Breadcrumb #474

SUSAN CLARKSON MOORHEAD

Once my husband remarked how the sky opens like a gift as you turn off Weaver onto Quaker Ridge. Now every time I make that turn I think of that. And about the farm that was once there, an actual working small farm with fields where a fancy market and Condos now stand. We'd go in summer in my mother's little red car to buy tomatoes still warm from the field, strawberries for shortcake, and corn that I never wanted to eat because sometimes while shucking I would find tiny little worms and my mother, a farm girl's daughter, would say nonsense and she'd just cut out the wormy parts and insist the corn was fine.  

Take a right off Quaker Ridge down a sloping curve past a wooded area where once I saw a wild turkey take flight into a stand of trees. I pulled the car over, something mythic and holy about the moment, cars hurtling past me rushing home as dusk began striping the sky in indigo, rose, and gold. Once my daughter was sad and I told her to get in the car and we drove random streets for nearly an hour as I played Nick Drake's song Pink Moon over and over because it was a pink moon that night. We saw a fox and I turned the car around to follow it up a dark road and we stopped when it stopped, staring at us from a tangle of bushes, rust colored fur, defiant eyes. We let it be and drove on under the pink moon.  

Once my daughter was sad and I told her to get in the car and we drove random streets for nearly an hour as I played Nick Drake’s song Pink Moon over and over because it was a pink moon that night.

Tonight the trees are black against a peach sky and I am rushing home because the dog does not like to be in the dark and no one remembered to leave a light on. Once my oldest son played in these woods using sticks for swords and their bikes for horses, coming back exhilarated, scraped and bruised, and deaf to my declaring someone would lose an eye. Once my daughter told me her friends claimed the woods were haunted, how none of them would go in them after dusk. I later joked to a friend that it must have been a rumor started by coyotes to keep the kids away.  

So many things have happened that my mind could turn to, keening times of despair, difficult times we stumbled through, fears about the unknown future, and yet driving I see the peach of the sky and think about my children and wild geese and pink moons, and how I am mostly like that, one who notices the color of the sky, and I am so grateful for it.

  Once by these woods I drive past, very late at night, I pulled my car over to the side and wrote a poem about magic, and hot soup, and keeping the wild things at bay. Even as I wrote it, I felt the press of something against the windows of my car and I kept glancing up, feeling both fearful and foolish. It's easy to believe in anything when you're sitting in a dark car by even darker woods writing a poem by the glow of a streetlight. So I wished peace to whatever might be there and kept on writing because words on paper are angels enough to guide a lost soul through whatever forest they might find themselves in, and lead them home.

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Breadcrumb #470

RACHEL AYDT

“But when he calls me, I will be able to meet my family at God’s table.”

- Gillian Welch, “Orphan Girl”

Orphan: One Deprived of Some Protection or Advantage

My wispy septuagenarian neighbor Nick paces my block with a bulky camera around his neck. Nearly half a century ago, he was an extra in The Godfather. “I was in that scene where all the Dons sit around the table,” he says. “They were trying to make the peace after Don Corleone’s son, Sonny, was slaughtered by a brigade of hitmen.”  I remember the scene, but he tells me about it anyway.  

I always learn a lot about Nick when we stop to digress, for example, how he used to box at Gleason’s Gym, “back when it was still in the Bronx,” and that the East Village Boy’s Club was his second home because he grew up orphaned. In addition to his camera, he carries around a crinkled newspaper photo of Queen Elizabeth everywhere he goes.  “See her in this picture? She’s giving me a thumb’s up.” I find wonder in this man-child who carries a crinkled newspaper clip of his fantasy Queen Mother from a New York daily.

  Ours is a tight East Village community in New York made up of multiple tenement buildings. When someone dies, a flier is hung in the vestibule on the cork bulletin board with a black and white photograph, a paragraph about their contributions to the community, and information about the wake. I’ve come home to find fliers blowing beneath a single thumbtack with a photo of Marva, who walked with a cane in the rain to my son’s 4th birthday party before skies cleared and everyone else showed up an hour late. I’ve come home to find Maritsa on a flier, who had chirpy lovebirds and a Puerto Rican flag hanging on her fire escape, and leaned from her window to holler down when she saw us walking by. “He’s gonna be a football playa!” In my bones, I know Shirley is next. When she sits in her beach chair on the sidewalk next to her home healthcare aide, she reaches her shaking hand towards me, looking confused. Her fingernails haven’t been cut in a long time. At least she’s not looking for her dead dog Gizmo anymore, who she took over from Hank after he died, the same Hank who took mint care of his Cadillac so he could drive his wife to and from her cancer treatments in style. Both of their faces were also on fliers. I feel orphaned when the elders on my block die.

In addition to his camera, he carries around a crinkled newspaper photo of Queen Elizabeth everywhere he goes.

  There is something ridiculous about my literary-infused idea of what it means to be an orphan: Ragamuffin dresses, calloused feet, and matchstick girls huddle in the cold, furnished with warmth from scraps of tinder. The most rollicking of them have their own soundtracks. Cue up Oliver Twist and Lil’ Orphan Annie, and their Hollywood posses who swell up in choral waves of support, either with extra spoonfuls of porridge or hard-knock broom and mop dances. There is a wide bridge between the orphans created by Dickens, and by Hollywood, and the reality of earth-bound parental abandonment. There’s a primal satisfaction in the fantasy endings when Mr. Brownlow and Daddy Warbucks, respectively, put aside their misgivings to embrace the scrappy but vulnerable children who tumbled into their lives. In these redemptive endings, we can say goodbye to the turned-out child wrangler Fagin, and his literary sister Mrs. Asthma, who ran her orphanage with a cruel streak. There is a distinct and satisfying Before and After with these collective mythologies. Before, there was destitute, abandoned, and empty. After, there was abundance, love, and comfort.

When my husband and I applied for our wedding license in Philadelphia, we were sent to an unassuming room called the Orphan’s Division in an ornate state building downtown. “The word ‘Orphans’ in the name of the Court is derived from the general definition of orphan as one lacking protection,” their website reads, “not the common association of a child deprived by the death of his or her parents.” I’d never considered my future marriage as a thing that would land me in a state of protection, an orphan finding shelter.

Orphan: A Young Animal that Has Lost Its Mother

For three years in a row, the mourning dove on my fire escape has come back to her hard-scrabble nest. She lays two eggs the size of quarters and alternates day and night shifts with her mate until they hatch. The first year they emerged but disappeared.  When I glanced at the landing below I found them tucked into a potted plant, dead. The next year new eggs hatched, and the babies grew from mangy pin feathered creatures to cooing beauties. Within a week, one got stuck in between the slats and died, his neck broken. This spring, one hatched prematurely. Draped in a U-shape over a stick poking from the nest, it was barely the size of my pinky, its downy feathers matted down by rain. Still, its mother sat on the second baby. A few days later mother bird stared into my window. I cracked it open for fresh air, stuck my head out, and offered her a few crumbled Frosted Mini Wheats. Threatened, she raised her left wing in a defensive posture. Sitting in the nest was her other baby, the size of my palm, his beady eyes shining. I closed the window and let them be.

Orphan: A child deprived of one or usually both parents

When I was 24-weeks pregnant I nearly died from the sudden appearance of blood clots that crept from my left foot to my kidneys. An unsuccessful surgery led to a more successful one, and for two weeks I recuperated at the now shuttered St. Vincent’s Hospital in lower Manhattan. Before the surgeries I signed a DNR form and included my unborn son in the waiver. Being a Catholic hospital, an ethics committee came into my room one, two, three, and four times to debate my decision.  

“I want him to come with me if I don’t make it,” I explained, over and over again. I’d heard the risks of babies born at 24 weeks. Undeveloped lungs, cerebral palsy, life-long care. They responded over and over again. “We have a world class NICU. There’s a blue balloon we could put over the fetus’s head to keep him alive in an incubator. If your husband loses you, he could still be a father.” I didn’t want to die, and I also didn’t want to leave my husband with a premature baby with a blue balloon over his head in an incubator. This did not come to pass, but these conversations were stark and unbearable.

Orphan: A first line (as of a paragraph) separated from its related text and appearing at the bottom of a printed page or column

One of my favorite editing tasks is cutting orphans, those pesky one and two-word hangnails that reach beyond their allotted space on the page. Easiest to cut are articles and adverbs, useless adjectives and redundancies. When this is done, the columns align as they are supposed to. There are days when I look around and sense invisible fibers that connect people and birds and balloons and fire escapes and musicals. Eventually they snap, making orphans of us all.

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Breadcrumb #468

KATE DEVINE

It is a sunlit Saturday in late September, a block party kind of day.

Meg, Ali and I are seventeen, and certain it’s the last autumn we’ll be together in our hometown. We share an understanding that our lives are just about to bloom, we work our asses off to make sure they do.

It is the last year of the flip phone. Barack Obama is newly president. The jeans are low-rise and skin-tight from hip to ankle. Lady Gaga plays on the radio. When my journalism teacher says that Twitter will someday be used in politics, we do not believe him.

In a neighborhood by the river, Mr. and Mrs. So And So’s are scattered across front yards and sidewalks, catching up with one another, wearing blue jeans and flip-flops, holding red plastic plates of potluck, digging into meatballs with white forks. The leaves on the oak trees have not started turning yet, but they will soon. Friends of Meg’s older sister are at the block party, mostly boys with one-syllable names that begin with the letter C. They would share their beers with us, if we wanted. We’ll kiss them on Halloween in Meg’s parents’ pool shed, but not today. Today we’re going to pick apples and bake them into pies.

Meg’s mother’s black Corvette is parked like a hot prize in the driveway. Meg’s navy blue Volvo station wagon sits subtly beside it, and that boxy car is our mobile home. Meg ducks into the driver’s seat, Ali sits shotgun, I take my spot in the back. “The Volv,” is eclectic and cozy, like Meg’s apartment in New York will be a few years from now. She covered the backseat with colorful pillows and knit throws from thrift shops. In the hatch is a guitar to play while parked at the beach. Fahrenheit 451 is tucked in the pocket behind the passenger seat. Candle wax that has melted and hardened in asymmetrical forms sticks to the cup holders.

We’ll kiss them on Halloween in Meg’s parents’ pool shed, but not today. Today we’re going to pick apples and bake them into pies.

Meg drives and Ali navigates to the apple orchard a half hour up the parkway using a GPS named TomTom. I watch the sunlight glowing on blond and brown windblown hair, and pick the songs, all acoustic. Is it typical of me to forgo a task and enjoy languid contemplation in the backseat. We talk about college, what else? We are high-school overachievers who discuss our futures too much, all on the same brand of birth control pills. Now, Meg predicts she won’t like it because her sister is thriving at university, and for some reason, it makes sense to her that one sister will do well while the other does not.

“Someone has to struggle in college so we can tell our children. ‘Auntie Meg had a terrible time in college,’ someone has to say that,” she explains.

“That’s ridiculous,” I nearly shout from the backseat, above the rush of wind. The windows are open all the way. The three of us laugh. What I do not say is that I feel most likely to be the cautionary tale, but my hopes for my friends are high.

*

We reach into the branches on tiptoes, plucking apples from all heights, noticing names painted on little wooden signs. Arkansas Blacks, Jonathans, and Winesaps. We coo “that’s a good one” at every pick, rub the dirt onto our shirts, and eat them on the spot, hidden in a grid of trees, wandering through a golden afternoon. The orchard is vibrant and limitless, and we stay too long. We fill six plastic bags, one for each hand. Weighed down by apples, we sit on the ground in a three-point circle to weed out less attractive picks from the bounty.

Feeling the grass in her fingers, Ali picks a white clover. Its thin stem is curved over at the top. It looks like a question mark.

*

Back at her parents’ house, a colonial with high ceilings and stained glass windows, Meg pops Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily album into the stereo. We are consuming mostly female folk and alternative rock this autumn. We love listening to songs that our mothers vacuumed the house to when we were little: Bonnie Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones, Natalie Merchant. The opening notes of San Andreas Fault play and we sing-moan along, swaying and bending our knees to the beat. The surround sound echoes off the beige walls.

Meg pours three icy glasses of chardonnay from the big bottle left behind for us in the refrigerator. She opens the red checkered New Cookbook, then gathers bags of flour, salt, sugar, butter, and shortening. Tonight, we will bake a total of eight pies from scratch. Meg starts reading a recipe aloud, apron tied at her waist, hair swept up in a clip picked from a basket on the kitchen counter. Ali and I listen and nod, dangling our legs from high top kitchen stools and sipping our wine, impressions of women it might be nice to become someday.

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Breadcrumb #458

KATIY HEATH

There was a station wagon framed with wood paneling. Painted the icy shade your tongue turns when you get to the end of a Bomb pop. Blue as a soft contrast to the rusted edges. It once carried the four of us to St. Louis on vacation, scraping its belly across I-70. Each bump, sending the kids into the sillies. For twenty miles any word starting with the letter ‘b’ sent my brother and me to near tears. Bubble. Bumble. Boat. Bobby. Beetlejuice. Boob. The sillies distracted from the defensive driving happening up front.

Marc Maron on the artist Lorde, a barely legal popstar who dances to her own music for three minutes. No singing, just moving her lanky body all over the stage like a funky, smiling scarecrow. Unadulterated emotion. Reckless. This is moronic to Marc.

    Watching, listening to intense joy—stuck in a car without the ability to switch off the tiny laughs in the backseat. It can make you start holding your breath while you switch lanes, lips pursed tight around the Fuck you buddies as you avoid the rearview.

     There was a maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass with a cracked grill. And a Mercury Topaz, gold with a prominent rubber line sweeping down the sides. Partially peeled, black Sharpie used to fill in for continuity. Drawing on metal with marker like an outline in a coloring book.

    All of our family vehicles were close to the ground. In first grade, we drove to Disney in a silver Plymouth Voyager. The Voyager had a cloth ceiling that hung low, tickling our hairlines on the way to school. I went from the sillies to asking mom to drop me off a block from the movie theater. In his craft class, Darin Strauss talks about characters as machines. Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day is a dignity machine.

     Dad is a machine of despair. Telling stories with a brown tint. And that’s why I can’t own a gun.  He likes to end with a punch line.

     I was driving back from Wathena with cousin Davey and his girlfriend. We were in high school and out of our minds. The car bounced against the guardrail. Have you ever heard teeth smack together? They make a clicking noise – like flicking a lateral incisor with a fingernail.

    His sister, Aunt Carrie, also was a raconteur. This house was built on an ancient burial ground. I think she is the kind of machine that believes in ghosts. There was the time she saw a young boy in the middle of the night, dressed for the coal mines, perched on a stack of towels at the foot of the bed. His cotton terry boot print still there at sunrise. Sleepovers were spent trying to catch a look, praying for a silhouette, but I saw nothing.  

    Uncle Mick did, though. At least according to Carrie. He rode to work with him one morning in the cabin of his truck. Red eyed and on his way to a 10-hour shift packing batteries, and there the boy appeared in his pointed shoes laced up to the knee.

    Sophomore year I took a class called Haunting and Healing, where I learned about the ‘Restless History’ of the Hudson River Valley. Did you know there are more tales of the supernatural upstate than any other place in America? Have you ever been to Columbia County, just south of Albany? I took a Ford Contour up the BQE and ran my fingers along the gritty brick walls of hollow brownstones, now mere etchings showing the Dutch influence, or what is left. I stopped at the House on Ten Broeck Street, picked paint off the white columns, and tried to rouse the man inside. Dressed in the clothing of a 17th-century Dutch soldier, he was last seen on the top floor holding a metal helmet and fistful of blonde curls. The most unusual hauntings familiarize the foreign, help us process trauma.

My aunt and uncle were having issues as the ghost child showed up. The kind of issues I would experience decades later, like when you can’t keep stories straight about how the remote control broke, or what happened to the red vase that used to sit near the corner of the couch. How Black Dog developed what was called an associative disorder with parts of the floor – the areas where things happened. The ex-husband saw a little girl standing by our bedside, in the spot Black Dog avoided. It’s her that keeps him from lying with us. The conviction in telling me how she smiled at him while I lay still.

The ex-husband saw a little girl standing by our bedside, in the spot Black Dog avoided.

Every dent in the dry wall smelled of burnt brussels sprouts and overpriced Malbec.  

My Dad told me to keep an eye on you.

We used to take the Dodge Stratus to the vet, leaving small dots of oil in our path.

The way Uncle Mick did from the kitchen to the garage, skin smelling of gasoline from nights at a work bench decorated in Kools empties. Playboy. Poster. Poontang. Topless girls above the lawn mower, high enough for all, including his elementary aged daughter, to see. She saw other things in the garage. Then she would go and reenact, making her cousin rub privates together like she had seen those other women do. Kids left alone, not knowing. Hiding, sneaking.

    Aunt Carrie rearranging furniture. Maybe one day he’ll come home, think he’s in the wrong house.

    Fourth of July was always at theirs. High on a hill of gravel I learned to not trust young boys with bottle rockets. Adults scattered outside, kids in the bedrooms: my cousin and his girlfriend locked away. You’re going to poke a hole in that baby’s head.

Juvenile hormones with no impulse controls.

     Like losing my virginity before my first menstrual cycle. Before I’m old enough to drive. Spending eighth grade hiding used latex in Nintendo 64 boxes, soiled tissues behind cartoon faces with oversized mustaches.  

    Rachel Cusk says she doesn’t believe in character development. That traits are more oceanic, seasonal even, and that people can and do change. Maybe we aren’t machines.

    My first car was a red Pontiac Sunfire.

    Graduation weekend, I was driving back from Wathena with a friend riding shotgun. Fighting blurry, tired eyes. She leaned out the window, wishing to touch the guardrail, then sprayed undigested Smirnoff down the side panel.  

• • •

Breadcrumb #447

MADELINE JONES

The Interlochen Bowl was empty on Sunday mornings. Rows and rows of the mental green chairs cascade down to the wooden stage, shimmering in a wet gloss. I pulled at the zipper of my red windbreaker. The rain turned steady. Down the path, sat the cluster of individual practice cabins, S Huts we called them. Each hut built of honey stained wood, their roofs drenched in chartreuse moss, carefully placed in between tall pine trees. Flutteringly came from the harp building on the bluff to the left, but nearly all of the S Huts were empty.

This was my final summer attending Interlochen Arts Camp, college in Chicago awaited me in the fall. Months ago, I declined a seat in the wind ensemble program. I loved my two previous summers at camp, but it seemed cruel to spend my last summer at home away from my mother. And I wanted to bask in the final days of unencumbered youth by the pool. My sister would be next to me with headphones on, my brother splashing his friends in the pool. Maybe I would drink for the first time with Erin and Olivia in someone’s basement. I even lined up an internship and promised my best friend, Adri, to go to all ten nights of Summer Fest, a music festival back home in Milwaukee. Then I got a call two weeks before my high school graduation. The orchestra program had a last-minute cancelation. There was no choice, I could not turn this opportunity down.

Weaving past the S huts with pianos, I got to my favorite by the dark green cabins with red trim. The Intermediate Girls Division looked like Christmas, a welcomed sight compared to the brown cabin I called home for the summer. S Hut 12 sat there waiting for me, the door half open. I climbed the two cement stairs and shut the door behind me. The hut was moist and musty, only chairs and music stands inside. My feet shuffled the sandy cement floor, the metal feet of the chairs screeched when I rearranged their order into a U shape. Careful not to pinch my hand as I slid the sticky windows back, I opened one on the north and south walls. Regardless of rain, the air was always thick with moisture, something about the Northern Michigan air and being locked in by surrounding lakes. A dry towel was something you missed, like your dog or mom’s cooking usually around week three of camp. A cellist a few huts down worked on arpeggios and the bassoonist, in the hut next to mine, started the first measures of their Mozart concerto. The rain dripped from the roof outside one of the windows. Drop. After drop. After drop. After drop. After drop. After drop. After drop.

A cellist a few huts down worked on arpeggios and the bassoonist, in the hut next to mine, started the first measures of their Mozart concerto.

One of the tween-filled cabins erupted in high pitch screeches, pulling me back to the reason why I ventured out in the morning at 9 A.M. while most of the camp was sleeping in, a perk of Sundays. I arranged the extra music stands, one in front for my sheet music, two on the right flipped over like a table to hold all of my tools: reeds, pencils, water, swabs, tiny screwdrivers, cork grease, key oil, and a metronome. The two chairs on my left held my case and dripping coat. I unzipped the case, revealing my clarinet tucked under the soft polishing cloth. Folding back the cloth, I pulled out the two middle joints and pushed them together, careful to align the bridge key. Then the bell at the end, and the barrel at the top leaving just a sliver of space for tuning. Finally, I gently pushed on the mouthpiece and placed my clarinet on its stand.

In the box of reeds, I rummaged for the one with four tick marks. I removed the reed from its plastic holder and plopped it in the small cup of water, letting it soak. After a few seconds, I picked up the reed and pulled it between my lips, removing the excess water. The reed returned to the face of the mouthpiece where it had been placed four times before; the black leather ligature tightened just enough to secure the reed in place.

Slowly, noodling through low registered warm-ups, sound bounced off the thin wooden walls out through the open windows, playing with the bassoonist and cello down the way. Everything rung with freshness and warmth. My upper body swayed slowly, side to side, as my fingers and breath took control. The bell of my clarinet left the resting position on my knee and circled in the air. Scales became mediations and solos became stories of late night s’mores, a first kiss by the lake, making friends from Serbia to Detroit, and never wanting to leave the four walls that surrounded me. The only time that existed was the clicks of my metronome at 60 beats per minute.

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