Weekly Featured Essay
Learning to let go of a family she never knew, Barbara G. Caceres let’s you into her heart.
by Barbara G. Caceres
All I ever knew of my grandmother was her name, a southern, old-fashioned name that was once used in a rap song. Ola Mae had four children by the time she was twenty, two boys and two girls. The youngest was my mom, Maggie. In 1931 when Ola Mae was just fifteen, she married Sherman Taylor, a good-looking, hard-working young man with soldier straight posture. At five feet four Ola Mae stood two inches taller than her husband. Their children inherited her thick, coal black hair, high cheekbones, and piercing blue eyes.
They lived in McNairy County, a rural farming community in West Tennessee but moved to Peoria, Illinois when the children were no longer babies. Sherman went to work in the construction trades as a welder and Ola Mae went to work planning her eventual escape. I don’t know if the plan to leave was born of a sudden catalytic event or if it slowly worked its way into her thoughts a little each day. When Ola Mae left, she took nothing with her, leaving behind little parts of herself in each room of the house. Her embroidered cheesecloth and ruffled apron still hung near the kitchen sink, a canister of lilac scented powder remained on a narrow shelf above the toilet, and a dozen photos of Ola Mae with Sherman and the kids at different ages sat collecting dust on the old oak side table in the living room. Ola Mae shed the skin of her old life, her old self, emerging as a whole new person, someone unburdened by family responsibilities, free to come and go when and wherever she wanted.
My First Real Job
by Pam Munter
At twenty-one, few of us fully understand who we are yet, and that inevitable identity struggle was in full flower in 1964 in Boston. Surviving college was easy compared to juggling the existential weight of making the next big decision. It seemed so important, as if that first post-college job would set the course for the rest of my life. I was wrong about that. My first real job lasted all of four months.
I had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in journalism a few months earlier and applied for a job as a “copykid” with the Christian Science Monitor in Boston. My tenuous religious attachment arose from my adolescent worship of film star Doris Day, who was everything I wanted to be. She was also a Christian Scientist, so I—lacking an informed belief system—started attending our local church in Pacific Palisades, California when I was fifteen. I liked its intellectualism, the lack of ritual and pretension, and the handy book (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures) to which I could refer for life’s answers. The bond was reinforced by a warm reception from the church community. College jarred that loose a bit but after graduation, with no other plans, I leaped at the opportunity to work for what was then one of the top newspapers in the country. Late that summer, I received the letter offering me the job at $54 a week. I’d start a month later.
The Wrong Side of the Tracks
by Claire Alexander-Joly
As far as I knew, the world of my childhood was defined and divided by class, and as far as I was concerned, I did not live on the right side of the tracks. From 1963, when I was born, to 1986 when I left for the United States at the age of twenty-three, I lived in a big rectangular block of concrete in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, right outside the Périphérique, the freeway that contours the city and separates it from the banlieues. The building where I and my family lived sat on a hilltop, and from there overlooked not the beautiful sights for which Paris is known but its far less attractive working-class neighborhoods.
Paris and its environs are divided by the Seine. The river runs through the city from the southeast to the southwest curving upward toward the middle. L’Île de la Cité—the site of the Notre Dame Cathedral—is the official center of the capital. South of the Seine lies the so-called “Left Bank” or “Rive Gauche,” historically the place of artists and intellectuals; to the north lies the “Right Bank” or “Rive Droite.” The terms are a bit misleading, suggesting an east/west division rather than a north/south one.
Kisses Don’t Lie
by Tony Hozeny
It was one of those muggy August days when you’re so bored you wish school would start again. Of course, you’d never say that. My friend Carl and I lay on the grass near the Chicago and Northwestern railroad tracks, chewing on wild chives and throwing stones into Wingra Creek. Carl was a year older, tougher and stronger than I was. We wore old tee shirts and beat-up jeans.
“You want to check out Franklin Field? Maybe some guys are playing baseball.”
“Nah,” Carl said. “Too hot. I’m so Goddamn bored. You got any money? I’m thirsty.”
I shook my head and fired a stone into the creek. “Look, man, I hit a lily pad.”
by Michelle Cacho-Negrete
The Getaway – Part One
When my mother left my stepfather, she travelled 3,000 miles away to California—a trip made mythic by distance, by time, by intimacy with yet another stranger in our lives, a woman named Beattie. Children, my brother and I were swept away with her on this seemingly mythical journey. Fleeing seemed a central theme in our lives, perhaps a vestigial gene not weeded out by the passage of time, elegant in its continuing usefulness for flight from pre-historic saber-toothed tigers to the more recent pogroms in Russia and Concentration Camps in Eastern Europe, culminating in flight from a bad marriage. Limited funds had previously made for limited destinations: Mystic Connecticut, Freehold New Jersey, anywhere Long Island. We had become accustomed to arrivals in such destinations culminating in same-day departures to return home, but this getaway was different, New York would be left too far behind for a day trip.
The Exact Truth
by Gary Fincke
“You awake?” I heard my younger son’s voice just before the tapping on the bedroom door registered. The clock radio read six-thirty a.m.
“Why so early?” I managed, checking to see if my wife Liz was awake, whether she was preparing, like I was, for bad news on a mid-January Sunday morning.
For nearly five months, my son had been a Food Dude delivery boy and a guitarist in a rock band. The band had an occasional show, but nearly all of his evenings he drove a variety of dinners to customers in houses and apartments within a fifteen-mile radius of the company’s home base, which operated out of a nearby KFC: omelets and muffins from Perkins, roast turkey dinners from a local diner, even steak and shrimp from a high-end restaurant, risking the purchaser’s unhappiness with the quality of a fifteen minute-old steak and baked potato delivered like an upscale Meals-on-Wheels.
“I waited for a while,” Aaron said. “Until it started to get a little bit light out. I’ve been up all night.”
He took one step into the nearly-dark room, stopped, and then he swept the walls with his eyes as if he were memorizing for a recall-the-objects test. “I went out after work. Eleven’s not late. I ate something at Perkins, and I was driving back past the store, and it was full of police. Arlene, the manager, got robbed last night right after I left. She was closing up when I walked out the back door. She was maybe two minutes behind me.”
by Judy Lev
I have been making mud bricks with tourists six times a week. The tourists—Jews, Christians and Hindus, young and old, believers and atheists—dirty their hands in a batter of straw, water and mud, while imagining, with my encouragement, Egyptian slavery. After Brick-building 101 I lead each group to a shaded overlook with a table covered with branches of hyssop. From there, the tourists see the modest gray-green hyssop bushes hugging the gray limestone rocks of Neot Kedumim, The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel. “Take a sprig of hyssop,” I say, quoting Moses in chapter twelve, verse twenty-two of the Book of Exodus, “and dip it in the blood that is in the basin.”
Each tourist picks up a sprig of hyssop and dips it in the plastic cup on the table filled with red food coloring.
“Take the hyssop and touch the lintel and the two side posts of your door,” I continue, and ask them to paint with the hyssop, its fuzzy little absorbent gray-green leaves as paintbrush, the wooden beam of the overlook. Thus, hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors at Neot Kedumim re-live the night God, dressed as the Angel of Death, passed over the houses of the Children of Israel during His mission to smite only the Egyptians. I enjoy this hands-on activity that makes the experience of leaving Egyptian slavery come to life. Doing it six times a week lifts my self-esteem from the gutter.
I Drive, Therefore I Am
by Dennis Vannatta
I mustered out of the Army in Ft. Dix, New Jersey, in May of 1971 after spending thirteen months in what was then known as West Germany. I took a cab along with three other soldiers to the airport in Philadelphia. At a stoplight, the driver beside us revved his engine and when the light turned green peeled rubber for thirty feet. We GI’s cheered. We knew we were back in America.
No, it wasn’t the wide front lawns, the blue jeans and sneakers, not even the McDonald’s and Dairy Queens that told us we were in America, it was the sound of that engine exploding next to us, the tires squealing like a live thing afire that nearly brought tears to our eyes. It was a sound we never heard in Europe.
I don’t claim that other countries don’t have their car cultures. In racing terms (except for the monotonous left-hand-turn version favored in the U.S.) Americans aren’t the best drivers. That would be Europeans and South Americans. We don’t make the best cars, either. That would be the Italians. But if we don’t have the best drivers and the best cars, we certainly have the most drivers and the most cars. That’s because for us having a car is simply a part of existing; not having one—except in certain urban enclaves like Manhattan, if that qualifies as America—is virtually inconceivable. Many of the more liberal-minded of us shake our heads at those “You can take my gun when you pull it from my cold, dead fingers” signs, but change the “gun” to “car,” and we’d enthusiastically agree.
Encounter with the Future
by Jarmila K. Sullivan
In a shabby one-room school, a scrawny little boy walked slowly toward the teacher’s desk, hoping to delay the inevitable punishment. The teacher stood in front of his desk and in his right hand held a long, thin piece of wood, which made a swish in the air just before it hit its target. He was tapping it softly on his left palm, as if to test its agility. He eyed the boy and said in a cruel, cold voice:
“You are getting two extra whips for walking slow.”
The boy shivered and sped up. As he was taught, he offered his hand, fingers gathered together like a rose bud, exposing the soft, unprotected tip of his fingers to the cruelty of the wooden whip. He was not sure whether it was harder to withstand the pain or to suppress the tears. Letting the tears appear in front of the teacher meant further punishment.
The teacher was dressed in the latest “hussar” fashion. His trousers were tucked in his boots, which were polished to perfection. His hair, glistening with pomade, looked dark against the white collar that peaked out of his tight jacket. The jacket was held even tighter at the waist with a wide belt, a belt he was not shy to use. Many children had the scars to attest to it. His mustache was twisted upwards at the ends and the boy could see his lips curled in an ugly smile.
“This will help you walk faster,” the teacher hit the boy two times.
“This will help you remember that you are Hungarian and to speak Hungarian instead of local gibberish.” He raised the whip and hit the boy’s fingers hard three times.
Like what you’ve been reading? All the fine essays published throughout the history of the magazine can be accessed via the contributors/archives page.
Want even more? Here are links to our two most recent issues:
Work from twenty-two fine writers. You will be transported into war zones, alongside horse tracks, within homeless shelters and food kitchens, laundromats and trailer parks. These true stories will inspire, enrage, provide hope, and change your perspective.
A full-bodied, eclectic issue featuring twenty-five essays.
Don’t Forget to Check out Our Anthologies
Encounters features fifteen eclectic essays originally appearing in bioStories magazine, all focused on some of those chance encounters that can transform our lives.