What He Was Missing

My Story, Your Choice. Watch, Listen, or Read:


She wore her sun dress through the thunder storm, but even when it was soaked through and she was shivering and they could see everything there was to see of her, she didn’t care. She didn’t care because she wanted them to see, wanted them to gawk.

“Where are her boobs?” a small boy asked his mother.

“Never you mind,” said the mother, turning his face away.

“They’re gone,” Ashley told the boy, who was peeking at her through his mother’s fingers.

The mother stood, took the boy’s hand in her own, and walked him to the other end of the train. 

Ashley grabbed hold of one of the overhead handrails and steadied herself as the train lurched out of the station at Lechmere, toward the Science Center and the river beyond.

“You get yourself a new phone?” asked an older fellow, pointing at the white bag she held, the silver apple on its face.

“I did,” she said.

“Those things’ll give you cancer,” he said.

“Well, I’ve already had that,” she said. She pushed her dripping bangs away from her wet forehead. “Doesn’t that make me immune?”

He chuckled. “Wouldn’t that be grand?” he said.

“Just like the chicken pox,” she said.

He nodded. “Everyone should go through it once.”

“Makes a man out of you,” she said, with a fierce nod of her own.

He chuckled again. “Not much left in the world that’ll do that, these days.”

“And not many men interested in being real men besides.”


When they were through, she was worried about him. She’d heard heavy breathing before, prided herself on inducing it, but this was something else.

“You okay?” she asked him.

“Wasn’t sure I could still do that,” he said, panting.

She wanted to ask him when the last time he’d done it was, but she was afraid of how he might answer. So, instead, she brought it back to her: “You ever been with someone this flat before?”

He said nothing for a moment, as if unsure how to answer, as if uncertain their banter on the train could continue here, with her naked, exposed. Then his face lit up with a wide, toothless smile.

“Yes,” he said, slapping his knee. “Took me a minute to remember her name, but as a matter of fact I did. Girl name of Tildie. Sweet young thing when I was in the service doing basic training. Last one picked at the whorehouse, but those boys didn’t know what they were missing. She was a great kisser, that Tildie. Mmm hmm. And pretty as all get-out, long as you kept your eyes up where they belonged anyway.”

“Like a gentleman,” said Ashley.

“I suppose so,” he said.


When the cancer came back, it hit her first, but it hit Sean the hardest. Sean, that was his name. They’d spent three days in bed together before she’d thought to ask for it.

“Can’t hardly take a piss,” he said now. “It’s into my balls,” he said, massaging his wrinkled sack, hairless now because of the treatments.

“Mine, too,” she said, replacing his hand with her own, cradling him, not sure whether something more vigorous would hurt or help.

“You have balls now, have you?”

“Ovaries,” she said. “Same difference. They were the same, in fact, back before we were babies.”

He set his hands on her abdomen. “Whereabouts are those things, anyway?” he said.

She pulled his hands lower, until they were in place, until the inside of her ached at his touch.

There was a tear on his cheek. “You’d think He could have spared one of us,” he said.

He. Ashley couldn’t bear the thought of that capital H, the one she was sure she’d heard in his reverent tone.

“Maybe he did,” she said. “If he’s up there, he spared me the disappointment of believing.”

He looked as if he were about to say something, his tongue slipping past his gums, his chapped lips. But then he pulled it back, held it in.

“I hope you weren’t expecting a prayer from me, once you’re gone.”

He laughed. “A prayer?” he said. “Hell no. I’m Irish, Ashley. All I expect is for you to get plastered and cry in your Bushmills.”


She didn’t go to the wake — she’d never been properly introduced, after all, and she didn’t feel like explaining herself to the niece from Manhattan who was running the thing, that woman who was older than she was. Instead, she rode the subway, sipping whiskey from a paper bag and trying not to stare at the bald kid who got on at Charles/MGH — the hospital stop — a pale boy with headphones like hers, a phone like hers. She tried not to tell the joke, the one the old man had told her, but when the kid smiled at her she couldn’t resist.

He couldn’t resist either. When she asked him to come home with her, he looked into her eyes and he said “Yes” without a moment’s hesitation, without a moment to look down and see what he was in for, what he was missing.

Brainstorm 2016

Photo by Calum MacAulay

Last Thursday and Friday, my final free days before the start of the spring semester, I read months’ worth of articles I’d collected on succeeding as an independent author and on how artists support themselves in this crazy “I don’t read anything that ain’t free” economy we find ourselves in. Then, I wrote two drafts of a plan of action for this spring (and, hopefully, beyond). Finally, to give my ideas a sanity check, I wrote to the people who already support me: my patrons on Patreon.

A couple of core ideas came out of these two days of brainstorming:

  • I should be releasing at least some of my work simultaneously to patrons and to the public, in order to better enable sharing (and thereby increase my readership);
  • a balance must be struck between work released for free and work saved for publication in paid markets with wider distribution (journals, magazines, and anthologies);
  • my stories should be shared in multiple media whenever possible, in order to capture the attention of more eyeballs and earholes; and,
  • attention must be paid to balancing my work for Clarkwoods with my teaching and familial commitments, and with my need, as a high-strung worrywart with a penchant for downward spirals, for some daily quiet reflection.

And now, having sat with these ideas for a week, I’m ready to make some changes to the way I do business as a writer. Here’s what I’ve got planned:

  1. Get back to writing 7 days a week, even if it’s only for 30 minutes a day, treating the exercise of my mind with the same seriousness that I treat the exercise of my body;
  2. Separate my daily writing practice from my near-daily Web-publishing habit by publishing 3 drafts per week instead of the 5 that I publish now;
  3. Publish 1 of those 3 stories simultaneously to both my private Patreon channel and to the public (leaving the other 2 exclusive to Patreon), streamlining the sharing process for myself and my patrons (who currently have to wait a day after they’ve read something they love to share it with everyone else); and,
  4. Syndicate that 1 public story far and wide, as both Web-based text on variety of channels, as an email newsletter, as a podcast/series of audiobooks, and on YouTube.

Since Monday is the day I release new episodes of my existing podcast, Horribly Off-Topic, and Friday is my busiest day as a teacher, I’ll be releasing stories on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. And since Thursday is my one day off from teaching, it’s the day that makes the most sense for the simulcast of the 1 public/Patreon story.

Got it? Awesome!

There’s oodles more I could share from Brainstorm 2016, including how I’ve scheduled my whole life around being done with work and present for my children and family by the time I pick up my youngest from childcare each afternoon, but this article is already too long. If you’d like to chat about my plans, or anything else, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Thanks, as always, for your support.

Rebellion

Photo by Ian Schneider

Photo by Ian Schneider

In the school library, on a slip of college-ruled paper, I scrawled the name Ross Perot. Then I folded that thing in half, walked it over to the table where Sonya McCrush stood guard over the wooden ballot box, and tried not to stare at her chest as I stuffed it in. She smiled at me, her braces glinting under the fluorescents, and I blushed then ran away, stumbling over my shoelaces as I raced toward the school newspaper’s office, where I could hide until the final bell rang.

I sat at the table in the office, listening to the guys debate the merits of Ten vs. Nevermind, not daring to intercede on behalf of Dirt, and waited for the intercom to crackle to life and give us the results. I scribbled in the spiral bound sketchbook that was my constant companion in those days, and I thought about my friends at the comic book store, working class heroes who slept on a mattress they hid beneath the table of long boxes. They were the ones who had told me who I should vote for, who told me there was really no choice at all. I thought too of my father, that bleeding heart, who had probably blown a jay that very morning before ticking the box for Clinton. And I thought of my mother, who couldn’t be bothered, who told me over breakfast — her second screwdriver of the morning already in hand — that it didn’t matter anyway.

The P.A. came on out in the library and we cracked the door to listen. We cheered as the old man announced that our guy had won our mock election. We cheered as loudly as we’d boo that night, when we realized that our voices didn’t count yet, that rebellion was only something we were playing at, like a game at recess, something we’d been doing for so long that our parents didn’t even ask us about it anymore. Didn’t even notice.

Didn’t even care.

Treasures

Photo by Roman Kraft

Photo by Roman Kraft

There are photographs I save for rainy days. I keep them in a wooden box where my grandmother used to stash her tips from the diner, and where her mother used to hide the tiara she swore was stolen from the palace when it fell. There’s an inscription on the inside of the lid, a mess of Cyrillic letters no one in our family has been able to read since the day my great-grandmother put the crown upon her head and the gas tube in her mouth, but the photos are stacked so high that you can’t see it anymore.

And so, obviously, I don’t keep it locked. In fact, I couldn’t lock it if I tried. Nobody’s seen the key since the olden days. Grandma, before she died, swore her mother had been buried with it. “To stop the secrets,” she told me, rubbing the belly where the cancer hid. Not from her, and not from her doctor, but from everyone else.

So, you see, saving the pictures for the worst of times is an act of will. There’s no place in this one room that I call home to hide the box, so it sits amongst my school books one week, behind the dishes the next — wherever I am afraid to look.

But when it rains, I look. When it pours, the deluge pounding against the rotting roof above my head, the walls weeping around the dormers, I sit in the middle of the floor with the box and I look.

There are men in monocles, mustaches for miles, and ladies standing behind lace curtains. There is a churchyard in winter, drifts of snow ornamenting the tops of tombstones. And there is baby held still upon a lap, smiling despite its parents best efforts to keep the whole thing serious and stoic. After all, why not? They have placed a tiara upon her head, and isn’t smiling all princesses were meant to do?

Turn

Photo by Jason Rosewell

The bitter boy
beneath the bed,
he was born of a thousand shadows.
The raw material of a man,
a puppy with raw meat
in his mouth,
a tongue he bites
because his mother tells him to.

Black blood on his teeth,
and on the knuckles
of the fist he scrapes
against the knots
in the floor,
in his stomach.

In his ears,
guitars scream
the way he wants to
but can’t.
Fingers scrape against strings.
Callouses open
and bleed
like his mother,
who comes
into the room
and brushes two fingers
across his quivering lips,
lips that long to open,
to collude with teeth and tongue.

‘Shush, sugar,’
she tells him.
‘You’ll have your turn
to scream.’