Blue Bonnet Review

A Literary Journal Featuring Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction by Talented Writers Around the Globe

A literary journal featuring poetry, fiction and nonfiction by writers around the globe. 

Border Crossing

For me, it's really easy.

It’s paying $4 pesos and crossing the metal barrier with ease. I walk across the bridge as cars wait in line on my left, my Nine West boot heels clicking over the river water below. I go past little ones who offer me Chiclets for sale before I flash my US passport, the key to my home, the first world on the other side. “Well, we can cross this off our bucket list,” my brother says. My mom asks us to pose and she takes our picture with her iPhone, the sudden flash freezing our privilege in pixels.

For others, it’s life or death.

It’s a deliberate decision executed out of a need for survival, an essential sacrifice for family and future. It’s paying thousands of dollars saved over years for safe passage (in theory) through the desert, surrounded by cacti and snakes, the extreme heat or cold working to convince you to never wake up from dirt-floor slumber. It’s ducking behind trees and praying you aren’t found, the searchlight barely missing the edge of your arm as you start the next leg of the journey.

Getting to Sherri's Backyard

I’d have to climb the fence at the left corner of my yard, which wasn’t easy being just six, maybe seven years old. I’d hoist myself up and jump down onto the grass in her backyard. Sherri would often be out there playing with a yo-yo, a maize board, jacks, pick up sticks, or just lounging around on a small wooden patio next to the house. If Sherri wasn’t there, I would call up to her bedroom window and if she was around, she would come down to play with me. I don’t remember going inside of her house, but probably did a few times from the front. I remember that being in her yard felt like I was a long way from home, and I certainly wouldn’t have left my ‘comfort zone’ unless I really liked Sherri. When I went to visit her, she would share with me whatever she was playing with, or we would just sit and talk. I felt very comfortable around Sherri and that’s why I always looked forward to seeing her. She was my first real girlfriend, but because she went to a private school, I mostly saw her on the weekends, though I did see her sometimes during the week if the weather was nice. I recall that Sherri was several inches taller than me, though we were close to the same age. She had light brown hair and green eyes. I remember that her eyes were large and pretty. She was very thin, and like myself was serious most of the time. Undoubtedly I was very attracted to her, but kept these feelings to myself. I was usually uncomfortable around girls at my own school, but with Sherri it was different. We just seemed to have a natural connection. When I felt like it was time to return home, I’d say good-bye and ask her if she knew when she’d be out in the yard again. When my parents asked me what I was doing, I’d sometimes tell them that I was visiting Sherri, but most of the time I wouldn’t. For some reason, I mostly wanted to keep my relationship with Sherri a secret. At some point, when I was eight years old, my parents told me that they had bought a house along with my aunt and uncle and that we’d be living on the top floor like we were now. They said the house was on the other side of Golden Gate Park and that we’d be moving very soon. Because I knew I would miss the few friends I had in the neighborhood, mostly Sherri, I remember making a big deal out of it. In fact I had a few tantrums with regard to our moving, but in the end I had to ‘go along with the program.’ My mother kept giving me this ‘spiel’ about having our own house, in a great neighborhood, in which there were lots of kids my age. I don’t remember saying good-bye to Sherri, but I’m sure I told her and blocked out the experience to this day. During the first week at my new school, a bee went down my shirt and stung me. My new teacher made the mistake of pulling up my shirt, which embarrassed me in front of the whole class. After that I didn’t want to go back to school, but in the end, once again I ‘went along with the program.’ In my new neighborhood I made a couple of male friends, but it was years before I felt as comfortable around a female as I did with Sherri. I never saw or spoke with Sherri again once we left the old neighborhood, and sometimes I wonder how our friendship would have gone if we never would have moved...


Even the air smells different in Ohio.
Or, maybe:
Especially the air smells different in Ohio.

               You realize this as you wait for the bus, the first bus you have ever waited for in your whole life.  True, there were buses you have ridden in the past, but it wasn’t the same.  You didn’t wait for them at the end of a long stone drive to a farmhouse where you were forced to move.  You never waited for a bus to begin your new life.
               Back in Missouri, there was that trip to the zoo when you were in the second grade.  Most of the elementary went to that one—your favorites were the reptiles.  Six buses, seven buses, at least two hundred third graders in downtown St. Louis.  You knew everyone, if not by name then at least by face.  Brown faces, black faces, yellows, and reds, surging through a crowd of whites like water over rocks.
               “What are you?” someone had said that day.  He was Japanese with straight black hair.
               “Juneau?”  He looked at you curiously.
               “Honolulu!” cried another boy.  Third graders memorized the capitals in school.
               “Thank you.  That was be·nev·o·lent,” said the Japanese boy.
               “Or,” said the other one, “was it gen·er·ous?”
               Flush from a spelling bee, you all laughed as you entered the zoo.
               So, you guess you’ve been on three buses that you can remember, all of them clean and comfortable, not boy-smelling, like this one will be, with dirty socks and jock straps, with creased leather seats that will stick to your skin in the summertime; with windows that won’t close in the winter; with drivers, stinking of cigarettes, who will yell at the kids when they’re being bad, when they won’t sit down in the seats, and who will pull the bus over when they start to throw things.  Maybe that’s what this one is doing now.  The bus skids in front of you.  The bus driver stands.  She’s facing herself toward the back now, and she points her hands in front of her.  Curly hair with fuchsia and mauve sprinkles down her shoulders.
               This is your mother’s home, a home you used to visit in the summertime.  Your dad lost his job in St. Louis and now you’re here for good.   Ohio.  Farm-stink Ohio.  Ohio with its cornfields, its pollen that makes you sneeze in the summertime.  Ohio with its guns and trucks and deer antlers stuck up on the backs of those trucks.  Ohio with its feed stations and weigh stations, with its combines and tractors.  Ohio in the summer, rank with scent of manure.
               A gossamer curtain is drawn tight over the window.  Your mother sat with you at breakfast that morning, not talking, drinking coffee.  You ate your raisin bran.  You drank your orange juice.  It could have been a day in St. Louis.  The sun was just starting to peek, and you could’ve been meeting your friends outside.  They’d be meeting now, walking the mile or so to school that once seemed so long but which you came to know as much as you knew your own house, maybe more so. There’d be chatter between the three of them.  Maybe they’d wonder what you were doing now.  Maybe they’d be worried about the first day of school.  Fifth grade, in the bigger building, the sixth graders lording over them like wardens in a prison.  No more recess.  School lunches longer, in an auditorium where the tables get packed away for assembly.  But you are not with them.  You are here.
               The driver turns to you now with a cool, even gaze.  She’s almost forgotten you were there, if she ever knew at all.  And when you look at her, staring up to where she stands on the raised rubber platform, your two faces are framed in the door.  There you are, brown and slender, your thick hair cropped close to your ears.  And there she is, squat and meaty, a broad white face looking down at you with skin made wrinkly by the sun.  Her hair is lighter than what you’d guessed outside, and her mouth is closed.
               The door rearing open makes a sound like a moan.  Rubber lining tears.  You risk a look behind you.  The gossamer curtain is drawn.  “Well?” she says, her voice a cricket.
               “Is this the bus to school?” your own voice barely a whisper.  You see the faces in the windows now.  They pop up from behind the glass like gofers in a Whac-a-mole.  Soon the whole bus is staring, the faces so white and the dark bus behind them like the inside of a haunted house.  You imagine looped recordings of organ music, you imagine spilled candy and caramel corn.  The bus driver glances behind herself.  She smirks, so you say it louder: “Is this the bus to school?”
               Years later, at a job interview, you will recall this very scene.  The air, how cold it was, and the way it smelled to you, like smoke wafting from a distant fire.  You will see the bus driver’s face on the secretary in front of you.  “Well?” she will say, and you’ll ask her, “Is this the right office?” your voice croaking from a throat that is suddenly tight.  And as she responds, her hair, spray-dyed and curly, just as the bus driver’s was, with that tint of mahogany and purple, will slide down her shoulders so that when she brushes it aside, glancing backward as she does so, a reflex more than anything, you will feel your knees start to quaver and your heart start to throb.  “Right this way,” the secretary will say, but you will be gone before she stands up from her desk.
               Faces in the office will stare at you as you go.
               But that day on the bus, there is nowhere to go.  Your mother, watching you from inside, wears a nightgown over a pale, doughy body.  In the summertime, her legs, like eggshell columns, grow red where yours turn dark, and that morning she picked at a scab on your neck, her fingernails scratching your skin.  You’d been outside too much, she was saying.  You force yourself not to look behind now.
               As you forced yourself not to call to your father.  You had heard him stumbling about that morning, making coffee and packing a lunch that he’d not have time for later, and just as your alarm was ringing and you washed the fogginess from your face, his car pulled out of the drive, the taillights yet visible as you ran to the window to watch.  You saw his face, chalky from the time he spends inside, up before dawn, back after dusk.  You put a hand to the glass as he drove away.
               “How did that make you feel?” your therapist will say, twenty years later in an office cramped with books.  Your therapist will be younger than you, you’ll think, and you will also think he is gay.  You’ll be glad he is gay.  A white man with no anomalies couldn’t possibly understand you.
               “Bad,” you will say.  You won’t be particularly talkative that day, and the textbook questions he will ask will seem superfluous and droll.  You will have caught him yawning once, trying to hide it through a closed mouth, his eyes fluttering to the clock on his desk.  You will want to say something—but of course you won’t.
               Just as you don’t say anything now when the bus driver looks at you.  “Coming or going?” she finally says.  “I don’t have all day.”  So you walk up the stairs instead, three big stairs lined with thick grooves of rubber.  She reeks worse than cigarettes.  It’s like a house fire is caught in her blouse.  The bus rumbles as you stand there.  The gossamer curtain swishes.

               In the classroom now, four desks to a quad.  You are at the back, watching the kids come in.  Nametags on all the desks, and you’re wondering who’ll be with you.  A girl walks in wearing a Mickey Mouse print.  Another with holey jeans rolled tight at the cuffs.  A boy is soon behind them in an underwear shirt.  He has shorts that hang loose and ragged, with pockets sown up with string.  These are not the clothes you’re used to, these are not the clothes you wear.  Spiffy khakis and pleated pants.  Shoes that you can shine and starched shirts ironed straight.  Suddenly one of them sees you.  Is he James or Matthew, two of the nametags in front of you?  Are the girls Amy or Sarah, the nametags on your right?  Something surprises them.  They start whispering.  A tall boy walks in with hair down to his neck.  “What?” his eyes seem to say, and the three of them point to you.  If you were in St. Louis, you’d look behind you now.  You’d know the kids who’d be talking, and you’d want to be in on the joke.  But you know here that they are looking at you.  Because you are not from here, because you are not like them.
               It was like that on the bus not ten minutes before.  Ten minutes the preview of the rest of your life.
               Last night, your parents had argued when they’d thought you’d gone to bed.  “He’s got to learn,” you heard your mother saying.  “If not now then when.”
               “It’s the first day,” your father replied.  “I don’t see what the harm in—”
               “It’s the second day.  He already missed the first day."
               “He wasn’t feeling well.  Anyway, I don’t see what the harm in driving him—”
               “We’re not doing that,” she said flatly, and you could almost hear her crossing her arms, in that way that she did when the argument was over, in the voice that she used with only you and your father, a voice that withered in other arenas, a voice that shrank when others were bold, but here, in this house, in your grandma’s house where you were forced to move, it was strong.  As it was back in St. Louis when the doors were closed and it was just you three.
               Your father trudged up the stairs, then, his shoulders sagging from work, tired of the fighting with her, tired of the trying.  You ran to your room.  You closed the door.  You clicked your lamp off and you turned on your side.  Then the door opened and there he was, his shadow splintering from the hall light behind.  Stewed carrots and brisket came wafting through the door, the smell of the dinner your mother kept warm, complaining all the while that he was at work.  “Your father works too much,” she had muttered.  This after complaining all summer that he hadn’t found a job.  That after complaining that he’d lost his in St. Louis.
               “How did that make you feel?”  Your therapist again, in that cramped corner office.
               “Bad,” you will say.
               “Bad,” he will say.
               But not as bad as that first day at school, sitting there at your desk while the other kids stare at you.  And not as bad as that first day on the bus, walking down the aisle, the bus rattling below your feet, not one person moving as you made your way backward, pausing at a seat to see a face turn benignly away.  You paused at another, and that one shook its head.  Another said no.  A fourth said to keep on moving.  Until you were at the back, thirty seats and only half of them full, nobody caring, nobody kind.  Those steps you’ll remember, your legs unfamiliar.  Buckling as they would at that interview years later.  “Find a seat, goddamnit!” the bus driver yelled.
               “Take your seats, kids,” the teacher commands, most of them in the room now, all of them clustered up front.  A whole sea of desks, and not one of them full.  Save yours.
               You see James and Matthew exchange a look.  James is wide.  He has buzz-cut hair.  Matthew is tall with blond hair left long at the back.  The brunette is Sarah.  Amy sits across from her.  You stare at your desk.  You know they are staring at you.
               James writes something on a piece of paper and passes it to Matthew.  Matthew reads it, looks up at you then passes it to Sarah, who passes it to Amy who passes it to the boy beside her and then to the girl in front of him until one by one the entire class has read it, save you, each looking up, scanning the room until they see you, and then passing it on to the next.
               “Okay class,” says the teacher.  She is broad-shouldered, smelling sooty, even from where you’re sitting.  “We’ll start with state capitols.”  She eyes you.  “Ah, yes.  Seems we have a new student.  You were supposed to come yesterday, yessss?”  She draws out that last syllable.  You’re not sure you like reptiles anymore.  “Well?” she says when you don’t answer, eyes from the other faces worse than your mother’s nails.  “At least stand up.  Tell us your name, where you’re from.”
               You don’t move.
               “Stand,” she says.  “Come on.”
               Then, looking out over the kids, most of them a full head shorter than you even when you’re standing, you say, “St. Louis,” a term as foreign to them as be·nev·o·lence or gen·er·os·i·ty.
               “No, no,” says the teacher, impatient now, giving you a cool, even glare as the bus driver had before.  “Before,” she says.  “Where did you come from before?”
               But there was no before.  There was St. Louis, then there was here.  The faces are staring at you, some curious, many mocking, a few in outright disdain.  She means Hawai’i, you realize.  So you say it: “Hawai’i.”
               The whole room laughs.  Your face, brown, unable to blush, feels a redness that seems to splinter from your chest.
               A kid at the front drops a paper on the floor.  The teacher seizes on it, holds it up to the class.  “A note?” she says.  “Is someone passing notes?”  The paper is folded, she pushes it back at the student.  “Will you kindly read it?” she says.  “Aloud.”  Silence now, not a single student breathing.  “READ!”
               The kid unfolds the paper.  Looks back at James, looks back at Matthew.
               “READ!” the teacher commands.
               He is nervous.  The faces watch him.  Matthew cracks a smile.  So does James.  So does the kid eventually, and he holds the paper up.  A single word, scrawled across it so that even you can see.  “Nigger!” he proclaims, the whole class exploding again.
               “It means black,” says your mother when you tell her about it at home.  A cast-iron pot is scorched on the side.  She scours it with a sponge.  “Told your father we needed new pans,” she says.  “And now look.”  She holds it up to you.  “Never supposed to wash cast iron.”
               “It means black?”
               She shoves the pot down in the water.  “Oh for the love,” she says, looking back at you.  A cool, even gaze.  “They thought you were black.”
               “But I’m not.”  You think of your friends back home, Donnie who lived up the street.  Kevan, not one block over.
               “No,” she says.  “So it doesn’t matter.”
               The pot moans as soap bubbles frost its sides.

Purity of English

           Third Period, instead of office hours and lunch supervision, I agreed to sit in on Donald Pigeon’s Grammar Composition class.  Three of us were to observe him:  Assistant Principal Preston Packer representing the administration, Jackie Dolan representing the teacher’s union, and me.  Parents had complained.  We were to determine if there were grounds for disciplining him.

           I was surprised when Donald asked me to represent him.  We had shared a demountable wall in the English area for fifteen years, but were never close.  We never went out for a pint of beer, never talked teaching tips over coffee and doughnuts.  He was a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I grew up watching the Cubs. We exchanged baseball lore in the workroom, and that was the extent of our relationship. 

           The students were quiet when we entered the room.  They knew we were coming.  And when the bell sounded, the room was silent.  That never happened in my classroom.

           Donald started his lesson with grammar exercises.  In his prime he’d been a pro athlete, but he’d been reduced to a spindly man.  His hair had grayed, but not thinned.  He wore dress shirts and ties, well-pressed pants, and brilliantly shined oxfords.  He was very old school.  His plan for the day was measured and precise.

            Then, in an instant, the veins in his forehead swelled.  His face turned scarlet.  His hands tightened on the lectern.  In one swift movement he lifted it, and slammed it down on the hardwood floor.  A splintering sound accompanied the crash.  “I will not tolerate disrespect.”

            The students froze.  The room was still.  I stopped writing my observation notes and watched as raised hands were lowered.  Students averted their eyes.  The class shrank back in fear. 

           I’d seen Donald’s outbursts in the English workroom. Sometimes from my adjoining room, I could hear him screaming for silence.  But, now, sitting in his classroom, I understood the fear he instilled.

           It hadn’t always been that way. 

           For twenty years he was the most successful baseball coach in school history.  Donald had played three years of college ball, followed by four years in the minor leagues finishing his career pitching for the Augusta Pirates.  Injuries plagued his last season, so he’d gone back to school, completed his degree, and found a teaching position.

“Yesterday we examined gerunds and participles.  Today you are still asking questions.  Why?” Donald unclenched the podium and began to pace. “Perhaps you did not listen, or did not take adequate notes.  Perhaps you think I am not worth listening to....” He stopped at the window and for a moment glanced at the parking lot below.  He was momentarily distracted, and then he turned back to the class.  “I am your teacher.  I dedicated twenty-four years to this profession.  You owe me respect.”

            He pointed to a boy in the Abercrombie & Fitch shirt who was trying not to stare.  Donald hated being stared at.  “Billie Morgan, I taught your father gerunds and participles.  He knows them today because of me.  You can learn them, too.”  He pointed to the girl in the cross-country t-shirt and jeans.  “Kristie, your goal is to attend an Ivy League school.  Do you think Harvard will want you if you don’t know the difference between an infinitive and a prepositional phrase?”  Donald began moving toward the girl.  “Don’t make me laugh.  Your grade point won’t make any difference if you don’t know the English language.”

            “That’s a piece of crap.”

            Donald stopped.  “Who said that?”  He scanned the room.   The comment had come from behind him.  It was a whisper.  He seemed unsure of the voice. 

           Before my observation, I’d talked with Donald’s students.  They never used the word “crap.”  There were a lot of words they didn’t use.  Students from prior years made lists of forbidden words (“suck,” “gay,” “bitchin’,” etc.) and passed them on to younger brothers or sisters.

            “Who said that?” No one blinked.  They’d learned to hide their fear. “Fear is a sign of guilt,” Donald had told them.  He used a lot of phrases like that.  Students wrote them down after class and passed them to their friends.

            I looked at my legal pad on the desktop.  I was Donald’s colleague.  He’d asked me to sit in on this class. The school board was ready to fire him.  This observation was the last attempt to save him.  And now I knew the students were telling the truth.  I, too, would wait until after class to write down my observations.  I, too, was afraid he might think I was mocking him.

            Donald lowered his voice.  It was the tone the students called The Deadly Whisper.  “Who said that?”  No one answered.  “You know that this classroom is reserved for only the purest examples of English.  You need to recognize the beauty of language.  ‘Crap’ is not beautiful.”

            The buzzer sounded announcing the end of the class period.  It was eerie. In my class, when the buzzer sounded, students sprinted out the door before the tone ended.  I looked around.  No one had moved.  No one had packed a book.  They just waited, silently, until the announcement came.  “Class dismissed.”  They were careful not to rush, careful not to appear too eager to leave. 

            I too moved carefully.  I put away my pen and picked up the legal pad as Donald approached me.  “I think that went pretty well,” he said, smiling.  “That will give you something to tell the administration about the respect I command from my students.”

            “Yes,” I told him, “I learned a lot.”

In Its Infancy

We were on vacation when it died. My friends told me on our return about the funeral, about how Hank and Jo Ellen cried and hugged them and thanked them all for being there.

            “It was just so sad,” Carol said, as if this were a question. As if it was still the question.

            “Yeah, but it would have been sadder had it lived,” Jane added.

            I felt bad that I missed the ceremony because I had been the most supportive of our group during the last weeks, calling and visiting them frequently. So the day we returned I walked the two and a half blocks from my house over to Hank and Jo Ellen’s apartment at Clarendon Manor. Hank opened the door, just as before, just as if this were an ordinary visit.

            “Buddy. Come in. We were…”

            “No, I can’t stay, but I wanted to see you and tell you how sorry I am for…” And that stopped me. Which word should I use before “death,” I wondered. But Hank saved me:

            “Thanks Buddy.” And he even smiled. “We appreciate it. You sure you won’t come in? No? OK, I’ll tell Jo Ellen. See you on Sunday.”

            Sure enough, the following Sunday there he was at church, shepherding our youth group—the bunch of us he’d volunteered to manage four months earlier. He’d set up a Ping Pong table outside our Sunday school classroom when he first took over and encouraged us to come early. What he never counted on, though, was the difficulty through those weeks in getting us to put down our paddles and come to Jesus. His call became familiar and so tired: “Let’s go group!” Increasingly, and to a teenaged person, we’d smirk and roll our eyes. After he turned his back, Jane would mock him, “Let’s go group,” in that way that only an adolescent girl can reduce a grown man to complete impotency in the eyes of her peers.

Hank and Jo Ellen weren’t like our former youth directors, Dick and Laura, who played James Taylor and Carole King records for us. Dick and Laura had “mentored” us for eighteen months at their house on Dartmouth Avenue, an old wood and brick parsonage with wide rooms and a jungle for a back yard. We didn’t confine our “Dick and Laura” visits to only Sunday nights for youth group. They told us to come by anytime. For teenagers, a refuge with cool, hip people who let them bring, and even bought them, beer…well, I guess we thought this was natural. Or at least we never questioned if it wasn’t. I had my first full beer—Miller Malt—at their house, and I was barely fifteen. I wonder how any of us, especially Dick and Laura, thought this arrangement could last. How we couldn’t see or even anticipate the storm that was coming to our little Alabama community at all.

The storm that turned into a deluge once Laura decided that mentoring us wasn’t enough.

            When it broke in the spring of my sophomore year, the impact truly made the earth move under our feet. I’ll never know exactly how our parents discovered that Laura had seduced Ray-Ray, my best friend. I’m guessing that his folks started wondering about the lengthy phone calls and the even lengthier afternoon hours at Dick and Laura’s. I guess it finally dawned on them that it wasn’t healthy for a fifteen year-old boy to be actively seeking out the company of a twenty-two year-old mother of two. And when they finally acted, the debris left in our former youth leaders’ wake would be collected for decades in the form of bitter feelings and mistrust from all sides.

            A bitterness and mistrust that almost cost me Ray Ray, my best friend. But that’s not the story I want to tell here.

After the revelation, the church elders quietly asked Dick and Laura to move. We would still see Dick in the corridors and classrooms of our school, though, for he had been and would continue to be our beloved English teacher.

            We, of course, had no choice in the matter, though at the time our indignant minds thought we should have. The church elders began a more careful youth director screening process then, and their search turned up a young couple new to our congregation: Hank and Jo Ellen. After they were hired, a few in our group were invited to a dessert party to introduce ourselves. Hank said we could call him “Hank” on that night, but I noticed that then and always, his wife referred to him as “Henry.”

            Hank worked in Sears’ shoe department, and you can infer what you will about that. I know we did. He was eternally cheerful, and unlike Dick who wore leather sandals, enjoyed fine literature and opera, and who was a Vandy grad, Hank wore half-sleeve dress shirts, clip-on ties, sidewalls above his ears. And compared to the VW bus that Dick bought and drove especially to cart us around, Hank drove a Dodge Dart “Swinger,” just like the one the elderly receptionist at my Dad’s office drove. Hank’s and Jo Ellen’s apartment smelled like stale lime Kool-Aid, too, and they never played music for us, though they did let us come swimming in the complex’s pool.

For the first eight weeks we knew them, we tried to make our arrangement work. I think the main thing that kept us all going was that Jo Ellen looked every bit the seven months pregnant that she was. A quiet woman, she never had performed on stage as Laura had. She never professed to liking Carly Simon or Rita Coolidge either. And once, when I sat down by her as Sunday evening service was beginning, she got up and moved to the other side of Henry. I’m sure now that she was overwhelmed by the changes in her life and what was to come for her and Hank. I know that we all watched and waited with her for the baby to come. Even teens know the excitement of a new baby.

Even teens can feel empathy, at least for short periods of time.


My mother was the one who broke the news to me. It was just like her to tell me without mincing words, without worrying about their effect, just as she had done when she informed me that the church had fired Dick and Laura:

“Y’all won’t be going to their house anymore. Imagine a woman like that around young boys. I knew it too when she and Dick came to supper that time. She had nothing to say to me, and when one woman can’t talk to another woman, well, that tells you something. She only had eyes for you boys!”

They were hard words to digest. This time as my mother spoke, however, I couldn’t even swallow. I had nothing to say, no fresh wounds to protect, no friend to defend:

“Hank and Jo Ellen’s baby came all right, if you can call it that. There’s something wrong with it, but they don’t know what exactly. It has water on the brain, and fluid all in its lungs. But what’s worse is that the doctors can’t tell whether it’s a boy or a girl.”

I sat at our kitchen table as I listened to this, surrounded by geometry problems. I didn’t understand it then, and in some ways I still don’t. I know nature has a will, and though we might take all necessary precautions, we can’t control the circumstances of childbirth—or what happens when one person’s chromosomes mix with another’s. What I do know is that when the time came, my wife had ultrasounds and the best pre-natal care we could afford. But it was only when I saw both of my daughter’s healthy and whole bodies in front of me, pink and raw, that I stopped worrying that something would go wrong, that something would be wrong. That what happened to Hank and Jo Ellen would happen to us, too.

As in any small town, word passed down quickly about the baby. That regardless of the circumstances, Hank and Jo Ellen still wanted people to visit, including the teenagers of their youth group.

“But will we have to see the baby,” we wondered, “and if we do, what will we do? What should we say?”

I had no practice in witnessing this sort of distress, the awkward reality of the dying or the abnormal. When I was nine or ten, on a certain route we always took driving through town, we’d pass a house where a water-brained, mongoloid boy lived. I don’t know if “water-brained” or “mongoloid” are even accurate terms for him, but those are the words my mother used back then. He had weird, elongated fingers too. Somehow, I even know that his name was Rene. Such a big head he had, and the blackest hair. He always stood on the street corner and either I or my brother or our friend Robert would shout at him as we passed, as if he were a post or a dog or a lightning-cleft tree. He’d wave or cry or groan at us, and try to smile, Rene would. And one day, he just wasn’t there anymore. I have no idea what happened to him, and for a long time I forgot about him too.

Not too long before the turn of events with Hank and Jo Ellen, my grandmother suffered a string of strokes and lay dying in her nursing home during that summer when I turned fifteen. “I don’t want you to see her like this,” my mother said in some semblance of protective instinct. So I quit going to see her. The last time I saw her she knew me and showed me her “progress,” as she termed it: the six or eight inches she could slide up and down her bed.

And fourteen years ago when my father passed, though I visited him as he lay in a coma, I chose not to look at his corpse lying in that unadorned Jewish coffin. I don’t know any longer what these decisions say about me or whether they were right or wrong. They simply were.

Just like my decision to visit Jo Ellen and Hank after they brought their baby home. We’re sitting in their living room. Jo Ellen has the baby in her arms, swaddled tightly to prevent any chance that I might see its ungendered region. She’s feeding the baby its bottle. It drinks greedily as babies do. Its head is twice the size it should be, the pulsing blue veins running throughout more noticeable than you’d believe they could be. It has pale blue eyes, though of course they have no focus to them. Halfway through the feeding as I stare intently at this scene, the baby spits up all the milk, as many babies also do.

Jo Ellen apologizes for it and tries to wipe it all away. I feel like I’m in the way, so I apologize, too, and tell her I have to be somewhere. As Hank walks me to the door, though, I hear his baby start crying. It’s a sound I’ve never heard before. How do I describe it? A high-pitched hoarseness? A wail? A tin door scraping in the wind?

After that afternoon, I never went back. I never saw the baby again. It lived for another few weeks. They always knew it would die in a matter of days, yet they continued caring for it, feeding it, changing it, and God knows, putting it down to sleep at night, until the end.

If my memory is right, Hank and Jo Ellen never named this child, or if they did, they never told us. I guess there are certain barriers in every experience: the ones you just can’t bring yourself to cross.

And unfortunately, another of those barriers was the one that existed between this couple and our youth group. I’d like to say that their tragedy brought us closer, but I can’t because it didn’t. Each Sunday morning, he’d call “Let’s go group,” and each Sunday fewer and fewer of us were there to respond. And those who were there chafed every step of the way. By my junior year in high school when most of us could drive, we’d leave the evening church service before youth group and drive away to Pasquale’s, our local pizza joint, to eat and carelessly socialize as we liked to do. At some point that year or the next, Hank and Jo Ellen moved out of our town. The Sears store where Hank worked at our pathetic little mall closed. Two years later, the entire mall was converted into a grocery store or something, but by then Hank and Jo Ellen were barely a memory for any of us.

It’s strange to think now of this couple we often made fun of; this couple we chose to abandon. We had cruel nicknames for them too. Him, we called “Winky-Dink,” a variation on his last name. For Jo Ellen, we didn’t so much have a nickname as an adjectival descriptor; she was always “the beautiful and vivacious Jo Ellen” to us. And, I will confess, these cruelties came after they lost their child.

They must be in their late 60’s now. Are they still together? Are they still alive? Did they ever have another baby? Or are they grandparents now? What do they remember about those days in our town, in Bessemer? Do they remember them as lost? As horrible? Did they ever get over the child who shouldn’t have lived but for a time did? Do they remember the names they surely considered for that child when they knew they were expecting? A boy’s name, and a girl’s?

And if they remember those days as vividly as I do, do they see us, the teenagers in the church youth group who looked so eager and trusting on that first night? The ones who came to visit; the ones who came to the funeral; and the ones who, after a brief period of mourning, decided they wanted nothing more to do with them?

I wonder now if they ever forgave us for all that we did. For all that we weren’t, and were. Or did they successfully bury us in Bessemer, too, on the day they left, quietly, completely, and with no forwarding address?


© Terry Barr



The Pks

by Maria Prada

They rode unicycles and spoke in tongues. Day after day I watched them whiz past me across the campus cobblestones, precariously teetering on the edge of their saddles yet still somehow holding themselves upright. There were about 500 of them and they referred to themselves as PKs (pastor’s kids). They were the University’s elite and they knew it. During chapel they sang praise songs, raised their hands in the air and spoke in tongues as the Holy Spirit filled them. I watched them from my pew in the back and wondered what it felt like to be one of them, to know I was God’s daughter with a spot in Heaven, even for just a day. But despite all my baptisms and prayers, I had been there for months and still not received the gift of the Spirit.

Two years later nothing had changed. I was still Spirit-less and officially labeled a sinner. I accepted the role of a sinner like an actor takes on a character. I cut class, didn’t follow the dress code and snuck onto the men’s side of campus. On weekends I did what sinners did: danced to secular music, kissed strange men and drank alcohol.

Repent, you must repent, the PKs said when they saw my sins exposed on Facebook. I laughed and un-friended them, on Facebook that is, because in real life we were never really friends. One day as I was walking to class one of the unicyclists fell on the ground. He landed on his back and I laughed, not because he was hurt but because it was nice to know even PKs fell down.  

My third year, I was moved to what was coined as Jezebel Hall to correct my behavior. It was there that I met Bethanie and we instantly became friends. She smoked clove cigarettes and had wild, curly hair. Ironically, her father was the pastor of a mega-church in New Jersey which automatically made her a PK, but she was different from the others. She didn’t ride a unicycle or speak in tongues. She even skipped chapel every day.

Where do you go instead of chapel? I asked.

I drive to the lake and smoke. It’s better than any kind of sermon, she said. One chapel morning, I joined her. We sat on top of a weathered blanket and watched the sun rise over Lake Hollingsworth. We threw bits of bread into the water hoping to attract ducks – or even gators. As the sun rose above the horizon I lied down and closed my eyes. The sun cast warm rays against my face and a sense of euphoria filled me. I imagined the PKs in chapel, their eyes closed like mine, raising their hands and singing worship songs. I felt remarkably happy and wondered if at that very moment the PKs were being filled with the Spirit and felt just as good as I did.