Death by a Thousand Cuts by Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts (NOVEL EXCERPT)

Introduction to November 2016 Issue

100% of humanity is mentally ill. To varying degrees, of course. The resistance of this shows up in how folks stigmatize those of us who do not hide our injuries as well. I know for sure that I am a reflection of everyone walking through the 95th and the Dan Ryan train station. That is why they won't speak to me. They don’t want to believe that the madness they see in me is not much different from what lies dormant in their own hearts. That’s exactly why I thank whatever God might still be listening to me that not believing something doesn’t make it any less true. 

“Hey, Big Man! Yeah, you right there! How tall are you, baby? ‘Bout 6’5” or 6’6”? Shoot, you could easily be 6’8 for all I can tell. Probably was a long baby too. 23, 24 inches. My baby boy was 22 inches. Not quite as long but a fat, chunky thang. Almost broke me in half with his 10lbs. What’s that thing Kingsolver said, ‘ya’ first child is your best foot forward’? Yeah well, that ain’t always the truth, you know. It ain’t always true.” 

He was acting like he didn’t hear me but I knew he did. Just walked away as soon as they called his train. Black backpack all high on his shoulders. Bald head glistening in the natural light that made its way into the station through its heavy, bullet-proof windows. They all do that. Walk away. All day long, they turn their faces up, perplexed at the old woman sitting on the splintered wood benches in the El station. Been coming there since that no count son of mine consigned me to a nursing home because, as he said, I was “too far gone.” But the people in the station? They walk and I wait. I wait for the next one who will rattle my memories. 

I’m not even remotely a fan of Backman—I used to tell my students that his writing was good enough, but utterly exhausting with all its saccharin prose—but there is one thing his character Ove got right—we must always have a healthy skepticism of tall people. Though my alliance with the “curmudgeon" is short-lived as he thinks it’s the blood that can’t make it to their brains and I, well, I think it’s the sickness that gives up, leaving their brains free of the worldly weights that the shorter of us endure.  Yes, we who are shorter are not as privileged. Illness plays freely within our skin, riding wildly through our sinews, rafting over our blood stream, exhausting itself until ultimately deciding to take a nap. 

Even Beaton, the mystery writer (another genre I abhor) nailed it when she said that women become shorter when love dies. Oh the brilliance! She captures what I mean by sickness. The lack of love stunts the growth of humanity in all the ways that matter. There’s one too many short-sighted, short-winded, hunched over, sick with the pains of the world people who still find the audacity to not see me. When I’m sitting at the station, they surround me. They crowd my vision like a blur of black and brown and a sprinkling of white giants. They move in tsunami-like waves across the station, heading toward this train or that bus. Taking the red line to the brown line and the brown line to the Loop where they will all run in circles around office buildings that house corporations that run circles around short people who sit in train stations staring through filthy windows at tall people who…ahh, I guess you get it now. 

“Baby girl, you hold on to them children of yours. You hold on tight now. Don’t you ever let them go! Because when you do, they’ll turn on you. They’ll turn on you as soon you turn them loose on to the world. Forget everything you’ve taught them!”

This one stayed a little while. Still didn’t speak to me though. Just held the hand of the little girl standing next to her a little tighter. She was squeezing that baby’s hand too hard though, I could tell. I felt the child’s tears well up in my own eyes. 

Oh what you crying for, old fool?! These people ain’t paying a bit of attention to you. Just some old South Side has-been, talkin’ crazy to no one in particular. You better go on home before you lose your day pass again. 

Psssh! Some of these folks ain’t as well as they pretend to be. Some of them have faces etched with a sense of blue-collar resignation. They run in circles too only their circles were much smaller, tighter. Unlike the others, they don’t carry brief cases, laptop bags, or walk in S patterns because they are too busy swiping their manicured fingers across tiny phones. These usually carry lunch bags and backpacks filled with washcloths and deodorant because they may—no, they are certain they will—have to work overtime again. Their sickness is evident in the humps in their backs, the creaking sound I hear in their knees, and the thinning of hair, even the hair elsewhere.

But I suppose that even among the ones who wear their height (and masks) well, there are those who are sicker than others. The women, mostly. And I suppose this is where my own trope gets a bit tiring. But, I can’t help but to see them.  Breasts that sag from the weight of years. Once taunt and tight figures—brick houses, we used to say—that have now exploded into a retirement home for ribs and sweet potato pies and collards and beer and vodka and pain and hurt and men who hurt and religious dogma that tastes great but is just less filling and drug addicted children and grandbabies who cry without ceasing and…you know what I’m saying, right? Yes, these are the sickest of them all. And the shortest. Just like that young girl holding up the wall like it’s going to fall down without her support. The ones like her push their sons fiercely through the station, gripping the back of their peanut heads, guiding them onto trains and buses to schools that will send them back empty. With vacant eyes, they kiss the still hopeful faces of their boys knowing that there is nothing left for them to do. Maybe today, the news will be better. 

“Hey, sweet girl! You going uptown? Be careful up there, okay? Them white boys don’t do right by us on that north side of town. They’ll dance with you, sure enough. They consider themselves liberal in that way. But don’t expect nothing from it, alright? Don’t expect a thing.” 

She was brown like most of us in the station, tall or short, sick or well. Brown with a touch of black around the eyes. Her heels—with leather that disintegrated from the metal points—lifted her into the sky until she loomed over everyone else around her. Her shorts barely covered the blackness of her behind that peeked out below its hem. She stood outside the glass window although this time it seemed as though the filth that once clouded the thick panes now clouded her face. She looked like someone who was supposed to love her, suppose to protect her, once called her fast even when she wasn’t, but the label stuck and now she wears it like Ralph Lauren. 

She looked to be waiting without waiting, lingering without appearing so. But she didn’t leave me. At least not, immediately. I lowered my voice a bit. Something told me I didn’t have to yell like I usually did. She’d still hear me. 

“You can’t expect nothing from them, alright?”

When she turned around, I thought she might actually respond. That, for the first time in a long while, someone would actually speak to me. My heart leaped with anticipation. But she just cast down her eyes. Watched the swirled patterns of dirt on the floor, as I myself had done on many days. The automated doors opened to let in those who were taking the Red line uptown and unexpectedly, she turned and walked toward the crowd. She was leaving. 

“Hey, where you going? You need some help, Baby? I don’t think those heels are going hold up for long.” 

I wanted to follow her. She’d drawn me in somehow and I couldn’t just let her walk away. She wasn’t like the others.

I didn’t stop to think about it this time. Just hopped on the back of the same car she’d gotten on and wedged myself between an aging blonde trying desperately to hold on to her former-Barbie self and a Jay-Z look-a-like complete with Yankees cap cocked to the side and half his underwear showing. 

I gripped the bars tightly and stared intently at her; allowed my brown eyes to bore into her grey ones. This wasn’t as much of a problem as it might seem since everyone stares at each other on the train. In fact, I suspect it is the only place where you can eyeball someone and not end up injured in some way. So I took the opportunity to allow my eyes to roam her figure. I was looking for places on her body that seemed hurt in some way. I was searching for some evidence of an illness not illustrated by her height, authentic or otherwise. I knew it was there. It had to be.

I was usually good at seeing this strange sickness in others but for the life of me, I could not put my finger on hers. There were the obvious things, of course. The contradiction of her scant clothing juxtaposed against the fierceness of the autumn Chicago wind. The distraction in her eyes, as though she was looking at everything and nothing at the same time. But those observations were easy. Stuff a kindergartener would most likely pick up on. 

We’d passed most of the stops on the South side and were headed into the Loop. I wondered how far we would go; how far the abstraction that was this woman—girl, really—would force me to travel. 

“You ever been to the north side?,” I asked the train. “They’re building a lot up there, I hear. Condos and such. Driving regular folks right on out with their sushi bars and yoga castles.” 

The woman who’d sat down next to me only a minute before, rolled her eyes and moved to a seat in the front of the train.

“Folks don’t want to hear the truth anymore. They want you to sugarcoat everything. Make it go down easy. They want it fast, too. Like that Twister…wait, that ain’t it. Ummm, Twitter! That’s what it is. What y’all don’t realize is that truth got a club foot. But a lie? A lie will get to you nice and quick.”

The girl was the only one listening. I could tell. But she sure was nervous. For the last three stops, she’d been shifting her weight from one foot to the other as though she needed to urinate but didn’t want to do so until she got home. Was this a sign that she didn’t want to go where she was headed? That what awaited her at the end of our journey was too awful, too disturbing, and yet, inevitable? Or maybe she really did just need to go to the bathroom. Not enough information to draw a conclusion quite yet. As though she sensed my watching her, she completely stopped moving. Her stillness was eerie—and quite a feat given the rambunctious movement of the train. The lurching and jerking of the steel bullet could unravel the bowels of Superman. I’d never known the feeling to pass that quickly unless… My eyes moved to her thighs where wetness the size of Delaware but growing steadily into a Texas-sized stain that had begun to form in the back of her short shorts.  Her eyes darted back and forth. I lowered mine. No need to make her feel any more uncomfortable than she already was.  

“So much sickness in one place,” I mumbled as the once elevated train burrowed underground as it entered the city.

Oh I’d forgotten about the underground part of the ride. I had to hold my breath so the squirrels didn’t run up my nostrils and into my brain. Couldn’t let them eat what was left of it. I shouldn’t have gotten on the train. There was a reason why I chose to sit in the station; why I never actually got on the trains.  As soon as the last car disappears into the hole, my instructions become muddled. The whispers get louder. The lights, brighter. What was once unseen, is revealed. I want to be seen but not like that. Not when I don’t have control.

Wright had it right though. (See what I did there?)

“Hahahahahahahaha!” I laugh at my wordplay to the rhythm of the flickering lights. 

No matter how these folks try to kum ba yah us into some strange kind of pseudo-unity, they still live there and I live here. Shoot, even Ellison knew the deal. Under this ground, I am a distortion. “Distorted glass” I believe he said. Everyone on this train has already interpreted my laughter as something else. They choose to see everything and anything but me. 

"What’s that now? You don’t know what you don’t know? People don’t know a whole lot of things. Just walking around blind and ignorant. Take death. Folks always talking about this person or that person died. People don’t die. They just become invisible. Just like this train, they are only seen under the ground. People say Baldwin died back in ’87 but I’d just seen in him the station the other week. Talking about how ‘we all living with masks.’ Nah, man. We all sick.”

I had to find my breath. Wanted to keep holding it but there were just too many stops. So I chose to breathe. Then I thought, I ain’t no Ellison. I ain’t walking softly. Sleepwalkers, be damned! I ain’t hibernating either. I have expectations. To be seen on my own terms. And I suspect my girl with the stain and the sorrow and the shame felt the same way. 

The shifting visuals as the train burst from the ground and became elevated again was nothing short of amazing. Black and brown blue-collars heading to 12 hour and 14 hour and even 24 hour shifts had morphed into white and tan white-collars heading to million dollar deals. Working mothers with bottle-fed babies riding quietly in K-mart strollers and heading to store-front church daycares were suddenly converted to stay at home moms dressed in Juicy Couture and pushing screaming, breast-spoiled, Codys and Melissas in Eddie Bauer strollers, headed to the latest play-date/wine tasting. 

And she was there. Body leaking. Eyes betraying. Everything out of her control even as she somehow maintained it. She leaned against the bar almost forming a perfect right angle with the lankiness of her frame pressing against the chrome ledge. It was as though the weight of her own skin had become unbearable. She was gracious in that she seemed to be attempting to keep her stench from the rest of us. Especially the Juicy moms whose noses had already detected something foul in their midst. 

“Howard Street. Last Stop. Howard Street.”

It was the end of the line. 

I wondered what she would do now. Was there an alternate universe waiting for her in Skokie or Deerfield or some other Northern suburb? Was she trapped in a duality that would magically change her back to society’s perception of perfection just in time for lunch?

When the doors of the train opened, she hesitated. Most people would not have noticed her millisecond of a pause, the outward manifestation of her uncertainty. But I did. More than seeing it, I felt it. It rang familiar to me. Finally stepping off the train and onto the platform, she walked quickly down to the stairwell. Too quickly, actually. These old legs of mine, once long and lean and brown themselves, struggled against my own patchwork of mended bones and excess skin. But I guess that was ideal in a way. I still didn’t want her to become suspicious. And I certainly didn’t want to alarm her by trailing her too closely. 

Up the stairs, she ran. Up, I hobbled. She made a right. I made one too. She made another and I followed her lead. Down the stairs on the opposite side, she trotted. Knuckles turning white from holding on to the railing too tightly, I pursued. 

Then she was gone. 


She was just there in front of me on the platform. A figment maybe, but still within reach. Was this what it really meant to chase your dreams? To run down your younger self to warn her of impending doom. It seemed so real. Real enough to keep track of in my journal before those damn meds interrupt my thoughts; when the alleged relief tries to scatter and steal my memories. See, I want to be able to know what I know; know what I’ve seen. And to share it if I please, to whom I please. 

Yes, I might be old. I might be sick. But I’m still a writer. I’ve written more books then some of the folks on that train have read. Not going to let them take that away from me. I’ve always kept a journal but it has become increasingly important to do so now. Words are my therapy. Better than any pharmaceutical I could take. I am normal when I write. As normal as any crazy person can be. And yes, I know I’m crazy. Learned a long time ago that denial is for the weak. Denial is only useful when done with great intention. Conscious denial has worked in my favor on many days. That’s the great thing about crazy. You’re always conscious. I would even submit that it is that uber-consciousness, that ability to walk casually through the darkest parts of the mind and see what the normal don’t see, won’t see, well, that’s the very definition of crazy.

Clarity comes easy when I allow my pen to massage the page with the oil of my mind. It’s my way of fighting back. They won’t take my story. I will not allow them to take my story. 

Or hers.


There she was again. We were on the other side. The other track. Two red line trains waited to hurl us back south and ultimate back to the starting point of our engagement. 

I was confused. I didn’t just need quell my feverish curiosity. I needed the familiarity that threatened to expose her to me or maybe even, me to her. I’d expected that we would get off the subway and after a while, arrive at some strange or not-so-strange destination that either way would allow me to make my assessment of her, to confirm my normally accurate postulations, and return home before the night nurse came to change my sheets and feed me the goop they call dinner. 

“Baby girl, you need to change.”

The double entendre was not lost on me. Of course she needed to change. But she wouldn’t. Clothes or otherwise. She is comfortable with the sweat and the stains and the pseudo safety of the trains. She is reassured by the predictability of the linear merry-go-round that was the Chicago Transit system and the invisibility afforded to her by all of its patrons. She knew what to expect. There were no surprises. No fists from out of nowhere and for no reason. No dirty syringes with watered down substances only getting her halfway to heaven. No babies crying and screaming and dying from hunger or thirst or fire or knives. No voices whispering unbearable evils in her head. No one to tell her what to do and when to do it. Ironically, the eyes that rolled and the fingers that covered turned up noses had become her only sign that she was not crazy. That she was not as sick as they made her out to be. 

“How much y’all pay for those monthly passes? $80? $120? The city of Chicago love taking our money, don’t they? Taxes ain’t enough, huh. We got to pay just to get somewhere.”

Five stops into the ride back downtown, I recognized the gallop of my heart. Perspiration broke the surface of my palms and pits. I couldn’t help but feel that, even as I watched the brown girl, seated this time, there was another pair of eyes more intent and more curious than my own; boring into the back of my head. I turned around quickly and was met with the strange mix of human silence and the empty rattling that comes with riding in the last car of the train. Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized that we were alone on the train together. Just me and the girl. The girl and me. 

I closed my eyes. Tried desperately to shake off the paranoia I knew would soon fully swallow me whole. Tried to remember how to manage it like I was taught to do in all those classes I ignored at the hospital the first time Andre tried to put me away. I was too far from home for it to be happening right then. I kept hoping I could keep my demons at bay until I could diagnose the girl. I’d hoped they would just wait until I could get home, get my shot and succumb to the shadows for another night. 

As we entered the Loop again, the train began to fill up again with the usual mid-morning suspects. Exhausted third-shifters, eyes held open only by their fear, finally getting off work.  Corporate jugglers balancing brief cases and five dollar lattes, heading to early lunch meetings. I shifted my attention back to the girl and was caught off guard when I noticed her slightly-less cloudy, now more green than gray eyes fixed directly on me. 

“No, ma’am! Not today! That’s not how this works! I do the reading. I do not get read.”

I pointed at her. The smirk that dangled on the edge of her lips mocked me. Her face, chiseled mahogany, transformed into the most horrific image. Unexpectedly white teeth with unusually pointed edges revealed their powerful potential to penetrate. 

I chose not to turn from her gaze. 

“I was strong once, you know! These youngins think they’re so bold. You can’t slick a can of oil, my mama used to say!” 

The girl’s eyes bulged from almond shaped sockets and seemed to leak jaundiced, wooden tears. Unmoving, unyielding, nearly inanimate, we continued to hold each other captive. But, the truth was, we weren’t inanimate. We were real. She was real. And this girl, in all her realness, in all her flesh and blood, breath in britches desire seemed to want desperately for me to speak to her. 

To validate her existence. 

To authenticate her world. My world. 

To corroborate her perceptions. 

To endorse her exceptions. 

I couldn’t do it. To do so would have meant opening the floodgates and drowning in the waters of my past. I guess she sensed my resistance because without releasing me from her stare, she stood up and leaned against the chrome bars of the train. As if repelled by her approach, the people standing near her all stepped away from her scent in one over-exaggerated, seemingly synchronized movement. Her response was simple. An eyebrow raised high above the other. Simultaneously indicting them while questioning me. 

This was not how this was supposed to go. I’d always remained anonymous. Just the old lady sitting on the benches at the Dan Ryan “talking crazy,” as some of the kids would tease me. It didn’t matter who I was or what I’d done in my life. I’d finally figured that out. Occasionally, I’d come across someone who knew me in my former life. The time before. They usually left our encounter confused and saddened about the demise of the grandiose woman I suppose I once was. 

“She’s a shell of her former self.”

“Such a shame.” 

Shell. Shame. I’m okay with all of it because on the benches of the Dan Ryan Station, I was only famous for my fascination with people and the conclusions I could draw about them. That was easy. But I never actually had to engage any of them. Never had to answer for my thoughts and didn’t feel much like starting now.  

I can see you, you know. 

Her mouth didn’t move but I heard her speak. She was definitely speaking to me. Interestingly, neither of us was willing to budge from our physical and metaphysical positions. It wasn’t about diagnosis anymore. I knew what ailed her. It was what ailed us all. Sure, it might manifest differently depending on our socio-economic status, our race, our political affiliations, our educational background or lack thereof, our parents or lack thereof, or even our so-called mental health. But as much as we resist it, cover it up with all manner of falsehoods, or mask it with our elaborate tales of tribulation and triumph, it remains. Ready and willing to reveal itself at the most inconvenient times.

And this was most certainly inconvenient. 

“95th and the Dan Ryan. Last Stop. 95th street.” 

The first thing I noticed about the cop was the dull, brown wispiness of his hair. It was strewn about his head like forgotten hay. Next, his ocean blue eyes swirled and swirled like the stereotypical visual devices used by hypnotists on T.V. I felt like I'd awakened from a long sleep although I was sure I'd only dozed off for a minute or three. At least I thought so. But the dark sky that loomed outside the elevated train’s window told another story. 

“Where am I?”

My voice was alien; ragged and raw and so unlike the one I spoke with in my head. This was not what I wanted to say. It was not me who was speaking. I hoped my eyes negated my voice. 

“You’re safe, m’am.”

He didn't answer my question. That was telling. I know what it means when people don’t answer the question you ask. It’s a distraction technique. The cop gently placed his hand around the meaty part of my upper arm.

“We’ll take you home now.”

And how would he do that? He doesn’t know where I live. Andre had long moved out of the city. 

“But what about...?”

I looked frantically around for the girl. The one who only a moment before had challenged me to a duel of wills; a psychological game of “I'll show you mine if you show me yours.” She was gone. Was she ever there?

The gentle hand of the cop turned vice-like. He was becoming impatient. 

“M’am. Let's go now.” 

My journal sat open next to me on the hard, yellow seat. It was open and I recognize the familiar jaggedness of my handwriting gone awry in the last paragraph. A tangible sign of a break, they call it. I looked up again, this time past the cop and outside the window. I saw my nurse standing on the platform waiting for me. 

Apparently, I’d missed dinner.

Contributor Notes

Tracey Lewis-Giggetts is a writer, educator and content creator whose work (fiction and nonfiction) probes the intersection of faith/spirituality with a myriad of social issues. She is the author of nine books including the novel, The Search for Susu, (with Dr. Marcella McCoy-Deh) and her writing has appeared in numerous digital and print publications including The Chronicle for Higher Education, Ebony, The Guardian, etc. Tracey is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the Community College of Philadelphia. She can be found online at