“Ready… set…”

We were already set and just waiting for the go. At the top of the 30th Street hill, gravity pulled at us less than we hoped for, calves tensed, driving rubber soles into the pavement, poised to lean forwards.

“… Go-go-go!”

I threw my body forward with all the push my legs could generate, shoving the seat of the cart just enough to keep it out of the way but not so much that it got gone. I kept the edge of the wood frame just ahead of the one foot whizzing forward to grab pavement and kick off, then the other, then the first, the other, the first, other, first, other-first-other-first-other-first. At the very limit of angle and drive and resistance, at the edge of falling, the go-cart starts to pull away, and with one final lunge I throw my body past the seat, land in it, and grab the steering wheel.

As the truck strains to climb the next hill, I look over at her, and she lifts her eyes and looks back at me. I raise an eyebrow, and one corner of her mouth starts to curl up. At the crest, I kill all the truck lights and turn up the volume. I take the truck out of gear and my feet off the pedals.”

Speed was what I was chasing. Not distance divided by time elapsed, because it hadn’t yet been stuck with a pin and mounted under glass. No, not the idea of speed, the downright gut-tugging rush of it. The wind of it, the strain of it, the slippage, the blur, the risk, the fear. The fun was the loss of control and also, without contradiction, the sense of mastery that came from not wiping out. How sharply could you turn before starting a slide? How far could you ride the slide without rolling? What if a car came around the turn and headed for you? Who could get to the bottom of the hill first? I don’t remember winning or losing, and I’m sure I did both. What I remember is the speed.

At ten or eleven years old, there’s nothing better than spending after-school hours rolling down the hill and trudging back up, pushing or towing the now slow and heavy go-cart back to the starting line. The neighborhood would fill with the growl of hollow plastic wheels on pavement, whoops of excitement or exertion, and the shouted taunts, challenges, dares, and defiant recaps. We all have to be back home before dinner, but that’s forever away and never crosses our minds until we hear the first of our parents calling from down the street.

It’s been decades since I’ve seen a go-cart. Today my wife and I have sold our first home, which sits full of packed cartons and empty furniture and fading memories that need to be out by tomorrow. The next job, that would allow us to afford the next home, vanished this week. Of course the mortgage followed right after it. I pick up the moving truck on my way from work in the afternoon and the sun sets on us pacing, walking into the house empty-handed and out again to the truck with arms full. Each trip we walk into a house that is less of a home, and walk back out a little slower, on legs a little heavier and stiffer. I charge up the truck ramp, trying to let the momentum carry part of the load. On my way back down I slow at the top and descend with knees threatening to buckle with each step. We know where the truck’s going tonight, but what will happen after that is too dark with anxiety to be seen.

The past year has been a financial sliding-tile game where we would try to make all the numbers line up according to the bills that came in. At the end of every month there was always a square left open no matter how clever we were at the game. We’d looked at each other over the checkbook balance and agreed that we were one unexpected failure away from losing it all. That was at least three unexpected failures ago.

The central air quit right at the start of last summer, and we learned how to make the most of the window unit I got for our bedroom and a pedestal fan to blow the cool air through the door into the den. When the car broke down, stranding my wife at the side of the highway, I rode my bike out to get her. We’re resourceful, we’re capable, we know how to work hard and how to hustle to make it work. And we made it work. Then the pregnancy got complicated, and that took us past where we thought our limits were, and we learned how many types of pain the hospital holds, and about costs that go far beyond the financial, but are still accompanied by bills that have surprisingly large numbers in the box titled “Amount Now Due.”

The only good option we had left was to move, downsize, and find a place with more opportunity, but none of that went as planned. At each critical point we extended ourselves to get as close as we could on our end, only to have someone on the other end let us down. Each time it was left to us to quickly improvise a solution. One catch followed close by another, accelerating their pace like tipping dominoes, and we found ourselves working harder and running faster to keep our feet under us, and to keep from being overtaken by the feeling of it all slipping away. Tomorrow there will be calls to make, and faxes of documents to print and sign and scan and send. There will be long minutes of looking at the bank account trying to calculate how long the balance will last without any idea of what the expenses will be. There will be silent pauses between sighs wondering how far we could get just hitting the road with the cash we’d scraped together for the down payment.

When there’s as much in the truck as we can fit, my arms are too tired to roll the rear door down softly and I slam it too loud for 3:30 in the morning. I sit on the tailgate and straighten out my hat and my back as she stands between my knees and lights two cigarettes. We each quit a long time ago, but tonight we just sit and puff without words or guilt. I finish with one last long drag and crush the butt on the bumper, watching the sparks shower down. When we’re done, we each walk up front and struggle to climb into the cab. When I turn the key in the ignition, the engine sputters for a moment before starting up. I stretch my neck and shoulders before putting it in gear and easing on the accelerator. As we turn out of the driveway of the empty house, we hear the sound of shifting and settling in the back. It’s tomorrow already, and the only thing that’s certain is we’ll have to wait and see.

We head out of our neighborhood, spent and sitting quietly as the streetlights peer in, pass by. Tomorrow is too unimaginable for us to even talk about. The sun will be up in a few hours, and I know I’ll sleep in. My entire body is exhausted and there’s nothing to get excited about that might distract it into keeping moving. We roll the windows down to try to let the humidity out of the cab.

We come around the big bend to approach the main road. As we do, the traffic signal turns, indiscriminately following its late night sequence. We stop under it, lit red, with the truck’s left blinker clicking, clicking, clicking. No one crosses our path, but we’re still left waiting. My vision blurs and my mind starts to idle in a tight spin. I blink hard to bring them both back into focus. The light finally returns green and I get the truck moving again.

Second gear, then third, and the air finally feels cool through the open windows, blowing our hair back and drying the sweat on my neck and flapping the creases of my t-shirt. She reaches over to turn on the radio, which the last renter left tuned to a pop country station. As the truck strains to climb the next hill, I look over at her, and she lifts her eyes and looks back at me. I raise an eyebrow, and one corner of her mouth starts to curl up. At the crest, I kill all the truck lights and turn up the volume. I take the truck out of gear and my feet off the pedals. The hill starts to fall away, and gravity grabs hold of the truck. The panels shudder with vibration, the side mirrors whistle, and the hum of the tire treads on the pavement rises in pitch. As we fly through the next intersection we blink at a camera’s flash, while some cowboy sings about his true love.

There’s a picture on the ticket that finally finds us. In it, you can see us with our hands up in the air, laughing.

Quentin Paquette is a Northern Virginia native now living in Philadelphia, crafting narratives to bring understanding to chronic pain patients. His writing can also be found in Eunoia Review and Deep Water Literary Journal.
Photo by Lauren Nel, courtesy of Unsplash


A Voice Not Heard


My father died twenty years ago today, reads your text message in the mid-morning hours. You watched a body given to the ground, a soul departed. And somewhere a hemisphere away, I knew nothing. I slammed my locker after first period economics, scratched out pre-calculus problems on notebook paper, read glossy brochures from colleges on the other side of my country, across the Atlantic from yours. Your father was dying, and I saw the grey of my high school and plotted a future of manicured lawns, sprawling trees, college textbooks held snug against my hip. Ten thousand miles split the us that existed then as you and as me. Your father whispered words into your ear. Shallow, warm breath against your skin. A root, a memory to touch, turn over, feel again and again. Your body heaved with a now adult sigh, and the dust clung to your good clothes. We couldn’t know then the way time zones would collapse, the way beating hearts would crush distance. Twenty years gone, and now in the late-night hours I whisper in your ear, cup my fingers in a circle and speak with the sound of the living what I think echoes from the grave. You make me proud, I say. I wish for a voice I never heard, a deep tone I can only create in dreams. A voice you knew twenty years ago.

Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow, and her essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging will release this summer. Please visit to receive updates about her book.


Nine Ways of Seeing Prison

  1. While lying on your steel bunk, a shaft of sunlight sluices through window panes and curls around bars to warm your bare leg. Light that has hurtled 93,000,000 miles in eight minutes from a sphere you could stuff a million Earths into. The sun’s life half spent, like a middle-aged man scratching his graying beard, wondering where the time has gone.
  2. Cudgeling up clumps of soil with a dull-bladed grub hoe, armed guards atop their spotted Appaloosas, barking orders to mind your row, work harder, swing faster. Each glob of loam writhing with more organisms than there are humans scrabbling on this planet. The sticky wads gummed to the soles of your ragged brogans, five hundred precious years in the making.
  3. The sky sucking water from lakes and swamps, rivers and oceans, plants and flesh to transform into puffs of cumulus scudding overhead. A gazillion water droplets jiggling in heaps that you’d swear are lighter than air, but weigh more than seventy-six husky African elephants. They grumble high above the cement ceiling of your unit, while you slog down the narrow corridor to the chow hall.
  4. A beetle scuttling across your cell floor, family member of a lineage trailing back to the Permian Period, having outlasted the calving of Pangea and the eternal slumber of dinosaurs. Besides having wings hard as fingernail clippings, they graze on aphids, trees, and animal dung. When done, they leave behind their brittle husks for you to flush down aluminum commodes.
  5. Mid-day backache, hunched over unending furrows of cotton, plucking the tufts from bowls sprung in the sweltering heat. Gossypium, as it’s otherwise known, gulps twenty-seven times its weight in water. A quarter-ton bale being spun into 4,300 pairs of state-issued socks, or 1,200 uniform tops, or 250 pairs of sweat-soaked pants you wipe your stiff fingers on.
  6. Pigeons clustered on the chapel roof like a covey of cherubs, bobbing their heads in sync with twitchy steps to stabilize their sight – their world a kaleidoscope of colors. Keenly aware of where home is, they lift swiftly into the air, flutter like a gray gust, then settle in unison atop the building to peck at cottonwood seeds ferried by the wind, then dumped.
  7. Marveling at lovebugs shuddering in pairs along the sidewalk, windowsills, drifting on a breeze. While returning from showers, you stall in the May sun, hold out your hand, invite them to alight on your palm. Thousands speckling the afternoon like a pointillist painting, affixed at their tails, throbbing with instinct.
  8. Along the seams of the building, where concrete meets Bermuda grass, a lot skinned back by the groundskeeper. Sleek asters and floppy daffodils and languid black-eyed Susans jut from damp dirt for the officers’ pleasure. While the guards pat-search you – running their latexed hands along your thighs, up your back, under your arms – you glance at the flowers and pilfer a parcel of heaven.
  9. At night, while the guard’s keys jangle from his belt, the moon floats in a boundless, black sky. You watch it through a slat of window on the far wall, iridescent and enthralling, while your cell mate snores on his bunk. A chunk of Earth chipped off 4.5 billion years ago by a meandering boulder. You wave to it, wistfully aware that every year it slides a little farther away.
John Langenfeld entered the Texas prison system at the age of twenty-one and served fifteen consecutive years. While incarcerated, he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Sam Houston State University and a master’s degree in literature from University of Houston at Clear Lake. He has been published in Entropy, The Threepenny Review and was a finalist for the Frank McCourt Memoir Prize 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @John_Langenfeld or visit his website at



Saving Face

I wake up early to face the mirror. The dread of a new battle. A new job. All good reasons to locate my war paint.

Ever since middle school, I have been the make-up queen. In my dewy-smooth twenties, I worked as a make-up artist. If you had a tattoo across your forehead, I could cover it up. If you were 40 and wanted to look 25, I could make you look 30. They say joy is the best make-up; no, that would be Chanel.

 Joy is the best make-up? Well, we’re straight up out of stock on joy.”

I head to the train and into the fray of rush hour, armed with my pencil skirt and high heels, uniformed for corporate America.

This is a job I am taking to “assist executives” at a high-end architecture firm. It is a low-end life choice. In a huge conference room, I sign away my better judgment in exchange for the insurance and the money.

  • Are you proficient at Excel?
  • Are you efficient at connecting conference calls?
  • Can you manage an online scheduling system for men who only look at you when they need something and rant if you make one mistake?

You’ll have to keep the kitchen clean and stocked and make coffee. The glasses and mugs must be uniform at all times. No glass may extend above the lower level on any computer.

Sir, yes ma’am! I thrive in a fast-paced misogynist environment.

My job is to sit at a 20-foot long red lacquer desk to answer phones and transfer calls while sipping coffee from my tiny toy mug.

The only other comrade in the floor-to-ceiling glass lobby is a sleek black Steinway piano. My bosses order me to schedule ongoing tunings so it can sit, in silence. A muted conversation piece of the obscenely rich. It is the only beautiful thing in the office and holds all of its music to itself. I sit in this cavernous lobby staring at the piano, my only friend.

“What are we doing here, Steinway? We do not belong here, Steinway. You are perfectly tuned, Steinway. I have a master’s degree, Steinway.”

I cannot imagine music or fun here. Drinking, yes. Every time a team finishes a million-hour project at the sacrifice of lives, they let loose in the evenings with a Veuve Clicquot Johnny Walker Black bender that leaves the kitchen a high-end tiny glass frat house disaster. When I arrive in the morning, I do my job. I assist executives, swabbing up the hangover fallout.

And I hold in every human emotion all day long.

I say to myself, “You can cry at 6:30. Just make it until home at 6:30.”

One of the perks of being a slave to tall buildings is free drinks. Diet Coke and coffee all day. And then the La Croix. Everyone has his or her own flavor of the fizzy water and I must order on demand. Apricot, Melon Orange, Pamplemousse (just call it grapefruit!). Marc likes Lime. There’s just never enough Lime to satiate Marc. Also, Marc thinks the refrigerator temperature should be colder so every night he changes it, but because HR insists, I keep it at a specific temperature. Every morning I change it to warmer again. It’s a climate-controlled battle – colder, warmer, colder, warmer. I approach the architectural marvel of mini fridges stacked on top of each other. One is at eye level. It is this one I am stocking when it happens.

On this one particular day, Marc thought his Lime La Croix should be very, very, very cold. So here’s a fizzy science lesson for aspiring executive assistants. When carbonated drinks get very, very, very cold, they expand. And then with one brush of the hand, bam. They explode.

So Marc’s Lime la Croix rockets out of the fridge like a fire hose, power spraying all of the makeup off my face, smacking me in the eye and breaking a blood vessel. It also opens the floodgate with which I have been suppressing every dark human emotion. Without any control left, I break down into a fully realized crying jag in an office that has never seen a human emotion. It makes them so uncomfortable to see it that they don’t look up from their desks.

I rush out of the office to assess my face.  Joy is the best make-up? Well, we’re straight up out of stock on joy. So I take an early lunch and walk of shame to the Chanel counter on State Street. The perfectly coiffed and airbrushed women take one shocked look and immediately descend.

It takes an artistic village, but the mask is rebuilt and enforced by the finest blush and powders and eye shadow. I buy all of it, my whole paycheck, totems of my rebirth from the women of my nation.

I walk out into the street. My war paint back on, I’ve saved face. I head back into the fray, the tall building, skyward to the penthouse. Inside the elevator’s sleek four walls, the mirrors reflect that I am an executive assistant.

I walk into the ever-empty lobby, and look toward my fellow POW. I sit down at the bench at the edge of Steinway, slide that heavy black cover into its perfectly designed pocket and defiantly press one finely tuned creamy key. The note hangs loud in the air with tense, melodious potential. I stand up slowly, heading back to my station while the rebellious cry resonates through the office.

Jill Howe is the founder of Story Sessions in Chicago, a showcase featuring true stories and live music.  She has told stories on numerous Chicago stages, teaches writing retreats and presented a Tedx Talk on vulnerability.
Photo by Mary Ellen Sullivan



When I awake to moans, I think the ghost of Anne Boleyn is roaming our townhouse. I think this because I’m six and have secretly read a book of true ghost stories belonging to my sister. My favorite story is about Anne Boleyn haunting the tower of London.

So I burrow beneath my sheets. I suck my thumb. Go back to sleep, I think. This is a dream, I think. But I can’t sleep. I wait for my mother to wake me for school. I want her to braid my hair, hold me tight while she sings “Close to You.” By the chorus, she can always hush worry.

Instead, my sister comes into the room.


Her favorite antidote is Coca-Cola or cake icing rubbed on her gums, but only when she’s unconscious. Orange juice burns her throat, feels too much like fire going down.”

I think it’s Mommy, she says, then walks down the hall to a bedroom where we find our mother moaning like the undead; she can’t remember our names. But she can say two words: orange juice.

She crawls across the floor, to the hallway, to the stairs. She slides down them on her butt, the way she forbids us to do. Bumpety-bump she goes, all the way down. We crawl behind her to the kitchen –– this is almost a game! We are puppies and hermit crabs and babies cooing mama. But our mother will not answer to this name, no matter how loud we cry for her.

She won’t remember she is the mother and we are the daughters.

Orange juice, she says.

In the kitchen, our mother sits on the yellowing linoleum, head in her hands, and weeps. She’s the baby now.

Wah-wah-wah. She cries.

My sister slides a chair against the marbled Formica countertop. She stands tippy-toe on the seat and grabs a cup from the cupboard. She chooses a Fred Flintstone tumbler. He smiles obliviously while we lift a jug of Tropicana from the refrigerator, then pour. We use both hands, the way our mother has taught us.

Drink, we say, and lift the cup to her lips. She tilts her head back, gulps.

Later, she calls her insulin reactions “spells” and we do too, because a spell can be broken. Her favorite antidote is Coca-Cola or cake icing rubbed on her gums, but only when she’s unconscious. Orange juice burns her throat, feels too much like fire going down.

One afternoon when it is raining and there is nothing to do, she puts a VHS movie called “Steel Magnolias” on TV. We laugh because the characters have funny names like Ouiser or Drum. There’s only one name we recognize. Shelby.

Shelby has the same sickness as our mother, which is how we learn our mother will die if she does not drink.

We are good daughters. We do not shrink when our mother thrashes her hands in our faces. We do not tremble when she screams, Get away from me. We do not relent until she drinks.

Only behind our closed bedroom doors do we say we hate her spells. Only there do we hold our carnival-won rabbits’ feet and wish she will not have one again. We make wish after wish until one day we are grown and living in big, starry cities. We will not know that our mother sleeps alone while her sugar slips.

We only know if it weren’t that night, it would have been another. A daughter cannot save her mother forever.

Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Maryland. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Literary Mama, The Rumpus, Bellingham Review, Under the Gum Tree and elsewhere. She blogs about life after loss on her personal website ( and swears she will finish her first memoir in 2018.
Photo by Ruben Bagues, courtesy of Unsplash