PASS/FAIL


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PASS/FAIL

Janice E. Rodríguez

When you’re a child, you’ll believe anything—that Santa Claus has a giant warehouse of wrapping paper so his gifts match the ones at your house, that parents are infallible, and even that school is a haven for clever students.

The mile between Rhonda’s home and school had grown longer as autumn progressed. The maples that stood like sentries along the grounds of the state hospital were bare now, and a fragrant detour into the crunchy windrows of leaves added five minutes to the daily journey. The less pleasant reason for dawdling appeared beyond the last maple—the swarming migration of students into squat, red-brick Lafayette Junior High.

Rhonda waited at the crosswalk, wishing the light would never change, knowing it would. She eyed the sign plastered to the lamppost, “Nixon, Now More than Ever,” and smoothed down a curled edge. The first bell rang; the light changed.

Time to run the gauntlet.

A purposeful jog was best even on those days she arrived with time to spare. It took her past the students who smoked behind the batting cages and the couples who lingered behind the plane tree. She spied Jake in his usual post next to the dumpster, stubby finger extending toward her, one side of his mouth hitched in a smirk. They both knew he could outrun her; he had been able to since elementary school. And he did again today, his hand on her back, searching, clawing.

“Holy nothingness, Batman!” he crowed, dashing past her and up the steps. “No strap, no snap.”

Patrice and Teresa lounged at the base of the steps.

“If you get a bra, he’ll leave you alone,” Teresa said. She drew a lock of hair between her fingertips, examining it for split ends. “Or a boyfriend. Do you have a boyfriend?”

“They don’t make bras for … that,” Patrice said, drawing a sideways figure eight in the air. “Or boyfriends, either.”

They rose, preened, tugged their bra straps into place, and sauntered into school.

Rhonda hoisted her book bag and silently disagreed; wearing a bra would, in fact, encourage Jake to greater displays of public humiliation. Second bell rang, and she ran up limestone steps whose sharp edges had been worn down by generations of students.

She was late to homeroom.

Again.

By world history class, she had caught her breath. Mr. Brant’s room was stifling, as it had been every day since the start of school. The windows were closed. The vent of the heating unit fluttered with torn strips of toilet paper.

“Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Brant said. “Yes, it is hot in here. I have supplied you with a useful diversion.”
He pointed to the heater. Rhonda slid behind her desk and calculated how many square inches of toilet paper he had used. Then she estimated how long it would have taken him to affix the dozens of torn pieces to the vent.

“You cannot see air move, but you can see its effect. Behold its effect!” he said, brushing his fingers atop the waving field of white. “If you know that the air is moving, you will feel cooler.”

She was about to raise her hand to ask if the subconscious mind would be fooled if the conscious mind was aware of the gimmick when he unclipped the modish floral tie from his shirt, lifted it to his face, and blotted perspiration away with it. “My wife and daughters bought me this. But a necktie this wide is, in fact, simply a handkerchief. If anyone here knows who constitutes the committee of my surprise retirement party, please share that information with them.”

Patrice and Teresa entered the room and took their assigned seats on either side of Rhonda.

“Misses Schwartz and Pierotti, you are late,” he said. “Take out a sheet of paper and number it one to ten,” he said.

“Today’s quiz will be multiple choice.”

“I don’t have any paper.”

“How predictable, Mr. Barone,” Mr. Brant said. “Miss Brown, would you be so kind?”

Rhonda took a second sheet of paper from her notebook and passed it to the student in front of her, who whispered, “For every question he reads, give me the answer. One kick is A, two kicks is B, three kicks is C …”

“No,” Rhonda said.

“You have to.”

“No, I don’t.”

Mr. Brant cleared his throat. “Number one: The Fertile Crescent of ancient Mesopotamia lies between which rivers? A. The Schuylkill and the Delaware. B. The Mississippi and the Missouri. C. The Tigris and the Euphrates. D. The Simon and the Garfunkel.”

Rhonda watched the boy in front of her write an answer, erase it, and write again. She rolled her eyes. He was still changing answers when it was time to pass their papers forward.

After the quiz, Mr. Brant sent a half-dozen students to write homework on the board. Teresa made a hissing sound. She had a small, tightly folded triangle of paper.

“Pass it,” she said, indicating Patrice with her chin.

Heart racing, throat dry, Rhonda checked to be sure that Mr. Brant was engrossed in correcting one of the students at the board. She snatched the paper and furtively placed it on Patrice’s desk. Her cheeks burned, and she hoped Mr. Brant would call on Patrice before she could compose a response and ask Rhonda to pass it back. This was the détente the three of them had reached: Patrice and Teresa would limit their note-passing to times when Mr. Brant’s back was turned; Rhonda would pass the notes; and there would be no repeats of the day when Patrice and Teresa had tossed the paper triangles over Rhonda’s head.

When first period was over, Teresa asked, “So do you have a boyfriend or not?”

Patrice raised her eyebrows, waiting.

“Yes, I do,” Rhonda said.

“Who?”

“Glenn Rogers. Two n’s; no d. You don’t know him,” Rhonda said. “He goes to DeKalb.”

“Okay. That’s cool,” Teresa said.

Rhonda crossed her fingers behind her back and asked a silent pardon of her favorite cousin for deploying him as her makeshift admirer.

“Hick school,” Patrice said.

Protected by the lie, Rhonda relaxed. The rest of the morning would be easy; Patrice and Teresa didn’t take the same science class as she did, and they usually ditched chorus.
In the bustle of lunch, she and her friends had achieved happy anonymity. She sat with Holly, the gangly redhead with glasses and orthopedic oxfords, Deb, the heaviest girl in the seventh grade, and Sherry, who came from the poorest part of town. Rhonda and Holly chose cheese dreams. Deb had a chef’s salad. Sherry brought lunch from home. For dessert, Rhonda and Deb shared an ice cream bar—Rhonda slid crunchy chocolate shards from the outside and ate them, and Deb had the rest.

Rhonda always wondered why swimming class was scheduled right after lunch. So far, no one had succumbed to a postprandial cramp and drowned, but some of the parents must have believed in old wives’ tales, and it seemed wise for the school board to mollify their fears. Swimming was her only sport; school had made her loathe it. She entered the locker room as the bell sounded, chlorine and mildew tickling her nose. Sherry had beaten everyone there, arriving in time to choose one of blue bathing suits provided by the school. Everyone avoided the red ones at all cost; they were rendered see-through by contact with water. Deb wasn’t there. She had a permanent excuse from her doctor.

Holly and Rhonda took to a corner, shucking their clothes surreptitiously. Rhonda had not worn anything under the top her grandmother had sewn for her, had no need to. Her nipples had barely begun to stir and swell, and the breasts beneath them still slumbered.

She was ecstatic on her birthday when her mother handed her a box that, unwrapped, revealed a three-pack of garments labeled as training bras. Rhonda had rushed to her bedroom and torn back the plastic with trembling fingers. Her traitorous eyes fell on the reversed letters under the label—camisole. She tried one of them on, appraised herself in the mirror, and saw nothing more than a child in a cut-off undershirt. For her mother’s sake, she wore one on weekends, but she wouldn’t expose herself to the peril of wearing it to school.

Patrice, Teresa, and the other girls who were bounding through puberty always stripped in the center of the locker room, striking poses that displayed their blossoming breasts and interesting tufts of hair, lounging like odalisques before wriggling into their bathing suits.

Seated on a bench next to Sherry and Rhonda, Holly had tucked her right foot under to hide her most damning feature—her eleventh toe. She had let the other members of the lunch quartet see it, a small, bony protrusion next to the pinky toe of her right foot. But it would have been a delightful sweetmeat for the odalisques to feast on, so Rhonda, Deb, and Holly had sworn on their future grandchildren’s heads to go to their graves with her secret.
Teresa caught sight of the threesome on the bench.

“Yo, Rhonda,” she said, striding towards them. She stood there with one fist planted on her hip and cocked her head. Patrice followed.

“I talked to Lisa Martin at lunch. Glenn Rogers, two n’s, no d? Your boyfriend at DeKalb? Did you know he’s seeing someone else? She’s a friend of Lisa’s—Annemarie Angelucci. We’re calling Annemarie after school to tell her to break up with him. We think you should break up with him, too.”

Rhonda came to her feet. Sherry rose next and then Holly. Rhonda dropped a swim towel on her friend’s right foot.

“What a flake!” Patrice said.

“Even you deserve better than that,” Teresa said, turning to leave.

A faint noise squeaked up Rhonda’s throat. “Wait,” she said. Drops of water in the nearest shower stall measured the painful, hushed moments. “Glenn is my cousin. Please don’t get him in trouble with Annemarie.”

Teresa grunted.

“I wanted you to think I had a boyfriend.”

Patrice said, “See? Told you no one would be interested in that.”

They walked to the mirrors, caught the elbows of some other girls, and leaned in confidentially to talk to them. The others turned to look at Rhonda.

If she’d been a child, Rhonda reflected as she walked to the edge of the pool, she would have believed that her confession would assure her return to the ranks of the happily anonymous at Lafayette. But she knew better. She dove into the pool, swam to the middle of the deep end, and began treading water endlessly, waiting for the body of a girl to catch up with the mind of a young woman.

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A Gypsy Melody

 

A Gypsy Melody

Christopher Conley

Buppy died on his 87th birthday. You could call the timing his final joke, but I can’t imagine anyone besides him was laughing. After Buppy (my grandfather) died, I wrote a story about him. I wrote it to keep the memory of him. But the result was a mishmash of memories splattered onto a blank canvas; there was nothing artistic about it. The story is like a key that didn’t fit in the lock it was supposed to open, and now I need to go back and fix it.

When he was still alive, I would usually find him in his kitchen sitting in a chair at the head of the table next to the “rubbish.” Or I would find him in his padded, blue rocking-chair in the living room. He wasn’t heavy-set, but rather, a grandfatherly weight — he definitely wasn’t thin. He had a long chin, white hair (that often sprung up in the air from the ocean breeze outside), and a tucked-in jaw. He always looked like he was sucking on his teeth, which might have just been the case. As a child, one of his eyes was blinded because it was hit by a baseball. The problem with his eyes was that you could never really tell which one was blind, so you could never tell if he was looking at you, someone else, or just nothing. Sometimes I would find him reading the newspaper, hunched over it like a scientist, using a curled up fist as a sort of binocular-type mechanism. But since he was only enhancing one eye, it would be more of a monocular-type mechanism. And in the end, he wasn’t actually enhancing anything. That’s how I remember him: a grandfatherly sized man who sucked on his teeth while thinking his hand could enhance his vision.
I only knew him when he was in his 70s and 80s. Sometimes he would walk around his house shouting, “Hoh Gyp-sy Mel-o-dy!” My mother figured out it was a misinterpretation of the song, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Buppy had that strange tic for as long as I can remember. Hoh Gyp-sy Mel-o-dy! It followed him like a bell on a cat’s collar.

I’m actually not sure if I can say I knew Buppy all too well. My cousin Jake knew him. He knew him because they both lived in Boston, because they went fishing together, because Buppy could go to Jake’s hockey games. My cousin Joe knew him too. Because they had dinner once a week, because Joe would make him laugh. I would see Buppy on holidays or birthday celebrations, but that was about the extent of our relationship. It was more of a, shake-his-hand-hard and look-him-in-the-eye (hopefully the good one), say you’re happy to see him, throw in a Merry Christmas or Happy 4th, then watch what he does kind of relationship. I probably knew him better when I was younger, if that’s even possible. When I finally started remembering memories, Buppy and I didn’t really talk much — it was mostly just formalities. He listened to me, and I listened to him, but we didn’t always hear each other the same way he and my other cousins heard each other.

His one blind eye and the gypsy melody have always stood out to me. Sort of like when he would bang the kitchen table with his fist, or when he would call my mother homely. I cringe when my mother asks, you don’t remember that time when we did such and such with Buppy and when she says of course you remember, even when I don’t.

When he turned 80, Buppy started writing down his life stories. My cousin Britney compiled, or rather, transcribed his narratives into a book when he died. She said it was difficult because Buppy’s handwriting wasn’t very good, and neither was his grammar. He wrote all of them down on loose leaf paper — then he stored them away in a box. Britney was eventually able to copy his stories; she just guessed words and phrases every once in a while. He wrote 38 stories, along with a song and a poem. The one story with me in it was about a New Hampshire fishing trip. My brother Kevin might remember the day in New Hampshire, but not me. I sort of remember. There was rain. Thunder and lightning. A tent. And catfish. Buppy remembered. Here’s what he wrote down, or at least, what Britney was able to salvage from this particular fascicle:

Another trip that I am going to tell you about is – by the way, when I say trip I mean fishing and camping trip – when I went camping (also fishing) with daughter #1 and her two sons which happen to be my grandsons. Things happened that could have spoiled everything but turned out okay in the end and a few of these things are as follows. The biggest thing was the tent, which was brand new. It rained (cats and dogs) that night. I never remembered it raining as hard as it did that night, or maybe it was because of the tent, leaking like a sieve, and I mean leaking. There wasn’t a dry spot anywhere. But no one was complaining and we got through the night.

We ended up fishing the next morning and the boys caught a lot of fish (trout I think). We played cards, and later on we played ball. Playing with the boys is fun because they caught onto the game real good. Poker is the best game that we play and Kevin is the luckiest so far. I tell him, if I had his luck, I’d move to Vegas and lately I’ve been asked by Christopher, “Hey Buppy want to play some cards?” So we end up playing a few hands. Thank God the summer is coming, as we get together more often. The winter, they have school and things, as you know.

I always thought it had been catfish and not trout, but maybe we caught both catfish and trout. Sometimes while reading his story I feel like I’m fishing for the concrete memory. It’s in the water somewhere swimming around, avoiding my fishing rod. I can’t remember the last time I actually caught a fish — probably the trout or catfish in New Hampshire — so I wonder if I’ll ever get this memory to bite.

* * *

In another one of his recorded stories, Buppy was going to the hospital to visit Uncle Joe, his brother-in-law and fishing buddy. Before he went to the hospital, Buppy bought frozen fish. He unthawed one outside, then grabbed a rod and stabbed the fish through the hook. Him and Nana walked into the hospital in this fashion; a small, old woman dressed in church clothes with a nice purse and high heels, and a large, old man wearing fishing gear, holding a rod with a fish attached. People gave them strange looks in the hospital’s elevator. Nana just told them, “Don’t ask.”

When they got to the right room, Buppy took the fishing rod, handed it to Uncle Joe, and told him to reel the line in. Uncle Joe, who was weak but still functional, did his best to rotate the fishing reel. Buppy recorded the moment in his collection of stories by simply saying, “in came the fish sliding across the floor and a smile across Uncle Joe’s face.” He never told me about this story, but I like this one the most. At the end he doesn’t give any grand conclusion. All he wrote down is, “I thought I did what I started out to do.”

My Uncle Pete presented Buppy’s eulogy at the funeral; he talked about how he was a jokester. He hid under the stairs and popped out to scare his children. He would sneak something disgusting in someone’s food. And after each joke, he would wink an eye — whether it was the blind one or not, we had no idea — and chuckle to himself with his arms crossed. Then, right on cue, he would sing, Hoh Gyp-sy Mel-o-dy!

I saw my cousin Jennifer crying when she walked outside of the church. I asked her if she was okay, and she nodded her head. Then she said, “When we were walking out of the church I lost my balance for a second and stumbled backwards. It must have been Grandpa’s fishing rod.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue, then smiled. “He got me hooked by the shirt and pulled me back. It’s like he was reeling me in like a fish.” She laughed and I laughed and I told her I’m sure it was him who yanked her back. Just like how it wasn’t just a coincidence that after he died, my mother would find coins in random nooks and crannies of the house. It was him, of course, keeping my mother on her toes.

I wish that I had almost tripped while walking out of the church. Or found a quarter. Or felt something out of the ordinary. But when I try to think of a conversation I’ve had with Buppy, or a story, there would always be someone else there.

Weeks after the funeral, we spread Buppy’s ashes on the Atlantic Ocean, his favorite fishing hole. We sailed out on the boat his kids bought him a few years before he died; they named it A Gypsy Melody.

My first time on A Gypsy Melody with Buppy was my last time. He sat near the back of the boat with his fishing rod, and I sat on the front with sunglasses on. My brother learned how to drive from Uncle Pete. My mother made too many sandwiches. Buppy didn’t catch a thing, and I don’t remember much after that. I have a picture of me on the front of the boat with my backwards Red Sox hat, a picture of my brother steering the boat with Uncle Pete, and a picture of Buppy sitting on a beach chair, fishing for water — a determined and yet stoic look plastered on his face.

The water was gentle when we spread his ashes. We reached an open space and the boat rocked back and forth— steadily, slowly — and for once my lively family was silent. I’m not too sure what Buppy would have thought of the scene. He probably would have found it too sentimental. I was waiting for the boat to capsize. Turn us over, I thought almost sarcastically. It felt like a dare. Everything was still — the wind and the waves, gentle. A small gust. Nothing. A seagull’s cry. Still nothing. A ripple in the water. Silence. Turn us over.

It was uncharacteristic of my family to share a moment without sound. No jokes or banter; reverence to the dead. Goosebumps covered my arms and legs either because of the wind or the hush. We released Buppy’s ashes in a box that floated a while, then sank as water made its way inside. We all watched. It bobbed up and down with each wave and grew smaller each fleeting second. I leaned over and stuck out my hand; a wave splashed against the side of the boat and water sprayed onto my face. Ha, good one.

Waves pummel the side of the boat, and I feel the water spraying rapidly onto my face. The water starts to envelop my body, plunging me downward. Immersed in the vast ocean, I let myself sink. Under the weight of the waves I hear another seagull cry. I fall deeper in stillness. I descend until I stroke the slimy floor, grazing the sand with my feet. I wriggle my toes in the cold sand. I shove them deeper, twisting and turning, left and right, up and down. I try to break through, even momentarily, to the other side — hoping there is another side. I want to know how it feels. I press against a harder layer that won’t budge. I twist my toes faster. The other side is locked, shielded from the dense surface. My toes can’t fit themselves through, and yet I twist in vain.

Turn us over, I think again. I jiggle and contort my toes left and right once more while A Gypsy Melody cruises peacefully, safely to the shore.

Off the Track

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Off the Track

 Mark Trechock

 

At Creel we paid the two pesos

to see the woman living in a cave

the way her ancestors did,

soot on the walls, darkness and wood smoke,

newborn in arms and the older boy

running and running in circles.

 

We caught the train west,

saw the chasm at Barranca del Cobre

through the charcoal smoke of taco vendors,

bought a basket made from branches,

as supple and fierce as human thighs.

 

Back on the rails, we stretched

our heads from the platform between cars,

the wind remaking our faces

into shapes we could only imagine.

We thought of the Tarahumara,

somehow immune to the heat

running barefoot through the desert,

scaling the hot clay inclines,

keeping up with the deer.

 

Approaching the trestle we slowed

as if coming upon an accident,

but below, among the pines,

near the bottom of a vertical world,

the coach cars had lain for years,

positioned like disjointed limbs,

undergrowth pushing through their frames.

The Sister Between

The Sister Between

Laurinda Lind
She is like a strong
breeze layered in
sheets over old shale
& even when free to
flow she’s still brittle
& though young she’s

strung between her
head in the sky & her
feet on a line drawn
in the middle of a
road laid over a land
not yet geologically

dead to make it real
she needs to feel she’s
more solid than air yet
lighter than secrets
she’s stashed deeper
down in the strata.

In the Beginning

In the Beginning

Will McMillan

I’m a 30 year old man, and for the first time in my life I’m going on a date with another man. His name’s Jason, and we’ve been chatting on OKCupid for almost a month. From his online profile I’ve learned the following things about him: he looks a little like Peter Brady from The Brady Bunch. He’s into fantasy, and his favorite movie of all time is The Never Ending Story. Aside from the Peter Brady similarity, it’s that last part that got me interested in reaching out to him, since The Never Ending Story is one of my favorites as well. I figure anyone willing to list that in their profile is probably someone that won’t terrify me.

From my online profile, Jason learns the following things about me: I love writing. I love science fiction and can fire off a Star Trek quote as easily as I can pull air into my lungs. And according to Jason, from the pictures that I’ve posted, he learns that I look like Egon from The Ghost Busters. I decide to take this as a compliment.

What Jason doesn’t learn from my profile is that just two months before our online introduction I was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. He doesn’t learn that the discovery of my gay oriented browsing history via a borrowed laptop lead to my subsequent disfellowhipping and expulsion from my congregation. He doesn’t learn that while in writing I say that I’ve been “out” since I was 21 that, as far as my public image is concerned, I’m still very much “in.” Jason doesn’t learn I’m desperate to find a way to replace the faith I’ve betrayed with what will hopefully become faith in myself.

I’ve asked Jason to meet me for lunch, and he’s agreed.
We meet on a frigid Wednesday afternoon and in person he looks less like Peter Brady than I thought. He’s wearing the sort of cap that I associate with train conductors, with a long black Pea coat and skinny fit jeans pegged at the cuff. When he says hello to me I’m caught off guard by the pitch of his voice, which is high and effeminate. We’ve only ever communicated through instant messages and texts, and until now his voice was my own invention. There’s no getting around it-Jason is full tilt gay. He’s gay and I’m shocked that rather than being self-conscious about it, than being like me, he’s self-assured and relaxed. As a Witness I’d trained myself to avoid people like him, well aware of my tendency to pay a little too much attention, to watch a little too closely. I can be as interested as I want to be now, but as Jason talks I can’t help but take sneaking glances, looking to see if anyone is staring at us. I notice Jason’s posture, which seems deliberately proper, and do the opposite. I slouch in my seat and widen my legs to appear visibly sloppy. The Witness within me, the straight man, demands that I set myself apart and my ingrained insecurity forces me to comply.

On those rare instances I actually went on a date with a witness girl, I would be the one to lead the conversation. With Jason I’m content to let him do the driving, and as we eat, we talk about movies, about tv shows, about songs we like. I can admit to liking Madonna outright, not just a few of her songs. I can mention how “Will and Grace” is only as good as the scenes that Karen appears in. I can admit that I watch “Will and Grace.” I can begin to be myself, if only in small doses. Listening to him, I can’t help but wonder if Jason would be he who he is now if he’d been raised a witness, if something within the fiber of his integrity would have rejected the church outright rather than allowing it to reject him. I wonder what that would feel like.

“It was nice meeting you,” Jason says at the end of our lunch, and leans in for a hug.

“You, too,” I reply. Even the brothers in my congregation hugged from time to time I reason, so a hug doesn’t have to imply anything I don’t want it to. Jason tells me to enjoy the rest of my day and walks away, stopping for a moment to pry a frozen leaf off of the ground. I’m not ten minutes away from him when I get a text. Would I like to hang out again?
I let Jason make our plans for our second date. “CC’s. This Saturday. What do you think?” CC’s is a club. A gay one. Everybody, even Jehovah’s people, know this.

“I don’t know, maybe.”

“No maybes. It’s CC’s for us on Saturday.”

I meet up with Jason that Saturday night to discover that he’s brought a few of his friends along. Checking our ID’s at the door my anxiety is palpable, a scent lingering in the air, and one of Jason’s friends picks up on it. “Are you sure you aren’t a breeder?” he asks.

“No!”

I can’t see the look on my face, but judging by the tension in my jaw, I’m sure it’s not a good one. Less than a novice to gay terminology and slang, I assume nonetheless that my sexuality is being questioned. Lying about my sexuality is a language I speak fluidly, and I find myself grasping for words and phrases to use as I attempt, for the first time, to speak the truth.

“You sure seem like it,” Jason’s friend continues. “I think you’re a straight guy.”

“I’m not.”

“Straight guy. We have a straight guy here.”

Jason rolls his eyes, coming to my defense. “God, just shut up and leave him alone. Fucking queens.”

I drag my feet walking in, making a point to be the last one in the door. Being suspected of homosexuality was deadly within a congregation of Witnesses, and I wonder: within a congregation of gay men, were heterosexual suspicions just as deadly?

The music inside of the club is overwhelming to the point that, placing my hand on my chest, I can’t feel my heartbeat. The lighting is strobe like and it’s impossible to move without bumping into or being bumped by someone. Men are kissing and holding hands and I don’t last long enough to finish the drink Jason buys for me. As much as I want to, I can’t handle all of the freewheeling homosexuality, and I bolt outside. Jason follows, and is kind. “Too many fags trying to act fabulous can get to me, too,” he says, lighting a cigarette. I laugh, but it’s nervous. Was it an insult when gay men referred to each other as fag, or a term of endearment? And what does it mean that Jason feels comfortable saying that to me?

Over the next month we have several more lunches together, after which we either go to the movies or simply hang out, and it feels like friendship. Once I tap his leg to signal his attention, but aside from the hugs goodbye, it’s all the physical contact I permit. My inner Witness, though subdued, still insists that I keep things proper.

Jason is texting me after one of our lunches and it’s innocent enough. What am I up to? How’s my day going? I reply quickly until Jason sends me a text that stops me cold. Am I his boyfriend? “I’ve been calling you that to friends,” he texts. “Is that okay?”

I want to text no, that it’s not okay. We aren’t boyfriends. We haven’t even kissed. How are we boyfriends now? I stare at my phone, at the smiling emoticon he’s attached to that last message, my breath a prisoner in my lungs.

I tell him it’s okay.

Now, Jason holds my hand in public. If we’re alone I’m alright, but if people approach I find that I have to sneeze or scratch my head and wouldn’t you know? That always requires the hand that he’s holding. When he kisses me, I try to kiss back. Sometimes it makes me happy to kiss him. Mostly though, with my eyes closed and his lips on mine, I can’t help but wonder what the Elders in my congregation are thinking about me. I tear myself apart using the words I imagine they’d be using. Faggot. Sodomite. Monster.

“Your heart always races when we kiss,” Jason says. I’m flooded with guilt whenever we’re together now, certain that God has turned his back on me. I beg forgiveness from my creator and mercy from myself. A month after asking if we’re boyfriends, I call Jason and tell him I need to see him. “Please don’t hate me.” I say it again and again as we walk together, mustering all my strength to do something so weak.

“Please don’t hate me, please don’t hate me…”

“Don’t give me a reason to hate you and I won’t,” he answers.
And so I begin the “it’s not you, it’s me,” speech, and even though it is me, I’m too embarrassed to tell him why. Because I’m not used to being honest with myself I have no idea how to be honest with him. I offer little response when he asks for clarification, and rather than listening to me evade his questions, after 15 minutes of my rambling Jason leaves. I attempt to comfort myself by thinking that at least I’ve done what God would have wanted me to do, but the teeth of my conscience bite down on this thought as though it were made of metal. As he walks away from me I have a suspicion that Jason is crying, which only makes me cry harder, though neither one of us is feeling much pity for me at the moment.
I’m a 30 year old man who’s trying to repair the damage of a lifetime of self-loathing. I’m a 30 year old man who’s finally had the passport to cross into his true life granted to him but is too afraid to consider himself a citizen. I know that eventually I’ll cross over, slowly learning the customs as I go until, maybe, I’m indistinguishable from the natives, and where perhaps the God worshiped there will be kinder than my own.

Mammogram

MAMMOGRAM

Ruth Z. Deming

To please Dr Cynthia
I said I’d get a
mammogram, controversial
though it is.

The Mary Sachs Breast
Center right around the
corner fit me in
like a lost library book
assuming its rightful
place on the shelf.

Judy was my dark-haired
host. The all plastic
machine was a marvel
with Plexiglass shelves
that lovingly bore
down on each breast.

They seem to get bigger
with time, I said, making
polite conversation, to her
no reply

I helped her lay each
pliable fish-like
appendage on the
shelf, arm clasping
balance beam
and chin held high
like a Tolstoy princess

Then held my breath
one two three
one two three
until Judy, who
smelled like
Febreze, told me
to relax, like a
stiff soldier, and
finally bade me go
home.

Come round to my
house on the upward
slope of Cowbell Road.
No one feels my breasts
anymore. Let’s get
acquainted. What kind
of foods shall I
pleasure you with.
Perhaps later on
you’ll make me feel
like a college kid
on my first date.

So I’ve Heard

IMG_1832.JPG

So I’ve Heard

Barbara Ruth

It was fated that we meet
that we stop and speak in passing
that I reveal to you the softness
of my velvet wounds of sorrow
my mirror eyes.

And I came to dwell with you
and you showered me with jewels
you fed me what I did not know I hungered for
As you learned to dodge my mirrors, as you disciplined
your hooded eyes.

In return I showed my sign
then extracted vital essences from arteries unopened
taunted, haunted
finally caught you
in elaborate deception.

This is the way they say you’re telling it.

Between Detroit and Chi-town

2016-09-15 14.37.24.jpgBetween Detroit and Chi-town

Barbara Ruth

 

Dear Bob,

Happy birthday, son. I’m sure this email comes as a surprise.

I can’t really tell you much about where I am now Is it heaven? Hell? ‘m still trying to decide. I pay attention to the lives of my loved ones on earth, so when you’re happy, I’m in heaven.

I know you’ve been wondering about that story, my claim to fame. Why did Barb know about it and not you? How come you hadn’t heard that story every time a new person walked in the door who I could convince to sit down and listen? Why didn’t your mother mention it?

Barb only knows about it because she woke up when the phone rang. And that nosy girl stayed up to find out where I was going in the middle of the night.

Here’s the whole story: Ron the bartender called me around 10:00 at night. As you remember, Constantine was a very small town. Of course the bartender in the main bar on Main Street and the school’s only band director knew each other. We were the only Kells listed in the phone book. I knew if he called that late it was going to be important.

“Kell, you’ve got to come over.” My first thought was some former student of mine had gotten himself too drunk to drive home and Ron couldn’t think of anyone else to call. I was figuring out some response to that when Ron continued,

“There’s someone here you’ve got to meet. Come as soon as you can. If you don’t, you’re going to kick yourself for the rest of your life. And bring your horn.”

I told your mother what Ron had said to me. “Are you going out, at this hour? You have school tomorrow.”

The only excuse I had was my curiosity. “You don’t want me kicking myself the rest of my life,” I told her. “It’ll make it awfully hard for you to sleep in the same bed with me.”

She sighed and went back to her book in what I decided was a friendly way. “I’ll try not to make any noise coming or going, even though Barb won’t be asleep yet.”

“She’s a night owl, like her father. She’ll probably try to convince you to take her along.”

“And then Bobby will have to come. I think I’d better leave before I’m taking my whole family into a bar at 10:30 at night. Although that would keep the faculty lounge buzzing.”

“Good night, Dick.”

Sure enough Barb was still awake, standing in the hall in her polka dot pajamas. “What time is it? Who called so late?” Nine years old and she had her mother’s inflections down pat.

“Everything’s fine. Don’t talk so loud, you’ll wake your brother. You should be sleeping too.” She was in her foot-stomping, eye-rolling phase then. She stayed in that one quite a while, so you might be able to picture her dramatic return to her bedroom.

This was when we lived on Canaris Street, not so far from Ron’s Bar. I figured if I was going I might as well take my clarinet, as requested. When I parked the car I looked at it and hesitated. “What the hell?” I tucked the case under my arm and made my way into the bar.

Ron saw me right away. “Kell!” he shouted. “Over here.” He waved me over to one of the few booths and joined me there. Three Black men in expensive overcoats looked up from their drinks. “This is the guy I was telling you about,” Ron continued, turning to them. “Dick Kell, our local band director.” He looked back at me. “Didn’t you used to play in a band?”

I hadn’t even ordered a drink yet but I felt like I’d knocked back half a dozen. Louis Armstrong sitting in a booth in a bar in Constantine Michigan! I didn’t know who the other two gentlemen were, but there was no mistaking THAT face.
Turns out they were his driver and a guy who played trombone. I was embarrassed I didn’t recognize the trombonist’s name. “My guys – band and road crew – we’re traveling in three cars,” Satchmo said. “The others went on ahead, but the three of us decided to rest a spell. We figured if the whole crew stopped in here it might be too much of a good thing.” We all laughed.

I admit I was no stranger to Ron’s establishment. And I had never seen one of the local Black guys in the bar. “You’re probably right,” I said. “There’s a limit to how much jazz Constantine can take on a weeknight.”

All three of them looked beat. Their laughter was filled with fatigue. Maybe they liked my joke, but I think they were just being polite. They were nice enough to ask me about my music, so I told Louis Armstrong I played a little swing in college, no big deal.

“I know the barkeep told you to bring your horn. Let’s see what you got,” Satchmo said. Before I could answer he continued, “My baby’s right here beside me.” He lifted a cornet case, beat up worse than the one you had. I guess his had seen a lot more miles. From it he lifted a beautiful horn, a Selmer-Challenger cornet. “Go ‘head. You can hold it.” He reached it out to me and I took Louis Armstrong’s cornet in my hands, thinking back to my swing band days, being on the road, admiring some other cat’s horn.

Ron brought me a much needed drink and I took out my clarinet and we played a little, right there in the bar. Ron kept saying “Look! That’s Louis Armstrong! That’s Dick Kell playing with Louis Armstrong.”

The odd thing was, none of the customers seemed all that impressed. They glanced at us, then looked back in their shot glasses for the answers to the questions of their lives.
We played “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “String Of Pearls”. He let me pick the songs and we started in unison, then he harmonized, then improvized while I plugged on.
I tried a few adventurous turns and he took the melodic line, nodding encouragement. I was nervous he’d start scat singing and I’d forget what key we were in, but he didn’t and I didn’t either.

They’d played a club the night before in Detroit and had a recording date the next day in Chicago. “I love Chi-town,” Satchmo said. “Best ribs outside of N’awlins.”

Those guys were so polite. I think they would have closed the bar with me and Ron probably would have kicked out the other patrons and let us stay all night. But I felt sorry for the three of them, making chit chat with a high school band director in a one traffic light town, when all they wanted was to get some rest. There was no hotel in Constantine, at least not in 1955. I worried they’d ask me about a decent place they could stay the night, where there’d be no trouble. But they probably realized I wouldn’t know the answer to that question.

I told them the wife was probably waiting up for me.

Satchmo rolled those eyes of his. “Oh man, I know how that is. You best be getting on home.”

When I tiptoed into the house, Barb came running to the door. “What happened?” she asked, her own eyes wide.

“I just played with Louis Armstrong.”

“You did not. You just stayed out late on a school night and you’re trying to get away with it.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or shake her. “I’m the parent here, not you. Go on to bed now.” She gave a big sigh, just like her mother. I thought she went to her room, but she must have heard some of my conversation with Evie, who’d fallen asleep with her book on her lap, her glasses still on her nose.
She startled awake when I came in. “What happened?” she asked, like an echo. “What time is it anyway?”

“A little after midnight. What a night!” I started in, ready to relish the night again in the telling.

“What do you mean you played with him? You played music? You mean you went somewhere and played along with a record of Louis Armstrong?”

“I mean I went to Ron’s Bar and met the actual Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, and he invited me to play music with him.”

“How many songs did you play?”

“Two. They each lasted a long time.”

She didn’t seem all that impressed. I guess she just wanted to get back to sleep. One of the highlights of my musical life and I didn’t have anyone to appreciate it.

Neither your mother nor your sister said anything about it at breakfast the next morning. You were four at the time. I didn’t think you’d give me the reaction I wanted. I expected to hear about it in the faculty lounge or around town. Surely Ron would be telling the story for years.

Maybe he did. He certainly told me about it every time I went into his bar. But I already knew. And nobody else seemed to care. I did tell a few cornet students over the years. You remember Junior Bixby? I told him.But I didn’t want to face more disinterest or disbelief so aside from those few I knew the story to myself.

I should have told you when you were ten or twenty or maybe fifty. I realize you would have liked to hear about it, and from me. Well, now you have.

 

Love you always and happy birthday,

Dad

Secrets of the Boardwalk

img_1445Secrets of the Boardwalk

Ron Singer
Last week, Amy, a close friend of ours, told Joan, my wife, that she was worried about Bob, her husband. On two consecutive days, he had uncharacteristically wandered off on his own. The first morning, out of the blue, he had announced his intention of taking the subway out to Coney Island “for a walk on the boardwalk.” Since they normally go to C.I. in tandem, and since she had to work that day (Office Manager for a law firm), she urged him to wait for the weekend. But he refused.

The next day, he went again. That evening, as they were having dinner, his nose red from the spring sunshine and the depleted ozone layer, he made a speech that she interpreted as a semi-confession. Or, as she put it, “His sunburnt nose kept getting longer.”

Joan, who has a practically phonographic memory, quoted Amy’s account of the semi-confession: ‘’’ “ ‘Boy, you wouldn’t believe the characters you run into on the boardwalk these days –junkies, winos, Three Card Monte sharps, restaurant touts who practically mug you. I even saw a couple of teen-aged prostitutes pretending to be fortunetellers! They had a card table, costumes, the works. Can you beat that?’ “ ‘’’
For Amy, the last part had been the kicker: “ ‘The way he described those girls, the look on his face… furtive… I smelled a very big rat!’ ”

Bob is a CPA who owns a small business specializing in the personal income taxes of civil servants, including teachers. (He does ours.) Anything but “furtive,” he normally sounds like an accountant: precise, laconic, on the dry side. Since he had been extremely busy for the two or three months leading up to the end of tax season a few weeks ago, it was easy to see why he had wanted to stretch his legs and suck in some sea air and sunshine. But, obviously, Amy didn’t see it that way.

“I think she’s right,” was Joan’s verdict.

“No opinion.”

* * *

Yesterday, putting their heads together, the women hatched a scheme to find out whether there was fire behind the smoke– a scheme that involved me! As Joan explained at breakfast this morning, “See if you can draw him into a man-to-man confessional, Jerry. Think of it as a chance to make positive use of those world-class social skills you’re always bragging about. You know, have a few drinks…tell him about the time…”

Uh, oh, I thought, here it comes! She was going to bring up the passionate kiss I had admitted to having shared with a sexy young colleague at an office party shortly before my retirement four years ago. Well, she did bring it up, but thankfully, without the pain and rancor that had greeted the original confession. I’ll say this for Joan: she wields a mean wit, but she’s not like that Marx sister, Carpo. (Or is it Carpa?) Even better, I was relieved that the old kiss was all she brought up.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

As soon as she had bustled off to her job (Assistant Principal at a charter school), I called Bob. Although the four of us occasionally went out for brunch together, and although he and I sometimes took walks, we never met for drinks. To keep him from smelling a rat of his own, I would do this my way.

“Beautiful day, eh, Bob?”

“Good morning, Jerry! Yes, indeed! Spring has finally sprung.”

“You must be glad tax season is over.”

“And how!”

“How about a walk in the Gardens today? I hear the cherry blossoms are out. You available?”

“Sounds good,” he said, “Actually, I promised Joe I’d look over an audit notice he got from the IRS. But there’s no hurry, I’m not even going to charge him.”

“That’s very generous of you. Hey, I have a better idea! Let’s take the train out to Brighton. We can have lunch at that Bukharin place with the big Plaster-of-Paris pierogi outside, then walk over to Coney Island on the boardwalk.”

“Actually, I was just there last week, Jerr. Twice, in fact.”
It was time to cut to the chase. “Aha! So you don’t want to go again. I can certainly understand why, after what happened to you with those two prost…”

“ ‘After what happened’ to me’? Nothing happened, Jerry! Amy told Joan about that?”

“Yep. She said something about a pair of ho’s tricked out as fortune-tellers.”

“Well, yes.” There was a brief pause. “But so what? Sure, let’s go for a walk on the boardwalk.”

“Great!”

By now, I wanted to end this conversation, which was making me feel like the guilty party. Maybe, Joan and Amy were right: uncovering the truth about Bob’s boardwalk adventures would require more finesse than I had realized.

* * *

Since we live only a few blocks apart, we agreed to meet at a nearby subway entrance in half an hour. Twenty-nine minutes later, I arrived at the station to find him already waiting. Hurrying down the stairs, we caught a B.B.-bound train. Since the MTA was doing their usual massive infrastructure repairs, we sped past some half-renovated stations without stopping, which made the long trip somewhat shorter. Isn’t it always like that when you’re not in a hurry?

This line goes back and forth between underground and elevated. When it is elevated, it runs above neighborhoods of great variety, ranging from tree-lined streets with big, fancy, stand-alone homes, to commercial districts featuring discount this-and-that stores, to industrial parks full of rooftop graffiti and deserted-looking factories. In some places, every sign is in Chinese. Brooklyn is an exhilarating place to travel through –fast. Since neither of us had brought along a book, we shared Bob’s paper, which we then left on the train, so (as he put it) “some lucky stranger will save $2.50.”

A few minutes before noon, we reached Brighton Avenue and climbed down the long flight of stairs to 6th Street. I love going to B.B. I have never visited Odessa, but I imagine it could be the model for this bustling, vaguely nefarious commercial artery. It’s always a pleasure to be back in old New York, for here you can still find real commercial enterprises –good, cheap restaurants, greengrocers, naughty nightclubs, cavernous ethnic food stores, and exotic clothing emporia. God protect B.B. from gentrification!

Bob and I walked the four short blocks south to 2nd Street, and turned left toward the big pierogi. But when we got there, to our disappointment, we were assaulted through the window by what sounded like the soundtrack from a Central-Asian soft-core porn video. We could also see that all five tables were occupied.

“Let’s take the walk first,” I suggested. “We can grab a hot dog at Nathan’s.”

“Sounds good. Get a little exercise before our unhealthy lunch.”

Even on the side street, we could feel a stiff, chilly wind blowing in from the ocean. Although we were both sensibly dressed, I worried we would freeze our butts off. At the boardwalk, we turned right, toward C.I. Pushing against the crosswinds, we must have made a funny couple. Bob is about six-two, and stoops, trudging along with his hands clasped behind his back. Several inches shorter, I’m “squat” (i.e. big gut), and I take quick little steps, like a kid learning to roller skate. Joan says I look as if I’m running away from something. My shadow? My past?

I had last visited B.B. (with her) about two years ago, just before the city suffered the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. As Bob and I hurried along now, some of the differences I noticed may have been Sandy-related. The ocean side of the boardwalk was dotted with new, one-story, very solid-looking buildings on stout concrete poles. Although there were no signs or other indications of their purpose, I would have guessed they were hurricane-proof restrooms, the proverbial brick shit houses, except that there were other buildings marked as restrooms, on the landward side.
Down on the beach, in addition to a few walkers and joggers, there was a large gathering of seagulls, forming an amoeba in the sand. They looked as if they had flopped down from the sky.

“Birds of a feather flop together,” I quipped. “What are they doing there?”

“Enjoying the sunshine,” Bob opined. “ Just like us, Jerr.”

Since it was a weekday, and so early in the season, traffic on the boardwalk was thin. Thin, in two senses, in number and, I could have sworn, girth: there seemed to be fewer jumbo Russians and others than in summer. Nor was there as good a selection of the hilariously garish outfits I always enjoy at B.B. But there were still a few doozies, such as a middle-aged peroxide blonde wearing a blue fake-fur vest over a paisley kaftan.

The demographic that day seemed deceptively like the peaceable kingdom. On a basketball court in a playground on the landward side (BB at B.B.), I saw a pale, fat boy who, although hatless, looked Jewish. He was gesticulating, and I heard him shout, “Paco! Paco! Pass it to Mohammed! Shoot, Mohamed! Shoot!”

Mohamed, a gawky boy wearing big black-rimmed glasses, launched a clunker off the side of the backboard. These boys belonged to the Bricklayers’ Union. At sixty-seven, I could still have schooled them in the art of the jump shot.

About halfway to Coney Island, spotting an empty bench facing the ocean, we decided to ignore the wind and rest for a few moments. By this point, I must say, I was disappointed that we had not encountered the fortunetellers. I pictured two young cuties seated at a card table, wearing turbans and leather hot pants. As if we were oxygen-deprived, Bob and I sucked in the sea air.

Then, suddenly, there they were, bookending us on our bench, squeezing us together! Showtime! They must have been eighteen or nineteen. One was a faux-redhead, the other a faux-blonde. They were heavily made up, siliconized, and wearing enough perfume to Ralph Laurenify “the multitudinous seas” –i.e. I could no longer smell the salty air. They were dressed like models posing as professional athletes: spandex running-suits in shocking pastels, and day-glow, multi-colored running shoes. Instead of turbans, they sported bright orange baseball caps, worn backwards.

“Hello there, Mr. Bob, baby!” said the blonde, who had plopped down on his end. Her accent combined Russian with Brooklyn-ese. Phonetically, the greeting sounded like, “Alloo there, Meezterr Pob, pay-bee.” You get the idea.

“And, also, hello to you, also, Meezter Zexie,” said the redhead, a contralto, flashing a high-wattage smile and poking me with an elbow.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend?” asked the blonde. Not waiting for him to reply, she added, “How about going under the boardwalk again, Bobby? I think you loved that big kiss I gave you last week, didn’t you, you naughty boy! Or this time, maybe something a beet more … serious?”

“Perhaps, you would also like, also, to go under the boardwalk, with me, Mr. Bob’s Nice Friend,” suggested the redhead. “A wonderful soul kiss for only ten dollars, if you’re too scary to do anything else.” She winked at me.

“Or too chip! ” added the blonde. They laughed uproariously.

“ ‘Oh, when the sub goess dowwwn…,’ ” they sang, in unison, dissolving in more laughter.

Bob blushed vermilion. “Not today, girls. I’m still dizzy from last time,” he said, in a weak attempt at levity. Wearing what can only be called a shit-eating half grin, he turned and winked at me.
 Well, that cat had finally sprung from the bag! Joan had been right, after all –sort of. Poor Bob! All he had done was buy a kiss, just like we boys used to do at those carnival booths in the innocent old days. Except, back then, it had cost a nickel.

To make the rest of this long story short, I extricated us from the girls by tossing them a few compliments and ten bucks apiece, “for lunch money.” We left them on the bench, shouting lewd suggestions and blowing kisses as we hurried off. By the time I looked back, they were both texting away furiously.

The rest of the “outing” went pretty much as could be expected. We ate under an umbrella at Nathan’s (the smaller one, on the boardwalk), trying to warm our hands with hot coffee, which we did not drink for fear of being unable to sleep that night. (They didn’t have decaf.) I enjoyed my hot dog, but Bob did not look as if he enjoyed his, at all. ***
Thus concludes the day’s adventures of Bob and Jerry, two typical middle-aged men. All that remains to be said is that, on the way home, I easily persuaded him to confess his peccadillo to Amy. You may be able to guess how I did it. After swearing him to secrecy, I told him about the hottie I was seeing in the Bronx.

For fairness’ sake, the end of this story will be told from the wives’ point of view. The next day, Amy and Joan are in their respective offices, talking on their cell phones. As Amy recounts Bob’s spluttered confession, employing elaborate, hilarious mimicry, the women almost die of laughter. When she finishes, there is a pause. Neither of them wants to get back to work. This is too much fun!

“You know, Joan,” Amy remarks, “your Jerry is so clever and persuasive … cute, too. Quite a guy! In fact, I’d be surprised if he never…”

Joan clears her throat. “Now, now, that’s not nice, dear! Let’s not go there.”

And, closing their phones, they leave it at that.