In middle school, when teachers called my name, giggles and laughter erupted. Shame crept through my body, flushed my face and burned my ears.
Someone, I don’t remember who, eventually told me that there was a whorehouse in town named Rachel’s. A gray house that sat on a steep hillside, halfway up a mountain road in coal and steel country with a single driveway that snuck behind the house, perhaps so cars could not be seen from the road.
Rachel’s Whorehouse. My name, Rachel, linked to a brothel.
On the way to the scene of an emergency, my grandfather’s sister, a nurse, my great aunt Rachel died in an ambulance accident.
My father tells me my grandfather grieved quietly, but deeply. And, I am told that when he heard that my parents had given me the name Rachel, that he wept.
My grandfather and his sister grew up in Oswego County in upstate New York in a farmhouse with 9 siblings. I'm not sure how my Aunt Rachel became a nurse, but I do know that my grandfather worked hard to put himself through school to become a teacher. It must have been even harder for my Aunt Rachel to go to nursing school.
Every day for as long as I can remember, I have looked at the picture of my namesake. Currently, on a radiator shelf right next to my bed, among other family photos, it sits. A black and white photo, with her curls peeking from under her nursing cap and her lips gently pursed in a comfortable non-smile.
Her eyes shine.
Her name. My name.
This name, in my growing years, carried two very different associations. The one in my family: beloved sister, aunt. Then, one in my community: a social outcast, someone who sold sex, the owner of a brothel.
Middle school humor is awkward, uncomfortable, crass and accompanied for me at the time, by the awareness that anyone’s father, uncle, brother or grandfather could be frequenting Rachel’s, The Brothel. Through the hallways of middle school, her name was whispered, and supposedly all the politicians, many of our male teachers and yes, even the police officers frequented the brothel.
Every time my name was called for attendance.
Every time I raised my hand to answer a question.
Every time a teacher called me to answer a question.
The classroom erupted in giggles and teasing.
Perhaps someone gave me a sympathetic glance, perhaps a teacher glared and tempered the response of my fellow students. If so, it went unnoticed by me.
If you can remember middle school, remember the hormonal confusion and rage. Now, add post manufacturing steel town at the end of the 1970’s. Think of a pre music video, pre Internet, where fashion and culture have a very narrow expression, and there is nowhere to run. No escape to like-minded kids, just as isolated and forlorn as you. Maybe you might agree that shit like this can ruin your teenage-life, and for that time period it did mine.
Study hall in middle school ranked only a bit higher than gym class and the lunchroom which had their own unique opportunities for humiliation. Popular girls confidently exchanged notes while boys with long greasy bangs and smelly gym socks kicked the desks of the popular girls, snickering, perhaps thinking this would be appealing to these girls who matured early and seemingly effortlessly.
Here, no one studied or did work. Instead, they established their social hierarchy and position in school.
My name, associated in their minds with a brothel, put me squarely near the bottom of that hierarchy.
This particular day, perhaps the brothel was in the news the day before due to a bust, the calling of the roll in study hall and my name, Rachel Dunn provoked loud roars of laughter. Desks rattled and the laughter of the greasy banged boys roared into the study hall. The popular girls and everyone else averted their eyes, uncomfortable with my presence-- the one bearing this name, Rachel.
Numb and shame shrunk, I tried to render myself invisible. I hated myself for existing, and I hated everyone around me for laughing at my stupid name.
I dreaded school.
I tried a million excuses to get out of going and cried daily.
In my home where addiction and loud, frequent arguments occupied center stage, no one ever asked me why. I didn’t want to go to school, and I didn’t want to be home either.
I didn’t want to exist in my own skin as Rachel. I didn’t want to be someone associated with a brothel, and I didn’t want to be someone whose stepfather commented about her body and whose roaming hands made me not want to exist in this life.. I wanted to find a way to live a life without so much pain.
I recall during this time, a friend told me how bad she felt for me--that my name was so shameful, and she doubted any boys would want to date me.
She, perhaps, also kindly omitted the other reasons, like my kitchen table haircuts and the hand-me-down clothes.
I tried to redefine myself as Rae and asked people to call me that. I signed my name Rae and tried as much as I could to minimize anyone saying the name Rachel.
Inventing Rae as a person other than Rachel who identified so deeply with shame, was an act of survival.
Reflecting back on this invention, perhaps unknowingly, identifying as Rae meant practicing more discernment when picking clothes out of the large bags of hand-me-downs and choosing quality over quantity when it came to the very limited budget in our household for new clothes.
As Rae, I hung out with free range neighborhood kids with rebellious attitudes who sat on stoops and snuck cigarettes.
My identity as Rae vacillated between beer parties in the woods and playing trombone in marching band and getting good grades.
My identity as Rae studied social cues on fitting in and on posing as someone from a functional, loving family, and as someone who didn’t spend sleepless nights listening to fighting or full on participating in the daily, constant rage of her home.
My identity as Rae separated me from Rachel who had not only the shameful moniker associated with the brothel, Rachel, but who also had sacred boundaries violated by her stepfather. He would whisper about my body, rub my legs in the car, and masturbate in front of me.
Rachel, who could barely stand to exist in her own skin, decided to live as someone else.
In Johnstown, we were struggling to recover from our third flood in less than a century, the closing of the steel mills, and the disintegration of the Steelworkers Union that advocated for decent, living wages.
Only aware of my own identity struggle, I never considered that even the popular girls and the boys with greasy bangs might be suffering in other ways. I only knew their taunts and indifference, not if they might also go home to addiction, violence, and abuse.
My own circumstances led me to believe that if I could only change some basic things, like my shameful name, and please God, my unruly curly hair, and other outward trappings, that I could make my life better.
In some capacity, I did.
Rae had decidedly more confidence than Rachel, and somehow she maneuvered my family into the purchase of contact lenses after years of bottle cap glasses that left indentations on my nose and the tops of my ears. I fought with and tamed my hair that curled in all the wrong places, using so much AquaNet that lighting matches for those forbidden cigarettes was a definite hazard.
Without knowing it, I had achieved, through no small amount of effort and a great deal of eye shadow, a small measure of attractiveness as Rae.
I entered high school as her and landed a boyfriend. This new version of me was a mixture of scandal from the beer parties in the woods and intellectual curiosity and success in school. This recently developed complexity bridged the serious solitary awkwardness of Rachel, who didn’t have many friends to invite to birthday parties or to the lunch table, to Rae, who didn’t necessarily excel socially but at the very least, wasn’t openly mocked and had a bit of confidence in high school cafeteria lunch table seating arrangements.
Transitioning from Rachel to Rae was bumpy, yet in this emerging space, I found creative and interesting friends who actually seemed to like me. In this group, there was a Rae Ann. To further solidify my identification as Rae, we together became, “The Raes.”
After high school, I remained Rae for a time. After all, I was still in my hometown attending college 12 miles from Rachel’s Brothel. I recall hearing the occasional mention of the brothel, but as Rae, it was not as jarring.
But slowly, I began to reclaim my name.
Moving on with life and after moving to Pittsburgh, without conscious thought, I began referring to myself as Rachel. I don’t know that I have ever unpacked this until I started writing about my name. Until the words unfolded, I hadn’t recognized that I remade myself into another persona.
In this unfolding, I hold my younger self in so much tenderness. I marvel at her ingenuity in inventing what she needed. When she was not given acceptance, predictability, safety, worthiness of love and care, I did what I needed to do to make it through the day.
Isn’t this what we call survival?
We create what we need to make it through the excruciating moments, days and years of trials and traumas. We draw from God knows where, resiliency—that ability to shape meaning and grow even through obstacles and challenges.
Now, I live back in Johnstown and have for 30 years as Rachel. This woman, who still continually arrives into an emerging awareness of what it means to embody her authentic self, the self that doesn’t require validation from popular girls and boys with greasy bangs.
Here, in my hometown that is still figuring out how to be in the 21st century without its steel mills and industry, I arrive, curious, without judgment, wondering about the woman who made her living running a brothel and what she did to survive. I arrive here grateful, also, to have a namesake, whose story largely remains a mystery to me and in whose image I see my own eyes and features. This image of my Aunt Rachel, drives my desire to embody myself, my name, my history, my DNA—shame-free and living life as Rachel.
Rachel Allen is an emerging writer from Johnstown, Pa who also plays the Celtic Harp for hospice patients and teaches Trauma Informed Yoga on Zoom and and in urban green spaces. Rachel has has work published by Hags on Fire, Christians Practicing Yoga and has been a guest blogger for Yoga Service Council.
Late beside a stretching trail, west to east with leaden feet.
An empty bench waiting beneath an ancient oak tree,
aching out for my bones to creak over and sit.
'Here', I felt, but what better place to fit?
Waiting there alone, but not the least bit in silence.
Accompanied by the droning duet of memories and insects,
soothing me as best they could from the fiendish things I think.
But who am I to demand the creatures that creepeth sing in sync?
Sawing and hacking, their chorus kept on still.
Vibrating wings and skeletal legs beating violently against my spinal chill.
A million eyes upon me, but lo, not one could see
the hammering in my soul drowning out their song for me.
"No use.", I told the noise. "My thoughts are much too loud."
Too thick the fog would take it's place; caressed without a sound.
Too small, my hope, still droning out with mechanical whim;
too small to find them and catch a wisp of their crawling kin.
A moment I sat without speaking. Their source I sought to find,
and all at once in driven chorus their hum was lost behind
the Autumn breeze and static peace, a second I thought I felt
a wrinkle in time of warmth for the frost to finally melt.
Twas in this instance, passing through the eye encompassing my seat,
a great whirlwind began to stir; a thunderless sky began to beat.
The oaken giant above, strong, old, and holding firm
swayed and bent and cracked among the violence of the storm.
Shaken with fear, I fell upon my knees to pray:
"Mercy, oh Most High above!", reaching out to not blow away.
"I beg thee, calm these wicked winds that sail across my skin!
Halt the flooding flashes that barrage me for my sin!"
My eyes ascending toward the late night sky,
a great black shape, in flight, flashed by.
Like lightning, encircling both Heavens and Earth,
an Odonata of God beneath the world was given birth.
At once, the storm surrendered both wrath and understanding.
The twisting and howling was his, and from his flight he made landing.
In silver moon streaks, his metallic armor gleamed
on mighty bulks of smoothen emeralds. Impenetrable it seemed.
His transparent wings outstretched, and through them one could see
the same world cloaked in blackness my life had come to be.
A ruby glare ensnared me. His ommatidia, an iridescent flame.
Despite the countless lives before, not even time could grasp his name.
His countenance stern, and like a statue his legs stood form.
His body, like a hewn tree, but not a lick of flame could burn.
Woe beneath his shadow, beneath his mighty form of horror,
there was naught unseen to this champion of explorers.
Like a coward I did witness, and my spirit seek to flee,
yet motionless he sat still in his dead storm's breeze.
Zipped shut without a stitch, a silent ghost before him shivered.
And in great spectacle he spoke, dry and soft like a whisper.
'Round about me full his voice did come.
"Twas thee, mortal man, felt the taste of the sun?"
Astonished. Frozen. I could not reply.
and though I could not speak, before him I could not lie.
"Tis black as pitch.", he sighed. His words a miserable note.
"Know not the sun shall fade?; that moment of heat be smote."
The spark of life before the storm, after his kind did halt
their complimentary moaning for the misery I had felt.
From whence it came, I knew not,
but with a touch of courage I spoke up.
"The warmth was a moment I had not felt in so long.
like an ember distant from it's fire, burning to belong."
"Belonging to what?", asked he. "This cursed course of time?;
bound to it, I watched thee, and not a grain of it had rhyme."
"One as old as thee", said I, "surely hath kissed the sun?"
and at this his black glass wing beat, and his kin began to hum.
But not a song they sang, and in pain they droned long.
Dying down in silence for their King to speak on.
"Grand illusions it is thou seek? Kissed by moments
that snare the heart like winter when the Earth is dormant."
For a moment I pondered. Fumbling for my words.
What could I possibly say He has not already heard?
For a time, like a fool, twas I like an insect that stood
at the mercy of a giant, scared to flee, though I should.
My pause, i broke. "Like the trees, a sea of green beneath your wings
and the dripping petals of wildflowers quietly growing in spring;
reaching high, they too rise for the sun and glow.
Receding through the night, but in the morning they show
vibrant with joy from the war for the warmth.
Cheering in success at another day's birth."
Malicious, he grumbled. "Wise man then tell me why
it is life you place upon the flowers, and not their own choice to die?"
"The flowers choose not.", said i. "By chance they fall or bloom."
"Bold words from thee." said he. "As it was you out here alone."
"But not by the choice of my own!", I snapped, and at the notion bit my tongue.
He said, "No more free than the flowers beneath a fading and running sun.
Mortal man, thou be courageous in what he seek;
happiness in a world so cruel and bleak.
Try as you may, but with scars flaring to remind thee,
none, but misery, thou shall find as company."
His words were thick with a darkness, ancient and true,
and just a touch upon the mind could blot the sun from clear view.
Perhaps he was right, and all my screaming for the day
was trivial in its fight, as all I loved was taken away.
"Senseless", he continued, "all thy wants and needs,
when even the unconscious dream rots beneath
the great weight of Gaias girth
decaying even the beauty of birth."
A layer of his words, with quick enchanting, ceased the scene.
That great oak, once standing, torn asunder at its seems.
The low grass driven far beyond where the sun rose and set,
now scorched to their roots with no sign of coming back.
The stars had all fallen, or perhaps sunk from sight;
fearful of his sulking and the sorrow of his might.
My last vestiges of strength, now fallen and smashed.
Overcome by his words, and his word's world shaped at last.
"How miserable.", I sobbed. What little warmth I had erased
and in megalithic weight the Odonata's words replaced
the speck of light, dearly, I had held so very tight,
like ashes to ashes, it's dust was taken in the night.
"How long?", I asked, "How long must this vision last?"
and before his response, he scoffed, "Ye know the answer to that.
The air may fill thy lungs, and thy heart pump it's blood,
but in the end all equalizes among the worms and dirt and mud.
Mortal man, be not brass. Be not stubborn against this world.
All things come to pass away, and into the darkness the spirit hurled."
"How then," I began, "Do I find the spark to thrive;
before, the slightest scent, was all but needed to contrive
the fuel to hold back the sadness; the bombarding at my door,
and shield my love from danger and return to her once more."
"Long gone.", his voice lumbering out, "That hope has since passed.
How then shall thee awaken to a day ever made with glass?
Thy strength ye molded in another, an illusion for such fools.
Be it man or woman or time: thy blades dull and become crude.
Bluntly crushing each and every heart seeking to expose
the lie of sprouting happiness, aching beneath thy chestbone."
His wings, like portals spread agape against the sky,
only to be witnessed by the lack of stars they provide.
Deep into the nothing I peered.
Spiraling endlessly across no measure. Thrust in like a spear.
Lost (if you could say) in a domain of no direction,
surrounded by nothing, and everything, I hate in my reflection.
Outside looking in, Apathy's embrace appeared so welcoming.
Soothing concern with carelessness, and desperately, I called back to her beckoning.
Blissful, one might think, to stretch inside the Dragonfly's wings,
to commune with one so trodden, and set aside such beautiful things.
Never again to see my heart stricken with a blow,
and yet never again to feel, or so much as find the love I sought to know.
Woe to you, what friends I leave behind,
whom seek curiously to know, and foolishly dip their toes to find
Purgatory is a lie: a shade of grey to sell.
Soon you'll sell it all, and with lifted eyes find yourself here too: here with me in Hell.
I felt my spirit burning and my soul begin to twist
from the glimpse of life's cold heart. Early I did resist.
Bitter bitten nails, which chewed them though I did,
still clawed inside to peer about a life I couldn't live.
Forsaken, I would find the nerve to squeeze between the pain.
To force myself among a world apathetic to my name.
'What a shame.' some would say, but perhaps I am to blame;
for I always chose to fight for treasure I knew I'd never gain.
It is what it is, and I think, therefore I am
sick of all these kindred hands building a world God damned.
The bitten bullet swallowed. The spear that gores the lamb.
The floods that find your family deeply soaked into the land.
Evaporated quickly, and in haste they all withdraw,
and I curse them all to shadows from within my cave's maw.
Bested. I was beaten. Singed, my feathers fall.
Forgotten by a cruel world I should have ended once and for all.
Afterall, through me, everlasting torment I did wish;
and sought out each and every reflection (not to see) but lo, to spit.
Upon the mirror's truth, a buried rage I must admit
to tear open my chest agape, and remove my heart from it.
"Havoc!", they cried, and havoc now I seek.
A conundrum of the mind when peace and love release
their grip, a weak breeze, sailing fraily through the leaves.
Broken down by arms of bark, that grit and bear their teeth.
Lowly, I sat, and ground my teeth from broken trust
like eroded valleys gutted and over time reduced to dust.
On and on and on I walked, never halting, though I must.
Beyond profundity of the ocean, the Earth, and all its crust,
I found no place among it; no place to lay my head,
no place to rest my weary soul, no place for me to bed.
No place for me was granted, and all doors locked instead,
to keep me shut from hopeful dreams with good wishes till I was dead.
But on I sought for comfort in a place I don't belong,
when all about me suddenly, a most beautifully radiant song.
On and on and on it rang like angelic bells get along.
Drawing me ever deeper into this place I don't belong.
None I have found out here not stricken; least of all willing to sing.
Yet, on the voice cried, enduring reprised, surely for someone to bring
a presence long forgotten in a place long needed for dying.
Curiously I stuttered towards this one last beautiful thing.
Closer I had come. From a woman it made it's course.
And where once I heard a pretty bird, now stammered with remorse.
For once I sulked with company, another could be first,
to grant me now a purpose, and gift me happiness for her.
Around me, a forest, who's density still yet grew,
and soon I found myself engulfed in barren branches dew.
Besieged by thorns so sharp, and pity yet so few,
I found the will to struggle through and seek that voice anew.
"Please.", ever so softly, droning out with fright,
"I hear you! I hear you!", please step out into the light.
Your song, a brook so tender to chase away the moon and night.
Tender like two doves forever together in flight.
"No. Please come forward. I sing not here for free,
but the cost is so little. A little closer and you'll see."
More thorns to suffer. More shade and shadows for me,
but surely sacrifice pays a cost negate of any fee.
Scarcely receding, giving little room for me to stretch,
the trees somewhat stepped aside, like cringing at a wretch.
Beyond their line an open mouth upon the hillside etched,
and a gust of air foreboding, blowing out a terrible stench.
"Here, oh noble man. Save me from this wicked place.
I'm trapped within these webs and my innocence defaced.
Please, come closer. Upon your shoulders my pain erased.
You can surely cut me free from spinnerets long traced."
Foolishly, I stepped inside the last hell I'd ever want.
Before me, no slender beauty, but a spider in dreams that haunt
each and every waking dream, and my psyche left to taunt
what was or what could be, before me here to flaunt.
Drawn in by the beauty (the lie) that life beholds,
now I suffer could-have-beens in apathetic mold.
Trapped now forever with no spark left in my soul,
I cry and laugh and weep in ash for a spider I wanted to hold.
How Many Cookies Does It Take to Fill a Home?
Mom always wanted to be a baker—open up her own bakery on a small-town street corner, the perfect setting for a Hallmark movie. Baking was her expression, her pastime, her way to deal with the troubles of life. There were always dozens of chocolate chip scones stacked on top of each other miles high filling the whole house with a baked sugar-sweet smell. The perfect way to wake up on a Saturday morning, or warm snickerdoodles on a cold and bleak Sunday afternoon. The house always smelled of baked goods. I preferred it that way.
My sister and I loved the holiday times especially because that meant mom would spend her free time in the kitchen dedicating hours and hours baking, icing, and glazing. Our house would be filled to the brim with sweet treats and baked goods. Everyone came over to try mom’s baking. I mean, I couldn’t blame them; she did have the best chocolate chip cookie recipe, and she would always make cinnamon roasted pecans. Those were a fan favorite.
“Ms. McIntyre, these cookies are so delicious.” My friend Mitchell said while frantically packing away all the cookies set out on the table into a Tupperware container to take home.
“Here, take another container so you can bring some home for your parents.”
My sister and I would always sneak downstairs in the middle of the night, me for more roasted pecans, her, for mom’s lady locks. “The best late-night snack around,” according to her, but she would eat lady locks whenever wherever. That’s why when mom made lady locks she had to make about three dozen especially if she wanted to give some to her friends or co workers. Mom always had to separate what we can eat and what she’s giving to others; My sister and I would definitely eat everything.
While baking seemed to be what made her happy, sometimes I would find her in the kitchen covered in so much buttercream frosting as if it could take away the pain, as if the frostings sweetness could take away the sourness of life. She was trying to put her life back together after it was forcefully and unwillingly torn down; after love turned its back on her and forced her to hand over divorce papers. After her husband betrayed her and left her to question everything about love and a faithful relationship. After life told her to move, get out, and start somewhere new and all alone to raise two kids. Help always seemed so far away. So, maybe she thought if she made more cinnamon rolls or snickerdoodles than our table could hold it would fix something inside of her. Maybe the frosting would be the glue to hold her broken pieces together. Or maybe the sugar sweetness of her bake goods would mask the sour hand she had been dealt. The sour hand she has been forced to live with and make do.
It’s hard to imagine mom ever being upset. She was the buttercream frosting glue that held our family together. She was always there, always ready to put my needs before hers, and while I will never stop appreciating everything she has done for me, I wish she would chase after her dreams and go after what she wants. While I know she does not regret much in life and she says she wouldn’t do anything differently, I think a small subconscious part of her would. A small part of her would open up her own bakery or even apply to culinary school.
Mom always wanted to be a baker—open up her own bakery on a small-town street corner, but she gave up that dream because everyone else gave up on her too, and what she going to do with two kids? Finish icing a cupcake while her kids were screaming in the next room? No. She had to step up and be what a parent should be. So, she did what any mother would do, she tucked away her fantasy into the deepest darkest corners of her mind, and she raised her family.
She raised her family on snickerdoodles and lady locks.
I Answered Satan’s Craigslist Ad
“It sounded like a good idea, but everyone told me it wasn’t safe and that he would end up killing me, blah, blah, blah. So, I did the only logical thing and ignored all the warnings. And moved in with some guy I found online.”
“Why would you still choose to move in when everyone suggested otherwise?” Dr. Klopp asks me.
“The rent was cheap, the apartment was nice, he was nice. And I was frantically trying to find somewhere to live while I have my internship. It wasn’t until two months later that things started to get freaky.”
“Freaky?” she gives me look telling me to explain.
“Well…it started out small. He would get mad if I was up past 3am which isn’t often, but if I can’t sleep, I study for my online classes. I can’t have more than one person over at a time, I can’t use anything that’s his. He’s really weird about that, but it gets worse.” I say while watching her make a list of all the things psychos do.
“Just remember you asked for this.”
“Liv! Are you home?” I heard Justin shout. I quickly picked everything up off my floor and threw all the trash away that was lying around.
“In my room!” I scrambled to open my laptop and pretended I was answering emails.
I could hear his loud footsteps as he made his way through the apartment. He knocked on the door even though it was open. “There’s still dishes in the sink,” was the first thing he said.
I nodded. “I know, I got home thirty minutes ago and haven’t had the chance to do them.” “But you had thirty minutes since you got home.”
I didn’t say anything as I brushed past him to do the damn dishes. “How long have they been there?”
I rolled my eyes. Here we go again. “Since this morning, Justin. I rinsed them out and set them in here because I didn’t have time before my internship to do them.” I grabbed the soap and started scrubbing.
He didn’t say anything as he stared at me washing and scrubbing and rinsing. He did that often; it’s like it turned him on to see me clean. It was disturbing to say the least.
“MaryAnn is coming over later,” he said after I was done washing.
I internally groaned. Oh no, not that bitch. “Great.”
“Remember to stay in your room.” Trust me, I will, I thought to myself, but I just nodded at him and plopped down on the couch while he made dinner.
I tried to enjoy the latest episode of Game of Thrones since I was only allowed two hours of TV time a day. Another one of his weird rules. I was barely at the apartment so it never bothered me. Plus, I had a laptop to watch whatever and whenever I wanted.
Then there was a knock at the door. “I’ll get it.” Justin opened the door and in walked MaryAnn. I thought she wouldn’t be here until later?
They didn’t say anything to each other as they came over into the living room. She was carrying a black garbage bag that smelled so foul and nasty it made my eyes water. Justin was holding newspapers, scissors, knives, and a giant bowl.
What is this, some sort of sacrifice?
“Olivia, do you mind?” Justin said while trying to casually nod towards my room.
“Got it, but I have to say I’m a little offended I never get to partake in the sacrificing of small woodland creatures in the middle of our living room,” I said only joking, but neither one of them laughed. Tough Crowd.
I locked my room door and continued Game of Thrones.
It was about two hours later when I heard a knock on my door. Justin was standing there with a very unsettling expression on his face. “Liv, I need you out here for something.”
“For what?” I asked trying to roll my eyes.
“Something,” he said as he walked back down the hall.
I slowly followed him. It was dark except for the few candles that were lit. MaryAnn was mixing something in a bowl and Justin was pointing to a giant red pentagram painted on the hardwood where our rug used to be.
“What the- I am not paying to fix that.”
“Liv, you’ve been the best roommate which is why I think it’s going to work this time.” He gripped my arm and led me to the center of the circle.
“So…your roommate tried to sacrifice you to Satan?” Dr. Klopp asks me. I nod. “Basically.”
She writes something down in her notepad. “Is there anything else you want to say about that?”
“Don’t answer roommate ads online.”
“That’s all?” she asks, prodding for more.
I shrug. “Always do a background check on any potential internet roommate. There’s a lot of creeps out there, and I’m not about to make the same mistake twice.”
Greek gods and slutty promise
I stalked the night and I was once again afraid of who I was becoming. I felt so alone. So inept. I could almost taste the freedom that reconnecting to the outside world would bring. I was ready to stop being so alone. Ready to stop feeling so torn about by empty promises. I was tired tonight, so I drank iced coffee at midnight. I waited for the time of the night in which you feel like speaking. Where the night goes still and the light flees. I waited because even though I’m tired, your words light up my night. Flashes of text across my phone and I am elated. I know that this isn’t easy for you. I know that you are scared and I’m nervous too. I know that we are afraid of colliding and causing more damage. You had a dream that you fell from the sky, you flew. When I fell you let me hit the pavement. I felt like Hades, guarding dead promises. You were Persephone. Strong willed and sharp angles. I felt like I was tricking you everyday to keep you with me. You had already eaten the seeds, did you know that they would keep us tied together. Were you hoping to appease me? I called into the dark shadows. You might be meek, you may be mild. But I can see you holding back a hellhound, who's wild. The rage that you could unleash would devour us both. What you couldn't see was I too held a hound of my own. Gnawing at the air and spitting the venom I had filled it with. Would they clash or fight side by side? I stalked the night and I once again was afraid of who I was becoming.
Here You Go.
If only I knew how to write a love poem about flaws. About the grandeur of envy and the flight of haphazard plans going nowhere. A real human experience, made of openness and tenderness. A connection between two people, whose only goals were to make beautiful art and create their own world together. She was a solar eclipse, blocking the sunlight when she needed the time away. Facing away from the world. Her own broken parts, long since fixed. Held together by duct tape and rubber bands. She looked in the mirror some days and couldn’t remember what she looked like before the pain, the anguish. Letting go of the anger of the past. Making way for the good that had to come next, from all the rubbish that they had been through alone. Littering the streets with regrets, triumph in all her glory. She was the world to me, I had always written before about her peaks, unable to find the faults. I saw the cracks in her surface clear as day. I saw the times she cried out in pain and I wanted to hold her in the night. Wanted to share her pain.
What It Profits a Man
Today I didn't go to Sunday School
but to the cemetery above and
behind it and hung out on my father's
headstone, not that he's dead yet but when he
is then he'll be all set and death won't have
to wait any longer than it has to
which was awfully nice of Father but
then he's a nice guy, he's a plumber,
they don't come any nicer even though
some folks complain about the high bills but
he just smiles and shrugs and says that he's as
fair as it's possible for him to be
and still make the least little profit and
that usually does the trick, Mother's
headstone they're still saving for but it looks
good for them in the afterlife and lead
-ing up to it and all the time that comes
after it, eternity it's called, one
day I'll die, too, and meet up with them but
I'm only ten years old now and I want
to live a while longer, I'll be ready
after my team wins the World Series and
the way things are going that won't be soon
so I guess when I'm croaked and wake up dead
I won't worry too much about how much
life I missed, it'll all be behind me
and I won't get to go back and after
Sunday School last week I told Miss Hooker
that sometimes I think about just killing
myself and saving God and Jesus and
the mortician and for that matter both
Mother and Father some time and worry
but she told me not even to think it,
that's a sin as sure as really doing
it and that whenever I think such thoughts
that I should pray for forgiveness right off
the bat and not delay for a moment
else I might die right then and here in sin
and find myself in the furnace of Hell
and then I asked her what I thought Father
would ask, Would that be gas or electric,
and then she laughed and laughed and it was good
to see and hear and when I got home I
asked Father what would be Miss Hooker's fate
if she dropped down dead at that moment of
sin--would her immortal soul head up or
down and he said I'm not sure, son--let us
pray, then he smiled and closed his eyes and fell
asleep. That son of a bitch is crazy.
After Sunday School I slink back in
the classroom to see Miss Hooker one more
time before I never see her again
until next Sunday. Could be her red hair
draws me back to her fire again. I'm just
10 and I don't know why I feel this way
but I like it even though I hate it.
I mean, she's a grown woman and I'm not
a man yet but one day I will be and
be a husband to boot and get married
and start a family, which means babies,
and though I don't know where they come from yet
I'd like to learn and Miss Hooker's a swell
teacher and I'm a decent student if
I'm interested. And she has green eyes,
one of them lazy, wandering like God,
if God wanders--I sure would if I was
God. I'd get pretty bored up in Heaven
just sitting on my throne all day. Maybe
that's just me, whether I was made in God's
image or not--I think that's the Bible.
And freckles, she's got freckles, Miss Hooker
has about a million freckles. Sometimes
I try to count them but have to give up,
it's like counting stars and of course there are
the ones you never see, far away or
behind the clouds like Miss Hooker's freckles
underneath her clothes. If we get married
I could count them on our honeymoon if
there's enough light in the dark. I suppose
that my eyes will adjust, or maybe they'll
shine like real stars, even twinkle-twinkle,
to make my summing easier. I'll use
a calculator to keep track of them.
And I'll hold her close and kiss her and then
we'll fall asleep and wake up pregnant, or
she will, and nine months later name our son
after me or our daughter after her,
but for now I don't know Miss Hooker's name,
her given name, I mean. Her Christian name.
I guess I'll find out at the latest when
we get married. She'll wear a long white gown
sort of open at the neck to show off
her chests, or the tops of them, and I'll wear
a tuxedo, which I'll rent and take back,
or my best man will, whoever he'll be.
Right now it's a tie between my father
and my dog. I stand in the doorway and
watch Miss Hooker stack the hymnals, and think
of stacking dishes in the kitchen sink.
I should help her, or at least help her dry them.
I think I've seen enough. Maybe I've seen
too much. Now I'm feeling like her red hair
made me feel. I'm sort of looking forward
to, and dreading, something at the same time.
It's like thinking of Jesus, too, Who died
on the Cross, Miss Hooker says, to save us.
All I can say is I'm glad that He did
but sorry that He had to all the same.
Maybe if I die to save Miss Hooker
she'll fall in love with me. But that's too late.
I don’t want to die but I may as well
is how I look at it, death I mean, death
is the end of life or at least of mine
no matter when it comes, I’m only 10
now and my Sunday School teacher tells us
that God can call us back at any time,
call us back to Him, that is, He has such
power, nobody gave it to him, He’s
always had it, the power to call us
back to Heaven where, I think, He made us
and then shipped us out, our souls I mean, in
-side our bodies and between them and out
mothers’ labors, that’s the mysterious
part, the in-between-ness of it all--well,
I forgot what I was trying to say
and yet I believe every word and yet
I never even knew it, the start, save
I went through it myself but I’m damned if
I remember what it was like. I told
Miss Hooker so after Sunday School this
morning, she’s our teacher, and that damned slipped
out, another sin and a heinous one
because I said it in church, Sunday School
is a kind of church, an affiliate,
like the local NBC station to
the larger network, I like TV and
we don’t have cable, cable’s a sin says
Mother but I think she just means the cost
but anyway that slipped out of me
and so Miss Hooker had to sit down right
on both hips I mean, buttocks I think they’re
called, that’s a funny word and like I say
she plopped smack down on both at once and made
that sound like an inside-the-armpit poot,
another sin I guess, but I helped her
up again, no damage done that I could
see though of course I couldn’t see much nor
to the chair, neither, it’s that tough plastic
that will never rot in a million years
and if you try to torch it it likely
only melts, but anyway after she
got her legs back, so to speak, Miss Hooker
told me to run on home, she knows I walk
and yet that wasn’t a figure of speech,
she wanted me the Hell out of her hair
so I said, Yes ma’am--see you next Sunday
but she just grunted, I guess I hurt her
after all but if we ever get hitched,
forget her age, which is 25, we’ll
both grow into husband and wife if
only for a few years, there’s free cable
down at the County Motel, just perfect
for our honeymoon, unless I’m dead first
or otherwise bored. And remote control.
Carson Pytell is a poet living in a small town outside Albany, NY. His work has appeared in numerous venues online and is currently available or forthcoming in print from such publications as Vita Brevis Press, The Virginia Normal, NoD Magazine, Blue Moon Lit & Art Review, Spank the Carp, Crack the Spine, Futures Trading, Down in the Dirt Magazine, Gideon Poetry Review, and Children, Churches & Daddies, among others. His debut collection, First-Year (Alien Buddha Press, 2020), and his first chapbook, Trail (Guerrilla Genesis Press, 2020), are available on Amazon.
Horsemen held, sleeping scroll,
stumbled still into judgment
from a fickle christ who coughed:
"Depart, I know you not."
Reticently I returned
to a clean room, big windows
meant only for looking in.
It is no dream.
Nineteen and the men are buying
me illegal drinks in a smoky pool
hall the city will shut down within
the year. I’m wearing my navy blue
airline uniform. I’m told the shade
is a color people trust. I don’t
acknowledge him until he won’t
stop. Desperate to get my
attention, I give in, sipping
from my fishbowl of a cocktail,
buzzed but still sober enough
to know better – even at that age.
Later, when I leave with him,
I see the empty child’s car seat
sitting in plain view in the back seat
of his Subaru. I see the crumbs
of graham crackers, boxes
of juice, the finger paintings tossed
aside by a working mother, hurried
to get somewhere on time, to get to
the grocery store, to get through
another long day. I don’t
question him about his life or his wife
because the answers will illuminate
my own guilt in this crime. I look
for evidence in the front seat, clues
that other fatherless boys have been in my
place before. The night soldiers
on. In a rented motel room, the military
career comes up. He tells me he was a hero
once. I ask him who he saved. He can’t
remember their names but don’t worry
because his wife is getting on a late night
flight for Baltimore to give a speech
in a carpeted hotel ballroom, waiting
for a text or a call – reassurance
that everything is fine at home, that
she’s missed. In the motel bathroom, I wash
him from my skin, knowing a passenger
is fastening her seat belt, preparing
for takeoff, going over her speech. In her mind
she is safe and fearless and wise.
For more great work check out:
Three of t.m. thomson’s poems have been nominated for Pushcart Awards. She is co-author of Frame and Mount the Sky (2017) and author of Strum and Lull (2019), which placed in Golden Walkman’s 2017 chapbook competition, and The Profusion (2019). Her passions include kickboxing, playing in mud, and savoring art.
Saw a photo of him holding a cat.
He wore an old smock
and his hair was artist-wild
except in the center
where his scalp held one little
He wore a slight smile and his eyes
were earnest and almost crossed
like the eyes of the masked cat
in his arms.
If he and his homely but kind face
were to show up
at my house
I’d check his ribs
to see if he was too skinny.
I’d run a comb through hair
and beard to chase out
I’d say there there
you can live here
among the poppies and sunflowers
reposing under the apple tree
when it gets hot.
They are undoubtedly much like
the ones you’ve sown elsewhere
on other canvases—bold
and clustered with baby’s breath
and sun and shaded
by a green and gold mosaic
I’d give him the run of yard and field
the shelter of eave and even
my house with an open door policy.
He’d rub against my ankles
smile up at me
speak a language
I could not understand
and soon miss
his rambling ways
his starry-haired mermaids
his wild-eyed Athena.
I’d send him on his way
with a kiss
and a hope he’d be back for dinner
What a holy day--
drift of hydrangea mud
the color of an eye
grey pearl sky brindled
Wind stirs me--
sigh of still-bare branches
pulsing others weighed down by magenta-
opal-vermillion an embarrassment
of petals then raised sharply
by snaps of gales.
That shock of gardenias--
a holy ghost
fern fronds— supplicants
and the leaves of daylilies--
breeze thaws them
so that they ripple
And all those years ago
on a day such as this
you and I sat at Perkins
and you charmed me
by knowing the name
of the table’s pattern--
you said. Something
holy in the red
always turning back
as if chased by breeze
amid a roseate
Exotic delights touching skin
like soft roses blowing kisses.
the brushing of love’s tender wings,
the tingling of their romantic touch,
the feeling of heaven on earth,
creamy liquids in their soothing,
their lovely touching and probing,
rolling down the breathing hills,
seeping down into the crevasses,
cooling off the fiery nerves,
rescuing the screaming desiccation,
the abandoned moisture that once was,
the comfort of a rose like feel,
the soothing breath of the rain
like a rainforest in the desert,
the tears in the soil,
the flowers in the sun,
the embellishment of the naked earth,
the glistening of the reborn skin,
the fruited limbs that shine in the sun,
the glowing that reaches into the groin,
the racing of the heated blood,
the flaunting of the undulating hills,
the secrets of the forbidden valleys,
the words that get lost in the viewing,
the sensual lines that parallel the rivers,
the oils that drip down the banks,
the softness that calls for a touch,
the nervous fingers with lusted eyes,
the thunder that runs with passion,
the taboo that lost its voice,
the sensual rites of the exotic oils,
of beauty that emerges in the sunlight
and shines into the heated loins
and the craving to keep that feeling.
Skyborne magic approaching
from the corners of the east,
embers drifting in space
in the wake of the journey of the sun,
the daughter of the blazing sky,
a rendezvous with the
tides of yesterday,
when she ventured forth,
racing along the firmament
in a fiery chariot,
cursing the sting of the darkness
and chanting hymns of the Sun Gods
on her pilgrimage to the western lands,
her adorning the clouds
with colors of a deep crimson,
an artist with sensual strokes,
turning herself into a
cool globe of orange
before she dove through
the cracks of the earth
into the bowels of its home
in search of the lava field,
the same one she found last night,
to thaw her frigid hands and feet
and sleep in its comforting warmth,
as morning came and her eyes opened,
she rose again through the cracks
of the eastern corner of the earth
with her fiery body igniting
the wooden clouds that formed above,
peeking through the smoldering embers,
the charred sky riddled with
pink and yellow holes,
the beauty of the new day,
the journey of the daughter of the skies,
the dancing with the winds of time,
and the way she chose her colors
that embellished the face of the firmament,
her handiwork of the earth and sky.
I’ve owned five vehicles at different times of my life, all trusted companions. The first was a cough syrup green 1971 Toyota Corolla, but for me, it was verdant, a two-door standard sedan, four-speed manual with a radio and a large trunk. I adjusted the seats and viewed the world through a clear windshield.
As the story goes, my parents had left me a few thousand. I walked into a Toyota and talked to a salesman. Now I had to drive back to my apartment by crossing the Whitestone Bridge, but had only driven a few times before then, including the test to get my license. Somehow, I managed. Shortly afterward, I packed up my things and drove across the United States. The Corolla took me to Pennsylvania down to Cape Hatteras, through Appalachia and into Atlanta, Hannibal, Gunnison, Four Corners, the Rockies, and Las Vegas, almost like I was inside Woody Guthrie's head. I drove my two-door years more until the floor in the back seat rusted out. The car registered 200,000 plus miles on the speedometer. My neighbor bought it for $200 and crashed it several months later. I thought she deserved better.
I know, I know. She was just a car, but we’d spent so much time together. Newer cars had automatic windows, not handles that you had to roll up and down like a store awning, automatic shifts, and cassette decks. My old car was no longer. Buying a new one was out of the question. I scanned Craigslist and located a cheap Honda Civic Wagon four-door automatic with low miles, not green, but a sparkling cobalt blue. I made an appointment and eyed the owner suspiciously, strolled around the car to ascertain if the doors wouldfall off the moment I pressed the gas pedal. The man read my look. “The car’s in good shape,” he said, and handed me the keys for a test run. I got inside, the car was beautifully clean, not a fingerprint on the steering wheel, not a speck of ash in the cup holder. It drove without a hiccup and sailed like a blue flag. I handed the man my envelope. So began the blue Honda period of my life.
I’ve owned three other cars since then, all sedans, pre-owned, or as we used to say, “used,” four-door automatics with low mileage, hunted down on Craigslist, car lots, or dealerships with their guarantees of free maintenance. All cars were in it for the long haul. A few had names. One of them was Lucinda named after Lucinda Williams, a black beauty that I’d bought in the South where I visited Louisiana bayous and ancient Indian mounds before driving back to California. Within miles of home, smoke rose from either side of the hood in nasty-looking wisps that exploded into flame. I exited the highway. Workers in a machine shop opened the hood and used a fire extinguisher; my mechanic did the rest and got her running. I became protective, kept dirty tissues on her front seat to discourage a growing tide of break-ins thinking that people don’t like to wade past germs. I believed that cars are imbued withresonant life: if we take care of them, they do the same. Now I’m hearing about self-driven cars powered by robots. That would change everything: I want to have a peer relationship with whatever is driving me forward.