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The Family Tree

By Jonathan Levy

Fifteen years after he last set foot in his boyhood home, David moved back. When he parked his car in the driveway, he noticed that everything looked the same—the browning grass, the hoop attached above the garage, even the chipped wood on the corner of the roof where lightning had struck years ago. The house itself was a one-story, nondescript thing. The only reason David was there was that he couldn’t afford to buy a place of his own.

Inside, David’s steps clicked against the wood until he reached the rug, which displayed a now-faded floral collage. The rug will have to go, thought David. He turned and faced the living room and saw dust particles floating in the block of light from the kitchen window across the hallway. He saw the same pictures of his family, the same couch, the same TV—but what mostly caught his attention was the ugly sofa chair. David stared at it, and though it was empty, he swore he heard it creak as it had whenever his father flopped into it after a long day of yard work. The chair will have to go, thought David.

He realized that while some light came into the living room, none illuminated the foyer where he stood. The shades to the back porch were shut. David opened them to a full assault of blinding rays. Only after his squinting eyes adjusted did the tree emerge. Continue reading

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Rounding

By Carla Stern

“Ask him if he’s worried about his wife and children in Mexico.”

Looking at the patient, I saw the corners of his mouth trembling. The haunted look in his eyes keenly reflected the horror of what had happened to him. I averted my own eyes, not wanting to share his misery.

I repeated the question in Spanish, leaning into him so I could hear his answer. With a breathing tube he could only speak in a low rasp, making my job as medical interpreter precarious. I hated asking for repetition, especially when the patient was making such a supreme effort to get the words out. Then there was the problem of the question itself. Why did the nurse need to ask the obvious? She knew that the Mexican consulate had had no success in getting his wife a temporary visa to come here. He would be alone in the ICU, trying to make sense of his misfortune with no family to comfort him. Worse, he would no longer be able to send them money.

Sometimes the nurses’ questions veered into the land of the surreal. Once I was called into the ER for a patient who had been run over by a tractor on a farm several hours away. He had been life-flighted to the hospital and sent immediately to trauma. As he lay writhing in agony on the gurney, the nurse asked him, “On a scale of zero to ten, what is your pain level?” I fought the urge to leave out the patient, turn to her and shout, “Ten! It’s a ten!” However, I understood that the nurse was only following protocol, so I interpreted the question into Spanish for him, internally rolling my eyes.

¿Está preocupado por su esposa y sus hijos en México?” The man with the broken body nodded. I looked at the nurse and nodded reflexively, even though she could see the answer. Then the surgeon came in, a grim expression on his face, and stood there for a few seconds, perhaps assessing how he was going to say what he needed to say. “We tried very, very hard to save your leg. We performed multiple surgeries. Unfortunately, we had to amputate it. You might feel pain in the leg that isn’t there. We call that ‘phantom pain’.”

He stopped and again stood there silently before telling the patient that he would be back in the morning to check on his wound. After he left, the nurse said, “Do you have any questions?”

Agua” the patient croaked. “Quiero agua.

“Water” I repeated. “I want water.”

Interpreters are supposed to use the first person to lessen their own presence and make communication more direct. At first it felt bizarre, but I quickly got used to hearing other people’s voices in my own.

“I’m sorry. You can’t have water. You have a breathing tube and the water will go right to your lungs. As soon as the tube is taken out, we’ll give you water.”

I explained this and then stood quietly, looking down at the list of all the other patients I had to see that day.

“We know that your stay here has been difficult and we know that you’re having a hard time coming to grips with your accident. We’ll be starting you on an anti-depressant called Gabapentin. It will take a few weeks before it starts working.”

The patient looked from me to the nurse and back again to me, his mouth a rictus of despair. In my mind’s eye I saw him on the steamroller and then suddenly on the ground, flattened beneath it. At least the accident happened at work, I reasoned. That meant the medical bills would be paid by worker’s compensation. This might give him a measure of comfort, but I doubted it.

Carla Stern is a nationally certified Spanish and French medical interpreter. She has worked in this field for the past five years at a hospital in Boise, Idaho. She also works as a court interpreter in Spanish. Her story “Tilt Test” is forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom in 2016. She can be found on the web at carlastern.tumblr.com.

Photo Credit: West Hospital Emergency Room from “Historic VCU: A VCU Images Special Collection

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Memoirs of a Dissociative Youth

By Dan Morey

Every week in group therapy we are encouraged to share what is generally referred to as life experience.  The idea is to diffuse individual psychoneurotic sufferings by creating an atmosphere of empathy—rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep, as it were.

Unfortunately, the notion of life experience has always been a bit tricky for me, owing to the permeability of certain mental boundaries that in normally functioning brains serve to keep separate reality (physical-world sensory phenomenon) from that fantastical alternate dimension where one is readily convinced that a simple Morris chair isn’t a simple Morris chair at all, but is, in fact, a grotesque dwarf who wants very badly to sodomize one in some diminutive fashion.

Consequently, as I share my experiences with the group, Dr. Boylan invariably interrupts me with: “The truth please, Mr. Moreau.  No one benefits from this absurd dissembling of yours.”  And I do my best to accommodate him, though on certain days, as I reflect on my past, I see nothing but dwarves (so to speak), and am utterly unable to judge them on the basis of their materiality.  It is only on the good days—days when my mind is ordered and capable of differentiating Morris chairs from dwarves—that I can confidently paint for the group an honest portrait of my turbulent youth.  On one such recent occasion I began my story with the following introduction:

“When I was seventeen my mother and father had their throats pawed open and partially digested by a dyspeptic Rottweiler.” Continue reading

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They See Us

By Margaret Kramar

“What was that?”

Lydia bolted up in bed, hearing the music again: tinny, distant, like Big Band music from the 1920s played in a darkened theatre. A radio maybe, but now it completely faded out. She strained to hear it. Nothing.

“Did you hear it?” Her husband didn’t answer, just breathed in measured cadences. He always seemed to be asleep when she heard it. But she knew that if Steve weren’t asleep, it wouldn’t have played. She sighed and nestled down into the covers, relaxing into his warmth, snuggling into the bedroom of the old farmhouse encircled by tall pines that reached way up into the heavens. Even in the darkness, the enchantment of these old green wizards was palpable.

Before they moved in, Lydia and Steve had rounded the curve of the road many times, hardly noticing the farmstead. It was only when Steve accepted the caretaker job for the summer camp on the grounds that they penetrated the interior. Following the path of the gravel driveway, a vast panorama opened up to them: verdant meadows, shining ponds, and tall gnarled oaks leaning together, whispering and murmuring their arcane secrets of old.

One building stood out alone from the others, silent in the moaning wind. The chicken house.

“We’re not getting chickens,” Steve read her mind. Continue reading

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Red-Liquid Sipping Ghost

By Mi West

“Damn Santa circus!” I roar, balancing on my toes on the icy veranda railing, and I continue, “Decorative chains are the worn-out ball and chain of dads in December.” I’d rather be balancing on my skis in the Scandinavian mountains instead. I hiss four-letter words toward a snowdrift in the garden.

Once forced into place, the lights don’t work. That turns me off even worse. Enlightened technology has taken astronauts way to the Moon, but geegaws lasting at least as long as a big pack of Christmas ginger cookies are still sci-fi.

Same procedure as last year: I fetch a spare bulb and try some swaps at random. Finally, light conquers darkness, and I consequently suppress the rest of my traditional, four-letter, juicy highlights.

I hear a teen voice behind me, the son of our neighbor Vatnberg, nicked Watson, “What’s up? Need some help?”

The teen has the gift of a detective and mystery solver. I reply while climbing down, “Thanks for asking, Watson. No, just got this monster up and running again, sweatshop junk, you know, a present from my grandma-in-law… What about you? Any cool mysteries around?”

“Our home is haunted.” Continue reading

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This Word Is Dig

by Harmony Button

As you drive west from Salt Lake (a city situated in the relatively lush Uinta basin, surrounded by steep mountains and foliage that is fed year-round by snowmelt), you’ll notice a transformation: the ground flattens, and the color scheme shifts; the landscape turns from desert scrub to an odd, chalky white. From the inside of a car, you’d swear you just drove into winter, a wasteland with a perfect dusting of ash, a frozen landscape of ice. But what you think is snow is really salt, and what you swear was ice is really the crystalline crust of an ancient dried up lakebed. What water still exists is perfectly clear — so clear, in fact, that you can see to the bottom as if looking through glass. The high salt content kills bacteria. Everything is pickled in a perfect, pristine brine. If there is water along the horizon, which depends on the season, it mirrors a perfect picture of the sky, except for at the edges, where the saline content causes the image to curl slightly, as if the landscape was a giant test tube and you, the scientist, were having trouble reading the true water level at the meniscus. The irony is not lost on me: the flattest place on earth looks as if it curves up at the edges.

The Bonneville Speedway, out on the salt flats, is renown as the place where all kinds of land speed records have been set. The race “track” is painted directly on the salt flat, which naturally compacts into one of the flattest, most consistent surfaces on the earth — flatter and faster than the track at Daytona, flatter than any blacktop or concrete that has ever been poured. The residual moisture in the salt has a way of cooling overheated tires, and the grit of the crust provides the perfect amount of traction to prevent slippage and skids. The fastest mile on record was completely by Gary Gabelich in 1970 in his rocket-powered vehicle, which clocked in at 622 mph — almost faster than the speed of sound, but not quite.  Gabelich went to the desert to dig a hole in the sound barrier, but there was just a little too much nothing in his way.

Other than the speedway, the highway, some really cool landscape art (the Spiral Jetty, the Sun Tunnels, the Tree of Life) and the Dugway proving grounds (where the US Army Chemical Warfare Service conducted regular tests of biological and nuclear weapons in the 1940s), there’s really not much out in the great salt desert. Which is to say, it is a fascinating place, full of oddity set against emptiness. There are small salt water pools. There are abandoned barracks layered with graffiti from movie sets. There’s the plane tower from Con Air. There’s the set from The Incredible Hulk. Walking the salt flats, far from the road, I once came across a potholder, an eye patch, and a child’s mitten. This is a place that defies narrative. It offers only questions and silences. Continue reading

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Extraordinary Neighbors

By Dawn Wilson

Miriam yoo-hooed. I hate it when Miriam yoo-hoos. She sounds like a yahoo. And I’ve told her so. She never listens. She’s from a small town where all the women go around yoo-hooing each other all the live long day. It’s unpleasant. She does the flicking wave, too. One arm out straight, heil Hitler, and the wrist bending aw-shucks. These were women schooled on Liberace: real men twinkle.

The man who’d just moved in next door, the one Miriam was yoo-hooing while I tended her precious flower bed, did not twinkle. He was your basic everyday man’s man, I figured. A very brown man, often covered in dirt. He wore a baggy black sweatshirt. He had Italian hair, pepper black with gray salt, slicked back.

“Yoo-hoo!”

The man turned.

“Oh, hello.” As if she was surprised to see him, or surprised he was real. When he turned his gaze on you, you just sort of did that, forgot what you were doing. I stood up with the little trowel, in case she needed backup. “I never saw a moving van.”

“Didn’t need one.” Continue reading