Breadcrumb #488

MADDY BURNS

I have to say “Drive safe” when my husband leaves. If I don’t, he might get into an accident.

    I have to say “I love you” at the end of every phone call. If I don’t, and my mom or dad die, they might die thinking that I didn’t love them.

    I have to text “I love you” to all of them before I turn off my phone on the plane. If I don’t, they might think that I died mad at them.

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, is the go-to reference for diagnosing mental illnesses. It contains approximately 297 diagnoses of mental illnesses, under a bevy of codes. They include codes for:

  • adult psychological abuse by nonspouse or nonpartner, suspected

  • adjustment disorder, with disturbance of conduct

  • mild neurocognitive disorder due to multiple etiologies.    

    I’m still looking for the applicable code for a two-year old girl who thinks she killed her mom with her thoughts. The code for a little girl whose mother disappeared a week after she wished her dead. The code for a little girl who doesn’t understand what spinal meningitis is or what a hospital quarantine means. Because everyone knows that little girls can’t hurt people with their thoughts.

     Except  . . .

     When I say “Drive safe,” my husband looks at me and sighs.

    “I will,” he says, his eyes tired.

    When I say, “I love you,” my mother pauses a little through the phone before saying, “I love you, too.”

    When I text “I love you,” they know what I really mean.

• • •

Breadcrumb #487

ANDREW PHILLIPS

Sam thought about spadefoot toads. They were a dream so real he could hold them in his fist. His parents had gone out to see them when they’d first come to the apartment. They’d trekked into the woods and found the crater that filled with water one night a year every April. On that night, they’d stood at the water’s edge, watched the spadefoots climb up from their ground homes, and deposit eggs in the pool. It was a beautiful thing, his mother told him, the promise of life passed from parents to their young.

His parents planned to take him one day to see the spadefoots, but that promise was given before his father left on assignment.

In the meantime, he amused himself as best he could. He squeezed his toes together and pretended they were the shovel-like toad feet and dug up pennies and fluff from beneath the sofa cushions. Often, he croaked. Sam was that type of kid who felt moved to croak --  in his bedroom, at the laundromat, and in his school. Kids called him names and his teachers shook their head at him, but he didn’t care.

His mother didn’t mind the noise.  She built him a forest out leaves that she taped to his bedroom walls.  On winter nights, she strummed woodland melodies on her ukulele. She encouraged Sam to supply the lyrics, and they’d dance around the room.

When Sam was nine, his mother told him that Cheyenne and Troy were moving into the basement apartment. Sam was not impressed by this development. Cheyenne, a nurse his mother worked with at the hospital, phoned his mother at inconvenient times to complain about her ex-husband. Troy, her son, wasn’t any better. He belonged to a crew who called him retard. They were the reason Sam stayed inside at recess and read nature books.

“Help Troy feel welcome here,” his mother said.

“He’s very loud,” Sam said.

“Okay, frog man.”

“It’s toad man,” he corrected. “Get it right.”

His mother clasped a hand over her heart in mock embarrassment. “How could I get that wrong? What is my penance?”

Sam deliberated for a moment. “Five gummy worms.”

“Deal.”

Two weeks later, Sam went outside to count fireflies. Troy was whacking tennis balls at rabbits.   

“Wusses,” Troy said.

“They aren’t,” Sam said. “Rabbits are tough.”

Troy shrugged.

“They kill their babies,” Sam said.

“What?”

“The dads do,” Sam explained. “They get jealous of the babies. The mom rabbits give them too much love.”

“What dicks,” Troy said.

Dicks was a dirty word. It’s what Sam’s uncle called his father.

“My father is a dick,” Troy said.

Sam handed him a stray tennis ball. They were teammates without a coach.

On nights when his mother worked late, Sam filled the indoor forest with a tribe of new friends. Troy, Aunt Cheyenne, and a few kids from the neighborhood ate pizza and watched the weather report. It was April and the first downpour was around the corner. On the night of the first rainstorm, the spadefoot toads emerged. This year, Sam, his mother and the other boys would find them.

On the night of the rain, Sam’s mother had to work late, but told him he could go as long as he stayed with the other boys. They were a band of wellie clad explorers, and the spadefoots were calling them to join them at the enchanted pool.

On the night of the first rainstorm, the spadefoot toads emerged.

As they traveled deeper into the woods, the apartment building vanished from view. The only light came from their flashlights, and the soundtrack was the throaty tune of the spadefoots.  They were close. Sam felt it.

“What are you doing?” Troy asked. “Stop dancing.”

Sam hadn’t realized he had been dancing, but he couldn’t stop. He was happy, and it was okay to dance.  His mother and father danced on the night they’d seen the spadefoots.

“It’s fine,” Sam said. “My father---

“He’s crazy,” Billy Stoner said.

Troy’s lips twitched into a smile. “Just retarded.”   

Sam flushed.  The music inside him died.  It had been months since they’d called him a retard. Retarded was too much homework, deflated soccer balls, when his father failed to call.

Sam grabbed a rock and tossed it at Troy’s chest.

War descended upon the woods.  Troy hurled a rock in his direction, and then they launched themselves at each other. Sam fought for the woods and the spadefoots. He kicked, punched, and scratched his way through the wall of belligerent boys, and when he broke free, he ran after the music.

The woods seemed darker with every step.  The others were ghosts of a past world. The music was his future, a fragile one.  This future was pulling in different directions. The music was everywhere and nowhere.  He strained his ears for the throaty melody, but it eluded him. He turned right, then left.  He was back at the sight of the brawl, but the boys were gone. They were walking back to the house, or they’d never really come. Either way, he’d promised to stay with them, but he couldn’t go back. The spadefoots had been counting on him and they were boys that ruined the night.

Sam sat down on a stump and waited for her to find him.

She arrived after the rain, but face was streaked with black rivers and her smile was missing.

“Troy?” he asked.

“Is fine.”  

Sam nodded. He’d fought with the group and left them.

“I’m sorry,” She said.

“Why?”

She didn’t answer. “Climb on my back.”

He wrapped his arms around her neck and allowed her to carry him through the woods. He imagined he was a robin with a broken wing and she was returning him to their nest.  

“You know,” she said. “Everything’s going to be okay,”

Sam nodded. He could see the square top of their apartment building and beyond it, the moon with craters deep enough to shelter a dozen spadefoot toads.

• • •

Breadcrumb #485

MEIKO KO

Jack did not like L. L did not like anyone who did not like her. Every Friday at school she made him do skits, ordered the rest to fold into chairs, play metal dead. It burst now and then—Jack, you’re rotting. You’d better see a doctor. You, Jacob, Tanner, watch it. Things always came back. You pick the fence, scale over, you must know there’d be consequences for it.

L couldn’t help it. That was how mouths went wrong, Jack’s ears perked often. He was a psycho. His talent was anger. L didn’t give a shit, it’d be your cause for regret, Jack thought. The town they lived in didn’t help. It was small and everyone knew your address. The sky was cerulean broad and the first thing to greet, by nights it locked everyone down. Stars were no remedy and the world was confined. L was no fool, she did not think there was anything larger in the cities.

They came for you anywhere you lived. First you fitted, then they assigned you clothes. ‘They’ did not exist, they sat around covered. Leaves and skins had not stop growing, they forgot the earth. L wore whatever thrown at her. A decent life was good enough, she calculated nothing, counted the protein bars and milkshakes, cans of root beer at the grocer’s, whose son sat by the cash register. “You doing good?” “Yes, L,” said the boy with the bluest tongue. “Alright, I’ll see you in a bit.” Then she counted her footsteps down the yellow, dusty path, stopped at her mailbox, patted the good stray dog, went into her house and the screen door shut.

Work was a deception, there was nothing much she could do, the higher-ups wanted the Friday school skits. For the kids to show cooperation and boy band valor in the distinction of the school’s marked years, or there’d be no funding. Look at the new generation of sweetness. Every Friday L gathered the students by the stage, an inspector, hands behind his back, royal accent, came to surprise: “I approve.” L shoved her hand into her jeans pocket, the young sang choruses, they must love to sing by the pastures and big machines,

We welcome you all to our variety show. Lots of different things to see before you go…and don’t forget to cheer for the stage and art crew. That’s what God wants us to do.

L liked lonesome holidays. She did not want company. Men at the bar told her it was sad, she was just thirsty and the Corona was lime fresh, she said leave me alone. For saying that she liked lonesome holidays. Once in a while she put on her boots and drove to the shooting range. Some women shot for power, L did it for commemoration.

Her child was dead.

One Friday Jack wanted trouble. He waylaid Katherine with a pair of scissors and cut a chunk of her hair, threatened to stab her pa. “If you laughed anymore at mine, I will.” And he set the shears on her cheek, his left hand holding her locks of dyed hair, and there was an ugly hole in Katherine’s head. Katherine wanted to sue. Yes, they could fold into cogs and wheels and Barbies, they were pink and drowsy, animation that made you float and sink, but you must leave them alone, Jack. Not everything was about you running the show.

Once in a while she put on her boots and drove to the shooting range. Some women shot for power, L did it for commemoration.

“Apologize to Katherine.”

“I’ll have to call your father.”

L put him on stage but that wasn’t his greatest humiliation. The humiliation was that the stage no longer had any effect, the shame of young men had altered in texture and Jack had none, he stood there continuing to glint and mock and taunt Katherine. You scum of pond in cotton fluff. You children of suburbia. Jack might hate boy bands, but he knew the stage was power. L was wrong to put him there, suddenly she saw him as he really was, Jack was slippery and could dissolve himself, fit into any vase or receptacle, fish through the systems by hook or crook, for looks were deceiving and Jack was lucky with his actor face. Move to the city and sit in an office signing away documents and lives, dictating to the secretaries the colors of their stockings and hair dyes. He was right: Boy bands were primitive. Dull for him, who could play Ken doll better than any.

The problem wasn’t his pa. It had gone beyond that. In the teacher’s room talk was the solution before L dialed, Jack said, his voice wintry, what do you know about children, L. And he sat slouched with his legs wide and one hand playing with a ballpoint pen, turning it slowly on the desk. What do you know about children, he said, as though he knew she once had a dead child, that made her eat her own fingers, each time she fired a bullet at the target, at the man who sauntered into the room and took her baby. “Fuck you,” L said. But she did not call his pa. The old man sat around getting shorter and thinner, when he lost his game of backgammon he got up and knotted the strings of his sweatpants, went to Jack and told him it was time he showed him the world. And papa said, “Run,” before he made Jack face the wall and did what he needed from behind. “Are you going to call him now?”

Policemen said, what a common story, neither mystery nor myth. Soon they’d be packing their bags and moving to Australia. They’d not heard his duck screams, saw the red glue stream down his actor face. They heard and went for his pa at the foundry where he worked, frisked him, or took his money. “Give me back my fucking paycheck,” wasn’t uttered. In its place was only lost memory. An escape he invented to cut his tongue for its failure to resist. They showed him what he was made of. A loser in this world where sweet-mouthed men swam in the upper echelons of the foundry, work, you stupid men, work. They really thought we were squids, son. They thought that because they smoked cigars, they could snuff them on my arms. The heat lovely, the burn rich, smoke on charred skin…

After it was done and over and back for more like clockwork and it happened often that papa said, “Run.” One day the cruelty was complete, a grin hung on Jack’s face, unfathomable like the moon. There was a transparent look in his eyes, hard as ivory, a beyond which said, you were finally free. There were no more cares, Jack did whatever he wanted, with hair or strangers or cats, but not the Doberman, but the kid with the bluest tongue. You had to be blunt, be chained. Something sick moved on his face, a cunning, as he said, “Just play the boy band, isn’t that right, L?” His hands grew baits and knowledge, cynicism wrecked his mouth. After drawing sketches of many dads in his notepad with a ballpoint pen, mumbling, why did they want fathers dead, all papas should die, eagle wings on backs and sweet faces which said, “I love you, son, you are the Roman in my eyes,” he burned them in the trashcan. He whispered to L, as he strutted off the stage like a winner and passed her by, “You’d have to forgive me for anything I do. It’s your job.”

L looked at him and understood. She was concerned, she shoved her hand into her pocket. She knew that Jack followed her down the yellow, dusty path to her vanilla prefab a few Fridays later after the cheap skit. It was a spring day, a television kind of color lit, the peace sacred as wind rustled the hickory trees, the sky a broadsheet. Somewhere an Indian song grieved, “This was our land.” Elsewhere a man in overalls listened to a boom box in a junkyard. L walked, not turning back, her faith and feet steady. This was not the first time. To live in America meant things were on a rerun, history never forgave, you killed my father. She wanted to laugh, but she hardly did at anyone. It didn’t matter what the director of the orphanage at Islington did to her. Every night a set of girls were arranged. One by one or like twins they entered his office and peed into a basin, age ten, he didn’t like the girls bloody. If they could not he gave them more water at supper. Occasionally they drank milk, for their pee to catch the cow’s fragrance. Months after she had the child at nineteen, he sauntered into the hospital room and took her away. She never saw Sammie again.

Behind her the wind carried the scent of cherry almond from L’s hair to Jack. He spat. A truck rumbled past and disturbed the dust, L’s hair was strong and russet, strips of copper ran through, her muscles brawny in her plaid shirt and blue jeans. Jack lifted his head and stared at the smear in the American sky. He had no plans. He would get through this. He’d force her down on the floor, feet planted on her head, his soles the scent of earth, down woman, this was the consequence if you wanted to be a man for Katherine. Fear was ruthless and truth and lies candles, perfidy a cake, he’d be safe. The bank accounts, which liked to romanticize our dollars, would not move, L had to eat, she’d not report him. He churned up his wrath to be ready, spat again: What did she take him for. He never wanted to be a Ken. The live plastic horror which knew no genitals or ethics or heart, the fathers of Katherine, cigars in hand. Gold and esteem the only values they craved, any power they had was ripped off the dead, ratting out prisoners and bribing police, talking to tycoons for their private fashion shows. Jack knew these fathers well, through his own’s hot body. Once your father was a slave, you were too. Jack was fifteen, but old as the wind. Height and build invented racism, he was six feet, hair black, toothpick at the edge of his mouth, chin shaved to consider the moon.

L did as always. She counted her footsteps to seven hundred, checked the mailbox, went through the wooden gate and patted the dog, ever so eager, Henry, down boy, soon there’d be milk bones. She went through the screen door and set down her tote bag, at the fridge took a can of root beer, popped the ring and drank. Never thought a follower would make her so thirsty, she finished it in a sec. In the next minute, she’d take a nap. The couch was leathery and inviting, she understood what it meant to be a woman of America, that she must be taught a lesson, kept wrong, forgotten, made to forget, like a man, a nanny in manland. They never stopped trying to convince her she wasn’t sporty, they always used the ancient methods—cut off her contacts, keep her at home. The living room was their world. Domestication was a horror, a horror.

She whistled for Henry. The dog, eighty-eight pounds, sacks of raw rice, half a Doberman, jumped onto her torso. Later, when Henry growled, Jack would be standing there, watching her wake. L hushed the dog, let him out of the house. “Obey,” she said. Jack growled, his actor face pale. L would let him do anything he wanted to her, as long as no clothes were removed. No rifles, no hands, go ahead, Jack. I give you half an hour. I am an American woman. I am the way I am, and if a beating makes you feel alive, like a man, go ahead, come.

• • •



Breadcrumb #484

JORDAN E. FRANKLIN

After Peter Gabriel

I want contact

and his songs are like praying  
and the answer afterwards. For

me, Gabriel is Brooklyn airbrushed with stars, a car’s ignition
running over miles of Flatbush streets quieting and I’m
in the backseat, safe, the radio low, looking

out the window as the moon strikes the trees’ crowned fore-
heads like matches the wind can’t put out. There is a
lyric molting in my mouth—the sweetest spark.

Wanting contact

As my tongue is wrestled to the chorus,
his blue-eyed soul is loose like my hands. Any-
thing can slip here. There’s always a chance

to escape my body when he sings. I mimic the collision
of meaning. I tap the beat into my skin like tattoos and
watch the cricket legs of my fingers shed. I
want to lose my hands. I want my head to light
      up

the streetlamp of my spine, my mouth in
perfect lockstep with the verses. Gabriel, the
magician, his chanting like heavy machines in the dark.

Nothing else seems to please

until the song ends.

• • •

Breadcrumb #483

ISABEL ANREUS

My abuela and I share the same Orisha, the santo Obatalá. Adorned in white; the eldest and wisest. The Orisha that preserves justice and reckoning. The diplomatic voice amongst a constant discord of sibling rivalry. The androgynous white knight. Obatalá is both male and female, both a Catholic and African deity. Every member of my family has an Orisha to protect and watch over them. My mother’s so accurately is Yemayá, the mother of all living things. She is all blue and resides in the ocean. She takes care of her other siblings’ unwanted children. My brother’s is Changó. He is fire, lightning, and thunder. Smudged red. Power, strength, and aggression are his most prized attributes.  He was once king of the whole earth, and Changó, like my brother, has an appetite for all things decadent. My father is the luckiest, his Orisha is Elegguá, the most powerful. Children of Elegguá are blessed; they have access to the twenty-one roads. He is the connecting agent, the negotiator with fate. Elegguá is also the trickster; the child with an incessant fervor for candy. His shrines are the easiest to spot, always covered in sweets, money, and liquor.   

Santeria translated from Spanish is roughly, “devotions to the spirits,” but most who practice it don’t use this term to describe it. The more familiar term is Regla de Ocha which translates roughly to, “Ruler/Rules of the Bark.” Orishas (spirits) are the children of Olodumare, the ultimate creator.  The tale goes that Oldumare got bored with Earth so she moved on to create other universes across the galaxy. She left behind her eldest children, the sixteen Orishas, to keep an eye on humanity, whether they do so righteously depends on the Orisha.

    My first real exposure to Regla de Ocha happened when I was five years old. My mother hauled me and my entire family to the Cuban capital of ‘90s New Jersey, Union City, for an official reading by a babalawo (a priest). His partner answered the door in a hot pink silk robe with matching slippers. A bright red boa wrapped around his neck. I remember I reached out and grazed one of the feathers with my index finger. By the front door was a coconut covered in Puka shells resting in a bowl filled with loose change, individually wrapped pieces of candy, and mini bottles of Bacardi.

The tale goes that Oldumare got bored with Earth so she moved on to create other universes across the galaxy.

     From a time beyond my own, it stems from the Yoruba tribe in West Africa, Regla de Ocha is commonly misinterpreted as a blend between two religions—Catholicism and the Yoruba tribal ceremonies— but it exists as something else entirely. It is a religious syncretism, creating a parallel, an alignment in the obtuse patterns of mysticism. After being forced to convert to Catholicism, many of the slaves kept their own traditions and rituals, attributing its similarities to the Catholic faith. Practiced in secret, Regla de Ocha was passed down through the tongues of those most persecuted, using the steady beat of the sacred batá drum to plant the roots of their religion that traveled all the way across the Atlantic to Bayamo, Cuba.  

     My abuela’s sister first introduced her family to Regla de Ocha back in Havana. The youngest of ten children, it must have been quite a game, matching each Anreus sibling with their Orisha counterpart. Finding one’s Orisha is not just based off of similar personality, but about capturing someone’s aura, their spiritual energy. It is about an individual’s connection with the universe, highlighting one’s inner truth and recognizing it as a larger sense of purpose. My great-aunt’s Orisha is Oyá. The warrior and protector of the dead. She guards the cemetery. The female counterpart to Changó, and the only Orisha who can control him. Full of sadness, death follows her everywhere. Her magic number is nine, for the number of still-births she’s had. She finds solace in few things, one of them being chocolate pudding.

    When I visited my abuela at the nursing home during the last several months of her life we developed a routine. I would rub Shea butter all over her hands and face, fold up and feed her an extra piece of Wrigley’s Freedent gum, and take off the garish nail polish the aids painted on a weekly basis— hot pink, fire engine red, burgundy, colors my abuela would claim were, colores de putas. When I cleaned her nails she wouldn't speak to me, she would just surrender each finger one by one. I clipped, filed, and buffed; scraped out the dirt and old food building between the edge of nail and skin. Then, I would coat each one with a glob of clear polish, exactly how she liked it. Her nails were shaped exactly like mine.

• • • • • •