Monthly Archive for March, 2010

Lydia Stewart on child abuse, parenting, and children’s rights

In 2008 Sonoma County received 10,051 calls to their child abuse hotline. 2,638 reports were serious enough to require investigation. 174 children were removed from unsafe and abusive homes.

 

April is Child Abuse Awareness Month in the United States. One organization that works directly with families and children on this issue is the Santa Rosa based non-profit California Parenting Institute (CPI). Lydia Stewart has been on the Board of Directors for the past 8 years and board secretary for a year.  A recipient of the CPI Volunteer of the Year Award, Lydia lives in Sonoma County with her husband and three boys. Lydia started off by admitting she’d just recently stopped referring to CPI as a non-profit agency, but a “social profit” agency. By the end of the interview, I understood what she meant, given CPI’s array of community class offerings from Teen Parenting to A Star is Born to Parenting with an Ex-partner.

 

How did you become involved with the California Parenting Institute?

 

When my first son was 6 months old, I took an infant massage class offered by CPI. I was interested in taking parenting classes, but I noticed they were all listed to run for times during the day. So I said, “Why don’t you call yourselves a stay-at-home parenting organization?  How are working dads or moms ever going to be able to take your classes?”

 

The instructor I made the comment to said, “Why don’t you join our board? We could really use someone with that kind of direct input…” And so I did (join the board). Making weekend and night classes available was my first focus-and now we offer night and weekend courses.

 

And while I’ve always loved being a stay at home mom, I’ve noticed that one’s focus is limited. You still want to feel like you’re able to do something and be able to broaden your focus. Volunteering at CPI makes me feel I’m making a difference in the whole community and in the world at large.

 

Can you talk about some of your favorite projects you’ve been involved with?

 

We started a program called “Open Closet” with the understanding that we served a broad spectrum of families from the wealthy to the homeless. For awhile we had a 1000 square foot warehouse our parent educators could walk into and pick and choose items from high chairs, strollers and books to toys and pacifiers for families in need. A family, for example, might be just about to get their children back from foster care and need furnishings or equipment for the children or even clothing for the parents.

 

At the end of the year we’d have a garage sale, earning up to $2000 dollars we reinvested in CPI to broaden our offerings. “Open Closet” not only gave people the opportunity to give, but provided relief to families in need. We no longer run open closet because two years ago we merged with another non-profit, Children’s Care Counseling, and found we needed to use that space for offices. Now in addition to parent classes, we are able to offer therapy. We have 12 licensed therapists ranging in cost from free to a sliding scale. We get many referrals for severely abused children. We have the ability to send licensed therapists for in-home visits for parents and children in a variety of traumatic situations.  For example, in a recent incident involving a car accident in which both parents were seriously injured while the children looked on from the back seat, CPI was able to send a therapist to the home.

 

We also have a literacy program, work with the Boys and Girls Club at Southwest Health Clinic, and provide space for the Breastfeeding Coalition of Sonoma County (which does advocacy work and employs lactation specialists). Some of our classes include Dad’s classes for teenage Dads, and Raising Daughters, Raising Sons; we also host Teen Mom classes at Southwest Health Clinic in Santa Rosa. In addition, we provide supervised visits for parents who do not have custody of their children so they can visit in a safe, supervised space. Our “Star is born” program helps families with their newborn infants up until that infant has become 2 years old. You can take a class at 0-3 months, bring your baby and get to know other moms while you learn about ages and stages and child development. Classes continue for 3-6 month olds, 6-12, and 12-18 month olds, and you can form your relationships with other moms. As we all know, it is those relationships that help you get through motherhood.

 

We do a lot of advocacy work, lobbying for children’s rights. Birth certificate fees are the only monies in California earmarked specifically for preventative care for children. Our Executive Director, Robin Bowen, presented at the legislature and drew attention to how important it was to reserve this money for preventative care like the classes offered at CPI. Grace Harris, Director of Programs, is also a part of the Sonoma County Mental Health Coalition on behalf of children’s mental health.

 

How do most families come to be served by CPI’s programs?

 

Some are court ordered. Some come on their own; they may have lost their kids, or be a family going through divorce, or simply struggling with one particular issue (positive discipline, sibling rivalry, tantrums; maybe they have a new baby and want information on how to be a better parent).  Most of the Sonoma County judges will order parents filing for divorce to take one of our courses, such as Parenting with an

Ex-partner which helps people learn how to parent as divorced partners. Through the Kid’s Turn program, therapy is available to everyone in the family.

 

A good number of women come our way via The Living Room, which is a Women’s Day shelter, as part of getting back on their feet. The Living Room opens at 6 a.m. to provide breakfast, then offers lunch as well, since most shelters aren’t able to offer much past a bed to sleep in. Computers are on-site for the women to use while they put their lives back in order.

 

Where do you see CPI heading?

 

Given the economy, we’ve had to lay some people off and cut some programs. Donations are down. But the backbone is here-I mean, CPI has been here for over 30 years. We are able to still offer services. And here’s an interesting fact: 80 percent of all donations come from people who make less than $50,000 a year, so often those with money don’t donate.  And you have to think about the trickle down to families and children: as the economy goes bad, the need for our services becomes greater.  When the money is gone, parents have less patience and there’s likely more yelling, more temper flares. So it is sad we actually have more kids we need to see and less money to pay the caregivers.

 

Can you share an inspiring story or two with us?

 

As you know, April is Child Abuse Awareness month. Once we invited Victor Rivers to speak to a room full of health professionals, sheriffs, detectives, etc. Rivers, an actor well known for his role as the Hulk, spoke about his childhood during which he was severely abused (tortured, hidden in the closet, his food withheld).  His message was that it takes only one person to change a child’s life. For him it was a teacher who told him he was valuable. Today he is a father and a successful hero.

 

Another speaker we featured once was the father of a son murdered in a gang execution. The son, while delivering pizzas as a college student, was killed by a 14 year old gang member. At first, the father, a world banker, was angry. Then he started thinking about it: “You know it was my responsibility too…what am I doing to help these kids who feel they have no other opportunity. I am just working and giving my kids what they need…We are actually responsible for all children…” And this father eventually became best friends with the grandfather of the 14 year old who killed his son and the two of them lecture together on forgiveness.  The 14 year old was the youngest boy ever tried as an adult. The father has forgiven him and made it clear the day he gets out of prison there is a job waiting for him in his firm.

 

You can take a tragedy and make it joyous, and make something good of it. You get to choose when something bad happens to you how you want it to play out.

 

Can you share a story or two about individual client successes at CPI?

 

I can refer you to Director of Programs Grace Harris, MFT. Here are two stories from her files:

 

1. One mother we visited earlier in the year after referral from a medical provider seemed anxious and worried.  She said she was losing patience with her son and he wouldn’t listen to her.  It turned out that this mother was grieving after the death of her own mother in [another country].  She had wanted to go see her, but was in the process of getting her permanent residency papers and was told she could not leave the country.  Our parent educator referred her to a Spanish speaking hospice provider to help her deal with her grief and the mother found that quite helpful.  The mother later admitted she was not playing with her son as much as she did before the death and she felt guilty about that.  Our parent educator told her about going to the library with her curious son and also gave her ways she could let him help her around the house.  It really helped their relationship improve.  As the mother began to feel better she was encouraged to participate in our Kindgergym classes.  This gave her an opportunity to meet other mothers.  By the time the holidays arrived, she was feeling a lot better and was able to bring a traditional dish [from her country] to the Kindergym Posadas celebration and to tell everyone how much she loved that dish when her mother made it for her.

 

The case that most touched me this year was that of a mother who had been an addict from the age of 13. She became pregnant when she was 27 and although she was very bonded to her daughter, she struggled to overcome her addiction to drugs. Her daughter was placed in foster care and then in kinship care with an aunt. The mother continued in her recovery program and began to take classes at CPI. She has been clean and sober for 2 years and requested extra help with her now 7 year old daughter. The mother felt very guilty about the years her daughter had spent in alternate care and thus, had a hard time setting limits with her when she behaved badly. She wanted her daughter to know that she really loved her. The mom benefited by viewing [a video] about Positive Relationships. She did not have a model of affection and positive attention. She learned to really pay attention to her daughter when she wanted to tell her something. She loved learning to praise the positive things her daughter did and said it was easy to find those things. “She is polite to other adults, she gets herself ready for school in the morning on time and she helps me pack her  lunch.” She also was “getting used to” sitting close to her on the sofa when they are watching movies together. Mom also bought some board games they could play together and found out that her daughter still enjoyed being read to.

 

Mom also learned that she could guide her behavior by giving clear and calm instructions. She learned how to think of consequences that would fit misbehavior and how to apply those consequences consistently. When her daughter really misbehaved, she enforced time outs in her room. Mom continues to be committed to being clear about her directions. She said she now understood that being a mom meant “being the one who makes the rules.”

 

This mother and her young daughter are doing amazingly well. They have a close and affectionate relationship. The daughter feels safe in her home with her mom and the mother feels more confident in her role as a parent. The mother is grateful that she was given more than one chance to be in a recovery program and feels that parenting support has let her turn herself in to a good mom. Our parent educator described this mom as “very caring and responsive to  suggestions and feedback.” She believes this mom and her daughter will continue to have a happy and fulfilling life together.

–Grace Harris, MFT

Director of Programs, CPI

 

Any personal experiences for you Lydia, with your work over the years you’d like to share?

 

I had an experience once with Open Closet. This family got their kids back, and I helped them move in their furniture. I felt that sense of one degree of separation. This mother had started using drugs at 13, got pregnant at 15, made a few bad choices. I just felt how close it was: I could have been her. That was really hard. But it sure made me happy to come home to my husband and my kids and my duplex.

 

What is your vision for you?

 

Every time a paying job position comes up I consider it, but I still have young children. In two years maybe I’ll be ready! I feel like as a stay-at-home, you don’t always see the opportunities.  But let me end with a quote which hangs in my kitchen above my sink where I can see it and remember it, not only about my child, but all children. Every year we have a Harvest Dinner and Live and Silent Auction at Rodney Strong Vineyard to raise money for CPI where we give out a 100 Year Award, which consists of this framed verse: A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, the car I drove, the kind of clothes I wore, but the world may be much different because I was important in the life of a child.”

 

Lydia Stewart will be speaking at The Twin Hills Union School District Faculty Meeting and the PTA  to present all the upcoming activities for the month at CPI and will be hosting an informational outreach table at the 2010 Non-Profit Conference by the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County: March 26, 2010 at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel. For more information on the conference: call the Volunteer Center: 573-3399

 

For Child Abuse Prevention Month, CPI will be offering a number of free events, such as Disciplining without Spanking, Grandparents Parenting Again Luncheon, and the Toolbox Class. Speaker Robin Karr-Morse, author of Ghosts from the Nursery, Tracing the Roots of Violence, “offers a shocking but empowering message: to understand violent behavior, we must look earlier, before adolescence, before grade school, before preschool-to the cradle.” For more information on Karr-Morses’s presentation, email anneb@calparents.org.

 

CALIFORNIA PARENTING INSTITUTE “Happy Childhoods Last a Lifetime”

Grace Harris, Director of Programs

3650 Standish Avenue

Santa Rosa, CA 95407

(707)585-6108 x 103

www.calparents.org

 

 

Stitches

by Catherine Zickgraf

I’m sure I took a nap when I got home.
I don’t remember the nap, just
the strained stair-climb to my bedroom,
me holding my mother’s wrist, my hand
with IV holes bandaged over.

Stitched at the birth canal,
the cut had relieved such pressure,
but I heard the scalpel
sink in its five-o’clock position.

Nothing hurt like that cut, and blood
was still dripping from the stitches.
The nurse had stocked the room
with smelling-salt pellets
for the next time I passed out
on her bathroom tile.

At the time I believed
the old tale that infant males
don’t feel their circumcisions.
Lies can dull pain, but anesthesia
is better.  So much suffering
caused by doctors and scalpels.

The nurse swished through the door
and reached for him.
It’s time for the circumcision.

We know that’s what the adopting couple
would want.  A fourteen-year-old, of course,
has no right to be a mother.

  

Catherine Zickgraf quit law school to be a writer.  Let’s hope it pans out.  You can find her blog at http://myspace.com/czickgraf.

Her writing has appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Pank, and Bartleby-Snopes.  She also has work forthcoming in GUD Magazine and A cappella Zoo.

Life and Seed

Artwork by Stephanie Tames

Life by Stephanie Tames

Life by Stephanie Tames

Seed by Stephanie Tames

Seed by Stephanie Tames

 

Stephanie Tames is a writer, longleaf pine needle artist, and yoga instructor living in southeastern Georgia. Her publications include Self, Parenting, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She has essays forthcoming in the Nature Conservancy Magazine. She is also a regular commentator on Georgia Public Radio.)

Small Wreckage and Single Girls

by Anne Champion

SMALL WRECKAGE

I.
The women stood at the door
with their rosaries, thrusting
the tiny beads into my hand.

I had been told to have my music on,
or maybe wear a hat, look down,
pay them no mind.

But I took them, repeating
quietly Dickinson’s lines
that had run through
my head all morning:

Shame need not crouch
In a world such as ours.
Shame-stand erect!-
The universe is yours.

II.

Who supports you in your decision today?
I pause, remember something he said
the night before:

Under different circumstances,
I could see you being a really good mother.

III.

You’d think I’d feel godless
the moment my body cried out
and the cramps came in waves
like fists beating at my insides.

But I imagined the Pieta,
in my blurred focus
of the woman standing over me,
not my mother,
cradling my head, placing
the cool washcloth to my brow, caressing
my hand, whispering
It’s okay.
You’re almost done.

IV.

My friend that came with me
said that sometimes she regretted it,
sometimes she still awoke
in the middle of the night
dreaming tiny palms beat
at the window to be let in,
but it turns out to be only a branch or rain,
as if the world wants to remind her
that it’s still there.

V.

The night I told him,
he slipped his hand beneath
my robe and caressed me.
Then he crawled beneath the blanket,
stood on his knees, and wrapped
it around his back, before he threw himself
upon me, so that the blanket followed,
inflating like a parachute,
collapsing above our heads.
And then it was like any other time
and every other man I’ve kissed:
everything went black,
and then went black again.

VI.

Sex is the only common religion
we all worship.  On our knees,
we become both God and prayer,
devotion in its purest,
most fervent form.
Yet how consistently we
crush our idols.

VII.

I asked the woman to see it,
but all there was to see
was a dark spot on the screen,
the shape and size of a lima bean,
a blip on the radar of my life,
small wreckage to be sunk
in the vast ocean,
inconsequential.

VII.

When I came to, the woman
guided me to a wheelchair.
I asked for something to vomit in,
and began creating a hierarchy of pain,
running moments through my head
that hurt worse-the tattoo I got when
I was eighteen, the broken thumb,
the infected wisdom teeth,
a broken heart.

SINGLE GIRLS
for Adrinna Morris

We are not the women on TV,
not the women of light and shadows,
sitting at bars, looking at each other
through the transparent colors
of glowing red, green, purple, and blue
we sip on, no crescent lemon twist
lying at the bottom of the martini glass,
nothing to make us feel wild
and desirable.

                        *

This world was not designed for one.
The monthly rent and bills assume at least two,
a couple to justify the cost.
Everywhere we turn we see
“value” and “family size;”
a box of macaroni and cheese
becomes a waste of money and food
and then there’s the stench
of old produce and expired milk;
we scour grocery aisles
for small cans of beans.

                                    *

I lay on your bed in sweatshirt and jeans,
and you’re in your pajamas listening
to me cry, again, over him.
You have your new baby on your knee
and she can’t stop crying either.
I ask relentlessly, When? How?
I am a broken machine.

                        *

Your daughter is marvelous
in her lack of a past.  Her skin,
translucent with the first bloom of life,
her wondrous brown eyes,
shiny marbles gazing up at me.
I don’t want to believe
that she, too, will have to reinvent
herself over and over again
and, like us, hope
to be good at it someday.

                        *

Tonight the moon shows
only her good side.
The other side is slid neatly
into the sky’s darkness
like a slit in an envelope.
She does this sometimes, slips
part of herself quietly from sight,
forced to go under.

Anne Champion recently finished her MFA in Poetry at Emerson College. She has work previously published in Our Time is Now, The Minnetonka Review, Pank Magazine, The Aurorean, and elsewhere.  She was also a 2009 recipient of The Academy of American Poets Prize.  She currently teaches Freshman
Composition at Emerson College, Pine Manor College, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
You may read some of her other work at the following links:

http://www.glass-poetry.com/volume-two/issue-three.html
http://foggedclarity.com/contributors/#anne
http://www.pankmagazine.com/?p=358

Into the Weeds

Fiction by Curt Alderson

So I stop by the apartment during my lunch hour the other day, and there’s this little yellow slip in the mailbox telling me Sonny’s at the downtown branch and I’ve got to go sign for him.  I got, like, thirty minutes before I’m supposed to clock back in, so I drop the rest of the mail on the kitchen table and hot-foot it to the post office. 

Sonny’s there, waiting, all bubble wrapped and stamped.  I hand my little yellow slip across the counter to the clerk.  She slides another one back at me.  I sign the thing, scoop up the package, then race back across town.  By the time I make it to the office, I’m ten minutes late. But nobody seems to notice.

I take the package in with me and prop it against the wall of my cubicle as I check the messages on my voice mail.  I lean back in my chair and stare at the row of stamps in the upper right-hand corner.  There’s no name on the thing (other than my own), but the return address is from Richmond so I figure it’s from Megan.  We talked the other day.  She called to tell me all about it.  This was two days after the service.

She was wrung out-you could hear it in her voice-and I really felt bad for her.  But I was put off too, at first.  Genuinely pissed.  I mean, my best friend dies and gets planted; he’s six-feet-deep and cold before I so much as hear about it.  Megan says she didn’t even think to call me until it was too late.  Somebody said something at the service-asked about me-and that was the first time I crossed her mind. 

So we’re talking on the phone and she ends up falling to pieces before she can even finish whatever it is she wants to tell me.

“Look,” I say, “forget it.  It’s okay.  I understand.”  Jesus.  Her old man dies, and she’s apologizing to me?

I finish the day out.  I do my time until four, then split.  I tuck Sonny up under my arm and head for the parking garage.  Traffic is hell outside, so I decide to let things simmer down before I make my way back home.  I stop off at Leon’s for a cold one.  Out in the parking lot, I lock my doors, leave Sonny on the passenger seat.

They got the overhead fans turning inside, but it’s hotter than forty hells.  Geraldine’s tending bar.  She says the AC’s on the blink, but Happy Hour’s been extended until eight.  “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” she says to me with a wink.

“Seems I heard that,”  I say back.

           

I get home close to nine.  I can smell whatever my neighbors had for supper as I move down the hallway.  It’s a weird combination:  meatloaf,  spaghetti, tuna, grilled onions.  The stale air hangs hot and heavy all around me.  It’s like breathing someone else’s body heat.  A couple of folks have their TV’s going full tilt.  I hear them through the doors.  Sit-coms.  Hollow laughter. 

There’s a cool rush of air when I open my door.  It’s dark inside.  I cut on the lamp next to the easy chair and make my way into the kitchen.  There’s some cold fried chicken in the fridge, leftovers from a couple of nights ago.  I pull the plate out, snap a beer off the six pack I picked up on the way in, and settle into my chair.

I get the TV going and dig in.  I left it on some God-awful station the night before-the Learning Channel or something-but by the time I figure this out, I’m up to my elbows in chicken grease.  The remote’s sitting next to me, but I figure what’s the use?  I just sit there, stripping meat off a breast bone, watching this geek go on and on about plankton levels in the North Sea. 

After the chicken, I think of Sonny.  He’s still out in the car, waiting like he has been since work.  I drop my dish in the sink with the others and go out to the parking lot to fetch him.

Megan’s a very meticulous girl.  That’s not something she picked up from her old man; I can assure you of that.  She’s triple wrapped everything in plastic and used up almost half a roll of Scotch tape.  Eventually, I pull the videocassette free from all the wrapping and pop it in the machine.  There’s a note-card taped to the side of the bubble wrap.  I peel it off and hold it up under the lamp to get a better look.

Ben,

It’s not the same as being there, but I wanted you to have this.  I know how much my dad meant to you.  He talked about you lots.

Look me up the next time you’re in town.  We’ve got a spare bedroom and would love to have you as our guest.  Mi casa, su casa.

Take care,

Meg

I set the note down on the coffee table.  For a second, I think about going back out, maybe catching a band somewhere.  Megan’s all heart.  I know she means well.  But I’m creeped out by the whole thing.  No other way to put it. 

I go back to the kitchen, open the fridge, and check for limes.  There’s one left.  It’s rolled behind a can of Hi-C, so I almost miss it.  I reach in and pull it out.  I take it to the chopping block by the sink, cut it into four fat wedges, and mix a gin and tonic.  The tonic water’s half-flat and the gin is rot-gut.  Just like Sonny used to like them, I think to myself, almost smiling.

 

Sonny and Tina had been married only a year or two when I first met them.  Back then, I was still living in this little three-bedroom cracker box out in the burbs.  Sonny and Tina lived next door.  Our houses were the last two in the cul-de-sac and we had adjoining backyards that ran right up to this thick stand of trees.  The woods were choked with kudzu.  In the summer, the vines turned dark green and snaked through the high branches until they formed a canopy so thick no light could get through.

Shortly after they got settled, Sonny built a big deck on the back side of their house, overlooking the woods and our two back yards.  When the weather allowed, the three of us would get together back there in the evenings.  We’d grill out, maybe have a few beers, shoot the breeze.  After dark, we’d lean back and listen to the stereo play through the screen door as the fireflies danced all around us. 

Sonny and Tina had moved from Montana and Sonny liked to brag on the fishing he’d done back there.  He’d tell me all about the cutthroat he used to go after along the Gardner.  Said how some days you’d have bighorn ram or bull elk coming right down to the waterline for a drink, with you standing just a few feet away.  I told him about Little Buckhorn and the monster browns you’d find there in the back eddies of the north fork.  Tina never said much once we got started.  She’d just sit there grinning, shaking her head every now and again like she’d heard it all before, which I’m sure she had.

A lot of nights went that way.  But this, of course, was long before the rabbits, long before Sonny and Tina’s marriage went south and Sonny followed suit, splitting for Phoenix.

As soon as their trouble started, I could sense a change.  Things got weird.  Tense.  The three of us didn’t get together as much, and the two of them started spending more and more time apart.  Tina would take these weekend trips to Baltimore, where she had people, and Sonny would stay home alone for no apparent reason.  He’d mope around for days, doing bullshit stuff just to keep busy.  I figured a fishing trip or two might help to take the edge off.  I mentioned it to him one night.  He didn’t seem thrilled, but he didn’t say no either.  We talked about heading out early-before daylight-and hitting the mountain streams, but we never made it any farther than Hollet’s Pond.

Hollet and I used to work second shift together at this ceramics factory.  One night we’re sitting in the break-room drinking coffee, and he tells me about his farm-a little fifteen-acre plot about twenty-minutes outside of town.  Said he bought the place with some money he’d had willed to him.  Hollet was what you might call a gentleman farmer.  He kept a half-acre garden, raised a few beef cows, but that was about it.  He wasn’t much on fishing either, but when he figured out I was, he told me about the pond he had, nestled in the far corner of the back pasture.  Said I could come on over and give it a try any time I felt the urge. 

“Don’t really know what you’ll find there,”  he said.  “Bluegill’s about all, I suspect.”

He was right.  After he gave me the green light, I fished Hollet’s Pond every day for a solid week but never caught anything bigger than my hand.  Still, it was nice to go there in the evenings.

Sonny liked it too.  Whenever the two of us went, we’d take our fly rods and one dry fly apiece.  Then we’d make a game of it, keeping track of who caught the smallest fish, because that was something too.  Getting a hit was nothing, but setting the hook could be a trick.

One evening, after we’d been out there a few hours and caught maybe a dozen each, Sonny walked over to where I was still fishing and took a seat on the berm. The light was fading from the sky and the bats were coming out to feed.  I wanted to get a few more casts in before we headed out. So I kept at it while Sonny sat in the grass breaking his rod down.  I knew he was right there next to me, but when he finally spoke, it made me jump a little.

“I don’t think we’re gonna make it,” he said.

I thought I knew what he meant, but I didn’t say anything right at first.  I just stripped a couple yards of line from my reel and made a cast for a cattail stand near the opposite bank.

“You remember that night I took her to the emergency room?” 

I did.  He didn’t say her name, but I knew he meant Tina. 

“It was real late,” he said.  “Past midnight.  You remember?”

I nodded. 

“Well, I told you she had the stomach flu, but that’s not how it happened exactly.”

I reeled everything in, and snipped the fly off the end of my line.  Sonny didn’t say anything for a while.  I had almost finished packing up all my gear when he started up again.

“We’d been trying to make a baby, see.  But we lost it that night.  That’s why I took her to the hospital.  That’s why we both stayed home from work the next day.  She took to the bed and I stayed home to look after her.”

“Damn.  I’m sorry,” I said.  “I hate that for y’all.”

Sonny nodded.  Then he caught a glimpse of a bat circling high above our heads.  It swooped down on the pond for a drink then flew away.  Sonny watched the little ripples moving toward him across the surface of the water.

“Thing is,” he continued, “it wasn’t the first time for us.  Same thing happened once before.  Back in Bozeman.  She was further along that time, so it was pretty bad.  We been to see a few doctors, but I don’t think they know what’s going on exactly.  They said we shouldn’t give up.  Said it was a fairly common thing.  But when it’s happening to you, it don’t feel common at all.”

“What’s Tina saying?”

“Not much.  She’s turned quiet on me.  It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking anymore.”

“So you imagine the worst.”

“Pretty much.  Sometimes I think we should try again, but I don’t know.  I’m scared to even bring it up.  I think she blames me.”

 

That was August.  By December of that year, Tina was pregnant again.  She and the baby made it through the first trimester without a hitch.  But the doctors ran a sonogram the first week of March, and things didn’t look good.  The baby died before the month was out.  The doctors said they couldn’t do anything with it on account of  Tina being so far along.  So she carried it, dead inside her, a solid week before her water broke and she finally had the miscarriage.

Sonny and Tina missed a lot of work through all this, and money started to get tight.  The doctor bills piled up, aggravating an already miserable situation.  Their house fell into disrepair.  The bushes and shrubs along their property-line grew wild, ragged.  One gray afternoon, a storm blew through the neighborhood and knocked down a couple of limbs from an old Dutch elm at the edge of their driveway.  The limbs stayed right where they fell in the front yard.  Weeks passed.  The green leaves withered and slowly fell away. 

Weeds took over the yard, out back especially.  Come May, when the days grew warmer, they started blooming.  It was a strange scene, peaceful almost.  The buttercups would bob and sway in a gentle cross-wind.  The purple clover came alive with bumblebees.  I said something to Sonny once-offered to push mow for him, clean things up a bit.  But he just looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language and disappeared back into the house.

A couple days later, I noticed Tina’s car missing from the driveway.  But I didn’t bother going over to see Sonny.  This once, I figured some time alone might do him good.

Later that afternoon, I’m stretched out on the couch watching a ball game.  It’s halftime and UNC is whipping the piss out of Virginia.  They’re getting ready to sound the horn for the second half when I first hear the commotion outside.  It’s Sonny.  He’s dragged his push mower out.  He yanks the rip-cord ten or twelve times before the engine finally comes to life, choking and wheezing at first, then gradually smoothing out to a steady hum.  I lay there on the couch a while longer with the volume on the TV turned down low, listening to Sonny tackle his back yard.  I hear him grinding away for a moment or two before the inevitable “CHUNCK” of the mower locking up.  I raise up and peek out the window.  I can see him, creeping along, an inch at a time.  When the mower starts to bog down, he tips the front of the deck so the blade can spin freely.  I think about getting my mower out, maybe starting on the far end of Sonny’s yard, meeting him in the middle.  Then I remember the look he gave me the last time I said something.

I give up on the ball game midway through the fourth quarter when UNC starts running four corners.  It’s not quite suppertime but getting close.  I go to the kitchen to see what I can dig up.  I’m standing there looking through the perishables, listening to the refrigerator motor buzz, when I realize I haven’t heard Sonny for a while.  I swing the door shut and walk over to the kitchen window.  From where I’m standing, I can see him.  The bright sunlight glares against the curve of his bare back.  He’s sitting in the tall grass, hunched forward, shoulders trembling.

I rush out my back door and cross over into Sonny’s yard.  He doesn’t turn when I call his name.  The mower’s sitting right beside him.  I can hear it pinging as it sits there cooling.  The heavy scent of burnt motor oil hangs in the air.  Sonny just sits there, shoulders hunched, eyes red, face wet.  He’s trying to say something, but his lips are drawn tight so the words never make it through.

Then I hear something rustling. I catch faint hints of movement out of the corner of my eye.  They lay there, squirming in a tangled heap, inches from where Sonny sits.  Baby rabbits.  He’d run up on a nest of them.  Some are cut clean in two, others lay thrashing, half-dead on the grass.

I get Sonny to his feet and help him into the house.  He’s crying but he doesn’t make a sound, only jerks at the shoulders some.  Inside, he sprawls out on the couch while I go over to the stereo and cut the tuner on.  I get it set on something mellow, but crank it loud.  Sonny never so much as looks my way.

I leave him there, go back to my place, and head straight for the nightstand next to my bed.  I open up a box of shells and fill the chamber of the .38 I keep stashed there.  I drop a couple extra shells in my pocket for good measure then cross back over to Sonny’s yard to finish the job.

After I find a spot for them deep in the woods out back, I go in to check on Sonny.  He’s up from the couch, sitting in a recliner.  The music’s still blaring through the speakers, but Sonny just sits there, staring dead ahead at a stack of magazines on the coffee table.  Zoned.

I turn down the volume and move into the kitchen.  Sonny always kept his fixins up under the sink.  I pull everything out, get some tumblers, and mix us up a couple.  Sonny snaps out of his trance long enough to latch on to the highball I hand him.  I turn the stereo down a click or two then sit in a chair opposite him.  The shades are drawn, and it’s good to be in from the heat.  We don’t say nothing, just sit there listening, drinking.  Then the music stops all of a sudden.  An announcer comes on with the weather forecast.  He’s talking in this whispery voice, makes some remark about the barometric pressure or something.  He’s trying to be clever, but I don’t catch the gist of what he’s saying, and my lack of understanding depresses me.

 

Next thing you know, Sonny and Tina are packing their stuff in two separate

U-hauls-a his-and-hers set.  Hers heads for Baltimore, his for Phoenix. 

I stayed put a few more years, got new neighbors.  But things never were quite the same. And after a while, I put my house on the market too, got the apartment I live in now.  I’m closer to work this way, which is nice in the winter when weather hits.

I kept in touch with Sonny through the mail mostly.  The first letter I got from him was signed “Your Pen Pal.”  I chuckled when I saw that.  But really, that’s how it turned out for us: friendly but distant.  After he moved away, it was like there was always something between the two of us, something more than miles.

We were still friends, sure.  When Sonny re-married, I rented a monkey-suit and booked a flight.  Never thought twice about it.  I was there when Megan was born too.  But those visits never came off the way I thought they would.  Sonny had moved out there to make a fresh start, maybe forget a few things.  Then, every two years or so, I’d show up.  New salt for old wounds.  Of course, Sonny never said as much-treated me like family, in fact-but I knew what my being there did to him.  So I decided to more or less phase myself out.  I pulled a disappearing act.  Sonny’d made a good life for himself out there.  I just left him to it.

 

Now he’s gone.  Now, this thing’s all I got-Megan’s video.

 

I sit back in my chair for a time, stirring ice cubes with my index finger, listening to them clink against the glass.  I press play on the VCR remote.  The TV goes black.  Everything’s quiet.  Sonny’s name flashes up on the screen, followed by two dates.  Then they start up with the organ music.

Next comes the picture, a full view of the casket.  There’s flowers piled high on top of it, flowers to either side on wire stands.  I can see the backs of the heads of all the people in the first couple of rows.  I scan the crowd, over and over, but can’t seem to recognize a soul. 

They’ve got the lid up, but with the angle of the camera, I can’t really get a good look at the body.  I figure it’s best that way.  It’s not exactly Sonny they got boxed up anyhow.  I been to enough funerals-enough “viewings”-to know that much.  Wax dummies.  That’s all I ever manage to think.

The camera must be mounted in a far corner or something, because the shot never changes.  Every so often, somebody comes in frame, walks over to the casket, peeks in, then walks off the screen.  Some are clutching hankies.  They walk up, dab at their faces, then move along, their shoulders all hunched up.  A few people walk by with their hands stuffed in their pockets.  Real casual, or so it seems.  Like they do this every day or something.  After ten minutes of this, I still don’t recognize a single one of these people.  The family’s most likely in another room, out of view, hidden.

The organist plays all the old regulars:  “Just As I Am,” “Peace in the Valley,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  I take another swig.  The gin sits cold on my belly. 

They finally lower the lid and a preacher comes into frame.  He stands behind the casket, offers a few words.  Says he didn’t know Sonny but that, over the past few days, he feels like he’s gotten to know him some.  Says he’s talked to family and friends.  Says he’s heard stories.  He tells a few and I watch a couple of heads nod up in the front pew.  The preacher does what he can, but he misses a heap.  A life’s a big thing, and he’s pressed for time. Gotta get on with it, clear the room for the next set of grievers.

He says a few words about Jesus, closes with a prayer.  Someone says “Amen.”  A couple fellas in dark suits show up.  They each take an end of the casket and wheel Sonny down the center aisle.  Then the music starts up again.  But it’s not the organ this time.  They got pickers somewhere, guitar and autoharp.  They play “The Old Gospel Ship,” and I think how it’s about the only good thing to come out of the whole damn production.

I watch as the last part of the casket slips away from the bottom of the TV screen.  The people in the pews all stand up.  I stand up too.  I hold my glass up high, tip it to one side, and let the rest of the highball fall to the carpet.  I don’t spare a drop.

 

Curt Alderson has been writing stories and poems for fifteen years. He lives with his wife and two sons on a small family farm in southwest Virginia. His work has appeared in various publications, including Currents, Red Crow, Pitch Weekly, and Aura Literary Arts Review. For additional stories, poems, and readings visit curtalderson.blogspot.com




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