Restless Dreams of Silence

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.

“Please.”

She was silent.

“Please.”

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.

Thirsty for Our Future

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:

  1. Gloria noticed the orange goo that had dripped from the loose bottle cap.
  2. Gloria thought of her baby and lunged to rinse her poisoned hand in the pail of water.
  3. 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?”

“Right.”

As Rasha’s eyebrows raised, Gloria felt herself shrink further.

“How old are you?”

“I’m twenty-three.”

“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.

“Thank you.”

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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-BurnsteinNoah 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. 

Practical Knowledge

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

Planting Seeds

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.

You Don’t Have to Be So Afraid All the Time

A sonic crack and the ball soars like a comet, like it might remain another white speck in the night sky, like it’s a guaranteed walk-off home run. Except that the left-fielder, who, till now, has appeared hobbled by the rumors of his impending free agency, is tearing towards the wall, not even glancing up to trace the ball’s trajectory. His only hope is to beat it there and wait, to pray it loses some propulsion. And it isn’t until he’s at the farthest possible point on the field that he looks up over his shoulder, still driving forward, only his cleats have leapt from grass to wall and his free hand is clutching its ridge and his glove is reaching so far upward that it looks like his arm is being ripped out of its socket, and his eyes are shut tight and his teeth gritted, and his hat has fallen off his head, and it seems like he’ll hang there for an agonizing eternity when his glove reflexively snaps shut with the weight of the earthbound ball, and the left-fielder, who has been battling a torn ACL all season and has a batting average of .239 and is maligned daily by every sports radio host in the state, returns to the ground and is consumed by the oceanic roar of the crowd.

The whole feat shifts into reverse—the ball escapes the glove and ascends into the sky, the left-fielder climbs up the wall, then back down again—before it plays out once more in slow-motion, no easier to comprehend, even when broken down into a scientific step-by-step. The SportsCenter logo spins in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. Kenny sits three feet from the TV on the living room floor, pulsating with excitement. He has to make that catch himself, move his young limbs with that same fluidity and strength, claim someone’s almost assured shot at victory as his own, imagine the charge of a stadium erupting for him.

It’s a lot to ask of an eight-year-old, but Kenny knows he’s the only one left to teach his brother these things.

And so his backyard becomes a makeshift ballpark. He shields his eyes from the sun with the frayed glove handed down from his father (the only thing Kenny can remember of him) and stands across from his little brother, Everett. Kenny has carefully instructed Everett to toss the ball up and hit it just hard enough that it will fly over the chain-link fence that borders their yard while still being catchable, but not so hard that it ends up completely out of reach. It’s a lot to ask of an eight-year-old, but Kenny knows he’s the only one left to teach his brother these things. Unsurprisingly, the first attempts either end up as dribbling ground balls or bombs that clear the fence completely and bounce across the street into the neighbor’s driveway. Finally, one connects perfectly with a satisfying, hollow sound, and Kenny follows it to the fence, head down and breathing hard like the man he wants to be; and it’s still hanging there as he plugs his feet into the gaps in the fence, and as he loses his balance and finds his face falling towards its pointed top, and as his upper lip catches one of these points and his body gives in to the gravity, and the pink flesh covering his teeth tears, sending a bolt of pain through his head and filling his mouth with the tinny taste of blood. The ball skips across the road and Everett is already crying loudly, bringing their mother into the yard, who, seeing her oldest son’s mouth split into two dangling flaps of flesh, runs back into the house and pounds out a panicked call to 911, whose operator promises to send an ambulance once the mother screams that yes she is already too drunk at eleven-thirty in the morning to ice her son’s mouth and drive him to the ER herself and would they for the love of God please come save her boy.

First, there are the sirens, then the flood of red lights, and then the ambulance itself, which blurs past Monica who has obediently pulled her Ford Fiesta to the side of the road. Unaware it’s speeding towards a sobbing boy whose mouth is in desperate need of stitching, she instinctually crosses herself—a remnant from her Catholic school days. And though it’s been over a decade since she’s voluntarily entered a church, she still can’t shake that ritual or the Hail Marys she speeds through when desperate to keep her mind off something stressful—like the biopsy she’s on her way to, having found a lump underneath her left breast last Tuesday. And as she eases back onto the road, she catches her lips shaping the words, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” She seals her mouth. It’s an embarrassingly stupid habit. Muscle memory more than anything. But it’s so much like the religion itself, a means of coping with our creeping mortality.

Todd Pendergras knew this better than anyone, even at twelve-years-old. A classmate at Sacred Sacrament for only one year, she hasn’t thought of him in a decade—he who never said a “Hail Mary” or an “Our Father,” never received the Eucharist or entered Confession. Somehow, it was common knowledge that his mother had killed herself two summers before, though the exact method was left to rumor (some said she slashed her wrists, others that she leapt from the roof of their apartment building). His father was a non-entity, so his grandmother sent Todd to get a religious education after his many outbursts in public school. Even at Sacred Sacrament, he punched dents into his locker and pissed all over the bathroom floor. Kids backed away from him the way you would a rabid raccoon that had stumbled into your driveway—Monica did too. The exception being the detention they shared—she had missed three math assignments; he had torn a page out of a hymnal for a paper airplane—where, while swabbing spirals into the dusty green chalkboard, Monica heard herself ask, “Do you believe what they say, that people who kill themselves go to Hell?” She then froze, letting the cold, soapy water trickle down her arms and into the rolled sleeves of her blouse. She didn’t know where the question had come from or that she was capable of such naked carelessness. But rather than pound his fists into the board or curse her out, he just looked at her with something that resembled pity and said flatly, “Monica, there is nothing after this. You don’t have to be so afraid all the time.” Then he turned and squeezed his sponge out into the bucket. They spent the next half hour and then the rest of the year in silence. He didn’t return in eighth grade. And as Monica pulls into the parking lot of St. Michael’s Radiology Department, moments away from the cold stab of the biopsy, trembling hands gripping the steering wheel, she wonders where Todd is at this very moment.

And as she eases back onto the road, she catches her lips shaping the words, ‘Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.’

The ping of the friend request arrives like a shot of dopamine, pulling Todd from his cave of blankets. A warm wave of familiarity washes over him when he reads “Monica Paisley.” A childhood crush. A quiet girl with frizzy black hair and a pleasantly plain face. And if her profile picture is to be believed, those formerly soft features have sharpened into something more striking. One arm absently reaching for the empty side of the bed where his now (he has to get used to saying it) ex-girlfriend normally slept, he clicks “accept.” The sadness that sits in his stomach like a boulder is a mundane one, compared to his life’s other losses, but it is still a sadness nonetheless. He scrolls through the details of Monica’s digital life: bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history from formidable universities in the Northeast, a museum job, no recent pictures with men; all while trying to ignore the realities of his own: dropping out of community college, failing to come up with his carpenter’s union dues, the apartment he can no longer afford because of the absence of a woman he never liked but now constantly misses. Shedding a layer of blankets, he opens a message window to Monica, then spends fifteen minutes staring at its overwhelming blankness. After fourteen years of mutual silence, he can only wonder what her request means. If she is as lonely as he is now. Regardless of the several states that separate them, his response can determine the trajectories of their future, can coordinate them to some mutual point or cause them to recede back into nothing. He focuses on a dark stain on his comforter shaped like an oven mitt, then returns to the debilitatingly vacant screen.

The sun has now set, and the room’s only light is the soft glow of the TV in the corner, flickering with baseball highlights. The home team’s designated hitter, a bear of a man, connects with a ball that looks like it’s exiting the stratosphere. Three years before Todd’s mother died, she took him to see the Marlins play the Orioles, his first and only baseball game. He never showed much interest in sports as a child and still doesn’t, except as the occasional background noise. He can’t recall which team won or even whom they had rooted for. He does remember the crowd rising to do “the wave,” the intoxicating smell of hot dogs, his mother arguing with a vendor over the price of beer. He remembers too the mass exodus from the stadium—every fan thinking they’d be the first to reach their car and beat the traffic—and his flapping lace getting caught beneath his shoe, his palms catching the pavement and stinging with blood and gravel, the blows of unseen feet against his ribs and even one stepping across his back, a rippling of gasps and his mother’s screams—That’s my son! You’re trampling my son!—and being lifted by his shirt, his collar strangling him, and then swept into her arms and squeezed like a life raft, covered in kisses, apologies breathed into his ear: I’m sorry, baby. Mommy’s got you. You’re safe with me. I’m never going to let you go.

His screen has dimmed to sleep, and so he wakes it. With a steady clatter, he types, “Monica, help me to not be afraid again.” He clicks “send,” then, as if trying to trap the message before it can escape, snaps the laptop shut.

 

Douglas Koziol received his MFA from Emerson College, where he currently teaches in the Writing, Literature, and Publishing department. His writing has appeared in The Millions, Crack the Spine, and Driftwood Press, among other venues. He is at work on his first novel.

 

Photo by Meg Kiley

Bruised Sage

Driving home from the ranch across the high desert, Enzo measures the length of a coal train, setting the odometer at the caboose and racing westward toward the engines. Tess photographs lightening that cracks the sky. Eight-year-old Sophie sleeps in the back, wrapped in the sweetness of trust.

Home in Los Angeles, Enzo needs to keep moving. “Let’s visit your parents.”

Tess thinks he is like the desert sky, full of fissures and electricity. She wants stillness. She hesitates, but her mother calls.

“Tess, come see us. I want to hear Sophie’s adventures in her words.”

“Mum, we’re still recovering; Sophie’s accident was hair-raising.”

“Nonsense, Sophie will feel brave when she tells her story, and Enzo is her hero.”

This is true. Enzo saved their daughter by moving faster than light. Sophie’s pretty roan pony threw her and bolted with Sophie’s foot in the stirrup, dragging her down the riverbed. While Tess stood frozen, Enzo slammed his horse into the pony and Sophie’s foot came free.

*     *     *

The road north to Leo and Eva’s follows the coastline in winding curves, exhilarating Enzo with memories of Italy. He accelerates into the bends. Last night Tess dreamed of careening over the edge. The drop is not a true cliff, but people in a car would drown, or twist and burn. Awaking, she questions if she is alive. Now Tess braces her knees against the dash. They arrive in Eva’s kitchen, bringing the scent of the ocean. Eva has forgotten they are coming. Enzo cooks a frittata and Tess adds extra places to the breakfast table on the patio. Leo covers for Eva with the particular grace of an old spy. Stabbing his food, distracting them all, he turns to Sophie with his I’m-teaching-you tone.

“During the war I vowed I would have an egg a day for the rest of my life.”

World War II binds Tess’s English parents and Italian Enzo. In south Italy, the chaotic aftermath shaped Enzo’s childhood. He follows his father-in-law’s narrative. “My parents were teenagers when the war ended. Their first memories are of hunger. Now my mother fills cupboards with food that rots.”

A college summer of working on a Wyoming ranch gave her a place where her parents’ war became smaller against the sky.

Eva continues the storyline of history. “The war made us mad as hatters. I traded rations with the pilots, cigarettes for chocolate, and they took me on flight exercises. Dangerous, but we all expected to die one way or another. Sophie dear, have you learned about G-force?”

These people Tess loves are good at pretending things are fine. No one says the Italians and the Brits were enemies. Tess looks at her eggs; she has never gone hungry. At school she learned how her parents’ generation saved the world, and kneeled under her desk, practicing for nuclear attack. Fear and sorrow were forbidden, excised from their lives like an infected appendix. What defines joy without sadness?

*     *     *

Snuggling on the sofa, Sophie and Eva fall into afternoon sleep. Enzo and Tess lie on the patio lounge chairs to watch the incoming fog shroud the mountains.

Enzo says, “You must tell them what happened in Wyoming. Tutto.”

“Isn’t the accident enough?”

 “No, amore. They must know.”

“You want me to tell them now, when they are almost dead?”

Tess cannot bear this. A college summer of working on a Wyoming ranch gave her a place where her parents’ war became smaller against the sky. She took Enzo to that landscape, hoping it would help him heal after his father’s death. Within a day of arriving, Sophie almost died in a freak accident. Unsinkable Sophie was on a horse again in two days, but Tess fell apart. Shame clawed its way up to her surface like the un-dead. She told Enzo the long-buried story she’d hid from herself, from everyone. They drove the rented SUV up the fire roads to a clearing high above the river gorge. She got out of the car, bruising the sage with her feet. In the rosy dusk light, sweet crisp scent wrapped around her as she spoke to the ground.

“Here. I was raped here.”

Enzo stepped forward and aimed an arc of urine over the stones and low brush, saying, “I am erasing him.”

Tess stood mute in the smell of men. You can’t. A cloud of mosquitos settled on Enzo’s tender foreskin and he slapped and danced, swearing. Tess’s laughter exploded decades of silence, echoing across the canyon again and again in a lunatic chorus.

*     *     *

Today Tess says, “Is your pissing contest with my past a funny story?” Softening, she adds, “They need to know I can take care of them, they don’t want me to be wounded.”

“They love you.”

“My parents were smart enough to survive the most terrible war.”

Eh, cosi?”

“Their generation never talks about failure.”

“Failure?”

“I got in that truck with that man.”

Enzo is quiet.

Tess thinks he and her parents might agree on her foolishness.

“Your parents did not teach you to recognize a psicopatico.”

They won a war against a psychopath.”

“That has nothing to do with this.”

It does. Leo and Eva measure even their children against sixty million dead. Weary Tess says only, “They would think it vulgar.”

Enzo respond in words that caress. “Vergogna scoperta, e vergogna svanita. Shame uncovered is shame vanished.”

Tess touches the half-burned olive tree at the edge of the patio. They were married here, under its branches. She loves this tree, tortured and defiant, bearing fruit, its silvery leaves embracing the mountains and sea. Tess’s life has grown around her like the new bark edging the burn scars, thickened and round, protecting the damaged heartwood. She goes inside to make tea.

*     *     *

In the living room, Eva and Sophie are looking at Wyoming pictures. “Good job to get right back on that pony.”

Sophie doesn’t fit in Eva’s lap anymore, her legs dangle and she drapes her arm around her grandmother’s neck. Enzo takes a picture, murmuring La Pieta, but with a happy ending. Tragedy kissed them and passed by.

Eva is telling Sophie a horse story. “I was twenty, living in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe now. We were in the middle of the African veldt, no one for miles. Do you know what the veldt is?”

Sophie nods. “Where the zebras are.”

“Quite right. I argued with Cat and stormed out. Funny, I remember slamming the door, but not why. I was so mad; we galloped like bats out of hell. Of course Raven caught my mood and bucked me off. Hit my head, no idea what happened. When Cat told me about it I thought she was pulling my leg.”

Sophie’s eyes get rounder. “How did she pull your leg?”

Vergogna scoperta, e vergogna svanita. Shame uncovered is shame vanished.’

“She said I took off my shirt and waved it above the grass to flag down a farmer going to market. When he stopped, I was madly buttoning it up again. He took me home and I fell asleep wearing my boots. One mustn’t let a concussed person sleep.”

“I know; in Wyoming Mamma sang all the way to the hospital. And poked me.”

“Lucky you. That silly farmer gave me brandy and put me to bed. Maybe that’s why I am batty now. I didn’t know my name, only the pony’s, Raven.” She looks at the mountains as if she might remember more. “California reminds me of Africa. Sophie darling, you must go to Africa.”

“But Granny, what happened?”

“The farmer called Cat. He knew we were the only English women within a day’s ride. She couldn’t come ’til the next morning. She said I let him make love to me. I don’t remember a damn thing.”

Tess whips her head around and coaxes Sophie off Eva’s lap, promising cookies and a swim in the pool.

Sophie grips her grandmother’s neck, asking, “Granny, how is that pulling your leg?”

Leo cuts in like a dancer and explains figures of speech while tugging Sophie’s heels until she giggles.

*     *     *

Tess knows this story. Eva and Cat retold it whenever they were together. In their seventies, they still described the farmer blushing as he opened the door.

“He apologized for not getting Eva’s boots off!” Their graceful gray heads rocked with laughter.

As they make lemonade in the kitchen, the stories align in Tess’s mind: Eva, Sophie, unconscious. Eva, herself, violated. Tess hisses to her mother, “Sophie is too young to hear about a man stealing your virtue, raping you while you were unconscious.”

Eva snorts like a horse.

“Don’t be silly, what virtue?” Eva takes things out of cupboards, pans go in the oven and out again. She stands lost in the center of her kitchen and looks at a flaming empty burner, then asks Enzo if he will go pick up food.

While he is out Tess opens wine for her parents. She cleans up Eva’s attempted meal, scorched chicken thighs and raw broccoli, tears burning the corners of her eyes. Her mother talks about buying Sophie a new riding helmet because they crack after one fall. Tess and her mother collude in pretending that everything is fine; they always do.

*     *     *

That night Enzo drives home. On the Ventura Freeway, Tess asks, “Did you notice my mother isn’t making sense?”

“No.”

“You didn’t see her turn on the dishwasher to make toast?”

“I turned it off.”

“She told Sophie that terrible story about being taken advantage of when she had a concussion as if it were funny. Sophie is only eight.”

“It is funny.”

“Enzo!”

“You love your mother because she is never appropriate.”

“I admire her for that. I love her because she is always there, and always brave.” Sudden lights from the car dealerships fronting the highway make the night bright and strange. “Do you see why I don’t tell them?”

Enzo pauses, changing lanes, blinker, mirror, passing the lights to darkness again. Tess thinks he has abandoned the conversation, but he says,“Yes, I do. Mi dispiace.”  He takes her hand as he navigates the exit onto the Pacific Coast Highway.

“She didn’t understand that Sophie almost died.”

“Of course not. To think that Sophie is mortal is terrifying. Your mother is finished with loss; she plans never to lose anyone again. It is we who will lose her.”

Tess’s soul cries no. She wants Sophie to grow up with Eva, laughing at disaster, pretending everything is fine until it really is. Enzo accelerates into the curve. Tess asks him to slow down. He does, but speeds up at the next bend. “Enzo, not so fast.”

Perhaps he doesn’t hear, perhaps he does.

“Slow down, you’re frightening me!” Tess reaches behind his neck to check Sophie; she’s sleeping. As she straightens, the speed of the car flings her against the door. The smell of sage from the hillside mingles with Enzo’s shaving soap, releasing the desperate memory of a numbing drive down mountain switchbacks, a man with a knife, his bruising stink inside her, blood on her thigh. Tess’s hand tightens around the door grip, words escape in a gasp, “Stop! You drive like the rapist.”

Enzo inhales through his teeth. He swerves onto the gravel verge. The waves are loud and close. Enzo leans across Tess to open her door, but she holds it with animal strength. They don’t know they are struggling. In the confined space some part of his body slams her against the car frame so her head snaps sideways against the window. Vertebrae in her neck arrange themselves with sounds that seem louder than the waves. Tess shudders, grasping the door handle like a life buoy. Sophie wakes in the back, shifting and murmuring.

“Mamma?”

Tess freezes. Enzo reaches behind her and pats Sophie. In seconds they are on the road and Sophie slides back to sleep. They will never agree on these moments. He says he spoke, but Tess hears nothing; says nothing. They pull into the garage and she scoops up sleeping Sophie and runs. Before Enzo can wrestle the bags into the elevator, Tess locks the apartment door.

 

Sarah Lejeune is an artist, writer, and urban planner living with her family on the edge of Los Angeles. She is a graduate of Smith College, and holds an MFA in painting and sculpture from Claremont Graduate University. Writing delights her. “Bruised Sage” is her first published fiction. She is writing a novel about life on the other side of rape.

 

Fermenting Hearts

Calling Txiv thiab Niam

At six years old, True wrapped his right arm over the top of his head and touched his left ear with his right hand. That was the test to get into primary school in Laos. His fingers inched towards the tip of his ear in hopes of getting into school.

“You are ready to show them tomorrow, tub,” said his mother. And he beamed.

Early at dawn, True’s mother prepared a large bundle of rice wrapped in an emerald-green banana leaf and five pieces of dried fish. His father carried a bamboo chute full of fresh water from the river, and both the packed food and chute of water were stuffed in a kawm, a woven basket. True slipped each arm into the straps of the kawm, now on his back, and looked up at his father: flared nostrils, beady, almond-shaped eyes, sun-spotted freckles. The trek was three hours to his school in the village of Phuu Sa Noi.

Txiv, I am ready,” True said.

His father nodded, walked out the front door of their mud-thatched home, and led the way into the grey skies above the jungle. True followed with his mother and father’s love shifting in the basket hugging his back. He lunged with his little feet in thong sandals to catch up with his father.

As he trailed behind, he thought back to the time when his father first took him to the river. He loved going outdoors, and he loved that his father took him.

Tub, come here. I want to show you something,” said True’s father.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Look into the water. What do you see?”

Minnows dashed around in the shallow water by the bank. True smiled at the fish that were as big as each of his fingers. He giggled and placed his opened palm into the water like a soft, floating leaf. His father looked down at him struggling to capture the fish in his hands. True distinctively remembered his father’s hand, molded into a bowl, take one swift scoop into the water. Suddenly, a minnow dashed in his hand.

On the three-hour journey, True’s father led the way on a narrow track. The two ascended up the mountainsides jumping over fallen trees and found themselves descending towards fresh mountain streams. There were no breaks. No words spoken. True’s father was cautious of mountain tigers and aware of evil spirits lingering in the depths of the jungle. True was afraid too. So they treaded on with a quickened pace.

True and his father arrived in the village where his school was. Because the school was three hours away, True had to stay in the village and couldn’t go home as often as he wanted to. His father had to go back home to take care of the household chores and farming. Three hours back and forth everyday would be a full day’s loss of farming and fishing. True could only watch his father’s back fading into the jungle from the doorway of the bamboo-thatched school.

He ran out the door because that wasn’t his mother and father’s food. Because no one invited him to come eat.

On his first day, he sat in between a Hmong boy and a Laotian boy. The classroom was small and could only fit benches and a large dusty chalkboard. The Laotian teacher, a dark-skinned man with stained teeth, wrote Lao characters up on the board and had the young students sitting in crooked rows repeat after him. For another week and a half, True repeated after the teacher and stayed in one of his uncle’s good friend’s home. The Hmong family was welcoming, but only provided him a place to sleep. That was all he needed. He didn’t borrow anyone’s water to bathe in like his mother told him not to. He didn’t use anyone’s hole in the ground to pee or poop in like his mother told him not to. He had the rice his mother packed him to nibble on when he was hungry. When he ran out of dried fish, he ventured onto empty farm lands for vegetables. When he wanted something sweet, he found a guava tree and picked off a single fruit to munch on.

During evenings, True didn’t have to avoid the family he stayed with. They were always farming past mealtime and had their family meals at the fields. But every morning, True left when the family sat around the food that would carry them throughout the day. Fresh rice sent wisps of steam into the cold air. The spicy smell of Thai chili peppers and lemongrass from the hot fish soup lightly burned True’s eyes. He ran out the door because that wasn’t his mother and father’s food. Because no one invited him to come eat.

I will eat my mother’s rice, he thought.

School in Laos was five days a week, and True had just ended his second week of learning the Lao alphabet. Squatting on the ground by the classroom, True picked at the dirt and wondered when his father was going to come get him. School was out for the weekend. Closing his eyes, he remembered his father’s back, head bobbing into the wilderness. Starting to feel lonely, True decided to walk around Phuu Sa Noi with his kawm. He wandered to a large rock that oversaw the pathways into the jungle. His tiny body protruded on the large rock as he looked out to what he thought was the direction of his home.

Txiv thiab niam. His heart sighed at the thought of his parents.

True knew better than to speak of the sadness in his heart out into the open air of the village. His mother often told him stories of Hmong villagers who had a spirit accompany them and cling onto them because spirits of the dead heard their loneliness. One villager became really sick for disturbing the spirits near his farmland with his devastating cries of abandonment by his deceased wife. When the villager came back home to his family, he was restless and could not swallow a spoon of rice so the family asked the village’s shaman to look into the situation. The shaman saw that a female spirit had clung to his physical body, wanting to take the villager with her. True was too afraid, so he wrapped the small throbbing pain deep inside his heart.

He looked back out onto the pathway of the jungle to take his mind off of ghosts and evil spirits. Up on the rock, True could see an opening into the jungle. He saw a body emerging out of the trees and shrubs and his hunger for love made him indifferent until he saw his father’s face, his back carrying a kawm full of lumps of banana leaves. True immediately jumped out of his silent fears and ran down the rock. His father had finally come for him. His father was here to take him back home for the days off. Feeling completed and full, True raced the wind down to the pathway leading into the jungle.

Txiv!” was all True could make sense of.

 

Only Child

True had been going to school for two years, walking the same pathways into the jungle every two or three weeks. He was turning eight and journeyed to school with his cousin who started school several months after him. One weekend, True came home from the farm with his dad, and his mother was sitting outside the hut mumbling to herself.

“Do you see her?” she mumbled.

True looked around him. “Dabtsi, niam? What do you see?”

“Tell her to go away!” Her voice trembled. She began to throw dirt pebbles towards something, but there was nothing there.

Tub, go get some wood for the fire,” True’s father ordered by the entryway. True ran to the side of the hut, dragging logs that were half the size of his body into the kitchen area. His father stared intently at his wife. He had noticed his wife acting up several times before.

Once, she woke up in the middle of the night as the crickets chirped and cold wind seeped through the holes of the hut. She had been shifting all night next to him.

Koj niam, why are you awake?” he asked. “Go back to sleep now.”

Me koj txiv, something hairy is touching me,” his wife whispered. He looked around their bed with slits of moonlight coming into their hut.

“There is nothing. Do not wake up our son. Wait until the sun rises.”

She silently laid her body back down onto the flat wooden bed. Their son was sound asleep right next to her.

Now True placed the last piece of wood into the fire as his father walked in. He walked calmly, his face showing no sign of worry.

Tub,” muttered his father. True, squatting on the ground by the fire, looked up at his father. “There is your father, mother, and you. Now that your mother is very sick, stay and help me take care of our farms and our home.”

“Mm,” True mumbled for a response.

 

Take My Hands

The wind caressed the opium flowers as True squatted on the ground digging a stick into the dirt. He came from home, looking for his mother. Evening was coming and all the villagers already headed back home for a meal. True placed his bottom on the dirt and allowed the opium field to submerge him. He waited just a bit longer to see if he would hear footsteps crunching on the dirt road next to the fields. Where is mother? She’s too sick to be outside, he thought. Not too long after, True heard singing.

Niam yai…

… came the sweet, melodic voice that buzzed with nature’s harmony. True was alarmed, but he did not feel afraid because the voice was so familiar.

Mother, father… You brought me into a world where the birds and insects do not fill my earth with their crooning for my love… Now that I have parted ways with you both… not able to turn back… no longer your family because of marriage… No one will accept a poj nrauj… accept someone like me who has left and brought shame to my husband and child…

True did not budge. He knew his mother was singing kwv txhiaj, a song chanting to the birds, the grass, and the spirits. The words strung together, sticky like melted palm sugar. True could not understand what his mom was saying. So he listened.

Only in this world where the birds and insects only cry for my sorrow… This home, this village where there is only one way, one life that I must follow… Mother, father you have raised me into a beauty, a young lady but in my heart and my body I differ… I have become a mother now but my husband does not love me… He speaks of a second wife, a younger wife, for I cannot give him more children… Is this really the way to love or is this the way to life’s end…

“Mother…” “Father….” “World.”

True could only catch onto certain words, words that his mother taught him.

“Heart…”

In my heart, there is a friend whose love and understanding, whose sweet voice shines for me… This friend will ruin your names and your faces, mother and father… So I rather have her come to me, take me to a world where there is no broken anger and broken hearts… I want to die with love only… Where you have gone, to the other side of this world, come hold my hands because my mother and father have gone… My love has gone… so I shall be gone too…

“Love.”

True sprung up from the fields and saw the back of his mother on the other side of the opium field where he was. Purple and pink flowers decorated her body from afar. His mother was standing on a hill, looking out towards a smoky, hazy outline of the mountains. She had completed her song. Turning around to come back down the hill into the opium fields, she saw her son. His hair ruffled by the wind, cheeks dusted with dirt, waving his fingers in the air.

She fell to the ground and the tears pasted dry on her face became wet once more.

 

Letting Go

That night, True went to sleep, and he dreamt of his mother.

He saw his mother leaving their thatched home with a young woman. The woman had glistening silver skin, soft pink lips, and gleaming brown eyes. True saw his mother walk towards a grove of bamboo trees, standing there with the young woman. The bamboo trees blanketed them, and, in hiding and secrecy, the woman took out a sewing needle. She grabbed his mother’s wrist and pricked the needle on her index finger. A bead of blood formed as the woman pricked her own finger too.

From afar, True saw the two women suck each other’s fingers like sugarcane sticks.

“We don’t have to do this. Didn’t you hear this is bad?” True heard his mother say.

Let us see, said the woman’s grin.

From afar, True saw the two women suck each other’s fingers like sugarcane sticks. True’s mother, hesitant, placed her friend’s finger in her mouth. All of a sudden, True was standing in the grove shouting at his mother.

Niam! Tsis txhob mus!” he yelled. “Come ba—”

The bamboo trees started shifting rapidly, turning into joss sticks with ghastly smoke floating in the sky and glowing red embers ashing at the tip. The ground turned into a floor of uncooked rice grains. Looking around him, True was now standing in a bowl of offering. A bowl of uncooked rice with burning joss sticks to appease the spirits. He searched for his mother and the young woman, but both had disappeared with the smoke.

Panting, True broke from the dream, tears creeping down his cheeks. Not sure of what the dream could mean, True became nervous. Why isn’t his father saying anything? Why wasn’t his mother getting any better?

When morning came, True’s father was boiling water in a pot.

Txiv, I had a bad dream.”

“Don’t worry, son. It is nothing.”

True looked at his father staring into the steam that rose furiously to the top of their thatched roof. It is nothing. His mother was sitting outside by the door on a little stool, speaking once again to the morning air.

“Have you come back?” True heard her say. She nodded.

Niam, who are you speaking to?”

She turned around to look at her son, bearing a smile through her strange illness. True saw that her condition had worsened. Dark bags weighed down her eyes and her hair was thinning. True looked to his mother’s frail index finger. No blood on it at least.

“Go back inside, son,” she said. And True listened.

The next day, the village’s shaman came to see True’s father. True was in the kitchen tending the fire for a meal as his father spoke to the shaman outside. His ears were hot from the blaring fire, crackling and blazing red and orange in True’s dry eyes. Why was the shaman here? He wanted to listen but the fire wouldn’t let him.

The shaman, with grey whiskers on a face rough like bark, wore a black jacket-shirt and long black trousers.

Tub, what will you do?” the shaman asked True’s father. “Do you know why she is like this?”

“Yes,” he whispered. The village was small; it was easy to find words from other villagers.

“If you offer me one of your cows and a pig, I will enter the spirit world to find your wife.”

“I do not have anything to offer. My farm is dry and I only have a coop of chickens.”

Tub, because you did not keep watch over her, your family’s teardrops will fill our rivers but your cries will disappear with our mountainous winds.” With the shaman’s last words, he left the hut.

True’s father came into the kitchen area to help his son.

Txiv, what did the shaman say?” True asked.

“You shouldn’t ask,” he replied.

His father’s eyes diverted to their bed where his wife lay. The man let out a remorseful breath and tended the fireplace instead to keep his mind busy. True walked over to his mother who was lying on the wooden bed. His mother was bedridden, her body losing weight as quick as the sun’s disappearance behind the farmlands. True felt his heart beating faster as he saw how much his round and bright mother had changed into such a gray body.

Niam, you must get better, okay?” he said, squatting by his mother’s side, his voice desperate and tiny.

His mother could only cough back in response, slightly turning her head towards him. Calling to him with her eyes.

Me tub, tsis txhob ntshai. Niam nyob ntawm no.” (Son, do not fear. Mother is here.)

True stared back at his mother’s dim eyes and nodded. But he felt his insides shrivel up like burning joss paper.

 

Passing

True knelt beside a cold, pale body. A white cloth string was tied around his head to signify that he was the immediate family of the deceased. His face was swollen with tears from a child who realized that he no longer had a mother. A sharp, sweet voice will no longer call out his name to come eat. Strong, slim hands will no longer pack his rice or sew the holes in his clothes. Round, bright eyes will no longer show him what love should look like.

True looked at his mother and saw a lonely woman. There were no cows to sacrifice.

His mother’s body laid on a mat woven from dried cogon grass. Her lips glued shut to the skeleton of her gums. Her eyeballs bulging through skin, round like marbles. Her skin turning green. Dead people can only be left out for ten days or they would start rotting from inside out. True looked at his mother and saw a lonely woman. There were no cows to sacrifice. There were no shamans or elders to guide his mother’s spirit back to the place she was born. There was only his father and several aunts and uncles. There was only True.

 

Erasing These Nightmares, Ancestors

True’s father had continuous nightmares after the burial. Two weeks had passed, and he could not say a word.

Koj txiv!” a woman screamed miserably.

He searched for the woman’s voice and the darkness around him was suddenly lit up by flames. Large, tenacious flames burning not only his mind but the figure that was desperately waving for help in the flames. The woman gave out another screeching yell. Her voice scorched by the fire.

“You gave me an improper burial!” her voice strained.

His eyes widened and sweat formed rapidly all over his body. Was it the fire? Or was it fear? Guilt? But he was a man, the father of a household. His shivering thoughts of being shamed were interrupted by this woman.

“You could have saved me!” Screams reverberated around the growing flames in darkness.

“But you did something bad. It couldn’t be helped,” his frightened voice responded adamantly.

The woman had on traditional funeral clothes: a long, black, robe-like coat embroidered with blue, green, and yellow threads along the edges. Her hair fell to her feet and strands glued to her face. Her red lips maliciously revealed sharp, yellow teeth against her pale skin. Her eyes were beautiful, like shiny silver coins. The woman’s hands, dripping with blood, kept reaching from the fire that was devouring the lower half of her body. She let out immense, painful cries and suddenly her arms expanded, covering the distance between her and True’s father.

“Let us go together. We are husband and wife!”

Right when her hands stretched to his face, the flames turned into a soft flickering flame. True’s father was staring into an oil candle, a roped wick burning black. When he inhaled a breath of relief, he broke from the dream, eyes wide in bed. True’s father sat up. He wanted to go back to sleep, but his body began to ache. His lower back and his shoulders tightened up, and the rooster crowed for the new day.

True’s father washed up at a small tub of water and went to work on a morning meal. Shortly after, True woke up to his father’s rustling and moving about. His sleepy eyes watched his father’s back, scooping out rice into a bowl. The steamy rice filled half the bowl, and he became numb inside all at once. True stared into the dirt floor from the bedside, wanting to avoid the bowl.

Tub,” his father called. “Wash up, and come eat.”

True did not want to hear his father. He wanted to dissolve into the dirt like his tears did.

“Tub!

“Mm, Txiv,” he uttered.

True walked to the round bamboo table on the ground, rice and boiled greens only. His father ignored that his son did not wash up. The two sat quietly at the table and swallowed a spoon of rice pooled in water. True’s father cleared his throat.

“Prepare for farming when you’re done eating,” he said.

True nodded. He got up from the table, washed his face, and placed a scythe in his kawm. He went outside and filled two bamboo chutes with water from the water jar. His father cleaned up the dishes and placed lumps of wrapped food into his own kawm. Both father and son slid on their flip flops and closed the entryway to their hut. Walking down the dirt road, True looked at the grey sky with droopy eyes while his father kept his eyes on the pathway, looking straight ahead.

They bottled their hearts like fermenting rice wine and walked on.

 

Maxie Moua graduated from UC Berkeley in May 2017 with a bachelor of arts in English and a minor in creative writing. Her work has been featured in several anthologies, such as Scholastic’s Open a World of Possible: Real Stories About the Joy and Power of Reading. She has also performed spoken word for the White House Initiative on AAPIs in Washington, DC. Moua has been writing poetry since high school and enjoys personal narratives. She aspires to become a literary voice in her community and deeply appreciates her family.

One Librarian Survives the Apocalypse

She wakes up to a clatter. She opens her eyes and sees a raccoon skate across her counter, knocking her frying pan and all the empty cans of beans across the floor. From her place on the soggy couch (which is less soggy than it was yesterday, or the day before), she looks at the raccoon and it looks back. Its eyes are oil-slick black and its paws surprisingly neat, like little hands. It takes those almost-hands and picks up the one can still on the table. It peers inside, like the can is a telescope. For a moment she wonders if the raccoon can see something she can’t, if maybe that can will open up the universe like a letter, as though the Milky Way, Orion and his belt, and the Little/Big Dipper will wink and say, Hello Shirley. Then the moment passes. But she still keeps watching the raccoon as it turns the can around with great attention. She’s disinclined to scare it away; she’s seen so few other living things since the day the wave came.

She was standing on the pier waiting in line at the fish market, watching the men in white aprons toss the fish glistening through the air. She wondered what would happen if you intercepted one. Would you get to keep it? Would it smell just like any other fish, or would it smell like the sea? She has a problem with being fanciful, strange notions intruding upon her everyday life. Perhaps that was why Brian broke up with her: perhaps that was why, over chai, he said, I need to concentrate on the things that really matter. At first, she didn’t understand, because she was too busy watching his lips move over his white teeth. She was thinking about kissing him. But he set the key to her apartment on the tiny round table with a soft click and left.

She’s disinclined to scare it away; she’s seen so few other living things since the day the wave came.

Afterwards she went to the fish market. While at the market watching the silvery arc of the fish and trying to decide if there was something wrong with the way she was—the wave came. She heard a roar like a fan or a jet or a lion the size of the world. She smelled the ocean, the salt and chill of it. Other people started screaming and as she turned toward the water she saw a vast swell of green. It was a hill made of water; the earth was liquefying, the land remaking itself over. She couldn’t move, and the hill swallowed her.

She remembers nothing after the hill closed over her, covering the fish, the people and the market all in one go. She only remembers waking up on this couch, in her apartment, a wet blanket draped over her. She hasn’t seen another human being; there is only the city, vast and empty, which smells like dead and rotting things. The only movement is the vast body of the ocean, lapping against the edges, gently, for now. She’s wandered everywhere, looking for whoever saved her, for whoever put her on the couch and covered her with a tattered red quilt. She doesn’t understand how the wave could take away all the people but her, and yet leave the city structures wet but unbroken. She feels like one of the books she used to shelve under science fiction in her library (the one she worked at that she privately thought of as hers alone) has spilled out all over the universe and rewritten the rules of water and matter.

She wondered, at first, if Brian was the one who’d put her on the couch, even though he’d given back her key; if maybe he’d found her by the quay and carried her home. Just like the time in college when he found her asleep in the library face-down on the table with the mark of a book-spine on her cheek. He’d picked her up, and she woke but pretended to still be asleep, because he was telling her a story. Once upon a time there was a little boy who grew up in a house without books. There were movies everywhere, but no books. The boy’s father said books were full of lies made to tempt the weak. He smoked all the time, and the boy thought maybe the real reason his father hated books was because they were paper, because ash might fall from the cigarette and end the world. But this was nonsense. Instead he spent lunch in the school library, running his fingers across the pages, imagining what the books might say, if only he could take one home and read it. Shirley thought this was the saddest story she’d ever heard, so she kept pretending to sleep and let him set her on her bed in her dorm room and leave.

He understood why she’d become a librarian, why books were worthwhile; that’s why she had reason to think it might have been he who took her home after the wave. She meandered the streets looking for him, or another person she could ask if they’d seen him. She went into the old downtown library guarded by two stone lions, but there were no people. She went to the grocery store and there were no people, just shelves knocked over, the cans all over the ground, cereal boxes disintegrating in the damp. She went to the park, but there were no people and no squirrels either. Just trees draped with kelp like aquatic Christmas tinsel. She went to Brian’s apartment complex and pushed open his unlocked door. His apartment was un-looted and undisturbed. It looked like a very damp movie set. The bed perfectly made, the books perfectly shelved, his piles of New York Times stacked tidily in bins. No empty food cans, nothing even hinting at a living presence disturbed the room, and she looked through all of his drawers as though she might find answers among his socks. She knocked on every door in his apartment building, opened those that were unlocked, and never found so much as a skittering insect. She went up and down every street she knew, going inside apartment buildings, surveying rows of houses. The closed doors seemed pregnant with possibility, swelling with potential people, but she never found anyone. Sometimes she wondered if everyone was hiding from her. Always she was afraid.

He understood why she’d become a librarian, why books were worthwhile; that’s why she had reason to think it might have been he who took her home after the wave.

After several weeks she gave up looking for humans and instead went back to her library. She took every book off the shelves, spread them on the floor though it hurt her heart to do so. She whispered nice things to them as she opened the covers, gently separating their pages so they would dry. There were people in these books, words written by some soul, by someone with a heart full of thoughts and words to write them. Sometimes she lay down on top of the books and imagined every book was a hand embracing her. Every day, after the library she stopped at the unmanned grocery store and got some more canned food, and then came home and slept on her damp, fish-smelling couch. Thank goodness her blanket had dried out. She hadn’t seen anything alive but mice and pigeons. Until the raccoon, that is.

“Hello, do you want to stay for dinner?” Her voice reverberates oddly about the room. The raccoon drops the can and runs out the window. It jumps to the nearby tree and skitters away. This disappoints her, so she goes to the window and looks out, trying to watch the creature for as long as possible. She peers around the tree to see the street, and gasps. A person, someone standing in the middle of the road, all in white. Shirley opens her mouth to shout and then stops. Visions of countless zombie apocalypse movies flash through her head. Not that she really thinks there are zombies (although since the wave, who knows?) But still, desperate humans do strange things. She needs to investigate, not show this stranger where she lives. She picks her frying pan off the floor and brandishes it. This will do, she says to herself. She wishes she still had her keys so she could lock her door. She leaves and walks as silently as possible down the dark apartment hall, all of the closed doors aching with possibility. What if there were people in those apartments, people just like her? People always behind her, avoiding her face, making sure she never saw them? What if Brian was in his apartment across town, hiding out, reading soggy back-issues of the New York Times over and over again? (She never could get him to throw them out.) What if he was there, invisible to her, not dead or gone but knocked into a separate dimension? She tells herself to calm down, to stop making up impossible things, but it’s so hard when the whole world has turned into one giant unlikely scenario.

Holding her pan tightly she pads across the road, staring at the figure just a few blocks away. As she gets closer she sees it is a woman wearing a leotard and a ragged white tutu. She wonders for a moment if she is imagining things, this woman—a ballerina stepping around stopped cars and dead lobsters rotting in the sun, because such things are crazy. But she can hear the woman’s steps, and see her thin chest rise and fall as she breathes. Finally, grasping her courage by the hand, Shirley steps out from behind a car. She clears her throat.

“Hello,” she says.

The ballerina stops and turns toward her. “What’s the pan for?”

Shirley lowers her pan. “I thought you might be a zombie,” she says. She’s embarrassed immediately after the words drift from her mouth.

The ballerina cocks her head. “Oh no, not at all,” she says.

Then she turns again and keeps walking. Shirley falls into step beside her.

“Where are you going?”

The ballerina keeps her eyes on the ground, stepping carefully around broken shells and glass. A dancer’s feet are precious, after all. After a moment she answers Shirley. “I’m going to the theater. I need to practice.”

Shirley thinks about this for a moment, trying to decide if the dancer has lost her mind. But the possibly mad dancer keeps talking.

“I’m the lead in Swan Lake. It’s my big break. Opening day was a week away, before everyone disappeared. I’ve been a dancer since I was a little girl. I still remember my first pointe shoes. They made my feet bleed as I danced, but I loved them so much, the satin, and the ribbons around my ankle. At first, after the water, I hid in my apartment and ate old crackers. I was so afraid. But now, I practice every day. What else is there to do?”

The ballerina shrugs and falls silent once more.

Somehow, the ballerina’s last statement seems like the most profound thing Shirley has ever heard, although she’s not sure why. She suddenly remembers the posters she’d seen tacked up in the library and at bus stops, advertising the new production of Swan Lake. The dancer in the picture was caught mid-leap, her muscular arms and legs tensed. It had to be a picture of this very woman.

“Can I watch?” Shirley asks.

 The ballerina shrugs again. “If you like.”

They walk together, past kelp-draped trees, past shop windows, strangely pristine, the mannequins still poised, still hawking their expensive wares. Shirley realizes that she could go into those stores, take anything she wants. That Prada purse she could never afford on her librarian’s salary: hers. Yes, she could take whatever catches her fancy. But somehow she can’t bring herself to. She feels as though looting anything but necessities like food will make it certain that no one ever returns.

They walk together, past kelp-draped trees, past shop windows, strangely pristine, the mannequins still poised, still hawking their expensive wares.

They arrive at the theater—it’s hushed and black inside. Shirley takes a seat and watches as the ballerina, whose name she hadn’t thought to ask, props open a door to let in some light. She steps onto the stage, poses for a moment, arms upraised, head turned as though she listens to distant music. Then she begins to dance. Shirley watches the lights come on, a soft pink spot, hitting the wood of the stage. Then they all come back, the prop hands and the lights manager and the orchestra down in the pit, playing even though their violins and cellos are covered in barnacles. The chorus in pale-blue tutus sweeps their arms, even though seaweed hangs from their ears. There is an audience clad in velvet and diamonds, slightly moldy-smelling but there. They all come back. Brian sits down beside her, smart in a suit and smelling of Calvin Klein’s Euphoria for Men. He pecks her cheek.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says.

She rests her head on his shoulder as they watch the show.

“I love you,” she whispers, and remembers the time she caught him sleeping on the couch (the now very damp couch) his eyelids fluttering as he dreamed. I Love Lucy was on, he hadn’t shaved and his T-shirt had a hole in it. She wonders if she really loved him or only hated her own aloneness.

The ballerina leaps through the air just as she did in the poster and the music sweeps through on the sound of wings. She touches the ground. The audience stands and applauds—thundering, roaring, sounding just like the ocean the day it swallowed everyone in the whole wide world except for Shirley and the dancer. The music stops, the people fade, and there is just the ballerina standing there in her dirty tutu. Shirley runs out of the theater, because she just can’t stand the echo of the empty hall, or the way her own imagination tortures her. But even as she runs she knows she’ll go back tomorrow. Because Brian is gone, because he didn’t put her on the couch, because he didn’t love her any longer anyway, and because what else could she do, really?

 

Jennifer Pullen received her PhD from Ohio University, her MFA from Eastern Washington University, and her BA from Whitworth University. She originally hails from the wilds of Washington State; however, at present she is an assistant professor of creative writing at Ohio Northern University. “One Librarian Survives the Apocalypse” is from her manuscript of short fiction. Her fiction and poetry have appeared or are upcoming in several journals and collections, including: Going Down Swinging, Cleaver, Phantom Drift Limited, Clockhouse, Off the Coast, Prick of the Spindle, Gold Man Review, Gravel, Blink Ink, and Behind the Mask (Meerkat Press).

Notes from My Hong Kong Travel Journal: Sightseeing with a Silver Comb

I love the smell of burning. Some say it bodes of destruction; I see birthday candles and cake and new hope instead. When I walked past the Man Mo temple today, still jet-lagged and groggy, I simultaneously saw burning incense sticks and lotuses, and thought the lotuses were on fire. I had never seen something so beautiful and terrible before. I looked once, then twice: my imagination had as always deceived me and there were no burning lotuses to be seen.

*     *     *

I lunched today at a café a few blocks away from the temple, the silver comb and my journal quietly sitting in front of me. The comb’s presence calmed me and I would reach out for it as I wrote in the journal, burrowing myself deeper and deeper into the den of my words. It’s my favorite place to hide these days.

*     *     *

I have no idea why I brought the comb with me on this holiday. I stole it from Amma’s antique collection and impulsively packed it in my suitcase. She has so many antiques that she wouldn’t even realise what’s missing until probably months later. Our storeroom smells like an antique store because there are so many antiques there. My mother says they smell of forgotten histories. My father says they smell of dust, fungus, and other people’s bad luck, which makes them very tainted. I don’t think anything. We adopted the antiques and now they are ours.

*     *     *

Amma messaged me: “Have you taken the comb?” She found out, I guess. I told her, “Yes, I didn’t have my own.” She didn’t reply.

*     *     *

My mother says they smell of forgotten histories.

The guidebook told me I was on Antiques Street. After lunch, I walked and walked until I found a clutch of antique stores clotting the jagged streets, the antiques spilling out from the shops on to the pavement. I didn’t enter a single one, though, out of deference to the comb. I wondered what it would make of this library of kindred, abandoned, antique souls, waiting to be transformed and transplanted in other people’s lives, stories, and homes. What would they make of this new life of theirs? Did they ever remember their former lives? I looked at the comb, wondering if it, too, had similar thoughts. I turned it over and over in my palm until it was nothing but a silver kinetic blur, shorn of its past and present and future. When I finally stopped, my hands were trembling; the comb meanwhile remained its silvery swan serene self and I thought then, That’s what I want to be when I grow up.

*     *     *

The comb and I have been sightseeing Hong Kong together. So far, we have seen Victoria’s Peak and five MTR stations and a beach bordering an imprisoned sea. I sat on the crunchy sand, writing about the angry, restless water and the mansion-forested hills and the dying saffron sky. When I page through this journal years later, I will want to remember this sea, this hill, this sky. I will want to remember what I was at that moment. Photographs lie and deceive to us. Our words don’t.

*     *     *

I walked thirteen kilometers today. Or so my phone says. I walked until my soles were on fire, as if I had become one of those yogis who can walk on burning coals, unable to distinguish between their soles and coal. When I returned to the hotel, I sat cross-legged in bed for the entire evening, gazing at the nocturnal skyline outside my hotel window. The lights studding the distant peak looked like tired stars coming to rest on the beach of the night sky. Did you know that there are more stars in the sky than the number of sand grains in all the beaches in the world? I suddenly needed to be outside. I stuffed the comb in my pocket, grabbed my hotel key, and ran out to the street. Even though the light pollution did its best to taint the sky, I could still see the stars glimmering away, like Heaven telegramming messages of hope to those who cared enough to look above. I felt the comb in my pocket. I wondered what stars it had seen in its lifetime.

*     *     *

I shaved off my hair just before this trip. Everyone—predictably—was appalled, except for Dadi, who applauded my decision and wished that she too could do the same. It’s not as if I have much left, she told me. I promised her that I would help her shave it all off once I returned from the holiday. After the hairstylist finished shearing away my hair, I remember examining the glossy brown strands scattered around me. It had once been part of me and now no longer was. How easily I had been able to renounce it. I wish I could renounce my skin and thoughts and self as easily as I had renounced my hair; but no, I am forever doomed to live in this cage of bone and flesh.

*     *     *

I heard everyone back home gossiping that I am going through a transitional phase, a mandatory rite of adolescence that everyone dutifully performs at the temple of adulthood. It makes me feel like something out of evolution, a reptile undecided on becoming a mammal. They don’t know that I see glimpses of myself in the mirror and I can’t recognise myself. They also don’t know that I am okay with that. I touch my head’s soft dome (I never knew that it was so nicely shaped!). I touch the nose-ring and the archipelago of the tattoos embroidered on my collarbone, neck, and undersides of my wrists. Some days, I wear violet lipstick, other days blue. A shaved-head Indian girl with a nose ring, tattoos, and violet lipstick wandering in a city whose buildings are like trees in a forest, growing close to each other and yet giving each other just enough room to flourish. A city with vertical streets. A city where sea and land and rock are homes. I could stay in this city because it looks and doesn’t look like me.

*     *     *

I heard everyone back home gossiping that I am going through a transitional phase, a mandatory rite of adolescence that everyone dutifully performs at the temple of adulthood.

I go to the beach again. Everybody is there with someone else except for me. I place the comb on the sand, watching the grains immediately invade its fragrant, stained, delicate silver surface. I ask questions that I had never asked before. Had the wearer ever been by the sea? What did she imagine the sea would look like? I was born in a city by the beach and I could not imagine what it was like not to know the sea. The phantom woman was gone but her comb was visiting the beach. I did not feel sorry about stealing it from Amma, although I should have told her that I was taking it. I should tell her so many truths but they are imprisoned in various parts of my body; I can exactly map you the points where I keep the hurt of a friend betraying me, an ex-boyfriend slapping me thrice without saying sorry, my walking on an empty city street at three a.m., terrified. These are subterranean tattoos, buried deep inside my skin but I know exactly where they are. I lift up the comb and balance it atop the softest part of my head. It feels like falling rain.

*     *     *

Today, I went to the Man Mo temple because I saw a sign saying that you could get your fortune read by a Chinese fortune teller. I don’t know if I believe in the notion of future any more than I do in the idea of fortune: they both seem like myths, Santa Claus I no longer believed in. But I stood in the queue, anyway, staring at the inscrutable, unhelpful face of a fat jade god, wondering what to ask about a tomorrow that I no longer believed in. I could map the atlas of pain buried deep inside my body but I had no idea how to plot coordinates for my future or even know if there was a future. When it was my turn, I sat across from the fortune teller and pulled out a bunch of sticks from a jam jar and heard him decode my nebulous tomorrow (yes, it did exist!) by consulting a small book: “Your fortune very bad before. It will take some time before it gets better.” I handed him the crumpled dollars and walked into the temple, inhaling the incense and pausing before the galaxy of unsmiling deities, seeing and smelling nothing. I preferred yesterdays, even those which were nothing more than stories which could never be rewritten; tomorrows with all their grand, glorious hope frightened me. What I wanted to know was about my today, not tomorrow. I had wondered if I could ask the fortune teller one more question, but he had a face that had shuttered up the moment he finished telling my fortune and I just knew he would say no more. And perhaps, there was nothing more to say, after all. When I came outside the temple, I instinctively reached out for my talisman, the comb, but even its moonlight lake coldness failed to console me.

*     *     *

I am at the airport, waiting to board my flight back to Delhi. My luggage weighs exactly the same as it did when I flew in here. The only thing that is missing is the comb and that’s because I gave it away to an ancient Chinese woman I met in a Kowloon park yesterday. I had been sitting there for hours, mourning the end of this holiday, when an incredibly hunched-over Chinese woman sat down next to me. Even though her skin looked like a very wrinkled antique map, she had the most luxuriant crop of rabbit-white hair. I took out the comb from my backpack and began to play with the teeth, as if coaxing music from a dead instrument. I thought once more of the woman who had once used it; I saw its silver home, that little house of vanity. I saw her in a steam-filled bathroom, brushing out her hair, gently coaxing the tangles to leave her hair. The comb didn’t deserve to be imprisoned in a storeroom or someone’s pocket. It deserved to perform its music. I nudged the woman and produced the comb in my palm, as if it were a lady bug that had landed on the runway of my palm-lines. “For you,” I said. She didn’t understand. I picked it up, ran it across my head, returned it to my palm, pushing it towards her. When she still didn’t understand, I gently reached out to her and ran the comb through her hair, a silver ship sailing in a snow sea. “For you,” I said again. Her face shattered into a smile and I had never seen anything so beautiful before. And then I walked away, feeling just a pang, a little bit of a pang, the comb beginning its tomorrow, already a yesterday for me.

 

Priyanka Sacheti is a writer based in Bangalore, India. Educated at Universities of Warwick and Oxford, United Kingdom, Priyanka previously lived in the Sultanate of Oman and the United States. She has been published in numerous publications, and takes a special focus on art, gender, diaspora, and identity; she is also currently an editor at Mashallah News. Priyanka is the author of three poetry volumes and is working on a short story collection. An avid amateur photographer, she explores the intersection of her writing and photography @iamjustavisualperson. She tweets @priyankasacheti1.

The Moon-Bright Smile Rebellion

5:02 p.m.

Looking out the window you wouldn’t know Chicago is disintegrating. Cotton-candy skies swirl across the horizon. I sip cold coffee on the thirty-sixth floor of an office building. Bean-flavored liquid, the consistency of cough syrup, slides down my throat. Too much sugar. In this moment, I pretend everything is normal.

People scurry from the glisten and glamour of The Loop, rats from a sinking ship. The new law dictates everyone be in their homes by nightfall. Well, everyone who lives where the man on the screen deems dangerous. He’s in charge now so if he says my place is a “war zone,” it’s a fact. The areas black and brown people occupy typically are, he says. They are damaged swaths of grimy concrete and underperforming schools, he says.

Who wants to be bothered with that except real estate developers?

The neighborhoods without us are okay. They don’t have The Rules. They also don’t have anyone with a tan darker than the heavy-cream lattes savored while ignoring homeless people begging for change. The North Side contracts and expands with the capitalistic ease of an artisan bakery in Lincoln Park. The South and West Sides choke on the smoke and cut themselves on mirrored fictions spewed out by an orange magnate splashed across television sets.

Most think it’s a joke when he declares martial law. We believe he can’t strip away our freedoms with the ease you remove dirty bed linen.

The tanks come a few days later.

Rubber and steel sentinels are stationed on odd clustered blocks. Skin Suits dressed in fatigues and helmets roam our ‘hoods, make us sit on curbs if we don’t have the right identification. Sometimes we park our asses on the curbs anyway when we do.

We are all suspects until we are citizens.

For one day I want to live without fear so I work in my cubicle and act as if everything is fine until five o’ clock.

Now I’m screwed. Now I imagine being beaten by the Skin Suits, captured and carted off to some forgotten prison where no one finds me. Where I scream and scream and the air welcomes my cries and swallows my anguish with pleasure.

Why am I still drinking this nasty coffee?

*     *     *

5:20 p.m.

I hustle out the revolving doors and catch the last bus willing to go near my neighborhood. Everything else is diverted or shut down for the early evening. The onslaught of protests and fires, raging and shoving, batons and plastic shields. Tear gas and blood. Television cameras and articulate reporters who use the terms “urban” and “inner city” as codified speak for black.

All-consuming happy savagery encircles my South Side homestead. Every night. Some perpetual racial and cosmic joke on repeat with no end in sight.

I remember sermons from the preacher behind the pulpit who flails around like a dying crow in his black robe. I remember the lyrics from an old Public Enemy song.

The orange man on the television says he’s making progress. Says gang leaders want to talk to him. They’re clamoring for his attention. He’s close to peace. To Chicago not being such a “war zone.” Profane characterizations of certain zip codes easily gliding off greasy lips and smarmy smiles. Slippery notions of what black and brown hues mean for a fractured nation. I remember the American flag behind him as he talks, the subject somehow always circling back to self-praise. A nation cosigned to this bombastic nonsense, and an entire city, the hometown of a dark-skinned president, pays an unjust tax.

Adrift in my own thoughts I don’t hear the driver impatiently ushering me onto the high steps of his vehicle. The girth of his belly taking up most of the bottom steering wheel he shouts, “Come on, come on! They gon’ start all this foolishness and demonstrations. I ain’t gettin’ caught up in that.”

Too anxious to take offence to his tone, I rush past the doors and his plastic enclosure, the one that protects him from me, and I sit down.

I’m an hour and fifteen minutes away. Only three others occupy seats. None of us speak. We pray with our brown eyes open. We move our ample lips but there is no sound.

I know prayer when I see it.

I can’t tell you what they ask God or Allah or Whomever for. I can tell you I ask God to make this a dream. I ask God to wake up, and if He won’t give me that, then just get me safely to my destination.

Bouncing down patches of collapsing asphalt, the driver maneuvers east, then south. Faster and faster still. Tires screech, brakes squeal. Toppling to my side, I remain for a few moments until I witness the ashy chestnut-colored ankles of the driver escaping across the park.

Even with the collective of angular African bodies marching towards me, I marvel at my surroundings. At the lake crashing, spraying white foam towards the shore. The mass of structures drawing up and receding into the fabric of legends, a beating heart of stories in each building. The forming buds of spring leaves clasping to old trees.

I cherish this moment because it is my last. Hard hands bang and knock against the sides of the bus. I rock to and fro. I close my eyes and pray this time. I remember words from my momma and grandma. I remember sermons from the preacher behind the pulpit who flails around like a dying crow in his black robe. I remember the lyrics from an old Public Enemy song.

Cobbling this altogether, I create a semi-coherent prayer. Screams, feral and anguished, lay themselves amongst the rubble of orders shouted by the Skin Suits. The others desert the bus. I remain marble-encased in my own terror.

“No Justice. No Peace!” The chant grows louder. Conception of free speech slaughtered with a BOOM and tenor thud of tear gas.

Toxic white mist infiltrates the bus. I’m left with no choice so I flee into the chaos.

*     *     *

5:29 p.m.

“You’re not protesting?” I hear him ask.

I almost consider it when I focus my gaze in the direction of the voice. Even with the yelling, the heat of the fire growing from the abandoned car ten yards away, I hear him above the maladjusted clamor.

I reply, “Hell no! Do you see what’s going on?”

He has the nerve to smile. Whatever for, I have no idea. We reside in Hell and he smiles bright and beautiful as the moon. He smiles like we’re enjoying a drink on a white-sand beach!

“I see precisely what’s going on and this is why we’re marching,” he reasons.

His size isn’t intimidating to me. He possesses the height and muscles of one always asked if he plays a sport. Hell, what else would a large black man in America do?

BOOM! BOOM!

Canisters of smoke are propelled into the band of brothers and sisters. They anticipate the launch and target. They scatter from ground zero and regroup to the east. Synchronized swimmers would’ve been jealous with the slick grace of this army.

He possesses the height and muscles of one always asked if he plays a sport. Hell, what else would a large black man in America do?

The Skin Suits advance with their armor.

“It’s gonna take all of us standing against this,” he says. He extends his hand.

There’s a cell waiting for him.

And one for me if I go. He’s right, but I can’t take this chance.

I turn from him. His last words as I go: “Good luck.”

I look back again. He stares at me another moment with that smile and walks back into the acrid mist.

*     *     *       

8:37 p.m.

I haven’t run like this since I was in college. When I was in better shape, when I thought the world a better place, when I could eat a medium-sized cheese pizza without gaining a pound and live on two hours of sleep.

Close to home, I slow my pace and keep to the shadows. Apricot-tinted lights betray night-blackened blocks, refracting their harsh orange glow, creating demons where none exist—at least none on this street. I can’t be sure of the next.

Marchers swarm. Some groups big and some small. My phone buzzes with constant updates. Information drowning all with no ability to distinguish the truth from fallacy. In a rush for news, there’s no rush for right, just the prize of being first. I have no time to vet what is correct.

When I was in better shape, when I thought the world a better place, when I could eat a medium-sized cheese pizza without gaining a pound and live on two hours of sleep.

I pass Ronnie as he hunkers down near the crumbling white overpass. Scents of old beer and piss cling to his filthy clothes and skin, the color of wilted leaves. Normally, I give Ronnie a dollar and he calls me beautiful.

The Skin Suits have no use for an old black man, as battered as he. Life has already done its worst. Where’s the sport in trying to do more?

Ronnie’s croaky whisper stops my urgent pilgrimage. “Slow down.”

“It’s not safe out here, Ronnie.”

“Ain’t safe nowhere even ‘fore all of this mess.”

BOOM! BOOM!

They’re growing closer. The Skin Suits will be here soon. I have no time to debate.

Long face, sagging, sandpaper rough skin, the whites of his eyes the color of weathered lace, he opens dry, cracked lips. “This all here is familiar,” he opines. “Like the ’60s.”

All I know from those times are the grainy, black-and-white celluloid images. Dark skin. Water cannons. German shepherds. Beatings. Smoke. Blood. Death.

Ronnie is right. This isn’t his midnight ramblings, his teeterings and nonsensical declarations. This is real and this is at my doorstep.

The shouting is getting louder. People trickle through the road to my left.

“Some of these folk walkin’ these streets to be seen. Some of y’all really tryin’ to make a difference. Even tho’ you layin’ your very life on the line.”

“I’m not,” I admit. “I just want to go home.”

“Then what? You go home and you think all this out there ain’t gon’ touch you in there? It will.”

The guy with the moon-bright smile. He is one of those people Ronnie’s talking about. He might be dead. If he is, his blood is as much on my hands as it is on the Skin Suits, on the orange guy from the television. All of their blood will be mine to keep. Permanent stains on any future happiness I’ll allow myself.

The trickle of people becomes a torrent of dark and light and tan, of men and women, of black and white and Latino.

The hollow swish of cheap vodka in a plastic bottle assaults my ears. “Hey Beautiful, you want me to help you home?”

Chants in the street grow into roars, and ferocious voices inside my head telling me I’m crazy, slowly quiet themselves. I’m almost home.

Just a few blocks east.

“No, Ronnie. I don’t need you to take me home,” I respond.

I walk west.

 

A writer born, raised, and living on the South Side of Chicago, Catherine Adel West fixes punctuation and grammar for big companies to pay the mortgage. While soothing itchy Twitter fingers on @cawest329 or curating content for her blog, The Scriptor Complex, she’s also recently completed her first novel. Publication credits include Black Fox Literary Magazine, Five2One, Better than Starbucks, Doors Ajar, and 805 Lit + Art. Upcoming credits include The Helix Magazine.