A Fool's Hopes

by Jennifer Nichols

“Wake up, Caitlyn! We’re ready to go!”

That would be my mom who is waking me at this ungodly hour. I grab my cell phone off my nightstand and check the time: six o’clock. I can’t put this off any longer. Stretching like a cat, I kick off my covers and drag myself out of my warm bed. Don’t my parents understand the value of sleep?

I trudge to the bathroom and begin my morning routine. Brush teeth, comb hair, throw on some clothes. Good enough. My head is already pounding as I make my way to the kitchen to take my pills. I grab a granola bar to eat in the car. Hopefully, it will stay down but it’s always a bit of risk eating this early.

My kid sister skips into the kitchen. She’s nine and I swear she’s like the Energizer Bunny. I try not to be jealous, but I would kill for just half of the energy that girl has.

“Caitlyn! Mom said she’s not gonna wait any longer. Aren’t you ready to go yet?”

“Tell her I just have to get my bag.” My voice is hoarse from using it for the first time today. “On second thought, can you get my bag for me?”

I try to ask as sweetly as possible. If I were her, I wouldn’t want to have to wait on me, either. She’s used to it though, and she only grumbles a little as she runs off toward my room, her long brown ponytail bobbing behind her. My dad enters the kitchen just as I finish swallowing my last pill. He’s still dressed in his pajamas, but his bright eyes and combed hair reveal that he’s been awake for a while.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in the car already?” he asks, bristly eyebrows raised.

“I was just heading for the door,” I reply.

He comes closer and gives me a kiss on the cheek, which I return.

“I love you and hope you have a good trip,” he says.

“Thanks. I love you too.”

I know. You’re probably wondering why my dad isn’t coming with us. While my sister and I have the week off for Spring Break, dad still has to work, and, as an accountant, this is the busiest time of the year for him. My mom, on the other hand, works part time as a florist and had no problem taking off from work.

So, I regretfully tell my dad goodbye and join my mom in the car. I stake my claim in the back seat where I can stretch out. Let my sister have the front; I can put my feet up back here. Mom honks the horn impatiently. I know she is eager to go. She doesn’t like to drive at night.

“Come on, Claire,” she mutters to no one in particular.

Like a charm, my sister, Claire, pops out of the house, carrying my over-stuffed duffle bag. She tosses it in the trunk and hops into the passenger’s seat.

I put a pillow behind my head and stuff my ear buds in as my mom puts the car in gear and pulls out of the drive. I pull out my granola bar and eat it slowly, silently praying that it will agree with my stomach. It’s an eight-hour drive to Rochester, Minnesota, and I want it to be as comfortable as possible.

About an hour into the trip, the heartburn starts.

“Mom, do you have any Rolaids?” I call.

“You can check my purse,” she replies without taking her eyes off the road.

“Claire, can you pass me mom’s purse?”

Claire sighs dramatically, like I just asked her for a kidney, but she grabs the large black bag and hands it to me. I rifle through the mess of Kleenex, coin purses, and pill boxes until I find the Rolaids. I pop two in my mouth and chew them quickly. They taste like chalk, but the flavor is a small price to pay if they relieve the excruciating pain in my chest and back. I hand the bag back to my sister and sit up straight. I place my pillow on my stomach and put my feet up on the seat, so that the pillow rests between my stomach and my knees. Only seven hours of the trip to go.

Why are we driving eight hours to Minnesota for Spring Break? I thought you’d never ask. If I was a normal sixteen-year-old girl, I would probably be flying with my friends to Miami or Cancun, or at least to San Antonio. But I’m not a normal sixteen-year-old girl. In fact, much to my family’s dismay, three years ago, I gave up flying all together. So, while I’m sitting here in misery, I may as well share the story.

When I was ten, I caught mononucleosis. And, yes, everyone thought it was clever to make stupid kissing jokes about it. From my experience, there was nothing funny about mono at all. After missing weeks of school, my doctors finally thought I had recovered. Sure, all my tests came back “normal”, but I still felt awful. Since I no longer had a high fever and all the tests came back negative, I was forced to return to school. It was miserable.

I had absolutely no energy. When I wasn’t in school, I was sleeping. When I was in school, I was dizzy, or nauseous, or in pain. I had to give up all of the things I had once loved. No more soccer practice. No more dance recitals.

My doctor recommended a counselor because he thought I was depressed. I found the counseling sessions depressing. What ten-year-old wouldn’t? After months of counseling and no progress, I started getting referrals to all sorts of medical specialists. This one thought maybe I had Lupus. That one thought I might have a thyroid problem. And, gasp, another one thought I could have cancer. Test after test came back negative. I was the picture of good health, except that I was sick.

But last year, things changed. My doctor had had enough. He suggested that my parents take me to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. If they couldn’t find anything wrong, then, once and for all, he could determine that my illness was all in my head.

My parents were desperate; I was desperate, so, despite the heavy bills, we packed our bags and made the long trip to the Mayo Clinic. By the grace of God, I met Dr. Schaeffer, my current neurologist, there. After exhaustive testing, she concluded that I had a commonly missed condition called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, or POTS, for short. It was such a relief to finally know that what I was experiencing was real, that it had a name.

Of course, this was just the start of my journey. Up until then, my family and I had never even heard of POTS. We thought it might be one of those weird, rare conditions. Later, I learned that 1 in 100 American teenagers suffer from it. And even though it isn’t rare, very few people have heard of it, even in the medical field. So, I’ll assume that you are just as clueless about POTS as I was when I was first diagnosed. I have learned so much about it since then that I feel like I could write a book.

Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome is a disorder of the autonomic nervous system, which controls all of the body’s automatic processes. I know, I sound like a textbook. Basically, if you don’t have to think about it, your autonomic nervous system does it for you: breathing, heart beating, digesting. In POTS, this system becomes out of balance. The body no longer knows how to properly respond to its environment. One of the defining features of POTS is that the patient’s heart rate increases by at least thirty beats per minute when moving from lying down to standing.

Dr. Schaeffer described it to me by saying that my body acted like I was running a marathon every time I stood up. This made sense to me, as most of the time I felt like I had just finished a marathon. I can hardly begin to explain how miserable and how scary POTS can be. However, Dr. Schaeffer assures me that it is not life threatening.

Currently, she is working to find medications that help my symptoms. I also have an exercise regimen that I am supposed to follow, though I honestly don’t follow it as closely as I should. I drink so much water and Powerade that I can hardly go an hour without peeing, and I pour salt on everything I eat. The POTS diet is weird, and a little gross, but I find it easier to follow than the exercising.

I also gave up flying when I was thirteen. The air is so dry on airplanes and I dehydrate very easily. Also, drastic changes in elevation make my head spin. Every time I have a follow up in Minnesota, my parents try to convince me to fly, but my last plane trip was so miserable that I’m terrified to try again.

That brings me back to the present. I’m the reason why we are spending Spring Break driving in the car for eight hours to go to a doctor’s appointment. During the last visit, Dr. Schaeffer prescribed a beta-blocker for me to try. I guess it’s okay. But I’m really hoping she has something new for me to try.

See, I did something sort of stupid last week. While I was sitting in Spanish class and pretending to concentrate on conjugating verbs (though I was really just focusing on keeping my eyes open), the cute senior who sits behind me tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to the Spring Fling. Like a lovesick idiot, I said yes. I mean, this guy is gorgeous. He’s also sweet and funny. I’ve kind of thought he had his eye on me for a while now, but I’ve tried to discourage it. Seriously, the last thing I need is a boyfriend. I have enough on my shoulders between POTS and school. So, like I said, I idiotically agreed to go to the Spring Fling with this wonderful guy. I can hardly stand up for five minutes. How am I supposed to go to a dance?

My parents think it’s cute. They want me to go. I want to go. I’m just not sure how I’m going to explain to my date why I am spending the whole evening chugging water and walking like a drunk back and forth to the bathroom. And that is the best-case scenario. More likely, the night of Spring Fling I will be so exhausted from school that I will crash before I can even slip into my dress.

Ugh. Dress shopping. I forgot about that. I used to love shopping; now I dread and loathe it. Why are there so few benches in the mall? This whole Spring Fling thing is really a nightmare. Yet, I really want to go. It’s something a normal person would do, and I desperately want to be normal.

So, all my hopes are riding on this appointment. I need some answers. I need a new medication, a new treatment, something that will help me make it to the dance. Or maybe, even better, something that will give me back my old life.

“Can I turn on the radio?”

Claire’s squeaky voice pulls me out of my thoughts.

“No,” I say weakly.

My head is still throbbing and I feel like my granola bar is creeping up my esophagus. The radio will just make me sick.

Claire starts to whine, but, thankfully, my mom finds a solution.

“Can you lend your sister your ear buds?” she asks me.

I toss them to Claire and she settles down.

“How are you holding up?” my mom asks.

“Fine,” I lie.

She knows I’m lying, but she doesn’t say anything.

The hours pass slowly, but after eating a small cup of soup for lunch, I finally fall asleep in the car. When I awake, we are pulling into the hotel parking lot. I wait in the car while my mom and sister check in. When they come back for the luggage, I follow them in the building. It’s not the greatest hotel, but it’s no Motel 6. There’s a plate of chocolate chip cookies on a table in the entry. I snag one. Maybe I’ll feel like eating it later.

We stop in front of the elevator. Unfortunately, our room is on the third floor. I don’t like elevators. They always seem to make my dizziness worse. The doors slide open. I walk to the back and tightly grab the rail. The ride ends quickly and the dizziness fades as I follow my mom to our room.

The minute the door opens I find the remote and flop onto the nearest bed. While Claire and my mom freshen up and make dinner plans, I flip through the channels.

“Are you going to dinner with us?” Mom asks.

“No,” I reply. “Can you bring me back some chicken strips from McDonald’s please?

“All right,” Mom says.

I know. I should go to dinner with my family. But I’m tired. The bed and TV are telling me not to leave the room for the rest of the night. Besides, now my mom and sister can eat wherever they want without having to think about my dietary restrictions or how long I can be out.

I give them hugs when they leave and cuddle up on the bed, excited about the rom-com that is just starting. When it’s over, I pull out my phone and check my social media. I can waste hours on the Internet, so it’s not surprising that I’m still messing with my phone when my family returns.

I’m not very hungry, but I eat the chicken strips anyway. I learned a long time ago to eat even when I don’t feel like it. After I finish, I pull some pajamas out of my bag and reluctantly walk to the shower. My appointment is tomorrow and I want to be presentable. I sit in the bathtub while I wash to conserve my energy. I gave up morning showers years ago. I found them too exhausting.

When I’m done, I wrap my hair in a towel and throw myself back on the hotel bed. Mom and Claire are watching some Disney movie. I might find it amusing if I wasn’t so tired. I set the alarm on my phone for 7:30. My appointment is at nine o’clock and I want to have time to eat breakfast first. I don’t know why, but I love hotel breakfasts. I’m pretty sure the eggs aren’t real and the pancakes always taste a bit like plastic, but I love them anyway.

I’m so tired that I fall asleep to the sound of talking animals on the television. I sleep hard from the long day of driving. I wake to the sounds of my sister and mom rustling around the room. Stuffing my pillow over my head, I fall back asleep, only to be woken what feels like seconds later by my alarm. It doesn’t matter how long I spend sleeping; I always wake up tired.

I take my time getting ready. Even though I usually feel awful, I don’t want to look that way when I’m in public. I spend extra time curling my hair and applying makeup so that I look the part of a normal, healthy teenager. Claire is hungry and impatient, so mom takes her to breakfast. I’ll catch up soon.

Once I’m happy with my appearance, I grab the spare key card that’s sitting on the table and head out the door. I find that I’m faced with taking the elevator by myself. Taking a deep breath, I step inside. I remind myself not to act like a baby about this. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean I can avoid it. The elevator ride doesn’t take long, but the short time in motion is miserable just the same.

The doors open and I step into the lobby. Tables, chairs, and a long counter of food are set up opposite of the check-in counter. As I make my way to the short line of people waiting for the buffet, Claire waves at me from one of the tables, and I nod back. It’s a complimentary breakfast, so it’s nothing too fancy. However, I’m still happy to see a dish of cheese “omelets.” I scoop two onto my paper plate then proceed to add a couple slices of bacon, a blueberry muffin, and a strawberry yogurt. I grab one of those cardboard cartons of low-fat milk, like they serve in elementary schools out of the mini-fridge, and join my family at their table.

“You’d better eat fast,” Claire says as she fills her mouth with a large spoonful of Cheerios.

She is bossy sometimes. I think she’s trying to act like she’s my mom. It can be really annoying, but I kind of understand it. She certainly picks up a lot of my slack when I’m too sick to do anything. She probably feels a bit responsible for me.

I ignore her comment and focus on the delicious, cheap food piled in front of me. The omelet tastes like it was made with that cheese-in-a-can stuff. I know it sounds gross, but these eggs are like a drug to me. When I’m about halfway done, my mom raises her eyebrows and gestures to the saltshaker. I roll my eyes and continue to eat.

“Caitlyn,” she says, warningly.

I pretend like I don’t hear her. I shovel a large piece of egg in my mouth and chase it with a big bite of bacon.

“Just use the salt,” Claire mutters.

She picks up the saltshaker and shoves it at me. I stick out my tongue at her.

“I saw that,” my mom says. “You know what Dr. Schaeffer says. You need to increase your salt intake. There is no point in driving all the way up here if you don’t listen to what she tells you to do.”

I sigh and grab the salt. I make a show of pouring it over all of my food. I even include a little bit in my yogurt, even though I know I will probably regret it. My mom looks aggravated, but she doesn’t say anything. That’s probably for the best. I wouldn’t respond well to a lecture right now.

I’m not trying to be a pain. It’s just that it’s not very often that I feel hungry, or that food tastes good to me. So, it would be nice if, for once, I could just enjoy my meal without piling gobs of salt all over it. I dig my fork back into my eggs and force myself to eat the rest of the salty mess. The yogurt is pretty gross, but I make myself eat it anyways. I’m being a baby and I know it. I didn’t need as much salt as I poured on my food, but I did it anyways. When am I going to grow up?

When I finish my super salty breakfast, we clear our plates and return to our room. We’re running behind schedule, so there’s little time for talk as we scurry around grabbing whatever we think we need and making last minute stops in the bathroom. I grab my side bag and fill it with a water bottle, a Powerade, some pretzels, a book, my cell phone, and my ear buds.

I feel like I’m packing for vacation, not a visit to the doctor. However, experience has taught me to always come prepared for appointments. If an appointment is scheduled for nine o’clock, you may see the doctor at 9:15, or you could be waiting until eleven. And that’s just the initial wait. If any tests are scheduled, a quick doctor’s visit can turn into a whole day of sitting in waiting rooms and getting poked and prodded like a test monkey. Books help stave off the boredom, but snacks and drinks are absolutely crucial.

Mom checks her bag one last time and escorts Claire and me out of the room. The elevator ride and car ride pass quickly as mom grills me on the purpose of our visit to Dr. Schaeffer. It may sound overboard, but when you just traveled for eight hours to see a doctor, you want to have a clear game plan. I’m used to this routine, and I only feel a bit nervous as we pull into the Mayo Clinic.

I can never get over how huge the complex is. My mom navigates us to the right floor of the right building. It was a long walk to get to Dr. Schaeffer’s office and I’m feeling lightheaded. I ask my mom to sign me in while I find a chair.

I’m great at scouting out chairs. I’m like a hound dog that can sniff out all the chairs within a three-mile radius. Of course, there are lots of empty seats in the waiting room, but I find the prime seats. With prowess worthy of Sherlock Holmes, I claim seats that are far enough from the TV to not be irritated by the daytime soaps, out of the way of foot traffic coming in and out of the office, near enough to the restrooms so that I don’t feel like I’m hiking when I inevitably have to pee, and, most ideally of all, have a coffee table filled with magazines standing directly in front of them. I push the magazines to one side and use the empty space as a footrest. I recline—as much as a waiting room chair will allow—and revel in the comfort of sitting.

Claire soon joins me, putting her feet up in imitation of me.

“Mom’s still waiting to sign you in,” she says.

It’s kind of a pointless statement as I can see my mom waiting in line, but I let it slide. Claire pulls out her 3DS and starts playing Mario or one of those other games. I’ve never cared for video games and as much as Claire has tried to explain them to me, I just don’t get the point. Give me a good book over a video game any day of the week.

Mom comes over and joins us. She watches Claire play her video game for a while then she pulls out her phone and starts checking emails. I start to get bored, so I rifle through my bag and find my book.

Time ticks by slowly in the waiting room. Even though my appointment was scheduled to be one of the first of the day, it’s nearly eleven before the nurse swings open a side door and calls my name. I put away my book, pick up my bag, and make my way to the nurse.

“Good morning!” she says cheerily.

She smiles and nods at my mom and sister. They follow me into the narrow hallway beyond the door.

“First, we’re going to check your weight.”

I stand on the scale. Then I submit to the rest of the routine. Height, blood pressure, pulse, temperature: all of these are checked before the nurse leads me to a room. I obediently lie on the table while she runs an EKG. She asks a few basic questions, before slipping out of the room.

“Dr. Schaeffer will be in, in a moment,” she says.

Mom and Claire make themselves comfortable in their chairs. There are only two, so I have to wait on the table. I decide to lie down. What’s the point of being upright if I don’t have to be?

After another twenty minutes of waiting, a knock comes on the door. It swings open and Dr. Schaeffer comes in, apologizing for the long wait.

I’m going to skip telling you about the next portion of the visit. I’m not sure how much I’m supposed to discuss, thanks to HIPAA and privacy policies and all that stuff. You don’t need to know every detail of my visit, anyway.

What you do need to know is that an hour later, tears are streaming down my face as I ride in the car to find something for lunch. I don’t cry easily, but sometimes I get so frustrated I can’t help but cry.

“I didn’t think it went that badly, Caitlyn,” Mom says after taking her eyes off the road to turn and look at me.

I’m in the passenger seat now and Claire is in the back. It’s kind of customary for us to switch seats after an appointment, so that it’s easier for me to talk to Mom.

“You already knew that there is no magic cure for this. I think she had some helpful advice.”

I choke back a sob.

“I’m just so frustrated,” I manage to say. “I wanted her to have something to help me. I wish I was normal.”

“I know, but wishing isn’t going to help you. You heard what she said. You really need to work on exercising more. I know you don’t feel like it, but she said that it would help. You just have to do it anyways, whether you feel like it or not.”

“I know.”

I’m starting to get an attitude, and I know it. I try to bite my tongue, and I wipe the tears from my eyes.

“Where are we going for lunch?” I ask.

My mom knows I’m trying to change the subject and she doesn’t humor me.

“If you really want to feel better, you have to start doing the things that Dr. Schaeffer tells you to do. When we get home, I want to see you step up and do your exercises at least three days a week. And, I know you don’t want to hear it, but she said that cutting out dairy could really help your digestion. I’ll help you find some dairy free foods, but you need to decide if you are serious about getting healthy or not. I can’t do it for you.”

“I know, Mom.”

I exercise five days a week,” Claire chimes in. “I have basketball three days and swimming the other two.”

“Shut up, Claire.”


“Caitlyn,” Mom says warningly.

I stare out the window for the rest of the car ride. I can’t help feeling disappointed that we drove eight hours just to hear that I need to exercise more and cut out dairy. I guess I’m not sure what I expected. Of course, my mom is right. There is no magic cure for this. Any hopes that I built up about this visit being some life-altering experience were a fool’s hopes.

I have POTS. Dr. Schaeffer says there’s a good chance that I will always have POTS. I have to learn how to cope with the symptoms. Then, when I’m comfortable with those symptoms, I have to relearn how to cope when new ones arise.

This is my life. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish every day for my health to be restored to what it once was. But I can’t spend my whole life wishing for something that will never happen.

All I can do is take things one day at a time.

We pull into the parking lot of Wendy’s. My mom and sister are quick to hop out. I put on a small smile as I open the car door. Today, I am going to enjoy a hamburger, sans cheese, and a medium Dr. Pepper. And, maybe, just maybe, in a few weeks, I’ll be enjoying a dance with that cute guy from Spanish class.

The Conservationist


I’m his son. I’m ashamed to say that over the past decade of my life, that fact has been both an honor and a burden. This is the way it always is with our children. They grow up, seeing us as something magical. Then as they age, they see us for what we really are. . . imperfect. . . and the shock makes all the adoration they had turn into outrage. As time goes by, the emotion simmers into a slight annoyance, until it’s finally buffed out and smoothed over into respect. But most times, as it is with my father, Howl Richards, the realization of how much you admire them comes too late.

My father, to be described in one word, was eclectic. He was a collector, not a hoarder, as many neighborhood kids would have you believe. The difference between a hoarder and a collector lies in the attitude. A hoarder is greedy, a hoarder is frantic, a hoarder is impatient. My father, well, he was none of these things. My father was a conservationist. My father was careful. My father was measured. In all the things my father did, art was created, beauty was preserved, and life was enriched. It is a pity and a disgust that his legacy was marred by the sloppy image outsiders built for him. What’s even worse and more deplorable is that his own son saw him in that image as well.

Everything my father loved was something from a past life. His clothes were rummaged out of lost-and-found boxes at business complexes he never worked in. When he collected whatever had been left behind, he not only took in tossed-aside materials, but tossed-aside humans. If you ask any janitor in this city who Howl Richards was, a smile will spread across their face and they’ll have a story that will put a smile on yours.

Even his children were somewhat reincarnated, repurposed. When my mother was pregnant, my father loved to take her on walks. He felt like the love of the outdoor would absorb through her belly and into our hearts, and to a point, maybe it did. One of the places that he and my mother loved to walk was the cemetery. How morbid, that a woman and a man celebrating the life they’re bringing into the world, would walk among the monuments set up for the lives that were left behind.

But my father saw beauty in the darkest of places. His favorite place in the cemetery was where the children’s graves were. Little tiny headstones above little tiny children who couldn’t take walks with their mommas and papas anymore. My father would tug at the weeds and brush off the dirt. My mother left flowers and my dad left little racecars, marbles, and dolls. And my parents would leave with a name in their hearts and on their lips. One name was Lucas. One name was Marcy. One name was Andie. The names of children who never grew into them became the names my siblings and I carried throughout our lives. My dad was a big believer in second chances.

I was blind to that for a long time. I was ashamed because of the fleeting, petty comments I heard all my life growing up. How ridiculous it is that the things that don’t matter destroy the things that matter most. My father was ridiculed by so many people. Hobo Howl they called him. They looked at his beard, long and scruffy with bright shiny beads and colorful strings woven through the hairs, and they saw a bum. They looked at his tie-dyed shirts and his patched up jeans and they saw a hippie. They watched him riding his bike through town, stopping at the oddest of places, and they saw a madman. And for the longest time, I saw my father through the same eyes as they.

That beard is a legend unto itself. My mother says that when they first met, it was nothing but a few scraggly hairs on his chin, and over time it grew into the beautiful thing everyone is familiar with. My father would often comment that his beard was a symbol for their love, and usually at that my mother would laugh and blush, much to my father’s delight.

For the longest time, I couldn’t see what my mother saw in my father. It’s awful, I know, to admit that, but it’s true. My mother was so clean and so proper; how she ended up with a ragtag man like Howl Richards I could never comprehend. But if you see the way she looked at him, with her eyes lit up like diamonds and her lips suppressing a proud smile, you would have no doubt that her heart belonged to him.

They met at school. And when I say met at school, I mean she was in school and he was bumming free seminars at the lecture hall dressed as a different student every day so not to attract attention. She was studying anthropology, and I think that made her notice him. Here was this bizarre human being coming in uninvited, dressed bizarrely and trying so hard not to be noticed that it was impossible not to notice him. And I think it was her love of people that made her ignore the shy nervousness she usually had and walk up to this funny looking man with a five o’clock shadow and talk to him. But that is where my logic ends as to why my mother would be married to such a man for thirty-five years.

My father used to dye his shirts when holes appeared. I remember waking up early in the morning to the smell of coffee and tip toeing out of my room to peek on him. He would be there with his buckets of hot dye, shirt bunched up and severed off in every which way. Color would stain his skin, little rivers of red and blue settling into the cracks of his palms. His glasses would be sliding down the slope of his nose as he delicately baptized each shirt into the colored water. And when he finished, he would celebrate in the quiet light of the dawn breaking and sip the cup of coffee that my mother had made him, still hot and black. He was art and she adored watching him create and show himself. She was perfect and he was so imperfect that she had no choice but to love him with all she had.

Marcy and I used to drive up to the edges of highways on the weekends to pick up trash with our dad. It was during these eco-friendly romps that I learned to hate my father. The air was always too cold or too hot, my legs always ached and cramped, and the trash was disgusting. If any child of mine ever tosses a bottle full of pee out of my car window, I swear to Christ they will land wherever that bottle does. I was disgusted by the waste people created, but I was also enraged that I, an innocent, had to clean up after their mistakes. My dad was a big believer in second chances.

Day after day we would spend on those damn highway shoulders, looking like convicts with our skinny silver sticks poking at Coke cans and soggy McDonald’s fries and picking up every cigarette butt and shard of glass that speckled the grass. For me, it was hell. Marcy was too young to really know how to properly complain and my father thought of the whole experience as a treasure hunt.

He would call me over, waving his arm frantically for me to hurry up and look. I would heft my bulging, smelly trash bag over my shoulder and trudge over to see what the hell the old man found this time. Most times, I was unimpressed. Sometimes it was a robin’s egg, held with reverence in my father’s multicolored fingers. Sometimes it was a particularly colorful glass bottle that he would stuff with wildflowers to present to Mom when we got home. But once in awhile, it was something just for me. Like my father had conjured it up, right there on I-44, to show me. A G.I. Joe with an arm missing, making him look even more tough and war-savvy. Or, one time, he found a bracelet woven with my name on it in orange letters—my favorite. I’m wearing it now, even.

But out of all these things, the thing that my father found that I treasure more than anything else was something so normal and commonplace that people laugh. It was a brass key, small and heavy in my ten-year-old hands. He waved me over as usual and when I got to him, he looked at me, his lips pressed tight but his eyes twinkling.

“I have something for you, Lucas.”

“Dad, I already have enough bottles, can we just go—”

“Lucas. This is important. This isn’t a bottle or a Hot Wheel or a Lincoln Log. This is something that’s not a toy. It’s something you’ve got to keep for the rest of your life.”

With that, my attention was grabbed. He solemnly took my hand, opened it, and dropped the key. I looked up at him, confused.
“You are the one who holds the key. The key to your happiness, the key to your sadness. The key to your triumph and the key to your failure. You open all the doors, Lucas, and you must have the wisdom to know which doors you must also lock.”

And before I could make some smartass remark that would likely haunt me to this day, he turned away to Marcy, handing her a pink plastic Barbie shoe, and that was that.

Andrew never went to our romps because Mom worried he would run out in traffic. In a way, he was lucky. The sweat never rolled down his back, stinging his sunburns. He never had his friends drive by and ask later if you were a criminal. He never had trash thrown at him from a passing car and he never had to hear the rollicking laughter zoom by. But he missed a part of my dad that no one really gave notice to. The part that saw things that were worth so much and yet seemed to matter so little.

It sickens me to know that I wasn’t there but I could have been. Hindsight is twenty-twenty but my God I feel so blind. He called me, you know? He called me up when I was taking my daughter Lucy out of her crib. I answered, cradling the phone with my neck, hefting her up clumsily. He wanted to know if I wanted to go Highway Scavenging, as he affectionately called it. I had time. My wife was going to be home any minute. I hadn’t seen him in a month or so. I had time.

But I was embarrassed. People at work saw my dad riding his bicycle nearby. They knew he came in asking for the lost-and-found bin. They didn’t know who he was to me. They called him the Bike Bum. Someone muttered the name Hobo Howl. And I laughed beside them, in my immaculate suit with no holes, drinking my sugared-up cup of coffee in a mug that had no cracks. I stood beside the people who knew nothing about my father and I laughed with them.

So I told him no, I couldn’t come. I had Lucy to babysit because Jess wasn’t coming home for another three hours. I asked him had he called Marcy? Maybe Andrew? He said he wanted to ask me first, that he missed me, and to give his love to my daughter and my wife. And that was the last time I spoke to Howl Richards, my father. I hung up, feeling guilty, but relieved.

He was hit by a truck, bending over to pick up a pink glass bottle for my mother. The trucker was texting while driving, swerved, and that was that. He’s fine. Incredibly depressed. But fine.

If I was there, I could have saved him. I could have called to him, waving my arms frantically for him to come over. But instead, I was home, rinsing out a coffee cup and listening to the game play in the next room. I could have saved him.

I know that my father would have wanted me to move on from this. To lock the door of guilt in my life and to open the doors of forgiveness and progress. But how I ache for him. How I yearn to tell him that I saw the beauty in him even when I kept tossing him aside. I know we’re all filled with regrets when people pass. It’s as if my lungs are crowded with words I’ve held back for thirty years. I suppose I can walk to the cemetery with Lucy, clear the weeds from his headstone, and leave little treasures I find. My only hope is to instill my father’s love for the little things that matter in my own child, even if she hates me or is embarrassed of me. I want her to open doors to discovery and purpose. I want to start fresh with her, because, well, my father was always a big believer in second chances.

While Sweeping

by Kat Patterson |
While sweeping popcorn
I warm to thoughts of last night’s gathering:
good soup and wine,
laughter through the movie,
and all the dishes done.

Normally my broom fetches dog hair,
rarely popcorn or other party leavings.
Sometimes it’s a dead roach I sweep,
Not a welcome guest, but still
it piques my thoughts.

We don’t call them pretty,
no colorful wings, no intricate design.
Instead—frightening, disgusting things,
crawling ceilings, floors and walls.
Hard, dark bodies and mechanical joints
moving cautiously, silently or
escaping quickly with scurrying sounds.

They use vomit to soften their food.
How efficient.
Their heart pumps blood,
not in veins or arteries but in waves
inside the body cavity.
How alien.

Yet their success commands respect.
Their longevity on earth unrivaled,
surefooted on land, flying in air or
flattening through tight spaces,
they survive.

Roaches are not vectors;
like ants they clean the mess we leave behind,
In forests they promote decay,
with worms they create soil—dirt—a basic
for our life, our agriculture.

Their love making takes time—over thirty minutes per act.
Capsules for eggs grow on their tails,
one for each year on their calendar.
After shedding the exoskeleton
roaches are, for a time,
snow white.

If we kill them all
what ecological niches will be left vacant?
Might demons come to fill the gaps?

Would they have liked this popcorn I sweep today?
Probably more with butter or caramel coating.
I leave a kernel in the corner.


by Maurie Traylor |

He looked at my nametag and, for a moment, I thought he might remember me. Instead, he glanced down at his purchase, said a terse “thanks,” and handed me his credit card for payment. I smiled, took the card, and ran it through my cash register.

He looked the same. Crisp shirt. Pressed trousers and hip glasses. He didn’t look tired or weary or broken. If anything, he looked more collected and together. I looked down at my ragged fingernails, my work pants stained with the morning’s coffee, and the string that hung from my company-issued work shirt. I wanted to ask, “Do you remember me?” But I didn’t.

I bagged his purchase and asked him if there was anything else he needed.

He smiled the same tight frown that he had smiled at our last meeting. The one that was both a smile and a frown. The one that said, “Something is not quite right here.” I imagined this was the same expression he used when he chastised one of his employees or when he returned his food at his favorite restaurant. “Excuse me,” he would say. “This fish tastes too fishy.”

And his plate would be swept away with an apology and a smile.

“Receipt?” he asked, not looking up at me.

“In the bag, sir,” I said.

If he remembered me from that day, he gave no hint. I watched him take his package and leave.

Relief spilled over me that I was not recognized.

But then, the feelings of shame that were by now so familiar.

Shame that I was almost fifty years old and stood behind a cash register, making less in a year than what I had once made in a month.

Shame that I had risked so much and failed.

Shame that I could not look someone in the eye and say, “Remember me?”

The beginning of the end of my life had started in his office when he quietly told me the reasons my loan was denied. I sat in my business suit, resplendent with black tailored pumps, in a blue upholstered chair across from his massive banker’s desk. We had been there many times before over the years, as I had built my business. But on this day, I watched him as he spoke with my proposal piled in front of him. I saw the long columns of numbers that trailed down the page away from me. I watched him as he spoke the canned speech. My eyes focused on his moving lips, my own lips bent in a prim smile. A sympathetic smile. The type of smile that said, “I know how hard this must be for you, to turn me down like this.” As I listened, my right pointer finger found a frayed edge of the upholstered chair and I pushed it with my nail. Each time he mouthed something, I smiled, and then pushed my finger through the hole a little more.

“Overextended.” Rip. “Can’t justify this loan.” Rip. “Wish we could help.” Rip.

And then he smiled that tight frown and it was over.

Rip. Rip. Rip.

I don’t remember much after that. Whether I shook his hand or left his office or smiled when I passed his secretary.

But I do remember this: I left a small, frayed hole. Like graffiti on a bathroom stall, or a mark on a prison-cell wall. I had been there. I had mattered.

And so, I did what so many like me did during the days of the 2008 recession. I shuttered my business. I talked endlessly with attorneys. I took a series of small, menial jobs that barely covered bills. I unloaded trucks for retailers, I took care of other people’s children, I ran errands.

Currently, I was spending my days behind a cash register, asking perky questions like, “Did you find everything today?” and “Are you one of our Loyal Customers?” as I feigned an enthusiasm I did not possess. At night, I plodded home to my small house and cuddled with Jackson, my Jack Russell, while I watercolored blotchy pictures, drank too much wine, and watched too many reruns of Law & Order. These were the new constants in my life: my dog, my art, and Jack McCoy, getting the bad guys.

At home, I started tending a small patch of earth that sat outside my door. On good days, I would thrust my head into the scent of tangy tomato vines and sniff my fingers after chopping basil. On not-so-good days, I would sit and watch the green leaves reflect the sun in a thousand shades of blue, green, teal, and chrome. Were the colors talking to me? Beckoning me?

Standing in the cool air, watering the plants, it was hard to imagine that other life. It was difficult to imagine the ceaseless activity that, at the time, seemed so important. Weekend business retreats, flights to Dallas, San Diego. These were the days of suits, pumps, and complicated make-up rituals. Now, those days were replaced with a steady, thin line of worry that underlined my grief. How would I make this month’s rent? When was the electricity bill due? Did I have gas in the car?

But mostly the question: “How could I have lost it all?”

On days when that question haunted me most, I filled another pot with raisin-colored soil, pulled a small lettuce plant or kale plant out of its root and placed it another, larger pot. Then, the sun could hit the leaves and the water would move towards the roots. And I thought, “I am like these tiny, gangly plants, waiting for a new place to call home.”

I knew that I was not alone in the recession of 2008. Every day there were new reports of companies that lost their funding, too. Stories of people out of homes and out of work. So why was my loss so intensely personal? Why was my loss so shameful?

Perhaps my place in history was part of the answer. After all, I was of the generation of women that was supposed to have it all. The legacy of the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s was mine to make good on. It was not enough to simply have a family and nurture that. No, my generation was given—was expected—to keep a home immaculate with all the household gadgets on the market. We were expected to have children excelling in sports and academics and in our spare time? We were expected to create a company or business that would produce, produce, produce.

I was a grandchild of the Depression era, where lack and poverty co-mingled in my family, manifesting in pallets of green beans stacked in my grandmother’s pantry. On Sunday, after church, my six brothers and I stood in line at TG&Y, a coupon for “Buy One Get One Free” in one hand and a fistful of quarters in another. We then dutifully carried our rolls to my grandmother who waited in the car while she read the Sunday paper.

But even then, I was rebellious and risky. One bored Sunday afternoon, my eyes skipped over the whiteness of the toilet paper aisle into the next aisle. Here, colorful pots of paint mixed with the smell of glue and pencils. When my brothers were not looking, I paced down the aisle, like I was discovering a forbidden world of rainbow papers and imaginative inks. Then, a package of markers caught my eyes and held my attention, like the evil Svengali. I fingered the quarters and looked at the markers.

Green, blue, yellow and red. The colors beckoned me to come near.

I looked back at the heads of my brothers, dutifully in line with their white rolls.

And then, I made my move.

I presented my purchase to my grandmother telling her that the store was “all sold out” of the paper and instead I had purchased these. I held up the plastic-encased package triumphantly, banishing the demons of white-paper-roll mediocrity forever.

My grandmother looked at the package of hard, colored sticks and her eyes hardened, lips forming a thin line. My brothers’ eyes—all six pairs—looked down at their hand-me-down shoes.

She did not make me return them. Instead, she meted out the only punishment that I could understand. She made me use them. After that, my cries of “I’m bored!” were answered with my grandmother’s admonishment. “Well, then,” she said, “get out those markers and make something.”

And so I made scrolls and swirls on the backs of used paper sacks during the hazy, hot afternoons of summer vacation, and searched for my redemption from those dazzling coils flowing from the markers’ nibs, the colors tethering me and rooting me in place, upright and free.

I was the one who was supposed to “make good” on the promises of the Post-War boom. I felt the hopes if my entire generation who might finally break through the political constraints of corporate America! I was supposed to have an immaculate home, be a perfect size eight, have well-behaved children and a six-figure income.

I was supposed to thrill my family with evocative dinners and have long, winding, meaningful conversations with my husband that were always encouraging, always supportive.

And all this without breaking a sweat.

How I tried! I kept to the path of sales conferences and monthly production reports. I read self-help books on improving myself, my sales quota, my life. I packed lunches, attended sporting events, tried new recipes, met with teachers, encouraged my sales staff, and gave lip service to the phrase “having it all.”

Instead, I was bone tired, like a field of packed earth that was spent, exhausted, used up.

The end of that first, exhausting, wearying life ended on a July day in Dallas, Texas. Making my way to the convention center, I stepped into a fist of Texas summer heat. I made my way to the meeting room, filled with salespeople milling about. Up until then, I was a noted speaker and considered successful, at least by the company’s standards.

But that year, I reached the year-end celebration meeting with stones in my heart. My sales “numbers,” which were my professional report card, were not good. I was no longer an up-and-coming corporate star but a tired, worn out, middle-aged soldier marching on a corporate battlefield that was changing with the economic stress of that time. The tension in the meeting room was like a tarp that hung over me. As I made my way to my seat, I felt like I was walking under water, with the weight of my failure pushing me down. I looked up and saw an old friend, Maggie, who looked surprised to see me.

I fled to the bathroom while Maggie followed me.

She greeted me nervously. I knew that she knew. My ranking from the previous year was under the charts, a polite term for saying I had failed miserably in my sales goals.

I laughed and stammered a bit. “I know,” I said. “I should probably be home working.”

Maggie laughed. “We all could use a little more this year,” she said in consolation.

We stood together in the refrigerated air of the hotel. I smiled at Maggie.

She smiled back.

And then, I made my move.

My bags were still unpacked and I called for my car and went home.

“Home” was a home in foreclosure. “Home” was a marriage that was failing under the weight of financial stress and consumption. “Home” was a place where two young adults were leaving to find their own roots, somewhere else.

“Home” was a series of difficult talks and decisions. We would sell the house. We would divorce after our second left for college. I would find some kind of work. My husband and I would stay friends. Of course we would.

Of course.

In the days following my return, I spent hours in my garden. I walked the gravel path I had built and I wrote in my journal in bright colored inks. I looked for salvation in the waters pooling as I watered. The drops of water on the leaves shimmered back at me, like a wave.

And then, the colors moved. Bright green shoots of leaves pushing up under the dross of last year’s leaves. How could that color be so intensely beautiful wearing the coat of fall? How could the new growth be so hidden, and yet so real?

I have heard the phrase, “Bloom where you are planted.” But to thrive, a plant must be rooted in the right space, in the right light and soil. And most importantly, there had to be room to grow and nurturing. Had I been planted in the wrong place? Was it failure to re-plant oneself in a new place, one more suited to their nature?

Even now, I’m not sure.

But I know this: I can spread my hands upward to the sky in prayer that says, “Here I am, rooted and strong.”

How to appreciate art in the modern age

by Caleb Hamilton |

Don’t forget the primary goal:
to enlighten,

or lighten
the spirit.

Approach a painting from the top-right corner,
cut a diagonal to the bottom-left,
and examine the borders.
The subject is the absolute last thing you want to see.

For sculptures, identify what appears to be the primary feature.
Ignore it.
Find something more interesting.
Art is in the nuances, the little things.

Concrete poetry
is about as aesthetically pleasing

as the rough gray slop after which it is named.
Leave a palm print on the “visual” installation.

When reading a cartoon,
always chuckle once or twice
(gently, though; laughter is insensible)
and walk away smiling.
But if the comic is political, frown and take a moment. Snort if you like.
Avoid seeming intelligent at all costs.

Above all
you mustn’t read the descriptions
accompanying each work.
You will look silly, as if you don’t understand the masterpiece,
and really those plaques are no help.
Who writes them anyway?

Who could be so pretentious:
that is, who would dare to write a guide on
how to appreciate art?


by Catherine Larson

I find that age, and mentality, and style, and knowledge,
and most everything in life,
is the same.

Because I cry a lot, and I don’t want to leave my mother,
and I still like stripes and loose jeans and flip flops,
and I still know that you pee in the toilet and you sleep in your bed
and macaroni and cheese isn’t good cold.

You see, fish are red, and yellow, and green.
And sharks are grey and whales are black.
And coral reef is pink, and purple, and orange.
But, the ocean is blue.

And once I was two, and six, and twelve once.
I was once shy, and awkward, and once friendly, and sweet once, too.
I wore cargo pants once, and footy pajamas and my hair in pigtails once,
just like I wore boy jeans once, and neon shoes with neon tube socks once.

And once I learned that apples are red, and that stars make constellations,
and that William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon.

But, I’m sixteen.
I’m blunt.
I like polka dots and white sweaters.
I know it’s the cholesterol in the cell membrane that causes the fluidity and how to solve for x using the quadratic formula and how to cite an article with no given authors.

You see, you turn eleven and you think you’re gonna wake up and be eleven.
People will always ask you on your birthday, “Do you feel different?”
And maybe you say yes to entertain them, but you don’t.
There will never be a birthday that you don’t wake up disappointed in the fact

that you feel the same. You’re ten.
Underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Because what people don’t tell you
is that being eleven doesn’t mean anything,
being sixteen doesn’t mean anything,
knowing cool stuff doesn’t mean anything,
liking black sweaters doesn’t mean anything,
being blue doesn’t mean anything.

You still are what you were and know what you knew and like what you liked.
You aren’t eleven. You’re the years that add up to eleven. Because some days,
you need to be ten and say something stupid. And some days,
you might need to be two and go cry in your mom’s lap. Some nights,
you may feel six and go sleep in your parents bed. And someday when you’re all grown up,
you may need to be fifteen and watch Gossip Girl and eat sour gummy worms
and write your name in hearts with celebrities’.

Because growing up is like mentality,
and style,
and knowledge,
and the ocean.
It’s each thing inside the other that makes it something that means anything.
You don’t feel eleven.
Not right away. And in a few days someone’s gonna ask you how old you are,
and you’re gonna say “ten.”
You won’t say “eleven” until you’re almost twelve.
And then you’re gonna say something ornery, and you’ll know it’s the eleven in you.
That’s just the way it is.

Because it isn’t what you are, it’s what you’re made up of.
And it’s taken a lot of time,
and thinking,
and watching to realize that.

No one tells you
that at sixteen you’re gonna cry because you don’t want to leave home,
or you’re gonna like someone who doesn’t like you back,
or friends are gonna leave,
or that you’ll stay up in the middle of the night
writing about life because you feel like it’s a little too hard and a little too stupid.
But, you are, and they are, and it is.

So, be four when you want to, and be awkward when you want to, and fall in love even when it’s dangerous because sometimes when you look at someone you can tell they’ve lived,
and it’s like magic.

And that doesn’t mean they’ve been to crazy parties,
or drank vodka out of the bottle on Lil’ Wayne’s yacht,
or that they’ve traveled the world,
or even that they’ve met Harry Styles.

It means they let themselves be all that they are
and don’t try to be eleven on their birthday.

And it means that they know macaroni and cheese is bad cold
but they eat it on a bad day because they’re too tired to heat it up,
and they know you’re supposed to pee in the toilet
but they pee outside
because someone dared them to and it’s okay sometimes.

Because that’s what makes life fun
and the ocean fun
and humanity fun.

No one’s just blue.

I’m not just blue, or just ornery, or just white sweaters.
I know things, but, I mess things up anyway,
because solving for x doesn’t work when the formula doesn’t add up.

And what’s the ocean without the fish and the coral and the life?
It’s just blue, and nothing’s fun about being just blue.

I find that age, and mentality, and style, and knowledge,
and most everything in life,
is the same.

Because I cry a lot, and I don’t want to leave my mother,
and I still like stripes and loose jeans and flip flops,
and I still know that you pee in the toilet and you sleep in your bed
and macaroni and cheese isn’t good cold.

Nursery Rhymes With Tertiary, Sort Of

by Hans Pasco

Whadda you mean no fat, no lean
And that you’re gonna lick the platter clean?
Mary has a little lamb
And I have mint jelly. . .
Old lady Hubbard with her cupboard bare

Should have put some of her kids
In an orphanage or up for sale.
Seven, eight, line them straight.
Rock-a-bye baby why are you in the tree top?
When the bough breaks, your cradle’s gonna drop.
Momma might buy you a diamond ring,
But even for your supper you’d do better to sing.
Hey diddle-diddle, cats playing Cajun fiddle
Making the cow jump over the moon,
While the cat in the hat is an old buffoon
And old lady Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
So sit in the corner and eat your plumb,
See your thumb, gee you’re dumb!
The sheep are in the meadow, but
The cows are in the pasture laying chocolate pies.
London Bridge is falling down into the Colorado River,
Coz it’s now out in Arizona.

The mouse ran up Big Ben;
The Tower of London is still there, though.
On top of “Old Smokey” all covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meat ball when somebody sneezed;
One, two, I buckled my shoes,
Three, four, I’m out the door—after my meatball of course.
Raining and pouring and some old guy snoring,
He goes to bed and bumps his head,
Then he wouldn't get up in the morning.
His traumatic brain injury wouldn’t allow for it.
Ring around the rosey, pockets full of posies,
Ashen, ashen,
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But names will always hurt me.
My Mommy is a Communist,
My Daddy is a spy,
And I’m the little dirty rat
Who told the F.B.I.


by Damian Anderson

I draw. . .
slowly, with a soft whistle around,
piles of green, to place on the velvet

I draw. . .
out my glove, reaching forward to meet
that of the dealer, dealing my hand

I draw. . .
my next turn, my hand full of cards,
to play against men, a man’s game

I draw. . .
on ancestral instincts, to help
guide my hands, calmly, “All in”

I draw. . .
on the silent despair, bittered
when I’m matched by excess

I draw. . .
in my breath burning tight,
my face deadpan calm, mechanical

He folds. . .

Church People Like to Touch You

by Jenna Buschmann

Church people like to touch you
They find you, sharks in the water
Smelling the novelty of you
Sniffing at the stink of sin.

They smile at you brightly
Their eyes twinkle, magpie style
Opportunity is knocking
Like a door-to-door evangelist.

They pull you close
“Oh my brother!” “Oh my sister!”
Are we family now? Are we close enough?

Church people like to touch you
Because they long to be touched
By invisible fingers and
Smiled at by invisible teeth.

Mission Statement of the Sacred Mundane

by Corey Jenkins

No one is here but me and the forgotten words of the dead and wise,
and the lost notes of doomed jazzmen.
I read their verse through blue-green eyes, shades of sea and grass and trees,
squinting through Evolution’s bad lenses.

I listened to the lost language of their notes with my third ear to the ground
and my third eye on their poppies.
Like them, I have learned that the mind has locks and molecules, like keys,
can open or close many different doors.

They told me, learn by listening to the hoarse voice of wind through leaves
or by watching the sights of light, endlessly bouncing reality into being
or by huffing the smells of rain on vines that rise above the Monday trash
and by observing your thoughts, then watching them swiftly slither away.

I tip my hat, raise my glass, and pour one for the dead, the lost, or the fun.
I’ll let my wishes for liberty sail along
on the last fibers of a listless and purposeless dandelion seed,
spreading life without volition.

Let me, like the cat, allow curiosity to drive me to the warm fire
of the hearth and the cold womb of the grave.
Some seek sentience in the form of a method or an exercise
or a pill or a plan or a regimen, a list, a lover, a win or loss.

Others seek answers in their work, their war, or their religion,
turning the gears of a global money-press.
But it comes in the transparency of a mind’s stillness
and the empty aroma of clarity.

The smell of diamonds in water that may cut through filters of memory
and the misleading mirages of foresight.
I am a man of life, long-lived in the passion of feeling
that all things and every happening simply Is.

Like a whirlpool in a river, I am but a fleeting form
Spinning out into the oneness of water
with the motions of melancholy cheer.