomb went off to at least place an Amazon order for the necessary purchases. Then I’d have to figure out how to get them organized and to the basement before my husband noticed.

As I imagined our shelter, I realized there was nothing I’d read about bedding. The blankets I saw downstairs would be useful, but two days (the suggested hideout time) on a cold, hard concrete floor would kill my back. My mind went to the blowup bed we keep upstairs, and I thought I could cleverly store it in the basement, ready if we needed it. But it inflated via electricity, and I couldn’t be sure we’d have any. If my husband were in on this, we could just set it up ahead of time. I was ill equipped for this job. I remembered that once when I was trying to persuade him about a basement survival tactic, he pointed out that, since there are no windows down there, it would be pitch dark. Somehow, this hadn’t occurred to me until he said it. I was thinking flashlight, not hanging lanterns. His input could be so useful.

A winter storm blew up the East Coast and our power went out. Living with a well and septic system meant no more running water or flushing toilets, so I brought up the gallons of old water bottles I kept in the basement for such a situation. Preparing for a power outage is a more approachable task. A day later when the power returned, I poured fresh water into the containers and my husband took them back to the basement, joking that it was our “Jong-un” water supply. Maybe we were making progress.

Days went by and I forgot about the list. My Amazon purchases returned to more pleasant items like lavender nail polish and spicy tea. Oblivion felt good. To not permit the dark possibility, to live life normally as though only some kind of regular death was ahead of me, not a slow, frightening poison, was blissful. Then I read about yet another North Korean missile test. A slight clenching of my jaw. Our president responded with barroom threats, taunting the foreign leader into a dangerous game of dare. I made a note in my bullet journal to find the list and place an order.

On Saturday, we drove to a monthly rotating dinner party. Since we live in the Washington, D.C. area and many of these people work in government, the topic of politics arose. We stepped gently through the landmines of disagreement, but I was surprised when the very thing that caused my tension at home was brought up. Between dinner and dessert, after beer and wine glasses were mostly emptied, E mentions the nuclear threat we’re facing. His job affords him some insider knowledge of the aftereffects of a bomb. Now that I’m not the one to suggest it, I was anxious to hear about any of his preparations. My husband pays attention too.

“We’re pretty set at our house,” E said. I’ve seen their basement. It’s finished and there’s a lot of storage. They keep a stocked pantry with lots of backup food and water. Having been in the military, he mentioned the inclusion of masks and other gear that hadn’t occurred to me. I take a mental note to add masks to my Amazon list.

“We tell everyone to shelter in place. People think it’s the blast that gets you, but it’s the fallout afterward, those little particles that travel through the air to the ground. You just need to seal yourself inside with plastic and tape around any openings.” Plastic and tape are duly noted.

Another friend from a different agency says there would be mass chaos for months after, even if we did all survive. There would be no food at grocery stores, the power would be out for an unknown time, there would be violence. The picture of survival gets darker. I’m assured, though, to hear that others near us also see the need to take precautions, and I hope their concern might encourage my husband to jump onboard. Then E says something that deflates my hope. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m no doomsday prepper.”

This is just what I think my husband wants to avoid: behaving in the cult-like manner he’s come to associate with those who prepare. Although this is technically what I’m proposing—preparing for doom—I know what he means. I don’t want to devote my life to the threat of disaster, complete with underground encampment, years’ worth of food, armor, and water supply, but I’d like to do a little better than paper plates and green beans. My intention is to take whatever steps are necessary to survive the forty-eight hours we’d need to stay in the basement until the fallout has settled enough to return upstairs. Just forty-eight hours. Once that level of readiness is in place, I could return to living my life as though nothing bad would happen, the way my husband was living his with absolutely no preparation.

Both of us were surely foolish. I’d avoided thinking beyond the forty-eight hours but doubts and fears about that period poked at me from the perimeters of my mind. Wouldn’t the house be full of fallout too? When were we going to apply plastic and tape if we only had thirty minutes to shelter? Was I supposed to just vacuum up the mess when the power returned and get back to work, laundry, and meal planning? Doubtful. But that was too vast an unknown period to comprehend, so I kept with the arbitrary forty-eight-hour segment some supposed expert had prescribed. We were all guessing.

I came to realize that this was the difference between my idea of readying and that of doomsday preppers. They were willing to imagine doom for a much longer time. That was the big unknown for all of us: How long before life returned to normal? Could it ever? I’m not sure I wanted to live long-term in the basement, or upstairs with a gas mask on my face and a weapon in my hand. Maybe I’d have to turn the weapon around in that circumstance. And this is probably why I avoided imagining long-term prep. I was beginning to understand my husband’s reluctance.

After finishing a large mug of Cuban coffee that was meant to be drunk from a little cup, we returned out to the cold night. The blast of caffeine and thoughts of future disaster stirred my alertness and I sat up in bed by the light of my phone while my husband slept. These fears and feelings of ineptness had been mine alone as I read frightening news stories, but now I saw they were shared by others, too, in their solitary moments. We seldom discussed it together. Maybe giving this news our mutual attention, acknowledging that the absurd was, in fact, possible, would make it too real. Is that why no one talked beyond the politics of it? We don’t like to be without control. People are doers. At the very least, we want to know we’ve done everything we could. But what can we, as individuals, do to prevent a fatal chemical war?

In the eighties, I lived in Florida, working in a small architectural office. One week, we were all abuzz about a made-for-television movie about to air called The Day After. It was a film about nuclear war, and as close a portrayal as anyone could imagine then of what life would be like the day after a bomb. So many years ago, we worried about the same scenario. The film was horribly depressing, gray, hopeless, impossible. It portrayed a life I wouldn’t want to live. I don’t recall the ending or any possible resolution, but memories of the movie stayed with me for years, and now it’s fresh in my mind again. It’s like being stuck in time, with no advances other than the calendar. We seem no better prepared or knowledgeable. Everyone—but the preppers—is turning a blind eye to it. It reminds me of the way most of us think of death: Live today, and when it’s over, it’s over.

The 2018 Winter Olympics begin. This winter they’re held in South Korea, and a few North Korean athletes are permitted to compete. I watch as a young North Korean couple skates beautifully around the ice, looking painfully thin. I worry about them. I’d read that if Chairman Un is going to strike, it’s unlikely he’d do so until after the Olympics, so I celebrate with the athletes every evening as they skate, ski, and curl to victory. It’s like a vacation from fear. Last night, the closing ceremonies were televised. This part is not as fun to watch because doubt and concern start prodding me back to worry. Un is a man who has extreme power over the people of North Korea, held in check by their fear of his whims. But now he’s getting a taste of a larger power, reaching across borders to instill fear in the U.S. and other potential targets where he was previously dismissed. Powerful places. Surely, that is a seduction too great to resist, maybe reason enough to strike unprovoked, despite grave consequences.

I turn off the television. By the time sleep is approaching, my thoughts have drifted to other, more manageable fears: Am I giving my dog the right dose of insulin to treat her diabetes, am I writing enough to hone my skills, do I have any skills? The larger fear of bombs triggered by emotionally unstable world rulers is too far from my control. The fear that accompanies that thought is limitless, grows regardless of action because no amount of canned food, comfortable pillows, radios, and flashlights is going to calm it. I bat back and forth between lame preparations and denial. I return to my world and continue to live, just like the thin skaters who had to glide home and carry on despite a much greater proximity to fear and death. There is nothing I can do but live with this fear. There’s no preparing for the unknown, just as there’s no preparing for death. Acknowledging that has made me feel a little less vulnerable. I understand my husband’s reluctance now in the same way I see his approach to death in general: “I want to live as best I can until it’s over.”

So do I.


Trevy Thomas is an author whose work has appeared in The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Coachella Review, Drunk Monkeys, Sliver of Stone, Forge, Woodwork Magazine and the 2017 River Tides Anthology. She lives in Virginia with her husband and four dogs, and can be found virtually at

Paul Lisicky: Mask

(an excerpt from the memoir THE NARROW DOOR)

It’s just me and Denise in her room at the hospice.  Her family has just stepped out to the waiting room down the hall, and they’ve given me some minutes to be alone with her.  I look at her sleeping face, grab her big warm toe poking out from beneath the sheet: monkey feet, she called them.  It’s not even Denise’s face anymore: it’s impersonal, a mask.  So hard to believe she was literally on her feet, out at a restaurant twenty days ago.  Just yesterday, according to Nancy, her sister-in-law, she smiled when she heard I was coming.  She said, “Paul?” And her eyes opened wider, if my coming on short notice would be the most surprising thing of all.  Why would she think that, after all this time?  Denise.

But I have come too late.  She’s not even the person I know anymore.  She’s breathing of course, head turned turned to the left, but her eyes are closed for good now.  She’s moving–I can feel it in my cells.  As awkward as it is to admit it, a part of me is relieved that we don’t have to say those final things.  Too much pressure, and how could human language ever carry us to whatever is coming next–even if it’s a blankness, a null set?  Better to hold onto her toe.  Better to think of peace.  Better simply to wish her out and away.  Her mind and body are already wanting two different things, and the fight isn’t going to be pretty.

I tell her I’ve been rereading her work all week.  I tell her I’ve gone back to Good Deeds, her first novel, I tell her I’ve read her essays.  I tell her she’s beautiful writer.  I want every single word to matter, but my words don’t ring so true without other people in the room.  Three months ago, at my mother’s hospice bed, my brothers and my father started naming family memories, not even the contents of the stories, just the headlines.  The time the boat ran out of gas at Anchorage Point and Mr. Forte came by to save us.  The time we couldn’t find a place to stay in Tennessee, and we all came close to sleeping in the car.  “Just give me some peanut butter crackers and I’ll sleep in the car all night,” my mother cried, and we all made fun of that line for years, as if that were the funniest thing.  My mother’s eyelids started moving.  So many stories, the loosest threads keeping them together: a family’s life in time.  How could she not have been happy to be among us, the head of us?   But I can’t do that with Denise, maybe because that kind of ritual needs other people in it.  This feels lonely.  We know there’s a script, and even though we don’t want the script, we feel like the script is required of us.

I go back out to the waiting room and sit in the sofa with Denise’s family.   Lights are too bright for my eyes.  We look out at the view of Center City: the modernist PSFS building, the statue of William Penn, the blocky squat Liberty Center, which looks today the beginning of some downfall: the end of tradition, dignity, grace.  There’s a huge space between where we are and those buildings.  The sky goes grayer, as if it wants to storm.  We drink shitty coffee.  We look toward the program on the Food Channel with more absorption than the show deserves.  An elaborate yellow cake is being pulled from the oven, to be iced with chocolate frosting and jelly between the layers, and one of us says, I’m just gaining pounds looking at the thing, and everyone laughs gently, as they’re supposed to laugh, but we know that the laughing has nothing to do with cake, or even the joke.

Just before six, the nurse calls us down the hall.  Now we have a job to do; now we’re helping to write the old story: she died surrounded by family and friends.  The dozen of us move one by one through the doorway, and settle on our places around the bed.  Austen closest to her mother’s head, Denise’s mother opposite.  Her ex-husband nearby, me by her feet.  All the lights and lamps are off.  Flames shudder in votives.  Joni sings from her brother Joey’s laptop, the bare-bones demo of “Good Friends.” from one of the CDs I made for her many months back.  No one knows that Denise once called it our song when it first came out in 1985, and I like knowing that it’s coming on now, as if we’re passing a secret back and forth. That’s followed by “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which would really make her guffaw if she were writing this story.  Irreverent Denise.  No narratives of grace and comfort for her.  Her favorite writer of her final months?  A.M. Homes, where the parents smoke crack, and the children have sex with their dolls, and no one is rewarded for any good deed.

We’re watching her face.  We’re waiting for something to happen.  It’s a little like waiting for a scary but holy movie to start, and it’s unbearable, this watching, this waiting.  No group of human beings could ever be in practice for such a thing.  And we probably realize this, in our own separate ways, at about the same time.  Along with the shock that we wish the movie would get to the heartbreaking part.  Frankly, it’s not so easy to be in a position where we can’t go out to pee, or reach for our phones or eat some of that disgusting cake we saw on the TV.   Ironically, this is time without boundaries.  Time without boundaries is a little like being–we’re in a boat, little rocking boat, a hundred miles out, no trees or shorelines in sight.  But we don’t want to hurry this on.  We want Denise to feel us in her bones, her blood.  That’s why we’re here.  A part of us is going with her, and we don’t know what to do.

A nurse asks if we need anything.  The nurses.  The calming presence of the nurses.  Their human neutrality, never too concerned, never not nearby.  I can’t imagine what it might be like to be them, to live inside of such intensity day after day.   Perhaps they walk through the everyday like clear glass houses.  Or else they shut all their doors and windows down once they’re off duty.  I don’t know how else they could buy food, pay bills, wait in line at the DMV, without thinking of the ways, all the ludicrous ways, we go about distracting ourselves from the fact that we’re dying.  But maybe they’re simply in better practice than we are.  Maybe it isn’t too hard to get where they are, and it feels damn good to live with that truth.  You get a jury duty summons on the day of your best friend’s graduation: so what.  You think of that beautiful writer down the hall, the one who made you laugh every time you edged a needle inside her vein, and you think, well, if she could do that.

We’re waiting.  I wonder if Denise is aware of our waiting.  It must be hard enough to die, to squeak from the coat of your body, without worrying about the people you’re leaving behind.  There is a story of a man out on Long Island, a former neighbor, who made his exit on his own terms.  He found a good woods, mashed down the weeds like a deer, then lay down and went to sleep on the ground.  Word had it he covered himself with leaves.   The story is passed around as neighborhood legend: the saddest story in the world.  Such a gentle man.  Meticulous gardener, good friend, frozen in snow for days on end, and this is how Creation watches out for him.  Yet it doesn’t sound that bad to me.  Would we want so many faces, even if they are benevolent faces, trained on us when it’s our time to go?  No, not me.

I hold onto her toe for a little while longer.  An hour goes by; then, two.  The thunderstorm outside the window has passed.  Then, one by one, we’ve decided we’ve had enough.  Some of us wander to the waiting room; some of us wander off toward the elevator, heads down, as if we’ve disappointed someone, though we don’t exactly know who that someone is.

The elevator is falling.  I’m remembering my friend.  It would make sense that someone so attached to her writing–with the allure of perfect shape–would want to mess things up a little at the end.


The titles of Paul Lisicky’s books reveal a writer concerned with the process of building and demolition—of the self.  Whether he’s writing fiction, memoir, poetry, or, more recently, blurring the lines between those genres, Lisicky explores the process and power of identity.  He and his characters struggle to create the narratives which help them define and understand their world, only to see the wrecking ball of chaos lay them bare.  Robert Olen Butler said of Lisicky, “(he is) one of the select writers who continues to teach me about the complexities of the human heart.”  Lisicky is the author of the novels Lawnboy (1999) and The Burning House (2011); the memoir, Famous Builder (2002); and the forthcoming collection of prose pieces, Unbuilt Projects; and the memoir, The Narrow Door.

His work has appeared in Tin House, Fence, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Story Quarterly, and in many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Henfield Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. Lisicky has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden.

Lori Jakiela: All of Them Would Hurt Someone, I Think

The woman who calls herself my sister is Blonde4eva. This is her e-mail address.

I find this upsetting, even though I’m 41 and dye my hair blonde. “I’ve always been a natural blonde,” I say, meaning I dye my hair to match my baby pictures.

“What do you think it means?” I ask my husband, who rolls his eyes. My husband says I shouldn’t judge people by their e-mail addresses.

Fluffykitty1000. Poetgrrrl. Flyguy. Blonde4eva.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” my husband says.

The Catholic Charities counselor in charge of my adoption search has promised to be in touch. She wants to contact the birth family. “I have to advise you to not continue this correspondence until we speak with the family,” the counselor says.  “Until then, we can neither confirm nor deny that this woman is or is not who she says she is.”

“Just like a politician,” I say.

“What?” she says.

“Thank you,” I say, “I will.”

I save Blonde4eva’s e-mail messages. I read  them over and over. They’re a puzzle, blue and white pieces of sky that don’t seem to fit. I’ve loved words so deeply and for so long I thought it was genetic. But Blonde4eva struggles with grammar, syntax.

“I’m not judging,” I tell my husband, though  of course I am.

It’s a shitty thing to do.

*   *   *

I don’t come from a family of readers. Growing up, I kept a Webster’s dictionary in the bathroom to read.  The cover was denim blue, designed to look like the back pocket of a pair of jeans, an everyday thing.  I hid it behind stacks of toilet paper. My mother didn’t approve of bathroom reading.

“Shit or get off the pot,” she’d say.

“The mouth on that one,” my father, the mill worker, would say when they fought. “Just like her mother.”

I read and memorized dictionary pages. I liked finding smug new words and using them in sentences at dinner.

Words I liked: Flibbertigibbet. Oxymoron.  Loquacious.

I could wipe my ass with what you know about love, my father liked to say.

I was not my parents’ child.

*   *   *

My father once bought a set of encyclopedias from a man who was selling them door to door. My father never opened the door for strangers, but this time he did. I don’t know why. The set was The World Book of Knowledge. The books looked like bibles, egg-shell colored covers, gold spines, gold-tipped pages with strings sewn into the binding to use as bookmarks.

“She’s smart,” my father would say to explain why I’d hole up for hours reading A-C when my mother thought I should be outside playing.

“She’ll ruin her eyes,” my mother said. “She’ll get ideas.”

My father bought a bookshelf, the only one in the house, a low two-shelved number he put together himself just for the encyclopedias. The bookshelf had a glass door that slid open and closed to keep the books safe from dust.  A display.  My mother dusted the bookshelf with a pink feather duster. As far as I knew, she never opened any of the books.

*   *   *

My friend Patience says an encyclopedia salesman came to her house, too. Patience was eight, in Albion, Pennsylvania—farm country, tornado country, the 1970s, the kind of place where people name their children after virtues or deserts or saints. There were a lot of girls named Hope and Mary in Patience’s school, and one girl named Sahara, but people called her Sara instead.

The day of the encyclopedia, the doorbell rang. Patience’s mother, expecting hair brushes or vacuum cleaners or a new kind of floor soap, opened the door, and this man, dressed for the city, said, “Might I borrow a few moments of your time, miss?”

Patience’s mother looked more than her age. She looked like a woman with housecoats and three children and a life in Albion, Pennsylvania. She looked like a woman who’d welcome the opportunity to purchase a new kind of floor soap and she knew it.

The man held up a big white book. The words Wonderland of Knowledge were embossed in gold on the cover and there was a picture of a globe, shiny blue for water, more gold for the land.

Patience peeked from behind her mother.

The man bent down. “Hello there, honey,” he said. “Do you like to read? I know I do.”

Patience liked to read. Patience liked globes, too.

The man stood up and smiled. He made a one-handed flourish, a magic trick he’d been taught. He tried to present the book to Patience’s mother, who kept both hands tight on the doorframe.

“You’ll be giving your beautiful daughter here a head start,” he said. “She’ll have such an advantage over the other kids.”

Patience grew up to be a librarian.

She took care of both her parents until they died.

She lives alone in a small apartment with a cat and many books, and says she doesn’t like people though both of us know it’s not true.

Patience’s car is filled with books on tape. When she drives, she turns up the volume and likes the feel of the stories, all those worlds building up and spinning around inside her.

Back then, in Patience’s house in Albion, there was only the bible and copies of Highlights for Children lifted from the dentist’s office. There was The Farmer’s Almanac. There was TV Guide.

The salesman held his magic book like a lantern. Patience watched her mother do a once-over—first at his shined shoes, his tweed pants, then at his smooth hands, then up into his eyes.

“Now why,” she said, the words slow, clicking like deadbolts, “would my daughter deserve an advantage over anyone?”

Then she shut the door hard.

*   *   *

Blonde4eva writes: “My mother was born of two Irish imagrants. And I suppose no I know that things were no good. We have 3 other siblings.”

It wasn’t just the grammar. It was the implied sense of drama—“And I suppose no I know.”

“What do you think it means?” my husband asks back, and I don’t answer.

*   *   *

When my friend Jan first found her birth mother, her birth mother sent a lot of letters. The letters were written on stationery, parchment-ish paper with butterflies skittering around the scalloped edges. This bothered Jan a lot. Jan dyes her hair white blonde and keeps it shorn a half inch all around. She wears black biker jackets. She wears serious black glasses. She writes poems about Jim Morrison pissing onstage.

“This cannot be my mother,” she’d say and wave the letters in the air like surrender.

The writing on the letters was off, too. Big loopy script. Bubble-dotted i’s. Lots of talk about God and how much Jan’s mother relied on him at times like these.

Praise God. God willing. God forgive me. God forgive you.

“I’ll pray for you,” my own birth mother will write to me very soon.

It will be the most awful thing she does until she does something worse.

*   *   *

Blonde4eva  says she found out about me two years ago. “One of my cousins dropped the bomb on me,” she writes.

She says her mother denied it, then admitted it. She gave few details.

“Were you born with a club foot?” Blonde4eva wants to know, and I want to tell her no, two.

*   *   *

I wonder if the story, the one my parents told me and the one I helped invent, has been wrong from the start.

“You are probably as weary as I, to determine the truth so that nobody gets hurt,” Blonde4eva writes.

There are so many versions of the truth.

All of them would hurt someone, I think.

*   *   *

Blonde4eva writes: “If it turns out that you are not the same child you are definitely close to finding out who is.”

“Do you want a sandwich?” my husband asks from the kitchen. I can see him in there, eating cheese from the bag, a stack of buns on the cutting board.

I know he wants me to come in and help, fry some lunch meat in a pan.

“Eat something,” he says, like he’s my mother.

*   *   *

It’s 5 a.m. Last night, I fell asleep on the couch and stayed there. Now Locklin’s awake. He pries my fingers open, latches on a gate.

I sleep fetal, hands balled into fists. My fingers are sore from the strain, like I’ve been punching someone.

Locklin’s face is inches from mine. His breath smells like chocolate milk and sleep. I squint awake as he presses a doll into my hand.

“Be him,” my son orders.

The lines of light from the window blinds make my son’s face look caged. It’s what I feel, too.

Somehow, Locklin’s dragged the plastic toy bin across the room. He’s dumped everything onto the floor, and my first thought is I’ll have to clean it up. I’ll have to get off this couch and clean and how could I possibly be expected do this now.

Over on the table, the computer screen is blinking. It’s an Apple computer, shiny and sports-car red. It looks like a toy. I wonder about Blonde4eva, her e-mail, so intimate and impersonal all at once.

“We can neither confirm nor deny,” the Catholic Charities counselor said.

I close my eyes again.

My son’s hard little finger pokes my cheek, like he’s testing a cake to see if it’s done.

“Be him,” Locklin says.

The last time my husband fell asleep on the couch like this and tried to brush Locklin off, Locklin crumbled Cocoa Pebbles cereal and sprinkled it on my husband’s face until he woke up, furious, choking, chocolatey rice flakes in his nose, in his eyelashes. It was 5 a.m. then, too.

“Done sleeping,” Locklin said, to explain things.

“Who does something like that?” my husband asked our son, who looked confused.

Now Locklin tries to grab my eyelashes and pull one of my eyes open.

“Puppets,” Locklin says, which is what he calls this game, one of his favorites.

This early in the morning, I dread it.

Toppled from the toy bin, there’s a huge collection of stuffed animals, action figures and dolls. Locklin calls all of them puppets. When he says “be him,” he means method acting. He means “once again, with feeling.”

Some puppets are easier than others. Like Elmo—that helium squeal, the ratcheted maniacal giggling. But this doll in my hands is another thing.  He’s anonymous, non-descript. He looks like a prince, maybe, or a good pirate. I don’t recognize him from any movie. His jaw is sharp enough to clean my nails. His eyes are very blue. He’s blonde, which is what my son calls him. Blondie.


It will take me a while to see this and appreciate the irony.

“Be Blondie,” Locklin commands, and I try, but I always fail.

My son has invented an entire life for Blondie, but no one knows what that life is because Locklin won’t explain. There’s no way to know what he thinks Blondie should sound like. There’s no way to guess the role he’s mapped out for Blondie in his mind. Locklin just shakes his head and says again, “Be him,” but I don’t know the lines. I don’t know the gestures. I’m supposed to understand—through osmosis, maybe—Blondie’s life story channeling through his tan plastic skin into mine.

*   *   *

Growing up, I had fantasies about a sister. She’d show up on the porch, drooping blonde pig-tails, banged-up suitcase, a note from the adoption agency. We’d be best and instant friends. We’d do each other’s hair. We’d side against my parents, who’d become our parents, who’d become strangers who could never understand us.

Two castaways. Two lost princesses. Two beautiful lonely girls, one pink, one blue, like the two girls in the kitschy paintings my mother bought at Woolworth’s and hung over the couch. Two sad-eyed moppets with mandolins at their feet, waiting for something.

We’d stay up late, reading, flashlights under our covers, our matching shadows showing through the sheets.

My sister would be kind, like the mother who’d given us both up, even though we knew she didn’t want to, even though she loved us very much, even though one day she’d come back.

“Hope to hear from you,” Blonde4eva writes.

*   *   *

“Be him,” my son says now about Blondie.

I try a generic Disney swagger, a low-voiced “hi there.”

“No,” my son says, and he looks like he might cry, he’s that disappointed, distressed. He takes Blondie out of my hand and dances him against my cheek. “BE him.”

But I don’t know how.

I don’t know who he could possibly be.


Lori Jakiela is the author of a memoir, Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette 2006), and three poetry chapbooks. Her full-length poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist!, will be published in April 2012. Her essays and poems have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, 5 AM and elsewhere. She lives outside of Pittsburgh, directs the writing program at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg, and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Chatham University.

Mark Vonnegut: On Art and Creativity

Mark Vonnegut is a memoirist and a pediatrician. He is the author of The Eden Express, which was published in 1975. It chronicles the time in his life after graduating from Swarthmore, when he moved to British Columbia with his friends to set up a commune, and his initial experiences with mental illness. His most recent memoir, Just Like Someone with Mental Illness, Only More So, was published in 2010. It contains a painfully honest description of Vonnegut’s subsequent experience with bipolar disorder, and the sharp contrast he has experienced between bouts of illness and periods of “normalcy.” Vonnegut studied medicine at Harvard Medical School, and currently works as a pediatrician in Massachusetts, where he was named “No. 1 Pediatrician” by Boston Magazine.

He was interviewed by Corey Ginsberg for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

CG: One of the most compelling aspects of Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness, Only More So is your discussion of the importance of art and creativity in your own life, as well as in the lives of those in your family. In the first chapter, you say, “Without art you’re stuck with yourself as you are and life as you think life is.” Later, you mention, “All the arts are a way to start a dialogue with yourself about what you’ve done, what you could have done differently, and whether or not you might try again.” Can you speak a bit about what forms this dialogue takes in your life, and how writing has informed your thinking?

MV: I’ve spent a lot of time stuck where nothing matters and there’s no way to get away. If you can make yourself try to paint a bird or rewrite something that’s not quite right, whether it’s a novel or letter to a friend, you then get to reflect on yourself as someone who can or can’t get that job done, and it can be like throwing sand under your tires to get traction. In and of themselves, the painting or the letter don’t matter as much as the process and what you have to say about it to yourself. I frequently tell kids with headaches or belly aches without a clear organic cause to keep a diary of their symptoms, what they were doing, and what made the symptoms better or worse, and the symptoms often go away.

CG: Along these lines, you write: “An artist is someone who isn’t put off by how terrible his first tries are, who finds himself talking back and notices that he changes and grows when he makes art.” What was the first draft of this book like, and how do you approach the revision process?

MV: My writing is often brilliant as I do it, but is utter crap a few hours later. Then I spend a month or so trying to get back to being half as good as I thought it was at first. With both books I was surprised that publishers and editors couldn’t see where I was going and how easily I could make it publishable.

CG: In chapter five, you say: “Writing is very hard mostly because until you try to write something down, it’s easy to fool yourself into believing you understand things. Writing is terrible for vanity and self-delusion. It wasn’t therapy as much as trying to tell a story that took me by surprise. . .” How does your writing process help to make sense of your life? Do you find ever that you understand things differently once you write about them?

MV: It’s not fair for me to call something ineffable until I’ve tried to ef it. All the time I figure new things out. The biggie in my last book was figuring out that creativity was a positive part of surviving mental illness, not just an odd side effect. Why do crazy people write and paint? I’ve been wrestling with that for forty-plus years.

CG: You mention on page 65 that one of the rejections you received for your first memoir, The Eden Express, said, “This book is good but with your last name it would have to be better.” You also write, “Having a famous parent is a leg up to nowhere.” How do you think being the son of Kurt Vonnegut affects how people see you as a writer?

MV: Mostly people don’t think of “son of” as a positive. How cute and pathetic that he should try. Even as a pediatrician there’s a sense that “son of” is what I really am, and that I sort of write and sort of take care of sick kids, too.

CG: One of my favorite lines in Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness is, “The reason creativity and craziness go together is that if you’re just plain crazy without being able to sing or dance or write good poems, no one is going to have babies with you. Your genes will fall by the wayside. Who but a brazen crazy person would go on-on-one with a blank paper or canvas armed with nothing but ideas?” This is a fascinating idea. Can you speak a bit about how art can be both a lifeline and a form of insanity?

MV: I don’t have an answer that adds much to your question. Yes. Art is a lifeline and a form of insanity.

CG: In The Eden Express, there is a great line: “I think most of us were fed to the teeth with the brand of rationality that had made up so much of our education . . . We wanted to be free from our rational brain space to make room for other ways of being.” Is this still a concept that holds true for you, or do you think that the direction your life has gone in has changed how you feel about “rationality”?

MV: I still think reaching beyond what you know is absolutely necessary. And what you usually find is that you’re better and stronger than you thought you were, and that some of the things you thought were true were silly.

CG: Being both a doctor and a writer strikes me as two seemingly unrelated endeavors. Do you find that they complement one another, or require different types of energy and focus?

MV: A doctor is always trying to create a narrative about how the present came to be and facilitate a resolution. The problem is how little time you have to do it. The nice thing about going to work is that I don’t have to make stuff up or worry about getting a publisher.

Les Standiford: On Bringing Adam Home

Les Standiford is the author of the critically acclaimed Last Train to Paradise, Meet You in Hell, Washington Burning, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, as well as ten novels. His latest book, Bringing Adam Home, will be on sale March 1, 2011. About Bringing Adam Home, Scott Turow wrote that “This tale of the most significant missing child case since the Lindbergh’s—that of TV host John Walsh’s son Adam and the 25 year search for his killer—is truly terrific. A taut, compelling and often touching book about a long march to justice.” Recipient of the Frank O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Les Standiford is director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami, where he lives with his wife and children.

Les was interviewed by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine

MJF: Why did you choose to write this particular book?

LS: Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews accomplished something that hundreds of cops, including those from several police jurisdictions, the FBI, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, before him could not: he solved the kidnapping case that changed the world. In the aftermath of  six-year old Adam Walsh’s abduction and slaying in 1981, everything about the nation’s regard and response to missing children changed.  The shock of the crime and the inability of law enforcement to find Adam’s killer put an end to innocence and altered our very perception of childhood itself—gone forever are the days when children could run outside  with a casual promise to be home by dark.  And, due in large part to the efforts of Adam’s parents, John and Reve’ Walsh, the entire mechanism of law enforcement has transformed itself in an effort to protect our children.  Before Adam went missing, there were no children’s faces on milk cartons and billboards, no Amber Alerts, no national Center for Missing and Abused Children, no national databases for crimes against children, no registration of pedophiles—in fact, it was easier to mobilize the FBI to search for a stolen car or missing horse than for a kidnapped child. 

All that is sad testimony to the weariness of our modern world, but there is also an uplifting aspect to the story—the 27 years of undaunted effort by decorated Miami Beach Homicide Detective Matthews to track down Adam’s killer and bring justice to bear at long last.  I wanted to tell the story—the good, the bad, and the ugly—of what it took for one cop to accomplish what an entire system of law enforcement could not.  Matthew’s achievement is a stirring one, reminding us that such concepts as hard work, dedication, and love survive, and that goodness can prevail.

MJF: Tell us about your writing process for Bringing Adam Home and about the research involved.

LS: I had access to several hundred pages of case notes that Joe Matthews had compiled in going through the more than 10,000 pages of reports in police files about the matter.   My central concern was with transforming those investigative notes into a narrative that a general audience could appreciate.

Beyond what Joe had already unearthed, I needed to create a societal context for the case and its significance to the world at large.  My model for this was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  And the sources were wide-ranging, everything from interviews with cops of the day to digging through news archives at libraries and museums to watching old television shows and listening to music of the day.

MJF: I’m assuming that you met with the Walsh family at some point. How did they feel about the project? How cooperative were they?

LS: The story naturally references the Walshes, but it is really the tale of how a good cop managed the seemingly impossible.  Of course the Walshes feel greatly indebted to Joe Matthews for giving them some measure of justice at last.  As they point out, nothing could have brought Adam back, but at least, “the not knowing is over.”  Both John and Reve’ (Ruh-VAYE) were and continue to be extremely helpful with this project.

MJF: As a parent yourself, tell us about the emotional toll of writing this book.

LS: My own eighteen year old son Alexander died as I was finishing up work on this manuscript.  I was already emotionally exhausted by the work on Bringing Adam Home, but after my wife and I had weathered this new emotional storm, the first thing I did was to go back and check the manuscript of Bringing Adam Home to be sure I had paid the proper respect to the Walshes and their irreplaceable loss.  This is a club that no parent wants to join.

MJF: How do you know when a piece of your writing is done?

LS: When the story has been told.  Of course you are tempted to nip and tuck at things forever.  But once I realized that what a writer really does is tell a story—beginning, middle, and end—it was a great liberation for me.  I have a destination from the outset, and while that destination may change in mid-journey, I still am aiming at something all along.  Once the destination’s been reached, all that remains is the inevitable pinching and patting, and I rely on friends and editors to tell me when enough of that is enough.

MJF: What else do you have in the works?

LS: I’m working on a book about the seeds of the American Revolution, Desperate Sons, due to the publisher late this year.  And I have a memoir, Seven Dogs to Enlightenment, about how my dogs have trained me, ready to go right after that.  Scribble, scribble, scribble!

Dan Wakefield: A Lot of Barracudas

“It’s dangerous,” Titi’s father says. “There’s a lot of barracudas.”

This is Jose’s response when I tell him I’d like to take my goddaughter snorkeling in the waters off Key Largo. It isn’t exactly a “No,” an outright refusal, but it falls far short of approval. Last spring one of my former grad students offers to take me and Titi on a day of snorkeling in the Keys, and Titi is very excited at the prospect, but her mother says she can’t go.

“The water’s too cold,” Alina says.

It’s late April, and people from all over the country and some parts of the world have come to the Florida Keys to swim, snorkel, scuba dive, sail, and sit on the beach, but I know from experience that pointing out such information will only cause irritation rather than permission. Alina hasn’t been in the ocean yet this year, nor has she seen any reports of water temperatures,  but once her verdict is rendered there is no appeal.

I still don’t give up on a snorkeling trip with Titi. By the end of summer, as September begins, the days and the water in Florida have both warmed up, and when I raise the question of snorkeling again to Alina, she has no objection. Now that Titi’s dad is in the picture, and I’m trying to win his confidence (and hopefully be regarded as  an ally, if never quite a friend), of course I have to ask his permission as well. After he brings up the barracudas, I realize I need a strategy for this campaign.

I enlist a good swimmer—one who is young and strong—to go with Titi and me on the trip. This is for my own reassurance as well as for Titi’s father. It’s been more than half a century since I earned my swimming and life-saving merit badges at Camp Chank-tun-un-gi, and I no longer have the stamina and skills of my Eagle Scout days.

Jenny actually grew up on a boat in the Caribbean with her family. Jenny is an accomplished scuba diver as well as a veteran hiker who has trekked in China and Tibet, and she already knows and likes Titi.

“I’ve seen my share of barracudas,” Jenny assures me when I tell her about the snorkeling trip, and Titi’s father’s fears.

I have complete confidence in Jenny, who says she would also like to bring her boyfriend on the trip—Christopher is one of our writing program’s graduates, a poet who is in great physical shape, and is also an accomplished swimmer and scuba diver. Like Jenny, Christopher is a very quiet person, and somehow I feel I need more heavy artillery in this campaign.

I invite Jose to have dinner at his favorite Cuban restaurant with me and Titi and some of the grad students who might be going with us on the snorkeling trip. Christopher can’t make it that night but I bring Jenny, as well as Corey, who was captain of her college swim team at the University of Pittsburgh, and the person I am counting on as my heaviest artillery in this campaign for Jose’s permission—Esther. Or, as I introduce her to Jose—“Eh-stare.” Esther is a small, rather delicate, and frail-looking young woman, and I don’t even know if she can swim, but none of that matters. She is Cuban.

I have coached my three student friends on their mission, with special instructions to Esther to speak Spanish to Jose and try to make him feel at ease.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “I have a lot of experience introducing gringos to Cuban families. I know what to do.”

I realize Eh-stare (which is how I think of her now) must be accomplished at this sort of thing, since her own boyfriend, who she lives with, is a gringo. To add to her other qualifications, when Esther arrives at El Prado on the big night, it turns out she has eaten there before as a child!

Having passed the fried cow test, I order grilled snapper when we all have dinner, and everything seems to go well—my grad student pals are friendly and charming as always, and Eh-stare chats up Titi’s father in Spanish.

He brings up the barracudas again, and Jenny re-assures him of her own familiarity with them from the time she was a child growing up in the Caribbean. Jose warns Titi she mustn’t wear any jewelry or anything that sparkles or shines when she’s in the water, because it will attract barracudas.

“Like the things in your ears,” he says to Titi.

Titi touches the three silver studs she has—two in one ear, one in the other.

“I have to take them out?” she asks, concerned. “Won’t the holes close up?”

“It’s easy,” Corey says.  “I had to take mine out for swimming meets—you just put string in the holes where they were, and that keeps them open.”   

Titi smiles. “I get it,” she says.

By the time we leave, Jose says to Titi, “Be careful.” I take that to mean that it’s all right for her to go on the snorkeling trip if she is careful. I am greatly relieved, exhausted, and happy, but just to make sure of my interpretation of the evening I call Titi the next day and she confirms that her dad is giving her permission to go snorkeling. 

“Titi, that’s great,” I say, and I ask her. “What did your dad think of my students?”         

“He really liked the Cuban girl,” she says.

*   *   *

I tune in to the weather channel every day of the week before the big trip, and every day it shows a grey cloud with rain coming out of it and the words “Scattered Thunderstorms” for Saturday. I am hopeful things will change for the better, and that the weather predictions are—as often seems the case—unduly dire. The weather channel as well as local TV news channels here predict potential hurricanes at the drop of a hat, and scattered raindrops accompanied by a light breeze prompts newscasters down here to don their yellow slickers and hold on to palm trees to dramatize the possible danger. When I lived in Boston, I rushed to crowded grocery stores to stock up on canned beans when the weather-casters predicted deadly snowstorms at the first sign of flakes in winter, and in Miami I rush to crowded grocery stores and stock up on canned beans when the weather-Cassandras spot the first drops of rain during hurricane season.

Still, I am nervous, wondering if I should try to postpone the long-awaited adventure due to dangerous weather. I know how General Dwight D. Eisenhower felt as he studied the bad weather forecasts for the early days of June, 1944, deciding whether or not to cancel the long-awaited invasion of Europe. Only a few days of the month were suitable, since a full moon was necessary for aircraft to spot landmarks, and a spring tide was needed for safe navigation to the beaches. The moon would not be full for another month, and if the invasion didn’t take place on June 6, the troops would have to be sent home. Fearing the loss of momentum more than the threat of bad weather, Ike courageously gave the order for D-Day.                    

Just like Ike, I decide if I cancel our plan the campaign may forever be lost. While Ike needed a full moon and a spring tide, I need the permission of Jose and Alina (and of course Abuela) and there is no guarantee that any or all of them will be agreeable to it in the weeks ahead. It’s already October, and the weather might be declared “too cold” at any time after our D-Day until the following summer. General Eisenhower consulted his chief meteorologist on the eve of battle and was told there might be a slight break in the weather the next day. I have no meteorologist, but I take heart from the TV weather-map’s forecast that the predicted thunderstorms are only scattered and the fact that the picture of the cloud is only half dark. Maybe the thunderstorms will disappear and the clouds grow brighter when we get to Key Largo–after all, it’s about sixty miles away.

I settle down with a soothing Henry James novel to calm my nerves. I assure myself that everything will be fine, and the weather will probably clear overnight. Besides, what if it’s raining and the clouds are dark and the sea is rough? The online ad for Quicksilver Snorkeling assures me that our snorkeling will be in “shallow waters” in the “Pennekamnp State Park and Marine Sanctuary!” I figure it must be something like a large “seaquarium,” or mammoth wading pool. At the most, it will be like the only snorkeling I’ve ever done—which was thirty-four years ago at a luxury resort in the Virgin Islands (those were the days when, as my agent used to say, I was “living high on the hog.”) You walked out from the beach into the water, and when the water got a little bit above your knees you intrepidly pulled down your mask and snorkel and, like Jacques Cousteau, plunged in, looking at the pretty fish below you and wondering if their astoundingly bright colors were enhanced by the rum punch you sipped for breakfast, or the home-made, grass-laden brownie you ingested the night before.

I check the online ad of our snorkel service again for reassurance, and of course there’s no mention of barracudas. I suppose they could be among the “300 varieties” of fish – but what would barracudas be doing in a state park? Stop being paranoid, I tell myself, and I roll over and thrash my away to sleep.       

*   *   *  

I am outside my condo building on the dark, cloudy morning of D-Day, silently going berserk as Jenny and Christopher are almost a half hour late to pick me up, and the always-faithful, always-on-time, never-failing Jenny doesn’t answer her cell phone. She always answers her cellphone. I am hopping up and down as if I am doing (what now must be called) a “Native-American War Dance,” and thinking of all the things that might go wrong. Jenny told me the day before that it will take two hours to get to Key Largo, and by that calculation we won’t make the mandatory check in time and the snorkeling boat will leave without us. What if Jose finds out that “Es-ther” the Cuban girl is not going on the trip, and decides that any trip is too dangerous if not accompanied by a Cuban? What if Alina or Abuela look at the TV weather report and decide it’s too dangerous a day for snorkeling?  

Just before I start clawing the bricks by the entrance wall of my building’s parking lot, a rather rusty-looking car pulls up and Jenny gets out. Christopher assures me we will make it there on time, which somewhat eases the fear of missing the boat, but not the other fears.

It’s a little before nine o’clock when we pull up to Titi’s house, so I assume Titi will be the only one up. Her brother usually wakes up at dawn, and Abuela gets up to feed him, but then they go back to bed. Alina, if she’s home, doesn’t get up until much later. Today, however, every one is up and dressed. Even the mysterious Abuelo, who rarely comes out of his room, is up and sitting on the couch, with Titi’s little brother on his lap. A cousin from out of town is there too, and I figure his visit must have prompted the family’s early rising en masse. Either that, or they all want to go snorkeling with us. Whatever the reason for the family’s unusually early assembly, they all seem friendly and willing to release Titi to her fate. We are off, and though the skies are dark, no lightning is piercing the clouds nor is thunder rumbling in the background.  

*   *   *

When we board the catamaran we’re supplied with fins, face-masks and snorkels, as well as inflatable life vests, though some of the women look hefty enough to be buoyant without any extra help. Most of the dozen and a half people on the boat are middle-aged, though Titi and I are easily the youngest and the oldest, respectively—which is usually the case. Jenny and Christopher are the youngest after Titi, and the three of them are in the best shape of anyone on the boat, except for the muscular, tattooed boat captain.

The sky gets darker and the water gets rougher the farther we go. When the captain finally anchors and announces we are “there” –we have reached the reef—the only land in sight is a thin line on the horizon. I mean, I assume it’s land of some kind, somewhere. The captain lets down a four-step landing platform at the front of the boat into the water, and says we can either walk down into the water on it, or jump over the side. The boat is rocking and it’s hard for me to keep my balance with my fins on. I feel like a floundering fish as I step toward the landing. I watch Christopher go into the water, followed by Jenny, and then Titi. Dear God, keep her safe. It seems like I’m watching paratroop comrades dive into space. I let the fat ladies go by me and step down into the lapping waves. I flash on the sunny beach and the warm, translucent water of Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda several lifetimes ago, then I pull down my mask, push the snorkel into my mouth, and  walk the plank.

The water is lukewarm and clammy. I go under and try to breathe through my snorkel, but I get salty water instead of air. I bob up, and am pushed back toward the boat by the waves. There is a rope line that evidently leads to a buoy, and I grab it and try to pull myself along. As soon as I duck back down into the water I get a mouthful of sea water. After I repeat this several times and feel I am going to gag on the water, I give up and head back to the boat.

It’s a battle with the waves to get there, and I pull myself, floundering, back up the steps with relief; then I take off my mask and snorkel, go to the edge of the boat, and try to see where Titi is. Thank God she’s with Jenny and Christopher—or they’re with her. At least I think so. The snorkelers are all bobbing around by the reef now. I think I can see Titi’s head and I try to follow it. After a while I’m just hoping I see her, hoping she’s ok and safe. I’ve forgotten about the whole point of the trip—to look at tropical fish and have a good time. Now all I care about is Titi being safe. I ought to be out there with her.

I flop back to the landing steps and am just about in the water when Jenny comes back. She raises her mask, smiling, and says Titi is fine, she’s having a good time.

“Even with her snorkel on, she shouts when she sees new fish, and points us to them.”

Jenny urges me to come back out.  

I slip back into the water and splash my way toward the reef. I’ve been swimming every day in our condo pool, which deceived me into thinking I am in good shape. It’s clear now that I’m okay for swimming pools, but not for the ocean. Still, I press on, swallowing more salty water, and finally I am over a part of the reef. I can see it below, but of course it is the outermost reach, and there aren’t even any fish there. I bob up to spot Titi’s head, but that’s as close as I get. I am worn out and full of water and I don’t feel I can go any farther out. I fight my way back to the boat and flop aboard.

Finally the snorkelers return, and Titi is smiling, and talking about all the fish she saw. 

“That’s great!” I say. “What all did you see?”

“Oh, there were lots of pretty fish with all different colors—and a lot of barracudas.”

I turn to Jenny, who is just taking off her mask and snorkel.

“There were barracudas out there?” I ask.

“A lot,” she says.  

The boat takes us on to where the captain says there’s another reef. No land is in sight. The boat is rocking and the waves are higher now. The captain says everyone who wants to can go and explore the new reef. He points out into the darkening sea. The middle aged men and the fat ladies don’t move; Christopher is the only one who jumps in the water. He is only gone a few minutes when he comes back swimming fast.

When he gets up onto the boat he is breathing hard.

“What happened?” Jenny asks.

“I came up face to face with a big barracuda,” he says. “It wasn’t below me, it was right at my eye level, and I was the only person still out there. I got out of there as fast as I could.”

The captain pulls up the platform of stairs and we head for home. The boat is rocking harder as we move faster, and Titi says she is sick.

“Look at the horizon,” Jenny says. “Don’t look down.”

Titi looks down and says, “I think I have to throw up.”

“That’s OK,” I say, and Jenny helps Titi move to the edge of the boat and lean over. But she can’t throw up.

“I’m so sick!” she says.

She sits back down, looking out at the ocean. She sits looking out at the water, her back toward me, and I take hold of her shoulders, and hold on. She is trembling, and she starts to sob.

“You’ll be all right,” Jenny says. “You’re just seasick.”

“Don’t think about it,” I say. “I’ll tell you a story.”

She sniffles, and stops crying but still is trembling.

I hold on tight to her shoulders as if I’m trying to keep her from falling and I tell her about my biggest outdoor adventure, when I went to Canada the summer before my junior year in college with my old Boy Scout camp friend and high school buddy, Joe “The Fox” Hartley, and we drove to the northernmost road to the Lake of the Woods and took a seaplane up to the last outpost. We rented a canoe and portage north to Big Sand Lake and Little Sand Lake where we camped out and lived for five days without encountering another human being. We lived on the dried fruit we’d brought and mostly on the big northern pike and muskies we caught when we casted our fancy lures out into the lakes – lures that never tempted fish in Indiana but brought them in every day of our Canadian adventure; we cooked them over the fire every night and afterward took turns reading the Yukon poetry of Robert W. Service in Deep River Jim’s Wilderness Trail Book

Titi settles down and goes to sleep and her sea sickness is over when we land. On the way home she says what a good time she had, and I tell her, “Titi, maybe you don’t need to mention the barracudas when you tell your dad about the trip.”

“No, I won’t,” she says. “I’ll just tell him I got seasick. I know he gets seasick too.”

“Good idea,” I say.

It isn’t until I get back home that I google “barracudas.” I am glad I didn’t look before. The way my sea-going students (two that were raised on boats in the Caribbean!) had scoffed at the danger of barracudas, I simply assumed they were some kind of trumped-up father-fear that was nothing to take seriously.

The “Planet Ocean” website tells me to “Take one look at a barracuda’s toothy grin and you’ll understand why it has earned the nickname ‘Tiger of the Sea.’ With its sleek, torpedo-like body, dagger-like teeth, and ferocious appetite, the barracuda is built to hunt in the ocean. And that is exactly what it’s been doing for the last 50 million years. . .So, is the barracuda a cold-blooded killer? You betcha!. . .”

The website “essortment” adds: “In tropical regions the barracuda is highly feared by divers, not just because of its formidable appearance, but also because it is very unpredictable. Unlike the shark, the barracuda are not known to silently creep up on a victim since what they perceive in their under water world is not so much by smell, but more by sight. Any unusual movements or colors that might imitate those of an injured fish would be more apt to attract the attention of the barracuda. . .” 

At least Titi took those shiny silver things out of her ears. And she was wearing a plain blue bathing suit. What if she’d worn a red one? Would that have made the barracudas think there was blood? Or would orange or yellow have excited them? Oh well, it’s not so stressful to worry in retrospect; now she has snorkeling under her belt and survived unscathed. With barracudas out of the way, what’s the next big threat she’ll face?

And then it hits me, the realization I’ve mostly been able to push from my mind. She’s turned thirteen, and there will be no more walks around the black to hunt for snails, no more pulling the rusty wagon with the dog riding in it, no more games with dinosaurs. Despite all the warning signs—the ear-piercing, the rap music, the choice of a bare-midriff costume for Halloween, the reports of being sleepy after talking on the phone till three in the morning with her friend Michelle (no doubt talking about the boys they meet in the snack bar at the park after school)—I’ve avoided the realization of childhood’s end. Now comes adolescence.

Now come the real barracudas. Like the ones in the sea, they are sometimes six feet, and they, too, perceive their victims by sight, and are also attracted by movements and colors, and shiny objects and displays of flesh, and sometimes also by smell (perfumes). The lures are called sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There is no fail-safe antidote.

No more than any other teen will Titi be immune to the barracudas of adolescence. I only pray she survives them, with some of her childhood sweetness and caring and humor intact, and that she somehow safely navigates the rough seas and dangerous reefs ahead.

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Read Dan Wakefield‘s interview.

Dan Wakefield is a novelist, journalist and screenwriter whose best-selling novels Going All The Way and Starting Over were produced as feature films; he created the NBC prime time TV series “James at 15.” A documentary film has been produced of his memoir New York in the Fifties. His non-fiction books on spirituality include Returning: A Spiritual Journey, Creating from the Spirit, The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography, Expect a Miracle, and How Do We Know When It’s God?: A Spiritual Memoir.

Visit Dan online at

Dan Wakefield: Creating from the Spirit

Dan Wakefield is a novelist, journalist and screenwriter whose best-selling novels Going All The Way and Starting Over were produced as feature films; he created the NBC prime time TV series “James at 15.” A documentary film has been produced of his memoir New York in the Fifties. His non-fiction books on spirituality include Returning: A Spiritual Journey, Creating from the SpiritThe Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography, Expect a Miracle, and How Do We Know When It’s God?: A Spiritual Memoir.

Dan Wakefield was interviewed in August 2010 by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

MJF: What basic philosophy do you try to express in Creating from the Spirit?

DW: The idea of the book is to try to see creativity in your daily life, in everything you do, not just limit it to writing, music, painting and “the arts.” I interviewed people from all different fields to ask how they used creativity in their own work—a yoga teacher, a businessman, a chef, a scientist, a singer, an architect, as well as writers and artists.

The other idea I wanted to express was that the mythology of alcohol and drugs being stimulants to creativity is just that—mythology. When you look behind all the “glamorous” stories of writers being inspired by booze and drugs you find that they weren’t actually doing their creative work while under the influence—they wrote about it afterwards. I have a whole chapter about this with specific experiences that we’ve heard myths about. The main way that alcohol influenced writers was to end their lives early—Dylan Thomas at 39, Scott Fitzgerald at 44, Jack Kerouac at 46.

MJF: Please discuss the ways that words and spirit intersect in your work, especially in regards to healing the wounds of the past through creativity.

DW: My experience has been that by writing about a painful experience, you can come to term with that experience. You incorporate it into your own consciousness and it’s a way of conquering the experience. Psychologists have found there’s a great difference between telling your story—speaking it out loud—and writing the story. We can become very glib if we keep telling our story. We probably told it so many times that we can tell it while thinking about what we’ll have for dinner. Whereas when you write a story,  you really have to deal with it and it’s a much deeper experience. Pulitzer prize poet Mark Van Doren once said that whenever you write honestly about your most horrible experience, that’s when you really reach people, that’s when you’re able to move people with your writing.

MJF: What most changed for you in the writing and completing of this book?

DW: When I started writing and thinking of the book, I imagined it would all be about the mythology of drugs and alcohol, and an editor told me I was only telling about what did NOT work—so what DOES work in stimulating creativity and how can one get access to that? My greatest answer to that was found in Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes For The Archbishop in which she gave the best definition of miracles I have ever encountered: “Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices coming to us from afar of, but from our senses being made finer, so that our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.” This led me to the realization that the senses can be openings to creativity, to stories, images, and ideas. In my workshops, I give specific exercises in looking, hearing, touching, smelling, seeing, that open up this kind of creative experience.

MJF: So this wasn’t stream-of-consciousness writing?

DW: No. I made an outline before I started writing. I think it’s very difficult to use stream-of-consciousness when you’re writing nonfiction, unless you’re writing memoir and tap into some experience that way.

MJF: What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

DW: A deadline is the most powerful motivator.  But there are other things. When I get stuck, I listen to music, I read passages from books I love, and I use the senses to bring things to mind. As I was editing Creating from the Spirit, I started thinking about the five senses as keys to creativity and I realized that many writers have been stimulated by some sense memory. Proust, for example, ate madeleines (cookies from his childhood) to bring forth the writing of Remembering of Things Past. When I was writing my own memoir, New York in the Fifties,  I played Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. Spain had nothing to do with what I was writing, but that piece of music, which I listened to in the 50s, brought back that period of my life and helped me remember people and places and events of those days.

I developed a workshop named after Creating from the Spirit, and in which I use (among other things) sense exercises that use the five senses to evoke stories. In Flint, Michigan, one man read a beautiful piece that came out of his remembering the smell of bacon frying. He said that when he was a boy, that smell in the morning let him know that it would be a good day—it meant his parents didn’t have hang-overs. If he couldn’t smell the bacon frying, he knew that his parents had gotten drunk the night before—there would be no breakfast, and they’d be in a bad mood all day. That’s one example of how, by just thinking about a sense, you can improve your writing.

MJF: How would you categorize your books?

DW: My books are hard to categorize because I’ve written four novels and four memoirs and about four books of nonfiction. Some people think there are two different authors named Dan Wakefield—one who writes the novels, and one who writes the spiritual books. I want to reassure everybody: it’s the same guy.

MJF: Which book was the hardest book to write?

DW: The hardest book to write—because it took so much time to get it started—was my first novel, Going All the Way. I started out making a living doing journalism for magazines, and my first three books were journalistic.  Since college, however, I had always wanted to write a novel. I made three or four false starts, and one great publisher, Houghton Mifflin, told me that I was not a novelist—that I was a fine, young journalist. This made me very mad that  somebody would try to categorize me in that way. They could have said, “We don’t want this beginning of a novel,” instead of saying, “You’re not a novelist.” Going All the Way became a best-seller and was later made into a movie. I was very happy to send a copy to the publishers who had said I wasn’t a novelist.

MJF: Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

DW: Yes! And I follow the advice of sociologist C. Wright Mills, who said that when you’re having writer’s block, you should write a letter to a friend. Writing a letter, the old-fashion way, putting it out on paper, putting it in that envelope, putting a stamp on it, putting it in the mailbox—it is to me a great and reassuring enterprise.

I think the greatest inspiration comes from reading books you love.  I’m rereading The brothers Karamazov. When I was in college, everybody—all my fellow students, the other English majors—read Russian writers, particularly Dostoevsky. I find that his insights about people are as good today as they were 200 years ago. I’ve also read The Great Gasby again and again, and I’m always thrilled by it. My favorite memoir is Name All the Animals by Allison Smith, who said that writing that book was the hardest thing she’d ever done. It took 16 drafts and 7 years. I really admire her for saying that because I think that some people get the idea that writing is supposed to be easy. It’s never easy. I think nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

MJF: A piece of advice to emerging writers?

DW: I will quote writer Scott Turow, who has written many successful novels, including Presumed Innocent, which became a big movie and best-seller. At a conference at Florida International University, Turow was asked by a student, “Mr. Turow, how does a young writer get a book published today?” And without hesitation, Turow said,  “Same old three things. Number one: you’ve got to have talent.  Number two: you have to be lucky. And number three: you have to be able to take rejection after rejection.”

Visit Dan Wakefield online at

Sean Kenniff: Stop *Effing Yourself

Sean Kenniff describes himself as an ordinary guy who has had some extraordinary experiences. He’s a neurologist, television journalist, author, radio host, and former reality TV show contestant. But above everything else he is a happy, compassionate and very thankful man. We asked him a bit about himself and also about his new book, Stop *Effing Yourself.

Sean was interviewed by M.J. Fievre in August 2010 for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

MJF: Sean, many people know you from the television show Survivor. How did you life change after your appearance on that show?

SK: I appeared on the very first season of Survivor on CBS, which is considered by many to be the grand-daddy of all reality television shows. Millions of Americans watched the series and for some it was almost an addiction. So things got crazy for a little while. It was very weird to be recognized by strangers—because in a sense, these strangers knew me. It was reality television; I was not acting. So at the very least the Survivor fans knew the parts of me that were depicted on television—the good and the bad. That was very odd. Every now and then I still get recognized from the show, which is really unusual considering the show aired ten years ago. It’s testimony to the potency of the show, I guess. From a professional point of view Survivor was an enormous springboard for my medical television journalism career.

MJF: How did you become a writer? When did you start writing?

SK: I have always wanted to be a writer. Every night when I go to bed I think of storylines as I drift off to sleep. That’s how I come up with my best ideas—semiconsciously. I try to string the narrative together night after night. I just pick up where I left off the night before. The process distracts me from my daily stress and it really helps me fall asleep. During medical school I would think of different scenes and dialogues for my novel MAD, knowing eventually I would put it down on paper. I had it all in my head before I put a single word on paper. I have a few other unfinished novels in my head too!

MJF: You have a new book out. “Stop Effing Yourself.” What is it about? Is it s self-help book?

SK: Stop *Effing Yourself can best be described as “self-help for self-sabotage.” We all “eff” ourselves from time to time. Some people sabotage their careers, their love lives, their finances, or their health. Others sabotage everything. Stop *Effing Yourself identifies the biggest mistakes people make in key areas of life (those are the “effing problems”)—whether it be money, love, health, or career—and it offers explicit and simple solutions (the “effing solutions”). So Stop *Effing Yourself is not only a self-help book, it is also a how-to book. It gives you concrete steps to improve your relationships, your finances, your health and your career goals.

MJF: What personal experiences lead you to the writing of this book, in which you explain the psychological underpinnings of self-sabotage?

SK: Like many people, I found myself coming really close to accomplishing a goal, but then I would suddenly back away or let things disintegrate. There is a fascinating psychological theory on why these “approach-avoidance” reactions occur. People are inherently ego-preserving and achievement often brings change. The ego—or the self—resists change. We are more comfortable staying the same, even if a change would be positive. As you come closer to your goal the negative feelings about the changes that will have to be made become more significant, and you unconsciously begin to back away or sabotage yourself. For other people, self-doubt, fear of success, and feelings of unworthiness may also be playing a role.

MJF: What’s next for you?

SK: I have no idea. Keep working, keep creating, keep thinking–it has served me well so far!

Sean Kenniff’s is a website where you can find the hottest stories about health, diet, fitness, medicine and sex. It’s a news aggregate website with a healthy sense of humor.

Kim Barnes: The Wages of Sin (A Personal History of Economics)


I am ten when the older boy from our little fundamentalist church places a dime in my hand and says that I can keep it if I’ll let him touch my knee.  We’ve been playing hide-and-seek and have taken refuge in the parsonage’s stairway, a steep and secret ascent to the slope-roofed bedrooms.  Dusky light filters in just short of the top landing.

I’m the daughter of a gyppo logger.  I live with my parents and younger brother in a shotgun shack surrounded by larch and red cedar in the Clearwater National Forest of Idaho.  We pull our water from the small spring that runs outside our window.  The indoor plumbing freezes in winter and runs dry in summer so that, more often than not, we trek to the outhouse to do our business.  No TV but a little console hi-fi that my parents bought on time and on which we listen to the radio stations skipping in from Texas.  My father hunts no matter the season.  We eat the venison right down to the bones.  A bag of dried brown beans gets us through the hardest winter.  While my schoolmates collect baseball cards and Barbie dolls, I collect the pastel tabs of Holsum wrappers, the prices stamped in ink.  With two dimes, I could buy a loaf of soft white bread.

It hasn’t yet dawned on me that what this boy wants is some part of sex—a word that is never spoken from the pulpit but comes veiled in euphemisms:  necking, petting, fornication.  Along with such words come dire warnings of fire-and-brimstone punishment, but I have no real idea of what the words mean.  Other than a book illustrated with gray diagrams of the human reproductive organs that my mother has left on my bed, I have never been instructed in sexual matters of any kind.  I don’t know that women have orgasms; I don’t know that men have orgasms.  What I know is that a girl who ruins her reputation will never have a husband, and that a woman without a husband will never have anything.  We are the daughters of Eve, a danger to ourselves and those around us.  Our temptation of man brought the whole world to ruin.

The boy sits beside me, waiting.  My skirt is tucked, my legs together.  I pull my knee socks a little higher as I consider his offer.  I know that, if I take the boy’s dime and allow him to touch me, it will be a sin.  I know that the dime will buy me a sack of jawbreakers and bubblegum, or a Coke at the confectionary—all luxuries my family can’t afford.  I smell the boy’s peppermint breath, the fried chicken the women are cooking in the kitchen below.  I feel my stomach clench and growl.  I am hungry.

I hold out my hand, and the boy places the dime in my palm.  I close my eyes, and a shiver of fear or expectation makes my teeth chatter.  When the boy’s fingers graze the band of bare skin between my long socks and the hem of my skirt, a dart of strange pleasure travels from my knee to my heart.  In that moment, the dime is forgotten.  Even now, I can’t recall:  Did I buy candy? A vanilla ice cream cone dipped in hot fudge?  Or did I lose the coin in the backseat of my family’s car as we travelled through the dark toward home?  What I remember is this:  even after the fried chicken, the mashed potatoes floated with white gravy, the thick slabs of homemade sourdough buttered and toasted, my hunger was still with me, keener now, and somehow new.


1970.  The year I begin seventh grade, my family moves from the small logging town to the closest small city.  My father takes a job as a truck driver, and the poverty line holds steady at our feet.  My mother finds an empty rental—a lovely old house on the verge of ruin.  The doctor who owns it will give us one month free in exchange for upkeep, and so we move into the stucco bungalow with its dusty crystal chandelier and overgrown koi pond in back.  Its empty rooms echo with our footsteps.  Other than the scratchy Herculon sofa that my mother says will outlast her, we have no furniture.  Our dining set is a redwood picnic table on loan from a relative, and we eat our hamburger casseroles and bread-and-gravy suppers beneath the faceted light of the chandelier.  My closet is hung with a few dresses and skirts, handmade by my mother—an excellent seamstress whose fashionable impulses are overruled by the church’s dictates concerning modesty:  all hems two inches below the knees, no blouses that don’t cover the shoulders.  No adornment—jewelry, makeup—is allowed.  The combination of homespun and homely in the face of mini-skirts and blue eye-shadow makes me slump and dodge as I walk to my new junior high school, its design blocky and modern.  Even our church is different—pews that seat hundreds, central heating and air conditioning instead of a pot-bellied stove and windows open to the summer breeze.  When we are invited to dinner at the home of fellow parishioners, I’m fascinated by the electric dishwasher, transfixed as I watch the trash compactor grind and seal the garbage into a neat package.  But it’s their son, two years my elder, who mesmerizes me.  He has thick blond hair, sharp blue eyes, a component stereo system connected to a light board, all set up in his downstairs bedroom.  He shows me how the lights pulse and strobe to the music’s beat.  He puts on a Beatles album and plays “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  We sit on the edge of his bed, and when he reaches to touch my knee, I scoot a little closer.  Until I’m sixteen, he will be my boyfriend.  With the money he makes at his job at the supermarket, he buys me tater tots after Sunday church service, root beer floats after prayer meeting.  A wool tartan skirt that I roll at the waist to expose my thighs and a sweater that dips suggestively at the collarbone. He teaches me how to french kiss; his hand travels farther than my knee.  When I hesitate to go all the way, he becomes moody, then angry.  Hadn’t he worked overtime to buy me the promise ring with a real diamond chip at its center?

I think I love him, of course, and maybe I do.  I know that I love riding around in his car, the delicate gold cross he hangs at my throat, the first real restaurant of my life (chicken-fried steak on the menu), where he takes me to celebrate the one year-anniversary of our meeting.  Who better to give my virginity to than this sixteen-year-old boy with hair like John Denver who says he will be my husband?

In a church that demands female subservience and with a father whose patriarchy is absolute, the fact that I should belong to a man is both encouraged and expected.  And, somehow, it is with this exchange—my acquiescence for his continued affection—that my boyfriend gains ownership, as though my maidenhead were a coin he had plundered and now holds in his pocket.  Sex becomes what we do instead of watching TV or listening to his extensive collection of LPs.  Having offered myself once, I no longer believe I have the right to withhold.  As long as I’m free with my favors, my boyfriend is happy.  I begin to dream of houses with more than one level, rooms full of matching furniture, a pantry stocked with staples.  Perhaps I should have heeded the words of my great aunt:   “There’s only one thing that women have that’s worth a plug nickel, and you’d better know when to hold and when to sell.”  She’d kept her man home and seemingly happy for over sixty years by an iron-fisted control of the market (just because he wanted didn’t mean he got, at least not until she got what she wanted), her stock gone from that of a sharecropper’s daughter to the wife of an entrepreneur with certificates of deposit in every bank in town.

But I am of a different generation.  The world of women is in upheaval.  They are burning their bras in the streets, marching on Washington, demanding equal rights, equal pay for equal work.  My boyfriend doesn’t care that I am his equal:  what he cares about is that I am his.  So that when a boy I think of as only a friend buys me a Coke after Sunday night service, my lover is enraged.   He commands me into his car, and I don’t dare disobey.  The other boy hesitates before driving away.  My boyfriend calls me a whore, and then shoves me from his car to the pavement, where I lie for a long time in the dark, believing that I have earned this, that this is the payment for my sin.


A job at Taco Time, and then at Orchard’s Pharmacy.  A six-hundred dollar loan on a 1967 Chevrolet Impala.  My boyfriend’s rages grow more vengeful, and then another girl catches his eye.  Even as ruined as I am, I’m relieved to see him go.

I’m a senior in high school, making enough money to buy my own clothes, my own Cokes, my own tickets to the movies that I sneak to because movie houses are dens of iniquity and might lead me to sin.  My grades are good enough to earn me scholarship offers:  I will be the first in my family to attend college.  The night of graduation, my father and I have a final falling out.  He tells me that if I can’t pay him absolute obedience, I must take my things and never come back.

And I do.  I pack my suitcase and walk out the door, leaving behind my weeping mother, my dreams of college.  Now, I must find a job that will pay me a living wage.  I apply for a teller’s position at a local bank and am hired.  The vice-president is impressed by the grades I received in math.

Every day, I count the money:  all the bills facing the same way, all shuffled and tamped into alignment, stacked and bound with elastic bands.  All the coins rolled and pinched.  I’m making almost three dollars an hour.  I have medical coverage, disability.  My life is insured.  A “career girl,” my grandmother calls me.  I have just enough money to buy gas for my Chevy, to buy a margarita after closing on Friday night, to pay the ninety-five-dollars-a-month rent on a studio apartment, but no money to begin work toward a degree. “You need a man,” my mother tells me.  “Someone to take care of you.  To protect you from other men.”  And even though I now wear a t-shirt that reads, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” I don’t know how to move forward down the road of my life without the ride a man might provide.  All my school friends are married and having children; a few have gone off to college, where they will find men with ambition, men who are headed somewhere, who are on their way up.  I don’t know a single woman who lives alone by choice and on purpose.

Loneliness gnaws at my bones.  I’m hungry all the time.  I eat Top Ramen, mac-and-cheese, toast with peanut butter.  At the end of each month, my money all gone, I eat white bread spread with butter, sprinkled with sugar—a sweet comfort food my mother had fed me when I needed something more.  I miss my mother, miss her quiet presence, her soft assurance. No high school diploma, no training, no jobs that might offer her the minimal security my father’s modest salary provides, her choices are fewer than mine will ever be.  “It could be worse,” she’ll tell me.  “It can always be worse.”

That spring, when the yellow Corvette Stingray pulls up at the bank’s drive-through window, I slide out the drawer and watch with mild curiosity as the man deposits his hefty paycheck.  He has long dark hair, a thick beard and a moustache, blue, blue eyes that hold me longer than is comfortable.  The next week, he includes a note with his deposit:  Would I like to go to dinner that Friday night?

I glance at him through my pane of bulletproof glass.  He isn’t handsome but unusually tall and lean, older than I am by a decade.  Still, there is something about him, a kind of self-possession and worldly carriage, that attracts me.  And those eyes.  And that car.

And then the dozen red roses that arrive at the bank Friday afternoon and that the other tellers moon over.  “Who is he?” they ask, and all I can do is give them the details that I have gleaned from his checking account:  his name—David James—his address, phone, social security number.  The record of his transactions.  The fact that his paychecks are drawn on a long-haul trucking company.  That he is a spender, not a saver.  That he is picking me up at seven in the Corvette.  That we will go to the most expensive restaurant in town.

I bathe and manicure, curl my long hair, add another layer of mascara.  A dress from the boutique on Main Street.  A pair of high heels.  At the restaurant, David orders for me:  filet mignon and lobster, melted butter, a baked potato with chives.  A bottle of wine that the waiter opens with a corkscrew.  David talks about his trips to Seattle, where I’ve never been.  He tells me that he’s a Vietnam vet, two tours.  Like me, he loves to read.  He’s quick to laugh, easy to pay attention to.  When he becomes quiet for a moment, and then asks me about boyfriends I’ve had, I hesitate, afraid that my past will ruin everything.  He doesn’t care, he says.  I have to know that.

I don’t pay for a thing, of course, and won’t for many months to come.  More flowers, midnight rides in the Corvette with the top off, cocktails in bars that have fireplaces instead of pool tables.  I keep waiting for the required payback that will begin with a kiss, then a move to the couch, maybe to the bed.  When no such demands are made, I am at first relieved, and then concerned.  Is he married?  Is he gay?  I begin to fear that he doesn’t find me desirable—a fearful possibility.  What other value do I possess?  My dress becomes more provocative, my attention more fixed.  And when he finally does kiss me, I feel that remembered luscious jolt that had left me breathless in the parsonage stairway.

“Let’s go slow,” he says.  “Take our time.”   I am a virgin again, shivery with anticipation.  I feel doted upon and pampered, wooed and oh so won.  All those roses.  All that buttery, buttery lobster.  I have never been more ready.

When, finally, David invites me into his bedroom, it is not the fairy tale seduction I had imagined but a Hugh Hefner romp.  No candlelight and soft music, just incandescence and rock-and-roll.  Hardcore porn in one drawer, sex toys in another.  He laughs at my shy naiveté.  “Let’s just have fun,” he says.  “What’s wrong with that?”  This thing that I have for so long thought a sin, a sure-fire road to damnation—this sex—he sees as nothing more than harmless entertainment.  I’ve left the church, thrown off its injunctions against movies, dancing, drinking.  Why not this?

When, on our next date, David arrives in a pickup and admits that the Corvette was not his but on loan from a friend, I say it doesn’t matter.  I am having fun, after all, spending all my free time with David.  Sometimes he takes me along as a passenger in his semi-truck, most often to Seattle, where we eat cedar-smoked salmon while looking out over Puget Sound, then walk the wharf holding hands.  When, at the end of one such day, he suggests that we stop by a sex shop, I’m curious.  There’s so much I want to know.

Over the next several months, David cajoles me—that’s the only word for it, good-natured cajoling— into accompanying him into the sex shops, peep shows, and topless bars I hadn’t known he frequented (the workers all know him by name).  When, because I am missing too much work, my supervisor at the bank puts me on notice, David encourages me to quit, and I do.  He moves into my apartment to save both of us money.  Within weeks, my bank account is empty.   When I ask David for cash to buy groceries, I am stunned:  he, too, is broke.

“But you had thousands,” I say.  “I saw it.”

“It’s gone,” he answers, and, in another few weeks, I know why:  speed, cocaine, mushrooms, LSD.   The many “friends” he has are people who come to party with David.  They support his habit, buy whatever he is selling.

At some point, that whatever becomes me.

“You owe me,” he says.  “How else are you going to pay?”

No money, no job, no car.  My request for unemployment denied, my car broken down, my credit in shambles.  Still, I refuse.  What had begun as fun has turned frankly serious.  David’s threats become more explicit, his posture more threatening:  until I agree to do what he says, he will not talk to me, will not acknowledge my existence.  He leaves the apartment, and I lie alone in our bed for days, in a paralytic state of despair, rising only to make my way to the bathroom but never to the kitchen because I will find nothing.  Our cupboards are bare.

It is the economics of survival, pure and simple, that drive me to face David, to refuse his order that I have sex for money with other men while he watches, to disobey his command that I not leave the house, to borrow my cousin’s car and find him where he sits in a bar with one of his other women.  But economics has little to do with what comes next, which will require of me survival of another kind.  The punishment for my sin is this:  David returns to the apartment and rapes me.  And with that violence, he leaves me with a promise–that just when I think I have forgotten him, he will return to rape me again.

As I lie on the couch where he has left me, my body aching, I feel an unexpected calm.  This is the price I had expected to pay all along.  I think of Jezebel, her story a cautionary tale to all women who have earned the wages of sin:  her dismembered hands thrown to the streets for the dogs to gnaw.

But, still, some scrap of who I am remains.


I am twenty.  My job is gone, my car.  I have turned my family away from me.  This time, it isn’t a man I turn to for help, but a woman.  I am taken in by a girlfriend, one of the few young women I know who is training for a career—she will be a nurse.  She gives me a bed and feeds me until I can gather the pieces of my life and start over.  I find steady employment cocktailing at one of the nicer bars, where I keep my distance from the men and their drunken offers.  I sign up for classes at the local college.  When I tell the financial aid counselor that I have no transportation to get to and from campus, she writes me a check for three hundred dollars—just enough to buy the aging Dodge Coronet I’d seen on the used car lot.  The salesman is good-looking and not much older than I am, but when the roses arrive at my door, along with his card thanking me for my business, I throw away the note and tell my roommate not to take his calls.  The roses last until the end of the week, and then they, too, go into the garbage.  The Dodge will last me for years.

I attend class through the day, work at the bar until two a.m., and then rise to do it all again.  Even with tips, my wages aren’t enough to cover my expenses.  I take my portable typewriter to the food bank and trade it for cheese and peanut butter—I don’t want to owe anybody anything.  When I wake one frost-bitten morning after Christmas with a throat so inflamed that it hurts to breathe, I go to class anyway, and then to work.  Who can afford the loss of grades and money and maybe even the job itself?  Over the next several days, the sore throat worsens.  No insurance, no way to pay for medical care.  My voice has descended to a husky alto.  I stumble from table to table in a true purple haze.  In one corner sits a group of businessmen, celebrating the success of an account, knocking back martinis as fast as the bartender can make them.  Their leader, middle-aged but still trim and with the jaw-set of a man used to getting his way—the kind of man who might take care of me–presses a fifty dollar bill into my palm.

“You sound just like Lauren Bacall,” he says and winks.  “And I’ve always had a hard-on for Lauren Bacall.”

I stand with my tray of drinks in one hand, the fifty in the other, my throat burning with infection.  I make a choice, then, one I’ve never regretted.  I fold the fifty in my fist and walk away.  The fifty buys me a trip to the health clinic and a bottle of antibiotics, and it buys me something else:  a new awareness that just because men are willing to pay doesn’t mean that women have to give—a lesson that my aunt once tried to teach me.

When, years later, I ask a friend twenty years my elder—no high school degree, no job experience, no retirement of her own–why she doesn’t leave her domineering husband, she will reply, “Better prostitute than destitute.”  And how can I argue?  Maybe, when it comes to love, money, and the daughters of Eve, it’s always a devil’s bargain.


One husband, two children, three degrees in English.  I take a position as an adjunct at the college where my young poet-husband, recently divorced, is already a professor, but, unlike him, I have no job security, no benefits, no tenure.  Like other faculty wives, I am an anchored spouse.  I teach the overflow classes, the last minute adds.  In our small community, daycare is nearly non-existent, our combined income barely enough to pay the mortgage.  On the days I don’t teach, I dress our small children, strap them into their car seats, and drive to parks, to beaches, to towns thirty miles away for a matinee—anything to use up the hours.  Their father needs the small house quiet so that he can write.  I’ve read Virginia Woolf a dozen times and still don’t know how to ask for a room of my own.

I compose my own poems and essays while standing at the kitchen counter, a baby at my breast, a pen in my hand.  I jot notes on paper towels, on receipts at McDonald’s while the children sink into the brightly colored balls of Playland.  Sometimes, I take my pencil and paper into the bathroom—the only room with a locking door.  My son and daughter, my husband, even the dog come to the threshold to whine and inquire:  When will I be out?

How can I tell them that, in that small room, still misted with the morning’s showers, I am writing the story of my life?  That each sentence I put to the page seems both penance and payback.  I’m rebuilding the ruins, one word at a time.

Those words become books, those books a desk, a narrow office.  Even so, it sometimes seems as though I’ll never make back those wages lost to men.  I’m fifty, closer to retirement than I ever thought I would be.  After all those years of being a “trailing spouse,” it’s unlikely that my salary, my resume, my retirement will ever match those of my husband, who didn’t wait for anybody:  his first wife, his first child, and then the family he and I made together–all fell in line behind his ambition to become a writer and teacher.  In the isolated environment of the interior west, no one ever told me I might take the lead. If I’d earned truer wages through all those years of waiting for a man to take care of me, how much better could I take care of myself?

Even if I’d had a role model to guide me, would anything be any different?  Even now, twenty-five years into my marriage, the children grown and gone, my university position finally secure, I understand the trade-off.  I’ve given up time and money for the love of a husband and children, for the love of this place where I’ve chosen to live, only miles away from that backwoods parsonage with its smells of fried chicken and gravy, where the boy touched my knee and I began to fall, my sin made of nothing but a little want, a little need to know something more.


Kim Barnes is the author of two memoirs and two novels, most recently A Country Called Home, which received the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction and was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post and the Kansas City Star.  She is the recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award for an emerging woman writer of nonfiction, and her first memoir, In the Wilderness, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including the New York TimesMOREO MagazineGood HousekeepingFourth GenreThe Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. Her forthcoming novel, American Mecca, an exploration of Americans living in 1960s Saudi Arabia, will be published by Knopf in 2011.  Barnes teaches writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.

This essay, “The Wages of Sin,” was first published in The Secret Currency of Love, edited by Hilary Black. HarperCollins Publishers, January 2009.