Treehouse

online magazine for short, good writing

Category: Nonfiction

Dear Gram

by Treehouse Editors

Chelsea Catherine

Dear Gram,

It’s Pride season again. The last Pride I went to, I was living in Vermont and after the parade, I broke up with a girl, even though we were barely dating. We watched the parade and then I took her out to our final meal together. We sat outside in the sun with the lake just down the street. I drank a beer and ordered mac and cheese. I don’t remember what she got. I don’t even remember what she was wearing or what I was talking about when it happened.

I think I was mentioning my new place, and how she would never see it. Maybe I was referring to the ugly brown carpeting, or the pasty off-white walls. I didn’t have enough of your paintings to cover them. I hung three in the living room, one in the bathroom, and two in the bedroom, but it still felt bare. That apartment in Vermont was never really right. None of that year in Vermont was ever right, no matter how hard I tried to make it. I couldn’t understand how you can go back to a place that’s your home – the place where you were born and raised – and after ten years away everything was unrecognizable. All my friends were different. They had babies and husband and new houses to live in. The buildings downtown had all changed, and the roads didn’t feel like mine anymore.

I like my new apartment in Florida better, even though it’s so small. It’s all one room, thesame size as the living room I had in Vermont. The walls are still white, but the tile is orange and blue here. It gives the space this spark. Your paintings all fit where I can see them. One of the wood frames is broken – it cracked apart at the crease in one corner – and I haven’t figured out how to fix it. I don’t have the tools. I left everything in Vermont except three suitcases, and even though I’ve been here for almost five months now, I keep expecting to have my old stuff. I keep reaching for things that aren’t there anymore. Ghost hammers and screwdrivers, old clothes and blankets I always had with me.

It’s been like that a lot here. I keep reaching out to people, too, but it’s all new and the trust isn’t there yet. I’m not close to people like I used to be. When I’ve had a really bad day, I’ll run down to the beach and watch how the colors of the sunset blend across the bay. I’m proud of living on my own down here, but at the same time there’s still something so unsettled in me.

I miss you, Gram. I wish you were down the street so I could stop by after work when thedays are really long. I wish I could sit in the kitchen with you like we used to and read the newspaper and you could tell me that things were going to be okay. Money is going to even out. I’m not going to get my heart broken by girls anymore. I wish you were here to hug me.

Now, when it’s nighttime and the heat bugs are chirping outside, and I’m crying or sadover something, all I want is one of your stupid tuna salad sandwiches and the smell of your house. I miss the basement with your stacks of soup and sauce and beans. I miss the kitchen table and the ugly shag carpeting in your living room. Your pantry stock is all gone now. The shag carpeting, too. Dad ripped it all up about a year ago and found wood floors underneath it. Dad has gotten rid of a lot of things, and he’s painting the kitchen over, too. It doesn’t smell like you anymore. It doesn’t feel like your house. Now whenever I’m visiting him and we stop by, I find trinkets of yours that have been left – teapots, pictures, old mason jars. I keep collecting them, these tiny pieces of you.

Soon it’ll be the four-year anniversary of your death. They say it gets easier with time,but you came to me in a dream two months ago. You were standing right there next to the bed with your old brown smock and your hair combed out like for church, so tangible it almost felt like you were really there.

Xoxo

Chels


Chelsea Catherine won the Mary C Mohr nonfiction award through the Southern Indiana Review in 2018. Her novella Blindsided won the Clay Reynolds competition and was published in October of 2018. Her novel Summer of the Cicadas won the Quill Prose Award and will be published in 2020. Find her at chelseacatherinewriter.com.

Grow Your Own

by Treehouse Editors

Peter Amos

“Hey’all got’dem garden-maters?”​  The sun sank and his wind-cut chin followed the line of my finger to a table full of Better Boys, Beefsteaks, and Lifters heaped in shoddy pyramids on plastic trays.

Hours ago I threw the wheel of a rusty Chevy and lurched off Montford Rd in a cloud of rusty dust. Jimmy looked up from a low, bushy mass of cucumber tendrils and grimaced as I parked the truck alongside an unruly forsythia bush.

Stakes over my bare shoulder, hammer in hand, I waded into the rows. Sun scorched my back and sandpaper stems scraped hot pink lines over my dirty arms. I lifted the hammer high and brought it down with a thud. Again and again, metal drove bleached wood deep into the mulch where thistles gathered in bunches.

Twine crisscrossed the row, one stake to the next, searing a line into the crook of my neck as I tugged. I smeared wet clay on my face, embraced three sticky tomato vines, and lifted the fruit clear of the fetid puddles on the ground. I yanked the coarse string tight, wringing a drop of blood, and the plants jerked to attention.

In the next field, Jimmy walked with an armload of tiny light green plants; three or four leaves each and a curl from the sun. We’d cover them from the heat and weed ceaselessly in the coming weeks. By September we’d be dragging twine again, bent double in the sweltering air.

We slowly filled dusty black crates, plucking green fruit from the vine at the first hint of color. Smart shoppers buy that way, ripen three or four in a brown bag on a window sill, and eat when they’re ripe. Sliced thick with salt and pepper on white bread. With the flat-bed loaded, we bounced onto the pavement and drove carefully back to town. Jimmy leaned out the open window and grinned a watermelon slice in the highway air. We were scarred by sun, bloodied by thistles, and covered in mud with two hundred pounds of produce in tow. The only way to be.

The heat rose off the blacktop in waves, blurring the potted verbena and delicate vinca that wilted in the soggy air. I rested one hand on my hip and the other on the side of the dusty table in the tangerine light of the sinking sun. He evaluated the day’s haul, holding each fruit close to his scornful eye.

“Ya’ll pick ‘em too early.”​ He spat through a mouthful of dip.

I rolled my eyes from behind the ancient register. Good thing Jimmy left for the day.

His nose pointed and brow arched as he inspected a limey pink variegated Better Boy in the shade of the tent.

“​2.49 a pound? Shit boy, ya’ll robbin’ me.”


Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia. The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York where he works, performs, and writes. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, The Museum of Americana, Bitter Southerner, and others.

The Gift

by Treehouse Editors

Karen Collier

I sit at the kitchen table with my mother, stepfather, and one of my new classmates, Kim, a girl with long black hair, eyes the color of a glacier, and skin so translucent I can see the veins meandering across her temples. They finish the last refrain of “Happy Birthday,” although Kim is singing the version about a monkey in a zoo.

“Make a wish!” My mother shoves a lop-sided chocolate cake with twelve candles in my direction.

I blow out the candles in one breath.

“Here!” Kim hands me a wrapped box as my mother begins to cut the cake.

I rip off the paper and open the box to find another smaller wrapped box.

“Fooled you.” Kim giggles, and I join her.

Our laughter grows as I open each box, only to find increasingly smaller wrapped boxes.

When I reach the smallest box, I think it is the perfect size for a pair of earrings or a friendship bracelet, but as I peel off the paper, I notice that Kim’s laugh has become maniacal and my mother looks worried.

I open the final box and see a sheet of fluffy cotton. I lift the cotton to find the bottom of an empty box.

“There’s nothing in it.” Kim doubles over laughing. “That’s why it’s such a good joke.”

We eat our cake in silence. I fight back tears. When we’re finished, Jerry offers to drive Kim home.

“See you tomorrow.” Kim waves as she bounces out the door.

My mother covers the leftover cake with tin foil and wets a washcloth. As she wipes cake crumbs from the table, she asks, “Is Kim the only friend you’ve made at your new school?”

“Yes,” I say, and I pick up a piece of torn wrapping paper from the floor.


Karen Collier is a native Texan. She spent twenty long years in high tech before becoming a high school English teacher and discovering how the other half lives: in poverty. She left teaching after five years to pursue life as a creative writer. Her work has been published in Full Grown People, The Austin-American Statesman, The First Line, and The Ocotillo Review.

Home

by a contributor

Alex Sobel

“I was okay,” I said, trying to keep my hand off of my nose, draw attention to it. “I didn’t have the arm for it, for throwing to second base. I couldn’t catch people trying to steal. I was always a better hitter.”

“You were? Best average?” I could hear the surprise in his voice, looking over me, scrawny, not the physique of a power hitter, not what people expect. But I never said I hit homeruns. I just got on base. Third in the batting order, looking for an RBI. It’s all a coordination thing. My eyes, my hands, they knew what each other was thinking. Looking back, I don’t even know how I did it, how anyone does it. To see the pitch, decide if it’s worth swinging at, and then making contact, all within a fraction of a second. It doesn’t seem possible.

“I went three straight seasons without a strike out,” I said, without any pride, because I didn’t feel any.

“Well, darn,” the doctor said, slapping his knee, his castrated language feeling more natural coming out of the mouth of a grown man than it should. “That’s good. Do you still play? Like, on an adult league or something?” Somehow, I’m young enough to be called kid, but old enough to play in an adult baseball league.

“No,” I said, “I quit a few years back.”

“Why is that?” he said.

“My knees,” I said, grabbing them, one in each hand, making a circular rubbing motion as if that made them feel better. “Arthritis. My mom has it, everyone on her side. I couldn’t crouch, couldn’t slide. Had to give it up.”

All of this was true, but I didn’t tell him how I hated baseball. I didn’t say how alone it made me feel. For a sport like basketball, when you lose, you lose as a team. No single basket matters, no foul completely fatal. Basketball games are a sum of parts, of an entire match’s actions. But baseball’s not like that. A strike out, a ground ball between your knees means everything. Remember Bill Buckner? The Red Sox lose Game Six of the 1986 World Series after a ball rolls through his legs. Nobody cares about the rest of the game, just that one missed ball, and it’s all his fault. He’ll never live that down. I mean, hell, baseball actually counts and tallies errors. What other sport counts mistakes that way? It’s inhuman. To place that much weight on individual failure, but then put it in the context of a team. Make you responsible for other’s success.

“That’s too bad,” the doctor said. “There are a few leagues around here that could use a hitter like yourself.” I nodded, smiled. Oh well. Too bad. How funny life is sometimes. “The good news,” the doctor continued, shifting his chair toward the desk next to me, “is that you don’t need any blood work. A few questions and you can go.”

But my mind was already gone, the last time I would ever be up at bat, to ever be alone like that on a baseball diamond. Top of the ninth inning, we’d already won the game, but didn’t have enough season wins to play in the tournament. The burden was gone. It was just gravy, meaningless, the whole thing. The ball off my bat, circling the bases, the third base coach yelling, keep going, like a kind of mercy. Sliding into home, my last chance to go out with a home run. As the dust cleared around me I saw the catcher’s glove on the ground, the umpire lifting his thumb, You’re out, ending my baseball career forever.

As if I needed him to tell me I was out. As if I wasn’t home already.


Alex Sobel is a freelance journalist living in Toledo, OH. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post Online; Foundling Review; Ink, Sweat, and Tears; and theNewerYork.

See Alex’s list of 5 Things on Wednesday.

Notes on home, notes on reticence

by a contributor

Steven Ray Miller

I won’t bother with the sky
It is indeed grand as the slogan
maestros claim. 

A New Yorker in the Midwest was horrified when I told her I crave the smell of forest fire.  One day last summer there was a big wild fire in Minnesota.  Its lovely, choking smoke had blown east and Milwaukee’s sky was hazy and hot.  She, having heard the dangers to those with respiratory problems, was rightly taken aback at my comment.  I struggled to explain how the smell evokes the best memories of home, certain concrete things, but mostly wispy images of my favorite qualities in the myths of the West. She had no idea what I was talking about.  I’m not sure I did either.

Don’t be fooled:
the silence of the rancher,
and of the rancher’s son,
is like a butcher’s bleached apron.

Nevermind good fortune.  Nevermind tacit schooling alongside mom, dad, brother, sister, neighbors, friends.  Nevermind their instructive stories, their quilt work of comedy and intrigue, their invitations to stitch yourself to their warmth.  A man only needs himself, for hardship tells its own stories.¹ When the land says No, there is knowledge.  When the land says Yes, there is dialogue.  When the land says Yes or No predictably, there is discourse.  Learning.  A way to make it through the world.

These hard men (and women) will occasionally remark on the vista. For some, when they say pretty things about the valley or the mountain, the gesture is perfunctory, a vexing inheritance from foolish Romantic forebears.  For others, the gesture is sincere, albeit extremely impoverished.  These hard types have a very difficult time with the idea of the lyric.  When a metaphor takes root, it is stunted.  When a musical phrase is a spark in their minds, it dims at once. It seems a lack of social experience limits their capacity for expressing beauty, which they, unlike others among them, at least appreciate.  In company, they might want to talk beyond small talk, to relate with a flourish something of absolutely no consequence.  They just don’t know where to begin.

The former wants to be a hero for enduring self-imposed loneliness, for eschewing all frivolity, for saying not a word—even on beauty.

The latter holds no hero fantasy.  The latter enjoys his solitude, and perceives beauty as solitude itself, but he recognizes an appreciation of beauty depends very much on its expression. When the forest smoke floats his way, it appeals to him, but he can’t give it a name.

                                                                                                                                           
¹ Maybe I learned it wrong but that’s what I learned from so many stillborn utterances that don’t need explaining.  A newcomer, a new idea . . . Pff.

 



Steven Ray Miller is from Colorado. A long time ago, he earned an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He and his super smart wife live in Milwaukee with their two dogs, Otis T. Pooch and Edgar Von HuffNPuff. Steve’s garden is small and sometimes successful.

 

How to Choose a Name

by a contributor

Asha Dore

1.
Make a list. Say them quiet, loud, laughing, angry. List the initials. Find patterns. Find problems. Find rhymes. Look at the history. Separate syllables. Leave them alive in your mouth, repeating until the sounds become song.

This is a gift.

2.
My mother did not leave anyone out, so I was given six names at birth. I learned them when I was five and repeated them to quiet my mind. Mantra of self. Mantra of fathers. Asha Dore Jennings Stewart Bradley Baisden. A-D-J-S-B-B, A-D-J-S-B-B.

Asha – life.
Dore – gold.
Jennings – maternal grandmother’s father.
Stewart – maternal grandfather’s father.
Bradley – paternal grandmother’s father.
Baisden – father.

When my daughters were born, my husband and I had to decide. Whose father, or none. My husband and I changed our names. He dropped his father’s name. I dropped my father’s name. The name my mother chose for me – Dore. The name my husband’s mother chose for herself, his stepfather’s name – Lickley. Lickley-Dore. My daughters are just Dore, just gold.

Begin.

3.
Can a single word be a person? One name. People I meet tell me the stories of mine. Asha. In Hindi, it means to expect, expectation. In Malayalam it means hope. In Swahili it means life. In Sanskrit it means desire. Asha is a Zorastrian principle that means something like the best truth.

Expect hope, life, desire the best truth.

4.
The history of a word is etymology. Gold going backward is gold, gold, gold, goud, gull. Simple history – colorbird, a traveling glow.

Mother was modor, modar, moder, mutter, mater, mote, mathir, matris and etymologists believe it all began with a baby saying ma.

Matris like matrix – something from which another is born, the main clause, the womb. What cloud keeps names along father when it is mothers naming mothers? The history of a name, a colorbird up from the womb flesh. Every mother is an origin. Desire the best truth.

5.
Three daughters: Silent bird, my first, stillborn. Rough music of the second born alive and wild.
Retched breath of the third, born on the day my first was due four years later, living.

Ofelia, the quiet one. Help her, innocence gone mad. Asleep in water. Death before birth.

Leisl, the loud, the living. The Sound of Music. Music of the name. Lees-elle. Lithe as a lion on my tongue. Music of the body, music of the girl.

Margot the soft, strong. Pearl of my flesh, the one who waited. I am shell, she is soul. Soft glow. Margot.

6.
When I write, which words should shape me? Asha Baisden? Asha Dore? Just Asha? Should I name myself, act as my own child, or remain, caught in the matrix of the named: Still mother’s. Still father’s. Still a body fresh to the storm. Still a child unwrapping.


Asha Dore’s essays and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Sweet, Stirring, theNewerYork, The Rumpus, and Best of the Net. Asha lives in Oregon with her husband and two daughters where she is working on a novel about a hurricane.

Dear Ms. Bradigan

by a contributor

Rebecca Schwab

Dear Ms. Bradigan,

It’s not that your efforts went unnoticed—the “private” journal only you would read, the soulful “Are-you-okays,” the invitations to visit the school counselor.

It’s that I was ten, or not quite, and my mother had just died, and I felt flayed open, peeled flesh exposed to stinging wind, and even before that, before I was half-orphaned, I was an introverted child.

When you insisted I see the counselor—because swallowed sadness hurts, you said—I talked about my yellow parakeet, who would later get cancer and be put to sleep by my older brother with a pillowcase and an exhaust pipe, which is not at all how my mother died, and for which I was at least prepared, though I loved the bird too, a little, which is why when that tumor grew on his face and he could no longer eat, I said “Do it” without stuttering or regretting the words.

I did not talk to the counselor about the parakeet as a substitute mother, or of you as a substitute mother, or whatever you had hoped I’d say. I did not call myself the parakeet’s mother, or it my baby, because, Ms. Bradigan, it was a parakeet, and because I didn’t understand, I could not measure, I’d not yet tossed a stone into the yawning black hole my dead mother left; I did not know that for the rest of my life I would throw parakeets and miniskirts and seven-dollar bottles of wine into it, never to hear anything bounce off a damp-sounding rock face or hit hard on a silty bottom.

I was not ungrateful then because I didn’t understand gratitude, but would not have thanked you if I did, or not sincerely, because sometimes when you see a potato bug curled into a ball you should just leave it there, let it take comfort in its protective roundness, or, if you must interfere, Ms. Bradigan, pull a curtain of lush green grass away from a stone step and drop the gray ball into the deep, loamy recess where it will be safe from crushing boot heels and predators’ beaks and too many questions about its feelings, which, at that point, Ms. Bradigan, it had not known how to articulate.

All my sincerity,
Rebecca Schwab


Rebecca Schwab writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her work has appeared in Fringe and The Future Fire, and is forthcoming in Brevity and Slipstream. She serves as acquisitions editor for Leapfrog Press and Crossborder: A Journal of Fiction (Leapfrog Press and Guernica Editions, Canada); teaches creative writing at SUNY Fredonia; and contributes regularly to The Observer.