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


It must have been late 1974 or early 1975.  Luz was a senior, a year ahead of me. She had her own car, a little blue MG. I liked the car and thought she was hot. In those days, just about every girl was hot to me.


All along the trench, which was about four-foot wide and seven or eight feet deep, people were huddled in small groups.”

We were both on the yearbook staff and were sent out to sell ads. We headed up US 101 and were working the frontage roads where a bunch of businesses in an industrial area were situated. We tried the Frito Lay plant, some plastics company – one making Halloween masks, and finally the 7Up distributor. There we struck gold and sold a one-eighth page ad for $25 dollars.  We’d go back heroes! Back in the MG, Luz asked if I was in a hurry to get back.

“No way” I chimed, “I’ve got all day.”

She then proceeded to drive me out to the very southern tip of San Francisco Bay, to the salt flats – a tidewater and wasteland area known as Alviso. We drove between endless rows of massive wooden trays spread out over hundreds of acres with fruit spread out to dry in the late spring heat. I wasn’t sure where she was taking me and the mystery only kicked up my excitement several notches.

Luz parked near a massive water pipe jutting out of the ground at a forty-five-degree angle. Getting out of the car, Luz said she wanted to show me something special. That got my attention.

I wondered where but didn’t ask. Instead, I almost jumped out of the car and followed her. After all, Luz was a year ahead of me and seemed like she knew what she was doing.

I followed her like an eager puppy. She had a large brown bag with her which I was sure concealed some important ingredient to this mystery. As she led between the long wooden trays of drying fruit I noticed a young boy sitting on a block of cement playing with a stick. When he saw her approach, he disappeared. I mean, he just vanished.

In the wavering shimmer of afternoon heat I strained to see where he’d gotten to. Then a larger figure appeared from a gap between the trays. A man mysteriously grew, and came into view calling out to Luz in Spanish. I stopped, not knowing what to make of this latest development. After a moment Luz waved me over and introduced me to her ‘primo,’ Luis. Then she gestured to a hole leading underneath one of the trays. Too confused to protest, I followed her.

Unlike the heated fields of fruit above it was cool and almost damp in the trench I found myself below the many trays.  It was dug deep enough for a tall man to stand and there were a few dim light bulbs strung as far as I could see. All along the trench, which was about four-foot wide and seven or eight feet deep, people were huddled in small groups. The men sat together, smoking and talking in low tones. Beyond them, along one side, was a makeshift kitchen built with two-by-fours and plywood. There was even a rusty sink and a couple of propane gas cylinders for the stove. A clutch of women and small children worked over some large pots and pans. I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at or where I was.

Luz introduced me and each man stood and offered his hand with a greeting accompanied by a smile and a nod. All wore work clothes and heavy boots, one or two wore heavy coats on despite the outside heat. They were polite and friendly but spoke only Spanish. The men offered me a stool, which I took, and a cigarette which I declined. They talked in low friendly voices, and even cracked a couple of jokes amongst one another, treating me as if I were one of their group. Luz left me there and made her way further back towards some excited chatter and a bit of laughing. After a while she returned, we said our goodbyes and left.

Back in the car Luz seemed uplifted and even bubbly. She explained that several of her relatives had just arrived and it was good to see that they were doing well. On the drive home she talked about how good it was to see Luis and her other cousins, and how it was good that they had found work. I did a lot of nodding and tried to share her excitement.

But I hadn’t yet processed what I had experienced. My father was a Naval aviator and flew submarine patrol aircraft from nearby Moffett Field Naval Air Station. I had driven past those Alviso flats many times with my folks on our way out to the base. But never had it even remotely occurred to me that out there underneath those fruit drying trays were people living.

That night I found sleep fleeting as I pondered what I was privileged to have experienced, deeply impressed at how welcome these simple peasant farmers – campesiños  – made me feel.

They were men, conversing, smoking and relaxing after a day of hard work; women preparing meals with mischievous playful children underfoot – all literally underground.

I kept this experience to myself for a long time. Not because I thought there was something wrong with what I had seen, but because I felt privileged with my new knowledge, and that my friend Luz trusted me enough to take me with her to see her newly arrived extended family members. I felt like some precious secret had been entrusted with me. After that, every time my folks would up US Highway 101 out to the base I’d look to fields of drying fruit and relish what Luz had shared with me that day.

Looking back, I really did get lucky that warm afternoon. She had opened my eyes to an underground community that I previously had no idea existed. And I’ve never looked at a farm, factory or field the same way again.

Scott Hubbartt is a writer and 28-year combat veteran who lives in South Central Texas.

Photo by Nikola Tresci

Thunder Road

Bruce Springsteen and I have a lot in common. My dad’s name is Bruce and Bruce Springsteen’s daughter is named Jessica which is what the J in JH stands for. Bruce Springsteen and I were both married on June 8 – he married Patti Scialfa on June 8, 1991 –  I married my husband, Michael, on June 8, 2001. Bruce Springsteen is from New Jersey and I have been to New Jersey.


When I admire someone, I look for things that we share in common.”

When I admire someone I look for things that we share in common. When I was 11 years old I discovered David Bowie and learned that his son, Zowie, was born two weeks to the day after I was. It’s a fact that has allowed me to imagine that the three of us, David, Zowie, and I, have a great deal in common, and that if we’d ever met we’d have hit it off instantly.

Bosnian born writer Aleksandar Hemon and I both moved to Chicago in January of 1992. I arrived on the seventh from Boston, a city which shares the first three letters in Bosnia. He landed the twenty-seventh. It wasn’t hard for me to create meaning out of these coincidences. I took a class with him a couple years ago and on the first day he asked his students to say something about themselves. I said, “Hi, I’m Jessica. I’m not originally from Chicago, but I moved here in January, 1992” which was his cue to pick up on the fact that we were destined to become best friends, or at the very least I was destined to become his favorite student. Neither of those things happened.

Humans are hardwired to find patterns and to assign meaning to those patterns. Psychics make a living off of this. They sit in front of anyone and start guessing shit about them and sooner or later they will hit on something that’s true. The same kind of thinking drives conspiracy theories, from the belief that Elvis Presley is alive because the letters that spell Elvis can be rearranged to spell Lives to the idea that the same people are showing up over and over at demonstrations all over the country because in photos of groups of people demonstrating there are sometimes people who resemble each other. It’s part of our lizard brain to find patterns, and there’s something to be admired in that. It’s an adaptation that at some point increased the likelihood of survival, and it’s still with us.

In his piece “A Night in Bruce Springsteen’s America,” Hanif Abdurraqib describes the experience of seeing Springsteen live as being “… in the church of Bruce Springsteen…” As a fan of Bruce Springsteen, it does feel like belonging to a religion, one that can be split into denominations based on the era of Springsteen in which you’re specifically a fanatic. I’m a believer in the Bruce Springsteen of the early years, bookended by his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and the album Nebraska; what could be referred to as Old Testament Springsteen. The music and lyrics of Old Testament Springsteen dig into the experience of trouble and despair with an urgency and immediacy that is defining, and over the years the album Born to Run has become a beloved text that I turn to in difficult times, like a favorite Bible chapter.

One afternoon, I saw a bumper sticker in the shape of a paw print and the words “rescue mom,” which I read not as a descriptor, the emphasis on rescue, like rescue mom, but as an imperative, the emphasis on mom, like rescue mom. My mom had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer a few weeks earlier, and I kept seeing patterns and signs pointing to it; specifically pointing to the fact that I couldn’t rescue her, that I’d never been able to before, and I certainly couldn’t do it now. I hadn’t seen her in a couple years. We have a complicated relationship, her lifelong struggle with depression and alcohol rendered her absent for much of my life, and it has been my goal to break the patterns that led her down that road. The year Mom was dying of cancer, I listened to Born to Run in its entirety a minimum of three times a week. It was a way of both affirming the horrors of the situation, a catharsis in eight tracks, and of escaping it, and like any religious text, after repeated exposure to the word, I found deeper meaning in the lyrics. The song Thunder Road became my Lord’s Prayer, something to listen to when I sought comfort. I listened to it on my commute, I listened to it at home, and if I needed to hear it but was somewhere that I couldn’t actually listen to it, I’d replay it in my mind. The song contains the lines:

So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright

I have gone over the meaning of these lyrics like a Talmudic scholar, picking apart the intention behind it, at times taking issue with it. Is Bruce calling Mary unattractive? Is he settling for her because she may not be Ms. Right, but she is Ms. Right now? Sometimes when Thunder Road gets to that line I yell, “Speak for yourself, Bruce!” in righteous indignation. At other times, I think it’s a commentary on unrealistic beauty standards. None of us will ever look like celebrities who are known and admired for their looks, not even the celebrities themselves; it’s all makeup, airbrushing, and good lighting. In Thunder Road, Bruce loves Mary both because and in spite of the fact that she is not movie star beautiful.

Springsteen lived the truth of these lyrics in his own personal life. He married the model Julianne Phillips in ‘85, and in ‘87 released the album Tunnel of Love, which chronicled his unhappiness in the marriage with tracks like “Brilliant Disguise” that contains the lyrics: “Well I’ve tried so hard baby, but I just can’t see, what a woman like you, is doing with me.” Springsteen and Phillips divorced in ‘89, and when he started dating Patti Scialfa, who’s been a member of the E Street Band since ‘84, the subject of Patti’s looks became a topic of brutal tabloid commentary. Patti is the Mary to Bruce’s “Thunder Road” persona. She’s from Jersey, she’s not model gorgeous, but she’s the one. She’s the One, incidentally, track six on the album Born to Run, right after the title track. Together Bruce and Patti have had three children (one of them named Jessica) and they remain married and living in New Jersey, the state that embodies the genesis of Bruce Springsteen, for over 25 years.

I am my mother’s daughter, there’s no escaping that. After she died I was able to remember the good things she gave me, notably a love of words and language and a reverence for the magic of writing; the trick of creating something that didn’t exist before simply by writing it down. We both happen to have names that begin with J, we both love cats, and we share a habit of absent-minded fidgeting. But what connects us is stronger than these coincidences: my body came from hers, it is elemental and undeniable. I will always work to break the patterns of depression and alcoholism that defined her, but like it or not I am a living testament to her.

Watching and waiting for my mom to die was certainly an experience rife with dread and uncertainty, and perhaps it’s those qualities that drew me to Thunder Road for salvation during that time. Whatever it was, I’m grateful for it; it connected me to Bruce Springsteen generally, Thunder Road specifically, and it gave me a way to grieve. When I went back to my mom’s condo after her death to sort through her things, I brought Old Testament Springsteen with me. I remain a devout believer in the Church of Bruce Springsteen because so far, it works. So I’ll take it.

JH Palmer is a Chicago based writer and performer. From 2012-2017 she produced the live lit show That’s All She Wrote, and she has performed at numerous storytelling and live lit events, including The Moth, 2nd Story, Story Club, Write Club, and You’re Being Ridiculous. Her work has appeared in The Toast and Story Club Magazine. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. 


Photo by Chris Slupski