Treehouse

online magazine for short, good writing

Category: Nonfiction

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.

On the Seventh Day: Losing Faith

by a contributor

Jacob Little

On Sundays, my father wakes up before light, lets the dog outside, and lays down on the floor to stretch out his aching, aging back. He reads the newspaper as he stretches, twisting and holding a position, grunting in discomfort inches from the words. He takes a walk under the dawning light and rehearses the sermon he’s prepared. Because he recites so much while walking, when he gives the actual sermon, he paces the stage, appearing unable to stop, powerless to contain this energy that has been building in him.

I recall debating Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale in a Monday morning class in undergrad. I listened quietly as my classmates argued whether Hermione was brought back to life. She waits in the wings the whole play―presumed dead, frozen in granite―until a master sculptor carves out her warm, blinking shape, and she steps forward to hold her long-lost daughter. But most of the class seemed to think she had been alive all along, simply hiding under the sculptor’s white sheet, still as stone. My suspicion was that Shakespeare had decided suddenly, halfway through, to make his tragedy into a comedy. So he put away the props he had planned— the blood-stained cloaks, the rusting daggers, the wines laced with poison. Then he invented the Oracle to be God, able to resurrect those long dead. It didn’t matter to me whether or not Hermione had been hiding. I only cared that in the story Shakespeare had started, Hermione would have been dead, would have stayed dead.

My dad used to walk me and my sister to the playground every Tuesday. One time I fell off a balancing bar. I don’t remember the drop or seeing the wound that would become scar. I only remember my father pulling me home in my rusting wagon. When I wrote about it years later, I omitted my sister’s presence because it required more work to fit her in. The shame of that decision has spilled over to the memory itself. Remorse still pricks me at the thought of that little red wagon when it is not trailed by my sister picking me dandelions to stop me crying.

I spoke with my father last Wednesday, and I talked about how hard it was to teach composition and write at the same time. He talked to me about writing sermons, explaining how his methods have changed over time. He told me how he had always loved to write for the page, to write work that stands up to intense scrutiny. But he said he couldn’t do that anymore. “I have to write for performance,” he said with something close to shame in his voice. “So now, if you read it silently, it’s childish.”

Once, I took a film class where we discussed the use of soundtrack. My professor showed a scene of Jaws and explained how the music enhanced the fear of that unseen threat. She then began showing that menacing fin over and over while mismatched songs played. It reminded me of when I ran the soundboard for Thursday night worship practices at church. I would listen intently through the headphones, push and pull the dials, and turn up the reverb on the less skilled singers. I would take what I could from their raw, competing voices and meld them together so anyone listening would believe that they were in harmony with one another.

My dad doesn’t go in to work on Fridays. He types his sermon on the dining room table, a fan whirring up into his decade-old laptop. One time, when he was done working on his sermon, he charged out to the backyard and began mowing from one side to the other, going over the same spots time and again. I remember him sitting down after with a glass of ice water, and looking out back through the kitchen window, surveying his work. It was just a mowed lawn, but he made it his metaphor.

On Saturday I wrote. I pulled out all the notebook scribbles from the week and I trimmed them or tossed them. I tore down my words and dissected them, examined the trunk, searching for scars. I read the same lines: once loud, once soft, once staring hard at the language, once with my eyes closed. I listened closely, trying to find a way to make it all sound like harmony when it was really nothing more than a childish outline, a regret, a carefully scripted deception.


Jacob Little is a writer of poetry, CNF, and screenplays. He is a second year MFA student at Minnesota State University. He teaches a freshman composition class and is managing editor of the Blue Earth Review. He also conducts weekly interviews with published authors on KMSU 89.7’s The Weekly Reader.

See Jacob’s list of 5 Things tomorrow in our ongoing contributors’ series.

Ode to Pablo Neruda

by a contributor

Meghan Flaherty

Dear Pablo Neruda,

They exhumed you on April 8th. Matilde will be furious. They cracked wide your crypt and jimmied out your casket, just like they did to Salvador Allende. There were reporters, television cameras, flashbulbs. And the sickly scent of death – real or imagined – in the nostrils of all present, lingering for weeks. Perhaps they’ll find that you were poisoned, correcting the myth you died of prostate cancer – that blocked old man’s disease.

Certainly in art you were not blocked. Truth is I hate you for being so prolific. As of 1968, your Obras Completas boasted 3,237 poems. Everybody translates you. Everybody buys the slim pink volume of your love poems. Men call you the Godfather of Love. I don’t even know why I am writing you. I’m not that big a fan. There are so many other poets – under-sung and under-read (and unexhumed) – trampled by your flat-foot stomping across the public heart.

In school, it was nice to have my nakedness compared to one of my hands (I feel more ladylike with you than with edward estlin, my hands being so much bigger than the rain’s). I’ve always wanted to be lisa, terrestre, mínima, redonda, transparente. You’re like the Billy Collins of Chile of your time – if he had had a dictator to cross, a civil war to wail about. You both are impure poets. You write of “flowers, wheat, and water” … “stained by food and shame” and “wrinkles, observations, dreams” … “beasts, blows, idylls” and et cetera. You both write with the “sentimentalism of another age, the pure imperfect fruit.”

(“moonlight, the swan at dusk, ‘my beloved’”)

My bad taste cometh before my fall.

But you persist. You hold the reader’s hand.

Your cronies say “we aren’t romantic soloists on this sky island of earth.” But if not that then what were you?

It’s not that you didn’t say anything. It’s that you said so much. You wrote an ode to everything. The darling of the lettered world.

I’m not excited by your words so much as comforted by them. They sound like poetry sounds to anyone in elementary school – bland and universally beautiful – trancelike – clichés cascading over river stones – subjectless – the language barriers broken down.

Animals and elements we do not need to see to touch.

You are all sex, pastoral love, shadowy fish, and butterflies of dreams. Breasts that smell of honeysuckle. And gunpowder and bells and docks and trees. Leather oceans and multiplied tomatoes rolling down to sea. It’s easy poetry. It flows now as it flowed from you. It’s background music, words to be incanted in the background.

Yet, dear nonetheless, melancólico varón varonil, was it all that simple? Did you not struggle? Did you not say you sometimes found yourself somewhere between shadow and space (sombra, espacio). Did you not labor just like everybody else to answer all those objects knocking, struggling to be named? To get that first green petal of an ode to show herself your sister?

You wrote a poem in just once sentence – as if running out of time (or space, or breath). You spoke of absent thirst for the invisible water, for wisps of sound to come out to your nascent ear, for Erato to come begging for lo profético in you. Your translators don’t seem to understand the title – Arte Poética – or that here, finally, this (and maybe also in your ode to la pereza) is where you confess to being just like every other writer grappling in the darkness (blankness) of the empty page. Maybe you didn’t fuss too much with words. But you surely wrassled images and sounds. You lassoed ideas from the ether, then fumbled to identify them. Just like everybody else.

You weren’t quite so hubristic as I thought. You let yourself be seen as a humiliated waiter, an old mirror, the smell of a house alone (not lonely) that’s been strewn with drunken guests and piles of clothes. You stayed up nights and let the wind whip through your chest and it was melancholy, violent.

You were Adam naming animals.
Making real from trembling abstract.

You were apportioned with that singular heart (or did you mean ‘unique,’ ‘unusual,’ ‘peculiar’? did you mean ‘endowed’?).

You were like a bell that’s gone a little hoarse. Your dreams were fatal too.

But, so wrote Jim Harrison, your poetry “always returns to earth.”

Always back to dust, enormous calabashes, plums in mouths.

Sometime late this summer, so will you.


Meghan Flaherty is an MFA Candidate at Columbia University in Nonfiction and Literary Translation. She writes memoir, translates poetry and prose from Spanish, and is currently working on a book-length personal history of Argentine tango. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Alchemy, PrintedColumbia: A Journal Of Literature and Art, The New Inquiry, and the Iowa Reviewhttp://meghanbeanflaherty.wordpress.com/