Tag: nonfiction

From Issue 20: No Fear

The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.

Mahatma Gandhi

The story begins when Jude and I flew up to my childhood home in Naperville, Illinois on Christmas Day to see what Santa had brought.  It’s a tradition, he said, and he was correct.  However, when I was married, we used to spend Christmas proper at home in Nashville, the three of us.   But, one of the first things I set out to do in my new reality as a single dad, was build new traditions.  This was one of them.  My folks were particularly happy about this; he was their pride, their only grandson and, in an unexpected turn of events, the divorce enabled them to spend more time with him, not less.  You never know.   On the other hand, I’d also created a new tradition for myself, namely that I wouldn’t fly alone.  I was never afraid to fly, per se, but I didn’t want to take any chances on Jude growing up without a dad.  

 Chicago was hit with a  proper northern snow just before our visit, so the city was blanketed in white when we arrived, in a Currier and Ives sort of way. The temperature was low enough to keep it on the ground, but warm enough, if that isn’t an oxymoron,  to make it bearable to be out and about.   And, because the snow had just fallen, it was yet to be sullied by delivery trucks, school buses, and other slush creators.

Christmas night, Jude and I gathered with my brother and my parents, who sat joyfully watching him open his loot, games, science kits, legos, and books.    It would’ve been dinosaur books at that time, if I remember correctly.    The next day he engaged his grandparents in board games.  They were good sports and loved it, although my mother could never understand the point of the newfangled “collaborative” games we sometimes played.  “Doesn’t there have to be a winner?” she would say.

“We’re all winners, mom,” I would respond. 

After game time, Jude read a bit about the Mesozoic era, and then told me he wanted to take a walk on the Riverwalk to “enjoy the beauty of the fresh snow.”  His words.  His choice.  I was proud of this and, for a moment, I imagined him as a young man, courting a young woman who would understand guys who liked to slow things down, a girl who would appreciate sensitivity and thoughtfulness and would love my son for who he was.   But that was a long time away.   

My folks’ house sat on a cul-de-sac, on the perimeter of old Naperville, and our next-door neighbors’ backyard ran down to meet the DuPage River, where I used to play hockey with my friends when the ice was frozen smooth and solid.   One of the end points of the Riverwalk began a few hundred yards away, and followed the bank of the river past trees and parks all the way downtown, two or three miles away.   Jude and I bundled up and headed off down the paved path, taking pictures, throwing a snowball now and again and watching birds hop from tree to tree, occasionally landing on the alabaster snow, leaving dark dotted footprints as they searched for seed.   

Newly fallen snow seems to make the air clean and the world silent.  And, just as every snowflake is unique, every moment in that landscape is unique and magical.   But it isn’t just the snow.   Every day when I made breakfast for Jude and got him ready for school, I’d put a note in his lunchbox with some happy words, and I’d tell him that it was a magical day ahead.  I got in the habit of doing that because of my role as a father, and I’d talk about the magic even when I felt less than magical.  But after a while, it became natural, and it made me feel better, as giver and receiver.   Why not?   If you find the magic in those simple things, you are in the moment, present, unafraid.   Snow on the branches, ducks waddling along the path, kids skating in the park.   Chalky perfection surrounded us.

Close to downtown, we arrived at the Millennium Carrolon, a giant bell tower the city built as testament to itself, bordering a vacant swath of land known as the sled hill.   Often it’s just a place to picnic or listen to music by bands the park district brings in to try and keep the kids off the street.  The “mad youth,” as my Dad called them, after which he would chuckle and add “What are they mad about?’    On this particular day, however, the hill echoed with the sounds of laughing, screaming, and shouting, as sleds raced across the snow, from the parking lot at the top, across the Riverwalk, to the edge of the frozen river.     A wide swath of snow acted as the fast lane for sledding, while on either side, a rope acted as a borderline and hand rail for participants trudging back up for another run.

Jude and I watched for a moment.

“Let’s get a sled, Dad.”

You bet.

So, we turned around, hurriedly walked back to my folks’ house, and drove over to Ace Hardware, where I bought two plastic sleds, a little round plastic one shaped like a saucer and a two-man narrow green toboggan.   Jude took the round sled out for a trial run in my parents’ yard, and my dad set up a chair by the window so he could watch, smiling, likely remembering his childhood and mine, holding the memories in his now-shaky hands.  Up and down Jude went, creating a path from the side of the house to the fence.  Soon he was ready for the sled hill, so we packed up the sleds and drove to the high school across the street to park the car.

There was a small crowd gathered at the top of the hill, teenagers and families excitedly but patiently waiting their turn.  The gateway to sledding was marked by a large wooden sign that read, “WARNING.  DANGER.  NOT LIABLE FOR BODILY HARM.”  They were huge letters, foreboding, followed by lots of fine print excluding the city from any liability.   The only responsibility lies with you, the sledder, about to take what was apparently a great risk.

I observed as we waited.  People were racing down the hill, quite fast.   Sometimes it was a single child on his or her own; or a mom and dad, holding tightly to their son or daughter.   Some kids were stacked two or three high, going down on their bellies.  Some teenagers decided to surf down on their sleds standing up, all arms and legs, making it only so far before tumbling and falling, rolling down the rest of the hill.   Jude had come to me relatively late in my life, and although I was in good shape, I looked around at the other parents.  They all seemed younger than me.   I saw broken bones in my future.  I thought of Jude and his safety. 

Jude spotted me reading the sign, thinking.   

“They’re just trying to scare us.  It’s like the Grand Canyon.”    He was correct, in that every time we visited a National Park, there was some sort of overblown warning like this one.  Lots of graphics of people falling off things, with big round slash circles cancelling the stick person into oblivion.   Good common sense prevails, but rules, regulations and legal counsel strike a fearful note.

Jude had always been a cautious boy, though, so I wondered how he could so quickly lose that aspect of his personality.   Maybe he was 8 going on 14.     But then I had an epiphany, namely that he wanted to go on the two-man sled with his father, a built-in shock absorber and, if need be, a human shield.  Fair enough.    The line moved quickly and when it was our turn, we set our two-man plastic toboggan on the hard packed snow, with me at the back, Jude in front.  I took hold of the reins, wrapped my legs around Jude, and pushed off with my hands.   Down the slope we went, quicker than I would’ve expected, bumping up and down, snow kicking up along the sides, splashes of wet flying in our faces  as we laughed and shouted like every sledder around us.  At the end of our ride, we spun a little bit, and cruised to a stop.   Our spaceship had landed.

“That was AWESOME!” Jude shouted.  “Let’s do it again!”

So we got up, brushed the snow from our pants, and headed to the walkway on the side, carrying our sled and holding on to the rope that bordered the runway and led back up the hill.   And, we did it again.  And again.   And again.  At first, we weren’t very good at steering, and I experimented with putting more or less weight on the sled and using my gloved hands to guide us. Sometimes our trajectory was straight and narrow and we made it to the bottom like a sleek racing car; other times we spun out like an Edsel, falling off the sled.  We hit bumps in the path, where it felt like we were in a winter rodeo.   My butt quickly became sore from hitting all those bumps, but I didn’t care.    I had completely forgotten about the sign at the top of the hill.    We spent the next couple hours in a free zone, where only the cold of the snow and the spin of the sled made us think of anything but the moment.

The next day Jude and I went into Chicago to visit the Shedd Aquarium.  But the day after that, he played games with my parents, read some more (the Paleolithic era), and then asked if we could go back to the sled hill.   Of course. This time it was a week day, and people were back at work, so the hill was less populated.   It had also turned to ice with the drop in temperature and I knew the slope would be faster.  I’d taken the precaution of wearing sweats under my jeans, to better pad myself. I also wore heavier gloves, as did my son.    But, even though we were riding on a sheet of ice, I was determined to show no fear.  

Jude loved it just as much as before, but he still didn’t want to go on the main hill by himself – only the two-man.   This time, I noticed that no matter how fast people went down the hill, they almost always got off their sleds slowly, either laughing or shaken, oblivious to the speed of the oncoming sled traffic.  On one occasion, a girl of about Jude’s age stood directly in our path and as we struggled in vain to veer off, we simultaneously shouted WATCH OUTTTT, at which point she finally darted away and we luckily swerved in the opposite direction.  Many of the bumps in the sled path felt like small icy mountains, higher as well as harder, and one ride lifted us into the air like Olympic skiers, my butt taking the shock as the hard plastic toboggan hit the ground. 

Jude’s reaction? 

“That was AWESOME!   Let’s do it again!!!!”

So we gathered our sled, walked back up the hill, and did it again.   And again.  And again.  Every time we raced down the hill, we laughed and shouted.   Every time we trudged back up the hill, we beamed.   There was a sort of informal bonding going on with the community of sledders, as we watched each other spin out and get up, all the children and families taking the day off to come out and enjoy the ride before it melted away.  Jude came relatively late in life for me, and once again,  I looked around at the other parents.   The first day,  I thought I might be the oldest parent there.  By the second day, I felt like the youngest kid.

Why?

Because it was AWESOME.

And I’d do it again.  And again.  And again.

 

Raised in Chicago and residing in Nashville, Doug Hoekstra’s short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and two book-length collections  (including  Bothering the Coffee Drinkers, 2007 Independent Publisher Award finalist.) He is also a musician, with eight CDs released on U.S. and European labels. https://doughoekstra.wordpress.com/

Episode 62: The Winter of East 81st Street

Did you miss us? We're back, listeners, in time to start gearing up for Halloween, with stories from our special FEAR issue of Two Cities. This week, Robin Greene reads her dark memoir of a run-in with a disturbing stranger in "The Winter of East 81st Street." This week's episode contains some adult themes and may not be suitable for younger listeners, so please use your discretion.

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From Issue 18: The Count

Christine Holmstrom

My first masturbator was a young inmate—standing at the front of his cell, jeans crumpled around his ankles, boxers sagging below his knees. His hand moved up and down the shaft of his penis. Looking directly at me, he pulled harder, his racing breath audible through the cell bars inches from me. 

I backed away, unable to speak.

What was I expecting anyway? The men here were rapists, robbers, and murderers. This was San Quentin, a men’s maximum-security prison, and I was a new female correctional officer—a prison guard—conducting my first institutional count. But here in West Block, the semi-honor unit in the main prison, inmates were generally respectful of staff, rarely caused trouble. They had too much to lose—coveted goodies like curtains over the cell fronts, small shelves and bookcases made from scavenged cardboard or purloined materials from the furniture factory. On lifer’s row, the first tier, some old-timers even had pets—caged birds, goldfish confined to large glass bowls, and the occasional cat. No one wanted to get written up or kicked out, so they behaved, at least while staff were around. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked, unable to immediately reprimand the masturbator. 

My job was to accurately count the men in each cell (none, one, or two), add up the total number for the tier, and turn in the count to the unit sergeant. I’d been assigned to the third tier. 

Should be easy—all I had to do was click my round metal tally counter as I looked into each cell. What I really wanted was a senior cop at my side, a seasoned officer to help out, give me confidence. But I was on my own.

Get it right, don’t mess up. Climbing the stairs, I clutched the tally counter, took a deep breath, and made my way down the tier. Somewhere up on four, the burrito man was at work—the scent of fresh salsa and frying onions drifting down. West Block was home to multiple entrepreneurs—cooks, tattoo artists, pruno (prison hooch) brewers, and guys who could iron a crease in your state-issue blues as sharp as a newly honed shank.

The cops pretty much ignored most of this—not the pruno or drugs of course. But the count was serious business—it had to clear before inmates could be released from their units to go to the chow hall. Any delays would throw off the entire evening schedule—night education classes, clinic appointments, self-help group meetings, mail pickup and distribution.

Peering into the cells I felt like a Peeping Tom. Most men were sitting on their bunks, or at the sink brushing their teeth or combing their hair. Still, it felt as if I was invading their privacy.

Would I give away my “fish”—new officer—status by staring too long? What if I missed an inmate curled beneath his blankets or squatting in a corner of the cell? The rule book said that inmates were supposed to stand at the bars for the count. Most didn’t. As green as I was, I knew no cop was going to write up half the inmates on the tier for “failure to stand.”

Halfway down the tier, the sole inmate in cell 3-52 stood at the bars. Slender, clean-faced, he could’ve been a high school student. A second passed before I recognized that he was jacking off, his erect penis glistening under the overhead light. My throat tightened. I felt soiled. 

This was worse than the crap I’d put up with as a cocktail waitress—the ass-grabbers, the men who’d drop their hotel room key on my tray like I might want to saunter upstairs at 2 a.m. for a little nooky with some salesman from Des Moines.

My concentration on the count evaporated—my brain heated and empty as midsummer desert. I wanted to yell or curse, but nothing came out. Shit, what was I supposed to do? All I could think was that the young inmate had messed up my count. And disrespected me. Little fucker.

Stepping back, I wondered—did I press the clicker, count him? Forcing myself to inhale slowly, I pressed the tally counter and moved to the next cell, finished the count, and headed downstairs.

R.J. “Raw Jaw” Campbell, the West Block sergeant, looked up from a stack of memorandums and forms piled on the coffee-stained surface of his battered Prison Industry Authority desk. His slightly dissipated face and puffy body reminded me of someone who liked his whiskey a lot more than he enjoyed exercise. 

Handing him the count slip, I felt a wave of anger tug at me like a riptide. 

“Sarge, the inmate in cell 3-52 was masturbating when I walked by to do the count.” I looked at Raw Jaw, waiting for an expression of outrage or, perhaps, sympathy. 

Feeling like a little child who’d run to Daddy for help and was about to be rebuffed, my spine sagged. I imagined Campbell’s thoughts. Get over it. He won’t be the only weenie-whacker you run into here. This is a frickin’ prison, not Sunday School. 

In the lengthening silence, my thoughts cleared. I’d been hired as a correctional officer and had to do the same job as a man. Still, I’d hoped my supervisor would reprimand the inmate, stand up for me.

Raw Jaw took a slow swig of coffee from a chipped mug, his expression unreadable. Finally, he asked, “Did you get the inmate’s name and prison number?” 

“No.” I felt heat rise up my face, my eyes starting to water.

“Well then, go back up on the tier and get his name and ID. You can verbally counsel him or you can write him up.” 

Trudging up the stairs, I struggled to rehearse what to say, how to confront the inmate. My gut was as jittery as if I were pinned against the side of the spinning Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair.

Why was I so nervous? The masturbator reminded me of something long ago, a memory I couldn’t retrieve. Think about that later. I had to deal with this prisoner. Now. Otherwise the word would get out, and every closeted flasher and wannabe weenie-wagger would be waving his dick at me next time I was on the tier. 

The inmate was fully dressed, standing in the back of his cell, washing his hands before chow release. I planted my feet, stood straight, hands on hips. “Give me your ID. I’m writing you up for sexual behavior.”

“Miss Lady, I didn’t know you were there.” 

“Bullshit,” I sputtered. “You knew I was on the tier. It was the four o’clock count. Now give me your ID.”

The inmate’s mouth twisted into an attack dog snarl. “I didn’t do nuttin.”

We’d argued for a moment. He claimed he’d lost his ID, said he’d misplaced it, insisted I had no reason to write him up.

Finally he reached into his prison denim jacket and fished out his ID.

I examined it, comparing the picture on the small plastic-coated ID to the young man’s glaring face, then noted his name and prison number in my pocket-sized notebook. Downstairs, I’d write up a beef—a disciplinary—and give it to an inmate clerk for typing.

A few days later, on my day off, I told a girlfriend about the masturbator. My friend was an airline reservation agent and had never worked in a prison. She clicked her tongue and gave me one of those “What kind of heartless bitch are you anyway?” looks. “Men need to relieve themselves. After all, their sex drive doesn’t disappear just ’cause they’re in prison.”

Astounded, I’d scowled at her. “They have plenty of time to curl up on their bunks with a copy of Maxim or Hustler and ‘relieve’ themselves when I’m not standing in front of them.”

Back at Quentin, word was out that Officer Kim Haylock had coldcocked an inmate who’d grabbed her breasts. “Right in the middle of the upper yard,” a cop had said, “the dude walked up and put his hands on her tits. She decked him, laid him flat.”

Wow. I envied Kim and her roundhouse punch. But I was no warrior woman. My weapons would have to be verbal. 

Words had failed me at times, refusing to emerge. Like when I was a teen and my dad began leering at me as I bounced past in a bikini, when he put his hands where they didn’t belong, subtly exposed himself when I came to say “good night”—his flaccid penis reminding me of a large ugly worm.

I hadn’t been able to confront my dad. But no way was I going to let some inmate jerk-off artist intimidate me now. I’d signed up for this prison guard job and I was either going to deal with the bullshit or quit. 

Quit? I had no intention of going back to waitress work. My dream was to hold on long enough to become a parole agent—get out of prison and hit the streets. Picturing myself decked out in a shantung silk suit from the San Francisco garment district, driving around town in a state car, checking on my caseload of parolees—that would be my salvation from the daily crap I endured at the prison. 

To combat the masturbators, I needed to embrace my inner smart-ass self.

As a kid, I’d be punished for my “smart mouth”—my parents threatened to wash away my insolent words with soap and water. That smart mouth turned out to be the ideal weapon at Quentin. When a ham-slammer went into action for my benefit, I’d stop and holler, “Hey, you, if you’re going to put on a show, get me a magnifying glass so I can see it.” Hoots and curses would rise from neighboring cells. “Stop messing with yourself, asshole.”

 Put-downs generally worked. But there were a few dedicated masturbators, like the guy in East Block who whacked off every time I passed his cell, which was often, when I was assigned to the elevated gunrail in the housing unit. Writing up the inmate and public shaming had both failed. I called the unit sergeant, asking his advice. We all loved Sergeant Sam—he stood up for his officers. 

“No problem, I’ll send up the tier cop to standardize the guy’s cell.” Sergeant Sam’s voice boomed over the phone, rising above the background of clanking steam heaters, PA announcements, and the cacophony of competing television and radio stations blasting from the cells.

Within minutes, the masturbator was cuffed to the tier railing, and two cops were throwing out contraband—cardboard furniture, excess toilet paper and soap bars, purloined state clothing, and other goodies, heaving it all over the rail to the cement floor two tiers below. The inmate yelled and begged for them to stop, to no avail.

That guy didn’t give me any more trouble. Still, every time I worked a different housing unit or shift, I had to establish my prison creds. Success was often elusive.

Prison work is a cat and mouse game. I didn’t always win. Before he’d stepped in front of me for a pat-down search, one prisoner had concealed his exposed penis beneath his denim jacket. As I ran my hand up his inner leg, I felt cool, flaccid flesh. Jumping back, I’d yelped, “He’s got his dick out.” 

Other officers turned and stared. “You should’ve rung his bell,” one of the male cops said, shaking his head.

Darn—it was too late. But I knew I wouldn’t have yanked on the man’s genitals. My hand had recoiled at the feel of naked flesh. Once I’d washed up, the grossness of the incident evaporated. Yet the cop’s words echoed in my brain for weeks. I’d been gamed. Still, I felt sorry for the inmate, for his pathetic desperation for a woman’s touch, however fleeting. Who was I mad at? Myself? Or for the cop for judging me? Sometimes all I’d really wanted was reassurance, to be told I’d done the best I could in the moment. 

Another time, an inmate kitchen worker “accidentally” sloshed water on me, then started dabbing at my body with a towel. “Don’t touch me,” I’d said, hurrying away. The same shit had happened years before when I was a cocktail waitress, men brushing my legs “by accident.” Once a group of college guys started throwing ice cubes at my cleavage as I passed their table. Without thinking, I’d snatched a glass of draft beer from my tray, flinging the contents in a urine-yellow arc toward my tormenters. They left, remarking, “Hey, you oughta pitch for the Oakland A’s.” But prison was different—you couldn’t retaliate by picking up a pail of water and dumping it on an inmate worker. You’d get in trouble, be written up.

At times, I just ignored the bullshit, like when all the guys in the North Block housing unit group shower turned to watch as I walked past, wagging their soapy dicks at me. 

Jeez, a regular penis party, a chorus line of dancing dicks. I rolled my eyes and headed upstairs. There was work to do—escorting inmates to the visiting room. 

And I couldn’t always think of a good wisecrack.

Maybe you get used to the kind of crap you get as a woman. Or learn to laugh at the bullshit. Sometimes you simply suck it up. Like when I opened the gate to the fourth tier in East Block one night, and the inmate in the first cell hollered, “Pussy on the tier.” Jagged bits of mirror, affixed to broken pencils or old toothbrushes, protruded from each cell as I passed. All I could see were a series of squinting eyes reflected in sharp glass. “Pussy on the tier” reverberated from the cellblock’s concrete walls as each prisoner took up the cry. But no one was masturbating. So I kept going, my heart thumping. 

Another time, in the Adjustment Center, the lockup unit for the baddest of the bad, all the white boys on the second floor squatted near the front of their cells when I walked by after the 1:00 a.m. count. Their faces were at the level of my crotch, and each prisoner inhaled deeply as I passed, as if he could detect whether I had used strawberry- or cherry-flavored douche that morning. What would these guys think of next? At least they weren’t trying to stab me or throw urine-fermented excrement at me.

No doubt about it. San Quentin was a pit. But I wasn’t leaving.

 

Christine Holmstrom’s work has been published in various literary journals. After surviving riots, an armed escape and a death threat while working at San Quentin prison, she finally had the good sense to retire. Christine is now working on a memoir about her prison years.

From Issue 18: Waste

Rich Furman

I have watched so much rot before me, and here now, two potential disasters. The pickled Korean cucumbers, the more serious of the two; I will need to build courage.     

I reach toward the back of the refrigerator, and remove a translucent-blue container. Cheese I brought home some months before from Mercado Latino. Queso Oaxaca, half of the strings stripped and eaten, the rest, a disconsolate off-white moon with a glowing, yellow haze. I may be too late. I open the lid, breath in, and am pleased–only mildly pungent–not far from its original form. 

I peel a small thread, from the middle of the broken center to the front, bring it to my lips, taste. Satisfied it represents only a moderate risk, I break off a wedge and fuse it with the slightly stale end of a loaf of French bread, despite there being a new one nearby in the cupboard. A sandwich is born.

I no longer pay for much food in my home–my lover’s primary contribution–but it unnerves me, the progression from vigorous to defective.

There has been so much. Take my knees for example. They have turned my world small. The bodies of four dogs that now linger in ash. The flesh between old friends that has torn and split and bleed. The narrowing of the tarsal-tunnels in my ex-wife’s feet; the pain receptors and neurons that turned it all sour.

But this cheese sandwich–it is evidence. I am a hero. I am an entire search and rescue operation. I will receive a medal. Something like a purple heart. 

 

Rich Furman, PhD, is the author or editor of over 15 books, including a collection of flash nonfiction/prose poems, Compañero (Main Street Rag, 2007). He is professor of social work at University of Washington Tacoma.

Episode 43: Author Identity: Should We Separate the Work and its Creator?

This week, Two Cities author Barbara Carlson reads her stirring, sensual prose poem "The Wild Part." And we discuss the controversial issue of how much an author's identity matters when we read. Are authors confined to writing about their own frame of experience, or can they reach farther afield? We discuss My Absolute Darling and the works of Julia Glass, among others.

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Episode 29: “Oyate Tamakoce”, More Difficult Conversations in a New World

This week, author Bino Realuyo reads his poem from the March issue, "Oyate Tamakoce", an Apache phrase meaning "Land of the people." We also talk about what books have got us thinking this week, including Benjamin Percy's great new guide to writing fiction, Thrill Me. We're actively seeking submissions to our blog with thoughts on what it means to be American in today's divided culture. Weigh in with your thoughts by replying to us @twocitiesreview on Twitter. We'll feature comments in future episodes!

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