Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Essential Functions

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The Board Finance Chair takes his seat and says, "It's regrettable but please understand, it's not personal. It's financial." I raise my eyebrows. "This is the culture of nonprofits." I blink twice at the corporate speak, feeling the familiar twinge of disdain crawl up my back. I am unemployed.

I imagine the spreadsheets and gear-grinding discussion about what to cut. I find little will to divine the faces of individual board members for their leanings. I can only visualize small, frail-boned imps counting lima beans into equal piles. I can only picture Steinbeck hurling his first draft of The Grapes of Wrath into a funeral pyre. I just wasn't finished, and I am uneasy about lack of completion. Three years of diligent toil scatter like sepia photographs loosed to the wind, experience fading into history. I feel as if I were never here, an imposter finally discovered.

"We must focus on essential functions," he finishes. In silence, I show myself the door and wonder if the bathroom will have toilet paper.

Two weeks later, the day is mine, and I rise at five a.m. to watch the sun get dressed. Pink orange, the boastful orb stretches up past the scattered patches of fog and yawns her way to hot. I survey the acre of soil that surrounds my family's cottage, overgrown with vinca, oak and eucalyptus. My thoughts turn inward and back pedal through all my jobs since the first -- the one from which I am fired for picking zucchini too small. I see the windowless room of the weekly newspaper where I intern as a copy editor, full of men with stubby pencils, all smoking non-filtered cigarettes. I wince at the memory of my stint as assistant to the movie producer, his hot, condensed breath on my neck, needing help with nothing more than his zipper. Like a flipbook of outdated want ads, the list widens and obscures, a series of blunders and detours. Soul cravings stuffed inside time clocks.

At 7:30 a.m., as I drive my son to school, he asks, "What are you thinking about, Mom?"

"Oh, lots of things."

My son grins. "You always get that far away look when you're inventing something to write." My heart falls on top of itself. He wiggles out of the back seat and before he slams the door, he says, "You should call Grandpa, Mom."

Grandpa? I think about calling Grandma, but I remind myself that she is dead, and dead people are notoriously unreliable counselors, always trying to call you toward their light. I laugh to myself that I am still connecting the two as a pair, though they divorced forever ago.

I conjure my father, writing. Longhand. Somewhere around Chapter 78, he readies himself for another trip to the safe deposit box should anything "untoward" happen to him. Even at 86, it is unlikely that the universe would be so thoughtless as to send him anywhere my mother might be, and equally unlikely that he would be undone by the karmic horror of an unfinished novel following him into another life to be credited to an amateur. "Trust in God, but tether your camel." I think, today, I might wear my father's favorite aphorism for a few days to see how it fits.

On the way back home, I stop at the local coffee house -- a ritual during my tenure as an employed person. Today is the day, I say to myself, to bring suspicion to everything habitual. A little forensic soul mining. I walk into the predictable surroundings, soft with longing, and immediately feel my body disconnect from the material afflictions I thought were essential functions. Lattes, scones, clickety laptops boasting self-importance; my mind's eye sees past them to the image of my father again, scribbling alone at his desk in his apartment with his tannin-stained mug, never washed, only rinsed should some writerly gem be lodged in a tea leaf at the bottom of his cup.

Fortune found my father when he was only 40 years old. His mother died. With the family royalties from oil investments, he never worked another day, but toiled solely after drink, women, and words.

His words. I am ten, hovering in the doorway of my father's office in his cabin in the hills of Laguna. He sets his pen down on top of the pile of yellow-lined papers, stands to stretch and says, "Time for a walk, m'love. I'm stuck." He taps my head and brushes past me through the doorway and up the path behind the cabin. I move closer to his words. Tall, bony letters stacked one after another fill pages and stacks, but my eyes land on one phrase: "Work is for Russians."

Work is for Russians. The words sit tight on the page, suffocating from the quotation marks. I take a fresh piece of paper, pick up my father's pen and begin to write. Work is for Russians lurches from my pen and a string of other words bump up against each other and fill my page. I become sleepy and doze over my words, when my father returns and says, "What are you doing? This isn't for you. You're too smart for these words and just old enough to believe them." He crumples my words and tosses them into the waste basket. I am only barely aware of the psychic growth that has begun to crawl up my body like ivy, yet in this moment, I wonder if he sees too much of my mother in my eyes. I wonder if he will toss me into the waste basket as well.

I uproot myself and step to the counter to order. I move aside to wait for my caffeine and a tall, middle-aged man in a grey suit and a bushel of dark brown hair meets my eye. I prefer to retreat into my imagination where he takes up residence as a cross Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, but he assumes an invitation. "Anything happen in the news this morning?" I wonder what it is about me that makes me look wise and trustworthy about politics and popular culture, when my mouth advances in front of me. "Just the usual wars, natural disasters, and gang fights."

"Nothing about the nomination?" The Man asks.

"Ah, the Supreme Court," I answer. "Well, I'm just a woman, and I've never had an abortion, so it's not my place." I cringe internally at my lie and my recurrent cynicsm.

The Man gasps and smiles, "That's called electile dysfunction."

We laugh, but the sound we make is more like a hrrumph, and the Man says, "Off to work?"

I consider lying again, but answer, "No, I'm unemployed, and you?"

The Man begins to move away with his coffee and says over his shoulder, "Sounds delicious." I let my eyes traverse the collection of hip folks with whom the Man is traveling and wonder if he might be famous somehow, like an old beat poet. Disquieted, wanting resolve, or a goodbye, I satisfy myself by counting the Man among the jobless; an unemployed writer, someone to dismiss. I leave my cappuccino on the bar and head home, holding back the garboil churning inside my ribs.

Along the way, I track the urban landscape, the giant mall with its pink-tiled roof, strip malls anchoring the perimeter of human experience with weekend excursions for cake mixes and power tools. I feel nauseous. I recount three abortions and the acquaintances they were lightly tethered to, forever-embryonic time bombs, gouging at the walls of my heart. I trap them back inside, and wonder what might be delicious about unemployment.

As I drive, I think about my son's relentless quest to know me as a child, someone like him. "Mom, what did you write about when you were my age?"

The windshield of the car becomes a holographic projector of memory, each stealing a solo in the spotlight. I am sitting at the kitchen table with my pencil and a fresh notebook of lined paper, writing. My mother is ironing, pregnant with my little sister. The record player delivers Frank Sinatra, his serenade scratched from constant play. She sets the iron on its bottom and beckons me to dance with her. I shake my head. My mother wiggles closer and entreats me, her pink plastic curlers bobbing against her skull. I grin, and lower my head to to my notebook. Behind my eyebrows, I watch my mother two-step alone. The song ends, and she resumes her position at the ironing board. She picks up the iron and exhales, as does its steam. She catches my eyes. "You're missing the good stuff, sweetheart."

I pull into the driveway and stare at my house, fearing it might vaporize like the memories blooming and dissipating through my veins. Suddenly I am flying up the steps to my studio. My ankles bump together, and I scrape my palms on the concrete as I catch my fall. Inside I scramble to find my journal. Paper, brushes, charcoal pencils, masses of yellow ochre and cerulean, colored squeezes of intention glued dry on canvas due to time's passage, all scream silently at me. Row after row of journals stuffed haplessly forward or backward on the bookshelf over the drafting table sit obediently, waiting for someday. I paw through piles of magazines and clippings, search underneath and within for my journal. The current one, not the old ones. On the floor, under my easel, sits a book with bumpy black binding. I flip through the mostly blank pages, hug it to my heart, grab a tube of paint and a tool box full of artists-only implements, and sprint down the steps outside my studio. This is the good stuff, Mom.

I reach the porch, and sit in the same spot where I found myself at five in the morning. I close my eyes and feel my breath, shallow at first, and then deeper, reaching my toes. Still conjuring, I capture myself, this time at the age of nine. Mrs. Gustafson, my third-grade teacher, is at the front of the class reading my story aloud. "Why Elephants Have Wrinkles." I reach for the words I wrote about the elephant. . . with skin once as soft and smooth as a dolphin, now wrinkled from years of great anger for being kept in a cage. Mrs. Gustafson finishes reading and places the story, coarse off-white pages bound together by green construction paper and yellow yarn, on her desk and smiles. I feel pride -- happiness, truly -- for being recognized as a published writer, like my father. Like my father. The class turns around to look at me in the back row, no longer invisible.

It is that moment of third-grade bliss when the ivy first begins to take root. Name-calling and broken dishes follow, along with nights on end when my brother is missing, and weekends I spend falling asleep against the walls of a pool hall while my father guzzles martinis and nuzzles red-headed women. Like Eve, strangled by the undergrowth of paradise, the ivy now, today, finally, reaches my neck. On my porch, pen and journal in hand, I pinch out a slice of cadmium orange. I press my fingertips into the paint, work a bit of it with my thumb, and look up into the sky. Eyes back to the pages of my journal, my pen remembers this morning's sun, my father's ancient folly, my mother's boisterous laugh and scarred wrists. My pen ignites and marries the causal and genetic links, and burns a clearing in the ivy that allows me to imagine the explosion of a 50-by-50 foot garden in front of me.

Later, evening, fingers aching, I close the journal, slip out of my tennis shoes and go to bed. Straddling the edge of sleep, I imagine that I have just brushed some kind of adhesive onto the soles of my shoes. In the morning, I return to the front porch where a ring of garden snails stand sentry to my sneakers. I give them each a spot inside their favorite pot of begonias and open my journal to rehearse being ten again. A feverish script flows from my pen until it is time to wake up my favorite editor and tell him I am employed again.


Lisa Gates is raising a son as well as a writing and coaching career, tandem inspirations for her blog Design Your Writing Life. After a 12-year respite from freelance journalism, this story marks her first literary publication anywhere!


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