Saturday, September 30, 2006

"Dead Reckoning," Part One

By Barbara Easton

It was a sultry summer day filled with the distant drone of insects and the kind of heat that sits on the skin. The shouts of the other children playing in the chain-link fenced yard seemed muted to the cluster of young girls. Sitting cross-legged in a tight circle with knees touching, everyone bent in so as not to miss a single word. The girls were not sitting on the hard gray cement playground of the children’s home anymore. They were in the city sitting in a cool, dark apartment watching Marie’s lovely mother get ready to go out for a night of dinner and dancing with her dark-haired doting husband.

The mesmerized girls saw Mrs. Saylor’s diamond-studded high-heeled shoes of gleaming black patent leather, her ornate gold necklace and bracelet encrusted with even more diamonds and large glistening rubies that matched her deep red silky dress with its voluminous folds of flaring fabric.
They heard the crisp swish of the fabric as it whirled around her long legs. The smell of her rich heavy perfume hung in the air. Each love-starved little girl felt the deep abiding affection of the lingering goodbye hugs and kisses the parents gave their three children.

This story was pretty conventional for Marie. In most of the stories of her life before coming to the home, Marie had done and seen some outrageous things. She had flown—not in airplanes, though. She had flown all by herself. It had only happen before she came to the home and always at night when everyone was asleep. Marie said she never knew when it would happen. She’d just find herself floating around her bedroom ceiling and out the window. Sometimes Marie saw scary things like ghosts. Other times she saw robberies.

Invariably, the police would chase the robbers who would drop the money. Those were the best stories, the ones where she would find money. Marie would bring the money home to her mother, and they would buy candy, ice cream, cakes at that great bakery on Broadway, beautiful clothes, and jewelry that would be described in great detail.

I never understood how Marie could get so many people to believe her. Still odder was the number of listeners Marie could get to agree that they, too, had participated in the bizarre escapades. Even my older sister Rose would go along with Marie.

Marie would say, “You remember that, don’t you, Rose.” It was not a question.

My sister, would unequivocally respond, “Yeah, I remember that! I remember now! I lived on Laurel and that’s really close to Hanover Street where you lived.” Rose would then embellish the story a bit to prove she, too, had been a part of the adventure.

Margie always sat with me outside the circle when her sister, Marie, was telling the stories. We were different from those girls. Although we never really spoke about it, I know she feared, as I did, that Marie would demand agreement from us dragging us into the sinful lies. I think the fear of God instilled by the nuns at the home was stronger in Margie and me. Maybe it was because we were both three years younger than our sisters. Maybe we were just different. My fear of the harsh punishment God would mete out for lying was paralyzingly strong. The momentary pleasure of remembering wonderful things that never happened was not worth the overwhelming guilt that would follow.

Margie and I never believed Marie, but we loved to listen to her. Marie’s stories always ended well. She never told ones like Margie told me. Margie told me stories about things like the time the police came and took her father away. They put handcuffs on him. That was the last time Margie ever saw her father. He was being led up the stairs from the basement apartment by two cops. She didn’t know why, no one ever told her.

Margie told me about when her little sister died, too. Her little sister was sick for a while, but her mother didn’t have the money to take her to the doctor. Mrs. Saylor was giving the baby cough medicine, but she didn’t get better. Then one morning, the baby was finally quiet. There was no wheezy whiny cry or thick cough. It was just quiet.

Margie thought her mother would finally be in a better mood. They might even go to the park. She played very quietly next to the baby’s crib in the living room waiting for her mother to wake up.

Mrs. Saylor finally padded out of her room and headed for the kitchen. Then she stopped and looked over at the crib. Margie was watching her face, waiting for the smile. She was surprised her mother didn’t look happy as she walked to the crib.

She kept waiting for the smile, but Mrs. Saylor started saying, “Sandy? Sandy?”, then, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” She said it faster and faster, and it turned into a continuous whining wail. Margie said her mother picked the baby up and ran out of the apartment screaming all the way to the fire house. They couldn’t do anything, though. The baby was dead.

Barbara Easton, a writer in Albany, New York, will graduate from the University at Albany, SUNY in May, 2007. She intends to pursue a master's degree in literacy education. Look for Part two of her story, "Dead Reckoning," to appear on Tuesday, October 3rd in MyStoryLives.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"I'll Give You Something to Cry About"

By Craig Hancock

"I'll give you something to cry about,"
my father would say, apropos of
some childhood sadness
far smaller than his own,
the pain we caused our mother not least of that.
"Wait till your father comes home," she would say,
and the great waves would rise,
the trees loom dark,
and the night come down and the cold.
Across the years, I want to tell her
not to tell him, to soothe instead
his day's slights away,
loosen those taut strings that held
a rage that frightened her
as much as us.
"Jack, Jack," she would say
and run for help across the lawn to Petroski's house
where the dad, bigger and stronger than ours,
had gone down dead one day
with a too strained heart.
Father would leave, would
sputter off in his tinny car
somewhere into the night, not
to return until after we'd settled
into some semblance of sleep.
Looking back now, I can see
it was a rehearsal for his death,
something real to cry about,
facing this dark and crazy world alone.

Craig Hancock, who holds a doctorate in English, has been writing poems for as long as he can remember. A resident of Valatie, New York, he teaches English full-time at the University at Albany, SUNY, working mostly with Educational Opportunity Program students. A member of the Kinderhook Writing Group, he has published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, most recently in Hudson River Art and Peer Glass. His book, Meaning-Centered Grammar, (Equinox, Ltd.) appeared in late 2005.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

"Going Home"

By Kristin Moore

I am driving north
to see the tornado.
The tornado's name is Ally.
She is 12.
She is sad.

I fear
she fears
she is alone.
1725 days ago our relationship was beautiful,
but she was seven then and mom was still alive.

She used to deck out in pink and beg me to paint her nails.
She used to be evenly bronzed from unending summer days, a stark contrast to

Her lemonade lightening hair that bounced in tow as she ran toward me yelling "Sissy, Sissy!"
Now she calls me Kristin. Contempt in every letter.

She is pale at the summer’s end. Her hair is dark brown.
She steals our brothers' oversized basketball shorts and runs with a much too grown up crowd.
She knows how to roll a blunt.
She is raising herself. Her mother overdosed.

Anxiety squeezes me.
So tightly
I lie awake,
Where is she
Who is she

Dad pays little attention to much other than the amount of soda in the fridge.
And the amount of Vicodin he has left.
I think he's suicidal.
I think he's using again.

So, for the first time since I was 17, which was seven years ago, I
will return to that toxic environment called "home."
I know I can't stay too long. I can only try to make a positive
impact, a change, a single thought that sparks this little girl not to settle
for what her life is at this moment.
Not to quit, Ally, not to quit.


I am driving north
knowing that things may not get better, they may even
get worse, but at this moment, I'm pausing
putting my own life
on hold,
because I can't live
knowing I didn't try.

Kristin Moore recently earned a bachelor's degree from the University at Albany, SUNY. She is spending time with her family in the Adirondacks where she grew up. At the end of the year, she will be moving to Burlington, Vermont, to pursue a career in the field of adoloscent drug counseling and mentoring.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cancer Story Number One

By Joshua Powell

A lot of this stuff I put away. But I don’t forget it; rather I wrap up the memories and put them up on a shelf somewhere in my head. Does this make sense? I’m not sure, but it is what it is.

It’s like when we were little and we would wrap up all the Christmas ornaments that survived the season in gray tissue paper my mom would buy at Shatz Stationary stores, back when they had stationary stores. The next year, when we brought those dusty boxes up from the basement that paper looked so old. There was something so right about the smell of corrugated cardboard infused with mold and fresh pine. And inevitably each special decoration had a story attached to it that year after year would get told as if it were a new tale and not one we heard year after year.

This is exactly what it is like for me when I tell my cancer stories.

They come out of some dark moldy place and I unpack them, and then when I am done I wrap them back up and they are gone – out of sight out of mind. The sick part of it now is that I like them, or maybe it is that I need them. Whatever it is it feels somewhat perverted to look at them now, kind of like the way I felt when I was 14 and would look at porn up in my room.

People always want to know what it was like. All I can really say about the cancer is that it never hurt me. The pain always came from the cure. Some cures are more hurtful than others, and I say some because it is not one cure, but an army of cures.

Some die trying and others save the day, but the battlefield was me and somehow no matter how good the cellular fight, I was always feeling like I lost. Maybe that is why I look back on how the cancer treatment changed me. I never see the silver lining. Maybe because the change is so connected to the poisons and glowing isotopes and I can’t help but wonder what else it did and when I am going to get hit with the next big thing - the first was bad enough. And I when I unpack this bit of me I feel ambivalent, stretched, and I can’t wait to put it away. And then I want to look at it again.

OK, so here is a cancer story. It's years old, but still warm in my mind:

"Lying in bed I can smell the cold air, metallic blue and kissed by snow. My feet are uncovered at the end of the bed blowing off the heat of my fever. My trunk is all wet with sleepy fever sweat and my forehead is dripping in sebaceous oils, agitation and salty water from inside me. The bleomycin has effectively wiped out all of my white cells - just as planned, but the antibiotic that they put me on did not prevent the infection that is now in me, biting at my gut with what feels like a puppy’s milk teeth.

The doctors have me on dilaudid, which does less to stop the pain as much as it does to stop me from caring about it. One of the white coats comes into my room, talks to me, feels my belly. He looks like some weird pachyderm hybrid with his stethoscopes swinging down to my belly in hopes of hearing “normal” bowel sounds, but it will be a week before that happens, so they kept the dilaudid in me and I drift in and out of my days like a reluctant traveler exploring a town found by way of some ill planned tour.

It is the nights that are the worst because that is when the fever always seems to take a stride ahead of the antibiotic and that is also the time that my mind drifts to the bad place and I feel that maybe this is not the end of the infection but the start of the end. And if it is not the start of the end, I know that this is what it's going to feel like to start the end of my life. My treatment is really nothing more than a second mortgage and I know that there is going to be a heady interest payment.

The fever will not leave me, rather it is going for broke and no matter how much of that lovely dilaudid they “push” I have to stay with me, my skin afire and my body chilled into a dull ache that pulls on every muscle making it tight to the point I am a cramp unto myself.

They keep pushing the dilaudid. And because they are trying to help me I am forgiving when they ‘push’ so much that my bladder freezes and the urine starts to pool inside me, blowing my lower belly up like a kickball. The piss has been in me now eight hours after the fever left. I am so tired from the nights and days with bacteria in me kicking my ass that I don’t really mind the suggestion of the straight catheter, though maybe I was guiltier of not paying attention to what they were talking about.

When the two nurses come into my room before dawn with a bed pan and a large syringe I just hope with all the hope that I left in me, admittedly, not a lot, that I could piss, just a little bit. I sit up and swung my legs to the side of the bed and then I fall back against the pillows, the room spinning - so much time prone that getting up is not going to happen - and I feel the way I did when I was child and had dreams that they called the ”night terrors.”

The nightmares when I could not move or scream and something was going to get me and in these dreams the only fucking thing that would save me would be waking up. But I am awake now. Wide awake. The bed hums as they bring my head down. I see the chatter between them. I hear the sounds of putting gloves on, the assurance that I was going to be okay. No big deal, right?

I look at them getting ready to work on me, like a bilge pump. I look up at the ceiling tiles and feel a rubbery hand push my apron-like gown up over my hips. A hand grabs my dick and they shove the catheter into me and I feel the sweet relief of water gushing out of me. And then I wonder when the last time someone wrapped their hands around my cock was? How did I become something to cure rather than please?

I look down at the woman, who I do not know, and watched her pull the tube out of me, a sphincter somewhere deep inside me moved in a staccato fashion. And she looked at me with a smile that was she reserves for her work, distant but real kindness. She wipes down my body while her counterpart takes away the pan filled with my piss and they talked about having to pass meds before the shift change. I heard them washing their hands. Then she came back to the bed with a tiny little needle and pushes the contents of it into the clear plastic tubing that grows out of my arm.

”It’s all over now,” she says as I feel the medication burn up my arm and into the bean. I take her hand and pull her toward me. I humm “Two-bit Manchild.” She smiles at me and then, “Now how did you know that Neil Diamond is my favorite singer?” She puts her hand on my face.

The thing was, I did not know that song or for that matter had ever listened to Neil Diamond, but somehow I knew every damn word to that song as I sailed away to sleep that night."

Joshua Powell, a writer in Albany, New York, was treated successfully for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma when he was in his twenties. We are delighted to report that he is a healthy man today. He runs about 35 miles a week.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

"Two Girls By the Side of the Road" -- Conclusion

by Meisha Rosenberg

"Rivka," Miriam said, "be careful. Brian, he’s no good."

Miriam’s heart beat quickly; she felt as if it were expanding at the exciting thought of Rivka being her friend, even though Rivka mutely watched the cars passing by, lost in thought and far away.

Rivka planted her feet so firmly and proudly in front of her—Miriam's mother was always telling her to pick up her heels—that in a way, Miriam couldn't ever imagine her being humiliated. She didn't seem ashamed of her teeth. Rivka had a whole other world—a whole country—that was hers, and no one else’s. Russia!

Miriam knew people drank vodka there, because it was cold. One night during a blizzard, her mother and father both had gotten out a bottle of Russian vodka, saying they’d saved it for a really cold night

"It's colder than Troy in Russia!" her father said. She imagined that everyone in Russia dressed in white fur coats, and probably no one would tease you for being fat, since fat kept you warm.

"Rivka," Miriam said, and was about to tell her all she had learned at school about protecting herself, or wished she wouldn’t forget: brush your teeth, hold onto your lunch bag, ignore Brian because he wants to get your attention, remember to go to the bathroom before school so you won’t be caught at recess, be friends with me, stick with me, don’t trust Sheila Jones, because she’ll pretend she’s your friend and next thing she turns on you....

But Miriam realized that, not only would Rivka not understand, but even if she did, it would be useless, maybe even insulting. Even if Miriam could bring herself to tell Rivka what was in store for her, she knew she wouldn’t be believed. All she could say in the end was, “Rivka, I’ll be your friend.”

"Friend," Rivka repeated blankly, smiling as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world. Friend—a word merely matched with a picture like "bird," or "house," an item of scenery that Miriam was pointing out along the side of the road.

"What is, friend?" Rivka asked. Miriam spoke before thinking, "Someone to play with. No," she reconsidered. A friend, she thought, was someone who you would tell secrets to.

"A friend is your age. You tell your secrets to them, walk with them, protect them from enemies."

She had lost Rivka. But Rivka must know what a friend is—how could she not? Rivka said, “I love friends.” Then she laughed, with a short, odd chirp. Was Rivka terrified, being in another country, not understanding? Or did she laugh because she had had lots of friends in Russia? Maybe she hated Miriam, just wanted to get away from her. Miriam's stomach sickened as she thought: it was possible that Rivka would end up being popular.

Rivka seemed to tunnel away from her, until she became a dot on the horizon. Miriam’s red socks were completely down around her ankles now, and a car horn honked at her. She looked up, and it was Brian, pressing on the horn as his mother drove.

His mother made a feeble, laughing attempt to push him away as they swerved by. Miriam gritted her teeth and resolutely refused to bend over and pull up her socks. She stuck her gut out against the red and white striped shirt, her pride smarting in front of Rivka, who looked so strong. Miriam imagined Rivka could probably give Brian a good bloody nose. Miriam fantasized that Rivka would come to her rescue in school. But Rivka didn’t react to the car's horn.

Miriam thought she saw Rivka almost grinning with naughty glee, but when she looked again it was only blank raptness. When they passed a small, pathetic park with a rusting swing set, Rivka said cheerily, "What’s that?"

"Playground," said Miriam. "Playground," parroted Rivka. The thick syllables seemed to Miriam like caramel, and she was enraptured again with the idea that they could be real friends. She envisioned ice skating, going to the playground, doing secret things in their bedrooms, drawing together.

"Friends, go there?" asked Rivka.

"Yes—no," said Miriam, struggling to explain: a friend was not just a playmate. And the other girls could not be included; she would not include them.

"I like Sheila. She help me with—what you say—table?" Miriam felt her heart break, the envy boil up.

"You mean desk."

"Desk,” Rivka giggled. "Yes, I like Sheila and the others. All Americans, very friendly."

"No Sheila,” said Miriam too emphatically, remembering how Sheila had made her wait, not flushing in the bathroom the other day. Rivka, Sheila—it was all wrong. And she had said the wrong thing, and now Rivka would see she was small. Rivka only looked at her quizzically, as though Miriam were an amusing animal doing a trick.

Rivka suddenly came to a stop in front of a one-story puce building with no front walk. There was a light on inside, and a battered wind chime clanged from the porch. Rivka stood stiffly as she looked at her porch, but Miriam thought the whole scene romantic—such a pretty Russian girl with her sturdy bookbag, returning home from her first day of school in America. She had faith in Rivka, at that moment. She could picture entering that protected, magical porch, becoming confident and bouyant like Rivka.

"Me, here,” said Rivka, her eyes resting on a beer can in the mud of her front yard.

Miriam imagined what Rivka’s house would be like—her parents would be stout and grey like her, and quiet: they probably weren’t even home yet! Rivka had a musical wind chime to lull her to sleep; Miriam had shouting, snickering, snoring brothers. Miriam imagined that the Zladistoyas probably cooked lots of stews, and that you could eat as much as you wanted.

"Are your parents home?" she asked, wishing she could stay at Rivka's house.

"Yes. Parents, da," Rivka answered, with annoyance as though she had already answered that question. Her "da" sounded, to Miriam, like a final clanging "Duh...Duh, Rat-Face."

Then Rivka trilled, "Goodbye," and walked staidly through the gate.

Miriam felt a searing heaviness in her chest as she thought of how, at school on Monday, Rivka would see how Brian was always at her. The others would surround Miriam again with the buzzing of hornets. Rivka might become one of them.

"Goodbye," said Miriam, seeing dim emptiness inside the house and knowing, with a weight that descended upon her heart, that when she saw Rivka the next day at school, it would be as though they had never met.

Meisha Rosenberg is a writer living in Troy, New York. She earned her MFA at New York University. The two earlier portions of this short story, "Two Girls by the Side of the Road," appeared on July 11th and on September 14th, 2006, in MyStoryLives.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

My Father

By Robert G.Willner

Your face crinkled when you
Laughed from deep within,
Your whole body shaking.

Your anger was fierce,
Like the fork
Hurled into the kitchen cabinet.
Did I ever say, “I love you”?

My father is dead.

We never talked.
You told me nothing
Which is what I asked.
We were flowers that never opened

My father is dead.

As a child I was seriously ill.
You came to the hospital,
Bent over my bed
Kissed me – and
Made the hospital worthwhile.

My father is dead.

So much to catch up on
My children and theirs,
Curly headed, eyes gleaming with adventure,
See them
Can I do it for both,
You and Me?

My father is dead.
But it’s not too late
The distance in life was great.
Not having attempted that,
I reach across this chasm --
My father is

Bob Willner and his wife, Barbara, live in Chatham, New York. A father and grandfather, Bob has been an attorney and was formerly president of StageWorks. He has always wanted to be a writer.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Two Girls By the Side of the Road" -- Part Two

Part one of this short story appeared on July 11, 2006. We are delighted to have part two here. Watch for the conclusion here in a few days!

By Meisha Rosenberg

Miriam looked at Rivka and noticed she wasn’t so mousy after all—she had a sturdy appearance and wore leather shoes, the kind you tied, the kind Miriam knew would get Rivka teased. As they exited the schoolyard gate, Miriam felt her cotton knee-high socks—bright red, to match her red-and-white striped shirt—slipping down her bare calves under her skirt. Her legs were cold. She found a block of dirty ice on the ground and kicked it forward with the toe of her shoe. Rivka appeared not to notice.

Miriam caught up to the ice chunk and kicked it again. Each kick made her socks slip down more. The ice chunk skidded to the side, under the bushes of someone’s lawn—and Miriam doggedly sought it out. It landed in the street, and Miriam got down to kick it back up from the gutter to the sidewalk. Each time she kicked it, more ice broke off, until the piece became smaller and smaller.

"Do you have brothers or sisters?" Miriam asked.

"No," Rivka pronounced the word carefully, emphasizing its roundness.

"I have two brothers. I don't like having brothers. It must be nice to be the only child. How come your parents didn't have other children?"

"I don't know....No foods."

"Oh, you mean it costs too much to feed them?"

"Da, yes." Rivka's face opened when she said "da," and Miriam could picture her back in Russia, speaking fluently and laughing with her friends. It was as if, when Rivka spoke Russian, she had a whole different personality, a more spontaneous one.

"Do you like not having brothers or sisters?"

Rivka merely shrugged.

As Miriam kicked the ice, she thought about how her two older brothers were probably already home, and she didn’t like that—their rowdiness, like dirty monkeys. The day before she had come home to the sight of Simon, her twelve-year-old brother, trying to sled down a dirt-encrusted pile of hard snow.

The pile had been there for a month, and was really no more than ice, shaped in a wedge, like the freeze cones they sometimes got at the corner store, but every pore of it was plugged with grey dirt. It wasn’t any particular type of dirt that Miriam could identify: not earth dirt, not dust dirt, nor car exhaust. Just the fine, greyish-brown powder that everywhere caked the ice and the snow clinging to the curbs, moulding to the odd shapes of neglected cracks and corners.

Simon giggled self-consciously while he tried to slide, because he wasn't really enjoying himself. Walker, her younger brother, antsy with waiting for his turn, had grabbed a piece of dirty snow and thrown it at Miriam, missing her by three feet as she passed up the walk, her ankles unsteady on the broken, iced surface.

If she could somehow get Rivka to come home with her, her brothers might be nicer. Miriam sidestepped a fire hydrant to seek out the last remnant of her ice chunk. She kicked hard, and it disintegrated into ice crumbles.

Rivka, stoic, looked up at the sky, and Miriam tried to imagine what Russia was like. It was only 3:30 p.m., but the sky had already taken on the bright blue haze of a winter evening. There were no stars yet: Miriam wondered if they had stars in Russia, and if they were the same.

They walked on the sidewalk of a main road, and cars sped by, their wheels kicking up broken glass and dirty snow, their engines ticking and gasping. No one else was on the street except for the two girls. They passed by the convenience store where Miriam remembered going a few times with her mother. Above it loomed a billboard that read, Troy, New York—Home of Uncle Sam!

"Do you get an allowance?" asked Miriam. Rivka looked at her quizzically. "Money, do your parents give you dollars?"

"Nyet. No dollars."

Miriam considered stopping in the convenience store, with the 50 cents she still had from allowance, but then noticed the darkness inside and the closed sign on the door. As they walked on she saw, under the streetlight, that Rivka had the most beautiful honey-brown hair with streaks of fine gold. She wanted to see Rivka's round, strong face open up again, see her friendly mouth say "Da." Miriam pointed at the Uncle Sam billboard saying, "Uncle Sam. Do you know him?"

"Uncle Sam," Rivka read, obediently. "No."

"He’s an American, and that’s the flag," Miriam explained.

Rivka said "Ah, America!"

"But he’s ugly, isn’t he? That’s what my dad says," added Miriam. "My dad, he works hard." Rivka said nothing, so Miriam continued. "He likes to watch TV. Copland. Do you like that show?"

Rivka tilted her head to one side again, not understanding. Miriam loved the way she tilted her head, like a bird on a branch way up high.

Miriam wondered how she might explain her fierce pride for her father. He came home weekdays at 8 and started drinking, smelling of gasoline and cigarette smoke. He stopped at 10, when he fell asleep in front of the TV. Miriam liked to sit by his feet.

He was short, had a punched-in looking face, and shaggy, curly hair. "Hush," her mother cautioned, "don't disturb daddy when he's worked all day." Miriam didn't need to be told. When her father was around, Miriam could relax. Unlike when Miriam first arrived home from school, and her mother asked the same question, always behind a tense expression and a disappointed gritting of her teeth: "How did your day go?"

Her mother's face was soft, prematurely aged, and framed by the dirty-blond hair that, although permed, was the same as Miriam's. Her mother was rotund and had wrinkles on her forehead, watery brown eyes, and squarish, fleshy cheeks that Miriam kissed every night before bed.

"I did my work, and then during recess Sheila stepped on my toe, hard, and so we went to the principal's office together. Otherwise, it wasn't so bad," she had said just yesterday. Miriam couldn't help telling the truth, no matter how many times she suffered for it. "How many times have I told you, don't get involved!"

Her mother didn't go on, as she sometimes did, but instead made Miriam do all the dishes in punishment. Her mother went upstairs, and while Miriam washed the dishes, her brothers shot waterguns across the kitchen, shouting and shoving Miriam as they dove onto the floor.

But when her father was home, the only sound, besides the sirens and rap music of Copland, was her father occasionally grasping the aluminum can and gulping, three swallows in a row, then placing it gently on the wooden armrest of his chair. This was the only time Miriam could dream. She dreamt of being a fighter pilot, and sometimes of being a cop. She'd heard that women could do these things now. She'd watched a movie with her dad once about a female fighter pilot.

Her father turned down the volume during commercials using the remote control. The light from the television flashed blue and white in the dark room as she played with her dolls on the floor. She liked to cut their hair, paint their nails, take off the stuffy clothes they came in. Dolls, she felt, were meant to be naked. Her mother would yell at her to put clothes on her dolls, but her dad never did.

Miriam said as clearly and slowly as she could, "My dad, father, he works for the gas station. He works really hard—I see him at night. What about your parents?"

"My parents, they work." Rivka looked down.

"Both of them?"


Miriam wondered what it would be like to have both parents work: the house would probably be quiet. But maybe Rivka got lonely.

“Do you miss Russia?” she asked. Rivka stopped in her tracks and gave Miriam a quizzical look.

"Yes. Yes, I am from Russia."

"No. Do you miss it?" Miriam said slowly.

"I don't understand."

“Do you like it? Like Russia?”

"Yes," Rivka finally understood, "I like Russia. I love America," she said, as though she were imitating someone.

"Why? Why America?"

"Freedom. It is freedom." Rivka's face was as blank as the winter sky, with the same fading radiance. Miriam was desperately trying to get some connection, some response from her.

"What do you like to do? I like to go ice skating, at the Burnt Hills Lake."

"Ice. Yes."

"Would your parents let you go? My parents don't let me go anywhere they don't know."

"Go anywhere...I don't understand." Her pout was too cute, her head nodded too emphatically in confusion. Miriam wondered if Rivka was only pretending not to understand.

"You know, what do your parents allow? How late can you stay up? What's your bedtime?"

"Ah, bed...bed at eight thorty."

"Thirty," said Miriam.

"Threety. Theerty." Rivka kept smiling—in derision?

Miriam noticed that the Russian girl's teeth were a seaweedy yellow and crooked.

Miriam’s heart sank, as she thought of what Brian would make of this. And of what all the girls, with their hair mousse cans and peeing contests in the bathroom, would say to Rivka. Miriam could hear their cackling in her ears.

“Want something to drink, Rat-killer?” they’d say as they peed and made Miriam wait, the last in line. They left the toilet unflushed, they stole her barettes right off her head, they left gum on her chair. But that wasn't the worst of it. The worst part was the loneliness. And now that Rivka was here, it was so important she understand these things, because maybe they could help each other.

Meisha Rosenberg is a writer and teacher living in Troy, New York. She holds an MFA from New York University.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Appreciating The Little Things -- In Prison!

Report from Terre Haute

As many of you know Jan and I have two great Golden Retrievers, Lucky and Buddy. They are litter mates, but in many ways their personalities couldn't be more different. When we go on walks Buddy has to run between two trees—he just can't bring himself to walk—the prospect of what lies ahead is just too exciting for him to wait.

Lucky, on the other hand, keeps his head down and strolls along. He enjoys every small scent and morsel of anything organic that comes his way.

In many ways I usually go through life like Buddy. One thing I'm learning here in prison is how to be a little more like Lucky. The pace is very different from what I'm used to. I walk slower. I stand in line a lot. And between the pace and the fact of being here, I have become much more appreciative of little things that I always took for granted.


The pace itself has allowed me to really see—and appreciate—lots of things.

--The smell of grass as I walk around the track early in the morning.

--The massive number of ground squirrels (or chipmunks—or whatever they are) that occupy the grounds. (The other day I saw a mother chipmunk standing on her hind legs looking out over the grass—and behind her was a choir of six baby chipmunks doing exactly the same thing.)

--How much I like playing pool. I'm getting better by the day but I am still definitely no match for many of the guys here.

--How much I like walking—I did four miles this morning on the track.

--I'm really getting into softball. There is a league with some pretty good teams playing every night. I was very pleased to have beaten out an infield hit in the "0ver-40" Fathers Day game.

--The pace has given me time to get back into reading some fiction.


Scarcity also really makes you appreciate things you normally have in relative abundance:

--The ability to go when and where you want. Freedom is a hell of a thing. You really realize it when it is taken away.

--Making phone calls without waiting in line. We also have to wait 30 minutes between calls and they are limited to 15 minutes per call and 300 minutes per month. You can't leave voice mail messages and calls all begin with a recorded tape to the recipient that says: "This call is from a Federal Prison."

The slower pace has its benefits, but let's face it, I will be much happier when I can get back to my Blackberry, cell phone, e-mail and computer.

--The ability to see and talk to family and friends. It really hits you how precious your friends—and the people you love—are when you can't see them and talk to them and hold them.

--Privacy. I realize so much more how much I value having privacy. Sixteen of us live in a 25 by 20 foot room. It is very rare when you're not with someone. Your mail is opened and your phone calls are monitored. It's easy to be alone here, that is, to go off into your own world. But it's not easy to get privacy. This is all done in prison, of course, in the name of security. We'd better do our best to make sure that we don't allow the whole country to become like this in the name of security.

--Lower bunks. For newcomers these are very scarce. I have an upper bunk. I didn't have any clue how much I appreciated my bed at home, one that doesn't require me to climb a little ladder up five feet to get into bed.

Experiences That You Get by Being in Prison That You Couldn't Get Anywhere Else.

There are quite a number, and I am learning a lot from them:

--Fellowship. There is more mutually supportive fellowship here than I have ever experienced in any other group. My impression is that this really changes as you go to more secure institutions. In High Security prisons I'm told that racial groups are virtually 100% separate and the territory is controlled by various gangs. Here that is simply not true. People generally support each other.

--Life Stories. There is a very diverse group of interesting life stories here. They range from the five guys who own and manage a big concrete firm (they were convicted of price-fixing) to the brilliant 40-year-old white guy from central Wisconsin who was a dope wholesaler, to the former baggage handler at O'Hare who was convicted, on virtually no evidence, of conspiring with two other guys who really did steal cargo (sometimes, of course, you only get one side of the story here, but I read the transcript of this guy's trial. He got three years based on one four-year-old piece of hearsay evidence from a third party; his case is on appeal) to the Hispanic guys who play fabulous soccer.

Two other things in particular I've noticed:

*Prison is a very democratizing experience. It's kind of like the grandstand in a baseball park, with everyone sitting next to each other eating the same hot dogs and cheering at the same plays. Whether you're a rich executive or a kid from the street, while you're here you're on the same team. When you walk into the dining hall at noon, there is a sea of green uniforms all alike. When you walk into the dining hall at dinner, there is a sea of white t-shirts and cut-off sweats, all alike. When "count time" comes, everyone stands against the wall. Everyone thinks the same arrogant guards are jerks.

Things That You Learn to Appreciate Because It Becomes Obvious That They Could Be Much Worse:

--Living in the shadow of a high-security prison makes it clear every day how lucky you are….how much worse things could be. As we walk by on the track, you regularly hear the loud speaker at the hig-security prison blare out "Down on the ground, face down, NOW!" Ambulances arrive to deal with stabbings regularly.

--My five-month sentence is close to the lightest sentence here. There are many people here finishing 10- to 15-year sentences. I know several people who got 15 years for selling pot. A good friend here was told by the Federal Prosecutor that he would get NO jail time and he got 28 months. He has a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. There is one guy here who was offered 18 months if he would enter a plea agreement. He believed he was innocent, demanded a trial, was convicted and got 25 years.

--There are many people here who have no prospect of family or community support when they leave, and whose only work experience is selling drugs. Odds are, of course, they will be back in prison.

--I've talked to dozens of people whose wife and family have deserted them. It's tough to wait for someone who is in jail for 10 years when you're 25 and have a couple of kids to support and raise. Of course that goes for some of the white collar guys, too. One former lawyer (he had to give up his law license when he was convicted; now he plays piano, quite well)told me that his wife had told him that she had signed on to be the wife of a prosperous lawyer, not a "broken down, ex-con piano player." She has kept their seven-year-old from visiting him for the last three years.

So all things considered I have come to appreciate a lot of things that I took for granted before I came here and to realize that I am one of the luckiest guys around -- in or out of jail.

When you get down to it, I know how very lucky I am to have an unbelievably loving wife and family and so many spectacular, supportive friends. I am deeply appreciative...


Robert Creamer is serving a five-month sentence in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. This is the fourth in a series of prison reports from Creamer, a political activist from Chicago.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Tree Falls

By Ona Sachs

Last evening shortly after we got home the massive 150-year old maple tree that lived just outside our kitchen door fell crashing over in the windstorm. Grateful are we that it fell towards the road rather than on the house. It was very vibrant -- alive and tall and abundantly full of green leaves and birds and squirrels and many many branches. Sometime in the 1930s this tree was struck by lightning and the folks put it together again with an iron chain around it.

One part had fallen off against the house a few years ago. For the 20 years that we've been here it had a large hole in the trunk about five feet up - that is where it snapped - and many creatures lived there. On its way down the force of the snap sheared off about 12 feet of the top portion of a pine tree and also many huge branches of another maple nearby.

It is shocking to see this tree fallen, yet still so completely filled with life. As I approached its massive trunk this morning, it felt so thoroughly untamed and wild, so familiar and yet so foreign. Lying prone as it was, the high up branches and leaves are now so near; those parts I never could touch before are right there where I can put my hands on them.

The tree's presence is raw, completely untamed; it feels other-than-human, it exudes a kind of wild life force that is day to day so unfamiliar so unbridled yet close up is so powerful and instinctual.

I am reminded of that unnameable energy when you encounter a large wild animal. A moose, or maybe a bear. Looking at the tree, I can see a whole group of animals lying prone across the yard, their life force slowly exiting.
The huge scale of this tree’s private inner ecosystem and workings are revealed for all to feel, to see, to witness. The birds are hopping and flitting all over the trunk and branches, especially the blue jays --they are screaming.

Everything here seems altered by its fall. In my body I feel the trembling of great shock. Nothing is as it was. There is a large opening between house and pasture where once the tree made a screen, provided shade and mass. A guardian is down. She is one who witnessed much abuse and trauma here in this house on this land, before we were here. The tree is down, and yet it is still so alive. I honor this Tree Being who is still here, so palpably, yet her body lies across the earth.

Ona Sachs lives lives in rural New York state where she has a shamanic healing practice. She feels very fortunate to steward a beautiful piece of the earth.

Monday, September 04, 2006

More News From Prison

By Robert Creamer

Well, global warming is having its impact here at the Terre Haute Prison Camp. It's very hot --96 degrees here today -- and the forecast calls for hotter temps tomorrow.

I'm down to 15 weeks and 5 days. Passed the 25% mark last week...will probably be at the 33% mark by the time you get this.

Thought you might be interested in some of the tricks you learn in prison. They are probably only useful in prison, but they are tricks nonetheless.

Cutting chicken or ham or whatever with a spoon. They don't give you knives in the chow hall, it being a prison and all. So you have to learn to cut things with your spoon. You can get quite good at it with a little practise.

Spraying the toilet. When I first got here and went to use the toilet without first using the spray bottle of nice pink disinfectant, an older, wiser sort said, "Say buddy, you haven't been locked up before, have you? You don't want to sit on the toilet without spraying and wiping off the toilet first -- lots of staph infection, you know."

Actually, you spray everything here. The toilet (but not the toilet seat because there are no seats), the sink, the shower floor. You get good at aiming from a distance so you don't have to walk back over and hang up the bottle up where you found it.

Never letting your feet touch the floor of the shower. Someone early on explained to me that the floor of a prison shower was rather like a science fair experiment: lots of stuff growing there. So everyone wears shower shoes, rubber sandals. This is easy enough, but I should also add that, even though all of the inmates are men, there is no nakedness in your sleeping or the wash rooms. The norm (not rule) is to change your pants in the privacy of a shower stall. So you get really good at changing your pants in a wet shower stall, while keeping your feet from touching the shower floor and placing them directly into a shower shoe after you've put a leg into you trousers. It's a skill, of sorts...

I was thinking today about the comparative cultures of the Minimum Security Federal Prison Camp I'm in and the penitentiary next door. Now I've never spent time in the Penitentiary—thank God—so what I'm about to say is only based on what I'm told by inmates who have, or who have spent time in medium security facilities.

In the camp, avoiding social conflict is heavily incentivized. If you're in a fight—doesn't matter who started it—you head to a higher security facility. There is a lot of "faux fighting"—or verbal jousting—"You _______, you don't know______ from Shinola." But all of that is done with a smile on the face and actually serves to lubricate social tension and head off conflict.

There is a lot of kidding behavior: "Jones, you couldn't hit that ball if it was the size of a watermelon."

There is no real structure of authority among the inmates….just friendship groups and cliques.

The way to succeed in the Camp is to do your time without causing any trouble and get out.

In the penitentiary the incentives are completely different. A lot of the inmates are in for longer terms or life. There isn't any higher security level to go to (except Super Max for a select few). To succeed in a Maximum Security Penitentiary, you either have to be the toughest, baddest guy around, or you emotionally shut down, i.e., disappear. Of course neither of these are adaptive behaviors when inmates are ultimately released into the World (as it's known here).

And there is a definite internal power structure in the Maximum Security facilities. The biggest, baddest guys become the decision makers (deciders, as President Bush would say) for various groups. If one group has a problem with a guy in another group and wants him "stuck," the protocol would be to see the guy making decisions for the other group and ask him to settle the problem for you or to give you permission to do it. If that doesn't work, you might have a conflict between the two groups. Kind of sounds like George Bush's view of the brave new world, where biggest and baddest is the only basis for resolving conflict.

One other interesting parameter for comparison: Even though those of us in the camp have more freedom of movement, the inmates in the penitentiary have more power vis a vis the prison administration. Let me give you an example. The other day the dining halls in both facilities served up a load of chicken that must have been freezer burned, or out of date, or whatever. In any case it was like trying to eat rubber.

"We in the camp complained, but made do. The inmates in the prison refused to eat it and demanded different food...which was provided two hours later.

In the camp if you cause serious problems for the administration you have a lot to lose. You can be sent to a higher security facility, sent to the hole or whatever. In Maximum Security you have a lot less to lose, so you're a whole lot more willing to make demands and cause trouble to get what you want. A friend here who has been in a higher security facility said one day, "you know those guys in the Penitentiary get better food than we do."

Why do you think?" I asked.

"Because they riot if they don't," he replied.

All of this proves again that Janis Joplin was onto something when she sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

Robert Creamer is serving a five-month sentence in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Friday, September 01, 2006


By Renee Geel

Passing by tables mounded with ripe, red tomatoes and silk-tassled corn and artisan cheeses at the Tuesday Farmer’s Market, I was walking in a kind of haze. I was absorbed by the somewhat inexcusable actions of the main character in my novel and the essential point I was trying to mine for an article on life regrets and reconcilements. Both the character and the article were tormenting me. I’d meet the deadline for the article, but when, everyone asked me, would I be finished with that novel? If something is good, I reassured myself, the timing will work out. It just will.

That’s when I saw it. The potted rosemary plant, I mean. And immediately after, I saw her. Rosemary, the woman who got the one who got away. It was like split-second peripheral shifting of utmost uncertainty where I wanted to rest my gaze. To one side was the rosemary plant, looking surprisingly wilted, desperate for water and maybe some windowsill talk. Who on earth did I think I was, anyway? I killed every plant I attempted to grow, it didn’t seem to matter what it was: basil, irises, impatiens. Can you believe impatiens?

And on the other side, standing in heels and a slim black skirt, hair pulled up in a busy and accomplished woman’s chignon, stood the well-put-together source of all my angst for the last 22 years. The woman married to the man I was so sure was right for me. Rosemary. She’d given birth to and raised three children with him, and she still managed to look perfect, shopping at the Farmer’s Market after work, before going home to make dinner for her family of five. I, on the other hand, was going home to make dinner for my family of two. My blessed family of two: my husband and me. After which, I would go upstairs to my office and flick on the computer and nurture the 283-page-and-still-growing piece of fictional rebellion that was my child.

When, oh when, was it ever going to grow up and be ready to leave home? It didn’t matter who asked me or how much they cared for me. They meant no harm. They just didn’t understand the complexities of writing a novel. Writing a novel on top of a full-time job. Oh, but you don’t have children. It must be nice to have all that time to yourself so you can write your book. You’ve been working on it for what seems like a long time. When did you say you’d be finished? Or worse, the friend who joked that she hoped she wasn’t dead first.

I have never said when I expected to be finished, avoiding this subject like others avoid washing windows. No children, no demands. That’s what I figure they figure. A life half-lived. And well, I do work from home after all. The shifty freelancer. We all know they only pretend to work.

But there it was – the rosemary; and there she was – Rosemary. One looked neglected, deprived, presumably, of sun and water. The other looked glowing, thriving, presumably, on love and responsibility.

And then there was the issue of the deadline. What was the essential point I was trying to make in that article anyway? Life regrets and reconcilements. A sort of sugared lemons-to-lemonade piece of Pollyanna that, without a direct punch to the stomach, elicited an internal eye-roll.

I saw Rosemary’s sunglassed, chignoned, perfect profile move in my direction, and I quickly turned away, back toward the other rosemary. I wasn’t sure she even knew who I was. And the few times I’d actually seen them together – Rosemary and her husband, my ex-boyfriend and source of my not-so-ex heartache – it was from enough of a distance that no explanations or uncomfortable detours were necessary.

So, there it sat, the rosemary, looking painfully in need of love and water. And there I stood, feeling painfully in need of giving love and water. I stopped at the table, grazed the wilting petals with a finger, thinking that perhaps I wasn’t so far from discovering that kernel of truth for the article or from understanding the previously inexcusably selfish actions of my main character. I took out my wallet and the bottle of Evian from my purse and poured some water into the dry soil of the plant, the resinous, nurturing smell that would comfort my kitchen windowsill filling the unusually humid September air.

I would stop judging my character so harshly and finish the novel when it was ready to be finished. I would meet the article deadline, the punch now coming into focus. And I would care for the rosemary and my husband and me. My family was growing, I thought, adjusting my sunglasses, straightening my shoulders. Growing and preparing to leave home. Rosemary, I realized, nurtures as much as she needs to be nurtured.

A freelance editor and writer, Renee Geel has a B. A. and M. A. from the University at Albany. She lives with her husband in upstate New York and is a frequent contributor to MyStoryLives. She looks forward --with confidence-- to finishing her novel.