From the Editors: Ode to Autumn

There’s just something magical about fall, at least in the middle and northern United States. The changing of the seasons, the vivid colors of the falling leaves, the crisp chill of the morning air replacing the heat and humidity of summer.

But the best part of fall, now that we reflect on it, is the impending death of all those living things we waited for so eagerly in the spring for some reason. Perhaps several months of brutal winter had dulled our memories of the misery of spring and summer.

In the garden as the frost comes, there will be no more tomatoes and watermelons. But there will also be no more weeds, and that seems like more than a fair trade. And frankly, we don’t care if we never see another zucchini again.

With the lawn, the end is in sight. Not forever, oh Lord, will the heavy burden of mowing weigh down our weekly schedule. All that pestiferous grass (did someone PLANT that?) will die. Even so, come quickly, sweet frost.

And finally, most gloriously, we can say goodbye to all those bugs, the ones that ate our garden plants, crawled into our houses through any crack they could find, splatted on our windshields, and bit us enthusiastically. With equal enthusiasm, we’ll enjoy the thought of them dying miserable deaths in the biting cold. Now there’s a bite we can appreciate.

The end is in sight. It’s the sort of satisfaction we would have felt after Noah’s flood if we had been God. (Humanity can be grateful we aren’t God. In this election year, we’d be certainly regretting our rash promise not to flood the world again and trying to find a loophole.)

As fall approaches, the Sacred Cow has also reached the end of another year. If you’re hoping the winter kills us off, just remember that like the bugs, we’ll be back.

And after a few months, you’ll probably even be looking forward to it.


The Pulse

By Justin Charles

The house is gone; its pulse has moved.

Come with me across the days and years. From ’79 to ’79. Find the softness of the long orange-brown shag. The edges of our vision fading from view, but bright in the middle, the boy’s red plastic lamb has fallen among its flock. You watch the glasses go into their place above the bar. The bar separates you from the kitchen but not from smells of chicken broth. Outside, the wind shrieks against the eaves. “Danger!” it cries as it rattles the windows. “Danger!” as it shakes the house. “Danger! Change is coming!” The boy won’t understand. Down falls his green lamb as well as the yellow.

Change is yet a tender uneasy feeling. He feels afraid as the wind shakes the house. But Joe will come and bring his comfort. Pleasant purple curlicues of sound waft through the evening. The wind dies down. Joe, forever young, appears for a time, and then vanishes away.

The cold white wall is desecrated with fresh blue wax. She doesn’t expect it and it makes her tired. Our new home with long brown shag. It’s empty still, the door propped open. The air is crisp and promises snow. White fumes waft out as the wind sighs in. “Take him,” she says, “I’ll take care of it. I’ll finish.”
Across the yard and up the stairs. In the living room on the floor lies Joe. You see the green rug shows the path of our cars. The green John Deere tractor cultivates the rug and the edges fade into oblivion. Waking in the afghan on the green couch, the boy hears the pulse. “Safe,” it whispers, close to his ear, “Safe in here, with me and Joe.”

“Come,” she says. It’s time to go. To the cold new house with the new white wall. The brown space heater snaps and pops to life. The new brown shag still feels cold. The autumn wind whispers around the door. October 2, 1979.

A new young woman and the boy’s family gather. The kitchen is loud with celebration. His birthday cake, his birthday tears. The boy finds solace behind the green couch. The pulse beats softly. The house whispers, but the boy is fast asleep.

“Where is he?” she says. It’s time to go. To the new white house with the new white wall. The father comes in from the dark outside. His green coat hangs on the brown entry wall. A cold blast comes in with the birthday skates. We try them on, on the warm brown shag. The space heater in the kitchen snaps its tune.

A year goes by. The telephone rings in the little white house. The mother runs out through the door.

“Come!” she says from across the yard.

The boy doesn’t remember the yard or the stairs. Joe lies cold upon the bed. In the cold spare room where we never go. Our afghan wraps him. It’s red and warm, but it won’t warm Joe. I touch his hand, but he’s not there. The boy hears the house call from down the hall. In the living room, where the memories are. The afghan is gone with Joe. But behind the green couch he feels the pulse. “Safe.”


Justin Charles describes himself as a peripatetic Canadamerican. He attends Rosedale Bible College in central Ohio, where he lives with his wife Diana and three children. He’s an Edmonton Oilers fan, word junkie and peruser of books.

Penny and Tom

By Terry Barr

Penny, our neighbor’s cat, always looked both ways when she crossed a street. I know because once, when these neighbors — the Shaws — went on a camping vacation, they asked me to feed Penny for them. I was surely no older than five at this time but old enough to be trusted with my first off-site chore.

For the first couple of days, I walked down to the next block, found Penny curled up on the porch, and served Penny her tin of food, which she accepted with all due grace. The third day, however, I got involved with my baseball cards and didn’t head down to the Shaws until late afternoon, not believing it really mattered to anyone what time Penny ate. When I opened my front door, though, I found that it truly did matter to someone. To Penny, who was sitting right on our porch waiting for me. We strolled down the sidewalk together, and when we got to the corner, I watched as Penny first looked up the street and then down. And when she stepped off the curb, so did I. Such a wise cat.

I hoped that she would rub off on my cat Tom, but her discretion didn’t interest him. Maybe that was because as an adult male living in those days before TV game show hosts admonished us daily to control our pet population, Tom interested himself mainly in Penny’s body. We never knew for certain that he was the father of the multiple litters she produced, or, for that matter, whether he was also the father to his own grandchildren. For the kittens kept coming, and at any one time, the Shaws had twenty or twenty-five cats roaming their grounds. Parenting issues aside, Tom seemed happy and content, and at least half the time came running from under shrubs or from the neighbor’s backyard when I yelled, “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.”

As he got older, he liked sleeping on the heated pipes of our basement, so most often all I had to do to find him was open the basement door. He’d casually slink from the upper pipe right into my arms. My father referred to Tom as a “mangy, burpy thing,” but once I caught Dad stroking Tom’s head right down to the shoulders in that way I knew my cat liked.

Like his two predecessors, Happy and Happy II, two all-white cats who disappeared in succession before I turned three — and I don’t know who named these two Happy, though it could have been me — Tom finally vanished one day, the victim of a fight over the children, I suppose. Or maybe it was his refusal to take Penny’s safety tip that ultimately did him in. One of the good things about pets is that they often go off to die, and by the time you’ve noticed them missing, someone just tells you that they’ve “run away” or perhaps found a better home. Maybe ten miles from our house on lonely Oxmoor road there was an antique shop called Happy’s. That’s where I thought my first two cats had found a place of their own. As for Tom, he went just like he came: out of, and to, nowhere.

Actually, I do know where he came from. I was outside one late summer day, and a young cat walked right up to me and sat down beside me on the grass. He meowed, loudly and distinctly, and before either of us knew it, I was begging my mother to let me keep him.

“I guess so,” she said, “but we’ll have to ask your Daddy first.” But by the time Dad came home, Tom had already devoured two bowls of milk, set right on top of our kitchen washing machine for him, and had secured his name. At first, I wanted to name him “Sammy,” after an old cat of my mother’s, but he just looked like a Tom. Black, gray, and white: a typical tomcat. So when Dad arrived that night and looked right at Tom, asking “And who are you,” I had a good feeling. Though Tom would always be that mangy burpy thing to Dad, the two maintained a healthy and respectful space within our house.

The day after Tom arrived, Penny’s owners, Steve and Carla, walked by our house with another friend, Janet Hall, who lived on the next street up from us.

“Hey, look at my new cat,” I yelled to them. They walked up our sidewalk to admire Tom, but as Janet got closer, she said, “That’s my cat!”

Before I could panic, she added with a resigned wave, “Oh never mind. You can keep him.”

I didn’t know then that people gave away their pets, that love could be transferred that easily. Years later my wife and I would give away a cat I found one day when I was looking to buy a car from a private owner. The Honda Accord had no rearview mirror, and after I test drove it and declined, the lady who was selling the car said, “Well, maybe you’d like the cat instead.”

A solid gray, “Russian Blue” cat whom I eventually named Annabelle, she developed a bad habit of spraying our furniture. So a few years later when one of my daughter’s friends kept telling us how much she loved Annabelle, we decided to give the Russian Blue away.

I still dream about her, too, as I do all my other long-gone cats. In these dreams Annabelle’s in the basement somewhere with Hugo, Angela and Alice, staying warm and ready to come to me if only I’d call. My therapist says that since in these dreams the cats are always there and OK and come when I call, it proves how much I loved and cared for them: how much they’re always with me.

I haven’t told him about giving Annabelle away, so I think I still have some work to do.

It’s not exactly that I feel guilty about taking someone else’s cat or giving mine away. But I do wonder about the moments of these decisions, how we make them, and how we react to and live with what comes and goes from our sight, in our limited sphere of protection.

How we react to what is lost and what is found.

Not too long after I took Janet Hall’s cat, she lost something even more dear: her father. I knew her father. He was my first dentist. I don’t remember him well, whether he was fat or thin, tall or short, black-haired or gray. I think he was nice, even gentle for a dentist. The one thing, however, that I do remember all these decades later, is that it was Dr. Frank Hall who introduced me to the scent of death.
How I could have had so many cavities in my baby teeth though I brushed them every night — swallowing the salivated paste instead of spitting — I’ll never know. How many times I visited Dr. Hall and smelled that odor of drilled enamel and bone, I can’t recall either. It might have been only twice, but once would have been sufficient to know forever that smell, your own body burned. Still, it must have been twice at least because I remember knowing enough to hold my breath that second filling. Or maybe I’m just confusing this with my next dentist, because even with a new dentist, they kept finding cavities.
I think Dr. Hall was the first person I ever knew to die, and he died so suddenly and soon in my life that I hardly knew he’d lived.

We learned of his death through the Shaw children. Breathlessly, one summer afternoon they entered our house, Steve and Carla.

“Dr. Hall had a heart attack and died,” they yelled as one. And before any of us, but especially my mother, could ask a question or react in any way, they continued: “Janet was at our house. They called our mother, and Janet heard. Then when her mother came to get her, we tried to keep Janet from running out to tell her. But that’s what she did. ‘Mama! Daddy’s had a heart attack. He’s dead!’
“And then she got in the car and they drove off. We could hear Mrs. Hall screaming and crying!!!”

I had been outside before Steve and Carla arrived, and I saw the Halls’ beige Cadillac careen around the corner of Eighteenth Street, heading up the hill toward their house. I don’t know anymore whether I actually heard the screaming and crying or whether Steve and Carla’s description simply entered me, became my memory. I know Mrs. Hall’s voice, though, everyone who knew her did. She had one of those voices that I can only describe as sounding like she had a frog in her throat, only without the hoarseness. If she was on the other end of the telephone and you were in the most remote part of the house while your mother was speaking to her, you could hear every word she uttered as plainly as if she were a staff sergeant giving you your orders for the day. Her car, as it rounded the corner, would have been a half-block from me. And whether or not I truly heard her crying voice then, I definitely still hear it now.

Though it registered with me that Dr. Hall had died, that I had lost my dentist, as a boy of five or six I couldn’t go too deeply into what else this meant: what it meant for Mrs. Hall or her five children. I couldn’t think of what it would be like to have your daddy die suddenly, to never see him again. So I don’t know what our neighborhood did afterward. Surely someone went to the Halls’ house. Surely someone took the smaller children — Janet, Julie, and John, the baby — and cared for them while Mrs. Hall attended to her husband’s arrangements. Surely Mrs. Shaw, Mrs. Terry across the street, and my mother lent aid and comfort wherever they could. Of course there was a funeral a few days later and of course a community mourned its treasured son, another soul dead and gone to heaven.

Over the subsequent years, the Hall family survived and went on with life as competently and successfully as any other family in our midst did. Just this past year in fact, Mrs. Hall died. She was eighty-nine. Her children, all grown and married decades ago, survive her. I hear that they’re doing well, that Janet even reads my stories via Facebook, which makes me happy.

Is it strange or funny that no one ever says, “You’ll always remember your first dentist?” I wish that when I think of Dr. Hall, I wouldn’t always smell death, but that’s the way of memory, of life.

The other thing I remember about the day Dr. Hall died, though, is that after Steve and Carla Shaw left, I sat in the front yard for a while by myself. At some point, Tom the cat joined me, sitting right beside me in that way cats have of being always present, of being always in the moment of their being. I petted Tom’s head and shoulders, felt the two ridges of his shoulder blades, and then hugged him to me. He’d be mine for another few years. Like I said, I don’t know the circumstances of his leaving. Of his passing. But I do know that though he’s been gone for fifty years now, I’ve never stopped remembering the day he found me waiting for him. Just him.

Nor will I ever forget the girl who gave him to me, though of course I’ll never understand why she let him go, or how, in the only girlhood she ever knew, she adjusted to his loss.

Terry Barr is an essayist and teaches creative nonfiction at Presbyterian College. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his family. His essay collection, “Don’t Date Baptists: and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother,” is available on Amazon.

Three Worthwhile Space Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen

By Ben Herr

No. 3: Sunshine (2007)

Rated: R
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Cillian Murphey, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans

What it’s about

The sun is dying, and the spaceship Icarus II is the only chance humanity has of reigniting our star and saving planet Earth from becoming uninhabitable. “Sunshine” joins the crew, already en route, as they deal with the stress of such a long voyage, attempt to solve an increasing number of problems the mission faces, weigh their moral responsibilities as our planet’s last hope and try, at any cost, to keep the mission moving forward.

Why it’s worth it

When a film sets such high stakes, I’ve come to expect to be underwhelmed by the result. However, “Sunshine” handles the stakes perfectly, focusing on characters early on while the mission is still going fairly smoothly. By establishing their concerns, problems, hopes and personalities first, the audience is more likely to get sucked in based on the crew, not just the enormous stakes. Then, when more and more goes wrong and the decisions faced have less clear answers, the audience is still attached to the fate of the crew. Because of this, the stakes feel real and experienceable, unlike a lot of disaster movies which focus primarily on the widespread catastrophe. The mission to save earth factors more into the themes of the film than its dramatic tension, serving up ethical and philosophical issues for the crew to wrestle with.

Additionally, the visuals and sounds of “Sunshine” distinguish it from other space travel movies. Minimalistic score and sounds (apart from a few spectacular pieces of music) create a vastness to the shots of space, and the sun is shown as a thing of incredible beauty as well as immense power for destruction. The sun is more than the destination, it is a constant danger to the mission, factoring into the plot, and its depiction captures both the sense of awe that it inspires and its immense danger.

Other thoughts

For the first two-thirds of “Sunshine,” it is easily one of my top three favorite space films. The final act, however, serves up a plot twist that turns a beautiful, visionary, philosophical film into almost a horror flick, filmed like the slasher genre. The transition is so sudden and such a jolting derailing of everything that had been building up beforehand, that the negative effect it has on the film as a whole can be difficult for the viewer to move past. Therefore, the biggest benefit of this review is that if someone watches “Sunshine” expecting one of the worst climaxes in recent memory, then it will not have such a jolting, crushing impact on all of the great things about the film. And rest assured, the final five to ten minutes rights the course and concludes the story in a way that is at least fleetingly on par with the great ending “Sunshine” deserved.

No 2: Contact (1997)

Rated: PG
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Jodie Foster, Matthew
McConaughey, William Fichtner

What it’s about

Dr. Ellie Arroway’s lifetime of passion for what lies beyond our own skies has led her on a hopeful search for alien life. When her scanners finally pick up a cryptic radio signal from an unknown source, her formerly scoffed at body of work receives the international spotlight. Just when her life’s efforts are about to yield rewards, however, Ellie’s systems and their use become controlled and hindered by government, public and even religious opposition. After the message is decrypted and appears to contain plans for a spaceship designed to carry one human, the media frenzy goes completely off the rails and Ellie’s struggle to maintain a role in her own project becomes a battle.

Why it’s worth it

“Contact” holds the distinction of being an alien contact movie that focuses on earth and on humans. It doesn’t look at what the discovery of another species could mean for space travel or intergalactic relations but examines how we humans would respond. Fear and borderline hysteria sweep across the public, religious extremists take it upon themselves to try to stop the “ungodly” efforts to reach out to the possible aliens, military leaders in the government want to shut down the whole operation due to the potential risk of attack, and all of these decisions are placed in the hands of those in power, not those who are actually educated on the matters. The efforts from different groups to obtain control of the situation result in a chaotic, yet totally believable, political standoff.

The main theme of “Contact” also makes it unique as it devotes a lot of time to the discussion of science, religion, and their places within the other. In many instances, these conversations feel like clunky efforts to cover all the bases, which only scrape the surface of deep theological issues and scientific perspectives (most hilariously when two characters raise broad new points, have the conversation interrupted, and never revisit the topic). By the end, however, “Contact” presents a fairly balanced view of each perspective (though the exclusion of a single line would have left things perfectly balanced and made for a better film) and resolves science and religion as not mutually exclusive, a refreshing change from most equivalent films that masquerade as fair and balanced before trying to bludgeon the opposing side with the conclusion.

For a bonus plug, famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has named “Contact” as the science fiction film that was most impactful to him, so fans of his may want to check it out.

Other thoughts

Before sitting down to view “Contact,” keep in mind that it is a two and a half hour, slow moving film that is, at times, a disorganized mess. It’s a great example of a film that would have been much better had it tried to do much less, as several subplots pull the emergency brake on momentum and challenge our suspension of disbelief. If the previous paragraphs seemed fascinating, it is still worth a watch, but will probably lose the attention of those only casually interested.

No. 1: Moon (2009)

Rated: R
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey (voice)

What it’s about

Lunar Industries has become Earth’s No. 1 power supplier by harvesting the sun’s energy from the surface of the moon. Their efficient robotic systems only need a single human to make repairs and operate each station, keeping costs to a minimum. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of a three-year contract and is anticipating the end of his solitary employment and reunion with his wife and child. With just two weeks to go, however, a string of incidents has Sam wondering if he can make it to the end of his term, and questioning whether he’s already lost his sanity.

Why it’s worth it

“Moon” delivers a down-to-earth, smart science fiction thriller that doesn’t rely on a big budget, action, or elaborate and imaginative settings. The colors are bleak but beautiful and the sets are simple yet engaging. The film’s success hinges on Sam Rockwell’s performance as the only person on screen (for most of the movie), and he entertains the audience and makes them care. Almost everything that the bloated, flashy, big budget sci-fi flicks that fail every summer do wrong, “Moon” does right.

With much of the film being “one guy in one place,” “Moon” could have been a dull, plodding story. Instead, it creates a captivating aura with unique visuals, striking music, and a masterful revealing of the plot. The story of Sam living alone and discovering, little by little, how much more there is to his world becomes captivating and offers plenty of twists and turns without getting too far fetched.

It might not be possible to discuss what makes “Moon” interesting in a spoiler-free format, but don’t just take my word for it. “Moon” can be found on lists of underrated science fiction films all over the place, and is a must-see for fans of the genre.

Other thoughts

The big disappointment accompanying “Moon” is that the 2013 film “Oblivion” shares certain key plot points (by coincidence). With Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman headlining the picture, and a much bigger marketing campaign, it gained wider exposure and more viewership. Thus, a lot of people (like me) who saw “Oblivion” first will feel like it spoiled “Moon’s” plot twists, making it more predictable and diminishing its impact. Still, both films are unique enough that they can be appreciated separately.


Ben Herr lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he works as a dorm adviser for international high school students. He writes short stories, humor and opinion pieces about whatever current ideas and projects interest him.

A History of Repeated Injuries and Usurpations: Why the Father of a Writer Hates What She Does for a Living

By Traci Foust

The American son has no idea he will grow up to hate books, and be a maker of them. Right now he is thirteen. He needs to write a poem. He loves a girl named Sylvia.

Work and work and please no talking and work and shush Papa’s resting his eyes. This is what his house of grown-ups is made from.

This has nothing to do with the poem the son needs to write.

The German parts of him have not yet developed fully. There is no functional purpose of quiet endurance. A boy in love does not know how to turn off his noises. He does not care if Papa needs to rest his eyes.

For now, the American son is his Sicilian mother. He is hot white skies and olive trees. He is a goat on a steep mountain side. He is tender and strong-willed and romantic and cunning and pretty. Girly pretty. His eyes are the color of Terra Cotta churches and bullets.

He knows he is skinny and small for his age, so he laughs the loudest, jokes the funniest. He has never called a woman a broad. He picks fights because he is wiry and quick and can run like hell from anyone who is not his German father.

When the son grows up and has a family of his own, when the work and the work and the work comes, and the children who make sure Papa never gets to rest his eyes, it is then he will learn the strength of his muscles. He will make sure everyone around him learns it too.

The girls at school like his thick wavy hair. Some of them are jealous of his eyelashes. They like his full lips and that he smiles when all the other boys are trying to be greaser tough. They like that on Valentine’s Day he makes his own cards out of construction paper and sketches the faces of the girls he gives them to. The girls he draws have flowers in their hair. He writes: Love Theodore. All the other boys write: From …

This is a special Valentine’s Day. Special because Sylvia Banchero is the only one. She has long black hair and over the summer she shaved her legs and her boobs rose up firm and round like the Jell-O molds his mother makes on Sundays. She spent her vacation in New York. When she came back to California her lips were red. They make words the American son does not understand.

He is a hyper child. His mind is getting to that age where he can no longer say what he feels. So he says everything. He talks and talks. When he plays baseball in the field behind the Texaco he runs the bases just to run and gets sent home with the words “drip” and “showoff” flying over his middle finger.
People have always told him to sit still. People have always told him to shut up.

Lately he has been thinking.

In his Sicilian and German house of plastic furniture covering, of garlic and pipe tobacco walls, there is only a small shelf for books. Encyclopedias. He is not allowed to “fool around with them” because his sisters need those books for their school work. The sisters are smart and effortless. They have library cards and read movie magazines and when the son was caught with his father’s National Geographic under his mattress they made him hide in their bedroom closet until the German father stopped banging on the door and promised to cool his jets already.

The son doesn’t care about the encyclopedias anymore. He needs a special book for his poem to Sylvia. He wants to say long black hair in a different way. A way that will make everything about him different. Like that English fancy pants who wore knee socks and wrote the plays his sisters recite when aunts and uncles stop by for cannoli and cappuccino. He knows the book he needs is better than a dictionary, but he has forgotten what it is called.

He will not ask his sisters: They are studying in their room and listening to Frank Sinatra. They will know he is in love. He will be tickled until he wets his pants.

He will not ask his mother: She is standing in front of their open icebox writing down all the things that disappear faster than the money can keep them.

What then? He has been banned from taking school library books home because he never returns them. Twice he was almost caught reading Jack London on the front porch. In the middle of the day. He was finishing one of those paragraphs that can float a young boy all the way up to a world beyond his stupid boy thoughts. It was then he saw his father’s television repair van rounding the corner. Both times he threw his book into the bushes before the German father could catch him, before he could tell the son to pull his head out of his ass, remind him that reading was for people on vacation.

When everyone in the little white house on Army Street was asleep the son snuck outside in the rain and pushed those books way down deep into the neighbor’s trash can.

Dumb waste of time. Same as the encyclopedias.

Yesterday he found out he can get that book with all those New York words at Woolworth’s. He saw it there when he and Travis Malone went to buy shoe polish and a Charleston Chew to split between them. Travis Malone was nose deep in Hot Rod while the American son flipped the pages of the book, inhaling all those guarantees.

There was exquisite and comely and ardor and fervency.

He knows now the book is called a thesaurus.

He has already decided implore.

On the walk home the son practiced the pronunciation of the book. He will tell his father he needs it for school and not because it’s the book that will make Sylvia Banchero love him in a grown-up way: tha-saw-us. the-sore-us. Travis Malone kept saying, “What? Huh? Is that a dinosaur?” The American son laughed and hooted and hollered even though the sticker on the book, the one that said $3.25, made his throat tight and his hands sweaty.

He is trying to feel thirteen. He knows getting Sylvia Banchero to see things other than his girl eyelashes will take a different kind of trying. He does not want to be like his stupid friends forever. Like Jimmy Camacho who says, “Oh yeah, baby. I got what you need right here baby,” to pretty much anyone in a skirt who passes him in the hall. He does not want to be Fat Manny who’s too old to wear a Davy Crocket hat but does anyway and says “Huh? Huh? What’sit now?” a million times a day and probably needs a hearing aid. He does not want to be his German father who can fix wires and antennas and glass tubes and calls him a sissy when he covers his face because all the things the father knows have blue fire and a hiss to them and makes the son think of dragons and makes him get the hell out of the garage if he’s just going to stand there like a fraidy cat, goddamn it.

Three dollars and twenty-five cents will buy those words. Sylvia Banchero will have no choice but to understand the son is on his way to being everything in that book.


The German father has been quiet on the matter for two days now, but tonight he will speak. He has prepared a list for his son. The list will show the son all the things he can buy for the entire family for the price of some silly book of words he doesn’t even understand. The list will show the son all the extra jobs he can do, and in two short weeks, the son can save enough for that silly book of words he doesn’t even understand.

Valentine’s Day is next Friday. Sylvia Banchero is not the kind of girl who will wait to be loved.
For the American son the answer is not no. He is good at calling up the spirits that hover over his mother’s head when she is angry or praying, or wearing her bright red dress to church even though the German father tells her not to. These are the taking parts that will remain in the son for the rest of his life. Men with dark, dirty faces whisper to him in machine gun accents. They tell him rules are helpful, sure Buddy, but are meant for other people.

When he gets caught, the voices have nothing to say.

The book belonged to him for as long as it took to almost walk out of the store. His timing was off, his fast wasn’t fast enough. Not for the giant mirrors that hang in high corners. Not for the stock boy with the acne on his neck who knows an opportunity for advancement when he sees one.

The American son is sitting in the manager’s office waiting for his father. He is lying and lying and lying.

He wipes his eyes and nose with his sleeve. A woman with fat arms and a cameo necklace gives him a gold paisley handkerchief.

The German father is not an apology father. But here he says how sorry he is that his son has disrespected their entire family. “Faithful customers for eighteen years.” The German father gives the manager a fix-it coupon and tells him to come into his shop. “Bring a friend if you’d like.” The German father can fix anything.

There is no way for the son to pretend he doesn’t exist when Sylvia Banchero walks into the store with her mother. Because he is a sharp kid he thinks, bee sting. He’ll tell her at school tomorrow he got stung on the cheek and that’s why he was red and puffy. He will tell her his tears weren’t the crying kind. For the rip on his collar he will need another story.

The book with the ugly, disgusting, stupid waste of time, not needed anymore words stays on the manager’s desk.

This is how you build a boy who learns how to lie. This is how you make a man who knows the importance of pretending he does not care. His children will grow up to be liars too. Good ones. Liars and coveters and takers. His sons will steel their muscles over bed posts and learn to throw their spirit at the crack of a belt. His daughters will spend their lives rearranging themselves into the words the father will never understand.

One day the American son will take his youngest daughter to the printing press where he works. He will show her how he makes books. He will open the door to where his complicated six color press waits for him every morning. “I’m the only one that can use this baby,” he will say. “The only one that knows how.” He will knock his knuckles against metal knobs and slicer blades the size of a man’s arm. The sound will make the daughter remember the things she is trying to forget. “Look at all these,” he will say as he runs his papercut finger over the spines of what he has made. When the daughter reaches up to grab a book he will slap her hand away. Hard. She will suck at the red mark on her wrist when the father tells his daughter those books are not for her.

This is how you make girls who hit back.

Traci Foust (“,” page 5), is a writer whose first memoir, “Nowhere Near Normal,” was published by Simon and Schuster in 2011 and was featured in Marie Claire magazine, NPR and MSNBC Today. She is a memoir instructor for the workshop series Hardcore Memoir. Her second memoir, “Love and Xanax,” will be released by Summertime Publications (Summer 2016). A form of the essay printed here will appear in her forthcoming third memoir, “American Bitch.”