Sofia made her wishes known by slamming a nearly empty juice cup against the wall so hard my glasses flecked with cran-apple. Isaac sat heavily in his “jump-up,” a kind of hanging high chair on a spring that hooks to the doorjamb and gives an infant a bouncy approximation of standing. He laid his huge head sideways on the plastic tray like he couldn’t bear to lift it, unless I moved more than two feet away, of course, in which case he would heave that mighty noggin and scream like a banshee. This was a few years ago, when my kids were six months old and three, and a rainy day alone with them often approached me like a train to a track-crossed car.
We call it “watching the kids,” which used to be called “babysitting.” Babysitting, if you aren’t a high school kid, is on the outs as a term in my circles because it implies a failure to own these terrific decisions with the highest of enthusiasm. And, my darlings, know that I have failed you.
Although these days we have a lot more fun, the kids old enough to chuck a wondrously cold water balloon or kick a ball, I know I was failing that particular afternoon. They sensed my ennui. They were pissed. I was convinced Sofia was making her juice request just to screw with me when she could tell Isaac wouldn’t let me move. Rain had been falling all day on the grill outside, on the soggy lawn, in the little pool that took me a whole hyperventilated day to inflate. I was trapped.
That was near the end of grad-school, after my decade of guitar teaching and playing in bands, and I would really have liked to be preparing for a class or polishing a story or poem, or at least blowing those things off to ride the bike somewhere. I had wanted these kids more deeply than I wanted to go to grad school, but they were kicking my ass a lot harder than creative writing workshops or teaching composition. And my wife worked full-time, a fact with which she was not in love.
I still had my amp and guitar, though, sitting by the couch, not far out of reach and waiting patiently for some attention. In hopes of deflecting juice requests and keeping Isaac happy—sometimes when I played guitar the kids would calm down a la the savage beast—I risked moving to the guitar stand. Isaac lifted his head warily and started a wavering cry. Hold on hold on hold on hold on, I said. I flicked on the amp and grabbed my telecaster and started to play the first thing heavy enough that came to mind, a song I had taught to hundreds of kids, Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train.
At the initial power chord eighth notes, both kids looked at me with surprise and attention for three latent beats.
Duhn-duhn (aye aye aye)
I knew I didn’t have time to repeat the power chord section, so I skipped straight to the awesomely evil single note riff and the kids held on. Isaac bounced on his toes a little, Sofia looked slightly less menacing.
But when I got to the verse part, the glistening triad voicings over the repeated A string, the uplifting major tonality mixed with a heavy distortion, the kids did, in fact, go crazy. Sofia exploded into action, and with nothing in her juice cup, rode some deep-down rock instincts into a wild dance, swinging her arms and her curly hair. Isaac pushed off the floor so hard I was afraid the jump-up would rip off the door frame. It was beautiful. Sofia and I laughed. Isaac smiled and pogo-sticked. Every time I went back to the riff, they would settle down for a minute, just to ratchet back up when we returned to the verse.
We were afforded a small moment by the genius of Ozzy’s young guitarist, Randy Rhoades. A prodigy of a player and famously dedicated to his craft, Rhoades was 23 when “Crazy Train” dropped in 1980. Two years later he died in a plane crash with the band’s tour bus driver, a pilot with a sketchy flight record, who took him on a joy ride in a borrowed Beechcraft.
Our moment was also short-lived, and we ended up back where we began, I’m sure—getting some damn juice accompanied by screaming—although, typically, I don’t remember the come down. Rock and roll magic is ephemeral, as is all magic, and generally unpredictable. Like a mood.
Or a life.
This week’s short story, “Pieces,” by Caroline Sulzer hits on every level—snappy-smart sentences, sharp, emotionally engaging imagery (a mother builds an addition to her child’s crib in an effort to keep her safe), and an intriguing form that works very well, but not too obviously. The title refers, in part, to the story being broken into four pieces that resonate but are not connected by narrative. There is a titular connection, also, to the small fragments that often make up our real lives, and with which we are sometimes left, like a small colorful pile of Legos. “Pieces” identifies our small/big neuroses, our abilities and inabilities to draw our loves to ourselves to satisfaction. Sulzer blends a matter-of-fact tone with just the right surreal touches in her ambitious story.
In Lena Bertone’s flash piece, “Patch,” a mother goes without glasses to convince her young daughter to wear an eyepatch she needs. When they go for a walk like this, the world transforms, a little the way it does when we head blindly into a fine piece of new fiction. Bertone captures the lovely interaction of mother and child and balances that sweetness with humor and the context of vulnerability. That suspenseful vulnerability, along with a sense of menace, also serves to drive the story’s admirable narrative arc.
I added “Pawley’s Island as a Portrait of My Mother’s Dying” by Jonathan Travelstead to this issue because most of us eventually will keep an eye (or already have) on aging parents. And because I don’t think I can handle a “Mother Dying” issue. Either way, this poem explodes. It forced its way into this issue. Travelstead commands the line and delivers intense, original imagery. “The Atlantic bares its teeth/as tide cowers beneath mussel-scrimmed sand,/bits of fractured opal showing in the jawline.” That is a masterful stanza—the ocean as devouring mouth, still somehow beautiful in its terribleness. I’m reminded of a favorite bit of literary praise from a friend: “sad, shiny.”
Photo by Gabriel McIntosh