To my mother, and all the others

By Ashley Mae Christensen

I couldn’t have been more than four years old when I asked my little brother to come into my parents closet and asked that he pull down his pants and show me what was underneath. I didn’t touch, didn’t even think much of it, just wanted to see what made us different. My dad, a quiet, kind, good-night-book-reader, must have heard us and pulled back the sliding mirrored door. He found his two kids squatting on polished Sunday shoes, our heads brushing the bottoms of hanging flannel shirts. I was startled, scolded and sent to my room to think about what I’d done. 


II.

In second grade, after moving to a newer and fancier school, where everyone already knew cursive and whose parents didn’t shop at Mervyns, I finally made a friend. She was from the Philippines. She was loud and wore bright blue pants. I don’t remember her name, but I remember so clearly the day she asked me to pull my baggy shirt tight across my chest and pronounced loudly on the playground, “yep, you’re going to have big boobs.” I had never thought about boobs before, but for the next four years I wore too big shirts and was sure to lean over, letting the fabric billow, when I sat at my desk to write, so that no one would know the way my body was slowly growing.


III.

That same year we lived in the house with a corner garden, and a cherry tree, and a sandbox. My brother and I spent every Sunday afternoon attempting to build a tree house. Poorly nailed wooden steps lined the trunk of the tree below our bedroom window. I remember spinning for a long time around in circles in the front yard, like a human pinwheel, the day my mom got the phone call that our godparents had been killed by drunk drivers. The godparents who never imagined us growing up, but taught us to sew doll blankets and brought donuts on Saturday morning. The day my mom hung up the phone and told me, I remember the leaves whirling lime, yellow, green, and the bits of blue-sky kaleidescoped in between. I spun in circles because I didn’t know what else to do, I had never known about grief and loss. That same week I went into my parent’s tiny white bathroom and discovered the toilet was filled with shades of dark red and maroon floating in the water. I called my brother in and we were both very worried. We called out to our mom that something had happened, that she should come see. In an annoyed tone that surprised us both she called out, “I just forgot to flush the toilet, okay.” My mother who perhaps knew too much about grief and loss.


IV.

One afternoon all fifth grade girls were ushered from classroom desks and into the library. Our bony knees and squeamish calves propped up by growing, sweaty feet fidgeted on the wooden library chairs. My best friend hadn’t told her mother about the meeting, and I suddenly wished I hadn’t invited mine as a gloating and delighted volunteer mother held two ripe and reddened grapefruit in her carefully lotioned hands. She held them out for us, then up to her chest. I sat through the presentation and took my mom’s hand dutifully when she offered hers in my lap. My mother seemed proud of me. I was horrified. The boys began to appear at the windows of the library. They suddenly seemed so childish and sweaty. 


V.

In the following weeks, the girls who shopped at the Gap, gloated in their smooth legs and training bras, they talked with an air of pride that both disgusted and infatuated the boys. I overhead one girl talk about how her older sister and her friends practiced French kissing with saran wrap on their tongues. I, on the other hand still wore a baggy peach T-shirt with a big, black peace sign on the front, a valued hand-me-down from my California cousin. I took off the ratty, graying sports bra I had inherited from another cousin as soon as I walked in the door from school. I was now acutely aware of the brown hair grazing on my legs. I felt sure my parents loved each other, but I had never seen them kiss, and never thought twice about it. 


VI.

I spent the entirety of the sixth grade praying fervently every night that my period would not come. I held it as a test to see if God really listened. A true inquiry as to whether the things they told us in church about God caring about the things that were important to us was actually true. I prayed to God that if he would just spare me from a growing chest, the hair, the blood, I bargained a whole number of things. I would dedicate my firstborn like Sariah, I promised to do well in school, to be kinder to my brother and sister. Near the end of sixth grade, it came. A small reddish spot on my underwear. My stomach sank and I pretended it would go away. We went to my cousin’s house that night and I wore the purple and blue tie-dye outfit I’d sewn in my sewing class, I considered it good luck. I lay on the floor, we were watching Gulliver’s Travels and I’d just learned about the word Lilliputian, meaning very small, even insignificant. I was so worried everyone was watching when I had to stand up and go home.


VII.

The next morning it did not go away. I was so mad at God, disillusioned at His lack of concern for me. I sat in the bathroom fighting back tears. I hated the stupid lady at the maturation program who told us with her idiot-beaming smile that being a woman was so wonderful, that all these changes were exciting. I pulled up my jeans and walked into my mom’s room. I sat on the edge of her cedar chest and cried until she got out of the shower. When she opened the door, a billow of steam escaped and she came and sat next to me in her towel. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” I was crying too hard to tell her. She stroked my hair and I let her, as she guessed what the problem could be. A fight with a friend, a bad grade, the shirt I’d wanted to buy at the mall. Finally she guessed right and I nodded my head in defeat. I despised the words of comfort, about it being a beautiful thing, but I sat there with my swollen eyes and my arm around my mom’s wet waist.


VIII.

Soon after, I started junior high. My jeans were too big, I had a walkman with a UB40 tape, and no older sisters to tell me how to do my hair. The first time I had my period that year my mom packed me a pastel bag full of supplies. I remember the feeling of that cushioned bag. I buried it at the bottom of my backpack and worried all through class that someone would hear the crinkle and recognize the contents, or that any moment some obnoxious boy would tear it open and pour the awkward pads onto my desk. I was a straight-A student, and never late to class, but that week I lingered after the second bell had rung and slunk into the most obscure bathroom, standing in the stall, so careful to unzip the bag an inch at a time so that my shame wouldn’t interrupt the echoing silence. 



IX.

My mom taught me that to keep track of every month I could put a little heart around the day on a calendar, then I would know what it meant, but no one else would. I remember the nine months before my littlest sister was born, when those ballpoint penned hearts were absent from the kitchen calendar. It seemed exciting then. I purposely never kept track, couldn’t imagine why I would, was too worried that a friend, a friend that was a boy would come over and crack the code. In a strange way, later in life, after my mom had no need to draw any more hearts ever again, I felt a strange longing to see them, a desire to know that in ways, my mom and I were just alike, that still we understood each other, even if I refused to acknowledge the facts.

Piggly Wiggly Mama

By Sean Johnson

I see you by the snack cakes, aisle nine,
opposite “Chips and Dip, Saltines.” I fill
my shopping cart with TV dinners, steals
at 90 cents. The woman next in line
is fishing coupons from her purse as you
walk through the aisles of the grocery store
as if this were an art, a model for
some European line, cat-walking through
the produce now (surveillance mirrors tell all).
You fondle melons, checking peaches, pears,
as music, soft, plays overhead—“I Fall
In Love Too Easily.” It’s true. I stare
for hours, it seems, a boy hearing a call
beyond the plums, beyond the daily fare.

As a Doornail

By Sean Johnson

The dead have sad faces. Just listen
to their sighs, accordions without zing,
like the wheeze of an empty ketchup bottle.
Listen how they click their fingernails
together—a sound often mistaken
for rain at cemeteries. Yes, being
entombed must be a drag, as much fun
as a bat guano and liverwurst sandwich.
But some things, we know, are worse—
having your pants fall down in church,
performing bare-handed elephant vasectomies,
being alone for long periods of time.
A guy in North Dakota has the formula
for eternal life scribbled on the back
of an old Sports Illustrated, but he won’t
be Fed-Exing it to anyone soon,
won’t be sending out any mass e-mail
that says forward to ten people, or else.
Who wants to live forever anyway?
Think of all the taxes you’d have to pay.
I feel bad enough for my shih tzu-poodle,
Spunky. A canine Methuselah, she barks
at a passing squirrel and sounds like
she’s hacking up a dinosaur egg.

Meanwhile, the dinged-up microwave
of mortality continues to whirl, the world
a thin paper plate, and we the steaming heaps
of Spätzle that invariably end up in Tupperware.

So let the rains waltz upon the rooftop.
So let the windshield wipers wave goodbye
and the moon bark all night long
at the neighbor’s dog. No freakish light
bursting forth from the tomb, no dead lover
Patrick Swayze-ing back into existence.
A closed casket just means the mortician
botched the job, had to construct a new noggin
out of paper-maché and cotton swabs.

Pay your respects to the third cousin of the deceased.
At the after party, try the potato salad.

Kinda Creepy, Living Here in This Abandoned Bulgarian Castle

By Sean Johnson

right next door to the abandoned knife factory.
Just to get the bathroom I have to take two secret passageways.
At night my neighbor, Countess Borslova, swings from the chandeliers and
      howls obscenities in six languages.
In the morning she locks herself in the pantry and assumes a vegetative state.

Those werewolf shows on the Sci-Fi Network seemed hokey
until the Wolf Man swung by on his moped to pick up the mail.
Dear Rene: The mosquitoes here are terrible.
I already have two bites on the neck, very close together,
one right beside the other.

Ghost drool. Check. Goat blood. Check.
Enough to give Boris Karloff the heebie jeebies—
Nosferatu ghosting himself through walls,
lesser spooks haunting the garbage disposal.
Don't even think about rummaging through the basement for Christmas bobbles.

A crippled wind dragging itself across the front lawn.
Night scraping its fingernails on the moon's chalkboard.
The Black Sea vomiting itself onto the nearby shore.

Fourteen Ninty-Five

By Brittany Frandsen

Anson Electronics paid my rent the summer after my parents kicked me out and before my boyfriend took me in. I functioned as a combination secretary/receptionist/accountant/ general-office-manager-of-one at Anson’s headquarters, a dumpy little building squeezed between a failing bakery and a thriving pawn shop. You know the type. No air conditioning but plenty of bugs.

I walked into work that Thursday morning to the shrill ringing of the phone. Wincing, I threw my brown lunch bag into the fridge with one hand and picked up the phone with the other.

“Anson Electronics. This is Heather.” I seated myself at the three-legged card table which served as my desk.

The voice on the other end brought the phone three inches from my ear. “I want to speak to your supervisor!”

“Please hold,” I replied. I set the phone down and walked back to the front door to prop it open with one of the bricks that had recently fallen from the hole in the ceiling. Returning to the card table, I attempted to switch on the Apple computer my boss had recently purchased and which occasionally worked. The computer whined feebly before returning to its lifeless stupor as I scooped up the receiver.

“This is Meridith,” I said.

“Hello? Hello? Are you there?” said the voice on the other end.

“Yes, ma’am. How can I help you?”

“Well, I don’t really think you can. Do you know, I’ve called six times this morning and this is the only time anyone’s picked up the phone?”

“We don’t open ‘til eight, ma’am.”

“Well, you should certainly have an answering machine. We purchased one six months ago, and I don’t see how any functional business can run without it.”

“Thank you for your suggestion, ma’am. I’ll certainly bring it up at the next staff meeting. You have a nice day now.”

“Where are you going? That is not why I called.”

“All right, what else can I do for you?”

“I need a refund on the toaster I purchased from your company.”

“Have you spoken to the store you purchased it from?”

“Yes, and they said they can’t give my money back, that I have to go through you.”

“May I ask why you’re unsatisfied with this appliance?”

“You certainly could! I have never been so unhappy with a product in my life. For one thing, the plug doesn’t fit into my wall socket.”

“Doesn’t fit?”

“No! It’s too wide. My husband tried to bend the little metal things that actually go into the wall so they’d fit and they still didn’t, so we had to pay an electrician to install a whole new wall socket.”

“Do you have the box the toaster came in?”

“Yes, that’s how I found your number. I’ve got it right here.”

“Look on the front of the box, lower-right-hand side, under the picture of the rabbit.”

“Okay, I see the rabbit.”

“Great. Right under there, it says to check your wall socket before you actually purchase the toaster to make sure the toaster will plug in.”

“Well, I didn’t see that before I bought the toaster.”

“Ma’am, I recommend that in the future, before you purchase an item, you read the print on the box. You have a nice day now.”

“Wait! That isn’t all.”

“All right. What other problems do you have?” I leaned back in the chair and put my feet up on the card table, which swayed and almost dumped the Apple onto the floor.

 

“Well, once we got everything set up and plugged in, we tried to toast some bread. But the toaster started to smell like burning rubber every time we used it! And then whatever we made would taste just like the toaster smelled.”

“Mm-hm. Ma’am, do you still have the toaster box in front of you?”

“I do.”

“Great. Open the box and look on the inside of the lid. Do you see the writing there?”

“I do. There’s a heading that says ‘Instructions.’”

“Great. Those are the actual directions for operating the toaster. Did you follow all those directions?”

“Give me a minute. There’s a lot of writing here.”

“Skip down to the fifth paragraph in the middle column. It says there that you need to make sure you remove the rubber tabs placed along the bottom of the inside of the toaster before you actually try to use it. Did you do that?”

“Well, no, we didn’t read this before we tested it out.”

“Ma’am, I recommend that in the future, before you use an appliance, you read the instructions. You have a nice day now.”

“Hold on! I still have complaints!”

“All right, go ahead.”

“It’s too slow.”

“Pardon?”

The voice on the other end started to grow in intensity and volume. “Your toaster is far too slow for my needs. I’ve timed it, and on average your toaster takes two minutes and twelve seconds to adequately toast a piece of white bread. This means that my kids are spending valuable time that should be spent at their honors clubs or studying for their Advanced Placement classes in front of a smelly, dysfunctional toaster. This means my husband has to get up earlier every morning and go to bed later every night to make his breakfast before work. This means not only does it take me longer to get my breakfast, but I have to run around trying to help everyone else whose time your toaster is wasting! I demand full compensation, and I can assure you, I will never recommend your product to anyone.”

By the time she reached the end of her sentence, her voice faintly resembled that of a seagull. Somewhere towards the commencement of her monologue, I had reached into my purse and pulled out a magazine. Thumbing through its contents, I stifled a yawn.

“Ma’am, I understand your situation. I understand you’re upset. However, I need to point out that Anson Electronics is not responsible for the current situation.”

“How can you say that? Your toaster is the cause of all this.”

“I hardly think our toaster is the issue here, ma’am.”

“Oh, really? Well let me tell you something. My neighbor runs a small electronics store downtown, and we took your toaster over to him last night, and he said it was the most ridiculous excuse for a toaster he had ever seen. He said it should never have passed inspection, and he’s actually the one who advised us to get a refund. He knows absolutely everything about things like this, and if he says it’s faulty, you know it’s true.”

“All right. I do understand that. But if you don’t mind my asking, ma’am, why didn’t you buy your toaster from him?”

There was silence on the line for a few seconds.

“Yours was on sale.”

“And how much did you pay for this toaster, ma’am?”

“Fourteen ninety-five.”

“And you would like a refund for fourteen ninety-five?”

“I most certainly would. Are you going to be able to do that for me, or will I need to speak to someone higher?”

“Well, ma’am, the very best I can do for you is nine ninety-five.”

“Nine ninety-five? Why is that?”

“There’s a five dollar processing fee.”

“Why is that? I hardly think I’ve gotten five dollars worth of function out of this toaster.”

“You know what, ma’am, it’s just a processing fee, and it’s not even something we deal with. It all goes through the government.”

“All right. Well, how do I get this nine ninety-five?”

“You’ll need to package the toaster in the original box along with any accompanying attachments and ship it to our office.”

“I know. I read that on the box.”

“So, you have read our refund policy?”

“Yes. I found it on the bottom of the box.”

“All right. Do you have any questions about that?”

“Yes, I do. Do you have any idea how much it costs to ship a box containing your toaster to the address listed?”

“I do not.”

“Priority mail costs nearly twenty dollars. That’s more than the cost of the toaster itself.”

“I understand that. But I have no control over the price of the mail, ma’am. If that’s your complaint, I can see if I can find you the number for your senator.”

“That will not be necessary. Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“My hands are tied unless I have the toaster here in the office.”

“Well, do I have to send in the whole toaster?”

“Of course. We can only offer you a refund if you return the product. I think you’ll find most companies operate in the same way.”

“Well, can’t I just send you the receipt?”

“No, ma’am. In order to give you a full refund, we need the toaster. You can keep the receipt.”

“How can that be possible? I can’t pay for a refund.”

“Do you have any friends that will be visiting our area? Perhaps they could bring it in for you.”

“We do not.”

“Well, then I really don’t have any other options for you. If you want the refund, you need to return the toaster. If you’d like, I can waive the five dollar processing fee, but that’s really all I can do for you.”

“That is not acceptable. I’d like to speak to the director of the company!”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. The director is out of the country at a business conference.”

“Well, get him on the phone!”

“I can’t do that, ma’am.”

“Why not?”

“He is in meetings all day improving our company. He has far more important things to do than deal with a fourteen ninety-five toaster.”

“Are you saying my needs aren’t important? I’m your customer! Without me, you don’t have a business at all!”

“It takes a lot more money than fourteen ninety-five to run a business, ma’am.”

“Excuse me?”

I spoke a bit louder. “I said, it takes a lot more money than fourteen ninety-five to run a business, ma’am.”

“Well, I— I have never spoken to anyone so unprofessional! How old are you, anyway?”

“I hardly think that that is relevant information.”

“It most certainly is! You’re probably just some punk teenager they pulled off the streets! You’ve probably never even seen one of these toasters!”

“Ma’am, if there is nothing else I can do for you today, I’m going to have to hang up. I have several other customers waiting.”

“I’ll be reporting you to the Better Business Bureau!”

“Is there anything else I can do for you, ma’am?”

“You’d better not try to sell any more of your toasters around here! I’ll make sure none of my friends use your products.”

“You have a nice day, ma’am.”

I hung up the phone and gazed thoughtfully at the computer screen, which had just lit up with alternating purple and green bars that floated across the screen, blinking on and off. It held my gaze for only a few seconds before the phone started ringing again. I rolled my eyes and picked it up.

“Anson Electronics, this is Marie.”