Winter 2021

Jean Coco

Here, Now

 

I’m looking for my dad. He’s not in his room.

Moments ago a female aide at the Southwest Louisiana Veterans Home punched a five-digit code into a keypad. First the buzzer, then the ka-chunk, ka-chunk of metal on metal. A crack of light. Here ya go! she chirped, like I’d won a prize.

I push the steel door open to the whiff of Pine-Sol, beige walls awash in fluorescence, a cart of pill-filled Dixie cups, and a row of veterans slumped in wheelchairs watching Wheel of Fortune. Ahead I see a male aide kneeling on the floor beside a figure I don’t recognize until I reach the end of the hall, and the man looks up and asks, Is this your father?

No, I want to say. Not the father I know.

I’ve never seen him this way: curled inward like a comma, fists mashed to his chest, back pressed against a glass door.

All my life, I’d seen his hands open more than fisted. Open, cradling a mug of coffee at the kitchen table telling tales about camping with his dad. Open, rapping his wedding band against the steering wheel of our Pontiac station wagon on cross-country trips to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Great Smokies. Open, snapping his fingers, swaying, as he sang Nat King Cole songs to Mom. L is for the way you look at me. O is for the only one I see.

I kneel beside him. Knead his scrunched hands until they relax into cupped palms. Massage his neck until he rolls onto his back.

“Dad?”

His pale blue eyes skitter over my face. Scan the wall. Flash toward the ceiling.

What is he searching for? He doesn’t recognize me.

I angle my hand under his right arm. The aide clutches his left elbow. Together we lift him onto his feet—wait for his buckled knees to straighten enough for shuffling.

I’ve never seen him shuffle. I remember his legs as vigorous: scissoring water, showing me how to flutter kick. Flung forward and back, forward and back, in right-left / right-left lunges. Splayed for apart-together / apart-together jumping jacks, embarrassing us kids at gas stations with his Air Force calisthenics. As so swift and broad I had to skip to keep up with him when he walked me to school in first grade.

Here, now, he shuffles.

Past the Blue Angels aloft in V-formation. Past Kodachrome photos of fighter jets poised for takeoff. Past a bald eagle’s piercing gaze fixed on prey beyond the varnished walnut frame affixed to the cinder block wall outside his room.

Head hung like a defeated athlete, he rakes a wisp of gray hair from his forehead, plunks down on his twin bed, and begins slap, slap, slapping the broken ladder of veins at the crease of his pale, crepey wrist.

What is he doing?

I don’t want to know. And I do want to know. And I wonder if he can tell me because I’ve read about how advanced Alzheimer’s patients can manage to comprehend and return emotional signals despite significant cognitive decline.

I hold his face in my hands.

“Dad. What are you doing?”

His eyes soften into reason.

“I’m trying to find a good one.”

He’s trying to find a good one?

Of course he’s trying to find a good one. He knows where he is, and all of the doors are locked.

“What if you did?”

He leans forward. Thrusts two fists over his head like a triumphant boxer.

“Poof.”

His splayed hands hang in the air. Then drop to his thighs.

Through the blur of tears, I see his upturned hands—slack, slightly curled, yet open, like crumpled fallen stars.

Poof.

A puff of air. An exhalation. A whispered signal of the desire to vanish, to leave the room, to go—just like that.

 

Listen to Jean Coco read “Here, Now”

(photo credit: Alice Wilder)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Jean Coco’s writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Stone Canoe, The Christian Science Monitor, and New Delta Review. Her current writing project is a memoir-in-essays about public school integration in her hometown in Louisiana. Follow her on Instagram: @queenpelican

 


Amanda Gaines

Something About Which We Could Talk Forever

 

“The conception of rhythm [] is something about which we could talk forever, and still not finish.” —Ted Shawn

 

My house. 22. After K. “Miss Murder.”

 

Snare drums thrummed from my computer’s speakers. Davey Havok’s voice swelled like an infected wound: lodged gravel shaken loose, yellow rage and release. Outside, the sky bruised.

 

Somewhere miles off, skin from my heels where he’d touched me waited in sealed vials. Cotton rounds run inside my cheeks sat in plastic bags as proof of nothing. I closed my eyes, nodded my head, unkempt hair spilling over my face. I struck the floor in time with the beat. The thin carpet absorbed the sound. Small lights lined my room: cameras flashing above a sweat-slicked octagon.

 

I stood up suddenly, sending my cats careening beneath my bed. I spun, fingers slicing through the still, smoky air of my room. For a moment, slam dancing in the dark, the sound of guitars breaking down like car metal warping around a pole, I floated. There was just empty house, a shaking floor. A white wall that I’d kicked in behind me.

 

*

Stephen’s house. 23. After midnight. “When We Break.”

 

We stayed like that for hours, shimmying around the basement, shoulders almost brushing, footstep electric. I’d forgotten what this felt like. To be seen and not touched. To be seen and wanting to be touched. He could have pulled me upstairs. He could have laid me across his bed like fresh laundry. I would have let him. I did a lot of letting, nowadays. But he didn’t, I realized, want to do anything but dance.

 

There was a party going on upstairs. We knew that. A weight bench took up most of the small space. We could have stumbled on it, but didn’t. He slid, clapped. I spun, threw both hands over my hip. Fluorescent light never looked so good. We were baptising this would-be spare room, flinging our sweat onto the beige carpet. A leather couch sunk in the corner. A shoddy bar sported empty Burnett’s bottles. My hands tingled. Reach for them, I prayed. The old-school stereo crackled. Its speakers groaned under the pressure of volume. I thumbed the dial and turned it all the way up.

 

*

Vice-Versa. 24. After workshop. “Where Have You Been?”

 

She stepped on the stage and her hips sunk like honey in hot tea. When she moved across the floor, her feet made a mosaic of black and white tiles. The ribbed metallic walls shone. Her clavicle glistened with sweat. Red and green lights flitted across the floor, across the stretch of her pale, naked arms. She was a leopard in a fever dream slinking around, neon-spotted and purposeful. She scared me. She, who was always so stiff and beautifully unknowable, had transformed under warm bar lights. The fan in the corner had seemed to blow off her pretense and allowed her allowance. If I had known, I would have come here with her sooner. I tried to keep up, to match her stare. To move as if I was underwater, being watched and not noticing.

 

I hadn’t asked, just wanted. I kissed her like a sandpiper grasping at a hole in the sand: quick, desperate. Hungry. She looked at me with surprise, her blue eyes wide, blonde brows furrowed. I wanted to tell her I hadn’t known, either. Instead, I ran out without saying goodbye. Outside, lamp posts bore holes in the black night. I sprinted past them, bare feet thudding a panicked beat all the way home. So-rry. I’m so-rry.

 

*

Our kitchen. 25. Night. “River.”

 

He hadn’t wanted to, but I took his hand and led us. We slow-danced with the lights low. I pressed my face into his shoulder. He smelled like flour and car sex. He kissed the top of my head. Our feet stuck to the dirty linoleum. I would swallow you whole, I told him. Just to be closer.

 

I was drunk. He wasn’t. It was always like that with us, it seemed. Looking back, I knew he had let go long before he left. I didn’t want to see. Now, I close my eyes. I draw the room in my mind. The wobbly table my mother made me. The dried flowers hung upside down for longevity. Weed smoke lingering in the still air. I’m the only person there. I’m the only person there, a girl so drunk and lonely she sees double. A girl so drunk and lonely that she gives her shadow hands.

 


Amanda Gaines is a PhD candidate in CNF in OSU's creative writing program. She is the nonfiction editor of Into the Void. Her poetry and nonfiction are published or awaiting publication in The Oyez Review, Gravel, Typehouse, Pithead Chapel, The Citron Review, Yemassee, Redivider, New Orleans Review, and Southeast Review.

 


 

Fiction

Wynne Hungerford - It Comes to This

Jennifer Popa - Pity the Mammal Who Accepted the Blessing That Was Never Hers to Keep

Vincent Yu - Private Illusions

 

Poetry

Rooja Mohassessy - First Kiss

E. B. Schnepp - it’s christmas in anne boleyn’s throat

Natasha King - a gate will not remained closed

Despy Boutris - Girlhood

Alison Stine - Planned Community, Southern Ohio

Sean Cho A. - Dogma

Ro Daniels - Number 5

 

Creative Nonfiction

Amanda Gaines -  Something About Which We Could Talk Forever

Jean Coco - Here, Now



 

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.