The Grill is Gone

Because each person brings a gas grill to a marriage, along with at least one table-top Hibachi and an old Weber whose bottom is rusting out beneath a pile of coal going diamond, you drag one grill to the curb and tape to its plastic cover a sign on which you’ve markered, with misplaced irony, “TAKE ME, I’M YOURS” and keep another grill whose ownership everyone pretends but doesn’t at all forget to know.

Everyone knows how parting couples hang onto material goods as a proxy for feelings they don’t know how to express…”

Call it what you will. From gridiron, from wickerwork, from hurdle. From backyard barbecue to interrogation, torture. The metal lattice admitting air to cool an engine.

When my parents divorced, my father got the incontinent Shelty and my mother the Baldwin concert grand, even though my father was the only one left in the family to play the piano and my mother the only one whom the dog would not nip. Everyone knows how parting couples hang onto material goods as a proxy for feelings they don’t know how to express (things: from the old English, referring to the matter under discussion, the content of a council, an assembly, so that divvying up the stuff across the table of the mediator really is to decide to stop talking—or maybe all the things in the ten-page agreement you end up signing mean “I don’t forgive you for saying that to me” and “I never said that to you” and “that’s why you hurt me so?” and “stop interrogating me!” … also “thing” from French chose from Latin cosa meaning “judicial process, lawsuit” which means everything is a landmine of misunderstanding and a contest of wills).

One afternoon, a year into it, married living apart is what they call it now, the provisions of that document-gathering-dust on a desk upstairs largely ignored by both of us, especially where matters of what-belongs-to-whom are concerned, I walk out onto the back deck, carrying my aged, emaciated cat like a baby on my shoulder (because I don’t have a baby, we never had kids, I was quickly too old, never wanted them, we married late, regret meaning long after the fact to weep and moan), regard the greenery of the yard, made lush by rain, grape vines and raspberry branches winding and stretching across fences, things he planted, the only things that really take hold in the sandy, acidic soil of a neighborhood full of pines — turn around to the empty corner where the grill used to be.

Open gate, flecks of rusted metal on the steps. (Detritus, see detriment, from Latin detrimentum: defeatedness, weakening.)

You done me wrong, baby.

You’ll be sorry someday.

I remember the excitement of rearranging the furniture in my bedroom when I was young, how magisterial it felt, the potency of change held in my own little hands—pull the desk under the window, shove the bed against that wall, roads open for the taking. Why, all grown up, do we imagine that moving the couch could make any manner of difference to suffering? On the other hand, why must we clamor and seize? It’s not like I needed it, don’t eat meat, does anyone living alone use a grill? I once called the fire department to ascertain the explosion risk of propane.

And isn’t it odd that going off on a tangent really means to strike, gently, and to partake in; which means that when he swerved, when he followed that unwinding ball of yarn out of a labyrinth of his own devising (clue = clew = Theseus’s thread), which was his sense of a marriage, sense of non-ending, he was still touching me, abutment, he never fully let go. Means taking is not the same as never talking. Means possession is old French happiness, never say never, chancy used to mean luck.

Gone away.

Gone away for good.

Susannah B. Mintz is a professor of English at Skidmore College. She has published extensively as a writer of creative nonfiction, with essays in American Literary Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, Epiphany, Ninth Letter, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2014 South Loop National Essay Prize and a finalist for the 2010 William Allen nonfiction prize, the Epiphany chapbook contest in 2015, and the 2019 Cagibi essay prize. Her work has received special mention from Best American Essays 2010 and the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2018. A short memoir titled “Match Dot Comedy” appeared as a Kindle Single in 2013. Current projects include an edited collection called Unplotted Stories and a collection of personal essays called Love Affair in the Garden of Milton.
Photo courtesy Unsplash.com.

Jimmy

The last time I saw Jimmy Saunders he was scuffling up the aisle on a New Haven train in his red and black mackinaw, not at home and far from sure (had the world shrunk him?), me another college boy in herringbone on my way to somewhere else. It was 1962.

I was ten when Jimmy took me to his house, a one-story box on concrete blocks, toys and bikes ditched in the dirt, inside — his dad glaring at TV snow from the single covered chair, a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his fist: “Shut up, I’m watchin’.”

… behind the plate, I took a foul-tip in the mouth, no catcher’s mask. I remember blood, wobbling knees, the arms around my waist holding me, the inching walk home: “You all right, Butchy-Boy, you all right?”

Jimmy and his three sisters and two brothers and me were jabbering over Wonder Bread and Marshmallow Fluff around the beat-up kitchen table.

“Shut up.” This time, louder.

Jimmy says his father brings home a $100 from the dye factory. They have soda, they have Sugar Frosted Flakes, they have Toll House cookies.

My family had moved into the big house on the hill, the stone porch and goldfish pool a mask for the cracked walls and fractured ceilings. Jimmy and others jammed the driveway. “You play ball?” I could see the field down there and sometime later there were cries, and sounds of bat on ball, the screeching when someone scored a run. I wolfed the ham and boiled potato, and begged Mom to let me duck my dish-washing duty. I ran with a Louisville Slugger and Snuffy Stirnweiss glove – arms pumping, chest burning, I’ll never get there. I can’t hit but maybe they’ll let me play short.

I was “Butch” to them, “Butch Jacobson.” Only they ever called me “Butch.” Jimmy, the toughest — yellowed teeth, rocking shoulders, friends in reform school — he swung a bat like he’d just as soon swing at you, yet we began riding miles to school together, me on a 3-speed and him on a fat-wheels. He flew down our driveway – what about the cars? – right across the 40 mile-per-hour macadam into a stone wall, and got up — nothing about the blow to the crotch — yanked the bike back onto the road, straightened the handlebars – still said nothing — and we made school in the forty-five minutes we always did.

He was talking to the train conductor mid-aisle, fumbling with a bag. Had he seen me?

Night falling, kids tight to get home, “Let’s go skinny-dip.” Jimmy the instigator, temperature in the mid-90s. Guys were tired from baseball, and I had to get home too, the rule.

“Come on, cut the chicken crap.”

What about cramps, swimming after dark? What about hitting your head diving? No one would see.

I went anyway. No stars, no moon, only lights in far-off houses, and Jimmy and I stripped, and dove into the black water. A jolt, and so gorgeously cool. But no matter. The fear didn’t leave, I had to get home. And Jimmy, chip-toothed Jimmy, my friend, Jimmy the Lion, was going to stay.

And not many nights later, behind the plate, I took a foul-tip in the mouth, no catcher’s mask. I remember blood, wobbling knees, the arms around my waist holding me, the inching walk home: “You all right, Butchy-Boy, you all right?” That must have been Jimmy. “Butchy-Boy, you all right?”

I worry what to say as he starts again toward me. It’s been years since we’ve said anything — me the scholarship kid, the “brain,” Jimmy most likely at the factory. Is he married? Are there kids? “Hi, how you doing?” Oh, sweet Jesus. Is that all we’ll say? It was so long ago. We were boys. Why do I feel ashamed? Because I left him for a wall of books and a classier set of clothes . . . like he left me for the only life he trusted? Is that the shame? Or is it who I think we’ve become  – a penny-loafered wannabe and a grunt?

I stare out the window at the blurring trees and poles, the sky a familiar coastal grey, and Jimmy moves past my seat … and says nothing.

Kent Jacobson taught for nearly 20 years in Bard College’s Clemente Course in the Humanities, a 2015 winner of the National Humanities Medal. His nonfiction has appeared in Under the Sun, New England Watershed, Brown Alumni Magazine, and Brandeis Review, among others.
Photo by Joey Kyber
 

 

Freedom’s Scent

I grab my stack of files and head to the lockup door on the east side of the courtroom. I’m walking with the pointed stride that is supposed to convey that I am indignant about what’s happening in the proceedings and can’t wait to get through that door to consult with my client.

 

 

It may be my imagination, but I detect the scent of something sweet.”

 

The bailiff and I know better. The other side of that door is the very last place I want to be. He pulls the heavy door open and I’m assaulted by the scent of musty bodies who missed their morning showers. Two dozen men mill around in the cramped holding room; men of different shapes, sizes, colors and demeanors, united by their royal blue jumpsuits. One man sits on the toilet in the back corner, his jumpsuit at his ankles, his chest, legs, and knees exposed. I avert my eyes and move as far away as the interview room will allow. I take a seat at the table that runs the length of the cage, the mean metal stool pressing into my buttocks.

“Martin Richmond,” I call out, in my tough-girl, I-take-no-shit-so-don’t-even-try-me voice. A petite man steps forward, surprising me with his benign appearance. This is who’s responsible, allegedly of course, for the bruises on the face of the solemn woman sitting out there in the courtroom. I listen as the man tells me his tale. She was attacking him, all he did was shove her to get her away. A long, convoluted account of how the whole ordeal began with some conversation about a flat tire. I don’t want to hear anymore but I must listen to it all, even though the truth will never be known and the legal machinations that lay ahead will most likely not excavate it either.

We end the interview. I tell him what will happen when he is brought into court. I talk to two more people whose names have files. I want to promise at least one of them the outcome they seek, but I know I can’t do that.

I get up to exit just as the bailiff brings in lunch, a soggy sandwich and a severely blemished apple passed roughly to each prisoner. I pass over the big door’s threshold, breathing deeply and relaxing my shoulders a bit, feeling a burden lift. The crisp air of the orderly courtroom surrounds me. It may be my imagination, but I detect the scent of something sweet.

This is the first time I’ve noticed: Freedom has a smell.

Kimberly Lee left law some years ago to focus on motherhood, community work, and creative pursuits. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Mama, (mac)ro(mic), Toasted Cheese, Toyon, and Foliate Oak. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three children.
Photo by Nicholas Ukrman

 

 

Bravest Boy

I try to imagine you at forty-seven now, in a button-down sweater and those little glasses sliding down your nose, but how can I think of you as anything but an aging, high school senior?

You would have liked to stay in late adolescence indefinitely, where you starred in the musical, “Grease” as a dance party attendee, not Danny Zuko, as you’d lead anyone who would listen to believe. There would be band, your clarinet tucked easily into your Esprit tote bag, your mom’s presence and the predictability of semesters.

We had been out of high school for three years the summer of the Dahmer killings, and you floated, anaesthetized by your pipe you named Consuelo, and I floated with you.

 

What were you to me? A friend, or a reflection of your mother, shining down on me with your roast beef, potato and asparagus dinners. You were my home base, the place I left from and came back to.”

What were you to me? A friend, or a reflection of your mother, shining down on me with your roast beef, potato and asparagus dinners. You were my home base, the place I left from and came back to.

It’s clear to me now that you were a liar and a thief, like all of us are in little or big ways. My best friend was a liar and a thief, I say to myself, and wonder about the complexity of people, so different from the Sunday School notions of good and evil with which I was raised.

You told tall tales – that you were flying to Russia to design the great cathedrals instead of the living rooms of southeast Wisconsin. You lied about where you were and who you were with when you were in the backseats of random cars. You took the cash I gave you for the electric bill and put it in your own pocket.

My aunt, who is not a liar or thief, is a stingy prude who is shocked and angry at the library when they play an R-rated movie, and she won’t let you take a postcard stamp without paying for it. Which is worse?

What I’m struck by most is your bravery.

You came out in 1988, at the close of twelve years of all-boys Catholic education up in Green Bay. When your classmates rejected you at Our Lady of Good Counsel, you sashayed across the street with your tote bag to the sister school. You told me that they harbored secret gay longings anyway, though I know that their arrows pierced your skin.

What braver boy has lived?

There were many phases for us. First the dorm where we met; the flat we shared; our other two apartments; and when we got back together all those years later.

The summer of Dahmer is vivid because it was when you and I really had our start as best friends on a battered couch, either yours or mine, with Consuelo and squirt guns in lieu of air conditioning.

There was the newness, vastness and loneliness of being twenty-one. You drove away that loneliness, heavy as the humidity that July.

You asked me to move in soon after we learned about Dahmer, who’d trolled for victims at your favorite bar, Club 217.

We were on my couch then, surrounded by my male roommates’ pin-ups of girls in Daisy Dukes, and a Miller beer bottle sign that no longer lit up when plugged in.

Drea, our ornery old dormmate, was moving out of your flat and back with her parents, so you needed someone else to share the rent.

Drea skipped all of her classes and held court from her bed, organizing the fake ID beer runs. Even though our suite was women only, the girls in ours understood that you wouldn’t fit in on the men’s side of the building, and would be with us.

Now the dorm was behind us, and we lived within blocks of each other. We got together every day just to watch reruns of our favorite ‘80s sit-coms, often on silent as your Madonna, Erasure and REM soundtrack played on.

A news break cut in on one of those afternoons. Body parts were found in a dumpster outside an apartment building in a run-down part of town a few blocks from the gay bars, and a good thirty minutes from our East Side neighborhood.

You turned up the TV, your jaw clenched in my peripheral vision, all blonde and blue-eyed Germanic.

Neither of us could speak. Your solution for the problem of this kind of evil was the same as for enduring a long shift at the diner, a parent’s criticism or a bad report card—pack Consuelo, and light up.  I wanted to be sober for the summer school statistics course I was trying to get through but took a hit anyway, to be in solidarity.

You turned the channel, and we watched a judge show.

“God,” you said.

I wanted to forget about the news story, go to class, and have a life that didn’t include these horrors. I wanted to go to my on-again-off again, Joe, but he would be at work, and he seemed to love a girl in his building.

I moved closer to you on the couch, stinging with longing for Joe, and you hugged me against the body you kept slim by alternating between anorexia and bulimia.

The police arrested a man named Jeffrey Dahmer the day after the news about the discovered body parts. He was a third-shift worker at a chocolate factory. There could be up to fifteen bodies in his apartment unit.

Dahmer was one of two killers lurking behind us, because there was also HIV, which eventually took you out of this existence on Cinco de Mayo, 2003.  There was a randomness and brutality to the Dahmer killings, and a randomness and brutality to your inevitable early end, and how everything we shared can only be known to me now, so that our sweet romantic friendship has all but blown away.

Still, Dahmer didn’t get you when we were out for our first drinks, not even at Club 217. That place is torn up and full of graffiti now.

While at the club, we stood, too shy to dance, our eyes on the print of a smooth male torso behind the bar.

Dahmer’s eyes may have glanced over you as you stood there, waiting to be noticed. He liked darker men, and so did you, so that your Nazi youth nerd didn’t register with his ideals of beauty.

You wore your long leather coat, meaning to attract someone like Robert Downey Jr. in “Less than Zero.” I liked your high school bomber jacket better, but you had stopped wearing it.

You met someone occasionally who was not as good looking as Robert Downey Jr., except for Sol Hernandez, who was handsome despite a gap tooth. He cleaned carpets professionally, and looked like a blue-collar runway model.

You and Sol saw each other for three weeks. He came over, and went straight to your bedroom.

“I had to clean that guy’s carpet,” Sol told me when the subject of Dahmer came up at the bar.

“Did you see anything?” I thought of the reports of human heads and other body parts.

“Nah, it was cleared out of any weird shit, but it smelled foul. Even the hallway reeked.”

We were old enough to go to Club 217 legally now, and we were old enough to start thinking seriously about our lives.  This increase in gravity felt like an increase in atmospheric pressure, begun so gradually early on that it was not suffocating. But early adulthood did not suit you. You hid the utility bills in a drawer, spent grocery money on pot and cut your classes.

We were standing in the bathroom of our flat when you took my arms and placed them around you from behind. “Like this,” you said. “This is how Sol held me.” He hadn’t called in a week, and we knew he wouldn’t call again.

We looked at ourselves in the mirror, my chin on the back of your shoulder. I kept my arms around you, and could smell your cologne, Cool Water.

There was more about the Dahmer killings every day. He had been building an altar made of skulls and skeletons, laid out on a table in his living room, adorned with incense and lights. He said he couldn’t control his compulsion to kill and pled guilty to 15 counts of murder.

Lawyers then argued about whether Dahmer was insane. One side said that Dahmer knew what he was doing, despite being psychotic. Another side said that by killing men, Dahmer was killing his attraction to them, and that he was schizotypical. The judge ruled that Dahmer was not insane, and gave him a life sentence.

In prison, Dahmer (who later became a born-again Christian) said he didn’t care about his life. A fellow inmate killed Dahmer with a metal bar from the prison weight room, and said that God told him to do it.

Dahmer, his victims, Sol, you – none of you are with us. I won’t believe that human life is random, even though I am stunned by how fleeting it can be, how I’m possibly the only person who remembers the red marks your glasses made on your nose, your laugh, your graceful posture and the infectious laugh I heard less and less the older we got.

I kept trying to get hold of you on my visits in from Chicago or the West Coast, when we both tried to impress one another with evidence of having ascended in all the ways that seem important in your 20s and 30s—the clothes, the cars, the jobs. I’ve made it, we said to one another, exaggerating everything. When what I wanted was to be beside you again on some ugly couch, to laugh hysterically over something and know that we were safe because we had a home together, and I was your girl even when men like Joe came and went.

You slipped away fast in the hospital, before the virus could consume you, and you knew you were dying first.

“You have to call my mom tomorrow,” you said over the phone at your family’s cabin up North, your voice weak and slurred.

“I will,” I said, and went into my pep talk. You were going to beat the cancer that HIV had brought on. I was going to accompany you to the treatments. We would drive around town and swim in the lake at the cabin.

The next day, your mother called me before I could dial her. You died following a dose of chemo that did you in.

The next week, I went to your shiny silver casket. You wouldn’t have liked the false, waxen look of your face and hair. I tucked a note stating my love for you in no uncertain terms beside your arm.

I keep your Madonna, Erasure and REM soundtrack going. Still. When you float into my dreams, I’m there to receive you.

Denise Roma is a Chicago writer with short fiction appearing in After Hours, New Town Writers and Off the Rocks.

Photo by Noah Rosenfeld

It Was Just a Lamp

Yeah, he threw a lamp across the room, but I was outside on the balcony so all I knew of the incident was the sound of a huge thunk. I heard the huge lamp thunk — not crash nor shatter, mind you, because the lamp was big and heavy. It had girth. Neither my husband nor I liked the lamp — its mammoth orb of a putty-colored body with a shade that defined fugly better than Merriam-Webster could ever attempt to do — but we got it for free from the Indian family whose house we went to after we moved to pick up their old mattress and box spring. $50. Go Craigslist. The lamp was an extra bonus even though it felt more like a burden than a gift.

 

But whatever. It was just a lamp. A free one, at that.”

 

That big fugly lamp was what my husband chucked across the room that morning, although I didn’t actually witness the altercation so for all I know he drop-kicked it, the image of which is actually kind of amusing. Either way, I’m sure he had his reasons for the lamp-chucking. I suspect it had something to do with his untreated mental illness and semi-psychotic state of late.

But whatever. It was just a lamp. A free one, at that.

I, too, have some anger issues. I’ve been known to chuck a pen or two across the room when my writing just wasn’t behaving. Though there was that one time when I threw the flat screen monitor to the floor because I was in a more-than-semi-psychotic state. Surprisingly, it didn’t break. Though neither did my psychotic state. So off to the psych ward I went. Three days and one new prescribed medication later, everything went back to being okay-ish except for the marriage.

The trip to the mental hospital was all about emotional pain. Nine months later, I would go to a different hospital, in a different state, and I would go not because of emotional pain, but because of a physical one. An abscessed tooth, specifically.

Neither my husband nor I have dental insurance because who has ever heard of being able to take care of your body in this society without going into a suicide-inspiring debt? Ergo, ER. There, I got me some supersized ibuprofen that worked about as effectively as stopping a hurricane with a ceiling fan. Also at the ER, I was told to go see a dentist about the situation going on in the mouth. No shit. They gave me information about the free clinic in town. I would eventually find out that the free dental clinic really isn’t free and that no one there seemed to know how to practice the art of dentistry.

The “dentist” at the “free” clinic “pulled” my tooth. Sort of. I would find shards sprouting up from its ground zero twice within the next year. Two days after the kinda-sorta-but-not-quite “extraction,” I went back to the clinic because I got me a nifty dry socket. Plus, the infection was worse than when I initially went in just a few days prior. Oh, right. Antibiotics. They forgot to give those to me. Whoopsies. The medicinal patch they put over the festering desiccated hole in my jaw fell out within an hour. I went back a third time in three days because I was dying of pain but the dentist told me she didn’t want to do anything else for it because sometimes it’s better not to fuck with a hot mess. More or less.

Which, at times, also feels true for my marriage.

Aside from the horrible pain and hideous stench, another side effect of a dry socket is insomnia.

A side effect of insomnia is an annoyed husband.

Getting up every thirty minutes to ice and pace wasn’t the most restful of actions, so in all of my not-wanting-to-piss-off-my-husband wisdom, I decided to try and sleep on the loveseat in the living room because I like to think of myself as a kind and considerate human being, regardless of my destructive tendencies to throw writing utensils and electronics when I’m feeling super-duper-psychotic, and even when I want to rip off my own head off because of the pain, I feel like I’m still an attentive human being to other people’s needs—though apparently not always. Take that night, for instance.

But first, holy hell, I actually fell asleep! The only way I knew that I fell asleep was because I woke up. I woke up to the sound of my husband eating kettle chips. They were crunchy and loud and at 4 am they woke me up because the kitchen was just a few feet away from the loveseat on which my dry-socketed throbbing head not-rested.

Yeah, I was pissed that he woke me up, but I was even more irked by the riotous sound of his teeth hard at work. Crunch crunch. It amplified the throb throb in my jaw. Oh. Hell. No.

And yes, I then started screaming at my husband and no one likes to be screamed at when it’s 4 am, but also no one with a hellacious dry socket likes being inadvertently chomp-chomped awake at when it’s 4 am. Thus, screaming.

My husband screamed back at me.

This had been our mode of communication lately.

And then the screaming colloquy took quite the turn, one that is as sharp as that street in my town that’s called Dead Man’s Curve for a reason, because the topic of the 4 am showdown somehow whiplashed from late-night snacking to all of the money my family had and he wanted. It had something to do with dental care. His teeth were decaying, too.

But tooth pain, man. Tooth pain. Mine specifically. Let’s stayed focused on what’s important here — me. My pain. Set go.

After a good number of rounds of not-so-good verbal treatment, my husband stormed off to the bedroom, mid-excellent point I was making from the loveseat. The amount of which this exit strategy pissed me off was equal to the amount of pissed off I was when the kettle chip crunching thing happened a few thrown obscenities ago. I got up from the loveseat because, why not? I was awake. Might as well deal with this B.S., and so I stomped my sleep-deprived body and throbbing jaw into the bedroom and I sat at the edge of the bed, right at the feet of my husband who was just trying to get to sleep. I refused to move because I was in pain, though really it was because I can just be a stubborn bitch like that sometimes, my considerate human being qualities completely vacating me, giving room for grudges to gurgle up and join forces with my relentless shrieking.

It was a fairly quick interaction.

Husband: Go away! I want to sleep!

Me: You woke me up and then started yelling at me so why can’t I disrupt your sleep to yell at you?

Husband: Leave me the fuck alone!

Me: No. You started this conversation, let’s finish it. What in the fuck problem do you have with my family?

Husband: [kicks me]

My husband kicked me, which made me wobble on the edge of the bed a bit and when I regained my balance I considered lunging at him, but before I could, he decided to make sure his point was clear because he’s always been a very thorough dude when it comes to be being an asshat — just like me and my bitch thing (we all have our signature traits) — he again thrusted his foot into my stomach. I fully fell back, my lunging plan foiled, and then I cried because I was about to throw up and all I could think about was how much that would fuckinghurt what with the dry socket and whatnot.

I then felt kin to Lamp Fugly.

Which is when that metaphorical light flipped on inside me.

Crawling on hands and knees into the living room, I spilled myself into a huge deluge of sobs, though this specific weeping wasn’t sprouting up from the physical pain — rather the emotional one  — as I realized that now there would have to be exhausting relationship-talking and space-giving and using your I-statements-ing and trust-building and boundary-setting and other people’s opinionating and safety-defining and deciding what’s worth it and what’s not worth it and my god how many couple’s counseling sessions are we going to have to have because, yes, now we have to fuck with this hot mess.

Chelsey Clammer is the author of the award-winning essay collection, Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017) and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). Her work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, Hobart, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School and Black Warrior Review. She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women On Writing and is a freelance editor. Her next collection of essays, Human Heartbeat Detected is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. 
Photo by Annie Spratt