A Double-Edged Secret

An Essay by Paul Otto

My father was a man of secrets. I have learned of several since his death, but his most surprising secret, kept even from his wife, was his lack of education. Surprising, I say, because he was a licensed pharmacist who was always lecturing his sons to “go to college and get an education.” To emphasize his point, Dad talked fondly of his classes at McKinley High School in St. Louis. Since Dad was a pharmacist, my Mom, brother and I assumed he had graduated from McKinley and then from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. He never corrected those assumptions.

My father died in January 1966. Afterwards, Mom told me that only a few months before, our next door neighbor brought to Mom’s attention a newspaper item. It announced that a graduating class from McKinley High School was holding its 50-year reunion. “Maybe that was your husband’s class,” she suggested. Mom asked Dad about it. Dad had to admit that he had dropped out before graduating. As for the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, he never enrolled.

Taken aback, Mom asked how he was able to get his pharmacist license. Dad told her that was why, in the 1920s before they met, he had worked in Arkansas. Arkansas issued pharmacist licenses to those who apprenticed in a pharmacy there—no further schooling needed. Dad knew that Missouri and Arkansas followed the law of reciprocity. Each state would issue a pharmacist license to someone who held a license from the other state, without any further qualifications. Accordingly, after Arkansas licensed Dad, he applied for and received his Missouri license.

As a kid, I saw Dad renewing his Arkansas license every year. I asked him why he bothered. He explained, with a wistful smile, that he kept his Arkansas license current for “sentimental reasons”–because he had enjoyed living in Arkansas. He hid the truth. He could renew his Missouri license only as long as he kept current the Arkansas license.

Eventually, I came into the possession of Dad’s licenses. Sure enough, the Missouri license had “RECIPROCITY” emblazoned across it in large red letters.

Why the big secret? Dad should have stood proudly before us for being resourceful enough to use the law of reciprocity to get himself a Missouri license. Dad apparently thought less of himself because of his lack of formal education. He must have assumed that others, even his wife and sons, would judge him just as harshly.

His secrecy successfully protected his pride, but at the price of forcing him to endure the stress that duplicity and the fear of being found out inflicts on those who deceive. Even worse, Dad never got to understand that we would never have limited our love and regard for him because of any lack of education. That understanding might have brought Dad to the point of forgiving himself.

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The Wrong Note

A Short Story by Maryetta Ackenbom

Ellie sat, dismayed, her head low. Her guitar practice sounded way off-key this morning, and she had just struck a chord so dissonant that it brought tears to her eyes. Her fingers were still on the chord. She strummed it again. It was actually painful!

She carefully put the guitar in its place on the table. Why am I doing this? Why go through all this agony, this spiritual agony? I know I’ll never really get it.

Her teacher, a man only a little younger than her seventy years, kept encouraging her during the weekly lessons, saying gently, “Ellie, you need the exercise, the movement of your fingers and the tendrils of your brain. Just relax and enjoy it.”

She accepted that. She couldn’t stop her guitar lessons, her stretching exercises, her vitamins and ginkgo biloba. If she stopped, she’d be crippled, physically and mentally, in months. She knew it. But where was the value of torturing herself?

I’m not depressed, I’ve got to bear it. She gazed out the window at her colorful garden she could no longer care for. Thank God for the pension which just barely allowed her enough to pay the gardener. The crotons, the coleus, the fading golden roses on the trellis she had started all those. Now she could only admire them, and make suggestions to her young gardener: a snip here, more water there, some weeding among the chrysanthemums.

When did she begin to strike the wrong note in her life? She’d been so happy and carefree with Joe.

“Let’s get married,” he’d said. Not on bended knee, and not, “Will you marry me, my love?” But at sixty miles an hour on the highway in his convertible, heading for a summer holiday with his parents after college graduation.

She had paused, cleared her throat. “Well, sure, Joe. We always thought we would.”

“No, I mean right now. In the next town.”

Fifty years ago it was fairly easy to find a Justice of the Peace or a hungry minister who would marry a couple with no fuss.

So, they found him, and were married. They continued on their way and stopped at the first decent-looking motel, suitable for a honeymoon after a slap-dash wedding ceremony.

She was still a virgin, technically, although they had each brought the other to climax with loving hands. Joe entered her carefully that first time, but it did hurt. Pain, but fulfillment. How grand it was!

The motel room was drab, she noticed when she rolled away from him. Brown and orange. They had closed the heavy leaf-patterned drapes as soon as they came in. She had no idea what might be outside the window.

How grand it was no, it wasn’t that grand. A sour note had already been struck with their impromptu wedding. It wasn’t what she’d hoped for. Maybe not a long white dress, walking down the aisle in a church full of family, friends, and flowers, and into his waiting arms. But she would have liked some beauty, some nice clothes, flowers, music. Especially music.

The years rolled on, like the adagio in a symphony. Joe sold luxury cars in his father’s agency, and inherited the agency when Joe Senior died suddenly at age fifty. Ellie taught high school English. She was good at it, and good at politicking, eventually becoming principal of the high school. Money was good, good enough for season tickets to symphony and opera.

Ellie went alone, or with a friend. Joe’s favorite music was simply loud. He didn’t care when she objected to the “noise”–he just turned it off. But he could not bear classical music. So, another sour note: no music in the home.

The home. Just the two of them, rattling around in a suburban ranch house until Joe’s father died. Then they moved in with his mother, in the downtown mansion. They hardly noticed the presence of Mom. She was a shy gray mouse. But when she took ill and died, Joe went crazy. Ellie never knew, she never understood the strong attachment he had to his mother. Joe locked himself in his room for days at a time. Ellie left food trays at the door. Sometimes he would eat, but often he would not touch the trays.

The loneliness led Ellie to turn on a classical music station, leaving the volume low. If Joe happened to leave his room, she’d immediately turn it off. She noticed, whenever she saw him, that he was losing weight. He was actually gaunt. She tried to talk to him, but he ignored her.

The time he isolated himself in his room for three straight days, not eating and not responding to her pleas, she called a locksmith. They found him dead in his bed, curled into a fetal position, like a bass clef signature.

After a few weeks, Ellie recovered from her loveless grief and began to go out with her single or widowed friends. Music began to fill her house, at the appropriate volume. Visitors came, stayed for lunch or coffee. She was only forty. She began to live a new life.

She took classical guitar lessons. She splurged on a fine Spanish guitar and found a teacher who would tolerate her slow learning process.

She knew, after the first few months she’d never be able to play that guitar. It hurt her to realize that even though she had a good ear for music. Her hands would not coordinate with her brain. Also, she began to drop things. She dropped silverware, broke a number of glasses, had trouble doing up buttons. Finally, she had trouble interpreting the music notes.

Those sour notes began about ten years after Joe’s death. After putting it off for several years, she consulted a doctor. The diagnosis premature senility. But, said the doctor, she could postpone the problem by working hard to keep her mind and body active. She could have many pleasant years before her if she’d pay attention to her health.

Why am I sitting here bemoaning my fate? Why don’t I get up and do something? Go somewhere? But where?

Allie’s life now revolved around music. She pondered that idea. Where could she go where there would always be music?

Why, I’ll go to Italy. And maybe Austria. That’s where I will go, that’s where I will live, and perhaps die. My savings will support me, along with my pension, for quite a long time. I’ll go and find my music.

She picked up the telephone, found the number of the well-known travel agency, and dialed. Oh. “Leave a message at the tone.” Stunned, she replaced the receiver. The tone was off-key.

She smiled, delighted with her life again. How funny! I’ll just have to call later. She picked up her guitar and immediately found the correct chord.

Alone

A Poem by Victoria Peterson-Hilleque

I want a chance to do it again,
give Dorothy the last sponge bath, be more
careful with her sore shoulder

this time. I would not chatter
on and on about when the nurse washed
my hair after bunion surgery.

I would ask her about living
at the convent; her desire to be a saint.
She would tell me about the farm,

when her mother tied her
to the back of the tractor and plowed the fields.
I would slowly rinse the soap listening,

ask her to tell me about the day
she knew she was on her own. She stood
at the bottom of a steep,

steep hill thick, slick
with ice. She took a few minutes
to acknowledge no one

would rescue her.
I want to ask her how she
made her way up.

Letters to Minnehaha Creek: 1.

A Poem by Victoria Peterson-Hilleque’

Do you want more than you have?
I will bring you everything I can.

The wood ducks that have not
left Powderhorn Park yet.

Peppermint tea at Mayday Café
and the pink hay bale house

still unfinished. Falling leaves
you have and the trees

along your path. I will bring you
whatever you want. The graveyard,

all those dancing bones are yours.
The Tudor with the barking dogs.

The father telling his child,
Stop worrying about that.

The tarp over Seven Star
Missionary Baptist Church,

the plastic strip of flags glistening
as ice in the sun. I cannot bring

the names of the trees and birds.
She knew them, but I only remember

her name. Dorothy.
Dorothy. Dorothy.

The American flag I can bring you,
the strollers and foreclosure signs.

The bird baths, the sedum, and mums still blooming.
Carved pumpkins, as many as you want,

and the Kleenex ghosts suspended
on wire by the side walk.

I do this for her memory.
She would say, Do it for yourself.

Here is the smell of burning bread,
the softness of the pussy willow shrub,

Here is the weight of her absence.

~~~~~

You saunter by, low
and heavy with leaves.

The echo of cars on the parkway will not
stop you. Nor will the heavy machinery

repairing the road. Or the wind
and anticipation of snow.

The baptism of all of these leaves
will not make you quit. The cancer

had its way with her too. It kept
moving until she stopped. But

the weight of my loss will not stop you.
You move as you were meant to move.

How far would I go if I moved like you?

~~~~~

She brought extra gloves in winter
and reading glasses to see

my poems. She brought
plastic bags to sit on when wet.

The berries bring everything.
They hang on to the trees,

skin pitted, insides mush. Red
remains for birds to pluck one by one.

The seeds bring sleeping promises.

Unsent letter #13

A Prose Poem by Anon ymous

Dear,

I want to lie with you on a narrow bed
in a simple room; a plain white sheet,
blank walls. There’s one window; outside
a field, then woods. Your arms wrapped
lightly around me. Your blouse, sweater
and green skirt with the frayed hem hang
over the back of a rocking chair; bra and
panties on the floor at the foot of the bed.
There’s a bell, a quiet chime; it’s Sunday
morning. The slant of rain is illuminated
by the moon. We’re unafraid, marooned
as long as we choose; lost on this blue
quilted sea between dreams and sleep.

Love,

Sylvia

A Poem by Clinton Van Inman

I hear they have placed
A pretty blue plaque
High above your flat
So that tourists can find you
And say that this is the spot
Where you killed yourself.

Lucky girl, you modern Sappho
To take the quantum leap
Like a comet to take your place
Among the darkest regions of empty space
With a brilliance that few can keep
And even less the mind to know
Where no dull planet can perturb you
As fallen flowers have no faces.

Unsent letter #12 [I still think of you when the world gets like this]

A Prose Poem by Anon ymous

Dear,

How you told me 11 is the number for clarity;
it’s morning, rivers and sleet. It’s anything
wet: sweat on a glass of beer, a splash from
fish, silver and sleek, It comes before blood,
before we learn how to swallow loss. You love
this town, its broken pieces laid out before this
Great Lake. The park by the canal is deserted,
gulls pick at tourist leftovers. I imagine you
painting, writing, listening to your favorite
playlist; firefly or lush. I watch the lights on
the hill go out one by one by one; count them
until everything becomes clear.

Love,