New non-fiction by Rachael Ikins
It was all my fault, the nervous breakdown, the tossed salad of diagnoses and medications that followed and left me a confused stumbling mess for ten years. My family made that clear to me by abandoning me to my elderly ailing husband “because he is a doctor,” and of course, he would know why I was so angry and knew what to do about it.
“We didn’t know what to do” was a later refrain. Furious at my behavior, my obesity and my drug-induced allegiance to the therapist who was treating me they raged at me. Rather than band together to reach out to my husband to help, they abandoned me. I was truly alone.
My husband had no idea what to do. He was a surgeon–act and cut–not a psychiatrist. All he knew was that the “treatment plan” was making me sicker and sicker as relatives got drunk at cocktail parties without us. Because some of the medications acted adversely on the parts of my brain that create inhibitions and control, I couldn’t stop spending money. I couldn’t stop eating. I was in a constant state of fight-or-flight, wanting to hit the road with my cat in a carrier running away from…something.
Instead, a new psychiatrist and the original therapist’s retirement resulted in my getting off the stew of drugs. I almost died. What I was left with was a combination of side effects and adverse reactions that the doctor had no experience with. My mind, however, was suddenly clear. I looked around me one day, and I sobbed. Memories long suppressed by chemicals flooded back.
I shambled stubbornly behind the vacuum cleaner to learn to walk again, and waved long chef’s knives around as I relearned to cook. Nutrition and the order of recipes, therapy for a healing brain.
My former sister-in-law said, “I told your brother that therapist is not doing your sister any favors.”
When my mother and I finally reunited, her comment, “Oh, they did you dirty.”
Did me dirty? They almost killed me. I had seizures and heart rhythm disruptions the night of that last dose and was unconscious as my husband lay beside me making a decision not to call an ambulance because, “They would’ve just put you back on all that shit. I knew you would make it.”
Six months later, the one cat I could not live without, the cat I’d wanted to run away with, died unexpectedly. I had insomnia. An hour of sleep a week was about it. She used to sleep with me and without her, the bed was a black hole. My only emotions were rage and grief. Truly I had much to feel that way about.
A year after my cat’s death, because my husband lied every time I asked him, “Are we going to lose our house? Are we going to lose our house?” I found myself alone in his investment counselor’s office where a busy-body assistant bustled out to tell me our money was gone. Her predatory grin and twinkling eyes kept me upright on the couch even though my vision went black for a minute.
When I stumbled to the car, I screamed so loudly my vocal cords were injured. Phillip’s unbelievable solution was to ask my mother for money. Within eight months we sold our house and lost the majority of the contents. We ended up in a small, poorly made camp halfway up the side of a mountain, a forty-five minute drive from where we began married life.
According to my family, all of this was my fault and my husband, the innocent victim. It is not self-pity or unwillingness to own my mistakes that I write this. It suited them to blame me. Only one person apologized years later and with the rest there is no relationship.
It’s a wonder how a thirty-five year old woman who wanted to get pregnant, was instead, drugged and used by a professional who planned to become the second “Sybil’s” shrink, did not die.
My life spiraled into a decade of darkness. At forty-five I “woke up” only to take two of the worst hits since my dad’s death, Nestlé’s loss and the house we were married in over twenty years ago. To be told by those who should have had an ounce of common sense, that I was responsible. Hurt, shame, anger set in. I would have given anything to go back in time, for just one person who said they loved me to have stood up for me.
The new house was surrounded by woods and fields. Since we’d lived in the city not far from the hospital complex when my husband was working, I had not been surrounded by wilderness like that of my childhood family camp for many decades.
It was a hard life. Not quite poor enough for food stamps, but poor enough to run out of food one March, I cut firewood from dead trees for heat. Raided piggy banks to pay for my husband’s heart medicine.
One bitter winter evening, I went to the barn for wood. As I grabbed some logs I thought, “I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
I ran into the trees and fell in the snow. I was so angry. So much had happened, life literally turned upside down, faster than my damaged nervous system could absorb it. I lay in the snow looking up at uncaring stars and thought, “Go ahead. Have your breakdown. Nobody gives a shit. No shrink, no relative. You have lives in the house that need you. So, get it over with and pick up that wood.”
My former therapist had a way of triggering anger in me. Then she’d tell me how awful my anger was. The more she abused me with chemicals and her training, the angrier I became, unable to defend myself, lost in a sea of drug interactions. This moment in the snow, after all that had happened, was the first time I realized: anger is not bad—mine was justified. Anger also is a flame that sustains. I got up and went in to stoke the stove.
The next day our nearest neighbor’s son was going to install a new door for us. I remember how cold the day was. He let me help with the nail gun, but my bare fingers quickly numbed. The next morning he finished which brings me to this moment:
“Lunch is ready.” Phillip’s voice floats from below me. The back door slams behind him. I stare into the horizontal snow pecking at my face. Last night ice dammed on the flat living room roof. A lagoon blossomed as heat leaked through. Water poured in at 10:00 p.m. I am on the roof, hammer in hand to pound the ice.
I’ve been hammering awhile now: my shoulders cramp, right hand aches with lactic acid buildup. Each time the head of the tool connects with the thick ice, pain jolts up into my shoulder, neck and head.
Hot and sweaty despite the weather. A two inch channel is all I’ve created, but enough for water to sluice to the ground. If only it would stop snowing. Phillip worries I will fall.
I imagine my relatives clustered around my casket. Their polite murmurs of, “What a shame it was, she never amounted to anything. That silly poetry stuff.”
I don’t disown my part in our circumstance, but I did not deserve that abuse. My fantasy encourages me to be careful if only for spite.
I move crab-wise across the ice, my half-frozen sweatpants chafe my skin. Only a tee-shirt on top, sopping with sweat and melting snow. I scrub snow out of my eyes with my right fist, hammer stuck to my hand. I roll onto my belly, feel for the ladder with numb feet.
I ease down one rung at a time. My husband puts his arm around me as we head for the back door. I’m glad we’ve just replaced the old one.
The knob won’t turn. Maybe my hand is just weak. No, it is locked.
“Phillip, you have the key?”
He pats his cotton shirt pockets and his jeans.
“No. I forgot.”
My husband has had 3 heart attacks, stents and quadruple bypass. He is slender and frail. It didn’t occur to him to prop the door, that it would automatically lock.
My first thought: 20 degrees out, a northwest wind blasting horizontal snow, have to get him inside. I race to the barn, our car. Locked, too. Keys, cell phone in kitchen.
We can see our breath in the dimness of the barn.
“I’m going to have to go for help.”
“Look inside these boxes, maybe there is an old jacket or something.”
I root through the packing boxes piled there from last September’s move. Paper, pots, no jackets, nothing but a ripped, stained beach towel. He insists I take it.
“Stay in here.” He shivers in his cotton shirtsleeves.
I trudge down the driveway towel around my shoulders. I can barely. I slip and fall, skin my elbows raw. I sob out loud, “FUCK!” drag myself out of the drift as I yank the damp towel on my shoulders. If I am bleeding, I can’t feel it. I hate everyone in this moment.
Should I go up the hill or down? The nearest neighbor lives over a quarter of a mile away. I head uphill into the blizzard. Every third step I slide, my sneakers full of slush. Frozen hair icicles clink against my glasses, lenses so covered I can’t see much. I wonder if I will die of exposure. Fuck that. I have to save Phillip.
I pray no snow plow hurtles out of the squall. No jump to safety; drop-off on one side of the road, a head-high drift on the other.
A surge of anger heats my middle. Really, God?
Just then I think I hear the sound of an engine over the howling wind. I stand still.
Yeah, it is a vehicle. I step out onto where I think the crown of the road is, snow up to my thighs. Behind me, woods. Ahead, state forest.
A dirty white Jeep coalesces from a cloud. Oh. It’s the letter carrier! Shit! She acts like she doesn’t see me. I step right in front of her. I look bizarre, a ghost in a blue and green beach towel. She grinds to a halt.
I lean in a window.
“We’re locked out of our house. My husband has heart disease. He’ ll die. Can you help us?” I point down the road.
She digs her cell phone out of a pile of mail in a box on the passenger floor. My heart leaps. Our eyes meet as she punches 911. Her eyes widen.
“Battery’s dead. I’m so sorry!”
Oh. I drop my head. “Thanks.”
I face the wind. “It’s you or me, fucker.” The storm swallows the sound of her engine in seconds. The wind whistles, tugs away my body heat. Our closest neighbor lives on the left side of the road. Must be halfway.
Bowing my head I pull the towel to shield my face, and slog on. Out of the gloom I make out the shape of a maple tree. Leaves were brilliant red last fall. Roy’s house is close. Wonder if Julie is home. They introduced themselves last October.
I stumble and stagger toward the house like a drunk. Her vehicle is parked in front of the garage. I lift one foot up the porch stairs. My fingers slip off the railing ice. I raise a hand to knock or press the doorbell when the door opens inward, and I fall into the heat of their house with the momentum.
Soon we are bundled in her truck, skidding down the hill to rescue Phillip. She drives us back to her house. Hot coffee and wood stove heat brings roses to his cheeks. Julie phones a friend to see if he can help. His name is John, a retired fire fighter. She lends me parka, boots, hat and gloves for the journey back down the hill. We crunch around the yard’s perimeter. Even the upstairs bedroom windows are locked. We could’ve maybe gotten the ladder from the barn and climbed up there to open one. John doesn’t shame me, simply assesses the situation. It occurs to me that maybe everything is not my fault. Maybe others feel guilt for their behavior. Maybe sometimes shit just happens.
Finally John grabs a screw driver from his truck, pries the storm door out of its track and kicks in the front door, the shreds of my notion of security blasted open by a single blow.
Later hunched over a hot chocolate in front of the fire, my husband safe and bundled up with a book, I feel gratitude for the rage that stoked me and kept my feet hiking up that hill into an unknown. Anger can consume the user, no doubt, but as a tool used with care, like fire, it can save your life.
That’s right: S/tick Issue 4.4 Angry/Mad is finally here!
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What you’ll find inside:
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New short fiction by Fallon Chiasson
“Look, a rosette sp—”
“A flamingo!” Ava said as their Carolina Skiff rounded the bend in the canal.
“No, sweetheart,” her mother, Jill, said. “Grandma was trying to tell you that it’s a roseate spoonbill. They are like flamingos. It’s pink because of the shrimp it eats.”
“Oh,” Ava said, looking up from her bird watching app, “I just looked up pink birds and that’s what it said. How do you spell what you said?”
Jill looked over to see what she knew would be disappointment on her mother’s face. But then Jill thought about how much data she would get charged for this weekend. Then wondered what in the world the location services on Ava’s iPad would be thinking. Then she chuckled and laced her arm around the two women: Ava on her right and Ada on her left. The women she was between were related by blood, yes, but that was only what united them. But that didn’t matter, not right now, at least. Not to Jill. She chuckled at her existential thoughts and returned to the moment in front of her: her mother, Ada—which Jill had only heard pronounced as A-da, with a hard, Cajun A and making the flowing, disyllabic name into jagged one—had taken she and Ava out to the secret fishing spot. Jill couldn’t get them back to the camp even if she tried.
It was Jill’s weekend with Ava. Two weekends ago, the two of them had stayed inside of Jill’s three-bedroom condo in New Orleans catching up on The Bachelorette and ordering takeout from the restaurants specializing in modern Cajun fare—vegan boudin, cornmeal gnocchi, oyster toast—that lined her street. They even had snowballs delivered by Waitr.
It was that time of year in South Louisiana that the only mildly comfortable place to be outside was on the water. Not by the water on the Riverwalk or in Jean Lafitte Park, but actually on top of the body of water that had been like a second home to Jill ages ago. Last weekend, the maternal guilt had set in. She wasn’t making the memories with Ava that she had grown up with; rather, she was inoculating Ava into the right-now culture Jill herself had grown so accustomed to—no waiting for the fish to fry, much less waiting for the fish to bite in the first place. After the Bachelorette weekend, Jill called her aging mother, who still lived in Jill’s childhood home down the bayou, to ask if they could take out the boat to go fishing, like old times.
“Does Ava know her iPad can’t get wet?” Ada had responded. Ada pronounced Ava’s name—a homage to Jill’s mother—with the same inflection that her name was pronounced: A-va. Jill cringed every time.
“Maybe,” Jill kept her voice calm. She knew her mother didn’t approve of Ava’s inert lifestyle. “But Saturdays are tech-free when Ava is with me—trying to detox her from when she’s with her dad—so the iPad wouldn’t come on the boat.”
Ada was silent. It was better than her usual comment: “throw her outside, lock the door, and don’t let her come inside until dark. Get her to make some friends in the neighborhood.” Jill never corrected her mother that the majority of her neighbors were middle aged lawyers, bankers, and doctors. Or that she never let Ava be alone outside.
“Oh Mom, don’t you remember when we’d go out on the boat and live off the land? Shrimp and crab and redfish? Then boil and fry and eat outside? I want Ava to have memories of our heritage. Like I do.”
Jill heard Ada put the phone down. Ada still had a house phone and the cord didn’t reach her stove, where a pot of red beans—soaked, boiled, simmered; not from a can like assimilated Cajuns do, like Jill does—was due for a stir.
“Fine.” Ada said. “Pick me up at 4:30 Saturday mornin’. We can have the boat in the water by 5:30, fish until it gets hot, and be home for lunch.”
“But momma, can’t we spend the night? Do some fishing off the dock in the evening? Make drip coffee in the morning?”
“We couldn’t plug in the iPad and run the window units on the generator at the same time,” Ada said.
“But Saturdays are tech—”
“C’est bon” Ada said as she sampled her red beans from the wooden spoon. “You want me to freeze some for y’all to have later?”
“No ma’am,” Jill said. She wouldn’t dare tell her mother that Ava didn’t eat onions, even the soft, clear minced onions in red beans. “We’ll see you Saturday.”
Willing it into existence, Jill set a reminder on her iPhone to pack an overnight bag for she and Ava anyway.
Jill wasn’t so great at waking up while it was still dark outside, even if she set three or seven alarms. By the time she managed to get up, feed the hamster, tried to wake Ava up, successfully woke Ava up, tried to get Ava to eat a bowl of Chobani but picked up chicken minis for both of them instead, and drove down the bayou to her mother’s house, it was 6:15 a.m. Her mother was sitting on her porch. Jill was certain Ada had been sitting on her porch since 5 a.m.
“Where have you been? I tried calling your house.” She sounded mad, not disappointed. Her mother probably expected this.
Jill didn’t respond. She never answered her home phone anymore.
“We’re gonna smother if we go fishin right now,” Ada said. “I put the crab traps in the boat and we can go set them then check them when we go fishing late this afternoon.”
The smallest of smiles appeared on Jill’s face.
“C’mon,” Ada said to the two younger women. “Get in my truck.”
When Jill got in the truck, she noticed a bag with a change of clothes for her mother, and a toothbrush.
No one remembers how long the fishing camp has been standing. It was built by some great uncle or grandparent and the generations to follow had renovated it as needed—new wood for the dock, cleaning out the cistern, mending the roof after a storm. There were no electric poles—or neighbors—in sight, and the family hoped to keep it that way.
The camp had different rules than at home—a little more roughhousing was acceptable, staying up a little later was allowed, and the only baths that could be taken were with a bar of Ivory soap in the canal. But really, there was no roughhousing or staying up late: Jill and her brother’s days had been filled with fishing, crabbing, oystering, and swimming. When Jill got to high school, though, she stopped going to the fishing camp so much. When she got to college, she quit going altogether.
But her memories of the fishing camp were etched in her mind like a setting in a snow globe. Stronger than the visual memories, though, was the feelings that came when Jill thought about the fishing camp: her heart had always been so full. They didn’t have much back then, but there was so much quality time, so much love. What she thinks, when her maternal guilt kicks in, is that that was the cost of giving Ava iPads, trips to Disney World, and an Uptown private school education.
As soon as they arrived at the fishing camp, Ada opened the unlocked door, threw her bag of clothes on the ground, and turned on the generator. She threw a few beers and some sandwiches in the mini fridge. Jill came in behind her with her and Ava’s Vera Bradly duffels. She turned to look for Ava, but she was still in the boat.
“I’m scared to get out. Is that dock safe? Will I fall through? I see bugs.” She was repeating this mantra until someone heard her.
“C’mon, honey, come inside! We can snack until Grandma is ready to set the traps!”
But her mother was already heading back to the boat, a Miller Lite in hand. “Ready!” she said with more enthusiasm than Jill was accustomed to.
Jill placed the bags and ice chest on the ground, grabbed she and Ava each an Arizona tea, and headed to the boat.
Jill’s favorite part about going fishing was getting there. After they got out of the canal and into open water, Ada sped up the boat, taking it out of the wakeless idle and into nearly full gear. The small mud boat reared, and Jill saw Ava tense. Jill thought to reach out to Ava—all she would have to do is lean over—but stopped herself. She stayed standing beside her mother, but not too close.
The ride was Jill’s favorite part of the trip because of the solitude of the passengers, yet the togetherness. She was with her mother and daughter, mere feet and inches away, but they couldn’t speak to one another even if they tried. It was too loud. They were together physically, but far apart.
This distance closeness, Jill thought, is a paradox. The two women she stood between: the old, the young, inhabiting the same planet, worlds apart. She thought about how Ava will leave South Louisiana in a few years. She’ll go to some liberal arts college in the Northeast and sign petitions and join protests to support healthcare for all, no-questions-asked abortions, and weed. All these things that she, and many others, will need in the now. But Ada, in the town she grew up in and never left except for appointments in the city, will stand on the dock of her fishing camp in the Mississippi delta, charting how the land seems to dissipate by with each changing season while the oil rigs pop up like springtime flowers. She’ll think of those rigs, raping the earth, while praying that someone will put a stop to it. Because all she’ll be able to do is pray.
With so much time left, Ava will care about now; with so little time left, Ada will think of the future—the children she will never meet, and the lost land they will never see. And Jill, Jill will not know what to do, really, either—like how none of us really knows what to do—other than be the bridge that unites the two of them, and try to lessen the distance.
Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness.
Ed. Rose Yndigoyen.
New Lit Salon Press, 2014.
Review by Sarah-Jean Krahn, Managing Editor, don’t die press
This quirky, ultra-readable collection, riffing off the quintessential madness fiction by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, opens with a piece that alludes to madness as an act of defiance for women. There is something appealing about madness when it means you tear your body out of the current realm and present it to The Gaze as unintelligible. Each remaining story tampers with this motif via some unique twist that confuses the spectrum of feeling, from insidious numbness in “The Safety Pin Patient Test” to traumatic intensity in “The Color of Nothing.”
When emotional ferocity seizes women consumed by husband or children, at first glance some feminist readers may be turned off. However, with careful consideration we can see that, for the most part, this is the choice that has been presented to the characters as most meaningful. For example, in “Waiting for Jordan,” the single sentence “This is all her fault” reveals the double-bind of women locked into a nuclear family life, yet who themselves earn the blame for apparently locking men into the same patriarchal ultimatum. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s dreams of the 72 virgins calling to her hint at an unfulfilled queer curiosity that won’t allow the reader satisfaction with the suggestion that she is irreparably depressed at being separated from her husband on military tour.
The stories that recreate women characters responsible for murder reveal a frantic need in the feminist imagination to destroy the smelted, inflexible and punishing casts of patriarchal rule. Still, some readers may find these, like some of the photographs depicting the bloody saturation of madness, disturbing. The allure of the photographs is that they have been designed to match each story, and so reflect the desperation, obsession, downfall; the grit, ingenuity, sincerity of the characters. So, keep reading, and notice the overlay of trip wires and drone strikes that drive the characters to their betrayal or brutality. The later story “Thread,” while starring a character of innocence in action but acumen in human agony, unwinds these stealthy tricks of the patriarchy and lays them bare for reckoning.
The collection would not be complete without those pieces which implicate, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman does, the noose that madness itself can be when it is fastened to women by men. Men who doctor, men who mind-doctor, men who dictate women’s futures; men who abuse, men who slut-shame, men who extol women’s obedience—they are the origins of true madness, and the patriarchy benefits when women comply with lobotomized tranquility. In “Behind the Yellow Wallpaper,” women find comfort in a madness all their own when the straitjacket of patriarchy fails to conform to their bodies. Madness is a homecoming, a relief, a joy, as the characters alter not their bodies but the time-space around them to provide habitat that better suits their needs.
In an unjust world, there’s a fine line between anger and madness. S/tick Magazine invites you to channel rage into righteous art and writing for its next issue, “Angry/Mad.” Tired of the grotesque facades of rich men in power? White politicians cavorting in blackface? Sexual predators who insist their violations were consensual? Rhetoric on reconciliation without genuine action? People who look at wildfires, rising water, disastrous storms, melting ice caps and deny there’s anything amiss? Submit, but do not be submissive!
Check out the submissions guidelines here.
Deadline: March 31, 2020
Bear witness to the recurring nightmare with Elaine Woo.
Sing a night song with Anastasia Walker.
Have an epiphany with Rachael Ikins.
Take the bastards down with Katherine Davis.
Refuse to silence your magic with Linda M. Crate.
Excerpt by Colleen Donnelly — read more in Issue 4.3, coming soon!
Felicia momentarily pulled her glasses down, seeming to stare dutifully, sympathetically, peering into Ms. Levine’s heart. She made her voice waver just a tad, as she lowered her tone to utter the always terrifying edict, “You have cancer.” She could hear the whistle as Ms. Harding gulped back air. “Colorectal cancer. Stage III. I’m sorry to say the prognosis is not good.”
She watched Ms. Levine intently as she delivered the sentence. Ms. Levine seemed to shrink in the chair, head dropping, shoulders caving, as she tried to draw herself into a protective ball. Felicia held her hand out across the desk, Ms. Levine took it. Felicia squeezed and then gently stroked it – limited tactile contact indicating compassion. The desk was the court they’d play across. Sitting in adjacent chairs or together on a couch next to the fountain would invite soulful pats, perhaps a reaffirming hug or two that could complicate the negotiations. Collaboration was a necessary tightly-controlled, staged illusion.
Ms. Levine withdrew her hand, took a moment to compose and draw herself more upright once again and asked, “And what exactly are my options?”