When I was in the fourth grade, I was certain the world would blow up in its entirety. The Soviets had nukes—we all knew that—and the prospect of it would send my ten-year-old mind into recurring panics. At night, when I was supposed to be sleeping while Mother and Father watched the television, I would lie awake and imagine a group of men in hats standing over a control panel ready to nuke us […]
Becca drops her announcement into the conversation casually. “So… I met someone and it’s looking pretty serious so far.”
She is sitting at a long table in the party room of the Hasidic shteeble near her childhood home, the small synagogue that her parents, creatures of habit that they are, still attend. Her father prays in the old shul three times a day but also likes to schmooze politics and business with the men; her mother attends services on Shabbos and holidays and finds some measure of peace murmuring psalms from her tattered Tehillim. Becca is surrounded by the smells of her youth: the tang of gefilte fish, the must of yellowing tomes and the mildew of unwashed woolen prayer shawls, and by family members and their various extensions: sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews. Her parents. They are gathered to celebrate the bris of Becca’s sister’s first grandson. (Becca still has difficulty wrapping her head around the fact that she is, at age thirty-two, attending the circumcision feast of her great-nephew!)
Becca believes she’d murmured her news privately to the sister sitting nearest her, and so is taken aback by the silence that greets her pronouncement. Becca’s father eyes her mistrustfully.
Becca is to blame for the inordinate amount of time their mother spends on a therapist’s couch and for the startling amount of silver in their father’s beard. Becca is single-handedly hammering the final nail into his coffin.
During the course of the evening, Becca’s family learns her new boyfriend’s name (Paul); what he does for a living (attorney); that yes, he most certainly is Jewish even with a name like that (and the grandson of Auschwitz survivors—because that little nugget tends to seal in authenticity like nothing else); that they met on JDate, and yes, that means she dates online which means on a computer, yes exactly that kind of crazy meshugas; that he’d grown up strictly Orthodox frum and attended yeshiva just like Becca and now no longer considers himself observant.
Just like Becca.
The family is unprepared for this last revelation. It is one of those glaring truths of which everyone is acutely aware but works really hard to ignore.
* * *
Some weeks later.
Becca answers her youngest sister’s call apprehensively. The caller ID flashes “Sara Leah” but she knows her other three sisters are conferencing in. The group call begins as an intervention of sorts.
“Bec, we’re calling because we all agree” (something new there, Becca muses) “that you’re intent on making Mommy and Tatty ill.” (Nothing new there. Surprise, surprise.)
The sisters all begin to talk over one another. Becca, pacing in the galley kitchen of the apartment she shares with her new fiancé Paul and her two-nights-a-week-and-every-other-weekend son Ari, puts the call on speaker and lets Paul listen in. It’s easier than trying to find the words to explain her family’s dysfunction, the unclouded contempt that erupts from them when faced with the agnosticism of one of their own. Their voices are jumbled, and all four are shouting over one another in a loud bid to be heard first. Angry fragments filter through the speakerphone: “…frumkeit means nothing…” “…not observant, unbelievable…” “…what about Ari…” “…what kind of example for your son…” “…a shiksa now…” “…marrying a goy…” “…killing us slowly…” “…a shanda, shameful…” and so on.
The message becomes clear: Becca is self-centered and arrogant. Becca is difficult and ungrateful. Becca is a terrible daughter and an even worse mother who thinks of no one but herself. Becca must surely be on drugs because why else would she behave this way. Becca is responsible for their parents’ anxiety, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. Becca is to blame for the inordinate amount of time their mother spends on a therapist’s couch and for the startling amount of silver in their father’s beard. Becca is single-handedly hammering the final nail into his coffin.
“We thought you should know how we all feel. And just so this doesn’t come as a surprise, we thought it only right to tell you that Tatty called each of us separately and forbade us to come to your wedding.”
In a remote recess of Becca’s reeling brain she is able to think, Forbade you? Are you nine or are you all married women with husbands and kids and mortgages? Actually, scratch the mortgage part—all her sisters are still dependent on their father’s financial support because their husbands are “learning,” i.e., warming a bench in a yeshiva for young married men and not making a living, and their families are hard pressed to make ends meet on a teacher’s or secretary’s salary. So yes, it actually makes perfect sense to Becca that each sister has branded herself Tatty’s champion and waves his banner furiously before the charge.
And in a separate corner of her mind lurks her ultimate fear: Now that Paul’s seen my hideous skeletons, he’ll run for the hills.
Years of practice have made Becca adept at compartmentalizing her thoughts and keeping them hidden deep.
* * *
Some weeks later.
Becca is called in for a parent-teacher conference. It is an unusual time for a conference, given that her middle-school son is nearing the end of a remarkably productive school year, all things considered. This is a golden son, a hard-fought-and-lost son, a son who’d been unceremoniously dropped back into Becca’s life by his indifferent father who’d swiftly lost interest in the daily grind of parenting. A son who remains the epicenter of his mother’s existence. This is Ari, whose response to Becca’s cautious coming-out of the religion closet had been a flustered, “You mean like, you eat like, pork and stuff?” and “You mean, like you drive on Shabbos, like in a car? Things like that?” He’d briefly mulled over this new version of his mother before regaining his composure, then hugged her and said, “I’ve never seen you as happy as you are with Paul. So that’s the most important thing to me, Ma. That you’re happy.” This is Ari, whose teacher now wishes to speak most urgently with Becca.
Between one heartbeat and the next Becca feels the blood drain from her cheeks; breathing is something she suddenly needs to remember how to do.
Rabbi Goldblatt is waiting for her in the yeshiva’s office, surrounded by black-hatted teenage boys all talking with their hands, all talking at once, ritual fringed tzitzis swaying from their belts. He shoos them out of the room and waves her into a chair opposite him.
“I hope you don’t mind the hasty nature of this meeting, Rebecca—may I call you Rebecca? …As I mentioned on the phone, there is no need to worry about Ari, he’s doing just fine. He’s not aware that I’ve called you in.” He hesitates.
Becca’s anxiety trickles down her back into the waistband of her skirt. She manages a cautious half smile. “Please. I’m listening.”
Rabbi Goldblatt seems a decent sort. This past year, all of their interactions on behalf of her boy had revealed a sympathetic person whose emotional intelligence, to Becca’s surprise and relief, consistently matched his scholarly aptitude. Today, however, the rabbi seems discomfited.
“Someone came to visit me recently. Um, this is awkward to say the least.” He clears his throat. “It was your father. Ari’s grandfather.” Becca feels her windpipe closing. Rabbi Goldblatt continues haltingly.
“He seemed to think it his urgent duty to warn me. To warn me that Ari’s continued exposure to you, his mother, would be catastrophic for the boy’s spiritual health.” He stops, catching Becca’s eye. She believes she sees compassion brimming in him.
“It was a highly unusual conversation. Quite difficult. But I imagine it’s far more difficult for you to hear this than it was for me. Shall I continue?”
Becca nods silently, adrift. She listens as if from a distance.
“Your father told me things I had no right to hear. Things about you. Things… I did not need to know. He felt he was safeguarding his grandchild by exposing you, or should I say branding you as an unfit mother. He…well, he believes you’re corrupting your son. He said your home is not kosher, and—actually he said quite vociferously that…that you blatantly desecrate—that you’re mechalel Shabbos…” Rabbi Goldblatt exhales quickly, clearly unsettled by his role in this particular play.
Rivky loves to read Victorian novels and in this pursuit often bumps up against phrases that describe various ways one may suffer from, or actually die of, a broken heart.
“Listen, Rebecca. I know you as Ari’s mother. You’ve always shown yourself to be a mensch, a good person, a good mother…even so, it’s none of my business, you see? I’m not the judge of you.
Rabbi Goldblatt’s forehead is shiny with sweat, with the effort of playing referee in the midst of a melee. “Your father,” he resumes loudly, “is portraying his own daughter as a shiksa who doesn’t deserve to raise her own son! I’m sorry, but none of this is my business, first of all, and second of all,” the rabbi pauses, the energy gone from him. “I just—I just think you deserve to know what’s going on behind your back.”
Maybe his voice trails off or maybe Becca stops listening. Between one heartbeat and the next Becca feels the blood drain from her cheeks; breathing is something she suddenly needs to remember how to do. Clouds of déjà vu settle in her memory. Her father, she is forced to admit, is indeed capable of such cruelty. Her father, her Tevye, who rails against the rebellion of a daughter. Her father, her not-Tevye, her father who is unable to eventually come around, like Tevye, to tolerate what he cannot control. In the name of God, religion, and faith, Becca’s father takes no prisoners.
* * *
Some years earlier.
Becca is not Becca yet. She is still Rivky, still a slender eight, still eleven and whip-smart, still a coltish fourteen, still fearful of her father, of rabbis, of Yom Kippur the awesome Day of Judgment, of enumerating all the myriad sins of the year that’s passed and klopping al chayt, beating her chest with a closed fist as she recites rivers of tears in shul, her youthful back bent to the sorrow and guilt of one much, much older and hardened to the world.
She is still Rivky, she is twenty-two, and she is leaving her young husband. She wants to explore the outside and change her name and wear blue jeans and fling the shaitel from her head and grow her own hair back and inhabit the world fully, and the only way to do this is through divorce. Rivky expects an angry husband, a husband who will marshal the resources of family and community to keep her home, keep her covered, keep her hidden, keep her obedient. But she is unprepared for the summons to her father’s office. She is unprepared to be peppered with questions, with accusations, from bearded big-bellied men sitting, watching, hovering from their seats in a semi-circle as Rivky, unprepared, stands before them, trembling and terrified and stripped naked in front of the questions, the questions, the insinuations of slut, the censure, the sins.
Rivky floats away from her body, her body that stands like a target. She watches herself from afar.
“Where did you go late at night last week? Who were you with?” Rivky worries a thread at her hem and sees her skirt unraveling, unraveling, until there is no more skirt…
“Do you go to the movies in secret? Do you check out filthy goyish books from the library?” Rivky breathes in the light as the sleeves of her jacket slip off her arms…
“Do you spoil your holy body with treif food from treif restaurants?” Rivky’s shaitel, made of someone else’s hair, slides back from her head, exposing the uneven shaved stubble on her scalp, and drops whispering to the floor…
“Do you corrupt your soul with indecent goyish music? Do you turn on the lights on Shabbos?” Rivky watches her blouse fall from her shoulders and gather in soft folds at her feet…
“Do you dip in the mikvah after you menstruate to be permitted to your husband? As the Torah commands?” Rivky’s opaque tights are suddenly sheer, showing her legs…
“Are you a lesbian? Are you an adulteress? Have you had forbidden relations outside of the sanctity of your marriage?” Rivky’s bra and panties are visible to all the men in the room. She is undressed, she is visible, to all the men in the room.
And so the bearded men, her father’s friends, her father sitting amongst them, decide that Rivky is unfit to mother her toddler son, because every month she insists on wearing tampons while going for her Shabbos walks which, her concerned husband worries, could be construed as carrying, which could be interpreted as violating the laws of the holy Sabbath. They consider her unfit because she was once seen stepping out of a McDonald’s (a McDonald’s!!!) with a cup of coffee, which could only mean she was blatantly flouting the laws of kashrus. They deem her unfit because she’d recently attended a nursery school orientation for her son, after which the menahel hastily phoned her father to say he was very sorry to do this to a man who is such a pillar of the community, BUT. Your daughter, the mother of the little boy Ari, does not belong in our school. The young woman is immodest, her wig is long. The young woman stands out, her skirts are modish. The young woman is noticeable, indecorous, visible.
The tribunal of bearded men is not yet done with Rivky. They decide as well that she must leave the community and that it is best for Rivky’s husband to raise the boy. Never mind that each of these men has a separate feud, over money or shul politics, with Rivky’s husband. Still. He is the one best suited, they believe, to raise Ari up as a respectable member of the Hasidic community. Much like themselves.
Rivky loves to read Victorian novels and in this pursuit often bumps up against phrases that describe various ways one may suffer from, or actually die of, a broken heart. In this moment, listening to the panel of rabbis sitting in judgment of her, deciding her fate—in this moment, facing the loss of her child, her family, her friends, all of life as she knows it—only in this moment does Rivky understand “broken heart.” She pushes the shame and the rage and the humiliation down, down into a deep place where she will try to forget, and be forgiven.
It is decided. Rivky becomes outcast.
Rivky becomes Becca.
* * *
Becoming Becca means leave-taking, means reinventing, means self-immolating. Becca means to fight her way out of her rigid, glistening chrysalis. She digests the worm that is her self and from the soup she pulls her eyes, newly sighted, and wings, antennae. Becoming Becca means flying, means running, means rounding corner after cutting corner, means slamming. Slamming doors that shut fast on the past and open up to poetry and song. She wrenches words from somewhere deep. Words explode onto her page, words burst from her lips. Words buried in vaults, words hidden in hollows of shame, words that air the soil of secrets to the cleansing light of day. Words that reignite her mother’s distress, her father’s wrath, her sisters’ rage, disappointment and dishonor all around. Becca writes lyrics to rap songs, staccato punches that reverberate with anger, sorrow, truth. She writes poems of anguish and celebration. She slams in dark dodgy East Village basements. She writes torch songs that fuse the fiction of her imagination and the reality of her torn, almost beautiful life. She sings in Bowery lounges that stink of beer and the press of flesh. She sings, she tests her brand new wings. She writes. She writes like she’s running out of time, like she’s Alexander Hamilton reimagining her country from the ground zero up. Becca builds a world. She puts the pieces of the broken one back together. She is mother. She is partner. She is nightingale. She is red bird rising, leaving ashes at her feet.
* * *
Sometime here and now.
Becca knows enough about fetal ultrasounds to note the absence of a tiny heartbeat. She is almost seven weeks pregnant, or she was, until this morning’s bloody flush in the toilet. The doctor explains to Becca and Paul about gestational sacs and embryonic poles and fetal viability and then schedules a D&C. He leaves and softly closes the door to the examination room to give them space to begin the grieving process. It is three months before their wedding; it is Ari’s twelfth birthday; it is the day after Yom Kippur.
Becca thinks that the timing of her miscarriage, exactly a year before her son’s bar mitzvah and directly following the Day of Atonement, is significant. She is wracked with grief and guilt. She begins to venture down the rabbit hole. Maybe her family is right. Maybe she truly is unfit for motherhood. See, she cannot even sustain a viable pregnancy after leaving her roots behind. Maybe she is indeed uprooted, unmoored, a waif in the wind at the mercy of the elements, with no Torah, no tradition, to anchor her. Becca resolves to visit her father to make amends, but she is paralyzed by fear. She is in no shape to be in the same room as her father, let alone confront him. Paul steps up.
“Why don’t I meet with him? You know, man to man. I can make him see how special you are, I can convince him that he’s missing out on his own family.”
Becca and Ruchi have a long history of laughter, secrets, tears, and hushed whispers. Back when Becca still answered to Rivky and Ruchi’s close-shaven scalp still sprouted brunette strands, the two were inseparable on summer nights out on Ruchi’s parents’ back porch.
Becca starts to interrupt him—“He’ll eat you alive!” but Paul calms her.
“I don’t have a history with him like you do. He doesn’t affect me the same way. I’m sure he’ll come around to me.” Becca is comforted by this proposal. Paul is good in the living room, like Jerry Maguire; he has a gift for getting people to buy what he’s selling. She is heartened by the notion that Paul’s natural dignity, his reasonable lawyer’s mien, his cool head, will prevail.
Within a few days, Paul meets with his future father-in-law in Becca’s childhood living room. They talk. (Or, as Paul recounts to Becca afterward, Tatty talks and Paul takes a beating.) To every one of Paul’s explanations of misunderstanding, to each of his protestations of innocence, to all of his avowals of Becca’s virtue, her gutzkeit, Becca’s father puts forth arguments of ancient Talmudic law, imagining justice being meted out as if they are living in the Second Temple era, as if Paul is actually a Gentile and not, in fact, a Jew born and bred.
“If we were living during the time of the Beis Hamikdosh, do you know Rivky would be sentenced to death by skilah! Yes, stoning—don’t look so shocked. Because she’s like the Gemara describes, a ben soyrer umoyreh, a rebellious child. Doesn’t heed her parents’ discipline. And because she’s mechalel Shabbes. And as her father, I would be responsible for being the first to push her off the cliff!”
“You know Paul, you seem like a nice person, but—maybe not such a good yid, you know… And for the life of me I can’t understand why you would want to marry Rivky—but in any event I’m not permitted to allow you sit at my Shabbes table, because then the wine would be considered yayin nesech, tainted, contaminated.”
Paul notices he is being lectured. He is highly educated in Talmudic law from his own yeshiva days and recognizes the fallacies inherent in the arguments so passionately put to him by Becca’s father. But this is beside the point.
Eventually the Holocaust makes an appearance and wraps up the session. “It’s not enough about our families—Rivky’s grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins… It’s not enough how we suffered at the hands of the Nazis? People died because they refused to give up Shabbes, my parents in the camps didn’t give themselves a heter, an exemption, to eat treif, they didn’t allow themselves to make excuses to eat non-kosher…and they had the biggest excuse of all! And my own daughter? Who I had such high hopes for? Mein eigene tochter, she turns her back. Such beeshes heaped on our heads… Such humiliation. Mommy and I can’t talk to our neighbors, we mamesh can’t even walk in the street…”
And practically in the same breath: “But I’m always ready to forgive her. I’m waiting for Rivky to come to her senses and leave all this foolishness—all these shtisim behind. Tell her I’m waiting for her to come back and be part of the mishpucha again. If she behaves the way she’s supposed to, the way she was taught. She knows—she was raised in my house! She knows exactly what needs to be done. The basics. Nu, genik shoyn mit di narishkeit. This madness has gone on long enough. Tell her I’m waiting.”
At this last, Paul silently thanks whatever angel of a filter he possesses for not allowing the news of Becca’s miscarriage (and of course, her illicit pre-marital pregnancy) to escape him today. But this is beside the point as well. The point is Becca and Paul now recognize they must sever ties with her delusional parent if they intend to fashion a healthy life for themselves and their future family.
* * *
Some weeks before Becca marries Paul.
Becca glances at the handwritten sign in Hebrew and Yiddish announcing this is a house of mourning. She gently eases open the door to the women’s entrance and steps inside. Her old friend Ruchi, now a prominent rabbi’s wife herself, sits in a low chair close to the ground, her head bound with a black satin tichel wrapped tightly, revealing the one-inch band of synthetic hair that is her shpitzel, her blouse torn at the neck to reveal a modest black shell. Ruchi is surrounded by her mother the rebbetzin and her sisters, all sitting in similar low chairs. All their blouses are torn. All their heads are bound. There is a steady murmur of women’s voices, women who are there to comfort the bereaved among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, as the traditional blessing says.
Becca and Ruchi have a long history of laughter, secrets, tears, and hushed whispers. Back when Becca still answered to Rivky and Ruchi’s close-shaven scalp still sprouted brunette strands, the two were inseparable on summer nights out on Ruchi’s parents’ back porch. Their favorite game was “What If,” a rich springboard for their delirious girlish fantasies and dreams. “What If” encompassed boys, periods, high school, goyim, parents, clothes, music, hair, and weddings and marriage (specifically, the cost-benefit ratio of the freedom of marriage to the requisite post-ceremony shearing of the kallah’s bridal hair). Many a moonlit night they passed in pursuit of these faraway notions. Ruchi remains one of the precious few who loves Rivky and Becca equally, as if they are same person. Ruchi loves Becca without looking over her shoulder to worry who’s watching them walk together down the street. Ruchi loves Becca regardless of her bare head, her exposed arms, the obvious immodesty of her wardrobe. Ruchi is able to love Becca even though their paths have diverged because Ruchi possesses an extraordinary and uncommon sense of self, a self that was forged together with Becca in the fires of adolescence and stoked into a pillar of strength by a father capable of loving her. Now, Becca returns to the friend she never lost, as radically different from each other as they appear, to console Ruchi as she sits shiva for her father.
While he was alive Ruchi’s father had been the rav of the little shul on the corner, the very shul where the family now sits shiva for their lost father, where the congregation mourns their lost leader. Every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rivky/Becca would feel transformed from her insides out, listening to the rav pour his soul into the davening, his prayers, she imagined vividly, rending the heavens, bypassing the angels, landing directly at Hashem’s throne. The rav was the only human being she’d ever known who could lift her neshama, her soul, out of its earthly confines and allow her spirit to soar. The High Holy Days in Ruchi’s father’s shteeble were, for Rivky back then, the height of religious ecstasy. There was no sin she could commit that would not be forgiven, no good will she could not achieve.
But that was then.
Now, Ruchi implores Becca with tears of love for her gone father, for her precious friend: “Becca. It’s time to make amends with your father. He won’t be around forever. Take a look around you—we are sitting shiva for a man we thought had so much more time. Time will cheat you, Becca. Forgive him.”
* * *
Ruchi’s words, their weight. Her pale tear-streaked skin and puffy pink eyes. Her sudden orphan status. All of it, swirling around in the vortex of Becca’s head. She begins to see her father, mortal and limited and not forever for this earth. She imagines him, still and silent and stone-cold, the lone inhabitant of a plain pine box. Her heart skips; she catches a breath. Becca forgets, briefly, his stance on the status of her sinner’s soul. She discounts, fleetingly, the cruelty of his discipline. She ignores, for the moment, his intractability. Becca scours the very depths of her conscience, her spirit, her perceptions of a daughter’s fidelity. After some emotional wrangling with Paul—who, after all, had been on the receiving end of a mere fraction of the whole, and admittedly tries his very best to appreciate the enormity of his fiancée’s misgivings, her ambiguity, her doubt—after arguing and shouting about pride and family and death and ego and being right and the thickness of blood, Becca ultimately secures Paul’s blessing and she finds herself, two weeks before their wedding day, at the entrance to the shteeble where her father prays. The men’s entrance. She swallows a steadying breath and pushes open the door to face a wall of white fringed talleisim, swaying and murmuring. Becca searches the front of the room and notices her father’s distinctive stoop, shrouded, swaying, his face obscured by the ceremonial silver atara wrapped across his forehead, the hum in the room and the rhythm of his swinging prayer shawl almost hypnotic in the stifling heat of the old beis medrash.
Becca gathers her courage. Her voice rings out: “Tatty!”
An abrupt hush. Dozens of tallis-draped men turn to stare in shock at the intrusion, at the woman in their sacrosanct midst. At the front of the room, directly facing the ark containing the holy Torah scrolls, a stooped figure swathed in a yellowing prayer shawl straightens perceptibly. Tatty tosses his tallis imperially over his shoulder and stands like a crowned king, the embroidered silver atara loosely framing the top of his head, the black box of his phylacteries strapped regally to his forehead, the second box of tefillin wrapped tightly around his left bicep, the straps digging deep into his left forearm, marking him indelibly as a man, an observant man, a man of God. Becca, habitually relegated to the world of women across the mechitzah, the opaque divider that separates the sexes, has rarely, if ever, witnessed the glory that is her father in prayer. She gasps at the sight of this king. All it takes is this moment and his silent scowl, and Becca’s resolute intentions threaten to fall away; she is in danger of shrinking back into the little girl she’d fitfully outgrown, the little girl at the mercy of a hostile world. She is in danger of becoming once again the wayward, dissolute, impossible daughter, the intrusion, the disturbance in her father’s carefully ordered, regulated kingdom.
He opens his mouth to rebuke her. He speaks, but the words that spill from him, white-tipped with rage, crash against the sheer rock face that is the backbone of his daughter. And Becca—Becca listens, she listens, finally she listens and she heeds, after years of being told, admonished, scolded to listen, listen to elders, listen to men, listen and obey, listen, follow, observe and heed heed heed the words thrown at her, finally Becca listens to her father and what she hears sounds like a eulogy for a girl named Rivky whose small corpse lies battered, dashed from the cliff.
Tatty speaks, but Becca looks past him, past his harsh words, past his glare, past the anger he spits in her direction. She looks past the crowd of gaping men swathed in traditional prayer shawls, past the men wrapped in the suffocation of ancient things, past the men murmuring their astonishment, their strangled displeasure, past the overheated, overwrought, smothering room lined with antique tomes and threadbare siddurim, worn prayer books that had seen their share of human misery… Becca looks further, ahead, past the motes of dust swimming in banners of sudden sunlight and sees the room renewed, rows of chairs now seated with elegant wedding guests, the fashionable women chattering, glittering, the tuxedoed men smiling, nodding, the dust motes sprouting colored wings like fluttering butterflies. She sees her mother, for years torn into atoms of anguish between her husband and child, their twinned tenaciousness. Becca sees her mother there in the new room, dressed in funereal black yes, her rheumy eyes rimmed with the ghosts of many tears, yes, all of that yes, but there, there leaning on her grandson Ari’s shoulder, waiting to embrace her daughter as Becca stands, beatific, with her new husband Paul under the chuppah, luminous in white beneath the marriage canopy. Becca looks past, and peers closely at her future. She believes she can see the faint flicker of flaming red wings shimmering at her back.
Deborah Kahan Kolb is the author of Escape of Light (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press) and Windows and a Looking Glass (Finishing Line Press, 2017), a finalist for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Contest. She is a recipient of the 2018 Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO Award, and her work has been selected as a finalist for the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award and an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Deborah is the producer of the short poetry film Write Me. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PRISM, Shirim, Poetica, Voices Israel, New Verse News, Literary Mama, 3Elements Review, Poets Reading the News, Paddock Review, Tuck, Rise Up Review, Writers Resist, Mom Egg Review, and Veils, Halos & Shackles, an international poetry anthology addressing the oppression and empowerment of women. You can find her at www.deborahkahankolb.com.
As you stare at the photo hanging above the fireplace, you are acutely aware of your wife in the other room, folding laundry. You wonder if she can sense this shift in your life, triggered by what just arrived for you in the mail. Though you’ve never seen her handwriting in English, as soon as you see the tiny block letters spell out your name in the English phonetic interpretation that you’ve adopted in your new country, you know. Yoona left her name off the envelope, but there is a return address. Sugar Land, Texas.
He’s got a government job, you imagine nuna telling Jihyun excitedly, as she often did when she ran into prospective suitors during your single days. As the only daughter, nuna made it somewhat of a mission to find a suitable mate for her siblings, an activity that you and your brothers regard as women’s work. You remember the day she urged you to accompany her to church.
You convince yourself that it is the impracticality of space and distance that is keeping you apart, a mere physical hindrance instead of the dictates of tradition, the expectation of a carefully curated family tree.
“We never went to church back home. Why start now?”
“Don’t you know that’s where all the Korean girls are? Anyway, there’s this sweet girl I think will be good for you.”
Nuna gives you the rundown. Jihyun is twenty-two. Been in America for less than a year, by way of her older brother who owns a dry cleaning business in Chicago. The third daughter of a farming family from Nonsan City, 120 kilometers north of your hometown, where you left Yoona behind. You acquiesce. You know this is the way it works.
The last time you saw Yoona, you were sitting on the outdoor steps of the student dormitory at the private university in Gwangju, your hometown. You stare down at your lap as you tell her that hyeong, Older Brother, is able to bring you to America. “After everything,” she says, “you are just going to leave?” You think about the events of the past spring. Storming the city square, Yoona’s hand in yours, high on the sense of solidarity, the knowledge of doing something big, as you joined your fellow students and townsfolk, chanting, singing, Ari-Ari-Rang. Then the bullets. The screams. She must know that it is not safe to stay, that you cannot pass up the opportunity to start a life in America. You want to tell her that you will take her with you, that you will wait for her. Instead you reach for her palm, silently communicating that you had tried, that if the world wasn’t the way it was, you would be asking her to be your wife.
“I won’t allow it,” Ahbuhjee said when he learned of your plans to ask for Yoona’s hand. “A daughter of a divorcé is not suitable for our family.” You can’t imagine living a life separate from her while existing in the same space, knowing that even if you were to run to the opposite corner of the country, she would still be just a few hours drive away. And so you decide to leave. You convince yourself that it is the impracticality of space and distance that is keeping you apart, a mere physical hindrance instead of the dictates of tradition, the expectation of a carefully curated family tree.
After five years of marriage, your dinnertime conversation still resembles that of two strangers at a party, forced into awkward small talk because they don’t know anyone besides the host.
Jihyun is a good wife. She excels at making your favorite food from back home. Every day when you come home from work the table is already set with a steaming bowl of sticky rice and soondubu or some other jjigae, the broth still bubbling in the claypot. Or, if the weather is nice enough to open the windows, samgyeopsal, thick, slick slices of pork belly, grilled right on the table and wrapped in romaine picked from the garden. Once a month, she takes a giant steel basin outside to make kimchi, squatting on the concrete patio in the backyard of your suburban home, kneading salt and gochujang into the cabbage leaves.
After five years of marriage, your dinnertime conversation still resembles that of two strangers at a party, forced into awkward small talk because they don’t know anyone besides the host. How was work? How was your day? The food is delicious. As soon as you finish your last bite, you stand up, go to the living room to watch the news as she clears the dishes, washes them by hand even though you have a working dishwasher.
The photo that hangs above the fireplace is a candid shot from your wedding day, the two of you facing each other against the blurred backdrop of the church’s altar. Neither of you are smiling, as if in deep reverence of the words of God being expressed through the pastor. But you know the real reason. For her, because the flowers are late, and for you, the overwhelming clamor of the mantra you’ve been reciting in your head since that day you first set eyes on the woman standing before you. She is not Yoona, but you can learn to love her.
You shove the letter into your briefcase, taking extra care to jumble the numbers on the combination lock. You plan to read it in your car tomorrow, in the safety of the parking lot of your office. You know Jihyun will not sense anything out of the ordinary, for perhaps the letter did not change anything at all. For you always knew what you would do if this day were to come, the day where one of you traversed an entire ocean to bridge the space that had been keeping you apart. You knew this before you hid the letter in the briefcase, before you slipped the ring on Jihyun’s finger, before you boarded the plane nine years ago onto the twelve-hour flight that would bring you to where you are now.
Dhaea Kang is a singer-songwriter and emerging fiction writer from Chicago, IL. She has been dealing with her seemingly endless songwriter’s block by channeling her energy into writing stories.
Mr. Edwards calls me out tonight. He found another first-calf heifer in distress. The third one in as many years, bleeding and panting, eyes rolled back to whites under his flashlight. I sit on the porch steps putting on my mudders, cursing my stubborn joints, already knowing the likely outcome. Even so, I don’t dally. I don’t even bother locking the place up. Ain’t no one coming all the way out here to do me harm. Especially when I keep the place lit up like I do. Folks have accused me of doing it on account of being an old lady living out here alone. But I’ve never been afraid of country living. Now my girl, she was always foolish afraid of the dark, so leaving these lights on is my way of showing her I’m still right here.
I haven’t been practicing in years, but Mr. Edwards don’t like to call the new vet if he can help it. The new vet lives closer to town and has a new wife, both obstacles to swiftness even in daylight. But at 2 a.m., when cold darkness turns seconds into eternities, that’s too long to wait when he can see the calf halfway born and my light is on anyhow.
On my way out to my truck, I can hear coyotes yip-howling. My girl used to feed them ever so often if my hand wasn’t around to stop her. I’d try to reason with her how feeding wild animals just gets them killed. Either they stop fearing people like they should, or they stop knowing how to take care of their own. No matter the way, it destines them for unnecessary suffering. She was gone not long after we had words about it last, so I can’t argue no more with her now. It’s been near eight months since the last time she took meat out to the tree line. By the sound of it, the pack has pups now.
I did things the right way, and in the end, I didn’t make excuses. The weak ones never survive in the wild. Nature sees to that, one way or another.
Inside my truck, it smells of stale cigarettes. I never smoked, but my girl liked to show me she could be different than I thought her. The metal ashtray is full of her butts, pink lipstick stained. Never could tell if she took it up on account of pressure from others, or to look harder than she was, but I was never fooled. Mothers never are; we know the nature of our children. I check to make sure I have my bag, though Mr. Edwards should be prepared. I tap the rifle mounted behind my head like I do every time I get behind the wheel. I turn the keys in the ignition. The engine grumbles at the late hour, but she runs.
* * *
At the farm, I can see the figure of Mr. Edwards hunched over in the distance. The muck sucks at my boots and I have to be deliberate to keep my balance. I don’t look around, but I can feel animal eyes follow my path. At my heels is a yellow barn cat. I click my tongue to draw it closer and offer a quick scratch. It considers me, but scatters away from my hand when I bend for it. Cats have some of the best instincts if you ask me. My girl never did care for cats after her own ate three of her kittens. I tried to warn her. She’d been inviting her friends after school to peek and poke at the litter. Momma cats will eat them babies before she’ll let nasty strangers get at ‘em. It’s their God-given instinct. But my girl never would listen to me, even when I was trying to keep her from hurt.
When I was young, I didn’t mind the night work. Now, trudging in the dark field, I wish these farmers would stop calling me, but I know they won’t. Not until they’re dead or moved out. After that, I’ll watch the farms get sold off to men with bank accounts big enough to parcel the land into tiny squares of empty promise and open floor plans. I’ll sit on my porch in a rocking chair with a rifle, and keep them at bay until I’m dead, too. Ain’t no one desecrating my property, uncovering things best left, not while I’m alive.
I see when I’m close enough, it isn’t Mr. Edwards but his girl Jamie, her hair tucked under a hat. She stands when I’m close enough, but this kind of call doesn’t demand neighborly handshakes or ask-abouts.
She says, “Hey, Ms. Meeks.” She makes room for me to kneel down and inspect the situation.
“How long she like this?”
“Found her this way half an hour ago, maybe a little more. Somehow got out of her birthing pen.”
The calf’s snout is beginning to poke through, but not enough, its eyes still in the black well of its mother’s body, pink nostrils pushing and sucking for air.
“I tried to clear the mucus, but we couldn’t get her head out no further without some help. Dad went to call you and then see about getting some better lights out here.”
“Look here,” I say, so that she points the flashlight in the direction I mean, “the forelegs are out, but they’re crossed. Means the shoulders are wedged in her pelvis.”
Contemplating the work and likely outcome makes me sigh.
I ask, “Has she been having regular straining still, or has she gave up?”
“She’s been trying real hard. Just no progress. She started resting more. That’s what worried Dad.”
It’s good the heifer is flat on her side. Standing means a heavy calf can rest too low. I stand and look for a sign that Mr. Edwards is coming with extra light, but the night is dark except for the halo beam of Jamie’s flashlight. I worry for a second that she’s not fit for being witness if the heifer or the calf die. Lord knows I haven’t the patience for her being sentimental. Unlike what I tried to do right with my girl, the Edwards ain’t never raised Jamie to appreciate the world’s natural balance. But I never took the Edwards for having the right instincts for doing what was necessary.
“Think we should try and get her up? Move her back to the barn?” Jamie asks.
“Don’t you think if she was able your dad woulda already done that?”
Jamie shines the light back in the mother’s eyes but turns it away quickly. Her own eyes look tearful, but it’s hard to tell in the dark. Mr. Edwards never did see her weakness, like to say instead she was a sensitive girl. He confessed they stopped keeping chickens years back because Jamie would cry for days any time a fox stole a meal. No way to prepare the girl for the real world, if you ask me.
I say to Jamie, “If she got herself out here then it was her intention. Things are set now. You clean her and get her ready?”
“Best we could. Dad had the kit you gave him last season with the sanitizer. He applied some of the lubricant, too.”
My girl never wanted to help me at the clinic or on my calls, though I didn’t give her any choice in the matter. That’s where I’m different from the Edwards. I did things the right way, and in the end, I didn’t make excuses. The weak ones never survive in the wild. Nature sees to that, one way or another.
“You back home now with your folks?”
“Nah. Still got another year, this is only my spring break. I’d planned on going to Cancun like most girls my age, but…” She shrugged by way of explanation. When she speaks, she sounds like my girl used to when we talked, resentful but pleased with herself about it, too.
“Well, Mexico’s no place for a nice girl anyhow. Your kind tend to go missing down there.”
I say this knowing already she won’t listen to reason. It ain’t nothing but wasted breath on my part.
“I don’t know that Stone county is any better,” Jamie says, but then adds real quick, “I didn’t mean anything by that.”
Jamie says this, but no more. Folks are good when it comes to not asking about my girl directly. I never reported her missing, but folks noticed her gone. I know people assumed she was old enough and ran off on her own and I see no need to correct them. My girl ain’t the first in these parts to disappear, for one reason or another. She won’t be the last. I tell folks, if they press, that she’s out west. That’s true enough.
People, animals, they’re all about the same really. Some fight it, some welcome it,” I say. “You learn in the natural world dying isn’t always a cruelty, many times it’s merciful.”
We both look toward her house, waiting.
Still no sign of Mr. Edwards. The heifer gives a long, low moan. I see Venus low in the sky. My skin prickles. There’s not much time left before it’s too late for the calf.
“You still studying to be a nurse, like you thought?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Thinking I might take a year for the Peace Corps before I figure it out.” Jamie shifts her weight, and the flashlight shines on the flaring nostrils of the calf before she switches it to her other hand. “My dad says the Peace Corps is for hippies and I’ll just go off and get malaria or, heaven forbid, AIDS!” She says the last word drawn out so I know she finds it ridiculous.
“He’s thinking of your future. Not many places around here see the Peace Corps as job training.”
“Who says I plan on staying around here?”
“You’d be best not to stray too far,” I say. “The world won’t show no concern for a girl like you.”
Jamie half laughs; I figure she thinks I’m too old to know the truth of things. I pretend to check the supplies Mr. Edwards has placed on the tarp near the heifer so I have a moment to swallow the rest of my opinions. I’m certain he’s left her unattended for too long, that she’s grown far too weak to survive the pain that is surely coming her way. Only one thing left I can do if I want to be of service. Sometimes it’s better to take a life when you know the kind of suffering that’s around the corner. Most people know this deep down, but that’s why they come to me. They just don’t have the stomach for it.
“You ever seen an animal die?” I ask Jamie.
“I think you’re forgetting I’m a farm girl,” Jamie says, only I know hearing about it at the dinner table from her dad is different than watching living eyes go empty.
Jamie shines the flashlight into the blinking black eyes of the heifer like she heard my thoughts but, even if she did, she don’t know my memories.
I ask her, “How about a person?”
I hear a tractor start up, its lights pointing west, then watch it turn slowly toward us. Jamie doesn’t answer my question.
“People, animals, they’re all about the same really. Some fight it, some welcome it,” I say. “You learn in the natural world dying isn’t always a cruelty, many times it’s merciful.”
She stays quiet, both of us waiting for the tractor.
“Many times it’s an act of love,” I add.
Then she says, when Mr. Edwards is likely close enough to make out our shapes, “Do you ever get used to it? Putting animals down?”
“It don’t ever get easy, if that’s what you’re asking.” The tractor is nearing, but we’re standing just outside the reach of its light. That place at the edge where it always seems darkest.
“But I remind myself the hard thing can be the right thing. When you know you’re saving ‘em from a worse hurt.”
If she answers, I don’t hear it. It’s an old tractor and it’s loud. It drowns out our voices and the moaning of the heifer. It occurs to me it would drown out the sound of most anything, if need be.
I reach over and pull her away from the heifer, away further from the spotlight of the tractor lights, but only a step or two from where I imagine Mr. Edwards will need to turn the tractor to position it right.
“May I?” I ask and hold out my hand for the flashlight.
I reach my fingers in and around to the crest of the calf’s head and stretch the tissue of the hymen slowly. The heifer bellows in protest. Jamie is looking only at the calf, its nostrils still spitting out air, fighting for breath.”
She holds it out and I take it. I squat and use the light for a quick scan of the contents of my bag, even though I know what I brought. The tractor is nearly to us now. This might not be the reason Mr. Edwards called me out, but it might be a kind of calling just the same. I figure what needs to be done will be easier in the dark, so I switch off the flashlight.
The ground is uneven, and it can be easy to stumble. To accidentally fall. So, when I stand, I grab hold of Jamie. The tractor turns. It’s so close that the burning gasoline stings my eyes and they blur up. The pull of my weight on her arm catches her off guard. She begins to lose her balance. I need only a second more, another surprising shift of my weight. It was this way with my girl. Nature presenting an opportunity ripe for mercy. That’s what I’d be doing for the Edwards.
The lights of the tractor give a spotlight on the heifer. I’m drawn to her black bovine eyes. They are wild with panic. Her hooves kick in the air, useless to do anything but announce her fear. Her calf is trapped inside her body, dying, but she also sees the monstrous machine barreling toward them. I recognize that terror; all mothers do eventually. The world only grants us two choices.
But Jamie is stronger than I realize. And the heifer, in her flailing moment of fight, steals the extra second I needed. Jamie’s grip pulls me back. The tractor rumbles to a stop at our feet.
* * *
Working under the hot lights of the tractor, I push my gloved hand into the heifer. The calf is a tight fit. I’m surprised to find the shoulders aren’t stuck as I’d figured. It’s only that the heifer’s hymen is thick and resisting. The pain of the calf caught in the thickly woven tissue was so great that the heifer stopped pushing. Like she would rather kill her calf with her own body than feel the hurt of it ripping free of her.
“She don’t want to let it out,” I say to Mr. Edwards. “It’s too late.”
“No,” Jamie says. “We just need to pull.”
Mr. Edwards looks to me, “Do I need the chains?”
I can see he’s decided.
“Nah,” I say. “Chains won’t make a difference at this point. We’ll pull and let nature decide.”
Mr. Edwards crouches down on the tarp he’s laid for the delivery and hands me the lubricant. Jamie crowds in, bumping the bucket of hot soapy water her dad brought from the house.
“If you want in here, your hands better be clean,” I say to Jamie.
She looks me in the eye. “I washed ‘em before I came out. When Dad said he needed help.”
“You give ‘em another quick scrub in the bucket anyhow.”
The heifer grunts, her tongue foamy at the edges, her body hot to my touch. She ain’t fighting no more, but she ain’t gave up either.
“I just grab its legs?” Jamie asks. I can see sweat beads on her upper lip from the heat of the tractor lights.
I nod. Mr. Edwards doesn’t say a word. He stands up and moves back to make room for Jamie to position herself at my side.
I reach my fingers in and around to the crest of the calf’s head and stretch the tissue of the hymen slowly. The heifer bellows in protest. Jamie is looking only at the calf, its nostrils still spitting out air, fighting for breath.
“Now, on my word, you’ll pull one leg at a time, back and forth.”
I can feel Mr. Edwards hovering, likely calculating what hangs in the balance. I say to Jamie and to the heifer, “It’s gonna take all your strength. You best be ready.”
She nodded. Her eyes full of fight. “I’m ready.”
* * *
Back home, I park my truck in the same deep dirt ruts. Out west on my property, sitting silent in my distant dark yard, is a crumbling stacked stone well. For the first time in eight months, I can’t bear to look to it. I find Venus again. Years ago, someone on the television said that with the right telescope, the planet Venus would appear reddish brown. “Just like my hair,” my girl said to me. Proud the way children are over trivial connections. “I don’t care what the other girls say about my hair now.”
My truck door creaks in protest as I open it. It’s late, or very early, and there is no sound except the occasional trill of a tree frog. I walk toward my house, unable to blink away the memory of my girl’s eyes gone wild with panic, her useless kicking. That day we were pulling up buckets of water from the well. The garden near burned up from the sun. There was a man, she said. He said he loved her over the computer. She said she was leaving for California, no matter my say so. She said she already bought her bus ticket.
I had no choice.
Only, what about the heifer? Under those tractor lights, I witnessed how her instinct would have surely squeezed the life of her child if not for Jamie. I knew this truth the second that calf sprung free. I watched Jamie working her finger into the calf’s nostril, teasing a sneeze out of the calf to clear the mucus. Her pouring iodine and alcohol on the calf’s navel. Her sitting the calf up and counting its breaths. Walking back across the field with Jamie at my side, I felt turned about inside. I fumbled for Jamie’s hand again, hoping she could help me find my way back.
At home, walking across the yard to my door, the damp spring air chills me. I cup my hands over my mouth and blow warm breath into my fingers. I can still smell the blood on them. The screen door slaps behind me, but I make certain I hook it shut. I turn out the porch lights and I lock up the house door—both bolts.
Inside, the rooms are full of night, save the kitchen where a light’s glowing warm above the stove. I walk past it out of habit, only to turn back and switch it off. The Lord may have created the light, but sooner or later, we all face our own dark.
Heather Luby grew up in the Ozark Mountains, running barefoot and writing stories. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, JMWW, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Shotgun Honey, among others. In addition to being a writer, Heather is on the editorial board for the Midwest Review and teaching with the Continuing Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also the former managing editor of The Citron Review. Heather holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is represented by Bill Contardi of Brandt and Hochman Literary Agents.
Tala drinks her coffee in bed every day. She gives free rein to her thoughts, allowing a breathing space to think, to remember, to plan, or just to be.
Nadim looks in her direction. “You don’t need to come with me to the airport. It’s too early. I’ll take a taxi.”
“No,” she responds. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes.” She notices his frozen smile and hurries up. It was one of the earliest things she had noticed about him. That inauthentic smile that told her he did not approve.
She shrugs her shoulders stubbornly. He told her once that he loved her intransigence. She took that for the compliment it was intended to be.
Tala doesn’t know why she is insisting on going with him. She hates airports. She sees them as worlds in suspended animation, places and times that are boring in their repetitiveness. She knows that the trips are important to publicize his book, but airports accentuate her feeling of being in a state of perpetual waiting.
She understands Eliot’s Prufrock so well: “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons…”
“I’ll make some coffee. I just want to shake off this headache.”
“There’s no time for coffee, habibti. Hurry up.” She could see the smile forming. He had called her habibti, my loved one. Clearly he was upset.
The kitchen sink is filled with plates and glasses from last night. The kitchen will be clean in his absence. She will not cook. A salad and some cheese are enough for her. She does not like to waste time in the kitchen. She will do what she wants without worrying about being observed, judged, or expected to be a person he created in his image.
She wondered when she had bartered the transparency of her emotions in return for this sallow phase devoid of longing or anticipation. He had been the sanctuary to which she resorted to avoid the boredom of the mundane. She had discovered the aesthetics of the universe with him, so why did she hold him solely responsible for the chasm that now separates them? Did she not also step back for fear he would let her down when he saw her dependence on him?
* * *
In the garage, Nadim gets into the driver’s seat as he always does when he is with Tala. He does not like Tala driving when they are together. As they merge into the morning traffic, he says, “Just what I thought. Traffic is very slow at this time of day…”
She turns on the radio in the car before he has a chance to complete his sentence about wanting to leave the house early, and how she had delayed him.
She decides that silence between them is better. It hadn’t always been like this.
* * *
“To extrapolate from your analysis, Nadim, this existence of ours is absurd because it is based on binaries.”
“Well, think about it, Tala. Within us we hold both the thing and its opposite. Part of us is God-like, capable of creativity and love, and another part of us is a depth of darkness that results from the pain and frustration that we have buried inside us.”
“I know just what you mean! Reminds me of something I read once: A blind man does not know darkness because he has never seen light.”
“There you go: binaries.”
* * *
At the airport, she stands aside and watches him as he waits in the passenger check-in line. He does not look at her. It is as if he is already gone. She is distracted by the sight of all these people around her. She puts her hand in her pocket and pulls out a piece of paper, glances at it, then tosses it into the recycling bin.
As he finishes checking-in, she sees him scanning the crowds looking for her. She waves to him, and he smiles, walking toward her.
But he is somewhere else, thinking about other things that have nothing to do with her.
“You do not need to wait any longer, Tala. I do not like farewells.”
She shrugs her shoulders stubbornly. He told her once that he loved her intransigence. She took that for the compliment it was intended to be. She took pride in the clarity of her thoughts, and her ability to express them. She found now that she was less and less concerned about his likes and dislikes.
“I will not say goodbye, Nadim,” she says. Nadim comes up close to Tala and brushes away a lock of hair from her forehead. He starts to hum a verse from Abdel Wahab’s classic song which both of them loved, “Her eyes taught me how to love her, but love can kill.” Tala laughs. That song had once made her imagine she was dancing on the edge of a magic chord left in her heart by a rebellious god.
She feels nothing now. She returns his look with another, showing no joy, no grief.
Tala looks for something to say. She remembers how the words had flowed between them. She remembers their conversations, their words coming effortlessly, needing no clarification.
When did she forget how to speak to him?
He often provoked her with the subjects he chose. She would google the facts so she could find the fodder that would allow her to hold her own in their interminable discussions.
Her thoughts flashed back to one of their early conversations full of passion and absolutes.
“You’ve read Ezra Pound, of course.”
She did not reveal that she only knew the poet and critic by name.
“You must recall his famous letter to Harriet Monroe in 1915, in which he referred to his quest to make the arts an authentic guide that enlightened civilization. In his literary criticism, T.S. Eliot discussed the connections linking poetry, civilization, and society. He underscored the importance of being inspired by the past without being limited by it, and at the same time, to create worlds aligned with modernity…”
They sip their coffee in silence. She watches him as he settles the bill for the coffee. She loves him in jeans. He looks younger, like she had known him twenty years earlier.
He continued to hold forth, and she kept silent, except for the occasional comment, for fear that he would ask her a question that would expose her ignorance. He seemed to intuit her discomfort and changed the subject.
“As for us, Tala, well just look at us, we copy and emulate at best, but where is our creativity? All we have is the silence of graves.”
“By us you mean we who live in the East?”
“How can it be otherwise in a society that persecutes thought and prostitutes the arts? The East is in a state of clinical death, my dear Tala. It reminds me of a poem by Khalil Hawi, ‘Lukewarm ashes here, hot ashes there … but ashes to ashes.’”
* * *
“Now how is that headache?” asked Nadim. “Ready for a strong cup of coffee?”
“At least I will make up for that coffee I deprived you of at home…”
Nadim takes Tala’s arm and leads her to the nearby café. Once there, he takes his hand away and puts it into his pocket.
They sip their coffee in silence. She watches him as he settles the bill for the coffee. She loves him in jeans. He looks younger, like she had known him twenty years earlier.
She says silently, “I want to embrace you so that my body fits inside yours and we become inseparable.”
Instead she says, “Long journey. I hope you can sleep a little bit.”
“It’s hard to find any comfort in the seats. They are so narrow that I feel I have to compact myself.”
She remembers a conversation they once had.
“Think about it, Tala, music is the result of the silence between notes. In the same way, we have to learn how to listen to the silence between words. The hiatus creates words that have a hidden rhythm. It reflects the shadow of the truth or its absence.”
“How do we embrace this knowledge of pain with less sadness, Nadim?”
“We allow our hearts to be vulnerable. We feel the wound without fear of grief. It is fear and not sorrow that is the opposite of joy.
* * *
“The pressure in my head has eased. This coffee is magic.”
“You’re always tense, you just don’t know how to soften your reactions to things.”
“Is that how you see me now, Nadim? You used to say you loved my spontaneity, and my desire to find hidden truths.”
“And I still do. All I want to say is that you should try to give yourself a break.”
“Do you remember that line by Adonis? ‘There is no power on earth that can compel me to love what I do not care for, or to despise what I do not hate.’”
He looks at his wristwatch and says, “I better go. I also don’t want you to be late for work.”
“Oh, I have time, don’t worry. I’ll finish my coffee and then go.”
“Oh, sorry, Tala, I did not notice you hadn’t finished your coffee. Of course I’ll wait.”
“You do not have to, you’re right, it’s better to go to the gate early. The lines will be long.”
She rises so as not to leave him room for hesitation, and hastily embraces him. “Take care of yourself, Nadim. You’ll call me when you land, right?”
“Of course I will.”
He walks away. She watches him hand his passport and boarding pass to the security agent. She wills him to turn around. He does not.
She follows him with her eyes as he moves away, becomes smaller, disappears.
She orders another cup of coffee to take away, and moves to the glass façade that overlooks the tarmac. She watches the plane take off, and follows it until it disappears into space.
She does not understand the mysteries of how an airplane, carrying hundreds of passengers, is here one moment and gone the next. Had Nadim been here, she would have asked him.
“The clamor of my feelings is compressed into a tattoo which is carved into my heart.” Tala heads for her car, fumbling blindly for the keys in her bag. Did the keys stay with him? If he has her keys, the spare set is in the apartment. She takes a deep breath and rummages once more in her bag. She finds the keys. She sighs with relief, delighting in the feel of the keys. The sense of touch is so often discounted.
Tala gets into the car. She settles behind the steering wheel, enjoys a quiet moment of freedom. Free from his presence, free from the weight of his absence.
تشرب تالة القهوة في الفراش، ككل صباح، فترة محايدة تتسلل فيها أفكارها دون تتابع، تتذكر، تخطط، أو مجرد أن تكون.
يلتفت نديم نحوها ويقول: “لا داعي أن تأتي معي الى المطار، ما زال الوقت باكرا.. سآخذ تاكسي.”
“لا، سأكون حاضرة خلال دقائق”. وتنهض بسرعة حين تراه يبتسم تلك الابتسامة المصطنعة التي لا تخفى عليها والتي توحي
لها بأنه غير راض. لا تعرف لماذا أصرت على الذهاب معه، فهي تكره المطارات، عوالم معلقة بين الأمكنة والأوقات، مملة
في تشابهها. تدرك أن سفره ضروري لترويج كتابه، ولكن المطارات تزيد من احساسها أنها دائما تنتظر، تعيش حياتها تنتظر..
تفهم جيدا ما رمى اليه تي اس اليوت في قصيدته “أغنية حب لألفرد برفروك” حين كتب: “ مضيت أقيس حياتي بملاعق
“سأعد ركوة قهوة طازجة، لعلها تخفف من هذا الصداع”.
“لا وقت للقهوة يا تالة، هيا يا حبيبتي أسرعي”. تلاحظ تلك الابتسامة الباهتة على شفتيه وقد دعاها بحبيبته، لا بد أنه في غاية
تنظر الى حوض المطبخ وقد امتلأ بالصحون والأقداح التي تجمعت منذ ليلة البارحة. سيبقى المطبخ نظيفا في غيابه، لن تطبخ
شيئا، السلطة وقطعة من الجبن تكفيها… كل هذا الوقت الذي يضيع بلا معنى.. ستفعل ما تريد دون أن تشعر أن هناك أحدا
يراقبها، يحاكم تصرفاتها، ويتوقع منها أن تكون انسانة صنعها هو، على صورته.
متى قايضت شفافية أحاسيسها بهذه المرحلة الشاحبة التي لا شوق فيها ولا لهفة، رغم أن نديم كان المعبد الذي لجأت اليه من
رتابة اليومي، وأنها، معه، اكتشفت جماليات الكون؟ ولماذا تحمله وحده مسؤولية هذه الهوة بينهما، ألم تبتعد هي أيضا خوفا من
أن يخذلها حين يرى مدى حاجتها اليه؟
يدخلان الكاراج، ويجلس نديم في مقعد السائق كما يفعل دائما حين يكون معها. تسترق النظر اليه لا تغفل عن وجوده وهو يقود
السيارة في زحمة السير.
يقول: “هذا ما خشيته.. حركة السير بطيئة في هذه الساعة.”
تدير راديو السيارة قبل أن يكمل كلامه ويلمح بأنه كان يود أن يغادر البيت باكرا ولكنها أخرته. الصمت بينهما أفضل. لم يكن
الأمر كذلك في السابق.
“بناء على تحليلك هذا الوجود عبثي لأنه قائم على الثنائيات.” ويقول: “نعم يا تالة، حتى نحن في داخلنا الشيء ونقيضه لأن
جزءا منا الهي قادر على الابداع والحب، بينما الجزء الآخر قابع في عتمة الداخل نتيجة للألم والاحباط الذي دفنناه في
“أفهم ما تقول، مما يذكرني بجملة قرأتها أن الاعمى لا يعرف الظلام لأنه لم ير النور.”
في المطار، تقف جانبا تنظر اليه وهو واقف في صف تسجيل وصول المسافرين، لا ينظر نحوها.. كأنه رحل فعلا.. تتلهى
بالتفرج على الناس .. تضع يدها في جيبها، تتلمس ورقة قديمة تسحبها، تقرأها، تتوجه نحو سلة المهملات، ترميها… تعود الى
ينتهي من اجراءات تسجيل الوصول وتراه يبحث عنها، تشير اليه فيبتسم ويتوجه نحوها، غائبا عنها، يفكر في أمور أخرى لا
علاقة لها بها.
“لا داعي لأن تنتظري أكثر، لا أحب الوداع”.
ترفع كتفيها نفيا وعنادا.. قال لها مرة أنه يحب عنادها وتشبثها برأيها. أفرحها ذلك الاطراء اذ أنها تفخر بوضوح أفكارها
وبقدرتها على التعبير عما يختلج في ذهنها. لكنها لم تعد تعبأ بما يحب أو يكره…
يقترب نديم منها ويرفع خصلة شعر انسدلت على جبينها.. يدندن لحنا لعبد الوهاب كانا يغنيانه معا: “جفنه، علم الغزل، ومن
الحب ما قتل.” تضحك. مقطع من أغنية كان يثير عوالم راقصة في مخيلتها وكأنها ترقص على حافة وتر سحري تركه اله
متمرد في قلبها، ولكنها لا تشعر بشيء الآن.. تبادل نظرته بأخرى لا فرح فيها ولا حزن…
تتذكر كم كان الكلام ينساب بينهما ولا ينتهي… متى نسيت كيف تحدثه؟
كان يفاجئها دائما بالمواضيع التي يختارها، يستفزها، فتهرع الى غوغل تفتش عن المعلومات حتى تجاريه في نقاشاته. تتذكر
حديثا جرى بينهما، واحدا من جملة أحاديث مفعمة بالأحاسيس والمطلقات.
“أنت طبعا قرأت شعر ازرا باوند”. لم تقل أنها تعرف الاسم، وتعرف أنه شاعر وناقد، وهذا مدى معرفتها به. “لا بد أنك
تذكرين رسالته الى هارييت مونرو عام 1915، والتي يشير فيها الى سعيه لجعل الفنون دليلا مسلما به ومصباحا للحضارة.
الأمر الذي تناوله تي اس اليوت في نقده الأدبي حيث يناقش هذا الترابط بين الشعر والحضارة والمجتمع، وأهمية أن يستقي
الشاعر من الماضي دون أن يقتصر عليه، وفي الوقت نفسه يخلق عوالم تتماشى مع حداثة الحاضر”.
ويسترسل في الحديث وتبقى صامتة الا من تعليق هامشي، خائفة أن يسألها سؤالا يفضح جهلها. ولعله حدس ذلك، فيغير
الموضوع حتى يتجنب احراجها.
“أما نحن، فأنظري الينا يا تالة، ننقل ونحاكي في أحسن الأحوال، ولكن أين الابداع الخلاق؟ لم يبق لنا غير صمت القبور.”
“تقصد نحن في الشرق؟ “
“وهل يكون غير ذلك في مجتمع يضطهد الفكر ويعهر الفنون؟ الشرق في موت سريري، مما يذكرني بمقطع شعر لخليل
“رماد فاتر هنا، رماد حار هناك… رماد برماد “.
“ كيف وجع رأسك يا تالة؟” ما رأيك بفنجان قهوة قوية؟”
ويضيف ضاحكا: “على الأقل أعوضك عن فنجان القهوة الذي حرمتك منه في البيت.”
تضمها ذراعه ويقودها الى أقرب مقهى . يرتشفان القهوة صامتين.
تتأمله وهو يدفع ثمن القهوة .. تحبه بالجينز .. يبدو أصغر سنا، كما عرفته منذ عشرين سنة..
تريد أن تقول: أود أن أعانقك، أن أدس جسدي داخل جسدك لا أنفصل عنك.
ولكنها تقول: “الرحلة طويلة، آمل أن تتمكن من النوم ولو قليلا”.
“من الصعب أن نجد أي راحة في هذه المقاعد التي ضاقت لدرجة يضطر المرء فيها أن يتكوم على نفسه”…
“ يجب أن نتقن الاصغاء الى الصمت بين الكلمات، كما الصمت بين الأنغام يصنع الموسيقى…لهذه المسافة بين الكلمات ايقاع
خفي يعكس ظلال الحقيقة أو غيابها “.
تتساءل: “وكيف نحتمل هذه المعرفة بحزن أقل”؟
“بأن تبقى قلوبنا طرية، ونبقى قابلين للجرح دون أن نخاف الحزن. فالخوف، لا الحزن، نقيض الفرح.”
“خف الضغط في رأسي… ان للقهوة مفعولا سحريا”.
“أنت متوترة دائما، لا تعرفين كيف تخففين من ردود فعلك على كل شيء.”
“أهكذا تراني يا نديم؟ كنت تقول أن أكثر ما تحبه عفويتي ورغبتي في ايجاد الحقيقة المغيبة.”
“لم أقصد ذلك.. كل ما أردت قوله أن تحاولي أن تريحي نفسك قليلا”.
“أتذكرين هذه الجملة لأدونيس: “ما من قوة في الأرض ترغمني على محبة ما لا أحب، أو كراهية ما لا أكره.”
ينظر الى ساعته، يقول: “لعله من الأفضل أن أذهب …لا أريدك أن تتأخري عن عملك”.
“أمامي متسع من الوقت لا تقلق. سأنهي فنجان القهوة ثم أذهب.”
“عفوا، لم ألحظ انك لم تشربي قهوتك بعد. طبعا سأبقى.”
“لا داعي، معك حق، الأفضل أن تتوجه الى قاعة المسافرين، فالصفوف لا بد طويلة.”
تنهض حتى لا تترك له مجالا للتردد، تعانقه بصورة تلقائية، تقول: “انتبه لنفسك، ستتصل بي حال وصولك، صح؟”
يمضي، تراقبه وهو يعطي جواز سفره وبطاقة صعود الطائرة لرجل الأمن، تأمل أن يلتفت وراءه ليراها.. لا يفعل.
تتابعه بنظراتها وهو يبتعد، يصير أصغر، يختفي…
تطلب فنجان قهوة آخر تحمله معها وتمشي الى آخر الفاصل الزجاجي المشرف على المدرج تنتظر اقلاع الطائرة، وتتابعها
بنظراتها حتى تتلاشى في الفضاء.. لا تفهم ألغاز الوجود الغامضة، كيف كان هنا، كيف لم يعد.. لو كان نديم هنا لسألته…
“ صخب مشاعري يخفت في ملف مضغوط وشما مدقوقا في قلبي”…
تتجه نحو سيارتها، تبحث عن المفاتيح في حقيبتها، هل بقيت معه؟ ماذا ستفعل في هذه الحالة والنسخة الثانية في مكان ما في
البيت… تسترد أنفاسها حين تتلمس يدها المفاتيح في قاع الحقيبة، تفرحها الاحاسيس التي تولدها حاسة اللمس التي تغفل عنها في
معظم الأحيان.. تفتح باب السيارة وتجلس وراء المقود، لحظة هادئة خالية من كل شيء… خالية من حضوره، خالية من وطأة
Mishka Mojabber Mourani was born in Egypt and has lived in Australia and Lebanon. She is a graduate of the American University of Beirut, where she also taught cultural studies and leadership courses. She speaks five languages. She is the author of a poetry collection, Lest We Forget: Lebanon 1975-1990. Her short story, “The Fragrant Garden,” appeared in Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women [Telegram], and Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes [Eland]. Dar An-Nahar published her Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir. She translates from French and Arabic, and she co-authored a bilingual poetry collection entitled Alone, Together [Kutub] with Aida Y. Haddad. Her piece “Once upon A War Night” was published in the Exquisite Corpse anthology by Medusa’s Press, “Fatma’s Fate” in The Studio Voice, “From its shore I saw Jerusalem” in Your Middle East, and “Stone Walls Do Not A Memory Make” in Rowayat. Her short story “Crossing the Green Line” appeared in Slag Glass City and “Aleri” In Sukoon Magazine. Her short story “Amira’s Mirror” was included in the 2018 anthology Arab Women Voice New Realities. Her writing deals with war, memory, identity, exile, and gender issues.
Aida Haddad was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and lived in Greece before moving to the US. She graduated from the American University of Beirut with a degree in Arabic literature. She taught Arabic as a native and foreign language. She has published her short stories and articles in various outlets, such as An-Nahar, Al-Hayat newspapers, Ghurba magazine, Cultural Studies Quarterly, Al-hakawati, Almukhtar, Mitra, World Bank blogs and others. She is the co-author of Albayati: Prometheus of Arabic Poetry. Together with Mishka Mojabber Mourani, she co- authored a book of poems, Alone Together, in both Arabic and English.
You dip the sugar-speckled Parle-G in your tea and take a bite of the mushy biscuit, savoring the milky memories, watching the rain peter out to a mizzle in the garden outside the verandah where you sit in your bamboo cane chair. After the incessant spells of kalbaishakhi showers, the earth smells of rain, as it does every April. You let your thoughts travel back to April seven monsoons ago, then the previous, and then the previous, your mind a train stopping at every rain-soaked station. Every monsoon, the gulmohars in your neighbor’s compound burst into wild flames, and the clustered modhumonjori—their vines draping the arch of the iron gate outside your yard like crimson shawls—unfurl, leaving a lingering fragrance, the rain washing the dust from their tremulous, heart-shaped leaves. The aroma of mustard and poppies wafts into your consciousness; every April, when rain would patter against your sleepy green-shuttered window, Piali would cook her signature preparation of steamed ilish, and every meal of fish and rice would lead to languorous afternoons spent listening to Salil-da on the cassette player.
You pour some tea into the gold-rimmed saucer and slurp, the taste of cardamom on your moustache. Some of the tea spills on the front page of The Statesman and puddles in a brown pool on the chief minister’s shirt. You re-read the headings—“Thirteen persons shot dead by police at Youth Congress rally,” “Mamata Banerjee assaulted,” “Vince Foster’s death linked to depression,” “Louis J. Freeh to succeed Sessions”—and you sigh at the unpredictability and tumult in the world. Your neighbor’s feral calico has been wandering your garden again, and she enters the verandah, rubs her flank against your thigh, and you offer her some of your biscuit which she refuses. You sip the last of your tea, soggy dregs of dissolved biscuit clumping at the base of the cup. Then you rise to your feet, your knees cracking, and make your way to the glass-fronted book-cabinet beside the mirror that is now speckled with age. You reach for the second shelf and extricate a grainy photograph from between the yellowed, bethumbed pages of an anthology of Jibanananda Das’ poems, which you stuff into the pocket of your kurta. It is a photograph of Piali as a young bride draped in a banarasi saree, a mukut crowing her head, her forehead patterned with kumkum and sandalwood paste. Memories lap at the shore of your mind’s eye, and as a wave of sudden grief builds and threatens to break, you tame your thoughts, forcing them to recede into the sea of placid sadness whence they have risen. Looking into the mirror, you fix your hair—whatever is left of it at least, the sparse silver streaks running thinly across your bald head. You adjust your horn-rimmed spectacles, pick up your walking stick from the alcove, unplug the pedestal fan, and hobble your way to the door.
You inhale a drag of your cigarette, let the smoke linger inside your frail chest. It has been seven years since either of the boys has visited; it has been seven years since the funeral.
Outside, the sky is still slate grey, the massed clouds brooding, bloated with rain. Sparrows twitter and cheep on the guava tree that reaches up to your terrace. The money plants that Piali had grown ten summers ago now entwine the trunk and trellis the red-brick walls. After closing the latch of the rusty gate behind you, you walk outside and fill your lungs with the rain-laced air. Prasanna—the newspaper boy—greets you, and you say “hello.” Down the street, beside the bazaar where Piali would haggle over the prices of fresh vegetables every morning, you stop by the little tin-and-wood kiosk. The shopkeeper, sitting behind a row of grubby glass jars full of savories, smiles and hands you a box of Silk Cut without you having to ask, offering his daily tidbit of local news, as usual: “Didi has called for a rally here in Golpark.”
“Yes, I am aware,” you reply as you take out a cigarette, your hands quivering, purple veins prominent against your paper-thin skin. “This has become a weekly affair,” you add, lighting the cigarette with the burning end of a braided coir rope that hangs at the side of the paan-shop like a limp brown serpent. The shopkeeper hands you your change, but you refuse. “Buy some sweets for the kids,” you say, and continue down the footpath. Thunder mutters somewhere in the distance. The gullies and sewers around you are rivulets of turbid, swilling water. You stop by Bimal-da’s porch and peep in through the window of his blue bungalow, the slatted panes ajar. You see him on his rocking chair, slivers of mosambi-colored sunlight striating his white dhuti-kurta. He sits slumped, his eyes half-closed, the morning daily on his lap, his spitz asleep like a shaggy rug by his feet; the sight is a daily fixture, and stopping by his house a daily ritual; one you have performed religiously for the last forty of your seventy years, ever since Piali and you moved to South Calcutta from Shyambazar when Tirthankar was five and Shayak just born.
Bimal-da seems to be immersed in stupor, but when you rap on his window once, and then twice—his dog’s ear perking up at the sound, its limp tail twitching—Bimal-da rises as he always does when he sees you, his face brimming with happiness, and he comes to the window slowly, a twinkle in his eyes that are cloudy with cataract. “Hello, Arun-da. Good morning,” he greets in English. “Shubho Noboborsho!”
“Happy New Year to you too,” you reply, reciprocating the Pohela Boishakh greetings.
“How are the boys?” he inquires. “Are they visiting in the winter?”
You inhale a drag of your cigarette, let the smoke linger inside your frail chest. It has been seven years since either of the boys has visited; it has been seven years since the funeral. Ever since Tirthankar and Julia had their second child, they’ve been busy raising the kids, only calling from Atlanta every other month to check in on your health. And Shayak? He is a senior partner at a consulting firm in New York and is focused on promoting strategy and growth in Asia-Pacific. Unlike Tirthankar, he’s never considered settling down and starting a family of his own; his job, his business travels, keep him preoccupied. You feel pride well up at the thought of the big man Shayak has become, and this pride momentarily overwhelms the other feelings tamped-down inside of you. You wonder what it’s like in that foreign continent they now call home; you’ve only ever seen fragments of it in postcards—the streets lined with gold and vermillion-red leaves in the fall; the steel and glass buildings towering into curlicued clouds; the park with the dancing musical fountain where Tirthankar had proposed to Julia; the Ferris wheel across from the park. You think of your grandchildren, of the grandchildren you’ve only ever seen in the photographs they occasionally send you; you picture their mops of cherubic golden locks… Their eyes cerulean like distant seas… They’ve got Tirthankar’s features, though… The dimpled chins… Piali’s chin…
“I am looking forward to seeing the boys,” Bimal-da continues, his spitz waking up from its nap and panting in the humid heat. He still calls your sons boys, even though they are grown men now. “And Tirthankar’s boys as well. They must visit Kolkata! This is their home, too.”
Your thoughts still and settle like sediment, come to rest on that word—home. You think of what home means, and what it means to leave a home to find another. You feel… No, you know somehow, that you will never see your boys again. For this home that was once theirs, is, to them, like an island shrinking, shrinking, as one leaves an island behind and drifts, unanchored, out into the open ocean; an island shrinking until it is a speck on the horizon behind, an island finally disappearing in the distance.
They always promise to visit. “Yes, Bimal-da; I believe they will be visiting in the winter,” you reply, smoke hanging in the air like the hope of your children’s return.
You spend an hour on Bimal-da’s porch, talking about his granddaughter’s wedding in Delhi.
“The wedding is in Saket,” Bimal-da informs. “They are jewelers from Lajpat Nagar. I am happy that Subarna is going into such a cultured family.”
You remember Subarna as a little girl, with her lispy voice and her cascading curls; you remember how Shayak and Subarna—who is six years younger than him—would go knocking on neighbors’ doors collecting chanda together during Durga Puja, would serve khichdi and chana dal to guests as bhog on ashtami, before dressing up and performing skits and songs during the evening festivities. You share Bimal-da’s joy at this new chapter in his granddaughter’s life, but at the same time, there is something that is eating away at your insides like a colony of white ants.
“I can now die in peace, Arun-da!” he says dramatically, to which you reply: “Why do you speak of dying, Bimal-da? You are a young man still!”
The tops of the trees lining the park are seen wearing mist’s gossamer like a shawl. In the gathering dark, a middle-aged man teaches his son how to hold a cricket bat, and you wonder whether your grandsons play cricket.
He laughs and then insists: “Please try your best to make it to the wedding,” and you want to say that yes, you will, but you’d rather not commit to promises that you can’t keep. You leave, but you make sure to turn around and see him standing on the steps of his porch with his furry white dog, make sure to wave goodbye. You linger outside stores selling exquisite shawls and rainbows of stoles, glimpsing Piali in every window. You stop briefly outside a boutique selling handloom sarees in brightly-colored hues and you recall how her eyes had lit up like terracotta lamps when you had bought her the parakeet-green cotton saree for her sixtieth birthday. She always did love hand-spun cotton. A pack of pariah dogs wrangle and gambol down the street. A coconut vendor in a threadbare loincloth is pushing his rickety wooden cart, calling out “daab, daab.” You continue walking till you reach Southern Avenue and then stop at a shanty selling deep-fried fritters—eggplant, onions, chilies. A rotund woman sits on her haunches on a gamchha, coating the vegetables in gram flour with hardened hands. You ask for aloor chop, and she drops pieces of potatoes into a large cauldron, the oil crackling and spitting. Crows caw from atop the blue tarpaulin sheet covering the shanty; some peck at rubbish below that is heaped beside the gutter.
“I hope you are fine and taking care of yourself, Arun-da,” the woman inquires as she sprinkles black salt on the potato fritters and hands them to you in a newspaper-bag full of puffed rice. “I do not believe that, at this age, you have too many days ahead if you go on smoking like this.” She laughs as she says this, her teeth stained red with gutka. You nod in acknowledgement as you hand her some coins.
“Any day could be anyone’s last, Madhu,” you lament, and then, straightening your walking stick, continue on your way. You stop by Vivekananda Park, and spend the afternoon watching the local boys play football in their colorful nylon jerseys as the sun climbs lower in the sky. You watch them kick up dust, and memories of your own sons and their Sunday games now bloom like bougainvillea in the muted nebulous orange of the evening. Thunder rumbles again, and the rain that has been gathering at the hem of dusk now breaks forth, a few drops striking your skin—cool, calming. The tops of the trees lining the park are seen wearing mist’s gossamer like a shawl. In the gathering dark, a middle-aged man teaches his son how to hold a cricket bat, and you wonder whether your grandsons play cricket. Does Tirthankar teach them cricket, just the way you used to teach Tirthankar how to field and wicket-keep on Saturday mornings after he would feed the rabbits at Safari Park? Or does he teach them that other game—and you grapple with your thoughts to remember the name of it—that looks like a variant of cricket, that they play in their country… Baseball, they call it? You wonder whether your grandsons play sport, or whether they prefer to stay indoors instead, watching television or playing board games or coloring with crayons. That’s all you can do, really—wonder. They must have grown up now; they are probably bigger than what you remember of them from the photographs Julia shared two years ago. You wonder whether they refer to Piali as dadi or thakuma, or as grandma. How often do they think of her? Do they think of her at all?
You shuffle toward the Dhakuria lake, its swollen waters glistening in the diffused twilight glow. The rain begins to come down harder now, falling in sheets.
The day is closing, and the muezzin’s call to prayer can be heard wafting across terraces and mingling with the sounds of cymbals and conch shells and aarti bells. Darkness descends over the city like a veil, and you decide that it is time to move on. The heady scent of milkwood-pine laces the air. A melancholy moon has risen in the east, as pale and porcelain as Piali. You finish the last piece of your aloor chop and pick up your walking stick but, instead of turning back to return home, you wait for the juddering yellow taxis and the wabbling blue buses, the cars and motorbikes blurred by the vaporous rain to halt at a signal, so you can cross the road toward Rabindra Sarobar. Horns blare and trams clatter and chime over the trill of birds that are preparing to roost for the night. You look up into the shadowy canopies, imagining the chittering fledglings who, very soon, will leave their nests, never to return. It begins to drizzle again, and you feel grief stir and rise in waves. It was there, down the road, right beside where the jhalmuri-seller now squats in the dirt that, on the evening of Pohela Boishakh seven Aprils ago, in the back of an ambulance, Piali’s heart had stopped. They could have saved her; you were only minutes away from AMRI Dhakuria—the hospital where they were rushing her. But there was a bottleneck in the traffic up ahead, caused by a procession that the CPI(M) had called for, truck-loads of party members hooting and chanting slogans and waving red flags emblazoned with hammers and sickles while your wife clung to her life and then, when she couldn’t cling to it any longer, died in your arms. The rally made headlines the next day, but you were left alone in this world to mourn her memory. At least she had you in her twilight hours, in her twilight years. There are those that have no one.
You shuffle toward the Dhakuria lake, its swollen waters glistening in the diffused twilight glow. The rain begins to come down harder now, falling in sheets. You can no longer hear the city’s din, just the rain strafing the streets, clamoring against tarpaulin roofs, beating against the lake’s dark surface. The only other sound you hear is Piali’s voice calling to you from beyond the waters of time. You feel a drenching cold that seeps into your clothes, into your very skin, followed by a serene, immovable, half-submerged solitude; the waters murmur in soft whispers, a sighing and a swishing. Tomorrow, if they find your body, the news of your death will reach your sons and your grandsons who will never meet their grandparents but will know of them through stained, sepia-tinted photographs. Tomorrow, if they find your body, your death will join the other headlines on the front page; then again, maybe it won’t, and will only make a snippet in the corner of the third page, because today’s rally will take up most of the first.
Bhavika Sicka was born and raised in Calcutta, India. She holds a BA in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. She is currently based in Norfolk, VA, where she is pursuing an MFA at Old Dominion University. She has been a finalist for The Times of India‘s Write India contest, and her work has appeared in Arkana, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, The Punch Magazine, and The Bangalore Review, among others.
We were the only Latinos on the wet side of town and the only power-washed house on the block. Ma reminded Pops to rent the machine every year. While Pops blasted strips of filth off our vinyl siding, Ma was inside spraying our dog with Febreze. She fixated on scorching everything clean. Ma was self-conscious around white women in department stores, generally avoided my school events. She’d send Pops, light-skinned and affable, in her place.
What I knew about our history, I’d learned while doing laundry. In Puerto Rico, Pops had been in and out of jail, on and off the streets. A charitable old man let Ma stay rent-free in an isolated shack near the Isabela coast until he could sell the property.
“That’s where I went into labor with Steven,” she’d said. Alone that night, Ma had to climb the narrow and unkempt path into town, that’s how she got the scars on her feet, her thin chanclas catching broken glass. All I could imagine were hungry predators, man and animal, watching my mother as she groped in blind search of safety. Ma’s only worry had been to keep Steven from being born on the ground and left there to be found screaming and covered in ants, as she had been.
Steven ended up with his own problems, but Ma and Pops were doing it right this time, with me. “God gave us a second chance,” she’d said.
They came to Newark, where I was born. Pops got clean and saved enough money to buy a narrow bungalow on the wet side, densely-populated and so named for its vulnerability to the Sandy Hook Bay.
When I got mad at Pops, she’d say, “You got it good, Miriam. Your father used to be a different man.” Meaning, things were not bad now, even with Steven dropping out of high school when I was eleven and disappearing for days, weeks at a time. That’s the way it was with Steven, in and out, occasional paranormal visits.
White trash was poor, she said, and what’s worse, they acted poor by drinking and cursing, beating up on each other, letting everyone know their business.
When we were younger, he’d race me to wherever Ma was in the house. “Whoever gets to her first,” he’d say, “is loved the most.” We’d hold hands and go scouting the town’s debris for plastic soda bottles, the labels of which we’d pull off for reward points toward branded fanny-packs, boom-boxes, mountain bikes. We never won anything, but it felt productive to keep searching, imagining potential in our streets.
Just a few weeks back, I’d sat with him on the couch. “What are you watching?” I asked. He stared at the blank TV; an earlier storm had knocked out the cable. The screen reflected the sunlight behind us and cast our silhouettes like witnesses who didn’t want to be identified.
We sat close. I knew Steven heard me, but he didn’t reply, and the next day Steven was gone, along with our TV.
* * *
I’d been helping Ma with laundry and was about to toss a white tee in with my darks when she snatched the shirt out of my hands, nearly shrieking. “You don’t want Leann’s family thinking you’re like the white trash around here. All their whites looking dirty.”
White trash was poor, she said, and what’s worse, they acted poor by drinking and cursing, beating up on each other, letting everyone know their business. I did not tell her Leann Pacholski’s white training bra was mop-water gray.
“Go ask your father what he wants for dinner,” Ma said. They weren’t speaking—they’d been fighting about kicking Steven out for good—but Ma’s work ethic endured and our meals were always prepared, resentment expressed with overcooked rice. The problem was, Pops wasn’t speaking to me either. I’d misplaced his favorite hairbrush, failed to put it back exactly as I found it, to the right of the kitchen sink.
I found him rooting through the backyard shed, a glossy new structure out of place in our cramped backyard. Pops wasn’t a man with hobbies—only emotions as forbidden to me as his personal belongings—but for a homeowner, the shed was a necessary upgrade.
“Ma wants to know what you want for dinner. I’m going to a barbecue at the Pacholskis today.”
“My friend, Leann. There’s gonna be a lot of people. Ma said I could go.”
Pops considered it without looking at me. Maybe Ma was wrong when she told me in secret that Pops’s love had conditions. Maybe his love was constant but withheld until we were good again.
“Tell Ma to take you,” he said. “And she can pick something up on the way back. I’m changing the locks today.” He’d never met the Pacholskis, didn’t even ask me for their number, but changing the locks had to do with Steven. I took advantage of that and ran back to Ma.
* * *
Leann also lived on the wet side, and we attended the same day camp for middle schoolers at a park down the road. I sat at the arts and crafts table most of the time, where I wouldn’t be expected to imitate everyone’s enthusiasm for life, disappoint myself and God when I couldn’t. An older boy once teased Leann for latch-hooking with me instead of playing kickball, and she shot back, “Why don’t you suck my dick?”
Leann’s father, Roy, was popular for his Hulk Hogan impressions—he tied back his thick blonde hair and had a stocky build. He was always first to pick his kid up from day camp. The crunching of the gravel as his faded blue sedan pulled in signaled to the rest of us that we’d finally be home again—our energy and optimism revived, fights were forgiven, amends made. Usually, Roy would grab a juice box or soda from the backseat and toss it through his window while Leann headed toward his car. She caught it each time with both hands, as casual as if she’d been tossed a beer from a cooler, this routine like a commercial for Hawaiian Punch.
At the barbecue, Leann and I role-played fantastic scenarios, taking turns as witches or maiden victims. I’d met Leann’s mother, Sheryl, first thing, an unexpectedly bubbly woman in tight acid-wash shorts. “We have soda, do you want one? Let me get you one,” she’d said to me, but then got distracted by arriving guests. Now she was on the patio, having a drink for every drink she served and raising the volume on Bon Jovi, yelling about being ready to party.
“Looks like you’re already partying,” Roy yelled over her.
Once Leann’s cousins came around, she and her younger sister, Kat, kicked up dust tearing off for other games. I walked the edges of their yard looking for bottles, mostly finding half-buried Newports.
In chase, Leann leapt over a muddy Barbie jeep like a track hurdle. Her foot, bare and suspended, reminded me of when Ma’s crashed through the stoop of my own dollhouse, a wooden toy Victorian I’d been painting on the sidewalk path leading to our front door. She’d been chasing Steven around the house and he’d come out the front door before her, tripping and smacking the ground before me. He looked at me, the first in a long time, an acknowledgement that felt like apology. Then he was off and down the street before I could tell him he was loved, which maybe would have made him stay.
Ma came after him and the stoop of my dollhouse shattered with a croak I heard over her yelling “Coño carajo!” and falling to her already scarred-feet. One of many times I sat in my closet, tight and dark as a womb, solace when our house sometimes offered none.
He couldn’t allow that back into his life, afraid of destroying what was left.
There was one bottle. Lying face up and waiting in the sun. Without noticing it uncapped and a quarter full, I grabbed it, tore the label off, a rare 4-points, a clover. Only then did I feel the warm liquid seeping through my white Keds, a soda stain more unforgivable than grass or soil.
I’d never crossed a yard so expansive on the wet side—enough distance for an oak tree, a tire swing even. But the inside of the Palchoski house seemed unprepared for company; the floors were cloudy with grime. Upstairs, black mold lined their bathroom sink, where I’d taken off my shoe to run a low, cold stream over the toe. Something about their home, I thought, might lead to a deeper, inaccessible truth that would explain what made me so uncomfortable around my peers—that people could be this dirty and poor and still have more than we did.
A crash downstairs, Roy shouting: “Get the fuck up, Sheryl!”
Halfway down the kitchen stairs, I saw Sheryl on the kitchen floor next to an upturned folding table of snacks, laughing and sticking out her tongue to lick potato chips off her face with as much delight as a kid in snow.
“Nice, Sher. In front of the girls,” Roy said, softer, cleaning up around her. At the back door, Leann and Kat watched on with the spooked bewilderment of feral children.
People outside began to leave, and I followed the girls upstairs. In their room, Leann slumped on the edge of her bed. “Mom and Dad are gonna get a divorce.”
“No they aren’t,” Kat whined, kneeling down at a pile of dolls tangled up and maimed. She separated them until she came up with one that was whole.
“They told you that?” I asked.
“Yup,” Leann said. “They’re just waiting for us to graduate.”
Kat began to cry, wiping pale streaks through the dirt on her face. Leann looked out the window with a troubled squint, as if she’d seen everything.
I sat next to her, my chance to show I was a good friend. “Doesn’t that make you sad?”
“No,” she said. “They hate each other.”
Still, I couldn’t relate, though I’d only seen my parents kiss once, quickly. A cozy Friday night when I playfully asked if they loved each other and begged them to prove it.
Leann’s dad stood awkwardly at the door, portable phone in hand. “You wanna give your parents a call, Miriam?”
“Sure,” I said, taking the phone and dialing, but no one answered.
“No problem,” Roy said, nodding toward the girls. “We’ll take you home.”
* * *
Leann and I sat in the backseat of Roy’s car and Kat took the front. Kat kept crying and asking what happened. “Is Mommy okay?”
Roy ignored her as he grappled with his seatbelt, growing irritated.
“Are you guys gonna get a divorce?”
Roy stopped. “Who told you that?” he asked.
“Shut up, idiot,” Leann said, reaching up to pinch her sister, hard enough to make her squeal.
Roy twisted around as if going for a juice box. Instead, his hand clamped over Leann’s skinny upper thigh so tightly she buckled over, shrieking.
“What, you don’t like that?” Roy shouted. His fingertips and her skin went bloodless as he tightened his grip, emitting a low, satisfied growl. Leann lost her voice, all agony, but her mouth still hung open as a line of drool dipped down, touched his hairy knuckles.
Kat screamed at Roy to stop, batting his arm with the futility of a child’s fist until he finally released Leann and started his engine.
The ride back was silent. We kept our faces to the windows, all ashamed in our own ways.
Once I told my parents about the Pacholskis, they’d never let me back. In fact, I looked forward to the conversation, asking them innocent questions about what I’d seen, like when I asked about Steven, where he went, what he was doing. They were always quick to soothe, so I stopped wanting honest answers, only comfort, something Leann clearly didn’t have with a drunk mother, cruel father, divorce.
We reached my block and Roy stopped short. I was about to tell him I lived further when I saw the disturbance up ahead—two cop cars in front of my house, an officer trying to calm Ma, who was frantic, crying. Another talked to Pops, who stood calm and justified.
Steven was being pushed up against a car, hands behind his back, skinnier than I’d ever seen him. But he still looked like Pops, and Pops saw himself in Steven, too. He couldn’t allow that back into his life, afraid of destroying what was left. Pops couldn’t see, as I saw now, that what was left was catastrophe in the past tense, wreckage that still needed cleaning.
Neighbors formed clusters on the broken sidewalks, eager to know more. My vision blurred as I realized I didn’t want to leave their car, that I was scared.
“Someone’s getting arrested!” Kat said, leaning over the dashboard.
“What’s going on?” Leann asked, straining to look. A bruise was already forming on her thigh, but it could have been from any childish accident.
Roy put the car in park and twisted around again with an opportunity to be gentle, concerned.
“I’d better let you out here, hon,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you and Leann to see each other again.”
Jerilynn Aquino received her MFA from Temple University, where she was fiction editor for TINGE Magazine. She now works with Philadelphia Futures to provide low-income teens with resources for college success.
Photo Credit: Michael DeLeon
The house sat alone in a patch of swamp in a world her husband called Louisiana. When her son finally came to her there it wasn’t as she had expected. On the screened porch that looked out over the water, frogs called like poorly suited sirens under the midnight moon, and she crouched beside the camp bed like something hunted. A profound loosening, and the baby slid into her waiting hands. She leaned against the bed and clutched him to her, lay him, wet and wriggling, across her swollen middle. She watched, mesmerized, as he dragged himself toward her breasts like a fish out of water. She gathered him up and brought him to rest on her shoulder.
I know just how you feel, she told him.
Her husband clamped and cut the cord, snatched the baby up and held him high, whooping and hollering like he did when she led him to a spot of ocean where the shrimp exploded from the sea beds like confetti. The baby’s legs kicked, one two, they curled like parentheses. He swallowed a lungful of air like it was the most natural thing in the world.
A new pain ripped through her body and something else slid from her while her husband paraded the baby—squalling now, and red—around the empty house. This was her husband’s concession, to let her labor at home. No hospitals, no certificates—on this she’d been firm.
For you, he said smiling, and handed her the baby to nurse.
It had been eighteen months since her husband caught her in his net. She had struggled then, tangled and panicked, and by the time he managed to pin her down and cut her free, her skin had dried, the scales fallen from her tail, clicking over the deck of his boat to shine in the sunlight like counterfeit coins. Her legs revealed themselves, came unstuck from one another with a sick squelching sound and a smell like fresh-killed fish.
Shock, her husband told her later. Shock was what got you, and it was me that saved you; brought you straight home and warmed you up.
The next thing she remembered after being hauled from the sea was this house on the swamp, a slender band on her newly un-webbed finger. Her gill slits closed up, just faint pink scars beneath ropes of hair. Her mind and mouth crammed full of words.
Even before her belly swelled, her husband took her out on the water only when he needed to: at times when he had taken the boat out and dropped his test trawl in ten, twenty, thirty spots only to find nowhere worth unfurling his nets. Shrimping was bad, he told her, and getting worse; she saw guilt in his eyes when he said this, oceans of it. Still, at those times he decided it was necessary, he slathered her with sunscreen, sat her in the bow, and followed her directions.
Again and again, she led him straight to a patch of water where his test trawl came up overflowing; he came to trust her, even as she led him deeper and deeper out, even as she struggled to trust herself. Perched at the fore of his rusted boat, she imagined wrestling him over the edge, holding him as his body shuddered and stilled. She tasted salt and her mouth wetted. The longer they were out there—waves smacking the boat, ropes groaning, their own shallow breath whistling through their chests—the more her husband tensed, watched her from the corners of his eyes. She gazed loosely at the horizon and pretended not to see. Always, he filled a couple bags at the place she led him to, then marked the spot on a map and ferried her home. He took his crew back out to finish the job. This was a waste of fuel, but he didn’t like her out on the water, he didn’t like it at all.
She had struggled then, tangled and panicked, and by the time he managed to pin her down and cut her free, her skin had dried, the scales fallen from her tail, clicking over the deck of his boat to shine in the sunlight like counterfeit coins.
In that way, she lived with the man who called himself her husband. When he left on his boat for days or weeks at a time, she walked the mile each day to the public library. She sat in a cool dim room before one of the computers. The glow of the screen like underwater. Her varied names spelled out before her: Atargatis, Thetis, Sirena, Thessalonike, Merrow, Selkie, Rusalka, Ariel, Undine. Each got it wrong but the wrongness failed to matter; each tugged a bit of her to the surface and toward the sea. She read the stories, and before came to her in a flush of blue and fractal light. It came to her in an undifferentiated swell that broke across her skin in goosebumps and hummed deep in her chest, something those stories and their thin words couldn’t touch, but in their proximity, wakened. By the time she reached the driveway to her husband’s house, the feeling faded. She turned, invariably, and went inside, nameless, powerless against the tides that moved her.
When she learned that she carried an infant in her new and awkward body, she ate hamburgers and milkshakes and swelled to a shape that she had to remind herself was acceptable—there was no need to be streamlined here; there was nowhere she was trying to go. She felt the child flip and flutter and paddle around in her belly, and she ate while her husband worried over money, over the state of the shrimp. He was too scared to take her on the water with him, scared for the baby. He admitted to her, his face twisted with guilt and regret, that he thought it was nearly over for them, his whole family’s livelihood for generations: Would there be anything left for their boy? He looked her in the eye as though she could absolve him. He told her the truth for once: He’d poisoned the water and stripped it bare.
* * *
The night their child was born she swaddled him and placed him in a basket beside the marriage bed. She had fed and settled him and cleaned herself up, had drifted almost to sleep, exhausted, when her husband whispered, his breath hot on her neck:
Tell me about before.
Her eyes snapped open.
She reached behind her and picked up her husband’s hand to buy time, rubbing her thumb across his palm in a way she knew soothed him. What could she afford to give him? She’d lost so much in the first invasion, the onslaught of language that came to her whole cloth, chafing her memory.
Since then, she’d only lost more.
She could never afford to give him, for instance, the seam in the water where it’s weight overcame you, the depth at which you begin to fall rather than float and, in so doing, take flight. She would never give him the midnight zone, where she used to spend days at a time, drifting, listening, holding out her tongue to catch whatever floated past, unseen. The felt distance between sound and source, substance through which she sang to everything she’d ever loved. Even diluted by naming, these things were among the most precious.
She had been quiet for too long but lay there still, frozen.
I heard stories about you, he said, breathing heavily now. When I was a boy. I heard stories I figured weren’t half true, but then—
The baby squawked and quieted, and they both flinched at the sound.
She took a deep breath and began to speak. She painted a picture of grottos, colonies of merpeople, chaste interludes with fisherman lost at sea, bits of the stories she’d read and now braided into a rope for her husband to follow, sated, into sleep.
She waited a long while, then nudged him gently to quiet his snoring. He grunted and rolled away from her. She gnawed her fingernails and spit them on the floor beside the bed.
In the days after his birth, she checked the baby, with neither forethought or expectation, for signs of gill slits in his neck. She turned his face on his weak and spindly neck this way and that. She cradled him in the crook of her arm so that with her free hand she could stroke the smooth skin below his seashell ears: had ridges or rifts emerged there? But there was no sign, nothing except the webbing between the big toe and its neighbor on his left foot. Inconclusive at best. And here again was the unexpected, because her love for him was untouched by his deficit; it blossomed in her chest like a wound; it grew.
Weeks passed. She tried once to go back to the library, but the baby cried; he wouldn’t settle. She sensed he didn’t like the cold and sterile air, acclimated as he was to their swamp. People looked coldly at her until she took him outside.
On the long walk home the baby grew hot and red and squalled like an abandoned bird. With all the strength he had, he produced a sound at once meager and overwhelming. She walked faster, breasts and eyes leaking. The skin on his soft skull burned to a livid red and in the days that followed, it blistered.
So she spent her days in the house, sandwiched between a wooded yard and a swamp that spread to the horizon, teasing her. The swamp was briny, and alligators basked with their eyes and pebbly skin showing above the surface. Herons stood on stalk legs or took off, lumbering over the cypress trees and out of sight. Tadpoles swarmed the shallows, and none of it moved her.
She slept when the baby slept, curled at her breast; together they dreamed of the sea. She dreamed the two of them alone, the baby contracting his body, propelling himself through the water, clutching handfuls of her hair, clasping himself to her to nurse then flitting away again. In the dream, she broke the surface of the water. The baby in the waves beside her, and when she looked around there was nothing else in sight: no land, no boats, no men.
On those past occasions that her husband took her out on the water, he blindfolded her for the drive to the docks. When he seated her at the bow of the fishing boat, he tied her to the railing, ever so loosely, ever so gently, with soft strips of cotton he tore from old towels. He was afraid she’d drown, he told her. So overcome was she by the sight of the ocean, she might dive back in and forget her new body: she’d take a deep breath and never emerge. She knew better. She knew that was not the shape of his fear.
Sometimes when the water was low and the salinity high in the swamp behind their home, she’d wade in up to her knees and feel the pull of the tide. The baby clasped tight to her chest, his heart fluttering against her own. She’d stay until the sun sank down and the moon shone overhead like a wishing coin. In its trick light she saw the shine of scales at her ankles, where the bones protruded and the skin stretched tight. She’d step out of the water slowly, walking backwards with high steps like the marsh birds. But invariably the scales fell and stayed behind, glinting in the moonlight as they sank to the muddy bottom, vanishing, maybe never there at all.
When the baby was a month old her husband left for what would be a three-week trip. He kissed her on the mouth—My undine, he murmured—and kissed the baby on the crown of its head—My boy. He climbed into his truck and disappeared around a bend in the long dirt drive.
The felt distance between sound and source, substance through which she sang to everything she’d ever loved.
Of course, she said to herself for comfort, she could find the marina if she truly tried. She could smell the sea from here, pungent as camellia blooming in their yard. Sometimes she wandered down the driveway beyond the bend; she stood at the side of the road and stared in the direction where she sensed the marina. But always she turned back to the house, herded by an unnamed force.
With the baby in her arms, she stood in the yard until she could no longer hear the rumble of the truck in the distance. Back inside, she lay the baby on a blanket on the wood floor. There was no library for her anymore, no cool click of plastic under her nails, the eerie glow of the screen and the letters arranging themselves into story after story with versions of herself at their core.
It had rained for a week straight and the water outside their back door was weak as winter twilight, practically potable. The baby kicked its legs and made a mewling sound, searching her out with its voice. She went to him and lay down, curled around him on the blanket and watched his hands clench and unclench reflexively. His eyes were still muddy and half-blind, rarely open. When he fussed she unbuttoned her shirt and pulled him to her breast and they fell asleep like that.
One morning as she poured a bowl of cornflakes a bolt went through her heart: It jolted her to the floor where she shook in a rictus of electric pain: She made noises she couldn’t control and drooled over the front her shirt. When she was able, she crawled to the playpen where the baby slept, sprawled on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily under thin fabric, ribs showing like the closed petals of a flower.
She pulled herself to her feet and breathed deeply, filling her lungs to ease the ache in her chest. The sea was three miles south and she could get there easily on foot; she knew this now, knew exactly where it was and how to make the journey. It was as though an invisible net had vanished from around her, and she moved quickly in terror of its reappearance. She lifted the baby from the playpen and lay him, still sleeping, over her shoulder.
Outside it was sticky and hot, and the bugs cried like they did all day. She ran down the steps off the screened porch to where the water mixed itself with marsh grass and mud. Here was a pool of sorts in the shallows, smaller than a bathtub and about as deep, filled with cool clean water from the recent rain.
She peeled the clothes off the baby and he opened his eyes to watch. His breath hitched in his chest like it sometimes did on either side of sleep. She whispered to him, begging, and cradled his head, rubbed her thumb over the smooth skin of his neck. She lay him in the shallow water and held him there, felt his small body float, his gaze almost meeting hers but sliding off and away, diffusing like a puff, a cloud.
When she let go, crossed her arms across her chest, held her breath, the water covered him, shimmering. A bird called in the distance and another answered and together they took flight. Ripples broke the surface, a stream of bubbles.
Her pulse throbbed in her temples and the heat pressed her feet into the mud. She scooped him up. Flipped him onto his belly and thudded him between the shoulder blades with the heel of her palm. A long moment passed, stretched itself thin as fishline—snapped when his cry came, red and angry. She held him like that, letting the water drain from him, patting his back while he wailed in protest.
Inside the house she swabbed him clean, fed and dressed and comforted him. She put on shoes and shouldered a bag of his belongings and made her way to the county road. For the first time, she turned left, toward the water. Their nearest neighbor was a half hour walk, and when she reached the mailbox she turned down the drive. She ignored the pain in her joints and her chest. She breathed heavily: from the heat, and from the slight weight of her child, and the weight of all the things she knew he’d need. On her shoulder, he slackened into sleep. She imagined him growing, unfolding in a proliferation of cells that shaped themselves into a man, a man on a boat, a man with muscle that roped his arms and clenched his fingers around a net. A groan caught in her chest.
There was a car in the neighbor’s driveway, and when she reached the front stoop she heard noises from inside the house. She spread a blanket on the concrete slab and lay the baby on it. It was shaded and cooler here. She stroked the fuzz on the baby’s head, fingered the webbed skin between his toes and he flinched; his face screwed up and he smacked his lips before sinking back into still sleep.
She rang the doorbell and left him, hurrying back up the drive. She broke into a jog, sweat coursing down her back.
She ran all the way to the marina, down the stairs to the pier; she sprinted to the end and leapt, swan dived into the oily water and swam with all her strength into the deeps.
When the water grew cold and the flavor of engine oil faded, she allowed herself to slow, drifting on the waves and staring warily back toward the marina. There were boats coming in and out of the docks, and though the closest to her now was at least a hundred feet off, it was likely she had been seen. She undressed, fumbling with buttons and wet jeans.
She went under and relished the saltwater filling her eyes; she stared at her blurred limbs, at her long legs scissoring under the water, painted with light, her pointed toes, her delicate fingers. Then, an exquisite pain clenched her middle, and she curled around it. She felt her face stretch into a terrible grin; had she been able, she’d have drawn a lungful of seawater, but the pain sucked the air from her lungs along with the will to replace it.
When she was able, she crawled to the playpen where the baby slept, sprawled on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily under thin fabric, ribs showing like the closed petals of a flower.
The worst of it passed, leaving a fresh throbbing in her body. She took off through the water, propelling herself with her newly fused legs, a tail again, a lobed fin that sped her toward the open ocean, away from the marina and the sounds of engines that assaulted her. She breathed deep and true. The world beneath the waves was crisp and clear in her new eyes, and nearly empty, nearly all open space.
Soon she had arrived. She was some miles out. Her husband’s fishing boat, some small distance off, muscled through the waves and back toward the marina with all the haste its engine could manage. She saw the men on the deck, her husband’s crew; they scanned the horizon for help that was already too late.
She dove beneath the waves and swam alongside the vessel, listening to the conversations that reached her through the metal hull of the boat. Her husband’s heart had stopped over an hour ago. His body grew chill and grey. And what had that been? the men wondered. When the pain first struck and he struggled to draw breath, what was the bucket he hauled from below deck, full of dull scales, flakes of something dead that he dumped into the sea before collapsing, closing his eyes, his face twisted against the end?
They spoke of these events over and over, repeating them like a spell against the passing of time, the steady death of cells, and as they spoke, she trembled, with rage, with unexpected grief.
How many stories had she read, and never discovered this most important bit of lore? The bucket of her scales, returned to the water, that was all it took to gain her freedom. How many times had she contemplated leading him to dangerous waters, sending him to fish where she smelled a storm on the brink? How many times had she found herself unable? In the end it was this: a simple accident of the body, an inadequate twist and flicker of guilt. She stroked the side of the boat with her webbed hand and then she swam away.
In all the old stories, mermaids are horrible people to have as family. Their only loyalty is to themselves, their whims, the sea; their loyalty is to no body. They kill the men who yearn for them, bring storms upon their villages; they tangle unwary swimmers in their hair and drag them to the depths; they bring destruction; they are destroyed; they bring empty promises hidden in their bodies like half-formed pearls; they bring nothing at all. The myths were wrong and they weren’t; they weren’t to do with her anymore anyway and they were all she had left. They weighed her down from the inside, those alloys of knowing.
Days passed, then months. The pain in her body never lessened or left; she was poorly outfitted in her new skin, and her misery formed verses in her mind that played on a loop. She checked her torso for evidence of the sucking wound she felt there. She swam slow circles just above the ocean floor, around the vent that was her favorite space, the water here a kind of dark that carried weight, syrupy and cloying. The water so hot it soothed the pain in her joints and her core; so hot it would scald her son’s sweet skin off in an instant. She thought of him as he would be now, of the hair that might have grown and the sunlight that might play through it, of a new brightness behind the eyes, shining through the accordion folds of his iris. She swam slow circles around the vent and wondered who held him at night, what they whispered in his seashell ears; she swam and waited for his coming.
Devan Collins Del Conte is a queer femme writer living in Memphis, Tennessee. She received her MFA from University of Memphis and now works for a food justice non-profit and as a nanny. Devan’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart Online, Jellyfish Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Hawaii Pacific Review, and elsewhere. Find her at devandelconte.com
In the tiny pop-up trailer we have two toaster ovens, a roaster full of meat, and a cooler with the rest of the sandwich fixings. It’s just enough to keep up with the line of customers. Mama has been wanting to make Reubens for the rodeo and powwow for three years, offering something different than the usual Indian tacos, so I said I’d come up from Omaha for the weekend to help assemble sandwiches with sauerkraut and Russian dressing.
“Two more,” Mama calls, then coughs into her elbow. Her asthma and allergies have been acting up worse than usual; then she had chest pains and was diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus. She won’t tell me about medical bills. I’ve avoided poking through the piles of papers stacked around the kitchen and living room in her trailer.
Mama said she didn’t realize how much she’d missed a good Reuben, though, and since it didn’t seem like anyone was going to open a Jewish delicatessen on the reservation, she figured on bringing one to them.
Mama moved to the reservation when I started university, after years of summer trips to visit an old college friend who lived here. Mama was in love with the space, the wide hills, and over ten years found a job and a husband who was more committed than my dad. She and Papa have been married for fourteen years, and I’ve visited often enough to make their trailer home-ish. Papa took me as a daughter minus a formal adoption. He’s eleven years older than Mama and can be persnickety, but they joke together at breakfast and worry over each other’s health. Papa calls me with her new lists of medications, asking if I can look up the side effects on the Internet.
“I don’t do computers,” he reminds me.
Mama starts another coughing fit, which makes my chest hurt.
“You need to sit down,” I say. I feel like I’m always reminding her to take care of herself. She tries to shake her head and say she’ll be fine, but starts another coughing fit.
Papa has been sitting outside on his lawn chair and chatting with friends, but he pokes his head in the door. “Everything okay in here, Daughter?” His brown eyes hold the same concern as mine. I say Mama needs to take a break, eat a Reuben.
Mama says, “Well, maybe a half.”
I say Papa can handle the money for a bit.
Mama converted to vegetarianism when she was in her mid-twenties, so she raised me on a meatless diet. After moving to the reservation and moving in with Papa, she started eating steak.
“I could only stomach so many salads and baked potatoes,” she says, but Papa likes macaroni with cheese melted on top and the eggplant parmesan that Mama makes. Mama said she didn’t realize how much she’d missed a good Reuben, though, and since it didn’t seem like anyone was going to open a Jewish delicatessen on the reservation, she figured on bringing one to them.
I make a half Reuben for Mama, then Papa takes over her post at the cash box. Mama slumps on a red camp chair in the corner. Papa and I exchange a glance. Mama has been working as a secretary in the humanities department at the tribal college for ten years, but Papa says that a couple weeks ago her boss called him to say she’s forgetting things—to send e-mails and letters and make copies.
“She said maybe your mama should make a doctor’s appointment,” Papa told me on the phone. “She was nice about it, but she sounded worried. She doesn’t want to let your mama go.”
I understand that could happen. I haven’t told Mama about my own dilemmas at the grocery store where I manage the front end, how I’ll have to give Nikki her walking papers for tardiness next week. I know her story—she has two kids and a second job and not the most reliable sitter, but I’ve made all the excuses I can to my boss, who is sympathetic but has corporate over her head. Corporate doesn’t have to give Nikki the news on Monday, kindly allowing me to fire a sweet and agreeable if harried person, but I went up for the promotion to front end manager last year and knew I’d have to hire people and train them and let some go when they ran out of chances. Mama would have never taken a job like that, or she’d quit in protest, but she’s good at sacrificing herself.
When I was twelve and we were walking downtown, we saw this black-and-white beagle mix run out into the middle of the street. Mama didn’t hesitate to sprint after it because a car was coming. She left me screeching at her from the sidewalk, afraid of being orphaned. The car stopped and a guy cussed at her and drove on. Mama picked up the dog and we took it to the shelter and Mama told them to call her if they couldn’t find the owner, but they did two days later.
On the drive home Mama realized I was being quiet and apologized, saying she really hadn’t seen the car since she was so focused on the dog. I believed her enough to forgive. Mostly. That was how my mama worked. But as I slather Russian dressing on another slice of bread, I worry what will happen if the asthma gets worse, if the arthritis gets worse, if she could go on disability or if it would be better to have Mama and Papa move closer to me, though neither of them would want to leave here, but what if something happens and she winds up in the hospital—
I believed her enough to forgive. Mostly. That was how my mama worked.
Still, I need to get to the dentist because I know I’m grinding my teeth in my sleep, and I should get to the OB/GYN for my yearly checkup, and monitor my blood pressure on those machines at the pharmacy, and figure out why I have the three-day migraine every month, but I think that’s job stress.
“Good sandwich,” Mama says. “I’m going to use the port-a-potties.”
I nod and watch her ease down the steps, but then she walks more quickly and trips a little but doesn’t fall, and I think Mama, why do you have to move so fast? I turn back to the toaster oven to make sure the bread doesn’t burn, then I hear a woman scream outside and run to the door and see Mama and another lady on the ground and oh God, she fainted, but no, she’s leaning over the woman, rolling her to her back, and I wonder if it’s heat stroke or diabetic shock and if I have hard candy in my purse, which I grab from under the camp chair along with a bottle of water.
By the time I get there, Mama has the lady sitting up, blinking, breathing. She coughs to one side. I hand her the bottled water, and Mama asks if she’s hurting, if she feels dizzy, if she might need insulin. The lady says she hasn’t been drinking enough, it was a dizzy spell, give her a moment. She sips the water and in a second they’re talking about the fair and parade and I remember the bread and go back to the trailer to find it on the cusp of burning, but I pop the lever up in time.
When the sandwiches are finished, I return to Mama outside who lets me offer a hand to help her and the lady off the ground.
“Oh-ho-ho, my knees,” Mama says, smiling to let me know that sometimes she can admit her own frailties. I yell to Papa we are going to the restroom together.
“Don’t you ladies fall in,” he calls as Mama and I walk with my arm around her shoulders.
“She needed to hydrate, I think that was it,” Mama says as we wait outside the big blue boxes. She rubs one hand over the other to soothe her arthritis. “You make a good Reuben.”
“We’ll have to do this again next year,” I say, wanting to think about that more than I want to think about tomorrow, projecting us surely forward in time when there will be more scorching summer days in that tiny trailer making sandwiches, aware that we’re standing on the cusp of fates, but knowing the secret is not to look down.
Teresa Milbrodt received her MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University. She is the author of two short story collections, Bearded Women: Stories (Chizine Publications), and Work Opportunities: Stories (Portage Press), a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People (Boxfire Press), and a flash fiction collection Larissa Takes Flight: Stories (Booth Books). Her stories, essays, and poetry has been published widely in literary magazines. Read more of her work at http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/
Photo Credit: Jeff Wasserboer
A beautiful man with a rich beard and a nose sharp enough to slice a tomato stood ahead of Viju at the Falafel cart. He looked a lot like the man he’d seen Gita with at the cinema house last week, his Gita, at least she used to be. Viju grunted before he could catch himself. The man turned but looked away, scrunching his nose as if he were near a heap of garbage.
Viju knew everyone was looking at him now: the hurrying locals, the dawdling tourists, taxi drivers, haggard-faced passengers in the bus nearby, everyone. It seemed to him as though they were pointing at the rust-red lumps on his face and laughing at the way they covered half of his left eye, most of his mouth. Such that when he spoke, he had to speak slowly to make himself clear, especially to the customers at the shop where he ran the photocopiers.
He shrank further into his t-shirt and left the queue. He started for home, choosing not to take the bus. He didn’t want to give people another opportunity to stare. He was used to it though, from when he was ten, the kids in his lane wouldn’t play with him, instead they teased him, called him names.
He was twenty-six now and the teasing hadn’t stopped. They chased him, called him bandar, because of the redness of his face: “Aiee, bandar, here’s a rupee, dance for us;” “Want a banana?” They laughed, aping the walk, the mannerisms of a monkey. When it bothered him too much he raised a hand and lunged at them as if to slap them. They scattered away, giggling.
He crossed the road, into the barking traffic boiling with the heat of those heading home to fuck, to die, to sleep, to lick, to live, the thick of their wrists shoving the horn. The pedestrians snaked on the pavement, stepping around vendors and beggars. But when they saw Viju approaching, they leapt out of the way willing to give their lives to a passing lorry or a car than grazing against him, not wanting any part of his on them. Even the raggedy girl begging for bread, for a rupee, didn’t look at him, digging her back into the electric pole on the side of the pavement. But the second his shadow hissed past her, she started again, Sir-sir, Madam-madam, one rupee pliss. Gita leaving him was no surprise, he always knew she was going to.
When his mother offered her tea, she thanked her and sipped graciously from the steel tumbler, leaving red lipstick marks around the edges.
He walked on the edges of the road where the street-light wouldn’t fall directly on him, driving his chin deep into his chest, a headless man. He walked past the railway tracks, the tiny paan stalls, grocery store, the cemetery until he got to Wadi, the slums, alleys after alleys of small, identical tin shacks on either side, so close to each other no one had any secrets: Baloo’s daughter had run away with the sweeper; Bimala died in her sleep; Amir the truck driver had AIDS.
One of those homes was Viju’s. The door was open—it always was—and just as he entered, bottom-exposed children chased a shrivelled chicken into the street across the alley. The kerosene lamp in the corner licked long black lines into the wall and shed wavy shadows. Coughing on the cot was his father, his body half raised. He rushed to comfort him, patting gently on his back, but the dry, wheezing cough persisted. Some nights it was so intense he spat blood. Viju gave him some cough syrup and when the coughing subsided, he turned the radio on to listen to old Hindi songs. His father’s yellow lifeless eyes were on him, awake yet lost.
He leaned against the wall waiting for his mother to return from the market and make dinner. She came back with two plastic bags of vegetables, a weary smile and held the door frame to catch a breath. They are used to seeing me like this. Viju wondered if he went away for a long-long time and returned one day, will his parents shriek in horror or embrace him; will they ask him where he had been, if he had had something to eat?
The adjoining room where he slept doubled up as the kitchen—a kerosene stove, a small wooden cabinet with a handful of vessels was next to his head. The holes in the corroded metal sheet ceiling threw sharp lines of moonlight on him. Lying on the thin straw mat, he could hear his parents snore in the next room. He traced his face with his fingers counting the number of ridges and Gita’s beautiful face appeared before him, like it had every night for the past year.
* * *
When he turned twenty-five, life had almost been kind to him. A customer at the shop said he knew of this miracle baba near his village who could definitely treat him. Up until then no doctor, no priest or swami had been able to help with his condition. The customer said baba had divine powers to bring the dead back to life, cure cancer. In his presence the blind saw and the lame walked.
Thrilled and full of hope Viju made all the arrangements, booked his train tickets, borrowed money from neighbours for the treatment. But days before he was to leave, his father fell from the sixth floor at the construction site he was working in and broke most of the bones in his body. Viju cancelled his trip to take care of him. To him it was a sign: nothing good will ever happen to him.
It was during that time that Gita, a nurse at the local government hospital, started coming to their locality once every week. She had long, black hair and smelled always of coconut oil.
There were rumours that she’d been fired from the hospital a month ago as a patient had died under her care. But she continued to wear her nurse’s outfit: her cap, apron, the dress tight at the chest, going from home to home asking if anyone was sick in their family. And since she didn’t charge, no one thought too much of it.
Viju liked it when she came, the gentle way in which she spoke to his father. When his mother offered her tea, she thanked her and sipped graciously from the steel tumbler, leaving red lipstick marks around the edges.
Up until then he’d only been in love with cinema actresses: Katrina, Deepika, enjoying the goings-on in his pants each time their songs came on the colour TV at the shop, when they moved seductively in the rain or a strong breeze exposed their low blouses. But he fell in love with Gita immediately, imagining dancing with her like those heroes, holding her close, his lips grazing her smooth neck, her face, his fingers passing through her long, soft hair.
Friday evenings when she visited, Viju returned early from work, showered, lathered himself with talcum powder and put on a clean shirt and trousers. And when Gita looked at him or asked him a question, those brief moments he even thought himself as attractive. He’d stand close to her, bring her things she asked for: cotton balls, dettol, bandages, medicines, thermometer. He’d listen to her instructions, nod along: “You will have to change the dosage of this medicine; you should often ask your father what he wants, check if he’s thirsty or hungry, or needs to go to the bathroom. O.K.?”
He noticed also the way his mother was around her—shoulders curved, always smiling, always agreeing—poor woman wanting for her son a bride; she wanted to see him married, have a family. And to have such an educated woman as her daughter-in-law would make her so happy. His mother’s desire, too, made him look at Gita differently.
There was really no need for her to visit. His mother took his father to the government hospital for check-ups, pushing him in the wheelchair Viju had managed to buy from a thrift store. But because Gita continued to, Viju started to believe that she liked him too. The way she smiled at him, or when their fingers touched when he brought her a glass of water or handed her his father’s medical reports. He even started believing that his father’s accident was a blessing; that if his father hadn’t fallen, Viju would’ve left to see the village baba and not met Gita.
“Take care.” She’d smile before leaving, her smile, he thought, was a secret shared just between the two of them.
One day she came home in a yellow salwar kameez and looked so different it took a moment for Viju to realise it was Gita. He felt that maybe she’d dressed this way to do away with the formality a nurse’s uniform created between them. Maybe this was her way of saying, Let’s be more.
“Ma has gone for the Vat Poornima puja,” Viju said when she asked about his mother.
A stream of women in red saris and glass bangles walked past their door carrying fruits, coloured threads, brass pots with water, pieces of red cloth and clay idols. A current of joy passed though his body as he thought that after becoming his wife, Gita too would observe fasts and pray for his well being like other married women. But in the very next moment, he felt a wave of grief knowing that this was just a hollow dream, that if she learned what was on his mind she’d hit his face.
“How’s uncle?” she asked.
“He sleeps through the night now. His pain has gone down.”
He made her his special tea with crushed ginger and cardamom. When she took the tumbler from him, their fingers touched as usual. He stood in the semi-dark room, watching her quietly have her tea.
That night he pictured Gita naked.
* * *
In the morning, a customer with a chin carved out of butter: big, shiny, ample stared at him as Viju repeated his order: three copies, front and back?
“Yes-yes,” he said, trying not to gape.
“Page won’t photocopy well because it is worn. The copy will be darker, O.K.?”
The fat man had a French beard, a toilet-brush sticking out of soft dough.
“Dark page is alright?” Viju asked again.
The page was illegible, but the man only blinked twice and left with the blackened sheets of paper.
“Chutiya. The idiot didn’t even ask for his change.” The owner laughed and scratched the webbing between his toes.
Viju noticed the owner’s daughter; she was parking her two-wheeler. The afternoon light illuminated the bleached blond hair along the edges of her jaw. Every Monday, after her computer classes, she came to the shop to collect her pocket money. Five hundred rupees for the week. Viju’s blood turned black just watching the owner hand her the money and the girl taking it mechanically, as if she deserved it, when Viju had to work the entire month for much less.
“Be right back,” he said, wishing to be away.
“Again? Didn’t you just go to shake your dick minutes ago?”
“Before I went to get your gutkha, now I want to go to the toilet.”
“Acha. Bring two more packets on your way back.”
He went to the washroom on the lower level of the two-story building, ahead of the row of shops: mobile repair, compute spare parts, ATMs, stationery. The weak tube-light hummed a few seconds before flashing to life. He used the commode and washed his hands at the basin. He looked in the mirror with dark spots around its edges. What’s the point? But still he splashed cold water on his face and dabbed gently with his handkerchief. And hoped like he always did to have a regular face when he looked in the mirror again.
He wept into his hands, but whatever this was, he was taking it, he decided.
“Hi, handsome,” he said aloud and laughed bitterly. He thought of Gita and how he must appear to her. Surely she saw something in him he couldn’t. How much he had enjoyed her touch, and soon had a bulge in his pants again. He imagined caressing her and was about to pull his pants down but there was an urgent knock on the door. Quickly fastening his buckle, he opened the latch and pushed the door open. The man waiting outside, desperate for a piss, jumped back as though afraid. Viju could tell he was reconsidering using the toilet now knowing Viju had been in there. The man decided against it and walked away.
* * *
Week after week, Viju waited desperately for Gita, wishing secretly, guiltily, for his father to remain sick. Each time his mother reported back wearily what the absent-minded doctor at the hospital told her—bones are still weak, not healing fast enough, maybe six more months—Viju tried to mirror her emotions. But when the temperatures peaked in the summer and his father grunted in pain or in frustration from the incessant itching on his toes or calves, places he couldn’t reach because of his casts, Viju’s selfishness pricked him.
The next time Gita came, she left her sandals with their silver straps in the corner and walked to his father’s cot by the only window in the house.
“Eat chicken soup to strengthen your bones, Uncle,” she said and his father nodded with half-closed eyes. Viju sat on his haunches beside them, and wondered where the money for the chicken soup would come from. He watched Gita take his father’s pulse. His mother was in the kitchen cooking and from inside asked how her day had been. Gita said, “Busy as usual, Aunty,” and smiled. The sight of her white, uniformed teeth titillated Viju.
She rested her hand on the railing of the cot, a dainty golden-dial watch on her wrist. It took all of Viju’s self-control to not grab her hand and rub it all over his face, kissing it till her palms turned red.
“Viju, do you want to learn how to take his pulse? Here, let me show you,” she said, taking his quivering hand in hers. “You place two fingers between the bone and the tendon over your radial artery — I mean on the thumb side of your wrist. When you feel the pulse, count the number of beats in fifteen seconds. Then multiply this number by four to calculate the beats a minute. Got it?”
* * *
Viju tossed in bed, staring at the rays of silvery light streaming in through the ceiling, wishing for the week to pass quickly so that he could see her again. This was all new, these feelings he was experiencing, his dreams wet and sticky, a swelling desire to dip his tongue into the taste of tomorrow.
The week after, Gita came home on a Wednesday, just after Viju’s mother had left with his father for his check-up. As if she knew. This was the first time they had been alone and a fear gripped him; what will people say? Will they wonder what an eligible woman was doing with a man like him when there was no one else at home? Will they complain to his mother? But Gita entered without care, asked him how his father was. He offered to make her chai, she accepted. After finishing her drink, she reached out and touched his face. Viju took a sharp intake of air, which made her giggle. His mind went blank, the pulsating beat of his heart knocking behind his eyes. She blew gently and a rush of her cold, sweet-smelling breath brushed his lips, his cheeks.
This went on for days. She’d come home when his parents left and stayed till just before they returned. He’d weave his fingers through hers and relish the wetness in his pants, the world forgotten; for once someone just for himself; the weight and heat of another body pressed against his. He latched on to her like a child to its favourite blanket, cautious, worried someone was after it.
She allowed him only to play with her fingers; he sucked on them, kissing them one by one. If he tried to do anything else, like touching other parts of her body, she’d leave. He was afraid if he said something, if he protested, she’d put an end to it. Why was she like this with him? He wept into his hands, but whatever this was, he was taking it, he decided. A bone, a soggy biscuit, he’ll take it.
* * *
At work, finding him unusually talkative, the owner snickered. “Wah-wah today your voice is coming loud and clear. What’s the matter? Someone blow you?”
Viju whistled as he photocopied an entire grade 12th physics book for a student. Two girls who passed by eyed him. He smiled then waved at them. He held his head high and proud, feeling O.K. with the way he looked, even a little love for himself, returning in his mind again and again to his encounter with Gita.
He wanted to be with Gita, like the couples he’d seen outside his shop sharing golgappas out of the same leaf bowl, laughing, looking with love at each other, sharing a joke; or like the ones he’d seen kissing in parks behind thick bushes, the girl’s dupatta over both their heads, a delicious intimacy between them. He wanted to tell Gita how he felt about her, but each time he said aloud things he planned on telling her, his throat closed and he found it hard to breathe. What if she slapped me? What if she told everyone what I said to her and they all mocked me? What a chutiya, they will say.
That night in bed, he recalled the goose pimples on her smooth skin, her scent. But that feeling didn’t last long as unease wrung his innards; made him sit up and wonder what she was doing with someone like him? This was just a phase, this affection was temporary. Any day now she was going to realise how hideous he was and tell him, “Stop touching me, bandar.” Once when he asked her if she wanted to go to the park with him, she said, “What’s wrong with spending time here?”
* * *
These days it surprised him, the insistent, pressing urge to masturbate—there was no other way of satisfying this creature—that came upon him often and at the most unlikeliest of times: on the bus to work, or while the photocopy machine whirred under his hands; when eating dinner—one flash of Gita and blood thrummed in his groin.
These impulses soon started interfering with his life, his work. Unable to focus, he was frequently messing up the instructions customers gave him, half-listening, worried his erection was showing. He’d make too many copies or forget to start the photocopier. Once the owner’s daughter caught him rubbing himself against the machine, and the owner who would’ve usually laughed off something like this, fired Viju.
* * *
Back in his lane, children trailed him, snickering: Bandar, oi bandar, where’s your bandariya today?” He kept walking, not engaging them. His mother met him at the door.
“Everyone knows,” she said and gave him a surprised laugh.
“Why are you yelling?” Viju said. “Go inside.”
“So it’s true? You and Gita….”
“Yes.” Although it seemed like a lie to him; what were they, Gita and him?
“She likes you?” she stared at him. “She’ll marry you?” but immediately she lowered her eyes as though ashamed by her question. He could sense her relief but also her scepticism that a woman was interested in him. She cupped his face between her hands.
“I already have bangles and earrings for my bahu,” she said proudly.
Now he just had to find another job, as a man about to get married rightfully should.
* * *
On the bus, going from shops to offices, looking for work, any kind of work, his lower abdomen purred. If he ignored it, it will go away, not bother him, not today, not now, but when had it ever listened to him?
He found an empty seat at the back and because it was crowded, he had to be discreet, quick. He slowly slid his hand inside his pants, keeping one leg over the other and spread his handkerchief over his lap. He was nearly done, eyes closed in concentration when a woman shouted. “See-see what he’s doing? Stop him, stop him,” she yelled and Viju realized his kerchief was on the floor. The passengers and the conductor got hold of him, dragged him out of the bus and kicked and punched him till he blacked out. When he woke up he was in jail.
The gravedigger asked him to pour three handfuls of soil into the open hole, before burying the corpse and patting down the grave to shape.
He had no way of knowing how much time had passed, but he saw his mother kneeling at the inspector’s feet, begging him to release Viju, her face weak and crumbling. Finally, after calling Viju and his mother names and laying a fresh, loud slap on his cheek, the inspector let him go. She was silent on the way, her hands fists.
Viju and his mother got out of the rickshaw. The sky was bruise-purple. As soon as they entered the alley they heard stray dogs howling. He smelled it even before he heard the neighbourhood women wailing at the mouth of the lane, pallus drawn over their faces, beating their chests. They were standing outside Amir’s house. Viju saw the truck driver’s ammi by the doorstep, her expression frozen, hair frazzled, sari falling off her chest exposing sagging breasts. Viju’s mother pulled him roughly by his sleeve, demanding he come home with her.
“Please, son, please,” Amir’s mother cried suddenly on seeing Viju, collapsing at his feet. “Please take him to the graveyard, no one else will. They refuse to touch him.”
Viju’s heart thumped. The neighbourhood men stood at a distance and their women, the edge of their saris between their teeth, stood next to them.
The old woman was caressing Viju’s face, taking his hands and pressing them into her bosom. He looked at Amir, most of him eaten away by the disease, pale, a white ghost.
Viju went home with his mother, ate the food she served. But he couldn’t sleep, not because Gita kept him awake, it was the sight of Amir, his neglected body, the old woman’s tears.
He walked back to Amir’s house, the woman was still at the doorstep.
Viju bent, picked up the corpse and followed the curved narrow street. The woman didn’t follow him, just kissed her son’s toes and wept. A few dogs walked after him, some growling, some curious. The air was muggy with the smell of sewage, the lane lightless and quiet.
He remembered how once when he was young, he was playing on the road when a scooter had knocked him down. Bleeding from his head, he laid there alone and hurt. The kids playing with him had run away. People stood and stared, or walked away. It was a long time before someone finally took him to the hospital.
The gravedigger asked him to pour three handfuls of soil into the open hole, before burying the corpse and patting down the grave to shape. The man in his undershirt stepped back and put a hand on Viju’s shoulder. The skin on his face was dark and dirty, alcohol on his breath. He spoke slowly in a gravelly voice, “I have buried hundreds here but I don’t have anyone to lower me into the ground.” The man was crying slowly, lost in sadness.
Viju made up his mind; he wanted to be happy, why shouldn’t he be? He deserved it and would fight for it if he had to. The sun was starting to light the sky; he knew what he had to do. He was going to ask Gita to marry him. He’d joke that his mother already loved her bahu more than her own son. He was thrilled by these thoughts.
He enquired of shop owners, people in her neighbourhood walking down the street with their families; rickshaw drivers. “Know where Nurse Gita lives? Do you? Do you? Do you?” After hours of seeking, a man finally pointed him toward her building.
Gita wasn’t home. But he was happy to be there, to walk the same floor her feet too had touched. In the dank, cold corridor, sitting by her door, he could almost taste her: coconut oil and rose-scented perfume. Someone had spilled milk in a corner and a swarm of red ants were gathered around it, drinking with their small mouths.
He imagined her house, what it may look like from the inside: neat, clean, nothing out of place; white walls, small colour TV, white curtains with red flowers on them. She’d call him into her bedroom and pull her kameez over her head, remove her pyjamas, take off her bra and underwear. She’d lie down on the bed and beckon him. He felt excited by the thought of being naked with her, she opening her legs at his touch.
He heard footsteps and before he could react or duck, a heavy wooden staff whacked him on the side of his thigh. His flesh stung, burned. He cried with pain. It was the watchman.
“For one second I leave and scum like you get in. Get out before I break your head,” he said. “Go, go,” the guard shoved him, digging the stick deep into Viju’s back. “Bloody cattle-class.”
As Viju limped out, stroking his femur, he saw a woman in yellow salwar kameez, the fabric shimmering, her backside swaying left-right-left-right. It was Gita he was certain. He started following her, yelling her name, waving, jumping. “It’s me, it’s me, I love you,” he shouted. But she didn’t turn. He followed her until he lost her in the crowd.
Kailash Srinivasan was born and raised in India. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and currently resides in Vancouver, BC. His writing has appeared in a number of journals including OxMag, Santa Ana River Review, Going Down Swinging, Regime, Tincture, Bluslate, and Them Pretentious Basterds. He is currently working on his first novel.
Dolores stood beside Ruth in the two-car garage, their polarized trifocals not yet adjusted to the darkness. Dolores wore a sun visor from the 2010 New Mexico Bowl game where the Lobos had lost miserably. Ruth had on her fishing hat with numerous fishing flies dangling from it. She was so tall and skinny she looked like a floor lamp. Above the buzz of the flickering fluorescent shop light that hung from the ceiling there was another buzzing sound.
“What’s that smell?” Dolores said, crinkling her nose, but she already had a feeling she knew. Ruth had caught something.
Ruth pointed to the Hefty trash bag lying on the concrete floor. A few large horseflies were buzzing around it and the smell of wet mud, algae, and a wound that needed a dressing change rose from the green bag.
“Is this why you called me?” Dolores asked. She made the common Navajo “tsk” between tongue and teeth and shook her head. “I knew you were up to something,” she added in their native tongue.
She said this because normally Ruth didn’t call for Dolores to come over to her house. Usually they went somewhere together, basketball games, the casino. Once in a while Ruth, who had retired several years earlier, would meet Dolores for lunch at the university hospital cafeteria. She was fond of the liver smothered in greasy onions and the peach cobbler.
Clutching her hands was the only way she could keep her long fingers from moving like the legs of a spider and her arms from flying open as if she were conducting an orchestra.
So, when Ruth had called her around lunchtime that day and asked her to stop by, even though Dolores lived nowhere near Ruth, she knew something was up. When she arrived, Ruth was standing in the doorway to her large ranch style house. She waved her long thin arm above her head and left the door open for Dolores to enter. The teakettle whistled and steam filled the yellow sponge-painted kitchen. Ruth had already placed two coffee cups on the orange Formica countertop.
Ruth smiled at her friend and said, “How are you?”
“Fine,” Dolores said, as she placed a Safeway shopping bag on the counter and pulled out Little Debbie sweet rolls. Ruth got out two plates and Dolores cut them each a generous portion.
“How was your trip to Bloomfield?”
Dolores’s granddaughter played in a summer softball league. Her team had made it once again to the state tournament played near her granddaughter’s home in the Four Corners, near Shiprock. Ruth poured water into each cup and held up a box of Christmas Spice tea, even though it was August, and a red container of Folgers instant coffee. Dolores pointed with her lips towards the coffee and Ruth set it down on the counter beside two spoons.
“We came in second.”
Dolores’s grandkids always came in second. Second in the girl’s 2-AA District basketball tournament, second in the elementary school spelling bee, second in the fancy dance contest, even Dolores had come in second in the quilt show at the county fair. “We got beat by the Bloomfield Sunflowers,” a team of freckled faced farm girls whose team was sponsored by The Future Farmers of America. The Shiprock Screaming Eagles were sponsored by Mo’s Transmission Shop and the Chat n’ Chew.
Dolores picked up a spoon and a plate with a frosted sweet roll and followed Ruth to the kitchen table. The sun streamed in the window that faced south and their trifocals became lightly polarized. The window, wide and low, looked out across what used to be a back lawn, a dirt alley that used to be an irrigation ditch, into Sophie Martinez’s yard, and quite nearly into her house. But they could stare into Sophie’s house all they wanted, because she was blind. She’d been going blind when Ruth and her family moved into their newly constructed home nearly forty years ago. Now it was Ruth who was going blind. She had been told a couple months ago she had the beginnings of glaucoma. She was keeping it a secret from everyone including her nosy daughter.
“Is that Junior?” Dolores said, then took a big bite of sweet roll as she looked out the window at a thin man hoeing two rows of corn. Bent over, his shoulder blades seemed to be pointing at them from across the barbed wire fence.
Ruth didn’t even look up from her cup where she was bobbing her teabag. The doctor had told her to stop eating so much chocolate and drinking so much coffee due to her ulcer. “That’s Junior.”
“He’s getting too skinny,” Dolores said and looked over her glasses at Ruth, meaning she, Ruth, was getting too skinny, too. “Here eat one of these.” She pushed a plate towards her friend and continued to stare at Junior. “He’s no future farmer,” she said and took another bite as he continued to hoe and Ruth continued to bob.
Ruth pointed to a centerpiece display on her cluttered kitchen table. It was colored Indian corn, four pieces tied together with a string so that if she wanted, she could hang it on her front door. “He made me that.”
Dolores held it up. Each cob was hardly larger than the size of the corn in Chinese food. She said something in Navajo about him not planting the seeds deep enough and then put it back on the table amidst newspaper clippings, crossword puzzles, a horoscope book, a doll’s dress Ruth had begun mending two years ago, and a racing form.
Ruth opened a pack of Sweet and Low, stirred it into her tea, and said something that wasn’t discernible above the rattle of the swamp cooler.
Dolores began to mix some instant coffee. “What?”
Ruth slid a newspaper toward Dolores and pointed at the headline with one long brown arthritic finger. She then held her hands tightly together in front of her as if she were a child saying a desperate prayer. Clutching her hands was the only way she could keep her long fingers from moving like the legs of a spider and her arms from flying open as if she were conducting an orchestra.
Dolores picked up the paper that was dated several weeks past and read, “Prosthetic Leg Found in Corrales Ditch.” This was not news to Dolores. Ruth had come by her house early last week. In fact, she had driven all the way into town just to tell her about the leg that had been found in the ditch near her home. But, more importantly to tell her that she thought she knew who it belonged to.
“Who?” Dolores had asked.
“You know. He was in the hospital. The one that was in the rodeo.”
Dolores closed her eyes and saw him, a good-looking, tall, young man who rode bulls. He’d been thrown, not from his bull, but from the back of a Ford pick-up truck. The x-ray of his femur looked like bone that had been broken into new galaxies. He had cried like a child when they dressed his wound following the amputation. “I can’t ride bulls anymore,” he’d told the two nurses that saw their sons, both born and unborn, in him. “I can’t dance.”
Dolores looked up from the paper and back out at Junior. He was working on the next row. She briefly wondered if Ruth had forgotten that she already had shown her this, but she knew better as Ruth’s fingers began to tap the table, the vein on the back of her hand moving side to side like a snake. She took another bite of sweet roll, chewed slowly, sipped loudly, and trying to sound uninterested said, “Did they find the rest of him?”
Ruth slid another paper towards Dolores and tapped a column on the left-hand side of Page B-6 next to an advertisement for Discount Tire. The prosthetic leg had indeed been identified and indeed did belong to a Navajo male who lived in the Albuquerque area. However, local law officials were unable to locate the owner.
That’s when Ruth had stood and without asking Dolores followed her through the laundry room with the sweet smell of dryer sheets and Tide to the garage, and there they stood now, looking at the Hefty trash bag. “It’s his other leg.”
“How did it get in here?”
“I caught it in the ditch last night—with a Zwiggler.”
The Zwiggler was a fishing fly named for a friend Ruth had met at the casino, Alfred Zwiggler. After losing most of their money, she and Alfred would sit in the coffee shop at the casino and talk about fishing. He showed her how to make a lure that could catch anything. It had the iridescent colors of a fly’s eyes, aqua blues and greens. “Nothing can resist it,” he’d told her as he held it up in the light of the coffee shop at two o’clock in the morning.
“When did you catch it?”
“Last night,” Ruth said. She’d made the fly with feathers and copper wire. And even though she’d heard coyotes barking on the mesa, she went out into the cool summer night with her dog and cat following behind her.
“Where did you catch it?”
“You know the place.” Where the ditch gurgles around that slight bend. Where the brown water feeds the roots of the oldest cottonwood tree. “It gave quite a fight.” It had nearly dragged her and her dog, who held to the back of her pants, into the ditch.
“Does it have a shoe on?”
“A boot. A Tony Lama. Size 13.
Dolores saw the young man the day he was leaving the hospital. He had lost weight and his once tight Wrangler’s were baggy. He pulled on one cowboy boot. It was still dusty from being a rodeo star and a projectile. The other boot was in the corner holding up his prosthetic leg.
“What about the rest of him?” Even though neither one of them said anything more, they both knew that Ruth had barely been able to retrieve his leg from this world that wanted to devour everything. “What are you planning on doing with it? Are you expecting some type of reward?”
A smile briefly crossed Ruth’s face, then disappeared like a hawk diving behind that same cottonwood tree where she’d caught the leg. “I’m taking it to the family. If this was your son, wouldn’t you want his leg?”
“You know where they live?”
Ruth took a piece of paper out of the front pocket of her loose jeans and handed it to Dolores.
It was in an older neighborhood in Albuquerque. Houses constructed of cinderblock in the 1960’s, near where Ruth and her family had lived before they had moved next to the blind Martinez’s. The place she had wanted to leave to try and keep them safe from this sort of thing.
“Will you just leave it? What if a dog carries it off?”
“I’ve already called them. They’re expecting us.”
“Us?” Dolores said, along with something else in Navajo followed by a headshake and a “tsk.”
Ruth hit the button for the trunk of her Ford Taurus and it flew open like the lid of a casket. Together they put the bag inside and drove across the river toward town.
Ruth hit the button for the trunk of her Ford Taurus and it flew open like the lid of a casket. Together they put the bag inside and drove across the river toward town.
The house was on a street named after the home of another lost son and one of Ruth and Dolores’s favorite recording artists, Graceland. They pulled up and both got out. The mother and father must have heard the car doors slam, because as Ruth and Dolores approached the house, they could see a big bear of a man standing behind the thin screen door. He towered over the two older women dressed identically in navy blue windbreakers with the IHS/PHS logo, elastic waist jeans, and New Balance athletic shoes. Without speaking the two women led him to the car and what was left of his son.
His son who had taken first place in every roping competition he’d been in since the age of seven and had been the champion bull rider for four years straight at the Navajo Nation Fair. He’d worn a huge belt buckle stating he was a champ over his thin hips and was about to start a career in the PBR rodeo circuit.
Ruth pushed the button of the trunk as the mother still behind the veil of the screen door began to wail like only a mother who has lost a child can. The leg, that was triple bagged, still had the odor of a wound. Ruth took the Zwiggler lure off her fishing cap and placed it on the bag. The Zwiggler she’d made from the feathered earrings her daughter had left behind when she moved out, earrings made of peacock feathers, which are supposed to be good luck.
The man picked up the trash bag as if he were lifting a newborn out of a crib. He carried the leg like that same delicate newborn toward the cinderblock house painted the color of sand in the wash in Canyon de Chelly. The mother opened the door and let her husband and what was left of her beautiful son into the house.
Dolores and Ruth returned to the Ford Taurus, closing the heavy doors. Ruth sat behind the big steering wheel and Dolores held to the door handle as they both looked towards the mesa where the volcanoes called The Seven Sleeping Sisters laid under a darkening sky.
The Sleeping Sisters who that night dreamed of a boy who became a man, a bull rider and a fancy dancer, who won all the powwows and the heart of a woman who became his wife. Together they had a hundred children, formed a dancing troupe, and traveled the country, the world, the universe, dancing and laughing and dancing and laughing.
Cynthia Sylvester is a native of Albuquerque, NM. In her work she explores the visible and invisible lines and borders between “worlds.” She is a graduate of the University of New Mexico and currently a student in The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She was the recipient of the Native Writer Award at the 2012 Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. Her fiction and flash fiction has been published in As Us Journal, bosque—the magazine, and The Best of Dimestories.
Photo Credit: Annabella Johnson
The Bretspars lived in a tumbledown Cape Cod, but they were a long way from Massachusetts. The sky was the color of faded denim, not New England grey. The land green and yielding, not hard and unforgiving. The blood red and pumping, not Brahmin blue.
A shelterbelt screened the Bretspars’ home from the road, spared passersby the sight. Cataracts of grime on the windows. Termite-ravaged siding. The place could’ve used a coat of paint, or five. Maybe a bulldozer. All that held it together was glue and prayer.
With one hand he gripped the table and with the other he brushed aside circulars, bills, catalogs.
The one man who could’ve made the necessary repairs but didn’t was Mason Bretspar. He was busy. Mason sat in his Naugahyde recliner molding the fiberglass socket of his prosthetic leg with a hair dryer. Damn tech made the fit so loose it rubbed his leg to rawness and blisters. Sweat drenched the seat of his pants. Previous sweats left a salt rime in the fabric. It was so hot these days hens were laying hardboiled eggs across the county.
The portable phone lay on a TV tray next to Mason’s chair. The hair dryer nearly drowned out its ringing. He would’ve missed the call if not for the tray’s tambourine rattle.
He clicked off the dryer, rested his leg against the chair, and answered the phone.
“Yello?” he said.
“Mr. B? It’s Tye. Tye Zophres?”
“I know who you are, son.”
“You gotta come quick. Done checked on Hayden. He’s . . . he’s . . .” The boy gulped then said, “Just a glove floating on the corn. I hauled ass down that ladder, shut off the auger, and ran for my dad. Told me to call you.”
“What? Hayden? Something happen to Hayden?”
“There’s . . . I mean . . . Come quick, Mr. B. I gotta go,” and Tye hung up.
No time for a liner. Mason crammed his stump into the semi-molten socket. He pressed the black valve on the side and expelled the air. The cup squeezed his thigh.
Mason launched himself to his feet with a flip of the recliner’s lever. Put weight on his prosthesis. He wobbled then straightened. A slight twinge in the ball of nerves tucked under the skin. Mason went for his keys.
“What the hell?” Clara said, coming into the room.
She’d been doing laundry and smelled of lavender. A permanent frown mangled her face, a valance of skin hung down on the one side. It hadn’t always been so. The neuroma changed that. CAT scan revealed a white dot suspended in the wrinkled butterfly of her brain. They peeled her scalp, sawed bone, and poked around. Damaged some nerve. Hence the face.
Clara fixed her husband with a look. “What now?” she said.
Mason swayed. With one hand he gripped the table and with the other he brushed aside circulars, bills, catalogs.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“Didn’t say nothing,” Mason said.
“Well, something wrong?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”
“Is it Hayden?”
“I don’t know. Maybe . . . Yes.” The wrinkles on his face mapped his frustration. “Where’re my damn keys?”
Clara reached under a pile of torn envelopes and withdrew Mason’s key ring. She jangled them like he was a dog waiting to be walked.
“Thanks,” he said and snatched them.
“You’re welcome,” she called as he stumbled out the door.
* * *
Mason zoomed through the down-and-going outskirts of town. Past the Dairy Queen and the bait shop, the Masonic Lodge and Flyby’s Diner. Mason slurred out of his turns. He screwed stop signs and the lone traffic light that stood between him and Skip Zophres’s farm.
How many roadside shrines did he pass out here? Deflated balloons and spent candles, teddy bears secured to posts with baling wire? How many nameless crosses, sun-bleached and rain-washed, tamped in the ground?
There was something about the cut of Skip’s jib that never sat right with Mason. Perhaps it was the story his father told him about Skip’s father, Bill Zophres, who betrayed his best friend by sleeping with his wife. How the friend found Bill nailing her in the shack were he used to cook moonshine. How that friend let them live for some reason despite the hatchet in his fist. How the friend torched the shack. Mason’s father said everybody was stunned but not surprised for the same reason you’re stunned but not surprised when the sun punches a hole in the clouds.
But when Tye offered Hayden a chance to earn some money over the summer, who was Mason to say no? Mason sucked Uncle Sam’s teat ever since his now missing foot slipped a rung on that ladder and he tumbled to the pavement below. Leg amputated just below the knee. Body held together with more pins than a bowling alley. So what if Skip Zophres wanted to hire Hayden? At least the boy could work, and the pay beat minimum wage.
Hayden was only supposed to sweep up, pitch in here and there, but there were days when Hayden came home looking like the Jolly Green Giant. It took Clara no less than two hand-washings to get his clothes halfway normal, the drains and traps choked with plants.
“The hell happen to you?” Mason asked.
“Green chop,” Hayden said.
Mason had never understood why Skip didn’t just let his cows graze. It would’ve been cheaper what with diesel as high it was, but the son of a bitch preferred mowing his fields with a flail harvester and feeding the silage to his herd in the barns.
“I hope he’s being careful,” Clara always said.
“He ain’t no dummy,” Mason said.
All those near misses. Mason didn’t traffic in omens, but he couldn’t help thinking he’d neglected some warning or other.
He turned off the main drag and onto the drive leading to Skip’s farm. His tires settled into two ruts worn in the earth. A strip of grass wound down the middle. Mason crested a bend in the road that counted as a hill in those parts, and there was Skip’s place. A sprawling, low-slung complex stretched over one hundred and fifty acres. Distant machines and outbuildings iridescent in the sun.
The last-minute howl of brakes. Heads turned. A hodgepodge of rescuers. They scrambled like a kicked-over anthill. Word had spread and summoned all comers. Even seventy-year-old Harris Wasco ventured out of his tarpapered shack.
Someone had cut holes in the curved wall of the grain bin and pried the panels free with a chain and tractor. The cough of a diesel engine. A tsunami of corn. Dust plumed into the sky.
It was too late to go in with a cofferdam. That might’ve helped if they’d shut the auger off in time. So they went to work with hands and shovels, pitchforks and hoes. They formed a bucket brigade and double-timed it. This was something they could reverse. They hadn’t given in to the fruitlessness of it yet.
A strange heaviness roosted in his chest. His heart these last sixteen years had been running around inside his son, and now it stopped. Then a new feeling. As sudden as the first. He jerked to enter the fray. Skip pressed a hand to Mason’s chest.
Sheriff Gatson was there. Made pygmies look tall. He lollygagged around his cruiser. His thumb was not up his ass, but it was in the neighborhood. You’d have thought Gatson was Barney Fife and not a fifteen-year veteran what with that green face of his. Never had the stomach. A running joke in three townships. All this was above his pay grade. So he did his part comforting the Zophres family. Beryl, Skip’s wife, was a plain, small-boned woman, and she hugged her daughter Gwen who covered her face with her hand. The girl could’ve been the milkman’s daughter. Her red hair jarred with the rest of the family’s dark brown. And Tye paced back and forth, his face the product of a meat grinder, a mass of fear and confusion.
Mason saw these things and didn’t see them at the same time. His truck slid to a stop in the courtyard. Scarred the ground with tire tracks. Skip was front and center orchestrating things. He glanced, saw Mason, and bee-lined to intercept him. Mason hobbled out of his cab and limped toward the excitement. Kicked up a wall of dirt.
The herd lowed in the barn. The smell of dung stabbed Mason’s nose. Silage tarps bellied in the breeze but stayed, weighed down with scrap tires. Sweet and foul juxtaposed.
Skip’s trot came to a halt. He was a lank man with a small upthrust of hair. Skin the color of tarnished silver. He had a chapped crease for a mouth. It opened.
“We’re working to get him out,” Skip said, but Mason kept going.
Skip jogged alongside Mason who eyed the chaos before him and knew Hayden was dead. Mason’s arms hung at his sides. A strange heaviness roosted in his chest. His heart these last sixteen years had been running around inside his son, and now it stopped. Then a new feeling. As sudden as the first. He jerked to enter the fray. Skip pressed a hand to Mason’s chest.
“Might be best if you stay back,” he said.
Mason’s forehead wrinkled. He stared at Skip’s fingers. Skip had a woman’s wrist in spite of all, the upper body strength of a gnat. His fingers would’ve snapped easily. But Skip removed his hand, and Mason made like a statue.
How many roadside shrines did he pass out here? Deflated balloons and spent candles, teddy bears secured to posts with baling wire? How many nameless crosses, sun-bleached and rain-washed, tamped in the ground?
* * *
Day inherited the night. Laid a strip of red in the sky. Sheriff Gatson trained his cruiser’s spotlight on the crush of activity. He eighty-sixed the ambulance and radioed the coroner. Skip switched on his generators to power floodlights. Halogen bulbs sizzled. The lamps sapped their faces of color. Mason’s mouth was a glue trap. He didn’t ask for water.
“A foot!” someone cried. “I see a foot!”
There was no hurry, yet Mason hustled over all the same. He saw the cracked and worn boot. One of a pair Hayden owned.
Mason dropped to his knees and paddled the corn out of his way. The grain shifted and slid. He unearthed a leg, two legs, motionless. The rest of him followed. Hayden’s body was all out of whack. Legs one way, torso another. A half-solved Rubik’s cube. The crotch of his jeans was soaked. Lips blue. Skin bruised. Jaw swiveled to the left.
Mason didn’t realize until the men pulled him away, but he was yelling, cursing, shaking Hayden. Shaking him so hard. His face was a mess of tears and spit and snot. He tried to speak, but his voice was worn down to nothing. He struck the ground, furrowed the dirt with his fingers. Bowels a knot of sinew. Everything hurt.
Mason thought of the day Hayden was born. The doctor buzzed about a C-section. Then this linebacker of a nurse pushed down on Clara’s stomach and Hayden gushed out wailing. He remembered pacing for hours, Clara’s exhausted face. None of that stayed with him quite like the look his son gave him when he held him the first time. It was the look to end all looks. Devastating and sustaining.
* * *
The coroner stuffed Hayden’s body into one of those black bags. A silver zipper stitched him inside. They placed him in the van, and the engine labored down the dirt road.
Mason crouched in the dust, back against the door of his truck. Skip’s generators sobbed. The babel of onlookers walked to their vehicles, whispering. They wiped their hands on their pants, forearmed sweat from their brows, and gave him that there-but-for-the-grace-of-God look.
The glossy toe of Sheriff Gatson’s shoe emerged from the shuffle of work boots. Mason looked up. Tie yanked down and to the right, top button undone. Gatson’s collar stood open. His Adam’s apple rose and fell with each swallow. He breathed, ready to speak, but held off.
Gatson squinted, lifted his glasses to the light as if candling an egg. Then he buffed a smudge from the right lens with the tip of his tie.
“I know you don’t want to talk now,” he said, glasses back on his face. “Or ever. Some other time. I’m . . .” Mason’s face collapsed into a mute, red fist. Gatson changed his tone. “Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry, Mase. Real fucking sorry.”
And since Gatson knew what was good for him, he joined the exodus of cars.
Sometime in the night Clara must’ve come here and made his bed and straightened his things. Sunlight poked through the curtain. The furniture waited the way all sad things do. The blunt pencil on the desk. The toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.
The clouded glow of taillights dotted the dark road. Exhaust and grit hazed about. Mason coughed and heaved himself out of his squat. Skip crossed the yard with a slow, nervous gait. He moved as if obeying some code he’d rather not. They stood apart, silent. Mason could’ve cleared the space between them in three steps. Shadows sketched the ground. Skip’s mouth sputtered. Mason didn’t help him.
Skip clubbed his head with his fist, but the words wouldn’t come. Mason’s eyes started to fog. He knew better than to grab a blade and disembowel him. He liked to think so at any rate. Restraint made the fury worse. Mason saw the whole thing: cracking Skip’s skull, some noise—a gasp, a snap—him down on all fours, the heel of his boot on his skull, blood bubbling through hair and bone.
Before anything could happen, Mason climbed in his truck and stomped on the gas.
* * *
Mason didn’t want to scare the bejesus out of Clara. Hard enough being the bearer of bad news. He didn’t have to worry though. Slower than the speed of sound, the thump of his prosthesis announced his arrival well in advance.
He dragged that crippled thing he called a body into the kitchen. The fluorescents up under the cabinets shone on the counters. Clara sat slouched at the table, a basket of folded laundry by her feet. She did not look at him, but she saw him all the same. Clara brushed a strand of hair behind her ear and scratched her arm.
Mason pulled out one of the chairs. Had a butt-shaped scoop molded into the seat. The details some people worried about. Mason sat not knowing what else to do. His tongue knotted itself. Stillborn sentiments. Clara was quiet.
Then she said, “Mary Wendell called about an hour ago, told me what happened.”
Clara wove her fingers through the coiled wire linking the telephone handset to the wall mount. She looped the cord over and over. Plastic tacky in the heat.
He’d expected something more, but the more would never come. The dark hid the lopsided half of her face. She lowered her eyes to the floor. Clara looked younger for a moment, but only a moment. Then her eyes lifted and searched Mason’s face. Now she looked at him, but did she see? Mason saw the two parentheses that circled her lips. Same woman. And Mason saw a small him in her eye. His whole body stopped working. Then he tucked his lip between his teeth and skinned it. The twinge reminded him he was alive.
Clara turned away. She hadn’t found what she was looking for—or maybe she had. She stared out the small window above the sink. Through that window shone the moon. Swollen like a pregnant belly. Clara tipped her chin up and made a face like she remembered something she’d rather forget. Then she stood and left the kitchen.
* * *
Half a day later. A not-quite dawn reddened the sky. Four hours of sleep tops. Mason yawned and hoped it had been a dream, but he remembered. He rolled over. Clara lay on the bed beside him as though nailed to it. Mason fell back to sleep. Warmth pressed his shoulder. The Earth continued around the sun. Hard to believe.
He got up. Clara was missing. He looked out the window. The world was blue and white and green. It was so beautiful, and all the questions and answers were intertwined and didn’t matter anyway. It was a privilege to go to bed and wake the next morning.
Everything felt smaller and lonelier. Like that time he called the IRS helpline but worse. Mason had thought he knew what hell was. He heard the jangle of music, smelled bacon. Clara, breakfast. He’d have to face her eventually, but not yet. Mason went to Hayden’s room. Sometime in the night Clara must’ve come here and made his bed and straightened his things. Sunlight poked through the curtain. The furniture waited the way all sad things do. The blunt pencil on the desk. The toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.
Mason stood in his son’s doorway unsure how he’d face the rest of that day or any of the days to come.
* * *
So Hayden entered the cold, dark ground—the earth never satisfied with the bodies it had—and not once did Skip or his ilk stop by. Not once did they call or send a card or bring food. Not that Mason would’ve tolerated any of it, but it would’ve been the Christian thing to do.
Wal-Mart granted Clara a leave of absence, but they needed the money, and she needed out of the house even if it meant standing eight hours a day, a smile pasted on her slack face. She bore the taunts and name-calling of teenagers, the stares of adults, the finger-pointing of children. But that was as before.
But Clara’s stare harpooned him. It was like she held a rope that could tug all his guts out. Mason’s heart thrashed around. Could she hear it? Could she hear it crash in the pit of his stomach?
Clara came home, feet swollen, every breath a sigh. She complained about her boss, how he smelled like instant coffee and Pall Malls. She talked about Terri who manned the checkout, how her trips to the hairdresser cost more than a down payment on a house. And there was Jimmy who wrangled the shopping carts and hotboxed his Camry.
Clara continued these conversations they weren’t having. Mason stared at the bridge of her nose and smiled. This was life without Hayden. No high school graduation. No college. No job. No serious girlfriend. No wife. No grandbabies. It was just the two of them, their lives now suddenly jam-packed with nothing to look forward to. But he went along with the lie that everything was fine or would be in time.
Mason loafed around as before. He followed the transit of the sun across the sky, watched birds take flight like darts tossed in the air. He studied the floaters in his eyes and ate peanut butter with a spoon. He squeegeed sweat from his face with the back of his hand, wanted to bite off the faucet and guzzle the spray.
* * *
Two, three weeks after the accident, Clara suggested they see Harry Knorr.
“He’ll just talk until he’s blue in the face then charge us for all the air he breathed,” Mason said, sitting in his chain in a pair of Hanes and an undershirt.
Clara blocked the TV. She made an excellent wall. She wouldn’t move and stared at Mason until he squirmed.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“S’all a load of bilge water,” he said.
“Stop,” she said.
But Clara’s stare harpooned him. It was like she held a rope that could tug all his guts out. Mason’s heart thrashed around. Could she hear it? Could she hear it crash in the pit of his stomach?
Clara stepped toward him and stood beside his chair. She grabbed Mason’s wrist and moved her thumb across the back of his hand. She begged him with her eyes. A new look. Neither hateful nor loving. It said only that she understood.
Mason’s voice had burrowed down inside his chest, but when it returned he said, “I’ll think about it.”
The thought of visiting Harry’s office filled him with dread. How what little remained of his thinning hair sat on his head like a brown pillbox hat. His bloodshot eyes and bowties. The most lawyerly lawyer Mason had ever seen. The Latin-inscribed diplomas on the walls, the way he spoke in paragraphs. A real college boy busting out fifty-centers just to prove he’d read all the books on his shelves.
But then a convoy of trucks swollen with grain rumbled by the Bretspar house. Their fury shook the blinds, flashed code like an Aldis lamp at sea. Then the trucks returned empty. There was no doubt whose trucks they were, or that the corn was now in the wood-cribbed grain elevator outside of town, or that Skip Zophres was happier than a pig in shit. So Mason agreed to see Harry Knorr, even humored Clara by wearing a tie.
* * *
Harry Knorr’s office did not jell with the surrounding area. The fact it existed at all was a miracle. Located on a down-at-the-heels stretch of Main Street, vacant storefronts flanked Harry’s practice, their windows covered in brown paper. The old hours still stenciled on the glass. Defeat was everywhere. Inside wasn’t much better. A change without improvement. Harry’s office was, in a word, beige. Beige carpets, beige walls, beige ceiling tiles, beige secretary, even a beige fern.
Out of this floated Harry’s beige face, the texture of hardened oatmeal. The usual shaking of hands. Harry ushered the Bretspars into his office, closed the door, and asked them to sit. He sat and ran his hands along the edge of his large wood desk. Like he was stroking the neck of some prized horse.
At last he said, “I guess I don’t need to ask what brings you in today.” He had bags under the bags under his eyes. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Clara said like nothing at all. She looked at Mason.
Mason’s throat began to swell. He feared they’d hear tears bubbling in his voice. He thanked Harry with a nod.
Clara explained things as best she could. Then Harry plunged into some interminable monologue about tort. The elements of negligence: duty, breach, causation, damages. Clara dutifully scribbled notes on one of those steno pads made by proud blind Americans.
A human stench spiced the air. The musk of unbathed men and whore’s perfume. More smoke than a tire fire. Cigarettes smoldered like votives. Unanswered prayers.
Mason knew what Harry’s words normally meant—except for “tort”—but he also knew lawyers used words as a way to seek advantage. Everything was a power play with them. And so Harry talked about special relationships, duty to rescue, OSHA, negligence per se. He had this way of speaking, a certain waspy gravitas that made even the simplest pronouncements sound like the wisdom of a Supreme Court justice. Mason was fixing to punch Harry in the mouth if he didn’t get to the point.
“It’s what’s called a wrongful death action—”
Mason laughed. “Damn right it was wrongful,” he said. “Skip was the one sent Hayden in there. No harness, no safety line, no plan B.”
Clara stared at Mason like he’d farted in church. His laugh petered out. His tie suddenly felt as wide as a bib, covered in all his misspoken words. Harry coughed and directed his attention at Clara.
“Of course you could file a complaint with OSHA, but the most they’d do is fine him.”
“How much?” Clara asked.
“Hard to say. Five figures perhaps. Maybe six. But that’s pushing it.”
“And there’s always criminal charges,” Harry said. “Involuntary manslaughter, that is. Have you talked to Ray Brooks?”
Ray Brooks, the D.A. who chewed a cigar but never lit it. Teeth brown as chaw. Hand jangling the coins in his pocket to no end. A dartboard in his office plastered with the faces of his slain enemies. Glad-handing with the masses in the checkout lines.
“No, no we haven’t,” Clara said, her voice suddenly wavering.
Mason kept silent. Harry and Clara talked like he wasn’t there. Mason felt sorry for Harry, saw his whole life laid out with headings and subheadings, Roman numerals and bullet points. The kind of man who was insulated against the myriad and dire circumstances of life. Probably had a tidy whole life policy and a separate AD&D. His wife would make out best if he was mowed down by a drunk driver. Or drowned in a vat of corn. Did she know that?
Mason clenched the arm of his chair with the same vigor as he had the pistol-grip of his M-16 when he was hunkered down in his foxhole waiting for some pajama-clad slope with a Chicom AK to peek over the rim so he could send his ass to Valhalla. Just then the air was the same sticky-sour of rice wine he’d smelled for months in 1971.
Mason could see the whole ordeal unfold like an endless skein of paper. How it would end in dissatisfaction. Yet he couldn’t let Skip Zophres get away scot-free. Only so many places an uncivil shit could be.
Mason stood, leveraging all of his two hundred and sixty pounds. He grunted farewell and left the office. Furious but silent, Clara smiled wanly in apology and hurried out behind her husband. And even though they had Harry’s information, she nonetheless grabbed one his business cards from the holder on the secretary’s desk for good measure.
* * *
Mason sped past chain-smokers waiting for AA to start in St. Luke’s basement. Fritz’s Bakery came up on the right, its windows bleary with lard. He turned off the main drag and rolled up on Flamm’s tavern. The weather-beaten wreck didn’t have a proper name.
Wheels crunched gravel. Brakes yelped. Mason’s hands were red-hot. The steering wheel would’ve caught fire if he’d held it much longer. Mason took one look around that cosmos of trucks and SUVs and spied Skip’s Ford. Idiot still had a Farm Aid bumper sticker on his tailgate.
Mason shivered as he stepped over the scuffed and sole-worn sill. Red neon rubied the windowpanes. A human stench spiced the air. The musk of unbathed men and whore’s perfume. More smoke than a tire fire. Cigarettes smoldered like votives. Unanswered prayers. Years of blood and vomit varnished the floor.
Skip sat on a stool. Flamm Burke, owner and proprietor, stood before Skip. He was an old, dewlapped lizard. Scars laced his hands. Skin inked with names. Flamm set a bubbling pint before Skip who rubbed his nose with his finger and used the oily tip to stir the head, killing the carbonation. He swigged once, twice, twisted his glass.
No one paid Mason any mind. He came up behind Skip and kicked the stool out from under him. Skip’s chin connected with the lip of the bar on his way down.
Mason grabbed Skip by his collar and lifted him to his feet. He muscled him outside. Spectators ambled out behind them. Bored eyes took in the violence as Mason shoved Skip to the ground. Skip’s hands sought purchase in the sifting gravel.
A busted bike chain lay on the ground next to the shards of a bottle. Mason picked up the chain. He passed the links through his fingers. Said the rosary, or something like it.
Skip stood and turned as Mason swung the chain. It slashed diagonally left to right. Split Skip’s brow, his cheek, destroyed his nose. Blood gushed from the center of his face. Skip wailed.
Mason balled his fingers. Knuckles sapped the color from his skin. He punched Skip’s face. Punched it again. His hand exploded like a powder keg, but he didn’t quit. He pinned Skip against the hood of a car and dislodged a few of his teeth. His flesh preserved the shape of Mason’s fist. Skip hollered through a gurgle of bloody spit. Mason’s hand was now the size of a catcher’s mitt. A cold snap had burst the plumbing in his heart. He was drowning.
Mason used his fist and that bike chain and taught Skip a lesson he recited in tongue-tied pleas. Satisfied, Mason’s hands dropped to his sides. Skip writhed on the hood. He vomited suds. A groove in the steel fed his liquid to the ground. But he wasn’t finished.
Skip kicked out hard and fast. His real leg connected with Mason’s fake one, and the prosthesis came loose. Mason landed on his ass. Skip tackled him. They wormed on the ground, breathed the other man’s carbon dioxide. Mason flung out a hand and felt for his leg. He found the cool metal of his double-action joint and walloped Skip’s head with the socket. The joint flexed and creaked. Mason battered Skip’s head until all the fight was knocked out of him.
Skip crawled a few feet and slumped against the rocker panel of an old Chevrolet. Mason hoicked himself up on his elbows. His heart pounded so hard he couldn’t differentiate the beats. The show was over. The crowd melted back into the tavern.
Skip staunched the blood from his face with a handkerchief. His skin was redder than the spoken word of Jesus. Mason fussed with his pants and reattached his leg. Skip stood slowly. Mason followed suit. He stumbled upright and slapped the grime from his clothes.
“Got anymore plans for that chain?” Skip’s words sprayed through snaggletoothed gaps.
Mason looked down. His hand still held the busted bike chain, blood and dirt and grease to the quick. His mind and body disagreed. Sickness and loss and memory and gratitude flowed. Yes, even gratitude. It startled him what he could do at the drop of a hat, and sometimes there wasn’t even a hat, but now he knew what he was incapable of. Mason might’ve laughed or cried if not for the heavy weight rooting him where he stood. He dropped the chain.
Mason stared at Skip. A car laid rubber several streets over. A spray of sound, then nothing. The top and bottom of Mason’s face pinched together. His pulse drummed in his ears. He was lost in his own heads-or-tails confusion.
Sunset cracked the sky like a pomegranate. Spots of red and purple and blue. Mason wanted to get home before Clara finished her shift. He needed to cook up a lie so she wouldn’t get all flustered. His desire to hurt Skip sank. If it surfaced again the same or something else, so be it.
“I forgive you,” he said, and repeated it to himself, and did not believe.
Spencer Van Dyke lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His stories have appeared in TINGE Magazine, Bluestem, and elsewhere; however, this appearance in Lunch Ticket marks his first publication in several years. He attributes the lull to attending law school from which he graduated in May 2018. He currently clerks for the Orphans’ Court Division of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. And no, the court has very little to do with actual orphans. As with most legal jargon, some long-dead Englishman is to blame for the confusion.
Photo Credit: Ashley Shaw
Ahsan opened the sliding glass door and stepped out. He inhaled deeply and broke into a cough. The air was thick, murky and filled with an unrelenting stink—as if a gang of motorcyclists had fired up their engines and aimed into the yard. Ahsan covered his mouth and walked out farther. His mother had explicitly instructed him to play in his room with the air filter on. He tried to keep himself busy but none of it felt right. He needed the wickets.
Roobi had gone into her bedroom to take a short nap but had fallen into a deep sleep. The conversation from the night before continued to circulate in her head.
Someone did this, Layth said over dinner, his words filled with spit. The guy was a religious fanatic and all the neighbors knew it.
Roobi didn’t respond. If it wasn’t this, it was some other gripe about work or neighbors or parents.
Some guy, pale as the white sand, lights a fire leaving half of the state to burn and all they call him is an arsonist. A goddamn arsonist.
All night, you’ve been complaining about the fire as if it’s the end of the world and now you’re acting like it’s nothing.
Roobi shushed him.
Goddamn, Ahsan repeated and laughed.
Don’t use that word, Layth said in a scolding tone.
Ahsan’s face dropped. Roobi glared at her husband. His harshness had grown since they’d moved to the Villa compound. They had left their life in the city for Ahsan. Their crew of friends—rising editors, media-makers, producers—were all about outdoing each other with their weddings, home purchases and now their children. But with Ahsan, Roobi suddenly didn’t fit in. She found herself shutting down when they talked about how quickly their children were walking, swimming, or riding horses. The schools and the doctors pushed Roobi to put Ahsan on an alphabet of drugs but she resisted. She found a special program near the Villa compound. She realized Layth had acquiesced to the move but not fully agreed.
Can I see the red balls of fire? Ahsan asked.
No, Ahsan. It’s not something to see, Roobi responded.
But what about storm tornadoes?
It’s not here, she said.
Then where? he whined.
Just finish your food, Roobi said curtly, then regretted her tone.
Back in the bedroom, Layth continued to complain. I’m sure they’re going to cancel our fire insurance. Why wasn’t this in the brochure when they sold us the perfect community—prone to fire damage.
We should leave, Roobi said.
What do you mean?
Evacuate. We could rent a place back in the city for a week or two.
They’ll tell us when to go. The river protects us. Plus, the weather is cooling down.
I’m surprised you’re not jumping at the opportunity to move back to the city, she said.
What about Ahsan’s school?
Roobi felt her anger rise up. All night, you’ve been complaining about the fire as if it’s the end of the world and now you’re acting like it’s nothing.
Layth didn’t respond. He was in bed and on his phone. Roobi left the room and sat at the kitchen table. She pulled out her laptop and searched for short-term rentals. The next morning, she and Layth barely spoke. He left for work even though it was a Saturday and she spent the morning with Ahsan. By mid-afternoon, she was exhausted. She instructed Ahsan to stay indoors and went to her room.
Roobi felt a jolt. She thought someone was shaking her but then heard her phone go off. She reached over and saw dozens of messages—a mix of alerts, and missed calls and texts from Layth.
The wickets were lying flat on the ground. Ahsan picked them up and stuck them into the dirt. When they’d gone to Pakistan the year before, he’d seen the kids playing cricket in the streets and wanted to join. His father told him he couldn’t and Ahsan was devastated. Later that day, Layth came home with a cricket set. The bat was too heavy so they created their own version. They set up the wickets in the grass and Ahsan threw a football until they fell down. When they got back home, his father played with him every weekend. As the year passed, Layth made excuses and soon, Ahsan was playing on his own.
Roobi felt a jolt. She thought someone was shaking her but then heard her phone go off. She reached over and saw dozens of messages—a mix of alerts, and missed calls and texts from Layth. Leave, leave now, get out, run. The winds had shifted, the fire had taken a turn, jumped the river and was heading towards them.
Still disoriented, she felt a stillness in the house. Then she realized, she couldn’t hear Ahsan. She called out his name, running from room to room. She looked out the back window and saw red storm clouds rising across the horizon. Down below, she saw her son.
Ahsan threw the ball and the last wicket went down. Now, his day would be okay. He looked up at the sky. It was bursting bright crimson, as if the sun had descended down on earth. Ahsan was mesmerized, he was finally seeing the fire tornadoes. Then, what was cities away was right on top of him. He heard his mother scream and felt her grab his arm, and they were running.
Saba Waheed won the 2016 Water~Stone Prize in Fiction and was a finalist for the 2018 Reynold Price Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in The Southeast Review, Hyphen Magazine, Cosmonaut Avenue (fiction prize shortlist 2016), and others. She co-produces the radio show “Re:Work,” winner of a Gracies by the Alliance for Women in Media. Saba works as the research director at the UCLA Labor Center using research as a tool to elevate community stories.
We weren’t supposed to be out after the streetlight came on. But here we were, my older brother and I, walking down the street to the corner store. Joey was supposed to walk me back home after getting me from my best friend Kayla’s house, but he had other plans.
“I just have to meet with Rob real quick,” he told me. “The streetlight only been on for a second. Mama won’t trip.”
Mama was old school. We had phones but she still went by the streetlight to give us a curfew because that’s how she grew up. I thought I was old enough to walk home by myself. It was the first time Mama let me hang out at Kayla’s—after I begged her for a million months—and she made Joey walk me there and back. She had two jobs and was always at work so she couldn’t take me. But as hard as Mama worked, she couldn’t afford to get Joey a car.
“She’s gonna kill us, Joey,” I said. Mama was as mean as a bull when we ignored her rules, and Joey knew it, but he always chose to do whatever he wanted. Since he claimed to be the “man of the house,” I decided it wasn’t worth the fuss. We’d be home soon and he’d explain the situation to Mama.
Joey got on my nerves every time he told me that, but I knew there was a bit of truth to it.
Joey walked me by my wrist, his head whipping left and right to check his surroundings. Screen doors hung off hinges and bricks were missing from fronts of houses. Residents sat on their porches, smoking a joint or enjoying a beer. Their children played curb ball in the middle of the narrow street until a car came, or until their parents cussed them out and told them to come play in the yard—what little yard they did have. A small tree in front of the neighborhood church was surrounded by teddy bears, flowers, and balloons to mourn a black male in the neighborhood who was murdered by an officer a week ago. I remembered the story from the news.
“Why you gotta meet him right this minute?” I asked, wiping sweat from the summer’s heat off my forehead.
Guys older than me in tank tops and sagging jeans stood at the end of the block on the corner, yelling about sports or betting money in dice games. Everyone seemed to know each other, laughing as they leaned over the dice, picking up cash from the sidewalk as quickly as it was thrown down. This neighborhood was only two blocks away from our house, but it was different. I was used to greener yards that were mowed and neighbors who were too busy to hang out on the porch. But this place was beautiful in its own way, because our neighborhood didn’t have this type of community. Mama wouldn’t see it that way if she knew we were staying around here though, especially after dark.
“Just stay close to me,” Joey said, gripping my wrist and pulling me. I rolled my eyes. Joey thought because I was only fourteen I didn’t have the right to demand answers. I wasn’t “grown enough,” he always said. But he was only four years older than me.
Joey got on my nerves every time he told me that, but I knew there was a bit of truth to it. Our dad left us when I was twelve. Mama wouldn’t tell us why and neither did he. I came home from school one day to see Mama sitting at the dining table crying, Joey rubbing her back. Her soft, plump hands covered her face.
What’s wrong? I mouthed to Joey.
Dad left, he mouthed back.
I squinted and cocked my head at him. Why? I didn’t want to ask Mama, so I kissed her hands and went upstairs to my room, throwing myself on the bed. I stared at the ceiling and cried for hours, wondering what we did for Dad to leave us. Joey came in my room that evening and said Dad packed his clothes, took the rent money, and left while Mama was at work. He told me it wasn’t our fault. I didn’t believe him. Joey said we had to make Mama’s life easier from then on. Because we were all she had.
Since then, Joey did everything to provide for us. If Mama was short on rent, Joey came up with it. If I needed school supplies or new clothes, Joey figured it out. If I needed to talk about the annoying boys at school or the girls who didn’t do anything but gossip, I could go to him for advice and laughs. And of course, he also gave me fake big brother threats like: “You better not be worried about these lil’ knucklehead boys or I’ll rough ‘em up.” Aside from Kayla, he was my best friend. I owed him a lot. But I owed Mama just as much.
We walked past that group of guys and they sized me up. Their eyes were glued to my chest like they were watching a Superbowl. Mama said I developed quicker than other girls my age. Boys at school called me “thick” because of my large thighs and wide hips. I hated it.
“Hey lil’ mama,” one of them said as his coarse hands reached for mine. I snatched my hand away. Joey pulled me closer. He stared at them with a clenched jaw, eyebrows meeting in anger, and mumbled, “Hurry up, JaCie.” I could tell they were much older than him, and we both knew his chances of winning a fight with them were slim. Joey had the build of a boy my age. We blamed it on my skinny dad.
“If you didn’t have me out past the street light, I bet you no one would be grabbing for me,” I challenged, rolling my neck. The older men were out of earshot.
“Now you and I both know that’s a lie,” he chuckled. “This neighborhood is bad in broad daylight.”
“So why the heck you got me out here after the streetlight?” I punched him lightly in his arm. He rubbed the cursive tattoo on his bicep, which read: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
“JaCie, chill out man. I got business to handle.”
I was ready to go home. I had been ready since I left Kayla’s. But Mama would have a fit if I went home without Joey. And I wasn’t trying to get him in trouble.
After walking up another block, we arrived at the corner store. It sat in front of a Popeye’s, with only an alley separating them. The red Mini Mart sign atop the store glowed in the darkness. The store was small with “WE ACCEPT EBT” signs plastered on its glass walls, along with other taped-on flyers. People leaned on the store’s glass or chatted in a circle. A cop car slowed down as it approached the store, then turned the corner to check out another street. I figured the cop was just doing his rounds.
“Shit, the police out tonight,” Joey said under his breath.
“Can I at least tell Mama we’ll be late?”
“What? No. Do this for me, just this once.”
“I got that New Drake,” a man announced as we approached the door, walking toward us. He opened his large, black CD case and pointed to the disc.
“I’m alright,” I said and waved him off. I didn’t know people still listened to CDs anyways.
“There go Rob right there.” Joey spotted him leaning on the glass further away from the entrance. Joey never told me what he did when he met with his “friends” but I wasn’t dumb. No matter how young he thought I was.
“Wassup, boy,” Rob said, shaking up with Joey.
“Wassup,” Joey replied with an upward head nod.
“Who’s this? Your girl?” Rob looked me up and down. He smoked a Black & Mild Cigar. I waved the grape-scented smoke out of my face and crossed my arms over my chest.
“Oh. This is just my little sis, JaCie,” Joey said. I didn’t know whether to wave, so I opted for silence.
Rob nodded and let out more smoke from his cigar. He had the darkest skin I’d ever seen and a silky goatee. He looked older than Joey. He wore a permanent frown and his eyes were hard, like he didn’t have a smile left to give.
“So, what’s up? Let’s talk without your sister around.” Rob gestured toward the alley.
Joey glanced back at me, forehead wrinkled and eyebrows raised.
“She’s only 14. I can’t leave her out—,” he started.
“I said let’s go talk in private.”
Rob walked away and put out his cigar. He slipped his hands in his pockets. Joey combed his dreads with his fingers and his light brown skin turned rosy.
“Stay right here. Do not move, JaCie. I mean it,” Joey stressed. He followed Rob into the alley. I joined the others against the glass and pulled my iPhone 5 out of my back pocket. Three texts and eight missed calls from Mama.
8:59 p.m. I’m worried about y’all. Answer the phone
9:01 p.m. You two should have been home by now
9:05 p.m. CALL ME ASAP! I MEAN IT JACIE
I didn’t click on the text thread so she wouldn’t know I read them.
“Mama” came across my screen again. I let it ring until she hung up. Knowing her, she’d call again. But what would I say if I answered? Guilt rushed through my body. I hated ignoring her just for Joey to do dumb stuff. Mama had been through enough with us.
And maybe it was a rite of passage for them, but I felt like the new Barbie on the shelves everyone gawked over.
There was the time when I told Mama I was spending the night at my old best friend’s house when really, we had snuck to a party thrown by high schoolers. Our ride wouldn’t answer the phone once the party got shut down, so we had to call Mama instead. There was the time Joey got suspended from school for fighting—actually, there were a bunch of times that happened. And there were plenty of times Mama had to leave work midday or leave her bed at night because of us. We were supposed to be making her life easier.
“Come on, Joey,” I mumbled. I tapped my foot and my eyes darted around as I waited.
Men were gathered outside as if hanging at the corner store was a rite of passage to live here. And maybe it was a rite of passage for them, but I felt like the new Barbie on the shelves everyone gawked over.
“Man, chill out!” Joey yelled. His voice squeaked like one of the boys at my school. That’s how Joey got when he was nervous.
I walked toward the alley, heart thumping in my chest loud enough to bury the rest of the noise on the street. I stood at the corner of the store and strained to hear their conversation. Mama started calling and against my better judgement, I ignored her.
“Rob, why you acting like I don’t keep my word?” Joey’s voice shook.
“Shut up,” Rob said through clenched teeth. “You supposed to have my money. You know who you playin’ with?”
“I told you I’ll have it. Just give me a few days.”
“I already gave you a few days!”
Mama called again. I put the phone in my pocket and let it vibrate. What looked like the same cop approached the corner store and slowed down near the alley. He rolled down his passenger window to look at Joey and Rob, then pulled into the parking lot. Men who previously stood against the store window scattered as if they had plans to leave anyways. I didn’t budge but white cops always made me nervous.
The officer got out and adjusted his hat. He walked past the store entrance, walking by the men who were leaving, and headed in my direction. He nodded at me, but I stared back with furrowed brows. The officer gripped the gun in his holster so tight his hands were red like blood. My stomach felt hollow as I realized the danger Joey could be in if the officer approached them.
“What’s going on?” the officer asked as he approached Rob and Joey. I inched closer to the edge of the building to see what the cop would do next. His hand was still on his gun.
“Nothing, just chatting,” said Rob.
“Chatting, huh? Let me see your IDs.”
“Don’t you have to have a reason to ask for our IDs?” Rob asked.
“You two standing in the alley arguing is reason enough. IDs,” the officer reinforced.
If I didn’t move, this time it would be Joey on the news.
Rob and Joey dug in their pockets and handed the officer their IDs. The officer examined Rob’s then handed it back to him. He brought Joey’s ID to eye level and peered over the edge to look at him.
“You’re only eighteen. What are you doing out here?”
Wrong answer, Joey. Wrong freakin’ answer.
“Grown,” the officer scoffed, shoving the ID back in Joey’s hand. “I asked what you were doing out here. I didn’t want a smart aleck remark.”
Joey glanced at Rob, hoping he’d offer the officer an explanation. Rob looked in the other direction.
“I told you, we were just chatting.”
“Well if you were just chatting, smart ass, empty your pockets for me.”
Joey stood still.
“I said empty your pockets. Both of you!”
Rob emptied his pockets, setting a 2-pack of Strawberry Swisher Sweets, a lighter, a wad of cash, and his Galaxy S5 on the ground. The officer turned to Joey.
“Your turn, boy,” the officer urged.
Joey stuffed his hands in his pockets but didn’t move afterward and didn’t say a word.
“Joey, just do it!” I yelled, walking to the front of the alley. The lights from Popeye’s drive-through shone into the alley. A dumpster sat against the wall of the corner store, with broken-down boxes leaning against it.
“JaCie, back up. Okay? I don’t want you to get hurt,” Joey turned and said. He turned his body back to the officer and the officer had his gun aimed at Joey’s chest. Joey put his trembling hands up in surrender. I had never seen a gun, in person at least. It was small but the metal gleamed in the dark. Sweat glistened on the back of Joey’s neck and his upper body heaved with every quick breath he took.
“Little girl, listen to him. Get back,” the officer demanded. I felt paralyzed. I didn’t know what move to make. So, I stood there, feet planted to the cracked sidewalk like they were cemented in.
“Empty your damn pockets,” the officer said, gun still trained on Joey. Rob watched. If Joey emptied his pockets, he’d probably go to jail. If Joey didn’t empty his pockets, he’d probably get shot. And from the looks of it, he was too scared to move. I knew the officer was ready to shoot Joey. He was black. He was in an alley. And he seemed to be up to no good.
If I didn’t move, this time it would be Joey on the news. He’d be one of those hashtags on Twitter but instead the tweets would say #JoeyGreene #BlackLivesMatter. It would be my fault for not protecting my big brother after the countless times he’d protected me and made sure I didn’t need for anything. Maybe if I just directed the officer’s attention toward me, Joey could get rid of whatever was in his pockets and we could go home.
I bolted toward them. My crossbody bag smacked against my hip and my kinky hair blew away from my face. The olive oil from my curls leaked down my face and neck. A bead of sweat crept to my eyebrow. My sandals slapped the ground and my mouth was wide open but I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I didn’t know if it was because I was running or because I was scared but I kept going and my chest heaved and my heart pounded and tears stung my eyes. Even when I tried to blink my tears away and my wet eyelashes brushed against my skin, I kept my eyes on Joey. Even when I took the back of my hand and wiped underneath my eye, I kept my eyes on Joey. His body jerked like he wanted to stop me. I couldn’t let him out of my sight. I knew I wasn’t as quick as a bullet could be but I had to distract the officer before he decided that Joey’s life wasn’t valuable. Because it was. To me and to Mama.
I ignored the constant vibrating of my phone from Mama’s call. I ignored the many eyes that begged me to stop running toward the officer. I tuned out Joey’s yells to get back. I didn’t hear the officer shout “Freeze!” I didn’t see him turn the gun toward me instead. I didn’t hear the click clack of the officer cocking his gun. And I didn’t hear the bang the gun released when the officer pulled the trigger. Then, I collapsed, one foot from Joey.
Arriel Vinson is an Indiana native who writes about being young, black, and in search of freedom. She is an MFA fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and received a BA in journalism from Indiana University. Her poetry has been published in [PANK] Magazine and also won third place prize in LUMINA Journal, judged by Donika Kelly. She has had essays/articles published in Blavity,HuffPost, and elsewhere.
Photo Credit: Reece T Williams
Two boys barely in their teens who want to be untethered, to fire a gun and become men in place of their missing fathers, climb the stairs to the apartment tower’s rooftop where lies hidden under a scorched plate of sheet metal is an old rifle, abandoned by a man now gone—dead, jailed, or married and fat. They place it on the crumbled concrete ledge overlooking the half of Aleppo that lies flat and empty, an ancient neighborhood seemingly eroded like sand castles on the shores of Lake Assad. The boys take turns shooting at targets on the desolate street below. They start with the inanimate: a defiant traffic sign standing among the remains of what was once a busy street corner, the black skeletons of bombed out cars thrown about as if heaved by giants, a faded face on an old election poster hanging on a pockmarked wall.
A ballerina poses nude in the airless living room of her apartment with curtains drawn.
Inevitably the prosaic builds toward bloodshed as the boys graduate to moving bodies, hopelessly firing at the white dot of a plane crossing the pale blue sky, then placing crosshairs on a frail stray dog crossing the street below and blowing up dust in its wake as it races to the sanctuary behind the booted feet of a group of men. The boy with his finger on the trigger fires a stray bullet and motivates them to dance. The men answer back with a fireball that shrieks through the air toward the boys and those under their feet, feet still growing into the footsteps of their fathers.
A ballerina poses nude in the airless living room of her apartment with curtains drawn. Every night at six on the dot she used to assume this position with friends in a nearby studio but clothed under the eyes of a merciless instructor. Now she is alone in the city, where the heat is only slightly less suffocating than the fog of loneliness. Even the vantage points from which to spy her nakedness through the open windows are gone, reduced to dust and hollowed shells. But she wishes the entire city, the entire country, could see her now, for she is going to break the record. She closes her eyes and lets her imagination take her to a new theater, not of war but of performing arts. She stands on the polished stage of the Damascus Opera House under a spotlight of sunbeams shining through cracked glass. The battered living room walls unfurl into an audience of well-dressed men and women reclining in cushioned chairs. She takes a deep breath of stagnant air then begins to spin on one pointed foot. Though malnourished and weak, she dances; in the face of death, she fouettes. Sweat begins to sparkle on her wispy frame. She spins and spins, faster and faster, the pain rising with every turn—eighty, ninety, one hundred! The audience explodes in thunderous applause; she exhales. The applause turns deafening; she gasps.
She is woken by crackling gunfire and a bittersweet thought: Mother will die today. It was in a vivid dream, the feelings of which freshly reverberate through her body. She was crossing a deserted street when something drew her attention to an open window above. Standing at the window was a painted glass woman with the thick brows of her mother. Suddenly she fell like a glass pushed off a counter top and shattered into a million pieces. The impact was so heavy, the glass shards blew into her face and tickled her skin with the gentle caress of a lover saying goodbye. She pushes herself up and looks over at her mother, who lies on the other side of the bed still sleeping. Perhaps it was not a vision, but a dreamy enactment of a subconscious wish. Her mother tosses and turns and moans as gun blasts echo outside. “Idiots,” she softly hisses. “Don’t they know some of us are trying to sleep.” Though she wanted to say “grieve.” She strokes her mother’s face to soothe her, her fingers gliding around hollowed eyes and cheeks on caramel-colored skin fading to a dull gray. Her mother’s breath cackles like television static. She will die, if not today, soon. The silent monitor next to the bed stringed with dry IV bags is a testament to that. She can prepare to leave now, to flee north, to wake on a hard metal bed with strangers traversing a bumpy road under quiet stars. She sits and swings her legs over the bed, but as soon as she places a toe on the floor her mother sighs in the same mellifluous pitch as she did to catch her breath after a fit of laughter. It sends a wave of guilt crashing into her, and she falls back upon the bed as if plunging into a pool of water, drowning in solitude. Then a shadow fills the room and they both sink deeper into the mattress.
“The floor is hot lava,” the boy shouts as he jumps atop the end table while his sister runs across the sofa to the armrest. The room transforms into a volcanic wasteland. The furniture turns an oily black and hard. From their obsidian perches, the siblings survey the oozing, orange fiery river that moments before had been a worn hardwood floor. They laugh at their tormentor, for once they can see it and evade its reach. The girl crouches as she gathers the courage, drawing on the repressed energy from forever being told what not to do, to take the biggest leap, a five-foot gap to the solitary armchair-shaped island rising in the open lake of fire. Before she can jump, her brother springs to her side and places his hand firmly on her right shoulder. He’s been told to protect her, to keep her from treacherous situations. But to her surprise, he reaches down and locks his hand with hers and then crouches down, too. They launch themselves into the thick, gaseous air and release heartful, excited cries. Halfway across, above a neatly carved rectangular stone sprouting ash trays, the sky opens and thrusts them down into a sudden cascade of lava.
The man on the floor curses his toes. He begs forgiveness, then starts over. The verses of the Quran roll off his white, chapped lips. It’s a marvel he can still feel his toes at all, lying in prostration all day on the floor of his dilapidated apartment, cutting off the circulation in his legs. Pale and thin, his bones protrude through the skin, resembling a desert carcass. His friends and family refer to him as a pile of grief decorated in soiled clothes. The first few days after the tragedy, they brought food, but the parade of well-wishers stopped as the dishes collected on the kitchen counter, cold, spoiled, and untouched. Food could not be wasted on a man who chooses not to partake in the ritual of survival. They thought his grief was so heavy he couldn’t even rise to his feet, unaware that it is he who is applying the pressure, interrupting his perpetual prayer only for the all-powerful thirst for water and the need to use the toilet. Now, after fourteen days of fasting and prayer, he’s betrayed by twitching terminal digits. He tries to swallow but his mouth is as dry as the wind blowing through the shattered windows. He feels a sharp pain in his stomach and yet a euphoric dizziness. Rising from the floor, the figures of his wife and five children appear in a gentle white glow. Reality itself seems to be tearing at the seams. It’s finally happening, he thinks, his devotion is being rewarded. His family is coming home. Every fiber left in his withered body twitches with the desire to stand and embrace their ghostly bodies, but he does not want to lose them again. He forces himself to remain still, to pray faster, his lips moving in a fervid pitch. Even as his mind violently spins. Even as he stumbles over the verses. Even as the fire in his joints flare. Even as the children above pound on the floor. Even as they tumble down atop him in a crash.
Seven stories above an idling windowless van, a family scrambles to pack their belongings. The children finish first and obediently stand by the door, each clutching small backpacks stuffed with clothes and toys. All they’ve been told is that they are going on a journey to a place with quiet skies and endless sweets. Their mother and father shuffle from room to room, hastily chanting “no” back and forth. They step into the spare bedroom that serves as the father’s prized library, shelf after shelf of books on epistemology and ethics, thick and worn, the ones that taught him and the ones he used to teach his pupils. He begins to weep. “All of them,” he says. “No! How could we carry them?” their mother says. “Come, we need only you,” she pleads as she pulls at his sleeve. “But, they are me,” he says. The driver of the waiting van honks wildly, ending the debate. “Hurry!” the father says. He plucks one weighty tome off a shelf and drops it into the small unsuspecting hands of the youngest child, who nearly topples over. In panicked movements, their mother and father grab anything in sight and put as much of it as they can into large canvas bags and their outstretched arms. The family lurches toward the door, burdened by their life’s possessions and the building pressure of their surroundings and of vanishing time. “It’s all so heavy,” one child says. So heavy they do not leave Aleppo.
Apartment 6A tells a dark mystery. You push open the door hanging off a hinge and enter. The first thing you notice is the smell. In the tiny kitchen to your left, the refrigerator is wide open, stocked with rotten food. The apartment is silent, not even the low hum of electricity is present. You walk around the counter into the hallway and find the apartment turned upside down. The furniture is smashed, and the floor is riddled with clothes and broken glass. Now you follow the dark trail on the floor leading into the master bedroom.
Before father threatened to light her on fire. Before twenty years of family dishonor and separation.
It’s difficult to see in here. The only light in the room is that which outlines the edges of the window shades. Yet, you make out five black blots with thick clumps descending in height along the far wall—six feet, five feet, four feet, three feet, three feet. You peel back the shades to let the light in. Then you look again and realize the colorful splashes are dried blood and brain matter. There are no bodies, except for the nameless faces in picture frames on the dresser against the opposite wall. You can search for clues of who died and why, but you won’t find a satisfying answer. You can stand in any place in history and ask for eternity, “What happened here?” You stay too long in 6A, and the mystery consumes you.
Newlyweds embrace on the floor behind pinned sheets secluding their corner of the bedroom. Though privacy for the two young lovers is only a thin plane of cloth, it does not stop them. Wedded in ceasefire, they now consummate as the sounds of war ring out again. They gently roll and grasp and thrust and the echo of gunfire does not stop them. The coarse carpet is rough on their skin, leaving cherry red marks, but that does not stop them. His overgrown beard chaffs her mouth, but she does not stop kissing him. She thinks of the boy he once was, hesitant to ask girls at parties to dance. On the dance floor, his delicate touch made her feel as if she was dancing with a ghost. But that shyness does not stop him now. Pain for once feels good. Lost in the excitement and nervousness of the first time and the hope for a child, the grim world beyond the sheets does not stop them. Their heavy breathing aligns like a sweet asthmatic duet. They reach climax and shake in ecstasy and the whole world shakes with them. Then everything stops.
In apartment 4B, an elegy populates on a green-lit screen:
Brother I don’t think we’ll make it
I can’t speak if they hear me they will take my phone or my life
I wanted to hear your voice one last time to say good bye to thank you for trying
What is the matter brother, where are you now?
Huddled on the beach, tired and cold waiting for the sun to set so we may flee in the night
I don’t think the sea will hold us
I thought we paid dearly for better
Brother, don’t despair, don’t lose hope
For now, the road to freedom will just have to be crossed on anything that can float
I’m sorry if you’ve wasted our fortune on me
The price is worth it for the hope of us all
I will follow you soon, brother
We are treated like animals
You are brave and strong, you can make it
They are beating people for more money now, women and children
Send the last payment now in case they come for me
Here they come send the money now and save me
Hold on I hear gunfire
Send help now brother
Two sisters turned widows drink hibiscus tea. After days of forced conversation, they share a comfortable silence. The first since they were teens. Before the oldest sister ran away with a bad man. Before father threatened to light her on fire. Before twenty years of family dishonor and separation. Before she unexpectedly appeared at her younger sister’s door, both now old and alone. They catch each other stealing glances, then exchange smiles and divert their eyes, wanting to preserve the moment, to keep it like a framed photo in their minds. The younger sister opens her mouth to speak but quickly closes it. The ember of ire still burning inside impels her to lunge for the paring knife on the table. She reaches for it and lets her hand hesitate above the plastic hilt, but then eagerly grasps for her sister’s chaffed, worn fingers. They lock hands and reassuringly shake them for a few, long exaggerated seconds, as if actors on the soap operas they religiously watched after school, waiting for the credits to roll and the director to call “cut.” The sisters lean into each other and embrace. The tea cups rattle on saucers like the jubilant applause of a porcelain studio audience. Then they fall into each other’s arms forever.
When the body is worked to bone, it forgets. The body of a man coated in dust forgets to shower. The heavy, bearded man forgets to remove his soiled clothes and battered white helmet. He submissively topples onto his bed as if executed. The sounds of silence long forgotten, phantom phone calls and ambulance sirens ring in his ears. He has forgotten he lives alone, because the dead won’t let him forget them. He pulls the bedsheet over his head to hide. Exhaustion finally overcomes him. He drifts away to sleep, but he’s forgotten how to dream. He only has nightmares where he forgets to stop working. In this one, a shadowy figure trapped atop a mound of rubble cries for help. It calls out in a voice he’ll never forget, the voice of his daughter. He scrambles up the broken concrete blocks toward her. But the mound starts to rise higher and higher, taking her away like an unforgiving manmade swell. He loses his footing and tumbles down to the ground. When he picks himself up, bombs start to fall around him like raindrops. He tries to flee but he’s forgotten how to run. His legs just move in place. The circle of a shadow over him grows bigger and a howl from above comes nearer. He is hit and the real cellphone rings and sirens can’t wake the body.
Class is in session in the confines of a bunker-like room in the basement. The yellow glow of bare light bulbs illuminates a young music teacher trying to save the world. She claps at a swift tempo. CLAP. Small young boys and girls sit on the cold, bare floor and clap along. CLAP. CLAP. Mothers and guardians loom behind them CLAP. They sing songs in Arabic CLAP and Kurdish CLAP and Circassian CLAP. Songs from Damascus CLAP and Hama CLAP and Homs CLAP. The teacher strikes with the cleaver of music CLAP to open a crevice CLAP in their minds CLAP, so they may understand one another CLAP. On the strike of hands CLAP the lights cut out, casting them in darkness. A thunderous ROAR fills the room, as if a train is approaching ROAR. The children start to SCREAM. SCREAM. ROAR. The ground and walls tremble, then crumble. ROAR. The screams of children die SCREAM in the wave of thunder ROAR. CRASH. SILENCE. A moment passes, then the survivors wake, and sounds begin to register in their conscious. The clink of concrete shards bouncing CLINK CLINK down the tower’s remains. Moans and cries OHH arise from somewhere in this dark cavern created by someone above. The young music teacher opens her eyes to find all is black. She cannot move OHH. Suddenly, a sliver of light appears in the darkness, flickering like a star. SCRATCH. SCRATCH. As her vision refocuses, she realizes it’s not a celestial object SCRATCH. She is looking up, toward the surface SCRATCH. What she sees are hands, tiny hands digging through a crack SCRATCH. The light of the sun breaks through, and the tiny hands shine as if they are the source emanating the light, a light that leads the way out SCRATCH. The future is in tiny hands of light SCRATCH. The teacher feels the lightness of hope and a cool breeze on her face as if she were standing before an open window. SCRATCH. SCRATH. The breeze grows heavier now, as if she is a bird in flight. She hears the wind rush in WHOOSH.
Jacob Schroeder is a writer living in a town close enough to Detroit to tell people while traveling that he’s from Detroit. A graduate of Michigan State University, he funds his nightly writing habit as a communications executive. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, FLASH magazine, The Rumpus, Maudlin House, and Across the Margin, among other publications. His story, “In the Land in Between,” was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize by Rum Punch Press.
March 21st, 1982:
Cardboard televisions. My father and I are putting together cardboard televisions. He flips one right side up, slips two thick square tabs into the hollow slots they’re meant to go inside.
Flanigan’s Family Furniture in Jamaica, Queens, has started using these, and that’s where she got the idea. My mother. Except now, our store has more than theirs. We place the TVs on low tables anchoring pastel chintz sofa sets and blue and white striped loveseats in square formations around them.
Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” has been the number one single for what I’ve tracked so far as seven weeks. I’m writing about this and how she was born with the last name Larkin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, started the Runaways when she was only a year older than I am now.
We’re creating more of a home atmosphere, my father says. I fold the cardboard along its dotted lines, keep slipping the tabs inside the right slots, which turn them into boxes. My father flips one right side up and starts to tell me about how my uncle Anatoly once trained himself to swim for fifteen hours underwater, trying to leave Russia for Turkey during WWII.
“Lots of people tried,” he tells me, “but they all got caught.”
I ask what happened when he swam the ocean, but my father clarifies that uncle Anatoly trained; he did not try.
“But he did once receive a posted letter from the only man to have made it.” My father sits at his desk now, a desk which is for sale.
We are Vaserman’s in Brighton Beach, edging up along the technicolored Coney Island peninsula, the only store which carries oak in four different shades. I’m only five inches shorter than my father who, at six foot three, ducks under the doorway leading to the back office then up the stairs to the second-floor apartment of our two-story flat— the same stairs where he descends from to work each day.
My mother stands behind the cash register with a bottle of lemon Pledge, spraying the Formica countertop in kinetic circles and telling me I should join the boys’ swim team at my school, and that I, like uncle Anatoly, have the build to swim an ocean.
“Swimming is in your blood,” she tells me.
“Uncle Anatoly is just a story you tell me when you want me to do something,” I say.
My mother throws her arms up, breathes in just as the doorbell chimes and a customer opens the door.
I finish the last television on my own and place it inside a black-lacquered media center, returning to sit in our storefront window at a white, tulip-based table I’ve covered with People magazines, going back to my homework. It’s supposed to be a report on a current event, one we’ve chosen on our own.
Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” has been the number one single for what I’ve tracked so far as seven weeks. I’m writing about this and how she was born with the last name Larkin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, started the Runaways when she was only a year older than I am now.
I think that this gives me one year to figure out something, something revolutionary to do, but time feels like it’s pressing down on me and I don’t even know how to play guitar.
The customer moves methodically around the store, runs her hands along the tops of sectional sofas, the edges of overstuffed chairs but doesn’t stop to sit on a single one.
My mother asks if there is anything in particular the woman is looking for, but the woman only sighs and says no, not really.
“Анатолий просто история. Я не плавание.”
[“Anatoly is just a story. I’m not swimming,”] I tell them, and the woman looks up at me.
I know she wants to know what I’ve said, but my mother takes her attention by telling her that the sofa the woman is standing in front of folds out to become a sofa bed.
I see the woman nods her head as though she likes this but she does not smile; this woman does not seem to smile much. I notice where I would expect there to be lines on her face from years of smiling that there aren’t many. It’s the same thing I’ve thought about my mother, how she could have more smile lines. I believe that the two of them could probably be great friends. They could meet up, neither smile at each other’s stories, taking solemn sips of chamomile tea. But maybe the lady drinks coffee, and my mother wouldn’t approve. Caffeine is a drug. It’s a real drug, she’s told me. In which case if the lady drank coffee, they’d have a falling out, and their friendship would be over before it started.
Hannah. She drinks coffee and smiles a lot, long red hair almost down to her waist. Sometimes it’s braided and other times it’s wild, spinning around with her as she does, and she’s always turning around to someone, some friend calling her name. I’ve heard she smokes marijuana. She’s my age, but she already has lines around her mouth. I smile when I see her, when I think she’s looking my way— she probably thinks I smile too much.
The woman leaves without buying anything.
* * *
At dinner, after saying the Bracha Rishona, my mother waits a second before she begins to tear off a piece of bread then stops, “Your uncle Anatoly, he wrote about a secret war, a war before the war in Babiy Yar, before the United States became involved.”
“We’ve not told you everything,” my father says, looking down at his white wine.
But this night, they do. My father tells me the number at the Nuremberg trials was 100,000, but in some accounts, this fluctuates up to 150,000. Then he says it wasn’t just my mother’s ancestors, but his also, who were not Jewish. They were there also.
“They were taken to that same ravine with its twisted trees growing up through all that erosion,” he tells me, “under the same gray sky.”
[“Stop,”] I say, getting up to leave the table but my father holds my wrist gently, and I sit back down.
He tells me what he says is true.
“We’ll never know,” he tells me, “everything.”
My mother gets up and returns with two Aspirin. I suppose she is trying to help how it aches as my understanding slips away. Or, at least, the order of what I had understood becoming more distant and the pain of no longer being able to organize the force of it all with any sense of clarity. But, if maybe my blood was thinner tonight, it could help in some way, or is it the idea that I could take something to ease this that helps her? I swallow two, as I take a flower from the faux-marble vase on the table. It’s a white rose my mother bought from a woman who sells flowers, pacing up and down Avenue X, her cart piled with bouquets. As I listen, I start to pluck petals off, one by one, letting them fall to the floor. My mother asks me to stop. I pull another petal. It falls to the carpet. They send me with my plate to my room.
* * *
But I can’t eat.
I put on my headphones, slipping in the tape where I’ve recorded “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” off of the radio to my boombox. I listen to it, and when it’s over, I rewind the tape, and I listen to it again, each time turning the volume up half a notch until I can’t stand it any louder. I write about the Runaways and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts until 3 a.m.
* * *
March 22nd, 1982:
On top of the stack of everyone else’s, I set my report down on Mrs. Morrow’s desk in the morning. By noon she’s called my parents and scheduled a conference at 8 p.m. this evening after the shop closes. She gives me a pink slip that allows me to stay in the library until the meeting.
After school I fall asleep at a library table with my head down on a book someone has left out about wild horses, hoping to dream about one but instead, in my sleep, I’m walking down the long hallway to Algebra 2. I see Hannah. She holds what I think is a joint loosely between two fingers, smoke wrapping around her in coiled twists of gray until she seems to fade inside the plumes of her own making. I walk closer to her, reach out into her mist but the hall turns a corner then, and she is gone. Under my feet, the gold-flecked tile falls away to dirt, and I am standing in a ravine, looking down at the earth eroding beneath my feet.
I look up at trees that seem to grow at impossible angles, root systems showing through earth that hasn’t been there for them, not in the way it was supposed to be. I look up to watch tree branches spreading out towards a dark sky, building, sparked with violet.
Wind pours through this valley aqueously, bringing down the trees’ red autumn leaves. They float up instead of falling down. I reach up to touch them. But each time I do, I only feel the veins of each leaf slip through against my fingers, and I can’t sense anything but the unbelievable softness of the air encapsulating me under a sky that now presses down on this place with a holding storm that will not break.
I notice a trace of blood-red lipstick on her upper teeth, but its vanished by the time she drops a stack of papers down on her desk, my report, and opens her mouth to begin.
I don’t wake up until a cafeteria woman, who has been sent to deliver me dinner, sets a tray down on the table. She takes everything off of it and lines it all up in front of me because she says the kitchen is clean, closing, and she has to bring the tray back.
It’s a sub sandwich and chips with my choice of milk. She’s brought me two, whole and two percent.
She leaves, and I take a drink of whole and then the two percent, trying to tell the difference but I can’t. I shut my eyes and picture wild horses running through the ravine, a black and white spotted and an Arabian, pure white.
* * *
I sit in front of my teacher in silence. I watch the clock tick from 7:57 to 7:58 p.m. until I hear the hinges of the classroom door grate against each other and look back to see my parents walking towards us.
“Mr. Vaserman, Mrs. Vaserman,” she stands, gesturing for them to have a seat. My mother greets her, but my father says nothing.
Mrs. Morrow unclips one of her pearl earrings and then clips it back on, adjusts her shoulder pads, brushes lint away from the black and white houndstooth fabric of her jacket, smooths a pleat of her matching-print, ruched, knee-length skirt. I notice a trace of blood-red lipstick on her upper teeth, but its vanished by the time she drops a stack of papers down on her desk, my report, and opens her mouth to begin.
“The assignment was to write 500 words on a current event. Your son wrote 3,500— I haven’t even been able to count it all yet— maybe 4,000 words on Joan Jett and her song “I Love Rock N’ Roll” running as the top hit for seven weeks. Alexei is not following instructions. This essay is a completely inappropriate length.”
“He is Russian, and he has an electric typewriter,” my mother replies. “What do you expect?”
Mrs. Morrow shakes her head and says she understands that my mother is referring to a Russian tradition involving the long form novel, laughs lightly and in a way that I know as fake, then begins to warn my mother about ethnic stereotyping before interrupting herself—
“And do you believe it is at all an appropriate current event for an academic setting such as this?”
She seems to look at me, and so I answer yes. My mother shrugs. My father looks out the window to his left at a seagull which has landed on the ledge of the windowsill with a crust of bread between its beak. It stares in at us.
“Come on, Chekhov,” my father says to me then, and my mother stands, taking my hand.
We leave the room, and my teacher says nothing, only the sound of her shuffling papers back into her drawer playing on behind us.
* * *
My mother sits on a sofa now, the one which folds out to become a sofa bed. She puts her head in her hands and says sales had been good today. A living room set sold, and two lamps have gone. I notice one corner of the store is dimmer.
The BMT Brighton Line is crowded and halts to a stop on the way home. They announce there’s been a signal switching issue and they are working as quickly as they can to fix this. A chorus of complaints fills the train, and I see a glisten of sweat building across my mother’s forehead. A man offers her his seat, but she refuses to take it. I watch her grip the subway pole, her red nails stacked against each other so that they begin to chip along their sides. My father takes his handkerchief out of his pocket and dabs her forehead.
It is midnight before we arrive back on our street and I see it before they do. The broken glass, shattered, littering the street, catching the orange streetlight and spinning it so it refracts in fragments. It’s our storefront, smashed-in.
All my father says is that he would have dropped the bars down had he known we would we would be returning so late, that the subway would break down. My mother sighs and nearly pretends not to notice until she sees the television sets.
* * *
The police dust for fingerprints, but don’t find any and say whoever it was must have been wearing gloves. They say it’s retribution. The vandals thought the TVs were real and that’s why they broke-in.
“When they weren’t,” the older of the two officers shrugs, drawing a swastika in the air with his gloved finger. The other looks down at our floor, waxed hardwood, and complements the grain.
The swastikas are in red marker, one that came from behind the front counter, across the cardboard face of each television where an imagined scene from Family Ties or Soul Train should be. There they are, more than symbols. We can’t even say. Maybe the officer can’t even say. That’s why he’s taken to the air. That’s why he has to use space to say it because he can’t. He can’t say anything.
When she sees they used her marker, this is when my mother begins to cry.
I trace the symbol the with my finger, but my father pushes my hand away.
[“What are you doing?”] he asks me.
[“Nothing,”] I tell him.
[“Nothing,”] I say, beginning to unfold the box, pulling out the tabs to make it into a sheet of cardboard again, like it was before.
My father picks one up, steps on it, crushing the cardboard in on itself. I do the same, and soon all we have is flattened cardboard that we carry to the dumpster in the alley behind our building.
The lid slams.
My mother sits on a sofa now, the one which folds out to become a sofa bed. She puts her head in her hands and says sales had been good today. A living room set sold, and two lamps have gone. I notice one corner of the store is dimmer.
An officer comes down from upstairs, announcing the door to our apartment is still locked and remains undamaged.
I ask the officer what makes him sure whoever broke-in thought the TVs were real, how is he sure that they didn’t know the TVs were fake? He tells me, “Logic.”
I say that hate isn’t logical and he says that’s not what he’s saying. I notice his cheeks turning pink, sweat building on his brow. He’s young, maybe twenty-five. He doesn’t wear gloves and now presses his hands together, as if to pray. He says he’s not saying that hate is logical. I tell him OK, as long as on that, we agree.
“We agree, Alexei,” he tells me, his hands fall limply to his sides, as though he’s been lifting something heavy.
The drawer of the cash register was pried open, but the day’s take had been moved to a safe in our apartment, upstairs.
When the officers have finished what they have come to do, my father drops the bars over where the glass is supposed to be and says, “In the morning—” but stops his sentence there.
We know what he means. In the morning he’ll call the insurance, the claims adjustor, the glass shop. They’ll be out.
My mother retreats to the back of the shop, walking more slowly, I can tell, her steps more cautious on the stairs as though the glass blew through the room and shards could still be circling, eddying in the air.
A light rain has started, and now my father is lifting up a tarp to nail behind the bars, refusing my help.
“Идти в кровать. Пойте себе колыбельную.”
[“Go to bed. Sing yourself a lullaby,”] he tells me.
I don’t say anything, knowing he’s angry, but not at me. I walk toward the stairs singing, softly: “тили тили бом.”
“тили тили бом.”
[“Tili-tili-bom,”] my father sings back, his voice beginning to lift.
He strikes a nail, pinning the tarp to the window frame.
* * *
Now I’m standing on the green-shag carpeting of our upstairs hallway, in front of my bedroom door as I see her there down the hall— looking at herself in the bathroom mirror though she has not turned on the light.
She uses a Q-tip to remove her mascara, gently wiping away its stain. She unclasps her necklace from around the starched collar of her shirt, presses it between her fingers and hangs its sterling chain on the knob of her medicine cabinet.
“Mom,” I say, walking down the hallway, stepping into the half-open door.
“Yes,” she says, running the cold water. She splashes her face, now less flushed from crying. She pats her skin with a white washcloth.
She looks up at me. Behind her, through the bathroom window, I can see the moon over our city, a million lights going on and off at every hour in the distance, like an ocean without a pattern, without a current, each wave under a different force of wind.
I reach out and touch her necklace, David’s star hanging from a sterling silver chain. I look out the window at the sky for a star or constellation, even though I know that we can’t see them, not here, not in this city.
“I’ll write about our secret war, the war after the war,” I tell her.
She is silent, hanging up the washcloth; she turns toward me.
[“Start tonight,”] she tells me.
I can see by the edge of streetlight coming in through the window, just barely eclipsing her face with soft orange in this incredible darkness, that she is smiling.
[“I will,”] I say.
And I do, retreating back down the hallways, shutting the door to my room, pulling a stack of plain, white paper up from my unlined drawer.
I roll the dial on my Smith Corona, setting it to on, motor humming:
March 21st, 1982:
I pause, feeling the beat of electric current reverberating against my fingertips; I begin again:
My father and I are putting together cardboard televisions.
Jordan Faber is a writer based out of Chicago, IL. Her fiction has most recently appeared in TIMBER, and her playwriting on Manneqüin Haüs. Her work in theater has been produced at The Greenhouse and Victory Gardens theaters in Chicago. Growing up, Jordan attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio several times. Jordan received a BA in creative writing from Knox College and an MFA from Northwestern University, where she earned a Princess Grace Award nomination. She has worked as a fiction editor for Black Spring Press in London and in development for the Sundance Channel.
What I miss most is the smell of my hometown. The mix of chile guaco, wood smoke, and masa seared into every cell of my body. On hot August days I miss the torrential afternoon storms of the wet season. Sometimes in my dreams I hear the click-click of beetle wings and see the steep hills covered in ten different shades of green banana leaves. Other recollections are this immersing but not ones I want to remember, however. Not very often now, but I still have pesadillas of my country that wake me drenched in fear. And it is this mixta, of yearning and that which I long to forget, that holds me captive to the place of my birth.
There are las cruces everywhere. On the tops of headstones, engraved in them, all shapes, sizes, and styles.
I know I will never visit again. There is nothing left for me there and I am forever tied to this place, the city of the angels. It is true that no matter how long I am here, part of me always feels alien. I have no papers. They call me illegal. A name that makes one afraid to live here, work here, have a family here. Except it’s better than what we left behind. I’ve been through worse. Much worse. I had no choice then. I don’t really have a choice now.
I won’t leave because of the woman beside me, and because of my son who lies here at Calvary Cemetery. Today is the anniversary of his death. His two best friends, his mother, and I journey here for a small reunion. Perhaps the last.
These two boys have grown into young men. Chris in a lean, athletic body, short brown hair and wide smiling eyes; Raul with black curly hair, studious look, so tall and broad he towers over the rest of us. Seeing them is painful. What would my son look like, what would he be doing with his life at this age? It is a small consolation that they too remember him. I hope not a once-in-a-while memory but the carry-with-you kind; like chile, wood smoke, and masa.
Angela wears her Sunday best: a black cotton skirt that flows around her ankles and a white top she embroidered with traditional Salvadoran flowers. She clutches my hand, startled at the rustle of birds in the bougainvillea that adorn the entrance. I don’t think she’ll ever get used to coming here, though the way is familiar. Straight to the second left, then up the hill to the first marker and across the grass to the fourth grave.
Benjamin Javier Castillo Sanchez, 1999- 2014.
The boys started the annual tradition that one of them brings tequila. We don’t question how they get it. Raul pulls a small bottle out of his jean jacket and opens it. Standing in a semi-circle, we toast Benjamin, each taking a drink and passing it on.
One shot gives my wife a jolt. Her eyes brighten and her shoulders straighten. There I glimpse the woman I fell in love with, who mothered my son. The past years without him have worn her down so I don’t even know who I sleep next to every night. We sit on the grass, Angela watching the boys intently. She is starved for her son and for this short time they become the one she lost.
There are las cruces everywhere. On the tops of headstones, engraved in them, all shapes, sizes, and styles. Reminds me of the one in the hospital chapel. The light wood pews, rose-colored walls, and slender stained windows were a silent sanctuary against the busy, clinical world we lived in once Ben was diagnosed.
We walk back the almost six blocks to the tiny place we rent. They call it a housing project in el barrio de East LA. It is crowded and noisy on the street, but when you walk the path to the back, it quiets down to Azteca America and K-Love.
First there is silence, but only seconds. Then the boys tell the stories we’ve all heard a dozen times before. The day they met at the playground when they were six or seven, each racing to be the first up the jungle gym. They don’t really remember but have heard the story so many times from their mothers it is as if they do. Chris laughs over the suits they hated wearing for their First Communion and Raul reminds us of the school performances they had to do. Of course Angela and I were so proud to see Ben up on stage, but he was tímido. Smart, but shy. He loved the science fair projects they had to do. I never understood much what they were about, but I loved the light on Ben’s face when he got the prize. The boys argue over who won the mission project contest in fourth grade, and so on.
These stories are like the song of the Motmot bird, sweet to the ear but quick to fade as it flies away.
Raul gives us a play by play of the goals Ben made, each pass or kick that saved the championship game. I tease them about the girls mentioned over the years, Blanca, Iris, Jenny, though we met not one.
We walk back the almost six blocks to the tiny place we rent. They call it a housing project in el barrio de East LA. It is crowded and noisy on the street, but when you walk the path to the back, it quiets down to Azteca America and K-Love. To own a house is called the American dream. But my 10-hour workdays as a gardener and my wife’s sewing job will never get us there. It was all for Ben, anyway. So now, what would it be for?
Chris and Raul are ready to say good-bye.
“I found this. I want you to have it.” Chris pulls his wallet from his back pocket. He hands over a photograph of three laughing boys looking at the camera, their chests bare, their cut-offs ragged, a garden hose at their feet. “I printed it for you. I know you don’t have many pictures, so…” he shrugs, handing it to me.
“We, ah, won’t be able to come next year.” There is apology in Raul’s voice. “Chris is going to Cal Poly and I’m moving with my family to San Jose.”
I’ve heard of Cal Poly, la Universidad, from one of my nieces, and San Jose is far north, so I was right. This is the last time we will see these boys. My wife nods, tries to smile, but can’t. She hugs one, then the other, “Dios te bendiga,” she whispers. I shake their hands. Say nothing.
Little by little, the rest of my wife’s family shows up with tamales, arroz, frijoles, plantanos fritos, horchata and cold cerveza in a big plastic tub. We sit in folding chairs in the courtyard and everyone eats with gusto. Someone puts on Celia Cruz but pretty soon Selena is coming out of one of the kid’s Galaxy phones. There is teasing and laughter, children running in and out of the apartment yelling, playing hide and seek and tag.
This is the time I miss him most, when I can barely swallow food or take part in conversation. Two beers in, I just watch and listen. Most of my nieces and nephews will never know their cousin Benjamin. He was the first-born, so only the older teenagers, busy with texting and tossing good-natured insults back and forth, have memories of him.
My wife is surrounded by her sisters and sisters-in-law, who’ve kept up a steady stream of gossip and news about cousins, aunts, and uncles, even the latest on J. Lo. They’ve all made a life here because of Angela. She is their center.
I imagine Benjamin standing next to me. Fuerte y guapo like he was on his fourteenth birthday. An ordinary kid, but to us full of promise. Angela and I kept him close, sheltered him from hardships as much as possible. The kind we’d grown up with. We wanted a different life for him.
We had so much hope. We were told his chances of beating the leukemia were good. It buoyed us, kept us afloat.
I was six when la policia took my father one Sunday on the way to church. Gun shots that night had us shaking in nauseating fear. A few days later we found his body in a ditch near our house. It broke my mother. At fourteen, I hid daily from Barrio 18 gang members knowing if I was caught, I’d end up either like my father or worse, being one of them. At fifteen, with my mother’s blessing, I walked the 1800 kilometers from my home in San Salvador to Mexico City. By the time I arrived, the soles of my shoes had worn to nothing and I was skin and bones. Small jobs took me months to earn my way from there to Tijuana. Finally, the day came when I climbed into the trunk of el coyote’s old blue Chevy and waited, boxes and blankets piled on top of me, to cross la frontera.
Angela came at an even younger age with four younger sisters and brothers, sneaking under barbed wire, trudging thirsty, starving, across el desierto. They had nada when they finally made it to Los Angeles, taken in by an aunt.
I was nineteen, learning the language, picking up work wherever I could, when we met at the bus stop at Soto and Wabash. I looked into her deep brown eyes, at her shy smile and that was that. It was a struggle to start a new life together in this country, with little money and only floor space for our wedding bed. I got lucky and found full-time work. Then Ben came along. We were so happy to have him that we didn’t realize Angela’s hemorrhaging and other complications at his birth meant she couldn’t have any more children. So we consoled ourselves with him. He was all we needed.
As inevitably happens, this day ends in a storm of images from those last five months with him that I cannot stop. I returned home from work one evening and found nobody home. No music playing, no simmering pot on the stove, just silence and an emptiness that shouted bad news. Benjamin’s persistent cough and headaches, and unbeknownst to us, his increasingly frequent weak spells had come to the attention of one of his teachers. A trip to the nurse’s office, una llamada, and Angela and Ben found themselves at County Hospital.
We had so much hope. We were told his chances of beating the leukemia were good. It buoyed us, kept us afloat. But it was tested as we watched Benjamin’s body transform from athletic to gaunt to swollen in a matter of weeks. We never gave up hope, right to the very end. But as I looked at Ben’s body the morning he slipped away, I saw my father’s again, bloody and torn, and my wife’s cries were as my mother’s. My faith fled that day too, never to return.
Twilight has come. I have been lost in my thoughts too long. The music ends abruptly and clean up begins. The women clear the remaining dishes, the adults direct the kids to pick up the trash and the men take down the tables and fold the chairs. Everyone comes to say goodbye. We are engulfed in the warm embraces only family can give.
We watch Angela’s favorite telenovela. When it is over, I check that we are locked up for the night. I pause in the hallway outside the small room that was Ben’s. The light casts a sliver of illumination across the bed, desk, and bookcase. We left a few of his things on the top shelf. A soccer ball, a couple of awards from school, a framed picture of Ben, Angela, and me when he was nine or ten. I step in and close my eyes. Listen. The darkness holds the boys’ laughter, Mario Brothers’ game music, creaking floors, the clanking of the furnace on rare cold days, and bits of conversations. All of them, Angela and Ben.
Mijo, it’s time for school!
All right, I’m coming!
Did you finish your homework?
Yeah. Well… almost.
Try some caldo; it’ll make you feel better.
Just sit with me, Mami, okay?
Buenos Noches, papito. Sleep well.
Te amo, Mami.
The words of his life are mezclado in my head. With the muted voice of the TV and the dark of night moving onward, I try to think of advice or comfort I gave him but cannot. Sadness and anger lie sleeping, but always there. Denial, guilt. These I know well.
I reach for the picture on the top shelf and look down only to discover I am still holding the one Raul gave us hours ago, completely crumpled. I smooth it out, set the two photographs side by side.
Angela calls for me. But it is Ben’s voice in my ear.
Papi, tell me again how you met mami.
Aren’t you tired of hearing it?
Nunca papi, nunca.
The bus stop story was Ben’s favorite. At the end, he would always say,
You loved her the way you loved me, from the first moment, right?
And I would say,
Papito, you were squinting, stretching, making little noises, but you settled right down when the nurse put you in my arms.
This once-in-a-while memory closes my throat.
Then I can breathe again, his words gone.
I am here. He is not.
Except he is.
He is my carry-with-you; like chile, wood smoke, and masa.
I lay the photograph on the desk for Angela to find. I close the door and head to bed.
Michele Wolfe calls Echo Park in Los Angeles, California, home. The city and people, art and culture, are her inspiration for writing. Her debut novel, The Three Graces, published in 2014, is a contemporary fantasy that blends the history of the statue of the goddesses at Hearst Castle with a modern-day coming of age story. Her memoir piece “View from a Park Bench” was published in “LA Affairs” in the LA Times in 2016. Her short stories include “The Wednesday Student” and “72 hours.” Michele is currently working on her next novel.
A man wearing a navy paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses pedaled his bike to the corner, stepped over his seat, and coasted on one foot to the bike rack at the side of the liquor store. He slotted his front wheel in the rack, strode four steps over to the unsheltered public payphone, lifted the handset, inserted a quarter, dialed the number to his daughter on the east end of town, and waited. He needed to call her Tuesday, today, to see if his cheque had arrived. His watch said 4:42 p.m.
No dial tone started, nothing, until he heard an automated woman’s voice say in her cold, impersonal way, “Credit twenty-five cents. Please deposit twenty-five cents.”
Below each face, he stenciled Gentrify and Prosper.
The man forgot that the phone company raised the price by one-hundred percent, to fifty cents. He patted his pants pockets, checked his jacket, checked the sidewalk, even checked the pouch attached to his bicycle, and couldn’t find a quarter. He couldn’t find two dimes and a nickel. He couldn’t find anything. There was no one around for several blocks to ask for change.
“Fuck sakes!” the man cursed. He slammed the phone against the liquor store’s brick wall, breaking the earpiece off. He dropped the receiver and biked away.
* * *
A person in a black hoodie emerged from the alley, hood up, carrying a plastic grocery bag and wearing scuffed up sneakers. Their shadow was cast across the sidewalk by the amber light of the streetlamp. They walked with purpose, more purpose than most people tend to walk with in midday, and this was midnight. The person stayed close to the building, did a double-take of the cross traffic, pulled a can of aerosol out of the grocery bag, and spray-painted a stencil of the mayor’s face with Spock ears on the east side, west side, bottom side, and top side of the payphone that sat next to the liquor store. Below each face, he stenciled Gentrify and Prosper. Before the last of the particles of paint had settled like dew, the person was around the corner and halfway up the block.
* * *
A young professional in a pantsuit walked towards a downtown traffic light. For the first time in many passes by on her way to work, she noticed a payphone near the crosswalk and wondered if it had always been there. It must’ve always been there, she thought, they don’t put new ones in. She then wondered when the last time she used a payphone was. High school, maybe. Traffic whirred past, a bus mirror nearly hit a waiting pedestrian. She felt her phone buzz in her purse, pulled it out, texted, omg, prolly gonna barf at work today, lol??to someone named Sheri, and put her phone back in her purse. A man sitting on a walker next to the liquor store entrance was asking for spare change. Sheri’s friend turned her head and the WALK signal appeared.
* * *
A young mom parked her baby’s stroller against the brick wall of the building, picked up the receiver, dropped in two quarters, took a deep breath, and dialed the number to her mother. She took the dirty diaper from the back of the stroller, looked for a garbage can, and when there was none around, set it on top of the phone box. The dial tone hummed four separate tones. Each sound was a breath where she hoped that her own mother would answer the phone, and not Gene. Please, not Gene.
A tubby twelve-year-old boy and his orange-haired friend skipped out on third period social studies to go to the mall for burgers with money the redhead took out of his dad’s wallet.
“Hello,” her mom answered the phone.
“Mom, it’s Kyla.”
“You should know better than to call here, girl. Are you in town? When’d you get here?”
“Mom, I need to get my stuff,” Kyla sobbed.
“Well you should’ve thought’ve that before you stole my $500 and skipped town!”
“Mom, I can explain. It’s Gene, he—”
“Ha! Yeah sure, Gene took it. Heard that before. I’ma send him down there to get my grandbaby back. Treena should be with me. You’re downtown aren’t you? You’re downtown. Hell, he’ll find you in ten minutes, and you can bet your skinny little—” Kyla pressed the phone’s lever with her free hand, righted baby Treena’s bottle in her tiny mouth, let go of the lever, inserted more change, pulled a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket, and dialed the number on it.
“Hello?” an irritable woman’s voice answered, TV loud in the background.
“Hi, I’m calling about the basement suite.”
“Are you working? This apartment is for people who are working only,” the woman said, and then coughed.
“I’m a mom, my baby is only six months. But I’ll be looking for a job soon.”
“Oh, I’ve rented to your kind before. And you know what I got for it? A trashed basement, a buncha visits from the police, and a trip to the rentalsman. Never again.” And the woman hung up.
Kyla pressed the phone’s lever one last time, inserted her last two quarters, and dialed another number.
“Can I get a cab to the mall downtown. Coachman Motel. For Kyla.” She grabbed the stroller, left the receiver dangling from its metal cord, and got her baby as far away as possible from where Gene was going to be.
* * *
A tubby twelve-year-old boy and his orange-haired friend skipped out on third period social studies to go to the mall for burgers with money the redhead took out of his dad’s wallet. They hadn’t skipped social studies all year; it was boring, all about the history of the RCMP and how they helped an inspired Sir John A. Macdonald found the nation. Today was a good day to skip; the class was going to the library, so the teacher wouldn’t even notice.
“Hey Tim, check this out!” the tubby boy said to his friend. He picked up the receiver and dialed 9-1-1 on the payphone next to the liquor store in the shadows of the tall downtown buildings. He immediately hung up the phone with his finger and continued to talk to no one.
“I need a firetruck to the downtown area because Tim here’s a firecrotch!” He hung up the phone and the boys laughed and felt invincible until the payphone rang. The tubby kid froze and almost shit. Tim answered the phone.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“Uh, sorry, wrong number,” he said in the most adult voice he could muster.
“If this is not an emergency, we’d like to remind you that fraudulently calling Emergency Response is a chargeable offence in section—” Tim hung up the phone as slowly and quietly as he possibly could and they sprinted through the red-light intersection to take cover in the mall food court.
* * *
“Hey sis, it’s Lester!” Lester wheezed, putting his calling card back in his wallet, and taking a seat on his walker. “No, no, I’m not drinking. Just calling to say hello. How’s everything going down there? Oh yeah. Haha. That sounds about right. Did you find a man yet? Haha, I know, I know, you gave up on men twenty years ago. Me? No, I haven’t found a man neither, haha. No. No. I’m good. I’m great. I just got a place to live and a few workers come around to help me clean up. Just last week! Yeah, it’s a nice place, real beautiful, you should see it. Got a bathroom, stove, TV. Joey said he’ll visit once a week. He’s a good brother. Brought me a pizza yesterday. You know, I remember in 1972, Joey said, ‘Brother, come eat with me’ and I said, ‘What the hell is that thing?’—It was the first time I saw pizza.
“What’s that? Kyla? No, haven’t seen her ‘round the city. When’d she leave town? Oh ok. I’ll tell her to call if I see ‘er.
“Can you drink the water down there yet? Still gotta boil, eh? Well if you ever need water, they don’t charge me for it in my new apartment. Come fill up your truck.
“Ok, sis. Alright. Ok. I’ll be going here for supper. I should be getting a phone in my place soon. Love you too. Say hi to John and his boys. Bye.” Lester hung up the receiver, got up from his walker, and rolled his way eastwards for supper.
* * *
The payphone rang as a woman in a sari walked past. She waited at the traffic light and the phone continued to ring. It rang and rang and the traffic light stayed red. Eventually, thinking it might be an emergency, she walked over to pick it up.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Is Kyla there? Kyla, is that you?” The woman in the sari didn’t move and didn’t breathe.
“Kyla, your auntie just called and they’re looking for you too. Gene’s coming to find you. He’s the one who told me you took the money, so don’t even—” The woman in the sari silently hung up the phone and scanned the block nervously. She tip-toed across the street with her bus pass clenched in her right hand.
* * *
A jazzy-looking man walked by in a pair of cowboy boots, crisp rodeo-cut jeans, button-up shirt, and slicked-back hair. He noticed the phone was broken, but he pushed the lever down and released it. The phone read Tues Apr 07 17:13.
* * *
A pasty-faced man in a fur-collared denim jacket strutted out of the liquor store and around the corner, stuffing a wad of bills in his back pocket, a brown paper bag with swishing contents under his arm.
A balding man younger than thirty parked a bullet-silver car on the street. He looked up in the direction of a new establishment on the corner. It was a previously dilapidated building that had sat empty for a decade, now refurbished and turned into one of those new olde style pubs. It was located across the street from the liquor store and next to that old Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai/Szechwan restaurant called Steve’s Saigon. The pub attracted a downtown business crowd by advertising a Happy Hour with cheap draught on Tuesdays. The balding man was meeting a friend for a cheap draught. It was Tuesday. Crossing the street, the balding man locked the car with a remote and it beeped. He pushed the button again and the car beeped again. He didn’t usually drink on what he thought was an up-and-coming side of downtown.
He looked across the street as he pocketed his keys and saw an old man he didn’t know, Lester, sitting on his walker in the middle of an empty lot. On the lot was a sign that said CITY PROPERTY NO PARKING. The balding man thought Lester might get a ticket, and then laughed. He saw Lester tip over in his walker and fall straight to the ground. The balding man stood still, watched for a while to see if Lester would right himself. There was no movement. The balding man went to his pocket to grab his phone and realized it was at home next to the toilet. He looked around, saw a payphone and walked to it. He went to grab the receiver to call an ambulance, but the area around the phone smelled something like urine, there was a dirty diaper on top of the unit, spray paint on the receiver, and the earpiece was shattered. He looked around, saw a couple holding hands walking towards the empty lot, and figured they would make the necessary call. He crossed the street and headed to the new establishment. His friend, outside smoking a cigarette, greeted him, “Hey Blaine!” Blaine and his friend entered the establishment and ordered a cheap draught.
* * *
A pasty-faced man in a fur-collared denim jacket strutted out of the liquor store and around the corner, stuffing a wad of bills in his back pocket, a brown paper bag with swishing contents under his arm. He checked the payphone. The earpiece was busted so she couldn’t have called from here, he thought, and he headed towards her ex-boyfriend’s place a few blocks east where she probably called from. There was a police cruiser pulled up to the empty lot just east of the liquor store, with two cops heaving Lester into the back, so the man hid his pasty-face behind the collar of his denim jacket and skulked away in the other direction, towards the mall.
* * *
The sun rose on a quiet downtown, edging over the buildings to shine light on the corner of the liquor store and the payphone on its south side. A white service van pulled up next to the curb and put on its hazard lights. A man opened the back doors, rooted around in a few tool kits, and made his way to the damaged payphone, number IA-5291. The man dismantled the outer casing with a socket set and flathead screwdriver. He used a power drill to unbolt it from the concrete sidewalk.
The man in the paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses came up on his bicycle again.
“You finally fixing this damn thing?” he asked.
“Nope. Taking it down,” the serviceman said. “It’s been severely damaged six times this year already, so I was told to remove it. They just don’t get used enough to justify repairs.” The man in the bandana cursed audibly, got on his bike and pedaled to the mall where the next closest payphone was. He had found his dime and three nickels.
The serviceman unhooked the phone line at the bottom of the stand and capped the hole in the concrete with an iron cap stamped with the company’s logo. He lifted the phone box into the back of his service van, grabbed his phone from his pocket, marked the job as complete on the company’s work-order phone application, got in the van, and drove to the mall to collect quarters.
Nicholas Olson is the author of A Love Hat Relationship, a photobook of collectable prairie hats; and a series of illustrated zines with accompanying audiobook narrations. More can be found at ballsofrice.com. He lives in Treaty 4 Territory.
I don’t know why I’m here with Emery, other than I am drunkish and sad. She’s ignoring my questions, hiding behind a screen. I ask her, “What are we?” She looks at me and says, “I’d tell you if I knew.”
She’s tumbled in bed sheets, hair reaching over the plateau of pillow. The tendrils look like little fingers, grabbing rock instead of falling to their deaths. Her eyes shift from her phone to me. “What are you staring at?”
Nothing, I tell her, which is mostly the truth, because there is nothing to be found between us now. Nothing but sweltering heat, the sad tuft of air coming from her fan.
I sat on the lip of her mattress, my feet not quite reaching the floor. Her arm fell to her side, the wrist skin brushing against my hip. “So… are we back together or not?”
She groaned. “It’s eight in the goddamn morning.” Her chest puffed like a pillow. “I don’t want to talk about this now.”
Her warmth slips down like a carcass sliding to the ground. She tosses her body from the bed—stretches, reveals her tummy—and lumbers into the bathroom to wipe me from her lips.
I reach for the bottle now, whose bottom only offered me a small bit of liquid with backwash. More booze could cure a hangover, so I’d been told, probably by Emery. I slosh the last of it down, my back hunching into the burn as it slid down my throat.
Emery reaches her hand upright, presses it into the line of my spine. “You shouldn’t be drinking.”
“I shouldn’t do lots of things.”
Her warmth slips down like a carcass sliding to the ground. She tosses her body from the bed—stretches, reveals her tummy—and lumbers into the bathroom to wipe me from her lips. It takes a while before I can stand up, stomach the sight of the toothbrush in her mouth. When I walk to the bathroom, she’s changed out of her…nothing, and into comfortable clothes, angling her hair, taking a selfie in the mirror. I imagine the view from inside the fish eye, getting to see her with a closeness not fueled by booze—in her father’s Marines t-shirt, flanked by curling irons and hair brushes, the bedroom revealing itself like a blue thigh between the doorway’s slit. At the center, she is still there. Behind the picture, there is a girl. She glitters and she glows, whether or not she knows.
She snaps the picture and turns around. “Goddamn it, stop staring at me!”
I avert my eyes and stare at the carpet and, damn the booze, I know I’m about to cry. Her feet stomp across the carpet, hands aggressively cup my cheeks. She stares but says nothing, even when the tears start to slip. She kisses them into place, like I’m a target and her spit is the bullseye.
Her hand slides up my ribs, handling my torso like a sack of flour. She marinates me in affection and damn it, I give in. Of course I do. I love this girl.
I wait for her to say it back. She does not.
The front door opens and shuts across the house, a loud pair of keys makes contact with a table. “Emery,” a voice calls. “Emery Meroche, I brought breakfast.”
She walks out of the room. I follow before she tells me to stop.
I take inventory of her house like a prey would its hunter, taking in the familiar scenes of Emery: the school portraits hastily hung up; two folded American flags by pictures of her parents; the couch, an ugly plaid, where she sits to watch TV or get yelled at. My shoes by the door next to her knapsack and flip flops.
As we round to the kitchen, I know her aunt knows I’m there because the first thing she does is chide me for not leaving my sneakers on the porch.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Meroche.”
She lets me off with a disinterested, “Hm.” Handing Emery a bag dripping in grease, they share a look. The kind that says “what is that girl doing in my house,” and is met with a regretful, “I don’t know.”
I linger by the front door while Emery fixes her plate and Ms. Meroche stares. Eventually, she asks, “Tell me, how is your mother doing?”
I know what she’s really asking, but don’t take the bait. “My mother’s fine.”
She raises a brow. “Really?”
“Would she have any reason not to be?”
Emery tenses in the corner, neck stiff like teeth biting into gum. I’ve laid a trap of my own, one that won’t be taken, and I’ll be chewed out for. It’s worth it, just a little, to see such a grown woman squirm.
Ms. Meroche eventually lets me off with a wave. “I just don’t want you bringing all that in my house.”
I know she knows, somehow. She’s talking about me like I’m drugs or murder, but the hate in her voice is dismissive because she can’t decide what matters more, love for her niece or hate for people like me.
With a crooked finger, Emery leads me away before I can prod. She leads me to the back porch, past their broken barbecue grill and towards the woods.
“What the fuck was that?” she asks.
I sit beside her. “What was what?”
“Cut it out, you know exactly what I mean.”
“She started it.”
Emery grunts, takes an aggressive bite out of an egg sandwich. “She doesn’t understand these things. I barely do and—”
I picked at a half blown out dandelion. “Why do you always defend her?”
“Not everyone’s family is like yours.” Her face was red now, from the heat or her frustration, maybe both. “She’s all I have left now. I don’t want you to do anything to make her mad.”
I gnaw on the stem, let the fuzz consume my tongue. “How would she feel if she knew you were the one who kissed me first?”
Ms. Meroche looks at me and sees the bad stuff, but I notice that she won’t look back at Emery, even when she’s loading a gun and letting testing shots loose in the woods.
Emery doesn’t talk to me after that, and I take in her backyard with its endless grass leading into trees, the skeleton of a wooden play set, and the shed that I know is full of guns. Emery hunts for sport sometimes. I hate it, taking innocent lives. She says it’s her cooldown activity and besides, it’s not hurting anybody.
She hastily hands me her plate when she’s done, tells me to take it back into the house. As we stand up, I try to tell her I love her again.
“Alright,” she says. “I know.”
She shoos me away.
When I go back inside, her aunt is leaning on the sink. She was watching us out the window, while we were sitting and talking. I’m heard before I’m seen, and I’m told, “I’m not stupid, you know.”
I set the plate on the counter. “I never said you were, ma’am.”
Her words were curt and short. “This isn’t a game.”
I couldn’t tell her I felt like game, another carcass in their stupid little shed.
Ms. Meroche looks at me and sees the bad stuff, but I notice that she won’t look back at Emery, even when she’s loading a gun and letting testing shots loose in the woods.
Suddenly, I feel brave. “I love Emery, you know.”
Her brows raise together. “I’m sure you do.”
She doesn’t mean it. She thinks this is a joke, but to be fair, I know Emery thinks so too.
I leave the kitchen and the house, follow Emery into the woods, trying not to tremble at the weight of the rifle in her hands. Placing my hand on her shoulder, I try to give her cheek a kiss.
She shoves me away. “My aunt’s watching us, you know.”
“Cecily, if you think she’ll take kindly to two girls kissing, you’ve got another thing coming.”
I stumbled backwards again as she cocks the gun at a bird, taking more steps away from me until I can barely see her. She weaponized my intimacy, loaded its barrel with bullets—thick, fat tubes of metal-like little lipstick bottles. But we both know, there was nothing red on the inside. On the outside, maybe, when she was done with the likes of me.
It takes three shots for the bird to fall, and another to be sure it’s dead. My thighs quiver as I walk to help her, but she doesn’t know if she wants to eat the bird or leave it. My lips have nothing else to say to her as she hands me the gun.
I hold it, catch my breath, and pray.
She decides to leave the bird and walks away.
Anastasia Jill (Anna Keeler) is a queer poet and fiction writer living in the Southern United States. She is a current editor for the Smaeralit Anthology. Her work has been published or is upcoming with Poets.org, FIVE:2:ONE, Ambit Magazine, apt, Into the Void Magazine, 2River, and more.
You will oversleep, wake up disoriented in a too-quiet house. At first, you will only remember the dream, that scraping feeling of trying to scream but not making any sound. You will try to drag the details into your conscious brain, but they will evaporate as you become aware of the mattress springs pressing into your back, your cold toes where you kicked off the comforter, your stiff left knee. You will slip your feet into your green fuzzy slippers, wrap yourself in the thick fleece robe you found marked down at TJ Maxx last spring. You will draw a few long breaths, tell yourself to calm down, it was only a dream. But you won’t be able to shake that feeling.
Before you have your coffee or wash your face, you will pause at the closed door to your nephew’s room. You will rap your knuckles on the wood door; the sound will jackhammer through the house until the silence swallows it. There will be no answer.
You will turn the doorknob, push the door open an inch, two inches. You will peer bit by bit into the empty room. You will hope he’s at school but know that it’s just as likely he’s skipping again. His room will be a mess, as usual, and you will take comfort in the piles of dirty t-shirts and socks, the empty bag of Doritos, the Mountain Dew bottles, the comic books strewn across the floor.
You will almost close his door. You will almost keep moving, but you won’t. You will hover in the doorway, one hand still on the doorknob. Your dream will return in physical sensations—chest tightening, breath quickening, palms growing damp—and nudge you into his room.
The operator will answer in a tired voice, although it is still morning and she couldn’t be more than a few hours into her shift. “911, what’s your emergency?”
You will spot the corner of a slim black notebook poking from beneath his pillow. It may as well be a black hole the way it pulls you into it. You will sink onto his rumpled bed and hold the notebook in your hands, which will tremble a little, the way they did nearly seventeen years ago when your sister let you hold him for the first time and you had no idea what to do, how to protect him. When you thought she had figured things out, that the tiny bundled creature you held had changed her.
You will open it to a dog-eared page in the middle. Once you know he’s safe, you will stop reading, put it back where you found it, move on with your day. This is your job now, you’ll tell yourself. You need to know what he’s up to, where he goes when he’s not at school. His handwriting will stretch across the page in spider webs of black ink. You will read. And read.
You will wonder if you are back in the dream.
Eventually, you will close the journal and place it carefully on his pillow. You will walk around his room, stepping carefully over the teenage debris. Once. Twice. You will search for Bunny Bear, the stuffed teddy bear with inexplicable bunny ears you sewed back on years ago when he accidentally cut them off. The one stuffed animal left over from his mother’s. Your sister was never much of a seamstress. You will not find Bunny Bear.
You will read the journal a second time. You will decide you owe him that much. You will not sit on his bed this time; you will read standing, one hand clamped over your mouth. After the second time, your stomach will twist and your throat will burn, but you will not vomit. Not yet.
You will open his closet and stare at the hard black guitar case. You have never heard him play guitar. The gold metal clasps will chill your fingertips, but your hands will not shake. When you see the gun, you will know what you must do.
You will walk to the kitchen and make yourself a cup of tea with lemon so your voice won’t crack when you call 911. You will use the old land line, because your cheek sometimes hits buttons on your iPhone and this is not the time to accidentally start playing YouTube videos. You will dial 911. You will sip your tea and it will turn to acid in your throat.
The operator will answer in a tired voice, although it is still morning and she couldn’t be more than a few hours into her shift. “911, what’s your emergency?”
You will put on your phone voice, the one you use with telemarketers and doctors’ offices to let them know you’re in control. You’re not someone they can mess with. You will imagine the operator sipping cold coffee from a lipstick-stained styrofoam cup, sick of fielding calls from toddlers with distracted parents and senile old people who can’t remember that their caregivers aren’t murderers. Your phone voice will wake her up. It’s a teacher voice, a go-ahead-and-try-me voice, a tough-love-chocolate-covered-firecracker voice. Your phone voice will make her pay attention.
With this voice, you will tell her about your nephew’s notebook. You will not hesitate to claim him as your nephew, although you will ache somewhere deep inside when you say his name. You will tell her that he is planning a school shooting, that he has a large black gun hidden in a guitar case in his closet. Your phone voice will begin to splinter and you will have to pause, close your eyes, think of Bunny Bear, take a gulp of tea and let it burn your throat. The 911 operator will ask for your address. She will tell you she is sending an officer to your house.
You will thank her, hang up the phone, and vomit into the sink. Then you will brush your teeth, wash your face, tie your hair back into a neat ponytail at the base of your skull. You will not want to relinquish the comfort of your robe, but you will make yourself hang it in your bedroom closet. You will pull on your black wool sweater, the one your sister hated because she thought it made you look pale and too serious, and some sensible slacks, ones with no wrinkles or missing buttons.
You will put on your phone voice, the one you use with telemarketers and doctors’ offices to let them know you’re in control.
You will not just sit and wait. You will walk through the kitchen, living room, bathroom. You will open linen closets and cupboards, peek under couches and chairs. You will wonder where else he has hidden weapons. You will make your bed, put away the folded laundry in the plastic white basket in the corner. You will pause in the doorway to your nephew’s room, but you won’t go back in. Not until the police arrive. You will pace the short, dark hallway until you can’t stand it anymore, then you will open all the curtains in the house, let daylight come screaming in. You will not hide from the old man next door or that nosy woman across the street. Let them gossip. Let them see the police. Let them say what they will. Let them see you do the right thing for once.
When the doorbell rings, you will invite the police in. You will thank them for coming, in your phone voice, even though you are not on the phone. You will not smile. You will not stare at the guns in their holsters or the ice in their eyes. You will keep your hands and voice steady as you lead them to his room. You will offer them tea, coffee, water, but they will say no, thank you. They will only be interested in the evidence.
They will take the journal. The younger one will whistle, long and low, when he sees the gun, which they will also take. They will take your nephew, too, later, straight from school. They will question you, and you will do your best to answer, until finally your voice will fail. They will shake your hand and call you a hero, tell the newspapers that you saved a school full of children. Without your voice, you won’t tell anyone that you didn’t do it for those children. You won’t tell anyone that since you couldn’t save your sister, you had to save her son. To save him, at least, from becoming a murderer.
Lindsay Rutherford lives and writes in Edmonds, WA. She is a student at the Writers Studio, has an MA in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Doctorate of physical therapy from Temple University. When she is not writing or chasing after her two children, she works as a physical therapist at a local hospital. Her work has appeared in Medical Literary Messenger, Poplorish, and WA129+.
I was twenty-three and working as a caregiver to three autistic women in a house on Decatur Street. Jackie, Hazel, and Marcella had lived in institutions their whole lives, before the agency I worked for helped them get out and set up a life. None of them were verbal and they needed round-the-clock support. I did the early shift, which started at seven and left me with most of the heavy lifting: bath routines, meals, doctors’ appointments. I had two days of training and the pay was six-fifty an hour.
My first day, I walked in to find Marcella smearing the walls of her bedroom with shit. I thought I might puke, but the woman orienting me didn’t flinch. She went and got a bucket of soapy water and some rags and told me to get busy. Marcella was forty-three but had the skinny body of a twelve-year-old. She spent most of her time walking around the house naked on tiptoe. She made low groaning sounds in the back of her throat as she walked and slapped her thigh bloody when she was agitated. A large part of my work with Marcella was helping her keep clothes on. When we had to go to the doctor, I draped a robe around her to walk out to my truck, but she was always nude by the time I got around to the driver’s side. I had to carry a special letter from the doctor in case we got pulled over.
This was in Olympia in 1999, when the town was a lesbian paradise. I lived with my friends Maxine and Katie in a little craftsman on Mulberry Street with a tire swing in the backyard. Our friends were a band of non-deodorant wearing, unshaved, feminist punks.
Jackie was sweet. In addition to being autistic, she had a rare degenerative disease, which meant she was dying, but slowly. Her muscles were so constricted that she couldn’t put her arms down or move her legs when she wanted to. She couldn’t get out of bed on her own and I was afraid of dropping her when I moved her. She had enormous, brown saucer eyes with long lashes that blinked slowly. The hardest thing about working with Jackie was knowing she was suffering and not being able to do anything about it. She liked to paint. On nice days I’d roll her wheelchair out onto the back porch and set up her easel facing the garden. She didn’t have a lot of fine motor control, but her paintings were abstract and whimsical and filled with yellow.
Hazel was fifty-eight and healthy, as far as we knew. She had wiry grey hair that curled around her ears and ruddy cheeks. She loved stuffed animals; her favorite was a lamb with brown felt hooves. She sat in an armchair by the window, mumbling to it and kissing it, rubbing her head rhythmically side-to-side on the flowery fabric. The staff had already patched up the chair several times in that spot. When she wanted something to eat or drink, she’d come into the kitchen and pull any random bag out of the freezer—peas, strawberries, a turkey burger. I knew the thing she pulled out wasn’t what she really wanted, but it was the closest thing to communication we had. She shook her head and made a cave with her mouth like she was yelling and swatted my arm with her flat, paddle hand. It looked violent but it was more like affection.
This was in Olympia in 1999, when the town was a lesbian paradise. I lived with my friends Maxine and Katie in a little craftsman on Mulberry Street with a tire swing in the backyard. Our friends were a band of non-deodorant wearing, unshaved, feminist punks. None of us had any money, so we ate and drank communally and spent the weekends crammed into tiny clubs, sweaty and braless, listening to Alison Wolfe scream “Bat Girl” and “Are you a Lady?”
Max and Katie were a few years older than me and had been a couple forever. They had the kind of relationship we all wanted but thought we’d never find: happy and like they were each other’s family. Katie had fine blond hair cropped short and wore thick square glasses that magnified her blue eyes. She worked in a daycare center and loved to bake. She’d grown up Mormon and was disowned by her family when she came out. Max was an aspiring mechanic, working days in a parts store and nights in our garage. She was teaching herself to take apart old Subarus and put them back together. She rolled her own cigarettes and had dark circles around her eyes that made her look tougher than she was.
I’d never had a girlfriend. My junior year of high school there was a girl who sat in front of me in homeroom and sometimes she asked me for a ride. When I dropped her off, we’d sit in my car smoking cigarettes and touching each other’s hands and arms, like the way you put a baby to sleep. One time she kissed me on the mouth as she was getting out of the car. After that she didn’t ask me for a ride anymore.
Six months into working at Decatur Street, I came in to find the woman I was relieving doing CPR on Hazel. We called 911, passing the phone back and forth while we pumped and breathed into her, but she was gone. We called her family but only the paramedics came. After they pronounced her dead, we showed them her power of attorney documents so they’d let us keep her. They said we had twenty-four hours. We laid her out in bed wearing a blue nightgown with her stuffed animals lying around her. For the rest of the day former staffers and people from the agency came to pay respects. Someone brought a big white candle and lit it. I made a pot of soup.
The night of the funeral I got drunk on margaritas at the Spar Bar and tried to drive home without my headlights on. The officer who pulled me over offered me a choice: let him drive me home or pass a Breathalyzer. When we arrived Max and Katie and Dom were on the porch drinking cans of beer under the light buzzing with moths. When they saw me get out of the patrol car they bolted down the steps and were on the sidewalk next to me.
“Anna, are you okay?” Max said, her slicked hair falling into her eye. We had a rudimentary mistrust of cops.
“We tried to bring her back,” I said, slurring. “Fuck. I’m so drunk.” I started to cry.
“Your friend got lucky,” said the officer. “Anybody else would’ve taken her in.”
They helped me inside and Katie ran me a bath. I’d had a crush on Dom for months and was ashamed for her to see me that way. She was a short, stout butch who worked on a mussel farm and drove a red Jeep. She had kind brown eyes and a lady tattoo on her left bicep.
“Do I look gross?” I asked Katie in the bathroom, remembering the ancient Goodwill dress I was wearing for the funeral.
The next morning I woke up with a gnarly hangover and called in sick. I never wanted to go back to Decatur Street. The shock of Hazel’s death, Jackie’s looming death, was too much. What did it mean that two of them would die on my watch? I was so young—it felt like a tragedy. Around noon my boss called to check on me. I told her it was the flu. Katie left coffee and banana bread for me on the counter with a note, “Have a sweet day sweet pea!”
On Saturday we got up early and went to the farmer’s market, all of us sleepy from a show the night before. The guitarist’s name was Radio Sloane and I spent the whole show obsessing about how cute she was. I’d been hoping to see Dom there, but she never came. When I saw her standing in front of the apple stand at the farmer’s market, my stomach flipped.
“Hey you,” I said, tapping her on the shoulder, wanting to sound casual.
“Anna!” she said. “Hey, how’s things?”
“The other night. I’m sorry you had to see that.” I felt my neck get hot. “I’m all right.” We were standing too close but I didn’t want to back up and risk her taking it wrong.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry about that woman you helped.”
“Good apples here,” I said, gesturing. I needed something to do with my hands.
“Best Winesaps,” she said. “They’re my favorite.”
“For sure, crisp and not too sweet. Braeburn too.” I was talking too loudly.
“I wonder if Katie’s been here,” she said. “Her pies.”
“They’re amazing, right? She should start a pie store.”
We talked about our jobs. I didn’t know what a person did on a mussel farm.
“Do you like it?” I said.
“It’s a job. I like spending the whole day out on the water.” Her voice cracked a couple of times. I was glad to not be the only nervous one. “Most of the time it’s fine. Sometimes it’s fucking cold.” She told me about her rubber pants and how she spent most of her time on her knees hanging off the side of the boat. “My back’s pretty messed up.”
The sun was starting to push through the morning grey and all the colors were getting sharper. A bluegrass musician was setting up on a little stage. Max came toward us with something steaming on a paper plate.
“Tamale?” She looked behind her. “I lost Katie. I think she’s buying all the rhubarb in Washington.” We each took one and the three of us stood there, unraveling cornhusks, shoving the warm mealy things into our mouths.
In the car on the way home I decided to be brave and ask about Dom’s love life. She and Max used to work at the mussel farm together before Max started working on cars.
“Do you know if Dom has a girlfriend?” I said.
“Last girl she had was Maddy, but that ended six months ago,” Max said.
“Who’s Maddy?” I said. “I mean…what was she like?”
“She’s not dead,” she laughed. “Do you mean was she femme? Like you?”
“I don’t know, I guess. Does she have a type?” My neck was hot again.
“You’re not not her type, if that’s what you’re asking.” She turned to look at Katie, to figure out if she should go on. “Dom’s good people,” she said. “But she’s been funny lately—quiet or something. Don’t get your feelings hurt if she’s being distant.” The next few weeks at work were depressing. I’d gotten used to seeing Hazel through the picture window when I pulled up in the morning, kissing her lamb. It always had crumbs from whatever she was eating on its muzzle. It seemed like the thing that had been balancing out the dread of my days at work was gone. Marcella’s bath, brushing of teeth, dressing routine, breakfast. Jackie’s bath, brushing of teeth, dressing routine, breakfast. Clean-up. Laundry. Make and change doctor’s appointments. Fill-out staff updates about each woman’s day. Help Marcella relax on the couch with TV or music. Support Jackie to paint, or just be comfortable in her room.
My life felt hard too. I thought about my family in Ohio and how I’d never be able to come out to them.
I started smoking again. I spent all my free time on the porch thinking about how hard Marcella and Jackie’s lives were. I knew their circumstances were better than they could have been, but still it didn’t seem like enough. I was angry with their families for never coming to see them. My life felt hard too. I thought about my family in Ohio and how I’d never be able to come out to them. I thought about how much I wanted a girlfriend.
During Marcella’s sloppy, frustrated bath routine I tried to talk to her about Hazel—how much I missed her—but it just made her extra agitated. I was naïve. I had no idea how Marcella felt about Hazel. Working with people who couldn’t tell me anything was hard—I knew they could understand me, but I wanted to know what they were thinking and feeling. My time with Jackie felt extra loaded; she’d been sick for a long time and knew she was dying, but now it seemed like death was in the house, waiting for her. I kept Hazel’s door closed and walked quickly by it. I started lighting incense and candles in Jackie’s room and hung a few of her paintings on the wall.
A few weeks later I went to the Spar for happy hour. The bartender was the same guy who’d been there the night of Hazel’s funeral. When he asked me how I was, I welled up and bent over to fake tie my shoe.
“Bloody Marys are on special tonight,” he said, recovering for both of us. “Two for one.”
I recognized a few of the faces at the bar. The regulars were low-maintenance and loyal: loggers after work, Evergreen students counting out change for dollar shots. One guy spent his days hunting rare mushrooms in the state forest. He was smelly and damp and had dirt circles on the knees of his jeans. He claimed the mushrooms were chanterelles, but they looked like napalmed ears.
“Who’s playing?” I said to the man sitting next to me. He was old and had on a worn-out flannel shirt. He was looking at the TV mounted in the corner of the wood-paneled room.
“Broncos and Seahawks,” he said. “I don’t care too much about it, but when it’s on…”
“It’s hard not to look.” He reminded me of my grandfather. “Seattle any good this year?” I knew nothing of football other than what I’d overheard Max and Dom say when they were drinking beer.
“They’re not too bad.” He was taking small sips of a light beer that looked already warm. His hands were leathery and brown, the tips of his fingers rough. “That linebacker. Kennedy. He’s fun to watch.”
I ordered another drink. He was nursing his and eating thin pretzels out of a wicker bowl the bartender had set in front of us.
“You driving?” he asked, after I ordered my third.
“No sir,” I said. He turned and looked me in the eye for the first and only time. “I learned my lesson.”
I’d parked my truck in the camera store’s parking lot across the street so I could leave it overnight if I needed to. Outside, I turned left and headed up the hill on foot. It was only twelve blocks home but steep. About halfway, I felt headlights on my back. Someone was slowing down and flashing. I turned around and saw Dom’s Jeep. She drove past me and pulled over onto the shoulder. When I reached the passenger side, I saw Max was in the front seat. I got in the back; a woman I didn’t know slid over to make room for me.
Max turned around, “Anna!” she screamed—the music was loud, “You wanna come on an adventure with us?” I felt disoriented but a little more sober after the walk.
“Wood chip pile,” Dom said, turning down the radio. “They just dumped it on the east side of the inlet out by Priest Point Park.”
“It’s supposed to be three stories high!” Max was yelling, moving to the music.
“Should be pretty awesome,” Dom said. “This is Tristan.” She threw a thumb back to indicate the woman sitting next to me.
Tristan put a hand out for me to shake. “We’re gonna climb it.” She was lanky and had a bleached buzz-cut and wore a blue bandana tied around her neck western style.
“And then jump and let it catch us,” said Max, “And then do that over and over until we can’t do it anymore.” They were high.
Dom drove on up the hill passing our street and then across the bridge that connected one side of town to the other. Someone lit cigarettes and passed them around. The air coming in the windows was fresh against my face. We passed houses on the north side of town that butted right up against the cold, clear waters of the inlet. In late summer you could sit in people’s backyards and watch the salmon run.
“Now where?” Dom asked. We were at a four-way stop just before the park.
“Keep going straight,” Max said.
“Is this legal?” said Tristan. “Not that I care.” The narrow dirt road off East Bay Drive looked like it was for service trucks. At the end were gigantic mounds of rock and other stuff I couldn’t make out.
“Right here,” Max said. “Cut the lights.” Dom parked parallel to the fence. It was really dark, but once we got out we could see better. The moon was nearly full. Two hundred yards on the other side of a tall chain link fence we saw the wood chip pile. The wind smelled like fresh-cut pine.
“Damn,” said Max. “It’s at least three stories.”
“Yee-haw!” Tristan grabbed the fence and started to climb.
“I don’t like heights, you guys.” We all busted out laughing but I was having second thoughts. “What if there’s dogs?”
The fence was pretty easy to get over, although when I dropped to the other side I twisted my ankle. No dogs came after us and no alarms went off.
“Lookey what I’ve got,” Max said, pulling a flask out of her inside jacket pocket. We each took a pull of the whiskey. “Now we’re ready,” she said.
The three of them took off, hiking to the top of the mountain of wood chips in about thirty seconds, whooping and hollering like children, digging their boots into the shifting surface beneath them, falling forward, using their hands to help them climb up. It looked like they were mountain climbing on quicksand.
“Come on Anna, what’s the hold-up?” Max turned around and saw that I was still standing at the bottom.
“CANNONBALL!” Dom yelled, jumping as far as she could from the top of the pile and letting it catch her and sliding the rest of the way down like she was on a water slide. “Woo-hoo!” She came over to where I was standing. “Come on, we’ll go together.” I put my hands down and started to climb. The wood was damp and soft like moss, but I didn’t like the movement under my feet. It was like the earth falling away. Dom was climbing slower to stay beside me. “Keep your weight in front of your body,” she said, “And try to get some speed up. If you stay still it’ll pull you down.” I tried to focus on what she was telling me, but I couldn’t go any faster. Max and Tristan were synchronizing their first jump together.
“On the count of three,” Tristan shouted. “One…Two…” They were on the other side but I could feel the pile shift when they landed. At the bottom they turned around and ran right back up. I wasn’t getting anywhere.
“Go ahead,” I said to Dom. “I’m gonna take my time.” She didn’t want to embarrass me, so she went on, joining the others who were now starting to one-up each other, adding extravagant moves to their jumps.
“Do a flip,” Max screamed as Dom revved up for her next go.
I watched them tumble, fall, laugh and climb. Their bodies knew how to do something mine couldn’t figure out. Maybe it was their boyishness. I wasn’t very girly, but I wasn’t like them. I missed Katie’s softness. She would have stayed at the bottom with me. I stood still for so long I’d sunk nearly all the way back down, so I decided to smoke and watch. The way the wood chips stayed in constant motion was mesmerizing. I couldn’t figure out how the whole thing was still as tall as it was, considering all the commotion.
“All right,” I yelled, loud enough to get their attention. “All three of you, Pete Rose, on my count.” They snapped to and dove on three, gliding on their bellies all the way down. They laughed and looked up at me, mewling and crawling like babies toward my feet.
“Very cute,” I said.
Max stood and caught her breath. “Just come up with us. You don’t have to jump.” She took one of my hands and Dom took the other. Tristan got behind.
I fluttered my lips and threw the butt away. In just a few seconds we were up higher than I’d been able to get on my own. We were leaning so far forward I thought I’d fall on my face. My boots sank deeper with every step. It seemed like we’d stopped making progress, but I could feel Tristan behind me, her hands on my legs, bracing them. We were all huffing and puffing. Suddenly I was scared.
“No, don’t stop,” said Dom, “You can do it.” She and Max were pulling me now, my arms stretched out and up toward the sky.
“I feel sick,” I said, still climbing.
“It’s all right,” said Max. “We got you.” I didn’t want to keep going, but I didn’t want to look weak either. I felt them all around me. A few feet from the top the wind hit my face.
“Just a little more,” Tristan said.
I took three more giant steps, my legs shaking, and then someone patted my back and I felt my eyes welling up.
“Fuck yeah,” Max cried. They high-fived each other and me but I was stopped by the view. We could see the whole of Olympia in shades of darkness and twinkling lights. The moon was shining off the river below us like a spotlight; Mount Rainier stood in silhouette to the south.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was so beautiful?” I said.
“We were too busy being jackasses,” said Tristan.
“Now you can smoke,” said Max.
We sat and passed the flask, listening to the quiet. My heart felt full with love for Max, and that extended to Dom, in spite of my crush, and even to Tristan, who I didn’t really know. I wanted the feeling to last. We called each other chosen family. It was our way of taking power back from our birth families and giving it to the people who loved us for who we were.
“What’s that?” Tristan said, pointing to the shore across the river. It was a small dark mass lying on the sand a few feet from the water.
“Seal pup,” Max said. “Looks like it’s been dead a while.”
“Oh man, I love seals,” Tristan said, taking a swig and passing me the whiskey.
“Their moms abandon them sometimes,” Max went on. “Nobody knows why. They just stop feeding them and they starve.” We were quiet for what felt like a long time.
Suddenly, Dom stood up. “Guys. I need to say something.” She ran her hands through the sides of her hair and tried to catch her breath. The warm feeling I had in my belly tightened. Max and Tristan nodded. I tipped up the flask. I felt like I was getting ready to hear something that wasn’t meant for me.
“I think I’m going to transition.” She took a deep breath and pushed the words out, leaving her mouth open to exhale. “I’ve decided.”
I swallowed hard. I knew what she was talking about, but the reality of it didn’t sink in.
“Um—that’s amazing,” said Max, breaking the silence. “I mean I’m really happy for you.”
“Jesus, I think I’m gonna puke,” said Dom, wiping tears off with her shoulder.
“No, you’re not,” said Max, hugging her. “Come here. You’re all right.”
“You know I got your back,” said Tristan, giving Dom a fist bump and a loud pat on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you.”
It was my turn to say something. I wanted to sound authentic and I knew if I opened my mouth it would sound stupid. So instead I just turned and threw my arms around Dom’s neck. We’d never hugged before. I couldn’t tell if the trembling was coming from her or me.
“Thank you,” she said. Our eyes met for a split second and I saw how relieved she was.
The stars had gotten sharper since we arrived. We tried to find planets and constellations and show them to each other. Then we were all just looking up.
“Log roll ya’ll to the bottom,” Tristan said, finally. Max followed her down but Dom stayed behind. When she offered me the crook of her arm I took it. We stepped down slowly and together, one foot at a time, and I wasn’t scared anymore.
The stars had gotten sharper since we arrived. We tried to find planets and constellations and show them to each other. Then we were all just looking up.
The next day at work was the hardest since Hazel’s death. Marcella seemed especially upset through her bath routine. I was hung-over and clumsy. After minutes of frantic splashing and slapping her face, Marcella jumped up and got out of the tub. I knew to let her walk it off: down the hall, through the kitchen, a right at the living room, repeat—even though she was dripping wet and the kitchen floor was linoleum.
Then, when I was giving Jackie her bath, the thing I’d been most afraid of for months happened. As I was transferring her to the bathtub chair from her wheelchair she slipped from my grip. Her stiff, emaciated body fell sideways away from me, toward the handicap bar and the hard, beige tile. Everything in my body responded. I threw myself under her torso to stop the distance she could fall, but her shoulder banged hard into the tile and her feet and legs got twisted and shoved against the opposite side of the tub. I had one knee on the floor of the wet tub with my head and shoulder smashed into Jackie’s belly and chest, holding her up. Her long, wet hair clung to my face. My breath shook. After a few seconds, after the motion stopped and I gathered my courage, I moved my hands to her waist so I could pull my face back and look at hers. She had her, “it’s all the same to me” expression. A wry smile that meant, “I’m still here.” I knew she had to be scared and really uncomfortable—she hit the wall pretty hard—but at least we weren’t on the floor and she wasn’t bleeding or knocked out.
“God Jackie, I’m so sorry.” I was out of breath. “I’m such a klutz. Please forgive me.” I needed her to respond, to tell me it was okay. I got her back into the wheelchair and back to her room, talking to her the whole way, stopping every few steps to make sure her eyes and mannerisms looked normal. I transferred her back into bed, dressed her in a fresh nightgown and tucked her under the covers.
“Maybe a nap?” I said, changing the blinds to make the light in the room more pleasing for her. I lit some incense. Before I left the room, I went over to check her one last time. I squatted down and looked into her big eyes. “I’m so sorry Jackie,” I said. I’d never felt sorrier. She took her hand out from under the covers and laid it gently on my cheek.
The rest of the day felt like a deep exhale. I had to fill out a report about the fall. Marcella had a big lunch and let me put the classical station on in her room. I made coffee and smoked cigarettes on the porch. I needed to be alone with my thoughts. I felt grateful for Jackie—like she was teaching me something I understood but couldn’t put into language. I felt a confidence solidify in my body that made me feel strong. My recent confusions seemed frivolous and far away, even though I knew they’d be back. I thought about how I got to the top of the wood chip pile the night before. I thought about Dom. I tried to plant the understanding I was having deep in my mind so that I could refer back to it.
An hour before my shift ended I got a call from my boss. She said the agency was helping a new client transition and that she might be a good fit for Decatur Street.
“You mean Hazel’s room?” I said.
“That’s right,” she said. She asked me to prepare the space, discard whatever made sense, keep things we might need.
“What’s her name?” I said.
Hazel’s room was just the way we left it after the burial people came to get her. The dark blue sheets on her bed were rumpled and the blinds were drawn, letting only a small amount of light in. The wallpaper and the carpet looked dingy and it smelled stale. I stood in the middle of the room, remembering the morning we tried to revive her. It seemed like a lot had changed since then. A small prayer fell out of my mouth. “Rest in peace, Hazel.”
I threw open the windows and the blinds, letting in as much fresh air and sunlight as I could. I went through the dresser and put most of what was in it into a bag for Goodwill. I sprinkled lavender smelling powder on the carpet and vacuumed. I stripped the bed and put the sheets in the garbage bin outside, then beat the dust out of the small mattress. Hazel’s stuffed animals were the hardest to deal with. They seemed to know her better than the rest of us. If I’d had a holy bonfire I would have sent them off that way. The shaggy brown bear I posted on top of the refrigerator for the staff—a sentinel—and a reminder of Hazel’s zeal and humor. The lamb with the dirty muzzle I slipped into my backpack.
Joliange Wright is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has previously appeared in Consequence Magazine and will soon appear in Midwestern Gothic. She is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and a PhD student at the University of Southern California in creative writing and literature.
The bar was always full on Christmas day, like most days in Muskogee. I never could resist counting the number of trucks and occasional cars lined up outside as I drove home. It bothered me when I first saw the symbol of the Nation on a bumper sticker, but not anymore. My thought was always the same: poor bastards.
And strangely, it was the first place in my head when it hit me that I would be alone on Christmas day. First time spending Christmas alone in a long time. My divorce had happened just a month ago.
The leaving scene replayed itself in my head each morning, like my head had an internal movie projector that switched on the moment I was conscious.
I sensed her standing behind my easy chair, which I had specially made because of my height, and then she spoke.
“Aren’t you even going to get up? Aren’t you going to face me?”
And then, her voice cracking, “SAY something, for once!”
I did say something. I didn’t have the courage to get out of the easy chair. I didn’t even crane my neck around to see her. Maybe she thought I was watching the TV. But I wasn’t. I did say something.
She was silent.
I screwed up my courage and turned my neck in her direction. Her lower lip quivered. Looking at her face, I was speechless again. I clenched my fist, willing her to feel what I was feeling.
Then her tears came. She turned away from me and said, “That’s it?”
I couldn’t tell if she was talking to me or herself, but my heart thumped harder as I felt her slip away.
But no more words would come. And then she was gone.
* * *
I used to tell her that my silence was the Indian way.
“Don’t you mean Native American?” she asked.
I shook my head to prove my point about the silence.
She seemed to think it was cute or at least acceptable when we were dating. I wasn’t sure when it became the enemy in the house. But my silence was my enemy, too, because I didn’t want her to leave, but I didn’t know how to say it.
I tried to show it by always coming home. After I completed my mail route, I didn’t care about the guys and their boozing at sports bars or worse, strip bars.
I was happy to come home to her. Sometimes I would surprise her with a little something—something from the local bakery, for instance. Sometimes. Maybe… maybe not lately. I tried to remember if I had done anything like that this year.
Or… last year?
But, in the end, I think it was the silence. Every day, at the same time, she would ask me how my day had been and I would say the same thing: “Okay.” In our early years she would prod for details and I would respond to whatever she asked, but usually I had only one-or two-word answers. I wasn’t trying to keep anything from her; I just didn’t know what else to say. But I could tell she was disappointed.
It’s only now that she’s gone that I wonder how her days went.
It bothered me when I first saw the symbol of the Nation on a bumper sticker, but not anymore.
Then there was therapy, but she did most of the talking. Basically, she did all of the talking. If the therapist asked me a specific question, I typically responded, Yes, No, Maybe, or Sometimes. I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t trying to be “resistant,” like she said. It was just all I had to say.
But the last session we had with her probably put the nail in the coffin of our marriage.
“Do you love her?” the therapist asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you want to stay married to her?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said again.
“Are you willing to try to change the way the marriage works?”
I hesitated. I had never liked change. My parents made me move off of the reservation with them, made me go to a new school, and made me get a job.
Getting married was the only change I’d ever welcomed. Ever since then I’d tried to ensure our lives followed a very rigid routine. It felt safe.
I remember focusing on my hands when I said, “No.” I would not change the way the marriage works.
* * *
Yet here I was, Christmas day, pulling into this pathetic bar. Something completely new in my Christmas day routine. But since she had gone, I had no routine. I wanted to try to get my head together with some people around me. In the rural area where we lived, that bar was the closest thing with people in it in under an hour’s drive.
I managed to squeeze my small truck in between a tractor and, a rarity, an actual car. It was an old Chevelle from the seventies. I bet the strips of rust used to be stripes.
I expected to find a huge screen blaring some game inside, but I only heard the clack of wooden balls from the pool tables somewhere in the back. It was not well-lit, which I guess was a good thing since I didn’t see a single woman in there and most of the men looked like me, over fifty with a paunch hanging over their belts. Looking at them made me uncomfortable and I hitched up my jeans and stood a little straighter as I made my way toward the bar.
A large deer head hung over the bar and a few wild turkeys stood in frozen positions around the rest of the place. I looked up at the huge rafters, which I didn’t expect because it looked so small from the outside. A stuffed bat was wedged between some beams, as if caught in flight toward an unsuspecting customer. No one was talking except the noisy gang at the pool table. Not even the people at the bar with their elbows practically touching.
Something looked odd about the way everyone sat there at the bar and then it dawned on me that all the guys were still wearing their hats: baseball caps, cowboy hats, you name it. If a woman walked in, would they take them off or not even blink?
It’s only now that she’s gone that I wonder how her days went.
I ordered a bourbon and the bartender wordlessly handed me the drink within seconds, like he had a bunch of bourbons lined up beneath the bar, ready to go. Having a drink in my hand reminded me of wearing a tuxedo to the prom—an unnatural event. Even worse to sit at a table by myself since the bar was completely full. I sat down at one of the small wooden tables and stared at the drink I was raised to hate. Mom and Dad never drank alcohol because of what it did to their parents. When I drank liquor, it tasted like candy. The expensive kind of candy that came in boxes on special occasions, like the Whitman’s Sampler my dad brought my mom on Valentine’s Day.
I forced myself to sip it though it felt silly, forcing myself to sip something that tasted like liquid Whitman’s. My muscles started to loosen. I might have told myself that I was coming here to get my thoughts together, but now I feared losing them completely… for a while, at least. I heard the gang at the pool table suddenly guffaw loudly, but at the same time they seemed far away…
“So, they let you in here without a hat?”
My eyes flew open. When did my eyes close? I jerked my head toward the sound of the voice. The guy at the table to my right was grinning at me. He had a thin face with a wide grin beneath his baseball cap—late twenties? Early thirties? I wasn’t sure if he was making fun of me or not, but not many people make fun of a guy my size so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well,” he said, pointing to the shocks of blond scruffy hair peeking out beneath his baseball cap, “I really didn’t want to, but I’ve been through chemo lately and this here is actually a complete fake get-up. My son found it online and sent it to me. Well, at least that’s what the ex-wife said in the note. Shows one of ’em knows this place, though it might have at least stirred things up on Christmas day to let a cue ball like myself walk in, huh?” He grinned again.
I couldn’t believe this stranger had just told me he was bald from chemo. “Yeah,” I managed to say. How could he look so young and be going through chemo?
“But I know this place well and you, my friend, are new. So please, allow me to introduce the Nameless Saloon on Nobody’s Lookin’ Road.” He made a sweeping gesture with his right hand as he said this and angled his chair toward me as he scooted closer.
I looked down at the drink I had barely touched and felt trapped. But that was ridiculous. Trapped? Wasn’t that why I left the house?
“On the main stage,” my neighbor began, gesturing to the men lined up along the bar, “we have ‘My Wife Doesn’t Understand Me.’ This is a long-running play that is in constant demand around here. The actors change from time to time, but the lines are most definitely the same.
“Over there—” his hand swept toward the rear of the place, with the noisy crowd playing pool: “You have ‘Bring it On,’ dudes itching for a fight to give them a chance to prove that they’re something since they can’t seem to prove it anywhere else.
“And lastly, you have our play.” His head swiveled around to indicate the tables where we were sitting. “Which I like to call, ‘The Talking Heads.’”
This one puzzled me. “The Talking Heads?”
His grin seemed to say that he was glad I’d asked. “Because all of us at the tables have found ourselves in this shotgun shack and are wondering, ‘How did I get here?’ and then eventually, ‘Oh my God! What have I done?’” He couldn’t keep from chuckling a little. “Get it?” And he got all toothy on me again.
I’d never met a guy who talked and smiled so much and, I admit, it was a bit contagious. His take on the people was pretty clever. I guess I was smiling a little myself because he seemed to brighten and said, “Yeah, you get it!” and plunged right back in.
“I know what you’re thinking… You’re wondering why a guy my age is hanging out here since the only younger guys are in the ‘Bring it On’ production over there. Believe it or not, this is right where I belong. I’ve personally starred in every production here. It was only a matter of time before I joined The Talking Heads, and, thanks to the cancer, I finally have.” He took a small sip of his drink and I wondered why his drink looked off to me. I did a double-take: It was a Coca-Cola glass with a regular straw.
“It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, how something really bad can turn out to be so good?” He had an unfocused gaze when he said this and he wasn’t looking at me.
“Good?” I inwardly cursed myself because I had been thinking what in hell could be good about cancer, but I didn’t expect something to come out of my mouth about it.
His eyes got bright and he leaned down in a confidential way with his elbows on the table and his hands clasped together.
“Yeah,” he said, all hushed, like he was telling me a secret. “Good.” He lowered his head a moment. “Yes, definitely good. I mean, the players in The Talking Heads have the greatest turnover, and you know why? Well, I’m finding out. I think they’re really trying to face their crap. I mean, face yourself, a lot of which is crap. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have to come to a bar to figure yourself out now, would you?” His mouth twitched but he didn’t smile.
I tried to remember the last time I heard someone talking about facing themselves. I think it was never.
“Now you’re thinking I talk funny,” he said, his mouth twitching again. “Yeah, that’s what reading does to you. Hell, I’d forgotten I could read until I was stuck in a hospital bed and so sick of everything on TV that I was desperate enough to ask for something to read.” He looked at his drink and gave a half-hearted laugh.
‘It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, how something really bad can turn out to be so good?’
I worried that he would read my thoughts again so I tried to keep them blank.
He leaned back and folded his arms. “I believe there are two kinds of folks in our group here: Those that face themselves and keep coming back because of what they saw, or those who leave and never come back.” He nodded. “I believe this latter group has decided to do something about their crap. That’s what I truly believe.”
Which would I be, I couldn’t help wondering.
“The worst thing you can do is wonder which one you’ll be,” he went on, “because then your locus of control…” he paused and raised his eyebrows, “is outside of yourself. What that means is you’re acting like the decision is not in your hands, which it is. The sooner you realize it is, the more likely you are to take some action and not keep coming to this shack.”
I didn’t know what locusts had to do with control, but it sounded good.
“Yeah, I read a lot of psychology textbooks when I was laid up,” he said. “I admit, I probably never would have read that stuff if something else had been lying around, but one of the nurses had just finished a class and said it was all she had for me to read. Thank GOD they had that dictionary or glossary or whatever they call it in the back of those big-ass books. Sometimes I think I should have read the books backward. It took me a long time to get through that first one, but I admit that I got hooked. I mean, you start trying some of the stuff and you know what? Some of it fuckin’ works.”
“How?” I winced, a little pissed that I’d again expressed myself, and to a complete stranger. I scowled a little into my drink as if some fool had forced me to speak.
He startled, like he forgot I was there, and sat back for a moment, jutting out his chin, his eyes shooting up to his forehead. “Ah, okay, this was one thing that worked great. I remember it’s called the ‘empty chair technique.’ Now, one thing you have plenty of around sick people is empty chairs. The gist is that you’re supposed to pretend that whoever you want to talk to is in the chair and then you say whatever you want to them.”
I stared at him blankly.
“Oh!” He slapped his thigh. “Lemme explain. Like, say you were going to a therapist because your wife left you and this therapist said,” here he lowered his voice into something that sounded full of authority, “Pretend your wife is sitting in the chair and tell her how you feel.”
Now it was my turn to sit back in my chair. I hadn’t realized I was so hunched over my drink. I tried to blank my mind again as the hair rose on the back of my neck.
“So, like I said, there’s plenty of empty chairs in the ward and the meds make me too sick to sleep at times so I thought, why the hell not? The other patients were out cold. And ta-da, there was a chair right beside my bed so all I did was prop myself up and, ah, have a chat with my ex-wife.” He took a sip from his drink again, like it was liquor.
“Buuuuut… I was too chickenshit to talk to her so I had a long chat with my dad instead. At first, I just told him what I was thinking and it felt kinda stupid. But then as I got comfortable, I actually started imagining what he might say. I tried to see him in that chair with that smirk on his face and his hat tilted back. Arms folded.” He exhaled. “Whew. At first, I have to say it was rough. So sometimes I woke up some of the other patients due to my yelling. But then, over time, I started… imagining what I wanted him to say instead. It was, you know, bizarre but good. I mean, for two months I actually had a dad I liked. I’ll tell you,” he said and he leaned toward me again. “I didn’t realize how much I loved being pissed off. I mean, I guess you could say I was an amazing lover when it came to being angry. I mean, I could go all night long with Angry!” He chuckled.
“Boy, Angry is a tough bitch to divorce, let me tell you. She still shows up at my door and at first, I let her in because, you know, we’re such old friends, but then I realized she would make excuses to stay the night and then the night would turn into ‘just one more day,’ blah blah. I didn’t even realize what a bitch she was until I had a few nights away from her. She didn’t think I needed any other friends and really, let’s be honest, she didn’t think I needed anybody but her, PERIOD. I met up with her in this bar a LOT over the years.”
I glanced at my drink. I hadn’t touched it since he started talking.
“So, she still shows up at the door, sometimes at the very door of this bar, but now at least I can keep her out.” He glanced at the door of the bar.
I couldn’t help but flick my eyes toward the door, too.
He sat back in his chair again and tilted his head to one side, like he was sizing me up. “It’s really weird that you came here tonight and sat down near me, of all people. I mean, this being your first night. See, I’m making this night my last.”
“Why?” Who was this blabbermouth? What was wrong with me?
This time he grinned with all his teeth. “Because I can.” He winked. “Internal locus of control. That means I believe I’m in control.” He paused. “At least when it comes to this place. That’s what I’ve decided.”
He looked down at his mostly full drink and stood up fast, taking deep breaths and shaking a little. “I’m not even going to finish my drink.”
He looked ready to bolt, but then he hesitated and turned back to me.
“Lou,” he said, extending his hand.
I shook it. “Sam.”
He took another deep breath and looked down at the floor, then at the ceiling before he spoke again. “You know, since I won’t be coming back here, if you ever want to hang out, I live just a mile from here off of Chesterson Road, number twelve. Maybe you can tell me your story then. But, if I don’t see you, hey, good luck, and I mean that.” He pulled on the bill of his cap like he was tipping it in my direction, his mouth twitched, and then the front door was closing behind him.
My story. Did I have a story?
I don’t remember a lot else from that evening except that I was the last one out that night. Lou was right… it was not easy to face your crap. Not at all. But over the next week I kept thinking about everything he said, especially about how he’d spent most of his life in that bar. I didn’t want it to become a habit—and that liquid Whitman’s tasted real good—so I tried not going back. But I passed the bar to and from work and I was so lonely…
The week wasn’t even out when I pulled up to his house one night. It was 6:30, which I figured meant he was home but not eating dinner yet, I hoped. I’d never sought out someone like this except for my wife and it was so weird that I had to sit in the truck for nearly half an hour before working up my courage to go knock on his door. It seemed so dumb, but that was how I felt.
The porch light was on, but no one answered. I waited a beat and then knocked again, but nothing happened. When I turned around, I saw why: no truck (or car) in the driveway. I stood there for more than a moment, my shoulders sagging, before going back to my truck.
Over the next couple of weeks, I slowed down when I approached the bar, like pretty much every day after work. When I was nearly rolling to a stop, I decided to drive by Lou’s house to see if he was home instead.
He never was. One time I tried early in the morning and another time, when I was feeling really bad, I even drove past late at night.
He wasn’t there.
‘Could I have kept you from leaving?’
That late night, when I pulled into my driveway, I sat there a moment, gathering the strength to get out of the car and be alone. I looked at the passenger side, where my wife used to sit because she hated to drive. I always drove when we were together. I stared at the house. Why didn’t it matter, that I always drove?
“It did matter. It just wasn’t enough.”
I closed my eyes, sucked in my breath. It was too easy to hear her, right there, so close.
“As usual, you’ve got nothing to say.”
When she said that, which she said a lot, it somehow made it harder to speak. But this time, I thought of Lou. And how he was trying. So I tried.
“I didn’t,” I started, looking through my dirty windshield at the house. Then I sighed and turned to her. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you.”
She gave me a kind look. “I knew that. But after we went to therapy, I knew you weren’t trying to help us, either.”
I gripped the steering wheel. I hated that therapist.
“It’s not her fault,” my wife said, reading my mind, like Lou. Which was actually unlike her. That might’ve made things easier. This wife, the empty-car-seat wife, continued. “She just made you aware that it was your choice not to try.”
I pursed my lips and continued to concentrate on the steering wheel, but she didn’t stop.
“Part of being an adult means knowing that you always have choices and that those choices will affect other people, whether you mean to or not.”
She looked and sounded like my wife, but those words seemed like Lou.
“Could I have kept you from leaving?” I asked.
“You could have kept me from wanting to leave,” she said.
I blinked at my large fists on the steering wheel.
“You chose to marry me,” I said.
“I thought you were what I wanted,” she said, sighing.
I’m not sure how long it took me to say something to that, but I didn’t see it coming.
“I thought… you were too,” I whispered to her.
We talked more. Or rather, she talked and I tried to respond as best I could.
I woke up in the car the next morning.
* * *
Not long after that talk with my empty-car-seat wife, I took a longer route home. I didn’t have any reason to rush home and it meant I didn’t have to pass by the bar. The less I considered the bar, the less she appeared in the empty car seat to argue. In fact, the first night I took the new route, I think she smiled a little and didn’t say anything at all.
But in the end, I knew she was in my head. I was still alone.
I went by Lou’s for another week, trying to vary the times I drove past, but the driveway remained empty. Which now seemed odd.
Then one night a thought popped into my head and once it was there, I couldn’t shake it.
I don’t think I let a whole day pass before I gave in and drove to the nearest hospital. I assumed that was the one he’d been to because it was the closest to his house, though still a good forty-five minutes away.
I walked up to what looked like the main desk and then froze—I didn’t even know his last name. But a nurse was already walking toward me so I sputtered, “Have you… I mean, has Lou… checked in recently?”
She looked at me blankly.
“Uh,” I continued, “he… lives on Chesterson… he… has a baseball cap with hair attached…”
At that another nurse behind her looked up. With her smooth dark skin and full lips, she looked too pretty to live around here.
“You’re looking for Lou?” she asked.
My body felt lighter. “Yeah,” I said. “He’s here?”
She hesitated. “Are you… family?”
“No,” I said. “No… just a… a friend.”
“Oh,” she said, blinking. She reached out and touched my hand. “I’m so sorry to tell you this, but Lou passed away.”
I didn’t move. Her hand was still touching mine.
She said, “I’m so sorry. I kind of got to know him and no one ever came to see him. I didn’t think he had any friends. He… he read so many of my psych books and helped me study so much he deserved an honorary degree.” She tried to laugh but took her hand off of mine to wipe at her eyes away instead.
It was strange that I could not remember leaving the hospital. All I remember is finding myself parked at the bar. I couldn’t believe I was parked next to the Chevelle again. I stared at the rusty stripes until they blurred.
I sat in the car, staring at the bar in my rear window for I don’t know how long.
The last time I looked at the bar, it was in my rear window again, except this time my car was moving.
I was walking into the hospital and there was the same nurse who cared for Lou looking all surprised again, but she was alone.
“I’m glad you came back, I was worried about you. You didn’t say anything and I… well, I’m just glad you’re okay.” She paused. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“Yes,” I said, and placed my palms on the counter. “Do you need help?”
She blinked at me, confused. “Help?”
“I mean…” I tried again. “The… patients… where Lou stayed… do they need help?”
I saw her hesitate and quickly continued. “I just mean… if you need anyone to just… be with the patients. I could be someone they could talk to. I thought they might need… a listener.”
I exhaled with the effort of saying so much at once.
And then her hand was touching mine again.
As a psychologist by day and writer by night, Wendra Chambers has published young adult short stories in literary magazines such as The Passed Note (October 2017) and anthologies such as Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, in addition to political op-eds and academic articles. Women in Film & Video (Washington, DC) also selected her comedic screen musical, A Musical for Outcasts, for their first Spotlight on Screenwriters spec-catalogue for distribution to select producers. “Restless Dreams of Silence” was the first story she ever wrote, inspired by real places and people now burned down or buried in Oklahoma.
Nothing distracted Gloria more than evidence of a baby in the room. The cold white crib delivered by the guest runner. The scatter of plastic objects that emit their soft whistles and rattles as she gathers them. Sometimes a tablet, its screen’s luster buried beneath layers of tiny fingerprints. She always took the extra minute to arrange these treasures on the glass table next to the room service menu.
Gloria’s baby will not have a tablet, but he will be happy. He will have some toys, and the most beautiful lullabies. Once, when she scooped up a guest’s stuffed octopus, her baby unleashed a frenzy of eight joyous kicks—one for each floppy arm. A clear communication from the womb. With her next paycheck she bought paint. She asked the artist who lived upstairs to sketch a mural above the baby’s corner and wrote the word “PULPO” in box lettering beneath the smiling sea creature.
* * *
Room 2708 had all the signs of a toddler—starting with the diaper odor and the sheer diameter of the mess. For another housekeeper, these might stir a panic in her eighteen-room-a-day rush. And for Gloria, perhaps they should raise alarms—she had already received two warnings since her belly began to grow. But those came during the morning sickness, when she needed the extra water to clean her own vomit. Now, as the second trimester came to a close, she felt a second wind at work. And baby rooms became her favorite, practice for el chiquitito on the way.
2708 was her ninth room, the last before lunch. She began as always, with the bed. She removed a circular toy with a screen. She recognized it from the toy store site she browsed each night, a Magic Mirror®. It filmed you and replaced your background with exotic, brightly colored scenes. She placed it on the table by the window, taking a moment to notice how the dark, low clouds beheaded Chicago’s tallest buildings. It would snow soon, the first of the winter.
She needed to concentrate or she’d fall behind. She spotted a pale-green crust spread across a pillowcase and the top sheet. Baby vomit. La chingada. She would have to order an inspection and replace the sheets. She hoped the guest had called down to request a sheet change. Then, she could skip the wasted time of waiting for a supervisor to confirm the mess. But the card on the nightstand sat unmoved. The card read:
Bold Hospitality© means taking the lead. Our company has decided that we will be the first to fully comply with the new Water Conservation Act. Together with our guests, we will be part of saving the planet. With our Thirsty For Our Future© program, our housekeepers have been trained to maintain a strict water quota, which includes laundry. Please dial #77 if you require a change of sheets or towels or to report an unusual cleaning challenge.
Gloria left the sheets for inspection and moved on to the bathroom. A delta of narrow yellow streams forked along tile grout lines. The source was a small pool next to the toilet. By the sink, tiny broken handprints formed impressions into a cake of blue toothpaste. The meter showed the family had paid for two extra showers.
She looked up and rediscovered herself in the bathroom mirror, round-bellied and trembling.
Gloria sprang into action, passing her rag over the wet shower floor to absorb the water. That took care of most of the urine. She typed her code into the meter and filled her pail to the half-liter mark—half her allowance for each room. She added a few drops of blue soap and rung out the urine-soaked rag. The rest of the urine came up quickly and Gloria finished the floor. She scraped away the toothpaste into her waste bag. The white marble sink required clean water, so she poured out the now green liquid and refilled her other half-liter.
She placed the bucket on the vanity top and returned to her cart for the Orange Bullet®. Sonia had told her that the orange stuff was bad for the baby, que te lo envenena. So Gloria always handled it carefully, making sure never to let the thick undiluted chemical onto her skin. And it happened in less than a second:
- Gloria noticed the orange goo that had dripped from the loose bottle cap.
- Gloria thought of her baby and lunged to rinse her poisoned hand in the pail of water.
- Her hand hit the side of the pail, tipping its contents into the sink.
The water pooled for a long moment, and Gloria watched her disfigured reflection disappear with the water down the open drain. She looked up and rediscovered herself in the bathroom mirror, round-bellied and trembling.
* * *
The ladies must have seen it as soon as she sat down to lunch. All their brows bent in concern.
“Que te pasa, Glori?” Marlena asked. “You’re so pale, pareces guera. Is it the baby? You better start shoveling that food in there quick o te vas a desmayar, gordita.”
The four friends squeezed, as always, into a creaky wooden booth in the corner of the Team Dining Room, beneath a pair of buzzing fluorescent lights. The air hung thick with grease and spilled syrup from the soda machine.
“I’m fired. I’m done. I ain’t gonna have nothing when mi’jo comes out. Nothing. No toys, no diapers. Nada. I’m so stupid. Everything my mom did to try to give me a better life and look at me. Knocked up, unemployed. Nothing to give mi’jo. I swore he wasn’t gonna have to pedal. I swore.”
“Ain’t no shame in a kid having to pedal.” It was Sonia who cut in, thinking of course of her Antonio. He had entered one of those schools this year—spending phys ed generating electricity on stationary bikes. But she hushed when she saw the rage in Gloria’s eyes.
“Shut up Sonia. It’s over. I wanted to get him so many toys! I’d been keeping track, all the good ones. The ones them guest kids have. Los que le muestran que lo quieres de verdad.”
“Slow down, hija, slow down.” It was Mari, the mother of the group. She was the only one actually born outside of Chicago, in Honduras, where she taught literature. At work, even in the cafeteria, she spoke in a refined, borrowed English. “Stop rambling and tell us what happened. They did not fire you. If they fired you, you would be walking out with that Korean security guard woman. You would not be eating this dry chicken. So, please, calm yourself and tell us.”
“I spilled the water in 2708. The last of it. And there is this giant stain of toothpaste right next to the sink y no tengo nada para limpiarla. And the sheets are stained too and I have to call the supervisor and…”
“And you can’t open another room until it’s done.” Sonia interrupted again, citing the rule they all knew. Each room had to be finished and sealed before the next door opened. “So you can’t go use some other water.”
“And I’ve already been like forty-five minutes in that room so if I don’t call Heather when I get back right away there’s no way I get done.”
“How many left?”
“Nine.” The ladies all swallowed at once. Gloria had come down late to lunch. She would return to her room at one p.m. That meant three and a half hours for nine rooms. Possible, they’d all done it. But she needed to get out of 2708 right away.
“Did you try to spit?” Sonia asked.
“Don’t be disgusting.” Mari answered before Gloria. “I think you should explain to Heather. When they fired Doña Rosa, they said it was because she tried to cheat. They caught her bringing an extra water bottle from home. Maybe Heather will understand.”
“You know she won’t, Mari. She won’t. She’s the one who wrote me up when I got sick cause of my baby.”
“And she’s the one that fired Doña Rosa. And Rosa had been cleaning them rooms cada dia for how many, twenty-five years? More? Gloria been here like three.”
It was true. Gloria arrived a little more than three years earlier after cleaning houses on day-gigs right after high school. Most of the students who graduated with her were stuck in gigs for years, many depending on pedaling or BodyGig to make ends meet. Gloria had tried BodyGig a few times, disabling it after taking thirty sweaty dollars from an older spray-tanned man who filmed himself circling her naked body. So when Marlena recommended her at the hotel, she jumped at the opportunity for stable work and a real paycheck. Enough to finally move out on her own.
At school, Gloria had sung, won contests, and studied enough to pass the tests. She dreamed of where her voice might take her. And like any sensible artist with a poor single mother, she depended on day jobs and sang for tips at night, in cheap-beer bars and coffee shops lit by the glow of laptop screens.
It was her last guitar player, a little older with long hair and the ability to improvise any song, who left her pregnant. By the time the pink plus sign appeared, he was in Los Angeles, where he said everything was coming back after the earthquake—a rebirth, that’s what renaissance meant, did she know? La nueva Mecca Mexicana. She sent him a video message about this other imminent birth. In it she sang a verse from A la Roro Nino, a lullaby he’d surely know. He removed her as a contact.
Gloria didn’t realize she had begun to cry.
“Basta, Gloria,” Marlena said as she pulled her chair closer. “Don’t cry for these bastards. All this ‘Thirsty for our Future’ bullshit. You know the company just gets to pay less taxes. I bet you Heather and Murray and all of them go home and laugh and take some long showers.”
“Yeah,” Sonia added. “And you’ve wasted too much water today already, Glori, verdad?”
Mari hit her on the shoulder and they all let a thin laughter spill out like steam from four covered pots.
“Well, ladies. I’m going to miss you three. Ustedes son mi familia, you know that.”
“Basta!” Marlena lit up. “We ain’t gonna let you lose this job. Not with my ahijado on the way. Right, ladies? Who else is on your floor today? Maybe she’ll bring you some of her water if she has an easy room. Then you call Heather for the sheets and you fly through those other rooms. You can make it, Glori. Who’s the other lady up there?”
“Rasha, the big Arabian lady.”
“Syrian,” Mari corrected. She took pride in identifying the origin of her immigrant sisters.
“Fine, Syrian. She never says anything except to those other Syrian ladies. She looks always amarga.”
“Your country goes through twelve years of war, you would look bitter too.” Mari never made eye contact with the younger ladies when she lectured. “Marlena is right. Talk to her. She has two grandchildren, so stick out that bump of yours.”
“That won’t be hard.” Sonia said as she picked the last of her chicken from the bone. “If I were you I’d get up there. They don’t give a shit if you don’t take your whole lunch.”
“Okay, I’ll try. I’ll talk to her. Por favor, Rasha. Wish me luck, ladies. I need it.”
“Both of you need it.” Marlena rubbed the thin nylon uniform over Gloria’s belly as they all stood up.
* * *
The elevator had never flown so quickly to twenty-seven. Gloria tried to sing to calm her speeding pulse, but the first verse of her tune ended in the off-key ping announcing her floor. She emerged from the linen closet and eyed an over-stocked cart halfway down the hall. Arab language talk radio emanated faintly from the open door by the cart. Gloria knocked twice with a pair of swollen knuckles.
“Yes? Hello.” Rasha appeared from the bathroom with drops of sweat collecting along the lines of her forehead. She wore a light green hijab that matched her eyes and she stood at least eight inches taller than Gloria.
“Hi. Rasha, right? I’m Gloria.” She pointed to her nametag, already feeling pathetic.
“Yes, I know. We take elevator together every day. What do you want?” She wiped her forehead on her sleeve and looked at her watch. All housekeepers’ enemy was time.
“I have a problem. In 2708. I spilled my water.”
“You have no more water for that room?”
As Rasha’s eyebrows raised, Gloria felt herself shrink further.
“How old are you?”
“You young girls, American-born girls, you make your own problem. You work stupid, you know? I’m sixty-three year old! How an old lady like me finish my job and not use too much water and you girls always getting in trouble?”
“I, I didn’t…” Gloria did not expect this.
“My back always in pain! In my country they beat me as young woman and now every day for nine years I lift these big mattress, so many mattress. And yet I do my job and I finish and I not use too much water. And then I go home and I lie down and I pray tomorrow I can work again. So why you young girls born here always have problem?”
Now Gloria’s mind tipped and the hope spilled out. Everything turned to liquid: her son’s toys, the health insurance that promised a safe birth, her cozy basement apartment. All of it dissolved into a watery mix that hurried down an invisible drain. She turned to walk away.
“Turn around, girl!” Rasha’s voice snapped. “You have a big problem. You have a boy or a girl?”
“I have to finish my room,” Gloria responded, though she stopped and turned her head.
“A boy or a girl?”
‘Your country goes through twelve years of war, you would look bitter too.’
“A boy. A little boy in less than three months. Now he’s gonna be born with no home and a big bill I ain’t never gonna be able to pay. And I don’t have nobody to move in with, not even my mom, because rent got so high she moved back to Ecuador after I moved out. I’m so stupid, I never should have moved out. And I should have looked at the orange bottle before I touched it and I never should have knocked over that shitty water and yes, okay, I’m a young stupid girl and I got myself in trouble. Okay? Happy? You’re right.” Gloria wondered if her poor baby’s heart beat as violently as her own.
“I have two boys.” Rasha’s voice was soft now, but still firm. “Both all grown up now. Older than you. Not easy, boys.”
Rasha turned and vanished into the bathroom again. Gloria’s last drops of hope stirred in her as she heard the brief whirr of the faucet. She held back tears as the towering Syrian woman reappeared with a guest’s glass half-filled with water.
“You got nothing from me. They ask, you got nothing.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“All my life I drink water, I use water for bath. Nobody think about it. When I was in refugee camp, sometimes we don’t have water and we share and we do all right. Little ones always get the water first.” Rasha nodded to Gloria’s belly.
“Enough of the thanking. This hotel make me sick. Go clean your room.”
Gloria turned and took her first steps towards 2708, holding the few ounces in her glass with as much care as she would soon cradle her newborn. She let her future rebuild in her imagination—the safe birth, the playful days and lullaby nights in her warm home, the infinite kisses on his round cheeks, the continued guidance from her comrades in the cafeteria, the box of colorful blocks and talking books and even a Magic Mirror®. It all came together, one of those brightly lit childhoods from the toy store websites. She found herself singing again, under her breath, hitting all the notes.
Each floor had an H-shaped hall, and as Gloria turned the corner to 2708, she immediately knew something had happened. A long shadow leaked from the open door, folded at a right angle by her cart. She had closed and locked the door when she left. Two opposite possibilities hovered at the door:
- The guests had returned and she would apologize for the delay, working quickly around them to finish the room. She could even ask them to call down about the sheets, avoiding the wait for the supervisor’s approval before remaking the bed.
- Heather, her supervisor, had come to check her rooms and stood blocking her narrow path to salvation.
No use in delaying. Gloria’s fate was already sealed. Sure enough, as she approached, the shadow climbed the piled linen of her cart and behind it came a cross-armed Heather in her pinstriped suit jacket. Heather had always struck Gloria as a teen movie cheerleader, now tripled in age and hiding some dark secret behind her permanent freckled smile. But she did not smile now.
“What are you doing with that glass of water, Gloria? And what were you thinking going down to lunch with this room still a mess?”
Gloria knew these were not actual questions. Her baby began to kick wildly. How brave, she thought, not yet ready for this world and already trying to defend his mother.
“I expected more from you,” Heather went on. “Your water quota is up for this room. I thought you understood ‘Thirsty for our Future,’ Gloria. Especially with your baby on the way. It’s her future our company is protecting. We…”
“His. He. It’s a boy.” Gloria couldn’t tell why she needed to correct this. She only knew she needed to open her mouth, let out a little of the venom collecting at her throat.
“Well I am sorry, Gloria. But that hardly makes a difference in my point. Our company made a bold move, a responsible move to put the environment first. Our guests feel very strongly about it. They believe in us. And you ladies just won’t take it seriously. Now where did that water you’re holding come from?”
“I brought it from the cafeteria.” Gloria thought quickly, knowing Rasha too was in danger. “It’s from my drinking quota. I knew I only needed a tiny bit…”
“Okay, Gloria, let’s go on down to my office to talk about this. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to take a look at your file.”
“No, no. Listen, Heather. Listen. You know I have my two other warnings. But you don’t have to do this. You’re a mother. You understand. You know I do a good job here, my rooms are spotless, Heather.”
“Let’s just go down to my office, Gloria.”
Gloria knew what this meant. With its repetition, all hope was absorbed in the building venom. She put her hands on her stomach. Her baby had given up his kicking. Poor thing. She understood how he felt, trapped in a space where he had no control.
“You going to fire me? You gonna get security there waiting with her taser? You gonna have her tase me cause I’m angry about getting fired like you did to Linda? You gonna tase a pregnant girl? Huh, Heather? Why don’t you just fire me right here.”
“All right Gloria, I don’t need to listen to your street talk. Let’s be professional about this. If I need security, you’re damn right I’ll call them.” Heather’s left eye blinked uncontrollably. “It’s my job on the line, too. Don’t you understand that? Now, can we both be professional? Or do I need to call?”
Gloria realized something about Heather. There was a fear that always lay stitched in a well-hidden seam of Heather’s conversations with the housekeepers. But now the seam tore, exposing the bright thread. Her sudden vulnerability turned a switch in Gloria, transforming her from prey to predator.
“I hope you drown in all this goddamn water you’re saving.”
Gloria threw the water she was holding in Heather’s face, dropped the glass and walked to the elevator. She didn’t look back, but she heard Heather stammer on the radio as she called for security.
* * *
So many better lives rushed by.
Two guards waited as Gloria emptied her locker and discarded her uniform one last time into the laundry chute. The locker room was empty, silent except for her own body’s small sounds. Her friends would know nothing for another couple of hours, when her absence would confirm the inevitable rumors. Perhaps Rasha would fill in the details.
She walked out into a cold wind tunnel of downtown Chicago. The first snowflakes of the year swirled and stung. A line of teenage boys and young men, mostly black and brown, in sweatpants and torn coats, bent around the corner a block down State Street. Gloria knew they were waiting at the entrance of the Radius® pedaling station. She turned down Lake just as a train’s brakes screamed on the tracks above her. The projections on the light stone building beside her ran an ad she recognized. It showed hundreds of people walking in the sunshine with green uniforms and name badges. Above them, in an impossible blue sky, it read “GigCentral: Proud to present five years of Zero Unemployment in America.” Gloria wanted to punch the wall.
As she packed in with the other puffy-coated bodies on the Blue Line, Gloria thought maybe her mother had been right to leave, to seek out the memory of a slower life. The news projections on the train ceiling showed the face of a famous tattoo artist who had disappeared. But the passengers all stared down at their own tiny screens. Gloria turned on her phone and ignored the messages from Marlena and Sonia. She deleted her favorite toy store app, its shopping cart emptied into the glowing grid of pixels.
She looked up again as the train emerged from underground after Division. The snow had increased, hanging a translucent sheet between her and the expensive restaurants and coffee clubs of Wicker Park. So many better lives rushed by. Gloria had seen these spacious homes. She had dusted the art on their walls and polished their hardwood floors for pocket change. She had even sung in some of these clubs, earning the occasional eye contact and a tip from the mustached boys in form-fitting plaid. Beyond the snow, so many well-dressed young people sat around tables that overflowed with exotic plates and full glasses of sparkling water. At many of the tables, seats remained open, perhaps for a late-arriving friend. This was the Chicago that still seduced her.
But what a cold place to raise a child.
Noah Dobin-Bernstein is a union organizer living in Chicago. He is currently at work on a collection of intersecting stories about diverse Chicago characters in the near future.
When I’m on my way to meet Marco’s father for the first time, I can’t help but remember all the things I know about the guy. I know he flew into a rage when Marco was seven because he found him playing happily with his sister’s dolls. Afterwards, he discarded Marco’s own toys as a punishment. He boxed Marco’s ears at ten when a visiting relative made a comment about the boy’s limp-wristed handshake. When Marco was a teenager and got caught messing around with a lacrosse teammate, his dad tossed him right out of the house, his possessions strewn across the lawn for all the neighbors to see. Marco had to move in with a great aunt on the other side of town until he finished high school. His father wouldn’t go to his graduation or contribute a penny afterwards to his higher education or anything else. Marco’s mother and sister had to make appointments to see him, at the aunt’s or at certain restaurants, a shuffling around that made him feel like he was in the witness protection program.
When Marco tells me all this he insists it only made him stronger. It was the fuel that got him through college and medical school too. His father’s rejection was something he thought about during his all-night shifts as a resident and when he used to run marathons and when he’d go winter camping in sub-zero temperatures for a week. And when he says this, I say, “Wow” or “No kidding,” because it sounds so crazy and tragic to me and also because I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to say.
We’ve only been together five months.
Marco’s mother was a sweet and timid creature. That’s how Marco describes her to me at least, leaving out the words emotionally abused and complicit. She died several years ago after a brief illness. Marco’s sister, a marine biologist, fled for college and grad school in California long before the mother’s death, and then took a job at an aquarium in Hawaii. It seems to me that Marco’s dad suddenly started reaching out again by default—the consequence of his wife’s passing and his daughter’s abandonment.
I mean, who else did he have to talk to?
Marco is thirty-three and his father has never met any of his boyfriends before.
Anyway. The two of them have apparently been in contact for almost a year now. Marco phones his dad once a week and he visits the guy on major holidays. Marco says his dad likes it when he tells him about his sports medicine practice and the famous athletes he treats there. He says his dad listens closely when Marco explains Tommy John surgery; that he likes to hear about the harvesting of tendons and ulnar nerve transplants and the best rehab techniques available. I can only assume if Marco had gone into hair design, the estrangement would have lasted a little longer, but I don’t say this. Marco is too encouraged by this fragile detente to take him down that road.
Marco is thirty-three and his father has never met any of his boyfriends before. So this is a big night, an invitation for us to come to dinner, a chance for his dad to meet me. I assume the get-together has been brokered like a Middle East ceasefire. Marco and I meet at Penn Station and take a train to New Jersey, walk a couple blocks from the local station in the June twilight, to the childhood home Marco was bounced from at the age of sixteen. It is a leafy, suburban neighborhood. There is a smell of mown grass, gas grills, and the nearby train tracks. The maple trees stretch like dancers across the road making a canopy effect. The house is a small Cape Cod on a corner lot with a conspicuously healthy lawn and trimmed hedges, a garden hose perfectly coiled next to the flagstone walkway. A classic Pontiac convertible sits enduringly in the driveway.
Marco doesn’t seem too anxious as we climb the stairs of the front porch, which is perhaps his medical training at work, the same poker face he uses to deliver dismal news. His father comes to the door before Marco even rings the bell. He raises a hand in greeting, but it’s a wan gesture. He looks sulky and annoyed. There is an awkward hug between these two, as his dad looks at me over Marco’s shoulder with an expression of supreme resignation, as if he’s just realized he’ll be sitting in the middle coach seat for an entire transatlantic flight.
We cross into the home and Marco introduces us. Not wanting to get my ears boxed I make sure my handshake is strong and masculine, but what I really think I should do is lean in and kiss him on the cheek and see what happens next. He’s not quite what I expected. I guess I’m as prone to stereotypical thinking as anyone else. Given the ugly stories of the past and how he works as a construction foreman, I suppose I’ve pictured a big, bloated figure with no neck and a buzz cut.
But the guy standing in front of me is of average height and is rather slender, almost distinguished looking. With a sportscoat and loafers he could pass for one of the history professors from my PhD program. He tells us to follow him to the kitchen, motioning us down a long hallway, but before we get there Marco gets a call, some type of emergency at the clinic. He stands there on his phone, listening to the details and giving commands. I’ve heard this crisis management voice of his before—the brisk competence, the casual authority. It’s sexy as hell and has been known to get me hot, but I don’t share this fact with his father.
Marco’s dad and I walk to the kitchen together. I can smell some garlicy spaghetti sauce on the stove as we come through the door. The kitchen is clean, but outdated. There’s a preserved, almost shrink-wrapped feel to the whole room. Marco’s dad watches me warily and unlike the rest of him, the look I see in his eyes is exactly what I expect, a sort of gloomy resentment. Perhaps he is sizing me up, ranking my homo-quotient. I probably fall short of the acceptable range he has worked out in his head—not a screaming queen, but not one of the jocks Marco deals with at the clinic either. I can also tell he has no intention of making polite conversation with me, not until his son gets off the phone and comes in here. Not until it is absolutely necessary.
So. I swing my backpack off my shoulder. I can see he takes this in too, that the backpack’s existence perhaps signals me as someone too young for his son, still a student, unprofessional, negligible, maybe out for his money. I unzip the bag and pull out the wine I’ve brought to the dinner and the cookies for dessert. Marco told me not to bother with anything, but I figure he’ll be happy with my surprise. He’ll be pleased I’ve made an effort, considering we’ve been arguing about this evening ever since I first heard about it. I can’t forget the fact that apparently in no time during the past year has there been an apology from his father, no acknowledgment of the past, no whiff of regret.
When I discovered this and pressed Marco about it, he responded by saying, “Maybe that’s what this dinner will be all about.”
He’d said this with such heart-tugging optimism that it was only then that I realized it was Marco who must have arranged this whole evening, lobbied hard for it. The sneer on his father’s face, as we stand in the retro kitchen, is all the proof I need. I hand over the wine and the bag of cookies. It’s a solemn, wordless exchange, like a drug deal on a dark street.
Marco’s dad peeks into the bag and says, “Nuts in these?”
These are the first words he’s uttered to me since I’ve arrived.
“Excuse me?” I say.
“Nuts,” he says. “Did Marco tell you I can’t have nuts?”
I want to tell him that his dietary restrictions didn’t come up because we were too busy discussing his hateful alienation, the way he banished his son to the moon, but all I say is, “Nope, he didn’t.”
“Well, I can’t. So these have nuts or what?” he says, irritated now.
“They’re chocolate chip,” I answer. “No nuts.”
And so he reaches into the bag, grabs one and takes a bite.
The reaction is almost immediate, the sweating and the hives. Within a minute Marco’s dad has fallen to his knees and is clutching his chest, gasping for air. It’s not until Marco is aware of the commotion that he comes barreling through the kitchen door. He assesses everything instantly and then takes control of the situation. He finds the Epi-Pen in the downstairs bathroom, administers the shot. We grab his dad’s car keys and carry him to the Pontiac, racing to the ER a couple of miles away.
Within a minute Marco’s dad has fallen to his knees and is clutching his chest, gasping for air.
Professional courtesy allows Marco to go with his dad as the other doctors work on him, but he comes out to the waiting room periodically to ask me some questions and give me updates. His dad will be all right. He’s stabilized. I’ve been apologizing profusely since we loaded the man in the car. I apologize to the intake nurse too—when Marco and his dad are nowhere in sight. Marco comes out again and tells me they will keep his father overnight. They need to monitor him because sometimes there is a second anaphylaxis attack a few hours after the first.
I apologize some more.
“I swear, Marco, I didn’t realize those cookies had any nuts in them. He asked me. I said no. I didn’t even know he had an allergy. I thought it was a diverticulitis thing he was talking about.”
“Look, how could you know?” he says, squeezing my shoulder.
This is when Marco tells me people can have such severe nut allergies that if a particular product is prepared on the same equipment or in the same kitchen as a nut product it can trigger a reaction. This is apparently what has happened to Marco’s dad, though he’s never had an attack this severe or sudden before.
At this point, Marco could also remind me that he told me not to bring anything with me tonight, and if only I had listened to him, none of this would have happened. He chooses not to say that. I can tell he wants to forgive me, move on from the whole incident. Maybe this quiet largesse is something he’s learned in medical school too, along with masking his feelings and that chilly professionalism of his.
“And I’m sorry I froze,” I tell him now. “I just stood there.”
“That’s common. It was a shocking set of circumstances.”
“I thought I’d be better in a crisis.”
“People don’t know how they’ll react,” Marco says, ruffling my hair.
I don’t tell Marco that I’m actually quite good in a crisis. He doesn’t know that I once gave CPR to a stranger who collapsed in front of me outside of Grand Central, kept him breathing until the EMTs arrived; or how one summer I packed a coworker’s finger in ice and took it to the ER after it was cut off in a mishap at the bakery where we worked. And I certainly don’t tell him I’ve witnessed anaphylaxis before. My cousin had an allergic reaction to a bee sting when we were teenagers and I called 911 immediately, stretched him out, elevated his legs and calmed him down as we waited for the ambulance.
Marco would be surprised by my practical knowledge, how I knew what was happening with his dad as soon as it started, as his skin began to break out, as he began to perspire and gasp for breath. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the circumstances. I just didn’t do anything. I didn’t even call out for help, as his dad slid to the floor of the kitchen. This was the same kitchen where Marco told me he’d wept when confronted about the lacrosse player. His father had thrown plates and silverware at him that night and smashed a window too, while ordering his only son out of the house for good. That’s what I was thinking about before Marco finally charged in, as I watched his dad thrash around on the linoleum floor, as that expression of strangled fear on the man’s face was giving me a sure and blazing satisfaction.
Bill Gaythwaite is on the staff of the Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. His short stories have appeared or will soon appear in Grist, Alligator Juniper, Superstition Review, The Summerset Review, Streetlight, Word Riot, and elsewhere. His short play, Assistance, was performed at Circle Rep in New York City, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work can also be found in the anthologies Mudville Diaries: A Book of Baseball Memories, and Hashtag: Queer: LGBTQ + Creative Anthology, Vol. 1.
Photo by Tom Westburgh
She pauses in her slow crawl along the furrow that must yield beans, and wipes a dirty hand across her face. She squints skyward. The jets are in formation again. Practice. It must be practice. Please be just practice. She braces as the rush of the planes’ noise hits her.
She pulls a handful of purslane, an overbearing weed that in years past has been left to wilt between rows. Now she must look at it differently, consider it before tossing it aside. It’s listed as edible in her newly purchased survival book. She nibbles a leaf, tasting the green and the grit. Swallowing bitterly, she looks up again, this time at the sun. This spring is hotter than it’s ever been. Thirst prickles her throat, but waste not, want not fills her mind, overrides desire. There’s so much waste these days. She eyes the distant shade and calculates how long the beloved trees would burn for heat, for light, for primitive life. Ration everything, reuse everything. Question everything.
The baby sleeps in the playpen in the cool comfort the trees now provide. She has no concept yet of public education being destroyed around her, of the future slipping away in stolen choices, of men in suits deciding what’s appropriate for her.
Daddy’s out behind the barn, sweating, swearing at the old tractor. It’s hard for a union man to sit idle. What’s disgusting? Union busting. The phrase has stuck since they protested, way back, before everything even more damaging happened, is happening. There is so much damage, it’s hard to keep track.
The dog stands under the clothesline: jumpy, guarding, waiting, soaking up his people’s anxiety, biting his fur.
Drivers can’t see her, can’t see this secret patch of dirt that may become her salvation or her grave, the bounty that sustains them or the lure that brings the looters, the thieves, the violence.
She freezes as a car passes on the road, invisible from where she kneels. It’s something she wouldn’t have noticed before, but now it sounds like a threat. Drivers can’t see her, can’t see this secret patch of dirt that may become her salvation or her grave, the bounty that sustains them or the lure that brings the looters, the thieves, the violence. Should it come to that. She thinks it will.
Friends have already left, seeking peace and stability across borders, while borders are still things that can be crossed. Others hunker down, assert their right to be here and increase their vigilance. Lock the doors, avert their eyes, zip their lips, pull close their hijabs, lower their rainbow flags, cringe as Confederate ones go up, squeeze their eyes tight as the loud trucks go by, slowly, slowly, taking liberties. Empowered, self-righteous patriots leave tattered Stars and Stripes unilluminated, out in the rain.
The sale of underground bunkers is at an all-time high. Hide or escape now, friends, now, before the walls go up. Go where? Where will there be air to breathe? Water to keep the blood flowing? Food to nourish? The whole damned planet teeters in the tiny hands of he who is the most unstable.
“What of the bears slaughtered while they sleep in their caves? The clear-cut forests?” She speaks quietly now. The seeds don’t answer. “What of the wolf pups, gassed in their dens?”
She pulls her sun hat close to her eyes, looks down at her sweat-stained shirt: RESIST. “God help me, I’m trying.”
Like the jet pilots, she too has been learning, practicing. Practicing how to survive. Collecting rain, buying matches, scoping targets. Practicing simple tasks by firelight: baking, mending, stitching together what they have, deciding what they can keep. Learning to see in the dark. She can’t replicate modern marvels like refrigeration, transportation, communication. Connection.
Since November she’s been heaving the axe, choking on smoke, inhaling ash, burning inside. Summoning the spirits of those who came before, who survived and created today. Can she do the same for tomorrow? Looking around at all the potential, she must believe she can.
With anxious eyes on the sky, she will teach herself to can, to dry, to preserve. To preserve tomatoes and dignity, to conserve spinach and freedom of expression, to serve us, we the people. We’ve been served all right. With corruption, disruption, broken oaths, stupid slogans, dangerous jingoism, red hats, fault lines. “You work for us, you son of a bitch,” she yells toward the east.
We’ve been served all right. With corruption, disruption, broken oaths, stupid slogans, dangerous jingoism, red hats, fault lines.
There are more fighters overhead. Friend or foe? It was never a consideration before. Neither was the daily unease, the fear gnawing her guts. It’s not hard to imagine a mushroom cloud up there, then the fallout, the gritty remains of the Eastern seaboard drifting down. But she’s only trained for tornadoes. Will the sirens go off when he pushes the button? When keystrokes and insults aren’t enough and juvenile leaders trade nuclear warheads like inconsequential playthings, as if someone can win? What then?
Then she’ll grab the baby, call the dog, clutch her husband’s hand and hold on to all the pieces as tightly as she can. Together they will throw open the Dorothy doors and dive into the cellar. There they’ll settle among the bottles of tap water, his liquor bottles that she refills. They will huddle together among the embarrassingly insufficient store-bought cans of corn and peaches and try in vain to comfort the dog, stop the crying, jostle for space in what will become their tomb.
She adds a pinch of compost, covers the seeds as gently as she can. Hope for survival lays in the dirt, multihued and fragile and dormant, biding its time, gathering strength. It hardly looks like a victory garden right now.
But isn’t that the way hope grows? From darkness, from underground, subversive, after the shit has been brought to light and cast about?
She wipes sweat from her eyes, stands tall, and looks around her. Barren dirt has become ground sown with promise. She grabs the hoe. Plans for tomorrow. Starts a new row. Wait. Just you wait and see.
Jill Kiesow writes fiction and poetry, and has pieces in The Matador Review, Ariel Chart, and 50-Word Stories. She is a longtime vegan and animal advocate, has worked at a shelter, and currently volunteers for a dog rescue. She and her husband, precocious toddler, rescued cats, and adopted shelter-dogs live in rural Wisconsin.
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