ADELAIDE LITERARY AWARD
LITERARY AWARD 2019
ADELAIDE LITERARY AWARD 2019
Special Issue of the Adelaide Literary Magazine
Adelaide Literary Magazine is an independent international monthly
publication, based in New York and Lisbon. Founded by Stevan V.
Nikolic and Adelaide Franco Nikolic in 2015, the magazine’s aim is to
publish quality poetry, fiction, nonfiction, artwork, and photography,
as well as interviews, articles, and book reviews, written in English and
Portuguese. We seek to publish outstanding literary fiction, nonfiction,
and poetry, and to promote the writers we publish, helping both new,
emerging, and established authors reach a wider literary audience. We
publish print and digital editions of our magazine twelve times a year.
Online edition is updated continuously. There are no charges for reading
the magazine online.
EDITOR IN CHIEF
Stevan V. Nikolic
Adelaide Franco Nikolic
Published by: Adelaide Books LLC, New York
244 Fifth Avenue, Suite D27, New York, NY 10001
e-mail: [email protected]
phone: 917 477 8984
Copyright © 2018 by Adelaide Books LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any
manner whatsoever without written permission from the Adelaide Books
/ Adelaide Literary Magazine Editor-in-chief, except in the case of brief
quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Best poems by the Winner,
7 Shortlist Nominees, and
100 Finalists of the Third Annual
Adelaide Literary Award Competition 2019,
Stevan V. Nikolic
THE SKY STOPPED BREATHING
by Joanna Kadish 17
Shortlist Winner Nominees:
LETTER TO STEPHEN
by Ruth Deming 33
THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE
by Hank Kalet 37
by Noelle Wall 50
by Michael R. Morris 54
SUCH WERE THE JOYS
by Jeffrey Loeb 68
by Megan Madramootoo 74
Adelaide Literary Award 2019
Looking One Way, Going the Other by Gabriel Sage 87
The Labels We Give Ourselves by Jamie Gogocha 99
Random Selection by Jeffrey Kass 102
Soviet Stamps and Regrets… by Aysel Basci 109
Free or Safe by Sloane Keay Davidson 119
Hell-Hole Room by Allen Long 133
Living with Guns by David Berner 138
Rhapsody in Blue by Juliana Nicewarner 143
Treehouse by John Bonanni 151
Rumors of His Death by Steve Sherwood 160
American – American by Christopher Major 173
The Orphanage in Kabul by Robin Fasano 178
Woman in the Bridge by Claudia Geagan 184
‘Independent’ Contractors And Worker Precarity
by Peter Crowley 192
The Heartbreak Kid by Clay Anderson 205
The White, the Black, the Blue by Megan Sandberg 212
D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love by Wally Swist 220
The Day of the Jaguar by Royce Adams 225
Getaway by Raymond Tatten 236
The God Question by John Ballantine Jr. 238
Riffing on “The Cut, and the Building of Psychoanalysis
(Volume I and II Sigmund Freud and Emma Eckstein”
by Carlo Bonomi PhD.) by John Bliss 249
Shredding What Remained by Cynthia Close 260
Ashes, Ashes by Deirdre Fagan 273
Just the One: Advice ror What Not To Say to the Mother of
an Only Child by Elise Radina 285
Ancient Wings by Patrick Hahn 289
Journey to Amazonas by Daniel Bailey 298
Moleskine by Terry Engel 308
South by Peter Warzel 321
Bussing Through Georgia, 1976 by Larry Hamilton 324
Cockroaches by Susan M Davis 326
En Passant by Larry Weill 329
The Drive Home Tapes by Jason James 340
Awaken Your Inner Phoenix by Xavier Clayton 351
Martha Walsh, a Model Professional of Her Time
by Elizabeth Kilcoyne 371
Terra Incognita by T. Harvard 382
Ultreia by Suzanne Maggio-Hucek 385
Watery Women’s Monologue by Marianne Song 395
Rehabbing Rain: In the Shade of the Cottonwood Tree
by Brianna Heisey 400
To My Grannie, Love Me by Valerie Angel 416
A Love Song by Janel Brubaker 421
The Gifts We Keep by Carol Crawford 426
The Sky Stopped Breathing
by Joanna Kadish
We first heard of fentanyl when Jared, one of our 18 year old
boys, was arrested for scrawling graffiti on school walls on the
island where we lived minutes from Seattle. One of the three
kids who came along that day spray-painted swastikas on the
yeshiva and wrote “This way to the ovens.”
Aaron decided not participate, he counseled Jared not to
do it either. Jared said later that he wanted to show he could
think for himself and not just follow his brother in everything.
They looked the same side of the coin, Greek gods, tall and
athletic, dark blond with hazel-green eyes. Aaron wore his hair
down past his ears while Jared clipped his hair short so their
friends could tell them apart. Jared never told his shrink about
this plan: he said it didn’t seem important. Jared’s psychologist
said they had established a trust, and Jared seemed happy. They
spoke about adjusting to a new environment—i.e. going away
to school—and dealing with change.
Local and national media splashed the news over the front
pages and airwaves. Alexander, the one who conceived this
venture, also Jewish, had a crisis of conscience and went to his
parents to confess. His parents went to the police.
And what was particularly heinous about this prank—be-
cause this is what Jared considered it, a sendoff before going to
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college—he had no idea that his friend, the mastermind who
conceived and executed it, was going to paint swastikas. The boy
who did it might not have known himself until the moment he
picked up the spray can. They never discussed what they would
paint beforehand. They had a code to never stop the others from
doing whatever. Jared said, “That’s not how we do things.”
All of them had tagged walls around the island, and con-
sidered themselves to be budding graffiti artists, and usually
just drew abstractions that meant little to anyone outside their
circle. The comment about the ovens was the kind of joke Alex
liked to say around his friends; apparently he didn’t consider
how this would look to people who didn’t know this is how he
dealt with the reality of anti-Semitism. And even though Jared
didn’t ink any of the offending words or images (collaborated
from professional handwriting analysis), and found it offensive
that Alex did this—the lawyer explained that Jared stood by
and did nothing to stop him. Jared was a year older—the other
boys were 17 and considered minors. The judge in a nonjury
trial decided to punish Jared and not the others. Biologically
there is little difference between the maturity of youth of 17 or
18; U.S. law makes a distinction where there is none.
That’s when we learned that both boys were addicted to
the strongest painkiller ever developed and needed rehab. This
was a surprise to us; they had not told us about the drugs they
were doing, but then a lot of kids keep their drug use from their
parents. As a teenager, I told my father I smoked marijuana oc-
casionally, but I didn’t tell him about the time I did mescaline
or LSD. I stayed away from meth and heroin. The boys’ father
smoked marijuana every day, I joined him occasionally. We
assumed that our children would be equally cautious.
It’s hard to imagine fentanyl as the party drug of the year
on this particular island — as it was for a few years—in the sort
of community where American flags mingle with Seahawks
memorabilia from porches of multimillion-dollar homes,
boasting one of the state’s best school districts and hundreds
of acres of parks and open space. Most of their friends came
from stable families and didn’t lack for the necessities of life.
All the parents knew each other and the kids went into each
other’s houses as easily as if they were their own, the parents
all looked out for each other’s kids. And for Aaron and Jared,
before the drug vultures moved in, it was utopia.
A flash of memory: eleven-year-old Aaron and Jared buoyed
by limitless energy, holding a contest to see which one could
slide the fastest through wet grass after soccer, which they had to
act out again in the SUV, pushing each other along long bucket
seats in back. Then they upped the ante, dive bombing from
the window and sliding upside down. After a time they plopped
down, seemingly exhausted. When I started the engine, the two
tow-heads were at it again, snapping their seat belts and rocking
the car with raucous laughter, taking turns describing in gory
detail the soccer they played, boasting of how they kneed and
elbowed their way to the goal several times without getting killed.
We raised our boys to believe in two things: God and
sports. They chose lacrosse after soccer, practiced their skills
daily. They turned out to be standout players, competing each
summer in the regional club leagues. Brian, their father, loved
watching them play; as a teenager he was a formidable bas-
ketball player in youth leagues; and shined on the baseball
diamond as well. Brian was always one of the more vocal par-
ents on the sidelines, yelling, “take the ball and run with it,”
or, “make a pass.” After games, in the car he would talk about
improving the skills. He had these high standards that were
difficult to achieve, and more often than not, he seemed dis-
appointed in their performance, pointing out where they could
Adelaide Literary Award 2019
have done better. And they listened to him, but it was hard to
see what they thought because they didn’t say.
But all that changed in junior year of high school. Their
father wanted to make them continue with sports, but Aaron
the more vocal of the two, said he wasn’t going to do it. Jared
said he didn’t want to do it either. I suggested instead of forcing
the boys into something they didn’t want to do, why not let
them chose what sport they wanted to be in. Brian said he
didn’t like quitters; I said what if they no longer like the sport?
Let them chose year by year, so what if they don’t stick with
any one thing as long as they do it for the year.
Brian stopped wanting to do things with them. He said
if they wanted to talk to him he’d take them out to eat, but he
was damned if he would go snowboarding with them, not un-
less they went back to playing sports. He spent an inordinate
amount of time in his room smoking his bong, and started
hanging out with his men friends, and not inviting me or the
Aaron refused to go to lacrosse practice anymore.
I cajoled them into agreeing to play tennis, hoping that
would placate their father, but many times they ditched prac-
tice. It dawned on me that they didn’t want to do a sport at
all, and were too afraid to say that, knowing how much their
father loved sports. They started hanging out with an artsy
crowd. Their new friends wore their hair unruly, dressed in
black, and had tats and piercings in odd places. This worried
me, but their older sister had a similar rebellious period and
she got through it, and her friends had been similarly attired,
and acted clannish, and sometimes off-putting. Sarah came
through high school with honors and left for college, and
stayed on the honor roll. I thought the boys would follow the
same path. But then they tried fentanyl.
Addiction happens fast with fentanyl, only a few uses will
rearrange the brain’s wiring and begin a lifetime of torment for
the victim. We hoped teams of the doctors and psychologists
that we hired on learning about this horror would shove the
craving that is born out of the cession of pain into cave, so
only a background murmur is left — fentanyl literally deadens
the nerves so the user feels lightheaded, and a mental clouding
occurs, thinking turns fuzzy, and there’s a loss of fine motor
control. This type of intoxication is highly pleasurable at first,
and then no longer works, but by then you’re hooked and
you need more and more to have a sense of stasis, and not get
We saw what happens when users run out of the Chem-
ical (it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the body’s growing
need). One day Aaron got into a rage and accused Jared of
doing the last of the Chemical and started hitting him like he
wanted to kill him. We had no idea what they were fighting
about. It’s likely in the psychosis triggered by the Chemical
Aaron honestly believed Jared did this to hurt him. Jared had
to go to the emergency room to see if his eye had been dam-
aged by the beating he took; it was swollen shut.
Neither boy knew anything about the drug when they first
smoked its vapor at a friend’s party soon after graduating high
school in 2010. All of this I learned after Jared started talking
about it with us, releasing a torrent of memories in the days
after his arrest, when we learned fentanyl had been found in
his blood. One of their best friends from third grade said the
high was totally awesome but it was easy to od. They were
told that they wouldn’t get addicted from smoking, only if
Adelaide Literary Award 2019
they injected. Everyone gathered around Alessandro who put
a thin line of the white powder on a strip of foil that he held
in his palm. He flicked a lighter below it and soon a vapor
smelling like boiled milk rose from the foil. Alessandro told
them that the Chemical would open their minds to the spir-
itual. They took turns. Jared quickly felt the explosive onset,
mostly a head rush. The high is shorter than for heroin, one
to two hours instead of half a day. The flushing in his face
was so intense it was almost painful. He held his hands to
his cheeks and rushed to the bathroom and drenched his face
in ice water. He felt a shortness of breath as if he had been
running; his vision blurred and his skin tingled as if he were
being touched all over by a beautiful woman. He tried to pee
but couldn’t. He leaned over the toilet and threw up. All of
it felt pleasant. Everyone lay about the couches and floor on
pillows. Alessandro took pictures of them in various stages of
somnolence with the Leica SLR he always carried with him.
Alessandro attended art school summers, and took stunning
photographs. Later that day, Jared played the keyboards, and
guitar. Aaron played guitar, and Alex played the violin. There
was a drummer and vocalist as well. Like the Romantics, they
championed an alternative culture, criticizing frenzied pace of
learning in the American public school system. Yet they em-
braced technology wholeheartedly, and went to coding camp.
Their faces reflected the beatific visions they had experienced
and the sense that they were a special breed put on this earth
to make life better for everyone.
After their arrest, Jared volunteered to go to jail for a
month at the advice of his attorney so the judge would treat
him less harshly. The maximum prison sentence for this type of
hate crime was five years. Jared had to withdraw from college
the first week of school. We made haste to set up plans to have
both boys attend separate residential rehab programs when
Jared was released from jail. They weren’t going to stop using
on their own. We heard the recidivism was high.
His jailors assigned Jared to the violent crimes unit, and
placed him in a cell with a man who torched a man’s face in a
home burglary. I was in shock that Jared, never one to start a
fight, was sharing a cell with this guy. Jared told me on one of
my weekly visits that the cellmate kept making jokes about gay
sex. Thankfully, the judge only added another two weeks of
jail, along with the maximum sentence for community service.
Thereafter he would have four to five years of community service
to complete, roughly 20 hours a week of mind-numbing grunt
work. He would have to delay college and getting his degree.
I understood the sense they had of being special, of having
new insight. Nor could I criticize them for trying this drug. I
couldn’t say well, why didn’t you look it up first on the internet
before trying it? I knew what it was like to be at a party with
friends you knew all your life and be presented with a drug
you’d never heard of. Back in the day, my boyfriend’s word was
good enough for me.
Now that they had been outed, we discussed the drug
scene. Aaron read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and
said he felt fentanyl would turn out to be as defining an experi-
ence for his generation as hallucinogens were for mine. I went
to university in Berkeley, California, where even now the spirit
of the ‘60s is still very much alive, albeit muted. When I was
there, in the 70s, the vibe was still a blatant Lucy in the Sky
with Diamonds. In a 2006 report in Wired magazine, many
early computer pioneers were said to have been users of LSD.
Steve Jobs described his own LSD experience as “one of the
two or three most important things” he had done in his life.
But no one I knew was doing opioids. The drugs out today are
Adelaide Literary Award 2019
a lot more potent than what I had access too when I was their
age, and I had no idea how much things have changed. The
night of Jared’s arrest, I was in for a shock.
After Aaron had been in rehab for several months, and away
from the drug, I asked if he could find happiness without it. “I’m
not mad at Jared anymore about what happened,” he said, his
face earnest. “I love my life now. I have purpose. I love the people
I’m meeting, really great people. And I’m writing like crazy. I’m
working on a screenplay. It’s going to happen for me, man.”
But the beatific visions that happened in the beginning
lost their sparkle. Already he experienced the psychosis, and
the anger, and knew that if he continued, it would eat at his
mental capabilities in a monstrous way. It was the dreams that
captivated him, he felt cheated without the dreams. I told him
that Jorge Luis Borges says that modeling dreams is more dif-
ficult than weaving a rope out of sand.
Many of their classmates went to rehab as well. The result: ten
deaths from overdose over a handful of years. But you won’t
hear about it, these families don’t talk to the media. Addic-
tion to opioids may have halted in my community after these
deaths—that’s the scuttlebutt on the street—but nationally it’s
a crisis without letup. Addiction cuts across every socioeco-
nomic class in America, although the media likes to talk about
it as a big problem in the Midwest, people from rural outposts
to major urban areas everywhere in the U.S. are dealing with
it, even in the tech centers.
Young white suburban Americans between 25 to 34 years
old experience the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths ac-
cording to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In urban areas, it’s blacks. Developed in the ‘60s as a painkiller
of last resort, fentanyl has surpassed heroin and prescription
pills to become the lead in the opioid crisis and is now the
leading cause of overdose death in the U.S. Last year, more than
31,000 people in the U.S. died after taking fentanyl or one of
its chemical relatives, representing a 45 percent jump in 2017
alone. No other drug in modern history has killed more people
in any one year. UN statistics shows that opioid use in the US
is the highest of any country in the world, and more than 50
percent higher than Germany, the second-ranked country of
the twenty most populous countries, and 2,000 times higher
than India. And now suppliers are adding it to heroin, molly,
and cocaine, anything that comes in a white powder.
It’s not a problem in the EU, likely because the family unit
is stronger overall and people aren’t as frantic about climbing
the career ladder, life is slower across the pond. But this obses-
sion with opioids is a totally different thing from what previous
generations of Americans lived through, including the opium
that Chinese brought in the 1849 Gold Rush. And the mari-
huana and hallucinogens of the 60s weren’t physically addicting.
Doctors in the U.S. meanwhile were prescribing opioids
for every sort of malady. It seems a natural progression that
fentanyl started appearing on our streets in significant quan-
tities in 2013, produced in China. Remember the Opium
Wars? Is this payback? Rather than be a tool for enlightenment,
fentanyl is a malignant shadow god that has its talons firmly
around the throats of our youth. It’s rare for anyone especially
one whose brain isn’t fully formed to escape its clutches intact.
Currently there’s no surefire remedy other than naloxone for
opioid overdose, and it’s best to be trained in how to inject if
the need arises. Last year Congress finally passed legislation to
provide treatment to people who need it and cannot afford it.
Adelaide Literary Award 2019
Today, officials say the bulk of the fentanyl produced in
China is funneled to Mexico, where it is remaking the drug
trade as traffickers embrace it over heroin, which is more dif-
ficult and expensive to produce. While heroin is made from
poppy plants that grow only in specific climates and take
months to cultivate, fentanyl and other so-called synthetics are
cooked from chemicals in makeshift laboratories in a matter
of hours. U.S. border agents have been intercepting increasing
amounts of fentanyl. In January of last year, they reported their
largest seizure ever: 254 pounds of powder and pills hidden in
a truck carrying cucumbers into Arizona, enough to kill every
In Infinite Jest Hal comes to realize that, “we are all dying
to give our lives away to something,” paralleling what Marathe
tells Steeply about choosing one’s idols. By giving himself over
to addiction, Hal knows he’s avoiding some question or real-
ization, and by invoking Hamlet, the narrator suggests that
addiction is an attempt to evade suffering, leading to questions
about the purpose of life: “… the questions why and to what
grow real beaks and claws.” The bird-like imagery alludes to
the image of the shadow that Kate Gompert uses to describe
her depression. Which begs the question: Is addiction the best
defense against depression and insanity? Against failure?
The boys went to treatment in Southern California, se-
lected from the Forbes list, and very expensive. Nothing was
too good for our boys, we just wanted them healthy. A year
past us by and from all reports they were thriving, the ther-
apists said that Aaron was leading group activities and doing
well in his studies. Jared was also doing well, motivated and
getting good marks. The following year I wanted both boys
to come home for Thanksgiving, though the prospect wor-
ried me. On the phone, Aaron swore he was out of the drug’s
clutches, making a lot of friends on the sobriety circuit and
actively seeking clarity. The director of the treatment center
recommended that Aaron come home, after all he reasoned, he
would have to re-enter the world sometime. I knew that Jared
would do whatever Aaron wanted.
The minute they came home we shared hugs, and friends
stopped by in an endless procession. Everyone trooped into
the kitchen. I watched Aaron go through cupboards, saying
he wanted to find water bottles. I retrieved a couple for him.
Aaron went to fill up, and in the process, sprayed water on the
floor. He swiped the spill, grinning at my bemused face; his joy
breaking out of him in waves of glee. “I don’t want someone
to slip on this,’’ he said as if he were the happiest person alive
to be doing this chore, his eyes round and glowing, his limbs
“Just curious, what drug are you on, is it ecstasy?” It was
hard to believe his joy stemmed from sheer happiness at being
home, the joy that lit up his eyeballs like a Christmas tree.
“No, not ecstasy.” He drank deeply from his water bottle
and laughed like a child, with that unadulterated sense of well-
being before spraying another layer of water on the slick wood
floor, his laughter turning ecstatic, his spirit flowing efferves-
cent like a bubbling stream. He pulled out a clutch of paper
towels and bent down again. As he moved, his limbs appeared
to shiver like the strings of a violin. “No, I’m just happy. I love
you so much mom, and I’m glad we’re here with you.”
“It’s not fentanyl I hope?”
He shook his head and Jared said nothing. In their code,
the decision whether to admit anything was his brother’s to
make. I had my suspicions, but thought after a year of rehab,
they should know the drill: how to stay safe, and to avoid
overdose. I put my hopes on their good sense.
Adelaide Literary Award 2019
Aaron said he couldn’t wait to go back to Los Angeles with
its young hipsters thronging the streets and clubs. His energy
was magnetic; we all hung on his words. Several hours later,
Aaron said he was tired and wanted to take a nap. Jared said
he was tired, too. The next morning Jared found Aaron’s dead
body; his twin asphyxiated. The sound of Jared’s ear splitting
wail pierced my soul, the sound of desperation and heartache.
We held each other for the longest time. Then the nightmare
began anew, in a different guise, Jared fell into a funk with
bouts of sobriety lasting months. I could tell now when he
was using, his movements slowed and he spoke in a whisper,
he had trouble getting out of bed, and complained that he
couldn’t get REM sleep, nor could he converse without a lot
of pauses and trailing sentences, his understanding was poor
and he couldn’t finish a book. He dropped out of school and
lied about it. Several times he went back to rehab, and each
time he got out, he vowed this would be the last time he would
use. The stress was unnerving, but I knew I would always be
there for him, and help him find his way. Then after a period
of successfully staying off hard drugs, and seemingly to have
learned to manage without Aaron, he moved to the Bay Area
and found a job he loved and friends. Then the friend who had
introduced him to fentanyl came to visit, and was booted out
by his roommate after threatening her, and acting psychotic.
Later I learned from his coworkers that a new girl had joined
their team. She had just moved to the U.S. from Mexico and
announced to others that she was a meth addict. Jared became
her friend and he told the others he was planning to help her
overcome her addiction.
His landlord discovered his dead body. The coroner said
the meth was so strong it burst his aorta. He died from massive
In Infinite Jest, Gately takes Dilaudid to avoid “a terrible
stomach-sinking dread that probably dates back to being alone
in his XXL-Dentons and crib below Herman the Ceiling That
Breathed.” Gately hopes to lose the feeling that he’s “under a
storm-cloudy sky that bulged and receded like a big gray lung.”
Once the drug kicks in, “the sky stopped breathing and turned
I wish I could talk with my boys right now, and tell them
how much I miss them.
My work has appeared in a handful of literary magazines,
print and online, including an anthology by Riverfeet Press,
titled Awake in the World, V.2. My work can be found in
Catamaran Literary Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Po-
tato Soup Journal, Literary Orphans, Cultured Vultures, and
Citron Review, and will be appearing in the upcoming summer
issue of Juked. I was a finalist in Cutthroat’s 2016 Rick DeMa-
rinis Short Fiction Contest, and received honorable mention
in GlimmerTrain’s Emerging Writers Contest for 2015 and
2016. One of my essays was a contest finalist in the creative
nonfiction category in the Spring 2019 Pinch Literary Awards.
Years ago, I was a regular freelance contributor for the New
Jersey Regional Section of The New York Times, and several
regional newspapers and magazines, including The Cleveland
Plain Dealer and Asbury Park Press, and received a few awards
for that work from the Society of Professional Journalists.
After self-publishing two novels I went for an MFA in creative
writing from Bennington Writing Seminars in Vermont, and
have an undergraduate degree in literature from UC Berkeley.
SHORTLIST WINNER NOMINEES
Letter to Stephen
by Ruth Deming
It seems like forever since you left us, though it was only in
2014, when your various cancers returned. Unlike me, you had
so much to live for, though officially you were a retiree. All
those Letters to the Editor you wrote to the Inquirer, always
hoping to make this a better world.
The debacle happened on November 5, 2019. It’s not over
yet. A fleet of white Verizon trucks that look like World War
Two submarines line our street. I’ve taken countless photos of
them and their men for my blog.
Would you believe, Stephen, that I was out cold when the
outage happened. Was watching Doctor Daniel Amen instruct
us on how to keep my memory loss to a minimum and failed
to hear the sizzle of the transformer that for days was the talk
of the town.
When I awoke and looked out the front window, tree
branches and twigs littered the street. The back yard, though,
was worse. It looked like those tornados you see in Mississippi
and Florida where people’s houses are smashed to the ground
I went out on the back yard deck and stared at the de-
struction. The epicenter was right next door at the Bill Adams
Adelaide Literary Award 2019
house. I learned that his dead tree had knocked down four
other trees, which knocked down his white fence and nearly
everything landed in his pool, covered over for the winter.
Stephen, I am desperately trying to make this interesting,
so you can see it, wherever you are. My belief is that you reside
in my head. I still have your B & W photo in my upstairs office,
a handsome man with a slight beard, John Lennon glasses, and
a button-down striped shirt.
Do you like coffee? I have made some Starbucks
“Christmas” Coffee in my Chemex pot, which is shapely as a
woman. And I must confess, I have become clumsy. My sister
Donna confirmed this happens to her, too.
Every facet of my being was trying to get through the
outage until the electricity went back on. Our water was on,
but it was freezing.
Fortunately, my gas tank was full. I drove over to the li-
brary, along with 50 other people, and we spent time warming
up. Warming our hands as if we’d climbed Mount Everest. My
black beret was jammed on my head.
Then from the library I drove over to the Barnes and
Noble shopping center. Best Nails was there.
I hadn’t had a manicure in over five years. You know how
it is. The polish chips off and you’ve got to get it redone.
This polish is, to use my new favorite word, spectacular.
Good Lord, how do you describe a color?
May, my handmaiden, said I chose a beautiful color.
Wine-colored perhaps and shiny as a mirror. No, not the
mirror of Snow-White’s wicked stepmother.
It wasn’t terribly expensive and I gave May a nice tip.
The world, after the outage – which I’m tempted to call
“outrage” - was as beautiful as ever. When Scott had three trees
removed, I asked Willow Tree Service to bring two stumps
from his tall fir tree over to my bird bath. Oh, I wish you could
see them, Stephano. “Courage” en francais, for me to ask them.
More coffee please. It must be hot or it ain’t no good.
I am lonely, Stephen. My work here on earth is finished.
At night, when I close my eyes, often listening to WRTI-FM,
the jazz station, I ask myself, “What on earth shall I do to be
of value to people?”
Of course I love beauty and often stand outside on the
front porch at night staring at the naked sky. What goes on up
there? Often an airplane will wing its way through the darkness
as stars – those are unmoving – plugged in at the beginning of
time – and constellations, all once viewed by Magellan, Henry
Hudson, The Lakota Indians, Susan B Anthony and Suffrag-
ettes, and aesthetes like myself and boyfriend Scott.
The blue hair? My friend Rem drove the two of us to a
Reading Philly’s game. I still have the program – oops! – I al-
most said “pogrom” – on my kitchen wall, the Barnes Museum
of Cowbell Road.
These baseball games are mini-versions of the Philadelphia
Phillies and offer spectacular views from your seats. All sorts of
fun shenanigans occur on the field between innings. And there
again is that vast sky that holds all of us, until death wraps us
up in its soft arms.
A woman with blue hair sat with her family on an aisle
seat. Who knows? She may have been a cancer survivor or
simply an adventuress.
The very next day I visited the supermarket and the “hair”
aisle. Sure enough, there it was! An entire kit, including gloves,
a bottle of dye, which you pour into another bottle, smooth
onto your hair in the downstairs shower, look down at the
drain – and never think about Janet Leigh in Psycho! – that
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scene only took 30 seconds - and watch the blue dye disap-
pearing down the drain.
Let me peek again at your photo, Stephen.
This is the first letter I’ve ever written you.
Your wife Arleen is doing well. We met on a bus trip to
view Manhattan’s brownstones. My legs were killing me at the
end of the day.
But, you know what, Stephen?
That is far far better than being dead, ya know what I
Ruth Z. Deming is a poet and short story writer who lives in
Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her works have
been published in Mad Swirl, Literary Yard, ShortStory,net
and other writing venues. She runs New Directions, a sup-
port group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and
their loved ones. “Yes I Can: My Bipolar Journey” details her
triumph over bipolar disorder. A mental health advocate, she
educates the public about this treatable illness.
The Philosopher’s Stone
by Hank Kalet
The fear, always, is that blood is destiny, that the confusion I
see in her eyes will be visited upon me. I hear her repeat herself.
I watch her obsess – over her phone, her bag, my niece’s baby.
I hear her tell the same stories, ask the same questions.
We’re watching television in the den, my dad asleep in
my reading chair. Football had been on, but with the big man
asleep, I flip the channel, find an old favorite show of hers.
“How about this, mom, The Wild, Wild West?” (http://dai.ly/
x3ixk7y ) Victor Buono is chewing up the scenery. Robert
Conrad is all cool and bad-ass in his waistcoat, a cowboy, a
spy, facing off against another surreal sci-fi threat.
“I think I remember this,” she tells me, and she watches.
“That’s Robert Conrad, James West,” I say. “That’s Artemis
Gordon. You used to love this.”
She smiles. It goes to a commercial for My Pillow.
“That’s supposed to be the best pillow,” she says. My dad
rouses. “They don’t tell you how much it is,” she says.
She’s right. No price. A two-for-one offer but no price.
She says it again, tells me again that it is “supposed to be the
best pillow for sleeping.”
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Dad weighs in, reminds her that it’s just a commercial,
that they are hyping the pillow.
“That’s what they always tell you,” he says. “They want you
to buy it.”
The show returns. “Who is that?” she asks.
“Jim West. Robert Conrad. Remember?”
“You loved this show when I was a kid.”
Back to a commercial, a skating sumo wrestler, a car ad, and
the pillow again. “They don’t tell you how much it is,” again and
again until West and Gordon defeat Buono’s Count Manzeppi.
Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia. The mind in decay. I saw it
with my grandmother and, now, I’m watching it slowly take
hold of my mother.
Mom began showing symptoms about a decade ago – forget-
ting names, confusing dates, avoiding long conversations. We’d
call, she’d answer and immediately put my dad on the phone.
This is typical of early-stage Alzheimer’s. According to the
London-based Alzheimer’s Society (https://www.alzheimers.
most Alzheimer’s patients start with lapses in memory, with
what might seem to be normal forgetfulness. “In particular,
they may have difficulty recalling recent events and learning
Lost keys. Misplaced bags. The light on the stove. The
hippocampus, the section of the brain responsible for short-
term memory, is attacked by the disease, which then spreads
to other memory centers as “proteins build up in the brain to
form structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’. This leads to the
loss of connections between nerve cells, and eventually to the
death of nerve cells and loss of brain tissue.” There also is “a
shortage of some important chemicals” that normally “help to
transmit signals around the brain.” It’s like a short circuit in
the brain’s wiring, a misfire that shuts down certain functions –
small things, at first, but it can affect language and motor skills,
the ability to follow simple processes (brushing the teeth can
become difficult), before expressing itself in fantastical thinking.
There is some evidence that Alzheimer’s is hereditary, but
it’s not conclusive and there are other factors – environmental,
dietary, etc. – that may play a role. But watching my mom slip
into the distance just as her mother did is hard to escape. I fear
for the future – for my mom, of course, and for my dad, who
is her primary support, but also for my sister and my brother,
and for myself.
The question of heredity hangs over us, leaves me with an
unshakable sense of dread that only heightens the more general
fear of aging and death that is present in all of us. Some argue
– as a professor of mine did in an anthropology class – that all
religion is an effort to combat this dread, to find a way to, met-
aphorically, at least, stave off death. Art, as well, he said, and
most creative work, functions to extend our lives beyond their
natural end, to allow pieces of ourselves to live in perpetuity.
This notion, essentially a version of “angst” as described by
the existentialists, assumes our fear of death is deep seated and
potentially paralyzing – how can we function, make decisions,
etc., why should we, if the fact of our end, if not its circum-
stances, is foreordained?
There are moments when I feel the weight of this hit
me, paralyze me, suffocate me. I think it is at the heart of my
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own insecurities, my excess of caution, the variation of obses-
sive-compulsive disorder that can send me spiraling down and
out. I get stuck in thought loops, illogical judgments about
myself, and turn brittle and immobile. I have tools – and meds
– to help me address this, but the basic fear, the existential
dread cannot be erased.
In the end, the only thing to do is accept this as our fate,
accept the uncertainties and certainties of our existence, and
persevere. For Kierkegaard, this took the form of a religious
leap of faith; Camus, an atheist, answered the question by pro-
claiming a different kind of faith – not in god, but in existence.
My answer: Family, friendship, love. Human connection.
The sense of shared destiny and travail, the understanding that
we are in this slog together, ready to help one another down
the road. This doesn’t abate the fear, but it makes it more pal-
atable – though, it keeps the question of biology and heredity
in the foreground, makes it impossible to ignore.
My grandmother was a little younger than my mom is now when
she came to live with us. My grandfather had died a couple of
years before, less than a year after my bar mitzvah. He was always
a strong man, in charge of both of their lives, a physical presence
and no-nonsense sort. That was how I remembered him, at least.
He could be gruff, but I loved him dearly, as did my grand-
mother. My grandmother was a softer presence, at least with me,
and she always would find some candy for me or would make
me sweetened tea with milk and a little treat in her kitchen. She
would talk, tell me stories about my mother and her brothers,
about me, stories that my mom would later say were untrue.
My grandmother seemed content to remain in the back-
ground, to follow my grandfather’s lead, to let him drive con-
versations, make the decisions. The last time we visited them
in Florida, she seemed as she’d always been – maybe a little
more removed, a little forgetful, though perhaps it is just my
own faulty memory overlaying what I know now onto what I
likely didn’t notice then.
When my grandfather died, my grandmother was on her
own for the first time, and it quickly became apparent that she
should not be. She would leave the stove on, burn food beyond
recognition, char the tea kettle – once she nearly burned her
kitchen to the ground. My mom’s aunt and uncle lived nearby
and would check on my grandmother as often as they could,
but it wasn’t enough. It couldn’t be enough. The situation grew
dangerous and my folks moved her into our house. She slept
on the pullout couch in the den for a year or two, until I left
for college and she took over my room. She wasn’t the same
woman I remembered – more forgetful, certainly, but also an-
grier and more distant. She was rudderless. Her stories lacked
coherence, were more fabulous but went nowhere. She would
escape out the front door and head down the street clutching
her pocketbook. I’d catch up to her, turn her back, walk her
home as she explained that she was heading to the bank or
back to her house, that she was going home. She was always
“going home” – a few years after moving in with us, she told
my unsuspecting girlfriend (who is now my wife) that was just
in New Jersey for a visit and that she’d be leaving for Florida
in a few days.
It got worse – she started calling out for her mother, would
forget my mom, us, called my sister Sharon (my mom’s name),
would fall, sit silent, seemingly empty of thought or emotion,
unplugged from the world. There was rage in her voice, anger
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toward my mother. I don’t know he mom handled it, but she
did with help from my dad and my sister. I guess I helped, as
well, but I shied away from it, a bit fearful of what it all meant.
We moved her to a nursing home, where she spent the last two
or three years of her life. I didn’t visit, found excuses not to,
excuses that made me feel noble – I didn’t want to remember
her that way, I told myself and my mom. I was fooling myself,
and I knew it, and it’s something I regret today.
Mom’s been cooking a lot, dad says, mostly from memory,
from recipes she’s known a long time, but also some newer
ones. This seems a good sign, though we may be grasping for
small victories as a way of justifying an unearned optimism.
From what I’ve read, Alzheimer’s damages not only the basic
functions of memory, but the ability to complete the most
basic tasks. That’s what Geri Taylor experienced as the disease
took hold of her mind.
Taylor, who was profiled in an exceptional piece of jour-
nalism in The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/in-
described “the sensation of clouds coming over her, mantling
thought.” Taylor found that “mundane tasks stumped her.”
“She told her husband, Jim Taylor, that the blind in the
bedroom was broken. He showed her she was pulling the
wrong cord. Kept happening. Finally, nothing else working,
he scribbled on the adjacent wall which cord was which.
Then there was the day she got off the subway at 14th
Street and Seventh Avenue unable to figure out why she was
It was relatively early; the disease was progressing, but had
not fully compromised her. But the diseased progressed, as it
always does. “Certain words became irretrievable, sentences
coiled inside her mind and refused to come out, belongings
vanished: keys, glasses, earrings. She lost things and then forgot
what she had lost. Or that she had lost them.” It was a “fraying
at the edges of her life.”
“She had trouble with elapsed time. It was getting impos-
sible for her to distinguish between the past, the present and
the future. Blots of time melded together. She seemed forever
in the present, as if her life was one jumbled moment — break-
fast, shower, lunch, dinner, movie, shopping, everything con-
flated together and happening right now. It was as if, without
even trying, she had become a Buddhist.”
Mom is not a Buddhist. Nor has she lost her sense of time.
Mom forgets things. She asks, repeatedly, where they’re going,
but she still keeps the house mostly clean. She gets lost in the ca-
sino, but still does her word search puzzles. She loses the thread
of conversations, repeats herself, but still bowls. She plays the
machines, keeps track of her money, but she has become wholly
dependent on my dad. It is early, but not that early.
We wait and we hope, but we know where this goes. We know
because we’ve lived it. But we also can’t fully know because it
manifests differently in each individual – whether Alzheimer’s
or another form of dementia. For my grandmother, it was
delusions. For Aunt Tessie, my wife’s aunt, it is disconnection.
Geri Taylor experienced a compression of time, a loss of “ex-
ecutive function.” Glen Campbell started forgetting lyrics and
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guitar licks, sometimes turned combative, eventually needed
to be placed in a home.
The doctors have been little help. It’s not their fault; the
disease my mom is slowly losing herself to is a disease few fully
understand, and it’s difficult to disentangle the disease from
the natural memory loss associated with aging.
And yet, optimism seemed to guide my dad’s reaction and
actions – at least, until recently. He would downplay her growing
deficiencies, seem to ignore some of the signs, ascribe them to
other less ominous causes, and I would accept his accounts. This
was due, at least partly, to his desire to protect us, and to my
tendency to downplay what scares me, to pretend the worst can’t
happen (even as I silently stew in my fear, obsess over worst-case
scenarios). So a sense of unjustified hope hangs above us, sharing
space with the dread, with the fear of biology and heredity.
But optimism should be earned. The question is: How
does one find that optimism, earn that sense of hope in the
face of an end foretold? Biology is destiny, even if heredity may
not be. Simply put: We live to die, and watching my mom’s
mind erode is a reminder of this. She is nearly 77. My dad is
approaching 79. I am 54. Graying hair, a bald spot, bad knees
and ankles. The body imposes its will, reminds us of our im-
permanence, that time is growing short for us. Death, the word
I’ve resisted in this essay, is always with us, lurking. We spend
our lives trying to outrun it, but it’s there, inescapable. My
grandparents. My cousin Owen. My father-in-law, my moth-
er-in-law, my wife’s godmother. My friends – Tommy, Glen,
Wayne, Jimmy, Ed, Frank, Joe.
When we are young, we feel indestructible. We are not, and
our parents’ growing frailty, their vulnerability, unmasks the lie.
In the face of this, hope – that thing with feathers that
asks for nothing – can be a lodestar leading us in the wrong
direction. Campbell implies this, unintentionally, when he
sings the Guided by Voices song “Hold on Hope,” on the
album Ghost on the Canvas. The original, melancholy, ironic
in its desperate grasping, is transformed in Campbell’s per-
formance. The irony is gone. His diagnosis – central to the
documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which chronicled his
final tour and showed him playing his ass off on guitar – gives
the song a different kind of urgency, as does the singer’s devout
Christianity. Biography is essential to understanding Camp-
bell’s reading of the song, and yet the triumphant notes that
carry the Campbell version toward its conclusion give way to
the melancholy carnival piano of “Valley of the Son.” The illu-
sion is shattered. The feathers fall away.
Cue the existential dread, the paralysis. And yet, we go on,
we find reasons to persevere. Campbell – and many others –
finds his in religion and faith. I need to look elsewhere. Camus,
the atheist, describes existence in “The Myth of Sisyphus” as
both absurd and necessary. Sisyphus is sentenced by the gods to
repeatedly and eternally roll a boulder up a hill only to witness
its descent. It is an absurd act, but rather than give in to despair
– according to Camus – he proves himself stronger than the gods.
Sisyphus is us; the boulder is our lives, our existence. The
repetition, the inevitability, of failure – this is our biology. We
are born; we live; we die. Meaning comes from what we do
while we’re here. Our consciousness is our strength, but also
our weakness. We need to admit the absurdity, the seeming
futility of existence, and then rebel against this – by staring
the futility in the face, admitting the terror it inspires, and
continuing to connect with the world, with our loved ones,
with our most unreachable dreams.
To give in to the futility, to the paralysis is, as Camus
makes clear, tantamount to suicide.
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I feel myself becoming obsessed. My mom’s recent visit, her
inability to connect beyond the simplest interactions, her con-
fusions, my impatience – all of it weighs on me. My OCD
– the stuck thoughts – has me mired in doubt. I watch Glen
Campbell slowly deteriorate, forget the lyrics to songs he has
been singing for decades, struggle with guitar licks, tussle with
his band – his family – on stage in front of thousands.
Campbell is asked about Alzheimer’s, responds as though
it is a person, someone he knows. He struggles with names.
Accuses his son of stealing his golf clubs, walks the house club
in hand, a menacing presence.
My mom constantly plays with her iPhone, looks through
her recent calls, thinks she’s missed a call. She speed-dials my
aunt, thinking it is an incoming call; she hangs up with her
friend Harriet, then calls her back immediately, thinking she
She’s here for a week. I’m exhausted. Annie’s better at this
than I am, but my dad is a saint, demonstrating patience I never
expected him to have. He always has been the kind of man
who would leave a restaurant rather than wait more than 15
or so minutes to be seated, but now he listens to mom’s stories
again and again, corrects her over and over, yet manages never
to betray his exasperation. He tells me otherwise. He says he
loses his patience with her when they are home, especially if her
condition interferes with important matters. But I don’t see it.
At the same time, I know what it costs him emotionally.
He’s never been a man of the written word. He’s a veracious
reader, someone who likes to socialize, to talk about sports
and current events, but he is not someone who is prone to put
pen to paper.
Yet, about a year ago, he sent us a letter – he couldn’t speak
on the phone because mom was always there. He had to fill
us in, put his worries into words. He told us, mechanics be
damned, that his health was good, but acknowledged he was
“getting older and (had) seen people who have had problems.”
He was concerned. Mom was getting worse.
“She is getting so forgetful that sometimes I have lost her
in the casino, among other situations. We have stopped going
out with the people we use to see because they are uncomfort-
able with her repeating and forgetting. I am not happy about
giving up socializing but I can live without it.”
We called him when we received the note. It was unlike
him. He downplayed it. He just needed to vent, he said, but
we knew it was more.
I have their wedding picture above my desk, one of many
black-and-white photos. They are so young – my mom was
20, my dad 22. They are thin and fresh faced, but it is the eyes
I’m drawn to, the clarity, the focus. Mom stares straight into
the camera, her eyes locked on the viewer, who has no choice
but to return the gaze.
Above my parents on the wall are my mom’s parents, a
faded image from the 1920s. My grandparents stand looking
to the right. They are not smiling, which appears to have been
the convention of the time. My grandmother’s eyes, like my
mom’s, are clear, magnetic.
I don’t remember those eyes, can only remember my
grandmother’s vacant stare as she sat in our kitchen, or the
wholly empty gaze she offers the camera when she is pictured
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at my brother’s bar mitzvah, a vacancy I start to see in my
mom’s eyes, but only in flashes. She’s still there, still with us.
Even in photos.
Manzeppi seeks the Philosopher’s Stone. Hidden in a mechan-
ical bird, a wind-up toy, the stone, when exposed to moonlight,
turns all it touches to gold, and Manzeppi and the beautiful
Gerda Scharff (played by Michele Carey) are entranced by its
possibilities, Scharff is ultimately killed by her greed and care-
lessness – she turns to gold as she attempts to spirit away the
stone for herself.
The Philosopher’s Stone. A myth. Legend. The basis of
the false science of alchemy, viewed by some traditions as the
key to immortality (http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/
what-was-the-philosophers-stone). I turn to my mom. She’s
silent. I think, “if only,” and then, “no.” This is where the paral-
ysis creeps in, where the fear intersects with the failure to fully
accept the limited duration of our lives. The the golem (https://
Chelm, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Doctor Faustus, even
Deadpool and Wolverine – a whole literature explaining the
extreme costs of seeking to live beyond our expiration dates.
Mom watches. Dad’s asleep again. The new year is set to
begin in a few hours, and they will be on their way back to Las
Mom asks “Who is he?” as Victor Buono bids West and
“Manzeppi,” I tell her for the fourth or fifth time, “Victor