Categories
Flash Nonfiction

Into the Stratosphere by Ken Szymanski

Into the Stratosphere | Ken Szymanski

Call me foolish, but I’m pulling up to Flynn Elementary School on a windy Sunday in March with two sons, two kites, and a dog. We’ve come in search of wide-open space and great gusts of wind and compared to the valley down below where we live, this place feels like Mount Olympus. Spring days like this—with 30-40 mph gales—are rare, and up here on the hill the kites should take flight with ease. 

We park on the road and walk out onto the open soccer field—the sweeping sky above us. I get Kite One up in no time. My thirteen-year-old son struggles with Kite Two’s tendency to nose-dive while my ten-year-old son runs with the dog on a leash. Before I even have a chance to admire Kite One and say something like “Gravity’s got nothing on us,” the dog has cut loose and I realize I’ve got one too many things to hang onto. Kite One is already at full height and going strong, so I hook the C-shaped plastic spool to the soccer net and help my younger son catch the dog. 

Once we’ve retrieved our dog, I hold the leash while the boys work the kites—now both sky-high. Acting as ground control, I shout instructions through the gusts of wind. “They’re going to get tangled! Pull back! Pull back! Move over!”

My younger son asks, “What would happen if I let go?” 

“Don’t,” I respond. 

“But what would happen if I did?”

“Don’t,” I repeat. 

I go help my older son, who is stuck with the slightly defective Kite Two. We make adjustments and get a better lift-off. Then he turns and says, “Look at Evan’s kite! Woah!!!!” 

It’s drifting—far past the string’s limit, 100 yards up and over the school. And it just keeps going. Forget about, “Houston, we have a problem.” I can guess the problem.  

“Did you let it go?” I shout into the wind. 

“I did but I tried to catch it!”

“Why did you let it go?”

“I tried to catch it!”

It’s only a four-dollar kite, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to send it into the stratosphere. Both boys run to the other side of the school to track it while the dog and I bring down Kite Two. 

I place Kite Two in the van and go check on the boys. My annoyance is replaced by the lift I feel from seeing them excited and collaborating. They’re under a tree in front of the school looking up, pointing, and laughing. The kite is still flying high in the air, but the C-shaped spool caught a tree branch. Now, in effect, the tree is flying the kite—with far less effort than we were putting into it. 

“With the wind blowing like this, that kite is not coming down,” I say. With the spool caught on a branch too high up for us to reach, that kite will be in limbo all day. Again, it’s a four-dollar kite, but if rescue is possible… 

“We could go home and get the ladder,” I say. “Or maybe if we stood on top of the van, we could reach it.”

“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” they yell. “Get the van!”

The dog and I return with the rescue van, which is parked close by on the road, and we pull it beneath the tree. I boost both boys up on top of the van. They’re not only lighter than me and easier on the roof, they’re also thrilled to be standing up there. From his new scaffold, the oldest is just tall enough to grab the spool, unhook it, and hand it down to me. 

When I was younger than both these boys, I once flew kites with a bunch of relatives in a Minneapolis parking lot. The string slipped out of my cousin’s hand; it shot straight toward the sky with the kite. But my uncle saw it, jumped up, and snatched the string —with the agility of a Labrador retriever leaping after a Frisbee. That looked like a superpower to me. Here, our kite rescue is clumsy by comparison, but satisfying nonetheless. 

“Can we fly the kite out the window on the way home?” my older son asks. I remind him of powerlines. “Oh yeah,” he says.

Then, on our way down Brackett Hill, back to the lowlands, my younger son asks, “What would have happened to the kite if the tree hadn’t caught it?”

“It would’ve just kept flying forever,” I say.

He thinks about it, then responds: “Imagine if in a million years some guy was flying to Mars and he looked out the window and saw it.”

Imagine.  

I return home with two sons, a dog, and two kites: all intact. Ground control, mission complete. The kids soared like kites, and I was their string, keeping them tethered. And on this day, the winds—which are always beyond our control—gave us a lift for the ages. 

About the Author:

Author Ken Szymanski in Eau Claire on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

Ken Szymanski is the 2020-2022 Writer in Residence for Eau Claire, WI, where he was born and raised. He honed his craft through nights performing at poetry slams and even later nights writing concert reviews as a free-lance music journalist. He’s a long-time contributor for Volume One Magazine, and audio versions of his essays have appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio. With his wife and two sons, he lives in Eau Claire—where he teaches 8th grade English. He recently released a collection of non-fiction essays called Home Field Advantage. For more on Szymanski, visit www.kenszymanski.com

Categories
Flash Nonfiction

Blinding by Ali Bryan

Blinding | Ali Bryan

Gather the children. The leggy girl, eight and full of promise. The freckled and fat-footed boy in the Ninja Turtles trunks. The slippery baby with the coppery hair and a penchant for breastfeeding. 

Guide them across the pool deck avoiding the snapped goggles and wet Band-Aids and Croc-ked lifeguards. The towels in lumps against the wall. The moms that don’t swim. Adjust your sagging suit.

Stop outside the steam room and study the sign. Note the shapeless seniors hunched and parked like stuffed animals behind the foggy glass door. Wonder if there’s room for your small army to join their séance. To melt away.

Remind your kids this is not a play place. It’s a place to sit. A place to drip. A place to think. About what? They ask. Anything, you reply. Thinking is free in the steam room. Your children process this with fierce anticipation. They think about what they’ll think about. The baby grabs your breast. Milk is all she thinks.

Push open the door and swallow a cloud of heat. A woman in a practical Speedo with cashew skin leaves to make room. An older woman follows. Arrange your brood across an upper bench. Remind them that they’re here to think. The boy closes his eyes.

Observe the man across from you. His hide-like skin, tanned and age-spotted, his large hands bracing the edge of the seat. Hair the color of steam. His smile. Wonder why he’s smiling. Assume he’s a pervert. Here, alone. Which of you is he staring at? Which of you does he want?

Tug your kids into a tight heap, like a pile of laundry. Close. Embrace the heaviness of the steam, the silence and the scent of the chlorine. Ignore the baby’s desperate attempts to nurse, the man’s desperate attempts to connect. He’s still smiling. He watches. Hope that he will go.  Hope he will award you two minutes alone in this sacred place to think/not think.

You’re lucky, he says. To have three. Three kids he means, of course. Their fleshy thighs press against you, their sopping hair and wrinkled suits graze your arms. Know they worship you. Know the weight of their expectations. Heavy as steam.

I am, you reply, as you contemplate his comment. Strange, but not perverted. A benign observation.

I used to have two, he says, wistfully, thoughtfully. My son died ten years ago. In a car accident. The story, like the car his son was driving, moves full speed ahead.  My daughter crosses her ankles, fidgets, traces shapes on the blue tiled wall. My son is still thinking, eyes squeezed shut. The baby bounces her face off my chest. He came to the top of the hill. They think it was the sun, hey? Blinded him. Head on collision with a tractor-trailer. Died instantly. The man shakes his head. 

His grief floats around the room. You swallow it whole. Taste his pain. I’m sorry, you whisper. Sorry that you lost a child. For thinking that you were a pervert. For thinking that you were anything but a human looking for something: connection, commiseration, compassion. 

We only have our daughter now to rely on. We are old. 

Sit, all of you, with your thoughts, which swirl and collide and touch. Except for the relentless baby who does not. You stand. Collect her on your hip, tell the others it’s time to go. They open the door sending in a rush of cool, thoughtless air. You stop and turn to the man. Your words have fled, but you still have your hands. You touch his shoulder. You touch his shoulder. You touch his shoulder. 

In the locker room you dress. Your son jumps up and down, shares what he was thinking. Your baby feeds. Your oldest brushes her hair.  You stuff wet towels into a bag, order kids to stand in a line, collect things, tie laces, zip coats. 

You walk outside into the blinding sun with your three. 

About the Author:

Ali Bryan’s first novel, Roost, won the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction and her second novel, The Figgs, was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. She’s longlisted for the CBC Canada Writes CNF prize, shortlisted for the Jon Whyte Memorial Essay Award, and won the 2020 Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story. Her debut YA novel, The Hill, was released in March from Dottir Press. She lives in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, where she has a wrestling room in her garage and regularly gets choked out by her family.

Categories
Flash Nonfiction

Read Her Lips by Bryan Starchman

Read Her Lips | By Bryan Starchman

My mind was busy as I made a beeline for the bathroom in the back of the Chevron Minimart in Kayenta, Arizona. I was passing through the automatic sliding doors when I almost smacked into this scary looking son of a bitch. He was taller than me, probably six-foot-eight, but maybe even taller because he was hunched over. He was wearing a heavy black duster in the middle of June and his hair was greasy. Not from product, but from filth. It was long and stringy and I could see where it had stained the shoulders of his coat. But what struck me was the way he was holding onto their wrists. 

Two girls. Maybe seven or eight. I can’t be sure. It was just a moment but I’d say seven or eight. One looked like she could be his progeny. Skinny. Pale. Greasy hair. Tall for her age. But the other, the one he seemed scared of losing, she just didn’t make sense. Olive skin. Shoeless. A tattered sundress that was too big. And green eyes like I’ve never seen. 

I’ve met people who claim to have green eyes and really they’re hazel or mud-colored. But this little girl looked up at me with the greenest eyes. Forest green. If you could capture the essence of a pine tree and photoshop that into your sockets. There you go. I can’t shake it. 

And in that split second I was trying to deduce what the situation was…who was this man to these little girls…what was their relationship…why was he holding them so tight…why the too big dress and why the greasy hair?  All three had greasy hair, like they hadn’t showered in weeks. And where were her shoes? Even with a summer storm on the horizon, the pavement was blistering hot. In that split second, I looked into her green eyes and she mouthed something. “Could we please?”

Could we please what? Was it a silent plea to her unlikely dad to buy a bag of chips or an ice cream sandwich or a cheap pair of flip flops? Could we please visit our mom? Could we please stay at a hotel? Take a hot shower? Get cleaned up? Could we please buy me a dress that fits? 

And why was she looking at me as she asked him this question? 

The tall man sensed her hesitation and he sped up, dragging the girls away. I took a step or two into the minimart and by the time I turned around he was slamming them away behind the passenger door of a rusted El Camino. He climbed in, started the engine, and sped off. And I just stood there. Wondering if lip reading was a thing. 

*** 

I often get lost in that moment. Late at night. With my laptop open on the coffee table as I stare at the television but I’m not really watching. I’ll mute the TV to try to focus on my writing and I’ll look up and try to guess what the actors are saying. What the commercials are advertising. I’ll try to read their lips. Most of the time I get it wrong but some things I can figure out like “safe drivers save forty percent” or “Ford sales event.” But I can always turn up the volume and confirm my suspicions. And then I’ll remember what the green-eyed girl mouthed to me: “Could we please?” 

Was it “Could we please?” 

Or was she telling me to “Call the police”? 

About the Author:

BRYAN STARCHMAN is an author, published playwright, and educator living in San Francisco, California. His plays have been produced over 3000 times in all 50 states and 10 countries. In the past year his short fiction has been featured in The Saturday Evening Post and in the literary magazines After Dinner Conversation, In Parentheses, Scribble, Apracity, Avalon Literary Review and Litro. His non-fiction essays have been featured in the national print magazine ROVA and his latest book, United Scenes of America: Travel Essays in the time of COVID-19 and Other Wanderings, is now available at Amazon.com IG @Bryan.starchman

Categories
Flash Nonfiction

May There Always Be by Katie Kalahan

May There Always Be | By Katie Kalahan

My mom likes to say that her goal is to have all of her children (there are only two of us) in one time zone. My parents recently moved to Arizona, where time is the same all year round; they don’t follow daylight saving. For half of the year, my mom is in my brother’s time zone—Mountain Time. For the other half, she is in mine—Pacific Time. 

When I was little, my mom asked me to make a drawing on a piece of paper. I don’t know how old I was. I drew the woods behind our house, which had a trail that led up to a park. In fact it was a few lines in crayon but I remember how it looked when I drew it—a lush and fully formed image. She wrote a quote on it in calligraphy, and entered it into a juried show. 

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In college, I made an artist book for my senior thesis about my mom—Unsaid. I didn’t believe that I thought about my relationship with my mom that much so I surprised myself by writing about her. The book is a series of brief passages describing my memories of the times I learned about sexuality and my body from my mom. There weren’t many times; it was easy to include them all. The images behind the text are halftone lithographs of me and my girlfriend at the time in intimate moments—they aren’t explicit but they are sexual. The colophon of the book says that I made it before I came out to my mom, because I didn’t come out to my parents until I graduated from college and could be financially independent from them, until I felt they had no standing to try to tell me how to live my life. 

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The drawing and calligraphy were a collaboration but I was too young to understand. The book was a collaboration but my mom didn’t know about it until it was done. Making art about someone I love is a collaboration, whether they know about it or not. 

For years I have been living with the idea of a piece, called Perfect Lovers by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I have never seen it in person. I have never sat in front of it and cried. Gonzalez-Torres is, for me, a friend I have never met, whose life only overlapped with mine by six years, whose life is abjectly unlike mine and yet—I feel an affinity for him. 

Always, if I am drawn to someone, I am afraid that they will not be drawn to me. 

Perfect Lovers is two clocks, set to the same time. As they run, one will inevitably die before the other. They will fall out of sync. 

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But what if the most perfect love is between mother and child, when their hearts beat as one? And the rest of life is the process of falling out of sync?

Even mothers and three-month-old infants can synchronize their heartbeats. But now, three decades after she incubated me, our hearts are mysteries to one another. 

When I was in high school and college I made art with words where I layered words over each other to make an image; the words jittered and shook together over each other repeated and repeated to create something new. When my mom was in college she did the same. I didn’t know until after I graduated and she handed me some of her prints. I hadn’t known she had made prints, I knew my mom as a lapsed calligrapher and as a graphic designer who mostly laid out church programs and instruction manuals.

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I wrote about Felix Gonzalez-Torres in college, something about transcendence and the need for finding transcendence through sex for queer people. “Non-traditional sites of transcendence,” I think I said in an attempt to sound academic. Later, I wrote a story about artists in New York in a threesome marked by different kinds of intimacy and different kinds of power. I named the cat in the story and the story itself after him: “Felix”. I don’t know if I can even compare it, my life to his, my pain to his pain, my love to his love, but there is an affinity there or simply admiration, and there was a point in my life that I needed to see that a photo of the shared bed of two men—two men in love—was put on billboards around New York City, in a year when I was too young to know I was different from my mom. 

Gonzalez-Torres’ work is so beautiful and so simple that viewers are drawn in before they realize how it implicates them. So that to look away is an active choice. His work is shot through with grief, which is the desire for the future you imagined, which will never come to be: AIDS without crisis, government without lies, love without loss, perfect parents, a child who doesn’t leave.

If straight desire is the desire for your counterpart, the difference, the calendar to your clock, then same-gender desire is the desire for your mirror. 

I remember saying once, about that girlfriend whose body against mine is printed into a book about my mom, that good relationships are like being both parent and child. You get to take care of and you get to be taken care of. Perfect lovers. 

Now my mom knits, she knits beautiful and delicate garments and she knits silly ornaments and she knits for charity and for gifts and all the time. My mom likes to knit socks, which are always matching and never a perfect pair. I hate knitting. I don’t have the patience she has.

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When I started writing this essay, I didn’t remember what that quote was on our earliest collaboration. I thought that maybe it was something about ‘home’.

As I drew each image, I kept thinking about the quote. And as I drew a facsimile of my own crayon drawing, I remembered fragments: “May there always be sunshine,” I remembered, “may there always be mama, may there always be me.” I searched for it and found that it’s from a 1993 Raffi song, so I was older than three when we made that collaboration. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996. He was born two years after my mom. Perfect Lovers was first shown in 1991, when my heart was still beating in time with my mother’s. 

About the Author:

Katie Kalahan says that she lives and works in Seattle, but right now, they actually live in Olympia. They are pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and hold a BFA in Printmaking/Drawing and English Literature from Washington University in Saint Louis. Her work is published in The Ear, Thin Air Magazine, and Witness Magazine.

Categories
Flash Nonfiction

Lorenzo Cain, #6 by Jade Hidle

Lorenzo Cain, #6 | By Jade Hidle

Past the musty hollow of dinosaur ribcage in Cabazon where we did our best PeeWee Herman impressions, monarch wings splatter and smear the windshield, catch in the grill of my dad’s Ford pickup. Under the cab, I caterpillar into a sleeping bag next to surf-wax melted into the metal, cans of chili rolling around with every bend in the desert highway, and Dean Koontz books, dogeared with print smudged from my dad’s thumb sh-sh-shing across the page. “Speed-reading school,” he said. “What a gyp.”

  In the desert, my dad was all mustache and heartbreaker styled after the thunk-whir of Zappa and Rude Dog tank tops, windows down with Tom Petty, John Fogerty, and Prine; the tinny of Dick Dale’s string wave reverberating in the truck’s rattling metal frame, and beehived black women in the “The” groups singing sweet harmonies into the dry wind. This seemed to be the dad he wanted to be. 

  In the desert, I was all mimic like the viceroy butterfly camouflaging to match monarchs bravely venturing far from home. I tanned without my mother there to color grade me; I ate whatever and however much without her refugee proverbs about wasting food. I wish I’d had my dad around more to balance her out, more than the every-other-weekend and one-week-a-summer glimpses of the different ways I could be. With him, I shook off the fear of being outside that I had inherited from my mother, and I journeyed with my dad in what I believed was an untouched landscape. 

But only the mistaken read the desert as empty instead of full. 

  At Angels spring training in Tempe, El Diablo Stadium, March desert winds push heat into the crescent between eye and socket to dry out all I see and through the sweat beading on my scalp, blowing out strands like the seismic glass of Pele’s hair. Out here I’m close to the players’ voices, to the slap of leather, to the lip-to-lip thwa thwa spit-arc of chewed tobacco and sunflower seeds. 

  Older, I wear halter tops to get autographs, to hear the distant whistle from the bullpen. My dad keeps distant, reads the changing count on the pixelated glow of the scoreboard.

  Night in the desert feels clean. Under the hive shine of stadium lights, my dad and I share deep-fried Oreos. The sweater keeps the sun in my arms and chest, as goosebumps pepper my bare kneecaps. Oreo cream and crumb gray into chunks in the corners of my dad’s mouth, and I’m glad our sweaters prevent our skin from touching as we reach for more.

  We look ahead at the grass and dirt diamond, behind Royals’ Lorenzo Cain fielding right.

The first error he fumbles with a smack to his thigh;

The second with a grunt that we giggle over as the last fried Oreo grows cold;

The third he “fuck!”s to the open star-pocked desert sky and my dad mocks, “Ooooh” like he did every time I made trouble to test if anyone cared;

The fourth almost brings Cain to tears, and in unison my dad and I breathe, “Oh, Lorenzo.”

The fifth–the fifth–sets a record for him. And us.

  Lorenzo drops his head, still and silent, as his teammates run to the dugout. We don’t address it. “I gotta hit the head,” my dad says, and I nod and cringe because I’ve never told him how much I hate that saying, along with “hitting the spot,” or “You’re so grouchy,” or his refrain of “Be nice,” as much as I know he hates all the silences I keep out of fear I’ll say something he’ll hate even more.

  My dad returns with a Lorenzo Cain jersey and drapes it over my cold knees.

Now that our roads are shorter, I wear my jersey, #6, every third time I see my dad, to tell him, without words, that I remember the errors that were made, but am proud they were with him.

About the Author:

Jade Hidle (she/her/hers) is the proud Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian daughter of a refugee. Her travel memoir, The Return to Viet Nam, was published by Transcurrent Press in 2016, and her work has also been featured in Michigan Quarterly Review:  Mixtape, Southern Humanities Review, Poetry Northwest, Witness Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, The West Trade Review, Bangalore Review, Columbia Journal, New Delta Review, and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network’s diacritics.org.
You can follow her at @jadethidle.

Categories
Flash Nonfiction

The Envelope by Lynn Magill

The Envelope | By Lynn Magill

I recognized the slightly shaky, looped handwriting on the outside of the envelope. It looked much like my own, only bigger and hastier – just like its author. It was addressed to me, and the postmark read: Waterloo, Iowa

I let it marinate on the black granite kitchen counter unopened for a day or so, like a clog I was hoping Liquid Drano would take care of for me with no unpleasant interaction on my part. No such luck. There’s just no way to deal with either of my half-sisters without getting some shit splattered on you, really. I could make out purple hydrangeas on the inner card, opaque, like everything else in this relationship.

Deep breath.

It’s just a card. You don’t have to open it if you don’t want to.

Breathe.

I hadn’t heard from my older half-sister Julie since, what? 2018? Amanda, our younger sister, had been silent even longer– 2015, when she’d blown up in a meth-fueled text tirade over my not calling her within 10 minutes while I was inside the county hospice center, seeing my mother alive for the very last time. Holding her weak, impossibly pale hand and fixating on the flecked institutional linoleum so she didn’t exit this earth worrying about me crying. When I’d walked out of the aging one-story facility to my rental car, the summer humidity hadn’t yet turned to fall and the scent of the recently harvested cornfields was like my own hope: freshly plowed under. I wriggled my nose to dislodge some of the beige dust from the dirt roads that still managed to seep in through the a/c vents. I plugged in my phone and it managed to pick up a one-bar signal as I turned out of the parking lot: 43 fucking texts? Now?

Not today, Satan. I stuck the card upright between the Black & Decker coffeemaker and the microwave, brushing away a few grounds and crumbs from breakfast as I walked away.

When I awoke from a fitful nap, my husband said “Aren’t you going to open it? I’m curious.”

I wasn’t. But I slid my index fingernail under the flap and moved it along the seam, the paper separating from glue sounding like a page being torn out of a book.

Lynn,

Thought you might want this picture of you. I have a new job in town now, closer to my house. It is much better! I can walk to work.

Julie

And I began to laugh. The picture – what was left of it – was one from 1972, taken in front of my father’s orange floral couch, brown wall paneling. Kindergarten. Smiling, hands clasped in front of me; wearing a white chiffon dress. Someone had even combed my wavy hair. Easter. I had this exact same photo; my mother must have had copies made back then. Except the one in my album had four people: my father (long dead), my half-sisters, and me. The one she so graciously sent me had telltale original rounded edges on the right side, and on the left the edges were, in contrast, sharp: it had been cut in two from its original rectangular shape.

They had cut me out of family photos and were sending the discarded halves to me.

Half-sisters indeed.

About the Author:

Lynn Magill lives in Western Washington with deep Iowa roots that influence many aspects of her work. She writes poetry and nonfiction and is also a painter and visual artist. She is scheduled to graduate from Central Washington University in Winter 2021 with a master’s degree in Professional and Creative Writing. She has two nonfiction pieces scheduled for publication in Spring of 2021 in an anthology via McFarland & Sons, as well as a poetry piece in Route 7 Review. Lynn loves to travel and spend time with her husband on their Texas ranch herding goats and finding any excuse to avoid being within range of cell phone reception.

Categories
Flash Nonfiction

Better Off by James Penha

Better Off | By James Penha

My ninety-five-year-old aunt says she wants to die at home. Not in a new place—a senior living place where she will know no one (though she knows almost no one living anywhere anymore… except the caregiver who cares a few hours per day at a handsome rate off the books… and the well-tipped building superintendent… and the old lady down the hall who complains about every noise from my aunt’s apartment but only wants what my aunt wants, she says, and that is for her to stay home.) And so I will continue, I know, to get emergency beeps and texts and calls at irregular hours regularly, and I think for the first time ever that my aunt would be better off, as she has often said herself, dead “because ninety-five is plenty for anyone.” I wonder if in twenty years, when I am as old as she is now, who besides me will wish me dead.

About the Author:

A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work has lately appeared in several anthologies: The View From Olympia (Half Moon Books, UK), Queers Who Don’t Quit (Queer Pack, EU), What We Talk About It When We Talk About It, (Darkhouse Books), Headcase , (Oxford UP), Lovejets (Squares and Rebels), and What Remains (Gelles-Cole). His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha

Categories
Flash Nonfiction

Cohesion Forces in an Avalanche by Kathryn Stam

Cohesion Forces in an Avalanche | By Kathryn Stam

There are people whose job it is to model cohesion forces in avalanches. To build a snow chute in Switzerland, to freeze ice and simulate wet and dry snow, to calibrate the instruments, to measure the centripetal pressures of the avalanche’s head and tail, to graph molecular bonding, to examine precisely how much stress can build before the skier is crushed in a tumbling ball of ice and stone, and any amount of dynamite prevention still makes her a dead skier. Did she do her job to bring a shovel, a probe, and a beacon, the newest model that would allow her to detect the heartbeats of buried victims and flag their location under the unstable mass of ice and snow, branches and boulders? The people whose job it is to sell beacons caution that the plane of the antenna’s broadcast is crucial because it is easiest to find the victim if she is at the correct angle, lying down horizontally.

There are people whose job it is to force other people to carry rice for soldiers, or light the match that sets fire to a Karen village in Burma. To load the BA72 rifles and chase Hser and Prikadi into the hills in their pink plastic flip flops, where they hide all night hushed in tall brush, then sneak toward the Thai border where they will be told they cannot cross because they do not have papers. There are people whose job it is to wait at camp and console new arrivals. Pawsersoe hears they are coming and stokes the fire with a smoldering ear of corn to cook them some sticky rice and bamboo soup. She unrolls a ratan mat and hangs a mosquito net for them. They will sleep next to Tamla Win, who arrived twenty-two days ago but still hasn’t found his daughter Hainey yet. There are people whose job it is to wash wounds with stream water and poultices of morning glory, and wrap them with soiled strips of plaid blue and grey lungi cloth. There are people whose job it is to count the dead Karen as if those numbers mattered somewhere to someone. Whose job is it to tell refugee stories?

At our community center in Utica, NY, my job is to wash the dishes with a rag I make out of a flannel shirt from the donations pile. And to laminate the signs that says, “Don’t move the ping pong table,” and, “no spitting into the garbage, please.” As a writer, our job is something else though. Poet Nick Flynn tells us that “…this is the ultimate purpose of why we are here — to create a scrim that others can project onto, so they can actively participate in trying to make meaning out of this, out of everything….” (Flynn, 2013, 70). I take his words and rush to create a scrim, a ratan scrim, something I might be able to produce from the pile of crap in the back of my silver Toyota Yaris, with the betel nut candy wrappers, a pink booster seat, Hemish’s bathing suit, and a radish that rolled out of the recycle bag into the spare tire well where it waits for a sweltering day to fully realize its fusty essence. My job is to question every assumption and make wild claims, and trust you with this meandering tale. The one word I am forbidden to use is the only word my mind can muster, but seven-minute bursts into my subconscious and other words emerge in purple pulses and threadbare scraps of sound.

When I was twenty-nine years old and visiting a Nepali ashram, Swamiji told me upon first sight that I knew nothing of yoga. We would not do yoga poses because that’s just the superficial thing. Our job was to sit here under the Bodhi fig tree on Chinese plastic chairs, to eat salted popcorn and drink chai and gaze upon the snow-capped foothills of the sacred mountain Gauri Shankar. We breathed in the prayers of Shiva and Shakti that would waft on cantering wind horses, lungta, with wish-fulfilling flaming jewels on their backs.

“But don’t eat the fatty things, Stamji. You are too fatty already. Breath is all you need. The rest is the shallow thing. We will sit here and I will teach you the chakras and the structure and secrets of the universe and God. You will not suffer. You will release your baby, your Thailand baby whose solid body expired after only three cleansing breaths. God goes to God, Seed goes to seed. Look around, this ashram is overflowing with filth and rats but everyone here is happy.” 

Swamiji’s job was to ease suffering. That morning, he would teach me about the four forces of life currents, the forces of life being, and the nineteen elements of the cosmic body. Swamiji’s orange-robed disciple’s job was to flush his master’s deposits down the squat toilet before anyone else could smell or see it.

A few years later, my job was to become a mother again. A real mother who got to go home from the hospital with a real baby, a boy with adult-sized ears, big brown eyes, and flat farmer’s feet like is father’s, and whose job it was to cry, loud, at the top of his tiny little lungs, a beacon to tell the whole floor that he was here, even before the staff rang their baby bell. A most spectacular boy who grows and twenty-three years later is still spectacular.

Inspired by: Bartelt, P., Valero, C.V., Feistl, T., Christen, M., Buhler, Y., and O. Buser. (2015). “Modelling cohesion in snow avalanche flow.” Journal of Glaciology, 61 (229), 837-850

About the Author:

Kathryn Stam is an anthropology professor and creative non-fiction writer who is obsessed with all things Himalayan. She volunteers with resettled refugees and teaches about cultural diversity. She has spent the past several years learning how to slay a few of her most pernicious enemies. https://kathrynruthstam.wordpress.com/