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Julia Biller

Grade: 12

Westlake High School

Instructor: Mathew Krupa

Midwest State of Mind

Writing Portfolio

Midwest State of Mind

Eight Years Old

my bare feet slide on linoleum floor,
gliding like bowling shoes on UV carpets
my breath riding like air guitar

my hands tickle at the sound of
nail clippers, giggles peeking out from bushes
playing hide-and-seek

my hair still grows all white and shiny
roots sprouting like sunflowers, shading
my eyes glasses-free

my heart doesn't know yet the grinding halt
of growing older, hope alive and dancing in my chest
bumping like a flash mob

one day, the shoes on my feet will rip at the seams
and stumble over rocks and debris

but today they move like MJ, pulsing with the beat
of an unbudging drum.


Northeast, OH

My place is not itself
of metamorphosis, fathers of fathers
carve their names into the marble
and give their sons the blade;
I grow myself within the boughs
and treelawns of white collar homes

I watch pretty clean girls
dive headfirst into the cracks
of a paved sidewalk,
letting lanky Marlboro Light men
give them medicine from flowers
like Hades' outstretched pomegranate seeds

I listen to the beer cans pop under people's tires
in fast food parking lots filled with
silvery nitrous canisters
churning pretty pink nerve cells into
chewed bubblegum stuck on designer shoes

I drive through neighborhoods
where the houses touch the low-hanging
puffy clouds in Simpsons intros,
pay a million dollars to hand my kid brother
full size Snickers bars

I can leave and come back
and I promise it won't change, the grass
will be sickly neon green and the prom queen
will have a real nice car
but I will keep changing, like colors
of rust beneath the hood.


The Red Key

The air tastes like freezer burn right inside the doors of the store; like most days, I have the morning shift. Produce doesn't smell better but different, like an asthma inhaler or a stale air freshener. I scratch the bottom of my ugly paisley shoulder bag for my key ring, pulling out a small red key for the customer service desk. The door only goes up to my waist, but I unlock it anyway instead of swinging my legs over. The red key goes back on the ring next to the green one, where it belongs. Makes me feel safe, slightly more important than the high school cashiers with their lives in front of them.

I try not to dwell on the years I've spent here, the years I've wasted scanning white bread and boxed wine. But every time I see a clear-eyed 16 year old girl smile at a customer and scan their store card, it feels like a blade cutting through the weaving tubes in my lungs. My breath stops and shivers; I cry for myself, but I cry more at the brightness behind the muscles in her face, behind her light eyes. Knowing this town, it will fade like billboards on the highway, baking under the sun for far too long.

Sunday morning means sorting through the papers, placing the special insert in the Times, and opening boxes. Margot comes in at 6:15; her kid got kicked out of daycare for biting a girl on the face, a detail I did not want to hear but heard nonetheless.

"Now I gotta drive all the way to Salem to my mom's house, all the way back here. Jeff's Ford only has a few years left on it, and all this extra driving certainly isn't gonna help anything. God knows the last thing we need is for that car to break."

I nod, slipping my box cutter under the thick tape of a large box labeled Auglaize Times. My hands look pretty sliding back and forth. The fluorescent light shining on my stacked rings is pleasant, sending small rays onto the dim walls. I like making rings; I used to sit with Charlie and wrap wire around stones and markers, back when my ring finger still held a wedding band. Stephen sold it to a pawn shop one night, taking the Pontiac and all my bedside jewelry down to Cedar Street. Blew it all on rolled cigarettes and bottom shelf liquor.

Margot stopped and stared at me for a second, a smirk creeping across her mouth like a secret. Her head tilts; her face is expressive, with thick wrinkles wrapped around her eyes and forehead.

"Before that box, I have a question," she says, "if you don't mind, I mean."

"What's up?" I respond, not really wanting to answer questions but hating the sound of the AC buzzing.

Margot looks as though she's about to speak, but something's stopping by her lips. Her mouth quivers and she laughs. "I guess it's nothing important, really, just wanted to know how you're doing. With the whole Stephen thing, or—". She stops suddenly, biting back her tongue like a rat trap, eyes winced behind her crow's feet.

"It's okay, I just- I don't really want to talk about it. Not yet, I don't think." She nods softly and a dull pain forms in my torso. I can feel the familiar grip of guilt wrap around my temples like a snake, its tail rattling in my ears and making them ring. "Charlie's got a scholarship. For OU, not a huge one but it's something," I blurted out, trying to cut off the fog forming in the air between us. The next box cuts easy.

"That's lovely! He's always been a smart one, Charlie. You used to bring him into work and that boy would talk all of our ears off, about dinosaurs and world maps. He was always like that."

"I'm just proud he's even thinking of going to college; he deserves better than I have."

"Well, Jeff's oldest son went to community college and he loved it. Absolutely loved it, didn't cost much either. He took a Spanish class," Margo said, voice strained a bit as she pulled a box from the stack. "He put that on his resume, helped him get that office job. The one in Parma, by the outlet mall."

Stephen liked numbers. When we first met, he was an accountant. Being 22 and an accountant sounded stable enough to me, especially being a grocery store cashier with a baby and no place to stay. He was great at talking smart, too; Stephen used "logic" to convince everyone that he knew what he was talking about, that he knew what was right. The dates for when he paid the bills didn't line up, the time he left work didn't add up, the money missing from our bank account didn't equal any food in my kid's stomach. But he'd tell me I was wrong, I didn't know anything about the tax fund he had saved or the equity he was building or the checks coming in for his investments.

"Take the papers out, there's a pile of inserts right there. Open 'em up from the bottom and put one by the crease, then close it back up."

My hands stain as I unfold, the soft flesh of my fingertips turning deep purple. I slip my thumb underneath the first half of the paper, using my other hand to slip in the extra material and tapping it against the table. I watch Margot's hands move, the same ink staining her palms as she stacks the papers back on the rack. The regular paper goes on the first shelf , the thicker Special Edition goes on the second. The comfort of monotony cools on the back of my neck like pool water. Not the pools around here, stuck inside Motel 6 establishments and swimming with bugs and dead chipmunks.

Stephen took me to New York City once. I told him about a Broadway show I saw in a magazine, and when I came home the next day, he had tickets laid out next to my afternoon coffee. It was my first, maybe last taste of what my life could have been. The pool in the hotel smelled like chlorine, in a good, clean sort of way.

7 came pretty quick that morning, other faces walking through the metal doors to the time clock. There were no more papers left by then; Margot asked to wash her hands, I said yes. Staring down, my knuckles look bruised. It made my mouth taste funny, memories of hurt seeping into my brain like tea in hot water.

Stephen's face was dark red, his cheek pressed against the concrete when they found him. I hated that stupid motorcycle, another impulse buy to drain our savings account before the papers went through. It was always before the papers went through, giving him my money, my hard earned god damn money that shouldn't go towards motorcycles or lottery tickets or an apartment for him to sleep in. But none of it mattered, and it still doesn't matter because Stephen never learned how to really ride a motorcycle. With his elbows bent all bloody on the ground of the parking lot, I knew that for sure.

I could tell Margot. I could tell her all the gritty details she couldn't read in the local newspaper. I could pour every rotten piece of memory in my mind into hers, and then she would know. But instead I check the change inside Register 1. Customer service gets locked up until Barbara gets there, and the red key goes back on the key ring. Makes me feel safe, a little more important.


Blue Monday

Blue likes saturdays. saturday nights, that is.
or, at least, it's supposed to be saturday because
the boy only rode his bike on fridays
and it's been dark and light since then.
Blue liked seeing him fly through the empty streets,
sometimes throwing his hands in the air
to fully embrace the feeling of being so alone
but the good type of alone
the one where the hum of the deep morning
wraps you in a blanket
protecting you from the sentiments of the
unfamiliar,
the knowingness of men
who don't know you.

Blue likes boxed wine
the kind that tastes like fruit snacks
and makes the hunger shrink in the pit
of her stomach.

Blue likes the way the lamp posts
illuminate a cloud of snow
as it falls to the ground,
the yellow glow reflecting against every flake.

Blue likes the way the radiator
warms up the window ledge where she sits,
hands resting on the hot metal
her right pointer finger rubbing the
space in between the knuckles below her left index
and middle.

Blue liked the way things were before,;
even though the memories melt away
before they can ever be sorted out;
the ghost of a girl lying under the poplar trees
drinking in the colors surrounding her
as amber tears fall into her hair,
lungs still full with real air, un-recycled
through smoke and grime.
Blue likes listening in on other people's conversations,
groups of university kids who like
craft beer and local theater
they like to talk of friends and family,
words that feel heavy
and make Blue feel like dissolving
into the cracks of the pavement.

Blue likes the girl who gets off the
East 79th bus line,
corners of her mouth upturned and
hands full of styrofoam boxed leftovers
while she doesn't quite understand her shaky voice,
she likes the company and the warmth from
hot food and working lungs.

Blue doesn't like mirrors.
Blue doesn't like the way her face falls into itself.
Blue doesn't like taxi drivers.
Blue doesn't like morning birds or the smell of fire
or construction or wandering eyes.
Blue woke up in the morning to find that her breath
had left her in the night,
heart clutching onto beats
like alley cat claws into
screen doors

her face turned perfectly white
and her lips, a beautiful Blue.


Fish Bones

Cleveland is my hometown. It's on the water, which sounds really great until you realize it's on Lake Erie. I know I should be proud of my hometown and its murky water, and I promise I've tried, but Lake Erie really doesn't seem like a "Great Lake". Still, as a child, most of my summers were spent hopping over Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and trying not to slip on the mossy rocks. Mom always said if I slipped off the mossy rocks, I'd smash my head and die instantly and that would obviously be counterintuitive to having a good summer.

My mother worked during the summer, so she'd drop me and my kid brother off at a day camp. It was run through my Lutheran elementary school in a small building across the street. Every day we'd go on a different field trip like strawberry picking or swimming. For several reasons, I had decided that water was my enemy and I would rather wear a shirt that said "Jesus is My Best Friend" every single day than wear a bathing suit for 30 minutes. I was a weird kid, in the reading-books-for-fun kind of way, not the biting-other-children way. The gifted program fueled some weird juvenile superiority complex, which didn't do much but contribute to my general ongoing insufferability.

On one of our many beach trips, I was sitting on my Snoopy towel reading a book, most likely one of the Harry Potter books. I assume ADHD was responsible for my hellbent obsession with those books, but either way I read the entire series 7 different times. The camp volunteers liked to sit with me. I was what they called an "old soul", which is a fancy word for a child that speaks like an adult to make up for something, most likely undiagnosed mental illness. I'd pretend I was on Conan, my mother's favorite talk show. It was just my kind of fun. But that day, I decided to be adventurous and walk down the beach with one of my teachers, looking for sea glass. We sifted through the sand, picking out smoothed pieces of beer bottles and mason jars to fill our pockets with. I looked up and saw what in my strange child brain was the holy grail: a full fish skeleton. Unfortunately for my teacher, morbid curiosity still held higher priority to me than common sense; I plucked the bones out of the mud, disregarding the swarm of bacteria clinging to my fingers. I scrubbed them off and set them out to dry on my cute pink towel in the sun. When it was time to leave, I wrapped the treasure up and stuck it in my drawstring bag. The day went on and my two second attention span moved from the skeleton to a million other things. My mom picked us up at 6, drove us home, and made us dinner. The moment of truth came hours later, when she opened my bag to wash my towel. My poor mother opened the bag up and was immediately confronted by the smell of fish death. She looked at me, then the bag, then at me. She was waiting for an answer, I knew that for sure. I asked to keep the bones; that was not the right response.

I was weird. I knew it, my mother knew it, my teachers knew it, the other kids at school knew it. It sucked when I was getting made fun of. Or when my mom was mad at me, or when I sat alone at lunch. But I know now that it made me stronger, even if it majorly sucked. Liking dead things turned into a passion for science, writing Doctor Who fan fiction turned into a penchant for writing. So here's a message for all the playground bullies and doubtful parents: weird kids turn into cool teens, with a lot less fishy hands.


The Little Things

There's an RTA Park-and-Ride on Sperry; every Christmas break, we'd don our thick winter coats and drop off momma's little mint-green Camry. Mom's always given us lots of advice about going to Downtown Cleveland. From a young age, I thought it was inevitable that I'd be thrown in a trunk or a man in my back seat would slash my Achilles. We were to hold her hand the whole time; if we got lost, find a cop, if we got kidnapped, yell fire. People always look when someone yells fire.

The RTA was a real hit-or-miss. If the car was crowded or loud, my brain would roll through a montage of horrifying scenarios in which I'd never see my family again. I'd squeeze my eyelids together and clench my fists, trying to ignore the looming figures surrounding me. One time after an Indians game, a smelly drunk man stepped on my Twinkle Toes and sent me into full hysterics. Not fun at all. But if enough seats were free, we'd all sit together in front of a window. The train travels backwards at one point on the ride, which was far too exciting for young me than it should've been. I'd sit on my mom's lap, press my fingers against the windows and look out, the warmth from my hands leaving small prints all over the glass.

The city skyline, especially in the morning, will never not be beautiful. I've lived in Cleveland for over 17 years; I've seen the same dark silhouettes against the same sky a thousand times, yet it still blows me away. Tiny me loved every bit of the city. I envied the power-walking suitcase women, walking over sewer grates unafraid of breaking a heel. I loved the man who played saxophone outside of the theater, the hot dog vendors and their red and yellow umbrellas, the sign spinners announcing a store closing or a sale on sub sandwiches.

Tower City had all of that and more. All the people, all the stores, and most important of all was Auntie Anne's. You could get your ear pierced, watch two women fight by the bathrooms, and eat more mini pretzels in one sitting than anyone should in a lifetime. Practically heaven. The main atrium was centered around a large fountain, lined with pocket change and small bits of trash and debris. My little brother and I would glue ourselves to the side, watching the water dance around with wide eyes. In December, they set up huge Christmas decorations on the stairs. The Nutcracker was my mom's favorite when she was little, so it naturally became mine as well. In reality, it kind of freaked me out, along with the talking tree from the 70s. But it made her happy, which made me happy too.

Looking back, none of it was too extraordinary. My hometown doesn't do exceptional or outstanding. I can't promise that you'll get off a public Cleveland bus and find something spectacular, something grand or breathtaking. But I promise it's great at the little things. The amazingly simple little things.