2014 Creative Nonfiction Contest Judge's Choice
1. Look at a recipe or two before heading willy nilly into fixing something
you’ve never fixed before.
It doesn’t matter that you saw your grandma fix sausage gravy thirty-five years ago, that’s different than you making turkey gravy now. You were a kid then, and were busy looking out the shiny picture window into the dirt yard, wondering when you could go swing under that big oak tree with its flashes of green-green and bright white and earth brown while you fly up high. You liked the way your vision blurred and were thinking about that and not watching your grandma. It was like before one of your seizures, but you could feel dizzy and big and happy without it then getting ugly because that’s what happened when a seizure came, isn’t it? You don’t like to think about that, so you glance back at your grandma, watch her put the flour in, stir, but soon enough you’re watching the window, staring at that swing.
Do you know that’s where your mom swung when she was your age? That wooden swing with its flaking white paint and splinters was new when she was little. That swing was made for her by her daddy, the one who shot himself before you met him. He was a good man, your mama would tell you if it didn’t hurt to talk about. She would tell you how she painted the wood herself, that she handed pieces of wire up to her daddy on a ladder while he strung the inch-thick cable for it around that big tree that shaded your grandmother’s whole yard when your mom was little, too. You didn’t know that? Look at that tree. Look how the tree has healed up over the metal, how far in the wire is. You’ve noticed it before, and it made you feel dizzy as you wondered if it would hold you, wondered if you were too fat and would make that tree let go of its hold after this quarter century. Child, this was her yard as a little girl, when she wandered to get out of work, get her brother to do it first. She swung whenever she could, between chores of egg-collecting and feeding chickens. If you’d let her, if you’d listen, she’d tell you about planning barn-sized chicken coops and feed experiments with her daddy, but all you’re worried about is being released from your gravy lesson. You aren’t paying a lick of attention to your grandma, not listening as she tells you when to add salt, how much pepper. You ache to swing. You like the sandpaper feel of the wood. That’s why you get so many splinters, isn’t it? You move, let the caress of the wood stand in for other touch. Girl, watch that. You’ll get in trouble later if you seek out touch that’s wrong. Sometime you’ll end up hurt, but it won’t be here, not from this.
But hurt doesn’t only come that way, does it? That’s years away. But now you get hurt when the seizures come. When your vision spins and blurs, when they throw you to the ground spitting mad, banging your head, things no one understood as seizures for twenty more years. All you care about right now is swinging at your grandma’s. Now listen girl, it was your mama’s favorite thing first. Maybe you could ask her how to make gravy if you won’t look at a recipe, but hear me now, she didn’t pay any more mind to her mama’s teaching than you are to her right now.
You know you should see her, tend to the gravy, learn about it. You look back at your grandma, get her the sweet milk when she asks, then as you walk back, you spy the barn behind the swing and big tree out that picture window. You really aren’t paying a bit of attention to your grandma are you? You’ll think you did when you go to make your own gravy, but I’m here to tell you, you didn’t. As soon as the gravy is made, you won’t even wait to eat any. She made it for you, but you want outside. You’ll go to the barn when you’re done swinging, climb up the rung ladder into the hayloft. You wonder if the cat will be there with her kittens, the pig with piglets, or a cow with calves, there in the lower level of the barn. Can you watch them without spooking their mamas? When you’re up there, you’ll wonder why your mama left you there, on this farm for the week. Your mama felt the same when her mom went to work out in the field at dawn, came home to feed the men at dinner, then was right back out with them afterward, when your mom’s grandma cleaned up. Your mama missed hers, but knew to cleave to her grandma, which you’re not doing. Right now, all that’s on your mind is swinging, and that you want to see those critters. You’ll think later, when you don’t look at recipes first, that you learned from your grandma how to make gravy. You’ll believe you did. But you need to think about whether you saw her or watched her. Saw; you saw her. You weren’t paying attention to your grandma at all. Check a recipe.
Check recipes and don’t jump into things like you always do. You get an idea and run it to the ground. You throw yourself full into things and then get weary of them before you even start. You did that with painting, crochet, every author you come across, every musician. Every man. You always jumped into relationships with them whether they were good for you or ignored you except when they were drunk. You got yourself there aching for that touch you didn’t get, just like you ached for those splinters from the swing, didn’t you? You may think you didn’t get as much good attention as you should have, and you missed out being the oldest of four. You worry over how your daddy stopped hugging you when you grew those girl-breasts that made him uncomfortable, but you didn’t really have it so bad. Girl, bunches of folks, even your friends, had it much worse—but with your seizures, your friends, the boys who liked you, pulled away and tore off running when they saw you yell and curse and pull your hair, those strange seizures, those auras that made colors bleed so that when you did acid that one time it didn’t seem weird to you at all.
The seizures blurred things in your head so badly they made you sad and worried, made you feel alone because no one stayed around, made you feel huge and big in your head when you really weren’t. So you sought out males, their touches, caresses, whispers, but not love. You ached to feel wanted. That’s the hurt I spoke of earlier, and you found it, but it just made you feel worse about yourself. A manboy paid attention to you, and you let him ride you, you rode him, but then he left. He saw you have a seizure, or had seen you have one, and ran away, just like your friends did when you were a kid. You didn’t have to keep seeking that touch. If you hadn’t, one of those men might have settled down with you, but you didn’t realize that. They didn’t right off, didn’t ask you on dates, like you were unworthy. You should have run from the fraternities, from the places where drinking and screwing were the norm.
You didn’t use precautions. You don’t like to think about that now. It wasn’t very smart, girl. But you learned, you learned. It took a long time, though. You had a few boyfriends in there, ones who did one thing wrong and you ran, sure they would speed away from you soon. You didn’t give them a chance to take root and grow.
That’s like when you took up gardening. Girl, don’t get me talking about your crazy strays into that, tearing up your whole yard, not knowing what you’re doing. Planting and planting and planting—the wrong flowers, plants, bushes, and bulbs into bad soil, soil that shouldn’t grow a thing. You could grow anything but relationships though. All your plants grew, but then you left those gardens, more than one, as soon as things came up. You didn’t want to weed, get back down on your knees, put your hands into the dirt that you loved planting things into. Dirt that was good touch, not bad. Dirt that couldn’t hurt you while you reached into it. Dirt you used to replace empty holes in your relationships. You didn’t want to tend things once you began them, refused to realize you had to tend them or they die. You learned, but it took you a long time.
You did find love, though, didn’t you? And though you tended it with care, he died like the untended plants. The love didn’t, but he did. You found that kind of true love most folks never do, but now his widow, because that’s the only word that fits even though you weren’t officially married, widow to the man you loved, the one who died just like your father, who died like your grandfather, now that he’s gone you won’t date at all. Men don’t live long in your family, do they? And now you’re afraid someone else will go and die on you. You don’t give them a chance, you don’t even allow the option of meeting men—or women, which you think would be nice—because you’re so scared you won’t try. But which is smarter, jumping into cooking without recipes like you did with gravy or never cooking to begin with? With the former you may learn your way into things. Nothing ever happens with the latter. You can’t fast, but it seems you are. It’s been six years since he died, time to move forward. Never mind you might get burned, that’s what happens in a kitchen. You burn some meals, may even ruin a pan or two, but you learn, develop some great meals.
You eventually got to where you can cook pretty darn well, and without recipes. And so you thought you could make gravy. Check some recipes first. Just like you can check with your friends the people you’d take a notion to dating. Friends you have now that you don’t have seizures. You have a bunch of them, but don’t let most of them in too close, do you? They like you plenty, and would answer if the man (or woman) you’re interested in goes through relationships too quickly. That’s like having runny gravy, and if he won’t stand still, there’s no way to thicken that relationship back up. Is he too cloying, jealous, or controlling? You know you won’t stand for that, and no amount of yourself you pour into that relationship is enough. Throw that kind of nasty gravy out, but give it a try. Just ask around, like you should have for gravy advice.
What was that you used to do with baby powder and lotion? Mixed it in the palm of your hand in the bathroom of your childhood home? You were only eight, but loved the texture. You spread it on the walls, and didn’t clean the mess. It was thick and thin, like you imagine quicksand is. You got to see quicksand once in Utah, and it felt just like that mixture. You were taken back to that bathroom when you held that quicksand. You felt the world tilt and get blurry, like you had a seizure coming on. It was so much like your starchy powder-lotion concoctions. You remember not cleaning that powder and lotion. Or did you? You mentioned it to your mama recently, and she acted surprised. How did she not remember? You recall getting fussed at for doing it, but you think because you were eight and your mom was thirty she should remember better than you. Bear in mind, your mom losing her dad, her husband, her daughter, and two sons-in-law suddenly to death is as bad as you losing a dad, life partner, sister, and brother-in-law that way. Plus she’s had more adult living in these forty years than you, and girl, adults lives are harder than yours was as a kid. Remember that when your mom forgets things. She’s forgetting more now. You’ve noticed it, but haven’t said anything to her. She worries about that because her mama, your grandma you saw but didn’t watch make gravy, is so forgetful. Senile. A little anyway. It’s not that dementia you learned about in your schooling that your grandma has. She knows where she is, but she sure forgets what day it is, what she did the day before, things she’s been told. Your mama’s forgetting what she’s been told, and it worries you, just like it worried you when she was sick for months earlier this year. That frightened you and it’s when you realized she’d be seventy soon. When you said that to her, she fussed. You were making her seventy before her time, six months early. She wanted to stay in her sixties as long as possible.
You were always in trouble, and seldom knew why. Your seizures were like temper tantrums, those big ones were. You kicked and hollered and looked a fool.
So see, that’s why you remember that lotion-powder mixture and your mama doesn’t. You remember because it made your vision expand and contract in that fun preseizure way like the swing did. Those pre-seizures were the best where you felt special and enlightened, high as a kite. You felt smart then, remember that? You hadn’t lost control yet like when the seizures came and your memory blacked out. You don’t remember the seizures, just that you got in trouble for things you didn’t know you did. You were always in trouble, and seldom knew why. Your seizures were like temper tantrums, those big ones were. You kicked and hollered and looked a fool. You didn’t know what was wrong until you were a grown up, twenty-two, and your now ex-husband said they had to end, those things you didn’t understand, or even know happened. You studied in that book for abnormal psych class, figured it was temporal lobe epilepsy, then medical tests proved you were right. Before that people thought you were out of control, twirling around screaming, beating your head, and cursing. You were, but it wasn’t your fault, and you don’t even remember them, do you? Only the lotion and baby powder made of corn starch, mixing them into balls in your hand, which made your head and mind expand.
It’s like lies. They thicken, get more dense the further you string them. You’d think they’d lengthen and thin, wouldn’t you? You were a great spinner of lies, but forgot who you told what and got stuck in those complex webs of them. You lied to your sisters, told them the dark brown moles on your face and neck were because you were born black but painted white. Adopted from an African American family. You learned as an adult one of your sisters had thought that true for many years. You took your “Going to Grandma’s” plastic blue suitcase down from the attic and walked out the front door while watching after those baby sisters of yours saying you were leaving, running away from home. To this day you wonder if that’s what caused your dead sister’s borderline personality disorder from the fear of abandonment from that one act. Yes, one more death in your life. Too many, you think, and there are. You’ve had a lot of death around you in the last fifteen years, girl.
People believed your lies, like the one with the moles. You told counselors at your elementary school you were part of an ancient Indian tribe, saw fairies, gnomes, and had a friend named Pam who was invisible. But those weren’t lies, were they? Your seizure-y mind thought those up and you believed them, you saw those things. A friend told you recently she played Indians with you as a kid and didn’t realize you believed them to be real. Your sister Callie did, too, until she decided you were a liar, told the other kids you were retarded because you were seizure-weird. The kind of epilepsy you have, the one that causes those weird seizures, makes a person very strange, doesn’t it? You believed you had special powers, that you could talk to God and he listened and did what you asked, that you could wish upon a star and get what you wanted, or use your eyelashes to wish for the same. You have lucky spoons and forks, even when you’re in public, and what you don’t tell people is that all of those things, the ones I just listed, you still believe in, even with the seizure meds. You didn’t choose the lucky straw one day, chose another because someone took the one that was lucky to you. You’ve asked for the lucky ones from people—even strangers—but that day you didn’t. And that day your partner killed himself. Coincidence? You don’t believe it. Now you ask for the lucky one from people when they get it. You always will. You grab it in front of people when you’re afraid they’ll take the lucky spoon or straw. It’s an oddity you hope people don’t notice too much, but one time someone did. Someone who you worked with, but didn’t know well. You told her your secret, told your whole team who listened. You told her about the straw you didn’t get that was lucky that day your partner committed suicide. She said your name loudly, made you realize you shouldn’t speak of it or talk to the other people about it. Especially people at work.
That happened after you had a seizure at a client’s house, though. You entered a seizure, grabbed your client’s arm and the door jamb, and in that seizure, the kind you remember—a déjà vu—with hallucinations, you could see absolutely clearly the coalburning furnace, feel its heat, see the cellar you were in with your client and the door across the room. You saw the pipes above you, one that spurted hot steam, and you wanted to pull your client away so she wouldn’t get burned. You thought no one would notice when you came out of it, knew it would look like you staring, but you lost your balance when you went into it, had to grab hold of her arm, the door jamb, then stumbled a bit when you came back into yourself the way you do. That boom, swoop, back into yourself because you’ve been elsewhere, in the cellar, looking at things. You hadn’t been there, between her kitchen and living room. You were at your client’s house, only it was and wasn’t. It was her cellar, but it wasn’t really, was it? Even thinking about that seizure now you can feel that heat, see the steam from the pipe.
You told a teammate from work about that seizure. It wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve done, was it? You heard from others how it got around even though your coworker said she wouldn’t tell. She thought you were crazy, and you kind of are. But people don’t understand your seizures, how they can cause hallucinations, how just last month, you saw your partner clear as day coming up to the door of your new house, the one where you moved to get away from the memories of him that permeated every molecule of that house where you lived together eleven years. You knew he was coming into the house, coming home. You could see his face, his crooked smile, happy to be coming back home, happy to see you and the dogs, even though he had never set foot before in your house, your house without him. You saw his black leather jacket, his backpack and how he was carrying it on one arm. Then just as he reached the door, touched it, and you got up to open it for him, you knew it wasn’t real. It doesn’t make you sad anymore to think of him, though, and you’re glad of that. Happy you finally looked at pictures of him and brought him back to life, to living. Not in the real sense—like your hallucination of him coming home—but into your memory. You don’t tell people these things anymore, don’t tell them like you told your officemate about that one. You keep it secret because you think it might be part of why you got fired from that job, one you’d had for fifteen years.
You eventually learned not to talk about your hallucinations that are back, and not to lie. The lying that tied you in thick knots like corn starch and turkey juice with drippings. Wrapped you up so many times with those lies. You quit lying a decade ago, but not because you can’t—you’re talented at it—but because you can’t keep straight what you told who. It got too complicated. Bear that in mind when making gravy. If it thickens too much, add more broth, try to save it, like you tried to save relationships with people you lied to. If there’s not broth, nothing to save that clotted relationship with, if you’ve frightened them with talk of your visions, the ones that keep returning even though your medicines get raised, explain your epilepsy, and if that’s not good enough, if they won’t accept you even knowing what’s wrong, if they think you’re lying, move on. It’s not worth it. You have trouble doing that. I know it’s tough. Stop trying to add more and more broth without the juice of meat, you’ll end up with watered down, tasteless gravy, and that’s no good. Sometimes you just have to let things go.
Always pour sweetness onto meanness given to you, girl. It’s hard, but you’re working on it real good. You do that with your sister Callie when you see her even though it’s awfully hard. It’s why she forgets she doesn’t like you when you’re together, even though she hates you when you are apart. She’s changed the facts from your lives so much, girl, it nags at you. She has it that you were mean to her when you were little. She tells her kids, your niece and nephew, and it makes your scalp tingle. Your mama is taking care of clearing the facts with those kids. They hear the truth—at least from their grandma. Callie won’t ever stop. The older she gets, the worse the stories become. For twenty years, she said you took a machete from the collection of your dad’s knives and swords on the wall, pointed it at her stomach, threatened her. Truth is that you said it, pointed at the knife where it hung there on the wall, isn’t it? You can’t deny that, girl, but no sooner would have touched your daddy’s knives than taken your finger off with one of them because he was so strict. Remember that time he became an angry bear, when you were twenty-one, home from college? You moved some of his suits from hanging on your door to your sister’s? You left that night, said you wouldn’t stay the night again ever, and you didn’t for years.
He was awful when he was like that, made you feel four years old. You don’t think of him being a scary bear full of teeth and growls when you were little, only as you grew, only once you were eleven. Did you block the earlier times, or was he just not mean until you were growing too quickly? You showed him his age. For every year you grew older, he felt he added two so he kept you as a child in his head, even when you were twenty-one. When you moved the suits, he didn’t realize you were two years older than the wife he took when he married your mama. He saw you, the eleven-year-old, the one who wouldn’t have been careful, who would have thrown his suits on a bed and not kept them in their perfect bags with their pressing and straight lines. You knew better, but he couldn’t see without knowing he was getting old. He hated that, girl. Aging. He could feel himself losing parts of his body and mind. It was his memory going that bothered him most, like that time he left the car door open overnight, and he got so mad at himself over that. That’s something your mama doesn’t remember now, which worries you, too.
People weren’t hiring your daddy often near the end. When they saw him, they said, “You aren’t retired?” He tried to make sure everything would be taken care of before he shot himself, but didn’t count on your hearts, did he? Yours and your mama’s, and your sisters’. Your sister Callie checked out then, started revising history. It took awhile for people to realize. She told stories that were wacky and wild, and everyone believed them until slowly things changed. Her stories altered from previous versions, then were all wrong. The ones about your family, you, weren’t true. When you asked your mama, she said, “It was a mistake, she didn’t mean it,” then looked at you through the side of her eye. That glance was your mama saying to ignore it, which held until Callie told of reporting a story about a lion cub at the zoo when she did that sort of thing for her job. Of how her body got ripped because they let her hold that baby lion. How it tore her jeans—even though she wore those fancy suits of hers to work—and she went to the hospital. That the zoo handled the bills. She kept going, telling this story in front of twenty people. Everyone laughed, and you did, too, for a minute. Until it got too far. Before it went into the lion being the size of your grandma’s beagle, and Callie was wearing jeans doing a news story she always wore those fancy pantsuits for. Until it was entirely make believe. You and your mama’s eyes met, made a look, and you knew it was all made up.
Now it’s a dagger. It’s moved up to her chest, clear to her throat. She says you hacked and slashed, broke her skin, tried to carve her head off, says she had to wear a turtleneck in the summer for weeks so your mom wouldn’t see it.
It’s gotten worse. She said just today, at a birthday party that you rode your bikes all the way across town for your piano lessons every week. You and your mama told her no, and Callie got mad. So angry she moved, left where she was sitting to go fume down the hall, mad as a woodstove with coals turned red in it. Her tales are like the knife that began a machete on the wall, which has changed from machete to sword to dagger. When a machete, she said you held it near her belly, sliced, made a cut. That you ripped her button off her shirt, punctured her stomach with the point. As a sword, you put it to her back and pushed in and made her bleed. Now it’s a dagger. It’s moved up to her chest, clear to her throat. She says you hacked and slashed, broke her skin, tried to carve her head off, says she had to wear a turtleneck in the summer for weeks so your mom wouldn’t see it. She’s angry, so many years later. Mad at your mama now for not noticing, for not stopping the abuse she says you did, for not asking why she wore a turtleneck during that summer. The summer she was a lifeguard. The year she wore her swimsuit around the house more than clothes. The family listens to her knife tales. No one tells her the knives weren’t sharpened, had blunt edges. That they were museum exhibits. She’s beyond able to understand she’s misremembering, past the point your daddy let himself get. When his mind started to go, he stopped time.
Your sister’s brain is mush from electroconvulsive therapy and too many drugs, and girl, your daddy thought that would happen to him. Those drugs are prescribed for her. None of you—not you, your other sister, your mama—know how she gets the amount she does. Callie’s eyes are glossy, shellacked. Her lips parted, mouth open. Sometimes with drool seeping out. It brings up thoughts of people in institutions, where she should be, you think. Did you know she talks of dying every day? How bad she wants to, how she wants the mugger of death to steal her life away. She tells her kids—that niece and nephew she lies about your childhood to—that she wants to be dead, wants to die, to kill herself. She breaks furniture, crushes things, smashes their hearts while they watch, crouched on the floor away from her, their eyes as wide and glossy as hers. They saw their daddy dead from a heart attack, so their mama, your sister, is the only parent they have.
And here’s the real reason you don’t like her lying to them about you: when she’s gone, those kids, they must trust you. They can’t think you bullied and beat their mama if you’re to care for them. And it will come to that, won’t it? She can’t find her mind, it’s soaked in Klonopin and Thorazine. It’s near to drowning. When it’s not, she’s violent, spitting and kicking and hitting, but in no seizure. And you weren’t violent to others in your seizures. You worry about those kids even more then. But not just them—your mama and you, too. She blames you for her life, says her brain went mushy when your partner died, puts that on disability forms. She tells you it’s your fault whenever she has the mind to, when she has a mind. Says it’s your fault she lost her good job, then the next one. Your fault for where her life is, in zombie, personality disorder land. You need to stay kind to her anyway, girl. Let her say whatever she wants. It hits you in the heart every time, just like if she took that dagger of your daddy’s, sharpened it, and stuck it in you, moved it around.
You think if someone’s allowed to be crazy because your partner died, it should be you, even though you don’t want to be crazy. It makes you fume, a hot teakettle blowing with steam, that she cites that date, that reason, blames you for all her crazy. Be steel. Be strong as the dagger. Those kids are going to need you. The gentle love you show them now will matter. And girl, that includes the kindness and patience you show their mama. Keep adding sweetness when she’s ugly—to herself, her kids, you. You’re sisters, you didn’t pick her, but that niece and nephew need to see an adult who’s normal. Yes, even with your seizures, your hallucinations, weirdness, and strangeness, that’s you. You’re the milk and butter here, girl. You and your mama and other sister, you’re what can save those kids. Add your tenderness in like the milk and butter, and stir in. It’ll fix the gravy, and hopefully will mend those kids.
Elizabeth Glass holds Masters degrees in Creative Writing and Counseling Psychology. She received an Emerging Artist Award in Nonfiction from the Kentucky Arts Council in 2014, and a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Her writing has appeared in River Teeth's "Beautiful Things" series, New Plains Review, Writer's Digest, The Chattahoochee Review, and other journals. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.