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..:: CONTENTS ::..
   Volume IV, Issue I

..:: POETRY ::..

..:: PROSE ::..
..:: HORTON ::..

..:: ETC ::..
   Contributor's Notes

..:: ARCHIVES ::..
   Volume I, Issue I
   Volume I, Issue II
   Volume II, Issue I
   Volume II, Issue II
   Volume III, Issue I
   Volume III, Issue II


Natural Bacteria
Lynn Strongin


About halfway back from the Deep South, mirroring our profound sense of location & dislocation that year, I broke out in poison: oak, ivy and sumac, all three. By the time we were in Georgia, staying at a turn-of-the century brick building in the middle of some town whose name I can't recall, I'd gone down from the brown hotel room with peeling paint, for a dusty breath of fresh air at five in the evening: the street was still sweltering. People swam and shimmered in the blue heat, buildings crumpled like cardboard. The scorching street came up to hit me in the face. I did not know this part of the world. Fire-swallows. The fire, which was prejudice, superstition going down the throat as perilously as the fire which was real flame.

There I was somewhere in Georgia, slapping at blackflies, standing outside a crumby third-class hotel, just to breathe without feeling my lungs were behind gauze. I thought I was invisible pressed flat and lean as I was against the side of this building. Suddenly, out of the blue, a hand reached toward me: it held coin! I, Indigo, was actually being handed coin by a passing stranger. Taken for a street-beggar. Horrified, I took a deep breath and bolted. I beat it so fast my calves were throbbing, up the three flights to our room. I must have looked badly scarred from burns.

My mother cut up her silk underpants to lay on my face. We hung a washline from the ceiling during the heat wave that seemed to stretch the several thousand miles from Sarasota to Manhattan. It turned roofs into corrugated tin and cardboard. It flattened, then bent and buckled my family, Chel and Marcelle. It blistered, it broke red brown in the Southern states, turned green as rich swamps in the mid-Atlantic States and finally cooled to azure, indigo, cobalt as we neared home.

"Indigo," Mother said. "You're a big girl now. I'm thinking of flying you home."


"Alone. You're 9 years of age."

The airlines were in their early days. None of us had ever flown in '48. All the planes were warplanes.

"You're in such misery, you're spreading the mizzables around."

"I aint."

I began to talk Southern.

"I'd send you to Grandmother's, Indigo, she could take you to the doctor up East."

"I don't want to go home alone ahead of you and Rachel."

"Let me think on it overnight, Indigo," she said in her old mother voice, lower in pitch. She pulled out a pack of Luckies from the breast-pocket of her shirt and lit up. I waved it off, screwing up my face. "You're looking worse by the moment, that blistering."

"Don't be scared."

"I don't scare easy."

Then Rach and I started sassing. We'd had a tin of beans for supper again. Beans on the hot coil. And we'd gulped root beer out of its glass bottles. I squinted and saw three fiery coils. The light was endless and it was cruel. It lit up every mote of dust in that room, every coil of the burner heating. First I began to sin, then Chel.

          Beans Beans the musical fruit
          The more you eat the more you toot.
          So eat beans with every meal
          The more you eat the better you feel.

Always the tomboy, I was horsing and horsing, jumping barefoot on those beds with rotten springs. That wild body-energy that took me over at times, turning me into a wild child, enfant sauvage, my body-ecstasy overcame me and I sprang like a cat from one bed to the other, mine to Rachel's right across the room with wooden floor, that mean little poor bastard of a room.

"Stop it, Indy!" Mother raised her voice.

Then more quietly, she mustered her quiet, her thunder guns: "Here you are sick and all. You'll be the death of me."

"You're the death of my childhood!" I yelled.

"Think, just think of the natural bacteria in this room!" she looked scathingly at my bare feet, which were callused filthy, my hands breaking out now in this thing, this strange thing. "It's this dislocation we're going thru, Indigo, now act your age." ("Think of the natural bacteria"—as if there were any other kind—was a family phrase. It could bring us to laughter or tears.) I thought of that backbay Georgia doctor in the antiquated office she'd taken me to that morning. He shook his head. He was stumped. "Never seen anythin' like it, ma'am. Your girl's got a cross between poison oak, poison sumac, and poison ivy. She must have bin swimmin' thru the stuff."

"Indigo?" Mother arched her eyebrows. They were still dark, not singed by cigarette smoke like her lashes. (How did their cranky little Southern doc, Dr. Lacoya, know I'd gone swimming through grass the week before we left Sarasota? I did it on a dare. I always won.)

I was too miserable in that hot little office with the fans whirring but not cutting the heat any.

I hung my head like a dog.

This must have flashed back in Mother's mind while I was jumping.

"That's it! I'm flying you north tomorrow Morning."

"I'm thinking of the natural bacteria in this room," I slowed the beating of my heart, jumped down off the bed onto the wood floor where I'd driven a splinter into my right foot the night before but not told her—my father was the one good at removing splinters, shards of wood I drove into my running feet constantly.

"I'm thinking," I said slowly deliberately ignoring by now three types of pain: the pain in the sole of my right foot, the pain in my face, the mounting pains in my heart and mind. All I could focus my soul upon was that I didn't want to fly North in the morning without them. Nor did I want to let on I was scared. I turned the tap on till it ran tepid, down that rusty little runnel in the old battered soapstone sink. The batteries in the radio were shot. It was dead silent in that room.

"What, tell me, Indigo, are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking that the pain's easing some."


"Truth," I crossed my toes mentally.

She looked at me with that hard look of—you're my child, not my friend, which presently softened to—I'm your mother, you're my child. That she with all she had instilled in us of pride, self-sufficiency, should have her child seen as beggar. She, above all who taught me get back on your own two feet, you know who you are—if she should learn this she would be annihilated, or worse, would annihilate.

"Then you won't need these," Mother folded the silk panties she'd cut up the night before. "Nor will I ever wear them again," she said bitterly, I remembered that bitterly. I felt the way I did the day she walked in the door and said, "I'm allergic to my children."

I was thinking I could overcome anything by not wanting to fly home in the morning. I began lifting that bronzed knocker I imagined existed at the door of my soul.
The sun had set. The room was bluish-white outlines in black liquid night.
Rachel wriggled under the covers nude except for her cotton underpants, and fell asleep in twenty.

Mother read a Daphne du Maurier mystery novel and smoked in the window's last light, blowing out smoke-rings, wearing her man-tailored shirt whose breast pocket always held her Luckies, the sleeves of the blue shirt rolled up below the elbow. It was a trouser role she was playing. Instinctively, I knew that even then. I wondered was she going to come and kiss me goodnight. It was a long time before she rose.

"You asleep?" she called from the window.

"You know I am not," I said, beginning to smile through the pain in my cheekbones.

"Well," she rose, came over, my heart was a trip hammer. "You're too sore for me to kiss you goodnight, Lynn, but I—"

"You do anyway in your heart and mind."

"Got it." She snapped out the lightbulb by the chain.


When I was in my forties, Marcelle reminded me. "You remember that trip down South when I cut up my underwear to soothe your blistered face?"

"We were heading back north. How could I forget?"

"Well, that's when you began to be the tough person you are today, Indigo. Don't ever put your boxing gloves on the shelf."

I noticed how pale our mother looked then. Last year, she'd got on hands and knees and scraped down one room in the attic of our big old colonial home we bought post war. She said, "The more you scrape, the better things get, Lynn." She'd told me then about Pentimento: "It means scraping away one layer to get at another one." 

Even though she was the death of my childhood, the death of all vibrant fun-loving things in that split-second I cried out as I saw another rip appear in the mattress ticking, and burst feathers had gone flying...

From that time of heightened longing and quickened senses in Georgia, down in Dixie, slave-land, that I go in my mind when terrible things happen. Silently lethal things occur in merciless heat. The kind that blinds people and makes objects swim.




I lay awake till I swore it was the midnight caboose—not the ten p.m. train slicing the night.

I knew she wouldn't be flying me home alone in the morning. I imagined by the time we crossed the New York State line my skin would be clear and smooth as a newborn. That was the turn of events crises always took in my life. Except for one. But that was three years later. I would be twelve then.

No radio played. The batteries had given up the ghost.

It was blackout like the war.

I wondered about my father.

Now that we had the divorce formally would the two be split like a knife?

That entire drive home I was to imagine we hauled a small casket in the trunk of the car: it was glass, it contained my childhood. During that momentous, yet monotonous drive when hills were anonymous like rain, and the town which is so memorable for my having been taken for a beggar began the sole time in my life —the town forever remains without name, during that drive I grew by leaps and bounds. Mother always at-the-wheel, in command, up through sweltering Tennessee, up into the North Atlantic states, it was visible in my mind's eye, every time I blinked: yes, the death of my childhood in a casket of bright light formally laid within.

That very night when I'd been taken for a beggar and told no one - as I felt my body-panic coming on in a wave—I calmed myself thinking of all the episodes where I was strong, Rachel less so, and our Mother's predictions wrong.

It began with Lox and sturgeon are too strong and rich for a little kid's stomach. But Poppa brought them all the time. I'd whittle away at the chunk left in the fridge after we were served our dinner or breakfast helpings.

Oh yeah? I thought: Not this kid. So I'd take an extra bit of each when Poppa brought them over and I was four or five. Then we graduated to plum pudding. "Because we're in this dislocation," I told mother soberly, "I need more of the things which are accustomed."

"Girls," she'd say again, sometimes breaking down and laughing at herself, "this is far too too rich for a child's stomach." My ears perked. I smiled at her from one side of my mouth. I got myself into a brief feverish sleep—my face was blistery and burning—realizing how few times she'd lied to us, our mother. Thinking of Mother and Father. How they were dissolved forever as a team. Thinking of the two of them, two black construction paper silhouettes like those we made in first grade when I was even more lonesome, when the war was still on. Then suddenly something shifted, maybe Rachel in her sleep, maybe only another hotel guest coming in late in the hall, but I wakened and couldn't get to sleep again. I dreaded seeing the blue light of dawn. The first birdcall. But sometimes that's the way it happened.


I didn't tell her someone had thought I was a beggar. It had never occurred to me to look in the mirror. I thought I was my same old belle-laide dirty blonde.

I pulled on my hermithood again.

I was the Prisoner of Zenda, I dreamed. That's where I located myself in my dream.

I was blond Ingrid Bergman, St. Joan.

. . .The shape of the black typewriter, the old Royal Underwood, would ghostly loom: was in and out of my dreams as it was on the long drive through our Dixie States (that were Death) up into the North (which was life). This was the Confederacy against the Union, but the Union after the dissolution had welded our nation—that long, heart-rending, blistering drive home. We were going back to the Union. Those glossy Southern mornings, those white, cruel noons.

What of those boys stopping outside Garbo's apartment in Manhattan? Did they never, ever get a glimpse of her radiance?

Me as beggar one more terrifying second flashed through my mind, then I zapped it with this transcendent power I'd developed by age nine to mentally stop things dead in their paths.

I went to sleep alongside Rachel thinking of my life as a doorknocker, a sombre heavy one, of bronze with a woman's face. It was with this heavy knocker that the visitor must knock to enter the door of my house, my soul. The light was dusty till way past twilight outside that window in a hotel someplace in Georgia. Location, dislocation. The flies clung to the vivid yellow, oily flypaper suspended from the ceiling, the one lightbulb shone over the old clothing hung by the line I hadn't read about Skid Row. Not yet. When I did I pictured it flowing out from, beginning in that room. When Rachel reached her hand out to mine I caught her hand, then slipped back into bed, and noticed when I woke way past midnight so intense was the pain in my face, observed I did, that Mother and Rach wrapped up in their pale bedsheets as though the sheets were water looked like two drowned persons. Once I closed my eyes, I likely looked the same.


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