Truth in Free Will Advertising

The Ox folds his wings and in no known language admonishes Our Lord to behave like a role model. The universe resounds with Heavenly annoyance. The Eagle and the Lion are unperturbed. Intervention is out of the question. The Almighty can hardly expect men to act as though they were responsible for the consequences of their actions if He doesn’t accept the consequences of His. No Ex Machinations permitted. And He needn’t act as though the Committee has imposed a restriction on Him, which of course they have no power to do. Certainly He could intercede if it were the Divine Will. They, as always, are simply pointing out that it is in the nature of His Creation that He wouldn’t will such interference.

* * *

I am getting dressed for nursery school. I run into my parents’ bathroom with my underpants in my hands and ask my father which is the front and which is the back. “That’s the front,” he says.

“How do you know?”

“I know everything,” he says, and continues shaving.

* * *

I am six years old. My mother is going to show me how to play the recorder. She buys herself a wooden one and me a plastic one. After a week, hers has a permanent red band on the mouthpiece where her lipstick has stained the wood. She takes me to a recorder teacher, Mrs. Kloeppner. At my first lesson, Mrs. Kloeppner counts in her German accent, “One, two, sree. No, no, you have to count like this: One, two, sree.” I wonder what she’s getting at. I count aloud again. “One, two, sree,” I say, but I still don’t get it right.

Mrs. Kloeppner forms an ensemble of five of her pupils and signs us up to play at the Renaissance Fair in Agoura. She has made all our costumes. My costume is a doublet and tights. When my family and I get to the entrance to the Fair, we see that performers with their name on the Performers List get in free. Adults cost more than children. My parents decide to save money by pretending that my mother is the member of the recorder ensemble. My mother says to give her my recorder. I object in outrage. It is a lie. I won’t. My father gives me the choice: either go along with the deception, or turn around and go home. Of course he knows which choice I’ll make. I give up my recorder. My mother fingers and plays it. When she gives it back, there is a crescent-shaped red blotch on the mouthpiece. I start to cry. My father buys me a lemon half with a peppermint stick. I suck the lemon juice through the pores of the peppermint stick, but I still can’t stop my tears.

* * *

I am walking along the beach with my grandmother Sylvia. Every once in a while she sees a shell in the sand. When she picks it up, she bends limberly at the hips and waist, keeping her knees perfectly straight. I run ahead of her and find two tiny, flawless abalone shells. One is no bigger than a quarter, and the other fits neatly inside the first. At home in my grandmother’s shell collection is a set of perfectly nested abalone shells, but the smallest of them is larger than these. I run to her and show her my find in great excitement, and try to give them to her for her collection. I watch her face as she takes the shells with a kind of joyful acquisitiveness, struggles for a second, overcomes her desire, puts the shells back in my hand. “No,” she says. “You found them. They’re yours.”

I save the abalone shells and give them to my grandmother later for her birthday. When she opens the tiny box and sees them inside, her delight washes over me just like the surf. She takes them to the Shell Room and opens a glass case. She puts the shells I gave her inside the smallest of her abalone shells. The fit is perfect.

* * *

I am sixteen years old. My mother talks about her patients a lot, but I begin to notice that she talks about one more than the others. When she talks about this patient she becomes more animated and looks younger. One day we go to a hospital picnic, and all the patients are there, including this man. He has white hair and a beard, and he is wickedly funny. He makes everybody laugh all afternoon. At the end of the picnic I go up to him and tell him what a pleasure it has been spending the afternoon together. I put my arms around his neck and kiss him on the cheek. He looks pleased and pained at the same time; tears spring to his eyes. At that moment it becomes clear to me that he is fucking my mother.

On the way home, my father is still smiling and laughing. How is it possible that I know this thing and my father doesn’t?

* * *

My grandmother Sylvia sits in front of her bay window with her garden behind her. On the round table are flowers from her garden, big, lush, overblown California flowers, dropping leaves. She is telling me a story from her youth. She is talking about Ben, her dream lover in New York, what fun they had, and how she couldn’t understand what kept him from popping the question, because she knew he was in love with her, and they got along so well. Finally one night he told her that he was married, that his wife was in an insane asylum. Though he wasn’t free to marry Sylvia, he wanted to take care of her, and of her mother, too. Sylvia was horror-stricken. She ran in tears to her mother and told her of Ben’s attempt to turn her into a kept woman, but all her mother said was, “He said he would take care of me?” Sylvia dragged her knuckles across the brownstone wall, left blood on the bricks, sold her books, fled to California, worked as a temporary secretary, married my grandfather. Years later she heard that Ben had joined the Air Force and become a fighter pilot and been killed in the war. My grandmother was surprised that she felt very little at the news of his death– almost nothing at all.

* * *

My mother’s lips leave a scarlet smudge on the edge of every glass from which she drinks. Tonight she is sipping a Margarita. She has bought me one, to transform me into an adult confidante. “I love him, but I’m not in love with him,” she says about her husband, my father. “I’d leave him if it weren’t that I’m too old to adjust to the standard of living I’d sink to without him.” She is forty. I am seventeen. I despise her as much for her cliches as for her self-interest . Her tongue is loosened by some novel combination of pills. She voices her violent distracted thoughts as though she were alone. Her lover performs cunnilingus, but my father does not. “Am I going to let the needs of my cunt drive me away from my husband?” she muses, as if to herself.

* * *

When I am married, my mother hires a make-up artist to paint my face. My new husband kisses the crust of powder and rouge and tells me I’m pretty in spite of it.

* * *

Only once after my grandmother Sylvia was married did she meet temptation. She was sitting in the garden with a man, a friend of hers and her husband’s, a man she liked and respected immensely, a man whom, had she met him before she met my grandfather, she could possibly have loved. This man declared his affection for her in that garden my grandfather built for her, told her he loved her. She asked him to leave and never saw him again. She knows, she says, that my grandfather has been faithful to her, too. Did such people ever exist?

* * *

I live in Boston now. I visit the Atlantic in winter, snow on the beach, crunching underfoot, like the salt flats in Death Valley. I see a lobster buoy that has broken off across the bay and floated over to Crane’s Beach, that white strip five miles long. Up to my waist in the Atlantic I run, after that buoy, to grasp it like some foolish Labrador retriever. Half-numb from the waist down I stand against the ocean’s pull, shaking in my cold wet jeans. The ocean calls for me to cast myself in, I feel the undertow pull at me, but I say, not now, Thalassa, later. I take the buoy back to my Brookline apartment, meaning to hang it on the wall like the oars in the boat-house, but it smells so bad I have to get rid of it. Still sometimes the waves call from the rocky point among the tide pools, Come to me, come to me. Cast yourself in, the cold bosom of the sea calls to me, but I step back and say to her, not now, Thalassa, later.

* * *

I go home to Los Angeles for a week when my grandmother Sylvia dies. My husband does not come with me because he can’t get away from work. A few days after I get back, I am cleaning and find an earring on the bedroom floor. It is a tiny silver hoop, a centimeter in diameter. I show it to my friends, but it belongs to none of them. Is it a woman’s? Is it a man’s?

* * *

The telephone rings repeatedly at night, and someone hangs up when I answer. My husband says it is a computer calling.

* * *

While doing the laundry, I find matchbooks in my husband’s pockets from restaurants we never went to together.

* * *

I lie on my back and watch impermanent faces form and disappear in the stucco of the ceiling. My husband has taken his books from the shelves and his shirts from the closet. No one hangs up when I answer the phone anymore.

* * *

I stand on my balcony, suspended above the night city. Inside me there is still a six-year-old who wants parents to tell the truth, and lovers to be faithful, and promises to be kept. I sway as stars I can’t see call to me, the sweet still bosom of death calls to me, the whirlpool at the edge of everything calls to me. I take the step, I fly, I fall. God would like to catch me, but of course, it’s out of the question.

About Jan Steckel

Award-winning author Jan Steckel is a retired pediatrician and a bisexual and disability rights activist. Her first full-length poetry book, The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist Press, 2011) won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award. Her Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press, 2009) won the Gertrude Press Fiction Chapbook Award. Her chapbook The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press, 2006) won a Rainbow Award for Lesbian and Bisexual Poetry. Her writing has been widely published and has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband Hew Wolff. Find her books on Amazon, at, and in selected independent bookstores.


Truth in Free Will Advertising — 16 Comments

  1. La pluma: it is the thing that brings us to ourselves, isn’t it? It is the instrument of our salvation. And our salvation comes at the end of a very long sentence.

    Jan, “Truth in Free Will Advertising” is brilliant; it is filled with every possibility of why and how and of course.

    I love it thoroughly and I love you for being the woman that wrote this, letter by letter, line by line.

    And I love the way the title plays with our expectations, because this is not a shopping spree.


  2. Jan Steckel gives a vivid poetic treatise on the angst of realization that honesty is rare and betrayal a brutal reality. She also shows that God is just a concept –not a cupped hand that saves those falling from grace. He doth not punish nor reward.

  3. jan, your writing creates such vivid images for me. you are a wonderful and skillful story-teller.

    and i very much agree with the idea that we can intuitively develop a sense of morality or system of ethics, without having to have a belief in “God”. (or at least, that was an idea that *i* saw in this piece 🙂

  4. I love this, Jan. It’s such a sadly beautiful display of vulnerability and courage in the face of so much human loss – loss of innocence, intimacy, youth, trust, loss of many things.

    It’s very poignant that the child should understand what many adults forget. A reminder of how early in life children can get crushed by adults, and too often by their parents!

    An important story very well told.

  5. Ah, the danger of trying to make sense of our complicated existence Neither story line, nor syntax, nor metaphysics, nor good old fashioned cocktails can save us from that fall. Forgiveness perhaps? That may yet grant us wings. Thanks to you for taking me to the edge.

  6. This story was powerful: Both tragic and beautiful at the same time. I was captivated while reading it, and know that I will be thinking about it later on…

  7. The Original Cry of the Heart! The loss, The Fall, that begins in the beginning with those who bring us into the world. Wanting a solid piece of ground to stand on…and…it is not there. This piece captures the “whirlpool at the edge of everything” of the daily actions that choose the grubbiness of the tangible…not the pure flame of grace and dignity…nothing there to enforce it but our own hearts…a blue arrow in flight finding the center. Ahhh, grandmother Sylvia…. Those who can see….

  8. The “adult looking back at childhood” theme is one that so many writers overplay and spoil. Kudos to Jan Steckel for her beautiful, disciplined writing that made this story work so well. Intellect and emotion in the same stew—a winning combination!

  9. This is indeed powerful writing, but it’s too much like a therapy session. I feel I’m being taken into the writer’s confidence without having done anything, good or bad, to deserve it. Writing about herself is a vice this author no longer needs to indulge in.

  10. This memoir is poignant and moving in its evocation of various betrayals that the adult world wreaks on that of the child. At times, though, there’s happiness, as when the shells the girl gives her grandmother fit inside the latter’s shells. Childhood is full of sadness, but at times is the paradise we all wish it to be.

  11. This all sounds so familiar–remember back when our mothers (rather abusively, I think) tried to make us into confidantes?

    To tell the truth–even to alllow ourselves to know the truth–requires enormous courage.

    Perhaps it simply isn’t for everyone.

  12. It’s very good, but not quite great, because the narrator heroine isn’t human like the rest of the characters. Where is *her* temptation, and what does *she* do about it? Write another story, in which she sees temptation and betrayal through the eyes of both betrayed and betrayer. For that is what we are all really like. Some give in, some don’t, and for some the cup is luckily taken away before they have to choose.

Leave a Reply