Menu
Log in
Log in


November 2023

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writer

 Faye Green 

Bread Pudding
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2023


Our friendship was easy and strong, no demands and no issues. He was handsome, wild and non-conforming, truant, trouble. I was popular, a class leader, rule-follower, conformist. High school kids. A couple, but not within the definitions allowed in school. Not romantic, not dating, just always seen together. Safe without demands. The school staff questioned my relationship with him. We knew what the opinions were, and we ignored them. We were young and we could ignore. There were very few boundaries and no definitions to our friendship. Two young people who liked to be together. Sometimes he quickly kissed me.

Graduation was called commencement in the late ’50s. It was a beginning and the speeches from the podium, on that hot, non-air-conditioned June day, proclaimed new life, new opportunities, new freedom. But he was one of the graduates sweating and not listening under his cap and gown. He did not feel a new life or new opportunities, only a new freedom, which he could not fathom. Freedom. The first thing he would do was render that to a drill sergeant. He was going into the Army.

“I’m going into the Army on Friday. What are you doing tomorrow? I have one day. Let’s do something.”

He did not want to spend his last day with the girl who was going to cry and moan about him writing to her and coming back to her. He did not want to spend the day with the easy girl who would spread her legs for him. There would be plenty of that along the way. He wanted to be with me but did not quite know why. Just an easy choice.    

The plan to spend the day together came rather nonchalantly when we were entering into the city swimming pool. The day after graduation was even hotter. The all-night parties left most graduates wanting to laze around the aqua water and be together one more day before commencing.

Could it be that we were holding on to the one thing we learned yesterday – the knowledge that we and our classmates would never be together again after 12 years? Our class was small, fifty-seven in 1957. We were almost a clique. Within that clique, he and I were part of a core of students that had traveled together since first grade. He and I were in that tight inner group, and even more so because we lived on the same road and saw each other outside of school, too. He was going to miss me, and I was going to miss him. He did not realize it, but this one day was to assure him that I would always be on our road, at the same phone number and walking the same streets while he was gone.

“I’ll always be here,” I promised.

He called me when he got out of the Army. He called me when his grandmother died. He called me when he got married. Divorced. Married. Divorced. He called when he was diagnosed with cancer and when he was cancer-free. He called me when he put his life back together. He had some interest in my life and family, but not much.

Fifty-five years after graduating, he called me to tell me he was very sick. His cancer was back. “I’m not going to beat it this time.”

I promised years ago that I would always be here for him but did not expect, after so many years, that he would want me to fulfill that promise. But he just wanted to talk. Easy.

I lived a state away and could not incorporate him into my life now. I was a widow and had begun a literary career. He brought me up on his story and asked for mine. During the next weeks, he called often.

“Bread pudding,” he said, his voice noticeably weaker. “Custard-topped bread pudding like my grandmother used to make.”

I looked up my recipe and resolved to make it for him. But he was so far away, and I delayed. We talked and again I thought, I’ll make that bread pudding. It was so easy to go back to my busy life after hanging up the phone. The bread pudding was nagging me, but I kept putting it off.

I do not know why, on that particular Wednesday, weeks after he asked for it, I made custard-topped bread pudding and packed a cooler. Today I would drive from Delaware over the Chesapeake Bay – 200 miles – and take his wish to the nursing home deep in southern Maryland.

The nursing home and his room were exactly like thousands of others. Generic and almost clean. Antiseptic to blanket a smell. A cheery bulletin board and a pitcher of ice water. One window. One chair.

He was surprised to see me sitting, quietly waiting for him to wake up.

“What are you doing here?” he asked with astonishment and happiness all over his face.

“Bread pudding,” I replied.

He was weak and had little appetite, but he wanted his portion. I helped him to sit up and eat. We each had a creamy, rich, nutmeg-flavored, sugary-sweet bread pudding with custard on top. Just like he remembered.

“Exactly right,” he said.
He did not eat much, but the renewal on his face belied his fate and took me back to the handsome boy of 1957.

“Cancer is burning me up.” He told me he was hot as he handed his bowl back. I got a cool cloth and wiped his head, back, chest, and arms to take the fever down. It was the first time I had ever touched his body.

We talked of old times and how important we have been to each other. He said he loved me, and I knew, in some ways, I loved him, too. “I love you, too,” I told him. We had what was our allotted devotion. A love that fulfills promises – eventually.

We enjoyed each other in this generic nursing home room where announcements on the speaker interrupted his sleep and the pulsing oxygen helped him to relax. He opened his eyes often to make sure I was still there.

“Are you a dream?”

“Hardly...you ate my bread pudding.”

One last smile before his medication ended our day. I kissed him and said goodbye.

He died on Thursday.

The End

CUSTARD BREAD  PUDDING

4 eggs 
3/4 cup sugar
1 ¼  tsp. vanilla 
1 lg. can Pet evaporated milk 
2 cups whole milk 
4-5 slices of bread* buttered on both sides and broken into pieces
Nutmeg

Combine with a whisk the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and both milks.
Beat well for several minutes until the sugar is dissolved.
Pour in a 1-1/2 qt. casserole dish.
Gently mix bread to wet.  It will float on top.
Sprinkle with nutmeg.
Set casserole dish in a pan of hot water in oven.
Bake at 350 degrees until set: 1 hour and 6 minutes.

*Recipe calls for day-old white bread; however, I have used whole wheat; sometimes fresh, sometimes not – it doesn't seem to matter.
Use 6 slices of bread if you do not want custard on top.


Top Photo by: amanda lim/Unsplash.com

FAYE GREEN grew up in Laurel, Maryland, and now resides in Milford, Delaware with her husband, Bill Byer. Her stories are set Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina—and Ireland. They feature the Chesapeake Bay, the beautiful Atlantic beaches, and the history of Ireland. After careers in the Prince Georges County (MD) School System and the Department of Defense, Ms. Green’s passion is writing and gardening.  In the past eleven years, Faye Green has published seven books. THE HUNGRY PIPER(2019)  received the 2016 Literary Fiction Award from The Writer’s Workshop, Ashville, North Carolina.  CLOSE TO HOME,  A Collection of Long and Short Stories, Memoirs, Poetry, and Recipes, will be available later this year. 


October 2023

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writer

 Katherine Van Dewark 

The Secret of Bones
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2023


                So you can get to know me better Victor
we should tell each other a secret.
                First let’s loosen up a bit
with a shot of that smoky whiskey you like.
Dang                that burns going down                but
oh yeah           there it is             the slight haze
that slow rumba behind my eyes.
But I digress.                       I’ll go first.
                I think that scattered skeletons reassemble themselves
and become invisible                     when they do.
And I’m not just talking about humans.
                I was walking in the desert and
saw kangaroo rat bones under
a saguaro cactus.             That was stunning in itself         but
what happened next      even more so.
                So I’m standing there
sweat gurgling down my back
practically puddling in my hiking boots
staring at this thing in fascination
                magnolia white skull and teeth          needley ribs
when     it           starts                   to               move
a few coupled bones at a time
rising up to knee height             hovering.
Waiting for the rest of the bone groups
to join them.
                This doesn’t take long but
with the sun blasting the top of my head
a cast iron frying pan on medium high flame
it seems               m  u  c   h              l o n  g   e    r.
                Anyway               I’m watching the assemblaging
not freaked out because          deep down
I’ve always known this happens
and there it is                 now complete
tiny neck bones and spine         tinier feet bones        paper pelvis
floating slowly to mid thigh     then chest          until
it’s finally eye level.
                Then
w h o o s h           like a movie UFO
                its gone.
Victor             I ask you             what the fuck?   

Top Photo by: christoph von gellhorn/Unsplash.com

KATHERINE VAN DEWARK's poems have been published in Lummox Number Nine; Last Call, Chinaski!; Amarillo Bay; Dos Passos Review; Wild Violet; Quiddity; Qwerty No. 32; Sanskrit; Palos Verdes Library Anthologies 2017, 2018, 2020; Coracle; and Spectrum 26. She is a recent winner in the poetry portion of the 2022 Crossroads Poetry and MicroFiction contest. She lives in Southern California.


September 2023

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers

 Emily Decker 

Reflections on a York River Oyster
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2023


I.
Was it Swift who said
he was a bold man
that first ate an oyster?

I think it was a woman.
Who else could predict
the complexity
           of freshwater meeting salt,
the burden
           of filtering the Bay,
the palate and price
           of triggering desire,      
and decide to swallow it all?

II.
Protandric, adjective:
           having male reproductive organs
           while young
           and female reproductive organs
           later in a lifecycle
You know, then,
how to be everything
to yourself.

III.
Shuck is such a word.
You don’t make it easy either,
do you—until you’re pried
and opened?

IV.
Our oystermen ancestors
lived by the tides,
like you and with you,
until you couldn’t
and they couldn’t,
and the Bay and its rivers
grew murkier
with your absence—
for a time.
But you’ve come
back to your beds now,
old and new.

Top Photo by: ben stern/Unsplash.com

EMILY DECKER is a former teacher and corporate communications director turned freelance writer and editor who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. A Virginia native raised in Ghana and then in Atlanta, Georgia, she holds a master’s degree in English Education from Georgia State University. Her most recent poetry has appeared in Yellow Arrow Journal, Full Bleed, and Hole in the Head Review. She is currently working on her first collection.

 Alice Morris 

Riding With Bees
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2023


The swarm is in a bag in the back of their station wagon. As her father drives, nine-year-old Stacy wonders how many people would willingly ride across town with thousands of bees in their car, windows rolled-up to muffle outside sounds, which helps keep the bees calm.

Stacy thinks about the dangers of riding with bees––if the bag isn’t tied off tight enough, if the queen finds any hole, wanders out, every bee will follow––and attack. There could be collisions. Someone could die.

Stacy looks at her red-faced father staring straight ahead, hands gripping the wheel. She knows not to speak to him. Knows he is tense. She needs a breath of fresh air; hopes he will soon crack his window. She doesn’t dare open hers first.

From her beekeeping father, Stacy learned about bees as he used the tip of his putty knife to point out workers––drones––queen. With hive opened, she’d watched and learned about the cooperative, efficient, hard-working ways of bees, which she greatly admired. She knew if she could have one wish it would be for her father to run his own home like a colony of bees––instead, he was the long-clawed bear that ripped their hive apart. Stacy learned to keep her distance, except when it came to bees.

Always she went along when he collected a swarm. Beforehand, she watched him prepare the new hive. At the swarm as her father puts on white overalls, veil, and gloves, Stacy tells terrified onlookers to keep voices low, stay back in the shade––tells them the bees don’t want to sting, but they will protect their queen! Purposely she doesn’t say that before swarming bees engorge on honey, so most are too doped-up to sting. By making her father look brave and heroic Stacey can earn a few precious days on his good side.

All eyes on the beekeeper, her father brings out the smoker, gathers a handful of dry grass, gets a fire going inside the metal canister––first smoke seeping from nozzle. Pressing the bellows, he sends sweet-smelling smoke floating. Walking slowly towards the swarm, more smoke puffs as guard bees attack this invader. Just beneath the beautiful buzzing mass, Stacy’s father lays out a white sheet, evenly, flat. Ladder against tree he climbs, smokes the swarm, then gave the branch one fast snap. En masse the swarm drops to the sheet, lays two inches deep on a sea of white. Her father then gathers the four corners, shakes the bees toward a single opening, and as if they’ve become liquid he pours them into the waiting bag like water. With a piece of cardboard, he whisks away any bees clinging to his clothing, then scoops up clumps of strays, flicks them into the bag. Then the knot tied tight.

Only when off the highway does her father crack his window, glance at Stacey, allow a smile. Stacey then cracks her window knowing she has earned a few safe days.

Top Photo by: wolfgang hasselmann/Unsplash.com

ALICE MORRIS, a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee was awarded the 2022 Delaware Division of the Arts Fellowship, Emerging Literature: Poetry. Her prize-winning prose and poetry appears in numerous anthologies and publications including Gargoyle, Broadkill Review, Rat’s Ass Review, Backbone Mountain Review, and Paterson Literary Review. She has attended Delaware Writer’s Retreats for poetry and nonfiction. Alice comes to writing with a background in art––Published in The New York Art Review.


July 2023

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers

 Russell Reece 

Stolen
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


In the fall of 1967 I was finally home after a difficult tour in Vietnam. But disconnecting hadn’t been easy. My mind often wandered back and gruesome images left me anxious and unsettled.

Uncle Jack had offered me a weekend at the cabin on Bear Lake. “A good place to chill out,” he’d said, “shake off the willies.”  I took him up on it.

Before going to bed that first night I walked down the wooded lane and onto the road. The evening was cool and comfortable; starlight peeked through the trees. It occurred to me that for the first time in months I was out after dark and actually felt safe. I let that sink in as I walked along the pine-scented road, listening to the night sounds. Then I heard a siren; a few seconds later the roar of an engine. Ahead, at the bend, the tree-line lit up. Headlights jumped into view as a car slid through the turn and tilted over. Sparks flew and the mass of steel bounced and rolled toward me at high speed. I couldn’t lift my feet, wasn’t sure which way to go. In the frightening chaos of car-lights twirling and metal bashing, a pin-wheeling body flew into the air. I scrambled out of the way as the car brushed by, slid on its top and plowed into a tree. Dust particles and branches fell through upturned headlight beams, thumped onto the glass-covered road. I gathered myself and caught my breath.

A police car rolled to a stop, siren winding down, red light flashing, headlights illuminating the silhouette of a twitching body. A police radio crackled as the door opened and a young cop got out, flashlight and pistol in hand. I froze at the sight of the gun. He momentarily trained his light on the man lying on the road then ran to the battered car. The flashlight beam moved over the front and back seats and the grass surrounding the crumpled heap. The cop holstered his pistol, hustled back. Breathing heavily, he stood over the guy for a moment then turned and retched into the grass.

More sirens wailed in the distance.

The cop glanced up, eyes widening as he spotted me. He fumbled for the pistol and pointed it at me, his drawn face and the weapon eerily highlighted by the flashing red light. I fell to my knees and raised my hands. His gun shook.

“Don’t shoot,” I yelled. 

“How many others?” he yelled back. The sirens were closer.

“Just me… I was out walking.”

He stared for a few seconds then lowered the pistol and wiped his face. I slumped down on my hip, braced myself on the road and tried to settle my racing heart.

“Hang in there, buddy,” the cop said to the man. “Ambulance is coming.”

Still breathing heavily, he offered me his sweaty hand and helped me up. “It’s a stolen vehicle,” he said. “Don’t leave. I’ll need you as a witness.”

Another trooper arrived; still more sirens on the way. In the haze of flashing red lights, I dusted myself off. The injured driver was on his back, eyes open, murmuring. His khaki shirt and head bloodied; his right arm and legs twisted grotesquely. A familiar sense of heaviness and gloom came over me. It was something I thought I’d left overseas, something I was done with forever.

I sat down on the grass beyond the gravely shoulder and looked up through the trees, surprised for a moment stars were still there.

Later that night, after I went to bed, images started coming. There were new ones now: the pin-wheeling man, the shaking gun, the sound of bashing metal as the car bounced and rolled toward me.

I flinched each time it slid past.  

Fifty years later I still do.

Top Photo by: jakob rosen/Unsplash.com

RUSSELL REECE’s poems, stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. Russ has received fellowships in literature from The Delaware Division of the Arts and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He has received Best of the Net nominations, awards from the Delaware Press Association, the Faulkner-Wisdom competition and others.  Russ lives in rural Sussex County near Bethel, Delaware on the beautiful Broad Creek. You can learn more at his website.


June 2023

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers

 Willie Schatz 

Franklin Park, Gentrified
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


Sunshine. Where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard, 
poet Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird) promises.  
Someone shirtless on the slatted wooden bench
on which the curved bars prevent lying lengthwise.
 
DO NOT CAMP. 
 
Five females practice yoga poses on terraced rocks…
in the Children’s Garden! Cabs careen on K Street; 
pedestrians swerve to avoid mayhem. 
Brownish dog stops for a swift head-pat. 
Several Spanish dialects dominate discussion 
as man in earphones shimmies. The sky’s blue
nearly as brilliant as the grass’s green,
each providing respite from the surrounding 
steel and glass morass. 
 
DO NOT SKATEBOARD, BIKE, OR DRIVE REGISTERED VEHICLES.  
 
The Woodley Park bus parks. Bees blitz purple violets. 
Resplendent in red, Security Manager Zack 
inquires whether patrons enjoy themselves. 
Someone in shades speaks 
incomprehensible sentences. Purple-flowered 
liriope muscadri lounge and linger. 
 
DO NOT SWIM OR BATHE IN THE FOUNTAIN.
 
Ascend, clamber, climb, rise, 
command the circular stairs. 
Everyone mobilizes their mobiles.
Nancy loves Robert forever, 
they promise with a heart
in the space where the oak is pruned. Heat.

Top Photo by: yevhen rozhylo/Unsplash.com

WILLIE SCHATZ  In seven decades of writing, Willie has covered business for The Washington Post, sports for The New York Daily News, and technology policy for many publications. He taught Professional Writing for two decades at the University of Maryland, College Park. Willie now is an editor, a mentor, a poet and the Writers Group Artist-in-Residence at Street Sense, a weekly D.C. street newspaper. He and spouse Molly divide their time between the District and Lewes, Delaware.

 Charlotte Zang 

Freedom Bike
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


The label on my sister Mary’s bike said Free Spirit. Faded from sitting outside for more than a year, the once red, white, and blue letters were now colorless and barely visible on the handlebars. Just as well. There sure weren’t any free spirits at my house.

Mary had recently turned 14 and was now in charge of canning beans, so I knew she wouldn’t need her bike that day. I had spent all morning snapping a bushel of those beans and snipping off the ends, one at time, putting them in the pot to be washed and then preserved. When I finally got through the whole mound of them that my brother had dumped on the dining room table that morning, I bolted from the room, pushing open the ripped screen door, which slammed behind me as I headed straight for Mary’s bike. Before she could yell at me and tell me not to go, I hopped onto the seat and raced down the lane, past the black Plymouth with the broken windshield and out onto the bumpy road as if making a getaway from a bank robbery. I held my head down, pumping my legs harder and harder, pushing myself and the borrowed bike farther up the hill. I didn’t look back. I had made my escape, at least temporarily.

My skinny, ten-year-old frame struggled against gravity, my breath ragged and my face scalding red as the heat from the July afternoon sun rose in wobbly waves off the freshly paved asphalt on the main road. Two bright yellow lines striped the middle. There was no shoulder. I kept the bike close to the edge of the road while cars whizzed by. Only two more miles to go.

The road leveled off and I eased up a bit, resting my bare feet on the pedals as I breezed past some of the nicest houses around. Oak trees spread their limbs as if to protect each home with their giant muscled arms, keeping out anything unpleasant. Scarlet begonias, bright red geraniums, and purple petunias spilled over pots on the porches of the happy, prosperous people who lived there.

My friend Betsy’s house was ahead on the right, marked by two stone pillars flanking the curved driveway. Dozens of yellow roses welcomed visitors to the elegant L-shaped ranch that sprawled across the lawn. The landscaping crew was loading the lawnmower onto the trailer when I arrived. The sweet scent of freshly cut grass lingered after they pulled away, leaving a luxurious deep blue-green carpet, soft and plush, behind them. Evergreens of various sizes stood watch over the house with patches of periwinkle in between. I glided in through the gate and stashed the bike against the fence, making my way to the backyard.

When I rounded the corner, stepping on the perfectly placed mosaic of flagstone pavers, I could see that Betsy was already in the pool. An only child, she was thrilled to have company and smiled so big when she saw me that I could see all the teeth in her mouth. We weren’t best friends, but we got along and I was glad to be away from my crowded, miserable house. I liked having a place to cool off after my chores were done, so I usually accepted any invitation I got.  

I peeled off the shorts and shirt I had worn over my sister’s old bathing suit and stepped into the shallow end of the pool. I walked toward the middle, suddenly weightless. The shimmering water shocked my skin, tanned from hours working in the vegetable garden every day and now scorched from the five-mile bike ride. I let the chlorine odor envelop me as I melted below the surface, moving through the water almost effortlessly, my stick-straight body becoming supple and fluid, washing away the dirt and sweat and heaviness of home.

I moved forward under the water, then stopped and reversed direction, swirling my long hair in front of my face as I came up for air. Flipping my hair backwards, I created a big poof on the top of my head. Betsy laughed and said I looked like Martha Washington.

We dripped dry in the afternoon sun on the brick patio, sitting on wrought iron chairs that made triangle patterns on the backs of our thighs. I devoured the crisp sugar cookies Betsy’s mother served, washing them down with icy lemonade. I savored every lemony sweet drop, enjoying the treat as much as the time away from my six brothers and sisters and our drab existence, each of us trapped and focused on surviving until we could permanently break free.

With Betsy’s beach towels wrapped around our waists, we went inside. I shivered in the cool dimness and wished I’d thought to put on my shirt. I followed Betsy down the hall to her room. It was every young girl’s dream: light and airy, decorated with delicate pastel pink flowered wallpaper and frilly curtains. Twin beds were covered with lacy white bedspreads and lavender accent pillows. I knew which bed was Betsy’s because her favorite stuffed panda bear she’d had since she was five years old was perched against the headboard.

Betsy showed me the new clothes her mother had bought her for the upcoming school year. Emerging from her closet three times, she pulled out brightly patterned tops, jeans in a variety of colors, and cozy sweaters. She laid them out on the bed, arranging the outfits. Then she brought out three new pairs of shoes plus a pair of shiny black winter boots. I tried not to think about the single pair of brown shoes I would wear for the entire school year, or my older brother’s shirts that were now mine. I did my best to push down the burning sense of jealousy and resentment that was rising up from my stomach into the back of my throat. I watched Betsy hold up each item with pride and managed to say, “Oh, that’s nice,” as sincerely as I could while she primped and twirled and gushed over each item. She was always the best dressed person in our class.

It was getting late and there was nothing else to do but go home. I knew I would not be invited to stay for dinner. It was fine with Betsy’s parents for me to come over and swim occasionally but joining them at the family dinner table set with nice dishes and crystal water glasses was another thing entirely. I had never been invited to have dinner there – or anywhere.

We went back into the living room and I noticed the family portrait hanging over the fireplace. Mom and Dad were beaming proudly over their precious daughter. How nice. I turned away and followed Betsy as she opened the sliding glass door and walked out onto the patio. I was relieved to be back outside where it was warm. It felt familiar, real, not artificial like air conditioning.

I retrieved my sister’s bike from where it rested and pushed it toward the street. Betsy called out, “See ya later!” from the driveway. She was smiling the smile of a carefree girl who lived an ideal life with wonderful parents who loved her. I waved as if I was just like her. Then I mounted the bike and started pedaling, knowing for sure that I wasn’t.

I rode down the hill, my hair flying in the wind behind me. The bike picked up speed even though I was in no hurry to go home. I used the brakes to lengthen the trip as much as I could. When I turned the corner onto the gravel road, my house with the lone scraggly pine tree out front and my father’s mean mongrel dog lying in the yard came into view. I slowed to a stop. I knew it was where I lived but I also knew it was not where I belonged. I let out a huge sigh. As much as I wanted to turn around and go back to Betsy’s house, I knew I didn’t belong there either.

My brief respite was over. With no other choice, I pushed my sister’s bike into the yard, my bare feet crunching the dry, brittle weeds. I went inside to help prepare dinner. Maybe tomorrow I would look for a marker to color the letters on the Free Spirit label to make them come to life again.

Top Photo by: lucas van oort/Unsplash.com

CHARLOTTE ZANG  Still finding her voice, striving for elusive authenticity, the only thing Charlotte has ever known for sure is that she is a writer. She writes what she should for business and whatever she wants at all other times. Her work has appeared in Amphora, Anti-Heroin Chic, Voice Lux Journal, multiple editions of Mused Literary Review, and three editions of the Bay to Ocean Anthology. Her poetry collection, Night Travels, is available on Amazon.
 



May 2023

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers

 Katherine Gekker 

I, Pluto
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


First it took you forever to find me.

Some would say to see me 
to recognize me.

Next you made me last in your system.

Some might say least 

Then you banished me 

Said 
You no longer belong.

Then you admitted you were wrong,

allowed me back in
but only as lesser. 

Farthest out, 

I’ll be the last one

to die in the sun

Top Photo by: philbo/Unsplash.com

KATHERINE GEKKER is the author of In Search of Warm Breathing Things (Glass Lyre Press), and she serves as Poetry Assistant Editor for Delmarva Review.A collection of Gekker’s poems, “…to Cast a Shadow Again” was set to music by composer Eric Ewazen. Composer Carson Cooman set four of her poems, “Chasing the Moon Down,” to music. Both have been performed nationally and internationally and are available on CD and through various online music platforms.Gekker was born in Washington, DC. In 1974, she founded a commercial printing company and sold it 31 years later. She splits her time between Arlington, Virginia, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

 S.M. Sarraf 

A Super Bloom for Baby September
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


My therapist tells me I need to delete the pregnancy tracking app from my iPhone. Measuring approximately eleven and one quarter inches from crown to rump, the fetus would have been the size of a grapefruit at twenty-three weeks. “What do you gain from sabotaging your healing process?” she simultaneously accuses and inquires. Her large black eyes are opaque saucers in which pupil and iris are indistinguishable, onyx stones that you can’t see through, but that see straight through you.

For a full twenty minutes past our agreed-upon appointment time, I sat in her waiting room. Anxious, mindlessly flipping through a worn stack of Psychology Today. Shaking off my timidity—this was only our second session—I rapped on her office door.  After several minutes, she answered, gesturing me in, unashamedly wiping sleep from her eyes. At 4:20 pm on a Tuesday. 

She is wearing sneakers without socks and a wrinkled cotton shirt partially tucked into billowy black pants, a look you might have worn on a harried work commute in the late ‘90s, back when third-wave feminists thought they could still have it all.

Dr. B is a prescriptive, take-charge kind of therapist, who—when she isn’t succumbing to siestas between clients—interrupts frequently and chaotically darts between traditional psychoanalysis and existential-focused therapy. The latter’s emphasis on discerning meaning from one’s own life is exactly what I think I need at the time. She implores me to “de-catastrophize my trauma,” a vague and obscure process, in between long-winded disclosures of her own, including that she miscarried her first child at nineteen weeks (six inches from crown to rump, the size of a mango). She means well, but what she doesn’t realize is that my guilt is a magnifying glass for my grief. 

Her office is peculiar, not in that it is unusually drab—grey walls, sagging polyester couch, dusty silk flower arrangements—but because there is a conspicuous lack of tissues within reach of the client chair. The few times my voice cracks up an octave, I excuse myself to go to the restroom, a sharp tingle in my nasal passages hooking into the backs of my eyes. Under the fluorescent lights of the toilet stall, I brace for it to intensify into tears, but instead pull back from the edge. I wonder if this is her way of empowering me to save myself, or if she is uncomfortable with overt displays of emotion. 

In addition to her blunt style, her disheveled appearance became a distraction,” read one Yelp review. You might say I knew what I was in for, but in the narrow space between accepting insurance and being available, she is what I have. Her suite is situated above a bakery, its warm pain au chocolat a ritual post-session salve.

We both know deleting the app won’t stop me from Googling the would-have-been baby’s size at the start of every week until my would-have-been due date. And what, then, after that? Measuring twelve inches from crown to rump, the fetus would have been the size of an ear of corn at twenty-four weeks, just crossing the threshold of viability outside the womb.

*******************************

Months earlier, at work, I dry heave two times in as many days in the restroom just around the corner from my office. Throwing up, for me, has always been an uncontrollably loud affair. I try to make it to a bathroom on another floor, but I can’t get that far. I duck my head under the faucet to rinse my mouth, gargling the metallic tap water in the back of my throat, when the bathroom door swings open. 

It is a colleague who is more friend than coworker, really, together having shared an intimate rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on a karaoke stage between tequila shots just a few months before. Sobering up over greasy pizza like we were ten years younger, fresh out of college, exuberant. 

Cheerily, she asks: “How’s it goin, girl?” 

Pale and sheepish, I respond initially with silence.

Because there is no denying it, I raise a white flag. In that moment, it feels right to acknowledge, if even in a whisper: “I’m pregnant.” 

Eyes wide and mouth suddenly agape, she pauses and takes my clammy, unsteady hands into hers and confides without seeming to think: I’m pregnant, too.” Shocked at this bizarre coincidence, she instinctively grabs my shoulders and pulls me into a tepid embrace where her happy surprise meets my ambivalence. She is married, I am not. She is scared, sure, but I am scared shitless. 

Six weeks further along than me, she hasn’t told anyone in the office yet, correctly believing the revelation would work to cross-purposes in her salary re-negotiations. She is thin-framed and no one will be the wiser until several weeks after the salary matter is settled. The next day we shut the door to her office so she can share the sonogram picture from her 11-week scan. Hers is not a pomegranate seed, but a skeleton fully formed. A miniature astronaut, oversized helmet, lunar in its relation to the fragile limbs suspended freely in the dark matter of her uterine cosmos. 

“How absolutely wild is that.” I exclaim, gently placing the photograph on her desk, doing my best to feign awe and not envy. 

What a difference six weeks can make, I think. Even though there is an empty office chair, I take a seat on the floor of her office, wedging myself securely into a corner. 

“I don’t know what to do,” I say, watching the traffic out of the window. We are each trying to muster the necessary support for the other, but the ways in which our situations are more different than similar hang between us. 

She coaches me on the right kind of prenatal vitamin to buy. “Just in case,” she soothes. “Food-cultured is best, preferably with methyl-folate, taken with meals to promote the best rate of absorption.” She is a biologist. “Be sure to carry snacks in your purse, hunger is what brings on the nausea, you know.”  

The hunger, sudden and angry, keeps waking me in the middle of the night. I am a ravenous somnambulist palming the walls to the kitchen in pursuit of snacks, unsure if this is all still a dream. It takes a few days to bring myself to the supermarket’s vitamin aisle, and when I arrive I stand there paralyzed for half an hour, sweating inside my winter coat. The weight of indecision heavy on my shoulders. 

I’m terrified, but also a little awestruck,” I say the night I tell him in between sloppy, wet sobs onto one of his musty old t-shirts. He agrees, at first, that we mustn’t let our current circumstances dictate the decision. “Imagine how long those legs will be,” he muses with a hint of whimsy. “It’ll be one hell of a dancer.” (We had been taking salsa lessons.) But overnight there is a heavy snow that lands quietly, blanketing this gentle curiosity in fear.  

In the harsh light of morning, he sits on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. I am curled into a ball under the covers. He lets out an audible whimper. Slowly sitting up, I suggest, “Let’s get some air.” We trudge in our boots a few blocks over to a coffee shop whose specialty is nitro-brew lattes. Shaking, I order sparkling water and a biscuit, unsure if I can stomach either. The Temper Trap’s Sweet Disposition plays on the audio system, but fails to slow our racing minds. We sit staring into space. Blank, white walls against which we cast projected futures, a series of blurry, greyed-out silent films—for how long I don’t know. It is still the early season of a new relationship about which we both have doubts; we barely exchange a word. 

When it’s over, I can breathe again. My future is returned to me and I receive it eagerly with arms outstretched. There is relief. Ephemeral. 

But less than 48 hours after we leave the clinic, a sudden, unexpected grief descends so hard and fast it brings me to my knees. I bargain. I beg. At first, to go back in time; eventually, for absolution. His sister, his only confidant, sends flowers with a card that reads: “because you are sad.”

Father J, the Catholic priest who presided over my baptism, first communion, confirmation—forced-upon-me rituals I rejected then as now— appears to me in vivid form. A recurring dream in which right after giving birth, I am handed a sticky, plum-hued newborn whose brown eyes, in a flash, begin to exert a gravitational pull over me. I stare love-locked into them as Father J bends down to bring an ashen thumb to my forehead in a cross-wise gesture of blessing for having chosen correctly. 

There is also Father M, the self-appointed prophet-priest of abstinence-only education in our North Texas diocese. Two decades earlier he began his sermon by lining us up shoulder-to-shoulder at the front of our 8th grade classroom with a glass of milk and an Oreo cookie.  With the wave of a long, pale pointer finger, he commanded the first kid in line to pre-masticate their cookie into the next person’s milk and so on until our combined salivary sludge resembled a wrathful, hedonistic dysentery passed from one cup to the next—his age-appropriate metaphor for the perils of premarital sex. 

This is no longer my religion, but the catechism refuses to release me. Alone in bed at night I suddenly beg for this deranged man’s mercy, whispering into the air, eyes focused on the ceiling fan, “Forgive me father for I have sinned” over and over until I fall asleep. 

In another fever dream, I do not know if I am awake or asleep. Shivering, waist-deep in numbingly cold seawater, gaze honed in on the horizon line as briny ocean wind slaps me repeatedly in the face. Like Edna Pontellier, heeding the voice of the sea, seductive, longing for its abysses of solitude. A final act of desperate, unspeakable grief. 

There is no reprieve.

Every morning I open the door to the lone entrance of my workplace to the image of my colleague ten feet away in profile at her standing desk in all her gorgeous fecundity. I watch her belly swell as the months go by. Her progress is slow in the beginning, which is helpful to me in those tender early weeks afterward. But it quickens with the arrival of my darkest days. When the baby arrives, sweet photos are circulated on the office listserv: a thatch of brown hair, blue-grey eyes, perfectly sculpted lips— a girl—right on time. Measuring seventeen and three-quarter inches from crown to rump, the fetus would have been the size of a cantaloupe at thirty-four weeks. 

I go searching for help online and discover, unsurprisingly, that the discourse is distorted on both sides. Even in the boundless space of the internet, the loudest ideologies have crowded out the reality of my lived experience. My options are limited: repent and come back to Jesus or continue suffering in secular, left-wing silence. The only thing more excruciating than this would be having had no choice at all.

I tell Dr. B that I am doubling my usual dosage of melatonin and red wine to sleep. That the force of my uncontrollable nighttime sobs has swollen my sinuses, burst blood vessels inside the bridge of my nose. Peering over the edge into the abyss, I begin to fear myself, that I will do anything to make it stop.

In response, among other suggestions, she recommends I visit an old apothecary across town that compounds extra-strength curcumin, the anti-inflammatory component in turmeric. I wait until the end of the session to deliver the blow:

“I think this isn’t working.” 

Before I walk out the door, possibly evincing something like sympathy, she offers: 

“You might consider taking a trip.”

******************************************

I rise at 6:10am, painfully early for me. Groggy, I pull on a thick fleece sweater and leggings. The cabin’s hardwood floors creak beneath me; I tread softly hoping not to disturb my roommate, sliding my feet into a pair of sneakers beside the door, which opens to an unusually cold spring morning. It’s California’s central coast in a cloudy spell; I haven’t seen the sun in days. 

Slowly, I make my way up a gravel path, flanked on either side by a purple Pride of Madeira, Echium candicans, with elongated, cone-shaped bulbs. I arrive at a sprawling structure perched on a rugged cliffside overlooking the Pacific. The ocean waves rhythmic. I gingerly remove my clothes. Completely exposed. I carefully lower myself into a stone pool of water collected from a high mountain hot spring. It emerges from the ground at 119 degrees, but cools as it is transferred to the bathhouse. Mineral-rich and sulfuric, with traces of magnesium, calcium, lithium, a daily ablution to slow a mind unraveling, mend a soul in crisis. Yoga and pranayama breath work to follow. 

Later, I am lying on a table fully clothed. A woman places two hands above my abdomen before moving them around my body, vacillating between my lower abdomen and heart center. Skeptical, I keep one eye cracked open. After a time, an internal pressure builds. Giving myself over the Reiki lady, I finally close my eyes. The energy moves with her arms up toward my chest. It is, at first, a cold sensation that becomes a white noise ringing loudly in my ears. Tears, hot and wet, escape the corners of my eyes. My chest heaves with ragged breath; it arrives in waves, this respiratory writhing. Then, as quickly as it came, the noise fades, the cool opens to warmth, and my breath, on tempo, returns to me. “I work through generations,” she leans over to say. “Focus on decompression. Focus on forgiveness.” Blood rushes to my head upon sitting up and I hug my knees close to my chest. Over the cliff, bobbing in between a series of rock protrusions, I see a pair of wild sea otters, a mom and her baby, happily at play in the sea. The Otter mom scoops the little one into her strange flipper arms as they float together down the coast. 

Later, I perch myself in a hammock between two redwood trees and open two books on grief I discovered in the annals of Amazon; books I’d initially been afraid to order for fear a cyber paper trail might unleash a cavalry of vengeful pontiffs and faceless death threats. I learn my grief has a name—disenfranchised. My loss was my choice, too small to grieve publicly. The pain, taboo in secular and non-secular circles alike, goes unvalidated, making it more intense, longer-lasting. I learn that the procedure’s history extends almost to the beginning of time, a comfort to me. I read of the Zojoji temple in Tokyo where a garden of stone statues memorialize unborn children whether by choice or happenstance. I begin to look for similar ways to honor what was lost and come to recognize this sadness as a visitor to Rumi's guesthouse, a guide from beyond, sent to assist with the mending of forever wounds. 

***********************

My phone has been turned off since I arrived. I have eaten, bathed, and slept mostly well. I think less in fragments now, and more in paragraphs fully-formed. I don’t entirely know how or when it happens, but in exploring this hundred acres of enchanted forest backed up against the sea, I begin to let myself feel a little hope. On the second to last day, the sun comes out again. 

The drive back from the institute includes a long stretch of narrow, hairpin turns that hug a craggy coastline. The previous winter, monsoon-like rains caused a mudslide that wiped away a section of the highway, devastated everything in its path, and closed down the institute for a time. Descending a hill into a canyon where the temperature begins to rise, I roll the windows down and pull the car to a stop. Just across the road is a fantastic swirl of blood-orange poppies and indigo bluebells—a once-in-a-decade California super bloom, the result of those same rains penetrating layers deep into the earth awakening seeds that have slumbered in darkness. Here now, with everything repaired and reopened, the wildflowers glow in the midday sun, a sudden burst of color jumbled into infinity. 

*************

It is one year after would-have-been baby’s due date; the kind of late-September afternoon where summer refuses to submit to fall. I whip a blanket skyward that billows on descent. Kicking off sandals well-worn from a season of long, meandering walks alone, I grip blades of fresh grass with my toes and recline with legs outstretched.

I think we’d have organized a picnic to celebrate, here in our favorite park sprawled along a hill. A small, round cake for her, Prosecco and prosciutto for our friends. Uncle Dan and Nat strumming vigorously against their guitars as we sing happy birthday in unison with faces flush. A friend’s camera would pan the scene to capture it. We’d have matching outfits made of the same navy gingham; cringeworthy but cute. Her thighs a row of delicious Pillsbury rolls, not the shapely, athletic ones she’d eventually grow into. Pudgy flat feet stuffed into tiny red sandals. I think she’d be walking by now, albeit unsteadily, turning back every so often to make sure we weren’t far away. 

Rubbing my cheek against hers, burying my nose in the swirl of hair around the crown of her head as she fidgets in my lap. She is a mess of light brown curls kissed blonde from her first trip to the beach. Her ringlets shine brighter in the sun just like her father’s. Little green specks in her hazel eyes, I’d have spent so long adoring them I could draw a map of them from memory. 

I focus on a cloud changing shape as it traverses the sun, its cool shadow a curtain opening. Blinded, I close my eyes to the sunrays and smile now that I can finally feel its warmth. 

Top Photo by: christian fickinger/Unsplash.com

S.M. SARRAF is a pseudonym for a writer who lives in Washington DC.


April 2023

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers

 Kris Faatz 

Wanderer’s Joy
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


You don’t believe in magic. The young shopkeeper does: her store is an incense-filled cave, complete with fragrant herbs and crystals glinting in candlelight. Her flowing dress shows the curves of her breasts and hips. In her head, you decide, she’s overseeing standing-stone rites at midnight, not working a cash register on a city afternoon.

You are a dry stalk; you could be her grandmother. Your hard bones, your tough muscles can just about sustain the sorrow that cuts into your shoulders.

The shopkeeper smiles. “How can I help you?”

She means, Why are you here? Your practical jeans and loafers shout skeptic. Nothing in this shop can “help” you. But you are the only customer, and nobody forced you to walk in, hauling your invisible load.

Back when you and he – your heart – made adventures together, you used to wear a backpack. It never weighed half of what you carry now. Two years since you lost him. Longer than that since the last time the two of you trekked unfamiliar turf, chasing a liquid sunset. Your pack’s heft, his hand around yours, the wanderer’s joy singing in you both: those things belong to the woman you were. Now they sit behind glass. You look, can’t touch.In the store’s false dusk, you feel blind. Your feet move to the door, but the girl says, “Wait.”

She looks you up and down. What can she possibly see? Between her fingers, she holds up a necklace. “Try this.”

The stone is milky, smooth. Then it turns, catches a stray shaft of candlelight, and flares: a sudden cornflower sheen. You see a fresh summer sky over a hiking trail.

You don’t believe in magic. But when the girl clasps the pendant around your neck, you feel his palm against yours.

Top Photo by: james kovin/Unsplash.com

KRIS FAATZ (rhymes with skates) is a Baltimore-area writer and musician. Her short fiction has appeared in journals including Los Angeles Review, Typehouse, and Streetlight Magazine, and most recently was longlisted for Dzanc Books’s 2023 Disquiet Prize and received NELLE’s 2022 Three Sisters Award. Her first novel, historical/women's fiction To Love A Stranger (Blue Moon Publishers, 2017), was a finalist for the 2016 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award. Her second novel, literary fantasy Fourteen Stones, was released in 2022 by The Patchwork Raven (Wellington, NZ). Kris teaches creative writing online and with the Community College of Baltimore County, and is a performing pianist. Visit her website here.

 Catherine Carter 

Bittersweet
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


Bittersweet vines creep up from the woods,
in from the verges:  curling, twining,
foot-a-day scourges. They will swallow
the edges, choke the ephemerals,
thrive in disturbed soil, strangle maple
saplings with their blunt thorns and blind
fingers, disentangled only by
persistence, commitment, an axe.
Chop them, pull them, douse them with poisons
only mad scientists know, deforming,
possibly, your own unborn young in
the endless process:  it’s a holding
action at best.  Soon enough they’ll spring
fresh and energetic, verdant, as
vibrant as a young teenager is
or as old evil always is,
vivid, untiring, ready to go
another round, if you can stand those
tired metaphors of battle, or fights
for sport.  It can feel like that, God knows,
though what the bittersweet feels, no
one but God knows.  I doubt it thinks of
battles, wars, staged boxing, unlike its
animal cousins, us, creating
enemies wherever we go for
the dull pleasures of struggle and
victory.  The vine I dragged out by
its orange foot yesterday:  I draped
it over the porch railing so it
couldn’t re-root, couldn’t dig digits
into earth at the other end. Now
it wilts.  Now it is dying, my foe,
my lawful prey.  It is dying of thirst,
first of the world’s hideous deaths. 
It thought of sunlight, minerals and
rain; it lived well, as the best revenge
“Bittersweet”, page 2 of 2, no stanza break
of a living being with no word
or thought for revenge.  It enjoyed its
life, easily, as I have to work
and pray to do.  So I have bound it
to a rail to die by torture, one
innocent suffering for the crimes
of its species, or perhaps for being
brought where it doesn’t belong—as, if
there were any justice, I’d suffer. 
Instead, I drink well water and gin,
stretch in the long summer sunlight, live
as well as I can.  I raise and eat
caged basils, try to enjoy the life
my ancestors bought for me with war
and twining and strangling in disturbed
soil, the soil they most disturbed, the ones
who also brought bittersweet into
this garden.  I look at the green vine
in its unchosen crucifixion
on the railing, its only mercy
that it can’t read history, or
wonder what it did wrong, or be bitter
and hate itself, or anyone.
Brother, I say to it, acknowledging
wrongs I don’t know how to mend; sister,
I say, pausing the space of a breath
upon my long and fratricidal way

Top Photo by: tara evans/Unsplash.com

CATHERINE CARTER ’s poetry collections include Larvae of the Nearest Stars, The Swamp Monster at Home, The Memory of Gills (all with LSU Press), and the chapbook Marks of the Witch (with Jacar Press).  Her work has also appeared in Best American Poetry, Orion, Poetry, Ploughshares, RHINO, Ecotone, and North American Review, among others.  She is a professor of English at Western Carolina University in the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina. On a good day, she can re-queen a hive of honeybees and roll a whitewater kayak; on less good days, she collects stings, rock rash, and multiple contusions.


March 2023

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers

 Kim Roberts 

These Are Not Jazz Hands
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


My first sign, mother: the thumb hits the chin twice,
the other fingers outstretched.
Mother is deaf but she tries to hide it,
so I am a human hearing aid.
She turns to me, and I repeat the words to her;
I am one big ear.
The fingers flat, raised to the mouth
then arcing down: that’s gratitude.
The fingers circling the face, then coming together
at the chin: that’s beauty.
Mother is terrible at reading lips
but she can always read mine;
she turns to me. She always turns to me
but I don’t want to be her ears.
I rub my chest in a circle: please.
Everyone keep your damn organs to yourself.
Something’s unbuttoning,
I am learning to say the words. I sign
as she never would. She refused to learn
that two fists across the chest, making an X
at the wrists, signifies love.
This is the whisper of me slipping away
like the tide. These are not jazz hands.
This is clapping. This is the end
of the performance; this is me
standing up, my fingers raised
to my mouth, then arcing down
as if taking a bow: thank you.

top Photo by: mathilde langevin/Unsplash.com

KIM ROBERTS is a 2023 Poet-in-Residence at the Arts Club of Washington. She is the author of A Literary Guide to Washington, DC and editor of two anthologies of DC poets, most recently By Broad Potomac’s Shore, selected by the Centers for the Book for the 2021 Route 1 Reads program. Her sixth book of poems, Corona/Crown, a cross-disciplinary collaboration with photographer Robert Revere, will be released in Fall 2023 by WordTech Editions. Visit her website here.

 Leona Illig 

The Metamorphosis
of Professor Snow
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


I

“591, 591.1, 591. 3... got you!” Chris smiled as he slid The Evolution of the North American Spotted Owl, 1850-1900, Dewey Decimal number 591.2, into the correct slot. He had just made it. Mr. Lawson was already limping over to him and calling out in his genial voice, “Time, ladies and gentlemen, time, please!”  He peered over Chris’s shoulder. “We need to wrap up early today for our year-end inventory, you know.” He inspected the empty book cart with approval. “Good work, Christopher. Now, get along with you.”

Chris thanked him, grabbed his backpack, and pushed open the heavy doors of the graduate library. He felt the clean, sharp air hit him and he was halfway down the library steps when he heard “Hey, Chris, wait up!” and felt two people’s hands pulling him in different directions, nearly capsizing him, before strong arms swung him back onto his feet again.

“Are you trying to kill me?” he gasped as Will and Ben held him up.

“No, we’re here to save you, friend!” Will replied. “We heard that the library was shutting down early so we’ve been waiting for you. We’re going into town. The Waldorf is having a special showing of Orson Welles’ Macbeth. The audience is dressing up in costume. Tonight’s the only night. Can you come? Ben can loan you a sword.”

Chris wrestled free and, laughing, the three of them spread out on the library steps, much to the annoyance of patrons trying to leave the building. “I wish I could. But I’ve got that paper for Snow. He’s made me rewrite the thesis statement three times. I can’t figure out what he wants me to say. I don’t even know what I want to say anymore. Let alone why anyone would want to read it. Sorry.”

Will frowned. “Snow. He must be the most odious professor on campus. Half of his students have ulcers because of him and the other half wishes they were dead. Sure you can’t come? Wouldn’t it do you good to get out and enjoy yourself, cheer up, just for an evening?”

“Yeah,” Ben added dryly. “I hear the movie’s a real laugh-fest.”

“No. You two go ahead. I’ll see you in class Thursday, okay?” Chris got up as if to leave but suddenly wheeled and yelled, “Hey! You know Macbeth gets killed in the end, right?” He sprinted down the steps. He had a head start on them and they wouldn’t catch him now.

Will grinned. “Chris is a good guy, isn’t he?”

“Yeah. It’s too bad. He told you, right? If he doesn’t get a B in Snow’s class he’ll lose his scholarship. And just before Christmas, too. He could start his master’s thesis next semester if it weren’t for Snow.”

“That bastard. He treats us like scum. Who does he think he is, anyway?”

“Somebody ought to stop him.”

“Yeah. Somebody should.”

The two of them got up, brushed themselves off, adjusted their backpacks, and walked down the steps. Chris had already disappeared into the waves of students crisscrossing the mall.
                ***
It was 5 p.m. and the fire in the sky was blazing. Chris always looked for it when he got off from work. It wasn’t fire, of course. It was the sun setting behind the row of trees bordering the parking lot. But the effect was always the same: blazing red color held back by black trees. He admired it. The trees always won the battle.

He turned up his woolen collar and thrust his hands into his pockets. He still hadn’t mended the left pocket. The hole was growing bigger; if he put anything in the pocket, he was bound to lose it.

As he climbed into his car and started toward home, he thought about the events of the day: the library inventory, Will and Ben, his paper for Snow’s class, and then about Snow himself. He had wound up with Snow’s class because of a scheduling conflict. Snow didn’t like his ideas, didn’t like his writing, didn’t like... him. But Snow didn’t care about anyone, really, so who was he to complain? As far as he knew, Snow didn’t like to give anyone a final grade higher than a C. In that sense, he treated everyone equally. Equality. Wasn’t that what the founding fathers were aiming for? No, his problems didn’t have anything to do with Snow.

It was him. He was . . . worn out.

Before he’d accepted the scholarship, he’d known about the strict grade requirements. And that he’d still need his part-time jobs at the library and the grocery. Living with his parents and commuting to school had helped. He wouldn’t have made it this far without them.

But he was already into his third year of graduate studies, with classes sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, at night, weekdays, weekends. Every semester was different and the required courses were harder to schedule. He was older than every other student. And he was facing at least another year, possibly two—and that, only if he managed to pass Snow’s class with a B. Which wasn’t likely.

The radio station in his car was playing golden oldies and he turned it off.

So what if it ended now? If he quit school? The world wouldn’t come to an end. It wouldn’t even notice.

Really?” a voice in his head inquired. “You’d give it all up now, so close to getting your degree?

Why not? he argued. I’ll get a job—a job that pays a good salary. I’ll have a real life.

“Excuse me. A job? Doing what?”

Something. I’m healthy. I’m smart.

“That real life you want. What exactly do you have in mind?

Going to the movies once in a while isn’t asking too much, is it?

He sighed. Other people had worse lives. Macbeth did. And Macbeth died. He died every time you watched the movie. Or read the play. The end result never changed for him.

“But you’re different, aren’t you?”

Maybe not. He wondered what would happen if every time you read a book, a new ending appeared. Now, that would be something.

“Ever considered divine intervention?”

Huh?

“What if Snow died?”

Died? How?

“Do you really care how?”

His car hit a pothole and, after accidentally swerving, he looked back to make sure that he hadn’t cut off the cars behind him. He could see in the rear-view mirror that the fire in the sky had disappeared, and that the dark winter evening had descended.

Maybe Snow was the problem.

II

Snow lay back in his recliner, sipping his wine, listening to Gould’s The Goldberg Variations. The 1955 performance, of course. He stretched out and his left leg pushed a manuscript off the chair, nearly hitting his Airedale, Fetch, napping on the floor. But Fetch didn’t stir, and Snow didn’t pick up the manuscript. Perhaps it would disintegrate on its own, he thought wistfully, consumed by its own dreadfulness.

The papers he received from his graduate students grew worse by the year. Bad grammar, bad theory, bad logic . . . It was a sign of civilization’s decay.

Now there was an idea. Perhaps he could re-purpose it—publish another treatise as the university was always pestering him to do. He would call it, “Bad People Writing Badly.”

He swiveled his chair toward the stack of mail and packages on the end table beside him. He made it a practice never to look at the post until Saturday. He sorted through the letters first, saving the bills for later and tossing the charity solicitations into the wastebasket.

This Saturday, the stack of packages on his table was unusually large. He already knew what they contained: mainly unpublished manuscripts by novice authors asking for his help and advice. He’d see to it that they got neither. University presses were awash with obscure academic drivel, and he refused to contribute to their slush pile.

He nevertheless began opening the packages. It was his habit to examine at least the first pages of each book. Once, a colleague had sent him an annotated, handwritten draft by Faulkner which he had thrown away without opening. Regrettable, that had been.
 He was halfway through the pile when he discovered not another excruciating manuscript but an actual published novel. He turned it over several times to make sure, but there was no doubt. The book was an imprint by one of the New York publishing houses, copyright 1939. The title was The Last Heist of the Edgewater Oyster Gang, and it appeared to be a potboiler about a gangster mob. There was no letter accompanying the book identifying the sender. There was no return address on the package. But as he flipped to “Chapter One” a typewritten note fell out. It said,

“One of Six—
One—but not DOnNE”

There was no explanation.

Out of curiosity, he read the publicity blurb on the dust jacket:

“Harry Malloy’s old gang needed him back for one last job. Would he do it? Could he do it? Or was he walking into a trap? Read this thrilling new novel by one of America’s—”

Without intending to, he began reading. He was appalled by the tired, clichéd plot. It was that very thing, however, that kept his interest . . . that, and his curiosity as to how truly bad the book might be. He decided to skim through to the conclusion and was surprised to find, near the end, a passage someone had bracketed in red pen:

{Malloy flattened himself against the wall. He cocked his Smith & Wesson in one hand and opened the door with the other.

Gunfire erupted and he fell to the floor, his revolver still in his hand. “Not you, Jake, not you!” he groaned. The gunshots tore through him like—}

Snow shut the book. The lurid details of Malloy’s betrayal and bloody demise were too much to be borne.

“One of six.”

Why would anyone send him a novel about the gruesome murder of a gangster?

What sort of bad joke was the sender playing at?

Fetch, snoring loudly beside him, seemed unconcerned.

III

The second week arrived and Snow had almost put the offensive package out of mind. When on Wednesday a similar package arrived, he determined to ignore it. He waited until Saturday, as customary, to gather his music and his wine and his dog, and to peruse his mail and packages according to his schedule. It was only when he had finished sorting through the letters that he turned to the new package. It was identical in its wrapping, and in the typewritten address label, to the first.     

He was incredulous. It was difficult for him to believe that the prankster possessed the imagination or perseverance to play such an imbecilic game. But he hesitated before opening the package. And that hesitation galled him. Would he be cowed by some anonymous stalker? He opened the package immediately.

It contained another book. Only it wasn’t about gangsters; it was a murder mystery about the Grand National Steeplechase in Aintree, England.

He searched for a note and found one. It read,

“Two of six—
“Two—Did you think we were thROUGH?”

His cat-like eyes scanned the jacket blurb—some nonsense about a jockey sabotaged during the race—and he flipped toward the end of the book searching for a section bracketed in red. Not finding anything, he went to the middle of the book before locating what he was looking for:

{I won’t let you down this time, Henry.

All thoughts of Max Higgs and his hired thugs vanished. No one could stop them now from running in the greatest race of their lives.

He heard “They’re off!” and the line of powerful equines on both sides of him surged forward. He rode Tarot Card over the first jumps cleanly but the real test—Beecher’s Brook—lay ahead of them.

Tarot Card galloped up to the approach and launched himself over the fence. Alec was urging him over when he felt his stirrup give way beneath him and he slid sideways, his face turned to the sky, falling and falling until he hit the ground. His last thought was, “Let Tarot Card get clear,” and his last memory was of thousands of pounds of horseflesh and hooves bearing down on him.

At the starting line a man lowered his binoculars. He turned and walked through the crowd.

“Let’s get out of here,” Higgs said to his driver.}

Snow laid down the book. He had ridden a horse once. He hadn’t enjoyed it. The awkwardness of his legs, the smell of the animal, the painful bouncing as they had trotted down the hard dirt path….

What the devil? What did any of this have to do with him?

Fetch put his muzzle in Snow’s hand and whined.

 IV

When the package arrived on the third week, he set it aside. He knew it by its wrapping. I’ll make the stalker wait, he thought to himself. When he caught Fetch sniffing at the package, he quickly shooed the dog away.

It was a full hour and a half before he allowed himself to reach for his mail and packages. He deliberately left the sinister package until last. The new book was entitled The Revenge of Lady Beauford, and it was a Gothic horror story. This annoyed him. He despised Poe and his ilk—writers addicted to sensationalism and cheap dramatics. They disgraced the profession. He found the typewritten note. It said,

“Three of six—
“Three—To be—or NOT to be?”

Without looking at the book jacket, he searched for the paragraph bracketed in red and began to read.

{Heracules enjoyed a glass of port before his nap, and as he sipped the chilled, soothing contents, he leaned back. The day’s unpleasantness faded. His niece’s pleas and her fiancé’s remonstrances—what were they to him? More to the point, what were these two foolish human beings to him? He closed his eyes to blot out their faces.

But—something was happening to him. His eyes burned and he felt as if a hundred tiny bees were inside his mouth, stinging him and jabbing at him and humming - a ghastly humming growing louder by the second. Heracules tried to call his butler for help but could not open his mouth—the bees had sealed it shut!—he would not—could not dare—swallow, afraid that the murderous bees would escape into his throat, and from there—

In terror he rushed into the kitchen. He opened a drawer and took out a butcher knife, and then—}         

Snow skipped the next few paragraphs, not wishing to read the gory details, but looked instead at the final line in the red brackets:
  

{“The poisoned drink, after all, had not killed him. But it had done its work. Heracules lay on the floor, dead, killed by his own hand.”}

Snow put the book down. He had lived alone since his parents had died. He remembered them, one late winter evening, discussing the fate of a distant cousin, a man of some talent who had nevertheless suffered reversals in love and business and who had taken his own life. A nasty business, that. And so unnecessary.

Absentmindedly, he raised his wine glass to his lips. Fetch began to whimper.
Instinctively, he put the glass down.

V

The students watched as Professor Snow wrote on the whiteboard. When he had finished, he turned to the class. “These are the three critical questions regarding Donne. You have ten minutes to digest them; be prepared to discuss them when I return.” He exited the room, his black gown trailing behind him.

Chris felt someone tugging at his shirt. It was a fellow student, a commuter like himself, whom he had been talking to in the parking lot.

“Why is he doing that?” he whispered to Chris.

“Doing what?”

“Putting red brackets around his sentences. What’s it supposed to mean?”

Will and Ben, sitting next to them, rolled their eyes.

“It’s his way of tormenting us,” Will said.

“The man’s demented, you see,” Ben added.

Chris shrugged.

Someone from the back of the room hissed, “Be quiet, will you?”
                ***
Wednesday arrived, but the fourth book did not. On Thursday and Friday, his preoccupation with the affair had so increased that, by Saturday, he could think of little else. Perhaps, had he been more aware, he might have seen that the absence of the thing had become more disturbing than the thing itself. But it was not to be.

On Saturday at noon, he stationed himself on his porch, even though the weather was bitterly cold, to watch for the postman making his rounds. As the man approached, Snow stepped swiftly from the porch to take the package from him.  The postman—who had never seen Snow in the flesh in all of his years on rounds—was astonished. “There’s a bit more here, sir!” he exclaimed, but Snow had shut the door in his face. The bewildered postman was left stranded outside, the rest of the mail still in his hands.

The next book, The Trail of the Burmese Curse, was an adventure novel. The note said,

“Four of Six—
Four—Only Two MoORe.”

He found the passage he was looking for immediately.

{Ralph quivered with excitement. The vaunted Mandalay Emerald was finally his! Even now, as the royal household calmly carved their roasted goose and chatted about the unseemly weather, the Earl was unaware that it was missing!

He gleefully slipped the ring with its enormous emerald on his finger. No more would he bow to the arrogant Earl! No more would he need to seek revenge, or worry about retribution, because . . .

His eyes were suddenly drawn to the ring—his ring, now. The emerald seemed to grow brighter and more beautiful with every second, and yet—was it just a tad too tight? And—was it growing tighter? It was not possible, but—yes! It was tighter. His finger throbbed.

He decided to take the ring off. But he couldn’t; his finger was red and swollen, and the more he twisted the ring, the tighter it grew.

After a minute he was surprised to find that his finger no longer pained him. But, more alarming, he found that he could no longer feel it. It was now pale and limp. The paralysis progressed quickly—from his finger, to his hand, to his arm, and then he felt the powerful rays of the ring reach down inside him to clutch his heart—}

Snow stopped reading. Fetch licked his fingers.

VI

On the fifth week the package arrived Saturday morning; late, again. He took it into the living room and sat down on a hard-backed chair. Fetch, annoyed that his master had upset their routine, nevertheless followed him and, after circling several times, settled down at his feet.

“This is more to my liking,” Snow thought. “The telephone is within reach. The front door, unlocked, is only a few steps away. If necessary, help from outside—or escape from inside—will be easy.” Still, he could hear—could actually feel—his heart beating.

He opened the package to find not another novel, but a dog-eared paperback copy of—the Scottish Play. He knew that to utter the name of the play, even to think it, was to invite a deadly curse. The typewritten note said,

“Five of Six:
“Five—and StILL Alive?”

This was the clearest threat yet. But he might have the upper hand now, since he would certainly know the play better than his tormentor. What passage might he have picked out for him this time? The “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well/It were done quickly” speech? Or would it be the “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” speech?

It was none of these. Instead, his enemy had bracketed in red these lines:

{“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of fury,
Signifying nothing.”}

Nothing.

Nothing before.

Nothing now.

Nothing afterward.

This was the most terrifying passage of them all.

Life, death.  He had never been a true believer, but he had always assumed a beneficent afterlife for himself. But what if there was—nothing? No grace, no redemption, forgiveness, absolution? The murderer of life, of hopes, and of dreams was—nothing.

On his own, he turned to Act 1, Scene 3.

“Nothing is/But what is not.”

What if, in the sixth package to come, the instrument of his demise—his final destruction—awaited him?

His imagination had slipped its leash and he had followed it into a dark region. But he tried to think rationally, and his effort succeeded. His nemesis had given him warnings. Why do that, except to extend a life-saving rope to him?

Perhaps this was a puzzle for him to solve. Not a koan, not a death threat, but a way to destroy death itself! Not an enemy, but a friend! And the sender must have left clues.

Spurred by this fragment of optimism, he grabbed his laptop and typed. Five books so far—no, four novels and a play. What was the commonality? They were all mysteries of a sort. They all contained one murder, at least; the murders of innocents and sinners alike. Murder—the ultimate act of human cruelty.

Searching for similarities didn’t help. Perhaps he needed to find the singularities.

He reexamined the notes to see if he could decipher their strange messages and capitalizations. He found nothing.

The murders had all been different, each committed with a different weapon of choice. A gun, a horse, poison, and an emerald. The Scottish Play was more difficult to pin down. A sword? A knife? Or a dagger?

What were the first letters of the weapons? G H P E. That made no sense. Perhaps he didn’t have the right words. He played with alternatives. Firearm, heater, rod? What if it was revolver, and not gun? Equine, instead of horse? Then he would have REPES. Better, but the S was not right. He thought back to the play. What was the dominant weapon of terror in it? Of course.

Nothingness. The fifth letter was N.

REPEN.

The sixth package would reveal the final letter. But he already knew it, for there could be only one answer.
***
Will looked over at Ben and Chris. “He’s five minutes late. He’s never been late for class in his life.”

“Maybe the Good Witch of the East melted his bicycle,” Ben said.

“Did you notice how he botched that quote from Chaucer last week? I’ve never seen him do that before,” Will said thoughtfully.

“No. Me either. I wonder . . .” Chris stopped talking as Professor Snow walked into the classroom and put his briefcase on his desk. Without any explanation, he turned to the whiteboard and, in red magic marker, wrote the letters, “E R T N P E.”

“Can anyone unscramble these letters to make a word?”

The class sat in silence. They were supposed to hear Professor Snow lecture on “The Experimentation of George Herbert.” Certainly not this.

In the back of the room, a young woman tentatively raised her hand. “The word repent, sir?” she asked.

Everyone turned to see who had spoken. “Do you know her?” asked Will. “I’ve never said a word to her,” replied Ben.

Snow nodded to the young woman. “Yes, quite. REPENT. It is the only word that you can make with these six letters. REPENT. A word that has fallen out of favor in the modern era.

“Imagine, if you will, that these six letters were torn apart and combined with other letters to create awful, dreadful things; the very opposites of REPENT. What might you guess? Anyone? Just call out some words. Think back to your childhood, when you were afraid of the dark.”

“Have you got any idea what he’s babbling about?” Will whispered.

“No freaking idea,” Ben answered. “He’s gone crackers.”

Chris shook his head in bewilderment.

But the other students had begun responding to the Professor’s question. “Revenge,” one said. “Evil,” said another, and then the words “punishment,” “enemy,” “nightmare,” and “torture” were heard.

“Yes,” Snow said. “Let us acknowledge that we can use these six letters to create anything—even to conjure horrific, maddening images that shake our very souls. But when put together, these six can produce one word, and one idea only—Repent.

“Be thankful that in our world—in this time and place, no other—we can choose to tear apart or unite, destroy or create; embrace malice, or repent.

“To paraphrase the greatest Victorian, ‘We must think of others as fellow passengers bound on the same journey as ourselves.’

“Choose . . . wisely.”

Someone in the class murmured, “Amen,” but the Professor did not appear to notice.

He opened his briefcase and began handing out their term papers. “The grade on your paper will be your grade for the class. I am cancelling the final exam. Our last class on Thursday is also canceled. Enjoy your holiday break. Dismissed.”

Will gasped. “I don’t believe this,” he muttered to Ben. “I got a B. That’s the highest grade he’s ever given me.”

Ben grabbed his arm. “Me, too. He gave me a B-plus. Chris . . . ?”
 

They both looked with apprehension at their friend, who was still holding his paper. “He gave me . . . an A.” He was about to say more when Professor Snow walked over and stood before him.

“You have some indications of talent, Mr. Marley. But you must learn the rules of the great writers before you break them.” He took the paper from him and began leafing through the pages, nodding now and then, but frowning more often. His green eyes glittered. Was there a glimmer of malice behind them? Chris watched in stoic silence, waiting for Snow to retract his grade, and revoke his scholarship, with one final stroke of his pen.

He did not. He gave the paper back and asked, “Are you surprised by your grade?”

“No, sir,” Chris replied. “Just... thankful.”
                        ***
A sixth package was never delivered to the Professor’s house. Whether it was never sent, or lost in the mail, no one ever knew.

Professor Snow became a changed man. Did he transform into a benevolent, kind, charitable soul overnight? No. A man may be shown the way, but time is required to learn to walk down the path.

And, in fact, there was one thing about Snow that did not change. He still treated all his students the same way.

Only, from then on, they all got at least a B.

top Photo by: alexander grey/Unsplash.com

LEONA UPTON ILLIG is a fiction and non-fiction writer who lives between Baltimore and Annapolis with her husband, David, and a small spaniel named Clara.  Her fiction includes a coming-of-age novella, Thumper: Life on the Farm, and her short stories have been published by The MacGuffin and others. Her humorous non-fiction articles have been published by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and by Sky & Telescope, the premier astronomy magazine in the United States. Her latest book, Mom and Dementia and Me, was recently cited by the “Midwest Book Review” as “much more than another story of dementia … (this book) is a winner.” Her books, articles, and stories appear under the bylines L. Upton Illig and Leona Illig. For more information, please visit her website.


February 2023

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers

 Doug Lambdin 

Rose of St. Leo’s
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


Rose Cosca was seventeen when she and her family drove thirteen hours from Baltimore, Maryland to Lansing, Michigan, where she would be presented as one of the many bridal candidates at the annual festa. She had absolutely no desire to marry anyone then. But she was “of age,” and in 1958, it was expected. Each year, young men from her family’s village in Calabria made their way by boat, in third-class accommodations, from Italy to Canada, then would cross the border, ending up at a rented tract of land adjacent to St. Fazzio’s Church.

Extended families would visit from as far as California, setting up tables with their signature dishes. The rich smells of baked zucchini, fried eggplant, stuffed peppers, and meatballs and sausage carried across the field on the warm breezes, inviting hungry young suitors up to the table, perhaps to try a helping of manicotti and meet the daughter.

Obligingly, Rosie was helping “Nanoots”—her grandmother—dish out stuffed peppers when her Uncle Paul pulled her over to him and she stopped face-to-face with a young man at his side. Louis Donotaglia wasn’t tall, but taller than she was. He was lean, with thick, black, wavy hair, and he had a kind face. He had a sweet smile that belied his age, which was six years older than Rosie. The way he said “Hello,” Rosie could tell that he didn’t know much more English than that. She knew that one of her first wifely duties would be to teach him.

By June of 1973, Rosie had long since perfected her grandmother’s recipes, and she was now known for her stuffed peppers. They would be a staple at her husband Louie’s new restaurant, Nanoot’s. If he could just get Joe Bono to invest for the rest that they hadn’t saved for. Joe had worked side-by-side with Louie for ten years on a four-color printing press at American Bank Stationery before inheriting his father’s auto repair and parts shop. Joe felt that it was too much of a mouthful for Americans he might do business with to pronounce Guiseppe Bonofiglio, so he went by Joe Bono, which the guys at the presses had already been calling him for years.

The restaurant was a gamble, but Louie promised Rosie that with his business sense and her authentic Italian cooking, they couldn’t miss. Louie had enjoyed Rosie’s cooking for their whole marriage, and before, even though she couldn’t recall one time his “business sense” gained them anything beyond securing an extension to paying off their Zenith television. But once Louie committed to this idea, Rosie found that she, too, wanted this restaurant, perhaps more than Louie. It had once been a dream of hers, long ago, and—until recently, when Louie told her this idea—forgotten. He wanted to be a business owner. Rosie, however, wanted something else. Yes, to make people happy with her food, but also for a chance to shine as the real reason that restaurant would succeed. And not for praise at the local bar or social club or in the gossip on the marble stoops. Just because it’s what she wanted, and that should be enough.

Louie could feel Joe was interested in investing, but he just wouldn’t commit. His “plan,” he told Rosie, was to “fill Joe Bono with wine and stuffed peppers at the festa and casually bring the restaurant up again while he was in a festive mood.”

“What’s holding him back?” Rosie asked. She found now that she was becoming overwhelmed with anxiousness by the idea of the restaurant, the menu, her menu, and even naming it after her grandmother, which she had fantasized about well before Louie Donotaglia emigrated into her life. And after fifteen years, she felt she had earned it, having given up her dream, raising two kids, keeping house and taking her place as Louie’s wife and, too often, surrogate mother. She loved Louie, now, of course she did, she had little doubt. Still, this restaurant, this chance, could make the years ahead more...not bearable, that’s not the word. Welcome. Yes, she wanted to welcome the future again, like she had done as a girl learning how to cook, standing closely to her nonna in her cuchina.  

“I don’t know. I’ll soften him up,” Louie assured her, as he ran his hand over his now grey-streaked hair, pressing it back in place.

“What if I—”

“Please, Rosie. I’ll take care of it. You just make the food. You do your part, and I handle the rest.”

“I was just—”

“Ahp, ahp!” Louie sounded, his fingers spread at his mouth, “C’mon. The kids are already there. We’re going to be late.”

Rosie stood with her hands on her hips, absorbing the lion’s roar, her master’s voice. She wanted to call him back and hash things out a little more, but she knew it was no use. That wasn’t part of the bargain. In fact, there was no bargain. And he wouldn’t have it. That wasn’t her role, to offer guidance in matters of business. In her world, her neighborhood, things were a bit behind the curve, especially for first-generation immigrants from the old country and their young, blindly betrothed brides.

Helen Reddy’s roar had yet to breach the Formstone-covered brick walls of Little Italy. And bra burning? Not at the current price of bras, even if Hochschild Kohn's were offering a three-for-one sale. Not a chance. Not these good Catholic ladies. That’s not to say that progress wasn’t being made on the feminist front. It’s just that the terrain was a little different and a bit trickier to navigate in some Baltimore enclaves and warrens than perhaps a college campus. The playing field wasn’t in the streets and in the boardroom, it was in the bedroom, at the dinner table, and in the kitchen.

Rosie gathered up her Pyrex casserole dish and a covered pastry tray and followed Louie out the door and down Exeter Street to St. Leo’s. For years, it had been expected that Rosie would bring her peppers to the Italian Festival, which had been celebrated each year following the 1904 Great Fire of Baltimore, to thank St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost or stolen items, who it was believed to have helped spare Little Italy. Of course, she wasn’t selling her peppers from one of the stalls outside St. Leo’s, along Exeter and Stiles streets, lined with the booths serving typical Italian and festival fare, sausage and peppers, spaghetti and meatballs, fried dough, and plenty of beer and wine. Rosie cooked for the real feast, which was in the basement hall, for a select number of families, close friends, a few parishioners, and Father Francesco. Rosie’s stuffed peppers were a staple. As well, Rosie’s turdillis were a “given” to take first place again in the dessert contest, which was laid out upstairs in the main Fellowship Hall. It was judged each year by Father Francesco, whose palette was sophisticated enough to recognize quality, old country flavor.    

No one outside three or four women, Rosie imagined, stood a chance to unseat her turdillis. Although it was just a friendly baking competition, there was a hierarchy based on baking prowess recognized among the older women. A reputation to uphold. While the men were rated by way of providing for their families, these women had to find other avenues to pursue and achieve status.

Rosie would lament that nowadays, too many of the young women didn’t put in the care or the time in their baking. She heard the other women’s boastful complaints: “I had to get up yesterday at four in the morning to start my bombolone to get the flavors just right for today”—said with a flourish of the hand. But this was June, and Rosie had begun her turdillis in February.

Though she had heard women in the neighborhood make turdillis with grape juice, Rosie would Pfft! in dismissal. “If you want it right, you have to use Moscato wine in the dough, not that bambino drink. And the dough,” she would add, “the dough has to be pressed on a gnocchi pagaia. You know, the board thing. The paddle. Gnocchi roller paddle! They use a fork, and it’s lazy,” she said, pointing to the neighborhood.  

Her real twist was using grape jelly, but “only from Welch’s, of course,” and just a dollop of honey, because she had found that more people than not actually didn’t like honey.

“What is your glaze?” the women would ask.

“Just something a little sweet, dolce, but not too.” She would pack the little oval pastries in a Hills Brothers coffee can and keep them hidden down in the cellar for the next four months until the night before the festa.

As the festival was underway, the hall beneath St. Leo’s was pulsating and warm with activity. All those bodies and baked dishes, the fans dotted around the perimeter doing nothing more than blending the aromas into one great Italian stew of smells. The men sat around the tables, scraping their plates clean, absorbing every last drop with fists full of fresh-baked bread, and guzzling red wine and cold beer from the pitchers at the center of the tables. Some had already unbuttoned and unzipped their trousers, reclining back to let their unencumbered bellies digest. Intermittent belches could be heard, an old-country compliment to the cook. Had they been at home, their wives would have happened by, kissed them on the head, and thanked them.

The back door swung open for more ice delivery, and music burst in like a drunk. A nearby accordion was playing a rousing version of “Funiculì, Funiculà,” which could just be heard over Al “Madman” Baitch’s saxophone from the main stage, blaring like a buzz saw, soaring across the Inner Harbor, almost to Fort McHenry.

In the kitchen, the women stretched cling film and tin foil over the leftovers. Rosie scraped crusted bits of red gravy and green pepper out of the Pyrex baking dish, the sounds and the smells transporting her back to Nanoots’ kitchen where her nonna, heavy-footed and slow, slid her graceful little steps back and forth across the floor between the spice rack and the stove, tossing pinches and punches of spices and herbs into a big steel pot. No recipe book, no measuring spoons, just touch, smell, taste. She always hummed the same old folk tune, up-tempo, and from time to time would sing words in Italian and broken English. Something about a man who drove some sort of cart was all Rosie could pick out. What Rosie wouldn’t give to be back in that room just once more, being groomed to be a pioneer, she felt, not a housewife only.

Just then, her vision focused on the table with Louie, Joe Bono, and Joe’s young wife, Patricia. Among many of the women, her name wasn’t just Patricia. It was Joe’s-young-wife-Patricia. She was fifteen years younger, in fact. She wore her dark hair long and straight, as though she had emigrated from Haight-Ashbury, not Overleigh. She wore a tight t-shirt and denim shorts. Child! Rosie thought. And those pizzelles she made. Pfft! Wouldn’t use them for drink coasters. Though one thing was clear to everyone: Joe was absolutely gaga.

Rosie watched Joe watch his young bride. Rosie then watched Louie watch Joe’s young bride. Rosie placed the dish on the counter and crossed to their table, her hips weaving in between the diners, her eyes unblinking and locked in on her target. Approaching the threesome, Rosie mouthed to Louie, Well? And he responded with a discreet head shake No. Rosie heard Joe finishing his sentence, something about Nixon as she reached the table, and she waved her hand out. “That man—cretino!”

Louie and Joe both swiveled their heads and stared at Rosie, mouths open, eyes wide. Joe looked at Louie and then back at Rosie.

“Rosie, I couldn’t swallow another bite,” Joe said to her. “Those

peppers! Squisito!”
“Really tasty,” Joe’s young wife added.

“Grazie mille!” she smiled down to her. “Louie, have you seen the kids?”

“I just gave them each a few dollars for St. Anthony and the nickel wheels.”

“I need you to help me with a can out back.”

“I’m full of f—“

“I really need you to help me with a can out back,” she repeated without blinking and smiling the same tight smile she thanked Patricia with.

Louie buttoned his trousers and zipped up his fly and stepped in behind Rosie, who didn’t speak a word until they were outside. Just down the walkway, men were at another side door, carrying in the statue of St. Anthony, covered in layers of paper money from being paraded through the streets behind altar boys and girls dressed from the old country, looking now as though he had been tarred and dollared.

“What!” Louie demanded.

“Don’t start that tone with me,” she said, her index finger in the air. “I saw you looking at Joe Bono’s young wife.”

“What? No. I— I—”

“‘I, I’ nothing. I was watching you!”

“We were talking! We were all talking….”

Rosie wasn’t the least concerned whether he was staring at Joe’s young wife or not. Lots of men stared. She thought she might even be worried if he didn’t. But that was neither here nor there. She just needed Louie on the defensive.

“And what is the hold-up? He’s had his peppers! He’s had his wine! He’s got that little piece of stuff giggling in his ear, when she should be helping the rest of us, but the good Lord and everyone else knows she can’t boil a noodle. And you! YOU!” Rosie was pointing into Louie’s chest now. “What about your plan? Mr. Business! We need this. I need this!” she said, pointing into her own chest now.

“Basta! Lower your voice! I got everything under control. Oobatz! What’s wrong with you?” Louie looked side to side, running his hands over his head from his forehead to the back of his neck, pressing his hair down, back in place.

“‘Oobatz?’ Me oobatz? I see you sitting on your culo, stuffing your belly with peppers and wine, laughing it up with Joe Bono and his young little wife and her cantaloupes while I’m in the kitchen wet through. Maybe you’re right, I am the crazy one.” Rosie was still tugging at her dress, emphasizing its weight from her sweat,

Louie placed his hands on Rosie’s shoulders and kissed her forehead. “I take care of everything. Come back in. Have some wine. Trust me,” Louie whispered and turned to go back in.

“Just like that?”

“Just like that. C’mon.”

“In bocca al lupo!” Rosie said to the back of his head.

“You mean that?” Louie turned.

“Sure I do...Good luck, Rockefeller!”

“Crepi!”

Both waved a dismissing hand in the air.

About to enter the kitchen again, Rosie saw, out of the corner of her eye, Father Francesco walking in the door in the far corner of the hall, chewing and brushing crumbs off his shirt.

“Ma certo!” Rosie said aloud to herself. “How could I have forgotten?” Rosie snapped her fingers and casually disappeared through the door Father Francesco had just entered, knowing she didn’t have much time.

Two minutes later, Rosie walked back in, tucking in bits of her hair, looking as though she were finishing what she would have started if she had gone to the ladies’ room. She walked the perimeter of the room and reached her table just as Father Francesco was passing.
    “Have some wine, Father,” Louie said up to him.

“No, no. Thank you. I am stuffed to my collar from sampling all those desserts upstairs. The judging is done. You all should go up and open the doors to let the others in to eat.” Father Francesco seemed to be saying the last two sentences just to Rosie, the sweat causing what little hair that was left on his head to curl into little dark ringlets.

“Oh, let’s go, Joe,” Patricia said, tugging on Joe’s short sleeve. “We need to stretch anyway. Let’s go see Rosie’s blue ribbon.”

“You want to go?”

“Yes, please.”

“Okay, okay. Let me do my belt.” He stood up, zipped up, did his belt, finished the rest of the wine in his plastic cup in one gulp. Joe Bono’s young wife took his hand and led him and the others through the crowd and up the stairs.

In the main Fellowship Hall, there were folding tables with white paper tablecloths outlining the perimeter, creating a giant horseshoe, each with trays and platters of baked Italian delicacies. Their steps and voices reverberated off the old hardwood floor. Rosie walked over and opened the doors to let outsiders in who had been waiting for Father Francesco to finish. “Mangia, mangia!” Rosie spouted to the kids darting in, knowing her own would be rushing in at any moment. Patricia, Joe, and Louie started at one end and began wending their way around, delighting in the pastries and cookies, creams and colored frostings.  

Next to several plates were white “Honorable Mention” ribbons. Next to Theresa Spaniolo’s ricotta cookies was a gold ribbon with “3rd Place” on it. Further on was a red “2nd Place” ribbon next to Mary Coscarelli’s sfogliatelle. No surprise there. And in the center of the horseshoe were Rosie’s turdillis.

Rosie approached the others just as they reached her tray. They were silent as she joined them. The four of them stood there, looking down at her small pyramid of glistening pastries. But no ribbon. It wasn’t on the floor. It hadn’t blown behind the table. It was nowhere. She hadn’t won. They turned to Rosie, who seemed completely calm. Louie’s puzzled expression seemed to be directly in response to Rosie not seeming puzzled at all.

Just then, Patricia pointed to the end of the line, “There! There’s the blue ribbon.” She began walking over to it, picking up speed as she moved closer. She  practically slid to a stop, grabbed the blue ribbon with both hands, spun around to the other three, holding her clenched hands up and out, as a prizefighter would after winning fifteen rounds. “I won!” She started to hop up and down. “I won, I won, I won!”

The other three sped to her, and Joe Bono grabbed and kissed his young bride on both cheeks. “Brava! Brava! Let me see.”

Louie turned again to Rosie, his expression grave, as though anticipating a volcanic eruption. Just then, Father Francesco joined them. “What is all the excitement?” he asked.

“Well this, of course,” Patricia said, waving her blue ribbon at him.

“I don’t underst—”

“Father!” Rosie turned to him, “Why don’t you spread the word downstairs to the other ladies in the kitchen to come up before everything’s been eaten.”

They stood, looking into each other’s eyes for a moment, Rosie’s facial muscles frozen. “Yes,” Father agreed. “That’s a good idea.” And he turned on his heel and walked away.

Rosie reached over and picked up one of the pizzelles from Patricia’s plate and took a big bite. “Mmmmm. Mmmmm!” Rosie sounded, staring right into Patricia’s face. She swallowed the bite, hoping she had masked her struggle to do so. “Patricia, mio caro! I can see why you won this year,” Rosie said, holding up the rest of the cookie, marveling at it, as though seeing it for the first time. “If you don’t give me your recipe, I’ll never forgive you.”

“That is so sweet,” Patricia said. “You just want it to get an edge over me for next year.” And they both laughed.

“I know,” Rosie looked to Louie, holding up her index finger on her other hand. “When we open the restaurant, why don’t we put these on the menu?” she said, now pointing to the cookie still held high in the air.

Louie was about to speak, but Rosie continued, as though inspired, “‘Patricia’s Award Winning Pizzelles!’ That’s what we’ll call them.” Rosie looked back to Patricia. “What do you think, caro?”

“Joe, did you hear that? Oh my God, oh my God! My cookies at a restaurant!”

Joe, who was glowing along with his young wife, looked to Rosie, his expression switching to a complete inverse. “Yes, I heard.”

Rosie added, “They’ll fly off the plate.” She turned and walked away through the growing crowd, saying, “Now where are those bambini?”

Back in the kitchen, as Rosie was giving one last wipe-down to where her dishes had been, Louie appeared beside her. “Joe Bono told me to come by his shop Monday after work and talk about the restaurant.” He leaned in closer to Rosie and whispered, “See? I told you I take care of everything.”

Rosie turned and tossed her rag into a bin.

“Don’t you have anything to say?”

Rosie collected her Pyrex dish. She had kept one of the turdillis for herself. She now popped it in her mouth and began to chew. As she tasted the soft pastry, she remembered she hadn’t actually eaten one from this batch. She smiled, having forgotten how good they were, especially when made just right. She stepped in front of Louie and led the way out of St. Leo’s. She swallowed the last bits of pastry and started to hum, here and there singing the words. Louie followed her, that puzzled look back on his face. He was listening to her tune now and could just understand what she was singing, something about a man who drove a car.

top Photo by: alice pasqual/Unsplash.com

DOUG LAMDIN teaches English at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore, Maryland.  He has had prose and poetry published in several journals and magazines: The Baltimore Review; Bay to Ocean; Smile, Hon! You’re in Baltimore; Urbanite; The Baltimore Sun; Boots N All; Snapshots; Teacher Magazine; Chattels of the Heart; Travelers' Impressions; The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling; Modern Haiku; in the anthologies Listening to the Birth of Crystals and A Lovely Place, A Fighting Place, A Charmer: The Baltimore Anthology.

 Carol Krauss 

You Can Find Cousin Stan on Line Twelve
from Bay to Ocean Journal 2022


They stare at me as they slice
their slab of Easter ham,
eyeball me when settling
into the couch to watch
the Clemson game.
Wondering where they will next
find themselves. In stanza three,
or maybe the title? Possibly
a limerick about the time they
covered me, just a newborn
napping in my crib, in stuffed
animals.
My siblings. They are
on to me. My niece and nephews, too.
Tired of reading how Daniel
has the biggest heart. And Mom
isn’t sure how she feels about me
loudly lamenting her loss
of vision, or my profound,
too-public mourning of my father.
How he appears in every other poem.
It’s a tad too much.
Being that we
are a chin-up, buttoned down
family. Still, I watch. Spy
cousin Stan from Tennessee steal
the cookies, all of them,
from my father’s funeral reception.
Aluminum foil sticking out
of his suit pocket. I know
my kin saw me as I headed
to the reception hall restroom.
Ready to take out my pen
and properly place
Stan on line twelve.  
And sixteen.

top Photo by: kateryna hliznitsova/Unsplash.com

CAROL PARRIS KRAUSS is a teacher and poet from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. She likes to use place as a vehicle for her poetry themes. Her poems are rich, slow, and descriptive.  In 2021, her first book of poetry, Just a Spit down the Road, was published by Kelsay.


January 2023

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writer

 Caroline Burkhart 

Winnie’s Big Adventure
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


I really didn’t care that the bishop died the day before. I had a feeling, though, that I should, so I pretended to feel sorry. All the other kids put on a sad face when Sister Mercedes said we should pray for Bishop Guilfoyle’s immortal soul. This prompted her to launch into a full-blown rosary.

History class resumed until an announcement came over the loudspeaker telling us that we would be going to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament to pay our respects to the bishop the following day. We would be walking the mile or so down the hill to the Cathedral parish. The hulking gray building with a big Vatican-like dome in our small Pennsylvania town was the pride of the diocese. We were told to be sure that our uniforms were clean and pressed. We also needed to bring the mandatory head covering.

As the day went on, the visit to the Cathedral to see the dead bishop became more and more of an occasion. We were all so excited to be able to get out of the school for a few hours and maybe not have to do some of our homework that night for the classes we would miss.

I decided that since this whole dead bishop thing had become such a big deal, it was only appropriate that my beloved hamster, Winnie, should be included in the excursion. Winnie was going to see this bishop.

I knew exactly what to do. I had a small woven wicker purse that measured four inches wide, about seven inches long, and seven inches high. The purse had a lid that folded back to open it and a toggle made from the same wicker so it could be locked. Winnie would go with me in what we called his “traveling cage.”

The purse, with its wicker weave, provided Winnie with  plenty of air, and most of the time my little nocturnal friend just went to sleep when we were on an adventure. My parents allowed Winnie to go on family outings when appropriate.

Unbeknownst to my mother, who was one of those distraught over the death of the bishop, I got up a little early. She certainly would not have approved of my plans.

She had said a couple rosaries the night before.

Just before leaving for school, I got a few Kleenexes and lined the bottom of the purse. I added some sunflower seeds and a piece of carrot. A piece of lettuce went in, too, because I knew it would keep him from getting thirsty. In stealth mode, I went to the basement to get Winnie. Into his traveling cage he went, ready for some excitement. I was sure he was up for it. If all went well, we would be home by lunchtime and I could return him to his cage. He could ponder the wonders of what he had seen that morning and get back to afternoon napping in his cedar chips.

My mother must have been in a fog of grief because her usual prison guard instincts failed to detect the more fashionable accessory accompanying my book bag. Girls in our school did not take purses to class. They usually didn’t take a hamster, either.

When it was time to go to school, I walked down the block, around the corner of the church, and past the rectory to the place on the sidewalk where my 6th-grade class was supposed to assemble. We had to line up two-by-two, and when the bell rang, we marched up the stairs to our classroom. Nobody asked me about my purse.

The nuns had a plan to get the whole school down to the Cathedral to show our grief and respect. Their logistics dictated that we would walk straight down the 13th Avenue hill to the flat part of town.

The scuffle of two hundred pairs of Oxfords hitting the brick-paved sidewalks was sometimes overwhelmed by squealing and laughing. Some fool was always tripping. Sister Mercedes was not pleased. This was a serious occasion, but then, most things were serious to her. We had been prepped that this was a solemn visit to the Cathedral. We had to be on our best behavior. Squealing and laughing did not fit into Sister’s idea of proper decorum.

As I walked,  I wondered why the bishop was not at Jones Funeral Home just catercorner from the Cathedral. After all, my dead relatives were always displayed in funereal splendor at that fine establishment. The bishop was more special, I guessed.

Seeing dead people was no big deal to me. After our family moved back to my parents’ hometown, it seemed that we were at Jones Funeral Home at least once a week. The elderly of my grandparents’ generation were regular attractions there. It was mandatory in those days for the whole parish to appear at the funeral home to pay respects to the recently departed. Age didn’t matter.

Now, on our procession, we were clumped together by grade and each student was expected to walk with a partner. I was paired off with my friend, Kathy. I was bursting to tell Kathy about my little stowaway but something told me to be discreet. She didn’t ask about my purse.

My younger sister and two cousins were in the fifth grade class. I knew that I needed to avoid them at all costs. If they saw the purse, they would guess what was in it. They might rat me out.

Led by the eighth-graders, the St. Leo students shuffled down the hill without incident to the entrance of the Cathedral. No skinned knees, nobody tagged for detention. The seventh graders brought up the rear to make sure none of the younger children got off the path to righteousness.

We were instructed by our principal, Sister Eulalia, that we would be expected to march up the center aisle, genuflect when we got to the casket, and make the sign of the cross. After saying our prayer for the dead prelate, we were instructed to veer off to the right and left by the front pews and return down the side aisle to the front door. St. Leo’s students were accustomed to these maneuvers at ceremonies in our church.

Just as we entered the nave, despite the almost overwhelming incense, I caught a whiff of the unmistakably acrid smell of hamster urine. That little trooper, Winnie, was so excited he could not contain himself at the thought of seeing the former bishop. I guess I built it up too much when I explained to him where we were going.

Kathy whispered to me, “That sure is some strong incense. Yuck.” I didn’t comment. I was more concerned that nothing vile had dripped out of the purse and onto my school uniform. My mother would not be so consumed in grief that she would fail to notice an extra uniform jumper in the laundry. I only had three.

The line backed up as we got closer to the coffin and finally halted. I was ready to give Winnie the thrill of his little rodent life. It was hard to wait.

Finally! When the two kids in front of us pivoted to the left and right, it was time for Winnie and me to see the bishop. In front of the brocade-draped casket, instead of saying a silent prayer for the immortal soul of the bishop, I opened the toggle and pulled back the lid of the purse. Winnie pushed out his little pink nose and placed his tiny paws on the rim of the basket. His whiskers caught the gleam of the candlelight as he took in all the new scents. Then, I guess, taken aback by the thrill of his adventure, he backed into the safety of the basket and resorted to the comfort of food as he shoved the last bit of carrot into his pouches.

Kathy saw Winnie and gasped at the sacrilege of a hamster seeing the dead bishop. She went left and I went right.

Back at the staging area in front of the basilica, Kathy was reluctant to be my walking partner for the trek up the hill. She didn’t like hamsters, she declared, and on top of that, she was appalled that I had brought him to church in my purse. The temptation to get Winnie out and scare her was almost overwhelming. Some fast talking calmed Kathy down and prevented attention from being drawn to us. At one point in her diatribe, she threatened to tell Sister Mercedes. I should have known better than to team up with her. She was always a wet blanket.

The trip back was quiet. Kathy did not talk to me except to complain about the steep hill that separated the Cathedral from St. Leo’s. When we reached our school we were dismissed to go home for lunch. I walked around the church on the corner, then half a block to my home.

Our house had three doors: one on the front porch, one on the side porch that led to the kitchen, and another side door where the stairs led directly to the basement. That was the one I chose.

In the dark of the basement, I coaxed sleepy little Winnie out of the purse and into his nice familiar cage. He went immediately to his bathroom corner and relieved himself. Next, he waddled over to his water bottle and had a nice long drink. I then realized that he was not overly impressed by his big adventure. He snuggled into his nest of cedar chips and torn up paper and was asleep even before I could snap the clothes pin on the door of his cage.

My mother called down the steps, “What are you doing? Stop messing with that hamster. Come up here and eat your lunch. I made your favorites. BLTs and Campbell’s Tomato Soup.” I knew I wouldn’t be getting my favorites for lunch if she found out about Winnie’s big adventure.

In the interest of discretion, I decided to leave the purse, with its stinky Kleenex, sunflower seed shells, and hamster poop under the stairs. I’d get to that after school—and I did, undetected.

When, as a teenager, I finally told the story about Winnie going to the bishop’s wake, my parents laughed and passed the story on to amused relatives.  I knew, though, it wouldn’t have been the least bit funny that day back in sixth grade.

top Photo by: mateus campos felipe

CAROLINE BURKHART is a frequent contributor to The Quan, the newsletter of the America Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, a WWII veterans organization. The non-fiction stories are about the experiences of the men and women who were captured and held by the Japanese in the Philippines and Japan. She is currently working on a book based on her father’s time as a POW. Caroline is also a painter specializing in abstract florals. Her art can be viewed at carolineburkhart-art.com . She lives in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore. carolineburkhart@yahoo.com .


November 2022

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers

 Jane Edna Mohler 

Did You Pause?
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2021


for my beloved teachers
Mary Edwards Shaner, 1942-2021
Christopher Irwin Bursk, 1943-2021

Did you pause, your thumb upon the latch,
to equivocate, to hold the memory of your love’s face,
or was it clearly time?

Did you savor your slow suspension
as a red rock balanced against a cerulean sky,
no fear of crumbling on its fall?

I don’t think you rushed into the jet night gleaming
ahead. I hope you coasted, the way a heron teases
the lake that waits to embrace it.

top Photo by: mike van den bos/Unsplash.comi

JANE EDNA MOHLER is a Bucks County Poet Laureate Emeritus (Pennsylvania) and a two-time Pushcart nominee. Kelsay Books published her collection Broken Umbrellas (2019.) Recent publications include Gargoyle, American Journal of Poetry, and Quartet. Jane is Co-Editor of Poetry for the Schuylkill Valley Journal. She has been on faculty of the Bay to Ocean and Caesura conferences for multiple years.

 Sarah Barnett 

Adventures in Forgetfulness
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2022


…as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
― Billy Collins 

My reading glasses are missing. The pair with green frames. I’ve looked everywhere. Well, clearly not everywhere. I have at least ten pairs of reading glasses stashed around the house – bedside, desk, kitchen, bathroom. Anywhere I might need to distinguish the AA batteries from the AAA, to press the right buttons on the TV remote, to learn if my blue sweater can survive the dryer.

I try not to obsess. Still, I look multiple times in the most obvious places, search the car twice, rifle through pockets in the jackets I’ve worn in the last two weeks. They’ll turn up. Probably when I’m looking for something else. That’s how I found my favorite pen. In a pants pocket where I thought I’d left my keys. The keys are another story.

Things turn up, other things go missing. The questions remain. Where did I put it? Why isn’t it where I thought I put it? Where I remembered putting it?

*

I’m in my sixties when I notice my short-term memory isn’t what it used to be. I struggle to remember the title of a book I recently read, the name of a favorite Chinese restaurant, the model year of the car I drive. “Senior moment,” I learn to say with a sheepish smile. My friends do it too. Nothing to worry about. Right?
But I can almost feel the emptiness in my brain where useful and useless information used to hang out. Sometimes I remember the first letter or a sound-alike. I tell myself the rest will come. And occasionally it does. The name of the restaurant arrives while I’m cooking dinner or walking the dog.

*

Three years before he died, my brother Phil phoned to tell me he’d been diagnosed with “mild cognitive impairment.” Every day I think about what he said next:  “A few years ago, I thought I was having memory issues. The doctor said it was nothing to worry about. But there was something wrong with my mind back then. I could feel it.”

I wish I’d asked him what that felt like. I wish we’d talked about our mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and her mother’s dementia. But mostly I wonder if he sensed blank spaces where facts and figures once were stored.

*

Each time my memory fails in some trivial pursuit, I question my competence. Any small lapse causes me to wonder, Is this what Phil felt?

Did I feed the dog? Or is the visual image I have of scooping kibble into his bowl a holdover over from yesterday?

Did I lock the door? Or did I just close it and leave while checking my jacket pocket for the grocery list?

Did I turn off the oven? Or was I distracted by putting the meal together before the food got cold?

Google “memory problems” and some “expert” will advise you to make lists. Really? You think I haven’t thought of that?

A list is only as good as the memory of the list maker. For example:
•  In your haste to leave the house, you leave the grocery list on the counter.
•  You’ve omitted something important from your list. What is it?
•  The list is in your pocket or purse, but you neglect to consult it.
•  While shopping, you put the list down somewhere and forget to pick it up.

What does it mean that I can’t trust my memory? I see myself stuck in an endless game of Where’s Waldo? fruitlessly searching for misplaced objects and random words.

*

Heredity plays a role in almost all diseases. Alzheimer’s is no exception. Experts say the risk increases if more than one family member has the disease. I remind myself that my mother’s two older sisters lived to be 88 and 92 with no serious memory issues. My mother and brother were both smokers, a risk factor in many life-threatening diseases. I never smoked. But last year, I turned eighty.

*

Where did my words go? They’re not so much on the tip of my tongue as just out of my reach like the wine glasses on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. If I struggle for a word while writing, the thesaurus becomes my friend. It suggests replacements for “struggle” – strive, try, strain – until I decide that “struggle” is best.

The other day I needed the word for making something sound better than it really is. An “ism,” but that was as far as my brain would take me. The thesaurus couldn’t help, so I waded through websites that offered whitewash, romanticize, glorify, sugarcoat and spin before arriving at “euphemism.”

I can’t carry a thesaurus to lunch with friends when we fill our conversation with whatchamacallit, what’s-his-name, thingamajig. We resort to creative imagery – “that dial on the dashboard.” Someone calls out “speedometer” as if she’s a contestant in a quiz show.

*

My mother was in her eighties when she stopped playing cards. “I was making stupid mistakes,” she said. Why wasn’t I alarmed? A lifelong card and Mah Jong player, Mom loved the swift interplay between her brain and the hand she’d been dealt. Probably I thought it a temporary lapse. Soon she’d be able to play again. I hadn’t yet learned that aging is not like catching a cold.

A few years ago, while I was visiting my parents in the dining room of their senior living community, a woman pushing a walker approached one of the servers, a teenager with several earrings in each ear. “Pam,” she asked, “did I eat lunch?”

“I don’t know, Mrs. M. Are you hungry?” Pam signaled to another server who came over to assist.

Three women at a nearby table took in this scene. “There’s what’s-her-name,” one said. “Poor thing. Doesn’t remember if she ate.”

I did not want my mother to be like Mrs. M. I didn’t want her card-playing buddies thinking “poor thing” if she mistook a nine of hearts for the six of diamonds.

*

I don’t write any more. At least not the way I used to. I have trouble telling a story in order from beginning to end. I jump back and forth, pinball from past to present, swivel from serious discussion to flippant remark, the way I desert the half-emptied dishwasher to do a load of laundry or rummage in the freezer for something to defrost for dinner.

Since I can’t always find the right words, I mine, repurpose, recycle, cut-and-paste from older work as if piecing together a mosaic from broken cups and plates. It’s the way one might assemble a meal from leftovers – the way yesterday’s meatloaf plus jarred salsa and grated cheese can become a plate of nachos.

I’m not writing. I’m Scarlett O’Hara making a dress out of draperies. Or am I Carol Burnett imitating Scarlett making a dress from drapes but forgetting to remove the curtain rod?    

*

The last time I saw my mother, she was sitting in a wheelchair wearing a robe and nightgown, waiting for transfer to another room in the nursing home. Her piercing green eyes darted right and left. I knew that look – part worry, part intense concentration. If you didn’t know she had fewer than 36 hours to live, you might have thought she was working something out – composing a grocery list or trying to remember where she’d left her favorite sweater. 

Two months earlier, she’d had a fall that left her complaining of constant pain. A team of specialists plus CAT scan, x-ray and MRI found no physical origin. 

“We’ve tested your mother thoroughly,” her doctor said, flipping page after page of her file as if the quantity of paper spoke for itself.  “Here.” He handed me the thick folder and left. Standing alone at the nurses’ counter, I heard the loudspeaker paging doctors, patients calling nurses. In the air the aroma of grilled meat mingled with the pungent scent of disinfectant. On a neurologist’s report printed on shocking pink paper, the word “diagnosis” jumped out at me: Alzheimer’s-type dementia.

Had the changes been too gradual to notice? Was this like the fable about why frogs don’t jump out of a pot of simmering water? Foolishly, I’d blamed failing eyesight for her card-playing problems.

I left the folder on the counter and went to visit my mother. She lay in bed, hands crossed on her chest. I kissed her cheek. “Hello, darling,” she said. She called all her loved ones “darling.” Still, I wondered why she didn’t use my name.

*

Where is the line between losing your eyeglasses and losing yourself?

At the Alzheimer’s Association website, I find information on “typical age-related” changes in memory and behavior. “Misplacing things from time to time and retracing steps to find them” is a common occurrence for seniors like me. But a person living with Alzheimer’s Disease may “put things in unusual places” and be “unable to review their steps” to find them (emphasis added).

I think of a scene in the movie Away from Her, the story of Fiona and Grant, a couple married almost 50 years. We learn Fiona is afflicted with Alzheimer’s through an early scene where the couple clears up after dinner. Grant watches Fiona hum softly to herself while she washes and dries a frying pan, then places it in the freezer.

Where, I wonder, will I find my eyeglasses? I can only hope they’ll be someplace logical – in a drawer or on the floor – but please not in the microwave or refrigerator.

I think about my recent lapses: discovering I’d poured myself two cups of coffee for breakfast, finding my keys in a zippered purse compartment after “thoroughly” searching the purse. How many slip-ups do you get before people start referring to you as “poor thing?” 

*

I’m late to meet a friend for our weekly walk in the park. My keys are not on the table near the front door, where I almost always put them.

Why does so much forgetting revolve around keys? Is it because they control our comings and goings? Because losing keys to house, car or office can be a major inconvenience – the expense of a locksmith, the embarrassment of seeking help from family member, friend or stranger, the frustration of feeling incompetent?

Who are we without keys that signify we have a home, an automobile, a post office or safe deposit box? It’s no accident that we offer lovers the keys to our hearts.

Without my keys, I am helpless, locked out of my life.

We guard against this possibility. Hang keys on special hooks, keep spare keys, share keys with neighbors. I grab my extra car key, and I’m off to meet my friend. When I return, I retrace my steps and (yes!) find the missing keys in the pocket of the jacket I wore two days ago when I last used the car.

*

Ask Google a serious question about age-related dementia and you’ll find plenty of research and serious discussion to shed light on the subject. You’ll also encounter a selection of quips, jokes, wisecracks and witticisms that range from clever to tiresome to tasteless.

Right now, I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time – I think I’ve forgotten this before.  – Steven Wright, comedian

There are five great things about having dementia:
5. You never have to watch reruns on television.
4. You are always meeting new people.
3. You don’t have to remember the whines and complaints of your spouse.
2. You can hide your own Easter eggs.
1. Mysteries are always interesting.
– AHAjokes.com

A doctor recently told me that I have cancer and now he’s saying that I also have dementia.  At least I don’t have cancer.  – Anonymous

What’s so funny? What could be amusing about watching the same movie over and over, because you can’t recall seeing it? If this happened to someone I knew, I’d find it unspeakably sad.

*

Things I Don’t Forget/Things I Can Still Do
•  Grandchildren’s birthdays
•  Medical appointments
•  Pay bills on time
•  Drive places (supermarket, library, friends’ houses)
•  Prepare and file taxes
•  Teach writing classes
•  Write (well, sometimes)

*

A two-column chart from the National Institute on Aging distinguishes “normal aging” from Alzheimer’s disease. Forgetting what day it is but remembering it later, or sometimes forgetting which word to use are considered “normal.” But losing track of the date, or season, or being unable to carry on a conversation are symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

My brother told me he took a test to assess his dementia status. The doctor asked him to remember three words, say, house, pencil, pie. After answering a few questions and following simple directions, you either can or can’t remember those three things. He couldn’t.

I’d like to believe I could. Most of the time I can remember what day it is, can retrace my steps to find missing objects. When requesting a book from the library’s website, I type in my 13-digit account number from memory.

But my eyeglasses are still missing.

top Photo by:  redowan dhrubo/Unsplash.comi

Before retiring to Rehoboth Beach and discovering the joys of writing creatively, SARAH BARNETT had careers as teacher, librarian and lawyer. She is vice president of the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild and enjoys composing essays and stories while walking her dog on the beach. In 2020 she received a Delaware Division of the Arts Fellowship as an emerging writer in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus, Brevity Blog, Delmarva Review, Delaware Beach Life and other publications. Sarah was recently a guest blogger for Brevity magazine. You can read her essay, "Writing in my Ninth Decade," here.


OCTOBER 2022

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers

 Donna Rothbert 

Nothing of Insignificance
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2020

Sitting on the foyer floor, Kate Monroe felt her frustration rising, the familiar burn starting low in her abdomen, working its way past her chest, slowly climbing to her throat, burning, burning. Why had she offered to help Emily when she barely knew her? Wait, that was not quite accurate.  She knew a lot about Emily--where she had grown up, her childhood accomplishments and disappointments, her relationships with her siblings, even her artistic ambitions.

Kate had met Emily months earlier at a weekly workshop, “Writing Your Memoir”, facilitated by a local author who had just published her own life story. And during those workshops, Kate had listened to the arc of Emily’s life as she described her childhood to adolescence. Sadly, too often the workshop sessions disintegrated into protracted readings by bitter souls seeking sympathy for their tales of injustice, criticism, and imagined offense. But Emily had seemed different, more thoughtful, more satisfied, and her writing bordered on the lyrical. So, during the mid-morning break, when Emily mentioned that she was going through a divorce and would soon be moving from the family home into a local condo, Kate had offered a few hours of her time to help with the packing and schlepping of lightweight boxes. Kate herself had been divorced for years and knew the stress could be overwhelming.    

On this January Thursday, Kate found herself sitting on the hardwood floor at the foot of the stairs in Emily’s foyer. As she looked around, she realized she was in trouble and should have made an excuse when she first arrived, feigning either illness or a forgotten dentist appointment. 

To the left was a living room where no living had occurred for years. The space was crammed with towering piles of plastic boxes, some empty, most full, piled under and over other cardboard boxes, a few from the local liquor store, giving Kate hope that Emily would take an occasional drink to calm her nerves. There were hundreds of makeshift containers, anything with a bottom and sides that could hold “stuff,” most purchased, some gifted, all excessive, providing safe harbor for clones, duplicates, and facsimiles.  Why have only one item if you can have forty-three?  In this maze, Kate recognized Quaker oatmeal cylinders, metal coffee tins, abandoned jewelry boxes, shoe boxes, baskets, and hundreds of plastic bags emblazoned with the names of local retailers--Target, Pier One, Harris Teeter, CVS, Marshall’s.

At the opposite end of the room, five shelves of built-in bookcases suffered the weight of DVDs, figurines, vases, dried flowers, CDs, pens and pencils, notebooks, and even a book or two. A small portable TV huddled inside the kneehole of the desk.  The living room offered no safe passage. Although a sofa and four chairs hugged the walls--at least Kate thought she glimpsed four chairs--there was no place to sit.

To the right, Kate saw a narrow path leading from the foyer through the dining room to the kitchen, where no countertops were visible under the mass of foodstuffs, dishes, water bottles, and papers including a Baltimore Sun from last month. Scattered notepads, appliance instruction booklets, and lists of never-attempted tasks covered the center island. Around the corner, stacks of books, piled ten to fifteen high, were precariously parked against the window seat just below the bay window. Had these books been banished from the living room bookcases to make room for more decorative items? Kate guessed that not much food preparation occurred in that kitchen and even wondered what might have been stuffed temporarily into the oven and microwave, only to be later abandoned.

In the dining room, hundreds of breakable items–water glasses, wine goblets, china plates, and pottery--infested every flat surface including the windowsills and floor. The credenza and a hutch were crammed with linens and additional china sets, while housing six complete sets of silver cutlery. A small non-working crystal chandelier perched in the corner atop three cardboard boxes, its electric cord wrapped around its stem, two bulbs missing. 

So this Thursday morning, Kate found herself sitting cross-legged on the only cleared space available, the foyer floor. Despite her misgivings, Kate had decided to stay, and she watched as Emily began pulling hats from the foyer closet’s upper shelves, mostly winter hats, woolen, blacks and browns, promising to warm the head, threatening to destroy the hairdo.  “How many hats do you have?” Kate asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Emily replied as she swept around the growing pile. “There are more upstairs.”

Emily was tiny with a short, gray-blonde pixie haircut, porcelain skin, bright azure eyes and a ready smile. Her voice wavered as she spoke, rasping her words from her throat past her lips, not stuttering but somehow tentative, as though her words were probationary, waiting for acknowledgement and even acceptance. Even so, there was a tinge of lemon in her voice.

Kate recalled that when she first offered help, Emily warned that she was a hoarder, but had qualified her statement: “But I am a clean hoarder.” When Kate probed further, Emily described her “collecting” as piles of papers, sets of dishes, assortments of photos, the un-organized assemblage of memories from a 32-year marriage. Still, Kate was not prepared for the overwhelming volume of stuff engulfing the home’s first floor. 

“There are more hats upstairs.” Emily glanced hopefully at Kate.

“Well, let’s get them all down here so you can make informed decisions,” Kate said. “Your job now is to find every hat you own and bring them here.”

“First, I need a bottle of water,” Emily deflected. Kate soon learned this was Emily’s tactic to delay the inevitable. For Emily, decisions were hard, if not impossible, threatening her with an uncomfortable finality, no matter how trivial or insignificant.

Fifteen minutes later, after multiple trips to upstairs bedrooms, the pile had grown to ninety-two hats--straw, brimmed, fedoras, berets, bonnets, even a cowboy hat, mostly muted colors, with an occasional hot pink or cerulean blue whimsy thrown in the mix.  In what would become her routine, Emily plucked each hat from the pile, slowly caressing and inspecting it, conjuring all the reasons it should go into the “keep” pile. Kate hoped the hat corral would be an easy place to start. “After all,” she thought, “how much attachment can you have to a hat?”

Mustering her calmest voice, Kate set down the first rule.  “You do not need ninety-two hats, Emily.  You may keep ten.”  

Although arbitrary, Kate felt “ten” was reasonable and knew she had to start strong. This reduction rule would become the foundation for any progress that day or in the coming weeks.  A stack of 142 picture frames?  You can keep twenty. A pile of 714 audio cassettes? You can keep fifty. There was neither rhyme nor reason to Kate’s required percentages, just an inexorable winnowing of “too many.” 

Kate sympathized that Emily had suffered a painful childhood with an unavailable mother and bullying siblings and was now struggling with an acrimonious divorce. The marital animosity became glaringly evident within minutes of Kate’s arrival that first day, when Emily’s husband, Malcolm, poked his shaggy, bearded face around the corner to carp about their hat-sorting activity. 

“Em-i-LEEEE” he whined, “do you HAVE to put all those hats on the floor?  What if I need to get to the front door to get out?  What if there’s a fire?” Kate considered retorting “What if you need to get to the kitchen?” but thought better of it. 

Of average height, Malcolm’s hunched-over posture made him appear even smaller, beaten down, shuffling through the kitchen and dining room with neither energy nor purpose, eyes downcast. Over the next several months, Emily would remain the target of his sing-song, obscure criticism.

Kate sat patiently, hunched over the pile of hats on the foyer floor in the two-story brick colonial, on a heavily treed lot of oaks and maples, backing onto lush open space—prime real estate in that Maryland community. Kate worried that helping Emily would require digging deep into her own shallow well of patience. She began to think of this activity as an exercise in psychological karate. She needed to disable Emily’s deep-seated hoarding habits while at the same time building up her confidence and self-esteem. 

Kate, whom everyone considered organized, knew how to get results, worshiping at the altar of the Four Piles of Decluttering--Keep, Sell, Donate, Recycle/Trash. She would soon learn that Emily would need to add two more piles: Gifts I Once Bought to Give to Friends and Still Need To as well as Items I Bought for My Son Jack but Never Gave Him. Not a good sign.  

“Oh, but I like the color of this one, such a pretty rose” or “Look at this cute kitten on the hat brim.” Emily pleaded for each hat, cap, beanie. A color or a memory or a family gift or an unreasoned “but I like it” constituted her persistent defense. Every hat was important. 

Kate took a breath and in her gentlest tone, repeated “Emily, you can keep ten hats--only ten--and donate the rest for others to enjoy.” Kate watched Emily’s face fall and then slowly transition to a fragile determination suggesting she would be able to do this … maybe … hopefully … with help. 

Over the next few weeks, Kate would return to the colonial on the lovely lot, always limiting her assistance to two hours, for the magnitude of the task had become emotionally overwhelming. Emily’s devoted attachment to things was the anchor for her personality. Kate realized Emily feared she might actually disappear without the physical evidence that she had lived, that she had travelled to Japan, that she had listened to CDs, that she once married and had a son, that she had cut out important articles to read later. Nothing was insignificant, not paper clips or broken pencils or inkless pens. Emily needed to touch each item, tell how each became part of her life, and finally evaluate its usefulness or beauty or value as a memory trigger. 

The next few weeks, Kate was reduced to repeating the rules and covertly slipping broken items into the trash pile before Emily began describing all the ways she could fix things.  According to Emily, she had scores of friends for whom she had bought gifts, never delivered but now ready. Kate thought Emily would need to live to be 110 in order to glue all the china, read all the saved articles, and frame and hang all the artwork she wanted to keep. 

Kate also knew she served as a buffer to Malcolm’s incessant criticism and whining as he hovered in the next room. What had started as an innocent offer to help someone during a difficult time had left Kate frustrated and irritable, often admonishing Emily to “Pay attention.  Stay focused.  You do not need forty-six eight-by-ten wooden picture frames. You do not have that much wall space.”  And Emily would comply, temporarily, only to return to her routine of touch, remember, evaluate. 

For several days, they continued to catalogue their way through the center of the living room. One day Kate turned to a five-foot-tall Regency walnut bachelor’s chest on the south wall, its five serpentine drawers sitting atop four clawed feet. Kate, knowing full well what the answer would be, asked “Is that chest already emptied?” 

“Oh no,” said Emily, “I am sure it is full.”  And to Kate’s dismay it was—filled with greeting cards, most bought and never sent, folded and faded, gaudy and glittered, and by Kate’s estimate numbering more than 600. Quick calculations at $3 per card, a conservative average over the last twenty years, and the unopened contents of that bachelor’s chest equaled nearly $1,800 in wasted opportunity. 

Kate, sapped of every drop of patience, turned to Emily, sitting across the room happily sorting through ancient audio cassettes and mumbling tales of why each was her favorite.
“Do you know how many greeting cards you have here? You could start your own Hallmark store. Have you ever thought of the time and money wasted when these cards were stored and then ignored for years?”     

Emily looked up, hurt. “I don’t think about it at the time. And I told you I was a hoarder.  This isn’t helpful.”

And suddenly Kate remembered that, yes, Emily had warned her. And then surprisingly, she remembered her former husband’s piles of paper, piles upon pile, and collections of books, stacked on the floor and tables throughout their small apartment during the early years. And how “stuff” continued to accumulate, relentlessly, even after they moved into a much larger home in the suburbs. Kate had almost forgotten the unending clutter, buried the memory deep. And now she wondered if her offer to help Emily was a counterfeit penance for her inability to save her marriage, to clear the physical and emotional disarray of their lives.  No time to think about it now.

Kate pressed on, frustrated after weeks of biting her tongue, deflecting Malcolm’s snarky comments, and bolstering Emily’s confidence for imperceptible progress.

“Doesn’t this make you mad? Or at least sad?  Money spent on these cards could have been a trip to Paris off-season. Or a week in Florida last winter when it was so horribly cold and stormy.”  

Across the room, Emily became smaller, teared up, and refused to answer. 

Drained, Kate knew she had to leave and that she could not return.  She had hoped to help, and she had in some ways, but Emily’s patterns were too deep-seated, her world view too narrow, her emotion too raw. Progress had been made.  Kate had to admit that. But Emily was still months from getting the house presentable for sale.

As she headed for the door, Kate turned, admonishing Emily as gently as possible.

“Look, you have made good progress here over the last two months. And I want you to channel my voice and questions as you continue to get rid of your stuff. You’ve certainly heard me enough. Let me know how you’re doing and good luck!”  And she meant it. 

In April, Kate visited Emily’s new condo, helping her unload bulky rugs from her small SUV, into the newly painted and freshly washed condo.  It was a lovely ground-floor unit with floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto a small patio, just the size for a small table and two chairs. It bordered a park. But Kate was saddened to see that already the ghosts of accumulation and indecision had permeated every single inch of what could have been Emily’s fresh start.

While they continued to text each other, Kate knew she could not face the condo’s re-creation of the gathering of objects as a cure for loneliness, just in a smaller space.

Then in early June, she received a long text from Emily, “We have a family coming to see the house on Saturday!!! But I have not made enough progress.  Malcolm and I both marveled at how effective you were working with me. Would you be able to help me for a bit tomorrow going through my stuff? I already have donated a ton but need to do much more.” 

Kate demurred at first but offered two hours the following week, selfishly curious as to the progress Emily had made. 

Kate had come to believe her sympathy for Emily stemmed from Kate’s own parents, who had lived through the Depression and never threw away anything that could be of use to anyone. After her father had passed, Kate discovered a box of 116 light bulbs in his garage: refrigerator bulbs, oven bulbs, projector bulbs, clothes dryer bulbs, incandescent, fluorescent, halogen, CFL, LED.  Kate mused he had probably even saved a bulb that would fit Emily’s forsaken dining room chandelier. But where her dad had saved functional items from necessity, Emily hoarded from emotional need.

And the more Kate thought about it, the more she wondered about her own failed marriage. Was there a deep emotional need on her husband’s part that Kate was unable or unwilling to fulfill? She now admitted she had ignored the clutter and had mustered neither the skills nor the dedication to resolve their issues. And she was sad.

Kate realized she did not know how to deal with Emily’s issues either. She could only give her rules, offer her skills, and hope that somehow Emily could channel Kate’s voice as she continued room by room, closet by closet.  Kate was soon to find out.

Three days later, Kate appeared once more at the front door of the colonial, hoping for clear floors and usable furniture, and she was pleasantly surprised.  While some boxes and baskets still hugged the walls of each room, gone were the piles, the bags, the stacked and discarded detritus of a life never quite enough.  Malcolm was still shuffling and whining throughout the house, but at least now he could move safely without fear of tripping or falling. 

“Wow, this is quite a difference!” she complimented Emily who grinned in response.  “What is on the agenda today?”  

“Upstairs bedroom closet!” Emily trumpeted, proud that she had graduated from entire rooms to a lone closet.  

Having never been on the second floor, Kate feared what she would find. But all floors were clear, boxes neatly stacked, except for the closet, which reminded Kate of the old Fibber McGee closet, which when opened, buried Fibber with its contents. This was not quite as bad. Kate was in no danger, but the closet had no nooks or crannies that had not been filled. 

As Emily sat on a small stool, Kate began pulling the boxes, bags, and plastic containers, one by one from the depths. And Emily once again held each item, touching, telling, and evaluating. Used make-up that should have been discarded years before, Emily designated for the donate pile, until Kate reminded her of health restrictions. Multiple gifts for her son Jack, bought for an 8-year-old, Emily relegated to the keep pile in case her 22-year-old might possibly want them. But Kate’s final defeat was the eighty-five sets of shoulder pads, some rotted from the heat of too many summers stored deep in that closet. Evidently, decades earlier, Emily had carefully removed each set from fashionable jackets and blouses, and now, thirty years later, proclaimed all the reasons she should keep them. Kate knew now that she was truly done.  

She finished up her two-hour commitment and wished Emily well, realizing that while her help might have been a band-aid, Emily needed surgery. As she walked down the sidewalk from the lovely colonial in the Maryland suburbs, she knew she had done her best. And now Kate had to let go of the hope that she could help Emily reduce her reliance on things to boost her self-worth and self-confidence.

Unexpectedly, Kate discovered her offer to help Emily clear out her suburban home filled with stuff helped Kate resolve the quiet guilt she had carried for fourteen years. She had always believed that if she had only been smarter and worked harder, her marriage would have lasted. Now she felt that lingering burden lift as she recognized none of it would have made a difference.

top Photo by: onur bahcivancilar/Unsplash.com

DONNA ROTHBERT is a retired corporate executive and former English teacher dividing her time between Delmarva and Reston VA.  A native Marylander, she has lived and worked in Texas, Connecticut, and Virginia and has traveled to forty-eight of the fifty states. Her essays appeared in the 30th Anniversary Anthology of the Maryland Writers' Association, Thirty Ways to Love Maryland, and her short stories have appeared in Beach Dreams and Bay to Ocean 2020.

 Tara a. Elliott 

Deadrise
from Bay to Ocean Journal
2021

And so, I take you into the boat,
flat-bottom flaking sharp & gray, 

into the steady vibration of engine,
diesel fumes rising like broken wind

in brackish air, into the brashness

of summer sun burning shoulders crisp 

and fattening the morning shadows, 

the newborn screech of the gulls 

hovering as if attached by wire—

the fresh sweat, the cheap beer, 

the rotting eels, the slick greenness

of blue crabs mounting and scuttling 

in bushel baskets, the bright whiteness

of hull against an unbound Maryland sky.

top Photo by:  dave hoefler/Unsplash.comi

TARA A. ELLIOTT’s poems have appeared in The TAOS Journal of International Poetry & Art, Stirring, Gargoyle and The American Journal of Poetry, among others.  The president of Eastern Shore Writers Association (ESWA), she is also the director of Maryland’s Salisbury Poetry Week, and serves as co-chair of the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference. She recently received an Independent Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council.  For more information, visit: www.taraaelliott.com


September 2022

Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers

 Caroline Kalfas 

An Egret and His Property
from the upcoming Bay to Ocean Journal
2022

During my childhood, the marsh across the sound appeared impossible to reach without a motorboat or the skills of a bird. But the land’s slick, emerald blades waved for me to come and explore its exposed shores. I wanted to wade in the channel waters and step over shells like its resident white egret.

The measured distance grew more manageable in my young adult years. With access to a bright red kayak, I answered the long-standing invitation and paddled with strong strokes in the scorching sun from my sandbar to the edge of the knee-high grass growing in the wetlands.

I expected a soft arrival and a glide upon the sand. But thick, mushy mud stopped my boat at the habitat’s edge, and the majestic bird I had hoped to befriend took flight at my landing. His outstretched, pleated wings and dangling stick feet navigated toward the very dock from which I had launched my vessel.

I have often thought I should not have encroached upon the stomping grounds of the three-foot-tall bird without his permission. Innocent invader that I was, he fled from me with suspicion. And in seeing that we couldn’t share the verdant space, which I admired and he roamed, I looked to end my trespass.

Releasing my boat from the sticky swamp sludge, sweat upon my forehead, muscles stiff from my struggle with the oars, I retreated toward home across the green, choppy saltwater.

Sea spray slapped my reddened face. The afternoon wind rushed my ears. Rocking swells threatened me with seasickness.

And sure enough, my elusive friend the egret met my arrival. The aloof, feathered ambassador paced among tidepools on the sand at the foot of my cottage, which stood in the center of a row of ostentatious houses along the waterfront.

I saw from afloat what the exotic loner witnessed daily from his prime property across the way.

The line of dwellings were not nests hidden in the landscape. They were monstrosities overgrown with cement driveways, tidy carpets of thirsty Bermuda grass, and, at my house, a two-story oleander with green, pointy leaves and enticing fuchsia blossoms swaying next to my rickety steps. The flirty, toxic bush beckoned the elegant bird to wander closer.

I made my way up the yard, giving my boat several strenuous tugs.

The sleek egret skipped through the air and landed a few cottages down on the sandbar. He studied the nearby shallow water, and, as if using chopsticks, captured a floppy minnow in his pointy yellow beak. The bird swallowed the catch down his agile, thin neck, followed by a second helping of fish plucked from the tide. The well-fed fowl shook his head in satisfaction and paused as if in thought.

Winning my full attention, the bird uttered a series of throaty clucks that sounded like the slap of a playing card against a child’s bicycle spokes. And before lifting his wings and heading back to his place in the marsh, the creature poked his threatening mouth in my direction and released a raspy call.

Witnessing his frustration, I came to an unspoken understanding with the bird: I will stay on my property so he can continue to live on his.

top Photo by: David Clode/unsplash.com

CAROLINE KALFAS writes from Woolwich Township, New Jersey. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various literary magazines including The Next Chapter, frogpond, Philadelphia Stories and several editions of Bay to Ocean. Most recently, she received third place (tie) in the ninth annual Golden Haiku Poetry Contest 2022 in Washington, DC. To read more about her work, visit carolinechatter.wordpress.com.

 Ann Bracken 

Problems with Diving
from Bay to Ocean Journal 2021

Sometimes she’s afraid to jump. No, not on the blacktop playground, where she’s mastered Double-Dutch and excelled at Chinese jump rope. That’s solid ground. No, she’s afraid

of crashing on her head when she tries to hit the diving board, spring up in the air and slice through the water, arms and legs aligned in arrow-like perfection.

She freezes the day her father puts his arm across the board, a tan, muscled lever, a foot up in the air for her to clear. Tears well in her eyes, messengers of her failure, then shame rocks her body as her baby brother executes the dive like a dolphin.

Failing, failing in front of everyone at the pool that day. Yet in the woods with friends, she’s fearless. Standing atop a hill, grabbing the coiled metal ring

on the end of a bristly rope, swinging out over the rocky gorge, she moves in time to an inner metronome—then lands on beat, dropping down on the only patch of grass. Years later, she freezes at the thought of stepping onto a stage.  Seeking out the feel of success

from her quarry-jumping days, she finds an extravagant mall that promises an indoor bungee jump. As if buoyed by an invisible parachute, she launches, unafraid.

top Photo by: Jess Zoerb/unsplash.com

ANN BRACKEN has published three poetry collections, The Altar of Innocence, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom and Once You’re Inside: Poetry Exploring Incarceration. Her memoir entitled Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery, will be published in late 2022. She serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review, and co-facilitates the Wilde Readings Poetry Series in Columbia, Maryland.  She volunteers as a correspondent for the Justice Arts Coalition, exchanging letters with incarcerated people to foster their use of the arts.  Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, her work has been featured on Best American Poetry, and she’s been a guest on Grace Cavalieri’s The Poet and The Poem radio show. Her advocacy work promotes using the arts to foster paradigm change in the areas of emotional wellness, education, and prison abolition. Website: www.annbrackenauthor.com

New Books by ESWA Members



Connect With Us


Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software