- Essays from Smoo, Sarah Beth's current memoir project:
Guns, knives, scissors, razorblades, letter openers, shards of light bulb, anything sharp. Cars, garages. Gas furnaces, gas stoves. Rubbing alcohol, real alcohol, rat poison, bleach. Pills that don’t make sad people vomit or pass out partway through the orange bottle. Bathtubs, toasters, hairdryers, clock radios. Closet bars, jump ropes, dog leashes, belts. Bedroom doors that close.
I’d say bedroom doors that lock, but my brother didn’t lock it. He just pushed his door shut.
Keep reading: "Things Sad People Shouldn't Have," in Pank, July and August 2015.
Good news! chariot’s a-comin’! Good news! chariot’s a-comin’!
For twelve years after my mother heard my high school choir belt out this spiritual, she crooned the chorus whenever her news was good. My dad got a bonus of a thousand dollars. The firefighters were selling five-buck plates of spaghetti. My little brother’s high school English teacher granted him an extension on his Romeo and Juliet paper. Joshua’s extensions weren’t unusual: he rarely finished a paper without them, preferring to stuff his book bag with unfinished assignments until a teacher sent his mother an email. But the news was nevertheless songworthy. My mom burst through the back door, hurled her heavy leather purse onto a kitchen chair, and started to sing.
Keep reading: "Chariot's a-Comin'" in Gravel, May 2015.
Before my twenty-two-year-old brother Joshua died, I skimmed the suicide stories in the checkout-line magazines with a reverent cringe of horror. The stories featured a family photo: a mom with a red perm, a dad in an oxford shirt, no tie, a teenage daughter with braces, a purebred dog in a leather collar, a gilt-framed portrait of a skinny, freckled boy. The mom cradled the portrait, a brave smile on her face. He’s still with us, the family photo said. Maybe he has shrunk to 8X10 inches, but he’s still part of our family.
Now, when I wait in line with my Cheerios, most sad magazine photos still make me shudder. Bloody-faced African AIDS victims, houses smashed to soggy splinters by hurricanes, a soldier who saved his buddy from a landmine, leaving behind an eye and his nose. But when I see a woman clutching a picture of a boy who jumped seventy-five feet into a creek, I want to empty the magazine rack onto the floor. The magazine editors might pat my shoulder. You poor thing. You see your brother’s hazel eyes in the frame.
Keep reading: "Portraits within Portraits," in Guernica Daily, April 30, 2015.
Senior year. A fundamentalist Baptist high school. One of those times, frequent and interminable, when the teachers ran out of lesson plans and gave us time to talk. I was reading a novel because I’d run out of homework.
The classroom chatter softened for a moment, and I heard a nasal twang, four plastic chairs away. I stared at my book without seeing and focused my body on listening. Besides the nasal twang, Nick had basketball muscles, messy gelled hair, bright blue eyes, and, I thought then, the soul of a poet. Since I adored him, I believed our destinies were linked. Any word he said might affect me.
Keep reading: "Ten Years Ago," in Brevity, winter 2014.
Essays from Shake Terribly the Earth:
I took a walk with my PaPa one spring afternoon when I was five. Because of his heart condition, PaPa walked often, thumping along the brick streets with his prosthetic leg and metal cane. PaPa seemed old to me then, but he was only sixty-two; dark hair still covered his head.
On that walk, PaPa and I clutched each other's hands as we plodded past a gaping pothole, an unsteady blue house with a jungle of weeds, and a driveway that seemed to angle straight up into a thatch of maples. I held PaPa's hand believing he needed me for balance; he held mine to keep me from skipping off down the street.
Keep reading: "Shorn" in Wigleaf, September 2012.
Driving home after withdrawing our Christmas money from the bank, my mother and I passed what looked like a teenage girl speed-walking down a street on the west side of Huntington, West Virginia. Her hair, blonde with dark brown roots, hung to the waist of her white jacket—hood and hair flew out behind her hunched shoulders as she walked.
“Did you see that girl?” I asked my mom.
“Girl? You mean lady. She’s got to be old as me. Or close, anyway.”
We stopped at a traffic light next to a decaying warehouse, and I looked through our green minivan’s salt-splattered back window and spotted the petite female powering past the McDonald’s a couple blocks behind us. From what I could tell, her face did look a little haggard for her clothing. She reminded me of a prostitute in tight flared jeans and a puffy nylon jacket my family had unsuccessfully offered a ride one night in a flea market parking lot.
Keep reading: "Garbage-Bag Charity" in SNReview, spring/summer 2008.
During a thunderstorm in the South Pacific, an enormous green tail washed over the prow of a ship. World War II was winding down, and Elwood Childers was serving in the Navy. He was eighteen. For hours, waves had rocked the cruiser like a bathtub sailboat, the ends of the ship alternately pointing toward the storm-black ocean and the dark clouds and pelting rain. A wall of water hit the ship, and the prow plunged deep into the sea—the sailors clung by their fingernails to the paint on the deck railings—and then the prow sprung back up, the tail coming with it, muscle glistening under skin in the bursts of lightning. Elwood saw only a tail, not the creature that owned it: waves concealed both the tail’s base and tip. Moments later, the boat dipped again, and the tail slipped back into the waves.
When my siblings and I were little, Grandpa told us this story many times. Sitting in the lamplight at his particleboard dining room table, he leaned over his cup of coffee, his blue eyes round, and we forgot all about our graham crackers and milk. I imagined the slippery creature lurking, even as he spoke, in an underwater lair, surrounded by the bones of whales, its prey.
"Boat Stories: Three Generations" appeared in the 2011 issue of The Tusculum Review.
I have a brother. He is dead. My seven-year-old brother painstakingly penciled these words on a horizontally-ruled sheet. In between each pair of solid lines on the page, a dashed line props up the middles of the trickier letters: the cross of the t, the b’s round belly. I have three sisters, Joshua began, before writing the sentences that must have made his first-grade teacher’s tight perm stand on end.
A baby grew in my mother’s left fallopian tube when I was eighteen months old, seven years before Joshua was born. When the tube burst, my mother plopped me into my crib and crawled to the bathtub, casting looks over her shoulder as I wailed. “That’s the only time I ever let any of you cry!” she tells me, proud and apologetic. My mother stared at the cracked bathroom ceiling, hoping to soak away her stabs of pain. My dad wrapped his dripping young wife in a blanket and drove her to the hospital. The doctors were shocked she was alive.
"Ghost Siblings" appeared in Beside the Point.
I write you from under the night heron tree. Two hundred couples take turns crouching on their nests. The nest-sitters squawk in the branches, orange-eyed leaves, while their mates gossip on the ground, necks craned skyward, hopping in almost-flight. Both sexes wear jaunty black hats with thin white plumes—one long, one shorter—that drape over their matching black coats.
Before the tree, I visited a lemur who clutched a plush version of himself and the bird house, a room of mist and ferns designed to fool Silver-beaked Tanagers, rubies with feathers, into chirping like they're in the rainforest. My mother and sister sit on a bench across the zoo, monument weary, watching lions that remind them of their housecats.
Keep reading: "Dear Wigleaf" postcard in Wigleaf, September 2012.
After the last candy bar dropped into a pillowcase, nine-year-old Abigail lingered in the street, kicking her feet around in a layer of candy wrappers and reflective tape. Spotting a neighbor’s smashed pumpkin, she frowned and bent to rescue some seeds from the strings of slime that glowed under the moth-swarmed streetlamp. She shivered in her nylon dress and tennis shoes as she removed a tiara from her long brown curls and tucked it into her grinning plastic pumpkin along with her candy and seeds.
A sailor and a ghoul walked toward Abigail, stopping as she lifted her hand. The ghoul looked around him for a moment before peeling a layer of rubber sores from his face and stashing it in the heavy grocery sack at his side. Frosty air whipped through his blond hair, fighting the sweat that plastered thick strands to his head.
“The creek’s low,” Abigail whispered, “and the ground’s not frozen.” She stuck the toe of her shoe off the edge of the pavement and burrowed a few inches into the soft dirt around a trampled patch of petunias.
“It’s a good time,” the ghoul agreed.
"Red Ribbon," a short story, appeared in Paddlefish in 2008.
Photo: Sarah Beth, her brother Joshua, and a Barney Fife impersonator at Mayberry Days in 2010.