April is National Poetry Month in Canada, and today is “Poem in your pocket” day so I typed up some poems to give away. Here is one I typed for my boyfriend to carry!
Short story fiction by Whitney Rothwell. Published in the blackbear review April 21, 2017
Truth is you aren’t looking forward to helping your parents pack up the house. You’ve lived ten years in the same studio apartment for a reason. When you started at the accounting firm, you moved here to save money while you paid down your student debt. Now you could easily afford a bigger place but can’t see the point. Why spend the extra money each month when you could save it? Anyway, there’s barely enough room to bring more junk in here, so you’ll have to talk to the super about finally using your storage locker in the basement. Maybe you could donate your old stuff to a charity, or better yet, sell it on ebay – some of those old superhero comics might be worth something to someone.
Luckily most of your stuff is already neatly organized in boxes. At age eleven, you ended the carefree days of youth and packed all your childish things away, setting up your room like an office cubicle with a bed in it. Your mom cried but you knew it was for the best, you couldn’t let yourself believe in the foolish notions of childhood anymore. Now, folding up your old dress shirts and khakis from high school took no time at all; you packed them into a cardboard box and marked in big capital letters with a black marker: GARAGE SALE. Beside it you stacked boxes labelled TOYS, BOOKS, LEGO SETS, and OTHER. You can hear your sister and mother talking in the next room; the walls in this old place have always been so thin, it’s surprising you can’t see right through them. The box of comic books is in a separate pile with your coin collection and other things you might try to sell online. The closet is nearly empty, and you feel almost as empty inside. Maybe you hoped to find some inspiration in this old room, something to shake you from the hollowness you’ve felt lately. You scan the empty closet and see an envelope tucked into the farthest corner. You know exactly what’s in the fragile, yellowing envelope although you haven’t thought about it in twenty-four years.
You loved to read superhero comics – the thought of having a superpower was thrilling – in a makeshift tent under the blue plaid bedcovers by the light of a flashlight, you would read long after Mom had turned off the lights. The act of keeping a secret from your parents was exhilarating. When you found an ad for x-ray glasses on the back page of a comic, you daydreamed about spying on your parents through the kitchen wall or checking out the principal’s polka dot underwear during a boring assembly. You saved every coin you could scrounge from the sidewalk or under the couch cushions until you had five dollars and twenty three cents – just enough to buy an envelope, stamp and pay three dollars for the glasses. Your father had always tried to instil the value of a dollar in you and was annoyed when you showed him the carefully clipped order form. He ranted about what a waste of money it was while your mother tried to calm him down with murmurs of , “He’s just a boy, Mark, what harm could it do?” You were sure the x-ray specs were the investment opportunity of a lifetime and brought the envelope to school, intending to mail it that afternoon. Your best friend, James, told you that his cousin had ordered a pair and they had both tried them – they didn’t work – don’t waste your money. And finally, when you made it all the way to the post office to buy a stamp and mail off the little envelope, the grouchy lady behind the counter sneered, “You know you won’t be able to get your money back for these. Don’t come here asking how to get a refund, once you send away for these silly things. Your money’s gone for good, kid”. As you crept out the door you overheard her mumbling, “that’s five kids this month . . . what a waste!”
When the glasses arrived six weeks later, it sunk in. What a chump you were to spend your money on such a foolish gimmick. You thought you could really have x-ray vision, you scolded yourself. You hadn’t even bothered to open the envelope, just threw it to the back of your closet, hoping to forget about the whole affair forever, but the one thing that stuck with you was a vow you made to never be so foolish again, never to believe in super powers and never, ever to spend your money without due diligence.
Now faced once again with that envelope, you snatch it up and throw it onto the dresser. Maybe a vintage pair of x-ray glasses could fetch a decent price on ebay with the rest of this nonsense. As you fold up the bedding and empty the last of the dresser drawers, you can’t help but wonder about those glasses. “I never even tried them on,” you mutter aloud. “I wonder what they look like.”
You turn to pick up the envelope and flip it over in your hands. The paper has yellowed and smells of old books; the glue holding it closed is brittle and easily separates under your fingertip. You take a deep breath and look around at the navy walls of your old bedroom. Opening the envelope slowly, you peer inside. Carefully removing the cardboard glasses from their sheath, you purse your lips together as you examine them – they’re in better shape than you thought after so long. You chuckle to yourself because they look exactly how you imagined they would when you sent away for them. Thick cardboard frames decorated with wide black and white stripes radiating in a sunburst pattern, the glass seem to be made of some sort of glittery, holographic cellophane. Putting the glasses up to your face to get a better look, you notice something strange. Through the glasses, everything has a wispy aura of iridescent colour around it, but there’s something more. You look around to make sure that no one is looking, you try them on, and face the mirror to get a look at yourself.
“How ridiculous,” you say as you strain to get a clear focus on your face. “Jeez,” you gasp. You never noticed how visible your veins are becoming. Maybe it’s time to start using one of those girly anti-aging skin creams Sharon’s always trying to push on you. “It’s specifically made for men!” she claims. But as you focus harder, you see that there’s more going on than just the toll of aging thirty-five years on your skin. Startled, you throw the glasses to the bed and quickly get back to packing the last articles of bedding into a box labelled LINENS.
After dinner, you pack your car and stand in the middle of your empty bedroom for the last time. Scanning the room, you come to the naked bed and spot the cardboard glasses. You grab them and shove them in your shirt pocket before anyone sees and walk back out to your car. After a kiss goodbye for your mom and a firm handshake from your dad, you’re off. On the way home, you sneer at the volunteer on your corner who’s collecting money for sick kids. Sick kids whose parents can’t afford their treatments. Some people should never have kids, you think.
That night, your dreams are so strange they wake you in the night. Looking over at the alarm on the nightstand, the x-ray glasses look back at you. You placed them there before bed so you could get a better look at them in the morning, but now curiosity is getting the better of you, so you turn on the lamp. With the strange spectacles on your face, you feel an odd sensation in your eyes. It’s hard to see. You put your hand in front of your face and squint. The harder you focus on your hand, the harder it is to see, but if you relax your focus, it comes into perfect view. How strange, it’s the stages in between seeing your hand as it normally looks and when your hand completely disappears that you’re most interested in, it seems like – but of course that’s impossible – but it seems like the x-ray glasses are . . . working? As you sharpen your focus from relaxed to tense, you can see your muscle tissues and connecting tendons – veins pumping blood – the tiny bones in your fingers – is that your carpal tunnel? It is. How can this be possible? You look at the clock again and struggle to focus to the right amount of clarity to see the bright red numbers: 5:38. As you practice looking at different objects and varying focal lengths around the room, it becomes easier to navigate this new power. This must be another strange dream.
You decide to get up out of bed because if this is a dream, you might as well make the best of it. You put the glasses back in your pocket and make a Sunday breakfast in the microwave. While the turntable rotates you imagine what you could do with a pair of working x-ray glasses – if you had a pair of working x-ray glasses – which you still don’t believe that you do. Your first ideas are quite grand: you could spy on the bank manager entering the code to the safe, all while sitting innocently in your car outside, waiting for your opportune moment. You think better of it though, it’s a bit too risky. Finally you think of a plan that balances the amount of risk you’re willing to take and will allow you to practice using x-ray vision on a small scale. You stopped seeing movies at the theatres – an outing that you enjoyed – when they doubled the price of a ticket from six dollars to twelve.
You spend the day practicing your new ability around the neighbourhood. It’s been enlightening, seeing into your neighbours apartments and you think you’ll have to move to a better area. It was embarrassing enough to see your overweight and overly hairy neighbour watching T.V. in the nude, but to realize you are the person living next door to such a character is perfectly unbearable.
After a dinner out, guiltily spying on what’s beneath the waitress’ top, you pick up a pair of sunglasses and head over to the theatre in your sedan. You park just outside the theatre at six-thirty, long before the latest sci-fi action flick starts but early enough to get a good spot. You put on the X-ray glasses – cleverly disguising them with sunglasses on top – and wait in your car. The movie starts at seven. For half an hour you watch patrons file into their seats, some with popcorn buckets and large sodas in their hands. It’s an interesting view from this outside perspective, seeing where people choose to sit and how the seats fill up from the middle outwards. As you wait, you’re also practicing staring at the perfect focal length to view the movie screen inside which, when you have the correct focal length, looks as normal as if you were in the theatre. An inexpensive listening device only cost you the price of one movie ticket and a small popcorn, so you splurged in order to hear the accompanying dialogue.
The movie finishes around nine and it’s already dark. You feel a little silly, sitting alone in the parking lot wearing sunglasses at night, but the plot was good and worth the effort to save the unreasonable cost of tickets these days. On the way home you have some trouble seeing the road. Reaching up to take off the glasses, you realize you’re not wearing them. You struggle and strain to see the road clearly but figure that your eyes must just be tired from the movie. Surely they’ll feel better in the morning. On the way home, you devise a plan to make better use of this power you now wield. You won’t rob a bank, not yet, but you could probably get away with something smaller, something no one would notice.
The next morning, your eyes are not feeling better. When you strain to focus them, they hurt and everything looks like it’s through a blurry kaleidoscope. But when you put on the cardboard frames, everything comes into clarity. It’s no longer hard to control your focus with the glasses on, so you decide just to wear them all day. You call in sick to work, you might not even need to go back. For now, you’ll hold off on quitting – after all, it’s possible this is some sort of hallucination, a trick of the mind.
So you walk down to the corner store, wearing both pairs of glasses, and pass that detestable volunteer again. Why doesn’t he get a real job and quit wasting his time? You walk into the convenience store, pretend to rifle through the magazines, and pick one up without looking at it very much – it’s not really part of your plan. When you get to the register, you realize it’s a woodworking magazine. You stare at the counter through the glass that covers the instant scratch and win lotto tickets. You stare deeply at them, seemingly mesmerized to the poor cashier who waits. The numbers and letters come to the surface and you study them carefully. There’s the one. You really lucked out. One ticket with a winning prize of fifty thousand dollars. Your mind starts to wander, trying to calculate the odds of that ticket being at the first convenience store you try, but you dismiss the calculations for now.
“I’ll take a scratch ticket too, please.” You barely look up. The cashier must be feeling awkward but she complies and pulls out the tray. “Can I pick whichever one I want?”
You fleetingly glance at her face long enough to see her nod, her face betraying her bewilderment. You pick out the winning ticket, pay for it and the magazine.
You can’t believe your luck. Imagine how foolish you were to ignore these glasses for so long, although it’s probably a blessing really. If you had these as your eleven year old self, you would probably have no idea how to use them properly and probably would have wanted to help people and waste the gift. Of course, someone would have probably found out before you matured enough to know the true value of this power.
Turning out the light, you remove your glasses for the night. The room is pitch black. You turn to sleep. Your night is plagued with stranger dreams than the night before. Every time you wake up in the blinding darkness, you feel the glasses on your bedside and remind yourself that everything is fine. Finally the third time you wake up, you decide to check the alarm. When you look over to your nightstand, you can’t locate the clock. “Damn!” There must have been a power outage. You grope around in the dark for the lamp switch and flick it on – then again – one more time. Nothing. Nothing but pitch blackness. Your heart flutters, and your mouth goes dry. You are blind. Frantically you reach out for the x-ray glasses but hesitate as you bring them to your face. Could this be the reason for your sudden loss of vision? But you have no choice at this point. You put the glasses on and blink hard from the bright light of the midday sun.
What a terrible trick. How can this be? It’s afternoon now, so you make toast and eggs and call in sick again to work. They might start to wonder about how sick you really are because you rarely take days off. You can’t go to work with sunglasses on every day; you have to figure this out. You walk out with the sunglasses on and wander the neighbourhood, thinking about your situation. You have a niggling feeling that you know what you have to do but push the thought back in your mind. You could just continue wearing the glasses everyday – quit your job – how many winning scratch cards could you cash in before the lottery corporation noticed? Maybe if you moved around to different provinces you could last a while, but what about your family? It all just seems a little more underhanded than you’re comfortable with. Then a chilling thought creeps into your mind. How long can these glasses last? How long will they even work for? The frames are made of flimsy cardboard with barely a plastic coating on them. You notice the tension in your lungs and chest building and your stomach doing flips. It starts to rain; that niggling thought comes back stronger. You walk past that same volunteer and look at him with your head to the side. Your distress disarms your usual disdain and makes you curious to his motivations. Does he have a sick child? Is this his only way of feeling less a failure for not being able to afford the treatment that his son or daughter desperately needs? You stare down at his collection pot, taking a revealing look inside – a couple five dollar bills, toonies, loonies, a gum wrapper – you stop yourself from totaling it up in your head. You look at the man, you can see inside his wallet, a ten dollar bill, small change, no credit card – it’s all too depressing. You reach into the breast pocket of your jacket. Feeling around, you run your fingers over the smooth texture of the unscratched ticket and pause before removing it and walk back to the man. Wordlessly, you hand it over to him and he just stares at you with bewilderment. As you walk away, you dart your eyes around the street, trying to make any secret thing come into focus. You realize that the glasses no longer hold any power, they’ve turned back into the useless gimmicky toy you always knew they were. You lean against the doorway of your apartment and remove them. Raising your hand in front of your face, you strain to focus, and realize that your normal sight has returned.
A Glass Castle for a Glass Family
Novelist, Jeannette Walls’ courageous memoir plunges us into her childhood experience fraught with abject poverty, disappointing heroes and survival at all costs. We watch a family struggle for air, aiming to rise above but always sinking, a ship helmed by parents who are clearly gifted, yet consistently underachieving and making irresponsible choices. Our desperate impression of the neglect Walls endures is softened by a child’s innocence, hope for empty promises to be fulfilled and a fierce loyalty to her family that shows in her compassionate retelling of her childhood, turning every misstep into adventure and opportunity for growth.
Our first glimpse of the irresponsible parenting that plagues Walls’ childhood is a ghastly scene when we witness three-year-old Jeannette accidentally ignite her favourite frilly dress while attempting to boil hot dogs for herself. Six weeks in hospital later, her father, Roy Walls, executes a daring rescue–our first experience of the famous Walls Skedaddle.
Rex Walls is a father who needs “to be roaming free in open country and living among untamed animals”. A shiftless, loquacious alcoholic father, not unlike Malachy McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, he often employs the skedaddle when his plans go awry. Whether it’s investigating a corrupt electrician’s union, inventing a gold prospecting device, or designing blueprints for his infamous glass castle, Rex Walls is the leader in the Walls family’s exploits, consistently moving them from place to place chasing his sometimes imaginary and always alcohol-fuelled schemes. As his daughter Jeannette is enchanted by her father, all of the family’s moves are recounted as marvellous adventures through dusty South Western scenery. It isn’t until she matures and begins making plans for her own life that she realizes how her family has grown weary of her dad’s “ridiculous dreams and his stupid plans and his empty promises”. If Rex Walls is consistent in one way, it’s in his ability to disappoint everyone who relies on, or trusts in his judgement.
Jeannette’s mother, Rose Mary Walls, is the structural support of the Walls family. However self-indulgent and self-sabotaging she may be, she is their main financial resource when times are tough. Through an inheritance and the occasional teaching job, Rose Mary pulls up her bootstraps a number of times to support her children and her husband’s alcoholism. Rose Mary prefers to pursue her career as an artist, and is always hopeful that the next town will lead to her big break. With a philosophy that, “rules and discipline held people back and . . . that the best way to let children fulfill their potential was by providing freedom”, her motivation to teach is quickly lost with the children helping her write tests and mark homework, before she inevitably quits to return to painting.
The parentification of the Walls children has affected Jeannette the most of her siblings, especially when it comes to her father. She is often left feeling that she alone must care for his emotional needs and cannot resist his manipulation to take grocery money from her to spend on alcohol and gambling. Walls’ memoir gives the reader concern for her eventual wellbeing as an adult after her traumatic upbringing. We root for her to make something more of her life, to accomplish her dreams. When we see what she makes of her life, we question if her parents’ philosophy on rearing children doesn’t ring some truth. Does suffering make us grow more capable, independent and resilient? Perhaps not suffering to this degree, but perhaps not having the idyllic childhood which is praised in our culture. We root for the Walls children to escape their family in the end, but we also hope for their parents to come to a better life. In the end, it’s hard to say that they don’t.
“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”