March 1, 2017

A Story About a Story

When I was very small, I learned about my father's brother, George. In 1959, when George was 12 and my father an adoring little brother of 6, George drowned in the Raritan Bay near my hometown of South Amboy, New Jersey.

I obsessed about this story. To this day, I'm not sure why.

Maybe it was because my grandmother talked about his blonde curls and blue eyes. I was also blonde, with blue eyes. It made me feel like maybe he and I were similar.

Maybe it was because I was a swimmer, and his tale, of swimming too far from shore, was cautionary and terrifying.

Or maybe it was because it was

Regardless, I obsessed.

My obsession showed itself last summer when I wrote a piece of flash fiction, in which I tried to resurrect George, to send him (eventually) on an adventure with a fictionalized sibling named Rosey (I couldn't write about my dad as a kid...I just couldn't...). 

It wasn't enough to exorcise my weirdo demon, though. I still think about George, a lot more than is probably normal. But since I've never claimed to be normal, and since I do have the imagination of a writer, I don't worry too much about it. 

Still. It's maybe odd.

Then today, all of a sudden, my childhood neighbor's grown daughter (I know, right??) sent me a link to almost a century's worth of South Amboy newspapers (thank you, Kayla, you're AMAZING!). I found this. My uncle is the "youngster" referenced in the top story, beside the tales of drag racing and Board of Education contract negotiations. 

It was so weird to read about my uncle, George. To read about how he died less than 150 yards off shore. That's more than a football field, but close. So very close. 

Knowing this was an event that shaped my father's life is weird; knowing how close I still feel to this boy who I never even met is weirder. It's renewed my obsession, yet again. Perhaps one day I'll write the rest of George's story. I almost feel as if I have to now. 

But for's what I wrote for George last year. I read it on stage at the Charleston Music Hall, if you can believe that. It was a crazy night. 

I hope you enjoy it.

* * * * 

The Origin Story of Midnight Rose,
Real-Life Superhero,
And Her Brother, the Great Wizard George

By Leah Rhyne

November, 1960. South Amboy, New Jersey. One square mile of taverns and churches, with blue-collar Catholics eating stuffed cabbages and sauerkraut. Rosey is eight-years-old when she ducks into the dark alley, lungs exploding with knife-cold air. All she can think is: Don’t cough. Please don’t cough.
They are coming.
Footsteps drum a Buddy Holly beat as she squats behind a pile of fetid trash, abandoned between the Broadway Bakery and Soltis Butchery. Her hands clasp over her mouth to stem the tide of exhaled air as she stuffs her head between her knees.
It works, for a moment, as her body heat warms the air she breathes, quieting her achining lungs into non-betrayal.
The footsteps pass, but circle back. Bass voices fill the otherwise silent night. “Here. No, here. She’ssss got to be here.”
The “she,” of course, is Rosey. Sweet Rosey. Eight-year-old slip-of-nothing Rosey.
She risks a peek over piles of trash, the perfume of rotting flesh almost gagging her, and sees them, standing in the dim light of a flickering streetlamp. They are three men, their suits inky-black, their hats pulled low over eyes cloaked in shadow. They are identical, and in the wavering streetlight they grow. Stretch. Fingers extend to claws. Teeth protrude from mouths and shine like golden daggers.  Forked tongues slither in and out between scaly lips.
They turn, tongues darting, tasting the air for whatever molecular flavors will betray the girl’s presence. What flavors are there, though, but the sharpness of yeast and the bitter tang of blood? Rosey has chosen her hiding spot well; the corrupt air is her security blanket.
“It’ssssss her. She already knowsssss.”
Rosey watches, holding tight to her malodorous disguise, wondering, what do I know?
“George isssss right.”
Rosey gasps, breathing in putridity and frozen air. She coughs, a tinny, hacking sound, and it’s enough.
They taste the peanut butter on her breath. The strawberry soda. They hear with ears invisible beneath low-slung hats. They see her, curls in disarray about her face, her yellow hair stark contrast to November twilit darkness.
Rosey should run from the alley, but this isn’t hide-and-seek. There’s no base awaiting her beyond the streetlamps. There is only an empty train-track littered with squashed coins and discarded candy wrappers. There is only a bay, sprawling deep and brown, waiting to drink her down.
No. Sweet Rosey will find no sanctuary by running. This she knows as well as she knows the streets of her sleeping town. This she knows as well as she knows the deeply-etched lines on her mother’s palm.
Sweet Rosey may never see those lines again.
The reptilian men smile their reptilian smiles. They inch closer, suddenly tentative, suddenly careful to silence their footsteps. They have her now. They can take their time.
Rosey scoots back on her bottom. Her PF Flyers slip on the damp cobbled stones. They are hand-me-downs from her big brother, George, three days before his death by drowning in the bay, his body never recovered, leaving Rosey with nothing but his tattered clothes and her gaping, broken heart.
Her back strikes solid wall. The wall of the bakery, infused with yeast, yes, but nothing helpful or protective. A tremulous cry pinballs around her throat, wetter than she’d like, and also more tender, threatening to escape.
Pressed against the wall, she gathers her legs beneath her. The knees of George’s hand-me-down blue jeans are torn and wet with the juice of decayed meat, their acrid scent a cloud around her. It’s not enough to hide her this time, though.
Her eyes burn as the men, the creatures, gather close, side-stepping her small barricade with identical motions as though they are one and not three. Rosey’s chin juts upward, small and sharp though it is. A tear slides from the inner corner of her eye, catching in the crease of her right nostril. The damp of twilight’s kiss condenses on her full cheeks. She is cold. She is wet. Her ears are full of thunder and blood.
She will not give in.
Her voice is small, but many big things start small. Her voice is one of them.
Repetition gives her strength. She steps from the wall. Her hands, she finds, are balled into tiny, rock-hard fists at her sides. She raises them, the way she saw George once raise his when Old Man Semasko insulted Mother. George was brave; Rosey can be brave, too.
She will not be taken.
She is Rosey. Not sweet. Not innocent. She is only eight-years-old but she has lived and she has fought. She has seen death and lived to tell the tale. She has weathered the weight of her mother’s broken heart, worn upon the old woman’s sleeve like a badge of dishonor. She will not be another loss for Mother to bear.
She will stand up to these men, these creatures with other-worldly essence oozing like wretched slime.
She will not be taken.
The creatures, with their black suits and hats, pause for a moment and smile reptilian smiles, admiring the tiny girl with Goliath strength. The girl who knows not, yet, what she can do. They watch her hold up her chin and begin her march to freedom.
The men, the creatures, allow Rosey to think she will escape. To think she will not be taken.
Until they speak to her.
“We will take you to George,” they say. “And then will you ssssssee.”
What else is left to do?
To George, Rosey will go, and tomorrow, perhaps, her mother will cry. Rosey will be another death, another drowning in the bay. Another body unrecovered.
If only they could all see: there’s no need to cry.

Not for sweet Rosey, or for her brother, George.

February 12, 2017

Washington, D.C. - Photos

I went to Washington, D.C. this past weekend for the 2017 edition of the Association of Writing Professionals (AWP) annual conference. I was there to meet my pals from, and to work at our book fair table, but I wound up with a morning to myself. Since I hadn't been to D.C. since high school (ack!), I decided to go exploring. 

Here are some of the things I saw and learned.

1. There is much to fear in humanity's past.

I went to the Holocaust Museum. The last time I was there I was 14, naive, on an adventure with my mother. This time I was 37, and by myself, and far more educated than I was before. Therefore, the museum overal didn't have the same impact on me as it did when I was so young and couldn't get past the horror of the piles of confiscated old shoes - people wore those shoes and the Nazis stole them! - but still. It's impossible to walk through this small, unassuming building without feeling the weight of humanity's violent history on your shoulders.

When you walk into the museum, you're encouraged to take an identity card from the stacks loaded against one wall. I wandered to the women section and took one (solidarity!). The name quite literally took my breath away. Seeing the name of a girl I loved fiercely as a child (though I'm sure I never showed it) beside my own name (though spelled differently) was enough to make me slump down on a bench for more than a minute to wrap my head around fate. Clearly, this was a trip I was supposed to make.

A casting of the wall surrounding the ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. Jews were held against their will in this ghetto for years. Their living conditions were appalling; work was scarce; thousands starved and died from outbreaks of disease. Yet still. Life went on in that ghetto. People lived. Children played. Young people fell in love. There were marriages. Babies. 

Life always goes on. It's our will to survive, even in the face of madness. 

A cattle car used to transport Jews from ghettos to camps, or from camps to other camps. People crammed in there like sardines, in winter, spring, summer, and fall. They were locked in for days with no food and  minimal water. Men and women stashed away together, with only a bucket for a latrine. Can you even imagine? What if you were shoved in there? What if you were alone? Or worse, what if you had to bring with you your child? How would you protect that child? What would you do to keep her alive?

Arbeit Macht Frei. Work sets you free. This was the lie posted over the gates at Auschwitz. Work didn't set anyone at Auschwitz free. The only way out was up through the chimney, and no one wanted to go out that way.

Government-sponsored lies are not a new thing. Nope. Not at all.

This is where people slept in Auschwitz, and I'm sure in many of the other camps. Hard wooden bunks that were shared with upwards of six other people. Can you imagine sleeping there? Crawling with lice? Your stomach churning with hunger cramps or, worse, the pains of typhoid fever? Can you imagine your neighbor crying out in the night for her dead husband or child? Can you imagine trying to comfort her, though you yourself are living a nightmare?

This. This is the history of me. I come from Romanian Jews. To my knowledge, my family tree goes back no further than the branch that immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, just in time. I don't know for certain what happened to anyone left behind; this tells me probably nothing good.

It wasn't just my family, though. That's important to remember. This is a piece of two walls of windows, etched with the names of Jewish villages raped, pillaged, and ultimately removed from the map by the Nazis. Just a piece of the walls. They stretched far over my head, and far beneath where I stood while taking this photo. That gives you a bit of scale, doesn't it?

2. We've made many mistakes, especially here in the United States.

This is an editorial cartoon from the late 1930s. At center, a Jewish man, being told to leave Europe for his own safety. At the end of every path? A simple reminder that there's actually nowhere to go. No one wants the Jewish man...or woman...or child.

Sound familiar?

Yeah. I thought so.

No Sanctuary In America.

Need I say more? 

Just...think of all the lives that could have been saved, if only we had opened our doors to the Jews. We'll never know what the world could have been like today, if only some of those murdered had been allowed to find refuge within our borders.

The quote by Bertolt Brecht really, really spoke to me. Some survived...and had to live with the guilt of their survival. I sometimes wonder who was luckier?

The words of our leaders (Dwight D. Eisenhower above, Jimmy Carter below) haunt me as well. We know better than what we're doing today. Our prior leaders knew. Our current one should as well. So what can we do to make things better?

This is on the wall of the display of contemporary genocide.

Please. Let's do our part to #SaveSyria.

And finally...

3. In history, I can also find hope.

The Washington Monument above and below. What a brilliant reminder that beauty still exists in the world...and that we should protect and maintain it!

It's good to feel so very small sometimes. I felt like a mouse beside the monument, and also appreciated seeing the changing colors of the white bricks over time. Time will always leave its mark, but can also enhance beauty. I think a tall white building is kind of boring; up close, the gradations of cream and grey and even gold are stunning.

Despite our many mistakes, we've built this massive memorial to the man who fought to end slavery. We have to remember that. We've seen darkness in our country. So much darkness. At least we're smart enough to honor the ones who fought for light.

Abraham Lincoln is Barack Obama's favorite President, and is one of mine as well.

It was a warm day in D.C. when I went exploring. The shaded air inside the Lincoln Memorial was a good ten degrees cooler than in the sun outside. It was a lovely, peaceful moment, and it was amazing to see many people, of many different skin tones, pausing to admire Mr. Lincoln's words. I snapped this photo because of the very white, maleness of this person...sometimes it's good to be reminded that even this privileged class of people can take a moment to appreciate the past.

At the World War II Memorial, I found my grandfather honored for his fight against the Nazis.

I also found my daughter's great grandfathers honored for their same fight. I thought that was pretty cool. The merging of two histories to create one beautiful little girl.

My father-in-law fought in Vietnam. The war (police action) was another American mistake. That said, the boys who fought and died there still deserve to be remembered, and honored. They were told to fight for our country, our ideals, and fight they did. 

We must make good decisions in the future, and we must always be ready to take a stand for what's right. But for those who are forced to fight, we must always remember: welcome them home, with love and understanding. They deserve nothing less.

I see myself in the past, the present, and sometimes even in the future. I see myself always looking for the best side of humanity, but being smart enough to recognize evil. I see myself working as hard as I can to protect the rights of every citizen in this country, and every person who needs a second chance in a new land. I see myself, most of all, as a citizen of a country that is still great, still strong, and will get through this dark time by standing firm together. Together, we are better. Always, always better.