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Featured Writer: Mary Cappello

Pushcart Prize Nominations


We're pleased to announce that we've nominated the following works for The Pushcart Prize XLIII:

Phong Nguyen, "Senior Paper: On T. S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufork' by Harold Kelner" (fiction, vol. 14/1)
Scott Onak, "The Grand Egress" (fiction, vol. 14/1)
Sonja Johanson, "Cassandra" (poetry, vol. 14/1)
Lisa Chen, "Professors and Madmen" (creative nonfiction, Web Edition Summer 2017)
Julian Randall, "Codeswitch Decomposing into Lil Wayne Lyric" (poetry, Web Edition Winter 2017)
Cocoa-Michelle Williams, "Playing in the Johnny Plug" (poetry, Web Edition Winter 2017)

 Daisy Pitkin

 

 

Ninth Letter is honored to feature this month Daisy Pitkin's "Sowing Cycles," the winner of the 2014 Disquiet Literary Prize in Nonfiction Award.
    Pitkin's essay on her childhood in rural Ohio is a far from bucolic look at one of the family farms we drive by on the highway without a thought, always on our way to somewhere else. "Sowing Cycles" encourages us to take our foot off the gas pedal, as it is absolutely haunting, a memoir centering around a near-helpless and yet terrifying mother, and the various tactics, both physical and emotional, that her children employ in order to survive. The restraint of the writing, its sadness and empathy, only adds to this essay's power.

--Philip Graham

 

The school bus stops in front of the church. Ian and I stay in our seats at the back until Mrs. Hardy pulls the bus over and opens the door with that sighing metal lever. Sometimes we are sleeping and sometimes we pretend to sleep because if we don't rise and gather our notebooks and book-bags, she will put the bus in park, walk to the back, and wake us up with gentle shoulder nudges and by singing our names.

We are the last or almost the last off the bus at the end of this and everyday. We live out far--on gravel roads in the farm village, New Rochester, population about 250, built to house and teach and save the souls of people who work on the Walston farm. In 1902, the farmworkers, who lived here in most of these same small houses, which are grouped together between Walston's backfield and the edge of the Portage River, built a small church that still has services on Sundays, and a one-room schoolhouse that was boarded-up sometime in the 1960s.

The school bus stops in front of the church. And on this day, Ian, my barely younger brother, who'd been lying on his stomach on the seat across the aisle from me, slides from the green plastic seat to the floor on his knees, holds a finger up to his lips and makes his eyes wide to signal the start of a game. Mrs. Hardy looks through the concave mirror that distorts our faces and bodies and the shape of the bus, and says, " C'mon guys. You're home."

I imagine that in this moment, we stand to zip our coats and put on our hats. We might be using wool socks for gloves, or maybe one of us has the blue and red pair that at some point got too small for our older brother. What I remember is that on this day, we spit ourselves out of the bus and hit the snow running. We slide from side to side like cross-country skiers, scarring the new snow. We pass the small brick church, the Rites' trailer, the Hayes' white house, the greenhouse where the old man lived and never left, the Krukemeyers' blue house, then we slide down the sidewalk under the boughs of the Black Hills spruce that begins to die that winter, up four steps and onto the porch. We stomp our feet and take off our tennis shoes in a practiced set of motions--“toe to heel, then socked foot on cold cement, then toe to heel again and wet and cold seeping in, then through the front door and into the house.

We are still young. I know because I remember that house is still being heated by a boiler in the basement and not yet the kerosene heater that arrived after the boiler blew out. We stand over the black iron grate that vents the heat into in the living room. We hold the bottom seams of our coats out so that they puff up with hot air. From the other room, we hear our mother singing a slow, dragging version of an old bluegrass song about throwing a body down to a river, about throwing one's own body down to a river. She must hear us laughing or hear the the grate rocking against its frame--the door to her room closes, the knob locks from the inside.

*

In school we learned about Ohio, about our particular place in Ohio. That it had been a swamp. That it had been called "The Great Black," because of the color of soil and wet tree bark, and also because it swallowed whole many of the people who tried to cross or drain it. "Black" here being both the presence of color and a void, the absence of bodies.

We learned to think of the farmers--who survived hordes of mosquitoes and the sicknesses they spread, and who figured out how to pull clay out of the wetness and bake it into drainage tiles--as heroes. And because we were in training to someday take over the farming this land, we learned a lot about the land itself. Beginning in third grade "Ohio" class, we learned to identify local trees and birds, field crops, and the names of their best pollinators. We visited farms and learned about erosion and planting cycles. Our vocabulary and spelling lessons were built around words about the land and about what we were to do with it: fallow, tassel, blight, bushel, combine, plant, rotate, cultivate, irrigate, harvest.

In the fourth grade, when Mrs. Hansen broke a dried ear of corn in half, passed the halves around the classroom, and instructed us to pull off the biggest kernels we could find, we began to learn about seeds.

*

Ian and I are spinning in slow circles down the middle of New Rochester Road, cradling our heads back on our shoulders so that we can look straight up at light green buds on maple boughs. Soybean seeds have been put down in the field across the road in front of the house. We know that soybeans in this field means that corn seeds will be going down in the field behind the barn. This is our favorite rotation because when the corn grows high enough in that field, its alleys are angled from our backyard to the river, and they guide us to its bank like crows.

We spin our way to the end of the sidewalk, and I pull open the metal mouth of the mailbox to collect the junk and bills, but, on this day, the box is empty. Ian tugs on my coat sleeve and points to the driveway where our mother's blue car sits under the silver maple. Instead of moving toward the house, he sits on muddy, just thawed ground next to the mailbox and pokes a stick at a worm. I sit next to him and try for a few minutes to rub one stick into another to make a fire. The bottoms of our jeans soak up frigid water from the grass and dirt, and when our butts numb so that we can no longer feel the ground beneath us, we get up and walk to the house.

Inside, our mother slumps in her cream La-Z-Boy. She is still but her eyes are open, red and glassy. Mascara streaks her cheeks in streams, running toward the corners of her mouth. She breathes shallow and sharp. Her white nightgown hangs loosely around her neck and bunches around her knees. Her arms are wrapped around her shoulders and her fingers are knotted in her hair.

We move along the wall opposite her to the kitchen and examine it for chores left undone. We pick up the brown paper bags full of trash for burning, and carry them through the backdoor. Outside Ian says, "On your marks, get set...," and we race to the burn-barrel behind the barn. We stuff the bags down into the metal drum, which is half full of hard-packed ash from past burnings. I soak the garbage with too much lighter fluid from a plastic jug and light it on fire by dropping a lit match down from above my head.

We stare into the flame for a while and watch pieces of ash float up and fall over the edge of the bare field which will in a month be ankle high with corn. I can feel my eyes glassing over as I look deep into the distortive heat of fire eating into inky cereal boxes. Ian waves his hand in front of my eyes, an exaggerated motion, a pretend test of my seeing, a gesture we are in the process of establishing to acknowledge our mother's awayness. I blink and look over at him, his eyes also glassy, his lips curled into a tenuous close-mouthed smile.

*

I am sitting at the kitchen table with our mother and stepfather giving a statement to the police. James has his own awayness, and this time he's been missing for a week. I describe his car, where the dents and scratches are. The police officer takes notes in a tiny, spiral bound tablet. I describe the mole he has on the right side of his nose, which our mother doesn't remember. I get a school picture from the junk drawer in the kitchen and point the mole out to her. She takes the photograph from my hands and stares at it for what seems a long time.

The next night or maybe the night after that, Ian and I are sitting on the floor in the living room playing war with a deck of cards when we hear his car coming too fast down the gravel road, bottoming out in the pits. Our mother bolts out of her easy chair, her anger, as always, overwhelming any other emotion. Noah, Ian, and I lean over the couch to watch through the front window. Her sprinting body disappears into the pitch black of the yard and then reappears suddenly when she reaches the headlight beams. The moment her breath and hair are illuminated by those beams of light, she slips on a patch of ice and goes down hard.

*

Mrs. Hansen talked a lot about things happening in cycles. And I wonder now if this is the time when all kids, even kids who do not come from the country, begin to learn that most things grow and that we are to think of the growing as a story--with a beginning, a middle, and some kind of end.

This was the year that grandparents began to die, or at least the first year that it was talked about, that it was sad in a public way. First Janette Smith's grandmother died, then Jimmy Sharp's grandfather, then one of Jeff Geisbeuler's grandparents, though I can't remember which one. On the day that it happened to each of them, the school secretary called them out of class to the Principal's office. Mrs. Hansen would leave the classroom with them and then come back by herself to collect their things. We didn't know what was happening, but we knew to be quiet while left alone in the classroom. All three of them came back to school changed, quieter, with bodies that moved a little differently from before, more fluidly, as if their gestures were no longer separate movements but one solidly composed forward motion.

*

Ian and I walk through the front door. The house is dark and cold. The basement boiler had blown itself out years before, but the kerosene heater we now use has been pushed into a corner, unlit and empty of fuel.

Ian goes down to the basement to bring up the metal gas can. I knock on the door to our mother and stepfather's room and then push the door open slowly. She is in bed, under a thin blanket, sleeping and shivering. I shake her shoulder and whisper to her, wanting to wake her unsuddenly. I put my hand against her cheek the way she sometimes does when one of us is sick. Her skin is cold and grayish. Her lips are purpleing. She doesn't move.

We pile the blankets on top of her and tuck them in around her feet and sides. We wrap a scarf from the closet around her neck. We light the heater and put water to boil on the stove. I pull the pink rubber hot water bottle from the bathroom closet.

*

The metal bars of the heater glow red at night. Ian and Noah both have burn marks on their backs and arms, more from being fearless than careless. Some of their burns were so severe that we had to tape cardboard strips around the edges to keep the cloth of their pajamas from getting stuck. Each burn, once healed, somehow made them less afraid.

I move more slowly, stepping around the edges of the room, sitting far enough back so that my nose and cheeks do not turn red. My eyes don't water. My body is not marked like theirs.

*

The Portage River flooded that spring, unable to handle the sudden melting of snow, and after the water had been drained, after the land had been reclaimed, Mrs. Hansen asked us to bring in soil from home. I forgot to collect mine until just before getting to the church for the bus in the morning, so I ran to the edge of the soggy field that ran up against the church's back wall and stuffed two chunks of wet dirt into my book-bag. On the long bus ride, the dirt began to dry and crumble and spill out through the seams of the bag. At school, I found a bucket in a hall closet and snuck to the basement stairwell to transfer the dirt into it from my bag.

We left our soil-filled containers in the school's side yard for weeks. We learned that if corn seeds are planted too early, when the soil is still cold and wet, the seeds may rot while waiting for the warmth that tells them to sprout. If the seeds are planted too late, a September frost could kill the plant before the corn is ready for harvest. We took the temperature of the soil every morning, and one day, when it was finally, barely right, we removed the kernels we'd each been saving inside our desks, and pushed them down into our soil.

*

I don't remember how it became Ian's job to refill the kerosene fuel tank. When the flame on the wick dies out, he waits for the heater to cool before going down to the basement to carry the can up. If it is full and heavy, he uses his foot as a lever to lift it onto each step. Sometimes he loses track while siphoning the kerosene and squeezes the plastic pump too many times. Thin, clear liquid spills over the metal lip of the heater, gliding down the side in tiny ripples. It soaks into the carpet and leaves a greasy stain.

*

Our mother is always cold. She used to sit on the boiler grate with a blanket expanding around her like a microwaved marshmallow. She pads her body with other blankets underneath to keep from being burned by the hot iron.

The night the boiler breaks, I hear her on the phone telling someone it has blown up. She is crying and shaking. The hand that holds the receiver is white knuckled. She yells into the phone that the house is on fire, that it's burning down around us, that we won't make it out alive. Her voice is sharp and broken--she's sweating and not breathing well.

The house is freezing. My breath crystalizes when I test the air with a hard, wide-mouthed exhale. But there has been no explosion. Nothing is on fire. This is when I know to stop believing the things my mother says.

*

In fifth grade we received a kind of sexual education. The boys were taken to one room and the girls were taken to another. We, the girls, were taught words for parts of our bodies that were previously, at least for me, unnamed. I remember that my cheeks burned with the shame of the existences brought on by these new names, a new kind of seeing, an inability to now un-see what had always been present but invisible. There was no real talk of sex except that we should not have it if we wanted to be good. My brothers later told me that the boy's section of this discussion mainly focused on body odor and hygiene.

What I really remember learning that year is that each kernel in an ear of corn is a female reproductive organ, an ovary, and that each ovary grows its own silk. Mrs. Cribs showed us pictures in an agriculture book that looked like x-rays of baby corn. The silks inside the fibrous, cupping leaves that surround the ear--the seedpod--dropped away from the tiny kernels in a curve like an anchor chain in seawater. She wrote the word "monoecious," on the chalkboard and we wrote it in our notebooks. The lesson was about the definition of monoecious, meaning a plant that is both male and female. But she explained it to us by saying that monoecious is like corn, the nature and rhythm of which we innately understood.

She passed around a handful of silk. The strands were sticky, "To catch pollen," she said. The pollen is carried by wind and gravity from the tops of stalks down to the silks around them. Each kernel, each seed, each ovary, carries enough information to tell the plant when to sprout out of the ground, when to grow its first two leaves and then its own female flower, when to put energy into pushing its stalk up higher toward the sun, when to grow a male flower, a tassel. The tassels are vessels, carriers of snowy sacks of pollen that are opened and emptied in a sequence of explosions like distant fireworks, small and silent on the horizon. The tassel knows because the stalk knows because the seed knows that the pollen should fall for thirteen days; five days before and eight days after the silk strands on the flower below reach the sun.

*

We stand on top of the iron boiler grate in the living room and let hot air puff up our clothes and hair. We use this heated stage to put on plays about windy cities and Marilyn Monroe. We peel off wet jeans and mittens and weigh them down on the heater with rocks until they are dry. We watch ice from our boots drip down into the dark empty space below. On the coldest nights, we bring out our bedsheets and blankets and sleep on the grate, curled around each other like cats.

*

After Mrs. Hardy drops us off, Ian and I climb an oak tree in the church lawn. We are in the years in school when we are given plastic flutes and taught to play songs like "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Standing high in the tree with our feet in the same crevice, our knees touch, but we lean away from each other, settling our weight on different branches. We try to play "Danny Boy," a song we have not learned in school but that reminds us of our father, by humming the notes and then fiddling around to find the right fingerings on the body of the instrument. We stay there until just before night sets in completely.

We walk to the house twirling the recorders like batons, going slowly because our mother has had an angry few days, and we don't know how we will find her.

I walk through the door first. The house is warm, the kerosine heater wick is set to its highest setting, the flame pours out over the glass halo that is supposed to hold it in. All of the lights are on. Our mother stands in the kitchen wearing summer sandals and a sundress. A record plays in her bedroom, the volume of the player is also turned to its highest setting. She sings along--some hippie song about mountain treasure and Judgement Day. She looks up at us from a three-ring binder of handwritten recipes that I've never seen before. She smiles and is beautiful. She has flour on her eyelashes and in her hair and her hands are working through the softness of bread dough.

*

James climbs through the bedroom window at night, sneaking out to smoke. I get out of bed wrapped in an electric blanket and lean through the window to watch. His hands are still small enough that the cigarette looks long in his fingers. He is only a few feet away, and the smoke and snow smells mix and come in through the window in tiny gusts. The roof is weak and frozen, hard to climb on without sending ice and shingles to the ground.

In the morning, my mother sees two sparrows picking at a shingle piece in the yard. I hear the front door slam and then the door to the basement, where she keeps the wooden paddles and the whipping switch. If she has told him once, she has told him a thousand times.

Later in the bathroom, I wrap a washcloth around my pointer finger and dip it into the puddle of alcohol we had poured into the cap. I touch it to the marks on his legs. Knowing how much it hurts him makes my nose and teeth throb. I make a hissing sound with every point of contact.

This is part of what we have agreed not to mention to each other. "Healing and re-hashing are parallel planes," James says at my father's house, years later, after a night of too many beers. To demonstrate, he holds up his his hands, palms down, and moves them over and away from each other like birds flying in opposite directions.

*

In school, we learned that in saving seeds, the choosing is important. For corn seeds, only the biggest kernels from the best ears should be saved. We learned about crop yield and hybridization and that if you plant a field with seeds from the strongest plants from two different fields, and you plant them in the right positions and pollinate them in the right way at the right time, they will grow into even stronger plants with even better seeds for the next year of planting.

*

The basement is used for laundry, kerosene, deep freezers, shelter from tornadoes, and the storage of Christmas decorations. Almost every March, the Portage floods it to the second or third step and the water sends Christmas ornaments and strings of tinsel floating around with lint from the dryer. The washing machine and dryer sit up on a wooden table, and we track the water levels with notches carved into one of its legs. We measure the water height against parts of our bodies--our hip bones, our shins--and the notches are labeled with our names and these body parts instead of feet and inches.

There are tornadoes in our part of Ohio, too, and the basement is the place where we hide from them. The tornadoes do not come in the same season as the floods, but my brothers and I joke that some year they will, and then we would need a lifeboat.

*

The house smells like kerosene from September until the windows can be opened in May or June. Our mother is always cold, and she gets angry if the heater is turned down. Eventually it gets stuck on the highest setting--the one that the instructions inside the metal lid say should only be used for lighting. My mother says that she has always been a woman of extremes.

Burning that high, the linen wick lets off a thick inky smoke. On Sundays, my brothers hold me up on their shoulders to scrub soot out of the ceiling corners. In spring, we wash the walls with soap and water and watch the grime run down in streams.

*

Gene Walston, the Walston now charge of the farm that surrounds New Rochester, spoke at a school assembly when I was in third grade. I remember feeling proud because I knew him personally--we lived on his farm, and he sometimes let Ian and me ride with him in his combine as it shaved the corn from the ground. At the assembly, he said something about magic existing in the middle of the fields--that there is something about the quiet cleanness of a plant surrounded by nothing but other plants in all directions that makes for good seeds.

*

Ian and I run up the porch stairs, take off our shoes, twist the knob to the front door, but it is locked. Our mother's car is in the driveway. We knock on the door, but she does not open it. We walk around to the side of the house to her bedroom windows and Ian wraps his arms around my knees to lift me. I knock on the window to wake her if she's sleeping, but there is no response. We give up, and as we pass back around the front of the house, Ian says he sees her in the window. I look up, but he says, no, she's moved away now.

*

We go back to the porch, peel off our dirty socks, slide our shoes onto bare feet, and decide to go to the broken-down bridge on the Portage, which is blockaded from the road but still intact enough to hold our weight.

Ian takes off running through the cornfield behind the barn. He is fast, and though I'm a little older and we are still young enough for that to matter, I struggle to keep up with him. The field is in the process of being tasseled, so groups of rows alternate from full-height to half-cut. Yelling or singing, I'm not sure which, we start on a low pitch and then raise our voices to a higher note each time we get to a tall grouping of rows. We alternate our voices back and forth from low notes to high, following the pattern of the corn all the way to the river. The faster we move, the faster our voices change notes, and because I'm falling behind, our voices alternate on the notes and create a shifting dissonance.

At the river, we climb over the road barriers and walk out onto the bridge. We probably do the things we always do; throw sticks down into the mucky Portage water, push loose stones into the thick tar that covers the bridge's gravel surface, jump over its rusty side to the bank where we would in a few years build a fort.

When it gets late, we walk back to the house, taking the roads this time because the corn can be a scary place at night, when it is quiet and full of crows. Our stepfather's white Duster is in the driveway, and our socks are no longer on the porch. The living room light has been left on for us, and there is mac-and-cheese in a bowl on the counter. Their bedroom door is closed and the room is already dark.

*

Our fifth grade class began to look like a farm in miniature. We crammed our desks into one half of the classroom. The other half was filled with styrofoam cups seeding soybeans, corn, tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, cabbage, and wheat. The cups were an experiment to teach us about field localization. We planted seeds that had been saved from five or seven different farms--some from farms in our county and some from farms in other parts of Ohio or maybe even Michigan or Indiana. All of the cups held soil from the Hertzel farm just outside of town. We labeled the cups carefully with the names of the farms that had sent the seed inside it. On the wall, a map with flagged pins illustrated where the farms were located, and thick marker lines labeled with milage numbers showed how far they were from us. The experiment went as we were taught to predict--the seeds from the farms in our county grew faster and stronger in our soil than the seeds from the far-away farms did. The seeds from far away tended to sprouted later or not at all, grew too tall and lanky, and blighted more easily.

Each week we drew weekly pictures of the seedlings in field notebooks, annotated with dates, plant names, farm names and distances, and other descriptive notes like, "Strawberry blossoms are small but pretty." On the last page of my book I wrote, "Seeds are born to be in a place like people are."

*

Ian squeezes my hand to wake me up and I peel my face away from the green plastic seat. He carries my book-bag along with his own down the bus aisle. Mrs. Hardy helps me down the stairs of the bus, her skeletal thin hands gripping both of my arms from behind, half lifting me to the ground. I'm feverish and dizzy. Ian puts his arm around my waist and we slowly make our way down the road to the house.

We walk through the front door and our mother is in her La-Z-Boy. She looks angry, and though I know it is better not to, I start to cry. For a moment, her face grows even more angry, her jaw clenches down, she grinds her teeth, every muscle in her body seems to coil around the bones to which they are attached. Her eyes are both sharp focused and far away.

And then, on this day, her face softens suddenly. She stands up and walks over to us. She places her palm on my forehead, shakes her head and clicks her tongue. She helps me take off my coat and boots, then goes into her bedroom and comes back with a pillow and blanket. After she spreads the blanket out on the couch, I lie down and she places the pillow behind my head. She sits down on the floor next to the couch, next to me, and holds my burning hand with her cool one. With her other hand, she brushes my hair away from my forehead and smooths it against my head. She does this over and over, and after a long time, I fall asleep.

*

Gene Walston once showed me the chest of white drawers where he kept bees. It sat tilting to one side at the edge of the front field. He said the bees inside pollinated tomatoes, peppers and cabbage and also flowers in the woods and wild fruit. These bees were the descendants of the bees his father kept in these same drawers. They pollinate plants that come from seeds that are the descendants of seeds his great-grandfather saved. He started talking about the way bees communicate with each other, but I think because he had made the connection to seeds, I thought instead about the ways seeds pass information to each other, infinitely complicated information; quietly and perfectly.

*

Ian and I walk home from the bus singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and then "Cecilia" at the top of our lungs. We know that this will be a bad night because our mother had been awake all night the night before pacing in the kitchen and collapsing onto the floor and resisting the pleas of our stepfather to come to bed.

When we get to the house, she is not in the living room or in the kitchen or in her bed. It takes us almost half an hour to discover that she has locked herself in the bathroom where, with ears pressed against the door, we can hear her breathing. I tap on the door with one finger. She doesn't answer, but I can hear the knob lock pop open. She is on her knees on the bathroom floor, clutching her stomach. There is blood in the toilet and on the floor and on her clothes and hands. It's menstrual blood, I know, because this is not the first time I've had to scrub it from the floor and her clothes.

We hold on to her shoulders and arms and help her sit upright. She reaches her hands toward my face, and I step away before she touches me. She says something terrible about watching her own insides falling out, that it's like watching the ghosts of dead babies fly around the house. Then she looks at Ian. She looks into my eyes. A low moan comes from her body, pushes its way up from her throat.

*

In tenth grade, we learned about seed prices. I still remember that seed corn at the time cost between $35 and $120 per bag. That corn is sold per kernel and there are approximately 80,000 kernels in a bag. One bag will seed about three acres. So on a 500-acre farm, even the cheapest seed corn will cost the farmer more than $6,000, and that doesn't include other expenses--fertilizer, pesticides, fuel. I memorized these numbers for a test in a class called "Ohio History." We learned them because the history of Ohio, of our particular Ohio--always a story of people and land--was changing.

*

For us, the falling-down bridge on the Portage is a fort. The space underneath, where the concrete and steel touch the ascending bank, is a secret safe-house. We have entrance passwords and handshakes. We make get-a-way rafts from vehicular trash, and draw maps for our escape with sticks in mud.

The maps involve riding the river to the lake and then riding the lake to the ocean. We know that somewhere there are canals and river locks and damns and marshes, there are areas of the Portage that go dry and must be portaged. But our journey is always drawn with a single unbroken line marked with three letters: "r," "l," "o." River, then lake, then ocean.

*

Gene Walston, like most Ohio farmers, started buying seeds--seeds that were programmed to be resistant to pests and fungi and required less work in terms of the spraying of pesticides. We learned in "Ohio History" that once a farmer began buying seeds, he could not easily and probably not ever go back to saving his own seeds because the plants grown from bought seeds were no longer legally his own and because they would no longer produce seeds that would reproduce themselves.

*

When our mother leaves or loses her job at the department store, she disappears for a while. Our stepfather says that she is on vacation, that she needs some time to herself. I don't remember if she is gone for weeks or months, but when she comes back, she is thinner and quiet and seems more tired that I had imagine a person could be. Now there are pills that she must take. Now she is always at home. She wakes up late or sometimes not at all. She drinks many cups of hot sweet tea, which she can't or doesn't make and we make for her.

Her cream La-Z-Boy, has a deepening stain where the back of her head touches the upholstery. She talks back to the news and to Entertainment Tonight. She takes baths at night, and the tub, too, has deepening stain--a greasy ring that accrues a new layer each night and that we have to scrub away with Brillo pads. From the bathtub, she'll sometimes call me in to sit on the toilet while she reads. The sliding shower doors are always half closed, covering her face and upper body, but open on the faucet and foot end of the tub. I can see her legs floating in the soapy, dingy water.

Sometimes she calls me in to sing to her, and sometimes she sings, too, but quietly, almost whispering, and if I stop, she stops, too.

 

*

Daisy Pitkin grew up in rural Ohio with her three brothers. Previous to receiving an MFA from the University of Arizona, she spent nine years as a community and labor organizer, supporting the union campaigns of garment and industrial laundry workers around the world. Her essays were recently awarded CutBank's Montana Prize, the Monique Wittig grant, and mentioned as "notable" in The Best American Essays 2013. She lives, writes, and teaches in Tucson.

 

 

 

 

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