illustration by Charlie Cody

Etruscan Sugar

Anya Johanna DeNiro

“Etruscan Sugar” was the first story I bought for Persistent Visions, and also happens to be the first story by the author published under her new name, Anya Johanna DeNiro. The writing is simply gorgeous, and the main character’s struggle to exist in her new, true identity as a woman, despite losing custody of her son and the acceptance of her community in the process, is keenly felt in this lovely magical realist tale. I hope you enjoy this stunning piece as much as I did.

You have struggled for a long time as to whether you have a soul or not—whether anyone does—or if you’re only a gathering of restless and ginned-up personality traits brought together to fool yourself that there is, in fact, a you. As opposed to an unrecognizable someone-else.

This is complicated by the fact that you used to be someone else entirely.

On days when your life has a sense of purpose and direction—and also, especially, when no one stares at you too long or whispers or laughs at you on the street or in Home Depot when you’re buying gallons of paint called Autumn Dream and Etruscan Sugar—the soul makes itself felt, and that essence you think you have takes hold of you. You become willingly possessed by yourself.

However, on days when nothing goes right and you seem to be walking into an abyss no matter which direction you take—and in the suburbs, all directions are more or less the same—you become convinced that there can be no such thing as the soul. On those days, you crumble under gazes and snickers.

The answer has to rest in something that’s not a mere mood—and moreover, not dependent on the cruel whims of passersby, whose own ensoulment is conditional on whether they treat you like a human being. But perhaps both conditions—soul, no soul—are right, in their own time and fashion. You can’t imagine it being somewhere in the middle. A blurry middle does nothing for you. You’ve worked way too hard to escape that middle, and live in fear that you’ll be yanked back there by others. Pull yourself together, why don’t you.

Perhaps the soul disappears and reappears like a light being turned on and off as conditions warranted. So it goes.

Look at yourself. You can’t make that shit up.

Errands; a project that just might save you after all. You need more primer and you need to return Autumn Dream to The Home Depot. Your human hair wig unfurls in the bathroom sink like a sea anemone. Predatory strawberry blonde. The beech trees in the front yard are still dormant, the sap thick and cold. The snow on the ground, in many places, has engendered a dirty ruddy sheen, like the coat of a cocker spaniel who needs a bath. You roll your wig up in a towel, gently. You are repainting your son’s old room. Covering over the stick figures in green marker and the tape remnants from Transformers posters that hadn’t hung there in two years, to make the walls bare again on the off-chance that one day the 11-year-old will stay overnight with you for a simple sleepover. After you were let go at the health care company—termination for unspecified reasons—you decided to freelance from home, become a consultant. Already the savings are almost gone. You empty the old coffee into the dirty sink like expunging the black blood of a minotaur.

When you leave your house it starts snowing big snowglobe flakes. You didn’t realize it was going to snow and you are unprepared in your garb. The retiree neighbors glare at you in their driveways as you exit the house—your half-real state of suspicion boomeranging back to you. The gales fan the snow onto the sidewalks, the trees, the cars, the parking garages. Under the eaves of the condominiums, sparrows dart out and fly back under shelter again, as if they can’t believe what’s happening. It is late March. For you the seasons wobble. The razor nicks on your legs leave marks like red stars. They never fade. Here is the constellation the Irate Swan; here is the Father Who Says He’s Embarrassed by You. Hard to navigate by. These are obscured by black leggings and a long skirt. You also wear a jean jacket, and a layer of foundation, but not too much around the eyes. You don’t want any trouble—looking too “pretty” at a hardware store would be a dead giveaway. You can’t afford surgery to soften your features, to break and drain the jaw like a polder, to tuck the cheeks. A face remade to offer comfort to normal strangers in the afternoons all passing by you in farmers’ markets, state parks, the Gap. You have acquaintances in your support group who’d cry when they look at themselves in the mirror, at the lack they think is self-evident there, and you can understand this, but you can’t do anything about it.

You resist avoiding mirrors.

At the Home Depot paint counter, the big snowglobe flakes melt on your strawberry blonde wig. The sales associate has the same name as your father.

I need to return this paint. You stare at the sales associate’s face. Heave the can onto the counter. His apron’s splattered with so much paint that it looks like a rainbow has died from a gunshot would right next to him, the rainbow bleeding out in his arms. You imagine him catching walleye like your father, edge of the dock, holding up the flailing fish still on the hook—

Which paint.

Autumn Dream. It’s the color . . . not the right hue for the wall, even with the primer—

No returns. The associate with your father’s name doesn’t meet you in the eye, and his gaze skitters around.

Okay, you know where this is going, where it has already gone. No, look, I’ve read the return policy.

Do you really think people aren’t going to be laughing at you?

Excuse me?

Behind your back. They might pretend . . . but they’re just humoring you, at best. Also what kind of role model are you for your son?

You’re shaking. I’d like to speak to the manager, please.

Don’t try to change the subject. Don’t cut me off. Show some respect.

You close your eyes. Usually, it’s better to simply defer to the strong course of the inerrancy for awhile. Better to step out of the river than get swept uselessly into the current. You need to walk. You leave the paint can and wander over to the lumber section on the other side of the store, past the popcorn machine, past the sliding doors leading outside to the gardening section where all the products of spring—azaleas, soil, seed package displays—have a light crust of wet snow upon, past the power tools whirling, past the checkout lanes and the cashiers who may or may not be staring at you like oligarchs.

You don’t care. You stop in front of planks.

The paint associate has followed a couple of steps behind you, and when you stop, he stops about a foot from you.

Don’t you walk away from me like that. I haven’t finished saying what I wanted to say.

Shut up and help me load this wood into the car.

What do you have, a fucking Prius? It’s not going to fit.

Your truck then. You have a truck, right?

Several minutes pass in which all of the pagings of sales associates and the muzak swirl around you.


The truck has a Ron Paul 2012 bumper sticker, and a terrible paint job on the hood, where green house paint covers over rust spots like astroturf over a minefield. The sparrows under the eaves of the parking garage are gone. You drive the truck. The sales associate sleeps in the passenger seat, cheek plastered on the frosty glass like Silly Putty.

Learn about this one weird unbelievable trick for finding your family.

You used to work in health care advertising, which is sort of like discovering a sinkhole inside a sinkhole. When you were in the midst of your great and awesome change, there were men you worked with who were inexorably good. You were terrified of them. Men your age in cubicles next to you. They were patient and a bit pedantic. They were good guys. And the fact that they had ordinary pains, doubts, regrets, and the like, only made you more resentful of them. You did not want to be seen as one of them, purely an ordinary man, a good family man, a good father (even though you were a good father), prudent with money, never expressing too strong of an opinion, always willing to be helpful, slightly awkward, forthright in all matters, a bit long-winded, and unmemorable in nearly everything. But more than that, being satisfied with unmemorability, to court it and have no regrets, except for the minor regrets that inevitably cropped up when the mind drifted—for example, when stuck in traffic—such as that vacation to Disneyland he should have taken with the family instead of staying home during that two-week stretch in the summer of __, when he wasn’t sure about the recession and its effects on his employment; he was being cautious but the kids would have loved it. They did not drink in excess, they rarely raised a cross word, they were not emotionally manipulating their spouses. They were not causing troubles. They did not cause fights. They worked hard but were not wholly driven by their jobs. Their passions were for cars (although not expensive sports cars), board games, gadgets. In their lives they were afforded the opportunity to pursue these passions. They knew they were generally liked, and could hold this as a certainty, a baseline with which to pursue their interests. The thought of being considered one of these men—even in the time when you had disguised yourself to look exactly like one—made you viscerally sick.

You’ve wondered sometimes: is this goodness a form of evil? No, no, it couldn’t be—there is something obscene about your even thinking it. But it had made you upset that you were almost prohibited by societal norms not to feel upset at them, when you were in the midst of becoming yourself. Looking at yourself in the men’s room mirror in that office complex three years before, you stared at your stubbled face with fear, and confusion, with the soft rock ambience around you, and when you were sure nobody would be coming through the door, you adjusted the edge of your lace panties.

While the sales associate unloads the wood from his truck and brings it into your son’s bedroom, you go inside your kitchen, put a mug of hot water in the microwave for English breakfast tea. You are ready for what’s to happen. You had a dream about it last week. And you know what you have to build with that lumber, with the plans that you had received in the mail the day after your dream, from a slender Air Mail envelope with no postage.

After the lumber is all inside, he gets the tools from the back of his truck and hauls them inside the house.

You give him the plans as you steep your tea bag: yellowing onionskin paper that could have wrapped a child’s birthday present a century ago.

This is it? He wipes his nose with his sleeve.

That’s it.

You know I wish I could have taught you how to work with your hands.

I wasn’t . . . really interested.

No, but . . . I still felt like I failed you in some way. As a father.

Come on, I think it might be better if we focus on what’s in front of us at this moment.

After a long pause, he nods. He begins working on the project: a wooden structure inside the room about the size of an outhouse, with a small pinprick the size of a pupil on the wall closest to the window.

The snow has stopped.

Everyone has stuck-in-time properties. Some are more visible than others. Some people decide they hate liberals, or conservatives; some people fall in love with Disney movies, or Coca-Cola collectibles; some people decide they want to tie up willing partners with thick ropes and hang them from ceiling hooks and let them turn like Calder mobiles with a slight draft coming from the slightly ajar door rocking their ever-straining forms; some people like craft beers; some people like science fiction; some people decide to appreciate the whimsy of funny neckties; some people consume 90% of their meals from food grown within a fifty mile radius of their house. There’s a lifestyle of thought and habit for everybody. No one is left behind anymore. For you, as you settle into night, you have decided you want to see your son again, and so you are building the structure, to the specifications you received in the dream, and also the mail—but it was only in the dream that you turned into a slender whale with tiny arms and legs and skirted into an underwater cave with glittering gneiss and schist all around you, cold corals and upside-down icicles, until you surfaced on the other end of the tunnel into a basilica-sized cave, floored with smooth limestone with the small wooden at its center. Its surface was painted with arrows and waves. Sliding into air, you were yourself again, as much as you could have been in a dream. Your blowhole crusted over, and your arms and legs lengthened in the dream. Your strawberry blonde hair was rooted to your scalp in this dream, and your hips had widened in this dream, and your breasts became more full, and the estrogen in your body in the dream felt like molten diamonds. The dream was rife with essentialism but you didn’t care, and your father was not in this dream.

But this dream, and what you will build from this dream, isn’t about you. This dream is about your son. Inside this dream, you opened the small building’s door inside the cave and closed it behind you. The only light was from a pinprick hole on one wall. A faint projection of the cave outside on the wall opposite the pinprick. Upside-down, as with any camera obscura, any projection of light. You put your finger on the edge of the tiny hole and spiraled around it. You dispensed and applied the color of Etruscan Sugar from your finger in the dream, and you began to fill in the spiral with the color as your heart, which for so long you had been uncompromisingly ashamed of, gladdened. Here was where you woke up, shaken by the body you returned to.

As you look out on the sales associate dutifully building the building with the same rigid cadence your father once had before he died, you know what you will do when it is done. After painting the inside of the shed with Etruscan Sugar—the color of lacquered terracota figurines and hillsides of burning Umbrian wheat—you will watch the wall opposite the pinprick and watch an image take shape, even though it will be eight at night when he finishes, and the only light outside will be from the streetlights. Watch the image, a bit blurry, but sharp enough, the image of your son in a middle school gymnasium, the clock on the wall above your son saying eight sharp, and all the dozens of other boys in Cub Scout uniforms with their Pinewood Derby cars, racing them down inclines four-apiece. You see your ex-wife with her back to you inside the image projected inside the little room as well, in the bleachers, looking back and forth from her phone to your son, but you do not blame her, secretly you would have been bored to tears as well, in an ideal world where you were a regular parent, a regular father—but you also would have been terrified, because of your own Pinewood Derbies of your Cub Scout days, when you were utterly lost and shy and with the boxiest and least aerodynamic Pinewood Derby car possible. Though your son’s own car, painted brilliant turquoise, is certainly going to do better than yours, no doubt with the help of your ex-wife’s boyfriend, a carpenter. They live many states away. The Scoutmaster takes your son’s turquoise car in his hands and your son looks anxiously about. You miss him so much. You miss how smart he is, and how kind he was to you when he first saw you wearing a wig and lipstick, and you miss his tantrums even. His car is placed at the top of the incline with three others, narrow like pine shivs, and he looks for his mother in the bleachers, scanning around with his hand on his forehead like a sailor searching for land, but his gaze stops, he bites his lip and his eyes widen, and anyone who happens to be looking at him in that gymnasium would wonder at the absent-minded boy who is staring at a point about seven feet up in the air in the center of the room. He stares, you stare. You smile, you cannot tell whether he has any sense of you, any notion that you are there, until he holds his hand up and waves a little. A tiny wave. He straightens his hair right after waving and turns around, and the Scoutmaster releases the latches that keeps the cars, for a little while, from plummeting.

• • •