Short Takes

Introduction

Hillary Clinton’s doomed run at the presidency woke the public media to the demeaning and circumscribing way in which the actions and emotions of women in politics – and, indeed, of all women – are described. The old clichés requiring women to be aproned and barefoot in the kitchen have probably disappeared, but they have been replaced, or perhaps just modulated, into newer, somewhat subtler versions of themselves. Women can put on suits and head out the door to work now. But they cannot be like men – or like the positive stereotype of men – even at work. They cannot be ambitious. That is called aggressive. They cannot work hard. That is called neglecting their children. They cannot be firm. That is called hard. Above all, they cannot take offense; they cannot be even mildly angry. That is called all sorts of things — shrewish, hysterical, ball—busting — every one of them pejorative.

But if there is one emotion that every woman on this planet shares today it is anger. Long-simmering, well-earned, sometimes overwhelming and occasionally stupefying anger. Enough anger to make us cry. Enough to make us always wary. It is always there. Usually it is just there, no more intrusive than a slightly clenched stomach ever is, when you are used to your stomach being always clenched. But every once in a while, something will set it off, and in seconds it is at the boiling point.

Women have so much to be angry about, not least the male assumption that it is unwomanly to show how angry we are. We are angry at the sexual assaults of our childhood. We are angry that the boys always got picked before us, no matter how ungainly or dumb they were. We are angry at being told that nice girls finish last, or that men never love a woman smarter or stronger than they. We are angry at being paid less to work harder than men. We are angry at being cut off mid-sentence, at never being heard. We are angry that he offered to help – help! – with the baby. And then went to bed while we were still sorting laundry. We are angry that fifty years after the second wave of feminism – fifty years! – there is still no daycare at most workplaces, no subsidies for working women, and that we are still under the constant threat of being denied dominion over our own bodies. We are angry at being judged by how we look, not by how we think; at having to be forever young; at Donald Trump and the way he has profited from casually degrading women. We are angry at being made to be so damn angry. We are at the boiling point.

 
 
柿

 

Dear Son

Dear Son,

First of all, I am not one of your “crazy parents.” I have not been crazy since 1980 when I finally went to college then got an excellent feminist therapist to help me get over it. All of it. On the other hand, your father is certifiable. You are right on target there. That is why I divorced him right after my year of therapy. You are welcome.

Lucky for you I still remember you as that sweet little boy with auburn curls who brought me fistfulls of dandelions all summer long. I smile when I think of you saying kindigap for handicap and fry-fries for your favorite Micky D’s menu item. I was so proud of you, especially your large vocabulary developed during our long discussions of life during those equally long years of single parenting. I won’t go there since I am a kind person, but you have no idea how hard it was to raise you two boys alone. I am not asking for a thank you but seriously, don’t judge until you have walked in my worn out flip-flops.

Running away to California at the age of thirty-nine was not an indication of mental illness. It was one of the sanest things I have ever done. I found my tribe there and yes, most of them were women whose kids probably called them crazy behind their backs, too. Sometimes I wish you would run away from your strictly laid out “normal” life and just see what is out there waiting for you. Before you get offended, I am not telling you what to do. I know you are a grown man, etc., etc., but why not explore a little?

By the way, I am not a practicing witch although I have toyed with the idea now and then. Witches are very spiritual people so don’t start searching the Internet for licensed exorcists. Anyway, I have moved on from my infatuation with alternative religions. If I were a mean person I would point out how crazy your bunch of religious brothers and sisters have become since this president was elected. If you want to talk about crazy …

Another thing, marijuana use is legal here in Oregon. Lots of people at the senior center use it for arthritis pain. We joke that we used to smoke it for the high but now we smoke it for the pain. Unlike your father, I have not overindulged in anything in three decades. I notice you like a cold beer with the game. That reminds me, who do you think taught you to play baseball? 

Before you go there, I have figured out what is going to happen to me in case I really do go “crazy” and can’t make my own decisions. You will not be deciding when I am ready for “care” or when it is time to “take away the keys.” I won’t be giving you power over my life. I have already made those decisions. You can contact my lawyer for the details, none of which you will like. The first thing that would go under your jurisdiction is my freedom and the second would be ice cream, I am pretty sure. I have lived my life passionately and I plan to die passionately. Live with it.

Will we see you and the family for Thanksgiving? I am baking your favorite pecan pie and your brother is coming. It wouldn’t be the same without you. Give my love to the girls and Melissa.

Love,

Mom

柿

 

True Colors

anger is red
red on hats
faces flushed red
red lips stretched wide
ears grow red
voices blare, red
anger is red

restraint is blue
calm face, breath controlled,
eyes impassive
body still
fists uncurl
lips part,
lap air
restraint is blue

a grating voice
stops me in my tracks
I turn to watch

here slim anger is dressed in white
hair short and neat
face contorted
Bitch! Cunt! I saw you Bitch!
I was a tender and loving father, Bitch!
Don’t you laugh at me!
Don’t laugh at me!

here, restraint is in baggy brown overalls
a little pudgy
hair is dark, disheveled
he stands quiet
faces anger
stands and stands
waits

until anger spends itself
stalks off
guns the engine of the white pickup truck
leaves in a squeal of tires
diesel smog

 

 

柿

 

Canada or Die

It’s June, 1968. I open the mail. Final grades. Information about the graduation ceremony. And a letter: “You are hereby directed to present yourself for Armed Forces Physical Examination …” Frankie responds with a letter of his own: “I hereby renounce citizenship in the United States of America.”

We load the Beetle, starting with the back seat. The floor holds a carton of thrift store dishes, two cartons of books, three cartons of records. On the seat are the record player and speakers, our typewriters, my paintings, and Frankie’s saxophone. We secure it all with rope, leaving a plastic-covered space for Nile Cat and his litter pan. Up on the roof, we jigsaw-puzzle boxes containing clothes, towels, sheets, blankets, pillows; two cartons high, strapped down with a tarp. Frankie tugs on the ropes, making sure nothing will blow away.

Last run back to the apartment. Frankie wraps Nile Cat in a towel to keep the enraged critter from clawing his face off, places him gently in the back seat and slams the door before the determined little furry can work himself free. I’m in the passenger seat with a shoebox of tapes at my feet and the metal box with our crucial papers on my lap. Frankie cranks the engine to life; New Haven shrinks in the rearview mirror.

More than six hours with no stops. No words. We’re on I-190 in Buffalo. “Frankie! Exit 9 Peace Bridge!” We’re on the bridge. So are carloads of draftable men, in front of us, in back of us, on either side of us. Bumper stickers scream: U.S. Out of Southeast Asia! A battered Chevy pulls alongside. It’s full of determined, long-haired Native American men with a bumper sticker demanding U.S. Out of North America! Everybody gives everybody else the clenched fist salute.

Here it is! A whole slew of red maple leaf flags and border patrol agents. We’re told to drive to the right and park. Frankie hands the car keys and the file box to a short, jowly agent. “Look at anything you want,” Frankie says grandly, “but please don’t let the cat escape.” Nile Cat, right on cue, claws at the window and howls. Frankie turns his back and walks away a couple of yards, as though none of this matters.

The inspector looks at the car: boxes packed inside like puzzle pieces, boxes tied on top with intricate knots. He studies the papers. He conducts a brief staring contest with Nile Cat. He returns the file box and car keys: “Everything seems to be in order. Welcome to Canada.” Frankie nods; it makes him look solemn and dignified. The truth is he couldn’t possibly speak without losing it. We roll slowly onto Queen Elizabeth Highway and then, out of sight of the border guards, pull off to the side of the road. Frankie Rhys, my revolutionary hero of a husband, breaks down in tears.

 
柿

 

The Showdown

My cousin Lila and I faced off in her family’s barn where hay, scented with manure, covered the hard dirt floor. Queenie, a black lab, had followed us to the barn and stood between the door and me, daring me to cross his path. Lila held my red mittens above her head, taunting me in the frigid air. “Janet’s a cry-baby…”

“Give ‘em back,” I said, attempting to sound brave. Tears welled, but I stuck out my chin, and closed my teeth on my lower lip.

Lila, three years my senior, had longed to go with the big kids – her brother and my sister, teenagers who were riding around the gravel roads in her dad’s pick-up truck. “Go play with Janet,” they’d say whenever she’d ask to tag along.

Lila and I were stuck with each other. Our mothers were sisters who liked to visit together every few weeks. My family made the trip most often because Uncle Glenn had chores to do. The cows won’t milk themselves.

We would drive two and a half hours just to eat Sunday dinner, which in Iowa was served at noon; then hang around all afternoon until five o’clock when we’d eat again, before getting back in the car to drive two and a half hours home. I might have planned to see a Sunday matinee and spend my allowance on Milk Duds, but no, Mother would wake up and decide it was a good day for a drive. I’d be stuck in the back seat of the Dodge, trying not to throw up. I’d inevitably lose my breakfast in the weeds by the side of the road.

 

If I complained about Lila, Mother would remind me that my cousin’s life wasn’t easy. She didn’t have friends nearby and couldn’t walk to the movies. Her chores, like feeding the chickens and pumping drinking water, were a lot harder than my job, drying dishes after supper. “You girls need to find a way to get along.”

Maybe Lila envied my life as a town girl. Her two brothers weren’t kind to her, but that didn’t give her the right to turn their meanness on me.

 “Give me my mittens,” I demanded as I took one menacing step in her direction. “Give ‘em here.”

“You have to come and get them,” she sang, waving them like tiny red flags.

            I lunged, and with one swift kick, she was on her knees. The red woolen mittens were mine. I spun toward the door where Queenie now lay, but I didn’t stop. “I’m never playing with you again,” I shouted. Queenie lifted her head but she didn’t rise.

Triumphant, I made my way to the house, past the chicken coop and into the warm kitchen where the adults were having coffee and cherry pie.

“Where’s Lila?’ Mother asked.

“She’s in the barn with Queenie,” I said. “May I please have a piece of pie?”

Lila and I had learned to get along.

 

柿
 
 
 
 

Jeannie and the Bottle

Smoke alarm blares, popcorn too long in the microwave.
Cat cowers, I curse as impressions of Mother go off
like kernels in the bag, still burning.

Mom and I melted tapers into empty
Chianti bottles set on tables covered
with checkered cloths. Et voila, party time.

My brothers and I poked limbs through
wrought iron stair railings. Curious cellmates,
we mimicked the ebb and flow of revelers’ voices.

Mornings after, while our parents slept it off,
we popped beer nuts, mocked smoking stogies
in the basement reeking of dregs and cigarettes.

Teacher had us save wine bottles for a project.
This I could do. She held up a slim bottle
not like the squat basketed ones at home.

Mom bought supplies, set Saturday aside for us
to create. Mesmerized by marbles heated on
a baking sheet, I dipped the grape globes in chilled

water for a crazed effect. I glued cool
clusters onto the bottle. Mom’s temper was as short as
the matches that lit the gas stove, a task I feared.

The witch in my tale, she bent at the oven door
while I dropped hot marbles that plashed and crackled
like ice in her drinks. I cringed as marbles flew

from her burned hand, the tray clanging across
the kitchen that lurched like a boat’s galley.
That’s the last time we do your goddam art!

It was. Fire and ice can fracture; can also fuse.
And revelation can be a slow burn or
lightning quick as my tabby darting under

the chair at my own rage set off by the burned
corn. The cat now become silent witness.
First blindsided then grateful, I wonder

in which move the decanter went missing.
Soon I will rise, open the window, release
the stale smell of smoke.

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Boiling Point

  1. A note to Jean Zorn
    During the week of the Kavanaugh hearings, I was angry. After being told by a man in Zumba class, “Anger doesn’t help,” I was close to homicidal. My husband and I broke plates on the patio. I cried and then laughed. Like Zorn, it still doesn’t take much to get me to “boiling point.”

  2. I always enjoy Short Takes, the treat at the end of all the great work in Persimmon Tree. The incredible variety of responses to whatever the topic makes me smile.

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