‘All My Halloweens: a Trick, a Treat, or Just Plain Crap?’ by Nick Sweeney

sc june 18

When I was a kid we didn’t do Halloween in England. It was an American thing, something I read about in American comic books, or saw on the odd TV programme, and that was all, or so I thought till I went to live with my aunt in Dublin. They had Halloween there, for sure: it was Guy Fawkes Night, basically, but with Guy Fawkes luckily absent from the pyrotechnic proceedings, such as they were – few bonfires, and with fireworks rare. I didn’t realise it till years later, but of course it’s because Guy Fawkes was a Catholic, and not just any old Catholic, but one who’d tried to blow up the Protestant king and government of England. They were hardly going to celebrate barbecuing him in Catholic Ireland.

Fireworks were also rather hard to get in the Republic. Southerners, it was said, went on mysterious missions ‘up north’, enacting their own Gunpowder Plot. Those who refused, in those days, to contribute to the British economy, might well have regarded it as treason.

I date Halloween in Britain to sometime in the 1990s. I was living abroad by 1990, and we didn’t have it in Britain then. When I got back in the late 90s, we did, for some reason – pure commercialism, I guess; it was imported and forced on a mostly willing public, unlike, say, income tax or the death penalty. I think it had something to do with the growth of festivals, and how lots of people got the taste for dressing up funny and partying and getting out of it, with any excuse. And why not? I mean, one thing London really needs is yet more pissed people wandering around looking wacky. So now we have the virulent anti-Catholic cat-scaring whiz-bang of Guy Fawkes and the crazy dressing up of Halloween all together in the space of five days. Perfect. If you like that kind of thing.

My wife is from Northern Ireland. She tells me that when she was young, kids there did a thing they called Halloween Dunders; it involved knocking on people’s doors and legging it. I mean, we used to do that all the time in London, or, at least, anytime we were bored. We called it Knock Down Ginger, for some reason; poor old Ginger, whoever he ever was. I can’t see the point of Halloween Dunders – it’s all trick and no treat. They’re pretty hardcore in Ulster.

Continue reading “‘All My Halloweens: a Trick, a Treat, or Just Plain Crap?’ by Nick Sweeney”

‘Papa Asparagus’ by Megan Wildhood

sc june 18

November 14, 2008
Your colleague introduces us. He’s a professor who doesn’t mean to be intimidating. You’re a professor who maybe does. To make up for that big, squashy heart? He’s walking me to the door after a meeting and he hears you furiously typing away in your office. “You two must meet.”

I instantly want you to like me – I have a big, unmanageable heart, too, that is always immediately obvious. So – is this what you want to hear? – I say I’m interested in seminary after graduating next year, though I’ve just discovered the field of theology and am pursuing a Bachelor’s in it so I, being new to the Christian faith, can get all my questions about God answered. You earned a Master’s in Divinity from Yale. You got personal, spiritual guidance from Henri Nouwen, whose books are required reading for nearly every student of theology.

I’m not sure I believe in God yet (I’m new; I’m here on the hope that this stuff about healing and seeing dead loved ones again and the making of all things new is true) but if God is anything like me, God probably desperately wants to be believed in. I try to hide from myself and definitely you that most of my energy goes toward securing love or, if I can’t have that, pity.

March 12, 2010
I have you as a professor. The class is early Christian history, from year 1 AD to circa 500 AD. We mainly discuss the first martyrs of the faith; somehow, you aptly compare us ten students to a T-group. When I refer to that class a few years later – ‘I wish I’d brought crumpets to the last meeting” – you have to explain that the T stands for therapy. ‘That you think of us as a group of little old English ladies knitting socks and sipping Darjeeling when we were talking about beheadings and upside-down crucifixion is phenomenal theology, though.”

I have a medical condition that, it’s becoming clear, my professors need to know about. I awkwardly tell you. “Sometimes, I forget where I am. If I’m not in class, I’m not ditching and someone needs to know.” I give you my phone number, my pastor’s number and my then-boyfriend-now-husband’s number. You, without flinching, give me a nickname: dearest. You don’t ask if I’m seeing a therapist. I thank God as I’m leaving your office, cross the lawn under the oak tree.

Wait. You were not fazed by my intermittent amnesia triggered by loud noises, the idea of fire and God knows what else. You stayed steady in the face of the bizarre – does this make you safe or detached?

Continue reading “‘Papa Asparagus’ by Megan Wildhood”

‘Pressing All The Wrong Buttons’ by Patrick Macke

sc june 18

I typically don’t listen to the sound on the TV because I almost exclusively watch sports and dudes like Chris Collinsworth can inspire fits of rage and anger that can lead to health problems. But at one point in this particular game, I wanted to hear a rules explanation so I unmuted the TV. The audio was in Spanish. For the first few seconds, I thought maybe a Mexican dude had made a great play and they had switched to the Mexico City feed so we could all hear how the play sounded south of the border, but when the commercials were also in Spanish I knew there was a situation. So I did what we all do when there is a bilingual mixup or when we just need help finding answers to life’s big question – I stared at the remote.

I was looking for a button that said, Spanish Off. For some reason my remote didn’t have one, but it had at least fifty others that were the perfect size for the finger of a newborn. It’s really not possible for even a skinny guy to hit just one button on the typical remote, he’d need to have the accuracy and hand-eye coordination of an Army Ranger Sharpshooter. So when a normal adult tries to zero in on a single button, he hits two or three others simultaneously which, apparently, results in a TV that only speaks in Spanish or German or sign language.

My remote has a button that says SWAP so I figured that must be it, I wanted to SWAP out the habla and SWAP in the English. I hit it over and over again, nothing happened. There’s also a button with what appears to be an icon of a lightbulb. Okay, I thought, this should do the trick, this is the button that will give me ideas on how to hear the TV in my native tongue. No luck. I pointed the remote at the TV and hit the lightbulb button. I did it again, nothing. Then I did it a third time and I looked down and the lightbulb button was making the remote light up. The “lightbulb” wasn’t about “ideas” at all. Why would I need a light-up-the-remote button? If it was dark, how would I find this button?

My remote also has a button that says LAST. Fascinating. LAST what? Is it the LAST button you should ever press? Is it the button to press right before you get a new remote? I wanted it to take me back to the LAST language I could understand, but it didn’t. There are four buttons on my remote that are labeled A B C D, they are contained in different colored shapes. They remind you of the building blocks you give to toddlers. Maybe they’re language-selection buttons? The letters didn’t seem to have any logical language association, except for I figured the “D” must stand for Deutsch. The letter “C” was in a red colored circle, so using my best racial profiling, I figured this must take you to programming with some sort of Native American dialect. It didn’t really matter because I pressed all of them in hundreds of combinations over the course of twenty-five minutes and nothing seem to happen – no German, no Comanche, no English. I imagined all my button pressing was probably changing the channel at my neighbor’s house.

Remember when TV channels were 2, 4, 5 & 7? Now they’re like 1,876 or 1,054. It defeats the entire concept of the remote control. Not only do you have to remember multi-digit combinations but you need the dexterity of a concert pianist. For example, the station I want is 1-0-1-5. I point the remote over my head at the TV and blindly try to hit those numbers in sequence, but for some reason, only two buttons register and now I’m watching channel 1-0. If I look at the remote to ensure that I press the right button then the signal doesn’t hit the TV and if I make sure the remote is pointed precisely at the TV I can’t type in the right numbers. I type in 1-1-0-5, 1-5-0-1, 1-1-1-5. My hand starts to cramp. I decide to use the UP arrow and toggle to 1-0-1-5 starting from 3. After one hundred UP arrow pushes, I’m suicidal, despondent. I go back to the keypad, 1-0-1-1, 1-0-0-5, 1-5-1-5, 1-5-5-1, 1-0-1-4, 1-0-1-1 … I’m an idiot and the remote control is turning me into a bigger idiot.

People used to change the channel by hand … “Hey, you little bastard, change the channel while you’re up!” My grandpa always had to have the latest technology. He had some of the first TV’s with “remote control.” One big button changed the channel. It actually physically moved the knob and made a loud ka-chunk sound so that you knew you were accomplishing something. The knob only turned one way, so if you got a little trigger happy with the remote you could miss your station and have to go around again. Those were the days – one five-pound remote with five buttons, channels that only went up to the number thirteen and TVs that always spoke your language.

‘Et Tu, Timorous Futurae?’ by Chris Rojas

sc june 18

“Hauntology,” simply defined, means “nostalgia for lost futures.” But what is the word for fear of potential futures? The word I am looking for is not “anxiety.” “Anxiety” is used colloquially for outcomes that will be known soon: test results, flight departures, final scores, etc. It feels like a more grandiose word is needed for anxiety about things both more impactful and further away. “Anxiety” feels out of place, even incorrect, in a sentence like: “I am anxious about the potential arrival, and subsequent outcome, of a military conflict between China and the West in the centuries to come.” It is not that I’m anxious about this possible future so much as I am haunted by it. Futures can haunt, after all. Recall that the final spirit in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Until something better comes along to fill this lexical gap, I am dubbing it timorous futurae. It is an abysmal feeling. While anxious people often break out into hives, sweat, or get fidgety, timorous futurae just leaves you depressed (And this considerable difference in side effects is another reason the sensation deserves its own name.). It is a feeling I have been getting more and more often these last few years. Not about geopolitics or Donald Trump though—but I do, for the record, worry about China’s rise.

My timorous futurae is more personal than all that. It hits me most often when I go out to watch a movie by myself. Before the lights go dark I’ll take a look around at who else made it out, and I’ll see a guy on his own, just a few years older than me. While still technically a millennial, like me, he’s crossed an important line: the thirty-year mark. I am still only 25. Sure, I don’t have a stable career path, a house, a girlfriend/wife, or children—but there’s still time. It’s the twenty-first century, lots of people don’t get any of that until the second half of their twenties. But this guy blew it. He’s 32 or 33, and at this indie movie theater all alone just like me. Now that’s pathetic. He should have a wife/girlfriend in tow, or be at home with the family asking when the last time he got to go out on a Saturday was.

The trouble is, the guy is a lot like me. Our sense of style is similar, from the sneakers to the cap. He wanted to see You Were Never Really Here on the big screen as much as I did—that is to say, enough to go it alone. With just a glance, I know he and I could talk for hours about not just movies, but music and fiction too. I am sure of this because, every now and again, it happens. Not so much at the movies, but at house parties or concerts. I’ll start chatting up a guy whose hipster credentials are just as buffed up as mine, only he’s seven years older than me. We always get along, and he always tells me about what it was like to be able to smoke in bars and fear getting drafted for the Iraq War. The conversations are always great, finding people to talk with about cultural exotica is a rare blessing—but then there’s that timorous futurae.

What if I don’t make it, the way he didn’t? How many more failed romances do I have to have before it’ll be obvious that it’s just never going to work out? I wonder what it’ll feel like to hit 31, work at a punk record store, and know that this is it. Sometimes I want to ask him if there was a particular moment when he realized there was nothing better was on the horizon, that his particular eccentricities would always keep him from a lasting relationship or a fulfilling career. Maybe he could give me advice on how to keep it from happening if I could just muster the courage to ask.

I have known a few guys like this fairly well. Make no mistake, his life is a sad one. You go to his house so he can show off his record collection or shoebox of ticket stubs. It’s cool that he’s got Dinosaur Jr. releases from back when they were just Dinosaur. The trouble is, that’s all he’s got. He doesn’t live with anyone he can share it with—that’s why he’s hanging out with you. Then you go out to a bar where he promises to pick up the tab because he’s got more money than you. There he tells you a cool story about seeing A.R.E. Weapons when Ryan Noel was still alive and you feel honored to know him. Then he tells you about his long line of ex-girlfriends, each story sadder than the next.

It’s all too much. You ask yourself: Am I this guy? Are the next seven years of toil and heartbreak going to end here? Does it even end? What happened to this guy’s ghost of Christmas future? Is he now rocking out alone to Gen X garbage that kids these days don’t even know by reference? Is he unconsciously choosing to meet up with the opioid overdose and suicide-thinned herd of his 40-something buddies at divey watering holes because he knows, bereft of the last vestiges of their youthful looks, they’d stick out as the wrinkled, beer-gutted should-be dad’s they are at any house party or club worth a damn?

I really might be next. It is hard to see why not. While I’m too young to have a collection of CDs or records worthy of boast, I have hundreds of books and movies. I used to work at an indie video store, and I read The Baffler. Rest assured, I have passionate opinions about musical esoterica and films next to nobody has heard of. Want to argue about Chekov’s gun? Because I can happily oblige. The signs are all there. I’ve got time though, it’s not so bad. I just have make sure the timorous futurae doesn’t set in.

 

★ ‘The Yellow Slide Agreement’ by Amber Beardsley

soft cartel may 2018

Once upon a playground there were two kingdoms. One of these was ruled by me and JoEllen, my greatest ally, and the other was ruled by two older boys named Jake and Josh. Because the only ones who knew about these specific realms of power were limited to the two rulers who had founded them, not only did JoEllen and I rule over our side of the playground as co-queens, but we also served as knights under our own rule, protecting our land and enforcing our own policies. Naturally, Jake and Josh did the same on their side, as they too had no other permanent members of their realm.

Unfortunately, the boundaries of both of our domains were very poorly determined, and the lands of our respective reigns often intersected. This meant that we met one another in disputed territory frequently, and whichever side spotted trespassers first was generally also the first to give chase. Most days, Jake and Josh were successful in chasing JoEllen and I back to our side of the playground, mostly because they had the advantages of being in third grade when we were in second, and they were energetic boys and we were slightly less energetic girls.

While most of our encounters involved Jake and Josh chasing JoEllen and I from the green and brown slides set near the gymnastics bars in a curve all the way across the blacktop, finally ending by the big yellow slide in the middle of the wood chips, we did have our own small but glorious victories every now and then. One winter afternoon, after several feet of snow had been collected and then plowed toward the wooden 4x4s that separated the blacktop from the wood chips, JoEllen and I were working with my friend, Rebecca, on building a snow couch the three of us could sit in after we had completed our work. It seemed that since the already muddy boundaries regarding the kingdoms were now further covered up by mounds of fluffy white snow, we had to be in some kind of M.A.D.-esque stalemate for the season.

Either we were wrong, or Jake and Josh decided to break the truce without scheduling a meeting to re-negotiate our relationship, because the moment they spotted us with our guard down, they pounced. And I mean, literally, they pounced and tackled me and JoEllen into the snow, and poor Rebecca was abandoned as battle in the form of frantic snow-throwing broke out. Somehow, JoEllen was able to escape Jake’s clutches and run away to the far end of the playground, and I was able to gain the upper hand in the struggle that Josh and I were involved in. He must’ve had slippery gloves and couldn’t hold his own, for I succeeded in flipping us over and throwing snow into his face and peeling his hands off my arms before I, too, ran across the blacktop toward the doors that led inside the school. I made sure to mark that day as a victory for JoEllen and me, despite initially being surprised.

Continue reading “★ ‘The Yellow Slide Agreement’ by Amber Beardsley”

‘The First Pancake’ by E. Pique

soft cartel may 2018

When I was a kid living in California, wildfires were a common occurrence. At camp we laid out our go bags at the end of our beds every night in case we needed to evacuate. I never actually had to live through one, but we would hike to see the massive black scars left on the mountains by the fires, and we would imagine running from them through the darkness and the heat and the smoke. Back at home, I would lie awake making lists. How would I escape if the house caught fire? What would I save? What could I save? It became a nightly ritual. Say my prayers. Kiss my teddy bear goodnight. Try to save my loved ones from the fire. When we moved away to Indiana my bedtime ruminations shifted from fires to tornadoes, and then to the more immediate terrors of math tests and oral presentations. I thought I’d put my preoccupation with natural disasters behind me until my first child was born. I would read the horror stories, and I would make lists. What if…

[Fast forward]

We were living in my brother-in-law’s one-bedroom unit on the fifth floor of a high rise apartment building. He had a balcony, which was good. I’d devised an elaborate scheme involving wrapping the baby in a sheet and swinging him from balcony to balcony to get safely down to the ground should the building go up in flames. It was preposterous, but had helped me sleep. Then one day I noticed that the neighbor immediately below us had enclosed his balcony. No good! I lay wide-eyed awake shooting terrified glances at my son sleeping in the crib by the window.

“Go to sleep.”

It was no use. “We’re all gonna die.”

“What are you talking about?”

I was giving my husband my most pathetic apologetic look, knowing I was going to sound like a hysterical idiot. I told him how the neighbor had foiled my escape plan.

“Tell me, how do I save the baby now?” I implored pitifully.

“The whole building is made of concrete, and the stairwell is faced in fire retardant tile. Just stay off the elevator. He’ll be fine.”

“Really?” He nodded.

“Oh, thank God.” He put his arm around me, and I fell asleep.

[Fast forward]

My son was screaming on the toilet again. We’d tried suppositories and laxatives and diet changes, we’d tried everything, but the problem wasn’t physiological, it was psychological. He was afraid to poop, and he was doing his damndest to hold it in. He had been pacing and moaning, and there was no doubt in my mind that he had to go. He had to go. I’d put him on the toilet several times that day trying inducements like bonbons and favorite books and videos all to no avail. Now it was an hour before we were supposed to meet his little friends on the playground for the last time before leaving for the summer to visit grandma in the US. He had to go. He had to go now. He was kicking and screaming as I tried to hold him on the toilet. I heard the voices in my head screaming even louder.

What are you doing? This isn’t normal. Why can’t you get him to use the toilet like a normal kid. How hard could it be? Everyone else in the whole world can do this without all the drama. Gorillas can do this, why can’t he? What are you doing wrong? Did you give him enough water? What did he eat? Why can’t you fix him? If he doesn’t poop we’ll have to take him to the doctor again…

He kept screaming. He had to poop.

“Please, please, just let it go!” I pleaded, holding his thighs too hard against the toilet seat.

He punched me in the face with a tiny closed fist. I slapped him back. Hard. Hard enough to leave the pink imprint of three fingers on his cheek just below his left eye. He was three years old.

Fuck! What have you done! You evil bitch! You monster!

Now he was shrieking in pain and rage. I desperately wanted to rewind, to take it back, to erase it, but in that moment with his screams reverberating around my head, I also wanted to hit him again.

No!

I went into the hallway, leaving him on the toilet apoplectic. Was the baby watching me hit myself? Again. Again. As hard as I could. I looked in the mirror. I wanted to leave a mark just like the one I’d put on my son. I wanted to feel exactly what I’d done. I deserved to suffer.

Stop it! Stop it! Stop!

My heart pounded and my stomach clenched.

What have I done? I can’t take it back. What do I do now? Don’t see me. Don’t see this. Fuck!

I took him off the toilet, and tried to calm him down. Half an hour later, he was still fidgeting, obviously still holding it in, but he was also smiling and ready to go to the playground to see his friends—with three pink finger marks still emblazoned on his cheek.

What do I do? They’ll see. They’ll all see it. They’ll all know what I’ve done. They’ll take my kids away. Maybe we should just stay home. No! I’m not going to cancel his play date. I’m not going to make him pay for my mistake. He wants to go play, to see his friends. He should see them. And they should see him. See what I did to him. Maybe I deserve to lose my kids. Maybe I shouldn’t come back with them from the States. Maybe they’re better off without me. I deserve to suffer.

I packed up the stroller with water and snacks and sand toys and headed to the park with my stomach churning and my heart in my throat.

What happens now?

I watched the other mothers notice the marks. I braced myself. Prepared to be honest. I wasn’t going to lie about what I’d done. I deserved the guilt and the shame. I deserved to suffer. No one said a thing.

Oh, my God. I’m the fire that’s burning my babies. What do I do now? This can never happen again.

[Play]

You sound just like my wife. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

But I never told You that story. I never told You what was really at stake that night several months later when the kids were screaming, and I locked myself in the toilet. I never told You how I’d asked for help, for a babysitter, for a break, for a therapist, for medication if it came to that, but instead was told to just be normal. How hard could that be?

“My parents can do what you’re doing,” my husband had told me. “I can take the kids away to stay with them if you can’t handle this.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe they would all be better off without me. Maybe I had nothing to offer a child. I never told You that story, because hitting myself in the face wishing I could take it back, I didn’t want You to see me, but you were there. I always bring you to the places I don’t want anyone else to see. I don’t want to be alone in them.

So, why then, did I tell You this story.

[Play]

…tonight, after my husband came home with my son while I was trying to put the baby down, effectively preventing that from happening after I’d nursed her for about half an hour, I was done. My nerves were shot, hormones, weather. I don’t know. I went and laid in bed while the kids played with daddy, and when the baby found me and started in, I just said “I love you,” and laid there ignoring her, because that’s all I could think of to do. I took her to my husband. She found me again. I hid in the bathroom. She started screaming and crying, and I knew that me being with her would be worse for her than me staying in the toilet. Then my son started asking where I was, and my husband said “I don’t know. Mama’s gone.” So, I came out. For my son. I didn’t want him to think I’d just leave. I put him to bed and kissed him, and tried to make everything seem okay. But the whole time the sirens were blaring. The baby wouldn’t give me any peace, and I couldn’t stand to have her on me again. I went to the kitchen to wash dishes. She was still screaming.

I have never hit my daughter, not a swat on the bum, not a slap on the wrist, nothing. I’ve never left her in her crib at night screaming for me to come back. I’ve never left her sobbing at day care. I’ve never left her. I have that sickening moment I hit my son carved into my soul, and it protects her. It gives me endless patience for her, the blank slate. Yet, when I look at him, I see the guilt and shame of every mistake and false start, and it gets under my skin. He hits, kicks, scratches, pinches, sasses, fights, rages, and it’s all my fault. I know it is. I want to have the same well of patience and bag of tricks for him that I have for my daughter, but every time I find my groove, he grows out of it. Yes, I will lock myself in the toilet to protect him, but I will never leave. Not really.

“You know I love every part of you, always, even when I’m angry.”

“I know that already, Mama,” he says rolling his eyes exaggeratedly.

“How do you know?”

“I know that, because you already told me that. I know.”

He’s four. He knows everything, but does he feel it in the marrow of his bones? He’s my first, and I’ve burned him, but I would never ever throw him away. I just don’t know what I’m doing.

I feel the same way about you.

[Play]

Thanks I need all the moms I can get.

Now, listen to your first born, your beautiful precious boy, grown into a kind, strong, independent man. Listen to him say that he had, if however briefly, become a–

[Play]

… wandering, lonely, drunken vagrant…

because he’d never realized you actually cared. Listen to your Baby, you could have spared him that pain if you hadn’t abandoned him. Can you feel it? It’s like a shot to the gut. I’m not supposed to feel that way about You, but I do. It takes my breath away.

I had hit You hard and left a mark. I thought You were better off without me.

‘Unbound Ties’ by Mary Ellen Gambutti

soft cartel may 2018

The dad takes scores of photos of his charming, chosen child whom the mom has styled in ringlets and dressed in organdy. Pride in the images he creates?  His ego nurtured in spite of loss of natural paternity? Yes, to both. Her parents adjust to their adoptive role with impeccable clothing and care, music lessons, and the best schools, within the constraints of his military career and frequent transfers.

*

Reflected in a New York City shop window wearing fancy dress and diapers, who’s that little girl with her happy, young Mommy? She’s the one who brightens their lives, makes them a family. Mounds of photographs accrue to me as my parents and grandparents age and pass. Albums are devoted to childhood moments and immediate family. Others of known, unknown, and unbound ties. I recognize faces who have crossed my plane only in tangent; with whom I share neither heritage nor habit. I handle the rough, yellowed leaves in futile search of familiar captions, and commit to being caretaker of their memories–my adoptive ancestry.

*

Sealed origin is best for all, the State and Agency dictate. Fall of 1957, I am six, and Dad stands at the head of my bed while Mom hovers at the foot.

“I’m going to tell you the story of where you came from: Mommy and Daddy adopted you. We brought you home, because you had no one, because you needed someone to love you and take care of you.” Sealed origin is best for all, the State and Agency dictate. Fall of 1957, I am six, and Dad stands at the head of my bed while Mom hovers at the foot.

Continue reading “‘Unbound Ties’ by Mary Ellen Gambutti”