Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A New Story by a Reader

It's my great pleasure to share the story below, "Bull," sent in by Dr. Michelle Lee, a wonderful writer and recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, now living in Port Orange, Florida. No need for me to 'pre-read' this powerful story about Michelle and her father confronting cancer together. I will simply say that it is honest and beautiful. My warmest thanks to Michelle for sending it.

If you'd like to submit a story to American Stories NOW, please feel free to contact me for submission guidelines.--MD

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bull, by Michelle Lee

I was with my father the day he was castrated. Not like a young bull in heavy summer when flies would swarm around the open wound in chaotic patterns of gnawing. Not with a sharp knife, a clean cut slicing the scrotum as neatly as a tab of butter. There was no ritual, no blood offering in a brass cup, no chants or blessing, no hands outstretched in a bowl of taking. There were no women swaying hip to hip outside his tent, waiting for the first taste of fertility beating raw outside a body. There was a gray carpet, a bank of televisions tuned to CNN, a receptionist behind Plexiglas, a nurse who called his name and escorted him through a door so he could be weighed first, then recorded on a chart. I sat in the waiting room with my purse in my lap. I counted tiles. I'd felt the needles pushing beneath the rice paper skin of his bicep, five tiny implants, five points of a hormonal star exploding. I counted tiles.

My father came back ten minutes later. His shoulders dipped south as he shuffled toward me. "All done?" I asked, and the corner of his mouth lifted enough to answer, to say he was more than done. In his neck, I could see the map of his veins, a mountain pass of blue roads falling into disrepair, coming to dead ends. I had spent twenty-one days clearing the underbrush from those roads, fighting to prove to my father that he was strong enough, that he could survive. I had held his hand when doctor number one with a degree from Columbia explained the radiation treatment. I had rubbed the soft spots behind his ears when doctor number three with the bedpan face listed the side effects of the chemo drug. I had stopped mentioning the disease. Words left me.

Our walk to the car was quiet. He ambled over to the driver's side, though I asked him if he wanted me to drive. He stuck the key in the ignition, but didn't turn on the engine. Outside, a pair of young trees bent in the wind that had picked up since morning. Their branches clattered together, shook a curl of leaves onto the windshield. My father began to cry.

"It's my fault," he said, his body rolling into itself as if to keep warm. "It's my fault." I protested softly, but my father, who had barely said ten words a day since he was diagnosed, was startlingly clear, almost adamant. "I've ruined her life."

For a moment, I wished he was an Alzheimer's patient and couldn't remember, wished that my mother was a blur in the blink of his eye. She blamed him for getting sick. She blamed him for the weight of his eyelids, for a tongue so thick his speech was curdled. She blamed him for having to come to this office today, for becoming less than a man, for taking away her sex life with the hormone therapy that made no promise to heal.

Yet my father stayed. He slumped in his easy chair with his head cradled in his hands and worried about how this woman who had slept with him for forty-one years was going to survive without him.

The tears beaded in the thread between his lip, spilled down to his chin. I took him in my arms, rocked this man who had shown me how to draw a horse with a piece of charcoal and taught me how to swim in the backyard pool. This man who hummed beneath his '75 Datsun on the weekends and came home every night in a tie at six-thirty. This man whose hands were once large enough to hold a baby bunny found on the back porch. This man.

Michelle Lee
Port Orange, Florida

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Replenishment at Sea

Cornville, Arizona. Five hundred miles from the nearest ocean I meet Kevin: short, mustached, strong, sunburned, with muscled upper arms that show off the edge of a tattoo just under his white tee; he's set aside his long-sleeved red flannel shirt and hung it on a nearby rail. He tells me he's content as long as he's living "the free life of a sailor."

I have to blink. We're in the high desert. And Kevin is finishing up a job scraping and staining the wood deck of a mountain cabin.

"I'm from Wisconsin, see," he says, as if that explains it.

Actually, it does. Kevin grew up near Lake Superior, where he does carpentry work in the summer and fall for about eighteen dollars an hour ("we've still got plenty of Chicago millionaires up there, so there's no shortage of stuff to do"). He could, he told me, charge forty dollars an hour, the way some of his competitors do; but then he'd be sitting around too much waiting. And Kevin doesn't like to sit around doing nothing. He keeps busy up north, working until deer-hunting season is over, and maybe does a little ice fishing; then in January heads south to escape the coldest part of the Midwest winter, which he hates. For a long time he worked on the oil derricks in the panhandle of Texas, even though now and then he got punched in the face just for saying which part of the country he came from. "First time, I never even saw it coming. I just said, 'Wisconsin,' and WHAM!"

When the derricks shut down and the crews were reassigned to North Dakota, Kevin said no thank you. Global warming, he was certain, was making the North even colder--even though, he admitted, every year one or two of the ice fisherman who ventured out onto Lake Superior still had a big chunk of ice break off underneath them and carry them helplessly away. "And then," he frowned, "they have to come rescue you by helicopter, which is completely embarrassing."

Kevin sticks to inland waters, these days.

His land-lubbing life began after his three years in the Navy. All he'd wanted his whole life was a battleship, he said, his eyes hard and still disappointed. "It was a matter of pride, for me, to be on a battleship. That was my whole goal." Instead, he found himself assigned to the U.S.S. Sacramento, a supply ship ("well, with some guns," he allowed), following the nuclear battleship the U.S.S. Enterprise around wherever it went. For three years Kevin stalked the Enterprise, shadowing her every move, dreaming of sailing aboard her instead of merely outfitting her in the middle of the night. This was called "replenishment at sea"--a highly secret process, still a mystery to the Russians and the Chinese, in which a U.S. nuclear vessel was completely resupplied, in darkness, without being in port, and sometimes in high seas.

When his stint with the Navy was up, Kevin left the water and tried to settle down. From time to time he rented a house in Wisconsin and filled it with belongings. But somehow, every two or three years or so, he just couldn't take it anymore and had to sell everything he owned and leave in the dead of night. When I met him he'd just done it again, and was living in a small tent next to his pick-up truck on the banks of a wide, blue, rippling creek. He had no family and no responsibilities, he told me; he could go wherever he liked and do whatever he wanted. "See, hauling stuff around," he said, picking up his scraper and shrugging his shoulders, as though shaking something cold and hard off, but then recovering, "is just not my thing."


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Two Views of Manhattan

Singh picks me up at my hotel for an early morning run to JFK. The light is dim, the streets and tollway nearly empty, but he drives with abrupt twists of his steering wheel, darting into what seem to me imaginary, short-lived openings. He tells me that he emigrated from India eleven years ago, and has been driving a cab in New York City for six. He started to notice a downturn in things long before the talking heads on television did. People traveling shorter distances. People tipping much less. And this on top of the longstanding loss of fares down to the World Trade Center. Since he rents his cab by the week and is responsible for the same payment no matter what, he explains to me, he now works roughly twelve hours a day to earn what he used to make in eight. He usually goes to bed at midnight, and gets up again at 4 a.m. The rest of the time he spends taking care of his family. His parents have been visiting from India, which was making things a little harder right now, with the extra cooking and laundry. It's almost a relief to get into his cab each morning, he says, even if things were far too quiet on the streets.

"So I guess now is not a good time to become a cab driver?" I ask him.

"No, no, actually it is. You could become one right away if you wanted to. That's the thing," he twists and darts. "Everybody complains there aren't enough cabs."

The day before I'd talked with Christie, who dressed in an elegant, all-black uniform sells handbags for up to $25,000 each at a mid-town boutique. She told me she was grateful at the moment for the women of Dubai, who still came in to shop and kept her commissions going.

She told me that she worked an unpredictable schedule: some weeks five days straight, then one day off; at other times three straight, then one off. A single mother, she woke up at six each morning, then at seven shook her fifteen-year-old son to life. (Through an older friend he'd just discovered pot, she confided, worried.) After seeing him off to school she walked and rode the subway to begin work at nine-thirty; in the afternoon treated herself to a decent lunch (her only real meal of the day); then at six-thirty rode the subway back to her Lower East Side apartment. She bought a lottery ticket once a week and dreamed of moving to California.

"What do you do when you're not working?"

"Nothing. I don't want to go out. I never do. I don't see anyone. I'm too tired. I have a gym membership but I never go. I read a lot. I'm in bed by 9:30 every night. I just take it one day at a time, trying to raise my son. I don't have time to think much. I just keep on."

At the airport, Singh takes my luggage from the trunk, nodding and quickly looking away as he pockets my tip, already eyeing the next lane opening up, exiting the dawn-red terminal. I look at my watch. Christie is just about to get up, an hour left before she has to wake her precious, only son.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Our First Story Submitted by a Reader

I'm so pleased to post the story below, "We Were Talking About Her Daughter," submitted by Cassondra Ellis, a creative writing student and graduate of Columbus State University, Georgia. I hope you'll enjoy peering through the window she briefly and touchingly opens onto the life and conversation of a young, hard-working mother as much as I did. My warmest thanks to Cassondra for sharing her work with us! Just follow the link below to read and comment on her story; and contact me if you would like to submit a piece of "flash-non-fiction" of your own.--MD

We Were Talking About Her Daughter

"We were talking about her daughter, my co-worker and I," I was telling my friend while she sat in the livingroom, still in her restaurant-worker's clothes, holding her seven-and-a-half-month-old girl whom I tell everyone I know is my god-child (of course I would--I have loads of pictures of her in my phone) but not really because there's a line-up of loved ones both friends and family members who would kill one another for god-parental rights. I imagine myself on that reality show The Gauntlet battling it out for this little kid.

"Yeah," I went on, "she told me once she had her baby girl, her entire perception of the world switched off of who she was before her child, to who she would become because of her. Like, she said she had almost forgotten entirely all she had done or all she was before this new focus entered her life. Then, it was all about her little girl from that point on."

"That's just about right, ain't it, Moo?" my friend said (although I wish she would call her daughter by her real name), holding her little one close while the baby tugged her father's sleeve trying to distract him from his college work.

"She's right, you know," my friend said. "I don't think I'm the only one who belongs to myself anymore. Now, it's all about Moo." She looked at her baby girl and grinned. "I mean, having her is like having a little Christmas present. Aren't ya, sweetie? And it's just like you know the present is there, and you spend all day thinking about it and when you'll get to open it. You leave home and when you come back, there it is, all wrapped up, ready to open. And once it's open you realize what a wonderful gift you have, and you just wanna play with it all day long, but you have to leave again, and it's sad, you know? To leave your gift behind. Sometimes the gift can get on your nerves or something, and you just wanna stop playing with it, but once you're away from it all day, it's all you can think about while you're away--but you remember that someone really nice who was watching your gift rewrapped it for you so that you could enjoy that same Christmas morning all over again." She chuckled loudly enough to startle the baby from her bottle (Moo went right back to chugging madly). "'I have a little iPod!' you scream to everyone you know. Moo! My whittle iPod Baaaabii!" She laughed and tossed the infant over her shoulder, and rubbed her puny back to calm her down so she could burp. My pretend-god-daughter grabbed her mother's neck, and let out a joyous cry.

By Cassondra Ellis
Columbus, Georgia

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Betsy, Homeless

Betsy was cheerful. Every time I drove by her in Chinle, Arizona, just outside of Canyon de Chelly, she waved and smiled and bobbed her matted blond hair at me. Every day I drove by her it was cold and windy and uninviting, and not very conducive to sitting down and talking; the campground where she was living was half closed, nearly deserted, its most regular visitors Navajo women living off the grid down in the canyon, who came in pick-up trucks loaded with empty plastic buckets and drums they dragged off and filled with fresh water from the camp spigot. Betsy was living off the grid, too, in a truck with a camper shell, its windows covered in foil. The camp had a five-day parking limit, but when I slipped out of our warm Safari and sat down at a picnic table to talk to her, one windy afternoon, she had already been there a week, she told me, and planned to stay at least two more.

Betsy has so many layers of clothing bulging under her light blue parka she looked Arctic, but she wanted to know if I thought she'd gotten a tan yet.

"Say yes, honey," she nudged me, winking, "and make me feel good."

I told her she had a nice burn on her face (I could also see a little of her dark neck, wrinkled and hung with a heavy necklace of cut black glass or stone).

She had a big book open on the table in front of her--the same one I'd seen her reading each day. It was a trilogy of Sandra Brown thrillers with a red mark-down tag on the front. I told Betsy about my interest in books, and what I did for a living, and her story began to shift as we spoke. At first she'd told me she'd lost her job in Colorado Springs, where she'd "worked security for Intel, on the Air Force base." Now, she told me proudly, she was a librarian.

She nodded and watched me closely. "I'm all about the reading, honey, don't you worry," she said. "I tell everyone I know they should read." She looked over at our vehicles. "Oh, I have a motorhome, too, you know!" She mimicked driving a large, angled steering wheel. "And a little sports car, too. But they're buried in the snow right now."

If she was from Colorado, that was certainly possible. I asked her what she was doing so far from home.

"I went to visit my niece in Arizona. But she's moving away. To Georgia. So now," she looked at me again, "I'm on my way to a new job. I'm going to work for a professor, just like what you were. I'm going to be his assistant. Up in Idaho. I don't want to live in the cold anymore."

I thought maybe I'd misunderstood. Idaho can be fairly cold. "That's wonderful. Which university?"

"I don't know. I just have an address. In Boise. They're going to put me in a dorm room until I get settled, see. I don't have to be there for another month, though. I'll have to get all my books shipped, of course. In my motorhome, I've got shelves and shelves and shelves and shelves of books. Maybe a thousand. I have to have my books with me. Always."

"Here in your truck, too?"

"Oh, you bet. I have everything I need. A bed and a tv and everything. Except," she said quickly, as though she thought I might ask to see, "I can't go back there right now, because my niece gave me a bunch of stuff. So I sleep stretched out on the front seat."

"Are you warm enough at night?" The night before it had fallen into the twenties.

"You know those special sleeping bags the rescue teams use up at Vail to get the messed-up skiers out? I got one of those. Hang on, I want to get your name so I can get one of your books." She stood from the picnic table and went to the front seat of her truck. "After I'm done with this one here, I'm going to take it back to the library and recycle it. I recycle all my books back to the library, you know. I'll recycle yours, too. Oh, wait, I don't have a pen!"

"If you want I could write it down for you."

"Okay. You can trust me with your name. But be careful, though. Have you been getting a lot of trouble from the Arizona police? They're everywhere, have you noticed? One border patrol guy stopped me for no reason and just kept asking me all these questions and questions and more questions about what I was doing, and I told him all I was doing was looking for a tomato. So when he was done asking all his stuff, I said, Well okay, now I've answered everything for you, what you got to do is answer me one question: where can I get that tomato? I mean," she laughed, "I'm down here in Arizona from Colorado, this time of year, and all I want to know is where can I find a big red juicy tomato. Someone told me they had them at a church somewhere. So that's all I want to know. Where is it? Where is that Church Of The Big Red Juicy Tomato?" she insisted, her eyes sliding away from me, losing me, but still smiling, distantly.

"I don't know," I admitted, as the wind whipped through the naked cottonwoods all around us.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Color Therapy

It isn't usually the case, when you walk into an art gallery, that you find the artist whose work is being exhibited on the softly lit walls sitting quietly nearby, nodding a welcome to you. But Nicholas Kirsten-Honshin had decided, that morning I visited Sedona, Arizona, to walk the two-and-a-half blocks down from his studio to the Golden Lotus Gallery, and spend some time shepherding visitors through the simple marvels of his paintings. He works (he told me after we had introduced ourselves) by first preparing a large wooden board; overlays of paint came next, oils in delicate and strong colors, forming the austere but beautiful shapes of the moons, ravens, orchids, trees and seeds he delights in; last came the delicate affixing of Japanese washi paper, so closely woven with the work itself it seemed as though the paint, too, were made of thread, in places.

"Where did you learn to paint?" I asked, impressed.

Nicholas touched his gray beard. His eyes were peaceful behind very bright, very clear, and perfectly round blue glasses. Under his white shirt he wore a necklace of his own design, a silver pendant with a glowing stone in the center that, if held up to the sun at the proper angle, directed the light safely and soothingly through his eye and into his brain: he called this color therapy.

"I'm from Seattle. My father was a painter in Seattle who was involved with the Chicago Art Institute and studied in Japan. When I was a boy, he let me play in his art studio and watch him work. My brother wasn't at all interested in the brushes and colors, but I wanted to be in my father's studio all the time, because I loved it there. Then later I studied in Japan myself, the way my father did." We were standing and talking in front of one of his newest works: a silhouetted tree shedding dark leaves which fell to earth, then transformed into seed and rose again, renergized by a strange, stirring symbol spiraling just below the surface.

"I also write a poem to accompany each painting," Nicholas said.

My writer's ears pricked up. "When did you start writing poetry?"

"Ah, that started during a time when I couldn't paint."

"But why couldn't you paint?"

He hesitated. Then he told me, carefully, that he had gone to live in a place that didn't really lend itself to painting--a small cabin without electricity in the wilderness of the North Cascades. He had taken his son there because, quite simply, his son was going to die if he didn't remove him from the city. Nicholas made a broad gesture with his hands and said, "He was going to die an urban death. From urban dangers. My son had gone down the wrong path, with the wrong people. He wasn't going to make it if I didn't do something." And so the two of them went to live in the green, cold, deep wild. Nicholas had no light to paint by, and no room for his canvases; but his son worked and chopped wood for fires, and slowly healed and changed course.

"Now," Nicholas said proudly, "he's a manager at Whole Foods."

I looked again at the painting of the elegant tree dropping its leaves only to have them radiate upward again, reborn thanks to the churning, hidden, spiraling force underground.

"Your father must be very proud of you," I said. "Is he still living? Does he still paint?"

"Oh yes. He can't see very well now, and he's lost all of his fine motor skills, but what he's doing is absolutely wonderful. He's like a child all over again. He doesn't care a thing about being perfect, or feel the need to fill in detail. It's all big, beautiful, bold strokes of color." And to show me, Nicholas wove his arms freely through the air, as if, with his father's hands, he was painting and washing away, simultaneously.


To learn more about Nicholas and his work, visit

Friday, May 1, 2009

What is American Stories NOW?

It's a love letter. It's a diary. It's a song.

A taste of what's to come:

I began collecting and writing true-to-life short pieces--"sudden non-fiction," as I call them--in early spring 2009. I'd just finished writing my fourth novel, and done (at long last!) with my fable The Wedding of Anna F., wanted nothing more than to hear other people's stories again. No more imaginary characters for me. I needed to get back to living, breathing human beings. I picked up my laptop, packed up the dog and husband, and hit the road.

My only rules for this blog, and for the encounters that lie behind it, are that each piece should grow out of a natural conversation and connection with someone I meet as I travel this strange, wonderful country of ours, or go around roaming my own hometown . . . and that each story be short, be real, and be respectful. I talk to far more people than I write about, and I listen far more than I talk. Not every conversation is, needs to be, should be a story. Some people tell me things which are simply too private to share. Others don't even think they "have a story to tell." Many don't realize what interesting, quirky, moving, funny and deeply beautiful things are tumbling straight from their mouths. As I see it, one of our jobs as human beings is to catch these gems where they fall, then fling them up in the air again, where they can glisten for a second, unexpected time. This is how we share our joy, and our sorrows, with each other.

Throughout the summer, I'll be posting a new story here, every few days. I hope you'll enjoy the people and lives you discover here, including the inaugural tale, Emily's, below. I'm more than enjoying myself: to listen is never to keep the lighthouse alone.

Welcome to American Stories NOW.


Emily's Story

First, I want you to meet Emily. I wish you could meet Emily. I met her standing in line at the pharmacy counter at Walgreen's #3848, 3300 Center Street, Deer Park, Texas. It was a long line at the end of a long day. People weren't happy. We were all of us hurting; we were all sniveling. We wanted drugs, and not the cheap plastic reading glasses or the bags of Goldfish dangling from metal clips next to us, unappetizing bait. Emily stood right in front of me. I didn't know her name, then; all I knew, and very much appreciated, was that she was as big and comforting-looking as an ice cream truck, and as brightly colored, too. Her spiky hair was purple and yellow (tutti-frutti, to my feverish brain; sweet sounds so nice when you're not feeling well). Her chest was covered in a zesty, orange sherbet safety vest, and she carried a bright yellow hardhat, a bright pink phone, and on her feet wore big brand-new-looking butterscotch workboots with splotches of red and yellow paint on the toe guards. I wanted to hug her. The feast of Emily blocked my view of the long line, another fact I very much appreciated: there's no point dwelling on how far you have to go on a drugstore march--it's like forcing yourself to contemplate Everest from your basecamp in Jersey. Besides, by now I'd noticed the glow, the beads of sweat shining on Emily; I'd seen how she was bouncing in that glum line (full of people, like me, with too many white blood cells and not enough Blue Cross to shield us), so obviously happy she could hardly contain herself. She was bursting. She wanted somebody to talk to. You could see that.

I love to see people when they're feeling that way. She kept checking her phone and then dropping it to her side, sighing. I didn't even need to make the first move.

"You looking at the paint on my boots?" she turned to me, eagerly.

"I sure was."

"These are brand new, too. But I don't care. I made it. I'm in! You get to one week, they paint you! Red spraypaint on one boot, yellow on the other. That means, you're in. That means you get to keep the job! It means I'm officially one of the gang."

"Wow. Congratulations. What kind of work do you do?"

She went on to explain she'd just been hired by a company that marked gas lines so that construction crews wouldn't hit them and explode us all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas. She loved her job, she said. She loved it. It was so exciting. And unbelievable to have, too, considering how many people were losing their jobs, right now.

But you only got three 'strikes,' though, she added, in a darker tone. If three times, crews hit a line because you didn't detect and mark it with paint of the right color, you were out. So far she had no strikes. Zero. A perfect week, and it was her first.

"That's good," I said.

Then I looked up the line at all the snivelers and moaners like me and said: "I hope it's a job with good health benefits?"

"Hell, no. Thank God we got my husband's medical. But I still love it. I mean, they grabbed me and sprayed me today! It means I'm in! I've been trying to call my kids and tell them. I'll bet they'll be excited."

"I'll bet."

I understood, then, what my job was--for a few minutes, anyway. My job, for a little while, was to stand in for Emily's family. To hold the place they would soon be filling. It was nice, having a job, waiting in that line. It gave me a sense of well-being. It was nice to know what to do, how to mark a given situation.

"So this is a good day for you," I said to keep things going.

"Yeah. But not for this other guy in my crew," she shook her head. "He's been working with this same company for years now. And all of a sudden, he gets two strikes. In one week. This week. Everyone's so worried about him. Because he's really sharp, otherwise."

How awful, I thought. You think you know what you're doing, you think you have it down pat, and then suddenly you lose your touch, or have a run of bad luck. And strike three . . .

Then her phone rang.

"That's my daughter," she grinned, and turned away from me. "You're gonna love this, honey!" she said, and moved up one spot, and left me, happily, in the Walgreen's dust.