Jane Hertenstein – Life in the Midden

Jane Hertenstein
Life in the Midden

Shaken after an unexpected break in my marriage in 2016, I decided to traverse the United Kingdom, north to south, on my bicycle. I was inspired after reading about Frances Willard, an early reformer who learned to ride a bike at age 53. It was Frances who popularized the motto: ‘Do everything.’ I took these words to heart by setting off solo from John O’Groats to Land’s End. Along the way I encountered headwinds, roundabouts, and the loneliness of long-distance cycling.
      It is near sunset and it has been raining all day. The word ‘rain’ is too broad. I’ve heard the Scottish have as many names for liquid precipitation as the Inuit have for snow. The day has been all over the dial of wetness, ranging from drizzle to misty fog, to scattered showers to sudden downpour. As a reader of English literature, the phrase “dying from the damp” comes to mind, likely some poor Dickens’s character, a wayfaring orphan, Oliver Twist’s mother.
      The damp has seeped into my soul, through the goosebumps on my forearms, through my colourless wrinkled toes. But, for now, I’ve shed my soaked tights and spongy wool socks. I’m dry sitting in the door of my tent watching the sun go down, a blaze of poppy-orange and mauve watercolouring the sky above a hillside where sheep graze.
      I feel as if I’ve climbed inside a serene Turner landscape painting as I rest in the Scottish countryside—except the day has been fraught with self-doubt, short, steep climbs—more walking than riding the bike. This is not what I imagined before setting out on a solo ride from the top to the bottom of the United Kingdom or what the locals call an End to End.
      More like an End to End Her. Me, a middle-aged frumpy housewife trying to find herself at the end of her marriage.
      But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m at the beginning of a bike trip that will ultimately take me 20 days and 1,099 miles from John O’Groats to Land’s End, north to south, down the spine of the isle, from Scotland, through Wales and England to Cornwall. My tent is pitched behind a pub off the side of a road that borders Loch Ness.
      The tea in my thermos is still warm, little wisps of steam waft up. For now, the wind has stopped whipping my coffin-size tent. I’m a city-girl from Chicago—not Chicago-ish, but the true inner-city complete with gun shots, muggings, and police helicopters whirling overhead. As I watch sheep—I guess they’re sheep—dip their heads to chew and eat, bleat and baaa, and shuffle their feet, hooves, I wonder: How did I get here?
      Of course, I know how I got here. By bike. By pedalling using my own two legs. With great effort. But how—what brought me to this place, this moment, this fulcrum, or what T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets calls ‘a still point’? The universal dance.
      Watching the sun douse itself in deep reds and purples before subsiding into the west, I remember a recent news article that explained the science behind Turner’s vivid skies: disaster. A cataclysmic volcanic eruption of poisonous gases that killed tens of thousands produced otherworldly sunsets.
      That’s me I think, on the brink of change, hoping to wring beauty from pain.
      My tea has grown cold and I toss the dregs before screwing the cup back on the thermos. It has begun to rain, again.


At the hostel in Oban, I heard a weather report that sounded ominous. Gale-force winds. Word was that the ferries that would take Alex, a fellow cyclist whom I met the day before on the road, to the Outer Hebrides were not running. The next morning, I quietly gathered my things while Alex slept.
      After yanking my bike out of a tangle of other bikes in a store room, I climbed aboard my rig and headed south, hoping to catch a ferry to the island of Arran and then over to Ayr—if the weather held. A big if.
      Sometime in the afternoon the winds picked up and I found myself pedalling hard, standing on the downstroke—stock still. The wind whipped a piece off my helmet. I quickly checked my phone and maps to redirect.
      There was a campground at Lochgilphead—if I could get there. Another big if.
      Luckily, I found it and was able to call the proprietor who came out of his house to show me a flat piece of ground in a boggy field, where my tent would be fully exposed to the winds. Then, as if reading my mind, he walked me over to a stable, where I might set up. I was about to release my bungees on the back of the bike. But, wait! He then unlocked a caravan parked next to the shower house and said I could stay there. I burst into tears of relief.
      The little RV wasn’t connected to water or electricity, yet it was more than a hollow shell. There was a couch and a little table where I could spread out my stuff. For the next couple of days, it would be my refuge from the storm.


The next day I awoke to fierce winds whipping up the narrow loch slip to a frothy brew. When I opened the little aluminium door, it flew out of my hands and slapped the side of the trailer. I ran across the grounds to the bath/toilet house. Even within the cement block walls I could hear the wind whooshing.
      At the shower house I met a woman who had recently retired. She was staying at the campgrounds while volunteering at a Bronze Age dig at the Kilmartin Dig. I’d passed signs for it on the way to a café stop at the museum.
      It occurred to me that I hadn’t been spending much time just hanging out with locals, hearing their stories. Of course not, I was always on my bike or else collapsed in my tent.
      Anyway, I asked the woman to tell me about Kilmartin, to tell me what I had missed.
      Growing up in Ohio, I’d ridden my bike to Fort Ancient, the name given to grave mounds that had been robbed of the bodies and artefacts of Native peoples. At Kilmartin there was something similar called cairns that were being excavated. Maggie went on to tell me there were also standing stones.
      I’d seen stone circles in Sweden and Ireland, where ancient tribes oriented themselves within the bigger cosmos. I’m sure they had a much better grasp of where they were from and where they were going than I.
      I asked her about buried treasure. It was slow going, she told me. Much like writing, much like cycling, I reckoned. There are bright spots, nuggets in the midst of detritus. Always the biggest bonanza involves garbage: midden piles, the refuse, it is there that archaeologists discover how a society was organized, how it worked, what was important, what they threw out. It is in digging through the ordinary that one often finds a gem.
      Good words for living, I thought.


Battling the winds back to the lonely caravan, I recalled I had little food. I would need to face the elements once again.
      I donned rain pants and a rain jacket and struggled forward. Flags and pennants stood out straight from poles. Awnings over doorways ballooned. I passed a library and went in. I needed a book since I’d finished reading the one I’d brought and left at the hostel. The library had a second-hand prose section, books for sale by the Friends of the Library.
      There I bought a copy of Wuthering Heights—a more convoluted love story has never been written. Yet, it harkened back to my early twenties when I deemed it the most romantic book I’d ever read. Everlasting love, love that spoke over the centuries, that defied the dead, the separation of this earth from the next. The idea of two hearts beating as one, a soul mate.
      I was never one to fall for that kind of purple language when describing love, but, at the same time, I secretly wished it were true. I wanted a love that would last forever, that wouldn’t be corrupted by death or time. I bought the book because I hoped there was some way to go back, to find amidst the garbage and trash, something to hang on to.
      Leaving the library, I held the door for a woman right out of Scottish casting. She wore a waterproof Mackintosh with a matching brim hat tied under her chin and she was pushing one of those little personal shopping carts.
      ‘Whew!’ She paused, to shake off in the doorway. ‘I needed the trolley today so’s not to blow away!’
      I smiled in agreement before going on my way.


I next stopped at a thrift store to buy another ‘wee’ sack for food. Even here in Lochgilphead, I wasn’t far from pop culture. In the midden piles of linen dresser covers, lace tablecloths, plated tea spoons, little china creamers, souvenir Jubilee plates, I found a Backstreet Boys insulated lunch bag.
      Now all I needed was food. I found a Co-op where I restocked my store of cheese and bread, cookies, and crackers. On the way back to the caravan park was an Indian Takeaway. Curried fried rice sounded good on such a raw day. I told the kid taking my order that I’d cycled here. ‘Why?’, he’d wanted to know.
      In the big picture, I wasn’t doing anything too out of the normal. Visiting the library, thrift storing, shopping for groceries, getting takeout. I could have done all this without leaving home. But here I was in wind-swept Lochgilphead, walking through a prism. Each facet of the experience slightly different, taking on new colours, a new slant. I realized this is what it means to travel, to take time and not just pedal the miles, but to live in the midden. The mess.


Back at the caravan park I ran into Philip, the proprietor. He asked me how things were going and I waved my bag of takeaway at him and smiled.
      He told me the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had fainted after a 9/11 commemoration. I’d been so far away from the news that hearing this made me want to fall down. Suddenly there is no such thing as gravity, a way to be held up. I feel as if I am in the middle of an ever-widening, ever-maddening gyre. According to the poet Yeats, ‘the centre cannot hold’. The world seems to be bending toward some kind of fiery sunset. After weeks away from the political mayhem in America, I am thrust back into the current political reality. More and more the run up to the election felt like an episode of the Jerry Springer Show, combative daytime TV.
      How did we end up here? I wondered.


As a kid I saw the hand of God in nature, in the fluttered, fluid murmuration of starlings over a field, in the night song of crickets caught in the cracks of the patio, in the winking black-eyed Susans, butterflies dancing above the heads of wildflowers beside the road. The Divine was everywhere, in holding a door for the next person, a baby’s smile, poetry, forgiveness.
      I was having a hard time reconciling the church of Lock Her Up and Build the Wall, messages of hatred and othering, with the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel, the Golden Rule, ‘the greatest of these is love.’
      What happened to compassion?
      It all seemed upside-down. Had I been hoodwinked? Or, like, my father thought: Had I wasted my life?
      I wasn’t quite ready to give up, but I had to find a way to navigate what lay ahead.   AQ

Zoë Blaylock – The Chariot

Zoë Blaylock
The Chariot

The relic rusting in the driveway doesn’t get much mileage now that the last dog has died.
      It sits uncomplaining, like each of my pups did whenever they sat resigned behind the picture window and watched as I, all dolled up, took my place in the forbidden, people-only sedan and left them home alone while I went to chase some fun.
      I suppose I should take the old heap for a spin. A mechanic told me that gasoline gets stale if it sits in the tank too long. She said all vehicles should be driven at least once every few weeks; nineteen-year-old minivans, perhaps a tad more frequently.
      But not enough time has passed since The Chariot carried geriatric Shiloh home from his final visit to the vet. It’s too soon for me to get behind the wheel dry-eyed again.
      I’m sure The Chariot understands. It’s not the only time I’ve had to take it out of commission. The first was in 2004, after Cooper, another geriatric dog, died.
      I’d bought it brand new a few months earlier. It was the nicest transportation I’d ever owned. Silver paint gleamed. Motor hummed. Even Cooper’s flatulence was no match for its rich, new-car smell.
      Given Cooper’s fulminant kidney failure, he barely had a chance to shed in it, or to leave muddy pawprints so large they could frighten the pluckiest car thief away. As brawny as that 115 lb. German Shepherd was, he was also a pacifist who loathed using his teeth when simple, well-placed evidence of his prowess could keep danger at bay.
      When I first brought The Chariot home from the dealer’s and invited him to jump in, like any jumbo-sized dog would have, Cooper wagged himself silly with joy. Years of crouching in the rear of a small station wagon must have left him feeling like he was suddenly in the heaven that all too soon would become his eternally.
      For his remaining eight weeks of life, once each morning and once each late afternoon Cooper reclined on the third-row bench as regally as a Roman emperor while we headed to and from the park. When he finally reclined forever, I could no more drive his wheels than I could drive away the memory of his emissions. I longed for them as I did for the fragrance of a jasmine bloom in spring.
      There’s no accounting for taste when you’re in mourning.
      And believe you me. We mourned, The Chariot and I. It was the laws of nature that decreed only I should do the crying, not those of the heart.


Young-adult Waldo was the one who charmed The Chariot and me toward the road again. But not without insisting that I pimp his ride first.
      A taller, lither German Shepherd, more refined than Cooper thanks to a drop or two of Irish Wolfhound in his pedigree, Waldo preferred lolling on the floor to lazing on the bench. This meant that the second-row bucket seats had to be banished to the garage, and in their stead, The Chariot was fitted with a cut-to-order black and tan carpet.
      Waldo was almost pleased. But not quite. He required further refinements. Blankets, pillows, and bottled water first, followed in his sunset years by a no-slip ramp that permitted him to board and disembark without straining his prone-to-dislocation shoulders and his arthritic hips.
      Nothing but nothing cheered Waldo more than the words, ‘Get in The Chariot.’ Not even summons to the barbecue for cheeseburgers, or an invitation to a bone china plate of Thanksgiving turkey and a side of giblets.
      I couldn’t bear to vacuum or wash The Chariot after Waldo died, much less to turn on the ignition. And if this seems unsanitary to any person addicted to fastidious hygienic pretensions, please understand that vehicles like The Chariot who live to do, rather than merely to be, don’t give a damn about looking pretty.


When, months after Waldo’s departure, a homeless Archie inherited the conveyance, the odours left by his predecessor soothed him.
      Waldo had been a gourmand with an experienced stomach. He never passed up a meal. Consequently, the flatus he had taken to expelling and that now lingered in The Chariot surely portended something good for Archie.
      However fetid the evidence, knowing that past meals had been enjoyed by other dogs in the new environ, heartened the street scrapper whose worn teeth suggested a chronic hunger so desperate that he had eaten more than his share of gravelly dirt.
      That Archie feasted on several of The Chariot’s many parts did not surprise the veterinarian. Nor did the gnawing seem to bother The Chariot itself.
      Like all beings who are lucky enough to reach middle age, The Chariot and I both knew the blush of youth would never be ours again. We were liberated by the certainty that what is beneath the hood is more valuable than the face we present to the world.
      ‘So what?’ The Chariot seemed to say. ‘If Archie noshes on my seatbelts and my armrests as regularly as he wolfs down slices of bacon stolen from your kitchen counter?’
      So what indeed.
      Archie loved his wise Chariot, although to him the minivan was simply, ‘Cha—.’ Just the one syllable set him beelining for its sliding door. The full moniker was too hoity-toity for my tough, delinquent, unrepentant dog.
      He died as The Chariot and I transported him to the emergency room at unsafe speeds, but not by accident. In fragile health since his arrival, he suddenly collapsed within a year of moving in.
      His death would have been bearable if before he went, he could have eaten enough bacon, slept in comfort and safety through enough nights, nibbled on enough Chariot.
      A year’s respite in a loving home is several eons from enough. Just ask anyone who has ever loved a German Shepherd. They’ll tell you. They know.


I could have bought new parts to replace the ones Archie had munched on, but The Chariot bristled at the mention of plastic surgery. My vehicle’s priorities have always been sound.
      So, instead I spent the money on the shell-shocked doggie named G. Shepherd Von Something Stupid who became our Shiloh. I would like to tell you that I did it because The Chariot was in need of a dog. But that would be a lie. The truth is that after an inconsolable bereavement, the greater need was mine.
      And while I’m being honest, let me also say that it wasn’t I who picked Shiloh, nor Shiloh who picked me. The fact is that the three-year-old picked The Chariot by jumping in and refusing to get out even before the unemotional breeder had transferred ownership.
      Once the money changed hands and Shiloh’s escape from the trafficker was secured, he fell asleep on the third-row bench, snoozed soundly as I manoeuvred hours of treacherous rural roads to get us home, and did not stir until we pulled up to his new residence.
      One neutering and a few seductive meals later, the only way you could get him to leave the safety of house and garden was to whisper ‘Chariot’.
      He trusted his getaway vehicle as if it were his guardian angel. Just as he should have. Dog beach. Dog supermarket. Dog playgroup. For nine years they were all a mere motorized-hop away. And after Shiloh was adequately enriched by each outing, The Chariot was at the ready to haul him home sweet home again.
      Maybe it was the medicine that helped him fight the hemangiosarcoma as the Covid years unwound. Maybe it was the menu. Or maybe he fought because he loved me as much as I loved him, and he knew what his exit would do to me.
      But then again, maybe I’m thinking too much of myself. The odds are it was The Chariot he didn’t want to leave. Or the adventures it promised when the stay-at-home restrictions were lifted. I don’t know.
      But I do know this: Lately, in the middle of the night, when I find myself missing my dogs fiercely—more, in fact, than I care tell anyone who doesn’t yet love me enough to be entrusted with such an intimate disclosure—I sneak out in my pyjamas to spend time in The Chariot. And I spill my guts.   AQ

Katacha Díaz – The Earth Berm House

Katacha Díaz
The Earth Berm House

           For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Ecclesiastes 3:1

In 1982, I toured a West Davis, California community that reminded me of a European village. With nearly 70 acres of what used to be tomato fields, this world-famous community began as one couple’s pioneering experiment in ecological living. Michael and Judy Corbett dreamed of building an environmentally-sound residential subdivision. Innovative planning and solar design were paramount for its future residents’ desire to live a better life—more in harmony with the lush landscape and each other—while using fewer non-renewable resources.
      The construction of the community, called Village Homes, was completed in 1975. The houses were built in clusters and oriented to get the most sunlight possible for solar water and space heating. The village’s narrow streets meandered east to west, allowing the 225 homes and 20 apartments, built in clusters, to maintain a north-south orientation making use of solar energy for heating and cooling. (In addition, the streets were named after places and characters from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit). Although some of the original active solar homes remain today, most are now passive solar and there are few traditional homes.
      The homes opened onto shared backyards, with limited fencing, where neighbours enjoyed meeting. Fruits and vegetables were part of the edible plantings around all the homes, and rainwater was drained from slopes that irrigated the orchards and gardens. There was also a large community room, solar-heated swimming pool, child care nursery, play fields, two large gardening areas, and a restaurant.
      Village Homes soon attracted architects, students of landscape planning, social scientists, tourists, and politicians from around the world. First Lady Rosalyn Carter came to visit in 1979 and toured by bicycle. In 1984, French premier François Mitterrand, arrived in an enormous helicopter to pay homage to the internationally-renowned residential project that was way ahead of its time and in a class of its own.
      Village Homes also had an extensive system of paths for walkers and bicyclists running throughout, linking with adjacent city pathways. Bridges crossed small streambeds, which allowed rainwater to percolate into the ground. Thus, eliminating the need for underground pipes, and the impacts on the city’s storm drain systems were minimal.
      But my biggest surprise on the walking tour was a cave-like, solar-powered, earth berm house. The earth berm surrounded three sides of the house, protecting it from summer heat and winter cold. The berm was designed and built by its architect owner, who lived there with his family in this tiny, earth-sheltered, solar powered, 1,025 square-foot house for more than 20 years. The house’s exterior was built of treated wood, and wrapped in manufactured rubber to block out moisture. Water was heated mostly by an in-ground “breadbox system,” a solar water heater that combined collection and storage. A wood-burning stove heated the rooms during cold winter months. At the time, this berm home was one of the most energy-efficient houses in northern California.
      Outside, I climbed the railroad-tie steps set into the side of the berm house onto its ‘roof’—a garden growing in eight inches of soil. And just as in most gardens, I saw a patches of dandelions and clover, growing well in the rich soil amidst rosemary bushes, orange California poppies, and sunflowers!
      Crabgrass and weed patches were treated by residents with a homemade easy-to-prepare solution of vinegar, sea salt, and soap, safe for use around children and pets. A team of professional gardeners was contracted by the homeowners’ association to maintain the shared common area which included the vineyard and fruit trees, sprayed with organic solution. With more than thirty varieties of fruit trees, the common area included peaches, grapes, figs, pears, apricots, pomegranates, and almond trees. There was always something for the Villagers to harvest on the honour system.
      Almost immediately, I fell in love with nearby Davis, a friendly university town with endless farmland, and Village Homes’ avant-garde mode of living. I also bought a cosy, 634-square-foot cottage in the middle of edible landscaping with tomatoes, basil, corn, artichokes, eggplant, zucchini, cantaloupe, and much more. And I planted English lavender, geraniums and begonias to beautify and add colour to my flowerbeds. The monthly newsletter, full of the latest village gardening tips and other scoops, was delivered by a neighbour teen and also posted at the community centre and on outdoor bulletin boards.
      During the week I joined the thousands of bicyclists for a scenic, three-mile commute to my office at the University of California, Davis. To avoid traffic jams and accidents, I learned to plan on arriving after 8:00 a.m. or scheduled super-early meetings. During the rainy winter days, however, I waited at a nearby bus stop for a ride to campus on British double-decker buses, owned by the university and driven by university students.
      After retiring from academia, wanderlust and love to travel took me around the world to gather material for my children’s stories. Many years earlier, some UC-Davis colleagues and I had collaborated on a project with researchers at the University of Hawai’i in Manoa. The exotic landscapes, sunsets, and dancing palm trees of the Hawaiian Islands beckoned, so I kept returning to vacation. On the return flights home, I’d ask myself, ‘Should I sell my Village cottage?’ But as time went by, the answer would present itself when the Hawai’i Sea Grant Hanauma Bay Education Program invited me to train as an Interpretive Guide volunteer.
      In 2006, properties in Village Homes were in high demand with a 4-year waitlist, so I sold my cottage. Now I was a children’s writer, embracing my island dream with the charmer of my life, Mister Keeper, a Yorkshire terrier, and living near my nephews in Kailua and Hawaii Kai, the home of Hanauma Bay State Park, a popular snorkelling spot with the locals and visitors alike. It’s fun hanging out at the beach with the volunteer team sharing a passion to protect Hawaii’s marine environment, snorkelling along the coral reef and whale watching from mid-December through April.
      Nonetheless, I still miss walking with my canine companion along the Village’s orchards, harvesting organically grown fresh fruits and veggies in season, stopping along the way for quick peek at the Berm House, and a catch-up chat with the community’s neighbours.  AQ

bart plantenga – Mom’s Visit to the East Village

bart plantenga
Mom’s Visit to the East Village

My neighbour’s head comes crashing through her bedroom window. The sound of breaking glass echoes in the airshaft. She’s old and her son, the perp, is less old. This is how I’m awakened the morning after the party that ended badly.
      The cupboards are bare. It’s a song. Can you add coffee creamer to stale Saltines and call it breakfast cereal? I’m at the kitchen table and think: This is the future. Nothing matters as I spot a yellowed sheet of onionskin typing paper on the floor, shoved under the front door. The typed letter is from neighbour Pasha Georg.

            Radio Transmitter — READ ACROSS YOURE “AIR” WAVES — URGENT!
            “DEAR” Populace:
            I live in a “semi-industrialised” area, and cannot put up with “baboOons”, that continually hairass
            “my person”, sending interstellar voices into my oven, a known reciever of signals. It seems they
            arrest “these People”, and let them out on “Bail”(?) Then, these individuals come back and
            “engage” me in mortal duels to challenge “ME” with their “swords” of broken off airials from
            “automobiles” and “supercede” even F.B. of I. requests, to keep away from “certain areas” whare I
            “conduct” my own “personal affairs”. P.S. “I” have been struck with a “snowball” saved as evidence
            in freezer
      I will not respond but he’ll not take my nonresponse lying down.
      My mom arrives on time like always; she will be punctual for her own funeral. Actually, she’s early. This way she can catch me off-balance, not quite done washing dishes, shoving clothes in the closet. But Eunice takes a kinder view. She’s on the phone just in case. Figures mom is probably just anxious to see me.
      I take mom’s gabardine coat, that she’s been wearing for over 30 years, so old it’s new and chic again. I fold it on my bed, fetch her a glass of water. She inspects the water, holding the glass up to the light. I notice she has already somehow managed to refold her coat into a perfect square.
      ‘You need a fEElter for your New York vAAter.’ She sits very still on the edge of the chair, trying to make sense of her surroundings.
      ‘New York’s famous for its good water. It’s from Upstate,’ I mumble what every New Yorker says every day the issue of water comes up. I don’t believe it but say it anyway. [Analyses show traces of pain relievers, barbs, antibiotics, and opiates.]
      ‘Through dose rusting pipes, ja.’ Mom is appalled by things in every corner. To her it’s like a hornet’s nest in a hurricane. She gets up to re-fill her glass but first washes it thoroughly along with some other unwashed glasses and silverware.
      ‘Dis place is filt’y. Is not your girl friend…’
      ‘Leave it…and she’s not my girl friend.’
      ‘Is she not taking care of you? Maybe you need a cleaner…Maybe I can…’
      ‘Mom, I’m OK.’
      She sits back down, now in the living room. That same look of injured bewilderment a mother who comes to visit her convict son in Sing Sing might wear. Tears well up—those rain-pouring-down-a-cold-dark-window eyes. On top of the kitchen cabinets, still in its box, she spots the pizzamaker she’d given me two Christmases ago.
      ‘Do you like your pizzamaker?’
      ‘Love it.’ A constructive lie is really a truth wrapped in loftier goals.
      ‘It is very handy for your fast living.’
      She gets up to straighten some things. Dusts off her stiff Sears dress that may be made of a material related to Teflon. She runs her fingers along a shelf. Lifts a souvenir, a brass cannon from Fort Ticonderoga covered in dust. Too much dust. I watch her ingrained habits convert compulsive energy into something useful like when she used to clean school cafeterias after lunch for a pittance above minimum wage.
      I remember: Take another multivitamin—replenishment of B and C vitamins can help purge remaining toxins. I reach for the bottle.
      ‘You takink pills for what now?’
      ‘Mom, sit down. It’s a multi-vitamin, for my health.’
      ‘You look daam overtired.’
      ‘Workin’ hard. And don’t worry about me and the dishes. Leave them!’ She sits back down, grabs the glass with two hands and holds it there on her knees.
      ‘You wass one time such a sVeet boy…’ The phone rings. I let it ring. The answering machine engages and we listen together: ‘I heard it, I heard it, my best favourite death-bed music! It’ll lend drama to the earth being tossed on top my casket — the music of Hildegard von Bingen. It will give my funeral the weight of ethereality…’
      Elsa Triolet, being a trained Catholic, likes leaving confessional-length messages. The relationship of answering machine to human made it easier for her to come clean: ‘Like an angel with dirt on her knees is how she sings…I mean she gave light a celestial sound but also made light feminine—you know exactly what I mean. I hope you’re not screening your calls, you naughty boy—sorry to bug you—it’s only that I’m preparing for the most important event in my life and I wanna get this one right. Come over! I have special beer from Belgium, aged in barrels of uncoated Ardennes oak. I also have another treat. It’s something you will… well, I pierced my clit with a bell so now every time you—you know—you’ll ring my beeell.’ Her Anita Ward imitation trailing off into nothingness…BEEEEEEEEP.
      ‘Daat is a strange vooman. Does not your Joana mind?’
      ‘Does not this Joana mind?’
      ‘DJUUNA! She’s just my roommate.’
      ‘It is strange I did not raise you so.’
      ‘What? To have roommates? Look mom, in a strange weird world, normal is what’s strange, people who act normal and find things normal THAT’s fohking weird.’
      ‘You are so angry and vloekt zo as if I bring you here to force to live—do not vipe your hands on your nice pants.’
      ‘Vot happen to those nice pants I buy you?’
      ‘I wear’m to work.’
      ‘There is maybe too many drOgs by you. I raise you … You waaeere alvays a nice boy. You never did cry or complain about TSIngs. So many sVeet TSIngs you do for me. You vood nap met your big smile on my laap. And daan you vood bring me some buttercups from de veld.’ I worry about roaches suddenly emerging from the cracks in the wood paneling, tapping her on the shoulder.
      ‘I had four perfect-attendance awards in school.’
      ‘Yes, I did teach you vell to be on time. Vot hAAppen met now?’
      ‘Oh come on.’ I remember the way she’d lick the corner of her hankie, get on one knee and wipe the corner of my mouth before school. I remember the cheap perfume mixed with a damp rag smell.
      ‘I haff still dee photo off you ven you waaeere duh crossing guard met your white strap on. I haff dat photo met me.’ She pulled out a tattered manila envelope and showed me the creased and cracking photo. Yes indeed, there I stood stiff as a plank of wood, proud to be anointed guardian of safety. ‘A vimpering baby I bring up. warm clotheds, food and fresh melk. I give you a warm home together wid your vader. And now you roam in de wereld and I am home in my all alone self. I worry myself out.’
      Should I bring out some snacks? Crackers? Photos that may depict me in normal surroundings? My Foot Messenger of the Month awards?
      ‘And now maybe together we make this place clean. Make it a little nicer to sit.’ I remember that long ago when a word was spoken I believed that word. That word meant exactly what it was supposed to. So long ago. I remember, wanting to sleep in and she’d punish me for my late night revelery with ‘daat whore’ by vacuuming very early in the morning, the vacuum bang-banging against my bedroom door. Making sure I knew she was at 5:30 AM—every morning. As if moral superiority hinged on the facts that she was an early riser and an advocate for cleanliness and punctuality. Blame it on dour Calvin, Christian reformer who my mom, an atheist, no doubt agreed with him when it came to cleanliness, hard work, and human depravity.
      And there we sit at the kitchen table. I play George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ on my partially melted cassette deck. She loves this song—always has, although, perhaps, only because she thought I liked it. I bought her that single with nothing to play it on. But I could have bought her any single, heavy metal whatever, and she would have loved it. I could have bought her a necklace displaying a gilded dog turd and she would have loved it. That is the mystery of a mother. And that mystery might bring tears to my eyes later as she’s driving home.
      She sat there quietly staring down at crumbs. I could see her hand sweeping like a propeller blade to clean the crumbs from my table into her right hand and getting up to drop into my sink. She sat back down. I noticed her hands fumbling with a tight wad of paper. Her hands red, rashy from years of exposure to cleaning fluids as a cleaning lady. She unwadded the paper and said: ‘I carry this with me in my pocketbook to sometimes look at and I think: what happen to this nice boy?’
      I slide the paper from her side to my side of the table and read:

                  My mother
                  i told her i was cold
                  in my room at nite
                  she left me a blanket
                  & a hot water bottle wrapped in a sock

      I remember it was a poem published in the magazine Darkroom Techniques from however long ago. I don’t remember the rest of the poem and I never thought she actually ever read it. And here it was this little flattering snippet torn from a longer poem.
      ‘What’s in the container? You don’t have to bring stuff to eat. I DO have food in the house.’
      ‘Waar den? Dis is your vader’s ashes I do carry wid me always. Or do you forget.’
      ‘It’s a frickin’ Tupperware container.’
      ‘I know daat. It is vhy. It always stay close.’
      ‘What’re you gonna do with the ashes?’
      ‘I don’t know. I poot it on de seat next to me when I go home. In de car he sits next to me. I talk wid him.’
      ‘That’s frickin’ weird.’
      ‘It is maybe to you who have not lost de one you love…’
      ‘He was my father…’
      ‘But you never show him you love him…If it upset you, I will poot it back in my bag.’
      ‘No, leave it.’
      And she did. And my father’s absence, the remaining evidence of that absence suddenly gained a kind of strange mnemonic presence. Fingers rapping the table to a Beastie Boy beat.
      ‘Please hold up met dat dromming.’
      We enter an extraordinary silence where memories confabulate entire holographic films starring my father and we are both watching this ‘movie’. His Buddhist calm in the face of household repairs, fixing toys and gadgets. His great calm to sit for hours fishing, awkward in his American straw hat, staring at the bobber for hours, waiting for a bite. I want to tell her I really admired that about him—that waiting for a fish that may not strike…and didn’t.
      That my mother could talk forever about nothing but almost never about something was also part of the conundrum. My father had ‘disappeared’ during WWII and never really ‘reappeared’—if you know what I mean. He was an engineer and worked everyday and brought home presents (tin wind-up toys, a humming top) and yet, he was never quite there, deep in thought, in WWII books, the World at War on TV.
      ‘What’s about your vader’s ashes?’
      ‘What about’m? Should I sprinkle them on my cornflakes?’
      ‘You do not even haff your cornflakes.’
      ‘I think the weird thing is that he stopped taking his Coumadin.’
      ‘He did take them every day and I watch him to be sure.’
      ‘I found 133 tablets in a small box in a drawer.’
      ‘I do not want to hear you talk about him so.’
      ‘He left them behind to show that he could die of his own accord. Dignity in death…’
      ‘I know not where you get dis from? You are saying that I am to blame for him wanting to die?’
      ‘NO. It is just that in surviving he saw himself losing face, dignity.’
      ‘I try to give him…’
      ‘It wasn’t for you to give. Pain and debilitation squeeze the spirit from the soul.’
      ‘I do NOT want to hear any more.’ The more I thought about it, the more sense it all made. Indeed, her vigilance, her excessive doting drove him crazy. He wanted death to arrive with a glass of whiskey while watching porn.
      The phone rings again.
      ‘Do not these vimen want me to be two minutes alone met her son?’
      Answering machine:…‘Where are you? I gave you sexual favors. And then you disappear. This means I’ve offered you sex under false pretenses. And I do mean favors! What gives? If I don’t get satisfactory answers in 24 hours — it’s four on Sunday — I will go public with details of your BEEEEEEEEP…’
      ‘What is de matter here? You are not tellink de troot? I seem to not know you no more.” She picks up the glass of flat beer. “Dis is disgusting mit duh roaches dar in.’
      ‘It’s a roach trap. They’re attracted, crawl in, get drunk and drown. At least they go out high. It was a beer I wasn’t going to drink anyway. I mean, what’s the big deal!? So I left a beer out over night.’
      ‘It iss filt’y. No wunder dat you are popular met dem.’ Her heaven would be a tidy and orderly place. ‘Let me help. We clean up and we feel better.’ To her, tidying up was psychiatric therapy. To her untidiness, a dusty place, was indicative of — nay — the very cause of depression and failure. Dust, dirt, and clutter were the enemies of sanity, well-being, progress. Sanitation for sanity. She saw my ‘suitcases’ emblazoned with hundreds of beer labels. I had already fit my beer paraphernalia collection into three old, street-rescued, Naugahyde-covered cardboard suitcases.
      ‘Are you now moving some place new again?’
      ‘Vhy not find a nice place wid a nice girl who can cook a little bit you know?’
      ‘I dunno. I think I mighta found a “Nice” girl.’ Mom didn’t get it. Nice—Eunice—You Nice! I admire how Nice can live nowhere, no knickknacks. A PO box and pride of no place. The beauty of her impermanence [the neither here-nor-thereness] lends her mystique.
      ‘You were always so happy as a boy. And now…Maybe preparing always for your worst you make happen this worst.’
      Another half hour, another glass of lukewarm water…she speaks up: ‘To stay here will drive me crazy. And you too. I will use a toilet in maybe a restaurant…’
      ‘We can go to Leshkos. Eat something.’
      ‘The people from in New York, they cook dirty. I see it on the news. I do not vaant to get sick riding home. Or is dat vat you vaant?’
      ‘Let’s go to Veselka then.’
      ‘No. I do not want the strange food. I get sad when I stay in dis place.’
      ‘That’s what I mean. Let’s go out.’
      ‘You have no money. I am not paying again and I mean by dis place your New York.’
      I walk her out—she lasted 90 minutes; hand gripping my elbow—down the stoop; I kick a used Pamper into the gutter…I walk her up the street to her car. Runs a finger over the car hood.
      ‘LOOOK, I just clean my car and already a laag of dirt in two hours of time. And I want to ask you now again if you will help me with those salesmens.’
      ‘I will. We’ll get them.’ She’s being harassed by burial plot and gravestone salesmen and we think we know where they’re located.
      ‘Next time.’
      ‘When will that be? I hope before I die.’
      She climbs into her Honda Civic. I notice her swollen ankles, the blossoms of varicose veins on the backs of her calves. The climb into the driver’s seat is serenaded by a tragic stillness. From the black-and-white WW2 photos it’s obvious she once had perfect slender legs and a smile that glowed. And now she hunches over slightly like she’s curling back up into the spiralling cocoon of birth.
      She seems to repeat memories as testimony to her immortality. Maybe it’s just the opposite: each memory is flawed or a necessary, rewritten fiction, like a teen who brags about his sex life to hide the fact that he’s a premature ejaculator.
      She waves me into the passenger seat. We sit in the car together for 10 minutes because there’s 10 minutes left on the meter.
      The way she holds the top of the steering wheel as tightly as ever. Her eyes straining just above the wheel’s upper curve. Her knuckles turning white. Just sitting there.
      ‘OK, mom, put’r in drive.’ Just as I get out, I watch her reach into her tote bag and place the Tupperware container with my father’s ashes on the passenger seat next to her.       AQ

Pat Seman – A Ukrainian Easter

Pat Seman
A Ukrainian Easter
                                                    Chernivtsi, March, 2010

The first promise of spring came with groups of women in boots and thick coats huddled at street corners, selling tiny bunches of snowdrops and frail, wild crocuses, stems wrapped in their dark green leaves and tied with a thin thread.
      But the snow continued to fall. Followed by the inevitable thaw with its frozen slush, streaming gutters and giant icicles falling with a crash from eaves and balconies to shatter on the pavement. Then snow again, its big fat flakes settling on my collar, in my hair, on the robed shoulders of the archbishop’s statue in the cathedral garden, drifting through the streets and onto roofs, softening the city’s contours.
      Until one morning I woke to bright sunshine and clear blue skies, opened the door onto a balcony miraculously clear of ice and snow. I checked the thermometer. The temperature had shot up to 18C. The air was warm, caressing.
      Out and onto the streets, where people no longer hurried by heads down, wrapped against the cold. Young women shed of their winter furs and boots, strolled by, their long legs on full display in short skirts, some with bare midriffs. And prams, whole battalions of them, pushed by mothers, fathers, grandparents, bringing baby out for its first airing. Young lovers occupied benches which for so long had been covered in ice. Beside them groups of babushkas in slippers and thick, rumpled stockings, and old men with their caps and their wry, lined faces; all drinking up the sun.
      Now that the snow and ice had gone the streets were a grim grey, the buds on the trees still tightly closed, the earth dry and tired. In the gardens of Theatre Square groups of women were bent over spades, digging and turning over the soil, whilst all over town there was a sudden buzz of activity. Carpets were hung out on washing lines in courtyards and gardens, sparkling clean windows thrown open to let in the fresh spring air.
      At school most of my students and colleagues were either fasting or on a diet and all the talk was about about making a trip to the bazaar – the huge, sprawling Kameninsky market on the outskirts of town. For Easter was fast approaching and with it, so they told me, the tradition of wearing a new set of clothes on Easter Day to celebrate this moment of rebirth and new beginnings.
     And before I knew it March had almost gone by and we were into Holy Week, or Willow Week as it’s known in Ukraine, a time of preparation and purification when the whole house has to be cleaned, the village houses whitewashed, gardens planted, in preparation for Easter, the most important festival of the year.
     It begins with Willow Sunday and the ceremony of the blessing of the willow, a practice stemming back to pagan times when the willow with its healing properties was a holy tree and one of the first in Spring to show signs of life; when people believed that by tapping each other with a freshly blooming willow branch they could draw upon its energy and strength.
     There was no sign of tapping at church that morning, simply an enormous crowd of people, everyone clutching pussy willow branches and pressing forward into an already packed church. Once inside, squeezed like a sardine and peering over a sea of shoulders, I could see nothing of the ceremony. But the singing was sublime; as one voice emerged, strong and deep, rising with an ever-increasing sense of urgency, till at its peak it melted into a sea of harmony, one with the rich, sonorous tones of the choir.
     Then, abruptly, service over, the congregation turned and I was carried with them, as inch by inch we shuffled and stumbled our way out into the pouring rain.
     The girls in my English classes told me that they were making pysanky, the beautiful traditional painted eggs for which Ukraine is famous. Decorated with stylised symbols from Nature they were said to contain powerful magic, a protection against evil and natural disaster. Once they were painted by women only, in secret, when the children had gone to bed. For centuries the tradition was handed down from mother to daughter, only to be banned as a religious practice under the Soviet regime. It was the Ukrainians in the Diaspora that ensured its survival. I know that my grandmother took the skill with her when she emigrated to Canada.
      Now the girls have lessons at school in dyeing and decorating pysanky. In the weeks before Easter you see these decorated eggs everywhere. They come in many colours – orange and red, yellow, green and deep blue. Often the patterns are geometrical or with spiral motifs, but there are also motifs of birds, flowers and animals. One I saw was encircled with a chain of young women dancing. Pysanky represent the gift of life.
      On the evening before Easter Sunday, they’re placed in a wicker basket of food, which is taken to the midnight mass to be blessed. In my cousin Masha’s basket, they lay together with the traditional assortment of food: baked ham, smoked sausage, horseradish, butter, sweet cheese and rye bread, all covered by a white embroidered cloth. And a paska or Easter bread, a round, sweet loaf, decorated with motifs of crosses, plants and flowers to celebrate nature’s rebirth.
      Masha explained that the paska must be made with great care. When preparing the dough and during the kneading you must keep your thoughts pure and the whole household quiet to ensure the bread rises. No-one, not even friends and neighbours, are allowed to come in during its baking lest they make a sudden noise or cast the evil eye and it comes out flat.
      We arrived at the cathedral about an hour before midnight. Masha gave me a candle from her basket, then we both put on our scarves and joined a throng of women jostling to get in through the door. Inside they parted to leave a clear passage down to the altar, placing their baskets on either side of the aisle ready for the priest’s blessing. We stood on the cold stone floor one with the crowd of worshippers as the deep voices of priest and choir intoned the solemn liturgy. The sequin-sewn white scarves of the congregation glimmered and glittered in the soft candle light, while over their heads in the shadows near the altar hung the life- size figure of Christ on the Cross surrounded by a mass of deep red carnations.
      A stirring, a murmur of expectation. Heads turned as men entered carrying banners. Masha, checking her watch, muttered that it was already gone midnight. We stood waiting patiently as the priest continued his incantation. Suddenly all the chandeliers went on in a blaze of electric light. Red letters spelling CHRISTOS VOSKRES, CHRIST IS RISEN flashed above the altar. A procession of nine priests resplendent in white and gold followed by the choir led us out of the cathedral, the bells pealing wildly. Our candles lit, we circled the cathedral three times singing, stopping every so often to roar out a reply to the priest’s call ‘Christos Voskres, Voistinu Voskrese,’ ‘He is indeed risen!’
      At six in the morning my husband Jaap and I joined Masha and her family as they broke their fast. All the food from the basket, which had been blessed by the priest at the cathedral, was spread out on the table. We each had a krashanka, a hard-boiled egg dyed red, with which we went into a battle to crack everyone else’s. It was Masha’s husband Vasili who came out victorious, egg intact, his face creased into a big smile. As we drove back home through the early morning mist, the streets were still full of people carrying home their baskets and flickering candles; the aim being to bring the flame safely home and with it to trace a figure of the Cross on the lintel of your house. Mine had gone out in a gust of wind within minutes of leaving the cathedral.
      Later in the day the mist turned to bright sunshine. The unpaved road to Vasyliv, my grandmother’s village, was shiny with puddles and mud. Fields stretched either side of us empty and grey, but in the village the freshly dug earth in the gardens was a rich, dark brown, covered here and there in a haze of green. We arrived to the clanging of bells, passed a group of boys pulling and swinging from the ropes in the small bell tower by the church gate.
      We found Bohdan, my Dad’s cousin, in his garden, smart in a bright blue shirt that matched the colour of his eyes. Behind him the two-story redbrick house stood newly plastered, gleaming under a coat of white paint.
      ‘Welcome to the White House!‘ he said with a grin.
      Released from weeks of fasting , he was in fine spirits. He told us we’d just missed the big meal with all his family. But no matter, the table was filled within minutes by Nelya, his wife, bringing dish after dish as Bohdan reached for the vodka bottle with a cry of ‘Cossack!’
      It was time to move on. Vasylina sent a message she was waiting for us. Yet another member of my large Ukrainian family, she lives just across the dirt lane from Bohdan’s house. We found her stretched out on the bed under a red woven coverlet. Next to her a table spread in our honour with hard-boiled eggs, potato salad, smoked sausage and a large jam jar of home-made raspberry juice. Struggling out of bed, she reached for her stick and stood before us in all her Easter finery—a shiny, gold blouse and bright floral headscarf. She insisted on serving us, hobbling back and forth from the kitchen with plates of borsch made with vegetables and nettles plucked from her garden.
      Then a phone call from Masha asking us to come to her father Georg’s house. We arrived to find Masha with her parents, Vasili, their son Pavel, and Masha’s brother, all bunched together on two beds around a small table, which was crammed to overflowing with dishes of rich, home-grown food. Vasili told us that he was going steady on the vodka as he was saving himself for the next day,‘Wet Monday’, when he and his friends would hit the streets to douse the women passing by with water. Yet another old custom rooted in pre-Christian rites of purification and rebirth, and one which, according to Masha, is practised with an unbridled enthusiasm.
      ‘Never mind’, she said, ‘on Tuesday it’ll be the women’s turn’.
      She described to us how, when she was young, on Easter morning, she and the other village girls would dance and sing in front of the church. Round and round in a circle they’d go in imitation of the movement of the sun, to encourage the earth to bring them a plentiful harvest.
      Masha invited us to come back to the village the following weekend to share in the family’s honouring of their dead. It’s part of the ritual of Easter when for nine days the spirits of the ancestors are believed to return to earth. Families gather at their graves where they eat and drink together, so that the dead too may take part in the celebration of Easter; the idea being that the ghosts of the dead are always with us, that the border between life and death is as permeable as a cloud.
      Driving out of Chernivtsi towards my family’s village we saw heaps of plastic purple and pink wreaths for sale at the side of the road. People were walking along the verge with these large wreaths slung over their shoulders or on the handle bars of their bikes. We stopped at a large cemetery outside a village where so many wreaths had been laid or propped against headstones you could hardly see the graves. Between them, wooden tables and benches had been set out as for a party. The sky was sullen with dark clouds threatening rain, the cemetery empty, except for a man and a woman and two children who were sitting at a table next to their ancestor’s grave, quietly eating and drinking. Out of respect we kept our distance, but immediately they spotted us they sent over the young boy with a paska and a pysanka. The bread was ornamented with a cross made of dough, the four arms curved at their tips as if about to spin into motion—an ancient symbol of the sun, the seasons, the wheel of life.
      The cemetery in Vasyliv is quite different to the one we’d just visited with its trimmed grass and shiny headstones engraved with life-like portraits of the deceased. In Vasyliv the cemetery lies at the centre of the village, a large field full of stone crosses, many of them ancient, some all but toppling over in the long grass. All was quiet, the cemetery nearly empty.
      We trudged through the mud and wet grass in search of Masha and her family. She’d promised to take me to our great-grand-parents’ graves and say some prayers for them on my behalf. We found her at the edge of the cemetery with Vasili, their son Pavel, and Vasili’s mother. They were gathered round Vasili’s father’s grave. His mother was in tears. Vasili came to us and solemnly handed us a paska, an orange and some chocolates in memory of his father.
      The spot where my great grandparents lie buried is marked by two stone crosses. They stand side by side, leaning slightly towards one another, not far from a border of tall, sheltering trees. My great grandmother Vasylina’s cross stands on the left, and on the right, that of my great grandfather, Vasil. Their surfaces are so worn that it’s impossible to trace an inscription. The arms of each cross are faintly decorated with flower patterns and at the centre of Vasil’s, still clearly engraved, is a wreath of flowers, symbol of Mother Earth.
      Masha and I stood silently at the graves of our great-grandparents. It started to rain. We returned to her parents’ house, where Georg and his family were waiting for us to join in yet another feast of food, vodka, laughter and celebration.
      When we left, Masha gave me one red carnation. It had been blessed in a service of remembrance of the dead, the village ancestors. It hangs now, dry and drained of colour, at home, above my desk.
Amsterdam, April 2022
      My thoughts are constantly with my family and friends in Ukraine. It’s three years now since we last saw them. First Covid, now the invasion by Russia. I keep in touch with them mainly by WhatsApp:
11th April
      From Tanya, my friend and ex-colleague at the language school in Chernivtsi: ‘Sorry for not writing for a long time. Sometimes I don’t know what to answer to the question how we are. Compared to the eastern part of Ukraine we are fine. But it’s not a proper word. We are alive. But it’s so painful we can’t even think of anything else. You know Chernivtsi is the safest place right now but who knows for how long. We have many refugees from other regions, People live in schools and sleep on the floor in corridors and everyday more and more people are coming. Prices go up. No pills in pharmacies. We are all waiting for the end of war very much and praying for Ukraine.’
24th April, Ukrainian Orthodox Easter Sunday.
      In response to the Easter e-card that I send out with our greetings, I receive photos from Vasyliv: a cherry tree in blossom, lilies, daffodils, deep red tulips. One look and I’m there, back in Bohdan’s garden. A stray chicken scuttles across the path, a cat’s stretched out on the doorstep next to the usual array of mud-caked shoes and wellington boots. And here’s Bohdan at the gate, ready to greet us with a triumphant ‘Christ is risen‘, arms held out to enfold me in a big hug.
And from Masha and Vasili:
      ‘Thank you. We love you. We hope all will be well and that we’ll see each other soon’. With the message came an e-card of an egg painted yellow and blue, the Ukrainian national colours. The egg is decorated with a dove carrying an olive branch in its beak. It’s framed by sunflowers and a bright, shining sun. Above, in Ukrainian, the text, ‘Christ is risen! ‘Ukraine will rise!’, in the hope of a peaceful future for her now war-torn country.     AQ

Karen Lethlean – Family Flights

Karen Lethlean
Family Flights

A text message is my first hint. Natasha, my daughter is employed at the Northern Territory airport, she knows people, who know these things first.

                     NT are closing borders 4 p.m. Tuesday 24th March.
                     Any interstate arrivals will be required to self-isolate for 14 days.

         Confirmed by a similar message from the administrator who organizes my casual shifts at a nearby school. Plus, media announcements. Chief concern is the virus will affect isolated indigenous communities with limited health workers or facilities.
         My flight, Sydney to Darwin was booked for Saturday 28th. Not a top-end tropical holiday, not an outback adventure, but rather an attempt to assist. Be a helpful grandma, while her husband is on a military deployment overseas. General tasks associated with caring for 15month old. She’s been a solo working parent for over a month and I wanted to be closer. There ensued a flurry of face book activity to see if anyone could define what such self-isolation would entail.

                     …separate room. Separate bathroom.
                     …meals left outside, passed under the door. No outside activity. No visitors.
                     …in same house, but you’ll probably need to be in different areas.

         All doable except for a little boy, my grandson, not able to understand why Nana can’t come out and cuddle him. I imagine his insistent bashing on doors. Plus based on my whole reason for travel, I would not be of any assistance. Rather filling these requirements created a hindrance.
         Our next contact included phone calls. Airline already changed my journey arrangements twice. Progressively earlier in the day, I’d been scheduled to fly more than a thousand kilometres further south, to Melbourne, then take another flight to Darwin. I understand these changes. With very few passengers, logical to pool travellers through two other major cities and combine numbers, make up a plane full. Plus, ever earlier flights allow sufficient time for transition of luggage.
         We can’t see any alternative so Natasha and I talked about cancelling the flight.
          ‘I don’t want you to put yourself in any unnecessary risk.’ She said.
          ‘Yes, I was worried about progressing through another airport. Increasing my risk of coming into contact with the virus.’
          ‘Then what if you did get sick, I couldn’t stand thinking you’d passed it on.’
          ‘Not sure what I can do.’
          ‘Maybe, better not to come, mum.’
         I hear emotion in her voice. No adult child wants to cry for their mummy’s comfort. Neither of us can sleep. I want to be there, know she needs me. But don’t want to be responsible for anyone getting sick. While everyone else sleeps we message over face book, thus avoiding text message alerts. I promise to contact the airline and see what can be done to change my travel date.
         Initial enquiries using airline webpages prove frustrating. Possible to get an altered departure date, but their system won’t let me do so unless I vary both legs of my journey. Any return dates show simply not available. Can’t be right. I am, of course offered an opportunity to call. But…Due to closure of a Philippines call centre, unless you are travelling within the next 48 hours, do not call. Leaving me wondering why not staff a local call centre, especially right now! Border closure does put me within the 48-hour window, so after discussions with my husband, I try. We are up early so I make a call, before 6am, get in a queue. Waiting. Ironically one piece of background music includes lyrics about not being able to get home. I imagine this light blinking somewhere, staff not rostered until at least after 8am. Operational hours of this call centre are not announced. No one sees, no one knows, I so desperately want to help my child. When my call is answered, and the clerk realizes my travel date is several days away, her initial reaction is to cut me off short. She is dismissive, abrupt and annoyed with my non-compliance to the 48-hour rule. I tried to explain I need to travel to assist my daughter. Not helping. I tell her about borders closing. She is still yet to switch on any empathy. Finally, things start to drop into place when I explained I must travel tomorrow or at the very latest, Tuesday. This latter option risks a delayed flight and arriving outside the, I want to say, curfew. I pay extra, much less if I take Tuesday’s option. But now I don’t want to risk any further delays. Added bonus, a direct flight. She also allocates me seat 7A. Never been that close to a plane’s pointy end.
         I am on the way. Amid other travellers racing back before border closure. (Later I hear a similar tale of a self-employed man who went south to visit his sick father. Only to drive the return 3,000 plus kilometres, a day later, in order to cross soon to be closed borders) On my plane only aisle and window seats are occupied, ensuring social distancing compliance. With so few passengers, extra snacks were served.
         I can cuddle the baby on arrival. I can be there for my daughter.
         Any tourist opportunities have long fallen by the wayside. Even popular night spots like Mitchell Street with its bars and backpacker accommodation are eerily silent. Only bottle shops remain open. Unless blessed with a window to passing trade and therefore an opportunity to offer take-away food, restaurants remain closed, tables and chairs stacked away, or wrapped in an acreage of calico fabric like popular Casuarina Shopping Mall. I’ve seen similar in Sydney. And know drastic action is being taken.
         With minimal air traffic and closure of terminal businesses, Natasha’s job looks more precarious with each passing day. Adding an extra dimension to her worries. At least I am present during an angst-ridden staff meeting day. She hardly slept at all. Stress is written in those eyes. How will she manage? I tried to negotiate with my bank, hopeful to assist financially, to tide her over until this global madness settles down. It appears they want to punish me for potential generosity rather than assist. Faced with this barrier, I cannot be helpful by drawing on my funds.
         She returns with news that new executive management decided to, ‘take a little from a lot of staff, in order to keep functioning.’ Many have agreed to fewer days, working from home, and taking pay cuts so that when normality returns experienced staff will remain. Great, at least one burden is lightened.
         No good news, though, with her husband’s deployment. Faced with travel restrictions, any replacements cannot be assigned. Only gossip circulates about a potential repatriation. Hovering from, forced to remain, to be back only a few weeks after the initial deployment date, a compulsory fourteen-day self-isolation to be added. The most extreme option is a non-conclusive: he will return some time following depletion of virus concerns. I make a Book of Face post, following a women’s support group’s offer to assist where members might need…

                     Can you arrange for an Air Force plane to be sent and collect my son in law?

         My airline, shortly afterwards announces cancellation of many domestic flights. I hold a totally useless return ticket. They knew well before! Never mind, I am stuck, but can help. Hold my grandson, show him birds outside, chase Max cat around inside, listen to a little boy’s ever-increasing language skills, and just be with family. Deal with, or redirect attention away from some of my daughter’s worries.     AQ

Darya Danesh – A Day in Isolation

Darya Danesh
A Day in Isolation

The outside world is shut down, and while his morning commute is non-existent, my husband, Fedde, still sets the alarm. He’s always awake by 5 a.m. anyway, so I wonder why we use an alarm at all. It’s late spring, and I can hear the birds chirping and chimps at the zoo down the street screaming for breakfast. They’ve been at it since sunrise.
      We wake up to Radio538. The morning show with Frank Dane. Listening to morning radio feels the same, but somehow different. It’s like waking up after a night out in uni, everyone speaking a little slower, trying to make sense of the night before. There is so much to talk about and somehow nothing at all.
      While the traffic report is non-existent, the news of the morning comes in the form of shortages at the grocery store: pasta, rice, toilet paper. I imagine in a few years we’ll joke about ‘The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020’, not because it’s the most important thing to remember, but maybe because it’s the only thing we’ll have been able to process.

Time to get out of bed. For my husband, anyway. I only know what time it is because I hear Frank say: ‘It’s 6:45 and we’re picking a song to fit the news. Who’s got one on toilet paper?’ Just like every other morning, Fedde springs out of bed and prepares for the day. I linger in bed just a bit longer.
      The light goes on in the bathroom, the automatic fan coming on a few seconds later. I hear some shuffling and the water goes on. I pray that he’s put down the toilet cover. Our bathroom is so small that the shower is fit snug into the corner. There’s no room for a door or a shower curtain so the tiny square meter of sea-glass coloured tiles remains open and the toilet, placed just a few inches away, gets soaking wet. I’m not in the mood to slip off the toilet seat. Again.

I turn over, sleepy, and cuddle with our tuxedo cat, Bonky. He loves a morning cuddle. He lies on his side and waits for me to put my arm across his chest and belly so he can wrap his legs around it. I scratch his little chin and he purrs with delight.
      Just as I’m getting comfortable, the purring putting me back to sleep, Fedde is back in the bedroom, indulging in a particular morning routine that drives me mad. As he gets dressed, he likes to take a moment to look out onto the street. It’s always now, almost to the second, that the shining sun’s rays bounce off the windows of the building across the street and beam straight into my tired eyes.
      ‘Ugh, love, the sun,’ I groan.
      He apologises and closes the curtain, but never quite far enough. There’s still a sliver of bare window right where the sun is shining through. Annoyed my attention has shifted, Bonky gets up with a jump. I groan again, and sit up.

I haven’t left the house in two weeks now, and I’m both annoyed and happy to have this sense of normalcy. I slip out from under my blanket and hang my legs over the side of the mattress. I bend down to grab my pyjama bottoms from the night before which are on the floor next to my feet. Left foot in, right foot in, hold the waistband, pull up as I hoist myself up off the bed. Like a zombie, I walk towards the kitchen.
      Bonky’s attention is back on me as he snakes through my legs. ‘Yes, honey, I’m coming, I know you’re hungry,’ I exclaim in the sweet, high-pitched voice I always put on when talking to him. I grab the can of dry food, take off the lid, and pour it into his bowl.
      The pot, pan, and dishes from last night’s dinner are piled on the counter next to the sink and I try to ignore them as I fill the water tank of our coffee machine. Fedde is rustling around in the living room as I scoop our Douwe Egberts signature Aroma Rood coffee grinds into the coffee filter. One scoop. Two. ‘Do you want three or four?’ I lose count as he yells for three, empty the grinds from the filter back into their green canister and start my count again.

The coffee machine has done its job for the morning and I’ve poured our morning java—strong and black, just how we drink it every day. Before meeting Fedde, I always put cream and sugar in my coffee. ‘XL triple-triple,’ I’d yell through to the Tim Hortons drive-thru employee. Now that I think of it, coffee in North America just isn’t really coffee, is it? I love a strong cup now, but do I enjoy it because of the taste, or is it just easier to take it black, especially since my bowels can’t handle milk or creamer as well as they used to?
      Recently, Fedde has spent breakfast moaning about another day of not being in the office with his colleagues, dreading the monotony of never-ending Zoom calls where he can’t actually get anything done. When asked what my day looks like, my answer is the same as most days, ‘I didn’t sleep well so I’ll probably take a short nap, then I need to do a bit of work to get my hours in, maybe go for a walk.’ I’m scared to go outside. I haven’t been for months now. What if, as I go for my walk around the block, I walk by someone who has Covid and in the seconds before we cross paths, they cough into the air without covering their face, and I in turn walk into the cloud left behind their mouth—a Covid cloud, as I affectionately call it—and then I catch it and die. It’s not like I have much of an immune system since the treatment for my leukaemia. I don’t mention this to Fedde though, as he kisses me goodbye, grabs his coffee-filled travel mug and heads upstairs to our attic-turned-home-office for his workday.

I crawl back into bed and check my phone for the first time this morning. Almost a hundred messages from my Court of Rants and Moans group chat—in other words, my group of girlfriends who happen to also be writers. We live on different continents, so WhatsApp is always busy. While I slept, the girls were having their nightly writing session. It’s nice to have them to chat about writing in real time. My regular critique group only e-mails now. The girls are nighttime writers though. I only function in daylight hours.
      I do my morning news check, too, to see if there is any more information about the terrifying virus taking over the world. In Italy, there’s a total lockdown! Videos have been popping up of neighbours sitting on balconies playing instruments—violins, guitars, pots, pans—anything to join in. You can see whole streets bustling with joy and music despite the strange, deadly times we’re living through.
      As I scroll through the news, I also click through to an article talking about how deadly this new virus can be for people with pre-existing conditions. My heart sinks. Here I am, asthmatic, immune-compromised, with weak lungs, trying to survive in a world that’s being overtaken by an acute respiratory disease.
      Before I fall into a panic, I toss my phone to Fedde’s side of the bed, coax Bonky to come in for a cuddle, and try to fall back to sleep.

I wake up from what feels like a fever dream. I knew it wasn’t real even while I was in it—my hair was long, flowing down to my lower back—and yet, as I wake up sweating and confused, I reach for my head, just in case. I always seem to see other me’s in my dreams. Moments from memories locked away, wishes for the future—never the normal me I see staring back in the mirror during waking hours.
      A little disappointed, I climb out of bed and change into day clothes. Well, clean hoodie and sweatpants, at least. What’s the point in anything more when I’ve nowhere to be? Groggy and annoyed that I’ve woken as bald as I’ve been these last five years since treatment, I drag my feet towards the living room to fold the never-ending pile of laundry waiting for me in a basket beside the couch.
      Gilmore Girls keeps my mind from running to its deepest corners, waiting for me to slip into them. This is the sixth time that I’ve started this series from the beginning. There’s something about Stars Hollow and the Gilmore girls that makes me feel safe.
      From the laundry pile, I pick up a dress I bought three years ago on one of those shopping trips in the city we used to take to quell my sadness. It was a few buildings down from the American Book Center—my favourite bookstore and the home of the Amsterdam Quarterly events, where I met my critique group. Esprit, the store was called. As I looked at scarves and handbags, Fedde moseyed off and picked out this flowing, teal dress with purple and orange paisley for me to try on. I had lost so much weight from a year’s worth of treatment and not being able to keep my meals down. Even though I’ve gained weight from the steroids and multitude of medication, the dress has grown with me. There’s a flicker of gratitude as I pull it right side out. Short-lived as, in the movement, my wedding and engagement rings fall off.
      ‘Ugh, not again!’
      I feel through the dress to see where the rings have gone until I hear them fall onto the ground. I think about how my weight has changed in recent years. First I was so thin you could feel my ribs, then so bloated my belly was streaked with purple striae that I felt ripping my skin. The steroid-related weight gain refused to budge, so we had to get my rings expanded, paying over €100 for the extra gold that had to be added. Once I came off the steroids, my weight went back to somewhere in between those two extremes. Now my rings have loosened… Again. I try not to think what might have happened if they fell off as I pulled my wallet out of my handbag to pay for a coffee at the café around the corner.

At noon on the dot, like every day since he’s been forced to work from home, Fedde comes down for lunch. I’ve warmed up some vegetarian schnitzels filled with satay sauce and have slipped it between a couple of slices of bread with lettuce, mayo, and sambal. Next to it, I’ve smeared some butter onto another slice of bread and loaded it with old cheese, Fedde’s favourite. It’s become one of the core routines of our new normal to sit on the couch for lunch, eat, and watch an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
      I’m having a bit of a hard time watching a police sitcom these days. I’ve been putting my energy into listening to activists and learning about how Black, Indigenous, and other ethnic minorities in Western society are disproportionately disenfranchised not only through the crisis that this virus has unleashed upon us, but also in the everyday, pervasive ways that systematic racism exists in our society. This came, in part, from the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, but also through my recent need to get in touch with my own roots as a woman of colour myself. I’ve been thinking a lot about the micro-aggressions I’ve faced in everyday life. Things I shrugged off as ignorance. But isn’t that part of the problem? I try to keep my thoughts to myself, not wanting to start a conversation about race with Fedde right now. There’s just too much to talk about and while he’s happy to discuss issues of race with me normally, I don’t want to overwhelm him with such a big conversation when he’s already going stir crazy from his tiny home office amongst boxes of Christmas decorations and furniture that doesn’t quite fit in our living room.

As soon as the episode is finished, Fedde drags himself back to his ‘office’ and into a meeting. I grab my laptop and sit at the dining table to try and find the motivation to work. An e-mail has come through titled ‘Changes being made due to Covid.’ I try to speed read the Dutch text to get to the point. There. In bold. A sentence that translates to: “Your expected work time will be cut from two days down to one.”
      I am fuming.
      I was looking forward to having something to hold my attention through these long weeks of being at home and, to be frank, I need the money. We have car payments and are saving to buy a house. Sure, Fedde brings in the majority of our income, but the little I do bring in allows me to help with our bills, groceries, and health insurance. It seems out of left field since just yesterday we were planning a bunch of new small projects at work. Two weeks on, I’ll get a Skype call from my only direct colleague letting me know that she’s found a new job. Great! Not only am I stuck here, but I’m stuck here alone.
      I decide I’m too angry to work, so I take my laptop back into the bedroom, cuddle up under the duvet, and turn Gilmore Girls back on.

After a couple of episodes, my Netflix has started glitching, so I’ve moved on to YouTube.
      A pastime I enjoy equally as much as reading itself is watching videos of people talking about what they’ve been reading. What I’ve noticed in my own reading habits, and in those of these booktubers, is that we’re all reading nearly double what we were reading before we were stuck at home. I was so proud of my four books read last month. Then I started to watch these videos of people reading closer to twenty. My jaw dropped, and I felt a small pang of shame. Why am I not spending more time to read even more than the ‘more’ I’m already reading? What I don’t know now is that in a few months, once I’ve discovered the joy of audiobooks, I’ll finish eight books in a month!
      I finally close my laptop and pick up my current book club read.

As I walk into the living room, Fedde comes storming in. He’s mad, and swearing under his breath. He’s just received news from the homeowner’s association about using our storage space as an office. Apparently, using the attic for any reason other than storage, as is written in the bylaws, can be subject to legal action. He closes the living room door to ensure that our voices don’t travel into the hallway as he rehashes the conversation he’s just had.
      ‘Do these people really think I want to be working in the attic? Do they think I’d be doing this if I had any other choice?’
      Right then and there we decide to rearrange the living room so that he can put his home office into the corner beside our antique china cabinet. We were planning on moving anyway, but this really is the cherry on top. We decide it’s time to call a realtor. Tomorrow. First thing.
      First Fedde was wound up, but now he’s tired too from bringing his office downstairs. I’ve made the executive decision to get a takeaway for dinner tonight. We’re trying to support our local restaurants, so we order a pizza from the Italian place down the street. While we wait for it to arrive, we put on the Dutch/Belgian crime drama that’s gotten a lot of attention lately. Undercover. It’s about a couple of detectives who go undercover in a trailer park trying to get an in with the local drug lord.
      When the pizza arrives, we pop it in the oven for 10 minutes at 150° Celsius, the temperature and time suggested by a virologist in an article I read about the possible transfer of Covid through food. It turns out the risk is super low, but my anxiety tells me I have to do everything and anything to make that risk nearly impossible. I’m just not ready to die yet, especially not from this monstrous virus.

We put our dishes away and head to bed, more lethargic now than we’ve been all day since the pizza caused us both to have bellyaches. We remind each other that this won’t last forever, and that we just have to continue on as best as we can. Hou vol, as the government and various adverts keep reminding us.
      As usual, Fedde falls asleep within seconds of saying goodnight. I lie awake for at least another hour, every thought I’ve ever had racing across my mind. The last thing I remember before I fall asleep is wondering which version of myself I’ll meet in my dreams tonight. AQ

Irene Hoge Smith – The Good Poetic Mother

Irene Hoge Smith
The Good Poetic Mother

Washington, D.C.

January 30, 1963

Frances Dean Smith
Somewhere in California

RE: Clarification of your intentions

Dear Mrs Smith Mama,

I am writing to ascertain your plans regarding your position here in Washington, where my three sisters and I have been posted, in our father’s establishment, since the end of last year. Your unannounced departure, which gave us no opportunity for an exit interview, has resulted in some confusion about your future availability. While your appointment remains open (no immediate prospect of a replacement being in view), it would be helpful to know when we might expect to see you again. If ever.


Irene (Daughter #2)
Washington, D.C.

March 1, 1963

Frances Dean Smith c/o Ida Mae Dean
Garden Grove, CA

RE: Proposed Disability Accommodations

Dear Mrs Smith Mama,

While awaiting your reply to my previous letter, I have been giving some thought to the question of whether or not your assignment here has ever been one you were in fact wholly able to fulfil. While your abilities and commitment regarding the practice of poetry are exceptional, those having to do with household management and the care of children are, it must be acknowledged, less developed. At the same time, it is obviously unfair that you should be subject to job discrimination on the basis of those specific disabilities. I propose, therefore, that we consider the possibility of reasonable workplace accommodations that might make it possible for you to resume your career here. It seems probable that such adjustments might be made without posing any (further) undue hardship on the rest of the staff.

As you may recall, I am fourteen and Daughter #1 is sixteen—we can of course continue to take care of ourselves. We are currently providing most if not all of what the little girls (eight and five) need. Furthermore, although our father remains for the most part an off-site manager, he has retained a part-time housekeeper, which might obviate the need for you to perform any organizing or cleaning duties. (And, of course, a one-bedroom apartment is much easier to look after than the four-bedroom house we left behind in Ann Arbor.)

Please consider this proposal, and let me know if you think we might come to an arrangement that would facilitate your return.


Irene (Daughter #2)

P.S. I note that you have a new situation, on what I assume is a temporary basis, in your own mother’s establishment. While I must confess some doubt as to whether this association will prove a better fit than it has been in the past, I do send my best regards to Grandma Dean.
Washington, D.C.

May 25, 1963

Frances Dean Smith
Los Angeles, CA

RE: Retraction of accommodations offer

Dear Mrs Smith,

It has now been almost five months since your departure and the removal of myself and my three sisters from our former home in Ann Arbor to our father’s D.C. apartment. As perhaps you have been informed, Daughter #1 has, like you, left her position here without notice. Although she is not quite seventeen, she did not provide a forwarding address and is not expected to return. Thus, our establishment consists at this point of the little ones (Daughters #3 and #4), myself, and our father. Since he sleeps at his girlfriend’s place when he is not away on business, there is adequate room for our limited operations.

However, in light of the departure of Daughter #1, the accommodations mentioned in my previous letter are no longer feasible. I myself have taken over the functions of both your job and hers; the little ones are more self-sufficient every day and have stopped asking about you.

Thank you for sending copies of your poems and the one by your friend Mr Bukowski. Your Los Angeles life sounds very interesting, and I recognize, of course, that two poets really cannot be expected to take on parenting obligations while devoting their lives to Art.


Daughter #2 Irene
Washington, D.C.

November 15, 1963

Jon Webb, Editor, LOUJON Press
New Orleans, La.

RE: Book review and marketing plan

Dear Mr Webb,

Thank you very much for forwarding the signed copy of Charles Bukowski’s recent book, It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, which you tell me in your cover letter is ‘already a collector’s item’ which I should ‘take good care of.’ I note your offer that that if anyone I know would like a copy ‘they may have 30% off.’

Regarding the personalized inscription, ‘To Irene Smith: Of the Good Poetic Mother’, can you tell me if the Great Poet’s handwritten note makes the book more valuable, or less? Just asking.

As it happens, Mr Bukowski and I have never met, and, for that matter, I have not seen the Good Poetic Mother in almost a year. I have read some of these poems, looking (of course) for some mention of my actual mother, but after seeing what the poet has to say about other women, have set the book aside, at least for now. I am sure this collection is much admired by those who know more than I about these things, but at fifteen I am afraid I lack sufficient literary discrimination to assess its merits. Further, as one left behind in favour of a Life in Letters, I cannot claim the necessary impartiality to respond to the work fully or fairly.

I am afraid that I will be unable to assist in marketing this collection, notwithstanding the generous discount you offer.


Irene Hoge Smith (Not-Poetic Daughter)

Cc: Frances Dean Smith (Good Poetic Mother)
Washington, D.C.

December 10, 1964

Frances Dean Smith Bukowski
Los Angeles, CA

RE: Revised Expectations

Dear Mrs Bukowski,

I note that the poems you sent me recently are signed ‘f.d.b.’ and, since you and the Great Poet now have a daughter together, I assume this is the name you use now, despite not actually being married. (I do understand that poets don’t follow the same rules as other people.)

It seems that the assumptions I expressed in my earlier letters about your reasons for leaving your former post were incorrect. I had believed that being a poet was incompatible with being a mother, but the information now at hand would seem to disprove that hypothesis.

While I am somewhat confused, I do hope everything works out well for all of you.

Goodbye and good luck,

Irene Hoge Smith
Washington, DC

December 15, 1969

Frances Dean Smith c/o Ida Mae Dean
Garden Grove, CA

RE: Your offer

Dear Mrs Smith,

I have received your letter of November 15, but am not sure that you read my letters to you on February 4 and September 19 of this year, bringing you up to date on my life here. I had assumed that, despite having resigned from your post as Mother of Four several years ago, you would nonetheless be pleased to know that I am supporting myself, going to college at night, and am engaged to be married. I must conclude from your silence on these points that they are not matters of interest to you.

I am afraid that I do not find it feasible to abandon my responsibilities here in order to accept the assignment you offer in California, despite the intriguing description of the ‘borrowed trailer not far from the beach’, which you and my little half-sister expect to occupy soon.

I was sorry to hear that you and Mr Bukowski are no longer together. I note that your current address is once again care of your mother, and assume that your plan to move in with Daughter #1 and her two small children did not work out, either. Like her, I must decline your offer of the position of Resident Adult-in-Charge.


Irene Hoge Smith
Washington, DC

July 30, 1996

Frances Dean Smith a.k.a. FrancEyE
Los Angeles, CA

RE: Book review and author profile

Dear Mama/FrancEyE,

Thank you for sending a copy of your collection, Snaggletooth in Ocean Park. I enjoyed our phone conversation the other day and have been thinking since about the fact that you have been a poet for your entire life (except, as you mentioned, ‘that long dry spell when I was married to your father’). I realize that it has been unfair of me to judge you based only on the rather few years when you were trying to be my mother. With two children of my own, and having outgrown the need for a mother myself, I can recognize your significant accomplishments outside the narrow sphere of motherhood and I am even coming to appreciate your poems.

Your new writing name, which you explain alludes to the writer’s “eye,” is most intriguing. I recall various names you’ve used over the years, starting with Frances Dean Smith. What seem to be the first works you published after leaving the East Coast are written under the name ‘S. S. Veri.’ It took me quite a while to discover (or remember?) that the name refers to a Latin motto Simplex Sigilum Veri, meaning ‘simplicity is the seal of truth,’ and now that I think about it, I’ve always liked that pen name best. Some poems you sent me during the years when you and The Great Poet lived together were signed ‘f.d.b.’ (which I understood indicated Frances Dean Bukowski, along with, perhaps, some ambivalence about using a man’s name once again.) ‘FrancEyE,’ finally, is yours alone. Is it pronounced Fran’s Eye, or France-Eye? And is that what you wish to be called, going forward?


Washington, D.C.

January 8, 2004

Los Angeles, CA

RE: Congratulations, appreciation, offer of feedback

Dear FrancEyE,

I am writing to congratulate you on the publication of your latest collection of poetry, Amber Spider, and to thank you for sending me a signed copy. I am excited to hear of your plans for a memoir, and flattered to be asked to read a draft. I will be especially happy to offer my perspective on the sections of your book that have to do with the fourteen years during which you and I were together.

I look forward to receiving your manuscript.

Warm regards,

Washington, D.C.

August 31, 2005

Los Angeles, CA

RE: Review of Grandma Stories

Dear FrancEyE,

Thank you for sharing the galleys of your soon-to-be-released memoir, Grandma Stories. I find much to appreciate in this lovely collection of prose poems, recounting your life from infancy up to the point when you reinvented yourself in Los Angeles in 1963, met the Great Poet, and had his child. I note that the book is dedicated to “Grandson #4,” and although you have ten other grandchildren (my children being Grandson #2 and Granddaughter #7), I have grown very fond of my half-sister and her sweet son, and am perfectly okay with that choice.

However, I also note that nowhere in the memoir do you make any reference to the decade and a half during which you were married to my father and were my mother. I am not in your book, and am forced to say that I am not really okay with that.

I regret that I will not be able to attend the book launch party. The trip to Los Angeles is more than I can undertake at this time (three thousand miles, as I’m sure you recognize, is the least of the difficulty). In that light I feel that I must request to be released from my commitments as your beta reader.

Best regards,

Daughter #2 (formerly The Loyal One)
Washington, D.C.

November 23, 2007

FrancEyE, c/o Daughter #5
Albany CA

RE: Interview Request

Dear FrancEyE,

I am sorry to hear that your health is not good, but pleased that you are able to stay for a while with Daughter #5. I look forward to seeing you next month, when daughter #3 and I will be in California for our half-sister’s wedding. I hope that we might find a time to talk with you while visiting California. We still have lots of questions about our earlier life, and about you, and hope that you will feel up to an interview.

I would like to apologize for my earlier misunderstanding about the gaps in your memoir. Having had some experiences of my own about which I cannot bear to write, I comprehend your situation more clearly.

Warm regards,

Washington, D.C.

May 31, 2009

Northgate Care Center, San Rafael, CA

Dear Mama,

It was good to be able to visit with you last month, and to provide some assistance to Daughter #5 as she manages your current placement. She is taking very good care of you, and I was relieved to find your current circumstances relatively comfortable. It was a delight to receive a copy of your latest collection of poetry, Call. Having (against all odds) taken up writing myself, I am in awe of the body of work you have accumulated during a lifetime dedicated to this arduous calling. You have much to be proud of.

I cannot thank you enough for agreeing to the interview a little over a year ago, and for providing so much useful data about our shared history. While you were not able to incorporate that material in your own memoir, I believe I may now be able to take that project forward myself.



P.S. I just noticed that you are living in San Rafael, in fact not far from the little hospital where you were born eighty-seven years ago. Perhaps there is a poem in that.

* * *



FrancEyE dies at 87; prolific Santa Monica poet


Frances Dean Smith, a Santa Monica poet known as FrancEyE who was inspired by Charles Bukowski, lived with him and had a child with him in the 1960s, has died. She was 87.
      Smith, who had been living in a nursing home in San Rafael, Calif., died June 2 at Marin General Hospital in nearby Greenbrae of complications from a broken hip. . .
      A singular character affectionately called the Bearded Witch of Ocean Park—or, as Bukowski fondly referred to her in one poem, Old Snaggle-Tooth—Smith had lived in the Ocean Park neighbourhood of Santa Monica for decades. Her work under the pen name FrancEyE was published in poetry journals and gathered in the collections Snaggletooth in Ocean Park (Sacred Beverage Press, 1996), Amber Spider (Pearl, 2004), Grandma Stories (Conflux Press, 2008) and Call (Rose of Sharon Press, 2008). . . Although Smith had been writing poetry in fits and starts nearly all her life, she arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1960s determined to reinvent herself, leaving behind the man she had divorced and the four daughters they had produced during an unhappy marriage. . .
      Frances Elizabeth Dean was born March 19, 1922, in San Rafael. Her father died when she was a child, and his family took his widow and two daughters into their home in Lexington, Mass. She became interested in poetry and as a teenager had poems published in Scholastic magazine and the influential Saturday Review of Literature. She attended Smith College for two years but left at the onset of World War II to join the Women’s Army Corps, based in the Washington, D.C., area. . .
      A celebration of her life will be held at 1 p.m. today at the Church in Ocean Park, 235 Hill St., Santa Monica. Instead of flowers, her family suggests donations to the Church in Ocean Park or a charity.       AQ

bart plantenga – The Man Who Came Home

bart plantenga
The Man Who Came Home

Christina Plantenga, Foppe Wijbren Plantenga, Sand dunes near Schoorl, NL, circa 1952,
photo © 2020 by bart plantenga. All rights reserved.

My father, Foppe Wijbren’s smudged-pencil, small-scribble wartime notepads contain certain details: number of Allied bombings, food purchased, ration reductions, books read, a girl’s address, things to do upon returning to Amsterdam. But nothing about his repatriation, nothing about the humid glow of my mom’s face, her eager burning eyes.

So, I began to research his last days in Berlin and imagine his eventual hike back to Amsterdam, a distance of 635 km. At a modest rate of 4 km per hour for 10 hours a day, he could have been back in Amsterdam in a little over two weeks, so why did he return only two months later? Did he find it difficult to say goodbye to his Berlin girlfriend?

Winter 1944-45: Berlin
Remember Silly Putty? That silicon polymer blob that could be torn, stretched, bounced, and—most importantly—lift ink images from a newspaper’s comics onto its pliant surface. And by stretching it you could reanimate Blondie comics, warping them to fantastical dimensions. Silly Putty amazed my father. I only learned why shortly before his death.

That winter was so bitterly cold that 10 hours in front of an open fire was hopeless to truly thaw your bones. His ragged, missing-buttons, wool coat, bought secondhand in the Waterlooplein, was helpless against the penetrating chill gnawing away at all hope and cognizance all day long, every day. He scavenged the streets, inside the ghostly remains of bombed-out buildings, hunting for insulation, old newspapers he could wrap around his body between undershirt and sweater before putting on his coat.

But by mid-afternoon his coat had absorbed the sun’s warmth and he was sweating. In the evening, while removing his clothes by candlelight, he noticed that the newsprint had transferred to his white undershirt. He could literally read the old news on his undershirt: ‘BERLINER ZEITUNG: Lieber 2000 panzer verloren die Sowiets in achttägigen kämpfe’ [Soviets lose roughly 2,000 tanks in eight-day battle] by holding it up to a shard of spared mirror.

When I was 14, he made me go out into the cold, in my pyjamas insulated with old newspapers. I remember that it worked. I remember how important the contrast between my cold face and warm belly was to him. I remember it was so still that we listened as the snowflakes alighted onto the earth.

Spring 1945: Middle of Germany
The first of my father-hiking-home-from-Berlin dream-reveries occurred when I was a teen. They coloured in what had gone untold, working like a movie scene, reshot over and over, with slight variations—a tattered jeep cap at a rakish angle, the kindness of women, ‘borrowed’ boots of a dead soldier discovered in an aromatic, bee-buzz, June field of clovers and poppies where he may have lain staring up at the mutating cauliflower clouds drifting by, dandelion wine brewed by a junge Frau living in an abandoned house outside Lachendorf [Laughtertown].

Winter 1961-62: Hawthorne, NJ
I didn’t think it odd getting up at 6 a.m., eating a hasty breakfast with my quiet father in the morning darkness, after a night of snow with unreal drifts up over my head, like a desert on the cold planet. Drifts that me and Kenny would later carve out into igloos dangerous enough to not tell our mothers about.

So very quiet was he that you knew he was rehearsing his broken English: ‘May we shovel your driveway?’ ‘Can we ask $3?’

We set out early, beating the young boys of 11 to offer our services. All was silent—no scraping snow shovels, no gleeful kids sliding down drifts, no spinning tyres, no police whistles directing traffic—only the distant grumble of the snow plow. By afternoon we had earned $25 [$216 in 2020 terms] on eight properties, including porch steps.

He gave me several dollars on the walk home, our shovels balanced on our shoulders, him always whistling the same tune at moments of human triumph over circumstance, proud of who he was, even if just for a minute. It was only much later that a musician friend identified it as ‘Whistle While You Work.’ My father pointed out the warmth that the body at work produces, along with that tingling glow of my rosy cheeks where pain and pleasure so wondrously mingle.

Spring 1963: Paterson, NJ
We usually picked up cheap, dodgy fruit and vegetables with darks spots you could cut away, a 50-lb. bag of potatoes for $2 at the end of market day. Returning home one day at dusk, we encountered a ferocious, legendary, pissing-down rainstorm that shall never be forgotten. Our grey, Rambler-Nash station wagon [1953] had a small engine that required building up momentum by jamming the accelerator to the floor—through the floor if possible—to climb that steep hill. Gunning it uphill, however, revealed a design flaw: as the car accelerated, the wipers would slow down; if you gave too much gas, the wipers would freeze altogether.

Young parents, anxious to shield their children from an unpleasant world, try to avoid these predicaments. My mother liked blaming intermediary forces—underhanded reality, a fate she’d never applied for, but mainly my father for buying an eight-year-old car with over 100,000 miles on it—and the seller, the weatherman, the roads, my father, the airline for depositing her in a hostile New Jersey, the war, my father’s employer, my father…yelling in Dutch, English, and other, unidentified languages. My father behind the wheel, silent, focused—forehead producing beads of sweat rolling down over the tip of his nose, face pressed to the windshield to allow him to see better through the murky rain—like the captain of a submarine, guiding us home just in time to watch The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Summer 1963: Sandy Hook, NJ
My father mostly sat in the shade offered by the beach umbrella, but he turned salmon pink like a good Frisian anyway. My mother, on the other hand, tanned very dark, claiming it was her gypsy blood. Probably not true because her family tree leads to early-18th-century Norway and not to where the Roma are from.

Although Sandy Hook [from the old Dutch Sant Hoek] is a 6-mile swath of crowded beach, my parents always let me roam the hot sand, observing other families, on my way to body surfing with lifeguards on duty, perched high in their tall white chairs. Waves met the shore at an angle, which meant in an hour I had been washed far down the shoreline by currents and undertow. There I lay gasping in the wet sand, not fully comprehending that I had been spit up just short of my last breath. I’d been spared and could suddenly view the world through strange new eyes.

When I stood up, I noticed the gentle saline breeze, the sweet suntan lotion aroma, the gleeful screams and transistor radios muffled as in a dream. I saw a million unfamiliar striped blankets, people in straw hats and snorkels, colourful coolers, air mattresses, and bright beach toys turning into Mondrian abstractions. I wandered and wandered for what seemed like an eternity.

A lifeguard eventually approached to lead me by the hand to the lifeguard stand. He handed me up to his partner who lifted me up on his shoulders, and blew his whistle while turning me—the eyes of everyone in the world suddenly fixed on me. Eventually I saw my father walking through hot sand in leather sandals to retrieve me. His gait was calm; his skin glowing pink. He didn’t yell, even managed a smile, a slight laugh perhaps acknowledging the absurdly thin line between losing me and finding me, between oblivion and the here and now. His laugh wiped away anxiety and fear as we trudged to the ice cream stand, where he bought me a creamsicle, standing there patiently in a patch of shade watching me enjoy it down to the stick. Although I never told him I almost drowned that day, he confessed in a few select words that he had almost drowned in the North Sea as a young teen.

Summer 1968: Blue Mountain Lake, NY
Blue skies, floating on a dinghy, watching a stick float by, dreaming with the sun at its highest, back when summers lasted forever. But, by nightfall, the winds had grown gusty, dramatically flipping and fluttering the tent flaps, sweeping plates and cups off the picnic table. A stormy night in the Adirondacks that my mother would mention for the rest of her life, with crackling bolts of lightning verily splitting the tall pines. Picture me counting ‘one one-thousand’—a lightning strike under a mile away. My mother anxiously preparing our passage from tent to Red Rambler station wagon [details of which years later became a William Carlos Williams-inspired poem]—because we’d learned from Popular Science that a car, grounded by rubber tyres, was the safest place during a thunderstorm.

The Red Rambler

so much disappeared

that red rambler

glass hissing with

beside the white cups
knocked over

Picture us scurrying in pyjamas, mother huddling over us with a blanket, quickly closing the car door, peering out the window to see the shadow puppet of my father in the tent aglow with gaslight, raising his dramatic fist, laughing defiantly at the sky, the lightning, death. My mother yelling at my father to get in the car until her false teeth slip and clatter in the side window reflection. Listen now to her weep over the tinny hiss of downpour, the muddy gurgle of the path turned to river.

Was he a testament to the resilience of the human spirit? I don’t know. Years later I remember my mother regularly retreating to our basement during thunderstorms. She’d remain there for hours in a panicked paralysis, gazing out the muddy basement window, until the storm had safely passed. Maybe the thunderstorms triggered traumatic memories of gunfire and bombs falling in Legmeerplein, Amsterdam, 1944.

Autumn 1987: Lancaster, PA Where is that photo of my father holding giant, harvested cukes in his outstretched hands? Or the one he didn’t know I took of him raking leaves, stooped over, blotting out memories, finding respite in the inconsequential, in garden work, in a swig from a clandestine bottle, the scent of fallen leaves decaying in the shade. This after having told me one too many war stories, stories he’d dare to return to only a dozen years later. AQ

Bryan R. Monte – The End of the Beginning

Bryan R. Monte
The End of the Beginning

             in memoriam Kevin Killian, 1952-2019

Most of Amsterdam Quarterly’s readers are probably unaware that AQ is not my first foray into literary publishing. That would be No Apologies, a magazine of gay writing, which I published from 1983 to 1985. No Apologies or NA was the result of my contact with a group of gay writers in San Francisco from the winter of 1982 to the summer of 1984. They met weekly at Small Press Traffic Bookstore (SPT) on 24th St. in Noe Valley. SPT was housed in a railroad style flat: all rooms to the right of a central hallway, the bookstore in the front parlour and bedroom, the toilet, kitchen, and living room, where the group met, in the back.
      It was here that I first met Kevin Killian, who immediately stood out from the others. Instead of the usual, short, Castro-clone, haircut and moustache, Killian wore a curly mullet, similar to Brian May’s, and was clean shaven. In addition, he always had a cloth bag with him. It held several newspapers and/or magazines, usually about television and film stars, and two books. The first was usually a Hollywood star’s biography and the second, a volume of literary criticism. Killian was as conversant in French semioticians Derrida’s, Foucault’s, and Lacan’s literary theories as he was in the lives of celebrities such as Joan Collins, Lynda Evans, Debra Winger and especially Michael Jackson, who appeared frequently in Killian’s poetry, fiction, and essays. Furthermore, Killian was also no wallflower: a gifted conversationalist—charming, deft, and diplomatic with criticism—he was an active participant with helpful feedback. He was one of the few people who attended religiously as I did. And his output was prolific: he brought in something new almost every week.
      After workshop the group would sometimes go out for a drink and a bite to eat. It wasn’t long before Killian invited me to his large, ground-floor flat in a green, four-story, Queen Anne Victorian frame house between 23rd and 24th on Guerrero (just the other side of the hill from where I lived). He shared this flat with a sister and her friend. I stopped by frequently, and I remember spending the night there once on the couch reading Killian’s copy of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. Killian’s first appearance in my journal is on 4 May 1983 after I unknowingly got high at a Channel Magazine reading on those infamous mushroom-laden brownies, (I had come straight from work, was very hungry, and didn’t know what was in them), at Newspace on Valencia Street. At the interval, Killian found me outside addressing a parking meter. When the reading ended, he delivered me safely to my partner Harry Britt, at our 20th and Guerrero St. flat.
      At the gay writers’ workshop, I frequently heard many good stories and poems about gays. I wondered aloud why none of these pieces had been published. I was told by the writers in this group that their style and/or content was too radical for mainstream publishers at that time—a time in which you could put all the gay & lesbian books published by mainstream presses on one shelf and still have room left for many more.
      I also noticed that Killian had typed up most of his pieces on continuous, green-and-white striped, computer paper, the kind used at the beginning of the personal computer revolution. I began to ask Killian questions about his computer’s and printer’s formatting and typesetting capabilities. Could they produce pages with right and left justified text columns? What was the highest quality they could print? Could they print in italic and bold? Killian confirmed they could. In addition, he told me about the printer’s NLQ (near letter quality) function. This took a bit longer to print, but it smoothed out the normally rougher-edged, rastered letters produced in the draft and normal modes.
      With this information, I suggested to the group that we could use this technology to create our own literary journal, something like the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney film trope of ‘put(ting) on a show in our backyard’. Initially, this idea didn’t receive much support from the group. Nevertheless, I continued to consult with Killian.
      By mid-May 1983, I had gotten to know Killian so well he hosted my UC Berkeley graduation party that June at his flat. My mother was in town for the occasion, and she took photos of the party guests including Paul Melbostad, a friend from the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club, and Steve Abbott, Roberto Bedoya, Bruce Boone, and Bob Gluck, from the gay writers’ workshop.

Mary M. Monte, Bryan Monte’s Graduation Party, Killian flat, photograph, June 1983.
(L. to r. Robert Bedoya, Bryan Monte, Bob Gluck, Kevin Killian, Steve Abbott, and unknown man).

      Sometime thereafter, Killian introduced me to his future partner, Dodie Bellamy. She did paste up and art direction downtown for company publications and annual reports. Bellamy showed me how to use a waxer, blocks of typeset text, a lightbox, and an Exacto knife to paste up pages. Bellamy also put me in touch with a colleague, Mike Belt, who had heard of my gay literary magazine project and wished to contribute something. He created a low-cost, mesmerizing, minimalist cover composed of alternating, thin, white and dark straight lines. This easily recognizable cover could be reused to save money just by changing the darker colour and the headlines plate for each issue.
      A page, half the size of a legal page, was chosen to save money. Four pages could be photocopied, instead of offset, on one, double-sided sheet. Collating the pages at home could also save more money. The biggest, unavoidable production cost, however, was the printing of the covers and the binding of the covers to the pages, which had to be sent out. The cover and binding costs were about $600 per issue, and copying the pages cost $400 for a total of $1,000 to produce one issue of 250 copies of approximately 60 to 90 pages.
      According to my journal, by July interest in my proposed gay magazine among the workshop members was increasing. I wrote in my journal on 3 August my very idealistic reasons for publishing the magazine were ‘to show gay people how to cope with oppression’ and ‘to teach them how to recognize and it and how to deal with it.’ I also kept my college guard job after graduation at the weekends to save money to pay for the magazine.
      By 18 August, I’d given the magazine a name, No Apologies, a phrase used by Britt in a speech after the White Night Riots when Dan White, who had assassinated Mayor George Moscone and the first gay City and County Supervisor, Harvey Milk, was convicted only of manslaughter and not murder. In response, a predominantly gay mob smashed some city hall windows and burned several police cars parked out front. Britt was asked to apologize for the damage. However, in his famous quote he said: ‘We will make no apologies for our rage until straight America apologizes for the history of oppression that enrages us.’
      By September, I had assembled enough material for a first issue. In addition, Killian and I were scheduled to read together at Modern Times funky, leftist Mission District bookshop on Valencia. I made two reading posters from old magazine photo backgrounds that Killian had purchased at a thrift shop. I added newspaper headlines, No Apologies’s name, and our reading details.

Bryan R. Monte, Monte/Killian Modern Times Reading Poster #1, collage, 1984.

Bryan R. Monte, Monte/Killian Modern Times Bookstore Reading Poster #2, collage, 1984.

      We read on Monday, 12 September 1983 at Modern Times. I noted in my journal the weather was unusually warm that evening, so I bought cups, ‘a jug of white wine and a large bottle of 7-UP’ for refreshments. I read first to a very attentive audience of approximately 25. After the break, Killian began his reading with a porn excerpt, something I’d noted Abbott and Gluck had also been doing at their readings lately. The issue of how sexually-explicit gay writing should be was a perennial issue. Some people preferred the level of disclosure in most mainstream, straight publications, but others preferred including all the details.
      During September, Killian delivered the final pages. To finance the magazine, I worked seven days a week, keeping my weekend security job I’d gotten whilst I studied at Berkeley and worked temp jobs during the week. In October, I photocopied NA’s pages at Krishna Copy in Berkeley because they had the cheapest rates. Then, I brought two large, legal paper boxes of ‘printed’ pages back to my flat via Bart. Here, the sets of pages were collated during a party.
      Then I took the collated pages to West Coast Printing in Oakland, which printed the covers. Next, 150 sets of pages were bound to their covers. (I optimistically had 300 covers printed, planning to reprint more copies at a later date, and have them bound once some money from sales came in). I brought these bound copies back to San Francisco by cab since they were too heavy for me to carry alone.

Robin Blaser Reception, Monte/Britt flat, San Francisco, November 1983.
L.-r.: Kevin Killian, unknown man, Bryan Monte, Lewis Ellingham, Roberto Bedoya & Steve Abbott.
Photographer Unknown. Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

      On 10 November, I hosted a reception for Robin Blaser, No Apologies’ first issue’s headliner, at my flat after his reading at New College. My guests, in addition to Blaser, included Bedoya and Joanne Kyger, who arrived early to help me set up. Also present were Abbott, Angela and Tofa Beauregard, Sam Blaser, Boone, Don Ebbe, Ellingham, Gerald Fabian, Gluck, James Justin, Tobey Kaplan, Duncan McNaughton, Ed Mycue, Aaron Shurin, Sky (Mike Belt’s partner), Tom (Bedoya’s friend from Bolinas), and Jack Winkler.
      The No Apologies #1 launch party and reading took place in December at the Intersection for the Arts in North Beach. Readers included L.R., a fellow student from Thom Gunn’s Berkeley writing class, Abbott, Boone, Ellingham, Gluck, Tobey Kaplan, Killian, Paul Shimasaki and myself among others. Jim Hart, the reading series organizer, was astounded at the turnout and NA’s popularity. He said it was the first time a literary magazine had sold out at an Intersection reading.

Bryan R. Monte No Apologies #1 audience reception, Intersection of the Arts, San Francisco, December 1983, photograph. (Ellen (last name unknown), far left, Steve Abbott and Sam D’Allesandro at back, Aaron Shurin, arms crossed).

      I was happy to be part of this hive of activity during the holiday season, which always got me down. Britt had left for Texas to be with his family. Luckily, due to an extended absence by Denise Kastan, I got extra shifts at SPT from November through December, which kept me busy. I also temped downtown to finance NA #2.
      After this, I was switched with Paul Shimasaki, who had clerked at Charles Gilman’s Walt Whitman Bookstore on Market at 15th Street. The Whitman was much busier than SPT, so I wasn’t able to get much magazine work done, though this is what Gilman had promised. However, I did meet more gay authors and editors. My journal notes that Donald Allen took me to lunch on 11 January. He said he liked the poems in No Apologies and two days later he brought John Button’s essay on Jack Spicer over to my Guerrero Street flat for publication in the No Apologies #2 due out in May. This I would add to Killian’s Stazione Termini symposium and Abbott’s and Bellamy’s Judy Grahn interview to form the core of that issue.
      In the meantime, two things happened which turned my life upside-down. First, on 28 March I received an acceptance letter with a fellowship to Brown University’s Graduate Writing Program. I rang Killian to come over and read the letter to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. I asked him: ‘What should I do?’ He said: ‘I’ll help you pack.’ The second was my appearance in The Advocate on 1 May, in Dick Habany’s article ‘New Writing and Erotica’ about the ‘Tensions of the Two Traditions’ in gay writing—literary and erotic/pornographic. Many people, including Killian, were happy I had won an Ivy League university writing fellowship and been mentioned in the gay press. Others in the writers’ group, however, were a little less supportive. According to my journal, one key member remarked to our circle that he didn’t understand ‘why anyone would give me $7,000 to study writing.’

Bryan R. Monte, No Apologies #2 reading poster, collage, 1984

      NA #2 appeared on 11 May 1984. The publication party and reading was held that evening at Newspace, an art and theatre space across from New College and next door to The Valencia Rose, one of the first post-Stonewall, gay and lesbian comedy clubs in San Francisco. However, the reading was very tense and troubled from the very beginning. First, when I arrived to set up the chairs, I found a dance troupe with drums dancing in the space. Even though I told them they were occupying the space in my time slot, they kept dancing. The only way I got them to stop was to start putting out chairs in rows, taking up more of the space. (Killian said he’d also arrived early to help set up, but had seen the dancers and assumed he’s got the night wrong, so he’d gone for drink).

      The next source of tension was that Norse had demanded a microphone in order to read and that no one be permitted to enter or leave whilst he read. I got the microphone set up and working, but just as Norse started to read, a homeless man started rattling the door handle. I went outside and tried to reason with him and several times turned him away before he circled back and walked up to the door again. Fortunately, I was able to keep him from entering Newspace whilst Norse read, but unfortunately, I didn’t hear a single word of what Norse said.

Bryan R. Monte, No Apologies #2 audience members, (l. to r. Steve Abbott, John Norton, Sam D’Allesandro and Lewis Ellingham, photograph, May 1984

      Moreover, NA #2’s print run, completed just that afternoon, had not yet arrived from West Coast Printing. In the emergency, Kaplan had volunteered to collect the magazines and to bring them over the Bay in her pickup truck. She arrived one reader before the interval. When I started to open up the box, however, a sudden flurry of hands descended like pigeons swooping down upon an accidental birdseed spill. I quickly resealed the box, put it under a table, and waited until the interval for the sale and distribution of the copies. We had soft drinks, beer, and wine to drink, and home-made treats such as cakes and brownies (but none with magic mushrooms or marihuana), and pretzels. Someone even brought a few pizzas.
      Lastly, it was difficult MCing my first reading with seven readers, keeping track of the time, and trying to get everything packed, cleaned, and locked up so I wouldn’t lose my deposit. Afterwards we gathered at the Mirage, at 22nd and Guerrero, to celebrate.

Photographer unknown, No Apologies #2 reception, Mirage Bar, San Francisco, photograph, May 1984. L. to r. Dodie Bellamy, Steve Abbott, Sam D’Allesandro, Bryan R. Monte, unknown woman, and Tobey Kaplan.

      Unfortunately, a fight broke out that night at the bar, and in the scrum, I didn’t realize until the next morning that I was missing No Apologies’ receipt book. Thank goodness Doug Murphy went dumpster diving for me in front of New College to retrieve the book, which had a big, red, tomato stain on it. I wondered why anyone would discard it.
      Since I anticipated being very busy finding a flat and attending classes in a town and at a university I’d never visited, I asked Killian if he would finish No Apologies #3 as its guest editor. I gave Killian some seed money directly after from the second issue’s reading to begin production and also six poems and two very short stories I had already accepted before news of my fellowship. From August to October, we corresponded almost fortnightly and telephoned monthly. Killian wrote about the weather, readings he’d attended, books and magazines he’d read, and the men he was dating. He also complained he had no one to accompany him thrift shopping. During this time, we exchanged and commented on manuscripts.
      Unfortunately, logistic as well as communication mistakes and strains soon appeared. On 8 September Killian wrote he’d held a benefit party for NA #3, in San Francisco, joking that this time, however, that there were ‘no conga dancers to break up’. However, it was a month to five weeks before I received any copies. During this time, Phil Willkie, editor of The James White Review, wrote me twice that he that was still waiting for copies he had requested from Killian. In addition, I had a 12 October reading in Providence. On 15 October Killian wrote that he hoped I’d received the copies in time. I can’t remember if I did, but I do remember the stress. Eventually, 47 copies arrived via book post, two of which were damaged.
      Unfortunately, 45 copies, less than one fifth of the print run, weren’t enough to satisfy No Apologies standing orders with the East Coast gay bookstores, libraries, and subscribers. In an undated letter from mid-October, Killian apologized for having sent ‘so few copies’ even though he wrote later that he still ‘had $400 towards the next issue’. I immediately wondered why he hadn’t printed any extra covers as I had done with the NA#1 to meet any unexpected demand for #3. (Printing twice as many covers and holding half in reserve would have cost not twice but 20% more due to economies of scale). Killian could have used the $400 to photocopy more pages and bind these to the extra covers. Moreover, I was disappointed to discover that Killian had segregated the work I had accepted before I’d asked him to guest edit in a separate section at the back of NA #3 with bold cap headers across facing pages —SPECIAL SECTION— — EDITED BY BRYAN MONTE—. Lastly, Killian disagreed with my suggestion of a moratorium on pieces about the Spicer/Blaser/Duncan circle.
      The reason for the final break came in December 1984 as I walked Dennis Cooper down College Hill after a reading I had organized for Brown’s Gay and Lesbian Union, which had also featured Olga Broumas. As we descended the steep hill on Waterman Street, past the large, white, wooden First Baptist Church in America, (which Cooper was amazed to discover dated from 1775), I asked him to send some work for the next issue to accompany his interview. There was an awkward silence as we walked a few steps further. Then Cooper said he’d already sent Killian work.
      On New Year’s Eve, Killian or I telephoned and I told him how upset I was about the late delivery of too few copies of #3, the miscommunication about the work he had accepted and my displeasure at his placing the work I had chosen for #3 in a separate section at the back of the issue. Shortly after our conversation, I wrote Killian that we should go our separate ways. I sent him a list of work he could publish in his own magazine from the typeset pages he’d sent. I would retain the No Apologies name, the distinctive striped cover and logo, and the pieces I had accepted, including Norse’s second instalment of his ‘The Honeymoon’ memoir. Later, Killian did create a magazine called Mirage, named after his favourite San Francisco bar.
      I typeset and edited issues #4 and #5 on Brown University’s VM/370 mainframe, and had the magazines printed in Providence. These issues featured interviews with Cooper and Picano respectively. Issue #4 included poetry by Broumas and Donald Vining’s WWII New York City memoir. Issue #5 included a short story, ‘Telesex’, by Stan Leventhal, which featured full-body condoms and Michael Jackson as US president.
      Interest in No Apologies increased nationally and internationally. A Different Light Bookstore’s standing order went from 10 for issue #1 to 50 by issue #5. NA was ordered by bookstores and universities in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands. My writing also gained national prominence again when my essay, “Living with A Lover or How to Stay Together without Killing Each Other’, was published in the 1986 Doubleday/Dolphin anthology Gay Life. Unfortunately, due to my graduation, the loss of my university mainframe access, my student and car debts, and my first job as a New England high school writing instructor to begin to rebuild my finances, I was unable to continue NA’s publication. This scuttled plans for a sixth issue that would have included poetry by James Broughton.
      When I returned to San Francisco in July 1987, I found it surprisingly difficult to re-establish myself. In three years, the rents had more than doubled and there were double pages of obituaries in the gay newspapers due to the AIDS epidemic. The job market, which had seemed healthy when I had visited in February, had dried up. So, as when I graduated from Berkeley, I dove back into the temp pool. Fortunately, one of my former bosses fished me out, offering an insurance job with health benefits. Around this time, I attended a reading, where Killian was seated in front of me. Just before the reading began, he turned around and asked if I was still angry with him. I didn’t respond, the only answer I felt I could give with everyone listening.
      Ironically, my return to San Francisco with a graduate degree in writing meant the end of No Apologies. With every paycheque going towards paying the bills, I had no money left to resume publication. Moreover, I was required to attend after-work insurance classes for two years and take three, four-hour, weekend, written exams to become certified to keep my job. Thus, I had no time, money, or energy to spare on a magazine. During 1987, I visited Abbott and Gunn in the Haight, but I didn’t become re-involved in their writing circles. Instead, I worked on my own projects. The first was Neurotika: a tale of the AIDS epidemic, with vignettes from my life and the lives of those I had known who had died. My text was accompanied by a beach audio tape loop, a wave breaking for each name. I performed this at the Whitman Bookshop in November 1988.
      The second was as a reporter, interviewer, and announcer for Lavender News on the weekly, gay Fruit Punch radio program on KPFA-FM in 1989/90. This way I spent what little time I had keeping the gay community informed of legislation, protests, new AIDS drugs, readings, films, openings, and events. Occasionally, Killian and I saw each other at gay events, such as The James White Review’s annual reading or the 1990 OutWrite Conference, but we didn’t converse.
      When Abbott died in 1992, Killian selected my Berkeley honours essay: ‘Robert Duncan, Aaron Shurin, Steve Abbott and the Gay Poetic Tradition’ from Abbott’s papers for the San Francisco Library Archives.

James Poole, Amsterdam Quarterly 2013 Yearbook Readers, Smack Dab, San Francisco, photograph, January 2014. L. to r.: are Rink Photo, Bryan R. Monte, Adam Cornford, Andrea Rubin, Ed Mycue, Tobey Kaplan, Marvin Hiemstra, and Don Brennan.

      My last contact with Killian was on 14 January 2014 at the AQ 2013 Yearbook reading in San Francisco at Smack Dab on 18th Street and Castro. Readers at this event included two former No Apologies writers, Mycue and Kaplan, who I had also published in AQ. Killian attended with Ellingham. I took their photo together and Ellingham took mine with Killian. I signed their yearbooks with something like ‘Good to see you again’ and ‘Enjoy’. Unfortunately, it was the last time I saw Killian.       AQ