I Don’t Expect You to Believe Me – Flash Fiction by Cheryl Caesar

The Heroines Among Us

Cheryl Caesar builds an intriguing mash-up of fiction and non-fiction in this flash fantasy fiction piece! Read below to see her creative interview about the heroine she admires: Greta Thunberg.


I Don’t Expect You to Believe Me

Greta: Thanks for doing the interview, anyway, on such short notice. 

I don’t want to do Zoom or Google Hangout. Staring at faces on the screen creeps me out. And I want to have time to think. What happened is really strange, and I want to express it as clearly and logically as possible. You can text me your questions. 

The last one I gave was a podcast, with New Scientist, at the end of March. I wanted to remind people that we have to keep saving the planet while we save ourselves from COVID-19. All the headlines focused on my dad and me probably having had the virus, and the “herd immunity” thing here in Sweden. That’s not what I wanted to talk about. I hope this time you’ll concentrate on what’s important.

OK. Last night two strange girls came to see me in my room. I mean, I had never met them and they didn’t seem like anyone from Sweden or England or the U.S. or anywhere I’ve been.

One was wearing a white robe that was draped and tied. And one had a tunic kind of thing, and leggings and short boots. She had something on her head like a kerchief. I don’t know much about fashion.

We used Siri Translate. It’s not very precise. It said the first one was called Sandy and the other was Jeannie. Some of the words I used didn’t seem to have equivalents for them. When I said “science,” Sandy heard it as “sophia” and Jeannie as “knowledge.” It made it hard to understand each other. 

I have never had visions or hallucinations. I have Asperger’s, which is not a disease. And when I was younger I was not depressed. I was sad, which is a logical reaction to the destruction of the planet. That’s why I stopped talking.

The same thing happened to them, too. That’s what they wanted to tell me. The Trojans said Sandy was crazy when she warned them about the wooden horse. She grabbed an axe and a torch and ran to show them, but they tackled her and threw them away. They called Jeannie insane too, and they’re still doing it. I looked it up on the internet this morning, and people are saying she was schizophrenic, or having seizures, when she heard St. Michael and St. Catherine and St. Margaret. I don’t know – this is hard for me too. I believe in science, not saints. But I could see that she wasn’t schizophrenic. And she definitely wasn’t having a seizure.

They called her “unmaidenly” too – why is it always about sex, and why do old men always know what girls should be like?  Sebastien Gorka called me “thunder thighs” – have you looked at him lately? That’s what they said about Jeannie, for wearing a man’s military uniform. She told them she had to keep it on at night so as not to be raped. Her father just wanted to marry her off. And Sandy said when Troy fell, she hid in the temple and Ajax raped her, and she was given as a pallake, a concubine, to King Agamemnon. We’re sexless and we’re too sexy. We can’t win if we play by their rules.

They said they were glad to leave this planet, at the end. They were both murdered, and Jeannie was burned to death. But they come back every now and then. The way they described it, it’s like a long plane journey. You’re so tired of waiting and carrying your luggage around that you’re glad to get on the plane. But then after a few hours in the air, you’re bored and cramped and you want off again. That’s how I remember it, anyway. I don’t take planes anymore, and I don’t let my parents take them either. Anyway, they don’t want to see this planet destroyed. They said it’s not time yet. And they’re not ready to spend eternity in the air.

Sandy said that after hundreds of years, she sometimes imagined the Trojans trapped in the horse, smothering in the heat. She and Jeannie imagined the 7 billion on the planet today, all stifled and burned alive, and had pity for them.

No, they were not very encouraging. They said I would probably have to die too, before people would start listening to me. But I should do it anyway, because only the young have the courage for it. “Don’t trust anyone over thirty”: that’s a saying my parents remember – isn’t that funny?

What kind of evidence do you want? I gave each of them a pair of my track pants – they thought they were really comfortable and protective. Well, you can ask my mom. She’ll tell you that the pants are gone. They didn’t want me to take a photo. They said I had to have faith – faith in my own experience. Well, isn’t that positivism and science? If I can believe it, why can’t you?

The day after this interview was completed, the journalist called me and said she was receiving death threats if she went ahead and published it. So I’m posting my answers here on my Facebook page, without her name or her questions. Though I don’t really expect you to believe me. Greta


Author:

Cheryl Caesar lived in Paris, Tuscany and Sligo for 25 years; she earned her doctorate in comparative literature at the Sorbonne and taught literature and phonetics. She now teaches writing at Michigan State University. She gives poetry readings locally and serves on the board of the Lansing Poetry Club. Last year she published over a hundred poems in the U.S., Germany, India, Bangladesh, Yemen and Zimbabwe, and won third prize in the Singapore Poetry Contest for her poem on global warming.  Her chapbook Flatman: Poems of Protest in the Trump Era is now available from Amazon.

Follow:

Facebook page: Cheryl Caesar Author
Website: http://caesarc.msu.domains/

2004 by Melissa St. Pierre

The Heroines Among Us

Melissa St. Pierre’s unfeigned love and appreciation of her mother will make you want to go hug your own mom tight! Come read their journey as mother and daughter through trying times and the unceasing dedication that gave them strength.


2004  

Melissa St. Pierre 

The Notebook was the most popular film of the year. Usher had a hit with “YEAH”.  Facebook was founded, and Sprint landed on Mars. 2004 was an interesting year, but  for me, I vividly remember the last month and a half. I turned eighteen in 2003, legally  making me an adult, but I didn’t become one until a year later.  

I was nineteen and in the midst of my first semester of my second year of college. I  knew my major, I worked multiple jobs, and I had a plan. But what does anyone  know at nineteen?  

My mom. She knew at nineteen.  

By the time she was nineteen, she had already lived on her own, was serving in the  United States Army, and had been married to my dad for a year.  

At nineteen, I lived with my parents. I worked part-time at the mall, and I could cook  macaroni and cheese from a box. I was nowhere near as educated or savvy as my  mom. She was everything that I wanted to be when I “grew up”.  

My mom stands at approximately 5’3. Some days she’s shorter than I am and other  days she is taller. She has naturally red hair and beautiful green eyes, making her a  leprechaun in all of the best ways.  

She is witty and charming, could sell snow to a sled dog, and she enjoys a good pun.  My mom appreciates good shoes and rides motorcycles. She is also the most  photogenic person that I know. She has also been a breast cancer survivor for  eleven years.  

My mom, my template for how to live, was diagnosed with breast cancer in  November, 2004. When I was nineteen years old.  

I have tried many times to remember the events leading up to my mom telling me “I  have breast cancer”. I think she told me over the phone, but I am not sure about that  either. She was unceremoniously informed of her diagnosis over the phone while she  was at work, so I might be putting myself in her position. Her doctor lacked a courtesy  that should be common to anyone working in medicine.  

The memory I have regarding my initial reaction is sliding down the wall between my  family home’s kitchen and the living room. I don’t know if I said anything out loud, but I  repeated, “no, no, no” over and over in my mind. I pounded my fists on the floor and  screamed. I was not ready to lose my mom and begged God, Mother Earth, the 

universe, every spiritual, non-corporeal being I could think of.  

At nineteen, cancer happened to other people. It was a thing that took the lives of  fictional characters in books or movies. I could reanimate them with the power of  flipping the book over or pushing rewind. 

We had a family meeting: my mom, dad, and me. Our brand and our band of Three  Musketeers. My mom’s outlook was always that could, and would, beat cancer.  

“I got this.” She said confidently. “We are a family, and we are going to get through  this.” My mom always reminded me, and still does, that we are family and families  can do anything.  

My mom’s cancer was stage one. She was diagnosed with intraductal carcinoma in-stu,  which meant that cancer had invaded her milk ducts. She was quickly scheduled for  surgery, and December 27 was the date. She elected to go with a double mastectomy,  although cancer was only present on one side. A general surgeon would perform the  mastectomy, and a plastic surgeon would reshape a stomach muscle back into breasts.  My mom would look “normal” coming out of surgery, just as she had going in. The  surgery alone would take up to twelve hours, maybe more if any complications came up  in the operating room. My parents made arrangements for me to handle finances for  our family in case of an emergency. I was added onto my mom and dad’s checking  account and named an authorized user on their only credit card. “  

I am sure that I had thoughts about this at the time, and they were likely a mix of “oh  my GOD! This cannot be happening” and “I can’t feel anything right now.” But, being  responsible, and acting like a grown up were talents that I had developed early in life.  

I’d been responsible since I could understand what the word meant. By all accounts,  I was a “picture perfect” teenager. So these added responsibilities were  manageable. I was more than trustworthy.  

The time between making plans and the date of surgery is blurry, but I remember being  disappointed in my extended family. This is a theme that would continue. I have two  cousins, both from my dad’s brother’s first marriage. Their mom passed away in  December, 2004. As sad as that was for them, I didn’t know their mom. She was  married to my uncle before I was born. My cousin “Curtis”, the younger of the two boys,  asked my dad to be a pallbearer at his mom’s funeral. I have a vision of him getting  perturbed with my dad when he explained that he couldn’t. My mom’s surgery and his  mom’s funeral were on the same day. Curtis’ attitude toward my dad was that of  disdain. He appeared to have a cavalier attitude about my mom, which for me, solidified  him being forever called “my asshole cousin.” Thank God being an asshole isn’t 

genetic.  

The rest of December ticked by slowly, and I hated everything. I hated Christmas  music. All the cheer. All the happiness. All the good tidings. I could have thrown them  all into a trash can and set it on fire. This was uncharacteristic of me. I was the girl that  bought several boxes of Christmas cards, with 50 cards per box, because I gave one  to every person I knew. I started decorating and Christmas shopping in October. I  could listen to Christmas music in July.  

I publicly cried once. It was at school. I’d just finished Linguistics 181: Development  and Change of the English Language. I was in love with the class and LIN 181 was  one of my first classes of the day. The morning I cried, all it took was for one peer to  

tell me to have a good weekend. I muttered an unenthusiastic “you too”. Then, I cried.  I am not a silent crier either. I show every emotion I have, and poker is not my game.  

I went to my “happy place”, a study nook that I claimed for myself on the campus  library’s fourth floor. I sat down and gave myself a pep talk. “You cannot act like this.  You cannot stop being you. Because mom needs you. She NEEDS you. The real you.”  And after I completed this conversation with myself, I picked myself up the best I could,  by what was left of my bootstraps. My mom was so sincere in her belief that she would  be fine, and I needed to be as well. Fear, as it turns out, is a sneaky little bitch. But she  is also easily defeated.  

After my pep talk, I did my best to replace fear with an eagerness. Hope weighs more  than fear and crushes it in rock/paper/scissors every time. I made my mom feel better  both before surgery and after by telling her about the zany things that happened at my  

stupid retail job, about my classes, or life in general. We looked forward to resuming  our lunches together, shopping days, and movie nights.  

On December 27, 2004, my mom had the surgery to rid my family of breast cancer. Her  surgery took over twelve hours. Every few seconds, my dad and I looked anxiously at  the magical double doors, waiting for her doctors.  

My dad and I had each other to lean on. While we had family members present in  the waiting room, in the end, it came down to him and me. As it always did, it was  the Three Musketeers.  

Five days. My mom stayed in the hospital for five days. Every morning, my dad and I  got up, got dressed, and we went to sit with my mom. We stayed all day. Dining on  cafeteria food and stale pop. It was delicious because we were together. Even if my  mom slept, dad watched television, and I read or wrote in my journal.  

And on New Year’s Eve 2004, on an uncharacteristically warm, 60 degree day in 

Michigan, we brought her home. Cancer free.  

She couldn’t leave the house for a few weeks, so I had to deny entry to well-wishing  and well- meaning friends and family. Only my dad and I were allowed entry. My mom  began begging me to take her into Oxford to get carry out from our favorite family style  restaurant, The Nugget. “I’ll be good Tut, I won’t get out of the car.” Tut is my nickname  from her, and how could I resist? I couldn’t deny taking my mom out for a change of scenery.  

After surgery, my mom received an outpouring of love and support. It was nice to see  her get cards and flowers from her friends, coworkers, and family members. But I  discovered that other people’s well wishes soon died off, and very few people asked  about my dad and me, and the people that did weren’t necessarily our family  members.  

My grandparents left for Florida the day after my mom’s surgery. They didn’t even wait  to make sure she made it home safely. I guess flea markets and cheap campgrounds  were more important than their son and only granddaughter. My dad’s aunt brought  dinners to us a few times. I think it was out of guilt for being snide and making snarky  comments about my mom and dad over the years. I’ve never forgiven her for calling  them both “fat” once.  

My dad’s cousin wrote a card and said that if we needed anything to call, but I think  those words were more for her than for us.  

My uncle did not call once. My aunt, my dad’s only sister, may have called the house  once or twice. But she was “too busy” to come to her own grandmother’s funeral, so  I didn’t expect much.  

I was never close to my extended family, my dad’s aunts, uncles, and their children.  Now I know why. They don’t show up. They talk a big talk but their actions don’t match  their words, and for someone like me, words mean everything.  

When I was two, my mom enrolled me in Tumblebees, which was an enrichment  program for kids in Oxford before they were old enough for preschool. She met another  mom, and she and Paula became friends quickly. Paula called me multiple times to ask  how I was doing, and again, she asked about my dad.  

The people that showed up for us and remained there were people that my mom  worked with. She’s worked at the same place since I was seven years old. Her boss  was the one that called me between classes to ask how my mom was, but more 

importantly, she asked about my dad. It mattered to me that people cared about him.  My dad is such a good man. He’s immeasurably kind, and when people treat him  poorly, they are voted off of my island.  

When I was nineteen, I learned that my mom will always be right. She will always  know more than I do, and her unwavering faith that everything would be okay turned  out to be true. A routine mammogram caught her cancer two years before a lump  would have formed, and she didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation.  

A person can survive breast cancer, but a family beats it. My family. I was surprised at  my ability to become a stronger version of myself. All along, my mom was Wonder  Woman. Somehow she had faith that she would be fine, and she showed me how to be  strong and how to believe as well. I saw my family as fallible and mortality was  something that was no longer fiction. I saw people that like to claim my mom, dad, and I  as family, but they only treated us as such when it was convenient and to make them  feel better about themselves. I saw excuses, and I heard many “reasons” why people  couldn’t, or didn’t, come around. I saw many things, but what I actually saw was myself  becoming an adult. And I saw my definition of family change.  

Going on sixteen full years later, I am a thirty-five year old woman. My mom and I have  done the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk two times, and she did it once on  her own. We have also walked 5K’s for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. We still  have lunch dates, shopping days, and movie nights. She still rides motorcycles and is  looking forward to a golden retirement with my dad in the near future.  

I am grateful that my family did beat breast cancer. I have my mom and so many  others don’t have their moms, sisters, aunts, girlfriends, and grandmothers. I am lucky  to have my template for how to live, and now I can tease her a little. “Remember the  time you begged me to take you to the Nugget? I’ll be good Tut.”


Melissa St. Pierre teaches writing and rhetoric at Oakland University in Michigan. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Blue Nib, Panoply, 45 Women’s Literary Journal, Valiant Scribe, and Elizabeth River Press Literary Anthology. St.Pierre has also performed her work in Listen to Your Mother, a literary nonfiction storytelling showcase. When she’s not writing, she enjoys playing with her daughter, misplacing things, creating construction paper art, and laughing up a storm.

John Sheirer – Online Open Mic

Risk Management

The first time Bob saw the bear cub at the office was when he opened the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. The bear cub was lying on its back among the folds of a quilted blanket like an infant in a crib, looking up at him with cheerful brown eyes. The bear cub wiggled its meaty little paws at him.

“Whoa,” Bob said, quickly shutting the drawer.

Bob immediately forgot why he had opened the file cabinet. Was he getting something out or putting something in? He had no idea. By the time he walked back to his desk and sat down, he was beginning to talk himself out of the idea that a bear cub was occupying a bottom file drawer in the document storage room at his nondescript place of employment, which happened to be an insurance company specializing in fire and flood policies.

“Whatcha doin’ there, Bob?” Cindy asked from her desk next to Bob’s. She wrote the policies. Bob kept track of them. They’d been a work team for nearly a decade.

“I think I need to get a file,” Bob said.

“Okey-dokey, if you think so,” Cindy replied, her skilled fingers blurring over the computer keys.

Bob walked slowly back to document storage and stood before the file cabinet again. He studied the bottom drawer, which seemed to be moving in and out a fraction of an inch every few seconds, almost as if it were breathing. The drawer was labeled, “L – R.” Bob couldn’t think of a word for “bear cub” that started with L, M, N, O, P, Q, or R. Bob had always believed that things belonged in their appropriate places.

Bob sighed. “What the hell,” he whispered as he opened the drawer. Sure enough, the bear cub was still there, still wiggling its big bear cub toes and looking at him with what he could only interpret as affection. The bear cub was cute, no doubt, but Bob wasn’t ready to return its affection just yet. Bob knew that even cute things could be dangerous. Bob had seen many situations where being cute could be used as an excellent disguise.

Bob looked around the document storage room. He was alone with the bear cub. His twelve coworkers were in the main office only ten steps through the doorway. He couldn’t very well call out, “Hey, who left the bear cub in the file cabinet?” This wasn’t a moldy sandwich in the office mini-fridge.

Bob wasn’t angry about the bear cub. He wasn’t even quite afraid of the bear cub. The best word to describe the feelings the bear cub brought up in Bob was suspicion. He was suspicious of this bear cub. He questioned its bear cub purpose and its bear cub motives and even its bear cub existence. What right did this bear cub have to interrupt his workday? It was almost lunch, and he didn’t want to waste his lunch half-hour dealing with some random bear cub.

Bob got down on one knee suspiciously. Cautiously would also be an accurate term. This was a wild animal, after all. What if its mother happened to be in another drawer somewhere close by? Mama bears were most dangerous when someone got between them and their bear cub. Bob had read that on the internet.

The bear cub watched Bob’s kneeling approach. It seemed pleased to have company after being alone in the drawer for … for how long? Bob didn’t remember the last time he had opened this particular drawer, and he was the one who did most of the filing.

The bear cub gurgled deep in its little bear cub throat, almost as if it were trying to imitate a grown bear’s roar but didn’t know how yet. Bob had to admit that the attempted roar was the cutest thing the bear cub had done so far, but he still wasn’t ready to give the bear cub the benefit of the doubt.

“Hey, Cindy?” Bob called out, just loud enough for Cindy but not the rest of the office drones to hear. “You got a second? Something to show you back here.”

The small but insistent sound of Cindy’s fingers striking the keys stopped. “Coming,” she called out. Cindy’s heels clicked on the tile floor, and the alert little bear cub craned its neck a bit to look around Bob for the source of the sound.

Bob could see Cindy’s shadow move across the floor and touch the bear cub. She put a hand on Bob’s shoulder.

“Oh,” she said. “You found Little Honey!”

“Little Honey?” Bob asked.

“Yeah,” Cindy said. “That’s what I call him.”

Bob craned his neck to look up at Cindy. The overhead light haloed her face. Her husband was some kind of a teacher who often stopped in just to give her a random rose and a quick kiss. She was pretty, Bob knew, in a grown-up girl-next-door-at-the-next-desk kind of way. But at that moment, backlit by humming fluorescents, she looked like a literal angel right out of an art book that featured nothing but angels. Or maybe a television show about angels Bob had once seen as a child. The point is, she was glowing.

“Seriously?” Bob asked. “Little Honey Bear?”

“It’s a good name for him, don’t you think?” Cindy said, her words floating down to Bob as if from heaven.

Bob looked back at the bear cub. Little after-images from Cindy’s angel light danced around the bear cub in Bob’s field of vision. He had to admit that Little Honey Bear was a good name for the furry creature in the file drawer.

Bob started to stand, not the easiest maneuver considering his bad knee. Cindy grasped his arm and helped him up. Her grip was stronger than he would have expected. Once he was upright, Cindy kept her hand wrapped around his arm. Bob found her grip reassuring.

“How long has he been here?” Bob asked.

“Not long,” Cindy replied. “A few years.”

“A few years?” Bob marveled. “I file things here ten times a day. How have I missed seeing him?”

“Well,” Cindy explained, “he moves from drawer to drawer now and then. And not everyone can see Little Honey right away. Sometimes it takes a few tries.”

The two of them looked down at Little Honey like parents watching their first-born child.

“Who else knows about him?” Bob asked.

“Janice in HR. Phil the janitor. And LaDonna in marketing,” Cindy said. “You now Arthur from the bank? Comes for planning sessions every few months? It took him a few tries, just like you. He can be really serious sometimes, but Little Honey got him to open up a bit, relax, be himself.”

“Really?” Bob asked. “Arthur from the bank can see a bear cub in our file drawer? He seems so … sensible.”

“Yep. Last month, he stopped in just to see Little Honey with his wife and daughter,” Cindy said. “They could all see him. A family thing.”

“Arthur from the bank …” Bob repeated, mystified.

Cindy continued: “And, of course, my husband Ted can see him. Saw him the very first time I showed him. Bob even calls me his ‘little honey bear’ sometimes.”

Cindy blushed slightly. Bob stared at her.

“Here’s one that will tickle you,” Cindy mused. “My sister has a little cute little dog named Ruby. A Border Terrier. Great breed. She visited with Ruby one day last month, and that little dog went right for the file cabinet and scratched until we opened the drawer. She and Little Honey took to each other like they’d been family forever. Ruby sniffed and nuzzled and practically jumped into the drawer with that bear cub. Then she looked at us as proud as can be, like she was showing off her own big, hairy puppy. Damnedest thing I ever saw.”

“I just don’t know what to think of all of this,” Bob said.

“That’s how I felt at first, too. But now you can see Little Honey,” Cindy said. “which makes me happy.”

“Some people can’t see him?” Bob asked.

“Funny thing,” Cindy replied. “The smokers can’t see him. Dennis in IT. Eric the UPS guy. Rhonda from billing saw him the day after she quit and put on that big nicotine patch. Hasn’t taken a puff since she saw Little Honey that day.”

Bob found the information about smokers as baffling as the basic fact that Little Honey was there. But he was secretly pleased to know that the bear cub hid himself that way. Bob’s parents had died from smoking, and his last serious relationship before meeting his wife ended in large part because the woman had smoked and hid it from her children. If Bob really stopped to consider it, he might even say that his dislike of smoking was part of the reason he got into the insurance business—although he’d probably have a hard time explaining how.

“Why is Little Honey here?” Bob asked, now that he was coming to grips with the fact that Little Honey was really there and not the product of more imagination than he thought he possessed.

“No one really knows for sure, but I have a theory,” Cindy said. “I think he’s here to make us feel better about the world. It’s tough sometimes, what with work and getting old and dying and crazy people running the country. But Little Honey can take us away from that for a few moments each day. That’s his gift to us.”

Bob shook his head. He was just as amazed by what Cindy was saying as he was by the idea that there was a bear cub named Little Honey in the bottom file drawer.

The two coworkers watched the bear cub for a while, and then Cindy said, “Wait here a second.” She released her friendly grip on his arm and went to a cupboard on the far wall. From her tiptoes, she reached into the back corner of an upper shelf. She found a zip-lock bag and extracted something that looked like a doggie biscuit. As she put the biscuit in Bob’s hand and closed his fingers around it, Little Honey watched the exchange with intense interest.

“If Little Honey lets you give him a treat, he’ll be your friend,” Cindy said to Bob. Then her voice lowered to a whisper. “But if he bites you, you’ll never see him again and forget you ever knew about him in the first place.”

“Does he bite many people?” Bob asked.

“Remember that guy, Dave? He came with Arthur from the bank that one time?” Cindy asked.

“Vaguely,” Bob replied. “Kind of a jerk.”

“Now you know why he never came back,” Cindy said.

“Oh,” Bob said.

The bear cub’s eyes moved from Bob’s treat-holding hand to his face and back again. Bob drew in a deep breath and held it as he let the treat slip from his palm to a loose grip between his thumb and fingertip. Little Honey’s deep, dark eyes widened. Did he want to eat the treat? Or did he want to eat Bob’s arm? Bob had no way to know for sure.

Bob, (Robert James Mann, Jr.)—age fifty-one, married for twenty years, two teenaged kids, homeowner, the beginning of a bald spot, mows his own lawn, drives a six-year-old Honda Civic, B.S. in Business with a minor in Accounting and twelve credits toward an MBA he’ll never finish—had never been a man prone to fantasy. He filed documents by day and spent quiet evenings with his family. He slept soundly and usually didn’t remember his dreams. On weekends, he enjoyed quiet drives with his wife or going to the kids’ sports events where he cheered earnestly at half volume.

Bob wasn’t the kind of guy who took risks. But he slowly lowered the treat toward Little Honey, bending slightly at the waist, smiling, and cooing, “niiiiice bear, gooood bear,” ready for whatever might happen next.


Artist:

Bio: John Sheirer (pronounced “shy-er”) lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 27 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). He writes a monthly column on current events for his hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and his books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. His most recent books are a flash fiction collection, Too Wild, and a novella thriller, Uncorrected

Follow This Artist:

http://www.JohnSheirer.com

The Art of Depression: Mark Blickley

Artist:

Mark Blickley

Mark Blickley is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center. He is the author of Sacred Misfits (Red Hen Press), Weathered Reports: Trump Surrogate Quotes from the Underground (Moira Books) and the just published text based art book, Dream Streams (Clare Songbirds Publishing House). His video, Widow’s Peek, was selected to the 2018 International Experimental Film and Video Festival in Bilbao, Spain. He is a 2018 Audie Award Finalist for his contribution to the original audio book, Nevertheless We Persisted.

About the Piece:

A memoir that chronicles  his strange epiphany that occurred when he was a returning warrior.

“Lying the Truth”

One of the happiest days of my life occurred during the Winter of 1973. I was on military leave from the Air Force and it’s an understatement to say that I needed much more than a three-week vacation. I was on the verge, or probably more accurately, in the midst of a nervous breakdown.

            I’d pulled a tour of Vietnam. The past few months I had been finishing out my enlistment at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. The war was a sour experience, but what deepened my depression and anxiety was the peacetime service. After the fear and excitement and brotherhood of combat, I was deposited on a base full of non-combatants pretending to be hard-ass military men.

            I had blocked in aircraft half-naked on the flight line while enemy rockets fell around me. At Charleston AFB if a button wasn’t mated with a hole or a boot lacked a glossy polish, or God forbid, a hair was touching my ear, I’d be jumped on like I’d just set fire to the American flag. Instead of support and relief, we Vets received hostility and harassment for our lack of military bearing. Glowing write-ups while under fire met nothing; a real man didn’t replace his government issue boxer shorts with Fruit of the Loom jockey briefs.

            My unhappiness ripened into confusion and envy.

Everyone else seemed to be adjusted or adjusting. Everyone else seemed to be happy. My sadness frightened me. I felt as if I was shut out of some universal secret. I truly believed that there was some kind of personal information that hadn’t been passed on to me. Even the drugs I was consuming at the time were not agents of euphoria. Instead of offering a numbing comfort they simply increased my awareness of how alienated and needy I had become.

            My behavior had become so erratic that my First Sergeant “strongly suggested” I take an immediate leave and straighten myself up. My last words to him before I left his office were the same words I was asking everyone I met, stranger or acquaintance.

            “Are you happy?” I asked.

            My First Sergeant eyed me with suspicion. I was totally sincere. “Yeah, I’m happy,” he muttered.

            “Why? Can you tell me why?” I pleaded.

            He cleared his throat and said, “Because I’m getting rid of your ass for a few weeks, that’s why I’m happy.” He was being totally sincere too.

            Now this may seem a bit silly or naive, but I felt like the only way I could pull myself out of this debilitating funk was to try and understand how and why others could be so functional and contented. My opening question, “are you happy?” was always, and I mean always answered in the affirmative.

            The sources of all this happiness were quite varied. It could be a girlfriend, a job, a car, a good bottle of cognac, anything. The point is that no one told me they were unhappy. No one. My question didn’t give me any answers I could use as clues. It just made feel more depressed and estranged.

            During the course of my three week leave I visited my older sister who was working her way through college as a belly dancer. She was living somewhere Upstate New York Jamestown, I think. I met her at the club she was working and was given the keys to her apartment. She told me to just relax there until her performance ended; I’d be seeing her in a few hours.

            I remember being stretched out on her living room floor, smoking a joint, listening to an eight track of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition when I heard a knock on the door. I opened the door on a small, incredibly stacked young woman with a southern accent. I introduced myself to my sister’s neighbor. This sexy young woman, Becky, invited me to wait over at her apartment. I eagerly accepted. I could

tell by her friendly and aggressive behavior that she was

attracted to me. As I pulled my sister’s door shut behind me I could already feel my face smothered inside Becky’s perfumed cleavage.

            I wasn’t feeling too thrilled with life; I took comfort wherever I could find it.

            My hormonal heat flared as we entered her one room apartment. We sat on the couch facing the biggest framed photograph I’d ever seen.

            Actually it wasn’t a photo at all. It was a poster of a sleazy looking man of late middle age. This skinny poster boy had sparse, greased back hair and a kind of moustache popular in the thirties a thin pencil line of facial hair underlining his large nose. Beneath his grinning portrait, in bold letters, I read FRANK COLE, A&P MANAGER OF THE MONTH. The month was August, 1971. I admired Frank’s courage in exposing his dental work. Even though the photo was in black and white you could tell his teeth had to be green.

            The ornately framed poster dominated the tiny room. I fought back my laughter. I didn’t want to insult Becky’s father. I just wanted to bang his daughter.

            Well, Becky talked and talked and talked. What I mistook for her lust seemed to be a genuine affection for my sister

that she transferred to me. As soon as I realized this I

shifted from horny G.I. to soul-searching outcast.

            “Are you happy?” I asked Becky.

            Becky beamed and nodded.

            “Why?”

            Becky pointed to the Manager of the Month. “It’s because of Frankie. He’s the most wonderful man in the world.”

            I glanced over at the poster and it made me sick to think of that guy with this lovely, sweet girl. Becky was definitely on the sunny side of twenty-five.

            She launched into a description of Frankie Cole that was so loving and awe-inspired, by the time she finished her tribute to him his portrait started looking handsome to me too.

            When my sister arrived I gave Becky a goodnight peck on the cheek. I was more depressed than ever. It’s not that I begrudged Becky her joy, but even a guy like Frankie Cole was able to attain a state of happiness. And here I was, a twenty year old in wonderful shape with a full head of hair and nice set of teeth, feeling like the most miserable man on earth.

            The first words my sister said to me after we entered her apartment was that she hoped I hadn’t taken advantage of Becky because she was a really good person.

            Take advantage? What was she talking about? How could I take advantage of Becky? I never met anyone who was as much in love as was Becky. Who could possible hope to compete with August 1971’s A&P Manager of the Month, Frankie Cole?

            My sister shook her head. She told me that Becky had engaged in an affair with Frank Cole a couple of years ago when he was manager of the Produce department and she was a part-time grocery clerk. Frank was married and told the teenage Becky how horrible his wife was and how miserable his life had become. Frank arranged to have Becky transferred to Produce and they shared passion for about a year amongst the fruit and vegetation. During this time Frank would pacify Becky by promising to divorce his wife.

            Becky, feeling so sorry for her man, called Frank’s wife and demanded she set Frankie free from his house of torture. The next day Frank had Becky transferred out of Produce. He tried to end their relationship but Becky wouldn’t listen. She was a woman in love. After Becky began making weekly calls to Frank’s wife, he had Becky transferred out of his store and into an A&P some sixty miles away. He refused to see her.

            My sister informed me that Becky’s life now consisted entirely of working at the new A&P five days a week. On Becky’s two days off she’d drive over to her former supermarket and sit in her parked car for hours, watching her beloved through the store’s large windows. Frankie Cole had abandoned her, wouldn’t even look at her, but Becky would not and could not abandon the man she loved.

            My response to my sister’s version of Becky’s story was anger. Becky had lied to me! I was vulnerable and she lied to me! I had asked for help and she teased me with her broken fantasies of emotional well-being.

            That night the three of us went out to dinner at a local diner. My hostility towards Becky manifested itself by my total silence during the heavy, grease-laden meal. I observed her like a scientist waiting for a disastrous reaction in his laboratory.

Frank Cole’s name was never brought up. Becky was charming. And warm. And sweet. And funny. My anger melted into pity. By the time dessert arrived I had had a catharsis, along with a touch of gas.

            I realized that Becky and all the others I questioned hadn’t lied to me. Claiming they were happy and giving me their reasons for their happiness was an act of kindness and hope. I knew that Becky’s love crisis was every bit as intense as my military crisis, yet she was a model of grace under pressure. Her imagination had provided her with the ability to still experience pleasure despite the awesome burden of a crushing reality.

            If fantasy was allowing her to function at such a high level, well, I thought, God bless the human imagination and its ability to construct protective worlds of security and satisfaction.

That was the secret I was searching for. Like Becky, I had found it inside Frankie Cole’s imposing icon.

            Although the food from that diner dinner repeated itself throughout the night and into the early morning, it was the best meal I ever consumed. I learned to swallow my self-pity watching Becky that night.